Friday, December 01, 2017

A Few New Interviews

This summer, I had the pleasure of chatting in person with Madison McCartha, who is currently a student in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Notre Dame. Madison had previously held conversations other writers, including the amazing Douglas Kearney and Rachel Galvin, to discuss topics under the rubric Polyphone: Interviews with Diasporic Poets. We ranged over all manner of things and people, and I really enjoyed meeting Madison and am looking forward to his work as it appears in the world. Recently the journal Full Stop published the interview, which you can find here. Many thanks to Madison for the excellent questions and thoughts, and to Full Stop for running this discussion.

Here's a snippet:

In an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriett Blog, Ken Chen says he always finds himself “met with troubles [as] to how to fit something infinite like death energy of grief or the death energy of Empires within a box that is finite like a book of poems or a book of fiction.” I’m wondering what has been the difficulty for you in translating the sublime trauma of imperialism, as he calls it, and whether that process (of translation) expanded or complicated your thinking about it?

By all means. It’s extremely difficult, and part of the challenge is presenting it in a way that is comprehensible to people today. Because on one level, yes, we can try to imagine what it would be like to be a black soldier in a battle in the US Civil War. On the other hand, I think it’s quite difficult to ever imagine what that experience was like. I mean consider the multiple layers of precarity that that person was embodying, but also, at the same time, their extraordinary bravery: to put oneself in extraordinary danger, not just for one’s own home but so many others. What does that mean? What does such a radical practice of freedom look like? How do we depict it?

There are multiple ways. Creating scenes, and creating characters, to tap into emotions elusive to us and yet that we know intimately: that is a form of translation. That’s something art can actually do, that other forms of writing can’t, or not exactly. Moreover, there is the question of the larger canvas, of colonialism and empire: how does a fiction writer convey these larger systems and structures without didacting, without essentially writing an essay (though there are hybrid fictional-essay forms that would work well)? What does it mean to put pressure on the usual recourse to the individual, when what we need is this larger backdrop, which tends to go missing in so many of our public discussions?

A few years back, perhaps shortly before Counternarratives was published, I met up with writer, scholar and activist Rochelle Spencer to discuss the topics of Afrofuturism and speculative Black writing and poetics, but I'd forgotten about it until she alerted me that our exchange was set to appear in Chicago Literati, and it did this past spring (April). Here's a link to the piece, which Rochelle titled "'Like Currents in a River': A Conversation with Speculative Writer John Keene." Since this discussion occurred before the many since Counternarratives appeared, it was a bit more free-wheeling in many ways. Many thanks to Rochelle (now Dr. Spencer, I believe!) and Chicago Literati for running it.

Here is one Q&A exchange from that conversation that centers on the Black Arts Movement:

RS: You just alluded to the Black Arts Movement. How did the Black Arts Movement influence the Dark Room?

Keene: The DNA of the Black Arts Movement is in every contemporary Black American poet and in Black poets all over the world, whether they acknowledge this influence or not. The ideas of self discovery, black pride, connection, to do something on your own rather than waiting for someone else to do it—those ideas were central to Dark Room Collective writers in their youth, so I feel we wouldn’t have been possible without them, without the crucial well of Black Arts Movement poets. They are invaluable, and they remain invaluable, though people sometimes talk about the Movement as if it failed. I think counter to that: their influence will continue well into the first century and beyond.


Lastly, I don't think I'd mentioned on this blog that, by some strange turn of events, Counternarratives finally received a review, two years after its hardcover debut, and a glorious one at that, in The New York Times Book Review this past September. I extend my profound thanks to writer and critic Julian Lucas, who authored the long and insightful review essay, one of the finest and most in depth the book has received. Titled "Epic Stories That Expand the Universal Family Plot," it situates the collection in relation to the history of fictional family sagas in order to show how it performs, as it were, a kind of queer affiliation and relationality, how it embodies a different understanding of history and kinship, that might offer a way forward for the future. (I have decided not to expend any additional energy trying to figure out why the Times completely ignored the book when it appeared in 2015.)

Here is how Lucas ends his review, a fitting tribute to the book and to many who are tending similar literary and artistic gardens:
Entranced by the ancestor who crossed on the Mayflower, escaped from the plantation or started anew in a hostile foreign city, we too often limit our retrospective gaze to those predecessors who made provisions for a future we recognize in our own present. We deprive ourselves of people whose visions were never realized, who left no obvious legacy. More people have lived on earth than the tendentious nets of genealogy — inevitably tangled in the chronologies of faith, race, nation — can catch, and we are connected to them by threads more subtle, and resonances more profound, than have yet been explored. Imagining those lives, deeply and without the prejudice that they must be prologue to our world, can be both radical and beautiful.

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