Writer in Residence

Dream Space: an interview with Zoe Imani Sharpe

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Zoe Imani Sharpe is a poet and essayist based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Puritan, Lemonhound and Sang Bleu Magazine in the UK. Her chapbook, Sullied, was published by Trapshot Archives Press in 2011. Her debut collection of poetry is forthcoming. 

Zoe is one of the smartest people I've ever had the pleasure of speaking to. Her brilliance gives her work a kind of otherworldly glow - reading her poetry, you get the sense that she doesn't see into the world but all the way through it. She is generous and patient and unflinching in the way she reads the world; I could go on, but I think it's better for you to read this interview and see it for yourself.

 

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EH: What’s your current internet obsession, and what’s so fascinating about it?

Zoe Imani Sharpe

ZS: I've realized my main internet go-to’s are old (the Arthur memes of 2017 that were huge on Black Twitter and then swiftly co-opted, Prince Tweets 2 UGot 2 b Real, etc.).

If I'm being honest my main online obsession right now is Googling 'Amazon Patents,' clicking Images and scrolling through the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of patent drawings filed by Amazon Inc. to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. These patent diagrams are very simplistically rendered line-drawings which show a function and an outcome, usually through the mechanism of machinery. I love the almost-yearning logic in them, it's sort of childlike and curious. The patent that has been gaining headlines recently is a wristband receiver technology that would allow Amazon to collect data concerning worker's whereabouts in the warehouse, if the worker's hand movements have been accurate and efficient in guiding the product to its correct location, and any other number of artificial 'bio-feedback' between worker and technology, and ultimately, corporate interest. 

To me, these patents (and specifically their drawings), are the apex of whiteness as it operates today. And isn't it wild? The vague semblance of invisibility these patents rely on, that whiteness relies on, isn't fooling anyone anymore. It's certainly not fooling me. But there it is, still ticking along, trying to gain some edge, stubborn. 

This Googling is a kind of perverse compulsion I have. I beat myself up about it. It can feel deliciously regressive, as I've worked diligently over the last five years to exorcise the centrality of whiteness, the discussion of whiteness and the dissection of whiteness from my imaginary. It had been stuck there almost my whole life. So it's been hard work to expel it. Though in some backward way in which I can justify the compulsion, looking at these patent drawings is an indirect reminder to keep investing in the freedom of poetry's Black Radical Tradition. In other words, it gets me writing.  

 

EH: How did you find these drawings? They really do feel like artifacts of something really essential about whiteness and late capitalism - like they're a core sample right from the centre of the present moment. There's this super eerie counterpoint between the super-simplistic, almost cartoonish nature of the line drawings and the ideas they are actually designed to advance. Every new image I clicked on, I was like "oh, this is the craziest one." The augmented reality setup with the ghost guy hunching behind you in your living room. The floating blimp warehouse full of drones, or the beehive full of drones, or the "more efficient" UNDERWATER WAREHOUSE???

The underwater warehouse! Sometimes it feels as though we have manifested our destiny in terms of technology, born from the brilliance of the 1980s!

I found this minefield of drawings around the same time I began reading what became a very important book for me and many others, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stephano Harney. There is one passage that struck me deeply, one that I have repeated to various people who have been stuck alone with me at parties. In it, Moten says “logistics wants to dispense with the subject altogether. Traditionally strategy led and logistics followed. Battle plans dictated supply lines. No more. Strategy, traditional ally and partner of logistics, is today increasingly reduced to collateral damage in the in the drive of logistics for dominance. In war without end, war without battle, only the ability to keep fighting, only logistics, matters.”

Logistics is the only thing that matters to these drawings. Which is a particularly interesting thought in that you cannot patent an idea, only the mechanism through which that idea can be applied. Or rather, since we are talking about late capitalism, “achieved.” 

In terms of my writing, I am really invested in disassembling logistics. It is political for me to use un-intelligibility to disorient my reader into, hopefully, imagining a new world. I attach that unintelligibility to a kind of Black-world making, a cryptic logic in the face of continuous co-opting, and an investment in unknowing what the future may hold, what the past held, what can hold-up and how to hold-on. It’s all about the hold, which Moten talks about, and it’s invention of Blackness in the West. 

The obsession some schools of poetry have, or indeed readers have, with logic – having a poem clearly declare itself, problematize itself and resolve itself, with seeming effortlessness – is not useful to me. I find it kind of boring, in fact. The kind of poetry has a tidiness, a self-contained reality that seems to rely on this kind of self-satisfied trick. It’s not to say that I am not impressed by that kind of work. I am. But I would rather read work that unspools, attempts to relate to that which is outside of it, reaches, fails, trails off, meanders and denies resolution. 

  

EH: Do you know the poet Rachel Zucker? She has a section in her lecture about the "poetics of wrongness" that reminds me of what you're saying. (It's here, around 26:50.) She says “concise” poems feel predigested to her, like advertising - that they're "what you get when you mix the pursuits of brevity and beauty." 

That idea in light of what you're saying about logistics - and about the different possible ways a person can envision a future - is really interesting. These drawings look so simple because they don't account for anything outside of their own function: the only humans in them are interacting neatly and successfully with the products they depict. It's really interesting to think of these illustrations as structurally similar to other kinds of art that don't let any parts of the world creep in beyond the parts the artist want you to see.

ZS: Yes, poems of that nature can feel like advertising. They think too much. There is something in that - the way capitalism/whiteness seeps into even the most obscure form (poetry), where, like I said before, the idea isn't patented but the mechanism is patented. In the case of poetry, the mechanism could be form. Some e.e. cummings poems come to mind here - his short, concise lines, the use of lower-case, his play with line breaks. They all work as mechanisms to get at the idea. I think a lot about how I was taught poetry in school, and the assessment of poems was all about if the form/mechanism was 'achieved.' I guess that's what I mean by that. The question always being, did it do the trick well? Did you see the trick coming? Did you solve the riddle?

Then I think of M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong! and how she was able to break apart and expand form into a whole new language. You kind of have to walk into the dark with that book. There's no containing it. And in that way, the form doesn't try to chide you into having an emotion, but rather, the form is the emotion. As I get deeper into the murky landscape of compiling my first book, I have become pretty okay with the unknown.  I realized, at some point, if you are speaking to the audience you need to speak to, you don't have to decode. They already get it. So I've let myself stop tinkering, stop solving. I try to lean on the intuition and leave the code in. I hope my reader is able to sit in that unknown place with me. Rachel Zucker's want for "a whole disgusting moving worm and a pile of petals" really resonates with me. She's so correct - poetry should do harm. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.