Ali Power: Saretta, were you also blown away by the No, Dear reading for the Violence Issue last month? It’s not a competition, but we well know how precarious poetry readings are, especially those that feature more than a few readers. I didn’t know what to expect. A part of me thought, shit, this is going to be depressing. Instead, the reading left me feeling invigorated and thankful—thankful for the conversation and for the readers and for Alex, Caitie, and Emily for offering the space, the occasion.
The reading enacted a kind of conversation between all of us, right? Because obviously we were all thinking/ speaking to violence, and, as far as curating an event goes, it helps to have a theme tie disparate voices together, and I think that was part of the reading’s “success,” but the theme itself maybe exposed or drew out something in us that wouldn’t necessarily be present at other readings. I want to say vulnerability, but that’s not quite right.
It’s hard for me to begin this conversation because there are so many things to say, and this “theme” is so fucking important. And while I want to talk about the reading itself, I also want to talk about the poems—especially yours, which opens the issue and explicitly references the body.
Saretta Morgan: Vulnerability. I want to start there.
And perhaps (correct me if I’m wrong) you hesitated around that word because you recognize it as a lame disguise for, or at least a distraction from, something that would actually be of use in such situations: a sense of responsibility. Something with the potential to lead to action.
I remember having the sense that Caitie, Alex & Emily selected poems that addressed many forms and forces of violence, and I think it’s very difficult for anyone to think seriously about those various manifestations without finding space to implicate themselves. There’s a vulnerability to critique that we’re left open to when we commit ourselves to examining violence publicly, and it’s not always clear how that discomfort can be used constructively.
The poem you reference is related to this somewhat. It came after marching in a demonstration the night after the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo with two poet friends. I wouldn’t say that the goal of a march is to examine anything, per se, it’s more of an expression of emotion and desire, and I absorbed a lot of that out in the streets. Then I took it home and didn’t know what to do with myself. I was confused and angry and overwhelmed with guilt. At the moment of crisis, there is usually an identifiable target for rage and heartbreak—and I believe in that calling out—but as that moment passes, we have to start doing the work of looking at our lives and saying, okay, how am I part of the problem? Or what am I doing to dismantle racism, capitalist imperialism, white supremacist neo-colonialism, you know? All of that. Cause it’s everywhere, in our coffee cups, our smart phones, sewn into our winter socks. And I’m not saying that we should blame ourselves instead of demanding change from larger institutions. But if all we’re doing is identifying the disappointments of our government and educational system and pop culture, etc, then we’re only doing half the work.
I heard Cecilia Vicuna read for the first time last summer two weeks after Mike Brown’s murder and I remember her saying something like, “how could Obama let this happen on his watch? How could we let this happen on our watch?” And my poem, though months later, came from the shame of that. Of having lived for so long within conditions ripe for the murder and torture of black people, and of having done precious little about it. Of looking around and realizing (again) that I felt surrounded by bad options. And that the moment of crisis which I mentioned earlier, didn’t begin or end with the murder of any person(s) but was constructed and maintained over time and even now. About how the body becomes an agent in it’s own disposal.
I’m not against talking more about poems in the issue, and think that we should but maybe also you and I can make a little list. A few big and small things that we can commit to doing in the face of these past couple weeks and in the face of always.
AP: I actually didn’t see “vulnerability” as a means of distraction from what you call a sense of responsibility. I meant vulnerability in a positive sense, like the opposite of posturing. Though, I agree that simply being vulnerable/sensitive to something or exhibiting the ability to talk about something, in this case VIOLENCE, doesn’t have anything to do with action—and doesn’t mean one is taking responsibility for anything!
I have spent time thinking about action versus talk & thoughts. A group of us committed ourselves to examining violence publicly (to use your language) by writing & reading poems related to violence, and now you & I are having this conversation about it. There is, one could say, action in these events–though, not the same kind of action as marching in a demonstration or intervening when one is privy to an act of violence or racism or sexism etc etc ad infinitum, for example. (“For poetry makes nothing happen …”)
What I’m getting at is, yes, as you say, we need to start doing THE WORK. And I think, quite honestly, for the first time in my life, I’m SERIOUSLY asking myself these questions and taking responsibility for the ways in which I am part of the aforementioned problem, and I know that the reason why I am only presently having this interior dialogue is because I am part of a community of writers and artists who are saying things out loud. I’ve spent too much of my life NOT asking myself important questions, being passive, and not doing anything to change how I’m part of the problem. I’m leaving my job as editor at a publishing house for a career in Social Work. This decision to change my job is 100% linked to asking myself how am I part of the problem and my subsequent desire to take action.
And I want to be clear that by saying I’m leaving my job for social work doesn’t mean I’m patting myself on the back and like oh, I’m not part of the problem anymore because I’m doing this thing—but I guess that’s what it sounds like! You asked me if I’ve spent time thinking about how discomfort can be used constructively, and that’s my way of saying, hell, yes!
You said you felt surrounded by bad options. Do you feel that way now?
I’m totally up for making a list! Let’s do it. Where do we begin? First thing I can think of is:
I will speak up in public and in private if I am witness to violence, racism, sexism, even if that means confrontation/ discomfort.
SM: I’m in rural Florida right now where I see so many disturbing things. I immediately want to whip out my phone and create a record of them, but then I’m suspicious of that impulse.
For instance, yesterday I went down to the gulf coast. There’s a small town, Port Saint Joe, about an hour away where my aunt recommended buying fresh fish. Approaching town, it’s obvious that there is some development underway and more coming. Huge swaths of land had been cleared away to make room for subdivisions overlooking the inner-coastal waterway. And in the clearing, every few acres there was a small cluster of trees left intact.
It reminded me of the house my family moved to when I was in high school. The housing development was brand new, but our place was at an edge of the subdivision and backed up to heavily wooded land owned by a family I knew nothing about except that they had copper-colored hounds who sometimes got away, and that in the winter when the trees were bare, I could see the rebel flag hanging from a pole in their front drive. Of course I never went far into those woods, but just having trees that old filling the view from my bedroom window, or shading us when we sat out on our back porch, as opposed to the scrawny, pole-supported saplings that dotted the rest of the neighborhood, gave me the feeling that our place had been there forever. And I suppose because of that, my house felt less like a scar than it otherwise would’ve.
All that is something of a digression, but not exactly. What I’d felt an impulse to record while in Port Saint Joe, were the banners hanging from the light posts downtown. I’m sure you know the kind. Those signs that neighborhoods use to market themselves as historic districts or artistic centers, or whatever. There were all these banners with the motto: “A Rich History, Limitless Possibilities,” alongside, say, a conquistador rowing ashore in full armor. Followed by a banner with a Native man shirtless, fishing in a handmade skirt. And I was really surprised by these, because of (nevermind the fact that they’ve skipped over the long period of the city’s use as slave port) how intentionally city planners were preserving a very limited view of the area’s history in order to suggest the city’s current existence as a reasonable continuation of an original trajectory rather than a fundamental disruption.
But the same thing can be said of most places, I’m sure. Which is why I’m suspicious of my desire to comment—to distance myself by wagging my finger—when I see it in a place like Port St. Joe. This is also why the answer to your other question is “yes,” I do still feel surrounded by bad choices.
To stay on the topic of land, when I look out my window at home in Bed-stuy, I see a coffee shop called Lakawanna, named (according to their website) in homage to the past and to Lenape people who fought for the ability to live (generally, but also specifically in present-day Brooklyn). Now, I can’t dog them without dogging myself. In a pinch, I buy their $4 coffee, but I have to wonder if they don’t see the irony of their name while they are (through their pricing and aesthetics) very consciously marketing to the new-comers in a neighborhood that is being made available through the hyper-policing and criminalization of poor black people.
And that’s the compounded reality I feel surrounded by. I’m new to that neighborhood too, and while I’m not always sure of how to mitigate the ways I contribute to the myriad forms of violence that have made way for my appearance there, I also believe that wherever I go in the U.S., the issues arising from property ownership and wage labor will be the same, though perhaps in various stages of progression. And so maybe the questions of where we gather (in Florida vs. New York; in a poetry reading vs. an organized march) are not so important as the questions regarding how we gather, and what that invites and precludes at each instance?
A poetry reading and a march are both meetings. A degree in social work: also a series of meetings, and I think that taking responsibility for the way we organize ourselves publicly and in private can be a form of action.
I’m also thinking about your experience of “non-posturing” at the No, Dear reading, and how it feels related to my experience of “shared rage” at the march I mentioned before. The two look very different, but I think that the potential emotional intensity—the ability to be personally affected—is similar. They’re vulnerable positions to inhabit publicly. My transition to frustration once I got home from the march might correlate to your worry earlier in this conversation—the self-consciousness you expressed around not having the right thing to say (which I also experience), which you didn’t feel while at the event. And I’m wondering how discomfort gets redistributed (for better or worse) during various social encounters. Not that I think it’s possible to treat our two experiences as some kind of litmus… I just think it would be an interesting thing to study… to engage the physical space and behavioral scripts that disperse or consolidate feelings of anxiety and control in a meeting.
I do wonder what would you consider a good model for speaking out in public when you’re witness to racism, sexism and violence? Who do you speak to? And from where? What do you say?
As for our list, I’ll add:
-I will (finally) research and try to join my block’s tenants association.
-I will be mindful of discomfort when it arises in social situations, and to the actions which appear to alleviate it.
AP: Were you at the Poetry Project for the Fred Moten and Stefano Harney event in April? During their reading/talk there was just one image projected behind them. I hope you were there, because I can’t remember exactly the image—but I do remember it was of a woman crying—I can’t remember if there were police restraining her. I want to say it was from a protest for Michael Brown. The photograph was never discussed explicitly. I just remember the crying visage. And then someone asked about the image, and I remember Moten referencing Barthes’ Camera Lucida—a book that keeps coming up for me these days. I made a note in my phone with the words “studium” and “punctum.” From Wikipedia: “studium denoting the cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph, punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it.”
Here are some images I found in the No, Dear issue that struck me:
“… even the bodies not taken
from us are taken from us”
[Saretta Morgan, “Fact #7”]
“cannibals who, closeted, admit to themselves that
they have chosen to be belly-full, instead of truly loved.”
[Legacy Russell, “Telegramour”]
“… we are
up against a
[Lara Lorenzo, “Habit”]
“… Your fake horizon
is choking me on my own tongue”
[Jennifer MacKenzie, “Breaking Ariel”]
“I am asking why again.”
“I am thinking Chris Kraus would tell me to get it together already so I blow her a kiss.”
[Barb Smith, “I am”]
“K-hole no hole the dolly zoom the jaw shot”
[Brenda Iijima, “Bionic Communality”]
“Blood coughed across the sky,”
[Rico Frederick, “Blood coughed across the sky,” –Title taken from the Langston Hughes poem “Caribbean Sunset”]
“Desert Storm sounded like a video game”
“The drainage ditch was empty
So we climbed the fence and sat in it”
[Matt L. Rohrer, “I Can See Half My Life in Your Face”]
“… /our pills toppling into sold songs and mammies on
the tv dinner tray in wrong aprons/ … “
[Harmony Holiday, “Recognition Scene/ Little Chromatic Solutions”]
“our comfort stays as usual”
[Morgan Vo, “city hat”]
Your question about a model for speaking out in public is a good one. Do you have any ideas? I suppose it’s easier said than done—and some scenarios would be easier to intervene in than others. Speaking from my own experience: recently I was spending time with an old friend who grew up in Boston with its lexicon, and she used the word “queer,” as in, “that’s so queer,” as in, “lame” or “stupid” or whatever. I’ve heard her say this before, and I had never called her out on it, but this time I did. I said something like you know you can’t say that, right? It’s offensive. As far as speaking out, this is as easy as scenarios come. She’s my friend, and I knew I wasn’t in any kind of danger by calling her out. New York is a strange place because we spend so much time with so many people but we don’t really interact much with strangers. Now I’m recalling a time on the subway when I sat across from a young woman who was being chatted up by an older white man—she was Asian and he started telling her about how he spoke Mandarin etc etc. She didn’t seem terribly bothered by it (I think some women become accustomed—or were taught?—to ignore harassment—I know I have), so I didn’t intervene but maybe I could have? I think the subway is a good example of where we can be more vocal, rather than just putting our headphones on.
Surely there are others that have spoken to this and can offer real advice/ guidance.
Speaking of models: Emily Brandt posted this on FB on July 11th, and I think it’s very well-said. “My 8th grade bestie unfriended me. I think it’s because of the comment I wrote in response to a racist post she shared. I used to unfriend people who wrote things that annoyed me/I vehemently disagree with. But that’s just not the kind of (virtual) world I want to live in - where we avoid/tune-out those we disagree with. We’re all in this thing together. Let’s talk about stuff, openly and with some kindness.”
SM: I like that your response to your friend from Boston began with a question. And in terms of approaches to speaking out, that’s probably my only “advice”… to begin with the benefit of the doubt, because often people really don’t know, and really do want to do better. And in a way that goes along with what Emily says about kindness.
I would disagree that in New York we don’t spend a lot of time with strangers. And maybe I’m very sensitive about this right now because I was living alone in a house in rural Florida for most of the summer, where life really could be experienced in isolation for long stretches … even driving to town some days, I could go 5 minutes without passing another car on the road. But in NYC, we’re constantly standing together waiting for the light to change, or riding the elevator up 13 floors with our shoulders touching, or sitting across from each other on the non-stop, eight-minute express ride between Columbus Circle and 125th, or having coffee with the same collection of people from around the neighborhood several afternoons as we type away on our laptops, and etc. etc. etc. That we don’t have good frames for communicating during all of this shared experience is a real sadness for me.
Your example about the older white man chatting up a younger Asian woman on the train is hard for me, because in my ideal world, everyone chats each other up on the train, but I also understand that our culture imposes its relations of power on any situation, and in addition, this guy—supposedly Mandarin-speaking—was obviously not without his limitations. Who knows if that particular woman felt harassed, and I’d hate to project her into the role of victim. Or if she did truly feel cornered, I think that someone coming to her rescue and drawing attention to that status might be the opposite of what she was trying to achieve. Maybe one thing that can be done if one feels an unknown woman or man is in a difficult situation that they don’t know how to escape, is to find a way to join the conversation yourself (just to chat), so that if there is unwanted attention it can be dispersed a bit? I don’t know, maybe that’s a terrible idea, but then also, once you’ve made yourself a more active part of the dynamic, you might be able to better judge what the right next step is. To feel out whether this stranger on the train really wants help, and what the best way to offer it would be.
And so maybe I do have a second thing to say about calling out, which is that I wish we took more time to feel situations out—to be affected by them in as much of their particularity and as many of their emotional registers as possible, rather than reacting immediately and historically. I am so guilty of this. And I think the idea of forming and lingering in a direct relationship takes me back to your mention of studium and punctum.
& I’m interested in the verb “wounding” in the definition of punctum you provided. Wound, which often carries negative connotations, and is commonly associated with violence or trauma, feels here like it could be opened to the possibility of other interpretations. The wound as, simply, breach, whether by injury or pleasure, which is still a trespass against the boundaries of the individual … but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t know. I haven’t read Camera Lucida. I should.
Additional list item: I will give people the benefit of the doubt.