r. Erica Doyle, poet/teacher/activist
r. Erica Doyle, born on
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.
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 it...it’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
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 was...it 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
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?
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
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 point...my 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
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, “Mom...do..you..think..I can..bring..my 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
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 really...it’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
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 general...so I’m working on general ideas from specific stuff. I’m always interested in...my 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 sometimes...like 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
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
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
264 For influences for me...at 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
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
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 very...it’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.
Did you have any questions for me?