Michael Frazier is a poet & educator. He graduated from NYU, where he was the 2017 poet commencement speaker & a co-champion of CUPSI. He's performed at Nuyorican Poets Café, Lincoln Center, & Gallatin Arts Festival, among other venues. His poems appear, or are forthcoming, in Tinderbox, Cream City Review, Tokyo Poetry Journal, COUNTERCLOCK, Construction, Visible Poetry Project, & elsewhere. His writing has been supported by Callaloo & a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship. Currently, he is a staff reader for The Adroit Journal, curator for Button Poetry, and a Seventh Wave Editorial Resident. He lives in central Japan where he’s working on a poetry collection about his mother. He can talk for days about anime, poetry, and how Christ has changed his life. Follow @fraziermichael
Hey Michael! We first met as co-mentees during the Speakeasy Project in 2017. You were a poetry mentor yourself this past summer, both for the Adroit Journal’s and COUNTERCLOCK’s writing programs. What does mentorship – as a previous mentee and recently, now, as a mentor – mean for you? Which writers were on your syllabus this year?
What I think about most from past teachers is not line break edits or creative prompts they've assigned, but how to live as a writer. They’ve taught, by demonstrating, how to develop rigorous reading practices, how to build community with others, and how to create a lifestyle in which I’m constantly writing and inspired by the world around me. So for my mentees, I wanted to be as transparent as possible: explain what sparked certain poems of mine, my revision process, opportunities I’ve taken advantage of, and books I constantly revisit. Basically, I wanted to eliminate the hierarchical aspect of our relationship and encourage “growing together.” Some writers that were on my syllabus included Paul Tran, Li Young Lee, Porsha O, Alysia Nicole Harris, Jihyun Yun, Jennifer Givhan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Natalie Diaz, and Keith Wilson.
You’re currently a high school teacher in Japan – how, if at all, do these concurrent practices of teaching and writing interact with each other? What have your students taught you?
My students are always teaching me Japanese and correcting my mistakes. Every. Single. Day. Hahaha. Since learning Japanese, a very high-context, indirect, onomatopoeic, and vocabulary conservative language, I’ve learned a lot about how the English language relies on context, pronouns, and idioms to convey meaning. I don’t even know where to begin, but I will say that teaching English has helped me re-learn grammar and re-approach my native language with a sense of unfamiliarity and newness. One example I can think of is the pronunciation mistakes my students make. There are a number of sounds in the English
language that are difficult for Japanese speakers to pronounce because the sounds don’t occur naturally in Japanese. For example, distinguishing between sounds like “L” and “R,” and “V” and “B” can be challenging. Because of their “happy accidents,” I’ve learned so much about phonetic cognates, minimal pairs, and how closely related words are sonically. These really small shifts in the pronunciation of syllables make a world of a difference in English. It’s the difference between a student saying, “I want to ‘refresh’ my mind” and “I want to ‘reflesh’ my mind.” It’s the difference between “we have an ‘election’” and “we have an ‘erection.’” I’m endlessly inspired by these minor slips and have approached my own writing with a renewed sense for sound, assonance, consonance, wordplay, and rhyme. And, of course, I make the same mistakes when speaking Japanese, so I’m sure they get a kick out of it as well.
How has living in Japan influenced your work? Have you noticed any differences between the US and Japanese poetry scenes?
I live in a city that’s surrounded by countryside, so I’ve become very attuned to nature and how the seasons mark the landscape. In response to the world around me, I’ve become more attentive to the nouns and names that populate the world of my poems. On my mind are persimmons, red maple leaves, red dragon flies, yellowtail fish, roasted teas, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, cirrocumulus clouds, and full moons. I don’t have many opportunities to interact with the Japanese poetry scene, given my language ability, but I’m a big fan of bilingual organizations like Tokyo Poetry Journal, and I recently started following KOTOBA Slam, a Japanese poetry slam competition that will send a representative to the Coupe du Monde de Poésie next year.
You’re currently serving as a poetry reader for the Adroit Journal. What do you look for in a poem? Has being on the editorial side of the submissions process informed your own writing in any way, and vice versa?
Ohhh I love this question. There are a number of questions I ask myself during and after reading a poem. Was a combination of my five senses engaged? Were there any images that stuck with me after the poem? Was there music? Does the form inform the content and vice versa? Did I leave the poem with the impression that the writer had a clear goal and achieved it? Was I emotionally moved? Did I come away thinking differently about a subject? Trust is a word I consider when I approach a new poem. Does the poem give me reason not to trust its voice or intentions? As for my own writing, YES it has informed my work. The old edict is absolutely true: if you want to become a better writer, read, read, and read. Reading hundreds of poems every week changed the way I approach my own poems and I quickly got an idea of the trends and clichés in contemporary poetry. Adroit receives thousands of submissions from some of the most exciting voices in the world, so I remember the intense growing pains I experienced my first month as a reader—I wasn’t used to reading poems of
that caliber on a constant basis. Also, because I was judging such high-quality work, when I returned to my own poetry, I found myself very unsatisfied with what I was writing and would often say to myself, “I’d say ‘no’ to this if it was an Adroit submission” haha. So my editorial eye has become so much more critical.
You’re currently writing your first manuscript – what’s it *about*?
My book is about what my mother has taught me about Love! I feel really blessed because not only do I get to have a mother who is active in my life, but she’s also someone I can call my best friend. I think our relationship is unique not only because of how close we are, but because of how reciprocal our relationship is: we’re constantly building each other up and encouraging one another to realize our dreams. Other themes in the book include family, home, traveling, love, food, being Black, and God. I’m almost done, so I hope to have the book published by the end of 2021 or the beginning of 2022!
What media (books, films, art) have been integral to the development of your concerns and practice as a writer?
Some collections that I return to for inspiration include “The January Children” by Safia Elhillo, “The Sobbing School” by Joshua Bennet, “Not Everything is a Eulogy” by Crystal Valentine, “Past Lives, Future Bodies” by K-Ming Chang, “Lighthead” by Terrance Hayes, “Wild Iris” by Louise Glück, “Selected Poems of Langston Hughes,” “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong, and “Wild Hundreds” by Nate Marshall. I listen to a lot of music and sing nearly every day, and I think growing up in the church and a musical household has shaped my taste. Gospel, RnB, Hip-hop, and Rap really affect the way I approach a poem in that I prioritize wordplay, rhyme, drama, narrative, playfulness, and longing.
The Bible has also had a huge influence on my writing, not only because the book is ⅓ poetry, but because it has influenced so much of my outlook on life and motivates me to approach poetry how Christ approaches people, with empathy, patience, and love.
You have a background in slam – can you tell me a bit more about that? How does your relationship with spoken word differ from that with written poetry? What pulls you to choose one or the other medium when you have an idea?
Poetry, for me, is first an oral art, so I don’t view them as two separate genres. Many of the poets I admire say there is no poem that can’t be slammed, and I agree. It’s 50% writing and 50% performing. Nowadays, I don’t slam as much because Japan does not have much of an English-speaking poetry slam scene, but I am still very much concerned with how my poems sound. If the words feel unnatural coming out of my mouth, then I will cut them out. I want people to actually understand my poems (lol), so I usually write with the idea that it needs to be clear (which is different from being overt). Of course I have poems I write for just myself and in which I take more risk, but sound is still important in even those poems. A number of the poems in my manuscript are conversations, so I naturally rely on the cadence and music of everyday life.
Collaboration has been a common thread within your artistic process. Your poems have previously been adapted and animated into film; you’ve choreographed and performed poems with other writers. At the moment, you’re working with your brother, a musician, on a project that combines poetry with neo-soul flute instrumentals. What opportunities do collaboration and cross-genre work afford for you, creatively speaking?
What I love about poetry is that a poem can be whatever you want! Sometimes the page feels too confining, so thinking of a poem as a film, a song, a dance, or a painting, gives me more opportunities to take risks and go into territory I may not have ventured if I only thought of the poem as something that happens on a page. Also, when I get to work with other artists, I’m challenged to create something I wouldn’t have done had I not engaged with that particular artist.
Any spicy literary opinions?
Writers should memorize their own and others’ poems. The poem changes when it lives inside of your body and can be recalled at a moment’s notice. There’s been so many instances where I’ve struggled with real life issues, but a line from my poem or someone else’s (often Louise Glück) will return to me word-for-word, like scripture, and something will shift in my outlook.
And the poems deserve it! Some poems sing differently when the reading of the poem isn’t burdened with shuffling papers and the inevitable projection problems that come with looking down at text.
Also, memorizing a poem is my last stage of editing. Sometimes when I struggle with memorizing, I realize that a word I choose is unnatural, something is logically off, or my pacing or meter is out-of-whack.
What are you looking forward to at the moment? What keeps you going?
I’m facilitating a biweekly online poetry book club on Zoom. The theme is family (especially books that center mothers). Anyone can join! So far we’ve read Blood orange by Angela Narciso Torres, Incendiary Art by Patrica Smith, The Many Names for Mother by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, and Refuse by Julian Randall. Having these great conversations about poetry with people I don’t know, but soon become friends with, has helped me push through this rough year. I’m also looking forward to returning to the US soon to see my family!