Photograph: Andrew Kenower
Dawn and I had the chance to “GChat,” in person, about her newest collection of poetry, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, $15.95 [paper]), one cool, cloudy October day at her house in the Hamptons, just down the road from Jackson Pollock’s old studio. We wanted to do an interview that had a time limit, that included the immediacy of the present, rather than tinkering with responses for days. But we also wanted the freedom of typing, not having to transcribe later. We did take a break at one point to walk down to Maidstone Beach. The sun, after being hidden all day, was just barely breaking out from under the clouds at the horizon. On a rock in the jetty someone had painted “I LOVE BEATY”—the U, absent, still sounded in our voices and out across the still water of the inlet. It felt somewhat perfect, this U, whose sound the meaning of the misspelled word so depended upon, seemingly absent. I think this is what Dawn’s poetry manages to do over and over again, make visible the effects of the invisible, the ringing in our ears and across our flesh of what we can’t, or don’t always want, to see. Her poetry forces us to question what any beauty-obsessed reader might have first gone looking for.
Karen Lepri: I want to begin at the beginning, if that’s possible. Could you talk about the genesis of your project, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life? It’s hard not to read the title as an ironic critique of incarceration. Is this a wrong entry point?
Dawn Lundy Martin: The beginning of a project can be very difficult to access. I know, though, that I never meant for the book to address the prison–industrial complex directly, though it is part of a larger critique I want to make. I am always writing something, working on something, that is a kind of before the beginning. It was like that with Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. At some point the project gains focus, like a little click, and a conceptual shape emerges around the work. The title happened somewhere in the middle of a poem. It’s ironic, yes, and attending to incarceration, but incarceration writ large. All our big and little prisons.
KL: Writ large in history, no? As you note, some of your poems integrate eugenicist historical documents. I’m curious about what you think it does to our understanding of these racist documents for you to “play” with their language and poetically mix it with your own?
DLM: It’s not really the work of the poems to look back into what those texts claim to know as much it is to interrogate the fact that they claim to know at all, and the way they claim to know. The recasting of the texts inside of the poem, however altered, is like taking an old architectural structure and stripping it of its ungainliness. Some of that happens in these poems, I think, where they work to strip power away from racist science. But, something else happens, too. The poems also want to say something about the way we think about race in the present moment, how these scientifically unsound ideas persist. I realize that you’re subtly trying to question me about the legitimacy of playing with racist texts. I like it. When we play with these texts, it can shift the ground on which they rely.
One works so hard and yet there’s still the before anchoring its rusty nail in your chest. And you get used to it. It becomes your friend. You turn and turn your rusty little friend.
KL: I appreciate what you’re saying about reuse, and how it reminds us that language is also material, shapeable, and that this keeps the poems current, like objects in the present, not just backward glances. And yes—I feel what you’re saying about the eeriness of the past not seeming so past after all. This tug between past and present makes me think of the push/pull between the different shapes that your poems take. Can you talk about the politics of the variety of forms you use in this book, or, we could say, the book’s formal “wildness”? You write, “Sometimes they use the word savage when the containers leak.” Certainly there’s a relationship between exceeding the form and getting marked racially.
DLM: I have been working on a renovation project with my friend, the architect Mitch McEwen, in Detroit. The line that you mention—“Sometimes they use the word savage when the containers leak”—was an entry point for our work. As it pertains to architecture, Mitch talks about the “leaking of activities between spaces.” Architects, she says, call activities “programs.” This language occurs to me in response to your question. The poem that you reference has refused the notion of who the slave is. The slave is the white guy in the painting on the wall of the museum, the suited executive behind the doors of the boardroom. It is when there is a threat to the safety of these containers that a word like “savage” is hurled or felt. In this case, there will be a threat. There always is. The programs cannot be contained within their spaces because there is always a leaking called into being by threat—real or perceived.
Formally the poem wants to operate outside of its own container. It wants to resist being the very thing we call “poem.” This acting out looks a little like a restless itch. The poem knows that it will be pulled back into a kind of familiar self, but it wants that way of being to feel more splayed than the page permits. With regard to both form and content, tension lies in this oxymoronic containment that cannot be true containment. If we buy into these thoughts about the inevitability of the leak, it speaks, I think, to the probability that power, too, is not absolute. You can access power even in the most repressive circumstances. This can save you temporarily, but probably not in the end.
KL: Are you saying power can issue from a weak spot in repression? Say, in the many ways you wrap desire, pleasure, and violence together in your writing? At one point, you write, “Use your chisel. I will indulge your every little fit, I, your perfect muse.” Is this a kind of power taken in submitting to objectivity? What do you think these poems are saying about desire?
DLM: Are they “weak spots”? I don’t know if I think of them that way as much as I think of them as inevitabilities and, at my most optimistic, opportunities. If repression is not a totality, then can there be openings whereby some pressure is taken off, some air let into the otherwise smothering cave? Representation can be a kind of violence because it often seeks to present a true thing.
I have thought a lot over the years about Kara Walker’s work. In fact, the moment you reference above takes its cue from Walker; in an analogous way the poem is playing in the fields of subjugation. If you’re dancing when they slice off your head you’ve won because they’re going to slice it off anyway.
Play is deep resistance itself, as can be the performance of self-subjugation, what you call “submission.” In the poem, I’m attending to Carrie Mae Weems’s Framed by Modernism series, where instead of merely taking a portrait photograph of Robert Colescott, she makes her own body the victim of the historical representation of black women. She’s a victim, though, who is complicit in her own victimization—calling it out, so to speak. Am I crazy or is that a coy look on her face? The text on the triptych reads: “Seduced by one another but bound by certain social conventions. / You framed the likes of me & I framed you, but we were both framed by modernism / & even though we knew better, we continued that time honored tradition of the artist & his model.”
In a lot of my recent work, desire is complicated in analogous ways—never truly one’s own—and power is found in becoming complicit in one’s own sexual subjugation, always already written into the black female body. In the sometimes-dystopian world of the poem, what else is left? Might this collision of objectifying force and subjugated reversal be the pressure necessary to create the opening fissure for the leak to become a tsunami?
KL: Is it possible to think of all the capital letters in the book as a visual tsunami or a kind of pressure release? It’s almost as if the parts in all caps are marquees or visual objects cut off from the poems themselves. Can you talk about those parts?
DLM: That part of the book is my favorite, actually. I love those moments because they are like having your drunk uncle at a barbecue (I stole that phrase from Erica Hunt, by the way). Those moments are accents or linguistic punctuations. There is a deep truth in certain utterances of mad speech, like when you get off the subway and a seemingly crazy person says something to you that makes you feel like they truly see you. It happened to me once. I was living in Massachusetts for my graduate work and desperate to move back to New York. I was feeling horrible in Northampton, like a fish in the tiniest bowl. I decided to visit my good friend in the city and as I got off the train at Union Square a man with black eyes wearing a white suit looked directly into my eyes and said, “Welcome home.” I’m still haunted by that.
Other moments, though, are in different registers, such as, “THE MAIN CAUSES OF THE EXODUS WOULD SEEM TO HAVE BEEN POLITICIANS, RAILWAYS, AND LAND AGENTS.” This text is stolen from one of the historical documents you referenced in your earlier question and was apparently a theory about why black people were leaving the South and moving North. It’s hilarious to think about this, because the obvious reasons for migration were not only job opportunities in the North but racism and lynchings in the South. There’s a multifunction to these typographies. I wanted to think about a more organic way of organizing the book instead of relying on formal poetic tropes.
KL: I like thinking about capital letters as a limited way to show mad speech. The question of, what happens when we exceed a given limit feels critical to the book’s focus on experiences of containment, particularly through the body. Both Discipline and Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life seem to be exploring the limits of the body, the body as container, and gendered violence as a further form of containment/limitation. But this book more pointedly gestures toward the “textual field,” we might say, of discourse’s own shaping power (be it writ large or not). I’m wondering how it furthers your thinking about the relationship between language and the body, and the stakes of this relationship’s tenuousness and variability depending on race, gender, and sexuality?
DLM: I want to be clear that it’s not only typography that indicates, for me, mad speech, but also how the language performs its sense-making. I am interested in questions of limits and containment, though, because on the other side is what I’m really interested in, which is freedom. Where is it possible? Where is it possible for bodies marked in this culture as black or female or queer, certainly—but for everyone else, too? Is it possible that when we feel most free we are, in fact, still contained by the language that we use as identifiers?
I want to be more concrete in answering this. I’ve become increasingly aware of the physical manifestations of what it means to live inside my body and to constantly have to be intentional about how I enter a room and take up space. I think: How would a white man take up space in this room? What would he assume? What would other people assume about his legitimacy in, say, an academic context? What do I have to prove as a black woman who is recognized as queer? There is a lot of labor that has to happen for me in those moments. The book is animated in part by these confinements—and is desperately looking for a way out. It wants to do this through language because I think that when we adopt certain languages—not our own—and then they become lodged in our bodies, which are inescapable, then we are tethered to that labor.
KL: Your answer makes me recall that your book came out—literally got its body—this past spring amid the Black Lives Matter movement and heated activism in Baltimore and elsewhere responding to police violence against the black community. What resonance do you hope people will find between your book and this activism? What’s different when we look at things through poetry? When you say, “There is writing and then there is this cut, this whelm,” it almost sounds like you’re saying writing isn’t reparative, but above you seem to claim that language is the way out. Can you explain?
DLM: I believe that cultural work is integral to social change. I’m in awe of the work done by the young women who organized to make Black Lives Matter a social justice movement of our time. I’m like: yes, finally! As critical as direct action is to social justice, it’s not the only realm in which social change occurs. Likewise, art has an impact, but it is not the only way of making an impact. This is obvious, I know, but I think we often forget the power of discourse, its complicated weaving. How do we shift meaning? That’s the question, I think. The quote that you pull from Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life is deeply invested in the pain caused by the way that history fractures a body and a sense of self. Have you seen artist Dread Scott’s video installation piece, Stop, about young black men being stopped and frisked? Each man simply speaks the number of times he has been stopped by the police while walking down the street. Some have been stopped over a hundred times. It’s an important work and helps makes people aware of how authority and power are wielded.
But it doesn’t actually change the body itself, as much as it is one more tiny thread in a larger effort to shift what we believe as a culture. Although really it’s about more than “belief.” I want to attend to that space in which our thoughts occur to us without our consent, before they are formulated as thoughts. I think of my poetry as situated within that conversation of the incremental.
So to return to your question of whether language is repairable or not, my interest lies in closing the gap between writing and the cut. I don’t know how possible that is.
KL: As opposed to Discipline’s investment in working through a history of violence, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life seems to be taking this body—the stopped body, perhaps—in its present moment, and remapping its origins, as if remaking that map would bring into relief how to change the subconscious mechanisms you refer to. You write, “I, between teleological mishaps, evident national orders. . . . Am border state body marked. Body as scene.” Can you talk about the tension between the body as a scene, a snapshot, versus as a container of past experience? Do you think the body in these poems wants a kind of rebirth outside of time? Outside of history? As you ask in the final piece, “What has been born into?” Maybe talk about these two contradictory meanings of born, that is, having exited a birth-hole versus having a hole forced into you?
DLM: What do I really know of the American institution of slavery, that particular and “peculiar” experience of being enslaved? Nothing. I know you didn’t ask about this per se, but I think it informs my answer of how the body is “a container of past experience.” I know that there is some recent research that proposes that cellular memory reaches across generations, but because I have a hard time believing in things I can’t see or hold, I have to investigate that further. If I’m referencing the way in which my body is a container for my own past experiences, I am thinking more about the residues of trauma that feel cellular but are probably just psychological. But, really, what’s the difference?
This thinking impacts the poems because where is the reprieve from one’s own punishing psyche? One works so hard at that and yet there’s still the before anchoring its rusty nail in your chest. And you get used to it. It becomes your friend. You turn and turn your rusty little friend. Your sore closes but doesn’t heal. The you of you is a very private thing. I don’t know if I’m talking about the body, though. I chose in Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life to create wideness around this private thing, to make it somehow historical. I want to enact a possible future in which the body is no longer an indication of transportations across imagined national borders or a chalked outline in the street.
That’s not everything. There are moments in the book that reference a lover who decides against a prolonged affair. I have a dream about it and remember it, which is rare for me. In the dream she’s dying and no one knows why. In the same poem I reference a stranger who insists that he has a message from my dead father. The body in this poem experiences a moment of exhilaration so devoid of context and history that I can feel its texture right now as I write. What is the relationship between this feeling, somehow ahistorical but of the body, and consensual violations? The poem wants to know. If you chart a course like this all over the work, the answer isn’t as direct as a want for an “outside of time,” or at least there’s not a settling there. I love when Ronaldo Wilson writes in Farther Traveler about “the space of decision and indecision in my own body, its pull, its urge, oscillating until I decide or feel, to stop before entering such an exchange, route, alternate, a stage of the cruise, or cruising that marks the split.” He is talking about queer space that requires a different bodily navigational impulse, a language perhaps heretofore unknown—especially in terms of desire—which is not absolute, but fraught and might not even look like desire. I wonder if this is the future body that culturally we have little access to. When I said earlier that I have trouble believing in things I can’t see or hold, that wasn’t quite true. There’s one exception: envisioning as a way of remaking. In this future, we don’t need to reconcile or iron out contradictions.