With the release of Great Weather's new anthology Before Passing, we return to our series of interviews to introduce you to the writers that make up our book. This time out, Great Weather editor David Lawton talks to CHRISTOPHER J. GREGGS, whose poem Harlem, U.S.A. can be found on page 101:
Christopher Greggs is a young black poet born and raised in New York. He has been published in the Promethean Literary Journal, Poetry in Performance, great weather for MEDIA, and is the recipient of the Goodman Poetry prize from the City College of New York. He is an Event Planning Assistant at Politics & Prose Bookstore. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his fiancé Nadia.
DL: Your poem in Before Passing invokes a Harlem where traditional African American culture helps support the struggling urban class. What do you think about the recent gentrification of the neighborhood and how this will affect the spiritual well-being of the community?
CG: The question delves deeper. Specifically, the spiritual well-being of which Harlem community? If we are discussing the proverbial Harlem of music, afro-centrism, and revolution or of desperation, violence, and squalor I would comment that these archetypical ideas of Harlem are best accessed by a city tour bus, tour of the Apollo, or conversations with old heads about the old neighborhood. The Harlem that remunerates in nostalgia was formed, in concept, very similarly to the Harlem of today: mass emigration of people to 4 sq mi of promised land. So when we discuss the spiritual well-being of a place, we are making a comment about people. What we are saying is that the cumulative spirits of a group of people have been or are to be accepted as the cultural arbiters of a space. The difficulty comes when said people do not have claim to the land (and I say this only in the strictest of financial terms). So what we find, as a result, is the spiritual dismemberment of the Harlem-body, now, spliced with the transplants of incoming spiritual bodies. But this isn’t a new conversation (from the premise of new groups of people with their own culture and spirits joining the landscape). One could argue that it is the foil of culture that is responsible for what we love about Harlem. What makes gentrification different is the introduction of the mandatory SES (social economic status) that is now required to live, operate, and thrive within the dynamic shifts of the spiritual body. This is the crime. I reference not the cultures that are pressing their way into Harlem, but rather the corporate forces that indirectly accompany them. However, this, like much of American history will fall under the guise of the future modern day. We will look up one day, 60 years from now, and say: “what are they doing to Harlem, my Harlem? Don’t you remember the days when everybody was young trying to find their way in the world? Literally the whole world was here, every creed, and look what they’ve done. Nothing but another Park Slope.”
DL: Until recently you were teaching ELA to eighth graders in Brooklyn. What was that experience like and how might it have influenced your writing?
CG: Teaching is the biggest job in the world. It is your responsibility to share with children both the academic and social values that will make them contributors to the world around them. As one can imagine, I was always working. The job requires that you take it home with you. Whether it be grading, lesson planning, thinking about how you can improve the confidence and skills of your students, or just meditating on the day, it is very much a capturing profession. I worked with 8th grade students in East New York. They are amazing children filled with so much life, brilliance, and potential. Being with them, day in and day out, indirectly sparked a reflection to my years as a child and teenager. In a weird way, the experience has placed my childhood back into my poetry. It is a part of my self that I am exploring from a place of meditation and reconcile. One of the biggest questions being: What does it mean to be twenty-five and feel the pull to abandon my joy and imagination in favor of a “reasonable and productive” life?
DL: I remember the first time I heard you read was at an event Great Weather was involved with that took place at a neighborhood garden in the East Village. Our friend the late poet Bob Hart, whose work gives us the title for our new anthology, was also reading that day, and was very taken with your work. Do you have any recollections about your encounter with Bob and his work that you can share?
CG: I remember Bob from that reading and many others. I remember him possessing an element of permanence as if, no matter the space, he had always been there, transient, readied with a poem and a weightless spirit. I know he and I spoke briefly a few times. Mostly conversations were humble exchanges of compliments and nice-to-see-you-agains. It lifts my heart to know that he enjoyed those poems of mine. I always found his work able to rapture me to heart of a question. A question I didn’t even know I was trying to answer. In a way, when he read you could feel the whole room following Bob down the road of some psychic happening, both public and secret, as if Bob had shown us the door to his mind only to find that we were on the other side. After reading the piece on him and the poem in the anthology, it confirmed how he could be so arresting.
DL: You recently relocated to the Washington DC area. Can you give us your impressions about the DC poetry/writing scene?
CG: Yes, D.C. I am still getting used to the space here for poets. It is clear that there is a clear emphasis on the performance of poetry and the idea of community being a large part of the work. I am still working to gain a handle on scene itself. I have been here only 3 months, with most of that time, being dedicated to work, my craft, and my fiancé. But please, if you know of any “must-go” places in the city or writers with open doors, let me know.
DL: What is coming up next for Christopher Greggs?
CG: I just finished a chapbook and I’m working on making it as tight as possible. I’m in the submission process, so wish me your best. Other than that, funny you asked about community, I’m working on a workshop I’m developing with some writers I’ve met in the city, some really cool people. Other than that, I’m in study mode. Since I’ve been in D.C. I have read more books in these past months than I have read over the past year. I am focusing heavily on craft and have become an even more avid reader of poetry and craft books. Greywolf’s Art of series, especially, has been a source of knowledge, in addition to essays I received from some new friends. I’ve been experiencing an almost frantic need to gain strong footing in the way of the work, to root my self in the craft of the discipline. I’m also preparing my MFA applications for the coming fall, so wish me well on those also.
DL: Thanks, Chris! We wish you the very best with all your endeavors. And hope it's not too long until we hear you reading your stuff again.
Before Passing (great weather for MEDIA, 2015) Details