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Introduction for Ross Gay at City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Alphabet City, Co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, February, February 15, 2019

Ross Gay is the author of three books: Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Catalog was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, the Ohioana Book Award, the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and it was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at Indiana University.

Being something of a cynic, I was skeptical when I saw the title of a Book of Delights, though I should not have been following Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, where the short-lined poems propel a kind of nuanced thinking/feeling where gratitude can merge with grief. The bold titles of both books make me think of The Triggering Town, where Richard Hugo warns poets like me, who live in fear of appearing “sentimental,” that “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.”

And to be close to your inner self you must also be close to your physical self. One of the many delights chronicled in The Book of Delights is that of writing by hand, “the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.” The writing itself is an enactment of another of the author’s delights, loitering, or wresting one’s time “from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is.” This loitering, this slowing down and focusing in that a writer can only really do in longhand–whether remarking on the bumbling choreography of a hug, or noticing that a “friend’s air quotes are unabashed, two-handed, two-fingered punctuative dances during which, often, he will lean back or put a hip out like he’s setting a Hula-Hoop into motion.” Among my great delights in this book are Gay’s marvelous, spot-on but surprising images: the hyphen is “the handshake of the punctuation world,” the sight of a handwritten ID tag on a bag “truly filled my heart with flamingos, or turned my heart into a flamingo.”  Loitering in prose also creates a space for associative leaps (no, not leaps, more like associative meanders), so that delight can very quickly bleed into a fraught or violent or desperate space, from which it cannot ultimately be separated. Like the act of writing by hand, delight itself is inextricably tied to the body, and therefore to mortality. Gay writes,

It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how ever person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. … Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated.

I’m reminded of our own Toi Derricotte’s assertion that joy is an act of resistance, for, as Gay writes, “one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering, and suffering from blackness. And yet, and still, as Ross Gay writes, “You have been reading a book of delights written by a black person. A book of black delight./ Daily as air.” It is my great delight to welcome Ross Gay.

Introduction for Saretta Morgan at City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Alphabet City, Co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, February, February 15, 2019

Saretta Morgan is the author of the chapbooks Feeling Upon Arrival (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and room for a counter interior (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2017), as well as a forthcoming full-length collection, Plan Upon Arrival (Selva Oscura/Three Count Pour, 2020). Her work addresses relationships between narrative and physical space. Her most recent writing considers the impact of environmental shifts and natural resource management on Black living. She holds a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Pratt Institute and has received fellowships and residencies from the Jerome Foundation, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, among others. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, and she is the inaugural Center for African American Poetry and Poetics-City of Asylum Dream Space Resident.

Often in the Fall in particular I feel hyper-vulnerable, porous, like a sieve, so that everybody else’s feelings seem to penetrate my borders and my own seep out in reckless, unwieldly excretions that impede movement, puddling at my feet. It is a state of overwhelm. Sometimes it is a state of despair. It is also a state of profound empathy, even as it’s an empathy that might destroy me. Points in Saretta Morgan’s work sometimes feels like a textual rendering of that experience. As she speaks to the erosion tenuous boundaries between people, I’m reminded that sometimes depression and desire may be rooted in the same human need for connection. As her first-person plural speaker remarks, in feeling upon arrival, “contact dawned in us like poetry, old trauma. we begged questions. Responded in gestures. our shins full of glass.” And yet, the speaking “we” also of the forthcoming Plan Upon Arrival, so emphatically plural, is after a particular body, a singular body, opening: “We desired a particular body. Animate breath, weight and now, already the burden our probable failure. We bent over, sat quietly or rubbed each other until our gestures became unclear. We gorged on sweet seeds. Putrid fruit. Our skin rawed in places our ankles became sore.” But the quest for this singular body is plural, is shared. Its text, a material form of ink on paper, of sentences and fragments deliberately shaped, exists where the bodies merge and separate, where ideas become corporeal.

The desire to connect, to erode our boundaries, is simultaneously sensuous and grotesque. Saretta Morgan writes, “An appendix washed up near the barn, pages current-smoothed, leaning funny. We stood and watched the skin stretched and sewn. The so-called imaginary, so called-interior, so-called paradoxical private sphere.” The work of poetry, at least poetry that is shared, is also the work of human connection, of living as “we,” of eroding the borders between interior and exterior, the private imagination and the public, and sometimes that work is labored and sore and chaffing and irritable and its sentences stick and its smells are putrid, and sometimes that work is lithe and sensual and grasps at its own extraordinary good fortune, its music, its sex, its tastes, its forms: “we craved sensuality and other expressions of coherence./ good fucking. james brown. Crumbs from breakfast toast.”

Please join me in welcoming Saretta Morgan.

Introduction for Rickey Laurentiis at the University of Pittsburgh, hosted by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, January 24, 2019

Rickey Laurentiis was raised in New Orleans to love the dark. They are the author of Boy with Thorn (2015), which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Levis Reading Prize, and was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Other honors include fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the Lannan Literary Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and the Poetry Foundation. Their poem, “Visible City,” opened Notes for Now, the art catalogue for Prospect 3 New Orleans, and he has partnered on other curatorial collaborations or programs with the Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art and, most recently, the Andy Warhol Museum. Laurentiis lives in Pittsburgh, and is the inaugural Fellow in Creative Writing at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial,” Laurentiis writes in his poem “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen.” This fifty-part poem draws on language from Wallace Stevens’ “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” and on images from lynching photographs. What is crucial about the dark? The first time I taught Boy with Thorn, I showed my class a clip from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, set in the Sea Islands of South Carolina around the turn of the 20th century. In the clip, three black women have a conversation about rape and lynching while sitting in a tree. Daughters of the Dust is shot in daylight, is dazzling, the sun never sets even on this shadow conversation in which so much is said in silences, between the crooks of branches. What would happen, I asked, if the exposure in “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen,” were reversed? What if it was cast in bright light like Dash’s film? Without darkness, my students insisted, the poem would not work.

Darkness, with its many shades and weights, its desires, delights, violences, and unutterable secrets is both a theme and an orientation in Laurentiis’s work. It is also the racialized darkness of these United States. In the poem “Continuance,” written after Mike Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Laurentiis addresses the darkness, writing, “you can enter me, Mister Dark.” Here darkness is invited to participate in another of Laurentiis’s obsessions, penetration, with its potential for violence, for pleasure, for transformation. In an essay in the Warhol’s exhibition catalog for Devan Shimoyama’s Cry, Baby, Laurentiis writes,

Penetration, finally, as what makes a pressure in and of, as an irruption of knowledge that leads to eventual eruption. It could kill, it does kill—as did each bullet penetrating Trayvon, Michael, Tamir—but it might also heal (think of a finger, a hand, pushing into the wound, as to pause the flow of blood).

Penetration becomes a site of pleasure in “Feeling Myself,” where Laurentiis writes,

               On my knees, then not

     So much kneeled

             As lying down, on my stomach,

     How I like it: my body became his observatory,

             A way to knowledge—Oh

     How I have wanted

             A man to throw down

     His strength onto the slight

             Flare of my hips and spike


      To the known ground.

“How I have wanted,” an expression of desire, is as crucial a recalibration as the image of the speaker’s body as an observatory (which opens up, commanding an expensive view, as opposed to the interiority of say, a tunnel). Once, in somebody’s kitchen toward the end of a Writing Program party, Rickey mentioned that he was writing about penetration and suggested that, if we flipped the perspective, it would be called envelopment. Such a reversal or reframing begins to articulate a poetics of agency. In the Cry Baby catalog, Laurentiis writes, “Penetration, finally, must mean more than death, than black injury, than this act, I think, that black flesh—particularly, especially again trans or femme black flesh—is subject to, come up under or against, decided by.” Such, too, is the potential for darkness. Later in “Continuance,” Laurentiis’s speaker says to the dark:

      Aren’t you the mirror in which all lights balance?
      Aren’t you the line on which all lines cross?
      Anything lives in you, so that that dark over there
      Can be the dark of Mike Brown, full of breath; that the dark
      Right here can be the dark of my own bastard mind;
      That this dark come closest to my lips
      Is a shadow’s knowledge, full, not ever empty,
      Charitable as is wicked, risky as is good; 

In considering their own darkness and darkness as plentitude rather than absence, Laurentiis embraces the dark as a partner. His poems do not cast light onto shadows so much as they speak into and among shadows—penetrating the very darkness that is penetrating them. Or is it enveloping? “Brilliant” is first defined by Merriam-Webster as “very bright: glittering: a brilliant light,” but here the dictionary falls short. Rickey Laurentiis’s brilliance arises out of the dark, out of silences, unspeakable histories and lush, fraught, finally articulated desires.

It has been our good fortune to have Rickey here this last year and a half as the inaugural Fellow in Creative Writing at CAAPP. Please join me in welcoming him to the mic.

Introduction for Jonah Mixon-Webster at the University of Pittsburgh, October 10, 2018, and Boom Concepts, October 11, 2018, co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and the Black Unicorn Library and Archives Project

Jonah Mixon-Webster is a poet-educator and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, MI. His debut collection Stereo(TYPE) was selected by Tyrone Williams for the 2017 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. He is completing his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University, and is the recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation Literary Festival, and Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. His poetry and hybrid works are featured or forthcoming in MuzzleCallalooSpoon River Poetry ReviewAssaracus, VolubleBest New Poets 2017, and Best American Experimental Writing 2018. He is 1/6th of the Detroit-based multidisciplinary Black arts collective CTTNN Club (Can’t Take These Niggas Nowhere). 

Last week my Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics class had a lively discussion of Jonah Mixon-Webster’s collection, Stereo(type). At some point I noticed that only the black students were reading the word “nigga” aloud, while some non-black students were instead substituting “blank” wherever the word appears—which is a lot. Eventually I asked why everyone was not reading the text as written.  Some were afraid of how their classmates would take it if they spoke the word aloud. “I think the way he is using the word is meant to make non-black people uncomfortable,” one of the white students offered. But I would argue that Stereo(type) is not intending to make non-black readers uncomfortable any more than Stein or Brontë intended to make me so. Stereo(type) is simply not oriented around their familiar compass. That the book forces every reader to engage with its own terms on its own terms is revolutionary. That it pulls the revolution off successfully is genius.

In his Author Statement on the Ahsahta Press website, Mixon-Webster writes,

I’ma keep it a buck, I’ve been a nigga my whole life. My niggas been my niggas my whole life. My daddy and brothers are all niggas. Sometimes, my sisters are niggas…and my homegirls. I meet a new nigga at least ten times a day. All my boyfriends were niggas, and my husband probably will be too. Where I’m at (and where you are), niggas are created every day. This word’s status in my life comes from hearing it at every crossing of my existence, and in contexts with various and almost always conflicting ends. This quotidian phenomenon of nigga synthesis and the inherent dangers on both sides of being a nigga is what gets most niggas caught up. It’s what had me facing two counts of resisting a “peace officer.” It’s usually what gets most niggas killed.

The versatility of the word “nigga,” simultaneously signifying home and risk, underscores Mixon-Webster’s versatility as a poet of phenomenal range and superlative skill. He moves dexterously from the hilarious reimagining of the Sisyphus myth, “Black Existentialism No 13: The Myth of Niggaphus” and searing parody “Twitter Fingers,” in response to the conceptual poet Vanessa Place, to the overheard conversation of “In the Figurative, I Respond—This shit be killing me!,” to intimate lyrics of eros like “On Juking with Another Black Boy” and violence like ‘Psalm 66.” In “Existentialism No 12: Da’ Bad Nigga Blues,” Mixon-Webster uses Steinian repetition to interrogate the book’s favorite term against the backdrop of a blackface minstrel tune, while “Based on Actual Events/ The Real Nigga Attempts to Survive the Apocalypse” is a documentary excavation of the Flint Water Crisis.

By placing the word “nigga” at the center of the text and spinning it in a plentitude of surprising directions, Mixon-Webster has wrested center stage from the great white cannons and comforts—the ancient Greeks, the white conceptual poets, the indifferent government pamphleteers, the cable news networks, even the most conscientious white progressives who would be much more comfortable saying “blank”—and swerved the lights to focus on what has always been central, the  black lives and speech at the heart of a popping, careening, stumbling, scatting, falling, diving, and deliberating text.

Introduction for Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem Reading at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, June 12, 2017

“John Punch” is the opening song on Cornelius Eady’s CD Singing While Black. Punch was an African servant in colonial Virginia. In 1640 he tried to escape with two white indentured servants. After they were caught, the two white men were sentenced to longer indentures, while Punch permanently lost his liberty, making him the first legally sanctioned slave in the Chesapeake. “John Punch’s story is the moment black people’s status in the colonies changed from indentured servants to slaves,” Eady says in an interview in Drunken Boat. “He’s also related to President Obama on his mother’s side—the first slave and the first Black President on the same family tree—what’s more American than that?”

Even more American, perhaps, is the primary speaker of Brutal Imagination, the imaginary black man Susan Smith blamed for the murder of her two young sons. In the second poem, he states: “Susan Smith has invented me because/ Nobody else in town will do what/ She needs me to do.” If, as DNA evidence suggests, Barack Obama is the literal descendant of John Punch, that first African American slave, is the black man in white imagination Punch’s figurative descendant?

If imagination can make some Presidents and some slaves, imagination is also how poetry knows. The imagery in Brutal Imagination stuns me, but the restraint with which it’s delivered intensifies the punch.

     Susan hopes the sheriff will recognize what she’s stitched

     Under my lids. Perhaps I’m a young boy whose dark skin

     Ricocheted off her and her friends on a playground.

    Now I drive about, my gaze a blown switch.

Eady’s imagery can stun, but it also cherishes detail, holds a moment up to a magnifying glass or sometimes a jagged funhouse mirror. Hardheaded Weather, a selected edition of poems written between 1980 and 2007, is full of such moments. Of the blues legend Leadbelly, Eady writes, “Sometimes the only way to discuss it/ Is to grip a guitar as if it were/ Somebody’s throat/ And pluck.” In “Sherbert,” a white waitress refuses to serve an interracial couple. The poem’s heat grows in the space between the couple and the manager who eventually serves them.

       … what language

      Do I use

     To translate the nervous

     Eye motions, the yawning

     Afternoon silence, the

     Prayer beneath

     His simple inquiries.

Cornelius Eady’s genius is his ability to tease out these moments between and among people, and the imaginations—brutal, banal—that lie beneath.

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Cornelius Eady to the mic.

Introduction for Sites of Memory, a Language for Grieving, featuring M. NourbeSe Phillip, Sonya Posmentier, an Ibrahima Seck, presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, April 5, 2017

I am Lauren Russell, Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and a research assistant professor in the English department here at Pitt.

I have been dreaming of this event for over a year, since my interview for this position, before I knew if I would get the job, before I knew what the Center would become or much about the logistics of making this happen, before I had any idea of what political moment we would now be inhabiting or what losses I might now be grieving. When, as a candidate for the position, I was asked what events I’d like to see at the Center, I said, “Has anyone read Sonya Posmentier’s essay in The New York Times?”

In that essay, “A Language for Grieving,” Posmentier describes her visit to the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, a “site of memory” focused on the lives of the enslaved people who lived and labored there. The museum’s director of research is Ibrahima Seck, who is also a professor in the History Department of Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal. “In turning the plantation into a memorial site and reorienting it to highlight the perspective of the enslaved, the owner and museum director constructed an architecture for grief,” Posmentier writes. “Can poetry do the same?” She goes on to discuss how by “making violence strange and unfamiliar,” poets like M. NourbeSe Philip “have gone beyond merely repeating its effects, like a viral video of a police shooting, and beyond the realm of the evidentiary to that of the imagination, where we might not only observe violence but mourn and counter it.”

M. NourbeSe Philip’s extended poem cycle Zong! is based on the text of the legal decision Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only extant public document related to the murder of 150 Africans aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781. In an interview in Room Magazine, Philip writes that “archives are often very one-sided—having been constructed and preserved by the very people who were responsible for destroying the cultures and histories of so many peoples.” She continues, “Hence my interest in the archive of silence, the archive of the gap, the archive of the space, the archive of the erased space, the archive of the rupture.”

My Readings in Contemporary Poetry Class has been discussing Zong these last couple weeks. In a discussion board post, one of my students wrote that books like Zong are “not just going backward to ‘the archive’ and dancing with or confronting archives, but are also establishing themselves alongside them, and becoming part of something that is still being created and continuing to go on.” When this idea came up in class discussion, another student got up and drew a graph on the board: If the Y axis is the present, dividing the X axis into what has occurred in the past and will occur in the future, she said, then “imagination” is another field that exists off the board, influencing, and influenced by, the activity on the graph, while existing in its own dimension.

Today, a moment that has leaped from the dimension of the imagination right onto the Present point where the axes meet, we welcome M. Nourbese Philip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck, to consider questions of mourning and imagination and the challenges of working with one-sided archives. “How might the archive (as a site of memory) provide (or fail to provide) an architecture for grief?”

My colleague Imani Owens, Assistant Professor of English, will introduce Sonya Posmentier. Sonya will be followed by Robert Bland, Visiting Assistant Professor of African American History, introducing Ibrahima Seck. Dawn Lundy Martin will introduce M. NourbeSe Philip, and after NourbeSe reads, she will join Sonya and Ibrahima in a moderated discussion followed by a Q&A.

There are books for sale in the anteroom, and a book signing will follow the reading.

Please join me in welcoming M. NourbeSe Philip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck to the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and the University of Pittsburgh.

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.