Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He is a Cave Canem fellow, a poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, and his second collection of poetry, Dispatch, published by Persea Books came out in December 2019. Also a critic, Cameron earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought & Literature, and he is an assistant professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Currently, he is working on a book about maladjustment in trans literature and theory.
Robin Gow: Thinking about the title, “Dispatch,” I get a lot of different connotations of the word that you pick up in the poems. There’s a sense of urgency and response or sending off. Could you talk about little bit about the title and how it emerged in your process?
Cameron Awkward-Rich: Honestly, the title of the collection—like many of my titles—began as a joke with myself. Much of Dispatch was written during a time when I felt very alone, very cut off from the world of other people. For that reason, I think, I found myself writing dozens of direct address poems—to my sister, my mother, ex-loves, strangers—because from all of that loneliness, all of that I I I, I was trying to feel a part of some kind of we. Once I noticed this pattern, I started thinking of the manuscript I was compiling as a series of dispatches: dispatches from my bedroom, dispatches from Ralph Ellison’s invisible narrator’s hole, dispatches from behind the Du Boisian veil.
It wasn’t until the manuscript was mostly finished that I finally looked up “dispatch” in the OED and discovered that the word contains within it many of the ideas the book is working with: official communication, haste, killing. News, police, urgent letters. When I read that, ‘dispatch’ became the title, rather than a placeholder.
RG: I noticed that many of these poems pay careful attention to water beyond the ones the reference a time where the speaker almost drowned as a child. What role does water play in the book? I also noticed that brightness and light play a role in these poems as well. Where does the light enter for this speaker?
CA-R: One of the things I love about doing interviews is that careful readers invariably point out aspects of my work that I am not entirely conscious of and this is one of those moments. I can speculate about what water and light are up to in the book (drought and flooding, the transatlantic slave trade, blackness as what absorbs all wavelengths of light, a preoccupation with interiority vs. exteriority), but I’ll leave it to others to interpret.
RG: The cover image suggests to me both the idea of concealing and looking. I read that it’s a photo of Danez Smith taken by Hieu Minh Nguyen, and that made we wonder what role poetry community has played in this collection. Thinking more symbolically also, how do you envision or understand that barrier or separation the person in the image is looking through?
CA-R: Yes, you’re right about that image! For a long time, I had more or less settled on using an image by Alexandria Smith , whose work I love and used as the cover image for my first book. But then I began to worry that using her work would suggest that Dispatch was meant to be read as a sequel to Sympathetic Little Monster, and also that the Smith’s work didn’t exactly resonate with the project of Dispatch after all. So, at the last minute, I asked Hieu (who is an amazing graphic designer and photographer, in addition to being an amazing poet) if he might be able to make an image that better matched the feeling of the book. And in under twenty-four hours, with only the manuscript and this image from Gordon Park’s Invisible Man series to guide him, he composed and texted me a series of amazing images of Danez, one of which became the cover of the book.
Although it is many things, Dispatch is a long, lonely love poem for my friends, so having them on the face of the book just made sense. But, also, the image was perfect because of the formal qualities you’re noticing, the wavering between the figure being apart from the world and intently engaging it through vision, the vaguely unreadable affect of the eye. That barrier could be many things—shyness, willful withdrawal into an inner life, that particular dissociative feeling I think of as transness (in cis spaces). Mostly, though, think about it as Du Bois’s veil, what we might think of as the psychic life of race that transforms a black teenager into a being capable of “bulking up to run through” bullets in the gaze of a white cop and also in the mind of the black boy whose life depends on perceiving himself as both.
RG: What is the role of research in your collection and where does that enter in your writing process? Specifically I’m thinking about the poem “Everywhere We Look, There We Are” that explores that language of that 1903 article about a male impersonator.
CA-R: I recently wrote a tiny essay for Poets & Writers’ Craft Capsule series about precisely this. But the short answer is: “Everywhere We Look, There We Are” is one of two poems in the book that respond to news articles recounting the arrests of black, gender nonconforming people who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. I didn’t do any research specifically for the collection—these newspaper articles were ones that I came across while doing research for my more academic book, and that I couldn’t quite figure out what to do with in that context. All the texts external to me (news reports, other poems, snippets of conversation) that Dispatch engages are texts that I encountered in the course of my daily living. I hadn’t quite thought about it this way, but part of the point of that practice of responding to what arrives rather than what I set out in search of is to emphasize the extent to which our ordinary life is saturated by news of extraordinary violence, by slippages between present and past, and so on.
RG: Thinking about the poem “It Is Important to Know What a ‘Man’ ‘Is’” and the references and to girlhood and boyhood, how does your work in gender and sexuality studies influence your poems, or how do your poems influence that work?
CA-R: Both my poetry and my scholarship are inevitably records of my reading, writing, and thinking through ideas about race, gender, feeling, and representation, so in a way they are the same work. Concretely, though, traces of the reading that I do for my job as a gender studies professor show up in my poems all of the time, because the language of scholarship saturates the language of my inner life. This dynamic is obvious in the poems mentioned above, that repurpose the language of turn of the twentieth-century news articles I came across while doing research for an academic book. But, actually, much of the vocabulary and imagery of Dispatch comes out of my engagements with black studies, trans studies, queer studies, disability studies, and literary studies scholars. Thinkers who travel through the text, both visibly and opaquely, include: C. Riley Snorton, José Esteban Muñoz, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Tyrone Palmer, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Susan Schweik, W.E.B. Du Bois, Darieck Scott, Diana Fuss, Sara Ahmed, Alison Kafer, Claire Sears, Nancy Chodorow—and doubtlessly others who right now slip my mind.
RG: You write about a lot of instances of transphobic, homophobic, and racist violence in the collection. How do you find a place to approach this in poetry?
CA-R: It’s impossible, I think, to avoid such violence, either directed against oneself/one’s loves or delivered via the news, social media, etc. If one is at all conscious to the world, there it is. I write about it because I don’t know how not to write about it, though I do worry about what it means—for my own inner life, for the ethics of my work—to be so fixated on violence that I am more or less insulated from, bodily.
RG: Could you speak about the choice to end the collection on a cento?
CA-R: Yes—like the cover, like the direct address of many of the poems, the cento formalizes my attempt to make a we, despite the various kinds of isolation the book is also about. It seemed like a hopeful gesture, to end with this poem that gathers language from poets who sustain me (who sustain one another) into one little, lyric room. But it’s a kind of hopefulness that can only come at the end of a study of overwhelming nature of the problem, a hopefulness one has to earn.