Caleb Beckwith: First of all, congratulations. Your first full-length poetry collection, Oil and Candle (Timeless Infinite Light 2016), has gotten a significant amount of attention lately. I truthfully can’t remember the last time I was able to talk to a young writer about their first book with so much of the foundational critical apparatus already in place. Thanks to places like Entropy, Adroit Journal, and Apiary, we can cut right to the chase.
In another recent spotlight from Philly Mag, you describe writing Oil and Candle “during and after the climax of controversies around race in poetry in late 2014 and throughout 2015 . . . These debates were about white poets who were using the bodies of people of color, especially black people, for their art and poetry in violent and racist ways.” I think we all know to which controversies you’re referring, but could you unpack your involvement in a bit more detail? How did these controversies affected you as a QPOC attending a university in many ways at the epicenter of these controversies? And how do they continue to inform your creative practice?
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: Well, let’s name them. We’ve got: Kenny Goldsmith’s performance and edit of the autopsy of Michael Brown, Vanessa Place’s Gone With the Wind twitter, Marjorie Perloff’s defense of KG, Ron Silliman’s defense of VP. More recently you’ve got those two poets making Mexican jokes and a Fence editor projecting the n-word at a reading. The list obviously goes on but that’s what I can remember right now. You are right that the University of Pennsylvania was sort of an unspoken hub for these controversies and debates. KG is a professor there, several of the Language poets (Ron included) are professors there. And a lot of those Language poets there were professors of mine. Some I’d even be willing to admit are the reasons I became committed to poetry. So yeah it was an awful time. Awful because what I saw then were people that I respected and even admired vehemently defending each other’s racist practices and performances. And then also many of my colleagues and current or former students of those teachers defending them by saying “Oh! But they’re such amazing teachers! I learned so much from them!” And I guess you could say the book starts from the realization that those things aren’t mutually exclusive, that the different mentor systems, support systems, and more generally poetic networks can also be toxic, discriminatory, racist, violent, elitist, etc.
So the first poem of the book, “Limpias,” the one I wrote chronologically latest, is an argument against networks, against the honoring and defending of the “established” and “known” poets, and in support of more risk-taking for the under-represented and under-published. That poem also comes out of anger at forms of networks in opposition to these racist methods, networks that formed out of anti-racist intention, such as the way in which a group of the same 20 or so poets of color were being repeatedly solicited for their points of view on these racist controversies. You got this sort of impromptu canon of the-poets-you-ask-when-you-want-to-talk-about-race that so many lazy publications went to. So the poem “Limpias” is also about de-centering those new defensive networks that formed out of the vulnerability of communities of color in poetry.
CB: I imagine most readers will be at least somewhat familiar with the controversies you just named. Couple this with “Limpias,” an opening poem about poetry controversies, and a publication date smack dab in the middle of what seems like their continual apex, and the singular reading of Oil and Candle as an intervention into poetry controversies seems almost unavoidable. Unfortunately, the particular mode of intervention made by your text seems all too easily lost in the shuffle. Does this strike a chord with the (very positive) reception of your book so far?
I also want to dig deeper into the chronology you just outlined. When did you start composing the pieces that became Oil and Candle? Did it overlap with your work Nite [Chickadees] (Gauss PDF 2015)? I’ll let you frame that volume for readers yourself, but it seems fair to say that these two works—Oil and Candle, Night [Chickadees]—treat a shared concern with race in very different ways. Do you see these works in a sequentially? Did one lead to the other? And do you see this earlier work as meaningful context for Oil and Candle?
GOS: It somewhat overlapped with Nite [Chickadee]’s. At least, “Abrecaminos” the long, final poem of the book was just about the same time as NC. NC is a collection of Cher’s tweets on racism and systemic violence. They’re copied verbatim but the font is changed and the emojis are sized up 1in by 1in so they’re huge and beautiful and then one tweet is placed per page. I view that chapbook sort-of as a curation, or an image essay, like making an argument from available materials. It was a way of saying that under the duress of speaking to racial violence, the white female gay pop icon (and it really could have been any of them, Cher, Madonna, Gaga, Joan Crawford, but Cher’s twitter is just more fun and spectacular) fails and transforms. It’s a chap that is about being a gay man of color and how spectacles of gayness, often very beautiful and successful, don’t always match up with in a successful way forms of racial violence.
I think it was only a month or so after NC was finished, and maybe 2 months before it was published that I wrote “Abrecaminos.” That poem and “Poem for Eleguá” both came out of preparing for a reading, maybe still my favorite reading I’ve ever done, with Sade Murphy and Brian Teare, organized by Andy Emitt. I started “Abrecaminos” because I was trying to tease out this middle space between procedural writing/conceptualism and ritual practice/writing from ritual. I had heard both M NourbeSe Philip and CA Conrad say that their work should not be thought of as conceptualism, but as ritual practice, and during a time where conceptualism was being so publically challenged as a genre and institution, I wanted to understand what was at stake in claiming that label or pushing it away. So “Abrecaminos” starts as an experiment in that direction. That’s how the ritual that centers it comes about. But in the writing of the ritual it completely transformed and become more about war, racial violence, the queer Latino, and Philadelphia. And for the reading with Sade and Brian I tried to make a thematically similar set of poems and I had “Abrecaminos” so I wrote “Poem for Eleguá” to match it and then put some of NC together with it. I think they worked together, though were definitely in conflict with each other.
NC and “Abrecaminos” are related because they both come from that debate and deal with racialized violence. I’m pretty sure NC was written only just a few weeks before Kenny’s performance. And well, the dirty little secret of NC, and the reason I have quite an odd relationship with it, is that it was written within a class taught by Kenny, before the Mike Brown performance had happened. That class totally fell apart after the controversy for reasons I feel are not appropriate to describe here, but I think when I look back at NC I feel it is ghostly because it is written inside of the racial tensions of a genre like conceptualism and procedural poetics without the actualization of those tensions as that occurred in the performance I mentioned earlier. Send me back to that time period and I would have done it differently, for sure. It’s a chapbook I don’t always feel good about. “Abrecaminos” comes just after the KG controversy, so it is almost a record of my conflicts during that transition. And then “Limpias” is just as confused a poem, but angrier.
CB: I hope I wasn’t too transparent in asking about the turn away from conceptual practices that you enact in Oil and Candle. I didn’t know that you were in KG’s class at the time, but even the much more distant proximity I did know you inhabited as a Penn student gave me the hunch that his piece, in particular, had a lot to do with your venture away from conceptual practices—your very legitimate skepticism regarding the kind of political work you want to entrust those tools with, especially given your up close and personal view of the ways that their most visible practitioner misused them.
You offer a bit of context in your book, but I’m wondering if you could describe the ritual of “Abrecaminos” in more detail. Since you mention him, I think of Conrad, who gives as much as equal space to the description of his (Soma)tic rituals as the poems born of them. So, “Abrecaminos” was written in 7 days, with a combination of an abrecaminos candle and the El Gran tarot deck. But what was the physical process of this ritual? I’m sure your decision to describe the ritual briefly was highly intentional. However, out of all the pieces in Oil and Candle, “Abrecaminos” is truthfully the one that I find myself gravitating towards most frequently, and I’d love any further interpretative lens that you could provide.
GOS: Yeah I did want to say little in the book. And I feel I should still say little here. But, basically, it consisted of the candle and an Ace of Wands from that Tarot deck, both bought in the same botanica, and every day I’d “accompany” the objects with something different. One day it would be a “mantra,” or whatever, a spoken prayer of sorts. One day I’d read something out loud. One day I’d play music, lots of electronic music. I’d just try to frame my intentions for the day with some other piece of media/language/sound. And every day I’d write a bit. You can see how much I wrote in a given day by tracking the word “becoming,” which I would include whenever I finished a day’s writing, as a marker to myself and to the reader. I think Philadelphia slipped in as a subject for the poem because I’d write in front of the candle and card in my apartment (which is really high up and has a gorgeous view of the city) and I’d look out the window if I was thinking what to write and I saw a lot of lights and grids and so those came in to the poem.
I want to be sort of vague about the ritual of “Abrecaminos” because for me the ritual is more about intention than the specifications. Rituals need to be extremely specific and very measured, and mine are as well. But I thought the reader would get too caught up in exactly what I was doing than in the fact that the ritual was happening and was producing. For Conrad those specifics are important because his work implies that you, the reader, could then go out and do the rituals yourself and make your own poem. “Abrecaminos” is really heavily influenced by Conrad’s work, but not this angle. The cultural specificity of a ritual involving Santero’s objects and the very personal approach to the writing implied for me that it did not need to be a repeatable process. And as someone writing from a diasporic or immigrant position, where the inherited culture becomes more and more obscured and strange as time passes (a big part of “Limpias”), I thought it would be more effective to have a vague sense of the ritual I made, just as I have a vague sense of Latino ritual practice in the Latin-American context, only of the inherited Miamian exile and child-of-exiles’ version of these practices.
CB: If not the longer description I was looking for, your focus on the cultural specificity of “Abrecaminos” points in a direction I was hoping we might follow at some point during this interview. Between Nite [Chickadees] and Oil and Candle, you not only shift your focus from conceptual to ritual compositional practices, but from pop culture’s seemingly new, almost faddish awareness of racism and systemic violence to your own experience as a queer latino person.
It’s interesting to me that Philadelphia comes up in “Abrecaminos,” because it suggests that this turn to your particular experience as a queer person of color also enacts a shift in terrain—from the digital space of twitter to the concrete space of the city you currently inhabit. Did your shift from conceptual to ritual composition determine the shift in terrain, or was it the other way around? I’m also curious to hear about any additional changes that this shift to lived geography might’ve brought about—especially when it comes to the social function of your text.
GOS: I would say the shift into ritual practice determined the shift in terrain, or in other words, the generic and procedural change necessitated the new focus on place. I’ve been writing almost exclusively about cities and places recently, and partly it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of traveling (spent a wonderful and difficult summer in San Francisco/Oakland, where I wrote “Limpias”), reflecting on my move from Miami to Philly a lot, and I’ve been thinking about exilism a lot. My father and his parents are/were Cuban exiles and with Cubanness and Cuban-American relations once against glaringly present in the current political atmosphere, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my Cubanness, on being a child-o’-exiles, as I sometimes lovingly call it. “Abrecaminos” reflects on Philly not just because of the incidental physical view of the city, as I mentioned before, but because in meditating on the issue of precarity and resistance, I kept coming back to the issue of walking around. Walking around and feeling safe or walking around and feeling unsafe. How you can live in a city and be like: at any point, someone is gonna realize I don’t belong here and beat the shit out of me. There’s been a lot of assaults of gay men and trans women in Philly recently, and had been when I wrote “Abrecaminos,” and street assaults were something I was thinking about and am very, very anxious about.
I have a lot of anxiety about home invasions, silly as that sounds, which is something I mention in a lot of poems (in Oil and Candle it’s a presence in every single one). And for me, one of the affective experiences of living in a city is feeling like your home is already foreclosed to the possibility of other people, other presences. Which is exciting for a lot of people. But for an at-risk population, there’s something to be said about “staying home” as a protective measure.
And god, I love Philly. I really do. And “Abrecaminos” can be read in a lot of ways as a love song to Philly, but it’s a love song that says “I don’t feel safe with you, and I’m worried things could go away in a moment.” That’s related to the shift you are identifying in genre and practice because it’s a shift in the address of consequence. That poem is so much about measuring how a body moves in space and about the privilege of distance and I thought it was most appropriate to figure that argument through ritual and through Philadelphia.
CB: Since we’re already in treading in the complicated, I want to ask about the shift in stakes that accompanies your turn from white supremacy as it specifically affects African Americans to your own experience of oppression as a gay person of Cuban descent. In contrast with a lot of discourse surrounding representation in poetry, Oil and Candle seems very interested in parsing the status of the intersections underpinning acronyms such as POC, QPOC, QTPOC, to name a few. In what I find to be one of the most striking gestures of the book, you hold dual truths: while underscoring the fact at-risk groups are targeted and oppressed by the same structural forces, you also begin the work of unpacking the differing ways that these forces affect our lives and bodies in very different ways and to very different degrees based on any number of criteria, including but certainly not limited to race, gender/sexual identity, and class.
Sometimes these forces are all too similar, like in Philadelphia, where the prime suspect in a recent gay bashing was a Policeman’s daughter—the same police force that has a terrible history of race relations with black and brown people dating back to the overtly racist mayor and former police commissioner Frank Rizzo (who, by the way, is famous for saying that he’d “make Attila the Hun look like a f—–”). But sometimes these forces are different—even if only in kind and not degree—and this is one of the larger concerns that I see Oil and Candle really striving to address. With your resort to Santeria and other ritual practices, you take a risk, engaging in the particularity your Cuban-exile identity instead of political crises more central to the popular consciousness—and in many ways more urgent—like those discussed in Nite [Chickadees].
I wonder what, if any, “developmental” narrative you attach to this turn to the deep particularity of your own experience. And if so, what forces—social and otherwise—might figure as characters in this “development”? Who and/or what emboldened you to take this risk? More than the reaction against conceptual writing, KG, or anyone else, I’m interested in the reparative narrative—the friends and allies you consider influential in your turn to ritual and the personal particular.
GOS: I’m glad you see those “dual truths” working in the book because it’s something I wanted to be very aware of. The problem of a term like “person of color” is that it tends to globalize racism and make it unidirectional. I do identify as a person of color, even though I am white passing, and the census would call me a “white latino,” because my lived racial experience is different from that of white non-Latinos of all kinds around me, and the term POC is a way of identifying that distinction for me. However, I grew up around a lot of anti-blackness in Miami, Cuban anti-blackness, a lot of racism. Sometimes I see people say “POC can’t be racist,” which, though it is sometimes a useful way of describing racism, is completely inaccurate and overlooks the various ways in which race is constituted, absorbed, and adopted. I’m saying all this because my hope in writing “Limpias” was to express just that, that race is constituted in moments and in flashes, and arrives and leaves, that someone can be the perpitrator of one violence and the victim of another etc. etc.
So in dealing with these controversies around racism in poetry, which mostly revolved around anti-blackness (though most recently we’ve seen a few dealing in anti-Latinness) I wanted to deal with my own complicity through influence, through the way I am perceived (there’s a few lines in there about passing), through network formation, and the way in which people can be brought to apathy and exhaustion around race. I thought that the imagined ritual of “Limpias” was a useful way of positioning this. This led me into a discussion of exilism and immigration and being a first generation American because that heritage has led me to feel pulled between several racialized and national positions, which I have written about more extensively in an upcoming essay (keep an eye out!). So, for me, a discussion of complicity and resistance, exhaustion/apathy and action, also came with the syncretism of my lived cultural experience.
The book is about syncretism in a very large sense, syncretic religion, mixed cultures via immigration, white-passing Latinidad, language loss, etc. and that mixed position seemed to me the most effective way for me, from my very specific subject position, to address the issues surrounding these controversies and questions of ritual poetics. I hoped that in taking the word “ritual” to a more culturally private definition, instead of some loose idea of “ritual poetics,” I was also dealing with the fact that the cultural specificity of it was already alien to me and was slipping further and further way. That felt to me an effective scaffolding for a discussion of network politics and self-reinforcing exclusionary systems; I hope that makes sense.
CB: It sounds like the crises of race and representation in poetry emboldened you while also promoting a healthy degree of internal skepticism. On the one hand, as a queer person of color, these crises are about the erasure of voices like yours in the larger, if not canonical, literary landscape. While on the other, your access to literary cultural capital—specifically in the form of mentorship from some of the poets now under increased scrutiny—identifies you as a writer of privilege. I don’t want to overestimate my own compromised investment in poetry, but the labor I’m investing in our interview attests to your capital in some way. That said, we’re talking right now due to my being homesick for Philly and the deep appreciation for the work that Emji, Zoe, and Joel are doing at TIL here in Oakland.
Now that we’ve covered that ground of appreciation, I’d like to push on your response by asking about complicity. I know the how of this issue as it appears in Oil and Candle—that you arrived at your own sense of complicity from a dynamic sense of cultural syncretism. But I don’t know why. Or what. Or whose. I feel like I keep hearing these same questions from the poetry ether—and asking them of myself—so I’ll see what you make of them. In 2016, why read and write complicity? What necessary work does it accomplish? And how do we determine whose complicity we care to hear about? For the record, I ask this as a white writer whose work is if anything far too invested in his own complicity as a heterosexual male.
Without falling into the close reading exercises from which you should be enjoying a very well deserved vacation, I’m wondering if we might unpack this subject by way of a very-recent example, Juliana Spahr’s recent poem in the Boston Review, “My White Feminism.” As I understand it, that poem seeks to address the complicity of Spahr’s intersectional radicalism. I read it as questioning the whiteness, cisness, and male attractions of Spahr’s feminism, obliquely affirming her (compromised) white feminism. I read it as constructing an implicit dynamic wherein complicity is permitted—ok, tolerated—so long as it exists in conjunction with some sort of coalition-building, real-world revolutionary politics.
I’ll admit also that I’m baiting you, asking about a poem I saw you eye roll on Facebook earlier today. But is this complicity interesting? Why or why not? And can you can you distinguish the sort of complicity you address in Oil and Candle from the kind Sphar interrogates in this poem?
GOS: Okay, definitely! I’m glad you are asking this question, but I first want to say one thing. There’s a problem with these things I’ve been calling poetry controversies, or controversial poems. The problem is that we end up talking about them, a lot. To give another very recent example, that “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” poem in The New Yorker, which is basically just a racist piece of light verse by some journalist who is not a poet at all. But everyone was talking about that poem. And everybody shared it. The reaction to Spahr’s poem, which I dislike, is less than the reaction to that New Yorker poem, but the problem still applies. For me to make a FB post about it saying “I dislike this” for whatever reason, I end up telling people it exists, they end up looking it up, they read it, and the Boston Review gets more clicks. Great, mission failed on bringing down offensive work! This is one of the frustrations of dealing with controversial, offensive, racist, transphobic (etc.) work, it manages its own reproducibility and ends up crowding out the work we should be uplifting. So I am totally glad you are asking about Spahr’s poem, ‘cause I have things I want to say about it, but here we are in that catch-22 again. That’s part of why I center networks as the primary point of critique in Oil and Candle.
Anyways, okay Spahr. I don’t agree with your reading of that poem, though I understand why you read it that way. To me, it’s like this “ironic” portrayal of white feminism, Spahr’s feminism, that bargains over trans identity and race and makes this sort of humorous negotiation of Spahr’s canon of people like Germaine Greer, an extreme transphobe, and how she deals with them and their influence under the duress of accusations of transphobia, racism etc. Like, I don’t know, I feel like I’m having trouble explaining my problem with it right now. Maybe the best way to describe my problem with it is not to describe it in a smart way but to describe it the way a poet I was talking to today did: aestheticization of basicness. And totally invested in this bullcrap of treating ill-formed fake-radicalism with irony and humor, or whatever. It’s a defensive poem, it’s a self-martyring poem, it’s one that says I JULIANA AND MY BIG WHITE FEMINISM HERE WE ARE WITH GERMAINE GREER. Only white radicals and leftists get to laugh off the fact that their politics and communities exclude people. And it’s a shame because someone like Spahr has so much influence over West Coast left (mostly) white poetics and she’s the one who gets to laugh about her white feminism and get it published in the Boston Review. Poets with less connections, less canonization, poets of color, trans poets, don’t get to shrug and laugh about their lack of intersectionality and then publish it in the Boston Review. I’ve been to events organized by Spahr and her crew where I am the only person of color in the fucking room. And if I, a white-passing Latino who speaks perfect English and was born in this country, is the only person of color in your room, your poems and your “radicalism” has failed. You have not achieved crap. That poem, and this always happens with these “controversial poems” got reposted by so many people I respect with “omg I love this!” and it’s honestly just disappointing, it’s really disappointing.
I talk about complicity in Oil and Candle based on three things, my presumed whiteness, my citizenship/Americanness, and my institutional access/genealogy. As you mentioned, I studied with a lot of people and was connected to a lot of people during my undergraduate time that I could have totally ridden the legacy of, had fucking gallery readings in Stockholm, and called it a goddamn day. The fact is that I have the ability, the privilege, of being able to pass in those spaces of the white avant-garde and 100% originally grew up under them. But the thing is, it’s real fucking lonely there and you start to look around and realize you are the only person with the last name they are pronouncing wrong, the only person who goes home to a family of (what can be accurately called, but isn’t always called) refugees, whose people get fetishized, arrested, killed, whatever the fuck. This book is about that kind of experience. It’s a book about stupid youngness.
CB: It seem like the question of dumbness in poetry has finally come full circle—or so I hope. With the exception of Vanessa Place, who enfolded the eventual uproar over her piece upon its conception, the “controversial” pieces over the past year have largely been a product of white poets’ dumbness. KG was reportedly surprised that black and brown people didn’t welcome his attempted intervention into the anti-racist political movement that coalesced around Michael Brown’s murder. Just like this guy in The New Yorker, as best I can tell, was plain ol’ dumb enough to think his poem wouldn’t itself become a product of whatever vapid point about globalization he was trying to make by describing how his relationship to Chinese culture is nothing more than a cartoonishly flattened abstraction fueling what sounds like a pretty unhealthy take-out habit.
As I understand it, poetry has been so overwhelmed by both this sort of privileged dumbness and the reactions against it that the other, more interesting, dumbness—the kind that takes risks, shares vulnerability, and dwells in precarity—seems to have found itself stymied, if not silenced. Unlike you, so many of the poets I know now hesitate before professing their largely on-point politics for fear of a misstep, call out, blacklisting, etc. This is to say I like Oil and Candle for the same reason that it makes me bristle. One the one hand, it’s profoundly dumb (in the best, most complimentary way) to publish a manuscript about Santeria and queer Latino identity in response to a righteous political anger that coalesced around striking instances of anti-blackness in American poetry. Yet on the other hand, it’s the only move you had available. You made it, and, in so doing, also made what I hear as one of the most moving gestures of allyship in American poetry over the past while—offering what you have, little as much as it may be, in solidarity. I read Spahr’s poem as doing similar work, though from a very different position. I see that poem as offering its writer’s own intersectional radicalism—limits, or in her case, whiteness, and all—in whatever solidarity one can muster.
Obviously there’s a huge difference between Oil and Candle and this poem. For one, you’re not, you know, white. But I wonder how much of a difference this makes, which brings us to the question of irony in Sphar’s poem. I’m almost a year into my vacation from close reading, and truth is I miss it. So I’ll offer some here. From my very different vantage point, I simply don’t see the sort of flat, smirking laughter you describe. I guess I read it as particularizing—de-centering, not valorizing—the whiteness in “White Feminism.” I mean, goddamn:
When I told my friend about my endless tabs he just rolled his eyes and told me I should
look at some other websites. Maybe get off the computer too.
Then he added you should go to that Revolutionary Feminism reading group; week ten on
Black Feminism might interest you: Mary Ann Weathers, Third World Women’s
Alliance, Frances Beal, Combahee River Collective, Audre Lorde.
I was already going to the Revolutionary Feminism reading group.
It met Monday nights in the basement of a failing social center.
Black Feminism week was three weeks ago.
Obviously this plays the card of my regional bias and knowledge, but here we have a man telling a woman to supplement her white feminism with a week of study at the local anarchist space on black feminism. A supplement that the woman was already taking, and which had expired three weeks ago. So we have mansplaining, the fecklessness of male white guilt and an—here’s where the irony might come in—an embodied critique of essentialist feminine curiosity, not to mention the material conditions of a failing anarchist space that, these days, is more of a graveyard for collectives than a spaghetti kitchen.
I share your distaste for the flagellation, but need it distinguished from both your technique for dealing with complicity in Oil and Candle and the materialist concerns of Spahr’s poem, including but not limited to the body under capitalism.
GOS: Okay, first let me deal with the issue of “dumbness.” I see what you mean about dumb moves, but we should deal more specifically with what “dumb” here means. It’s funny that you are using that word to talk about what VP and KG did because “dumb” is a word that KG has used several times to describe conceptual writing. Not to go too much into how his definition of the word works, but “dumbness” is part of the practice of his writing. So we shouldn’t think of the Mike Brown autopsy piece that he did as “dumb” because that’s part of the premise, it wears dumbness as its form. It wants to be seen as dumb so as to reduce its weightiness, impact, influence, etc. That’s the premise of the entire “uncreative” aspect of his writing, which corresponds with VP as well. “Dumb” is totally the wrong word for them. It’s also the wrong word for Trillin, but it’s closer. Here’s one example of a good word: racist. I don’t meant that to sound like a punch line, but I remember a friend of mine once saying he hates when people say “oh what X person did was really stupid” about someone who did something offensive or hurtful, because the right word is—insert here the appropriate term, be it racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. That makes a lot of sense to me and it’s something I’ve tried to keep mindful of. “Dumb” often characterizes an oversight: they weren’t thinking about X. To say it’s not dumb, it’s racist, is to say you were thinking, but you were thinking something that was hurtful, insulting, etc.
What I meant by “stupid youngness” was the way a young person has to figure out their way through the world and stumbles a lot and doesn’t know how to deal with anything and looks up to the wrong people, etc. I’d say especially in “Limpias,” that the simulation of myself within poetry debates is as someone very anxious and very unsure and I mine that anxiety and that instability (and match indecision with syncretism and racial in-betweens) until it becomes a directed argument: that poetic networks created and reinforced by influence, institutional access, mentorship, publication practices, etc. are exclusionary, harmful, and create dangerous, or just plain bad poetics.
Okay all that being said, I understand where you’re coming from with Spahr’s poem in the context of this conversation, but the truth is that I don’t feel comfortable doing a more sufficient reading of Spahr’s poem. For a few reasons. First of all, what I mentioned above about how the controversy of offensive poems forces us to build them up more and talk about them more, give them more space. Even just physically giving the poem space here in this interview is a gesture that I feel uncomfortable continuing. Secondly, I really feel sort of unable as a young poet barely out of undergrad with very little connections and support to give this like long, analytic opposition against a poem that, to be honest, is mostly well-liked and is written by a poet that is very well connected and that people really admire and I just don’t feel it’s my job too. I answered your initial question because I thought it was important for someone to say something about Spahr’s poem, because not enough people have been speaking out against it. But I wanted, perhaps lazily and unfairly to you, to let my initial answer stand as it is. It’s difficult however, with the fact that Spahr has such influence over Bay Area poetics and leftist contemporary poetics at large, to put the burden of argumentation on someone with so much less defense and ability. This is another problem of controversial poems. People get into this argumentative mode where they are like “how is that racist?” or transphobic, or homophobic etc. And it ends up being labor of, mostly, poets of color to prove they are hurt or that others would be hurt. I just think of the times I saw a poet (I’m not sure she’d like to be named so I’ll just leave it out) get tagged over 20 times by Purdey Kreiden with these confusing argumentative posts because the poet had said that Kreiden and her partner’s (whose name I don’t even remember) poem of Mexican jokes was racist. Like these massive Facebook posts. And responding to that is labor! So I feel strongly in the right of poets to say “this poem is offensive” and give their reason but not have to respond to all arguments about it.
Thirdly, I think close reading is an extremely powerful tool, but I think it’s powerful because to close read something is to say this text matters, it is conscious, I want to think about it, I want to engage with it, and the fact is I don’t really want to engage with Spahr’s poem, I don’t feel like I should put in the labor to deal with it in that way. I don’t feel comfortable addressing the poem further. I hope my comments aren’t disappointing to you.
CB: Your response isn’t disappointing at all, Gabe. For reasons you might imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about voting lately, and I see a similar power and communication in your abstaining here. Your decline to answer and gesture towards the larger power structures that encourage reticence on the subject of otherwise established and well-regarded poems and poets says as much, if only on a related subject, as the close reading I somewhat antagonistically angled for.
I think my insistent appeal to close reading, even in the disproportionate power dynamics that you very accurately diagnose, is because it is best tool I know to combat those dynamics without losing the particular aesthetic experience of poetry to the larger social sphere in which it circulates. Despite the crazy amount of attention that Spahr poem received, I haven’t actually encountered a reading per se, and its that distinction between reading and attention that I push against in a variety of ways, including but not limited to the time I invest in interviews.
I’m all for any time writers become more intentional about the work they produce, especially when that work reinscribes the political violence it seeks to undermine. But at the same time, I lament the environment of reticence and tentativeness that necessarily accompanied these reflections—especially for younger writers, of which I still consider myself to some degree. This is where I find myself admiring the Sphar poem as an act of pedagogy. With the exception of your book—which I admire for the same reason—I’ve encountered few poets willing to publicly reckon with their own messiness when it comes to their privilege, and that feels like a problem. It’s now become a problem for a whole generation of young poets, for whom messiness is sometimes the only skill in one’s toolbox capable of demanding attention.
Poets of all sorts aren’t properly owning our privilege, no matter whom/how many times we favorite and retweet. You might feel I’m being too generous in my reading here, but I see Spahr’s poem as doing that work—as modeling the way one might publicly own and embody one’s messy complicity. Does it have the problems you outline? Totally, but so do so many of the white, cis, and otherwise privileged poets congratulating themselves for transcending their privilege based on the proprietary data they’re providing to companies like Facebook, Twitter, etc. Maybe my standards are low here, but I’m just happy it’s honest. That feels like a place begin.
Speaking of generosity, you’ve been very generous in indulging my penchant for close reading a poem that doesn’t appear in your book, and I’d like to return the favor. Because of the awesome press your book has already received, this interview has taken a cue from Oil and Candle, in talking about your poems themselves in the same breath that we discuss poetry communities out of which they grew: the pressure to say the right thing, the consequences of saying or doing the wrong thing, and the question of being well regarded. Anyone who knows your social media presence knows that you take the risk of not being well regarded quite frequently, which brings me to the subject of Cuba and Communism. As a product of Cuban exile, I imagine your political positionality can’t help but strike an at-times discordant note with the political makeup of experimental writing scenes. The floor yours open to address Cuba, Communism, and the place (or lack thereof) your position on the subject leaves you with in the realm of experimental writing.
GOS: I once joked at a reading that if anyone in the audience added me on Facebook, they’d just end up reading a lot of angry statuses about Cuba. That’s true! You’re right to guess that I do have a really complicated relationship to a lot of the poets I respect and admire because my family and I have a very complicated relationship with communism. Fact is that when I was on the West Coast and was writing this book tons of the poets I interacted with were communists, or Marxists, or whatever. I mean, some were anarchists, some I didn’t ask. Let it be known, no Republicans. And that’s fine and we had great poetic exchange. In fact, my own publisher TIL has published very many communist-identified people, and the press identifies as anti-capitalist, as I do, and I totally vibe with them very easily. But nothing feels as terrible as walking into a venue in Oakland to see your friend read and having 2 (two!) posters of Che Guevara hanging from the walls around you. I’d say once every couple of months my grandfather tells me stories of how Che killed people in the streets with a machine gun. I think a lot of Bay Area poets don’t like me when I say stuff like this, but it’s integral to my writing process and my existence in the United States. And it’s a key part of this book, and a key part of my relationship to Spahr (not to continue on that) and Bay Area poetics. That was such a big part of my time spent in the Bay Area, this trade-off between exclusion-inclusion (racially, politically), passing and gaining accessibility to spaces but feeling lonely or hurt in those spaces, as I’ve talked about in other places.
Once I read a poem about Che killing people in front of Juliana and I don’t think she liked it. Ha ha ha! That was a fun night. Only people of color at that reading were me, Loma, and Trisha Low. Audience of probably 40 people, and just us three. So it all connects really. In a reading like that, where I am one of few people of color I’m dealing with two things: 1) why the hell are there no people like me here? 2) with my ability to pass as white, do the white people here even notice me as different? And the issue of communism replicates a lot of those racial issues for me. And I think to understand a poem like “Limpias,” my reaction to Spahr’s poem, and my relationship to Bay Area poetics, you have to get that state of mind that I was in while living there. That move between exclusion-inclusion that I’ve lived with my whole life. I made some of my best friends in poetry in Oakland with Che’s face hanging just above me, metaphorically and literally.
Does an immigrant or the kid of immigrants have a place in American experimental writing? That question is obviously a sort-of miniature diorama version of larger questions of descent and Americanness. But I think something to keep in mind for experimental writers, and is basically at the heart of a lot of recent poetry debates, is the following: does your direction or technique of aversion foreclose the paths others take to their survival and subjectivity? Said more simply, when you rebel, who gets fucked over? I love and admire the writings of so many communist-identified poets, but when I read your stuff talking about “the revolution” and “when will poets bring a revolution” you gotta remember, the “revolution” for me is not the future, it’s not possibility. It’s the nasty history of death and dictatorship that makes me an American.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a Latino queer Leo living in Philadelphia, PA. His first collection, Oil and Candle (March 2016, Timeless, Infinite Light), is a set of writings on Santería, war, and the precarity of Latino-American lives. He is also the author of the chapbooks JOGS (2013), a re-writing of The Joy of Gay Sex, Nite [Chickadee]’s (GaussPDF 2015), a collection of Cher’s tweets on systematic racism and violence, and Where Everything is in Halves (Be About It, 2015), poems against death through The Legend of Zelda. His work can be found at ojedasague.com