Anne Waldman (Rail): It’s Giorgio Agamben who states describes the poet’s job being one of “looking into the darkness of our time” and being contemporary with it. How do you gauge this in your own poethics?
Dawn Lundy Martin: I dig Agamben and his theories of lawlessness. I want more than lawlessness; I want recklessness, fury, spatial and dimensional disregard, and linguistic spatter. Disorder for the sake of good. Not chaos or anarchy but falling from order, relation, rhetorical soundness, and dichotomy. The poetry wants to resist the known world in favor of something else. Or how else do we discover what’s on the other side of the labored experience of existence? My poetry attempts this though its engagement with language, in part, through the way it makes or does not make what we like to call “sense.” If there is a poethics working in the creative impulse that seeks agency, I believe its agency might be located in refusal to accept, for example, the categories that regulate our bodies, movements, and freedoms. This can’t happen in the actual or in the experience of the body in time and space. The black body’s existence is constructed by a relational labor. Is it the poem’s job to simply reflect this labor? To labor inside of reflecting labor? I don't’ think so. I feel a kind of gnawing reiteration in reflection even when it’s done through the re-lensing of metaphor. I’m interested instead in future space even though sometimes the bereft contemporary finds itself a backdrop to imagining a reaching outside of that darkness. This is the poetry’s struggle—to come into moments that allow for a looking that isn’t “into” maybe but outside of. Or, maybe it’s about cracks in the surfaces. What breathes up through there?
Rail: What is moving you the most in this maelstrom around race and identity inflecting all our poetry conversations?
Martin: This is such a difficult question. I have to say, frankly, I’m mostly unmoved by the public conversation though I have had some invigorating private conversations. A lot of what I’ve been thinking about is prohibition—like, what is allowed to be said and by whom? People I’ve talked to feel afraid to speak—and these are poets of color I’m talking about, who might have complicated views or views that don’t tow a party line. I’ve been thinking about what it would look like if we opened spaces, with open hearts, for difficult, imperfect conversations in which we don't all agree, where we are all open to growth and new thinking around race and poetics. And toward that end, I recently edited the poetry dossier of boundary 2 that attempted to create a space for opposing views on race and poetics in order to invigorate a conversation as opposed to shutting it down. But this is America, right? Red states and blue states. Bernie Sanders on the one hand, Ted Cruz on the other, the religious fundamentalists and the atheists, etc. It’s like a Civil War all the time in this country. It’s a miracle the ground beneath us doesn’t fracture, tipping all of us into a depthless sea.
I am very excited by folks like Divya Victor who brings an internationalist sensibility to the problems of the critical articulations around conceptual poetry and race. I love when she writes in a recent Jacket 2 piece that, “We also need to describe emerging forms of conceptualism as a result of historical pressure and consequences of globalization. To do so is to consider who else is making conceptual works of art..” As a member of the Black Took Collective, whose work is deeply conceptual and interrogates race and racist caricature, I too want to move the critical conversation away from its current unproductive anchors. What happened when black modernism began to emerge as a range of aesthetic undertakings? We had to re-think modernism. Or some of us have. I’m energized by Divya’s rigor and fearlessless around these issues.
Lastly, I want to say that it’s clear to me that part of stuckness and rigidity in our conversation about race, representation, and appropriation in poetry is made manifest by the overt violence affecting black and brown bodies in actual experience. It is difficult to foster openness and inquisitiveness when you are beleaguered by the ways your body is used as an enabler for other people’s wild freedom. In the boundary 2 issue I mentioned above, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write about the “radical homelessness” of blackness. Although it doesn’t have to do with poetry, necessarily, I’m engaged by their thinking around the condition of blackness or its “essence” that speaks to what it’s like to attempt life from radical homelessness. As Moten contends across his work, it’s black social life that’s despised. I want to think that the terrifying discomfort of radical homelessness, however unyielding it might be, is also a place where innovative creativity might fiercely emerge.
Rail: Where are you “standing” in your exploratory poetry?
Martin: I don’t know if “I” and standing “in” my poetry as I often think of myself or the “I” that is me as standing alongside of it. The I in the first place is a fractured entity and refuses solidity inside of the poems. As a first gesture, the poems come from brokenness, or soul fracturing trauma, so cohesion is a unimagined gesture, as far as I know.
Even when standing, I am floating. Where I am standing is between genres—someplace in between the unsettled functioning of my poetry and the long form essay. It seems impossible right now to reconcile the two—not that they need to be reconciled, but I almost feel like two different people when I’m working in the two genres. I don’t feel this kind of separation when I’m working with video, so it’s interesting to be further unsituated in this way. I like this space, though, of uncertainty, of not knowing, and having the opportunity to figure things out.
Rail: What do you see most coming up for younger writers, artists, students.
Martin: O my gosh, so much! I work with so many younger writers and artists and they are all so radically different! One of the common challenges to being a young writer or artist is the professionalization of poetry and art making. There’s a pressure to make a living, to rise up, get famous, etc. Gone are the days where you can move to New York, rent a cheap loft with your bathtub in your kitchen, and just write or paint or whatever. One obvious option, then, is graduate school. And, I’m not sure about that trajectory as particularly useful for everyone. It buys one a little paid time, for sure, but it also causes a lot of folks anxiety. There’s the MFA versus NYC debate that the editors at n+1 magazine wrote in depth about, but it doesn’t really apply to poets as much as other writers and artists. So young people become poets, now, almost exclusive through a graduate school process, which directs one aspirationally toward writing poetry as a way of becoming a poet. I think it’s a hindrance to the imagination when people make things in order to be things, and students feel that, too. Yet, there’s the pull, too, toward wanting recognition. So what comes up for them is being in this caught place where it’s difficult to let go, free one’s mind, and make something great.