Derek Joseph: 28, black, poetry student at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
Christine Baniewicz: 28, white, nonfiction student at UNO in New Orleans, La.
Your own mind. Also, later, Artmosphere.
Derek enters your mind. He’s short, somewhere in the mid-5-foot range, with a distinctively powerful and peculiar presence, a mysteriously hypnotizing quality about him.
DEREK: I feel like you never really write the thing that you intended to. You’re just writing toward something. There’s a displacement in your brain, and you’re trying to re-fill it. I don’t feel like I ever really achieve what I want to achieve. There is a great deal of satisfaction, at least a lot of the time, once I finish a piece. But I don’t think it’s ever exactly what I want it to be. But that’s OK, cause I’m writing toward something, not trying to build anything. It’s like residue. It’s like a snail leaving a trail. But then you can’t ever really have the snail, so I guess it’s just the trail, and that’s the work, that’s the art. Going toward something. And leaving behind something. Because the reader is experiencing what you’ve left behind.
The essayist, Christine, joins the poet, Derek, inside your mind. She has long, thin brown hair and a nervous energy about her. She seems scared, but of what? She clears her throat.
CHRISTINE: Derek Joseph was born in Lafayette almost 29 years ago.
DEREK: My mother likes to tell me this story, of me being 11 years too late.
CHRISTINE: His cousin, Desmond, was born around 1978.
DEREK: And so my mother was very thoughtful and wanted to have a child for Desmond to play with.
CHRISTINE: Unfortunately, doctors told Derek’s parents that they were unlikely to have any more kids. Finally, after 10 years of unsuccessful attempts, in 1988 …
DEREK: They ended up with me.
CHRISTINE: Derek took eight years to finish his undergrad degree, which he pursued at four different schools. He studied French, engineering and physics. He went to architecture school for a month, and Vassar for two years, where he studied Russian language and literature.
DEREK: Why Russian? (He ponders for a beat.) I was trying to get closer to writing through this back door. Of having to learn another language, and read things in translation.
CHRISTINE: Derek mostly shied away from traditional English classes in college.
DEREK: I just didn’t want that part of myself to be tampered with. It was mostly fear-based. Because I wasn’t really doing what anyone else was doing, and so it was just like: I’ll save myself the turmoil, and see how I develop on my own island.
Christine nods, exits. Derek remains.
DEREK: I really like to feel lost within literature, and within film, within art, and having to struggle to understand. But then I’ll hit a gem, or a line, or a scene in a movie that’s just completely clear, and you know? Everything just sort of swirls around that moment. I love that.
Christine returns, this time with a sheaf of papers in her hand.
CHRISTINE: Fear is a common subject in Derek’s poetry. Sometimes, it’s rendered larger-than-life, as a flesh-and-blood monster wearing (she reads from the sheaf of papers) “a haute-couture sheath, leeches and toxic algae festooned into deconstructed lace.” Fear in these poems is equal parts hideous and strangely seductive, selling “Abyss” as a designer drug, whispering curses to “the humans” through the water in the shower.
Christine shuffles the pages, finds another poem.
In this one, Derek portrays fear with more subtlety. It lives within a moment, within a single frightened “hello” said in passing by an ostensibly white stranger on the street.
Christine hands the poem to Derek, who reads.
DEREK: I know what you’re thinking
But this Halloween costume was bestowed upon me by God.
This skin and hair and clothing…
I have no reason to stab you in your subjunctive,
In your: It-is-better-that-you-murder-me-so-that-everything-I’ve-believed-holds-true,
To take all your money.
Your next moment is all yours.
In our minds,
I tock to you
And you tock to me
Don’t tock to me
And time tocks tocks tocks toward progress
but the descension bridge of hate has seen its shadow in the news;
There’s another year of inequality,
Of searching for arnica and ornery to soothe the blues
Of witnessing dark pieces being sight-read, quickly, by bullets brutally.
Derek hands the pages back to Christine, who gestures him forward to speak, to explain.
DEREK: My poems are direct portraits of my own consciousness. This image sends you here, and this sends you here, and I try to weave all of those together. To capture a picture of what’s happening inside me at any given moment.
CHRISTINE: Primed by the dark subjects of your poetry, I wonder — was there any dark rationale behind your choice to leave Lafayette for Bronxville? After all, despite everything we have in common as writers, you’re more than twice as likely as I am to be killed by the police in Louisiana.
Christine waits for Derek to respond, but he seems unprovoked by the statistics.
DEREK: It’s not very complicated or romantic. (He pauses for a short beat.) I wanted to go to the opera, I wanted to go to the ballet. I wanted to see people with blue hair playing strange instruments on street corners.
Christine laughs when Derek says this. Later, she’ll wonder whether or not she believes it’s true.
DEREK: It’s some kind of elementary and really childish thing, to think that everything within literary art has to come from a dark place.
CHRISTINE: But so many of your poems are dark!
A short pause.
DEREK: There’s just more to say about those things.
A long pause.
CHRISTINE: Why did you really leave Lafayette? What did you leave behind?
Derek doesn’t answer, because Christine didn’t really ask this question, because it turns out that Christine was too afraid to prod about Derek’s personal experience of racism in Lafayette, even though her intent was to make that the focus of this piece, to have that darkness be the swirling center of everything. Instead, though, defying her intent, the story has somehow become, in this crucial moment, about her own fear. Her fear of painting Derek as one of those “ethnic confections” he speaks about in his poems.
DEREK: An attractive brown object for study.
CHRISTINE: Yeah, that. I don’t wanna do that. Especially not for pay. (Pause.) Can’t you direct me to some journal where your work is published, so other people can read it, so I can feel like you’re getting something out of this, too?
DEREK: Until I have an entire collection of poems that I feel like really talk to each other, I don’t want to send bits and pieces out. I’m not Emily Dickinson or anything. But I just want to send my poems to friends, for now.
Christine waits for Derek to do or say something that will absolve her of guilt, because Christine is white, and that is what white people usually do in moments like this: put their own fragile feelings at the center of stories that really just aren’t about them.
Artmosphere, a Friday night in January. Rareluth is setting up to perform on the stage beneath reddish-colored light. Christine and Derek sit across from one another in a booth, smiling, both a drink-and-a-half in.
DEREK: I don’t think we’ll ever really have an answer for why art exists. And why there’s some people that are just so… you know, they’re poets. And everything they do, it just stems from that.
CHRISTINE: But why do you write poems?
Short pause. Derek considers.
DEREK: I think you should make the drugs you like to do.
Rareluth begins to play, and they both stand. Derek cuts his way to the front of the crowd and starts dancing. Ever the introvert, he leaps and spins about on his own in an extended solo, the lithe arabesque of his body moving through space with the same charge and exquisite control as his words move over the page. Watching him, Christine feels a kind of transporting pleasure, this sense that she is in the presence of something utterly singular, maybe even a little divine, and very, very beautiful. Watching him, she is glad that he has thus far managed to avoid being sight-read quickly by bullets brutally, and that this next moment — on the dance floor, in his artistic life, and on the page before you — this next moment is all his.