Despite the heaviness of its content, Tai Allen does not see “No Jewels,” his debut book and accompanying album, as his way of healing from the traumatic sexual abuse he experienced in childhood. The man of many talents—musician, poet and craft alcohol festival organizer among them—wrote this searing poetry collection from the perspective of someone who overcame his past.
“I never used art to get me out of my trauma,” he says in a phone interview with Colorlines about the work which was released in November. “When you do that, then what do you do when you have nothing painful? It never crossed my mind to put that part of my life into my work.”
Instead, a conversation with award-winning poet Patricia Spears Jones pushed him to explore being molested by two older relatives, one male and the other female. The result is a potent multimedia work of art, which channels various poetic forms into a powerful testimony to resilience and healing. The subject matter makes “No Jewels” especially relevant in the #MeToo era, but the conviction of Allen’s writing makes this work a timeless addition to ongoing conversations about sexual violence and oppression.
We spoke to Allen about developing “No Jewels,” #MeToo and modeling intent for self-care.
Did you envision the poems in “No Jewels” as part of a unified work?
I had no plans to write a book like this. I got a deal from Willow Books in 2016—the book is actually done—but a woman named Patricia Spears Jones, who is the current Jackson Poetry Prize winner, read my poem “Is the boy 9-and-a-half or 9.5 [#3].” And she said, “Okay, I need you to write a book based around this.” I said, “Well, I’ve dealt with my abuse. I’m good.” She responded, “Right, that’s why you need to write this. There’s rarely a narrative where people go through trauma and they’re okay.” I did the research, and realized that she was right. There aren’t that many works that talk about masculinity and abuse in this way.
I wanted people to know that it’s possible for them to create a process to their own self-care. There are a lot of men who need some hugs and counseling. So, that’s how it all started. I had three poems when I started the book, and the other 25 came from me sitting down and mapping out what the book would look like, as well as through interviews with men who’ve experienced similar things. I used Pablo Neruda’s “20 Poems of Love and a Song of Despair” as a template.
So would you say that you’re modeling a process for other men who’ve survived sexual abuse?
No, and that’s why I called it “No Jewels,” because I don’t believe I have the answers. But I do believe I have the intent. I don’t know your fix, if there is a fix, but I can say you have to be looking for one. If you are dealing with trauma, and it can be from abuse of any kind, to not try and fix that will lead to your demise. These kinds of stresses create illness. You can die from a broken heart and a broken soul.
Did you have any concern about putting your stories of abuse into the public like this?
I know that by doing this, I’m opening up the possibility that someone will take this story and go in what I think is a wrong direction. That’s why I’m trying to be really steadfast in the talking points, because I don’t want this to become a “woe is me” story. I, and all of the men I interviewed, are not “woe is me,” at all.
“No Jewels” came out in the fall, right around the time that the #MeToo movement grew into a public phenomenon. Was the timing intentional? Do you think the book speaks to this moment?
The date was intentional because I wanted to make a deadline for literary awards. [Laughs] It should’ve been out at the end of October, but we had production problems. [The timing is] scary, though, because I make this art in isolation. At some point I stuck my head up out of the ground, and saw, “Whoa, this what I’m talking about.” That, at first, feels great, but then you realize, this isn’t what we expected from our leaders and icons. So I now hope that this product will help people.
Looking at social structures, we all know that there’s a power element to most cases of sexual assault. When there’s not a power element, there can be a mental illness aspect that warps how someone sees sexuality. I want to add a third one: selfishness. I think there’s a selfish aspect, in some cases, where people don’t have regard for their victims. In the conversation happening around Aziz Ansari, it doesn’t sound like he was engaging in sexual misconduct. It sounds like he was being a selfish bastard and really hurt someone in the process. Selfishness is a basic lack of regard for others, and can be attached to mental illness or power structures, but it can also be a stand-alone.
In my two cases, I think in the one with the young man, he was selfish and inquisitive, but he went about it the wrong way. He would’ve gotten a “no” if he approached me differently, but he still should’ve done that and respected my personhood. In the case of the woman, I do look back and think that she might be bi-polar, and also acting selfishly and [exploiting] a power element. She lavished me with gifts, which is described as a classic part of abuse. In the near future, I’m going to really examine that selfishness theory from a psychological and sociological standpoint.
How did the soundtrack come about, and why did you choose to add this component?
The main reason is because I didn’t want this book to become a darling of the literati. I’m a part of the literati, and have access to all the world’s dopest writers, but I am less committed to servicing them than I am people who really need it. I thought, how could I get my cousin or little brother to care about this book? An album is a way to open up the book to an audience that may not otherwise care.
I also wanted to soften the book a little. Those poems put you in your feelings. And I didn’t want that to be the only measure of the book, so the music helps. You can also use it outside of the book: cleaning the house, doing your homework, finding your car keys.
“No Jewels” is now available through Flowered Concrete.