Since he released his first book, “Look Black Boy,” this spring, Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey has been the subject of many articles and interviews. Here, he shares some of his inner-most thoughts and feelings about putting himself out there.
I published a book.
That sentence is so much bigger than the four words that contain it. Most days I still can’t believe it.
Since I was in seventh grade I knew I was meant to be a writer, but being a published author is one of those dreams–and we all have them–where you simultaneously feel like you can do it, and it’s always out of reach. For so much of my life, there was always another step I needed to take: finish high school, get a college degree, get published in literary magazines, get an MFA, etc. etc.
What makes this experience so bewildering is that I “skipped” steps. If you had asked me at the start of 2019 if I was going to self-publish a book this year, I would have told you that was highly unlikely. As a poet who performed for eight years, all around the nation, and even internationally, I still felt like there were steps I needed to take to validate myself as a true poet.
To me, the path to being a true poet was to get a Masters in Fine Arts at a prestigious institution. How else was I supposed to know I was legitimate without a big name program telling me so? That underlying belief led me to submit MFA applications all across the nation.
I was denied.
Every writer you meet will tell you to prepare to hear no. But the rejections from MFA programs impacted me strongly.
I decided they were wrong. Decided they weren’t the judge. Decided I was.
The next months were a flurry of finishing new poems, editing old ones, and compiling a collection. There were nights I thought I was crazy–crying in front of the computer because this was too big to do on my own–and days I felt the confidence of a king knowing that this path was made for me.
This collection consists of poems that I have lived for years — and I say lived because as a spoken word poet, I give my poems a life on stage. They have heart, breath, and purpose. After taking the stage for so long, they deserved a home. A book.
On top of that, the poems in this first collection are pieces that couldn’t wait for traditional publishing processes. Sometimes it can take a year or more to have a collection published through traditional means, and I knew that these poems needed to be in people’s hands and minds as soon as possible.
My poems tackle race relations in America. There are people dying. There are young Black boys trying to figure out how to live in a world that wants them dead. There are white people looking for a better way. My pieces touch on all the complications within that. They belong to this time.
This feeling mirrors what I tell my fellow artists when I encourage them to take the stage at the events I produce. From the LGBTQ+ artist that needs to challenge the oppression they face, or the victims of sexual assault that attempt to untangle their trauma, there is an immediacy that can’t be ignored. Those stories—our truths—need to be told now.
When I held the first proof of my book, Look, Black Boy, I slid my fingertips across the cover, flipped through the pages, and appreciated that new book smell. My new book smell. I wept.
Having a book is what I imagine it’s like to have a child: once the big moment happens, once the beauty is born, there is still so much work afterward. Since my book was published, I feel like I haven’t slept. With being self-published, all readings, performances, interviews, reviews, and promotional material are products of my own hard work.
Like watching your child laugh for the first time, take their first steps, say their first words, I’ve experienced such an overwhelming sense of awe and excitement when I had my first book interview on Iowa Public Radio, or my first book tour stop in Colorado Springs, or my first time reading at the famous Prairie Lights Bookstore.
It feels like my book has a life of its own, and at the same time, it wouldn’t exist without me creating its path, without sacrificing my time and energy for its longevity. This journey, this life, is far from over, but I am already so appreciative of the experiences I’ve had. I can’t wait to see what all of this grows into.