Interview, Makeup, and Creative Direction by Zawadi Carroll
Photography by Vanessa dos Santos
DC’s rapidly gentrifying art scene has experienced cutthroat changes over the past decade. Several of the city’s natives, many of them young artists, have been pushed to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia for more affordable and humane living conditions.
The poetry scene is somewhat of a final frontier in terms of spaces where DC’s vibrant mix of people and genuine artistic expression can still be experienced. Through the clouds of rising rent prices, increased militarism, and decreased funding for independent artists one star still shines bright and that is Malik Thompson.
MALIK THOMPSON (He/Him) is a cis Black queer poet and intellectual from Washington, DC. In addition to poetry Malik is a nonfiction writer and unapologetic bibliophile. Malik was announced as co-chair of the DC Center for the LGBT Community‘s annual literary festival Outwrite DC in November of 2020. He has worked with Split This Rock, The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Moonlit DC as a workshop facilitator. He organized the Poets In Protest poetry series at the Black queer owned bookstore Loyalty Books where has is a seasoned bookseller.
Malik’s work can be found in Split This Rock’s Poetry Database, the mixed media journal Voicemail Poems, and in Issue 11 of Mixed Mag. Malik is currently working on a chapbook and full length collection of his poetry. You can find Malik’s thoughts on literature via his Instagram account @negroliterati.
Zawadi: So let’s start simple. What’s your name and your Instagram handle?
Malik: My name is Malik Thompson and you can find me at @negroliterati on Instagram.
Z: Asking you these basic questions feels so funny because I’ve known you for so long. But even I’m curious, how did you come to writing poetry?
M: I’m struggling not to write an ‘lol’ here because I don’t want this to sound like a text, but, yes, it’s wild how long we’ve known one another! I came to poetry thanks to orbiting around DC’s spoken word scene. In the 2013/2014 era, the poetry community in DC was extremely vibrant within, both, the youth and adult strands of it. I’d been going to readings and open mics up until I moved to Rochester, NY in 2014 and, just before moving there, decided I wanted to do poetry for myself. I’d always been an avid reader but I didn’t come to appreciate poetry until my late adolescence. I, largely, taught myself how to read poetry and how to write it.
Z: What high school did you go to?
M: I went to three high schools in DC: Bell and Cardozo in NW, and Anacostia in SE.
I came to poetry thanks to orbiting around DC’s spoken word scene. In the 2013/2014 era, the poetry community in DC was extremely vibrant within, both, the youth and adult strands of it
Z: What was life like as an adolescent in a rapidly gentrifying city like DC?
M: Coming of age in the early 2010’s was an intense time. At that point, the city had been in the middle of hyper-gentrification and the city’s demographics were rapidly shifting from being mostly Black to an enraging increase of white residents. I recall being extremely angry quite often then, and, in spaces with other Black people, experienced that anger as shared by other Black people from DC, young and old. Ironically, at that point in the city’s gentrification project, we were in this moment where there was an influx of resources for arts and cultural programming (whether government funded or community funded), as well as a large number of artists (both from DC and transplants) rooted in leftist/social justice community who were constantly putting on very fun, imaginative events. Having come home from Rochester, NY in 2017, there’s a marked difference in the tenor of the city’s artistic, creative community. Of course, many people are still doing amazing things, but I’m deeply aware of the impact gentrification has had on DC’s arts communities.
Z: I think as a society we’ve become really comfortable with labels because they give us insight into one’s experience, but I’m curious how you yourself feel about and interact with your identities. Your blackness and your queerness and your maleness and any other group you identify with.
M: This is a tricky question for me and I think I could talk for at least thirty mintues about all my thoughts on this, but, for me, I’ve definitely had to figure out what being a Black queer man on my terms looks and feels like. Unfortunately, no matter your identity, a hegemonic, one-dimensional narrative of who you are or how you should be, as facilitated by expectations placed upon us by any number of groups or individuals, always lurks within our psyches. In my earlier adulthood, I was desperate for models, whether they be alive or not, for how to navigate life in the ways I desired. I found some; James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Lorraine Hansberry, etc., however, I also had to realize that their ability to guide me is limited. I exist within a very different world than they did.
I’m still unraveling the ways in which my identities intersect and interact. I think it will be a lifelong process.
Z: What does poetry do for you?
M: I’m honestly not sure what poetry does for me. It’s more like something I feel called to do than something I understand my reasons for doing. I admit that I have a tense relationship with writing; I run away from it using all the distractions our technological advancements have to offer. That said, when I do feel, finally, ready and able to write a poem, it feels as if I’ve accessed a new depth of myself. I guess you can say the poems force me to confront the ways I perceive and feel, poetry forces me into a reckoning with myself.
Z: Where do you find yourself drawing inspiration from?
M: I draw inspiration from my sexual experiences primarily. The writer Maggie Nelson, in her new book entitled ‘On Freedom’, wrote an essay about sex. In the essay, she proposes that we begin regarding promiscuous sexual behavior as a field of learning. As a queer boy who, luckily, had come into my queerness rather early on, I still feel as though I’m backpedaling and rediscovering parts of my sexual self I’ve had to quell in order to survive within my school communities and family system. So I feel as though I uncover subterranean pieces of myself with every sexual experience that I have.
I also take pleasure in queering Judeo-Christian religion, the religion I was primarily raised in.
Z: What’s the process like of writing a poem for you?
M: My process is messy! I have innumerable notebooks and sheets of paper scattered around my bedroom laden with lines, fragments, and thoughts. Honestly, I doubt most of this material will make it into finished poems, however, the sheer act of writing keeps me attuned to whatever allows me to write complete poems. When I finally am able to write a complete poem, I am swept away by a feeling that’s hard to describe; somewhat like being immersed in water, somewhat like my perception of time slowing down to a snail’s pace. I always begin my poem’s in longhand, only moving to a word processor when I want to figure out how the poem needs to exist on the page.
Z: What hopes do you have in terms of your art/personal expression?
M: I’d like to release a chapbook and a full-length collection eventually. I’d like to also acquire more opportunities to incubate my writing; fellowships, grants, residencies. I need to begin applying for these things. Thanks for the reminder!
Z: How can we stay up to date with what you’re doing?
My Instagram is the best way to stay tuned in to what I’m doing!
Read Malik’s poems featured in Issue 11