Monday, February 29, 2016

Split This Rock Interview with Dawn Lundy Martin

Fifth in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, April 14-17, 2016. Pre-registration is open now until March 31st.

By Nancy K. Pearson
Photo by Max Freeman.

Dawn Lundy Martin received her MA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her PhD in literature at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst with a dissertation on experimentalism and subjectivity in contemporary poetry. She is the author of A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press 2007), winner of the Cave Canem Prize; DISCIPLINE (Nightboat Books 2011), which was selected by Fanny Howe for the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize and a finalist for both Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Lambda Literary Award; Candy, a limited edition letterpress chapbook (Albion Books 2011); The Main Cause of the Exodus (O’clock Press 2014); and The Morning Hour, selected by C.D. Wright for the 2003 Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship. Her latest collection, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, was published by Nightboat Books in 2015. She is at work on a new book titled Good Stock, forthcoming from Coffee House Press

With Vivien Labaton, she also co-edited The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism (Anchor Books, 2004), which uses a gender lens to describe and theorize young activist work in the U.S. She is the co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation (New York), an organization, which was for 15 years the only young activist feminist foundation in the U.S.

Martin is currently at work, with poet/scholar Erica Hunt, on an anthology of experimental writing by black women in North America and the Caribbean (Kore Press). She has written a libretto for a video installation opera, titled "Good Stock on the Dimension Floor," featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and is collaborating with architect Mitch McEwen on Detroit Opera House, “a project which stages an opera as a house, the house and its dramas of occupancy, vacancy, demolition, and re-purposing as an opera.” Martin is also a co-founder of the Black Took Collective, an experimental performance art/poetry group of three.


Nancy K. Pearson (NKP): Dawn, your poems expose themes such as suffering and injustice in a wide variety of forms. In A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering you write lyric poems as well prose poems; Discipline is a book of mostly prose poems and your most recent book, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, combines prose, short lyrics and found text, just to name a few. You write about, among many things, racial injustice using these various forms. Can you tell us how different forms of poetry change the reader’s experience of racial inequality, as one example?

Dawn Lundy Martin (DLM): The form usually comes first for me; it’s what compels the particular language I end up using to attempt to speak a thing. The question, of course, is how does one speak “race” in the first place? What does it mean for a body to be “raced” as a development across time and in this historical moment. When we say, “black” what is it that we mean? I am always in the mode of trying to attend to how complicated that racialization is. And, when I am riding a formal engagement—let’s say the fragment—I might perform this complexity. When we try to nail it down, make it uncomplicated, we do ourselves as racialized people, a harmful injustice, I think. We make ourselves overly recognizable and thereby seeable in racial context. We collude in manifesting racial interior selves, when those interiors are fictions. 

What is more namable, of course, but not absolutely nameable is the experience of inequity, discrimination, or inequality. We can look at a dead black person in the street and say, there is a dead black person in the street. We can look at videotape and see that that person had no weapon and was killed because of something as small, perhaps, as disobedience. The prose poem, or sentences, which are obviously more complete utterances than the fragment and also are dictating by grammar, can speak to these moments of the seen and the experienced. But, those sentences necessarily limp too. Sometimes an eruption occurs in the middle of them, or a stammer. Why? Because what is complete about an unarmed black person murdered by police?

NKP: Yes, there’s nothing complete about that. I recently read your 1994 book, The Fire This Time, and found it very inspiring. Twelve years after its publication, your book is more relevant than ever. In one chapter, you quote Jerome Miller, an activist who revolutionized the juvenile justice system. He says, “It will be possible only when we begin handling most criminalizable situations outside the criminal justice system all together.” For those who haven’t read your book, will you expand on the relevance of this quote or what “will be possible?” Now? In the future?

DLM: Hmmmm. I have to say that you might be more familiar with that book than I am at this point, as it’s been a few years since I’ve looked at it closely. What I want to say about what I know about the criminal justice system now, as it affects young people, especially young people of color, is that the situation has gotten worse instead of better. The activist you quote above was talking about restructuring the criminal justice system so that when young people committed crimes they wouldn’t be necessarily put in the system, because young people do all kinds of stupid stuff (I know I did) and shouldn’t in some cases be criminalized, but dealt with in other ways. 

The situation now is that young people of color are being criminalized for very small incidents that historically have not been crimes. When I was in high school, two teenagers getting into a fist fight did not mean that the police were called and students arrested. In 2016, this is a regular thing. Certainly disobedient elementary school children weren’t arrested. And, they are now. The school-to-prison pipeline is real, and I don’t believe this is some kind of accident of random occurrences, but instead, a strategic systematic machinery at work to put as many black and brown people in jail as possible. 

The Fire This Time was really about using a gender lens and if I do that, now, on this criminal justice I can tell you the machine is actively at work imprisoning more and more young women and trans women. The statistics from Kimberle Crenshaw’s study on black girls are startling as they show how black girls are disciplined at rates significantly higher than anyone else—only 2% of white girls are disciplined at school compared to 12% of black girls—and that discipline is far harsher for black girls on whom the police are often called. Can you even imagine a society in which schools call the police on teenage white girls at school?! We need to shed light on the problems of the prison industrial complex, and its impact on black and brown people, particularly young women.

NKP: The statistics are startling. How can a poet begin to express such injustice and pain? As you’ve said in several interviews, the poems in your second book, A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering and in Disciple, concern the inability of language to express pain. And yet, poetry is language. Can you explain how poetry gives voice to experience when other forms of language fail us?

DLM: I think that poetry has a radical revolutionary possibility in that often, but not always, its language operates outside of linguistic conventions like the grammatical correct sentence or normative ways of speaking. That’s where, for me, its power lies, in that power not to give voice to, but imagine, in language new possibilities for attending to reality and what it means to be a human. When Alice Notley in “At Night the States” attends to loss, I tear up every time I read it because I can feel the limp in that sentence and the overwhelming sense of absence through the naming of an object held:

my love for you & that for me
deep down in the Purple Plant the oldest
of it is sweetest but states no longer
          how I
would feel. Shirt
that shirt has been in your arms
          And I have
that shirt is how I feel

I’m forever awed by these lines that never seem to settle. So, yeah, language has its limits, but it’s also really stretchy and can be manipulated to better approach the thing that wants to be said. Myung Mi Kim, who mentored me as a young poet, helped me figure that out.

NKP: Myung Mi Kim, oh! Tell me a little more about her influence.

DLM:  I love talking about Myung Mi Kim because I feel like she is truly one of the most under appreciated American writers of our time. And, she is like my fairy godmother. She came to me when I was struggling to refigure out who I was as a poet. I had recently moved to the west coast and begun graduate school. It was a radical adventure all around. I’d never been away from the East Coast and to get to California, I’d taken a $69 one-way Greyhound Bus. The experience of riding across country with most of my earthly belongings and all the money I had in the world was truly one of the happiest moments in my life. California was also radical disjuncture, radical re-contextualization, and the opportunity for a radical reinvention of selfhood. I had gotten very good at a kind of narrative lyric poetry as an undergraduate. 

In this new context, on what felt like the edge of the earth, that narrative began to unravel. In my body, it felt like clothes that fit a little too snug. This was happening before I met Myung, before I was accepted into the Poetry program at San Francisco State, but I didn’t really know what to do with it. Taking my first class with Myung Mi Kim was like walking into a room configured in a shape I had never seen before. She’d ask truly confounding questions about our work, but I would take those questions with me throughout the week and meditate on them. My mind was brightly enlivened by her courses—a whole course on “Silence”! — I felt tremendously awake. It was there I began to develop a poetics inspired or brought into being by her own. I believe myself to be true disciple. Without her, my poetics simply would not exist as they currently do. Working closely with her, I began to think about “unspeakability” and began to link it with trauma, and later with racial identity. I began to look very closely at theories of language and to really think about this tool I was using, this medium. I also began to want the poems to raise things that they did not necessarily set down by the poem’s end. This work continues to activate my imagination.

NKP: This is somewhat related to the question about “unspeakability” and the limits of language. As mentioned in The Fire This Time, the DSM-V (or the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, which is like the OED of psychiatric disorders), no longer inclused the diagnosis “Gender Identification Disorder.” Being gay isn’t a psychiatric disorder anymore. Do you think simplification makes us tractable? How does poetry question systems of categorization, such as the diagnosis of mental and physical illnesses, especially related to women’s health? Do you think diagnosis is ever useful?

DLM: That’s an interesting question regarding tractability. I obviously think it’s better not to be thought of as a disease, but what I’ve witnessed in my lifetime is a normalization of both gender and sexual orientation. It’s fine. I just find it boring. Queer people live lives that look just straight people’s lives. Gender is increasingly reified, though there are more radical enactments of gender than sexual orientation probably. That’s an oversimplification, I know. But, it speaks to our tendency—as poets and non-poets alike—to want to exist in pre-made categories. We tend to like them. It’s easier to glom onto something made for you than to invent something new. Inventing something new and living inside of it can be socially isolating. 

As far is illness is concerned, I think that the categorizations of “sick” and “well” can be deeply problematic because they carry with them certain capitalist assumptions around labor and productivity. I’m unfamiliar with poetry that challenges this dichotomy. Diagnosis, can be useful, I think—like if you have cancer or schizophrenia—but, like the attachment we have to identity categories, the medical establishment is too attached to diagnosis, which prevents them from looking outside of those ready-made categories.

NKP: I’m going to move on now to your book, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life. What a title! The poems in this book are in conversation with the artist Carrie Mae Weems. Your first poem engages her photographic triptych “Framed by Modernism.” Tell us a little more about your artistic relationship with Weems and other artists. What expectations are placed on black female poets and artists like Weems or Kara Walker? You quote Walker in your epigraph: “What strikes me is how easy it is to commit atrocities.” 

DLM: I just love these two artists. I can’t get enough of them. I love how they are both—in radically different way—interrogating race and the lived experience racialized bodies. I like to think of poetry as in conversation with everything! Visual art, critical theory, architecture, film, philosophy, psychology, etc., and those conversations make their way into the poetry too, in more oblique ways.  Being a black female artist or poet means that people have a certain idea of you and what you think. Sometimes there’s a racial party line to tow. In Walker’s case, of course, she’s never towed it. But for me what she has to say is more exciting because of that refusal to be coerced into perception that isn’t hers. That epigraph is from an interview that Walker did and for me it gets to the awful condition of humanness that we force ourselves to look away from in order to stay alive. Walker is not afraid of looking. I love the complication in both Weems’ and Walker’s works; you have to actively engage it. I like things like that in general. When something is readily knowable, I find it derivative and/or just too easy or reductive to engage my interest.

NKP: Yes! I like the idea that poetry is in conversation with everything. Dawn, somehow life is worth living. Yes? How does suffering and destruction, loneliness and doubt in your poems instill in the reader a sense of hope? I think your poems do.

DLM: I mean, is it? Just kidding. I guess it is. I don’t know the answer to this question, though. I don’t write from that place of hope, usually, or I don’t know that I do.

NKP: Yes, that makes sense. Of course this is a question you can’t answer! But when I read your work I feel more hopeful because, I guess, people like you really change the way we look at pain and dislocation, and engaging in a conversation about say, racial injustice is, in my opinion, the only way to make change. Anyway, that’s a reader’s perspective, not a writer’s.

OK, let’s talk about your beautiful essay, “The Long Rod to Angela Davis’s Library,” which was published in the New Yorker in Dec. 2014. I read this as soon as it was published. God it’s good. In this essay, you talk about your parents, your past, poverty and activism, coming out, and so much more. When you were 22 you moved from Hartford, CT to San Francisco where you canvased for an environmental organization. I think the advertisement on the flyer back in CT said, “Spend Your Summer Changing the World.” And how you’ve changed the world since then! In San Francisco, you came out as a lesbian; you were “bottles girl” at Club Q, and then, you met Angela Davis. But you didn’t just meet her. 

Here’s a quote from your essay: “The insight I gained during the informal teach-ins at Angela’s took place in the small crack between recognizing injustice and recognizing that the institutions created to protect us often end up repressing us.” Tell me, if you don’t mind, more about this and how you, as an activist and poet, have changed since meeting Davis. I realize this is a big question.

DLM: It was such a long time ago! Everything is different. I was just coming into my activist self back then and figuring out what really matters to me. I had to give myself an education in black radical activism and Angela’s library opened the door for that. I read as much as I could when I was there dog-sitting and took the rest of the books out from the university library or purchased more books at one of the many amazing bookstores San Francisco and Berkeley used to have. I was just being born. I was alive with this newness and writing to the poet Marilyn Nelson about it (I studied with her as an undergraduate)—about how I was on the one hand reading Charles Olson for grad school and Huey Newton and Bettina Aptheker on the other and also learning all this stuff about COINTELPRO. My mind was seriously blown. 

I’m all jaded and shit now. LOL. I mean, I still do activist work sometimes, but I am admittedly less optimistic about systemic social change. If we are over here working on reforming the prison industrial complex something really evil is probably happening someplace on the other side of our attention. And also, there’s so much in fighting amongst people who are and should be on the same side. We do our selves in. We seem incapable of conversation. It’s all about critique. And while the feminists and the POC activists are at each other’s throats, Ted Cruz is building a little evil army.  

NKP: And then, there’s poetry, beauty, creation. I sound like an optimist! I’m not. But your poetry energizes me. I’m interested in something personal—What is your creative process and how has it changed? 

DLM: I’m a laboratory writer. I experiment a lot and invent a lot of processes by which to write. When writing DISCIPLINE, for example, I was listening to lots of readings and lectures on UbuWeb and Penn Sound, sometimes in languages I don’t understand. I had constant sound in my ears to see what that would produce for me in terms of writing. My imagination is most engaged and opens up more widely when I am in playful creative processes of trying things out. I like when I’m learning something new. Essay writing is difficult to me but I love it because I’m figuring it out. That said, I write best when I have money in the bank and all the dishes are done and the house is spotless or when I’m at a writing residency. Tasks make me crazy and stressed out and I have a hard time focusing when there are tasks to do. This includes answering emails. If I’m at an artist’s residency where the Wi-Fi is a little shabby, that’s the best.

NKP: UbuWeb is an excellent resource. I find it interesting that the creative process is playful even when you’re writing from a place that’s not hopeful or optimistic. So, what’s your next project?

DLM: I’m writing a new book of poems for Coffee House Press, currently titled Good Stock. I’m also working on essays and a related memoir.

NKP: I can’t wait to read your new work. By the way, what are you reading right now, poetry, fiction, essays?

DLM: I just bought Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty and Jane: A Murder because I haven’t read these books by her and I’m obsessed with her writing. I’m finishing Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me and poet Sara Jane Stoner’s Experience in the Medium of Destruction. I’ve just started reading the young poet, Aziza Barnes’s book i be but i ain’t and Autoportrait by Edouard Levé.

NKP: I’ll put those on my list. I’d also like to teach one of your books if I get the chance. So tell me, in theory, if you had to teach one of your books of poems to undergraduates, which book would you teach and where would you start?

DML: I’d probably teach DISCIPLINE and Life in a Box is a Pretty Life together because for me DISCIPLINE kind of gave birth to Life in a Box. It’s DISCIPLINE’s bastard spawn.

NKP: I love that answer. Dawn, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I admire you so much. I’m looking forward to reading your new book of poems, Good Stock, and seeing you at Split This Rock Festival. It’s going to be an exciting event.

DLM: Thank you so much for chatting! It’s been a true pleasure.


Nancy K. Pearson is the author of the poetry collections, The Whole By Contemplation Of a Single Bone ("Poets Out Loud Prize," Fordham University Press, 2016) and Two Minutes of Light (Perugia Press, 2008), which won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Two Minutes of Light was also named a  “Must Read Book” at the 2009 Annual Massachusetts Book Awards and was a finalist for The Lambda Literary Award. Pearson's awards include two seven-month writing fellowships at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, two Inprint Fellowships, and others. Her poems appear in journals, magazines and anthologies such as The Iowa Review, The Oxford American Magazine  (forthcoming), The Alaska Review, Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. Ed. Melissa Tuckey (University of Georgia Press, 2016) and Ordinary Genius, A Guide for The Poet Within by Kim Addonizio (Norton, 2009). She currently teaches at 24 Pearl Street, The Fine Arts Work Center's online writing program and at Frederick Community College. Pearson received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University and her MFA in nonfiction from the University of Houston. Native to Chattanooga, TN, she and her partner, Elizabeth Winston, now live in the D.C. area. 

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