“Sidewalk” by Logan Klutse is the winning poem for the 2023 Rising Poet Prize, selected by Maggie Smith. We’re honored to share this poem with you.
“what is summer if not the killing (season)”
— Prisca Dognon, “Dispatch from the Last Decade”
Wasps crawling out of a finch’s eye
socket on the pavement, some rind
of a skullbone, the wrong kind
of music buzzing from the swarm
in its throat. From a distance, I thought
still alive. In another city, boys, like
songbirds, flock to the concrete to find
their own spots to work
and die on, bullets and bone chips cast
like scattered jacks. When we were children,
I watched you, cousin, crack open
chicken bones and suck out all the marrow. A total
carnivore, my mother said. Teeth chalk-white:
you never let anything go to waste. Sink
baths in a foaming basin, hurling rubber balls
in four square on a cracked driveway at sunset,
wrestling on mattresses without bedframes,
swimming in irrigation ditches, sprinting through
peach orchards. What happened? You moved. What happened?
You got big on me. He deals now, my mother said.
Hard stuff, good money, not a boy or a bird:
you dress like a king now, know that skulls
were once softest at their crown. Don’t let
your body become a blade for the city
to pick its teeth with, be filed from
skeleton to spearpoint. You are a man
now, which means you can be killed
without being missed.
Interview with Logan Klutse
by AT Hincapie
AH: Your winning poem “Sidewalk” begins with descriptions of decay, where birds and insects “buzzing from the swarm” have spilled out onto the pavement. However, this voice shifts toward a more direct epistolary address that pleads to the speaker’s cousin through memories of childhood and anxieties about adulthood. Why speak to him rather than speaking about him in this context? How might this second-person voice help to demonstrate the fears and frustration that the speaker is feeling in this moment?
LK: Speaking about felt like it would be preemptive eulogizing, as if the speaker would be foregoing the hope of their words ever reaching their cousin directly, making their cousin fainter. Conversely, speaking to feels like insisting upon the life and aliveness of the cousin, upon his presence and personhood. This is bound up with the fear — even as they believe in his survival, so much of the speaker’s fear is love stitched into worry, love that they can’t communicate without the fear co-present.
I see the second-person voice as part of the speaker seeking to call their cousin into (rather than cast him out of) the poem, as part of the spiritual project of staging the poem as the one space where they are near enough to make contact. And if the other city is already an entity that’s trying to anonymize and un-detail the cousin, and the speaker is gathering familiarizing memories about him, then why regard him in the same voice that describes scenery? The speaker wants to pull him closer — is grasping for ways to firm, not loosen their tether to each other.
AH: The mother in the poem breaks the news about the cousin, stating that “He deals now…” in an unsurprised or unconcerned tone that suggests this might have become a common occurrence in modern American households. This might be reminiscent of the ongoing opioid crisis, as this poem suggests that the cousin could become another number in a long pattern of similar statistics. Does this suggest that the family may have given up on the cousin at this point? Is there possibility for redemption or reconciliation for families dealing with this kind of substance abuse?
LK: If readers engage with “Sidewalk” as I would encourage them to, then I don’t imagine the speaker or the family as levying any kind of judgment against the cousin, or as thinking of themselves as his saviors. I do imagine the speaker as consumed by that question asked in the fifth stanza: “What happened?” And within and beneath that, the speaker is also asking: What life has led you from our shared childhood to this point in time? How have these two lives, yours and mine, diverged? What is this other life that you’ve lived like? Who have you — and we — become in each other’s absence?
I also don’t feel that worry or concern about the cousin implies that there was schism here, or that they were ever unreconciled. I feel there’s definitely pauses, or playwright-like beats tonally implied in the fifth stanza between and around its sets of questions and answers, which are part of the speaker processing this update in familial information. They’re thinking: I know so much, in a wealth of multisensory detail, about this shared life, this other life we were having, the world of our childhood — but the world of the cousin’s adulthood is so much more unknown, more inscrutable. So, the speaker wants to understand the cousin’s becoming, but they don’t have the images or the tools to parse that completely.
AH: The speaker admits that their cousin is making “good money” and dresses like a king now, suggesting he has found success and prosperity for himself – even if this comes from a less- than-reputable line of work. However, this also leads to a warning that the cousin might “…become a blade for the city to pick its teeth with…” and that being a man really means that “…you can be killed without being missed.” Is it possible that the cousin might be attempting to escape the daily grind of the traditional American working-class job, where the small employee might often be viewed as replaceable in the eyes of the big corporation – where they will not be missed, or where the company will pick their teeth with them? What does this suggest about American working life when selling dangerous drugs might provide a suitable alternative?
LK: I think the cousin has been living with the means with which he’s had to survive and support himself in this new place, and the speaker acknowledges that. After the “You moved” in the fifth stanza, and in the time between childhood and the present, there are details in that list in the fourth and fifth stanzas suggesting that the speaker and the cousin had a childhood of great joy, but not of luxury. If you were to quickly paraphrase the last two stanzas, it’s the speaker saying: “I can’t exactly co-sign what you’re doing right now, but I do love you, so please, be careful.”
The lines “Don’t let / your body become a blade for the city / to pick its teeth with” and “You are a man / now, which means you can be killed / without being missed…” are each inextricable from some discussion of race. The speaker’s saying: to them, we are never too young to be erased. To them, we are never really seen as young when we’re young, because America is constantly adultifying Black children. Also, around stanza six and seven, something to the effect of: so now that you are actuallya man, and now at a man’s — not a child’s — age, as well as involved in this line of work, there’s an additional dimension of threats to your life. This brings an additional dimension of worry for your family. And though your kin would mourn you, and your kin within this city would mourn you, the city itself — as an entity with a violent agenda, as a composite of all the threats, systemic and otherwise, to your life and the lives of other Black people — would not. So, part of manhood and reaching manhood here is the reality that those threats can disappear you, that a place can try to anonymize and erase your life.
This is something that the cousin most certainly also knows, living in America. I think the speaker states this because part of their and the cousin’s coming of age is being able to name and articulate that existential fear, and also because emphasizing that wish for caution is a way of lingering with the cousin. Like how a parent hovers in a doorway or at the bus stop, tells their kid and friend from the neighborhood to be back by a certain time, to watch out for each other, to not get into any trouble now, asks them if they have everything they need, if they forgot something, pretends to fix their shirt collar, then watches them drift further down the street, or into a vehicle, behind the horizon — they’re watching them enter a region where they can’t be with them. In those moments, you have no protection to offer them besides duplications of your worries. Your worries are your love when you don’t know what else to give. So, the cautionary language isn’t just for warning’s sake: the magnitude and specificity of the speaker’s dread is evidence of this type of love, this love that is struggling to find other ways to name itself.
AH: “Sidewalk” includes an epigraph from Prisca Dognon’s “Dispatch from the Last Decade”, a poem that reflects on lynchings in American history as mothers mourn for their lost children. This original poem was included as part of Yale University’s Giving Voice to the Incident, from WORD poetry performance group – of which you are a member yourself. How has this group influenced your writing during your time at Yale, and what relationship do you see between the spoken and the written word in your work?
LK: I owe an overwhelming amount of who I’ve become, as a person and a poet, to WORD. Prisca, especially, always astonished me with their long, image-rich and insight-rich poems that had their own kinds of sinuous currents — I aspire to find that same fluidity of language that they have in my own work one day. Each individual member has left their own imprint on me, through craft as well as through the spirit of generosity and excitement for invention that the group allows you to write within. One of my playwriting professors, Deb Margolin, once told me: “the critic cannot precede the artist in the creative mental space”. For me, WORD was a group whose insistence on curiosity kept that internal critic from assassinating my newest ideas before they could find their way onto the page (and into the mic).
I’ve learned so much from all the other WORDies about how a poem can insist on scenes and moments of tenderness and laughter at the same time that it acknowledges mourning, and so much about how a poem can alchemize a scene into tenderness. It’s a poetic gesture that I think we’re all in need of. The spoken and the written word are almost inseparable to me — but I think there’s a degree of sonic detail that I try to bring from performance to the page. You learn on stage that you’re never owed an audience’s attention. You have to earn it, breath to breath, line to line. And you are literally the speaker of every poem you present to the audience when you’re working in that form, so it demands commitment and conviction from your writing — and how you manipulate and structure sound becomes the primary tool of capturing and maintaining their attention.
This past April, I had the chance to chat with Professor Tracy K. Smith about her work, and I remember she said something about writing with sound instead of logic as the dominant mechanism of meaning-making in a poem. What new meanings, gestures, and associative leaps become accessible when sound is the poem’s dominant mechanism? I think that’s a question that my time with WORD has been bringing me back to as I write, and keep writing.
AH: You have also participated in workshops with the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and the Tin House Summer Workshop, with support and fellowships from a number of other foundations as well. How have these group settings influenced or improved your work, or how does this connection to other writers help to strengthen your own voice?
LK: I’m immeasurably grateful for all the support I’ve received, especially at what feels like so early on in my writing life. I think the work always seems more possible, and ultimately is more possible, when you’re surrounded by that abundance of belief from other writers — and the knowledge of that is like an antidote to loneliness, as well as a sort of creative fountain.
Recently, there have been two especially resonant experiences: the first being when Jaquira Díaz gave a craft talk about speculative nonfiction at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this year, and mentioned perhapsing, writing alternate histories, and imagining possible futures as speculative strategies. I thought about those strategies alongside something that Teja Sudhakar, one of the poets in my Tin House workshop, said something to the effect of: “People get to live on the page. People get to live on the page in ways they don’t get to in real life.” I’ve been carrying that with me, because I want to learn how to write endings for my kin that aren’t endings. I also want to not have to speculate in order to write them those un-ended endings. I want to figure out how to shift the page from a reflection to a portal. I can’t do any of that alone — but I trust having all these other voices chorusing their ideas and support will teach me.