Creation for Survival: A Conversation with Kendra Sullivan

Celina Su interviews Kendra Sullivan about “Reps.”

By Celina SuJune 30, 2024

Creation for Survival: A Conversation with Kendra Sullivan

Reps by Kendra Sullivan. Ugly Duckling Presse. 224 pages.

KENDRA SULLIVAN IS a doer. We first met in 2015, as part of a racial justice and public education working group with Jeanne Theoharis, Ujju Aggarwal, and Brian Jones. To me, Kendra is exceptional in how she follows through—creating social infrastructures of care, working to meet people’s material needs, and modeling intellectual curiosity, in the sorts of administrative work that many people find soul-numbing at best. As she once noted, she works to “imbue institutional labor with an ethos of care,” and it shows. 

I don’t get to see Kendra IRL often, but somehow, we have managed to collaborate not only on one-off projects and programs but also on some longer-running ones. Among these is the Adjunct Incubator that Mary N. Taylor, Aggarwal, Prithi Kanakamedala, Kendra, and I co-founded, supporting the significant scholarly, creative, and pedagogical work of adjuncts teaching in the humanities and humanistic social sciences across CUNY. At the height of our respective quarantines during the pandemic, Kendra and I created a little LISTSERV for practicing poets who are also new mothers. The next year, we began writing and accountability sessions with scholars working on writing projects, who were also new parents. That group continues to meet regularly. Kendra and I also developed Just Research: Study, Struggle, Solidarity, a workshop series on conducting public scholarship and democratizing the production of knowledge. 

For two people who identify as poets, we rarely broach the subject of poetry—if it is defined as a genre of literature known for its arrangement of meaning, sound, and musicality. But if poetry is instead defined as a dialogic attempt to hold complexity, to hold in the present imaginaries from the past and the future, then it pervades all of our interactions. 

Kendra fuses together the politics of redistribution, representation, and recognition (drawing upon the critical theorist Nancy Fraser’s formulations of justice). Her orientation toward poetry as comradely time travel exposes language as a way of thinking. In 2020, I wrote an essay for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog partly as a letter to her, in which I wonder out loud about the material conditions of cultural production, and how parenthood threw me for a loop and forced me to rethink both my aesthetic forms of choice and my politics of attention and care. 

The recent publication of Kendra’s first full-length book, the poetry collection Reps (Ugly Duckling Presse), felt like an auspicious occasion to continue our conversation. 

One afternoon in May, Kendra and I chatted over Zoom. At the end of the appointed hour, we rushed off to pick up our kids from their respective after-school programs. 


CELINA SU: Where are you now? What are you up to this week? 

KENDRA SULLIVAN: I’m in my office at the Center for the Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center, where we met nearly a decade ago! Tonight Dr. Dána-Ain Davis, author of Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (2019) and director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society, is setting up for their end-of-term celebrations. Space is scarce and we share. This week I’ve been working closely with my colleagues Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, Jazmyn Blackburn, and Alan Minor to develop our new NYC Climate Justice Hub Academy and Fellowship Program, a yearlong immersive training platform co-led by our community partners at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA). The goal is to support CUNY students in their efforts to gain a foothold in climate justice spaces in NYC and New York State, effectively staffing the grassroots with CUNY students. We hope to create a leadership vine, a green metaphor to replace “pipeline,” which manages to call to mind both prison and oil infrastructure, neither of which have any place in higher education discourses. We borrow the term from Elizabeth Yeampierre at UPROSE.

You are clearly someone who works in community, in different ways and across domains. Reps, too, feels like a work for and of community. Can you talk about the communities you’re engaging? 

The book has three sections that speak to three discrete but interconnected communities. “Exercises Against Empathy” finds voice in the din of literary, academic, and artistic forebears—and contemporaries, of course. It converses text-to-text, rather than person-to-person.

Who are your poetry forebears? 

I’ve been allowed to be and behave like a poet in a leadership position because poets I’ve known personally through my work here—Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Ammiel Alcalay, and Jimmie Durham, who introduced me to the work of Jack D. Forbes, a poet who founded a tribal college named D-Q University, and CUNY poets who I haven’t known, like Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich—came first. These ancestors traveled pathways that allow me to inhabit institutions as a poet, and a mother, for that matter.

Given the title of this first section, I’m curious about your relationship to empathy. I am often drawn to exercises of dwelling with the near-interiority of someone else. At the same time, I'm deeply suspicious of common uses of empathy. To me, they often reify liberal deservingness and exclusion, even if inadvertently so. Policymakers sometimes empathize with someone a bit more like them, rendering them the exception to a rule of austerity. What do you have against empathy?

“Exercises” is an inquiry into the conditions that allow humans to divorce themselves from compassionate action. I’m very much for empathy when the feeling state is metabolized as direct intervention or capacity-building, working with whole people to treat broken systems, not the other way around. Empathy does risk sentimentalizing other people’s struggles, but only if one doesn’t stop to locate oneself inside that struggle and act at appropriate scale, by which I mean the scale appropriate to your realm of influence.

This highlights how your poems speak of the simultaneous precarity and necessity of being in community—paying tribute without exploitation, acknowledging that cultural production is never born out of the artifice of the individual. Communities are quite present in the second and third sections of Reps too. Can you say more about them? 

The second section is “A Typology of Possible Biographies.” The texture and tone of this section is soldered in friendship.

I was wondering about how these came about! The first poem, “Alex,” includes the following lines:

A story about children
reading Winnicott out loud
after “lights out” […]

A story about how theory in action
Answers the question “what else”
(is possible)

A story about the ways children theorize

A story about veins
of milk pulsing in stone

These lines feel deeply personal but deviate from conventions regarding personae or speakers of poems. None of the stories are settled, and they burst onto the page in short lines. What is their relationship to your observations, and to the titular people you name? 

I wrote these poems while listening to friends and strangers tell me three-minute stories about their lives that revolved arbitrarily around a random plural noun that they pulled out of a proverbial hat. It’s fascinating to observe the way a life can be reorganized anew around an alternative keystone and still cohere. “I” is a conjunction—a congregation, even!

In “Margarete, are you grieving?” I address the communities I felt held by when I arrived in NYC, just 18 years old, on September 1, 2001. Our friendships crystallized in a fractured time of outer and inner discord. To crib Muriel Rukeyser, we were coming of age in the second century of world wars. It felt to me at the time like I was standing by at the birth of the cosmos. Everything was combustible. Collateral damage everywhere. Some of those friends have since died in situations that bear the same character of our time together—sad, fast, flashing, chaotic, sloppy, destructive, but above all, creative. The poem speaks to dead friends but lands in the ears of living readers. It hopes and presumes that readers are good proxy listeners for the dead, since that’s what history calls for, I guess, attentive listeners tuned in at closed doors. As the lone survivor of that little crew, I shoulder the maintenance work of remembering—literally, reconnecting the body limb by limb.

The lines I quoted earlier, from “Alex,” reference a different set of stories for survival and connection, of parents whispering. Your book brims with trenchant questions of parenthood—as an explosion of our sense of time, of the stakes of climate change, and of a bursting of the body. It made me think of how, at least for me, one of its strangest dimensions of parenting has been transitioning from acting as a descendant, as someone who has or hasn’t inherited financial resources or traumas, etc., to composing myself as an ancestor. I’m curious about how parenting shows up in your book. 

It’s interesting to inhabit the role of the mother. The mother as a trope is sanctimoniously protected and systematically exploited by contemporary sociopolitical regimes. I keep wondering what it means to have reentered into the continuum of the human experience in this guise. As a twentysomething, I was suffering from extreme PTSD. During that time, I felt as if I were born against my will, conscripted into the service of the human project, that I bore no responsibility for being here. Like “it’s not my fault,” or “why me,” was my main affect.

And it wasn’t “my fault,” but of course it was my fate, and having a child has allowed me to embrace it—a felt sense of responsibility to and for life. It’s almost a movement from innocence to guilt or from ignorance into accountability, but it’s also about belonging. “It’s like revolution,” I wrote in the book, quoting CUNY poet-pedagogue June Jordan, “it feels great.” Taking responsibility for birth (my own and my child’s) is how I learned to accept my relationship to the whole.

“Typology” sometimes feels like a communion too, like a wedding. Weddings can be ceremonies of consumerism, or they can derive their meaning from who shows up, in which people from disparate domains of your life come together. What does it feel like to see them together in a section?

Bear with me! There’s a hot tub nestled in the mountains near the Banff Centre. It’s spring-fed and smells like sulfur. It’s beautiful, of course, but it’s also a little silly—in relation to the aesthetic theory of the Kantian sublime, say. At the mouth of this unbound chasm, I huddled in a hot tub seeking human scale comforts with an intimate circle of friends. I found my literary family in that hot tub, strange as it sounds, passing around a laminated photocopy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931) to read aloud.

The Waves is a multiperspectival story about the capacity of friendship to generate ways of thinking that can be thought simultaneously across two or more minds. In Zero Point Dream Poems, published by Doublecross Press during the pandemic, I write about how the mind synthesizes experiences that are both complete and completely autonomous from reality. Literature is a great lever to ensure that reality shapes mind as much as mind shapes reality, and by reading in community, we braid our lives and minds into other people’s lives and minds, maintaining plasticity. The littoral zone between the literal and virtual is the poem, where the real and the synthetic are bidirectional. When I write, I walk that bridge. Kant also talks about transcendental aesthetics. The basic idea is that space and time are mind-dependent features of reality—that our brains create time and space synthetically to make sense of an incoherent universe. But I think our brains are more coextensive or networked than we commonly give them credit for. If the human mind, as a whole, is structuring the world in the way Kant describes, then we’re holding it up even as we’re burning it down. The key here is that we’re holding it up. Friendship, I think, shines a light on this networked holding capacity, this shared brain, its maintenance work.

Banff has recently been throttled by wildfires. Wildfires come up in Reps in part because I had to flee one while at another residency in Montello, Nevada. The irony of being an environmental artist whose retreat is interrupted by 100-acre fires and 100-year floods (two in one week on the Spey while staying at the Bothy Project in Scotland’s Inshriach Forest) is not lost.

But that’s all very abstract! As you know, we also have community-based research practices that try to identify and address specific problems, ranging from participatory budgeting to the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure in NYC.

Indeed, I’m struck by how your work is situated in specific ecosystems, giving readers a sense of place, but through unconventional perspectives that feel like counter-mappings, counter-archives. What is it about place for you, and specifically water? I’m not sure we’ve ever talked explicitly about our preoccupations with space and place. My last book was a book of poetry called Landia, a translanguaging portmanteau shorthand for literal and figurative borderlands, cities and in-between states of being. But your work teems with water. You write:

A story about a waterbirth
A story about the ways water is not
exactly its location, source, or destination
not its surface, depth, or volume

Your lines on water are particularly evocative when parsing the multiple timescales of climate change: “Each water molecule is a timeless cocktail upcycling the acrid piss of dinosaurs and karmic tears of ancestors.” And, “The sea undergoes continuous distortion without losing the properties of water. This is why, for a long time, many humans believed they couldn’t break the heart of the sea. They were wrong, of course. But that’s topology. The ontologic branch of geometry.”

When I think of water, I think of being unanchored, unmoored. Why are you drawn to water, and how do you know it?

I have a boat-building practice that has brought me into contact with lots of people and the bodies of water that lend contour to their lives. Relearning the places I have called home from the vantage point of their waterways, seeing the shore as a near-other, engenders multiperspectivalism, a key concept in environmental humanities. And poetry.

I began my journey as a “waterborne artist” from two simultaneous, or nearly so, points of departure. The first was through Mare Liberum, a collective formed in response to a campaign to transform the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site, into the “Venice of Brooklyn.” My studio was in an old grain silo next to the Third Street Bridge and I spent a lot of late nights on its banks. Mare Liberum designed stitch and ply dory patterns to silk-screen and wheat paste on construction site fencing. People were invited to pull them down, glue them together, and launch a seaworthy vessel. Start to finish, fabrication takes about three hours. This was after Hurricane Katrina, and it occurred to us that anybody anywhere might need a boat at the drop of a hat. Every human should have the opportunity to turn a pile of raw materials that will sink into a coherent shape that will float. That will hold you while you float. Setting out on an urban waterway can feel so law-defying: property laws and the laws of physics are temporarily suspended; anything is possible. It’s how I met my husband! We got in a lot of good trouble. We cut a lot of blue “do not cross” police barricades into paddles. That was the spirit of the thing.

Simultaneously, I was building trash barges with a bunch of friends out of salvaged materials and oil drum barrels lathed with ratchet straps. We named one the Lusty Jam Cracker. When our journey down the Susquehanna River brought us face-to-face with the incursion of the fracking industry on the Marcellus Shale, we decided to spend a few consecutive summers gathering documentary material.

That’s a quick and dirty biography, full of omissions! There’s a powerful lineage of thinkers honing wet epistemologies, from Alexis Pauline Gumbs to Lisa Lowe. When we’re thinking through the matrix of water, or mother ocean, as Silvia Federici and Mariarosa Dalla Costa have called her, different biological, geopolitical, and organizational systems surface.

I can imagine how rendering explicit creation for survival—to not sink—is transformative. It also aligns with what I’ve read in terms of good pedagogy. Why do we continue to be bound to such restrictive disciplinary and epistemological norms? 

You know that one of my main preoccupations in life is bending institutions to better meet the needs of the people who inhabit them—and the people who are barred from participating or enjoying their protections, threadbare as they may be. Sometimes you need to leave behind practices that fail to transcend their established form. I think that redesigning institutions from within is a poetic exercise. I’m only able to do my job without wounding my spirit, getting overly accustomed to or abusing my modicum of power, because I’m a poet.

LARB Contributor

Celina Su’s first book of poetry, Landia, was published by Belladonna* in 2018. Her writing includes three poetry chapbooks, three books on the politics of social policy and civil society, and pieces in The New York Times, n+1, Harper’s, and elsewhere. Her current book project centering radical democracy, Budget Justice: Solidarities & Politics From Below, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press. Su is the Marilyn J. Gittell Chair in Urban Studies and a professor of political science at the City University of New York. She was born in São Paulo, Brazil, and lives in Brooklyn, part of unceded Lenapehoking.


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