Oprah Interviews Eric-Shabazz Larkin for O Magazine

If I Ever Talked With Oprah Winfrey, 
This Is How It Might Go Down

by Eric-Shabazz Larkin, author of A Moose Boosh: A Few Choice Words About Food

OW: You seem to be reinventing yourself every six months, does it get exhausting?
ESL: Says the woman who went from daytime TV to all-the-time network, magazine, blog. It’s an honor to meet you.

OW: I love this new book. It’s really unlike any I’ve ever seen. It touches on a subject rarely seen in children’s books—food. What gave you the idea for A Moose Boosh?
ESL: When I was a kid, I knew I had to eat my greens, but no one told me why. How we eat is the least understood factor in living a healthy and happy life. I feel we haven’t done a good job of teaching our kids about food lately. When I was a kid, fast food was a weekly treat. Now it seems that it’s a way of life and not enough people are raising a flag to say it’s not okay and to ask what the effects are of junk food on our bodies. 
I wanted to create a book that speaks to kids candidly about food. One that doesn’t feel like a school book or a homework project, but one that feels like fun. Many of the poems in A Moose Boosh, like “Slippery Noodles" or "Ruby Loo Drooped When She Pooped" are silly. Others, like “Food Desert in Harlem,” are a bit more serious. All these poems come from a playful perspective.

 Image from A Moose Boosh

Image from A Moose Boosh

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.

 Image from A Moose Boosh

Image from A Moose Boosh

 Image from Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table

Image from Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table

OW: How is the experience of working on this book different from that of your first book, Farmer Will Allen
ESL: This book is different because it’s so personal. A Moose Boosh is like a baby to me. I couldn’t believe that anyone else would be interested in my doodles on photographs other than my wife, Ashley. But we’re getting a very positive response. I think when I did Farmer Will Allen, I did a lot of thinking about what other people would want to see. When I created A Moose Boosh, I only tried to make the little kid in me laugh or gag, but mostly just laugh.

OW: A Moose Boosh is dripping with cultural diversity. Was that purposeful?
ESL: No, that’s just what NY and my friends look like.

OW: What role do you think race or culture play in food? 
ESL: Food is the best history book you can read. The things you eat say so much about where you are from and what you have been through. I remember going to Kenya. I had a notion of what the food would taste like because these were black people like me. So their food would taste similar. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m used to salty, spicy, rich-in -flavor soul food or Jamaican food. But Kenyan food is very bland. So are most African foods. Why? How could this be? My grandfather told me that the black slaves in early America got the worst food—spoiled meats and rotting veggies. So they added tons of salt and spices to mask the bad tastes. Today, black people have more access to fresh foods but still cook their food that way because of a long-passed tradition. Shoot—this would have made a good poem.

OW: Your publisher, Readers to Eaters, is all about food literacy. What does that mean to you?  
ESL: Learn to read, learn to add, learn to love, learn to eat. Everything is learned—especially how food affects us.

OW: I see there is a poem about Michelle Obama. Is there a poem about me in the works?
ESL: My original manuscript had a poem about you and okra, but my publisher cut it from the final book. I’ll send it to you—it’s funny.