Last fall, Ronaldo V. Wilson came to LSU as a visiting artist. During his week-long stay, he gave craft talks, visited workshops, and performed visual and spoken work. Here, NDR’s interviews and reviews editor Raquel Thorne discusses with RVW his most recent book, Farther Traveler, and the processes behind his Lucy performances.
Raquel Thorne: After the title poem, “Farther Traveler,” the leading section of this collection is titled “MOVIE,” a collection of quite varied, hybrid poems. In what way does a “movie” act as a way to dramatically recast a lens of reality?
Ronaldo V. Wilson: Staging Farther Traveler’s opening encounter(s) under the sign of movie is most certainly related to my recent work, and growing practice in making video and moving, more fully, into a professional visual art practice. Working in video, mainly through iMovie—perhaps with much deeper designs as a poet—I am interested in the sense and sensation of the language of the application’s “timeline,” the editing feature of the program which allows one to build, horizontally, along a visual plane of fluid frames into an event. Through this event, I draft, dropping in freshly shot images, improvised sound pieces, text, blending them into the finished form of the movie.
In this section, as you note, I present various kinds: some prose poems, some jagged memory stills, some twisted sonnets, or language strips, a series of works wherein one poem builds to the next, cast through the zones of dream, memory, reality, and fantasy. As a mode of extended compression through time and space: the poetic line in/as the mode of the movie—film strip/sound track/record—exists as a fluid form, an unfurling wire of language built and crystallized along the surface of the idea of how one remembers, out of difficulty, out of surprise, out of necessity to make sense of a world, always fleeting, constructed through the realm of a father’s dementia.
As it is in the case of much of my work, the subject matter of what’s dreamed and what’s real is always at work within one another, existing at odd angles, collapsing, combining. Here, perhaps, it is amplified. In Father Traveler’s “Movie” poems, I wanted to bring the reader (viewer) into the embattled zone between the speaker attempting to gather a sense of the father’s realization of the loss of memory, as he acquires his own sense-making of this encounter, all layering into their own travels.
So perhaps this has to do with the larger question of the Movie as Movement—Mov[ing] / Movie—a streaming mode in which to place different kinds of poetic forms in tight proximity to one another, but also allowing them move across one another as linked events, as the speaker, author, and son, attempt to recall what’s disjointed and recast into varying forms of the remembered and the projected.
RT: In “Poetics Statement in the Great American Grille” you write, “For me, poetry is in these found places of being, discovered by taking notes, sometimes of the everyday drama in how a people consume, taking in what they want in some morning, while I do, too, in the clink of talk, fork and plate.” If we consider your art as commodity—as it becomes when it is bound and sold— or something which is meant to be consumed, what commodity are you seeking to sell? What commodity are you pushing against? And is there something you are seeking to circumvent by packaging this collection in hybridity?
RVW: Admittedly, I feel somewhat resistant in thinking of Farther Traveler—as a work that is “bound and sold,” formally, as “packaged” commodity, hybrid or otherwise. I suppose this resistance is naïve, in that clearly, this is probably one of its primary performances, as in the call that is always in a sense there: Buy my book! in the whirl of the consumptive economy—as far as this contract is configured vis-à-vis the life of the book, in the life of the mind, the contracts between reader, audience—Move the crowd—and on and on and on…
I don’t mean to drift, or to sound jaded, here, but what I mean to say is that perhaps it is impossible, at this moment, to produce a book without the haunting expectations of the work as commodity, as you say, bound and sold—marked with the flick of a “like,” a prize, a review, a nod. I suppose what’s under this question is the mark of the book as the mark of the body, the person as the book, the hybridized subject as the hybridized self.
Since I work, both directly and elliptically, around questions of self-fashioning, and the autobiographical self, particularly insofar as I constantly grapple with (and release into) questions of race, sexuality, desire, and power, it makes sense that I am resistant to thinking of my work and body as the form of commodity. Let freedom Ping—I am very much interested in making clear the routes between how the work I author is presented, and how it might be understood.
In many other interviews, I have mentioned the work of artists and writers that inspire me, including Adrian Piper, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Pope.L, but have been also more recently, been following, closely the work of William Kentridge, Nick Cave, and reading more closely the works of M. Nourbese Philip, Claudia Rankine, and Fred Moten. There are so many others for sure that are in my current wheel house (Kara Walker, Ellen Gallagher, Carl Pope, Meena Alexander) and I also want to return perhaps to the work of William Blake, and the designs of Rei Kawakubo, and the Vogue editor-at-large and raconteur André Leon Talley.
I mention these writers, artists, designers and thinkers because I enjoy that they all reveal a substantial and varied body of works–yes to be consumed–but/and/because their work exists in conversations with those in their fields, and beyond it, developed over many years, I am inspired by the larger questions beyond any one single work of theirs, or for that matter, a single genre or medium for singular consumption.
I suppose, another way of getting at questions of my works relation to commodity culture, that is in how a work is packaged as a “hybrid-object,” to be absorbed, has to do with my compulsion to study across disciplines, and to work in between and across them to open up more variegated means of understanding and production. But as a poet, of course, I am obsessed by the line, however wide open, even, in how it can connect, disrupt and link fields (language, image, sound, theory) in ways unexpected and useful for getting at difficult questions in this process.
It is not my interest, in this process, to present racialized, sexualized, gendered formations of the self for easy consumption. i.e . Here, witness, my pathos. Here, I am dying. Here I am X or Y as an identifiable limit in which you will both identify, empathize, feel. Ya Feel me?—
There is a place for this, of course, but for me, as someone deeply invested in the slipperiness of representation, and aware of the danger of what this might mean if it is not always so, I have always been interested in making art that enacts this: poetry as an intervention into the way I see the world, a way back into it, not as a discrete package, but rather an amorphous piece, a sliver/reflection/glimpse into a larger body of work realized at any given time, and then.
RT: Identity is in constant emergence throughout Farther Traveler—the pushing away from a centralized identity politics. Lisa Hinrichsen wrote of Houston A. Baker Jr.’s Turning South Again, “[his] work suggests this potential agency is located in the space between the subject position and the subject form. By troping or turning the self, especially within the genre of memoir and autobiography, where the self becomes object as well as subject, Baker problematizes his subject position and creates disruptive discourse…. By choosing to speak in a manner that takes a form other than that prescribed by a subject position, one can react against the contours of that position.” Your Memoir/Antimemoir section was written while you finalized the book with your publisher, in a very real way disrupting, or at least challenging, the discourse you had originally envisioned. How did you come about deciding to add this section and choosing how to enact it? What do you feel you gained? In gaining, was anything lost?
RVW: Yes, in a visit to Prof. Laura Mullen’s graduate seminar on the hybrid form, we had a rich, candid, and exciting class and discussion concerning the choices I made in completing Farther Traveler around this Memoir/Part One of the Anti-Memoir section. I pointed out in that discussion that, in an earlier version of the book, the manuscript ended with the section Letters. There was some discussion between me and the editors about whether or not the “Ally” poems—a cycle of epistolary poems between the speaker and a deceased cat—should end the book, or more radically, whether they belonged in the collection at all.
One of the concerns of the editors was that these poems were overly sentimental, and that they seemed, in part, to be, tonally, quite variant from the rest of the book. Admittedly, in the early drafts of the poems, I too, felt this was the case, but I wanted, for sure, to leave the poems in, though I decided to recalibrate the tone of the pieces through subsequent drafts. In doing so, I realized that it was important to continue to push against the sentimentality implicit in these poems, the journey between human and animal, and love—that the book needed to have one more significant sound, a set of music, one more long landscape to move the speaker through the collection between the many lives, traveling in the book.
Part of this realization came from the editing of the poem, but part of this also came out of thinking about what my editors were hearing and experiencing, an audience I respected, but I also wanted, somehow to expose a sound, one I was yet to discover, and unfurl, if even for myself, another interior mode of the subjective performance of the poem. To hear the music of the book in a slightly different way, and maybe to move beyond what they or I expected, I would have to keep writing beyond what would have been a completely fine book. But for whom?
One of the possibilities that we discussed was ending the book with the suite of poems now directly at the start of the section entitled, Other. These poems catalogue, in fragments of sexual activity and speech, a series of encounters with the speaker’s various lovers, many of whom have died, some dying quite close to the completion of the book.
Did I want to create a book that wrestled with mourning the loss of these lovers? Did I want to write a book that left the reader with a figure processing grief through the sexualized dimensions of this encounter? Was the speaker angry, bitter? Did I want to process any of this, or stage it, so clearly, for any viewer?
I felt that if the book ended with these poems, these lovers, it might mirror, too closely, some of the tone and strategies of my early book, Poems of the Black Object, or even my first book, Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, works also recounting, perhaps more fully, psycho-sexual relationships as a catalogue of enduring experiences—yes, all exciting, and recognizable in my work, for my audience, but in the end, I wanted to push myself, and these figures (Ally wanted to be heard too!) to collapse the sentimental through the a dream-like space between human and animal desire, then to move beyond it through the mode of memoir, however torqued.
In another way, more simply, I wanted to expand and explore the realm of the poem through a form that wasn’t quite clear, like life. In this spirit, I was working on an entirely different project, a work that came out of a lecture course I taught some years before where I encountered the famous 1969 Playboy interview with Allen Ginsberg, who mentioned wanting to catalogue every single one of his sexual encounters, and encouraging others to try it—I’m paraphrasing here, but the important thing, for me was what this might constitute as the primary mode of my memoir/anti-memoir. What was, for instance, might constitute a sexual encounter? How early might one begin to trace this encounter before it might be perceived, during, or in retrospect, and how does one reveal this narration?
In this direction, I’d written a few entries here and there, but it was only when I thought of it in the context of Father Traveler, as a kind of answer to the question of the space of the sentimental, a way to push beyond expected identity formations, did the larger completion of the book begin to manifest. It took almost two more years to produce the last section of the book, because as I wrote through the section, I became interested in the speaker’s broader journey through higher education, family matters, travel, dreams, questions of poetics, scholarship, all allowing the reader to work past the constraints of the sentimental or the observational as it became a more precise form, however capacious, that redressed both the larger questions in the book, but also those outside of it, expanding the book’s locus of travel.
Still, and within this context, I am intrigued by the last part of the question, around what was gained and lost, particularly in this process of how the anti-memoir sections pushes against memory, and even how it helps the book to resist a singular, identifiable mode of address. So to remain with your question as directly as possible, what was lost was is the speaker’s direct accounting (if this is ever possible) for the conditions of sexual awakenings within the broader contexts of knowledge, love, family, so far away from that which was/is familiar.
What was gained, in losing the familiar, or keeping it at a distance, was a way to begin to think of how to moving into an expanding field of memory that reveals, for me, the relationship between analytical practices and poetics I continue to explore. It helps me to now think through what was possible both in the writing, but in the landscape of prose that could contain: poems, songs, excerpts from theory, the melodic as rhetoric, freestyle recounting, unmoored dreams, retribution fantasies, making possible not simply what was remembered, but rather what can be rendered in the space between form and memory.
RT: The title of Farther Traveler (for those who don’t know) came from an award you won, for having traveled the longest distance, to a family reunion. But it also embodies the nature of the hybridity and subject matter of this collection. Since writing it, where else have you and are you traveling? What distances or spaces of your own “varied diaspora” are you currently trekking?
RVW: In order to address this question, I think I should start from further back. Since 1992, when I graduated from Berkeley, I have essentially lived on both coasts of the U.S., and flown back and forth pretty regularly from California, since first moving to New York to study in the graduate workshop at NYU. I also commuted between NYC (Manhattan and Brooklyn) and Long Island on the LIRR for many years, and while at the CUNY Graduate Center, I commuted all over the place in my early PhD life, from Brooklyn to Queens, the Bronx to Brooklyn, really all over the city for several hours a day, several hours between teaching stops, subway, bus, sleeping, writing, resting, reading, and thinking, Long Island on the weekends. My wheels, a good friend, once said, were spinning in one place, all the time, but I felt that I was working on something, in particular, during my commutes, how to work while in motion, and in public.
I am not quite sure why your question prompts me to write about this larger movement through space as the trek. But for me, it’s a kind of suspended animation, particularly when you asked where I’ve gone since I completed Farther Traveler. I think, specifically, of a period from 2002-2004, when I pretty much stopped typing poetry into my laptop, a time, when I only wrote in bound journals, mostly on the train, just trying to reconnect with my penmanship, working in the southing loop of cursive.
I recall just working on my handwriting, drawing some, reinvesting in the quiet of the hand, the pen, which was a kind of counterpoint to the subway and train travel—then the Subaru Forester (Desiré), and MHC, Ferry to Port Jefferson and South Hadley, some of which I capture in my new work, mostly in prose, fiction, and drawing, all fueled a kind of internal movement between various zones. In a sense, the book’s origin—and what extends beyond it—comes from recognizing the form of motion as the primary mode, and seems, in a sense to continue to push against the question of the work as a form of commodity. That is, when does the book begin, and end, particularly because it signifies a mode of thinking and analysis.
To answer the question of travel more directly, in the last few years, since 2009, I’ve traveled to many places, throughout Spain, Venice, Paris, all over the South of France by luxury river cruise, and loft-life in Berlin (more to come in this regard), and here in the U.S. recently, Milwaukee, Notre Dame, St. Louis, San Diego, Fresno, Arizona, multiple trips to Florida, Colorado many times, Chicago, D.C., Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, Seattle, often staging performance work at museums and universities, work from my notes, dreams and analysis, all within the point of motion—the impulse to move as a vector in these places demands I continue to work on new material, pushing my writing in different directions.
I tend to like to create new works for most of my presentations, incorporating sound recordings, or site-specific material, film, drawings in each place I travel. I do not like to read old work, even if this work is from new books, which speaks, I think, a bit to the question of the work as commodity. I feel in some ways that the space of travel offered by the space of Farther Traveler, is, indeed, a work that moves across forms, modes, vantage points. Out of the speaker’s imaginary is a space in which to draw from and out of which to create new contexts and works that must move—travel as a form of ideation, its spinning discourses.
RT: In your interview a few years back with Andy Fitch at The Conversant you mentioned working on a collection of persona poems, Lucy 72, which will “languish through ideas about race and representation. Lucy’s body is sometimes white, black, male, skinny, fat, substance, landscape, texture.” Those of us who were lucky enough to make it to your performance here at LSU were treated to work and performance from “Lucy”, an overlaying of poetry on top of the musical refrain and movement.
In “Double Life, or Trees in the Forest” you wrote, “In a sense, what I want to do here is capture my body’s own particular relationship to many such spaces.” What do you see as the relationship between poetry and movement? Do you see a difference between the physical body in space and the figurative body (the body of the speaker on the page)? Can one enact the other?
RVW: Since I talked, fairly specifically, about movement in terms of travel, over time in the space of the world, I think this might be a good opportunity to begin to discuss embodied movement in my staged performances practices.
In a sense, it isn’t as if the book isn’t a kind of stage, and like the scene of its origins, the stage is a shifting one that moves according to the register of its address.
Movement for me, on a stage, public, or in private—really anywhere—
I find a way into the feeling of where I am in what I attempt to communicate.
Perhaps this sounds trite, but I do need to be deep in my body when I write, or walking, dancing, almost as if the center of gravity, the balance point for the work is a constant negotiation between where I am and what surface is below me, concrete, shore, sand,
or I float.
I am not always there, in the work, out of it, at times, but movement,
dance for about forty-five minutes into the practice allows me to release into the feeling of being out of it with intention—this is something I hope to achieve in my practice, and here, I hope maybe to mirror, if only at an angle.
Suicide drop. Tick. Kick out into and back into a curve where I bring the body back into the curl of my expanse. Uppity. Narcissist. Resist/
Revisit, at times, in time, the form.
As in, however,
the practice of getting loose, or listening to the body,
its forms and shapes, allow me to connect with the work of writing,
recording, being in the form as practice, rhetoric,
Movement is movement. Sweat is Sweat.
I like to make shapes with my body in front of the long mirror,
or outside of it’s range, back into the mirror of memory.
I make patterns, sometimes practice strength movements
low to the surface, body as hieroglyphic,
body as impulse.
In a recent performance I did a hand spin, my wrist bent,
hands open, sprawling my desire to be less fat,
and when I was young, I was in motion, but on the stage, my spinning
Some of this is labored, some, I will use: the half spin, to gain speech—
I use one of my pages, just to see what it feels like to connect
to the audience that way. Ask them if I can listen to them breathe.
Tick, twerk: timing my breath to the beat out of the house sound—
I like to touch my face to my knees to make sure I am loose before the act.
& I do it in front of the audience to remain limber, and open to what might happen.
I suppose that there might be connections between poetry and these kinds of movements into the space of feeling where the body both ends and begins, the space of the idea, its flow—
In one sense, maybe what I am getting at might be found between the tension between exhaustion and freedom and then I’m like, lectern no, or yes (!):
Language as the music—
Poetry as soundtrack, blasted for dancing.
I often, in performances, let my computer speak,
And once I took a nap, on one stage,
And on another, I lay out
on the pages to let
the work enter up through my body
Ride/them/All and Recall—
To enter my own language, letting
it inhabit the self, the extension, the fold,
so that the (the performing body)
This, from this point—
The hand, whether striking
Or holding up the body,
elbow to the rib, breaker
supports, and the other arm
holds, it up, and the other cuts
the surface, too, torso
twisted below, the back
tight, fingers, pull,
another opens, cuts down,
in, and through.
Ronaldo V. Wilson, PhD, is the author of Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man (University of Pittsburgh, 2008), winner of the 2007 Cave Canem Prize., Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoem Books, 2009), winner of the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry and the Asian American Literary Award in Poetry in 2010. His latest books are Farther Traveler: Poetry, Prose, Other (Counterpath Press, 2015), finalist for a Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry and Lucy 72 (1913 Press, 2017). Co-founder of the Black Took Collective, Wilson is also a mixed media artist, dancer and performer. His Off the Dome: Rants, Raps, and Meditations, an online album, exists on The Conversant. His short films “Grey,” “White,” “Blue,” “Red,” “Green,” “Brown,” “Pink,” “Black,” can also be found online at the Center for Art and Thought. Wilson is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, serving on the core faculty of the Creative Critical PhD Program, and co-directing the Creative Writing Program. He splits his time between Santa Cruz, CA and Long Island, New York.
Raquel Thorne is an MFA candidate at LSU where she works as the Interviews/Reviews Editor for NDR. Additionally, she works as the managing editor of cahoodaloodaling, as an associate interviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and as the president of Tandem Reader Awards. A 2016 BinderCon LA Scholarship recipient, Raquel’s work has appeared in journals such as Black Warrior Review, Manchester Review, The Pedestal Magazine, and The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, among others.