I’m fortunate to live in a community that actively supports its writers. Here are two interviews with local radio stations:
[I was honored today to present at NOPF5 with Laura Mullen, Jerika Marchan, and moderator Elizabeth Gross. Honestly, I think was the least polyvocal of the bunch, but I enjoyed the thinking this made me do—and I definitely felt the need to think in advance rather than just wing it on this one. I’ve also been jotting down a lot of thoughts about Parasite Kingdom, so this was an opportunity to focus and shape those into this draft—and it is very much a draft.
Rather than dealing with formatting issues on here, I’ve inserted a link to “The Raft of the Medusa” in the spot where I read from the first section. Also, because the panel preceding ours was a tribute to Marthe Reed’s Ark Hive, and because Laura Mullen, Marthe’s dear friend, was also on that panel, I also chose to read my “Cento to the Garbage Patch” as a tribute to Marthe’s advocacy and love for the fragile and imperiled ecosystems of South Louisiana. I’ve inserted a link to that one, too. Thanks for reading.]
One of the movements in my work from Motion Studies to Parasite Kingdom is from being a lyric poet reflecting on the nature of abjection (as subject and as witness) to being some other kind of lyric poet trying to imaginatively comprehend the powers that make others abject. In the former case, I was responding to a very literal disaster—the catastrophic federal flood that followed Hurricane Katrina—and bringing that experience into dialogue with, primarily, two works of art: Thomas Eakins’ painting Swimming and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. In most of the book, the voice is my lyric “I,” but in “The Raft of the Medusa,” it shifts into a plural register: [“The Raft of the Medusa”]. I took on the voice of the city, and had I only done that, I think it would have failed; but in “inviting” readers onto my/our raft, by placing them in my city’s abject position, I hope that I placed them inside the precarity and angry despair so many of us felt. I hope that doing that, and attending to the TV cameras that made that our abjection a spectacle for a nation of voyeurs, mitigates to some degree the unavoidable fact of my white male voice speaking for a city in which the worst and most enduring suffering was among poor people of color. Géricault made his painting to indict the French government and French capitalists. My aim was similar.
The shift from that to trying to comprehend power (the powers, for instance, that built the levees and allowed them to fail and brought in cameras to film the scene) arose from the spectacle we’ve all been part of for the last four or twenty or a hundred or more years: when, really, did the 2016 presidential campaign begin? And, actually, these poems started a few weeks after 9/11, when I wrote a poem called “Fear,” narrated by a librarian in a city at war. He takes refuge at his dilapidated place of work, where he finds the king has done the same and forces him to go through “unreckoned contents of his regime.” I’m just going to read the ending.
A shell burst above us, a shadow whimpered
behind me: he cowered as boots pounded down the stairs,
and I was glad to snatch my knife away, glad to point
to his dank little uniform, glad to let them open
the ledger of my body, to feel their bayonets
inscribe me with their cleansing lies.
That turn, where the librarian is apparently both himself and the king, is something I’ve thought about a lot. To quote Pogo (if you recall Walt Kelly’s brilliant comic strip), “We have seen the enemy and he is us.” I think it’s fitting that Pogo was talking about the first naive inklings we had of the environmental disaster around us, half a century ago. That disaster, the disaster of war, the disaster of our politics: they’re all the same. And we are the disaster, both its masters and its abject subjects.
In the scheme of Parasite Kingdom, a pathetic king is at war with, among other enemies, a mythically gigantic parasitic wasp. She breeds, as many wasps do, by laying her eggs in a host creature, on whose body her larvae feed and from which they emerge. To freely paraphrase Bela Lugosi’s character in The Black Cat, “Disgusting, perhaps; evil, perhaps not.” I mean, she’s a wasp, right? Nonetheless, as metaphor or allegory, that idea, that image, of one’s self being overpowered by another force that wants to use you for its own material ends—and even of one’s possible complicity, possibly even one’s pleasure, in letting this happen—has been disturbing and compelling.
That all leads to a peculiar polyvocality in this book. It contains a legion of first person narrators. They’re different and they’re the same. They are, like the wasp, solitary and yet a collective. They do not trust themselves or one another. If that sounds like the world you know, I’m sorry. There will be at least one sequel to this book, and perhaps things will become more optimistic. Or not. The voices will tell.
I’m going to close with one short poem, “The Baker,” so you can see what it’s like for an ordinary citizen in my book’s imaginary.
Lately, I’ve been baking people
I mold from spit and clay.
Maybe they don’t look like people—
headless hat stands? baguettes on tripods?—
but I know what they are
and so do they. At dawn, after they’ve cooled
on the rack, I set them on a chess board
made from a butcher block.
Each waits, meditating on its shadow, poised
on a light or dark square. Toward noon,
they start to move, wary
of one another as they inch across the board.
Mid-afternoon, something about the light
agitates their limbs,
and they glide, zigzag and tumble
like soldiers dodging bullets. Some cower
in corners, while the rest
collide and merge: a new beast: horn-crowned,
stout, thick-legged, he hunts the others,
his touch poison, paralyzing—
rigid, each sinks into a light or dark square.
The last one caught, the King sinks with it,
the board is empty
and it’s dark. So I shut up the shop
and go to bed, and try, under my quilt,
to remember who I am,
panicked until it comes to me:
I am King.
If you want to see me and you’re in or near New Orleans, you’ll have lots of opportunities!
Saints and Sinners Literary Festival, March 28-April 1.
Sat. 3/30: Moderating a poetry panel, “Songs of Ourselves,” 10 AM, Hotel Monteleone, Royal Salon D. Also moderating a discussion on “The Power of Sexuality in Contemporary Literature,” with Garth Greenwell and Justin Phillip Reed. Hotel Monteleone, Queen (!) Anne Ballroom.
Sun. 4/1 10 AM reading with a very fun group of writers, Hotel Monteleone, Bienville C.
Poetry Buffet, Latter Library
Sat. 4/6: 2 PM reading with Peter Cooley and Andrew Squitiro.
New Orleans Poetry Festival, April 18-21
Sun. 4/21: 4:10 panel, “Post-Apocalyptic Polyvocality.” Cafe Istanbul, The Healing Center.
Wed. 4/24, 6 PM: a reading with Elizabeth Gross. Our official launch for my new book and her debut collection!
Jefferson Parish East Bank Regional Library
Tues. 4/30, 6 PM: A reading with Cassie Pruyn (the organizer of this wonderful event), Elizabeth Gross, Ben Aleshire, Esme Franklin, and Benjamin Morris.
This book and I got very, very lucky. So grateful to each of these writers for their time, care, and thoughts. Also, Parasite Kingdom is available to order at The Word Works, right here. If you’re at AWP in Portland, you can find it and other amazing books at The Word Works’ table, T7082.
When insanity reigns in high places, and the culture has commodified human depths into glittering surfaces, when the Dow Jones serves as oracle, and reality reads from a script, perhaps we need most what Brad Richard works toward in Parasite Kingdom: a radical and instantaneous mytho-poesis that might give us perspective by breaking the whole damn thing apart. Taking both inspiration and refuge in Herman Melville—that fundamental chronicler of American unconscious—Richard gives us new apocrypha to ward off current apocalypse, offers us new symbols by which we might come to understand ourselves. Here the White Whale is replaced by the Parasitic Wasp, and the questions of unfathomable depths are replaced by questions of what has planted her eggs in our heads, and what life from them might emerge. Some of those lives, no doubt, are these very poems—as intricate and precise in their formal lives as the elegant casques of their totem wasps, us urgent as a sting, and furthering of genuine care—as a bee tends a field by burying itself in blossom—in the most unexpected of ways. As antidote is often made from the poison it counters, Parasite Kingdom gives us our needed dose, bitter to taste, but in the end, the truer vermifuge. —Dan Beachy-Quick, author of Mulberry; A Whaler’s Dictionary; This Nest, Swift Passerine; and Of Silence and Song.
A cart rattles into the palace courtyard and explodes. A doomed king blesses the children, then commands the citizens of his ruined nation to root out invaders. Sentries fix their sights on a little girl. And, burrowed among tunnels beneath the capitol, an enormous wasp flicks her antennae, pivots, and tests the air. In Parasite Kingdom, Brad Richard conjures up a wrecked world that is the twin of our own, but sifted through nightmare and apocalypse. Richly imagined and terrifying, this is a first-rate collection of poems. —Kevin Prufer, author of National Anthem, Churches, In a Beautiful Country, and How He Loved Them.
I didn’t read Parasite Kingdom, I entered it, lived there a while, and came away changed. Brad Richard has created a mythos that at first appears to be a warning about where our world is headed, yet reveals itself as a dirge for a way of being that we’ve not yet realized is gone. Parasite Kingdom uses the architectural tools of Moby Dick and Borges’ El Aleph in the construction of underground caverns where Richard’s poetry moves deftly, dangerously. A collection such as this could only have been written after the accretion of decades of reading, thinking, and writing. The Tenth Gate imprint exists in acknowledgement of precisely this kind of poetry: that borne only out of long gestation. —Leslie McGrath, author of Opulent Hunger, Opulent Rage and Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives
This piece by Kelly Mueller, titled “Queen,” is one of the more glorious pieces from the astonishing series she created in response to the poems I wrote for Larval Songs. I’m going to leave “Queen” here at the top of this blog, as motivation and reminder. Long may she rule.
January 28, 2019
At some point, I really am going to use this as a blog. I just need to find the time to write things worth posting. In the meantime, I just want to say that this is the best book I’m reading at the moment:
Astounding formal inventiveness, profound lyric imagination, extraordinary emotional power in almost every poem. The kind of book that makes me want to write more poems. Read it, readers.