Behind the Words: Cortney Lamar Charleston

Posted by on May 25, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Cortney Lamar Charleston

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Cortney Lamar Charleston has two missions in life: “build a sustainable happiness” and “serve in the cause of making the world a more just and equitable place for all people.” The latter he achieves through his poetry, versatile and bold in its subject matter, yet delicately crafted like a fine filigree. His poem “How to Fix the Roof” published in the fifth issue of Spry Literary Journal constructs a world, scale-by-scale, inviting the reader to stay within and reflect.

Lilia Joy: Where are you from and what do you do for living?

Cortney Lamar Charleston: Originally, I’m from the Chicago suburbs, and I lived in the Chicagoland area up until I went east for college. I’ve been away ever since, with stints living in Philadelphia and Atlanta, but currently I find myself living in Jersey City, NJ and working in New York City. My day job is in market/consumer research, with a focus on the Asian American, Black and Hispanic consumer segments; I aid companies in formulating their multicultural marketing practices using data to help inform their decision-making.

Why do you choose to write poetry? How did you come to it?

I suppose that I write poetry because I feel like I need to. No other outlet that I’ve tried to attach myself to has been able to capture the complexity of my interior as well as it does, whether speaking emotionally or intellectually. I came into writing poetry at a time where I really needed to have that new method of communicating what was inside to the outside world, making my transition to independency while several other things in my personal life were in flux. It was to my great fortune that I had examples near me who showed me the potential of what poetry could be. I studied them, I watched them, and then I dove in, so to speak. I’ve been writing poems ever since.

How do you choose the form for your poems?

To be honest, I rarely choose the poem’s form consciously; I’m more often driven to it intuitively. The words come in streams and I let them do so without worrying too much about the poem’s exact shape or its patterns. Only after the words have stopped coming do I turn my attention to the particular work of “whipping it into shape.” Alternatively, there have been occasions where I’ve started with a form I wanted to engage and then I craft a poem that (largely) conforms to the expectation of said form; it’s just that it happens much less often than the former for me.

What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?

There’s a very strong link between my written voice and my speaking voice. At times, the two are almost inseparable. That said, I think whether one is able to recognize the link depends largely on the context in which they hear me speak or engage with my writing. I simply don’t speak in the same ways to the same people, and that is a byproduct of the way I’ve grown up and had to navigate the world (insert literature about code-switching here). There are many sides to me, and I have, at this point, a rather large toolbox to draw from in terms of choosing how to express any given thought or feeling and do so authentically, even if they seem dissimilar at first glance. Beyond diction or cadence, the one quality that most defines both my writing and my speaking voices is a very clear intentionality. Words mean so much to me, everything in a way. I choose them carefully, in every context. I tend to speak only when I know exactly what I want to say.

What are you working on at the moment?

Since the release of my first full-length poetry collection, Telepathologies, in March 2017 by Saturnalia Books, I’ve turned my attention to finishing a manuscript that is a bit more autobiographical in nature than the aforementioned book. In that collection I’m concerned with investigating Black masculinity as performance, poking at the duality inherent within it and looking at how it brushes against the constructs of race, place, class and sexuality. The collection, I believe, is definitely stronger for having come in the wake of Telepathologies, which forced me to revisit and reinterpret the earliest elements of that manuscript in a new way. Lots of the poems in it have made their way out into the world in recent months, with more coming, and the response from people has been good. It makes me very optimistic!

What writers and/or poets have inspired you the most?

While I could name legends of the craft, the poets that have actually impacted me the most are probably my peers: people that I fellowship with, that I discuss and dissect writing with, who have voices that I trust. At the risk of possibly forgetting to list someone, I’ll refrain from stringing a long list of names together but say they are many of the impressive young poets you see winning or being listed as finalists for major fellowships and awards aimed at early-career poets (i.e. Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowships, Boston Review/Discovery Awards, various first book prizes, etc.). In addition to those folks, I also have to admit that I was incredibly inspired by the works of hip-hop recording artists such as Nas or Lupe Fiasco, for example. They opened my mind to the possibilities of language just as much as someone like Gwendolyn Brooks has, and they largely did it first. For that, I wanted to pay some respects to them as well.

You said that one of your missions is to stand up for justice and equality. Do you do it through your poetry?

I think the most important way in which I attempt to balance the scales is through poetry, absolutely. Much of my written work from the past few years concerns various matters of social justice, whether using historical or anecdotal testimony to speak to racial animus, or class, or even the construct of masculinity. My first full-length collection, Telepathologies, is very much an indictment of America’s systemically racist order, using the backdrops of Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago as windows into Black American existence and how violence manifests itself within it. A host of the material made its way out into the world ahead of the book’s publication, and one can find tonal previews in publications like The Journal, The Missouri Review, One Throne, Thrush and Rattle. Folks can also get a good idea of the intent and scope from this short film produced using the first poem in the collection and directed by Seyi Peter-Thomas.

Where do you see your literary career in five years?

As a poet who works full-time outside of academic and artistic spaces, I find this question incredibly difficult to answer as I’m still, even a few years into the game, being exposed to so many new and exciting possibilities. Even still, I know that I want my work to continue to be recognized with the publication of individual poems as well as full-length collections. Five years from now, I hope I’d have put out a second full-length collection, introduced more people to the first one and, maybe, be working towards or finalizing a third collection. There’s also editorial work—I’m currently a poetry editor at The Rumpus and I sincerely hope five years forward the profile of the site (which is already well known and respected) as a home for exciting, quality original poetry is greatly enhanced and that the roster of poets and the range of their poetics is as diverse as possible. All together, I’d say those are my greatest concerns as far as poetry goes. Yes, there are prizes or fellowships that I’d love to work toward and hopefully secure, but ultimately this isn’t a primary motivation. It can’t be, I feel, if my work is going to be any good and have any chance of helping shape a more just world as I want it to.

Lilia Joy holds an MFA in poetry from Murray State University and teaches at Henderson Community College. Lilia has served as an assistant poetry editor at New Madrid and a faculty advisor of a student literary magazine The Riverbend Review. Lilia is currently working on her first collection of poetry, A Foreign Bride.