Shayla Lawson is Ready to See Frank Ocean.
With her latest collection, the Portland-based, self-proclaimed “Rihanna of Poetry” is amplifying the undeniable connection between music and her craft. Released in March 2018, I Think I’m Ready To See Frank Ocean is her third collection of poems and stands as an interesting yet befitting way of presenting verse: by incorporating song lyrics and titles. The collection is certainly an appreciation of Ocean’s music catalog, but is more of a showcase of Lawson’s unique and palpable creativity.
Shayla Lawson is a 2017 Oregon Literary & MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2018 Yaddo fellowship and RACC Grant recipient & a member of The Affrilachian Poets. Our poetry editor, Taylor Alyson Lewis, was excited to catch up with her to discuss the new collection.
Click here to read “Scared of Beautiful,” from I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean and The Inaugural Issue of Auburn Avenue.
"Poetry’s meant to live in the heart, not on the page."
I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean is your 3rd collection of poetry. Why Frank Ocean? What about his music inspired you to create an entire manuscript in conversation with his albums and singles?
I tend to think of poetry collections as conceptual projects. I was pretty struck by Frank Ocean’s ability to weave a story into his lyrics—it’s definitely a way of approaching poetry that has always delighted me. I was learning so much about narrative listening to his music, I decided to challenge myself to try and learn how to better master the skill by incorporating the clarity and vulnerability of his verses into my own.
Much of Ocean’s music, as you point out in your new collection, is synesthetic, particularly CHANNEL ORANGE. How did this relationship between the senses influence your poetry?
I’ve read biographical sketches of Frank Ocean in which he claims to experience synesthesia (much like Pharrell Williams in Seeing Sounds). It’s not a phenomenon that I’ve ever achieved but it’s definitely one I aspire to in writing. I do come to writing as someone deeply in touch with the sensory, and the brevity of poetry makes it a good place to put that on the page. I worked hard to analyze the craft elements present in Frank Ocean lyrics in order to imbue the poetry in the book with the same spirit.
Did you purposefully focus on color and its connection to feeling?
My last collection of poetry was a chapbook called PANTONE so—short answer—yes. I was working on ITIRTSFO and PANTONE simultaneously; it’s no surprise that the color studies bled over into my study of The Ocean, all puns intended. Even though I don’t “see” color when experiencing other sensations, it’s impossible for me to separate color from experience, color from feeling. Color, is the shape the mood takes—especially if you are dealing with something as fluid as water.
The unpredictable nature of water also plays a strong thematic role in your new collection. You often use “the ocean” as a metaphor, as evidenced in “Scared of Beautiful” which appeared in ISSUE I. of Auburn Avenue. You also mention Ocean’s personal relationship with water in your explanation of his moniker. What is your relationship with water—specifically, as it relates to this collection?
I grew up in Kentucky, so mostly landlocked, but I’ve always had a fondness for Oceans. I’m interested in Frank Ocean’s decision to align himself with the ocean because it is such a bold move. I think about Frank’s verse in the Jay-Z song “Oceans”:
Because this water drown my family, this water mixed my blood
This water tells my story, this water knows it all
Go ahead and spill some champagne in the water
Go ahead and watch the sun blaze on the waves of the ocean
I listen to those lyrics and get a very concrete sense that Frank Ocean is aware of what it means for him to align himself with a body of water as both a Katrina survivor and a representative of the Black diaspora. “This water drown my family, this water mixed my blood…” Damn.
My parents grew up in California. I remember the way their mood would change when they took us on family trips to the coast. The serenity. The way they seemed to remember where they came from. I’d sit on the beach and listen to that Bob Marley/ Lauryn Hill collabo version of “Turn Your Lights Down Low,” I felt like I was plugging into a conversation the land didn’t have.
It wasn’t until I got to the Blond(e) section of the book that I started to think about the significance of Oceans for black people, for our history. That we are porous. That we were enslaved. That when we go to the ocean, we are imbibing the narratives of our lost ancestors. I find something truly profound in that.
How would you describe your characterization of the man Frank Ocean in the poem, “LONNY?” Any parallels to your own life?
Ha! “Lonny” is actually the only poem in the book in which I attempt to speak for Frank Ocean—but only very loosely. One of the pleasures of writing this book has been having people tell me about their Frank Ocean encounters. This was one of them. I had a friend of a friend tell me her Frank Ocean story at a barbecue. She worked for U.S. Bank very early in Frank Ocean’s career. The dialogue in the poem is my poetic interpretation of the conversation she had on the phone with him, as relayed to me. Can I see parallels in my own life? I think so. As an artist, I often feel like I’m a bit of a sleeper for people—like they ain’t “ready,” but they’ll get there.
The poem, “SIERRA LEONE” describes female circumcision and embarking on a new life. Can you talk about your creative thought process in writing it?
Yeah, "Sierra Leone" was one of those Frank Ocean songs I knew I wanted to include in the book because the narrative is so multi-faceted, but I couldn’t figure out the right point of entry into the story happening between Frank Ocean’s two characters (a young couple who have had a baby too early in their lives). I spent some time working in refugee camps in the Netherlands, and ran into a few women whose genitals had been mutilated. Their stories really stuck with me, especially Baby May’s (a Sierra Leonean refugee) who I wrote about in the poem. You can listen to the recording I created with my band THE OCEANOGRAPHERS on my website to get a better sense of how it works with the song in context.
“NIKES” is in response to Ocean’s “crude elegy” of Trayvon Martin. What was the experience like creating it? How do you think Ocean’s own empathetic reaction to the death of Martin—and the experiences of those like him—-influences his music?
In the book, I referred to "Nikes" as a “vulgar elegy,” but I think crude is more apropos; I appreciate the way Frank Ocean is not afraid to display points of crudeness in his artistic practice—the misspellings present in certain song titles, the cavalier way in which he addressed his fans on social media during his last album release. I think Ocean exposes cracks in things so we can see what makes them more precious—the discordant voices on "Moon River," the pixelated photograph of Trayvon Martin he holds up in the "Nikes" video, wearing a sweatershirt that says “LOVER” on it.
I think Frank Ocean’s work is a reclamation of the ways black people are being erased. His interest in archiving visibility for the black bodies is evident in the lyrics of the songs he sings; he holds out this deep love for black boyhood—envisioning a world that loves them, that allows them the vastness of personhood, that is at times afro-futuristic. I get the sense from Frank Ocean’s music that he believes young blackness will continue to exist, a radical notion given the times we have witnessed. I believe in making art that is an archive of that kind of radical love. In a time in which our news feeds are so benignly flooded with such visceral hatred, we need it.
I felt your profound empathy for Frank Ocean very clearly in I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean, especially in “the ocean is ENDLESS.” You discuss Foucault’s panopticon in conversation with Ocean’s artistry; you explore the idea that certain figures in our culture are under constant surveillance by us, the consumers. Do you feel that the mainstream has put too much pressure on Frank Ocean to create another masterpiece after channel ORANGE?
I think the world puts too much pressure on young black talent to produce. As a nation, we still feel a calculated ownership over the brilliance present in black bodies. I saw the post-channel ORANGE conversations around Frank Ocean’s next album as a continuation of America’s physiological and psychological colonization. Social media, by extension, becomes another form of control. Surveillance has consumed so many young artists; I think about D’Angelo, I think about Lauryn Hill. I think about them losing their minds, I think about how quickly their fan-base abandoned them—and they didn’t even have to contend with Twitter and Instagram. I feel like Frank Ocean did a lot of internal work to stay healthy, stay out of the media, and keep making art in a world that is quick to commodify genius as disposable. It reminded me of conversations surrounding slowness as political action amongst enslaved—a way of preserving your body and working counter to the machine—quietly mapping out a plan toward freedom & independence. A lot of people sleep on ENDLESS, but that’s totally what the visual album was in terms of the Frank Ocean legacy. So smart. Bravo, Mr. Ocean.
This issue’s theme is “The American Story, A.D. 2018.” Overall, how would you say this new collection speaks to the American experience?
I don’t think people notice how Frank Ocean is influencing where music is right now. We forget how many artists he has written songs for. We forget about the nuanced versions of black masculinity his work has made mainstream. Plus, there’s buzz surrounding the idea he’ll be releasing new music this year… I’m done writing the book, but I do believe “The American Story, A.D. 2018” is Frank Ocean. He’s left us with a lot to mull over in the past ten years, and there is a lot more to come.
Tell us more about The Tenderness Project that you curate with Ross Gay. How does tenderness or empathy influence your creative work?
The Tenderness Project is my little love angel—an experiment in radical empathy. A way to put dollops of kindness into out into social media like beads on a necklace. The stories are beautiful because people are beautiful. I really hope we start to garner more followers. Visit the website and join us.
Why, in your opinion, is empathy so radical? Is it inherently collaborative or can it comprise of individual explorations?
The world is getting too fast and too selfish. We need reasons to stay connected, to slow down, to listen to someone tell us something we haven’t curated for ourselves. I think empathy has to be collaborative. I would consider poetry an individual exploration of empathy, but only in the act of writing it. Poetry’s meant to live in the heart, not on the page.