An interview with Dawn Lundy Martin by Noah Eli Gordon (page 5)
NEG: I love how this turns the solitary act of writing into a communal activity. It’s been several years since the BTC manifesto appeared in Fence; does the field look differently to you now? Have you noticed any sort of sea change?
DLM: Yeah, I'm really into this idea of collective writing or writerly activities. I discovered this interest during my first year at the Cave Canem retreat. Every night for seven days a big group of poets would stay awake until near dawn writing together in each other's rooms or in the lounge and then sharing the work or something about the process of coming to the work. It was exhilarating to be so completely immersed in poetry with other poets. I think this changed my relationship to writing irrevocably. After CC, the Black Took Collective decided to retreat for a week to Lake Tahoe.
What I've noticed since our FENCE manifesto is not a sea change really, but I'm definitely seeing more black experimental writing by poets and fiction writers and we're teaching each other in our courses and judging poetry prizes so that part seems a lot different that it was in the 1990s, when we were more isolated from each other—among us, Christopher Stackhouse, Erica Hunt, Tonya Foster, John Keene, Douglas Kearney, Renee Gladman, Tyrone Williams, Claudia Rankine, Tisa Bryant, and Mendi+Keith Obadike. At the same time, the poetry world, especially the experimental world, is pretty racially segregated, and that's where I don't see much change at all. Jounals, for the most part sprinkle in "diversity"; and their associated readings reflect that lack.
Recently, a friend forwarded around a call for proposals for a conference on innovative writing, noting that when she went last year, she was one of only two black people on the program. In response to this, she sent out the call for papers to a bunch of us, which is cool because we responded, and now the conference looks more inclusive. So this is a happy ending, or maybe, middle to this story. Still, though, I go to poetry readings (or flip through literary mags) and the room is either pretty much all black or all white or all Asian, and the vibes are totally different and I feel like I'm in 1979, wafting through these divergent planets.
NEG: It is odd that when I try to recall white poets whose work explores race, those who come immediately to mind are decidedly not of the experimental ilk, especially given the tendency for experimental writing to tout its political efficacy. In the end, I think white people are often simply afraid of appearing racist.
That said, I wonder if we can link this notion of segregation and appearance back to your own poetry. The use of brackets features heavily in your book. As a punctuation mark normally indicating lacunae or a modification to an original text, they give the work the sense of a secondary author or speaker, a commentator somehow severed from, though with access to, the main body of the text. Maybe I’m way off here, so I’m hoping you might talk about your intentions with these brackets?
DLM: Brackets are ugly. That was my original fascination with them. I recall one of my early poetry teachers saying that semi-colons in poems should be used sparingly as they are an odd punctuation, hard, and ugly. The use of the bracket first makes me think about that ugliness and why not have an ugly, messy poem. I've been re-watching a lot of Wong Kar Wei films lately and what I love about them structurally is their messiness, how he'll introduce a character in the middle of the film or take a character out in the middle of the film (and the viewer wonders "who's that?" or "where did that person go?"). I like too how we're required to suspend disbelief in a film like My Blueberry Nights, to say okay, we're being told a story and in story world anything is possible—this kind of attention to the artifice of the thing. So my bracket is a way of calling attention to both the poem and this brackety resistance to Poem. The poem here is messy. Yes, there is a persistent re-articulation or revision in the progression of brackets in a piece like "The Hunt" from my chapbook The Morning Hour, but also a progression, an altering as the it revisions. The poem is a series of attempts: "[Skinless] [hunker] [exorcise] [glimpse into revolving] [doors opening somewhere] [alone in a room] [before kill] [refuse of the unlocked]..." In this case, the effort at speech seems particularly gendered to me, a female body in the throes of a bitter or painful relationship to one's own body, how it's acted upon and its actions. But, in other poems, I offer in the bracket more discrete parataxis, using a disordered consecution of bracketed phrases, while in others the bracket contains a wide step aside, almost as if another consciousness is speaking. So, there's a lot that the bracket does in the poems. I'm continually coming back to the possibilities there.