The following is an excerpt from an interview underway with Toi Derricotte and Dawn Lundy Martin. The interviewer is Ellen McGrath Smith, editor of Pitt’s English alumni e-newsletter, The Fifth Floor; the complete interview with the poets will appear in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of The Fifth Floor (http://www.english.pitt.edu/news/newsletter.php).
Question: Individual and collective trauma is a theme in much of both of your work. Could you talk about these themes? What are the challenges of inviting writing students to touch unsettling subject matter in their writing? What are the benefits?
Toi: Just yesterday in my undergraduate readings class, students were unsettled by Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, and some felt that the book was too disturbing to read. In some ways, I wasn’t surprised at that response from some of the students. It seems to me that, in many of the creative writing classes I’ve taught, students seem less willing than they were ten years ago to reveal themselves on a deep level and to touch dark subjects. When I was much younger, I attempted to move them in that direction especially if they were poets. However, in the past few years I’m very mindful of the complexity of people’s responses and I respect them. As the semester goes on and I get to know individuals better, as a result of getting to know their poetry, I may open up more of a conversation about writing about trauma. Though I haven’t read the students any of my work yet, I have found in the past that sometimes when I read work that I’ve written about trauma, it allows others to feel safe. My students will probably come to the reading I’m doing for the PCWS, some of them may be surprised by what they hear. They may or may not like the subjects I’m writing about. But I write about these subjects because, as Audre Lorde said, “Silence makes everything stay the same.”
Dawn: When or where trauma—collective or individual—enters my work, it does so from an impetus of compulsion. It also impacts the means by which the work seeks to speak. In both my creative and critical work, I have imagined (with the help of a diversity of theorists from Jacques Lacan to Cathy Caruth) that, because trauma affects the ability to speak and utterance is troubled in the post-traumatic state, the poem can be a mechanism via which to re-imagine the possibilities of utterance. I’ve wondered, too, whether the poem in its re-imagining and enactment can yield a different set of knowledges than, say, critical theory, and whether this might be crucial to what we know about trauma and how it affects the self.
As a black poet in America, my work considers the very “trauma” of identity or, more precisely, the “melancholia” of it—to borrow from Anne Anlin Cheng’s work. I’m interested in the possibility of speaking a black self in this contemporary moment and whether it’s possibility to do that sans the familiar tropes of American racial identity, which to me begin to feel like a kind of coercion into a certain authenticity of black identity. What might we discover about ourselves as raced beings if we relied less on those tropes and the transparency of them? Students, of course, often come to writing—or any art form—because they have something to say, and sometimes what they have to say can be difficult, can feel impossible. When I asked my Advanced Poetry students on the first day of this term to consider why they write, a topic that many writers, including Joan Didion and George Orwell, have written about beautifully, a number of students wrote something akin to what Carl Phillips said here in the Cathedral’s 501 a few semesters ago: “I write to save my own life.” This, to me, is powerful. It also said to me that these young writers are attuned to the human condition—as it relates to the individual and the collective—and that there is some glimpsing of what I like to call “the void.” The particulars of what causes one to glimpse the void are often, like the traumatic event in the post-traumatic state, inaccessible in any real way to memory and therefore language. So what do we as writers do? I hope that the work we do in my courses gives students a range of possibilities for attempting to speak the self given what it has access to, its experiences, its observations.