On the Black Avant-Garde, Trigger Warnings, and Life in East Hampton
In Conversation with Poet Dawn Lundy Martin
Recently, I had the chance to speak with poet Dawn Lundy Martin about her newest book of poetry, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, out this year from Nightboat. In the considerably rich, and to my mind dominant, field that is contemporary black poetics, Martin’s work is distinguished for the intensity of its formal experimentation and the ways in which the procedures and process of art making, traditionally and historically, both in the West and this country, always seem to lead on to larger confrontations with blackness, the historical and contemporary self, social justice and the role of the imagination. Her work as a teacher and intellectual, fully available through her poetry, extends to her cutting-edge editorial work, which can be seen in boundary2’s recent issue on “Race and Innovation” for Duke University Press.
Adam Fitzgerald: I thought we could begin by talking about how your book emerges from time spent at the Montclair Art Museum, and brings into lyric/meditative conversation not only particular artworks found there but also advances a larger sense of the way in which your work operates ekphrastically: a great emphasis in Life in a Box is a Pretty Life relies on the juxtaposition of language and the fine arts.
Dawn Lundy Martin: I’m interested in the way Carrie Mae Weems’s Framed by Modernism—a triptych featuring artist Robert Colescott, who had approached Weems to take a photograph of him—destabilizes that historic relationship between artist and subject. My reading of these images in which Weems stands naked in the corner while Colescott, sock-feet clad, stands in the foreground in front of one of his paintings, illuminates modernism’s yoke of representation when it comes to the black body. That Weems places her own nude body in the corner, however, makes it impossible for us to see these bodies (hers and Colescott’s) as pure victims painted into black otherhood with anxious urgency about the demise of civilization. Instead, we see a trajectory between historic representations of blackness, the representation of the female body by male artists, and a unique tension between subject and object in which the lack of agency is not a devout positioning. I also love the way that this artwork juxtaposes image and text, forcing, almost necessarily, the extension into literature.
That said, for me, there is always a conversation between art forms, thinking forms, other enterprises that bring together the creative, the intellectual, and the political. Thus, when I was writing Life is a Box is a Pretty Life, I didn’t have a sense that this book was particularly interested in literature and visual art, because these are the things scattered on my desk; they are what animate my imagination. Genre, like identity, is socially constructed but we all collude to try to make our categories seem natural, immanent. What is the form for the thing that wants to be said? This is not an already answered question when I set out to create something.
AF: Could you tell me more about your involvement with Black Took Collective, HOWYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, Yam Collective and others. Your acknowledgements read to me as a very important context not just for this book, but for your work as a poet in general.
DLM: Working with the Black Took Collective and the Yam Collective is challenging and invigorating as this work provides, in its very forms, prophesies of itch and discomfort. I learned many years ago when working with feminist organizations—back when I was on the board of the Third Wave Foundation, a young feminist activist organization—that one of the worst things you can do if you want to make something happen is to gather a lot of people in the same room toward a set of goals. Human beings bring a lot of shit with them when they enter rooms and that drag of history can obstruct progress. Artists collectives, even if they have political aims, are different in that the modes of interaction require, not merely doing something together but making something together. I’m a big believer that the tension produced by making something from a place of discomfort, instability, and not knowing is what creativity, in fact, is. This is why I’m not keen on the use of “trigger warnings” in spaces that are meant to be creative and intellectual. I don’t believe we can afford to sequester ourselves with likeminded thinkers or fictional safety or to isolate the ghost from the room. I say this as a person who writes a lot from her own personal experience in the long post-traumatic moment. We can beautifully fracture our surfaces when we are challenged to confront what appear to be the limits of our selves. This is what working in collaboration means to me.
AF: You’ve mentioned Weems already, but there are other artists lurking your pages, e.g. Kara Walker’s opening quote which serves as epigraph to the collection: “What strikes me is how easy it is to commit atrocities.”
DLM: Of course, there are oblique dialogues between my work and others I’m not aware of. But my interest in visual art, again, is not particularly necessary to genre, but to ideas. I am reminded of when Fred Moten says, “there are whole new forms and modes and ideas of personhood that occur as a function of the experience of a person being taken as an object.” Are those new forms and modes of personhood re-presentable? How do we get to/at them? Scratch their itching heads? When I encountered artwork like Kara Walker’s work, which I obsessed over in grad school, I was stopped by the incantatory progression of the images. Somehow, I hear a drum even though there’s no sound present. The poet Ronaldo V. Wilson and I were like, O my God! We were in awe by the way the imagery lived at the intersection of the horrific, the historically unimaginable, and the comical. The way the word sidestepped representation and instead tapped into the hulking black matter lodged in American imagination. What kind of subjectivity emerges from the mutation of the object, the being made monster? Ellen Gallagher has long been another artist who has helped me think about this question. But, it’s not genre, I guess; it’s a question of form and approach.
AF: I’m thinking of recent groundbreaking poetry collections that hybridize the literary and artistic in very singular ways, specifically by contemporary black poets. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life doesn’t include extra-textual material in terms of image. Rather it silhouettes and creates poetry around their absence on the page. Whereas, for example, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric includes both text and images, Robin Coste Lewis’s The Voyage of the Sable Venus is all text, though in conversation with hundreds of specific artworks. Were you tempted to insert actual images?
DLM: Thanks for putting me in the same breath as Claudia and Robin, but, you know, I was not tempted to use images. I don’t know why I don’t have this temptation. Maybe it’s because I think of the poem as a visual object. When I studied with Myung Mi Kim at San Francisco State University, a truly transformative moment in my poetics, she introduced me to this term “page as canvas.” This thought is often floating around my imagination as I write.
AF: In 2015, the rote dichotomies for classifying poetry seem to be breaking down. Politics/aesthetics, experimental/lyric—I’m thinking especially of Fred Moten’s focus on a black radical tradition, which relates directly to your own poetics. I wonder whether or not you’ve sensed in your generation and our time a greater openness and interest in poetic hybridization, in particular by poets of color exploring witness and history simultaneous to the modernist procedures so often canonized as white, academically and/or critically?
DLM: I always want to say, whose experimentalism? Whose avant-garde? Who has the right to define these terms and for whom? Sometimes I teach a graduate course titled “Black Radical Poetry,” which charts a course from, and relation between, black modernism and black contemporary experimental poetry. A colleague once looked at my syllabus and said, are some of these “modernists” a little too late to be modern? According to whom, I asked, who determines those parameters for a people who wrote themselves into the category of “human”? In fact, whose humanity? Whose humanism? The contexts and the terms as constructed by agents with a desire to maintain their artistic and literary legitimacy while black heads roll. I think there is excessive validation and celebration of black writing that is invested in speaking a reification of what it means to black. I have nothing at all against this kind of writing—some of it, moving and beautiful and deeply familiar. But the mechanisms at work, the literary regime that redistributes and elevates certain literature is the means by which the fiction that black writing is relegated to one realm is propagated. I am being slightly theoretical here, so let me say this plainly: this perception that black writing is one dimensional is animated by a tower of people in power in literature and academia—who with or without their own consent —want blackness, black people, and black art to be recognizable in a hackneyed container so that everything stays the same. When writers step outside of that container as black people have been doing since being brought to these shores, that’s threatening to the establishment.
When Harriet Jacobs borrows the conventions of 18th-century sentimental novels in Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl that seems to me to not only be a radical experiment in content and form, but also, a radical means toward selfhood. The black body itself in America is a radical subjectivity. Think of the twisting calisthenics the psyche must do to see itself outside of objecthood.
I realize I haven’t answered your question directly, but this is all a way of saying that the black radical tradition is as long a tradition as black literature has existed; there is just a refusal for it to be seen. As far as the contemporary moment is concerned, I’m interested in what we notice when we gather the works of writers of color interested in hybridity, experiment, innovation, etc., together—what the work allows us to know differently, what languages are developed, what critiques emerge, what new ways of seeing, what new futures are made manifest. Erica Hunt and I are editing an anthology for Kore Press right now, in fact, titled Letters to the Future: Innovative Writing by Black Women coming out next year.
AF: You write “I think there is excessive validation and celebration of black writing that is invested in speaking a reification of what it means to black” which sets me thinking of Douglas Kearney’s investigation of black performativity. He speaks of these things as a poet and scholar, as someone trained in media studies. Recently, Fred Moten gave a lecture at the Museum of Modern Art called “Black Nonperformance” which seems to me one counterpoint, if not absolute alternative. This idea that black subjectivities can disappear or reject a kind of individualism imposed by American/Western consciousness and instead emphasize black sociality. Blackness as a social act which includes/leads to/depends upon nonperformance. And Life in a Pretty Box is a Pretty Life, in its title, in its extended interrogations on the framing of art, the prison complex, demonstrates a keen awareness of “objecthood.”
DLM: How does the object exist? I could answer this question in the frame of theory, but I want to resist that. I want to resist it as a black dyke who is also a poet-scholar living sometimes within the university. What would it feel like to look across the desk at someone with power—the department chair, the dean, the provost, the university president—and see someone who looked like me? What would it be like to inhabit space with power and singular “naturalness.” Is it even possible in our contemporary moment, in our social space, in our country? What does one have to give away in order to occupy those spaces. The folks at my university who inhabit those spaces—mostly white men—are not bad people; they seem good at heart. They really do. And, I am lucky and I’ve worked hard to be where I am, ascendant. But, my body is a prison. The “I” is crammed into it.
I split my time between Pittsburgh where I work as a professor and East Hampton, NY, where I spend my summers, breaks, and some long weekends throughout the school year. In both places, however, my body is an alien. In the university, there are so few black women professors and none frankly who look like me. In East Hampton, I’m surrounded by those with excess wealth from various raced subject positions. As a person who does not have excessive wealth I am unrecognized, sometimes intentionally unseen by other black people when I’m in that part of the world. I think this has a lot to do with the way I’m read or misread as that reading is gendered. It’s difficult for some folks to place me within a frame of gender knowledge. But it also has to do with economic class. I often joke, “there’s another rich black person who I have nothing in common with.” I keep writing my own body into a tight knot from which it cannot escape or loosen on its own terms.
“Escape” is only possible in madness in Life in a Box is a Pretty Life.
I like when Fred says that stuff in his lecture about blackness being apart from or dissociated from black people or something else than a race. I had been thinking about that when writing Life in a Box is a Pretty Life because I’d been reading Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro, a play in which the stage is “lit in unnatural blackness” and blackness is a sound or a “knocking” or “the black father who raped my mother.” This, too, points toward “blackness” as an object on its own, invented to be applied to a “discovery.” We were before blackness was.
AF: Your book seems very deliberately to not have a table of contents. Certain pages have large, capitalized texts which could or do serve as titles to distinguish sections, but also might not. It becomes a necessary confusion for the reader’s experience, I believe. Is it crucial that these parts are inexorably linked, flowing into yet interrupting one another?
DLM: I was talking to my students about this the other day—the book’s desire for porousness, so that the poems bleed into each other, oscillate around each other in a non-linear way. The All Caps texts are meant to work as linguistic interruptions or blurts and grounded anti-reasonings. They aren’t always the same speaker and they don’t always ring into the same register framing utterance. I wanted language that could operate simultaneously as punctuation and gesture, I think. So, you’re onto it when you use terms like “flow” and “interrupt” as a way of describing the movement logic of the book. I like that very much, in fact, the breaking down of what in other contexts is contradiction.
AF: Finally, I wanted to ask you about the repetition and significance of “we” throughout. It strikes me as crucial to your work as the “you” of Citizen does for that book. Your “we” allows the speakers of these poems to be both intimate, personal, lyrical—which is to say individuated—and at a same time, a kind of collective susurrus of historical ghosts (a la our discussion of Moten above).
DLM: Like that “you” in Citizen, my “we” is tricky business. The “we” that stands out to me as particularly challenging is “we” that is the voice of authority as if social authority in the larger sense were somehow made incarnate, material, body, voice. But this is a different “we” from the “we” in the opening poem when it says, “if we could do without him we would.” The notion of historical ghosting is present in that “we” for sure—the way the black female body (especially as it pertains to representation) can never exist independent of the male gaze(s)—that haunting in our bodies like a kind of surveillance. The “he” in this moment later becomes the “we” whose power is repressed though it pretends to be caring and benign. I’ve long played with the stable subjectivity of the speaking “I” and the other pronouns—“she” “it”—that seem to, in more traditional literatures, feel comfortable inhabiting themselves. But, in my thinking about the world, and the feeling of selfhood, this is not the case in my actual body, be it in the actual or symbolic historical. I am as much standing outside of myself looking at this thing called my “self” (a “we”) as I am self projected onto me by a stranger in the flower shop in East Hampton. At this point in my writing, however, this interplay between pronouns occurs rather naturally. It feels like one of the more natural states.
Dawn Lundy Martin is author of three books of poetry, and three chapbooks. Her latest collection is Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, 2015). Martin is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the three-person performance group, The Black Took Collective. Martin is currently working on a hybrid memoir, a tiny bit of which appears as the essay, “The Long Road to Angela Davis’s Library,” published in the The New Yorker in December 2014.