Monday, July 10, 2017

Interview of Joey De Jesus

Interview of Joey De Jesus by Xánath Caraza

Joey De Jesus

Joey De Jesus is a queer Nuyorican poet whose work has appeared in Barrow Street, Beloit Poetry Journal, Brooklyn Magazine, The Cortland Review, Devil’s Lake, Drunken Boat, Guernica, Harriet, RHINO, Southern Humanities Review and elsewhere. Joey edits poetry for Apogee Journal and copyedits Façadomy. Joey has a M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and is beginning the M.A. in Performance Studies at New York University in the fall.  Joey is a recipient of the 2017 NYSCA/NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and lives in Ridgewood, Queens.

Who is Joey De Jesus? 

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which to manifest resistance. If Trump’s dream State desires to obliterate me, if the government seeks to smudge me out because of my identity, then the most resistant gesture I can imagine is to be larger than life itself. Therefore, I speculate myself into mythology; I imagine and elevate a pantheon of me. To those who deny me my magnitude, I say, “Stay the Fuck up out my lane.” “I and my fellows / Are ministers of fate. The elements / Of whom your swords are tempered may as well / Wound the loud winds or … / Kill the still-closing waters as diminish / One dowl that’s in my plume.” In defiance of fascism in America, is it too much to ask that all kneel before the dark femme palm of my dream governance?

I’m a 3000-year old manticore with a dark agenda and a glamorous crystal. If it must burn, then I will steal the fires tattooing filched land, become an atmospheric condition conducting destructive force, a cicada sleeping in the crushing recesses of a deep-sea trench, a whisper-weaving cuco, breaking and entering spirits through their unlocked shadows. Lock your shadows. I’m a poet whose been robbed, a poet of whispers and curses, of faith, storm and rage. So much of my labor goes unacknowledged that I often feel I’m being primed to deep-state shadow puppeteer an entire nation. Nietzsche said, “Beware that, when fighting monster, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” I can attest. For many of us of demonized demographic, I say it’s too late. I have been reduced to near-nothing, so I will be the nothing white writers find everywhere colluding with a plethora of hungry fiends to vanquish an elitist demonry; I obliterate the witcheries of privilege before me, including those from which I might benefit. Every time I see a rat it robs me of my sympathy. I’m an architect of my own spit, a termite queen, pheromonal and in complete control.

I’m concerned with the rhetoric of branding and tokenization and how it relates to the performance and consumption of my offspring. I am witnessing that people are becoming increasingly skilled in the craft of persona. So many are not who they seem. I’ve never changed my Twitter avatar. If identity and poetry are performative, and Twitter is a practice space, then I’ve reserved my time. I hope that it comes across in my writing that I speak from the periphery of institutional support, and that I possess and am possessed by a non-normalized identity.

As a child, who first introduced you to reading?   

I kind of want to answer this in three parts:

Some of my earliest memories include my mother insisting that I complete daily Hooked-On-Phonics lessons and handwriting exercises. This was before I even entered preschool. I cannot reiterate enough that throughout my entire childhood, my parents insisted on reading; believing that education would solve our class struggles. This idea was reified when I was accepted into Kindergarten at a fancy private school that serviced some of New York City’s wealthiest. I knew and was told that my acceptance was due to my verbal, reading and writing abilities—in time my peers would attempt to reduce me with tokenizing rhetoric. One of the most significant lessons I learned as a child happened when I transferred from public school in Soundview [the South Bronx] to Fieldstone in Riverdale [affluence]. I learned I can use my language to navigate for resources. Living in an environment radically different from my classmates became practice for my codeswitching skills.

I remember my mother working toward her Bachelors and two Master’s degrees—she was always working full-time and in school. From her I learned to be steadfast, and that reading and education were weapons I could wield to achieve the semblance of the mobility that comes with privilege. Now I am a goddess with a weapon in my mouth, and a spear, a sword, and a dagger mounted on my walls to the northeast, southwest, and southeast respectively.

She was taller than me, then, being older than I was. She was inquisitive, opinionated, empathetic, yes. Diligent, a dedicated student. Love, really. Love dictated her life. Even in confronting her trials, her love was a gift to those of us who knew her. When I was about 12 years old, my cousin Lauren died of cancer. She was, at that time, an undergraduate student at Pomona. I had no idea that with my aging my memory of Lauren would grow into its own shape of life; that in keeping her, the abstract qualities I admired in her personhood would, over time, change and change me entirely.

“Morphine, iodine, Motrin, IV’s
my first gateway
five days, six nights
Craftmatic model 2 adjustable bed    
buttons to call nurses that don’t come in time
covered in my own vomit, spit, tears
waiting for some poor soul to walk in and wash me up
As I grunt in pain, mystery, hopelessness
‘Does your back hurt?’
I said no, fearing the inevitable […]”

Lauren was a poet. It was after her passing when she gave me her gift of poetry. In my youth, I thought of poetry as a means to resolve my rage at her passing while simultaneously serving as a banner I could take up in her memory.

Because of this history, I now equate my relationship with Lauren to my relationship with poetry. Poetry became, for me, an attempt at articulating that which exists beyond the cusp of what language can convey; it became an attempt at discovering the unknown, the unknowable through the great failure of language. This became my endeavor because it was the best I could muster to understand Lauren’s existence beyond death. To me, Lauren exists where language fails, and while so many might assume that a poet loves language, I do not. I pursued this craft in spite of language—out of the rage, tranquility and peace that comes with being, as we all are, ultimately inarticulate. I write to understand the eternally unknowable. Lauren wrote:

 “I want to help other people save their own lives like you [God] have saved mine b/c even though my cancer is still here on the scans, my heart my mind & spirit are very much saved by your grace. You have awakened me from my cynicism, skepticism, sadness, insecurity, self-depreciation, self-pity. I feel more complete than ever…”

I write to lose myself in the eternally unknowable. And if I can hint at, if I can articulate, just a moment of that oblivion, I have accomplished my endeavor as a poet. It is in this way that my memory of Lauren has assumed new life, as this is something I engage with every day. While I have regarded the qualities, Lauren possessed in life as standards by which to hold myself. Lauren’s being, her presence, her memory, have grown to encompass so much more in that she exists in the unsaid of all things. That I may, at any point, casually open the doors to laughter, to sorrow and find her, somehow, on the other side.

This is what she has become, unexpected moments of resolve, that in the hours in which I doubt myself, I can recall why it is that I came to where I am and to then hold my memory of her as a tenet of my core. Lauren grounds me in my voice. Her memory provides me with the affirmations to say, out loud, no, this is unjust, yes, this is my sound. In this way, she has grown into my source of resistance too.

I studied with the poet Michael Morse in high school. He knew my family, my history. He was the first to tell me that I had promise as a poet. He was so encouraging an instructor. The first two collections to which he introduced me were Louise Gluck’s “The Wild Iris” and Patrick Rosal’s “Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive”. From then on, I walked a poet’s path but I didn’t identify as a realized poet until later.

How did you first become a poet? 

What needs to be said is that I didn’t consider myself a realized poet until I was held hostage and tortured during a home invasion in 2012. Walking out of that situation alive was, to me, a measure of my ability as a poet: to reach into the soul of someone who wanted to kill me and convince him otherwise. Now, no publication, acclaim, prestige or prize impresses or intimidates me. Publication is not a measure of success or ability. I’ve read a lot of trash published only because the author’s name carries specific prestige.

I was in grad school at the time, studying poetry, but the environment of the MFA always had me estimating myself against lack. We were being taught to consider the significance of our language, by mentors who refused to apply that same scrutiny to the worlds that buffered their own careers as writers. I encountered few who would risk their reputations to challenge the cishet-white-male dominance that pervades literary history, including in publishing and writing programs. We were being primed by example to make those same compromises. Now, I’m not knocking anyone for how they collect their coins, but quantifiable measures of success are so counter to my identity. As a person of marginalized demography, I don’t seek to conform to any norm. I do not seek to include myself among elitists. I say it often: prestige is the form of social capital that finances abuses in literary communities and so I reject acceptance in the same way I reject rejection.

Additionally, my formal education in poetry was pulling me further from the life that initially brought me to poetry. I noticed a change in my priorities. I sent work out for publication like my status and career depended on it. And, for the most part, I felt guilty whenever I would learn of a publication or some accolade my work had received, because I felt that I had compromised myself in conforming to acceptance. Now, I really don’t care about publication in literary journals unless I care about the people working on those journals. I only share work with those whom I trust, and I feel no imperative to publish a book. I’ve learned there are other ways to build an audience. 

Do you have any favorite poems by other authors?

There are plenty of poems I adore, but I find myself reciting Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me” most frequently, maybe that’s cliché, but whatever. In the poem “Creation Myth,” Vievee Francis writes, “Now I openly moan as chaos reshapes itself in my form,” this line also resonates deeply with me and has been generative to think about. I love that these works both address the individuation of the self. Both poems speak to creating identity out of chaos and earthy-matter. Otherwise I would say I am a huge fan of Saretta Morgan, Muriel Leung, Leila Ortiz, Jennifer Tamayo and Sueyeun Juliette Lee, their poetry inspires me to strive further. I have been trying to avoid reading new poems aside from work that I engage through Apogee Journal. I am currently interested in reading about cemiism, numinous objects, and diagrammatics. I’ve also been taking notes on video games which I project on the wall for a speculative fiction piece that I’m working on.

What is a day of creative writing like for you?

I write every day on my laptop in bed and carry a journal with me everywhere I go. Recently, I have been working off of 48 single-spaced pages of notes that I’ve transcribed from journals kept over the years. From those notes, I’ve been composing poems for a series of 21 ekphrastic poems titled, “Materia”. I spend a lot of time scanning these pages for something that might potentially trigger a poem. If I compose a line, I might post it to Twitter to field interest in it. For instance, a few days ago I wrote, “I steal the fires tattooing filched land!” and decided to post it to Twitter. A few folks liked the tweet, so I thought to include the line in a fiction piece and a poem. The line ultimately became, “If it should burn, then I will steal the fires tattooing filched land!” 

Twitter is an excellent tool to test material.  Every tweet can be read as a poem; intentionally or not, a tweet has formal constraints in the number of characters an author can use, it abandons the confines of the page, appearing instead in an infinitely scrolling timeline. A tweet can utilize hyperlinks and hashtags, which I think bear poetic potential. Most importantly, a tweet made public is accessible to an audience that includes more than those who consider themselves poets. Twitter (and social media in general) has the power to destabilize academia’s stranglehold on poetry as an art form. I don’t need poets of an elite cohort to champion my work when I can build an audience independent of another’s platform. In return, I cannot be vetted into silence. Under the guardianship of celebrity editors, poets, publishers, institutions and professors, capital-P Poetry has been removed from a general public. But we can expect that to change, as the tide of progress washes over Late-capitalist poets, who have achieved acclaim as a direct result of their complicity and silence in the face of institutionalized white supremacy and violence. 

What frustrates me now, however, is that there are several poets who have achieved some sort of visibility because of their access and privilege. It is now in vogue to “be woke” and these individuals have appropriated me and my fellows’ labor and, as a result, have landed publications in places like Poetry Magazine. Such an opportunity only opens the door to more resources. So that disgusts me.

When do you know when a poem is ready to be read?

When I write a poem, I read it aloud to myself repeatedly. The performance of the work before an audience is a wonderful space for revision. I revise at readings, I riff on lines, and I attempt recitations even though I might screw up. I celebrate my own failure in this way. There have certainly been instances in which I’ve read drafts, notes and fragments of an incomplete poem, in addition to complete works. I don’t feel any imperative to read a complete—I guess it depends on how I am feeling the day of the performance. I often use live-sound equipment in the performance of my work—vocal loops, recordings and effects that modulate or multiply the pitch of my voice—so the material I perform may sound very different from what is written on the page.

I’ve embraced the habit of self-plagiarism. One nice thing about having never published a book is that I can never completely turn away from any piece I’ve written. When conducting evocations, an adept knows their required ingredients—why can’t a line or rhetorical device, an image, do the same? If I’ve composed an evocative line and I am trying to (re)create writing rituals, propriety and industry-norms of “all original content” will not keep me from utilizing my most powerful ingredients repeatedly—or as I like.

Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist? 

I don’t think of myself as a cultural activist. But I am currently adjuncting composition classes. The vast majority of my students are people of color and/or immigrants. At the beginning of each semester, I have my students read Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” I ask them respond to her questions, “What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies of silence you swallow day by day until you eventually sicken and die of them still in silence?” I ask them of what they had been most silent in their lives, and then read their work aloud anonymously. Obviously, the material is often very traumatic and so I warn them. Only consenting students participate in the exercise and everyone has the freedom to leave the class. It is an incredible experience.

It would be hypocritical of me to expect my students to execute this assignment, if I am too afraid to reveal or live my own truths. Therefore, I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of myself as a cultural activist, I just think that my proximity to death and my survival have uprooted my fears. I hope this example communicates how I try to conduct my life as a writer. Again, the most defiant thing I can do, in a society that seeks to destroy me, is live boldly. Unafraid of judgment or death, I fear my own potential.  

What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?

Aside from being Poetry Co-Editor at Apogee Journal, I’ve finished a manuscript titled The Land God Made in Anger. Most of the work that appears of mine in print or online comes from this collection. The poems grapple with bewilderment, loss, alienation, transience, and rage. The poems span geographical space. Many of them locate themselves in Kenya, Namibia and Botswana, where I was living and conducting wildlife research. I think of the collection, ultimately, as an expression of loneliness.

I’ve made significant progress on my second manuscript. HOAX is and a collection of concrete poems, astrolabes, sound poems, free verse poems, lyric fragments, calendars, incantations, sigils and erasures. I’ve incorporated loop pedals, vocal synthesizers, video projection and MaxMSP into the performance of this manuscript and consider this performative element central to the work. HOAX includes my “Materia” series as well as “NOCT: The Threshold of Madness,” which I performed at Artists Space last year. The text of “NOCT: The Threshold of Madness” is derived from the erasure of a popular “how-to” book in black magic. In it, I isolate rhetoric pertaining to anti-blackness and the internalization of white supremacy, and construct encoded symbols out of arrangements of the words on the page. The work reads as 18 pages of poetry chronicling identity damage through radically assimilating found text. A visual projection of the 200+ pages of source material accompanies the performance; through MaxMSP, I control the brightness of the video with the pitch and volume of my augmented voice.

I weaponize my erasure—when rendered invisible, I become poison in the air—and use every moment to enhance my repertoire against American fascism. So, I am practicing different strategies toward erasure and performance. I am bored with conventions of the performance of poetry and am dedicated to disrupting those spaces—which is one impetus for incorporating live-sound synthesizers into my readings.

I received a full-ride to NYU starting in the fall to pursue a MA in Performance Studies. I intend to get my PhD and am very excited to finally have institutional support for my work. I also have a secret something upcoming in early May.

What advice do you have for other poets?

I believe it is the responsibility of the poet to criticize the rhetoric used when discussing poetry, and to identify examples (i.e.: “submission” “slush”) of the normalized language of elitism and while-male dominance that pervades literary history. My advice for a poet would be to radically unlearn what they’ve encountered from their mentors and colleagues in workshops, schools, writing retreats etc.… But again, I say, I’ve learned to reject rejection in the same way I reject acceptance. And that I draw power from my pettiness. Inclusion into exclusive regimes, whether they are political or institutional—The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Poetry Magazine… the Academy—will not save us. I also think it’s time to reevaluate the rhetoric of “decolonization.” Because when I think of decolonization, I often think of subsequent dictatorship.

Dos poemas por Joey de Jesus

declining cheetah populations
a lipogram

Acinonyx jubatus
Subtaxa: Acinonyx
Just a cousin cat
in a sooty coat
I can’t bait a bison
can’t stunt-nix an ox
can’t bust a nut
can’t coax it a-tiny
—a cystic sac—
No, I can’t boast
a nosy, noisy cub
in a banyan basin.
It’s statistics. So
I incant to Octans,
sin a satanic
sonic in an instant,
I scout out sancta
to stint in: a stony coast,
an oasis at noon.
Cast out, cautious,
I scan, a scion
sans nation.
In assonant notation
I instinct, I snit
I scat, I scoot

First published in Argo Book’s 2016 Calendar

venus, rising orb of dusk,
your toxic sparkle lifts the heat
that greens the hour—
acidic sky, figsuckle sear
astral bodies that burst into infinite flash                                                
may hold overhead like a scorpion’s hook
but I will never allow the weight
of a whisper
to anchor my robe of feathers

mid-flight a hawk tears into duck meat
while another pair of lovers
giggles at the assonance of their names
the salt of the day caught in the hairs
of their chests
also settles on the tongues of birds

hell is around the corner,
of this I am as sure as
not being born twice

the drunken flame

to go back,
to be dust again                       

First published in Assaracus

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