In his debut poetry collection Stereo(TYPE), Jonah Mixon-Webster expresses the tensions and traumas he endures as a Black man, a queer individual, and a Flint native. Stereo(TYPE) was first published by Ahsahta Press in 2018, and will be re-released under Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on July 13.
Mixon-Webster’s full interview as well as audio clips of Stereo(TYPE) can be heard above. He told Stateside about his experience assembling the collection.
“Stereo(TYPE) almost killed me to make. It took a lot to have to go to these places, literally and figuratively, to go to these places that this stuff comes from. I had to put myself in these precarious positions. I had to follow the stereotype through. I had to sit with a lot of stuff, and cry, and hurt, and mourn, and grieve, and I had to find a way out of it, then,” Mixon-Webster said.
“Invocation of the Sacrosanct”
The first poem in Stereo(TYPE) describes a ritual that names clothing, phrases, movements, and other things that are stereotypically associated with Black men.
“The ritual tells you to do all these things, you know, act a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way. Go have fun, go party, go do all this stuff,” Mixon-Webster said. “But then the poem is then actually telling you to then think and reflect on what these things are, and what's happening in these moments.”
He added that the ritual describes things that he’s adopted in the formation of his own identity.
“The Ghost of Richard Pryor Made Me Do It”
This poem recounts an actual exchange between Mixon-Webster and a white man at a bar. The piece describes the moment Mixon-Webster makes eye contact with the man, and his heightened awareness of being seen.
During the actual incident, the man continually used the N-word among his white friends and dared Mixon-Webster to intervene. Mixon-Webster referred to it as a “conjure word,” as it “conjures something up” when used.
“...I think that's [what] really kind of made me realize what that word makes you feel as a Black person when it's coming out of the mouth of someone who's non-Black…” Mixon-Webster said. “As if saying it meant seeing me naked. That is the feeling.”
Mixon-Webster said that he cocked his fist back as if preparing to throw a punch. Others at the bar laughed as the white man cowered in response, but the man continued to egg him on. In the end, Mixon-Webster ended up choking the man with his own shirt.
“Even in displays of humor and displays of anger...that image of the stereotype, the angry black man or the black buffoon, are the two things that I'm constantly kind of toggling between,” he said.
“On Juking With Another Black Boy”
Mixon-Webster dedicated one poem to fellow queer poet Danez Smith. The piece was written after the two danced together at a party. Mixon-Webster credits Smith for bringing him into a fuller sense of who he is on the page.
“I think one of the first poems I ever heard from Danez was, ‘Twerking as a Radical Form of Freedom.’ And the sheer authenticity, and the unabashed delivery and approach to Danez’s work really inspired me to put myself out there as authentically as possible.”
Finding his voice off the page
In addition to being a vivid writer, Mixon-Webster delivers powerful onstage readings of his work. One of his early inspirations was the early 2000s HBO show Def Poetry Jam.
“...I was like, wow, the energy that’s all built up and knotted up inside of me can actually, finally, be expressed with language, and also with my body,“ Mixon-Webster said.
He also credited the creative writing program at Eastern Michigan University for exposing him to a wide variety of performance artists, including LaTasha Diggs, the Black Took Collective, and Douglas Kearney. Mixon-Webster drew on these performers’ work to refine his sense of physical expression.
“I really started to find a way I can incorporate the sonic performance to embody somatic energy. The nervous energy, the sadness, the joy...Language can't hold everything. It can’t.”
“Black Existentialism No. 8: Ad Infinitum; or Ad Nauseum”
The third section of Stereo(TYPE) opens with the one-word poem consisting of an 18-panel spread that plays with various visual presentations of the ‘s’ at the end of the N-word. The final formation of the letters is meant to resemble a Cuban link chain.
Mixon-Webster created the piece in response to a writing prompt that challenged students to write a one-word poem. Mixon-Webster wanted to take a step further, and composed a one-word poem that never ends.
“Ad Infinitum,” he explained, is meant to suggest something that continues into eternity, while “Ad Nauseum” suggests something that goes on forever to the point of making one sick.
“I was kind of imagining that the N occupies both of those spaces -- something that will go on and on and on forever. No one will stop using this word. But the other side of that coin is that there is a little bit of a sickness that might come out… The history of that word can never be elided, or replaced, or erased,” he said
Sharing the truth about Flint
The entire fourth part of Stereo(TYPE) contains poems about Flint, his hometown, and is meant to be a “cinematic, really, really immersive experience,” almost like a movie. Mixon-Webster referred to the Flint water crisis as an “apocalypse of the first world.”
“Now, Flint is a place within the great American empire that is being treated as it looks like, and it kind of operates like a third world country, a third world territory. To go from a food desert. . . to an actual desert to where now the water is poisoned and tainted, making people sick, and killing people,” Mixon-Webster said.
One of the poems, “Breach,” gives a sense of the nightmare that unfolded beginning in 2014. Seven years later, the community is still on a journey to recovery.
“When I was doing the research for Breach and looking up how many water main breaks were happening throughout the city during this time, even before the water crisis and after, it was astounding to realize how bad the system itself was, how bad that infrastructure was to begin with,” Mixon-Webster said.
He left to start his PhD program in Illinois four months before the water switch, and described feeling guilt over leaving behind his family in a city without water. However, family and friends urged him not to come back, and to complete his education.
“All I could do was write, pretty much,” Mixon-Webster said. "All I could do is try to learn as much about what was going on back home as I could, and try to create this work that could accurately do justice to everything that was happening.”
Through the fourth section of Stereo(TYPE), Mixon-Webster aimed to give readers a full picture of what it looks like to live in Flint. It shouldn’t be seen as a tough city that beat the odds or persisted in the face of struggles, he said, but as a city of people.
“People here are made resilient, made strong because of the circumstances that they're in. I think that that's what's most important that people understand, is that, we’re not talking about resilient people. . . we’re talking about people. I think that’s what we should lead with in our understanding of this place and of the people that live in it.”
The new edition of Stereo(TYPE) will be released on Tuesday, July 13, and is available for preorder until then through Mixon-Webster’s website.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Ronia Cabansag.