(FEATURE) A Conversation between Jasmine Gibson and Ed Luker
In this interview from 2016, we bring you something special from the internet’s lost archives. Ed Luker catches up with the US poet Jasmine Gibson in a generous exchange that covers everything from popular radicalism to sex and politics, lyric histories of Blackness and the relationship between psychotherapy and writing.
I first came across Jasmine Gibson’s poetry when I found Drapetomania (2015) on the Commune Editions website. Her first chapbook, published last year, immediately grasped me with its expressive energy. The first and title poem opens: ‘Spanish is clumsy on my tongue like Angolan slaves breaking their tools in Puerto / Rico, Barbados and Nevis / Black women have killed their babies only to save their souls’. This is poetry that throws one immediately into the history of the condition of the poem’s construction. It forces the reader to hold onto that condition and work through it. It is wild, contradictory and urgently expressive. This urgency drags the reader through very sudden switches in focus where the sexual desires of the lyric subject quickly move out and expand into larger terrain. The sexual is the political, as the desire to fuck is part of the desire to overcome, to revolt. Social damage is intimate personal damage, and the body being damaged is one that demands to stop that which damages it. Within this poetry, the possibility of self-care is always demanded but the conditions of complete healing are never to be found in this world. This is an ardent revolutionary poetry, that demands the liberation of the racialised body, the gendered body, the exploited body. I met Jasmine in a bar in Brooklyn in April; we chatted for a bit beforehand about her work, her influences, how long she’d been writing. Importantly, she expressed her love for the work of Maged Zaher, her studies and training as a psychotherapist, her formative political experiences, and the relationships and breakups that had happened around the book. After a drink and a little discussion about what we both wanted from the interview, we got down to it. A voluble conversation, we kept going until we both completely ran out of steam.
Ed: I come from a relatively small but active scene in London, with what feels like a community of left-wing or left-leaning poets. The poetry scene in New York seems quite different in comparison to London. I was kind of just wondering from your perspective what’s going on in New York in activist and poetry scenes? Jasmine: Before I did poetry, political activism is what I did. The friends that I have that do poetry are really new to my life, like from within the last year. All the stuff that I’ve written before writing poetry has all been political texts. It’s been agitprop for political groups I’ve been part of or reflections on political events that have happened. And I was doing that at around the same time, like maybe 2010 to 2012. I was around 18/19 at that time, and I was in Philly, but I also had friends in New York. It’s different because in the poetry scene in New York people are not involved in politics in the same way that they might be in other parts of the country, for example in Oakland where it kind of bleeds together. There’s a reason why my first chapbook came out on Commune Editions and not another press. In New York, activist and art scenes are super agitational towards each other. People from political scenes talk shit on people who make art, and then artists talk shit on people who do political work. I think people in New York try to push the envelope by saying "political work is bullshit" or “art is bullshit” and they are not co-existing, at least from what I see. And I have poetry friends in New York where I’m just like, “urgggh, I don’t want to get in this conversation with you about this because we are going to fall out.”
One time I did a reading at Popsicle Fest. The festival was happening a week after the South Carolina shooting. I had read some parts of the work that was to become Drapetomania and was talking about how we should consider places we going to — places of worship, places where we can find understanding — and the illusion of safety is just not there, and how the illusion of safety is there for some people but it is not available to a lot of people, like especially if you are in South Carolina. And no one at that poetry reading wanted to talk about that. And then like this woman came on to read after me and said, “I just wanna really thank the people that organised this festival, and I wanna read a poem about cars because someone told me that I have always had a thing about cars”. I was just like how can you read a poem about cars, y’know?
Ed: Twisting the question around, do you think it’s a problem that the radical political milieus in New York are anti-art or just not interested? Jasmine: Yeah, I think that really ends up hurting a lot of the people because then you have no other methods of reflecting on what’s happening. If your only mode of reflecting is these political texts, that’s cool, but the Black Panthers also had Emory Douglas. The Black Panthers had different poets and different writers, and I’m interested in their work because they were interested in expressing themselves in different ways. Ed: You’ve got to have a cultural program. Jasmine: Yeah! You’ve got to have a cultural program! It’s like every real political setting has always had a cultural part to it. People are fucking delusional when they don’t think that’s how it works. It’s like it’s a mirror, you bounce something on to it, and it bounces back. Political communities only get so much of their ideas out there if other people are feeling it too, or if other people are understanding it. That’s what the whole idea about the masses is about right? That’s the political discourse that you are throwing down. Yeah, I think there’s been an absence of that from smaller political groupings, but actually the mainstream has caught on to it, which is so weird. You have people like Beyoncé doing songs like Formation—I think picking up on what happened in 2011, talking about race and racialised experience and doing it in this really corny way. So it’s this weird thing that’s happening from these internal struggles, that means it catapults it into the mainstream, but the political groupings don’t see it. I think a lot of political groupings here are afraid of questions around culture and aesthetics. Ed: I am interested in the transmission of certain kinds of popular culture into the very fresh or new political groups. I have been really interested in following the diffusion of Kendrick Lamar in Black Lives Matter stuff. How do you feel about that? Jasmine: I think the mainstream knows what’s up. They’re just going to try and take in everything that’s happening, especially low-class shit because they have people that go out and look for that stuff and want to make it cool. Before, it wasn’t cool to talk about race or what it means to be young and Black now, or young and brown now. And it’s only cool because the mainstream picked it up, but I’m super suspicious of the mainstream doing that y’know? I’m kind of sad that we only see that it’s cool until it’s a little late in the game. I don’t know though because with the Baltimore uprising thing happening, did you see the collection of tweets by Baltimore high school students and all of them are like “fuck the law, fuck the cops”? And people made books out of it and stuff. But I’m always healthily suspicious of people that pick up youth culture. I think that when we talk about ‘youth culture’ what we really mean we’re talking about is young Black and brown kids in cities, that’s what youth culture is so I’m always suspicious of that coming from other leftists. Ed: In radical scenes, you have these polarised arguments about the uptake of radicalism in popular culture being absolutely recuperative and therefore absolutely corrupting, and then people who want to antagonise an intellectualism within that position by saying that any uptake of radical culture in the mainstream is ultimately great because it’s just immediately enjoyable and has a wider transmission. It doesn’t really seem to me that either position is quite there, especially when I always think about these questions as about enjoyment. It is important to enjoy but also to be wary of the kind of thing you are being made to enjoy. Jasmine: Yeah, it’s kind of weird that it’s like, either or. Why does it have to be in that binary? Why can’t we be like, oh yeah of course what was happening was cool, it’s just now that the mainstream is recognising that it’s cool and it’s like, why is that? Why do pop stars have to keep up with what’s happening outside of their zone to stay relevant? I think it just means that the arguments that are had inside these little political groups reflect the big discussions that are happening already, but they aren’t pushing a different agenda. Everybody thought that decarceration or talking about decarceration was a crazy idea, but people are talking about it in the primaries here in the US. Of course I would wanna abolish all prisons, but it’s like how long is that gonna take before it’s put on the table, but it’s good that that’s being talked about in a larger mainstream political discourse. I didn’t know that fucking mainstream electoral candidates were going to be talking about decarceration or the war on drugs! That’s crazy. So I think it’s fine to enjoy pop culture and stuff like that, but you have to be aware that this stuff is already recuperated. Ed: We were talking earlier today about being damaged by political milieus and also from doing activism. Do you think that has anything to do with why you write poetry? Jasmine: [Laughs] I think I like writing poetry because it’s gratifying and I can do it by myself, and I don’t have to hear someone telling me whether or not I’m disciplined enough to write poetry. At least no one has told me that so far. Going back to the political and poetry scenes, they are super similar in a way that they both take professionalism and discipline really seriously, where it’s just annoying. I think that when I was 20 or 21 and involved in radical political scenes in New York, people were telling me that I was not that politically disciplined and I wasn’t being taken seriously as a political person because I wasn’t disciplined enough. It’s just annoying, it’s really fucking condescending and it’s disgusting. Ed: What were your experiences of Occupy? Jasmine: I was still in Philly during Occupy, and I was with a cool group of people who were down for doing stuff, but they were really anti-theoretical. Which was strange because they didn’t care that I hadn’t really read Marx or anything, but when I was figuring stuff out and had questions, like, “are we anti-state communists?” or “what do we think of the state, or how do we think of the state?”, no one would really have answers. Even though that was a huge, horrible experience, I learnt how to fight there. When I came to New York, it was during the Trayvon Martin case and George Zimmerman had got off, and that was my first real protest in New York. Seeing that in relationship to the kind of thing that was happening was interesting because the police here were different and it was just a different kind of scene, but I feel like Occupy, instead of helping people build out of their mistakes, it kind of made them build on their mistakes and just keep going. The group of people I knew were super hardcore into Lenin and on a sort of professionalism trip and it just wasn’t really a good place to be as a young person who was still trying to work out how they felt about their own political identity. There wasn’t enough space. Of course, I was this anti-state communist, but trying to figure out if I was a communist or anarchist, and I was trying to work out the other things I was thinking about in terms of gender or in terms of race and stuff like that, and sexuality. It wasn’t a place to have those questions. Ed: One of the things I was really interested in with your poetry is how the relationship between sex and politics is a question that is so clearly about desire, where the desire to fuck and the desire to transgress, or overthrow, or overcome dominating structures are all really closely related. Jasmine: I think about sex in this kind of broad manner. I feel like the act of getting to sex is more interesting than the sex itself. The sex is really easy or kind of boring sometimes but the act of getting to it is really fun and exciting. I think that’s exactly what it’s like going to a protest or whatever: the act of getting to a protest and putting on specific clothes. I remember having it in my mind that I was going to go to a protest and I might get arrested, or something might happen to my body that I don’t want to happen. Sex is kind of similar, where you are preparing your body and your mind to have this experience with another person, hopefully consensually — but I remember making sure all my clothes were black and to have nothing defining on me. And when you get there, at the protest you are there to perform, in a way, and what is important is whether something happens and if your friend gets arrested and you have to de-arrest them. That’s like the sex. The exciting thing is not what happened but getting ready for it and your own expectations. I don’t think people explore the relationship between sex and desire as much when they’re writing political poetry. People don’t talk about the bodily parts of what happens to you in political settings, and certainly not the sexual parts. When I’m reading Jasper’s [Bernes] poetry or Joshua’s [Clover] poetry I’m like ok, so, where did you have sex with someone? Because the best sex I had with someone was after they got arrested and I was waiting for them to get arraigned, and they come out after twelve hours and you have amazing sex. Ed: For me, the sense of overexposure in your poetry is like an over-share that really fucks up the confessional. You really push that confessional so it feels antagonistic, but it’s bodily, it’s contradictory. How do you see that in your work? Are you trying to antagonise, or, is it just about being open? Jasmine: I don’t know, maybe me being antagonistic is me being open, but I’m not sure. I guess in different ways it’s antagonistic. I often want to take the opportunity to take the moment of the confessional to be self-critical. In that way it could be antagonistic because I’m critiquing things about being a person within a context, but also critiquing the self within that context and I just don’t see the two as separate. When I was writing Drapetomania, my [ex-] partner was also writing a book for PM Press, which was all about the mass revolution, about how during different campaigns for the mass, like A Thousand Flowers Bloom campaign, self-critique was something that was displayed out in the open and people were forced to have self-critique and do it publicly. And I guess I also think that self-critique is super emancipatory, too. In a way it is sexual too, you have to go in to detail about what’s happening to you and what’s happening externally. Ed: Do you see the self-critique as a critique of other subjects — that in enacting the critique on yourself you’re also critiquing general behaviours? Jasmine: Critique is super interesting because there are some people that already exist as critiqued subjects anyway, and either you can have the power to critique yourself in a way that you see fitting, or it’s constructed by others in a destructive manner. Ed: With your work, there’s always this tension with the bluntness of a feeling. It is almost presented through this tone where one feels like the mind of the hand that follows the pen is thinking, “I can’t believe I just said that”. Is that how it felt to write those poems? Jasmine: In different ways, I was just like, “I’m going to say it”. I mean also there were so many different ways in which I wanted to say more, and I think it’s actually restraint, there are so many things that I think I could have said and I wanted to say so much more, y’know? I was writing it during a break up, so I was like, who is this chapbook for? It’s for me, it’s not for this other person. Ed: I want to ask you about these moments of excess in Drapetomania. There’s one poem that has the line ‘If I die then let the city burn with me’, that doesn’t seem like restraint. Jasmine: Yeah, I guess that’s one part of a poem where I was like, I’m going to say exactly what I want. But in that poem, I feel like I could have gone into more detail about how I want the city to burn, how I wanted to watch it burn, what colours the fire would look like, what it would feel like. It wasn’t as definite as it could’ve been, it could’ve been much fatter and juicier, but it’s just kind of sparkly, y’know? Sparkly and kind of mocking, y’know? Even within that, that’s restraint, ‘if I die let the city burn with me’, that’s true. Ed: I was wondering how you see your poems as inhabiting social contradiction, in terms of being a body in space? In terms of self-critique, what demands do you feel the inhabiting of wrongness places on your reader? Jasmine: I think that everybody thinks the way that I do, through their contradictions, and try to be as contradictory as possible because I think that’s where the truth is: You work through two oppositions, and you try and work out what the truth is… Ed: This is turning into a very Maoist interview… Jasmine: [Laughing] Oh my god, I’m not a Maoist…. Ed: [Laughing] Are you sure? Jasmine: I’m pretty sure. No, I dated a Maoist and I’m like, hell no. Ed: Don’t date any more Maoists. Jasmine: I’m not dating any more Maoists! I guess I’m talking about trying to find the truth between the lines and I guess that’s where the truth comes out with poetry, if you try to be as contradictory as possible, like, not trying to be like, yeah this is the correct line, which would be super Leninist. I’d rather be messy and be really fucked up, and kind of go through that and put that on multiple readers and be like, “well what do you think about that?” I kind of like pushing the boundaries. I’ve done particular readings where I’ve seen someone have a particularly strong reaction to it and I’m down with that.
Ed: Is there a particular kind of reader that you want to aggress? How do you feel about the conversations around the ethics of violence in poetry? Jasmine: No, there’s no particular reader I want to aggress, and I guess I think that the question of ethics is stupid because the poets I can think of that think that they’re ethical are full of shit. With readers, I like to make them hurt all the same, and I think the truth is in the way that they hurt. Ed: When your work slips suddenly into a lyric formulation of American history as a history of Blackness, does that feel like a necessity to you? Jasmine: Yeah, I’m just like, people should know about that, and maybe that should make you hurt, and I’m trying to make people hurt in a constructive way. And this sounds really emo, but life is full of hurt and it’s not about the fact that you hurt as much as it’s about the processes that make you hurt.
It’s weird because I write poetry that is in some ways very lyrical but I never think about it in the context of American poetry, because I think I’m mostly bored with what other poets write, which is maybe fucked up and maybe I’m wrong. But there are some poets that I’m really interested in but then most of them I’m like, “I don’t really care about what you’re writing about right now.” And I think me being outside of an MFA program — and I want to be outside of that — means that I don’t have the classical training. I’m just fortunate enough to have friends that are poets that will look over my stuff and be like, “oh, this is cool”, or whatever. I feel it in the context of American history; it’s just definitely there as a continuing of this conversation about what Blackness means in the diaspora, and what Blackness means in America. Ed: OK, here’s two questions that are related. How do you think your training as a psychotherapist relates to your poetry? And the second question is about how Fred Moten writes that in Fanon, especially The Wretched of the Earth, there’s a contradiction between being a militant psychopathologist, because the militant wants to exacerbate, aggress, and push tension, whereas the psychopathologist wants to heal damaged people. So, you write poetry, you’re training to be a psychotherapist, but you are also somewhere in the middle of being an anarchist or a communist and you want to overthrow the present state of things. It feels like all these things are at stake in your poetry, so how do you see them as relating? Jasmine: I always find it interesting when people talk about The Wretched of the Earth because I feel like Black Skin, White Masks is so much better because it’s about the internal working of motivation and stuff like that, which is probably super individualistic, maybe, but I don’t think so because you can think about the working of minds on a bigger level, on a macro-scale. And I’m always challenging the micro-scale when I’m in school because it’s either that people think super small about one individual as a stagnant person with sad experiences, or as a figure who has gone through different institutions that affect them. As a social work student, it’s kind of a process of always thinking about myself in relation to the person, and after that I’m still a person and I have to deal with my own shit. I feel like doing this kind of work reaffirmed my political foundation, yeah, people are miserable, why are they miserable? Because of capitalism, so we need to overthrow it. If you suggest this to someone at social work school, you seem crazy. People are like, “What the hell are you talking about?” Then people say stupid shit like, “it’s human nature” and it’s like, well actually it’s not, it’s a historical process. Being a historical materialist just right off the bat, that kind of mindset sets you up to think about things differently. And schools where you learn to be a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist are really detached from these questions and contexts, and they feel like an integral part of my thinking and how I think about the context I am in. Schools try to be apolitical by not thinking about the contexts that they’re in, but it’s a total political, neo-liberal capitulation to not being able to actively look at everything that happened between Ford and the eighties and be able to tell students about it. In the eighties, you have this total reversion to conservative therapeutic models. Ed: As a communist and a psychotherapist, how would you feel about having to work on behalf of the state? Jasmine: I’d rather not, but so much of the therapeutic model is based on the state. There’s people that are doing interesting stuff while working for the state, and there’s people in prison that need therapists. I am just wondering what people’s solutions are to that problem. Is their solution that there should be more polite police or that there should be fewer prisons? Or is it that we need to abolish the police and prisons and that we need to end capitalism? Ed: What does it mean to be interested in helping people heal but then also wanting to heighten social tension through struggle? Or are those false opposites? Jasmine: I think they are false opposites, but I also think people are going to be in pain from their day-to-day life anyway, you know? I think what we think about struggle, whether that’s a protest or a riot, that is a heightened state of what already exists. We go through our daily lives with different aggressive actions that happen against us, whether that’s not having enough money to pay the rent, or pay for food, not being able to exist because you don’t have enough, you’re just never having enough, and you just keep working and it’s like, “wait, why can I still not just have a stable life?” That’s fucking violent. Or being surrounded by police all the time, especially in New York City, it’s like going from corner to corner, you just see a bunch of police. The riot is just an extreme performance of what people go through in their daily lives, but for a moment you get to be like, “I am capable of doing things.” It feels liberating when you get to tell a cop to fuck off, especially when you have people to back you up and make sure you are not alone and nothing bad can happen to you. I think daily waking life is super isolating and I think that can damage people a lot. Struggle may take a toll on the body, but everything takes a toll on the body, and how good does it feel to feel free in that moment, y’know? You don’t get that from everyday menial tasks. It’s a different kind of feeling. Ed: How do struggle and liberation fit for you with poetry? Jasmine: Poetry has presented me with a place to go back and reflect on different things that I have experienced. It’s a vehicle for that. It’d be different if I was a poet that was getting introduced to political situations, but I was involved in politics before poetry. I think it’s a living document of the demand for liberation and I just hope that other people read it and also feel it.
Jasmine Gibson's Don't Let Them See Me Like This is available to order from Nightboat Books.
Ed Luker's Other Life was recently published by Broken Sleep Books.
Text: Ed Luker & Jasmine Gibson