An Interview with jayy dodd
By Claire SchwartzJuly 27, 2017
dodd is a writer and editor uninterested in boundaries charted by the white literary establishment. In their sonically attuned and formally rigorous poetry, dodd navigates the conditions of the poem’s construction — “every poem is a death & each stanza an economy / built on an ocean floor covered in bones,” they write in “ars poetica” — while documenting the pleasures, violences, foreclosures, and possibilities of their own black trans femme presence. On Twitter, they post selfies, offer takes on RuPaul’s Drag Race, lift up the work of other black writers, and rebuke white supremacy and transmisogyny.
dodd’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, the Nashville Review, Teen Vogue, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. They are the author of [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press, 2016), Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017), and The Black Condition ft. Narcissus (Siren Song/CCM Press). They are a co-editor of Bettering American Poetry and a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellow. We spoke on Skype.
CLAIRE SCHWARTZ: You tweet, you write essays, and you’re a poet. Do you feel like Mannish Tongues is changing how people make their way to your work?
jayy dodd: I’m very blessed with how the book has shifted whatever one can understand as a profile. I don’t know what fame means as a qualitative thing, but I have consistently understood that I have an audience of some sort. I try to always be accountable to that. The size of my audience never really mattered to me. My parents are both ministers, so I believe that “where one or two are gathered, the lord will be revealed.” That’s a way of saying: where anyone is, the truth can happen. Whether I have an audience of five hundred or an audience of two — or now almost five thousand — I’m going to keep on being my best.
In an interview with Devin Kelly, you said: “the body is a text but not all text supports the body, so I think that’s the sacred work of poetry — to use text to create new bodies to read from.” Would you say more about the relationship between your poetry and the body?
In my poetry, I either want the voice to be so full that you hear the body it’s coming from or I want you to see the body that I’m preparing in the text. I think the more meta poems about the body are figuring out what I need to feel whole. The voice in those poems is speaking the body in the poem — my body — into existence.
For me, the urgency is that my body doesn’t feel very seen. I don’t see many people in my body. That was true even when I was male-identified, but it’s especially true now that I’ve begun transitioning. There are black queer poets. There are black genderqueer poets. But black trans poets? I can name two. Maybe three. But is there a wealth of phenomenal black poetry? Absolutely. Do I feel distant from that? Not at all. I am of this lineage, so these beautiful black works are spaces that leave my body hoping for more. Maybe there hasn’t been a time or place for me yet.
Alongside documenting your body, your work also charts negotiations with the terms of visibility. For example, your poem “Infinite Monkey Theorem” engages with the ways that certain kinds of speech are produced, (dis)credited, and (dis)allowed in various spaces.
Elocution has been something that I’ve always had in my family. My parents are ministers. My mom is a pageant queen. Also, I am from Los Angeles. Because of the way integration happened in our schools, Southern Californians across race have a more uniform dialect. That’s not a good or bad thing; it’s just a statement of fact. I went to a mostly white boarding school in Connecticut and then to Tufts.
So, I have this trained and familial lineage of elocution. I have this white, good-looking education. And the thing is: I never felt not-black. My mom is a black poet lesbian, so it was always: mad black, mad queer. I never wanted to be anything other than myself, but I could never understand what that was. I was away from home in high school. I had no context for myself. I came into my own body around skinny gay white boys. I was like, “Maybe this is close to what my life is going to be.” Thankfully, I had encounters that ruptured that illusion; but those encounters were also filled with trauma. In college, I started to radicalize — as someone’s grandfather would say. That’s when I really started to divest from these institutions, from American policy.
Over time, I realized that all these things that parts of my life had given me access to — and that I had invested in — were not sustainable. I didn’t care what I was good at saying. I didn’t care what I was good at selling. All my skills were being used for everything but my own liberation, my people’s liberation — things I was raised believing in. I had to ask myself: “What is my life in this context when the streets know?” Black people are the most expert people in this nation. We’ve had to be.
That reminds me of the epigraph to Mannish Tongues from Essex Hemphill’s “Cordon Negro”: “I’m faced daily with choosing violence / or a demeanor that saves every other life / but my own.”
After Langston Hughes, Essex Hemphill was the first black queer male poet I read. My mom raised me on black women poets, and there wasn’t a lot of space for me in the black women’s poetry that I was reading. That’s not a fault. They’re writing their bodies.
Then, in college, I read Essex Hemphill. His attention to the body hit me in so many ways. It was the danger of masculinity, the danger of blackness, the danger of black masculinity in America, the danger of the queer blackness. I created work in response to Hemphill and Hughes in my first book, [sugar in the tank], but there was often this way that I was speaking to them, not of or with them. Still, there are certain places where we could stand side by side. There’s a lot of femme language that black queer men use for kinships, for example. That always felt good.
Post-college and beginning to really reimagine my body, I still turn to those texts for how language fails. Language failed their bodies, too. That’s why I love them. That’s what I love about black work. Certain bodies in black work aren’t mine, but the violence they face speaks to me.
I’m thinking, too, of the lines in “Cordon Negro”: “I’m dying twice as fast / as any other American / between eighteen and thirty-five.” It was recently your 25th birthday — Happy birthday! — and you spoke about that as a threshold. You said that you hadn’t imagined living beyond 25. What does it feel like to now be in that space past the boundary of your recent imagination?
I’m happy you asked me now. I’ve been thinking about this. Now that I’m here, what am I going to do? Having the goal of 25, I felt like death was this impending thing. I dreaded not knowing what was going to take me out. It was almost like, “Please, universe, just do it.”
I think the turning point was the New Year coming into 2015. I went to a black church with my mom in DC. For the New Year service, everyone wrote down things they wanted to let go of. They had big gold goblets of fire in the church parking lot. We all lined up. We went outside. We burned what we wanted to let go of. Church was over.
I’ve been to so many kinds of services. Something about this felt like a different kind of black and a different kind of cosmic. I believe in energy. I believe in the host. I believe in power beyond our eyes. Seeing people of all ages invest in this ritual, I was like, “I’m going to put everything I’ve ever believed in into this right now.” I really did. And I came back to Boston, shifted. It wasn’t like, “I’m all of a sudden better now.” I just believed I could do it differently.
That shift was really important because between then and now two of my close friends — two black queer men — committed suicide. One committed suicide the spring after this New Year. I went to college with him. He overdosed. That slaughtered me. His birthday was a week before mine. Then, almost a year later, a friend from middle school committed suicide. It was a month before my birthday and about a week after his. So all our birthdays were in a six-week span. They both didn’t make 25. I felt that I had to. Because I wish they’d seen themselves possible. I know I don’t always see myself possible. Even in their deaths, they showed me a possibility. I want to honor that by becoming one for somebody else. I feel like I have a different set of resources to attempt that alive. So, 25 is for us.
Manuel Arturo Abreu writes: “What does it mean to mourn what never happened?” They ask us to consider not only people who have passed, but also the infinite possibilities foreclosed for each of us as we move through the world. What is the eulogy doing as a form in your book? I’m thinking especially of the last poem: “A Eulogy for Myself, the Night (after Pepper LaBeija).”
Pepper LaBeija was the first future I ever saw for myself. I saw her in Paris Is Burning. I don’t even think I was 13 yet. My mom said, “You need to watch this.” And I was just like, “Oh my god!”
Even when I was a boy, I wanted to be as pretty and maternal as Pepper LaBeija. I didn’t know what non-binary was. And Pepper LaBeija didn’t say, “I’m a non-binary person.” She probably would have said “trans” — or whatever language was there. No, you were beyond gender. You were a parent. You were a figure. You were razor-bumps and red lip. You were all of it. I was like: I want to be like that. I didn’t have language for it. And to imagine how she didn’t have language for it either …
In “A Eulogy for Myself, the Night,” I’m eulogizing what she made of her body because that’s what I mourn. Pepper LaBeija made her body. Her walking the runway is me writing a poem. She manifested, crafted, painted, sewed, stitched, padded. I line broke, dashed, italicized. The confidence to — despite the world — know who are you are in your work and also to know who you are in this private home sense is why I feel for her. I connect to her deeply.
The eulogy works as a way to put to rest the violence. There are ways to discuss and attack violence, but once violence has already taken its course, how you mourn is the final note. How you mourn may be even more important than how you write the history.
In this poem, the bridge I want to build between Pepper LaBeija and myself is the death of a body that failed both of us and a memorial that marks all else as capable between us.
Would you say more about this idea of the body that failed both of you?
Pepper LaBeija was glamorous, done-up, and gorgeous. She also showed herself every day. She wasn’t trying to pass as anything but Pepper LaBeija. And so her body will always fail her in a way — because even if she didn’t have a problem with her black masculinity, it was read onto her, given to her, whether she wanted it or not. I feel the same way. I’m not a black man, but when I walk down the street, I’m still six feet and five inches. I look this way. Even when I’m in my highest femme, I know I’m a black man to somebody on the street. So I think that our bodies fail us in this functional way. But I know Pepper LaBeija lived. I know she lived all that she was.
In the book’s opening poem, you write: “Because there is always a body in a poem, my body is Black, soft / some kind-of-attempt at here. / … / This, my offering.” In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine writes: “[T]he poem is that — Here. I am here. This conflation of solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence.” What does this idea of here, of offering, mean for you?
That’s actually an email. It is word for word what I sent when I submitted my manuscript [to Platypus Press] — except “some kind-of-attempt at here” was “some kind-of-attempt at man.” I was still male-identified at the time, and I didn’t know what to do with that. Right before it went to print, the editors asked if they could use the email for the opening of the book. I changed “man” to “here.”
Sometimes I believe my gender is the future. But I think I have to call it what it is, which is now. It’s here. There are so many misdocumentations of non-binariness. Non-binary beings have been; but the language for us is limited. I feel like here and now are two resources I have to think about gender work — to locate it all as present, urgent. I can imagine futures for my gender, but I also don’t need to. I can hope things are different for gender in the world, but my gender is this. Is alive. Is black. Is here. Is now.
And thinking about offering … By writing about the black body in English, I’m always offering it up to someone who has more control over it than I do. The conceit of me being a poet in this way — in this format, giving interviews; all of that — is that I know I’m offering up my body. I’m up for judgment. I’m up for debate.
At the same time, there’s a lineage of black art and black story that I want to fortify and continue to make irrefutable. My work is my offering to that, too.
Several of the poems in this book make explicit that negotiation. For example, in “ars poetica,” you name the connection between poetry and the Middle Passage, poetry and economies of blackness. Then, you turn to masturbation. Would you say a little bit about that poem and what it’s doing in the center of the book?
“ars poetica” is right in the middle of the book because by the time you get there, you’ll understand: there’s a historic, a black, a traumatic, but also a deeply erotic and pleasured body that I’ve created. This poem encapsulates all of that. For me, “ars poetica” is a poem in three parts, even though it’s visually in two. The first section: my blackness; the annoyance that I have to use English in this way. That opens into the harvest part: “…if the jaw learns to unhinge: how will it hang – / heavy & full, ripe fig on low branch?” In some poems, I’m primarily interrogating language. It somehow becomes black, but I’m not thinking about it in that way. So the harvest section in “ars poetica” goes back to: Even in those language contexts, you’re still thinking about blackness.
The second stanza — “every poem is masturbation” — breaks the fourth wall: I’m switching this up here because I know you’re watching. I’ve known the whole time. Don’t think I didn’t know. It could have been, “Every poem is pleasure.” But it’s: “I’m pleasuring myself now. And I want you to watch because you’re going to watch anyway.” That kind of self-awareness is definitely tongue in cheek, but more so, it’s that I don’t want the reader to think I don’t know they’re reading. Never. I can’t afford for the reader to sleep on my awareness that I’m being consumed; the moment that you do, I’m devoured.
That you take stock of the ways you are being consumed even as your work transforms the conditions of consumption makes me think of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits. Cave began making the Soundsuits — sculptural forms that mask the body — in the wake of the Rodney King riots in response to the vulnerability of black people. By making strange the human form, the Soundsuits inaugurate new possibilities for relation. Your poem after Cave, “Speak Louder,” is comprised of small congregations of words extending down and across the page. Could you talk a bit about ideas of closeness and distance as they figure into your work?
Closeness always feels fictitious in a way. I think about closeness even in terms of family and kin. There’s some kin who I can’t speak to. And there are people who are not blood who I would die for in a moment. What you are surrounded by can only tell so much.
I think about distance in terms of: How far can our frequency travel? I think about how when you’re driving on the highway, you have to tune the radio to get it just right; a little bit further out, you may have to tune it again.
In my work, I can only imagine the distance. The best I can imagine is in pieces and in parts. Then you can collect the pieces; read them closely; and see the transmission. I’m constantly aware that there’s a distance — whether a safe one of not — between myself and the reader. Ultimately, I just try to be strategic as hell about how I make myself plain. Too plain, and anyone could have me. Not plain enough, and those who need me won’t.
Your poem “scene: waking up next to John Keats after a pleasant evening” also plays with proximity. The poem stages an intimacy with the Romantic poet. You repurpose Keats’s concept of “negative capability” — which describes the capacity of great artists to pursue a vision of beauty that leads them into uncertainty — to describe your own subjectivity.
When I learned about negative capability, I was like, “This is what I am.” I am the embodiment of the unknown, the mystery. There is no reason I should be here. I transcend the need for reason.
This dude at a party asked, “Are you a man or woman?” I’m like, “I’m your question.” That’s as whole as I can be right now. I don’t love the term non-binary. I don’t feel freer saying “non-binary” because the binary’s still there. I know it’s there. You know it’s there. So, why are we lying about it? I like post-gender the best. Maybe. But all that language fails me often, so whenever someone asks, my response is, “I am your question.” It is yours. I don’t have a question. You do. And your question, that is who I am.
Would you say more about transcending the need for reason — casting off the demand for sense?
Common sense is a misnomer. Common to who? For what? The things that commonly happen for people — the ways that people understand things — are so varied. The idea of common sense is highly uninterrogated. The English language is nonsense. It is an amalgamation of every violent motherfucker ever trying to bequeath something to themselves. And then douse it in a black dialect and sell it as cool. In one way, I love that. I love that language is so mutable. Cool. Let’s fuck it up.
But language can be so violent. For example, just before we started this talk, The New Yorker tweeted about Morgan Parker’s book. It said, “crowded with influences.” Not “brimming with.” Even “flooded” has some sort of oozing connotation. But “crowded”? What I’m hearing is: You feel claustrophobic by all that black shit she did. “That shit was too black.” You can’t say that. So, you decide to code your white discomfort as cool.
Someone as acclaimed as this critic calls one of the most important books of poetry in this century “crowded”? Crowded with what? Fact? Documentation of actual life? I’m sorry it’s not crowded with pastorals about trees from stolen land. I’m sorry talking about Xanax and your dog and trying to make it home at night makes you feel crowded. Do you not hear yourselves making us sound scary and all-consuming and too much?
I don’t think I’ve read a single review of Morgan’s work written by a non-black person that was not in some way wildly violent. It’s never about her craft, her command of language. It’s never that. How about her attention to form and voice and line break? Her use of Easter eggs across her work? A whole world that she built for you, and all you can say is, “crowded”?
That tweet about Morgan Parker’s work made me think of the black women kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train — all these sites where whiteness imagines blackness as excessive. It is, as you said — among other things — a failure of language. White supremacy is bad at language. The gender binary is bad at language. What, then, are some of the richer resources you find for your language and your work?
The poet Kamden Hilliard. English is an understatement of what their poems are written in. The construction of the words disregards so much that once it is disregarded, you see how unnecessary it is. It is legible — actually, “legible” is the wrong word. There’s not even a word to describe the sensation of not having to translate untranslatable speech. Their work can and, in some ways, must live on the page because when it’s read out loud you wouldn’t hear all the language that you see on the page — the ways they make words from their parts. I love their work.
And Aziza Barnes. The cadence of how they write is such a great translation of their distinct conversational voice and dialect. It never feels like gaudy or heavy, and they’re out here hitting some hard, serious points across so many necessary sites.
I think my writing voice and reading voice are fairly similar. When I write, I imagine a congregation, but also a conjuring. And when I’m talking, I don’t have to. I write how I pray. But it’s not far from how I speak. It’s a certain kind of speech I have that I basically use for poems and prayer.
That alignment between poetry and prayer is such a beautiful image that at once foregrounds the intimacy of making and the sacredness of reception. Where has Mannish Tongues been received that moves you?
A non-binary black person did a whole thread on Twitter about Mannish Tongues. They didn’t even tag me. They had never seen themselves reflected, and then they read this. That’s what I’m grateful for. I’m not grateful for any scholarship money. I’m not grateful for any publication. All y’all owe me too much for me to be grateful to you yet. I’m grateful that I’m alive enough to write this book and that it found that person. That’s what I’m grateful for.
Claire Schwartz is a PhD candidate in African American Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale. Her poetry has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, the Massachusetts Review, Prairie Schooner, and Waxwing, and her essays, reviews, and interviews in Electric Literature, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
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