Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving

The author, poet and curator Anaïs Duplan shares a thoughtful insight into his recent essay, explaining how he strives to create community and understanding through his work

Photography by Ally Caple

How did you get to where you are today?

I was born in Haiti, i came to the Unites States around H3 and, besides a three-year stint living with my mother in Havana, Cuba, I’ve mostly been on the East Coast, between Boston and Brooklyn. I went to school as an undergrad at Bennington College, which is where I teach now, and I studied poetry and socio linguistics. Then I went to grad school for poetry at Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I was working for visual artists before I went to Bennington, and I transferred from there to RISD art school, and realised that I preferred working for artists than making art myself. 

Even though I’ve worked mostly as an arts worker at different arts organisations, I draw a lot of inspiration from visual artists – Black digital media artists both within visual arts but also music. I had a music journalism period, and I draw inspiration from that in my teaching. I’m a post-colonial literary professor at Bennington, and it’s pretty cool to be teaching where I went to school. It’s a cool way to incorporate some of my background as an artist worker.

What inspired you to become an author, poet and curator? Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

I do not remember the first thing I ever wrote, but I will say that, because I transferred to Bennington from another school, I was loafing around for a while between disciplines. Bennington  doesn’t really have majors – you can create your own course of study. So I left the visual arts, so to speak, or realistically it just wasn’t what i wanted to do. I was doing sociology and anthropology and realised I had an interest in language and those areas, so I was hovering around socio linguistics and discourse studies for a while. It was in that moment that I took a poetry class on a whim, and to get into class you had to apply with a packet of poems and I remember scrounging around on my computer trying to see if anything looked remotely poem-like. I found some old diaristic journal writing and put it into some stanzas and I got in. I was surprised to find my professor Michael Dumanis, who I teach alongside at Bennington, saw potential in my work and encouraged me to pursue poetry. I thought it was crazy, but here we are.

What drives your writing? Are there any specific elements, moment or experiences that influence you to pick up a pen and paper?

When I first started writing, it was a lot about having the space to say and think about things that I felt like I didn’t have in the rest of my life – in particular thinking about family dynamics, selfhood, relationships, gender, sexuality and all of that. Later on, I became really interested in writing about work that other artists and writers in my community were doing and my arts worker career path joined with my writer path.

What compelled you to write your essay, Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving (Or, a Foundation for Artful Intervention). What narratives are you hoping to share?

I became interested in writing work in conversation with my community. With the essay Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving, the piece’s statement is in the title; it’s an essay that I hope folks will try to read musically rather than try to read intellectually. By that I mean there’s a body and lineage of Black writers – Édourard Glissant, Fred Moten, Simone Wright to name a few – there’s a bunch who are in this space between poetry and theory. When we’re the space of the poem, we expect to read for affect and emotion; how does this part make me feel? But then, when we get into the world of theory or prose paragraphs, we switch into this way that we’ve been tried to read, which is more of a white, western hierarchal form of knowledge production where there are experts and people who don’t know. If instead we operate through this idea from Glissant, “to consent not to be a single being”, then we’re starting from a plan of already being in a community and already being understanding of one another. Then the writing is just an opportunity to perceive one another and to be together, like a relationality. The essay was about trying to write in a way that was inspired by those writers who I saw doing more affect-driven theoretical writing. 

What’s your personal relationship to music like?

I love music – I don’t make it and I’ve never really tried to make it, except I had an acoustic guitar in high school. I respect music and musicians a lot, and I’m very sensitive to sound which serves the practice of poetry. I hope that the audience will respond to the essay by reading musically, perhaps feeling a sense of relationality, community or finding resonance with the piece – in particular feeling a sense of permission for affect and emotion rather than reading with the mind.

How do you hope your audience will respond to this essay, what can they learn or feel? 

A main goal of mine as a writer is to try to write work that gives people permission to operate through the intelligence of the emotions. I don’t write fiction, I wish I could; I have a lot of respect for fiction writers. But in terms of poetry and essay, and the space in between – which I’ve been playing with lately – I would definitely say that’s a prime space for exploring what it means to understand information through the emotions rather than through the mind.

What’s next for you, any upcoming plans or projects?

Coming up next, I am writing a book for an academic press on the history of Black experimental documents. It’s my first time writing a book for an academic press, so I’m excited to try to explore the tension in the space, staying true to my poetry background but also writing prose that will work for a more academic audience.


An extract of Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving can be read here.