José Felipe Alvergue Interviewed by Andrew Rippeon
The interview below takes as its occasion the 2020 publication of José Felipe Alvergue’s scenery: a lyric, published by Fordham University and winner of the press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. Alvergue is Associate Professor of Contemporary Literature and Transnationalism at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and previously published two books: gist : drift : rift : bloom (Further Other Book Works, 2015), and precis (OmniDawn, 2017).
Alvergue’s scenery is a complex, challenging, and rewarding work. Including photographs, paintings, schematics, and sculptures, as well as lyrical fragments and prose discursions, the work is a sustained probing of genre and the limits of essay and verse. As the book explores historical, literary, and media archives of the Americas pertaining to the displacement of Indigenous peoples, the enslavement of captured Africans and the convict-leasing of post-emancipation African Americans, and colorism and anti-Black racism in the contemporary moment, what unites these inquiries is Alvergue’s own investigation of his various engagements and commitments as father, partner, teacher, and poet in this specific historical moment. Alvergue is interviewed by Andrew Rippeon; the two met during their time in the Poetics Program at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, and they have remained in close contact since. Rippeon teaches at Davidson College (NC). This conversation has been conducted via email and compiled through a shared document; it has been revised and condensed for clarity.
Andrew Rippeon: We’ve spoken together a lot, but this sort of focused attention on the work is something I’m grateful for. I’ve mentioned to you a few times that when I’ve taught scenery to students at my small liberal arts college—all born at the turn of the 21st century—one of the hardest things for them to engage with is the line in the book about refusing the optimism that is expected of you: “I don’t trust the optimism / it seems I’m asked to burden / myself with at every turn…” (scenery, p. 29). I think that has to do with unacknowledged or implicit lived privilege and “infantile citizenship,” but I wonder if you’d take a moment to consider that line and those reactions. Why is this line so difficult for young people today?
José Felipe Alvergue: I think it’s mostly a (generational) creation, this worldview of a long unfolding optimism. What I mean is that I imagine it’s a worldview that has been taught and believed in as a way of negotiating past and present. Maybe it feels uniquely disjunctive when one age-community, or mnemonic-community, is making sense of “their” view of the present given their unique lifespan. And it’s why I turn to poetics, which is like a fungal archive of memory and saying. And for its ability to interrogate temporal reductivism. I say this knowing that someone might also argue my use of images from distinct historical moments within the same poetic utterance can be “heard” or “seen” as reductivist to an imposed emotional register. But that’s also something I wanted to work through, and there are maybe only a few ways of accomplishing that thinking within the technology of a book.
There are a lot of examples of this outward parsing I suppose I draw on in the book, but being a teacher and being a parent are the two primary contexts where imparting through affect and emotion, as well as epistemological sign systems raise the issue. Tending towards being good, and feeling good as Moten and others say, while working towards what it means to “be good,” these are important but not the same. I think collectively the desire is to gloss over the work involved in reparative relationships because we assume it’s a kind of work that is negative or is a bummer. But it can feel good. And feel good with others to do this work.
The danger, in relation to “assembly,” which a lot of scenery is about, is that optimism often accompanies a manner of legibility that I find troubling. So much of the book is about a difference that repudiates accommodation or subsumption, and legibility requires that “otherness” becoming part of self. The other side to this is that whenever someone raises the possibility of negation, it is instantly criminalized in a sense. And we’re conditioned to associate accommodation, or subsumption, with the neoliberal citizenship marketed to us. I mean Rawlsian theories make it into West Wing episodes! In a 42-minute drama, someone might come away feeling, in that falsely collective manner media facilitates, like they’ve solved the problem of democracy by way of a dramatization of people-getting-along. And this might be why I also focus on media in scenery the way I do, in relation to assembly. But maybe in the inverse of slowing down the consumption of compressed information, which often feels like accommodation. At large, we consume the conclusions in a manner that best accommodates what I think we all want, which is “to be alright.” We can be all right, but we have to do the work, and we can be all right while actively negating. We have to reckon with the ways certain realities of lived assembly leverage power: “we” can be all right, but oftentimes others are not all right in expense. Do we restore or repair that damage to our trust in the assembly?
I think it’s jarring for you and me to see that response in students, a reticence to negation, because we are simply noticing the generational expectations that maybe even we participated in at some point in our lives––expectations without the muscle memory of uncertain and difficult labor or work. Democratism, citizenship, the good, these are really complex states of being, and of status. It involves a lot of work, and a lot of collaboration. And that takes learning. To live the good, we must negate and decolonize our politics as they are currently expressed (Super PACS, White supremacy, exceptionalism in law and identity, corporate interest, gerrymandering, voter restrictions, etc.). And that means we must create the situations for disclosure, and revelation––a way of describing pro-active learning. I think that’s the challenge, as a teacher, when handling student responses to negativity productively. I don’t believe in killing optimism. I think it’s important, and wonderful. But I do think there’s work to do, pedagogically, in how we handle negation as a strategy, the planning of which can be emotionally and intrapersonally rewarding. Keeping in full view the possibility that trauma is more and more real to students given how they experience the world via the same mature technologies we do, as adults, but, essentially, as younger folks. I think this is a really important consideration to have. It’s tough to get at that fully in a book, right? Though I do like to believe I tried to anticipate that response and deal with it.
AR: The moment in the book, watching Kiki Watson with your students... “I sat in a room with my students and watched them / watching Kiki Watson address them in a manner so direct / and honest that the screen became the shared moment of / the consequence of their being recognized…” (scenery 55 - 62; especially p. 62).
JFA: Yes, exactly.
In other readers, maybe more adult or exceptional readers, who refuse to deal with negation, I think the refusal of negation/negativity reveals a response to an ego death. This work involves them as individual and real people, not just as caricatures of an idealist narrative. And it underscores the civic good, not a social good, the difference being in how we conceptualize and invest in the commons vs. idealize the individual and their property.
AR: Even “individualism as property”?
JFA: Citizenship seems to be about bringing ourselves into articulation, and that is a heterogeneous thing. Some articulate citizenship in the display and privilege of property, others as world-making. I say this as an immigrant, where one is constantly negotiating the world experienced in the totality of neoliberal capitalism as an unstoppable weather. As such it is obviously more than documentation, and I think the tension is in a population within a population that understands this—the labor part, and the investment in being articulated part—while the others against which this idea grates continue to buy into a more simplistic and reductive idealization of “good” as being an expression of good people, and Whiteness being an imagined and maintained bastion of “the good,” where those people exist timelessly. My focus on hemisphere in scenery is obviously disrupted (or maybe re-defined) by experiences in the Midwest, and the parent of a US born citizen (now two of them!). I think about the very different and unique, unapproachably different experiences we will have with citizenship.
But I don’t know… working on this book I was also constantly immersed in the world of teaching. My institution prioritizes teaching, and I do a lot of it. I feel like this maybe changes how one approaches writing––not just because one doesn’t have a lot of time to do it. You and I are teachers, and we often talk about what we’re teaching and why. I go back and forth a lot with my course content because I want to introduce new stuff, I want to challenge consensus, but there’s also the work of teaching literature. There’s that Moten and Harney bit on teaching in the face of the undifferentiated labor of higher ed, which is great, and I think about it here:
In that Undercommons of the university one can see that it is not a matter of teaching versus research or even the beyond of teaching versus the individualization of research. To enter this space is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts, the criminal, matricidal, queer, in the cistern, on the stroll of the stolen life, the life stolen by enlightenment and stolen back, where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons. What the beyond of teaching is really about is not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing; it’s about allowing subjectivity to be unlawfully overcome by others, a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection, because one does not possess the kind of agency that can hold the regulatory forces of subjecthood, and one cannot initiate the auto-interpellative torque that biopower subjection requires and rewards. It is not so much the teaching as it is the prophecy in the organization of the act of teaching. (“The University and the Undercommons: seven theses,” Social Text 79, Vol. 22, No. 2, Summer 2004, p. 102)
I would ask you: why do you teach this book? Or rather, what is it about the book that you feel allows for teaching, within and against the undifferentiated labor of higher ed?
AR: This is such a good question to my question. I do the same thing with my course content, and I have this divided goal of introducing students to things they might not otherwise find, and modes of thinking they might not otherwise experience. And I’m always trying to pry apart or problematize the overlaps in our work between identification and content. For better or worse, I think a lot of students come into the literature or humanities classroom with a sense of the text as a form of sociology, and if it doesn’t line up with their identity position or the performed identity position of the teacher, that in itself is a challenge. “How do we read this?” I have this experience when I teach hip-hop, or camp and drag. When I give students Big Freedia, for example, a lot of them will ask me if I “actually listen” to this stuff. So I want my classes to learn to engage with the mechanisms of a work, without simply reducing the work to data or identity. I teach scenery because it’s smart, and it’s messy, and it’s productive. It gives students a foothold and that foothold becomes a rung up into the work: what’s the effect of these textual shapes?
How do we respond to various images in the text? How is the speaker (who happens to be my friend, but that’s another matter!) exploring himself as well as the issues raised in the book? It becomes a way for them to think about writing—their own writing—as a form of possibility and a form of thought. I get excited about the problems the works I select present for students who might be really good at close-reading, but who have a little more work to do when it comes to poetry and poetics as a form of thinking (or, thinking with form). Getting back to scenery: the book has a specific context; it situates itself between Charlottesville and the 2020 election. But it’s also newly relevant in the ongoing virulence of hate speech and outspoken white supremacy that, if not new in the American context, has at least become emboldened, overt, and more public. How do you hear the book’s engagements in a post-2020 context?
JFA: Definitely a lot of the images, and what they speak, are coming from recent contexts, like the Charlottesville image of Corey Long interrupting the Unite the Right Rally, while getting shot at off-frame by a White supremacist. The immediately historical images speak to me in terms of process because they are/were present in the living archive surrounding me. But I think it goes way back further, and projects much further ahead. There’s the idea of a vatic temporality, where to listen or sense it is to position oneself in the speculative prophecy of what’s coming. But we do that from what we know and what we need, and the libidinal attention to history and the present forms what we encounter across a lot of poetry right now. There’s a lot of poetics right now that are using the culmination or seemingly bounded experiences of current events to hit that vatic note with a nihilism that is worth considering: unjustified death in the presence of lyric’s transcendent argument. When I use the various transcripts from the LA Riots, those events live in my writing in a different way in that I was living at that moment, and remember the Riots. And because, as transcripts, the civic processing of what is taking place, transformatively as community, is also nuanced by a degree in the optical becoming aural. I try to linger close to the signifying extremes of how or where one form of media memory ends and another begins because that interval into meaning we approach reveals a lot about how we feel as we approach it, or how we feel while doing the digging, but I’m more interested in a somewhat ambiguous space of prolonged distress rather than, strictly speaking, the death or endpoint of meaning: where it either discloses itself and recedes, or simply evaporates before our very senses before we can find a way of using it productively. I’m thinking here of “unjustifiable distress” as a label we put on things, and rightly so considering the degree of violence distress can come from. I suppose I’m hoping against hope that poetics can do a kind of thinking that theorizing is not poised to do, while doing some kind of humanizing the civic has been made too derelict to accomplish by way of our own neglect.
AR: This reminds me of Toni Morrison: “The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do....”1
JFA: That’s an awesome quote. I hadn’t come across that before, but it seems like one of those conclusions that when you hear it, it’s like, “yes!” I really wonder now, with that in mind, if the internalized racism and racial supremacy can be put in that context, maybe, without privileging White victimhood. But I wonder if the real rationale behind obstructionism, while being a response to not wanting to dwell in distress, is to allow others to absorb what is “shared,” civically, while remaining unphased or uncalled upon to do any kind of labor towards the civic. And if there isn’t something about not wanting, ever, to co-exist with BIPoC persons who are utterly occupied with distress because that would mean sharing “life, liberty, happiness,” as they currently exist for enfranchised Americans, as property. It’s ambiguous, in that sense of an ambiguous trauma that extends in all directions.
There’s a lot of good work in that ambiguous vatic sense, like Anthony Cody’s “Everywhere I sleep, I see Dust Bowl” sound sculptures. That ambiguousness as a poetics that admits to the braided politics of spatiotemporal experience is really nourishing to me, even while dealing with material that has been or tends to be reduced. This struggle over decolonizing the signals of national emotional health will not end soon, especially as we re-encounter health in various contexts like the work environment, higher ed, etc. Moreover, the tools for this struggle, like education, are being dismantled by state legislation over critical race pedagogy (and I say this knowing that all disciplines will be attacked by the lack of definition in legislation over what CRT is). And this might be the next horizon for this struggle over memory as a vatic-as-mnemonic first-person expression.
AR: scenery opens with some stark reminders of black/white binarism in American history and culture. (I’m thinking of the section “Hogtied,” linked here). But as the book proceeds, it undermines this binarism, or exposes ways that colorism is medically and aesthetically encoded or produced by socialization (APGAR scores, art history, etc.).
JFA: I wanted to be really careful with this message on collaborative decolonial strategies. I wanted to remind others of our braided status to America’s history of anti-Blackness, and settler colonialism. I think adjunct narratives contribute to creating exceptionalist identities. The only way to discredit them or re-write them is to see how our own privilege, granted via the belief structures created by those narratives, are fictive, harmful, or incomplete. Our work towards assembly, or nation, is clarifying who we are in relation to the work of bringing its world into existence.
AR: I remember talking with you about this... and I have to say, it changed my relationship to talking about this kind of work, in the classroom, with students...
JFA: Because I don’t know if what I was doing at the time was really fostering the potential of allyship. Or of critical self-investigation in the spirit of James Baldwin’s charge to White people, White people need to ask themselves why they have invented the reductive, stereotyped idea of Blackness that undergirds anti-Blackness.2 But you’ve always taught really “challenging” texts, if we can use that word as a placeholder. How do you think we’ve—collectively—been building a kind of collaborative, transinstitutional decolonial atmosphere––all of us who work at these different institutions, in different disciplines, people we know or whose work we follow, etc.? What’s your sense as a White educator about how it’s all coming together so to speak?
AR: First, I can only speak from my own perspective where I’ve taught, with the occasions I’ve had to do this work, and the colleagues at other institutions with whom I’ve been grateful to communicate. For one, I would go back again to what I shared a few moments ago, that at least in these contexts I often find (or at least feel) a sense of identity overlapping with content in the undergraduate classrooms where I work, and that’s something I really want to peel apart. My students walk into the classroom on Day One and see me as me––“unmarked subject” that I am––and I think for a not-insignificant number of them it’s a surprise that we spend so much time talking about writers, thinkers, and artists who identify as nonwhite, nonbinary, and/or postcolonial. And because I also want to explore with students the various motivations, justifications, and implementations of formal exploration, we’re also trying (I stress “trying,” because it’s a work in progress) not to treat the texts as sociological data or representative experiences. But: what’s the effect of this language, used in this way, in this context? These are the classroom experiences. I had a conversation, today in fact, with a student who had discovered a layer of misogyny in one of our theoretical texts––and even though that theoretical text was trying to define or describe revolutionary futures, this student was right. So we had a conversation about how a text (and a writer) could be doing both: groping toward that revolutionary potential while also making some mistakes. It was hard work. I feel like I learn most from those moments. Collectively? You know, I’m less optimistic outside of the classroom, because I think outside the classroom it’s no longer a pedagogical question (or primarily that sort of question), but institutional. There’s a great piece by Marisela Martinez-Cola on structures of white mentorship of BIPoC students at historically white and privileged institutions.3 Reading Martinez-Cola’s piece has led me to be more careful and deliberate in my engagement with students, but also more observant of my colleagues here and elsewhere, and of how institutions both foster and frustrate new and emergent futures. I served recently on a design committee with a remarkable colleague here, who when we moved to talk about building an anti-racist institution (after only recently admitting to and apologizing for the stolen labor of enslaved peoples in building and supporting this institution), simply offered the statement: “Language that doesn’t sound like policy doesn’t feel like support.” I’ve never forgotten that. And it helped me hear how so much institutional language in this area might be based in the language of apology or acknowledgment or inclusion, but is often empty of policy. That, too––policy––is language that does something...
I’m thinking again about context for scenery. There have been countless examinations of “rage” and the Trump era—some seem to forgive the “white male working class voter” for being part of a category that has been “forgotten;” others warn that rage continues to motivate a section of the American public. When I read these, I’m usually concerned that this normalizes a mode of affect for some groups, while neutralizing for others. When you read for Buffalo’s Poetics Plus, you also spoke about anger, but in a different manner and context. I wonder if you would elaborate here on the work that anger can do, in your practice but also in a larger social context.
JFA: I think there’s a difference between anger and hatred. One is productive, the other, as Claudia Rankine points out, is the performed (and perhaps political/ized) affect/s that underscore the bearer’s “right” to be excused from working with others.4 I’ve talked about this in a couple of readings now, and there’s often the question of emotional-truth: someone will bring up as a counter that for the angry Trump supporter, for example, their anger is true to them.
AR: This is precisely what bothers me. That “true-to-them” is what seems to license vaccine hesitancy, anti-CRT willed obstinance—“this is my version of history, and anything else challenges my uncritical sense of self”—and for that matter, the fool without the mask who acts as if it’s him and only him with no social tendrils snaking out from his own actions.
JFA: I think that kind of reinforced belief comes from experiencing normalized affect, affect normalized via exceptionalism, and privileged by the concurrent neoliberal desire for getting along and consensus. Positivity or positivist exceptionalism is so ubiquitous in most contexts, and negativity I’d say is also, but always attached to the typed person framed as possessing that trait. “True-for-me,” I feel, sidesteps the point in the distinction, which is about work. Emotion is more than personal property. It is also a signal of an inconsistency of some sort. Of something in resolution.
In terms of my work, I guess, I also don’t want someone to pick up a book and interact with it without maybe thinking on my labor, or the work that went into it as also emotional––that I’m working towards resolution, in a reparative sense (as Sedgwick would have it). I think people like Divya Victor and Rob Halpern are really good at that kind of poetics. At a kind of work where you are also being asked, “do you see or do you not see poetry at work in the writer, as well as the page?”
AR: Poetry/poetics as being, as a mode of learning and thinking for the poet.
JFA: Yes exactly! I don’t know why we don’t openly engage with this as much. When you’re around students you sense an anxiety about exhibiting an incompleteness, of thought or emotion, or whatever. But that’s a shame that works alongside universal identity shit that we need to get over. Thinking in public is important, and doing so in front of younger people is really important. People are more comfortable reacting in public than thinking in public. The state of our public discourse has been really harmed by this.
AR: As a parent, some of the more notable moments in the book are the sections about preparing to see the world through your child’s eyes as a bracing for impact, or the opportunity regret provides for learning about shame. Perhaps most connected to the poetics of the project, there is the moment near the end when the book recalls “hav[ing] no biological language” during the birth of your child, “only... discourse. Only repeatable phrases [you] relied on for the two days of birth [because you] could not do anything... beyond the attempts of language to conspire with memory to captivate something meaningful” (scenery, p. 99). This is a question about what poetry can do. Can you elaborate on the connections or intersections between memory, empty discourse, repeatable phrases, and the work of poetics, even and especially in the context of parenthood?
JFA: I think it’s really important that we preserve ways for listening to memory, especially because I see attacks on critical race theory as intentional efforts to erase or silence the memories of democratic failure, exceptionalism and settler colonialism, and White supremacy. Poetry is poised to fight this battle in many ways because of the way lyric voice materializes persona, place, and time in the imagination of the reader. And in scenery I’m constantly negotiating the page in this vatic tension of looking back for the purpose of projecting, and the arrangement braids the present. These attacks on CRT say they are cleansing history as pedagogy, but the extent to which the hatred involved is unable to cloak personal rhetoric (rhetoric of the personal) to me reveals the real intention of cleansing the persons of American life full stop. And there again is the insistence of poetic voice. In the context of your question and what I was writing about, specifically, as a male-dad present at birth, we assume language just simply works. Like it’s an autonomous thing. Like how I think we just imagine “the internet” works, for example. And we don’t fully appreciate the humanity of it, which is our humanity to make. And maybe that’s exhausting—to treat each utterance with that reverence and thought. But maybe poetry exists to remind us of it as a possibility.
AR: I think, here, too, of both Marx in his notebooks and Olson: the result of alienation is that we feel most human-like in our animal functions—eating, drinking, sleeping, fucking—and most animal-like in our human functions—productive labor, making, worlding.5 The worker gets home and cracks a beer, eats some food, and falls asleep, finally feeling “free” from the day’s labor. But it’s in invested labor that we are most human. And Olson’s line always sticks with me: “the notion fun comes to replace work as what we are here for.”6
JFA: Shit I’d never read that Olson line before. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Heriberto Yépez7 on Olson? I hope I get this right, but in his introductory description of Olson Yépez frames Olson’s fascination with language as an attention to information, and describes information as “compressive.” Yépez frames Olson as an echo of Olson’s father, and by that I think he’s also wanting to frame Olson’s interest in the world, in history, etc., as dictated in large part by the residual “to-do” list (left behind as information) of his father’s world, compressed down into a hard packed cultural language (Northeastern cultural language). As a poet, then, Olson’s work might be understood as continued attempts to make cultural information representative of the World itself. And this is a violence, right? A weaponization, unbeknownst maybe or unintentional, of poetry… “Listening to memory,” though, in this context of labor, has to really be about de-compressing our informational selves through language. Those selves being manifestations of gestures, terms, stories/narratives, and repertoires that are stuck in representing compressed information that has had no other place to go or be expressed. Poetry slows down the message, unpacks the etymology, peeks between the cracks, and otherwise deciphers the curatorial patterns of archives; play or “fun” can take on different actual practices, but this is right––it should be what we’re here to do. As long as we’re on some kind of shared wavelength about what it isn’t, and of the dangers of weaponizing shared mediums, because that’s about power, and leveraging our power so as not to bear the same burden as others.
AR: I love when I have students in the classroom with your book, and they’re reading the different arrays or constellations of text, so they turn the book this way and that way. I was thinking of that when you were describing “de-compressing our informational selves, through language.” The breaking of the grid, or the shattering of the glass of the unacknowledged page, is something that is simultaneously challenging and accessible. I usually just ask my students to tell me how it feels to do this sort of reading, and that begins the conversation... In similar ways, it calls to mind Brathwaite’s work with legibility and justification, and Douglas Kearney’s work with schematics... Something else is happening, through the material form of the work, that gives students that embodied experience. scenery works between essay, theory, and poetry. You’ve been working on a project about nation. Can you share more about this, and how working between genres is part of your larger approach to the work?
JFA: In an echo to the earlier question on anger, I guess it’s worth noting how I work, and how I don’t work. I have a question, or a problem. It’s somatic in many ways, in that my connection to concepts or ideas occurs through a nervous system response to where I am, and how I am in the world. It’s my depression, or my alienation, my anxiety, my nervous system glitch in the larger network of relationships that bond/bound me to the working out of identity-in-place. As such, I guess I’m curious about emotions and let them engage with the stimuli that produce them. As a researcher though, I’m highly aware of the specificity of this stimuli, the specificity of my emotions, and the specificity of history. And so a lot of research is involved, or what we might call docupoetics. I think the writing I was trying to get after on “clarity” in the sections that are about parenting and about language in the context of witness was getting at illustrating this arc (or many arcs) in a convergence on life. I had started a similar project as a convergence on nation.
I recognize what scenery is though, and what my other books are. I get it, speaking of a “larger approach” at this moment. I get it when maybe someone doesn’t immediately connect with my work in a way that any writer would like readers to do. But I just also feel that this shit isn’t fungible. You know, it shouldn’t be fungible. That’s not what productive or generative means though I think in an academic setting or discourse that’s the conflation that we engage in, and to much applause and professional benefit (articles, conferences, and social media). I’m really intentional about my own “working it out” and I am always thinking about what can be worked out from the text. I do honestly think there is something there or I wouldn’t do it that way, but my way of working is maybe not super pleasant for everyone. I can honestly and sincerely say, however, that I’m proposing for others to engage in the experience of living intentionally, against fungibility, for decolonization, with others, towards reparative assembly. I say this fully aware that it’s a very fine line I walk between what I do and exhibit, using these specific artifacts, images, and historical catastrophes, and what is just reproducing distress, pain, the grotesque, etc.
AR: There’s so much care in your work, though—for the family, for the language, for the context and so on, that this risk, while courted, never seems to me to tip into that reproduction.
JFA: I guess it’s one of those things I see. I just spent a whole seminar recently basically reading parts of Divya’s CURB out loud to students, especially the gestational-somatic parts in the section “THRESHOLD.” That is care. That is getting at something in language about empathy and worlding in the face of distress, and the reproducibility of distress when it’s “on” every time we touch our phones or read the news basically. I was trembling as I read it. So I know what’s up, in terms of trying to do something, and there being work in the world that is doing it.
I’ve sort of scrapped my project on nation for now. It got to the point I think where I didn’t know what there was to say in this manner of a poetics. This last year became too much for us as a family, because of where we live in Wisconsin, because of the generalized stress of keeping our jobs alive, keeping our children healthy and invested in and connected to the world, preserving their childhood essentially, keeping our marriage healthy, communicating with my students as they got used up by the death cult aspects of the pandemic—many of our students work in food service, or places like Target, or are student teachers, and just became overwhelmed by being valued only as “human capital stock” and the forced vulnerability of their simply trying to make a living. While all of this was building and building, and by that I mean crumbling and crumbling, I simply let go of the engagement with writing. But I did, more and more, invest myself in our community, and a lot of my time now goes to community-based work. I’m either doing childcare, healing my partnership, teaching/advising, or engaged in community planning. There have been a lot of great books that have come out from this moment in history, I don’t need to add to that. I don’t think it should be a race to see who can chime in and say something about what we’re living through in order for us to simply live through it. I might have something to add at some point, I might not. I definitely don’t have the ability to do so now. I will say that it is a collaborative time I think. It’s a time to restore trust in our neighborhoods, create new neighborhoods, talk with people, a time to educate and share knowledge, and in its absence make knowledge. Poetry is involved in there, but we don’t have to all be poets. Which doesn’t mean I’m not engaged with language. I’m reading what others write. I’m just really involved, in terms of creative-time, in community work, which is about communication. I feel like I’m a good teacher, and I enjoy meeting people and working with them in the community. I see possibility in that, and it’s in real time.
1 Originally from a keynote address given by Morrison in 1975 at Portland State University, this quotation was more recently circulated in the aftermath of her death, and can be found here in a PBS NewsHour piece, with a link to the original audio.
2 From “A Conversation with Baldwin,” an interview with Kenneth Clark, “Perspectives: Negro and the American Promise,” aired June 24, 1963 (American Archive of Public Broadcasting).
3 See Marisela Martinez-Cola’s “Collectors, Nightlights, and Allies, Oh My! White Mentors in the Academy,” from Understanding and Dismantling Privilege (Volume X, Issue 1, April 2020).
4 In Just Us (2020).
5 See Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” in Writings of the Young Karl Marx, ed. and trans. by Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddart (Hackett, 1997); p. 292.
6 See Charles Olson’s “Human Universe,” in Charles Olson: Collected Prose, ed. Ben Friedlander (University of California Press, 1997), p. 159.
7 Empire of Neo-Memory, Chainlinks (reprint) 2013.