A Jewish man in Chicago writing about – and often as – people who have set themselves alight in Tibet, Morocco, Afghanistan, and Tunisia seems inherently voyeuristic. Yet Jacob Victorine’s first book of poetry, Flammable Matter, is anything but. Victorine does not creep around his subject matter. His poems, stripped of both superfluity and vulgarity, probe unforgivingly into social unrest and political conflict, spanning cases of self-immolation abroad and as close to home as Chicago, as well as September 11 and the Vietnam War.
Flammable Matter grew from a single poem, “Morocco,” that Victorine wrote for an appropriation craft seminar he took while working toward his MFA in Poetry at Columbia College Chicago. Instructed to pull language and narrative from the news, Victorine immediately knew he wanted to work with a lesser known story. “I came upon an article dealing with protesters in Morocco,” he said. “There was a protest at government headquarters and police were refusing to allow food to be passed on to protesters and one man, in protest, lit himself on fire. He self-immolated. Something just kind of clicked for me, this idea of someone lighting themselves on fire as a sacrifice, as giving up their body for a greater cause.”
As Flammable Matter evolved from a poem to a final project to a senior thesis and ultimately into his first book, Victorine continued to utilize documentary poetry. “It allows me to be my political self and my personal, vulnerable self,” he said. By sourcing and adapting material from news stories, interviews with loved ones, official statements, and social media, Victorine offers a platform for messages to continue being broadcasted, long after their speakers have been muffled by either government or by flame.
It is difficult to disentangle Victorine’s political self from his poetry. His first foray into poetry was through the lens of conscious hip hop, which he grew up listening to. Victorine recalls watching HBO’s Def Poetry, a television show highlighting spoken word that was hosted by Mos Def, Victorine’s favorite emcee who is known for his social activism.
“I was too self-conscious to rap because I was – less aware than I am now – but on some level aware of my whiteness in relation to my connection to hip hop culture and the way I dressed,” Victorine said. “I do think New York City is interesting because things are more muddled between what’s hip hop culture, what’s black culture, what’s New York culture or Brooklyn culture or Bronx culture. But I think I was aware of that. I was very, very hesitant and ended up taking a poetry class my senior year of high school with a really wonderful teacher. She focused a lot on slam and that was my entrance into poetry.”
Victorine fell into poetry during a period of self-discovery, when he was experimenting with his personal style, growing out his hair, and had pierced his ears. “I was attempting to grow out of myself / into myself,” Victorine said. “I was becoming more aware of who I was and even the body as a public entity. Poetry gave me a way to deal with that.”
As the medium became a constant in his life, Victorine’s poetry has evolved to reflect his personhood. Much like his demeanor and his way of dress, his writing is subtle, his words careful and measured. Writing Flammable Matter also offered an outlet for Victorine to reconcile with his own history. “At the time I didn’t know it, but I think there are all these connections that I saw that then surfaced in the poems,” he said. The multi-part poem “The Helicopter Concerto Makes One Sound” delves into his father’s experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War. Numerous pieces reference September 11: Victorine, who grew up in New York City’s Upper West Side, attended a high school near the World Trade Center. While he was absent on September 11, Victorine recalls seeing planes crashing and people leaping, and returned to find dust from the aftermath still lingering in the air of his classroom.
Yet, just as Flammable Matter is rooted in introspection and connection, distance and disassociation threads through the pages. One unnamed poem composed of various anonymous quotes runs through the course of the book; as the reader progresses forward, new lines are added as previous lines fade into the page. Victorine reveals that these are poeticized appropriations of comments on news articles that he came across while researching. Some comments attempt to be understanding, others are crass and critical of the deceased. “I saw people in the comment threads who would crack jokes,” Victorine said. “Really awful things that I think represent the ways people subconsciously disconnect themselves from violence, or poverty, or racism, or really anything that’s disturbing, as a way to insulate and protect themselves.”
Victorine’s empathetic approach to his poetry and his frank openness about his familial background serve as the foundation for Flammable Matter. “I think the book would be far less interesting and impactful if the poems didn’t also look at myself and bring into question, and acknowledge, the distance,” Victorine said. “By writing into myself, I was also able to write outward.” Flammable Matter holds up a mirror, urging its readers to be vulnerable, to confront their own complacency, and to draw parallels in experience across physical and cultural divides.
Jacob Victorine was born and raised in New York City. He earned his MFA in Poetry from Columbia College Chicago, where he is a part-time instructor in the Creative Writing Department. He is also the manager at MEYVN, a menswear boutique in Chicago’s Logan Square. Flammable Matter is available for purchase on Small Press Distribution and Amazon. More information about the author can be found on his website.
Text by Leslie Zhang. Photography by Todd Diederich.
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