Two fathers use poems to teach their kids about growing up black in America

When poets Geffrey Davis and F. Douglas Brown first met at a poetry retreat in 2012, they instantly connected in discussing fatherhood and the poetry that sprang from that experience. Over time, that relationship grew, and they began writing poetry that came directly out of their conversations. Soon, they were even borrowing each other’s lines or writing stanzas or whole poems back and forth, as a kind of call and response.

And in November, they published their first series of co-written poems, in a chapbook called “Begotten,” which was published by Upper Rubber books. These poems explore with tenderness and anxiety the joys and perils of being a father — especially a black father — and how to escape the mistakes of past generations.

“We like to say that we kind of beg, borrow and steal,” said Brown. “We beg one another to become better fathers, through the work and our conversations. We borrow from the things we are reading, and other people who are working with the same themes. And we steal from one another.”

Davis, who is 33 and has a five-year-old son, said that as a younger father he has often looked to Brown, who is 44 and has two teenaged children, a son and daughter, for answers. “I felt blessed to have this chance to cultivate questions about doubts, worries, and wonders about what it means to be a father,” said Davis, both in conversations with Brown, and in their resulting poetry.

In “Begotten,” many of the poems look forward, to convey advice to a son, or explore how a father can best help a child navigate racism or understand sexuality. Others look backwards, to their own fathers and the fears they have of inheriting the violence that came before. A number of the poems do both.

“In that first conversation we had, we talked about the expectation of what the black father is supposed to do or has not done,” said Brown. “And I think we work against that. People always ask about the vulnerability in our poems, because that is something not readily shown in African American fathers. That, and the love we have offer.”

Both love and vulnerability are present in the poem “What I Mean When I Say Harmony,” though toughness also makes an appearance. Its first line is: “dear boy be the muscle: / make music to the bone.” Centering around touch and violence, the poem is addressed in parts to both a father and a son.

In the fourth and fifth stanzas of the poem, there is the echo of a worried parent: “If I ever / catch you confusing / a pulse for a path or a bridge / to beat loneliness you blood / will be the object of discussion.” This line, Davis said, came from the memory of his mother telling him not to engage in the same violence his father did.

The larger poem is about passing a similar message on to his son. “It’s about needing to push my son not to be afraid of contact, but also to understand the risks that are involved,” said Davis.

“It’s that fear doesn’t have to be met with the same violence,” echoed Brown.

Read that poem, and listen to Brown and Davis read it aloud, below.

F. Douglas Brown and Jeffrey Davis. Credit: Danielle Mitchell

F. Douglas Brown and Geffrey Davis. Credit: Danielle Mitchell

What I Mean When I Say Harmony

by Geffrey Davis & F. Douglas Brown

dear boy be the muscle:
make music to the bone—risk

that mercurial measure
of contact there are those

who touch a body and leave it
graceful be that kind

of wonder —and if I ever
catch you confusing

a pulse for a path or a bridge
to beat loneliness your blood

will be the object of discussion
I will ask to see it back

if only to know the shared sinew
if only to relight your blessing

if only to rekindle the song
carried in your hands

2. The Remix
ode to the boy in me singing at the table so rude
but the hum-a-long mingles with your husky laughter

ode to the father in you wringing something out of nothing
ode to [dutiful] stitched into your fingers and not:—[obligatory drudgery]

and yes ode to the ghosts now roving your cupboards and bed
ode to your lingering music a mixtape of meals and memory

ode to what you still offer I suckle it down throughout the night
taste everything passed between your fingers

3. Side B
dear boy aint nothing
not about bodies

we have more than one
sun more than one way

to gasp inside the heat
and arms of praise

worship the warmth
of each loaded light let your body

grow fragile an offertory —sweet—
lick bite know the knot

of your desire hold it
in your mouth let it live

let it split do not leave this earth
without tasting what passes

between fingers son
always go deep find the seed

in each fruit’s buried longing
if it is yours sing it mine

The “Begotten” chapbook appears in the third volume of the Floodgate Poetry Series, an annual series of books by Upper Rubber Boot Books.

Geffrey Davis is the author of Revising the Storm (BOA Editions 2014), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Finalist. Davis’ honors include fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center, the Anne Halley Poetry Prize, the Dogwood Prize in Poetry, the Wabash Prize for Poetry, the Leonard Steinberg Memorial/Academy of American Poets Prize, and nominations for the Pushcart Prize. His poems are forthcoming or have been published by The Academy of American Poets, Crazyhorse, The Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Massachusetts Review, Mississippi Review, New South, The New York Times Magazine, Nimrod International Journal, and Ploughshares, among other places. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Davis teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Arkansas.

F. Douglas Brown is the author of Zero to Three (University of Georgia 2014), the 2013 Cave Canem Poetry Prize recipient selected by Tracy K. Smith. Brown is both a Cave Canem and Kundiman fellow. His poems have appeared in the Academy of American Poets, The Virginia Quarterly (VQR), Bat City Review, The Chicago Quarterly Review (CQR), The Southern Humanities Review, The Sugar House Review, Cura Magazine, and Muzzle Magazine. With Cheyanne Sauter, Executive Director of Art Share L.A., he co-founded Requiem for Sandra Bland, a quarterly poetry reading series examining social justice issues, and ways to address police brutality in particular. Brown, an educator for over 20 years, teaches English at Loyola High School of Los Angeles, an all-boys Jesuit school.