Is Butt magazine the greatest publication in the world? After a nearly two year hiatus, the magazine has returned to the stands, and its importance — its beauty and uniqueness — are more evident than ever: absence makes the eyes grow fonder. In part fiscally supported by small ads from merchants ranging from American Apparel to Marc Jacobs, Butt couldn’t make it on quarterly guest spots alone, and more or less suspended publication in 2010. While this dismayed various fans — “Where’s my Butt?” — I for one was admiring of the co-publishers and co-editors, Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom’s, unwillingness to compromise. If they couldn’t publish their “magazine for homosexuals,” as they bill it, in the way they wanted, why put out anything at all? Finances must have improved, because now we’re the happy owner of Butt No. 29, with a cover by the largely London-based photographer Wolfgang Tillmans — a portrait of a beautiful young boy named Karl, the sides of his thin head beautifully shaven. Working out of Amsterdam, Butt is as much about dick and ass as it is about language. Printed on pink paper that always seems to have an inky smell, l love the literalness of the story titles: “Normal Bodies,” “Embarrassing Interview With A One Night Stand,” “Boring Interview with a Random Gay Stranger.” What you read in Butt is what you get. The Q and A format is the magazine’s standard, but the contents aren’t. Whether a spread, so to speak, is devoted to gingery drummers, ears, or guys with a plush fetish, Butt details aspects of sexuality, of play, that wouldn’t necessarily occur to one, like the guy who gets off on covering his body with sports socks. Fetishes are interesting to read about, but repetition is boring to deal with in conversation. What I tolerate in Butt, I couldn’t take over the phone. Looking at Butt, I fall down the rabbit hole of sexuality. The simple headlines and questions help get me there; my mind works overtime to fill that flat language up. Do I like butt? I am falling down the hairy rabbit hole of indiscriminate slightly shitty smelling ass looking at myself, my needs, my “issues.” My mother didn’t have much of a butt; she was teased for having a body like a twelve year old boy, albeit one with large breasts. Did I like my mother’s butt? Do I have my mother’s butt? My mother’s butt — why does Mia Farrow’s body, not to say butt, in The Purple Rose of Cairo, in particular make me remember how much my mother must have dreamt because her children became dreamers — one of them even dreams for a living. He’s doing it right now. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Mia Farrow plays a woman who’s abused by the exigencies of the so-called real world; her kindness is a burden that others want to abuse her for. She has no butt to speak of, but what little she has finds itself sitting, as often in possible, in movie theatres, where she falls in love with worlds not her own. As she watches a movie set in a black and white atmosphere, Mia Farrow can dream away the abuse heaped on her almost non-existent butt. She can be loved, but in the dark, and at a distance. Sometimes men look at one another’s butts this way — in the dark, and at a distance. Does the dark make a butt more alluring? Can you feel a butt without seeing it? If a butt falls in the forest, can you still hear it? Would you still want it? Butt magazine features personality profiles, too. John Waters. Rufus Wainwright, etc. But it’s the unexplored that piques my interest — and the documentation by people like Tillmans and Marcelo Krasilcic, who act as the magazine’s house photographers. (They’re Annie Leibovitz at Rolling Stone, in the seventies, but only if she knew she was gay, and Jann Wenner, too.) Their pictures aren’t à la Deborah Turberville atmospheric, but more obviously documentary-like, albeit framed by kink and unusual beauty. In this issue, for instance, a handsome Brazilian drummer named Adriano who works with a lesbian band does nude yoga for the benefit of the camera, but you don’t see his junk — and very little of his butt. It’s his beautiful eyes and not his butt that take up much of the portrait (in my eyes at least) and spell a kind of trouble. He will love me, but only for a night. Truth to tell, I will only let him love me for a night. He will love my butt because I have high, proud, Negro buttocks, unlike my mother, who had something else in addition to her movie logic. If Adriano touched my buttocks with those thoughts in mind — here is my Negro, here are his buttocks — would I flinch? Would my butt collapse? Would I be put off by his fetishization of my butt? We meet for coffee the afternoon following the night Adriano feels my butt for the first time. He wants to know what’s wrong with me, why didn’t I call him back? How to tell him that my butt felt what he didn’t say? I want to show him other butts, not at all Negro, but high and proud just the same, butts he might fancy just as well as mine, butts that are free of the knotty race issue, which is to say, free of me. Would white butts, say, mean as much to Adriano, my butt lover, the drummer who can’t see the forests for the Negroes falling in trees, as my butt? Adriano sips his coffee as I try to fuck with his butt perspective. I begin by showing him white butts that are prominent, like a Negro’s. He is quiet. I take in Adriano’s eyes, his bare butt in his underwearless jeans. I want to break up with him, but I can’t: separation insults me. I don’t want to separate from anyone, I don’t want to lose one memory. The quiet loveliness and light in Adriano’s eyes reminds me of other eyes, other butts, and one set of eyes and buttocks in particular, both belonging to the beautiful former dancer Joseph Lennon. YouTube reacquainted me with what I shall never forget: Joe’s swift and slow poeticism on the dance floor. The first clip features Joe partnering a woman he worked with a number of times over the years: the dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage. Karole sports a sleeveless sweater, and Joe, a brown leotard. I met them after Karole had split from Merce, where she was, along with Valda Setterfield and Carolyn Brown, one of Cunningham’s five or six peerless female dancers. One of the things I loved about watching Cunningham, always, was how nearly PHYSICALLY impossible his work was for men. No matter how “skinny,” men simply have bigger thigh and ass muscles — bless them — than women, not as long a reach, or as high an arch (in the foot, and often not in the eyebrow, either). If you’re a boy, you’re just weightier, which, on stage, particularly in dance, translates as slower, certainly in terms of the speed with which Cunningham saw movement in space. For men to perform Cunningham, they have to accept and deal with the limitations of the male body, and what their ass can and cannot do. This can result in audience sympathy or ridicule. I think Cunningham must have felt the former because he relied on dancers like Joe to push past what they were born with while supporting extraordinary physical creatures like Armitage, who cut through space for their male partners, allowing them in to rebuild it as they passed through on something like pointe. Watch how Karole leans on Joe, and how he moves past her as he moves with her. Free your mind, and your ass will follow. Part of Cunningham’s great genius, of course, was in knowing how to partner his dancers up. Not to mention finding those artists who could make cinema stars of them, too. Channels/Inserts, was directed by Charles Atlas, who was not only one of the first videographers, but the artist responsible for Cunningham’s costuming, and lighting, for nearly two decades. (At the time this film was made, he was also Joe’s partner.) I first saw Joe and Karole perform together at the Dance Theatre Workshop in a piece that Karole choreographed, and that Charlie dressed, lit, and more or less directed. In that piece, Karole wore black stilettos, and Joe wore a Saturday Night Fever-like white suit and black shirt, thus capitalizing on his innate glamour, a presence that said everything through being; he didn’t need to say much; he had himself, and an audience of eyes that rested on his butt, then his eyes, then his beautiful black curls, as I do now. And tomorrow the Merce Cunningham Dance Company as formed by the late master performs its final gig in time for the New Year. Butt magazine costs $9.90 in the U.S., and is available at St. Mark’s Books. Just buy it.
They stood by the heat, watching the wood pop open to unveil sunlight. Noemi was the teacher tonight, sifting through the memory to find wisdom, to find some guidance. It had been an exhausting long day after months, years of pushing beyond the limits of their bodies.
Task: Be revolutionary.
Need: The changes we are responsible for shaping are profound. When we can see the end of our species on the horizon, we must operate at a scale that extends our life beyond the horizon.
Mantra: We root the work we do and the ways we do it in love, in being an extension of love in the world.
Context: Even if we don’t have a clear sense of the exact solutions to fix the future, we should have a clear sense of how we want to feel in ourselves, in our relationships with each other, in community, and in relationship to the planet. Those feelings aren’t for the far off future, they are guidance to what we must be seeding and practicing now, right now.
Practice: If we believe that we are miraculous, we must treat ourselves and each other that way.
Practice: If we believe in community, then we must get curious about the ways we need to grow and communicate in order to truly be a part of community. Not just one community, but the multitude of communities we intersect with.
Task: We must become scholars of belonging.
Need: Separation weakens. It is the main way we are kept (and keep each other) in conditions of oppression.
Truth: Belonging doesn’t begin with other people accepting us. It begins with our acceptance of ourselves. Of the particular life and skin each of us was born into, and the work that that particular birth entails.
Mantra: Where we are born into privilege, we are charged with dismantling any myth of supremacy. Where we are born into struggle, we are charged with claiming our dignity, joy and liberation.
Possibility: From that deep place of belonging to ourselves, we can understand that we are inherently worthy of each other. Even when we make mistakes, harm each other, lose our way, we are worthy.
Practice: Learn to apologize. A proper apology is rooted in this worthiness – “I was at my worst. Even at my worst, I am worthy, so I will grow.”
Practice: Move towards spaces that value us, let ourselves belong to those communities that know they want us, know they need us, know we have worth, know we deserve more than transactional care.
Task: Care for ourselves and each other as a revolutionary practice.
Need: This is a world of wonder and wounds. Both are always with us. If we ignore the wonder, we lose our will to live – not just individually, but our collective will to continue our species. If we ignore the wounds, they fester into unspoken needs and inhumane policy.
Mantra: We are each other’s medicine.
Context: We must be clear that caring for each other is a fundamental piece of any future we will build. This doesn’t displace struggle, critique, or conflict, but rather deepens and softens these necessary human experiences, makes them part of belonging instead of a precursor to exile.
Practice: Question any strategies that don’t account for care. Especially when such strategies are housed in the work of reforming existing oppression, making it slightly less harmful. That is not care, it’s complicity.
Warning: We must understand it is advanced work to wield any master’s tools — most of the time we become the shape we shift into, we forget why we entered the big house, and that we still come and go through the back door. We cannot dabble in reformist work under the guise of revolution, we must be looking directly at the ways oppression has coiled itself at the stem of our work for social justice. We must seek comprehensive change from the roots of the world to the sky.
Standard: This means we must have a very clear reason in our organizing work any time we delay or reject cooperation, consensus, democracy, socialism, abolition or transformation. (Ex. “we are redistributing funds from the wealthy to the poor in the only way that the wealthy will currently relinquish these funds, aka charity.”) We must know these reasons barely justify the methods, and approach such work as temporary and dangerous tactical movement. Otherwise our rejection of these liberation technologies must be understood as compliance with oppression and, perhaps, a terror of freedom.
Context: It is ok to be afraid. It is logical. We were just slaves and slave owners a minute ago. We were just segregated a few seconds ago. Both of those systems morphed without dying; they live on in us, in practice. It is daunting to carry the dream of freedom in an imprisoned body, it is terrifying to truly face the vast scope of heartbreak and othering that permeates our species. It requires looking within as deeply as we look without, and it is scary to see oppression inside ourselves.
Mantra: We place our collective freedom before our individual fears.
Pivot: To fight does not always mean to move against. It also means we need to be investing our energy, attention and resources in generating alternative and sustainable methods of supporting our work. Our attention is as precious and precise as sunlight. If we put it on each other’s flaws, we can burn each other out of existence. But if we put it on the best of us, on the lessons, on the children, on our practices – we will grow.
Practice: Identify the front lines within us and bear down with love. We are the microcosm. Self reflect and adapt.
Practice: Identify the front lines of toxic behavior in the world and bring all our tools for the detox. Do not assume we can use the same approach in every battle.
Practice: Know the difference between fighting an enemy and struggling with a comrade. Let our goal be the elimination of the concept of enemy, the need for an enemy – rather than the obliteration of specific enemies. We must make our current enemy our future forgiven neighbor, we must be capable of this kind of complex cohabitation, or we will ruin the possibility of life.
Practice: We cannot change others, but we can be honest with each other, and celebrate the work we do to change ourselves. Applaud the work wealthy people do to organize and educate their own community out of cursory charity and into transformative solidarity.* Or that white people do to unlearn supremacy.** Or that men do to extract patriarchy.
Practice: Remember we are miraculous and interconnected, and anything less is not worthy of the life-gift we have been given.
Practice: Feel pleasure every day. Don’t let your body, your heart, forget why we fight – to feel aliveness and togetherness. We will grow.
* * *
*Resource Generation organizes young people with wealth and class privilege in the U.S. to become transformative leaders working towards the equitable distribution of wealth, land and power.
**Catalyst Project helps to build powerful multiracial movements that can win collective liberation. In the service of this vision, they organize, train and mentor white people to take collective action to end racism, war and empire, and to support efforts to build power in working-class communities of color.
Rickey Laurentiis: — Or so at least we imagined that was the start. When SUBLEVEL approached us with this idea for a formal conversation, I remember we both jumped at the idea. At least I did. In your measured, cynical yet politically nuanced and, by this measure, poignant way, I count you as one of the pillars of my own thinking, however increasingly, wayward, wild, like trying to leak literally out of my brain, it’s-a-mess my thinking can be. And I see our usually every-day-or-so text conversations as playing a significant part in how I order my own world. But have you noticed our natural correspondence dwindled since being asked to converse formally or, better said, with the expectation of publicity? I wonder why that is — when it’s not been uncommon for me to text you some random poem or FB post or political news article at 2AM with strange emoticons. I’m tempted to write here the self-comforting “lol,” as if we’re still texting.
Anyway, as we do inch toward “the public,” I wonder if that could be among the very things we discuss: the public, to be public and the idea or relevance, even, of audience/readership. And as I write this I suddenly want also to collide “the political” into the conversation, and a writer’s relationship to these phenomena.
Or maybe it’s surveillance I’m creeping toward — so much of (a critique) of surveillance lies in in the crux of your first book, Look, both as content (the title poem itself) and tactic (“Reaching Guantanamo.”) Would you agree? Do you feel surveilled upon in this conversation, in any way, even right now? Am I projecting? Maybe I am feeling that way. Do editors surveil, or is it the (imagined) audience again? Or is it something like all of these things I’ve named — alongside other topics of the poem itself, the lyric and its possibilities, “aesthetics,” the didactic (your word), the argumentative (mine) — is it that all of these things are co-touching, co-mingling, intimate with the other, so that maybe it’s that frisking we experience as “experience.” Maybe it’s this that becomes — what more silence? awkwardness? or, if we’re lucky, maybe a poem?
Am I making or escaping sense here? One thing seems true: somehow we’ve acted as if the fact of this public conversation is itself contagious, so much so we’ve almost entirely avoided it or LOL’d our way around the fact of it. Should we explore it?
Solmaz Sharif: Is “LOL” the new “sorry”? It’s rather painful to read it with a “public” eye — public calls up surveillance, yes. But more so it calls up obligation or duty — a need to make it worth people’s time. There is not much time after all.
I jumped at this chance because you are my political and intellectual and lyrical kin; because I find you often oblivious to or enraged by whatever celebratory parade or righteous gathering passing by. It seems many times we are the only two consistent naysayers there. Is it safe to say we are skeptical of all “we”? Or at least we refuse its shelter? Much of my — and your? — self feels driven by refusal.
I jumped, kin, because I have also wanted and believed that there should be longer form records. Documentation. I am thinking of archives of letters between writers, the archaeology of friendship and knowledge they provide, which might be lost in text message. Their essays might be lost to FB post. Reading letters or journals of writers I often feel, private as they are, there is an awareness that they might be read in some future. Some awareness that one is recording one’s thought and relationship in time.
Surveillance by the State, by the editors, by the readers of the post who demand and deserve something relevant to their lives, a conversation that extends beyond refusal into some kind of vision is what I’d like (can we try to name one?) — but beyond these immediate surveillances and audiences, the ones I am more intimidated by: the future and the dead.
Between us, over text I mean, it might be enough to critique, to take down, to name the things we do not want to do. In public, this feels haughty. Easy. It is actually an easy public position to take. That’s what I have come to hate about FB. Harder yet would be to create, to put positively what we want of literature, of the public, of the political, thereby offering ourselves as the things to be destroyed. And its not fear that prevents me from doing this as much as fluency… What is the argument to be made? I will try: I say “soft soapboxing” over text. Here, I don’t want to point to what I don’t want to do or what is done wrong as much as I want to name and enact what I want, what I believe the “soft soapboxing” might prevent or get in the way of — vision, rigor, risk, sustained inquiry, sustained agitation, proactive rather than reactive thought.
Lastly and only loosely related, though I think deeply related to all things us, I want to throw a quote in here that Lynne Tillman posted on FB recently, Gramsci, as I remember her remembering it: pessimism of intellect, optimism of will.
RL: I love this word, “kin.” I love its acknowledgement of camaraderie, togetherness, and of blood. In me is the desire to say “comrade” here as well, but then I’m aware of all the connotations and histories that word necessarily dredges up. Maybe it’s as if — because of this knowledge — I want to say it. That’s certainly related to why I, almost robotically, write “LOL” — because it does dredge up these other meanings, “sorry,” at least some admittance of self-embarrassment, vulnerability. Wound.
Wound, I’m imagining, is what the “and” is doing in your phrase: “the future and the dead.” I’m saying this before I quite know what I mean, but saying it here since — kin — I trust you to be patient with me. Anytime I look out toward “futurity,” which it is to say toward the imagination, I recognize it as a gesture full of palpable possibility: excitement and terror, a gesture to delight as well as to potentially harm. “The dead” come to my ear as a state of being (nonbeing? once-being? always?) that is all of that: the dead are “ghosts” when they harm, “ancestors” when they delight. Always they’re instructive, at least. I suppose the dead, yes, do exist as a kind of uber-public, and through that lens suddenly all these terms fall into place: obligation, duty, even surveillance.
I’m always very grateful how the dead, in no easy or oversimplified way, critique us. What a tenderness that is. The dead are so nuanced — at least, that’s how I’m willing to describe their silence. Sometimes this is a question in my mind, evoking Lorde: Is silence always un-protective? Then, as soon as I ask such, and especially given our times, to ask such seems immediately childish, maybe even privileged. I hear you, I think, when you speak about the tendency to be one way via “text” and another via “the public.” I wish I had had that quote from Gramsci all my life, but it is so hard to live up to, at least the last half of it: to be optimistic of will. It almost drives me back to Foucault, and his notions of the “will to knowledge.” He might say something, though, that always “to know” has led us down restrictive corridors of power. But this could just be me misremembering anyway. It’s so easy to do that, huh, with the dead?
SS: I have a few questions to ask Lorde, too. Can’t the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house, for example? Isn’t a hammer a hammer? I have a hard time with metaphor in general for this reason — it rallies, it stokes, and its power frightens me. I know what she is saying, of course, and am largely in agreement, but still….
I think this conversation, all it’s meandering and stops and starts, this friendship and its documentation, its relative uselessness, its inability to stay on topic or keep audience in and out of mind, is optimism of will in action, by the way.
So yesterday, I was with a fellow poet and I asked him who his kin was. He said poets that have been displaced and listed a few. Then he asked me and I said poets that are against empire. And are cranky.
Aleppo: that also came up yesterday. The silence around it and how fully despised the Arab body has become. Did you see the U.S. Ambassador to the UN?
RL: “Is there nothing in the world that will shame you?” — or something to that effect. That ambassador?
SS: Yes. The fucking nerve.
RL: Yes, yes — her remarks seemed, themselves, particularly shameless: full of self-righteousness and a kind of moral superiority I only ever truly see in whiteness. And they were shameless because they seemed to move in the air of that room without any way real, certainly no rigorous, awareness to history, and particularly where the U.S. fits in its history of — in her words — ”barbarism,” political or militaristic.
SS: “My feeling is that an intervention in Iraq even a unilateral one is undoubtedly going to make Iraq a more humane place.” That’s what Samantha Power said in 2003, by the way. “An American intervention likely will improve the lives of the Iraqis. Their lives could not get worse, I think it’s quite safe to say.”
RL: You know, thinking through this in the light of the question you asked that poet, I may have remembered her words most simply because the word “shame,” always, strangely, attracts me. I think poets who are kin to me, in addition to what you and the other poet named, also investigate “shame,” abjection, horror in their work and politics. By which I think I mean, ultimately, there’s self-implication. There’s nothing more horrible or potentially shameful than seeing where one is self-implicated in the very systems they are earnestly trying to defeat, no?
SS: Absolutely. There is something, though, about “self-implication” or the writer’s culpability that has become a workshop tic. We must know that the writer knows that they are not above or outside of whatever is happening. The fact that it, like empathy, has become a workshop tic, and that political repression is really built into the aesthetic practices of the U.S. is what is giving me pause here.
RL: I agree, and I’ve become even aware of that self-awareness in my work. Recently, there was a review of my book that threw a hard frame around this, suggesting that my poems, in some sense, “survive” because of the speaker’s willingness to self-implicate. I felt both relief and terror at this notion, and I think this is why the newer work comes out of me much slower and with greater effort. What to do when one knows they know they’re culpable, and how not to let that “epiphany” function as any other “epiphany” in a poem, as a cheap gimmick, get-out-of-jail-free-card.
Is it maybe because this self-implication always (or in many cases) rushes up to the shore of “empathy” that the “tic” can feel cheap? But, probably, empathy actually takes work to achieve. Before that, if I’m speaking for myself, I need to muck through the very real shit of less “noble” feelings, ugly feelings. Like — pity. Few would dare write a poem “pitying” an abject situation, but it seems false to me that we’re always and immediately “empathetic” to a situation, as if pity isn’t something we experience and, in ways, are indoctrinated to feel.
SS: Frankly, I wonder if pity would be more useful at times. I’ve really come to hate empathy.
RL: Well, it’s certainly more honest. And honesty, however hard, is usually more useful. Baldwin’s: “I want to be a good writer and an honest man.”
SS: Pity is more honest and it leads to “charity,” which fills me with a kind of disgust, but it also fills my plate. Empathy is emotional tourism.
RL: Do you know I was born in Charity?
RL: I mean it — Charity Hospital of New Orleans. Post-Katrina, it’s now basically a hollowed-out skeleton overlooking the Central Business District.
SS: Perfect. I have a Post-it on my computer screen from something I said in an earlier conversation and you told me I should use it in a poem, so I made a note: “I don’t care if it’s true or not — it’s perfect.”
RL: Yes! I remember when you said it! And you should use it. Interestingly, this isn’t unlike how I came to realize the fact of being born “in Charity” was, well, “perfect.” Someone once asked where I was born, and they meant literally, and I said, “in Charity.” And they immediately responded: “You have to use that!”
SS: You do have to use it!
RL: I guess I had become so used to hearing that phrase said matter-of-factly that its potential lyricism was closed to me. So, “Charity” led to me, in a sense. Now “Charity” is a skeleton. And I am still thinking about your earlier point, about how pity often leads to charity. Do you think pity can lead elsewhere? Should it?
SS: I think pity leads necessarily to elsewhere. Maybe disgust and turning away. Maybe charity and savior complexes. Once you pity, you do something with it. Empathy, on the other hand, feels like an end point. Being rather than doing. Something here about our market-eroded, self-improvement industry-driven “Buddhist” moment — “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Something about convincing oneself that one can enter the emotional reality of another and that journey being wisdom enough.
RL: Maybe empathy is an end point because it ropes too quickly or too easily a point of connection, claiming: “You and I are the same, and so I understand your plight.” And — yes, what to do with that? Probably it only makes one, personally, feel “good.” It makes the other person, at best, feel “heard.” But have they been fed? Has their home been unoccupied? Can they sleep peacefully at night? Necessarily, all these questions began specifically rising up in my head and in my ego during and after my visit to Palestine. I think I’m realizing now that it felt increasingly dishonest to me to feel or even to strive for “empathy” with what I was witness to there, even as I fully understand there are some similarities to be made and felt between, say, police brutality and a militarized occupation. But whatever “rope” I was building and am still building needs to be long and as complicatedly intricate as what I was witnessing, as it must understand the discrepancies, the points of difference. Difference, finally, and I think I remember Lorde telling us as much in an essay, seems a more actionable rallying point or topic of discussion, than sameness. And sameness is what empathy depends upon.
RL: I have a question for you, and it’s related to these ideas of pity but also the public. You mentioned to me once that you revised and deleted sections of “Look” (the title poem of your book) primarily because those lines weren’t any you wanted or could stand to read before those persons or groups of persons implicated in their words. Is that a fair summary? I’m curious about that. Since you said it, that revisionary tactic struck me as, well, “perfect.” But would you still make the same decision today? Was “pity” involved?
SS: That is right. I couldn’t stand reading them, not out of fear, but because they were indulgent and dull. When you hand a sheet to someone to read, they can choose the pace, they can choose to leave a poem or linger, skip some lines or reread them. Performance is more dictatorial. Propriety keeps people in their seats. I am acutely aware of the time the audience is giving me, the time I am demanding, and so some lines get edited out as I read the poems out loud. I don’t know if I would call that pity. I would say it is a deeper consideration of audience, a deeper awareness of the momentary and minute power that I am holding over them, and, so, a greater urgency to just get on with it. Maybe it is useful to think of this as pity?
RL: Maybe? It did make you “do” something, no? It inspired revision. Performatively, but also on the literal page. If I recall, there are slight edits made between the poem as it appears in the book and a previous version published online, right?
SS: Right. Pity and humility.
RL: Humility, yes! The secret sister! And, at least as I’m receiving it, not a false humility, a false kinship. Can I tell you I’m so sick of all this political rhetoric of “working together” and “we have more in common than we have in difference” and — this is going back to ideas from earlier — “we are all united and the same.” But what if we aren’t — all the same, I mean — and that’s okay?
RL: And what if we regard that we’re all different, distinct, and still need not feel pressured to “unite” toward an uneasy amalgamation, assimilation, bipartisanship?
SS: I don’t even like using the word equality for this reason.
RL: Equality sucks!
SS: LOL. Now what?
RL: Well, for a time I began substituting “equity” for what I felt I really meant by “equality.” Now even that feels insufficient. And, in a recent poem, I found myself even questioning “solidarity.” Does it matter to have a singular term to describe what it is we’re after? Is what we’re after so necessarily complicated, divergent, and even at times contradictory that, in fact, a singular word can never exist to fully describe it? Do you see poems operating somewhere in that gulf? But I hope we haven’t cornered our way back to that annoying argument, the one that asks “Can poems ‘do’ anything?” Lol.
SS: “Justice” seems to be the word for me. What did Dr. West say? Justice is love in the public sphere? And can a poem not do anything? Can a poem do nothing?
RL: I just looked up “pity,” by the way. Apparently, it’s related to a Latin root that meant “piety, loyalty, duty.” “Duty” is the word that arrests me. And “justice” feels related to that.
SS: Yeah, pity seems to me of an era where one owed other people something. Feudal harm reduction.
RL: I like to think of my own poems, I guess, as having a duty, even if the duty is to my kin.
SS: There aren’t many who think that way, I think. About poems and duty.
RL: You think so? Now I have notions of poems and duty in my head, as if in concert with Dr. West’s idea: justice is love in the public sphere.
SS: I have posed the question to some young poets before. Do you think poetry has a moral or ethical obligation/duty? It’s surprising how many say no. Maybe I shouldn’t say “not many” — and maybe some are in a bit of a crisis right now. But surprising nonetheless because I can’t even imagine what then the impetus to write might be. Duty is social love in the individual sphere?
RL: Individual, but also public? You mentioned the word “feudal,” and so this brings to mind, briefly, foregone notions of a kind of knightly duty. That was a public contract to a certain extent, no? And do you know we’ve made a circle? You said earlier: “Public calls up surveillance, yes. But more so it calls up obligation or duty — a need to make it worth people’s time. There is not much time after all.” So, here we are again with surveillance, duty, and mortal time.
SS: Full circle indeed! What do you see your duty as being?
RL: I think my duty is pitched toward the past (the dead) and toward the future (the not-yet-born). Paradoxically, this means I must be explicitly, deeply, critically moored to the present. I think of a description of the poem you often mention, but I forget the attribution: about poems functioning as either “diagnostic” or “curative.” I find I lean toward the former, which means to face and acknowledge all of the past, brutal or otherwise. And I lean this way towards hoping, in a future, that my poems, however contaminated they may very well be, may approach the latter. What’s yours?
SS: I love what you say here. What I say is based on something I heard or read Dunya Mikhail say and that I now can’t find. Overall the election hasn’t caused much of a shift in my sense of duty or aesthetics (that a poet frees and interrogates language, agitates the state, names their historical moment, etc.) because I already saw myself writing in fascism, but I have returned to an earlier difficulty I’ve had with poetry as diagnosis, namely that diagnosis is not enough. When crisis is so acute, it seems useless to point out the crisis. It made me wish I had more poems that offered some movement beyond diagnosis, some vision from “yes, but” to “yes, but… and…” But this is a long preface to saying tonight I think the duty of the writer, as you ask this question now, is to remind us that we will die. And that we aren’t dead yet.