David Naimon: Today’s episode is brought to you by Prince Shakur’s When They Tell You To Be Good, a debut memoir that brilliantly minds Shakur’s radicalization and self-realization through examinations of place, childhood, queer identity, and a history of uprisings. Khadijah Ali Coleman calls the memoir “searing and poignant,” and Morgan Jerkins says, “It combines so much sociocultural criticism, religion, and politics while centering on the microcosm of one Jamaican family and the aftermath of two male relatives’ untimely deaths. . . . Commands a tension and doesn’t release you well after the last sentence.” When They Tell You To Be Good is out on October 4th from Tin House and available for pre-order now. I’ve been thinking about and preparing for this conversation with Dionne Brand for the good part of a year. You may have noticed me bringing her work into my conversations with Solmaz Sharif, Gabrielle Civil, Claire Schwartz, and Elaine Castillo over that time, as the preparation for today, slowly over that year, created dialogue between Dionne’s work and these other writers, and their own responses and engagement with her work in turn informed today’s conversation as well. After my third conversation with Ursula K. Le Guin, having completed one with her in each genre, I said to her a comment that led her to propose we make a book together, and the comment was “I can’t think of another writer I could have done this with, a writer who, over the course of nearly a half century, has written extensively and enduringly in all three genres: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.” Well, Dionne Brand is another of those extremely rare writers who has done just that. While we will center her poetry today in honor of the arrival of her landmark book, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems, our conversation about her poetry is also in conversation with her iconic works of prose; prose that is a poet’s prose, and we look at the employment of language by her and by others, and we look at time, narrative time and revolutionary time. We look at these elements of her poetics as they intersect with race and with gender in order to see how Brand’s project of writing toward and from a time and space of Black liberation has changed shape, mood, tactic, and form over the decades. For the bonus audio archive, Dionne picked excerpts from two books that are two of the books I’m most excited about coming out in 2023. Dionne reads a passage from the poet Canisia Lubrin’s fiction debut Code Noir and reads another set of passages from Christina Sharpe’s upcoming book Ordinary Notes, passages about the politics of memorialization that for me connect to other past conversations on Between the Covers too, with Daniel Mendelsohn and Brandon Shimoda in particular. Brand’s two contributions to the bonus audio join a deep and growing archive, everything from Nikky Finney talking about and reading from Lorraine Hansberry’s diaries to Marlon James’s hour-long Craft Talk on the art of narrative seduction, from Myriam Chancy’s talking about and teaching from an excerpt to Jamaica Kincaid, to our new U.S Poet Laureate Ada Limon reading the poems of Alejandra Pizarnik. The bonus audio is only one possible benefit of joining the Between the Covers community and becoming a listener-supporter. Every supporter gets a resource-rich email with every episode full of things referenced during the conversation but also of things I discovered and used to inform the conversation itself. Every supporter can join our collective brainstorm of who to invite next on the show in the future. On top of all that, there are many past guests who have donated everything from rare collectibles to writing consultations. If you enjoy today’s conversation, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers to check out all the possible rewards and gifts you could choose by becoming a listener-supporter beyond the satisfaction that you’re helping ensure the continuation of conversations just like this one in the future. I’ve been imagining this conversation for so long now and I’m excited that we are finally at the moment of setting it free into the world, of sharing it, of sharing the imaginative, political, and poetic power of Dionne Brand’s work. Enjoy today’s conversation with Dionne Brand.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is poet, novelist, essayist, editor, filmmaker, and teacher, Dionne Brand. Moving from Trinidad to Toronto in the 70s, Brand pursued degrees in English and philosophy from the University of Toronto and philosophy of education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She has taught literature and creative writing in Ontario and British Columbia, has been distinguished visiting professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, held the Ruth Wynn Woodward Chair in Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University, and has also held the University Research Chair in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. Brand is a founding member of Our Lives, Canada’s first newspaper devoted to Black women, has served on the board of the Shirley Samaroo House, Toronto shelter for immigrant women, has worked as a counselor for the Toronto Immigrant Women’s Center, is the past chair of the women’s issue Committee of the Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. She’s also directed, written for, and/or narrated many documentaries including Sisters in the Struggle, Listening for something, Adrienne Rich and Dionne Brand in Conversation, and Under one sky : Arab Women in North America Talk About the Hijab. Brand has edited or co-edited Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots, and No Burden to Carry, the latter of which investigates the role of Black women in Canadian history. She was appointed poetry editor of McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada in 2017, and served until 2021. She’s co-editor of the Toronto-based literary journal Brick, and will be editorial director of the new imprint at Knopf, Canada called Alchemy; one that aims to decenter colonial modes of literature. Even with all of this, Dionne Brand is best known for her writing in both prose and poetry, and is one of Canada’s most-renowned writers; a writer whom Adrienne Rich described as “a cultural critic of uncompromising courage, an artist in language and ideas and an intellectual conscience for her country,” and whom Kamau Brathwaite called “our first major exile female poet.” A writer with six honorary doctorates who was invested as a member of the Order of Canada in 2017. Her non-fiction includes Bread Out of Stone : Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics, and the iconic book A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging whose 20th anniversary celebration Map to the Door at 20 recently occurred, an incredible oceanic tribute to this book by innumerable writers, artists, and scholars including Rinaldo Walcott, Christina Sharpe, Canisia Lubrin, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Brandon Shimoda, Natalie Diaz, Saidiya Hartman, and many others. Her many novels include At the Full and Change of the Moon, the Toronto Book Award winning What We All Long For, and most recently, Theory, winner of the 2019 Toronto Book Award, the 2019 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Fiction, and the 2021 Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction. Dionne Brand is here today however to talk about what she is best known and most honored for, her poetry. As Toronto’s Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2012, she has won the Governor General’s Award for poetry and the Trillium Book Award for her 1997 collection Land to Light On, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for 2003 collection Thirsty, the Griffin Poetry Prize for her 2011 collection Ossuaries, and her 2018 collection, one that feels already like a classic, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos, of which Steven W. Beattie for Quill & Quire says, “The Blue Clerk is nothing less than a reckoning with the entirety of Brand’s poetic outlook and philosophy.” The occasion of today’s much anticipated conversation is the release this year by Penguin Random House Canada earlier this summer, and by Duke University Press in the United States on October 18th of Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems, collecting eight volumes of Brand’s poetry from 1982 to 2010, contextualized volume by volume through an incredible and in-depth introduction by Christina Sharpe, and opening with a new book length poem by Brand, Nomenclature for the Time Being. John Keene says of Nomenclature, “Dionne Brand is without question one of the major living poets in the English language. While her individual collections speak for themselves in terms of their excellence and aesthetic and cultural significance, Nomenclature offers readers the fullest gathering of them and provides a survey of her development and trajectory as a poet. Featuring Christina Sharpe’s superb critical introduction, this authoritative volume is an invaluable and important text for her fans, poetry readers, literary scholars, and those working in Canadian, Caribbean, Black, American, women’s and gender, and cultural studies. Any reader will benefit from having a copy in their hands.” Audre Lorde, who in the final months before her death in a letter to her close friend Adrienne Rich, responding to Rich’s latest poems that she had sent to Lorde, she said in that response, “Those poems are so beautiful and resonant and shining for me. I carry them and pieces of Essex Hemphill and Dionne Brand around inside me wherever I go.” Welcome to Between the Covers, Dionne Brand.
Dionne Brand: Thank you, David. Thank you for having me and thank you for that extensive things I had forgotten. [laughter]
DN: Well, it’s a topic for another time, but there’s this strange divide I think around what writers people really know well in Canada versus the United States that I just wanted to make sure that you were properly introduced here even though so many people love you in the United States.
DB: Thank you.
DN: But I do want to start our conversation in perhaps a counter-intuitive way, much like this book contains images by the artist Torkwase Dyson. You gave a reading standing before some of her artwork in Chicago a couple years ago called The Shape of Language where, among many other things, you contrasted poetry to narrative. I think in a way, you were arguing for why you are a poet first and foremost. Torkwase Dyson says, or said then, “I begin to understand that surviving through abstraction is my formal project today.” It seemed like perhaps surviving through poetry might be yours when you said, “Poetry is always abstract even when it is narrative poetry.” or that part of poetry’s power is that the reader’s response is tangential to poetry, whereas it is crucial to narrative that poetry is pressure, pressure on verbal matter, pressure on air, sustained pressure on space, that while the reader interrogates narrative, poetry interrogates the reader. You then went on to say that narrative is a system of representation, one that is almost always implicated in the racist colonial project, that all narratives are bracketed by racism, and that narrative for Black people is incapable of transmitting or sounding a tomorrow beyond brutalism. Whereas in your poetry, you say, “I have tried to produce a grammar in which Black existence might be the thought and not the unthought,” and yet nevertheless, you continue across the decades, to create works of narrative both in fiction and non-fiction. I think also, your poetry is not infrequently narrative with characters that might endure throughout a given book length work. Even though we’re going to spend most of our time talking about poetry, I thought maybe we could begin briefly just speaking to what continues to compel you despite, or perhaps because of your reservations to write narrative.
DB: I suppose I want to always think through that conflictive space and be in that space where meaning is made. For me, narrative qua narrative regiments that space in ways that poetry doesn’t or poetry allows that space to be much more fluid that is much more what space is, that space is liminal, that space is fluid, that space does change meter by meter, centimeter by centimeter. That, but also that what is language if it doesn’t move, if it doesn’t open, if it doesn’t complicate rather than regiment or complicate rather than rule make all the time. I saw a relation between the opening up of the space of meaning, the space of language making, the space of meaning in a life where that space is completely regimented at all times. I think of capital, for example, and the way capital controls time. It suggests something called work, it puts that work within a certain square meter of the day, so it occupies days, it occupies lives, and it constantly attempts to regiment every square meter of air, land, or life, that is its object in a way, it’s logic, and it by now isn’t even a logic where we can talk about it in terms of morality, it is simply a kind of machinery that controls time in that way, it controls life and controls time. I attempt, we all do each day, we are braced against this control of time and control of language, therefore we are always braced against the regime of capital. It also has control of language itself, it compresses language in its meaning, in its logic of what we are good for, what we are worth, what might happen, etc., as much as it compresses space into these days, really condo projects, malls, and streets that only go to places where we might be “useful”. It objects to trees [laughter] except as decorative and then move them out again. It objects to trees except as lumber to build more of those constructions. It is in a constant process of organizing us into its shape but I recognize, and most of us do, something outside of that shape the thing that is being organized into the shape. I think that is the space of poetry. That is the space where the kind of disorderliness, the ill orderliness against capital finds us.
DN: I feel that, I guess, poet’s impulse when you’re writing prose, working against the regimentation when you’re actually writing narrative. I think A Map to the Door often reads like poetry, and perhaps, the mirror image, The Blue Clerk, that poetry often reads like lyric essay, and your latest novel Theory doesn’t really exist in the realm of plot or the “world” out there. There’s no world building per se in Theory, instead, it lives in a consciousness. But on the flip side, whether intentionally or accidentally, looking at your poetry across time, as Christina Sharpe so incredibly does for us in the introduction, a story does emerge of your life and of your poetics, but also of the world out there, of political movements, of anti-colonial struggles. I want to start by looking back 40 years now to you as an artist and how it intersected with these movements 40 years ago. But before we do, I’m curious what your experience is like of stepping back and looking at your work this way where you aren’t just releasing a new poem but you’re releasing it alongside 40 years of poems, both what the emotional and intellectual experience of looking back has been like, but also what it has revealed to you in doing so. Especially given how you’ve described yourself as always focused on the next thing once something is finished. This is an interesting moment.
DB: It was. I at first was reluctant to collect the sets of poetries in that way, and for a very long time, didn’t even read through them again. But when I did, I thought they contained all of my ambitions, both my ethical ambitions I suppose, and also my ambitions around language and what language might do. They contained the me, the poet 40 years ago, the me who was the poet 40 years ago, as well as her movement through time and also through her practice and through her desires. I speak of her in the third person because I am the third person as well in some ways and I don’t consider the I in the poetry in any way the same perhaps as this me who is living the life. The I in the poetry is always that contemplative being, if you will, that thinks over time, over event, over politics, and over the changes in language. Then I think throughout those texts, I am doing a set of work on language. The texts change from the text of Primitive Offensive, which is moss, that is thin and coming down the page, and it is recounting and recalling a kind of unknown past and is always subtended by colonialism and a kind of colonial past that imprisons it so it is slim and walking down the page. Then the next text, which followed quite quickly Winter Epigrams: &, Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia, and because Primitive Offensive was so pained and so intense and so much about the recognition of enslavement and the condition of Black people in the diaspora after, that the epigrams had to be short, quick, tight, and relieved by humor in some way to relieve that moment, to open that moment, but they also were formal, much more formal than Primitive Offensive before. If I pass through all of them, I can see my movement through form and subject and trying to figure out what these forms that I was creating or attending to would do with subject, how they attended the subject, and then I can see myself becoming careful, careless at the same time. [laughter] Don’t give a damage. In each text, I tried to work on something else so that language is neutral, I tried to work on the demotic, what it was to write in the demotic which by then for me was a kind of demotic now about 20 years, removed from a demotic in Trinidad where I was born, and I had to account for that movement also for I have to account for its illegitimacy in some ways through it, but I have to account for how it registers in the brain and how one moves in and out of any demotic actually and try to flow with that. Every text is a different thing in a way.
DN: You’ve both written and spoken about looking back in various ways. For instance, when talking about John Coltrane’s Venus, you talk about how at some point in that eight-minute song, which you describe as speaking out and beyond time, blowing into the future, a song that sounds like we in the future, a song that evokes what you call the job of Black artists to play where we ought to be living, you say that at some point in that eight minutes, that the song deep into it, rejects its former self while also somehow accepting that the rejected self, like a shadow, is embedded in the song and in him. Near the beginning of Ossuaries you write, “I lived and loved, some might say, in momentous times, looking back, my dreams were full of prisons.” I feel like this already suggests an answer to a question Billy-Ray Belcourt has for you, but I’m going to play it with my preface to it and hear what you have to say.
Billy-Ray Belcourt: Hi, Dionne. Congratulations on the momentous publication of Nomenclature. My question is what, if any, is the relationship between nostalgia and poetry?
DB: Hmm, none. [laughter]
DN: That’s what I was going to guess.
DB: I think there are lines to a poem once that I wrote called “Our nostalgia was a lie and the passage on that six hour flight is wide and like another world, and then another one inside.” I have no use for nostalgia. Some friends of mine a long time ago had a party and the theme of this party was supposed to be something like we all dressed in 19th century garments and I thought, “What would that be for me exactly?” [laughs] I think I’ve written it somewhere else, I have absolutely no nostalgia for any time past, no time passed is good enough for my living. I can only think of the future, the place where we might live, which would refute all that we are living, negate and tear up all that we are living. I am always living in the future. Of course, because I am this kind of finite human being, I might use the resources of a past to do something with because that is all I have, that’s all the material I have to do things with what happened or what could have happened, what shouldn’t have happened, etc. A day that had sun in it, a day that had trees whose leaves were dying in it, I had to use those materials, the physical materials of the world as well as the physical materials that have passed through time in some ways, but I have no longing for it. There isn’t a time where it was good to be. It is always now and it is always in the future. Given the particular set of historical circumstances that created my existence here, then my work is to live in the future.
DN: That’s also interesting about this looking back. I wanted to ask you a question because reading this body of work made me look back also. Because the first several books in your poetry life, in them, there’s a great sense of political possibility, maybe hope even with regards to anti-colonial movements. When I think back to the beginning of my own activism in the 80s, it was different than yours in the sense that I think yours was deeply rooted in political analysis where when I was young, I think it was purely affective for me, motivated by emotion and I didn’t really gain any great sense of analysis for many decades after that. But reading your poems from that period, I think back to my own life and I think back to the anti-nuclear movement at the time, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, to CISPES on our campus, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which was being monitored by the CIA and the campus office was bugged. I lived for a year in Central America in the 80s as a teenager and being really impacted by the 10th anniversary of the Sandinista, some of these celebrations. I bring this up because for me, this early activism felt full of possibility in a way your early books remind me of. Yet I also have trouble separating that period in activist history from my age. Did it feel like a different future was possible because of the moment at hand, historically speaking, out in the world, or did it feel that way because I was young and these were my first experiences and I hadn’t yet accumulated a mounting set of failures, setbacks, and foreclosure? It made me wonder about you, what is your sense of that time when you look back, how much would you connect this sense of possibility in these early books to your time of life versus the time of life of the world?
DB: Ah. I see. I hear you. I think both those things are true in some senses. But I think concretely, I did live through some very important, crucial political movements, some periods of sparkling, as there are now too, political ideas, and in terms of the development of the world, those were possible and people worked toward them; the anti-colonial movement, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the feminist movement, the Gay Liberation struggles movement, those happened let us say, they didn’t just happen because I was younger, they actually happened. There were in incredible activism toward it and they confronted the power structures of the day and discombobulated them in serious ways. Of course what became of some of the demands of those movements were co-opted into a system and given back to us in ways that that system could absorb. We had half of what we wanted, or a quarter of what we wanted was thrown back at us. But those movements did exist and had a potency at the moment that we were living them. I remember being here in Toronto out on the streets demonstrating against Apartheid in South Africa, and having great connections with other activists around the world in that struggle. Something happened out of those movements, something happened, something was enabled out of those movements. Or for example, the struggle for choice for women’s right to be human and have sovereignty over their own bodies. I remember being out on the street here in Toronto too in those struggles. Those struggles succeeded however partially well all over the world. The movements, the ideas that I then transformed into poetry, if you will, I felt and lived through them at the time and they were so sharp that the power structures in the world had to take notice of them and did and moved, but either moved to co-opt, to curtail, or to somehow incorporate as a sign of their having taken notice of them and knowing that it would be dangerous not to address them but only addressing them in so far as the system could continue to do that work. The radical edges of those movements were somehow blunted. Even more so, we could see, in certain kinds of situations, not just blunted but people were imprisoned and killed for those things. Someone said a long time ago, and I can’t remember, that if one were to think of let’s say the radical Black movement in the United States and what happened in the late 60s, 70s in terms of its confrontation with the police and the CIA, etc, that if you were to think about the elimination of all those people, it would be similar to the elimination of the entire government, if you think of what happened to Black radicals in the US in that moment. When we arrive at the moment after, it isn’t in a sense—and I write this somewhere in a text, I think in Land to Light On—in a war, one gets defeated. [laughs] It’s not that one’s ideas are defeated but the incredible amount of energy of the state against those ideas and against the people who generate those ideas, that is also happening, it’s not merely that we didn’t try enough, work enough, think enough, or any of those things, you get beat up and then you have to go underground again and come back again with that knowledge. I’m talking too much, David.
DN: No, not at all. I love how your poetry itself goes underground and comes out again. Before we go there, I want to spend just another moment with this early period. You moved to Canada in 1970 and have lived there largely since. But for one year in 1983, you moved to Grenada to support the people’s revolutionary government. You end up being there when the United States invades and topples that government. On paper, you’d think Grenada was an unlikely target, its main product was not oil or precious metals but nutmeg. From what I’ve read, its naval fleet consisted of 10 fishing trawlers at the time, there wasn’t a single stoplight in the entire country. Its population was less than Peoria, Illinois. But the Zinn Education Project uses a phrase from Noam Chomsky when they say Grenada was the threat of a good example, that it needed to be removed as an inspiration for another way to be. I wondered if you could speak to what drew you there, what you encountered there that despite the trauma of the five-day invasion, despite the disappointment of returning to Canada, that made you characterize it 11 years later in your essay collection Bread Out of Stone as the best year of your life at that point in 94.
DB: Yeah. I was a socialist and I wanted to go and work in a socialist state. I say was but I am. I wanted to go and live where my energies and my hopes were in a space where that was possible, where it was possible to work each day with your politics, as opposed to against a certain politic. Of course, the big world was the against but in this small place, the place where there was an attempt to make a socialist revolution against a dreadful dictatorship, which the New Jewel Movement had brought down that year. Many internationalists went to work in Grenada too, and yes, it was against the possibility of a good example. There, I also worked with a lot of other people from up and down the archipelago who were also involved in trying to create socialist spaces states. As I said, I simply wanted to go work where my politics were, where that was the starting point, and it was a wonderful year of living despite the ending. I sat in rooms where the people from the ministry of finance were talking with just regular people about “What do we do? Do we do more sugar?” and the relationships and the relations that the New Jewel Movement tried to have with just people on the ground, a very personal communal relations involving people in decisions about the economy. That is what drew me there, the possibility of that and to see its execution in a way. It’s always very difficult for me to talk about it. It’s so strange, it’s so many years later, but I woke up each morning and went to work with open heart and open hands.
DN: Yeah. Well, I picked out three early poems, three early brief poems I was hoping you’d read. I was thinking Cantos XIV from Primitive Offensive, October 19th, 1983 from Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, and then Return from No Language Is Neutral.
[Dionne Brand reads a poem called Cantos XIV]
[Dionne Brand reads a poem called October 19th, 1983]
[Dionne Brand reads a poem called Return]
DN: We’ve been listening to Dionne Brand read from her latest book, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems. It feels like Grenada ripples forward in your work through many books of both prose and poetry. But when you read October 19th, 1983, which is the date of the invasion of Grenada by the United States, with your cataloging, your listing of people you knew who were murdered, I wonder if this was the origin of your interest in inventory, something that is a throughline I think all the way to the contemporary moment, not just in the book Inventory, which also lists deaths and bombings, whether Iraqi dead or Katrina, or all the plants and flowers in Thirsty, which could seem as a counterbalance to the listing of death, but given the ecological death we’re all racing towards seems also to speak to death, or at least now it does. Or Ossuaries which rejects verbs so that we are with and among things that situates us in an is-ness of things and material and bones. Or The Blue Clerk where the clerk is cataloging everything the author withholds and doesn’t write. Also, the way the whole book, The Blue Clerk, is re-indexed at the end, “a wayward index” to borrow Saidiya Hartman’s word but also her sentiment about this index, that released the book into new relations of form, language, color, plant and insect life, the human, the nation, the archive. Even your most recent novel Theory has an inventory of the lovers who prevent the protagonist from completing their thesis. Your book Inventory ends with the line: “I have nothing soothing to tell you, that’s not my job, my job is to revise and revise this bristling list hourly.” I was hoping maybe you could talk to us about listing inventory, maybe both its origin, and it as an enduring quality within your poetry.
DB: I think you’re right, perhaps that business of inventory begins there and it begins there because after that, what was a kind of cataclysmic event, not simply personally, because certainly, for me I could leave, as I say in some of those poems, I at least could leave, many people couldn’t. But it was cataclysmic, I thought, for the region and for a lot of Black radical work in the Americas in a way, it was symbolic of that. The fall of the revolution in Grenada was symbolic for the possibilities of socialist revolution in the whole region, in the whole of the Americas, and I mean South, Central, etc. There was the fall or the disruption of much socialist work and governance across that whole region. It was in a sense the taking back, the re-imposition, or the verification of US imperialism in North, South, Central America, and the archipelago. There was a certain kind of idea that came to a halt, the suffering didn’t come to a halt, the suffering increased. But the great apparatus, the great US imperialist apparatus was put into action against this very small place in this very small idea. What it said to everyone was not even that, not even as small as that, you won’t even get anything as small as that. I looked at this as a writer and I thought, “What is it that I might do here now?” I’ve always thought of myself as a writer who follows, who listens, who accounts, and I thought “What is my job now?” and my job is to take note, to notice, to account, to write down what is happening, to list, to make an inventory of what is gone, what exists now, I won’t even go so far as to say what is possible because at that moment, it’s not what is possible, but just to be the recorder of the time. That became my act of survival in a way and to try to also have the materials of people’s desires survive in that also. When I come to, let’s say, Inventory, the book, and Inventory is written at the time of the Gulf Wars, and I’m thinking at that moment, when let’s say Baghdad is being bombed, Baghdad was a city of five million people and I live in a city of about four or five million people, I’m thinking like, “What happens to the daily? Someone must account for this. Someone must write this down.” While Baghdad seems on our maps on CNN, ABC, and wherever as a big spot where some terrible idea is being wiped out we are given to believe, there are actually like five million individual souls trying to do a day, trying to live a day, trying to experience a day, trying to get through this horrible day. The kind of televisual distance which we are allowed living in North America from these events, whether they happen in a city of five million or in a small country of 100,000 because it is happening so far away, and I thought, “Well, okay, my job is to make a list of what those are, what the small daily thing is in any given life.” That meets up for me with what I think I need to write as a Black writer about the small daily life of Black people that is constantly being overpowered by the kind of regime of racism. I need to breathe into that life and take and record every second of it, and not only its demise, not only the terror that it is subjected to, but its acts of willingness, its acts of openness, its acts of joy, its acts of whatever, to reclaim that full day, and so my job, it seems to me, is to notice every aspect of that day and to record it.
DN: Well, I love how The Blue Clerk, your Ars Poetica, which is about the tension of between what is written or said and what is not written or not said, what is withheld, I love that you’ve withheld that collection from the collected poems. In The Blue Clerk you quote Gilles Deleuze who says, “Elegy is one of the principal sources of poetry, the great complaint. The complaint is ‘what’s happening to me overwhelms me.’ Not (simply) that I am in pain but what has taken away my power of action overwhelms me. And why do I see these things, why do I know these things, why must I endure seeing and knowing.” Then the author character in this book talks about inventory being a useful technique for a poet when overwhelmed, to not just conduct an inventory but to inventory what overwhelms, which to me is interesting when I think of you saying that the listing isn’t about possibility, which I think is true, but paradoxically, I wonder if by listing what overwhelms, by listing as a technique to confront being overwhelmed by a limited power of action, if somehow that does create possibility.
DB: I guess the record adds up to something, and that is the, I can’t use the word hope, but the intention or that is a possible end of the record that it adds up, that it accumulates, not so much adds up, but accumulates into a life, into an opening of some kind. But I hesitate to use the word hope because it’s such a discredited word. It’s so used by liberal democracies to characterize the lives and desires of actually the peoples who it excludes from its joys, so I hate that word because we are always expected to have it. Why? Why should I have it? We actually live in hopelessness, so what is this? Sorry, I’ve gone somewhere else. Bring me back.
DN: Well, I was hoping we could leap ahead from your earliest poetry to hear a section of something more recent. What I was hoping we could hear is Ossuary III, a book written in the voice of the fugitive, Yasmine.
[Dionne Brand reads Ossuary III]
DN: We’ve been listening to Dionne Brand read from her latest collection, Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems. I wondered if Inventory is also a way both of self-making, and here I’m thinking of Yasmine in Ossuaries who creates her own genealogy when you write, “This genealogy she’s made by hand, this good silk lace, Engels plaited to Bird, Claudia Jones edgestitched to Monk, Rosa Luxemburg braids Coltrane.” On the other hand, I’m also wondering, when I look at the family tree and its genealogy at the beginning of your early novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, which is really like no family tree I’ve seen because it contains people on the tree labeled the one unrecalled, the ones left in the sea, the one taken by hurricane. I wondered if Inventory is also about making absences present of speaking into archival silences.
DB: Yeah, I suppose. In the case of Yasmine in Ossuaries, when one arrives in this world in her body, our body, one has to make one’s history in a way, one has to make one’s intellectual history, one has to make one’s erotic history, one has to make one’s way in the world that doesn’t record that history as you say. Yasmine is the new being, the new human being, the human being produced and recovered from 500 years of enslavement and the succeeding neocolonialism. How does one make one’s self out of those materials? And yes, it must be Engels and Bird and Coltrane and Duke Ellington and Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow, and it is all the beautiful art created through and after these periods, the art, music, and ideas for survival of that. That is Yasmine, her collection of the world. Secondly?
DN: Oh, just the speaking into archival silences, also the way that you make this family tree that you could call it an inventory of a family in a way, but it’s a family that can’t be accounted for.
DB: Right. A family that can’t be accounted for in At the Full and Change of the Moon because of the dispersals, because of the dispersals of lives through enslavement of the period, but also an accounting that has to do with abstraction. Because the thing that is written, the written record is the record of the conqueror, but there is another record, that is the record in the body, the record of the lives lived, and the record of the recollections of those lives lived. So that at the front of At the Full and Change of the Moon, the novel, is this family tree which denies the colonial family tree, which is of a patriarch and the successors, as much as the novel itself denies the form of literature, the form of narrative which follows a single being through a certain kind of capitalist development, if you will, the form of the 19th century novel. But there’s a life being lived and I am not the writer who is writing the 19th century novel over and over and over again. I am the other writer. [laughter] I am the writer of this life, which is evacuated by the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th century colonial practices. I am that recorder. The one who loves gold things, the one who went away in a boat is a someone, is a being, and it’s a being lived through and with other beings. I’m that recorder.
DN: Yeah. I’m remembering now that you tell us in The Blue Clerk, when you’re speaking about Borges remembering his father’s library, that you had no library, that your grandfather was your library, and that he kept the log of the sun, the tides, the rain, the clouds, which might suggest that your listing practice is ancestral actually.
DB: More than likely, yes. [laughs] That is what he kept the record of, like what the sun would be, where it would be, what the wind would be that day, how far the sea would come in. In a sense, that’s my way of record keeping, if you will, if there is such a thing as a record, if by record keeping, we want to also trouble that word anyway, but if it is about recounting and if there are prohibitions against a certain kind of recounting, those are the very things that are to be recounted and have been recounted in my life certainly. That is the official record.
DN: Yeah. In that spirit, we have another question for you that extends and opens up this notion of genealogies, both familial genealogies and self-made genealogies.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Hello, Dionne. This is Alexis Pauline Gumbs. As I hope you know, your work has impacted me fundamentally and it has impacted generations of my family. I wanted to ask you this question, or really just give you the opportunity to talk about the intergenerational scale of your work. How do you think about the intergenerational impact of your work, the intergenerational sources of your work? As you know, I found a letter from Audre Lorde to Adrienne Rich where she talked about loving your early poetry and holding it in her heart. We know that if you’ve impacted Audre Lorde, that you’ve impacted me and my whole family and my toddler nieces at this point, that you are certainly impacting generations of folks around the world. So I’m interested maybe in how you feel about that, but more in how you would talk about your work, which is intergenerational in itself, I think especially about At the Full and Change of the Moon, for example. What would you say about your work and how it lives intergenerationally?
DB: Oh, that’s a hard question in the sense that it’s not the first thing I think about. Let me talk about At the Full and Change in that regard. I wanted to know in At the Full and Change of the Moon what that statement by that woman who was hung and burnt at the stake, whose name in my novel is Marie Ursule but whose name in real life was Thisbe. I found her in an essay by V. S. Naipaul The Loss of Eldorado, a book called The Loss of Eldorado. She’s reported to have said to this court in I think 1806 when she was sentenced to be hung and to be burnt at the stake for an uprising on a plantation and she is reported to have said in his work, “This is but a drink of water to what I’ve already suffered,” and I just thought that was such a magnificent, such a grand statement, and that I had only learned it from a small book of V. S. Naipaul as opposed to that being the grand statement of the world if you will, as opposed to proceeding from that statement. Then I thought, “Well, so many of us proceed from that statement.” Our existence on the planet proceeds from that statement, the entire culture of the last 500 or 600 years that we know in the world proceeds from the slave trade, enslavement, all of the economies and the logics of that that arrive with us, and that statement, “This is but a drink of water to what I’ve already suffered.” I wanted to write that novel about what we who remain have inherited from that statement, not what we who remain have inherited in terms of sums of money of the people who perpetrated those states and those economies, but what it is that we who proceeded from that rebellion, that antagonism to those states, to colonial states, to capital estates, etc., what we proceed with. Then I wanted to do that generationally only because I arrive at this moment in the 21st century, I exist, and therefore, I am the echo of that statement. I wanted to look at the dispersal of that statement as well as the dispersal of people in the diaspora. I know something of those dispersals, given my own family that exists on every continent. I have people who live in London. I have people who live in Amsterdam, and that is as a result of that history. I have people who live in Venezuela. What is it that we carry, all of us, throughout? And not just in one era, but in several. So I was interested in that. I can only say I was interested in it and then took that interest into some paragraphs, but I didn’t think “So I was interested in it, in its impact, and the impact of that across time.” If I’m to speak about generational, I guess I speak about it that way; what happens to a particular set of relationships across time and how do they evolve with and from each other, and what is their impact. I know I’m answering it in this hazy way, but that was my interest.
DN: Yeah. Alexis wants me to play one more brief message from her. It’s not a question but something where I think she’ll be speaking for many people.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: And again, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your writing, thank you for your being, thank you for your insistence on living your purpose in multiple forms. I can never thank you enough. I’m so grateful for who you are.
DB: That is so nice. Alexis asked me about when I met Audre Lorde and what our exchanges were and so on. I recalled for her once meeting up with Audre Lorde, and I think it was in Montreal. We were all to go to dinner together and I got lost and I couldn’t find where dinner was and so I missed having dinner with Audre Lorde and a whole bunch of other people. That reminded me of when I missed meeting Mandela. I went to a lovely conference called The New Nation Writers Conference in Johannesburg just after Apartheid ends and the conference was organized by Willie Kgositsile, who recently died, a poet, a lovely wonderful man. That is my first trip to the continent and I get on the plane and I’m coming down the continent and I get to Johannesburg and I think the occasion is at seven o’clock and it reminds me the dinner with Audre Lorde was supposed to be around seven o’clock too, and I wander the streets of Montreal looking for this place. But what happens to me in Johannesburg is that I think I’ll just have a nap and get up. The next time I wake up it’s the next day and I have missed meeting Nelson Mandela at the opening of the conference and the conference people say that they have knocked on my door, they have called me, but I have fallen asleep entirely, so deeply. These are two people who I’ve missed on very important occasions. I was wondering about what is that with me, why? [laughter]
DN: Right. That’s terrible luck. I wanted to ask you about you were a participant in The Sojourner Project’s Catastrophe :: Cartography panel that was hosted by Saidiya Hartman, where every panelist engaged with living in the catastrophe or its aftermaths, and as Hartman put it, engaging with how to take care of ruined lives. In that panel, you say that you have two works that engage with the catastrophe, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, A Map to the Door of No Return, and Ossuaries, that they sit on a continuum in this regard. In one of the few places online where we can hear you read from your latest poem, the latest poem that’s in your New and Collected, Nomenclature for the Time Being, the 2020 Jackson Lecture, Rinaldo Walcott says after listening to you read it, he says that in some ways, it reminds him of Ossuaries, and you say that it’s not incorrect to think of Ossuaries with your new poem, that the figures in both are related. I was hoping maybe you could introduce us to the new poem, Nomenclature, in its own right. But also how you would place it in relation to A Map to the Door and Ossuaries on this catastrophic spectrum, and how the figures in Nomenclature and Ossuaries are connected to each other.
DB: The figure in Ossuaries, the one that alternates with the life of Yasmine is a figure who exists after this is all done, after the racial catastrophe and after the climate catastrophe which are related. Looking back on the earth or on the planet but existing in a strange way in the same time as that in the ways that a whorl works of all things existing in the same time, and this figure existing on perhaps the outer rim of that whorl, and we on the inner, and that figure sending messages or trying to send a message to we in the middle, looking, in a sense, at life in the middle as a kind of looking through a museum, at a museum in the future, and thinking through what the one that it was before, what that person has come through in a way. But given the cyclical or whorling nature of it, if it is possible to change what is inside by knowing what is outside. So that figure says, “I lived and loved, some might say, in momentous times, ravenous times, my dreams were full of prisons,” so it is sending a note, if you will, back to someone still waiting to hear of what has happened, but it lives beyond it. That figure notices us as bones in a kind of ossuary, common bones, the common bones of us. The narrator in Nomenclature for the Time Being is, I suppose, related to that figure who finds us in this catastrophe, the present one, and thinks, again I suppose, of a kind of record keeping of the truth of our emotions, the truth of our actions. That figure is as cold-eyed, I suppose, as the one in Ossuaries. At one point, that figure says something like, “I am hating living this. I am loving this. I’m turning into the someone necessary to live this.” It is like someone understanding that we are in this vicious period and admitting that I am actually becoming as vicious as the period because that is how I survived the period, by becoming as vicious as the period, as uncaring. We daily go out every day and do that and that figure wants to make that plane, that we ought not anymore to fool ourselves into thinking that somehow we are good people, we aren’t. We go out every day and we do this. If you begin with this understanding, what do you do then? That’s the figure I’m interested in now we know all these ways. Also the poem in Ossuaries II is not interested in sentimentality or sentimentalizing anything as poems are required to. I think perhaps that begins since Inventory, not that I think I was ever kind of a sentimental poet, [laughter] but it is completely irrevocably unsentimental about what is being experienced and about what is being said. You will notice in Nomenclature for the Time Being, the language of chemistry is used or the language of advertising is used because I think we live those languages and we hear them. We hear the word propylene, we hear those things. But some of our poets are somehow required not to hear those words or to think those words outside of our vocabulary, but in fact we are living the word, we are living oil all the time. For me today, oil is like slavery, the slave trade worked the last five centuries or whatever and oil worked this next one or two that we’ve just lived, and the destruction of the planet, the consuming of the planet inside of itself, the burning of the planet. So we must use this language because we are living this language and we would be delusional or we are being delusional not to use this language, to admit who we are.
DN: To return to the story of the catastrophe across time and also the story of you as a poet in relationship to it, Christina in her critical introduction, among other things, walks us chronologically through your works and how they and you have shifted. When I think of the spectrum you set up with A Map to the Door, Ossuaries, and now Nomenclature, I wondered about another set of correspondences across time. Already in 1984 with Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, you have these lines which I love, “Someone at a party drew me aside to tell me a lie about my poems, they said ‘you write well, your use of language is remarkable’ Well if that was true, hell would break loose by now, colonies and fascist states would fall, housework would be banned, pregnant women would walk naked in the streets, men would stay home at night, cowering. Whoever it was, this trickster, I wish they’d keep their damn lies to themselves.” Already here we have this question of the effect of your art in the world, but as we enter the 90s after a cascade of defeats on the left in Africa, not to mention Grenada and Nicaragua, Christina says of this time, “This is a poet who is working through in language how to speak toward liberation in the absence of a political movement. This poet is working out in language what has survived the death of her politics,” and you say this very thing in your 97 collection Land to Light On with the lines, “The body bleeds only water and fear when you survive the death of your politics,” which I think also echoes with the line you just brought up around Nomenclature around what sort of person do you have to be to continue living in the circumstances that we’re in. It feels like a juncture in your career, your confrontation with these questions that Christina suggests here happened at this time in the 90s. I guess I wondered when I read the lines of Walter Benjamin in your latest poem that go: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve.” You follow these words of his with yours, “I am depending on the Benjamin paragraph as to explain where I am now. I have understood its uncanniness all my life. But to complete this task would have meant some difficult decisions on my part, not the least of which was to live the statement out.” This is my long way of asking if this new poem finds you at another juncture or impasse similar to the one Christina’s describing of looking for language when something has closed or been closed off. It feels more dire to me. I think of another line from the new poem, “And when we are raid all our intelligence against them, nothing happened.”
DB: Yes. I am trying to find another way of coming at the problem, and the problem of course is living. I think I’ve always thought of my poems as actions and not as salve or comfort, what is action. That may have been naive in the beginning. When you’re 20 and you’re writing poems, you think, “I write this poem and something will happen,” but it’s continued this insistence that if I write this poem, something will happen, something will change in the air, it will give language to a life, or at its best, something deeply radical will happen. Following on that, then something always radical has to happen in the language itself for me. If I could be said to have a hope, it would be that, as in Derek Walcott’s line in a poem, and I can’t remember which now, and I’m probably paraphrasing and not actually saying the line, something like, “After this sentence, rain will fall,” giving a sense that a poem is an action which propels or generates an action, so a poem is an action in the world, a line is an action in the world and so the world will be different the moment I say this.
DN: I love that.
DB: I’m always moving with that intention in a way. That’s why I’m always trying to find the language or the poem that will generate that, that will itself be a generator, if you will, because it itself is an action in the world, and it will change the next moment in air, in time, in space, and so on. If anything can be said to be my [inaudible] it would be that, if I have a belief, it is that a poem is an action, it’s an act itself and that it makes other things happen. The world changes when you write it so I’m writing it always with that intention. Nomenclature for the Time Being, if you notice for the time being, so I’m hedging my bets on it and it’s a kind of naming or a kind of practice for now. For now, for the time being suggests some other time might happen and it also suggests “For now this is what I can say. For now this is what I can say about now. We will see.”
DN: Well, let’s hear a little bit of the new poem, Nomenclature for the Time Being.
[Dionne Brand reads from Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems]
DN: We’ve been listening to Dionne Brand read from Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems. In the film you made with Adrienne Rich, Rich brings up a quote by Virginia Woolf that goes, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” And Rich pushes back against this quote, particularly it coming from a British White woman, or I’m guessing for that matter if it had come from a Canadian or American White woman, where she felt it was just too easy for such a woman to take flight and ignore all the ways they benefit at the expense of others from their citizenship in the nation where they actually live. You at the time seemed to put your allegiance more with Woolf, at least in the sense that you were wholeheartedly against the notion of nation, and then Rich brings up the Derek Walcott quote, “No nation now but the imagination,” and suggests it as a way forward, not of nation building but of future building. But I wanted to stick with Rich’s uneasiness around Woolf’s quote as an entryway perhaps into the White innocence you are reviling in the new poem, perhaps in relationship to the line: “What is it to talk as if the world you know is the world?” Can you speak a little bit to innocence in relationship to Nomenclature for the Time Being for us?
DB: I love that connection you make between that conversation and this, and yes, I understood Adrienne’s questions to that idea because it would be, it would have been, it was, it is easy enough to slough off that nation when in fact you’re so implicated in it constantly, it’s not sufficient to merely slough it off but to actually do something to break it. We were one in that sense. My response to her about completely negating nation, and these were evidence of positionings in a sense in the whole structure and in that whole idea, and I still do believe but that is because I’m always outside nation as a Black person, as a woman, I’m always outside nation and I take note of it and I refuse it actually. I refuse to enter nation as a Black person and as a woman and I refuse its call. I think White innocence is a feature of nation, it’s the benefit of nation in a way. It is the way in which you are a nation without accounting for it and the way in which White people are in nation and give over the management of the idea of nation, of the apparatus of nation for the boon of being in it and for the boon of practicing a set of injustices, laissez-faire injustices in a way. This innocence is encouraged entirely in language such as working people, everybody, we don’t want this kind of thing, this kind of innocence is invoked and repeated constantly in phrases and languages like that, hence my antipathy toward narrative, my really quite a troubled relation with it. It is not that people are unaware of these practices at all but that they agree with these practices but nation allows a certain obscurity of the practices, a certain obscureness of the practices. I talk a lot about it in Nomenclature for the Time Being. There’s a stanza about reproducing whiteness. I think this stanza goes something like “I refuse to reproduce whiteness anymore,” and that reproduction can take place in the simplest of exchanges like “Good morning” or “How are you?” This kind of reproduction of the dailyness of whiteness, when in fact each day I should actually be asking White people, “What are you doing about this?” as opposed to “Good morning.” It would be better to ask, it would be a better use of my time as I step out my door and meet my neighbor to say, “What are you doing about this today?” as opposed to “Good morning.” Good morning merely reproduces the daily, it reproduces White nation, it reproduces the every dayness of it and it gives my neighbor the right to go to work and be happy without thinking “What are you doing about this today? What are you doing about the prisons? What are you doing about inequality today?”
DN: Yeah. Let’s stay with the word Nomenclature in the title a little longer. You interrogate and you have here also words like innocence and hope and humanity saying about the latter, “I’m not suggesting anything called human. That is a discredited theory.” You also seem to be doing something with pronouns. At the Jackson Lecture two years ago, you said, “The I of this poem is the I of a Black aesthetic,” and that the I or we of the poem is an accumulation of observations of Black people moving with intention into their imaginations of their liberation. This is part of the mystery and magic of your poetry I think, this writing from and about the catastrophe without hope or humanity because it is also true what Saidiya Hartman says in your Catastrophe panel, that when you crack open the chest, I think she’s referring to your line from Inventory that goes, “There are atomic openings in my chest to hold the wounded,” but she suggests, and I agree that even though you crack open the chest and there’s an opening, a wound and an absence, that there’s so much heart and something so life-giving in your work. Maybe it’s a kindred phenomenon to what Ruth Wilson Gilmore suggests that abolition is more than anything a presence, a tearing down but also a remaking. But talk to us more about this I of a Black aesthetic and this we of accumulated observation, and how this might differ from a more normative use of I and we in the poem.
DB: Well, that’s a hard one. It’s a long one. [laughter] I wanted to, in this poem, take apart all taken for granted notions about such things as human, what that word means in general, how we are to take it, where I say it’s a discredited notion, it’s completely discredited, it’s used by people to sell shoes and I don’t know what’s the point. It’s used by people on the one hand that sell shoes and then it’s used by perpetrators of the greatest violence to talk about their life. We cannot know what that is, it’s useless, this word now. I am trying to collect along with so many other Black thinkers, I’m trying to collect ourselves and I’m trying to resist the methods of imprisonments. I’m trying to resist the language of the ways in which Black life is structured into an every day and I’m trying to think about how I, we live outside of that structured every day, how we went back to our homes that are incredibly playful, incredibly improvisational, and that’s most of my life, that’s the life I live mentally. There is this other life, this life of imprisonments that try to take over that life that I’m trying to live. The life that I’m trying to live is not the life structured by capital, it’s not the life structured by a liberal democratic states or dictatorial states. The life that I’m trying to live is this wonderful improvisational, playful, creative life. There are a set of roadblocks or a set of obstacles along the way that might trap me into that other life, the formal life, and those might trap me with words like hope, humanity, and human, etc., in ways that those words have been co-opted beyond the point of us even describing them as co-optation, they just are now. It is this life that I’m trying to gather in language, in meaning, and with all haste. [laughs]
DN: Well, I have a final question from someone outside the interview. In the spirit of The Blue Clerk which sits outside your collected but also informs everything within it, Canisia Lubrin has a question for you that comes from The Blue Clerk.
Canisia Lubrin: Hi, Dionne. Canisia here. Where to begin? I suppose to see a completely insufficient thank you for the distinction of your books and the gift of moving through this life with the shape that those books put on the senses, among their many gifts are the ways that they help us see clearer, hear better, and to feel more fully in ourselves in our bodies, in the wound. So thank you. Now David asked me to send you a question and my usual impulse before your writing is nearly always that I have no questions because of how much your thinking in art have stretched thought itself and my own sense of possibility. But here I want to ask about the women. In The Blue Clerk, it strikes me deeply when the author says to The Clerk, “No one has asked me about the women,” and here I would like to ask about the women and what urged you to write that sentence “No one has ever asked me about the women.”
DB: Hmm. [laughter] The Blue Clerk was a very difficult book to write because, David, The Blue Clerk is not me. [laughter] In fact, The Blue Clerk is not even the I that I usually work with who is not me. [laughter]
DN: I love that.
DB: The Blue Clerk is far removed. Oh gosh, I wish I could remember, there’s a Latin phrase that you write down, procurationem, I think, I can’t remember it, that if you are writing a note for me, in my stead that is, you would write it and you would say per procurationem, I think it is, like I’m writing it for The Clerk. So every time I have to refer to The Clerk, I have to write it as if I am writing for her, I am not her. I have to declare I am not she. [laughter] I am more the author than The Clerk in a way. “No one has asked me about the women.” God knows what she was talking about. [laughter]
DN: We can leave it there as a mystery.
DB: I hope Canisia finds this funny but I have to go look. [laughter] I think that she was talking about, you notice how I’m in the third person, I think that she was talking about that whole big life that no one asks about, that no one knows about, it’s not a life that enters this world we live in with legitimacy. It is so full of its own loves and violences and ways of thinking that it has yet to be expressed. I can’t speak for The Clerk but I have to tell you how difficult it was to write that book because it was a book that required an inordinate amount of honesty, which would kill the author really, because of course, all of the stuff that The Clerk collects it is what the author cannot hold and so the book was also going to be endless. But to end the book was a betrayal of The Clerk so there’s a betrayal. That book is volumes more than what the author’s efficiencies produced in a way, and it’s still a project that troubles me as much as it is also a kind of playful project but it is a project that required the kind of commitment that I failed at by ending it.
DN: I wanted to spend the rest of our time talking about time, which might also return us to the beginning about poetry versus narrative, at least I think of narrative as more connected to the unfolding of time, and poetry is more about an all at onceness or the possibility of it all at onceness. But I recently attended an event with Solmaz Sharif and Claire Schwartz where Solmaz asks a long question with many questions embedded within it, and realizing this, she says at the end, “Maybe you can make something from this word soup.” So in that spirit, I’m going to make a word soup from various things I’ve noticed in your work about time, and see what it sparks for you. Thinking back to Coltrane and how you describe his song Venus as, at some point in the song itself, rejecting its former self, where you said in one talk “The job of Black artists is to blow out of the time we live in where it might be understood in the future, to play where we ought to be living,” which made me think of your rejection of origins in A Map to the Door where you say, “Too much is made of origins,” and “If I reject this notion of origin, I have also to reject its mirror which is the sense of origins used by the powerless to contest power in a society,” that somehow Coltrane playing both from a future present and playing in the present now but in a legible way for the future feels related to this. In Blue Clerk you say that poetry has an obligation to the present, that poetry is time. But I also notice, similar to the way Coltrane is playing for the future and from the future, what seems like a bimodal aspect to time in your work, perhaps related to what Christina Sharpe means when she says, “Brand’s work is cognizant that black people have to be simultaneously ahead of time and outside of it,” it makes me think again of your second novel with the family tree, how it feels like it’s engaging with, perhaps something we might call revolutionary time beyond time, but also an intermediate maroon time, a different time carved out within the present. We see this with how you situate Miles Davis and Bird, one who kept living and one who flew away, and I wonder if this is related to the lines in Ossuaries, “If I have lived, I have not loved. And if I have loved, I cannot have lived,” if perhaps loving and living are two forms of time, one beyond and one within. Or how you describe Ossuaries as written from a future-present, but also it being simultaneously the artifact and the archaeologist who’s studying the artifact two times occurring at once. We have the fugitive voice from the now, risking their life for the future, but then we have another voice from the future looking back at the now. I wondered if this mashup of thoughts on time provokes anything in you about time in your work.
DB: It describes it. [laughter]
DN: You see yourself in what I said.
DB: Absolutely, and I’m flying with you back and forth. [laughter]
DN: All right.
DB: Yeah. I listened to that piece, Venus, by Coltrane, and so many other pieces of jazz that one can listen to and feel the sense of the artist pinioned to the time that they are living in, especially when that time contained child slavery and just oppression, and blowing their full selves into some other space away because sometimes you can listen to that music and you can think, “What year is this?” If you compare it to the sludge-like movement of the present or the sludge-like movement of post-industrial even in terms of so-called technological society which supposedly moves us so much faster but actually doesn’t. Sometimes you listen to a piece of music like that and you think, “Wow,” you think of the set of statements that it is making, statements that are not quartered by what we know but by what we might know. If you think of what we might know, what we might know is so much larger than what we do. It’s in that field that I think poetry plays and I think there are all kinds of artistic practices that play in that field. That’s what I was thinking with that piece and what it indicates and that it’s having a conversation that cannot possibly be had at the level of that slow-moving modern. That’s the thing that appeals to me about that piece but about so much else that’s produced by artists. I also think in that way of even time passed in that way, that there were officious in time past that don’t attend to or that occur in the, I was about to double up this metaphor which is not right, there were officious which can be apprehended where a more complicated life is lived. I think in that regard, I’m faced every day with the spectacularity of Black life from all media, and so therefore I’m faced every day with the question of breaking down that spectacularity or rejecting that spectacularity for what I know which are the complex deep arrangements of the everyday. That spectacularity isn’t merely spectacular, it is doing a work, it is doing a work of undermining the me and the you and the we. It constantly undermines that and it repeats it constantly. So my work as a poet and as a writer is to undermine that spectacularity, if you will, constantly. It’s an every-minute attempt to undermine that spectacularity, and yes, so therefore it’s a kind of work to inhabit time.
DN: Well, let me try to make a connection that may or may not be the right connection, but I’m curious what you think of it. In my last conversation for the show, it was with Elaine Castillo about a book called How To Read Now, and I talk a lot about your book about reading in that conversation, An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading where you walk us through different possible strategies of engaging with texts, particularly ones that exclude the reader in some way, flatten the reader, or other the reader. You try giving names to unnamed characters. For instance, the Arab in Camus’ The Stranger. You explore various types of counter narratives to the canon, you look at Wide Sargasso Sea in the ways it successfully and unsuccessfully is a counter narrative, you look at John Keene who more successfully creates a counter narrative. But you ultimately conclude that one could consider writing not in engagement with what is there, but essentially ignoring it and its pathologies and writing from what you call a sovereign point of view. I wondered if being simultaneously ahead of time and outside of it has to do in some way with the sovereign point of view. Because one of the things that comes up in multiple places in your work is a flat-out rejection of looking at one’s life from the perspective: “Well, it could have been worse.” You reject the idea of coming from a place of gratitude that one’s life isn’t worse than it is from a place of accommodation to a world that’s untenable. But rather, it feels like you’re insisting upon a sovereignty outside of it, perhaps like this Coltrane song that is blowing a new space. But I didn’t know if this book which is about narrative, not about poetry, if there’s something connected there between this outside and ahead of time, and this other way of reading but which is also another way of writing I think.
DB: Yeah, yeah, you said a lot of things there. I think this An Autobiography of the Autobiography of Reading and in those two articles “an” and “the” and where they’re placed, that the an autobiography, the one who’s writing an autobiography is the one who occupies the larger space, and the autobiography being described in the definite article “the” autobiography is how a certain kind of subject is made in the world through narrative, so that how my training in neocolonial schools of the British Empire, if you will, trained me to read but then also trained me to be in that reading. Who was I in those texts? What kinds of leaps did I have to make to enter those texts, to associate with those texts, and the long years of disassociation which might lead to the an, to the apprehension of those texts, or those texts as a kind of subject making, and then to notice how the texts work, like how they make the subject, and then to notice oneself noticing the making of oneself is an interesting thing to me and something that I’m about to blow up into a larger project actually to read all those texts, all those subject-making texts in a way that become common sensical commonplace, that become one’s very way of acting in the world or of reading the world, and of reading oneself into the world, and also to notice the work that they do and that they continue to do. If they continue to do a work, it means they are still under stress and pressure to keep doing the work. That text that creates that subject, that reading, and that reading subject is a text always enacting. I can think of ways in which contemporary writers or writers over the last hundred and something years despite the fact that we are 100 and something years away from slavery and colonial texts and so on, and all the literature that’s produced in that period, there are texts today that follow the pattern of character and a place and where those texts situate certain kinds of characters that are now commonsensical but they nevertheless owe so much to that period of literature making which told us what a character was, where a character was to be situated, and which other characters have to be arrayed around them in order for them to come into being. So in order for that European subject to come into being, these other characters have to be arranged in a particular way around them, particular ways that have to do with class, that have to do with race, that have to do with gender, etc., and it is fascinating to me, the repetition of those structures, even when you’re not trying to do that, but they’re being repeated. Time works always, in fact, so we could look at colonial time and its extensions right through to us. What is it for a writer now to write? If one must write now, one must notice the practices of time like the practices of those narratives constructed around time, what time was for. It’s an immense work to unravel and undo. Some people, when you unravel it, they get pissed with you but there it is. That guy in your novel looking for success, that guy’s a 19th century guy, it’s a 19th century White guy, so who are you and what are you doing? I asked myself the same question, and I think a writer must always undo that. In that sense, you undo time or what has come to be called time. Have I answered you? I’ve just answered you partially, all of this is so partial.
DN: I think it can only be. But you might have already answered or partially answered my last question, which come from lines in Nomenclature, and the lines are, “This does not need a remedy, this does not need a balm, this needs an ending,” and also the lines, “I do not believe in time, I do believe in water. Water doesn’t end.” Something about that makes me think of your description of reading Saidiya Hartman making you think of the reclamation of the continuous. But what does it mean to not believe in time but in water instead? Or can you speak into that a little bit for us?
DB: Well, I suppose what I’m thinking through there, and as we’ve said, all my answers, especially about my poetry can only be partial because in the time that you create the poem where you create the line, you are in such big time, you’re in such like a wide space where so much is collected and you are trying to hold it in some ways in a smaller space as a line. I think that I meant that the ways in which time is so under the command of various structures. I walk out my door today, but I can be held at any moment by forces against me. In fact, I am held every moment by forces against me that I cannot say that I can control time in that sense, like I can’t control my step in a way. The line “I do believe in water,” I was reading the other day that someone said that we say we live on planet earth but we actually live on planet water because most of the earth is water. I’m struck by that.
DN: Me too.
DB: That has an inevitability about it that is big. Yes, that. I do believe in that. But what was the previous thing you said, the first piece you quoted?
DN: “This does not need a remedy, this does not need a balm, this needs an ending,” but also that water doesn’t end at the same time.
DB: Right. “This does not need a balm, this needs an ending,” there was an interesting moment there during this ongoing pandemic where everything stopped, and there was in that everything stopping despite the great disaster that it was, there was a moment for stopping. One virtually, we all had to stop, but of course the machinery drove some people anyway because there were people who had to go to work to care for us. But there was an an opening there for rethinking. It was slippery but it was present about why don’t we all just stop this? And what the “this” is, is the overproduction of everything, and the committing of everything to that overproduction, even our thoughts. We saw how much of us, even our physical beings were committed to that overproduction, and we were pissed too because we couldn’t go outside to do it to hand ourselves over to the machine either. There was a moment of rethinking and there was a moment of challenge for many states, or many nation-states if you will, to do something different, to do something else. If you notice the politicians were very upset of it. Suddenly they just had to take care of us because we were ill and they were pissed at that too. Some of them, the most fascist of them said things like, “Well, people need to work,” maybe no actually. They were very upset at our inadvertent reclamation of time and what to do with it. Some of us, even those of us who think deeply about it, thought, “Oh, d*mn, what am I going to do with my time now?” You notice the vacuum in the brain because it isn’t committed to this machine anymore. So I just wanted to think in a large way about what that moment meant, but then very quickly the whole system, revved back up, figured out how to monetize health again and is proceeding now. But I think proceeding perhaps to another kind of great traumatic event because the thing we should have stopped doing, we didn’t stop doing, which is the overproduction of everything on the planet, the overuse of everything on the finite space that we live on. We will see.
DN: Well, let’s finish with some more from your latest poem, Nomenclature, Nomenclature for the Time Being.
[Dionne Brand reads from Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems]
DN: It was a real honor and pleasure to spend all this time together, Dionne.
DB: Thank you, thank you. I’ve listened to you, of course, for like years and I really enjoy your conversations and I enjoy your reading of the work. I thank you for those readings because you don’t get a chance often to talk well about one’s work because these same efficiencies, these same economies of literature have gravitated toward the same economies that we live in so it’s difficult to speak in a deep and detailed way about work, so I thank you for your reading.
DN: Yeah. We’ve been talking today to Dionne Brand about her latest collection Nomenclature: New and Collected Poems. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. For the bonus audio archive, Dionne Brand contributes readings from two forthcoming books in 2023, Canisia Lubrin’s Code Noir, and Christina Sharpe’s Ordinary Notes. This joins bonus material from everyone from John Keene to N. K. Jemisin, Layli Long Soldier to Ada Limon. The bonus audio is only one of many potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter of Between the Covers. Join our brainstorm of future guests, receive the supplementary resources with each conversation, and choose from a wide variety of other potential enticements, whether becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before they’re available to the general public, to any number of gifts and collectibles from past guests, from out-of-print chapbooks by Ursula K. Le Guin to a personalized-handmade Korean wrapping cloth from Mary-Kim Arnold, to a bundle of books selected by me and sent to you, or maybe you just simply find these conversations substantive meaningful, even life-affirming. You find out more at patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Alice Evelyn Yang in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer and Jae Nichelle in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.