I hear tell that listening to some folks talk about going to Cave Canem can get as boring as listening to angels talk about heaven.
I know. Everybody gets it: “You finally found a community where, simultaneously, it’s okay not to be obviously black in your writing (whatever the hell that means) and it’s okay to be obviously black in your writing (whatever the hell that means). For a few days out of a lifetime, you’re treated like an entire human being by extraordinarily talented people, sharing meals and workshops and tears with poets you’ve loved for most of your life. Yipee.”
Well, those of us sick of the love-fest are going to have to find another blog to read today. (Some of us already changed the channel as soon as we saw the word, “black.” Scary asses.)
I first attended the Cave Canem workshop when I was 24 years old. (I know; to look at me you’d think that was just last year.) And while there, I became convinced that there is no shame in loving all the poetry I love.
I also met a woman whose writing continues to floor me, to make me rethink my every revision, to question all my ways of being.
Dawn Lundy Martin earned an M.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State University and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her full-length collection, A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007), was selected by Carl Phillips for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Her second collection, Discipline, won the 2009 Nightboat Books Poetry Prize, chosen by Fanny Howe. She is also the author of three chapbooks, including The Morning Hour (2003), which was selected by C.D. Wright for the Poetry Society of America's National Chapbook Fellowship.
In 2004, she co-edited The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism (Anchor Books, 2004), a collection of essays on activism in America. She is co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation, a national grant making organization led by young women and transgender youth. She is also a founding member of the Black Took Collective, a group of experimental black poets. She is currently an assistant professor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
I met Dawn one Cave Canem summer in a workshop where she, through her comments and poems and hardedged honesty, changed the way I read and see. I still think of her as one of the smartest people I’ve encountered in my life, so I thought I’d share with you some of the questions I’ve wanted to ask her for some time. In memory of my CC sister Phebus Etienne, with gratitude for every Friday ever that anybody got dressed up just to go somewhere sweaty and shake her or his booty, here’s a talk I had with Dawn Lundy Martin:
Jericho: I want to start with a fan’s question that may seem a bit odd. I think of your books as two of the most intense I’ve read in the last five years. The first time I saw you after your first book came out, years ago at an AWP, I stopped you to say how much I loved the book. You seemed genuinely surprised. I don’t know if you remember any of this, but your response was a very quizzical, “Really?” Do you often find yourself surprised by the ways your work is received? If so, why?
Dawn: I am surprised, I suppose, at the encounter—at being faced with another’s face, as if to be jolted suddenly outside of one’s self or one’s encounter with objects. Once on an airplane at night a man in his 50s or 60s sat next to me. He was just back for the first time in the States after a long hiatus. To hear each other we leaned toward each other. To hear each other, we made sustained eye contact. I think I fell in love with him a little, this stranger. His human face was so relaxing. AWP seems the opposite of this experience. It is artifice and performance, exposure and redundancy. I don’t remember the AWP moment as clearly as you do. But maybe that moment for me was like crossing the street in Manhattan and having a stranger come up to you and say “I love you.” Not that you’re a stranger and that you love me (ha!)—but there I am trying to negotiate the cars and buses, people and bicycles and a declaration! A proclamation!
To answer your question, I am not surprised that people are drawn to the work. But, there is a certain abstruseness to it that some readers may not want to wrestle with. I accept that because sometimes the work is not about them or toward them, but about attending to my own urgent preoccupations in manners and with languages that best attend to the material. On the other hand, that both of my full-length collections have been, and continue to be, well received is something that I’m grateful for.
Jericho: While your first book, A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering, often makes use of prose formally, I think of its poems as mostly written in lines. In contrast, your most recent book, Discipline, is most definitely a book of prose poems. Why did you make this formal decision for Discipline? What is your conception of the prose poem? What does it enable you to do that lines don’t? Is form shifting again in the work you’ve written since the publication of Discipline?
Dawn: For me, form emerges when language ends. I do not think of form as a framework or a device that comes before the concern of the poem (what it attends to)—as in “I’m going to write a villanelle.” I would never do that. When I studied with Myung Mi Kim—O, such a long time ago now—she introduced me to two phrases that at the time were revolutionary to my young mind: “the page as canvas” and the “tyranny of the left margin.” I started to think about what the poem would do if not hindered by convention. How would it act? And why would it act that way? The ways in which the poems act on the page, then, is mostly fortified by what wants to be said, and these acts become a part of the saying. But, it is a reciprocal relationship. When one is working in the form—the prose poem, say—the form itself begins to contribute to how utterance happens.
In Gathering, one question at hand was, “How does one speak bodily and psychic trauma if trauma has no language”?”. The poems are mostly lineated, but also, truncated in speech because this is the investigation. In Discipline, we are in the post-tramautic state. The body is running around doing all types of things sometimes without its own consent. It does not know its interior space. It’s reflective in a banal confessional way. The poem attends to the sentence here more directly in part because of these attentions. But, this may be an over-simplification.
In my most recent project, Candy, a limited edition letterpress chapbook published by Albion Books, there are a combination of formal engagements—some lineated poem-poems, as I call them, and some parataxical pieces that are not lineated. Also, have been writing a bunch of new prose poems in these square-like blocks.
Dawn: Myung Mi Kim, as I mentioned above, is a very strong influence. So are Susan Sontag, Claudia Rankine, Michel Foucault, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Slavoj Zizek, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Frantz Fanon, Ronaldo V. Wilson, Duriel E. Harris, N.H. Pritchard, M. Nourbese Philip, Adrian Piper, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Kennedy, Marina Abramovic, Susan Howe, and Kara Walker are all major influences. They’re poets, intellectuals, playwrights, visual artists, and performance artists. What might be important for me to say here is just that—that my work is not more influenced by poetry than it is by critical theory or performance art. In fact, I try not to read too much poetry (I mean, I read tons of contemporary poetry especially because I teach it) because I want to maintain a space for innovation and sometimes when I read too much poetry I start to feel like there are too many voices in my head.
I see myself in lineage with several traditions—the black avant-garde, feminist experimental movements, and political intellectuals traditions.
Jericho: Could you discuss the origins of the Black Took Collective? How and why did you and the other cofounders form the group? Is it an organization you mean to expand? If not, why is it that the group identifies as black but not as queer?
Dawn: The Black Took Collective is comprised of Duriel E. Harris, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and me and was founded over ten years ago at a Cave Canem retreat. We started the Collective because we’re like-minded in our critical, yet playful and sometimes irreverent, investigation of race and creativity. We wanted to think about what it means that all these tropes of blackness become not only the means by which authentic blackness is defined in poetry and art, but also in ways of being in the world. Because this is the context for our forming, queerness as a critical category, was not originally a part of what was at stake in our performances. Of course, though, queerness is always there infinitesimally, pervasively. The Academy has sucked all the sexiness out of “queer” as a category, I think, and sometimes out of sheer disdain for that fact, we like to bring not just queerness but sex—from the beautiful to the perverse to the grotesque—onto the stage.
It’s not likely that we’ll expand. But, since we’ve been doing a lot of performances over the past few years, we have been thinking about collaboration with a director or curator in order to help us develop the performance. Right now, the performance is a site-specific multi-media temporary installation—better suited for the university or museum stage than an off off Broadway black box—and we want to develop that temporary installation aspect of the work, which might mean that we collaborate with another mind.
Jericho: Can you tell me what makes a poem experimental, and how your idea of that compares and contrasts to the other founders’ ideas? Because it is “a group of experimental black poets,” I have to ask, what kind of contribution do you believe black poets in particular make to the experimental tradition?
Dawn: I have no idea what makes a poem experimental. I don’t think there are a certain set of factors or approaches that define experimental poem. Perhaps it exists only in a liminal space? To experiment, I think, is to play, to not be bound by convention, to operate toward discovery, to be willing to fail—from the Latin experiri meaning “to test, to try.” I’m always talking to my students about “productive failure” because they get all caught up in making this perfect, polished, little darling of a poem. Experimentation is liberation from that notion. What it produces, I don’t know. I do think, though, that black poets and other poets of color often do a kind of cultural work in their attention to the experimental. M. Nourbese Philip’s powerful epic work, Zong!, about the slave ship “Zong,” for example, thinks through personhood in its formal attention to language, that gives us a new way to consider what it means to be a “non-being” or an abject body during Middle Passage annihilation. Or, the fragile reconstructions and disfigurings of Craig Santos Perez in his book from Unincorporated Territories [saina] where he enters the conversation about oceanic identity, making present, this forgotten place, Guam. Experimental poets of color are doing this kind of work, necessarily, in some ways saying that conventional means cannot attend to the matters of racial and/or national identity, rootlessness, or the effects of global militarization. Conventional language, to paraphrase Erica Hunt, re-produces conventional ways of knowing.
Jericho: How would you describe the relationship between your work as an activist and as a poet? What led to the founding of the Third Wave Foundation, and did you ever imagine the foundation’s success? Was the work you did for your Ph.D. in English in any way tied your co-editing The Fire This Time? What needs in the world do you mean for the foundation and the anthology to fill?
Dawn: All of this work—poetry, scholarship, activism—bleeds into each other. I do not see these entities as separate but instead contingent upon each other. It’s difficult to say how exactly that is, so instead, I’ll tell you the story of Third Wave.
Third Wave emerged out of lack and discontent. It was founded by Catherine Gund, Amy Richards, Rebecca Walker and me to give young feminists a place to do their work. Most second wave feminist organizations were not friendly places for young eager women to have a say in the movement, so we decided to start our own thing. We were also keenly aware that second wave feminists weren’t going to be around forever, and if there was going to be a future for feminism there needed to be a national organization to cultivate and support young feminist activists so that they could lead the next generation of the movement. There was such a need for this, we knew it would work. We raised $100,000 our first year, got a grant of office space, money, and supplies from The Sister Fund, hired a staff of one (the fabulous Vivien Labaton) and things just took off from there. This summer we celebrate our 15-year anniversary. We’ve given away literally millions of dollars to support the social justice work of young women, transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
I started my doctoral program a few years after Third Wave was afoot. There was no direct connection to The Fire This Time, which rose up out of the work we were doing at the Foundation—except that I’d been reading Judith Butler and has begun to think more expansively about gender. There was some intriguing connection between the idea that gender is not a stable category and the work that we saw feminist activists doing all over the country. Their work was not singularly focused on women as women, but on a gendered way of looking at a range of social and political issues affecting not just women but everyone. We wanted The Fire This Time, which I co-edited with Vivien, to be a kind of activist handbook. What it ended up being instead was a textbook, read mostly by women’s studies students, who will hopefully go out into the world and become activists. I do hope, however, that they do not take our propositions in The Fire This Time too literally. As time has passed, and the radical right has become more entrenched in its efforts to repress women by passing draconian laws that disregard women and queer people, we may indeed have to focus of our energies on women as women.
Jericho Brown (who appears somewhere in both the group photos at the top and bottom of this post) worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans before receiving his PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. The recipient of the Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Krakow Poetry Seminar in Poland, Brown is an Assistant Professor at the University of San Diego. His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including, The American Poetry Review, The Believer, jubilat, Oxford American, Ploughshares, A Public Space, and 100 Best African American Poems. His first book, PLEASE (New Issues), won the American Book Award.