In November 2015, the Miami-based literary arts organization Reading Queer brought a group of queer-identified writers to present their work at a series of events co-sponsored by the Miami Book Fair International. Neil de la Flor, a friend and fellow poet and one of RQ’s founders, generously solicited my input on writers we should invite to come. In a response that preceded conscious thought, the first name to leap from my tongue—instinctively, reflexively—was Dawn Lundy Martin.
Dawn and I had never met in person before, but I was hungry for the chance to hear her read. Dawn’s poems have long loomed and hovered in my life at the intersection of WHAT A POEM CAN BE and WHAT A QUEER POEM CAN BE. “Dawn doesn’t write about a queer life or a queer experience,” I remember earnestly telling Neil. “Dawn’s poems embody queerness.”
To my delight, Dawn Lundy Martin agreed to come to Miami. I heard her read twice during the Miami Book Fair last year, and her presence both confirmed and exceeded my claims about her work. The poems were kinetic, charged, as she brought them to life with her voice and breath. They addressed difference, otherness, by being different, being other, by tracing the ways power and perception move. Dawn mesmerized the members of the audience with her oracular way of inhabiting the body of space, the body of sound, and by extension, the black queer female body.
A few months later, to my further delight, Dawn agreed to this interview.
The Rumpus: Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me, Dawn! In anticipation of our conversation, I was thinking back to the first time I ever saw your name in print, and I realized it was a decade ago now, back in 2006 when I was teaching an Introduction to Feminist Studies course at Carlow University in Pittsburgh. I had adopted an anthology for the class that came highly recommended to me by the director of the women’s studies program, an anthology called Women’s Lives: Multiple Perspectives, edited by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey. I loved the book, and in preparation for my first semester teaching feminist studies, I read it cover to cover. Near the end of the book I came upon an essay from 2004 called “Making What Will Become,” co-written by you and Vivien Labaton. In the essay, both of you discuss your relationship to feminism and your decision to found the Third Wave Foundation. Reading the essay, I discovered that you are a feminist and an activist, but I didn’t discover that you were a poet; that discovery came later. I wonder if you could talk a bit about when you discovered you were a poet, how that discovery came about, and how poetry, feminism, and activism are connected in your life and work?
Dawn Lundy Martin: Oh, I’ve known I was a poet since I started writing as a freshman in college, in relative isolation, but weirdly it didn’t seem relevant when, years later in New York, I worked in the feminist activist world. The work that we were doing seemed so physical—about the material matters of being in a female body and the accompanying experiences, slights, discriminations, etc. And there seemed to be practical solutions to the problems: health care for working families, freedom of reproductive choice, rights for domestic workers. Though my first book of poems, A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering, emerged from the very gendered existence that fueled my interest in feminism, its address was darker and more oblique. At the Third Wave Foundation, we were asking questions like, “How can we get more voters registered who support our issues?” or “How do we want to give away of money so that it has the greatest impact?” But, the poems were involved in questions of feeling whole, negotiating sexual trauma, and speaking to what has been lost forever. I’ve always been a person who feels most energized when I am both creating art and working toward social change, but I often have difficulty talking about the two in the same breath.
Rumpus: Who are the poets and feminists (and poet-feminists!) you have looked to for inspiration in your writing and activism? Are there poets who seem to be making art as a form of social change? How have they influenced the way you go about making a poem?
Martin: That’s a big set of questions! Can poetry be a form of social change? I don’t know the answer to that. I do think art can have a social impact even if it may be difficult to see the effects of that impact, to assess or measure it. I’ve long been a fan of Adrian Piper’s work. I find her performance pieces moving in their willingness to lean toward the absurd. Yet, there’s a social critique in her interaction with people who may or may not have understood that the artist was present. She was able to shift something, however momentarily, in each spatial interaction—on the subway, in the elevator of the Empire State Building with a red cloth stuffing her cheeks and spilling out of her mouth, walking through Central Park with Mickey Mouse balloons hanging from her face—there’s an atomic shift because light is altered by the presence of a human body.
Regarding the question about feminist inspirations, so many founding thinkers have given me permission to do whatever work I want in whatever way I see fit—bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Angela Davis, were big early influences. Later I become more interested in the oblique, after working with poets like Myung Mi Kim and filmmakers like Trinh T. Min-ha. I once asked Myung where gender is located in her work, and she said simply, “it’s everywhere,” resisting the notion that gender needs to be overly inscribed into the text with some kind of message. Hers is the kind of work that has most influenced how I make poetry—the idea that we don’t need to enclose or nail down gender (or race, for that matter).
Rumpus: I remember reading a comment by Sharon Olds once that “the mind seems to be spread out in the whole body.” This idea has always stayed with me, and perhaps it intersects with what you are saying above about the way gender, race, and other elements of self permeate the body—and the body of work. They don’t have to be nailed down, and perhaps they can’t be. I’m especially intrigued by your statement about becoming “more interested in the oblique.” When you’re writing a poem, how much are you thinking about the reader or the audience? Who and how do you want to “reach” them? Perhaps “reach” isn’t the word you would use? Perhaps another way into this question is whether there an ideal reader/listener for a Dawn Lundy Martin poem?
Martin: That’s a really awesome quote from Sharon Olds. I love it.
My goals as an artist have nothing to do with speaking to an audience. I love to have a good time, but when it comes to poetry I’m not really interested in writing poetry that seeks to entertain or operate safely within the mainstream (and, to be clear, I’m not disparaging the really phenomenal work that does—it’s just not my interest as a poet). When my work does speak to audiences, when it creates audiences around it, I feel a little less crazy because what that means is that there are folks out there who are interested in thinking about themselves and the world through a prism. The prism is a labor and there can be a pleasure in labor. I reach readers rather unintentionally, I think, and those readers likely connect with the slant, the off-kilter, the part of the road you can barely see from the well-traveled road. So, when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about audience at all. Instead, I’m trying to see behind those shrubs, down that hidden path. We’re the weirdos of the world and there are so many weirdos.
This is all to say I’m interested is the oblique as a concept deeply connected to human lived experience, not separate from it. I was listening to an interview with film director Stephen Frears on NPR the other day and he said, “People’s lives are never what you think they are,” or something like that. Human lives are oblique. It makes sense to me that attending to them in language is as well.
Rumpus: I can speak as a reader you have reached, as someone who connects with “the slant, the off-kilter,” though I’m happy to have this way of describing that experience now. I first encountered your poetry when I was asked to serve on the panel of judges for the Lambda Literary Award in Lesbian Poetry in 2012. When your second collection of poems, Discipline (Nightboat Books, 2011), arrived in the mail, I opened the book thinking I was going to “read” it but ended up falling into it, as if stepping off a curb that was actually a cliff. All the way down, all the way through the book, I kept hitting these ledges, one after another–hard, captivating places that stayed with me, fragments that lodged in me really—and each one gave way to the next so that I was still falling but also accumulating words like stones, heavy with mattering. Here’s one of the ledges I hit the hardest in that book: “This is what a woman’s body is. An effort in covering or not covering. A way toward exits.”
I don’t think poems need to be “explained” or “defended.” I’m not even sure how I feel about “interpretation,” despite the fact that a lot of my academic life rests on the assumption that interpretation is useful. More than anything, I wondered if you could talk about the experience of writing and assembling this book, Discipline, which has lodged in me so deeply—the use of space, the progression of poems, the absence of titles, the presence of pages in the book that feature combinations of zeroes and ones (the numbers themselves, not the words), et al. Instead of focusing on readers, let me ask instead: what did you learn/discover while writing this book in this way?
Martin: The funny thing about writing that book is that I did not know I was writing that book while I was writing it. I mean, I was writing in this immersive way. My partner and I were subletting this apartment on Graham Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for the summer and every morning I’d walk across the street to the Variety coffeehouse to write before heading off into the world. I also did a two-week writing colony at Ragdale and was involved in this listening project where I’d listen to lectures in languages I don’t understand while writing. This listening brought me to the prose poem; the prose poem was like the extension of my ear. Suddenly amongst my usual fragmented compositional technique the sentence appeared. That the sentences are not always syntactically correct is what drew me even closer to them. So, I was involved in this book in a very micro way. At some point, I put it all together—on the wall—as is my usual way and began to see the whole thing. The shorter poems and binary code were added after the prose poems were on the wall. I thought the book needed punctuation, also big boulders dropped into manuscript as a way of sinking the encounter with the work. For me, a lot of Discipline was very personal writing, like writing through and working out being inside this gendered body and also the compulsions of the body, the muting of the mind as driven by the body. My father had died some years ago so he haunts the book too, just floats through it ghost-like. But, the writing of every book is different for me. They are so like living creatures, these books, so I don’t know what’s carried over into the writing of the next things—except maybe that I’m best when I make my writing practice a routine.
Rumpus: As a reader, my experience of the book is at once intimate and oracular. It’s an experience of encountering a person/self/consciousness on the page who is looking inward and outward at the same time. Perhaps this is similar to what you meant when you used the word “prism” earlier. These poems are prismatic. They feel personal to me as a reader, deeply personal, but they aren’t poems I would ever describe as “confessional” in the way that much personal poetry is described. The writing holds up a mirror to the self, but it is also, simultaneously, a window out of the self into the world.
One particularly arresting moment comes early in Discipline in one of those shorter poems you mention. I have the corner folded down, and I’ve scribbled the word punctum on the page. This poem pierced me viscerally:
A sick man vomits into a cup at McDonald’s in Union Square and
it’s hard to feel sorry for him because he’s so public. Once, when
I was a teenager, a friend pointed to a doddering black man on
the street and said laughing, What if that guy was your father?
I thought I was supposed to be watching the man in Union Square, looking out of myself, out beyond the speaker’s self, but then suddenly the poem turns back on itself with a whipping motion. Those two words on their own line—It was—hit me harder than I knew those two words could.
So when you talk about sentences appearing, do you find that they sometimes/often/always stun or pierce or shock you as you are writing them? I guess this is a long-winded way of asking if you are surprised by the art that you make—surprised or ______? Other adjectives to describe your own response to the art that you make are welcome!
Martin: This an oxymoronic answer to your question. When I am writing poetry, I try to make my mind go a little lazy, to not think too much, as a way of opening up the part of the brain that makes poems. If I’m successful in this part of the process (I’m often not. If my mind gets too lazy it will linger in familiar boring territory.), it’s like my mind can stroke the physical world. There’s an electric quality if the laziness is precise. And, I don’t know what’s going to happen with language in those moments. It’s all surprise—sometimes good surprise, sometimes not as good.
I can kind of see the associative working in that piece from Discipline that you quote, or I can feel it—the overlay of the man in McDonald’s, the man on the street, and my father. It feels like image flashcards, the fleeting or effervescent memory-image or a set of them. For me, truth lies in this overlay. I’m so much more interested in this kind of truth than I am in what we call “fact.”
Rumpus: Well, now we know the title for this interview—“Truth Lies in This Overlay.” I’m fascinated by this phrase, and it makes an intuitive kind of sense to me. I am also captivated by the idea of a precise laziness, some kind of loosening that allows for a more incisive response. It feels analogous to me to letting your eyes blur a little while looking at a painting, or letting your limbs relax so you can stretch deeper into a yoga pose. Since you’re a professor as well as a poet, I want to ask about the way(s) your own poetic practices translate to your pedagogy—if they do. How do you help your students find and access their own version of this “electric quality” you describe? Or perhaps even more importantly, how do you help them move beyond “familiar boring territory” in their poems?
Martin: You’re exactly right! The precise laziness is akin to letting your eyes blur or glimpsing what’s at the corners in peripheral vision. Or those moments when you think you see something but you’re not sure you actually saw it in the end. The way I get to these places is just practice, like a kind of meditation that shapes my brain. So, with my students I give them lots and lots of guided writing. Part of it is as simple as writing a lot but not toward anything. I like to give students a set of constraints under a compressed time limit so that they have to crush the actualization of the constraints into a work in, say, fifteen minutes. They become so attentive to “incorporating a blue image,” for example, they often pay less attention to what happens in between the actualization of the instructions. The mind floats. Then I help them see where the language has heat. If we do this a lot in class, students eventually relax into this writing practice and enjoy it. Even just that—writing pleasure without the anxiety of “audience” or “grade” or “success”—is a kind of impetus toward the unfamiliar.
Rumpus: All right, so “Impetus Toward the Unfamiliar” is a rival title for this interview! I love the idea of inviting our students (and ourselves) to move away from the familiar in our work, and by extension, away from what feels safest and most comfortable. Which brings me to your most recent collection, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, which was just awarded the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry in June. (Congratulations!) This is one of my favorite poetry books, well, ever, and part of the reason I love it so much is the way it challenges me, as both a reader and a writer, to go through the largest doors in poetry rather than the smallest. Here are some enormous portals I found in the book: “Form arrives at the end of language.” Also: “Memory, the absence of thought.” And then there’s, “How to know what violence is?” And this oracle-sized portal: “Almost everything we’ve ever desired is diminished when enclosed.” How did this book come about? Was it an outgrowth from Discipline? Did it feel distinctly different as you were writing it? And would you care to talk about the title at all? If “life in a box is a pretty life,” what kind of life is outside the box? Does poetry help you write such a life off the page, and/or vice versa?
Martin: I often think of Life in a Box is a Pretty Life as a book born out of Discipline’s head like Athena from Zeus. But, we can’t control our children. Life in a Box is a Pretty Life has the wildness of rebelliousness, to me, a refusal to be attached to the one who gave it birth. I often feel trapped. I often feel like I’m trying to escape some trap, be it a way of thinking, a compulsion, or a way of life. I believe this persistent feeling comes from childhood traumas that stripped away my power. The effect, though, the resulting persistent desire to stretch out of confinement even when confinement is inevitable, is a gift. I was thinking through this in Life in a Box. How does one re-appropriate one’s stolen power? I love your reading of the book because I’m reaching back way outside of myself to historical confinements, boxes that resonate for black people in particular, but also for all of us whose experiences lead us toward madness as a potential escape from the rigor, the tenacity, of the prescribed, the accepted, and the horribly reductive. Is there life outside of the boxes? I don’t know. They persist so hard. There is, at the very least, the creative, the act of making. There is the ebullience of eros, that necessary unforeclosure, and there is the ecstatic intimacy of fucking. These are light places, places filled with light even when the must exist inside or alongside systems that seek to inhabit and contain our joy.
Rumpus: Because we are friends on Facebook, I was privy to a recent post of yours (complete with picture!) of a single-stall restroom where two paper towel dispensers—boxes, if you will—had been placed side by side, one labeled “Ladies,” the other labeled “Men.” The post was such a vivid reminder of our binary-gendered world and all the relentless instantiations of or that surround us: this or that, one or the other. Your poetry, to me, embodies something else, something other than or: hybridity, multiplicity, the realm of the et al. You’ve talked about poetry as a means of culling and perhaps even reclaiming the past, reckoning with childhood traumas, the death of your father, etc. In what ways do day-to-day experiences and observations from your present life enter into and/or fuel your poems? For instance, is it possible that I’ll open your next book and find those paratactic towel dispensers presented—and dismantled—on the page?
Martin: Ha, you might indeed find the photo of the towel dispensers in the new book! I love that image because I’m often confused about gender, my own included. I feel different things on different days but feel a kind of prohibition from all sides—it all feels like gender repression, from the folks who believe they are radically reinventing gender to conservatives who want to reify the binary. I want to float. I’m irreverent about it, too. It’s not that serious for me personally—unless someone is trying to attack me or keep me from pissing in the women’s bathroom. I think the occupation of my poetry is akin to this desire to be many things at once—things that sometimes conflict. Regarding how the quotidian makes its way into the work, it’s all of it, in a way. Like, when I’m writing poems, I’m just picking up scraps of whatever is happening around me—a geographical location, a love affair failed, the day the air felt like rope.
Author photograph © Max Freeman.