The Poetry Project


Petero Kalulé with Xarí Rivera Maya

Like many others, I came to Kalulé’s poems in Kalimba after I began following their tweets. On Kalulé’s Twitter timeline, readers encounter short but powerful impressions of their often unsettling insights on social life and a worldview that decenters humans and interrogates humanisms. ‘Politics is police’ is a phrase frequently reprised by Kalulé, signaling their disaffection with humanistic praxis. Even when they come from radicals, articulations of politics are so often centered on categories inherited from Eurocentric worldviews, and can perpetuate the oppressive stratifications that they are trying to avoid. In Kalimba, Kalulé presents an alternative approach to dismantling schemas of domination, treating the question of relating between beings as a critical one that bears on our material realities, with implications for human and nonhuman ways of life. I do not believe I am alone in saying their words have drawn me into different ways of thinking about relating.

Kalulé’s engagement with sound both exceeds and contributes to the discourse of silencing. In the poem “Transcribing Noise,” they write: “listening from monophonic core is grating.” Listening from monophonic, white supremacist, and Eurocentric core is a silencing of the nonwhite, nonhuman; it is a kind of authoritarian violence that draws from the larger violence of racial capitalism. Their presentation of this kind of listening compels readers to situate ourselves in our environments as co-constitutive multiplicities, rather than as individuated subjects and objects in stratified hierarchies. Rather than self-presencing in their poems, they playfully demonstrate a heterogeneous constellation of being, inviting us to listen closely to the entire ecosphere and track expression in its infinite forms. In the poem “Cecil’s Dance,” they write: “there’s no centres in this decrepit world / there’s only / Vibes, / African violets / Chinampas / Petals, 2 blue J’s / rick kick shaws & anthills w/ atelic montuno cracks.” This poem, like many others in Kalimba, is full of musicality and thought about social being and relating in a shared world. It is a coming together of multiplicitous interactions among and manifestations of life beyond the so-called “human” experience.

As Kalimba is majorly concerned with the playing of and listening to music, the questions I bring focus on how music has influenced Kalulé to listen to and write about the earth and non-human beings.

1. You wrote in a tweet: “perhaps the whole point of sound is / --what if ?” Throughout your poems there are overt references to sound, dance, and performance, with word-sounds undulating, pivoting, and delightfully frenzied. What inspired you to write poetry about music, and how did you come to music in general? Do you have antecedents, poets that inspired you to write Kalimba?

I have been playing music for most of my life. I have played different musical instruments in different settings and within different music traditions.

Music is thus for me an inference of different changes of play of movements and so is poetry. A good poem for me then will have to move to the irreducible “if” of song and dance, delightfully to another place that we feel but will not yet “fathom.” I think of musics like Roscoe Mitchell’s Sound or Alice Coltrane’s Transfiguration or Alhaji Bai Konte’s Kora Melodies and the different reverberations of texture and form that they gather, charge, & disperse under sound.

Many antecedents.

When writing the Kalimba manuscript, I spent much time with Kamau Brathwaite, Claude McKay, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Denise Levertov, Aimé Césaire, Langston Hughes, Paule Marshall, Ousmane Sembène, Audre Lorde, Stephen Jonas, Jean Toomer, Robert Creeley, Gabriel Okara, Harryette Mullen, Dionne Brand, Fred Moten, Ama Ata Aidoo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amos Tutuola, Clark Coolidge, Nate Mackey, Lucille Clifton, Angelina Weld Grimké, Essex Hemphill, Ntozake Shange, and so many others.

I don’t feel comfortable naming names. But I spend much time reading, talking with, writing with and learning from a number of poet-friends, teachers, artists, writers, and interlocutors (on Twitter especially) who remind me not to limit the idea of a “poet” to “poetry” alone.

One finds a “poet” where they find them, where they want to find them.

2. Are you working on anything else right now that you’re excited about?

I am co-writing a “chirp book” with Clari on Twitter @gogonolek where we think of what we call marsh-river-raft-feather poetics.

I am constantly playing and composing musics. There are a number of small articles and poems that I am co-writing with friends. There is a play that I have been writing for a while and I am still so unsure about.

3. I read many encounters in your poems: human-to-human, human-to-nonhuman, object-to-object, and so on. In a poem titled “Ionisation,” these words speak of a desire to live a non-individualised way of being: “we long to be moths / confluent / ‘tween lines.” You write in “Transcribing Noise:” “there is no finality/ totality/universality/pinnacle to this listening,” signaling a break with monolithic ways of relating that flatten experiences and abandon interconnections. How has music influenced the way you think about selfhood and social being? Do you feel that playing and listening to music has influenced how you think about non-human beings? How can we listen better to non-human beings?

Music gathers. “Black musics” especially gather. Each musical note or sound shape is a kind of attuned invitation to quake or echo with self, with the other, with others, or with an instrument. It is a polychromatics of feeling, of un-emptying, of play-with, a feeling enfolding around, a feeling in, and into; a feeling out also.

On how we could listen better, I think such a listening could involve a non-teleological opening out towards whatever is beyond us. We could think of this as a listening beyond human-sense i.e., a listening beyond bio-logic man and the “world.”

At the same time, one also has to remember that sacred elsewhere poetries of relation have existed (and still exist outside) and before the now “loud” self-presencing frames of anthropocentric listening.

We now have not only to imagine but also to remember an ethics of surrender (with the non-human and with earth) that is without the motivations of an economic homo-hegemony that institutes a “poetry foundation.”

4. Do you think music offers us a different way of relating?

Yes. I think music leans into or accentuates the infinite possibilities and relations of textures and rhythms of sound.

The kind of music I am most interested in is polyrhythmic and allows an abundant articulation of withness. Sound is body-less. It inundates. It goes beyond the individual and allows for a kind of reticulate pulsing with whatever surrounds us. This for me is not and should not be marked as merely “fugitive,” for the fugitive always already conceptually reinscribes sound within a singular episteme or temporality that delimits sound’s impending (and anterior) dance-inundation. Put another way, sound is not an abstract condition or desire for a momentary possibility, it is the abiding possibility; it is an avowal of “the possibility” in all its infinitude, it is sharedness, it is relation, it is freedom’s enchantment –– and so much more.

5. Can you say more about self-presencing and how that relates to humanism?

When I question “self-presencing,” I am struggling with the drive or desire to not only overrepresent but also to represent the human self. I feel that the human as a frame “of being” is not only violent (for the idea human is always predicated on whiteness, sovereignty, owning, consuming, extracting, etc.) but also delimiting. My critiques of Self-presencing are an attempt to go beyond man/the human in a way that may, for example, consider relatedness and other ecologies and cosmologies beyond after, and beyond the paleonymic category of the human.

This is why I again turn to music, to ghosts, to polyrhythms, to my own African ancestral memories. I feel that they allow for what I may call a non-categorical poetics or erotics of relation. By this I mean that a kind of relation that goes beyond condition and hierarchy i.e. one that is only perhaps concerned with play, sustenance, care, reciprocity, and relation. These poetics/erotics work from an entirely different place and we cannot entirely define, grasp, categorise, or delimit them. They are mutually improvised and choreographed, not before the moment but always in the moment.

Paradoxically, trying to rearticulate what these poetics do or how they work in an interview like this reverts to a humanistic teleological desire to self-represent. This is a contradiction I am working through.

All I can hope for is that my music and poetry are un-representing the human at least from a micro-logical level. This question of representation/unrepresentation is an important ethical demand because in these days of perishing, humanism/self-presencing have failed to give us tools to think about how we might radically relate to earth and the nonhuman. We need other frames; a poetics/musics that unrepresents might be a small way of conjuring such a radical relation.

#261 — Summer 2020