Places of Dis-Ease: Chris Martin Interviewed by Hannah Emerson

Two poets in conversation about the underworld, kissing life, and neurodivergence.

Cover of Things To Do In Hell by Chris Martin

Chris Martin’s work is tender and shaking and alive: broken open to feeling. His newest book of poems, Things to Do In Hell (Coffee House Press), begins in epilogue and ends in prologue. A reversal, as if seeing things the wrong way around might mark a beginning. To begin, for Martin, means to begin with difficulty—fumblings, one thing and then another, a “song and song,” as he calls it. In these poems, heaven and hell interdigitate. The catastrophes of capital, of whiteness, of masculinities, are loud. But also undressed. In Martin’s readings and repetitions, horror turns. Not into something better, but into something shared: a world that was always turning. This turning takes the form of inventory, of spell, of unlearning, of debt. 

Written in its loose abecedarian form, Martin queries his own voice, and finds give “in the vibration between selves.” He writes of an ethical and material horizon: “When we exceed containment / And radiate toward the unseen / When we are moved by love / Of all we don’t know.”  What remains is a space for listening, and it is this listening that most informs Martin’s work as a poet, teacher, and publisher of neurodivergent thinking. His work with Unrestricted Interest, an organization of which he is co-founder and director, centers on listening to neurodivergent learners and what they write. To be steeped in these poems, in this work, is to be present for difficult making: a constant practice. 

Hannah Emerson, author of this interview and the new chapbook, You Are Helping This Great Universe Explode (Unrestricted Editions), is a non speaking autistic poet, whose work navigates ecological and iterative time. Having spent most of her life with minimal means of communication, her language now bounds with what she describes as “jutting kissing freedom,” and is patterned by the shape of a recurring yes. She writes, “My yes gives me my signature yes. My yes gives me the energy to be me yes yes.” Emerson’s address is often written in an expanded second person, that includes both Martin and the reader. “Please,” she writes, with the physicality of a kiss. “Please try to understand,” and the words are both request and invitation.

Every week, Emerson writes two poems from her home in Central New York, while Martin, her poetry teacher, meets with her over video from his small office in Minneapolis. This interview occurred over a couple of months via email, underneath the current of their weekly meetings. Here they each think from their own work, but the force of a collective study feels present: to repeat, to find difficulty, to stay. Two neurodivergent poets, Emerson and Martin are part of a widening room of those dreaming an underworld together. As Martin writes: “It peeled and peeled until the peel was it.”

—Aviv Nisinzweig

Hannah Emerson I love this opportunity to go to the light that is there if you can read between the lines yes yes. Love that you go to the darkness that needs to come into the light. Usually it is kept in the dungeons of the mind that eat at the dreaming kissing life that we want to live in yes yes.

Chris Martin I love this opportunity, too. I value every opportunity I get to think alongside you, but I’m especially grateful that others will get to listen in this time. I take such great pleasure in listening to you write. I hope you won’t mind if I talk more than I usually do.

The dungeons of the mind are, at first, to say the least, uncomfortable. They are places of dis-ease. But as you familiarize yourself with them, you come to understand how much of what lives down there can be let go. It’s like we trap all these rapacious creatures without realizing we’ll need to feed them. (I mean, we’re so busy pretending they don’t exist in the first place.) But what could they eat except the dreaming kissing life?

As Ta-Nehisi Coates elucidated, the “American Dream” can only be built upon the nightmares of oppressed people. That’s true for individuals as well. The intrinsically violent dreams of white supremacy—unearned power, plundered wealth, land as property, murder as safety—are normalized so that the dreaming kissing life we actually want to live in will seem unrecognizable. I’m interested in exposing those dungeons, these murders, that plunder, without obviating the possibility of the dreaming kissing life we actually desire. That’s why heaven and hell are inverted. We need to turn out our pockets, air out our dungeons, welcome some of that liberating sun into our darkest nooks where it belongs. I’m reminded of your line: “Try to kiss the animal inside you trying to bite you.” Normal life is a life of self-deceit, silent violence, and spiritual disfigurement. We need wild, authentic dreams and there is nothing normal about authenticity. Authenticity necessitates difference, connection, disequilibrium, and embrace. The more we brace and transact, the faster we drive toward oblivion.

Phew! I guess I really needed to say that! Maybe you could let the readers know how your concept of “nothing crucially distinguishes itself from oblivion. And maybe give voice to your subversive version of hell as well?

HE Nothing is the stillness that is the moment that is now yes yes. Please try to go to the place that is in all of our dark places that we try to run away from every moment of our great great great beautiful lives yes yes. Please try to understand that these thoughts go directly to the place that we need to go to deconstruct the freedom that we think is the way to a comfortable life that has brought us to the brink of extinction yes yes.

The nothing is trying to be brought forward at this time of turmoil that is destroying everything that we thought was the way it was. Just try to go to the hell that is within us. Love the hell that keeps us uncomfortable because it keeps us awake yes yes. Love the helpful dreaming place that you need to go to find the new freedom that you will find there yes yes. Please try to understand that the way we live is a great, great, great lie because normal is the lie that was given to us at birth yes yes.

CM I yes all of this. Much in the way we were assigned a gender at birth, we were also assigned a hell. I found myself in the “good hell,” since I resembled the devil. And having inherited the devil’s costume (and not having been told it was a costume), it took me years to find the zipper. To perceive that the mask was my face. A membership card I was swiping everywhere I went. Where our hells overlap (intersect?) is the compost of a new world. The brink where we can plant necessary seeds. Our costumes and our masks are good food for the worms, for the miles of mycelium. “The way it was was was” is good ash to rise from. You recently wrote: “dive / down to the / beautiful muck / that helps you get / that the world was made / from the garbage at the bottom / of the universe that was boiling over / with joy that wanted to become you.” We are the dancing maggots of a hidden world, ready to grownd ourselves toward the sun. And we sing the sun differently so we can forge a chorus.

Photo of ​Chris Martin by Mary Austin Speaker

Photo of Chris Martin by Mary Austin Speaker.

HEPlease try to go to the muck that is in the great great great nothing that is this moment that you sit in yes yes. Please try to get that you become the muck. It is the grease for the beautiful, beautiful making of the new machine that is nothing like the broken machine that was given to us by the oppressors of the darkness yes yes. Please try to go to the bleeding brother who is lying in the street that you drive your car on yes yes. Please try to become the wheel that needs to turn around to drive the other way yes yes. Please try to go to the engine of that fancy car and throw out the whole SUV and the freedom that you think it gives you yes yes. Because it holds you back from going to the helpful nothing that is coming down the street yes yes. Please try to continue to go to the hell that is written into the words that you put onto the pages of the hell that you sit in dear masked man yes yes. Please try to drive us to the freedom like you did on the day you brought Atticus home like you write in “A Big Hungry Us” to begin his life with freedom yes yes. 

CM My son’s birth, like other such moments, marks the tenderness inherent to this particular hell. I wanted to surface as much of the muck as possible without sacrificing tenderness. To be tender with the world is my way, despite the endless revulsions. My hope is that poems help us see how we are tossing our bodies on the wheel of fortune, which secretly remains the medieval breaking wheel of public torture and execution. Time to turn the wheel, not simply around, but into something else. I call it The Circle Whose Center Is Everywhere. My hands may be momentarily on the wheel, but they are superimposed with a great flutter of other and previous hands, many of them not men and many of them not white and many of them not straight and all of them not me: Audre and Gwendolyn and Hannah and CA and Agnes and Inger and Farid and Chris and Tito and Dawn and the list goes on. My neurodivergence has been the framework through which I could and can finally perceive hell’s hologram. Like I said, I was born wearing the devil’s costume, and the difference occasioned by my neurodivergence gave me enough perspective to see that, to find the zipper and begin disrobing into the unique nothing of my exact self, a furtive and patient liberation.

HE Please try to get that it is nothing like what existed before because we needed to go to the hell that is in us yes yes. Please try to understand that helpful nothing light is becoming the light that is in our rooms of the dream that is becoming the new train that is coming through your safe rooms that you live in yes yes. Please try to go to the train and take a seat upon the new way of gliding to the destination helping us become one in the station where all is one yes yes. Please try to go to the poets that give us the way to get to the light that is usually hidden in the freedom that we think we have yes yes. Love the way you go to the hell in our lives yes yes. Please help us go to that place too yes yes. Please try to go to the fermentation of the honey that drips so slowly yes yes. You write, “I am alive and the stone is / listening I am alive / because you are / tending the blisters … ”

CM Porcelain is white, but so is pus. Whiteness is an obliterative force conjured by those who sought to plunder. It was conceived as a container for that plunder, the housing of a false relic. But let us never equate whiteness with light. It is, rather, a black hole: insatiable, inward, and destructive. Light is what attempts to escape the obliterating churn. Light is the long message, the fermenting life of change and connection. White in its rhyming dominion intends to cancel out light. This little light, which is its own guide to surviving whiteness. While the latter is passed like a virus, light is passed like the good spell. Whiteness is dark magic. Witness is how the light spreads. I hope this book affords witness to the operations of whiteness, while simultaneously offering some antidote in the form of light. In the titular poem, readers will find that the last thing to do in hell is “Love even the barest light pissing through the leaves.” This is a hinge moment for our species and the more-than-human world is awake to our choices. The trees are listening and the sun is listening and all the stones are listening. 

HE Please help us go to the pile of stones that you find in your garden that you have planted with the words in this book yes yes. Please try to hear this great great great thought that dreaming tells us to become the stillness that you need to become to free yourself of the hell that you live in now yes yes. Love the light that kisses the beautiful nothing that goes to the pebbles in your pockets yes yes. Make this the way you help us yes yes. Please know you are kissing us yes yes. 

CM What I love about poetry and what I love about the way you use “kissing” in your writing is how we can learn to be intimate across distance. People feel isolated right now, but private property and nuclear family and redlining and political extremism and neuronormativity have been isolating us our whole lives. How do we learn to kiss the world again? How do we learn to face the nothing that lies beyond the system and find that it’s facing us back, lips puckered? How do we live into our kissing, with rigorous love and fearless invention? How do we find the parts of us that are supposedly the weakest—our “disabilities,” our “difference,” our tenderness and compassion and desire—and lean into their revolutionary strength, their strategic ability to dismantle the master’s house before he can implode it on top of us? These are questions I barely get a chance to ask in this book, laden as it is with making hell legible. But I hope they are questions the poems angle the reader toward. 

As the title of your chapbook announces, “You Are Helping This Great Universe Explode.” We have gone from a tiny, dense, hopelessly punitive and relentlessly enforced sense of desirable identity—white/cis/straight/male/rich/able—and exploded it over only a few decades. The universe of who we are, who we can be, and who we can become is EXPLODING. Those who have invested in the dense point of exclusion are groping and gasping as waves of difference billow through the empty pockets of their spiritual impoverishment. Learn to kiss now or your mouth will fill with ash from the inside. Brace for the future and it will blow your house down. Embrace the future and it will connect you to a life of liberation, interdependence, and mutual flourishing. These conclusions, for the most part, lie beyond my book. But I think my book was the bottle I smashed on the boat which hopes to kiss every shore.  

HE Please try to kiss the book that is in your hands right now yes yes yes yes yes. Thank you for listening to us dance in the universe together yes yes yes yes. Please kiss yourself yes yes yes. 

Things To Do In Hell is available for purchase here.

Hannah Emerson is a nonspeaking autistic poet from Lafayette, NY, on the historical land of the Onondaga Nation. Her work has been featured in Unearthed, Nine Mile, and The Brooklyn Rail. Her first chapbook, You Are Helping This Great Universe Explode, was recently published by Unrestricted Editions.

Aviv Nisinzweig is a writer, artist, and educator.

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