This project came from three overlapping conversations. The first: for Jean Genet, we discover the universal when we become the other. If so, then our encounter with the suffering of others, of other communities, people, and identities creates a mutual wound: an opening through which a radically inclusive empathy might be felt. I’m interested in the ways this idea of wounding and of merging identities might influence the work of American poets attempting to make meaning of their own multiple identities. This is a subject critically important to me as a scholar and as a poet.
To this end, the poet Douglas Kearney, commenting on his fixation with the cannibal and with a selective devouring and disposal of the other, claimed that to eat or be eaten is an intimacy fraught with violence. A peculiar intimacy and ambivalence I believe vital to an understanding of the identities both living in and living as the nations by whom they were colonized. More importantly, to echo Haroldo de Campos, by imagining the cannibal as the assimilating force instead of the violently assimilated indigenous communities they represent, we might reject the historical narrative — that of victimization — and turn the cannibal into a figure of resistance.
The implication, however, is that this resistant poetry of cannibalism constitutes a violently inclusive project, according to poet Rachel Galvin: a poetics drawing at will from the world’s cultural heritage. This claim led me finally to this project and to this question: with & through our own cultural historical abjections, our mutual wounds, how can we as readers and writers cross boundaries of race, gender, and culture? In other words, how can we be truly empathetic to a different identity, a personhood without devouring that identity?
[Note: This conversation is a part of an interview series entitled “Polyphone: Interviews with Diasporic Poets”, and took place between July 8th and Aug 28th.]
Madison McCartha: Just right off, I’d like to ask, in your experience as a scholar and translator of francophone, lusephone, and hispanophone literature from the African diaspora, I’m wondering what your experience has been trying to translate blackness from one culture to another?
John Keene: It’s always a challenge, because while there are all kinds of commonalities, there are also differences. Even when you think you know simple things, you realize that you’re only at the tip of the iceberg.
For example, when I first began translating Brazilian literature, I translated several poems by Edimilson de Almeida Pereira. He’s from Minas Gerais, which has a large black population and was the mining capital of Brazil for hundreds of years. His poems referenced religious practices that I mistook for other Afro-Brazilian religious traditions. He gently corrected me, and said “no, this is called Congado” — a tradition directly descended from people brought from the Congo to central Brazil, to work in the mines. I was astonished, because despite all the reading and background preparation, I never heard of it.
What that experience taught me was this: translation is always a process of learning deeply about and making oneself another — finding the hidden other in that other, and the hidden other in oneself. This is, in some ways, Genet’s multiple wound(ing). What are the limitations? What are these barriers to going deeper into capturing that experience? What is it to be acknowledged and participating in being devoured by the other, and isn’t this a form of resistance?
This is one of the things that I’ve tried to bring to my own writing. How can we go beyond the commonplace even when we’re thinking of ourselves to get to a deeper, hidden otherness, a process that in my case, I think, also entails an interesting dialogical relationship with blackness — because it’s something that we intimately know and live and feel, but at the same time there’s something about fully grasping it that eludes us. Which is a wonderful thing.
In the sense that it can never be fully assimilated, or reduced to any one essence. It is this sort of constellation of things, a field, that we perceive and understand, that can be lived and felt, but never completely or fully encompassed. As Fred Moten says, there’s a “fugitivity” to it.
Something I wanted to ask you has to do with this, and with the fact that my question about finding or translating blackness, as soon as I asked it, was met with this quote I read by Simone White, which sort of worked against what I was asking. She says, “I try never to grasp or grip with too much paranoid ferocity on blackness itself. That’s a world view and a practice. Don’t be gripping on to it or you lose sight of why you are holding it in your view. But trying to hold it and get a look at it. Why it is precious? Why the need to describe it properly and all its still understudied fucking massive significance? This is why there will never be a commercial institutional disciplinary world that describes devotional investigations of blackness.” I wonder if you have any thoughts on that.
I probably have to read the quote more carefully, but I like what I think she’s saying — which I guess is another way of thinking about what I was trying to articulate — that we hold on to it but it’s problematic to assume you have a total grasp of what blackness is, that you can fully understand it. When you’re talking across cultural, national, linguistic boundaries, in particular, something is always shifting and there is a certain amount of slippage. But then again, there are always these points of connection.
I remember watching Once Were Warriors, which is the amazing Maori film from the ’90s, and at one point in the movie, I felt, “I know nothing about this world at all and yet everything that I’m seeing feels so real and familiar to me.” On one hand, part of this is the influence of Black American popular culture and American cultural hegemony, et cetera. But on the other, there really are similar socio-political, economic subject positions in the world that film depicts — one very similar to our own — which was a colonial and now a post-colonial society, in which indigenous people were subjected to extensive forms of domination and oppression. There isn’t a one-to-one match with the US, but what that film showed was a world that, in its contours, many Black people here and in the West might recognize.
You see how there are ways in which people are living and being a blackness that is not the same but is very similar.
After reading your essay, [Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness], I wondered if the process of writing it at all arose from an anxiety or fear, at least one I’m feeling, that your American perspective, or translator’s pen, is itself a devouring force? Does that seem right to you? Are there ways you might combat that in the translating process?
Right. One of the things that I have come to understand is how African American culture, once it gets commodified and circulates, can participate in propagating American hegemony.
Even though I am an outsider in multiple ways, I am nevertheless deeply shaped by and am a representative of this society, with certain limited privileges. In the face of work by writers of color, women writers, and queer writers (including those intersectional writers who occupy all those positions and others) I always try to humble myself, and not to impose an imperialist perspective on that work — to not militate against its complexities, to read and convey what it is they’re saying without trying to fit it into a frame that would be acceptable to the US.
For example, a few years ago I translated some work by the writer Jean Wyllys, who is now a politician, maybe the second openly queer politician in Brazil’s parliamentary history. When translating his book of stories — Aflitos, or The Afflicted — something struck me, at the level of the prose, which sounded brusque and harsh.
Aflitos is a series of narratives and meditations, set in Salvador, Bahia, and are all concerned with the abject, so what I took the prose to be doing was to give the texture of that world — which really is harsh and unrelenting and brutal, with moments of joy. A world in the wake, or in the hold, as Christina Sharpe has so beautifully put it. Some of them are really wild, insane anecdotes. Almost like gossip expanded into the space of the story. But in all of them, there is always this syntactic and imagistic severity running counter to what we expect in English-language prose, particularly in contemporary American fiction. That was something I really wrestled with: how to be true to that but also to have it sound — I don’t know —“right” in English.
What were the ways that this text — by engaging in the dialogic process of translating it — complicated your ideas about blackness in the US, and how did his writing complicated your ideas about what queerness meant in the US?
One of things that it got me thinking about was, “What sort of language is appropriate to render or capture experience?” And about how, on a certain level, we internalize all kinds of social, cultural, and commercial dictates about what writers, in this country, are supposed to be doing, and what’s expected of us.
Reading Jean Wyllys was a reminder that, in fact, sometimes language itself can get closest to those experiences — mirroring them in key ways in terms of syntax, diction, et cetera — by defying the kinds of commercial expectations even the most marginalized writers are held to, which can have a very powerful effect. Also, who is an insider and who is an outsider; As an educated, professional, mixed-race Brazilian Wyllys at times signals his own authorial distance, which is to say, a class and perhaps even racialized difference, from the world he depicts.
The truest way to get at the depths of experience, for me, I realized, might not be an obvious way. It might be another way. One example, from Counternarratives, is a story like Blues. The style and form are taken from Richard Bruce Nugent’s famous “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” with its overtly modernist approach, and through those pulsations of narrative and of experience, this fragmented text gives us — visually, viscerally — the silences about Langston Hughes that we also see in Arnold Rampserad’s famous biography of Hughes, and in Hughes’s own autobiography, memoiristic writing, letters, and poems. We know a little bit more about Xavier Villaurrutia, who’s one of the protagonists in the story, than we do about Hughes in certain ways. But afterwards I realized that I’d written those silences — those absences, those little lacunae — into the story so that, as you read it, you’re constantly filling them in — bridging those gaps — as if they weren’t there, but in fact they are: you see them and you can hear them.
That, I realized, was probably a truer way to render Langston Hughes than through a straightforward story about something he did on a given day, etc., especially one written in more standard prose. In Blues, in part because of the language, the form, its glimpse at the lives of these men of color in this shifting, elusive, but also precise language, the story is not just about race and queerness, but, I hope, embodies it.
About Counternarratives, could you talk about the importance of actually binding, or even emulsifying your subjects into very specific moments and places in history? And what led you to make that choice? It’s definitely different than Annotations or your past work.
Well, one kind of counter act was to go against contemporary American fiction to a certain degree. While, yes, there is autofiction and autobiography in there, I wanted to produce a work that was as fully of the imagination as possible — imagining each of these stories as discreet but linked worlds, with each bringing a specific moment in time, most of them distant from our own but also resonant with today, into being.
Also, the book came out in the year of the 150th anniversary of the end of the US Civil War and one of the things that I’ve mentioned to different people at various points is, there was no national commemoration of that — one of the most landmark events in US history, and really in world history, too. So I wanted to think through the trajectory from the dawn of modernity to modernism — with the civil war serving as a hinge point — and put black people into that larger narrative as counter narratives in themselves, and in narratively engaging ways.
Fascinatingly enough to me, some of what I describe in this book, in terms of the regulation of black bodies and naming, and socio-political-economic control, is a constant fight but there are also moments of joy. This is something we’re living through right now, as social media, any glance at newspaper headlines or the TV screen, etc., underline.
In the story “The Aeronauts,” we have these black figures, particularly a black teenage boy, whose very movement through the world, is insistently political, even though he is not part of any political party. His existence is one of regulation and control by both local and larger, structural regimes. At the same time, when I was writing this we had Trayvon Martin being killed, Michael Brown and Rekiah Boyd — more recently, Philando Castile — and it just goes on and on.
I wanted to write into the ways we think about our past, or our pasts, in relation to the present. I also wanted to have the United States at the center, but at the same time to de-center it. That’s why we have a character who’s born in what is now the Dominican Republic, another story is set in Haiti, several stories are set in Brazil, and so forth. Even in the United States-based stories, there is this movement of characters and events between spaces and places, between and across temporalities. It’s also crucial to remember that black movement in the Americas is a constant but has always been fraught, so what does it mean to capture this? How does one do this? That was one of the challenges I faced in this collection.
In an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriett Blog, Ken Chen says he always finds himself “met with troubles [as] to how to fit something infinite like death energy of grief or the death energy of Empires within a box that is finite like a book of poems or a book of fiction.” I’m wondering what has been the difficulty for you in translating the sublime trauma of imperialism, as he calls it, and whether that process (of translation) expanded or complicated your thinking about it?
By all means. It’s extremely difficult, and part of the challenge is presenting it in a way that is comprehensible to people today. Because on one level, yes, we can try to imagine what it would be like to be a black soldier in a battle in the US Civil War. On the other hand, I think it’s quite difficult to ever imagine what that experience was like. I mean consider the multiple layers of precarity that that person was embodying, but also, at the same time, their extraordinary bravery: to put oneself in extraordinary danger, not just for one’s own home but so many others. What does that mean? What does such a radical practice of freedom look like? How do we depict it?
There are multiple ways. Creating scenes, and creating characters, to tap into emotions elusive to us and yet that we know intimately: that is a form of translation. That’s something art can actually do, that other forms of writing can’t, or not exactly. Moreover, there is the question of the larger canvas, of colonialism and empire: how does a fiction writer convey these larger systems and structures without didacting, without essentially writing an essay (though there are hybrid fictional-essay forms that would work well)? What does it mean to put pressure on the usual recourse to the individual, when what we need is this larger backdrop, which tends to go missing in so many of our public discussions?
To change gears, what role does a reader play in the processing of these narratives? I’m interested, for example, in the ways that Daniel Borzutzky’s work often acts as a medium for, and victim of, the various authoritative bodies that possess them. Instead of positioning themselves contiguously, the different images and voices in those poems seem to nest intimately, violently inside each other, and make you wonder who is devouring whom.
What distinction could we make between the text possessed and the text devoured? More crucially, what role does the reader play in that work of devouration? I’m curious, for you, do these questions seem relevant to your experience as a translator or even as a reader of translated texts?
In my work, I require a lot of the reader. My second book, Seismosis — which I worked on with the artist and poet Christopher Stackhouse — was an extremely difficult text — which isn’t a bad thing — but there’s a code, and I give the reader the keys to figure out this code for themselves, and for a reason. The challenge for me was putting this into language, and presenting it to readers in such a way that they’d be willing to do that work. Many readers are, but many aren’t.
With Counternarratives, I actively, as a former student put it, extend a huge hand to the reader. There are elements of genre fiction and popular discourses woven into various points, but at the same time the text presumes that the reader — if they’re being carried forward by the language and by the characterization, by the narration, by the music — is going to put the pieces together.
Nevertheless, and especially in the first section of Counternarratives, the mediating discourses of authority and of a radical othering are interlinked; there is the deadpan historical voice of “An Outtake,” for example, with its flat tone, its authority, which the text proceeds to undermine and devour, from the inside out. The same thing happens, in a different way, in “On Brazil, or Dénoument,” where the discourse of historiography finds itself interwove with a range of other discourses —journalism, gossip, legal language, oral storytelling, and so on.
One of the things that I’ve been encouraged by is that the readers who are willing to do the work, again and again, come to what they’re looking for, and see the larger picture. They see the individual stories that have been told but they also see the larger picture that develops.
Yes. I didn’t get the chance to read Seismosis, but what was that process like — working with [Stackhouse] and trying to translate between these two mediums?
Well, talk about the great work of learning to put aside the ego, to step outside yourself, and allow the work of another artist to be, as fully as possible, in conversation with your own. It was clearly not my book or his book, but our book, so we had to think and work through the process of collaboration, and a lot of it came down to conversation and exchange, which was really a lot of fun. I also found myself pushing my writing further than I’d ever gone, which I realized was a kind of mini-course I needed. Which was great. Actually, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had as a writer.
Are there any other artists that you’ve engaged with recently that expanded your thinking about writing, or your process as a writer?
Yes, in any venue, whether it’s movies or TV series, or art exhibits. Actually, earlier this year I wrote a review of Kerry James Marshall’s work; he’s a painter, and at his Met Breuer exhibit earlier this year I was impressed at how political the work is in its exploration of the social fields in which he works, particularly around black Chicago and working-class black Americans. The paintings are narratives but they also are irreducible to any simple narrative. But he’s also got these amazing mystical elements in the work, and these leitmotifs that repeat throughout, so you just see how he was assembling this world. Two years ago I worked with the photographer Nicholas Muellner on a book entitled GRIND, and it was enlightening to think about Nicholas’s work, how he approaches images, series, and so on, and then develops projects out of what he’s photographed and collected.
I always learn when I’m witnessing artists like these and it happens all the time. Take a show like Insecure by writer and comedian Issa Rae. I had heard about her, seen some of her YouTube work and figured, “Well, this will be interesting. I can’t wait to check it out.” I have been so impressed at what she has done. She’s your generation, a millennial, but there’s something really powerful about the way that she’s telling the story and how it expands backwards into earlier generations but also forward into what future art might look like. It feels very fresh and invigorating and opens up possibilities for writers who are artists who already out doing this stuff and people to come.
Yes, I know. I’m glad you brought that up. I want to ask you something related to Haroldo de Campos, and about the poetics of cannibalism. For the most part, it seems he’s thinking specifically about Latin American writers as proponents of this kind of poetry. That anxiety, of trying to find ways to inhabit the art world without letting its vernacular take over the vernacular that you’ve come from. Are there any writers of color you can think of who are experiencing and making meaning of that feeling, but are also actively subverting, or even inverting that notion? One that comes to mind immediately is a poet like Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, whose book (Twerk) is a prime example, wherein the foreignized, or othered languages literally occupy, or possess the Latinate script.
I think there are a number of authors who are doing what I think you’re getting at, which is not to succumb to the dominant discourse and to find ways to other it, to subvert it, to turn it against itself. I mean, isn’t this what the history of African American writing, African American poetry, Black poetry, is about? In terms of contemporary writing, think about Ronaldo V. Wilson, Douglas Kearney — whom you already mentioned — Renee Gladman, Erica Hunt, Dawn Lundy Martin, and of course there are also all these amazing younger writers like Danez Smith and Morgan Parker, Phillip Williams, Rickey Laurentis, among so many others, and not just black writers but Ocean Vuong, Natalie Díaz, Layli LongSoldier, and Vi Khi Nao, just to name a few.
I’m particularly thinking about Tonya Foster, whose incredibly brilliant book came out in 2015. That book is so interesting because it is all about Harlem and all about how you experience and express, capture that world. But the language itself is so rich and mutable. It’s both lyrical and resistant to Lyric. It rings change after change via the vernacular. It’s both intimate and so public. This is a book that is both a poignant text, but also a kind of score to be read and performed in a different way. Take for example another masterpiece, Tyehimba Jess’ recent book, Olio, and how it does what de Campos is suggesting even as it goes far beyond what he might have envisioned. I feel like it’s a really extraordinary time, particularly for poetry, and these are all examples of people who are doing this.
To highlight one of the people I mention above, Renee Gladman has been doing this exciting work where she’s capturing language as drawings. She has these architectures that she’s been creating. It doesn’t even look like poetry or prose at all, it looks like visual art, but exists in that space between. It’s both very tangible but also so elusive. There is just so much happening at once.
How would you compare it to something by Douglas Kearney, for example? His work seems to be doing something similar.
Well, I see them as part of a continuum. With him, you actually see the words, but in what Renee’s doing now you can’t even see letters. They’re just marks. Visible marks. I think the term is asemic, or her work comes very close. Christopher Stackhouse’s drawings are on another part of that spectrum. It’s about mark-making as meaning. What does it mean to write an architecture? What does it mean to draw a story, to draw a poem? In a literal sense, what constitutes such a practice? How do we talk about this? This poses critical challenges, even though the reader and other artists might intuitively get what Renee is after.
What about another writer like Hilda Hilst? My understanding is that she’s been pretty influential to you. I wonder, what are the ways that her otherness and your otherness might have overlapped? How did that work for you?
Well, she was a real challenge. I wrote the introduction to the first translation, by Nathanaël and Rachel Gontijo Araujo, of her work, The Obscene Madame D. After that, I thought I had a sense of her work. Then I was asked to translate Letters from a Seducer, which was and remains one of the most radical things I’ve ever read. She really attempts to rethink the possibilities of literature in a text like that.
What is a novel? What does a novel do? Why do we write novels? How they make meaning? And it’s not just literary, critical, or theoretical questions she’s asking. Her characters actually embody these questions. Before I translated it, and as I was doing so I was struck by the ways Hilst had to press ever deeper to confront those difficult parts of herself, and how she dared to do so. She was a woman writer in her 50s at the time she was writing this novel; she was a cult figure but also an outsider; she was a relentless experimentalist at a time when conventional, mainstream literature was being valorized.
One of her characters, Stamatius, or Tiu, has given up everything to write. He’s living on the beach with his woman-lover-wife, Eulália, who may or not be real. He — or the Devil, which is to say, the text itself— even says to himself and to the reader, “You created Eulalia.” He creates a companion to mitigate this struggle — one with this post-industrial, late-capitalist, neoliberal, increasingly post-literary society. But another way this character is struggling is as a writer, and as an artist, is through asking himself: when am I truly satisfied? What is good art, or does art even need to be good? What are goodness, truth, beauty, and what do they have to do with art in the end? Here Hilst engages aesthetics, politics and ethics on a profound level. Because he keeps telling and retelling these bizarre stories.
All of this is to say that — in reading Hilst, I felt like I was given a schooling that I’d never gotten before. It went far beyond trying to find the appropriate language to bring her into English, but became a means of confronting the same set of challenges that she went through with herself. Challenges that I also went through, which I can say now that we’re a similar age. You start to think about your mortality and life and value. All these things. The kinds of profound fundamental questions I still find myself thinking about on a daily basis.
Sure, and thank you. Was there anything else you wanted to address?
If I can return to one of your initial questions, you asked, “How can we as readers and writers cross boundaries of race, gender, and culture? In other words, how can we be truly empathetic to a different identity, a personhood without devouring that identity?” I want to note that I don’t think the experience is the same for everyone, for every reader and writer, in part because of our complex intersectionalities, our differing levels and kinds of privilege and power. On the other hand, literature offers a way to make ourselves an other, to be devoured, remade, as we’re saying, without being destroyed but in the process, to be transformed, even if temporarily.
This is as true for the writer as for the reader, though I think it doesn’t happen as much as it could. Psychological and cognitive studies bear this out, and it is one reason that literature in particular, but art in general, runs afoul of the dictators and tyrants. Plato laid this out quite well in The Republic, and his critiques of the multiple ways that poets and playwrights —and by extension, fiction writer-s — affect and shape our understanding of the world should not be underestimated. Certainly no authoritarian underestimates this. At the same time, a simplistic approach to the Other results in the kinds of stereotyping, mimicry and cultural appropriation we rightly decry. Grappling with complexity and relation, acknowledging and accepting our limitations, pushing ourselves as far as we can go, all of these are necessary steps to achieving, or at least striving to respond to the very important questions and challenges you’ve raised.
Madison McCartha has had flash-fiction published in Burrow Press, and poetry in Nightjar Review, Verse Press, and The Pinch. While in Milwaukee, he has served both as Asst. Editor and Design Editor for Cream City Review, and became the Poetry Editor for Storm Cellar Quarterly. An MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame, he has served as the Managing Editor for Yield Magazine, and reads for the Notre Dame Review.