Poet Tommye Blount’s new book mines the nuance of queer Black life in Detroit and white America
Some poets construct images as immediate as a freshly snapped Polaroid. Others form lyrical landscapes like meticulously composed oil paintings. Detroit-born poet Tommye Blount’s writing lands a little like a powerful short film — its themes, characters, and worlds linger in your head long after you read it. Blount’s debut poetry collection, Fantasia for the Man in Blue, presents the head-on collisions of one queer Black American’s experiences with the mythos of white America. The collection, published by Four Way Books in March 2020, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Fantasia for the Man in Blue features a broad ensemble of characters in cinematically composed scenes. Blount says that while his poems often grow from his personal experiences, over time he creates some distance between himself and the voice in each piece. He says he’s aiming to write towards an “alien self,” which ultimately invites the reader to enter the poem, too.
“Most of my poems are written in first person singular, but I'm always trying to figure out ways to complicate that and crack it open, so that whoever comes to the poem steps into it, which is why that ‘you’ comes in, right?” Blount said. “That ‘you’ — it's actually a pronoun that I use many times in the book, to sort of be both implication of the reader, but … as creator of this, I'm also implicating myself in these situations.”
Finding community in characters
Blount’s care and attention for the many voices in his poetry stems in part from his youth. He says that growing up Black and queer in Detroit in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he often looked to film and television narratives to find characters he identified with — like Tracy Turnblad in John Waters’ Hairspray.
“I grew up closeted, right? And I often would — I think this is the same for a lot of queer people I'm hearing, that we sort of built little nests for ourselves. Especially in the ‘80s, I remember doing this: I would just grab bits and pieces of, like, characters from movies,” Blount said.
He says he couldn’t often find queer Black characters in those films. But, he adds, one figure that did resonate with him was Leroy Johnson in Fame, played by actor and dancer Gene Anthony Ray. Blount writes about Leroy in Fantasia for the Man in Blue.
“It's bordering on a, you know, old stereotype … this is like a Black street-smart kid. But even at like eight, there was something in me that recognized the queerness of him and the queerness of that character,” Blount said. “That's one character I often think about, among the many constellations of figures. I call them my, sort of, saints that I call on.”
A “ghost map” of Detroit
Fantasia for the Man in Blue also memorializes places in Detroit, some of which have changed over time. Blount calls it his “ghost map” of Detroit spaces. Some of the locations in the poetry collection, like Palmer Park, are important landmarks in the history of Detroit’s queer communities.
“Places and queer spaces are definitely important. To not just remember them, but to sort of perpetuate their power,” Blount said. “Stories are also tied into those spaces. And with any lineage, you want to pass that information along so that not only just things are not forgotten or places are not forgotten, but old problems that had solutions, they always come back. And when we know what has happened in the past, I wish — I hope — that we can use that to solve what's happening in the now.”
For more, listen to the full conversation above.
Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.