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Geist blogger and Editor-In-Chief of Poetry Is Dead, Daniel Zomparelli, will be organizing an ongoing series of interviews with poets, and people doing interesting things with poets. If you are a poet doing interesting things or have a tip off for Daniel, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wayde Compton is the author of two short-fiction/poetry books 49th Parallel Psalm and Performance Bond. He edited the anthology Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. His most recent book, After Canaan, is a compilation of essays based around contemporary concerns/discussions of race. He is also the founder of Commodore Books, the first and only black literary press in western Canada.
Daniel Zomparelli: Your poem "Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime" touches on this idea of pheneticizing. In fact, while reading After Canaan, ideas from Performance Bond continued to pop into my head, and you even mention it several times within After Canaan. Were you working on the essays for After Canaan when writing Performance Bond? Or have these ideas naturally found there way into your poetic work?
Wayde Compton: I wrote the essays in After Canaan between 2000 and 2010, so some of them were written before, during, and after the compositionPerformance Bond, which was published in 2004. I'm interested in how poetry itself can be "theory." So I agree that some of my poems are also working out the ideas you will find in my essays too.
DZ: Me and my roommate are constantly mistaken for different races. And this came into play during a visit my roommate had with an agent for some acting roles. She told her that she should play up her ambiguous ethnicity to obtain more "ethnic" roles, reflecting on the idea of race/ethnicity in television and movies. How does race interact in main stream culture?
WC: Racial representation is commodified. You see this in the particular form of filmic globalization that we experience here in Vancouver. The US film industry uses Vancouver to out-source and offset costs, and the city itself is obliged to "pass" as a variety of American cities. But our populace does not look like the populace of any US city, so if you are black or Latino in Vancouver you can get work as a film extra, in order to make the streets here look more like the demography of a US city. And the same is true of speaking parts. I know a surprising amount of people from Vancouver's black community who have gotten work this way. One of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver is Riddim and Spice on Commercial Drive, a Jamaican place, and I've been in there more than once when a casting director has come into the restaurant and announced to the room that there is extra work immediately available if anyone wants it. It's like shopping for melanin. But where do you find it for sale in Vancouver? It all comes down to Vancouver's unusually integrated and small black population, that they have to resort to trolling local restaurants to find a bunch of black folks all together in one place at the same time. Same thing if you're Latino, or you look Latino. I had a Salvadorian roommate years ago who supplemented his income this way. I think he was hired at a Latin nightclub where a casting director was doing a similar thing as in Riddim and Spice, trying to find people who fit that image in order to make Vancouver look like New York or LA or whatever.
DZ: Can pheneticizing further be applied to sexualities? I think of "passing," in the use of passing as straight. But it is quite common to be perceived as gay when straight or straight when gay.
WC: I think the term pheneticizing can definitely be applied to sexuality and gender. When I was doing the initial research I realized the concept of passing and also pheneticization is vast. It covers class, sexuality, race, ethnicity, language, region, and more. I think the term describes any situation in which a viewer makes a judgement based merely on his or her own visual analysis of a person. So someone can pheneticize a person as straight or gay, male or female, and be completely wrong about it regardless of any action on the part of the person viewed. In terms of sexuality and gender, there are certainly very similar reasons for needing a term like pheneticizing, including an unfair branding of people whose appearance can be read in multiple ways being automatically deceptive. The application of the term pheneticizing, I think, can force the viewer to own his or her particular biases.
DZ: One of the things I find interesting in poetics today, is the deconstruction of you vs. me, or us vs. them. In your books, you are constantly pushing the fact that this "vs" in respect to racial identity is way more complicated than just black and white. Or, in another sense, the "vs." is unreal. Is race just an easy platform to use as a society that needs to dichotomize everything?
WC: It certainly can be. I spend a little time criticizing the current use of "old model" forms of anti-racism in After Canaan. By that I mean, the kind of ideology that was formed during the 1960s. What's changed, I think, is that in those times, it really was closer to a dichotomy, of oppressor and oppressed, in North America. I think this made possible a kind of heroic narrative within the anti-racist struggle. But this feels hackneyed to me now, and I think we are in some ways haunted by the false notion that anti-racism still works this way, that it's a clearly delineated fight. However, I think it's far more blurry than that. I agree with Paul Gilroy that a large part of what has changed is that we are now in a position to attack the very concept of race as part of our anti-racist strategy. This was not so easy to do in the 1960s, when the immediate issues were more desperate and basic, and were more about human rights. We're in some new kind of stage now, but some hold onto the old methods that saw us through those revolutionary days—which is somewhat understandable. Nevertheless, I think dismantling easy dichotomies is a large part of the work ahead of us, if we are to get rid of racism. And the other issue is capitalism. Racism has been a tool for keeping the criticism of capitalism from being voiced, and similarly I can't imagine a future without racism that won't also employ some alternative to capitalism. That too must be said.
DZ: Your book Performance Bond refers to glass, refracting and reflecting. The gaze is important in your work, but in the form of an anthropological gaze. Can you speak a bit about how this finds its way into your work, specifically your poetry?
WC: A worry for a writer like myself is that I can be subsumed into a social reading, rather than being read as an individual writer or thinker. My work can be gleaned for sociological or anthropological uses. That's a problem because it's unevenly applied. The burden of representation.
DZ: I'm going to make a statement, and you don't have to comment on it. In Performance Bond the reader is seeing a fragmented, or poetic/artistic vision of what you see in After Canaan. This is a recommendation, that if interested in the ideas presented in After Canaan, then to also read Performance Bond. Performance Bond provides the emotional background and artistic portrayal that After Canaan does not provide (as it is a book of essays with hard facts).
WC: In a general way, I'd agree, though there is some emotion in some of the essays, and some theory in some of the poems.
DZ: Coming up with a new word is, to me, an unfathomable task, but you found a needed word to represent when someone is being assumed/misperceived as a certain race. Was it an "aha" moment or did it slowly piece itself together that the word pheneticizing needed to be added to the english diction?
WC: I noticed the void in the language first, and not very long ago. That essay was one of the most recently written, being finished in 2010. In truth, when I articulated the problem to myself, I was certain someone else must have already created a term for it, and so I started looking for it. When I didn't find anything, I started looking at the language, to see if there was an obvious etymology. The closest I got was "phenotyping"—but that's too much tied to actual taxonomical work, around species. So eventually I adapted the term pheneticizing for my usage, when I noticed its interesting roots in visual examination. So I think the answer is that I slowly piece it together.
What's strange about the power of language to name an experience is that I have been constantly pheneticized incorrectly throughout my life. I'm a mix of black and white favouring a white appearance, but I've been seen as all manner of ethnicities. There have been individual days in my life when I've experience racism for being black and then later been told by someone that I don't look black at all. This has been going on all throughout my life, and yet it wasn't until last year that I realized it has no word, and that the word we use for it—"passing"—is not only inaccurate, but actively makes the experience worse for the individual at the receiving end of all the speculation.
Note: The word phenetecizing was recently on Schott's Vocab for the New York Times, in which he improperly explains who came up with the term and Wayde's stance on the term "passing."
DZ: Reading the chapter on Alexis Mazurin had me questioning whether things have gotten better with my generation (me being over a decade younger than you), but I have seen examples of people pushing race without it being necessary, without realizing the inherent racism in doing so. I'm speaking of many of the articles that have come out of Canada in the past months or so. When there are so many mixed races-to quote you, "There's a race born every minutes-but racism is still there, what makes it so persistent? This may be an impossible question to answer, but I was hoping you could speak to this or comment on it.
WC: I think it all stems from lazy thinking and self-flattery. The laziness is that inability to see things from other people's perspectives—which is not easy, admittedly. It's hard work to put yourself in other people's situations, imaginatively. But that's the sort of work from which a peaceful and just
DZ: Your press, Commodore Books, has a mandate of publishing work by black writers. Can we expect any new titles out in the year to come?
WC: Yes, but I can't yet say. We struggle on with partial funding. We just published The Pierre Bonga Loops, by Troy Burle Bailey, which we are very proud to have done.
DZ: The Hogan's Alley Memorial Project attempts to preserve the memory of a historically black neighbourhood in Vancouver. Are there any plans up and coming that the project is working on?
WC: I think 2011 and '12 will be the years that we see Hogan's Alley hit the public consciousness in a large way. There is already a Hogan's Alley Cafe at the corner of Union and Gore. There will also be one or two other memorial forms taking place. Our work has been to keep the history alive, and I feel like we are seeing the fruits of this labour in this recognition.
DZ: This interview could be infinite with the ideas you present in After Canaan, so let's finish with a question that gets back to poetry; are you currently working on anymore poetry projects?
WC: No, I'm writing short stories at the moment.