Poetry In Conversation
AISHA SABATINI SLOAN
with Vi Khi Nao
Vi Khi Nao: If Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit were a gymnast or a painting, who or what art piece reflects its perspective and its dynamic, raw didactic energy the most?
Aisha Sabatini Sloan: WHOA I love that you said the word gymnast. I am now running different gymnasts through my mind and having kind of intense flashbacks from gymnastics practice. I remember in high school there was an incredible rhythmic gymnast who drew out of the sport this lyric quality that I always admired, when in reality my experience of gymnastics was sort of… exhausted and chalky and I was always being reminded to straighten my legs. In a way I think this book is me at the gym gazing at this more elegant, graceful, acrobatic dancer (which may be the art I’m talking about) and me approximating those moves in my own way. Like the writing is talking about and emulating the art but sort of self-consciously appreciating the gap between forms.
Nao: Yes, in one of your essays, “A Clear Presence,” you talked about your gymnastic background and I imagine it may have helped you cope with some of your jugular antidotal experiences. When I read your work laced with astute beauty and intellectual depth about Jean-Michel Basquiat, Freddie Gray, your lieutenant cousin, the impoverishized Detroit, your beautiful, loving relationship with your father, etc, it made me associate your writing talent with gymnasium. Your words behave closer to vaulting, pommel horse as if you were writing and placing history and passion on a balance beam or horizontal bar. Which nonfiction literary (gymnastic move) is your favorite? In other words, which essay from your Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit do you feel achieves the highest success structurally, emotionally, conceptually?
Sloan: Mmmmm. This is such a great question. I loved balance beam most, though I always struggled with letting go enough to jump or flip backwards on the beam for a backhandspring or tuck, which made it so that I was stuck in my level and I felt so aware that fear was keeping me there. Whereas, I also loved the parallel bars, and moving between the bars is such a satisfying activity, and my thought is that “A Clear Presence” engages with risk and letting go and even the feeling of almost coincidence or synchronicity that you actually are able to grasp onto the bar as needed. And now that I’m thinking about this it feels like, I think bars were my strongest event, whereas floor felt-- you had to push into the acrobatics, the flight, use your body strength and momentum to launch into it, it wasn’t built into the activity, and I think in a way certain modes of prose writing feel more like that-- relying on voice alone, not having levels or height built in-- and I struggle toward a more elegant or risky experience of that form.
Nao: In Vietnamese, the color white symbolizes death. When you write about racism in your award-winning 1913 book, do you feel that you are writing about the historic arc of death? Or what were you hoping to achieve? What are/were your dreams for giving birth to such a beautiful book at the right place at the right time (Black Lives Matter movement, Claudia Rankine, etc)?
Sloan: Haha, my immediate response to the first question was “yes yes absolutely,” even though I would never have thought to describe it that way. I very much set out with this project to talk about death, and now that I think about it, the historic arc… yes. The project grew out of a meditation workshop and some exercises in which we were asked to meditate on death, dying, illness, and in one case, corpses. Which was a very emotionally liberating experience, not nearly as morbid as I would have anticipated. I’m also now remembering how unwittingly racialized the corpse meditation was-- we were told to go to a Youtube video where the narrator talks about the, I think she said the word “terrifying” moment when a corpse’s skin turned black. And I was taken out of the practice because this felt so offensive to me, to say black skin was terrifying, though of course I understand that yes, this moment must be striking to see. But that experience weirdly encapsulates everything I was up to-- thinking about death as almost a spiritual exercise or practice, but also thinking about how the way we think about death gets racialized and trying to sort of trouble or sit with that association. And I appreciate that you mention that the color white symbolizes death in Vietnamese, because it takes me out of the frame of American or European thinking wherein blackness and death are the same. Thank you for saying the book is beautiful! As for timing, things just kept happening and I was in my own slow way trying to engage with them. The first thing was the death of Rodney King, and another formative thing was talking with my mother’s friend about Diebenkorn and the loss of her son. Those things were the jumping off point for the collection.
Nao: If a white person were to read your book and respond, what would be the ideal response you would desire from them? Although all of your essays stretch the canvas on the conversation about race, the first essay is quite lucid in exhibiting the museum or swimming pool of inequality and racial contamination and literally racial cleansing. Why did you place this essay (“A Clear Presence”) first? And not “Gray’s Anatomy”? How did you go about shaping the emotional language or poetic content of your book?
Sloan: I think the response I have been getting from a lot of readers, white readers in particular, is something along the lines of…. almost… “nothingness,” like “I read the book, and now I’m sitting here, and I’m feeling things, and I don’t know what they are.” There have been more than a few people who have said that. And at first I thought, “what does that mean, what aren’t you saying” but in a way it feels good for the experience to be emotional and emotionally fluid or uncategorizable. I think I’m trying to write beyond feelings like defensiveness or offensiveness into a more liquid, if we’re talking about swimming pools, or ambivalent, ephemeral place. The way I feel after I watch a movie and I just want to be quiet for awhile. And the first essay in a way establishes those terms, I think. I think it draws the frame.
Nao: If Jean-Michel Basquiat were alive and he asked you to collaborate on a painting with him, what kind of art piece would you desire to make or create with him? How big is the canvas? And, what book would you like him to pull words from to insert onto that canvas?
Sloan: I think I can’t get beyond the phrase “If Jean-Michel Basquiat were alive.” Just that fact would so rattle my understanding of reality that I don’t know if I can imagine it.
Nao: Not too long ago, I saw Basquiat work at a museum in Denver, I think? Or was it in Boulder? And, someone lost her wallet or purse! I think it was Steven Dunn’s partner! (All of us writers, Black, White, and Asian!), were seeing his art together: Oh, my memory. At any rate, I was captivated by Basquiat’s genius and was moved by the “aliveness” of his work. His drawings had so much energy and centrifugal depth. So, I understand why you can’t imagine it...If you are unable to collaborate with Basquiat, which artist alive today would you desire? And, what would you like to create with this individual or institution?
Sloan: Yes, it’s strange, imagining him being alive and interacting with him is like…. I’m now picturing a really fun, Afro-futurist iteration of the Back to the Future series. I want to hear more about this experience-- if the woman found her purse. I love stories that take place in museums. As for the question, maybe what keeps me at a distance in the case of Basquiat and so many artists I admire is related to the way that the art world puts artists at such a remove, on a pedestal. Maybe thinking about collaboration is a way of disrupting that very commercially inspired sense of reverence or celebrity. So in the spirit of that idea, I would say, Lorna Simpson has had a huge impact on… as I’m writing this I think perhaps I’m realizing that she is wholly responsible for how I approach form. Wow. I think my approach to essays is a real attempt to put onto the page what she does with photography, text, and video. So that would be, she would be the artist I could imagine collaborating with, if we’re talking in a really impossible, dream scenario type of way, in that I encountered her at a pivotal moment in my artistic coming of age. But then there are a lot of artists I’ve encountered since who would be amazing to collaborate with and really, collaboration is such a brilliant and important proposition.
Nao: One of my favorite essays from your book occurs on page 123: “How to Prepare to See the Royal Family Portrait” - I think what I love about it is that it defies what conventional or linear approach to essay-que writing. I love this essay’s shape. Where or how did you device or draw inspiration for this structure and its shrewd content?
Sloan: The prompt came from Gelare Khoshgozaran and Eunsong Kim at Contemptorary. They were doing an issue about archives, and I was teaching at the time in the forest in New Hampshire. And my colleague and I were the only black people affiliated with that program, and we were having an emotional time thinking about our experience there and how to create experiences for our students around the history of slavery. We had read Wendy S. Walters’ incredible essay, “Lonely in America,” as part of the core curriculum, in which she visits the place where the bodies of slaves were discovered in Portsmouth. And it kind of clicked that this piece might want to be conversed with, that Wendy herself was there with us in a way, and the idea of dialoguing with her created a set of experiences that echoed her experiences in the essay. The form was in a way the easiest part of that piece because it was shaped by the experience itself, which was inspired by her work. This was one of my favorite pieces to write because it was so collaborative from the start. We were embarking on an adventure wherein one step was very much contingent upon the last, which imbued it with a sense of surprise, which created a sense of intimacy and friendship, so that the more difficult aspects of what we encountered had a sacred space in which to be processed and integrated. So even though the form is, explicitly, a “how to” structure, a set of instructions, it’s also got a choose-your-own-adventure kind of feel because of the nature of the trip.
Nao: When I was driving around United States, I had an old GPS my brother purchased from Craigslist for me so I could travel eagerly and as I landed in Detroit, I inserted in “Asian cuisine” or “phở” and it told me to go to this place (I couldn’t remember its name or location, but it was in the most dangerous, dilapidated part of Detroit - I remember it was dangerous because we were told by the locals there that it was and they recommended that we leave quickly), and when we arrived to where the restaurant may have been, the restaurant vanished or didn’t exist. What was your favorite restaurant from there that had vanished into the thin air by unemployment and poverty? And, what is your favorite dish there as well?
Sloan: My parents used to love a restaurant in Greektown called Hella’s. They would go there when they were both in college and first dating. We used to go there for chicken lemon soup and I know it’s touristy but the flaming cheese, Saganaki. Also people in my family, my cousin who I write about in the essay about the ride-along, she would go there, too. It was a familial meeting place with a lot of memories. When the casinos started coming into Greektown and offering free food a lot of those old school Greek restaurants started to disappear. Some of the other places we would go aren’t there anymore and feel very much like ghosts. My favorite food to order there was absolutely the avgolemono soup.
Nao: What is the avgolemono soup? I suppose I could google it, but I’d rather eat it from your depiction.
Sloan: It’s this perfect soup made with chicken, eggs and lemon. My mom makes it well, and I was always scared to make it because you have to add the eggs in gradually so they thicken the broth without becoming…. Eggy? Stringy? I don’t know the culinary term for it. But I started making it recently and it’s not that difficult.
Nao: Do you like Tucson? Is it your ideal place to write? If it is not, where is a good place?
Sloan: I love Tucson. It has been an ideal place to write for a long time. In fact, I just recently started staying with a friend whose house has been a very special space for me, writing wise, I stayed here once a few years ago when I was writing “Ocean Park No. 6.” And I’m writing from that desk now. But I’m moving to Michigan soon, and that has been a very creatively rich place for me, too. I think moving closer to family and to the places where a lot of our family mythology played out is really exciting to me. I also like to write when it’s cold and gray, and in Tucson it is rarely that way, so I orient toward writing in the middle of the night, which doesn’t work with my work schedule right now. Something about the sun makes me feel like I should be outside instead of at a desk.
Nao: How did you decide on the cover of the book? When I gazed at it for the first time, I thought it bore similarity to a real estate pamphlet generated by a real estate agency in Singapore for gay male couples from the 1970’s who wanted to open a gyro restaurant. For me, the cover of your book had this Singaporean feel to it or Chinatown, lol. Since art is such an important aspect of your work, did you wrestle much with locating a cover/art for it? Joe Quarnberg...
Sloan: That is an amazing association. The cover came about because I was doing a fundraiser for my book and my friend Joe offered to help out through his graphic design skills. He does these wonderful vector illustrations that have a 3D feel, so I invited him to work on the cover. I am a pretty visual person, and I had played around a lot with some photographs and paintings for the cover and had a lot of freedom for what it looked like, but somehow, that freedom overwhelmed me, so I liked the idea of collaborating with a friend. Joe had a really immersive experience teaching himself about Detroit as he was working on the cover, and through this very painstaking vector work it’s as though he built the city that appears on the cover. And I really like how it’s a place that drifts into like a blueprint, I really like those intersecting pink lines in the corner. And the text comes from a printmaking workshop that I took from an artist named Amos Kennedy, who lives in Detroit right now.
Nao: With your background in studio art, would you desire an opportunity later down the line to design your own book cover, Aisha?
Sloan: Yes, although I feel intimidated by graphic design, so the perfectionist in me feels unqualified. But I do want to involve visual art more into my writing practice more generally.
Nao: If your book were to be paired with a philosopher, which philosopher would align well with it?
Sloan: Mmm. I don’t think I know enough about philosophy to answer that. Is Fred Moten a philosopher? I mean, do we get to call him that?
Nao: In your mind, what is the philosophy of Fred Moten?
Sloan: I was deeply influenced by the piece “Black Mo’nin in the Sound of the Photograph,” which appears in his book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. That piece is about the sound of grief, about the image of Emmett Till, the way a falsetto in, I think, an Al Green song, resonates with the sound of a scream. I guess when I think of his work I think of this essential way of looking at and listening to history, combined with deep empathy. I mean, more than so many things I’ve read he breaks open a new way of seeing and interrogating the world.
Nao: Some of the literary and artistic folks who occupied a large space in your heart, such as Galway Kinnell and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who departed this world through addiction or Alzheimer’s - do you feel that their diseases or their death carry a more particular kind of immaterial weight than ordinary folks who do not pursue the art? As they channel their pain can we see and feel their pain through their art more visibly than if their artistic existence has been kept hidden away from the epicenter of their soul?
Sloan: I’m not sure if I understand the question-- can you elaborate?
Nao: Do you think someone’s art can make their death more palpable? Or is death just death? I hope this question makes sense….if not, we could make it cease to exist.
Sloan: Oh no, this is a fascinating question. I actually, I think I encountered someone who was studying this and I thought it was such a great topic. I absolutely, this even came up for me when you asked the question about Basquiat. His death frames his art, so it’s hard to imagine his art without the story of his death. I absolutely think someone’s art can make their death more palpable. It’s almost as if their art creates the illusion of access to their voice even after death, and engaging with someone’s art after death then feels a bit like conjuring.
Nao: On page 33, you wrote, “The actress in The English Patient who plays the woman with whom the Hungarian cartographer falls in love is in another film. She plays a woman who kills her own son to spare him the pain caused by his illness. ‘The worst prison is the death of one’s child. You never get out of it,’ she tells her sister. Do you agree with it? If not, what do you think is the worst prison?
Sloan: I have never had children so I feel like I’m not in the position to speak to that. But I think… This is also not my personal experience, but I believe that prison itself is the worst kind of prison. It obliterates the metaphor, like what Neruda says about children’s blood. I also think that there is something horrifying about the way we talk about social mobility in this country when it is built on the premise of withholding resources from people. The idea of what the worst prison would be is so subjective, I guess, for me it would be not having access to other people.
Nao: Why do you desire to have access to other people? I feel in the information age, we experience less and less of people. Sometimes digital connection and interaction don’t feel that human to me. What kind of access do you have in mind, Aisha?
Sloan: In a lot of ways I value my alone time more than most other kinds of time. But I have come to realize that if I don’t spend time being present with other people, it’s like lacking a form of nourishment. Today someone told me that people who spend time socially engaging with other people live longer. I’m not sure what that study is or who did it, but it rings true, even, or maybe especially if you are, like so many artists, oriented toward being alone. And that is very different from engaging with people digitally, although I think that you can experience some semblance of connection without being in person together.
Nao: What was your coming out experience like? With your family? (You addressed this a bit on page 39 of your book. In the essay with a very long title: “Playlist for a Road Trip with Your Father in Honor of His Seventy-Fourth Birthday, Which Happens to Coincide with the Occasion of Prince’s Death and the Release of ‘Lemonade.’”) Or have they always known? Being black, female, and queer (minority to the third power) - how has being a minority in the technology age shaped your voice? Or do you feel that it hasn’t but rather crippled it? Where do you feel empowered when you are marginalized?
Sloan: My parents have always been very supportive. I didn’t encounter Facebook until I graduated from college, and have only started dipping into Twitter recently, so much of my writing life has been only slightly influenced by social media, which is what I think of when you speak of the technology age. Being a minority and grappling with the various aspects of my identity and my voice, I’m not sure what it would have been like to have to do that with the degree of visibility that technology has normalized. Identities get kind of crystallized through social media in a way that I think can put pressure on an emerging sense of self. In terms of my voice, I certainly feel the presence of other people’s opinions now in a way I didn’t when I wrote my first book, and I think that the proximity to other people’s judgments through technology makes me feel a lot more, like I have a farther distance to travel in order to find a generative creative space. For me, perhaps because I grew up with the perspective of my father, being marginalized is something I’ve always experienced as a source of power, in the sense that you have this vantage point, you train in seeing people who don’t think they can be seen, and that feels really empowering.
Nao: Where do you see the future for essays? Where and how will they expand and if they are unable to expand, where will they retrogress? What is an ideal essay for you? And, have you written it?
Sloan: Somebody went and told poets about the essay, so I think the essay has a beautiful and brilliant future. Poets, or essayists who are also performance artists or… witches… these voices make me feel like the essay will continue to expand even as people keep trying to impose labels or limitations on the genre. I think the concept of an ideal essay will keep me chasing my next essay, it’s something that is maybe always out of reach.