When can poetic discipline help to push us beyond just being the instruments of our own subjugation? When might sustained poetic vigilance end up boxing us out from “the very thing that shimmers just beyond what’s visible to the attentive eye”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Dawn Lundy Martin. This present conversation focuses on Martin’s Nightboat books Discipline and Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life. Martin’s other books include Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House, 2017) and A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007). A poet, essayist, and conceptual-video artist, Martin recently was named the 2019 recipient of the prestigious Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and praised by the judges for providing “an uncompromising poetics of resistance and exactitude.” Within the last several years, Martin also has received a Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, and an NEA Grant in Creative Writing. She has co-founded (and now directs) the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is a Professor of English. Martin’s latest publication is the anthology (co-edited with Erica Hunt) Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN/Radical WRITING. Amid these manifold accomplishments and accolades, Martin and I gradually put together this exchange regarding her ongoing resistance to “being assimilated, de-cultured, or devoured with a relaxing ease.”
ANDY FITCH: Maybe we could consider this annoying contrarianism on my part, but when I read responses to your books, and see the references to trauma, to despair, to repulsion piling up, I consider these an accurate, totally valid, yet perhaps partial account of what I find so compelling. So could you offer some tonalities or types of inquiry that you consider crucial to your poetics, but that often get neglected by readers, or at least by reviewers? For example, with Discipline, I definitely can appreciate audiences prioritizing the stark and quite painful scenes associated with racism, sexism, homophobia, economic despair. But then, when this book closes on the Williamsburg Bridge, on “the unknowing, the dumb,” I’ll want to know more about your potential attraction to the dumb — what that means for you. Or Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life contains these great aphoristic statements. “Tiny Essay” 17 states: “To be awake, alert, on guard, might be to miss the very thing that shimmers just beyond what’s visible to the attentive eye.” “Tiny Essay” 22 simply offers “To be liberated from the wakefulness state itself.” So again, could you describe what it might mean to move beyond vigilance, beyond the wakeful, within the context of your own work?
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: You’re bringing up a lot of stuff for me. I have always been interested in what cannot be spoken, what cannot be seen, what cannot be represented — especially given that I use language in my work, right? And we often think about language in this quotidian sense: as a way of communicating something, translating something, being articulate to the world and to experience. But what most interests me is when language falls apart, when it fails in that way. I think language certainly fails when it comes to thinking about identity, when it comes to thinking about how we represent race. And much of this definitely does emerge from how I’ve thought about trauma. In trauma and in attempts to speak trauma, language often just falls away. No language can attend to the traumatic or post-traumatic moment. I think that’s true when it comes to representation too.
So when it comes to things like the dumb or the mute or what can’t be seen — are those peripheral spaces? Or you also mentioned being liberated from a state of hyper-alertness, or even of wakefulness. So what happens in the spaces where those states don’t happen? So again attending to and thinking through how language can and cannot account for those states gets turned towards a kind of poetics — a poetics attending not only to poetry, but to any kind of making.
Another thing that really impresses me: after winning your second prestigious book award, with the publication of Discipline, and receiving lots of great attention, and with many at least quasi-autobiographical elements in that book, perhaps it could have made sense professionally to really “open up” and write a third collection all the more accessible to an ever-widening public and institutional audience. And I definitely don’t want to discourage such readership for your work. But I loved your turns in Life in a Box towards even more dense or even more difficult-to-assimilate formulations (just to offer a few brief references: “Wishes, well-wishes, eel”; “someone distance mouth pinch hum”). These compressed, elided constructions get juxtaposed to more direct assertions, such as “Form arrives at the end of language” or “I refuse to sing for you.” Could you talk a bit about these moves between the seemingly expressive and the seemingly elliptical in your work?
I’m not at all interested in the work being assimilated, de-cultured, or devoured with a relaxing ease. The work resists saying explicitly because the thing that wants to be said cannot be reduced, or reduction is a way of false imprisonment. The moment that we begin to think, for example, that we’ve nailed down “blackness,” is the moment we do ourselves in.
But I did really feel liberated with Discipline to think through the form of those untitled poems that kind of weave in and out of, as you say, the quasi-autobiographical. I felt liberated when realizing: Oh, okay, this book has all of these little tiny blocks of text, and I don’t know where one poem begins and where it ends. Is Discipline a book-length poem? How would somebody describe it? And I really took a cue from that when I moved on to Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, thinking about how to arrange the material for this thing we call the book — but while attending less to this other thing we call the poem. For example, these little linguistic punctuations started appearing, these things other people call section titles, but that don’t operate for me as section titles. These moments in all caps, like: “WITHOUT KNOWING THE SLIGHTEST THING ABOUT WAR, I FIND MYSELF AN INSTRUMENT OF LABOR, INVESTIGATION AND EXPERIMENT.”
Again with those moments I’m really thinking about what work they can do within the larger context of this book, not just standing on their own. So is that more elliptical? Is that less grounded for the reader? I myself can’t answer those questions. For me, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life is kind of like Discipline’s mutant child. Discipline gave birth to these gestures and took more conservative forms that became more expansive in the work that follows.
Does Discipline consciously sequence some of these broader tensions? For instance, just as the book arrives at something like an ambiguous rape scene, that scene culminates in this especially unsettling line: “We will begin newly. (scratch that).” Here a sense of guilt kicks in (for me at least), for absorbing this difficult content while also admiring the lively aesthetic gestures at play. I appreciate being tripped up like this as a reader. And then the subsequent, italicized page offers “Red like meat. Magic meat. All dripping and fantastic. It’s all so fantastic. Forgive me.” So once again I drift towards an uncomfortably aesthetic register (which trauma, of course, itself can provoke). And I don’t mean to create some false dichotomy dividing aesthetic experiment from traumatic content, but did you sense yourself coordinating or choreographing that type of push and pull across Discipline, perhaps as precursor to Life in a Box?
I want to say that the motivating factor in this part of Discipline has to do with a kind of questioning about when and where one finds agency. So there is in this particular passage (in my estimation anyway) a kind of confused and confusing sense of how the figure of the young woman is participating in this scene. There’s that tension at the heart of this whole book really between agency and subjection. And that also relates to what you described as a kind of aesthetic quality, as a linguistic gesture — with the language here giving more of a resonant quality as opposed to an imagistic quality. Again, that all emerges from these confused states where it’s impossible to know when one is acting within one’s own power.
In terms of sequencing, I don’t remember exactly how I put the book together, but yes I was really interested in a tension between moments that can be seen and moments that can be felt but not necessarily seen — because I don’t really trust the image so much. Sometimes I want to disrupt the image with this other thing — which could be static, could be music, could be language falling off the page, resonant emotion, etc. Sometimes the project is what’s not quite visible, or what’s contoured as if you can almost see something, as though you can almost visualize a woman’s back pressed against the car door. And again that all compels the question: what exactly is going on? As you mentioned, it’s not like we can just say “Here a rape scene is happening.” That happens and it also doesn’t happen, and all in this synced-up way, with the intersection of the interweaving aspects of the poetics at work in Discipline, which has these multiple narratives, multiple impulses at play, multiple ways of attending to meaning.
And since, as an audience member, that experience of undergoing this unclear dynamic of agency and subjection came across so well, I wondered if you could talk more about being disciplined (perhaps both empowered and constricted) as a reader yourself.
I’m definitely thinking about “discipline” in this kind of multi-pronged way, which includes a kind of reductive Foucauldian sense of becoming an unwitting instrument of one’s own subjugation. I am also thinking of discipline akin to the logics of sadomasochism — the notion of being “disciplined” by another, or being “trained” into required and desired submission. And, of course, the more quotidian notion of discipline appears through the work in the tight prose blocks that dominate the book. So how does that all affect the reader, and how does the reader herself contribute? And I do like it when a work of art, a collection of poems, or a public performance or film refuses to let go of the audience. One of my favorite writers, who was also my mentor for a while, Myung Mi Kim, would sometimes just give these really long readings filled with audible silences breathing up into the room. I really love that it’s rude to leave, so you are forced to stay, to exercise an endurance of presence. I appreciate that notion of discipline as a sensibility that refuses to release the reader or viewer from a yoke — be it a content yoke, or a condition of the experience itself.
Yeah I love those immersive experiences in your own work. And could you also describe finding new capacities within yourself by enduring this disciplining experience? Or how might various artworks create space for you to discipline yourself in ways you wouldn’t otherwise try?
First I really appreciate how this is the opposite of the way we normally participate in society. Usually we’re just like: “Whatever, I want to be entertained.” You know, students don’t want to be bored. People don’t want to sit through something really long. We want comfort. We want leisure. I want those things too. But at the same time, even as this American imagination might claim a right to those things, lots of our fellow humans living on this planet would never even imagine a right to those things, given their particular situation.
And artistically, I’m interested in when there are serious constraints around the making of a work. I think that a normative practice can just start reproducing itself. And again, that feels analogous to some ways that we participate in society. Like, perhaps, the rigors of the art-making practice translates into how we do other things in life. So for me, this emphasis on discipline doesn’t just speak to poetics or trying to imagine some new formal technique in a work, but also to how we participate in the everyday world. I say this will full acknowledgement that maybe this idea appeals to me because I think of myself as an extremely undisciplined person. I have very little routine to my days unless I force it to happen. I find restraint in everyday life suffocating. It could be that that’s the main reason that restraint and discipline manifest as central practices in the creative work. It’s a way to regulate what I feel is a persistent spilling out and spilling over.
This might seem a bit of a jump, but, still on the topic of constraints, of not simply reproducing ourselves: in the note that ends Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, you refer to appropriations from racist texts, but you also refer to appropriations from racist ideologies. One easily can imagine, however unpleasant the source material, how a contemporary poet goes about appropriating racist texts. But appropriating or borrowing from an ideology seems different, and suggests again some more immersive engagement or incorporation or internalization. So could you expand upon this particular constraint?
I think that placing a belief system (or a kind of attention around a belief system) into a different context can produce something else. And I think that even this mere shift in context can change how these ideologies get represented and seen. Of course 19th-century racist ideologies are still so operative that we’re always doing this anyway.
And just to clarify: here again I’m not thinking necessarily about a generalized reader or audience in the traditional sense. I’m really thinking about myself and how my own imagination, my regular thoughts, are constantly tainted by racist shit. And where does that come from for a black queer person? So it’s really me that I’m talking to, and also hopefully not just me. But I’m really thinking about myself as a primary audience member when I’m borrowing from those different texts and contexts.
I love this question: what does it mean to “borrow” from a racist ideology? What does it mean to be living both within and through the traces of racist ideologies, which none of us can really let go of? We can all just sit around and point fingers and say “That person is a racist” or “What you said was fucked up.” But it lives inside of all of us, which is why it affects us so hard. I was really kind of pressing up against that, or wanting to. And again, it’s not something I think is super legible on the surface of the book, but it’s an impetus for some of the moves that happen.
And of course borrowing from a racist ideology might also just mean: to write in English. But in terms of some more concrete internalizations and reenactments, could you lead us into a discussion of how Kara Walker became a productive model for these books, perhaps for her ambitious attempts to integrate the most loaded and / or most loathsome representational tropes? Here I go back to your “Tiny Essay” 19: “The idea that the physical form is just one part of the body and that we might instead imagine the body’s imagining of itself.” Or when I think of internalized stereotypes that manifest in Discipline, I recall a father’s critique of “American blacks,” or the uncanny troubling scene of kids tying a boy (not naked, but in shorts at least) to a tree for a whipping session. And then with Life in a Box, in terms of those graphic gestures, those single statements in caps feel like rolling Jenny Holzer-esque thoughts, like “WHEN WE ARE INSIDE THE PRISON WE CAN ONLY THINK OF BEAUTY.”
Those are just kind of notes, you know? And with Kara Walker’s work, I always love how it can feel like an exorcism, like a purging of cultural demons. I find her work intensely instructive for thinking about ways in which people receive it, and how something quite ordinary in certain contexts becomes so provocative in others. So I want Life in a Box’s all-caps phrases to feel like intentional provocations sometimes. I really want them to offer a kind of prod at times, especially when it comes to thinking about subjectivity. And I think each of these statements does divergent work. “HELLO, FREE HOUSE, HELLO. NO, GOODBYE. SO LONG BUZZARDS WHITE EYED GHOSTS” has a completely different tonal register and logic, for instance — as if a voice comes up from a hole in the floor and suddenly whispers loudly into the room.
One other thing I really value in Walker’s work is that as much as it’s horrifying and as much as she has, since her first big exhibition, rubbed a lot of people, of all races, and particularly black people, the wrong way (black people have the hardest time with Walker’s work, because these are images that we as a community really don’t want to see in the world, even though they’re already in the world)…as much as all of that is happening, I appreciate how this work also still has humor.
And especially in my newest work, even when I want a tension that refuses to let go of the audience, I still don’t want that to feel free from humor or joyous madness.
Sure as I’ve kept asking about unrecognized tonalities in your work, I guess I’ve basically meant humor. And maybe it’s just my own personal thing, but when I think of humor, and how all of its sustaining and liberatory and repressive and oppressive aspects overlap, I also think of family — as well as of all these different types of community (poetry communities, racial and national communities) that get imposed on us, and that we ourselves are the ones reinforcing at present. So whether this has to conform to a literal autobiographical family or not remains an open question, but could you describe how a poetics of family might refract and enact its own form of discipline, of a pretty life perhaps kept in a box?
I think about this all the time. My imagination is intensely fueled by the autobiographical, at the same time that it’s about the writing itself. Like when I’m thinking about how to put this material together, the figures can feel like stand-ins for real-life representations. So what compels the writing in the first place is writing about the self. But because I distrust this mode, I have to figure out a way to do it that feels right to me. I distrust memory. I distrust confessional poetry. I distrust narrative that has no sense of its own inherent artificiality.
Thinking about family, of course, brings in all of that. I do find it interesting to ask questions like: who / what legitimately is a family? That question has never had an inevitable answer for me. So thinking through and attempting to write about family definitely contributes to this fragmentary feeling on the page, or this sense of incompletion. And similarly, one of the things that’s exciting about working in genres is that I have to figure out, for example, what kind of essayist I am. I wrote this piece for The New Yorker, and that was fun and interesting, but then I was just like: “Oh, is this how I write essays?” I want to figure out an answer to that question, which I’d never really asked myself before I started investing more time in essay writing.
One last topic I would hate to miss: defecation. We could of course just assign defecation to “the abject.” But because it has come up a couple times in a couple of books now (Discipline’s opening poem contains the lines: “excreta / [or sentence] or ripe: / here the mouth held / grip over / and flood liquid / a defecated magic…three went in and three emerged although significantly reduced / dispossession fragrance like mules or dung”), could you address what’s happening with defecation?
Well there is that attention to the abject. There’s also an attention to humiliation, and to the most humiliating things that can happen to a body — like when you’re just completely bereft of physical function. I do think that we use the word “abject” too much though. I think of the abject body as beyond humiliation. The humiliated body still has a kind of sense of oneself, because you’re having this experience and you’re somehow involved in this extreme sense of shame.
I think that’s what those moments around defecation or dung or whatever speak to.
Okay. I also sense a little pleasure in those passages.
Maybe. I guess I think of humiliation as this state of feeling flushed or hot, but where there’s also nothing you can do. It’s also maybe liberating, because it’s like: there it is. There’s this situation. There’s this experience. There’s this effect.
Credit for Dawn Lundy Martin portrait: Max Freeman