INTERVIEW WITH ORLANTAE DUNCAN
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “The Gospel of Blood,” you experiment with form, utilizing footnotes to inform the story you’re telling. How important is the structure of the piece in your writing? Do you have a specific process when creating the shapes of your writing?
Orlantae Duncan: For better or worse, I am always thinking about structure. As someone who writes a lot of poetry, I am fascinated by the ways a poem/essay/story’s shape can inform the content or subject of the piece. In “The Gospel of Blood,” I wanted the footnotes to function as a kind of ghost that haunts the main body of text, in the same way the Christian environment I was raised in continues to haunt me, years after I stopped practicing; you can ignore the footnotes and still have a coherent story, but reading them adds another layer of context and depth.
As far as process goes, I don’t have any one approach or method—it’s mostly trial and error. A lot is really contingent on the subject, and genre, of what I want to write. When in the rough draft phase, I have a strange habit of writing essays in the shape of poems, or poems in the shape of short stories, which doesn’t always lend itself to success but brings an advantage of looking at the subject from a perspective I wouldn’t have initially seen.
RR: In the piece, you say that you “killed Christ as easily as [you] killed heterosexuality,” which is a very strong and controversial sentiment. Did you write the piece with the goal of being controversial? And how does pushing the envelope factor into your writing style?
OD: That is a great question, which I can only respond to by giving the good English Major answer of “yes, and no.” Writing about queerness in relation to Christianity will always lead to controversial territory, intentionally and unintentionally, especially in our current political climate where we are seeing communities double-down on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and tactics every day. At the same time, a lot of my writing is about complicating and collapsing religious symbols/theology/history into the profane, more familiar world of our day-to-day. It’s generally how I think as someone who grew up in, but moved away from, the church.
I spent several months this past year reading the four gospels for the first time, and couldn’t stop thinking about Matthew 5:30: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
In this essay, I wanted to understand Jesus’ definition of “sin” as anything that prevents you from being happy or complete in yourself. With that as the case, I’m sure he’d rather me kill him in service of living fully than be miserable in a mental and physical Hell.
Maybe that thought is a little too radical or too perverse a read on scripture, but it was too important an interpretation in my writing to let go of. I am both black and queer, which informs how I move in the world—sometimes this means pushing the envelope on purpose in order to be seen or heard, but the very fact of my existence will always be controversial in our society.
RR: We understand you write poetry as well as nonfiction, and we see your debut chapbook, Brown Boys Speak in Tongues, was released last month–congrats! What are some of the different ways you approach writing poetry versus prose?
OD: Thank you so much! Oh, and I love this question. Poetry, for me, is so much about playing with sounds, shapes, and images to evoke an emotional or visceral response in the reader. Poetry isn’t so much about comprehension, than it is about dwelling in the nebulous space between thought and speech/action. For prose, it’s much the same but with the twist of being done on a larger scale; my images and language have to sustain their sharpness and cohesion from sentence to sentence in a way that feels like a piece to a whole.
For prose, what is delightfully tricky is making sure each link in the chain is equally strong; that the sentence can read wonderfully on its own, but be enriched by the sentences that come before and after. It might be cheating to include his quote as part of my answer to this question, but Jack Keuroac said it beautifully: “In prose you make the paragraph. Every paragraph is a poem.”
RR: After we selected your essay for publication, we found out that you served as Editor in Chief for Issue 1.3 for the Rappahannock Review! Can you enlighten us about how working and studying at UMW shaped your writing career?
OD: I wouldn’t be half the writer, or reader, I am today if it wasn’t for the faculty and friendships I made at UMW. In both literary studies and creative writing courses, I was consistently challenged to think outside the box, to always ask the “why” of a text—I still think about Dr. Lorentzen asking his 19th century British Lit students for a thumbs up or thumbs down in response to the assigned readings. That it was okay to give a thumbs down for a Charles Dickens novel in a college classroom still feels radical.
Being Editor in Chief for the Rappahannock Review, especially, gave me the tools to understand and navigate the world of writing. It taught me how to submit work, create cover letters, and communicate professionally with journals. In another timeline where I did not attend UMW or serve as EiC for the RR, I’m sure I still have work published, but god—having those experiences really prepared me in ways that are still paying off today.
RR: In a previous author bio, you mentioned a pastime of yours being “Real Housewives lore.” We’re dying to know, who’s your favorite housewife? (Please reply in the form of a haiku.)
Your single napkin
Folded, wet with tears. Filthy
Mouth clean from vile reads.
Read “The Gospel of Blood” by Orlantae Duncan.