“Presence to possibility”
Alexis Pauline Gumbs interviewed by Tara M. Holman
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is a queer Black feminist writer, scholar, and aspirational favorite cousin to all life, energy, and matter. She is the author of the forthcoming The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde. Her recent books include Undrowned (AK Press, 2020), Dub: Finding Ceremony (Duke University Press, 2020), M Archive: After the End of the World (Duke University Press, 2018), and Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (Duke University Press, 2016). She is also coeditor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines (PM Press, 2016). Alexis is a 2022 Whiting Award Winner for Nonfiction, a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and a 2020–2021 National Humanities Center Fellow. In addition, Alexis is the creative writing editor of Feminist Studies, literary adviser for the Ntozake Shange Trust, and the co-creator of the Mobile Homecoming Trust, a living library amplifying generations of Black LGBTQ brilliance in Durham, North Carolina.
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals is a stunning exploration of writing as apprenticeship and as a method for wonder. Alexis Pauline Gumbs challenges the scientific language of capture, category, and assignment intrinsic to marine life writing, offering echolocation as a method for all. She prompts us to consider questions about marine mammals, our environment, and the structures that arrange and confine us. We follow Gumbs as she travels unimaginable distances, from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific Region, from the Indus to the Amazon Rivers. Undrowned operates on a phenomenal scale, charting a global marine population. Truly an explorer, Gumbs asks what it means to live in a practice of resonance and ecology.
I had the pleasure of discussing Undrowned and an excerpt of her forthcoming book, The Eternal Life of Audre Lorde, which she delivered at Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women on April 27. I was eager to discuss both works with her. So, we met over Zoom on a sunny July afternoon, Alexis fresh from her morning Oracle reading and armed with a still-warm cup of tea, and me, nervously clutching my too-indexed copy of Undrowned. Her smile was kind, and her greeting was warm, and, in no time, we happily launched into conversation. The first topic: her glorious forty-day journey of rest. This journey spanned from her hometown in Durham, North Carolina, to Bar Harbor, Maine, and abroad to Ireland and Jamaica. Rest inaugurated our conversation that day, serving as the throughline to our discussion on writing, wonder, and wellness.
Tara Holman: I’m glad we can have you here after your rest. Speaking of rest, you mentioned in Undrowned the necessity to write as a particular rest practice, as a commitment you make to yourself. Did you carry that forward recently in your monthly celebration, or did you put it away?
Alexis Pauline Gumbs: [laughs] Oh no, I definitely still wrote every day! It’s like eating or something. I guess some people fast—I mean, I don’t—but it’s an everyday practice for me, not really necessarily around productivity, or you know, “I gotta move forward on such and such project.” Still, it’s part of my meditation practice, so it’s part of my practice of presence. And I want to be present every day, especially if I’m in a beautiful ocean setting and especially if I’m getting to be with three generations of my family. It’s such a gift to be present, and, for me, my writing practices about presence and being able to experience my life. So yeah, I pause on certain projects sometimes, but my practice of writing is not something that I think of in that way. I think of it as—like meditation itself, you know? Like this kind of immersion in this deep well of possibility of ancestral support. It’s the infinity of that. I don’t know if there might be a time in my life where something, some other form of practice replaces that, but so far, it’s divine—a standing date with my infinite self or something.
TH:That’s beautiful. I’m wondering about the relationship between writing and biography. I heard your Pembroke lecture and wondered how they might be related. They feel intimately related because, in some ways, Undrowned feels like a biographic text.
APG: Yeah, I mean, they can be, right? I do think what life writing is and life science is, there are many ways people can approach it. I think that the ode, and my relationship to it, and I’m thinking of Phillis Wheatley, is that there is a space-making that happens. And—I don’t know if you said the word “wonder,” what word did you say?
TH: [laughs] I used the word “marvel,” but we might be thinking in synonyms.
APG: [laughs] Yeah. Yeah, I think of wonder, and wonder does a lot for me because, obviously, I’m in a state of wonder. Like, I am in a state of wonder about the fact that there can be marine mammals. That is something that I’m in a state of wonder about—it is a marvel, I am marveling around it, but I, I would say wonder because wonder both has that aspect of like, “Wow, this is wonderful, this is like beyond” that marvel has, and then wonder also has the sense of not knowing and the question like, “I wonder how marine mammals can breathe?” You know? “I wonder…” I wonder all of these things, and that wonder, for me, is part of what I think intervenes in and helps me find a healing way beyond the constriction of “I know,” and “I can explain,” and “I can categorize,” and “I can quantify,” and “I can tag” and “I can….” You know? That’s not, “I wonder,” that’s “I know.”
So, with a biography—most biographies have admiration and reverence for their subjects and might find their subjects to be marvelous and want to present them as exceptional, but also lean very heavily on, “but I am an expert, and I know. I know, and the way I explained it, that’s the way it is and what’s possible. This is my interpretation.” You know! [laughs]
APG: That’s the tone of most of the biographies I’ve read, and I’ve learned a lot from all those biographies, just like I learned a lot from all this research on marine mammals. And my critique of it is mostly in my approach to writing about life, which is: I’m always going to wonder, and I’m here because I wonder, and I’m excited to make a space for us to wonder about, you know, “What was it really like for Audre Lorde to be in Grenada?” I think there’s this balance happening, where it’s like, I’m doing all this research, I want to find these details; I’m reading her journal, you know, snooping historically and all of that, but not because I want to say “it’s this and not that,” but because I want us to be able to have the level of intimacy where we can be like, “Whoa, I wonder what it would take for me to hold my place of nostalgia, belonging, my political position in this time of conflict?” —I mean speaking about Audre Lorde’s relationship to Grenada and, in particular, her biomythography starts really in her nostalgia about this place. Then she writes it, and then there’s an invasion by the country she lives in of the country she’s fantasizing about, and I wonder! You know, that’s happening for me, happening in multiple ways in terms of neocolonialism in relationship to the US and Jamaica and ongoing colonization with Ireland and Anguilla, all of these places. And I think there’s something to that like, “Wow, I marvel at Audre Lorde’s bravery to write about that, to meditate on that, to go there, to humble herself, and I wonder all that could teach me.” I’m not going to be done learning that.
So, yeah, all that is to say, I think there’s a relationship. And I believe that it’s interesting that you bring up the ode. There’s a reparative way that June Jordan writes of ode, like o-w-e-d. She has “Owed to Eminem,” for example. And so, in that way, it’s like, “oh, my debt,” like I am in debt to the marine mammals. I am in debt to Audre Lorde—incalculable, unpayable debt. Some of June Jordan’s battle poems are like “I owe you to tell you off” or “I owe you this list of insults.” That comes to mind, too. There are so many things an ode can be. Sometimes, I wonder, with Phillis Wheatley and some of these poems about the white people she met in the house of her enslavers, was writing about them a way to exercise mastery over them? Dominion over them? All of those things. So, I don’t know if the ode as a form will always result in the ceremony I’m in. Still, certainly it can, especially if it can evoke wonder, especially if we can admit wonder, and that’s also an approach to life. There’s so much wonder, ultimately indescribable, and that’s good news. I think that part of what I find, just like my writing practice, for me, is to be able to be present to that. Part of my writing practice, in terms of my role and community as a writer, is to make space for that, to bring people back into that mode.
TH: I have some follow-up questions, but I’ll start with continuing our conversation on ode first. I’m in love with a poem called “The Making of Paper” by Nikky Finney.
APG: Oh, yes, I love that, and speaking of debt…
TH: Yes, speaking of debt! The literary history of the ode is so complicated. Still, I am interested in the ways that you can describe holding in both hands wonder, nostalgia, and ceremony, so a follow-up to my question around ode is about lament and about anger in hearing you talk about anger and debt next to something like wonder and the ability for writing to hold—the capaciousness of holding all of those things—was valuable and necessary for me, as someone who is thinking about grief and working through the kind of usefulness of grieving, or the inability for one “to get over” say death and dying.
APG: Yeah, I agree. I don’t think they have to be in it in a binary. I think that’s the thing—I turned to the marine mammals in response to my grief. There was just—my father passed away. I couldn’t believe how huge grief could be, and it taught me something about how huge oceanically and cosmically the love of that relationship is. So, there’s something, it’s not to say that only loss can have us understand the magnitude of love, but grief is part of how love outlives, and it opens so much. I mean the passage you read—it’s about an ancestor I wasn’t even supposed to know about or be able to grieve. There is so much strength and power in the fact that I think, especially as somebody whose part of my existence is in the wake of the Middle Passage, that my connection through loss can’t be stopped, right? So, you could kill the people, you can pretend they never existed, you can erase them from the record, you could do all of these forms of violence, and none of them can eradicate the love because we can access that love through our grief, and it’s the love that fuels the grief, to begin with. Right, because if there wasn’t love there, who cares? Right?
TH: Mmm, yeah.
APG: But me caring deeply is my grief. What if we can be our expansive selves, or what if there’s an expansive way of being on the other side of our fear of where our grief will take us if we don’t pretend to get over it? And I say, “Pretend to get over it” because nobody is over nothing. [laughs]
APG: And what kind of holding is it? Is it an oceanic holding? Is it relative to the moon? Relative to the womb? What kind of holding could allow us to counter that, surrender to that? You know? That’s what I needed for myself. And that’s what the book is. And I think it’s exactly what you said, in many ways—that, “Oh, I don’t have to separate this from that.” I don’t have to separate my marveling from my lament because I’m doing it for the same reason, and it turns out it’s the same thing. It’s connected in more ways than I have allowed. Just like, how am I connected to these marine mammals? It’s just an ongoing question. But I am connected in more ways than I realize every day, and that’s the other thing about this practice. Every single day you practice, every day there’s some way that we’re connected that I didn’t even or hadn’t allowed myself to notice or didn’t have the opportunity to make that connection. And therefore, our connection is as renewable and abundant as my grief is. And I can cut off both and pretend that separate is separate, and “this is only this,” or not.
TH: I’m thinking about what you’re saying in terms of the kind of untimeliness of grief for some people, the necessity to get over it. You asked, “What kind of holding will we arrive at if we don’t require our grief to necessarily have an ending point or a resolution?” Something that came up in thinking about your lecture, but also a section around the gray seal who loses thirteen pounds daily while nursing. There feels like a relationship between constraint, shape, and sacrifice. This came up when referring to the kind of exhausting and traumatic work that Barbara Smith did in keeping the Kitchen Table Press alive. In the lecture, there was a motif of the pestle and mortar and thinking about what if—I don’t like the word “produced” —but what is produced through the shape of constraint about the People’s Revolutionary Government and Audre Lorde’s work in Grenada. And I’m just wondering, maybe, if you could talk a little bit about shape, constraint, and pressure in regard to pestle and mortar?
APG: Yeah, I’m thinking a lot about this idea of crush and press. Here’s what’s happening in the mortar with the pestle; something is breaking down, something new is being created. If it’s for spices or medicine, whatever it is, you’re making a combination. The membrane of whatever is there, if it’s garlic, lavender, whatever it is breaking down. The juices are coming out, it’s being combined with whatever’s around it. The same thing happens in every meditation in Undrowned where there’s this breakdown, where it’s like, “Who’s the you? “Who’s the where?” There was a person, there was a Black feminist, and there was a marine mammal, and now like, what happened? It’s that crush, that press, and that possibility of while you’re going to really get the flavor of the garlic, you’re not going to get the flavor of the garlic if you don’t crush it. [laughs] Right?
TH: [laughs] Yes.
APG: Right? If it’s as before, this kind of transformative process fascinates me, but I think it’s related to surrender. It struck me how many pounds it is to lactate to nourish another life, especially in the context of “that being is going to need all this blubber to live and to float.” And you know, being able to exist is akin in some ways to how [Fred] Moten and [Stefano] Harney talk about debt like it will never be recuperated. Still, it’s not separate from—well, one, obviously lactation and breastfeeding are happening in our species at all times, all the time—and just like with our grief, there’s this ridiculous thing of like, “Okay, do this, you gotta go back to work, and you have to do this, this, this, this.” You know?
APG: This kind of exchange is just like, even in measuring it and saying like, “Oh, this is how many pounds” is to get at the fact that it is immeasurable. It’s absurd in the context of individuality, or individuality is absurd. That’s the possibility there. And I think about how we would organize life if we fully accepted and admitted that the absurdity of individuality, to call it something, would be different than what we have. So, the kind of like overburden, overpressure of Barbara Smith having to overexert to keep Kitchen Table Press alive, as one example of that, or just like the situation of every single mother. It’s like we pretend that’s some kind of labor an individual can do, but it’s not. It’s an obvious example of our interdependence, but it becomes sacrificial, painful.
TH: I have one last question. And I’m so glad we can end on this question. I wrote the word “luxurious” when describing my experience and emotional connection to the book. I felt like the work of Undrowned was luxurious in the way that you seem determined to move beyond survival, and that was necessary for me—though I understand the importance and also the not always promise of survival—but something that I experienced in reading was the way that you reminded me to attend to the variety and the intricacies of what it means to be well. I was so taken by two things, the first being your mention of stability and the second being an embodied emphasis toward balance. Those struck me. Often, I read about Black survival, about Black queer survival, and I was almost taken aback by balance and stability. I have to do work to maintain that kind of wellness for myself! [laughs]
TH: Why were those important for you in this text, and why are they important for you now in thinking about taking care?
APG: Yeah, yeah. So, I think that “sustainable” may not be the word because we won’t stay the same, right? We’re literally deteriorating and regenerating, and that’s not necessarily sustained, or at least like musically sustained, like keeping the note.
APG: That’s the sustain pedal on the piano! And what survival is—I think what the word “survival” means to me—and this is, of course, a word that’s a keyword for Audre Lorde also—it’s a word of ancestral reverence. To me, it has to do with honoring what we have collectively been through and survived. But also, my survival is life in relationship with those who are not living. That’s what survival is, in my understanding of it. You know, like in the obituary sense? “She is survived…,” “These are the ones who live beyond her,” and so, she lives. And so I don’t think about the word “survival” as a synonym with subsistence. And I don’t believe it has a binary or a staged deficient relationship to wellness. I think survival insists and reminds us that our lives exist in the context of those before.
APG: That’s what survival is, for me. Audre Lorde said, “Survival, it always sounds to me like a promise.” And she says that it’s about this transfer of energy. And it was like a sticking point for her, and it’s a sticking point for me. And then I realized it’s a sticking point for her in an even more similar way than it is to me through some of this research for the biography [laughs]. So, I’ll just say that. Survival is not something to leave behind, and survival is not—survival is not how I described my resistance to everything that has tried to kill me and failed. You know, to quote Lucille Clifton.
TH: Yes. Mm-hmm.
APG: In Undrowned, it shows up with this idea of the dorsal. And the dorsal practices and what an incredible thing there’s such a thing as a dorsal fin because the ocean is like, the ocean! You won’t stay in the same place—your whole context is moving around you the entire time.
APG: You know, like a well. “Are you sure you want to be well?”
TH: Yes, “Are you sure you want to be well?” Toni Cade Bambara.
APG: I think of a well. I think of the place where the clean water comes through—the well. And I think of my dorsal practices, my balancing, my practices of presence. That’s what they’re for. They’re for my aspiration that clear, clean water could come through. Now what gets in the way of my wellness, my being well? Well, all the blockages, the fear, the constriction, you know all of that. And that’s the practice of opening, clearing, and stabilizing. And so, I think that the way that I learned about stability inside of capitalism in this society was like, “You want to try to control the things around you, like try to own this building.” Like assets. But then in apprenticeship with animals who live in the ocean, or who live in rivers or who live in lakes where the water is moving through—which I said is my definition of wellness, the water is moving—it is about balance, it is about the dorsal, it is about being able to not necessarily stay still in a shifting context, but to be present enough to navigate that shifting context in a life-giving way, in the way that your pod needs you to be as part of that choreography.
I think that—you used the term “luxury”—there’s infinite abundant possibility there. That’s what I believe, and I don’t necessarily think that should be a luxury. [laughs] But I understand that it can be taken for granted in these conditions. But I think it’s always possible, and it feels powerful to name that desire. What could function like that? What could be dorsal in our journey? It could be the waves pushing you or you beach up on the shore, but that’s not life as a marine mammal. Life is that presence to possibility.
Tara M. Holman is a doctoral candidate at Brown University in the Department of English, studying 20th-century African American literature and culture. Her research explores racial-gendered embodiment, aesthetics and expressive cultures, and psychoanalytic theories of the family. Tara’s dissertation looks to the black maternal as a historical, discursive, and symbolic touchstone for thinking about black feminist poetics and its intimate relationship with expressivity, grievance, and remembering.