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
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. Benningtondoesn’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.
The poet, curator and artist shares an extract from his essay Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving (Or, a Foundation for Artful Intervention). An interview with the author will be released in the coming weeks
Music is a vehicle for perceiving. We demand music. The music of the soul connotes the body, thought, intervention, silence. We can’t be the speakers of our bodies; we’re already spoken for. We instead tune into, smile upon, the parcels of ourselves that are beaten up by historicity. To live, thrive, we don’t demand to not be beaten up. Instead we wield our beaten selves in the arms of the rest of our bodies. Sit up proud, happy. We made it here today. Go on.
Wow, it’s incredible to be drawn-out, to read ourselves from outside within the art of peace, freedom. If we embrace living in clarity and knowledge, then it behooves us to receive our social landscape more fully. What attributes do we project onto experience? Do we perceive that being alive is embraceable? Do we take refuge in what we know, using this refuge as a free space from which to receive each other? Is there a suggestion, here, that others might not see that we come from what we know? That others might not even see how we come from what we know?
Romantic encounters create a self-reflective sense. Our lovers have a Blackness we ourselves would like to have, actively strive toward. Further lovers embody the Blackness of ours we’ve tried to repress. In either case, our encounters with romance bring us into intimate contact with our joining, susceptibility. Submission and dominance get played out in different arrangements, depending on our relationship with our sexual partners. The reflexive meaning of submission and dominance: what it means to be dominated changes depending on our relationship with our partners: our relationship with their position, who they channel down through the centuries, their position in relation to us. Submitting to our lovers is submission to their Blackness. We reconcile to let those attributes take precedence over our own. We reconcile, to be dominated by our ancestors and, in a consensual sexual relationship, embrace being dominated by them. Or, we dominate our partners, and our own Blackness prevails.
What materialises when our lover has attributes that shuffle us into vulnerability? Vulnerability is complete and presents us with the momentum needed to receive. We have those defence mechanisms, our angels. We try to save ourselves from insult. Our defence mechanisms are sophisticated, useful. It isn’t wretched to try to recover our bodies from harm—it’s smart! But the mechanisms we use to cover ourselves are often outdated, causing us harm. We’re sabotaging our bodies. We don’t know when we’re doing it. We can’t be honest.
Our orientation to life is to the detriment of our unvoiced desires. Soul is an appearance, a glimmer, a smile. If we’re patient, we get to its essence. Our souls bring revelations to the surface in order to foreground information they deem primary to our survival. Do we have the nerve to listen? Are we ready to drive with trouble? The negative emotions are there to talk with us. Their negativity is what signals that we should pull inwardly, into slowness. So far as negativity gives positivity meaning, the negative emotions are not wretched, not to be resisted. On the contrary, resisting negativity proliferates it by authorising it to go undealt with. Unprocessed pain manifests through unconscious behaviour. Resisting negativity, refusing to perceive it, means it proliferates. It’s been authorised to go undealt with. It transforms, phase-changes, metamorphoses, joining the ecosystem of our life, though remaining mysterious, even alien, to us. Do we ever think about why we dream of controlling our bodies? Do we think through what we’re afraid of: resurgence, uncontrollable stories passed through, seated in us, or do we think through unrequited love?
We’ve never understood what myths really are. We know what a story is. We know a story is told across cultures, temporalities (and inside a culture, across its generations). But what moves a myth, generates the scale of its reach? How does it generate meaning for a culture as a whole? The men, the myth, the legends? There’s no style or method of walking around that will not pull out some sort of ancestral translation from our bodies. I walked down to the parking garage and it was cold. I had washed my skin with cold water that morning.
We can get aroused by art. Art as Blackness, as recreation. Is valuing Blackness the parallel of possessing it? We possess Blackness in greater or lesser degrees. To the extent to which we value those Blacknesses, we voice our ancestors.
Among folks in public, who have nothing to do with each other, somehow, small synchronicities, repetitions, are materialising. They are echoing each other, mirroring, and bonding. We are the joint apparatus of our bodies, labouring in tandem to keep us free, to help us survive. When we’ve built up a reservoir inside our bodies of mutual perceiving, we are able to tolerate the sense of being wrong ourselves. We don’t fight what is materialising in us; we consent to our situation first. We labor to enrich our situation from a place of mutual aspiration.
Peace proceeds from contentment; trust that the desired result does arise. We’d like to be replete immediately, to get rid of what we hold to be our negative attributes. We can’t get along with being flawed; we can’t bear the view/idea that we can’t fix our flaws right this moment. We’re not who we dreamed to be. We don’t authorise the cycle of undergoing: checking our bodies with judgment, rush, and anger. Can we tolerate the vision of our own failure? Be careful of smoothing over what is the field of failure, meaning, the place of unimaginability, and beyondness. Inside our bodies is the source of our creativity, rooted in the field of failure.
We serve our bodies with a clear, kind, wet, responsive disposition. If we’re impatient, we should practice not having views. If we’re too startled, we should practice acting on our views. Do we have to be successful when we struggle? The puzzle of it all is when we “get what we dreamed of”; it doesn’t seem satisfying. What we dreamed of is much more complicated.
Art is the way we proceed across time, the puzzles we read in each other. What does it take to shuffle, to forge a soulful connection? Are situations of conflict driven by personality flaws? By the inner intervention of personality flaws within each? By the resistance of Blackness to a kind of Blackness which it deems nonconsensual? By the drive to cover up what reads as not okay, incomplete—that’s to say, the ideological? Be a reinforcement or re-embodiment of the Blackness we wish to read reified in experience. This is, after all, a Blackness that gathers around itself.
We continue to feed the myth of our bodies to our bodies in order to survive. Who are we? We can get closer to the answer to this question when we hear out what drives our hurt.
This text is an extract taken from Music is a Vehicle for Perceiving (Or, a Foundation for Artful Intervention), written by Anaïs Duplan and published on Topical Cream on 1 December 2021
Port has partnered with Closed for a series of stories profiling poets who are encouraging social change through their work. We talkedto Wilson Oryema about language, climate change and making fashion sustainable
“Whether painted or untouched,
an honest depiction, or a bunch of fluff,
all things carry the same value under the blazing sun.”
– Wilson Oryema
Asked what the primary stimulus for his writing is, Wilson Oryema calmly replies, “Life.” The London-based poet, filmmaker, environmental activist and model – a potentially dizzying combination for some, but not him – finds he can only authentically write on subjects he’s personally experienced: “I’ve tried to do various things in my life outside of poetry and they never work out unless I’m putting 100% of myself into it. For it to make sense, emotionally, it has to be honest, understood and lived.”
Oryema’s focus covers capitalism, modern masculinity and most frequently, how we can adopt more sustainable practices for the planet. His recently published collection of poetry, Wait, meditates on the complex web of constant consumption in the 21st Century, urging us to halt before moving onto the next thing held briefly in our hands. “The voice is such a powerful instrument,” he notes, “and poetry is a great medium because it exists between reems of text and nothing at all. It’s punchy. It gets to the point.” I enquire whether poetry’s resurgence in the digital age is in thanks partly due to its brevity? “It definitely taps into the contemporary brain of quick consumption which has gotten used to headlines, advertisements, skimming information. If you look at the Bible – in the beginning was the word. People can’t escape language. The voice is the first medium of communication they come into contact with and it remains the most important means to define ourselves.”
With the UK Prime Minister recently dismissing the danger of inflammatory language – traitor, surrender, betrayal – as “humbug”, how political language is targeted and weaponised is causing a great deal of public anxiety and division. Oryema reflects that this is nothing new: “After WWII, the propaganda writer Edward Bernays introduced a switch in language through his use of public relations and advertising. You can feel that influence in politics now, through the aesthetically pleasing politician, reliance on focus groups, relentless slogans. A faux-science has been built around language manipulation and we’re in a place now where new levels of mastery have been unlocked, but most people are unaware of the control or influence they’re being exposed to. We know how to instil feelings effectively, what buttons to press. There’s a great Drake lyric which comes to mind – ‘Tell me lies, make it sound good.’”
Oryema went from working at a charity to walking the runway at Paris Fashion Week in a matter of weeks. Scouted on his lunch break, he has gone on to work with Edward Enninful, Hugo Boss and extensively with designer Grace Wales Bonner, who he counts as “an older sister”. In a previous interview he knowingly described himself as a “walking contradiction”, both part of the one of the biggest polluting industries in the world, but separate enough to offer a critical perspective. By only choosing to work with brands aligned with his values, it’s clear he feels he can best shape the world of fashion from within, using his work as a platform for change.
His latest documentary examines the toxic chemicals and natural fibres in fashion manufacturing and their unseen effects on the human body. “In the production process, there’s about 8,000 different types of chemicals that clothes are exposed to through their entire manufacturing, from farm to store,” he explains. “We have millions of pores, composed of billions of trillions of cells, so we’re constantly absorbing fibres around us. We’ll think about the environmental cost of the fashion industry, but don’t typically think about the dangers of petrochemicals directly on our body. How do we reconcile that? Are there any effects? The documentary delves into this and looks at some of the chemicals used, as well as alternatives that can reduce your risk. We have to take care take care of our surrounding environment, but also not lose sight of self-care, protecting the human body.”
Having just joined the Global Fashion Agenda, a forum arguing for a change in how clothing is produced, marketed and consumed, Oryema has publicly stated that the future of fashion will be rooted in accountability. Expanding on this, he rationalises that, “with the advent of the information age, the internet, connected devices, the brightness of our screens has reduced the amount of darkness in the world. There’s nothing that isn’t being captured or tracked in some way, whether that’s the end user or back end. Traceability is now becoming a big trend and we’re coming to a point where we’ll be able to track everything, with new companies like EON creating digital identities for clothes. Once these things become totally visible, when parties have to take ownership of their production – how much waste you’re producing, how many physical stores you own, how you treat your workers – there’s going to be no dark spaces to hide secrets. This transparency will lead to much more accountability.”
Originally born in Clapham, Oryema grew up in Brixton surrounded by British Red Cross research and pamphlets from the Salvation Army due to his mother working for both, in addition to a number of other charities. Did this emphasis on care – for others, for the world at large – subconsciously shape him? “Naturally we are the sum of our environment and our surroundings. I’ve somehow strolled into a space where I’m considered an activist or environmentalist. Whatever I’m doing, though, I don’t see any way forward for myself that isn’t improving my surroundings. Whether it’s my writing or photography or film, I want to play a role in creating social change. Art has this ability to reach people who wouldn’t necessarily come into contact with or care about issues like climate change. I want to contribute new perspectives.”
Last year saw six million citizens the world over join in a mass global climate strike. I ask whether this is an encouraging sign, and just how optimistic he is about stemming the damages brought by climate change? “This may come as a shock, but I am supremely hopeful,” he replies. “Lots is already being done and I can see so much promise in people right now. There was a recent news story about a schoolchild committing suicide because they were so scared of climate change. If people are bullied or scared into thinking they’re the cause, if you back people into a corner, you’ll naturally evoke feelings of paralysis and apathy. Problems are never solved through fear. Long term thinking relies on hope – we have to stay calm.”
Authors Mia Couto and Julián Fuks reflect on their respective roles in the Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, founded by Rolex to foster communication and development across the arts
The unique relationship between mentor and protégé has been crucial to some of the most significant developments in art and science. Plato’s dialogues with his master Socrates, for example, laid the foundation for much of Western philosophy, while Humphry Davy’s mentorship of the young, impoverished Michael Faraday ensured he had the education and experience to go on to invent the electric motor.
Founded in 2002 by luxury watch brand Rolex, the Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative seeks to continue this rich tradition by pairing and supporting a new set of mentors and protégés across dance, film, literature, music, theatre, visual arts and architecture in each two year cycle. With previous participants including the architect Sir David Chipperfeld, the director Alfonso Cuarón and the composer Philip Glass, the initiative has helped to enrich the dialogue between artists of different generations and cultures, as well as to revive the essential relationship between the mentor and protégé.
In literature alone, it is clear that the programme has played a pivotal role in developing new talent. Naomi Alderman, for instance, who was the 2012-13 protégé, and whose mentor was the celebrated writer Margaret Atwood, this year won the world’s leading prize for English-language fiction by women. Also this year, the 2010-11 protégé, Tracy K. Smith, received the highest honour for poetry in the United States of America, having been appointed Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress. Here, some of the latest participants in the programme – Mozambican writer Mia Couto and Brazilian author and translator Julián Fuks – reflect on why they became involved in the programme and what the roles of mentor and protégé mean to them.
The Mentor – Mia Couto
The main thing I can pass on as a mentor is to not be afraid of making mistakes. Sometimes beauty is born of failure and without mistakes we wouldn’t have life. Young writers are so obsessed with writing well, but nobody really knows what writing well involves.
I chose to work with Julián specifically because he wanted to explore other territories and to change his practice. Our approach to writing is completely different. I’m driven by beauty and a passion for characters, characters who are far away from me. In Julián’s case, he is the character. He thinks before he dreams. These differences make a good combination in our roles as mentor and protégé. Julián and I speak the same language and of course there is both a familiarity and some sense of foreignness, but that allows us to venture deeper into our relationship.
I don’t necessarily see the role of the mentor as someone in a superior position, with more knowledge to pass on. Nobody really has any experience when it comes to writing; it’s just a process of beginning over and over again. Instead, what is useful for the protégé is in gaining insight into the processes of a more seasoned writer. I wanted to show Julián the early stages of my writing process: my hesitations, fears and my corrections.
We exchanged material at its raw stage, which was useful for both of us. The relationship of the mentor and protégé can be reciprocal, and in many ways Julián is also my mentor. He is a good judge of what is excessive, for example. I’m a poet as well as writing prose, and sometimes I write with too much poetic freedom. He helps me to know when to stop, which is just as important as knowing where to start.
The Protégé – Julián Fuks
A writer should always be attempting to transform themselves. I thought this programme was a good opportunity to become a different kind of writer, to become more creative and poetic, and Mia is the perfect person to help with this. Although there are differences in the way we write, we are similar in the way we relate to the world ideologically. I was born in Brazil during my parents’ exile from Argentina and Mia was born during his parents’ exile from Portugal. Brazil and Mozambique are very different countries, but because of colonisation and the fact that we are both linked to Portugal, there is some common identity.
At the beginning of my relationship with Mia, I was used to writing in a very obsessive and rigorous way, trying to bring precision to every sentence, every paragraph I wrote. But rather than developing this, I discovered that Mia doesn’t have this kind of control; as he says, most of the time he doesn’t know where he is going. He kindly showed me his first drafts, which often look nothing like his final work, and showed me how I could loosen my control, to free my writing from my meticulous processes. It’s something you could only do with such an accomplished writer and someone with so much experience.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought about having a mentor before I was approached for the programme. When I began to write, I just wrote and tried to learn from reading; there weren’t really any schools or teachers for writing. But then working with a mentor is not a simple process of teaching; it’s much more than that. It becomes a different type of experience, another way of looking at things. Creating this dialogue between writers has been important not only to exchange visions of literature, but visions of the world.
This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.
The Rolex Arts Weekend – featuring public events, including world premieres, with the programme’s participants, including Mia Couto, Philip Glass and Sir David Chipperfield – will take place in Berlin on the 3rd and 4th February 2018.