Under the Sun

Sean Avery Medlin's Poetry Makes Room for Gaming and Superheroes

Mr. Medlin rhymes anyway.
Mr. Medlin rhymes anyway. Nina Paz

“I’m almost always counting syllables,” the writer Sean Avery Medlin said the other day. “Even when I’m not writing poems.”

Medlin’s meter is all over 808s & Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, and Mythologies, a new collection of his work published just last week. In “What It’s Like to Be a Suburban Black Demiboy,” he weighs race and gender (“I often feel not Black enough / not masc enough / or fem enough”); in “Money is Temporary,” he adopts the personae of a rapper who’s bitching about his streaming payout. It also contains excerpts from skinnyblk, the album and stage play he wrote five years ago.

“There’s not a lot of traditional-form poems in there,” Medlin said of the book. “Not that I’m not into those things. I was just more interested in sort of establishing this new style for myself.”

Going to school for writing taught him not to rhyme, he said. He sounded incredulous. “That’s really what they teach you in school now if you’re a poet. Rhyme is discouraged in the college classroom. I’m not sure why. Academia is just going that way. I had to shed that because rhyming is natural for me.”

Medlin said he used the pronouns “he” and “they” interchangeably and claimed not to have a day job. “I’m a full-time artist and I teach at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and I’m leading classes at Durango detention facility. I do monthly writing workshops at one-n-ten.”

He figured out he was a writer early on. Surrounded by poets, rappers, musicians, break-dancers, and visual artists at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Medlin thought, “Oh, okay, writing is a hobby and an expression, but it could be a career. It could be what I am.”

His essays and poems often include superhero imagery. “I’m a superhero fan for sure,” explained Medlin, who’s 28 and grew up in Litchfield Park. “I love the idea of the superhero as American origin story, the connection of their powers to something in their personality or their past — all of that is interesting to me. So when I was writing this book it was important to include superheroes, some of them literal ones like Silver Surfer and the Hulk, and also like Kanye West, a hero to me growing up.”

It’s important, Medlin said, to question and critique heroes, who tend to become symbols of something other than how they make us feel. In “Free Pt. 1,” he expresses disappointment in West’s support of former president Donald Trump.

“I wrote that one around the time Kanye went on a Twitter storm about Trump and there were pictures of him with Trump everywhere. Someone like Kanye, who once was a champion of race relations, for him to make such a drastic shift made me question the difference between the [political] left and right, and what extreme wealth can do to your politics.”

He admitted to putting a lot of emotional vulnerability into his writing but wanted people to know his new book didn’t tell everything.

“Yeah yeah yeah,” he said. “I wrote a lot of stuff to get to the pieces that were in the book. I called that my autobiography at the time, but I had no intention of publishing it. I knew I had to write it to get to whatever else I was going to say. It let me say what I needed to put on the page and then decide what I wanted readers to see on the page. I’m confident it’s all in there.”

Gaming is definitely in there. “I’m a huge gamer,” said Medlin. “The poem ‘Battlefront’ came from many hours of playing that game with friends. There’s a part in there that’s true where I talk about the way the Wookiees are like black folks, and my friends are laughing at me. That was a real gaming moment, and I had to put that in there.”

Medlin took a long pause to think about that long-ago gaming moment. “I try to treat everything in my life as potential material for another piece of writing,” he finally said.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela