There’s this ancient, trite and ongoing notion that art/poetry is for the good. The good of the people, the good of the country, the good of progress (who the people are, for which countries, what good: these are side conversations brought forth by pessimists and unbelievers). For this reason, Artists and Writers do good by making, representing, documenting, appropriating, directing, colonizing, managing. Akin to religious narratives of sacrifice, the artist makes and offers, and the abstract blob of people grow/progress/learn/what have you. It proposes that art heals, rather than wounds. Or rather, it only imagines art to heal, and never to wound and wound. This narrative is clearly a bunch of corporate-tax-documents-for-shell-companies-garbage, its narrative life ever extended to the holiness of legitimated representation: the kind that must exist in order for their norms to be maintained.
At contemptorary we are constantly amazed that some artists enact harm and exploit communities for the sake of “starting conversations” (where! with whom! Who wants/needs these conversations aka lectures!). Not many artists use the word “zombie” or “colonizer,” for example, when describing their practices, their processes, or the roles they take in “starting” conversations or “making art.” Artists’ practices are, in most cases, an “investigation,” an “investment,” an “inquiry,” “embodiments” or “problematizations” of sorts: the list goes on.
We’re pretty obsessed with talking about and describing art, writing, and representation as not inherently deviant, but inherently intertwined. At contemptorary we had this dream of matchmaking artists+writers to participate in a conversation about exactly this—this negotiation of savior narratives embedded into artistic production: how to wrestle with the power narratives of The Artist. We wanted to pair people whose practices we believed were in conversation—via differing mediums and platforms—and to ask for the processes or result of their conversation.
After seriously brainstorming the possibilities of this experiment, we realized that this task would be too laborious and confusing for the potential conversants—It’s like when you’re a kid and you go over with your parents to their friend’s house because they have kids. And there’s this assumption that because you’re all the same age you should get along, but you hate them maybe, and even if you don’t, the first time is always the most awkward. End of tangent—and that really, our desire to put them in conversation should be articulated in setting up the landscape. So our matchmaking service morphed into an extended trial of telephone and video calls with each of the artists, and with each other.
We spoke to each other a lot.
Then we spoke to the writer and artist Bhanu Kapil.
And then called artist and filmmaker Cauleen Smith.
And then put these conversations together.
Bhanu Kapil and Cauleen Smith are practitioners who make genres uncomfortable. Both artists directly address the racism of their fields, and their technologies—the camera, the white balance, the language—they echo each other’s criticisms in their day-to-day lives and live with the ramifications of direct public address. Although they come from non-studio practice backgrounds, both have a relationship to the contemptorary art scene or art production as artists/performers.
When we mentioned the idea to Cauleen, she was excited to be in conversation with Bhanu:
“It was a revelation to me when I spent some time in London in the late ‘80s. It was right after the Brixton riots so Southeast Asians, West Indies and Blacks all called themselves Black and were still relatively unified around a kind of political movement that was about making the places that they were inhabiting in the city safer and more just. It was revelatory for me that people could come to this agreement and really understand that it was an umbrella but it was very useful…in terms of not just solidarity but empathy, that they were all experiencing estrangement in really profound ways and for profound reasons. I was 20 in 1989, but was thinking this is amazing! Also what it did was that, moving through the city, moving through life, people that would have been an “Other” were allies. This was a really beautiful thing that I’ve never forgotten and I’m sad that it had to break away, and I understand that’s my nostalgia for that time. I get it.”
In a recent interview Bhanu articulated,
“I have been grouped with experimental writers, white experimental poets mostly, and am trying to ungroup myself—following a crushing year of ostracism and retaliation of various kinds and sorts, after “speaking up” about racism and appropriation in the poetry community. I am still trying to figure out how to make my experience explicit. For now, my first step has been: to de-link. And to orient to writers for whom the experiment is: to live. I identify with poets for whom somatic writing is a political category.”
Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue follows a Brown (Black) girl as she walks home from school in the first moments of a riot. An April night in London, in 1979, is the axis of this startling work of overlapping arcs and varying approaches.
contemptorary: How have you, and do you, wrestle with the power of the savior narratives of The Artist?
To pre-empt the sacrifice with the auto-sacrifice.
To become the meat in advance.
Or to note the feeling that you are meat.
In the corridor.
To say aloud as you exit the building, which is often a university building: “I am the meat.”
To delete the book in its final stages.
Delete, delete, click.
Update: in the corridor, I involuntarily growled. I growled like a tiger, faintly so.
Update: I just came from Philadelphia, where I gave a reading at Penn Sound, introduced by the poet-scholar, Lucas de Lima. Because I cannot pretend anymore that anything is okay, I couldn’t begin. It was a terrible moment. A moment that I couldn’t integrate and that I understood that I would pay the price for on the aeroplane, as a dump of shame: “I am bad,” versus “I did a bad thing” (guilt) a la the Brene [this should be accented but I can’t figure out how to do that in google docs] Brown TED talk my co-teacher for First Year Seminar recently screened. My only solutions were to look only at Lucas, and then, because I have vowed never to leave a stage feeling ashamed. I recollect a performance I gave at my workplace in 2005, after which my white male colleagues and their wives or ex-wives in the front row of the theater — did not clap. They looked away and down as I got off the stage. And I calmly floated out of the large space with about 100 people in it, perhaps more, to the hotel room the university had booked nearby, as it was a festival, and late at night. And I lay down on the bed and I throbbed lightly, excruciated by this other writing of the body, by having sung to them, by having worn a sari so beautiful that had been stitched with real silver and gold in Pakistan then smuggled back to India. Or perhaps at that time I had not formed or honed my hybrid form to be a healing one, one that would return to a white audience their feeling, too, of being animals, because they like that stuff.
To clarify, I had read aloud a narrative of anal rape in the family system I was a part of, a system of forced, rural marriages and abrupt diaspora.
I asked Lucas, who had just read aloud in that space a beautiful and generous introduction of my work, to come back; there to pour, very slowly, over the top of my head, the cup of white tea that had been made for me earlier in the Kelly Writer’s House kitchen. When I told my mother this later, she said: “Oh, like you always used to do!” My son said: “Not again.” A small tantric trick to open the crown chakra when it constricts like modified band, like fascia, around the temples. The crown chakra: the part of the body, that is, that nobody can see: pour water, from a height, over it. This is the same instinct with which we stand beneath waterfalls, perhaps. I visualized that the waterfall or stream, the river Ganga, the Goddess, was rupturing from the top of Shiva’s head — through the crescent moon and the cobra and his top-knot — then pouring over the top of mine, so that I was bathing, in that instant: in that.
Then I felt okay.
I had felt nothing but dread at the prospect of the reading, and only pleasure at the prospect of meeting Lucas de Lima beforehand for a cup of coffee. In the end, we had a lunch of fish and cordials that resembled hedges and vistas of different kinds.
This functions as my example of art as a place that wounds — and I wanted to open that wound more fully at the start of the reading, by — making enough space — for the shame I feel — the dread-in-advance that concretizes as dread — when you get to the podium and look out. Look back.
The discrepancy, in that moment, between being denigrated in one community, then welcomed in another.
The year of “speaking up” about race.
In these communities.
Did not go well.
Communities, that is, that extend beyond the workplace.
World-Famous Feminist Poet Elder: “Bhanu, you’re a locus of such negativity.”
contemptorary: What are the approaches that you think have been most effective—for you—thus far? How might we live with the labor of having been, and being, direct and open? And what kind of community have you been able to forge by fighting the subfields in place?
Bhanu: What followed — speaking back — in the communities I have been a part of, as a writer in the U.S.? Retaliation, ostracism. The taste of the backlash is still in my mouth! I am not a sociologist, but I track a line that goes under. I am wondering about the career path of poets who were called out by poets of color between 2014 and 2016. Was their security or stability affected in structural ways? Did they lose their jobs? Were their relationships to governing disciplines — art-making, scholarship, poetry — undermined? Did they feel less hopeful, less optimistic? I THINK NOT. I see a lot of clumping going on. I see promotions. I observe the successive curations.
The only community I have been able to forge is on the sofa at the back of the room after the poetry reading, with the six poets of color who are there, or on walks at the Buddhist retreat with the only person of color also on the retreat, or text messaging with the poets of color, and so on.
My labor has been to say NO, I DON’T THINK SO.
And to hold space, as much as I can, for the work of younger writers of color that I encounter or meet, in academic and non-academic spaces that I am a part of.
The practices that have been most effective are those that open the diamond-shaped iris and entrain it upon whatever racist nonsense one is dealing with next. That tends to scare people. Are you prepared, also, to be described as “mentally ill”? For opening your eye like that. For staring like that? For saying NO like that. And so, internal practices might be to reach out, always, to the ones you are with and never with: your beloveds. And to make enough space in your own body for things to move through. I will not, here, describe herbal tonics or the effectiveness of pralaya yoga, because I can’t pretend. At times, I have just collapsed on the sofa at home, unable to take deep breaths. I apologize for not setting a good example.
contemptorary: How are you able to construct a life where radicality is not a theorem, but a praxis of one’s politics and public life are aligned with the work? With contemptorary, we were thinking of moments of alienation that we experience due to our direct politics in different communities as valuable for critical coalition building and healing.
Bhanu: I can no longer have tea with the poets I used to have so much tea with, it’s true. Tea and sympathy? I feel like that’s the name of a cafe in Paris or Los Angeles. Oh! I just looked it up. It’s a restaurant/import store in Greenwich Village, catering to all those who long for British products, with catered or delivery options available.
Dear ones, I am not sure that I have constructed this life, it having been such a shit year. The Year of Shit and Magic, as I began to call it, at one point, not wanting to forget the parts where we lay down our heads on the same pillow together for a few hours, and wrote, while one of us dreamed, and vice versa.
This year, I felt more alien than I ever have before, in ways that are hard to put into words, but which feel indexed to the ostracism I described earlier. Writers I’ve known for 10, 15 years — poets — look away or do not say hello, etc. Wait, I wrote an anonymous poem about this! Let me find it!
I guess it won’t be anonymous anymore.
I must be honest with you: it’s not just the poetry community NONSENSE, I also feel crushed by what it is to maintain a functional immigrant household, to care for my family, to think of the future, and to love and be loved in turn.
So, I’m trying to work more directly with limbic system therapies to get some of this trauma out of my body. In the university, I made a lateral move out of the graduate creative writing program into a space where I can be, more directly, with students interested in dance, music, somatic psychologies, spoken word, theory, social justice and art. I am teaching diversity classes now, in a complicated way — the complicated way of having given up all the classes and experimental frames that I developed since 2000, in that setting — that nevertheless feels more aligned with the ground or the dirt or what it is to make a space more inclusive, from the ground up.
Inclusive is the wrong word.
This summer, I received two invitations to think and teach and perform in Europe, and one to New York, but, instead, I accepted an invitation to spend a week in St. Louis, working through questions of violence, healing, revenge, embodiment and love with community members there. That felt better to me. And later this Fall, instead of giving a reading at a university, I’ll be going to Vancouver to speak at the BCNU (British Columbia Nurses Union) conference on human rights and migration. Instant yes. The privilege of being invited, yes, but also — a great longing: to be of service, more directly, to populations of different kinds.
contemtporary: Your blog is a site of unconditional wonder. You wrote last year that: “Every minute of my life I am writing. Like you, I am writing on every surface and every part of me, even the parts that are so numb they might as well be fins or a computer screen.” Thank you. We are so grateful for your blog and please let us know what what we can do for you. As in, what the readers of your work can do for you.
Bhanu: I want to live in Los Angeles in a communal housing space with people of color, where elder care and child care are happening at the same time. I want to create a space called The Hanuman Institute (or some better word than institute), where healing arts and art-making and the most real writing are happening at the same time. Is it a space that offers trainings, or relief?
I desire, very simply, to come home and feel safe, peaceful and happy to be home.
That is all I want for myself.
How can I serve YOU?