Art has the potential to be interventional and transformative in many ways. Artistic Intervention is the act of framing a particular discourse around numerous social topics that can be discussed through a body of literature and/or performance. Having just completed a two-year Masters Program at New York University, my research looked closely at the artistic works of black gay male artists who are addressing the issues of masculinity and social perceptions of black homosexuality. I found that these artists are creating dialogue around these interventions that have the potential to educate and shift consciousness of people who are black gay identified and people who are not.
Poet-Emcee-Educator-Activist Tim’m T. West was one of the three black gay men I highlighted in my research. The conversation was rich and the dialogue is one I had to share. Enjoy A.A+W and Future Fans.
What prompted you to do the work you do now? Also what prompted you to write Red Dirt Revival and flirting?
TW: The question of the work I do now is somewhat challenging as someone who currently coordinates activities as a drop-in center for Young black gay men, teaching part-time as an Adjunct Professor in Philosophy, and continues to maintain a rather active creative career as an author, poet, and Hip Hop artist. I suppose the easiest answer to the question of prompting would be to suggest that I've always believed this "work" (and all of it) to be my calling. I want to affect change through as many mediums as possible. With writing as my base, there are times when the "work" manifests as a poem, Hip Hop music, or a grant proposal. I did lots of schooling to gain the capacity to improve not just the quality of my life, but the communities to which i am attached also. As poetic memoirs, my books "Red Dirt Revival" and "Flirting" are simply extensions of my journey. It is worth noting that "Red Dirt Revival" was largely written in response to discovering that I was living with HIV/AIDS. I simply wanted to leave a brave testimony for all I hadn't previously found the courage to say. Then a few years and albums later, you realize that you're actually still alive and kicking, so you continue the work, though perhaps without the same acute sense of urgency that existed in the first "work". I think that this is what makes my authorial debut special, though I think the writing is better in more recent projects. It wasn't supposed to happen at all and did. It was my version of Bill T. Jones' "Still Here" in a (sub)culture where I'd seen other black OUT gay activist transitioning due to the impact of HIV/AIDS.
I consider your work, especially your poetry and performance poetry, an "act of intervention" and "transformational." Reading your work and seeing some of your work live has been interventional in my walk with my being young, black, gay, and HIV positive and I feel it has been transformational for my life (You are Hero of mine Tim'm...and that's why I'm still standing today). So my question is: What is your perspective on your works being an "act of intervention" and a potentially transformative for your readers, followers, and young black gay men, like myself?
TW: The interesting thing about my work as INTERVENTION is that it wasn't the intention. Catharsis first was my personal intervention: releasing it, telling my truth, moving to spaces of revolutionary bravery and love. I do believe that the nature of the work began to create communities of people who honor the legacy of some many of our truth-tellers: Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, June Jordan, Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill come to mind. In particular, those at the intersection of ethnic and sexual identities in the 90s were being encouraged to create escapist fantasies for mass audiences on the one hand, or be relegated to independent or academic presses or record labels to maintain the integrity of work that didn't "jive" with the capitalist marketplace. A fictionalized victim story about a poor black HIV-positive man on the DL would have had cultural resonance. An autobiographical, poetic, intellectually challenging work about an HIV positive overcomer is not so sexy. And this is precisely what produces the INTERVENTION. I believe it reads, to those who've encountered my work and performance, as something outside of the bounds of the marketplace, and therefore more visceral and real. In a reality TV culture where truth is so often constructed, my work illuminates those neglected spaces that need to be (re)touched and that touch others.
Like you, Cornelius, there are many many other black gay men who've written and performed as a result of my personal work or my work with Deep Dickollective. The intervention is simply the magic of showing people that these stories are worth telling, that people want to read them, and that lives are changed and impacted because of them. Imagine writing an AIDS-positive book in a culture where the most popular works of the sort were by authors who were no longer living. That's the kind of gap I was hoping to fill. To take the hope provided by life-sustaining medications and OUT black gay men again. We were shamefully running back to closets where our experences were the fictionalized gossip of black tabloids and gospel plays. The intervention is that 'I'm here", "this is real', and "I won't shut up about it'.
Speaking to the term "homoaffectionalism," do you feel the term is in alignment with your work? And if so, specifically where does it show up in your poems? And how does it show up in your personal life and interactions with family, friends, and community?
TW: I have personally never experienced a (romantic) love that endured. To that extent homoaffectionalism has been the primary way I engage my affection orientation. My love for sports and athleticism provides a sanctioned space for black male affection otherwise frowned upon by the black (American) culture at large. […] I believe that we seriously have to consider configurations of love and affection outside of nuclear models that were not created with us in mind. My work is stridently masculine at times because that is my gender orientation. I was also particularly interested in creating narratives for young black gay masculine men that didn't feed into the "if you can pass, you will pass" trope that feeds Down Low dysfunction. So when I talk about "hard handed domino slaps across a soft table" or "b-ball sessions in West Oakland," I'm engaging a homoaffectionalism that is more about broad same-gender (not sexual) desire, than gay desire.
I suppose I want to encourage, not homoaffectionalism, but challenge the notion that black men (whatever their orientations) should not be engaging in profoundly moving, passionate relationships with one another for our individual betterment and for the good of our communities. The whole "No Homo" stuff, is another stab in the back of a growing movement of black men, straight and gay, who understand that we need to do something different-- that the old black masculine tropes have romanticized thuggery and prison cultures at our own expense.
I'm curious to know more about what prompted the poem "faithful" from flirting, which deeply resonated with me. Please share your motivations/purpose/point of view for writing this poem
he'd always pick up
bring whatever I threw
back to me
let me shake and release again
and there were few words
just a double-chin grin
and his joy
at spoiling me
maybe testing his hypothesis
-"faithful," Tim'm T. West
TW: "Faithful" was quite honestly written for my elder brother, Charles Everick and points to some of those boyhood troupes that, in most contexts, become the rites of passage for heterosexual masculinity, but for me, become the very basis of what I came to love about men (even romantically). I thought about one of my mentors, Cherie Moraga, who talked about mother-desire as shaping her lesbian desire and desirability. In my writing, i love to play with the line between romantic desire and other male desire(s). I am clear that sex and romance aren't the only ways men desire one another, and that a boy longing for the love of father, a gang member mourning the loss of one of his homies, the spaces like Hip Hop or Sports where expressing forms of affection and desire are, ironically, not stigmatized...are all
STILL about desire. It sadly reinforces the idea that affection is taboo when we refer to it as homosociality or homoeroticism. It underscores cultural norms that suggest that male on male desire has to be codified for its abjectification and punitive codification. We have to name it so that we can Other it. After all, "real men" wouldn't be mushy or close like that, right?
I'm also curious to know what prompted "Unnatural Acts" from Red Dirt Revival and "First Flight" from flirting. What were you hoping to achieve or say in each of these poems?
a damn trip
how some would rather see
his blakk fist
gum-bleeding and swollen
him caressing my hand
him lovingly stroking my face
'cause he felt like it
- "Unnatural Acts," Tim'm T. West
TW: In "Unnatural Acts" I simply found it ironic that we could be so desensitized to black on black male violence that we can have no reaction to virtual or actual manifestations of black male death (e.g., Hip Hop shootings/violence, sensationalized "reality" fights caught on video). At the same time some black people nearly have a fit imagining or seeing two black men holding hands or kissing. I wanted to juxtapose acts of death with acts some black people feel should warrant a death sentence. It paints a picture really calls people out on the insanity of their homophobia and heterosexism, because the logic simply doesn't follow that black men killing each other is better than black men loving each other. Even my nephew gets that. LOL
because depression is another
of our dirt secrets
doesn't happen to black boys
our suicides are not as often
sharp dramatic leaps
self-induced strange fruit noose
our suicidal tendencies be subtle
are unprotected sex, gangsta gattin'
drug escapisms cuz "we don't give a fuck"
-"First Flight," Tim'm T. West
In "First Flight" I wanted to challenge another of our taboos, which is Mental Health. We are quick to say that someone "needs Jesus" or is "crazy" while dismissing the real psychological trauma many black men have experienced that needs more clinical attention. Therapy shouldn't be a bad word. Anti-depressant should be a word exercised with caution, but not a bad word. Telling your truth or being in touch with your feelings shouldn't be "gay" or "metrosexual" denotations, but ways ALL men should courageously live. When you have one of your closest friends-- a man you saw as big, black, strong, talented, a leader-- jump from the Golden Gate bridge to take his life, it does something pretty profound about the silence around depression. I wanted to say.. "Yes, I have been on anti-depressants." "I have spent days on the hall of a psych ward for depression.", "I sometimes feel like I will break.". It is in these revelations that I am hopeful black men will come to heal themselves and their brothas, and therefore, their communities. Broken men can't build anything that will stand for long.
You continue to teach, lecture, and perform at universities and conferences around the country as well as perform at various conferences and social events, sharing your journey as an affirming Black/Gay/Feminist/Emcee/Poet/POZ man, how does that make you feel and why do you continue to walk this daring road?
TW: Quite simply, Cornelius... I can't think of anything better to do with my life. Perhaps someday, I'll hubby or wifey up and want more to raise kids and be a house-husband and (second-time around) dad... but for right now, this "work" is what keeps me alive, adds purpose to my existence, and I am grateful for the evidence that my work continues to inspire and change lives. What more can a brotha ask for than to have that kind of societal impress? I look at your work, often in awe, and think... 'Wow... maybe my book or performance had something to do with that". My feeling is that you will experience this too.
I remember meeting Marlon Riggs in 1990. I walked around the building at Duke where he was gonna be showing "Tongues Untied" five times to avoid being seen having an interest in the "homosexual lifestyle." Marlon Riggs seemed understated and not fully aware, at the time, of how CRITICAL this work was to me, at 18, and wondering how to shape my life in freedom, truth, and love. I was pretty damn star struck. He seemed pretty damn tired from all the touring...or perhaps more concerned about his health. Still, I think..."there just might be a "Tim'm" out there in an audience with something to get off his chest. He or she might be inspired by something I say to create their own inspiration journey". And that's why I find motivation to do it. Our world needs more of it. There is a lot of great art that wouldn't exist if I didn't first find courage to speak. Silence (can) = death.
copyright 2010, Cornelius Jones Jr.