Black/women are alive after tomorrow

A review of 'Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing'

Above: detail from cover art of ‘Letters to the Future.’

Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing

Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing

ed. Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin

Kore Press 2018, 456 pages, $40.00 ISBN 978-1888553857

The most provocative mark in this anthology may be the virgule or forward slash that separates the last quarter of the title — Radical Writing — from the opening three quarters of the title — Letters to the Future: Black Women. I’ve analyzed elsewhere the function of the colon, a staple in academic article and book titles, so I won’t discuss that here. I take this mark — as either virgule or forward slash (not exactly synonyms of each other despite what some dictionaries claim) — as suggesting that the anthology can be read as letters to the future either from black women and/or from radical writing itself. Although I can imagine either editor as the one responsible for insisting on this divide between standard American racial and gender identity (Black Women) and a textuality (Radical Writing) that exceeds the tradition of Western humanism underwriting identity per se, I’d wager that this gesture of undecidability belongs to Martin. In their separate introductions both editors cite Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being as informing their thinking about issues of race and ontology, but Hunt’s sense of the anthology is that while it “is not interested in a stable notion of race,” it is constrained by “one contextual framework”: “‘art as a form of epistemology.’”[1] For Hunt, then, “our curiosity was to know how this particular group of Black women would respond to the question of tomorrow” (12). Martin, however, begins with a subjective, if not singular, sense of ambivalence: “It has always been difficult for me to conceptualize what we call blackness in relation to human bodies, particularly myself as an indicator of the things I don’t quite understand” (14). Moreover, “‘Woman’ feels almost quaint in 2018” (15). Martin’s discomfiture with all gender nouns is evident in her most recent books of poetry, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life and Good Stock Strange Blood. Although Martin’s narrator reads as an occupant of the category “lesbian” throughout much of Life in a Box (“My mother tells me the story of Sodom and Gomorrah over and over again on the telephone”), the deconstruction of a sexual orientation linked to the narrator’s assumed cisgender identification begins with a tentative swapping of the latter for a putative noncisgender identification: “I meant to write the phrase ‘the body in trauma’ but first I wrote the phrase ‘the boy’ to refer to me.” But this move only alters the terms without affecting the structure of identity itself. Always written first and so the very incarnation of writing (“A boy is not a body. A boy is a walk.”), the boy writes the box in which, as which, the human female dwells. She is not only in the box; she is the box, a “leaky” but “Complete enclosure” made leakproof only after it/she is plugged by the potable nonbody of the boy. Those quotation marks around “the boy” indicate that, for Martin, boy is only a placeholder for a language, and so a consciousness yet to come.[2] Thus, in Good Stock Strange Blood Martin suspends the structure of identity altogether: “I am not a boy in anyone’s body.” And then this: “I am not a black in a black body.”[3] The (non)mark of negativity, Martin “is” the virgule/forward slash that translates the book’s title as — and these are just three examples — Black Women or Radical Writing, Black Women and Radical Writing, and/or Black Women as Radical Writing. On the side of neither black women nor radical writing, Martin remains next to (in solidarity with) but apart from both categories.

Divided into seven major sections with three important appendices, Letters to the Future, like all anthologies, offers itself as both the collective equivalent of an attenuated Selected for general readers and a convenient textbook for teachers. And though the anthology includes some innovative prose (especially Renee Gladman’s), visual (e.g. Julie Patton’s and Kara Walker’s), and musical (Duriel Harris’s) work, it is dominated by poetry (however innovative or experimental).[4] In this anthology, another meaning of radical writing emerges: the subsumption of other creative disciplines under the rubric of “writing,” if not strictly poetry. But because a specific genre (poetry) dominates the category of writing in the anthology, the “writing” in the title of the anthology seems more an attitudinal gesture than a description of the book’s actual contents. However, another way of triangulating the contents, title, and the smattering of visual art and musical score is to interpret radical writing as textuality, as the movement of difference itself, which does have the advantage of accounting for the divide between the fixed identity of “Black Women” and the irrecuperable radical writing they presumably do. In this context, Tisa Bryant’s essay excerpt from “Our Whole Self: An Intraview of Black Women Writers’ Experimentation Essay on Elided African Diasporic Aesthetics in Prose,” which makes up the entire third appendix (titled “Looking Past The Pages of This Book”), may be the most provocative writing in the anthology, precisely because it serves as an example of the tensions embedded in the anthology’s title. Although Bryant’s primary targets are mainstream writing programs, critics, and publishers, the titles of both the section and essay echo Hunt’s summary of the limitations of the anthology “which may … in the future, read mistakenly like a parchment-fragment of a canon” (13). But Bryant’s essay title also captures the way “radical writing” (not “just” writing) seems to have become, for some poets, a synonym primarily for poetry, eliding a great deal of radical drama, nonfiction, and fiction, to say nothing of cross-genre prose. At the same time, Bryant’s essay is itself an ambivalent argument for writing by black women that is irreducible to identity politics. Thus, on the one hand, Bryant rejects the equation of “black feminist” writing with experimentalism — “To call their writing experimental puts something on it that doesn’t belong there” — and at the same time, she argues that to not “reckon with the experimental nature of their output excludes the work and the women who made it from critical consideration of their processes” (400). These are not contradictory statements since Bryant’s argument is about how readers respond to the work, how certain readers limit the “experimental” to Eurocentric formal modes of writing. Bryant’s argument largely reprises those made by black feminist critics Barbara Christian, Barbara Smith, and others, but it is an argument that has to be made again and again. As Martin observes in her gloss on Sharpe: identity politics, no matter how critically interrogated, always returns us to both a kind of reductionism imposed from without and, as Bryant’s “Intraview” suggests, a kind of collective selfhood consolidated within humans called, for instance, black women. There is thus no escaping the fact that “black women” is both a source of empowerment and limitation. It is fitting that Bryant’s powerful meditation on these questions closes, while gesturing beyond, this anthology. As Bryant puts it in the opening sentence of her essay, “I always look back … to see forward” (400).

Looking back to the first appendix, “An Elder Homage,” the editors bring together an interview/conversation between Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez and interviews with Wanda Coleman (by Priscilla Ann Brown) and Jayne Cortez (by Tracie Morris). Because Coleman is probably the most under-read of the four, her interview was, for me, the most informative. The second appendix, a sampling of writing from the editors, situates both as important innovators in both poetry and cross-genre writing.[5]

As for the contents between Hunt’s and Martin’s introductions and Bryant’s essay, just about every black/woman poet one would expect to be here is here. The inclusion of people usually associated with the visual arts — Adrian Piper, Kara Walker — certainly points beyond the limits of genre to the indeterminations of a general, albeit “experimental,” textuality. But of course, another issue raised by this gesture toward generic, to say nothing of cultural, indeterminacy is the meaning of “radical” in the title of the anthology. It is not clear if “radical” refers here to antinormativity in general (sexuality, gender, cultural politics, etc.) or if it is simply (and problematically) meant to gloss over the differences between innovative and experimental writing, neither of which necessarily maps onto political radicalism.[6] In other words, is this radical writing in the political sense, in the aesthetic sense, in the cultural sense, or in all three senses? Given the spectrum of aesthetic and political positions one might glean from what are admittedly small sample sizes per writer (but, for me, extrapolations hazarded from larger bodies of work), it might have been prudent to add another virgule/forward slash between radical and writing in the title. That is, not all the writing included here is “radical” in any sense of the term. By that I mean some of the aesthetic, social, cultural, and political criticism embedded in these writings and, formally, as these writings can be found in the “liberal” writing of black/women not included in the anthology. For example, the formal innovations of excerpts from the writings of Robin Coste Lewis, r. erica doyle, and Wendy S. Walters are admirable achievements in themselves but are hardly “radical” in any sense of the term. On the other hand, the works of LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Duriel Harris, and Deborah Richards set the bar high for what is possible — and perhaps impossible — within and beyond what we call the English language. Even within the oeuvre of a single writer, there may be both radical and liberal — politically speaking — tendencies, as the example of Claudia Rankine so readily demonstrates. The excerpt from PLOT, one of her most enthralling books, suggests a cultural and political radicalism belied by the recent example of Citizen, whose public sphere homilies made it the perfect placebo for liberal white “guilt” during the inauguration of the Trump era.

All that said, it is a pleasure to have so many of my favorite writers whose work I do know — Harryette Mullen, Duriel Harris, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Deborah Richards, Harmony Holiday, Julie Patton, Renee Gladman, Tracie Morris, Evie Shockley, Khadijah Queen, Tisa Bryant, giovanni singleton, and, of course, the editors — alongside those works of writers I am just beginning to read and know. My only technical quibble with the anthology is its usefulness as a textbook, a didactic genre Hunt and Martin signal here by the explanatory notes at the end of each section.[7] Written alternately by Hunt and Martin, these commentaries seem unnecessary, but more important, I’m not sure the explanations of the poems are transparent or explicit enough for those college teachers who don’t have prior experience with the more challenging writers in the anthology. That aside, it’s clear that Letters to the Future will be for this generation of writers, critics, and teachers what This Bridge Called My Back and Home Girls were for my generation.[8] Those anthologies offered a multitude of cross-cultural, multiethnic, and multiracial visions that presupposed the necessity of social and cultural, if not political, coalitions in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Here the question of genre becomes even more pressing since, in comparison to these multigenre forbears, the mostly poetic focus of Letters to the Future might be found wanting. Still, it could be argued that because those other anthologies were deliberate political collections, formally conservative but thematically radical (in every sense of the term), they were doing something completely different from Hunt’s and Martin’s anthology. Letters to the Future is essentially a creative writing anthology, and thus its audience will most likely be undergraduate and MFA students in academic settings. While also imagining an audience comprised primarily, if not exclusively, of academics, Home Girls and This Bridge Called My Back were predicated on the radical acknowledgement of the importance of cultural literacies among nontraditional populations of women outside the academy. These anthologies confronted the pressing question of where white and nonwhite feminists might best put their energies and resources: community building or academic pedagogy. In their separate but intersecting ways, both anthologies (and others) attempted to bridge this seemingly unbridgeable divide. Letters to the Future presupposes a different kind of audience, one more atomized despite the resurgence of coalition possibilities vis-à-vis #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and so forth. This atomization is, of course, the other side of technological developments — desktop publishing and social media — unavailable to previous generations. That atomization goes hand in hand with the more or less egalitarian networks of poetry available to a broader, if not numerically greater, audience.[9] Along with, and because of, other social and cultural changes (more women attending college, delaying or avoiding marriage, in leadership positions in business, in the media, in the arts, etc.) the number of women in MFA programs, like the number of women publishing and writing outside of academic networks, continues to grow. These women are most likely not only the primary audience for anthologies like Letters to the Future but may themselves be the editors of anthologies that will expand upon what Hunt and Martin have accomplished here. And yet, as I noted above, the commentaries by Hunt and Martin presuppose that political/cultural sympathies among nonblack women poets for black women poets do not automatically translate into receptivity to the latter’s aesthetic innovations and experiments exemplified in this anthology. And it goes without saying that simply because these black women have been gathered together in this anthology does not mean they are all attuned or receptive to each other’s aesthetic nuances. It may be that if this anthology can be read as a textbook, it is because we are all still students of one another.

1. Erica Hunt, preface to Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing, ed. Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin (Tucson, AZ: Kore Press, 2018), 12.

2. Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (New York: Nightboat Books, 2014), 34, 83, 25, and 72, respectively.

3. Dawn Lundy Martin, Good Stock Strange Blood (Minneapolis: Coffeehouse Press, 2017), 44.

4. The distinction I draw between innovative and experimental writing is analogous to that between new “paradigms” confirmed by extensive and redundant experiments and initial, tentative experiments that fail more often than they succeed. Of course, in failing they also serve to narrow the spectrum of hypotheses on the basis of which experiments are carried out. In short, innovative writing is writing canonized, however temporarily, among a community of poets and the infrastructures (presses, magazines, academia, etc.) that support them. Experimental writing is, by definition, just that: an experiment, a testing of an aesthetic, social, or political hypothesis in writing not yet widely endorsed. Neither innovative nor experimental writing is reducible to form. Finally, the traditional parameters of aesthetic taste and judgment cannot be mapped onto writing simply because it is either innovative or experimental since the relationship between innovation and experimentation is largely a matter of cultural capital.

5. Although I have spent a great deal of time discussing Martin’s work, Hunt’s upcoming book from Nightboat, Veronica: A Suite in X Parts, confirms that she too is one of our most formidable and radical poets.

6. Radical is one of those terms whose current cultural cachet activates a kind of hipster pose (“That’s so rad”), serves as a polemical weapon (“The Democratic freshwomen are nothing but radicals”), and inflates cultural artworks as unprecedented bearers of the “new” (“This new book of fiction is a radical departure from …”). Even in its most germane sphere of noncapitalist political and economic positioning, radical does not always and everywhere carry a positive value. Radicalism can refer to socialism vis-à-vis capitalism, communism vis-à-vis socialism, and, within each of these positions, ultraleftism (the apotheosis of violent means toward egalitarian ends).

7. Although I claim that the notes suggest that the editors are thinking of this anthology as primarily a teaching tool for undergraduate and graduate creative writing students, the notes may actually serve to explain these poets to other poets. Who these other poets might be — men, whites, etc. — is difficult to say.

8. And it would be instructive to revisit This Bridge Called My Back through the lens of the revised and expanded edition, This Bridge We Call Home, as well as more narrowly focused anthologies like But Some of Us Are Brave.

9. The resurgence of mass protests and political, social, and cultural movements within national boundaries (e.g., the Umbrella Revolution and its aftermath in Hong Kong) and across them (the recent climate change protests in metropolitan centers across the globe) might seem to undercut my suggestion that atomization has created more barriers to political mobilization. In this context I’m also referring to careerism and, most important, the ways the very successes of our digital age — more women and LGBTQIA+ individuals getting published in a wide variety of venues. The plethora of books and social, cultural, and political issues they invoke (not only by their “contents” but also by their very existence) means that it becomes more challenging to rally around a cohesive set of common issues as opposed to multiple cadres of intersecting but distinct concerns. Certainly, Alice Walker’s invocation of womyn, along with bell hooks’s Ain’t I A Woman, served to render the concerns of black feminists visible even if, as some nonblack feminists charged, doing so helped fragment an already fragile, but still more capacious, women’s movement.