The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Foster and Keene discuss the strategies for black resistance in their respective new books—the poetry volume A Swarm of Bees in High Court and Counternarratives, a collection of short fictions.
Abrons Art Center
Feb 1, 6:30pm
Tonya Foster’s A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna) uses haiku to present a piercing portrait of contemporary Harlem. In contrast, the fictions in John Keene’s Counternarratives(New Directions) traverse geographies and eras, and their attending narrative conventions, to undo history’s racist exclusions. This past July, while participating in Image Text Ithaca, a multidisciplinary symposium and workshop at Ithaca College, the authors discussed their recent books’ far-reaching implications.
Tonya Foster Your new book, structured in three parts, moves from “Counternarratives” to “Encounternarratives” to “Counternarrative.” I wonder about that move, which might be seen as an extended meditation on meaning through form. All the formal shifts and strategies that you employ articulate, rearticulate, and reimagine subjectivities that aren’t necessarily standard. They don’t operate in only one realm of being. What is it that form articulates?
John Keene I was aiming at a sense of movement on many levels. Movement in terms of the transition between forms, narratives, geographical and imaginative spaces, and between subjectivities. But there’s an associative movement as well, involving connection and contiguity.
I wanted the forms, as much as possible, to emerge out of the subject matter. The narratives and their attendant characters, as well as the historical-social-political-economic spaces that are being dramatized, informed the shapes the stories took.
The word narrative in the second part is grayed out so that the section title can read as both “Encounternarratives” and “Encounter[ ]s.” The stories in this section are mostly first-person narratives depicting the connections these characters are making with others—and Others—with the speakers telling their stories directly. A shift in person and perspective starts to emerge at the end of the first section, and then the final story in the third section, “The Lions,” functions as a counterpoint to and culmination of the first twelve.
TF These stories are connected thematically and in terms of the investigation of form that holds across the collection. It’s like seeing different poses as possibilities for the shapes subjectivity might take. It’s dynamic. It seems that the organization of the collection moves through a variant of the historical, omniscient third person toward a reconfigured first person. What’s your vision for the movement across time and place in the book?
JK The organization is roughly chronological, but also follows an intellectual-historical trajectory. I had originally placed “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” before “On Brazil, or Dénouement: The Londônias-Figueiras,” and my editor at New Directions, Barbara Epler, suggested I flip them because the Brazilian narrative temporally precedes the US one. But there’s also something imaginatively crucial about having these two stories reversed, since the Brazil story formally starts in our contemporary moment and cycles back, suggesting one way to think about our historical continuum. It charges, so to speak, everything that follows.
The first story I wrote was “An Outtake,” which felt, when I completed it, like a revelation. It was one of the final stories I wrote while in NYU’s MFA program, in a workshop I took with E.L. Doctorow; I published it in 1999. Then I had this idea that I was going to write a story in tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, which was in 2004. I lost the full drafts of it and four other stories when my computer crashed that year, so I had to reconstruct them. I subsequently filled out the collection, particularly over the last few years. The new stories are, I feel, in conversation with the earlier ones. Counternarratives really is a series of conversations amongst the narratives, but also with history, literature, politics, and so on.
To shift gears, I’m thinking about your new poetry book, A Swarm of Bees in High Court: in the notes at the end of the book you describe it as “a biography of life in the day of a particular neighborhood,” and you use the phrase “the multiple as subject and as swarm of actors.” Based on those descriptions you could have written a nonfiction text or a more literal reflection, but you’re capturing this world in a lyric mode, undertaking compelling things with form. Through condensation and concision you achieve that multiplicity you’re talking about, a surplus of meaning. The book is a model of the certain kinds of work that can only be performed by poetry, particularly lyric poetry.
What really comes through is a play of both the ear—sound, music, and noise, in the positive sense of the term, as distortion—and also the eye. Could you talk about how you decided to go with the haiku-like form, which you stick to at certain points, and you break in others? At the very end we get a little section of prose, almost like a fable.
TF The first thing that comes to mind is Amiri Baraka saying, “You know, I would read poems in The New Yorker and think, I can’t write poems like that.” (laughter) The work of the book began when someone asked me to write about 9/11, and I thought, What? It just seemed bizarre.
How do you write about grief when you’re in the middle of it? How do you imagine or traverse that necessary distance? I had been writing erotic haiku to a man I liked. And someone else said, “Why don’t you write haiku about 9/11?” I thought, Okay, I could do that and not weep, right? I could write these little condensed pieces about New York at that period. It was a time when there were these condensed, very tense encounters with the images of people who were missing—but not only with them; you were also encountering the people missing them, looking for them.
JK Their grief, right?
TF Yes. I also began thinking about Harlem in a different way. There was this incredible silence. This neighborhood where I have lived for a long time is a very noisy place. One Detroit friend said, “This is the noisiest place I have ever been.” And on that day there was this hush. Somehow, there was no picking up of the strain of grief evidenced in the silence. So out of the question, What does it feel like in this space? I started writing these haiku (even the book’s long lines are, for the most part, seventeen syllables or fewer) about Harlem, and this particular two-block stretch on St. Nicholas Terrace.
Indirectly, I’m always writing about my hometown of New Orleans, as NOLA is for me what Venice is to Calvino: “a first city that remains implicit.” New Orleans is implicit in everything that I write. And I’m often wondering how NOLA has trained and tripped up my tongue. I’d been thinking about the language that conjures an experience of a particular place. I think of it necessarily as a body or a group of bodies, this multiplicity of subjectivities narrating place through interactions, through sounds, and through grief. Weirdly, I couldn’t see that A Swarm of Bees in High Court is a book about grief until after it was done. I was stunned and stung by that.
JK I started to think, as I read it, about place as hive. The hive of sociality and experience comes through. There is, I wrote in my notes, “in/action.” At the level of language, you have all these linguistic—morphemic—hinges that give the poems a powerful depth. They convey the silence and the hum, the quiet and the buzz. This brings us back to bees, “be…es” as you write in the book’s epigraph: “It be…es that way, sometime.” So perfect! There are so many lines like that, encapsulating the work you’re doing here.
There’s also something about the ontology of grief, of living in this space that is both part of that post-9/11 world but also viewed as not part of it. The ontology of this location and dislocation: Harlem. New Orleans. I love how you talk about the origins of your use of haiku, the erotic trigger. You stick with this form for the most part, but ring changes with it. You also have “as always” as a refrain. This pointed me to one of your strategies in the book: repetition. I see it as a rhetorical gesture and a formal strategy, but it also relates to thematic content, right? Things repeat, they continue, and I see that connecting to desire and also emotion, want. Talk about sticking with the haiku-like form and its relation, for you, to desire and grief.
TF Listening to what you’re saying, I think about your work, and language, about making work and art, and the ways that sometimes being is sufficient. You keep coming back to people who are artists in untenable circumstances. Part of their artistry is asserting that being is sufficient, and the formal shifting becomes a way of continuing to be when everything else attempts to annihilate you.
So to try to answer your question, I learned, after I started writing them, that haiku are often about loss. The space of wanting is one of absence, but also of the presence of what one wants. The book had to be landscape rather than portrait view because as I wrote the poems, I realized there was something about that orientation that emphasized the words as central, as these little moments of being, amid an expanse of silence. So what is it to imagine that these little words on the page are sufficient? I don’t know.
JK In my book the words are really packed on the page, for the most part.
TF Well, there are columns, and then little letters, journal entries…
JK The density and expansiveness of prose! What comes through with the expanse of space in A Swarm (I’m not going to call it “white space” because I don’t think it’s “white” space, but more ground and commons, y/our commons) is presence and negation. A number of your poems are registering negative emotions or negative responses. Not “negative” in the sense of “bad,” but because the speaker has desires and needs; the speaker lacks and wants things. This poetic speaker is deeply aware of the gendered and classed space, which is to say, politicized social space, in which she speaks. Or not just “she,” of course, because there is “your” and “our,” invoking the apostrophized individual and communal.
There’s a negative capability on a formal and rhetorical level, and on the level of language, holding these sometimes opposing ideas together in tension. I guess the technical terms for that are polysemy, as well as homonymy. You have all of these words that can be read in multiple ways. Sounds run together, allowing you to ring these changes. That got me thinking about strategies of survival.
TF That’s it. There are these strategies that assert being—not in the face of absolute abjection—that’s too easy. Perhaps there is no absolute abjection when one continues to live.
Maybe it’s time to retire referencing Frederick Douglass, but there’s that moment in his narrative where Mr. Covey has beaten him, and Douglass has had enough. He says, “[H]owever long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” He’s choosing something else, perhaps even death, to slavery. So, in our work, there’s always this moment in which the different characters (and readers) are making this other choice, have this other way of asserting being (and understanding), when the white people around them are suggesting to them that in fact they have no other choice. And so they say, “No, I’m asserting my being in this other way.” Here, I think of Sandra Bland and the costs of that assertion.
JK And how do we do that without saying it? There is a profound irony in that we have the capacity to write those silences. There’s this old fiction chestnut: “showing versus telling.” But there was so much I wanted to tell in Counternarratives. I was very interested in storytelling as a practice, but I also wanted to show those moments, before a character acts, when there is another kind of nonverbal recognition. It’s not uttered at all. In their physical and emotional responses it’s clear that something is about to change.
TF Wow. Maybe this is related to the negative capability. There’s this beautiful moment in your story “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows,” in which Carmel (the daughter of an artist and a talented resistance fighter) is introduced to the Americans who’ve inherited the plantation. Carmel is silent, and Madame de L’Écart is freaked out by her when they meet. Why is silence unnerving?
JK Because Madame de L’Écart was expecting verbal acknowledgment of her power and her status. Carmel upends the usual power relationship through her silence. We don’t know why Carmel doesn’t speak. It’s a literalization of the idea that no one cares what Carmel has to say; she is not expected to speak. In fact, there’s an earlier moment where the brother-in-law, who’s the owner of the estate, couldn’t even remember that Carmel, the story’s protagonist, existed!
I described Carmel as someone who has a powerful inner light, yet she’s virtually invisible, and part of that invisibility is her seeming inability to articulate her selfhood. So, the story starts outside Carmel, and slowly it moves into her consciousness, into her speaking.
For Madame de L’Écart, the hardest thing is to accept that she is not going to be addressed as the subject of this story, or this world. She was ready to take her rightful place in the power structure. (laughter) And here you have this black female child who has, on some level, no power, but also tremendous power. To not speak can be incredibly powerful.
TF I’ve been turning over something of Fanon’s, from The Wretched of the Earth: “[W]hen I was there, it [Reason] was not; when it was there, I was no longer.” In your book there’s this challenge to the notion that knowledge is only produced, or evident, in identifiable forms of reason. Can you speak to that?
JK The Enlightenment is the backdrop to a number of these stories. One movement throughout is from the dawn of modernity forward into modernism, which is why we have the later stories with W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Mário de Andrade at their center. I think about Paul Gilroy’s famous, eponymous statement on the “Black Atlantic as a counterculture of modernity.” The science of race is born with—
(Man walks in and says “Oops, sorry!”)
JK That was the specter of the past bursting in! (laughter) The science of race and the human sciences are born at this powerful moment of un-freedom for millions of people. And also capitalism. Capitalism being the quintessence of reason, in one way, and of unreason, in another. Paul Gilroy, Ian Baucom, Edward Baptist, and so many others have written about how central slavery and black bodies were to the development of capitalism. So I wanted to try to write into and against a certain understanding of reason in relation to race, which brings us to what Fanon is saying. But I also wanted to play with that, because, for example, in that “Gloss, or the Strange History of Our Lady of the Sorrows” story, one of the humorous points is that the nuns are trying to escape the depredations of reason in Europe, which is to say the French Revolution, and they come to—
JK Right! They think of it as a kind of safe harbor, and they end up finding themselves the victims of unreason! One could view religion as unreason too. I am interested in the idea of competing rationalities, which is also what Fanon is getting at: What is reason? What is rationality? How do certain systems of belief sometimes coexist, or not? This is really interesting to think about today, because we often hear, particularly in a kind of neoliberal world, that reason has triumphed. And yet, you turn on the TV—
TF I received an advance copy of your book just as I was watching the news of Freddie Gray’s murder.
JK I mentioned struggle earlier, in relation to both of our books. I was very interested in thinking about the kind of fore-life and afterlife of social, political, and economic violence. How does one convey, in fiction, the social and political economy in which we live? I was thinking, for example, of the story of Zion in “An Outtake.” It’s almost eerie how predictive it is of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Michael Brown, these precarious black bodies—
TF —Renisha McBride.
JK Rekiah Boyd, now Sandra Bland. Exactly, it’s not just black men. There’s a way in which that story, which precedes all of this, but of course obviously was written in the wake of many earlier state murders, like those of Eleanor Bumpurs, Sean Bell—
TF —Emmett Till.
JK Exactly. There’s this official public discourse about how things have changed, how we’re in a different, “post-racial” space—but there is this powerful continuity. It struck me, after I’d finished some of these stories, that they couldn’t take place today because of these cultural changes, but, on an emotional level, on a level of historical resonance, they speak to where we are today.
TF That’s right, that history is not past. What happened? I mean, on the most basic level. But your texts also ask: How do we activate these alternate possibilities for being? They’re not just about surviving … I don’t want to go to “thriving.”
JK I love that. It is surviving, but it’s also living and thriving. Central to that is resistance, you know?
The polysemy and homophony in your poems model resistance in action, at the level of language. It’s exciting how the poems are talking to themselves, and talking back to the reader.
TF One has to talk back. That’s the impulse in becoming a self, right? If you’re raised in the South, it’s sass, it’s “to give some lip.” If you’re raised in the city, it’s to assert in a way that says, “No, this is distinct, and part of a tradition you may not know about.”
JK We used to hear that all the time, “Don’t give me no lip.” And, “You better tuck that lip in.”
TF Yet survival depended on being able to give some lip.
JK Lip, but also lip service, which makes me think of epistemology. I want to talk about the idea of the poem as a vehicle of knowledge. You find fascinating ways to show us different ways of knowing. First of all, you write on cognition as social, “To know… is to be / thought known.” (Re)cognition is invoked. “Friend A. says, ‘They see / my clothes, think I got cash.’” You’re playing with, bringing in reflexivity. But it’s also the vernacular, right? It’s not some abstract exchange, but everyday speech. Realness.
TF Philosophy comes in different registers. As someone who’s finishing a PhD program, the language of the academy is amazing (and sometimes aggravating) to me. Necessarily, language conjures audience. I often think, Who’s in that crew? Who is one talking with, and in addition, who is one talking to? In the way that I talk about multiple possibilities for the self, or multiple selves, I’m also interested in multiple audiences. How do those multiple audiences theorize being, theorize to (and next to) one another what it is to be? That’s what I want to get at. There’s a point where [Nathaniel] Mackey explains that to greet someone with “Hello” is profoundly different from greeting with “What’s up?” or, “Where you at?” Is that the phrase he points to? I need to go home to the Mackey wisdom. The greeting and question are meant as acknowledgment, but something very different is called.
JK That’s right, because it’s a talking with and to. You’re starting from different premises, even though it’s basically your salutation.
I want to read a little bit more from your book; as I was saying earlier, you’re showing what only poetry can do. You’re activating those multiple registers: “To know is to be a spoon in a kitchen drawer, wearing expertise. / To know is to be a spoon, bent burnt, crystalline skeins, shining held hollow.” So you bring in the domestic, drugs… “To know is to believe. / To know is to be made infinitive—grammar and psychology.” Psychology, agency. “To know is to be? This a math of blood, a math of bodies, a (map of the math of bodies). // To know is to be conqueror…” Power, domination. “To be light infiltrating, descent. / To know is to be boundary, bounded—city/lover s/he’ll leave.” You are breaking down what it means to know. A great deal of academic philosophy doesn’t even acknowledge this richness of how we come to know things.
TF And how important, at the end of the day, is knowledge from the spaces we’re killing off, the people we’re disappearing. It may ultimately save our asses. What’s mind-blowing in your writing is that the knowing of the world takes different forms, right? That’s ultimately what saves the lives of some of your characters.
If we’re going to read each other’s work, how about: “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”? I love this story about the criminal Zion, who is resistant. One does say, “Zion, what’s your home training?” It makes a lot of sense that a slave who is subjected to slavery’s brutality would act out that home training. Zion is a product of his home, but he’s also this brilliant musician who’s not allowed to play music. I like the simplicity of description of this last section of the story, subtitled “Eclipse”:
On the morning of April 1, 1775, the authorities did not find the Negro named Zion in his cell. Given the severity of the crimes and the necessity of preserving the ruling order, another Negro, whose particular crimes are not recorded, was hanged in the Worcester Town Square, surrounded by a sparse gallery of onlookers, among them the widow Shaftesbone; and the newly-married Sarah Wantone Fleet and her husband George, of Worcester, a Lockean and member of a local militia. Also present was Jubal, now calling himself Mr. John Cuffee, a free laborer and leader of a Negro brigade in Boston. Of their response there is no record.
It’s funny how you mark the absence: “The rest of the town, absent from the proceedings, was preparing, one must suppose, for the swiftly approaching conflagration.” There’s so much going on in just this tiny description. Basically it’s, “Any Negro will do.” Even with all of the awful things that Zion has done, the particular nature of his crimes, he is invisible. There’s also the wonderful mystery… He’s gone! Perhaps he was never there.
JK He’s gone, right! (laughter) Last night we were talking about humor as a survival strategy and a means of protest. You were listening to Richard Pryor. Humor can be deeply subversive. In that passage you read, there’s something so horrifying about substituting one black body for another, which happens—
TF —all the time. They fit the description.
JK They fit the description. Injustice in the execution of justice! This story also has to do with the multiple ironies of the idea of “freedom.” On the one hand, we’re talking about a country coming into being based on a constellation of ideas around liberty—and yet you have these masses of people who are un-free, like Zion, who keeps trying to live ideas of freedom. He’s also doing many of the same things—think of the thefts, the sexual acts—that his master is doing. Both are actually subject to this larger ruling order, because Britain is trying to assert its domination over these resistant colonies, but Zion has no leeway. He embodies this quandary, eluding their grasp and ours.
I was trying to think of different ways in which humor might factor into these stories; sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes not. There’s the W.E.B. Du Bois story, “Persons and Places.” He is so serious, I thought, I have to stay serious when I’m talking about Du Bois and George Santayana! (laughter) But, in general, humor is another way of conveying the reality of black existence. Where would we be without it?
Speaking of humor, you have a lot of it in A Swarm of Bees in High Court. Would you talk a little bit about this?
TF I am interested in humor that is not light… one, because I didn’t grow up to become a cabaret singer. (laughter) I fantasized about growing up to be a comedian. In comedy there’s a refusal to absent oneself from the conditions under which one lives—this interests me. Comedy makes me think, Okay, here’s a space to look at the fact that living is not easy, nor for the faint of heart. A space to grapple with that, and not to avoid it, but also not to be caged by it. I was watching Live on the Sunset Strip—this is after Pryor’s caught on fire while smoking a crack pipe—thinking, How do you move from that to being that naked on stage?
JK People talk about “black folk’s comedy.” I’m thinking about people like Redd Foxx, Mo’Nique, Eddie Murphy. Their lives are always in there. Mo’Nique, how she talks about herself and her looks and others’—she goes for the jugular. You’re laughing, but grief’s in there too. Sometimes they have you laughing to the point of crying.
At the conference “Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing” in Montana, Jess Row showed us that clip where Dave Chappelle is with the white family called The Niggars. Chappelle at one point says, “This racism is killing me inside!” And he’s laughing. Every time I watch it, I’m going, that’s truth, that doubleness. It’s funny, and yet a truth that’s so devastatingly, destructively absurd—it’s the physical embodiment of unreason, an absolutely ridiculous, incredibly powerful system that is shaping our existence in the world.
TF That’s the consciousness that shapes black existence. The only way you survive is through knowing that you’re ducking bullets.
JK Exactly. You have this section in your book called “Bullet/In.” I love the serious play: “bulletin” and “bullet in,” the news of what’s happening and the everyday violence that shapes how people live in Harlem, and all over the country. Your poetry is capturing the realities and unrealities of everyday existence, right?
TF I’ll approach it from the autobiographical first. A few years ago a kid was killed across the street from my apartment building; one Mother’s Day, a young man was killed; years ago, a woman was found in a suitcase in a park across the street; on the corner, someone was shot; and in my building, a hairdresser’s roommate was shot. More recently, after the manuscript for the book had been turned in, a bullet came through one of my windows.
For a long time, I’d walk around as if these things didn’t have an impact. I’d feel bad, be a little cautious, and then just kind of go on. I can’t imagine that these things don’t impact the community or the body. There’s an accumulation of grief within defined spaces. Whether or not we know the particular people, we experience that loss and violence. I couldn’t stop thinking about the blood on the sidewalks and about cleaning it up. If I had kept writing this book, I would write about the global blood spilling that connects the boy in Harlem to the boy in Palestine, to the boy in …
JK This is a kind of news about trauma, which is intimately related to loss.
TF It’s not only trauma. When I think of my block, I think of standing outside with people who’ve lived there since 1964 or before; or walking down the street and Mr. Charles stopping me to talk to me; or the woman hanging out of the window, talking to different people. There’s this tremendous life, people smiling, kids on the basketball court. All of that is going on, and simultaneously there’s this current of trauma and danger, and the moments in which it appears. Every summer, at some point, there is an altar set up for someone who’s been killed. These altars are beautiful, but somebody’s dead.
JK You’re not aestheticizing trauma, but showing that through poetry and the materiality of language it can be made visible.
TF That’s my hope. Though I want to acknowledge that there is an aesthetics to American violence that is tied to notions of masculinity, success, and power, which are performed for us (and by us) constantly. It’s the insanity of capitalism’s logic to not acknowledge the violence underwriting beauty and order.
JK Speaking of ideas of masculinity and power, I am thinking of my story “Acrobatique,” which hasn’t been discussed very much in reviews. I was fascinated by the sole human figure in the 1879 Edgar Degas painting Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. She was one of the most famous and beloved circus performers in late 19th-century Europe. She was born in Germany and was mixed race. In a letter Degas actually calls her “ma négresse.”
Miss La La cannot fully escape Degas—she wants to ascend into the rafters so that his eye and hand cannot capture her. The true story behind the painting is that he did a number of studies, and then had to bring in a structural engineer to help him paint the ceiling of the Cirque Fernando. It’s also his sole painting of a black person, despite the fact that he had relatives who were African American in Louisiana.
TF Yeah, New Orleans!
JK New Orleans, exactly. We can’t fully see her, she is elusive—and yet this image circulates widely. Miss La La is escaping but not really. In the case of Degas, he wants to possess his “négresse” but can’t. It all ties into the logic of capital, because this is one of Degas’s most famous paintings, and when people talk about people like him, they’re talking about technique, but they’re also talking about money. So this takes us back to capital and the violence it wreaks.
TF I wonder if the breakdown of genre in your stories and their open-endedness is a resistance to a logic of capital marking a clear beginning, middle, and end that one can package. We even mark history as having a clear beginning, middle, and end.
JK The stories in Counternarratives are anti-teleological; they defy “progressive history” and master narratives, suggesting possible ways that art might respond to capitalism’s effects. I also see these stories doing something deeply queer (or “quare” to use E. Patrick Johnson’s version of the term), by opening up spaces within and across their thematic and formal connections, to suggest other ways of thinking about and assembling the world. In part to disorient; it’s a kind of warping, an attempt to defamiliarize, and thereby reshape, our thinking.
We’re running out of time and there are just so many questions I have, but a key aspect of this book is, obviously, gender, and the perspective of a woman who is viewing, seeing, thinking, knowing, writing. A black woman of a certain background. Can you talk about the many possibilities of that perspective?
TF I remember making a lunch for my grandma Cardella, my grandma Dorothy, my cousin Butsie, and Miss Annie—they were the oldest women in the family, and they’d known each other for most of their lives. I asked them, “What do I need to know about being a woman?” My mom was there too, but she wanted to stay in the background. They talked about love, about self-care, about spirit. They wouldn’t talk about suffering, but focused instead on survival, on thriving despite.
I think about the basics of being in this body. Like, going for a walk in the middle of the night. The men I know can do that; I can’t. Or I could, but I’m in a different kind of danger. I don’t know any other way to be in the world. To my mind, it’s very much about being reduced to flesh. And in my work I’m not mourning that, but saying, “Okay, let me look at that. What is it to be reduced to flesh?”
JK And yet the poems also convey, “I will not be reduced to flesh. I will not be reduced.”
You have this stunning Wangechi Mutu painting on the cover, and the title itself riffs off of Max Ernst’s A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice. Even in the title, you are showing how rewriting, riffing off language, and taking ownership or control of it allows you to tell other stories. You’re putting things in conversation that might not otherwise be in conversation.
TF Yes, although they are in ongoing conversations about art. Will you talk about your cover?
JK Barbara Epler actually found that image. It’s by Ike Morgan, an African American schizophrenic vernacular artist living in Mississippi. He has a whole series of paintings of President Barack Obama, and a series featuring other presidents. I love this painting in particular because it’s somewhat mystical and suggests and shows rather than tells. Would you say something about the Mutu?
TF It’s a well-known work of hers, The Noble Savage. It’s a female figure, and there are these strands and palm fronds and birds around her. She wades in the motion but also gathers pieces together. That struck me as being part of how the book moves: it’s a gathering of these different strands, and it’s wading in all these very different movements.
Tonya Foster is the author of A Swarm of Bees in High Court and coeditor of Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art. Her poetry, prose, and essays have appeared in Callaloo, Tripwire, boundary2, MiPOESIAS, NYFA Arts Quarterly, the Poetry Project Newsletter, and elsewhere. She is assistant Professor at California College of the Arts.
John Keene’s latest book, Counternarratives (New Directions), was released in the spring of 2015. He is also the author of Annotations (New Directions) and the poetry-art collection Seismosis (1913 Press) with artist Christopher Stackhouse. He is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.