What An Investment in Black Life Looks Like: An Interview with Quenton Baker
I get a thrill when a book scares me, when a book silences me with its language and precise method, and there was no omen that could have ever prepared me for This Glittering Republic by Quenton Baker. I love this book and I needed this book. It’s one of those poetry collections that make you realize how special it is as you go from page to page, from poem to poem. His poems are intricate and powerful, spare and merciless, handled with the knowledge of deep history and love, and at every turn, I am left affected and rightly disheveled. Quenton Baker’s work hits you where it needs to hit you, and it will make you remember. This is not an apology. This is the opposite. – RC
FANZINE: I have not had a reading experience like I had reading This Glittering Republic before, and I was immediately staggered by your barrage and flow of gorgeous, sharp lines and how you make your readers witnesses to the bones in the ground. Reading your book was a brutal, beautiful education. What are you teaching your readers in your book? What are you trying to make us see and realize with This Glittering Republic?
QUENTON BAKER: That’s very generous of you; I appreciate it. As a teacher, when I’m leading a workshop and give an exercise, I always attempt the prompt or challenge alongside my students. I never ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I feel a similar way about the people that encounter my work. I want them to do the same things that I’m doing. To bear witness, to look as well as they can, to consider what it means to exist in a dominant (read: oppressive) imagination.
If I had to sum up my poetics in one word, it would be: interiority. We are, almost as a reflex, destructive to the internal realities of those who fall outside of what’s considered normative. The violence that so many of us endure on a daily basis is unfathomable. Yet, we are required (if we consider ourselves possible of participating in a just society) to fathom it. And not as consumption, not as horror or pity or any other lens with distance built into it, but rather as we would allow ourselves to be led by an expert. So, I suppose, I would want my readers to release their investment in their particular positionality. Allow themselves to be challenged in the paucity or failings of their gaze and/or allow themselves to be seen, felt and understood in the reality of their fraught navigation, which alternates between treacherous and sublime.
FZ: This book is more than a few years in the making. Can you give us a little behind-the-scenes of what went into crafting these poems? Perhaps a glimpse into your process and day to day?
QB: No doubt. This book felt like decades in the making. The bones of the manuscript came from my re-mixed MFA thesis in 2012, and then it went through three or four major changes until early 2013, when it got to a point where I thought I was comfortable sending it out. Around October of that year, though, I pulled it from everywhere I had it out and tore it down completely. I was living in Maine and teaching composition at a community college at the time, and I just felt like the book was wack as fuck. So I cut probably 70% of the poems and started writing new shit in between teaching and planning classes, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. My brain felt like one giant pop rock floating in coke; shit was bubbling. I had to get this book done. That’s all I knew. I felt bad for my classes, though; my student reviews from that time were pretty clowning: “Great teacher when he’s in class, seems distracted outside of class hours; Engaging, helpful lessons, but really slow to get papers back to us.”
But, mainly, I didn’t feel like my work was rigorous enough. I came out of my MFA program feeling myself a little too much. I wasn’t getting any traction, nobody was really digging my shit, and I was frustrated. So I was in my feelings and mad at the world, but it came to a point where I asked myself: Is this the best shit I can write? Is it good enough? Am I working hard enough? And I knew the answers to those questions; I knew I was skating on good sound and solid imagery, and that shit was good enough for a lot of things, but I was selling the work—the actual work I wanted to be doing—short by not really committing to it.
After the tear-down, I knew I had to develop my poetics. It wasn’t enough to just push in random directions that I thought were fruitful and make some shit that sounded dope, I needed to have a purposeful, distinctive and personal system of communication that my work was informed by. I knew I had to read. I had stacks and stacks of books on a huge range of shit just piling up in my phenomenally small studio apartment and I just started tearing through them. Sometimes, I’d read an entire book and only get one line out of it, but that began to feel necessary to me. If this poem, that I like, that I think is accomplishing some of what I set out to do, could only exist because I read this entire 464 page book on colonial Virginia and got a seven word line out of it, then that’s what had to happen.
FZ: “Museum of Man” is a poem that hallows me out, perhaps because I’ve seen you perform it before, and it always silences the room into a perfect quiet. Who is Sara Baartman?
QB: Sara Baartman is a lot of things. In bare biographical terms, she’s a Khoikhoi woman whose body was exploited for profit via public exhibitions in Europe in the early 19th century. In more honest terms, she’s a ghost. We don’t know her birth name, we don’t know what she thought or what she felt. We know her parents died when she was young, we know her husband/partner was murdered by a white colonist, we know she buried her child, we know her body was made a site of white wonder/horror.
When I think of her, I think of her as an ancestor. She wasn’t the first, hasn’t been the last, but is one of the most infamous examples of how the white (and male but also often female) imagination functions as it asserts dominion over the black body, what ownership looks like. Even after she died, she couldn’t get her body back. She was dissected, separated, put on display in a French museum. She, unfortunately, highlights the inescapability of life as an object (in that, you actually being alive is immaterial).
But, beyond that, she also embodies, for me, both the importance of choice and the limits of agency. One of the perfect American (read: white/capitalist) myths is that we have agency, as individuals, over the complex systems that govern our lives. Too many of us earnestly believe, for example, that you can save your way out of poverty, or that if you choose to not focus on anti-blackness, the trauma of living through it dissipates into the ether. A favorite pastime of our culture is also to project agency backwards through time (most visible in Hollywood movies about slavery), to romanticize the dominated as a site of endless redemptive possibility. It’s very difficult for a lot of people to imagine a situation like Sara Baartman’s, which is one of complete negation; she only existed as a body from which the white, dominant other was to draw pleasure. We know from what the available research indicates, that she managed to make a number of choices about herself and her life. These choices did nothing to reverse the oppressive forces that shaped her existence, but they matter, and it felt important for me to try and write about her without falling into the trap of romanticized agency. I don’t know if I succeeded, but that’s what I was hoping to accomplish.
FZ: Can you speak upon the idea of a muse in your work? Who are the muses of This Glittering Republic?
QB: Can’t say I’ve thought in terms of muses. The concept of a muse has always struck me as patriarchal and consumptive, born out of a need for (typically white and/or male) artists to square the ego loss of outside inspiration with an ethos of ownership. I have no delusions about where my spark and my ability to craft language comes from. I am a product of the wonderful people who shaped me and taught me. I do what I can to flip shit and make it sing, but I’m just trying to pass on down the line the things I’ve received.
And there are a lot of people and a lot of stories that humbled me into wanting to work as hard as I could to be an adequate witness: the stories and language of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Aldon Nielsen, Frank Wilderson, Clarence Cooper, Jr., Sara Baartman, Mary Tuner, George Stinney, Jr., Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith and many more pushed me, drove me to be as clear as I possibly could, to look as sharply as I could make myself.
FZ: There is no blind eye, no sugar coating, no revisionist history in your poetry collection, which makes it a tough, necessary read, but at the same time, your poems are mercilessly beautiful, almost conscientiously and unapologetically, with tragic gifts of perfectly packed lines, poem to poem, unveiling a hurt history. Reading your book, I thought about a cinematographer filming a brutal scene beautifully, or a vocalist singing a song about heartbreak or genocide. You make your reader a witness. How do you manage and reconcile these two things: making it real and making it beautiful? How are you thinking about the reader?
QB: It’s hard. I don’t know if I have any better answer than that. It’s really hard. It’s always fantastically important to me, when writing about violence or brutality, to not partake in the replication of that brutality. How do I write about it, how do I engage with it without turning it into spectacle? Without making myself (and my reader) into a participant?
One of the things that kills me is how easily we circulate and reproduce images of the brutalized and murdered black body. Without seeking it out, how many times have you been made to watch Eric Garner being choked to death? Or Philando Castile bleed out in Diamond Reynolds’ car? Or Walter Scott try to run away? When those murders happen, the videos autoplay on Facebook and the stills are the lead images for every article. I don’t think that the world is unaware or can’t imagine the pained black body, but I do believe that, for a lot of people, the black body is only visible when it is presented as being in (a very specific type of) pain. So, if I know for a lot of people (read: white), my body is only capable of being understood either when it transgresses or when it’s destroyed, if I’m going to write about those things, it’s paramount that I find a way to do so without working within the prescribed signs and symbols that are legible to the white imagination. I don’t write to be understood by whiteness, I don’t write to prove my humanity to anyone who would doubt it. Because, as oppressed people, we of course exist, in part, within the dominant imagination, but that has, frankly, very little (outside of surviving it) to do with our interiority. So what comes across as the beauty you’re generously ascribing to me, in my mind, is love. It’s vital to me that I treat our assailed interiority with care and tenderness and a sharp eye. I consider my work to be an object lesson in what an investment in black life looks like.
FZ: What poets, dead or alive, are to speaking to with your book?
QB: Too many. All I am is because of these wonderful poets (and many more than I’m sure I will fail to name here): Aimé Césaire, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dawn Lundy Martin, Fred Moten, June Jordan, James Wright, Elouise Loftin, Anne Sexton, Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine, Lorenzo Thomas, Ye Chun, A.B. Spellman, Patricia Smith, Randall Horton, Theodore Roethke, Tim Seibles, Osip Mandlestam, Lucille Clifton, Mbembe Milton Smith, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Kimiko Hahn, Nazim Hikmet, Paul Celan.
FZ: Who is George Stinney, Jr.?
QB: A beautiful black child. A forgotten name. In an interview, Claudia Rankine said: “I am invested in keeping present the forgotten bodies.” When I come across forgotten names and lives, like the life of George Stinney, Jr., it feels important to me to do what I can to make those people present.
FZ: If This Glittering Republic did have a soundtrack, what would your ten songs be?
QB: This might be the most difficult question I’ve ever answered. If you ask me next week it might be totally different. Lemme try:
“Evil Nigger” – Julius Eastman
“Dead Birds” – RZA
“Standing” – DoNormaal
“Conflicted” – Ka
“Getting There” – Flying Lotus
“Fire” – Mal Devisa
“Get it Myself” – D.R.A.M.
“Sinnerman” – Nina Simone
“Femenine” – Julius Eastman
FZ: It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I particularly love your poem “Transient” (after Harryette Mullen). Hearing you perform this poem, I was instantly transported to your days as a rapper, and each image was like a quick cut in a movie, which makes the poem so visceral, like perfect sensory snapshots of days lived. Can you speak upon your past life as a rapper and how that plays how in your work at all today? How does pacing and rhythm play out in This Glittering Republic?
QB: Absolutely. The salient takeaway from my rap career for me was how language fits within the landscape of a breath. Spending seven or eight years trying to squeeze syllables into 4-beat measures in aurally pleasing arrangements really trained my ear. Like, I could write the dopest verse in terms of content, but if I can’t deliver it well over a beat, it’s pointless. Likewise, I could have an amazing flow, but have trash-ass bars with no weight. So writing verses made me focus on content and sound simultaneously; I couldn’t progress through a verse if it didn’t both sound well and move the imagery or narrative or aesthetic forward. I approach poems the same way. If the sound and the content aren’t working together, then I consider that a failure.
FZ: Any messages to your readers? Closing thoughts?
QB: Just want to shoutout my Seattle fam. They’ve held me down. I’m humbled by the support they’ve shown me, and I appreciate that so many people have taken the time to really engage with my work. That’s the best you can hope for, really.
This Glittering Republic is available from Willow Books.