“Naming the Unnameable”: Alumnus Poet Speaks the Truth of the Times

“Naming the Unnameable”: Alumnus Poet Speaks the Truth of the Times

Rayon Lennon, '09, MSW '16

Poems can be prayers, life savers, and eye-openers. Poems can be therapeutic and transformational. For Southern alumnus and poet Rayon Lennon, ’09, MSW ’16, poetry is all of these things and more. So when the moment calls for a poem, Lennon answers that call, saying that poetry’s purpose “is to make us see — by clarifying and deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.”

Lennon has won a number of writing contests, and his most recent accolade — his poem “Any Light” won the journal Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” contest on June 2, 2020 — is for a work that speaks to the moment we’re living in right now: a moment of global protest and the raising of millions of voices in support of racial justice.

“The poem originated from an incident I experienced on the golf course a number of days after the George Floyd tragedy,” Lennon says. The Poets Respond contest is Rattle‘s solution to the length of time it often takes for a poem to be published in the print journal. The contest recognizes poems “written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week.”

Lennon’s poem was published on Rattle’s website on June 2, 2020, eight days after George Floyd was violently killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Read “Any Light”

Born in rural Jamaica, Lennon moved to New Haven County when he was 13 and now lives in New Haven. He earned a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, as well as a master’s degree in social work, from Southern, and in addition to his successful career as a poet, he works as an adolescent psychotherapist. His work has been published widely in various literary magazines, and his poems have won numerous poetry awards, including the 2017 Rattle Poetry Prize contest for his poem “Heard” (the poem was chosen out of 15,000 contest entries and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize), for which he received a $10,000 cash prize. His poem, “Heaven Tree,” was nominated for Best of the Net by The Indianapolis Review in 2018. His first book of poems, Barrel Children, was released in March 2016 by Main Street Rag Publishing Company and was a finalist for the 2017 Connecticut Book Award for best poetry book.

Below, Lennon shares his thoughts on the power of poetry, living in a racist society, his work as a clinical therapist, and more.

1) How did you get started writing poetry?

My poems are prayers, I think. I write with the sense that God is reading my words and tweaking the world because of them. I write to map my emotional world too. I started to write in general at an early age because of a budding stutter (I still stutter). I write too to bridge my inner and outer worlds.

I was beyond sad to leave Jamaica when I was 13; in Connecticut, I wrote to preserve my warm memories of Jamaica. But the more I wrote the more I discovered that there were issues clouding paradise — issues I wanted to highlight.

I’m primarily a place poet. I draw from the world around me. I imbue objects in my surroundings with human qualities.

People have told enough lies about me for me to know that it’s not the truth that usually survives; what survives is the most compelling story. People can ruin your life that way. A good storyteller matters. I’m the child of divorced parents. I didn’t know my father well until I came to Connecticut. My father is easily the best storyteller I know. He can weave a story so intricate and moving that you forget that it may be a world of lies.

I can tell you there is nothing as thrilling as creating a poem. I would even take that feeling over winning the lottery or falling in love.

The poet Jericho Brown has talked about “crafting a rant.” That’s exactly what I do in my poems now. I let myself go and then package it in a poem.

The poet Tiana Clark has said she writes to save her own life. That’s true for me too.

2). You give a brief explanation as to the origin of the poem “Any Light” on the page below the poem. I like Rattle‘s idea of poetry that responds to events in the moment, and becomes part of the conversation — and your poem certainly does that, very powerfully. Can you talk a bit more about the golfing incident that inspired you to write the poem? Can you tell me about the poem’s title, which I see comes from a line in the poem?

Yes. I love Rattle’s Poet’s Respond contest. I think it encourages poets to look outside of themselves and to help to bring about change by making connections and enlightening people — with striking language — about who we were, who we are, and how we live now. The poem originated from an incident I experienced on the golf course a number of days after the George Floyd tragedy. I will say that the poem is a heightened version of what happened. In reality, it was a cordial exchange. In the poem, I sharpened the language and brought current events and history into the fold. I captured the spirit of that moment while also tailoring the incident to fit the needs of the poem. It was not the first time that someone hit a ball my way while I was on a golf course. It was the first time I confronted someone about it — in that way. Those other incidences also shaped the poem. It was twilight and I was playing the last hole at a golf course. I was about to hit my second shot into the green when a ball zinged by my head. I couldn’t believe it. Someone on the tee behind me had hit a tee shot while I was close enough to be hit by it. I knew the person had seen me before he hit the shot. I waited for the person; and saw it was a young white guy. He was nonchalant about the incident — as though he hadn’t valued my life. I was nice to him, but made him know that it was wrong. I was wearing a red shirt. So he must have seen me. In golf, one is supposed to wait before hitting a ball if the person is close and could get hit by the ball. I immediately thought about George Floyd then as I knelt to read the putt — the way the officer had devalued Floyd’s life and kept his knee on his neck even as Floyd begged for air. That’s how the poem was born. I wrote it within an hour.

I’m usually not very good at analyzing my own poems. I leave that up to readers and scholars. But I’ll give it a try.

I think the title, “Any Light,” can have different meanings for different people. “Any Light” can mean any source of hope. It can mean that any light — self-awareness, love, kindness, empathy, etc., — will help to root out racism. For me, it also means people can choose to make you invisible if it benefits them. Someone can see you in any light they want. That means that the person who is viewing you is projecting on to you whatever internalized/generalized perceptions that person has been harboring about you or people like you. That person can choose to see you as good or bad. It’s a choice. It can also be the poet/speaker’s way of asking for any “light” of kindness in these trying times. Any light, any hope to increase racial harmony. People can choose whether to see or treat you how they want to see and treat you. What’s important is that we treat each other fairly and well. In the poem, the poet speaker tells the offending golfer that the golfer — before hitting his ball — should have been able to see him in any light because he was wearing a red shirt. But also, the poet speaker is saying that the golfer chose to not see him; and it’s his choice whether he wants to challenge and root out racist programming or continue to live by it. It’s not only that he hit the ball towards me, but it’s if I were invisible to me. And that’s a choice he made.

On another note, I love golf because it teaches me about life. Tiger Woods, the first African American golfer to win the Masters and who is now tied for the most wins in PGA tour history, once said that his father used to yell the N-word at him during practice sessions just so he would get used to hearing it, so he wouldn’t get distracted by hearing it from people in crowds during tournaments.

Golf teaches me how to be patient and roll with life. In golf, you can hit a perfect shot and it ends up in the water or the woods. You have to be patient and be mentally tough. I typically play 18 holes (4-5 hours of walking); and a lot happens in that time. It’s an adventure. I started to golf to find peace on weekends after working a long week of providing therapy to families. I love the groomed greens, clapping leaves, and bodies of water. I love how the game occupies my thoughts. It’s brought me peace.

I also stutter and the key in golf is to not swing with all your power. If you swing hard you will likely lose control of the club and ball. The key to managing my stutter is to slow down my speech.

3) Of what use is poetry in today’s world?

I love what Salman Rushdie says about poetry: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” Yes. Poets “name the unnameable.” Poets live to point out connections. I can’t say exactly what poetry means to the wider world. I can say what poetry means to me. I don’t want people to fall in love with my poems. I want people to be uncomfortable when they read my poems; I want them to question their lives; I want them to change. I know a poem has matured when I can’t read it without crying or getting angry. The singular gift of poetry is its ability to open up a window into another person’s perspective. Poetry tells you what the other is experiencing. It tells you in a moving, eye-opening and startling way. I want to startle people into action. I want to know what someone else sees and feels. I think on some level I’m talking about empathy, which is key to love and unity. And as a clinical therapist, I do use poetry in therapy. Poetry is my therapy. Poetry shows us that we are all mostly tiny dots down here facing the same hurdles to happiness. Poetry has this ability to open my eyes and enlighten me, helping me to see and think differently. I love being enlightened by poems on a line to line level. I remember discovering the poetry of the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott and understanding for the first time how poetry can deepen and define a country and a people’s understanding of themselves. How everything, as Walcott indicates, is a poem. Poetry’s work then is to make us see — by clarifying and deepening our understanding of what it means to be alive.

4) Tell me about your experience as a creative writing student at Southern. Were there particular courses or professors or experiences at Southern that you would say especially made an impact on you?

On a more formal level, I fell for poetry after failing as a fiction writer in college. I attended SCSU and attained a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing. I learned much of what I know now from the terrific creative writing staff there. In college, I wrote an unpublished novel (which was really a prose poem). I flirted with narrative poems and discovered that my thoughts fit better into this form. I love being able to fit a whole short story into a page-long, enlightening poem. My poems tend to have a strong narrative spirit running through them (because of my previous relationship with fiction). I want readers to get wrapped up in the narrative of my poems. My poems operate somewhere between fiction and poetry. I like to mix genres.

The English Department at Southern made me into the poet I am today. Jeff Mock (poetry professor), Tim Parrish (fiction professor), Robin Troy (former fiction professor), Jennifer Holley Lux (former creative writing professor), Vivian Shipley (poetry professor). All of these people shaped me into the poet I am today. Also, other English professors at Southern played pivotal roles in my growth as a poet. I received unconditional support from Steven Larocco, Brandon Hutchinson, Dana Sonnenschein, Dr. Ogbaa, Anthony Rosso, etc. These professors regularly read my budding creative work outside the classroom and provided me with valuable feedback.

Nearly two decades later, I still continue to communicate with many of the above professors. Vivian and Dana provided blurbs for my first poetry book. I regularly trade poems with Brandon Hutchinson. Steve Larocco and Rosso were like my therapists and good friends while I attended Southern. I stay in touch with Tim as well. I am proud of the work that Tim has done to transform the creative writing program into a powerhouse MFA program.

When I was struggling as a poet while in college, Steve Larocco pointed me toward Derek Walcott’s work (Derek Walcott is a towering, Nobel-winning, Caribbean poet). This helped me tremendously. I learned a lot from Walcott’s work. And this helped me — perhaps more than all other factors — to become the poet I am today. Walcott’s themes and way of writing matched my poetic vision. His work taught me how to see differently; how to find poetry in everything.

Also, the creative writing contests and literary journals at Southern helped me to gain confidence as a writer. I still remember the thrill of seeing my first published story in Folio, the undergraduate literary journal at SCSU. I remember the deeper thrill of winning the magazine’s poetry and fiction contests some time later. One year I won both of Folio‘s contests — poetry and fiction. I think I won the poetry contest a few years in a row. I also won many SCSU creative writing contests. To me, these early successes fueled my confidence and led me down the path I am still on today. Those early poems would take center stage in my first poetry collection.

Southern was good to me. I even received speech therapy for my stutter from the Communication Disorders Department. I think I attended speech therapy there for years. I learned a lot. They taught me how to manage my stutter and how to accept it — and embrace my gifts and my challenges. This was crucial for my growth as a poet, person, and therapist. While in college, I would ask my friends to read my poems at poetry readings. But after speech therapy, I gained enough confidence to go on stage and read my work. It empowered me. And I continued to challenge myself by reading to a wider audience.

After I left Southern, I helped to start a poetry workshop group of former creative writing students. We meet at each other’s homes once per month and workshop each other’s poems; and drink wine and eat pastries and fruits. The group has been meeting for four years. There are currently five members in our group: Lee Keylock (founding member), Pat Mottola, Matthew Beacom, and Maryanne Bowen. The workshops are serious and fun, and have played a pivotal role in my success as a poet.

5) Can you tell me about the work that you do in your profession of clinical therapist? Do you see a connection between your work as a poet and your work as a therapist?

Yes, there is a connection. I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I received my master’s in social work from SCSU. (On a side note, while attending Southern as a social work student, I won the graduate poetry contest. It proved to me then that my true calling was poetry and that I ought to continue to write.) I work as a psychotherapist. I provide in-home therapy to a range of clients. I provide individual, couples, and family therapies. I frequently utilize art in my work. Especially with clients who are artistic. My work drives my art and my art drives my work. I work to empower people and to shine a light on their perspective.

6) I see on your website that your mission is to help Barrel Children in Jamaica. Can you tell me the nature of this work and why you do it?

Barrel Children are children whose parents leave Jamaica to come to America to make a living and send back money and barrels full of essential and nonessential items for them. The barrels replace the parents. The children are left with relatives or others. They face psychological and physiological challenges. It’s a major problem in Jamaica. I am a Barrel Child. My goal is to increase awareness around this challenge.

Also, my first poetry book, Barrel Children, came out of a special project I completed in order to fulfill my requirements for my master’s degree in social work. A good many of my poems are about feeling “Homeless at Home.” Or being an immigrant in a sometimes cold foreign land.

I recently completed a new poetry manuscript called “Heard.” And I’m working on a new chapbook called “Notes for Wedding Vows during a Pandemic.”

Learn more about Rayon Lennon and his work.