Introduction for Dawn Lundy Martin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for the Felix Reading Series, April 20, 2016
Dawn Lundy Martin is the author of three books of poetry and three chapbooks. Of her latest collection, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books 2015), Fred Moten says, “Imagine Holiday singing a blind alley, or Brooks pricing hardpack dandelion, and then we’re seized and thrown into the festival of detonation we hope we’ve been waiting for.” Martin is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh and co-director of the new Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there. She is also a member of a three-person performance group, The Black Took Collective, and of the global artist collective, HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, the group that withdrew its work from the 2014 Whitney Biennial to protest the museum’s biased curatorial practices. Martin is currently working on a hybrid memoir, a tiny bit of which appears in “The Long Road to Angela Davis’s Library,” published in The New Yorker in December 2014.
“Form arrives at the end of language,” Dawn Lundy Martin writes in Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, and all of her works push the limits of form through language, forcing the reader to reimagine what it is possible for language to be and do. In A Gathering of Matter A Matter of Gathering, a breach becomes a presence, the weight of what can and cannot be spoken—in stammers, in silences, in shard-like sentences navigating a post-traumatic space. Discipline, “a partial history of fabulously forgetting,” engages a speaker who troubles the idea of what it means to remember, peering at herself through fragments. An “I” that is “more relaxed/ when it is hunted” will not settle into an easy kind of grief.
In an interview in Literary Hub, Martin says, “Genre, like identity, is socially constructed, but we all collude to try to make our categories seem natural, imminent. What is the form for the thing that wants to be said? That is not an already answered question when I set out to create something.” Martin’s formal innovations are not ends in themselves but necessary interventions where the preexisting constructs place limits not only on what we can make but on who we can be. The title of Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life is “ironic, yes, and attending to incarceration, but incarceration writ large. All our big and little prisons,” Martin tells the Boston Review. One of the prisons is the prison of embodiment or of being in a racialized body, a gendered and sexualized body, how a body becomes a container for the “I” that can or cannot move, whistle, take up space. “What is the body but a leaking form?,” Martin writes in Life in a Box Is A Pretty Life. “No room for leaking. A form so tight around my form it cannot seep or gesture. Complete enclosure.”
When I was an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh, I attended an end-of the-year department party and at some point in the evening found Dawn Lundy Martin bemoaning the ease of the party. It was too comfortable, she said. She wanted something uncomfortable to occur. Dawn brings this discomfort with comfort [or is it comfort with discomfort?] to her work as a poet and as a teacher. I don’t know anyone who is better at cultivating a creative practice from a position of uneasiness, making work out of the unsettling lodged both within us and around us, that has in fact already arrived at the department party, that was there from the beginning. In the interview in Literary Hub, Martin says, “I’m a big believer that the tension produced by making something from a place of discomfort, instability, and not knowing is what creativity, in fact, is.” It is my great pleasure to introduce Dawn Lundy Martin.