OW: Why poetry? Do you have a favorite poet?
ESL: I’m a bit socially challenged at times. I typically don’t know what to say at dinner parties and social gatherings. So a while ago, I started this trick where I’d show up to the party with a poem I’d written for the occasion. Sometimes I’d include the names of a few people I knew would be in attendance. Then, just as people made their way over to exchange a few awkward mumbles of small talk with me, I’d pull the poem out and read it loud enough for everyone to hear. Some thought I was crazy, some thought I was a genius—but it was always my excuse not to say anything else for the rest of the night.
Poetry is one of the only things I truly love. My brother, Dwayne, is my favorite poet—I learned how to write poetry by listening to him recite his pieces around the house and at seedy open mics in downtown Norfolk, Virginia, where I’m from.
OW: Oh, that’s special.
ESL: Can I talk about another poet? Langston Hughes. A friend of mine asked me to read one of his poems. I hesitated because I didn’t like Hughes very much—I thought his lines didn’t rhyme well and his structure was a little wonky. I started to read but I didn’t even get through one stanza before my friend grabbed the book out of my hand and told me I was reading it wrong. “You have to hear the jazz,” he said. He started snapping his fingers and tapping his feet. The lyrics flowed off his lips like a drummer tapping his snare. Suddenly I understood it—something exploded in my medulla oblongata. Mr. Hughes was a rapper and I was reading his work like it was some kind of academic prose. Since then, Mr. Hughes has been a huge inspiration and the poem “Bare Cupboards” was written in his honor.
OW: Where did the vandalized art style come from?
ESL: I love street art. I’ve tagged a few things in my life and I will tag a few more—but, I respect the art of architecture way too much to destroy it. Somebody spent their life making that nameless building that we just so cavalierly degrade. So, I started vandalizing my own work. I started by vandalizing magazines and photos on my desk at an advertising agency I was working at, where white out and Sharpies were the only tools I had. Soon I started taking my own pictures on the street under a different moniker and vandalizing them later. I guess that is where the style comes from.
OW: I see you use the Jean-Michel Basquiat crown a lot in your illustrations. In what way did he influence you?
ESL: About Basquiat. Before he ascended to art royalty he slept in the streets and was known for writing thought-provoking statements on brick walls. As we speak, I’m wearing a tank top with a huge Basquiat Crown printed on it. I have mixed feelings about it because I think he would be angry to know his work was being sold at Forever 21. At the same time, his paintings sell for millions of dollars and did so when he was alive too. He truly walks the line of being rebellious and productive in society. [is that edit okay? Is that what you were saying?] That’s a special place, and over my career I’ve tried to produce things in that space too.
OW: I would have thought for sure you would have gotten that shirt at H&M.
ESL: Me too. I can’t tell if that means they have more or less taste.
OW: Do you have a favorite poem or image in the book?
ESL: My favorite poem in the book is “Mr. Pace Said the Longest Grace.” It’s about a guy who starts to pray over dinner but just won’t stop. Everybody knows that guy and if you don’t —that guy is probably you. My favorite part of making this book was going into people’s homes to photograph their life. There were a lot of good memories at that jam-packed dinner table.
OW: What do you think about the American family meal? How would you like to see it changed?
ESL: These poems are meant to be read aloud at dinner. My secret motive in creating this book is to get people to make dinnertime special again. It’s my belief that a family that eats together, loves better.
People don’t eat dinner together anymore. And it’s a shame because when I was a kid it was the centerpiece to my family experience. From my dad’s vocabulary pop quiz while passing the potatoes, to my mom’s hospital stories told while coughing on some pepper that went down wrong I was disciplined, educated and challenged to be a better person at the table.
OW: When you have your own chef like I do, the way you think about food changes. Did your thinking about food change after creating this book? If so, how?
ESL: I don’t know if my thinking about food changed with this book, but something funny happened while writing it. A cosmic joke perhaps. I had some major health problems arise that I’d never experienced before. My doctor put me on a diet that would change my life. Now I find myself drinking kale smoothies and eating gluten-free, sugar-free, corn-free, dairy-free whatnots. For my food to be so free, why does it cost so much more money?
OW: What do you think parents should know about family meals? What should kids know?
ESL: Kids should know that dinnertime is the best time to tell their parents about the expensive vase that they broke. Their parents will be so happy about eating, they will forget to ask if you were playing ball in the house when it broke. Families should know that family dinner is not just about the food.