Saturday, July 19, 2014


Christal Cooper    4,019 words

Poet Robert Gray’s
Own Road To Damascus:

“Christianity is part of my DNA.  There are things about it, at least the version I grew up with, that I can no longer accept, but there are also parts that can’t let go of.”

This past April of 2014 Robert Gray’s poetry collection, JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND, was published by negative capability press ( 

Gray’s previous poetry collections are I Wish That I Were Langston Hughes and DREW: Poems from Blue Water.   

Gray’s JWTS is more than a poetry collection, but a prayer to a higher power, an attempt to rescue Jesus from Christianity, an apologetic to the African American race for his responsibility of racism by simply being white, and a cry for social justice in an America that is still ravaged with racism, especially amongst black and white in Alabama’s south.

Gray was raised, along with his brother Drew, in a devout Methodist family who held to the traditional and conservative views of religion and politics.  Even still, in his small hometown of Sylacauga, Alabama, he attended the integrated Main Avenue Elementary School, in 1970.
“My first grade year was the first year the school system was fully integrated, so for me, all of that was invisible.  I wasn’t aware of anything being different, and for that I am lucky.”

Gray, a choirboy in the Methodist Church, held the standard view of Jesus that most of the white south had:  a tall white male with golden brown hair and warm blue eyes. 

“There was one (picture) in the room I usually slept in at my grandmother’s house.  It was the standard handsome white guy with light brown hair and a halo, the immaculately conceived only Son of God, the Savior of the World, the only key to the kingdom of heaven.” 

Gray inherited his mother’s sense of power and wonder of religion.  He also inherited from his father permission to doubt and think against the norm, which he exercised when he took a lecture course on William Blake, and as a result, experienced the beginnings of spiritual awakening and fulfillment that were absent in his conservative and religious upbringing. 

blake was first introduced to me through the words of lectures
languishing in the error and blindness that is the theme of
all his work but I’ve since found the maker of the lamb and tyger is
kept from our restrained eyes so that we can finally see at albion’s
emanation that all deities do indeed reside within the human beast.
*Excerpt from “A POEM FOR WILLIAM BLAKE”  Page 35

“I thought they were brilliant when I was listening to them.  When I studied Blake in much more detail later on (and I owe much of my understanding to my dear friend and mentor, Vic Paananen, who died of cancer last year), I realized that you can’t really understand the earlier stuff that everybody reads (e.g., The Songs of Innocence and of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) until you’ve read the later prophecies that almost nobody reads (e.g., Milton and Jerusalem) because they’re almost incomprehensible.  But the Songs and Marriage take on entirely different levels of signification through the frames of the prophecies.”

Gray started writing poetry in his college years when he was a member of a rock band, and given the sole responsibility of writing the band’s lyrics, but he did not start writing poetry seriously until he took a British Literature survey course and fell in love with Romanticism and the poet William Wordsworth.

the natural world wordsworth wrote of long ago
was harmony wrought in the style of church hymns

or flowing lines of tintern abbey and the ode
immortal harmony and beauty we no longer see

the world’s a poem that doesn’t rhyme
it lacks a certain metric or sense of time.
*Excerpt from “RHYMING LANDSCAPES” page 70

When I was about fifteen, I went to England with my church choir.  We visited the house of some guy named Wordsworth.  I had no idea who he was, but I loved the beauty of his Lake District.  Several years later, I took a British Lit survey course and read his work.  After reading his poems and connecting them to my memories of those landscapes, I was hooked.”

After taking the British Literature survey course, Gray made the decision to become an English major, earning his B.A. and M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Instructional Technology, all from the University of Alabama. 

He encountered other books and writers during his college years at the University of Alabama and Michigan State’s doctoral program that he mentions in his poetry collection JWTS:  some of which are Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.  His reading of these books, especially Moby Dick, made an impact on him while studying for his Master’s comps.

how long must we believe
biology shapes behavior
blaming our own oppression 
on whales   
         *Excerpt from “OF SCHOOLS AND SCHOOLMASTERS” Page 67      


“I got up one day, started reading Moby Dick, and put it down when I finished it and went to bed:  long day, but a good day.  That poem was written as part of the Remaking Moby Dick Project, which was curated by Trish Harris.  There was a museum installation in Norway and a book published.  She put out a call for responses to individual chapters.  I drew that chapter (88).  It was actually a part and aspect of the book that I couldn’t remember, so it was a neat experience.”

Gray took his first poetry writing class while in graduate school, which was not a pleasant experience for Gray, even though, in the long term, it made him a better poet. 
“I fell in love with poetry because I fell in love with Romanticism and was studying and primarily reading the English Romantics, so when I started writing poems, I sounded like I was in England in the 1810s.  In fact, my teacher told me I sounded like John Clare.  It took me several years to figure out how not to do that, how to move my voice up a couple of centuries.”

Perhaps Gray’s most autobiographical and most fictional poem from the collection is “THE ROAD TO DEMOPOLIS”, where Gray is the symbolic blind unbelieving Paul until he is visited by the real Jesus/ the real truth, and finally, in the end, his eyes are open to what is truth and what is right.  

i was on the road to demopolis
to meet an old friend
at a barbecue joint
when a light flashed from above
and a voice called my name
above the din of daydream
and dave matthews

i know why you persecute me

after making sure I was still
awake and on the road
i sheepishly asked

lord is that you

a voice more like jackie mason
than james replied

no I am paul the apostle
find the epistles
that one you’ve been persecuting
in your poems but let us fix
your eyes on me the real me
*Excerpt from “THE ROAD TO DEMOPOLIS” page 37

In Gray’s own personal life, it took poetry, the works of great storyteller masters, and his own witness and observation of injustice and racial inequality in the south for him to finally see the truth, and thus, he is a new creature.
“I don’t know if it was anything I studied in particular so much as intellectual maturation and growth.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized the concepts of English Romanticism circa 1800 had seemed radical to me because the worldview I grew up in was the same one the Romantics were speaking out against…”

         As a result, Gray is no longer a Methodist, but a member of his local Episcopal Church, not necessarily because of its dogma, but its celebration of questioning and doubting of typical brands of Christianity, and this is felt and expressed through his poetry in JWTS. 

“In his blurb on my new book, JWTS, Hank Lazer said I was trying to save Christ from Christianity, and in some ways, while many would probably find my book offensive or even blasphemous (at least in a couple of poems), taken as a whole, it is a kind of testimony to a Christianity that is about justice, about fighting oppression, about granting dignity to all human beings.”

         Gray, through his own conversion experience, has changed his views on Christianity and Jesus, though he will not go into great detail, which is the ethical duty of a poet:  a poet and a poem are two separate entities and poems belong to the reader as much as to the poet.
“Whether the crucifixion and resurrection literally happened or not has no effect on the “truth” of the story.  I still see Jesus as the archetype of humanity and still greatly value the example he gave us for how to live. 

To me, the Gospels are about how to live in this world (and) about how we are to sacrifice our selves.  We are literally to be consumed by the world in our fight against injustice and oppression so that every human being can stand with dignity.  That, in my reading, is the "way" of Christ.

It would logically follow that if you are a Christian merely so that you will go to heaven, you're doing it wrong.  Heaven may or may not enter into it, but that’s not something I am going to concern myself with.  This world is a heaven that we have turned into a hell for the vast majority of its inhabitants.  The only thing keeping it from being a heaven is our lack of will to make it so, mostly because we are more concerned with maintaining our place and stake in that world than with elevating others.  And the role that historical and contemporary Christianity has played in making sure the haves feel “blessed” and the have-nots feel comforted by the world to come is as great an evil as the world has ever known.   

Gray not only has revolutionary ideas about Christianity, but poetry as well, and like some Christian circles, there are poetry circles that consider him a rule breaker as well:  poet Gray refuses to use capitalization and punctuation in any of his poetry.
“I was just writing a poem one day and would come up with several lines at once, but when I would get to an end of a line, I would struggle to decide what punctuation to put there (a period? a dash?  a semicolon? etc.).  So I just stopped using punctuation and soon figured that capitalization should go too.”
He didn’t feel like he had the right to call himself poet until after his second poetry collection DREW:  Poems From Blue Water was published.  DREW:  PFBW is dedicated and focused on his brother Drew, his brain cancer, and his death.

“It took me a long time to make that recognition.  I thought of myself as someone who wrote (or at least had the capacity to write) pretty good poems as early as the late 1990s, but I wasn’t really comfortable with calling myself a poet until my second book came out.”

Gray describes JWTS as a poetry collection on religion and politics divided into three sections: Politics (ONE:  IT’S DIFFERENT GROWING UP IN THE SOUTH); Religion (TWO:  JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND); and Metaphysical Observation Poems/Meaning of Life Poems, which are neither political nor religious (THREE:  AND THE WORLD WAS GOD). 

“I originally had the religion section first, but both Lorna Dee Cervantes and Sue Walker recommended I put the political ones first because of the danger of the religion poems putting some readers off too early.  The placement or order of the poems in each section was just by feel.  A few of them bounced between sections before finding their permanent home.  I also felt strongly that each section should have the same number of poems, I guess so that one wouldn’t be privileged over the others.”        

Some of these poems may be disturbing, particularly to those who are white, conservative, and evangelical Christian.  In  “I WISH THAT I WERE LANGSTON HUGHES” Gray makes an argument of what is black poetry and what is white poetry and the difference between the two.

i have long found
a fundamental difference between white poetry
and black poetry
and I have often envied it
and while I am certainly
as guilty as anyone and
would never wish to oversimplify
it seems to me that white poetry
has often soared on the ethereal
wings of imagination and philosophy

african american poetry
on the other hand
has preferred to labor
with its hands  in the earth
it had on its work
in the everyday
*Excerpt from “I WISH THAT I WERE LANGSTON HUGES” pages 5 and 6.

I don’t think I would say that Black poets are “labor poets,”
though.  That implies a kind of class distinction that I wasn’t going for.  If I were to restate or explain it here, I would say that white poets, especially pre-20th-century ones, tend to be more concerned about the meaning of life, while Black poets tend to be more concerned with life itself.  But again, there are many exceptions to this.”

There is also the hint of being ashamed of being white or being held responsible for the racial atrocities happening to the African Americans based on one simply being white.
          for no matter how much
i read or think or discuss
          no matter how enlightened I may feel
          i can never understand
          as a white poet
          privileged by nothing else
          but my own whiteness
          how the truth in their words
          can see so well into the life of things
          and so I am damned
          by that same whiteness
          *Excerpt from “I WISH THAT I WERE LANGSTON
HUGHES” page 5.        
“I wouldn’t say that I am (or have been) ashamed to be white.  And I don’t think I can be anything but a white poet, but hopefully one that has learned to push against my limitations.  Sure, there are many, many things that white people have done that I’m not proud of, but I’m not aware of any ethic or racial group that has a history free of such things (although, I must say, white people undoubtedly have more than our share). 

No one should be ashamed of their identity.  Shame is such an unproductive and crippling emotion.  But if shame enters into it anywhere, I suppose it should be in regards to how you respond to your identity.  So, if you are a white person who professes to be a Christian and have all of this residual evidence of the violence and oppression that whiteness continues to express in our society, and you choose simply to go on with your life, re-inscribing and perpetuating those expressions, as well as benefitting from the advantages and privileges that previous injustices have provided, instead of doing something to work against them, then at that point, shame does have a place in all of this.”

many might argue that poetry
should be above the baseness
of politics and there may well be
a richness to those arguments
but there is also a whiteness
silently blinding us to the life of things.
page 6

“I fully realize the limitations of the binary I set up in “I WISH THAT I WERE LANGSTON HUGHES,” but the deconstruction bit at the end was intended to undermine that binary.  I originally had a line or two that talked about not wanting to oversimplify, but it just sounded too coldly academic so I took it out.  I’m still not sure if that was the right decision.  There are certainly many, many examples of exceptions to these generalizations, but as generalizations, I think they do tend to hold. 

it mocks the historic lines
underlying lady liberty
undergirding what is supposed
to constinute our national greatness
while htose who cry out for the
poor the tired the tempest-tossed
those who cry out against the madness
are cast aside as madmen crying out
*Excerpt from “OUR COUNTRY IS BROKEN” page 22.

In “OUR COUNTRY BROKEN”, a fair interpretation could the be condemnation of republicans and evangelical Christians, but Gray insists that’s not the main point he is trying to make in the poem.

“Rather, I think of it as a condemnation of the willful ignorance that pervades our culture.  I suppose you could say, then, that it’s a condemnation of how the Republican party works to perpetuate and manipulate that ignorance and how the fundamentalists fall right for it.  Primarily, though, I think it’s about how deceptive political discourses are and how important it is in a democracy for the people to be smart enough to not be duped and how we are failing miserably at being smart enough.”
In “GOOD LITTLE GIRL” Gray describes, in his view, the political views that a true Christian should never have.  In the poem he describes a good little girl who is supposedly a Christian who reads her red Gideon Bible every day, and how she loves the color red because it reminds her

          of the blood of jesus
and how it matches
almost perfectly the roses
on her laura ashley comforter
*Excerpt from “GOOD LITTLE GIRL” page 12.

This description can apply to all Christians, who, according to Jesus, are called to love their neighbors and their enemies as their own selves, which involves turning the other cheek, and giving one his or her last coat during the coldest of seasons.  Unfortunately, in today’s world, even the Christian world, this is not always the case.

“I was just trying to point out that the current political views publicly held by “conservative Christians” seem, at least to me, a bit antithetical to the teachings of Christ.  There is part of me that wanted to go a lot further with that depiction, but I held back.”
Gray insists that he is not writing poems that express a blanket commentary about Christianity or even to all Christians, but is expressing disappointment in certain segments of Christians and Christianity who exhibit behaviors that are cruel to individuals or groups of individuals.
“There are a lot of good and bad Christians, good and
bad white people, and good and bad Black people.  I play with the stereotypes of the political views of conservative whites that are perpetuated in the media and verified daily in my Facebook feed and email inbox, but I hope my poems don’t suggest that all white people are like that.  I can’t think of where they would.
Though he may not claim the title, he is a civil rights activist and is constantly and consistently seeking out the rights for minorities, LGBT groups, and specifically African Americans, which are ever present in Alabama and in his personal and professional life.
         “Besides writing books and making movies for racial equality, I am currently working with the mayor’s staff in Mobile to organize a series of events an programs to address racial divisions in the city.”         

Presently Gray resides in Mobile with his wife of 24 years Kim and their two children Liam and Emily in an integrated neighborhood, but not integrated enough for him. 

         “Our street is about two blocks long, and currently, everyone who lives on it is white.  There are African Americans who live at each end and on the streets on each side of it and on the one that intersects it in the middle.  So, in a way, yes, it is integrated, but I would like for it to be a little better integrated.”

Gray believes more integration is part of the answer to our racial issues in America today, but that it is not the sole answer, and in order for it to work properly both sides of the equation must to do it voluntarily, willingly and cheerfully. 

“The thing about integration, however, is that it’s very much like the theorizing I do on interaction in my instructional technology day job: both sides have to change for it to happen.  If it is truly going to work, then the (now almost lost) virtues of the African American schools that constituted the heart of many communities of color have to be incorporated fully and respectably into the majority schools.  And the children of people with power, influence, and wealth can’t flee to private schools.  The same has to happen in neighborhoods and workplaces.  We can’t just make people of color transform themselves to fit white spaces; the spaces have to cease being “white.””

It’s obvious Gray has given his blood, sweat, tears, heart, mind, body, and soul in these poems that make up JWTS.(  His favorite poem, if he had to pick from the collection is “JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND”, which he described as a journalist account of a true story.
“A couple of weeks after I moved to Mobile, I went home to visit my wife and kids for the weekend, who were back in Birmingham trying to sell our house.  I was driving back that Sunday evening and reached Montgomery right at dusk.  There was a lot of construction going on at that time on I-65, and traffic was pretty heavy.  All of a sudden, a bum literally stumbled out of the traffic in front of me, and as I passed by him, I looked in my rearview mirror.  It was like he was staring right into my soul through my rearview mirror.  It was really strange. 

And although he was balding on top and didn’t have much hair and only a scraggly beard, his face and eyes looked just like Jesus, or at least just like that shared image we all have of Jesus.  And even though I was well past him and traffic was horrible, I felt a strong impulse to pull over and give him a ride, primarily because of that superstitious belief most Southerners are raised with that such figures could be angels sent to test us.  I immediately scoffed at such an impulse but also immediately looked over into my passenger seat and remembered that I was moving a lot of stuff from home to my new apartment, so there were boxes in the front seat and a book case in the back.  There literally wasn’t room in my car.  Even if it was Jesus! 

I then started thinking about the richness of that experience and how it could be interpreted in so many ways.  So as soon as I got out of town and traffic lightened up a bit, I pulled over on the shoulder of the exit ramp to Pintlala, grabbed my laptop, which was on the floor in front of the passenger seat, and typed it out.  When I got to my apartment a couple of hours later, I played with it for a few minutes and called it done. 

A year or two later, I was teaching Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and thought how the message in that poem about suffering always going on in the margins aligned very nicely with my poem, so I added the “somewhere to get to” as an allusion/homage to Auden.”


tonight I saw jesus
in my rearview mirror
he was on the side
of the road in montgomery
and looked just like
he always did
in those paintings
except that he was
a bit thinner on top
and a lot dirtier
which I guess was
just from the shit
that’s been dumped
on him recently
i couldn’t really tell
if he was hitchhiking
or just walking along
it all happened too fast
but it wouldn’t have mattered
anyway because I wasn’t looking
out for him besides
i had somewhere to get to
and didn’t have room in my car.
Complete Poem “JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND” from JWTS. page 27.

         Contact Robert Gray via email at
or; via facebook at ; via web at : or via telephone at 251-380-2616.
Photos A
Robert Gray amongst trees

Photo B
Front jacket cover of JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND

Photo C

Photo D
Jacket cover of DREW:  Poems from Blue Water

Photo E
Robert Gray (far left) and older brother Drew (far right in red)
July 1968
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo F
Robert Gray’s 1975-1976 class, middle row, sixth from left
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo G
Painting of Jesus
Public Domain

Photo H
Gray, *(number 39) and his family
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo I
Gray (back left) and his family
Copyright by Robert Gray

Photo Ja
"Portrait of William Blake, engraved by William Bell Scott 1811-90" oil on Canvas, location: Fitzwilliam Museum - University of Cambridge.
Public Domain 

Photo Jb
Vic Paananen

Photo K
Public Domain

Photo L
Public Domain

Photo M
Robert Gray’s rock band.  Robert Gray is in the very back.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo N
William Wordsworth about the time he began writing The Prelude at age 28 in 1798
Public Domain

Photo O
A 2 × 3 segment panorama of the town of Keswick, nestled between the fells of Skiddaw and Derwent Water in the Lake District, Cumbria, England. Taken from about 3/4 of the way to the summit of Walla Crag.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Photo P
Jacket cover of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
1969 original edition.

Photo Q
Jacket cover of To Kill A Mockingbird
1960, original edition

Photo R
Jacket cover of Moby Dick

Photo S
Jacket cover of Remaking Moby Dick

Photo T
Trish Harris
Copyright granted by Trish Harris

Photo U
John Clare
Public Domain

Photo V
Saul’s Onversion to Paul on the road to Damascus
Oil on canvas 1600-1601
Michelangelo Merisi (or Amerighi) da Caravaggio
Public Domain

Photo W10
The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake's work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.
Public Domain

Photo W11
Hank Lazer
Attributed to Greg Jay
Copyright granted by Hank Lazer

Photo X
Back jacket cover of JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND

Photo Y
Painting of Jesus walking on water.
Unkown attribution or artist.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo Z
Jesus walking on water.
Fair Use Under The United States Copyright Law

Photo ZA
Painting of Jesus walking on water
Unknown attribution of artist
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo ZB
Photo 38
Drew Gray
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo ZC
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo ZD
Lorna Dee Cervantes 
Copyright granted by Lorna Dee Cervantes

Photo ZE
Sue Brannan Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama from  2004-2012,  the Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the
University of South Alabama, and Editor/Publisher of Negative Capability Press. 
Copyright granted by Sue Brannan Walker.

Photo ZF
Langston Hughes at the Lincoln University in 1928
Credit:  Yale Collection of American Literature
Fair Use
Public Domain

Photo ZG
Blake's "A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows", an illustration to J. G. Stedman's Narrative, of a Five Years' Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).
Public Domain

Photo ZH
Eastman Johnson – the lord is my shepherd
Oil on canvas
Public Domain

Photo ZI
Celebration cake for the publication of JESUS WALKS THE SOUTHLAND
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo ZJ
Painting titled The Reader
Jean Honore Fragonard
Public Domain

Photo ZK
Robert Gray.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo ZL
The Robert Gray Family
Robert, Liam, Emma, and Kim
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo ZM
The Robert Gray residence.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo ZN
Robert Gray residence street.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo ZO
School integration Bernard School in Washington .D.C  1955
Thomas J O’Halloran
Public Domain

Photo ZP
Black Santa Clause
Attributed to Robert Gray.
Copyright granted by Robert Gray.

Photo ZQ
Alexi, a homeless man, in Prague since the fall of communism.
October 7, 2009
Attributed to Ricardo Liberato
CCASA 2.0 generic

Photo ZR
Depiction of Jesus walking
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo ZS
Side view of Robert Gray
Copyright granted by Robert Gray

Photo ZT
W.H. Auden
In 1939
Car Van Vechten

Photo ZU
Robert Gray amongst trees

Copyright granted by Robert Gray