- Anthology, Archives, Books, Interview, Reading, Writing

“Blood,” “Spirit,” and “Nation” Stuff: A Dialogue Between Rodrigo Toscano and Julie Carr


Rodrigo Toscano: Hi, Julie. I’m delighted to be dialoguing with you right now, because we recently had a happy hour videoconference where we found common points of poetic interest that, to my mind, beg for elaboration. I say, “poetic” because of the way this nation’s narratives about itself is disjointing our psyches in ever newer and stranger ways. And it’s all happening during a profound health and economic crisis. So, the very act of re-joining anything—at all, one might say—counts as poetics.

I want to try my hand at poetics right now and see what you think. If we had the data to piece together a pie chart percentage graph indicating what economic sector is being represented in poetry journals, presses, conferences, prize “winner” operations, and the like, I’d bet those graphs would not show much representation from the service industry, or sectors like manufacturing, homecare, construction, retail, or warehousing, etc., etc., but an over-representation from a single industry (of the sixty-four sectors listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics): Higher Education. A crucial sector! A sector besieged, no less, by the same Finance Capital Overlord Class (Techno-Feudalism is another way to put it). But how can a mono-industrial poetics (as that’s what “American Poetics” “is,” in part) have the authority, as it were, to “publicly speak”? If somebody said the wider American poetry world was being mainly managed by academia, would they be wrong? I’m bringing up this particular social stress-point, in the spirit of solidarity with you––toward inter-sectoral communication.

Hey, according to my six Julie Carr paparazzi informants, you’ve been engrossed in a major project titled Mud, Blood, and Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics, and Spiritualism. Furthermore, the titles following that blockbuster title are: “Sod and Soil, Law and Order, Ghosts, Water, Daughters, Blood, Power.” You’re totally mad! We love it! You’re excavating, it seems, this nation’s ideologic detritus. You’re not just prosthetically stuck on the nano-plasticized teat of the present political moment, no matter how alluring. Since this country was founded by religious Christian zealot dissident settlers, and later, a plantation-enslaver class playacting as an “enlightened” “society of fellows,” much of what we regard in terms of philosophic, political, and poetic jabberwocky, actually tones on (and off) of the Amanda Gorman Inaugural Moment. Her take on that whole complex of origins, I largely agree with. And while the poem quadrupled down on the most hallowed credos of this nation’s current self-definition (the story of tolerance and inclusion as providential inheritance), something that’s functionally useful still, I see Corporate America swooping in and bending the moment its way: as full spectrum finance sector dominance­­––but with diverse faces. Among which you (and I) are an element. So that’s what I am wondering about. How do you square (or polyform) what you say from where you speak?

Julie Carr: Rodrigo, thank you for throwing all these balls in the air at once and asking me to square them. This will not be possible, but I will instead retreat into narrative and see where that gets me.

We are staying in a house in Westport, Massachusetts, built in 1729 by a preacher named Philip Taber and his wife, Margaret. This preacher did many things we don’t know about, but we do know that he officiated at the wedding of the parents of Paul Cuffee. Paul Cuffee’s father had been enslaved near here until gaining freedom in his teens. Cuffee’s mother was Wampanoag, and so was his wife, Alice Pequit. Cuffee was a sea captain, a shipbuilder, a whaler. He employed only black men on his enormous ships, founded the first interracial school in America, and got involved in a colonization project, carrying nine black families to Sierra Leone, where, funded by his dollars, they stayed. He was also a Quaker and funded the town’s meeting house, just down the road. Tim (my husband) “went” there for a Quaker videoconference, which is maybe the best use of the technology I can imagine. Just sitting there, faces on, silent.

What is the point of mentioning this wedding, shipping company, school, and meeting house, this confluence of white, black, and Native people nearly three hundred years ago here, right where I sit and write? Of course, I know what you meant when you said our country was founded by Christian zealot dissidents, but it wasn’t.

Or it all hinges on what we mean by “founded,” and what we mean by “country.” Which brings us to inaugural poems. Right after Biden won, there was a lot of tweeting about who the inaugural poet should be. All I could think was: who would ever want to write an inaugural poem? We drove by the Capitol on inauguration day just as Lady Gaga sang “bombs bursting through air.” I wish she’d been wearing her meat dress. A woman in a meat dress singing about bombs is America.

You ask about academia and poetry, that perennial problem. “Academia is eugenics,” said Tim. We were biking up a hill. I was out of breath. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, etc.: the playing fields and training grounds for the sociologists, biologists, anthropologists, physicians, and statisticians who developed eugenic theory and practice, which led to the forced sterilization of over sixty thousand people, mostly poor—white, black, Native, Mexican—epileptic or autistic or mentally ill, deaf or blind or otherwise abled, gay, lesbian, or just masturbating. Many were young pregnant women who’d been raped; some were rapists or accused of such. The experts, the trained, the leaders in their fields articulated clearly why some people deserved to thrive and others simply to die out. (Or worse. Don’t think they didn’t argue quietly for murder.) Then there’s the antiracist Franz Boas. Everyone who writes about this brings him up because he was the grand exception—an Ivy League academic who thought otherwise. I think more people know his name now than know the names of Charles Davenport, Harry Laughlin, and Madison Grant, though I could be wrong. I can’t help you with the problem of poetry in academia, because I am the woman in the meat dress.

I told you in email about my student Bea, who danced at the anti-eugenic party in the grass in Omaha. I think that despite the eugenics problem that is academia, the love that many of us have for our students, this immeasurable welling-up—not a thing, not a degree, not a contract, not a law, not a ceremony, not a performance—but a welling-up from somewhere we cannot understand—is the ongoing inauguration, and my question is less “what is American poetics” and more “what is that personal/impersonal love.” That question is more alive for me.

Toscano: It’s heartening, the empathy you have for your students. That philia (“shared goodwill”) can be mixed with agape (love of the whole/everybody/the stranger) is a crucial element in the contested concept of Solidarity. In this case, Solidarity, as something not just “strategic” or “tactical,” but something exceeding use-value, as it were, something other than functionality.

But, going back a bit to “country” or “nation.” I should have said, Proto-Eugenicist Providential Zealots, as being foundational in terms of social engineering. Madison Grant’s “vision” (buoyed by the actual facts on the ground in the 1910s and 20s) strongly urged against “miscegenation of races.” Well, done deal! Take for instance, the tonnage of mostly apocryphal “Cherokee” great-great-grandmothers or -fathers in Anglo-American family lore. Right there is the protestant urge shaping The Self constituted as sovereign. Emphasizing a slight “admixture” serves only to retrofit the sovereign (and some claim towards the soil). It turns out that most European-descended people in the U. S. are remarkably (in terms of continents) “unmixed” (recent mass-aggregated DNA data points to this). Compared to the rest of the western hemisphere, it’s quite a stark contrast (even Canada has a sizable Métis population). So I sense a wide gulf between a confluence of diverse cultures in struggle, and a struggle that is constitutionally mixed by peoples and cultures (a mestizaje). And I find it productive tripping on that wide contrast. What it yields, at a minimum, is a destabilization of certain notions of “solidarity” that over-emphasize a breeching of alienation (in this case, along “racial lines”). That somewhat preserves “solidarity” as an open field of definition and practice. But, at the very same time, as you so well narrated, a slice of eighteenth century Westport, Massachusetts, I do think that concrete instances of solidarity, in any configuration, are key in projecting our own present politics as regards nation. And that’s how I read the title Mud, Blood, and Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics, and Spiritualism: as a set of categoric lenses from which to inspect the national present (as through the past). And because those categories are rarely pondered as a whole, is it too off the mark to propose that your project is a poetics in the act of postulating a politics?

But, yeah, however we formulate our critical dreamwork, it’s now precisely the year after 2020. We barely just managed to eject the most (small “d”) undemocratic president the U. S. has arguably ever had. This egregore, more than man, managed to so distort the field of culture and politics that we’ll be symptomatic for years to come. One early symptom was that a sizable portion of the left intellectual milieu, who had been staunchly critical of (big “L”) Liberalism not five years before, are now having to back trench into defensive positions (guarding the functions of government, for example).

But look, given that polity itself has been losing air and flattening for over two decades—due to right wing, as well as left wing, frontal attacks on it, you’ll be seeing me in my own meat suit doing shovel duty in the back trenches with longing glances towards the horizon. All this leads me to a question: In terms of life-energy allocation, how much energy might you expend bolstering left-positioned versions of the dominant Nation Story, and how much of it might it go toward an emergent global material existential whateverville? Me, I tend towards wanting to engage the latter, but get tangled up in the former. Another way to ask that question is: how do you square with nation-based ideological excavation projects and the pull of global forces in the present?

Carr: Let’s see…I wasn’t, with my story, trying to rewrite the past as some kind of utopian Quaker meeting house with everyone marrying one another in the egalitarian meadows of New England, though if I were, one could not entirely blame me, since that particular mythology was my whole-wheat homemade bread and butter, growing up as I did with anti-war protest-making Cambridge Jews and gentiles. As I said in email, I went to Quaker grade school of the sort where we sat together and said nothing as a way to learn how the spirit moved in all of us. We were forbidden to be competitive. And though I chose that word “confluence,” here where the ocean becomes rivers that interweave, rise and recede, and while the Cuffees were a family borne of mestizaje, there is no story of whites marrying-in on this land that we’ve yet heard.

But I was trying to remember other forms of founding than the one of which you speak with its Teutonic theory of racial hygiene. This morning I’ve been reading Paul Popenoe, California’s Madison Grant. The obsession is specific to each one obsessed: his is marriage—how to keep white girls pure. It occurs to me to ask: if more of us were to read these people—what they actually said—would we be more or less outraged by today’s version of the same? One definitely poetic question I have is: what does outrage do? What does it do to language?

You ask me about patriotism, more or less: “In terms of life-energy allocation, how much energy might you expend bolstering left-positioned versions of the dominant Nation Story, and how much of it might it go towards an emergent global material existential whateverville?” I have two answers: I cultivate zero to negative a billion degrees of patriotism in any form. “Patriotism is surely the most revolting emotion people go in for,” said Martha Gellhorn, and I agree. And yet, I am cautious in my imagined outreach both geographically and temporally. I get profoundly nervous when reading things like Rosi Braidotti’s Nomadic Subjects, which seems to imagine travelling as a way towards a post-national identity, as if solidarity can be extended to the Syrian refugee by merit of our frequent flier points. No seriously, maybe I’m just provincial. But history is, of course, very fluid and it matters where we place our lens. After putting Popenoe down, I picked up Glenda Gilmore’s Defying Dixie, which unfolds the origami flower of southern black and white communist solidarity throughout the very same years in which the Popenoes and the Grants got their way. It’s important to read both. Do you know Chandler Owen? The Messenger? There are heroes everywhere, if you look.

And I do love messianic imaginings as long as they have people in them and not just horses. Utopian dreams are necessary, especially when they’re actually happening in the present. But as far as life-energy goes, I am only confident in my ability to be useful on the hyper-local scale: community garden, foodbank, classroom. But I’m not going to pretend that’s satisfying.

Is Mud, Blood, and Ghosts “a poetics in the act of postulating a politics”? Yes, that sounds about right. Maybe I’d infuse that with a little more motion: a poetics on the move toward shaping a politics. The politics of Jim Ream, a Nebraska farmer-socialist who believed in the inherent and equal value of all living things, human and non-human, as the foundation for all future “plans” is where it seems to be arriving. I cried when he died in 1933.

Toscano: Actually, all of the eugenicist turds that you mention, I am quite familiar with, having done a fairly recent deep dive into the genealogy of the U. S. radical right. Hitler, no less, called Madison Grant’s writing as his “bible.” Trust me, this kind of thinking still has quite an audience today. And in pondering a rollback to all that poison, you ask, “What does outrage do? What does it do to language?” I’ll begin by saying that social outrage can lead to a conviction for justice that can last a lifetime. It can also be a spontaneous outburst of anger that funks out in a matter of days (perhaps hours), and finally, it can also be a mere performance of outrage in order to be seen as outraged. I mean, outrage can be a lot of things. One thing is that outrage often exceeds language, and yet, it is only through language that we’re able to preserve outrage over time. And despite the deluge of images and video available to us in our epoch, I still think the word, and more so, the compact word—like poetry—can be accelerant to meaning-making.

I’m also familiar with Owen, and his lifelong comrade-in-arms, the titanically impactful A. Philip Randolph. And later, Bayard Rustin. There’s a lineage there, an intersection of labor and culture so tight, it’s hard to name a contemporary example. Actually, I can name someone who inhabits that exact nexus: Adolph Reed Jr. His book Class Notes is an absolute must read for people interested in the confluences and contradictions of Labor and Race Politics. Reed’s critique of the easily thrown around term “community” has made an impact on many socialist-democratic circles. His current ongoing critique of identity politics is what he’s best known for these days. But yeah, that tradition of thinking—a dialectical materialist one—is very much repressed in “The American Story.” I’m glad you’re summoning these important historical moments, or better put, passages. And as it is with every passage, much gets left behind, and yet, some of the stuff of yesteryear forges onwards. This convo we’re having here is also part of that journey.

I want to loop back around to your Quaker upbringing, and somehow relate that to your meditations on the mysterious joys and challenges of teaching. Also, in our recent videoconference, you recounted many early childhood exposures to expressions of “resistance” or “justice.” You were––as right-wing shock jocks in the eighties used to say, a “red diaper doper baby.” I honestly, don’t know about the doper part, but that’s actually a bit like Fred Moten, too. He’s made mention of something similar in some interviews, and he actually said as much to me a few months ago via videoconference, that is, that he could hardly remember a string of days in his childhood when social justice issues weren’t buzzing around his house. Very different than me, I’ll say, your two experiences. There’s a diversity of paths to this same hoary vale of Labor and Culture.

Alright, but here are my two questions:

First, does some conception of a “spirit” moving through you (your body) currently inform how you think of writing or teaching? (You were, after all, an accomplished experimental dancer for decades.)

Second, there are obviously many upsides to having been exposed to notions of social justice at a young age. Have you ever pondered any downsides to such an early exposure and identification with being an “agent” “for justice”?

Carr: I wake up to a cloudy sky. Sleeping in my house: two daughters, Tim, and my friend, the dancer K. J. Holmes. Yesterday, we had a long talk in the sun about blood. Blood, she told me, is the heaviest fluid in the body. In this way it has gravitas, is pulled toward the earth. Also, as the conduit for oxygen, for breath, it carries and is carried by the air. As the pandemic has made so palpable, we are each other’s breath, each other’s air. The mask is that humble acknowledgement of our shared life, our shared spirit. In every way, then, the spirit that moves through me is planetary life, animal and vegetable life. Spirit means, as you know (I remember you performing Latin in Oakland 2002), breath. So, the answer is yes, of course the spirit moves through me. And what that spirit is, what makes it holy, is that it connects us, it is what makes us, and what binds us.

When I was a child in a Quaker “Friends school” we’d once a week trudge down the hall to sit together in silence. Mostly, we were kids, we tried not to laugh. But even this was the point. Being with other children trying not to laugh, which is to say, laughing, is definitely the point.

The thing about eugenics (and I’m glad I’m talking to you who have read that history) is that eugenics knows all that about blood. The obsession with blood purity is essentially a hysterical response to the very impossibility of “segregation.” But what is that terror and that rage that lead so many to legislate blood purity and to mutilate other bodies (or murder them) in the effort to enforce it? It turns out this question doesn’t have an answer. At some level, one has to accept that there is no fundamental answer to this question (and to answer it with the word “racism” is simply redundant). I say the question is unanswerable, but it’s also what I am asking and will probably continue asking throughout the writing of this book.

My mother had a lot of outrage. She lived with it and expressed it daily. Maybe this is why outrage exhausts me. Were there downsides to growing up in a family where justice and protest were central concepts, driving forces? In my case, yes. The downside would have been a whole set of assumptions of “rightness.” That intellectual/political left that sees itself as better than those others: this too is an enormous problem, and it gets played out in my family still every day. I have had to begin to unlearn the self-righteous assumptions of the liberal east-coast intellectual class I grew up among. And I’m sure I have not made much progress yet.

This brings me back around to our earlier conversation about patriotism. When I said I wasn’t patriotic, I didn’t mean I hate everything about the U. S., though I know plenty of people who would say that. I meant, I’m not interested in pride. (Not the same thing as never feeling proud.) I’m trying to work myself towards a humble view, the view from the ground. Pride is more dangerous than shame, though they are the two sides of the same coin. I think we need to step to the side of that coin-toss if we’re going to find anything like a true spirit moving through all of us. Nations are organizational structures. I see no reason for them to also have to enable identificatory pride, unless it’s to forge a sense of belonging structured around exclusion. Biden is horrendous with that crap—his “There is nothing we can’t do. We’re Americans” is just the “progressive” version of MAGA. Yes, it looks forward instead of back, but it nonetheless cathects onto a global hierarchical order that has the effect of “uniting” us by way of militarized/economic power. It’s terrible. I’ll take the vaccine roll-out, but I reject that language as necessarily violent. Is there a form of patriotism that isn’t that? I don’t think so. But poetry might have a chance if (and only if) it comes from the humble view—the bathtub, for example.

From my blood to yours.

Toscano: I’m type A, by the way. What’s yours? In Japan, many people have an astrological attitude towards blood types. Certain personality traits are ascribed to different blood types. People actually match up with dating apps based on blood types. But that has nothing to do with what you’re talking about, which is straight up ideological eugenics that pivot around blood-and-soil forms of nationalism. But wait. Actually, Takeji Furukawa, the Japanese social psychologist from the 1920s who researched blood types and personality, became quite well read in his time. The Japanese Imperial War Department soon used that “study” to ascertain that the Taiwanese (Japan had just occupied Taiwan) should speedily interbreed with Japanese “stock” in order to reduce the Taiwanese prevalence of type O, which was understood as manifesting “rebelliousness.” So there seems to be two unifying and essential threads running through yours and my instances of eugenics: first, the pre-existence of a nation-state in the mode of imperialist expansion; second, a stratum of the intelligentsia ready and able to fully functionalize science (or fancy) to bolster the state’s existence. Ok. Let’s maybe return (or not) to this eugenics stuff later and turn our attention now towards Regional Cultural Chauvinism.

Your pushback on “the self-righteous assumptions of the liberal east-coast intellectual class” is refreshing to hear. Let’s begin with the epicenter of that class: New York City. Now, it bares stating that I don’t brook any putdowns of NYC of the type that the right is so fond of, things like NYC’s staunchly secular outlook, which is, in part, often a veiled anti-Jewishness. Also, that NYC isn’t really “America” in one way or another, which, at the end of the day, boils down to anti-immigrant sentiment. But I will say this: there is indeed a form of elitism that flows from there, one that struts as maximal cosmopolitanism, but that at the core is really a kind of provincial outlook: that the culturati’s aesthetic and political preoccupations should hold true for the rest of the U. S. Take for instance the insipid poetry that’s published in The New Yorker and New York Times—palliatives meant to be consumed by Manhattanites in their jammies on a Saturday morning eager to move on to articles about what living spaces “for just one million” might be had in The City. Add to that, the tendency of those elites to view “flyover country,” or even more common, the South, as merely annoying hinterlands to be educated (disciplined). There’s a typecasting and disconnect there that has, at times, through the power of that elite’s media, actually cost the labor-based left the ability to appeal to people from all over. The good news is that seems to be changing now, given the sheer volume of precariats in NYC that are hip to the surplus-extractive nature of their city (full disclosure: NYC had a huge influence on me, having lived there for sixteen years). While I claim that NYC can have a provincial (non-global) attitude to the different parts of this country, it does evince a consciousness of a whole globe of possibilities beyond the U.S.

But about “being Americans”: well, that would be something, huh? I propose that Americans aren’t Americans until they become of the Americas, and that would mean to become actual stewards and caretakers of its lands and peoples. Actual. Look at the disaster being visited upon the people of Central America. After decades of self-interested interventions by the U. S. government, coupled with the now dominant narco nature of those failing states, people are fleeing. And people are being treated as political footballs, rather than as an essential element of The Greater Americas. To be a minor American—that’s MAGA. Let me toss this in here, too: I love Canada (I have many friends from there, and I do believe that much of their social policies are healthier than ours), but I don’t love Fortress Canada. In some ways, they aren’t being Greater Americans about this hemisphere’s challenges, and one of those is the need and ability to accept people from this hemisphere into its territory. Why is the U. S. compelled to do all of it? Mexico, too. Mexico changed its immigration policy two decades ago to more efficiently and humanely host refugees. My point is, we should deepen that term, “American,” to its upmost. This hemisphere is miraculous in all its natural and cultural diversity. We need a new flag!

Regarding spirit, I haven’t thought about that reading I did in Berkeley in 2002 for years now. But yeah, I recited (without text in hand—in Latin) about ten minute’s worth of De Rerum Naturum (“On the Nature of Things”) by the Roman Epicurian poet Lucretius. By 2002, I had committed to memory the whole first chapter of that book (some twenty-five to thirty minute’s worth of recitation). I worked on it several hours a day, nonstop for about a year, firmly grasping the Latin, of course. Thinking back on it, I had this deep compulsion to deal with a huge task, or burden to carry, something akin to excavating a mile-long ditch with my own hands. I’ve always taken to these kinds of challenges, opening myself to spirit, being swept by it, losing its essence, regaining its essence. I also memorized Milton’s first chapter of Paradise Lost, Donne’s sonnets, the medieval Spanish poem El Cid. That same spirit drove me to distance running (running a sub-forty 10k in my early fifties), or, as I am now, working my way through Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the piano. Labor Omnia Vincit. That’s on my license plates, actually. I’m an assiduous gardener, too. And all of it, every last single bit, will come to naught. And that gives me the greatest pleasure. I feel I’m in the flow of the way things are. Actually, you and Tim (Counterpath Books) published In Range, which is all about that, the futility and necessity of engaging the world as it reveals itself—in snatches. All of the poems there “take place” within the perimeter of my house, what tasks to take up. I wrote it mainly in my bathtub in 2019, and I think it the ultimate Quarantine poetry. And this actually leads me to two questions for you: What things did you learn (or unlearn) during this dreadful pandemic period? And how do those lessons recalibrate whatever notions you might have of officium, libertas, et civitas (duty, freedom, and community)?

Carr: Rodrigo! Of course you’re type A! Your energy, your spirit, amaze me. I don’t know my blood type, though it must be recorded somewhere. And I have small Latin and less Greek, but we know what we are, but know not what we may be, as a wise girl once said. When John Everett Millais painted Lizzie Siddal as Ophelia, Siddal had to lie in a bathtub for hours. She got very sick, though she was ill to begin with, addicted to laudanum (opium) and depressed for most of her short life. She overdosed at thirty-one or so, and her husband, the poet Dante Rossetti, felt so guilty about it (he’d been sleeping around) that he buried his poems with her body. Later, as the guilt subsided, or at least the love for his poems resurged, he exhumed her body to retrieve them.

It’s one of the most scandalous stories of Victorian poetry, and I think of it now in lieu of our discussion of humility, energy, poetry, and bathtubs. We have not returned to the topic of love or eros, but maybe that word is swirling around, too, in your description of your passions at the piano, garden, and in language. When I reread what I wrote—“I’m trying to work myself toward a humble view”—I immediately feel embarrassed. Because what could be more prideful than claiming humility? Conversely, Rossetti exhuming his poems might seem arrogant to the point of narcissism, but in another way of looking at it, the act betrays his true humility. He knew he had nothing but these dirty, rotting poems in the ground. They would have smelled like her corpse. He needed them anyway. He was nothing without them, which is to say, he was next to nothing. Here are a few of Rossetti’s lines:

Cisterned in Pride, verse is the feathery jet
Of soulless air-flung fountains; nay, more dry
Than the Dead Sea for throats that thirst and sigh,
That song o’er which no singer’s lids grew wet.

Here you see him dismissing poetry as nothing more than a “jet” of breath – not even damp, let alone wet—pride’s hot air in place of thirst-quenching life-giving water. Clearly, he struggled with both pride and shame, but the thirst, the thirst for poetry, was there, even as poetry could never quench it.

This brings me to your bathtub poems. I love thinking of you writing in the water because it would be so impossible! I mean, how did you not get the pages wet? But what these poems are really about is labor: the doing of shit one has to do and rarely does one mention it. Labor Omnia Vincit: the hopefulness of this sentence, then also the brute fact of it.

Duty, freedom, community: I don’t think any of these words sing to me right now (though they might be everything for someone else). The first two have been, I think, tainted by the police, by the carceral state, by the gun-culture “right.” It’s hard to even speak these words, just as it’s hard to think about the flag without fear. Of course, the pandemic taught us what we owe to one another (everything, our very breath and even the withholding of it), and taught us to mistrust the use of the word “freedom” for how the right has coopted it to mean a rejection of responsibility, an untethered personality, a mask-less disregard for the bodies, loves, fears, cares of others. But then I hear Richie Havens singing “Freedom” on the Woodstock stage. He sang these lines: “Freedom” and “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from my home” over and over, let’s just say, for hours. The whole history of enslavement is there as he forces us to ask: is the motherless child the bound child (bound to the Master instead of the mother), or, in some terrible way, is the orphan the one who is “free”—free from familial and earthly bounds, tragically free? You have to hear Havens singing this song, maybe, to know what I’m getting at here. It reminds me of Nate Mackey’s incredible retelling of the Kaluli myth about the birth of poetry. In that myth, the boy who becomes a bird, a singer, does so because of a breech in kinship. He’s been refused food by his sister and is, in this way, orphaned. The orphaned one is “free”—in that he is able to fly and to sing—but this is not a freedom he desires. Nonetheless, it is the freedom of song and of poetry, of complaint and of grief.

Maybe the question I have right now is this: must freedom always be tied to a kind of irreparable loneliness? Is there a different kind of freedom in being bound to one another? And maybe that is “community,” but a community of not just coworkers and friends, but also of strangers, of those who might seem strange to us.

I keep thinking of the colonies of mussels we found growing in the grasses along the river here. They grip very tightly to the mud and to each other.

Toscano: I think one of the most profound ways to understand “the stranger” was put forth by Jewish philosopher and theologian Martin Buber (1878-1965). His concept of Ich‑Du (“I‑Thou”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. He thought that through concrete encounters, two beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas don’t play a role in this relation. Through an I-Thou encounter, infinity and universality are made actual. He also stressed that an Ich‑Du relationship lacks any composition and communicates no content. And despite the fact that Ich‑Du cannot be proven to happen as an event (“it cannot be measured”), Buber stressed that it is real and perceivable. Examples in daily life might include two lovers, the author and a tree, an observer and a cat, two strangers on a plane that might lead to a meeting, dialogue, mutuality, and possibly exchange. He argued that it is the only way to “interact with God,” and that an Ich‑Du relationship with anything or anyone connects the “eternal relation to God.” But there’s a hitch! The person has to be open to the idea of such a relationship, and not actively pursue it as such, as the pursuit of such a relation creates an “It‑ness” and so would prevent an authentic I‑Thou relation. Anyway, I find some existential derivative of this line of thinking fascinating when contemplating the stranger. That approach can perhaps provide a vital building block toward a more expansive view of community (your “not just coworkers and friends”). It also might be a legit workaround Plato’s Republic definition of—you know, who’s-in and who’s-out of the demos. The Republic alongside the writings of Confucius are arguably the most influential books of all time in terms of thinking about community. The Republic establishes notions of walling off the stranger, it also configures the political subject as essentially a defensive subject. Buber’s I-Thou also subtlety outfoxes liberal-capitalist bestowal of “rights” as the primary avenue toward achieving humanity (e.g., Thomas Paine et al.). The zero-sum game logic that the U. S. is perennially embroiled in demands that one “right” compete against another “right.” The game often devolves into (as we say at pleasant dinners) “a social reality” that’s, of course, another form of It-ness. But, like I said earlier in this convo with you, I do think we have to engage that particular game (Liberalism’s identity reductio) as it’s materially consequential at this point.

Must freedom be tied to irreparable loneliness? Well, your telling of Mackey’s retelling of the Kaluli myth along with the clip of Richie Havens belting out “Freedom,” you’ve done convinced me that freedom (F-in’ Hegel just peaked in here too), that freedom is a burden to fly with. I might also say that flying is a freedom we’re burdened with. At least that’s what a prickly Global North “citizen” like myself might say about the Art of Loneliness in the quest for Freedom. The protestant emphasis on the sovereignty of the soul, has, indeed, plenty of traction still. But I crave something more catholic in approach. As we continue to home-in on a Global Consciousness, our growing ability to syncretize different cultures into a Big Unknown (that we somehow trust) can energize us at the level of active culture-making. I mean that as opposed to doing the work of spirit, including the alchemies of freedom. I’m almost always more interested in alternative culture-making of resistances than declarations of freedom, which is why I find your title so compelling (“Sod and Soil, Law and Order, Ghosts, Water, Daughters, Blood, Power”). I sense a desire there to syncretize, de-wall, those domains of historical consequence.

And how does eros figure into all this? As welcomed accident I’d say. To rely on Eros between socialized ‘I’s’ seems dicey. If you take Rousseau’s conception that a human is born free, as it were, free of prejudice and is later corrupted by society, and on the other hand, Hobbes’s conception that humans are decidedly not born free, but have ab initio negative propensities, which must be tempered by “good society,” we find there the polarities that make for a range of ways at looking at humanity. And obviously, both conceptions are reductive as starting points. But I believe that a social conception of eros has to be threaded through that range. Yes, and obviously, I’m looking at this through the lens of the current state of the United States. Every time we think a moment of eros is going to count for something (say, our mournful realizations after mass shootings), it vanishes within days, in terms of a collective psyche (which is hard enough to propose). So, I think the dream of good governance is something lean on. When Australia tightened up their gun laws, their rate of gun violence plummeted. In that example, one might say, a Hobbesian perspective took hold. The assumption was that something had gone wrong with the mass collection of “individuals,” thus, a tempering of those individual (gun) “rights” had to be ventured. But look, just because eros is very hard to pull off at a societal level, I do think it’s the most important value at an interpersonal level. I’d be utterly lost without it. And that’s the way we live, right? With these incredible disconnections between the societal and the personal. And so, again, that’s why I think poetics is about connections, even if it does that through highlighting disconnection. And I wonder too, what myths I’m working with that I’m not aware of, but stumble through in disconnected ways. Yeah, Mackey’s work is brave in that way.

Carr: You’ve said too much for me to simply say “I agree with you,” or more emphatically “Yes!” But: Yes! poetics is about connections, even if does that through highlighting disconnection. Because poetry is loneliness, shines a light on, sings a song about, draws inward towards loneliness, it helps us feel our bonds. Or love, if I may.

So let me tell a story about how I became a poet (I told this same story yesterday to a group of students, so it’s fresh in my mind). I was twenty-four or so in New York City. I lived with two people—one I was semi-in-love with, the other would die within the year. Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of a Difficult World had just come out. The last poem “Dedications” includes these lines:

I know you are reading this poem in a waiting-room
of eyes met and unmeeting, of identity with strangers.

I know you are reading this poem listening for something, torn
between bitterness and hope
turning back once again to the task you cannot refuse.
I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read
there where you have landed, stripped as you are.

The poem is perfect and should not be excerpted. But I want to say that it was when I read this—and began to cry—that I knew that above all poetry was what I would center my life around. At this point, I wasn’t a poet, though I’d written poetry, and I still wouldn’t call myself one for a bunch more years, but this was the epiphanous moment, the epiphanous poem.

This is because of what you say: the poem reaches across space and time to form intimacies with strangers. I see the little worn copy of I and Thou that sat on my bookshelf when I was a teenager. It was, no doubt, my mother’s. Buber spells out the two options for us. When we speak of ourselves, we do so either as an I-Thou or as an I-it. In the I-it, the speaker is, in a sense, alone as subject, all else is merely object—thing. (Kristeva, another important thinker for me, calls that I-it relation the “thetic,” and emphasizes its violence. So too does Fanon. “Thou” is not a thing, however. “Thou” is boundlessness. And yet, to experience the Thou (in a tree or a person or an idea), one must know oneself to be “bound up in relation.” This is such a beautiful and complex paradox! To feel, to know, to address boundlessness, one must feel and know how we are bound to one another (and not just to other humans as Buber makes explicit).

I wouldn’t want to claim that all poems manage an I-Thou-ness rather than an I-it-ness. But I do think Rich manages it, and I think this is what the intimacy of poetry reaches for. But importantly, it’s not that Rich manages it by herself, because the I-Thou can never be “achieved” by a singular being (Fred Moten here). The other, as you say, must be open to it. I had to be “reading this poem” for that relation to happen. Boundlessness through relationality—Glissant’s “Poetics of Relation” “in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other.” Glissant calls this “a modern form of the sacred.”

And so we seem to be coming full circle, back to the house of Friends.

About “rights”: to say we should replace the society of “rights” with a society of responsibility or of relation (thinking here of the work of Indigenous scholar Joanne Barker [Lenape], who calls “rights” nothing but “the currency” that capitalism “trades in”) is not to say that everyone doesn’t deserve the same ones. Or another way of putting it, as long as I’ve got rights, so should you! But I am not speaking from an I-Thou when I say that. And so, it’s perhaps not where I want to orient my speech.

But I agree with you too that there are serious material consequences in refusing to “trade” in Liberalism’s terms. Like, whose babies are you willing to sacrifice for the revolution? I mean this seriously: eighteen lives lost this past week for someone’s “right” to buy a thing. If I need to pit one right against another to make a difference in that battle, I’ll do it. Just as I’ll go forward with the foodbank even if (as some argue) it’s only the safety valve that allows racial-carceral-crony-capitalism to thrive. I still would rather people eat than not.

What is love becomes a question for me. The stories in Mud, Blood, and Ghosts are all, in one way or another, directed toward that question. History, the “spinning of tales we can believe in,” is one way to help redirect the trajectory of the planet, since how we understand the so-called past has everything to do with what we do next. Speaking of that: when we can again be in a house of Friends, will you play the Goldberg Variations for me? In the meantime, if you have never seen it, you must watch Steve Paxton dance to them. The initiator of contact improvisation finds himself in relation to the light, the floor, the piano, Glenn Gould, and of course Bach through a profound act of listening and responding in and with the body. This is active culture- making that is also the work of the spirit. Or, this is eros in the demos.

Toscano: And ethnos be dammed to hell. And up with eudemonia! (“flourishing”; “happiness”). We have been doing contact improv here, me and you, the world decidedly not hanging in our balance, but us acting as if it somehow is. And we’re offering it up as kind of meal for the hungry. At least for two. Then three: readers. And we hope, many of them. And who might these readers be? Strangers. You might say that a poetics of Ich-Du called out to us. And that’s the sweet spot by which, it seems, Rich inspired you to a lifetime of seeking forms of authentic being. I like that Glissant called awareness of radical relationality as belonging to the sacred. In that realm, identity is subsumed by relationality, while relationality reaches toward boundlessness, but only by attending to the concrete contingencies of human flourishing.

And yes indeed, in a house of strangers-friends we will meet! And we’ll see how many of those Bach variations are still walking upright by then. Julie! We are so looking forward to your book.


  • Rodrigo Toscano is the author of ten books of poetry, the most recent of which is The Charm and the Dread. His previous books include In Range, Explosion Rocks Springfield, Deck of Deeds, Collapsible Poetics Theater, To Leveling Swerve, Platform, Partisans, and The Disparities. His poetry has appeared in over twenty anthologies, including Diasporic Avant Gardes and Best American Poetry. Toscano has received a New York State Fellowship in Poetry. He won the Edwin Markham 2019 prize for poetry. He works for the Labor Institute in conjunction with the United Steelworkers, the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, Communication Workers of America, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and Northwest tribes (Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakima, Nez Perce) working on educational/training projects that involve environmental and labor justice, and health and safety culture transformation. Toscano lives in New Orleans.

  • Julie Carr is the author of ten books of poetry and prose, including Real Life: An Installation, Objects from a Borrowed Confession, and Someone Shot My Book. Earlier books include 100 Notes on Violence, RAG, and Think Tank. With Jeffrey Robinson, she is the co-editor of Active Romanticism. She is co-translator of Leslie Kaplan’s Excess-The Factory. Carr was a 2011-12 NEA fellow and is a Professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder in English and Creative Writing. She has collaborated with dance artists K. J. Holmes and Gesel Mason. With Tim Roberts, she is the co-founder of Counterpath Press, Counterpath Gallery, and Counterpath Community Garden in Denver.

1 thought on ““Blood,” “Spirit,” and “Nation” Stuff: A Dialogue Between Rodrigo Toscano and Julie Carr

Leave a Reply