In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Gabrielle Civil
Tell us about your poem “My Black Boy Dead” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
“My Black Boy Dead” emerged from a kind of haunting. Although the poem resonates with recent anti-black violence, it came from a state of emergency in my youth. I grew up in Detroit during “the crisis of the black boy” and as people talked about their brothers, their cousins, their boyfriends, as teachers, preachers, and politicians wrung their hands and shook their heads, it was clear how much black boys were highly prized, precious, and deeply endangered. The poem emerges as a dream response to this state of impending loss. The black boy is loved, mourned, and never really known. A black boy becomes a stereotype, a target, a fortune, a consumer, a salvation. The poem exposes a desire to heal (man I cure ) and a deep craving for actual embodied connection (“someone to hold my hands”).
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Experimentation, interiority, and surprise! The latest issue of American Theatre arrived in my mailbox with Adrienne Kennedy on the cover and my heart leapt out of my chest. Yes! Her writing is so unexpected, so original, so psychological, and poetic. It refuses to conform to reader, audience, or societal expectations. This excites me deeply. I also admire bravery in writing, intelligence, humor, and insight.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
So many! I’m a voracious reader and am usually reading 3-4 things at least at a time. I read broadly and love world poetry and drama and novels by and about artists, but the deepest inspiration for me remains the brilliant matriarchs of the black feminist tradition. I lift up the work of Ntozake Shange, Adrienne Kennedy, Jayne Cortez, Audre Lorde, Alexis de Veaux, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and the dearly departed Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison. These women gave me my life! You can check out some specific book suggestions that I made recently for The Rumpus in the black feminist tradition. Artists like Adrian Piper, Howardena Pindell, and María Magdalena Campos-Pons also help me forge specific links between writing and art making. I am so grateful to them and to many others.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
Performance art is a central part of my creative practice, along with some installation, conceptual art, and book making. I’ve premiered over 50 original solo and collaborative performance art works around the world and all of them could be considered poems! I actually came to making performance art through poetry, and the desire to rethink the poetry reading and recirculate language in space and time in a different way. I went from articulating figures of speech on a page to articulating figures of the body in the world. It was quite an adventure, one that I detail in my first book Swallow the Fish. To this day, performance art and writing remain deeply interconnected—and I love them both very much.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
Dream states have become important in my writing. States of mind, states of the body, states of history. I’m also always interested in black diasporic culture, ritual, loss, mourning, and reconnection. Like so many of us today, I’m interested in epigenetics, generational trauma and transferences of joy.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I am a great lover of notebooks. I have a personal journal, a notebook for every specific project, a book to chart creative ideas, a paper calendar, and more. Some notebooks have lines and others have graph paper or blank pages. I use colored pens and markers and sometimes draw figures to mark how I want a poem or performance to move. These notebooks and pens usually live on a desk or table. A bouquet of flowers is often there, a candle, a tarot spread, stones to hold when I need a surge of energy, an art book or book by someone else can be there for inspiration too—or sometimes I have to be away from everyone else’s words to get closer to my own. I’m lucky to live in a place where I have access to different rooms. So sometimes I hunker down in the living room or can even write in bed.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m revising yet again my translation of Haitian poet Jacqueline Beaugé-Rosier’s long poem “A Vol d’ombre”. I’ve been working on it for soooo long! But it’s almost done and I’d like to release it with accompanying essays and writing and false starts in the translation as a meditation on diaspora silence and expression. I’m also deep into the third volume of what I think of as the Swallow the Fish trilogy where I engage diaspora and discuss my performance work in Africa and the Caribbean. I’m also sending around my performance catalogue and artist writing from work I did in Mexico. So it’s really been about bringing long standing projects into the world!
Gabrielle Civil is the author of two black feminist memoirs in performance art: Swallow the Fish, an Entropy Best Non-Fiction Book of 2017, and the recently released Experiments in Joy. Her writing has appeared in Poem-a-Day, Dancing While Black, Small Axe, Art21, MAI Journal, Kitchen Table Translation, and Obsidian. She has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to Mexico and a 2019 Rema Hort Mann LA Emerging Artist Award. She teaches creative writing and critical studies at the California Institute of the Arts. You can read more about her work on her website.