The Poetry Project


Zaina Alsous with Jasmine Gibson

Place is an important theme within your book. You move from various different temporal and spatial settings, like the American South, Standing Rock, The Womb, Europe, Nature & Palestine. What is the connection and tension between these places?

I wrote A Theory of Birds over the course of 3 years, and eventually it became the way I was able to speak with all of the people I was reading or who I had read and been transformed by (Edward Said, Sylvia Wynter, Edouard Glissant, Etel Adnan, Mahmoud Darwish, Amiri Baraka, Frantz Fanon) and simultaneously how I could speak to memories, longings, and alienations from my own labor, from the limitations of the US left, to the limitations of subjectivity. Publication is difficult in that these poems are living and maybe if I was writing them today many would look different but it was an attempt to record the felt contradictions of gender, desire, reproductive labor, art, hope, and belonging under the tyranny of settler colonialism and capitalism. The theme of the book is certainly how settler colonialism as a project mediates species extinction and uses “naming” as an accessory to violent extraction and domination, and then within that structural dynamic, there are infinite worlds. It would be using the settler’s logic to pretend that subjugation and the forced diaspora and ethnic cleansing of my people is the only story. And I also didn’t want to romanticize my exile, reckoning with the fact that I live as a settler in the States within a set of particular historic tendencies. Whatever racism I may have experienced in my life is significantly minor to the anti-Blackness I’ve observed both subtle and spectacular, which doesn’t mean my subjectivity exits completely, the poetry is an attempt to place the speaker as inextricable from various projects—both projects of violence, settlement, and extraction, and projects towards Indigenous sovereignty and collective liberation. I was also really fascinated by the politics of representation, living in a time where representation is often widely celebrated but makes me feel very skeptical, so there’s also poems around art and art institutions and the long shadow of Europe that lives within these spaces, really the long shadow of colonialism, which is always both a project of cannibalizing land and imagination.

When I first met you, you were washed in color. Color is also important to you as well in this book. For example, the poems “Map for a New Cosmogony (Yellow),” “bird survives the death of Nature,” and “cinematography” all explore color whether it is yellow or blue gray charcoal or even “the color of orgasms.” What does color mean for you and your poetics?

I recently got this book of drawings by Purvis Young, he was an artist who grew up in Overtown, a working-class Black neighborhood in Miami. Several pages open to an album of his drawings called World Off Young Purvis. One page at the top reads, “Civil Disobedience Study,” and it’s an email from someone at the Boston University School of Theology reaching out to members of clergy who had been arrested for “Civil Rights and/or peace movement activities 1954-68” for dissertation research. Young had saturated the page in color, red, orange, yellow, purple, and drawn simple figures in motion. The colors overtake the text, so without reading closely “Civil Disobedience Study” becomes about the colors and the indiscernible figures in dance, in chaos, in reverie. I don’t really have anything brilliant to say about color theory but there’s always been for me this idea that color represents something collaborative and shared, that has real potency. I’m a Pisces so I am most comfortable inhabiting the moods and currents of others, and colors have often been my way of conjuring a feeling that is familiar but unplaceable in my poetry. I feel a particular attachment to yellow. I often tell my friends I think yellow is an abolitionist color in that it is subjunctive, full of light. Beauford Delaney’s paintings make the strongest case for yellow. It also makes sense that so many posters of decolonial and socialist projects across the Global South have made use of the Sun motif, colors of warmth and insurgency.

I feel like you are one of the few poets that I know that genuinely engages with political life and poetic life. What amazes me about your political and poetic life is that you don’t seem jaded at all and really interested in what these two worlds mean. How did you manage to synthesize this in such a harmonious way?

I first read poetry in one of those racist special classes for “gifted” students in a North Carolina elementary school, probably the only thing I remember from that class now actually. I was a socially anxious kid who really loved people but didn’t know how to be a person in the world, I couldn’t figure out that right balance between the interior absorption and the exterior performance. Reading was my way of forging belonging, which would actually forecast the way I came to feel a deep sense of belonging in political movement.

I tried my hand at writing poetry as a child that year and true story I actually was reported to a counselor for my poetry being too morbid, and they harassed my parents to force me to go see a psychologist, which was a humiliating experience for me and my family. Now that I’m older I can recognize the state inserting itself into determining what is an appropriate or inappropriate way for someone to articulate despair; what was interesting is that I wasn’t actually depressed at the time I was really just trying to express the sentiment of the world I inhabited, the sentiment of witnessing a sick and cruel society without having all the language yet to explain.

I stayed away from poetry for many years after that experience and then returned to it about five years ago. By then I had already come to the determination that I wanted to make a lifelong commitment to social struggle, after organizing and studying with a cadre organization in college. It’s the same essential commitment that guides a science not so different from my childhood self trying to write poetry that reflects the society I am part of. But now I have the tools of dialectical materialism which lets me ground my feelings of despair into an analysis which means that I am not just watching history but I am also able to participate in it.

All that said, I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that trying to honor both a writing practice and my political commitments can be excruciating at times. It's unfortunate we don’t talk more openly about how painful simultaneously holding those worlds can be. Certainly there’s overlap, and the sun of my poetry universe is social struggle, but trying to find the time to read and write when our people are being hunted and the empire is tightening its fist is not really harmonious for me, and I imagine many poets also struggle with determining our role in this moment. I know that means I will not be able to write all the things I want to, or be as skilled at writing as I’d like to be. I believe in the people and I want us to live and I want to write because I want to study and writing poetry is a means of studying with the chorus. When I think of conceptualizing poesis I always return to conceptualizing solidarity.

What was your introduction into left politics / organizing and poetics? Does there feel like there’s a difference between writing poetry versus a theoretical essay?

Once at a lecture in North Carolina, Fred Moten said poetry and theory are essentially just both “forms of description,” and I tend to agree. No shade to the craft poets who have a more precious relationship to poetry as a form but I just think the point of poetry and theory are both to give us new language that intervenes, or if not “new” language, a new way of reading or seeing what was there before. Poetry just usually sounds bad if it’s too explicit or too expository so that’s more of a taste thing but poetry and theory share a heartbeat in my book.

I don’t remember my very first introduction to leftist organizing and poetics, was probably my friend Nicole who was far ahead of me in college and basically changed my life for the better by introducing me to Audre Lorde and June Jordan. But I’ll also say Mark Nowak has been a deep inspiration to me, his work with the Worker Writer School and his commitment to examining traditions of radical anti-capitalist poetics is a really beautiful contribution, folks should get his new book: Social Poetics (Coffee House Press).

What is your favorite political text? What is your favorite poetic text?

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Birds are obviously extremely important to A Theory Of Birds. Why did you choose this particular subjecthood to explore movement, racialization and the process of (de)colonization?

A few years ago I developed a kind of fixation on the dodo bird. I started to feel this inexplicable disgust at how casually this being had appeared peripherally in my life, as a minor character of extinction, only ever represented as a goofy, semi-mythical creature, and I began to question why is it that this bird we know so firmly in the context of death and disappearance is only ever represented implicitly as to blame for its own death and disappearance? What began as a question then wove into a map of realizing the details that surrounded the Dodo provide a critical entry point for understanding the full breadth of the settler project which is never contained to just brute force.

French naturalists and zoologists, who would have been the same experts who justified the violent theft of artifacts during Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt would be the same European supremacists who described the Dodo bird as “biologically” to blame for their own extinction. Shortly after the Dodo bird was annihilated (when the Dutch had established a prison colony on the island the Dodo had lived on for millions of years: Mauritius), scientists debated if the bird had existed at all and pieces of the bird were toured around Europe for examination. Another entry point was James Audubon, the American artist acclaimed for visually representing a wide variety of birds, was born on a sugar plantation in Haiti owned by his father, a French naval officer. When painting birds he would murder them, and pose their bodies according to his taste. The profund cruelty and callousness with which the lives of the Dodo bird and birds represented by Audubon were treated are inextricable from settler colonialism and anti-Blackness. The technology of the taxonomic whether applied to human beings or to birds was in the European construction always a means of categorization in order to make only settlers legible and only the settlers as the purveyors of legibility.

Surveilling and caging birds are made into innocuous common past times in the US settler colony but the gentleness of birds, their collectivity, their rituals are seen as stupid or frivolous. Working on this book really reinforced for me that poetics is necessary in readying the mind and spirit for decolonization because we are not just undermining a social conditioning to inequality and injustice, we are up against a Western cosmogony to borrow from Sylvia Wynter. As precise as we can be in our language use in naming our enemies, I also think we need to be as audacious in our poetics, and connect our sound to the sounds of other species. This is something Alexis Pauline Gumbs is doing in her recent work, and I think decolonial ecopoetics is the move.

I really enjoyed the use of Marxist (or even the invocation of Marx himself) categories in poetic form in A Theory of Birds. What is the impact of historical materialism and social categories in your poetry?

In one of Marx’s letters dated 1843 he writes, “it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” For me ideology is the doorway of language, and Marxism is the closest I’ve ever come to beauty, not in the aesthetic sense, but as a deep, fundamental, transformative encountering of aliveness.

I don’t think everyone needs to be a Marxist to be a meaningful or skilled contributor, but one of the most basic responsibilities of a writer is to offer people tools of description to help us better understand the worlds we inhabit and if a writer has no relationship with historical materialism I struggle to understand what it is they are saying and their purpose for saying it. Sure, there’s heartache, and the trees are lovely in Spring, and also we live in a historic and social context. I’m typing this on a computer from a company that forces Congolese children to mine Cobalt, that extracts minerals from a country where people are actively organizing to unseat a despot, and still feeling the lingering consequences of the U.S. supporting the assassination of the great pan-Africanist Patrice Lumumba in a coup. And I can talk about my personal experiences of racism, or my personal experiences of longing, and that’s all fine and shows up too, but why not also write poetry that evokes a larger project of emancipation that includes me and the hands that made the conditions of my writing possible? It’s really not more complicated than that for me, and I’m really grateful to encounter work from poets like you, Wendy Trevino, Mark Nowak, Aja Monet, and Tongo Eisen-Martin (to name a few), because it can be alienating sometimes when we are told writing in this day and age looks one certain way and that our politics can only exist insofar as they are focused on representation and we don’t need to talk about capitalism.

The book is a triptych: bird prelude, bird naming and after bird. What is the importance of the book being a triptych. I’m thinking in tarot terms where three is interesting, especially since you are a water sign, three of cups can be seen as exchanging heart. Does this factor into splitting the book into three?

I love the connection to tarot, I hadn’t thought of that. I think some of the decision around organizing it into three sections comes from a poetic attachment to Third, like in "Third World," certainly most understood as shorthand for the Global South or Black and Brown peoples nations but in the last few years I’ve also thought of Third as a site of decolonial speculation, about the world yet to emerge or that is always emerging. I don’t know how long it will take me to complete another poetry collection but I know it will be called Third. I wanted to write about the tyranny of settler narratives of history mediating the befores and afters, and then have the last section to examine what it might be like to abandon nationalist projects, and meager Western humanism to come to another thing, a wild thing that is shared. Not really as a matter of hope so much as inevitability, like the people will win, what will be left of the planet when that day comes, when the empires fall, I can’t say, but I wanted to meditate in that space.

(Also happy birthday, Pisces!)

Thank u fire sis :)

#261 — Summer 2020