What happens when your dissertation explodes, as you give birth, as a relationship ends, as you keep depicting yourself “thinking and writing at the same time”? What comes next for your critical work, particularly when your haphazard way of proceeding critically “involves first reading everything cited, then reading everything those people have cited”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Simone White. This present conversation (transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman) focuses on White’s hybrid scholarly-poetic project Dear Angel of Death. White is the author of Of Being Dispersed, House Envy of All the World, and the chapbooks Unrest and (with Kim Thomas) Dolly. In 2017, she received the Whiting Award for poetry. She lives in Brooklyn, and joins the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania this summer.
ANDY FITCH: I tried to think of one particular passage with which to introduce your essay, and paused upon: “I just want to know what else might be available. What metaphor, if not the Music, will hold the pressure of being forced into ‘bone-deep listening,’ uncanny attunement to the surround.” Near its end, this essay begins to rehash similar questions when you declare: “we must agree to think about the work we have asked the Music to do, whether it is still able to do that work, and how that work might be done elsewhere.” So could you start to describe the philosophical, aesthetic, poetic, existential stakes at play as Dear Angel of Death probes possibilities for conceptually parsing black thought and music (even as countless prose and poetic sequences here further enfold, confound such tidy categorizations), and all amid a historical, art-historical, intellectual-historical context in which “a space of black American thought that was once officially empty — but not really though — has become quite full. Membership in this club of undesirables who theorize the undesirable is policed and fought over just like everything else”?
SIMONE WHITE: Well, I’ll give the short and simple answer, which won’t sound all that short or simple. I can barely remember when I began to feel an agitation around this idea of black music as more than just the originary place for thinking about how black writing worked. Maybe that began as long ago as my first reading of Amiri Baraka’s Black Music, or maybe when I began to read Nathaniel Mackey’s novels. But though I still find Fred Moten’s In the Break fascinating (I don’t sense any doubt now that Fred’s book is as important as any in African American critical life), that whole line of thought at some point started to feel like a fetish. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it. I can say, anecdotally, that Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbooktotally blew me away the first time I read it. But even then, I didn’t share some of the affective adoration. I never wanted to join some obsessive old-boys club, listening to jazz. The other day I was rereading Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, looking at that passage where Samuel Delany says something like: “I was at Breadloaf as a kid and had written this bad novel,” and whoever was interrogating that novel said, “Oh, this could only come from a person deeply involved in this music.” And Delany said, “I actually hate jazz.” I myself don’t hate jazz. I enjoy it, but it never became the focal point for my enjoyment of black music.
So I started to consider how, as a young person, I had hip hop and reggae and other things, but I really hated 80s R&B. As much as I loved rap music, I couldn’t bear the popular R&B of the moment. People would talk about someone like Anita Baker, and… [Laughter]. That was just beyond me. I love Anita Baker now, but the emotional range of the adult blues Anita Baker spoke to in her contemporary moment didn’t have anything to do with me. And the young people’s contemporary music, like Boys II Men or Luther Vandross — that was really bad [Laughter]. And I became known, among friends, or even as a later adult, as someone who refused to listen to that music, even as a music nerd.
Then eventually I had a fight with somebody who shall remain nameless, who tried to school me about my ahistorical use of the phrase “Black Music.” But that got me started on a thought experiment. What if I started thinking about Black Music as a tradition that caused revulsion? And so that began this overall ambition to find a new place for grounding, you could call it, black-art-theoretical criticism. I don’t know what you want to call it. Black-art theory? Some sort of black-expressive life. I wanted to experiment with displacing Black Music.
Yeah could we start developing a working definition for Black Music (with the capital letters still intact), including the writing, performing, production, dissemination of this music, and how those various aspects might make some of the 80s R&B you describe, for example, seem less compelling? And then especially when you discuss how Baraka, Mackey, Moten respond to jazz, and especially whenever that particular conversation drifts towards literature, it does raise questions of when we mean “jazz” as composed/played/heard music, when we mean “jazz” as allegory.
And here, as a type of broader methodological inquiry enacted across this book, certain self-reflexive rhetorical questions stand out, such as: “Can I, do I, get to where Moten already was, where Mackey was…. Is it possible to go there and still be…advancing thinkingabout the question of how black innovation, literary and otherwise, is unprofitably tied up (hung up) on metaphors of musical improvisation?” So as you begin to sketch Dear Angel of Death’s relation to an interpersonally narrow (largely male, for instance) yet philosophically rich literary lineage stretching from Baraka through Mackey through Moten and beyond (all subject, you say, to questions “of whether or not these individuals are capable in the first place of making a thought tradition in relation solely to one another,” all shaped by “furious local” ruptures reflecting and constructively refracting “the associated terror & refusal of terror by the individual constituted as without ties about the nature of ties”), would it also make sense to describe Dear Angel’s distinctive hybridized format as emerging from a lived/theorized history of figuring out which vectored self-positioning for you as poet/scholar/person/persona felt most right amid that broader but still somewhat hermetic discourse?
Well again, partly this has to do with one’s intellectual development. So how did the criticism come about? For me, it came out of a formal, academic context. This essay emerged from the second part of a dissertation which exploded. I was like: “I can’t continue this way. I can’t only do this.” So my work here did not arise primarily out of music criticism. It did arise as a way to explore what kinds of criticism we should call for when trying to think through how black writing functions as a liberatory practice of some kind, and how black writers operate as artists in a context that makes it very, very difficult for anybody, especially black people, to shake free of certain ideological or linguistic fetters. My essay starts from there. And basically everybody I discuss does belong to this small men’s club. Music becomes allegorical or metaphorical thanks to the readily available examples of these folks appearing to have resolved some of this conversation’s fundamental questions. And yes, aside maybe from Baraka, I think everybody involved has understood this discussion as some kind of parallel happening.
As you outline Dear Angel’s origins, should we also describe its format, and how that too goes about engaging something like a lineage? Should we introduce your various roles as poet, scholar, personal presence in this book? How does that all speak to tapping this broader (but also closely knit) ongoing conversation you found? How did your dissertation end up exploding into this particular formation?
That’s interesting. The essay itself develops through methods of poetic composition. You can’t easily place it in American literary-critical history, although in some ways it’s about American literary history. And by saying the dissertation “exploded,” I mostly mean I started investigating new questions (I had been deeply engaged with Emerson as a philosopher moving around questions of individualism, and with legal philosopher Duncan Kennedy’s work in relation to Emerson’s). And I also mean that after I wrote those first two chapters, I got pregnant. I don’t mean like I suddenly got full of lady magic. I mean I stayed flat on my back for a couple months. But I already had begun to cogitate and stall. I felt old to be pregnant, and it all had become incredibly disruptive, and annoying really. I had this true and deep ambivalence around getting pregnant. I felt stuck with my dissertation, but also desperate to get out of graduate school. Anyway I had some time to cogitate around what to do next, and decided that if I ever finished this dissertation, it would happen in some manner more relevant to my work as a poet.
And so I’m really glad you’ve picked up on how this piece gets so closely written. I stayed so close to these texts. This essay lacks literary-critical distance. It buries its nose in a few texts. At first I thought I would only cite maybe three or four different texts. I wanted to stay that close, and preserve its immersive investment and its partnership with these authors or personae as critical objects. And you’re right to sense an investigation of the conditions which make that individual kind of writing possible. That all got started from the first months of my child’s life, from this very dark and difficult place, this very complicated knit of a personal situation and desperation to work through questions of rebuilding my critical work.
Part of what does feel Emersonian here is the sense that we’re going to find this overall essay’s meaning through the experience of sentences. Or more broadly, in terms of this project’s self-positioning, in terms of the poems you also present, and their lyric “I’s” emphatic interest in “MESSIANIC TIME…what is now? // that is; what is a calling? what is my work, how do I know myself in it at this time,” for me those types of questions get raised and answered basically on a sentence-by-sentence level throughout this book. So when your essay detects, amid Nathaniel Mackey’s thought balloons, “a new logic of black (aesthetic) history that I am calling anaphoric or epigraphic, predicated on the artist’s ability to develop a deranged and hyper-cognitiveunderstanding of her location on a grid of recordings — textual, somatic, spiritual or what have you,” my mind moves back to your poetic sequence “Stingray,” with its 10 10-line hyper-cognitively self-locating stanzas seeming to close around the phrase “one fractal initially.” And here I’ll wonder what it means to you to fuse such reenactment of “a new logic of black (aesthetic) history” with such reenactment of the lyric, amid the lyric’s own efforts “both to give oneself over to the now and to theorize its instantaneous continuity.” Or to arrive at something more like a question, could you speak to how Dear Angel’s diptych structure might enact its “I’s” desire “to cause her own escape from what has previously been understood as the history of her own self”? Why/when did a lyric “I” get so wrapped up in these intertextual reflections, and why might a reader (like myself) typically not attuned to exploits of a literary “I” follow this one with such interest? What makes “Dollbaby’s” “I” so cool? And if this doesn’t seem too far a stretch, how might the “I” “Dollbaby” presents confirm, complicate, collapse the “I” who, in your essay, declares with unresolved anxiety that “the set of solutions achieved or achievable musically as black music in America is inextricably linked to a more general gnosticity that has nothing whatsoever to do with blackness, nothing whatsoever to do with a set of “emotions” that are, unquestionably, linked to black life”? Which “I” escapes from which at which points in this broader two-part project?
Well first of all, thanks for pointing to the theoretical crux of the thing, and the inspiration for this whole project. I do believe in the Saidiya Hartmans of the world, to a certain extent. My own intellectual “vectored self-positioning,” as you say, starts from that. Especially as a lawyer, Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection affected me deeply, and made me start to wonder what a critical rejoinder might look like. How do you deconstruct this historical record that seems so obviously real, and which seems to lead (not metaphorically) to the conclusion that black people are permanently fucked up? That’s been my project all along, critically, to figure out some way to talk back to that archive.
But I don’t have a conscious project like that in my creative work. And so, with the “I” here, the actual interior of the mind emerges as a place you can’t really control. So to refuse to allow this process to develop and break down — I can’t understand that. That type of feeling makes me the kind of writer I am, say in a poem like “Stingray.” The necessities of writing “Stingray” absolutely relate to the problematics I had to think through with the critical work. But here we also might have to discuss the personal stuff a little. I had a very strong sense of this poem taking place in a specific physical location. I thought of it as a map of the East Coast. The poem came to pass on the New Jersey Turnpike, as I drove my infant back to New York from my mother’s home in Philadelphia. My kid was sleeping in the car. I had this little baby and my marriage was ending. I didn’t know how to talk about it. But you’ve read the book.
The book in part traces these new or developing ways of understanding love relationships. The poems try to rediscover and sustain certain kinds of intimacies. The book’s turning point probably comes with “Flossie” — this long, memoir-like poem about the first person I ever loved, still very much a love in my life and one of my closest friends. The encounter with this person at the end of my marriage was transformational, like waking up and walking back in time to a place where you could experience a different kind of intimacy. “Stingray” grapples with all of that, though it looks like a historical poem traveling up and down the East Coast. To read it is to make these cartographic movements up and down, but continually passing the central figure of this invisible thing on the bottom of the ocean. People don’t see it, but it remains the poem’s most important creature. To render this poem’s “I” as a bottom dweller was the best I could do. This poem doesn’t ask: “How do you fall in love again?” At all. But as far as I can tell, that’s what it’s about, and that has everything to do with what I said about Saidiya Hartman.
My mind doesn’t separate between those two investigations. It’s like: I’m this black woman living this strange life, given this very special and privileged freedom to do my work and do whatever I want to a certain degree. I can leave my marriage when my kid is 18 months old. The necessities of staying are not present for me. So how do you square that with a theoretical position, which I think of as truth, that says black people are permanently fucked up?
Within this context, I love the formulation early on: “In reverse of rejection revulsion reversion retrospection redrawing review remind recognize reminisce remembrance recollection.” And when you describe the lack of separation between this book’s two primary investigations, I also want to clarify further how Dear Angel’s critical work becomes lyrical (and vice versa). And again with Baraka, Mackey, Moten in mind, I return to questions of ekphrasis — of how, if at all, we might differentiate between critical projects and artistic projects, particularly within this specific tradition you write out from. You give this great line: “I’m interested in what fresh epistemological satisfactions arise when physical/spatial…as opposed to sonic/linguistic…aspects of thinking the difference between black art traditions and any other kinds of tradition come forward by way of repeating/writing-down/re-reading as a method.” Here I’ll wonder how prioritizations on physical/spatial thought might open up a discussion regarding the place of citationality, intertextuality, polyvocality, critical and creative ekphrasis, both in the texts you address and in the text you yourself assemble. Your fleeting reference to “black arts traditions” (lower case) points me towards this book’s wide-sweeping, transhistorical interest in “the question of the relation of black intellectual practice as art practice,” but also towards the specific Black Arts Movement itself, with its uniquely (perhaps with Du Bois as precedent) generative fusion of poetic and critical and first-person practices. So how does Dear Angel’s hybrid project simultaneously point forward to what black arts or Black Arts still might become, what scholarship still might become?
Well I definitely do think of the Black Arts Movement as engaged with this question of: what is the relationship between black expression, action, and politics? I think of that as BAM’s fundamental question, coming out of Du Bois, and with “politics” meaning a kind of totally self-transformational effort, and an engagement with the public, which doesn’t have to take some familiar form of political activism. So yes, to that extent, I do think of my intellectual work as weird political theory — as completely rooted in that particular procession, that particular history, and with multiple people taking it in different directions at present. You see a large effort by a lot of folks thinking: Well how does our work relate to larger questions of the survival of black people in the United States and worldwide?
So maybe in terms of formal solutions and ideological commitments, my work doesn’t stick to Black Arts traditions. Or maybe it does. Sonia Sanchez is incredibly important to me, maybe the most important. I’m obviously obsessed with Amiri Baraka, even given the gender questions that always hang me up. Again “Stingray” and “Messenger” emerge from all that. They address two different lovers, and so ask questions about how black love will manifest in a way that is not dangerous for a woman. The book as a whole, especially in its later stages, directly connects to fundamental contemporary questions about how black women artists can survive in this world. In that way Dear Angel feels simpatico with Khadijah Queen’s amazing new book I’m So Fine. And so again, more broadly, Dear Angel may not present any obviously recognizable lyric “I,” but I feel like it says what I had to say.
Yeah, we haven’t gotten to gender much yet, which arises as a pertinent topic from the start, with your essay’s engaging epigraphs all coming from men, and your second paragraph’s announcement of “feelingsurpassing the armaments of liquid masculinity,” and your poems offering any number of moving explorations of female embodiedness, female desire, maternal affectivity. Two of Dear Angel’s extended points of critical focus especially stand out here. First, when “the masculine order of black writing…an order of claiming being together, not of hiding, not of disguise, not of suppression” finds its physical manifestation in Baraka’s extensive quotations from Du Bois, when you show us how this citational practice plays out on the phallologocentric page, of course these enactments of masculine order could prompt our condemnation, our questioning of the failure to recognize and reject such exclusionary dynamics of group formation. But your book doesn’t really offer that critique. Or even under the sign of “liquid armaments of masculinity,” for instance, might we detect (say again in Baraka’s citational practice) prospects for expressed personal/professional vulnerabilities, for public intimacies, for homoeroticized and more widespread liberatory participatory inclusivities? Or again, to what extent does Dear Angel’s own inclusion of lyric, quasi-autobiographical elements help to short-circuit, set aside, redirect, some of this making of a masculine order, and offer an alternative practice?
Again I don’t remember what got me started thinking about Baraka’s long quotations. For sure Fred’s In the Break seemed to startle people and opened opportunities for young black thinkers in particular to write criticism that doesn’t feel oppressive to them, and that seems to access some affective register that feels blacker, frankly. I think that’s great. But I started to look at the thickness of those quotations, of those citations (the way poets look at stuff) formally. I started to formulate a mini-theory for how they worked, which relates to Baraka’s concept of “digging.” I really did become obsessed with Du Bois’s reverberations across Baraka’s work. Baraka returns to Du Bois all the time, but here on his book’s first page. That gesture of using, as your own first words, something that long from somebody else seemed big — to announce that your work must be read through this other person’s. That fascinated me. This essay’s underlying questions about citational practice come from that: how does citationality make material one’s more general theory of time? What does it mean to build a specific historicity into your text from the start? How does one place oneself genealogically? And then more broadly: what will our relationship be to what came before? What actions or activities of past black people will shape the range of responses we can have to each other?
So when I talk about this homoerotic embrace that jazz obsession seems to activate, I’m talking about black love. This love among black men, for themselves, is great. But I personally don’t want to spend much time discussing that. I’m glad they love each other and everything. I’m more interested in how I love black men. To say I dig black men is partly an act of defiance or resistance to racist notions of black men as the most desirable (yet most undesirable). To me, as a straightish black woman, coming to terms with my own sexual desire, with romantic love of individual black men: that’s a complicated thing to dance with, the power that shared blackness can generate in erotic situations, while still trying to be critical of heterosexual desire as structurally compromised in every way. The terrible scarcity of contact that I, a black woman poet with a PhD, also a single parent, have with black men also gets implicated here — as sadness.
Then back to the critical concerns, there’s just this push. It’s like: goddammit, open the door! I’m here too! I don’t have to be afraid of critical engagement with a sexist tradition, and I don’t have to come at this from a place of lack. I just start talking like I’m in the conversation. Previous feminisms have opened the door for me to do this, so I do it.
That’s where the lyrics fit so well into this book. To some extent, like this whole lineage, they extend the arguments of others. But they feel self-sufficient at the same time.
I appreciate you noticing all of that. When I have something important to say, I usually say it in poetry. For me, right now, “Messenger” feels like the best I can do to address what seems most urgent in terms of relationships, in terms of the lyric as the site where experimentation with a better place comes into being, where an experiment with the world in which I want to live can happen.
Alright, have we arrived within range of this book’s emphasis on the fold, its omnipresent/epicentral crease, its “fucked up wrinkle…in the already cosmic yawn where it’s already impossible to say what the nature of a thing is or might be because multiplicity and overlap condition the existence of the space”? Here might it make sense to start from a working definition of folding as “a method of interiorizing the most outside,” and, from that basis, could you trace how a Deleuze-inflected “black critical theory of today,” a theory addressing “discernible effects upon a black sense of the world that the postmodern process of dismantling a violently anti-black regime will continue to have,” might, through its myriad manifestations and reformulations of the fold, come to embody, to enact (as much as to articulate) such deft rhetorical questions as: “How does each individual black person work the edge of inside and outside that blackness reveals? What resources and alliances for livable life are accessible to her now and (how) do we name as black the multiplicity of these practices at the edge?” Could you enfold the fold into those questions?
Well first, methodologically, how do you write prose like this that stays so resistant to being read? Or why would you do something like that? The answer is really simple: I have a stupidly excitable and dumbfounded response to other people’s work sometimes. So when I read that Jared Sexton essay, what struck me most dramatically was his reference to the color line. I was taken aback by his apparent acceptance of this color line as real, but I didn’t have any way of addressing that — because my haphazard way of working critically involves first reading everything cited, then reading everything those people have cited. So I came to the fold accidentally through an obsession with Sexton’s use of that term, which then accidentally activated this other line of investigation, because Fred Moten also engages directly with the word “fold” through Deleuze and Foucault. So here you find another citational thing.
And theorizing the existence of black life, trying to figure out what it is or how it operates, often leads to questions of inside and outside. How do we recognize boundaries? How do we recognize edges? How do we begin to understand ourselves ending and others beginning? This discourse of color lines, folds, structural interiority and exteriority, the ability to recognize boundaries outside of skin — that all was super-resonant to me. So by the time I finally got to the Deleuze, I was like: “Uh, I don’t know if this is super-useful” [Laughter]. But again, I’m a poet and found resonance in Deleuze’s discussion of how a fold can become something inside something else. That philosophical problematic spoke to why I understood the color line as unreal. That spoke to ways in which historical conditions can be kept outside a person’s interior, so that we can maintain a certain boundary. This all comes back to questions of excess, with Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power basically asking: “What is out there that cannot be hailed? What’s so deep inside the person that it cannot be touched?”
I’m not a philosopher. I read philosophy because it’s like poetry. Certain linguistic formulations seem to do something other than just explain, which I find incredibly useful. You can move those individual terms around, rather than just do what literary criticism wants you to do. You can relate a verbal formulation to your own personal reality in a way you find helpful. You can place a concept in some sort of contiguous relation to other concepts and arrive at this other thing. That’s how I read philosophy in general.
Further along, your essay analogizes the fold’s outside/inside aspects to a “horrible harmony of power and intimacy,” with that harmony described as constituting black subjectivity. The color line, you continue, “is exactly the manifestation of imperial failure to constitute a subjectivity of racialized difference.” The Du Boisian color line and its historical/conceptual/critical/aesthetic legacies then get enfolded into one of this essay’s densest, collapsed fartherest-stars of a sentence: “The color line is ‘something’ that envelops the possibility of becoming folded in black imagination (and that folding is the subject of black critical theory), a necessary and insufficient station on the path of an unfolding form of self insofar as we pass through it — a scrim of fact — as we move nearer to a self-on-its-way.”
That sentence is the closest I want to get to writing facts. The “something” in quotations refers directly back to Deleuze, who uses this word to refer more generally to two related objects — with something folded into something else. So I guess I want to create an analogy where the color line becomes an object, just another something. Something bigger than the color line exists, in human beings’ capacity to imagine that it does not exist (although to ignore its existence at present would betray a false consciousness). So you do need to pass through the color line on your way to something else, though that doesn’t make this condition permanent and real.
Yeah and I love how your “scrim of fact” pivot enacts this feeling — putting before us implications it takes away at the same time.
You know, some people would say: “That’s just not clear”[Laughter]. That’s OK, too. But I agree with you. I want to enact something, to give a sense that nothing I say provides a final word on anything, to show myself thinking and writing at the same time.
In terms of that type of simultaneity, again I realize we are desperately late in getting to “the Music,” particularly to the music of today. Could you take us there by, in Dear Angel’s terms, establishing some “primary hatreds” heading off “the radicalization of black feeling by way of black music, by way, in particular, of perceived dramatic changes in the present time’s attitude toward it”? To what perceived dramatic changes does this particular passage refer? Or to restart our own conversation along less literary lines, could you reposition Dear Angel’s argumentative agenda as stemming from the proposition that “There is nothing happening in contemporary black popular music that doesn’t have something to do with rap formally, technologically, or stylistically”?
Well first I’d go back to that revulsion we discussed, the notion that there are black musics we don’t actually like, or to which we have a troubled relationship. But I don’t want only to feel that disgust. I want to use this information to interrupt the sense that this critical object inevitably deserves one specific kind of critical attention. Even if I agree to believe in Black Music, I can like some of it and dislike other parts. So how do we talk about this? The essay begins from that emotional place.
And then in terms of the historical difference I begin to outline in that early passage, it took me two or three years to arrive at this simple formulation: rap music has changed everything, so why don’t we talk about that? I mean, some people do talk about it. That’s where my friend Jace comes in, and my sense that, within this theoretical/critical community (maybe an egghead community), I saw no deep engagement with this obvious fact that rap music did not share in the mid-century aesthetic and political goals that maybe the Black Arts Movement best articulated. Rap simply didn’t share those concerns. You could use the word “neoliberal” here if you wanted. It was just laughing at those concerns. So how could we not notice that?
Still I love this music. I get, and have always gotten, so much pleasure from it. When I was growing up, with hip hop as the music of my childhood and youth, people considered it a little strange for nerdy girls like me to be hip-hop heads[Laughter]. But I was also just a recognizably urban teenager. My dad was a lawyer and my mother was a doctor, so my class situation could seem odd alongside the imagined demographic of black people in the United States. But upper-middle-class black people exist. And I always understood my interest in rap being somewhat vexed in both class- and gender-specific ways. Rap music is violent and puts women in bad positions. It’s always been like that. You do get inoculated to some of that stuff, so can listen without a physically averse response. For me that happened a long time ago. I never found myself unable to go to the club and enjoy what I considered the best rap music of the day, even though I’d recognize this really troubling discourse around womanhood, sex, drugs. All the misogyny and violence registered to me as stupid (which is a dismissive way of dealing with something really hard to deal with).
And yet going to shows and parties tutored me in a way, in what gender roles meant. You toughen up by listening to this music. You can’t engage with certain topics on a moment-to-moment basis or they might drive you crazy. So that too becomes part of your gender identity. I really wanted to think about ways in which I, as a woman, was always a deep, deep fan of rap music — but also how the newer music had changed. At some point you started to see things like gang rape in this music. I was like: Woah, this is not happening (but it was). I mean, really intense open conversations about swapping women and gang rape. You’d hear that stuff like it was nothing.
And I wanted especially to relate that all to the affective flatness of trap music, which talks about drugs, sex, and money as this fully narcotized experience of the world. One’s success or even emergence as a hero in this world depends on taking part in an overall process of desensitization. I found it all shocking. But also I couldn’t help thinking: This is the best music I’ve heard in years. So what do we say about that? That’s how I got started. How do we discuss how fucking good this music’s gotten, and also how involved it is in a discourse of total devastation of a person? How does that relate back to our constant reliance on this metaphor of Black Music as the way to go?
That well-articulated starting point reminds me of the intro to your BOMB interview with Vince Staples. And here further enfolding this book’s own desire spectrum, does it seem worthwhile to discuss how a poem like “Messenger,” how certain punctuated staccatos throughout Dear Angel’s poems, might enact their own modes of trap music — perhaps as one means of addressing your essay’s imperative to “Think, this is the formation that is the air of now feeling which we have no choice but to breathe as life and thus to celebrate, but what does it mean to be in and not of it, toloveand refuse it: to be in and out at the same time?”
I would say no. I think that would redo exactly the thing we talked about trying to undo. I don’t want to get into a situation where people tell me: “Your poems are like jazz.” I’m like: No they’re fucking not like jazz. Trap is an art form in and of itself. I try to understand it. It fascinates me. I’ve learned I need to gain a better grasp of the mechanics at play in these works of art. I feel the need to explore how this art stimulates (and sometimes simulates) love, how it can stimulate contact between people. How does it hold people together? I mean I shouldn’t like this music. I’m 45 years old. I’m a mom. Why does this music still stimulate me? Where does that stimulation touch? What Future does with his voice and his speech I could never even try to emulate. Still my brain can soak it up. That’s why I talk about “the surround.” There’s hip hop now in the air we breathe.
But there’s no useful analogy between me and Future really — aside from me interviewing Future, which I’d love to do. Still if we got put in a room together, I have no idea what would occur, but probably nothing good [Laughter], and I respect that difference. I respect that we stand very far apart from each other in some important ways, and I’m curious to know more about how we ended up so far apart. I cannot stress how deeply important I consider it to think through those questions, and how I’ve just begun, and how deeply unthought that broader conversation seems to me at this time. To open a few related questions felt like all I could do right now.
That all makes good sense to me. Though I’ll admit that when you describe “listening obsessively” to Vince Staples’s “Blue Suede,” when you describe thinking “this music is fucked up, it’s not about freedom at all,” I still wonder: did Simone just form a crush on Vince Staples, and need to write a book about that? By which I more broadly mean: do contemporary poetry, poetics, criticism need to relearn to accept and recognize desire as one possible source of ekphrastic musicality?
Well Dear Angel is absolutely about writing through desire, about what desire can help us to map, about how it grounds us in the world, how it shows us who we are by telling us what we want most. That feels more Emersonian in some ways — to ask again: “Where do we find ourselves?” I think about that question opening “Experience” all the time. For me at least, Dear Angel keeps continuously answering that question by returning to the related question: who do I fall in love with? And I have hope around that. Staying alert to one’s real desires…hope for me comes from this. So when I mention this essay really struggling to materialize, I was holding on for dear life at that time as a mother and person, so it also was funny talking to Vince, since I’m old enough to be his mother…
And Vince loves his mother.
Vince does love his mother! The whole situation seemed so weird. I thought: Vince is a person who needs to be protected. And it comforted me to see that in certain ways he might be. I guess we can talk about that as a kind of desire, desire to protect.
Here to close by returning to that opening question from Emerson’s “Experience,” I hear self-locating echoes in your own line: “‘Flow’ is something we have to get rid of in the effort to make sense of how love can be found in and through this music.”
That’s an interesting place to go, because one point you’ve raised through this conversation feels like a direct response to something Jace Clayton once said to me. He said flow is the obvious connection between the music and the words. But I said: “That’s crazy. That’s not helpful at all.” So you’ve brought back part of that conversation about what it means to write effectively about music, and how it might ever be possible to articulate the sensation of experiencing rap music (which is both discursive and sonic in its totality, in its wholeness). That’s where that flow conversation came from — asking how to integrate, critically, the experience of listening and hearing words, listening to non-words but also hearing words.