In Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, that moment when Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) says, "They don't care nothing about me, all they want is my voice."
Then the long moments she stands with her nephew Sylvester (Dusan Brown) as he stutters through the intro for her song, insists on take after take until he gets it right, while the white managers get impatient about what the retakes will cost them.
Then the moment where (spoiler alert) Sylvester does it—he goes through the spoken introduction without a stumble—and Ma Rainey picks up the song without missing a beat, but a wide, mischievous smile.
This was Ma Rainey showing her relational care for her nephew. Not just so that he would earn some money, but because she wanted him to get the experience of having done it. She was letting him know that she had faith in him, his gifts. A very different affective structure than the one in which white men used her talents for their own profit.
As Ma Rainey sings the rest of the song, Sylvester breaking out in a small dance: relief, pride. After the song is done, she applauding him—delighted hug: "See, I told you you could do it!"
(This essay appears on Periodicities: a journal of poetry and poetics. It is part of a 3-part project on visionary poetics, of which part 1 is here and part 2 can be heard here.)
Vision And Knowledge
“Poetry became an adventure. The finest of human adventures….Its goal: vision and knowledge.” —Aime Cesaire
Perhaps it is because we live in a time of so many unknowns that now, more than ever, gives a call for our opus to become an adventure that flings open portals for vision and knowledge.
In this open place, remembering and imagination draw back from harsh borders where each abruptly ‘ends’ and the other ‘begins.’ The present knows itself to be shaped by pasts and futures even as it emerges with them. Pasts and futures have knowledge for those inhabiting the present even as denizens of the present are responsible to them.
The task of reimagining and reconstructing pasts is not a tertiary one in the palimpsestic present. It is necessary so that futures may grow strong roots. The past shows the future its sharp glistening hunger—and healing futures nourish the hunger of the past. Past as ancestral memory sends visions of healing into the future. Futures are continually being shaped by pasts—just as the pasts are being reshaped and reimagined to open up futures before us.
The entanglement of pasts and futures in visionary perception reveals linearity as but a flickering moleculate—a link.
Inhabiting this fluid realm becomes possible as a result of our capacity to imagine. Imagination allows reality to become more than the density of reality determined by dominant perception.
In contrast, the dominant mode of Cartesian-Newtonian dualisms conscripts our inner/outer movements into boxes or categories. Colonization of the mind by philosophies rooted in separation teaches humans to see Earth and body, emotion and instinct and intuition, dream and vision as inferior or naïve sources of knowing. These very forces are—in the epistemological universes of people of culture—regarded as sources yielding knowledge about the full spectrum of relational human experience. “What counts as knowledge is crucially important across human cultures precisely because what counts as the known usually helps define positions within the culture on questions central to human existence on the earth,” says Jane Duran.
The loss of these other epistemes in modernity has resulted in a narrowing of our collective imagination about the Earth and each other. Our human pursuits have come to be driven by a Promethean impulse that sees itself as separate from and needing to tame nature. Diane di Prima reminds us that “the war is the war against the imagination,” and that this is a spiritual battle.
Colonialist-imperial-capitalist-patriarchal matrices have always known it is our forgetting that will establish their sway. What we forget we are in relation to becomes vulnerable to being exploited or razed down. Without the remembering of interconnectedness, binary modes play into a politics of disenfranchisement, of dislocation.
Disconnection is an age-old tactic for inducing traumas practiced by systems of domination.
Then, reconnecting ourselves to vision and imagination becomes a political act. By extending ourselves in a stance of openness and radical hospitability to sources whose knowing (of life) has been silenced, marginalized, or invisible, we assert that we will no longer endorse the tactic of disconnection—or our own alienation.
In Gloria Anzaldúa’s telling, Coyolxauhqui will not stay fragmented: her very fragments are filled with a desire for connection, reconstitution, healing. Imagination is key to her processes of integration. “You use your imagination in mediating between inner and outer experience,” says Anzaldúa. After Coyolxauhqui dismantles her old body/self, she re-composes a new body/self whose connective sutures hold nodes of new insights and possibilities for connection.
The body holds an innate awareness that intimacy and alliances break open trauma paradigms.
When bodies dream—bodies made of seeds and grains and sun and rain and dung—when this dreaming begins to speak—it exposes the subskeletal connections to life, to all of reality. What has been broken begins to link to each other: to heal.
We dream so that the yet unrecognized may come into being. We slip out of the stranglehold of dominant reality and weave a reality from the fibrils of our dreams.
Dreams and visions move us out of collective amnesia. They are the dark matter that allows reality to shift. They emerge from precisely the fissures structures of domination do not understand. Their very process is alchemical.
The dissolution, re-membering, fluidity of becoming we encounter in visionary space can transform every aspect of our lives. Visionary imaginary takes us beyond the hegemony of modern/colonial pregivens to usher processes of decoloniality. As adrienne maree brown puts it, “Our radical imagination is a tool for decolonization, for reclaiming our right to shape our lived reality.”
Making the future asks of us willingness to cross the threshold between visions and reality—nimbleness—uncontainability.
This crossing is familiar, in a way, to artists. Dreaming and artmaking have much in common. “Working at art is so much like dreaming, sometimes I don’t know which is which,” says Denise Levertov. “True poetry,” says Cesaire, appeals to the unconscious—“the receptacle of kinship that, originally, united us with nature.” Thus in its shaded tongue “modest, secret” visionary truths can come forth.
Yet what we are calling in is something more than can be contained by the definition of art. We are calling in a “consciousness of making / or not making your world”—a poetics, to quote di Prima—“no matter what you do.” What we are calling in is seeing.
Remembering and imagination are modes of seeing.
Seeing entangles us—we can no longer be on the outside looking in upon the spectacle of the real. Seeing, we acquire the power to transform it. Visioning is very much a relational mode. The visioning mode plucks us out of the mode of epistemic dependence that the dominator paradigm promotes. Taking full responsibility for what we see—through remembrance and imagination—transforms us into sovereign beings.
The step that comes after is trusting what the vision is pointing to and taking pragmatic action. As Patricia Hill Collins reminds us, “the functionality and not just the logical consistency of visionary thinking determines its worth.” Actions link our visions to the ongoing struggle of transforming reality.
The failure of the reality we live in is an ask upon us. Creating a different reality for ourselves, our children, ancestors, civet and trees and oysters and oceans is our task.
Will we, then? Forge real relationships with extraordinary dimensions—with ecological realms or agency—storehouses of memory and visionary futures?
Will we risk univocity and rational stakes—fluency and cognicentrism—guardedness and certainty?
Will we proliferate beyond our own knowing, ego’s conceit?
Will we pay attention to the ancestors?
Will we speak from our hooded bodies, speak with stones—sibyl in frequencies such that speech swells and spills outsides the spectrum of normality?
Will we light ourselves with our visions, prophesize the worlds we most want to see?
Karin Crona, Kristen Gallagher, Kayla Guthrie, Monica Mody, Katie Schaag, and Anne Lesley Selcer read new work.
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The imprint of wholeness that is within us—within our DNA—is inalienably always there. Nothing can take it away, make it go away. If so, that sense of connection that coheres us with the Earth/Mother does not disappear. No matter how devastating, how total the severance seems to be.
I am thinking of ghost limbs, which continue to feel sensation and transmit this information even after the physical limb is gone. I am thinking of tree stumps whose neighbors continue to transfuse nutrients and minerals to them.
And, if so, even when egregious harm has been done (sexual violations, torture, mass murders), the actors of harm—disconnected from their web and roots of being—can be brought back to a sense of connection. Because the imprint of connection, to wholeness, is within them.
I ask how not to move further away from those that cause harm despite the urge to do so—how not to disconnect. Disconnection, I know, tends to push something/someone even more into the shadows where behaviors of harm find feast and shape.
I ask myself this, having retracted, yesterday, my poems from an anthology whose editor, I just learnt, was named as having touched another poet inappropriately. The editor-poet has neither acknowledged nor made any amends for his sexual misconduct. I asked the publisher of the anthology, who is based in the UK, to think about the nuances of responsibility and justice that land in his corner.
I ask myself this after challenging, as a feminist killjoy, the unexamined/out-of-touch/misogynist ideas of an Indian man I'd met via a dating site, around "typical Indian girls" and "Eastern style dressing and hair."
I ask myself this even as the voices and freedoms of the peoples of India are being quashed by a state wielding unmitigated power, whose anti-democratic logic is being bought into by apologists, economic neoliberals, and nationalist-fundamentalists.
I ask myself this after doing the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual labor of writing to a white woman poet who casually threw in an "ashram" while talking about literary festivals/retreats during a writing circle where I was the only nonwestern, non-white person. I wrote to her that I felt exoticized and othered and uncomfortable; I didn't tell her about the heat that arose in my body or that my thought right after she said "ashram" and even after I had interrupted her in the moment was that I now needed to prove I was not "exotic," that I belonged.
A friend reminds me that I can tell people this is not mine to hold alone. That everyone sees what is happening, and I can tell the others in the circle to speak to it.
How can I name with clarity a behavior or a string or pattern of behaviors as wrong, while still holding out for the possibility that the imprint of wholeness can reassert itself in wrongdoers?
How can I/we hold wrongdoers to accountability? How can I/we ask that they step up to take responsibility, to account for the harm done?
How can the wrongdoers step into taking responsibility remembering their own interconnectedness?
I am thinking of restorative justice and practices, where those who have been harmed and those who have caused the harm come together to talk about needs, obligations, what amends are needed. I am thinking of Angulimala. I am thinking of post-oppositional approaches.
We are them. They are us.
Is it possible to move towards "them" not to become them, but to eat away at the distance produced artificially, painfully, systematically, structurally, discursively? To devour the distance—like Kali-Chamunda lapping up with her tongue the blood of Raktabija?
What stopped the demons from multiplying was Kali devouring the blood, which on falling to the ground would have given rise to more demons.
To devour the drop of blood that would become a demon asks of us a profound spiritual/ethical commitment. To love ourselves, to love the other.
It asks of us to expand our range of holding so that it includes human-shadow-divine, Life-Death-Life. We commit ourselves to nonduality from that place where all is known as included.
It asks that we grow an unshakable sense of self that is embodied, that has the capacity to be present. That we are sovereign and restored unto ourselves.
And this is where I notice the ways in which, despite the theory and the vision, I sometimes hide in my own life. I hide from people who I perceive will judge me. I hide from myself and the knowing that what I vision is possible.
The journey to wholeness is both long and short, my friends.
I am glad to have connected with you along the way.
One can point to external recognition in bios for our metrics-oriented culture, but when you want to evoke the feltness in your life, the internal milestones, those that (be)came in your moving through the tenuousness and ruptures—the succinct always has a shortfall.
I found myself unable to laugh when I saw the video of the lawyer who could not turn off the cat filter during a court case on Zoom.
The filters are made possible through augmented reality or AR technology—which poses serious ethical challenges at both individual and collective levels. This technology can be used to violate privacy, and to fake identities and experiences to suit manipulative agendas, and may have negative psycho-social effects, among its other impacts.
As someone who has studied cross-cultural and depth models of the psyche along with the arts of ritual and magic, I know that consciousness is not meant to be linear/insular. Across societies and temporalities, there have been inner or life-based technologies to help people shift into varied realms of perception. These usually arise from the organic connection a community has with land/spirit, and there is a level of numinosity associated with participating in such life-based technologies.
What makes the AR technology different is the hijacking of experience without the requirement of collective/spiritual connection. It was built within an individualistic, capitalistic paradigm that centers individual "fun" or "exploration" over the deep roots of connection to living strata within consciousness, be it nature, the ancestors, or the body.
Let's look at some specific concerns around AR. "A user’s privacy can be threatened because AR technologies can “see” what the user sees. Thus, AR can collect a lot of information about who the user is and what he/she is doing." Privacy may seem like an innocuous issue if you don't think you are doing anything wrong and hence have nothing to hide, still, we live in a world marked by increasing authoritarianism and militarization of law enforcement. Facial recognition information and other information from the user's environment is liable to be used for militaristic/law enforcement purposes. This puts marginalized groups at risk, in particular.
AR technology also "sees" and therefore threatens the privacy of other people around.
Google recently fired its ethics researcher Dr. Timnit Gebru for writing a paper raising critical questions about the dangers of facial recognition/artificial intelligence, demonstrating that there is no in-house check on these technologies as is claimed by the company. And, that it is in fact actively quelling dissent around the development of controversial technologies.
“It’s being framed as the AI optimists and the people really building the stuff [versus] the rest of us negative Nellies, raining on their parade,” [Rumman] Chowdhury said. “You can’t help but notice, it’s like the boys will make the toys and then the girls will have to clean up.”
From a capitalistic profit-making logic, making and launching new technologies with dubitable effects is okay even if they compromise human or planetary interests. And, let's be clear, biometrics is data that big techs want to extract for its profitability.
This nexus between Big Tech and governments is building regimes of control based on frameworks that are not interested in the well-being of the Earth or the rights of its human and nonhuman inhabitants.
Technology is not what can solve the problems we currently find ourselves amidst. Most of the technology that is being seen as the panacea that will liberate us has been built within the same paradigm of disconnection that have created the problems in the first place.
"How are you feeling? Wait, don’t tell me. I’ll let the machine figure it out.”
The reason why companies put efforts into building technologies based on suspect frameworks (see "emotion recognition technology" in the article linked above)--despite their assailing norms of privacy, dignity, freedom of opinion, right against self-incrimination--is because they are not invested in our empowerment. Corporations and militaristic regimes would have us buy into the loss/ceding of self-knowing and self-sovereignty that would help further their agendas. By investing in technology that severs us from our consent—in effect controls us—they can continue to extract what falls into the "useless" side of the Cartesian mind/matter split.
The payoffs makes it easy to ignore the real environmental costs of some of these technologies. (e.g. "Just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide (a gallon of gasoline burned from a car emits about 8,887 grams), requires 2-12 liters of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini.")
Many will probably say here that we are already too much of a technoculture to be able to change how we navigate our digital and analog experiences of life.
But just as we need to whenever we deal with toxic situations, we have to find our no's in regards to the digital culture. We have to do a cost-benefit analysis that reflects our actual values, not just those of soulless capitalism. We have look outside the grip of convenience so we create options based not only on sustainable frameworks but on regenerative frameworks, with care for the Earth front and center.
Every technology has costs. A connectionist worldview would soberly weigh the costs and then determine if the path of growth is serving collective well-being. Its medicine and technologies would tie into the imperative of healing and connection.
From everything we are reading, many technologies hailed by the tech corporations as revolutionary (another instance is 5G) are not serving collective well-being. Yet we are rushing in that direction, consumed by the desire to get somewhere that is a bodiless utopia. But we are right here. Our bodies are right here. Nature is right here. Life is right here. What we need is the deepening of attunement and connection and slowing down and care. The miracle of that which is life/nature/body continues to be revealed to us, through us.*
*Here, to add some awe into your day, are some findings by Dr. Katie Hinde, anthropologist and sustainability scientist, on breast milk.
Poets have a critical role to play in envisioning possibilities. Poets dialog with the pasts—with biological, cultural, and spiritual ancestors—with nature and the nonhuman—with the space between, the interrelational—with locations other than androcentrism, heteropatriarchy, and colonial modernity—with mother-lineages and the regenerative spiral—to create new paradigms of healing and synthesis. Through listening into the zones of fracture, poets engender relationships with that which is gathered in the interconnected, fluid, untamable, polysemous pneuma. In that place where the past, present, and future meet—a place of paradoxes—poets bring forth a knowing of connection (regeneration), activating the future.
(I adapted this statement on poetry for an anthology from an essay on Visionary Poetics published last year. Read the essay here or here.)
In conversation with a young scholar in India who is writing a paper on KALA PANI, I found myself remembering how much I enjoyed working with code in this book. Code, of course, is a way of saying the unsayable. In the world of KALA PANI, there are relationships—for instance between the new government and the six world travellers; between Sameshape and Othershape—where the unsayable has happened. The book speaks in code (and fragment) to take its narrative power back.
The new government in KALA PANI was inspired by the fascism that was rising in India. I had seen how tactics of terror were employed by the state first-hand in Gujarat in 2002 while volunteering in refugee camps. The new government in the book foreshadows the political developments in India, what we are seeing now--where truth-telling and code-making must necessarily go hand-in-hand as structure/anti-structure to counter the repression upon narrative and information enacted by the regime.
The instinct to write in code, of course, goes way back. Mystical and tantric texts in ancient India, for example, employed code, sandhyabhasa, to conceal different "planes of truth or of being."
I am thinking about both of these together right now. Code as resistance; code as initiation. The uses of ambiguity. The deep substructure that extends as empathy between politics and spirituality. What we know and who we are—and how language contributes to both, be it in the revealing or the concealing.
I have an interview titled "Every Cell of the Earth" in the current issue of Parabola (theme: Wellness). The interview is with Betsy Cornwell, who I first met at Notre Dame while I was completing a Sparks postgraduate writing fellowship and she was in the MFA Creative Writing Program. I enjoyed doing this interview and how it drew out from me interdisciplinary answers. You can get a copy of the issue here.
When figures from your imaginal world show up years later in spaces you have just begun exploring, you realize how mundus imaginalis functions. A beating heart that always links you with the cosmos, revealing something about your own arc of participation.
A while ago, when I was researching stories within my Motherline, I came across the mention of a witch called Tusheeta said to inhabit the Sulaiman mountains. Tusheeta drew me into an investigation of what life for a woman—a witch (yogini)—might have been like on these mountains near where my Nani (grandmother) probably lived. Tusheeta appeared, drew me on this exploration in the form of a long poem, and, as mysteriously as she had appeared, disappeared from the internets.
I had shared the first section of the poem that was coming through with Orion Foxwood, traditional witch, conjure-man, and faery seer. Orion confirmed that I had contacted a powerful presence. Writing the poem helped me "internalize" Tusheeta's messages. (The poem was first published in Wyrd & Wyse and is a part of my forthcoming collection, Bright Parallel.)
Then last week, imagine how amazed I was to come across a reference to "Tushita, the Joyful Pure Land, Lama Tsongkhapa’s and Maitreya Buddha’s pure land," while reading about Khadro-la, the state oracle of Tibet and said to be a dakini.
It is almost as though we are on a wilful trajectory set by our soul, which knows when it is ready to receive new information from still unfamiliar places in our spiritual topography. As I dwell on Tusheeta/Tushita, I wonder what this unfolding will bring forth.