The Poetry Project

To Tell the Story, We Need Everything: An Interview with Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Forest Smotrich-Barr

“Expansive and awake,” Sycamore writes, “alert to the possibility of language activating the body.” This is the potential that queer writer and activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore gives the reader in her new book, Touching the Art, in which she blends memoir, biography, art criticism and history to engage with the work and life of her late grandmother, Baltimore-based abstract artist Gladys Goldstein. Sycamore frames and reframes our conceptions of how we might walk through cities; talk to our ancestors; look at a single square of paper until it opens up a new space inside our stomachs. She teaches us that to truly honor our beloved is to be attentive to every aspect of their real and possible selves. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our phone conversation.

— Forest Smotrich-Barr

Forest Smotrich-Barr: Gladys defines abstraction in the book as “meaning something that you can’t reach.” I’m wondering if you can speak to the different relationships that each of you has with abstraction.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore: I think her relationship with abstraction was one of purity. She thought, in a modernist tradition, that art could be based on experience, but it had to transcend it at the same time. And I think that was a big rupture in our relationship, where as a child, everything I did was beautiful to her. She was nourishing the things that made me different, like my femininity, my sensitivity, my empathy, my introspection—all of these aspects that in some way the world was against. But then when my work came into its own, and became decidedly queer and political, those things were vulgar to her. Abstraction to her was above that, and so that’s one of these paradoxes that I circle around in the book. For me, I think that abstraction is a way of letting the world in, refusing the terms of oppressive structures that we’ve been given to look, even; to feel.

And I think that she did give me that possibility, but in the world, she was still imprisoned by the middle class upward mobility myth. She gave me an alternative to that in my head, because of the way that she described art as everything. Like, you walk outside, you see a leaf, and you look at the veins within it, or how the colors shift, or how it looks with the sun coming through, or what if it’s on the ground; that’s art. And in a lot of ways, that’s what queerness is for me. Queerness is an everyday experience of the world that’s always shifting, and it refuses the strictures, the artificial constraints that suffocate us. But she couldn’t understand that, or refused to.

So to come back to this description of abstraction as something you can’t reach, in a way, I think maybe the book is actually reaching it, or reaching towards it. I don’t think there’s anything you can’t reach. What I mean by that is that this myth of art as being something pure, or outside of history, is damaging.

FSB: Absolutely. You write that your mother said about Gladys, when they were first introduced, “She loved that I was Jewish, but didn't look Jewish,” which reminds me of the title of one of the anthologies you edited, Nobody Passes. How has the concept of “passing” touched your family's history and your own?

MBS: One thing I have never passed as in the world is straight. As a child, I was always seen as a girl or a faggot—I mean, the wrong kind of girl, right—and so my life is definitely informed by that. I tried as a teenager to pass. I would see the way some guy stood, and be like, “I’m going to put my hands in my pockets like that.” And then people would be like, “Why is that faggot putting her hands in her pockets like that, who does she think she's giving?”

And I would say, growing up in an assimilated Jewish family, [my family was] not interested in passing as not Jewish, for the most part. As a child I was very proud of my Jewish heritage. My parents were not observant, but they gave us the option of going to Hebrew school, and I chose to go. And it was maybe right after my Bar Mitzvah that I decided I didn’t believe in God and I was like, “I don’t want any of this.” A lot of that was also because of Passover Seders at my relatives’ house—this experience of seeing my relatives switch to Yiddish to say racist things about Black people. Seeing that, and then also the ways that misogyny was so rampant, [and] homophobia, and upward mobility at any cost. And that was a myth that Gladys was also entranced by, and was a part of. That was something I didn’t realize before writing this book, how central she was to that myth. And I think that’s passing.

And in writing the book … I realized that during the Civil War, when Baltimore was under Union occupation, there were Jewish merchants smuggling goods to the Confederacy, and the vast majority of Jews in Baltimore supported slavery, like the vast majority of all white people in Baltimore. That is what assimilation means; assimilation into white supremacy. Most European Jews who were able to pass [did] … and passing really meant upward mobility. And I didn’t know any of that when I was noticing my relatives switching to Yiddish to say racist things about Black people, but I felt it.

I think often as radical Jews … people will be like, “Oh, well, the Jews were the union organizers.” But they also owned the sweatshops, right? So we need [to talk about] both, and I think a radical tradition in Judaism is not just about invoking our radical forebearers that have been erased, but also about challenging the violence that continues, and that we are a part of; the violence of that passing that continues today.

FSB: For sure. You said that you were surprised to learn in your writing process just how much Gladys was invested in that myth of upward mobility—what surprised you?

MBS: What I did not understand before writing this book was that she believed in having a creative life within middle class respectability. For me, survival meant rejecting that. When I was 19, and remembering that I was sexually abused by my father, who was Gladys’s only child, or even before that, when I decided, “I am a faggot, and I’m going to tell the whole world and not hide it,” I knew it erased all of my accomplishments. I knew it, but I didn’t care, because it also meant that I could live. And it meant that I was going to refuse all of the violence as much as I could … and [make] those connections, between white supremacy and misogyny; between the family and homophobia and transphobia; between mandatory masculinity and social violence; all of it has to go, right? And I think I thought that when she said that art was everything, she meant that nothing else mattered. I thought she meant that, but she didn’t mean that. Because for her, art could only exist within middle-class respectability.

FSB: Totally, and similarly, you write about how Gladys always started with structure in her work, and only afterwards allowed herself to “become emotional.” I’m curious how you might have used structure to access emotion in your writing process, or vice versa.

MBS: I think in her sense she was containing the emotion. I think some of it is about misogyny—and “women’s work can’t be too emotional, because otherwise it’s not real art.” For me, I’m always moving toward emotion. And, I think, partially because—as a child growing up in a world that wanted me to die or disappear, and then growing up with a father who was sexually abusing me, but it was never spoken of, and his upward mobility camouflaged the violence—in order to survive, I had to be cold. When my father was screaming at me, I had to look through him at one of Gladys’s paintings on the wall or at the blank wall behind him. Or walking down the street, when people were telling me they wanted to kill me, you know, for being a queer or a flamer or gender transgressive or flamboyant.

But I think that now I know that moving toward vulnerability is what will save me. Going to the place when I first was writing and thinking, “I don’t know what the hell my father’s doing here,” one way to write a more traditional book might have been, “Oh, well, he doesn’t belong here. It’s about this wonderful place of inspiration that I felt from this relationship with my grandmother.” But of course, that wasn’t all there was. And similarly, writing about her, I want to write about the ways that she participated in personal, familial and structural violence, which exist alongside the feeling of possibility, or openness, or freedom that she gave me; all of this is there. And so for me, the structure of the book comes through the writing, it’s not the other way around.

FSB: I love that; that feels like such a poet’s orientation to writing, which also comes through in the more researched parts of the book. You say about a biography of Frank O’Hara, “the way that a book filled with gossip can still be reverent.” That seems like a very apt description of Touching the Art as well; there’s a wonderful gossip quality to the historical elements. I’m wondering if you can speak more to the relationship between gossip and reverence in the book.

MBS: Oh, I love that. I think the reverence is accidental. I’m starting … with the art itself, and then my memories, documents that I have, letters between us, photos of my grandparents and my father as a child from the 1950s. And then I go to Baltimore, and it’s my experiences in Baltimore. And then, after that, I do what is more traditionally considered research. I’m trying to understand what [it was] like in the 1920s and 30s, living—as Gladys did—just two blocks from the legal dividing line between white and Black people in Baltimore. And then I realize, “Oh, well, Billie Holiday is basically an exact contemporary of hers.” And she’s an abstract artist too … and she grew up in Baltimore. So then I’m reading her memoir, and then all these books about her, which are history, right? But they are history formed by gossip.

And, similarly, I’m reading books about Frank O’Hara, because I’m thinking about his relationship with Grace Hartigan. She was an abstract painter and he was instrumental to her career. So I’m thinking about this relationship between a straight woman and a gay poet, and how Gladys’s best friend was a gay artist in Baltimore who was instrumental to her career. And their relationship is not documented, right? But I can read about Frank O’Hara.

I think that history is as much what’s left out as what exists. And some of what’s left out is what actually happened, and some is what could have happened, and some is what we can never imagine. And I want it all there, as much as possible.

FSB: You write about your childhood synagogue donating funds to “plant trees in the Negev … since no one told me that this was part of an Israeli government program to destroy Palestinian villages.” How do you think Zionism relates to this conversation about Jewish American assimilation, both during your childhood and in light of the current genocide being carried out by the Israeli state in Gaza?

MBS: So as a child, when I went to Hebrew school, what could sound better than planting trees? If I’m in that moment, it’s such a beautiful and nourishing act, right? It’s like, “The land is turning to desert, and the desert needs trees.” Thinking about it now, I’m struck by the level of brainwashing, the ways in which children are being recruited into this horribly violent act, because the trees are planted to camouflage the Palestinian villages that have been destroyed by the Israeli military. These villages have been wiped off the map. And as we see now, often the first thing they destroy are the trees. Because the olive trees are such a symbol of connection to the land. And the US government funds all of this. I think there are people that are ideologically Zionists, but then there are people who are like, “What about the trees we planted in the Negev?” And that’s a child speaking, right? It’s a child that refuses to learn the truth.

And I think that’s what we’re seeing now, among so many Jews who have been brainwashed by Zionism, directly and indirectly. But it goes further than that, because the genocide in Gaza is a collaboration between the Republican and Democratic parties, between evangelical Christians and the Zionist lobby, and Jews barely even matter except as an ideological tool. [Right] now, we have this radical outpouring of brilliant and inspiring direct action among groups like Jewish Voice for Peace or IfNotNow, all of this inspiring structural analysis, intersectional analysis. But at the same time, we have a Congress that says, “If you are anti-Zionist that’s anti-Semitic.” Right now, that’s the mainstream. While in this moment, everything is getting worse in Gaza. It has not changed the trajectory in Gaza at all, or in Israel.

So to come back to the book, what I think is instructional for me is that assimilation means assimilation into white supremacy, right? White flight doesn’t just mean going to a “nicer” neighborhood, so you can have a safe place to raise your kids. It’s not a neutral act. White flight means dooming the neighbors you left to racist structural neglect, for decades, that continues to this day. That path of assimilation, that path of white flight, is a path into white supremacy, and that’s what we’re seeing today; attachment to that violence at any cost.

FSB: You write about one of Gladys’s pieces, “I’m saying we can imagine our way in, and we can imagine a way out.” What ways do you imagine out, and how are they connected to imagining our way in?

MBS: In order to imagine a way out of anything, we need to understand everything that’s there. I’m talking about looking at the art, and [how] it opened up a space inside me. So that’s what abstraction can give us, right? But I don’t want only that. That would be a beautiful dream, but a dream can only go so far. And so in order to tell that story, or to feel it, I have to talk about the ways that Gladys let me down; about her refusal ever to engage with my work as an artist. And that’s the genesis of the book—when I realized how much it would have meant to me if she had engaged with me as an artist. That place of loss, because once she died, I realized how much I wanted that to happen.

In order to tell the story, we need everything. All of the violence—whether it’s personal, intimate, familial, structural, historical—we need to examine all of that too. That has to be inside. Without looking at all of that, there is no way out. I want all of it to exist at once, because that’s how it is. So I could be looking at this piece of art, and all the textures, what’s inside, but I can also be thinking about redlining in Baltimore, and how that continues to doom so many neighborhoods through racist disinvestment. I could be experiencing the art of Mark Bradford as a kind of pure engagement with abstraction and then realize he says that the show is about the failed project of Reconstruction and realize, “Oh, that’s what I’m writing about.”

So it all circles around itself, right? The experience of being in Baltimore and writing about what seem like random encounters; they’re random, but they’re also part of it. My experience of dancing in a club might also relate to the experience of the art might also relate to an experience of embodiment or failure. And I think in a way, the different pieces of the book are reaching toward one another. Do we get there? I don’t know. But I know that we can’t get there unless we have all the pieces.

#275 – Winter 2024