Poet, Author, Guggenheim Recipient: An Interview with Tracie Morris

Tracie Morris, poet, author & Guggenheim recipient talks about her new book, her creative process and film inspiration.

This interview was conducted by Ari Schill, Publishing Fellow and News Letter Editor with Kore Press.
Ari Schill is an educator & writer who loves reading poetry & talking to authors.

Ari Schill:  I want to start by saying congratulations on winning the Guggenheim this year! That is truly incredible! How does it feel to be a recipient?

Tracie Morris: I was happy, honored and surprised to receive the Guggenheim award. I saw myself as an outsider in the art world. It is affirming to win in the genre I love so much, poetry. What was most gratifying about receiving the Guggenheim is that I felt rewarded for staying true to myself as an innovative poet who also works in conventional form. I hope it has improved, and that I continue to do so, but my conceptual frameworks remain the same.

A.S: With someone with as high stature as yourself, what draws you to publish again with a smaller press like Kore Press Institute?

T.M: The size of the press is not what is important to me, it’s the quality and range of the work they publish, the sincerity in which they work with authors, their ethics. My first book with Kore Press Institute, handholding: 5 kinds, sold out it’s first run. I’m grateful about that. I am an eclectic thinker and artist, so if I chased one type of publishing company, it would be tough and might limit my scope as an artist. I didn’t even consider taking this manuscript anywhere else. Kore Press has always supported my work, this is the best place for it. 

I support small presses because they’re important, at the heart of great literature and are the future thinking of arts and letters. They often lay the groundwork for what’s coming in the field.

A.S: Why this sequel to handholding: 5 kinds? What is the significance of the timing, if any?

T.M: This is not a sequel per se. I first wanted to create an extended version of certain elements of the first book (I’ve done this with other writings) but the next thing I knew, I had about thirteen new pieces for the book. At that point it’s just a new book an not an extended version of the first title. It’s the second in a series, might be the best way to put it, rather than a sequel. I’m not sure what the volume count might be, maybe only two (unlikely). So I wanted the titles to be connected but in a way that allowed for more freedom, more paths to take down the road. handholding: 5 kinds- on the other hand  has been generative. I even had to incorporate a hyperdactyly section to continue with the theme of hands and allow the space for the new pieces and artistic genres.

I wanted to go further with my relationship with visual art and moving art in particular. The first handholding: 5 kinds is an eclectic mix of 5 different kinds of artists I was inspired by. As I continued to experiment with film (my first work as a full-on filmmaker just debuted this year), I felt the need to push myself more in a direction I wasn’t totally comfortable with. In my new book, handholding: five kinds-on the other hand, I am going much deeper in my relationship with still and moving images, including my own rudimentary still images. handholding: 5 kinds was the dipped toe and now with handholding: 5 kinds-on the other hand, I am knee-deep— for me that is. I know others
have had eclectic work, certainly, before I brought my feel to the table.

In terms of my timing, I had a moment, during pandemic lockdown, to sit with images more, even trying to create a few. I wanted to grow the idea and had downtime to think about that. The pandemic has been frightening, and during the lockdown time I wanted to see how I could be active in it, allowing it to activate ideas I’ve needed to get to — in order to feel less at the mercy of the situation. 

A.S: In your introduction to handholding: 5 kinds-on the other hand, you mention COVID-19 lockdown and discontinuing social media usage.

Were there other distractions you cut out in order to focus on completing handholding: 5 kinds-on the other hand?

T.M: It was an intense time to not be around people. I didn’t leave the house for months and that was illuminating as I became very aware of space and spatial dynamics. It reminded me of a time when I was young and very ill. How I thought about space and the mind and the imagination combined with a physical limitation. I came to love reading during those times as a youngster. My confinement this time ended up being a prolific moment for me. During the lockdown, I was trying to think of how I could use quarantine time well and wanted to push myself as an artist with fewer distractions. It was a challenge and an opportunity to go deeper. Lemonade out of lemons, to say the least. I think we were all shocked at the paralyzing number of people dying daily from the virus. I wanted to feel I was still connected to art, that I needed it during this time to feel — less despair, I suppose.

A.S:  You create multi-sensory pieces which emphasize the senses. While I listened to and read handholding: 5 kinds I found the rhythm and structure of the layout to activate my 5 senses simultaneously. When writing, is there a particular sense you find yourself more drawn to play with? 

T.M: Sound is what I am known for, if I’m known for anything. Sonically, I think ‘how will I get this concept out?’ First it starts with thought, conceptual framework. I think about how the sense will best get the concept across. The construction of the concept is more important than the sensory engagement. This is why Edgar Allen Poe, though a horrible racist, is such a foundational reference point for my work. I think about him all the time. His work was a seismic shift in my life. I think about stories like Tell Tale Heart or The Raven. Much of what he wrote about was what was left, the resonances of the feelings of the speaker, as well as what he intends to leave the reader with long after the tale is told, which are based on a feeling or a concept. The concept underlying the text and how that idea engages various senses, is the primary thing I want people to experience, the senses support the resonances I hope I’m conveying.

A.S: You chose the title handholding: 5 kinds as a way to represent a connectedness to those you are writing about. Are there any forms of media that have held you over these last few years? 

T.M: Film. Ironically, I worked in film on Daughters of the Dust in 1989, before I started performing poetry in public in 1991. After decades of having a minimal relationship with film, I find it funny that I’m returning to it more intensely since I was technically involved in that art form first. That film (Daughters of the Dust) and me responding to that film is in handholding: 5 kinds-on the other hand.

It took a while to come back to this film because I had such a personal investment in it as a member of the set crew. The first time I saw the film, I had a perspective of everything that was not on camera. 

The full-length film I wrote about before that (and after Eyes Wide Shut—a film I interacted with in the first handholding book) was a take on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. My response to it is called, A History of American Violence: Black Cronenberg. The absence of Black people in the film, tells us a lot about the film. But how do you talk about American violence without having Black people in it? It explores a specific aspect of “white on white” violence and, I interpreted/conjectured this “intraracialized” violence in other ways that overtly and subtly underscores the absences of Black people in the film and “substitutions” made instead (maybe).

A.S: Where has interacting with these films led you? 

T.M: One thing that helped me take this work to another level was being in Iowa. There is a beautiful boutique, cinematic art house called FilmScene. As I work with poetry and film in this new way, FilmScene allowed me to present the new work there and encouraged me to continue developing these projects. I am deeply indebted to being in Iowa as a faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as FilmScene, for supporting me in making these full-length presentations. Because of my developing relationship with film, I was finally encouraged and commissioned to do my first short film called Black Spring, which came out this year.

My relationships with these long scale film projects helped me develop my short film. I mention the film because the kinds of experiences/explorations with art that are in the handholding books lead me to dive into the deep end of the cinematic pool after getting a toe in as a poet inspired by other filmmakers’ work.

The cinematic venue, creating my own film, and representation of films and parts of films in these handholding books are all explorations of the different places and forms where I think poetry can live. Each of these projects in handholding: 5 kinds-on the other hand, are aspects of poetry. Poetry applied. The idea of poetry in facets that present themselves this way. People call them songs, people call them films, but to me these are all poems. The medium can’t be the message all the time. It is a manifestation of the idea, the concept comes first. Poetry and poetics is itself foundational, the beginning of human utterance, our intervention with the world in a variety of ways.

A.S: What creative projects are you working on?

T.M: My first duet project, Duality by Morrisharp, of sound poems and music with Elliott Sharp is out on bandcamp. Of course, I’m working on more books and films of various types.

A.S: What are you currently reading?

T.M: 

  • Sarah Schulman’s Let the Record Show
  • Susan Stewart’s The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture
  • Daphne Brooks’ Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound. I preordered this jam, I was so excited about it. 
  • Farah Griffin’s Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature. I’m delighted she has a new wonderful book out.
  • I am listening to Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses after finishing his great book, Fantasyland and finding it fabulous!
  • Also reading two interesting perspectives on abolitionist John Brown: one by W.E.B DuBois and the other by Frederick Douglas. These treatises by DuBois and Douglas are basically love letters to John Brown and underscore how this righteous person was meaningful to the people he sought to defend.