How does one approach writing about trauma? In this interview excerpt co-editor Dawn Lundy Martin negotiates the waters between memory, catharsis, normalization, destabilization and social change.
This interview between Dawn Lundy Martin and Elizabeth Burden took place in Tucson’s KXCI Community Radio Congress Street studio in October 2018. The full interview will be released in the Letters to the Future podcast in Fall 2020.
Text [transcription, edited for flow]
“I think what writing radically means to me is to come up with really interesting, innovative ways to respond to the crisis. Everyday narratives that we are presented with in the media and in kind of regular conversation aren’t doing enough to challenge the reality. There’s a way of talking rationally that is irrational. What is often cast as rationality, as “rational” speech, is like, crazy. Right, you know? People say, “I’m making sense,” but they are not making sense, right. I think we have to come up with really kind of destabilizing ways to speak into all of that chaos in order to reinvent the reality for the present and for the future.
I think what poetry does, or what poetry can do, is to speak irrationally, in a way, to kind of reinvent language, to reinvent the world around us. But I think in this book, what I’m trying to say there is something unspeakable about this particular moment, you know, something unspeakable about the devastation of Black people/Black bodies by the police. We say it out loud and it’s never enough. So, in this book, what I’m trying to circle around is that unspeakability. If the thing can’t be said–I think about circling around like my dog trying to find a spot to lay down, circling around, circling around: it’s never right, it’s never right, it’s never right–it’s kind of like that, all these multiple attempts to try to get closer and closer and closer to the thing that can’t be said.
I think it gets to some of the questions when I first started writing about how to speak trauma. In my first book, it was really about personal trauma, and now it’s really about cultural trauma. Right, so, because trauma has no language when you experience it, you’re in the post-traumatic moment, something horrible has happened, and what you have is a series of sounds, guttural, you know, there’s no language that can really attend to it, the cry–to me the attempt to try to speak the thing is a cathartic experience, healing experience. That’s the kind of personal impulse of the writing, and I hope that when it enters the world that it speaks to people along those lines. That it can maybe create a kind of broken frame or something around the horrific. We live in a world I think where the horrific is constantly normalized. We forget all the time the thing that happened yesterday. You know, I think there’s a danger to that. So, how do we attempt to bring it into the room without it continually destabilizing us? I think that making art and writing poetry is my way, anyway.
I used to be an organizer. Of course you can change laws, you can organize people, you can get them out into the street, but the hardest thing, we talk about it all the time, is how do you change people’s hearts and minds, how do you change people’s souls? What really does that is creative enterprises: art, literature…when I was a young person and I would enter a book, I would enter a whole world that I never knew about and it incrementally, it affected me and it changed me. I think [it is the] invisible space of social change that is most difficult to get at–changing hearts and minds, people’s soul, changing their relationship to the world–that happens through art, that happens through the creative, through poetry, that happens through literature. And I think it is the most important part of social change in a way.”
Dawn Lundy Martin is a poet, essayist, and conceptual video artist. She is the award-winning author of four books of poems and three chapbooks, including most recently, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, 2015) and Good Stock Strange Blood (Coffee House Press, 2017). She is currently at work on a memoir.
Her nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other magazines. Martin is also a co-founder of the Black Took Collective, an experimental performance art/poetry group of three, and a member of HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, a global arts collective. She has been awarded the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry, a 2016 Investing in Professional Artists Grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments, and is the winner of the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award. She is the Top Derrick Chair in English and is the Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.
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