You’re one of the only poets I know who dropped out of a prominent MFA program. Why?
Ok, so I’ll try to answer as candidly as possible. I will have to travel back in time to 24/25 year old me. (I’m in this position a lot lately – I’m working with my past, my younger self in writing – the self I like to think is more fucked up and vulnerable than my present self. What is that relationship – how can I be accountable for the choices I’ve made even when they seem like the choices of a completely different person?) I was in a sort of coercive, abusive mess of a relationship, money was super precarious and I was really focused on “learning to be a poet.” My poems were bad. I had actually picked up all of this poetry knowledge which was totally esoteric to me by dating a woman who had just finished her mfa at Naropa, all of this experimental poetry stuff I was just learning about. These people who made it seem possible for me to write poetry. Alice Notley and Bernadette Mayer and Frank O’Hara. New York school stuff and New American stuff which was still new to me in the mid 2000s. So when I was thinking of mfas I was investing them with my dreams of learning to write and also escaping service jobs temporarily. I ended up going to Temple because I didn’t want to leave Philly. Pretty much as soon as I got back into school I remembered that I didn’t really like the feeling of being in school. I have some issues with authority. A friendship or a love relationship is always the place where I learn a lot. It’s hard for me to learn in a classroom. I’ve been a super shy person my whole life. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say it’s a disability (that writing helps me to live with.) So I had a lot of trouble talking in classrooms. I was intimidated by the language people were speaking. I was the only woman out of the six people in the poetry program that year. I think anybody who’s othered gets used to the feeling of being the only whatever in the room and learns how to deal with it somehow. But I didn’t know how to deal with it then. At that point in my life I just felt uncomfortable, overly gendered. Like I was trying so hard to become a lesbian and then trying so hard to become a poet – but to be a woman, what did that mean, how do I represent that? The idea of workshopping the diaristic, emo lesbian angst poems I was trying to write was also kind of terrifying. So mental health, gender and also money. I was taking out loans to be in school and it didn’t seem like it was worth it for me. I left after only half a semester. It seemed like a big fuck up then but I think I needed to find my own space to learn poetry. I worked at a coffeeshop for years after that and tried to figure out the writing thing. I realized that I wasn’t going to escape my life and I could just write out of the precariousness and struggle of things. I could just write out of that. I could just figure it out slowly. There was some liberation in that; that I wasn’t looking to a program or institution to make me a writer anymore. I was just living in the process.
Why bother even being a poet anyway?
I bounce between really idealistic thinking and the feeling of “what the fuck am I doing?”
Like poetry is totally a great form. There’s Sappho and Rimbaud. (And there’s Frank O’Hara and Eileen Myles and Audre Lorde and Ariana Reines and Jackie Wang.) There’s just total beauty in it. In some ways it’s a really accessible way to make art. I wanted to write fiction when I was younger but it didn’t work. Poetry was something I could do. I think it can be an honest kind of language in a world full of dishonest speech and language. You can use it to call out an oppressor. I think it’s a great art form for marginalized people.
So I love poetry but the being a poet thing is hard. I am a person who tends to be really invested in identity when sometimes I think it would be healthier and less painful to just do the things and not identify as the person who does the things. I long to be a poet, I want to be a poet, I never really merge with that identity. And sometimes I wish I could get rid of my attachment to wanting to be a poet and go to school and become a social worker and be more helpful and less broke. And some people could be a poet and also do the other practical things but I can’t. Wanting the thing with your whole heart and living the process of longing and doubt – I can’t get over how beautiful that is to me.
What are your poems about for you? What do you try to put in the poems?
I think I try to put in the things I know that are hard to talk about in daily life, for all the reasons. I’m driven by different kinds of tension. I think of this Chris Kraus quote all the time which is something like, “When the form is in place everything inside can be pure feeling.” I’m trying to find a container that can hold as much feeling as possible. All the feeling of being a person passing through time, shame and desire, the materiality of moments, wanting to affirm one’s own self and praise the beauty of others.
This emphasis on feeling rather contrasts with the ideas of a generation or two of poets just prior to us, does it not? Can you elaborate on that?
In a sense I might be overemphasizing how important feeling is to me – to form an oppositional stance to certain trends in poetry world. I want to rebel against aesthetic rules that seem prescriptive or limiting. Not just to be oppositional but as a way to make space to do what I need to do. Writing for me is also a way of integrating experience and theory, thought and feeling, a way of thinking through and feeling through. Some of the ideas that I’ve chafed against: that it’s uncool or unsophisticated to be sincere about anything, making direct statements is bad art, if you’re political it has to be super oblique and elegant and theoretical, too much personal emotion is embarrassing.
I’m not sure if an emphasis on feeling totally contrasts with the previous generation of poets. I see how certain Language poetry ideologies have come to dominate institutions of (mostly white, bourgeois) experimental poetry but that’s not the only thing that’s been going on in the last generation of two, right? There’s a whole multiplicity of stuff going on – a generation of queer writers and artists are being radicalized by HIV/AIDS, there’s the second renaissance of Black poetry. New Narrative was happening at the same time as Language poetry and Language writers and New Narrative writers were going to the same events in San Francisco and reading some of the same theory. (I got that from rereading Dodie Bellamy’s Academonia this week, a book I find hugely helpful.) So I mean, of course as a fucked up queer girl with too many feelings I was going to be more drawn to New Narrative than Language. I’m pretty much taking everything from like people like Dodie Bellamy, Eileen Myles and Chris Kraus. So there is a sort of feminist experimental trajectory that I’m following (which is oppositional and anti-institutional in attitude.) That’s where I learn how to put theory and analysis and emotion and experience together in poems. That’s where I find the permission that lets me begin.
Do you think of your work as political and how does that manifest itself?
Yes, totally (though in the most idiosyncratic way). Partly I think it’s important just to keep naming the reality of things over and over again in as many ways as we can. There’s this violence we live in and we’re not allowed to name it. White supremacy, heteropatriarchy, capitalism. These are forms of violence that have the power but there’s all this gas lighting about the reality of oppression. Naming is a gesture that might allow us to begin to move toward another world. So I’m thinking about structural oppression and I’m thinking of the kinds of feminism that could teach us to ask the right questions. That work against all the failures of middleclass white cissexist feminism.
Saying all those things, my poems are starting from a very personal place. A lot of what writing is for me is an attempt to make space. Like I’m actually a very repressed WASP. I keep myself on a leash. I try hard to be “good” in the ways people assigned female are supposed to be. So my writing is really a battle against myself as a mild mannered nice girl. The Abjector was totally my attempt at a personal therapy, an exorcism of self hatred that was ruining my life. But part of what I realized writing that was that my self hatred was coming from my failure to be socially normal, to make money, to be successful. And that’s totally political.
So I’m interested in the places social and political oppressions manifest in psychic life. I’m also interested in the ways oppressed people find to love themselves and survive and make art. I wrote a weird long poem a year or so ago called Queer Theory for Loserswhere I was trying to work a lot of these things out. I’m trying to celebrate being a loser in some ways and it’s totally to try put a counterbalance in my own life to an American hatred of failure, poverty and weakness. My own version of “queer theory” is ways of thinking that honor and make space for vulnerability.
I’m also walking lines. The political poems I wrote last year, I’m not sure how effective they are. I was trying to get in touch with my anger. Which sounds hokey but is actually a matter of survival especially for feminized subjects that are denied access to their own anger. And I was trying to fight against a pressure to be post-gay. I really don’t feel post-gay at all. I feel really gay all the time. They were attempts at interventions, mostly interventions in my life but also micro interventions in the world. Micro interventions against micro aggressions. Any time I try to speak for experiences that I haven’t had I start running the risk of being an appropriative self righteous asshole. But I have to try to walk the lines, I have to try to see what I can say. I’m also interested in the shadow side of a political desire. How easy it is to be self aggrandizing, tokenizing, myopic, complicit and guiltily trying to cover your complicity.
Wait, are you kind of saying that it’s the feelings that make the poems political?
Ha, ha. Sort of, I think. I mean I always want writing to be part of desire. Like the desire to have ethics and for that to mean something in the world. It’s all about feeling, there’s not really a division between private love and social solidarity. And there’s not really a line between myself and my poems. And sometimes I think it makes sense to be super emotional in writing as a kind of resistance. I could make an argument that emotion is devalued because it is associated with femininity and I’m sort of making that argument in Queer Theory for Losers. So like fuck you white straight men with nice careers and theories, all I have are my fucking feelings and I’m going to do what I can with them. That’s kind of an abject position and I feel like I may have taken it as far as I want to but it makes sense to me sometimes.
Edwin Johns / Marion Bell: Interview
In her poem “Austerity,” Marion Bell writes that it’s easy to get radicalized just by paying attention to experience. In her debut collection of poetry under the same title, she shares what those experiences are. Comprised of fragments, dreams, journal entries, and notes from friends, Austerity is a glimpse into a few years of the author’s life. Bell explores large ideas — capitalism, queer liberation, radical friendship, and community — in a deeply human and personal way, endeavoring to live a meaningful life in this stage of late capitalism.
Bell’s language in Austerity is concise, stripped down, her poems largely unpunctuated, allowing the lines to blend into each other in multiple ways. Inconsistent capitalization and the varied appearance of the titles can obscure where one poem ends and another begins. This is not a device to distract the reader but one to cohere the book as a whole, as opposed to a collection of disparate poems. There’s a journal-like aspect to this: readers experience the development of the poet’s thoughts over time. In fact, numerous poems are titled with time stamps (i.e., “june 18th 2013,” “winter / 2014,” “December Journal / 2017”). Austerity is almost a playbook for how Bell has arrived at her views, or hasn’t arrived, as if we’re witnessing the poet think out loud on the page. In a humorous moment in “summer 2014,” she writes:
if they thought your
well fuck them
isn’t even legible
Bell suggests it’s okay not to have an answer to something as long as you’re putting in the hard work of thinking. Throughout the collection, her thoughts engage with those of numerous other writers and thinkers. Bell identifies Simone Weil, Fred Moten, and Tim Dlugos as writers central to her work. She drops in quotes from Chelsea Manning, Clarice Lispector, Hilton Als, and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and others. In one poem, the speaker reads George Jackson’s prison letters while riding the 124 bus in Philadelphia, on which, we’re told, the working classes “ride far away from the city / for low wage / jobs.” Bell questions what can be achieved by reading this literature even as she says she was “raised by literature.” Can people improve themselves by reading the right books? How far can books take you?
Ultimately, Bell’s answer seems to be not far enough. It’s also important to connect with others and find a community, to be in the streets with your neighbors in common struggle. In “July,” the speaker recognizes someone on the trolley from recent demonstrations: “the recognition of / strangers / becomes very precious.” The poem concludes with the statement that “to feel feelings in public / with strangers / is / becoming / the most important thing.”
The desire for connection extends beyond strangers to celebrate friendship. In “gay group therapy,” Bell writes, “when i am with 2 queer people i feel / safe / i feel like i am a woman but also not / that at all.” She wants to be there for friends in the way they need us to be (“I wish we could recognize what others need us to recognize”). The book concludes with a single page poem titled “friend notes,” which includes messages from someone identified only as Ben (who also appears in other poems in the book) and from the writer Michael Cavuto. Bell envisions a radical friendship that involves researching the people in our lives so we can better understand them. She writes of the need for “Reading lists / of what people / need to / understand us.”
The tenderness of Bell’s work lends a sense of credibility to the speaker. At the literal and emotional center of the book is the lengthy poem “Austerity II.” Stretching over 30 pages, it is essentially a love poem composed in fragments, although it also covers many of the book’s major concerns, from politics to connection and community. The poem captures moments that feel unreal or utterly ridiculous, for instance, the Philadelphia police department putting flyers in mailboxes advertising their presence on social media, and news anchors making “a point of telling us they feel the tear gas / it stings, Rachel.” A question that is innocuous when meeting a friend’s friend becomes insidious from a border cop’s mouth: “How do you know each other?” Bell notes “another bookstore philosophy section with no women” and admits to “dreaming of an inner life / in which I’m also standing in / the street.” She marvels at the body’s ability to wake up early for work even when she’s sick, notes the irony of “looking for work / so you can keep living / to undo / what work does,” and conflates the “I that is the I of the poem” and the “I of my life.” Over the course of the poem a narrative develops about the arrival of a romantic partner in Bell’s/the speaker’s life:
Leah showed up that spring. The spring after the saddest winter.
She showed up at a job I got fired from.
She appeared out of nowhere.
(At the big gay doctor’s office)
of the nurses we would be
to each other.
The imagery of Philadelphia’s Dilworth Park, which reopens after being closed to the public, mirrors the speaker’s opening of herself after experiencing past relationship violence. Bell expresses the sweetness of the new relationship, as she finds joy in touching her partner’s thigh under a table while surrounded by friends, and is astonished by a question of how many times they have kissed (“It would never occur to me to think in math like that”). She captures the way love stories can stutter and act as interruptions in one’s life. She asks for help to keep the interruption going.
Though the collection is often serious, it’s humorous at turns. Bell masterfully captures subtle shifts of tone and understands timing, of music, jokes, and poetry — and bad timing: when work keeps you away from those you love, when meeting someone who still identifies as straight. Despite Austerity’s many Philadelphia landmarks and references, the New York School is a palpable influence in Bell’s work — in her direct, offhanded style; the way friends, books, and dreams enter into the poems; and the way the stuff of poetry is everywhere, manifesting even as pink graffiti on the 51st Street walking bridge in West Philadelphia. This incredibly strong debut promises good things to come, both from Bell and from the new poetry press Radiator, which plans to publish books by poets “who make us think deeply and who inspire us to act collectively.” With Austerity, Bell achieves both.
Look i get radicalized by love
like any normal
i wouldn’t turn you into a wife
i’m a person you know
and the conditions are weird
even of my knowing
i wouldn’t turn you into anything
i get radicalized by love
and by austerity
and by work
by austerity and by work
it’s easy to get radicalized just by paying attention to experience
i would write to you
in the naiveté of my knowing
june 18th 2013
It’s in the morning & I’ve just spent all night alone on the
internet. It’s the end of June? time feels tremendously strange.
It’s 3 in the morning and I just looked at david wojnarowicz’s
scanned diary pages — pictures of his journals on the internet
and then I could write something out of the intense, submerged
feeling I live in — wich is something about the closeness of
anxiety, yearning and actual love, actual love and recognition
approaching, speaking to —
I’m trying to work out
my objects relations
the small self made books of
women who write poetry
who i fall in love with
again & again
I say to Ben and to Leah
“I wish we could recognize what people needed us to recognize”
if i make
my rouble an
then i can sit at the table
when something big is happening and you
can only be aware of tiny
things your body is doing
that my pants are too tight
and there’s a big pimple on my chin
how do you know each other?
the border cop asks
try to keep the space of
travel for a minute the aura of it
an inner life
like to aspire to what is already there
all my life
I’ve been dreaming of an inner life
in which I’m also standing on
google ocd about ….
and up pops the most compelling searches
ocd about cleaning
ocd about hiv
ocd about being gay
ocd about time
a dance party up front
and a fire in the backyard
at the new queer punk house
on 51st street
all the quiet girls
sitting together around the fire
another bookstore philosophy section with no women
As if speaking to a person more quiet than myself
I can beat at your own game. Like we would defeat our
exes by making better art than them. As if that would ap-
proach reparation for the years I was young and cute and
living in violence.
my temporal drag is a black trucker hat black sweatshirt
My poem fails when the I that is the I of the poem or the I of
my life fails to relate.
What depends on timing that which depends on timing
jokes, music, poetry, love
Who slays me and who gives me life. I need both of theses. I
need all of it.
(The poem is saved by an address.)
on the 51st street walking bridge
over railroad tracks
graffiti in pink
STOP BLAMING YOURSELF
STOP BLAMING YOUR FRIENDS
the waif you were and
people who’ve shown up in my life/ at
the end of winter
Again against my own perverse and obsessive loyalty
If I put too much pressure on myself to be liberated and then I put too much pressure on myself to be disciplined
I wonder what disciplines my body waking up early to work
even though I’m sick
As if a person liberates their own body.
They said the way not to feel alienated is to have a few close
friends. She said how many times do you think we’ve kissed. It
would never occur to me to think in math like that. But thousands.
Five thousand. Ten thousand.
Austerity is a series of measures the point of which I forget.
I just know the tenor of it. Cutting everybody’s food stamps
and going to war. Again. Forever. A liberation movement
that crests and falls. Falls for thirty years.
In the new park they’ve built in front of city hall — what was
wreckage for the last few years after the occupy encampments
were destroyed now a plaza full of people. How long ago was
that fall and spring ? This space is open again after years
of being fenced and full of ruins.
When I was so wild and used to dream of discipline. And now
all I can do is ask what are the forces that discipline my body
— all I can do is ask, knowing what they are. Knowing all the
Brandon writes Marx in the morning. Benjamin at night. We
used to work together and our nicknames were Rough Trade
and Butchie. Our nicknames for ourselves. That winter we
were the saddest baristas on the whole coast. At work one day
Brandon showed me a tarot card that made things possible
again. It was the smallest nuance. The most subtle opening.
In a hallway, in a day full of snow.
If you realize and you always realize in time that may be years
too late. It’s easy to say queer time. That helps a lot to say.
To describe it that way. That you’ve undone yourself in your
willingness. To be a political nurse. To everyone you meet.
what’s historical time/ when we need 20,000 dollars today / what’s
historical time/ what’s ten years/ in the urgency of now/ what’s three
years/ in historical time/ baby we’re going to die/ i’m trying to work
for wages from home/ precarious, i guess/ munching on snacks/
“remotely”/ we’re not going to die/ today/ i’m crying and making
no sense/ we haven’t been biopolitically/ selected for premature
death/ i promise not today / last summer/ the summer before /
if it’s ten years before the institutions will agree that we are valid
on the 124
ride far away from the city
for low wage
learning to think differently
which is actually my body
saying i don’t give a fuck
about money or
i don’t care about anything
but being here for you
gay group therapy
it’s a feeling in a room with boundaries
the feeling is liminal and collective
to be angry on behalf of someone else
it was a weird inbetween feeling to carry
I waited to feel embarrassed but it didn’t come
committed to what can only be approached by trust which is
impossible to imagine after the things we’ve lived thru/ still it’s
the approach / it’s the only address/ what keeps us addressable/
the real future is the otherness we can’t imagine/ and even I can’t
defeat that in myself/ it’s so resilient because it’s beyond me
December Journal / 2017
could become a better person
if you read the right books
at the ica fred moten speaks of “battling with identity against
the backdrop of the denial of identity”
yes yes yes
I have to fight against my urge to ascetism and self-sacrifice
but I’m reading about simone weil again – – she seems like the
she says, “when you decide something always do what will cost
you the most”
I would like there not to be grants
no paperwork to prove your need
no application to decide who gets to live
I create the conditions for my heartbreak or a neoliberal self-
help book wants me to think so
the word for spirit
the need to document
as a way of being
Radiator Press 2019
Jasmine Gibson is a Philly jawn living in Brooklyn. She spends her time thinking about sexy things like psychosis, desire, and freedom. She is the author of Drapetomania (Commune Editions, 2015) and Don’t Let Them See Me Like This (Nightboat Books, 2018).
I knew I was going to like Jasmine as soon as my friend, the hardcore anarchist, excitedly invited me to read alongside her at a fundraiser in North Carolina. The fundraiser was being held in support of prisoners planning to engage in a mass strike, the largest coordinated prisoner strike in modern U.S. history. It was the first time I had ever heard him mention anything about poetry.
Hearing Gibson read her work confirmed the hype—she is a young poet of profound ability to animate dense political theory, astrological musings, unapologetic militancy, relationship gossip, and a quality of ineffable nonchalance (that could only come from someone who knows the end of the world is near and can’t be bothered to perform pretense). When I heard that her debut full-length collection was coming out, I jumped at the chance to talk to her about it.
Zaina Alsous: I thought a lot about Silvia Federici’s “Wages Against Housework” while reading your book, which gave so much attention to the contradictions of desire within the system under which we are alive. I think your work provides a necessary intervention of merging the wage and the prison cell as paradigms that mediate all of our intimate encounters. In “Hot-Hand Fallacy,” you write, “A street lovers fought on, a street where / people throw projectiles at pigs / and that is truly romance isn’t it?” This made me think of Federici writing, “We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create what will be our sexuality which we have never known.” I think your book poses a provocation about ‘requited’ love as this sort of impossible possibility within the carceral world we currently inhabit. I want to start there.
Jasmine Gibson: I think that love is possible, but I think the love that we conceive out of the social relationships we form now can only slip into moments [with] the underground. Experiencing love not so much just as, “Oh, they make me dinner,” but love as in, “If I get into some sort of trouble, will you bail me out of jail?” Or the love of sending letters to people who are incarcerated, or the love of trying to be honest and vulnerable with other people, even though vulnerability is not something seen as valuable. I think love is possible but [more so] has other possibilities of being different things outside of intimacy with the people you know—a kind of intimacy that can be felt with people who are not necessarily close to you. I navigated that throughout the book with different voices and experiences. Some experiences that are not necessarily unique to me. When I wrote my first piece for LIES Journal, I wanted to speak to my mom in some kind of a way and look at her entanglements with capitalism from a historic perspective, and that’s how I try to navigate love: as a historical thing. At the time, I was also reading a piece by Saidiya Hartman about these two girls trying to comfort each other in the belly of a slave ship—how do you define love in that kind of context? Where it is so violent, and the stakes are incredibly high? I’m thinking right now into that past. The hardest part of that reality is trying to take care of yourself and have enough empathy to take care of someone else, which I think is a kind of love, and in the kind of scenario that Hartman has set up, I was thinking about that and trying to focus on love, my experiences of love, unrequited love, and love as a bigger broader thing; love for my mom, my sister, love for the unlovable.
ZA: In David Scott’s writing about modernity he posits that tragedy makes room for “contingency,” and I saw that kind of current coursing through Don’t Let Them See Me Like This. But maybe even more so, your use of hesitancy to create room for contingency and meaning. I loved the use of “maybe” in your poem “The Fool.” That tarot card has so much to do with relinquishing expertise in order to be opened up towards enlightenment. What is your relationship to hesitancy and unsureness as a poetic?
JG: That poem felt painful to write, because it was an experience of a personal romantic tragedy, because they lived across the Atlantic and it was something that just wasn’t possible. Two people rooted in their own kind of Babylon, separately. You can’t really transfer without material things: with jobs, immigration, and schools, all of that stuff you can’t just say, “I’m going to move for love.” Love is [also] mediated by transactions under capitalism, so sometimes that is what trumps it. That’s where hesitancy in “The Fool” comes from—coming into this realization that the social relationships mediated by capitalism don’t always allow for people to be able to make choices to be in love and have a future with a person, because it is irresponsible. The hesitancy comes from this kind of bargaining of what could have happened, maybe, if things could have been different. Because love under capitalism calls your bluff or presents a ceiling for how much you can experience the possibilities, or impossibilities of love. To relinquish that ceiling, then, is to step into another realm of possibilities. That’s what my current partner did. They moved their entire life and began a fool’s journey with me. Impossible!
ZA: Throughout the text, it seems like you ask a lot of questions.
JG: I think I was open to change. I don’t want the meaning of the poems to be this definite thing. I wanted them to be able to change over time, and I think that is the most important thing for them to do. Maybe that comes from a background in political work; if you make definite statements of how to orient to things if things change—you are much safer if you allow yourself to be humble in ways that encourage you to grow. I want the poems to be an amorphous thing. Even if the book is done, it keeps changing.
ZA: I know you work in mental health care, and your poems definitely confront the systemic violence of weaponizing “sanity” and illness, especially against Black people, with Drapetomania serving as just one exceedingly blatant and disturbing example. How has your psychiatric research influenced your writing?
JG: In a similar way to my experiences doing political work, it’s also provided a language with how the state uses mental health to surveil, and how people work hand in hand with that. Seeing it from the inside, it provides a different kind of understanding of how the state can weaponize things that are supposed to be well-meaning. In New York City, you have The Office of Mental Health, and obviously you want services and resources given to people—everybody needs mental health care—but a lot of those services are [also] used to track people in the [criminal] system. So many people who are aging now have been institutionalized for most of their lives in public mental health hospitals that were shut down in the 1970s. When I first started writing poetry, I had begun working as a case manager, so that kind of seeped in, thinking about myself and my work, and my relationship to my patients; thinking about what to do and how to reconcile that and, in my position, attempting to trouble that boundary. At the time, I was also in the Florence Johnson Collective, and we were trying to organize health workers that were HHAs and people that worked in hospitals and trying to reconcile a vacuum of radical organizing of health in New York City. This was about 5 years ago. We wanted to blend “Wages for Housework” with what happened in the 1970s, during The Lincoln Hospital Takeover, and try to come up with something like that. That set me on a track to blend thinking about my own relationship to my career in mental health and the political nature of it, exploring it through poetic work.
ZA: You mentioned ‘surveillance,’ and it seems like in reading your work there’s this repetition of a sentiment that something becomes ruined as soon as it leaves an interior or intimate space and enters the exterior realm. Do you feel like there is a relationship between public articulation and complicity?
JG: I had deleted my Instagram for a while back in June, because I felt like I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I feel like online there’s this weird pressure to have this kind of intimacy that isn’t legible when you actually are with someone physically. It’s a kind of performance space, and I just don’t like that. I don’t think it feels good. I think it’s reaching a ceiling, and I wonder what is going to come next. Social media is all about surveillance gathering, building up a public profile on this person that leads to them becoming one of a few bytes on the Internet that ends up getting surveilled. I just think it’s strange that there isn’t a kind of secrecy or more of a security culture about what is shared because of this pressure to be as open and intimate as possible on the Internet. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on that.
ZA: It seems like there is a longing for clandestine forms of relation in your work.
JG: Yeah, I think that is kind of the thing that is missing from a lot of relationships that you can have now, or something more rare. Maybe I’m just old now, or of a different generation. I don’t know if we can return. Maybe it’s something that doesn’t exist. I just feel like that there is something being lost now, how people interpret different forms of sharing. On the flip side of that, one cool thing is that some people who are fascists are getting doxed, and they [fascists] are also really bad at security culture, so that’s good. On the other side, a lot of people get really hurt by the Internet. I think secrecy creates possibilities for what you can see in the future. There are things that can only be predicted through your interactions with people that can’t be immediately and readily available. Like, what is the thing that is actually happening between people?
ZA: So you feel like secrecy is the basis of intimacy?
ZA: I also see a speculative militancy throughout your poems, like in “Love Life.” You write, “I want them to know / there’s a dead cop at the end of that rainbow / and we gonna be alright.”
JG: I remember the summer Philando Castile was murdered. Someone had posted pictures that children had drawn for him after his murder. That made me cry. One child had said, “Mr. Castile, you have rainbows in your heart.” There was just something so sweet about that. I just wanted to add to that to an image of a dead cop.
ZA: What’s the role of violence in poetry?
JG: The role of violence is to get to imagining where there isn’t necessarily violence. Violence at times can be this revelatory action that unveils something, that makes something visual and open and unavoidable.
ZA: The work of Afro-pessimist scholars has gained a lot of discursive currency lately, and one harmful response that I’ve seen is that sometimes pessimism gets portrayed as solely antithetical or transgressive to hope, and yet I think your poems inhabit a lot of dialectical ground with pessimism and a kind of futurism consistently interwoven. The book ends with you announcing your inevitable arrival: “I’m the angel knocking on yr door / To let disease in / The place that I fit in doesn’t exist, / Until I destroy it.” Where you do you see your writing fitting in to these debates of pessimism vs. futurism?
JG: I hope that this book helps destroys that debate. A lot of people like to pit Black intellectuals against each other, those who are playing with different ideas, and I think that is really boring. Why would you say you only believe in Afro-existentialism or only believe in Afro-Pessimism? I just believe in possibility. My first political mentor told me this thing that kind of stayed with me: “People that are post-colonialists read the first part of Black Skin, White Masks, and Marxist-Humanists read the last part.” And maybe I don’t believe in Humanism as a project, or in Marxist-Humanism, but I do believe in possibility and having as many possibilities as possible. I think the way people limit themselves and place pessimism in a box is what’s bad; it’s not doing any service to intellectual projects to just regurgitate broad critiques. There’s this one part of Black Skin, White Masks, where Fanon writes something along the lines of, “You can find me here on this side of history where I also have claim to creating the clock, or you can find me on this side of history where I have claim to this,” etc., so not just limiting to one event, but to be able to use all of that, and also use the contradictions of theory and Blackness as something that is more interesting. I hope my book can destroy that kind of binarism and hold both [pessimism and futurism] without choosing a side.
ZA: I think what I find most dazzling in your collection is how you manage to find a way to locate where dense theory meets body fluids, or their most sensual instrumentation. “Viscus is the value begotten from labor / interwoven through our bodies / and not bodies / bodies that failed to become bodies / bodies that weren’t able to become poems / because they were too manic / the value was never mine to give.” Can you talk a little bit about where theory meets the body for you?
JG: Theory meets the body for me in the most material way, in that we live in a world where you basically have to destroy your body in order to eat and then sometimes you destroy our body with what you eat. Thinking about the body and how capitalism shapes that. My favorite chapter of Capital is “The Working Day,” in which Marx uses a kind of ethnography of the English working class and the ways they work their bodies to be basically whittled down to nothing. Their bones are completely deformed from working these crazy hours. I don’t think we always take the body seriously when we are thinking about different political or poetic potentialities. Why sex is so big for me in the book is because I was reading a lot of Wilhelm Reich and thinking about how the ways we have sex is so informed by this kind of deterministic value: that we have to have sex. And it’s this convoluted thing often portrayed only as a biological functioning and not totally historical.
Sex can be multiple things and sex can be radicalized where it is not something you have to be positive or negative about. To break away from the binary: to think about sex in ways like, sometimes sex does hurt, and sometimes it does feel good, and why is it that it changes in different situations, and what does sex mean when there’s a political aspect to it. Or how the state weaponizes sex, through conjugal rights being taken away and the sexual violence that happens in prisons. There’s this pressure to form our bodies into different things that don’t feel normal or natural and have consequences. The most common autoimmune disease is diabetes, which is something insurance companies cut from policies all the time, and people aren’t able to get their insulin. Why don’t we have normalized demands to say medication should be free for everyone? Why aren’t we robbing pharmacies? In “Henrietta Lacks” I talk about her cells being used by the hospital that let her die and how all of this, the medical industry, is also a weaponized history used against people.
I wanted to explore that in poetic format by blending theory and my own body. While writing Don’t Let Them See Me Like This I also got sick. I kept thinking about the ways in which sickness can make you unseen, which is something that people who are chronically ill usually deal with.
ZA: Was there anything in that period of illness and unseen-ness that stood out to you, that became imprinted in the book?
JG: I think exploring my own illness in the book has imprinted in me the desire to talk about that with people in a different way. There are already people who talk about it, like Johanna Hedva, (author of “Sick Woman Theory”) and there’s an amazing blog called “Sometimes Explode,” which is all about mental health, and I just wanted to contribute to that discussion. My poetry has always been a means of political education. I wanted to use political knowledge as a way to discuss with others what I’m thinking or feeling, whether that be around political theory or politically ‘being.’ I think that’s the duty of anyone who is a leftist, to politically educate others and allow yourself to be humbled in that process.
The Adroit Journal
We use surveillance for us
como se dice
cynicism is exactly what we need
and even what the F.A.I. (at some point)
had a willingness to die for
the opposite, non-mirror of a futurist manifesto
drawing blood in speeding motor cars
holding courage, sensuality and fear
in both hands and feeling it slip through
continuing to snap until
we damn near break off from our own trunks
we know the state is collecting our images
for a time when we’ll remember, maybe incorrectly
“we were ‘more’ free then, right?”
what are we going to do when politicians and superstars
aren’t problematic anymore?
will you let the enemy in
when they say they appreciate the way yr ancestors died
to give you that pretty brown skin that glows
under the floodlights or
how nameless dead bodies are now the ultimate aesthetic
accepting the bourgeois death drive
and how radical is it when our desire
for freedom gets recuperated in the shape of an ugly boxy silk dress
all the women and not women, I know,
are returning to points of youth
to regain something they lost
whether that’s the thickness of their eyebrows
or feeling safe enough to love with abandon
and hurt there
it’s too risky in this older body
too many holes, and not enough suitors filling the holes
with anything special or nourishing
just making the holes wider and more brittle
watch me break all over you
it’s exhausting just finding a place to rest
to clean wounds like this
yes, I’ve been up deep into the night
when it’s day where you are
thinking of ways to get out of being underneath your skin
and no one is home
please burn my collection of poems
because now I know
that your love and ferocity were spent on another
in an American South
we can have it good
and it can be delicious
we can be dangerous like that
living without redemption
a hungry ghost, wandering, seeking its head
which is something much more
damn, you want my marrow too?
I thought you were a vampire
but you’re excavating deeper
into the history in my blood and mess rooms
it’s holy work, and I find pilgrims everywhere I go
I stared into the abyss and knew I loved her then,
because only she could appreciate how I fall apart,
sopping wet and still manageable even if I’m wrong
and that’s good enough
knowing you could never afford my love
Stop Texting Me
Progressive still means prisons
While the rich steal the future as if it were magic
And that is what the implementation of time really is?
I can repeat the same words I’ve said in past just so you know
And I want the end, and an orgasm for my trouble
So what I said, was
“Someone died, and we kept laughing
Not in our favor. And the nurse still wants to know who
Is going to pass the afterbirth of future.”
Evangelical hyperbolism of the binary pushing on tissue
No man is ever worth a line of poetry
But I still wrote
High on my own delusions
Whilst others lived inside of them
There was nothing you could say
Or do in that moment except fall
Over your own words via encryption
If not for the rigor of his absence,
I would’ve not
Been equating lack for passion
And higher mental faculties to help us tire through the day
And that’s what men do
And there are no good men
You like the noise of me
How I sit in the lining of where
Fat meets connective tissue with skin
That’s where I lie inside you
All of this sprawl could be afforded by a few for the cost of the sea
a boring archipelago, with pretty lovers screaming Finnish in their sleep
they want to leave too
they know what’s good
or at least how to make things right
I’m right here
and yes, we are both surprised by how we can love like this
I mean, like you and me
and the photographs that haven’t been taken
then there’s the skin that may stretch and
carry, whether that belongs to me or you
I’m still trying to smell you on my skin
my body is cramping in my arms, trying to make myself small
in broad sense, but like me also
Somos Nosotros Negros
were never meant to reach northern wet cities
you can tell by the narrow city streets and the blinding white churches
not meant to touch my flesh, but to instead to extract from ivory bones
yes, your family was amongst the poachers
with photographs smiling back
my great great grandmother making love and hate to a coolie on soggy banks
In wonderment, that in every language there is a disdain for blackness
in every phrase, there is a code for being wary of the darkness
even on the filmy surfaces of pools
rattling in a metal ribcage, over dead rivers and ice melts
will it ever be warmer than this?
the mercury in the fish made me horny for you
and this was even after people on
the street avoided eye contact with me,
wanted the coldness in your eyes
” . . . You know how hard it is for me to
Shake the disease”
to sleep away
it’s the social democracy we died for
the social democracy
If I don’t hold the gaze, my image gets distorted or worse
I didn’t have to break the sea in half
to know I’m not wanted here
the violence of domestication
is a history of grunts and spurting sounds
you can tell by the proximity of sounds and color
embedded in the lining
I am recording this to remember that
it is real
maybe I had a choice but that is of course up to the audience
I got so happy while writing this
I could barely finish
but then it all came back again
leaked onto me, you, and the bed sheets
“. . . I’m feeling much stranger about you . . . “:
You didn’t need to threaten of bondage on other lands
benefit from whiteness
it’s a blinding and unwavering light
it is rapture
there is no need for intimacy when your flesh is in proximity
it’s takes us all
How strong this is, even when it’s broken against me
neither one of us belong here, in the North
America broke every highway into the woods
at first we descended from the sky, but then by boat
Dying to let you know,
brown does not equal “foreigner”
but can be a stranger in the village too
Stop Texting Me
You really think you’re free when there’s ghosts
like Kalief Browder that haunt you?
He will be avenged
Coming in signs of three
1. A burning limo
2. The void
3. The crushing of white marble and the release
of a howl from the deepest part of the belly:
the disembowelment of slaveholders, in every definition the title.
Who knew that organs could weigh so much and absorb a city’s abuses
Katrina or Flint
repeated events can feel like fate
“are you sure of what you put in your body isn’t killing you?”
“this is a personal issue”
new heavy metal is in season
whether it’s liquid or alkaline like
it still cakes onto your liver and lungs like
that lover you want back but
you remember all of the disasters
that came along with the relationship
All my goddesses are heavy metal
because they were all burnt
on hot irons at sea, in small villages, backyards
with burning crosses and borders so segmented
that they split the body in two
but can still breath and take
in toxins and heavy metals
and don’t that make you feel fucking expansive
like my god
your body on mine and how I want you to melt on my tongue
kinda heavy metal
This is your welcome party
This is your potluck
It is an orientation that you woke up late for
and ran 2 hours late to and realized you missed nothing at all
and the body sags at the wasted time of linens
on ashen skin that you have to go 3.5 hours to touch and
27 doors and 1600 flights of stairs
to be reunited once again and it still doesn’t feel as good
as the lies you told yourself about
how good it would feel
These are calculations for how you have to strain to shit
Even the little that comes out matters
What about the Syrians and legitimate pain
When you realize the government
class collaborators and landowners
heads of breeding
have always had a grip on yr uterus
you can feel it when it lurches and
not when ‘daddy’ was a metaphor but an
actual apparatus of reproduction of stock
excavation as self critique
so that you may feel the depth
of your flesh
light wounds can be mortal too
Does your guilt keep others awake or is it just you?
trusting yourself to be honest with yourself
based on the fact that you are not
that different from what you are fighting?
when war makes a sound like that
how it keeps you up at night
how theory dies when it leaves your lips
All my expansiveness is heavy metal
and it’s not my business what you think about me
there can be a conversation in code but it cannot
hide from what is happening
rid heavy metal from the soul
Am I being detained and what summoned your presence
We only mourn blacks who die
for peace treaties and reasons
that ultimately don’t lead us to liberation
And don’t let me tell you about the maroon blood
that scares away the Indio skin
that so many white lovers benefit from
“Yes, it’s true. I can feel it when your
fingers are inside me and right there.
Yes, there, I’m cumming and present.
I woke up in the middle of it all.”
There is a whole history of people lying about where they were born
and forgetting where they got married
because the seams unraveled too quickly
due to impacts missing in state records
county records but apparent in body records
“I came upon this shore in heavy metal”
Stop Texting Me
How am I gonna enclose upon you
Like motherfucker tell me what’s real
On a Tuesday, hold your skin close to mine
rub and tell me you’ve never
felt how the moon could move under you like that
How insurrection is just the thickening of lining
and we’re either going to abort, bleed or give birth
Doesn’t it get you wet?
If it’s hysterical, it’s historical
Reading like a commercial that holds you along the trip to sleep
I didn’t know there was an alternative to capital
And that I could press one
One on one with my body against cement
One on one with debt because it’s the definitive lover
The complete God, walks with me in sleep
One on one because what happened at the bar
In my pants on your mouth does not make it
To the meeting even if everyone can smell me on you
Sweet and full of darkness
I believe that proper words are teachers
And police officers that restrain little girls
And don’t worry when their bodies don’t make a sound when their
skulls hit the concrete
But again One on One
Imagine all of the stories slaves would have written
If they didn’t die writing with their flesh
Instead their flesh was for a sadistic master
and our |Age of Enlightenment|
Tell me when it hurts, I’ll keep going
Stop Texting Me
Maybe my ever falling spiral into
white men is fueled by the state
Just as a means to end up in the arms of the state
My Dominican co-worker is telling me
that her boyfriend fantasizing about her taking black cock
“A mulatta fantasy”
Yet all cock is flaccid and selfish
In prison cells, in work cubicles, in bathroom stalls
At 3 am when you want to get fucked
There are poems of Marx’s pussy
Wet and welcoming
Enfold me as you swallow Hegel
eating Proudhon’s ass
On Twitter stating you are “in general anti-millennial”
which is code for ant-black/brown/power
because we all know white people are disappearing from imaginations
just ask the Balkans
they’re still waiting on becoming white
Hearts desiring adversaries
looking for strange but
the sun no longer sets me free
How black was our sabbath
people, like our white exes,
do funny things like show up to
marches for black women when they actually hate black women
13th and peralta
I’m in love with someone there
pretending not to be in love with me
my presence isn’t necessary anymore
because I wasn’t loud enough
because there wasn’t enough space
between the actual city and those who tried to claim the city
But in general, I don’t fight for souls already claimed
are you inviting me into the flames
of hell or are you actually conjuring the flames?
Black untitled without a place to settle
it’s product to collect
The first men
never could’ve been children of water and wine
carried by a starry bull and whatever else tries to enter
I’m not tryna assimilate or congratulate you for loving Beyoncé
Booker T already wanted that, manifested it
we’re reaping it still unfree
Only black bougie jawns can eat up
all of us can get rich or die trying
most of the time it’s dying, we try a little but it’s half ass consolations
THE Black writer on the press known for being knowledgeable
on such issues because they told you over brunch
that an Ivy league or well invested or well-to-do ancestor
paid for which if
you must know
they had a good advisor
Check this out
when I’m off work
my body still working and a vulture licking capitalist wants its labor power
for cheap of course
the boss gets to cum
I get an iota of that and
some stupid promissory note that may never deliver
It goes to my liver
end of story
I pretend to love it and the boss pretends his life is worth living
To those that find themselves in darkness
and want to still keep walking through it
get used to it
it’s just a uterus shedding its lining
I was told I could taste anything I liked
but to spit out whatever could nourish me
so I walked around emaciated and clouded with hunger
Everyone wants the world back again
Stop Texting Me
I open up open up open open up open up
Until the walls sweat my name
Haunting isn’t enough
I want merge, live inside, split into your cells
Until flesh itself is only thought of as contextual