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DOGBYTES Interview: Dawn Lundy Martin

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Dawn Lundy Martin is a poet, essayist, and conceptual-video artist. She is the author of four books of poems: Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House, 2017); Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, 2015), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry; DISCIPLINE (Nightboat Books, 2011), and A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007). Her nonfiction can be found in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and elsewhere. Martin is Professor of English in the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and Co-director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. Hear Dawn Lundy Martin read poetry alongside Christian Campbell, Myronn Hardy and Michelle Whittaker at Bryant Park, August 21, at 7pm.

What are the biggest differences that your most recent collection, Good Stock Strange Blood demonstrates from your earlier work?

Good Stock Strange Blood began as a collaboration of thought with the global, mostly queer, mostly POC artists’ collective, HowDoYouSayYamInAfrican? I was asked by visual artist Sienna Shields to join the collective and write a libretto. In order to get to the topics and concerns of that libretto I hung around with the musicians, theorists, architects, composers, film editors, visual artists, and dancers who were already members of the Yam Collective and listened to their conversations, kind of like a documentarian. Sienna has this fabulous studio in DUMBO and lots of folks camped out there. Members also sent texts and video links to our Google group, and discussions about these filled my box every day. I read everything voraciously with the goal of in some way synthesizing, amplifying and extending what was on folks’ minds, and also writing from a place that felt authentic to me. This semi-collaborative process is one that was fresh for this book only. The libretto I wrote is titled “Good Stock on the Dimension Floor,” and simultaneously takes up blood and the notion that blood can be “raced” and the possibility of fourteen dimensions. In one of these dimensions time travel is possible and in that temporal domain new types of beings are born. This was the first draft of Good Stock Strange Blood. In the book, however, I push these innovations up against the directly personal and I tell those stories. What I hope is produced is a tension between the brute real and what can be manifested in a kind of beyond.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?

It’s impossible to say which was the absolute “best,” but I LOVED A Machine Wrote This Song by Jennifer Hayashida out recently from Gramma. I read it in manuscript form and couldn’t stop thinking about it.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

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As a poet and activist, do you believe that poetry plays an important role in promoting social justice? Why or why not?

I believe that every utterance, every gesture, every action contributes to shaping and re-shaping the world.

The kind of activism I do now is about trying to help organizations and philanthropists figure out how to shift society to reflect a moral compass that orients itself around a greater good. Women, for example, should be safe from gun-wielding stalkers, boyfriends and husbands. Children should be protected from abuse of all kinds. Black people should be free to drive a car without being shot in the face by police or random white people. Latinos and others in exile and at the U.S. border should be treated with dignity and respect. These things are very difficult in a capitalist society because the drive is toward one’s own wealth and wellbeing at the expense of all else. Poetry, like all literature, insidiously helps change culture because it changes individuals. We’ve all felt this after reading a novel, for example—how you get to have this amazingly empathetic experience and that can shift something inside of you. What makes poetry special, however, in part because it makes meaning indirectly, is that it can affect people’s imaginations and feeling places, in sideways unpredictable ways.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

Does philosophy count? When I first read Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, it blew my mind. I was so invigorated by his ideas around how both repressive and ordinary regimes subjugate the people, sometimes without the people even recognizing their subjugation.

When you’re not reading, writing, or working, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

These days, I travel outside of the United States. I want to be reminded as often as possible of the tragic provincialism of United States culture in order to urge me toward some other, bigger imagining of myself and place. I want to be reminded of another possible me, but also other possibilities for black life.

At the Cave Canem retreat in 1999, you along with fellows Duriel E. Harris and Ronaldo V. Wilson founded the Black Took Collective, a group of “Black post-theorists” performing and writing in hybrid experimental forms that embraced “radical poetics and cutting-edge critical theory about race, gender, and sexuality.” Looking back, what were the circumstances that gave way to the emergence of the collective and how do you see Black post-theorists working in the world today?

Ha. We might be the only folks to call ourselves “post-theorists”! The circumstances that gave birth to BTC were general rebellion alongside both play and a desire to investigate language itself. Duriel, Ronaldo and I saw ourselves as renegade black poets who—on some levels—were uninterested in the tropes of blackness. We came together to figure out what to do with that in poetry. Ronaldo and I were at Cave Canem together in 1998 and then Duriel came the following year. I remember noticing Ronaldo in the cafeteria at Mount St. Alphonsus, and him noticing me, and in a kind of romantic love at first sight, we just walked across the room to meet each other. It was as if it had always been, but also I had the feeling of being suddenly struck. Anyway, what has always made the collective exciting for me is how we use “blackness” as subject but from uniquely “queer” perspectives. Queerness is the disruptive force in our work, I think.

 What are three pieces of advice you would give to emerging Black poets?

  1. Read widely. Don’t just read what you already like, what already appeals to you. Read what you think you hate and/or what makes you uncomfortable.
  2. Read deeply. Read everything an author you’re interested in has ever written or said.
  3. Try not to think of poetry as a business. Money perverts art.

What is the strongest influence your child-self contributes to your poetry?

They tell me that because I am an Aries, I am always new. I feel that. I often feel like a baby. Babies are curious to the world, to language, to touch, to everything because they’ve not experienced anything before. When I’m writing, I am very interested in coming to the poem as if I’ve never experienced it before. In this way, I am uninterested in “mastery,” but more in being a novice each time and trying to figure out a fresh approach to what I thought I knew.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

In Procida, one of the Phlegraean islands in southern Italy, I rented a motor scooter to get to the beach from the ferry dock. My friend translated for me as the woman at the rental place said, “If you’ve never ridden one before I wouldn’t recommend it—lots of traffic, narrow streets.” She asked if I was strong, especially if I might ride with another person. I took it very gingerly at first, getting the feel of the bike, especially the weight of it, the balance too. I am used to negotiating NYC traffic on my bicycle so keeping an eye on the other folks on motor scooters, the pedestrians, and the trucks and cars, but navigating the narrow cobblestone streets and steep hills was challenging and exhilarating. I can still feel the moment when I relaxed into it as if in a dream.