This conversation, transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on Anthony Reed’s Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing, winner of the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize. Reed, an Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at Yale, is currently completing a study of how recorded collaborations between black poets and musicians refract historical shifts in the aesthetic and political possibilities available to these artists and to broader cultures. Many related concerns arise amid the dense texualities read closely in Freedom Time, Reed’s first book.
ANDY FITCH: Could we take Freedom Time’s cogent depiction of the past as unwieldy inheritance (as galvanizing resource, but also constrictive prompt) for black experimental literature, and apply that same point of focus to your own scholarly project? For instance, multiple book chapters open by pointing to an overly familiar critical emphasis upon the performative musicality of black literature. This default emphasis, you argue, implicitly casts black authors as less cerebral, less textual, than their white counterparts. Though then your Nathaniel Mackey chapter so clearly revels in intricate musical reflections, inflections, and resonant conceptions of “the cut” (a concept which can’t help evoking, for me at least, Houston Baker Jr. citing Ralph Ellison paraphrasing Albert Murray on the blues as a process of “fingering the jagged grain” of experience). Or your Douglas Kearney section seems to take great pleasure in erudite hip-hop references, in footnotes pointing simultaneously to Kool Keith and Pierre Bourdieu. So could we begin to introduce Freedom Time’s complexly ambivalent relation to past critical prioritizations on musicality, performativity, and embodied immediacy in progressive black writing — such as Black Arts Movement calls for an authentic black poetics structured by an everyday vernacular? And we also could discuss your choice to present a case for “black” (rather than African American) experimental writing, suggesting your attention to questions of cultural continuity and difference across the black diaspora. But most basically, could we start, however you see fit, to sketch the lived intellectual history leading to how you shaped the scope, method, tones, and even the prose style of Freedom Time?
ANTHONY REED: This gets to a core understanding of black studies that animates the book. So let me narrate a little of my intellectual trajectory. For many reasons, I didn’t end up studying a lot of black literature in college. In my MFA program, I was fortunate enough to work with Reginald McKnight, who recognized that I was trying to do something more experimental, and that I didn’t have good models. The idea that I should “just write about my experience,” knowing what a pinched, stereotyped notion of my experience other people had, didn’t appeal. Reg hipped me to this whole vast body of literature that would nourish me creatively and intellectually.
During my PhD program, though I tried to convince myself to write about more canonical authors, I eventually started to compile and work from my own idiosyncratic archive. It was shamefully unsystematic, looking back, but it was a good starting point.
During that time, looking at the literature coming out (and especially now, with all the great literature being published by people like Tyehimba Jess or Robin Coste Lewis or Claudia Rankine or Renee Gladman or John Keene — and I could give a list with so many others), I started to think we’re in the middle of another black cultural renaissance. We’re in the middle of an absolute flowering of black writing.
Meanwhile, the narratives of contemporary poetry’s development, as put forward by prominent scholars like Marjorie Perloff and others, were deeply unsatisfying. They all manage, first of all, to ignore or sidestep the Black Arts Movement. When I read some of these accounts of kind of passing the avant-garde torch from Language to Conceptualism, it just seemed like we were missing an awful lot. I couldn’t recognize the literature I most cared about in those narratives, which turn on a pseudo-universality that groups people active in one time — without asking about the differential positions from which one relates to or understands any given moment.
On the other hand (and this in some ways answers your question about my own unwieldy inheritance), running through Freedom Time is a real hesitation about, a frustration with, an impatience with either reading black writing for resistance, or reading it as somehow responding to a white tradition. While both approaches have some truth to them (people are resisting certain traditions, people are trying to write their way into certain traditions), the writers I wanted to look at were also developing things on their own. As the Southerners in my family would say, they’re looking at a white avant-garde, or a white poetry tradition, and saying, “I ain’t even studying that.” So if you just say: “I want to write black people into this tradition,” that centers a kind of whiteness and white supremacy. Perhaps instead the adjacency of black writing to established traditions reveals the shortcomings of those traditions and the different trajectories black writers pursue.
I do really love Houston Baker’s Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. It’s an excellent piece of scholarship and theory, and such a generous, capacious book. Looking back, part of what that book does is forcefully reclaim parts of the Black Arts Project, acknowledging that we can be critical of BAM-era critics (Larry Neal, Stephen Henderson, Amiri Baraka, Sherley Anne Williams), but can recognize that many of them outlived the Movement, and evolved. They remained active and revised their own arguments. One thing I understand myself to want to do is return to that history, to really sit with that inheritance, and sit with other people who come of age during that era, like Hortense Spillers, like Sylvia Wynter, like a host of black feminist critics who have been so important to my own thinking. They all probably read at least some of that BAM criticism, in addition to other theory and scholarship, and their work engages BAM writers as contemporaries, people shaped by the same events and questions. So I wanted to ask what it might mean to start thinking about more and more people as contemporaries, working in a complicated historical moment, rather than to cling to the kinds of argument that would say the problem with Black Arts is that it’s totally essentialist and therefore we can’t use it.
Amiri Baraka himself in one poem writes: “When I die, the consciousness I carry I will to / black people. May they pick me apart and take the / useful parts, the sweet meat of my feelings. And leave / the bitter bullshit rotten white parts / alone.” And I think that’s what we always do. (Some people will object to the racial framing, without acknowledging that Baraka was a poet, trying to make words designate more than and better than they usually do, and that “whiteness” here refers to a racialized structure of feeling and knowing rather than a skin color.) We can say: “Keep the parts that are useful, and then contextualize and step around the parts that you can’t use.” Rather than simply pointing out another person’s error, think about what might have precipitated that error — bad analysis, bad judgment, whatever. Are there lessons to learn, or are the questions so outmoded that they no longer resonate? That’s part of how I’ve been doing new work, returning to the Black Arts Era and asking why were they making these arguments, and what are the real limitations to these arguments, and which parts of these arguments are still valid and vital? What do we still need? What did we maybe put aside too quickly?
Another part of my approach (and this starts to get at uses of the terms “black” rather than “African American”) is wanting to claim for myself as a thinker, as an intellectual, that I don’t have to subscribe to “methodological nationalism” and the frame of the U.S. That framing leaves aside some of the greater complexities about how people as individuals, as raced subjects, as historical subjects…how they’re dealing with their time in more complicated ways than narrower historicizations might have it. That’s part of the delight you detect in me returning to Mackey. Part of what first drew me to his work was recognition. He’s one of the first writers with whom I shared a set of references. He refers to an obscure Sonny Simmons record. I have that record. He opens Bedouin Hornbook talking about an Archie Shepp recording, and I know that record. So there’s just that thrill of recognition alone. And perhaps for Mackey (I’ve never gotten to ask him) as for me, he found that, when looking for a model for experimentation, it was easier to find in music, because people acknowledged that in a way that they didn’t acknowledge the literature. I knew Shepp or Prince Lasha. I didn’t know Russell Atkins until late in grad school. If we think of those people as intellectuals, too, and we think of their work as part of a common project, then it becomes much, much easier to see that some of the ways even that we have been talking about the music (or about what counts as “the music”) are in need of revision. And one specific challenge to me right now is to find a way to really think that Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Chubby Checker, and Sam Cooke are contemporaries.
Contemporaries of each other?
Contemporaries of each other. And we can add Dinah Washington, somebody whose place in the present critical conversation is very different now than it would have been. These are all contemporaries of each other. They’re listening to each other. They’re aware of one another, and they’re responding to similar things at similar places. So how do we start to get back to their moment now, now that we’ve done a lot of the work, now that we understand what one might call a “blues impulse”? The “blues impulse” goes in a lot of different directions and takes a lot of different shapes that are both historically specific and contingent. Looking at that fact might be a way to open up and re-engage some of the subtle historical narratives and ideas.
You brought up many topics I’ll want to address. First though I just want to point to what I consider an exemplary non-Oedipal critical practice at play in Freedom Time. This book doesn’t try to take down anybody. It doesn’t lash out at predecessors. Instead, Freedom Time tries to recuperate arguments that other scholars don’t seem willing to touch. It consistently tries to build lived context for why alternate approaches might make sense, for why we need continually to refine and rethink (rather than summarily to reject) the traditions we find ourselves working out from. And to watch you track how certain experimental writers engage the past, even as you yourself engage in something similar, presents this complicated form of echoing that provides such rich, stimulating, generative readerly tension throughout.
I’m glad you picked up on that. What you are describing was very deliberate, and it was very much my way of trying in practice to acknowledge those aspects of a feminist tradition, especially a black feminist tradition, that have been so important to me. There’s a reason that the introduction’s opening citations are from Hortense Spillers, Gayatri Spivak, and Erica Hunt. Those three women scholars have been crucial in shaping both what I do and how I do it, and with the sense that there’s nothing wrong with owing a debt to somebody. There’s nothing wrong with saying that I learned a lot from you, and putting that forward, and putting it forward in a way that’s not fussy. You don’t have to kill your masters. I made a point to cite them because I wanted to show my genealogy.
Especially with some of these feminist predecessors in mind, I probably will keep asking throughout this conversation about how Freedom Time calls into question any fixed disciplinary distinctions between so-called scholarly and so-called creative work — how it poses innovative epistemic self-reflection as a place where the poetic and the scholarly might meet.
When you talk about a desire to get beyond the policing of disciplinary norms between scholarly and creative writing, the people who have done the most in my mind to really confront that are Fred Moten, Nathaniel Mackey, and Sylvia Wynter. I only can aspire to that. Their work has been important, as has deconstruction and the idea of really asking what can the text and textuality do, and which modes of writing do we really need in order to sidestep some of these disciplinary norms. I mean this fully in the sense of kinds of authority and licensing. What kind of writing will enable the kind of thinking that somewhere in this book I refer to as undisciplined thinking or pre-disciplinary thinking — which we really need in order to get outside of the formulations that disciplines come to expect and to find recognizable? How do we actually get to Erica Hunt’s “unrecognizable speech” as an intellectual practice? That is the essential question to me.
Well again I get taken back to your book’s compelling call to probe the pluralized textualities at play in complex representations of black literary subject-hood. And in terms of such textualities: throughout Freedom Time I did wonder about the interpretive/curatorial inclination to prioritize single-authored print texts, particularly at a moment when critical interest in experimental writing (both black and otherwise) tends to prioritize poetic explorations extending beyond conventional print textuality. A million valid reasons exist for why any individual author might not address a particular topic in his/her book. But even just glancing at your table of contents challenged my expectations that a book on contemporary black experimental poetics would prioritize the interdisciplinary, the performative, the collaborative. I guess I expected extensive sections on Tracie Morris’s virtuoso live vocalizations, or the Black Took Collective’s improvisatory engagements, or Ronaldo Wilson’s own impromptu site-specific recordings, or Duriel Harris’ Thingification theatrics, or Dawn Lundy Martin and Claudia Rankine’s ongoing push into visual-arts discourses through gallery shows and video pieces (again for sure we both could give countless examples of worthwhile work that didn’t find a place here). So I do recognize and appreciate your concern with work by black authors rarely getting treated as cerebral, reflective, textual. But could you expand upon why poetry as print text ended up taking on such priority within the case you make?
There are a couple of reasons. One is practical. I felt that what I was trying to do was complex enough that I really needed to have an account of work on the page before I could move into something like Claudia Rankine’s video work with John Lucas, or Nathaniel Mackey’s recorded collaborations with Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh. I’ve wanted to write about those, but decided that it was just too much for this project. Some of the collaborations between poets and other visual artists just seemed like they needed a separate study. In part, it seemed to me that people are so eager to move on to the performative, that it can seem as though work on or for the page is somehow old fashioned. Especially for someone like Kamau Brathwaite, where even in his own accounts, metaphors of the voice are so dominant, I wanted to sit with the page. I wanted to sit with medium-specific writing for now, just to get my concepts together, to get my thinking together, before opening that back up to all the other forms that writing takes and in which it circulates. I was aware that it would seem somewhat perverse or old fashioned to some readers to focus on print textuality, but it also seemed important. It seemed that we were maybe moving too quickly away from print, what people were doing with print, how important print is. Tyehimba Jess is a great performer of his own poetry, but he’s also a great poet. Some of the claims that we might readily make about the performative, it seemed to me, would threaten to eclipse what he or a lot of the other writers I’m dealing with are really up to. As it happens, I’m now writing a book now about recorded collaborations between poets and musicians, but that still won’t get to the full richness of contemporary performance practice — no one book can — but I want to try to address that formally, historically, and politically.
You just talked in quite useful ways about implicit methodological arguments posed by how Freedom Time frames its inquiry — arguments that don’t necessarily get stated, but that raise foundational questions for the different fields in which you operate. You’ve used the word “subtle” to describe this approach, and Freedom Time is so meticulous, so courteous in its openness to a variety of viewpoints yet does raise big, difficult questions that could seem quite challenging to certain audiences. Freedom Time for instance makes it clear that current regimes of reading which present themselves as progressive (led by advocates for, let’s say, racial diversity within the academy) often overlook, ignore, marginalize, potentially devalue, or outright reject precisely the gestures that you consider most liberatory in recent models of black textualities. So I wonder if you could expand a bit on your postscript’s historicism-supplementing appeal to “outfulness,” as crucial component of experimental literature (and, perhaps, the scholarship of such literature). If you stood, say, before a panel of seasoned scholars, a seminar of first-year grad students, or freshman in a literature course, what cases for creative and critical outfulness might you offer to those various audiences? Why, in terms of present-day disciplinary norms, might you feel the need to make such a case?
Maybe here I can bring in the other wing of people who have been important to my intellectual development, and how I’ve learned finally to think. These are people like Stuart Hall and through him Louis Althusser, and just the idea of how do you situate your own thinking in such a way that you can recognize the limits of what is thinkable in this moment, and get some leverage on that in order to think outside of your own condition? “Outfulness” is one name for the techniques and strategies by which you try to get some distance between yourself and your moment — in order to really reach a different terrain in particular moments. Whether you want to call that “invention” or, as I consistently refer to it in Freedom Time, as “thinking,” as “real thinking,” what I’m gaining from that Hall and Althusser legacy is the idea that thinking (worthy of the name) exists within definite conditions that are themselves historical. Understood only as technique, today’s outfulness can be tomorrow’s banality. Understood as stance toward tradition or other epistemic projects, it might name a dialectical process of exhaustion and renewal.
In other words, what we’re calling outfulness really enables that extra self-criticality, enabling self-criticism and self-awareness of what is it that I’m trying to say. Every kind of outful, avant-garde, modern style finds itself, insofar as its repeatable, totally open to uptake, to commodification, to reification. But if I can maintain a certain kind of self-awareness, I can use that, and can figure out how to make inherited forms and even inherited ideas do the work that I really need for them to do now. I usually characterize that as: how do I make this amenable to the kind of thinking that this moment requires, or that this problem may require?
I’ve seen you elsewhere refer to Roland Barthes, who describes a mode of “corrected banality” prompting the best of his introspective, self-reflexive critical/autobiographical writing. And Freedom Time also adopts a Jacques Rancière-inflected model (somewhat overlapping here with Fred Moten’s conception of the aesthetic break) for promoting and producing a public dissensus in which implicit, institutionally-sanctioned consensus slips away, and fresh critical engagement (what you call “thinking”) can push through. And as I read through Freedom Time I often would pause to ask: Which particular consensus does Anthony wish to challenge right now? I tried to imagine how various audiences might respond to the questions your book poses — because again, while Freedom Time no doubt traces oppressive constraints for black literary subject-hood back to political, economic, cultural, and textual structures reinforcing white-supremacist racial categorizations, you also challenge many individuals, communities, institutions avowedly opposed to such racist structures. And here especially it might help for us to get a bit more concrete and provide a working definition for the concept of racialized reading, perhaps by starting from the assumption that such a reading practice appropriates and/or assimilates black textuality to some external purpose. Both overtly hostile and paternalistic/patronizing white audiences (from eras of de jure segregation to present-day white liberalism) participate in such practices, as do, Freedom Time argues, a diverse range of black nationalisms, and an array of progressive figures, institutions, discourses committed to envisioning, securing, and subsequently shoring up Civil Rights Era gains. And so it might help if you can continue to articulate your critique of the “romance of resistance,” but do so by outlining the historical, cultural, intellectual circumstances in which that particular romance has proved (and continues to prove) vital and constructive, even as you indicate some of its more reactive, prescriptive, constrictive, potentially self-contradicting tendencies.
That’s a series of helpful questions and interventions. Let me start with one thing you said towards the end. What are the conditions under which what I called a “romance of resistance” emerges? The first has to be the effective narrowing of the legitimate terrain of the political, and an anti-collective ethos (animating particular modes of production and accumulation) whose intersecting institutions and discourses we term “neoliberalism.” Second, there’s the fundamental modern tendency to distort, disfigure, and destroy the past, to misrepresent black people as passive victims, for example. Drawing attention to very real acts of heroism, on small and grand scales, is therapeutic — it provides a framework through which to insist that so-called “dehumanization” is a necessarily incomplete process. But something about that approach’s emphasis, at the level of individual acts, worryingly rhymes with an anti-collective ethos that I think we should, well, resist. We have to remind ourselves and each other that people have always fought, and continue to fight, with the means available to them, and we have to continue our shared pursuit of better and more effective means of fighting.
Robin D. G. Kelley’s Race Rebels is indispensable here. He traces “implicit transcripts” through which he proclaims powerfully the different ways that people have fought back, whether in the time of slavery (breaking tools, pretending to be sick, poisoning the slave owners) or in the Jim Crow era (forging together social practices that would perhaps be generalizable and which, if nothing else, marked out a space separate from the regime of terror). Somewhere in his book, Kelley gives a personal anecdote about how small alterations to his McDonald’s uniform were a way of resisting a standardization, of finding a space within that to avoid further dehumanizations. It’s important to track those moments. At the same time, Adolph Reed’s critique sticks with me: let’s not mistake these acts for politics as such (which, for Reed, should be movement politics, especially labor organizing). But Kelley makes the point that what we often find in daily life are tactics in search of broader collective strategies, and that in the absence of those one pursues the means available.
It also seems worth noting that many innovators in experimental aesthetics come from the working classes. A lot of them are self-taught, especially in the Black Arts Era, and only have had some college or some formal training, and did a lot on their own and with other like-minded individuals. So when we act as if all their experimentations are just responses and creative adaptations or transformations or playful resistance to the Western norms that historically have refused them, I think we miss an awful lot. When we focus too much on that part, we often pay disproportionate attention to very narrow and specific moments of national politics and policy, in ways that will leave some more fundamental questions not even askable.
Along those lines, the reason I keep hesitating over dehumanization is that I find myself recently arrested by some arguments Fred Moten has made about how “human” historically had tended to mean, on some level, “not black.” There are all kinds of contingent local moments when a person who is black will very much be treated as a human. But as an abstract category, blackness does not fully participate in humanness, and therefore to declare “dehumanization” is to say you are denied something that you’re defined in opposition to — which doesn’t make sense. It’s very tricky to say: “I’m resisting dehumanization,” if “human” never meant you in the first place. What you’re perhaps doing is figuring out other ways of being human, other more inclusive capacities that you can bear on present situations. But to have this thought, you really have to give up the idea that what we’re after is inclusion, or another set of laws recognizing black humanity. This critique has existed at least since Richard Wright and the Blueprint for Negro Writing. We’re not just begging the question of our humanity, but rather we’re after something else that needs to be understood as in some ways in opposition to a liberal humanist tradition.
Typically, your book argues, when critics discuss “experimental writing,” they mean something quite white. Instances of black experimental writing often get implicitly framed as more tepid, identity-clinging adjuncts to white experimentalist critiques of the lyric subject. Freedom Time, however, rethinks such black experimental work as all the further-reaching in its deftly formulated critiques of an inevitably racialized (white as well as black) Western first-person subject — a subject which can’t help cementing prevailing hierarchies even as it seems at times (let’s say in certain types of lyric poetry) to provide a personal outlet from social pressures of this sort. Here could you trace a couple contemporary instances, from the writings you address, in which blackness does not get framed as a fixed ontological category, but nonetheless does get embraced as a historically determinative (at least for now) category, one worth affirming? Could you describe how such projects push alongside and/or against, at times, now-familiar Language critiques of instrumentalized, conventionalized, naturalized conceptions of poetic voice, speech, authenticity, autonomy, epiphanic transcendence? Could we maybe parse Evie Shockley’s recent return to Isaiah Berlin’s classic distinction between crucial negative freedoms (here those achieved perhaps through rejecting, evading, reconfiguring constrictive norms imposed by racist discourses) and some hard-won positive freedoms, too, that your selected poets have realized? And what would it mean for scholarship to track “freedoms to” within this literature, instead of, or alongside, “freedoms from”?
One reason this is the right question is that it’s the question at the heart of the book, and it really is why the readings take the forms they take. The book’s positive argument is that so much of what this writing is after, or so much of what it makes available, are new ways of conceptualizing being together, or of making it possible to conceptualize autonomy, or to think about blackness in ways that don’t depend upon, in the first instance, also thinking about whiteness.
To give one concrete example, we could look at Douglas Kearney and The Black Automaton. These are poems that touch on pretty dire facts of contemporary black life in the United States. They’re not only acutely aware of state violence, but there’s also a kind of play on the Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy” (“Who’s that looking in my window / POW nobody now”), and this willingness to make somebody a nobody — and the price of what it takes to maintain a certain American dream of homeownership, let’s say. You have to suppress those notions of self that don’t involve property. But to read the poem is to look at its coordination of (re)source texts, mostly rap lyrics. Implicitly, there are questions of address (who can parse its arrayed intertexts), pleasure (these are, after all, popular songs), and communal resources through which to think about, to imagine, to gather together and create forms of living together. We (and the “we” is in question) have this rich archive of shared texts, and of implicitly shared experiences, that we can still come together over. How these texts are shared is another matter. And here one could object to the apparent refusal of older models of universality, since something like The Odyssey more obviously belongs to a common Western canon. But what if we think about universality as an aspiration, rather than an achieved fact, and then start to think about how poets are using the particular to start to imagine other universals — rather than castigate writers or artists for creating these narrower sub-communities that are illegible to people who don’t know who the Goodie Mob is?
Or I mentioned Mackey. There’s the real pleasure of recognition, the real pleasure of catching all the references, the pleasure of wit. In the Spinozan tradition, pleasure is identified with an enhanced capacity for action, with enhanced senses of our capacity to do something about the world that we’re living in. That, I think, is at least the most consistent, positive account I have — to really think about the playfulness, about the pleasure of it. The joy of it. Yes, the times are bad, but we’re not just miserable in this or in them, but are always busy and doing more, trying to invent more, to supplement what we don’t have or have without recognizing.
There’s always been a black experimental tradition. Aldon Nielsen already has argued that, has already opened that door. Fred Moten (among others, including Evie Shockley) very forcefully makes that case. On the question of resistance, it’s not just that people are fighting against a racist social order, but that they’re trying to create new orders. In the 70s there were all these great titles for jazz records, like In Pursuit of Blackness, and I do want to stress that pursuit of a way of inhabiting or of understanding or of inventing a blackness that will allow people both to be black and universal.
Here even as we discuss the “Freedom” in your book’s title, could we pivot to “Time” as well? In the past, you have presented a contrasting vision to Wordsworth’s idealization of “spots of time,” of moments recollected, perhaps only redeemed, in tranquility. You’ve made the persuasive case that histories of racialized violence systematically preclude possibilities for such tranquility, that such tranquility itself might emerge through a privileged distancing from the lived labors and sufferings of others. And here could we probe related tensions by considering the methods of close, close reading you adopt throughout Freedom Time, with its elegant dilations upon otherwise undetected textual densities, with its reflective, reconstitutive, recreative pauses (if that term applies) amid relentless racialized histories and purported racialized destinies (both for writers and for readers)? And since you just mentioned jazz records, perhaps we could add one dualistic appeal of the record that your book articulates. Your Mackey chapter gives this astute account of how, while a record no doubt in some ways strains, commodifies, alienates prospects for irreducibly rich, polyvalent live performance and live audience audition (like hearing), permitting at best a kind of repetition-compulsion for the record consumer, repeated listening also allows the potential for ever-renewed, ever-enhanced reflective processes to take place. Certain types of dense, pleasurable aesthetic contingency (akin, perhaps, to certain forms of poetic subject-hood) only can come about through re-playable texts — and those texts can help to make a “maximal, multivalent freedom” possible. How, if this doesn’t seem too far a stretch, might your meticulous close readings point to something of the same?
It’s such a pleasure to talk to someone who’s read the book closely.
Starting with “spots of time,” I’ll say that in the back of my mind, I keep returning to Wordsworth and keep returning to questions of lyric. Virginia Jackson’s argument notwithstanding, a certain self-designated lyric tradition continues to be self-consciously important to a number of black writers. That’s something I want to keep thinking about. At some point, I would like to write a project on poetry in the era of Black Lives Matter, a project that would allow me to think about those lyric traditions and those genealogies, through people like Countee Cullen, and then subsequent writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Alexander, and others — to contextualize some of the great poetry explicitly engaging Black Lives Matter, but engaging it through an unashamed lyric framework. And Wordsworth remains in some ways at the center of what we now think the lyric is (with many people understanding poetry as such through the lyric). So I return to the “spots of time” from the Prelude, but also as developed in early poems like “Tintern Abbey,” where Wordsworth talks about unremembered pleasures that have a restorative virtue, that provide abundant recompense for forms of experience no longer available. The flip side of that unremembered pleasure is an unremembered/uncounted loss that seems to be so important, at least in my reading, to how a number of black writers have taken up the lyric. So again, Freedom Time is and isn’t about time. It asks what models of experience and what ways of thinking about experience through time might we need, or which does this archive of poetry make available to us.
Many forms of poetry, again particularly those with heightened emotional/experiential states, give us other ways to think through subjective time. So the “time” in my title has to do with that process. “Time” there is bound up in what I’m claiming as a kind of positive political project of rethinking. This rethinking enables and requires that I put some of my assumptions to the side. And that’s what the close reading is really about. We need to actually read this work, our novels and our plays and our essays. But poetry is just (for me, because of my own formation) the most readily available field in which to really do that kind of reading. That’s to say: there’s this stereotyped reading we can give, and this might be very valuable and powerful and even correct in a way. It might jive with what an author says that her project is. But the text has a way of getting away from all of us, so what are some of the critical lines that we could still pick up? How do those inflect, impact, or diverge from what’s apparent? Here I think you gave a pretty good summary of the Adorno position on records.
The commodifying and alienating side?
That they’re about an alienation from a more primary form of experience, enabling the circulation of this alienated experience, a fundamentally false one. Theoretically, that’s unavoidable. But that dialectic does also mean (and Mackey shows this well) that you can go back to that record you know, and that’s a qualitatively new form of primary experience. The climax of Bass Cathedral involves the narrator, N., discussing an Andrew Hill record, Point of Departure, where on the title track Joe Henderson just flubs an intro. It’s the middle of Richard Davis’s bass solo, and Henderson is ready to come in with his unison horn line that will transition into his solo, but he arrives about four bars early. Mackey does a whole lot with that. It’s the kind of thing that I had listened to. I knew that flub. I knew exactly what he was talking about when I read it. I wasn’t confused, and yet I don’t think I had ever really heard it. In writing about that, Mackey made his listening available to me, which then led me to listen again. You can’t do that with live performance. There’s a capacity for creativity in how you listen, especially once you really listen — or read — closely enough to catch those things that went by too quickly your first or tenth time.
But I actually got to that idea via Du Bois, who, in the Forethought to The Souls of Black Folk, writes: “Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.” What does he mean by “patient reading”? What is an impatient reading? This is how I came to the idea of a racialized reading, a reading that moves too quickly to a presumed political content. This gets at the question you posed about the well-intending anti-racist reader who, nonetheless, falls into what I see as a trap. It’s a trap that awaits all of us. We want to get to the political content. We want impatiently to see a text give us not just “equipment for living,” as Kenneth Burke put it, but equipment to really fight. That’s no doubt necessary, but again that also can very easily get us to draw the conclusions that we are already predisposed to draw — and we didn’t need literature for that at all. We instead superimposed the reading that we really wanted, or needed, or hoped for, onto a text that might actually have something more to offer than what we saw at first glance. Here I wanted to ask: what if we could read with more patience? What else might actually be there that we need, that we didn’t even know we needed because we didn’t have a name for it?
Well again, your own scholarly writing provides equivalent textual density, pushing towards the need for an ever-refreshed reader. You brought up Du Bois just now, and within this present discussion, Du Bois’s career seems to provide a generative fusion in which we have this established, influential scholar/thinker/activist who simultaneously seeks to shape (not simply to explain) the formal trajectories of black experimental writing. Du Bois intervenes in his own formal ways, then offers the disarming formulation you cite — of how propaganda might find itself ensconced at times amid conceptions of the beautiful. And of course critical writing more broadly, when lacking a dense literariness, easily might get read as pure argument, pure polemic, purely reactive. But Freedom Time’s own dense textuality rubs against or resists such impatient readings, and then closes on the line: “The concept of racial time understood as political practice requires an aesthetic component related to the terms of our living together, to our partitions of intelligibility from noise, to our discontent with the present, and to our demand for some future moment when we may yet be freer.” So how has your own scholarly prose participated in that “aesthetic component,” as a means of furthering this book’s dilated freedoms?
I’ll just say you’re right: you’ve put your finger on what was so important to me. I wanted to make a book that ideally would find readers willing to sit with it. I wanted to open some things up, so I tried to write in a way that would be readable. I tried to write in a way that I hoped people would find engaging. I don’t dare say I wanted to write something beautiful, although I suppose in the back of my mind I did.
How about if I say it, so you don’t have to? [Laughter]
I just wanted it to be worth reading slowly, and to really move some things forward, or give people some things to think with and about. Part of this is a question of the subject matter, of wanting to write or produce a prose style that wouldn’t look too shabby next to the writing it was talking about. You can’t quote Nathaniel Mackey and then your prose is like a dull hammer. You need to elevate what you’re trying to do. At least I thought I did. Just to emulate someone like Mackey — such a deft thinker and a beautiful writer. There’s a little bit of influence there as well.