We Stay in Love with Our Freedom: A Conversation with Alexis Pauline Gumbs

By Joy KMTFebruary 4, 2018

We Stay in Love with Our Freedom: A Conversation with Alexis Pauline Gumbs
TO TURN THE PAGES of Spill is to watch the invisible become flesh from the language of humming, longing, living, and dying. Drawing from the deep aquifers of the work of Hortense Spillers, American literary critic and Black feminist scholar Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s poetry is an overflow and offering of Black voice. It is a voice mostly for Black women that illuminates a world critically and lovingly restored with dimension and structure by the work of Hortense Spillers. Characterized by intermittent rhyming, a perspective that is at once fluid yet rooted in the language of the body and the usage of space and citations, Gumbs weaves narratives of hope, desperation, and knowing into one sharp longing. It is a “poetilitical praxis,” an unflinching look at what pain has wrought and what fruit might yet be born.

A queer Black troublemaker, a Black feminist love evangelist, and a prayer poet priestess, Alexis Pauline Gumbs holds a PhD in English, African and African-American Studies, and Women and Gender Studies from Duke University. Her scholarship spans the Audre Lorde Papers at Spelman College, the June Jordan Papers at Harvard University, and the Lucille Clifton Papers at Emory University. Alexis is a public intellectual and essayist on topics from the abolition of marriage to the power of dreams to the genius of enslaved African ancestors.


Alexis is the visiting Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts at University of Minnesota. Her conversation about Spill can be found at Left of Black, and more about her work can be found at alexispauline.com. The second book in the series, M Archive: After the End of the World, comes out in a few weeks.

Alexis makes time for me right after a dentist appointment, so that’s where we begin.


JOY KMT: How are you?

ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS: Doing well. I didn’t engage in full-scale battle against the dentist and dental assistant, which I used to do when I was a kid. I guess meditation works. Because of how I don’t really get numb from anesthesia and how I am in the throes of grieving my father, I have been thinking a lot about Lucille Clifton’s poem “water sign woman.” I have a Cancer rising sign. She talks about the “feels everything woman.” That's me.

I am sorry to hear of your father’s passing. I have a moon in Pisces, so I understand the “feels everything woman.”

Yeah. I miss him so much. He was actually one of the first people to read Spill.

What was his reaction?

My dad was a big cheerleader for me, so of course he was like, “It’s groundbreaking, it’s stunning, it’s going to take the world by storm.” But that’s what he said about everything I did so …

It’s true, though.

My dad would say, “Just because I’m biased doesn’t mean I’m not right.”

How would you say general reactions have been to Spill?

The reactions have been really humbling. People have written beautiful letters and emails about how the work is impacting their healing, their relationships, their creativity, and their lives. And it’s been a wide range of people from other scholars and poets, people in my neighborhood, and dance classes. I wanted it to be a space for all my communities of accountability to be together, and it seems like it’s working.

Over and over again people have told me that the scenes are out of their own lives and the lives of the people they love. And when I share the book, I use it as an oracle. I ask people to think of a question and then a number and I read them a page and it seems like the book is able to speak to their lives and get all into their business. Long story short, a lot of people are looking at me like I’m a witch. And they aren’t really wrong.

I’m really struck by the tenderness with which you were able to render scenes, even when they were scenes of deep antipathy — “she loved the soft blue ocean of wishing he would die,” for instance. Why and how did you frame those very devastating scenes like you did?

The one thing that was present for me every moment of writing the book and that I hope is present in every moment of the book is love for Black women as Black women above everything, despite everything. So in a moment like that scene where this woman is trying to use all the gentleness and servility she has been taught to destroy, the person she sees as her oppressor, abuser, exploiter, love is still there. Her love for herself is there. Even if it can only be expressed in her desire to be free from the situation.

I think that no matter what we are going through, and even if we are not in a so-called “empowered” or “positive” space, mood, or situation, love is there. My study of Black women as a Black woman has taught me that. Love is always there. Always. Even when it seems completely impossible that it would be.

You start the book and each chapter with the definition and synonyms of spill — the title of your book. It seems both an homage to Spillers and a declaration of defiance. What is the container that you intend to overflow in this book?

Yes, I definitely think of this book as a celebration of the fact that Black women have not been contained, even though our blood has been spilled over and over again (including internal bleeding). I also think of the book as a libation to honor our ancestors and begin a ceremony that doesn’t end in the book. You have to use it every day. So I think the container has many names. Heteropatriarchal capitalism? Colonialism? The Western idea of the individual life?
 In the next book (coming out in March!), I write about the Black Feminist Pragmatic Intergenerational Sphere, which is just of way of referencing what Audre Lorde said in “My Words Will Be There,” which is that who we are is beyond the limits (or container) of one lifetime. But most explicitly what I designed the book to defy was the oppressive interlocking set of narratives that entrap Black women every day.

What kind of ceremony do you see springing to life from this work?

For me it is the opening part, the libation, of a three-part work. A triptych. This is the part that opens the way for ancestral honoring and healing. The second part, “M Archive: After the End of the World,” is about long visioning about what the material evidence will be of this apocalypse we are going through. And then the third part is actually what I am writing right now. It’s called “DUB: Finding Ceremony.” Which is another way of saying yes, this is an oracle. And what’s cool is that it still functions as an oracle for me, even though I’ve read it more than a hundred times.
 And the other thing I love is that other people are using it as an oracle. A few weeks ago a healer was doing tarot readings paired with pages from Spill on Facebook. I was like, “Wow! Draw one for me!” And it was right on point! So the primary ceremony I think Spill calls for is for Black women, all of us by the way, cis and trans, to recognize ourselves, each other, our ancestors and what we’ve been through. And to recognize the love and life-making that has also been there the whole time and is still there. And the secondary ceremony is for everyone who doesn’t identify as a Black woman to also understand that their healing is bound up with ours too.

How would you describe Spill in terms of genre and intent?

I think of the pieces on each page as scenes. I think of the book as a whole as a poem (#epic) and I think of every scene as poetic. And I think of it as an index and an oracle and a meditation. My intention is for the technologies of Black women poets, fiction writers, hip-hop artists, priestesses, singers, mamas, fugitives, stylists, and literary theorists to converge in the same space. Sylvia Wynter says, “After humanism — the ceremony must be found,” and I wanted to find a ceremony where we could be together, and where I could be with the revolutionary work of Hortense Spillers and with everyone else I love at the same time. Finding ceremony is a poetic act. So it is poetry.

I think you’ve partially answered this, but as a multidisciplinary artist and Black feminist scholar, what was the impetus for this book at this point in your career and life?

Right, I thought about what my intellectual writing would look like. And I thought about the people whose work has impacted me the most. I thought about Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Alexis De Veaux, and Barbara Smith and how none of them wrote “novels,” even though the novel was the most marketable form of writing available to them. My dissertation is about the poetics of survival and mothering in the work of those four geniuses and I think about them at all time. I thought about other academic theorists I cite the most: Hortense Spillers, M. Jacqui Alexander, and Sylvia Wynter, and how, to date, none of them have published a traditional scholarly monograph. They have all these essays collected (or in the case of Wynter uncollected) that change everything.

And so with that in mind I decided that building on the work that I have done to create spaces for my communities of accountability to be with the Black feminist creative and movement writers that I love, I also wanted to have creative space to be with my communities in the worlds created by the Black feminist theorists I love. Also though, it wasn’t a decision like how capitalism and individualism and Western education teach us to think about decisions.

When I decided to do the daily writing process that resulted in Spill, I didn’t really have thoughts about who would publish it, or if it would be published at all. I just knew it was what I should do. 
And I’m actually still doing it. First thing every single day. And I am as surprised as anyone by what it looks like. But what I’m not surprised about is that it is infused with love for Black women in every moment. Because that’s the one decision I keep making by continuing to be alive. To love Black women (myself included) with everything I have, every day. That’s what my life is.

At the end of Spill you seem to shift to a longer and broader timeline, moving from individual intimacies to a more collective oracular vehicle, sort of in the vein of Ayi Kwei Armah. Also, throughout the text, rhyme, space, and sound tend to shift the movement of the text at will. What was your decision-making process like behind the movement of the text or what guided the movement?

What a generous comparison! Yes, that’s true. The end of the book is more explicitly collective and intergenerational. The way the scenes appear in the book isn’t the order I wrote them in. It was a conscious decision I made when I was ordering the manuscript to move from the intimacy of the first scenes to the collectivity of the last scenes. And maybe because that’s how my day goes. I wake up very early in the morning to be with myself. And then my partner and I intentionally come together, and then it’s later in the day usually that I’m actually in community. And the way that rhyme and rhythm work in the text … to me it’s a poetics of fugitivity. The sound of being on the run, compelled, but sometimes being able to stop and be with people, stop and be with self, stop and reflect, but then you are on the run again. 

Can you speak more to the poetics of fugitivity and fugitivity discourse?

Sure, so Harriet Tubman and Phillis Wheatley get explicit shout-outs in Spill. And they were both enslaved women who in completely different ways spilled out of and upset the container of gendered and racialized slavery.

Fugitivity for me, for us now living in what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery,” means that we are still entrapped by the gendering and racializing traps that made slavery possible. But we exceed it. We stay in love with our own freedom. We make refuge for each other. How do we do it? With our movement, with our braveness, with our leaving, with our words, almost always with food involved. So the scenes in Spill are scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity because for me they all feature a desire to be free and the urgent impossible-to-ignore presence of the ongoing obstacles to our freedom. It’s making me think of my teacher, my cherished intellectual mother Farah Jasmine Griffin’s book on Billie Holiday, If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery. Our navigation of freedom requires so much creativity, and the work of saying it while also hiding it. That’s a fugitive poetics.

I wanted to ask you personally, why did you include a thank you to me in the book?

Oh girl! Because you completely inspire me in general! But also specifically because when I was writing that scene after Spillers’s words “a question that we cannot politely ask,” I immediately thought of your work and the confrontational, epistemic liberating questioning you do in your poetry. And also your refusal to be limited by the “polite.” How you say, “they say we are strong but they really mean silent.” It’s exactly what I am talking about in Spill. Reading your work while I wrote Spill had a crucial impact on me and I had to acknowledge that.

Reading Spill was deeply nourishing for me. It took me back to my secret life. I think the unwavering radical love that you offer in this book helped peel back my shame. So thank you so much for the opportunity to read and the opportunity to explore with you.

Wow, I am so grateful for that. That’s the ceremony of Spill, I think, to give us space to acknowledge all of it.

How is the eclipse treating you?

The eclipse is amazing! We put candles all over the house and were drumming and dancing.

Yeah? My house is a mess, so I was playing Alice Coltrane and cleaning and went outside to watch the eclipse.

Super powerful and profound energy. Yeah, change is coming; you can feel it.

It’s a potent time to be talking. I appreciate you taking time out your day.

[Laughs.] I appreciate you. They’ll speak about it in legend — “On the day of the eclipse, the Nat Turner eclipse, Joy KMT and Alexis Pauline Gumbs spoke about the healing qualities of literature.”— When we’re really old, they’ll speak about it like this. [Laughs.]

What have you been thinking about Spill?

I just did this reading with an amazing poet named Cynthia Dewi Oka, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, who is an amazing poet, student of Audre Lorde, mother of Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest and Afro-Trinidadian genius, author of many books of poetry, and another person, Raquel Salas Rivera. It was really interesting because a lot of the poems in Cheryl’s newest book of poems, Arrival, are thinking about her family and ritual, and a lot if it is in Trinidadian English, and Raquel’s poems are all in Spanish, and she translates some of them into English; Raquel is a Puerto Rican poet. So I was thinking about, “What is the vernacular of Spill?”

When Black women talk to me about feeling like, “Oh my gosh, I feel like you wrote this just for me,” what makes it feel that way to other people? What’s recognizable? I think some of the vernaculars of Spill have to do with food and cleaning and domestic rituals and domestic work, hair braiding and grooming. I think there’s a lot of tactile language. Language of touch.

I realize that I’m always thinking about Black women and I love Black women, and obviously I was engaging with a Black feminist theorist the whole time I was writing it. But I think what makes it effective, intimate, ritual space for me and for other Black women does have to do with familiar forms of care that are in the book. Even if it’s for a slaver, which it sometimes is, or if it’s considered to be surplus labor, that work that we do to keep other Black people alive, that is not sanctioned by the state.

You asked me, before the interview, about the relationship between Fred Moten’s work and mine. Well, Fred was on my dissertation committee. But before I even met Fred, Fred Moten’s work, In the Break in particular, had me thinking about how powerful Black maternity is. And how scary it is, you know, to everyone in the world who is threatened by that power. And yet, how revolutionary it is to honor it for what it is. That’s actually one of the things that I love about your work. What happens if we understand everything in the world, all of the systems of oppression that target and seek to harm Black women and Black mothers especially. What if we see all of that as proof of and as a response to the amazing power that is Black mothering and that is the Dark Feminine? What does it mean if we acknowledge that? I would say that that’s the primary connection between the work that I’m doing in Spill and the work Moten is doing there. And it’s not a coincidence that that would be the connection because they both come through Spillers.

That’s the thing about Spillers’s work, that has me coming back to it forever and ever and ever ever. It’s the basis for how he develops that theory of Black maternity, also.

Well, I know we jumped right back into the interview, but I wanted to ask you, how have you been?

I’ve been good. I know last time we talked, I had just come back from the dentist and was talking about my dad. I still think about him every day. I was just thinking this morning about the fact that my dad was an amazing friend to me. I never thought about that until literally this morning. About the fact that, “Ah, I was actually friends with this person.” And I feel really grateful for that. That was a really powerful definition of our relationship. And what if I never realized that? I feel like the reason it took me so long to realize that is patriarchy. My dad did not play the patriarchal role, but there is something about the Black longing for patriarchy that’s deep. It’s something that I think is super toxic, hateful, and ridiculous and illogical.

Hortense Spillers writes about this as well in her essay, “‘The Permanent Obliquity of an In(pha)llibly Straight’: In the Time of Daughters and the Fathers.” There’s no such thing. There’s no Black patriarchy, there’s not gon’ be no patriarchy, there’s really no such thing as fathers and daughters in relationship to what Black life has meant. The essay looks at a short story by Alice Walker and the strange incest story that the guy in Invisible Man tells. It talks about these stories as examples of how ownership, the way a father owns a daughter in patriarchy, is not Black relationality and is sick and disgusting to begin with. And that these stories basically offer how absurd that is but also how harmful the desire for that is. And as usual — this is what I love about Hortense Spillers so much — in conclusion, Black people are inventing a whole different type of life. Basically we’re doing a whole other thing that makes all these other things possible. At least for me, that’s the queerness with which I read Spillers’s work. It’s like okay, if there’s no such thing as Black fathers and daughters, then what are Black relationships built on? Black social life and Black community? If we know we cannot own anything, even our bodies and even our loved ones, then what is our relationality made of? It’s not made out of property, but we’ve been made into property.

What does she say relationships are made out of?

Let me go ahead and open the book. So I don’t misquote, but basically she talks about our relationships being built on choice, our relationships being built on shared ritual practice, our relationships being built on creativity, creativity that can’t be necessarily owned. So that’s a general paraphrasing. Of course the way she says it is going to be beautiful and incredible and impossible to paraphrase, but …

Would you say that interpretation of Spillers’s work is the foundation for how you approach Spill? And also, it’s funny that we started on this path of conversation, because one of my questions is: What do you see as the relationship between Black masculinity and Black femininity in Spill?

That’s a good question. And yeah, it’s very much framed by those questions. And you know, that essay is not an essay that I cite in Spill, but I got back into that essay — it has always been one of my favorite essays of hers — trying to process my grief around my father and not wanting my grieving process to be shaped by patriarchy. So I actually ended up writing some other scenes that are not in Spill, that have a similar process based on quotations from that essay, and some scenes that are based on Sylvia Wynter’s work, which is what the third book is.

Is that M or the next work?

It’s the next work, called Dub, Finding Ceremony. But this piece in feminist formations is me processing around my father and it cites this essay and it cites ethno and socio poetics, by Sylvia Wynter. I think it’s coming out soon because they just paid me for it today. I think it’s coming out today. Who knows? Sorry, I have you on speaker phone and I’m climbing my book shelves looking for this book.

It’s okay.

Yeah, but the relationship between masculinity and femininity, I mean I think one of the things I was present to, especially in the section, “what he was thinking” was just the violence of masculinity. A lot of the violence that the feminine figures in the book are fugitives from is masculinist energy, but it’s also the predictable result of the imposition of masculinity. I felt like those were scenes that made it visible in a particular way, and there is a scene in there where I’m very much thinking about Invisible Man, that scene where a young man is seeing his mother being disrespected over and over again by a paternal figure. The imposition of masculinity, especially in terms of Black social life, has been profoundly destructive. And Black femininity has been in fugitivity from that in a particular way. I think that might be one way that it shows up in Spill. But then, I think that there’s a lot of different possibilities. Some of the scenes around Black masculinity and femininity in conflict, I’m definitely drawing on Alice Walker’s work, I’m definitely drawing on Zora Neale Hurston’s work, I’m definitely drawing on — I think about Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I think about masculinity in Jamie’s life as something that comes through the scenes in Spill. I think about “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, and the ending of the book is definitely an offering in reverence to that story.

So yeah, I would say that the relationship between masculinity and femininity and the work in Spill is a relationship that is also — the masculinity and the femininity of the people in the book are fugitive from patriarchy. It’s also fugitive from binary. It really is trying to escape that. So part of what Spill is about is how sometimes you don’t escape something until it’s impossible to ignore how violent it is. And at the same time, whatever the revelation is within that violence is what is making it possible for something else to happen beyond that binary. Beyond what patriarchy has made masculinity and femininity. So you know I think about that in the way that Toni Cade Bambara talks about in “On the Issue of Roles,” which is definitely another influence on Spill. But I think actually the relationship between masculinity and femininity in Spill is as complicated as the relationship between the relationship between masculinity and femininity in Black women’s writing. As we know, at the very outset of what literary historiographers call Black women’s writing renaissance, when Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison had these widely deep texts that were centered on the experiences of Black women, that were probably the most widely acceptable that texts about Black women that had ever been, by Black women, immediately the pushback was around the portrayal of Black men. That it was unfair to show the forms of violence that Black women experience. It hasn’t stopped, as we know. That’s the archive that I am soaked in, that spilled out in Spill. And at the same time, like how June Jordan writes about Zora Neale Hurston’s work in contrast to Richard Wright’s work, saying whereas Black masculinist impulse in protest literature is like, “ F you white man!” and this is why we need to destroy this terrible racist society — which June Jordan definitely agreed with — but if you look at Zora Neale Hurston as your model for what Black literature is, you see the relationship between Black people invested in within the work of Black women. I wouldn’t make a gender binary around that either. But what she’s saying is if you look at Zora Neale Hurston as our model, that’s what we are going to have again and again. We’re going to see that the revelations, the complexity and the nuance is really in relationships between Black people, and what about that as an argument for the world that we want to create. Not only relationships between Black people and white people. So I would say Spill is that too, saying that there is something to be learned in the gendered relations of Black people that is key, core, really primary. And it’s learned. And if healed, would absolutely change everything. Who is considered family? What Spillers is saying is that, Black family is based on who preserved life and the calling for life. Who creates kinship? It’s not going to be based on patriarchal traceability and lineage. Because people have been sold away and are being dispersed over and over again and displaced. Revolutionary mothering is the way that I think about it. Who is participating in the preservation of life? That’s the vernacular of Spill. If you go back to what I said in the beginning, that’s what’s happening. Cooking is happening. Cleaning is happening. Hair is being done. You know, all of that is happening. People are being warmed.

I’m such a baby trying to get into this Spillers. But I appreciate the challenge of her work.

It is complicated, what Spillers is saying, and it’s almost impossible to say. Given the language and structures and thought that we have all been trained into, how deeply her work unsettles those it’s almost impossible for her to say what she’s saying. And at the same time, it’s really simple but it only requires the small thing of forgetting everything you know. For me, that’s the poetic imperative. Every poet is saying things that’re unsettling and making possible ceremonies for something to be said, that couldn’t be said otherwise.

I wanna talk about craft with you a little bit. What, in your writing, signaled to you the evocation of ceremony? What are the components of language that create ceremony?

The first scene in Spill, the person tried every possible ceremony they knew about and it’s still as bad as it looks. They had candle, they had the food in the corners, all of it. The ceremonies that had been known up till then were not sufficient to the reality and in a certain way had to either be what offered that clarity or be left behind. And similarly, making the greens, that ceremony changes. The way that person makes the greens changes throughout that scene. There’s something important about that, that the ceremony that they started with and the ceremony that’s available is asking for something else to be created. So how does that happen? Writing can be like a wormhole, a nonlinear path to a space from where one started. That’s the fugitive technology.

For me, the repetition of rhyme is the fugitivity. The arrival at the urgency that’s asking for your own revelation. Fugitivity for me is like, okay, so we have this flight and we’re compelled and propelled and the momentum of the pieces of Spill is evoking that through the rhythm. What does that embodied experience give and demand? It demands ceremony in a particular way. Fugitivity demands many ceremonies. One of the things I talk about in the beginning note is, “we have to create the space now we gotta leave.” The rhythm shapes that movement.

The other thing I would say is listening. The major skill that I had to develop to be present for this work was to listen. Hearing different people read them, I can tell that it is what I heard when I hear people read the scenes at performances. That’s important because the words are there or the punctuation that we have access to, and you know I’m doing weird stuff with punctuation, it’s not a given that it would sound like what I heard when somebody brings their own voice to it, but I still hear the rhythm that I heard. It means that rhythm holds the possibility for that ceremony. The shifts in the rhythm signify the shifts in the ceremony. I think that’s how it shows up in the language. That’s the language that gets you to get into the rhythm that makes this possible.

It’s not to say that the language is a signifier or that you could substitute any word as long as it had the syllables, I’m not saying that at all, what the language references is also important, domestically ceremonial and creating and providing intimacy and access in really important ways. The actual content of the language is what has my neighbor be able to be like, “Oh, this makes me think about my mom and my aunt.” But at the same time there is something rhythmically happening, and it was transformative for me to be able to experience those rhythms in the process of making this work.

You said you were listening. What were you listening to?

I needed to hear the phrase. I had written down the phrases [from Spillers’s work] and I would open up the notebook that had the phrases outside of their context, and I would work with the one my eyes fell on. Then I would cross it out after I worked with it. I was distilling it in that way because I had to look at the phrase and not then go, well here’s what she meant by that. Here’s what I think about it. I had to not let my brain fill the space. I had to leave a space and listen to where the phrase took me. Who is this? What is the scene? Where? As I was hearing it and writing it and seeing it, the rhythms were very different. Sometimes there was a breathlessness at the end of writing it. Sometimes I would reread it and be like woo! Sometimes the experience was like um-hm. Sometimes it was a feeling of being transported and traveling back into my actual life. Who has the actual expertise to tell this actual story is who I had to listen to, and understand that I’m in relationship to who that is through my intimacy with Black women’s writing, and that legacy of listening. Listening to storytellers and also listening beyond, listening to the silence of a room, that those writers have been doing. And realizing that it was all there. Like if I had been a lot more quiet a lot earlier in life I would have heard this before. And it was these phrases of Hortense Spillers that could get me to have the level of stillness and listening to hear whatever it was. It was the technology for it.

I wanted to ask you about your next work, M. I got the sense from the description that it seems to build on Sylvia Wynter’s discourse on humanism. Can you talk a bit about M and the connection between Spill and M?

First of all, Sylvia Wynter is always there. I first heard about Sylvia Wynter from Brent Edwards. I went to this summer thing at Dartmouth and I had this one conversation with Brent Edwards who was a speaker. He mentioned ethno and socio poetics by Sylvia Wynter — and this is the deep generosity of Black scholars without which I could not participate in intellectual life in the way that I do — he mailed me a photocopy of this essay. That was very important because it was only published in the journal of this conference in 1979, so it wasn’t very accessible. The context of this essay is that the conference seemed like it was for anthropologists who were interested in poetics, like do certain poetics come from certain ethnicities, preserving indigenous language and poetics but in a super colonialist way, so I don’t even know why they invited Sylvia Wynter to this conference unless there was some subversive person that wanted them there. In this essay, Sylvia Wynter breaks down the entire invention of what you think a human is. She’s like, let me go through the medieval times, the sense of God, Robinson Crusoe, and basically she’s breaking down all of Western civilization to say that there is no ethnopoetics, there is no ethno — there is no us, because what you all have done is to create a them and then said that hat them has no language. So this entire project that you think you’re doing, you can’t. You’re not. But, there’s such a thing as Black poetry, and there’s such a thing as Indigenous poetry. It’s not along the lines of ethnicity that you are thinking about. It is the possibility of being able what is impossible to say. For me, that was a very important moment in my life because I was like, “That is what we’re doing!” Yes. Yes. It is the impossible daily work. Black artists and Indigenous artists in particular, we’re using these languages that are literally what makes it impossible to say what we gotta say, do what we gotta do, be with each other, be here. From then on I was like I have to read everything by Sylvia Wynter. She’s saying, none of this stuff is natural, none of this stuff is permanent, so we can think of some other stuff and do it and the sooner the better because this particular train of thought is destroying everything. So back to the question. M, the citations from that work come from M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing, so it’s a similar process that I did for Spill but a completely different set of essays that took me to totally different places and post-apocalyptic futures. One of the things about this future is that the perspective is from someone who is archiving the material evidence of the end of humans. But that does not mean that there are no beings, or no beings related to those of us who are the current humans or not humans based on anti-Blackness. But it does mean that that category has expired. And it may actually mean that we all die. There are multiple possibilities in the text, but it does imagine what is after the human, and Sylvia Wynter says that after the human the ceremony must be found. So what are the material components of that post-human ceremony? What are the memories, what are the practices, what are the rituals that constitute that? And how would someone describe it who could see it as history? And definitely, there’s nothing that I’ve written before I read Sylvia Wynter and definitely after I read Sylvia Wynter that’s not in conversation with Sylvia Wynter. Not a tweet. Everything is in conversation with Sylvia Wynter in some way.

So, final question: What’s your recollection of how we met?

From my perspective, it was like the hugest gift that you came to DC from Pittsburgh and were like, “Hello, I heard you were doing oracle readings, I’m here to open the oracle.” The way I got to DC, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival had a special thing they were doing about Black adornment called “The Will to Adorn,” inspired by how Zora Neale Hurston talks about Black adornment. They asked me to come, and I don’t know what they thought I was going to do but what I knew there was to do was to create this wearable oracle created on a daily basis out of Black feminist texts. I remember what was going on in your life but I don’t remember what your question was. I remember you talking about Oshun and the cinnamon and cleaning the new space you were in and the artist grant you had just gotten. I’m just really inspired by you and your life, and how you understand everything to be a part of your creative practice, like the ants and how you dealt with the ants by putting cinnamon down. And you know I’ve never stopped reading your work and I’ve never not been blown away by the brilliance, the honesty, and the rituals that you create in your community. I just feel like we have the same religion.

Yes, I feel similarly. I feel like much of my work is in conversation with your work. Did anybody ever tell you that talking to you is like talking to a nourishing whirlwind?

[Laughs.] No, but I like that though. I should put that in my bio. I like that! I identify with that. I know it’s a lot. I know I’m all over the place, but I’m glad it’s nourishing. I’m glad it’s clear that it is all love. That’s all it can be.


Joy KMT is a healer, poet, and ritual artist. She is the founder of the Tabernacle of Immaculate Perception.

LARB Contributor

Joy KMT is a healer, poet, and ritual artist. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, VONA, and Callaloo. She is published in multiple journals, anthologies and magazines, including Black Quantum Futurism Volume 1 and 2, Black Girl Dangerous, The Feminist Wire, Nepantla, Adrienne, Pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, Blackberry, a magazine, Backbone Press, Fledgling Rag, Sugared Water, and others.


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