Art as Grammar
A conversation with Kamille Johnson
by Kalie Boyne
Kalie Boyne: What does art as grammar mean to your own artistic/academic practice? Why is this understanding of art as intertwined with theory significant to you?
Kamille Johnson: Let’s begin by defining “art as grammar.” So I’ll first start off by saying that my chosen medium is definitely poetry, definitely words. I think that my relationship to words is symbolic and historical because at the end of the day, a word is just an arbitrary specifier that is rooted in history and tradition. For me, the idea of poetry is looking at how you can craft words to create moods—how you can use a string of words to portray a larger idea or a moment, and how that moment is reflective of a broader experience. That being said, I really like shorter poems. I like little vignettes, which is why I try and carry a notebook with me everywhere.
KB: Oh that’s cool! Are there specific things or themes you are inspired by on a daily basis?
KJ: I think there are specific things—if I’m going about my day and I’m drawn to something in particular, I want to know why it reaches out to me, so I try to put that into words. For the classic example, lets take a landscape. Why is it that the sunset looks so incredible, what sorts of feelings do I get from the blues and the purples and the pinks, and how do those feelings come out in words that have seemingly no relation to the colors themselves? Or if I want to focus on the colors, I’ll personify them, give them some kind of agency and purpose, recognizing the breakdown of how pink turns to purple turns to blue all at once as the sun is going down. It sounds like a Yeats poem in the making, but moments like those force me to find what’s new in what I see. How does my eye catch what is beyond the classic, the stereotype, the predictable. At the end of the day, I take sanctuary in the fact that my eye came from a world that has classics of its own, so how can I pull from those?
KB: So if poetry for you is about using words as symbols that deepen your understanding of what you see, is writing also your way of making sense of symbols in the world around us?
KJ: Oh, for sure. I think that a poem is, for me, a living thing, because it reflects my mental state and my worldview, which is always changing. So a poem at a certain point in my life would be written completely differently if I experienced the same thing five years later. That being said, I fully agree with the phrase “A poem is never done, it’s just abandoned.”
KB: Yeah, and relating that to academia, it’s like when you go back to a text you read years before and interpret it so differently. When we read Aimé Cesaire’s Discourse On Colonialism in our capstone class recently, the things I had underlined in my copy when I read it three years ago were completely different than the parts I thought were significant when I reread it a few weeks ago. I find that so interesting, because it’s the same book but my lens that I read it through has changed so much over the past few years. So for you, poetry is a way for you to weave symbols together and make sense of the world in that moment, and record your specific lens in that moment…
KJ: Oh yeah, for me, it’s about the idea of experiencing a text. In terms of linking academics to my work, I think it’s really important to position my work in a historical lineage. That’s why theory is at the root of my poetry, because I think that I deal with the issue of erasure a lot in my academic trajectory. The idea of voices being lost, or not even being found. I was talking with my friend recently, who wants to start a family history space for his family as he builds it moving forward. He was talking about how he would frame pictures of all the men in his family, and I asked where the women were in this, because not including them in the same way is a form of erasure. He said well, they don’t even need to be represented because it’s so obvious that they’re already there. That, to me, is scary. Because the assumptions of representation are political. They’re ingrained in a tradition that reflects how we see each other as humans. So going back to academia, I think that the way poets, musicians, and artists who have come before are represented in an academic space—where the production of knowledge happens—influences how we make meaning of historical moments, and that’s why I want to carry those names forward. Incorporating them into my work is a way of combating that erasure. I know this is getting pretty general so I’ll give you an example. There’s a poem by Ali Mazrui that was introduced to me by Anani Dzidzienyo in his course “Afro-Latin Americas and Blackness in the Americas.” Shouts to Anani – he’s one of my favorite professors. Anyway, the poem begins “Forget where you came from / Remember what you look like. // Forget your ancestry. / Remember your skin color....” I know this as a poem of defiance. For me, this poem carries a lot of anger and resilience – it captures the gap I’m trying to close between my history and myself: the two are deeply entwined and cannot be separated. It’s ironic in that, for me, it comes from a place of trying to hold onto one’s past while trying not to dwell on it. So anyway, what I have been trying to do is memorize poems, specific quotes and phrases that people have said, so that when I go to write, those ideas and perspectives are in me. They inform my own work in this way, because my experience in the world is so rooted in history. As a black woman, there’s no way you’ll be able to get away from history ever. So how does that manifest itself in your work, and how do you carry that forward in a positive way, and make sense of this history of representation in a positive way, as a type of reclaiming?
KB: Wow, so memorizing all these artists who came before you is not just a way of situating your own work in this history, it’s also modifying the history itself, questioning the way these figures are remembered--
KJ: Right, calling this history into question and revitalizing a different type of history.
KB: When did you start writing poetry with this intention?
KJ: I think it was when I first started in Africana that I began to have new intentions for my work. If I’m being real, Africana forced me to look at the world completely differently. I come from a very white world, so when I took the Intro class, I was like, what’s going on?! It’s a sad wake up call to realize everything I learned in my education was filtered through a set of white men. That’s not cool. So all of a sudden I had all these questions, and I had to figure out what to do to essentially reconstruct the way I see the world. I think this period was also intensified by the fact that I was coming so far from home, from Northern California to Providence, and I had just come out of a relationship that meant a lot to me. I started writing when I was sixteen. I was going through a rough time in high school and my friend told me I should just write a letter and just put it all on paper. What came out was really stupid, absolutely grandiose and absurd. But it was and still is a way that I work through and engage with the world. Which has changed so much—and what is visible to me has changed so much. And that has a lot to do with the theories I grapple with in Africana Studies.
KB: Do you feel like poetry helps you make those academic theories more accessible to others, yourself, or both?
KJ: Right now, I’m actually trying really hard to write without an audience in mind. There are so many writers around, and it’s hard to think that what you’re doing matters. For me, at least, if I remove the idea that someone is evaluating or even reading my writing, it takes a lot of the pressure off. That being said, the idea of trying to use writing as a tool of expression ords means that I have to map emotions through a specific set of words. There are so many different times when I try to describe the same feeling in various ways. There are a lot of instances when I go through things without having the words to make sense of it. Writing is a way of not necessarily trying to pin it down, but more just a way to think about it, explore it, and try to make it accessible to my own mind in a way that feels fulfilling, and right now, the idea that its accessible to others is just an added benefit. I’m sure down the road this will change and I’ll be writing to particular groups of people.
KB: Right, and I think that’s why metaphor is important, because there just aren’t enough words that exist in English that can stand in for things you’re experiencing or feeling. Which can be invalidating and confusing.
KJ: I agree, and that’s why I’m also really interested in learning words in other languages. Like on Friday, when we were talking about untranslatable words, you brought up that Japanese word—do you remember?
KB: Kintsukuroi, to repair something with gold in a way that makes it more beautiful for having been broken.
KJ: And that encapsulates a whole set of values! In some ways, the fact that a single word like this doesn’t exist in English says a bit about those who speak it, feel me? I definitely find myself limited by the English language, reaching for other forms of communication. My favorite Portuguese word is Axé. There’s no direct translation, but it generally represents the feeling of being full of life. Finding these words opens my mind to a whole other set of options. Being able to learn these new vocabularies is so important because it means you can relate to a whole other set of people
KB: A whole other history and set of cultural values, too.
KJ: And being able to relate to another history means that you see so many different experiences as you’re moving through the world. What becomes visible to you is totally different. Ways of living and thinking about life become visible, and influence your own.
KB: Are there specific artists or mediums that influence your work?
KJ: Yeah, a whole bunch. I’ll preface this by saying that my mom started her art gallery in San Francisco when I was two years old, so I literally grew up surrounded by art. My sister’s a photographer and as she figures her work out, she’ll often show me things that I would not have been exposed to otherwise; same with my mom. So I think that because of my background, it’s very easy for me to consider art as a form of grammar, because I know that there are so many different forces that push each piece of art—how did I encounter the artwork, what type of space was this art created in, who is curating the art, who is giving voice to this artist? When I encounter a piece, these questions make it all the more engaging. For the pieces I’m interested in now, all these issues of erasure that I learn about in Africana come to a head.
KB: Yeah, what art do we see and why, whose views and experiences are being expressed and highlighted, like in history textbooks, the art they show--
KJ: Right, the kind of artistic ideas they want people to see and remember. That speaks to a whole set of community values, societal values, and traditions.
KB: What kind of a practice are you trying to cultivate within your own work, and where do you gain inspiration for that? Since you are situating your art within a specific history, you will become a part of it. If years from now there’s a kid trying to do the same thing and looking to your work for inspiration, what do you want them to have learned from you?
KJ: In terms of practice, you have to write every single day. I don’t do that, but it’s something that must be done in order to be successful. Learning to access one’s imagination is a daily process. I was at Princeton for a literary conference a couple years ago, and Joyce Carol Oates spoke. She said that every poet and writer, up until they’re twenty-one, is just learning how to access their imagination. I think that’s a huge mind-boggling idea, that you have to learn how to access your own imagination and that’s a practice. In terms of who I look to for inspiration, I look at a lot of different artistic forms. My sister sends me a lot of things—she sent me Kamasi Washington’s performance of “The Epic,” which is…epic. He’s a jazz musician, and that’s another form of art that I think is an incredibly important art form—the history of jazz, and the contribution of jazz to American culture by the black community is enormous. In terms of photography, Carrie Mae Weems plays a huge role in combating erasure, Hank Willis Thomas…and these are all black artists because that’s where my head’s been at. As for poets, the list goes on forever, but right now I’m thinking about Maurice Manning, Terrance Hays, and Claudia Rankine, just to name a few.
The other thing I’ve become very interested in is digital media, and the opportunities presented by newly available technologies. There’s a website, creativeapplications.net, that is basically an archive of large-scale tech used for artistic purposes. My sister and I are working on publishing her chapbook in virtual reality, looking at different ways that people can interact with art and gain access to it. I think that it’s important to consider myself just one form of artist, or one form of anything, really. I struggle with labels like “artist” because I think that I’m just a creator, I like to make shit, regardless of what form it takes.
Kamille Johnson is a maker of many things who concentrates in Africana Studies and Science and Society at Brown University. She is an editor for the College Hill Independent and loves to work at and around the intersection of art and technology.