Studio Check In With Anaïs Duplan
Studio Check In was born out of a desire to tell the stories of the people who work behind the scenes at different arts and cultural institutions. Institutions are defined by the people who work within them, but they are also defined by the community members, artists, and audiences that intersect with and support the work and mission—different audiences and participants help make the story more full, more human, and more alive.
In this edition of Studio Check In, Ilk Yasha speaks with Anaïs (An) Duplan, a trans* poet, curator, and artist. He participated in the 2017–19 cohort of the Studio Museum & MoMA Fellowship. Duplan is the author of the thought-provoking, multidisciplinary book Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I always begin with a simple question to introduce our interviewee to our readers. Can you tell the readers a little about yourself?
I studied poetry in undergrad and grad school. Throughout that time I was also interested in art and artists. I was a visual arts major before I was a poetry major. After I graduated and ever since, I’ve worked alongside artists, either within institutions or not. A lot of my time at Studio Museum was like an education for working as an arts worker that I didn't really get in school because I went to poetry school. Now I work as a post-colonial literature professor at Bennington College, which is where I am right now.
In Blackspace, I love how you’re centering the conversation around liberation. Can you tell us more about the different lenses you’re using to think about the work of “liberation”?
Because I'm a writer and I had published poetry before Blackspace, I wanted to write a book that would allow me to talk about the art and artists I was into. One of the things that will always draw me to an art practice is my sense that someone is working toward a kind of freedom or liberation via the creative process. As an organizing scheme for myself, I came up with these three ways of thinking about liberation I was encountering in the work. Those are “individual,” “'social,” and “universal” or “existential” liberation.
The easiest one to talk about and identify is social liberation, because we're, as a culture, pretty versed in talking about it. These ideas of freedom on the level of the group and none of us are free until all of us are free. Black Lives Matter and other movements working toward the welfare of Black life are built on this idea of social liberation.
Then there's individual liberation, which is more psychological in nature and more having to do with one's individual life experiences and childhood. How can you become the most actualized version of yourself? This has to do with unlearning oppressive ways of thinking, beliefs, and behaviors. It has to do with coming into a fuller understanding of who you are truly, and working toward expressing that. I'm familiar with that idea of liberation too.
The trickiest one to deal with was universal liberation because in this cultural moment the idea of universal anything is unpopular and tenuous. The idea of the universal anything has been used against marginalized people by saying marginalized experiences aren't part of the universal. I did want to think about what could be a version of liberation that is impersonal and not based on one's social position or individual psychology and is instead possible on the human level. I took a lot of inspiration from my background in meditation. I’ve learned and practiced a number of Buddhist and Vedic traditions; a lot of the literature helps guide an understanding of impersonal freedom.
Who is an artist doing interesting or introspective work about “liberation”?
I’ve been thinking about this and the problem for me is that the same person always comes to mind when I think about who I'm responding to or influenced by. And that's Fred Moten. I was trying to think of someone younger, or lesser-known because I know everyone loves Fred Moten. Then I can’t think of anyone so I'm just going to talk about why I love Fred Moten.
First, I think he models the way a writer can exist both in literary and art spaces. Fred Moten is equally loved by literature circles and art circles. That's really inspiring.
Second, he models the way a writer can be both a poet and a scholar. We have a lot of poets who write other kinds of things, poets who are also fiction writers, but not a lot of poets who are also scholars, meaning people whose work is taught in academic settings. But you can see how one is informed by the other. The poetry is scholarly and the scholarship is very poetic, and when you read them together, I think one illuminates the other in really interesting ways. That's something I try to emulate in my own work.
Lastly, I think there's a lot of poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant in Fred Moten—essentially, he's not just talking about freedom, but also the way he writes and the language itself is forcing us to reconsider what our relationship is to language and the written word and spoken word like Glissant does. It’s what makes it challenging, frustrating work but it's, to me, inherently gratifying. Moten's my creative dad slash guru, like, I don't know, I think about his work a lot. I feel so cliché sometimes but I love Fred Moten.
I appreciate you speaking about the interplay between scholarly and poetic or creative writing because I found this when I was doing academic writing. Whenever I wrote poetically my advisor would get angry at me and I had to force myself to write in this mechanical way. I feel like academics write in a particular way, but sometimes you need to find your voice within the machinery, and it should be OK if that voice is poetic.
Right. And this is true of Glissant too, but his work is so fully what it is— there would be no way to gently revise the work into being more like one genre or the other, the poetry and scholarship are so inseparable. You have to say, I don't care about how the scholars are gonna get upset that this is poetic and the poets are going to be like, why is this so heady? I'm going to do the thing and you have to deal with it.
I struggle with terms and language. It took me about two years to really get a grasp of the word “pedagogy” —for a while I would use the word and immediately doubt if I actually grasped its true meaning. So what does “non-ontological blackness” mean to you?
The reason I get nervous answering this question is that there are a lot of philosophers out there who might get on my case because there's a difference between ontic, ontological, and ontology. But, ontology is kind of like the study of existence, or how things come into being, how they manifest. I think we're familiar with the idea of monolithic blackness and how it's not a great thing to point experiences of blackness back to the same thing or to assume everyone has the same experience with blackness. Non-ontological blackness in part is a way of describing the fragmentation in our understanding of what blackness is once you’ve moved beyond its monolithic understanding.
That's one piece of it. How do you call together the many multiplicities of Black experience in one piece of language? Then there’s the fragmentation of the language, a deeper fragmentation in the work of someone like Ulysses Jenkins, who is a video artist. When you look at his work, you can never really figure out what Ulysses Jenkins thinks. Like, who is he as a person? What are his beliefs like? Who is this guy? He's always preventing us from really understanding him. In fact, there are contradictory ideas of who he might be. So the work doesn't have a solid worldview. He's doing that specifically as a way of dodging the stereotypes and reductive understandings of who he might be as a Black man. He's always making it hard to understand who he is. So non-ontological blackness is a way of talking about Black subjectivity or perspective so that it never gets fully expressed, but is fragmented and hard to understand and hard to pin down on purpose. Was that good?
Absolutely. I am so happy you’ve gone into education work because I just got schooled. Thank you. So you’ve conducted and participated in a lot of interviews for your work. What's a thoughtful question someone asked you that you still think about today?
In conversation with the poet Wendy Xu, Wendy asked me if I thought about the fact that my work would be bought and sold as I was making it. At the time she asked me the answer was no. It seemed like a strange question or a proposition that I would be thinking about selling my book as I was writing it. Well, I don't know how I wasn't thinking about it then, but now I think about it a lot, maybe even more now with the more work I make. It does change my relationship to what I make and it feels separate from the question of who's going to read this or are people interested in this? It's specifically financial, is this viable? There’s a violence to that—thinking about the financial viability of a project can sometimes dissuade me from fully following my creative instincts if I think a project will be too “‘out there” or hard to understand.
Afrofuturism encompasses many different ideas that revolve around sci-fi and speculative world-building, but as you put it, Afrofuturism can also be the not-so-distant future. You pose that Afrofuturism at its core is about finding one's voice and centering one’s well-being, so is joy Afrofuturistic?
Definitely. I love this question. I love this thought so much. A student the other day raised an interesting point about Afrofuturism and how the first time they heard about it—they're from the continent [of Africa]—they were underwhelmed by this idea of putting African people in space. It seemed like it was an under-cooked idea. We were talking about how there's a difference between futurist writing that talks about a future we want to live in and futurist writing that is a tool or is useful. Futurist writing that is meant to be a tool is more interested in illuminating present-day social problems in new ways. The future it outlines may not be a future the writer desires to bring about or is taking steps toward. But some futurist writing really is a map, an actual blueprint for a future the writer wants to see unfold.
I love, in relation to your question, thinking about futures as a tool to bring about joy where joy is not. It opens up Afrofuturism for me if I think about it like that. What are things that bring Black people joy? That is a kind of futurism because the present reality is not necessarily set up to bring that joy. What does it mean to bring that about? It's really beautiful. I love that.
When was the last time you had a burst of joy in your life that you’d like to share, and what was it?
Oh, every day! Vermont is very special to me. I was and still am very sad to not be in New York still, but there's something about being in the mountains. When you walk outside you're constantly reminded that you're small as hell. Whatever shit you got going on, it’s immediately just like, oh, I'm on some bullshit. And move on.
As you said, you recently left New York City to return to your alma mater, Bennington College, as a professor in postcolonial literature. What are you most excited about in your new move to Bennington, Vermont?
Bennington, I think, is a special academic community. For a long time, I didn't think I was an academic. Then I realized I am but not at every academy. I've taught at certain places or I've been in certain academic environments where I was like, oh, I don't fit here. At Bennington, we don't have majors. It's very interdisciplinary. There are a lot of queer and trans people. There are a lot of people who love the land and the mountains like I do. I feel a sense of community within the university that I haven't actually experienced anywhere else in quite the same way. I'm excited to be here, but on the other side of learning.
What's something happening in poetry that is really stale?
I find a lot of poetry is self-referential. Poets are oftentimes not taught to look beyond poetry for inspiration. That is not as true in other disciplines. I find visual arts disciplines are more likely to look beyond their own discipline for inspiration. I think it's a missed opportunity for the field of poetry to not engage more deeply with other media.
There are people like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, who is married to the artist Richard Tuttle and whose daughter is also a visual artist. Mei-mei wrote a book called I Love Artists and in it, she talks about art as encompassing both literature and writing. There are people who don't fall into this, but for the most part, I find that a lot of poetry is just referring to other poetry.
What's something exciting happening in poetry?
Maybe this is a slight contradiction of what I just said, but there is a growing interest in documentary poetics. An engagement with documents and our everyday life, like screenshots or photos, not necessarily other disciplines, but incorporating ways of documenting and archiving daily lives into poetry that I find fascinating. I think an example a lot of people know is “Zong” by M.NourbeSe Phillip, which is based on a lease of a slave ship, the court case report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, related to murders that happened on that slave ship. She's excavating it and finding moments of beauty. I love that kind of thing.
An, thank you so much for your time! Your students are so lucky to have you. It's been wonderful to speak with you and learn from you.
Note: The asterix after trans gestures toward an expansive, fluid gender inclusivity, one that includes both transgender and also genderqueer, two-sex, intersex, agender, et al. It also refers to expansive definitions of those identities therein.