I first met Divya Victor in 2014. She was tasked with giving the Leslie Scalapino Memorial Lecture in 21st Century Poetics, hosted by Small Press Traffic. Victor’s lecture was unapologetic and feral, immediately situating the mostly white audience into discomfort by chronicling her preparations for the evening lecture:
- Reading Scalapino poems
- Watching YouTube videos to practice her Indian accent for the audience
- Practicing darkness for the audience
What does it mean to challenge the lament and romance of colony and its aftermath? What does it take to reject the role of the minstrel of the grand schema— a role to which many brown and black writers are often saddled?
Announcing her voice as both betrayer and harbinger, Victor cited Derrida’s “abiding alienation” rather than lamenting colonial imperialism as a romantic act of/for longing; she performed “the ventriloquy of the mouth in transit, the transient, the post-colonial, intra-imperial or American imperial citizens mouth as a site without home.” During her introductory comments there was a palpable immediacy of violence cloaked in/through those words. I witnessed the discomfiture of scene: legs crossing and uncrossing, jerky limbs, the shifting of corduroy. Victor’s work is a repudiation of the idyllic tropes of nationalism and diaspora, pushing boundaries of insistence through the use of multiple compositional modes that query the ways racial identity can often serve as something lent, pirated, to be in service of or as Dawn Lundy Martin would later write:
“How to not get caught up in po-biz and institutional expectations? What we learn about Victor’s poetics is that in it, “identity is a borrowed thing,” and there’s a violence in the rendering of it.”
Indeed, the lie of the image/phrase/black body/brown body always serves as a means to suppress some form of lie, an unwanted reality. Here I am, now what?
As she ended the lecture, Victor questioned her own ventriloquial performance and the ways it will be ventriloquized by others through a litany of/on consent, rather the lack of consent. An exercise. Through an anecdotal account Victor provided evidence for the small but impactful ways national and cultural identities of ‘brownness’ and ‘blackness’ are appropriated through systemic and personal aggressions:
Without my consent, The Poetry Foundation includes my name on a list of “Asian American Poets;” without my consent Drunken Boat publishes my work written in Philadelphia under the category “Arts in Asia;” without my consent Small Press Distribution categorizes work about Western hysterics under “Asian American” poetry. This is my own ventriloquial performance being ventriloquized by others.
In the years following that lecture, Victor’s work and friendship has provided a site for thinking through the way(s) a racially marked body moves through space as a body at once surveyed and surveilled. What happens when the forecast is wrong or unexpected? What happens when a writer/poet of diaspora sheds a nation or bloodline as a refusal of expectation, entertainment, commodity—spectacle? How does a marked body refuse to dance? How?
Kith is an extension of these constellations further probing race and ethnic difference to interrogate belonging—kith not to be confused by kin:
Answering this requires risking everything one has come to understand as method, means, aesthetic comportment. Answering “How?” requires a tendency to migrate; to move away from what you know; to dispose of what you own. Answering “How?” requires abandoning what one has come to understand as community in order to separate, in order to be able to turn back to the crowd and not see oneself in it. Answering “How?” is a way of practicing the dissolution of oaths to nations, snipping passports at the corners, nullifying a monolithic citizenry in any aesthetic state. Answering “How?” is to practice a certain kind of invisibility seriously: to be able to nix oneself off a market for poetry, off “poetry’s” institutional demands, off the methodological and aesthetic demands of genre.
In reading Kith, I have come to recognize myself not as neighbor, blood, or by way of nation, not through the performance of cultural identity, sharing of food scraps, or trafficker of trauma, but instead through the interrogation of belonging that exists a racially marked body also asking,
M.R: In reading Kith I’m struck by the usage of compositional form to begin a dialogue of memory, somatic experience and diaspora. Was this experimentation an organic process?
D.V: (Fig 1) The way we write ourselves into being and into memory matters a lot. It matters especially now when there is an ongoing hegemonic battle for cultural memory. Your question makes me think of the way a number of rooms on fire suddenly becomes a house on fire. That moment when the sum of rooms in crisis becomes a total entity transformed and remade, through crisis. That is a flashpoint: when the air itself catches fire. Every memory evoked in this book reached its flashpoint in the writing of poems. The writing indelibly altered the memory, singed it, cauterized something.
On one hand, my process was organic and accidental—Proustian— in the way I encountered stimuli and then formalized them into a series. When I was living in Buffalo, I’d walk by the cosmetics and soaps counter in an Indian grocery store and become overwhelmed by the sweetness of sandalwood or the cinnamon-menthol profile of certain soaps (like Cinthol) that my father used throughout my childhood. This lead to research about manufacture and exports, which then lead to a very strong emotional response—hweeping and ecstasy and a kind of ebullience of narrative connectivity. All this over a too-sharp or false note found in the orchestration of soaps, raw turmeric, and the tinny moldiness of airconditioning in an over-stuffed grocery store. Or, I’d go rooting around my grandmother’s closet and slip my hand between her soft, folded saris and then smell my hands. Here, the scent of her lilac talc (Yardley) would combine with Purell to produce these off-notes, these fleeting essays of discord, these seductive but broken formations. This was the Proustian accident, or incident—a way of fleshy collusion—what he called the “all-powerful joy.” It helped me take back the scents of my childhood, and it helped me squirrel out the realities of living in a decolonizing India from the nests of memory and into new narratives about geopolitical exchange.
So, the nostalgic scent of my father’s soaps or shaving creams, becomes, in Kith, a way of exploring the evidence of early Anglophilia and colorism in Tamilian homes. A swelter of associations leading out from a grocery store and into an archive of the displaced. A kind of scholarship borne from deep longing. As John Berger suggests— this was my way of “hold[ing] everything dear” and taking back from displacement.
On the other hand, I could see the ways in which my writing was reconstructing existing memories, reorganizing pathways, tripping link systems of association, snapping sensory memory into improbable formations. My drafting was collapsing the primacy of some memories, transposing some of them onto other memories— so the autobiographical mode performed through the surprising artifice of grafting that eventually becomes organic. The writing process eventually documents a kind of interdependency of memories.
I was drawn, when I was writing the book, to considering how reliquaries function—the physical detritus of the Saints or the venerated dead. I like what happens when you put the tissue, dry and frayed, into a box—what is the sound of that rattle? Of what is it evidence? This is part of how I imagine the work of memory. I was also really into the dimensional, heavily framed, thick impasto of the reliquaries made by Bernard Réquichot— his “Agglomérats”, which framed formal resemblance between paint, bone, plant roots. I needed and adored the unlikeliness of disparate substances belonging together because of superficial resemblance. This is memory, for me. I liked his idea of accretion and arrangement in contrast to the more precious or immediately whimsical collages in the dioramas made by Joseph Cornell. I appreciated the excessiveness and mess of Requichot’s reliquaries—they were a tangle of organic material, as were my memories. This experience of composition often emerged when a particular document was acting as an aid to memory —a smudged out visa stamp, a letter from my father’s posting in Libya, photographs of my great-grandmother from when she lived in Iran (then Persia). Here, memory tended to become embodied through the artifice of language.
So, making poems like “No Man’s Land” emerged from a tension between these two experiences of working with memory as material and process. Or, like, parts of “Family Portraits” which are studios for memory study—a kind of ‘What if?” of all possible and all disappeared, undocumented conversations or memorized interactions. In this poem, some memories are false; some are re-constructed; some are forgeries; all are open to interpretation and its failure. A documentary poetics for those of us without documents.
M.R: There is such musicality between movements; each section seems to refer to a segment of time corresponding to a specific texture, place, and history—each section its own beat represented by a particular tonal value. A durational note.
D.V: (Fig 2) The book moves through many geopolitical locations— & these locations are also flagged on the flesh in a certain way, for me, and those flags announce the shift in each movement’s composition, since the body determines any movement— the swing of an arm, the flick of a wrist, the inhale or exhale are all instrumental, as it were.
I remember reading Myung Mi Kim’s Underflag in my twenties, and there is this part there:
“Do they have trees in Korea? Do the children eat out of garbage cans”// “We had a dalmation…/ We ate on the patio surrounded by dahlias”
When I read that page, something in me convulsed. That convulsion was my first and very early poetic response to the questions that have stunned me throughout my time in the US. Kith was my first approach to remembering the work of those dahlias lingering in one’s memory— firecracker flowers, in my case. To remember the dahlias, I had to re-write all the bodies that I had once memorized— the writing was like committing something, as we say, to memory.
Each body is committed to memory in the poetry (or because of poetry). Trichy is marked on my knees in a hashing of scars; Nagercoil through scars on my hand; Singapore through the stress and shiny fracas of thin-skinned adolescent humiliations; Baltimore and Philadelphia by hair blackened, taken back. The segments of Kith seem to be composed by these different bodies—an orchestra of my forms at different ages— and here autobiography is not just a mode, but a medium too. I was acting out a slow disinterment of the bodies long gone or swallowed up by time and age.
I wondered, as I made this book, whether it were possible to create poetic écorché—a model of the author as a flayed subject. In art historic and medical contexts, these figures are shown holding their own flayed skins like robes, sort of showing off their frayed or torn forms to the audience with elegance and confidence. I approached the fantasy of a durational note between the skin and the flesh—can one sustain the separation for as long as it takes to write autobiographically? When I say I write autobio-graphically, I mean that a shed body has been draped to become a drum-skin stretched over the framework of a poem. In this way, exuviation –the shedding of multiple bodies en route to a poem instructs the tonality, suggests the percussive register. The typing hands are like two palms to the skin, thum thum thum.
M.R I recently saw the John Akomfrah and J.M.W. Turner exhibit, Sublime Seas at SFMOMA. Like Kith there is an elegant positioning of historic perspective on race, migration, and commerce that emerges. The texture of the feeling is so extensive and vast I remember making a note to reread “An Unknown Length of Rope,” as soon as I got home. I underlined the phrase three, five, seven times. Divya, I must know how this moment of art history made into the book!
D.V: (Fig 3) Resemblances are formed or given up through migration and diasporic settling. Large communities come together by believing things based on how something appears, how someone speaks, how a vowel moves, how someone folds a piece of fabric, how a certain vegetable is sliced, how a nose or lip is shaped. Phenotypes of belonging. I wanted to ask how things begin to appear the way they do—how are resemblances painted? What happens if a painting returns to the water from which it came?
“An Unknown Length of Rope” is a slow reading of John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark, which hangs in my study. I bought a lithograph for my partner at a time when we were obsessed by Spielberg’s Jaws, and I was reading Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History and NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! There is an essential convergence in these objects around commerce, human valuation (as chattel property or indentured or substitutable, as forms of nullified or limited agency). I started seeing, over time, and somewhat passively, how Copley’s painting could function as a prescient and paranoid prediction of the themes in Jaws, a film that defined for me the etiology of fear, growing up in the 1980s: how it enters, spreads, stays. I realized that the painting could, like the movie, become a way of talking about white hetero-masculinity, commerce, and humans as property or fetishes. Jaws is a central image in my repertoire of pre-migration Amrika. So, I became interested in Copley’s nude (Watson, who had commissioned the painting after he became Lord Mayor of London). But I grew fonder of the black boatswain connected to him by an umbilicus of rope— he was one of Copley’s “favorites” (as one biographer states). It is this black boatswain’s life and the life of young black men connected to contexts of water that the essay honors through the close reading of Copley’s revisions and sketches, eventually culminating in a bow to the memory of Emmett Till.
M.R: On Bart I kept thinking, “What I know of the Atlantic is red. What I know of its wetness is blood” (119). There is something to running one’s fingers over a scar; does epigenetic trauma mark in this way? Does this explain, “how identity is a borrowed thing—first rehearsed through close study and then displaced into new contexts…a benevolent ruse in skilled mimicry” (123)? Like Copley’s brush, are we immigrants, brown and black people, queer and trans folks witnesses to displacement or grief? I reread “An Unknown Length of Rope” and revisited “Sublime Seas,” and reread the poem into Akomfrah’s triptych film installation. When I got to the line, “What else is drowned in this drowning?” I was asked to leave.
D.V: (Fig 5)Thank you for reading Kith in that space. Being asked to leave while doing that—while making contact— is darkly appropriate. A kind of enforced departure. Diaspora in action. In an interview about his work with images of disaster at sea, John Akomfrah said that a painting is “a conversation about light, about how one treats the human form in [the sea’s] vastness.” I think this vastness is history itself. All of the red is now washing up on the shore. We need to do something with that red. The red pigment and flowers of Mendieta’s siluetas. The red smudge of vermillion on a bride’s forehead. The red of the tongues in Nancy Spero’s The Torture of Women.
I really appreciate your question about running a finger over a scar. Cicatrix—the way a body appears over another to protect it, the way tissue accumulates, seals, spreads, discolors in its new site. I love thinking about scaration as an affectionate take-over, a kind of suture of one new body over and onto another. But, I also think that epigenetic trauma can produce keloids—the ugly thing that overreacts to environmental stress and harming, spreads, and digs its claws in our bodies without really, ultimately, protecting us. Doctors call it an abnormal proliferation. I think it makes us worriers, not warriors—compulsive performers of what Vijay Prashad has called “the inward turn” among many South Asians in the US who prefer the accumulation of securities over the exercise of their rights.
M.R: Kith feels somehow different from UNSUB, Natural Subjects, and Things To Do With Your Mouth. It feels so personal in a way distinct from your other books. As a reader I can only describe the experience as intimate. Is this something that was present for you in the writing of Kith?
D.V: (Fig 6) Kith is an oxbow in the stream of my poetics. A deviation made from the same water body moving over a tilt in the landscape. This tilting happened because I left the US for Singapore—where much of this book was written. For almost four years, I barely spoke to any American poets about the project. I did often read from it to an audience that was completely new. These were Indians, Singaporeans, and immigrants living away from what they knew and loved. And for the first time, I was reading to rooms that weren’t predominantly white and so, suddenly, questions that had been submerged re-emerged, methods I had put away resurfaced, procedures that seemed too wrecking seemed more forgiving, source-texts that were frightening became accessible, and my authority became palpable to me. Away from white poetry communities in which I so often live, I felt and believed I had the authority to write the book that didn’t need to explain anything in order to exist. I didn’t feel as obliged as I typically do to address “the field” or to intervene into what I felt was a trigger happy, critically asymmetrical, really unsatisfying conversation about race and intersectional difference here in the US. That feeling of obligation can be fatal to one’s poetics. I also wanted to write a book that my grandmother, Helen, could read, before she dies. She did read it. One evening, I saw a marginal note she has left in her copy: “I remember this now. It was different then.” And that note was enough, for me.
M.R: I love the multimodes of communication Kith carries through the tactile. How did the collaboration with Karin Aue seen in “Paper Boats” arise?
“Paper Boats” exists in so many forms. It began, with great trepidation, as an offering made during a panel at &NOW in Los Angeles (2015)—I can’t remember what question was asked, but the panelists cleared a site for the audience to drop off answers. I somewhat instinctively began making small paper boats from my notes (on that panel) and left them at the foot of that site—a kind of wreckage of boats. Then I made the poem as a series of instructions for making oneself into a boat—to be fresh off of, to land in, to escape in, to hide in. The piece grew into a performance for paper and sound, in which I collaborated with Sophia Le Fraga and Joseph Mosconi (AWP 2016), and then it became a voice and dance performance, in which I collaborated with the very astute and generous Serena Chopra (Naropa 2018). Karin Aue is a witty, fiercely feminist artist from Austria living in Singapore now— she read my manuscript and said that she was moved to make through it and we sat and spoke and she built the subjects who travel the paper boats, and she also built the figures on the cover of Kith—the ones that are either bowing to supplicate or finally standing up to the charcoal darkness.
M.R: Can you share a writing exercise that I can offer students next Spring?
D.V: I would love to. I created The Audre Lorde Questionnaire to oneself in order to help beginning writers articulate what they need to say. It is based on Lorde’s essential essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Have them read that essay; have them undertake the questionnaire; have them share and be accountable for the answers. Have them repeat this undertaking at the end of the semester and reflect, as a group, on the changes.
Divya Victor is the author of KITH (Fence Books/ Book Thug), a book of verse, prose memoir, lyric essay and visual objects; NATURAL SUBJECTS (Trembling Pillow, Winner of the Bob Kaufman Award), UNSUB (Insert Blanc), and THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR MOUTH (Les Figues). Her chapbooks include Semblance and Hellocasts by Charles Reznikoff by Divya Victor by Vanessa Place. Her criticism and commentary have appeared in Journal of Commonwealth & Postcolonial Studies, Jacket2, and The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet. Her work has been collected in numerous venues, including, more recently, the New Museum’s The Animated Reader, Crux: Journal of Conceptual Writing, The Best American Experimental Writing, and boundary2. Her poetry has been translated into French and Czech. She has been a Mark Diamond Research Fellow at the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum, a Riverrun Fellow at the Archive for New Poetry at University of California San Diego, and a Writer in Residence at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.). Her work has been performed and installed at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles, The National Gallery of Singapore, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Divya Victor is Assistant Professor of Poetry and Writing at Michigan State University and Guest Editor at Jacket2. She is currently at work on a project commissioned by the Press at Colorado College.
[Photo Credit: Jon Gresham]