The Un/Masked and the Minstrel: A Conversation with Ruth Ellen Kocher About “Third Voice”




FOR OVER TWO DECADES, Ruth Ellen Kocher has been writing poems of tremendous ambition and insight. Her recent books include Third Voice (Tupelo, 2016), Ending in Planes (Noemi Press, 2014), Goodbye Lyric: The Gigans & Lovely Gun (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014), and domina Un/blued (Tupelo Press, 2013), winner of the 2014 PEN/Open Book Award. I first met Ruth when she and I were PhD students at Arizona State University, where we shared an office with half a dozen other graduate students. We conducted this interview over email, and our exchange coincided with the 2016 Academy Award and Grammy Award ceremonies. Ruth’s remarkable new book of poetry, Third Voice, which is structured like a minstrel show and comments on issues of race, art, performance, and justice, was a fitting topic of conversation.

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OLIVER DE LA PAZ: Third Voice is a brutally wonderful book! Having read a lot of your work over the years, you seem interested in epistemologies, and this book engages in the epistemological structures of performing blackness. Your books are smartly organized, pattern-driven, and unified in a way that makes me think of how systems work — namely systems of power. Can you talk a little about the manuscript design and the idea of the minstrel show?

RUTH ELLEN KOCHER: Thanks so much for saying that you appreciate this book. Epistemologies. I meant to write through the “unknowing” space of the poem. For these last few books, I tried to use form, or the body of the book and the anatomy of that body, as a way to convey as much about systems of knowledge as do the poems and the subjects that occupy those poems. In domina Un/blued (a translation exercise set in two columns of text with one language opposed to another language), it becomes a way to interrogate dichotomies of sex and ownership. In Third Voice, a justified block of text corresponds to the gravity of Sun Ra, out there in space, embracing an inventory of boys, shot, lost. The minstrel really serves as a package for a perspective where the black body is a stereotype further reduced to caricature. I think you could easily substitute “Chris Rock” for “Richard Pryor” in the poem “Lacy Watches Richard Pryor Talk About Love.” Both comedians play comic sages like the minstrel’s end men might. Both use self-deprecating caricature and the caricatured black body to cut to the truth. The audience laughs not knowing the joke’s on them. The minstrel isn’t really a comment on blackness. It’s a comment on whiteness.

Oh, absolutely! Pryor was casting his caricatures early and often when it was taboo, commenting on his drug use and poking fun at black culture, but also clearly understanding that he was commenting on a profound and deep fissure in American culture. Throughout the book you involve other notable pioneering black performers and public figures, like Eartha Kitt and Malcolm X, in the minstrel show. Can you talk about your “casting” choices?

There were moments when I thought, “Lena Horne should be in this book,” but, no. Lena Horne shouldn’t be in this book. The characters eased themselves into the book. Lena didn’t ease in. I don’t know if she wasn’t interested in me or if I just didn’t have the kind of connection with her that I did with the characters who appeared. I feel a personal connection with Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek. She was a black woman among white people exploring the universe. I started off as a black kid with a white family, white neighborhood, white school, white universe. She mirrored my life of onliness.

You intersperse the book with pieces called “Skits,” which mostly feature characters from the opening part of the manuscript: Lacy Neva Igga, Thayer Nott Igga, You, Interlocutor, etc. But then sometimes the skit characters are figures from history and entertainment. Are they playing/performing themselves?

The old how-to books on staging a show were collections of skits and jokes. One text I worked with was New Jokes for Female Minstrels. I fashioned Third Voice after that kind of how-to book, as opposed to actually enacting a performance. The show is modular. You can swap one piece for another, one character for another. You choose which and how many skits or jokes you’d like to use. So, in a how-to book, my page of characters is a suggestion for casting in a given skit. Substitute at will. When I first saw Key and Peele’s take on “doubling” with their Anger Translator character, who expresses the anger Barack Obama can’t express, it was first hilarious, partly because of the truth there, but it also reminded me of The Woman and Lacy, except that Lacy endures melancholy instead of anger. Melancholy is what’s left when anger is exhausted.

Your question gets to the heart of the book. There’s definitely Du Boisian double consciousness operating. Du Bois talks about the black body as aware of itself, and aware of itself as a racial projection. This double consciousness informs the way the black body navigates in a racialized society. Lacy is The Woman playing herself as this hyper-racial spectacle caught in the gaze of an audience. I have recently rediscovered a passage in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, in which he becomes suddenly aware that while he sees himself as French, the French see him as a black body. He develops an awareness of himself as that black body, latent within the white imagination, existing in a state of menial blackness. In addition to his own consciousness of self, he realizes he has involuntarily self-identified with that contrived body. Fanon corresponds to the character of The Woman in Third Voice, and the character of Lacy corresponds to the contrived black body Fanon can’t help but imagine himself to be.

The characters play themselves through this doubling. In her mind, The Woman rehearses herself as Lacy. Pearl Bailey and Eartha Kitt played affected personalities as staged black bodies, but they were also real women. They woke up each morning and put on their bathrobes and slippers. Characters and caricature eclipse the black body into personal anonymity. Sometimes it will catch a white friend off guard when I laugh at a racist incident I’ve experienced that they’ve witnessed. It’s because I’m doubled. I go out there and navigate the world and know that the people I am encountering aren’t necessarily encountering me, they’re encountering my black body. When they act like jerks, yes, I get angry. But I also can’t spend my life angry. I have to laugh at the ridiculousness of racial superiority. It doesn’t mean there’s no hurt. Laughing and smiling are survival mechanisms. Living in constant anger takes a toll. Unfortunately, you can’t always laugh it off. Lives are at stake. Essentially, these characters perform themselves in the way black bodies routinely play out doubling, though I hope here there’s a seed of resistance.

In “She is Asked About the Sublime,” I say “Not Berryman / But then what.” Lacy is not John Berryman’s Mr. Bones [the minstrel end man from his cycle Dream Songs], not “his” white male manifestation of “black.” It is not a black body that is an ironic companion, not a black body as literary device, not a black body as caricature, not an allegory — it is a black body distorted by that which the white imaginary projects onto it.

Claudia Rankine put together an anthology called The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, and I remember when she put the call out for pieces. It is a multivocal text. I’m curious about the “Olios” that appear in Third Voice. They’re fascinating musical interludes, often appearing between skits. But the original title of each olio was “Insomnia Cycle: Olio ___.” Why did you omit the “Insomnia” part? Who, in the early drafts, was sleepless? Were the poems talking about vigilance? Were the poems talking about the audience? How do you see them?

At that time, I was mediating some of the issues of my own racial reality that inform Third Voice. We can be eclipsed by microaggressions. That is to say, the black body exhausts her energy and resources deflecting microaggressions in an effort to survive her racial reality, as useful interrogations of those aggressions proceed without her. Thankfully, the interrogations proceed and people evolve. The best way to thrive in an academic environment is to have colleagues and students who address issues of bias head-on.

In Third Voice, the character of The Woman “can sleep and so Lacy cannot.” The olios evolved from Lacy’s insomnia cycles and offered moments of “pause,” where we encounter an incessant chorus of voices in her sleepless and racing mind. We encounter Lacy’s relentless voice in the mind of The Woman as she sleeps. It was later in the process that I chose to forgo the title’s reference to that sleepless cycling. When I settled on the how-to books as a final inspiration, I eventually had to accept the obvious — the olio enacted the same departure as did the cycles. It’s another kind of interstitial device. Think of the magician that occupies the audience in between big circus acts. The olio takes place on the stage in front of the curtain while the crew changes the scene for the next act behind the curtain.

Many of the olios are multivocal. I find some of them joyful as a chorus of voices. They’re inspired by what you could call a dialogic one-sidedness — language overheard when you’re eavesdropping on other conversations, trying to find meaning in bits and pieces of dialogue disenfranchised from itself. It’s hard to talk truth about race without addressing disenfranchisement. I’m scripting some of the olios for a little video performance, so that I can play more with that multivocal quality.

One of the poems that excited me, because I knew the cultural reference, was the poem “Skit: MLK Jr. and Lieutenant Uhura Have Coffee and Cake.” What I recall from the lore was that actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek, had contemplated leaving the show but was urged by MLK to stay for, and I’m paraphrasing radically, “The greater good.” What’s interesting is that she’s Uhura in the poem while MLK is referred to as Martin. There’s also a bit of an ominous, suggestive tone at the end of the poem. Can you tell me a little about what went into the composition of that piece?

I wanted an intimacy to exist between them. Referring to MLK Jr. as Martin in the poem helps me cut through formal distance. It’s also the language of family. The conversation is very much between Martin and Uhura, not MLK Jr. and Nichelle Nichols. The character Nichols created inspires a sense of limitless possibility for girls. I hope the poem speaks to legacy. As Martin speaks to her, he looks out of the window and sees the hotel where he will eventually be assassinated. Uhura is a figure contextualized by the undefined expanse of outer space. Martin invested in possibility and Uhura represents limitless possibility.

What I love about the poem is exactly that intimacy. It feels like these are two old friends confiding in one another. There’s also a strange amount of magic and surprise that happens in the piece, especially when Uhura “Raises her hand Removes a dove from her mouth.” It’s like one of those magician tricks, where the magician summons doves out of nowhere. And the dove, speaking, utters the words, “Dismantle Dwell Expanse,” as well as, “Dystopia Brute Home.” What’s going on in that moment?

It’s a moment that focuses more on what’s unspoken. What did Uhura listen to when she raised her hand to that communicator device in her ear? We don’t know. She rarely spoke unless spoken to. She was present but most often remained silent. Somehow, within this silence, she is, ironically, the communications specialist on a starship exploring the universe. I feel the language of Uhura is really about silence and presence. What language do you give a dove that Uhura pulls out of her mouth in the middle of a diner? I gave it the language of displacement, diaspora, and quietude.

What strikes me, after hearing your response, is how in domina Un/blued you utilized palimpsestic writing to look at historical structures of power — the erasure or revision of an original text. Did you write Third Voice with a similar palimpsestic writing mode in mind? Are you writing over or erasing that type of performative history in your book?

No, I didn’t. I am, though, trying to overwrite a performative history. Similar ideas, different process. I’ve been process oriented with these last few books, partly due to my fascination with Lars von Trier’s documentary The Five Obstructions. Von Trier directs his friend, the filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to reproduce multiple versions of a short film Leth made in the ’60s, called The Perfect Human. With each reproduction, Von Trier gives Leth a new obstruction, like “make the film as a cartoon” or “make the film in a wretched place.” The project was emotionally challenging for Leth, and the obstructions nearly brought him to tears. But, in the end, each reproduction was brilliant. He thrived. After watching it two or three times I realized that nothing about my approach to the page had ever brought me to the brink of tears. The idea that creative despair could yield something I might not otherwise imagine — it was seductive. That documentary inspired my process in domina Un/blued. For that project, I wanted to figure out how to use destruction as a form of obstruction.

So I’ve been attracted to projects with some structural free-for-all that feels a little impossible. I read a David Yezzi article where he said no one writes lyric drama anymore, and that felt like a kind of obstruction worth tackling.

Shifting gears a little, there seems to a be an upsurge in the number of social-justice-oriented texts by writers of color, and public interest and engagement with these works seems to be increasing dramatically. Third Voice is a notable new contribution to this trend. Am I right in placing your new book in this conversation? And how does it feel to be in this conversation at this moment, given the current cultural context?

Lacy’s character is born from racial conflict. She’s the black body as professor. Sometimes her campus is her stage. Her job is often a racial performance. I think some academics gloss over vulgar expressions of racial bias in literature and criticism. We often base our perception of genius on canonical texts, without considering the ways they express racial superiority. We excuse canonical authors for their bias. Passivity isn’t harmless, and I’m inspired by writers and collectives who address unintentional as well as intentional harm. I started this book years before anyone talked about a millennial “upsurge” toward social justice. But when I read Fred Moten’s essay “On Marjorie Perloff,” I feel my sense of onliness, only-one-ness, melt a little. Moten dares to reproach an almost iconic defender of the canon for repulsively racist thinking. Thank you, Fred Moten. I’m not interested in communities where derogatory depictions of blackness are excised from our discussion of a text unless we’re specifically talking and teaching race as though such discussions get in the way of the real and legitimate subject. It’s hard for me to understand how to effectively teach Immanuel Kant and dismiss passages that could have been written by David Duke! Think about it. Kant situates the black body in binary opposition to “the beautiful,” and so creates this substratum of racism that’s of cardinal significance in the study of aesthetics. In the poem “Lacy Teaches The Sublime,” I position texts of Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke against text from W. E. B. Du Bois, so these competing notions of blackness come into conversation with one another. Glossing over the ugliness of racially denigrating texts just perpetuates a culture that, by design, opts to gloss over racial denigration elsewhere.

Can we talk about Kendrick Lamar’s performance at this year’s Grammys? On social media, there was a really odd and discomforting juxtaposition of Kendrick’s performing black body before a sea of white faces. It got me to thinking about the types of manuscripts that are being lauded at this moment by writers of color. Books of social protest where often the body of the speaker is in peril. In Third Voice, your speakers are aware of this, and I don’t want to say that their point of view is ironic, but it is certainly critiquing this vantage point.

Maybe not so much irony but revelation. I’ve constructed different treatments of the staged black body that hinge on the gaze and the expectation of entertainment or the expectation of acceptable intellect. There are also treatments of audience and audience reaction to the staged black body. One way minstrelsy remains relevant lies in the fact that it birthed the black entertainer. The book opens with a Stump Speech that quotes song lyrics from Digital Underground and Biggie Smalls. I think the anaphora device closes the divide between the black minstrel entertainer and Kendrick Lamar. No shade intended to Kendrick Lamar. Maybe I’m underestimating your observation though. It is ironic that the black entertainer has greater currency. In the early millennium, the black entertainer isn’t always owned. I’m thinking about Prince, who relinquished his name and wrote “slave” on his face 20 years ago as a protest to being owned by a label. Now the black entertainer often owns a chunk of the industry. But consider all of this within that economy. The black body is still caught in the gaze of a predominantly white audience. The staged black body may become a rich and famous mogul, but some fraction of that evolution hinges on the caricaturization of black culture generated as minstrelsy 100 years ago. Tyler Perry would have fewer movie credits otherwise. Maybe none of this matters if the black body is in a position of power. Black innovation has manifested in so many unpredictable ways. Run-DMC found a way to take performative blackness and feed it back to white audiences at a price. I’d like to think that if Stepin Fetchit were alive today, he’d be a multimillionaire music producer laughing all the way to the bank.

In your cast of characters, you use names like Lacy Neva Igga, i.e, Lacy N. Igga, etc. The names seem in keeping with this idea of performing blackness, complete with the grotesque Mammy caricature they imply. The characterization, for me, enforces the idea that the minstrels are putting on a show. And of course this is in line with a whole cast of contemporary black artists who perform a particular brand of blackness an audience expects. Can you talk about your decision to do this?

The names play on old stereotypes. Lacy is Lazy. Creigh-Z is Crazy. But I’ve tried to instill some resistance. Lacy’s mother gives all of her children the same middle name, Neva, and so there’s a negation embedded within the name. Lacy Neva Igga. Lazy? Neva. The names are confrontational and lean toward slur but, because of the abbreviation of the middle name, the slur is thwarted. Lacy N. Igga. The slur can only be inferred and so, even in caricature, the black body demonstrates this resilience.

Besides the suggestive but resistant character names, the only actual slurs in the text are quoted from white canonical writers like William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first time I ever remember saying the “n-word” was in an English class as a kid, when we were reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The teacher made a big deal about letting us know that “this,” meaning the use of racial slurs, “was how they talked back then.” We teach children that sometimes the use of racial slurs is not only accepted but celebrated. The teacher had us take turns reading a paragraph aloud. This was a white school and I was the black kid, but these were also my friends. Each time someone read the n-word there would be nervous snickers. I think it felt wrong for some of them. When it was my turn to read and I said the word out loud, everyone was silent.

You’ve been a strong advocate for African-American avant-garde writing. Even though a number of writers of color are garnering accolades, the writing you’re championing is on the fringes. Can you tell me about some of the challenges authors such as yourself face when writing outside of mainstream poetry?

I don’t want to comment much on the American avant-garde, because it’s represented by such a wide range of creative practice. I will say that when you have such a wide range of creative practice, you should also have some expected level of representation. I’m happy to see more interrogation within writing communities and increasing inclusion. The Best American Experimental Writing 2015 anthology has a record number of writers of color. I’m looking forward to more collections like Letters to the Future: Anthology of Innovative Writing by Black Women, which is due out this fall. Black. Not African American. I try to remember that not all black bodies are American. Even in America. Inclusion isn’t always second nature. We work at it and, hopefully, we will find ourselves in a place where we naturally associate innovative writing communities with inclusive writing communities.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at PLU.


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