Jennifer Bartell with DéLana R.A. Dameron

DéLana R.A. Dameron (photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)
DéLana R.A. Dameron (photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

This conversation between Jennifer Bartell and DéLana R.A. Dameron focuses on Dameron’s new book, Weary Kingdom  (Palmetto Poetry  Series-University of South Carolina Press) and Black Southern poetics. It’s the first in a series of interviews with Black Women Poets with Southern roots.

Jennifer Bartell: You were raised in Columbia, South Carolina, although you now live in Brooklyn. How has the experiences of being Black, woman and Southern guided your journey as a poet?

DéLana R.A. Dameron: At almost five and a half years, Brooklyn has now become the place I have lived the longest since I left South Carolina to attend college at UNC Chapel Hill. I have lived in NYC (the rest of the time in Harlem with a brief stint in NJ) for ten years this July. I swear, when I moved to the mid-Atlantic, I never thought that I would stay this long.

Before I moved to NYC and worked with youth in education, I had identified as Black and woman. The South didn’t necessarily factor into my identity, I guess because I lived there, and I was—and later, did try to escape it.

Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta with Caleb Beckwith

Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta (photo credit Elaine Kahn)

Caleb Beckwith: I’ve always been curious about what new Timeless authors make of their publisher’s promise to publish books that are “spells for unravelling capitalism.” I read The Easy Body (forthcoming this Spring) as a text with resistance at its core. And resistant to specific political forces: capitalism and patriarchy are both named explicitly, and, as usual, white supremacy is never far from two closest companions. Yet The Easy Body is not the jargon-filled peon to solidary that some have come to expect of political writing, especially coming out of the Bay Area.

I wonder: do you consider The Easy Body a book of “political poetry?” Is that term too crowded with other dissimilar works? And regardless, how do you see The Easy Body functioning in context with other political writings: on Timeless, in the Bay Area, and abroad?

Tatiana Luboviski-Acosta: The Easy Body is absolutely a political poem. I began writing it the night I went to see Olive Blackburn read from her Timeless tract Communism is up there and we are down here but it is happening now at Amy Berkowitz’s reading series in May of 2014. I was pregnant and confused and angry, but hearing Olive read “the inevitable moment has come: pick sides or perish” set something alight within me.

Haven Gomez with Michelle Lin

Haven Gomez and Michelle Lin
Haven Gomez and Michelle Lin

This conversation between Haven Gomez and Michelle Lin focuses on Lin’s first book, A House Made of Water, and is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations between poets of color.

Haven Gomez: In your book, A House Made of Water, you have two poems entitled, “In the House Made of Water,” which, in some aspects, speak of a struggle with identity, one of self and the other in the eyes of the grandmother. Would you say that these two are the heart of the book? Were these poems inspired by the name of your book, or was the name of your book a product of them?

Michelle Lin: I like the idea of these poems as being the heart of the book, because it implies that the book may in fact have two (or more) hearts, which seeks to complicate the book’s life (which is what I hope it has: a complicated life).

Christy Davids with Julie Carr

Christy Davids and Julie Carr

The idea of poetry as capable of crafting relationships isn’t unheard of, but the notion of a poet as always being in relation to others certainly challenges popular tropes that place writers in physical and intellectual isolation. In this conversation, Julie Carr and Christy Davids discuss how a self is constructed through relationships to others and the ways that writing actively facilitates interconnection. Writers have readers, confessors have witnesses, selves have others. Carr’s new book, Objects from a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta 2017), and this interview investigate the ethics of these relationships, the matter of subjectivity, the way we tell stories and to whom.

Christy Davids: Objects from a Borrowed Confession begins with the epistolary in “What do we want to know and how far are we willing to go to get it? A novella.” The letters to “J” that make up the opening section reveal a life—an “I” whose existence is at once grounded by the letters and unmoored by the contexts that shape the letters in the first place. You write, “The facts are such that at times I bow to them like a princess to an abusive king. I’m hoping, as I tell of these facts, that you will hear me as a priest hears his confessor—in the dark.” Very early on in the book, you establish the interplay of power and empowerment the act of confessing bears: the risk and the duty of telling. Objects, narrates the stories of a subjectivity through many formal modes, why does the work begin with the letter? How do you see form and confession working together over the course of the text?

Julie Carr: The letter is the primary confessional from. If you’re thinking about literary confession, there’s nothing more confessional than a letter. Autobiography can be confessional too, but it’s also concerned with creating a narrative, whereas letters—so fleeting and momentary—are more concerned with the details of a relationship, with the need to confess to one other person. I started with letters because they were so obviously about the thing that I was circling around and because they involve the erotic, which is one of the things we think about when we consider the confessional. These letters in particular engage the taboo of writing to someone who probably doesn’t want to hear from you and who isn’t writing back.

Mel Bentley with Alex Smith

Mel Bentley and Alex Smith
Mel Bentley and Alex Smith

 

This interview between Mel Bentley and Alex Smith is part of the Housework at Chapterhouse series, a conversation between friends and with the history of this space. Housework is work undervalued, invisible, unpaid. It is classed, raced and gendered. It is also the work that allows life, it is “reproductive.” It is intimate. It’s necessary. It’s weird. It has been precarious. This is the kind of work we want to recognize.

Chapter and Verse was a series by Ryan Eckes and Stan Mir that ran for nine years at Chapterhouse and supported young writers and established voices. It supported us. There was something expansive and generous about this room that operated outside funding and institutions. We want to keep and expand that spirit. The transcription of this conversation was completed by Colette Arand.


Mel Bentley: So this is the second interview I’m conducting at Wexler Studio at Penn in the Kelly Writers’ House as a supplement to the Housework at Chapterhouse reading series. And today, I have the great honor of talking with Alex Smith, who has done a lot of work and been doing a lot of things in Philly organizing and writing and has just been a big presence in West Philly for a long time, and we get to have a conversation about his work and influences and some of the things that come up in his work today. So hi.

Craig Dworkin with Sofi Thanhauser

Craig Dworkin’s No Medium

Sofi Thanhauser: I’d like to begin with a question about fear. In Reading the Illegible you relay an anecdote about Ferdinand de Saussure backing away from his own work on paragrammes. Having begun a project of searching out the names of dedicatory figures (you use Apollo as an example) hidden in small fragments inside the text of classical verse, de Saussure discovered something startling: not only could a single couplet “supply an almost endless number of names” but moreover any text could be read this way, yielding an infinite number of hidden messages. At this point, you suggest, the inhumanness of language’s sheer excess, its ability to signal so many meanings over and above those intended by any one writer, may have engendered in a De Saussure a kind of terror: a terror great enough to stop the paragramme project dead in its tracks. I loved reading this story, because I relate to that feeling of de Saussure’s and it is good to have one’s own fears named and taxonomized. My question is, have you ever been afraid of language? This could be in your critical work, your creative work, or outside of your writing life altogether. It could be a fear produced by language’s inadequacies or by its superpotencies, or by any other of its (or your) qualities. Secondly, do you think there is an appropriate level of fear one ought to feel towards language, just as there is perhaps an appropriate level of fear with which a sailor ought to view the sea?

Craig Dworkin: The tone in that account echoes the tenor of Paul de Man’s increasingly dark theology in the Resistance to Theory, and his sense of the inhumanness of language: the realization that it generates significations beyond our intentions and desires. Another way to put it would be to simply note that language exhibits far more organization than is necessary for our communicative purposes.

Michael Juliani with Bonnie Huie on Qiu Miaojin

Michael Juliani with Bonnie Huie
Michael Juliani with Bonnie Huie

 

In this conversation, Michael Juliani and Bonnie Huie discuss Huie’s new translation of Qiu Miaojin’s Notes of a Crocodile,  a coming-of- age novel about a group of queer friends in late 80’s, post-martial-law Taipei, recently released in May 2017 by NYRB Classics. 

Michael Juliani: You said it took a long time to get Notes of a Crocodile into print. I’m wondering if you could describe how you arrived at translating it.

Bonnie HuieI got into translation on a fluke. It was me not putting two things together in my mind. I studied Chinese in college. I used to do more of my own writing, and I showed it to someone from Taiwan who had her first poetry collection published by a very nice indie publisher and she said, “I would love to have an English translation of my book.” And I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.” And as a gift, she gave me books by Qiu Miaojin.

Alli Warren with Caleb Beckwith

Alli Warren

Caleb Beckwith: I’m eager to dive into individual poems from your new collection, I Love It Though (Nightboat 2017), but I thought it might be helpful to open our conversation with some reflections on the genre and conventions of book-length poetry publications. I think we’d all agree that poetry is not measured in volume, but, nonetheless, we’d probably also agree that the book-length manuscript functions as the dominant unit of measure (not the line, poem, series, etc.) among many poets today. This decision makes a certain amount of sense; for example, the publication of I Love It Though is the occasion for this conversation between the two of us. However, I notice a tendency among many writers (myself included) to aspire towards the book-length benchmark at the expense of the work it contains: expanding projects that feed on brevity, sustaining prompts long after the writer tires of them, or simply instituting an organizing concept upon of series of poems that are, in truth, only yoked by the writer’s life.

I Love It Though seems different. Rather than changing its content to suit the book form, your book modifies the book-length form to fit its content—as if book-form were never more than an extension of content. At 5.5 x 6.75 inches, its dimensions are remarkably smaller than most book-length poetry collections, which tend to range from 6-7 x 8-9 inches. The abstract figures of this difference may seem negligible, but it results in approximately 20-25 pages worth of material spread out over the course of your book’s 112 pages, rather than vertically on the page. While I know that design decisions often lie with the publisher and book designer, I can’t stop thinking about how the formal dimensions of your book frame the poems inside.

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts

Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts
Rosebud Ben-Oni with Tara Betts (photo credit: Tony Smith)

I first met Tara Betts at poet Becca Klaver’s WHAT’S SO HOT: A Summer Salon Reading Series in 2012 in which we both shared new work in the very intimate and relaxed setting of Becca’s living room. Afterwards, Tara and I briefly chatted on the train home together, and we promised we’d keep in touch— and we did. I absolutely love teaching Tara Betts poems, especially the phenomenal poem “Switch“, in workshops (See Betts read her recent work “The Suits of Your Skins” at #BlackPoetsSpeakOut Chicago.) Her newest collection, Break the Habit, is now out from Trio House Press (2016), and contains journeys in which, in Betts’s words, “we are always colliding with what we cannot control.” In the conversation, I speak to Betts on collisions, spiders, and what it means to “break the habit.”

 

ROSEBUD BEN-ONI: The first section seems to challenge the reader’s certainty of orientation in “Welcome to the Terrordome” (“I shook my head and silently/asked how much of the story is missing,/how I wouldn’t even know about the bullet/dropping Newton, if Chuck hadn’t told me”). We also witness the speaker discovering her own way in “Unsteady Directions” (“If parents are shields, hold nothing. If parents fail/ or blame, find a fortress to release whatever wounds.”) as well trying to find both cerebral and spiritual footing while “[u]nderneath, a house’s foundation/ gradually crumbles. The water may be poisoned/beyond redemption. It runs, wears away rock,/cuts down soil, carries wet in small measures,” as explored in “Prophetic Fragments.” Can you speak more about the idea of “collisions” in this section?

TARA BETTS: It may seem odd, but I think most poetry is about collisions and contradictions and how we find spaces between those parts of us that encounter different degrees of impact and moments of incongruity. “Unsteady Directions” is written to a you more so than the speaker finding her own way. I think it draws on some personal experiences, but unfortunately, I think it is a poem that I needed to write that addressed consent (and the lack thereof) that concerns women. In “Prophetic Fragments” — I think that poem is addressing that the old traditional ways of thinking generalizing about people of color and politically left people will eventually become increasingly obsolete because the absurdity of the politics. I do think that means that even people who describe themselves as radical, “woke,” “down,” conscious, or whatever left-leaning term of the moment strikes, will have to re-think those terms. A revolution is a circle, if we really think about the word, but does that mean we’re also in cycles of re-invention? I tend to think so. As far as “Welcome to the Terrordome,” I wanted the first poem to set an elegiac tone because Break the Habit really discusses different types of loss. When I look at black history, I find that some of the losses have been what I have not learned. How has something been kept from me? I have thought about that question a lot, and I think about when I was younger and how hip hop gave me an education. This Public Enemy song taught me an important lesson when they mentioned names like Joanne Chesimard and Huey Newton. We are always colliding with what we cannot control.

Sara Larsen and Lauren Levin

Sara Larsen and Lauren Levin

Lauren Levin and Sara Larsen interviewed each other about their respective books, THE BRAID and MERRY HELL, in early April via Google chat. These two Bay Area poets draw on a decade of friendship and artistic cross-pollination to discuss feminist rage, genre fuckery, and the mantras of survival.

THE BRAID is a fever dream of pregnancy and early parenting in the era of the police state: a love poem shot through with ambivalence, a sustained fuck–you to Ronald Reagan and his legacy, and a moment of feminist possibility on the far side of collapse. In MERRY HELL, Helen of Troy rejects empire and exposes the “misogynist spell” of the narrative that condemns her for the horrors of the Trojan War. Helen’s story is interwoven with circumstances surrounding the Pétroleuse, or women incendiaries, of the 1871 Paris Commune as well as our current moment’s calamities and possibilities. Both books are available at Small Press Distribution.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sara Larsen: So, my dear friend, my heart was just bursting with your book! I was really struck by the form of The Braid and especially loved that the first line of the book starts in media res: “And then Lindsey and I talk about vulnerability and what it means”… as if we are already there with you and Lindsey.

Can you say more about the title and how it might relate to your process in writing the book? Also, did you conceive of it as a book ahead of time, or did you just begin?

Lauren Levin: The title feels related to the way I think: very associative. And the process of the book was bringing strands of different content (maternal, political) together. Which is a kind of braiding. And also trying to pull things apart. For instance, pulling apart the anxieties of parenting and thinking about them as related to political or collective anxiety. So it felt like an in-and-out motion, a kind of weave.

Joohyun Kim with Che Gossett

 

Joohyun Kim and Che Gossett
Joohyun Kim and Che Gossett

 

This audio interview between Joohyun Kim and Che Gossett is part of the Housework at Chapterhouse series, a conversation between friends and with the history of this space. Housework is work undervalued, invisible, unpaid. It is classed, raced and gendered. It is also the work that allows life, it is “reproductive.” It is intimate. It’s necessary. It’s weird. It has been precarious. This is the kind of work we want to recognize.

Chapter and Verse was a series by Ryan Eckes and Stan Mir that ran for nine years at Chapterhouse and supported young writers and established voices. It supported us. There was something expansive and generous about this room that operated outside funding and institutions. We want to keep and expand that spirit. The transcription of this conversation was completed by Colette Arand.


Joohyun Kim: So there’s such a strong sense of flow between disciplines and periods of time, registers of thinking in your writing and your research, and you really show your conversities with black and trans archivists, scientists, historians, poets, activists. Your intellectual work really seems to embody the archive as you peer into it. Can you talk about how you came to do the kind of scholarship and activism you’re doing now? How did you end up doing Black Studies, Animal Studies, Critical Race Studies, Queer and Trans Studies, archival research, social media and activism all at once? And when did you begin considering yourself a scholar?

Che Gossett: That’s a great question, it’s so capacious. So thank you for that, and thank you for having me. Maybe I’ll kind of disentangle some of that. In terms of my most recent interests, I got really into thinking about blackness and animality in some ways after I went on a delegation to Palestine in 2014 of archivists and librarians, and reading Fanon, and also reading queer of color critical theory around questions of thingliness, which felt tied up with animality. Mel Chen’s book, Animacies, was really influential for me for a bunch of different reasons. He talks about animacy as a continuum and how the dyad of animate versus the inanimate has been used as part of a racial and colonial project. So we see that from everything from Hegel to the new object-oriented ontology that is claiming animate life for inert, so-called inert objects, but doing it with the backdrop of a colonial history that is unacknowledged. Where the last time people said that objects were alive, it was called animism and they were indigenous people. I think about the relationship between personhood, objecthood, subjecthood and how that also relates to questions of race and animalization became something that Fanon activated for me. I had a discomfort with a critical Animal Studies or history of Animal Studies that really is unreflective about whiteness and unreflective about anti-blackness. My work responds to that and tries to intervene in that, and to take black thought really seriously. So to say, how is it that blackness has been positioned ontologically outside of the category of the human so that there’s a human/black binary that precedes or is parallel to the human/animal binary, but what does the human/animal binary mean when to be human is to be white and to be able-bodied and to be neuronormative, etc. To think through how that proximity to animality changes the question of the human/animal binary and how something like abolition, which grows out of the black freedom struggle, is a way or a lens or a sight through which to approach these questions, not only as an object of study, but also as an object of struggle. So I guess I would say that what weaves a lot of this together is an appreciation for black thought and its political power, really, and also being involved in social activist movements that would shape how I thought about things.