Round Table: City as Place
Marthe Reed with Amber Atiya, Jill Darling, John Pluecker, and Tyrone Williams
A tribute to Marthe Reed
We built this round table in the fall of 2017 and finished up final notes and editing in January 2018. It was set to be published when we found out that Marthe had suddenly and unexpectedly passed away on April 10. Among so many who are still trying to make sense of this news, I am grateful to have worked and talked with her, even if briefly over the past few years. And I am sad to have lost the opportunity to spend more time, share more ideas, talk more poetry and politics and dogs and life with her. But what we all can do now is read her work and remember her spirit. We can continue to follow her example as a person who embodied the poetic and the political, who knew the necessary power of art and social action, and who believed that poems could act on the world. Many of us have recognized the importance of being both artists and social activists. But Marthe taught us how to do it, for real.
Marthe was also a person who brought others together. She invited us to participate in this round table to share in a conversation about ideas so important to her, and to us all. We talked about poets and poetry, and the intersections between environmental, economic, racial, social, and other justice work. As a poet on the page and activist on the ground, she knew that writing could be a vehicle for thinking and theorizing social justice (and injustice) and activism. She combined poetry with action to resist the perpetuation of power and inequality. She fought for real people and for social change. In her writing and life, she seemed to believe that poets invested in justice could come together in community to create alternatives to the destructive power of greed. To begin our conversation, she asked us to think about how the most vulnerable share the greatest burdens of environmental injustices and social violence; to consider the need to hear the missing voices in addressing real, contemporary issues in cities in particular; and to reflect on and imagine how language and poetry/poets might help to create a different future.
In addition to this round table and numerous published books and chapbooks, Marthe had been working on a number of projects related to environmental and social justice for some time. Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene, co-edited with Linda Russo, will be out in August. The terms and definitions included in Counter-Desecration“map new perspectives that provide a way to approach the interlinked social, economic, and environmental forces that shape our lives and the world around us.”
Marthe lived in Louisiana for many years, and her chapbook Coastal Geometries, just out from above/ground press, mingles reflections on the Louisiana coast. She writes about beauty (the natural beauty of the area, the people); sadness (over the loss of ecologies and habitats, of land and the coastline as a natural protector, as a space between humans and ocean); exploitation (oil, money, destructive capitalism at the expense of land that supports the people who live there); and more.
Here’s her poem from Coastal Geometries:
And of Marthe’s new book, Ark Hive, forthcoming from the Operating System in 2019, Amish Trivedi writes:
Ark Hive is the memoir of a person but it is also the narrative of a place, how it came to exist in the time that Reed was living there. We traverse the geography as we traverse the culture, one affected deeply by Hurricane Katrina and also the governmental response to that disaster. Here the language is erased, something that nearly happened somewhere between the storm and the individuals in charge of helping those caught in the middle. The book ends in another crisis — one for her as ‘nomadic wanderer’ and for the Louisiana coast, changed by the oil spewing from the bottom of the ocean that no one could seemingly stop.
The remarks by Trivedi and an excerpt from Ark Hivecan be found on Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems and Poetics page at Jacket2.
There is also a lovely tribute with links to more of her work at the Poetry Foundation Harriet blog.
With thanks to Marthe, we offer this conversation inspired by Ed Roberson, Louisiana, other poets and places, and a resistance rooted in love.—JILL DARLING
Round Table: City as Place
MR: Inspired, in part, by Ed Roberson’s City Eclogues, this roundtable takes up the city as environment: site of both home and dislocation, belonging and unbelonging, of environmental injustice and systemic racist policy, as well as of shelter, nurture, beauty, and possibility. Who benefits from the latter and who/what suffers the former are contexts that trouble any understanding of the city. Activism has often and for too long left the city outside of the address to environmental issues—a circumstance that has influenced treatment of the city in poetry/literature—most particularly how disproportionately the burdens, dangers, and environmental hazards of city life are borne by communities of color and the most vulnerable, including the other-than-human. How might our understanding of “place,” “environment,” and “nature” as concepts escape the narrow orbit to which they have been consigned by way of the Judeo-Christian mythos (human dominion) and capitalism (exploitable resources), and subsequently Romanticism’s idealization of “Nature” and damnation of human society, the city reduced to the monstrous? Focusing on the city and the manifold crises ecological degradation has and will increasingly have inflicted, differentially, upon (all) the city’s inhabitants, what voices are missing from the conversation or have been muted? What questions/issues need address? What role does language have in re-shaping our understanding of the city and its inhabitants?
TW: Since the city has always depended upon the exploitation of natural resources, concerns about both will necessarily be in tension. In this context the romanticization of natural resources into Nature not only conditions the city as monstrosity but also, in a strange reversal, treats the city as a site for exploitable resources. Of course. The questions around ecology will depend on which cities we mean. Northern Midwestern cities in the USA? Northeastern cities in the USA? Southern cities?
[A pause in the conversation occurred after Tyrone’s post, as Hurricane Harvey subsequently devastated Houston, where one of our participants, John Pluecker, lives.]
• • •
MR: John, since Houston is in immediate crisis because of the catastrophe of Hurricane Harvey I think about how there will have been differential effects across neighborhoods and communities within Houston. Who lives in flood plains, for instance, who can afford flood insurance, who lives close to critical infrastructure (hospitals, for instance) and thus benefits from early intervention to clear away the aftermath, restore power, etc. This was true in New Orleans after Katrina. Then there is the compounding issue of the DACA decision and the existential fear dropped on the heads of folks already in distress. You have written about the immediate aftermath of Harvey and the rescission of DACA immediately on the heels of Harvey. Could you address those issues here in this context?
JP: First, thanks so much for including me in this conversation. Especially at a time like this right after Hurricane Harvey, it is of great benefit to me to be able to bring some questions to such a wise collection of poets. The questions are so huge right now and so expansive, that it is hard to find a place to enter the conversation. But I think one thing that keeps coming up for me is the question of a “we.” How is a first-person plural created in these moments? Who gets to create a “we” and how does that happen? What does it mean for poets to use a “we” in a moment like this and how does that function, especially in a city like Houston riven by myriad divisions and segregations? How many first-persons plural are there? How does one know who is included in a particular “we” or excluded? One poem I turn to quite often is “Liquid City” by Lorenzo Thomas, who—born in Panama and after growing up and living for a significant period of time in NYC (where he was involved with the Umbra Workshop)—moved to Houston as an adult after the Vietnam War. In this poem, Thomas writes, “We need a song that all of us can sing / A true reflecting. A moody, bright, expansive song.” In Thomas’s Houston, everything is moving, liquid, even capital in the form of the glass towers above the bayou. Thomas reminds his readers that the glass itself is liquid, only frozen in stasis momentarily. I keep returning to this question of poetry and song, its ability to create a “we.” Of course, I am much more willing to support the “we” of Lorenzo Thomas than say the “we” of a Greg Abbott, the current far right-wing governor of Texas who has been responsible for pushing an anti-trans bathroom bill (State Bill 6) and a harshly punitive law (State Bill 4) that would turn local police into immigration authorities. “We”—diverse communities of people fighting back—have been protesting these state bills for all of 2017, struggling to keep up with the waves of attacks coming from the federal level and from a state level government emboldened by the billionaire whose brand has acquired the White House. So, the crisis in the city post-Harvey and in the light of the rescission of DACA comes after almost a year of frantic organizing in hyperdrive, as “we” have attempted to keep up with the attacks being waged daily against the city broadly, but most specifically against working- and middle-class communities of color in this city.
JD: In response to John and Tyrone, there are so many directions one can go in this conversation. Naomi Klein writes throughout This Changes Everything that dealing with Climate Change has to move beyond the divide, or perceived lack of relation between, “environmental issues” and “social issues.” But that now—and this is finally starting to change because of the worsening of “natural” disasters drawing attention to the consequences for those most economically vulnerable, which are disproportionately communities of color—we can no longer afford that false divide. But it also goes beyond effects/consequences to the pre-disaster need to reconsider social and economic structures and infrastructures, Klein argues. Moving from non-renewable to renewable forms of energy by way of investing in green technologies and jobs, for example, might also address social and economic inequalities. Another way to say that is, if we want to actually commit to social and economic equality, and the necessarily related racial justice, we have to have to make real reforms in terms of environmental and economic justice issues like valuing clean water or addressing pollution in poor urban communities, reforming access to public education K-college, and investing in renewable energy to create new kinds of jobs and economic opportunities.
The idea of the divide between the environmental and the social also relates to the perception that people of color, especially in urban areas, historically haven’t been interested in “nature” and/or that environmental/natural spaces and literatures are white realms. Ed Roberson challenges or reframes what seems like a false divide by exploring relationships between, and content that exists within, these realms. Instead of arguing whether or not that divide exists, his work already exists in spaces that recognize and utilize connections between nature/culture/environmental/social/historical and more, in a way, outside of the argument altogether. I’ve been working on a paper that considers how Ed Roberson in City Eclogueand Patricia Smith in Blood Dazzler critique, dismantle, work outside of, and revise the idea of the nature-culture/social divide.
Both poets experiment with poetic form, creating pieces that deploy meaning through the fusion of form and content. Roberson writes about trash, the history of race relations, our contemporary human condition, and seems to assert that if “civilization” means having control over nature, then our dominance is also the cause of our destruction. He also shows us how we refuse to see the things that make us uncomfortable like trash, racism, and the ways we participate in systems of neglect, oppression, and failed social responsibility. But in City Eclogue, like in much of his other work, it is apparent that he is also a nature-lover, seeing glimpses of the natural in the built city, reflecting on the patterns of birds and other phenomena, calling our attention to the often unnoticed moments of beauty, and opening up the idea of the “natural” to greater interpretation.
Smith’s critique of the human-social disaster in the aftermath of Katrina incorporates documentary poetics strategies and traditional poetic forms. Now that we’ve just witnessed multiple devastating hurricanes in a row, 12 years after Katrina, it seems like Blood Dazzler can be a tool for thinking about the complex relationship between natural and human disaster, and how those are now intricately linked. I heard someone on the radio recently (I think it was Scott Knowles interviewed at On The Media) who suggested that we stop using the term “natural disaster” and start using something different like “gradual disaster” or “slow disaster” to capture that the storm itself is only a part of the picture; that after the storm thousands or millions of the most vulnerable lack access to basic supplies for immediate needs, and to long term resources for economic recovery and survival. Both of these books by Roberson and Smith also really show how our human existence relies on non-renewable resources because of false narratives about the balance between nature and culture. And when we refer to disasters as “natural” it relieves us of being responsible for the exploitation of nature and our own potential demise. But I think these books also call on us as readers to invest in community building to the degree that we demand and work toward changing the structures and systems (to the degree that any of us have the power to do so), to advocate for a larger social/cultural/political turning away from what Klein calls “extractivism” of both natural resources and human labor, and to recognize that the extreme potential for destruction may also be an opportunity (and this opportunity may be our only option for survival) for significant social/cultural/economic change.
MR: Thank you John, Jill. Tyrone, your address to the physical siting of cities intrigues me, the complex physical as well social histories of discrete regions and the impact those histories have on the nature of the city itself, how it is viewed and how it is treated, though issues of class and race inevitably distinguish which parts of the city we focus our attention on. I would like to ask each of you to address this from your own context. Tyrone, you grew up in Detroit and still have family there and have witnessed the city’s decline and its path toward a particular kind of recovery, a city whose character in large part was informed by the Great Migration out of the South. And of course, you now live in Cincinnati, Ohio, another Midwestern city, but also right across the border from Kentucky, so inflected by the history and culture of the South as well.
Amber, hurricanes aside, though Sandy certainly impacted New York City, could you bring your experiences to bear on the city as environment, its “monstrousness” and as site of exploitable resources? What and who are considered exploitable, monstrous, central, valuable? How do those values distinguish New York—across boroughs and islands—as a complex urban ecological zone? And Jill, you too lived in Detroit, and now outside of Madison, two very different urban contexts. How do the notions of the city as human habit, as monstrous, as exploitable resource play out from the vantage of these differently constituted urban ecologies?
JD: I grew up in Mt. Clemens, a suburb of Detroit, went to undergrad at UD-Mercy, moved around for a number of years, moved back to the area for grad school at Wayne State, and now live in Ypsilanti, next to Ann Arbor. I technically only lived in the city as an undergrad on campus but have otherwise been in and around for a long time. As others here have mentioned, “urban ecologies” are inextricably linked with social/economic/racial/etc. elements, materials, layers… however one wants to think about visualizing that. The ecology of a place is made up of a complex and dynamic web of components and contextualized within a historical context.
TW: As you might imagine there are, as always, multiple narratives about any individual city, but our general perspectives on cities we have not visited or do not hear about from family and friends tend to narrow. Even cities we visit frequently can be victimized by mono-perspectives if we only return to the same networks and/or locales. I have lost track of the many times I have visited on my own “New York” (at least thirty times since my first visit in 1977). Of course, if I think about I have really visited a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and lower and mid Manhattan. I have never been to Harlem, much less Queens, Staten Island, Long Island, etc. Since Detroit is where I lived until the age of 29 I did know more of the city simply because I had friends who lived in different parts of it. Even so “my” narrative of Detroit is inflected by memory, trauma (I was robbed by gun only once but was witness to two armed robberies at the now defunct grocery chain I worked at in my late teens and early twenties), violence (the 1967 riot but I also recall watching blood spurt out from the back of a guy who had been stabbed). These isolated incidents tend to fade as I recall the positive aspects of my Detroit—growing up amid bookstores and libraries easily accessible, the friends I made at college, the teachers throughout my education who helped me along the way (some are remembered on my website), etc. Still, this past July, my oldest sister and my parents moved out of their Detroit houses into an apartment (my sister) and condo (my parents) in the ‘burbs, and the fact I now have no family members who live in Detroit proper feels like another loss. The other thing that needs to be stressed—however obvious—is that the Detroiters I know, those who have been there for decades, have different narratives of their city that has little to do with “Detroit” as a media/postmodern phenomenon. They understand all too well that the emerging “positive” images of a city on the rebound is dependent on the same racial and class excavations that last circulated as “capital” and ‘opportunity”—to wit, development as an end in itself, the suburbanization of existing suburbs, and so forth—in the late Fifties.
JD: Yes, I think Tyrone captures some of the layers that get left out of media narratives, etc. Detroit at this moment continues to be a complexity of urban/suburban, white/black, economic and environmental justice (or lack of), arguments about revitalization, discriminatory policies and strong community investment, and etc. The new arena that just opened is a great example of the larger context, history, and continuing arguments. In the short version of the story, the Ilitch family spent years buying land in the middle of the city, let buildings go empty, and then got a great deal from the city to build the arena with millions in taxpayer money. There are questions about whether or not they hired local contractors and laborers as the agreement required, and other issues. And then when the arena opened, Kid Rock was booked to hold six concerts in a row, one of the arguments being that he’s so popular he could fill the place every night. Many Detroiters already felt exploited or left out of the plan for the arena. And then the choice of Kid Rock, as articulated by Stephen Henderson, “sent a message to the Detroiters who made the project possible and who have yet to see the benefits promised. It’s a message that’s not too far off those Jim Crow-era signs warning that blacks weren’t welcome.” Construction of the arena has been going on over the past few years alongside teacher walkouts in the face of crumbling schools and ever-diminishing resources, residents straining to call attention to environmental atrocities like toxic pollution, water issues, and the list goes on. But it’s also the usual story: development wins and profits on the backs of the people. Added to the conversation are a lot of mixed feelings about what some call the gentrified revitalization of downtown Detroit and the slow progress and lack of resources for neighborhoods further from the downtown. But there’s also a ton of community organizing, a large grassroots urban farming movement (literal grass and roots), for example, and other kinds of projects… and another possible direction for this conversation.
TW: [Jill] is correct regarding the problems of development as recently played out in Detroit. The Ilitch family is now apparently interested in divesting itself of the Detroit Red Wings franchise for whom the new arena was constructed (to be fair, unlike the patriarch of the family, Mike Ilitch, who seemed to be genuinely interested in pouring money back into the communities, the son appears to be motivated solely by capital resources). But this process is hardly unique to Detroit. The assumption that downtown revitalization can do the same for neighborhoods by osmosis drives redevelopment in Cincinnati, Ohio (as one example among several). You can read local stories about Detroit neighborhoods that are being “turned around” as code for an influx of young, often white, entrepreneurs whose success depends, more often than not, on the marginalization of citizens, often black, by temporary inflated real estate values (the bubble effect that led to the collapse of real estate markets in Seattle and Houston in the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, the savings and loans scandals). This doesn’t mean that among these “new Detroiters” there aren’t some genuinely invested in the city for the long term. It just means that in this scenario the assumption by many longtime Detroiters is that they are guilty until proven innocent, an attitude that comes from a long history of being betrayed by the business community, starting with the Big Three (Ford, Chrysler and GM).
JD: I think Tyrone is also pointing to how the language itself can embody or deploy the violence. “Capital,” “Opportunity,” “Turned around” and other phrases tell us one thing but do another. It can function as a kind of psychological or emotional abuse, or like gaslighting. Using language to mask or obfuscate action is something corporate and conservative leaders have come to perfect, and like gaslighting, we on the receiving end seem to only “get it” after the fact, when we have to work through the trauma of the violence to figure out what happened. I think it’s because language is so much more than just words; the language deploys the narratives that have been constructed and repeated so that it becomes increasingly harder to get to something that is not that (the narratives we’ve all internalized), to see through to what’s really happening. Maybe this is where poetry often works, to take up space in these questions that are trying to articulate or even just help us (poets, readers) understand that which is otherwise difficult to put words to. Or maybe it’s because so many of the words are already so loaded with meanings that perpetuate violence, getting into different ways of using language is so important.
While not poetry, Wendy Walters takes on some of these ideas in Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal. The book is made of nonfiction essays as well as fictional stories, which from a structural perspective is an intriguing way to frame what are like investigations into cultural phenomena. The pieces range in time, location, and topic, but as a reader, one gets the sense that the task is to participate in the investigation to determine what is real and what is surreal, or even that because the real often takes on surreal qualities, we have to work harder to make any sense out of who we are and what our roles should be in the face of violence—of history, of language, of “development” and “progress.” In some essays, for example, she moves between narratives of development, public housing, racism, and more. She writes about how the expanding university bought up the surrounding real estate, let it sit empty, and then began to rebuild (like in the stories of Detroit and other cities): newer, bigger, shinier, etc. She gives some history of public housing, politics, and bad management over time. She tells stories about two particular public housing complexes that have a warring rivalry, though doesn’t specifically draw analysis or conclusions about the social/economic trajectory of racism in the history of public housing in NYC but leaves the space open for such connections. And she tells stories about being questioned about her own race, as a light-skinned brown person, and about being mistaken for a nanny because her black and Jewish biracial son looks white. What is key, I think, in the book, is that she rarely, if ever, comes to specific conclusions. But in putting narratives and questions up against each other, and constantly shifting from one topic or story to another, the book critiques any understanding we might have of reality, leaving us feeling like we’ve swallowed the Matrix pill where everything becomes kind of dingy and confused, but maybe also clearer in some ways. If we can’t have clear answers and conclusions, we might have to linger in the questions, or work in some other kind of paradigm.
MR: This historical pattern, urban economic and social decline addressed via redevelopment agendas privileging the ambitions and outcomes of the most privileged, while side-lining the already marginalized often to whom is owed much of the character of the city. I am thinking here of Detroit but also New Orleans and Houston. Another paradigm might be the emotional bonds, and all that affords or constrains/erodes those bonds, to home-place.
What makes a city, a neighborhood, a block, a place one can become attached to? Topophilia, as Yi-Fu Tuan articulates it, is inextricable for the human geography of a place. Though New Orleans post-Katrina is a changed, much whiter, city, the core identity of the city as the birthplace of jazz, of Mardi Gras—itself inextricable for the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs that arose in response to the inability of Black Americans to obtain insurance, and from which the krewes of Mardi Gras arose—is tied to particular human histories such as the Back O’Town of Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson, or the project housing of Hollygrove where Lil Wayne grew up and from which arose New Orleans’ Rap and Bounce music, testaments of resistance in the face of 500 years of racist violence but also of a complicated love for the city, at least for the black city poised within the one constructed on white power and privilege.
Harryette Mullen, in Urban Tumbleweed, explores the human geography of place, wry and tart. Here city and the ‘natural’ world are inseparable and intimate: the ear buds the speaker wears amuse but also distract her from “the stillness of the garden,” itself “budding” with life; the implicit trust between the speaker and her other-than-human neighbors, “the creeping snails…trusting me to spare their fragile shells.” The collection takes its title from the wandering plastic shopping bags that billow over the urban landscape, detritus of the late 20th Century obsession with the easy solution and blind to its hidden costs. Mullen articulates a Los Angelina topophilia rooted in the city’s paradoxes: pink styrofoam peanuts in the grass, their color as lively of any flower, and the “toilet to tap” slogan of the city’s water treatment facility, beautiful and monstrous. Mullen delights in a Los Angeles inhabited by both “the food critic/ [who] laments…no wine pairs well/ with scorpions or tarantulas” and a man dressed in a baby cow suit steals and gives away “twenty-six gallons of milk from Walmart.” Absurd and beloved, human and more-than-human, in the lens of Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, we encounter a Los Angeles no less rewarding of the attentive walker than the storied Redwood forests further north, though one perhaps requiring a keener sense of humor. I think, also, of Amber’s poem “moon above 11433,”its fierce love for a particular neighborhood and community in Queens.
What other poets, besides Roberson, Patricia Smith, and Lorenzo Thomas, draw the complexity of the city as place into focus, afford avenues of re-counter with the paradoxical character of cities, with the too often ignored, vanished, or reviled?
JD: I love this description of H. Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, which I haven’t yet read, but that makes me think of her other work and the ways she calls our attention to how both culture (pop, mainstream, American) and critique are hidden in plain sight in the language itself; maybe, that is to say, in using the ordinary language of everyday life and culture, she turns it in ways that function as critique. But the critique is also often humorous and playful, poetic and musical. Before we know it, we are inside the critique, first-person witness to the ways language deploys meaning and creates complex content.
AA: Peace all. Thank you, Marthe, for inviting me to participate in this roundtable. Oh my goodness, there’s so much to say, so forgive me if I jump around a bit.
New York City is the most densely populated city in the country with over 8.5 million people. It has the honor of being one of the dirtiest cities in America (It’s a wonder it’s not the dirtiest city in America), I have the honor of being one of its 700,000 inhabitants over 18 with asthma, and, according to nychealthandhospitals.org, asthma has the honor of being the #1 cause of missed school days with Upper Manhattan and the Bronx leading the way with the highest incidents of asthma and asthma-related hospital visits. I almost laughed out loud reading the health section of the nyc.gov website, which gives suggestions on “how to avoid asthma triggers.” My immediate thought was Um…don’t be poor and brown in one of the dirtiest cities in America? Something about it feels almost…accusatory…if you can’t “avoid going outside” because, well, you have things to do or because you work outdoors or because you’re street homeless, and you become asthmatic, it’s your own fault. There’s this nebulous boundary between living at or below the poverty line and living in “near” poverty—at least half the city is doing one or the other—which raises questions and concerns about the collection and manipulation of data, as in how and by whom is (the rate of) poverty defined/determined? Why isn’t this information uniform across city agencies, for instance, why are income requirements for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) drastically different from the requirements for a lot of the city’s low-income housing programs? (Either you have a roof over your head or you have food, but how dare you want both.)
The criminalization of poverty is uniform; lord knows how many city agencies have my fingerprints on file because I’ve applied for some kind of assistance. In the late 90s there were rumors of a new community center being built in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of the poorest districts in the city. The facility became a 20-million-dollar juvenile detention center for youth under 16. I doubt it got much media coverage.
New York City has the highest number of millionaires and billionaires in the world, and well. That’s gotta count for something, namely, the ease with which poor people of color are disappeared from the cityscape. The ones who remain makeup half the population and are themselves exploitable resources, the perfect labor pool. New York is an economic predator’s paradise, and two of the biggest most powerful predators are Columbia and New York University who own more private real estate in NY than anyone else. Columbia, where Black and Latinx students make up approximately 30% of the class of 2019, is responsible for displacing many long-time Black and Brown residents and small businesses in its quest to gobble up Harlem real estate. NYU, supposedly one of the top schools in the country for graduate employability (I’d love to hear what Black and brown graduates have to say about this), leaves its poorest students with an embarrassingly high debt-load and has also done battle with Greenwich Village residents over expansion, though GV as a neighborhood is far from impoverished.
Prior to the aggressive gentrification of Greenwich Village, it was the hub for local misfits and outliers, especially LGBT communities. I barely recognize Christopher Street (or The Village) anymore; poor Black dykes have as much right as anyone to look out on the Hudson River, but I haven’t bothered with the Westside Pier since it was taken over by baby strollers. Let’s not forget NY’s infamous Cabaret Law, which prohibits dancing (yes, chile, dancing) in certain spaces without a license. Read more about the racist history of the Cabaret Law here. And here.
Chi-Chi’s, a well-known now-closed Black gay bar on Christopher Street, was constantly and intentionally targeted and harassed by the NYPD. My first time there, I recall hanging out in Section Eight (where the lesbians congregated) and being warned by a patron not to dance because the owner could get fined.
Poor people are valuable because they (and all their physical, emotional, psychological, and economic crises) are exploitable. I’m thinking about particularly vulnerable populations: women, victims of domestic/intimate partner violence, Black and brown/queer youth, children in foster care, seniors, the homeless. I’ve been in a shelter and let me tell you. I was fortunate to be able to advocate for myself, it was a very stressful experience. My health suffered a great deal because the air quality was so bad. My legs and feet were always swollen, which made it difficult to walk, and I needed an asthma pump for the first time in decades. I did meet beautiful people there—one man was a Babalawo from Cuba, a priest of Ifá, and a songwriter. We talked lots about music and poetry and getting the hell out of the shelter.
The whole concept of community has changed. Gentrifiers seek their own likeness and New Yorkers lacking financial and economic stability have become a nomadic tribe, many living with roommates or family members or opting to leave altogether. I don’t know too many people who can afford to live alone, and most of my friends who do are (a) over 50 and
(b) have been at their jobs for 15+ years.
I’m reluctant to think of the city as monstrous, although the new condos going up, gunmetal gray and glass looming threateningly over red brick and cobblestone, are quite monstrous, a sign of impending doom. I look at them and feel nothing, these aren’t structures you develop emotional/cultural attachment to, which is intentional. NY is losing the sense of grit and color and character that made it special. Jeremiah Moss, who runs a blog called Vanishing New York says, “you needed chutzpah to live in New York. Now you just have to be very rich.” And the very rich can afford $3,000 rents and $10 bags of organic carrots.
Environmental, racial, and economic injustice go hand in hand in hand. In New York food and shelter aren’t basic necessities, they’re status symbols, the trees on tree-lined streets are eye candy. (And poor artists provide culture and entertainment.) It’s an unconscionable and unsustainable lifestyle.
I won’t go on and on. I would like to share a verse from “New York City” by Gil-Scott Heron, which, I think, sums it all up:
New York City I don’t know why I love you
maybe you remind me of myself.
I been broke and I been criticized.
I been pushed off to the side.
but I always felt inside like New York City
was misused and mistreated,
run with when the runnin´ was good.
Ignoring the beating absorbed by those who live there
and the gangsters keepin´ the books.
But there ain´t nothin´ wrong with the city,
just some people been runnin´ it, runnin´ it to death.
TW: Scot-Heron is also the writer of “New York Is Killing Me” on his last album, to say nothing of “We Almost Lost Detroit.” I think those two songs perfectly capture the ambivalence of many poets toward their home cities. I have lived in Cincinnati for more years than I lived in Detroit but my family and friends in the Motor City almost always say things like “So when are you coming home?” I too expressed my visits this way for many years after I left. Detroit has always had a strong musical and literary presence not only in the minds of natives but also, I think, in the consciousness of the nation at large. And like so many cities—maybe like every city—Detroit has had, and has, many poets documenting the city’s and its residents’ histories, dreams, hopes, despair and resistant to obsolescence as dictated by the circulation of capital. Here are just a few of the names: Phil Levine, Kim Hunter, Jim Daniels (in Pittsburgh but still writing about growing up in the Motor City), Lolita Hernandez, M.L. Liebler, jessica moore, Derrick May, Willie Williams, etc.
JD: Amber, your up-close look at NYC in all of its layers and violence so intimately personalizes what is happening in those urban spaces. In one of the classes I teach, a basic intro writing class, we read and watch some basic stuff about race and social inequality, from MLK and Kimberle Crenshaw to Beyonce and Jesse Williams recent BET speech about Black Lives Matter… and because I teach in a diverse place with students from all sorts of backgrounds, most of them mostly get it. But they don’t really get it, I don’t think, or it becomes more powerful, and personal, for them when we read Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace. It’s like narrative journalism; Kozol talks to a lot of kids and shares their stories in their own words. The poorest neighborhoods in NYC that he visits in the 80s and 90s and describes in the book call attention to a lot of what is still happening today in terms of the health and stress issues that you speak of, and lack of access to resources like basic quality health care and social assistance programs… let alone jobs and education. At one point, Kozol describes the decision to build a detention facility, creating jobs that rely on a local economy of crime, etc… and when the students turn to google and find out how much more money is spent on prisons than on education, some of them get genuinely upset. In reading the book, they tune in to the kids’ stories, and also can’t comprehend how things like this can happen in America (a few of them always say this). It’s a hard read, and I get emotional every time I go back in to re-read, or when I read passages out loud in class… but I also love how the book so effectively challenges the fantastical narratives about individuality, hard work, the American Dream, etc.
I’ve also just turned back to a book, Sleeper Cell, by Michael “Quess?” Moore (a.k.a. A Scribe called Quess), a New Orleans poet who performed at the NOLA Poetry Festival last spring. He’s an amazing and dynamic performer, and so the poems on the page are encountered differently depending on whether or not you’ve seen and heard him perform. The poems are embodied by history lived through the people of New Orleans and call our attention as readers to the impossibility of separating race, history, and physical space. In “America, what’s in your name?” he writes,
If my name… is part your name
you are a continent of cacophonous consonants
that will collapse in my absence
once you vanquish the vowels
we will howl in the wind
reform our selves nebulous
rain our selves anew
to fertilize the tomorrows
our earth incubates for us
And “Gentrification in 5 parts: A play on the senses” begins:
what smells like lemon pledge
& bologna mixed with
a dash of gutter punk funk?
sounds like a churning coffee bean grinder
set to a backdrop of new construction
can’t tell the difference between
the grind outside…
& the grind inside
sounds like Number 9,
your cappuccino vanilla mocha Urban Sunset on a Cypress Hill latte’s
Moore is also a teacher and activist, taking his “pedagogy to the streets to effect change” as he writes in “What the Removal of New Orleans’s White Supremacist Monuments Means to My Students.” And it’s the students who most simply articulate the problem with confederate statues, because the statues are of the people “who wanted to keep slavery.” The figures, to the students, represent the historical continuum of white power that first fought to keep slavery and now continues to reinforce the social structures that perpetuate inequality. The social/structural inequalities are embodied in the physical space itself. Moore quotes his mom, originally from the 9th ward, who said, “half these negroes ain’t moved 12 blocks since slavery” and explains how he realized the weight of this statement only later when looking at a series of maps depicting the history of the city. “If “Negroes” hadn’t moved 12 blocks since slavery, it certainly was no coincidence. The city was literally gridded in the likeness of their once—and ostensibly still—masters. A vast number of public schools, institutions, and streets were named after former slave owners. And then there were the monuments…” over 100 of them spread around the city. In 2015 the city decided to remove four of the monuments, after years of work done by activists to convince the mayor.
In his poem, “Grounded by Sky: A Southern Epitaph” Moore writes:
knowing that I walk atop the bones of my ancestors
in the shadow of their oppressors
towering statuesque above me
• • •
the sky is riddled in dead eyes
the probing gaze of ghastly men
now ghosts cast into iron
• • •
can not stand this ground
the frozen laughter of gilded antebellum
the sky a glacier of silence
that yet speaks so loudly
I think these poems speak to both the physical space still drenched with history, and the difficulty of connecting to these spaces and places and instead having to transcend somehow… the sky in this last section representing a turning away from the urban ground and looking for answers or clarity somewhere else. I think this is expressed even more so, just a few pages later, in the last poem of the book, “star gazing: under the lens”:
I am ancient skin under modern scanner
my flesh folding in forested mystique
beneath foreboding eye
baobab tree trunk
trumping your dry season
with hidden waters
so in this age of
modern wasteland and urban decay
you know not from whence comes this flow
…nor how deep runs this well…
didn’t I tell you I’ve known rivers?
• • •
I have always been the black
I have always been the night
I birthed the stars
and I can swallow them
In tackling the physical manifestations of the ideological, the final poem references African ancestors and American poets (Langston Hughes), and reclaiming a natural power to overtake the material remnants. The poems in this book challenge readers in the harsh reality of their critiques, but there’s also a hint of looking toward a future embodied in a different kind of space.
MR: Thank you, Amber, Tyrone, and Jill, I am grateful for your words. My home city Syracuse, on a smaller scale, has many of the same issues: endemic poverty among people of color, a vanishing safety net, housing and food insecurity, and struggling schools pressed out against the backdrop of collapsed blue-collar unionized industries and wages. Protected by class and race, I want a language, or an application of language, to manifest the overwrit and erased, the unvalued and invisible. Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, writes about the interplay of language and imagination:
we urgently need to rethink—politically, imaginatively, and theoretically—what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. In so doing, we also need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence.
In an interview with Amitava Kumar, Nixon goes on to identify writers such as Arundhati Roy, Indra Sinha, Wangari Maathai, and Ken Saro-Wiwa as models for activism and writing about the environment and poverty. I would like to hear your thoughts to the work of re-imagining Nixon calls for—to recognize and address slow violence. How might articulating the environmental/social/cultural conditions of poverty through the activity of violence alter our response to those conditions? How do articulate slow violence such that urgency is returned to our responses perceptually, cognitively, expressively? What might/does this look like? John’s term IOYAIENE addresses that violence but what would a poetry of violence look like? Joshua Jennifer Espinoza’s “The Moon Is Trans” comes to mind, or Layli LongSoldier’s “Whereas” or her “Ȟe Sápa, Two.” Though the violence itself is content rather than text. —I am wondering about writers who bring violence to the body of language itself? A rent language, a language pulled open by the violence it exposes. Where and how do you see this idea playing out right now, vis environment particularly environmental violence in the city?
TW: I don’t think we can, I don’t we should, as individuals, imagine another language. Doing so would be contributing to the incessant branding and rebranding that goes on without the input of the people actually living in targeted sites—sites targeted for redevelopment, which means, first and foremost, renaming. In other words, such a language needs to evolve out of the communities themselves, out of community centers and boards. As writers we can certainly offer/recommend new terms as we participate in our local communities. That said, I don’t for a moment imagine that “communities” are homogenous nodes of people. And that’s important too, to recognize that naming or renaming is, per democracy, a contest of wills.
AA: Re language, who is “we”? Who is “us”? Whose “history and flawed impulses” are we referring to? Whose language? Being a Black woman writer who only speaks English stirs up so many conflicting emotions and has, at times, caused me great anxiety. I wonder if any colonizer’s language, especially English, can, ultimately, lead us (us who) out of anything.
MR: I apologize. It is impossible to speak of a single writing community or of “writers” as somehow unitary. I am abashed to have suggested it.
Could I ask each of you to address Amber’s indictment of English as language of colonizer and slave-holder? How might English be levered else-wise? Of the latter, Zong! offers one invigorating strategy.
Erica Hunt, in her essay “Response to Race and the Poetic Avantgarde,” writes, “If we truly think the imagination is part of the solution—a way to escape bitter marginalization, compromise, and casual brutality, then we must confront the social difficulties as fully as we do the formal, existential, textual difficulties of writing.” That we are not alone, “atomized individuals” creating in isolation, but inexorably in conversation/conflict/intersection with one another. Hunt observes, “For me, a poem must demonstrate transformative agency and energy to lick the instant death of words (and the suffocation of the perceiving self). Poems that matter to me are works of imagination that suggest movement beyond the confinements of the permitted and the previously authorized in order to pre-figure a future that ‘expands the range of the thinkable.’” Hunt asserts the potency of “the undigested bits, the indigestible ‘I’ that voices without speaking or speaks in other in a multiplicity of voices”—a conception of “we” that is unstable, fluid, transitive, resistant, Tyrone’s heterogeneous “contest of wills.”
Responding to the pressures and dilemmas posed by Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Tisa Bryant, in her essay “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” asks,
Why not write apprehension, a different doubling of consciousness and subjectivity that both assumes that the writing is in and is for the grasp of a nonwhite and/or Black audience, and also creates an atmosphere of slowness, caution, discomfort, (with all its attendant joy, pleasure and hilarity) that destabilizes assumptions of Euro-centrality, defuses exceptionalist notions about ability and trips up easy essentialism about authenticity.
Writing apprehension attempts to scramble the code by redirection of address away from a presumed white audience, by the inclusion of multiple registers of language and frames of reference that don’t explain Black subjectivities but embodies them through resistance, desire and sonic action.
The inventive urgency of “writing apprehension”, of embodying “through resistance, desire and sonic action” propose modes of engagement with the disregarded urban environment—one deliberately divided, contested, eroded, inequitably nurtured—as home-place for its disparate, too-often vulnerable inhabitants. I hear this in Michael “Quess?” Moore and Scot-Heron, above, and in Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Yolanda Wisher’s poem “5 South 43rd Street, Floor 2”:
One night, a man was shot and killed on this block,
right outside our thick wood door. But not today.
Today is one of those days to come home from walking
in the world, leave the windows open, start a pot of
black beans. Smoke some Alice Coltrane. Cut up
some fruit, toenails. Hold on to the moment
as if time is taking your blood pressure.
I would be grateful to hear from each of you. And, in particular, John, in the aftermath of Trump, the escalation of deportations and increasingly vulnerability of undocumented people, and of Hurricane Harvey, has there been emotional/physical/imaginative space for poets in Houston to respond and what forms is that taking?
JD: I guess I am drawn to, or see the power of, language that is recognizable but re-utilized or re-deployed… language that includes multiple registers, foregrounds slowness or discomfort (as Aisha Sabatini Sloan suggests) or that can or does shift between modes of expression, or working through kinds of language(s) in various ways, or ways that language can confront the social and textual, (as Erica Hunt explains) through conflict and conversation. So, it’s not a different language necessarily, but using language differently. And at the same time, these same languages that are already in use are also already made of so much diversity and potential… that is to say, the potential for change and/or expansion already exists within recognizable language structures and practices. But opening social/textual spaces to those potentialities is something else, maybe, like what Sabatini Sloan speaks to in terms of timing, resistance, action.
Maybe it’s also about pedagogy, or as bell hooks explains in Teaching to Transgress, using or re-framing language in relation to experience, dismantling authority to create community even with the risk of backlash to what is perceived as different from “traditional” white, academic language and rhetoric, which is also always about power. The dismantling is necessary in word and action because it calls attention to the historically internalized, and generally hidden, institutionalized white power dynamics.
Hooks writes: “It’s so difficult to change existing structures because the habit of repression is the norm. Education as the practice of freedom is not just about liberatory knowledge, it’s about a liberatory practice in the classroom.”
What seems like a simple act of sharing experience, personal narratives, for example, can be a political challenge to the status quo. Including a diversity of texts may only be part of the practice:
…we are referring to a discussion of whether or not we subvert the classroom’s politics of domination simply by using different material, or by having a different, more radical standpoint … different, more radical subject matter does not create a liberatory pedagogy, that a simple practice like including personal experience may be more constructively challenging than simply changing the curriculum. That is why there has been such a critique of the place of experience—of confessional narrative—in the classroom … sharing personal narratives yet linking that knowledge with academic information really enhances our capacity to know.
Hooks seems to draw from Audre Lorde, whose comments in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” resonate:
Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.
As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as cases for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.
The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.
So much enforcement of (the use of very specific kinds of) language pervades academia, and so challenging those power dynamics through writing, activism, pedagogy is, of course, really important. Even opening spaces that acknowledge the greater variety of language already in use, but often policed out of academic institutional settings, can potentially make an impact.
Earlier in the conversation, Marthe asked a question about writing that exposes violence through language; specifically she wrote about the possibility of “language pulled open by the violence it exposes,” which I think could be language that fuses form and content so intimately they can’t be separated. Maybe like what hooks and Lorde are speaking to, in using recognizable language but through or by way of alternative means to expose the violence of silencing, concealing, and power. The content (of the writing, speaking) brings the different kinds of historical, physical, emotional violences out into the open, and the form (any means by which the content is voiced, articulated, made plain, eg. word choice, timing, mode of address, language or vocal register, linguistic or non-English inclusion, etc) disrupts the rigid structures of what’s acceptable or tolerated.
Maybe another example that helps speak to some of these ideas, and connects back to earlier questions in this conversation related to space/place/language/poetry, comes from the intro to Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, in which Camille Dungy writes:
Many black writers simply do not look at their environment from the same perspective as Anglo-american writers who discourse with the natural world. The pastoral as diversion, a construction of a culture that dreams, through landscape and animal life, of a certain luxury or innocence, is less prevalent. Rather, in a great deal of African American poetry we see poems written from the perspective of the workers of the field. Though these poems defy the pastoral conventions of Western poetry, are they not pastorals? The poems describe moss, rivers, trees, dirt, caves, dogs, fields: elements of an environment steeped in a legacy of violence, forced labor, torture, and death. Are these not meditations on nature? We find poems set in urban streets. Can these not be landscape poems? The natural world, aligned with or in opposition to the human world, mediates the poems of this anthology. The poems reveal histories stored in various natural bodies. They document natural and human-provoked disasters and their effects on individuals and communities. They explore sources of connection to, but also alienation from, the land.
There have always been many kinds of languages and ways of practicing/deploying, and conforming to or defying conventions, and poets engaged in disrupting and re-defining in practice. And for me, it’s important to see where and how the disruption/re-writing occurs, and how also that work highlights the potential for continued disruption and re-writing, especially of the historical and cultural practices/narratives/regulations that directly contribute to the violence from so many directions.
TW: I’ll just conclude my comments by saying, per Tisa, that my “implied audience,” the vague “people” I usually have in mind when i write, are almost exclusively black (sometimes African American, Negro and colored)—that’s the poetry. My criticism, however, is almost always directed against a presumed white audience, but for me that’s hardly surprising given the history and structure of academia.
JP: Thanks for the question. As a means of response, I’d like to go back to what Tyrone said about how what is needed is not an other or a new language, as that creation of a new language inevitably leads to branding, rebranding, jargon creation, and re-creation, which creates spheres where certain language and certain syntax must be used in order to gain entry to the club of the new or the skilled. This is one reason why I think of the work that I do less as the work of writing and more so as language work. In a single day, I am jumping between so many different forms of working with language: Spanish-English interpreting at a community meeting for Harvey recovery, the translation of a decolonial, queer/trans feminist critique of gore capitalism, collaborating with an artist to make visual work around cognates and false friendship, translating a report on wage theft in post-Harvey Houston, the list goes on. So, for me, the work is less about proffering my own vision of a language that will remove us from this god-awful situation we are in. It is more about working through language with the people engaged in this struggle on the ground in this city where generations of ancestors and I are from. I am a person who belongs to the now eight generations of family members who have lived in this state; primarily my ancestors where German and Irish settler colonists in this land. So, I have an ethical commitment to grounding myself here spatially and linguistically in the language of the on-going struggle locally, which of course is inseparable from the struggles in the all the other cities each of you inhabit. This is partially as a way of being conscious of particular privileges and blindnesses assigned to my body. So yes, this language is what I work with on a daily basis, as it evolves out of the communities and out of meetings and spaces of culture and creativity. I wrote an essay recently for Open Space about a theater troupe and their work in one particular room in Houston with Harvey survivors. At the end, I think I am brushing up against this thought that Tyrone expressed so clearly when I say:
Interpretation—whether telling a story, converting a narrative into theater, or moving from one language to another—is a small thing, an art of transfer, of movement, a crossing from one set of codes to another, from the individual into the collective. Interpretation is an art, a kind of poetry, and it can feel entirely inconsequential after a disaster. Yet interpretation allowed for a temporary, fragile “we” to form in that room that night, an honest “we” that was able to hold us all for a moment. How do the post-disaster emotions expressed in that room—grief, sadness, anger, pain, loss—continue to haunt the body during recovery? How do those emotions find a release?
MR: Thank you Amber, Jill, John, and Tyrone. I am grateful for your conversation and generosity. Thank you, Michelle Naka Pierce, for the instigation and invitation. Gratitude to Something On Paper for publishing this conversation.
 “Gentrifying Bushwick: ‘I Just Want To Come Home,’” photograph by Marthe Reed, 12/1/17. Mural a project of Groundswell (https://ny.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/gsm15.arts.visual.home/groundswell-i-just-want-to-come-home/), addressing community, policing, and the impacts of “Stop and Frisk” on the targeted.
 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Page 2.
 Amitava Kumar, “Writing About Slow Violence.” Huffington Post. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/amitava-kumar/writing-about-slow-violen_b_884919.html
 Qtd in “Place-relation ecopoetics: a collective glossary”, Linda Russo. “ https://jacket2.org/commentary/place-relation-ecopoetics-collective-glossary
 “Response to Race and the Poetic Avantgarde”, Boston Review, March 10, 2015. http://bostonreview.net/poetry/erica-hunt-response-race-and-poetic-avant-garde
 “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA” by Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Lit Hub, November 28, 2017 . http://lithub.com/the-dangerous-lure-of-writing-for-white-readers-in-an-mfa/
 Tisa Bryant, response to “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA.” http://lithub.com/the-dangerous-lure-of-writing-for-white-readers-in-an-mfa/