Between the Covers Podcast - Transcript
Between the Covers Gabrielle Civil InterviewBack to the Podcast
David Naimon: Today’s episode is made possible by Northwestern University Press and their new release, We Are Not Wearing Helmets: Poems by Cheryl Boyce Taylor. We Are Not Wearing Helmets is a collection of political love poems, rendered through the eyes of Boyce Taylor, an immigrant living in New York City. For many women of color, aging in America means experiencing a lack of proper medical treatment, inhumane living conditions, poor nutrition, and often isolation. These poems challenge the injustices of ageism, racism, and oppression with rage, forgiveness, honor, and endurance. Listeners receive a 20% discount on We Are Not Wearing Helmets or any other title with promo code pod20. This offer is available at nupress.northwestern.edu. Today’s episode is also brought to you by Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, a collection of 12 stories in which the strange is made familiar and the familiar strange. Says Lucy Tan, “Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is for the adventurous reader–someone willing to walk into a story primed for cultural critique and suddenly come across a plot for murder, or to consider the dangers of sea monsters alongside those posed by twenty-first-century ennui. Each story is spectacularly smart, hybrid in genre, and bold with intention. The monsters here are not only fantastical figures brought to life in hyper-reality but also the strangest parts of the human heart. This book is as moving as it is monumental.” Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is out now from Tin House. I’m excited to finally be able to share this conversation with Gabrielle Civil. I say finally, because we’ve been in contact for some years now, having a back and forth about having a conversation, having this conversation, which for so long was notional and aspirational, something we would do sometime in the future but which finally in the now of February 22nd, 2022, we can all engage with in much the way so much of Civil’s writing is in engagement with the “thick present,” to borrow a term from Donna Haraway. A different form of temporality of now that involves ancestry and inheritance but also a sense of futurity of the lives of the people, we are the future ancestors of ourselves. Because of this different sort of now in Gabrielle’s writing, both her work and our conversation names, and lifts up those she is indebted to and those she writes alongside, so an unusual abundance of names and books are mentioned in this conversation. I’ve collected them within this episode’s bookshop. In case you want to seek them out after listening today, the link for it is in today’s show notes, as well as the email that goes out to supporters of the show. One of the people we talk about today in depth is the Poet Wanda Coleman, a poet who figures prominently in Gabrielle’s latest book The Déjà Vu. For the bonus audio archive, Gabrielle talks about and reads one of her favorite of Wanda’s poems, one of her American Sonnets. This joins a wealth of supplementary material from Nikky Finney reading from Lorraine Hansberry’s diaries to Myriam Chancy reading from, analyzing, and teaching us from a passage of Jamaica Kincaid to readings by Kaveh Akbar, Jorie Graham, Alice Oswald, Douglas Kearney, and others of their own work. This is only one of the possible benefits of becoming yourself a listener-supporter of Between The Covers. To find out more about this and the other benefits of joining the community that keeps this little train, that could, going forward, head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers and check it all out. Now, for today’s episode with performance writer and performance artist, Gabrielle Civil.
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. Welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest, Gabrielle Civil, is a black feminist performance artist originally from Detroit, Michigan. Civil went to the University of Michigan where she studied Creative writing and Comparative Literature, then to NYU for both her master’s and doctorate where her dissertation From Body to Nation focused on the poetry of black women in the United States, Canada, and Haiti. Her academic concentrations were Black Feminist Theory; African-American Literature, and Experimental World Poetry. She taught at Bard and for the Bard College Prison Initiative, at Macalester College, and for 13 years as a tenured professor in English, Women’s Studies & Critical Studies of Race & Ethnicity at St. Catherine University in Minnesota. From 2013 to 2016, she was a tenured Professor of Performance at Antioch College in Ohio. Most recently, she’s been teaching as part of the MFA program in Creative Writing and the BFA program in Critical Studies at CalArts. Civil is known as much for her performance art as she is for what she calls her performance writing or performance memoir. She has premiered over 50 original solo and collaborative performance works around the world from Mexico, to Puerto Rico, to Ghana, to Zimbabwe, to Montreal, to Chicago. Since 2014, she’s been performing Say My Name (an action for 270 abducted Nigerian girls) as an act of embodied remembering. Her first two books of performance writing are her 2017 debut Swallow the Fish and her 2019 Experiments in Joy, both out from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Civil is also the winner of the Gold Line Press Non-fiction Chapbook Competition. This 2021 chapbook (Ghost Gestures) was picked by Bhanu Kapil for the prize. Kapil says in her citation, “(Ghost Gestures) is a complex work that starts to oscillate, the more it gets to what it is: about. It creates an experience of world-contact through micro-movements, kinesthesia, the body’s trace as much as its on-going being. Lateral shifts appear on the page as this writer engages race, mimicry, migration, and desire as core themes, so rapidly that the chapbook’s distension, the way this writing changes what a chapbook is, becomes a part of what it is to read it.” We will be discussing (Ghost Gestures) in relation to her just released new full-length book The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time from Coffee House Press. Publishers Weekly in its starred review says, “In this radiant work, poet and performance artist Civil pays tribute to a legacy of Black artists while contending with the ‘twin moments of pandemic and uprising’ after the murder of George Floyd. . . . She creates a swirling collage of visual art, poetry, and prose that reflects her life as a Black creative reckoning with the repetitive nature of social crises in America. Taken together, [Civil’s] musings act as a radical reclamation of place and identity, and challenge the ‘pandemic of white supremacy.’ The result is an evocative work of art that brings to life an era ripe for a revolution.” Alexis Pauline Gumbs adds, “What if we could offer our archives to each other like flowers? Hold them in glass, heavy but transparent. What if we could show each other the journey of unknowing and remembering ourselves now? Why would we wait? With this work, Gabrielle Civil continues to model generosity, bravery, and vulnerability as core principles of black feminist performance, creativity, and living. Read it for the beauty, the black feminist references. Read it for a particular herstory of this time. Look for what you might be unknowing right now and what you need urgently to remember.” Finally, Cauleen Smith adds, “This is the book I wish I’d had as an artist as a young woman. And it’s the book I’ll relish in sharing now. Performance studies has a new one for the mantel in this generous, funny, tender journey through the thicket and politic of Becoming.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Gabrielle Civil.
Gabrielle Civil: Ooh, thank you so much. Thank you so much for reading that. It helped to ground me like, “Right, that’s who I am.” [laughter]
DN: Before we talk about The Déjà Vu in specific, I was hoping we could talk about performance writing or performance memoir more generally, both terms that you’ve used to describe your body of work. Because while it’s true that your work has elements of memoir and elements of poetry, I’d think it would be inadequate to simply say your work is a hybrid of poetry and non-fiction, and when people think of performance in relation to poetry, they usually think of spoken word or slam poetry, but I think we’re maybe talking about performance more in the theatrical sense, more as a space of theater and ritual or at least, that’s one way that I feel like you’re speaking into and you somehow are bringing this onto the page. Talk to us about what you mean by that term, performance writing.
GC: First, I have to say that performance, when I talk about performance, I use that word as many of us do to reference a very broad range of practices, then when I think about what I do in the realm of performance, it’s so much around an attempt to bring myself into a kind of presence, if that makes any sense. That can be through something very traditionally theatrical where it’s happening in a theater on a stage. Even certain kinds of spoken word practices for me are definitely about those poets bringing themselves, their language, their words into a kind of presence off the page, into the stage, into the mouth, into the crowd, into the world. At the same time, performance for me, and especially when I think about performance art, for me, that’s a site of two very different lineages. One has to do with that Western dematerialized art, object, history, 1960s, 1970s performance art, which I really claim because it inspired me a lot and because I feel like there needs to be a different understanding of blackness relative to that heritage, so in my first books, there’s a whole sequence like fat black performance art, which is an attempt to rethink the historiography of that performance art, that idea of performance relative to art making. That rethinking is connected to that other trajectory, which is very strong for me in performance, which does have to do with ritual. That really comes from a syncretic black diasporic heritage that I feel like I get from my father who was born and raised in Haiti, and came to the United States when he was 22. There’s something around ritual embedded in the divine, the sacred, the spiritual and also how those elements can be a part of everyday life through movement, through gesture, through chant, through dance, through music. It’s interesting to think about something that’s on the one hand very conceptual. Even when I think about body art in the Western history, sometimes, it can feel even a little disembodied because it can be very thinky sometimes but there’s still that part of performance for me with this other very black, very ritualistic part. Part of what I was excited about when I first came to make performance art was because it solved some problems for me as a person in terms of how to reckon with my own body and it also helped me deal with some of my impatience as a writer. I was very much identifying as a poet—still identify as a poet, and really think my performances are embodied poems in a lot of ways—but there was this problem, especially pre-internet where I was sending out these poems, it was taking forever to get any response. You had to actually put something in an envelope, lick it, and put a stamp on it and wait months, and months and months, and months for someone to say, “Yeah, that poem was interesting. Can you send us more? We’re not going to publish this. Just send us something else.” I thought, “Wait a minute, I just sent you everything I have.” This was many, many years ago. I realized that I wanted to circulate my body in a different way. I wanted to circulate language in a different way. I wanted another kind of gratification or another contact with people. I started to think about ways to use performance to generate and create another kind of writing. In that sense—this is very late 90s, early 2000s—I was thinking a lot about Matthew Barney who said that he turned to filmmaking as another way to make sculpture. There was something about that phrase that really resonated with me because I came to understand that there was something that I was interested in with performance and a way of being in the world, circulating body and language in the world, and creating this other play space or field of possibility with body and language that then could generate a different kind of writing. For me, performance writing is the kind of writing that gets generated through a process of moving into and with writing with this understanding of, and practice of performance.
DN: Let’s stay with this a little longer because when I think of Bhanu also, I think of someone who’s a kindred spirit, whose work also could be described, at least, partially as performance writing. In her description of (Ghost Gestures), I just want to read another thing that she says, then ask you more. She says, “The performance texts here serve as past projections, transcriptions and scores.’ Yes. How do you choreograph notes so they magnetize their own columnar, prehensile order? Like this.” That’s one additional way I wanted to distinguish my experience of your performance writing from, say, reading a screenplay or the script of a play. When she talks about choreographing notes so that they magnetize their own order, I feel like she’s getting at something else that is important and true about your work. It isn’t that we’re reading the blueprint for something that happens elsewhere—even though these performances do actually happen elsewhere as well. It’s true that like a script, that we might get something describing the staging or that follows you through the motions that you do in a performance “elsewhere”—but unlike a screenplay or script, we’re getting your subjectivity, the stakes of you doing the performance, the history of why this performance has come into being, the rapport or lack of rapport with you unfolding in time, moment by moment. It feels like this subjective narrative or story is moving through the scaffold, perhaps, or at least, that’s my experience of it. I suspect this has something to do with how you place yourself as a protagonist within the time of the performance on the page. But either way, what comes up for you when Bhanu says, “How do you choreograph notes so they magnetize their own columnar, prehensile order?” What comes up about performance writing as itself performance?
GC: Thank you so much for reading that and also for pointing back to Bhanu who absolutely is a performance writer, and is brilliant. I’m teaching her Ban en Banlieue, my writing and performing the self class at CalArts simply because of the way that she’s able to do herself what I think she’s observing or very kindly noticing about my book, which is the way that it’s not just representing or describing a performance, it’s an attempt to make the language itself perform. There are many different poets who do work in that way. One of my favorite poets whom you also have had on the show, Douglas Kearney, he adapted different kinds of performativity in language and in really playing with the vibrations that can happen between language and gesture, language and movement, although he’s really interested in cadence and in rhythm in particular ways. I’m also very interested in rhythm but I’m more interested maybe in melody and in sound. I think that sometimes, I can get into a sing-songing place where I have to be like, “Okay, that’s enough, Gabrielle,” but in my ear, there’s a harmony that I’m interested in the language, even in something that looks like a regular paragraph. My hustle is that sometimes, it looks like an essay or a paragraph but actually, if you read, it’s just a giant poem. Actually, paragraphs and poems, they get to be the same thing. They don’t have to be in opposition. In terms of what Bhanu specifically said though that I think resonates not even just with (Ghost Gestures) but also with The Déjà Vu and with the rest of my work, that idea of choreographing the notes so they magnetize their own order or even the word that you use, scaffold, I’m so obsessed with the structure of these books in a way that probably no one else is even paying that close attention because they are works that are created, I mean it’s just like for me, these little fantasias or these little jewel-like moments that then get threaded together, which is how I make live performances as well, I admire so much performance artists, even like Marina Abramović or Pope.L. There are people who’ll have one concept, then they’ll just make that concept and it’s amazing—and I love that but then that’s never what I do. I always bring in a little this, then I add a little that, then I add a little that. It’s something about the way those different moments and those different images get juxtaposed, and moved in relationship to one another and creating a pull that’s intricate but hopefully still organic. That’s what I’m interested in, then that’s where my training as a poet really comes in because I feel like if you pick up a volume or a collection of poems, you can pick it up, flip through it, and read a poem from anywhere in the book. Often, that’s how people read books of poems, yet that poet has worked so hard to create a very particular structure for that volume. Whether or not you read it in that order, that structure is really important where even if you’re flipping through it to the middle, what is in the middle comes from that perception of that order. There’s something around that structuring being activated as not even just a container where performance happens but as a performance itself, that’s very interesting to me in terms of performance memoir as a genre or performance writing as a form.
DN: I think it’s important to say that the new book isn’t just performance writing the way we’ve described it but also includes a whole bunch of other things, diary entries, revisitations, then annotations of past work, poetry, correspondences between you and potential publishers, debates that you’re having with yourself about fraught or controversial topics, yes, performances, but also debriefing after performances. But one thing that unites them is this feeling that we are with you in “real time.” That we’re figuring it out alongside you. That the thinking through or the performance with all the uncertainty of it is being enacted on the page, and because of the sense of being in time unfolding, I wanted to talk about the way you bookend The Déjà Vu because the book opens and closes with time but a different sense of time than what I’ve just described. The book ends with a chapter called Black Time whose parenthetical subtitle is, “What happens if we take our time?” But the book also opens with Black Time as well, not only the Prince’s epigraph, “There’s joy and repetition, there’s joy and repetition, there’s joy and repetition,” but before that, before the table of contents even, the Gwendolyn Brooks poem that opens, “Blacktime is time for chimeful poemhood,” so because we open with, then circle back to Black Time in this book, because perhaps, this repetition of black time might be suggesting that black time involves repetition, and maybe Brooks calling poem hood chimeful suggests something of that too, or a line later in that same poem that has the repetition, “If there are flowers flowers must come out to the road,” talk to us about what black time is for you and about enacting time generally speaking, and black time specifically speaking in your written work.
GC: Ooh, thank you so much for those questions and also for lifting up the way that this book begins, both with Gwendolyn Brooks and Prince who I think are both really important examples for me of black time I guess or artists who were interested in and working in different ways this idea of black time. I think for me, what you said even earlier around, in these books, me being a kind of protagonist in the sense that you’re watching or experiencing me thinking through something in the moment, there’s something about that thinking through in the moment that feels really important but that The Déjà Vu is also, as you said, very much about aftermath or decompressing what has happened in a different way. I think that really is the result of it being, after the start of the pandemic—because we’re still in it, so the pandemic isn’t over—but really after that first terrible arrival of the pandemic, then how that moved into the murder of George Floyd, the racial uprising, and start of reckoning that we’re also still into, so there’s something there where blackness, which has always been very central for me as an inheritance, as an identity, as an experience, but also as an aesthetic aspiration, really trying to understand when we’re talking about blackness in relation to performance, in relation to poetry, in relation to literature, that is a whole incredible wealth and treasury of a series of different literary, musical, movement, performance, philosophical traditions. When you arrive—and this was something when I was in my teens, and early 20s—when you arrive and you realize on the one hand that you have inherited these things, but on the other hand, you don’t really understand them, you’re not sure if you’re good enough to use them, you don’t really know what to do, there’s a lot of tension, there’s a lot of desire, there’s a lot of pressure, I feel like all of my work in some sense is a response to that pressure and it’s also a vibration of that pressure, and its resistance. There are all these internal conversations that I’m having with different artists, both black and non-black. I think for me, I was just actually thinking about this, David, that generation is really, really important. I think that maybe everyone thinks this way but I still think of myself as young. That’s something that I write about in The Déjà Vu, not because I think that young is better than old but because I often find myself feeling clueless or I find myself still learning or I realize how much I don’t know and I feel wide-eyed or curious, but the reality that I’m dealing with is that I no longer am so young. I’m marked in my thinking, in my references, in my ways of being by a certain generation. One of the things that really marks my specific generation was the rise of African-American, first of all, as a term but African-American literature and people like Henry Louis Gates Jr. coming, and really emphasizing tradition and saying we have a tradition, which is to say that we can tell a story that’s chronological, that has to do with inheritance of black artists across time. I think that there’s something around that, even though I wasn’t that old. It wasn’t like I was spouting this every day but there was something around that I think that really has impacted me in the sense of reaching back towards like, “Who are my black feminist foremothers? What am I giving to other descendants in a real sense of trajectory somehow or timeline that’s been really important to me?” At the beginning of my books, I generally start with an epigraph from a black woman writer who’s really been important to me. In Swallow the Fish, it was Audre Lorde. In Experiments in Joy, it was Maya Angelou. In The Déjà Vu, here, we have this Gwendolyn Brooks poem and something recognizing myself as an inheritor of something very specific. For me, that’s something around black time and a kind of time that goes across the ages, and that I’m participating with in a certain way, but at the same time, I totally explode that, I hope. Those are not the only references or the only people that have mattered to me aesthetically or that I find myself in conversation with, or sometimes, my relationship to those figures is really fraught, or I have questions for them, or I’m not sure. There’s something dynamic there. For me, on the one hand, time, just as a material, is extremely important in the way that it’s very different in the realm of performance and in the way that it is in writing. In performance, it’s all about the ephemeral and something happening in time, and only being in that moment, then once it has happened in that moment, it’s over, then with writing, there’s the desire to preserve, so you’re doing something to try to stop the wages of time or to have something like a bulwark against time. Performance writing is the intersection of those impulses. That’s on the first level, but then when you bring blackness into it or maybe blackness is always in it or is the undergirding element of it, I think that then you start to get into absence and what has been lost, and the sense of repetition in both things that are happening over and over and over again and also things that we can never know because in Diaspora, or at least, in terms of the “new world”, things have been lost. What happens then for me in terms of this book, on the one hand, I’m trying to preserve something around my own coming of age. These books, all together, are part of this chronicle of the performance body that I’m trying to create as a massive work, an autobiography series like what Maya Angelou did or what Dany Laferrière has done, just something that gives you this landscape. But on the other hand, there’s so much loss, there’s so much absence, there’s so much impossibility, and there’s so much in which it’s not linear, it’s not chronological. It’s about pulse or impulse. For me, that speaks to something around the psychic experience of being black in the United States and my own experience of time in that psychic state. I just said a lot of things. I don’t know how much of that has all synced in for you. You can feel free like, I can pull out some of that more but those are some of the things that come up for me.
DN: No, I want to ask more about repetition, not just in relationship to time, though I think this is also in relationship to time, but also the another form of repetition in the book and in your books at large is the repetition of doubling. We have the first chapter in The Déjà Vu called Double Negatives, the second After Images, even the third chapter Black Dreams, we could think of dreams as a second form of life, but less of a stretch is the title itself, déjà vu, something already seen, experienced again, or the sense that one is experiencing it again, a doubling back of time, and the notion of a haunting in (Ghost Gestures) is also a doubling, and a doubling across time. Even the way you are revisiting old texts, then annotating them seems like this, both a doubling and perhaps a haunting, though maybe the question is, “Which you is haunting which you?” Of course, all of this has the subtext of Du Bois’s double consciousness, but talk to us about doubling or double vision or haunting in this regard, the repetition of the double.
GC: For me, both performance and writing are about doubling. They both are about life lived twice, or through the performance, through the writing, you’re doubling some kind of experience. Often, you’re doubling it in the sense that it’s your own experience but you’re offering it also to someone else, so that also makes it a double. Repetition feels really important, especially for The Déjà Vu in the way that I was trying to say something around my own experience of black dreams and black time, and there’s something around, historically in the United States, but not just the United States, when I think about Haiti, when I think about West Africa, it’s like they’re the same struggles that people are having over and over and over again in different generations. It’s almost like, “Why am I still living my parents’ struggles?” but also like, “Why am I still having my parents’ dreams?” There’s a tension there but then there’s a pleasure sometimes or there’s an identification or there’s a collective embodiment or there’s a creation of culture. I think repetition as well, in terms of African-American culture, has to do with that notion of the changing saying. It’s both a little the more things change, the more they stay the same in terms of social and political circumstances, but then there’s also the aesthetic idea of the changing saying when you think about, let’s say spiritual. You would have the repetition of the first line, two or three times. “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” A long, long way from home, so there’s also that repetition is accumulating to get you to something new but you have to go through those repetitions to get to the change, then there’s also that little French structuralist moment where you realize, “But wait a minute,” something, when it is repeated, it’s never exactly the same. Thinking about what is the same and what is different creates an opportunity for reflection, possibility, innovation.
DN: I suspect that your book release date, February 22, 2022, which is 2-22-222 is not a coincidence.
GC: 2-22-2022. Not at all. Initially, they recommended 2-1-22. I said, “No, no, no, it’s gotta be 2-2-22.” They said, “No, it has to be a Tuesday, but 2-22-22 would be a Tuesday, would you want that?” I said, “For The Déjà Vu, of course.” [laughter]
DN: I’m guessing you’ve probably read A Map to the Door of No Return by Dionne Brand.
GC: An excellent book.
DN: I’ve been reading that coincidentally at the same time as I’ve been preparing for this conversation with you, and a couple of paragraphs leaped out to me in relation to your work that I was hoping to read. Here, she’s speaking about the peoples of the African Diaspora post-slavery. Here’s the first quote, “There is the sense in the mind of not being here or there, of no way out or in. As if the door had set up its own reflection. Caught between the two we live in the Diaspora, in the sea in between. Imagining our ancestors stepping through these portals one senses people stepping out into nothing; one senses a surreal space, an inexplicable space. One imagines people so stunned by their circumstances, so heartbroken as to refuse reality. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space. That space is the measure of our ancestors’ step through the door toward the ship. One is caught in the few feet in between. The frame of the doorway is the only space of true existence,” then later she says, “The door signifies the historical moment which colors all moments in the Diaspora. It accounts for the ways we observe and are observed as people, whether it’s through the lens of social injustice or the lens of human accomplishments. The door exists as an absence. A thing in fact which we do not know about, a place we do not know. Yet it exists as the ground we walk. Every gesture our bodies make somehow gestures toward this door. What interests me primarily is probing the Door of No Return as consciousness. The door casts a haunting spell on personal and collective consciousness in the Diaspora. Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting. One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives. Where one stands in a society seems always related to this historical experience. Where one can be observed is relative to that history. All human effort seems to emanate from this door. How do I know this? Only by self-observation, only by looking. Only by feeling. Only by being apart, sitting in the room with history.” I’d love to hear any thoughts this might have sparked in you but I also wanted to read it as a preface to you reading the opening pages of (Ghost Gestures), Dakar: Black Women Dancing in Mirrors.
GC: First of all, thank you so much for reading that because I love that book. I love Dionne Brand. She was one of the poets that I studied very closely when I was doing my dissertation so many years ago. I love listening to that when she talks about that inexplicable space, that measure, that gap in between the pure. I’ve been on Gorée Island and you stand there, and you just imagine, “Oh.” That distance between the spot where people stood and that gangplank that they would walk up to the ship, just that distance is the space of Diaspora culture. It’s so trans-historical. There’s something around the trans-historical quality that is so powerful that she’s pointing to, and walking into the unknown, which turns into the knowledge of what you don’t know and the reminder of that everywhere you go, which becomes haunting. I think the connection that we might be able to hear at the very beginning between this passage and one connection that we might be able to hear between this passage, and the beginning of (Ghost Gestures) is that idea of, “How do I know? Because I’m observing. I also can see that in the reflection of myself.” There’s a way in which we get haunted by our own reflection and we also gain knowledge or confirmation of something that we already know through a certain kind of being with, observing, being a part of and apart from certain kinds of things. Here’s from the beginning of Dakar: Black Women Dancing in Mirrors from (Ghost Gestures).
[Gabrielle Civil reads from (Ghost Gestures)]
DN: I wanted you to read this—and that was amazing. I truly have goosebumps—I wanted you to read this partly because of the way you are engaging with doubleness or repetition through mirrors. In both (Ghost Gestures) and The Déjà Vu, we are with you as you move around the world, whether it be in Montreal or Detroit or in Mexico where you travel with the negrita doll you were gifted, which is another double. But in all of these places, you’re observing the different cities’ relationship to blackness, partly by what you see, the art that you see, the graffiti you see, the presence or absence of actual black people, especially in places that might be putting forth blackness without the people themselves, but also through the way you are seen as a black woman in those spaces. You do this in a similar way in your performance, and in The Déjà Vu, you explore as well being a black academic in an academic space that is predominantly white. Thinking back to the lines of Dionne Brand, “Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting. One enters a room and history follows; one enters a room and history precedes. History is already seated in the chair in the empty room when one arrives,” even when you go to the door of no return yourself to Africa, you refuse this easy offer of Omar, “You are one of us, take this name, take this man’s name.” Instead, you participate in this more complex dance of mirrors with women, women who are faced away from the audience. I guess this is where I wanted to talk about audience because like these dancers who are dancing for themselves and each other, not the audience, there’s a photo of you from a performance called Fugue that you did in Ghana that has ended up in a recent book by Lauren Fournier called Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism. I don’t know the book but I was interested in Teresa Carmody’s look at the role of the photo in it. This is what Carmody says, “The image appears in a section exploring the history of narcissistic charges against women — more specifically, feminist artists who directly incorporate their bodies and personal experiences into their work. Fournier moves from a discussion of a persistent Cartesian dualism that signals women and artists of color as either sexy (body) or smart (brain), to Sigmund Freud’s contention that ‘narcissism and femininity are integrally linked’; to Simone de Beauvoir’s idea that the image of a woman gazing into the mirror emblematizes her status in the world as subject-object. And within this discussion there is Civil’s image, presented without comment, in which we see the artist’s body reclined, Venus-style, in the ocean’s surf, her face obscured by the mirror she holds, glass side toward the world and an absent but imagined viewer,” then later she says, “Civil holds the mirror glass side out as if to say: Notice how what you see reflects your own racial and gendered subject position.” This is what I’d love to hear you talk about in relationship to audience because as you lay in the surf in Ghana of the Atlantic Ocean, holding a mirror that obscures your face as if you’re looking into it but instead, we’re looking into it because of the way you’re holding it and you are showing us our own reflection, so in a way, as we look at you, you’re asking us to look at ourselves looking at you to see what we see not about you but about ourselves in the way that we perceive you or at least, that’s the thread that I’m following from Carmody, that we aren’t just with you in this book as you perform and nor are we just part of the extended audience of the performance but we’re being implicated by the performance, and our watching of the performance. I guess I’m wondering if I’m reaching here about the outward-facing mirror and the Dakar women dancing, facing away from the audience into mirrors, or is this some crucial part of the Civil poetics?
GC: [laughs] Ooh, okay, first of all, you’re not reaching in terms of something around the audience being implicated in the way that the mirror, the way that both Carmody and I would also say Fournier, are using that image. It’s saying something like, “Whenever you’re seeing something, you’re also seeing yourself.” There’s also you that’s being projected on whatever it is that you’re seeing. Definitely, as a still from that particular performance, that is an effective reading there. There’s something also about maybe replicating the experience of double consciousness for some people who might never really have had that experience before or might not be aware. It’s giving them a little mechanism to have some of that experience, which is I mean yes, wait a minute, I gotta unpack that a little bit because double consciousness is always being aware of yourself being seen. You’re walking through the world you’re seeing but you’re also always aware of being seen. I think that the outward-facing mirror is seeing yourself seeing. It’s not exactly the same but there’s another awareness. That’s the repetition, like life lived twice, seeing yourself seeing. That does seem important in my performance writing and in The Déjà Vu as a book especially, because I’m aware that some of the things I’m writing about are fraught in the piece that I annotate on commemoration when I’m writing about what I wrote about before and their issues of gender, sexuality, and language or in the palindrome essay that I write about my very complicated experience trying to write something about Wanda Coleman’s first chapbook. I’m super aware that whoever is reading it is going to have a very specific relationship to what it is I’m talking about. That’s part of what’s going on in the text. What I think is amazing about that particular image though, I need to write about that work myself because it matters so much, what happened before that image and what happened after. This is what’s interesting, even in terms of something being still because I feel like as a still, it is a world. In that moment that’s captured, it exists and has a meaning. But then as memory, actually, a wonderful scholar named Gladys Francis also wrote about that performance in a book that she wrote about that had to do with haunting and transgression in French Caribbean, French-African Francophone writing and performance. She was there in the audience. When we think about it relative to audience, it does always matter who is the audience, who is my audience, and what does it mean for me to have work that really resonates in different ways for different people, depending upon who they are, what they’ve read, what they know, how they’ve lived, and how many other books by me they’ve read. All of those things really matter. A book that I think is so brilliant is Homie by Danez Smith because that is a book that very deliberately and consciously identifies, recognizes, names, and speaks to different audiences at the same time and makes that actually a part of the project. I think for me, in live performance, I often will throw in different kinds of improv that are responding to whether it’s gestural, whether it’s through my movement towards someone who might be in the audience, whether it’s an actual vocal aside. I’m acknowledging different kinds of people, different references or things that might be alive in the room. In the writing, I think that’s also there. It can be more subtle, just in terms of intertextuality or you can think about it like an Easter egg, if you know like a Prince song. Jamaica Kincaid is a person who’s excellent at that where you’ll be reading and you think, “Wait, is that an OutKast lyric that she just snuck in there but you gotta know it to recognize it?” There’s something around my relationship to the audience, I would say, overall is probably a little more expansive, nuanced, and even just a kind of external projection, which would assume that someone from the outside maybe is different. That gaze would be different from mine. I think that’s there but I think there’s also something that can be a little more interlaced perhaps because that performance that happened in Ghana was called Fugue (dissolution, Accra). It was really trying to return to the source of the great cleaving, which was of course, the Atlantic Ocean. It really was specific like, “What was that ocean that I was in and how did I get there? What was the ritual that was there?” It was a part of the Yari Yari Organization of Women Writers of Africa symposium that was happening, so the majority of the people in the audience were global black women writers. Samiya Bashir was in the audience. There were so many people who were there. Jayne Cortez, his son who was incredible, Denardo Coleman, he was there. What they were seeing when they saw that mirror, there’s so much with mirrors and spirit work, and black diasporic tradition, so much about the ancestors, so much about death and the afterlife. There’s that index of the reading of the image too that’s there. It was wild the way that Lauren just floated that image in there. I actually appreciated it in the sense that I was a haunting or I was a kind of the attorney of the oppressed, it felt to me like part of the argument that she was making. I’m still reading her book. I think there’s a lot of really interesting and intelligent reading that she’s doing there. I feel like part of what I’m doing with this whole series of performance memoirs is creating a critical context around my work myself because I feel like I’m operating at the intersection of different literary, artistic, and performance traditions. I feel like I’m thrilled and excited for other people to write about this work. I invite that. I want that. Also, I feel like I want to arrive and share some of what my own references and things are because it is so idiosyncratic, or maybe that’s not actually the right word, it’s just layered, maybe that’s what it is. Not that many people probably would be able to clock it all but I know what I’m trying to do, at least or where it’s coming from, so I want to share that and preserve that for the future.
DN: Holding this desire of yours to create your own critical archive essentially, then this other thing with this photo without commentary being dropped into somebody else’s argument and thinking about audience, because when I think about the way you’re describing the Ghana performance, it seems like an exceptionally resonant connection between place, you, and audience—and I’m sure that’s not always the case. I’m sure you’ve performed in places where the place itself didn’t speak to you and the audience maybe didn’t either, but I wanted to ask you about, maybe this is another thing in relation to your poetics but I noticed that no matter how long or short your bio is, it almost always has the sentence, “The aim of her work is to open up space,” and in your books, exercises, and performances, you often ask people to write about or think about what their relationship is to the word black, to the word woman, and the word performance and you also say that the call for black feminist joy is not just for black people. I don’t know if they’re connected but I wonder, is this somehow connected to your work being about opening up space or are these two dissimilar things? But I would like to hear about opening up space on its own terms, on its own merit, then whether this other question of all of us, thinking about our relationship to black women performance together and separately, is part of that or not.
GC: The first part, “The aim of my work is to open up space,” or, “The aim of her work, the aim of Civil’s work is to open up space,” is so huge for me because I think that I felt so pigeon-holed. I felt pigeonholed intellectually. I felt pigeonholed demographically. I felt that the world had such very particular expectations about me, what I could do, who I was, and not just me actually, just about anything like, “What is an intellectual? Who is an intellectual? What does that look like? Who is a dancer? What does that look like?” or “How does a dancer move?” It just felt the whole world was so tight. I think that some of my poetics really emerges from that crucible of adolescence, probably just trying to mark the difference between what I felt very viscerally and strongly as a kind of oppressive expectation or lack of expectation around my own capacities, then the profoundly expansive, ambitious, wild, and improbable dreams that I had for what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. I was going to say it took a while but I’m still trying to navigate the distinctions between the two but I understood that just in my body, I felt tight, I felt closed, I felt boxed, and that what I wanted to do was open up more space to be, to open up more trajectory, more landscapes, more cartography, more room. I wanted to move in the world and be glamorous. I wanted to travel. I wanted to speak many languages. I wanted to study all of these different things. I want to study philosophy and history. I just had this incredible curiosity. I felt like in order for me to pursue that, I needed to claim that space for myself. I’m saying “I” too much here because it wasn’t even just around an ego individualistic space. The “I” was important because I felt like I was fighting for survival or fighting for becoming but it was really about the world that I wanted to be in. I want a world for all of us where there’s more space for any of us to be who it is that we are called to be, need to be, are meant to be, and who the world really hopes and dreams that we can be in order for our own survival and thriving. That brings me even to the thing around black feminist joy and who is that for. I do really believe, and this is where maybe there is a generational, maybe multi-cultivator moment that I’m having, but I do really believe that black feminist joy is for everyone. I think it’s medicine. I think it can be a tough pill to swallow, depending upon who you are but I do think it’s for everyone but what does it mean for it to be for everyone? It doesn’t mean that now, it is no longer black. It is no longer feminine. That’s not what it means. I think that’s the negotiation I feel, like in culture today, how can we really understand and respect the sources of something, then also allow for the benefit or the medicine, the nourishment of it to have a positive impact in the world? How can we do that within systems that are innately uneven and exploitative, appropriative? These are some of the central questions of the moment. But for me, when I think about something like the absolute urgency and necessity for all of us to claim black feminist joy, I think about Alexis Pauline Gumbs who you kindly quoted earlier. When she writes about M Archive when she’s like first of all, if we think about source, if we think about human beings, if you think about where we came from, the idea that the actual center of our understanding of humanity is a misunderstanding of what humanity itself should be, so there’s already been something wrong that’s happened in terms of our understanding of human beingness and that maybe an important corrective would be then to move over, what happens when you take what was at the margin and put it at the center? That’s like a bell hooks classic 1980s project but we still haven’t fully done that yet. I don’t think in terms of we, in terms Western society culture, academic programs, production of knowledge, I mean I think there’s been clearly a lot more conversation and there have been incredible voices, writing, thinking, and black study and so much has happened but there’s still some fundamental resistance to those ideas. What does it mean to think about joy as not just a feeling but a practice? That’s something I’m still working on. What does it mean to think about joy as something that is a choice that comes after centuries of systemic dehumanization? That’s Saidia Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. A bunch of people, what was it in them that said, “I don’t care if you think I’m just your domestic slave. I’m not doing it. I’m going to wander on the street. I’m going to eat, drink, sing, and have sex with whoever.” There’s something there for me that feels so powerful and something that we could all learn from.
DN: One of the questions in your Experiments in Joy workbook is how can we cultivate a radical openness. But when I think about radical openness, especially for peoples whose lives are more precarious and on the margins, I think of the story of Anacaona, the indigenous queen of Haiti, whose story and downfall you’ve enacted in performance, and whose fatal flaw you say in (Ghost Gestures) was her abundant hospitality, which was ultimately used against her by the conquistadors. I was hoping maybe you could tell the story for us, then in light of it, talk about cultivating radical openness in the face of real life threatening danger, which certainly a black woman in the Americas would need to consider when considering openness.
GC: Wow, I love that you put those things together, radical openness and hospitality as a fatal flaw because that is a huge, huge tension, I would say, at least, in the United States but I also when I think about my Caribbean relatives or there’s something about like black woman-ness and what you’re supposed to offer, how you’re supposed to serve, and what you’re supposed to give away to others, then what happens to you? But let’s go back and first, let’s talk a little bit about Anacaona who was an indigenous queen of what is now known as Haiti in the Dominican Republic. In both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, she remains a hugely iconic figure and specifically in Haitian literature, there are many, many, many representations. [laughs] I feel like part of me trying to claim my Haitian-American authenticity is to do something with the figure of Anacaona because she’s so important. I know Edwidge Danticat has a young adult novel like Anacaona, Golden Flower but in reality, she wasn’t black. She was indigenous, yet I feel like, at least, Haitians that I know, claim her as if she’s one of us even though there was no Haiti. In fact, she and other indigenous people had to fall in order for there to be what we understand as Haiti. It doesn’t matter. There’s an iconicity there. Anyway, Anacaona was an indigenous queen of what is now Haiti in the Dominican Republic. There are many different stories of what happened but the story that I used as the basis of my performance was the plot of a play by Jean Metellus, a Haitian playwright called Anacaona. In it, she’s this incredibly powerful, amazing queen. The conquistadors come, and they recognize that in order for them to take over, they’re going to have to take her down, but she’s really canny and wise. She’s like, “I don’t want anything to do with these people,” and she keeps her citadel very protected. They come up with this idea like, “I know what we’ll do. We’ll say that we’ve talked to our Queen Isabella.” She’s like, “Oh, one queen to another. We should join forces. We should just be one force. We’re not going to try to displace you in any way but we’re going to join forces and we should have a party. We can have this great celebration together and really celebrate the end of strife, and this new beginning between us.” In the play, she’s like, “Hey, you know what, that’s great. They’re recognizing my beauty and they’re recognizing my power, so we’re going to have this great celebration.” She sets out everything to have this party, then when the Spaniards arrive, they’re armed to the teeth. They’ve got swords, they’ve got axes, they’ve got all this stuff, then the people who are guarding the fortress, they say like, “Wait, what is all this? What are you bringing in here?” They’re like, “Oh no, these are our dancing attire. This is how we party. We’re bringing this as a part of the party.” They’re like, “Oh, those are your party favors? Well, come on in,” then the Spaniards come in and they slaughter everyone, then burn the whole thing down, then they take over. That’s the play. That’s such an astonishingly wild story that can be used as a parable. [laughs] I just can imagine like Haitian mothers telling some version of this to their daughters like, “See, that’s what happens. They say it’s just a party, and next thing you know…” it’s just this idea of like, “Oh, you think there’s pleasure. Oh, you can’t really trust.” There’s something in that story that’s so terrible in terms of, “Why should you ever believe that someone could see your beauty, your majesty, your equality? Anyone who’s telling you that is just lying to you.” It really feeds into certain kinds of protectiveness or suspicion that I was probably instilled with, growing up in Detroit in the 1980s, like they say all that, but the story is also really wonderful in that she sees herself as queen. She sees her own power. She’s interested in celebration and festivity. She wants to be worshiped and recognized. There’s something interesting in that to me, her own untainted ego I guess, which is harder to reach, then of course, her downfall. It’s really about her hospitality and her openness that is, in the world of this story, what leads to her annihilation. It’s something that’s interesting to be paired then within the call for Experiments in Joy, something that was collaboratively written by myself and six other extraordinary black women artists, Rosamond S. King, Awilda Rodríguez Lora, Miré Regulus, Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Durielle E. Harris, and Kenyatta A. C. Hinkle. We created that together. Part of what I think we’re trying to do is even with the knowledge of the historical injustices that have happened for hundreds of years, to still take the risk, claim joy, claim the celebration, claim the party, claim the knowledge or that joy is even just the knowledge perhaps, and joy isn’t always fun, anybody who’s raising children can tell you that, joy isn’t always fun but there’s something even with this knowledge, like what happens when we create from a place of freedom? Even if we don’t have that freedom, what happens if we think about it, if we bring that framework into it, what could happen? Trying to mobilize maybe something of what an Anacaona had before colonization, before trying to get to some state that we don’t have yet but in order to get there, which is to say to get back there, we have to try. We have to imagine. We have to experiment.
DN: That seems like a perfect segue from black time to black dreams because black dreams, and as you mentioned this notion of opening space is partially this dreaming big for yourself but it sounds like also in this collective with Experiments in Joy, and there’s many unexpected ways we look at dreams in The Déjà Vu but I’m hoping, before we talk about some of those, we could hear just a really brief section at the beginning of Banana Traces.
[Gabrielle Civil reads from The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Civil read from The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time. One of the big themes in the book is the interplay between dreams and embodied life, and there are things you spend time with on a granular level that I don’t think I’ve really seen very often in writing. I remember when reading Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies and he went into the financials of being an adjunct writing teacher at one point, and in detail, and realizing I couldn’t think of another time someone had broken this taboo this way and just laid it all out there in its specifics, there are many life conundrums that you puzzle through in this book that I think are usually left off the page or at least, the process isn’t elaborated in quite the level of attention as you do here, for you have a dream, as you just read, to throw caution to the wind, go to Paris, follow in the footsteps of Josephine Baker, yet you have real life, sober practicalities that need to be considered too and some of the jobs you get attend to these in a very substantive way, yet there is often the worry that you are in any given place because of the security of it or because of the inertia of the known. One question that haunts you throughout this book is, “Am I in the right place? Have I been here too long? Should I be here at all?” We go through some very practical problem solving with you multiple times, with you in interviews, with you rejecting or accepting jobs, with you weighing the value of one thing versus another and feeling the weight of the uncertainty of that. But I wanted to talk about another extended moment like this in the book which is when you’re invited, as you mentioned earlier, to write an intro to a reissue of an out of print book by an iconic poet for you, Wanda Coleman, which is really about dreams coming true but then maybe an example also of be careful what you wish for. You say, “Have you ever wanted something so badly, then gotten it, then found it hard to hold, hard to feel good deep inside it? That was me writing an introduction to Wanda Coleman’s chapbook.” Talk to us about this section, which like many of the sections is one, and like your performances, we’re like with you thinking in real time but talk to us about this section and puzzling through how you want to deal with “problematic art” by artists we love, and the way you enact it for us and with us.
GC: I have to talk to you about this Wanda Coleman situation because it was so intense for me because I love her so much, but first, I have to go back to something with Banana Traces because I just have to say this book for me, The Déjà Vu, is so emotionally wrenching. I feel like I really did lay bare all kinds of vulnerabilities and wasn’t really sure if people would find it interesting, if people would think it was worthwhile, if I’m going to be punished for telling the truth, if people would find it boring, if this thing about, “Did I take this job or did I not take this job? Did I write this essay about Wanda Coleman or didn’t I write it?” like would this matter to anyone else? It felt like a risk on some level. The stuff around the academic, more than anything, felt like the most risky or vulnerable because there’s so much privilege to even have a tenure track academic job, so why are you complaining about the fact that you had one but you feel like maybe you sold out your dreams. The whole nexus of conversation felt really intense to offer but also I realized that I had never read anybody. Michele Wallace in the Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, she wrote about it. bell hooks talked about being depressed after she got tenure. There were a couple of texts that actually talked about the truth of being a black woman academic but not that many and I thought, “You know what, if this could be helpful to anyone, I’m going to do this.” But just reading that out loud, I’ve never read that out loud before, so thank you for inviting me to do that. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve told the truth about my life,” which is what Muriel Rukeyser says we have to do, but whoa. [laughter] Then when you really get into me and art woolly, and, “Am I taking this job? What am I doing?” I’m allowing someone to really see messiness in a way. I guess I wanted to say that about Banana Traces, then what gets into the whole dream stuff, then the whole center of the book and fertility, etc., etc. because with the Wanda Coleman piece, you really see, I saw as a writer, both my desire to be honest and candid, and reveal something true around my experience with literary community, with publishing, with being invited to do something by people who weren’t completely sure whether or not they really wanted me to do it. That was one dynamic because the work itself, Wanda Coleman, doesn’t give a sh*t about respectability politics. That’s awesome. People say that’s awesome but then maybe if you’re in an institution that receives grant funding or maybe your own history with people, I don’t even fully understand the full dynamic of what happened for them but they offered me an opportunity to write something about somebody who I love very much but then they started to have qualms when they really thought about what it would be like to put this work out, then I started to have qualms like, “Well, if you asked me but you’re not sure, then what is this going to do for me?” Then Wanda is so brave. Am I brave? Am I not brave? What I noticed, it’s like I both really wanted to write something about that quandary that I was in but the writer in me also wanted to maintain certain kinds of control over that story. The text that I wrote, it’s so formalist. It’s really bananas. For me, just as a writer, to create an essay in the shape of a palindrome where the text that I wrote about Wanda is in the center but it’s this context that isn’t just an introduction or isn’t just an afterword but really encircles in such a way where it’s like, “Maybe you don’t want to read this. Maybe you don’t think I should have written it, I don’t know, but I’m going to just walk you through the whole thing. How did it come to me? What was happening for me in my own life? What is my relationship to Wanda? What happens if I talk to Wanda? What is the even issue that some people have? Is it an issue for me? I don’t know. This is what I said. Now, let’s go backwards and work ourselves all the way. What was it like when I actually met Wanda Coleman very briefly? What was that like when we were at the black poetry party and we’re all dancing together?” There was something with me as a writer, I learned something about myself where I both wanted to tell you but I was nervous about what you would think about what I did. My way as a writer of managing those nerves was creating these very intricate formal creations, which is not something I knew that I was going to do but as I was writing it, that became the way for me to be able to tell you. That was something that I learned through writing that piece.
DN: That section is so wild. I have more I want to ask you about but I got a late question also from Sawako Nakayasu, which is also about this section. I’m just going to say a couple things or explore a little bit into this section, then play her questions and mine as this omnibus, and maybe it’ll create a field from which you’ll have more to say about it. But we go through many backs and forths with you, and the editors who want you to write this. We go through many different positions that you inhabit for a time, then consider and reconsider. We go through so many different shifts as your feelings change, weighing the puzzling out of your reservations and incorporating your reservations into the intro, which we get to read, or perhaps pulling out of participating, avoiding the risk of trouble, avoiding the possibility of cancellation but perhaps furthering the silencing of the work by a poet that you love. Even after you make a definitive decision, which feels like the right decision after you’ve weighed it all, you are still haunted by the other side of the equation. You say, “Reading Coleman’s work humbled me and helped me recommit to what seemed like opposite values. I want to proceed with courage and respect for others. I want to allow for messiness and wildness within myself, and other people, both inside and outside my communities. I want to be able to take a chance to try something new, to be bad and good, to say something that could be wrong, and to be capable of taking the blow back,” yet you have really good reasons for pulling out of the project. I feel like the amount of real estate you give to both sides of this and the book is actually—I know you’re laughing—but I feel like it’s this real gift. More generally, I feel like the more time and space you give to it, and in general, the more time and space we give to thorny issues, the more I think we can allow, or this is my belief, the complexity of those issues not to be reduced. I love this extended essay, if that’s what it is. I love that it ends with you still trying to figure it out. I guess that’s not really a question but it’s a preface I guess, an accidental preface to what Sawako is going to ask you.
Sawako Nakayasu: Hi, Gabrielle. It’s Sawako. Congratulations on your fantastic new book. Here is my question for you. It’s one that you yourself claim you’re still figuring out, so I hope you’ll forgive me for probing nonetheless. I was fascinated by your essay called Blue Flag where you describe your process in wrangling with the task of writing an introduction for Wanda Coleman’s first poetry chapbook from 1977 with that problematic word in the title, which is ART IN THE COURT OF THE BLUE FLAG. The introduction you ended up writing does a remarkable job of writing a 2021 introduction for a 1977 book of considering various intentions Coleman might have had in using that specific word and discussing the power, and poignancy of the chapbook overall. But the set of questions that your friend Madhu posed in the midst of this deliberation, which goes, “Do you want to be good? Do you want to be liked? Do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?” that was the bit that lingered the longest for me. In some sense, we all want to be all of those things. You even mention in the chapter the various ways that Coleman herself chose freedom over other considerations, including a huge sum of money according to a wild story you heard. I know that one of the aspects of your work that I find so deeply compelling is this question of freedom, of getting and being free through the practice of making art. It’s not about artistic freedom per se but about the making of art being tied to the acquisition of the freedom. I’m making an assumption here that often, you are choosing freedom above all, but I know it’s not so simple and depends to some degree on circumstance. I wonder if you might talk more about these choices, if they have evolved over time or how they might apply differently to performance as opposed to writing? Is performance a space that allows for more freedom than writing or does writing offer different kinds of freedom? What might it look like for you to choose the others, to be good, to be liked or to be right? By the way, I heard Angela Davis talking about recording the audiobook to her own 1974 autobiography. She said that parts of it made her cringe, particularly when she saw the homophobia in herself from that time, but she felt it wouldn’t be right to edit the book at this point. If anything it served to document, how much progress had been made between then and now?
GC: Oh, wow, wow, wow, so many amazing things that Sawako just brought up. I was taking a few notes, just to try to hit some of them. If I’m understanding her interlaced questions correctly, one of the things I’m hearing her ask is where do I find or experience the most freedom, performance or writing, that’s one thing that I’m hearing. Then also something about what it would mean to choose a different iteration, like if it’s about, “Do you want to be free? Do you want to be good? Do you want to be right or do you want to be free? What happens if you choose the other ones?” I feel like Sawako is a genius. People need to read all of her books because she’s amazing. It’s because she too is also a performance writer and she too is someone who’s interested in relationships between performance, and writing and recognizing the compliments, the complementarity between them, the way that performance and writing can constitute each other. Like in my practice, I feel like they’re deeply constitutive of each other but they also push each other in different ways. I think a number of things. First of all, what I was trying to say earlier with the time question, which I feel like I still want to smooth out and say a little bit better, it’s so generational, my relationship to freedom but also to freedom within these different forms. I will say right now that I feel less free in writing or in language than I did even 10 years ago because the kinds of punishment that can come down if you say the wrong thing, the level of social ostracism, it feels to me as a writer, I am supposed to be very careful about what I say and how I say it in a way that when I was first starting to write, that was not my experience of it at all. For me, I have experienced that as a loss, I will say, but also as a sharpening or there’s another intelligence that has been brought to language and also a way of an awareness of the power of language, and the need to be mindful and stewarding language in a particular way. There’s something even in the black diaspora tradition, like nommo and the power of the word, like don’t just throw some words around that you don’t really mean because they have power and they have consequences. I don’t want to take it to some right-wing place where everybody should just be able to say whatever the hell they want to because I think that’s not my politics. I will say that I have felt more constrained in recent years in part because I think of my choice to pursue or continue to stay in academic jobs where there is such a kind of emphasis in this moment around saying things the right way. Whether or not you actually mean what you’re saying, I mean there can be such an intense attention to semantics over action or relationship or inflection or nuance. I feel like that has not always had the best effect on my creative practice on my writing and that performance then becomes the space of trickster energy and play, and maybe being able to do the wrong thing or say the wrong thing, whatever the wrong thing is. What’s right and wrong ends up being negotiated within the space of the performance by the people in the room that are happening at that moment. That’s where something like a video performance of something can be very tricky or if you are in a room and something is happening, then someone picks up a camera, then records that, then puts it on the internet, there’s something about that to me that can be unfair because it really can be out of context in the sense that you don’t really know necessarily, okay, sometimes, you can know but you don’t always necessarily know what is happening there, you can just know what it looks like or what it sounds like. You don’t know what it feels like. You know what energy is like with people. There is an intangible part of performance that for me, that kind of freedom can live, which is exciting. I think that I feel blessed to have access to that way of being in the world that opens up possibilities that shouldn’t exist. In Experiments in Joy, there’s a little piece around, “Touch/Don’t Touch.” It’s this idea of like when I’m in Mexico, then they say that they want to touch your hair and the other young woman of color is like, “Aren’t you so offended by that?” I’m like, “I know I’m supposed to be but in this particular context at this moment, I’m not,” but then liber that I am, I’m like, “Oh, should I feel ashamed that I’m not a good role model for this other woman of color?” It’s my usual self-reflexive moment but there’s something for me around the freedom that comes and actually being present in a moment, and actually checking into what I’m actually feeling and what I think or what I sense is happening versus how it is I’m supposed to be feeling, and what it is that I’m supposed to be saying or doing. There’s a lot of inside community pressure that I have felt around that, alongside white supremacy. That’s been tough but I still love writing. I love exploring language and trying to offer language that reflects experience but I don’t know in this particular moment if I think of it as being a site of freedom.
DN: You also, in the book, maybe a nod to this sense of it being more constricted and even surveilled perhaps by the community, you do push open spaces where you’re like, around language for instance, that you don’t capitalize the word black and you explore that, so you explore why it’s capitalized or why you wouldn’t capitalize it and part of it is generational. But it does feel like you’re trying to wedge open space for your experience around these things within The Déjà Vu.
GC: Absolutely, but David, I gotta tell you, I feel a little punished for that. Kirkus put out something around The Déjà Vu and the first thing that they wrote, “Gabrielle Civil refuses to capitalize the word black.”
DN: They did?
GC: I just thought, “Whoa, of all the things that you could talk about in this book.” [laughter]
DN: That’s so random.
GC: All the things that I’m talking about and it made it seem like it’s all about me being this wingnut who just only cares about my own individual experience and that the book is all about you being you. That’s a nightmare. That’s not at all, to me, what I think The Déjà Vu is about but you know what, I was like, “Okay.” It just shows you just even that little choice.
DN: That connects to the video clip taken out of context of a performance that might not capture the performance when you say maybe you feel more constricted in writing because of academia. I’m sure it is academia but just social media, like the instant analysis of a new poem, a condemnation of a poem in real time that has been out for four hours. I mean part of that is interesting, like being in the moment of meaning making with others in real time. I think this Kirkus example feels like they’ve taken this really random video excerpt of your book. In only a very minor way is your book about that at all but it is about it in terms of opening, when you say about your life feeling constricted, then you trying to create space that reflects who you are and what you feel, but wow, what a provocatively unnuanced way to introduce your book to the world I guess.
GC: It’s about the ways that I am not in step with time and that for this particular book, which is about repetition or out of step-ness, I thought like of any book, the reality is that when I came of age, this is how we wrote this, then through political struggle, which I’m happy for, people who were not me changed the convention. The convention changed. What happens if I don’t change with that convention, what does that say about me? Does that all of a sudden mean that I’m like a maverick? Does that all of a sudden mean that I’m a wingnut? But it’s also like why aren’t there multiple times that are existing at the same time, which in fact, there are? There’s a rigidity there that bothers me, obviously, that I’m even bringing it up because it was a positive review and I should be thankful, and I am thankful, but it just showed me like, “Whoa, of all of the things that are happening in this book.” But I remember the wonderful Anitra Budd who was my editor, she said, “Gabrielle, if you’re going to do this, you need to write about this because people are not going to understand why are you making this choice,” so I do write really specifically. Also, to say sometimes, I do capitalize black and sometimes, I don’t, but that I want to be in a world where there is space for people to write the way that they need to that reflects their own experience. I want to model that myself but I’m going to see in this book 2-22-22, we’re going to see what the reception is, or even what you said about social media, that’s really what happened with the Wanda Coleman situation because it wasn’t even about her poems, it was about the title of the book. There was no way for you to even refer to the project without bringing in language that some people were going to find offensive. Those poems could have been in that project but it could have been called like chapbook one by Wanda Coleman. No one would even have known. I doubt that there would have been any anxiety about it because most people weren’t even going to read the book. But if all of a sudden, you’re on Instagram and someone said, “Wait, what’s the title of that?” and the next thing you know, that was the anxiety, I believe, that the organization had although they didn’t have it when they asked me to do it.
DN: Can we hear a little bit of that chapter that Sawako and I are so transfixed by?
GC: Oh, sure.
[Gabrielle Civil reads from The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time]
DN: We’ve been listening to Gabrielle Civil read from The Déjà Vu. We could say part of The Déjà Vu is about dreams we have and get but are different than we hope for. Some are dreams we have but we aren’t sure we should pursue or dreams we don’t pursue but still wonder about and still haunt us. But some of the book is about dreams that become impossibilities, and I’m thinking of the pulmonary embolism you have coming back from Paris, the heavy blood loss from fibroids, and ultimately, your hysterectomy, and something that ultimately becomes part of your performance art, a collaborative piece with Moe Lionel that you explore in The Déjà Vu but it also brings us back to both time and black time as this occurs in a chapter that appears right before the chapter Black Time, a chapter called After the End, which reminds me again of Dionne Brand’s notion of The Door of No Return and that book of hers, which I think is partly about what you do after the end, what do we do, how do we live, how do we dream, what do we dream after a door is closed for good, and in this case, the dream of potentially having your own children. Can you talk about After the End, the performance for you and the chapter in light of this?
GC: I think that was really well said, David, too in terms of the different kinds of dreams and specifically what happens after the end of a dream, maybe a dream that you didn’t even know it was a dream until after it was over. You couldn’t have it anymore. After the End was an incredibly therapeutic and amazing experience for me. For people who have read Experiments in Joy, you see Moe Lionel was a lover of mine who turned into a really great friend. In Experiments in Joy, you go through our breakup or whatever, then in After the End, I think the whole dossier performance begins where he sends me a text message and is like, “Do you want to do this piece in Queertopia with me? Really it was so small.” I just said, “Sure, let’s just do it.” We weren’t even sure what it was going to be but both of us were dealing with some significant grief. His partner had died unexpectedly and I was still grappling with the aftermath of that hysterectomy, and for me, especially there was an idea of ambiguous loss because again, what does it mean to lose something that you never had? That for me, as you just gestured towards, is very connected to my experience of black diaspora or even in (Ghost Gestures), how do you return to a place where you’ve never been? That ambiguity, that loss of potentiality, I mean my sister just said something recently to me like, “Wow.” She’s a physician and she does global health. She’s a pediatrician. She has done significant work in Ghana and worked at Doctors Without Borders, etc. but she always says like, “What if there had not been the transatlantic slave trade, what would be the things that we would know? What would be the rituals or the songs or the dance?” There’s a real African-American romanticization that’s happening there but there is that sense like I look at people around me who have small children during the pandemic and that is not something right now that I wish I was dealing with personally. I know it’s hard, yet when that was taken away, there was so much loss. I didn’t really know what to do with it. The opportunity to bring some of those complicated feelings into performance with a person that I profoundly trusted, who I knew loved me, and that I loved and that we could hold each other in our different grief, and go through a process, we went to an extended stay hotel for a weekend and we did a lot of collaborative writing, and moving together, just to start to build the bones of the piece, then we put it on its feet at In the Heart of the Beast in Minneapolis through the Queertopia festival and we made the work. There was such a charge of energy that moved through me. It really, really helped me connect with a full range of feelings around that loss and also around what could come next.
DN: There’s a line from that section that is one of the most memorable lines in the book to me. It was, “What happens when you lose a part of yourself?” A question about having your uterus removed and someone answering, “More of you fills the space,” which is so counterintuitive but actually is factually true, but to think about the physical aspect “more of you fills the space” when something is removed but carrying that to the figurative level, that’s wild to think about. What happens when you lose a part of yourself? More of you fills the space.
GC: Would you mind if I actually read this little piece because it is one of my favorites?
GC: This is even Moe who came and this is some of his language. This is from After the End.
[Gabrielle Civil reads from The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time]
DN: So great.
GC: I love that.
DN: Me too. I’m not going to forget that. I love this chapter, After the End, which feels connected obviously, as we’ve talked about very deeply, to your personal story and to the black diaspora but also around ways our notions of the future are changing because of other things, like climate change and how more and more people are coming to a place of great skepticism about narratives of progress. One of the things in this chapter that feels to me like it unites so many of these things is your participation in the creation of a thousand-year plan for a public dance practice called Don’t You Feel It Too? In this exploration, you explore the actual experience of being in it in the now but you also explore what the questions are it raises. You bring up how a friend of yours from Iceland says, “Our age doesn’t span from our birth to our death but from our grandfather’s birth to our grandson’s death,” but this project is looking forward across 40 or 50 generations and you ask questions like, “How can we capture the time of our lives, our movements through generations into the future at or beyond the edge of our imagining? How dare we dance for a thousand more years?” I guess I wondered if you could speak into these questions a little more now, why it is important to entertain an art practice that’s projected both backwards and forwards beyond the delimited lifespan of you as an individual, and what you feel like a thousand year practice does to you and to your practice?
GC: Those questions are so important in this moment where it feels so apocalyptic. It feels like are we at the end of the world or what? The idea of imagining a thousand years into the future, some people are like, “Can we even imagine a thousand days into the future?” It has felt so dire. I guess the first response I would have, even in terms of what it means to imagine a creative practice that far ahead, it means that that’s a flex of hope. That’s a practice of hope that’s happening. You want it to be a hope, again, just like black joy, grounded in history, grounded in reality. It’s not a delusion. You’re aware of the climate catastrophe. You’re aware that the United States is an incredibly precarious situation, but you don’t allow that to overwhelm your own sense of imagination, possibility in making. That’s one thing. But I will admit that year a thousand, that time span for me was initially daunting. That writing came out of a beautiful collaboration with Marcus Young, the founder of that practice, Don’t You Feel It Too? When he first invited me into the opportunity to think through what would be a plan for Don’t You Feel It Too? in the future, his initial number was a hundred years like, “I want to do a 100 year plan.” “Oh, 100 years, that’s just a couple generations or so. You know what, we could do that. That’s fine,” but then as we started working on it one day, he came out, he said, “No, no, no, 100 is not long enough. In fact, it’s too practical or it’s too easy to imagine a hundred.” In order for us to really work together, we had visioning with people who were members of the group, who have been dancing all the time and asking like, “A thousand years from now, what do you think a city will even be?” It just became an opportunity to imagine something together, imagine the space, imagine where would you ideally want to dance, how would you want people to dance together, what would that look like. It became something joyful, not just reflecting on the terrible city regulations and gentrification, and the fact that we have diminishing public space. It was like, “Okay, that’s all true.” Based on our history and understanding of the past, really allowing ourselves to move forward, what could it look like? Going through a process of conversation and movement, I was able to then start writing that. I was documenting how the practice came to be, what was happening in the moment, then where it would go. It felt important as well that it was an embodied practice. It’s not choreography. There are beautiful folk dances and cultural dances that have come down where part of what’s holding it is the steps, the actual movements. What’s important with the creative practice of Don’t You Feel It Too? is that people do it not exactly what the steps are that they’re doing but that there’s a commitment to going out into a public space and just dancing your ridiculousness, your hope, your vulnerability, and just doing that as a way to bring a certain magic actually into the public space, and to practice a certain bravery and vulnerability in your own life.
DN: When I think of the thousand year project, it also makes me think of the notion of The Seventh Generation, the Iroquois confederacy, and all the various contemporary ways that ecological thinking is trying to de-center human frames of mind, like Richard Powers with The Overstory, which is entertaining different non-human points of view and sensibilities. Those sorts of works have moved into the mainstream in a big way and you even reach toward this with a panel you are on called Troubling The Animal Human Eye but you connect this question not just to the human, non-human interface, you very much bring in race and specifically blackness into the question when noticing how your black students were arriving to class, listless, lethargic, quiet, reserved. You said you were, “Dismayed at how dead their energy often felt, how abducted, disembodied,” and you say, “Many of my black women college students seemed body snatched, sapped, depleted, guarded, evacuated in a freeze, at least, within white institutions and I wondered is this how it happened, the end of humanness the end of the world?” and of course, there’s a long history of black people, as you point out in this piece, being put lower on the rungs of evolution as beasts of burden. It makes me think that perhaps, you’re saying that shifting time frames from the time frames of a human life within a narrative, within projects, not only de-centers the human and de-centers the individual human. It feels like it centers the collective and centers those whose humanity isn’t a given, so maybe this returns us back to bell hooks and moving the margin to the center, but when you say things like, “As a professor, I set my own pedagogical standard of the human,” I’d love to hear more about that.
GC: A lot of this book is dealing with some of these anxieties, my own anxieties at this moment and the specific anxiety that I have is around being complicit, and dehumanizing processes through my participation in higher education. That is a profoundly painful thing for me to say because I love to teach. I’m the child of two teachers. I believe in teaching. I, for a long time, would say that I believe in education but some of the processes of higher education—even that idea of higher education, what is that?—from k through 12 to beyond and as neoliberalism has made it even more intense, I worry that I’m doing the work of the panopticon or something. I really have anxiety about that. I think that particular quote that you’re reading from my piece Pony, Swim, or Freeze is really at that intersection where I’m looking at my students whom I loved and I’m seeing that they’re not doing well, and I’m wondering, “Is there something about the fact that they’re here that’s contributing to them not doing well?” That’s a big question. Then I think, “Then okay, on the one hand, I’m trying to open up a space.” That’s part of my whole project. The aim of my work is to open up space and in this class, opening up a space to bring in different kinds of voices, bring in different kinds of experiences, foster opportunities to claim voice and express through writing, through performance, through other means, experience. I feel like, “Okay, I’m on the side of the angels here. This is liberatory, what we’re doing,” but at the same time, I also recognize I too carry my own pedagogical standard of the human. Even if I think that standard is more expansive, I have to really take a step back and investigate what is that? What am I carrying? What are the expectations? Is it about practicality? Is it about the notion of preparation? Someone told me that Adrienne Maree Brown said something, which I hope, I mean I believe it’s probably her but I don’t know for sure because someone told me this, but this idea of less preparation, more presence. I think about that because on the one hand, I feel like it’s important to be impeccably prepared so that you can actually throw the preparation away. That’s like a performance idea or especially an acting idea, but there’s also like, “What would it mean to really show up and be together? How could learning come from that but then what would it really mean to show up in that? How would we all have to show up in that, that would be really different than how I think school has socialized us to be. Being a good student is not about necessarily being fully present. It’s about attendance or something but attendance and presence aren’t the same thing. Those are some of the questions that I was interested in and looking towards, Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ in archive becomes a big important text from me there in conversation with Ntozake Shange because that idea of Pony, Swim, or Freeze is something that’s coming out of her For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide, which is a really vibrant text. I also got to lift up Brenda Iijima who was the one that assembled that panel. I think that her thinking about beingness and especially being beyond the human along with Janice Lee, along with Shailja Patel, these incredible people who are further along than I am for sure in terms of really leveling the playing field between humans and other animals, and saying that this is all around beingness. That for me is new because I think that I, growing up, really had a perception that black women were seen as animals, so there was a desire to not then embrace animalness but to say like, “No, we really are humans,” and to embrace the idea of humans being above animals. There’s some unlearning. I feel like I have had to engage and I’m still engaging in it.
DN: Before we end, I want to touch on another element of your work. We’ve touched a little bit, especially at the beginning on the theatrical and the ritualistic, but your work also moves into the world of magic or divination too I think. I think of tarot for instance but I also think of Seances, which makes me think of you pointing out that we are quite literally the dreams of our ancestors. In other words, Seances, connecting with our ancestors, feels like another tool to change how we look at time. I think of your lines from an earlier book, “To swallow the fish, you had to have something more than a reason. In a way, you had to reject reason itself. You had to have spirit (and perhaps spirits and the spirits too).” Talk to us about magic, divination, and ritual.
GC: All of those things are very deeply a part of my core values, beliefs, or aspirations. In that section, “To swallow the fish, you had to have spirit and spirits and maybe the spirits too,” all of those things, everything that Cartesian dialectic cut out, like that mind, body, spirit part, the part that’s excessive, the part that’s invisible, the part that’s palpable, the part that is irrational and intuitive, I think there’s something around the role of intuition at the beginning of a part of The Déjà Vu, wild beauty, there’s an invitation for a visualization that came from iele paloumpis in their session, a Movement Research MELT workshop and it was called Honing Bodily Intuition. I always remember the power of that workshop because it was like intuition is the thing inside of you that guides, that connects, that whispers or sometimes shouts. It’s something that often, in “civilized society” gets tamped down or gets shifted. What I think I’m interested in, in both writing and performance, is finding ways to amplify or reconnect with some of that intuition because that’s where magic happens. That’s where possibility happens or even if you don’t want to be too woo-woo, if you want to take it back to Lucretius or someone and you just go on the nature of being, that’s the swerve. That’s the thing that allows for the unexpected thing. That’s free will. That’s the choice. Even when it seems as if it’s all divine or faded actually, that’s saying that something different than what you actually might expect could happen. For me, there’s hope and possibility there. That’s where there’s freedom. I guess I would also say that for me, that’s very black somehow, like what is it that you have a bunch of people in the new world, at least, two were subjugated, yet they managed to create all these, how did that happen? That’s so incongruous, yet it did and it does. For me, there’s something that feels powerful, hopeful, joyful in this realm of the non-rational and the ritualistic.
DN: How would you feel about going out with a reading of Sphericity?
GC: Oh, sure.
[Gabrielle Civil reads from The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time]
DN: Thank you so much for being on the show today, Gabrielle.
GC: Thank you. It’s such a pleasure. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. Thank you for reading my work so closely and with such care.
DN: We’ve been talking today to the performance writer and performer, Gabrielle Civil, about The Déjà Vu: Black Dreams & Black Time from Coffee House Press. 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. More of Gabrielle Civil’s work can be found at gabriellecivilartist.com. For the bonus audio, Gabrielle adds a discussion of, and reading of, one of Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets. This joins bonus audio from Nikky Finney, Jorie Graham, Natalie Diaz, Alice Oswald, Rosmarie Waldrop, Ted Chiang, Ross Gay, N. K. Jemisin, Layli Long Soldier, Arthur Sze, and many others. You can find out more about subscribing to the bonus audio and the other potential benefits of becoming a listener-supporter 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 who help make this show run, Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer 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.