“Poet-Sheriff” and Howard University Professor Tony Medina’s craft is getting more potent by the decade. Look out, Trump, the Poet-Sheriff is right there in D.C.
Tony Medina has a reputation nationwide as a poet’s poet as well as a poet for the people. He is someone known as an electric current that runs strong through the community as well as an acerbic wit with a lasso tongue. Those gifts have come in handy crafting a unique brand of poetry and prose that have served him well penning 21 books since 1991.
The award-winning poet, author, and Howard University professor published Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy last year. Medina said, “I wanted to create a Black Lives Matter book for young people without ever having to write the words, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ but to show the beauty, the three-dimensionality, interiority, and the emotional lives of Black boys who have been and continue to be so targeted and maligned in America. I wanted to simply show Black boys the way we want them: alive and thriving and being and breathing.”
Born in the South Bronx, Tony Medina earned a BA from Baruch College and an MA and a PhD in African American and American literature and creative writing from the State University of New York, Binghamton. He is the recipient of the Langston Hughes Society Award and the first African Voices Literary Award. Medina has been featured in the Encyclopedia of Hip Hop Literature and was cited in the Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop Culture. He has edited several anthologies, including Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Broadway Books, 2001) named a Best Book of 2002 by The Washington Post.
I emailed my questions to Tony this winter and they came back with a Facebook message reading, “Happy Impeachment Day! Here’s the interview, as promised!” Like I said earlier, Tony Medina has got jokes, keeps it real, and has a finger on the pulse of the people at all times.
HIP HOP & Poetry
You came up in the poetry game during a very special time, when Hip Hop was still young and not quite the popular culture power it is now globally. Not so much when it was seed or root but just a little plant blooming in the Bronx, Oakland, and Los Angeles. How would you say that art form has informed your work? Who are some of your favorite hip hop artists? Most influential—Hip Hop is, after all, poetry too.
I was there when Hip Hop was breakdancing out the womb. I came up in the beginning of Hip Hop culture as it came over from the Islands and made its way to the South Bronx (where I was born) and the Throgs Neck Housing Projects where I lived on the same block (Dewey Avenue) as Grandmaster Flash, who lived there before my family moved up North from the South Bronx. So, the beginning rap artists (Curtis Blow, Houdini, Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, all the various Roxanne Roxannes) were the ones I admired early on. I was also taken by the indisputable classic, “The Message,” because of its social, political import.
Then, heavyweights like KRS-One and Public Enemy changed the direction of the art. I also dug the flows of Biggie Smalls and Lil Kim, their storytelling prowess as well. Run DMC, LL Cool J, and, of course, without a doubt, Eric B and Rakim. I really like the way Rakim introduced the internal rhyme scheme in rap lyrics, moving away from the basic ab/ab/cd/cd rhyme scheme, as well as how LL Cool J brought the hardcore aspects of the music early on in the East Coast. My personal favorites for sheer artistry and showmanship were Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick the Ruler—and of course Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus). But as a poet, my influences have always been poets like Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, and Dylan Thomas to the Black Arts Movement and Nuyorican poets, as well as the revolutionary anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist poets from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
“Trump was victimized by a million dollars from his father. He was victimized by fake bone spurs. He’s a big crybaby who cheats and steals and whines and complains and lies lies lies. He rode a NYC rat to the White House on his Obama birther lies, then got his boy Puti Tang to hook him up with the Presidency. Now he is totally beholden to his Puti who is working diligently to secure him a second stolen term in office so he can hook Russia up and fuck over the majority of the country, to include the blind base that holds him in place.” —Facebook Post by “Poet-Sheriff” and FB commentator Tony Medina
The HOMELESS Tome in Medina Craft
Your work seems to have a strong motif of empathy for the dispossessed—or in common vernacular, the homeless and impoverished. Ishmael Reed once referred to you as the “Poet Laureate of the Broke.” Why is this a theme that runs through your decades of work? Where did the periscope into the lives of the dispossessed come from?
When I was a kid growing up in the Throgs Neck Housing Projects in the Bronx, my father used to take me to downtown Manhattan on the 6 train to acting class (my first love was to be an actor because I was so taken by Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon). We’d ride all the way from the Westchester Square Station to 42nd Street Saturday mornings. This was my first encounter seeing homeless people who literally lived and slept in subway cars to escape the cold. This was the dead of winter—and I couldn’t stand the cold being a skinny-ass asthma boy, even though I was born in January!
These initial encounters shocked me to my core. I asked my father why these people were sleeping on the train and he explained to me that they were homeless. I couldn’t imagine being forced to sleep out in the cold in a New York winter of all places. Had I grown up in Chicago I probably would’ve had a heart attack finding out people lived on the streets, especially in winter. So, I was forever haunted by homeless from then on.
One day in high school as I was heading to the Pelham Bay train station on my way to school, I noticed a homeless woman on a flattened cardboard box (the kind we used to breakdance on) cursing people out as they went to work and school. Hours later, when it was dark, and I returned to the Bronx from 33rd Street in Manhattan, she was still there, but this time she was sleeping under the elevated train on the cardboard box—with no covers! When I got home, I told my grandmother about the homeless woman who was elderly like her. She saw that I was disturbed as I asked her what I could do. She went into her closet and grabbed her dress coat, the one she wore to church and the doctor, placed it in a shopping bag, and gave it to me to give to the old woman.
I walked across the highway back to the train station and draped my grandmother’s coat over her as she slept. The next morning, she sat up with the coat wrapped around her waist. She was smiling a toothless smile and wasn’t cursing anybody out.
I wrote about that and subsequently writing about the homeless has been a major part of my work; a predominant motif. So much so, I created a character named Broke, a homeless everyman featured in three verse narratives of mine: Sermons from the Smell of a Carcass Condemned to Begging, Broke on Ice, and Broke Baroque, which has a blistering introduction by the great Ishmael Reed. When I lived in Harlem, I even held a number of homeless feedings in front of the Schomburg Center for Thanksgiving and Christmas, giving out home-cooked food (turkeys, rice, and peas, and such) as well as coats, hats, scarves, and gloves I collected. The lines were so long you would think we were at the Apollo and James Brown was performing!
Influences, Icons, and Mentors
Aside from Ishmael Reed, who are some other mentors that have influenced you and gave of their time to help make you into the poet you are now?
I have been fortunate enough to discover my literary heroes in books, by reading their works, and eventually meeting them in person, reading them, forming friendships with them, and even getting published by them. So, I must acknowledge Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Louis Reyes Rivera, Pedro Pietri, Ishmael Reed, Nikki Giovanni, S.E. Anderson, Raymond R. Patterson, Melba Joyce, Boyd, Brenda Walcott, Victor Hernández Cruz, Eleanor Traylor, Askia M. Toure, Trinidad Sanchez, Miguel Algarín, Ntozake Shange, Mari Evans, Dudley Randall, Joanne V. Gabbin, Rashidah Ismaili, Sandra Maria Esteves, Lamont B. Steptoe, Jan Carew, Dennis Brutus, Allen Ginsberg, Everett Hoagland, The Last Poets (Felipe Luciano, Abiodun Oyewole, Umar bin Hasaan), Ja A. Jahannes, Kalamu ya Salaam, Jerry Ward, Eugene B. Redmond, Steve Cannon, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Toni Morrison, Haki R. Madhubuti, to name a brief few of the elders I was blessed to cross paths with in this literary life.
Not unlike so many Hip Hop poets and impresarios—O’Shea Jackson (Ice Cube), Calvin Broadus (Snoop Dogg), or A Tribe Called Quest—your current work focuses on the freedom from the tyranny of the White House and its megalomaniac. Can you talk a little about your most current work?
My latest books (from 2016 to 2020, respectively) are Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky, an anthology on police brutality, featuring over 70 poets, published by Jacar Press of North Carolina, the proceeds of which go to a student studying social justice or police reform; I Am Alfonso Jones, a graphic novel about the shooting death of a Harlem teenager, Alfonso Jones, who tells his story from the point of view of being ghosted by a department store cop, trapped on a ghost train, on his way to becoming an Ancestor as he and his community seek justice for his death. It’s illustrated by Staci Robinson and John Jennings and published by Tu Books (Lee & Low Books). On the heels of I Am Alfonso Jones, I published a children’s book entitled Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy, featuring 13 fantastic artists of color paired with 13 Tanka (Japanese syllabic verse) from the voice of 13 Black boys, letting their humanity and brilliance shine. That was published by Penny candy Books out of Oklahoma City and Savannah, Georgia.
I also must note a special story I wrote, “One Day Papí Drove Me to School,” published in an important, timely collection of art and literature for young people dealing with these precarious, mean-spirited, dangerous Trumpian times, by the legendary Wade and Cheryl Hudson, entitled We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, published by Random House Children’s Books (Yearling) with the legendary Phoebe Yeh, in conjunction with Just Us Books, the oldest Black publisher of children’s and young books in the country. This is a marvelous book featuring over 50 children’s and young adult book authors and illustrators of color. “One Day Papí Drove Me to School” is the story of a 9-year-old girl who is traumatized by ICE immigration police who arrest her father as he drops her off at school. She’s propelled by this horrifying experience to take action with fellow students as they protest the prejudice harbored by other MAGA-hat-wearing, anti-immigration students at their school.
And my 21st book, Death, with Occasional Smiling, is a collection of poetry which is slated for publication in March 2020 by Indolent Books in Brooklyn, New York. I’m excited about this irreverent new book to kick off a new precarious decade, with Trump poems to greet an impeached illegitimate president. So, as you can see, the work is very much in the Tradition!
Tony Medina photographed with Sonia Sanchez, Kimberly Mayhorn, ancestor Toni Morrison, and Ras Baraka in photo taken circa 1994.
“Sonia Sanchez’s house in Philly as we celebrated her 60th birthday. There’s a photo of me and Jasmine Guy who recited Sonia’s poem. Haile Gerima, filmmaker of the famed Sankofa filmed it. He was working on a documentary that never came out. Morrison was on the set of the movie Beloved and rolled through.” —Tony recollects
“The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen … Perhaps it can’t be done without the poet, but it certainly can’t be done without the people.” —James Baldwin
Poetry Community and Funding
You’ve been on the poetry frequency for a while—is there a difference in that global community—funding for the NEA has been threatened and cut. Have you noticed any differences in that community? Are their voices louder? Do you see the people coming together?
I remember back in the late ’90s a lot of New York poet friends of mine moved to London for some time because, as artists, they could live off the dole, which is what we would call financial assistance, or welfare. It sounded like a good idea, but the pound has always been so much stronger than the dollar, so I don’t know how they managed that.
Most poets I know are academics and teach at colleges and universities, or are private, charter, or public-school teachers, so they are not so much affected by NEA cuts. The grants do help, but they have never—and will never—keep poets and writers from creating and convening around their work. There’s always going to be public spaces to poet, to workshop. It’s just sad that we live in a nation that does not value creativity and curiosity as much as it values dumbing the nation down to the point where they must have other people (let’s say pundits and politicians) to think for them.
We are living in a country that does not value education, science, or creativity. America fears critical thinkers. The mind and reality is frequently being assaulted on a daily basis, along with poor and working class people. And so the arts and the institutions that afford artists (and arts institutions) distinction and time and the necessary resources in order to survive and thrive and function continues to be stripped and attacked and denied financial assistance under a stringently right-wing party currently in power who would rather cage brown babies at the border and make America white again.
But the people and their voices will always rise to demand democracy, justice, and, above all, equality. We will always live up to James Baldwin’s ethos of “bearing witness.”
American Ideas & Pefecting the Union
Do you think America will ever live up to those ideals of “freedom” and “justice” or are we going to keep reliving the original sins of Slavery?
America as an idea will prevail. By 2045, America will be a white minority nation. What we are witnessing with Trump, the impeached, is the last gasp of the American white man. People of color will ensure that America lives up to its ideals, and I am optimistic enough to believe that people of color will make a strong push to truly make America live up to the ideals of justice, equality, and freedom, because the descendants of enslaved Africans, Native Americans, and immigrants of color will reshape this republic—or it will perish.
Capitalism, patriarchy, and whiteness will not last in this nation. They are on the decline. The madness we are witnessing is merely the last gasp kicking and screaming of old-ass ideas. The colonial mentality is dead. Whiteness has outlived its usefulness (if you can even say that). Not even white people want to be a part of that sick-ass mythology. You can see it clearly in the younger generations. That’s where the true promise of the nation resides. So, we are beginning to live up to James Baldwin’s idea of all people sitting together at The Welcome Table.
21 Books and the Writer’s Process
I believe you are coming up on your 21st book as either a poet, writer, or editor—beginning in 1991 with books as Emerge & See or 1996’s No Noose is a Good Noose—what is your creative process for creation like? Do you listen to music? Write by candlelight or in the daylight? How many times do you rewrite? Have you worked with a tribe of readers for decades? How do you make Medina work?
My process is so terrible. I’m the most undisciplined writer in the world. I have spent decades trying to achieve a level of discipline whereby I write at an assigned schedule for a few hours or so. It seems I write under pressure of deadlines and contracts pretty well; the ultimate motivator. I write with music, without music; with the TV on or not. I write with my students during class when I give them a prompt. I write any time I’m seized by a thought, image, or idea. I write on social media; sometimes I can get really spastic and cray and post endless jokes and diatribes, as if I were cursing out the TV or newspaper! I write from being inspired by something I read, visual art I engage, a movie, a piece of music, a string of dialogue, or conversation. A memory. Anything can grab a hold of me. That’s why I always carry a pen and notepad. But, then again, that doesn’t bode well for the times I’ve written whole poems while taking a shower. I’ve written poems on the dashboard of my car while driving. When I was working on my graphic novel, I Am Alfonso Jones, I wrote everywhere. I particularly went to the movies practically every day. I’d be writing before the film, during the film, on the way back home from the theater. Sometimes I’d write on my days off, in bed.
I remember reading an interview of Alice Walker where she talked about composing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple (a personal favorite), in bed. Hemingway wrote standing up at a podium. I’ve written whole pieces in my dreams, only to awake and have it all evaporate before I could grab a pen and paper. My advice to young and/or beginning writers and poets, stay off of social media unless you negotiate that as writing. (I do.) Impose a discipline to your approach: write at a certain time or place. It doesn’t have to be long stretches, just enough so you don’t walk around feeling guilty or plagued with the myth of writer’s block hanging over you like a dark cloud.
Find a tribe of writers you can write with and share work for feedback and critique. Find a place to write: home office, café, library, bookstore. I know writers who write in their parked car. Always keep your well full: read, read, read, watch movies, listen to music, go to museums, go for walks, eavesdrop on people’s conversations, stay alert and observe your surroundings. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. Just do you.
And, above all, love life and people and books and the written word. If you can’t read a book, listen to an audio book. Saturate yourself with language. Writing is about ideas, images, and stories. For poets, it’s about syllables as well. Finally, don’t ever succumb to the false notion of writer’s block. When asked if she gets writer’s block, Toni Morrison once said she doesn’t believe in writer’s block, because when she’s not physically writing, she’s thinking about the story, working the plot out in her mind; that, too, is writing, she said. You can’t go wrong following Toni Morrison.
Tony Medina is the first Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University. His book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy is published by Penny Candy Books and is available on Amazon and other book retailers. He is also author of I Am Alfonso Jones, a graphic novel. He is a two-time winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. For more information, visit www.TonyMedina.org.