SPEAKER: This is a production of Cornell University.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: First, please allow me to acknowledge and thank our donors, Barbara and David Zalaznick-- who through their generosity have so enriched our lives here at Goldwin Smith Hall-- Mary Anne Marsh, Sarah Rice, and my colleagues in Creative Writing, whose hard work and vision have made this series and the program here at Cornell such a success. Thank you, Dawn, whose poems I have admired since we first met-- so I guess that's 17 years ago now--
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Don't say that out loud.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: --for making time in your schedule to come to Ithaca. And finally, thank you all for saying to yourselves, who cares about that negative 6 degree wind chill? Poetry is warmth enough.
Poetry is worth it. It is.
When I think of Dawn Lundy Martin's work, I think of breath-- of the mouth, of the container, of the body, of the struggle for words to exit and free themselves from the body and the betrayals it engenders. Dawn's readings are wrenching. Hitched each to each, her words lurch and break, yank and pitch across each breath. Listeners find themselves drawn forward in their seats.
Her poems have torque. What thing is made without waste or threat, her work asks. And for access to the body politic, must one relinquish a right to establish boundaries with regards to the body personal? How easily the ways in which we use language to link ourselves to our fellow man break down. How quickly our philosophizing about those linkages disintegrates.
"How then walk," as Sonia Sanchez in Does Your House Have Lions puts it, "toward daresay?" "How map," as Dawn herself writes in a critical essay, "a trajectory toward saying, toward resolution, where the emergent subject will find its language, hybrid or other, and make a way in speech." Here is creative arts practice as critical inquiry, vital lifeblood, to work both within and beyond the university.
Dawn Lundy Martin's poems don't just encourage rereading. They insist upon it. And they reward the reader with intellectual dilemmas, the figuring of which is the work of being a citizen today, that making a way out of no way, my great grandmama warned me, was a central task, how to inhabit the sensation of living.
Dawn's is a strikingly original and forceful voice on the contemporary literary scene, and her excellent work continues to gain national notice. Her debut collection, A Gathering of Matter, a Matter of Gathering, won the 2006 Cave Canem poetry prize. Her next, Discipline, was a finalist for both the Lambda Literary Award and the "Lose Angeles Times" Book Prize.
Life in a Box is a Pretty Life is her latest collection, in which we're seized and thrown, as Fred Moten writes, into the festival of detonation we hope we've been waiting for. In that collection, she writes, "Historically, we extend. We drift into. We are back straight. We bind. We draw. We categorize. We are punitive with regard to fairness only. We are method. We are order. What would you do without us?
Oh, we are so very smitten. I am, as ever, so very smitten and very pleased to welcome Dawn Lundy Martin.
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: I was so captivated by that introduction, I almost forgot that I was reading.
It's really a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me. I've just been so interested in all the conversations I've been having since I've gotten here about this work and about your work, so thank you. And I have to say, I've been thinking about this visit for a long time. I like a program that invites you like 15 months before you're supposed to read, because then it's kind of like this anticipation. You're always in this space of desire, which I like.
I think I'll start by reading a few poems from Discipline. I'm going to set my timer. And the reason that I'm going to do this is partly because I actually think about these two collections as related. Even though they're very different books for me, they kind of inhabit the same space of questioning.
So I mentioned earlier in one of the classes that I visited, I mentioned that, the way that I think about discipline, it asks a certain set of philosophical questions around the possibility for making a choice. Like what does it mean to make a choice? How does that differ from compulsion? How does that differ from discipline? And discipline, for me, in the Foucauldian sense, like that kind of discipline is the exact opposite of making a choice.
So at the same time, there is a narrative thread through the book, which has to do with my father, who at the time was dying from a cancer of the blood. And so there is this kind of like dark sensibility in the work, as well. He and I had a complicated relationship, although it was one of love at the same time.
And when he was dying, I kept a journal, and I'm not a journal-keeper. I didn't keep it toward any end. I just kept it as a way of dealing with the day, really.
So I don't think there's anything else to say about these pieces before I read them, except that they are mostly prose poems, so they are not lineated. They're mostly prose poems, with the exception of one or two pieces, including this first one, which is called "Exreta." The rest are untitled, so when I get to the rest, you will not hear any titles.
"Excreta, or sentence, or ripe-- here, the [AUDIO OUT] grip over and flood liquid, a defecated magic. Everything said was surprising, cosmologica in seconds, in breath attempts under weight metal. Hear the jar. Hear the inside of the jar. Excruciation fixed, or phrase, or doubt. They went in. Three went in, and three emerge, although significantly reduced, dispossession fragrance like mules or dung.
When one is told the structure or the method and the staggering absence of or the omnipresent existence of, it becomes difficult to get on the subway or bathe one's own body. These are acts of resistance, so they appear to be acts. These are acts of forgetting, though they appear to be acts of resistance or love."
So OK, I'm going to take a break to tell you a little personal thing, which is-- that's a poem that's kind of set separate from the rest. So I realized recently that I'm going age blind. You know like when you turn 40 and all of a sudden you can't see shit?
That's what's happening to me. And so I got these glasses at the drugstore. I can't see you, so I'm not going to look up. But I can see down. Let me try that. So here's where the prose poems begin.
"Not so much a name, but the result of a name as a metaphor for the eyes inward turning. It might say what the thing is, or it might not know. So then, heritage is fantasy, that the seer looks toward a past, markers of it in food and location and wrecked bodies, flesh strung, et cetera. A want toward warmth, highways of sun through windows, where it might not reach. So when I imagine the father as a boy, he said in fields, a child. In here, the hand holds an infant, his, and jumps from a very tall building, or threatens to jump in the name of something believed.
Bodies in uncommon strobes, what mystery and jaunty bodies, or are they murderous bodies? Who can tell? I can't tell. Streaming video, private locations, large, hard hands inserted in zippers, there's unrecognizable scent. There were, are, a we there, a timeless we, a we of all on a wall, we that drift in and out of doors and into musty bathrooms that feel wet all the time.
How many ordinances exist, local communities flailing, screaming in to night, as fish would into night? What kind of brilliant stare in they're scrubbed features, their lips smacking on cream cheeses. I want to laugh, but repulsion invades the body and makes it want to pee. Every silent wailing could find its place in these acts, where the other meets the self. Meat flesh, just order the fucking latte.
I am a living example, bootstrapped fool hanger-on-er. Is there a thing to recover? National dialogues on the blotting screen, everywhere is down from here they say, unless, unless. A voice is bare, inaudible. It mouths, my father is half his normal weight and in a bed in Hartford Hospital. Hollows or glass, fragments of being, being or nothing, near not being. Precisely what the body resists, the body is.
They turn the television on for comfort. They tuck the sheets and pull them into neat corners, its edges of order. We had a houseful of books. Mothers warn against usual dangers.
Men in the sun, rough hands of the friends shield against strangers, it becomes difficult to imagine a harmful stranger. You are supposed to write an essay titled Dirty Love, but you can't. Because you are exhausted by him, the friend, his attic apartment, his slack bathrobe, his rum and Cokes and Kent Cigarettes. Your skin was lighter when you were 11, and you were more desirable. Fluorescent supermarket lights make the whole thing worse, reflection's comeuppance.
Before the effort in desire, one hurries into the porn store and then hurries out again. She's the only one hurrying. Everyone else is motionless. Recovery-ing, one remembers being someone's girl, the possession of someone else, that kind of safety. For what? Then flap of pages turning, here is the size of a hole. Here is the size of what happened before and of no one watching.
Every day it happens, or it doesn't happen. The eye struggles to become a part of the reeking body. The body drifts off to fuck like a ghost. In countries with barriers, an attack unwarranted, wrists held tight behind the back, great views from the wooden window toward whatever.
Iowa, strict Jesus, a cock stinking belligerently-- in December, lights blanket snowing streets. A dark girl under cover of white, there is no world outside of this. Walls of white in white bliss, flakes sting skin, undeniable and wanted. We could find incidents toward exigencies, moments that should urge, compel, which accumulated evidences would suffice. There, bodies stuffed in trees, we know that. We see them when we do not anticipate them, hungry and echoing into chilled air.
We pass cities in the middles of nowheres. We know them by their smokestacks, wires and infernos burning atop holes in the sky. White families post private and no trespassing signs in their front yards. I want to yell out the window. I am both very alive and very dead. I am a suspect. Why has no one named me as a suspect?
There is a disappearance so incrementally slow. No one notices. A left hand touching the right hand, a touching and being touched, a consideration of which. So tell me, it sings, how can I live forever? When a man is trapped, his words are trapped in the defect of the body. When hundreds of untold stories make the body convex, ape out, indulge in excess so that the mouth is never empty. When the grass of youth is so far away, a tale of a tale of a tale, when thinning out drags the skin, when in life, a life so small it is disremembered, scant and numbered, framed by ritual.
The steps to the cellar refrigerator, the heaves of breath, and the particular and unknown ordinary love for a daughter more than a reach away, when derelict is, as a wasting away, when sleeves of abandon mask the face, when one speaks into drapes and wind, whispers against drift, unheard when almost everything, every small and huge thing, is in one room, one insubstantial place, covered by a roof that leaks through a gun hole, when thunderous rain. When it is this life, and there is the infrequent kiss of the absent daughter. And there is a singular desire of not forever, maybe, but just one more, minute after minute, when there simply is."
So I will stop there with Discipline. You know I should say, too-- I want to say, although I never say this, but I'll say it here, that there is another haunting narrative that is a kind of unspeakable narrative in this text, that is separate from the father narrative and separate-- connected really to the kind of confusion between the difficulty in making a choice or a compulsion and discipline. And I think that that kind of fuels that question, the unspoken narrative, the thing that wants to be said but cannot be said that I will not say. So that's also there.
Life in a box is a pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty life. [LAUGHS] It actually isn't. I mean, maybe it is-- I don't know-- if you like enclosures. The consideration extends itself, like what happens here is, for me, less optimistic. Although, what is optimism, you know?
Is this the right time? Is it really 4:54. Oh, it is. OK.
So it's less optimistic, although there are moments of bright optimism, kind of like a bird singing. Birds are always in poems, right? Would you even have poetry if it weren't for birds?
A high, clean note sometimes in these poems, just like something you need in order to be able to live, really. How does one live? How do we all just stay alive, given everything? Anyway, so I'd like to start-- both of these books, one of the commonalities is that I feel like they should be read from beginning to end. And people will enter when they enter, but I like reading them starting at the beginning when I read. So I will read this collection, too, from the beginning.
And I'll say that there are-- so again, most of the pieces are untitled. In this case, there are like section titles. They're not really even titles. I'm saying that, but they're more like kind of linguistic markers of a shift. Except for the very first poem, which I talked about with the class earlier, which does actually have a title. And it comes from my experience with some other poets I was in residence with. Yona Harvey is one of the poets, two other poets whose names I embarrassingly can't remember.
It was two years ago. And we got to spend four or five days just alone in the museum, the Montclair Museum of Art, with the collection. And they asked us, for their centennial celebration, to write something in relation to our experience with the art. And so I wrote this piece, which is mostly prose, but not only. And it's called "Modern Frame or a Philosophical Treatise on What Remains Between History and the Living Breathing Black Human Female," after Carrie Mae Weems' "Framed by Modernism, 1996."
"To feel a presence, they say, can be like the haunting. You are yourself, and no other physical being is there, yet a feeling or sensation emerges as if from nowhere, like the negress. the black female body, not in repose, instead walking or clickety clack. It knocks at the door, which is the surface of existence. Or in life, it walks down the street and is asked to assume a position of slackness in a response to the perception of being in perpetual heat.
What would we do without her? How would we know ourselves? Indeed, we need something against which the pristine can manifest itself, can create its artifice of pristineness. To be unadorned or unclothed, light bursts, glare from fluorescent mouths breathe their profit into me. No one hears the glass sound of breath. Just me. Was quote, 'low' they say, quote, 'fastened in place by violence' was, quote, 'ritualized' was, quote, 'debased' and, quote, 'grotesque' was, quote, 'black flesh' or, quote, 'suave' and, quote, 'blackness' and, quote, 'finality' and, quote, 'nature' was, quote, 'centralized'
In standing repose, the object lures us into a belief that she is indeed human. We know this from her sun-draped eyes, her capacity for deceit. We see no absolute proof, however, against the artist's outstretched offering, the mammy trophy and the, quote, "fantastic Al Jolson performing his signature tune."
Enter machines and abstractions, zip, automations too lengthen legs, round edges, plump buttocks. Relational fish, irrational fissure, all this shimmery ache in one place, suddenly against your back. My body aflame with it, can't you see? Make an outline around my form. Use your chisel. I will indulge your every little fit, your perfect muse, your blank, blank, your everything, also your nothing.
Insofar as the phrase, quote, 'black woman' replace outside of domestic, quote, 'power' I lay down in the ditch myself, stretch my body alongside the dead, myself. Outside the frame, oblique lover-- de Kooning maybe, as a young beauty-- his hand reaches in to retrieve me and pets me, my nakedness a fine scratch. Filament traces in the historical body. Representation falls away.
Chokehold, quote, 'blackness' wild, quote, 'brown' your, quote, 'black father' whose, quote, 'blackness' precedes him, stumble and laborious, quote, 'black gait' toward, quote, 'absence' cross your, quote, 'black' hands, empty your, quote, 'black' pockets. Hold your, quote, 'poor' quote, 'black' baby against a, quote, 'brick' quote, 'wall' as instructed. And the quote, 'niggers' get quote, 'sold' up the, quote, 'river' against a, quote, 'lithe' quote, 'white' fluff.
You wail a mimic mouth into beaded rhythms of us-ness. Fragrance of a cosmos where roads are not partitioned. No roads, no marks to markup the whole big wide world. The holes of the universes untethered from time, in absence of wholeness, catch glimpses of the sides of selves.
If we could be without him, we would. Is there any country without him? We are told of the reservoirs, that they are without sea or wind, that we attach laconic swerve and hold what has happened there, trauma sack. What strikes me, she says, is how easy it is to commit atrocities. Remove from experience rain, un-nurture the physical form.
A girl is just a girl, one ass cheek on a full chair, balancing. Remove skin, water, sunlight, love. Position the neck so that the landscape dissolves into black wall. Excise language puffs from pharynx, unfurl the scroll. Hear ye, hear ye. We are blank with glee.
When dissonance occurs, go to the back of the line. When it ratchets itself up, jump into the river. Mammoth voice is our voice, the other side of illness. We are always here, the mother with a jar of hair grease, her provocations to keep you well. In the woods, you'll hear a fire, but there is no fire. Hold on to the photo of the girl in a pale green dress. Require less sustenance. Crush your strings into a single acre."
There is one thing that I neglected to say, but should, in that. So in this book, there's a "we." There's more than one "we," but there's this particular "we" that is kind of a voice of authority or a kind of official voice, as if all of the voices of authority and repression have come together in one voice, I guess.
So that happens. I don't know if it's going to happen in this section that I'll read you, because I haven't actually decided. So I'm going to read a little bit more and see what happens. Although that was it just now.
"Oh, Susanna, how the sun sets on this lovely land. Dee, da-dee, da-da, da-dee-dee, place were cavernous, ta-dee-dee-dee-dee-da. In the square, we drink iced coffees. Bam, bam, pow, pow, one more cerveza, otro, everything. Ship workers in from wherever, let them maintain our harmony, our fortitude. Fold happy hands in grace. It feels so good to be here.
A thriving sea, even though it's sick, and everyone's kind of sick, too, huffing landscapes of junked cars and computer keyboards. I'm wary. My mother is not the person I used to know. And one night I cry into stitched silence. And again later, when it's hot under blankets, turn to face water, or I am water, dream of drowning returned.
Irina says, poems always have birds in them, or dreams always have drowns in them. The dog is so strong in this one, I cannot protect him. Say again, we could not know the limp of decades and the body waves a giant flag and wind, your face becoming my face.
Goodbye again. Its colonial logic, really. There are things here we desire. Resources drip into lapis, and full like light is full, all my media meaningless in this light, a strange farce, the weapons you know, unexpected. Seer says, of but not from. In here, it always smells of burning wood and rain. My status is ruptured, sensation of a black boy walking.
When you wake, your ass is bare. Your door is open. When you shit yourself parades, how to register the junket in the current condition. Think of the tiny placid form. Hey, girl, hey, hey, come to me, wholeness and fresh, a narrow vile of wilderness, then factor of dissembling. What it does in split, I speak to you from a crack in the surface from the elongated scar, a silver cylinder.
Fortress upon me, the eye in dramatic gesticulating, its facade trembling. When the soldiers come, and they will come, it will be important to note known objects of particular use. Fat back, your yard loins, rivers, my father's black uniform. When later the fold is undone, no memory. Form arrives at the end of language. The body in the basement is bobbled with welts. It cries and cries in a wet corner. We must leave this in the well.
Representation just fell away, to liberate the past from the past. Whispers, my father's cold lantern, Browning, Ray, Dickey's, memory, the absence of thought.
Pull all hair from comb, fold into square of white paper. Set fire over toilet. When we were kids every day, nothing, knees tugged together, in no light. Pale purple dress pulled down to him, knees to cover, someone distance, mouth pinch hum silent hum, not a song, but a series of sounds or grunts, black flies in the backs of throats.
In this photo, the yard is safe. The other one is demonstrative in its affections. You inhale wet air, feel lonely as blue shoes are lonely, grime there, to reach into the open mouth and pull out a foreign substance, a bone or a lock. I know nothing about the yard, I say when questioned, bare souls undoing themselves.
Some try to tell us that reading is the same as living, but we know this is not the case. The letter is not a breath. Even the body's cells are contrivance or accidents, floating screens, black bodies, unfathomable violent acts. Only Will Smith has been spared. There is writing, and then there is this cut, this whelm.
When I, a lad, swelling and succumbed, no one spoke to me, dripping. They tell me I should lurk, shoulders cast forward, bullish. Shutters pelt into brace maw. She sent me a mauve dream, and I thought the words cracked open. All the wolves, what we might produce in shadows for fawns.
Hello, free house, hello. No, goodbye. So long, buzzards, wide-eyed ghosts."
So this penultimate section, I'll just read a few pieces. The linguistic marker before the section is this--
"Without knowing the slightest thing about war, I find myself an instrument of labor, investigation, and experiment. What are the dimensions of the field. They've put me here in the tallest grasses and strangest fruit and have demanded at gun point that I bend into it over and over. But I am so tired, and my limbs are sore, and they feel disconnected, or I disintegrate. A shadow figure towers over me as I exhaust, body, buckle, ballast removed.
When the dirt is black enough, when my hand is strong enough, I dig into it, open space and fall through other side to a black sound, a black stone, familiar thieves, Urdu or the last language we spoke before mother's milk. They circle around me clasping wrists, and I yell into a hole in the Earth. And Earth, my palm proffers [INAUDIBLE], undoing silt. Break away.
This is the body bending over my body. They have encircled me with their manacled tongues, but I do not understand them. My form is small and lean, but they think I am large and bull-eyed. What is yielded here is nothing-- no sign of blood, no sign of dripping, no ache, only my small form without space around it. What is the body but a leaking form? No room for leaking, a form so tight around my form it cannot seep or gesture, complete enclosure.
To hold a drop of water is extreme labor, tongue against ground. The difference between experience and dreams falls away. There are locks in every corner like little eyes. Even time no longer passes, each fractured second redundant, artifice of time, of location, my father's red eyes. If there is a wandering, I do not know it. The eye lock has its determinant grip. When I open my mouth, someone else speaks words that happen in my dreams as islands.
Jaw agape, the work of wheezing each day to the river, but dry. Weight, a crackling. In the hand, a mass of grandfather's thin hair, wind mass. A voice speaks soft into ear, says irretrievable, says, the dog too cries, Mama. Hair, a spare mass of grief, how to make the self distinct amongst white whales.
A dead fawn under the machinery, I am the machinery, am also the end of the sentence. In heat, they want me, also to lap at their crotches saying, thank you, because their syntax wants definition of this body. All the colors, it is you who are they. From inner vowels, in Orphic effort, a monument force against your greed feast, your half-lidded gulps. You ruminate. You vomit into the mouths of fawns. You say, I love you. I love you.
My form removed from its home, its warmth, its sustenance. They tell me I have enough, that I'm not dying. But I can see my own gray legs ashen. To witness the floor, and then it's me on the floor. Carry the draped body feet first, already a hole forked. My spirit confused from return.
The slaves blink their slow eyes. They pull their tie knots close to collars. Dead wings, faces bald, and speak with ease. Boom, the voices go. My head an empty vase.
They will tell you that I was sick, that I was a drug addict. They will tell you I died a natural death. Sometimes young people just die, they will say. We don't know why. They will say it was lazy that I could not work because of disease or just general feebleness.
When a crime is committed by a white man, they will show you a picture of me instead and call me a trickster. In the photo, my jaw is slack, my hair wild. They will say that I am unkillable, that my body resists battery by tree trunks, bullets, and small years in small cell.
When I enter a store to buy something, I will be immediately arrested. And then they will apologize. I'm just a child, I will say. Impossible to be so greasy and a child, they will say. There are no children anymore. Why are you so sad, they will ask me. Why is your heart so weak? We've given you everything, they say. Why won't you flourish?
The slaves are dressed as men. They go to work in gray suits. Their bodies are grammar incarnate, so they bracket for us when inside gated halls. They contain themselves in bright photographs that refuse speech. They partition the doors to prevent interlopers. Sometimes they use the word savage when the containers leak. Thank you.
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: So Dawn has agreed to take some questions.
AUDIENCE: Not just two hours ago when you were in our classroom, you said something that really spoke to me and I think a lot of the kids in our class. You said, how do we know ourselves but through language? And what I've noticed a lot about how you write is-- especially, I believe it's page 80-- you not only create--
I mean, in your book. I don't know the title of it, because there aren't titles. But you invent a few words in that particular poem, and you show us that you can invent language, too, which gives hope for almost a self-invention. And I think that's reinforced by just another line from one of your poems I happen to have in [INAUDIBLE].
"When the seer said, you might be a completely new person in the year." And I think this sense of invention does give rise to a hope in the right now, too. Because you have hope in forthcoming times. And so I was wondering if you would read that poem, because I would love to hear your language and the way that you use the spaces.
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Sure. On page 80?
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Yeah. I want to say something in kind of preface to that, too, which is, one of my favorite poet theorists, her name is Erica Hutton. She was certainly, when I was younger, kind of like anchor for my thinking and my poetics. And one of the things that she said is that like, ordinary language creates ordinary thought, you know? That's a summary, but you know, so to get outside of that.
Oh, I stopped before page 80. I see what you're saying. Yeah, yeah, so I'll read this. I stopped because like, one of my other favorite people, [INAUDIBLE], says there's some moments that are untranslatable orally. I will try.
"A repository, chemical doorways, mini armies, fragrance, glut, plume, vine torn. Where are my hands and my feet? Where are the lights? In here, in here, I'm right before your eyes, fu-- f-- fa-- fa-- blue, red, twinkle."
That's my best rendition.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: My question is, who's your most important reader, for either of your books, or just generally?
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: That's a really hard question. Who's my most important reader? I don't know, you know? You mean in process, or after the fact of the publication?
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Wherever, yeah. I don't know, you know? I'm a fan of Nathaniel Mackey's idea, not necessarily that he invented this idea, but that the work creates a kind of audience. I never have an imagined audience, necessarily.
Although with this book, with Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, I've said, reading this-- you know, I've only read it a few times so far-- but that I wrote this book for black people. Because all my audiences are always like really white, and I'm like, I'm going to write a book for black people. I'm going to invent a black audience for my work. Whatever, I'm trying.
That's kind of a jokey answer. But I do think that there's a way in which a work kind of creates an audience. I never think about audience when I'm writing, I think I said this earlier. I think about a kind of investment in the moment of writing. And the act of creating something is the most important thing for me. So I think the moment that I start to think about audience is the moment that I start to get outside the poem, in a way.
Like I'm interested in the process of making and kind of entering that space where like a part of your brain, a little piece of it lifts up, as opposed to thinking about like who's out there, who are the receivers of the thing. But I do hope that, when the work kind of like intersects with readers, that that's the way that the audience is created. That's a very evasive answer, but that's what I got.
AUDIENCE: So you talked a bit about how the we was an authoritative voice, and I was wondering if you could talk about the "they."
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: The "they."
AUDIENCE: Yeah, that they will tell you, that kind of a [INAUDIBLE].
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Yeah. They're kind of like the same, right, but from a different perspective. Except, like I think that "we" as an authoritative voice, it's as if you could take discourse, kind of like all the interweavings of discourse and make it into an entity, like a monster, right? And so that's like the "we" that speaks, when it's like, ah, you know, it's like I'll say all these things.
But the "they," I think, the "they" can actually be actual. This is what they say. It could be the media. Because like, this is what they say. They tell us these things. They collude to tell us these things. It may be like a bracketing. It's just from a different perspective. I think less science fictiony, less dystopic-- maybe not, I don't know, but less embodied in this kind of imagined mass that's created in this moment of the "we."
I really wanted to have this really auth-- like as if authority could be a being. I guess there's a different gesture behind them. So that's the gesture behind that, and then. Although they might be like the same beings or set of beings or collusion or collision of beings, like the "they" from this other perspective is like-- I think the "they," in my imagination or the way that I think about it, as less that kind of like figure writ large or whatever, but a kind of pointing to what they do when they do it.
And you could kind of like name it, but you can't really name I think the "we" as clearly. In different situations, you can say, yeah, that's right, that's what they do. They're like, oh, yeah, who committed the crime. They'll say these people committed the crime, when they don't actually know. You could name that "they." So I think there's a subtle difference, and it's a difference not only of perspective, but of kind of my intention around it that may not actually be legible on the page.
AUDIENCE: Dawn, always great to hear you read. I actually have a related question about pronouns, and this is from "Discipline." I was really taken, in that collection, the way you troubled the lyric "I." And a refrain I found is it's often preceded by the article "the"-- the I, the I-- in a way that would make me pause and question what this thing I stands for. So I wonder if you could say maybe something about that.
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Yeah, absolutely. I talked about this a little earlier in the class that I visited. But I'll say that like-- so there a lot of different things at work there. And one of the things that's at work is that some of my other work kind of comes out of-- my earlier work is really about a relationship to trauma. And so like having this kind of experience of trauma makes me kind of like really intimately connected to this possibility of the multiple selves.
And it makes me really distrust a singular, stable subjectivity. But of course, you know that is related to like the lyric "I." And the example that I gave earlier has to do with about physical torture as a kind of like perfect example of like when the "I" become separate from the other "I", the body.
And so if you read torture narratives, there's often this kind of way in which there's a part of the self that will separate from this self to look down on the body or at the body, because that's like a means of surviving. And I want to bring that into often as kind of thinking about what it means to be like a racialized subject.
Like how do you survive? Like what are the ways in which we are not singular, but multiple as a means of survival. And so I think that comes into this work in a very direct way. Like I'm really suspect of this Western notion of the singular self, because experience dictates otherwise for many of us for different reasons.
AUDIENCE: Could you talk a bit about your writing process and maybe some writing practices that you would recommend most highly to inspiring poets?
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Yeah, I recommend complete isolation.
Like just go somewhere, turn off the television, turn off the internet, you know, and get some friends who want to do the same thing. I don't know. My writing process is, I mostly write in the summer, because I'm teaching and doing other things during the school year. And so I spend like four months in the summer doing actually just that, to kind of have like a ritual of writing, to just make it like a forced habit.
Because for me, I don't always sit down when writing poems, for example, and say, I'm going to write a poem about x. It's the practice that produces the content sometimes. Sometimes it's the form that produces the content, right? So to do it like regularly in a really sustained way, to set times when I'm like, OK, for these four hours, with my four friends, who are doing the same thing. Because I actually like this complete isolation with others, is what I like, as opposed to like just being alone and kind of like a lonely writer in a cabin. I like a lonely writer in a cabin with other lonely writers in the cabin.
But I do think that there's something that happens in a kind of sustained practice that does create that kind of thing I was talking about earlier, which is like, when you open up that part of your brain. And I think this is true for any artistic practice. I can never remember names, but there's that choreographer who has that wonderful book about ritual and about practice and about entering the room.
It's the same thing, entering like you have to create this piece. You enter just a white room. Like how do you get at, what are you going to do in that white room? Like how do you know? And I think it's like this practice.
And I also want to say that my practice varies depending on what I need or what I want. And I like to listen to strange things. I like to have sound effect, a rhythm. And I think that the way that you do that is to have sound playing, some kind of sustained kind of sound for a long period of time. Who would I reference? I would put like, oddly, somebody like Amiri Baraka and Robert Creeley in the same kind of realm of, here is, I'm not saying I'm writing bebop, but there it is. But there it is, because that's what I'm listening to, that's what I'm kind of interested in kind of a sonic level. I think all kinds of sounds can affect an artwork.
AUDIENCE: One of the really unique and amazing things about Life in a Box is a Pretty Life, like you said earlier, it's best read from start to finish. And there's a certain order to the book where it kind of circles on itself. And I was wondering about the way the poems are ordered in the book, if that's something that you figured out after you wrote individual pieces, or did you have that in mind as you were writing it, and what your thought process about that was.
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Yeah, it was really something that came later. In fact, the construction of the book at the last-- there was a, like, I'd written this work. And I was just like, OK, now where's the book? I had no idea where the book was. So actually, it came later.
In some ways, I think I have to think about the book as a kind of poem. It's a kind of poem. I think about the stanza as a kind of poem, if I'm writing like more stanzaic, lineated poems, a kind of mini poem inside this larger thing. And so I had to think about the relation once all of this stuff was written. I like that you mention the repetition, because like it's always-- I think in work that's not like especially-- well, I can't say that about all work. But I think about my work in this way, because it's not like immediately accessible. It's kind of like it has a kind of resonant or like a resonating accessibility that repetition really becomes important to that kind of like understanding, as you work through the book, as you read through it to kind of like have these markers, sometimes even the same language. There's actually a moment here that I have. There's a line from my very first book, which I thought was cute. But nobody reads across to the first book. It's actually, what is simple is nothing. That's the line that's from the first book.
But yeah, I think that they become kind of like a different kind of anchor. There are other grounds on which to stand, I think, in the book, but those are different kinds of anchors, just the repetition in both like idea and sometimes language or sometimes variations in language.
AUDIENCE: I was interested in what you were [INAUDIBLE] optimism and the sort of strategies we have in our writing around aspiration and living and that kind of stuff. And so I was wondering if there's any situations in which there could be a reason to suspend that optimism, insofar as a work that's more interested in trauma or the tragical melancholy or something like that. This is a very tendentious question for my own work. But what is that [INAUDIBLE] to optimism?
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: What do you mean by optimism? When you say optimism, what are you referring to?
AUDIENCE: Like resolution maybe, or something like that, like having a desire to resolve through something that's diametrically opposed to the tragic, whether it's just conceptual or otherwise.
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: I think that one has to, in a sense, become optimistic in the space of irresolution or unresolution. I think that resolution, in a sense, is either accident or the Hollywood movie or something. Like where does resolution occur? I don't know. I would love to know more about your project, and I think if I did I could answer this question to your liking more, so I'll just talk, you know?
But I think that what's optimistic in this book, like I was saying before, that there really are-- there's like these moments of, you can stand outside yourself. There's no way out, I think. Like we live in a dystopic time. We live in the prediction that is kind of like always kind of dire. What are the other-- how do you do that? Like how do you survive that, right? Where do you go?
I think the creative in itself is one possibility to make something that speaks in concert with all of these other ways of speaking. I mentioned earlier, I was talking about, for me, the way that I think about discourse, this kind of like intertwining of myriad, innumerable utterances that inhabit the world and make the world. So on one hand, there's like Fox News and their constant blah, blah, blah. What's on the other side of that?
How else can we-- that is optimistic for me, in the sense that like, these kinds of utterances or different utterances, utterances that are not necessarily already known utterances or, say, kind of like fictional or repressive utterances, contribute to the making of the world. So that's, I think, one possibility or two possibilities for a way of kind of thinking about what's optimistic.
Yeah, I think that one has to recognize that-- in some ways, it may not just be our times. Like all times, like medieval times were just like as brutal. But was it brutal in like medieval Europe? That was brutal. We always live in brutal times, in a sense, I guess. But so what do you do inside that? And I think that those are two ways of thinking about optimism.
I also think just about-- within the realm of trauma, there's a way in which psychotheory, like psychoanalysis in particular, is all about remembering. You have to remember the trauma. You have to work through it. You have to, A, also like disparage your mother. One could also forget as a possibility. Is not forgetting a possibility for recovery? Aren't there other ways of existing in like, at least, at the very least, imagined spaces of freedom?
LYRAE VAN CLIEF-STEFANON: Let's thank Dawn again.
DAWN LUNDY MARTIN: Thank you.
SPEAKER: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at Cornell.edu.
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Dawn Lundy Martin reads from two of her poetry collections, Discipline (2011) and Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life (2014). Recorded Feb. 19 as part of the Spring 2015 Barbara & David Zalaznick Reading Series.