A Conversation with Dawn Lundy Martin by D.S. Waldman

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  • April 28, 2020

             To be an orphan inside of “blackness”

—is the condition of it (us). We can love it, sure, cradle its beauti-
ful head, and eyes looking. It wants to be performed, leaping, but the
I is not a good actor. The problem of the book is that it’s never quite
“black” enough. Language can perspire the thickest blackest blood
but you are still the unheld nigger, the one inspiring the deadly shak-
ing panicked rage. Your tennis shorts or salmon-colored pants will
not help you. It’s a good idea to have “black” in the title of the “black”
book in case there are any questions as to its race. The “black” bits will
be excisable, quotable in reviews. The book should be very interested
in the thing you know as “blackness,” all its clothes, its haberdash-
ery. What the book actually wants, however, to know is the distance
between the “I” and the “you,” how it is drawn into space and action as
when the white woman professor says you have written her a “vicious”
letter and wants to know what’s wrong with you. Claudia Rankine has
reinvented this territory of the relation that is forever unrecognized
in that relaxed [white] body. When one’s actions have so clearly pro-
duced the interrogative text, the refusal to enter the text as subject. For
you, the text lives in the floating unreal, a document that has noth-
ing to do with you, but, my dear, it is you, the grotesque monument to
the regime, so perfectly sculpted you cannot see yourself in the mirror.

—from Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House Press, 2017)

D. S. Waldman: I first met you and saw you read at the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award ceremony—congratulations again for taking home that honor for Good Stock Strange Blood—and I was taken not just by your work, but also your reading of it, your delivery: the pauses, verbal and physical gestures you employed in reading your poems. I was hoping you could speak to the poem as both a written and a performed art. How do your poems change when you take them from the paper into a reading, a spoken performance? Do you write with one side of the poem—the written or the spoken—more in mind than the other?

Dawn Lundy Martin: The poem, for me, is an embodied entity. It emerges from the body in the first place and, in the space of the reading or the performance, it returns to the body—both my body and the bodies of those listening and watching my body. There’s an elasticity to the poem in physical space when it is made aural and audible. It can—but doesn’t always—become something in addition to its previous self. If the poem is a self, that is. I guess it is a self. It seems to have a consciousness other than what intended. Or, the poems I like do. Anyway, I’m already off track. What I mean to say is that I try, when reading the poem to people or to myself, to feel the poem as if it’s a stranger, asking in the moment of orality: what does the poem want to say?

Perhaps another way of imagining this elasticity is to think of the poem as both a private and shared experience. We often think of writing and reading as solitary acts, but this dynamic changes when the written word is spoken to, or shared with, others. I wonder if you could talk about how you find community through writing, or, even, in the act of writing.

I write best, actually, in community, in physical place with others, or while reading other writers I admire. Often I’m reading and writing at the same time. Or, when I’m writing on deck in summer with friends, our very first gesture before settling in is to read something aloud—lately it’s something we either wrote or read. To get unfamiliar language in the room is important, I think. Some other syntax. The question for poetry in particular is, how do we decontextualize thought? How do we step out-of in order to step freshly back into? Right now, we’re in the middle of a health emergency, a plague, a financial collapse, uncertainty—we like to say “uncertain times,” a phrase which feels extraordinarily gentle to me. I am supposed to be working on my memoir, or that was my plan, but I keep writing poems instead, out of a certain necessity—not to look at the horrors of the plague, but to look away into the something regarding the nature of being. What the plague calls into view for me is existential, is solidarity with the whole of human history. To attend to that, in what is supposed to be poetry’s specificity of language, requires as many possibilities for structures in language as we can gather.

It’s interesting how a plague can, as you say, call into view the structures, possibilities, and, I imagine, the limitations of language, of traditional forms. Your work seems to want to defy strict categorization. In Good Stock Strange Blood, for example, the prologue reads as a sort of Q & A with the self; the poems flow in and out of each other, in and out of recognizable form and structure; you even feature still shots from Good Stock on the Dimension Floor, a film project you worked on for the 2014 Whitney Biennial Exhibition. How does hybridity factor into the way you imagine poetry? Does a hybrid text speak more aptly to this contemporary moment in history than, say, received forms might? Does this factor into the way you teach workshops at the University of Pittsburgh?

Why do genres exist so explicitly now, I wonder. I often think about race when I think about genres because race is one of the more devastating social constructs with the most complex implications for what it means to be a human being. We are very interested in categories, I think, because we are also very interested in occupying, getting control of, and dominating. Genre has to do with capitalism in an intersecting way with race subjugation. (I hate selling things. Well, when I was in college I sold knives over winter break once. I didn’t mind that. I hate selling art.) Categorization makes a thing that defies recognizability, recognizable. In the case of genre it fictionalizes what might, without the marketplace, be more wild. When I write, I don’t want to think about the marketplace. I want to think about the forms that attend to the thing that might want to be said. I discover this desire in utterance, in the midst of writing, not before. What we call “hybridity” is, for me, an investigation of form. I don’t assume “form” a priori. I let language lead me toward it. But, I haven’t answered your question. Form, like grammar, is a way of sense making. (This isn’t to say you can’t fuck with a sonnet. You can.) But, there is nothing about this particular moment that makes any sense. I’m really interested in formal practices that break outside of the expected, the recognizable, the coherent, and into rips, blur, and disjuncture. It more appropriately gets at the texture of life. Death is always the end of the sentence. That we know. But what does the sentence look like?

What I tell my graduate students in particular is that there should be a relationship—however irreducible—between what the poem wants to say and how the poem wants to say it. There are infinite possibilities for what that relationship is/those relationships are, but I don’t think it should be random. Don’t just scatter words all over the page for no reason.

These intersections—genre, race, marketability, form—feel pertinent to all art forms. I know, you’re artistically engaged outside of writing; could you speak a little about your background in visual arts, and how your experiences with other artistic media inform your writing (and vice versa)?

I wish I had gone to art school! I thought about going to film school once upon a time but, as a person who comes from poverty, I couldn’t figure out how to do it without going into even more debt. I started making experimental films when collaborating with the Black Took Collective (comprised of me, Ronaldo V. Wilson, and Duriel Harris). Our performances included: “live writing” where we put the black imagination “on display” by writing in the moment and projecting that writing on screen for the audience; and, site-specific video projection of recently made little films. For the first few performances, I would shoot and edit the footage and Duriel would make a soundtrack. So, as far as filmmaking goes, I’m both self taught and a novice. But I love being a novice. I love using rudimentary tools to make movies. I love making mistakes and realizing I like how the mistake looks. The films are like poems to me in the way they leave room for the viewer to make meaning. They often include language that the viewer can see and, sometimes, audible language from a poem. I used to project these films sometimes when I did readings, but I don’t so much anymore because they feel private and I experience such pleasure in the making of them. I want to keep it that way—in the playful, experimental, faltering, nonprofessional.

Is there an artist (non-writer) you find yourself returning to for inspiration?

I’ve long loved Adrian Piper and, after seeing the retrospective at the MOMA, I’m even more obsessed with her and her work. I’m looking at the exhibition book from the retrospective on my coffee table right this second, in fact. It’s impossible to boil down into a short paragraph what I admire in her work. One thing I love about the catalogue, though, is the timeline of her life in the back. It says things like: “Piper’s fifth grade teacher asks Piper’s parents if she’s aware that she’s colored.” “Joins Puerto Rican gang.” And, then, later but in the same year “first philosophy article published” and “Discovers Mary Tyler Moore Show.” When she was a professor at Wellesley, she collapsed from physical exhaustion a few times. I’ve often fantasized about being a fainter. She reminds me—not the fainting part, the art itself—of what it means to be a true artist, to take the work seriously, and not to let others take anything away from you—be it the university, the critic, or the public.

I’m sure, with all you are pursuing right now, that you’re no stranger to exhaustion. In addition to teaching English and creative writing at Pitt, you are the Director at the Center for African-American Poetry and Poetics. Could you speak a little about the genesis of CAAPP and, for those who aren’t familiar with the organization, talk a bit about the work you do there.

Sure. CAAPP was founded in 2016 by Terrance Hayes and me at the University of Pittsburgh. It came out of a brainstorming session with Terrance, me, and Yona Harvey. The work that we do at CAAPP is three-fold. We bring black writers and artists together in conversation and/or collaboration. Fred Moten and LaToya Ruby Frazier once presented their work together and participated in a moderated conversation, for example. We provide funding and opportunities for poets and artists to create new work through our Dream Space fellowship and residency program. And, we archive and reflect on the significance of this historic moment in African American and African diasporic poetry. One anchor feature of our archival work is the CAAPP Oral History Project on Cave Canem. Yona Harvey has taken the lead on this project and is in charge of conducting and training others to conduct oral histories with every living person who has attended the Cave Canem retreat for African American poets in some form. There are a lot of other things we do within these three programmatic arms, such as the work we do with community partners here in Pittsburgh to bridge the gap between the on and off campus communities. But, suffice it to say that when we created CAAPP, we really wanted to do something different from simply bringing folks to campus to read poetry. Black poetry is in the midst of an incredible renaissance. We wanted to pay multifaceted attention to that fact.

I understand you’ve also been working on a collection of essays—will you talk about that project and about how you transition between writing poetry and prose, if you approach them differently?

Yes, I’m working on a collection of essays that, I hope, adds up to a memoir. It’s attending to a lot of things. Here’s the elevator pitch:

What Happens When a Person Goes Missing is a genre-crossing memoir set in the long shadow of the Trump years that harkens back to my own story of escaping family and community violence, my mother’s magical thinking, and eventually, racially-segregated working-class Hartford, Connecticut, where other family members remained trapped. This book is about what happens when the American system that operates on the disempowerment of the other and the exceptionalization of the few black and brown people becomes a family story, and one, I suppose, of my own complicity as “the exception.”

That could be bullshit. I’m not sure. In any event, every time I sit down to write an essay I have to figure out how to do it again. That’s what is exciting about it, and also terrifying! I don’t feel that terror with the poem. The poem either happens or it doesn’t. Essayist prose is an entirely different unfolding, lots of struggle involved, and direct looking. The poetry-me enters my essays in the moments of metaphor, image, and those moments when I look away from the thing I’m supposed to be writing about. Those paragraphs tend to be more lyrical and beautiful to me; they are also the ones editors like to cut.

We eagerly await that and wish you the best of luck with it, and all of your endeavors. Thanks so much, Dawn, for taking the time to chat.


Dawn Lundy Martin is an American poet and essayist. She is the author of four books of poems: Good Stock Strange Blood, winner of the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award for Poetry; Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry; DISCIPLINE, A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering, and three limited edition chapbooks. Her nonfiction can be found in n+1, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Believer, and Best American Essays 2019. Martin is Professor of English in The Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh and Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. Her website is dawnlundymartin.com.