Interview by DS Kinsel & Lee Owens
Our first BOOM Universe at Alloy Studios resident artists of the 2022 season was poet, art writer, and librettist Jessica Lanay. That’s how they currently describe themselves on their website. We think a better way to describe Jessica Lanay is abundant.
Lanay’s presence and her work are overflowing – it fills places that were empty before. During her residency, she participated in BOOM Concepts’ Black Power Storytime where she filled the entire courtyard at The Carnegie Museum of Art with stories compiled by Virginia Hamilton. Sharing new life and a familiar voice to age-old ancestral stories.
You quickly realized that the well from which Jessica Lenay draws is deep, and at times it feels infinite. She demands an immersion of both readers and subjects. Her debut hybrid poetry collection, am•phib•ian, won the 2020 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize judged by Toi Derricotte from Broadside Lotus Press. Her poetry can be found in Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, Poiesis, and others. Her art writing can currently be found in BOMB Magazine, where she has interviewed an array of artists across disciplines and provides engaging dialogue where colleagues exchange thoughtful excellence.
Needless to say, we were excited to have Lanay kick off our Summer BOOM Universe residency program. On the back side of the residency experience, our team crafted a few questions for Lanay, reviewing some points of origin for their work and their experience of the residency. She thankfully shared a lot.
BOOM: You have this quote on your site: “In everything that I write, I am trying to scrape the film of that inexplicable emotion off the end of my tongue. I am trying to materialize in words that intersectionality, that buoyant grief, that belligerent joy.” Tell us about this “inexplicable emotion” and how writing became an outlet for you.
Lanay: The short answer is that I need to update my website. The hassle and struggle of doing that is real.
The long answer is that sometimes emotion overtakes us. Those emotions are often particular to different events, especially when they are new and unfamiliar. Not every emotion has a word yet, and that is exciting. An example, the word nostalgia came into recorded use in the 18th century. The word arose when a doctor needed to describe Swiss mercenary soldiers’ desire to return home. Those of us in the colonized world, those of us who are in the process of constant colonization, use this word without having the same indication of a “home”. Isn’t that strange? Etymology is fascinating to me. I once had an artist residency with the Physics and Astronomy department at the University of Pittsburgh. I made a short video where I showed the appearance of new words with relation to astronomical events visible from the earth. We wiggle in language in both pain and ecstasy.
Not to get too personal—but for me, in my childhood, I experienced too much suppression of my emotions. Adult relations to children are particularly narcissistic. My Mother would always ask me what action I needed to take. “Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we laugh?” But even then with the circumstances, there wasn’t always room. Pencils were in the junk drawer, paper was always around, and books from Goodwill were cheap. We did not have a lot of money due to my father’s financial abuse. Growing up in Key West, Florida, my great Grandmother took me to the Monroe County Library for literacy classes, as she had trouble with reading and writing. I got to learn twice, at school and with her. We did our homework together. I started there and I never stopped. I will not stop. We need all the words forever.
BOOM: The character “Alice” makes several appearances in your work “am•phib•ian.” Tell us about Alice. Who are they and what do they represent…
Lanay: It is comfortable to read something and feel the circle close, isn’t it? As comfortable as it is, I hate that feeling because it closes other possibilities. Alice … Like a lot of children, I loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was what was most available to me, just sitting there in the library. I bought my own copy much, much later. I went to an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York about Alice Liddell, the child that Lewis Carroll continuously photographed, and made the protagonist of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll and Liddell’s family suddenly stopped communicating, although he was an intimate family friend. This raises questions about consent and his relationship with Alice in the historic record. But I related to the unmadeness of Alice in the book, her unfurling, and subsequent reconstitution. In this vein I am also deeply connected to Sula and Pilate from Toni Morrison; I am deeply connected to Linda Brent/Harriet Jacobs and her disappearances on her path to her freedom. We get the sense that all of these characters are suffering at that fulcrum of gender that violates humanness; we are encountering them along their way and we leave their stories without resolution. A lack of resolution, and interior privacy are critical to human development; we must be left to become, not be overly defined. Look at this mess we have now. Abortion is an essential human right, but people who do not believe in their own humanity or define it by risking the lives of others are causing grave harm, even to themselves, they are spitting on their own humanity. I digress—Alice is the act of falling apart; falling down the hole of oneself; going quantum I have heard people say. Alice is the mixed horror and joy of not knowing, and understanding how important that is to creativity. Alice is able to transform and adapt to new realities, like an amphibian.
BOOM: When reading your poetry we noticed an interesting use of punctuation. Can you tell us about your intention there?
Punctuation operates like physics to me. One time, I listened to Tyehimba Jess read a poem from his book Olio. The poem was about the conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy. Jess, I believe, created the contrapuntal sonnet; the poem about the McKoy twins is shaped like a butterfly, stunning. But at this reading, I was prepared to follow along with the book. I like seeing the edits poets make while reading out loud (they always do), so I usually try to have the book the poet is reading from at hand to follow along. Then as he read he started bouncing around the page, reading freely in this very defined form. Liberation in the constraints.
When I came to “am•phib•ian,” this made me think deeply about punctuation. Punctuation provides a system of forces that manifest gravity in the text or not. This monk, priest, poet Dom Sylvester Houedard, made concrete poetry, images from just punctuation; semicolon after semicolon to make a flower. So, when punctuation becomes loose or inconsistent, it is because I know it creates confusion and uncertainty, and in that way it respects how the work came into my mind. It opens the conditions to insert more of the emotions related to the topic—we never only have one emotion, and they are always touching one another. I am also playing with revulsion and desire being interlocked.
You mentioned “Lilliput”, “Shudder, Clink”, and “Black Box”, there is so much feeling in those texts, they are all about the black holes, the event horizons that people leave in our lives when they depart, we get sucked deeply into those grieving lands and spat out on the other end. In “For the Birds”, I wrote something like, “By the time I am forty, all of my elders will be dead.” I am 35 and I have just one elder left between either side of my family. I could not read those poems with punctuation, how could I breathe? I read Lilliput before any and every reading I do and, for now, I always will because it calls those folks into the room that had to go, it was their time to go. The lack of punctuation there opens the rules, troubles certainty.
BOOM: Your artistic journey has included a rigorous engagement with academia. What has attracted you to that space? What lessons can you share?
Lanay: I entered my Bachelor of the Arts program because it was my way out of my home life and a communal space that was and still is troubled by its lack of respect for the humanity of Black women, non-binary folks, and femmes. The undergraduate degree gave more time to see if I could survive that space, and when I saw no options opening, I was encouraged and advised by Dr. Cynthia Wu, my professor in an Asian-American Literature course, to go to a Master of Arts program, so I did. My engagement with academia is about resources. While students have a right to and should unionize, based on where I came from, those fellowships were my first experiences with health insurance and stable income. Now, I realize I deserve and should be given more.
You want my honest opinion? There are people who know way more than me just from going to the library or having a life spent engaging compassionately with elders. In Pittsburgh, I have a group of friends: Frankie, Jackie, Myra, Geneva, Ola, and Nifemi; they are my elder sisters and I learn more from them than I ever did at school. Universities hoard clout and resources, they make texts that are critical to African Diasporan knowledge impossible to access without a university identification card. Very few university libraries have a communal open loan system. I have been told that because I engage with academia that I am not in the real world, this comment intrigues me so much. What a sweeping judgment and instance of ignorance, university structures model the other dominant structures that we are collectively oppressed by, but are still compelled to engage with.
If anyone reading this is thinking about entering any graduate degree, here is my advice, DO NOT GO INTO DEBT. Fight for a stipend/fellowship; keep applying until they fucking pay you. I only have debt from my undergraduate degree; but I have seen how debt for graduate degrees crushes people. Know exactly what you want from those institutions, and raise hell when they fall short. I am in a doctoral program now and my previous advisor (I switched, thank the ancestors) hates Black women so much and doesn’t realize it; I realized they had given a colleague of mine two years of non-teaching fellowship, but not to me, and I have a whole extra degree, and the only other difference between she and I is our race. Interesting, right? I am, to date, the ONLY Black woman in my program at any degree-level, so they twisted the old advisor’s arm to make them give me the second year because…well, you know why. When I switched advisors after an acute instance of misogynoir, the department took my funding for my second non-teaching year because I am not their student anymore. If you are going to go through bullshit — don’t pay for it. These institutions encourage limiting beliefs about rigor and learning that are gendered and racist, and in the end, they are more concerned with extracting your cheap labor as a teacher than they are with your degree progress and graduation.
Some people going into graduate programs are expecting to teach when they leave, but universities are eviscerating tenure as a means to underpay for intellectual labor. Unless you know what to ask, and how to ask it (as I found out), you won’t know how you are being shorted and oppressed. Entering academia, if it wasn’t before, is now quickly becoming a ponzi scheme. When someone asks me about graduate work, I honestly cannot encourage it with integrity, but I can emphasize that survival in these institutions is about strategy.
I am in these institutions because I want the primary source documents they contain. I am in these institutions because these texts, if readily available for purchase, are way too expensive for me to imagine purchasing. I am in these institutions because I have found a way to survive and manage their regular cruelties. I am in these institutions because of the privilege of knowing exactly where another person’s authority stops with me; I know I am willing to walk-out if I am pushed too far. The amount of work itself is challenging at any level, now add on the racist and misogynist and anti-LGBTQIA+ bullshit. I do not know if I will ever become a professor, I see how academia turns Black professorship into abusers because they’ve been abused by the system that now pays them, I also see how academia is becoming less of a viable career choice because they are removing certain privileges now that we have more and more Black and POC professors; free public universities started charging with the post-Civil Rights influx of Black, Native, and POC students.
Proceed with caution. Do not go into debt. Try, as much as possible, to know what you are in there for. Cultivate relationships outside of that space. Make yourself scarce and do the work; involvement in any additional work, will get you a colloquium, and very little real structural change.
BOOM: How did the BOOM Universe Residency support your practice? What did you find most valuable?
Lanay: Residencies and fellowships sometimes have a rubric of participation that just does not feed every artist involved. You can’t really pick your own adventure and unless you are in a space specific to your identity, you can run into very compromising situations with other participants and attendees. Even in spaces specific to your identity, a sense of tradition or legacy can directly interrupt your creativity. And, right now, I prefer residencies to workshops. I did the M.F.A. and I am done having people I do not know and trust pick over my work, at least for now.
BOOM Universe Residency is very much dependent on the artist, what they envision, how they want to spend their time, and privacy. My, my, my, how I love my private spaces. The residency provided quiet and private space. DS and Anqwenique were so caring and supportive. I had options that they provided for interacting with the community, I got to choose, so I did Black Power Storytime at the Carnegie Museum, and even though I am not the best with children, it was so much fun. I read some African-American folktales that were orally passed to me by my great grandfather when I was little, Virginia Hamilton compiled them into a book called The People Could Fly, it was not until I was reading them out loud that I realized how … intense … and frightening some of the stories can be for kids who are accustomed to more benign stuff. I felt bad!
The space is also…extremely beautiful. I think that residencies can sometimes be exploitative, you have to pay someway, but I sincerely felt like this was not the case here. BOOM Universe Residency simply wanted me to create and create I did. I have the bones for my second book with some new additions to edit in coming months. It really was a caring and supportive experience, and when I say supportive, Thomas and DS aren’t running a hotel, you know? You are an adult and you can figure out stuff on your own; if you live in a disordered way in your home, then your experience at this residency will be disordered, it depends on the artist. The space was clean, beautiful, and there was a full kitchen, so I cooked. The bed was comfortable, and of course when you respect your space, it will respect you back. The space is supportive, respectful, caring, and non-exploitative. As an artist, I could not really ask for more.
For more information on Jessica Lanay CLICK HERE