“POETRY FOR ME IS QUEER”: BLACK SPACE INTERVIEW WITH ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS
BY BRIONA S. JONES
MAY 1, 2017
I am Briona Simone Jones, a Black Lesbian Feminist, and doctoral student in the Department of English at Michigan State University. My research investigates the ways in which Black Lesbian writers employ experimental forms of writing to articulate their intra-marginalized positions. I see poetry as an embodied theoretical practice and thus my work endeavors to unearth theoretical frameworks embedded in poetics and prose.
Audre Geraldine Lorde is both my mother and muse, and it has been over seven years since she blessed me with my first litany. After being exposed to Lorde’s work from my own mother in 2010, I have come to truly understand what Lorde meant when she said, “survival is not an academic skill.” Converging that phrase with Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s assertion that mothering is a Queer act, I can say that these authors have saved my life, over and over again. I first read Gumbs’s dissertation in 2013 and revisited it in 2017. I also read Spill in 2017 and what I ascertained is that, for Gumbs, poetry is a vital necessity, a life sustaining Queer thing that allows for new ideas to be birthed, as Lorde once said. Gumbs made the poetic and theoretical legible for me again. Her words feel like textual hugs, and I feel whole when reading them, in the same ways that I do when I engage Lorde, Clarke, and many others.
This interview came into fruition during my independent study on Queer Poetics under the direction of Professor and Creative Writer, Rae Paris. Professor Paris was already working with Gumbs on a separate project and she asked me if I was interested in interviewing Gumbs because she knew I enjoyed reading her dissertation and recently published book, Spill. The opportunity to engage with Gumbs via my connection to Professor Paris is what I consider coalition building as praxis. Black Feminists have always looked out for one another. This interview (completed via email), the care, attention, and sincerity in each question and response are indicative of just that.
Thank you, Alexis, Revolutionary Mother, who continues to use her poetry “to rename the world in a language that made connection possible where disconnection was normative.”
Briona S. Jones: On the back of your book, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugivity, it reads, “Gumbs not only speaks to the spiritual, bodily, and otherworldly experience of Black women but also allows readers to imagine new possibilities for poetry as a portal for understanding and deepening feminist theory.” Could you talk more about the convergence of poetry and theory; in light of the ways these two forms of writing have been sometimes considered antithetical?
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: I thought about a few different ways to answer this question and you know what? I think what explains my relationship to theory and poetry right now is that I am a West Indian poet and theorist, which to me means that in that tradition, in my work poetry and theory will tend to converge. June Jordan, poet-theorist daughter of Jamaicans in Brooklyn wrote to Audre Lorde, poet theorist daughter of Grenadian and Barbadian parents in Harlem about being West Indian meant loving thousands of pages of thousands of books and theorized in the letter/tribute that their poetics included their written poetry, but also their theoretical work, their activism in academic and movement spaces, their lives, their mothering, their relationships, all of it.
About 15 years before that Sylvia Wynter (of Jamaica and born in Cuba) and Edoaurd Glissant (of Martinique) rolled up at a conference on Ethnopoetics, some sort of anthropological conference focusing on poetry by indigenous folks as mostly studied by white folks, and just shifted the terms. Sylvia Wynter said who cares about Ethnopoetics, what we need is Sociopoetics because the point of poetry is to find a way to say what it is impossible to say in our current society, in order which is to actually relate to each other and our environment in a non-capitalist non-genocidal way. And the same weekend Glissant came with the idea of Forced Poetics, this colonial situation where everything you say reproduces the trap of your experience, but there is the possibility of Counterpoetics, that work of trying to say something else anyway. And before that there was my grandfather, from Anguilla who memorized every poem he loved and used poems to teach us to think.
So the fact that my book has ‘literary theory’ and ‘poetry’ on the back which leads bookstores and online sellers to not know how to list it, is the least of it. The important thing to me is that I am part of a tradition of people who use poetry to reconceptualize the world and it’s a queer act. And it shouldn’t be easy to categorize. And what West Indian can you find that isn’t both a poet and theorist while driving a taxi, building a road or doing anything at all? I haven’t found any yet, least of all my own relatives. But is this any different from other Black communities? I don’t think so. I don’t think Black folks have made a separation between poetry and theory except when they were most trying to conform to preexisting limitations in institutions (academic/publishing/etc.). And even then it was lie.
BSJ: In your dissertation, you describe writing as “dangerous because it is Black, deviant, bodily, unpredictable, diasporic.” How would describe your relationship to writing? Why is poetry particularly salient for you and how has poetry served as your litany?
APG: Gloria Anzaldua describes writing as dangerous because it changes us. We don’t know what is going to happen this time, any time when we sit down to write. And really we don’t know where it is going to end up once it is externalized onto paper or our computer hard drives. I write every day. Every day no matter what. And every time it changes me. I don’t share everything that I write, but everything that I write changes at least one person. Me.
Why is poetry salient? Because as Audre Lorde says “poetry makes something happen.” Like the rest of us, I live most of my life in narrative. There is some story that I live in that explains my life. I move around in the world making meaning in order to make sense to myself. Poetry has the power to interrupt the narrator in my head which is saying something like, whatever I am typing right now. The narrator says, I am Alexis and I know who I am. Poetry for me is queer in that it is not here to reproduce who I think I am. It is here to disrupt and interrupt and offer another possibility. And as a person who lives in a society that I believe must be drastically changed, which means I as a person who makes up this society have to be able to radically re-imagine my relationship to everything and to offer ceremony for us to be able to get beyond the stories we’ve been telling, “poetry is not a luxury” at all.
BSJ: Drawing from essays by Hortense Spillers, your book Spill reaches back to re-remember and pay homage to Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture. Can you talk more about the construction of Spill, and the book itself as Queer, in terms of its form?
APG: I love the way that Hortense Spillers writes. I love each and every one of those essays. And I love them for what they argue, prove and disavow, but I love them even more for their excess. That’s the queer thing. I love certain phrases, flourishes and word choices in her work for their own sake. The way that Hortense Spillers writes, and actually this is the way she speaks too, is so poetic, I could live in three words. Three words, and I could live in there for the next year. And actually that is similar to what I did. I created a daily practice where every morning, every day I would wake up and live with a phrase from the essays. And live with whoever was in there. And I lived there without the need to explain something, answer something or prove something (which is a very queer absence of need for a Black woman intellectual indeed). And I was changed by that living. And if I open to a page of Spill right now, I will be changed again. And if I read it with some other person there, I will be changed again. And the queer thing for me is that as Hortense Spillers teaches us Black women’s writing, in books and as life has been the creation of spaces to live in an unlivable context. That’s the genius. That we could live here at all. That we could make this place livable for each other. Like you can just sit in my kitchen and you don’t have to write an entrance essay to sit in here. And you don’t have to wash my dishes either, though you can if you want. You could just live in here for a moment. And that would change us. And that for me is the genius of Black women and the downfall of capitalism. We who are supposed to be the most homeless, who are statistically the most evicted, are constantly, generously, queerly creating places to live, Blackspace you could say, in everything we do.
BSJ: Referencing Audre Lorde’s prose piece: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” you describe poetry as a need. As a writer, do you think we have closed in on the gap between feminist poetry as feminist praxis? How do you see Spill serving as a resource for Black Feminist liberatory practice?
APG: So far I see Spill serving as a resources for Black Feminist liberatory praxis in a few ways. (But the strange and diasporic thing about a book is that most of what is happening I really don’t know about.) People are reading it together, performing it, embodying it, using it as an oracle, gifting it to each other. People are using it to give themselves permission to cite Black women first and foremost and only if that’s what it takes. People are using it to let go of compromises they made, choices they made between their intellectual work and their communities, their passions and their professional well-being. I don’t know what people will do with it, but for me Spill is about acknowledging violence and offering a libation towards healing. Blood has spilled and now we are spilling words to find each other, honor our survival and make space for freedom like we been doing.
BSJ: Can you talk more about your connection to Audre Lorde and Cheryl Clarke’s work? Both of these writers emphasized the importance of naming one’s self, even those parts of ourselves that are deemed contradictory. How important is it that you identify as a “Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist,” and how would you define “Queer” in this instance?
APG: Both of those writers are gifts from the ancestors as far as I am concerned. They both have made space for so many of us. I heard Audre Lorde interviewed one time and she explained that she listed many aspects of who she was because she wanted people to know. She wrote in Sister Outsider that it was important that no one else be able to hold aspects of her being against her, and that she was not ashamed of who she was, but in this radio interview she talks about it as a communal act. It would have made a difference to her to know that Langston Hughes was gay. But she knew Langston Hughes and was even mentored by him in the Harlem Writers Guild and he never said it. So she never knew it. And she decided that for people in future generations, for people in rooms that she moved through, they would at least know.
For me, yes, it’s that. I am not leaving the reading of who I am only up to other people in the space. I am, like all of us, in the poetic process of making myself available to other people. How important is it that I identify as a Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist? All those words mean the same thing to me. For me, I am just saying “Transformation is Possible and Necessary” seven times in a row when I say that. But I say it in those words, and sometimes other words too, to make space for my people who might identify the same ways sometimes. And to remind the oppressor I’m still here and I’m not hiding. How would I identify queer? “Transformation is possible and necessary.” (Which is also how I would define Black and Troublemaker and Feminist and Love etc. etc.)
I would also define Queer Black Troublemaker as whatever Cheryl Clarke says they are because she sure would know. I am so grateful to be part of her wild and beautiful legacy.
BSJ: On page 107 of Spill, feelings of eroticism permeate these lines: “whoever would have dared to mention thinking of the thought of this would have been laughed across the river…and did they know what touching was. and were they not themselves what touching does, she wondered.” Is this poem addressing same-sex intimacy? How did you come to writing about this particular erotic experience?
APG: That scene is inspired by a phrase Hortense Spillers offers: “daughters have their own agendas” and in that scene (as I read it…which is only one reading) a grandmother is observing multiple generations in her own family. She is observing in particular, her granddaughters video chat relationship with another Black girl who reads and she is thinking about the intimacy allows multiple generations to exist, the mothering and grandmothering she has done. And she is also thinking about the intimacy of black girls reading books and reading each other. She is thinking about the differences and similarities between her granddaughter’s book buddy and her own peer who is another house in bed with a book and how those relationships are and are not intuitive and mediated. So yes. Lots of same sex intimacy. Has grandma had sex with the neighbor? Does she want to? Who knows. And in this case it may not matter. The intimacy is there because the scene takes place in what Jessica Marie Johnson calls “the land of women.”
BSJ: The academy is a precarious space, especially for women of color. Can you talk more about your decision to be an independent writer, and in what ways, if any, have your Feminist foremothers helped inform your decision.
APG: Space in general is especially precarious for women of color, right? My decision to be a writer is definitely informed by many foremothers. I wrote my dissertation about Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Alexis De Veaux and Barbara Smith. All of those writers, publishers, activists worked in a number of settings and their work was by no means confined to the limits of the academy. At the same time, all of those thinkers experienced violence and harm within the academy, and they built on the legacy of their own foremothers, people like Anna Julia Cooper, who saw their lives as intellectuals shaped by the needs of their communities, not the fashions of academic departments.
For me, being a Black feminist writer is a sacred trust. And what Black feminist writers have taught me is that Black feminist writers love Black women. The love of Black women comes first. And it changes everything. The way I do my writing, teaching, living has got to be informed by the love of Black women, including myself. Being a community accountable writer and scholar is a love based path blazed by so many. And it requires honesty, bravery and collaboration. It is a risk. But I trust Black women (including myself) more than I trust the endowments of slavers. And I trust my Black feminist colleagues (some of whom are accessing those slave-fed endowments reparations-style) too. And I trust the work, that it will continue to be a place to live, a room in which to love Black women (myself included.)
Briona S. Jones is a doctoral student and University Fellow in the Department of English at Michigan State University. As a Black Lesbian Feminist, her areas of study include Black Lesbian Writers, Queer Theory, and Decolonial Thought. She is currently conducting archival research on Angelina Weld Grimke who may be considered the impetus for Black Lesbian writers who emerged after the Harlem Renaissance.