In his new collection of poetry “The Gleaming of the Blade,” Christian J. Collier examines his world through a cinematic lens. In one poem, he takes on the perspective of one of Jason’s victims in “Friday the 13th VIII.” In another, he writes from the voice of The Candyman. They’re engaging, subversive poems. But he’s also revealing a deeper truth, the way that American society can turn Black men into villains. Into monsters.
Throughout this collection, the Chattanooga-based poet examines the fine line between intimacy and violence, between love and hate, divisions wrought by skin color.
This week on the Reckon Interview, we hear a few poems from Christian, we talk about his life in Chattanooga and the artistic community he’s helping to build there, and we discuss the deeper truths that he’s unveiling in his work.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
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Reckon: You have a new collection of poetry out called “The Gleaming of the Blade,” and many of these poems in your book deal with being a Black man in the South. You write about being a target of violence, the idea of being fetishized and loved while also being loathed and kind of imagined as a monster. And throughout the book, there’s this sense of living alongside ghosts and demons of the past, which is something I think we see mined a lot in Southern literature. Tell me about putting these poems together and what it was like for you as an artist, but also just as a man to turn traumatic experiences of the South into art.
Christian J. Collier: The book went through so many different incarnations. I think I started really writing towards it around 2015. Obviously, if you rewind the clock, you have Michael Brown and the advent of activism in Ferguson and you have social media being utilized to document what’s happening in communities where these violent acts are taking place. I think as the evolution of that is taking place, more of what I wanted to say and more of my own experience started to factor into the work. So I think that my own relationship to the country, the region, myself really started to change as well.
And when I took the manuscript apart the last time before I submitted it to the Bull City competition, I set certain rules for myself in terms of revising and reordering. I think maybe the most prominent one was not to come to play and to be as honest and intentional as possible. And I think that if you are going to address something like race, and whatever angle or you’re taking, I think there’s a certain obligation and challenge to kind of get it right.
And when I’m composing, I am thinking of myself as kind of like a film director, like I’m behind a camera and I’m crafting the shot for whoever’s on the other end of the poem. I was really interested in creating an experience where I am putting the reader in the driver’s seat and they’re feeling all of the things that the speaker is feeling. They’re witnessing all the things that the speaker’s witnessing. I really wanted that to be the most effective tool in really just engaging whoever’s on the other end of the poem.
And it wasn’t really until recently, like literally, maybe last week, I was talking to someone and it just hit me that, you know, I am so tremendously proud of the book. I’m so tremendously proud of the work that’s in it. And even that took me a while to realize. I think I’ve been so close to it for so long, but just the realization that… I don’t want to say that all the poems are autobiographical. The vast majority of them come from events that actually happened to me and the stuff I’ve lived through. It hit me for the first time that this book wouldn’t exist without racism and being fetishized and things of that nature. You know? So that’s kind of a strange thing, but I think that’s kind of the nature of the blues though, right? Like, you take the harshness and you make something beautiful out of it that can be evocative for somebody else. You know? So it’s a wild thing to be like “without these things happening, and without these things happening to me in this region, this book doesn’t exist. ”
Reckon: You feel the weight of not just your autobiographical experiences like you were talking about, but generations of experiences of Black people in the South. We talk about one poem that we’ll read later on, the way that your parents were targeted after the election. Somebody threw their newspaper on the roof as a way of punishing them.
But it’s interesting to hear you describe your approach to it as being like a film director because at least a couple of the poems in here are really rooted in film. And specifically in horror movie tropes and iconography. In one poem, you write about an elegy for Julius Gaw, who was a Black man that’s killed by Jason at the beginning of Friday the 13th Part Eight, which you made it all the way through all eight of the Friday the 13ths to get there. But then another one you write from the persona of Candyman, the iconic horror movie villain. Would you mind reading that one for us before we talk?
Think of the commitment it takes
to call anyone named five consecutive times.
Think of the desire at the heart of making it a mantra.
What they call me is a sacred word, built on blues & blood
like any Black man born & buried in the South.
They say Candyman enough times, and I am obliged to appear,
because they made a God out of me.
How could I not come when summoned? When prayed to?
How could I not grant them their wish
to see my face? Mine, the last they’ll see. Mine, their guide away from this life.
Many call me
Who made me into one?
What name should we ascribe to those whose brutality transformed me?
If I am what they say I am, it is because I did not know my place back then,
because I made love to a white woman, molded a daughter in the kiln of her womb.
Before I became a monster on their tongues, I was the monster drinking in their sun.
Now my place is in the dark.
The shadows & I keep company
until the anxious chant of a curious mouth caused me out. Now,
I live in the whispers of my congregation
in the quiet notes of their barely-breathed hymns.
Reckon: And for listeners who may or may not have seen the movie, Candyman is like a Bloody Mary type figure. If you say his name five times, he appears and brutally murders you. But you chose to write this poem from his perspective. And so I’m curious what drew you to his story and what you were trying to say about the South and society with this poem?
Collier: So a couple of years ago, as a joke, and it actually started with the Julius Gaw poem, Friday the 13th VIII was on. And just as a joke, I said, you know, I’m going to start writing poems about the Black characters in horror movies. A couple of days later, I started writing about Julius Gaw. And I realize it’s like, man, this gives me a really interesting lens to use and a way to get at other things in terms of race in the country.
And after I finished that one, I was like, oh, I kind of like this one. I wonder what else I got.” You know, I started looking at other characters and I’ve written one about Blacula. And then the Candyman one emerged. I thought it was such an interesting voice to kind of step into. I’m pulling a little bit from the first two movies, because the first one– and I’m totally nerding out on everybody here– but in the first one, you know, it’s rooted in Chicago. Really you have to get to the second one when it brings the story back to New Orleans.
I think that it’s a really interesting way to kind of step into looking at the country and how so many of the things function in it. Daniel Robitaille’s cardinal sin was having a relationship with a woman that society told him that he couldn’t. And as a result of that, he’s brutally murdered and then becomes the Candyman. Right? I don’t think that that is too terribly different from a lot of what’s happening now. I think we’re in the age of critical race theory and the gross distortion of what that is. And that’s leading to a lot of good well-intentioned and knowledgeable people being driven out of positions in schools and books are being banned and everything like that.
I don’t feel like that’s astronomically different from what led to Daniel Robitaille becoming a monster. And the same people who enacted that fate upon him looked at him as the monster. Right. So I think that that’s a really interesting way to kind of go about it. It gave me some space to kind of walk around in.
One of the things that I enjoy most about horror, because I feel like when, when horror is done well, it ultimately looks at society in some way. And I think that it kind of disarms us because on face value you’re like, oh, you know, there there’s some sort of monster, there’s something that is supernatural. But really, if you peel back the layers. You’re like, oh, this is like not supernatural, but this is super natural, right? Like this is speaking directly to the human experience. And I think that that’s really excellent. I think that it’s so smart when it’s done in a really effective fashion.
Reckon: You have other poems in here where you talk about—and you have said that some of these are autobiographical—I assume your experiences, you know, being made a monster by the father of a white woman that you were having a relationship with. Threatening to blow your head off if he catches you laying your hand upon her again. And then there’s another one called “Indoctrination” that’s about a relationship with a woman who is from out of town. And I thought maybe you could read us that one.
Do you remember?
We defied every angry eye fixed upon us
inside that diner, the scent of sizzling pork in the air. Those stares said
the regions ghosts were still alive—
my flesh belong too much to the sun to be with you.
We sinned & stood guilty,
betraying our complexions
before the quiet ire of the jury. Our presence
was treason. You were from the North & didn’t know the language down here, the field of thorns
you had waded into, how being a white girl with the wrong-skinned man
was the equivalent of dancing in front of the dark O of a cannon’s mouth,
listening to a flame chew away at the coil of a fuse.
Reckon: You know, I think there’s a comforting fiction that we like to tell ourselves that we’ve moved past this sense of segregation, but it does seem like relationships between Black people and white people still draws out this violent reaction from some people. You have other poems in here about a white woman asking the narrator to leave before her father gets home for a birthday party.
What is that like for you navigating these relationships where, because of the color of your skin– there’s another one that I think you’re swiping through on Tinder and as soon as the woman realizes that you’re Black, the conversation stops. Tell us about that experience.
Collier: I think so much of what the book is doing is examining the ways that the Black body is both seen and unseen. In a number of cases, the lengths that other people will go to not to see it. And I think that that’s pretty accurate in terms of being a brown person, specifically, in the South. We inhabit a lot of spaces where the color of our skin enters the room before we do. That elicits a number of reactions from a number of people. For some reason. It’s always an interesting thing to kind of navigate, because depending on where you are, you’re never really sure of what’s going to happen, but you’re always aware that anything could at any moment. And that’s been the case for a long, long time, you know. I think that that’s something that is really fascinating to me because if you boil it down, it’s literally we’re just people inhabiting a space.
I had a conversation with the poet, Philip Metres a couple of years ago. And he’d said something that has kind of become a chorus in my life. And that’s really there’s no place that’s designed for any one, right? Like there is no nirvana that just, we go there, oh, everything is perfectly made for us, right? That place doesn’t exist. So really, if we acknowledge that our existence is predicated upon sharing a number of spaces with people who don’t necessarily look or believe or whatever like we do. And I think that it’s a strange dichotomy to just kind of prioritize one’s own fears, and I think a lot of times the irrationality of those fears, in order to exclude others from having access to the same things and the same spaces and goods and such.
And I don’t know, I think that that’s also… The South is kind of like the micro, but that’s an inherently American issue too.
It’s such a strange thing to navigate. Like I think this was my senior year of high school, I was on a field trip. I was in some club. My friend who was Black and I were having this conversation and we’re the last ones off the school bus. And I think we were the only two Black people on that trip. We’re getting off the bus and this teacher leans in and she’s like, “don’t you boys get into any trouble in there.” Cause we had stopped off at the mall to get something to eat before coming back to Chattanooga. I immediately like snapped on her. And if you’ve ever like simultaneously seen somebody like in fear, but trying to maintain their composure, that was this woman. Another teacher comes over to me, a Black teacher and she’s like, what’s wrong? And I tell her, oh, this person is racist. She just did this. That teacher said, I can’t believe her. She’s been doing this for years. And then that teacher turned to me and begged me not to say anything to anybody.
And I was like, I’m going to tell everyone. And granted, this was over 20 years ago. So this is a much different age. This is before cell phones are a thing really. And you can’t immediately document what’s happening to you. The school worked really hard to defend that teacher who did this racist thing to me, a child at that point.
So that wasn’t all that long ago. That was in the 21st century. So it’s strange that I’d never had any interaction with that teacher before. She didn’t know me from Adam. You know, like I spoke at our graduation, you know, like I made good grades. I was a DARE role model. But for some reason, this woman felt compelled to go out of her way to try to put us in a place that she felt we needed to be in.
And then she had institutional support to protect her from any blowback and consequence. And I think that that’s also something that continues to happen today. So that’s what it’s like. It’s always knowing that even when you’re minding your own business, even when you’re just trying to make it from one day to the next, somebody’s emotions or whatever drives those emotions can end up being not just a thing, but a real serious thing.
Reckon: There’s another poem where you talk about a relationship that you have with a woman and this fear and anxiety that you have, that if y’all got into a fight, she might or would respond by calling you a racial slur. And so it seems like there’s a psychological barrier to intimacy, to relationships with anybody because of things like that. Like you were talking about this longstanding societal and institutional racism that makes it’s way into every part of society.
Collier: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that emotion is such a powerful thing. And I believe it was the poet Saul Williams who said that beliefs are the police of the mind. And I think that it’s really hard for people — you know, especially if you’ve come from a family where you might casually throw around the N word or, you know, you place those nuggets in people’s lives. Even if you have somebody who’s well-intentioned and well-meaning, and they’re like, “I’m not like my parents.” Yeah. I mean that may very well be true, but in my experience, a lot of people can definitely flip a switch and become their parents when necessary or if they ever need to hurt somebody or get their way or whatever. I think that that’s something that maybe they’re not always aware of, but push comes to shove, they are aware of it because I think they utilize it a good bit of the time. And I think that it’s just another thing that makes relationships –and relationships even [among] people of the same race– relationships are so tricky to navigate anyway, because here’s this entire body that has their own insecurities and their own flaws and all of that comes to the table.
But I think that when you have people who are choosing not to acknowledge race and racism in their own hang-ups and things like that and really interrogate that, it can definitely become fodder that gets utilized in the heat of the moment in an argument.
Reckon: You know, we’ve talked about physical love and intimacy and you also brought up this idea that there’s no place that is for everyone. And so you have a poem in here that’s about love of place and what it feels like when a place does not show love to you called Chattanooga Blues. And that’s the one that I hope you’ll read for us next.
“Home is not where you live but where they understand you.” – Christian Morgenstern
I’ve seen too much of this place & its people to feel truly comfortable here.
I have known the face of the darkness that lives within the city limits, stared into its eyes
& perhaps that is why I have such a difficult time calling this home—
my tongue is barely even able to hold that word steady, small in
the arena of my mouth
the large rebel flag that stands, to this day,
like a sentinel outside the tiny brown house
across the street from the elementary school
where I play basketball— or the cotton
a white stranger quietly dropped in my father’s lawn
one night while my family slept
to remind us
of our place,
not to dream too brightly— or the manager of the small cafe downtown
telling my Caucasian friends,
if they did not do something quick & decisive
Black people would claim & corrupt
the very soul of the country—
all of this, all of these deep blemishes still remind me of the gospel of
my mother. She once told me never to fall in love
with something or someone incapable of loving me back.
I cannot recall how many years my body has remained
outside the full caress of this place.
It grew weary, ages ago,
for the day when this city, this almost home, could show me
its wide heart had finally tired of laboring
to mute the percussive music of mine.
Reckon: Did you grow up in Chattanooga? I know that’s where you call home now.
Collier: I did.
Reckon: So what was that like? You talked about that teacher on the field trip. The stories and the images that you conjure in this poem say, specifically, you never truly felt comfortable there. So I’m curious what keeps you grounded in Chattanooga? What keeps you rooted there? And what your relationship with the city has been like and is like today?
Collier: Sure. Yeah. You know, Chattanooga is an interesting place. There have been a couple of Black men hanged from the Walnut Street Bridge here. There have been race riots. The boxer Jack Johnson came through here and there was a riot because of that. But also, more recently, like in the Eighties, some racist guys went around trying to shoot Black women and largely were acquitted of that. So our racist past isn’t necessarily that deep in the past.
Chattanooga is a place that I believe in. I grew up here, I moved away to go to college. And then I moved back in 2006. Since about 2009, I’ve been working to do what I can to help the creative arts scene. And I’ve done a lot of programming in terms of arts and culture.
And I think that part of that is to try to appease teenage me. If I were 15 years old again, what would I like to see in the city? So, a lot of what I’ve done has been trying to just bring different things to try to shift the culture in that regard. But Chattanooga is a place that, as much as it has kind of taken some steps in terms of becoming more progressive and more inclusive, there are a number of things that are just really astronomically frustrating.
I think I still kind of feel like an alien here and part of me kind of likes that. You know, I don’t want to be too comfortable, but the other part is kind of like, there are a number of things that I question and I don’t really have any answers for. And I don’t think that many other people necessarily do either. And that is something that is kind of a head-scratcher to me.
I think that the city has had an interesting relationship with who it really wants to be. So we’ve been having this conversation about inclusion and diversity for at least 10 years. There’ve been some really great strides in terms of having programming and events that are more reflective of the different demographics that we have here.
But annually, we have a festival called River Bend. A couple of weeks ago, they announced the lineup for this year’s River Bend, and it’s astronomically white. The few Black acts that they have… I think there might be three, maybe four. We’ll say four to be generous. But out of those four you have, The War and Treaty, which is a group that I like, husband and wife duo, but they do kind of like Americana folk music. And, you have a guy who plays blues music largely for white audiences. So I think that is very problematic. You have so few acts and the few acts that you have are really there, I think, to kind of satisfy a white demographic, you know? And I think that that’s something that’s very problematic. If you’re only interested in having diversity that appeases a white gaze then what’s the point of you really doing diversity? And I think that it sends a really strange message because I feel like what you’re saying is that we don’t feel safe having things that we don’t understand and have no interest in understanding. We just don’t like them.
Reckon: Especially since I’m guessing all of their kids are listening to hip hop and rap. And even a lot of the adults probably are too. Even if those aren’t the acts that they’re wanting to invite. Maybe not, maybe not. I don’t know Chattanooga that well.
Collier: That’s how I feel about so many of these things. That’s how I feel about all of the hoopla over critical race theory and things like that. Like, yeah, I mean, you can yank “The Hate U Give” from the library. But it’s been out since like 2015 and had a very popular major motion picture. I think that if you gave kids the option now, with so many things like Instagram being a visual medium, I think that kids are just going to like flip on FX and watch the movie when they run it.
But also what is the soundtrack that those kids have playing in the car on the way to the school? So even if pulling these texts from the library, I think that that thing that you’re really afraid of, they still have access to. And they already have for a very long time. I can’t name a style of music that is pretty popular with kids now that doesn’t have 808 drums and isn’t influenced by trap music in some capacity. So what’s the conversation that we’re really interested in having?
I think that that’s the thing that mostly gets me. I wish that we could just be honest about our intentions and things like that. Because it seems so strange to me. You have all of these things that one way shape or form come back and largely impact Black and Brown people. But the people who are really pushing those things, don’t want to say, I have problems with Black and Brown people. So if you would know that you can’t say I have issues with Black and Brown people, because I don’t want to get the blow back from saying that, you know, inherently what you’re doing at some level is to demean and to target and harm Black and Brown people.
I have much more respect for somebody who’s like, “no, I’m with all the smoke. I don’t care. This is how I feel.” You know? And I think that so often you have people who… like I’m not expecting Marsha Blackburn or our governor to really push anything that is going to make my life better in any capacity. But on the flip side, I think that a lot of people who identify as liberal and well-intentioned just end up having a closer seat to watch brutal things happen to me. So which one of those is really better? I just feel like we’re not really being honest about the conversations and the feelings that kind of drive these things.
I feel like that’s always kind of been one of the problems when it comes to race and things that are affected by race. And race, like money, is one of those things that has its hands in so many different things.
Reckon: With that relationship that you have with Chattanooga, and maybe this ties back into what you said at the beginning of the conversation, you know, without everything that’s happened, you wouldn’t have produced this book. And I don’t know, you know, where the scales tip in terms of what justifies or rationalizes what, but you have been able to produce great art as a result of living in Chattanooga.
But what keeps you there as opposed to, you know, driving an hour and a half down south to Atlanta or moving to New York. What keeps you there? I mean, you talked about what you would have needed at 15, but what do you need now that keeps you there?
Collier: Sure. Well, I moved back to Chattanooga in ’06 because of family. At the time, my niece had just been born the previous year and my parents are here and I didn’t want to do the whole like distant uncle thing. And so I moved back with a two-year plan and I’ve been here ever since. And you know, now I’m married. I’m getting a house built. And my wife’s family is here. My family is still here. I feel like I’ve been able to hopefully do a lot of good in terms of just helping artists and people of color.
I started an arts initiative a couple of years ago called The Plug Poetry Project. That’s allowed me to do a six part docu-series to kind of feature local writers while they’re here. And I have a reading series that has obviously been on hold because the world changed right with the pandemic, but started a reading series and I brought Julian Randall, Jericho Brown, José Olivarez, to workshop with the community for free. And then do a featured reading and a local poet would open. You know, I believe that if you want to change culture. And I think that, you know, Chattanooga, isn’t a place where poetry is just really easy to find and accessible. So I wanted to make it a little bit easier for people to find and to benefit from.
So obviously we’re moving finance, you know, you don’t have to go to Atlanta to go see an Ocean Vuong do a reading. Let me try to bring some of those guys here, in your own backyard, and you can learn something on a craft level from them for free. And then later on, somebody from your own community can open for that person.
And so I’m giving them the chance to also kind of grab face time and “here are some things that helped me. Here are some things that maybe you should look at.” You know, so I guess what the saying is, is be the change that you want to see. And, I think that that’s allowed me to feel fulfilled in a significant way in terms of just being a good, productive literary citizen. You know, I’m able to write here and if I were to reach out to any venue, they would let me do whatever I wanted pretty much. And so I feel like creatively a number of the things that I want to do, I can. And without having to jump through too many hoops, I mean, I still have to jump through hoops for some things, but I think that I’m in a really good position and I’m really blessed in a number of ways. And I think that the work that I make, a good bit of it is informed by this place, but I think that the audience tends to be well beyond this place. And I think that that’s another blessing too.
Reckon: Well and I know Chattanooga is a richer place because you are there doing that work. As our last question, you know, we’ve talked about Candyman, Jason and Blacula. Give us your top five horror movies.
Collier: Well, the beauty of this question is that I’m just going to give like five that I like. You can’t really go wrong with just saying your favorites. So off the top of my head, I’ll give you “The Conjuring.” The first one. I thought that that was really good. I will give you “Hellraiser.” I’ll give you Event Horizon. The shift in that movie was just incredible. Also, you know, space horror is a really interesting and hard genre. I give you The Exorcist. And I will give you a recent favorite of mine, relatively recent, a Korean film called Thirst. One of the best vampire films I’ve ever seen.
You can purchase “The Gleaming of the Blade” from Bull City Press here.