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David Walker, the Abecedarian, and Friction: Zakiya Harris in Conversation with Simone White
UDP intern Zakiya Harris sat down with author Simone White to discuss her chapbook Unrest (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013), in anticipation of her appearance at the upcoming UDP reading at the Brooklyn Public Library tomorrow, April 28. The two covered various topics, ranging from the personal to the literary—graduate school, historical research, structure, and writing for an audience versus writing for one’s own self.
ZH: Have you always wanted to write poetry?
SW: I don’t know about that. I would say that as a very young person, I wasn’t a kid who wanted to be a writer. That never ever really occurred to me that that was something else I could do. By the time I was in college, I would say that I had realized that I was in fact writing poems. And that I would continue to do that, sort of like, quietly…[laughs]…without anybody prompting me to do it or anything. It was just something that I was just doing.
But at that point, by the time I was in college and I found myself capable of writing an actual poem, my intention was to go to law school. And that’s what I thought I was going to do, at least for the early part of my adulthood. So yeah, I didn’t always want to be a poet.
ZH: And did you find it easy to write when you were in law school? How did you balance both?
SW: I don’t think so. It was a long time ago, I’m trying to think back on what kind of writing I was doing at that time. I mean, I think I probably only wrote a small number of poems. I think if you were to collect all of them together over the course of many years, I kept notebooks during that time but I don’t think I was writing a lot of poems. It was a handful, maybe like fifteen or twenty over the course of many years. So, still, at that time I wasn’t really thinking about myself as someone who was a lawyer who was also a poet.
When I was in law school…I was really unable to think seriously about much of anything else. Like, if I was writing, it was something that I was doing as a mechanism for surviving law school. Which is hard, if you’re not committed to practicing law, which by that time I knew I was not. …at law school, I really had no idea what my life was going to be like.
ZH: What kind of law were you studying?
SW: Unless you know that you’re going to do a public interest type practice, or you are very sure that you’re going to be a legal academic, which I was not, legal education is general. Although, I was kind of flirting with the idea ofgraduate school even at that time.
ZH: I was just curious. I actually thought about law school myself, but I ended up doing my MFA in creative writing at The New School instead.
SW: I did my creative writing MFA at The New School.
ZH: Ah, yes. I’m doing nonfiction writing right now, and a lot of the historical things you mention in Unrest are really interesting to me, so I suppose I can use that as a segue into Unrest.
I know it started as a response to David Walker’s Appeal [An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World]? And can you talk to me a little about that? How did you happen upon it?
SW: Sure. Funny, I was just writing a workshop description in which I didn’t actually mention that, but it’s something I think about a lot.
I was reading for graduate school, for my first exam, which is an oral exam for my Ph.D program. And that’s an intensive period of reading. You’re just reading a lot…I mean, a lot.you read more than most normal people would want to read [Laughs] So it’s like, you’re on a schedule, because there’s a list of books you need to get through or whatever. You might be reading up to a book a day, or something like that.
And somehow I got involved in David Walker’s Appeal. I was also teaching American literature at the time, and I had always been teaching American literature, so I had two different practices: teaching classes and also, the studying that was going on, both of which involved pretty intensive reading of American texts. And I got really involved in another text, which was David Kanzajian’s study of early America in which David Walker’s Appeal, figures pretty prominently. I just got really interested in those ideas.
It was a way for me to kind of…When I started Unrest,I didn’t have any idea how it was going to end up. I think I began with the “A, B”, the abecedarian thing, and then it began to take shape. It took shape very quickly, and, in terms of the structure—like sometimes it takes a really long time to figure out how a project is going to look…
ZH: I was going to ask about that too…
SW: …Yes, sometimes it takes a very long time to sort of settle into the project, the project’s rhythm, or to find the prosody of it, and it just kind of presented itself to me because I had been reading so much..
You know what? David Walker’s Appeal isn’t a long text. So it was kind of a flash. And I started writing down phrases that were from the Appeal, phrases that were from other things I was reading, and it took shape that way.
ZH: And so, the way that each…I don’t know if segment, section, is the best way to describe them, but you have a lettering fashion. Can you explain that a little more?
SW: You mean the “A-B-C” thing?
ZH: So I’m not a poetry connoisseur, to tell you right off the bat, but— [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] That’s okay!
ZH: –I thought it was really interesting that there are no page numbers…
SW: The abecedarian is a form. It’s just a form that follows the structure of the alphabet.
SW: So the alphabet is the fundamental building block of literacy. It’s the thing that holds the text together.
But also, the “A-B-C-D” structure is also for me a kind of outlining structure. Which is kind of a gesture towards the sort of philosophical or conceptual…that’s really important to me. All my work is probably in some ways also some kind of extended…you’re a prose writer…
SW: Like, I have a very, very loose relationship between verse and prose in most of the work I do. It’s not just a loose relationship between verse and prose in terms of how the lines work, but also a loose relationship between verse and prose in terms of how I’m thinking.
So…there’s some kind of an argument in a series of poems. You know what I mean? So the group of poems does have a kind of argument. I culdn’t really sum up what the argument is— [laughs]—but there’s an expository element. There’s an argument about literacy—the literacy of black people, that part of David Walker where he says something like, “And, we couldn’t even be suffered to read or they would beat us to death.”
That’s kind of the spiritual center of the group.
ZH: And I have to ask, the letters go throughout—and again, this may be me just looking way too close at it—so it’s going “A” through “P”, and then “Q” and “R” don’t have text…
SW: Yeah. I was looking…there are a couple of missing ones, right? “Q” and “R”…
ZH: …Well…at first I started out, the first time I read it I was like, “I’m going to keep track of the letters and try to find a correlation,” but I think it’s only “Q” and “R”. So “W” and “X”…sorry, “X” and “Y”, are together…
SW: “X” and “Y” are together. So that’s obvious, right? But “QR”…it was interesting the sorts of things that kind of work themselves out, because “Q” and “R” are, you know, when I wrote them down next to each other , they spelled—sort of— “queer.”
SW: I had at some point, literally blocked out “A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P” and there were spaces, and I didn’t know what was going to go in the space, and I remember finishing whatever came before “Q” and “R”, and I looked at the space, and I said, “Well, there!”
ZH: Ah. So how did you—I’m still hung up on the letters, because I think it’s really cool the way it looks—I like visual sections, and divisions. And also the way that the book is horizontal instead of vertical, too.
SW: Yeah. I mean, that’s partly the…Anna Moschovakis and I were definitely in conversation about the book, but I give Anna total credit for designing it.
ZH: It looks great. And how did you decide what went with which letter? Because there are some sections in which I wasn’t sure if the letter went with a keyword?
SW: I don’t think…it’s funny, I’m not sure I could tell you. I think that, I guess for example, “S”, I wrote that separately for a friend’s wedding. It was supposed to be a wedding gift, a wedding poem, and it was so dark that it couldn’t be read at the wedding.
That was a stand-alone poem, that I was like, “this is ‘S’,” right? But I didn’t…I think the same is probably true of probably “XY,” so the deeper I got into the project, it was like some things had their own letters. But early on, I don’t think I was that systematic. I think I was writing from feeling.
ZH: I like that it wasn’t a conscious decision. Because I feel like that’s usually how writing goes—it takes form itself.
So there’s David Walker’s Appeal, but there are also other historical references you slip in. You don’t explain any of them, which I really appreciate. I found myself going to Google and Wikipedia a lot. You mention Alden Spooner, Haile Gebrselassie, Sebald…
Can you speak a little bit about audience, and consciousness of whether or not the reader will know what you’re talking about? Or if they’ll want to look it up…did that come across to you at all when you were writing?
SW: It does. It occurs to me. Again, this is in some ways the writing project that comes out of the reading project, so the problem…in some ways I was lost in the discovery, as other people might be. And there are characters…the Alden Spooner thing…that was probably from a Walt Whitman biography that I was reading for teaching, probably. I was teaching Whitman and I happened to be reading a Whitman biography.
But the references to, like, Harvard law school professors…you just have to look it up. [Laughs] You know what I mean? And it doesn’t really matter that much. There’s a level at which, like, you can look up Lew Sargentich if you want to, and maybe the poem will have greater relevance for you if you understand that I’m talking about a torts teacher. But I don’t think that it has to be—I’m thinking specifically about that “S” poem—I think the poem works without your knowing who Lew Sargentich is.
These are the things that I was thinking about, these are the names that were in my head when I was writing the poems, and all the time. I’ve never forgotten Lew Sargentich for twenty years. He is a character who figures in my mind, in the same way that some people are always thinking about Homer. The guy who taught my torts class my first year of law school was important to me.
So when I think of the audience, …it’s a complicated thing. Because I would like people to be able to derive enjoyment from reading the poem, and I don’t want to create unnecessary barriers to people’s enjoyment. But at the same time I don’t think a little bit of frustration is a problem. I don’t think it’s a problem to create points of friction because we all have friction in our understanding. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s just your encounter with another person’s understanding, you know?
I have my own relationship with the world and with things, and I don’t expect those things to be automatically transparent to people.
ZH: Yeah. That’s awesome. I’m asking that too, from a personal place, because in my writing workshops, a lot of the time we’re so intent on, “You have to explain this!” especially with nonfiction, so it’s kind of refreshing to hear you don’t always have to do that.
SW: Well, I mean, I’m a poet. But I also write critical stuff “Regular” criticism is about a demand for explanation. Sometimes I resist explanation in critical work as well…and maybe that’s why I’m not a regular academic. Sometimes I think explanation is not serving. It’s not helping.
ZH: I guess in this particular case of my workshop, it’s a lot of memoir.
SW: Well memoir is a form that demands explanation in a different way, maybe?
Maybe. I don’t know, I don’t write a lot of memoir. What do you think? [Laughs]
ZH: You say that, but I have to say when I was reading the “Honorifics Lacks Specificity” section I felt very…I felt that was very memoiristic. Body image…
SW: It does have elements there…
ZH: …I really connected with that. This idea of, “I can’t help but see that I have become the dense powerful creature I could see only in shadow twenty years ago.”
I think you…I think you did some memoir there. [Laughs]
SW: [Laughs] Good to know, good to know.
Simone White was born in 1972 in Middletown, Connecticut, and grew up in Philadelphia.. Simone is the author of Of Being Dispersed (forthcoming from Futurepoem), Unrest (UDP), House Envy of All of the World (Factory School), the chapbook Dolly (Q Ave Press, curated by Ross Gay, with the paintings of Kim Thomas). She lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Unrest is currently out of print, but can be read online in UDP’s online chapbook archive here of poetry.