"I shatter, I multiply, I take on shapes..."
Dispatch #4: An archive is the extended body of the artist
One of the most miraculous things about being on this planet is discovering an artist, album, film, etc. for the first time. I vividly remember a visit to Canada as a teenager – lying down in my bed, gazing out of a blue-light-bathed window, and clicking PLAY on the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s debut EP for the first time. The full EP is less than 14 minutes long; it kicked off with a fuzzed out electric guitar riff that all but tore up my eardrums & threw me from the bed. On top of that frenetic fuzz, Karen O has the nerve to whisper, “Bang bang bag, the bigger the better.” Like many firsts, hearing that song for the first time was not just an auditory experience. The blue light pouring into the hotel, the coolness of the blankets, my emerging sexuality (sixteen! newly in love! with a girl!), & the thought that my aunt (my aunt?!) had given me this dangerous music - all of it was woven into the event.
To hear/see/taste something for the first time is to be engraved simultaneously with the context in which you heard/saw/tasted it. Whether in hearing a new song or beholding a painting, art is a full-body affair.
This weekend on an Amtrak ride home from a wedding, I experienced a first. With cramps aching my body, I tried my best to spread out, my feet illegally up on the empty seat, my head smushed against the window; I did what we all seem to be doing these days: I scrolled. Dante’s Inferno has nothing on the demonic grip of Instagram. Nonetheless, sometimes we discover something beautiful. This was my sometimes.
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On @fossilisedflowers’ oft inspiring page, I paused on a poem excerpt: “I shatter in all my dimensions / I multiply / I take on shapes like water.” In my rabid scroll-scroll-scrolling, these words halted me. They hit me deeply in ways I didn’t quite understand. Having never heard of the author, Mona Sa’udi, I decided to look her up. As it turns out, Jodanian artist Mona Sa’udi is primarily a sculptor & visual artist. As if her words above weren’t enough, her sculptures rendered me speechless.
As I pressed my nose to this little gallery - the Google image search of her name - I noticed that it was somewhat hard to find images of her work in clear, high definition photography. Her wikipedia page is brief. I mention this because there are artists that are cast into myth, into heroic proportion – almost always after their death. Their likeness & works are pressed into our cultural imagination. Think Frida Kahlo, think Van Gogh. We find them on tote bags & murals. I’m no art historian, but I know that there are a multitude of reasons this occurs & that often these reasons are equally gifts & curses; the artist is remembered, but perhaps she is flattened, the feminism taken out of her mouth. Or, he is depicted as a mentally ill savant, as opposed to a human being who somehow made space for art amidst absolute internal chaos.
Spread out in my Amtrak seat, hunched over the glowing screen, I couldn’t help but think about archives - especially for our LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, & disabled artists & activists. Who documents our journey, our praxis, & our creations? Who ensures that there are quality images & representations of our work, & accurate tellings of our lives, that can circulate while we are still living? Who uplifts our humanity & multiplicity that can then withstand attempts of erasure posthumously?
Usually, we are the ones who document each other. Who uplift each other. Who say, “We are valuable. Look how stunning we are. Look how necessary, how central. I think of the incredible Queer canon films The Aggressives & Shakedown. These films changed me. They each felt like single pebbles under the massive tidal currents of mainstream culture. I could hardly imagine what it might feel like to see films like this in every slot on Netflix. Truly Queer-centric, by & about folks of color, documentaries where folks get to speak for ourselves, where we hold the camera & direct, where we say, “You must have been mistaken, we are the tidal wave.” I recently watched newly released Stay on Board: The Leo Baker which I can’t recommend enough. I wept. In a world that tunnels you in its rip current toward the heteronormative, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy’s maw, what does loving resistance look like? Fuck that - what does breathing look like? I don’t just want us in our fight. I want us in our simplicity, too.
I ask you to consider your own archive. This is a matter of organizing, cataloging, &/or making accessible the things you create. Perhaps it’s poems, perhaps it’s recipes, or photographs.
Perhaps your archive is private: just a record you’d like to keep for yourself; maybe an organized binder or a filing cabinet to catalogue your makings. Or maybe you want to have an art show at your home & invite friends to hang their work, read their poems, sing their songs. You can even mark this event with a program.
Perhaps you’d like an archive that goes a step further, its concentric circle holding future friends & family. If you want to have kids, how might you create an archive of your art for them? Or for your friends’ children? What do you want them to see, not just of your individual makings, but of your whole artistic journey?
Let’s take it another concentric circle outward: a public archive. Do you want a website of your work? Do you want your zine included in a zine library? What might it look like to think about your neighborhood & how your art might be a part of it? What are fun ways to document the event? (My neighborhood throws an “Artmageddon” every year. People put their work on their porches for all to engage with. Painters, jewelry makers, & musicians, amateurs & professionals alike literally fill the streets with their makings!)
Some archives I love:
The James Baldwin Archive on Instagram
Learning to Love You More (who remembers this?!)
Black Women Writers Archive on Instagram
The Positive Lexography (Ding ding ding! We’ve reached my favorite!)
Now don’t get me wrong: ephemerality is also a worthy artistic aim. If you want to create like smoke - present only to disappear - do your thing! I know I have many things I create that are just meant to exist for the span of a train ride, or in the privacy of my voice notes, or between me & another artist in secret.
There is something cosmically provocative & satisfying about impermanence being a part of one’s making. & yet… & yet… Don’t shudder away from the notion that your art may be worthwhile in the hands & eyes of future witnesses.
I challenge you to shed the notion that institutions need to be the ones to finally validate & maintain the legitimacy of your creativity.
Notice what archives you (perhaps unknowingly) benefit from. How did they come to be? Who constellated those creations? Who worked hard to prioritize & share them?
We hold each other up. We uplift each other’s stories & voices & rumblings & questions. That’s why I started In Surreal Life: A Portable Creativity School. This necessary emotional connective tissue between artists is why it exists.
Whenever it’s ISL registration time, I’m always amazed at who the program attracts. Last session alone we had folks from alllllll over the US as well as Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Ireland, Greece & the UK!
We had homos galore, filled 11 Scholarship positions for BIPOC artists, & explored alongside mothers, activists, first-time poets, & poets returning to the craft at 60 years old.
ISL is for everyone because everyone is creative. Never written a poem? This space is for you. Haven't written since the baby was born? This space is for you. Don't have an MFA? This space is for you. Got your MFA & feeling restless/needing to be re-inspired? This space is for you. Paint? Dance? Sing? This space is for you.
Annnnnnd, if you find yourself creating across genres & disciplines, our upcoming October session is especially for you. We’ve got 5 visiting artists spanning graphic memoir, fiction, poetry, & painting (yes, painting!)
In other big news, the ISL team is expanding! In addition to our Fellows who beautifully guide every session, our Fellows-in-Training who will take up their post, we’re hiring someone to be our social media & promotion wizard! Know someone who might love the gig? Please spread the word!
Speaking of firsts:
I wrote a book review of “The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse” (edited by Kaveh Akbar) for Tricycle Magazine!
I recently guest hosted the incredible poetry podcast The Slowdown (regularly hosted by Poet Laureate Ada Limon). It was a blast & a challenge & a joy - a jchlastlengoy, if you will allow me to invent a new German word. Check out my episodes (745-754) & all of the other entirely-all-too-beautiful sodes in their catalogue!
As a goodbye, here’s a little blessing for you, inspired by this zine’s featured artists:
May all of my shapes be encouraged. May I multiply, ripple, & expand. May my intentions, words, & actions be my living archive. May my body extend beyond me - evident in all I touch.
With ample maple syrup,
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