“Why Pretend That We Speak a False Language?”: An Interview with Dawn Lundy Martin
Interview Series, the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress
Dawn Lundy Martin, essayist, poet, and multimedia artist, is author of three books of poetry: A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (2007), winner of the Cave Canem Prize; Discipline (2011), winner of the Nightboat Books Poetry Prize; and, in 2015, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. She also wrote the libretto for a video installation opera, "Good Stock on the Dimension Floor." She is co-editor of the essay collection The Fire This Time: Young Activists and the New Feminism (2004) and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation and the Black Took Collective. The recipient of two poetry grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the 2008 Academy of American Arts and Sciences May Sarton Prize for Poetry, Martin he is Associate Professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo of Dawn Lundy Martin by Max Freeman.
This interview was conducted over email by Anya Creightney.
In contrast to conventional images of the black female body, your poems are stark in their physicality; they also speak of the body in a conceptualized way. Can you talk about this duality?
The black female body is an invention of conventional thought. It has been conceived, at least in the West, via a series of manipulations, perceptions, and racist interventions by institutions—intellectual, political, and popular alike. I believe in the black female body only in so far as one is an individual who might make certain claims about their own legitimate being in the world. But that is difficult. How do we know ourselves except through the eyes of the other? How to claim something legitimately and intimately given the cultural representations of the black female body that have nothing to do with our interiorities? It’s a fraught intersection—femaleness and blackness—one that should not be easily articulated or regurgitated. Hence, what might be understood as a conceptualized means of approaching and speaking the black female body. I want to resist being put into your box of recognizability. I want to give the finger to those eyes of knowing/creating.
In an interview, you describe taking apart traditional methods of teaching poetry; ultimately, you are in favor of something akin to a “laboratory,” where students are free to play, explore, and fail. Are these the conditions under which you write as well?
Often, yes. I’m easily bored—not in general, but inside of my own work if I’m in the same poetic possibilities for too long—so I find myself trying to make myself uncomfortable in the writing moment in order to trick myself into new discoveries. Play and experiment, and of course failure, is a part of that discomfort, as is trying out new modes, new genres, forms of art making new to me. This is how I came to the video essay and why collaboration is important to me. Collaboration pushes me way out of my comfort zone as I often work with folks who have completely different artistic interests—architects, philosophers, performers, choreographers, etc.
Many of the poems in your most recent collection Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life respond to artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems. How do you connect with her as an artist? And how does gender and race come into play in that connection? Does it help that you are both formally experimental, whatever that means nowadays?
I’m going to use the word “love” three times in this answer. I love Carrie Mae Weems’s work because it often has a metacognitive quality to it in a way I’ve never seen before—language has this exciting thinking effect juxtaposed against the image, commenting on itself as if from outer space. I’ve learned a lot from her and experiment with language/visual image tension in my own video work. I also love that her work is so complicated, requiring an intense participation of the part of the viewer. In fact, it requires that we are more than passive viewers taking something in, but are instead co-practitioners of a sort, colluding with her in the meaning making of the work. I love The Kitchen Table Series, the way it tells and doesn’t tell a story, re-inventing narrative; as well as And 22 Million Very Tired and Very Angry People, 1989-1990, the way the linguistic naming of objects is like a new literary device requiring the viewer to engage in the act of animating the historical relation between image and language. Are we both experimental? I guess that’s true. I'm interested in the kind of experimental that refuses to say things we already think we know in ways familiar to us. There can be a tendency in poetry—at least in the mainstream—to court audiences instead of make art. If you’re courting an audience, if you want that big rousing applause, it requires a kind of spoon feeding of the already worn, already investigated, you know, grandmama’s kitchen.
I enjoy your clipped, quick-turning lyricism, which you push furthest in A Gathering of Matter / a Matter of Gathering. As that book is about the inability to translate trauma into language, I wonder: does it argue for fragmentation as a necessary form?
I do think that, yes. The fragment is not only necessary, it is unavoidable, depending on what it is that yearns to be said. There are times in one’s experience when grammatically correct or syntactically sense-making language just isn’t. During intense pain, is a quintessential example. As is the wake of trauma. Language, in the wake of trauma, often falls apart, becomes other from itself, the maker of death. I love Adorno on the fragment when he writes, “The fragment is the intrusion of death into the work. While destroying it, it removes the stain of semblance.” In the post-traumatic state we are not whole, we do not recognize totality, why pretend that we speak a false language?
At a difficult moment in the poem [“This morning I had a dream…”] the speaker says, “the inevitable box makes an appearance.” How do you see the “box” functioning here? And how does it relate to the book’s title?
The box is the dull effect, what we all collude in making together. There is resistance, sure, but the box persists, locking us inside in its dull imaginings of being. I want to approach understanding the draw of the mainstream, what it must be like to live according to a set of scripts. I guess there is a comfort there, but at the expense of what? The box across the collection is shifting, however; it is not stable. It is at once this box of the mainstream and the box of constructed identity that we cannot escape. If we cannot escape it, what choice do we have but to love it, to stroke it like a pet baby alligator? The end of that moment you cite reads, “Tonight he’s shiny—fetching, one might say.” It’s no coincidence that the box is a “he,” as the text is pointing toward what patriarchal power does, what it produces. What does it produce? We live in a literal police state where increasing numbers of brown and black people—men, women, trans people, and increasingly children—are unduly incarcerated, enclosed within prison cells.
In any case, the title gestures toward a certain impossibility—not of speech as in some of my other work, but of existence inside of the inevitable box(es) constructed by patriarchal power. They don’t look like boxes (at least for some). They look like freedom. Therein lies the trick. What to do? Lick the trick.