So we were at a reading at the Poetry Project a couple of nights ago and afterward you turned to me and said "you know, i really just think Eileen Myles shines in the essay form." which I totally agree with, I like her best as an essayist, but she's certainly considered more widely as a poet. When you said that it reminded me of the fact that we met through poetry-- we really became close when we organized a queer poetics gathering (Mad Cap) together. But I don't really think of myself as a poet, and a lot of your work is as closely aligned with the essayistic as with poetry. Anyway, what I'm wondering first is if you think of yourself as a writer of any particular genre, as someone that moves through genres?
Clutch, thank you for giving me this opportunity to think about form, and my relationship to it, which I don’t do very much. Or maybe everything I do is about form and, in some sense, is a meta-commentary or meditation on my relationship to form. I don’t know. I usually rely on other people to see the “structure” in what I’m doing. To label it. To put it in relation to a school. To see the genre in it. I have always been promiscuous when it comes to genres and disciplines because I rely on my intuition to guide me during the moment of writing. Whatever protocols I’m adhering to while writing are unbeknownst to me though I don’t doubt they are operating on me on an unconscious level. With academic writing it’s a little clearer to me—especially as I try to transition into becoming a “historian.” When I sit down to write a paper I have a much clearer sense of what I’m doing. With creative writing the structure or genre either emerges in the process of writing, or is specific to the occasion for writing itself.
Did we meet through poetry? I believe we met first through “the essay,” then re-encountered and developed a relationship around poetry. We met when you solicited me for an essay for the literary journal Diagram. I wrote you a poetic essay on the relationship between writing and silence, and poetry-as-incantation.
Maybe our relationship to poetry is similar. Before I wrote poetry and fiction I wrote essays. Later I was christened a poet by other poets and I just kind of rolled with it. Poets are very enthusiastic about identifying as poets (they’ve kinda got an in-group, cliquey mentality about it), and maybe are also eager to fold others into the tribe. Why are poets so into parading their poet identity? I think it has something to do with the fact that most people don’t give a shit about poetry, so we gotta self-valorize. I used to have this ongoing joke about the “ontology of the poet.” When poets were super self-aggrandizing about The Poet and her being and role in society, I thought it was silly. I still do, but now I embrace the grandiosity…strategically? Hmmm. Do I believe that we poets are a special breed of visionary creatures endowed with linguistic and sensory superpowers? Are poets, as Shelley says, the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Maybe at one time I believed that such statements were elitist. I was mad when Genet insisted on labeling George Jackson a poet first and revolutionary second…because I have so much more respect for revolutionaries. Now I see that the occupation of the poet and the revolutionary are closer than I initially thought—they both require a visionary mode of being and working.
Actually, I made a youtube vlog post right when I officially “came out” as a poet! Apparently the “transition” took place in fall 2011.
Similarly, do you think of yourself as a queer writer ever? Is that a term you would resist, or one that you find useful at times?
I suppose I do identify as a queer writer, though thinking about your question, I noticed that “queer” has been dropped from my bio more and more lately. Hmmm I didn’t think about it until just now so I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe “queer” has lost it’s subversive edge for me? Maybe that is a direct result of capacious uses of the term “queer” in literary circles, where queer signals aesthetics affinities rather than an embodied experience, resistance to a heteronormative way of life, or expression of affinity with certain subcultures and models of relationality. Perversion is probably more important to me than “orientation.” I’m certainly not a purist when it comes to identity but I do want “queer” to retain its freakish and non-normative edge, and for people to back their aesthetic commitments by embodying that commitment in how they lives their lives. Normal people who write weird shit disappoint me hahahaha.
At the same time “queer” has slipped out of my bio, other labels have made their way in. In literary contexts I find myself identifying more and more as a “prison abolitionist.” Some people find it unusual for writers to be so upfront about their political commitments in their writing bios, but it’s important for me to foreground my commitment to abolition, especially in literary contexts! Loma (Christopher Soto) told me that they have started to identify as a prison abolitionist in their writing bio as well.
To answer your question—I do identify as a queer writer. It’s easy for me, as woman-identified person who doesn’t have a romantic relationships with cismen and as someone interested in formal adulteration and hybridity.
When I talked to Douglas A. Martin he said he doesn't feel like he owns his interpretation. This really appealed to me because I feel like a lot of people do want to own their interpretation, like it's really vital to a lot of people to have some ownership over that, especially in terms of queerness or gender or whatever, but he was kind of just chill about it, which seemed to sidestep a lot of narrowness to make room for more openness and more questions. How do you relate to your interpretation?
I can’t own my interpretation, and that is a thrilling thing. I cannot control how my words circulate in the world and how they live in people. My words are like a baby I place in a skiff and send down the river. My words are out in the world to have adventures of her own, and I try not to be like an overbearing mama when it comes to controlling what my words do. I might check in every now and then because I am curious about where my words have been and what they have seen, but if I wanted to be all proprietary about interpretation I would have kept my words to myself, shoved them up my vagina instead of setting them free.
After I published some poems on Fanzine I had a funny talk with Dana Ward about his interpretation of one of my poems. In some of my writings I have used “Kant” as a pseudonym for a professor I was platonically obsessed with. In the poem Dana read I am at a party to celebrate the publication of a leftist journal titled Deathnotes and am surrounded by factious Marxists who are fighting about the nuances of value theory or something. Kant shows up to the party and saves me from the horrid scene. When I told Dana that “Kant” was a pseudonym for The Professor he was like “Aww, but it was so funny to imagine the philosopher sauntering into the party.” I like to imagine Dana imagining me chatting with Kant-the-philosopher about sea turtles against the backdrop of a petty feud between academic Marxists. So his reading of the poem was thrilling and in no way “wrong.”
That said, I also do hope that people engage my work thoughtfully and at least try to develop a sense of what I’m about. I have, at times, felt maybe a little “used” in terms of how people position me and my work. Like sometimes I find people aligning my work with projects that I feel no affinities with, and using my name to validate their projects or their literary camps. While I don’t feel proprietary about how people interpret my work, I also don’t want to be used as social capital by people who need a little brown queer sidekick to look legit.
You spent the night at my place last night and then today all we've been doing is reading the Argonauts and talking about it and reading Citizen and talking about it. Well I've been sleeping all afternoon but you've been reading. You talked about how Maggie Nelson's life feels very informed by what she's reading, like the life and the reading feel one in the same. Is that an experience you have, too? Who are the writers you carry around with you?
One of the reasons I was so set on becoming your friend when I met you was because I got a very good feeling about you based on your books. Maybe that’s a somewhat juvenile way to relate to people (through literary “taste”), but you seemed to like many of the books I liked—I knew I had a lot to learn about from you too. We could probably write a history of our friendship using the books we encountered through each other. I hope it’s not terribly boring that I spend so much time reading when I’m around you! It seems as though every time I see you I always borrow a little stack of things to read. Did I borrow Jenny Boully’s The Body the first time I met you? You had two editions! After we parted I read more of her books. Before you moved out of IDA I remember how at the music festival Matthew and I commandeered your house while it was empty. I wanted to stay in your bed forever and read. When you and others came back to the house to “pre-game” I was still in your bed reading. Everyone was in the mood to party while I was in raptures reading Franny and Zooey, a book I have not read since high school. In that moment the book seemed genius to me but maybe I was intoxicated. I was shocked by how little of it I remembered. Did I falsely remember a scene where Franny cried and rubbed a tear into the table? Eric, on the other hand, remembered a great deal. Perhaps his memory could even be called Proustian—ha! My episodic memory is not very good so most novels that I read quickly just kind of wash over me—rereading them is basically like encountering them for the first time.
Though I did not want to pry myself from the book, everyone convinced me to go check out the party. People teased me about being a nerd and you told Israel they would be into Dennis Cooper. Matthew agreed. We joked about how our Mad Cap email password was about about Cooper’s love for emo boys. While you were trying on cute clothes for the party (Eric was being playfully bossy and you were lovin’ it), you gave me a rabbit fur coat to try on and someone took a picture of me in it to show me how good it looked on me. I wore it to the party with zebra print flip flops. At one point during to the party I found myself near the snack table (typical!) and accidentally leaned into a little puddle of melted butter. I felt sad about getting butter on the new fur coat you gave me. When I went back to your house to get my backpack an exciting orgy was taking place, so I watched from the sidelines with a couple other people. “Person” came and I convinced them to climb over the pile of writhing bodies and retrieve my backpack. This story seems to no longer be about books.
But if books can bring us back to the body, that is a good thing.
Yes, reading is life, and life is reading. I don’t claim to be a good reader. I’m slow and unsystematic and don’t take as much time as I should to *fully* absorb a text after I read it (as in, I move on to the next book too quickly). But reading is such a huge part of my life. Books and libraries are the only things to have remained consistent for me throughout my adult life. Mommy may or may not love me (depending on the day), I may or may not have a home, life and all my relationships may be in flux, but so long as there is a library nearby I can restore myself. When there is no ground, the written word becomes my ground. When I am without a home, or am doing the vagrant thing, the library is my sanctuary. It was nice getting to hole up with you in New York that week, to ignore my phone and read the wonderful books you had around while you restored yourself through sleep. I totally needed that because I was going through library withdrawal and was starting to feel socially overwhelmed in NYC.
Lately the main writers I’ve been carrying with me are Saidiya Hartman, Jennifer Tamayo, Bhanu Kapil and Fred Moten. Jennifer makes me want to be fierce and unapologetic and to really own all the fucked up parts of myself. Saidiya makes me feel less bad about dwelling in the space of trauma and maintaining a political fidelity to wounds. Bhanu and Fred both give an exhilarating feeling that anything is possible, and a sense of what the body (flesh) can do under pressure. The “pressure” is always terrible, violent even, but the effects of the violences they explore are paradoxical.
Was the Serena Williams your favorite part of Citizen? It was mine and I think it was yours, and I've heard quite a few people talk about it. And it's also maybe the most essayistic bit in a book that a lot of people read as poetry. That seems queer to me, to come to essay within a poem.
Like I told you, the Serena Williams section of Citizen, more than any other part of the book, gave me the feeling that I was going insane. Without coming out and stating her analysis, I think Rankine is trying to “give” readers an experience—to psychically induce in them the unsettling feeling that, as in the case of Serena Williams, the rules do not apply to you. As we discussed on the train—black Americans (and, to varying degrees, non-black people of color) inhabit this experience all the time. So maybe it is true that Citizen is written primarily for a white audience, though the people on my twitter feed who have received the book most enthusiastically have mostly not been white.
Regardless of who the “intended” audience is, I think Rankine is trying to make a paradoxical experience legible: that of psychic erasure and being brutally called into presence through address. Our innate addressability makes us vulnerable, but the violence of the address varies according to how others experience our bodies. This is a dimension of anti-black racism that is explored much less than the material, economic, political aspects of racism.
But back to your question. In the Serena Williams section Rankine is able to induce the feeling of going insane in a more total way through sustained repetition (of sleights against Williams made by referees). In a way the genteel atmosphere that is cultivated around tennis makes it the perfect setting to explore racism. You really get a sense of how white people manipulate reality by selectively applying “the rules,” and how maddening and disempowering it feels to have your reality systematically negated and to not be able to do anything about the arbitrary application of the rules because those who control the game and have institutional power are white.
Overall, what Rankine is illuminating in her book is the psychic dimension of racism, and she does this by creating a text that is essentially a litany of anti-black micro-aggressions. The book works by accrual, but the Williams section works a little differently, through suspense and the gradual unfolding of a story: narrative? The logic of the book unfurls and reaches its fullest realization during this section. The appearance of “the essay” amidst the poetic vignettes disrupts the tempo of the book. I think its appearance enhances both the poetic and essayistic parts of the book by playing with our formal expectations. It’s kind of like this mostly-silent film I made a while ago—the film is completely silent until the end, but because the viewer gets so accustom to silence, the appearance of audio is that much more jarring. Rankine is more subtle than that, but when she switches modes it does force the reader to pay attention. The manipulation of tempo in writing is all about guiding the reader’s attention, and alternating between essay and poetry is one way of fucking with the tempo of a book. Of course in Citizen it’s not just these two modes she’s playing with—the book is working on *so many* registers, including film, performance, criticism, media studies, and visual art.
And then related to that earlier question, do you connect yourself with any traditions? If you were going to make a (maybe queer) lineage that leads to the work you're doing now, who would be in it?
Oh god I’m not much of a literary school-maker. Remember when we joked about doing a workshop called the New Queer Sincerity that was about writing, creepiness, projection, and queer sentimentality? Maybe that’s kinda in the New Narrative lineage of Robert Gluck and Bruce Boone or something. I dunno. I’m not a gay man. I was just solicited for the new Gurlesque anthology and it never occurred to me that I might be read as a gurlesque poet, especially since I feel like my relationship to felinity I mean femininity (autocorrect) is quite a bit different than how it’s been previously articulated in the poetics of the gurlesque. My lineage? I’m not sure. I feel a certain affinity with aliens and Asian lost girls. Feng Chen, Joohyun Kim, Vicky Lim, Oki Sogumi, Coda Wei and Christine Hou definitely feel like literary kindred spirits. And of course, I am so on board with Bhanu Kapil’s de-compositional method, which is maybe related toDeleuze’s description of Beckett’s “exhausted” mode of writing. My School? The School of the Exhausted. Hm…
What do you think an essay is?
Here I will just say, dream wildly.