At times serrated, at others textured like a bruise, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s debut collection SLINGSHOT is resolute in its driving heat while still maintaining Johnson’s sense of humor. The latter of which was so brightly embodied at Johnson’s recent book launch event at the legendarily radical and queer Bluestockings Bookstore on the Lower East Side, adding dimension where dimension already abounded. (Which is to say: go see Cyrée read from his work whenever you can!) This collection constellates black queer trauma, sex work, radical social movements, revenge-heresy, and grief all within 80 pages—it emanates its own literary energetic field. In the interest of parsing that field, I spoke with Johnson about the themes in SLINGSHOT and the pieces of his life that informed its forging. Enjoy!
June Shanahan: This may be a bit of an obvious question to ask about a book, but the titular SLINGSHOT can be found throughout the poems in your book, and as each iteration is different from the last, I’m curious to hear from you about how “slingshot” is functioning across this collection? What is it holding together in these poems that made you chose that thread for the title?
Cyrée Jarelle Johnson: A slingshot is a thong with extra long sides, but also a handmade weapon that will do in a pinch. I liked that as a title. It felt urgent and potentially dangerous, like a growl in a stand of trees.
I was also interested in the speed that rhyme creates. Growing up as a competitive public speaker in the New Jersey Orators, I learned that rhyme was pleasurable. It was easier for me to memorize, and left the audience more deeply satisfied than free verse, at least in my childhood observation. SLINGSHOT is full of things that I think makes parts of the book move very quickly against sort of breathless prose poems that move in their own time.
Speed, peril, haste, and Mimi Thuc Nguyen’s concept of the minor threat, or an outsider text or object that poses a threat to the status-quo—no matter how slight—were all very close to my heart as I wrote and edited the book.
JS: There’s a simultaneity of tenderness and toughness in one of the first poems, “jersey fems in the philly zoo”, where you write, “I want my armor / an exoskeleton, tough / hewn of crushed velvet / bristling with defense / a kevlar of tenderness enveloping me.” How do you think the two work together and what happens or what is created when they do? I’m especially curious how that may tie into the sentiment that follows, a tree in bloom that inevitably draws an axeman?
CJJ: I don’t really know! I don’t particularly think of myself as tough (aka resilient, formidable, indomitable) or tender (aka vulnerable).
“jersey fems in the philly zoo” was written after I was choked in a corner store shortly after moving to Philadelphia. The guy who did it was trying to holla at me and I indicated my disinterest through silence. I had always used this tactic to minimize the harm of such unwanted attention, but this time it really upset the dude and he choked me up against the glass cage where they keep the razors and pads and formula locked up while the other folks in the store—the cashier, the sandwich maker, the new roommate I had come to the store with—just stood there and watched. I didn’t even get the sandwich for free.
A lot of SLINGSHOT is grief work. I didn’t have anywhere to put these experiences that not everyone had to have, and because it was hard to find others with similar identities and experiences I had to make meaning out of them alone.
The axeman thing is just like every time some black fem/me is doing well, like just eeking by somebody has to come and choke them out or tell them about themselves or take some for themself. It’s like no one can let you be. “jersey fems…” is one of the most exasperated poems in the book and it’s because it comes out of a repetition of harm.
JS: In the poem “a machine of mahogany and bronze I”, you highlight a certain predictability of contemporary protest and political demonstration wherein police show up in riot gear, try to terrorize demonstrators into dissolution, target people of color for arrests, and the media subsequently decries the whole demonstration, while folks sit in jail and burn out sets in. I’ve got the sense that you’re illustrating a particular demonstration, and perhaps we should talk about that first, though I also wonder what you’re perspective is on contemporary tactics writ large? Where might poetry ‘hold the line as a practice of freedom’ in your opinion?
CJJ: Whew! Well, “a machine of mahogany and bronze” is my attempt to take a look at the movements I’ve been a part of or shaped me as an adult from a person-to-person level.
Movements are harder to see than I think is given credit, because they are seen en masse. When the media in particular looks at movements in this way it can be dehumanizing because we never have to reckon with the individual hurts, slights, and injustices that leads individual people to movements for justice.
The two protagonists in “a machine…” have vastly different relationships to the concept of justice and I think only one of them really understands what that term means. Only one of the two ever has to answer for their role in the pain of others, while the other just pretends.
I struggle a great deal with the idea of what poetry does. I feel free on the page, but that’s a great deal like the freedom that Shawn, the younger protagonist, experiences. It’s a freedom contingent on leisure and luxury and thus the subjugation of others. He wants to be better but there’s no accountability structure in place. There’s no consequences for him, so it’s harder for him to really understand what justice could mean for him, or accountability.
I don’t have any overarching thoughts about contemporary movement tactics, I just wanted to look at the people in the populist movements of the last decade and think about what leads them there, and when that was ethical and correct and when it was self-serving and a distraction from trauma or healing or both.
JS: Sex work is another common theme in the poems of SLINGSHOT, often articulating the particular subjections of being a sex worker while black and trans. That work can be so empowering and liberating but it can also be so traumatizing and dangerous, and your poems really capture that. Where do you think one finds healing, or perhaps where have you yourself found healing amidst those experiences? What did you find the process of their poetic articulation was like for you?
CJJ: I’m of the mind that actually anything can be empowering or liberating or traumatic or dangerous, and of course work and sex are no exception.
Sex work was absolutely not healing for me. I respect that it is for some people, but that wasn’t my experience. The connections I made as a worker and someone in that movement for justice and simple rights were beautiful. Sex worker community is beautiful. But the work is hard as fuck and I think that there’s a massive divide in the kind of work queers (not LGBT folks here, but ~queers~ specifically) talk about and understand and the work that many workers are doing.
Dancing in particular was very hard on my body. I worked very long shifts, had to pay a lot of money to work, and those in charge of the spaces in which I worked had no obligation to make my working conditions safe or comfortable. As such, they were often not.
I didn’t go into SLINGSHOT wanting to write about sex work. Those experiences are stigmatizing. But the more I wrote the less I could get away from writing about it, so that’s what I did.
Originally, I wanted to write a book about afro-pessimism and forced animality, and some of those poems made it into this collection. My method of getting to the poems, in terms of style and form, was something that I could control but the subject decided itself for the most part.
JS: One of my favorite poems from your book is “harold mouthfucks THE DEVIL”, it’s dark, it’s funny, it’s sacreligious, it’s queer—all of my favorite things—and it closes with such heft in the line “He’s dead and he’s gay and he’s not sure which is worse.” If you don’t mind me asking, who is Harold and how does his little narrative, one of the only with a distinctively delineated character and arc, fold in with the rest of this collections themes?
CJJ: Lol, thanks. “harold mouthfucks THE DEVIL” is a poem about my mother’s abusive long-term boyfriend, that living skid mark.
We got into a fight about whether or not Usain Bolt is gay (duh) and he was a disgusting mistake in human skin, as per usual. After that night I went home and wrote this poem and then worked to publish it and I feel great that it made it to the book, because fuck that guy.
“harold mouthfucks THE DEVIL” is tied most closely into “a machine of mahogany and bronze” as both look at maternal estrangement caused by a parent putting a man over the child they created. I wanted to look at a family with queer and trans people in it breaking down but not because of queerness or transness but because heterosexual coupling.
JS: In an earlier part of the book, you include an epigraph from Toni Morrison’s “Sula”. Her recent passing has been such a palpable loss in the global literary community. How has her work and her life influenced or affected your own and how do you think the pieces in SLINGSHOT might manifest that?
CJJ: I’ve been reading Toni Morrison since The Bluest Eye was one of Oprah’s first book club pick. That book taught me what rape meant, in the theoretical way, and gave me context for experiences for which I had no name.
Toni Morrison was absolutely singular, and that quote from Sula was one that I felt perfectly encapsulated the sort of friendship I was looking at in that poem. Rest in Peace, Toni Morrison!
JS: As I understand, you’ve just received your MFA from Columbia University in the city. Congrats! What’s on the horizon for you now? Where can we follow your future endeavors?
CJJ: Yah! I’m a librarian and that’s cool. I’m working on some new stuff and trying to learn how to relax which is going surprisingly well! You can keep in touch at cyreejarellejohnson.com or on social media @cyreejarelle. +
Order your copy of SLINGSHOT here!
Cyree Jarelle Johnson is a writer and librarian living in New York City. His first book of poetry SLINGSHOT will be published by Nightboat Books in 2019 and he is currently on staff at The Pratt Institute Library. His work has appeared recently in The New York Times and WUSSY. He has given speeches and lectures at The White House, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The University of Pennsylvania, The Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, Tufts University, and Mother Bethel AME Church, among other venues. His work has been profiled on PBS Newshour and Mashable. Cyree Jarelle has received fellowships and grants from Culture/Strike, Leeway Foundation, Astraea Foundation, Rewire.News/Disabled Writers, Columbia University, and the Davis-Putter Scholarship Fund. He is a founding member of The Harriet Tubman Collective and The Deaf Poets Society.