Q&A with Gabrielle Civil, author of ( ghost gestures )

Excerpts from ( g h o s t g e s t u r e s ) by Gabrielle Civil were published in The Offing on July 30, 2021. This interview has been edited for clarity and pace.

I’m at Chinatown’s Poetic Research Bureau in Los Angeles. As we wait for Gabrielle Civil to begin, I notice a fish swimming in a bowl on the podium. Civil is releasing her memoir, Swallow the Fish, and her reputation precedes her to the point where the audience (myself included) is convinced she might ingest the creature in the name of her art. Civil knows this; caresses the bowl with her fingers, smiles, entrances us with an introduction to her work that is both poetic and informative. The fish survives, but now the audience is fully immersed in Civil’s artistic magnetism — how firmly we sit in the palm of her hands, hypnotized as part of her craft.

Gabrielle Civil is a Black feminist performance artist, poet and writer, originally from Detroit. She has premiered fifty performance art works, most recently Jupiter in the 2021 Salt Lake City Performance Art Festival. Her performance memoirs include Swallow the Fish (2017) and Experiments in Joy (2019), the latter which she categorizes as a poetry collection despite its prosaic language. This genre-bending extends into her newest nonfiction chapbook, (ghost gestures): Performance Writing, which blends travel writing, lyric, photography, translation, diasporic writing, and history in its few pages. She also will be releasing The Déjà vu: Black Dreams and Black Time throughout Coffee House Press in February.

When I spoke with Civil on her newest chapbook, we dug deeper into her mindset: how her work aims to open space, aims to spirit the reader away, aims to make an audience believe in the magic of her pieces.

Marcus Clayton: Your previous works, Swallow the Fish and Experiments in Joy, read as experimental works that meditate on memoir elements. While (ghost gestures) has many of the same qualities, it has a stronger focus on the external — specifically diaspora and ancestry. Was this an intentional maneuver for your writing, or did you simply happen upon this mode of writing?

Gabrielle Civil: I intentionally wanted to offer my meditations in writing about diaspora and about heritage. I am a bi-cultural Black person; I have two Black parents from two different countries who were born on the same day, month, and year. So, there’s something really cosmic in my family’s story. Part of the story of (ghost gestures) comes from what happened with my first book, Swallow the Fish. It is already a sizable book, and was originally quite a bit longer. There were many pieces, meditations, and actions that took place not in the United States — for example, originally “Anacaona,” which is in (ghost gestures) and a performance about the fall of the queen of what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic I did in 2003. Swallow the Fish really runs from 1997 to 2006. It’s contemporaneous and was originally supposed to be in Swallow the Fish. Another work called Whisper the Index of Sons that I wrote about and put the text in an anthology called Kitchen Table Translation that was edited by my dear friend, Madhu H. Kaza, was originally going to be in Swallow the Fish. Then an editor just said, “Gabrielle, this book is already so weird, and so overstuffed. Who is going to publish some big 300- to 400-page long thing? Nobody even knows who you are, what this is.” And Swallow the Fish was rejected so much by so many people. I was in despair, and I made an executive decision. I said, “cut this book in half, split it, and it’ll be like, Swallow the Fish: Part one,” And so on. I had this vision. I took out pretty much all the Africa diaspora and Caribbean material, then I had this book that ended up being Swallow the Fish.

And you know what happened? I was haunted by that diaspora! I recognized that I fell into a trap, which was really about splitting away those two strains as if they were so separated. For me, even though I have two parents that are from two different places, what they gave me is so fused together and so mixed, that to pull it apart really does not reflect the way that I lived. It really didn’t reflect my coming of age. So, one aspect of (ghost gestures) as a project was almost like the haunting or diasporic sensibility’s return, which I had cleaved away to make the first book more publishable.

(ghost gestures) really, is a book for the deep heads who want Gabrielle Civil rare cuts. I have a friend, who said, “You know, I read Swallow the Fish. That was nice. But, Gabrielle, do you ever think you’ll just write a book where you tell us where did you live? And what were you doing? And then what happened? Like moment from moment?” I said, “No, probably not.” When I sit down to write, that’s not the thing that comes out, that’s not how I how I render myself in language. Same with Experiments in Joy, which was much more of an eclectic mixtape type of book, but it is still more voice driven. (ghost gestures), to me, is really about texture and movement and collision and chrysalis and diasporic mapping and genetic streams. (ghost gestures) is really the parts of my books that some people think are the weirdest all put together. I just like loved it. I loved being able to just say “performance text” and “travelogue” and “score” and “echo” and “fragment” and “scene” and how all those aspects of my witnessing and absorbing and then trying to materialize. It’s very much about diasporic. Subjectivity in that way.

MC: Music plays a huge role in your writing, so I really enjoy this notion that Swallow the Fish is the album, (ghost gestures) is the rarities and B-Sides, and Experiments in Joy could be the mixtape. The latter you once referred to as a “poetry” book despite the memoir and prose elements. I’m personally a huge fan of genre bending and pushing the boundaries of what literature can do. You had mentioned, publication-wise, that could be tricky, especially for mainstream markets. Could you speak on your experiences with publication? And, through all that, what led you to Gold Line Press?

GC: I’m a Detroit hustler, right, and my hustle is that I love nonfiction. I love creative nonfiction. I love memoir. Those are genres that are really important to me. But I think about Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks: I think she called that a novella, but I’m fairly certain it was deeply autobiographical. It looks like prose on a page, but it reads as one big giant poem. There’s something about that that simultaneity of genre that’s extremely appealing to me as a reader and resonates with my training in comparative literature. I think about alternate narrativity. I think about simultaneity in narrativity. I’ve had a very strong identity as a poet, and I remember learning very early on that what was crucial in poetry was that you were activating more than one sense of the same word at the same time. This idea of simultaneous or multiple activation extended in my vision of genre. To me, all my books are memoirs, they are nonfiction, they are performances, they are performance writing, and they are big giant poems.

And the thing is, it’s the expectation of the reader that shifts when you change the category, and that will result in a change in the way that the reader reads it. And yet, I want this writing to be able to be read in multiple ways and I want it to yield different insights depending on the different ways that people read it. I call myself a hustler because I’m blessed. I’m thankful to be teaching at CalArts in the MFA program in creative writing and in the undergraduate BFA General Studies, critical studies program. I mean, I was hired as a specialist in nonfiction, which is true. And I also feel like with these books are also giant poems. That’s the hustle where the use of figurative language and the and the notion of figures of speech entering the body or associative logic or images in juxtaposition as, as a narrative mode that for me is, is where poetry informs or where these works, operate as poetry. In my writing class at CalArts, we talk about genre queerness. We read Kazim Ali’s GenreQueer, and books that are not necessarily cross genre or multi genre, but are really manifesting and creating their own strange, unusual genre. And I read that feeling validated, associating it with books that are not quite one thing and not quite another thing. Even as I’m trying to rein it in and make it be something maybe more conventional, the book will resist me and just say, like, “No, that’s not what we’re doing.” And I’m like, “OK, you are what you are.”

But the other piece is that that’s not how the publishing world works. Swallow the Fish was completed in 2012, and didn’t get published until 2017. For many years, it was rejected, and I was despairing, and I put it in a drawer and thought, “well, this is just going to be a goldmine for a graduate student in the future, who’s just going to find this after I die and make a whole career on this.” I always believed it as a text that was valuable and important, but there was a lot of gatekeeping. Academic presses said it was too personal, personal presses said that it was too academic. A few indies were like, “I don’t know, who would read it.” It was all just messing with my mind, so I put it down and did some other things. Then I realized like, “no, the world needs this and, more importantly, I am responsible for making this come out into the world.” And I was very lucky that Janice Lee, my art goddess Angel, who had the recurrent series at Civil Coping Mechanisms, now part of The Accomplices, was reading through manuscripts. When you have this woman of color editor who’s also an extraordinary experimental writer herself, she understood what I was trying to do with that book then acquired it. She gave that book a life because that book existed, circulated, did well, which made space then for Experiments in Joy. It was almost like teaching people how to read me or opening a space and allowing for the book to circulate through my various networks: poetry, people were reading it, Black feminists were reading it, performance people were reading it, people who are trying to come of age as an artist. There were many different disparate communities that found that book and are continuing to engage it. I was lucky too that I, because I’m in the academy, I knew several people who were teaching classes. They were like, “Well, you know what, let me just try this in the classroom” and students responded to it. And it helped me build a kind of name. Like Lady Gaga, I just needed one person to say yes and open up the door after 99 nos.

Now, in terms of Gold Line, I love the chapbook form, I love small presses, indie presses. And I knew Dear Girl: A Reckoning, which was one of the Gold Line winners; a beautiful chapbook by drea brown about Phyllis Wheatley. I thought, “you know what? This feels like it could be a fit for me!” Some of my work is so dense, so saturated, it might be better in smaller amounts. I remember Muriel [Leung, at-the-time Editor in Chief for Gold Line Press], said about (ghost gestures), “The chapbook is a great form for this because it might overstay its welcome since there’s so much happening in it.” And I felt like, for some of these pieces that are intersecting me with Africa, me with Mexico, me with Montreal, you know, Dakar, Detroit, Puerto Rico, and Mexico, there’s so much happening that to concentrate it and make it smaller, to have a full coherent experience but to have it be shorter, the chapbook felt like a really nice opportunity.

But the real truth is that what encouraged me to submit ghost gesture, specifically to the prize that year for to the contest that year was Bhanu [Kapil]. I had no idea that she would pick the manuscript, I mean, really, but I knew that if it got to her, she would understand what I was trying to do. Not everybody would. I feel like it was also about alignment. Going back to that idea of the gatekeepers and the reader — you take out the “e” from “reader,” and it’s “radar.” Who has the “radar” to be on the frequency of what it is that you’re trying to do? Many in mainstream publishing are not on my radar, and the trick really is to find people who are already on your radar. When I saw that Gold Line had invited Bhanu to be a judge, I thought, “Let me try!” Then, to my incredible delight, she selected the manuscript. Now, I’ll just be thankful.

MC: It definitely is a wonderful feeling, especially in the writing world, to find acceptance for your artistic endeavors. We often choose judges based off of our own personal tastes, so to know that you found kinship with our selections — especially Bhanu Kapil speaks volumes to the solidarity within these writing circles. Around the time I got a hold of your manuscript, it was summer 2020 and the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor uprisings were occurring. Being part Black myself, I had a difficult time focusing on anything beyond the news. As a Black feminist author, you still managed to power through with edits — for that, we thank you infinitely — but did that moment speak to your edits, or your writing as a whole, during that time in a way you found productive?

GC: First, I want to thank you and Muriel for being super respectful during that time. I know you mentioned at the time you were having your own responses with what was happening. I imagine Muriel was also having responses what was happening. I certainly was having responses with what was happening. It was a profoundly distressing, upsetting cataclysmic time. And in many ways, we have remained in that time, and right now, we’re reliving that time with the [Derek] Chauvin trial that’s happening in Minneapolis. Still, I remember trying very hard to meet deadlines. In general, the pandemic has made that harder along with George Floyd’s murder and the racial reckoning and the uprisings. I mean, my sense of time got completely lost. I remember thinking, “OK, this is taking me longer. I don’t want to do this. I’m not feeling it.” It was hard. So, Gold Line accommodating and giving me a little bit more time during that moment was really gracious, and I appreciated it. When it was time to actually sit down to do the work and really look at it, I felt very thankful to be allowed and invited to engage my own work at a time that was so intense. I also felt thankful that my work was about ancestors, about colonial and postcolonial and pre-colonial histories, about hauntings and return. Though (ghost gestures) is not literally about what was happening, I did feel there were deep psychic alignments with what was happening in the streets and the conversations that were happening with grief and loss, not to mention the convergence of people coming together. I felt thankful that I had the refuge in my own work and the commas in my own weird space. That gave me something to do that felt productive and like it could ultimately contribute in some way.

It was good to be involved in something that was somewhat unorthodox and something weird, and something that wasn’t just a sound bite and something that wasn’t so easily digestible. As a project, (ghost gestures) — I hope — will be found inviting and warm; we begin with dancing in the club Dakar, and then we’re shifting and moving around for a sense of adventure. But I think the kind of imagination that we’re all called on right now in this moment has to go beyond what is normally given to us as protest writing. And this is not to cast shade on protest writing because I think about work by [Amiri] Baraka — which, we need to like have a class where we’re talking through issues around community members about some of our language. But! I mean, some of his writing, especially the first time I read it, I was like, “Whoa, I didn’t even know writing could do this.” His musicality and his rhythm. What an amazing writer. Otherwise, trying to imagine outside the box, trying to imagine ways of embodying language that are not necessarily just about saying the expected thing, but maybe channeling a feeling or experience through language. That’s what I’m aspiring towards: to maybe offer us new imaginative possibilities and get us out of the loops of thinking that we’ve been in for the last 50 or 60 or 100 or 400 years.

It felt good to look at (ghost gestures) and feel like it was a contribution. when Tamiko Beyer came to me saying, “I’m doing a project to re-invent and rethink the book launch and make it an offering into community and to give to activists and organizers as a gift, those who are interested, copies of my new book. If you’re interested, I would love to also give them a copy of (ghost gestures),” I was at first like, “this is so amazing that you would even ask me,” but then I was like, “why would they want to read this?” [laughs] And then I figured if this is something that they’re open to, then yes. Because this is what I have to offer, right? And to recognize that what we all have to offer is what we all need, right? She said, “I don’t know if they’re gonna like my books either, but this is what I have to give.” And it’s that feeling of knowing this is what I have to give. I’m not necessarily saying the thing that you expect me to say, but it is really the thing that I have to say. That’s what we need to get free.

MC: That’s wonderful. I’m glad to hear that it was a grounding experience to work on this book last summer’s uprisings. Just thinking about the phrase, “this is what I have to do.” That’s such an important thing, especially now, given what we’ve all been through the past year. I would like to wrap up with a couple easy questions — I hope “easy” anyway. I used to be an adjunct instructor about four years, and my writing died during that time. I graded papers and graded papers and graded papers. You’ve turned around a few great pieces of literature in your time being a professor. How would you say that working at CalArts, or even before that, has spoken to your writing or spoken against your writing? Or even how does academia work with you as a person and your time as an artist?

GC: Wow, what a great question. I mean, one thing, I feel like the whole academic system in terms of higher education and employment is profoundly unjust. And I think that the economic disparities that are built into that whole system are wrong — I’m sorry that you were exploited in your labor for four years, and I want the world to do better by you and by everyone. As for the work, for a long time, especially when waiting for Swallow the Fish to get published, I was always still making, I was always still writing. Part of it is that I couldn’t stop. I was scribbling. One thing about being a full-time tenure track professor is you have to go to a lot of meetings. So I spent those meetings writing in the margin to help keep the writing alive during my captive times. When I taught creative writing at the undergraduate level, I would do the exercises with the students. I remember Marvin Bell, who recently passed away, he came to St. Catherine University, where I taught for a long time. One thing he said was, “Oh, I don’t just do the exercises, I do the homework assignments.” That dude was writing alongside his students, and that kept his own writing alive. So that was something I thought about a lot. I think that the big thing that happened for me as a writer was really building a performance practice, thinking about writing and performance in relationship to one another. They’re kind of inextricable from one another — performance as a form of writing, writing as a form of performance. And I was always making these weird little performances, and I really came to it as a way to circulate language and space differently, as a way to intersect language with my body, as a way to make poems differently. As I was building towards these performances, and I always had to have my toe dipped into a kind of performance at some point, and in order to make that performance, I was writing. Then that writing would branch off into other directions, and that would end up moving into material. I guess I’m always not doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing. I’m supposed to be doing nonfiction, but I’m calling it poetry. I’m supposed to be making performances, but actually, I’m writing a memoir. It was the creative urge in me and a drive to keep going. Somehow or another, teaching didn’t feel oppositional to creating and writing — especially at the beginning. Now, with social media, the generational shifts, and higher education’s incredible neo-liberalism, it has felt harder. But the beginning of my teaching career, it really fed the conversations I was having with my students in the classroom and my colleagues. It really fed what I was thinking about and what I was making.

MC: It makes me incredibly happy to hear that your teaching experiences haven’t hindered your creative spark in the least bit. With that in mind, what is on the horizon for your writing after (ghost gestures)?

GC: After (ghost gestures) will be a book coming out through Coffee House Press called The Déjà vu: Black Dreams and Black Time. It will continue the performance-memoir constellation of Swallow the Fish and Experiments in Joy, but it is consciously situated at the intersection of Pandemic and uprising. There are flashbacks because its “black time” as well, and incorporation of earlier writing and earlier performance text. Then there are new meditations where I wanted to play more directly with the essay form. Nonfiction is such a big tent and essays are wonderful. I think about Zadie Smith’s essays from Intimations, or Carole Maso’s essays in Break Every Rule. But what happened to me is when I sat down to write a bunch of essays, a whole bunch of other crazy stuff came up. [laughs]. That’s what I’m saying! Also trying to do one thing, but then like, “I’m gonna write an essay, but actually it’s a palindrome. I’m gonna write an essay, but actually it’s a big movie!” But, anyway, there’s a lot of formal experimentation. So that book is coming out. Then I also have a volume of my writing from my time in Mexico that’s slated to come out through Texas Review Press. I’m just trying to follow my Maya Angelou or my Dany Laferrière — I want to have this whole big book series then rest. [laughs] But not really rest then make a whole bunch of other stuff, too.


( ghost gestures ) by Gabrielle Civil is available for order from Gold Line Press.

from ( g h o s t g e s t u r e s )

The doll was small, about a foot long, with a cloth body and a 1920s-style, plastic Kewpie face. She was pitch-black like the new moon.