This interview borrows its questions from William Fifield interviewing Jean Cocteau for The Paris Review in 1964. That interview is “The Art of Fiction No. 34,” from Issue No. 32. Krystal Languell was an editor of R. Erica Doyle’s first book, proxy, published by the Belladonna* Collaborative in April 2013.
Krystal Languell: It takes us rather far to think you are victimized by intelligence, especially since for a half century you have been thought of as one of the keenest critical and critical-poetical intelligences in France; but doesn’t this bear on something you told me about yourself and Proust—that you both got started wrong?
Erica Doyle: [laughs] I don’t think there’s such a thing as starting wrong, there’s only progression. It’s kind of like Yoda.
KL: How could it have happened that you entered into this child-protégé phase? Did you have some roots in the arts, in your family for example?
ED: [laughs] I actually did. As a child I did produce a lot of art, I created a lot of things. My mother was a classically trained opera singer. She’d hoped to pursue that professionally, but my father did not approve of that as a profession and thought it would be exposing her to all kinds of wayward people and unsavory situations. He discouraged her and probably denied her the right to do that. He was pretty controlling. But he loved to sing as well. When my mother was younger, she was involved in the Negro Theater up in Harlem with Harry Belafonte and some other people and my father may have done some things with them as well.
My parents were born in the 1920’s and so they came of age in the 40’s in the big band era, and they used to dance. They were these amazing jitterbug dancers and my mother had poodle skirts. They both loved to sing and dance. My father also liked to draw and as children we thought his drawings were horrible.
My family is from Trinidad and at the time there was a different function of art. It was a daily thing and everyone participated in it. Everyone had these same posters of the Caribbean on their walls, so I was surrounded by those kinds of artistic products that weren’t considered high brow.
But I had an aunt who married into our family. She was African-American and from North Carolina. I remember her being exotic, and in the ’70’s she was into the Black Arts Movement and she’d have these salons—in Queens, mind you—and she’d dress up and it was very Afrocentric and proud of black culture. I remember going to these salons, and it being this fuffy, exotic thing. She was the only person in my family who did that.
KL: Do you think the loss of your father during your first year bears on your accomplishment?
ED: Well, I lost my father in my first year of. . . some other part of my life. It was my second year working as a paralegal at a law firm. What was the question?
KL: If it bears on your accomplishment.
ED: I was at AWP this past week, and I was listening to a memoir panel. I was really there because Jeannette Winterson was on the panel, but there was an agent there who was giving people very practical advice about writing. And she said if you’re nervous about writing about people, just wait until they die. And then you can just do it after they’re dead. What’s the rush, right? So write what you like and you can share it after they’re dead.
I had two fathers and a mother. Not to sound ghoulish or unappreciative of my parents’ lives, but there is something very liberating about not having parents, especially for me. I was raised very traditionally to respect and honor my parents, not to question them, and to obey them. So my parents’ deaths have freed me in a lot of ways to write what I like. Not that it’s not sad that they died, but the only people whose opinions I cared about are dead so, here we go.
KL: What happened in those days after you were launched?
ED: I’ve had so many launchings!
KL: We’re about to have a couple more too!
ED: Those heady days of those launchings.
I was launched in 1992 when I escaped my life at Georgetown University and ventured out into the gay community. I snuck into a panel about coming out in communities of color, which I found in a newspaper someone gave me to wrap dishes in. That was one of the first launchings.
And again when I started collaborating. I did a collaboration with the composer Joshua Fried and that launched me into learning about myself and another field of composition from someone who is an expert experimenter and innovator. And another time I was launched was in collaboration with visual artist Torkwase Dyson, with different minds around similar concepts.
And the launching of this book is another! I’m in the middle of it. Part of it is keeping the wisdom of my friend Ronaldo Wilson, and this was passed to him by Meena Alexander, which is to really savor and enjoy your first book. Not to rush ahead to other projects. To enjoy something that will never happen again.
It’s been printed. I walk around with it. People have bought it. I saw it in a bookstore. I’m focused on sitting with the reality of the book existing, which was something I had given up on by the time I read for you in Hot Texts [Summer 2011]. Then you solicited the manuscript a few months later.
I had let go of that. So it still seems very unreal. I’m floating, post-launch.
KL: How old were you then?
ED: I was so many ages, all these launchings!
This most recent launching I’m 44, and at the first launching I was 22. So isn’t that fortuitous? Serendipitous? Curious.
KL: But the ballet wasn’t presented then?
ED: You know, it’s all been a sort of dance. [laughs]
I took a ballet class once. I’m always working to develop my mind. I was diagnosed with ADHD, and my mind craves constant stimulation. So I’ve taken sign language and technology courses and a graphic novel class. When I got the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund grant, I thought, how am I going to continue to develop myself artistically? I’m gonna take ballet.
When I grew up people made fun of me for being such a bad dancer. I was a fine soca dancer, but I couldn’t do any of the American dances. When I was growing up, it was the cabbage patch and the smurf. I was very shy.
I’m gonna take ballet, because it’s so constrained, and they’re going to tell me exactly what to do. And if that happens, I’ll do it. And that’s a little part of how I enter a work, by putting a constraint on it as a place of safety for me.
KL: Aren’t you really positing a kind of passion of anti-conformism?
ED: I am positing a passion of passion.
I was at this conference and it’s great because it’s not related to my daily work life at all. I work at a job that is quite removed from writing. In terms of things in this country that are under siege, my other profession is under siege too. It was great to be at this conference talking about ideas.
I think I heard a lot of statements about things. And that’s what non-conformity makes me think about. I’m interested in a developmental conversation, a conversation about process. Versus presentation. So I think the question asks about a presentational stance, and I’m more interested in an exploratory. . .
KL: Do you think this liberty can go too far?
People have a sense of liberty that’s wound up in ego, which is really about fear. The only reason it feels like it’s gone too far is that people are using what they call liberty to defend themselves against things they are deathly afraid of, which are usually within themselves.
The idea of cognitive dissonance, how people have it and disengage—instead to sit with it and inquire why am I having this and how can I respond from a place that is not reactive? Am I exercising my liberty in a way that is really about exorcizing some fear that I think I have?
KL: Who would you name as fundamental to this conversion?
ED: My dog. Just kidding. [laughs]
My grandmother after she got to be a certain age stopped having dogs, which reminds me of novels about vampires, where it’s very sad for vampires to connect with mortals because they die so early. Another author I love, Joan Slonczewski, she has a series of novels where certain humans have life spans of thousands of years and they have a very difficult time connecting with people whose lives don’t last that long.
But in terms of conversion, that makes me think of Flannery O’Conner, you know Everything that Rises Must Converge. Everything in existence is responsible for it.
KL: If you had to name the chief architect of this revolt?
ED: It’s pretty universally accepted in human cultures that all minds are one mind and all beings are one being, that there is no chief architect. We’re caught up in a series of currents, this ebullience, this flow, and when there is a concentration we have some kind of transition. So we are all the architects.
KL: Some moments ago, you spoke of this “other.” I think we would do well to try to pin down what you mean by that. Picasso has spoken of it—said it is the real doer of his creation—and you have during our earlier talks. How would you define it?
ED: The book is called proxy, and that is a manifestation of a kind of otherness. I see it in some respects as an avatar, in both ancient and contemporary terms. I think that the other of course is really a projection of the self, but also the other is as I was saying before a referent for a larger organism. We have cells in our brains that enable us to pick up what other people seem to be thinking. Mirror neurons. We’re looking at other people and things are happening in our brains regardless of what’s happening to us consciously. Other is others but others are us.
KL: Do you mean the unconscious creates?
It’s different for different artists, but for me it’s always been an unconscious process. I don’t start out thinking this is what the project is going to be. In fact, when I’ve done that what I’ve created has been horrible. Literally a part of my brain I can feel it coming from, almost like a small seizure, and maybe it is some electrical thing, is happening in there, a moment when everything comes together. I’ve been assembling along the way, and it gets packaged. Usually in words.
KL: Simply, how do you manage such things as names of characters?
ED: In this newest book the characters have no names. It depends on the project. I have a novel that takes place in fictionalized Trinidad. I’ve spent time there. On TV during Sundays they have condolence messages for people who have died during the week. It goes on for a really long time. And so I would read that and get character names that way. Other times, names have just dropped into my head.
For example, the main character of the novel’s name is Fortune. I was at the FAWC in Provincetown a few summers ago. I was on my porch and wrote in my notebook “Two doors down lives Fortune.” I wasn’t sure if fortune was an abstract thing, and then I realized it was a person and who it was.
KL: What about the mechanism of translation? I think you once wrote in German.
ED: Strangely enough, I did try to translate a Rilke poem from German without using a dictionary. This was a very crazy assignment given to me by David Lehman who was my professor at The New School. I did this translation. I just kind of made it up.
I loved Rilke. I tried to choose a language I knew nothing about. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought, oh Rilke, it must be about life. It turned out later the poem was about death. So translation is a very tricky thing.
KL: Well, what is this question of the necessity of obstacle?
ED: I don’t know about the necessity of obstacle. But it certainly does happen. And then you deal with it, and there’s a learning that comes from it or not. You can submit to obstacles and give up, but if you have that compulsion to create as an artist there’s no such thing—in the face of something that is really true to your being, you just can’t help but do that thing.
There’s no such thing as an obstacle. There’s a pause, maybe.
KL: What I have read of your poetry in English does you no justice whatever.
KL: Do you keep a sort of abstract potential reader or viewer in mind when you work?
ED: No. Twenty-two years ago I was concerned with the reader after I was done writing. Very concerned. I was continually disappointed. People who I thought would be The Reader would say things like “I don’t get that,” or “That doesn’t sound realistic,”or “Why is your writing always so depressing?”
Then I decided it was ok to not make sense to people. And I was younger and had a stereotypical idea of who would be receptive to my work. I figured it would be someone like me. I wrote things that I wanted to see. I, mistakenly caught up in the essentialist notions of our deranged U.S. culture, thought that person would look like me.
Until I did a reading at the Corcoran Gallery in D.C., and it was a patron reading and one of my friends pulled me in. She liked my work. I thought it wasn’t my crowd. So I read. And at the very end of it, a little old very, very, very white lady with gray hair and a little wool hat came up to me and said “I really loved that last poem so much. It was so beautiful.” And I was so touched. Because I never thought an old white lady would be interested in my work. So from there, I wasn’t going to think about audience anymore.
I was talking to Ronaldo Wilson about this yesterday, the preoccupation with the kind of work you produce, controlling who it’s landing on or for. We talked about what matters is how you are able to structure conversations about your work. That’s different. Expansive, meaningful, transgressive, provocative, vulnerable. That’s really what’s important: Furthering the conversation.
KL: Can you say something about inspiration?
ED: [a long pause]
[a long hum]
KL: Are there any artificial helps—stimulants or drugs?
ED: You know what? Prescription only. I’m pretty straight edge.
KL: Do you recommend, then, to writers that they read nothing serious at all?
ED: I recommend to writers that they read everything. Not just things that are serious, not just things they think are smart. It’s important to follow a pleasure, even ones that your neuroses might lead you to believe are guilty pleasures. It’s important to follow the pleasure in reading.
KL: Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to let people know about?
ED: There are two manuscripts, one of poems about our political engagement, and the other is a collection of love poems. I’m working on essays about hybridity and hybrid identity. I’m working on a vampire novel that begins in classical Ethiopia and comes to the present day.
I’m still working on the novel, Fortune. And a couple children’s books that are kind of done. And some mock-ups for a graphic novel memoir, because I love that so much. Memoir can make you feel so tired, just using that word for the genre. How would I render my memories graphically? I don’t write about that very much.
I found this binder of letters my father wrote to my mother. She must have kept them. They had an abusive relationship. These letters are, at turns, poignant and fucked-up. I keep touching them. I’m not sure about it yet.
R. Erica Doyle was born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents. Her first book, proxy, was published by Belladonna* Books in 2013. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Ploughshares, Bloom, Blithe House Quarterly and Sinister Wisdom.
She has received grants and awards from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Erica received her MFA in Poetry from The New School and lives in New York City, where she is an administrator in the NYC public schools and facilitates Tongues Afire: A Free Creative Writing Workshop for queer women and trans-and-gender non-conforming people of color.