pursuing the question

Answers are just echoes, they say. But
a question travels before it comes back,
and that counts.

— stanza from “The Research Team in the Mountains” by William Stafford

When I met Dev Aujla in April 2010, he asked me a simple question about a sandwich. Connections with such lasting integrity enabled the answers in the interview below to unfold so seamlessly. Dev enabled this excavation. I wouldn’t have wanted to plumb its depths with anyone else.

This interview occurred through email August-September 2018.

Berlin, 28 October 2017

When did you first discover Audre Lorde?
I was in my early 20s. I discovered Audre Lorde through her Black feminist theory, not poetry. Her vision of feminism, shaped by her lived experiences, was accessible and provocative. I was drawn to her unapologetic and direct writing about race, sexuality, and difference. Audre’s biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, broke open my repressed queer heart.

Tell me about your own poetic practice and how it led you to the poetics inquiry that you pursued in Berlin?
I’m self-taught and forever a student. Over the last seven years, I’ve had an intentional poetics practice. I owe my technical knowledge of amazing contemporary poets and craft, and the confidence to claim a love of poetry to my partner Edward. The other major influence has been William Stafford’s You Must Revise Your Life. My poetics practice is a state of evolution and curious learning.

The poetics inquiry of Audre Lorde’s time in Berlin was catalyzed by being unemployed. My thoughts were my own and open to possibility. I had a different sense of time and connection to productivity, which allowed myself to trust and really practice Stafford’s artistic process. I believed my devotion to writing and learning would get me to Berlin, somehow. Those beliefs were refined and actualized because of the generosity of others – family, friends, and supportive community. I wanted and needed this poetics inquiry, my first, to be a collaborative process.

Audre Lorde’s concept of the ‘poet’s way’ weaves together emotion, self-discovery, and the act of resistance. How did your understanding of her life and this concept deepen upon spending so much time with her correspondence?
I read the personal letters between Audre and Dagmar Schultz when I was back home. The letters added texture and tenderness to the over 60 hours of audio recordings I listened to while at the archive. It was a privilege to witness how they shared their struggles of daily life and their love for each other. The letters spanned eight years of their relationship. Everything I knew about Audre was that she lived her life holistically, critically, and with integrity. When I learned she defined a radical practice of honesty and vulnerability as the ‘poet’s way,’ I felt a new sense of validation. A ‘poet’s way’ is an elegant strategy for creating and sustaining social change.

I love the idea that poetry as you define it is a creative structure where desire meets experience that shows effort. Talk to me about specific moments where desire met experience for you? What does that intersection enable?
That definition came from an attempt to describe what a “good” poem is: “A temporary place of collaborative movement where desire meets an experience that shows effort.” I wrote that before Berlin. It was a statement learned from Stafford and included all the thinking that had gone into planning the Audre Lorde poetics inquiry. The trip to Berlin was the most intense and immediate test of that kind of experience! I also feel that effort every Sunday when I post on cacheculture.

I feel joy at those intersections.

Berlin, 31 October 2017

Today more than ever it feels like there is a sense of urgency in bridging ideological divides. How can the tools and ideas that you uncovered during your Berlin trip help people wrestle with conversations with the other?
Audre’s belief that identity is not competitive (an intimate and personal reflection when I think about being an identical twin) is a strategy of resistance in our consumer-centric culture and extractive capitalist economy. Identity is abundant, a creative expression, and a practice of self-preservation. A solution is sharing power and living a life of critical examination. I recommend reading Audre’s brilliant collection of essays, Sister Outsider, to get some of her best writing and vision around this work.

I like this quote from Audre at a poetry reading in Amsterdam (15 July 1984):
“The first step around difference: the parts within us learn to sit down together so that each of us can come to our work, as we define it, whole within ourselves – and then by extension reach out so we can do the work that we must share. That is a very long process. It must begin inside if it is to go out…”

What did the day-to-day feel like while you were in Berlin, spending time in the archives? What was your daily rhythm like while you were there?
It was incredibly important to treat my time at the archive like a job. It was work! I got up early and walked half a mile to the S-Bahn. Before I’d transfer to the next train, I had a strong cup of coffee and a croissant for breakfast. Then it was a short neighborhood bus ride to the archive. The computer was already turned on and set up to access the Audre Lorde files when I arrived around 9am. I listened to digitized analog audio recordings of Audre teach poetry in 1984 Berlin. I transcribed her lectures into two notebooks. The same kind I use in my daily writing practice. I needed an element of the inquiry process to be writing by hand – familiar. I didn’t know what I was going to discover since the archive guide was only in German. That physical movement helped me stay present (and it kept me awake, especially those first days of adjusting to the time difference). I took an hour lunch at the student cafeteria. Those were the only times I felt acutely alone and really far from home. I’d listen and transcribe more recordings until the archive closed around 4pm and 2pm on Fridays. Occasionally, I’d walk back to the train from the archive. The autumn air smelled sweet with rotting leaves.

I’d usually spend the last hours of daylight walking through Neukölln taking pictures of street stickers, graffiti, and whatever else caught my eye.

I did this routine for twelve days, each day the archive was open. The only days I wasn’t at the archive were weekends and two public holidays to celebrate Reformation Day.

Tell me about the relationship between the street art fragments and material you were engaging with in the archives?
I’ve been taking photos of street art for a long time but more consciously since I moved to the Bay Area. The first time I visited Berlin in 2014 I started taking photos of street art fragments of what had been and what was current. My friend Andrea’s reflections of her first time in Berlin influenced my awareness that most of Berlin’s architecture was an attempt to replicate what it was pre-WWII bombing. I was fascinated by what was replica and what was “real.” Time was nine hours ahead of what I was used to, and Audre Lorde was in 1984 – five years before anyone knew the Berlin Wall would fall. I wanted to try and capture that contextual experience of my time in Berlin.

You had a privileged view into the relationship between Dagmar Schultz and Audre Lorde both reading much of their correspondence and meeting Dagmar herself. Tell me about your relationship with Dagmar.
I love this question! It made everything more real. I was unprepared for how it grounded this experience. I was so honored (and so nervous!) to meet Dagmar. Her documentary, Audre Lorde – The Berlin Years 1984-1992, was the reason this poetics inquiry and the archive even exists. There’s probably a German word for the particular feeling I have when I think about Dagmar’s generosity in taking the time to meet with me when I was in Berlin.

I have even more respect for Dagmar after reading the correspondence and then meeting her a few months later when she screened the documentary in San Francisco. When I watched the film for the second time, I was hyperconscious of how inspired I had been from seeing it years prior — and realizing Dagmar was at the first screening I saw in Oakland. It felt divine. Sacred in purpose.

What do relationships like that enable in a time like today? Where do they exist today?
I think it reflects a desire for openness and enables our need for non-competitive mutual experiences. These kinds of relationships can feel rare, but they exist in all of our daily lives. It exists in relationships where we make long-term and deep commitments of time and energy to others and in those magical fleeting moments of human interaction. It also exists in reading writing that makes you feel (versus writing that informs or sells you something).

Berlin, 28 October 2017

What is that you wanted to come away with from your poetic inquiry and trip to the archives?
I wanted to experience what intellectual pursuit felt like for its own sake. I wanted no pre-determined outcome other than bravely learning more about Audre Lorde, poetry, and Berlin.

Audre Lorde’s way of living seemed to be so connected to the poetry, writing, and workshops she created. That tight weave between practice and theory seems so rare and powerful. Tell me about how that connection came across or was evident in the workshops and writing you spent time with?
I made that connection when I learned Audre was in Berlin for the first time. She admits she is practicing her racial and gender justice theories in real time: “I felt it was something I needed for my own honesty [visiting Berlin]. … I think of so much of what American civilization takes from Western Europe is a phrase I use frequently, and I thought at some point I cannot continue to use that phrase without knowing first-hand what I’m talking about.” [source]

The other moment was when I listened to her reading poems from The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems, 1987-1992. I read these poems on a sunny September day in San Francisco as preparation for this poetics inquiry. The recording was dated less than two months before she passed away. Weaving practice and theory – praxis – is a habit of integrity. Audre lived a life of authentic integrity.

In your collection [for the Sorted Library], the Poetic Forensics of Power you have chosen poetry that transports one towards the feeling of revolution. I was struck by the sense of immediacy in all of the writing. There is a lack of flowery language. They seem to do what they need to do and make you feel.
I like your description of immediacy. That’s my favorite kind of poetry: breathless and to the point. I wanted a collection of poems that were political but not didactic. Audre believed poetry was a weapon, or “tools of surviving.” It’s an active stance.

Is poetry the common ground or is it our differing reactions to the same poem that provide that starting off place for dialogue?
It’s both. I’m hesitant to claim one situation over the other since most of my engagement with poetry is alone and in conversation with a poem.

How do these poets speak to what Audre Lorde described as Poet as Outsider?
Audre said, “As we think of the poet as visionary, in every circumstance there will be those people who have begun to see beyond what has been defined as the place from where they must write from.” [source]

Audre believed poets are reflectors of the future. Outsider poets are poets who can envision what does not yet exist – what must change – while reflecting the contemporary history, politics, and social cultures of their time. The poets in that collection hold the future, the current, and the past seamlessly.

I want to talk more about the idea of sharing power and the power implicit in the positions that we talk from that we never see or notice unless we are the subject. How can we make these more visible? How was this dealt with in the workshops?
Making power visible is embracing the truth that power is complex and an adaptive process. It requires us to get really good at being active listeners. These kinds of conversations often make us nervous or uncomfortable, feelings we associate as negative, yet it’s within in those moments that we can practice sharing power. It’s about making subtle and profound choices of engagement. We do it every day, even when we’re not conscious of it.

Audre gracefully facilitated these kinds of conversations in her classes by requiring radical honesty, establishing a safe place to critically examine one’s own feelings, and staying grounded in personal experience. She was clear about her intentions for the class and the expectations she had of the students. She admitted she had only enough energy to bridge the cultural and racial differences, not gender, and requested the male students not return to the Black Women Poetry session. It was incredibly brave and necessary for her purpose and limited time in Berlin. She would not allow white guilt to be used as an unconscious defense or distancing mechanism when the students were challenged with feeling uncomfortable. She diffused it by confronting it. She showed how power is a learned behavior. There was no shaming (the idea you’re inherently a “bad” person). If the student felt ashamed, it was on them to understand why. It was their work to do.

Berlin, 3 September 2014

Agnate Falk has a poem called otherness that came to mind when you were writing about the scarcity that we feel with identify. The threat that my identify can’t exist without taking away from yours.

OTHERNESS by Agneta Falk

It’s not because I don’t love you
that I can’t see your face,
It’s just that I can’t face your face
without eliminating mine.

When you look at me, I turn away
so I don’t quite notice your eyes.
If only I could look at you
without your looking back at me,
I could begin to see you, discover
the curve of your lips, resembling
mine; that on the slope of your
cheek runs a river as deep and dark
as one I grew up near, as shallow
and dry.

And maybe, if you dared
look back at me and saw your tears
filling my eyes, we could begin
to replace that never-ending
fear with love.

How can poetry help us see each other across difference?
This is a beautiful poem! Audre spoke a lot about how we can’t dismiss the poet’s experience, which is the “illumination of the poem.” Poetry is an opportunity to acknowledge feelings of intimacy in yourself and with another person (the poet) who you may never meet. It’s a moment to see both self and poet reflected and honor those differences.

If you become a committed reader and listener of poetry, you have a creative practice around understanding difference. I think it’s important to say that differences are never static. We always, every one of us, are in a constant state of change. Engaging with poetry is one method of staying flexible and open to multiple possibilities.

Poetry as empathy. Chance to feel what it means to be in someone else’s position. To understand the experience of the subjugated and actually understand the power implicit in my own voice that I may have never seen otherwise.

“You will never find the bridge until first you recognize what is different. Plumb that difference. Examine it. And examine the feelings that go with that. You will find in those feelings that there are very much feelings you have also. You may have them out of different experiences but you have the feelings. If you try to have an easy connection of similarity it’s not going to work.” [Audre Lorde]

Tell me about the differences you experienced and recognized in traveling to Germany today that you alluded to describing the practicalities of your poetic inquiry? What was informative in that difference?
I learned to practice being humble and feeling confident in decisions I had to make with limited information. I didn’t know the language, written or in conversation. I was forced to admit over and over to myself that I did not know the culture despite my childhood nostalgia for German culture. Because I came with an intention of having no pre-determined outcomes, it was an interesting experience to take in so much information with confidence. I was open to possibility. It worked at the archive exploration and when I wandered unknown streets.

Berlin, 28 October 2017

I like the idea that it isn’t in finding common ground that we find true bond or connection or bridge but rather it is in plumbing the depths of difference and understanding our corresponding feelings to that. It is such a different way of building relationships than we are taught today. Find common ground, ask questions, build a relationship. Did Audre Lorde facilitate people through these types of interactions during the workshops? How did this idea show up with her students coming from different backgrounds?
I love this question so much. What makes this observation so beautiful is that it assumes it is ongoing. There’s an expectation and honesty that it’s going to take some work. Not all relationships should be or can be forever, of course.

My favorite moments from the audio recordings are when Audre is facilitating conversations of difference! She shares German is not her first language, which she admits makes her vulnerable around discussions of interpretation. In tandem, she took considerable time to politically educate her students about the American welfare system and disenfranchised Americans – Black, lesbian, poor, women, Asian, Indigenous – all through conversations woven through a curated collection of poems.

Tell me about your experience of holding a question, or pursuing the question so thoroughly through travel, visiting source materials, turning to poetry and creating a collection? Why is this type of thinking and inquiry needed today?
Almost a year later, I’m still learning and integrating everything I saw, heard, and felt from this experience. It was an incredible immersion. I went to an edge of what I had internalized around risk, woven from my own identities and experiences, and was conscious of that dismantling. The value of this work was made even more clear when I heard others reflect their own learning and emerging ideas from this inquiry.

Having a critical examination of our daily experiences, especially those shaped through normalizing culture, is always needed. It can feel like that’s more the case today, but every generation has faced or denied their differences – and made choices about what tomorrow could look like. Audre’s essay, Poetry is Not a Luxury, outlines why it’s important that we feel as deeply as we analyze: “It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”

king tides

photographer: Rachel Lena Sterline
photographer: Rachel Lena Sterline

Isn’t history just repetition and accumulation of power and influence? This is about understanding why you feel so wronged. Don’t you know it takes the Sun and the Moon to make the tides? It’s also true that roaring cats don’t purr. In this specific instance, it is either roar or purr. There is no both.

Cities showed up 6-figures deep. A people’s definition of amazing. Folks are asking if this is another revolution for a problem with no name. Pre-conditions find themselves in dispute along with feeling safe, not comfortable, but safe. You do not have my permission to share this. Pussy is on sale.

Expressions exchanged, uploaded, tagged. Bravery, morality, aggression slants.

Today we celebrate 44 years of codified privacy and personal (white) choice. An axis of origin. To be fair, there’s no standard agreement on how many simultaneous wars we are fighting. Drama should be reserved for love. The noise, the roaring noise, has been the most reliable of our tensions. Hair-triggering sensitivities. Isn’t it ironic?

pussy whipped

If you are a private poet, then your vocabulary is limited by your obsessions.
— Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town

hedonism by genis carreras
hedonism (the ethical position that pleasure is the ultimate goal and greatest good, and should be the central aim of all decisions made) by genis carreras

It’s a fact. Cycles sync. It is October, 2016. The word pussy is in our mouths again. Full and heavy bodied, it’s paired with a specific violence as naturalized as an inherited ownership tone. This is the fetishized frequency of law and order.

*** you’ve got to stack it so it’s stable – Low, No Comprende ***

So this is what whiplash from a mass capture of imagination feels like. A forced common image. Pussy, for now, functions as an ironic partisan anchor, while still maintaining its gendered significations.

What is the whole of this historical objectification of our parts? Patriarchal logic argues that this violence of disassociation is necessary and even desired. This detachment is inherent in our economic theories, consumer-based language, and mass-produced representations.

We learn, repeatedly, there are far more serious and urgent issues to concern ourselves with than ritualized gender-based violence. We are dismissed. We are told to question less and obey more.

*** underneath this hood you kiss, I tick like bomb – Perfume Genius, Hood ***

We perform this idealized creed through a perpetual liturgy of demure expressions in a culture that protects mobs of high-volume denials. This contemporary shrill masculinity is socially recycled into discourses that tap into an idolization of individual perspective. For most, this illusion only creates isolation.

Manipulating the dark side of vulnerability isn’t a new strategy to win elections, or maintain control. What feels different this Presidential election cycle is the dredge of cultural material to mine and the hypervoyeurism that has been produced. Public and private boundaries are as unstable as our contemporary understanding of when virtual becomes reality.

As we bare witness to the misogyny that rages beneath all our sacred institutions, may the soundtrack to this ride to November include Magnet by Bikini Kill.

I’m keeping this advice on a loop: I’ve got the love that’s strong and not weak.

doing liberation

Andrea Smith’s foreword in Undoing Border Imperialism by Harsha Walia states, “a liberatory vision for immigrant rights is one that is based less on pathways to citizenship in a settler state, than on questioning the logics of the settler state itself.”  This expansion of decolonization, a revolution to undo “zones of invisibility, exclusion, and death,” requires a radical vision and daily practice of justice. For those of us who are not indigenous to the nations we occupy, liberation is no longer a theoretical space you can opt in and out.  

Undoing Border Imperialism is a collective expression of a migrant justice movement grounded in healing justice. Starting from a place of opportunity, “as a prefiguring framework, decolonization grounds us in an understanding that we have already inherited generations of evolving wisdom about living freely and communally” Walia shows us a future few movement theory books dare dream. Through various entry points in the book, which are beautifully supported by poets, philosophers, and activist’s lived experiences, the reader is profoundly transformed.

Undoing is not used haphazardly nor as a metaphor. We are asked to enthusiastically have a decolonized orientation to self and others. The systems few move through with ease are relational, which is political and embodied. Borders are human-made. That’s one clear justification for resisting violence with nonviolent direct action. If one needs a concrete example, follow #NoDAPL.

art-and-social-movements
artist: Radical Design School, Toronto

Chapter 3 entitled Overgrowing Hegemony: Grassroots Theory puts everything into perspective. Consider this your manifesto.

Given all the power-over we have internalized, traumas we have metabolized, and walls and hierarchies we have maintained between one another, it is imperative that we unravel and confront these effects of border imperialism within our movements as we work to dismantle the systems that propagate it.

Name it. Analyze how power functions and distorts. Commit to steering “movement strategies and relations toward collective liberation.” This requires consent, accountability, and communication that is transformative, not transactional.

We all have a role in this vision.

Strategy cannot be applied in a cookie-cutter approach; it requires collective deliberation, trial and error, and reflection. It necessitates a willingness to experiment, and make mistakes, and humility to change our ways.

Syed Khalid Hussan’s epilogue is a reminder that “our actions are just as much visceral as they are analytical, theoretical, or intellectual.” It’s time to declare that we are no longer obligated to be monogamous in identity, story, or victory. However, we are bound to practice compassion, respect, forgiveness, and evolve our ways of being in community with each other. Walia, and the voices she shares this revolution with, moves us beyond those never-ending conversations that center frameworks (talk). A tactic designed to distract and delay justice. This embodied power is found through a decolonizing praxis that honors generational resistance. To deny this is to remain complicit in settler logic.

We can, as Smith so clearly states, dismantle the logic of the settler state. And in its absence, we move freely with self-determination.

 

politics of fantasy

In a previous post, I coupled the early essays of The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure as “academic stimulation with real-world sensations.” The chorus of voices throughout the remainder of the book continue on that path and give more support for using an erotic economic analysis. The production of porn is about selling pleasure, consuming (queer) desire, and fucking loving yourself.

Ingrid Ryberg in Every Time We Fuck, We Win pushes you to understand watching porn is witness to intimacy. It is telling that we have to learn to repress so much to fit into assumed historic preferences. Keiko Lane’s Imag(in)ing Possibilities spreads your psyche out with respect. Experiencing “fantasies made conscious” is a particular arousal of “embodied subjectivity.” That point of view, a corporeal validation, is useful. Porn can heal us if we experience it without shame or remorse. If you want to get the deepest and quickest purpose of this book, read Constance Penley’s A Feminist Teaching Pornography? She gives you the permission to study porn as film. We are the audience to a multi-dimensional experience from performer to director to public tastes.

Presentation matters: angles and agency. Lorelei Lee demonstrates that to the fullest. “Sexual desire and sexual identity are absolutely essential  to the freely defined self.” Feminist porn performs power which is why it deserves its current patriarchal reputation. Own that what you feel from seeing is pleasurable. This feminist entertainment project is political. That’s no-fucks-given explicit from the begging to the end The Feminist Porn Book.  As is Ariane Cruz’s call to “take up a politics of perversion, a disruptive shift in black feminist studies, to critically analyze the engagements of pleasure and power through pornography consumption, performance, and production.”

All anthologies straddle numerous opinions and I agree with Nina Hartley that “porn houses our sexual dreams, which are vitally important to our happiness.” The how – worker centered – is what makes feminist porn feminist. It is what mutual satisfaction looks like – good enough to share. Tristan Aormino knows both sides of the camera. I’ll watch sex that is “presented as joyful, fun, safe, mutual, and satisfying.” Sexual expressions of joy! Who would be against such imagery?

That was a larger question that was often left out of the frame. We hear and see enough of the anti-porn position. It was a nice reprieve from that way of thinking. The Feminist Porn Book repeatedly and gently reminds you to consume critically and honor consent always. Sexual expressions are exchanged as erotic capital and culturally produced whether we agree with it or not. That’s why having more porn that thinks and fucks like me is where I’ll be putting my hard-earned feminist dollars.

 

follow the breath

Absence opens possibility.

We gather inside and treasure light. We are enamored with the hues of soft pinks and peach oranges that have lengthened during this seasonal rotation. Yes, we do have an agenda, a way of being, of feeling seen.

While shadows form, for they provide their own value of shelter and comfort, we scout for interdependence. We want transformation not assimilation. Our politics disrupt, express, reconceptualize desire and power. It’s a decentered practice. A rebellion.

What we seek is an acknowledgment of the complexity of difference and an orientation that does not ignore a reality that is relational. All of our connections, regardless of intimacy, physicality, and emotional depth are nonnegotiable and non-hierarchical.

Our resistance depends on it.