The Willies : An Interview with Adam Falkner

My introduction to your work was scrolling through Instagram and stopping at your call and repeat opening at a reading. Can you describe the experience of doing this opening and what it was like to perform virtually during 2020 poetry sessions?

The first Wednesday of every month, I co-curate a reading series called SupaDupaFresh Brooklyn. At the last reading, I did this call and response for the first time in a while. I put it to bed during virtual readings because it felt weird asking people to sing and get free in their living rooms, where as far as you know they could have a three-year-old pouring cereal on the floor next to them or their husband could be on a work call twenty feet from them. I weaned off asking people to get as vocally present as I often do when I step into live readings.

My first literacy was music. The energy around musical language was the first thing that made me think about the world in creative ways, so it is anchoring for me and the reason why I incorporate singing into openings like the one you’re describing. Virtual readings have their pros and cons, but the biggest downside has been  the contextual flattening of not being aware of where people are. You don’t know much about the space you’re sharing with someone. You don’t know if you’re tab seventeen on a running desktop or if you’re on in the background. Part of what I value about live readings is the way I force myself to be present, but it felt like asking folks to sing into that presence in a virtual realm was disregarding the complications that exist in people’s lives, so I stopped. I still ended up singing quite a bit in Zoom spaces for my own sets because songs help me mark this energy shift as something other than what it feels like when on conference calls, or teaching.

How did writing and performing the work in The Willies help you find your truth in where you are currently at with Self?

In terms of writing, the book tells these dueling stories of two characters, my father and I, coming into a truth in their lives, and it depicts the costumes that we both were trying on in our respective journeys. I wouldn’t say I had the architecture of the book in mind when I sat down to write it, but over time it became clearer that our two stories had a lot more to do with each other than I initially appreciated. I think my immediate reaction to my father’s work with addiction recovery was to be distant from it, in part because I felt implicated in it or was still frustrated with him for not being stronger or sturdier for my brother and I. It eventually became a process of stepping back and saying, How can I stitch these stories together (his journey with addiction and mine coming out of the closet) in a way that helps folks think more presently about their own lives and the stories that we tell about who we are? I’m asking folks, especially young readers, to think about the stories that are quietly knocking at our doors that make us “perform” ourselves in the world. This collection is an invitation for people to take the microscope to their own lives and families and interior selves.

We’ve talked about music’s influence in your life and about your brother. Do you remember the first album you took from your older brother’s room?

36 Chambers was one of the first records that I took. I remember playing it in my bedroom with headphones on because I didn’t want anyone to know I was bumping this music as loud as I could. The more vivid memory is putting it back delicately so I didn’t reveal myself as someone who was more interested in his life than I claimed to be when he was around.

I fell in love with hip hop, hip-hop culture, and rap music much more deeply than I think he did. He was growing up as a teenager when East Coast and West Coast gangster rap was in the cars of suburban white kids across America. It was my proximity to that that made me curious. I wasn’t necessarily a hip hop head just yet, I just knew that it was something that was attractive to a lot of people I loved and grew up around. My brother and I grew up in the same musical family. We took piano lessons, sang in choir, were musical theatre nerds as children, so we had a lot of common touchpoints for music, but my stealing of his early Wu Tang records was the beginning of a much longer love affair for me where it was a more passing fad for him. Later, I’d learn to unpack why that “love affair” was deeper than just a musical one, and why it was a problematic one that offered an opportunity for racial performance and appropriation. The book explores that.

All brothers fight. As the younger brother, do you remember the first time that you got the upper hand in the fight?

We squabbled a lot. We weren’t friends until I moved to New York when I was 21, after some time being distant from one another. We started to appreciate each other’s interior lives with a greater sincerity and curiosity than we did as kids. It was powerful and fortifying as a sibling for us both to realize that we deeply admire and love each other after spending more than 20 years trying to believe that we didn’t. When you’re caught in the sibling mess of it all, you sometimes don’t get the privilege of getting to know the people you share blood with. While it wasn’t an upper hand, it was certainly a kind of leveling in our relationship when, through writing, I got to show him a fuller demonstration of who I was. I am my most vulnerable, honest, and present self when writing, performing, singing, and teaching. When someone who knows you well comes to a reading to see you perform something that’s intimate for you, they might not have known that version of you before. As far as my brother and family were concerned, the stories I was performing showcased a self that I chose to keep far away from them for a very long time. When those worlds started melding, there became a more mutual and balanced level of respect, appreciation, and admiration, and that stays with us to this day.

When you were putting The Willies together, what decision went into crafting the arcs of the book’s three parts?

The organization of this book is a testament to why we need good editors and writing friends. Generally, when I write a bunch of poems, I have some idea about what their linkage might be, but then I give it to someone whose editorial scalpel I trust and admire so that they can sit with it and help me determine what order is best for the story I might be telling. Two voices that helped me understand how I could tell these two stories simultaneously were Shira Erlichman, who is a dear friend and editor of this book, and Hanif Abdurraqib, who is the lead editor of this collection.

Initially, I planned to tell them chronologically, but I realized that didn’t make sense because the father narrative and the son narrative aren’t linear. They’re about coming into oneself and wrestling with that act. In the queer narrative, it’s not a quick ripping of the band-aid where you’re like, great, I’m out of the closet. This is wonderful, let me hurry up and get on with the rest of my life. There’s this constant ebbing and flowing of how we define ourselves as men, as boys, what relationships means to us, where masculinity fits into that, and, for me, where addiction is hiding in those conversations. The story was a quiet coming-of-age bound not by a set of chronological time stamps, but by a series of snapshots from two lives detailing the process of becoming more open.

One of the notes that I valued from Hanif, the editor, concerned the poems about white privilege and wrestling with race and cultural appropriation. Those poems needed to be tethered to this larger story around queerness and the privilege associated with trying on different selves and costumes free of fear. Hanif knew that there needed to be some structural choice in how the poems were presented that allowed them to fit this narrative of opening. We tackled that with formatting. As the white boy poems reappear, the margins get smaller on the justified text. Over the course of the book, even in the sub-narrative of this white character wrestling with self and costuming, there is this opening that hints at the new expansiveness in this character’s life as he comes out and wrestles with masculinity. Through that lens, we decided to organize it into three chunks, from restricted and constrained to as free and open as we could be. The general arrangement was less concerned with age and more about internal processes.

How is The Willies an act of reconciliation and healing?

That question is the underpinning thesis of the book. These poems represent an important healing in my life with regard to the stories that I’ve grown comfortable talking about over the last decade. There was something healing in telling the story that was under my nose and not airbrushing it, in taking an honest and steady look at what scares me, what brings me shame, what I am comfortable wrestling out loud with in public and saying this is also me. Any time we engage with those real questions and invite other people into that process, that is healing. That’s why I got involved in slam and in performance spaces as a young kid. It was a space to invite other people into my internal world. I can build relationships around literature and part of that is saying here’s what I’m wrestling with. If I open the door, will you come through it with me? In that way, this book represents a great deal of my healing.

This book is also about forgiveness. If I believe in my capacity to transform, grow, and heal, then necessarily I must also believe in other people’s capacity to do the same. I wrestle with what it means to forgive myself for the people I have been and who I have harmed in that process. When we stay in closets, whatever that means to you, we are not the only one who suffers. There are so many people who get caught up in the shrapnel of our own bomb blasts when we are afraid to be ourselves in the world. I needed to forgive and love previous selves in my life in order to be present in my actual “now.” This book was an effort at reclaiming those younger selves and not carrying shame about them. Accountability, yes. But not shame. The other piece was trying to understand my father’s recovery and what it might mean to extend the grace that I’m giving myself to him as well. This book was possible because of his choice to heal. Watching him struggle with who he was, the things that drove him to drink and to hide, and watching him think carefully about his life inspired me to be more courageous in asking myself similar questions. The book is not only an attempt to explain why I am the way that I am through the lens of a broken father; it’s also an effort to find real humanity in what it means to watch anybody try to clean up their lives. It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to confront the shame that has driven you to make choices that you’re not proud of. This was me trying to give him grace and acknowledge that I see his effort to heal because, at the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is heal ourselves and let people we love know that we see them trying to do the same.

Thank you for that great answer. To pivot a bit, can you talk about your work with the Dialogue Arts Project?

At the Dialogue Arts Project, I do leadership development coaching and workshop facilitation in training around equity and inclusion. We have a team of a dozen or so wildly-skilled facilitators who use storytelling and creativity to run trainings, give lectures, and facilitate workshops around justice-based issues of identity and difference. We center storytelling to get folks to check their learning edge and to hold them accountable to the stories they know they need to tell if they are to get serious about these conversations. I describe our work to potential clients as an anti-diversity training diversity training approach, meaning we are familiar with the ways in which these things go wrong when they’re treated as a quota-fulfilling checkbox, and we work to combat that through the real personalizing we need to do when it comes to thinking about reparations.

If we are to get to a spot where we can talk openly and honestly about racism, homophobia, or gender inequity, we need to be comfortable talking about the stories in our own lives and how they have guided the way we show up in those dialogues. That’s part of the founding principle of our work and how it’s different from other equity and inclusion training spaces. We also center intersectionality in the teaching and learning process. It is essential for people to talk about and locate different selves whom they bring to conversations around white supremacy, whiteness, and racial justice. We lose a lot of folks who want to engage in racial justice work because they aren’t quite prepared to talk about it, which is why we ask folks in our workshops to think about themselves in terms of gender and sexual orientation, ability status, body size, and language of origin. If there aren’t moments when folks can recognize how their different identities are salient in these conversations, it’s hard to get them to talk sincerely about racial justice.

Where can people get The Willies?

From Button Poetry, Indiebound, or Bookshop. It’s also available on most conglomerate places where one can purchase books, but support your local indie instead!

Where can people see you read live regularly?

The first Wednesday of every month, I co-curate a series in Brooklyn at a bar called Ode to Babel. It’s called SupaDupaFresh, and I run that series with Mahogany L. Browne, Jon Sands, Jive Poetic, and Rico Frederick. It’s a COVID-safe reading series conducted outdoors. There’s usually eight people on a tightly curated open mic, and we have a featured writer who is working out new pieces and wants a loving, living room to listen. There will also be places on the internet to view readings in the next 6 months. You can also follow me on Instagram. That’d be swell.

Adam Falkner, Interviewed by Dominic Loise

Dr. Adam Falkner is a poet, educator and equity & inclusion strategist. He is the author of The Willies (Button Poetry, 2020) and Adoption (Winner of the Diode Editions Chapbook Award), and his work has been featured on programming for HBO, in The Guardian, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He has toured the United States as a guest artist, lecturer and trainer, and was the featured performer at President Obama’s Grassroots Ball at the 2009 Presidential Inauguration.

Adam is a founding partner of the pioneering diversity consulting group, Dialogue Arts Project, and holds over a decade of cross-industry experience developing creative diversity curricula and cultural programming for corporate, academic and nonprofit partners.  A former high school English teacher in New York City’s public schools, Adam’s pedagogy and research focus on understanding how elements of performance, storytelling and technology work together to foster empathy in individuals and organizations. He is a Senior Consultant with Jennifer Brown Consulting, and has held teaching and facilitation appointments at Columbia University, Vassar College, The Pahara Institute, Pinterest, and elsewhere. He holds a PhD in English & Education from Columbia University.

Dominic Loise is open about and advocates for mental health awareness, as seen with his essay writing for F(r)iction. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.