Oceanography: Poet Shayla Lawson On Frank Ocean

By April Baer (OPB)
Portland, Ore. April 14, 2018 3:40 p.m.
Lawson's poems converse with the music of Frank Ocean, exploring themes of intimacy and social politics.

Lawson's poems converse with the music of Frank Ocean, exploring themes of intimacy and social politics.

Jack Hughes / Courtesy of Shayla Lawson

Just as Frank Ocean’s music has blown up conventional R&B storytelling, Shayla Lawson’s new collection of verse, “I Think I’m Ready To See Frank Ocean,” is pushing poetic form into new territory.

Lawson, a Portland-based poet and essayist who’s written for Guernica, Tin House, Salon and ESPN, has been fascinated with Ocean even before his 2011 mixtape, “Nostalgia, Ultra.”

“I was living in the Netherlands, trying to cling to anything I could from American culture,” she said. The town was so small, “if there was a traffic jam, it would involve a herd of sheep.”

Searching for bands breaking big in the States, Lawson ran across Odd Future, the Los Angeles hip-hop collective that counts Ocean among its members. She noticed his song credits piling up — tracks Ocean wrote for Beyonce, Justin Bieber and others — and read more about his life. Then came the epic solo releases: “Channel Orange,” “Endless” and “Blond.” Who was this guy, she wondered: a Katrina survivor, an observer of the emerging Black Lives Matter movement and pop collage artist?

“I was interested in learning about how to bring that same clarity and openness about how to tell a story into my poems,” Lawson said. “I feel like he’s taking us into a different comfort zone.”

Lawson started writing in response to Ocean’s lyrics. She felt drawn by his fluidity with male and female pronouns, his open professions of affection for family members and other important people in his life, as well as his willingness to explore issues of sex and intimacy in forthright ways.

Some things she wrote keep the stories going, extending them to imaginative conclusions. Some explore characters that might exist in an Oceanic universe. Others pick up an Ocean idea and openly contradict it.


“He is spanning this pivotal historical point within conversations about the black community and black bodies. Because of the very necessary focus on black male bodies, there’s a little bit of scaling back of conversations about how these same conversations affect women,” Lawson said. “What I wanted to do was, in the same way he’s archiving things happening [to black men], I wanted to make sure there was a level of visibility for black womanhood and woman-identified femaleness in that story.”

At her book release party, playing and singing in front of her band, the Oceanographers, Lawson opened with one of Ocean’s most widely known riffs, the chorus of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild.” Within a few bars, she and the band transitioned to Ocean’s solo hit “Novacane." After a verse or two, Lawson reached into the song for her own poem, re-imagining the song’s flip side. Ocean’s sexy dental student paramour emerges as a young woman nearly flattened by a lifetime of abuse and sexualized attention.

Alice is a girl of almosts. Like Autotune
the instant her boyfriend
almost punches her
hurtling her fists at the wall as she tried to exit.

But the character still fights to see her way out. 

Alice reads her dental
school textbooks in the light by the bed. She
envisions her own agency. While they sleep, she sucks
the air between his lips & lungs. She says "It's super-
human the way I can shut your eyes & still see everything."
She is trying to be / someone she wasn't

The musical component was present in Lawson’s mind from the project’s early stages.

“When I was working on [my own poems] the music was always in my earbuds," she said. "I would be washing my car or waiting for people … and I started to hear where they’d intersect with the songs.”

The band who helped her bring the songs to life in live performances and videos — the Oceanographers — are all Lawson’s friends. She described it as a collaborative process: “We’ve been working on it in different variations over several years.” More recordings are coming on Lawson’s website.

Just as Ocean would pull together a beat from an Elton John classic, meshed with a Mary J. Blige melodic line, freshened with his own verses, Lawson took Frank Ocean themes and ran with them, commenting through her poems and her performance, editing Ocean’s lyrics as she and band saw fit.

Lawson has no idea if Ocean’s aware of the project. If Ocean or his publishers take any issue with her creative license, she hasn’t heard about it. It may be, she said, the silence is born “out of graciousness, giving me the space to do this project and recognizing I’m trying to [be] respectful ”

“It gives me butterflies to think what that first contact might look like.”

Shayla Lawson reads at Powell's City of Books Sunday, April 22 at 4 p.m., with Stacey Tran and Dan Kaplan.