And if he was not happy? I will cross, and maybe even burn, that bridge one day. I would not grant that power to anyone again. The book I would have let him censor includes him but is not about him. I began to write the poems collected in the book after I accepted that first tenure-track job in a southern town in which my maternal grandparents had once lived. Grandmother, a cheerful preacher’s wife and never one to dwell on the unpleasantness she prays for the relief of, launched into an hour of stories when she heard I was moving to Lynchburg. None of which were pleasant. None of which I had heard before. All of which were undeniably true. After I had already accepted the job (and therefore, some might say, when it was a little too late), she felt the need to protect me by revealing truths she’d never expressed before. What drove me, as I wrote the poems that make up the collection, was a desire to further explore those stories that had been silenced so long. The book is about restoring these omissions to the record.
The book is about an African American man who, facing segregation at home, had to travel to England to attain the graduate education to which he aspired; a woman who, in the 1920s and 30s, gave greater priority to her professional career than to starting a family of her own; a character purged from the canonical Bible; the rebellious heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson; Billie Holiday; Ella Fitzgerald; a painter preoccupied by the life of the iconoclast John Brown. All these characters created their own ways to progress through a world bent on suppressing them. All these characters figured out, despite these restraints, how to live. Often loudly, often in defiance of rules of comportment. As its title suggests, the book is about What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, and in publishing it I was able to reveal truths about my own family but also to communicate and connect with many others. Thank goodness, then, that I so often fail to heed the advice of my upbringing. Despite the worries, thank goodness I continue to write, that I continue to try my hand at going about airing the life of my mind to the world.