An Interview with jayy dodd

There are ways to discuss and attack violence, but once violence has already taken its course, how you mourn is the final note. There are black genderqueer poets. Seeing people of all ages invest in this ritual, I was like, “I’m going to put everything I’ve ever believed in into this right now.” I really did. It was almost like, “Please, universe, just do it.”
I think the turning point was the New Year coming into 2015. Because I wish they’d seen themselves possible. That tweet about Morgan Parker’s work made me think of the black women kicked off the Napa Valley Wine Train — all these sites where whiteness imagines blackness as excessive. I feel like I have a different set of resources to attempt that alive. I believe in energy. Pepper LaBeija made her body. Would you say more about transcending the need for reason — casting off the demand for sense? The second stanza — “every poem is masturbation” — breaks the fourth wall: I’m switching this up here because I know you’re watching. I’m not a black man, but when I walk down the street, I’m still six feet and five inches. Manuel Arturo Abreu writes: “What does it mean to mourn what never happened?” They ask us to consider not only people who have passed, but also the infinite possibilities foreclosed for each of us as we move through the world. I don’t know what fame means as a qualitative thing, but I have consistently understood that I have an audience of some sort. Maybe three. ¤
CLAIRE SCHWARTZ: You tweet, you write essays, and you’re a poet. We went outside. For what? The size of my audience never really mattered to me. I know I don’t always see myself possible. There is no reason I should be here. Certain bodies in black work aren’t mine, but the violence they face speaks to me. For example, in “ars poetica,” you name the connection between poetry and the Middle Passage, poetry and economies of blackness. There’s some kin who I can’t speak to. Pepper LaBeija was glamorous, done-up, and gorgeous. It’s a certain kind of speech I have that I basically use for poems and prayer. My mom raised me on black women poets, and there wasn’t a lot of space for me in the black women’s poetry that I was reading. The voice in those poems is speaking the body in the poem — my body — into existence. There’s a lot of femme language that black queer men use for kinships, for example. And I came back to Boston, shifted. So the harvest section in “ars poetica” goes back to: Even in those language contexts, you’re still thinking about blackness. Would you say a little bit about that poem and what it’s doing in the center of the book? On Twitter, they post selfies, offer takes on RuPaul’s Drag Race, lift up the work of other black writers, and rebuke white supremacy and transmisogyny. Right before it went to print, the editors asked if they could use the email for the opening of the book. I’m thinking, too, of the lines in “Cordon Negro”: “I’m dying twice as fast / as any other American / between eighteen and thirty-five.” It was recently your 25th birthday — Happy birthday! One committed suicide the spring after this New Year. The things that commonly happen for people — the ways that people understand things — are so varied. Let’s fuck it up. “ars poetica” is right in the middle of the book because by the time you get there, you’ll understand: there’s a historic, a black, a traumatic, but also a deeply erotic and pleasured body that I’ve created. I am of this lineage, so these beautiful black works are spaces that leave my body hoping for more. What does it feel like to now be in that space past the boundary of your recent imagination? Non-binary beings have been; but the language for us is limited. It was the danger of masculinity, the danger of blackness, the danger of black masculinity in America, the danger of the queer blackness. I went to college with him. I didn’t have language for it. But all that language fails me often, so whenever someone asks, my response is, “I am your question.” It is yours. I didn’t care what I was good at saying. And the thing is: I never felt not-black. And then douse it in a black dialect and sell it as cool. He overdosed. Not at all. It’s here. I was away from home in high school. Closeness always feels fictitious in a way. Is now. No, you were beyond gender. Could you talk a bit about ideas of closeness and distance as they figure into your work? I have this white, good-looking education. I didn’t care what I was good at selling. In one way, I love that. I didn’t know what non-binary was. This conflation of solidity of presence with the offering of this same presence.” What does this idea of here, of offering, mean for you? I had to ask myself: “What is my life in this context when the streets know?” Black people are the most expert people in this nation. I don’t have a question. I don’t see many people in my body. So, why are we lying about it? Someone as acclaimed as this critic calls one of the most important books of poetry in this century “crowded”? Crowded with what? I was like: I want to be like that. In this poem, the bridge I want to build between Pepper LaBeija and myself is the death of a body that failed both of us and a memorial that marks all else as capable between us. Several of the poems in this book make explicit that negotiation. Then, you turn to masturbation. And Pepper LaBeija didn’t say, “I’m a non-binary person.” She probably would have said “trans” — or whatever language was there. And your question, that is who I am. jayy dodd: I’m very blessed with how the book has shifted whatever one can understand as a profile. That you take stock of the ways you are being consumed even as your work transforms the conditions of consumption makes me think of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits. English is an understatement of what their poems are written in. I’ve known the whole time. ¤
Claire Schwartz is a PhD candidate in African American Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale. I transcend the need for reason. The confidence to — despite the world — know who are you are in your work and also to know who you are in this private home sense is why I feel for her. How about her attention to form and voice and line break? You said that you hadn’t imagined living beyond 25. For me, the urgency is that my body doesn’t feel very seen. We spoke on Skype. I want to honor that by becoming one for somebody else. I’m sorry it’s not crowded with pastorals about trees from stolen land. I connect to her deeply. It said, “crowded with influences.” Not “brimming with.” Even “flooded” has some sort of oozing connotation. I like post-gender the best. They’re writing their bodies. For example, your poem “Infinite Monkey Theorem” engages with the ways that certain kinds of speech are produced, (dis)credited, and (dis)allowed in various spaces. Alongside documenting your body, your work also charts negotiations with the terms of visibility. Narcissus (Siren Song/CCM Press). My work is my offering to that, too. Ultimately, I just try to be strategic as hell about how I make myself plain. That opens into the harvest part: “…if the jaw learns to unhinge: how will it hang – / heavy & full, ripe fig on low branch?” In some poems, I’m primarily interrogating language. Your poem “scene: waking up next to John Keats after a pleasant evening” also plays with proximity. So I think that our bodies fail us in this functional way. I love their work. Documentation of actual life? Not plain enough, and those who need me won’t. So, you decide to code your white discomfort as cool. That’s what I’m grateful for. I’m sorry talking about Xanax and your dog and trying to make it home at night makes you feel crowded. You repurpose Keats’s concept of “negative capability” — which describes the capacity of great artists to pursue a vision of beauty that leads them into uncertainty — to describe your own subjectivity. The cadence of how they write is such a great translation of their distinct conversational voice and dialect. I am here. That’s actually an email. Your poem after Cave, “Speak Louder,” is comprised of small congregations of words extending down and across the page. So all our birthdays were in a six-week span. Absolutely. I believe in power beyond our eyes. We all lined up. That reminds me of the epigraph to Mannish Tongues from Essex Hemphill’s “Cordon Negro”: “I’m faced daily with choosing violence / or a demeanor that saves every other life / but my own.”
After Langston Hughes, Essex Hemphill was the first black queer male poet I read. My parents are both ministers, so I believe that “where one or two are gathered, the lord will be revealed.” That’s a way of saying: where anyone is, the truth can happen. It is, as you said — among other things — a failure of language. That’s when I really started to divest from these institutions, from American policy. Is black. The English language is nonsense. They didn’t even tag me. — and you spoke about that as a threshold. A whole world that she built for you, and all you can say is, “crowded”? It’s never about her craft, her command of language. Would you say more about this idea of the body that failed both of you? It wasn’t like, “I’m all of a sudden better now.” I just believed I could do it differently. We’ve had to be. I’m grateful that I’m alive enough to write this book and that it found that person. I love that language is so mutable. The idea of common sense is highly uninterrogated. It was a month before my birthday and about a week after his. The best I can imagine is in pieces and in parts. The construction of the words disregards so much that once it is disregarded, you see how unnecessary it is. For example, just before we started this talk, The New Yorker tweeted about Morgan Parker’s book. I can’t afford for the reader to sleep on my awareness that I’m being consumed; the moment that you do, I’m devoured. This poem encapsulates all of that. Then you can collect the pieces; read them closely; and see the transmission. I came into my own body around skinny gay white boys. Because of the way integration happened in our schools, Southern Californians across race have a more uniform dialect. And so her body will always fail her in a way — because even if she didn’t have a problem with her black masculinity, it was read onto her, given to her, whether she wanted it or not. That’s what I love about black work. But is there a wealth of phenomenal black poetry? His birthday was a week before mine. A non-binary black person did a whole thread on Twitter about Mannish Tongues. His attention to the body hit me in so many ways. Do you feel like Mannish Tongues is changing how people make their way to your work? I think about closeness even in terms of family and kin. You were razor-bumps and red lip. But I think I have to call it what it is, which is now. I think about distance in terms of: How far can our frequency travel? Never. I can hope things are different for gender in the world, but my gender is this. In my poetry, I either want the voice to be so full that you hear the body it’s coming from or I want you to see the body that I’m preparing in the text. I believe in the host. Common sense is a misnomer. But I know Pepper LaBeija lived. I don’t feel freer saying “non-binary” because the binary’s still there. They had never seen themselves reflected, and then they read this. When I write, I imagine a congregation, but also a conjuring. They both didn’t make 25. I know it’s there. What, then, are some of the richer resources you find for your language and your work? She also showed herself every day. / … / This, my offering.” In Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Claudia Rankine writes: “[T]he poem is that — Here. I dreaded not knowing what was going to take me out. My mom is a black poet lesbian, so it was always: mad black, mad queer. I think about how when you’re driving on the highway, you have to tune the radio to get it just right; a little bit further out, you may have to tune it again. I had no context for myself. The eulogy works as a way to put to rest the violence. Whether I have an audience of five hundred or an audience of two — or now almost five thousand — I’m going to keep on being my best. Where has Mannish Tongues been received that moves you? Her use of Easter eggs across her work? And when I’m talking, I don’t have to. So, 25 is for us. I’m constantly aware that there’s a distance — whether a safe one of not — between myself and the reader. “That shit was too black.” You can’t say that. White supremacy is bad at language. I’m not grateful for any publication. It somehow becomes black, but I’m not thinking about it in that way. Then, almost a year later, a friend from middle school committed suicide. We burned what we wanted to let go of. That’s why I love them. I’ve been to so many kinds of services. That was true even when I was male-identified, but it’s especially true now that I’ve begun transitioning. I try to always be accountable to that. Is here. Over time, I realized that all these things that parts of my life had given me access to — and that I had invested in — were not sustainable. I changed “man” to “here.”
Sometimes I believe my gender is the future. I’m up for judgment. In college, I started to radicalize — as someone’s grandfather would say. I look this way. What is the eulogy doing as a form in your book? And thinking about offering … By writing about the black body in English, I’m always offering it up to someone who has more control over it than I do. I’m thinking especially of the last poem: “A Eulogy for Myself, the Night (after Pepper LaBeija).”
Pepper LaBeija was the first future I ever saw for myself. There are so many misdocumentations of non-binariness. Maybe. They had big gold goblets of fire in the church parking lot. They are the author of [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press, 2016), Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017), and The Black Condition ft. I went to a black church with my mom in DC. They are a co-editor of Bettering American Poetry and a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellow. That alignment between poetry and prayer is such a beautiful image that at once foregrounds the intimacy of making and the sacredness of reception. My parents are ministers. The first section: my blackness; the annoyance that I have to use English in this way. It is an amalgamation of every violent motherfucker ever trying to bequeath something to themselves. It’s never that. You were a parent. Even when I’m in my highest femme, I know I’m a black man to somebody on the street. But language can be so violent. You know it’s there. Church was over. I think the more meta poems about the body are figuring out what I need to feel whole. Fact? Post-college and beginning to really reimagine my body, I still turn to those texts for how language fails. My mom said, “You need to watch this.” And I was just like, “Oh my god!”
Even when I was a boy, I wanted to be as pretty and maternal as Pepper LaBeija. I’m up for debate. I went to a mostly white boarding school in Connecticut and then to Tufts. Too plain, and anyone could have me. Their work can and, in some ways, must live on the page because when it’s read out loud you wouldn’t hear all the language that you see on the page — the ways they make words from their parts. In an interview with Devin Kelly, you said: “the body is a text but not all text supports the body, so I think that’s the sacred work of poetry — to   use   text to create new bodies to read from.” Would you say more about the relationship between your poetry and the body? It never feels like gaudy or heavy, and they’re out here hitting some hard, serious points across so many necessary sites. I’ve been thinking about this. I think my writing voice and reading voice are fairly similar. Is alive. In the book’s opening poem, you write: “Because there is always a body in a poem, my body is Black, soft / some kind-of-attempt at here. My mom is a pageant queen. I write how I pray. The conceit of me being a poet in this way — in this format, giving interviews; all of that — is that I know I’m offering up my body. Something about this felt like a different kind of black and a different kind of cosmic. I know she lived all that she was. All my skills were being used for everything but my own liberation, my people’s liberation — things I was raised believing in. There are black queer poets. That’s not a good or bad thing; it’s just a statement of fact. In their sonically attuned and formally rigorous poetry, dodd navigates the conditions of the poem’s construction — “every poem is a death & each stanza an economy / built on an ocean floor covered in bones,” they write in “ars poetica” — while documenting the pleasures, violences, foreclosures, and possibilities of their own black trans femme presence. Language failed their bodies, too. That shift was really important because between then and now two of my close friends — two black queer men — committed suicide. Then, in college, I read Essex Hemphill. All y’all owe me too much for me to be grateful to you yet. That always felt good. It could have been, “Every poem is pleasure.” But it’s: “I’m pleasuring myself now. For the New Year service, everyone wrote down things they wanted to let go of. But black trans poets? I don’t even think I was 13 yet. And to imagine how she didn’t have language for it either …
In “A Eulogy for Myself, the Night,” I’m eulogizing what she made of her body because that’s what I mourn. Maybe there hasn’t been a time or place for me yet. How you mourn may be even more important than how you write the history. By making strange the human form, the Soundsuits inaugurate new possibilities for relation. Do I feel distant from that? I’m not grateful for any scholarship money. It is word for word what I sent when I submitted my manuscript [to Platypus Press] — except “some kind-of-attempt at here” was “some kind-of-attempt at man.” I was still male-identified at the time, and I didn’t know what to do with that. I don’t love the term non-binary. Her walking the runway is me writing a poem. I feel like here and now are two resources I have to think about gender work — to locate it all as present, urgent. JULY 27, 2017

THE TWITTER BIO for jay dodd begins: “jayy dodd is a blxk question mark from los angeles, California — now based on the internet.” On the internet, they tweet @deyblxk:
dodd is a writer and editor uninterested in boundaries charted by the white literary establishment. Common to who? You do. I don’t think I’ve read a single review of Morgan’s work written by a non-black person that was not in some way wildly violent. There’s not even a word to describe the sensation of not having to translate untranslatable speech. She manifested, crafted, painted, sewed, stitched, padded. I’m happy you asked me now. You were all of it. It is legible — actually, “legible” is the wrong word. What you are surrounded by can only tell so much. And I want you to watch because you’re going to watch anyway.” That kind of self-awareness is definitely tongue in cheek, but more so, it’s that I don’t want the reader to think I don’t know they’re reading. Don’t think I didn’t know. That’s what I’m grateful for. Elocution has been something that I’ve always had in my family. I saw her in Paris Is Burning. I line broke, dashed, italicized. I was like, “Maybe this is close to what my life is going to be.” Thankfully, I had encounters that ruptured that illusion; but those encounters were also filled with trauma. Her poetry has appeared in   Beloit Poetry Journal,   the   Massachusetts Review,   Prairie Schooner,   and   Waxwing, and her essays, reviews, and interviews in   Electric Literature, The   Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. When I learned about negative capability, I was like, “This is what I am.” I am the embodiment of the unknown, the mystery. Do you not hear yourselves making us sound scary and all-consuming and too much? What I’m hearing is: You feel claustrophobic by all that black shit she did. Cave began making the Soundsuits — sculptural forms that mask the body — in the wake of the Rodney King riots in response to the vulnerability of black people. dodd’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, the Nashville Review, Teen Vogue, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. Cool. I never wanted to be anything other than myself, but I could never understand what that was. That’s not a fault. Also, I am from Los Angeles. The poet Kamden Hilliard. But “crowded”? I can imagine futures for my gender, but I also don’t need to. In my work, I can only imagine the distance. Still, there are certain places where we could stand side by side. This dude at a party asked, “Are you a man or woman?” I’m like, “I’m your question.” That’s as whole as I can be right now. I felt that I had to. You were a figure. For me, “ars poetica” is a poem in three parts, even though it’s visually in two. Having the goal of 25, I felt like death was this impending thing. I feel the same way. The poem stages an intimacy with the Romantic poet. She wasn’t trying to pass as anything but Pepper LaBeija. That slaughtered me. At the same time, there’s a lineage of black art and black story that I want to fortify and continue to make irrefutable. Now that I’m here, what am I going to do? The gender binary is bad at language. And Aziza Barnes. So, I have this trained and familial lineage of elocution. And there are people who are not blood who I would die for in a moment. I created work in response to Hemphill and Hughes in my first book, [sugar in the tank], but there was often this way that I was speaking to them, not of or with them. Even in their deaths, they showed me a possibility. I can name two. But it’s not far from how I speak.