Jorrell Watkins is a student of many disciplines: playwriting, teaching, music, conflict mediation, and martial arts, among others. He’s developed theater productions, taught writing workshops, and earned a black belt in Shotokan Karate.
But first he is a poet. As a current writing fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, he finds himself at the crest of 10 years working on his craft.
Watkins grew up in Richmond, Va.; he first encountered poetry through an older high school friend who brought him to his first open mic. The two started spending every Saturday night at Slam Richmond, a poetry gathering that evolved into a vital space for the city’s youth.
While he describes his first year at Hampshire College as an experience of “culture shock,” he soon found community through student groups and studied everything from history to electronics. “I wasn’t convinced that poetry was something that I could pursue as a career,” Watkins says. Things changed in his final semester, when his adviser, noted poet Aracelis Girmay, prompted Watkins to take a class with poet John Murillo (who is also one of this year’s FAWC writing fellows.)
“John was one of the first people to tell me to read the poets that you love, but also read the poets that they love, and then the poets that they love,” Watkins says. “Essentially, he’s talking about lineage.” This ongoing dialogue is central to how Watkins thinks about his work. “To be a good writer, you have to be a great reader,” he says.
Murillo’s class, as well as Girmay’s support and courses with poet Heather Madden, gave Watkins the confidence to pursue poetry in graduate school. After a gap year teaching with AmeriCorps — and a false start applying to theater programs — Watkins enrolled at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 2018.
“I was really hungry when I got to Iowa,” Watkins says. During his first semester he wrote the bulk of his award-winning chapbook, If Only the Sharks Would Bite, and he says that over the remaining two years, “I honed the kind of writing career I want.”
Watkins has harnessed a voice that both evokes the towering Black writers he builds on — from Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Henry Dumas to Ethridge Knight, who comes closest to a “godfather of poetry” for Watkins — and stakes out a new lexicon of cultural modernity. In one poem, he references Tony Hawk, Xbox, the Bible, and WWE in a single stanza.
Steeped in slam poetry and a musical lineage, the poems demand to be heard aloud. “Throughout my work, I’m trying to grasp the texture, the color, and the feeling of Black music, particularly blues and trap,” Watkins says.
He’s finally at a point where the lines sing on the page as well as the stage, he says, and where he’s moving from the individual towards the collective subject. He opens his recent poem “Hurricane Safety Drill” with a note of shared ecological attention: “we were always watching/ for a hurricane to stare/ us down, horrified to look/ Isabel, Maria, and Ivan/ straight in the eye.”
His aesthetic sensibility, too, has an increasingly global reach. “The blues register is in conversation with different kinds of music and cultures throughout the world,” he says. Between his time in Iowa and Provincetown, Watkins received a Fulbright scholarship that took him to Japan, where he spent a year in Kyoto studying enka, a genre of Japanese popular music that resembles American country and blues. The research was a natural extension of his lifelong interest in Japanese art forms, from anime to haiku. “I’m still a neophyte when it comes to haiku and have a long way to go,” he says. “But poetry’s a lifelong journey.”
The challenge of immersing himself in a new place was transformative. “I feel like I learned how to become a human again in Japan,” he says. “In so many ways, it broke me down and built me back up.” His work in Japanese poetic forms has an easy naturalism that blends tradition and innovation: “Wind anew/ leaves, through our headphones/ tassels twist,” he writes in “Bref,” a collaborative renga.
At the Fine Arts Work Center, Watkins assumed he’d be able to dive into the new poems he went to Japan to develop. But his first book-length collection, which is scheduled for publication next year by Northwestern University Press, has required far more attention than he anticipated, from writing publicity statements to requesting blurbs. “I’m foolish because I’m young,” he laughs. “I didn’t realize how much I still had to learn about my own work until I had to write a pitch for it.”
Still, he says the fellowship has been an abundant source of inspiration — especially with his longtime mentor down the hall. Murillo has organized the poets into an email thread for April’s National Poetry Month, where they exchange new lines daily. And Watkins says he also appreciates the many readings and events that have created alternative spaces for sharing work.
“This is the first time that I’m outside of academia and seeing how writers and artists interact with the community,” Watkins says. That kinship extends beyond Pearl Street, as Watkins has also led poetry workshops at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham and at the Provincetown IB Schools. “Teaching is integral to my practice as an artist,” he says. “The kids are so generous.”
Meanwhile, as his second poetry collection percolates, Watkins hopes to explore new thematic realms in his work. The mountainous backdrop of Kyoto and the Kamo River running through the city all heightened his connection with his native Richmond. “That nostalgia, that longing — seeing your hometown in places that aren’t your hometown — that’s very much a blues theme and also an enka theme, or texture,” he says.
He also wants his poetry to capture his deep well of feeling about current American culture, particularly concerning gun violence. Watkins sees endless connections between these disparate thematic and aesthetic questions. “They are tugging at me from different directions, but they have the same locus,” he says.
Watkins will begin a Ph.D. program in creative writing at U.S.C. in Los Angeles this fall. After living in so many smaller towns — and as a connoisseur of productive winter hibernation — he says it feels like an even bigger move to him than Japan was.
“I’m a Southerner and I take the South with me,” he says. “But I’m also taking a bit of Provincetown. I took Amherst, I took Iowa, I took Kyoto. I’m curious about what L.A. will do with this amalgamation of all the different places I’ve been to.”
Watkins says that after he completes the program, he may begin to dabble in fiction, or start writing a memoir.
For now, though, poetry’s the thing. “I want to get a real solid grip on this thing I call poetry,” he says. “I still feel like I’m learning so much, or that I haven’t read enough. But right now, let’s focus on the poems.”