James O’Bannon’s poems “Naming” and “Dad Keeps Saying Pray About It” were published in Mid-American Review Vol. XLI. In the spring of 2023, James agreed to answer a few questions by associate editor Christopher McCormick on his poetic work.
Your poem “Naming,” (after a poem by Diana Khoi Nguyen) which appeared in Volume XLI of Mid-American Review, utilizes non-sequiturs and surrealistic elements, as in the unforgettable line “If there is a child who is dead there is a bird alive somewhere,” yet a firm wisdom seems to underpin the entire poem. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what you sought to achieve with this piece?
“Naming” is written after the poem “Grief Logic” by Diana Khoi Nguyen. In her brilliant poem, she utilizes hypothetical syllogisms to explore grief as well as other ideas. For “Naming”, I wanted to maintain the sense of logical leaping employed in Nguyen’s poem, while using the image of a bird to symbolize a child in sort of a spiritual sense.
I found myself thinking about the language used in the death or incarceration of Black children and how that differs from the language used with white children. Considering that dehumanization, I wanted a poem where Black children could exist/stay alive in perpetuity, hence the “If the child stays alive” line’s repetition. Lastly, in all of my work where a god figure is mentioned, I think of it as a means to wrestle with an aspect of faith and hopefulness in a world that consistently contradicts those beliefs and antagonizes them.
In your poem “Dad Keeps Saying Pray About It,” you write “I’d like to live / in a world where there is a god / who calls my name.” What role does religion and spirituality play in your writing?
In being raised in a Black, religious household, participation in church and other aspects of Christianity were expected. I went to Sunday School, Bible study, participated in sermons, etc. As a child, you are never really allowed to interrogate your inherited belief system. As I got older, I found myself questioning many of ideas I was taught. Christianity felt too idealistic to me, and it excluded too many people I loved.
In my writing, I see god as a figure used to interrogate those difficult questions.Much of my poetry deals in the questioning of how one could believe in not only a god-figure, but a god that is unquestioningly good, when so much of our world fails us in so many ways.
Your poem “and now the doctor asks if depression is a family,” published in Waxwing issue XVIII, speaks on subjects such as race and self-love. Can you talk about how those subjects have been an influence on your journey as a writer?
I wouldn’t really call my relationship to these ideas an influence. Race is definitely embodied in my writing because as a Black person in America, it is tied to every part of your being. You wake up Black, you breathe Black, you sleep Black. In this particular poem, I chose for the relationship between mental health and Blackness to be overt because of the ways it is stigmatized. There are so many negatives poured onto the waywe view the mental struggles of Black folks; even medically. So, I would say my goal in marrying these concepts would be to allow people to see the struggle I’ve dealt with (and still deal with) in its most open and bare form, hopefully, as a means for people to embrace the humanity in that struggle.