This year, as National Poetry Month coincides with Trump’s first 100 days, Brooklyn Magazine talked to Brooklyn-based poet Candace Williams about activism in the literary arts, the artists and activists who are currently most vulnerable, and whether the election sparked a new shift in her work. (Hint: it didn’t.)
Williams’s work has appeared in Hyperallergic, Lambda Literary Review, the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. Oftentimes, her poetic themes reflect economics, intersecting identities, and how moments in history have shaped the present. Find her on Twitter at @teacherc.
I read your essay about dissent in Vida Review and you ask the audience, “What about art before Trump?” Are there any moments in history or pieces of art you’ve turned to recently?
I’m new to the art world. I started writing poetry at the end of 2015. I didn’t engage much in what I do now because I wasn’t exposed to any poets that weren’t white men, or even writers that weren’t white. It wasn’t until I was exposed to writers of color who are alive, writing right now, that I realized this is something that makes sense.
In New York, there are so many poets of color doing awesome things like Morgan Parker, Saeed Jones, poet laureate Tina Chang, and Jason Koo of Brooklyn Poets. I’m lucky now to be surrounded by poets of color. Through workshops and my own reading, I’m starting to read the work of older poets and those from the past. There’s a big tradition there that tends to be erased.
Are you involved with community organizing?
Lately, I’ve been getting into cryptography. After the election, I wrote a guide for dissent artists under siege on how to secure their stuff. It’s gotten over 50,000 views. Not only do people need the information, which is typically difficult to read, but I’ve been in tech since I was a kid. I used my education skills to make it a bit simpler, so I’ve been doing trainings all around.
I’m also working to make information for targeted communities more available. It’s easy to get broad information, but if you’re an immigrant, sex worker, or activist of color, it’s different. People with this information might not be the best to teach it or might not have enough time to get it out there. Of course, people have been thinking about this for a long time, but I’ve noticed my skills in instructional design and the marketing side of tech are things people can use.
Have you noticed a shift or change in your writing since the election?
No. I read at the “Art After Trump” event at Housing Works bookstore. It was a huge, marathon-style reading that went from 6 p.m. until well past midnight.
People are saying “now more than ever,” but the thing is: 1492 and enslavement and COINTELPRO and the Arizona ID laws. 1492 more than ever. All the issues of the past are shaping this present. To pull out the current situation and treat it like an outlier, instead of a natural progression of history, is a huge problem and dangerous.
Let’s say Trump was taken out of office tomorrow. A lot of people would celebrate and then go back to what they were doing, even though what’s been happening in the past few months started in past presidencies, including Obama. All the terror with ICE, the strange voter ID laws, taking away the rights of workers have been going on for a long time. These things didn’t happen overnight.
Could you talk about your new chapbook, Spells for Black Wizards?
I wasn’t writing a chapbook, but writing poems. I did eight workshops last year. They were generative, so I had to write a poem a week. The big topics were blank verse and metrical poetry. How do you access history and different traumas through writing? What does it mean for me to write? I realized I had a collection around overlapping themes, such as intellectual labor and capitalism. I talk a lot about erasure, trauma, blackness, and queerness.
Which poems are you most proud of and why?
“When I Was 12” is very hard for me to read in public. I’ve cried trying to read it out loud. I never thought I could talk about all of those subjects in one poem. I also never thought I would write a sestina, but I realized through a workshop, it’s a great form for obsessing about things. The speaker of this poem is obsessing about these abstract yet concrete things. I needed to talk about psychiatry, medicine, and how it’s violent in my life as well as to link back to previous traumas.
“Principles of Value” is usually what I read when people ask me to read a Trump poem, even though I wrote it last year. I like how I use “you.” I talk about the market a lot. I use mathematical and economic language in my poems, so it’s true of that one, “Theorem” [in Day One], and “State Test,” which talks about teaching.
Your poem “Panther Gets Loose” is based off an old New York Times article. How did you come to write it?
The American Jewish Historical Society in Chelsea contacted me about the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party, It was Black History Month, [and] also the anniversary of the Mizrahi Black Panthers. We did an event with a tapestry of this panther escaping by an Israeli artist named Ido Michaeli.
A black panther actually did escape from the Bronx Zoo, but immediately that event triggered the group, the Black Panthers, and cases like Ota Benga, who was brought here to be a human exhibit at the Bronx Zoo. I used New York Times articles in my work a lot as source of information–even how this [article] looks, it should be a visual thing. How this is laid out, the words that are used and the perspective of it, was fascinating. I want to erase this mass media from that time, which was very white and very colonial, to show these deeper meanings and highlight the panther. I took a marker and started to erase. I brought it into Photoshop for the final piece, because I wanted it to be whited out instead of blacked out.
Photo credit: Rick Perez