DOCUMENT CONVERSATION: ANNA GURTON-WACHTER & CANDICE ILOH

ANNA GURTON-WACHTER: It’s been awhile since the No, Dear reading we both participated in, so I was surprised when I picked up the issue this morning and was reading it on the train at how vivid and pleasant my feelings were of that evening, not always the case with poetry readings, and how nice that is in particular because the world seems to be at an all-time low right now, and it is depressingly difficult to form words into sentences, hold memories, be alive.

I'm thinking of your title, "untitled. for them. for us." How much ambivalence it seems to hold? And to question right from the beginning, who is this collecting and documenting of these too real events for? If others are documenting in order to discredit the witness, or bury the evidence, then is your poem a counter-documenting, pushing up against this false narrative that is so often used by the police to make it seem ok?

What particularly struck me about your piece was the double meaning of the verb "to see." For instance, there is seeing as a welcoming invitation to picture a space, a directive to visualize a building. Then there is “see” as in "see also," as in whatever I'm saying is backed up by authority, by another reference. Also there is beautiful alliteration like "See CVS," which aside from sounding great is also a strange implication of the part that the businesses and corporations around us have in becoming a marker, a memorial, a delimiter that separates parts of neighborhoods as sort of a de facto redlining.

Is it a part of a larger project you are working on? Was there something that spurred your interest in the relationship between environmental hazards and political dysfunction? Do you often write in a kind of prose-ish style? Also, I'm just curious about like... who am I talking to? Where are you from? How did you get involved in the poetry community? What do you think about it? What do you do for fun?

 

CANDICE ILOH: What a terrifyingly interesting place to start! WHO AM I? Oh my god. Well, though this question has haunted me all of my life, I think I've become better at answering it as the years go by and as a result of it being the central focus of all that I create as an artist. Simply put, right now I'd say I am a writer, teaching artist, and creative walking this earth desiring to continue to see myself as a source - a vessel who just wants to operate as a useful source of light. I'm originally from the Midwest and have lived the last 11 years of my life on the east coast split between Washington, DC and NYC. I spend most of my time finding ways to advocate for the voices of young people of color through creative writing and then also reclaiming ownership of the narratives attached to my personal identity through my work as a poet, essayist, and young adult fiction writer.

My piece in DOCUMENT began the same way most of my poems begin--with a jarring and visceral response to something I've seen in the news or within myself. I watched how Freddie Gray's story unfolded online and then began doing research on who Freddie Gray was. I learned quickly that his and his family's battle with the city of Baltimore hadn't been new and crimes against his body had been happening since his childhood. All of the information that I found became so overwhelming and endless that the poem began to write itself and it wasn't a poem in which I felt at liberty to spare words. It had to reference history. It has to reference environmental injustice. It had to reference how criminal the system itself is. It had to reference Freddie Gray's city and a play-by-play where my imagination went while meditating on the powerlessness of a system that has infiltrated your blood and body, your whole life, and how that gets depicted when you're no longer around to speak for yourself. I never knew Freddie Gray personally but I felt so deeply for him having experienced living in neglected communities up close and knowing his story was not singular, rare, or the first of its kind. His story is one that I don't want to ever be forgotten.

What about you? Where are you from and what inspired your piece that appears in DOCUMENT?

 

AGW: I like your use of the word “creative” as a noun. I am a creative. I'm going to start saying that. I'm interested in hearing more about the work that you do with young people. Do you know about The Octavia Project, Parachute Literary Arts, and Yalda? All projects geared towards young people and writing that I have been excited about lately. I like what you said about how any poem about Freddie Gray would have to reference all of these other injustices, the way in which nothing is ever an isolated incident.

I'm from Brooklyn, and have pretty much never lived anywhere else. I usually describe myself as a writer, editor and archivist. I help to make books for the small press DoubleCross which is mostly poetry, prose-ish work, and a series called poetics of the handmade in which people involved in small press culture reflect on that involvement in a variety of ways. I work full time as the archivist for The Keith Haring Foundation, so I oddly have come to know a lot about that one person, though I also try to use it as an opportunity to learn more about things Keith was interested in, and that unique time period of the 1980s in New York City.

The short piece that I have in the DOCUMENT issue is part of a larger manuscript I have called "Abundance Acts Alone." The manuscript has an epigraph by Ian Hacking that simply says "A new theory is a new language." which I think sums up a lot of what I want the piece to be about. It actually started from a small piece of writing I did about the movie Vertigo and then spiraled into thinking more about observation and animality and kinds of learning and categorizations. I think that ties in with your exploration of what it means "to see" too, maybe that’s why I harped on that aspect of your piece.

Right now I claim to be working on a series of pieces about my commute to work. Thinking about labor, time, value, and that special commuter mindset, before being fully awake, when I get to observe so much and reflect. So far I end up writing a lot about gender and shelter and poetry. I say “claim to be working on” it because it doesn't always happen. When does one find the time to write?

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When I saw that No, Dear was doing a DOCUMENT themed issue, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it, because I love to think about material culture and what it means to document events, history, lives. The piece is from a larger manuscript in which I am drawing from ideas about knowledge acquisition. How do we come to know what we know, how do we come to rely on anything as knowledge, and what are the aspects of language itself that constrain or embolden that knowing? It’s hard to excerpt from because it is a long piece that gains momentum through repetition.

I want to hear more about when you said "All of the information that I found became so overwhelming and endless that the poem began to write itself" -- because I think there is a way in which that sense of overwhelming and endless information could be paralyzing instead of propelling you forward. Know what I mean? Have you written other pieces in a similar style?

 

CI: I totally know what you mean. I feel like that's actually a constant challenge for me as an artist (and as a person)—to not allow being overwhelmed to consume and paralyze me, but to take what I see and experience and create something that takes back that power the pain initially threatens. Thinking of myself first as a black woman...a queer black woman, there is always potential threat to my ability to keep going as a human being in this country. Moments where my awareness of this -- moments people do not see -- make it really hard to see beyond all of these things that birth rage and sadness that feels bigger than me. But I often meditate on what Toni Morrison once said about racism, wherein she specifically states that it operates as a distraction from one’s work. This system itself thrives off of me being thrown off every time some horrible shit happens so that ultimately I die before I even die. Knowing that, I make it my business as an artist to find a way to ground and take care of myself enough to, no matter what, arrive back at the desk and live.

I've never written any other poem like this one about Freddie Gray in which poem is more prose-based, long-form, and using footnotes because before this one I never felt moved to. My poems are written the way they are based on what best serves the message of the poem. I try my best not to do anything just because.

I really am intrigued and inspired by your curiosities as an archivist and how that translates into your work. This idea of knowing and its relationship with repetition. I'm curious to know how you define knowing or, rather, how you know that you know something? Or do you ever? What have you found in your work over the years that has created any kind of knowing within you that you feel possibly contributes to how you interact with yourself, the world? I know that when I think about knowing, I think about the knowing that comes from personal experience and the knowing that comes from ancestral experience--the stories and artifacts that past generations maintained to keep a collective knowing alive.

I've definitely heard about the Octavia Butler project but not the others. The projects out there being developed to support young writers are so vast and inspiring. It's one of the best things this country can do for the generations coming after us. Being able to speak for yourself with confidence and clarity is one of the most important tools you could ever have. Obviously I'm really passionate about this. I could go on and on about it lol.

I'm curious to know what you want to do with your writing? Not in a career sense. But in somewhat of an existential sense. How do you want it to be used? What do you want it to do to/for the reader?

 

AGW: I appreciate you sharing with me the hurdles that try to interrupt and distract. Although I have my own distractions, I can't, from my perspective, ever fully understand what it is like to be a black queer woman in america. I feel like just the experience of being a woman in america right now is hard to describe and should have a noise associated with it, like: ugggghhhhhhh! or whaaat the-- ! and sometimes it’s more joyful like yoooowza! booooom ! I recently heard Tracie Morris read and it is making me think a lot more about noises and silences in poetry. Maybe this connects to your questions about knowingness, how I feel like we can't escape our language and how much language shapes our sense of knowing. It frustrates and excites me at the same time, sort of like being alive.

What I want to do with my writing in an existential sense, for the reader, is for it to create a sense of possibility and openness. Have you ever read any Sam Delany science fiction books? They have this wonderful world-building feeling, and each world that is created is constantly being negotiated, broken open, expanded and shifted. And I'm interested in distractions, interruptions, what we think of as ways of "being productive," because I think poetry has the ability to infuse those ideas with new meanings, create new economies---and I want to be a part of that! And I want it to build momentum with crests and falls and to sound great so that it gives the reader a feeling like watching a movie, a sort of odd completeness and engage with strange logics. I have a lot of demands and desires for writing I guess.

Since the Freddie Gray poem was a bit unusual for your writing, what are some of the other things that have prompted your writing? Do you often think about your reader or at what stage of writing do you think about a reader? And yes, I also want to know from you what you want from writing, with writing, to writing in an existential sense. It's not an easy question. And what other poets you are excited about right now?

Having this conversation with you is making me take myself a bit more seriously than I am usually willing to do. I'm digging it.

 

CI: I haven't read any of Sam Delany's books but, though I'm not really into sci-fi, I am really into magical realism and afro-futurism, being really drawn to the world-building done so well by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavia Butler. I really like how you described and brought specific attention to the breaking open and shifting that the other-worldly sub-genres facilitate. I'm sort of obsessed with contemporary works of fiction because I'm so intrigued by the world as it is but I'm currently exploring and working on a novel that walks that line of using magic to better illustrate and "break open" life as we know it so we can see something from a new perspective.

Demands and desires with writing I think are natural and a great sign. I feel it displays the fact that you're not leaning on the side of art for art’s sake but that you realize the power, opportunity, and responsibility that comes with finding yourself at a desk behind a pen. I love that. I love what we can do with this craft and I love how each of our individual desires and demands can be reflected in the stories we tell, thus connecting us with others who feel and want the same.

The subject matter for the poem I wrote for Freddie Gray wasn't outside of my norm--it really was the prosey and footnoted format that was a stretch. I am always writing, in some shape or form, about blackness, survival, overcoming, and process. And I am always thinking about the reader. It's often hard for me to believe artists who put their work out into the world could do so without the audience ever crossing their mind. But still before the reader I think deeply about myself and about what concerns me and what my point is. That's got to come first for me before I consider whether or not my intended audience will receive my work. In fact, I think it's necessary for me to do that before my work becomes ready for anyone else's consumption in an authentic way.

What I want most from writing is to create more nuanced narratives and stories that reflect my experience and that of other brown and queer people. I want my writing to be useful in the sense that fills the voids that I grew up surrounded by. I want young people of color to find themselves in more literature. To crack a book open and feel it in a way that removes this belief that reading is boring or not for them. I want my work to create possibility and options. When I think about it sometimes it feels like a tall order but, truthfully, I believe our simple honesty in what we write and in sharing it makes that possible for someone every day.

 

Candice Iloh is a first-generation Nigerian-American creative writer and teaching artist residing in Brooklyn, NY whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fjords Review, The Grio, For Harriet, Blavity, No Dear Magazine, Glass Poetry Journal, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. She is both a VONA and Home School Lambda Literary fellowship recipient as well as a Rhode Island Writers Colony Writer-in-Residence.  A MFA candidate in Writing for Young People, concentrating in verse at Lesley University, she recently finished her first full-length collection of poems and first young adult novel in verse. When not writing or teaching, Candice dances. Find her on www.becomher and @becomher.

Candice Iloh is a first-generation Nigerian-American creative writer and teaching artist residing in Brooklyn, NY whose writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Fjords Review, The Grio, For Harriet, Blavity, No Dear Magazine, Glass Poetry Journal, Puerto Del Sol, and elsewhere. She is both a VONA and Home School Lambda Literary fellowship recipient as well as a Rhode Island Writers Colony Writer-in-Residence.  A MFA candidate in Writing for Young People, concentrating in verse at Lesley University, she recently finished her first full-length collection of poems and first young adult novel in verse. When not writing or teaching, Candice dances. Find her on www.becomher and @becomher.

Anna Gurton-Wachter is a writer, editor and archivist. She has written the chapbooks Blank Blank Blues (forthcoming, Horse Less Press, 2016) and CYRUS (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2014). Her writing has also appeared in Elderly, No, Dear, The Organism for Poetic Research, Publication Studio, The Boog City Reader and more. She is a co-editor at DoubleCross Press and lives with Ian in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Anna Gurton-Wachter is a writer, editor and archivist. She has written the chapbooks Blank Blank Blues (forthcoming, Horse Less Press, 2016) and CYRUS (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2014). Her writing has also appeared in Elderly, No, Dear, The Organism for Poetic Research, Publication Studio, The Boog City Reader and more. She is a co-editor at DoubleCross Press and lives with Ian in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

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