Running the Dusk with Christian Campbell | An Interview

The Center for African American Poetry and Poetics' Graduate Student Assistant, Jessica Lanay Moore, interviews poet, essayist, and critic Christian Campbell. Written interview edited by David Wade.



In Running the Dusk, many of the poems use an ironic and satirical tone in regards to limiting ideas of race and colonial presentations of self in the Caribbean; sometimes this satirical or ironic tone is accompanied by nostalgia, as in “Masquerade” and “Lightskinned ID.” Satire and irony as an element in poetry seem to come and go. What role do they play in your work and why are they attached to nostalgia?

I must say that my composition of these poems was severely focused on sound, image, language, and architecture more than anything else. The sheer delight of rhyme.  So the questions you raise about tone, subgenre and strategy mainly arise out of the music-work. “Masquerade” was about wrestling with the sonnet sequence, sustaining a heartbeat across an expanse. It’s not nostalgia; there’s no longing to go back. Obviously, I’m not evoking nostalgia for the “plantation kitchen” in “Lightskinned Id” (which is “id” as in the Freudian id, as opposed to “I.D.” as in identity. I realize some people have read it as I.D., which is interesting, but also changes the rhythm).

I think we should be clear that you’re talking about U.S. American poetry when you say that satire and irony come and go. American poetry as in “Nuestra América,” from Nunanvut to Chile, would be another matter. A number of U.S. poets I admire have come out against irony, but I don’t think the conversation has been careful enough and needs to be contextualized culturally. We can think of irony as a breach between the said and the meant, or the expected and the actual, or the surface and the subterranean. And if you are made by diaspora, this is simply just what speech is, what life is like. U.S. critics of irony in poetry are really talking about those that have the luxury of a kind of hipster irony that must lord over feeling. It’s what you see in quite a bit of art in something like the Spring/Break Art Show in NY, and I too find it irritating. I think the assumption is that all irony precludes real feeling—but not so, not for me. There’s a difference between standing above feeling and bewildering Caesar. We can still question Power this way.

What you call irony accompanied with nostalgia, I call singing in the mask or mourning in the mask. It’s not nostalgia, but grief and bewilderment, so we experience the emotional space through a kind of cubist tonality. A painting like Picasso’s Three Musicians helps me to make sense of what I mean. In any case, satire itself is indigenous to so many global literary traditions. Picong (from the Spanish picón and/or the French piquant) is a Trinbagonian practice of verbal sparring, a ritualized exchange or drama of joshing and insulting through linguistic virtuosity. My Trinidadian family is from South and let’s just say that they are damn good givers of picong. So it’s just a part of me. To give picong to that which is absurd (History) is my pleasure and my work. Sans humanité!

Running the Dusk challenges perceptions of homogeneity in the Caribbean as well as in the context of blackness. “Groove” does this well, where Winston Shakespeare from How Stella Got Her Groove Back seems to fulfill the fantasy as a way of breaking it apart. How does your work dialog with stereotypes and the imaginations of non-Caribbean and non-Black folks? Tell us about “Groove.”

It was a lot of fun to work with the dramatic monologue here. [To] tell the truth, inside my head is sometimes—often—like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, so perhaps that's why it's such a pleasure to dress up in the language and voice of another, to be totaled in the elaborate costumes of other people's minds. And this is part of why the expectation of the poet to be a “spokesperson” is so troubling. I don't speak for anyone. I speak out of many different communities and I speak to people.

I mainly write from and towards the unalive—the dead, the unborn. I don’t give voice to anyone. In fact, many give voices to me. As Wahneema Lubiano once said, “It's not that the subaltern can't speak; it's that the system can't hear.”

I’m not really answering your question. Let’s face it, the Caribbean remains a kind of illusion for many, somewhere where you try to touch something from your own fantasy and your hand goes right through it. But the Caribbean, we must be reminded, is a place—or many, many places. In grad school, I remember telling a very well-known post-colonial theorist that I would be doing research in The Bahamas and their response was that I was really going to be sitting on the beach drinking piña coladas. For all their po-co theory and talk and their own “Third World” origins, they couldn’t imagine it as what it is—a place where people live and love. They couldn’t see life.

My lands and my people and my dead are not world news, not viral videos, but respite (“paradise”) or resource (oil) for the “significant.” But, with eternal gratitude to Derek Walcott, I “cherish my insignificance.” I simply can't afford the big-small metropolitan thing of not being able to see beyond myself. I can see everything.

I’m not answering your question but truth be told, I have been more concerned about homogeneity within Caribbean literature. To be specific, Anglophone Caribbean lit is such a rich and exciting space, but it has also been a deeply troubling space that touts a [postmodern] complexity [yet] is invested in a tired and lazy search for “Caribbean” sameness, and sometimes reduces what is truly a massive cultural and literary tradition into something quite small. Coming up in that space as a younger writer, my experience was actually one of frequently being shamed. A number of us are expected to feel shame about our variousness—our identities, backgrounds, intersections—and to erase them. There’s a thing that happens in Caribbean contexts, a ritual I think, of being punished and shamed when you exceed what is considered respectable (for instance, representing “nation” in a particular way). Ambiguity is sometimes portrayed as sexy but it’s really ugly and threatening for many. People don’t like it when they don’t know how to comfortably place you. And it’s not unique to me by any means—a number of us experience this but we don’t talk openly about it. This thing of not airing dirty laundry often is a way to silence. The multiple traditions and literary “communities” of the global Caribbean are mature enough and, in fact, deserving of more critical engagement.

Your biography shows you moving between a lot of different cosmopolitan world centers, but your poetry seems to signal a return home. How do you keep your wits about you as a professional poet? How do you gauge which opportunities to spring for? How do you determine your next steps?

And where is home again? And what is home? Even the word’s etymology is wildly disputed. Even home doesn’t have a home. But it is a word almost entirely made by the long O, perhaps the most important vowel in Anglophone poetry. That O is omission and infinity, circle unbroken, moan, cry, invocation, calling into relation. It is the sound of address. It says, we do not live in this world alone.

In that Frost poem he says, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /They have to take you in” and also that home is “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” But I’m not sure. Isn’t it something that home and poem rhyme?  Home and poem are fraternal twins. And that reminds us that home requires poiesis, that it’s a thing to be made. Years and years ago when I was struggling, like so many people, with not feeling “at home” anywhere, a friend said to me, “No one has a home; you make a home.” That stays with me.

I don’t know what you mean when you say “return home,” for I have many and they have to do with spaces created by who I love and who loves me in a landscape that I am able to spiritually claim. But I don’t really ever “return home” and neither do my poems, which travel all over the world. “Home” is a set of places I have to make and re-make through love and work, and it’s the sea inside me.

As for “different cosmopolitan centers,” my world-wandering sometimes feels ancestral and inevitable, a search for something that’s actually internal. I must say that despite my “biography,” I don’t really align myself with the whole celebratory cosmopolitan discourse—which frankly gives me indigestion. I just often find it to be deeply uncritical. The scholarship boy thing has been a hustle and a great privilege and a struggle that allowed me to move in ways I never would have been able to, but it hasn’t always been easy at all. And it also has to do with openness, surprise, life tides, love, hurdles, et al.

[And] I’m not sure I have my wits about me. I think at this stage I finally have the freedom and space to focus on my work so that’s what’s shaping my trajectory.

Very simple: What is your process, and how did you discover it?

Writing is very visceral for me, and always an act of gratitude and an act of dancing with doubt. Running helps me to feel like a creature that may survive this world and I wish I ran every day. Some of my aspirations and inspirations when I write:

I was a competitive swimmer for a decade. When I was younger I trained for a couple summers for sea marathons, which demanded this blank continuous focus where you need to move with the rhythm of the sea and respond instinctively to the oceanic atmosphere in general (Are there jellyfish coming? Are those fish? Is that a stingray beneath me? Is it raining? Do you hear that sound? Does the choppy water mean that a boat is passing?).

I’m also inspired by the radical precision of Bharatanatyam, which I see as an art of concentration.

Language is the atmosphere in Running the Dusk. It is the sky, it is the water, it is the sand and it shifts based on the place/space of the speaker. It even creates interdimensionality in the work. How does language marry and/or fracture all of the overlapping worlds in your work?

Thank you very much for seeing that! Yes, language itself is the subject of my poetry and perhaps all poetry. The landscape is indeed our language. I think language both weds and cracks worlds, given that our very speech simultaneously commemorates our destruction and our potentials. In this sense, writing is always a pained elation.

One of the things that really taught me about myself and my work was translation. Running the Dusk was recently translated by the distinguished Cuban writer Aida Bahr and published by Ediciones Santiago in Cuba as Correr el Crepúsculo. I was heavily involved in the translation. Translation is amistad—we e-mailed, quarreled, laughed, and learned a hell of a lot. It was very challenging and illuminating. Word after considered word called up and contained negotiations millennia-old, endless fleets and salty water spraying from gray screens. Following the etymology of “translate,” we were always thinking and performing crossing, apprehending what the Charon of language would and would not allow to cross over. It’s crazy how connected we are in the Caribbean and how little we know about each other. I need to learn so much more about Cuba. With limited access to the internet at the time in Cuba—no google, etc.—there were many things that we just had to hash out. And I found that there were numerous cases of exact Cuban Spanish cousin-terms but the Anglo-Creole terms I used would not be recognized in Cuba. For instance, we had serious conversations about the term “to wine”—which of course she would know if somebody danced it for her—and with serious consultation from Dominican friends in particular, we settled on either “menearse” or “dar cintura.” Surprising and interesting things emerged like Aida asking me if “Ambi,” which is a popular skin-lightening brand in the Anglophone Caribbean, meant “amber.” In the case of the word “dusk,” it could have been translated as “anochecer” or “atardecer” and even “entre luz y sombra” but, in addition to being more precise, “crepúsculo” had more music for us in the sound. There was the resonance between the “sc” sound of “dusk” and “crepúsculo,” as well as the fortuitous alliteration between “correr” and “crepúsculo.” So here the liminality of “crepúsculo”—[which means] neither day nor night—was completely dramatized in this practice and friendship.

I wasn’t sure how my work would be read in Spanish translation, so I was grateful to get a generous review from the poet Reinaldo Cedeño Pineda. You can only get Correr el Crepúsculo in Cuba and it’s a great honor for me.

Code-switching is a theme in your work as well. The speaker seems to shift languages, memory and visibility based on location. An example is the poem “Sidney Poitier Studies.” Is code-switching a course of agency in your work? How and how not?

You know, one of the most moving things about publishing Running the Dusk has been the surprising number of poets in my generation and younger, in very different places in the world, [who] have expressed to me that this book means a lot to them—particularly for what you say here.

I think of it as maybe code-mixing, hybridization and revision, as opposed to switching. It’s one of many ways that I quarrel with all of my ancestors, blood and ink. That’s what we call love.

Basquiat. He seems to be a muse for you, a person who managed to code-switch in life while holding grounds for critique in his work. How do you see your own work connected to Basquiat’s legacy and artistry? Why does Basquiat seem to inhabit your present so intimately?

Ah, JMB and his Babel-Tower paintings. He was a wrecking ball of reckless eyeballing. With his outrageous intellect, he gave us a curriculum, as so many great poets and artists do. “Curriculum” shares its etymology with “current,” and his engagement with many traditions isn’t at all the ornamental citation that some poets do to show or pretend that they’ve read so-and-so. Art histories, both canonical and denied, run through him and his canvas alive like an electric current, refracted and renewed.

He was always reading—art history, lit, music, pop culture, the world, himself. Reading as discernment, as interpretation, as performance, and, in the black queer sense, as critique. The work reaches across so many boundaries of culture, politics and time, while being fully generated by his context. He’s a friend of my mind.   

And always the last question and what people most want to know, what are your next projects? Anything in the way of a publication coming up in the near future? Anything special you are working on?

Thanks to the support of you all at the amazing Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at Pitt, I finished the edits for my essay on SAMO©, the early graffiti-based collaboration between Basquiat and Al Diaz. It’s for the first major Basquiat exhibit in the UK—“Basquiat: Boom for Real”—at the Barbican Art Gallery in the Fall. It’s the third catalogue essay I’ve written on him in as many years and will be a part of a forthcoming book. All gratitude and praise to the late John Berger for permission and inspiration. Hero.

I’ve been writing quite a bit about sports lately and will have some pieces come out soon. Very excited about that. There’s also an overdue project on film. I have some nonfiction projects bubbling and I’m also thrilled to get back to poetry! Give thanks.


Monday, March 13, 2017 - 15:15