Interview with Fordham Professor, Scott Poulson-Bryant

Scott Poulson-Bryant 

Scott Poulson-Bryant 

Fordham English is proud to welcome Scott Poulson-Bryant to our teaching faculty. Poulson-Bryant is an award-winning author and journalist. He began his journalism career at The Village Voice in the 1980s while still an undergraduate at Brown University. He was one of the co-founding editors of Vibe Magazine in 1992. He completed his undergraduate degree at Brown in 2008 and went on to earn a PhD in American Studies from Harvard University. He is the author of The VIPs and Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America. His profiles, essays, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Ebony, Essence, and The Source. - Erin Coughlin

EC: What’s your educational background?

SPB: I went to Brown undergrad and did my PhD at Harvard, where I was trained in cultural studies as an American Studies PhD, with a designated emphasis on literature, popular culture and gender and sexuality studies.

EC: Why were you drawn to writing, and how did you start?

SPB: I was really shy as a kid, so I wouldn’t talk a lot when I was with strangers, but I would always write stuff down and show it to my mom. I didn’t have language for wanting to be a writer, but I knew I liked to do that and I loved reading books, and then when I was about nine, I wrote a book. I had read all my books, so I was going to write my own. I barely remember this, but it was eight or nine pages long. It took place in Norfolk, Virginia where my grandmother lived. I used to go visit her in the summertime. If I go all the way back, that’s where it started. English classes were my favorite classes. I started winning writing awards when I was in sixth, seventh grade. That was encouraging, and I enjoyed doing it, which was rare. I hated school. I was an awful student, partly because I was daydreaming. Then when I got to high school, I was editor of the yearbook and the editor of the newspaper—all those things writer kids do in high school. I didn’t want to go to college. I said to my folks, “James Baldwin didn’t go to college. Why don’t you give me some money, and I’ll go to Paris like James Baldwin did and learn how to be a writer?” My parents were like, “You’re seventeen. You either go to college or get a job. It’s up to you.” I knew I wanted to go to a school with a good writing program that would take writing seriously, so I went to Brown. I took great writing classes. I wrote for The Brown Daily Herald, but in my mind, I wasn’t thinking about journalism school. In my mind, if you went to grad school, you either get a PhD or you go law school or business school, and I was like, “How do you figure out when you’re young if you can actually do this, professionally? So I took a year off from Brown, and I went to The Village Voice newspaper in New York. Going to The Village Voice at 20-years-old is kind of like going to journalism school because they just throw you in, and they expect you to go report for writers who are already there or to report your own story. And then a fact-checking job opened up at the Voice. So I did another year [off from college], and then we started Vibe. I was working hard, but I was also really lucky.

EC: You must have been working hard to be offered a job without even graduating college.

SPB: I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then, it was less about the degree and more about the ability. Or the fortitude.

EC: Now I feel like you need a graduate degree and five years of experience before you can get an unpaid internship.

SPB: And that’s exactly what it was: an unpaid internship, because I was working in a video store at night, when I wasn’t out working on a story, and running around The Village Voice during the day. I tried not to take any money from my parents because I knew, the more money I asked them for, the more they could say, “Well, you could be back at college.” It was crazy and rough, but when I look back on it now, totally worth it.

EC: What were you reporting on at The Village Voice?

SBP: Mainly youth culture: fashion, music, and popular culture. And then I started to do a lot of book reviews and arts criticism.

EC: You seem especially fascinated by popular culture, how it affects people, life, and vice versa.

SBP: That comes from my youth, too. I’m a 70s – 80s kid. I was just about graduate high school when hip-hop began to take hold in the mainstream. It was a combination of doing cultural studies as a kid and my genuine love of film and literature and music. Being at The Voice was the perfect intersection of something like that for me. And also, my dissertation ended being about this, too, how popular culture is a site for marginalized people to find identity. Queer people, people of color, women: anyone who doesn’t fit the straight white male thing. I’ve always been very interested in what people call to as ‘low culture’: soap operas, sporting events, and how it can build identity and community. It carried over 20 years later when I became an academic.

EC: I always see people get defensive and say, ‘It’s just a movie’ or ‘It’s just a book.’

SPB: It’s never just a movie or a just a book.

EC: There’s so much power in seeing your experiences reflected in popular culture.

SPB: And in seeing other people’s experiences. At some point in any class, a student will say that, “Well, it’s just a movie.” I always have to explain that movies, books, and music don’t come out of a vacuum. Everything we interact with is affected by ideology, in some way shape or form, and when you explain that to them, and explain different points of view, in addition to the capitalist market, and what gets demanded of cultural producers, they look at it anew. I’ll show a scene from a movie and ask them, “Why was this shot in this way?” “Why is the woman wearing that in this scene?” And they learn about the male gaze, and they learn, “Oh, this isn’t just a movie. This is telling us who we are.” I’m teaching West Side Story tomorrow. The class is about race, the urban environment, and popular culture. Whenever I teach West Side Story, the first question I always ask is, “why are the Jets the first characters we meet?” Why aren’t the Sharks the first characters we meet? Why aren’t the Puerto Rican women the first characters we meet? It’s a Romeo and Juliet story, right? Why don’t we meet Juliet? But we meet the Jets, and only the Jets for the first seven minutes before the Sharks make their appearance. What’s going on there? What kind of story is really being told about race in the urban environment?

EC: It’s about the status quo being challenged.

SPB: It’s about the status quo being challenged, exactly.

EC: It’s interesting to look at the advertising for and reviews of West Side Story. It was seen as a movie about youth culture and the growing prominence of juvenile delinquent gangs. Nobody would talk about race. 

SPB: Very much so, and what’s even more interesting is there was a lot more discussion about race and politics in the Broadway version than when it became a movie three years later. Once it was going to hit that big mainstream audience, all of a sudden, let’s play down that cross-racial thing, but people are going to go see a movie for two and a half hours about Puerto Ricans vs. White folks. That’s the story. I love that movie, but it’s all kinds of problematic, which is what makes it great to teach. It’s a masterpiece that nonetheless comes out of a very specific ideological space. 

The Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story

The Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story

 

EC: I love liking problematic things, because they’re more interesting to think about.

SPB: We probably wouldn’t be writers if we didn’t enjoy liking problematic things.

EC: When they made West Side Story, they wanted to make a movie about racism in America, but did they make an effort to cast people of color?

SPB: Exactly. Rita Moreno is the only one who's actually Puerto-Rican.

EC: So, you wrote mainly non-fiction at first?

SPB: In college I studied fiction. I took three or four writing workshops, all fiction, and one non-fiction. Then when I got to New York, having to make a living, I became a journalist doing pop culture coverage. But I was always writing fiction in my off-time, short stories mainly. Then I wrote a novel that was awful, and then I wrote another one that sold [The VIPs].

EC: How do the processes compare between writing fiction and non-fiction?

SPB: I feel like I access different parts of my imagination and my brain when I write fiction versus non-fiction. When I’m writing non-fiction, there’s a way in which I want to interpret the real world through my vantage point and my experiences, but still elegant and still accessible. But in fiction, because you’re starting in space that’s made up, it frees you in a way that non-fiction doesn’t. I love writing both equally, but I do appreciate the different parts of my brain it takes to produce them. I heard Stephen King say once that when you’re doing it right, your characters take over doing it for you, and that’s what happened to me with The VIPs. I was a third of the way in, and it just wasn’t working. And then one day, I sat with one scene and I erased one line of dialogue that established the scene and the back story for these characters. And this new line, one word, popped into my head. “Okay.” And the pages just went after that. I felt as if how the characters were dictating to me. You’re trusting it and it works.

 

EC: You’ve mentioned James Baldwin as an influence. What’s your relationship to him and to other influences?

SPB: I read my first Baldwin work at sixteen. My aunt had a copy of The Fire Next Time, his book about racism in the 60s during the Civil Rights era. I read it and didn’t understand half of it, but two things happened: even when I didn’t understand it, it still sounded beautiful in my ear. I felt like I could write something difficult that could still be beautiful, so it opened up this entirely new way of thinking. But parts that I did understand, particularly as a kid growing up in Long Island [in a fairly] interracial area. Race doesn’t always happen to you the way it might in other places, so [Baldwin] didn’t only teach me, he opened me up to the possibilities of a whole new kind of language. And then I discovered Toni Morrison shortly after, so I got a one-two punch. And when I read Toni Morrison, I thought, “Okay, I don’t want to be a writer.” There’s nothing else to be done. I’ll never write like her, but then the more I read of hers, the more inspired I got.

EC: What was your dissertation about?

SBP: My diss was called “Everybody Is a Star: Uplift, Citizenship and the Cross-Racial Politics of 1970s U.S. Popular Culture,” and it’s multidisciplinary examination of the balance African American artistic expression strikes between performing the “national” and the “racial,” as that cultural work has managed to cohere as both a foundation of and marginal to U.S. culture and history. “Everybody is a Star” examines how race and ethnicity operate as structures of citizenship formation through the production and dissemination of popular culture, specifically theater, film, and music. This project theorizes what I posit as the “usability” of race as an embodied practice of cultural belonging enacted by marginalized communities who use their aesthetic labor to theatrically embed themselves into the American cultural imaginary. This work, I argue, is deeply inflected by the rise of identity politics, particularly around race, class, gender and sexuality, in the wake of civil rights social movements that took shape in the United States during the 1970s. There's a famous photograph titled "The Soiling of Old Glory" which was in many ways the animating text of my dissertation. It shows a very violent moment during the busing crisis in Boston in 1976 in which a white man appears to lunge at a black man with an American flag as his weapon. I wanted to think about how popular culture reflected the cross-racial enmity at work in American society while at the same time there was a significant amount of cross-racial affiliation through popular culture. How did popular populist cultural forms like disco, Hollywood cinema and Broadway musicals operate in this fraught socio-political space?

Link to "The Soiling of Old Glory": http://bit.ly/2bBLnBz

EC: Your book is about race and sexuality, two topics America has a hard time dealing with.

SPB: So, I decided to write a book about both of them

EC: What was the impetus for that?

SPB: Hung started out as a book of essays. When I first told my agent about it, I wanted to edit a book of essays by a bunch of black male writers about their experiences at the intersection between blackness and sexuality in America. But then as I talked it out with my agent, she found an editor at Doubleday who was interested. That editor, Janet Hill, saved my life by doing this, she said, “I think you should do all the essays.” I could hide behind one essay, but not behind a whole book. As a black queer dude, to quote James Baldwin, “I know more about American masculinity than most men,” and I completely identify with that. By being marginalized in American culture, but also being hyper visible, it makes for a weird place for black male bodies. I wanted to read a book like that, that was personal, but also cultural, but it didn’t exist. Toni Morrison said, if you want to read a book and it doesn’t exist, you have to write it, so I wrote it. It was originally going to be called Hung: the Myth of the Big Black Dick, but Random House said no. You’ll never sell a book in Target with that title, and we want to sell this in Target, so it became Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America. They did give in to my idea of putting a ruler on the cover.

 

EC: Was it daunting to put that out into the world? It’s very personal.

SPB: It was at first. I changed the names of all the people in the book, but I couldn’t change my name. Everyone was going to know it was me. But then it seemed to strike a chord with a lot of people, especially black men who didn’t have a book like that. That was fulfilling. Of course, you open yourself up to critique and possible embarrassment, but you realize that when you do open yourself up like that, people will identify. I think in some ways, that’s why the book has lasted. If it had been purely sociological, it might not have had the impact it did. 

EC: Do you consider it a sociological work or a memoir? 

SPB: There was no planned genre. I started with ten different writers, thinking some would be more journalistic while others were more personal. And I decided to write all of them, I kept all that, sociology and memoir and cultural criticism. I talk about Blaxploitation films and sports and then I write about my own experiences in college. It doesn’t fit one particular mode. I don’t know. I just wrote it. Let the librarian figure out where to shelve it.

EC: It’s a book about growing up in the shadow of a stereotype, created by society out of fear.

SPB: And desire. One of the complex things about the idea of stereotypes in Hung is, I could have written about how from slavery on, there are ways in which African-American men have been sexualized and burdened by this idea of their virility and the myth of the black rapist, but if I was going to be honest, which I wanted to be, I had to write about how black men have held on to that stereotype. And that opens up a whole new set of questions. What does that say about race relations and mainstream culture? It’s inflected by all these negative connotations about black men and race and blackness, but at the same time, nobody’s trying to let it go. I hope I get at all the naughty, messy implications of that in the book. 

EC: How do you view the relationship between your academic research, your writing, and your teaching?

SPB: As a former journalist, I find that I want to produce scholarship that is able to speak in a multivalent way, across audiences and spaces. My academic work does build, in some ways, on the reporting on popular culture and race that I did as a journalist, and I've found that there are many skills I used as a journo--research, ethnography, historical context--which serve me well as an academic.