Theory Meets Body: A Conversation with Jasmine Gibson

Jasmine Gibson is a Philly jawn living in Brooklyn. She spends her time thinking about sexy things like psychosis, desire, and freedom. She is the author of Drapetomania (Commune Editions, 2015) and Don’t Let Them See Me Like This (Nightboat Books, 2018).


I knew I was going to like Jasmine as soon as my friend, the hardcore anarchist, excitedly invited me to read alongside her at a fundraiser in North Carolina. The fundraiser was being held in support of prisoners planning to engage in a mass strike, the largest coordinated prisoner strike in modern U.S. history. It was the first time I had ever heard him mention anything about poetry.

Hearing Gibson read her work confirmed the hype—she is a young poet of profound ability to animate dense political theory, astrological musings, unapologetic militancy, relationship gossip, and a quality of ineffable nonchalance (that could only come from someone who knows the end of the world is near and can’t be bothered to perform pretense). When I heard that her debut full-length collection was coming out, I jumped at the chance to talk to her about it.


Zaina Alsous: I thought a lot about Silvia Federici’s “Wages Against Housework” while reading your book, which gave so much attention to the contradictions of desire within the system under which we are alive. I think your work provides a necessary intervention of merging the wage and the prison cell as paradigms that mediate all of our intimate encounters. In “Hot-Hand Fallacy,” you write, “A street lovers fought on, a street where / people throw projectiles at pigs / and that is truly romance isn’t it?” This made me think of Federici writing, “We want to call work what is work so that eventually we might rediscover what is love and create what will be our sexuality which we have never known.” I think your book poses a provocation about ‘requited’ love as this sort of impossible possibility within the carceral world we currently inhabit. I want to start there.

Jasmine Gibson: I think that love is possible, but I think the love that we conceive out of the social relationships we form now can only slip into moments [with] the underground. Experiencing love not so much just as, “Oh, they make me dinner,” but love as in, “If I get into some sort of trouble, will you bail me out of jail?” Or the love of sending letters to people who are incarcerated, or the love of trying to be honest and vulnerable with other people, even though vulnerability is not something seen as valuable. I think love is possible but [more so] has other possibilities of being different things outside of intimacy with the people you know—a kind of intimacy that can be felt with people who are not necessarily close to you. I navigated that throughout the book with different voices and experiences. Some experiences that are not necessarily unique to me. When I wrote my first piece for LIES Journal, I wanted to speak to my mom in some kind of a way and look at her entanglements with capitalism from a historic perspective, and that’s how I try to navigate love: as a historical thing. At the time, I was also reading a piece by Saidiya Hartman about these two girls trying to comfort each other in the belly of a slave ship—how do you define love in that kind of context? Where it is so violent, and the stakes are incredibly high? I’m thinking right now into that past. The hardest part of that reality is trying to take care of yourself and have enough empathy to take care of someone else, which I think is a kind of love, and in the kind of scenario that Hartman has set up, I was thinking about that and trying to focus on love, my experiences of love, unrequited love, and love as a bigger broader thing; love for my mom, my sister, love for the unlovable.

ZA: In David Scott’s writing about modernity he posits that tragedy makes room for “contingency,” and I saw that kind of current coursing through Don’t Let Them See Me Like This. But maybe even more so, your use of hesitancy to create room for contingency and meaning. I loved the use of “maybe” in your poem “The Fool.” That tarot card has so much to do with relinquishing expertise in order to be opened up towards enlightenment. What is your relationship to hesitancy and unsureness as a poetic?

JG: That poem felt painful to write, because it was an experience of a personal romantic tragedy, because they lived across the Atlantic and it was something that just wasn’t possible. Two people rooted in their own kind of Babylon, separately. You can’t really transfer without material things: with jobs, immigration, and schools, all of that stuff you can’t just say, “I’m going to move for love.” Love is [also] mediated by transactions under capitalism, so sometimes that is what trumps it. That’s where hesitancy in “The Fool” comes from—coming into this realization that the social relationships mediated by capitalism don’t always allow for people to be able to make choices to be in love and have a future with a person, because it is irresponsible. The hesitancy comes from this kind of bargaining of what could have happened, maybe, if things could have been different. Because love under capitalism calls your bluff or presents a ceiling for how much you can experience the possibilities, or impossibilities of love. To relinquish that ceiling, then, is to step into another realm of possibilities. That’s what my current partner did. They moved their entire life and began a fool’s journey with me. Impossible!

ZA: Throughout the text, it seems like you ask a lot of questions.

JG: I think I was open to change. I don’t want the meaning of the poems to be this definite thing. I wanted them to be able to change over time, and I think that is the most important thing for them to do. Maybe that comes from a background in political work; if you make definite statements of how to orient to things if things change—you are much safer if you allow yourself to be humble in ways that encourage you to grow. I want the poems to be an amorphous thing. Even if the book is done, it keeps changing.

ZA: I know you work in mental health care, and your poems definitely confront the systemic violence of weaponizing “sanity” and illness, especially against Black people, with Drapetomania serving as just one exceedingly blatant and disturbing example. How has your psychiatric research influenced your writing?

JG: In a similar way to my experiences doing political work, it’s also provided a language with how the state uses mental health to surveil, and how people work hand in hand with that. Seeing it from the inside, it provides a different kind of understanding of how the state can weaponize things that are supposed to be well-meaning. In New York City, you have The Office of Mental Health, and obviously you want services and resources given to people—everybody needs mental health care—but a lot of those services are [also] used to track people in the [criminal] system. So many people who are aging now have been institutionalized for most of their lives in public mental health hospitals that were shut down in the 1970s. When I first started writing poetry, I had begun working as a case manager, so that kind of seeped in, thinking about myself and my work, and my relationship to my patients; thinking about what to do and how to reconcile that and, in my position, attempting to trouble that boundary. At the time, I was also in the Florence Johnson Collective, and we were trying to organize health workers that were HHAs and people that worked in hospitals and trying to reconcile a vacuum of radical organizing of health in New York City. This was about 5 years ago. We wanted to blend “Wages for Housework” with what happened in the 1970s, during The Lincoln Hospital Takeover, and try to come up with something like that. That set me on a track to blend thinking about my own relationship to my career in mental health and the political nature of it, exploring it through poetic work.

ZA: You mentioned ‘surveillance,’ and it seems like in reading your work there’s this repetition of a sentiment that something becomes ruined as soon as it leaves an interior or intimate space and enters the exterior realm. Do you feel like there is a relationship between public articulation and complicity?

JG: I had deleted my Instagram for a while back in June, because I felt like I couldn’t deal with it anymore. I feel like online there’s this weird pressure to have this kind of intimacy that isn’t legible when you actually are with someone physically. It’s a kind of performance space, and I just don’t like that. I don’t think it feels good. I think it’s reaching a ceiling, and I wonder what is going to come next. Social media is all about surveillance gathering, building up a public profile on this person that leads to them becoming one of a few bytes on the Internet that ends up getting surveilled. I just think it’s strange that there isn’t a kind of secrecy or more of a security culture about what is shared because of this pressure to be as open and intimate as possible on the Internet. A lot of people’s livelihoods depend on that.

ZA: It seems like there is a longing for clandestine forms of relation in your work.

JG: Yeah, I think that is kind of the thing that is missing from a lot of relationships that you can have now, or something more rare. Maybe I’m just old now, or of a different generation. I don’t know if we can return. Maybe it’s something that doesn’t exist. I just feel like that there is something being lost now, how people interpret different forms of sharing. On the flip side of that, one cool thing is that some people who are fascists are getting doxed, and they [fascists] are also really bad at security culture, so that’s good. On the other side, a lot of people get really hurt by the Internet. I think secrecy creates possibilities for what you can see in the future. There are things that can only be predicted through your interactions with people that can’t be immediately and readily available. Like, what is the thing that is actually happening between people?

ZA: So you feel like secrecy is the basis of intimacy?

JG: Yes.

ZA: I also see a speculative militancy throughout your poems, like in “Love Life.” You write, “I want them to know / there’s a dead cop at the end of that rainbow / and we gonna be alright.”

JG: I remember the summer Philando Castile was murdered. Someone had posted pictures that children had drawn for him after his murder. That made me cry. One child had said, “Mr. Castile, you have rainbows in your heart.” There was just something so sweet about that. I just wanted to add to that to an image of a dead cop.

ZA: What’s the role of violence in poetry?

JG: The role of violence is to get to imagining where there isn’t necessarily violence. Violence at times can be this revelatory action that unveils something, that makes something visual and open and unavoidable.

ZA: The work of Afro-pessimist scholars has gained a lot of discursive currency lately, and one harmful response that I’ve seen is that sometimes pessimism gets portrayed as solely antithetical or transgressive to hope, and yet I think your poems inhabit a lot of dialectical ground with pessimism and a kind of futurism consistently interwoven. The book ends with you announcing your inevitable arrival: “I’m the angel knocking on yr door / To let disease in / The place that I fit in doesn’t exist, / Until I destroy it.” Where you do you see your writing fitting in to these debates of pessimism vs. futurism?

JG: I hope that this book helps destroys that debate. A lot of people like to pit Black intellectuals against each other, those who are playing with different ideas, and I think that is really boring. Why would you say you only believe in Afro-existentialism or only believe in Afro-Pessimism? I just believe in possibility. My first political mentor told me this thing that kind of stayed with me: “People that are post-colonialists read the first part of Black Skin, White Masks, and Marxist-Humanists read the last part.” And maybe I don’t believe in Humanism as a project, or in Marxist-Humanism, but I do believe in possibility and having as many possibilities as possible. I think the way people limit themselves and place pessimism in a box is what’s bad; it’s not doing any service to intellectual projects to just regurgitate broad critiques. There’s this one part of Black Skin, White Masks, where Fanon writes something along the lines of, “You can find me here on this side of history where I also have claim to creating the clock, or you can find me on this side of history where I have claim to this,” etc., so not just limiting to one event, but to be able to use all of that, and also use the contradictions of theory and Blackness as something that is more interesting. I hope my book can destroy that kind of binarism and hold both [pessimism and futurism] without choosing a side.

ZA: I think what I find most dazzling in your collection is how you manage to find a way to locate where dense theory meets body fluids, or their most sensual instrumentation. “Viscus is the value begotten from labor / interwoven through our bodies / and not bodies / bodies that failed to become bodies / bodies that weren’t able to become poems / because they were too manic / the value was never mine to give.” Can you talk a little bit about where theory meets the body for you?

JG: Theory meets the body for me in the most material way, in that we live in a world where you basically have to destroy your body in order to eat and then sometimes you destroy our body with what you eat. Thinking about the body and how capitalism shapes that. My favorite chapter of Capital is “The Working Day,” in which Marx uses a kind of ethnography of the English working class and the ways they work their bodies to be basically whittled down to nothing. Their bones are completely deformed from working these crazy hours. I don’t think we always take the body seriously when we are thinking about different political or poetic potentialities. Why sex is so big for me in the book is because I was reading a lot of Wilhelm Reich and thinking about how the ways we have sex is so informed by this kind of deterministic value: that we have to have sex. And it’s this convoluted thing often portrayed only as a biological functioning and not totally historical.

Sex can be multiple things and sex can be radicalized where it is not something you have to be positive or negative about. To break away from the binary: to think about sex in ways like, sometimes sex does hurt, and sometimes it does feel good, and why is it that it changes in different situations, and what does sex mean when there’s a political aspect to it. Or how the state weaponizes sex, through conjugal rights being taken away and the sexual violence that happens in prisons. There’s this pressure to form our bodies into different things that don’t feel normal or natural and have consequences. The most common autoimmune disease is diabetes, which is something insurance companies cut from policies all the time, and people aren’t able to get their insulin. Why don’t we have normalized demands to say medication should be free for everyone? Why aren’t we robbing pharmacies? In “Henrietta Lacks” I talk about her cells being used by the hospital that let her die and how all of this, the medical industry, is also a weaponized history used against people.

I wanted to explore that in poetic format by blending theory and my own body. While writing Don’t Let Them See Me Like This I also got sick. I kept thinking about the ways in which sickness can make you unseen, which is something that people who are chronically ill usually deal with.

ZA: Was there anything in that period of illness and unseen-ness that stood out to you, that became imprinted in the book?

JG: I think exploring my own illness in the book has imprinted in me the desire to talk about that with people in a different way. There are already people who talk about it, like Johanna Hedva, (author of “Sick Woman Theory”) and there’s an amazing blog called “Sometimes Explode,” which is all about mental health, and I just wanted to contribute to that discussion. My poetry has always been a means of political education. I wanted to use political knowledge as a way to discuss with others what I’m thinking or feeling, whether that be around political theory or politically ‘being.’ I think that’s the duty of anyone who is a leftist, to politically educate others and allow yourself to be humbled in that process.


Zaina Alsous

Zaina Alsous is the author of 'A Theory of Birds' (University of Arkansas Press).

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