Lit Chat: Meet Chaun Webster
Chaun Webster is a poet and graphic designer whose work draws from an interest in the sign of graffiti, the layering of collage, simultaneity, and the visuality of text. Webster utilizes these methods in investigating race – specifically the instability of blackness and black subjectivities, geography, memory, and the body. Correspondingly, much of these investigations engage the question of absence and how to archive what is missing from the landscape as a number of communities witness neighborhoods once populated with familiar presences dissolve in the vernacular of redevelopment and its attendant colonial logic. Webster’s first book, GeNtry!fication: or the scene of the crime, is forthcoming from Noemi Press in April of 2018.
Sun Yung Shin: Tell us about your new book from Noemi Press! What are your hopes and dreams for it after its release? What are your plans? What are you most proud of in the fruition of this project? What were its origins?
Chaun Webster: GeNtry!fication: or the scene of the crime is a continuation of work that I have been doing on documenting the way North Minneapolis is positioned in Minnesota’s racial imagination as black space. That, that particular spatializing of blackness (see Rashad Shabazz) in Minneapolis was/is not only a shorthand for vice but also that it prefigured any significant black presence on the northside. One example of this is how sociologist Calvin Schmidt identified a portion of North Minneapolis as the Negro Slum in a map he produced in 1935 even though Hennepin County’s 1930 Census had the black population at less than 1%. So I found all that interesting, wanted to explore what fabricating a kind of black presence meant/means in terms of divestment and precarity, but also how when the black boogeyman of vice is conjured that something is also absented, namely, black social life.
And what is gentrification if not a series of spatial erasures and erasures of memory? Who gets to tell the story of place? Who controls what author Viet Thanh Nguyen has called the industry of memory?
So this is a very long way to say the book is about my situating so many things, land, body, memory, legibility, and blackness in North Minneapolis. It’s an attempt to try to reckon with and bring a wrecking ball to official memory, in the hopes of opening up a fugitive space.
As for my hopes, I hope folks read it, find something useful in it, talk about it, disagree with it, and respond. It’s work I am really proud of and am mad excited to have at Noemi Press, which is a press I’ve dug for awhile now.
SYS: Have you always been working in the radical prophetic black tradition (is that fair to say you’re writing in that tradition?)? Or, how have you developed as a poet over the years? What has surprised you about how you’ve evolved as a writer, if anything? Is Free Poets Press a project that you’re doing work with right now?
CW: I definitely see myself working out of the black prophetic tradition, though not always; it has certainly been an evolution. My engagement with poetry, as someone raised in the Pentecostal church, came first through the oratory of ministers on Sunday morning. The play with language, the pauses, the rise and fall in pitch, and those things said through the howl/hum/deep groan that could not be articulated through “rational” speech have deeply impacted me. Though I am agnostic now, scholars like Ashon Crawley and their tremendous work Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility have helped me to retrieve some important things of value from my upbringing, specifically the way this tradition, no doubt an aesthetic tradition, had a refusal of disciplinary boundaries. I think that is a part of why I was so drawn to experimental poetry, particularly concrete poetry. That refusal. That unsettledness. That since of what Édourd Glissant calls “din,” or how “noise is essential to speech” that “din is discourse.” The work of Douglas Kearney, M. NourbeSe Philip, Romare Bearden, Kameelah Rasheed, and Dionne Brand among others opened up a space for me to explore that refusal and has given me a kind of permission around how legibility/representation need not be the goal/is not necessarily the opposite of erasure.
I suppose, looking back, my route to here is not surprising, though sometimes it seems odd from the outside looking in. I’ve just developed a habit of reading the texts (not all of them written) available to me at the time, asking questions, picking up what’s useful, and leaving what is not over time.
Free Poet’s Press came about as a result of initially learning about the world-altering work of folks like Dudley Randall (Broadside Press) and Haki Madhubuti (Third World Press), and then later being baptized again as I learned about the work of Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith (among others) with Kitchen Table Women of Color Press. I felt that work was under-explored, if explored at all in the writing about zines and more generally speaking independent materiality created by communities of color and Indigenous communities. FPP was how I put out my first book of poetry and subsequent chapbooks, and, though initially I had larger desires to publish works from other folks, my skill and energy level weren’t/aren’t there. This publishing game is ill, and I often feel like the industry of/around the book object is a burning house, even as it is romanticized as somehow untouched by the ugliness of capital. So I still make zines and hold workshops on zines from time to time but not much beyond that for FPP.
SYS: I know you read deeply and continuously. How do you find time for writing and reading when you have a very busy and full life as a husband and father of three young children? What works for you?
CW: Reading is so fundamental to my practice. I know in some ways it is/should be to every writing practice, but I suppose what I mean by that is that I want to make explicit in my writing the way it is in conversation with what I am reading. In Kiese Laymon’s phenomenal book, Long Division, one of the characters uses “long division” as a way of talking about “showing your work.” As an avid reader of bibliographies and notes sections, I’m trying to show my work in a citation practice that is as much a part of the content as anything else.
To the question of time. It’s so damn hard. I try to be disciplined. Sometimes I am, sometimes not. Being a good partner and father come first, and don’t that take revision, too? I’ve been thinking a lot about how we negotiate time, the strict burden put upon it, the privilege of leisure and how what we do as writers is so often not considered to be labor.
It worked well for our family for me to stay with our kids during the day because childcare was so ungodly expensive, and I enjoy being able to have seen our kids grow in this special way. But it is also easy to feel like I am not doing enough, haven’t written enough, read enough, been doing all the things that traditionally working people are doing at this time of the day. Hetero-patriarchy and capitalism are a fucking trip. I constantly have to remind myself to slow down, to be present, and that, as I’ve been told, “it’s all study.”
So, as for what works, it’s no one thing, but my partner and I talk about time a lot, negotiate around time, and that perspective around study is a reminder of the what and when of “the work.”
SYS: You are the founder of Ancestry Books. Do you have plans for its future? What could the community do to support/engage?
CW: I cofounded Ancestry Books with my partner, Verna Wong. It was a labor of love that we envisioned as a place-based project in organizing that would foreground the narratives of Indigenous authors and authors of color from left-literary and woman of color feminist traditions. As a place-based project, in organizing we saw it as a spatial-intervention in that, not only are there so many independent bookstores (over 300) in our state with just a handful not owned by white folks, there were none in North Minneapolis.
There are more things to say about the history of that work than there is room for here, but briefly I will say our operating out of a physical space first along Lowry, and then later out of Juxtaposition Arts, was both incredible and incredibly tiring. It was tiring to have white folks constantly come in the space thinking they could read away racism, but also it was disheartening not having as many black and brown and indigenous folks, especially from North engage with it.
Some of that was the prohibitive cost of the book object itself, some of that was our need to more clearly define who we wanted to build with out of that space, what it was, and to foreground that base-building/community-building work before we got the space itself. I also think there is initial excitement in projects that doesn’t translate into long-term support. There are a great many of us (myself included) that love to just enjoy seeing others labor to create spaces we enjoy; we like the idea of spaces. But those who labor to create those spaces often do it for little to no pay (think Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, or, closer to home, Cafe Southside) and at great cost both physical and financial. That often and ultimately makes it unsustainable. Either folks’ pockets or bodies give out (sometimes both). As I said, though, it’s all study. And though we are not interested at the time in trying to open up another physical space, we’ve learned a lot that will inform what we do next.
SYS: Are you willing to talk a little about Jackson, Mississippi and how you’re engaged, studying, inspired? Where can people learn more or get involved?
CW: I think Jackson is leading in so much right now. My step-dad’s side of the family is from Wesson, Mississippi, and I have been going to Jackson off and on for the past 10 years now, but was ignited afresh with the Mayoral election of Chokwe Lumumba in 2013. Lumumba’s election sent shockwaves for many throughout the United States and beyond. I mean, to see this radical lawyer, member of the Republic of New Afrika elected as Mayor made so much seem possible.
Over the past two years Verna and I have been taking our family to Mississippi and working with/learning from the work happening out of the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson, and in terms of work happening around housing and food justice, I haven’t seen much like it nationally. There is a lot of history, though, and I am not the most qualified to tell it, but we are hoping for there to be more conversations happening between Jackson and Minneapolis that consider the long and complex histories of the work happening in Jackson and what we have to learn from it. A good textual point of reference from folks written by a director of Cooperation Jackson (not to be confused with CCNWJ) is Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson Mississippi.
SYS: What does Minneapolis need in order to grow and support this current generation of poets and writers and the next? To make literary production and distribution a radically just set of practices?
CW: I think there is a great deal that I see and love that is happening right now to support the next generation of poets, and for that I am grateful. I do think we could use more mentoring, intergenerationally. There is so much wisdom and lessons that need to be passed back and forth. I constantly go back to the way Nikki Finney talks about her relationship with Toni Cade Bambara and wish we all had that. As for literary production and distribution, I think everyone should read Mimi Thi Nguyen’s 2015 interview in Bluestockings Magazine and then go seek to be as (un)productive as possible.
SYS: What are you working on next? Can you share a little?
CW: I don’t have any clear project I am working on at the moment but have been doing a lot of reading on death--African rituals around death both during and before the Atlantic world of slavery. I’m particularly interested in African notions of the zombie and haunting so who knows what may come of that reading. But thanks so much for all you do!
SYS: Thank you so much for your time and talent!
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose), which won a Minnesota Literary Award, and the best-selling A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (an anthology of essays). She co-founded the Native Women Artist and Women of Color Artist Collective with filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang, as well as Poetry Asylum with poet Su Hwang. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.