A Conversation with Quenton Baker
Interviewed by Dujie Tahat, Fall 2018 · Seattle, WA
Quenton Baker is a poet, educator, and Cave Canem fellow. His work has appeared in Jubilat, Vinyl, Apogee, Poetry Northwest, Pinwheel, and Cura, as well as in the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters and It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop. A 2017 Jack Straw Fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow, as well as the recipient of the 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award and the 2018 Arts Innovator Award from Artist Trust, Baker is the author of This Glittering Republic (Willow Books, 2016). He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine.
Let’s start from the beginning—did you grow up in the Northwest?
I did. I’m from Seattle, born and raised on Beacon Hill.
How has growing up in the Northwest has influenced your writing?
That’s an interesting question. I was at Cave Canem recently and I was talking with a friend there about the places I’d lived—Seattle. Portland, Maine. Portland, Oregon. These somewhat secluded places, not like New York or Chicago, the places where poets usually congregate. My friend was like ‘It makes sense you were in those places because you have larger sensibilities; it makes sense that you would go to those places where you could be secluded and write.’ I was like, “thank you.” [laughs] I don’t write about Seattle as a place, or I rarely do—I have a couple poems. But in terms of what I’ve learned here, and how my experience has structured my thinking—in that way, it shows up in my work.
It’s interesting you started with Cave Canem—a lot of your work is engaged with blackness and anti-blackness and you come from the Northwest, a region that’s very white. There are very few black people here, relative to everywhere else. Are those things related?
Historically, if you wanted to find Black people in Seattle you could go to the few neighborhoods where Black people could live. If we wanted to find each other, it was easier to do that. That’s the reality of being inside a pocket around which a larger reality is built. That level of anti-blackness, and the level of whiteness that constitutes daily life in Seattle, it’s impossible to escape. Maybe you can find a pocket dimension, but you can’t escape
Your work is very much about the external—not autobiographical work, but writing contextually. So then that dynamic of being a small pocket in this bigger thing—in some way, is that autobiographical? Is that the link between the two for you?
Autobiography in poems is complicated. I’ve only lived my life; my experiences inform the themes I’m interested in. In terms of a specific experience of the American context, my poems are absolutely autobiographical. It’s an autobiography because of the nature of anti blackness it’s diffused in a certain way and spread out.
Who are your poems for?
Toni Morrison said ‘Write the Books you want to read.’ That’s always stuck with me. I primarily write for myself, and for myself abstracted. My work is for anyone who has an understanding of, and genuine stake in, black interiority outside of the white imagination. Blackness as disconnected from the semiotics and the kind of meaning making and myth-meaning that has over-determined it from the outside. To paraphrase Fanon; outside of the violence, outside of the trauma, and outside of the pain, outside of the death inherent in Black life, there’s also the lived reality of living inside that kind of breach. When I think about who I’m writing for, it’s for the people living that, for the people who can value black life outside of the white imagination.
My process has changed a lot. When I was working on my first book, I really hadn’t been writing poems very long. I came from the Rap world. I really wasn’t doing poems before I went to grad schools. I don’t know how I got into grad school… People are stupid? Or generous? They were like “this fool needs help!” [laughs]
Really, I didn’t start writing poems seriously until I was working on a thesis. I was moving in all of these different directions. For This Glittering Republic, there were these themes burning inside me. I was reading wildly to try to find things to anchor them to. I was trying put that into a cohesive, coherent poetics. As I moved away from that project, it’s been like, “how do I focus this? How do I really narrow in on something?”
Have you come to an answer?
I started writing long poems. The project I’m working on is a long, dedicated specific project. Whereas my book wasn’t conceived of as a collection, or with a shape of everything in mind. But now that’s the mode I’m working in.
Given the heaviness of what you write about, I imagine it’s emotionally exhausting. How do you take care of yourself?
I get that question a lot, and every time it surprises me. I forget about that part. The way I see it, my job is to write. I was lucky enough once to meet Fred Moten, whom I greatly admire. After a reading, we were going out for drinks and I made a joke about self-care. He was like “I should go to sleep,” and I said, “Oh yeah, Self Care is important.” He looked at me and laughed like the concept of self-care was the most ridiculous thing in the world. It’s real, but nah… I don’t do a very good job.
For me, in my personal experience, and in the immigrant narrative, this compounds the inability to ease. You can’t let up. It’s hard to shift your state of mind, to take care of yourself, to regenerate in order to do more and better stuff.
The thing I’ve started to learn about myself is that when I feel so run down and worn to the nub, I feel that my language isn’t as sharp. When the work starts to suffer, I know I need to take care of myself. As I was told once, I am my own instrument. It’s not taking care of myself, it’s taking care of the work. That’s probably not very healthy but it’s where I’m at right now.
What do you when the language isn’t sparkling for you, when it’s not be-wildering in the way you want it to be? How do you get back to that state?
I read. Sometimes I just don’t do anything… Watch some shit on Netflix, turn my brain off, but mostly it’s reading. Because I want to be in language all the time. Sometimes, though, I don’t want that language to challenge me, so I’ll read a novel for pleasure, or some comic books. If I can work but my language isn’t working, I’ll read something on the long list of texts I need to get through for research.
Speaking of reading, who are some of the poets in your literary family tree?
That’s my favorite question. I think the most important thing a poet can do is locate yourself in a lineage. For me, that’s Gwendolyn Brooks; NJ Loftis; Lorenzo Thomas; Lucille [Clifton], of course; Audre [Lorde], her essays and her poems—her poems slap, “Black Unicorn” is crazy; Fred Moten; Dawn Lundy Martin; Harryette Mullen; Aimé Césaire—there’s this long tradition of black radical writers that I really appreciate—Ishmael Reed; Frantz Fanon.
There are so many people who made my work possible. That’s why it’s so important to find a lineage. If someone asks “Who’s part of your lineage? Who’s your work in conversation with?” and you can’t come back with a list of, like, fifty names… that’s a signal. I don’t mean to be deterministic or prescriptive for other people, but it’s so important for me to locate myself within that. That means everything. Like Jack Spicer says, “poems echo and correspond.” He was talking about his own work. But I think that’s true, generally speaking too. Whether I know or it or not, I’m in conversation with all these other people who made me possible. I want to be talking to them.
In the project I’m working on now, I borrow a lot of lines from people—Nate Mackey and others—to highlight the specific ways my work was made possible by theirs.
You’ve talked a lot about black literary tradition, carving out space, locating yourself. Cave Canem is known for that. What did you get out of it?
It was phenomenal. We were talking earlier of being in a pocket. Here, all of the sudden you’re not in a pocket, but an entire universe. And experiencing the complete absence of those semiotics that often determine black life was so profound. Through society, you’ve experienced racial trauma, gender-related trauma. Those contexts are always present, encroaching in a violent way. You start to think that the ways in which you defend yourself and survive are your personality. It’s rare and often impossible to be away from all that—for me it had never happened until I went to Cave Canem.
When you are away from those contexts, for me it was shocking to see what parts of myself are still intact, and what parts of myself still unreachable. What just can’t exist in so many other contexts. It was profound. Wow, I can actually exist, in public in the world around people and not be in survival mode. That was crazy for me.
I think often of how form is really tied to non-dominant expression, to speaking into dominance. I’m fascinated with how you keep a relationship to language. How do you keep yourself alert? How does it continue to sparkle? There is a long tradition of how form is married to those words—to that radical expression. In a way, form and language are the same. There’s no real distinction between the two, because of the way they are laid out on the page. Because of the word blue. B-L-U-E. Constructed the way it is on this page, in relation, in space, to all the other words… suddenly, I’m looking at this word that I’ve seen a million times before, in a different way.
You said it: language is form.
When you ask me about form… I have to turn it; I don’t think of them as separate. That’s absolutely right. I like your word “bewilderment.” The word I use is “surprise.” But I might steal your word— I like “bewilderment” better!
I’m sure I’ve stolen that from someone…
We all steal from each other; that’s how it works. To me, “surprise” is what drives everything. It needs to be earned, but that’s at the heart of a poem.
One of the forms you do play with in your book, This Glittering Republic, is the contrapuntal poem. I thought it was interesting: a couple of the columns were almost—not clichés—but simple statements, that you could hear in a pop form. I’m curious, what are you trying to do, with a contrapuntal? I’d love to get through your process of writing one.
I love contrapuntal poems. There’s this Yusef Komunyakaa poem in Warhorses, ‘The Towers’. I think that was the first contrapuntal poem that really—[makes pop sound]— that really blew my top off. Because it’s really hard to make a 9/11 poem. It’s rather radical to write a poem for anything that big. The way he used that space and that breach really interested me.
Since then I have tried to write them. What interested me is that you are writing across a breach. Before I knew what that was, it called to me on a primal level. That’s how Black folks live in this world—across, and through, and interrupting a breach.
This project I’m working on, I called them “omni-directions.” They’re like contrapuntal poems on steroids. It became an obsession of mine to write across that breach. That’s what interested me: “Can I put this cliché-ass language in here?” It became like an alchemical process. What is this breach doing to language?
I’m also fascinated by the way you play with space. The contrapuntal is reliant on that breach space. Given our discussion about form, the way things live in relation to space—what are you doing with space?
Yeah. I had to learn that the space is part of the poem, that the space is mine to use with intention in every poem. That poem where space is an example, or the Surrender poem serves as that breach; it became like a preposition, or a noun, or an adjective. It became part of the language I had to use, the language of absence, the language of a breach, of a negation, or a removal. All of those things that can be contained in language but may be better contained in space.
We talked about how, before your MFA, you were primarily into Rap. You were in that anthology, Poetry Inspired by Hip-hop. What is the relationship between the two for you?
There’s a very close relationship. Hip-hop, rap verses are primarily accentual meter. You have four strong stresses to approximate the four-beat measure. For me, it inculcated a sense of rhythm and also the importance of rhythm in that language. When you’re writing, you’re writing to an instrument which is different than composing poems. There’s an interior music to the actual syllables themselves which you have to be attuned to, and I carry that with me into poetry. There’s just that play—the interior music of the syllable and the line and all of the different sound units, or sound and
When I’m writing a verse, typically I’m writing in four bar measures. At the end of the fourth bar, that’s where the image or the punch line is. Working in those sound and sense units really honed how I wanted to approach poetry. That shit makes sense; that shit makes sense to me.
Even without knowing you have a hip-hop background, reading your poems—there’s a real sonic force to them. Reading them out loud changes the game a bit. In crafting them, where does reading out loud fit in the process for you?
It ranks—there’s like 1a and 1b. I always read my poems as I’m writing them. That’s part of my process. It has to sound right, it has to look right, it has to read right, and it has sound right. All of that shit has to work together. That’s another deviation from hip-hop; it doesn’t matter how it looks on the page. Towards the end of my rap career, I started writing verses only in my head.
I don’t always write in my head, but it always starts in the same way. The first composition is always in my head, and then goes to the page. That interplay is what I think helps the sound. The reason why I started writing rap verses in my head is because I found that when I was writing them on the page, it was too regular, the rhythm was too regular. I needed to agitate that.
People are always surprised when I have an Ann Carson epigraph in a poem about rap shit. You didn’t expect range, motherfucker?
Originally published in Moss: Volume Four.