MJ Yes! Because it’s a series of imagined audiences, as your “chorus” already indicates. And you’re projecting them, but they also have been projected onto you, as you know perfectly well. They are not in concert with one another; many of them are oppositional or suspicious of each other. But you speak in the language, the tongues that can address, maybe placate, and acknowledge all of them. Which can be absolutely overwhelming. Which takes us back to that opening scene—of me in the movie, the sense that everyone is requiring much too much of the performance. The problem is technical, partly. How do you work all that into an essay without seeming to rather desperately be gesturing toward these different constituencies?
I tend to work on many things at once, which used to bother me but now I see as just how I work and even an advantage in some ways. If something’s a dead end, which happens a lot, I can pick up some other poems or what have you. But definitely the poems come first and the books later; I don’t think of them as projects but poems.
They also evolve out of each other: I was writing the Basquiat book and it was mostly done, and had become this massive long poem, and no one wanted it. Or they liked it but balked. Because it was also a “public” book, one purposefully without an “I” in it at all, I started writing the more “personal” poems that became Jelly Roll. At first it was just a clutch of 15 or so heartbreaking poems, with all this weird syntax—though I always knew it would be subtitled “a blues,” I didn’t know if it was a series or a section of a book or what. Only when I set it free, and really started thinking about the form, did it become a book. It too grew a bit long before I cut a lot of the poems—some even good poems that didn’t fit, or were redundant, or didn’t move the whole in the way that even some of the smaller poems did.
That’s the hard but important thing: if you seed enough you have to be willing to yank the weeds. And even a plant that’s too close to the house or whatever. Sometimes these stray things have later lives, but not always. One day some may see the light.
I’d like to work slow and sure, and it takes a long time, it takes a couple years to get an exhibition together. So, they don’t leave without me really considering that it’s done. And, also because I’ve been doing it for forty years or so, it’s like okay, you know. The pieces that are important to me are personal pieces, pieces that are about my family. Like the one that’s called Legacy about my grandchildren, I don’t particularly want to sell that, but I don’t mind sharing it with people, I don’t mind having it in an exhibition.
When my great aunt passed, my mother’s father’s sister, she left A whole truck full of things, you know, scarves and handkerchiefs and gloves and boxes and jewelry, and that was like in 1975, and I just started a whole new series of work about her, The Aunt Hattie Series, collages and boxes and things like that. So, some of them I keep, and some of them I don’t.
Speak of Me as I Am (Venice, 2003), Black Like Me (The Aldrich Museum, 2005-06) and My Echo, My Shadow, and Me (Pace Gallery, 2006) are titles borrowed from other sources and yet they intimate a relation to the self—what it means to be “me”—a concept both internal and external to the self.
You’ve picked up on something very true: that it all comes back to me in the end. Because it is my studio work, it is my world, and I own up to it. Those who are outsiders are involved in explaining themselves while those who are or think they are in the mainstream do not feel this compulsion.
Who are we? How are we perceived? What are the preconceived notions? What is the reality of who we are? I have had to deal with this all my life. It comes into the work in many ways.
Your intervention work addresses relations in the external world…
…and there is a certain amount of collaboration involved… and a lot of listening and trying to be a sponge, then limiting what I do so that those who see it can absorb it rather than shut down. In my studio practice, I don’t have those limitations – I have to deal with myself. That can be frightening…
But the telling of these stories, which came from my mother’s lips as naturally as breathing, was not the only way my mother showed herself as an artist. For stories, too, were subject to being distracted, to dying without conclusion. Dinners must be started, and cotton must be gathered before the big rains. The artist that was and is my mother showed itself to me only after many years. This is what I finally noticed:
Like Mem, a character in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, my mother adorned with flowers whatever shabby house we were forced to live in. And not just your typical straggly country stand of zinnias, either. She planted ambitious gardens-and still does-with over 50 different varieties of plants that bloom profusely from early March until late November. Before she left home for the fields, she watered her flowers, chopped up the grass, and laid out new beds. When she returned from the fields she might divide clumps of bulbs, dig a cold pit, uproot and replant roses, or prune branches from her taller bushes or trees-until it was too dark to see.
Whatever she planted grew as if by magic, and her fame as a grower of flowers spread over three counties. Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms – sunflowers, petunias, roses, dahlias, forsythia, spirea, delphiniums, verbena . . . and on and on.
And I remember people coming to my mother’s yard to be given cuttings from her flowers; I hear again the praise showered on her because whatever rocky soil she landed on, she turned into a garden. A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity, that to this day people drive by our house in Georgia-perfect strangers and imperfect strangers-and ask to stand or walk among my mother’s art.
I notice that it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible except as Creator: hand and eye. She is involved in work her soul must have. Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty.
Her face, as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life. She had handed down respect for the possibilities-and the will to grasp them.
For her, so hindered and intruded upon in so many ways, being an artist has still been a daily part of her life. This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work Black women have done for a very long time.
The loser edit, with all its savage cuts, is confirmation that you exist. The winner edit, even in its artifice, is a gesture toward optimism, the expectation of rewards waiting for that better self. Whenever he or she shows up.
Take the footage you need. Burn the rest.
I don’t know the name of my favorite novelist of all time, because they never wrote anything. They had no inkling they had a knack for writing, so instead channeled that talent into being really nice to family, friends and strangers. It seems like a better way to spend one’s time, and a higher art.
I’m really obsessed with the essay by Fredric Jameson called Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future? Basically, he’s thinking of this idea of science fiction and how it pre-determines as a society what we end up living out. He gives examples of J.G. Ballard, Stanley Kubrick films, and how aesthetically if we keep pushing an image, we keep seeing something, then maybe that’s how we start performing ourselves, or the way we think things should be.
When I started out making work, I always had this feeling that I had the power to create reality. And not in a way where it’s like a reality in your head, like fantasy, but by making work that people view and take on. I always felt like there was a very strong power in making representation. Growing up, my images of Black actors — the Black films that I wasn’t seeing — that’s what I wanted to make. That’s what I wanted to be, like the way that Jameson [supposes that] if you write a science fiction novel that is famous enough, it will predetermine the way the future looks. I think I try to do that with my work. I think a lot of the times in my work, I’m trying to inform viewers of the kind of viewers they can be. Like if you see a work, like “David,” who is actively doing something about his missing limb, about the trauma in real time, maybe watching that will give you some sort of idea of what you can do as a viewer, or what you can reject as a viewer.
My wife and I have a huge concentration of books that are on African history, African-American history, American history, African culture, all of those different aspects of the history Black people from around the the world. And if you look through the titles of the books, you’ll see that the range of subjects that they cover relative to Black history, culture, and also the kinds of stories that Black people tell is really broad. So, part of the reason some of those titles are there is to introduce some of those authors and some of those books to the art viewing public. The painting is as much an invitation to also come to know as it is a demonstration of the kind of conflicts in knowledge that somebody who has already arrived at this knowledge might experience.
Our conceptions of what constitutes the best that can be done in artwork still revolves around those paintings that are the foundation the art history, and those paintings all have a European origin so that our concept of what’s beautiful and what’s important operates within that realm as well. For me as an African American or Black person going to the museum and looking at those works, even though I like a lot of things I might be looking at, there really is a limit to your ability to appreciate things that don’t include you as a fundamental part of their value system. For me, the only way to really come to terms with that is to introduce images that contain Black figures – and not Black figures that are marginal in their position to the narrative – but central to the narrative.
I believe that my poems work best when violence simmers just under the surface. It’s more frightening, more threatening, to feel it is right beneath this polite, contained exterior, ready to burst. Take the poem “Meditation at Fifty Yards, Moving Target.” It’s a poem about guns and the eerie pleasure of target shooting, the power and the danger. Since gun control is a very bristly topic in this country – everyone has an opinion – our defense go up immediately. I wanted to circumvent all that by backing into the issue.
The personal story behind all this begins with the house fire, too. My husband and I took up target practice when a neighbor approached us after the fire and offered to teach us how to shoot. He said we should at least know something about self-defense. He was a retire high-ranking army officer. He started out from the standpoint of safety – here’s what you have to do to keep from shooting off your own toe; this is what you need to know in order not to hurt anyone. I didn’t want anything to do with the whole thing – forget it, I don’t want to hold the gun, this is horrible. But as I began firing, I felt something very interesting happening – an immense, unsettling pleasure, a strange sense of power and possibility. Now, I could have sat at my desk and denied those feelings, said no, this is wrong. But that doesn’t mean the sensation doesn’t exist, nonetheless. I think it’s important to acknowledge these kinds of feelings if we’re going to understand anything at all about controlling them.
I’m curious: do you feel like you have an authority over your writing? Or maybe I should ask, do you think that you are a good reader of your own writing? At what point do you let go of something you’ve written, and allow it to make its way in the world?
I think I’m a good reader of my own work. My right hand does know what my left hand is doing. But I wouldn’t imagine that I’m the best reader of my work. I think an intelligent and sympathetic critic can do as well as I can with the text. Some have done better. In response to questions at readings, I sometimes say to the audience member, “Your interpretation is as good as mine,” and I mean this sincerely. The text should have some openness, some volatility, some space for interpretations beyond your own. You send it out, and it’s no longer yours alone. And in writing, the dear wish is always to write something by which you outdistance your ordinary reach. The text is a telescope, or a spacecraft.