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
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of ‘The Outsider’, we pay tribute to the radical writer and his influential thoughts on the meaning of life – or rather, the positive lack of it
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I don’t know.” So begins Albert Camus’ debut novel, L’Etranger – two sentences that have come to define The Outsider (published as The Stranger in the US) for the 75 years since its seminal publication. Why? Because within them lies the novel’s central philosophical question: how do we confront the idea that human life has no meaning? And how does society attempt to impose rational order where there is none?
Born in 1913 in French Algeria, Camus was the chief architect of the paradox of the absurd, which at its root, questions how we live with the knowledge of our own meaningless. Nihilism, for Camus, was not the answer. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, before dying in a car crash in 1960 at the age of just 46. With his good looks and charisma, the writer became, over the course of his life and since, an intellectual celebrity who embodied the ideas that he promoted. Though loathing the label, he gave existentialism a fashionable edge – so much so that he was shot by Cecil Beaton for Vogue in 1946.
Meursault, the anti-hero of The Outsider drifts through the novel with cold, emotional distance; he is incapable of empathy, perennially bored with life, and is unflinchingly honest about both of these things. Despite his detachment, the character of Meursault remains just as absorbing as Camus himself by embodying the sense of alienation that we all feel sometimes.
“People all over the world connect the book to their coming of age, to grappling with the toughest questions of existence,” writes Yale scholar Alice Kaplan in her new ‘biography’ of the novel, Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic. “The absence of depth in Meursault, his strange indifference, has paradoxically drawn readers to him, since it’s natural to hunger for understanding when it’s withheld,” Kaplan continues.
But while Meursault floats through his existential angst, Camus was able to use his philosophy of the absurd as an excuse to enjoy himself with ever greater intensity. He dated a string of actresses, befriended intellectuals and bohemians, was fascinated by football, loved smoking (he even named his cat ‘Cigarette’), dressed well, and wrote essays on the importance of sunshine and nakedness.
As he once famously said: “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”