Anaïs Duplan is the author of the poetry collection Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press), the chapbook Mount Carmel & the Blood of Mount Parnassus (Monster House Press), and a book of essays and interviews, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture, forthcoming from Black Ocean.
His poems announce: “I’m not opaque. I’m so relevant I’m disappearing.” Or: This body is not opaque, but a poetics of opacity. Indeed, Mount Carmel, as with Take This Stallion, makes relevancy and context both aesthetic and political stakes. Claiming, wryly, that “a poem should be…righteous good and true/ like my body/ this is thinly veiled disguise.”
“For me,” says Anaïs in an interview, “the truth is not interesting. I like frameworks and models of reality and thinking about poems as parallel universes to ours, where reality unfolds almost like it does for us here on earth, but slightly differently…In poems, [for example] it’s possible to be all the multiple genders all at once.” I’m reminded of the titular image in Dolores Dorantes’ Style. The way a flower’s style, as a hermaphroditic organ, can be at once phallic, vivid, and bold, yet tender, wet, and vulnerable, emblematizing Duplan’s body of work.
For him, as for other marginalized writers, this textual body, to ‘resist dehumanization’, must adopt, as he puts it, “an oppositional position in relation to the projections of the dominant culture.” At the same time, the artful wit required to maintain this resistance must make, via image, a vital game of disguise and disappearance. The way: “A single butterfly landed on De’Shawn’s back at the / barbecue…now put that image out of your head. / Next image, you a pauper in the desert. You, pushing spit from your mouth into your eyes and nostrils.” Here, ‘in the tick of it’, these poems make a farce between the “I” and the “not-I”—between the language and the “you”— “So that you and the body are in a room together. And so, a kind of ecstatic union may emerge.”
This is an intimate, resistant poetry that simultaneously, exuberantly, performs the exhausting “burden” of the “not-I” projected by white culture, wryly “making biscuits” for a you who is “blue-green-white-/grey-mauve-lilac-like”; You as, Duplan write, “a version of me without the shot wounds.” After all, as their poem proclaims, “you and I are filthy / but it is our filth.”
[Note: Anaïs was much earlier in his transition when we first met, and so while there’s a 2-year gap between now and when these questions were first pitched, we tried to bridge this gap wherever possible.]
Madison McCartha: In your earliest book, Take This Stallion, I was interested in how celebrity personalities might serve as proxies to help the speaker define themself, creating what Hilton Als describes as a kind of “twinship”; there is in other words a constant interpolation between public and private (even lyric) bodies. Your introductory essay to Mount Carmel explores this a little further. “It doesn’t work to try and reject what white culture says about my blackness by policing myself such that I don’t confirm any of its negative stereotypes.” You write about Dean Blunt’s tenuous relationship to the music press being “analogue for thinking about [yourself] as a queer poet of color in relation to the so-called ‘poetry world’.” Does this still feel true?
Anaïs Duplan: Sure, although now I can identify many more figures than Blunt who could serve as proxies for a sort of guarded relationship to the life of the professional writer or artist. What’s changed is that I feel less guarded about publishing. The irony is that the more comfortable with myself I’ve become, the less I relate publishing to my self-worth, and the less worried I feel about publishing.
MM: Were there other artists who served as early teachers in this way?
AD: I’m still perpetually fascinated with Actress (Darren Cunningham), who has historically had a similarly enigmatic public presence like Blunt. I’m also drawn to outsider artists like James Hampton, but it’s not just celebrities who can serve as twins or proxies. Loved ones, friends, strangers, animals can all be mirrors. As a queer, trans person of color, it’s easy to become subsumed with controlling how others see me, but at the heart of that desire to control is a tenuous relationship to self. Heal that relationship and others’ perceptions of you become less important, both the negative and positive perceptions—both criticism and praise.
MM: Are you familiar with the black model and singer, Grace Jones?
AD: Of course! Pre-transiton, I used to wear my hair in that somewhat square shaved-sides high top she so iconically wears, and once at a bar in Iceland I was mistaken for her. I mean hopefully that person didn’t actually think I was Grace Jones, but I’ll take the compliment.
MM: For those who don’t know, she’s a complex figure, somewhat out of vogue now, but was well-known in the 80s and 90s…they’ve just made a documentary about her, and there’s an excellent review in the New York Times. I stumbled onto a role she plays on the Eddie Murphy flick, Boomerang (which isn’t great, by the way). She plays a peculiar, abject parody of herself, a kind of drag called Strangé:
I’m moved by her story, and at times can relate to it, in so far as it becomes a model for the way someone’s queer and black body, while fighting to simply ‘be’, might also become hypersexualized, exoticized and of course, commodified in the process. Is this story recognizable?
AD: I think I’m much less concerned these days with others’ perspectives about my body. In part, that comes from the admittedly fraught privilege of being a transmasculine person. I felt much more sexualized and exoticized as a cis black woman than I do as a trans black man who is often received as cis. In general I think black men in this country suffer from other forms of commodification or dehumanization, but it’s not exactly sexual or exotic in nature. I guess there have been depictions of black men I would call sexually exotic, namely in Robert Mapplethorpe’s body of work, for example, but that’s specifically within a certain genre of white, cis gay art.
MM: In a recent panel, writer Vi Khi Nao spoke about the intimate connection between death and the erotic, and how, to paraphrase her advice to her students, speaking about the erotic as it relates to death gives a text greater intimacy than speaking about it in terms of romance or domestic life. Does this still feel relevant to you?
AD: Not exactly. I think I might’ve felt like this is in the past, but that’s because I was unable to access my eroticism authentically because I was pre-transition. I find great joy—and a sort of self-multiplying that feels like the opposite of death—in my romantic, erotic, and domestic lives. At the same time I do think, in love, that I come face to face with the fear or possibility of death. There’s that James Blake line, “You are my fear of death” from “Can’t Believe the Way We Flow.” I feel that. But in a sense, that’s what it means to come intimately in contact with difference. Intimacy has the capacity to overwhelm the mind the way tragedy, fear, and extreme joy do, and those moments of existing with an overwhelmed mind are spiritual openings. Maybe I’ve worked my way back to Vi Khi Nao after all. If you believe death is a spiritual opening, then yes, this feels relevant.
MM: I’m thinking of your poem, “Ode to the Happy Negro Hugging the Flag in Robert Colescott’s ‘George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware’”, where ‘black toes’ ‘black thighs’, a ‘black groin’ and maybe death itself are entangled and “a straddle” around a poem-body who is intertextually grafted onto the flag. The wryness of this act, and of this title reminds me of Kara Walker. An artist the poet Joyelle McSweeney also raises in her essay about your work from Fanzine. Could you speak to that poem?
That poem is a kind of homecoming. It’s a deeply erotic poem, but it’s also about encountering my own body. People ask me when I understood that I was trans and I believe it’s impossible to locate a moment because there are all these moments, in retrospect, where I knew without knowing. Transition is a process of becoming more united while at the same time, splitting from a former self. It’s deeply painful and joyful at the same time. I don’t know why I was compelled into thinking about all that when I saw Robert Colescott’s painting. There’s a figure in that painting who is hugging the American flag with a look of bliss on his face. (That kind of cynical, wry satire is what reminds me of Kara Walker.) I guess I was thinking about the contradiction of this black man being in a sort of romantic relationship with America and yet, maybe love makes that kind of thing possible, I don’t know. Colescott’s painting is also united, in some sense, with the Emmanuel Leutze painting it’s based off of. I wanted to think of my poem as the next link in this chain.
MM: There’s a moment when talking with Kaveh Akbar for Divedapper, where he directs our attention to this line “You and I are filthy but it is / our filth,” and then says something like: even in filth, there is “a turning towards joy”, a “channeling” of it into joy and community. While Kaveh is, understandably, interested in the miraculous and transformative power poetry can have, yours notwithstanding, I’m more moved by the ways filth, here, can be generative. Could you speak to that?
AD: Filth is shame, or vice versa. Just last night, I was thinking how entrenched shame as an experience is in my own psyche but also that of so many others, maybe almost everyone else. Whether we name it shame or not, there’s this internal sense of what I shouldn’t be, how I shouldn’t feel or look or act, etc. What I find generative is sitting with shame—in my meditative practice, I call it “sitting in the mud”—and just feeling it. Not trying to push it away or make it into something else. It turns out that shame can’t really survive you just spending time with it in this way; it always evaporates. That says something about what shame is at its core: a refusal to look, a turning or shunning away. Unfortunately, there are communities built around collective shame; it’s the binding agent that brings cultures, peoples, and other groups together and excludes others. Those others are excluded not just because they’re different but because their difference is shameful. There can be this turning toward joy that Kaveh is talking about. I think that might be his version of what I call sitting in the mud. When shared with others, that un-shaming is liberatory, maybe even more liberatory than it is to go through unlearning shame on your own.
MM: Thank you, that’s compelling. I recently started reading The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, by the late Palestinian writer Emile Habiby. Have you read it?
MM: There’s a quote that goes: “I do not differentiate between optimism and pessimism and am quite at a loss as to which of the two characterize me. When I awake each morning, I thank the Lord he did not take my soul during the night. If harm befalls me during the day, I thank Him that it was not worse.” I sense that there’s a connection, here, between your meditative practice, of “sitting in the mud,” and the position Habiby is talking about. I wonder also if in this practice you’ve found that writing with the mud, as a textural or material component, to be another way of spending time with shame?
AD: For me, god is reality. Whatever is real is god. As we know, reality can be both terrible and wonderful, sometimes at the same time. I don’t have to love god because that would assume that I am something apart from reality. So, all there is left is just to be.
I’m glad you ask this question because it’s reminded me that much of my writing has come from just sitting. I sit with a pen and paper (I can rarely write on the computer) and write lines down as they come, sometimes with long pauses in between. I like to think of that act as writing out of the mud, out from the mud, from the voice of the mud. From a place of being. Sitting in the mud, I have a sense of wholeness, union with my nature, so we could also call this generative act writing from wholeness. A wholeness that is necessarily both positive and negative, or neither: a nondual wholeness.
MM: I bring this book up, not just for its specific philosophical and tonal angularity, but because your poem, “Showing a Boy Wearing an Oxygen Mask”, also seems to comport itself with the same tonal complex, between optimism and pessimism. To what extent did translation play into your relating to the character, Al-Halabi? Into your poetics? I’m thinking of something John Keene said in our interview, that translation is about “finding the hidden other in the Other, and the hidden other in the Self.”
AD: That poem is made up of fragments of found language (although I think a fair amount of it I modified) from journalistic sources. There’s a way journalists speak, and write, that we could call tonally angular. The posture of objectivity has a way of showing up in one’s voice, making it a little jagged, giving it strange, leaping tonal shifts. It’s like leaping around emotions. If I was translating anything, it was that tone. That particular kind of strained journalistic music in relation to some of the worst human tragedy there is. In truth, I felt like people weren’t paying attention to these air strikes and I wanted to write a poem that might prompt that attention. The unexpected result, and maybe downside, is that because it’s a poem, it may come off as more fictional, or more doctored than it actually was. I don’t know if my project of reporting these events alongside my objectives as a poet to create a viable, alternate world using language are in conflict with each other. I have mixed feelings about that poem and think, in some ways, it wasn’t my poem to write. I’m glad it was published, but I don’t often talk about it.
MM: I can relate to that, and thank you. From here, then, I wonder what you feel is sayable, ethically, about the violences inflicted on others, or on the ‘not-I’ of the poem, and the way those same violences might somehow be shared by the ‘I’? By you? What poems should we give ourselves the permission to write?
AD: I’m not sure. I return perennially to the Dana Schutz example. There are other examples we could cite, like Kenneth Goldsmith’s use of Michael Brown’s autopsy for poetry. Journalism is allowed, and is sometimes even required, to convey these kinds of violences because its mandate is to report on reality. There’s rarely a sense that journalists or publications are profiting from or exploiting this violence, although I’m sure some people feel like that. Once we get into the arena of art, however, people start to ask whether certain depictions of individual and social violence are ‘trauma porn,’ or at least, exploitative and inappropriate. Usually the problematic is that the writer or artist depicting it isn’t of the group being talked about, what you call the ‘not-I.’ Ultimately, my problem isn’t that the Schutz painting or Goldsmith poem exists, but that they are highly visible and ultimately profitable (if not financially then in terms of sociocultural capital) to someone who is not of the socioeconomic group being portrayed. My problem with my own poem “Showing a Boy Wearing an Oxygen Mask” is that in ‘showing,’ I reap benefits from the suffering of others, even if my goal was to help. Coming from Haiti, I’m aware of the downfalls of help—the way the presence of NGOs and other foreign government entities trying to ‘fix’ quickly makes too many cooks in the kitchen. That said, if we say that aid should never happen, we end up in precarious right-wing territory. And if we say that one should never profit (again, not just financially; there are many ways to profit) from helping others, we would have to ask how that would be possible for an artist, writer, NGO, government, etc. Long story short, I haven’t answered your question more directly because I can’t.
MM: What moved me initially about Jean Genet’s ‘wound’ (this idea that encountering the suffering of others can create a mutual wound: an opening through which a radically inclusive empathy might be felt), was that it seemed like he found a way out of this bind. And while I don’t think, now, that Genet has all the answers, I believe that our current political moment demands that we, as poets and artists, find ways of newly articulating this shared, yet inequitable, experience of state violence. Do you feel similarly?
AD: Yes, but my experience of state violence is different from that of someone from another racial, class, and/or gender identity category. You’re pointing that out when you say “yet inequitable,” but I think it’s kind of a main point. I understand empathy as the ability to make space, internally, for someone else’s experience and the ways it’s different from yours. Needless to say, attempts at empathy can end in projection or end up in fraught territory when entangled in a desire to ‘help.’
Art and writing are well-equipped to convey difference. The best art does this not just by telling us about an artist’s experience, but bringing us into an artist’s internal world so we can momentarily inhabit our shared world through another set of rules, assumptions, beliefs, shortcomings, etc. This happens most authentically when an artist tries to makes their own, rather than someone else’s, psychic experience available to others. In other words, if we’re seeking to build empathy via art, I would rather figure out how to gain access to other people’s art than try to make art about their experiences. The latter feels like a vanity project.
In terms of the political demands of the moment, I don’t think art has a duty to do anything and that may be an unpopular position. Art can convey pain, it can open up the way for more authentic empathy, it can create greater social cohesion. It can do all these things. But I don’t think it has to. Not everyone has to be everything. There are activists and organizers who put their bodies on the line regularly in order to protect freedoms that make my life better. While that work can be complemented by artists who also tackle themes of social justice, they’re not the same work and shouldn’t be conflated. That’s not what you were implying, I’m not saying that either. The point I’m making is pretty small—it’s can versus should—but has ramifications. I’m making it because I believe art that does social work and that does so from a place of freedom (the freedom to not do that work) is going to be of higher quality, in the same way that love given freely is greater than love from obligation.
MM: What questions feel most pressing to you?
AD: One of the most pressing questions to me now is whether art should persist. I know it will persist, but much of what we call art today has emerged from societies where many of the people supposedly have their basic human needs met and therefore have the resources to devote to art. But it’s clear, given the pandemic, that there are deep, deep cracks in our foundation (hopefully not new news to anyone) that need mending. I wonder what it would mean for art to await the results of that social mending and then remerge on the other side. I’m speaking simplistically on purpose—as in, I know a perfect social mending isn’t on the way, I know it isn’t feasible to ask art to ‘wait’ but that’s my desire for this moment. I haven’t been making work for a long time. For some, living through a pandemic has spurred their desire to create but personally, I’ve lost my appetite. I have other concerns, like going internally, reflecting on my life and the world I live in. I’m excited for the work I’ll create six months from now, when I’m further along in this reflection. It’s like how you can’t write a very good elegy for a friend you just lost. You have to wait a while.
Anaïs Duplan is a trans* poet, curator, and artist. He is the author of a forthcoming book of essays, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture (Black Ocean, 2020), a full-length poetry collection, Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016), and a chapbook, Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus (Monster House Press, 2017). His writing has been published by Hyperallergic, PBS News Hour, the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and the Bettering American Poetry anthology. Duplan is the founding curator for the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, an artist residency program for artists of color, based in Iowa City. As an independent curator, he has facilitated artist projects in Chicago, Boston, Santa Fe, and Reykjavík. Duplan’s video and performance work has been shown at Flux Factory, Daata Editions, the 13th Baltic Triennial in Lithuania, Mathew Gallery, NeueHouse, the Paseo Project, and will be exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in L.A in 2020. He was a 2017-2019 joint Public Programs Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem. He now works as Program Manager at Recess and Adjunct Assistant Professor in Poetry at Columbia University.@comewancomeall