The Legacy Suite is a three-part interview series in which poets delve into the tumultuous journey of publishing a debut full-length collection: before publication, during, and after. For this interview, I.S. Jones speaks with poet Luther Hughes about the governing principles of his debut, A Shiver In The Leaves (BOA Editions, 2022). Read on for a conversation (before the book came out!) about process, tenderness and violence, the domestic setting, and literary lineage.
A Shiver in the Leaves by Luther Hughes: Tenderness and Violence
I.S. Jones: I wanted to begin with your initial feelings toward the book. I’ve noticed this trend where a lot of debut poets will often have mixed reactions towards physically holding it as an object. How did it feel holding your book for the first time?
Luther Hughes: Yeah, I actually have the galley here with me. To sum it up, it’s weird. It’s a desire I’ve had since wanting to be a writer, right? To say, “I have a book out.” So to have a galley of it, before the book is actually out, is wild. Flipping through it is wild. Seeing how the poems talk to each other in a book form is something that nobody talks about, I think. People are often just like, “A book! Celebrate! Yeah! Da, da, da.” But no, this shit is weird.
It’s in the world now. From writing to publication there are years in between, so when the book is finally out it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Despite that, it’s also pretty exciting to think about having something that you put together in the world people are excited about, and to see a dream come to fruition. It’s a weird feeling that I think I will never get over.
IJ: I think a lot of poets share the same sentiment regarding the weirdness that comes with publishing a first book and how it’s not really talked about enough. Publishing and writing are two different beasts. I think that some of us fear being made to feel like we are ungrateful for feeling this way, or for feeling anything other than gratitude.
As a result, we shy away from these frank moments of realization: “I feel strange having this book in my hand that once lived in my head, in my heart, that I stayed up with at 2:00 AM crafting.” You lived with this collection, forming it for years, and then one day, it’s over. How do you reconcile with what is a very abrupt loss—with what is a loss and a celebration at the same time? I imagine it’s a complex emotional space to be in.
LH: There is such a phenomenon as the “First Book Blues,” where, you’re right, you’ve been working so long for this object to be in the world. Now with it in the world, you have to ask yourself, what’s next? Do you write another book? Do you do something else? What do you do after that? It does feel like a death in a sense. One might see it as a death, but also a celebration because now others can enjoy the fruits of your labor. You accomplished this milestone, and it was recognized as such. Being where I am now, I do wonder, “Can I even do this again?” Do I want to do this again?
I do feel very honored and grateful that BOA wanted to publish it, a press I’ve been calling my dream press. I feel very humbled that BOA liked the book and wanted to publish it when you consider the manner that I went about even contacting them to do it [laughs]. It is a dream come true to be a part of this press’s legacy.
IJ: That’s a great segue to my next question. My understanding is that you queried an editor at BOA Editions asking if they would be interested in picking up Shiver. Was this before or after you won the Ruth Lilly? Given how much you’ve accomplished already, you are, in my opinion, an impressive, prominent poet. You care very deeply about community, and you do amazing work to show up for other poets, and that’s one of the many things I love about you. Apart from the fact that the writing speaks for itself, would you say that getting the Ruth Lilly made it easier for you to query a press, or was this exchange already underway by the time you won this fellowship? Are those two things separate from the trajectory of your career?
LH: Actually, separate. Honestly, that was the craziest week in my life because both of these things happened in the same week. That’s why it seemed like they are so closely related. I remember joking with Gabrielle [Bates] and Dujie [Tahat] saying, “I’m gonna email so and so because I’m tired of waiting!” They both were like, “Yeah. Email them. Do it.” I was like, “You know what? Okay.” I was feeling ballsy.
So I emailed another press at the same time that I emailed BOA. I contacted both of their PR persons because they both had previously emailed me, “Do you have a book?”
To be honest, I only emailed BOA because Gabrielle [Bates] was talking to one of my now pressmates. She was telling BOA, “Luther’s talking to other people!” I wasn’t—I emailed one other press [laughs]. She was pushing the press to snatch up my book. So I email Peter at BOA and he responded, “I’m currently on vacation with my kids. I’ll get back to you when I’m back.”
I was thinking, it’s going to be so long before they get back to me. But then he emailed me a couple of days after I found out I got the Ruth Lilly, and he was like, “Hey, let’s talk about your book!”
He says, “Can you call me?” I give him a call. And he said, “Yeah, I love it. Let’s publish it. It’ll be a couple of years before we publish it, but you know, if you’re down with that, I’m down with that.” I had somebody in my corner saying, “If you don’t pick up his book, at least hear him out, or you will miss out.” I informed the other press that the book had been accepted elsewhere and they asked, “Who picked it up?” and I was like, “BOA got it” and they just said, “Oh, okay.” I mean, they were late. Not my fault.
IJ: Wow, what a story. I love that you created hype around yourself. Granted, the hype was already there, but you made it very apparent that you won’t be waiting on someone else. So were you just tired and didn’t feel like going through the gambit of the contest model? And a related question: for folks who maybe would prefer to query a press, what advice would you have for building that professional relationship?
LH: I think the answer might be two-fold. For me, it felt a bit easier because I think presses that know who I am know that I really love their books. Not just because I want to be published by them, not just because I’m seeking professional growth or development or some kind of forward movement, but because I really do love their books. I think the best way to start building that relationship is to express how much you love their books.
Say how much you admire their poets, who they’re publishing, say how much you love the work they’re doing, and genuinely mean it, right? I feel like there’s a way to be genuine about the level of care you show to people and to presses, that when you do reach out to them, they’ll respond in a positive way. By that time, they’re already going to know you care for their press beyond just the idea of wanting to publish with them. That was how I was able to gain the confidence and momentum to even be audacious enough to say, “hey, publish my book” because I was genuine, I really did love the work they were putting out. When presses send me books, I tweet about them. I talk about them. I say, “Yeah, everyone should read this book!” Because it’s an earnest admiration for the press’s labor.
Being genuine goes a long way. And I don’t know if people who are fresher to poetry understand that, in a sense. Right now, a lot of the industry is based around the hype of publishing and putting out a thousand poems a year. I love the increase in publishing that’s occurred over the last several years. But just one side of the poetry business, right? The industry. But the other side of it is for us to be genuine people and to foster community and show love to the folks that you admire and adore. This includes presses, magazines, journals, and bookstores. It’s a whole ecosystem at work.
IJ: I appreciate what you’re saying because I was a huge, huge fan of Frontier Poetry before I joined as editor. In that regard, I really agree with you that so much is about being a literary citizen. Yes, publish your own work. Yes, get your own work out there. Do all these other things for your own career growth, but how are you showing up for your community? Who are you in service of? That is so important, and I really appreciate you for highlighting that.
Before we get into the book itself, I really want to ask about this gorgeous cover. Luther—you did well. It’s very haunting, which pairs well with the book’s overall tone. The cover is this image titled “Oh, What A Tangled Web We Weave” by Robert Marks, which also sounds like it could be a title for many of your poems. It feels, from the outside, like it was a very serendipitous union.
LH: The image which would become the cover came from a database of other art that BOA offered for me to peruse. For a while, I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted my cover to be. I didn’t know what the cover needed to portray to be the first entrance into the book. I knew I wanted something that expressed a duality in some sense. But I didn’t know what that would look like. I picked this image alongside another by the same artist. That kind of, in and of itself, expressed a duality. It really is just so haunting, as you aptly stated. It really does the work to create a visual expression of the book itself.
When I landed on the cover, something about it was just wrenching. I couldn’t look away. I felt very… ‘possessed’ is the wrong word but it works in this context. Possessed by the cover, by the artwork. The more I looked at it, the more I played around with how the title of the work and the book were in conversation, the more I fell in love with it. I showed my boyfriend two of the different options. I showed him one picture of the other art I was considering. He said, “I don’t know.” Once I showed him the now-cover, he said, “That’s the one.”
And you know, I don’t really write poetry, I told myself, for people. But the more I started crafting the book, the more I wanted people who aren’t poets to understand the book. It was really important for me that my boyfriend liked the cover because I wanted him to be able to enter the book without being a poet. I felt more comfortable and confident this was the actual cover. Learning who Robert Marks was and about his relationship to BOA made it even more important for me. It made a lot of sense then to be like, “Okay, this is the right cover for this book.”
IJ: Can you speak more to that, to, Robert Mark’s relationship with the press itself?
LH: If I remember correctly, his gallery is close to BOA’s building [laughs]. They have a close relationship actually. Mark and BOA have a tightly-knit professional connection. Learning that after I had picked the cover, I thought, “Ah, this is great.” On top of that, the designer of the cover is the creator of BOA’s daughter. It all just came together in a nice way.
ID: I want to hear more about the process of putting together A Shiver In The Leaves. Is this book the remnants of your MFA thesis project, or might this be a whole other project together? Did you find yourself writing a bunch of poems and then discovering they are in conversation with each other, or something else?
LH: The idea of the book came during undergrad. I knew I wanted to write a book of poems about a black boy in the city. I didn’t know it would be this. I just figured I wanted to do something like that someday, and I began writing poems toward that. In undergrad, I was writing a lot of father poems, to be honest, and thought the book was trending in that direction. I was solid on that for many years. However, that did not become the case, even though he is in the book, obviously in various ways.
Then came grad school. My thesis is in Shiver in a sense, but a lot of those poems are no longer a part of the book. I will say my thesis was called, You’ll Never Love Me, which is now a title of a poem in the book. I had Carl Phillips and francine j. harris on my thesis committee and they both were like, I don’t know about that title. I just don’t see it happening. And I was like, “Ah, what do you mean?” I don’t know if Carl remembers this, but he actually said the title should be called A Shiver in the Leaves. I was thinking that that was too close to Carl’s own work and that I wouldn’t do it.
The title poem came in and out through many different versions of the book over so many years. This told me that it needed to be the title. It became what held the book together. I’ve been writing toward this book since undergrad. I knew it was going to be a book; I just didn’t know it was going to be this book—this manifestation as it is now.
IJ: For me, as someone who previously hadn’t yet published anything, the question I always had for poets who would eventually publish their first full-length collection was “How did you know what to edit in between rejections or querying? I was always tickled by the fact that the answer was always, “Oh, I have no idea.”
But then it happened. And now having been on the other side of that, yes, that is how it often comes together. One day, you are in a state of unknowing and then something clicks into place.
LH: [Laughs]. Yes. Literally.
IJ: It sounds like a ridiculous answer, but unfortunately it is correct. I want to talk to you about the title poem of the book. People have different philosophies about the function of the title poem, and how it’s meant to speak to the book as a whole. In Shiver, you have these series of lines that really stick out to me:
I rest my head against the tree, sleep
and walk in his call.
Like legs of a spider, his nature extends,
Like you, I once harbored beauty
Like you my beauty takes the kingdom of blackness.
It is dawn in the man’s eyes.
A cavern, a slow thaw to memory.
The poems often negotiate death, but the book as a whole situates the speaker in proximity to beauty, intimacy, and tenderness. What do you feel is the function of the title poem? And do you feel like Shiver does that?
LH: My answer will likely change in two days if you ask me again, but I do believe title poems are, in a sense, the thesis of the book. The word thesis can be taken however you want to take it, but I believe that if you were to sum up the book in one act, the title poem can kind of act as that summation. Which could be a good or bad thing depending on the book’s function. For A Shiver In The Leaves, the poem itself, is the thesis of the book in that it does reckon and wrestle with this idea of wanting to hold somebody who was dead, to be a comfort to them, to be tender with them while also talking about the beauty of multiple ideas. It also uses the framework of hanging, of what that means for blackness, the black community, and the black body. And also, using a song to enter that realm. All of that is what A Shiver In The Leaves is about. Using the outside, using the beauty of something to reckon with tenderness while reckoning with death, that’s the duality of the book and the duality of the title poem itself. The lines you reference specifically, leaning my head against the tree sleeping, awake in this call, the idea of wanting to be so close to nature while also so close to a dead body. Even the title, A Shiver In The Leaves, thinking, what does a shiver mean, right? What does that sound mean? What is in the leaves? Of course, it’s the hanged man, but it could be so many other things. It is a place of beauty and also a place of death for black people. The title lends itself to multiple interpretations. The title poem reckons with so many dualities because the book itself reckons with the tension between beauty and violence.
IJ: Even the idea of “shiver” also seems to come from a source of tenderness. Which is something that this book, but also all of your work negotiates. I’m also thinking back to Touched, your chapbook.
LH: My baby.
IJ: Yes! So much of your work negotiates that proximity of intimacy and sex—What it means to physically connect to another person, how that transforms the body, and how the body continues to transform even after. I want to ask about crows and how they return in this collection book. I love how they emerge in your individual poems and how they made their way in Touched. I’m curious though, between the chapbook to the full-length, has the reoccurrence of crows, of this motif transformed in meaning?
LH: I just know I will be asked about crows all my life from now on [laughs]. In the chapbook, crows present themselves as a manifestation of trauma. In “Self-Portrait As Crows,” the idea of crows, black bodies, and death is there. And then there’s the poem “Tenderness” which talks about a crow watching the speaker have sex, and that’s a manifestation of child abuse and molestation. So, in Touched, crows represent trauma, history, and memory.
My adoration for crows has grown between the chapbook and the full-length [collection of poems] in ways that are more than just trauma. Now they reflect home because Seattle is the city of crows. Now they reflect beauty, reflect intelligence, reflect omens. I think that those are mini manifestations of what comes out in the book through beauty, through the idea of why am I not living like a crow to a crow dragging me for living how I’m living. They have mini faces in Shiver that I’m surprised by, to be honest. I didn’t really realize that was going to be the case until I started crafting the book together. Actually, the poem in the book, “Leave the Crows Out Of It” was actually a nod to myself to like, “Leave the crows out of the poem, girl. Let it go.”
I just couldn’t let it go, obviously. But that was me dragging myself. By saying, leave crows out of it, I then invite crows into it, right? Crows are a big part of my life, and it’s honestly because of Seattle. Seattle has a lot of crows. It is ridiculous. You see crows literally everywhere. They do follow you around. They do remember faces, they recognize you, and they will attack you. Because of that, I think my obsession with crows heightened upon moving back to Seattle. I was living in St. Louis at the time for graduate school, and wasn’t seeing a lot of crows anymore, so I was missing home, too. It’s kind of how this crow obsession began. I told myself (and am still telling myself) there will be no more crow poems from Luther Hughes, but they have nested.
IH: I understand how obsession can be both a delight and maybe a slight source of embarrassment for poets to find themselves gripped by. Safia Elhillo talked about this in an interview, how she felt embarrassed for being obsessed with Abdel Halim Hafiz, and how all of her poems during her MFA were about him. But I imagine when she looked at her work holistically, she realized she was negotiating a wide spectrum of governing themes.
Going back to how much of the book speaks towards blackness and death, I appreciate that yes, the book situates itself between both of these heavy subjects, but you as the speaker of the poems, and you the author, hyper-resist a particular narrative of expectation. That because you are a Black poet, you have to write about death. More importantly, you hyper-resist making black death something enjoyable, right? The poem that I love which I think does is so exquisitely is “(Black) Boy, Revisited:”
The hole in your head is like any old hole, you tell yourself,
a man slides in. Any old hole, you remember, you watch
the news, you tweet. Your cell phone dies before you send
the picture. You’re not like them other niggas you
whisper in his ear. You’re alive. You’re not Tamir or John
or Michael or Jamal, or Oscar or Fred. Look how God shows
his grace when you breathe, heave when being run through.
You count to three before clicking:
In the process of writing poems like this one where you directly confront Black death, how did you take care of yourself? Also, did you have any internal conflict in confronting these subject matters such as “Am I contributing to this narrative? Or am I rather trying to illuminate the unique ways that affect me?”
LH: I did have a lot of conversations with myself about how to write poems that talk about Black people dying. When reading poems of this nature that did what I was trying not to do, which was to rehash violence for the sake of rehashing violence, I felt uncomfortable. I felt I was being made to witness something cruel. I wanted to write poems that did two things: one, make the speaker vulnerable in the process of talking about Black death. It was important to have myself beyond the page—laid bare and naked. This is probably also why I also tend to couple black death and sexual activity. I need the body, my body, to be naked while I’m talking about this. It seems unfair for me to rehash somebody’s death as I don’t know them personally.
Two, I had to think about how someone’s death has been rehashed by the media over and over and over. Writing these poems was about making sure I’m being careful and tender, and not making the reader feel uncomfortable or, you know, be made a witness to the death. Because ultimately, the poem’s about me. The poem is about myself and the poem “(Black) Boy, Revisited” is really about me thinking I’m going to die. I’m using my body to talk about these other people who have actually died to get back to me again. I will say, there are times in the book where I feel like I don’t do it as successfully as say the poem you just were talking about. I do hope that when people encounter those poems in the book, they feel closer to the speaker and not closer to the dead bodies, if that makes sense.
IK: That does make sense. I appreciate you doing what I love to see in a good poem, which is implicating yourself. I want to talk about one of the strongest poems for me in the book, “Making the Bed.” Looking to stanza five:
What god gave him sovereignty
over ordinary things of my life?
I have endured much this tenure.
I stomach a panther of pills
and was relieved. You know
what else persuades me? Rain
fingering the open window,
my mother’s voice singing
In the morning, we’ll be alright.
In the morning, the sun’s gonna shine.
Did you have fun writing this poem? How did you strike that balance between the tender and the soft and what is often jagged and violent? I don’t know if this was on purpose, but it feels like the violent world is left outside of the bedroom scene or outside of the world, and the intimate spaces are inside the bedroom, which feels like an alcove away from the world. The domestic setting in the book is the space where the Black boy can reimagine tenderness without having to justify or explain to folks who are outside, in the world, if that makes sense.
LH: I never thought of it like that, but I think you’re spot on. A lot of the tenderness is inside the home, inside with the beloved, or even with themselves. I never thought about it like that but let me circle back to that thought. I had a lot of fun writing this poem. I wrote it at ComicCon, my second year attending. That was before this book became what it is now. I just knew I was gonna write a new poem for a new book. This was part of a new set of poems. My thinking was that the second book was gonna be about this. As it turned out, the first book was about this. Initially, I felt there was not enough happening—as though there were not enough stakes in the poem.
I’m watching my beloved make the bed and then I realized those are the stakes. That’s pretty much it. Because it’s a queer relationship, because it’s a black body, the stakes are already there. I had to reassess, “What do I want from this poem?” So to answer your question, yes, I had fun writing it because I felt like it was one of the first poems that really allowed me to just be my little Cancer self, just be tender, just be kind of sweet.
I also challenged myself to distill what was maybe a five-minute moment into a poem of 10+ stanzas. And to your question about balancing tenderness, intimacy, and violence: I will be very frank that I don’t know how I’m able to do that. All I can say is I pretty sure I picked up the skill from Lucille Clifton. She is a mastermind at doing that, specifically in her book Mercy. I was able to glean how to do that because of that book. However, when it comes to my own poems, one thing I was reckoning with is that I’ve always had to couple the two growing up; there was always violence and tenderness in my home setting. The tension was always there. Someone was always arguing. Somebody was always fighting. And at the same time, there was always food on the table.
I’ve always had a coupled mentality when it comes to tenderness and violence because of my own upbringing. So it makes sense then that my poems express themselves with that same coupling. Do I think my poems from now on will do that? Probably not. But I am obsessed with beauty, and because of that, I’m probably going to always have inklings of that coupling.
When it comes to taking care of myself, I’m always mindful that the poems are autobiographical. I think that’s also why I’m able to write about these certain things—because they happened in my life, and I did those things to get over other things. Tenderness and violence, I think, are things that I just can’t escape. I think it’s important to say that violence isn’t just physical violence. Violence can also be emotional. It can be mental or spiritual. And so even though the violences in the book are no longer happening to me, I still encounter other types of violences in the world.
IJ: I wanted to do a deep dive into the poem “Passed Down.” When I read this poem, it reminded me of the most perfect poem ever written, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. Specifically, I imagine that if the speaker got older and wrote a poem, that poem would be “Passed Down.”
To that end, who is in your literary lineage? And also, who are artists in your lineage? I’m thinking of the visual artist Shikeith. A lot of his visual work reminds me of what Shiver is doing as well.
Hughes: Yes, Robert Hayden. I love Bob, as he calls himself. I will never get over that: Bob Hayden. But yes, Hayden, for sure. Carl Phillips, of course, and Lucille Clifton. Natasha Trethewey is in my family tree. I’m being very particular about naming only Black poets. I just need to say that. Then, my siblings: Philip B. Williams, Justin Phillip Reed, Camonghne Felix. As far as artists outside of the literary scene, I’ve never thought about this. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say Jean-Michel Basquiat. Solange, specifically her EP. SZA, given one of the poems is named after her music. I will also say gospel artists like Mary Mary.
IJ: I want to look at the final line in the last poem:
The rain is clearing.
I hold out my hand
I’m of the opinion the final line is just as important, if not more so, than the opening. In Kaveh Akbar’s debut Calling a Wolf a Wolf: “This boat I’m building will never be done.” How important are last lines to you?
LH: I think last lines of books are very important. It tells your reader where to go next. Should your reader go back to the very beginning? I know with Phillip B. William’s first book Thief in the Interior, he was intentional that the book means for you to go back to the beginning again. Same, I think, for the second book too. I think it’s a hint, like, this is what you’re supposed to walk away with.”
For A Shiver in the Leaves, the hint is that there’s nothing to walk away with because there’s nothing resolved. There are a thousand questions in the book being asked by the speaker, being asked by their environment, and what happens at the very end. The rain is clearing and then the speaker is holding out their hand. And you would think it’s like, “Oh, it’s stopped raining. I can go out and about.” That’s not the case. It’s more like, Okay, well if the rain has stopped, if this is the end of the season, what do I do next? Gabrielle [Bates] asked me a question when she read a version of it. Her question helped me realize when the book was finished. She asked, “Luther, many of the speakers in the poems in the book reckon with suicide, and we don’t know if the speakers ever actually commit suicide. Are they dead?” And I was like, That’s it. The book is finished because that’s the question I want the reader to be asking. In a way, they are dead because the book is finished. It’s complete, and I’m moving along with my life.
Luther Hughes is the author of the debut poetry collection, A Shiver in the Leaves, (BOA Editions), and the chapbook Touched (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2018). He is the founder of Shade Literary Arts, a literary organization for queer writers of color, and co-hosts The Poet Salon podcast with Gabrielle Bates and Dujie Tahat. Recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship and 92Y Discovery Poetry Prize, his work has been published in various journals, magazines, and newspapers. Luther was born and raised in Seattle, where he currently lives.