Kamden Hilliard’s Distress Tolerance is an act of tangled agency—of splicing, building, and moving through languages that work both to “tolerate” as well as to disrupt this fucked-up world. These poems navigate chaos and traumatic experience, fear and desire, race and language, with their own relentless, forceful rhythm. Nothing is static, nothing is still. This chapbook works to tease at the pigeonholes, those containers of language and identity. There is a brutal humor in the way the speaker weaves through these various quiet/disquiet identities and discourses. There is a gorgeous, gritty energy in how the speaker maintains a body, a visible body—and works to amplify and expand this body’s presence in a world that seeks to damage or erase it.
It all started when Jellyfish Magazine published some of Kam’s poems. We (fellow editors Anne Cecelia Holmes, Philip Muller, and I) fell in love with them, and spent the majority of a staff meeting reading them out loud, letting their regular-irregularities take over our mouths. They turned us on our heads; they so relentlessly worked to speak to a sense of violent desperation—and sardonic/grim hilarity—in such an unsafe, chaotic world. Over a year later, Kam is now a friend and an editor at Jellyfish—and someone whose brilliant voice/outlook I adore and trust.
I feel so lucky to have had this conversation with Kam. We dig into it here, discuss things like trauma and survival, identity and language, writing with and against the grain of THE CANON, and fiery, fiery self-destruction.
The Rumpus: I’ve been thinking a lot about the title of your chapbook, Distress Tolerance. Specifically, as a self-help/behavioral therapy concept, a set of skills that help people cope with crises, both short-term and long-term. There’s that word, though, “tolerance,” implying that the crisis/pain/trauma is unavoidable, and needs to just be accepted. How does the idea of “tolerating” everyday, painful-yet-unavoidable traumas, play into these poems?
Kamden Hilliard: As a survivor of sexual assault, I am curious about post-damage. Not trauma, exactly, but the things that happen once damage ceases. This does, hopefully, parlay into trauma, but often it does not. It’s often a bad scar. The body heals as the body heals, but the brain? The soul? The credit score? The heart? I don’t quite know. The speakers of these poems don’t quite know either, I’d guess.
Therapeutically, Distress Tolerance is a module of dialectical behavioral therapy. DT asks the patient to acknowledge the unchangeable evils, conflicts, and traumas in this world and, without remorse, to withstand them. It doesn’t ask if a conflict is just, reasonable, or moral, but asks how we can survive conflict. How can we move forward in a world that would desire otherwise— how can we be most effective?
“In which rape could be worse” started with a joke. I told a friend that at least I wouldn’t have a biological child—at least I wouldn’t transfer my conditions onward. But then I realized that it wasn’t very funny. So it goes. The poem contains a speaker that, in the midst of an assault, envisions a situation “worse than rape”—a heterosexual love that cradles the possibility of passing hereditary illness to a child. Is the speaker correct? I’m not sure, but the speaker provides himself with a way to withstand pain. This is important for me. I think—survival is not always cute, politically responsible, mature, or sober. Survival is ramshackle, as is tolerance.
Rumpus: One of the things that make Distress Tolerance so damn brilliant is the amount of real, embodied allusions in these poems. I’ve been wanting to ask you specifically about two (white, male, modernist) writers you allude to, pretty transparently, in your poems: James Joyce and Hart Crane. (Not to mention calls out to Melville and Blood Meridian). I’m so interested in hearing about your decision to bring these white, more “canonized” bodies into your work, and how you’re conversing with them.
Hilliard: Centrally, it’s definitely a kind of inevitability. The way I began reading, writing, thinking about the world was very colonized. Like, I spent years convincing myself that I really did like Faulkner, Joyce, and Crane. And in many ways I do like Faulkner, Joyce, and Crane. Reading Faulkner threw me into Toni Morrison’s loving arms, so on and so forth. Before I read James Baldwin’s essays (another transparent figure in the chapbook) I’d read Orwell’s essays. I think, as a nonwhite maker of poems, I experience a tension between what I know (a colonized America) vs. what I want to know (the alternative). But to answer you more directly, or at least to try, I think my interest/obsession with white archetypes is to remake them or reuse them in a less destructive way. I guess I wonder if there is a way to deal with Crane’s poems that makes space for my brownness, my fluidity.
I guess, in this sense, my relationship to these canonized/modernist figures is one of proximity—and a final submission to the most boring chunk of advice—write what you know.
Rumpus: I’m so glad you brought in Baldwin’s presence in your poems. One of the more recent gut-thrashing books I’ve read was Baldwin’s Go Tell it On the Mountain. The almost-erotic-slash-definitely-erotic tension between that private body/desire and public community is mind-blowing. The two epigraphs of your chapbook, one Baldwin and one Michael Dickman, set off this really effective theme of destruction, or more specifically, self-destruction. Creating something in order to destroy it. What is your relationship with Baldwin like, and how do you see your poems responding to his work?
Hilliard: I love James Baldwin. It’s funny—the first time I’d even heard his name was in a film called Capote (pretty amazing, tbh). I was maybe thirteen (?) and watching Truman Capote (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) discuss “Jimmy’s problem novel.” This is how I found Another Country and then Go Tell It on the Mountain and then Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin’s novels were refreshing, reflexive, and difficult. I think his pure existence has allowed me to vision a future free from harm (well maybe not free, but, ya know).
Anyway, the novels were good and all, but the essays sent me spinning. I read The Fire Next Time at least once a year. More than an essay, it’s an intellectual and artistic self portrait in the flames of a slave state. The othered body (the female, the gender noncompliant, the queer, the brown, etc.) is both the victim of erasure and what Rankine describes as “hypervisibility” in Citizen. As such, self-destruction seems, to me, the logical option. If we are to willingly exist in places of violence, places that wish to offer violence. We can at least exercise agency over the violence exacted.
The Dickman epigraph, similarly, comes from a place of agency—also simple love for his work. I’ve always enjoyed the wide-eyed cruelty in Dickman’s poems. In his first book, The End of the West, there’s a poem called “Scary Parents” which opens, “I didn’t shoot heroin in the eighth grade because I was afraid of needles and / still am,” the honesty there makes me uncomfortable, only because it is true. If I have to live, or want to keep trying to live, I want to choose my own way. If I’m to burn the forest in my brain, I won’t depend on anyone else for the matches.
But generally, destructive behavior is a serious interest of mine. I think, in part, it makes the argument that control over pain outweighs pain itself. I’ve been a cutter on and off since I was about fourteen and it’s not that I was a fan of pain, but I was a fan of controlling pain, in whatever petty way I could/can. And I think it makes me wonder about the other kinds of pain we/I can’t control and how coercive they can be.
Rumpus: Recently you’ve made what I would call a POWER MOVE, by moving to Hawai’i. How is that going? So much of the imagery in this chapbook is place-oriented—Hawai’i, Brooklyn, Hong Kong—and the varieties of people and identities living in these areas. How does place and identity play a part in your work, or help you think about your work?
Hilliard: I’m very interested in stereotyping. It is helpful in some ways. Moving through the day, we encounter massive quantities of social, infrastructural, and intellectual data. It is impossible to digest and analyze all of these data, so we filter. We ignore. We use shorthand. We don’t pay attention. One of the ways we do this is by using stereotypes to understand spaces, places, and people. But these tools have a very limited reach.
My stereotype of what a coffee shop looks like helps me find a coffee shop in Hawai’i, Hong Kong, London, or Brooklyn, and that’s okay. However, a stereotype of what a threatening person looks like? Of what a queer person looks like? Of what a man looks like? Not helpful. In fact, it’s harmful. My poems are interested in identity because identity only seems of interest to others when it is non-normative. As soon as identity transgresses normativity through skin color, gender, sexuality, or ability—it becomes hypervisible. And it’s these stereotypes of the hypervisible body that are so rife for exploration.
And depending on location, on place, the identification of these stereotypes is very different. Feeling Black in Hong Kong is a kind of freakish visual thing. Feeling Black in Hawai’i is a matter of erasure, a matter of sublimation.
That’s the thing about identity—it’s often defined by place.
Rumpus: On a similar, continuing note: your chapbook thinks so much about identity—assigned, “pigeonholed” identities, performative identities, and the processes of self-identification. I’m so interested, too, in how your use of language fits in with these sort of ideas. You’ve got these incredible moves within sentences, molding new words with old words, leaning into sound, highlighting anomalies or paradoxes in language/speech. Of the many examples, I’m thinking:
“i tell a fly ass white girl // [slurring silly] nah my family ain’t with the dicksucking/ funnysad / charming and four kinds of disgenuine / i am become tool when awake and visible / this life has been a halloqueen party and i keep killin.”
Can you talk a little more about how identity plays a part in these poems?
Hilliard: Daily conversation depends upon associative logic, references, sentences that end in prepositions, and the detritus of common language. It’s strange, the ways in which we use language and how separate those uses of language can be. The sexual and the familial are always separate? Not the case. Or the separations of the colloquial and the academic, as if they exist independently? I’m suspicious of the ways in which we learn to speak and the ways in which we give voice to certain kinds of experiences and ideas.
I grew up a young, gay, black, gender-noncompliant person and because of that had to develop several kinds of English to survive the day. English for white professors, English for drug dealers, English for white gays, English for my parents, English for my American Studies seminars. After a while—it slips. I once had a professor who chided me for calling bell hooks dope because the language was not concise. Bullshit, I say. bell hooks is dope. Dope conveys a kind of public feeling for which we all have some empathy. Like, she knew what I meant when I said dope, I meant effective. But I was using a kind of English she didn’t appreciate in the seminar space. Well, fuck the seminar space then, I guess.
Unabashedly Black spaces of sound and slant open a new set of possibilities, as do the ways in which we all try to soothe ourselves. The interest, for me, arises from the collision of these seemingly distant spaces. To be clearer, I’d like to revisit the “dicksucking” which does refer to the act of oral sex, but stretches past, I think. Oral sex as a performance of submissiveness (coupled with the painfully familiar suck-my-dick discourse) offers a further feminized view of nonheterosexual interactions. But, most of all, dicksucking is funny, which it has to be. When the act of desire is also an act of self-endangerment, disdain for sex becomes a concern for safety. In fact, dicksucking is weirdly dangerous, especially for a male-identified (gazed upon) person.
But there’s the laxity again. Sex is never far from danger. Danger is never far from love. And love offers bizarre forms of care.
I often have a difficulty picking one thing to mean at a time. It seems… reductive. Also, two funfacts: (1) an earlier draft of this poem had “tool” as “Tool” (ya know, the band) and my lovely editor, Mike Young, was like “the band???” So sometimes it is necessary to mean one thing. (2) in an American lit seminar at Sarah Lawrence College I was discussing how I felt something about The Grapes of Wrath was “disgenuine” and I might have said that made up word like six times in my little speech. Our professor looked up and said—“I agree, Kam, but rather, I find it disingenuous.” Lol.
Rumpus: What are you working on now? Any new obsessions or manuscript beginnings? What are you reading/thinking about that is working to fuel your poems?
Hilliard: Yes! Two things!
I’m working on a very long essay about American obsessions with blood. One of the earliest anti-miscegenation laws (1691) in the colonies banned marriage between whites and nonwhites (including American Indians and Blacks) in order to preserve white inheritance. One of the earliest sexual race mixing laws was not, in fact, about a racial desire to preserve whiteness, but one to preserve wealth. The need / desire to protect whiteness came from a construction of whiteness as capital and capital as a function of whiteness. Short story long: I’m writing a long hybrid essay about how the US government, in collusion with arbiters of capitalism and whiteness, has used blood legislation to prevent the disturbance of capital.
But I’m also writing a full length manuscript of poemz! The working title is Educational History? and it’s about Blue’s Clues, canonical literature, hickies, Hawaiian songwriting, anti-black racism, and West Side Story.