Name: Malcolm Friend
Hometown: Seattle, Washington
Residence: Pittsburgh, PA
What is your earliest memory of writing?
This isn’t a memory of writing, exactly, but I remember that when I was really young (it was either pre-school or early elementary), my older sister had a goldfish. I used to draw pictures to place behind its fishbowl and as I drew them I would be coming up with stories behind them—almost like a movie or maybe even a TV episode since they always seemed to revolve around the same characters. In terms of my first memory of actually writing down some of those stories, it has to be third grade. We had journals we were required to write in and I would always write stories in them, fictions where my friends and classmates were the main characters.
How did you become a writer?
My mom likes to tell this story where I was first learning how to write and I kept bugging her to teach me some letter or spelling and I told her “I have to know because I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up.” While I have no idea whether or not that story is real (I take her word for it most times; sometimes I think it’s a sort of origin myth), I do know that I “became” a writer fairly early in life and really do have to go back to those early journaling experiences. There was a certain joy they brought to writing and also a certain ritual. There was a specific time of day every day that we were supposed be writing. When I switched schools in fifth grade, journaling was still a requirement, where we had to produce a certain number of pages per week for homework in Language Arts. All of that got me into the ritual of writing and the practice of setting time aside to write. By the time I was in seventh grade I had fashioned myself a writer and knew that’s what I wanted to be.
Tell us about your writing process.
My writing process starts before there’s any actual writing done. I’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, just repeating a line (in my head and out loud) that I’m obsessed with but don’t know how to place a full poem around. I’ll do this on the bus, in between classes, between grading papers, as much as I need to until I get another line or two that I think I can base the poem around.
Once I actually start writing, it pretty much always starts with music. I grew up in a household where music was frequently present. My dad puts on music whenever there’s nothing on TV and my mom plays music sometimes when she cooks and pretty much always whenever she decides it’s a cleaning day in the house, especially around the holidays. I got used to working with music in the background, to moving with a beat in my head. Plus growing up with three siblings I just got used to noise being in the house and kind of need it to work. If what I’m writing is related to a specific artist or song (as it frequently is), I’ll listen to that artist or song on repeat while I’m writing. Otherwise I put on reggaetón, because the beats are so repetitive and it allows me to stay within sort of the same space mentally.
As I’m writing I’m also saying everything out loud (or wording it, depending on whether or not other people are in the room). That way if anything sounds kind of funky, I can just scrap it immediately or change it into something similar that sounds better, or even switch up the order of the poem to where the different grouping of words sounds better. I keep up with this until I have a draft of poem that I feel satisfied with, sometimes meaning I feel the poem is done or just needs minor edits, others meaning I’m ready to share them with other people and get feedback on them, and then some others that the poem itself isn’t going anywhere but I feel I’ve gained something from the writing process and from writing that poem in particular.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, which will hopefully turn into my first manuscript. The work is really drawing off of my experiences growing up in a mixed cultural household (my mom being African American, my dad Puerto Rican), and how different influences (friends, family, pop culture, literature) affect how you interact with or claim a cultural heritage. In it I’m also interested in looking at different iterations of blackness across the diaspora as both of my parents are part of the African diaspora and, regardless of what heritage or heritages I claim, my body is read as such—as black—in many spaces around the world.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Absolutely. There are good days for writing, when everything is running smoothly and there are bad days, when every line I write comes with difficulty and feels like the worst thing I’ve ever written. Usually I take it to mean I’m too much wrapped up in myself and not open to letting the poem take me anywhere. At that point I usually find some household chore that needs to be done (do the dishes, cook dinner, etc.) in order to pull myself out of my head for a little while until I’m ready to get back into that writing space.
Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?
In terms of writers, I absolutely have to name Langston Hughes first. Hughes was the first poet I read and enjoyed and a good deal of my early poetry was me trying to imitate Hughes—the first form I learned was Blues and the Blues poem. And then I also have to writers like Rita Dove, Kevin Young, and Martin Espada, who gave me contemporary examples of things I wanted to write about.
In terms of teachers I have to give a shout out to Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, and Beth Bachmann, who were all teachers of mine in college. I point to Jarman because it was during his poetry workshop as a junior in college that I realized I wanted to seriously be a poet (I had originally come into college wanting to be a fiction writer). He was also the person who turned me onto Espada, lending me his copies of both Imagine the Angels of Bread and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. I point out Hilles and Bachmann because they believed in me and worked with me my senior year of college. I highlight this because it showed me the importance of teaching to writing, and what having people in your corner can do for a young writer. And along those lines I also have to highlight Yona Harvey here at Pitt. As my first graduate workshop teacher, she really whipped me into shape and helped get my poems. But she did it in such a nurturing way that I never felt like I couldn’t write and I could tell that it was out of care. She was also the first Black writing instructor I had ever had and that was a big for me. Her presence alone was an affirmation to my place in an MFA program but also her comments on some of my work, pointing out that certain things reminded her of experiences she was familiar with, affirmed me as a writer.
What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes– I first learned to write poetry by reading it and Hughes was a big part of that, really what made me want to continue writing poetry. During my junior year of college I checked out a copy from the Seattle Public Library and just kept renewing it, hoping no one would place a hold on it and that I’d have to take it back.
Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove- This wasn’t the first book by Dove that I read but it’s probably the one that sticks with me the most. Thomas and Beulah got me thinking much more so about how poetry can serve as something to document history and in particular to document family history.
La Carreta Made a U-turn by Tato Laviera- This book was big for me because going into my junior year of college I had never read a Puerto Rican author before. I mentioned Jarman turning me onto Martin Espada, and that made me want more. The Vanderbilt library had copies of all of Laviera’s poetry collections, and I dug in, completely caught by Laviera’s attention to Afrolatinidad and the connection between different populations in the African diaspora. Laviera was the first Afro-Latinx poet I read and made me feel for the first time that I didn’t have to choose between being Black or Puerto Rican because I could be both.
Reggaeton, edited by Wayne Marshall, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, and Raquel Rivera- This is a recent add to the list and the only scholarly/critical text, but I turned to this book last year while working on a project about Puerto Rican national music and what claiming reggaetón as Puerto Rican means. Going through the book and seeing how much a part of the African diaspora reggaetón is (having ties to Jamaican dancehall and hip hop in the States, being tied to Afro-Panamanian reggae en español, growing in San Juan neighborhoods populated by poor Afro-Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, etc.), reggaetón became something that I started writing not just through but about.
What’s your advice to aspiring writers?
First, read. A lot. I first learned how to write poetry by trying to imitate the writers I loved to read. And I’m not saying “just reproduce what’s already been done because that’s the only way to write,” but rather that there are things to learn from other writers. Some writers will teach you imagery, some will teach you form, somehow to turn a phrase—and good writers will take lessons and techniques from the writers they enjoy reading and turn them into tools for their own benefit.
The second piece of advice is to find a writing family. And there are a number of ways to do this, whether through school clubs, classes, or even outside workshops. It’s just that there’s this idea that writing is something solitary and I think that’s only half-true. Absolutely you need time by yourself, away from distractions, in order to reflect and write. But you really get better by opening that up to the world; by both opening yourself to critique through sharing your work and by surrounding yourself with other writers who push you to stay on top of your game with their own work.
***For more on Malcolm Friend, see: