DIASPORA Conversation with Sherise Francis & Eline Marx from issue 22

Sherise Francis: It's great to meet you and to be in conversation with you. I was actually thinking of communication when I read your poem--how we commune with each other through words, or the way we dress can be a way to connect but to also cover up our insecurities, both for good and bad. It is not a surprise to me that the words custom and costume are in communication when I read your poem--how we commune with each other either through related words and we structure our amorphous selves and our societies with these "habits." What was your inspiration behind the poem? 

Eline Marx: In Untitled, I wanted to talk about the multiplicity and contradiction that's in us. I wanted to express the tension between all of the beautiful things we can cover ourselves with and our inner ugliness. At the time I wrote the poem, I was taking a class about international law and refugee protection taught by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Some of the students were activists working directly with refugees and I was struck by the clash between the removed and bureaucratic approach of the professors and the grounded and humane way of the students. It seemed so obvious to me that the legal language was sugarcoating the horror people are going through. So these images of the contrast between the apparent politeness and respectability of our world and its immense violence came to mind. The clean suits of politicians and the blood hidden underneath. I wanted to talk about our concealed duplicity, our will to control everything, put borders on land, chemicals on fruits, guilt in faith, passeports on humans. 

Your poem in the issue moves me. I love how you transmit this sensation that place is intangible. How you build the landscape; the shore, the mountains, the parrots belong to where they are, your mother and you are here too but somehow don’t belong here. How you gather pebbles / memories / language to create your own "illusion" of home, of "safe ground.”  So I want to ask... What does home mean? And what is home for you? 

SF: Yes, I think our contradictions while they can cover up, can also reveal so much about us. I think that's why I'm fascinated with language because it can do both at the same time. Language says so much about power and who has it, who has the power to absolve themselves from accountability. Last year I was in a LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs workshop and one of the poems we read was Harryette Mullen's "We Are Not Responsible;" we talked about how legal language often is written by those in power and written in a way for them to have the least amount of accountability. And this cold, detached language of law facilitates the continued dehumanization of marginalized people and justification of these atrocities. As Cora from [Colson] The Whitehead's Underground Railroad said, calling things by other names doesn't necessarily change what they are or make them true.

I'm still figuring out what home means for me. I'm the kind of person who has always felt in-between, not fully belonging anywhere. There are of course places I've gotten used to, familiar with, but is that home? I think I am learning to be home in myself as I am, to settle in that in-betweenness and make something out of that. I think we think of home, language, our identities, as things that are ready made and handed to us when they are things we construct and cultivate, and is migratory. We are constantly migrating, but we settle into these concepts to feel safer. So in a sense, home for me is essentially the ability I have to create that feeling of home for myself. 

I loved several lines in your poem that for me highlighted the tension between the desire for and creation of beauty, and our difficulty in accepting the reality of the monstrosities or ugliness of the world and ourselves, like "Spangled polish / On my voracious jealousy," "I want powerful chemicals / Changing the shape of the fruits, the color of taste...I want to give faith / Many figurines and paintings." I think of how much we sacrifice and destroy for what we think is beauty, that we need to recreate the world to our own liking. So, I want to know: how do you define beauty for yourself? And how do you use words to find your own sense of beauty?

EM: This is so true! I like how the poem unfolds the absurdity and outrageousness of the non-accountability of the powerful. It's like all of this learned, repeated language turns humans into machines maintaining the status-quo, and forgetting that they could say something else and have another role. 

This is such a hard and fascinating question. I understand beauty as a possibility for an expansion of my inner world, a walkway towards another space. However I think beauty is linked to power, can channel domination. I question why we strive to possess beauty, and what we expect from it. Beauty is suggestive, and at the same time very cultural... I question the sincerity of our emotions in front of beauty. 

I would like to define beauty as a way of looking. I am thinking of the documentary The House is Black by Forough Farrokhzad. She films daily life at a leper colony in Iran and there is so much beauty. And it's not at all about romanticizing suffering. But their eyes, their music, the cheerfulness of the children, the way they take care of each other--brush their long hair and put on make-up--is so powerful. Farrokhzad watches them with great compassion, and that feeling of closeness is passed on to the spectator. So beauty relates to intimacy. Although beauty, I feel, is always escaping, it can never be fully grasped, immobilized, owned, and that tension is essential to what it is. 

Beauty relates to what we don't have, or what we are afraid of losing...the ephemeral. In this sense it brings back to essential pulsions. Beauty may be a mirror of life. Something that pulls you out of your own mortality. The inhabitants of the leper colony are so close to death, the disease devastates their faces and bodies, yet, they are so alive, they are creators. Despite the temporal and geographical distance, despite the differences of our lives, I have met them, I've been moved by their music and the poetic eye of the filmmaker.  

So, to respond to your second question, I read, listen, absorb words to enlarge my sensibility and also have a broader vocabulary to express it. Sometimes I like to skim through a book and pick-up words to reuse in a poem. I feel as an infant hearing a word for the first time who is going to decide what to do with it. I collage words to try to stretch the resonance of the experience of beauty. I fight to free myself from clichés, predefined packages-of-emotions, and attempt to define the encounter between the moment and my emotional memory. 

SF: I agree beauty is such a complex concept and I have a complicated relationship to it. As a black woman with kinky hair shaped into locs, big lips, big nose and a curvy shape, I have always known I don't fit what mainstream culture defines as beauty. Beauty is something I am constantly wrestling with and redefining for myself. I believe it to be a shapeshifter, the possibility of expansiveness as you said. One of the greatest mistakes we as humans made is putting beauty in such a small box, when it should represent a sense of wholeness/holiness. Beauty is not pretty; pretty can be deceiving, just look at its etymology. I remember Robin Coste Lewis said in her speech, Boarding the Voyage, that beauty and pretty are enemies; pretty is a yes man dressed in colonial drag while beauty is a double agent, beauty is a war cry. Beauty, for me, is an active, conscious way of looking, showing respect to all things and their own forms of beauty. It is not looking at just what those with power have declared worthy of attention.

I like that you mentioned the art of collage. I have always found it to be a compelling form of art and have been working with text collage myself, too. One of my favorite artists is Romare Bearden. For me, there's something beautiful about the process of breakage and reconstruction. It reminds me of the art of kintsugi, where golden lacquer is used to repair the cracks in pottery. Life for me is that process and I think we as humans still struggle with facing that and finding it beautiful. To see the ugly parts of ourselves and our world and still see their beauty. I believe we access true beauty through breaking through preconceived ideas about beauty. I wanted to show that in my poem and thinking about diaspora--the simultaneous scattering and forming of land and of identity.

Words have been powerful for me in that they helped to redirect my attention from what is expected of me to see. It is the reason I love looking up etymology, to see how the meanings attached to words have changed over time based on agendas and desires of various people. How we see the world is our own reflections and where we are conditioned to direct attention. Power has the ability to hold our attention towards the desires we think we want and distract us from what we really need. It's magical in that sense. So, words give me an experience of fugitivity where I can run towards what I really need and didn't know I needed, towards something that surprises me, truly awakens me, forces me to keep living, is true beauty. That is the power of poetry: to realign us back to our true selves and purpose.

In my own poetry practice, exploring sound has also developed my primal connection to words, the feeling of words in my body beyond the mechanization and commodification of words in our daily lives. That genuine feeling as you said of being "an infant hearing a word for the first time who is going to decide what to do with it." Do you incorporate sound and music into your writing practice? How do you connect words to your body?

EM: Yes, exactly, for political reasons, beauty is socially constructed as constrained, tamed, nonthreatening. It's meant to preserve racist, sexist, colonialist hierarchies. Of course we can be aware of that and redefine it for ourselves, and that's how I understood your question. 

I'm interested in what you say about words giving you "an experience of fugitivity where you can run towards what you really need and didn't know you needed". You point out Robin Coste Lewis qualifies beauty as "double agent" and I think this applies to words too. Words create realities, so they are the place of power battles. In that struggle, the role of poetry for me is to question and disrupt that relationship to words/worlds that places the state of things as a given, as necessary. Poetry can shake that certainty, display what's hidden under letters. That's what you say when you mention looking up etymology to better realize how meaning is traversed by different agendas throughout time. But it's hard to always be aware if we use language or if we are used by it and how it frames our understanding. So in that chaos I wonder what "true self" means and how to be sure a desire and/or need is real, or sincere. What do you think? Is it an intuition? Can we develop an ethic to ensure we are not tricked by these double agents, and should we? I'd love to know more about how you explore sound to develop your connection to language.

I am so inspired by poets incorporating sound and music in their practice. I think of Jayne Cortez, The Last Poets, Amiri and Amina Baraka, Anne Waldman. I actually was introduced to the New York poetry scene through a free jazz organization named Arts for Art I worked with a couple years ago. And I've recently began performing with musician Devin Brahja Waldman--our project is named teknikal issues--which makes the experience of reading way more exciting. At another level, I think I enjoy writing in English rather than in French right now because I can have a different relationship to words, where sound and rhythm comes maybe before meaning and history. I definitely want to develop my practice of poetry in relationship to music and work on my enunciation, think of being a poet as being a performer. Words are so deeply connected to my body! Sometimes, I feel inspired and it's all flowing, and sometimes, it's so challenging to get outside of myself... 

SF: I think the question of true self is as unsolvable as the nature vs. nurture question. What is who we are and what is just conditioning or learned behavior? Even when we talk about genetics, there is epigenetics, where we are inheriting learned expressions from our ancestors. At the end of the day, all the learned behaviors are part of the larger universe of interactions we have within the environments/nature in which we are a part. It is all entangled and to me, we are just rearrangements of a basic nature that already exists. We are constantly changing. As Octavia Butler said, “God is change and everything you touch changes you and it is changed by you.” For me a true self, is aligning with this truth, that the self in order to be whole has to go beyond this rigid, narrow sense of itself. That's what I mean by what I didn't know I needed--the other possibilities of my self I didn't know was there, beyond what I am told is the only possibility of what I can be. Not to say what I am currently isn't me because it exists, but the other is a reflection of myself that I need to feel whole. My work with words is centered on recognizing and aligning with all the possibilities of who I am in this body right now and what I and this world can be, just like finding out the other variations of meaning of a word.

Growing up, I actually dreamed of becoming a lyricist/songwriter because music was such a part of my life. After becoming more and more disillusioned with the music industry, instead I incorporated more sound elements and wordplay into my poetry. One of my biggest influences is, surprisingly, Parliament Funkadelic, because I love how they play with words and ideas in unconventional ways. Amiri Baraka, Kamau Brathwaite and Latasha N. Nevada Diggs are influences as well. When I was in her workshop, Latasha talked about studying oral poetics beyond just spoken word/slam poetry. And when I saw her, Douglas Kearney, Tracie Morris and Tyehimba Jess at a performance last year, it was such a magical experience because I saw how sound and words could be expressed in ways that I had not seen. I would love to work with musicians one day and possibly a libretto. I have a new literary series in the works called Kinetic where I want to showcase more literary musical collaborations, in a similar vein to what N.K. Jemisin and sound artist Val Jeanty did at The Schomburg's The Black Fantastic event a few years ago, or collectives like Heroes are Gang Leaders.