A Letter from Rachel Levitsky on Dawn Lundy Martin’s Poets and Critics Symposium,
Université Paris Diderot, January 17 & 18, 2019
Each Poets and Critics Symposia includes scholars, writers, artists, actors, editors, students, dancers, filmmakers, translators, critics and readers who gather for the sole reason of discussing the oeuvre of a major writer, usually a poet, who writes in English, usually from the United States. The group is both same and different symposium to symposium (I have been to three, Carla Harryman’s, Susan Howe’s which was specially sited in Brooklyn, at Pratt where I work, and Dawn’s) and includes people from many countries. The Dawn Lundy Martin Symposium had people who trained and planed from England, Sweden, Norway, Germany, United States, Belgium and Denmark, for the occasion. I want to give a sense of how the symposia are simultaneously informal (not academic or disciplinary) and rare (unique gatherings, magical). The conversation is conducted in English. For the first three hours we fairly loosely discussed the whole of Martin’s work and books, sitting in variously sized piles and plots in front of their owners around the thirty-person table. The wide-ranging conversation is intended to allow thematic investigations to arise and form the shape of an unpremeditated conversation.
Then we all went to the Italian place around the corner for lunch. Some poets I know from my poetry life around this table are Lisa Robertson, Cole Swenson, Jack Frost.
We go back for the second session Thursday afternoon and Dawn joins us, having come from a mini tour for her new translated book in Nantes and Bordeaux. We ask her lots of questions and she answers generously—on process, on poetics, on influences and perhaps most poignant for me as someone who has known her and followed her work for a long time, on the shape and logic of how her body of work both changes and stays continuous. Other stand-out conversations and lines of inquiry were for me the role of the extra-textual and phatic material in Discipline and Good Stock/Strange Blood, the relationship of the performance and collective-based work (Black Took and How Do You Spell Yam in African) with the individual collections, the more direct emergence as of late of the continuous themes of blackness, whiteness, sexual trauma, racial violence and class oppression. Her poetic insistence on personal autonomy. I was inspired, as I was getting ready to teach my Prose Poetry and Prose course, when Dawn made a comment that she felt verse narratives tend to be more reliable, traceable, than narrative in prose poetry, which can be more associative and paratactic. I learned something poignant about the power of her particular language choices—in one case she talked about placing the word “bayonet” in a spot in order to go beyond ‘sharp weapon’ and also have her word capture a sense of antiquity, oldness, history—about influences both likely and unlikely, and about her growing practice of writing essays—one of which she read, a reading that has stuck with me since. Both have immediately influenced my teaching this semester. Because of the conversational nature of the symposia, unanticipated nuggets, which perhaps we all recall a little differently, stick in my brain and inspire and spread.
After the first day there was a big reading featuring Dawn and one of Dawn’s translator’s, Marie de Quatrabarbes, a great poet in French, at Atelier Michael Woolworth, 2 Rue de la Roquette, facing the Place de la Bastille. It was of course packed.
After the second full day we all went to the 12th Arrondissement for a very traditionally French multi-course meal.
Soon after the magical event, we learned that Dawn won the Tuft’s award.
I finish this little report to you from your Arizona town where time is all on its own (no spring forward), glad I’ll get to see you soon.
In solidarity and with warmth,
March 11, 2019
Rachel Levitsky is a feminist avant-garde poet, novelist, essayist, translator, editor, educator, and a founder of Belladonna* Collaborative, and cofounder of the Office of Recuperative Strategies. She was born in New York City and earned an MFA from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Books include The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem, 2013), Renoemos (Delete Press, 2010), NEIGHBOR (UDP, 2009), Under the Sun (Futurepoem, 2003), Dearly (A+Bend, 1999).