Associate Editor’s Note: I knew the first time I heard Clemonce Heard’s poems that I wanted to interview him for Mockingheart Review—his poems are so moving and important. And this book, Tragic City, is one that needs to be widely read. It was selected by Major Jackson for the 2020 Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize for Poetry and is focused on the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Clem’s experience in contemporary Tulsa and in contemporary America. The works and experiences are fused together in inventive ways that illuminate how much and how little America has changed since 1921. Readers will remember that Greenwood was a thriving African-American community that was known as “Black Wall Street.” It was also the site of a horrific massacre in 1921. More about Greenwood and that massacre can be found here: https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/
Clemonce has recently agreed to be the featured reader at The Festival of Words in November 2022, so please sign up for the Festival of Words newsletter at festivalofwords.org to receive updates and announcements.
Denise M. Rogers, Associate Editor
MockingHeart Review: Thank you for doing this interview, Clemonce. I’d like to start by giving readers a bit of your background. I understand you are from New Orleans originally. How did you end up in Tulsa?
Clemonce Heard: That’s right. I stayed in New Orleans until we evacuated to Natchitoches, Louisiana for Katrina. I stayed in Natchitoches my last year of high school and through college, then moved to Baton Rouge. In 2015 I moved from Baton Rouge to Stillwater, Oklahoma for grad school, then in 2018 to Tulsa on an artist fellowship.
MHR: How much of Greenwood and Tulsa’s history did you know before going there?
CH: Very little. I caught up on the headlines a month before moving to Tulsa. Another artist fellow had a reading while I was still at OSU, and I volunteered to introduce her. Before her reading we walked around Stillwater and she filled me in on some of Tulsa’s history, mainly the Tulsa Race Massacre, and warned me about some of the dysfunction of the fellowship. When I arrived a month later she met me at the now defunct Jazz Hall of Fame where she introduced me to a good friend of hers who is one of the elders and a native of Tulsa. We became good friends and he lent me Scott Ellsworth’s seminal text Death in a Promised Land. So a more extensive understanding of Tulsa’s history began once I moved to the Tulsa Arts District.
MHR: “Commentary” is such an arresting opening to the collection. In that poem, we see that even an article of clothing a distressed T-shirt (which would be seen as stylish on a young white man) means something entirely different on a young African American man. The poem invites the idea that even a suit would make no difference, as it didn’t in Greenwood. How did you come to write this poem?
CH: Thank you for your appreciation of this poem and this question, Denise. I’d say the suits made all the difference. The fact that Blacks were doing better than whites who hadn’t swindled headrights from the Osage people or just hadn’t figured some other way to fortune is the exact jealousy that razed
Greenwood. There’s a part in Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy where a teenage Kiese and his mother get pulled over and his mother tells Kiese to make sure he speaks proper English to police. This is after she shows the officer her university ID and they drive off, and before Kiese tells his mother that her proper English was probably what made the officer angrier, to which she says “you might actually be right, Kie.”
On “Commentary,” the poem’s feeling came after reading of the police murders (not in this order) of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling—who was shot and killed not even a mile from where a partner lived in Baton Rouge—and Terence Crutcher—who was shot and killed in Tulsa an hour away from where I lived in Stillwater. I felt like it was only a matter of time before I or someone close to me would be in that number of at least 234 Black people murdered by police in 2016. The poem’s conceit and the initial draft came from working as part of the academic training staff at Oklahoma State and seeing one of the basketball players walk in wearing one of the T-shirts. I went home, studied fashion commentary videos and wrote the first draft soon after. I don’t think I’ve thought about the distinct elements of feeling and craft in “Commentary” since it was first written so I’m especially grateful for this question.
MHR: I kept feeling the prose poems present a kind of “glue” holding all the pieces of the book together. Is that how you intended them? Do they have a special relationship with the poems before and after them?
CH: I like the idea of “glue” for the “Refinery” poems. That sequence was my attempt at writing out how I was affected by the massacre during my time in the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. Since that was the main stake I had in Tulsa, it was me tracing how the massacre echoed to and through something as seemingly benevolent and harmless as many art institutions appear from the outside. There’s something about free that ain’t free, you know? As far as special relationships to poems before and after, maybe a similar theme or a shared image, but much of the book flows the same way. I think in ordering the book as a whole I wanted to create a feeling of arriving like in “Neighbors” and “Move-In Day @ the Refinery” and of departure like in “On Your Final Night in T-town” and “A Noble Parting Gift: Rose Rock.” I think Robin Coste Lewis so ingeniously does this by bookending her collection Voyage of the Sable Venus with “Plantation” and “Felicite,” as does Natasha Tretheway in Native Guard with “Theories of Time and Space” and “South.”
MHR: The book strikes me as a kind of “concept album” with its Preface and cover and interior photograph. I wondered if it started that way—were you working on a book as you wrote, or did these poems naturally fit together as a book about Tulsa and Greenwood and your view of the city(ies)?
CH: Concept albums are some of my favorites albums; from Marvin Gayes’ What’s Going On or Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool. I think for me one of the only downsides to concept albums is that I have to be in the mood to inhabit that world, no matter how good the album is—but that’s another conversation. I tried to write toward a concept album for my thesis, but eventually shelved it since the poems became less urgent once I moved to Tulsa and learned of the massacre. In trying to make poems about concepts, I find they usually want to be something else when they grew up. An idea can push off the dock but the feeling paddles it upstream. I guess I was working on a “concept album” but in a very loose way, which is
to say it took a certain amount of looking away or writing around to create work that both orbited the history and my time and felt right to me. So in creating Tragic City I wrote probably ten times the poems that went into the book and just kept the ones I continued to delight in. It was messy both in drafting and ordering. I stayed up the night before my manuscript was due at my partner’s house. Her living room floor was so full we had to walk on our tiptoes to make it across the room. I listened to Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid the entire time—another of my favorite concept albums.
MHR: To risk a chicken and the egg question, do you remember which poems that make up the book came first? If so, which one(s)? And how did they launch the book?
CH: “Recommendation,” “Commentary,” “Neighbors,” “Incendiary,” “The Lightbulb Room,” I think in that order. Those poems were written in grad school and would’ve gone into my first manuscript had I not learned of the massacre and lived on the edge of what was Greenwood. The Tulsa poems came much later since I hadn’t found myself in the poems. Most of my initial poems about Tulsa didn’t make it because they felt voyeuristic, opportunistic. I mean, they were. I was mining research for what made me gasp or tilt my head to the side. I couldn’t ethically write about Tulsa and the massacre until I dealt with my own character and lack of artistic integrity. I worked out a lot but I still have a ways to go. Tragic City brought me through and taught me so much in the process. I see the book’s flaws more clearly now, and want to revise a few things—take some poems out, reorder—but overall I’m proud of the work.
MHR: How did you arrive at the organization of the book?
CH: I can talk sections in particular. In addition to my reflections on arrival and departure, my editor and I disagreed on breaks. I wanted the lack of rests to reflect the 100 years of survivors and their descendants not receiving justice in the form of reparations, transparency, you know, true reconciliation. My editor said readers needed a break so we tried other images the artist of “A Broken View of Tulsa, Oklahoma” Carley Schmidt made, but they didn’t work as well so we went back to my original idea. I first thought if readers needed a break they could just put the book down, but now feel that decision has hints of violence. What do you think? How did it feel for you to read through 60 poems without a section break?
MHR: The book makes clear that in many ways, you and the cit(ies) (Tulsa and New Orleans) are now inseparable. I felt this especially in “Reflections on Reflections of El Lissitzky” and “Genius Annotations Provided: ‘You Dropped a Bomb on Me’” Do you feel as connected to Tulsa/Greenwood as you do to New Orleans? Do you see yourself moving back to New Orleans? I ask this as a transplant to Lafayette, LA from St. Louis, MO—I don’t know that I will ever be a Louisiana poet even after having lived almost 25 years here. I still feel like a Missouri poet, an outsider, even when writing about Louisiana. Do you feel that way about the places you have lived?
CH: I think 25 years means you belong to the boot. Inseparable. Hmm. I think so but for different reasons.
For Greenwood, the inseparable is true because I’ve dedicated a book to what was, to what’s left, and hopefully to what will thrive again someday. I am, however, a recovering cynic, plus some of the folks in power have failed to do right by the last three known Greenwood survivors—Viola Ford Fletcher, Hughes Van Ellis and Lessie Benningfield Randall—their children and other descendants. I spent only four years in Oklahoma, a little more than a year and a half in Tulsa and never felt like I belonged, or like it was ever home even when that’s what I told my loved ones and others that’s where I was going.
I also feel very distant from New Orleans since Katrina hit my senior year of high school and I only lived there maybe 6 months after I graduated from college. So as far as time spent you’re more of a Louisianian than me, Denise. I know parts of the city but nowhere near what my family knows or even folks who moved down post-Katrina. I stay getting lost when I drive my nephew somewhere. Ha!
MHR: In your note to me, you said you hope the book is transformative. I do, too, because God knows we need some transformation in this country. But at the same time, the book makes clear there are no safe spaces, such as in “Neighbors.” (Note: I reproduce that poem below along with links to “Malt O’Meal” and “Genius Annotations…” for readers.) If Greenwood, a town built by Blacks for Blacks wasn’t safe, where could someone who is African American be safe in this country? Is the reason you remain in Tulsa and the U.S. (I mean, James Baldwin left for France) because you have some hope for this country?
CH: Yes. Transformative. It’s my hope that the book will either land in the hands of someone who cares enough and has enough clout, privilege, whatever to make some change in Greenwood, or someone whose work is transformed and adds to the conversation. But like I said, I’m a recovering cynic so I go back and forth between believing it and feeling silly. I heard a recent VS Podcast where Danez Smith and Franny Choi spoke to Rachel McKibbens. In that podcast McKibbens said something like there are no safe spaces, only brave ones. Even after the two “Safe Zone Trainings” I did at OSU, I think McKibbens is right. There’s no such thing as full protection anywhere. The January 6th Insurrection proved that, right?
MHR: Gosh, yes, what McKibbens says is certainly true.
CH: Terrance Hayes ends one of his “American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassins” with the line “It’s not the bad people who are brave I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid.” It’s one of my favorite endings in the book, a subversive call to courage.
MHR: That’s a good thing for all of us to remember in these times, Clem.
CH: I don’t think there’s anywhere in this nation for a Black person to be safe. Like James Baldwin and Richard Wright, Hal Singer from Tulsa was also an expatriate who made his home in France. Though he found a less strife-filled life than the Civil Rights Movement he moved in the middle of, I’m sure there were times France didn’t feel like a safe space, you know? He was married to his manager, a white woman after all, and though Baldwin spoke highly of France thanks to some of the country’s acceptance of Black folks and “free love” he also spoke about its racism. I often wonder how Hal Singer failed to meet Baldwin or Wright, Miles Davis especially when he performed throughout Europe, but again, another conversation.
MHR: The book does a great job of being a “tragic city” in and of itself. It’s also a “magic city” in the way it expresses tragedy so beautifully and tells the stories of so many people who should be remembered. Are you considering other ways of telling these stories, such as short stories and novels? The poems are story-like, so maybe I am making an assumption that you would make a good short story writer, too.
CH: Thank you so much for your words, Denise. I’ll take the fiction assumption and see if it becomes a reality. After I finished Tragic City I told myself “that’s it.” My own failed relationships, the oppressive and suppressive Tulsa Artist Fellowship, and my work/life imbalance made my last three years highly unhealthy. I’m just now after over 30 years getting a hold of what mental health looks like in my life, but of course that takes constant maintenance. That’s all to say, I would rather not return to those stories that feel tragic, and if I do return to them, then with a healthier practice of writing and living. Since publishing Tragic City, I’ve written a few poems about events I’ve taken part in throughout Oklahoma and an essay that may or may not ever see the world, but aside from that I feel I’ve done what I could for now. I won’t say never but will say: continuing to write about a place I’m no longer deeply invested in feels like preying on a subject for the sake of material, and that’s not the move.
MHR: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Genius Annotations Provided: ‘You Dropped a Bomb on Me.’” Just the title threw me back to my high school years when we had a jukebox in the cafeteria and that song was played frequently on it. I was impressed and excited about the way you combined the topics of the Greenwood Massacre, racism, Tulsa architecture, romantic love, and loneliness into one poem. How did you pick or land on “You Dropped a Bomb on Me” as the song to use? (It’s so retro.) How did you find out the connection of the GAP Band to Tulsa? I just have so many how’s about this poem!
CH: Thanks for digging in again, Denise. I probably would’ve attended more school if my cafeterias had jukeboxes instead of juice boxes. The elder and Tulsa native I mentioned earlier told me a memory he had of Charlie Wilson* at the neighborhood pool when they were in high school. It’s not my story to tell. I’ll just say Charlie Wilson has been free for a long time. On one of our drives after I’d finished reading Death in a Promised Land, the song played on the radio. Right then I thought the song that’s older than me was both about a woman who turned Charlie or whoever out, and also about the massacre. In the last year or so Charlie Wilson told an interviewer that the song had nothing to do with the massacre. He said him and his brothers had heard stories of the tragedy growing up, but that the connection was not intentional. So there goes another myth I wished would’ve stayed a myth. I do, however, think Charlie Wilson, like anyone, doesn’t have as much control as he thinks. I vote we credit Charlie Wilson’s subconscious.
[A note from the book about this poem: Charlie Wilson was lead vocalist of the GAP Band. The GAP Band was originally from Tulsa and fashioned their name after the three main streets of Tulsa’s Greenwood District: Greenwood, Archer, and Pine.]
MHR: Again, about “Genius Annotations Provided…”—I love the way it looks at language. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “break-up poem” (about breaking up with someone) with a “break-up/down poem” (about the destruction of Greenwood.) Were these ever two poems that came together in your own moment of genius or inspiration, or were they always one poem?
CH: It was always one poem. I was trying to transfer the braided narrative form I’d learned in creative nonfiction. I’d written 11 stanzas before realizing the poem had potential to be a Pecha Kucha (20 stanzas that take 20 seconds each to read). I felt 20 5-line stanzas in connection with the centennial was apropos. I wrote so many stanzas trying to figure out the 20, learned so much in the process, and processed so much in this interview. Thanks for taking the time on Tragic City and these questions Denise.
MHR: Thank you so much for this interview, Clem.
Readers will want to know that the book is published by Anhinga Press and is available at anhingapress.org and Barnes & Noble Booksellers (bn.com).
Link to “Malt O’Meal, Since 1919” at AGNI: https://agnionline.bu.edu/poetry/malt-o-meal-since-1919
Link to “Genius Annotations Provided: ‘You Dropped a Bomb on Me’” at Missouri Review: https://www.missourireview.com/clemonce-heard-g-a-p-you-dropped-a-bomb-on-me/
How long did it take to paint the flag
on the ga/rage’s back wall is not what I asked
myself or my sweetheart, backing out of
the driveway, heading back to where we’d
just turned, looking for a place to stay.
We were greeted by a law/n of trucks & cars,
Hot Wheels that had grown & grayed,
& the Confederate mural for us to marvel.
It couldn’t have been that diffi/cult seeing
as the design is rather simple: A diademed ‘X’
of thirteen stars, an intersection of dreams
& the red that surrounds it: the red text,
the red trucks, the red necks, the red rust
pointing to the odd of it all. A single man
could’ve pulled it off. Could’ve brushed,
or rather slathered pain/t from canister
to wall, but two stories means family.
So I picture a wife drafting the southern cross
& kids filling in the s/tars. O’ say, can you see
an open garage aerating the latex exhaust?
Neighbors walking their children, pointing
past the ropes, shovels, ladders, saws?
Racism takes teamwork, takes the anointment
of offsprings. I can almost see their gaw/king
once the wall was finished. The man kissing
his wife’s temple, both with one arm around
each other & the other around t/heir kids.
That day my sweetheart & I agreed the mounds
of the Midwest were no place we’d want to
live. I guess the image could’ve existed in
the house before they got to town. A
backdrop whistling “welcome niggers”
they’d failed to taken d/own.
Clemonce Heard was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the winner of the 2020 Anhinga Robert Dana Prize, selected by Major Jackson. His poetry collection, Tragic City, which investigates the events of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, is forthcoming from Anhinga Press in October 2021. Heard’s work has appeared or is forthcoming from Obsidian, The Missouri Review, Cimarron Review, Iron Horse, World Literature Today, Poetry, Rattle, Ruminate, and elsewhere. He earned a BFA in graphic communications from Northwestern State University, and an MFA in creative writing from Oklahoma State University. Heard was a recipient of a 2018-2019 Tulsa Artist Fellowship, the 2019-2020 Ronald Wallace Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and served as the 2021 Sala Diaz artist-in-residence in San Antonio, Texas.