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Lyrical Obsessions: An Interview with Luther Hughes

Luther Hughes is the author of A Shiver in the Leaves, which was published by BOA Editions on September 27, 2022. A Shiver in the Leaves explores the interior and exterior symbiosis of a gay Black man finding refuge from the threat of depression and death through love and desire. Learn more about Luther and his work through this exclusive self-interview!

A Shiver in the Leaves wrestles with a lot of different obsessions like Blackness, depression, Seattle, trees—to name a few. Of these obsessions, crows seem to be the staple of the book, insomuch the opening poem is about a painting of crows by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Where did this obsession with crows come from and how do you see this obsession informing your work?

I’m not entirely too sure why I became so intrigued with crows. I remember I received a prompt from my friend—a prompt that I think he, too, was working on—and either the prompt said to use a crow or maybe he showed me an example of the prompt which had a crow, I don’t remember. Nevertheless, I used a crow, and that poem is actually in my chapbook, Touched. The poem is “Self-Portrait as Crow.”  Writing that poem unlocked something in me; I began thinking of crows, then, as representations of Black bodies—particularly ones that have died at the hands of police brutality. The way crows are represented in the book isn’t too far off from this, but I will say that I began seeing crows as representative of numerous amounts of things—the biggest one possibly being trauma and more specifically trauma tied to Seattle, which has a large population of crows. Possibly one of the largest in the country. When I had lived in St. Louis for graduate school, I found myself missing Seattle a lot and, thus, began writing about Seattle. I realized St. Louis was missing something Seattle had, which were crows. Crows then became nostalgia, too, alongside my trauma and the complexity of my hometown—which housed a lot, if not all, of my trauma. So, crows. Crows became a complex symbol in my life and throughout the book. This complexity allowed me to think about my work in more layered ways. It wasn’t enough that I desired love, but it was that I desired love in a city that was riddled with racism and anti-blackness. I couldn’t just bring myself to be joyful because around the corner was depression. My obsession with crows pushed me to think more intentionally about the aspects of my life and how those aspects can be accurately written about in my work.

While the book interrogates the many shapes of desire, there are also poems directly about parents and family that are as tender and vulnerable. How do you see desire and familial relationships working together in the book?

Overall, the book is about love. The most obvious strain of that is desirous love or the love of a beloved, an “other.” That’s true and that is a deep root of the book. But, when I say the book is about “love,” I really mean the very essence of it. The book holds love for many people and things and sometimes those I don’t even know personally. The poems about my parents are important in this book because they illustrate the overwhelming feelings of love I had at the time, and it represents that love is closer than I thought. For me, these poems needed to be in the book. I couldn’t understand what it means to love another person or animal or flower if I don’t wrestle with what it means to love my parents or for them to love me. Love, in this way, is all encompassing.

Can you talk about the title of the book and how it came to be? 

Hilariously enough, this was a title I originally scraped a few years ago, which doesn’t say much except that sometimes you never know what things resurrect over time when working on a book. The title of the book comes from a poem in the book with the same title. I will also say, this poem came and went several times during many iterations of the book; every time I tried removing it, it found its way back in. The poem itself, “A Shiver in the Leaves,” came about after reading “The Yolk” by Frank Bidart. The two poems don’t share anything in particular except the idea of repetition and/or minor obsession, but I couldn’t write that poem without his. The poem opens with a lyric from Hunger Games—the song itself, or the lyric I used—being about meeting at a tree of a hanged man. This song is played while, in the movie, districts are revolting. It’s a weird concept, right, and ultimately a little eerie, as is the song—singing about a hanged man when people are revolting. I haven’t quite fully digested this. However, it was important for the lyric to start this poem because the poem is about wanting to revive a fictional hanged man—a man, of course, I don’t know, but felt extremely close to. The book eventually needed this title over time because that, at its core, is what the book is wrestling with—closeness, intimacy, and relief.

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