“I am limited by what my hand can do,” Anaïs Duplan writes in Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus. It’s a chapbook of smart and beautiful poems and essays on race, gender, emigration, and family.
Duplan’s debut collection, Take This Stallion, was published last spring by Brooklyn Arts Press.
In July, Anaïs and I talked about parents, relational language, formatting choices, oppressive meaning-making, extreme moments with the self, and Dean Blunt.
The Rumpus: Tell me about the title Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus.
Anaïs Duplan: For me it’s very much a chapbook, if not about my parents, then in their direction. My mother’s name is Carmel. That is in relation to Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I grew up Catholic but all this shit has fallen out of my head. I wanted the title to be—this isn’t the right language—like apparitions of Mary. When my mother was growing up, her mom revoked Carmel from her name because she felt that my mother was not pious enough to bear that name. I was very interested in that story ever since my mom told it to me. Just in thinking about who has that religious title, and a gesture to try and reinstate that deity status.
As for Mount Parnassus, I was thinking about my dad and the site of language and where language comes to be. I was thinking about why I talk, or write, or say anything. My desire to get to the bottom of things in language comes from my experiences with him, or without him, because I didn’t grow up with him. Trying to think about and make sense of my relationship with my dad is my entryway into language. The title kept going back and forth between Mount Parnassus & the Blood of Carmel and Mount Carmel & the Blood of Parnassus and I was like, who is bleeding? Who is a mountain?
Rumpus: You write, “I’ve envied the power I projected onto my father. I saw beauty in my idealized image as him and wanted people to think I was as beautiful and powerful as he was.” That goes back to the question of language.
Duplan: Language has this way of allowing you to construct yourself in a certain way. My dad is literally a really huge guy and I am quite small. I feel that the only tool I have to make myself bigger is through language. Or to make myself beautiful or to seem beautiful is through transformations that language allows me to do. That being said, it also feels like there’s a way in which even if that’s a goal that I have, I always feel like you’re revealed through your own writing whether you would like to be or not. So that if my goal is to make myself big, that may happen, or through my writing the size that I actually am may be revealed.
Rumpus: I heard from a friend about a recent workshop where people had made these suggestions about the speaker of the poem. My friend said, “And that took weeks to figure out in therapy! And I have a really great therapist!” The work that poetry can do revealing things about the speaker, which might, in turn, reveal things about the poet.
Duplan: And then integrating suggestions about that speaker, or looking at where those suggestions are having you look in yourself. There’s no way to integrate that suggestion without having an extreme moment with yourself. Having to look inside and try to find where that writing is coming from.
Rumpus: I love “extreme moment with yourself.” It’s very intimate.
Duplan: Man, I feel like all my moments with myself are so extreme.
Rumpus: I’m looking at the chapbook now, and in particular the first part. Something I was thinking about as I was reading it is that this really amazing thing happens when you’re reading white text on a black page. It made me think more about and reaffirm some of the things the speaker says. For example, “In the same way that it doesn’t work to try to reject what white culture says about my blackness by policing myself such that I don’t confirm any of its negative stereotypes about said blackness, I’m not sure that becoming the physical embodiment of my opposition to the way that women are read and treated in this society would get me to where I want to go.” The formatting makes apparent the whiteness of poetry, the whiteness of the conventional page, by having a black page where the white text is happening. That inversion speaks to this conversation about oppositional placing that’s happening in the essay.
Duplan: I was thinking about how to create the feeling of a myopic focus. How do I narrow the space? In my mind I think about shining a spotlight. And then when it switches back to black ink on the white page that, for me, is an opening up of the field. It’s a lot bigger. With my publisher we were messing around for the longest time about where the poems would sit on the page and luckily they were very patient with me. I was like, “What if we try it on the left, but a little below center? What if it’s really tiny and this one is really huge?” I think about where the point of focus is. The part you read from the essay, but also the whole thing, has to do with being seen. And the ways in which I feel seen or unseen. And whether I have agency over being seen and whether I have agency over the spotlight or someone puts it on me. I think that my thought with the white on black is that it would be a moment of me saying, “Hey, this is the focus point.”
Rumpus: Do you think poetry, your poetry, puts the spotlight on you in the same way?
Duplan: It’s hard to say. I feel like it’s not poetry itself but it’s the way poetry is shared, distributed, and categorized.
Rumpus: You seem really aware of that. I don’t know if there’s a “fourth wall” in poetry but it was nice to feel it broken.
Duplan: I wrote the first iteration of all of these poems in one go. I had a huge piece of paper that was six feet long. I hadn’t written anything all summer. I was feeling really blocked up. My first book, Take This Stallion, had just come out and it was the first time I realized people who I don’t know are able to read my poems. And sometimes I show up a reading and there are people in the audience who own the book and have read it. I didn’t give them the book. They don’t know me.
Naïvely or not, when I was writing Take This Stallion I never had a single thought that, “someone’s going to read this book.” I never thought of that. I was finding it impossible to produce anything because I was overwhelmed with the thoughts of people reading [it]. I got this huge piece of paper and I lay my body on top of it. I wrote until I filled it up. Then I had this dilemma. I wrote, “As soon as I finish this part I will send it anxiously to the publisher.” And then I thought, “Well, should I send it to a publisher now?” So I typed up the version of it then, which is different from how it is now in the chapbook. With no edits, nothing. I sent it to my old publisher. I asked, “What should I do? Should I edit this?” And we had a long conversation, at the end of which I decided I should edit. I should do the process. I spent months and months editing such that it felt still like some of the initial mania, that unedited quality was preserved. But they felt very manicured in other ways.
Rumpus: I wish I could read this in a six-foot-long scroll. The convention of the page is so bizarre. And I think that’s something you do so well in the chapbook. There are at least two different instances when you say, “Keep this page for your record.” You say, “if U / regret this in twenty-five years, lmk” which I thought is so beautiful.
Duplan: I’m actually going to do that. I’m actually going to see!
Rumpus: It’s this really great archival impulse, which I love.
Duplan: I was trying to negotiate wanting to write certain poems about my parents and my experience growing up. And wondering, is that totally my experience to tell? These are things that are sort of delicate. How do I handle feeling like I really need to process, and not only process but also share it? I talked myself out of writing any kinds of poems like those for a long time. I thought, “I’m just going to do an experiment.” I’m going to write as close to the poem as I want to write. Then I’ll see if I feel like I fucked up later on.
Rumpus: It makes me wonder about what I saw as a shifting “you.” There’s a shifting “you” in the poems that sometimes feels like a second-person speaker and sometimes feels like a person you just referenced. And then, at one point you say, “I’m assuming you, the reader, are complicit in this.” And that’s precisely what the work of a good “you” should do—making the reader complicit in your poems. Are you speaking toward or to your parents through those?
Duplan: It’s hard to say. I think that I’m speaking to my parents, but not to my external parents—rather, the parts of my parents I have internalized. I think everyone has these internal voices that tell you what you should do or how you should do it. I’m always writing to that “you.” The “you” in my head who has a real place in the world but has become distorted by my internal world. Slash, I’m always talking to myself. It’s like I’m trying to give myself tips! To Anaïs, from Anaïs.
There were a few artists at the Center for Afrofuturist Studies who did Youth Workshops, where they had the kids write letters to their future selves. Which I thought was interesting as an exercise to do with kids. Because that’s a “you.” What are you projecting into that “you?” What part of yourself is still part of that “you?” How does that change how you speak to that “you”?
Rumpus: It makes me think about your phrase, this idea of “always already.” Of something that happened, and now it’s as it always happened. So the “you” of the future, that’s a futurity. But there’s an “always already” part of what has happened. Was that something on your mind?
Duplan: Yeah. Sometimes people try to make this distinction between action and reaction. It doesn’t make any sense to me. It presupposes your ability to make an action in a vacuum that is not already a reaction to something else. Oftentimes the idea of identity is thought of an action: you stake out your “identity” a priori, and not as a response to anything else. And I don’t think that’s true. There’s environmental shit you’re responding to. And I’m saying this beyond the obvious, that your childhood shapes who you are, that every single day that you go outside or are in communication with anyone, who you are in that moment is responding. I had a long conversation with the musician Elysia Crampton. We were talking about the idea of a sovereign identity. The freedom to have a sovereign identity is so often a trap. It’s impossible. There’s so much freedom in getting away from an idea of freedom, which requires you to be in a vacuum. It embraces the idea of relationality. You can’t be anything without anything else being there.
Rumpus: Tavia Nyong’o, in “Punk’d Theory” discusses a certain type of homosexuality— “situational homosexuality.” In an aside he says, “but what type of homosexuality doesn’t happen in a situation?” Really, it’s all situational, because nothing happens outside of the situation.
Duplan: I love this idea of the situation. I think it’s taboo to say that you write with readers in mind. Or, if not taboo, then certainly uncool. I think the more “cool” thing to say is, “I don’t think about anyone when I write! I just make what I want to make.” And even if you are in a state when you’re not thinking about who will consume the work, you yourself are just a relational being. You don’t exist in a vacuum. Thinking in this case can mean different things.
Rumpus: You write, “our relational language, already imbued with oppressive meaning-making”—it’s all there already.
Duplan: Sometimes I despair over this. I think about how we can get outside of cultural models, which are oppressive. And then I think about the work we have to do with our language to get there. It’s not even a matter of coming up with new words. I think a lot of sociology or social sciences have thought to “come up with new language and that’s how we’ll get away with old, oppressive meaning-making,” but it’s not the words themselves, it’s the way we use them and their relationships between each other. It’s what they connote. Sometimes I feel sad about this, as someone who works in language.
Rumpus: I was so floored by your writing about this “third space.” You talk about these things we posit as diametric opposites, “freedom” and “non-freedom.” And this goes back to what you said about oppressive, relational language. What you’re talking about is a possibility for liberation in a third space, in a mundane space. It felt really new to me.
Duplan: It’s quite new to me, too. Or in a sense I have written my way into this thought-space. I have been working for a little while on how art can help us be free. I keep coming back to this third space. I need to grapple with it. I understand it to be real, but how do I see and experience it and flesh it out, so other people can also be there with me. I’m happy that was a place you felt able to go.
Rumpus: I’m glad you’re writing more about it.
Duplan: I think it will be a whole book-length thing, and I think the Dean Blunt essay will go in it.
Rumpus: Have you told Dean Blunt you’re writing about him?
Duplan: No! I don’t fangirl or fanboy a lot, but this person makes me feel so on fire. I’m just like, what did Dean Blunt do today? As far as Black artists whom I really respect, who are very aware of being in the public gaze and use that public gaze as part of their work, but then manage to make amazing work… it’s so lovely to think about and I’m so happy to think that he’s real. The other day I discovered some new shit he made under some new name I figured out was him. It’s an always-ongoing thing, like the always already. I feel that Dean Blunt has always already permeated my universe.