LaTasha Diggs’s first collection of poems, TwERK (Belladonna* 2013), is a potent mix of new Americana and dancehall culture, of poetic styles and a great many languages, including Japanese, Spanish, Hindi, Welsh, and Maori. Reading its collage of elements, as disparate as Dragon Ball Zand kabuki theatre, made me think immediately of another poet—Morgan Parker, who riffs on pop culture, music, and visual art as well. Her first collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night is forthcoming from Switchback Books in 2015. Similar in certain aspects, the poems inTwERK and Other People’s Comfort vary greatly in tone, content, and appearance. I was eager to bring these authors together and hash out how their artistic processes, interests, and obsessions led them to create such vibrant works.
We met at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts for the exhibit “Six Draughtsmen” to discuss written versus visual arts, layering experiences, and the (perhaps) impossible concept of belonging.
Virginia McLure To begin, since we are here at MoCADA, let’s talk about last fall’s exhibit, “Pattern Recognition,” which Morgan co-curated and for which LaTasha organized a poetry reading. How were the poets chosen?
MP We wanted to invite poets whose aesthetics mirror those of the abstract artists in the show—to ask what writers are doing that is similar to what visual artists are doing, in terms of approaching topics or highlighting processes, materials, and composition rather than figurative content. And then there’s the fact that they’re approaching certain topics in the first place. The museum’s mission is to support emerging black artists who engage with social justice issues in some way. In picking out the poets, that was a major criteria: not just whether they are playing with language, but how they are using their experimentation to say something about politics, identity, and place.
VM LaTasha, you work in several mediums—poetry, dance, music, jewelry—but what do you feel poetry can do that these other mediums cannot? Or, is poetry the “poor” cousin of painting, performance art, and dancing?
LD “Poor poetry.” That’s funny because I’m very broke. (laughter) I feel that every medium does something in its own way. Poetry, or writing, in and of itself, takes time—not to suggest that visual artists just throw something on the canvas and, boom, that’s it—but there are different types of investments that happen in visual or performance arts versus literature. I’ve worked with dancers and they are crazed perfectionists. Every rehearsal is to the death. They will bleed that dance piece every rehearsal, every performance. It’s a process I bow to. But I once watched a visual artist create a series of 9”x11” paintings within a matter of hours, and he had little issue letting them all go. As a poet, I have a hard time letting go of what I have made. I’ve also witnessed a visual artist glue glass beads, one by one, onto a canvas. Watching her was like a meditation; I relate to that. But regarding the first artist I mentioned, I wonder if this type of assembly-line method works the same for other folks. I can also say that, depending on the mood, I’ve done it myself.
So again, I’m not sure. All mediums have elements of immediacy, of politics, elements of the avant, of the conceptual. Of undoing and redoing. Deep thought even when it appears absent. But the question of method reminds me of Flarf, in particular someone I consider a brilliant writer and respect. I can’t quote verbatim, but the piece went something like this: I’m going to inject a poem into this ancient bacteria and from that produce a protein that will then re-encode itself into the DNA of bacteria. I sat and listened, like, “Okay? It’s fascinating, but when it comes down to it, why do it?” I find nothing wrong with my questioning of its goal, either. We—writers, all artists—ask ourselves, and each other, this question all the time. I was not born knowing my agenda or focus or genre or area of experimentation. What I knew was the question other writers posed to me: What’s the point?
MP Yes, that question is continually asked, not only by others, but aimed at yourself. You can’t commit to being a poet or an artist of any kind in our society without questioning your purpose, continually. What is the effect?
LD I was on a panel a month ago, part of the “Blink Your Eyes: Sekou Sundiata Revisited” retrospective, discussing Jayne Cortez and Sekou Sundiata. They were interviewed together in 2002 for Cave Canem’s program “Legacy Conversation.” At one point in the conversation, you hear the older generation (Cortez) debating with the younger generation (Sundiata) over why poetry matters and why we risk things. In the panel, thinking of this, I said that one thing we have to realize when we look at the history of poetry—and visual arts too—is that risks were far greater for older generations. Somebody like Cortez—who was 100% invested, whether it be in civil rights, black empowerment, women’s rights, human rights—comes from a generation where poets were killed. So the question on replay in my head is: What are we doing?
MP The social and political legacies of radical actions carry long after violations have happened. Every time a young black girl reads a Nikki Giovanni poem about getting her phones tapped, for example, our work regains its urgency. Just because that sort of thing isn’t as prevalent in the US right now, you can’t ignore the history of artists as real political revolutionaries. Especially in Black America, poetry is a form of resistance.
LN Well, poets in the United States are probably not in danger of being killed, but that’s not to say poets globally are safe from harm.
VM True, even recently, the Pussy Riot members were imprisoned in Russia.
LN Absolutely, it is about having an awareness of that. I see my interests and what I like to write about as different from Sundiata or Cortez, but I am aware of this history and I am aware that it can return, or that it has never left, that it exists, whether in Russia, Central Asia, or elsewhere. That it exists in me.
VM How do you feel about words themselves, how they communicate with that history, and in a different way than the components of visual art do?
MP That’s the best thing about language: every time you use a word you are summoning so many other things—all the times that word has ever been used. I know this sounds a little psychedelic, but maybe I have an ancestor one hundred years ago who used this word that I choose to write now. What does it mean that everything that we are writing is recycled? Words are full of ghosts. Poetry is full of ghosts.
VM Is it also about being able to reproduce words without special materials? All the things in this exhibit, “Six Draughtsmen,” are beautiful, intricate, and very unique, but only one person—or a very limited group—could reproduce them in another place. But writing can be reproduced by a larger amount of people, passed around, passed on.
LD I think the words can be reproduced, but the manner in which you choose to write—
MP That’s where the magic is.
VM Within personal process?
MP Yes, because material is always there. Of course we can put new words together and do the whole hyphenating-words-to-make-new-words thing—
LD Or dropping the “g.”
MP Exactly, all these tools we use in making things new. Reading that dropped “g” also makes you think of the word with the “g,” which makes you think—who says this word and how? Just considering the weight of our choices. I take a similar approach when I give tours here, teaching people to look, to ask—when you look at a color, what does that color mean? Why would the artist use that color next to this color, in this shape? You have to look at poetry in the same way: why that word, what does that word mean to me, to others, who has access to that word?
VM So let’s talk more about voice and the choices made when using certain vocabulary or cadence. There are a lot of ways of making the voice known that are not just an apostrophe where the “g” should be, and I think it often has to do with the order of words. For example, in TwERK, the two poems “dutty gal” and “mista popo™ hollers @ jynx™” have such specific dialectic movements, both urgent and somewhat sassy, but they accomplish different effects because the voices sort their nouns, adjectives, and verbs differently. Where do you see those voices coming from?
LD From dancehall. Toasting, “dutty wine” is toasting, a deejay talking, chanting, or speaking over a track. It goes back to Skank music. With Mista Popo, he’s a combination of voices. One is Douglas Kearney reciting a poem from Fear, some. And the many voices I’ve heard from ’70s flicks, and a re-imagining of the actor Antonio Juan Fargas’s voice, if he spoke some Japanese. With the rebuttal poem “who you callin’ a jynx™?” the voice is a combination of Foxy Brown, Jean Grae, Eve, and Lil Kim. Some other poems, I’m conjuring the voice of Phylicia Rashād.
MP That makes me think so much about performance, like there’s an unwritten stage.
VM So, the word “stage” makes me think. I bought TwERK, and the next night was Miley Cyrus’s infamous performance—the huge discussion about her appropriating a certain culture, and questions about what “twerking” can mean in several contexts. Which brings me to, how does the title poem “TwERK” relate to that word, its meanings, and to the collection as a whole?
LD The book might have been called, “dutty wine” or “the cabbage patch” or “remix.” Throughout the book, there is some form of dance culture represented, whether it is dutty wine or bogling or freestyle or breakdancing. That world goes in and out of all these pieces. It is really looking at the physicality of the body up against the physicality of language, dialect, idiom, code switching. Twerking is what happens when you twerk the language. A flexibility. A tension. A release. A muscle spasm. Thigh buster.
MP And the word “twerk” conjures this whole set of moves from one dance to another—you’re breakdancing, then you’re twerking, then you’re bogling, moving in and out of dances. There’s fluidity and a flexibility implied.
VM You write in several languages—English, Spanish, Japanese, Maori, Cherokee, and more. I read in a previous interview that you cite growing up in Harlem as one reason?
LD I grew up in Harlem. An argument I like to make about city environments is just how multilingual a city is if you allow yourself to listen. From the Dominican-owned dry cleaners to the Korean bodega on the corner, there is usually a language other than English being spoken. Growing up in Harlem, it’s not like I was acutely aware of these things, like I had TwERK in my mind at ten years old. But growing up in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood with the occasional sprinkling of businesses run by either Koreans or Chinese or Lebanese or other groups, you’re gonna hear different tongues. Even now, the Subway at my corner is owned by a Bangladeshi family, so I may occasionally hear Bengali from cousin to uncle. And the workers will be from several different West African countries. And Little West Africa is on 116th street. That has existed for twenty years now and that community is not going anywhere for the time being. There is a working class immigrant community which has always been part of New York history, from the older generation of immigrants—Italian, Latino, Polish, Irish, Russian, etc.—to the newer immigrant communities. I do not claim to have traveled broadly, but it is not surprising when I hear something foreign to my English-speaking brain. My introductions to these languages come largely out of living in New York.
VM I want to ask both of you about your process.
LD I would say I write mainly in English, but when I am curious about another language or dialect, when I am curious about figuring out how to transform that speech into this type of writing I enjoy creating, it usually starts with lists of words in several languages. It is never a straight sentence or a line that I write. It usually happens with generating words into lists. Often, I will put the translations beside the words. So there is that assembly-line method I mentioned earlier. From there, I start the poems.
MP I’m influenced by sounds in the city as well, but I’m originally from the suburbs of California, so everybody talked the same, looked the same, acted the same—but I grew up watching a lot of TV, and I still do. That’s where many of my different languages are coming from—when I hear something interesting or striking or funny on TV, I write it down. My process is overhearing and collecting, whether it be a list of phrases, observations, the description of an outfit a Real Housewife is wearing, etc. That sparks my commentary, or an imagination of how a character might move out of the frame. It’s also splicing things up, butting certain language up against something else. In my “Miss Black America” series—well, first of all, how broad is that term? In thinking about black womanhood now and historically, I pulled from so many things. In one example, I mixed: “does she bother spitting her seeds” and “is her ringtone R-E-S-P-E-C-T?” But then also “does her therapist ask where her desires have gone?” Another says, “is she Billie [Holiday], or Billie Jean?” It’s a lot of references up against each other, which is disturbing, you know: two things that you might not expect to see together. But it’s this mix of cultural references, emotions, personalities, and lifestyles that gets at the truth of being a modern black woman.
VM I think that’s part of what made me think of your works together—the bumping up against of what is traditionally referenced by black womanhood and that of what is traditionally located elsewhere. For LaTasha, it may be dancehall culture but also references to Japanese and Korean culture and Dragon Ball Z and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and visual or conceptual artists. And for Morgan, it’s Real Housewives and Miss Black America, but also therapy and rock and punk and the suburbs and Basquiat. What I love is how you two are putting everything together, not as a challenge, but more as a statement—this is how it already is.
MP I think it would be too easy for me to write a poem about being a black woman that’s modeled after an image of a black woman that society has already accepted and digested. The complexity and surprise is honest and necessary: some black girls go to therapy, some black girls go to mosh pits. That’s just the way it is. The one thing about using all these references—and I think it goes for both of us, creating these complex, surprising images or characters—is just making room for ourselves. To say, “Well, this other thing has already been accepted, but I don’t give a f*** about that.” (laughter)
People might like me to just do one thing in my writing, but what happens when I trouble that? In grad school, I would write funny poems and when I moved away from that for a while, people were like, “Where are the funny poems about The Real World?” It’s easy for people to box you by saying, “But you write this thing.” Part of what we’re interested in is creating collections that, when you turn the page, you don’t know what to expect. That’s not only a gift to the reader, that surprise, but to ourselves. The gift of not feeling boxed in—not only as a black woman, but as a writer and as a person. You want to be free to be moving through the world and free in your writing to do something else.
VM Do you feel like the poems in your collections are getting at a sense of collage?
MP Or like a prism where you’re looking at different sides of the same thing. Collage is one of the visual art mediums most closely aligned with my process. I think of collage when I’m writing, and I also think about sculpture, in terms of building something. The kinds of work that we produce—with various colors and languages and people—it has a collage-like feel. But it’s hard for people to digest that when they’re reading it on the page, linearly. I almost wish that we could read things all at once, not top to bottom or left to right, but to get the whole feeling of a page of writing at once, the way you can with visual art.
LD It goes back to what you were saying about being boxed. Though when you said it, I was thinking to myself—I have never been “boxed” or, to better clarify, “claimed.” Some folks have found it hard to put me in one category of poetics or performance. This has definitely been a problem in working as an artist. That said, there is a huge blessing that comes along with it. Not being understood, not claimed here or there or there, is affording me the time to get into everything that I want to get into. To get bored with myself. To give myself a new task. The next stuff I write will be totally opposite from the last stuff I wrote. I don’t feel there’s an expectation to repeat myself because up until now, no one was paying attention.
MP You cannot box us, is what we are saying. It’s impossible! In fact, I invite everyone to try. (laughter)
LD There is a blackness about it too. A blackness (and brownness) that’s not solely about being African-American.
MP But it might not be a blackness you expect, and I think that’s the fun part.
VM If your book was an art installation, what would it be?
LD I know exactly what mine would be—a variety show with comedy, costumes, Samoan dancers, video art, Shalamar cover tunes, and drag queens reciting my poems. I want Latrice Royale reciting my poem “marmota monax mizrahi feeds chi chi mugler at the latex ball” with all of the cadences and pauses. I want The Gong Show for Rosetta Stone.
MP I often think of my collection as a party. A loud, dynamic experience with a lot of different people moving around, talking, hugging. You have some drinks, you hear some songs; it’s a party with a lot of rooms, different things are happening in each room. It has that house-party feel. And in one room, people are just sobbing. (laughter)
VM To change directions, you both reference Gwendolyn Brooks. What about her work influences you?
MP When I think about her work, I think about storytelling and this almost-fiction style of communicating and fleshing out characters, almost a character sketch—these black characters moving through the world with one another, with histories and thoughts. Her poems are very full in that way. I’m really drawn to that in her work. I think that’s really incredible. I confess that I struggle with that type of writing, storytelling, and narrative, and invention of characters—unless they’re me, or a version of me.
LD I read more narrative than I write. I feel that my brain needs to be quirky when I am writing. When reading, it needs to be less quirky. The experimental stuff, I take in smaller doses. I read it very slowly. I need time to translate it. With Gwendolyn’s work, I revisited it as part of a writing activity, using the golden shovel—a form created by Terrance Hayes that takes its name from a poem by Miss Brooks. So returning to her had to do with that form and how she approaches narrative.
MP Reading experimental work is a different process. It’s just like when we were talking about going to an art museum—you can go and look at images of people and boats all day, but if you’re going to look at more conceptual work, where you have to actually dissect and read into it, then you need time to digest it.
LD Or you look at the experimental stuff as references to possibilities, to things you might not have thought about or topics you want to indulge more.
VM Do any particular books come to mind, conceptual or otherwise, that went into the making of your own books?
LD The one that is constantly of reference to me is Kamau Brathwaite’s “History of the Voice,” which is an essay that looks at the development of what he calls “nation language.” Nation languages include the various Caribbean tongues spoken: Jamaican patois, Trinidadian patois, and so on. I constantly look at his work up against the language phrase books I collect. Right now I’ve been looking at Kamau and also the history of Hawaiian pidgin. I had a Pacific language phrase book for a while, along with two books on the Hawaiian language, but because I’m forever re-reading Lisa Linn Kanae’s Sista Tongue, I wanted to read more on Hawaiian Creole English/Hawaiian Pidgin English structure. Also Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poetry—not particularly for the narrative in his work but for the structure of the language that he’s using. Linton writes in a Jamaican-British patois; Kamau created this newer “Sycorax” typeface and a way of spelling connected to his idea of nation language, or languages connected to the forces of nature. Looking at these formulations from the Caribbean, the UK, and Hawai’i, all of this becomes part of my laboratory.
MP When we hosted the “Pattern Recognition” exhibit, I was thinking about Evie Shockley’s books—both the new black and Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African-American Poetry. That book was really the jumping-off point for having the event here—thinking about the possibilities of black experimental poetry. Douglas Kearney’s book The Black Automaton is an example. I heard him read once and it was one of those moments—it was so dynamic—where you just know it’s not going to be a regular reading. Those books that are really textured in the ways they use language—those are the type of texts I need to spark that mind LaTasha was talking about, that quirky-mind head space, because part of what we’re talking about is getting in that mood to write. Getting excited. Opening up to the possibilities of language. I could be sitting at work writing a grant all day, and I can’t just go home from that and straight into writing a poem. I need to get into that mindset.
LD I watch lots of TV, online.
MP Oh yeah, I watch a lot of TV. Most voices I’m inundating myself with and using as points of reference for my work are media: songs and art books and lines from TV shows and movies. Sometimes it’s all at once—I’ll have a TV show going, while I’m looking at a piece of artwork and also reading song lyrics or playing records—I love having all of those things in my mind at once. Being totally overwhelmed, consciously. Then, there’s one thing we haven’t mentioned—our own voices, our own thoughts. Whatever I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days or weeks or lifetimes just becomes another element that I draw from. The constant process that’s going on in my head is a type of language as well.
VM Another reason I asked about Gwendolyn Brooks is that she’s creating all these narratives of people with scenes and backstory, so I wondered—are you creating these characters based off certain voices, like voice characters? Or, is it “Real Housewives as seen through the lens of Morgan Parker,” or “Mista Popo™ as imagined by LaTasha Diggs”?
MP I’m not trying to s*** anyone. All of these characters are me. (laughter) It’s about using them to say something that Morgan Parker can’t say. It’s all a vehicle I’m behind, like in The Wizard of Oz. Morgan Parker is the man behind the curtain. That’s why I always talk about performance in terms of my poetry; it’s me being able to perform as someone else. It’s trying on different voices and outfits in order to say what I need to say. Not to say that I think of myself as a Real Housewife or as Jay Z. But I’m so interested taking elements from those identities and using them in unusual ways in order to get at what it honestly feels like to live in this body, in this era, in this place, right now.
VM Do you think you’re choosing to perform particular black woman personhoods in your work, or that your poems are performing blackness? Or feminism? Or black woman feminism?
MP There are so many images of ourselves that we’re inundated with that you can’t help but be influenced by them. What I’m talking about is not conscious, it’s what it takes to live in the world. And I obviously mean that specifically as a black woman, because that is my experience—a very layered and doubled experience—but I do also just mean that as a person, as an emotional person. When I interact with people, there are things that are expected of me. That’s what I mean in terms of performing, moving in between spaces and knowing how to behave in each space. There are certain things you do and say at work versus on Saturday versus in school. I’m always a different version or edition of myself, which is why exercising that same process—writing as Jay Z or whomever—is not out of the ordinary. It’s human.
LD And the poems are not performing blackness, they’re performing American-ness. American-ness that is performing a broader notion of what American is, and what Americana is. It’s not only cheeseburgers, it’s also fortune cookies. It’s Hip Hop. It’s Drag. I don’t think the work is doing just a black performance in the way we might define a black performance, or a black woman’s performance. It is American at the same time, questioning what that means. It is arguing that all of this is American by way of colonial narratives, immigration narratives, musical narratives, chicken pot pie, pad thai, beef patties, burritos.
MP This kind of question tends to come up in artist talks here at MoCADA—what is black art? And it’s a really tough question. A beautifully done image of a black activist done by a white artist, is that black art? Is all art made by black people, black art? Every one has a different opinion about it. Is my work black? Yes, and I sure am, but that doesn’t mean every poem in my collection directly addresses that, and I don’t think that’s necessary.
LD Most people reading my work won’t be able to figure out my race. The most they can say is, “This person is obviously not white, but I don’t know what this person is.” Which is kind of the point. It is arguing for us to look a little bit more intimately at American culture. Shit is complex. It is also asking: What is American-ness to me? If we’re talking about the conversation of language or mother tongue—I speak English because I was born here in North America, but I still don’t feel it’s my mother tongue. What is my mother tongue? American history has complicated any opportunity for me to find out what my mother tongue would be. There are so many tongues that have their place here. Some still exist. Some are extinct. So which one? Tsalagi (Cherokee)? I know a little and would love to improve, but I have no direct ties to the environment where it would be spoken to me daily. What if I were born in Puerto Rico? Is Spanish then my mother tongue? I’m not sure—Spanish is, like English, a colonial language. And the island and the people is the story of mingling of cultures, similar to North America. What if I was born in the Philippines? If my father was a US Navy man and my mother Pinay by birth but with an ancestry that’s Malaysian, Spanish, and Ati. In that case and in my case, what is the definitive root of me? I believe, like these histories, it is a mixture of tongues, a mash-up of rule and conquer, assimilation and adaptation. And in the States, my tongue is kind of an orphaned one. I’m trying to locate the cousins and aunties to my tongue, if that makes sense. So, yes, my “native” tongue is me, but it’s not all of me.
MP That’s why I feel so connected to the term “diaspora”: it’s almost a way of saying that you belong in many places, a way of claiming that mother tongue that we don’t know. Acknowledging the journey or migration, and claiming the present, but also reclaiming or reimagining something that’s been lost. It’s a way of saying, “I live here, but I’m not from here, and my family lives here, but my other family is from here, and I have family in a place I don’t even know.” It’s a way of speaking all that. That’s absolutely the experience of being American for me, and being part of the diaspora. I think that in saying “African American,” there can be dismissal of those other places. Yes, I was born in this place, and I belong to America, but I belong to so many other places. Even if I can’t name them. Many white Americans have the privilege to claim the specifics of their ancestry and trace it back to its origins. There is often a mystery to being a black American, which can feel kind of magical. It’s a way of existing nowhere and everywhere, which feels awesome.
When somebody asks where I am from, I often pause. It’s a long story. Is my home New York or California? Is my home Africa? My parents are from Kentucky—is that my home? Even more specifically, is my home Brooklyn or Bedstuy? It’s a way of dealing with that. I’m intrigued by that part of living in the world, almost as a nomad. Where one belongs is often where one belongs right now. It’s hard to know where you truly do belong, and I think a lot of my work is searching for that feeling of “Okay, this is it, I’ve found this space,” and I feel like that’s what a lot of people are going through the world looking for—as if it’s a space that’s been lost, or a mirage. It’s almost a myth, this myth of this place that is home.