by Mark Spero | Contributing Writer
In our lives as readers, we often encounter books whose construction baffles us. How was this literature built? What is holding this work together? But as we read more, perhaps begin writing ourselves, and form a better understanding of the literary landscape, these chance bafflements arrive farther and farther apart. In their scarcity, they become more treasured. After my first reading of Kevin Simmonds’s The Monster I Am Today: Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse, I sat back and let myself be overwhelmed by this enigmatic collection. Simmonds weaves poetry and prose, memoir and biography, music and language, altogether with apparent ease, never giving in to a single genre or story or identity. These poems appear to emerge fully formed from his life, Leontyne Price’s life, and the expansive experience of being Black and queer in the USA. This book-length song refuses to give up any complexities in feeling or history so as to fit better within conventional understandings of what poetry should be.
At first glance, there are two clear guiding lines in this collection: Price’s and Simmonds’s lives. But this statement belies the freedom Simmonds finds in chronology. Price comes and goes throughout the early pages of the book which are devoted to Simmonds’s own life as a young queer Black man in New Orleans being introduced to the craft of voice. We dive into the cheap upright piano of his childhood where he expressed his obsessions and loves by practicing constantly and hiding gay porn in the piano’s body. The mixing and melding that defines this collection can be seen in the poem “The Action” in lines such as: “Men inside my piano / hammers / sweetening the wood,” and, “Dog-eared pages that summoned my quiver / & shameless music / where I binged on youth in my messy bedsheets.”
Throughout his early life, Simmonds’s voice was compared to Price by his family and teachers, and himself, but in the collection he does not focus on Price herself. Instead, Simmonds gives us a singing lesson in which he reveals his vast knowledge of voice without losing us in the weeds: “[T]he voice is entirely dependent on a human body for its production, the instrument indivisible from the singer.” Here is Simmonds packing everything into a simple line: his Black and queer body produces his voice, which he uses to create his musical and written poetry. As a musician and a poet, I have been obsessed with the impossibility of describing music, of recreating everything I feel without giving a random assortment of music lessons that are lost on non-musicians and tedious to musicians. Simmonds has landed in the sweet spot. This collection gave me all the technical lingo and musical life I craved from a trained singer, but he never abandons readers who might be unfamiliar with musical training.
After introducing us to Simmonds’s life and his musical training, the collection takes a sharp turn toward Price. We move through a collage of quotes, imagined monologues by historical figures, and FBI files on Black people deemed radical by the government. There are quotes from Price, most of which sit at the top of the page, with nothing below them. Price is given a moment to express herself, with as little interference from the poet as possible, and though she often speaks about the struggle of Black people, she also says that she does not like talking about her own struggles, because to her that would be boring. Simmonds is careful to not reveal too much about Price, or himself. In an interview with McSweeney’s, Simmonds says “I’m careful what and how much I disclose because people are largely incapable of facing the totality of their own lives, let alone someone else’s, with love, mercy, and understanding.” This collection is as deep as we can go with Price and Simmonds. He gives each of them space to remain real figures, rather than constructions on the page for our consumption. In that same interview, Simmonds reminds us that poetry is a “unique form of performance,” and while dealing with his own life and the life of so many historical figures, he is careful when and how he sings for them. In one poem he writes as Leontyne,
I had to kill their phantoms with poise
And a swallowing silence
Do you hear?
I had to clear
The struggle to have one’s own voice, and to make that voice heard, is central to this collection, and the truth of this collection rides on how Simmonds performs these voices spreading across the page.
In interviews, Simmonds often talks about his obsession with the particularities of peoples’ voices. Though this is a contemporary poetry collection and not a recorded song, Simmonds is able to push into the pure sonics of poetry– a practice that, while important for centuries, has been lost to a focus on semantic meaning. In a poem titled “LP” he leans into sound:
needle / narcotic
diagnostic / deposit
at the spine
Is this the end of the poem? I am not sure. But untitled words begin on the following page:
I Mind My Own
Take My Time
This page ends with a short biography of Eartha Kitt, who is the speaker of at least one page of the poem(s). Simmonds delves into sound and often comes out with influential Black singers, many of whom were civil rights activists and admirers of Leontyne Price. These voices and poems meld together seamlessly, creating a choir where we are always aware of many voices in the background while a single singer steps forward for their solo. In an interview with The Rumpus, Simmonds says that the book began as a poem, without the short prose pieces. This surprised me because the poems seem to emerge from his research. Poems like “The Action” and “Geography” begin in the middle of the page after a section of nonfiction prose, presenting another moment of melding, one genre becoming another, one voice turning into another, all pushing towards a complex analysis of influences and identities.
In the end, this collection becomes a kind of bildungsroman for a section of Simmonds’s life. He investigates the development of identity alongside the path of an artist. He does not merely investigate how identity is experienced in various niches of life, but questions how we are influenced by people, music, and identity to become ourselves. Simmonds expands the individual to include all the people they have loved or hated, their idols, their traumas, and the changes they have faced. These moments are not merely feeding the creation of individual identity, they are things and people unto themselves, living both independently and as a part of Simmonds. The connections he follows blow up a simple conception of identity, and instead lean into the development of self as more important than any single moment in time.
Music, poetry, sex, love, learning, racism, homophobia, and time are all experienced by our bodies, and over the course of The Monster I Am Today, Simmonds investigates how these vast concepts can fit into, and shape, any individual. Speaking these poems out loud, you will hear the sounds that Simmonds was able to put on the page, the way songs move with their own time, and how they push our bodies to inhabit that time. While poems can be skimmed or read slowly, Simmonds demands that we push the written and the oral together, two sides of the same bodily experience, lyric that will not fit into a single medium, sense, or voice, but must expand out into the indescribable corners of human experience that we inhabit without having pithy definitions. Instead, Simmonds gives us expansive, multivoiced explorations of the creation of selfhood.
MARK SPERO (he/they) is a MFA and MA candidate at the University of Montana. They received the 2021 Madeline DeFrees Prize, selected by Phillip B Williams, from the Academy of American Poets, and has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Community of Writers. Their work can also be found in the American Journal of Poetry, and is forthcoming from Poetry Northwest.
KEVIN SIMMONDS is a musician and writer originally from New Orleans. He studied music at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Carolina. He is the author of two poetry collections, Mad for Meat and Bend to It, and the editor of Collective Brightness: LGBTIQ Poets on Faith, Religion and Spirituality and Ota Benga under My Mother’s Roof, a posthumously published collection by Carrie Allen McCray.