Dana Teen Lomax is a poet, filmmaker, educator, and mom. She’s written several books and along with Jennifer Firestone co-edited Letters to Poets which Cornel West calls a “courageous and visionary book.” Her editorial project, Kindergarde, won the John Hopkins Prize for Poetry and a Creative Work Fund grant. Dana’s work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won awards from Intersection for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the California Arts Council, and others. She lives in Sea Ranch with her family.
A sequence of poems from “the-in-between” appear in the thirtieth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “the-in-between.”
A: I began writing the-in-between shortly after Marthe Reed’s sudden death in 2018. Marthe’s passing was part of an avalanche of loss for my family, one that began a few years earlier and continued through 2020. Both of my parents, my mother-in-law, a favorite cousin, my best friend, a nephew, my brother-in-law, and even our family dog all died. There was a lot to grieve—not just personal losses but also the collective trauma that is taking place all over the country.
In the weeks after Marthe died, I read a lot of her work. In her collaboration with Linda Russo, Counter-Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene, Marthe writes, “To reencounter the inbetween, we must learn not only to resee but also to rearticulate that which is seen, more complexly, anew.” Here Marthe advocates for dissolving hierarchies and “...reimagining our relationship to the living world….” Marthe’s work continually upholds a fearless care of the planet and every living being. By example, she reminds us to act.
Emotionally fragmented and looking for a way to be, I felt the urgency in Marthe’s writing; the invitation to rearticulate experience, see things “more complexly, anew” was what I needed on so many levels. The result is “the-in-between” poems (the collection is titled -unnamed-relation-). Usually drawn to more explicitly conceptual projects, I found that the pain and rigid flatness of my emotions needed simple, direct diction in these discrete, interconnected pieces. After all the death, writing these poems helped me look through slats of memory and experience to re-evaluate how best to keep on living.
-unnamed-relation- is dedicated to Marthe Reed for her unrelenting political action and her fierce love of language. Marthe’s writing proves imagination’s nonnegotiable role in creating equitable communities and preserving our future as a species. And it celebrates noticing the complexities in experience and taking political action to protect every living thing.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?
A: I have a number of projects that I’m juggling just now.
A few months ago, I finished the Editor’s Note to THE BEAUTIFUL, an anthology that discusses beauty as a radical way to heal our nation. This was tough to write because making a case for beauty amidst so much violence and hate in this country required a lot of thought and investigation. I had to call in writers I admire, the ones whose wisdom and love are palpable—Cornel West, Rachel Carson, Juan Felipe Hererra, Joy Harjo, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Angela Davis, Valarie Kaur, Erica Hunt, and so many others. The anthology has been a long time in the making and will be published later this year. THE BEAUTIFUL includes some of the United States’s foremost poets, and I have been honored to work on this project in collaboration with them.
In another genre, I am collaborating with Peyton Alexander on a graphic novel about our experiences working together in the classroom. Even though I served as the Human Rights and Equity Coordinator for our teacher’s union for years, I made a lot of mistakes as Peyton’s seventh-grade teacher. Peyton is a person with achondroplasia (he prefers the term dwarf because it sounds “cooler than little person…”). The first day of class last year, I inadvertently gave Peyton a top locker, and so our story began. I am often reminded of how blind both my own ignorance and privilege can be. My guess is that I probably learned more from Peyton in his 7th grade year than he learned from me.
I am also in the process of conducting research for two projects that are collaborations with my identical twin sister, Danna Lomax. Danna is an amazing writer, activist, and educator, and we keep trying to find the time to complete Sister Schools, a documentary about educational inequality in California. We both teach in public middle schools, supplement our income as lecturers at CSUs and are married to men named Steven. And yet, the resources available to our students and our own incomes vary drastically. Our film is a call for government action to rectify this unjust systemic issue. Our other project is an experimental musical about ecofeminisms.
The “the-in-between” poems (from the collection titled unnamed-relation) are part of a solo project, and the poems feel very different from my other work, which is generally more conceptual. I am trying not to judge the process and just make what is mine to make in the moment, no matter how dissimilar to my other projects. These poems are happening now, so here they are.
Q: You mention that your solo work, other than this current project, is “generally more conceptual.” What is it about the conceptual that appeals, and what do you feel possible through such structures that might not be possible otherwise? And further, for this shift, temporary or otherwise, away from the conceptual?
A: The first fight that I had with my husband was about conceptual art. We were dating, and Steve said he did not like conceptualism, that if the piece was dependent on some explanation on a wall placard, he wasn’t into it. I immediately got defensive because I love seeing the thought behind art like Francis Alÿs’s Prohibited Steps, work that reveals something human, some idea that the viewer or listener or reader has to wonder about, has to question. The final moments of Prohibited Steps read outward; everyone is implicated. I considered my poetry back then to be more conceptual, so I felt like Steve wouldn’t appreciate my writing. Fortunately, the relationship survived this row.
I am not an art historian or critic, so I feel uneasy speaking about the virtues and possibilities of conceptual work writ large. The Tate Museum’s definition, “Conceptual art is art for which the idea (or concept) behind the work is more important than the finished art object,” makes sense to me. (But then I wonder: to some extent, isn’t that true of all art? On some level, isn’t everything onomatopoetic?) To give just one example: Yoko Ono’s work Cut Piece is still so relevant. The audience is implicated in the piece’s violence, its voyeurism, their own activity or inactivity, and in this way, the audience has not just agency but responsibility in the artwork. Any number of acts could have taken place during Cut Piece. Ono’s piece is performance art, participatory art, and at some point the categories break down. I’m not so interested in genre per se, but I do think that in my own work, a book like Disclosure works very differently than the new poems in -unnamed-relation-.
Here’s the difference:
and an excerpt from -unnamed-relation-
A: It was the other way around, actually; my interest in poetry led me to conceptual work. I grew up (as a poet) on writers like Harryette Mullen, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Leslie Scalapino, Myung Mi Kim, and Norma Cole. Their work completely changed the way I understood writing. I had always written—even as a little kid—but my parents were not college-educated, and going to a museum as a child just didn’t happen. But once I was in a MFA program with all of these amazing women poets and innovators—Nicole Brodsky, Sarah Anne Cox, Jennifer Firestone, Yedda Morrison, Rose Najia, Sarah Rosenthal, Jocelyn Saidenberg, Lauren Schiffman, Nicole Stefanko, Elizabeth Treadwell, Erin Wilson—I was introduced to an array of artistic experiments and poetics that opened my ideas still further about what poetry could be. I began to frequent SF MoMA, learn more about visual art, and explore the history of art and the different schools of artistic practice and production.
Later, I started experimenting with visual work (as in my second book, Disclosure) as a new way to read. I considered and still consider each image in that collection a discrete poem. The dental records above show the fillings in nearly every tooth. This is as telling as a “traditional poem” about class: Here is the record. Make of it what you will. In a recent project, THE BEAUTIFUL, I asked poets to send “poems” in the form of documents, images, paintings, photos, etc. I also consider all of these poems in a very real sense, poems to be read as one would read any poet’s work.
The -unnamed-relation- pieces are trying to get at different ways of seeing, or reseeing, as Marthe suggested, by also inviting a slowed down, stilted, enjambed reading. The poems require an unrushed approach to the work—a slight but palpable change in pace. And right now, I think many of us are looking for ways to slow down and better understand the subtleties in current social issues, to get at the deeper roots and realities, “the-in-between,” and hopefully, find collective solutions. When we are trying to better understand history, our place in it, and each other, we have to bring in all of the subtleties as well as the stark realities. We have to dial in to our integrity and proceed with deep honesty. In the process, we have to stop, look, and listen before we keep on moving through this entangled life.
I’ve thought about conceptual work in ways that my father might have; he was a builder, and he designed whole subdivisions. I used to trip out on the fact that the way he drew homes or even whole neighborhoods directed people’s attention to their surroundings, to the world, formed the path of their footfall every day. He paid a lot of attention to light and open spaces, a sense of freedom. Whatever a person could or couldn’t see from their dining room table was dependent on my dad’s design. (I wish he were still alive, so we could talk about this. He wrote poetry as well.) So I appreciate the way conceptual work offers a space but doesn’t explain it. Readers wind around the halls, walk around in the experience for a while, traipse on the roof gingerly. Whether offering my third-grade report card or a hyphenated poem about class warfare, I am thinking about the page as an encounter, a look in the eye, a tender stroke on the cheek. -unnamed-relation- is asking questions through the act of reading/decoding words, the earlier work through the act of reading images and documents (as in Disclosure), and THE BEAUTIFUL through the process of reading a mixture of both. I wouldn’t say I use the poetic over the visual or vice versa. I work with both image and language—all of it is poetry to me.
Q: Do you have any models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? What writers or works are in the back of your head as you work?
A: Recently, I heard Camille Roy and Eileen Myles in a virtual conversation presented by City Lights. Their discussion made me think again of the ways that the artists I admire challenge narrative, compliance, codes of behavior. The writers I’ve been involved with personally or in various writing communities for decades (Small Press Traffic, St. Mark’s, Dusie, Black Radish, Intersection for the Arts, &Now Conference, the William James Association, and so many others) serve as models for my work. The accretion of exposure to such amazing poets and innovators has deeply affected my own art practice, and I am forever grateful to have found these people in this lifetime. They take risk after risk to work toward more equitable societies and use poetry to understand and reinvent their communities.
Richard Ingram’s artistic mantra “Resist bourgeois scum in their murderous search for authenticity” haunts me. Richard’s work invites me to constantly question how a piece of art supports or works against current political and economic structures.
Claire Braz-Valentine was my first mentor; at a crucial time, she affirmed my role as a poet. Claire’s own work in various genres, her generosity, her mentorship as a poet and teacher within the prison system, and her recognition of my practice have had and continue to have a profound impact on me.
So many other artists and writers influence my practice, show me what’s possible. Most recently, I’ve had the work of Katherine McKittrick, Félix González Torres, Jordan Abel, Wangechi Mutu, Ruth Asawa, Sherry Shine, Agnes Martin, Yayoi Kusama, and Agnes Varda in mind. These artists all work from deeply personal experiences and create in a number of media. Their relentless intensity, searing commitment to their ideas and research, palpable joy in making, and dedication to their artistic paths teach me a lot. These artists maintain a fidelity to their vision and completely honor it. And they promote peaceful understandings about love and life. I admire this, and each serves as a model for making anything.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: When I was hospitalized over twenty years ago and on a bolus of steroids, I read “Song of Myself” to everyone who came into the room.
To the nursing staff:
“All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
To the physical therapist:
“The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.”
To my rheumatologist:
“I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”
Dr. Jaffer looked over at my bed and dryly replied, “I knew you’d be high; I didn’t know you’d be this high.”
I felt obligated to share Walt’s lines, his communal vision, the love of life beneath every word. I had tears in my eyes and they were not just drug-induced.
Since then, I’ve appreciated Divya Victor’s critique of Whitman as “one of the more beloved apologists for colonialism” and continue to revisit the complexities of my feet on this Kashia, South Pomo soil, “my” “home” “ownership,” my sense of home at all. The poetry I return to keeps me open, honest, learning and working to abandon any single understanding. For me, Walt is still a part of this conversation, as is Victor. I think about liberation in my work—mine, others’, the planets’; there is something of this in Walt’s writing, misguided, colonial, and privileged as it is. The practice of its undoing is my work as well.
And often first loves roll back around—cummings, Hughes, Sexton, O’Hara, Oppen—the poets I met in high school. The ones who taught me that I am a writer. The ones I am still grateful to.
I continue to engage poets who embrace complications and fold them into the writing to critique assumptions and conventions, to develop a wider understanding of poetry’s possibilities—Susan Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Norma Cole, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullen, Leslie Scalapino, Camille Roy, the women in the Moving Borders, I’ll Drown My Book, and Women in Conceptual Poetry anthologies. These poets grant permission when I am in doubt and keep me focused on the work there is yet to do.
Finally, I am fortunate to have amazing contemporary women poets as close friends, women who are serious artists and remind me that it’s love that fuels connection and liberation.