This is a transcription of ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury: The Poetics of Abolition’, a panel discussion with Saidiya Hartman, Canisia Lubrin, Nat Raha and Christina Sharpe, with Nydia A. Swaby as chair. The event, held on 10 August 2020, was the second in Revolution Is Not a One Time Event, a programme organised by Che Gossett, Lola Olufemi and Sarah Shin in collaboration with Arika and hosted by Silver Press.
Listen to the audio at NTS.
Hello, everyone. We want to welcome you to the second panel in the Revolution Is Not A One Time Event series, which is grounded in the work of Audre Lorde, and organised by myself Lola Olufemi, Che Gossett and Sarah Shin in collaboration with Arika. I’m so incredibly excited for this panel and for the opportunity to think through abolition creatively, so now it’s just left to hand over to the incredible Nydia Swaby and the rest of our panellists.
Thank you so much, Lola, and thank you to all for joining tonight’s event – ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury: The Poetics of Abolition’ – a panel discussion featuring Canisia Lubrin, Christina Sharpe, Nat Raha and Saidiya Hartman. My name is Nydia Swaby and I’m absolutely honoured to be here tonight and chair this wonderful conversation. Before I introduce the panellists and tell you a little bit more about the structure of this event, I just want to take the opportunity to thank Lola Olufemi, Che Gossett and Sarah Shin for curating tonight’s event in this amazing series.
For now, it’s just left for me to introduce our panellists. I’m going to start with Canisia Lubrin. Canisia is a writer, editor, and teacher. Her work is published widely and has been frequently anthologised, including translations into Italian and Spanish. Canisia’s debut poetry collection Voodoo Hypothesis (2017), was named a CBC Best Poetry Book, longlisted for the Gerald Lambert Award, the Pat Lowther Award, and was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award.
Next we have Nat Raha, who is a poet, trans/queer activist and scholar, living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her third collection of poetry is: of sirens, body & faultlines (Boiler House Press, 2018). Her creative and critical writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the South Atlantic Quarterly, LIES: A Journal of Materialist Feminism, and the Verso blog.
We also have Christina Sharpe, Professor of Humanities at York University. She is the author of Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects (2010) and In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016). She is currently working on two monographs: Ordinary Notes and Black. Still. Life. She is also working on the critical introduction to New and Collected Poems of Dionne Brand.
Lastly we have Saidiya Hartman, who is a Columbia University professor of English and Comparative Literature. She is the author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (Serpent’s Tail, 2020), Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997) and Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).
Thank you, Nydia, Sarah, Che, Lola and everybody involved. I will begin with reading excerpts from Act Seven of The Dyzgraphxst (2020):
I am held within these claims: that I have kissed
unlucky things, buried pets, eaten sugar-free ice
cream, endured a first blood test, made friends
without benefits, and lost them
found new ways of saying what is not ever
enough to say ways to fish, to drink, to park, to
burn, to burn into something new, with this life
I have been careful
too much, disciplined to the extent of
(dis)remembrance infrequent colours pissed into
the wind, I don’t remember when I decided to fold
into my self, or when walking
foot before foot to the feeding ground of
murderous birds became the way to admit
that words can be a giving up outcome of
years rearranging a subterranean scar
wet organ, the depth of the idea, the
benign word for denial would wipe out
history, carefully let us talk again, and if
you will not hear me, consider
the coral crab, my wooden trap, the sung-
of citizen hung out to dry, consider I,
consider me, I keep one vat of tar alive for
any possible crack needing
fixed by hand, I have come before, wholly
atypical with the volume turned up, way
up on the radio, let me pause here, I am
not here if not diagonal
let me start where it begins, with Jejune,
with I, who went to see my father,
blinded in his inborn
peri-cranial debris, redblack, purpleblack, newblack
I am not always distinct upon return, this
is the eye that sees where I cannot enter,
the eye which is wholly blind, I lie down
on his fibrous carpet
and simply fall back into Myself, once
Jejune, as the bones in my chest
heave their lodging through skin,
here the eye’s impossibilities
make corridors of things not too long
arriving the coulomb of an organ most
aware of lethal temperatures, to
prompt us both into the words
that have been made into supper for us, turning out
a needed hour or more, turning out the
yellow of even-tides, into the vast haul of
nature that keeps us feeling
birth, too, is accidental, whether in islands or the
eye’s retaliating spasms, some dead man, his hurt
and zeal protoconforming; they will sue the world
for a lack
of peace, to want to live in a world my
own hand has made, not hands too
aware of their wild plots just one hand
in the world, meeting other hands
in crowds full of morning-pleasant heads
whipping out greetings, and soon an angular
woman who’ll offer me that chance, her limp-
and I should shake it as a bundle meant to be carried
in both hands, several decades past due, past indecisive
jurors, past nostalgic feudalism, internet profiles of the already dead
whatever it is, it is not too dehydrated
to hold what is mine, the twenty-first
century is mine and what does this say
of les jeunes, untiring
telling me what to look for, what species do
not need me to survive, certainly not my
split tongue needing touch and language, in
this blank catalogue
of reassembled lives, misassembled lives,
unass- embled days, I am a/part and some
thoughts are easy: pretend to be isolated,
stress an accumulation
of disappearances, one way to transform
and two and three, all the griefs that I have
grieved, how they turn the head quickly
and I have been called many things late at
night greener grass, scientific utopia, dream
of ancestors, what about rainy weekends,
what about poltroons,
the doomed cults full of hyper-rational
people who’ve miscalculated the height of
doors, how many stairs are left, and when
stood up from a tumble
find polite applause, find the romance of
liberal consumption on the news, anyway,
any sharp thing is a short distance from
possible to voluble
father, what about a foot laid down hard on
the gloss of the business-suited, the testing
birds that remind me I am just as committed
to expression as to freedom
Thank you so much, Canisia. That was a wonderful point to end on: ‘I’m just as committed to expression as to freedom’. Now I hand the readings over to you, Nat.
Thanks everyone for putting this together. It's been really exciting to be part of this conversation, and to see it unfolding.
(when we’re working while we’re asleep)
curves us from
the day’s intern
\ positioned , close drawn
hairstroke comfort in
historicity of rest space ::
keeps minds near [∆
& felines in start: winter
, radiates through privacy housed, exchanged,
captures each action for
& emits social myth [§ & that
struggle at the premise capacity for the day due
/ as the blind pulls itself
electric the police stationed/ fortifies
of arms tending , clutch
despite the nerves inactive , ache
limbs to agony / drained from the type,
inhabits exiting to a.m., alarmist // held
together queer women
anterior to labour dates /
subsist even as muscles &
/or thought stall
:: without of the workplace forms
as it shores subjection / cultivates , gains our
remaking out of sight // that
the fictitious private, hewn their
reified work of romance
the relations where our genders fall
as the simplest of words, we
lust for the rest / hands
freest from repetitions of the wage
, they: pathology weaponised
struggle to thieve health / to grasp the poem
& nuzzle you as capital kisses it night
by the mesh of your inactive
decades, ballots & workdays
ruptured fauna / meteorology
of the social
translated out of fact / demo-
lished july frozen skin, private
security, new wealth & prime
,, on the walls of all detention centres
prophetic // historic rupture
shatter legality bourgeois freedom
,, on the walls of all detention centres
deleted points of navigation
delete shares & secure investments
delete british futures of lockdown
of how we might be living tonight. in
care’s assembly from squares -hibition of possible hours, move
to the kitchen, our denigrate ments, actualities purged,
claimed / s-
warming , in the try to refrain since white supremacists stormed
abrasions back onto democracy / the era closed
& in the fact of our loves ,, , bitter grievance
enclosures, neglect & casual
institutions cohering as a norm ::
gradients & the system
atic regulations of senses / de-
regulated wires & debtchains / gravities
revoke our impetus / extract
from the soil of difference / the systematic
slaughter of those invoked in the ink on your skin / girls
who flamed social revolution, . red
activation of herstory, in study
, poetry we warmed bones /,
the decline of all winters
were sick the warmest month
blood vessels on record again our skel
-ter ‘mones & chemicals
we lived this to the fabric
ripped language, neighbourhood / we
royal scripture & the new never lived a realm of safety / they
defence regime,, / flooding the eco come for our skirts & eyeliner repelled
-tropolis & circulate [| draining by the glamour of our flesh / weaponise your heels
our possible friends. as the senses we live by. you
are so brilliant & vicious, all of you
, what we try to hold through timezones
/ against the fascists from the danube to the
pacific to the latest belt of radiation. clutch off
& denigrate all nations
& their fables out of our skins
for what we may be
the left from a future torched,
working to deeper life
, we: lost girls, broken femmes / deviant
aching spines & flesh,
built on the shuttered mouths of rape apologists
, vibrantly storms but does not just march, all
fed, a collective support
of all possible skins / builds
conceptions & homelines to [ [
-poning the fresh govern
-ance of recognition / siren clawing
up the street, teaches a fuck the police through all
action,, feels beyond the future
ruling fascists store for us / eyes
closed on its corpses / present
in tonight’s dreams, the dead left
do not want us to love as much as this
, we: anxious girls, slept debt,
certain siblings, on call to the street
, bandagers, we gossiped / kissed through our repressions abet
vicious nights, an urgent existence fleets
into & out of these burning days
here in the diaspora, un-
learning faux cultures
investments in our arms & genders
/ our solidarities
heinous / educators & the registration of citizens ,
directs the promise / possible
–] refuse to answer
a poetics of violent
& good nationhood //
frustrations & sourced / we
overwhelmed w/ healing
& waged work
plotted a sequence of perverse beauties, our commoning :
a conception of need they could not
of our bruises
& collective selves ;; fabrications
of / consciousness
the care that grows
us together, yet the
glamour & fracture of such love
bitter days in the crushing
/ flat national economies / supra
nations, drain the arrogance ruling
class gagging hills up the cities we
,, stores & spires weigh lumbar
/ our absent scatter of poets / an
imaginary they’d bury a bitter ‘good’
/ hope this song reaches & soothes
downer our lost
work & machines
,, in minutes these emptying atoms
we creopolitan : our
c/hanging & relations ,
our senses of the bodies
,, what whispers to know flesh
sensate taste salt weather cane
/ humidity woven through /
dis/placed, to be anyw-
here, all possible futures
undo logics of land/ed
in nationhood, your reveries
five hundred truncated years, we
dined on stolen whisky, tar, minis
-terial bones / forced to find work
a rustic allegory, regen-
narrating cities & ag/gressions
light & nature false con
dition’d : cohered by skins our
/ separated, crashed [, lit]
at the trial of yur crimes of invention
in my charred golden minidress /
cremated homes, debt && circuits
capital commission & hate
dined on flour, divine salt &&
threads of your flags ,, aroused,
our vulgar comedy, drives &
erotics silenced >/ your beliefs
& rituals :: disintegrating, foxed
grrrl // if we are citizens
of nowhere, a threat to the tone &
image;; composed / lace cute
we divine femmes no here to dissect
your impositions >> bark organs
so late in the day, directions
on casual violence: if your pleasure
excruciate living / &
the beauty about our eyelines
[»] we impossible siblings,, lobes
sore, close hairs & gleaming / our
traumas dismissed / bitter salt stream
-ing cheeks, spark / structurally
yur lavish/ious divisions
& devaluations, institut
-ions, blood,, harmonics, assembly
of work, migration & con
jugal / flicker, track memory
in the hyperreal of this beau-
ty, this wear, fashion-bodily
, dyke bitch being smeared colour sync
–such potential faggotry,, the
se shades pressed to you
[o]’re gorgeous pre/tend
change of use anthropos
in your blesséd vulnerabil
-ity ,/ remember what we live
twitching in the dream
our gazetters, archives,
den rose hip flesh delicate
fledge creopolitan //
sleeve stitched fragility bare
what waking calls skin , tended, strapped
,, feminised, assembled, type
our scattered belonging
-written, isolated, disappear-
at these peaks in yur histor
-y of reactions,, skull pulse
in such total hostility
claw cult/ure[s]: bleached,
amnesiac, a false im-
aginary, fragile tide in
-cendary / slice ceaseless
ads, newsprint & telegrams
: pockmarked , revol/ve
we, the invisible: streets strewn
w/ feathers, our solitude
–– negative reveries vibrant
squatting schools & rulings, yur
nights ripped by fire, disinvest
-ed / the deepened particular
of fleshes, our / memory embodied
, itching, wet on the union jack
your truths will be rerooted––
Thank you so much, Nat, for that powerful and engaging reading. I really enjoyed that and I’m sure others did as well. I think hearing both you and Canisia speak and share your work with us really connects to the first question that I wanted to ask today, which is about this idea of abolition as an art form. I am thinking about the way which both of your work is specifically responding to rising fascism, capitalism, the idea of national identity and the ways in which those are used to articulate particular types of violence against us in the historical present. This really gets me to the question I want to ask, which is about abolition as an art form: as a kind of creative work that blends the historical present, memory, futurity, the embodied, the visual and the poetic, with notions of freedom, care and collectivity which emerges in all of your work. I wanted to ask each of you if you could speak about this, specifically the ways in which you think of your writing as part of an abolitionist praxis.
I also just wanted to say that this question is drawn from my reading of Dylan Rodríguez article ‘Abolition As a Praxis of Human Being’ (2019), which uses Sylvia Wynter’s theory of ‘being human as praxis’ to think about abolition as connected to a long, creative art form. That long tradition of abolitionism has resulted in so many creative projects, that it is fundamentally a creative force. I wanted to ask the speakers about each of that in relation to their own writing, starting with Christina.
First, I want to thank everybody for the imagining and putting together of this event and this series of events, and to thank Nat and Canisia for your beautiful readings. I think that abolition is one name for a set of expansive imaginings, and that it’s a key call for this time of Black liberation.
You were just talking about Rodríguez’s definitions, and so thinking as such, abolitions are part of a long and deep tradition of Black arts that ranges continents, archipelagos, and that attends to legacies of afterlives of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and racial capitalism. Consequently, Black artists across form – and I’m also thinking about those artists whose lives are their form, and I’m thinking about Sula, and artists without an art form – have engaged in the knowledges produced by these legacies and contemporaneous tragedies. They’ve always performed thought with and enacted the poetics of liberation, have always fought for and made spaces and imagined ways where there was no way. Every movement for Black liberation, every Black struggle has its theorists of the possible world and its theorists of the imagined world, and I think abolition is one iteration of that. Those people who have laid down those tracks, those are the tracks that we work in, if we’re lucky. So I thought that another way, by way of answering is that I would read a few very short things about my work and its poetics. The first is called ‘Note Ongoing’:
There is an unrealised project that I’ve had in the back of my mind for about four years. It’s envisioned as a collective project, one that we thought to call: ‘The Dictionary of Untranslatable Blackness’. Our imagined dictionary was inspired by and kind of a counter to a book called Dictionary of Untranslatables, A Philosophical Lexicon. Here’s a description of that book, and I’m going to shorten the description: ‘This is an encyclopaedic dictionary of close to four-hundred important philosophical, literary and political concepts that defy easy or any translation from one language and culture to another, so drawn from more than a dozen languages: Dassen, German, Russian, Soledad, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian are examined in all of their cross-linguistic complexities. It goes from the classical, to the medieval, to contemporary. The entries are written by more than one hundred and fifty distinguished scholars describing the origins and meanings of each term. They are in French, English, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. But there are no African languages outside those of colonisation. There are no entries on Négritude, no double consciousness or Creole. No Wynter, Brathwaite, Hartman. So we skimmed the entries. We noted that not only did Blackness itself not appear; but many of the entries that did appear would need to be rethought or unthought if one considered Blackness and Black people. If one began from Black, what would an entry on civilization or gender or abstraction look like?
Note two: ‘Black abstraction. The shape makes the Black’.
Torkwase Dyson observed that the shape makes the Black which is a stunning theoretical distillation about the hold of the ship. If Blackness is made on the ship then it’s the line of the hull, the plane of the board, the circle of the shackle, the port-hole that contribute to the making of the Black. And if the shape makes it can also unmake; it can liberate as well as confine. This is a kind of Black abstraction that Fred D’Aguiar explores in Feeding the Ghosts (2014) through Mintah’s relation to shape and wood and grain. Mintah recounts being thrown overboard and crawling back onto the slave ship Zong. In this way, grain emerged from wood plaited into a rope and offered itself to me and I gripped it and kept hold of that grain. I climbed up the side of that ship. So working with hyper-shapes and minds and curves, abstract and movable with the latitude and longitude of this place, Dyson pushes us to think about forms and shapes and how they function in the world: how we are constructed by them and how we construct them. Her work teaches us to understand Blackness and abstraction, to rethink abstraction as not only the violence of the ledger, the gaps in the ditto of the archive, or the statistics or the white lies that justify lynching, but also as possibility – breath and breadth, dimension, and room.
The last one, and this is by way of my answer about poetics:
So there is a photograph of my mother and her mother, when my mother is five, and she’s dressed for Halloween. The photograph was taken by my mother’s stepfather. It is her hands in the photograph that constitutes what Barthes calls the punctum, that detail, that accident that pricks me but also bruises me, is poignant to me.
Thank you so much Christina for that response, and in particular reading from your work so we can think about the way that it seeks to engage with this idea of a poetics of abolition. I now would like to turn to Saidiya to answer this particular question, thinking about your work as related to the idea of abolition as praxis.
I wanted to thank the organisers Sarah, Lola and Che, and my fellow panellists for all that beauty, all of that food for thought. First, I want to re-echo that I’m just as committed to expression as to freedom, hands free from the repetition of the wage. I hope Nat that I got your line correct, and Christina, theorists of the possible worlds, or theorists of imagined worlds – those are really beautiful ways to think about an abolitionist poetics.
One of the things that I did in trying to think about this question was to return to Audre Lorde’s essay ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’. That essay has much to share as a way of guiding us through this moment, and also as a way of making us aware of maybe particular dangers, and the dangers of the certain kind of imposed and legible political speech. I want to highlight a few points she made. She said: ‘Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought’. I just love that. She also wrote: ‘Where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it […] Poetry is not only dream or vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives’. That notion of poetry as the skeleton architecture of our lives is, I think, the point that has been most central to a Black feminist poetics, and we hear the echo of that. Christina referred to Morrison’s Sula (1973), so we are thinking about an art of everyday living. We hear that in Wynter’s discourse on the aesthetic of the underlife of Black culture. We hear that in Denise Ferreira da Silva’s ‘Toward A Black Feminist Poethic’. I guess when I say that there is a way that if the demand of a certain kind of anti-racist siege that we explain, and explain, and explain again, then it seems that poetics is that inhabitation of opacity and refusal of the imposition of a certain kind of sense-making project, and the refusal of that project in its terms of legibility are key to producing this otherwise. Lorde is speaking of poetry, but I also think about both poetics and poesis being folded into that notion of poetry. It not only gives name to that which is difficult to think in terms of the arrangement of lines on the page, but poetics as a way of thinking critically about making a theory of form itself, a practice of what VéVé Clarke describes as the ‘reformation of form’ or ‘diaspora literacy’. Poesis is the most foundational notion of making and creating and building, and what is I think exciting about this moment is we are, you know, trying to enact those blueprints for the otherwise, we’re trying to build and to create and to let what we can’t yet imagine, or what we struggling to articulate, to have that really shape the skeleton architecture of our lives.
Thank you so much for that, Saidiya, and in particular getting us to think more expansively around what Audre Lorde is signposting in her usage of poetry, and thinking about poetry and poesis. That seems to me to be very relevant to both the work of Canisia and Nat, and how they articulate an abolitionist praxis in their poetry.
Canisia, I’m thinking about your work as part of a poetics of refusal, and also as part of an art of everyday living. The way that your poetry expresses that in some of the lines, talking about finding new ways of saying what is not ever enough to say, that seems to really resonate with Audre Lorde here as well.
Yes, thank you, Nydia, for the prompt. I’m going from what has been shared so far: Christina’s evocation of the punctum and that double work that it’s doing, and how Saidiya threaded us through Audre Lorde’s ideas about what poetry does, in terms of the scaffolding, I would say even Lorde’s assertion that one of the primary modes of poetry involves how it transposes feeling into idea, and idea into maybe possible action.
For me, as poet, I think I want to locate my praxis somewhere in that zone. If indeed we can train ourselves, as Lorde says, to transpose those feelings so that language can be shared, that is a way into the commune, into the communal. That’s where poetry’s really radical power I think exists from going… from the sort of personal introspective workings of feeling and from the various modes of the visual. It’s working from an abundance of insights, and exploration, you know? This sense of play as a way beyond the sort of tyrannical effects of living under that which is simplified by the political siege and the tyrannies of the everyday. I think because poetry is connected to things that perhaps happened before language, we can move into a kind of futurity with it, because again I think poetry refuses control. Control is not poetry’s mode, right? So to think about relinquishing control as a way through what can be perceived, against those forms of tyranny in our lives, is primal for me. Even the sort of positionality that I bring to poetry with, for example, the book that I just read, I didn’t intend to write against anything. Instead I thought how can I write a sort of anti-colonial, decolonial lyric ‘I’, one that does not privilege the egologic, and the sort of way of looking at value and relation as something hyper-individualistic? I think poetry pushes back against the sort of processes that result in forms of capture and forms of control because it really just allows the way we think to engage beyond what is knowable and what is reducible to something that can be commodified, right? I think for me, the sort of destabilising logic of sound, or illogic of sound, is just a really capricious thing that poetry lets us access.
I think for a lot of people calling for abolition right now, we live in the actual end, archival ruins of a particular history that has wrought such terrible things upon people’s lives and thus the material that we find ourselves in. I think poetry probably gives us a really rich and capacious way to look at those things and to say, in one way or another, what is critical in the imagination towards liberation is the way of seeing that poetry disrupts, right? I think for me that is what is central in the kind of thing I do.
Thank you so much for that, Canisia. Nat, would you like to continue this conversation? One of the things I was struck by, in hearing your work, and connecting back to what Canisia just shared here was about poetry pushing back against forms of control and capture. That certainly seems to be relevant in the way which you, Nat, explore language and the breaking up of language and words and using sound as well so that the words you are using cannot be captured in any one line. Can you talk about that in relation to your work as a part of abolitionist praxis?
I kind of wanted to echo something in relation to the reading of Lorde. There is something in Audre Lorde which has been really important to me: that relationship between being and interdependency, and the sense that interdependency in terms of remaking the world away from how it has been made, or how capitalism reproduces it on an everyday level, and in terms of what abolition is as a project of remaking the world and remaking sociality. For me, I’m really interested in that sense of interdependency and being, and so simultaneously, it’s also about how we understand the body, our body, and how that is produced in writing, and the relationship between embodiment and writing in that sense. For me, that’s the tension that then comes out in relation to questions in terms of form, and in terms of how to use the visual aspects of a poem, and the sonic aspects of a poem. I think that’s always what I want to come back to in terms of like okay we have all these means at our disposal: every visual aspect, every sonic aspect, the sound of every word in whatever language you’re writing in can potentially activate something in a body or in another body. That is a kind of working-through feeling, working through emotion, working through sound, working through all of these different elements of sense in terms of what that can build. I feel that everything is kind of fair game because, especially in terms of the literary traditions that we get schooled in that are sometimes so conservative in that sense, and so everything is a potential shackling of thoughts, so I feel like poetry is a space to try and undo, unhinge, bring open what we can. Yeah.
Great. Thank you so much.
I want to direct this next question to Saidiya, actually, in relation to a recent interview you had in ArtForum where you talk about the idea of the abolitionist imaginary. I wonder if you could reflect a little bit about what you’re suggesting when we talk about the abolitionist imaginary, and if we can think about that as connected to or emerging alongside the poetics of abolition, and all the panellists can also reflect on that question. Moreover, can we think of the Black feminist poetics of abolition as distinct or emerging alongside, or in conversation?
Yes, that’s a great question. There has obviously been a long history of a Black feminist poetics. I can think of a range of early examples, and one of those would be Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), and part of what that poetic would be about for me would be transforming the terms of address. So a narrative that is seemingly addressed to ‘Dear Gentle Reader’, but is really addressed to her daughter, really is addressed to this other community inside the text, so that rearrangement, or opening up of the space of articulation, I think is really central to a Black feminist poetic. We just have such a rich tradition of thinkers and makers and producers, and just a really rich history of sound that informs our thought.
For me, I was trying to think about that in relationship to a kind of schematic distinction. I don’t want to become bogged down in semantics, but the difference may be between an abolitionist imaginary and an anti-racist imaginary, and maybe part of the work of a certain anti-racist project is always to give a brutal account of our now, to describe what is wrong with it, to document its violence, et cetera, all of that as a mode towards then changing and transforming the given. I think that an abolitionist imaginary is trying to create in the world the set of relations we want in our now. Abolition is a synonym for the end of the world. One of its meanings is the act of destroying completely, right? Another aspect of its meaning is this notion of a kind of amnesty for wrong, so I think that there is a pressure on an abolitionist poetics to imagine what we want to be living in the now, and the pressure is to direct our intellect, and our creative capacity to making that here and now. Not being involved in what is, I don’t know, this eternal mode of waiting, always the prolegomena to the process of transformation. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison who said the insidious aspect of racism, its insidious character is that it returns us to having to explain, and explain, our being in the world, and that is a huge distraction. I think that the abolitionist imaginary is about making that future in the now, and I think that in Black feminist practice, we just have a really rich set of examples, because Black feminists, Black femmes, Black women, have the work of trying to literally reproduce and sustain life. Again, poetry is not a luxury: dreaming otherwise is as essential as food in order for us to survive. So that is what I would say to that.
Thank you so much for that: ‘Dreaming otherwise is as important as food.’ I appreciate that so much. Christina?
I love that that idea began with Harriet Jacobs. As many times as I’ve taught Incidents, now I can’t remember the opening plate, but one of the things is of course it’s published pseudonymously. For a number of reasons. But one of the reasons is a kind of refusal to inhabit that singularity, that kind of eagle eye that Canisia’s multiple ‘I’s, and multiple ‘you’s is also working at destroying. The piece about Black abstraction I read where I talk about the latitude and the longitude of this place is also a reference to both Henry Box Brown, and Harriet Jacobs. So how do you imagine freedom from within three by seven by nine, or if Henry Box Brown, within two by three by four. And so that kind of liberating Black feminist poetics that has, as Saidiya said, a long and deep history. I listened to the conversation last week between Hortense Spillers and Gail Lewis, and Zoé Samudzi and Miss Major, and I was really struck by the beautiful moment when Gail Lewis was talking about pirate radio, and literally putting up antennas, and these things that are happening above our heads, so it struck me that really this liberatory imagination, of which an abolitionist imagination is one current iteration. It is both about imagining, enacting and also recalling modes of living. Because that history of pirate radio so often gets left out of the kinds of reanimating, re-enlivening, restructuring work that Black feminists have done. That brings me back to Lorde, and her emphasis on the question of possibility: these deep places of possibility that are neither forever nor instant, so how do we – and the work Black feminism, and the work of a Black feminist abolitionist, to both destroy the world as it is, and imagine, make possible, and make present, and all of these ways, the kinds of worlds that we want to inhabit.
Thank you so much, Christina, for those thoughts. I think it does segue to the final question I wanted to ask, and I’m going to direct it to Canisia and Nat so we can bring them in here as well. This is a question reflecting a little bit on an interview that Ruth Wilson Gilmore gives that is included on Verso Press’s website. It is in a context of explaining the idea that abolition isn’t about absence or the overnight erasure of prisons and police but the act and practice of making something new. She says: ‘So abolition is a theory of change, it’s a theory of social life. It’s about making things’. I was reading this quote alongside Audre Lorde’s assertion which came up earlier with Saidiya’s referencing to Lorde: ‘Poetry is not only dream and a vision, it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for future change’. Can we talk about poetry as an abolitionist theory of change? We seem to be so far thinking about it in that particular way. I wanted to ask Canisia and Nat if you think of your work as part of this abolitionist theory of change, as laying the foundation for future change, and do you see your work in conversation with other poets, maybe some of them prison abolitionists who are doing a similar type of thing of advancing a theory of change?
Thank you for the question. It certainly prompts a lot of contemplation. So some preliminary thoughts and a kind of thinking aloudness, you know? I came to poetry first probably as a child being steeped in the oral traditions of the Caribbean, in St Lucia, and a lot of it was not happening in English, you know? A lot of it was in Creole, and Creole itself being itself a kind of bringing-together of disparate elements in different languages, in the sort of desperate manoeuvre that our ancestors had to make towards survival, creating whole new languages in which to exist outside of the language that was used to subjugate them – English – right? That’s where it started for me, and then later on, finding that I was sort of pulled into a clearing of sorts in the work of Dionne Brand, really, I just found a certain aliveness in Brand’s work that I didn’t experience prior to that moment, and really have not – I haven’t turned back. It was a kind of opening that, when I entered the space that was opened, the vastness meant just continuous doors opening everywhere I looked.
I think a request for abolition as a theory of change, or thinking of present things, is that it sort of pre-figures states of ontological, or even epistemic terror. It foresees greater disasters ahead if things just continue on in the way that they’re going. I think poetry has that sort of capacity to act in the present, to actually be present, it’s like you’re in the poem and when you step away from the poem, you’re no longer in the poem, but something undeniable is with you, it is in you. Something has shifted somehow, and that certainly is my experience of the most powerful works that are works of poetry that I tend to live with: Kamau Brathwaite, Adrienne Rich, definitely Gwendolyn Brooks, June Jordan, and so on. I would like to think of the abolitionist imaginary alongside others in the work of liberation, those who live in the world, and their various modes. What is it to be part of an aggregate of those who come before? Not just in terms of generations but in terms of history, aesthetics, and the kind of jazz poetics, and things like that – that sort of work to break sound in a sense, break us away from the normative sound that sort of stops us from envisioning the radical things that liberation requires of us somehow.
I think in my own practice, my instinct, it is to go back to the core of poetry, at least the poetry that I write. What language makes possible, how we are interconnected in the imaginative power of poetry. Living in imaginative times, as opposed to control time, which, as we know is capital, right? Which we know is that sort of colonial linear structure of time, and Gail Lewis spoke beautifully about this last week. So the theory of change, the change-making capacity of poetry is to witness and to be in a withness – in kinship – in sutures between things that seem to have no relation, but in fact are deeply, deeply related. For me, recently, it’s been a lot of musicians, Alice Smith, Benjamin Clementine, Gemma Griffiths: a lot of musicians singing in languages I don’t even understand, but, by God, do I feel the most powerful things, you know? That is the power of poetry, this social change, I think. We have this sort of way of envisioning that reveals unexpected and often incalculable ways of connectedness.
Thank you so much for that. So many different threads there. I really deeply feel that even when the music is in a different language, you feel the poetics, you feel the intention of the song even if you might not understand the language. Now I want to give you an opportunity to come in here and think about your work as connected to this idea of poetry as part of this theory of change, or abolition as a period of change.
Definitely in terms of the work of poetry as building interconnectedness, being a means of support – of speaking forms of care that we are always trying to build and enact in the world. I feel like that is really urgent, but then simultaneously to think that it’s not just about the poetry in itself, it is also about the moments, the presence of the poetic as a form of presence, be that of being in a space together, listening or communing. For me, I think one of the most important readings I ever heard has been hearing M. NourbeSe Philip perform and just feeling that sense of what incantation and space, like how the work transforms the actual physical space you’re in through its sound, and through its sonic. And then simultaneously just on another level; of being, like, poetry is also about putting ideas into our head that demand certain forms of action, that challenge us to feel, and to be practising other ways of living that are otherwise always being, you know – that we’re always being separated from, that are always pulling us apart. Yes, in the short answer, yes.
Can I echo Nat and Canisia? I would say that I think of poetics with a particularity of a poetic practice. It is just a dimension of this logoi of socio-paresis. One way people make and articulate is through language, but it is part of this larger socio-paresis that we are all part of whether we create a poem or not, so thank you both for underscoring that point.
If I could say one more thing, and that is to repeat something that Canisia said, that I think gets at what so many of us are involved in, and that is to be just as committed to expression as to freedom, whether that expression is sound, whether words on the page, whether it is movement through a street, whatever it is. That all of that gets at these kinds of questions, the poetics of liberation, the poetics of abolition.
Thank you so much, everyone. That was an incredibly engaging, insightful conversation. I’ve learned so much from hearing you all reflecting on this idea of poetics of abolition. I think I will end the chairing there. I just want to thank all of our panellists again, and the organisers, and I believe I’m handing it over to Che for some closing comments and thoughts.
Thank you so much. That was such an incredible ensemble of brilliance, really, and I’m just still sitting with everything that was said, and our audience is incantatory with their appreciation of everything that was said. I just want to echo that.
Transcript Editor: Kitya Mark, August 2020.
A list of references and resources compiled during the event is available here.