An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Writer

“Listening can never be a waste of my time. It can never dishonor my attention, because this is what I’m here for.”

header-image

An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Writer

“Listening can never be a waste of my time. It can never dishonor my attention, because this is what I’m here for.”

An Interview with Alexis Pauline Gumbs

Kameelah Janan Rasheed
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Alexis Pauline Gumbs describes herself as a “Queer Black Troublemaker and Black Feminist Love Evangelist and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings.” And while this naming is expansive and almost comprehensive, as she reminds me in our conversation, “I’m not witness to all of me.” She is the one who embraces that which is “kindred beyond taxonomy,” as she writes in her book Dub: Finding Ceremony; she is also an oracle, a teacher, and a gardener. She is the author of a triptych of experimental poetic works published by Duke University Press: the aforementioned Dub (2020), a book of prose poems that “explores the potential for the poetic and narrative undoing of the knowledge that underpins the concept of Western humanity”; Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (2016), which stages moments of Black women activating their own freedom; and M Archive: After the End of the World (2018), which “speculatively documents the persistence of Black life following a worldwide cataclysm we are living through now.” Her new book, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals (2020), is a meditation on what we might learn from the social life of whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals, and other mammals. A National Humanities Center Fellow, Gumbs is at work on her forthcoming book, The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde: Biography as Ceremony.

Her literary work is only one element of her offering. For the past decade, Gumbs has worked alongside her partner, Sangodare, on Mobile Homecoming, an experimental and experiential archive “amplifying generations of queer Black brilliance.” The project centers intergenerational community-building. Starting with a listening tour in a 1988 Winnebago over a decade ago, the couple has been traveling the country, facilitating retreats and compiling a multimedia archive; several participants have described these events as “healing,” which speaks to their impact. (Every third Sunday, you can join live services with Mobile Homecoming.) Also with Sangodare, she cofounded the Black Feminist Film School, which is “an initiative to screen, study and produce films with a Black feminist ethic.”

On a Tuesday in December 2020, I called Gumbs to talk about interspecies collaboration, listening practices, and Lucille Clifton in relation to Undrowned. I feel lucky to have had a moment to speak with her. Our conversation felt like a reunion of sorts. I cannot tell you the exact moment I met Gumbs, almost a decade and a half ago, through her various online projects, but I can tell you it was an occasion of learning. And every encounter thereafter has been a generous opportunity to tenderly open a valve, return to a text with new antennae, or hold my body still in meditation. It was Gumbs who first introduced me to Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. It was Gumbs who encouraged me to write. And it is Gumbs whose tentacular life work reminds me of several lines from one of my favorite Lucille Clifton poems, “i am not done yet” (1974): “i continue to continue / where i have been / most of my lives is / where i’m going.”

—Kameelah Janan Rasheed 

I. DEEP LISTENING

THE BELIEVER: In the introduction to what are now several books, you talk about these voices that emerge during your writing process. I recently learned about Lucille Clifton’s practice with spirit communication. How do voices emerge as you write? What do you think about Lucille Clifton’s engagement with spirit communication?

ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS: I love that question. Lucille Clifton is such a huge influence on me. This idea of hearing voices obviously has been stigmatized and pathologized. People have been institutionalized and incarcerated for admitting that they hear voices. This question brings me back to a really important time in my writing, in my creative and intellectual process, and also to an important moment in M. Jacqui Alexander’s mentorship of me. I was in Atlanta because I had a dissertation research fellowship at Emory University at the time when Lucille Clifton’s papers were just getting to their archive. They were in the boxes she’d mailed them in. She was alive. She had just cleaned out her office and sent them. I was looking through her papers, which were not at all organized. I was having this experience that I was trying to explain to Jacqui because it was similar to the experience I have when I’m in archives with Audre Lorde’s papers and June Jordan’s papers. Still, those were papers that were actually in some kind of order. Lucille Clifton’s archive was the first archive—outside of cleaning out my own mentors’ and family members’ houses and garages—where what I touched and looked at and found was so random. But then it was exactly what I needed.

I had a question about June Jordan’s economic philosophy, and I found this copy of a talk Jordan gave when she and Clifton were on a panel together. Clifton’s talk wasn’t anywhere to be found. This was the first time in my life that I was meeting Jacqui. It was a miracle that she was a visiting scholar at Spelman at the same time that I had this fellowship at Emory. Over dinner, I was talking to her about this experience of feeling so guided in the archive and about the listening practices I have, and about how I wear my grandmother’s jewelry as part of my listening for her and our ongoing conversation. I was starting to understand that part of that receptivity to listening was going beyond my grandmother and carrying over to the people I was researching. I felt that June Jordan was speaking to me through Lucille Clifton’s boxes of papers.

Jacqui was receptive to that. She really listened to that. Part of the reason I shared that with her was because she writes so powerfully about spiritual labor as labor in her work that I had already read and been influenced by. But she also gave a warning. She was like, “Alexis, those people who are walking down the street screaming and talking to themselves are not talking to themselves.” And I had to really hear that. She was saying it’s so important to actually respect the fact that we are connected to so much more than our own consciousness, and it’s really important to honor that and to relate to that in ways that are balanced and healthy. And intentional.

So all that is to say I do feel I’m listening all day long; I would characterize everything I do as a form of listening. In terms of my writing rituals, I am very specifically up before the sun rises in a meditative practice of listening. The most intensive specific listening practice is that early morning practice. I didn’t really know and have since learned that many different traditions have considered that time, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., a spiritually generative time to pray, meditate, or practice. I didn’t necessarily know that. I just knew that asha bandele told me to make time for myself before anybody else needed my time.

But I understand it now. As someone who listens, I feel the messages are louder at that time of day for me. The rest of the time it’s just general guidance like, Turn left, don’t turn right; OK, one more dash of turmeric, or whatever. I know that was part of how Lucille Clifton worked. When her mother passed away, she still needed her mother’s guidance, and she created ways to listen for her. Clifton and her children used a Ouija board, and she created her sense of rituals similarly to what I experienced. She started really listening to her mother, but then the transmissions became broader and she heard all these different historical figures and ancestors and the cosmic entities she writes about in “the message from the Ones / (received in the late 70s).”

The other thing is that another mentor of mine, Akasha Gloria Hull, spent years interviewing Lucille Clifton and documenting her process for Hull’s book Soul Talk[: The New Spirituality of African American Women]. She also looked at the processes of other Black women artists, including Alexis De Veaux, Michele D. Gibbs, and Toni Cade Bambara. I found that work at the same time as I encountered Lucille Clifton’s archive. I was [figuring out] my own intellectual offering and ways of being in relationship to the work after decades of being in school and looking at and critiquing and navigating the ways of being an intellectual that I saw. I felt very supported by Lucille Clifton’s example, as it was profoundly, miraculously available to me.

BLVR: This has me thinking about many things. Particularly about the ways we think about teachers as people who are physically on this planet with us at the exact moment we are, but we must also leave space to listen for mentorship and guidance that’s not physically here with us in ways that are familiar.

There is this element of synchronicity and also this question around filtering in what you’re saying. I’m interested in the distinction between what’s considered to be noise and what’s considered to be productive sound. And I use the language of productivity very specifically to think about the context of capitalism, which distinguishes between sonic engagements that “produce value.” When you’re listening, is there any noise, or is it all generative listening? 

APG: I do feel it is all part of my assignment, right. I’m a listener, so I’m listening. Discernment happens because not every message I receive, piece I write, or thing I notice has anything to do with publication or sharing with other people. There’s only so much I understand. What I heard this morning has an impact on my day, and that’s important. So I am recording. I’m writing. I’m honoring that and, actually, I think it’s very important to my practice of listening that I don’t need to know whether anything has to do with anything else. That discernment comes later. In my active listening to anyone who’s in a workshop I’m facilitating, or when I’m listening to my elders, I’m not trying to control what they say. I’m not trying to judge whether what they’re saying is worthwhile or if they’re getting to the point. I may have no idea what you’re talking about, but I know I am committed to listening.

I’m specific about who I’m sitting with and listening to. I’m really prioritizing queer Black elders. I’m prioritizing Black feminist elders. I’m prioritizing Black kids. That act of priority is also what allows me to completely surrender and say there’s nothing that Black children can do in front of me or say around me that I don’t feel is worth my presence. So in that context, listening can never be a waste of my time. It can never dishonor my attention, because this is what I’m here for. I’m here to be with you. I’m here to learn from you. I understand that to be already decided possibly before I even got here. 

II. WHALE WHISPERING

BLVR: Can you say more about noise? 

APG: I’ve been paying attention to theorists who have been talking about noise, and I find the disruption of noise and forms of sounds that are not as easily co-opted very interesting. I would say that in my listening process I experience a lot of clarity, but what I hear and what I write are not always clear to me in the moment. I don’t find myself experiencing very much dissonance even though I’m often experiencing something I can’t categorize. But I don’t feel like what I hear is hurting my ears or giving me a headache. Even when I feel overwhelming sadness and I can’t necessarily index it or note what exactly is causing it, I understand that it is for me. I don’t feel like it reached the wrong address. And that to me is a form of harmony. Even if it’s so complex that I can’t detangle or understand it in a linear sense. And, honestly, I think it’s helpful to view what I’m experiencing as an ancestral reclaiming of my presence, attention, and time. I just want to make more space for the experience that has led to me making less and less time for some of the linear demands that capitalism and the narrative of capitalism had already taught me.

BLVR: I am thinking about the poet Bhanu Kapil. She wrote this book called Schizophrene, which I’m reading now. It was suggested to me because of her writing process. She wrote this manuscript, wasn’t happy with it, threw it into her backyard, and then seasons went by. She grabbed it out of her backyard and sort of wrote from the fragments that were left behind.There was this collaboration with the soil and the water and the bugs in her writing process. She listened and maybe didn’t expect everything that came out of that holistic process.

What role does revision play in your practice? In M Archive, you write about this idea of an “ancestrally cowritten text” that sort of defies single authorship. You include so many footnotes and endnotes and in-text citations in all your works. What drives your citational practice? 

APG: What drives my citational practice? Honestly, I’m so repetitive. I find repetition really helpful, and maybe that’s part of how I’m organizing my listening. So with Spill, M Archive, and Dub, my prompt for listening every single day was work by one person. Now, of course, that’s never true. That’s why in Spill and M Archive there are lists of many, many other texts besides the one I was listening to daily, because sometimes the listening prompt from Hortense Spillers’s work brought me into the middle of an Alice Walker story. I’m just super, super repetitive, and so if I realize there’s something important to me, like, I really need to listen, one of the ways I give myself what I feel is ample and abundant space is to do it every single day for hundreds of days. And so I didn’t realize necessarily until after the fact that, in the case of Spill, Dub, and M Archive, this results in a very performative citational practice that resonates with my values of citing Black theorists, and Black women theorists in particular.

So many Black women theorists are not being cited, when what folks are doing would never be possible without the work they did. Because of this, there is a reparative accountability that drives my citational practice. Drive is a good word because there is something in the work of Black women theorists that I want. I want to be with this work so much that this is the first thing I’m going to do every day. I mean, that was the case with marine mammals. 

BLVR: Yes, the marine mammals.

APG: I guess we should talk more about Undrowned?

BLVR: I’ve obviously been following your work, and for the past couple of years I have been really interested in interspecies communication. I’ve been reading all these interesting studies about attempts to talk to dolphins, and I’m compelled by animal countersurveillance. I came across this hawk moth that basically vibrates its genitalia in order to interrupt the echolocation of a bat. I was excited because I wanted to see how other folks are thinking about our relationship to other species. So there is one point where I stopped, on page 9 of Undrowned, when you’re talking about your vulnerability and the possibility of projecting onto other species. I want to start here because I’m hype about nonhuman animals and I’m wondering if they are excited about us too.

When we don’t share a language with other species, how do we engage in this work of collaboration and consent, or how do we translate what we’re hearing or what we think we’re hearing?

APG: Yeah, I love that, too, about the countersurveillance. And, as you know, I just really love the opacity and ferocity of animals in the ocean. I love that sea otters will never allow scientists to measure their babies. I love that. I think there is something very important about that, and of course it’s something I recognize. I recognize it from living my own survival strategies, and I recognize it in my family and community.

I definitely don’t feel like I’m translating across species. When I’m sitting here, so often listening to the whale sounds and the seals and the dolphins breathing, I understand that I’m listening to recordings of them communicating with one another or expressing their own embodied processes. I’m not trying to translate them into English.

However, when you said that we don’t have a shared language, what I heard is that I have allowed the several languages I know that are all spoken predominantly by human animals to be dominant in my experience of my own existence. 

I think it’s true that marine mammals clearly communicate with human animals on purpose and say things like Stay away, or, in the experience of a walrus, I’m about to pop this naval ship. That’s clear communication, in my opinion. It calls out many things I cannot express, and each thing I wrote in that process was an opportunity for me to be close to that articulation.

It’s not like I’m translating something marine mammals are saying. I feel myself driven toward the limits of my being on the basic levels of breathing; of fluid, insulation, and fat in my body. 

BLVR: As you are speaking, the thing I’m appreciating most about this interview is the upending of these questions, because I think questions start from their own sort of schema. Even in the formation of a question, I’m still prioritizing human speech as the register of communication. I found really helpful the use of gestures and sounds that evade a notion of conventional language, where learning, but not fluency, is prioritized. The goal is not conquest, or comprehension. The goal is not mastery. That’s one of the interesting things about the way Undrowned unfolds. It’s not a taxonomy; it’s not a scientific study that gives you specific, final comprehension or understanding. I was starting to count the number of questions you offered. There’s a beauty in thinking about what science could be, in creating a scientific text that offers more questions and prompts than it does answers.

I’m curious: Have you been able to read excerpts of Undrowned to any marine mammals? I don’t know if that’s a strange question, but—

APG: I love that question so much because it never would’ve occurred to me to read it out loud to marine mammals, because of course if I’m near marine mammals, I’m listening. I didn’t even think about it as a possibility. Now, I will say there were times when I was close to marine mammals while I was actually writing. I was writing in my journal about harbor seals, and there were harbor seals right there. There were harbor porpoises just playing with us while we were kayaking. I don’t know if they could hear our conversation. You know what I’m saying? There are definitely moments like that. What would communicate to me that a marine mammal would want to hear this?

I think that could be possible. It’s just that it has not happened. I don’t know if you’ve been following the whale-whispering work of Michaela Harrison.

BLVR: No, but when you mentioned it, I got so excited. I’ll be doing some listening tonight.

APG: Yeah, she is phenomenal. She’s in a relationship with these humpback whales in the Atlantic, and they are singing together. They’re singing old spirituals and creating new songs together. She’s in a collaborative process and she’s out on the water with underwater microphones and speakers. It’s so amazing and I feel so happy she’s told me about it and shared aspects of it with me. 

III. “NO FISH LOOKS LIKE ITSELF”

BLVR: In Undrowned you talk about the dangers of being discovered. You also ask these important questions: “What if my swimming unseen sacrifices the wisdom that would waken within you if you saw? What if I’ve trained you to ignore the truth about me at your peril and mine?” Later, you reference Eric Stanley, whom I interviewed several years ago, so this is a nice moment of connection. 

APG: Oh, I love Eric. 

BLVR: Eric Stanley asks us to consider how one can be “known without being hunted.” And, of course, I’m connecting this to Zora Neale Hurston, writing in Mules and Men about the “particularly evasive” quality of Black people, and of course [Édouard] Glissant’s ideas in Poetics of Relation. And I am also thinking about María Iñigo Clavo, who considers “confessional ontology” in the context of colonialism and surveillance. And you also mention this notion of the depth of recognition.

You ask, “What if the thing that I hide could also be something that liberates someone else or helps someone else wake up?” But also, you need to keep yourself safe. So how do we navigate this tension between opacity and transparency? How do we deal with surveillance and safety while also being in community?

APG: Yeah. And even to layer it, I’ve been studying the sky and looking at the moon, and what I see is just what’s visible from a certain angle. I’ve had scoliosis since I was a child, so my spine is curved, and I’ve been doing Pilates, which I mention in the book, and I’ve changed the shape of my spine. But I don’t know what it used to look like, and I don’t know what it looks like now. My partner tells me, “I can’t even find the curve in your spine anymore.” I guess they could take a picture, but I’m not witness to all of me. I’m just not, and I think that is part of what community is. We say it, we know it. It’s absolutely threaded in the vernacular of who has your back.

Part of why Eric’s question resonates with me so much is because it reminds me that it’s not like it’s just a choice of how I’m perceived, when I’m perceived, if I’m perceived, and what somebody else perceives about me. It’s actually not. Eric is talking about it very specifically in the sense of the precarity of trans folks who are being harmed by people who think they perceive something. I think the question has a liberation energy behind it—all of Eric’s questions do. I feel like part of what Eric is liberating all of us from, but obviously centering on the community of accountability, is that we cannot always be in the practice of trying to be recognizable or unrecognizable, because, as Toni Morrison says, “Invisible to whom?”

Recognition doesn’t happen once, and it doesn’t happen for all types of situations. I don’t even recognize half of my own body. It’s not agential in a simple way. It’s so complicated, and it’s always, always, always changing. I was talking to the poet Kathryn Nuernberger, and she was telling me about her husband, who identifies fish in a lake to try to measure the impact of pollution. He said, “No fish looks like itself.” Right. They’re working with a taxonomy and guidebooks that say, This is what this fish looks like, so if you see it, it’s called this. But when you actually look at the fish in the lake, they don’t look like that. How they are is not lining up with the taxonomy that’s been created to recognize, interpret, catalog, and count them. So we don’t even know what we’re recognizing or not recognizing.

There is a lot there, which is why I love that question. Even if we weren’t talking about—which we are—a pervasive comprehensive surveillance structure, where it’s very possible that what we’re talking about in this conversation is being algorithmized into Google results and ads that I’m going to see in the future, it’s already the case that recognition is a myth that’s useful until it’s not.

I don’t have control of whether or not people are going to recognize that I’m in the lineage of Hortense Spillers, M. Jacqui Alexander, Sylvia Wynter, Akasha Gloria Hull, Barbara Smith. I don’t have control over whether people recognize that, but I repeat it so much that hopefully it becomes impossible not to recognize it in the context of that opacity. 

IV. “A SCALE OF CARE”

BLVR: Before we leave each other, I wanted to talk about your definition of “school” as a “scale of care.” 

APG: That is what I feel like dolphins are teaching me. There are so many different ways [that their social patterns] are described by the people who research them, but do we know? We don’t know. Animals are traveling all over the whole ocean and very effectively evading researchers. So we don’t really know, but what I realize is that the same arbitrariness has shaped how we organize, what our institutions are, how we think about what it is to learn, and how to be alive and learn together. So even though, obviously, it wasn’t fish who said, Let’s call it school, there was some kind of resonance in the adaptation and the invention of that terminology that used school to describe groups of animals that are swimming together. I’m still learning from that poetic space. What is the point of learning? The point of learning is that we can take care of one another better, right? What else is there to learn?

Intelligence is not contextual until it’s intelligible. Why did I learn critical thinking? What has been the relevance in researching and reading things over and over again and thinking as creatively as I can? I realized at a certain point, Oh, this is me trying to learn how to be a daughter to my mother. That’s been my central research project. It’s not the only one, but it’s all relational in that way. How do I daughter these Black women theorists whose work generates my living consciousness? How do I hold space for all my communities of accountability? I’m using your word drive again. That’s the drive. Why be creative? Why think critically? Because it matters how I care for you. That matters to me, and that is the point of it. I realized very early on, as a tokenized Black girl in prestigious white schools on scholarship, that other people thinking you’re smart can only do so much, and there’s also a lot it can’t do. It doesn’t stop people from being racist. I learned that a long time ago.

BLVR: Yes.

APG: A lot of people have learned that and are learning it right now. Some people think about the benefits of learning in a capitalist way. Some people, if you really ask them why they’re in school, they say it’s because they want to take care of their parents one day. That matters to them. A lot of what they’re doing, even what they’re majoring in, doesn’t matter to them. Now, the fact that they think it’s going to give them access to resources that will allow them to provide care in these very capitalist ways and also within the structure of a heteronormative family—that’s there. That’s a narrative that’s written over it, but what we understand is that at the root of it is actually a desire to care and be cared for in a context where it seems like that’s the only way to have that happen.

I’m trying to say that the structure of how we care for one another is something we’re still learning. It’s arbitrary, the ways that we’ve understood it. It’s infinitely possible. We’re learning ways that are generative to us. There are fish whose bellies light up; what are the ways we light up? What are the structures that allow us to learn that? You’ve written about this: it’s hard to separate learning and care, but we can do it.

It’s so interesting that what we’ve named educational structures really marginalize.

BLVR: What you’re saying is making me shiver a little bit because I am thinking about this particular moment when lots of young people across the country and the world are being asked to log in online to receive schooling. Kids who don’t want to log in don’t hate school; they just can’t receive the type of care they receive in person. I’m praying that this is a moment when we actually understand that care is a part of schooling.

APG: Yes.

BLVR: I hope this is a moment when we actually think about what it means to remove all the uncaring structures of a school day. When you walk into a building and the first person that encounters you is a police officer or a safety security guard, that is not a caring entry into the building. And if the first question is “Did you do your homework?” and not “How are you? Did you have breakfast?,” that is an uncaring moment. 

APG: To have a conversation with you is such a gift. I want to be having conversations where I feel cared for, and I feel safe enough to learn something, and you [make me feel that way]. I love it, and please know I appreciate it. Just know I have time to talk to you, because this is what time is for.

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