Walter E. Washington Convention Center | February 11, 2017
Episode 144: Putting Madness to Work: The Poetics and Politics of Recovery
(Cynthia Oka, Jeffery Renard Allen, Rickey Laurentiis, Seema Reza, Vincent Toro) Madness is a construct often attached to the work and lives of writers. How do writers working at the intersections of race, gender, and class utilize it to orient toward contemporary discourses of mental health that disproportionately target their communities, for instance, around colonial erasure, sexual violence, police brutality, war? Panelists explore how their work is informed by and/or subverts the politics by which trauma is linked to social identity and prescribed strategies of recovery.
Published Date: May 24, 2017
Welcome to the AWP Podcast Series. This event was recorded at the 2017 AWP Conference in Washington, DC. The recording features Cynthia Oka, Jeffrey Renard Allen, Rickey Laurentiis, Seema Reza, and Vincent Toro. You will now hear Cynthia Oka provide introduction.
Even the brick walls of the penitentiary are anointed...
Thank you so much for being here on Saturday morning, and I know a lot of you are probably hung over, so thank you. My name is Cynthia and I’m a poet and also community organizer and I was really kind of inspired in the middle of last year to begin to be thinking about the concepts for this panel in that I was hearing all around me people talking about these crazy times, and also sending a lot of letters and receiving a lot of letters signed, “Enraged.” So there was, like, something that felt...it felt like an aura, you know, a kind of solidarity that was being forged or communicated through, yeah, through kind of this emotion of rage and a sense of, like, feeling crazy at the same time. So that’s where kind of I started thinking about madness and how that has been so linked to our creativity, and also to what’s happening in our political context right now, and we have this amazing panel of folks who are gonna go and explore that even deeper, and I just wanted to offer some words of context. You know, it’s a concept that’s clearly not familiar I think, to poets and writers, to artists. It’s part of the idea that one thinks or feels or believes or acts in contravention to what’s perceived as common or dominant sense, right? So Emily Dickinson wrote, in one of her poems,
“Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –“
So there’s this sense of kind of estrangement from the world that is around you, but is also connected, right, to… and linked and layered by systemic experiences of oppression—societal, cultural, political, legal, denials and distortions of experiences that do not… that don’t validate or reproduce the status quo. And these experiences typically belong to people of color, to colonized and displaced people, to queer people, to women, to survivors of all forms of systemic violence, and these types of distortion can feel like they’re inside of us, or all around of us, or both at the same time, and I think that was what was being flagged for me when I was seeing like, “In solidarity,” and “Enraged.” And the question of madness is therefore inseparable from what’s real, from the question of what is real—what’s true, or rather what we can believe, are permitted to believe, are encouraged to believe, and, consequently, who we are. And there are these cataclysmic changes right now happening all around us in our political and social environment. We have assaults on established facts and the means to prove is in facts. We have attacks happening on the press, on the establishment. Homes for artists and writers, like the NEA that people have been hearing about on education, on women, on migrants, on Black people, on people of color, not just here but all across the globe. And that’s to say that there are attacks on particular communities and the means of those communities because the arts has been so important for these communities, right, to communicate and establish the validity of our lives and our existence. And there is some mainstream unveiling happening of the depths of white violence. Fear. Hatred. Perhaps self-hatred, and seen unfold the foundation of this country in its fundamental connection to hatred toward women, towards queer and trans people, and an orientation of, you know, unbridled capitalist greed, that on one hand validates and deepens the reality that people of color have always known, have always experienced, and at the same time, creating a powerful dissonance for a lot of people who might have believed that America, while imperfect, has been bending towards justice this whole time. Alright, so it’s like, there’s this moment of cracking that I feel is happening psychically in this nation. So it was when I was thinking about how to, kind of, bring together the various perspectives that these amazing folks have, are bringing today, I revisited the work of Frantz Fanon, and he was a, for those who don’t know, he was a writer, psychiatrist, a revolutionary in the Algeria war for independence, and, significantly, he was a student of the poet Aimé Césaire, and in The Wretched of the Earth he was, he talked about the duty of the colonized poet to clearly define the people, the subject of his creation. And he wrote, “We cannot go resolutely forward unless we first realize our alienation,” he said. And he talked about the need to reunite with the people in this zone of hidden fluctuation and I loved that phrase so much, I was like, that actually feels exactly kind of like the madness that we are talking about, and going to explore. And so with that in mind, we’re gonna hear from these great folks and how we’re gonna do it is they’re gonna take turns reading for seventeen minutes each, and then afterwards we’re gonna transition to a panel format and then ask them each some questions and then open it up for you all to also engage them in questions or dialogue comment. And please note, just in case there’s anyone who might have to leave early, that Rickey is going to be doing a book signing in the Book Fair at the U of Pitt, uh, what is it called
Laurentiis and Oka (at the same time):
So right after this, right, Rickey? Yes. So, I will—
I’m gonna run away.
—repeat that information, but take note.
Alright, so our first reader is gonna be Vincent Toro who is winner of the Sawtooth Poetry Prize and the Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. He is a recipient of fellowships from The Poet’s House and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Vincent has an MFA in Poetry from Rutgers and he teaches at Bronx Community College. Please welcome Vincent.
Thank you for waking up to be with us this morning. It really means a lot. It does. I’m Puerto Rican. So the island I come from has been colonized for the last five hundred years so I’m a little pissed off. So I’ll just frame this first piece, this’ll be the madness part, by citing a play by Carmen Rivera, called The Downfall of Trujillo. Trujillo was a dictator, a vicious dictator in the Dominican Republic for almost forty years, and in the play he wrote about him, the CIA agent who is controlling Trujillo, because it was the Americans who put him there, said to Trujillo, “if you want to control the people, all you have to do is continue to call a pig is a calf, and repeat it over and over again until eventually they will also agree that a pig is a calf. And I think we’re living in those times when the time [inaudible] creates madness. This is “Filthocracy Inaugural Haze 2017.”
(quotes from The Downfall of Rafael Trujillo)
And this is the recovery. It’s a piece called “Vox Populi for the Maroon.” In Taíno culture, the indigenous tribes of Puerto Rico, in their...uh...in their ceremonies, in their performance ceremonies of the Areíto, all of the poems are recited in the voices of the people, there’s a ‘we’, there’s no ‘I’. And I think that that’s where the recovery is, in us gathering and our being together, so this is the “Vox Populi for the Maroon,” and it’s in honor of the history of mass movements that help create social change. Hopefully this will heal this morning.
(Reads “Vox Populi for the Maroon”)
Our next reader is Jeffery Renard Allen. He is the author of five books of fiction and poetry, most recently the novel Song of the Shank. He teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Virginia. He’s received many accolades for his work, including a Whiting Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Please welcome Jeffery.
Thank you all for coming. Can you hear me? Okay.
(voice in back of room): No.
You can’t hear me?
(voice in back of room): I wear hearing aids so if you could move the microphone a little closer it’ll help me hear.
Oh, this one doesn’t move. Can I actually lift it up? Is that okay, better? Er, that’s better right? Yeah, okay.
(voice in back of room):
So thank you all for coming. So, I’m gonna read such an old story that’s in the current issue of Oxford American Magazine, so um, a number of months ago one of the editors there asked me if I would write something for the annual music issue, which was this year was gonna be about blues music, and so I decided to write a story where I imagine a friendship between Jimi Hendrix and the painter Francis Bacon. This was an idea that grew out of the fact that I’ve always been interested in the work of both of these people and that they were also in the same places a lot, so, for example, many of you may know that Jimi Hendrix left, he played in R&B bands for years and stuff and then in 1966 he left to go to London, which is where he made his success...became successful...and famous, then he came back to America. So, Bacon was in London, and a lot of people in those days liked to hang out in Tangier, which of course is on the African continent, so Jimi and Bacon were both there as well. So one of the things that interests me about Jimi Hendrix is I remember… I first heard him when I was sixteen, this was many years ago… and at the time most Black people, I would say most Black people of those days didn’t know who he was, and the ones that did know who he was didn’t really think much about him. So I remember the fact that I was… well, I’ll just tell this one story… he played at Harlem. He gave like a benefit concert or something in Harlem, so he started playing and people started throwing eggs at him or something like that, and then it kinda pissed him off and, apparently, he played the best he ever played in his entire life and everyone was kind of clapping. But the point being that he was an innovator who took the music in all kinds of different directions, and for me one of the things that interests me about him is the fact that his life shows that Blackness is not limitation, that being Black in America is not limitation, that your art can be a way of breaking out of many, uh, any kinds of boxes that people wanna put you in. So, without further ado, I’ll just read.
So this is from the end of the story.
Seema Reza is the author of When the World Breaks Open, a memoir in essays and poetry, and she coordinates and facilitates a unique multi-hospital, military arts program in Washington, DC. She’s a VONA Alum and serves as a councilmember-at-large for the Transformative Language Arts Network. Please welcome Seema.
Thank you. Who here’s still drunk? Me… I’ll just open with this poem.
I began to craft an essay in preparation for this panel at the Istanbul Airport. I was on a layover, and I could have been anywhere, right? There are more brown faces as you travel East but this sort of like the hedge money of consumerism is the exact same specter. You know, Victoria’s Secret and Hermès to my left, Philip Morris cartons and Calvin Klein models lined up everywhere, glossy designer sunglasses under light—all of it, and everybody duty free, pure consumption. But, of course, what’s being sold in a place like that, in these larger than life posters, no matter how far east you go, the people on the posters have narrow, pale limbs and faces. It’s an exclusionary white ideal that leaves everyone feeling continuously not enough. Even the white person cannot achieve that ideal. But her relative proximity to it, labels her superior while keeping her hungry and a consumer. And I wonder if the consistent failure of our established institutions to protect us and tell us the truth moves more merchandise than those glossy photographs do—drives consumerism by sparking our thirst for any kind of tangible exchange. To align with the material ideal or canned ideology is to distance oneself from the insecurity and messiness and chaos of reality—from feeling and responsibility. Muriel Rukeyser wrote in The Life of Poetry,
“What is the fear of poetry? To a great extent it is a fear produced by a mask, by the protective structure society builds around each conflict. The conflict here is a neurotic one—a false conflict based on the supposed antithesis of fact and relationship, of inner and outer effectiveness. It is a conflict upheld by the great part of organized society. The fear is a fear of disclosure, but in this instance, a disclosure of one’s self to areas within the individual—areas with which he is not trained to deal, and which will only bring in to hostile relationships with his complacent neighbor, whose approval he wants.”
Poetry in the preceding passage could easily be replaced with feeling. I have a latent death wish. I mean… no, that’s what I mean. I still buy green bananas, and those embarrassingly large packs of toilet paper, and I’m working on a manuscript, but lately, every good day that closes without something terrible happening to my children feels like a match I burned from a finite book. Since he was four, my older son has been being stopped and questioned in the airport, because of his name, and then released on account of his sweet, child face. He’s still sweet, and softened, but recently he began to shave. He’s 5’11” and growing. His name is the same. I don’t want to know what’s next. Tell me that my fear of what comes next is madness, irrational. Tell me that what I need is Zoloft. If you can convince me of that, you will have convinced me to stop trusting my senses. If you can convince me of that, I may actually go mad with self-loathing. If you convince me of that, I may actually go ahead and kill myself.
There’s this space, right, between the well provider and facilitator and the ill, the mentally ill person. That’s kind of a construct obviously, it’s not, it’s not real. But to admit that we are not okay, that we are not inherently different from the mentally ill, from those being restrained and subdued and treated like children is to admit that this sort of suffering is not an anomaly. Is not something that can be contained behind the closed doors of mental wards and therapist’s office. It makes plain that there are things that cannot be controlled or cured, that at least some of the time these things live within most of us. When the lies of our institutions are exposed, think of the child who discovers the truth about Santa, everyone knows about Santa, right? (soft humorous gasp) You wanna be the one! How she wonders what other lies are being told to her, and then eventually is convinced to hush, to go on, to go to church, to go back to sleep. Don’t think too deeply. Most people try feverishly to go back to sleep, but the artist and the survivor of trauma, who is actively grappling with it, has somehow awakened permanently. For us, it can be frustrating and isolating and rage inducing. We are told that we are mad. Can logical, informed reactions to threatening stimuli be fairly considered madness? — and we are encouraged to accept the treatment of madness—the prescribed treatment of madness, which is an industrial model, a number of pills, a number of appointments, driven by what a health insurer will pay. The modern medical model is incredibly disempowering overall, but nowhere is this more evident than in the field of mental health.
I believe there’s a value to writing. Our writing, of course, as writers who are making sense of the world, but also to teaching and encouraging other people to write. To return the power of critical thinking to people who are disenfranchised or convinced that they are mad but that they don’t have a right to think, they don’t have a right to trust what they feel. The first essay most American students are assigned is the five paragraph persuasive essay. Haven’t we all written that? You pick a position and then you defend it. Alright? At the beginning you pick the position. You’ve already decided. The most valuable tool that we have, rigorous thought, is not taught through writing, which is the best, right? Writing is the most rigorous way of thinking there is. In all of the writing-to-heal literature that I’ve read comes with a warning, right? “If you really think you might change your mind, you might have to, you know, change the way you live, God forbid.” But to re-, to return to people, that empowerment of being able to trust their thoughts, to write without that sort of intention of, like, I’m gonna write this thing about this position that I already have, um, and to be willing to change requires that we trust that through even as they express things that we don’t agree with that we’ll hold them.
Dr. Cornel West writes about a politics of conversion, which requires that we hold that space for people, that we allow them to change their own minds, because we don’t change our minds as fully by reading as we do by writing.
Rickey Laurentiis is the author of Boy with Thorn, selected by Terrance Hayes for the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. His honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and he’s gonna sign books after this at the U of Pitt booth in the book fair.
(Reads “Conditions for Southern Gothic”)
I’m wanting to read two more poems and I wanted to say quickly, I’ve also been in the airport in Istanbul and I walked around. It was my first time really in that part of the world, and seeing those faces on the wall, juxtaposed to the bodies moving in the room is completely alienating, it is completely to re-remember that you are sort of a colonial subject moving around the world and there are people trying to occupy you and push you out of your own body. And it was that very airport that I started an essay. I was at that time coming from Palestine, I had a trip to Palestine, and I was thinking about the imagination, which is why I wanted to read that poem...um...in the imagination, I think, is this paradox that is responsible for all the ways that we harm each other, and I mean that literally. Someone imagined the second amendment. Someone imagined the gun. Someone imagined Guantanamo. This is why Black Mirror is kind of brilliant, because it shows the way we imagine terror and hurt-harm to each other, but it’s also responsible for the ways we can recover and we can heal and we can love, if we can only use that power for that. And it’s responsible for the erotic as well. So, let me read two more poems, kinda go in towards that line of the erotic, and this is called “Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame.”
This is sort of a statement. I wrote about that.
I wrote that poem wanting to explore the wounded-ness, to journey inside my own interior, risk, privilege. I’m saying that I aim to interrogate the specter and spectacle of the penetrated male body, or the male-appearing body. To explore the linguistic possibilities embedded in the subjectivity, not discursively understood as penetrable. Jonathan Kemp argues in his book—which you should go read, its called The Penetrated Male, I love it—for this body to accept penetration is to essentially “abdicate the phallus. To submit to a masochist that is mark by a lost of masculinity through castration. To have one’s membership rescinded.” In short, he argues, that the penetrated male becomes “a symbolic woman.” And a question I’ll raise for us today at this time: is that madness? And why should it be? And what, to the notions of misogyny, heteronormativity, and I’ll also add race, underwrite that possibility? And again, I mean, why is it mad to be a woman, symbolic or otherwise? Why is it mad to be penetrated? Where does madness go? How does it work, does your mind subvert this kind of symbolism, and the rhetorical logic that supports it? In thinking about the apparent masochism of the penetrated male body what if we give thought to the pleasure sometimes inherently understood in such masochism—to cross-dressing, to leather. What if we move into the visible again or make obvious the ecstatic male body, a body marked by its expression of physical pleasure. Realizing as Kemp does, that this very act carries with it the danger of placing the body above the mind, that is, the danger of privileging feeling over thinking, of potentially cancelling out reason, which is the secret thing that’s being talked about, I think, madness. Reason, one could say, is a colonial construct, discards Voltaire, Bacon, but also Washingtonian, Jeffersonian. It is a founding father coming to me saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...” but to look upon the particularities upon my flesh, my body, and to accept it not as man, and therefore not equal. Patriarchal racist logic goes forth to cover some bodies in prestige, privilege, and mobility, which I think today I want to say is freedom. Reason gives men their superiority, not over just women, or the body, or even nature itself, but even over the ability to name the world, ‘the world.’ And importantly, reason changes. Somehow today it is reasonable that a man who doesn’t even read more than a one page security briefing should sit behind the very desk of the man who declared this country independent, I’m talking about Trump, alright?
(audience members chuckle)
And so what if I, if we gave all that up. Not necessarily denied the privileges we may legitimately have. I don’t want to deny that I have a male body privilege, but in the effort to imagine new possibilities, new genders, new ways bodies can exchange knowledge and feeling. What if I gave up reason? What if I went unnatural? The effect I am suggesting, I think, the danger of the work is to go mad. I want to not only take up Hélène Cixous’ charge to ‘Ecre toi’ or to write you, your body must make itself understood. I want not only to, not only, as Audre Lorde implies, use the erotic first hand, but I want to imagine the new body. A new, sort of twenty-first century masculinity if that’s even a word, not relying on older binaries of dominance verses submission, civilized verses savage, body/mind, et cetera. A new lyric that arrives from behind, in medias res, offbeat, fragmented, filling and pressing itself into the reader as one hopes a relatable music. I mentioned before these notions of race, that they play a part, although they may not obviously or visibly and I think that’s because race is for better and certainly for worse, a way of relating. In this way an exploration of the penetrated Black male body is especially significant to me and to the last poem I’ll read. Indeed, the coherence of the argument surrounding the ecstatic penetrated male body becomes kinda interestingly disrupted, even contradicted when say, the anus is replaced for a blood wound, the penis is exchanged for a bullet, and the phallus becomes a policeman’s pistol. All of that is penetration I think, or I’m seeing that at nine AM tomorrow… this morning. If we think through the lynchings of Will Brown, Emmett Till, historically, as examples to the more recent tragedies of Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown some questions do surface. How does a Black man’s historic relationship to a mob, vigilante, and now police state, under which his body has been continuously penetrated, either by acts of surveillance, such as stop and frisk, by micro-aggressions or direct physical violence. How does all of this complicate the notions of the impenetrable male body? And what happens if that Black bare body is also queer? Where does agency and choice live in this equation? Does it afford mobility or freedom? On what ground will that volume rest, whether stood up alive or lying down dead?
So in that respect I want to end with a newer poem that speaks to erotics, but also to the situation in Ferguson and Mike Brown. I probably don’t have to remind you, but in 2014 Mike Brown was murdered by Officer Darren Wilson and these are two things that he said that always stood in my mind. This is Darren Wilson speaking. He described Brown as having the “most aggressive face, that’s the only way I can describe it, it looked like the demon, that’s how angry it looked. As he is coming toward me,” Wilson continued, “I kept telling him to get on the ground. He doesn’t. I shoot a series of shots.” Penetration. “I don’t know how many I shot, I just know I shot it. He was on the ground.” And, of course, in November a grand jury in St. Louis County accepted that testimony and exonerated… and declined to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown. So, I will conclude with this poem called “Continuance.” And thank you.
Thank you so much. Um… I actually wanted to uh… yeah, I think there are some good follow-up questions that I’m, I wanna pose to these folks. Are there any immediate comments from the audience at this moment? Alright, cool.
I wanted to come back to Jeff. I’m really interested in sort of like your expert… I think it’s really interesting that your exploring sort of like the moments. It’s great that you’re working on a book about Jimi Hendrix. But previously to this in Song of the Shank, there’s a… it feels like a precedent break also in terms of re-imagining Thomas Greene Wiggins, or Blind Tom, who was a slave and a musical prodigy in the late 1800s, and I’m just interested in sort of like, thinking about this moment right now, which all of you have addressed in various ways, in terms of the dissonance of ways in which we have to try to make sense...or choose our grounds, to re-choose—like to figure out all over again what ground we’re gonna lie on and what is the roll of fiction to you when you think about reconstructing these characters in the context of a time that has passed. What kind of understanding is made possible from that kind of fictional orientation towards the moment?
Okay. I’m...uh...I’m not working on a book about Jimi Hendrix by the way, I should say. That was a story, but in some ways I am working on a book. It’s a kind of continual project. I mean one reason I was interested in Blind Tom is because he reminds me of Jimi Hendrix. He was kind of like a 19th century Jimi Hendrix. So just to say this. I think one of the...I often think, like, the...one of the central problems of America is just our willingness...um...when I say our, I mean our country...the country’s unwillingness to accept its history, its past, and to create this mythology that scapegoats others, so I mean, you know, what is the reality of this country? This is a...the reality of this country is one where essentially genocide, I mean genocide was committed against Native Americans, right? For the purpose of taking their land, and so this genocide in particular began after the Civil War when the country was united by the railroad and this is a time when Tom, Tom was born in a slave in Georgia in 1849 and began giving concerts when he was six years old, and he was actually, you know, a slave, as I say, owned by someone and um...so you know, what’s interesting to me about it is he became...he was probably the most famous pianist of the 19th century, but most people have never heard of him today, and so one of the things that happened is because he was labeled autistic savant, or in his own time he was called an idiot savant, and because this country always had a problem with a the idea of Black genius and Black creativity, and you know these various other kinds of things. The point is that Tom has been erased from musical history, really, I mean, right? So, you know, he’s a savant, so he’s obviously not creative. This is the thinking. So this kind of historical erasure is one of the things I’m saying, if you’re looking at life, that kind of historical erasure surrounding him is just kind of a larger historical erasure, but our own history, this country and this whole scapegoating of people and all these kinds of things. In a similar fashion, like, this quickly, so um...and this is kind of accidental, but Jimi Hendrix and Francis Bacon never met each other—I was just sort of imagining this in the story, but you know, a lot of people don’t know and remember that when Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock in 1970 he received the highest amount of money ever paid a performer for a single performance. I mean it was like $175,000.00, which speaks to like, you know, he was the most famous musician in the world, you know, in 1970, because he was paid this kind of money. In a similar fashion, though, Francis Bacon was the most successful painter of his time, you know, he was getting a million pounds per painting and all these kinds of things. But so, the point being like there are these kinds of historical erasures that define our country and I think I answered the question. So that’s one of the ways fiction can address these things—this erasure.
Thanks, Jeff. Vincent, the theme of empire and capitalism and racism really emerge in sort of conversation, in convergence, in your home and your poetry. Kind of building off of, in relation, and building off of what I asked Jeff, can you talk about the strategies that you use, in terms of poetry, in theater, your educational work, to kind of crack open these layers of madness that it seems like we’re sitting underneath.
Yeah, so… I think, um… yeah, I think I mentioned that poetry is kind of belligerently anti-capitalist, when we were talking and I think that’s what always felt empowering to me. Is that for me, poetry comes from this place that’s not like the official story. Corporations, empires, governments use media outlets and use… they spend a lot of money to give you an official story and frame dialogues for you. And we all end up talking about the things they want us to talk about and think in the ways, even those of us who think we’re progressive and radical, if you spend enough time with TV on, you’re repeating names that they want you to repeat, you’re talking about shows and ideas and products that they want you to think about. And so, like, there are sanctioned in board rooms, and they’re decided, and they’re infused with an agenda, even, like, the pop-stars you love so much and the shows you love so much, whereas, poetry is coming from the bottom, it’s coming from this other place. You don’t need any money to produce poetry. You don’t even need a paper and pen if you go back to the oral tradition, alright? It’s incredibly radical in this way that a singular person with an idea can construct a lyric in their head and speak back to the narrative that’s being given to them. That’s always how I’ve always approached poetry. I think even when I was seventeen and didn’t really know I was a poet, and I was just writing really bad rhymes in my head because I thought I wanted to be a rapper, in my notebook, rather, is that what I was speaking against was like the bullies in my school, the authoritarian, masculine ideas and mannerisms of my dad, I’m already speaking in those terms before I knew what it was, like, that’s what the poetry gave me. And if you look at the history of poetry in places like Latin America, that’s how poets used it—Roque Dalton, Leonel Rugama, Daisy Zamora, Ernesto Cardenal, these are people that used the pen and poetry in order to speak to power—to colonial powers and now to corporate powers. So, for me, like, when I write, I’m always responding to that official story—whatever is being mandated by the screens that we’re pretty much required to watch right now. And, also, I’ll say this too, is that, because one of the things they want to in capitalism, it’s a kind of doublespeak, they want to simplify. It’s a Twitter world. Everything should be produced in 140 characters or less. You should be able to sell a product. You should be able to put something in a category. It’s oversimplified. That what poetry allows me to do, too, is to totally crack that open, and look at the complications—not see things as a binary. Right? We’re always imposed binaries and binaries don’t really exist. The world is much more complicated than that. So I think that’s what poetry does for me to like, speak back to power, and I don’t need money or resources to do it. I can go right to the middle of the street there beside my home, and it also allows me to like really critically look back at what power wants me to feel and how they want me to think.
Thank you. That’s really interesting. It feels like both of you are talking… there’s a… yeah, there’s like a sort of push back against erasure. It’s happening in kind of different timelines. And I wanted to kind of pivot to Seema and Rickey on this side, uh, Seema, you were talking about critical thinking being kind of like a responsibility that you… that’s really necessary. This idea of like, really creating space for people to change their own minds, even when they believe something so virulently hostile to what we believe in. And you actually work with a really interesting, with a unique population given particularly kind of where you’re coming from. Can you talk a little bit about your writing practice? The memoir and the poetry—how that intersects with this kind of construction of a critical thinking practice in that group—in the groups that you work with.
Yeah. Um. My… can you guys hear me? My… my personal practice of writing memoir and poetry is how I survive doing this work, right? And sort of absorbing really hostile feelings sometimes in the rooms that I’m in there’s a lot of people who dislike me on sight. I work with people who are active duty military who probably... at least five of my groups each week... so I spend between eight and ten hours each week with people who are treatment directed to be with me and don’t necessarily like it at the beginning. Just on sight, by my name, I’m an artist, and then I’m like, “And now I’m gonna make you cry,” right? And so it’s like there’s a lot that you absorb from that and take in and so my writing practice has been essential for my survival of that. Or... but, also, I really learned that nothing anybody does or says is really about me in that space. And the converse is also true—that when I am getting really angry and like, lift up into rage by something that somebody says, it’s not really about them, you know, like, Vincent was just saying, there’s things they want us to feel. There’s a certain level they want us to operate at and if we can start to deconstruct that through our poetry and through our writing and be like, whoa, what is this really about, then that power is taken from the sort of like, “everybody be angry,” so it’s like, “Wait, no.” So I don’t know if that answered the question.
Thank you. And Rickey, so it feels, I… can you build off of this idea of like the agency that you were talking about, about exploring, and whereas the agency right now in this moment where there is such a collision of um… it’s almost like… even the concepts of penetrability that you were talking about—they feel very dichotomous, right? They feel like… violent toward each other, but they are together, so how has writing created new possibilities for you in terms of, like, if we’re talking about this idea of, we’re being told to feel something, things are erased, or that we don’t know how to feel towards them… um… what is made possible by this exploration that you’re doing?
What’s new… what are the new emotional possibilities? Madness!
Well, a good friend of mine, Solmaz Sharif, brought me to new ideas and understandings of the didact… the role of didacticism in sort of poetry and why do we run away from this notion that poems shouldn’t teach, or shouldn’t instruct, right? You know? You go to school, presumably to be instructed, and sometimes that’s indoctrination, and sometimes that’s… um… so anyway that’s a kind of a long way of saying that I’ve been thinking about that and my word for that is argument… um… and so you see how reason and all of these things are spiraling in my head, so I think it enters in my own practice, I find great relief, I want to say is the word, and relief is not always to be trusted, and I find great relief right now in the notion that I can make… I can argue for the world that I want to see on the page. But I know I’m doing that in English, I know that there’ll like, the very language itself is dripped with blood, so how do I… I don’t want to ignore that. I don’t want to dismiss that. I don’t want to ignore the fact that we can all just walk a couple more blocks and we’ll be at the White House and there’ll be this stupid man at this desk doing stupid things. It’s not that I don’t care. I’m being very frank, but ‘cause it’s not time for coitus, it’s time for frankness, but at the same time there’s, like, lots of… um… privileges, I guess, attached is one way we could think of it, but it feels like trip wire, like, in case you’re walking you can also fall a lot. So, what I’m saying is that I get a lot of, um... relief from this notion that I can, on this piece of paper Vincent’s point, it doesn’t really cost a lot to write a poem, right, necessarily. You have to… it costs you to live, right, but once you’re alive and presumably in the place where you can find the space, I mean, I’m writing on the back of a receipt right now, so I… that’s not a lot material resources, and on that receipt, I can argue for the world that I want possible and that’s the agency. That’s the ground that I’m choosing. I’m thinking recovery as literally to cover again, right? I can cover again this same ground, so I can go back to Jeffersonian logic and say, “No. You’re wrong.” Because he said that about me, I mean he made the word belittle to describe Black people’s skulls—my friend Sophia St. Claire taught me that, citing my sources. Um, you know, and so, like, if you can create a word to describe the skulls of Black people as a way to reason why he should own them, et cetera, then I can come back and make my own real words, and you know, I should feel to have the agency. You know, if Darren Wilson had the agency to say that he’s a demon and I’m gonna kill him, I should have the agency at least in a poem to kill Darren Wilson, I’m gonna be very frank, at least in a poem. At least in a poem. As far as [inaudible] Morgan, right? [inaudible] continue with the sentence, right, because it’s being recorded. But you know, like, that where... that gives me great relief. Now, is that enough? I don’t know.
I think that’s actually a really great question for all of us to kind of wrestle with as writers, as makers of language. So, with that we have… we are at time. And if there are, if there is one or two questions then maybe we’ll be able to address it, but otherwise thank you so very much for being with us on Saturday morning on the last day of AWP.
Yeah. You’re troopers.
Yeah. You’re troopers!
Thank you for listening to the AWP Podcast Series. For other podcasts please visit our website at www.awpwriter.org.