LOCATION: CAVE CANEM RETREAT FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN POETS, ESOPUS, NY
At Cave Canem each year, a suite of black poets are invited to a castle to write poems. One night in 1999, we who have become Black Took called the other fellows down into the dungeon to begin to create an alternative sphere within Cave Canem. We hoped to have a conversation with the other writers there about whether or not our unique workshop space could be used to challenge how we think about representational forms of black identity and the poetics that they engender. Our driving questions were and are: How can our work move beyond normative aesthetic possibilities? What if we critiqued poetic conventions—metaphor, simile, meaning, the story—in our work, or discarded them completely? What if we broke down the assumptions about race that tend to go unchallenged in our “community,” make their ways into the poem, and are often blindly accepted in workshop? How might our gestures resist and speak powerfully against entrenched notions of identity, culture, and experience? Our wish is to respond to received ideas about what a black poetics is or is fantasized to be.
In the dungeon, effusing from the light fixtures [cavernous pit] an apparition, a familiar— the reiterative and irascible black poem, cloaked in “authenticity,” encircling black cultural experience with a stifling string of sites/cites/sights: the South, rivers, “Mother Africa”; odes to legendary black men; faceless ancestor shadows; remembrances of kin and the dozens; o noble savage; collards, cornbread and cornrows; sermons and the spirit; “old negro” bluesgospelbopsoulhiphop-’n’-rhyme rituals; frontporch fishfry upside the moaner’s bench (amen); revolution; good hair, hotcomb kitchens; color(ism); new jack city crack stories; tricksters and wanderers; the adventures of a negro history. . . .
Do these terms offer narratives that impede fresh considerations for another set of poetics? Have they become metaphorical loci of permanence and theme that suffocate the body that reads them, and the poet/poem who emits them? As Harryette Mullen aptly points out, “our anxiety to embody or represent black identity . . . may impoverish our cultural heritage and simplify the complexity of our historical experience.”1 This idea led us to questions about a kind of poetic struggle. What would it mean to challenge others (and ourselves) to confront the violence and subjugation imposed on the black body by the representational brutality— stifling, iron-caste assumptions— that comes from that anxiety?
More specifically, how would our engagement with this problem lead us to questions about the choices we make in our poetic acts? Why the narrative lyric? Why the palatable and easily consumed black poem that says, this is blackness, definitively? Why not instead despair, a black hole, waste, excess, as a thematic site; why not a cracking in the center or on the side? Why not a spit-faced monkey bleeding from the hip and talking with a southern twang? Why not the human body as poem’s material: open, full of spaces, grotesque; not beautiful beyond its own flesh-filling, never-exhausting, black space— our minds becoming blank—our bodies brimming, scatting the scatological. We seek loss, the invasion, the violent and the beautiful release of a body out of control, a body that seeps. We attempt to keep it safe, but it is tortured. Beauty is located, then, not in the surface of the body— sleek, muscular, clothed— but in its endless permutations— its thick, obese, raw, and glorious profusion.
Why not a polyphonic score for  voice, a papyrus funksome smear + sweat roast toasting, velocity of light = our gaping infinite mass?
Not so fast, protests the familiar, afraid that it, itself, might be fictive. Glare, sneer, death knell: a wish to obliterate any suspicion that race (black-bean pie mammy granmammy big black cock oleen ape ho nigger black) is a smattering after the facts, or a discursive imagination of the self which is part of the literary act, a lounging gorilla in Maud Martha, or Topsy, flitting around Uncle Tom’s cabin: I’se so Wicked. I’se So
Yet, after the initial shock of the first Black Took meeting, on the whole, Cave Canem proved a welcoming environment for our little laboratory (the faculty, especially CC’s founders, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, were amazingly supportive). Although sometimes, experimental poems/stances (unformed works, ugliness, seductive dots, playful glances, unfamiliar beauty, fragmented utterances, derogatory terms, pleasing grids, ragged edges, perverse obsessions, bodily expulsions, bad and fearless concoctions, open seams, arrogant blatherings, chemical imbalances, afterthoughts) received these kinds of comments in workshop: “What am I supposed to do with this?” “I don’t know what this means.” “What’s the point of this?” “I don’t even know why anyone would spend time doing this.” “I mean, this is cute, but it’s not really about anything. I like to write about real life. I don’t like to play around.”
Cave Canem became an inside/outside site, one in which we were liberated from the need to make certain kinds of oppositional gestures (out there) but compelled to take other stances within Big Momma’s arms. As poets who were all to varying extents working outside of what Charles Bernstein calls “official verse culture,” we were already bringing our critical and theoretical understandings around social construction, linguistic power and lack, to our engagement with language, form, syntax, and style. What evolved was less a reaction to attending to the creation of a black poem than a struggle to survive/exist amidst the hostile forces that try to silence/squish us.
Table of Contents
Duriel E. Harris
Dawn Lundy Martin
Ronaldo V. Wilson
A CALL FOR DISSONANCE
Our collective efforts as Black Took enter the mainstream poetic field with the intent to create a series of libratory disruptions. As Erica Hunt reminds us in “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics”: “Dominant modes of discourse, the language of ordinary life or of rationality, or moral management, of the science of the state, the hectoring threats of the press and media, use convention and label to bind and organize us.”1.1 By extension, conventional poetics— exemplified in narrative poems that use language transparently— lure readers into a comfortable complacency and become not the means of our emancipation, as so many political writers would hope, but instead, as Myung Mi Kim points out, the “very means of our subjugation.”2
By choosing to collectivize our efforts against this subjugation, we do not pretend to speak singularly and unproblematically about experimental or oppositional poems by black people or anyone else. To the contrary, sometimes the discord we embrace comes to bear on contradictions that manifest within our group. In carving out a space for disagreement, and contradiction, we allow for the subtleties of our approaches to the experimental to be racialized in different ways, or not racialized at all, or sexualized, and perverted. This textured syncretism resists assertions of both unitary identity and unitary expression.
Being not merely a collective in the traditional sense, but simultaneously a movement-in-progress that takes advantage of the particularities this slice/milieu offers, the Collective is more a do-doing than a done deal, an open and active form that skips restlessly against current supermodels. We need play-dates and playmates to help build building blocks and interloping constructions that help us imagine who and what we might become. But, more than that, we invite other complications, multiplicities, slivers— a coming together in the fray.
At this juncture, we empty into viscera— throb— fatigued, disassociated from the conceit of the mythic knowing subject and resisting the binary thinking that would, consequently, objectify us. Ours is a rational distrust. As we seek to communicate, encode our challenge in direct language, our Collective agency shifts from discursive site to discursive site.
Our challenge, now, is to invite others into the dungeon of our discontent, which is also the pleasure in our hearts. We invite poetry (in whatever form you imagine) by other black writers that explores dissonance, disharmony, noise: writing that occupies spaces perhaps after Barthes, “where the garment gapes,” erotic static(s), unmediated and shifting axes of the real in relationship to representations that swim around in your pretty little heads. Please send experiments, black holes, vestibules, waste and excess, hater monologues, drive-bys, cracks, chemical relaxers, as poetic forms, twangs, silent shout-outs and internal hollahs, notes from personal dig sites, a poem where your black self decides to lazily lurch and stall, antiforms, antimanifestos, slave visas/passports and more.
1. See “What’s African American about African American Poetry?” Fence vol. 4 n. 1, Spring/Summer.
1.1. From Erica Hunt’s essay “Notes for an Oppositional Poetics, published in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, ed., Charles Bernstein, (NewYork: Roof Books, 1990), p. 199.
2. From a 1999 interview with Myung Mi Kim conducted by Dawn Lundy Martin, unpublished.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2001 issue of Fence, as part of The Black Took Collective’s Call for Dissonance.