A Houston Crease in my Brain: A Conversation with Joshua Burton and Anthony Sutton

Anthony Sutton

I have known Joshua Burton since 2014 when we attended the Boldface Workshop at the University of Houston. Joshua was an undergraduate student and I was a recent graduate, about to move to attend the MFA program at Purdue University. Over the course of nine years, Joshua kept being someone I ran into by chance: we moved back to Houston from the towns where we did our MFAs in summer 2019, taught for the same community organization, ended up in the same writing group, and in spring 2023 we each published our debut poetry collections: Grace Engine by Joshua and Particles of a Stranger Light by myself. In Donald Hall’s “Poetry and Ambition,” he writes “[t]he history of poetry is a history of friendships and rivalries,” and I must state how important it is when poetry leads us to friendship, especially when it does so slowly. The following interview is built from a conversation we recorded as our books were about to come out.


Anthony Sutton: Something we both have in common in our practices is that we both worked on multiple manuscripts at the sae time. Can you speak to how Fracture Anthology and Grace Engine came about?

Joshua Burton: I started Grace Engine before Fracture Anthology. It started with some poem I did in undergrad that had “grace” in the title, so you can tell I was starting to reach toward some idea. Then I started Fracture Anthology and that was my obsession for 5-6 years, from my time at the University of Houston to the beginning of my time at Syracuse. The ideas of Grace Engine just started again. I do think there are interconnected things about family in both, and I needed to start a book about my mother and where I came from so I could understand myself. Fracture Anthology is about my mother and Grace Engine is about myself, but also other family members. I could look a lot deeper into myself once I got Fracture Anthology out of the way.

I see your book Particles of a Stranger Light being weighted by ideas of beginnings, endings, and rebirth, but the speakers cling to the far ends and far beginnings to the point it’s uncertain if rebirth is even desired. In the beautiful, final poem of the book, “Zombie Apocrypha,” you write “all ghosts do is relive / every time is the first time.” What is it about starts and finishes that drew you to these speakers?

AS: Thank you. Part of the origin of the book, because it has a lot of autobiographical material in it, revolves around an incident where at a party my drink may have been spiked. In the book you can find much of the mainstream understanding of trauma: the divide between the before and after, in my case with hallucinatory flashes in the middle, which is its own kind of cutting through. I wrote the most foundational parts in my mid-twenties and the crisis of that time for me had to do with things being forgotten, lost in the mist. So I relied on the archival aspects of writing: this is something that happened. I think that’s part of the desperation of the book. There’s a poem in the middle about a mutual friend of ours, Alice Alsup, where the poem opens with how she passed away. Turning back to the final poem, I think that speaks to the book’s desire to, not so much have the beginnings and the ends, but maybe be a kind of totem to things the speaker wants to reclaim.

JB: That’s really interesting. A trauma response makes time difficult to understand which makes sense for the book. The speakers may not understand the entire process, but want the ends and the beginnings. It hints at a birth and rebirth that doesn’t happen until the final poem, which is a moment that feels like a rebirth.

When I was looking over my older poems, I totally forgot I had Alice in a poem. When I was reading your book, I remembered my first poem mentioned her–the red-haired woman–so it’s interesting that there's an echoing happening. A lot of us didn’t know Alice for very long but she made a big impact.

AS: I know!

JB: I still remember the Boldface workshop with her where she stood up and recited her poem. She just stood up and performed her poem and it was so jarring for those of us that weren’t coming from the slam scene, it was amazing. She was a very special person.

AS: Something I remember working through, even when Particles of a Stranger Light was my MFA thesis, was the thought of it as a very sideways memoir. The first poem and last poem echo each other and that return is very important to the book. The first line of the book is “I wanted to finish the conversation” which reappears on the final page. And then there’s all kinds of wacky, surreal stuff in the middle. I wanted to almost have a narrative arc, but also be too weird to contain. In some ways, I wanted the book to fail at being a memoir.

Your full-length, Grace Engine, also hits at points where poetry meets nonfiction. In “Giving Jim Grace” the speaker says, “I reach through stories in black dead men for catharsis.” This resonates with other poems like “Elegy with Threats for Grace” and “Ten Stories” where tumbling through history and invoking the dead is where the poems gain their charge. I am struck in your work that your poems carry immense sadness while holding a belief in the immaculate beauty lyric provides. It feels to me that grace is the secret ingredient to making these violent histories cathartic. Is that why you seized onto grace as the thread to hold this collection together?

JB: I think so. I also think my understanding of “grace” changed throughout the collection. Like the line “I look for catharsis in dead black men,” it's almost like a self-critique. It’s pointing at the mistakes I made with some of those earlier poems in the book, like with “Elegy for Threats with Grace” and “Grace & Separation,” which is looking for catharsis in dead black women. I think at the start of the collection, I thought that giving grace to them was to just retell what happened to them. I thought it was important to let people know that this horrific thing happened. I thought that retelling that sort of news and biographical story was a way of showing them grace, because it was spreading awareness about what happened to them.

And then, I was challenged on that by Solmaz Sharif in a workshop at Tin House. She felt that there were better ways to show grace to these people. So, in later poems, in the “Giving …… Grace” series I started trying to challenge that original perception of what grace was and what was the best way to give grace to these people who died and specifically who died in horrific ways.

I touch on that idea of giving grace in different ways in different poems. In “Giving Mary Grace,” I'm asking Mary Turner a series of questions. And the idea is to not talk about the trauma, not talk about the horrific thing that happened to her, but just to give her an opportunity to speak, because she was murdered for speaking out against her husband's lynching.

I thought about this idea of giving her this space to speak, and I wondered if that's a way to show her grace. And then in “Giving Laura Grace,” it’s thinking about grace even deeper, and I wondered if even asking them to speak was too much. So that poem is saying I'm going to talk outside of the lynching, outside of the trauma and just try to connect with you. The speaker goes to where she died and just puts their hand in the soil and tries to get as close to her as possible. It ends with “wait for your nothing,” which means wait and just not expect any response from her. I'm not going to ask anything from you. I'm not going to try to have you do this work. I'm just going to let you rest as you are.

I wonder if this way of reanimating the dead is self-serving for us in this life and doesn't really do anything for them. I was just thinking about the lives of the dead and this sort of martyrdom that we put upon the dead. I think it's important to carry names like Trayvon Martin and George Floyd. It carries a name that's beyond the actual person at this point. There's a lot that is important in that, like spreading words about these horrific things that happen. But also, sometimes I feel like we don't step back enough and view them as individuals. I think they become symbols and I wonder if unknowingly in them becoming symbols it also kind of becomes dehumanizing to them again. It's like a second death. I struggle with that. I still haven't come to a conclusion on that because I think both sides have an importance. Ultimately, the book is trying to juggle these ideas, and I never came to a full conclusion on where I stand. I just sat with these different options.

AS: I heard Ross Gay speak once about how our DNA is an archive that connects us to our ancestors and he wants to reach through time and show love to people who didn’t receive much love in their lives. I definitely see that in the book, and I think that’s where a lot of Grace Engine’s power comes from, but it is trying to use lyric to reach through time to, even if for a moment, come in contact with the dead.

JB: Thank you.

Another theme I noticed in your book was mistaken identity and the idea of passing or not passing. I kept making connections with this and the light. There’s a quote in the book that goes “an antonym for passing is failing.” I kept thinking about the light and trying to figure out what it signifies. Was it life or truth? I ultimately came to think the light was an antonym for the speaker. In “A Small God Carrying Endless Light” you write “light is unending.” I saw this as the speaker’s imagining of light as being in conflict with the speaker’s desire for these endings and beginnings. Does the light signify something specific or is it a transforming force poem-to-poem?

AS: I definitely think it shifts around a lot. It’s one of those things where an unintentional obsession ended up in the book. Just enough of the poems that stuck around long enough to make it in the book had light in them. Another poem I think speaks to that is called “Lucifer as Auteur,” where a Lucifer figure is really into cinema. There’s a line in there about how the actor’s skin becomes light, and movies are important to Particles of a Stranger Light. Something I do like about cinema is that we do become light in it, and even when actors die, their images remain in the light. The title of the book came really late: literally right before the book got accepted. When I sent it out it had a different title and one of my readers said, “I don’t think this previous title works exactly, maybe try something longer, maybe something with light in it.” I just wrote a lot of titles in my notebook and Particles of a Stranger Light was the one I remembered the most. I was going for the early Terrance Hayes books that have titles like Muscular Music and Wind in a Box where the title announces a vision of what the book is. So, like how light is a wave and particles, the poems are particles and the book is a wave.

Light kind of stuck around too because memory was such a part of where I started embarking on this. I guess it’s kind of a flashlight to see things. In terms of what the book does for me, it just makes sure things don’t get forgotten, even if those things are a sunny day when I hand wrote the first draft of a poem.

JB: One of the last poems is where you mention the title of the book.

AS: Yeah.

JB: Did you come up with that before you came up with the title?

AS: That one came at the very end. I wrote "Endless Remakes" weeks before Particles of a Stranger Light got picked up. I was trying to flesh out the movie thing a bit more, and that one was actually remaking a poem I had abandoned. When I came back to it, I was watching a lot of European directors like Werner Herzog and Ulrike Ottinger. It kind of just came as a flash.

JB: Doing a poem like that at the end is interesting, because you’d think you would be burnt out.

AS: There’s a kind of perseverance necessary to make any publication happen. I like that Particles of a Stranger Light is so short, but took about an 8-year span to write. It’s made my life more meaningful to write through so many crises from Mike Brown, to COVID-19, to George Floyd, all while tinkering in my notebook, taking in those problems while having personal issues of my own. I think being grounded is important to sustaining the work of being a writer, which brings me to the fact that our books both feature Houston prominently. Through most of my time working on Particles of a Stranger Light I was living in Indiana and neighborhoods in Houston were simply lodged in my imagination. In your poems, I wouldn’t say the relationship to Houston is like Gwendolyn Brooks and Chicago, but there is, as one of your speaker’s puts it, “a Houston crease in my brain.” Can you elaborate on this crease and how Houston appears in your work?

JB: For me, Houston appears as an absence. I don’t think the collection would exist if I didn’t leave Houston. In my first year in grad school, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t with my family. I was also not around other Black people, and I felt hyper-visible in Syracuse. It made me confront my Blackness in different ways. By my second year, I was trying to find my place in Blackness without my family. Being away from Houston and away from my family did so much for the work and for me to understand the history of anti-blackness. It was an act of survival, along with grad school and all the racism and microaggressions you have to deal with. All the situations where, even if you don’t want to be, you are the only Black person in the class.

AS: Something I think both of our experiences highlight is this kind of hyper-awareness moving across the country for graduate school can bring out in marginalized writers. I think there is a magic that makes for good poetry when one moves to a new place because one can find a new energy, but as our experiences show there’s also vulnerabilities that come with that. At the same time, history is full of writers in exile, and exile is an important experience for a writer to have.

JB: Speaking of exile, and alienation too, my favorite three-poem run in Particles… is “Patriarchal Dividend,” “After Catullus #8 and After Charlie Clark,” and “Telos.” I latched onto the assertiveness of the voice. Do you feel the speaker had to work up to this moment, or do you think the speaker had to move through something narratively or emotionally to reach this assertiveness.

AS: Something I like about how the book turned out is that it does get weirder as it goes on. Carl Philips has written about the erotics of the reader-writer relationship, and he says there is a BDSM-aspect to it. There is something to the notion that there’s a luring one has to do so the reader keeps following along. With this 3-poem run, and the remix poem, and the final two poems, it’s like “O.K., you stuck with me this long, I’m going to loosen up a bit now.” Part of that is also my own comfort in assembling the book and learning how it unraveled. To my mind, the poems in the book start out sharp, trying to make a good first impression, and then maybe half-way through there’s more certainty. There’s more trust. I have more trust for the reader who sticks through the book this long. It’s interesting that you point to these three poems because I don’t normally talk about them. “Telos” is important to me because it has a lot of identity stuff swirling in it. When I read it, I always point out that nowadays the term is “Great Replacement Theory,” the idea that people of different races mixing together will mean less white people. When I originally drafted it, the term was “White Genocide” so that’s the language I use. For me, it’s important to make the political stakes clear.

Joshua Burton is a poet and educator from Houston, TX who received his MFA in poetry at Syracuse University. He is a 2019 Tin House Winter Workshop Scholar, 2019 Juniper Summer Writing Institute scholarship winner, 2019 Center for African American Poetry and Poetics fellowship finalist, received the Honorable Mention for the 2018 Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, 2020 Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing finalist, and a 2023 Elizabeth George Foundation grant recipient. His work can be found in Mississippi Review, Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Conduit, TriQuarterly, Black Warrior Review, Grist, and Indiana Review. His chapbook Fracture Anthology is currently out with Ethel and his debut poetry collection Grace Engine was published last month with the University of Wisconsin Press.