In 2019, I heard Benjamin Krusling read from I have too much to hide, a long-form poem titled after a phrase on a T-shirt worn by rapper No Malice in the music video for Clipse’s 2006 single, “Mr. Me Too.” The rapper isn’t hidden at all, but totally visible, slouched against a decontextualized flat white background. The text on his shirt speaks to a threshold—when you have too much to hide, you either surrender or find other ways to remain inconspicuous. From this dilemma emerges Krusling’s circuitous meditation on the post-9/11 security apparatus that ballooned during the Bush and Obama administrations—an apparatus that aspires to total transparency, to identify and neutralize anyone with anything to hide. For Krusling, surveillance has foreclosed the possibility of ever being out of sight, and so, its targets settle for becoming dazzling, or blurry.
Krusling’s new book, Glaring (Wendy’s Subway), bears some thematic similarities. In bright, clipped lines, Krusling habitually describes himself in terms of his proximity to institutions of power. He finds himself “in a store, state, or database,” “iridescent in the university office,” and “dwarfed by the courthouse.” His world is none other than this one: strange, chemical, psychedelic, and awful. Its material reality, and our perceptions of it, are warped by the violences of finance capital, anti-Blackness, and the law.
In Glaring, these structures are present not as particular topics, but as the substance of everyday life. They’re folded into fragmented accounts of interpersonal melodrama, such that poems about love, friendship, and kinship are accompanied by the spectral presence of unassimilable loss. Krusling is sharp, distressed, and at times sardonic; if you read the phrase “my mother of color loves me” in earnest, you’ve missed the joke. In his words, “who talks like that?!”
On several occasions in our conversation, Krusling refers to the possibility of being “totally obliterated”—at first by predatory urban renewal, and later by the sheer intensity of a relationship. Krusling is loath to shroud meaning in metaphor. “Obliteration” means what it means: to be there, and then suddenly, to not.
Vijay Masharani When we were texting about this book, you remarked that a point of departure for this collection of poems is the notion that “everything is so violent.” Violence appears in this book, but perhaps not in a visceral way like your statement made me expect. What kind of violence are you dealing with in Glaring?
Benjamin KruslingThe first poem I published was an elegy for Aiyana Stanley-Jones. It was just an outpouring of sorrow, not theorized in any sense; it was just how I felt. It was weird to me that it was the first poem I got published, of all the other writing I was doing. Ever since then, I’ve become suspicious of how—I don’t want to say easy, but maybe that’s what I mean—it is to get work about Black death published. It can become a little liberal artifact. No offense to people who published it—I’m the one who wrote it. Anyway, the question of violence in the book, and how it’s there but also not there in ways you might expect, is me trying to deal with that in an ethical way.
As part of a class I recently took with manuel arturo abreu, I read Joy James’s essay “The Dead Zone.” In it, she responds to CLR James’s remarks on how historians write so well because they see so little that. She says, “what is so often unspoken and unseen is the pervasiveness of violence.” If you’re looking at everything going on and not talking about the vast amount of violence that makes it possible, you’re not talking about much at all. It’s also hard to write about.
When I say something like “things are so violent,” that’s the engine of what I’m writing from. It’s not only that Black death is repetitive, but that violence is this texture of experience.
When I was twenty-three, I had a horrible slow-motion mental health crisis that stretched my relationship with reality to the point of breaking. The police were a big part of it. I was living in Gowanus, and it felt like every day at Atlantic Terminal, the cops would make me stop at the checkpoint and swab my bag. I would dread it all day, and then it would happen. There’s this poem in the book called “I want to die in designer” which is partly about that experience. I don’t mean this in a sexy, theoretical way, but the feeling of being racially profiled—there’s a weird ecstasy to being part of a crowd but also selected for something. I’d see people walk by, but then they’d stop me. It’s this moment not just of interpellation, but something you thought of all week coming true. It’s intense, vivid, surreal, and horrible.
VM You preface the book with two quotations. The first is from a debate between Leslie Scalapino and Ron Silliman. In the section you’ve excerpted, Scalapino describes how the media manufactured consent for the US invasion of Panama—“anyone who does not agree is cut off by the newsmen.” The second is from an essay by Hortense Spillers: “the peace of the board, we might say, is subtended by the knocking of the poltergeist.” How do you relate these two quotations, besides signaling that you’re influenced by both language poetry and Black feminist theory?
BK I like the sentiment of Scalapino’s statement, and its syntax—the way it moves too fast for itself. Like you say, she’s describing how a consensus is produced through routinized images of militancy. Seeing armed soldiers with assault rifles in New York subway stations, that becomes a regular part of traveling around the city. I believe what a lot of theorists, like Césaire, have said: the conditions of the colony come back to the metropole. And that’s very much where Scalapino is coming from.
But in some ways that passage didn’t feel adequate. I think the Hortense Spillers quote points to precisely what escapes Scalapino’s theorizing—something that is not only materialist. Scalapino places us in a scene of receiving war on television, and I think it’s interesting to think about who is the receiving subject. Spillers has us thinking about a ghost that can’t be rendered into an image but haunts the room in which the image is broadcast, and lives in the context in which a broadcast about war could happen. Spillers’s quote comes from an essay about less-acknowledged, misunderstood African contributions to foodways in the Americas and the contested spatio-temporal narratives of modernity. Her line about the poltergeist gestures towards how unstable white European hermeneutic dominance is, and how its original violences create the conditions to overthrow it.
Glaring opens with me at a young age thinking I had walked by the ballroom where Malcolm X was shot, only to learn later, after looking it up, that I was not where I thought I was. I had misunderstood what I learned about its location, the Audubon Ballroom. This poem has to do with living in false memories of real violence, how the mind is an imperfect, roving node in a violent network. So it’s about receiving information, then trying to map that onto the physical world that I’m walking through, and having things not line up. It’s also a poem about one’s capacity for revision.
VM You’re from Cincinnati, and you’ve also lived in New York and Iowa City. How have these locations influenced your writing?
BK Cincinnati lives in the back of my mind, but most of the poems aren’t set there. Cincinnati is an interesting liminal site, because once you crossed the river from Kentucky, you were in a free state. So you were either coming from the South towards freedom, or heading back down toward slavery. There’s a lot of Underground Railroad history in the city. Harriet Beecher Stowe had a house there, you know, not that I’m like, a Harriet Beecher Stowe stan, but it is what it is [laughs]. Cincinnati was also horribly segregated. My first impression when I moved to New York when I was eighteen was that this is much less segregated than Cincinnati. Obviously, I was wrong.
There’s a line in the book in one of the poems, “millenarian amoxicillic blues,” that refers to my grandma who died last year. She lived in a big blue house that my mom grew up in, and my great grandma lived there for a long time too. The Cincinnati Zoo was expanding and bought the property for a fair amount of money. She moved to a nicer, newer house, because the old place was in really bad condition and falling apart.
This is the case in New York, too. I’ve learned over the years all the different places where Black neighborhoods once stood, like Central Park and Battery Park. They just get erased in a way that white neighborhoods—and you know it’s a class thing, too—don’t seem to just get obliterated off the map, to the point that a community was here eighty years ago, and you have to do a whole archaeological dig to “prove” it existed. Talk about poltergeists knocking. I’m interested in a lingering presence in all the different places in the book. I’m getting a little abstract.
VM In Glaring, even as you navigate history, architecture, film, and other texts, there’s a constant return to social relationships—the difficulty and possibility that comes with being together in friendships, romantic relationships, and family.
BK I don’t only want to use poetry to theorize about the things that restrict people, mentally and physically. I think life is actually quite hard, so there’s an intense desperation in the text that is just about a struggle with living, which is not difficult in the same way for everyone, and it is maybe not as difficult for everyone.
Other people are a lot. You know what I’m saying? I feel like I’ve been in relationships with people where we did almost obliterate each other. It’s like, the pure light of someone else just blasting your brain into little pieces. But not “pure”—it’s not “pure” at all. I don’t talk about purity. Cut that. Maybe a ragged light. That’s exactly why it shreds you. Part of the intensity of the book is from running that risk of being obliterated by experience.
I have this poem, “Ecstatics,” that’s presented in big text, and in it, I’m thinking about pure alliteration. That’s why I like Playboi Carti; it’s like ecstatic ambient music. You can lose yourself in it. Almost like an ego death, the ego, Carti, in the song, just completely absorbs your ego. I find that energizing and relaxing sometimes. It’s hard to talk about. All that shit. [laughs]
VM There are a couple of poems in which you appropriate other literary formats, the first being “In Popeyes,” in which you restage Sophocles’s play Philoctetes in the 125th Street Popeyes.
BK “In Popeyes” was commissioned by a poets’ theater that some friends of mine were involved with. I was able to externalize the energies of the rest of the book and ground them in a scenario. The character “Rough Sleeper,” who lives in the Popeyes, is slightly ghostly. It’s not a realistic text in any sense, but it was interesting to root it in a real place. It’s a Popeyes that I’ve been to, it’s not my favorite in the city, but I’ve been there. I was actually trying to engage melodrama by blowing something way past proportion. I think about it like an audio effect; I was trying to make things as wet as possible and see what that does to meaning.
VM And what did it do?
BK It made it artificial. I taught a workshop with Sara Jane Stoner that dealt with what Aldon Nielsen calls a naturalization of experience by ideology. And I was basically trying to do the opposite of that, to create an unreal situation. The wetness is part of that—making the piece as keyed up, affected, and artificial as possible, as far as can be from how people actually speak.
It’s also a question of racialized aesthetics. I feel like dry, awkward humor is often a very white-settler thing—since your lack of affect won’t get you killed, and you’re already structurally alienated from sociality. Wetness is another relationship to humor that forgoes a kind of authoritative presence. And what it gives up in authority it delivers in terms of intensity, an emotional involvement with the thing that’s being discussed. So the wetness comes from my emotional temperament as well, which catapults between euphoria and depression on a regular basis.
VM There’s a sharp tonal shift in your poem “Black Boxers: A Brief History,” which reads as rote biography rather than poetry. Oftentimes, stories of Black achievement, especially within sports and entertainment, feel contrived to conform to a triumphalist narrative. This feels different from that.
BK In a sense, “Black Boxers: A Brief History” is the opposite: I wanted to see if I could do something that was extremely dry. Documentary poetics are interesting to me; like, here are just the straight facts with almost no embellishment other than how I’ve sequenced them. I didn’t even make the writing particularly artful; I just made it concise. The goal of the poem is quite loud—it’s obvious that I think the system of boxing is anti-Black. The people in that poem all come from destitute circumstances, and deal with incarceration, personal loss, and poverty, often after they’ve had careers in the sport. The biggest part of Clifford Etienne’s career was getting beat by Mike Tyson. He ends up incarcerated, and due to a procedural error he gets 105 years instead of 160.
What does a narrative consist of? Precisely, overcoming. I think it would be hard to name ten stories in which someone doesn’t overcome anything, including internal overcoming. What are these stories in which, you know, some of them end in suicide? They start imprisoned, and, to the extent that there’s information publicly available, they end there.
It’s funny when people talk about Seinfeld as a show where nothing happens. That isn’t true. They might not change from episode to episode but things happen, because they’re middle class people. But in the stories I told in that poem, truly nothing legible happens. The poem ends with a quote from the Contender producer Mark Burnett, who is the same person who produced The Apprentice with Trump. He says something to the effect of, “This wasn’t an unusual situation. These weren’t fish out of water, so to speak. Even if they killed themselves, or are back in prison, that’s not my fault. That’s what would have happened anyway, and the TV show was never supposed to intervene in that.” I think that’s something the book is interested in, too: how things become realistic, common sense, or a foregone conclusion.
VM As with your first chapbook, Grapes, the conclusion of Glaring features a list of references to a wide range of writers, from Kodwo Eshun to Lyn Hejinian to Jane Goodall. Is this interpolation, collage, sample clearance, academic citation, or something else?
BK That section gives me anxiety. I originally thought of it as a form of sampling, but reading Simone [White]’s work made me realize how writing is not music, and maybe it’s not useful to make writing secondary to the privileged technique of music.
Poems emerge from the world, and I’m not interested in obscuring that. Again, it’s a question of purity. I don’t care for someone being like, Here’s my pure text with the world shaved off. Some of the text is taken lovingly, and some of it isn’t—some of them I find terrible, and I wanted to make use of that, too. Goodall is hilarious to me, which is not to make light of her violence. In a forthcoming publication with Triple Canopy, I included a hilarious screenshot from a video of Goodall in Zambia, where she’s hugging a chimp, and there’s soaring orchestral music. Meanwhile, all the park rangers in the background have no interest in what’s happening.
But Goodall participates in the making of the world. Before she did her research on chimps, there was a consensus in white Western academia that chimps were essentially docile, and her research proved otherwise. At the same time, she may have inadvertently started the first chimpanzee war ever recorded, because of her introduction of a feeding station, and how she made them compete for resources [laughs]. So she started a chimp war, I guess.