I spent too much money at this year's Publications and Multiples Fair—on art, poetry zines, and ceramic pieces—and then even more at Red Emma's more recently, and then I said a little prayer and dug into my savings so I could buy a couple things from Bookish, the bookshop-on-wheels that made its debut at PMF VII. I'm usually pretty frugal but there are so many interesting artists and writers around town putting out cheap/affordable zines and publications that got me thinking hard about art, collaboration, language, and the values of gray areas. So it was worth it. Here are some reviews of a few of my recent acquisitions.
"Walking thru mist" by Anna K. Crooks (Bookish, $10, bookishbaltimore.com)
In a 2004 interview with The Paris Review, writer Anne Carson talks about Marguerite Porete, the 14th-century writer who pushes past describing God or "finding God" in her work and instead tries to teach you how to lose yourself in God, or, Carson says, "how to annihilate yourself in God." Carson goes on to add that Porete "also keeps taking it away. So in the end the work produces a vortex in which you, the reader, enter and spin around, and have the sense of spinning around in something, but the something is never given or defined." The work denies the "self"—or it claims to—but more so it confounds, expands, and eludes.
There's certainly some word association going on in my head between Carson's "spinning" and "vortex" and the opening scene of Crooks' poetry-newspaper-chapbook-art-object, wherein the speaker describes walking into a spiderweb, insisting that "the spider built this web for me to destroy." The piece goes on to explore thought processes and creation and the body in abstractions: "i want to feel like i have a face/ i buy lots of drugstore make up/ and put it on."
I'm calling this "a piece" rather than a poem or a book because I'm experiencing it like a work of art, but I'm also touching it, holding it, reading it like a newspaper, wondering how long I will own this before the newsprint starts to yellow and the blue becomes a less-vibrant blue-green. It's almost like haptic poetry, engaging multiple senses at once; even in the layout and the way it looks on the page, with blurred words, a visual mist, and Photoshop-bent, sometimes illegible text. What appear to be cyanotype prints of flowers, hands, sports figurines, and bobby pins perforate or act as backgrounds to the text. Throughout "Walking through mist" the speaker weaves in notions that words are lies, and poetry is a lie, and we should not trust words. Is that spider this writer, this speaker, or you or me or anyone who makes anything? We make things and people take things from them, spinning their own stories about them. Language, what we think of as concrete and structured, turns out to be just as moldable and mutable as any other raw material.
"If I Ruled the World" by Press Press and contributors ($15-$30 sliding scale, digital version free on ifiruledtheworld.info, essays also published on BmoreArt.com)
Rebecca Solnit offers a definition for "naive cynicism" in her recent column for Harper's: "a relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world that generally offers neither, a desire to shove nuances and complexities into clear-cut binaries." Naive cynicism demands answers, abolishes gray areas, nuance, imagination. In a way, it's an easier attitude to adopt than allowing for the discomfort of ambiguity. The impulse among these cynics, when talking about ideals and utopias, is to shut it down, because it's never going to happen. Idealism is written off as impractical. But in the arts community, particularly since the Baltimore Uprising, it seems as though there's been an uptick in artists and thinkers and facilitators imagining ideal worlds, reclaiming spaces, and working more collaboratively.
This sleek publication by Press Press (a team that currently consists of Kimi Hanauer, Bomin Jeon, Valentina Cabezas, Sonja Solvang, and Rahul Shinde) allows us to dream. In breezy, conversational Q&As, contributors—such as the experimental musician Bonnie Jones, artists Jared Brown and Khadija Adell, Loring Cornish, Person Ablach, students from the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project, and many more—talk about their worldviews and goals, and what they'd want to see happen if they each ruled the world. In this way, the piece critiques the status quo and rails against that naive cynicism. It gives at least a temporary power to each person and lets them imagine what their individual impact could be.
At the same time, giving so many different folks the space to imagine new worlds also creates a huge, dynamic pool of contradiction. The afterword conversation between Hanauer and Red Emma's co-founder Kate Khatib explores this—Khatib says that her ideal world would have to involve "constant negotiation" among other things, because what's good for one person could be awful for others. Despite the multifarious inherent problems sewn into the question of "ruling" or "domination," Khatib, says, "There is still some power in just asking this question." It is hard to imagine these conversations without the Baltimore Uprising—when collective protest, boundary-breaking, demanding space, and listening were paramount—and the effect it's had on our city.
"Phoenix Rising: An Arts Equity Zine" by United Diverse Artists and contributors ($2 at Red Emma's)
Continuing the ongoing conversations about equity in Baltimore's arts community, United Diverse Artists—the group that organized the February 2015 "Art-Part'heid" discussion at 2640 Space that brought out a crowd of about 500 people—put out a call for writing and art for its first zine.
Sheila Gaskins, a poet/comedian/actor and organizer in UDA, wrote the poem that introduces this zine and brings up the uprising, using the metaphor of the phoenix for the city's art scene. She asks where will we take things now that we've been "given an opportunity to begin a new." The essays that follow start to answer that question, but tend to be rather open-ended, too.
Mia Loving's essay—which explains "crabs in a barrel," a term that describes a tendency in the black community to compete with each other and tear each other down—raises questions about who or what created those limits (i.e., the barrel) to begin with. In his short essay that's acounterweight to Loving's, artist Arthur C. Brown III seems hopeful about stronger collaboration among artists of color. He mentions the potential for GBCA's Urban Arts Leadership Partnership (he's a fellow in the program currently), a new-ish program meant to give people of color experience in arts administration jobs. He also brings up the need for POC to build their own institutions rather than only looking for access to predominantly white ones.
Gatekeeping and "creative placemaking" appear in another essay by Loving, where she argues that this buzzword going around many cities including Baltimore is a tool for development and displacement, rather than a tool for radical change to make communities more in charge and empowered.
In her essay, poet Ailish Hopper critiques the use of words such as "hope" and "diversity," which are often empty trademarks that don't mean much. "'Inclusion' is better than 'diversity,'" she writes, "but it still doesn't actually shift who is Having Their Say."
Hopper also notes that "we have a few permissible race conversations," with the implication that these don't always lead to concrete action. The racism and segregation that plague Baltimore City are reflected on a smaller scale in the arts scene. It's worth asking ourselves if, a year after the uprising (and that first Art-Part'heid talk), we're still talking the talk but seeing more of the same.
HYRSTERIA issue 1 ($15 at Red Emma's, also available at Normal's Books & Records and Atomic Books)
The first issue of HYRSTERIA, co-founded by local artists Tanya Garcia and Valeria Molinari, is a sharply-designed collection of art, essays, and poetry. Painterly-digital graphic cover art by Khadija Adell uses distorted imagery of colorful weavings and pattern, a boldness that is matched in the inside illustrations by Molinari, Mai Ly Degnan, Meltem Sahin, and others. The art helps the whole collection feel fairly cohesive—but not too much. The zine aims to show the way "social differences" like race, gender, class, age, culture, and so on can teach us about each other; the result shows real multitudes, veering toward topics of personal identity and social justice.
Q&As with local artists and activists—performance artist Alexander D'Agostino, Hollaback! Baltimore director Brittany Oliver, and artist Ashley Minner—allow a sort of straight-on perspective on a few issues. (When asked how she'd like to identify herself, Oliver says "I'm an ordinary Black woman dedicated to smashing the imperialist racist misogynistic capitalist hetero-patriarchy" real succinct-like; later she explains she aims to do these things in her work, art, writing, and "everyday interactions.") A prose poem by Nia Hampton highlights her experience of feeling like an outsider as a black woman in a community of white Brazilians. "I was growing tired of being 'Mama Africa' to every dreadlocked pale skinned rasta I encountered," she writes. Activist Marisela Gomez takes a critical look at outsiders that come into communities with the intent to "improve" them without assuming the community might actually know what's good for it. She cites the devolution of one such endeavor in East Baltimore, which started off on the right foot by creating a board of actual community members but then gradually, Gomez says, continued without consultation of the community board at all. Near the end, an essay by Ashley DeHoyos unpacks her own relationship to her Latin American culture, which she describes as more of a gray area. This issue's theme, though never explicitly stated, flows in and out of thoughtful ambiguity like this.
"You ever ruin something really beautiful?" by Nicole Dyer (Bookish, $25, bookishbaltimore.com)
In Nicole Dyer's 48-page book, spare and coy colored pencil drawings and tweet-length texts explore workaday relationship joys and fears. With the concision of a poet, Dyer writes and draws snippets of stories and memories of relationships: wobbly drawings of hand-holding and cuddling and sex. The texts (which are sometimes alone on the page or coupled with drawings) act partly like diary entries or low-key sexts or Facebook posts or tweets that alternately placate and devastate. I can't decide whether this quote, from the first couple of pages, refers to how it feels when you're smitten by someone (in both senses of the word, feeling afflicted by or enamored with): "Thinking of you hurts me so bad in the pit of my stomach." Other moments are simpler and funny, undercutting the more severe moments: "i wish i could draw for you the feeling i get when im touching your butt."
As much as these snips can be revealing or, again, diaristic (a few words about needing to read articles "on how 2 eat pussy" and to practice more; shaky but sturdy drawings of ladies doin' it to each other), their brevity and frankness are disarming, allowing them to be open. That the text portions read like quickly fired-off tweets and status updates shows this impulse some of us have to shout into the void of the internet, sometimes as a way to process shit. Will this hurt less if I post about it? If I post about it in a cute and funny way? Do "likes" deflect the hurt? Are my feelings attractive? Is my vulnerability sexy? How do things unravel so fast? Dyer's book asks these questions among others and understandably doesn't give us the answers.