September 28, 2019KR BlogBlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsLiteratureReadingRemembrancesWriting

VERVE {IN} VERSE: IN CONVERSATION WITH Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes

Note: Verve {in} Verse is my poet-focused feature here at The Kenyon Review in which I converse with poets about their work and interests both on and off the page. In this installment, I spoke to Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes about her book The Inheritance of Haunting, which won the 2018 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. Here she speaks on “the hauntological” (the notions of the trace and the afterlives of violence), her research on militarized geographies and colonialism, birds and “almost-birds” and why community to her means to “create with me and break with me, in the wild and feverish instants of our lives.” The Inheritance of Haunting is one collection you’ll read over and over again; I know I did, and still am. -Rosebud Ben-Oni

Rosebud Ben-Oni: In “where it begins,” the speaker leads us from the pivotal moment of “it is easy/to walk into a room/ full of/ white people/ & feel //ugly” to “a map gone wrong/ flung into cartographies of suspicion/ wrought/ into conventions/ adulations of impeccability,” revealing the internalization of personal and historical geographies of violent divisions and “violet bricks/ built of blood.” In trying to find where it begins, there has to be an examination of how past horrors that are still shaping “the alphabet/ of mannerisms cloaked in propriety/ the orthopedics of collection.” Can you speak on the threads of public space and shared languages that are woven throughout the collection?

Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes: I am always carrying with me threads of the hauntological, the notions of the trace and the afterlives of violence, which I have intellectually inherited from writers like Homi K. Bhabha, Jacques Derrida, Avery Gordon, Saidiya Hartman, Gayatri Spivak; and which have become central to my understandings of historical and generational trauma, and individual and collective memory. The past is always alive in the present, as is the future. I also come from a Colombian family that often operates outside of western norms for understanding how we can know what we know, and for relating to who and what is in a room or a space; where prophetic dreams and apparitions of the dead are not uncommon; where the past and future quite literally haunt us. Between these two threads, it becomes necessary for me to understand life from within a kind of queered sense of time, non-linear, and permeable; a time that is perpetually calling me toward work that seeks to be accountable to past, present, and future horrors; a time where that which speaks does so against white, patriarchal ways of knowing and recognizing speech; where evidence itself exceeds the fetish of visibility, lingering in the presence/absence of what remains in these aftermaths, and what does not. The ghost then, is what will not let us rest, what does not rest despite the efforts of the lackeys of Official History to put it to rest.

Along with my own dive into familial genealogies in Colombia and the US, this collection emerged out of ten years of human rights research in militarized geographies, including Colombia, Kashmir, El Salvador, and the US-Mexico border, among others. The many lives I’ve encountered in those places, their stories, their brilliance in diverse forms of thought and practices of organizing, are all here, too: families of the disappeared; black and indigenous leaders; youth and elders; victims and survivors of torture; the exiled and forcibly displaced; human rights activists and lawyers and land defenders; poets and artists and scholars. From the violence of conquest and its afterlives in extractive and racial capitalism, and armed conflict, appears a chorus of the living and dead, lingering just long enough to remind us what world it is we together make while drawing maps to what might be otherwise. These are public spaces across distant geographies that are intimately woven through the flows of colonial and anti-colonial praxes… I was also blessed for several years with the presence in my life of close mentors who were postcolonial, post-structural, marxist-feminist scholars, and gifted me with these intellectual-political traditions, legacies, frameworks, for thinking our historical present.  Michel Foucault offers methodologies for genealogy as a way to write history, and also talks about a moral orthopedics, the ways we are disciplined and produced as bodies, as subjects, through capitalist, bourgeois norms and systems—something that I think echoes anti-colonial thinkers like Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, for instance; but is also heard in diverse local iterations of numerous grassroots social movements across the world. This is all very present for me through this collection, which strives to bear witness to brutality as well as what is beautiful and coursing through us against ongoing colonialities.

RB: Poets often are curious on how other poets break up their collections into sections. The Inheritance of Haunting is broken up in two sections, “EL OTRO LADO/THE OTHER SIDE” and “CASI PÁJAROS/ALMOST BIRDS”. How did you decide which poems belong to each segment, and how does it all tie into the title of The Inheritance of Haunting?

HARR: I think a lot about how exist due to a complex convergence of colonizers and colonized, slave owners and the enslaved, genocidal and genocided, violent and violated existences, systems of life and death, and the forms of subterfuge and resistance and life otherwise, quotidian and spectacular, that emerge in their wake. I think often of what western science calls epigenetics, and what other cultures might call ancestral memory living in the body, such that our individual bodies and our collective social bodies are more complexly understood if we acknowledge how we carry historical wounds as well as intelligences of survival and flight in our blood and being.

El Otro Lado/The Other Side are more poems that relate the social and political haunting borne through my family histories. Casi Pájaros/Almost Birds, stretches out into the collective global inheritances that beckon political attention and response. It isn’t to separate out the two things as distinct, but to consider them as different and inseparable all at once. How the individual and collective exist in relation, what each require of us in the work of memory-weaving, mourning, care labor, and worldbuilding.

RB: I was taken by the multidimensional image of birds in this collection, especially in the book’s second half, in poems such as “what the bird has seen,” a bird as witness to “the end of sterling sunrises” and “the harvest of bones stippling the roads” to another poem like “little birds” where there are parakeets that one “might keep hanging in a cage/near a window/ & cover in with a towel at night/ for hushing,” but also “little children, little birds” who “yield of paramilitaries/ summoning women… bullet to husbands fathers clutch,/ slitting throats of girls.” Are birds a metaphor for accountability as much as they are survival, both the hope and terror possible within humankind?

HARR: I think that is a lovely way of reading it. The epigraph to that section, by Roberto Bolaño is so key for me, that we are human beings, almost birds, which I read as almost birds, and also, almost-birds. Perhaps a way to say something akin to freedom (its many faces) may always shimmer there on the horizon beckoning us toward it, yet is always-already out of reach in the conditions of our present existence. A version of Zeno’s paradox. (Though I remain wary and weary of the all-encompassing we/us, it is always provisional.) I am fascinated by how certain images proliferate across cultures, get taken up and deployed in different ways, circulate in social imaginaries: birds are then many in their meanings. The children born from rapes perpetrated by paramilitaries in Colombia are in some areas called, pejoratively, “paraquitos”—a play on words between “perequito” (parakeet) and paramilitary. José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night, referenced in “imbunche”, elicits the existential chaos and destruction of subjectivity and body living under the terror of dictatorship. “the value of sparrows” is a biblical concept, but also references a news article by John Bart Gerald on the deadly effects on Iraqi and Syrian civilians, of US military use and improper disposal of depleted uranium. “this is what the bird has seen” imagines how a bird’s eye view as a position of bearing witness is one that sees the systemic quality of violence and its multitudinous permeations that can be difficult to see from “on the ground”: a view that opens against the notion of human rights abuses as anomalous or isolated events. Brecht’s idea of singing in the dark times, about the dark times, is one I have held close, and “A11728” was written after interviewing a holocaust survivor who spoke of secret meetings with her sister in the latrines of Auschwitz, to sing together—a scene which did not make it into the poem, though maybe should have. But the young girl I write about in “when the machete will sever the ballad” died with a song in her throat. So the bird is also about refusals to stay silent under a culture of fear and total repression, the insistence, too, that there will be singing, there will always be singing. More recently, my friend Xavier Vazquez has talked of how humans also exist in murmuration, which is to say, collective gathering in formation, ebbs and flows of together and apart, synchronicities and affinities…and this, too, is a way to consider history. Before referring to creatures, the word “flock” used to mean a body of people, and birds that murmurate do so with a sense of who belongs in that swarm and who does not; which birds are fellow and which are deemed a threat, operating, among other things, as a metaphor for political histories of violence.

I have also felt haunted by Attar’s 12th century epic, The Conference of the Birds, the perilous and necessary voyaging that eventually reveals individual and collective accountability in place of a projected hope. And I once, years ago, read a story, (was it Galeano? …if any reader knows who wrote it and where I can find it again, please tell me, I am at a loss as to where to find it)…but there is a story of a child making art under the surveillant eye of an authoritarian regime, which has outlawed all representations of birds because they mean a kind of freedom. And so the child, their fugitive imagination still bursting, draws what looks like a tree with apples, but indicates quietly, they are not apples, but indeed are the eyes of birds hiding in trees. I have never forgotten this story. So, birds are also what we make of our own series of strategic subversions. Such fragile creatures in the face of violent political and technological machineries of death; but capable of marvelous flight. To return to the Bolaño poem, the almost is perhaps both a not quite and a not yet: in that sense it both indicts and invites within and toward a collective responsibility.

RB: What was the most difficult poem to write?

HARR: Many of the poems in this collection were painful, at times excruciating to write, as they often accompanied hours of research about unspeakable atrocities, and then asked me to somehow speak them into the poem nonetheless—while taking seriously my desire to not retraumatize readers through what the poems represent—a truly difficult task. “when the machete will sever the ballad”  and “non-combat-related incidents and other lies” both come to mind as particularly strenuous—the viscerality of the sexualized violence they convey, violence deployed as a weapon of war, imperialist occupation, racial subjugation; the cruelty performed on female and child bodies. Poems like those left me nauseated and worn and at times needing to weep in fury and grief. And they were both written while I was involved in work related to their themes – research that was accompanying legal and advocacy work contending with the atrocities of state violence in El Salvador and in the US occupation of Iraq. So their realities, their materialities, the haptic grief I feel—for the survivors and the bereaved, and for what worlds have been lost with these deaths—all feel hyperpresent to me in the writing, and rereading. There is definitely an accompanying labor of attending to one’s own potential secondary trauma in writing the world in these ways, in poetry as a political project. It feels like an ongoing trial in itself to clarify what it means to write on or about violence without doing violence to those with whom we wish to be in solidarity, particularly in contexts where the erasures that have taken place ask us to leave trails and traces, to document, to build memory. And that is also the anxious difficulty of these poems, knowing there is always the risk of failure in that.

RB: What does community mean to you? How do you balance it with the solitary nature of writing?

HARR: Community is a very elastic concept, temporally and spatially. What makes community? Shared commitments? Common identities? Collective histories? Interdependency? Mutually acknowledged needs? Collaborative endeavor? Ecologies of relation? I have in recent months been speaking a great deal of my constellations of beloveds, those with whom I am in practices of mutual carrying of each other’s hearts, imagining up and endeavoring through the necessary work of politics and poetry, of anti-, de-, post-colonial subversions, of bringing each other to life. That is one way I cherish and nurture the being with that is also community. To say, laugh with me, heartache with me, create with me and break with me, in the wild and feverish instants of our lives. And I need a lot of alone time, to write, to think, to breathe. But that is always simultaneously solitary and not, a confluence of presences and absences that accompany me. I love June Jordan’s “Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem, or the New Physicality of Long Distance Love”; and quantum feminism in general, how it allows for a deep and wide sense of our ongoing entanglement with others; what it does to my sense of hauntedness, of solitude without aloneness. Writing is then, also, always an exercise of togetherness, of gathering, of sensing how we are always-already gathered.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets excite you?

HARRL I am currently reading the 1926 letters between Rainer Maria Rilke, Boris Pasternak, and Marina Tsvetayeva, thinking a lot about practices of intimacy that have been foreclosed to us by the western, heteropatriarchal, racial order of capitalist-colonial violence—or, which that order has sought to foreclose in its service. Sontag’s introduction calls the poets’ three-way correspondence “a domain of reckless feeling and purity of aspiration which would be our loss to dismiss as ‘romantic’” and that particular sense of recklessness moves me, not as a self-centered carelessness, but as a refusal of bourgeois confinements of the senses, of sound, of language that dares excess in the face of both fascist austerities and liberal moralisms imposed not only on daily life but on the heart, its bodily revelries, and possibilities for meaningful non-conformative forms of relation. Another way to think queerness and love’s possible-impossibles.

As for poets, Ross Gay’s Book of Delights has been utter pleasure to return to again and again this year: I keep carrying it around reading it aloud to loved ones. My copies of Aracelis Girmay’s works are always held near and dear and teaching me new things, kindred. Aditi Machado’s This Touch is a kind of evocative I want to read so much more of. Kenji C. Liu’s Monsters I Have Been beautifully provokes toward how we might queer masculinity against its iterations born through and reinforcing dominant-militarized-toxic masculinities and their violence. Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ trilogy is prayer-medicine. Aja Couchois Duncan’s Restless Continent is a stunning work of decolonial subversion. Vickie Vértiz recently visited me and shared some newer work that made me pound my fist on my kitchen table with a big yes. Omar Sakr’s recently published poem-a-day, “Where I am not” left me breathless. And emerging poets Moncho Alvarado and Ashna Ali in NYC, and Shirley Kim-Ryu in Los Angeles are ones to watch out for: their poems tug such sighs out of me and I can’t wait for more of their writing to be in the world.

RB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

HARR: I have been seeking out opportunities to think and learn more about the craft of poetry. I don’t have an MFA, and despite having written poetry since I was a child, there are many things I’ve yet to learn, about how and why we invite a poem into its flesh. I am also dreaming up possibilities for teaching a poetry workshop with a theme of queering science, and another on speculative memory.

And, as I continue to carry this book into its encounters with people and places through readings, I am gathering up my hungers, moving toward writing my next collection (while somehow, too, finishing my dissertation). Writing The Inheritance of Haunting was, for me, such a deep dive into historical grief, the necessary and daunting work of mourning and contending with postcolonial trauma. In the last couple of years I’ve been coming up for air and turning in a different way toward the work of joy, both in my life and in my poetry. That doesn’t mean everything is glitter and rainbows, of course. Deep joy and grief feel so intimately woven. But something has shifted for me. Particularly as a brown, second-generation immigrant queer femme dealing with chronic illness, in community with other black and brown and immigrant and queer and sick/disabled artists, intellectuals, cultural workers, and organizers… it has been really important to understand the diverse struggles we face as effects of a post-/neo-colonial condition under capitalism, as one that has been produced, and is not merely natural to the order of things. It also makes our deviance, our dissent, our claims to written and oral language, and our claims to pleasure and intimacy and joy, that much more necessary as political and creative work. In the face of every ache and wound of the world, joywork feels absolutely vital and poetry is one important place where that work can take root.