Best American Experimental Writing is an anthology series focused on dynamic literature from both emerging and established writers. The most recent edition, BAX 2015, was released in January of this year by Wesleyan University Press and included work by Bhanu Kapil (“Monster Checklist”) and Ching-In Chen (“bhanu feeds soham a concession”). They (virtually) sat down with BAX managing editor Michael Martin Shea to discuss dreams, threads, fungus, marigolds, soft-tissue sites, and writing as a form of pilgrimage. Michael Martin Shea: Hi Bhanu! Hi Ching-In! One of the things that’s striking about both of your texts–and part of the reason we wanted to interview the two of you together–is how they’re in conversation with other texts: Bhanu’s quasi-syllabus mentions a variety of other books and thinkers, while Ching-In’s is, in part, a response to Bhanu’s Incubation: A Space for Monsters. Do you see your work as a form of conversation?
Bhanu Kapil: I wrote the “handwritten preface” to Incubation in a cafe, with my friend, the poet Melissa Buzzeo. I put my head down on the table; in that time, she wrote or sketched her What Began Us (Leon Works.) I woke up, ordered some toast and coffee, and wrote the preface as she was completing her book. She took what I wrote back to Brooklyn and pinned it to her fridge; I had to get her to mail it back, a year later, when I realized what my own book could be. This, in fact, was not a conversation, but dreaming, what it is to feel so safe you can fall asleep while your friend is writing a book and to also dream your own book as they are writing their own.
This conversation with Koomah is part of Variant Dreams, a Conversant series celebrating artists who identify as trans, intersex, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming artists of color. The interview was conducted in person on October 21, 2015 and recorded and transcribed by Cassie Nicholson.
Ching-In Chen: Last month, Cassie Nicholson and I saw part of your show, “History of a Happy Hermaphrodite: part 1” at Super Happy Fun Land as part of the Houston Fringe Festival. Could you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about the show?
Koomah: Sure, so I’m Koomah and, goodness, it’s always fun to be like “who are you?” I am an intersex-bodied, trans-identified, queer artist and performer. I’m also a filmmaker, clothing and costume designer. I do spoken word, performance art, visual art, sculpture, a little bit everything. I also do burlesque and other forms of adult entertainment and sex work.
This conversation with Gregory Pardlo is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).
Ching-In Chen: I’m interested in the choice to begin Digest with “Written By Himself,” which at first, felt more familiar in its music of anaphora and its lyric strategies. But that title begs a twist to what follows. It makes me wonder if such attention is called to authorship, who wrote those lines, where they came from and which speakers have been brought before the reader to witness and for what purpose(s). And when I return to this poem after reading the book, it hints towards what’s to come, with your longer sequences and variations (“Marginalia,” the Improvisations series). What kinds of conversations do you envision curating on the page for your reader(s)? Has this changed from your first book, Totem, to Digest?
Gregory Pardlo: Since Totem, I’ve gotten more self-conscious about sincerity and authenticity and the emotional range I, a person assigned to the social registries of, among others, male and black and American, am allowed to articulate before my words are pronounced false or unrecognizable by the audience, my auditors. The slave narrative genre is like a starter kit for all my obsessions in this regard. Slaves weren’t supposed to have access to the kind of subjectivity necessary to string together a narrative. And they certainly weren’t supposed to be literate enough to record their narratives by their own hands. Someone—sometimes several someones—had to serve as witness to verify the conditions under which the formerly enslaved person claimed to speak. That is, someone had to confirm that the text was indeed written by the former bondsperson him or herself. This gets me thinking about the ways my own or anyone’s work relies on various types of—usually institutional—mediation to be heard and recognized. While reading slave narratives I wonder how does the author’s awareness of the reader’s blind spots or threshold for credence influence the writing process. What performance does one have to give, what pass/words does one have to recite, to gain admission to the fellowship of intelligibility—or any institution for that matter? When I consider the word “written” do I mean arranged, curated, inscribed, mimicked, published, appropriated? And the strangely third person subjectivity of “himself”: from whose subject position is the reader supposed to enter the narrative frame? Who “authorizes” me to speak? Who licenses this “I”? (Even in this, I hear “who takes this bride,” the constant hum of patriarchy.) In some ways, my suspicion is that I can’t get much farther than the assertion “I was born” before having to negotiate with a public (however internalized) that is prepared to judge my performance of myself as implausible or unacceptable. The slave narrative foregrounds these problems of narrative authority.
This conversation is part of Intersecting Lineages, a series focusing on conversations with poets of color following a series of cross-community solidarity readings and panels among poets involved with organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, Canto Mundo, RAWI (Radius of Arab American Writers), Institute of American Indian Arts and VONA (Voices at Our Nations Arts Foundation).
Juan Felipe Herrera was born in Fowler, California as the only child of migrant farmers in 1948. These childhood experiences as well as his continued community activism, including a stint as a director of an arts space in Balboa Park converted from an occupied water tank, has shaped his writing. For the past four decades, Herrera has been a lightning bolt, a master at channeling the energy of the moment and documenting the world around him in his poetry. Known for writing on the edge of possibility and for his high-energy riffs and improvisations, Herrera has been celebrated by critics for his innovative style and constant re-inventions. This conversation was conducted shortly after Herrera won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Half the World in Light: New and Selected Poems.
Ching-In Chen: Is it part of your writing process to write against what you’re comfortable with or known for? I’m thinking about your story about listening to John Ashbery invent a poem and feeling that you’re “condemned” to write political poetry.
Juan Felipe Herrera: When you’re a writer from the margins (or more than one margin, as Gloria Anzaldúa says), then it’s almost like a preliminary, required, or organic project to write and reclaim ourselves and our community. In the mid-80’s at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in southern Arizona, Ashbery read a piece from his new book Wave where he reconstructed a Nordic myth. I said to myself: well, he appears to be just choosing at random something he likes, reconstructing it and writing about it. I feel like I’ve been condemned to write in the manner that I write—to reclaim our history, our language, our various identities, to re-align what’s been said regarding our experience—since I started to write. Can I write like Ashbery—not in terms of style or craft, but metaphysically? Can I get out of myself that way? Can I reposition myself that way or will I be condemned to write as my own other?