An Interview with Sean Avery Medlin

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Whether he’s writing about musicians or anime characters, there is a tenderness with the way Sean Avery Medlin approaches the subjects of his writing. I had the opportunity to speak with Medlin about their new book of poetry and prose, 808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, & Mythologies available now from Two Dollar Radio, as well topics such as fandom, writing through characters, comics and mythologies.

—Joshua Bohnsack

TriQuarterly: You're doing this interesting thing where Kanye is a character throughout the book, from the title to nearly the last full essay. He's utilized in this way that you're writing through his work. One piece I'm drawn to is “Free Pt. II” where you're directly utilizing his own language from his past self to rework the flaws of his current thinking or to tell him something about his current self. I would like to know what that's like, utilizing someone else's words to write to them and writing through Kanye.

Sean Avery Medlin: Thank you for that question. Specifically, “Free Pt. II,” I really have to give a shout out to Jasmine Mans for her piece “Footnotes for Kanye.” I heard that piece years and years ago. I want to say I heard that piece in like 2014 or something. And I remember telling her right afterwards, “That is literally my favorite thing I've ever heard,” where she bases almost every line or most lines in her poem on a previous Kanye line. So, when I was approaching my work on Kanye, which really started in 2016 as soon as he really leaned into the whole Trump thing.

I was doing a mixture of what Jasmine was doing, which is taking some of his lines and finding ways to rework them or use them to address the current situation, but I was also doing a lot of writing on my personal experience with his music and what he means or meant to me, a mixture of this remix style and then almost like a personal letter or journal entry about him and his work. The title 808s & Other Worlds, which I landed on for a lot of reasons, obviously it's a reference to his album 808s & Heartbreak, also, just the 808 drum being the most ubiquitous sound in pop music, definitely in hip hop and also in pop.

I remember a friend telling me something along the lines of, “If you're going to name this book after Kanye then you really have to address him.” I didn't know how much I really wanted to do that, but what I found in writing and rewriting was that a lot of times when I was talking about Kanye, I was talking about myself. I was using his work and what I know about him as a way to look at myself, and also look at, quite frankly, Black men in America. That character that you're seeing, yes, that character is definitely Kanye, but I think there are moments, like in the contrapuntal that's about him, there's a moment where there's a thin line between him and I.

TQ: Following up on that, there's something that you're doing with other characters and through video games through comics through anime characters where you’re using the same things, where you're giving Storm from X-men a voice, but it still ties into the ways that you are experiencing the character. The same thing with Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball Z, of analyzing it and then also putting next like queer theory. Would you care to expand on that process of working through fictional characters?

SAM: When I was working on a project titled Skinnyblk in 2018, my whole thing was using media characters to talk about my identity, like there's like a song about the Pink Power Ranger. In the back of the book there's a piece where I'm like “I want to be the Silver Surfer” and a piece about the Hulk. During that time period I was trying to embody or write about pretty much any and every character from a video game or TV show or comic book that I've ever liked. There are a lot of poems that will never be seen by the light of day, but the Storm one particularly felt like I had to do it because I hear about these theories all the time about 1) Black merpeople and then 2) hurricanes being caused by angry, vengeful spirits. They have all sorts of lineages, like in Ourea mythology there are a lot of gods and goddesses of the water an a lot of waterfolk. There's a book by Rivers Solomon called The Deep, which I found through this LA experimental hip hop group called Clipping. The Deep is all about this idea that pregnant mothers jumped or were thrown overboard doing transatlantic slavry and like over time, boom, there's merpeople. To me it felt like “How has nobody ever written this before?” as I was thinking about all of these speculative concepts. The poem was just there waiting to be written, so I was very glad to pull together all these different inspirations and narratives and tie it all up into X-men. 

TQ: You're utilizing those comics in a certain way where, if you look at her first appearance in X-men, Professor X comes up and is like, “Hey can you help us?” and she like leaves everything. There's no explanation, she just drops everything like, “All right, I guess, I’ll go help you.” You make allusions to that as well, like “I'm doing this for you.”

SAM: Yeah, I tried my best with backstory and I wanted to make sure that if people were reading it, and they were deeper fans of these things than I am, as that's like definitely possible, I want to make sure that I was standing firmly on the already existing narratives or mythologies of these characters.

TQ: I like that. Building on the narratives and like having it be reflective, like what you did with Kanye where you're playing both sides of that concept.

This is definitely a multimedia piece. The visuals that you take, the things that you reference, they caused me to look things up, like, “What does this MF Doom song sound like in comparison to your poem?” And even the poems themselves have an internal rhythm that is inherent, right on the page. At the back of the book it's like, “Here's the album. Here's the lyrics. Here's the lyrics in different forms,” showing they evolved from form to form.

SAM: Rhythm and rhyme is maybe the most important thing to me when I'm writing. It’s part of hip hop culture, part of that music. I am a rapper myself, so when I'm writing, especially when I was writing 808s, I made the decision to take rhythm very seriously. I was counting syllables, even the essays and thinking about how many syllables are in a sentence in my essays. I definitely read everything out loud, multiple times. Again, being a rapper, coming from slam and spoken word was like my first real entry point into poetry. I've always felt what I write is meant to be heard, if not by me, at least, meant to be read out loud. I think once I started to understand that, I needed to write in a way that other people could read it, and still hear the rhythm without hearing my voice. I started to become much more selective with my word choice and what rhymes I made. There are certain rhymes that don't sound like it rhymes until you read it out loud, or unless you say it a certain way or put a stress a certain way. I spent a lot of time thinking about syllables, just syllables, masculine, feminine, slant, double rhyme, all those things, because it's important to me. It's fun, too, just fun. 

TQ: So with that, how do you differentiate between what is going to be something that is set to music, something that is going to be performed aloud, versus the editing and drafting process of putting it on the page. 

SAM: I've been thinking about this question a lot, because I know I'm going to be getting it. I think it's mostly instinctual at first. And then, at some point, I do make an explicit choice. I try to sit down and write a certain amount of days a week for a certain amount of time. As I was writing this week I only wrote rap lyrics. I just knew that it was a rap. For me, if I write the first couple of lines, I can usually tell the direction that I want to go, which would tell me if I should set this music or leave it on the page. Sometimes things go back and forth, because I want to make a certain choice. There's a piece in there, “Explorers Pack,” which I wrote as a rap, then ultimately decided to put it on the page and put it in the book. I don't know if I’ll ever record it over the music. That decision was made because I felt like the content of the piece was important enough and provided a needed moment of relief in the book, particularly. I was like, “I'm going to put this piece here because I think it will do something for the reader after reading ‘XYZ.’” 

To answer your question, it is largely how I feel. If it's part of a project I’m working on, then I'll make whatever choice I need to make for that project.

TQ: Thank you for that. I know that's such a big question that people who write between different forms are going to get asked a lot, because everyone wants a solid answer. I appreciate you giving that as a specific example.

I'm curious what the editing process was like on this book. The publisher, Two Dollar Radio doesn’t typically publish poetry. I think this might be their first. I'm curious what that process of working with them was like and then editing through some things that may have already been recorded and produced as songs versus what's going on in different forms and different pieces.

SAM: When Two Dollar got the manuscript, they really liked it. They hit me up and said they wanted to publish it. They also said, “We mostly do fiction and nonfiction, so we would need you to add like 30 pages of essays and prose.”

I already had some essays and prose in there. I had most of the “new amerika” section already in there. “Free pt. II,” was in there. A lot of it was there, but they really, really pushed me within a pretty short amount of time. I would say, between January and March I wrote the rest of the essays and prose that they were asking for.

Editing was stressful, because I have a very particular vision for my work that I'm, most times, not willing to compromise. In editing, we went back and forth about spelling for a very long time.

I use a lot of slang and AAVE. How do you write that on the page? I do this thing as well, where you know I don't capitalize certain proper nouns, as a small little finger to the establishment.We had to go back and forth on that a lot and decide the rules, because they have to be like a rule. What proper nouns get capitalized and which don't? There was a lot to talk about in this book and a lot to work out. There was also this thing where I wasn't capitalizing my I’s for a while. It was stressful, but I'm really happy with the final product. It stays true to what I envisioned.

TQ: That was one of the question I wanted to ask, about the capitalization and how names are portrayed, where there are things like when you mentioned your sister, sister is capitalized.

I love that idea of it being “rules of the book,” where it does feel like this insular world.

SAM: That was my goal with that. I've experienced that in a lot of other folks’ books of poems. I think it’s common, but I wanted to bring that same energy to this, even though there were a lot of things in the book that were not poetry. I wanted to make sure there was consistency across all of the writing. 

TQ: What were you reading, taking in while you were drafting these pieces? Obviously you said you were writing around and through comics. What else were you like reading and influenced by at the time?

SAM: I was reading Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith at that time and Morgan Parker's Magical Negro. Summer of 2018, I sat down with those two books, every time I wrote. They were quite literally my guides. I was also reading Dear Angel of Death by Simone White. It's a mixture of critical theory and poetry on hip hop music, Black music in America, and also on misogyny in hip hop.

I was watching a lot of the things that I referenced in the books. I was watching Naruto: Shippuden. I was watching certain episodes of Dragon Ball. I was watching the Silver Surfer TV show on YouTube. That was honestly more for me than for the book.

This isn't really a part of your question, but I find it so interesting the way that Hanif Abdurraqib writes about music and the way that I write about music. They're so similar, and they are also so different. I learned a lot from him. I was reading The Crown Ain't Worth Much. There are a lot of poems in there, poems to rappers that I was reading and thinking about, because I was like, “I want to do this exact thing, so how did you do it?” 

TQ: Hanif does this thing where, I didn't want to care about Fall Out Boy, but he made me want to care about Fall Out Boy. Looping it all back, I think that's kind of what you do about Kanye. There are so many times when I'm done with him, but the way that you write about him, there's still this tenderness. As if he was there during a formative part of your life, where you're like growing and like figuring out the word. Not to put all that on you, but I just love how it came off. It made me think about how I like to care about this complicated person, through your poems.

SAM: I really tried to hold tenderness and space. Ultimately, my thought, to be real with you, was if Kanye West ever reads this, then I would want him to know that there's love there, whatever that means, despite our incredibly parasocial relationship. I want to make sure, “Would I say this to him?” And I feel like I would. I put it in the book. I published it.