Thursday, March 15, 2007

r. Erica Doyle, Interviewed on January 16, 2006

r. Erica Doyle, poet/teacher/activist

r. Erica Doyle, born on November 9, 1968 in Brooklyn, NY

Interviewed on January 16, 2006 by Ana-Maurine Lara

The defining moments in your younger years that have had a major impact on who you’ve become today.

It’s kinda hard to define who I am. I don’t know about a moment. I think I have these currents of obsessions more, not really moments. Besides the fact that I have a really bad memory, sort of so..I don’t necessarily remember events unless it’s some kind of emotional thing. I can’t think of different defining moments. There’s moments that I remember. Like, almost drowning.

In Brooklyn.

Nah-ah. My family had a, like my mom’s brothers and my grandparents had houses in Emeryville, Long Island and over the summer we’d go there a lot and we’d...there was a community pool, like all the towns in Long Island have community pools, rec centers and when I was at the pool with some of my cousins and I was standing near the deep end and I didn’t know how to swim yet so I must have been six or seven and a bunch of my cousins were around,one of my uncles, maybe my father, and I was standing on a ladder and one of my cousins was saying “come in, come in, come in.” and I was saying, “I can’t go in there.” and he was saying, “well just hold onto the ladder” and I was like, “well I can’t” and then my cousin Raven, who thought she was joking, pushed me. Which she denies to this day. She says that I slipped, but I know she pushed me. And she pushed me and I was so shocked I gasped, which is the thing that makes people drown. And so I breathed in all this water and then I wasn’t afraid anymore and I just started breathing in water and I just started floating down and down and down and down and then one of my cousins came. My cousin Shawn came and pulled me up and out of the water and then... I think maybe I had lost consciousness a little bit so I’m not sure if I was conscious when they took me out of the water, but then I just started throwing up when they took me out and water was just pouring out of my mouth and out my nose and I started throwing up and throwing up and throwing up and what I was throwing up was pink because we had gone to McDonald’s for lunch and I had a pink milkshake (laughter). I guess it was strawberry milkshake, and I threw up my strawberry milkshake and it’s the last time I ever drank a strawberry milkshake.

040 But I never forgot that because there are a lot of things about that moment that’s kind of weird and always poignant for me. Sort of my rescue by my cousin who I always saw as this good person. My cousin Raven pushing me from behind and lying about it later - this day. I think now it became a truth in her mind, cause why would she lie about it now, we’re so old. So I think either she doesn’t remember or remembers “aw but you slipped” so, I don’t know – that’s something that I always remember.

What did it feel like? Do you remember?

047 Umhmm. I remember. I felt very calm and very peaceful. I was just breathing very painlessly and I wasn’t frightened and I was just floating. And I wasn’t cold and I was very relaxed and I kept going down and down and down and down. And when he came to get me, I didn’t want to go because he was pulling me up and I liked what was happening and I didn’t want it to stop. And I remember, I may have even struggled against him. I don’t even remember. But I remember wanting to and not wanting to go back up, so that’s something I remember. And as a defining moment, I could say all these things about it cause it’s so symbolic, right? and so metaphorical, but I would really just be making that up, which I guess is what we do anyway, but I don’t think of’s just something that I remember that I write about and I think about.

But it does show up in your writing and comes back to you?

058 It shows up, yeah, it shows up in my writing as a narrative poem in my writing. It shows up in other poems as in sort of, what does it feel like to like that you’re drowning. And also feeling like the peacefulness of something that’s going to lead to death, of being in a harmful situation and not really realizing that it’s harmful. Thinking of it as something that’s dangerous but feels really good. And I don’t know.

068 I think things that have defined me as a person. The first thing I thought about were obsessions, right. When I was a kid, I was really obsessed with animals and nature. And even though I lived in the city, it was suburbanish for New York City, but we spent a lot of time also in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and Queens where I grew up I was constantly talking to clouds and trees and I had a language with my dog and I slept with my dog. And I was like a little naturalist and I guess a lot of people in my family really love nature, which is a very Trinidadian thing. People very much love the natural world. I was around a lot of people who loved birds, or they loved plants, or they loved the ocean. Or they loved dogs. Lots of people in my family had a lot of dogs, you know if you go to Trinidad, they’re all like botanists. They can tell you what this tree is and what it does and what this bark does and everyone had little gardens and things like that so I was around, in this culture of people who were really felt connected to nature and had a really deep respect for animals, even though they ate them, though you know – that was just part of life. But I guess, I was obsessed with animals and social relationships between animals. And I’d read books about animals. And one of my uncles brought me a book that was the birds of North America and it had a little – this is really crazy – it had a little vinyl record, but kind of a flimsy vinyl record that would fit in a book.

The square ones.

090 So it had a record in it of bird songs and I would actually play this and I remember thinking later, “God, what a nerdy kid.” I was in my room, I had this record of bird songs that I was listening to and to this day I can recognize different bird songs, and I definitely know I can recognize lots of birds. I’m kind of interested. So those are things that are sort of secret obsessions, things that I notice and are connected to. And this is also part of my connection to a fantasy world, to a very deep connection to a fantasy world. Which I still indulge in. That’s my prozac. I have two prozacs. One is chocolate and the other one is fantasy. So, because, and this again is not an event, but these are the cumulative events of my childhood.

100 When I became six or seven, I remember in first grade, my father started becoming really abusive. And I didn’t know why at the time, but he became really mean and we’d get lots of beatings for no reason. He was really mean to my mother. He was really abusive for the rest of his life basically. Until maybe the year or two years before he died he was really abusive and horrible. And that was definitely one of the ways that I would make myself feel better, was fantasizing about stuff. Which is kind of crazy, because he was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Like he could be perfectly fine and friendly and fun, but then he would really be dangerously evil and abusive. And this is somebody who didn’t drink or take drugs or anything. So this is not one of those things like when he drinks and then whatever. No, this would be triggered by things that of course as children we would be completely unaware of. And we would just bear the brunt of it.

115 I think a lot of what I did was make up these stories, a lot of which when I was very young, were connected to the natural world. Stories about a deer and its parent – sort of like Bambi stories – or stories about people who turned into animals. Cause I also read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, of course– cause my mom was a Trekkie – so I watched Star Trek with her and stuff.

Remind me to tell you a story about that later. So you watched a lot of Star Trek with her.

122 Yeah. We watched a lot of Star Trek. And I think all of that filtered into my consciousness, or also my disassociation. Cause basically I was disassociating from all the scary things that were going on in my house. It was a very scary place to grow up. I was afraid all the time. And so the only time I could get out of that was by making up stories or reading other peoples’ stories. So I also read a lot. I wouldn’t say it’s an event kind of thing. But those are things that cumulatively pointed me in this, like who I am today.

It’s amazing cause here you have this connection with nature. And in a way this becomes your safety. And then this whole event around water.

138 I grew up going to the beach all the time, whether it was in Long Island or...cause my mother loved the beach. And she loved to swim so we were always swimming, or at the beach. When we were in Trinidad we were always at the beach, or we’d swim in somebody’s pool. So we were always in water, all the time, or around water, and we’d go to my grandparents in Florida and we’d take these swimming lessons. We’d go to the pool everyday. Plus I’m a water sign, I love the water. So definitely...there’s the safety and the danger. And I think I remember it so much because there’s all this trust stuff that’s there with somebody in your family hurts you, somebody in your family saves you. This thing that you have so much fun in is harmful, but it also feels really good, you could die doing this. So there’s a lot of stuff involved in that particular moment.

What do you remember when you started using writing as a way to create a world for yourself?

153 I guess I can’t remember ever not doing that. As soon as I could write I was writing stories, but I would also tell stories. And one of the things my mother says is that I used to make up songs all the time before I could talk. So, when I was little, when I was babbling – maybe seven, eight, nine months – I was singing. Because she would sing to me a lot, she would tell me stories and read to me, so there was tons of oral language around me as well. Because I come from this family culture where people are constantly telling stories about something, and they’re jumping up or they’re telling a story or they’re acting it out everybody’s laughing and they’re all yelling at each other having an argument but it’s okay. You know. So I think I was always singing, but I can’t remember not imagining something happening. Sort of like a what if, but just doing it. Imagining something happening differently, or something extraordinary happening in an ordinary moment. So as soon as I could write I would write stories, so the earliest writing I have of my own is from first grade. And in first grade notebook are half begun stories about - a lot of them were about deer.

Did you see deer?

174 No, I didn’t see a live deer, maybe in the zoo. I didn’t see a live deer until I was much older, like in high school – wild deer. But I think Bambi – that story – really touched me. And so I would read a lot about deer, and about how they actually do fight and protect their children and do this or the other, whatever, and I knew they were around cause we’re in New York State and there’s tons of deer here, but I never saw them in the wild but I had a lot of stories about... re-writing Bambi in first grade. And I had songs. I would make up songs all the time. I’d write plays. I’d put my cousins and my brother in them. Cause we had a whole gang of kids in our neighborhood. And so I’d write plays and they’d act out the play in the backyard.

And of course they would participate!

187 Of course. And then I’d have to copy over the script like four times. So I’d copy over the scripts and they’d have the scripts and they’d do the play. I don’t remember what they’re about. Any of them. But you know, I’d write these plays for them. I’d also read to my cousins and my little brother. Cause I had cousins who lived across the street. So I’d read to them. So I was a very literate kid. Very literate. Oral, written. I’d read all the time. I’d sing songs, make up musicals. So I was constantly doing that. Oh - I used to write porn.


Did you? That’s excellent. How did you start writing porn?

201 I don’t remember. I think there was a thing...the kids in my elementary school, in fifth grade they’d tell nasty stories. There was this thing to tell nasty stories, “and he put his dick in her pussy” or whatever and so I became fascinated. But at the time, we didn’t say wifey. It was very crude, block headed stuff. We had never seen any cause this was before cable, so nobody had really seen anything, except for like kind of briefly in those Kentucky Fried Chicken movies. There were all these Richard Pryor movies and all these movies with Bill Cosby like Uptown Saturday Night or Shaft, and so you’d kind of briefly see these things but I don’t know for whatever reason in 1970 whatever in my elementary school people started telling these nasty stories. And so I started writing them. And I became kinda famous for writing these nasty stories, but I wouldn’t show them to too many people because I didn’t want people to know and I didn’t want my parents to find out. So I remember I’d write these little porn things and everyone’d be like “okay, just read us the nasty stories”.

I love that you were the porn queen.

219 For a moment. I had my moment. I had my little moment.

Switching gears a little bit, I would love to hear what you’re coming out story is.

223 This is kinda weird. My coming out story is the same thing. It’s not a moment. I always liked girls like forever ever and ever. So there was never a moment where I suddenly realized that I felt that way. it was more like attaching words to it. So when I was in kindergarten I had this pack of girls I ran with. But then there was also this boy, and I remember his name was Patrick and he was little and he was sort of my first boyfriend. Like when I was little and I would say definitely as a kid I was much more inclined to be bi[sexual], I think I was a lot more open to guys then than I am now, as I got older I got weaned off of guys cause I liked little boys better when they were little, when we were all little they were better. When we reached fifth grade they became quite distasteful and I didn’t like them anymore at all, or so much. It was not as even. Like in kindergarten it was pretty even, I might like a boy, I might like a girl but the older I got the more I was into girls, almost exclusively. And I remember saying things like, “oh I’m never going to get married.” and “I hate boys.” and just being very...and lots of girls do that, it’s very developmental, but I meant it. And it wasn’t going to change. That was my expressing what my sexual preference was gonna to roll out to be.

246 And then I had one boyfriend in seventh grade and that was about social currency because he was the most popular boy in school, and of course he was light-skinned. And of course he had gotten left back. So he was like the James Dean of our school and he liked me, which was completely odd to me. So he wrote me a note “you wanna go with me?” and I said “yeah.” because whoa – I could suddenly triple my popularity. And so I went out with him. But it was middle school going out, which is nothing. It was holding hands; maybe I kissed him once and I was very chaste about the whole thing. So he’s my little middle school boyfriend. Cause then I went to boarding school and that was it. Cause boarding school was all girls. And so I was just like...

Which boarding school did you go to?

Miss Border’s School.

Where is that?

In Farmington, Connecticut.


262 And then I was like in heaven. Cause I was like, `girls all the time’. And what was really funny about this school is that it’s very liberal. It’s probably one of the most liberal girls schools, like we don’t have uniforms and it’s very open. It’s kind of like, it’s pretty progressive but in a tight-lipped New England way and it’s very focused on your individual development and the community’s also really important, though and people are constantly thinking about the whole. And whatever. And also we lived together, so we were really, really close. And there were no taboos around holding hands or sleeping together and I mean, celibate, platonic sleeping together. So we’d sleep together, you’d sleep holding your friends just like puppies. So it was great. I had the attention that I wanted and then there were of course, I’d be totally in love with people.

281 What started happening my senior year is I started – well, and I had no idea this entire time cause you have to remember the time period – I had no idea what a lesbian was. I had never heard that word. The only word I had ever heard was lezzie and I had no clue what it was. I thought it was a prostitute. Like a ho. Right. Cause I had this best friend from my neighborhood and she belonged to this church called Christ the King and at Christ the King they would have these youth activities and sometimes I would go with them cause my family didn’t go to church at all. My grandparents did, my parents didn’t believe in church, so I would go cause it was a social thing, even though they were supposed to be all holy, I learned that they were not being that holy. They would just hang out together and do things and be nasty sometimes. So there was this girl and they were like, “She’s a lezzie.” and I was just like, “Oh.” And the only bad thing I knew that girls could be was ho’s, so I assumed it was a synonym for ho. I had no idea. I’d never heard of it. I had no clue.

298 And I vaguely knew about punks or whatever which is what my dad called gay guys cause one of his best friends from childhood was a punk, right. He was...and so my dad would talk about him and he would talk about him the same way he’d talk about Johnny Mathis, who he was also really into. And the thing of it is he would say it, and sometimes it was this derogatory thing, but still this guy was his best friend and they were still really great friends and everybody knew apparently, but they were still friends. But I didn’t really know what that meant, punk. It was not macho. I know what it meant, really, to them. The full implications. And then he would connect it to Johnny Mathis and he would say, “See all those women. They’re screaming at Johnny Mathis, they think he’s singing to them, but he’s not singing to them. He’s singing to the men.” And so I thought, oh that’s interesting, so I guess a punk likes men or something. But it didn’t really stick cause it wasn’t connected to anything. So this whole time I didn’t really know.

314 And so in high school people started telling these stories. And I always thought of it like Tristan and Isolde. There were these great love affairs between girls. And they were legendary. And people would talk about these great love affairs between these two girls and it always happened that one of them, they were friends, and one of them fell in love with the other and she told her friend that she was in love with her and her friend always told her I love you but I don’t feel that way about you. So that was the narrative, but no one ever said the word lesbian in that context either so I still didn’t know what it was. I really don’t know how I learned what it was. Maybe somehow my senior year I knew. Oh because at some friend Olga and I...Olga came to me, and we were really close and I was totally in love with her. She was Mexican and really mean (laughter). She was really mean. She came to me and she said, “Oh well, you know somebody asked me if we were lesbians.” And I was like, “what’s that?” cause I didn’t know. And she was like “It means that we’re two girls that love each other.” And I was like, “But this makes it sound like it’s bad.” And she was like “No, you know, it’s something that’s unnatural and whatever and we’re not doing that.” And I said, “Well what did you say?” cause I started realizing oh okay – and I put it together with the narrative of the friends who love each other and whatever and I was like, okay people think this is really bad. That’s when I started to get the idea. Cause I sort of knew, okay, I never see this, so I think I am the only one who ever feels this and I know it’s different and I wish I could marry Olga and I wish could be her boyfriend. But the way it manifested itself was that I wished that I was a guy. “If only I were a guy then she could be my girlfriend.” But then I’d realize, if I were guy, she’d never let me this close to her and she’d never tell me the things she tells me and we’d never really be this close. So then I had this whole dilemma or whatever. Then, I remember she told me that and I was like, “What did you tell them?” She said, “Well I told them that they should mind their own business and they didn’t know what they were talking about and whatever.” And I felt so relieved because I knew from the narratives from the great love affairs that it could turn. That she could have turned on me in that moment. And she could have said, “well, she’s like that but I’m not.” or she could have not wanted to see me anymore or not wanted to be close. But she didn’t care. She was just like, you know, whatever. So we were really close and kind of girlfriends in everything but we never kissed or anything.

Did you ever tell her you had a crush on her?

362 No. I never did. I never did. And then I ended up going to my college because she went there. And I hated it so much. It was really a sacrifice. Then after, when we were in college, we weren’t even friends anymore. Isn’t that terrible? I guess the first time I had a `real relationship’ or whatever was the summer after my freshman year [of college] I went to Spain and the woman who led the trip, the woman who organized the group from my college, I totally fell in love with her AND she was really a dyke. And, I started doing the regular thing that I do with women I like. I just hang out with them a lot, just be really close and sleep together. And then one night I kissed her.

You’re bold. It’s great!

380 You know what, I think I was so clueless. I didn’t have any words. I had no experience. It’s kind of like that no images song. I had no images. And so I was completely driven by desire. And because I knew nothing, all I had was my desire. I didn’t have anything that said, “oh this is wrong and people won’t be your friend anymore la la la la la.” I felt like I should be secretive about it but I didn’t know the litany of wrongness. And she kind of tolerated it in this funny way and I think she was amused by me and she liked me too, but she realized that I was totally naïve, that I didn’t know anything. And I think I was 17 or something and she was like, “Okay, do you kiss all your friends like that?” And I was like, “No.” And she was like, “Why are you kissing me like that?” And I was like, “I don’t know. Cause I want to.” And she was like, “Okay.” and we just kept carrying on and carrying on and eventually we had sex, but I was totally the pursuing one at this time. Like a little puppy all over her. And I didn’t actually know that she had had three girlfriends before me until much later.

So you weren’t her first, let’s say?


But she was yours?



408 And then I came out – And then I told my parents. I ended up having this totally lesbian life or whatever after I graduated from college. I told my mother when I was 22 and I told my dad when I was 26. And my mother’s like “oh!” and I’m crying on the phone because I had all this anxiety. Oh – I told my mother, I told my mother. Of course, she knew. And I call her later, all crying, and I’m like, “ girlfriend...home...for Thanksgiving?” and she was like, “Yeah. I don’t care who you bring home for Thanksgiving.” and I was like, “But no, she’s like my girlfriend, girlfriend.” and she’s like, “Yeah, that’s fine. It’s not a problem. Why would that be a problem?” I’m like, “Oh, I thought you might not like it cause I’m gay.” And she was like, “No, that’s insane. Why would I never not like you because of that. That’s ridiculous.” She’s like, “That’s just silly. I love you however you are and I just want you to be happy.” And I was like, “Okay, thank you” (fake crying).

That’s so amazing!

429 But she was like, “But don’t tell your father. He’ll kill her.” But she was making that up because he actually ended up being cooler than she was. And he was like, “Oh, I know. I know you’re a homosexual.” And I was like, “Oh. Okay.” And he was like, “You know I don’t have a problem with that. Just as well. You just gotta get your education and don’t let anybody stand in your way. You just get what you need to get and succeed in life.” I was like, “Okay Dad.”

439 So I guess that’s my coming out story. But recently I’ve been coming out to my students, which is very trippy.

[Side B 000] Yes, cause I’ve only taught college. And in college they don’t really care. And then I’ve taught elementary school or middle school and they don’t really even notice that you exist. They’re all about mommy or daddy or whether you love them in elementary school and then in middle school they are occasionally curious about you but they’re so wrapped up in their daily tortures that they don’t ...I mean I barely remember my teachers from middle school. But this is high school and they’re kind of like, “hmm. you’re an adult, I’m an adult.” and so they ask. But the thing is, with any of my students, I’ve never hidden it. I just act like a normal person like tadada, and there’s “oh – you’re vegetarian?” and “No, I’m not vegetarian, but my girlfriend is and we live together which is why I don’t buy meat for the house.” “Oh, your girlfriend...” And so, it’s been really interesting because one of my students actually, we think he’s gay, and so I kind of purposefully, when Naomi was at school, he came by to see me because he always coming by to see me because he’s in my creative writing class and he’s a great writer. And I was like, “Oh – this is my girlfriend, Naomi.” and he was like, “Oh, hi. Nice to meet you.” And then one of my other students was, “Oh, what are you doing for Thanksgiving or Christmas?” And I was like, “Oh – I’m going to my girlfriend’s parents’ house.” And then Robert was there, my gay student, and he was like, “Oh, is she the one that I met the other day?” “Yeah – she was in South Africa, but now she’s back so we’re going to her parents’ house and tadada so it’ll be good. You know – the in-laws.” And then my other student, Melissa, with the vegetarian comment. So I came out to her. And they’ve all been really great. Oh my other student Stephanie. This is part of some longer conversation she was having about either wanting to be a philosopher or else like Carrie Bradshaw. She’s so funny. So, I’ve been coming out to my students and that’s the most anxiety-producing coming out ever.

High school students especially are severe judges.

26 Yeah. Because they’re judges. And they’re volatile. You can’t trust them. You can only trust them to be who they are. Which is: teenagers. And they’re fickle and their allegiances are fickle. They can also be really mean to each other and to the people around them. And so I just didn’t know “what is it going to be like? Ohmigod.” So, you know. But it’s been good.

Sounds it. So, thinking about the fact that you teach, and also that you write, what does it mean for you to be a writer?

35 ANA! I don’t know. It’s hard. Alright. I think because it’s something that I’ve just done, I never thought...once I met someone who started writing when they were 23, an accomplished person mind you, and I was just sort of appalled because I was like, “how can you just pick up one day and decide you’re going to be a writer? Who starts writing when they’re 17? It’s far too late.” So my process has been such that I’ve always written, I’ve always told stories and definitely the older I’ve gotten...well, at different points in time I’ve stuck myself into certain genres and stuck with those for awhile. I started exclusively in fiction, when I was really writing hard, like in high school. And I didn’t write poems at all. And then when I was in college I started writing both poetry and fiction and then by the time college was over I was writing exclusively poetry and did so pretty much for the next eight years, so for me it’s something that I can’t help doing. So I don’t’s really organic. So, it’s hard to say what it means to me or myself as a writer. Like what does that mean? There’ve been times when I felt like I wasn’t the right kind of writer. When I wasn’t writing things that I thought people wanted to read. And when I wasn’t writing in a style that seemed it was popular or acceptable.

But you did it anyway?

58 Yeah, I just did it anyway because again it was part of me. It’s like saying, whatever color I am. I can’t do anything about that. No matter how I behave or how I speak or what I wear I’m still the same color and so for me my writing voice was like that. It’s just something that I can’t change. It grows as I grow, but it can’t really be manipulated. So, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. All I can think about are things like [Pablo] Neruda’s Nobel Prize speech, talking about being a writer. Or is that somebody else?

It sounds like being a writer is part of the grain of who you are. The way you walk through the world.

70 Yeah, I mean it definitely is. It definitely is. I think that there are things about it, part of it is just what I do and then that has implications. There are things that have implications that are often surprising. Like, as I started to go around and read my work to different audiences, I was always surprised at the people who responded. Like I did this reading during a fundraising kind of season for this gallery, that also had performance in it. So they also had their donors there. So there were all of these wealthy white people who were a lot older and all audiences respond differently, so you read to certain audiences and they’re making all kinds of noise and clapping or calling and responding or you read to some audiences and you’re like, “did anyone even hear me?” cause they don’t clap between poems or whatever, but it’s just different ways of listening and showing respect. And I remember after that one, this little old white lady from Birmingham, Alabama was like, “I loved your work so much.” And I was like, “Really?” and she was like, “Yes – could you sign my little program?” And she was one of their donors who had come from, cause they’re affiliated with the Corcoran Gallery/Museum in D.C. so there are all these far flung people. And I was like, well, “do you want what I read tonight? You can have it.” And she was like, “Thank you so much.” And then she wrote me a letter after.

Wow that’s so special.

91 Yeah so it was really kind of like, oh, very interesting to me. That was the first example that I thought, oh people with really different experiences from me can connect with my work and it was really meaningful but it still felt really entirely mysterious. I think that’s the thing about being a writer that I actually feel strongly about is not making assumptions about my audience. That was the big lesson of that is not making assumptions about any audience, audiences that I think are like me or who would like me, or audiences who are unlike me and I think that ties back to it feeling so organic. I just have to do whatever and trust that whoever needs to hear it is going to hear it and whatever work I was supposed to do with this will happen. Because you just don’t know what lives you’re going to touch with your writing and I think that’s the really powerful thing for me and you can’t force that, either. You just have to be...that’s why I try to be really genuine with my ideas and honest to what I’m wanting to say at the moment and I’m not very purposeful. I know people who are and I think that’s fine. But I find that when I’m like that, the clunkier my writing becomes I think because I feel stifled that way.

By focusing on the purpose of a piece?

114 Yeah by saying, “okay, I’m going to write this and it’s going to illuminate xyz.” Some people do that and they do a really good job, but it doesn’t really work for me. So I think who I am as a writer is trying to also let go of outcomes. So I know people who are business-y about it and they shape things in such a way that it’s marketable. They think about markets.

What works for you? What are the driving forces?

124 Well, I’m always having ideas and ideas and ideas and ideas and ideas and ideas. So I’m always thinking about things. I’m thinking about, in I’m working on general ideas from specific stuff. I’m always interested last little big piece that I wrote was this series of poems they’re all connected in this book and they’re not really separated from each other, is Proxy, which is concerned with landscapes of desire and dangerous sexuality and love that’s really destructive but also how when you are having any kind of emotional experience the entire world is converted, becomes a service to that experience. Subways and train tracks and trees and buildings and windows and lampshades. All those things reflect all of that emotional intensity. So it’s concerned with that.

142 And now, I’m interested in thinking about loss. I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact my mother died last year and I have all this writing about it, some of which I wrote when I was in the hospital with her. Some of it that’s after and just how to. How am I going to represent that? How am I going to express that? And it might be working in collaboration with a friend of mine who’s a video artist and another friend of mine who’s a dancer and we’re sort of thinking about these ideas. And I think that might be the concept that’s driving this next piece. What’s work for me, I’m a very intuitive writer. So this book that I’m working on, the way that it started, I was in Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and I was in a workshop with Patricia Powell and one night we had to go write something new and I was just sitting there and the first line came into my mind and then the rest of my book came. The first line, “Two doors down lives fortune.” and I thought, “Fortune?” And then I realized Fortune was a person, not an idea. Not luck. And then I thought, well, who’s saying this? And then I realized it was a person who loved her and it was a woman. And where did it happen? It was happening in Trinidad and so it just kinda came like that and that’s how I tend to write. Even when I sit down and I’m going to write something, stuff just pops up. I don’t say, “Okay, now I’m going to write about...based on a little boy who lived here and then whatever.” I’m the kind of person that stuff just pops into my head, even in the moments when I’m sitting down to write, things just sort of pop in. Of course they’re connected to things I’ve been thinking about and all day I have ideas popping into my head. Like I could spend all day on the internet just chasing down my ideas. And it’s really interesting what they lead to.

173 Like I’m watching this movie, Brother 2 Brother and in it there’s a dialogue between James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver which never really came to pass, but Eldridge Cleaver did say a lots of really critical things about James Baldwin and James Baldwin did in fact reply a lot to Eldridge Cleaver so I’m going through all of that. And then I find some footnote about somebody else and then I chase that down. And then I’m going back to tying it all in, thinking “I wonder what Kathleen Cleaver thought of all that?” Thinking about the context of that, and then Huey Newton’s beliefs on homosexuality were really awesome and so it spirals off into something else. And sometimes there’s a moment that happens or sometimes I have a project in mind. I have a project right now. It’s a secret project, so I’m not going to tell you. But I do have a project where I’m thinking: for a year, I want to write about the same thing and that’s an idea that I got from other writers. One of whom was my teacher David Lehman and recently a woman did that, too – On Kawara – and then I was at Diabeacon in the gallery and there was an artist, I think a Japanese artist, who every time they’re in a different city they write the date in the order just as it would be in that city. So they’re paintings but they’re just dates and each date is.. like in the U.S., it would be “05/01/91” but in Germany, it be “05 may” or whatever. You know what I mean? So I was thinking about freezing these moments in time. So I guess I get ideas from definitely visual art and definitely from popular culture and definitely from film and definitely from books and nonfiction and history and whatever. And then, I kind of have this gestation thing that happens and then it comes up in whatever the work is.

There’s one more question I have for you, but what I’m really appreciating about what you’re saying is, what you’re talking about is not sticking to this one linear genre, this one way of doing things. And in many ways that ties into my last question, which is how is your work influenced by who you are in the world?

206 Well, that’s really interesting. I think it’s influenced by who I am in the world simply because my work is extremely, extremely eclectic which is why I have lots of work but it’s all extremely different from each other. So even in terms of the poems that I write. It’s not just genres cause I have little scenes and plays and I have songs and I have these movie treatments and I have stories and I have a novel that I’m working on which is actually my second novel, my second unfinished novel cause I have a first unfinished novel and certainly lots of poems and even those are very different from each other. Like the two novels are different structurally as well as aesthetically in terms of the story line. And all of my poems are really different from each other so it’s been really hard for me. This is the first time I have a complete poetry manuscript because I’ll have all these different poems and they’re so different from each other they don’t even belong in the same manuscript.

223 I think eclecticism is my manifestation of who I am in the world because I think I never fit anywhere. And I sort of fit some places sometimes now because I just grew up and found people who are more like me, people you can’t say they’re one thing or another but I think I’m a multi-racial person, I’m from a multi-cultural country. I grew up in a multi-cultural family in a multi-cultural city where people perform their gender in all these different ways that are sometimes censored but are rarely totally ostracized. And I’ve grown up in lots of different places. I’ve been with super rich elite New England people and really very poor people in Brooklyn. I’ve lived in different countries. So I feel like I’m very eclectic and I also am blessed to come from an open-minded family. My parents, even though there was a nutso terrifying way to grow up, intellectually my father, as abusive and insane as he was, was really this great intellectual who had all these books like The Black Jacobins and C.L.R. James and Eric Williams and I was surrounded by the history of Pan-Africanism and all these anti-colonial, anti-imperial people and all these black intellectuals, especially Caribbean intellectuals who were part of my intellectual tradition. I had ownership over that and then I also had this really weird education where I was in NYC public schools and then I was in this elite New England boarding school and then I was in this Catholic – Georgetown University. So I always had all these different influences and experiences. Now of course, people can come through all of that and still choose something that’s pretty narrow. But I didn’t. It’s like what Alice Walker says – you take what you can use, you put the rest on the trash heap in In Search of My Mother’s Garden. So I think I do that. There’s lots of great examples of people who do that that I discovered later on.

264 For influences for the beginning I was very, very – this is when I was much younger, like when I was a teenager – I was very influenced by e.e. cummings. I was in love with him, all the openness in the language and the quirkiness and I think that’s something that I never really left behind. Just the fact that you can be so playful. I think when I was in college, I was very influenced by Audre Lorde - just by her language. It’s so pristine. And she was always so...her persona on the page was always so controlled which I think is a really great contrast to apparently how she really was in life. But it was just so very West Indian to me, so Anglo-Caribbean. You’re so controlled and so careful with your words, so deliberate and everything. I can really relate to that and I just loved the fact that she was a dyke and I actually got to see her before she died.

281 She came and spoke at Georgetown University. I don’t know how the woman studies professor got that woman on that campus which was so hostile to anyone like her. But she was there at this huge woman studies conference and I remember her saying. Somebody asked her, “Aren’t you afraid all these things that you say and people find it so provocative.” She said, “Of course I’m afraid. If I waited to speak until I wasn’t afraid I would be talking to y’all through the Ouiji board.” (laughter) And I remember thinking, “She’s afraid of other people? and if she’s afraid and she still does what she does, then I can be afraid and I can do what I do.” And that, THAT was a defining moment. And I wasn’t 20 yet. That was a totally defining moment. That was in 1989 and it totally, totally turned my head around.

297 And then I thought, well, okay, I’m gonna try being afraid, cause apparently you don’t just die or get swallowed up by the earth if you do all these scary things, so I’m gonna try and do that, too. And of course her writings were such an influence, intellectually and also what she said about alliances and not throwing out the baby with the bathwater and critically engaging people and really what she’s talking about is the tradition of having critical friends and critical friendships and things like that. So I was influenced by her ideas about that, not just her writing.

307 And then I think more recently, I’d say the past seven years I’ve been influenced by a lot of black experimental writers. People like Carol Lavere Harren who’s really nuts. I’ve met her extensively, and she’s brilliant in this crazy way. Here After Johnny, have you read it? It’s sort of a crazy book. But it’s a very stream of conscious book written from a black woman. And people like Adrianne Kennedy who I really love. And Harryette Mullen and Lorenzo Thomas, Will Alexander, and Erica Hunt. And then I was in Cave Canem, and through there I met friends who became my influences like Ronaldo Wilson, Duriel E. Harris and Dawn Lundy Martin and Mendi Lewis Obadike who are all my friends and who I deeply respect as artists and who are constantly trying to challenge this ever-traditional narrative or aesthetics that a lot of writers of color or queer writers find themselves bound in. And the sloppiest example of that is based on the black preaching tradition - that black rhetorical tradition of spoken word, and the typical rhythm and typical flow and typical untidiness, that’s probably the sloppiest example of it. But, it also occurs in texts that are a lot more respected or considered canonical. Or even what people are writing now. They don’t want to do things to “alienate the audience” and I think a lot of people underestimate how smart the audiences are and what people want. So, I’m really interested in those people who are saying “I’m gonna try and create a different kind of experience on the page” or even what you’re saying about what’s poetic about fiction. What are the poetic aesthetics of fiction? I think that looking at work in different ways and trying to broaden aesthetically what’s going on, because why are people writing? My students I love them but they’re writing poems as though they lived in the 18th century. Right? So what is that about? So I think that what’s interesting is to interrogate those questions. What does it mean to be people of color? Who’s representative and what is authentic? and all that kind of stuff. People who are asking all those kinds of questions and also asking how can we make our society or our social structures better places to be human beings. Cause I think that’s the point of it, it’s not just some kind of little exercise. Live by Erica Hunt. What she articulates in her writing is that there are aesthetics and there are aesthetics of power and oppression and we really need to interrogate them and to create new aesthetics that are actually about democracy and about humanism and about respecting other people in the world and trying to live better and live right. To me that’s what’s different than what’s articulated a lot of times in terms of language poets, who I respect. But there’s a point to it and that comes back to who I am as a person. I am who I am. I’m a black dyke in the United States and I think that’s why socially I live with a lot of questions, and I live in a lot of dangerous places, too. So I think I’m constantly trying to solve those questions and not just survive, but really thrive. And so I try to manifest openness towards other peoples’ work because it’s really hard I think. And so that’s also part of how who I am is influenced by who I’m influenced by. I’m influenced by living writers who are humble and who are very down to earth and I don’t like people who are mean. Cause there are people who are great writers but they’re so mean. So, I don’t like that.

Thank you for answering these questions. I actually have a follow up question. How did you get involved with Cave Canem?

404 This is really random.

I swear this is the last question.

406 I don’t mind you asking me questions. I can’t always think of good answers. Okay this is how it happened. I was on sistahnet, which is a black lesbian listserve. And someone from sistahnet was on a African studies listserve and someone on that listserve had gone to Cave Canem and so she forwarded it to her and she forwarded it to sistahnet and I saw it and I said that sounds very interesting, but it’s a little scary that it’s all black people. And so then I brought it to my writers group - cause there were a bunch of women writers in D.C. and we were meeting and we were actually doing rengas together. it was so fun. So I brought it to that group and I said “this looks interesting and I’m going to apply.” One of my friends she was like, “but it’s all black people.” And I was like, “I know.” Because we were in D.C. and we were...all the black dykes in D.C. who were poets and who were reading in black lesbian spaces, we were constantly confronting all sorts of black macho, black nationalism and silliness and I used to read at this Ethiopian place and they loved me there and they called me the nasty girl. And they’d be asking my friends...

The porn tradition continues. (laughter)

440 Yeah yeah. and they’d be asking my friend Ernesto who was the (tape cuts off)

Tape 2, Side A

003 So what was I talking about? So I was the Nasty Girl, so anyway, for all these reasons being in D.C. in the early 90s we had a lot of reasons for great trepidation of thinking what is it going to be like that these people are doing a poetry workshop just for black poets because at the time nobody was doing that. Now there was Hurston-Wright workshops that Marita Golden was doing but I think that was maybe their second year. I think they had just started and so I had applied for those as well. And so my friend was like, okay, you go. And if it’s good, then I’ll go later. (laughter). I was the canary in the coalmine. And then I applied and it turned out to be heaven. It was the antithesis of all of that. It was’s hard to describe. I was ready to be in a sexist and homophobic space and to be the front line for that. But it wasn’t like that at all. And just to clear the air, the first time you get there you have to sit in a circle and everybody introduces themselves and says what brought them here and I came out right away. I was like, “Cause I don’t want any nonsense. Just know that I’m a dyke. So whatever.” And of course after that people going around in the circle, nobody else came out that night. But all these people came up to me afterwards and now...well, they were just like “wow that was really brave of you cause I’m a dyke, too.” So actually it’s been a really great place. It’s just become such a great resource for me in terms of having a community of writers, of people whose work is really wonderful and that I really respect whose work is very diverse, who come from very diverse backgrounds and who are interested in lots of different things in terms of black writing. Some people are writing criticism now. Some people have done anthologies and things. Some people have done journals. Some of them are academics and some people are regular joes and grandmas and things like that. What it has done is it has centralized a place you can go. And I got in in the very early stages; I guess 10 years ago now. Cause our 10th anniversary anthology is coming out. Cause I went in its very second year. And since then I’ve gotten a lot of stuff out of it. People say, “oh well, I want to go to an MFA program, I wanna make some connections.” I did my MFA and I didn’t make any connections except for one, which was a good one I think because it’s probably what got me my Best American Poetry gig, so that’s pretty good.

That’s not bad.

039 No, not shoddy. Not shoddy at all. But it got me past the screeners I think. But otherwise, they’re not necessarily that great for you unless somebody decides to take you under their wing. However, Cave Canem consistently has been a resource in terms of having readings and having workshops and having a place where you can find out where to submit your work or get advice or someone to give you feedback. Even to have a writers group if you wanna get a bunch of people together to do something. Or jobs even. And readings and gigs and stuff. It’s been really, really great. And I think what’s interesting and kind of weird to us, especially being from the early days, is that now it has this reputation. It’s known. People will be like, “Oh – you’re in Cave Canem.” and they’re impressed. Where as before people’d be like “What is that?” So it’s kind of weird, but it’s been so good. And I’ve made really good friends through it. And what I love is that it’s very open. It’s a very open community. It’s people doing all kinds of things.

Well thank you.

You’re welcome.

Did you have any questions for me?


Tisa Bryant, Interviewed on March 13, 2005

Tisa Bryant, author/scholar

Tisa Bryant, born in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona.

Interviewed on March 13, 2005 by Ana-Maurine Lara

As you know, this project is really about hearing your story. I would love to start with an earlier part of your life, asking you about some of the defining moments from before the age of 20 that have really influenced who you are.

I’ll work in reverse chronological order. Moving out of my parents’ home, a couple of days after high school graduation to New York for a very, very short stint.

I didn’t know you lived in New York.

Yeah, it wasn’t to the New York that I envisioned `cause we ended up in Long Island, so it was very, very different and very black, actually. I didn’t realize. I hear `island’ in this country and it kind of means something different. But yeah, being 17 in the summer, moving into and ended up in Boston and we were in the second term of Ronald Reagan. It was at that moment of really having to confront the world. I waited to finally be free to make my own decisions about life and it was really bewildering to really try to understand the systems that comprised the world and what they actually meant to me. I always knew that there was a lot of power in the world that I didn’t have, but then the kinds of interactions and being completely broke and really young and working a job and living in an apartment with a whole bunch of crazy kids who were just completely transient, you know. My father would check in on me, meet me in Boston Common every once in a while to make sure that I was not bleeding, [laughter] was fed - you know - and a little cash. But really, being out in the street in this very unstructured way while a lot of the last remaining social structures that would protect the smallest vestige of quality of life for people of color, for working class people and poor people were being dismantled right around me and I didn’t really understand what all of that was about. Just the rise of homeless populations, AIDS, the kind of illusion of AIDS and the illusion of the homeless population where we’re seeing all this stuff happening. I was seeing people on the street, I was hearing about people dying from a mysterious disease, but it wasn’t being talked about in the news. And also at the time when I was living in Boston, I was living in the Fens – the Fenway area – I’m not quite sure if it was a serial killer or what but there were a lot of murders during that time in the mid 80s. I graduated from high school in 1984. So at that time, every spring and summer bodies would be found in the Fens; there were stabbings, there were lots of bashings and also a lot of clubs then, too.

Was this something people were talking about in your groups of friends?

Yeah, and I lived in a rooming house so out on the front steps is where the news happened. And I would just sit, I felt like a little kid again, trying to pretend I was invisible at the big people’s table. As long as I was quiet I’d be allowed to stay. But that’s how I got my information. The Boston Globe was pretty good in reporting on it because there was a burgeoning sense of urgency among white gay men in that area, so there were more community watches that were forming, public meetings and protest. But at that same time, and this isn’t actually a memory that I have and it’s disturbing to me that it’s not a memory that I have and I can’t quite track when it was happening, but in several texts by feminist women of color there was some sort of serial killing of black women going on in Boston during that time that I’ve been unable to find any documentation of. I found two stories in the Globe and one story in the Herald. Again, these seemingly unrelated cases of black women found murdered. I don’t remember how they were murdered, if that was any connection that way. Angela Davis had cited it, Barbara Smith had cited it. Between Home Girls [A Black Feminist Anthology], Women Race and Class, This Bridge [Called My Back], all of these women of a certain generation all kind of recalling this moment. And I don’t know if I was still in high school while all this was happening or if I had just gotten out and moved to Boston. But this kind of atmosphere of being completely unsafe, even though as this...totally full of that adolescent arrogance and sense of freedom. But it was a split consciousness in a way of feeling completely free and able to do whatever I wanted and then again feeling very bound by invisible systems and invisible dangers that were made quite palpable through AIDS and through all of the different kinds of bashing. And that, in terms of coming out, is a very slow and retrograde process for me. But at that moment it was a forward motion right into clubs, right into lesbian clubs when I was 17, 18, 19, 20.

How did you get into all the lesbian clubs in Boston?

With a little 15 year old. A little 15 year old baddie. I met some girls who lived in the Fens, right across the street from me and they took me out to Somewhere Else, and to the 1270 and to The Loft even though it wasn’t always gay, though I knew a lot of gay men did hang out at The Loft. To the Ramrod...We should not have been in there `cause they were just like, “Why are you here?” We would go into ManRay. Campus at ManRay. It’s still there. (NB: it’s gone now!)

It’s still a province of young gay people.

Yup, it is. It was interesting. So many of the older lesbians who were in these clubs, almost all of them were twelve-stepping. And that - you know my parents drink a little, well, much too much for my taste, so that put me on a weird alert. We were talking earlier about role models and how behavior can be modeled - I don’t know how to describe the process - but it just happens. If you’re not paying attention to your behavior you may not know how you may be influencing somebody else. And coming out into clubs where I was watching a lot of kids my age drinking too much, doing all kinds of drugs and there’s this whole generation of women who were substance abusers and they were at various stages of recovery or total damage. And that created this unfortunate narrative that this is what it meant to be a lesbian.

To be in recovery or to be somehow...

Right, because it was so wrong. Everybody I knew, they were people that I mostly saw at night. Not really friends I saw during the daytime. It was all about the twilight; it was all about nights and weekends. I didn’t really see them too much during the day. And there were a lot of other reasons for that, too.

To back up from that...what would I say?

It sounds like this time period in Boston is so critical and in some ways it was informed just by leaving your parents’ house. It served as a sort of break and that had to do with your coming out process.

Yeah, I mean I wasn’t particularly happy living where my parents lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts. And that wasn’t the best time. I went into the cave, and didn’t quite come out of that until I moved out. It was fraught with a lot of problems. Because I hadn’t quite actualized as an adolescent. I was very recessed. I felt very recessed the whole time during high school. I still have a physiological image. It makes me understand how teenagers like to wear hoodies. They’re just really shrouded. And shadowed and you can’t get to them. That’s how I felt. I didn’t wear a hoodie, but I felt like my eyes were way back from the surface of my face.

Wow. You felt that.

Yeah, I really felt it. And it was really wild.

I know my high school experience was shaped by coming out. [But for you] was there any connection there?

To being queer?


Sure. To being queer, to being black. I was surrounded by white girls. I rejected assimilation at that point, which is something that’s really hard and it’s something that trips me out. I don’t feel like I rejected my intellect, but in rejecting a certain mode of assimilation, I didn’t leave myself any choices because I didn’t have a sense of what education could be for me. The educational process was all caught up in a kind of assimilation, period.

That you fully rejected.

Right, because you know I just wasn’t very sophisticated. I didn’t know how to think about it and I didn’t have much help in thinking about “Well, look, don’t worry about anybody who will make you feel...”. There was a small clutch of black kids in the school – education and whiteness went hand in hand – it was just a really crazy thing having moved to Plymouth from Boston, which was an ongoing trauma because I had been bussed in the 70s.

In Boston?

In Boston.

Phew. (A 164)

It was the lesser of two evils. Because my parents put us in the METCO system so we got bussed out to affluent suburbs instead of to Southie, so we got bussed into a really good school system. The irony being, of course, that the system we were bussed to ending up being infinitely better, in some respects, than the school we ended up in Plymouth - and that may be my own bitter view of it because I just hated it so much. It really signaled a complete loss of autonomy. I was in Boston. I was learning how to take the buses and the trains by myself and I could just go to stores. I could see friends. I could go to this all white school and deal and I could come home and re-contextualize myself and my identity and that wasn’t possible in Plymouth.

Where everything has to be done in a car?

Everything has to be done in a car and there was no returning to a black neighborhood. There was returning to my family, which was fine. But there wasn’t a lot of discussion going on about where we had been all day and what that meant. Being queer in that meant going out for the soccer team, the field hockey team, the softball team. And I should have in some ways, I think like “Aww, that would have been great”, but it’s not what I wanted. Cause I’m a nerd. And it’s just like...

Where’s the room for the little nerd crew?

There was the other little nerd girl and I hung out with her sometimes. I was just really sad. And getting bussed definitely had a huge impact on who I am. That whole prolonged experience of assimilation and education and understanding. I’m still trying to figure out how it is I understood what it was that was going on, what was expected of me without anybody explicitly...but they did explicitly spell it out. I was told how I needed to speak. I was told how I needed to walk. I was told how I needed to modulate my voice, not just speak in grammatically correct sentences. Not to swing so much when I walked. All that kind of stuff.

All behaviorial did it impact you in terms of who you are in the world today? What are the specific ways it impacted you? What are the specific stories that come out of you as a result?

I don’t know. There are so many. Do you mean...when you say stories do you mean personal stories that come out of it or creative...

Sure, and the ways you see how you’ve been impacted specifically, how it’s made you who you are?

Yeah – I think I arrested my own educational process for control purposes and so I think that’s why I went through this longer self-education process and directing it myself and paying for it myself and taking my time and making choices and not being told. It was necessary for me to be able to make the choice to change the way I spoke when it was necessary. And it’s interesting, that understanding came out of my taking a book on Linguistics, on Black English, out of the public library on my lunch hour or something like that. When I was 19.

And all of a sudden.

I was like, oh – code switching. Right. There was a way to understand the reality of identity and all these different kinds of perspectives. Yeah. There’s a lot that came out of that. Jobs. Lovers. Ambition. Definitely ambition. And what do you do with it, knowing that the more you strive, the more you learn, and the more you change without trying to change too much, you still end up away. I didn’t want to end up constantly [laughter]- this is so damn ironic - surrounded by white people. I was like, okay, how do I not do that?

I just kind of resisted going to school. That’s the other thing, too. I wasn’t going to move down South, you know “I’m going to go to an all black school...” No. I’m a northern girl with a Caribbean background and unfortunately that wasn’t happening. That’s not how I felt. That’s another whole complication and it’s weird `cause I feel like I internalized a whole lot of stuff about relationships between Caribbean Blacks and Southern American Blacks that I was too young to even really deal with at all, but I’ve held it in a very strange way. It’s not very strange, but it actually has intensified. Less so now, but during my 20s definitely. Because the entire signification system around Black cultural production was completely rooted in the South with no recognition at all for those huge numbers of people who were not from the South at all, ever. Who contributed a great deal to the educational system, to politics and literature and art and everything else.

I’m sitting with you here, and I know you. And the way that I’ve known you is as a writer, but tell me a little bit about that. How have you gotten to that point? What does it mean for you? How do you see yourself in terms of your creative process, your creative work, the way you walk through the world?

Okay, what does everything I just said have to do with how I walk through the world?


Everything. I’d say. [pause]

Well, writing became the means for my feeling like I had a sense of agency and again, control over my life, my experiences and how I saw the world. My own world, my own view in my own tongue. And if there’s one thing I can point to is this constant struggle between registers. Between this academic diction and other modes that are much more comfortable, relaxed. I’m prone to academic jargon peppered with swears and shit like that. [Laughter]

When I meet academics and other highly-educated people of color, I notice they do the same thing. And it’s not understood on the page. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been corrected or told that it’s a problem, the switch in register. And I realized that aesthetically and formally that’s something that I really would like to learn how to finesse and make a lot more seamless. Because the way I speak and all of the different registers I have access to, naturally, represent how I move through the world. Where I’ve been, how I see, what things mean, what I understand, that I’ve had an education, that I can use big words and that I don’t have to, but that it’s fun...and shit.

And that it’s conscious.

Sometimes I do feel an enormous need to try to speak to all kinds of people at once. And the way most people approach writing, you need to pick one register for all groups. When [in reality] we don’t speak one language all the time. [NB: Michael Eric Dyson is a great example of the shifts in register and code I’m talking about here.] We don’t speak one kind of English, and if you speak more than one language there are all those other registers besides. And it blends` cause that’s the reality of who you are. If you’ve gone through an assimilation process, if you’ve lived in more than one country or more than one city, or if you’ve moved from one community to another that’s going to affect what you write, how you see, how you speak, how you create characters, how you might string a sentence together, whether or not you use paragraph breaks. All of that stuff. So, I’m still working through all of that actually, `cause it all came up in grad school. A lot of my nonfiction prose kind of floundered because of those questions, with my professors telling me I needed to find a register, and I, in some ways agree, but the register is a blend. And those things don‘t go together. They can be collaged together, they can collide in a sentence or in the body of a paragraph but...

It makes me think of your question about interdisciplinary work.

Yeah. Interdisciplinary work is interesting in that you can still use the same academic diction and be working across disciplines `cause that’s the same language.

You’re still using the same register. Right.

Mmm hmm. [Isn’t it funny how interdisciplinary work that is free from academic language or institution is called “cross-genre”? As if there’s no discipline outside the institution.]

What does it mean for you to be a writer?

It means that I can have conversations that I think matter.

Such as?

Conversations about abortion. About labor. Not labor, because I always feel like it’s not the same when I talk about labor. Because I’ve been a pinkish/whitish/grey collar worker, but in the bottom rungs of that. I was a hand maid, a secretary. I’ve been having difficulty validating those conversations - that they are important to have. And that there is room for me to talk about these things the way I want to, because the ground that I’m treading on has lots and lots of foot prints in it and it’s a challenge for me to make that ground look clear and not hear those footsteps coming after me or any of those mouths who might critique, who might say “You can’t talk about this that way.” or “Don’t you understand the implications of this?” or “This and this...” And it’s like, “Naw, shit man, no. I worked this job, this is what it meant to me. I had this experience, this is what it was. I don’t really care. You know, write your own fiction.” And that’s the thing going between theoretical discourses, sociological, philosophical discourses and fiction. It’s the danger of reading too much nonfiction for me anyway, because a lot of the validation that we get as women writers of color will come through poetry and will come from social action. Right? So then, the fiction, up until a certain point, is in the service of that. And not in the service of it, but in conversation with it.

With poetry and social action?

Umhmm. And then whatever fiction might happen. So, it’s hard. Cause I’m not righteous. My stuff is messy. It’s not neat. It’s not cute. It’s not correct. It’s not always enlightened, it’s messy.

Can you say more about your own work?

Okay. My work. My work has changed a lot over the past two years. When I started writing I was really caught up in the therapeutic aspects of writing. Trying to write about bussing in Boston, which I’m still trying to do. Trying to write about coming out in 80s Boston during the Reagan years. Still trying to do that. Not very hard, I should say. I still feel its important to do that, but my style as a writer has changed so much. Each one of those pieces, each one of those projects is organic to its content. They do what they needed to do in a particular way. Because of what they’re about. So, Zoo Kid is about bussing in Boston, but also about the enormous but elided Caribbean presence in New England, in Boston neighborhoods. And it’s straight ahead fiction. Characters and plot and setting and tone and arc and all of those lovely things that make people happy when they want to read stories. And even though it has its moments that are also quite necessary for some of the characters because some kinds of inventions were necessary to represent subjectivity of children going through a traumatic and giddy and hard to understand experience. Because it was scary, but it was also kind of exhilarating to see these classrooms. To see the library. To see the books. To see that there was no lack whatsoever. But the hard part was to feel that I lacked because I had been rescued from my miserable Black neighborhood school that wasn’t good enough.

That transferred onto the individual?

Yeah. And that’s the thing. You’ve got this massive social experiment that’s taking place on the site of children’s bodies and I just think it’s important to talk about that because for all the people I know that’ve gotten bussed across this country, because it wasn’t just in Boston, it was this enormous simultaneous experience. But [there have been] very few novels about the process. And there are very few nonfiction books about it from a Black perspective, as well. Very few. They’re all about white people defending their schools and their neighborhoods and they’re not about Black people. The fringe is still kind of hot on that one. Cause I’m still kind of touching it. And kinda going “aah!” It’s a hard book. It’s very, very emotionally fraught. But as I’ve gotten older I've developed a bit more facility with language and with narrative and with just saying.

I’ve been very pre-occupied with image production and cultural production and representations of black women in film and in 17th and 18th century literature. Yeah. And it’s a lot of fun. But then it also becomes...well, it’s just a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun. I like it. Yeah. I think it’s interesting in talking about projects and switching registers `cause I feel I have all these projects that are kind of representative of a particular register. And it’s almost chronological now that I’m starting to think about it. My gosh, no wonder I’m such a nut case with these projects. I’m just like “oh!” It’s like one long bildungsroman in a way.

Zoo Kid is first and it’s very straight ahead. And what I’m working on now in Unexplained Presence and The Curator is very complicated. Very language based. But not impenetrable. It’s certainly not digestible and that’s intentional. I don’t desire writing that can simply be chewed up and swallowed then praised for how it tastes good. And that’s it. You need to be able to be like “This won’t quite go down.” why is that? You might cough up a whole chunk and have to look at it again. And that’s a goal. I learned that from Harryette Mullen. About the indigestibility of writing, of text.

She’s someone that I think of as a tremendous hero in a lot of ways as a Black woman doing innovative writing. Few people paid her any mind, in Black communities anyway. But in the main, not until she wrote Muse and Drudge, which had a Black woman on the cover and is a long blues poem. Right? And so there it is. She signified. She gave you the Black woman on the cover clapping her hands and everyone went “Oh – what’s that?” And all her very Black word play, working on Stein, working on James Joyce, working on the dozens, working on all kinds of stuff just got overlooked. Couldn’t see yourself. Right? People could not see themselves in her earlier work and it was all there. You read it and it’s like “Who talks like that?” I wish I had it in front of me so I could read it right now. The way she’d write about women’s accessories, or about buying certain kinds of food. Her word play, her puns, her rhythm - it was all right there. It was undeniably there. And that’s frightening to me, in terms of the whole whammy of innovative writing, queerness, Blackness, femaleness and accessibility. Being read, having a conversation that’s important to have and having each part of my identity have an impact on the language that I use and the form that I use that may then distance yet another part of the world, my world, that I’m trying to talk to. And I just have to sit with that and let it be. `Cause I can’t do anything about it. If I try to do anything about it then my writing is not real and it’s not mine anymore. You know, it’s a product. That’s really hard.

Now, I’m going to ask you – and this isn’t one of the questions we talked about earlier, but I know from so many conversations we’ve had – about the Dark Room Collective. If that’s something you want to talk about and its influence on you.

Sure. I didn’t bring it up `cause it fell outside of the time frame.

It happened after twenty?

Yeah, it sure did. It happened after 20. I was cleaned up. Wasn’t doing so many drugs. Wasn’t drinking so much. Partying so much. I was 23. A long time. Right “So long after my 20s.” I was 23 or something like that. Yeah. Actually, I was 22. Hilarious. Whatever it was, it was `89.

The Dark Room Collective was an amazing experience. There were always about 10 or 12 of us. Tom Ellis [Thomas Sayers Ellis] and Sharan Strange started it after James Baldwin died. And they went to his funeral in NY and there was this incredible event. I didn’t go. I saw it on the news. I saw the pictures and just the long wide procession of people. And they started the Dark Room Collective in `88 – I think that’s when [James] Baldwin died, in `88 - to, and I quote, “never let our living legacies get away”. Cause at the time Baldwin had been going back and forth between, well for a while, prior to his death, he was teaching at UMass Amherst. It’s two hours away. And Sharan and Tom had been going to Harvard. So that’s how it started.

And I got schooled. I knew very little about Black poetry. A little more about fiction. But not that much more. What I knew came out of Essence - that at the time [Essence]was doing its job in the community by publishing new Black women writers, which they are too lazy to do anymore. Yeah. And to get into the Darkroom Collective, I got a phone call from...I think there were three people on the phone. Sharan, Tom and Trasi Johnson and maybe Janice Lowe, also. And they quizzed me for about 40 minutes or more. Everybody was on the phone. I can’t even remember how many extensions there were in the house, but it seemed like everybody was on the phone. Maybe all those people weren’t on the phone and it’s just grown in my mind but yeah, they asked me who I was reading. And I was reading whoever I was told to read. At my job, somebody would say, “oh, you want to be a writer. You should really read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction” or I was reading the Boston Globe and New York Times Book Reviews and at the time there was a literary brat pack of Jay McInerny and Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz. And I always forget the woman’s name who wrote Far Rockaway [Jill Eisenstadt]. Where we are right now. So I was reading them, but I had also started reading Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and I couldn’t read The Bluest Eye [Toni Morrison]. I still haven’t finished it. I couldn’t do it. Didn’t want to.

So I was still very, very ignorant of just the scope...I mean I had heard of the Harlem Renaissance and I thought more about art than text, and I knew about Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. I had that little book. Small gifts from people. But yeah, they quizzed me about what I was reading. And about the music I listened to. And at the time I was coming out of my Goth period, I think it was a Goth period, or did I still have an 80s new wave asymmetrical haircut? One of the two. I was doing my fringe, my fringy thing. They were asking me what I was listening to. I just didn’t want to say anything. So, I said, “I like some, some, some...jazz.” And the only jazz I knew was what my dad had taught me about jazz, which was impressive for them, because they hadn’t heard of one of the pianists, or maybe they probably did – they were so smart. And I was like, “I like jazz and I like blues.” and they were like, “Blues?! You like blues, what do you like?” and I was like “Bobby Blue Bland” they were like “What – you do?” and I was like “Yeah.” and it was like, “Okay.” I listened to it `cause my dad listened to it. He had this big poster in his listening room. But I finally got up off it, and said “Well, you know, I like the Smiths, and I like the Cure and I like Siouxie and the Banshees and I like this and I like that” and it was the most miraculous thing because suddenly we were doing these bizarre medleys of Smith songs and P-Funk and Run DMC and Billy Bragg and Psychadelic Furs and Joan Armatrading. It was outrageous.

All on one phone call.

Yeah. And I was like, okay, I’m not the freak I thought I was. `Cause again, registers, again influence, again this multiplicity of being made of all of this stuff. And I wonder if people of color get the onus of responsibility of echoing and trying to express all of that stuff because it’s all valued so equally. That we’ve managed somehow to democratize all of those things that have influenced us, if we’re honest. That moment really just validated my life. I was like, Wow. I don’t have to be sheepish and hide the fact that I listen to all this other stuff. Somebody, I think it was Tom said, “Naw man, naw - don’t trip.” Well, not ‘trip’ `cause that’s not what we were saying then, but “Morrissey’s a great poet.” and I was like “Yeah.”

What was it like for you as a young Black queer woman in that experience?

Not the easiest. There was one other queer person who’s still my friend. John Keene. Still queer. I think he always said gay. I wouldn’t say anything. And that was it. There were some bi people. There was a woman who was in the Dark Room Collective for a little bit, who I was told later really liked me. And I didn’t get it. So now she’s totally out and fabulous. She’s got some career and everything. And I was like “Oh - I’m such a dummy.” I always feel like sending out one of those awful messages: “Hi, I understand now. I’m glad you’re happy.”

I guess I needed to be a lot more courageous than I was.

What do you mean?

Well, because it was a struggle. It was a real struggle for me. It was a real struggle for me just to admit and just stand firm in what I knew was true about myself. That I was a lesbian and I am a lesbian and that was it and not keep trying to get around it. Trying to be straight. Keep making a mess of my life. And yeah – it was hard. It was hard because I didn’t know what to do about the reaction that I got if I had a girlfriend, or a trick mostly. Somebody I was with. The way people looked. The way people in the Dark Room Collective responded. There was some homophobia there, definitely. And there was only one kind of desire.

When Alice Walker came to read in the Dark Room Reading Series, I think every Black lesbian in the tri-state area was in our living room. And there was a lot of scuttle afterwards about how homophobic we were. And I didn’t like being included in that, but then it was true, `cause I had a lot of internalized crap. A lot of fine women came to the house, too. That’s a daggone shame. And all the women in the Dark Room were just stunning. It was majority women at that. So, on top of the homophobia charge, there was also, we were a harem. So that was also exceedingly fucked up.

With all that, we’re hosting this incredible reading series, where the bulk of the writers emerging and established at the time are all very well established now. And they came for free. This was in our living room, on Sunday after church, with chairs from the church. We’d get some water and some snacks and some stuff and put some music on, clean the house and everybody would come in and they’d get a reading of two people, a couple of times three, some special events. We’d sell books, take the writer out after if there was time. Either cook in the house or take them someplace for dinner and then make sure they got to the airport or their bus and we paid for it out of our pockets. And that was my job was for. And it’s interesting - that habit’s been very hard to break – that I work to finance my art in that way. But then to be inculcated into a kind of collectivity. They all have their faults and fissures, and so do I, but it was instructive for being an individual artist.

It was interesting figuring out how to really navigate and leverage the Dark Room Collective for my own personal development and growth. And I definitely grew, but slowly everybody started getting published a little bit, and you know they’re about their stuff and I was very much about the service part of it. And I was learning. Service learning, right? A total service learning experience for sure. I was ready for us to open a library and a reading room and all that stuff. And everyone else was really starting to gain a foothold in the literary world, and they were focused. And I resented that, as much as I admired it. And I was definitely like, “what?” jealous – "How come I’m not getting anything?" They were. That was the focus, but it was incredible. I met Toni Cade Bambara and Ntozake Shange and Samuel Delany, Essex Hemphill. Yeah.

So in light of all of your experiences, one final question is what defines success for you as a writer? I ask this not from the perspective of normative perspective of success, but more as people who tend to do more social justice work and have that consciousness in their writing, and my sense is that it comes out of the context of our lives, what does that mean for you?

Surviving. Finishing projects. Connecting. Those moments when it’s clear that someone read or heard something. Of course when you do, that’s always bowled me over. And just getting it. That’s always a success. And to not ever feel closed. That I don’t have anything else to learn. I never feel that way.

You don’t walk that way.

I definitely move through the world like a student, in a lot of ways. There’s always something for me to learn. I’m constantly open to information. I was going to say experiences, but am I? No. Am I always open to experiences? No – cause I’m like “Why would I want to do that?” but definitely to learning experiences. I mean yeah, I’m open. That’s a real plus and a strength and it makes it all an adventure. And really just getting to this point in life has felt really successful to me because it was not looking that great early on. Those years where most people are going to go to college or whatever, it took me awhile to figure it out. Up until I was 23 and actually after. It’s interesting. I understand the educational process and how retro-active learning really is. After five, six years in the Dark Room Collective, I moved to California and then I was like “Whoa- I was in that for all this time.” and then it just started to roll. And grad school’s the same thing. Now I’m starting to really feel some momentum.

Absorbing everything that you lived through in that time?

Yeah. Yeah. Also just coming to some answers for myself. This expectation that you enter into a learning experience and will ask and answer – the big question. And it doesn’t happen. You’ll ask a whole bunch of little questions and get a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated answers. And then put it together later. You know. Yeah. I think I’ve got a lot more success to go.

I think you’re world is opening in ways. We don’t have much time, but I want to know in the time we have if there are any other stories you want to share?

Hmm. No. [Laughter]

Do you have any questions for me?

Whoa – there’s a table turning in the oral history project. Umm. Hmm. I can’t think.


I think I’m pretty done right now.

They’re big questions.

Yeah – they are. They’re really big.

Thank you.

Thank you.

It’s been really cool. I always learn a new part of who you are. So thank you.

You’re welcome. Thanks for asking me.