Ann Arbor-raised Adam Falkner returns with his new poetry collection, "The Willies," and a better sense of his authentic self
Adam Falkner probes the paradox of how hard it is to be yourself sometimes in his new poetry collection, The Willies. One of the poems, “Let’s Get One Thing Halfway Straight,” exposes this emotional labor in the following lines:
The not-so-funny thing about spending a
life proving you aren’t something is that any story that isn’t
the story is survival or more like a brick for laying until the
wall is high enough that you’re safe inside and you wake up
and say whoops whose house is this who did I hurt to get
here and is it too late to call for help.
The real risk lies not in being yourself but rather in suppressing yourself based on people’s opinions or your perceptions of how you’re supposed to be. Falkner finds this identity issue to be a common experience to which many readers relate and also one that is very personal to his life.
“There’s something deeply universal about the idea of being closeted and longing for something bigger than this version of yourself," Falkner said. "That fear associated with who we might become if we don’t ask ourselves who we want to become is a very real thing for everyone.”
Longing and desire are inherent in this responsibility -- and sometimes burden -- of being who you are because you may wish to be someone who you think you can’t be. Falkner added, “If we’re not careful, we will take the path of least resistance our whole lives, and we will wake up in a life that has been built for us because we were not courageous enough.” As his poem suggests, if you do not interrogate who you are and want to be, you’ll brick yourself into a house that you do not want and that isn’t really yours. This cautionary concept brings extreme consequences and sacrifices.
Falkner’s writing on these topics traces back to his formative years in Ann Arbor, where he was born and raised and also where he attended Forsythe Middle School, Pioneer High School, and the University of Michigan. As a teen, he participated in programs at The Neutral Zone, where he will return for a reading from The Willies Thursday, February 18, from 6-8 pm after a meet and greet there for teens from 5-5:30 pm. He will also read at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, February 18, at 7 pm.
For Falkner, the particular identities and circumstances of his life are the perspective and stories from which he has written The Willies.
“I’m writing from the well that is my life, whether it be exactly mine, or something very close to or adjacent to something I know I am,” he said.
In his poems, Falkner specifically reflects on his identities of being gay and white and of having a father who fought with addiction. He considered the many roles, or costumes, that they each donned, such as varsity athlete and son.
“It is a book about costuming and telling two stories side by side,” said Falkner. “One is my own coming into queerhood as a young man, wrestling with questions of sex and gender, and wanting to come out but not being sure it was OK. The other story is my father’s parallel narrative of his struggle with addiction and recovery. The willies are the various costumes that he and I are both trying on constantly throughout those respective journeys.”
Those costumes, said Falkner, were ways of making other people comfortable because he could claim one or the other when he wanted, which is also a privilege he had as a white person, another area that he has spent much of his life studying.
“I think that the notion of costuming is a very queer idea in that to costume is to follow rules or present as something that affords someone else more comfort than you," Falkner said. "A lot of the way I think about costuming in this book, and every in my everyday life, is putting other people’s comfort before my own. It is doing whatever I needed to do in order to remain as invisible and as not found out as possible. I thought this would make them comfortable, versus making choices of what’s authentic to you.”
Being authentic to himself and understanding his identity and race has involved a long path starting during his childhood in Ann Arbor. As Falkner grappled with his whiteness and queerness while growing up, he began composing lyrics, which grew out of his interest in music -- first with piano, then jazz, blues, and hip-hop. Then, in writer and teacher Jeff Kass’ high school English class, Falkner found acceptance of and enthusiasm for his writing, along with a mentor. Until then, school and grades had been separate exercises from writing lyrics for Falkner.
“It was that embrace of what I was already writing that made Jeff a really important mentor to me,” he said.
With Kass’ encouragement, Falkner enrolled in “Volume,” a for-credit class at the Neutral Zone, which functioned like an MFA writing workshop in which people comment on someone’s work and the writer listens. There, he met and formed relationships with fellow writers with whom he is still in contact and exchanges writing, including Angel Nafis, Lauren Whitehead, and Molly Raynor.
“That was just one of the most formative and early experiences that I had with regard to using my writing as a tool to talk about my life, but also a space of writers as an editing room,” Falkner noted.
At a young age, he felt uncomfortable with his whiteness and privilege, also matters that come up in his writing. Falkner recognized that he could do what he wanted and enjoy privileges that others did not.
“I grew up in a comfortable family and had friends and people I loved in the Ann Arbor Public Schools that I built very meaningful friendships with whose lives are very different from mine," he said. "It was through the dynamic of that learning and that coming up that I was made to feel very uncomfortable about whiteness and my life as a child. My way of remedying that was to surround myself with things that I did not associate with whiteness. Of course, the opposite of whiteness is not blackness. The opposite of whiteness is understanding and dismantling whiteness.”
After he was graduated from Pioneer High School in 2003 and went to college at the University of Michigan, Falkner continued noticing and scrutinizing these disparities. Rather than choosing a pre-defined major, he constructed an independent concentration about the white racial identity because he noticed that it was absent in his studies.
Falkner said he experienced “a sense of guilt and shame that all white people in this country should encounter at some point. I don't think there’s a future of like meaningful race dialogue in this country that involves white people unless there is some encounter with shame and guilt. I’m a strong believer that it is part of the journey and not the journey. You can’t stay in shame and guilt. That serves no one and nothing, but you can try and engage in meaningful conversations about race in this country.”
He did exactly that, engaging in dialogues about identities, such as race and LGBTQ+, through the Program on Intergroup Relations during his time at the University of Michigan.
“In the same way that ‘Volume’ corked open for me a realization that my life was a really, really rich tapestry that I could delve into, the Program on Intergroup Relations really enabled me to see the potential of a dialogic model for being a very powerful tool in education,” Falkner said.
These experiences with white guilt, identity, and race then inspired his approach to education when he became a New York City Teaching Fellow after earning his bachelor’s degree in 2007.
“I’ve since moved past guilt and shame that are not useful for me any longer," Falkner said. "I think I moved into a space of anger, and then I moved into a space of profound curiosity, and I think I’m still in that curiosity space in how my whiteness functions and shows up as a writer and poet."
In his classroom, Falkner brought writers, performers, and artists in as guest speakers every other week, similar to the model in which he participated at the Program on Intergroup Relations. His classroom discussions empowered his students to ask questions about identity.
“What became clear through those guest visits was that young people were really empowered through the presence of art to ask difficult questions about their own lives that no curriculum I could have made would have allowed for," Falkner said. "People were asking questions like, ‘Just because you grew up racist, does that mean you’re racist yourself?’ Or, ‘The first time I came out to my mom, and she wasn’t ready to hear it, I wish I hadn’t done it.’ Or, ‘This is what it’s like to be the only person in your family who doesn’t speak Spanish.’ Really powerful questions about identity that the art in my classroom was creating space and room for. I knew I really wanted to focus on what was happening there.”
These fruitful discussions and observations from making his classroom a lab of sorts then fed into doing independent consulting to apply the arts to help people talk about issues. He subsequently left the classroom to earn his Ph.D. in English and Education from Columbia University. During his graduate studies, he founded the nonprofit that he now directs, the Dialogue Arts Project (DAP), for storytelling and community building.
“[Dialogue Arts Project] uses creative writing and the arts as tools to help different communities talk about issues of identity and difference,” said Falkner.
He now works with a range of people and institutions through DAP workshops that combine performance, interactive exercises, and facilitated dialogues to engage with the arts, identity, and race. Communities that he and other staff work with range from a group of a dozen employees in a corporate boardroom to students in elementary school classrooms, church congregations, and residential hall advisors in schools.
“There’s something that is very self-congratulatory and applaud-worthy that I think other white people feel because, ‘Oh wow, you're talking about race, and that’s courageous,’ ” said Falkner. However, “That’s an extension of privilege, right?”
Throughout his journey from a teen concerned with race and music in Ann Arbor to a writer and executive director of a nonprofit in New York City, Falkner has continued writing, previously publishing his chapbook, Adoption, in 2018 prior to The Willies this year. While currently promoting his new book, which was released February 4, Falkner plans to continue writing from a young person’s perspective with another full-length collection of poetry, lyric, or genre fiction. He is also working on a musical with young people’s voices. In his own reading, he currently recommends the YA novel Who Put This Song On? by his friend and colleague Morgan Parker, the poetry collection Odes to Lithium by Shira Erlichman, and the nonfiction books, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest by Hanif Abdurraqib and How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones.
Falkner has found that life is not just about what your identity is -- it is also about what it could be if you embrace your identities. In that way, Falkner uses writing as a way to dream.
“I am writing slightly ahead of my lived life. In other words, I give myself permission in my poems and my writing life to be more courageous and adventurous than I sometimes am in my flesh and blood life," he said. "By giving myself permission to be that person in my writing, it’s a way of dipping your toe in the water to see if you like who you are on the page. And if you zoom up at a hundred miles above sea level and look at that from the top down, an easy way to look at that is I certainly wrote my way out of the closet.
“I came from a school of writing and teaching that really does ask you to think about your own story and your own narrative and the life that is under your nose to tell the stories that matter most to you. I am a proponent of telling any story that you’re compelled by, and I don’t think I want to live in a world where only white queer people write white queer stories. We need to write bigger than our own experiences.”
Writing can be a way to then grow, as Falkner has also observed.
“There’s something essential about telling the story that is yours as a way of feeling licensed and empowered and exploring stories beyond your own real estate," he said. "That, for me, was a hugely important part of how many of these poems came together. They were symptomatic of an antenna or feeler that I was putting out there in my writing life. That was in conversation with how I was hoping to live my real life.”
In this way, writing has let Falkner express who he is and wants to be, which is how choosing authenticity became a theme in The Willies. He has put energy into uncovering his identity rather than being something that he knows he is not.
“[The poem] ‘Joey From Dawson’s Creek Was My Beard’ was really trying to subdue and soften what clearly for me was queerness knocking at the door,” Falkner said, “but I didn’t want to make other people or myself uncomfortable by naming that out loud and bringing it into the world. So I just played along with a costume that catered to other people’s comfort levels. And I think that most queer journeys in the world are kind of anchored by a slow unlearning of that behavior because we learn it very, very early that like we’re too loud or too much, or we’re too queer, too weird, or too something. So we spend the first 15 to 20 years of our life softening those parts of ourselves and the next 20 years of our life trying to reclaim them. In many ways, that’s something that the book has been attempting to sort of call out and draw some grace toward.”
Now Faulkner as a person and poet is in the stage of reclaiming himself. Universal humor or lightness also exists in these questions of having been something that you know you are not for the sake of others, or of being something that you are not showing others, said Falkner. This interplay between living out what you want, and either hiding it or being something else, surfaces again and again in his poems, which Falkner said underscores the importance of these questions:
“What is that longing, and what do I risk becoming if I do not name that longing?”
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.
Adam Falkner reads from "The Willies" at The Neutral Zone on Thursday, February 18, from 6-8 pm after a meet and greet there for teens from 5-5:30 pm. He will also read at Literati Bookstore on Tuesday, February 18, at 7 pm.