November 1, 2018 / 3 comments
Dominique Christina on “using the raw material of possible to say all of the urgent things”
It was such an honour to speak to Dominique Christina. Her work is remarkable. Her voice is insistent and fierce and tender and kind and wrathful and beautiful, sometimes all at the same time. She speaks truth to power in a way that few can. She describes herself as “a performing artist, an author, an educator and an activist”. Her words can stir tears or they can stir revolutions. Her words awaken the imagination and invite it, blinking, into the world. I think she’s amazing, and by the end of this, you will too [you can find a more detailed biog here]. I started off our conversation by asking her what does imagination mean to you, what does it conjur up?
“I think we’re talking about something that is fundamentally simple but like most things that are simple, we have a tendency to want to complicate those things. Our minds are constantly interacting with, interpreting, and manipulating images. Fundamentally you’re really talking about how vast the canvas is allowed to be. For people who have no imagination, perhaps it’s a postcard, or the size of a stamp. Then there are others who you wouldn’t be able to get their artwork in a stadium. They are constantly able to see beyond the obvious or the apparent or the most known.
We certainly lose our ability to engage in risk taking behaviour in terms of how we think, and how we interpret, if we find ourselves in repressive or suppressive or oppressive systems or if we find ourselves in restrictive environments where we are not just taught to think but we are taught how to think. Certainly there are aspects of your imagination that suffer in those environments.
But then at the same time there are also individuals who thrive in those very environments. They are the ones that know how urgent imagination has to become in those same environments. It’s very interesting.
What would you recommend for how we can craft anger at the injustice that we see around us in the world at the moment into a positive fuel for change? What’s that transforming process? How does that work?
You know what, I think it’s a wonderful question but I also think that we are always going about it in the wrong way. When you are talking about how to address a problem, you become fixated on the problem. The problem is now in the centre of the room. The broken things are in the centre of the room. Whatever is not working, or whatever is dysfunctional, is what’s taking up all the space. Then your interrogation of it, your consideration of it, or whatever you are, you’re reacting to the brokenness. So the brokenness is everything, right?
Fundamentally for me, the reason why we don’t get things done the way that I think we could get things done – because there are enough amazing, miraculous, impossible, supernatural people on this planet who love this planet, and who operate from goodness and integrity and accountability – but we get so bogged down in staring into the abyss that we’ve lost our sight of heaven, our version of heaven.
To me the most radical thing that you can do is to centre the wholeness, to centre wellness, not brokenness. The way to respond to some of this stuff is to imagine what we want as opposed to constantly reacting to what we do not want. You know, to me, when I am spending too much time thinking about that which I don’t like, or I’m dissatisfied with, I’m feeding it, and giving it all of this energy and then it comes the biggest thing in the room, and I’m just not interested in that, right?
I’m more interested in movements that centre wholeness and wellness and fundamentally reject and silence any narrative that says that there is an inevitability to our destruction. We cannot continue to feed that narrative. And the only way to starve it is to begin to really cultivate and nurture the life that we want. The way in which we envision this world should be what’s in the centre of the room, all the time, as opposed to the broken stuff always entering and centering in the room.
I don’t know if I answered that, but for me that’s been a critical piece. That we are so bogged down with how dysfunctional it is that we end up spending up all of our time talking about the dysfunction, and less time thinking about and envisioning a world in which we are well and whole, and in co-operative spaces with one another and operating with integrity and respect for one another.
But I can’t get there because I’m too busy talking about this new bill that passed. I would prefer for people to impose their will on government than for government to impose their will on people.
How would you evaluate or assess, or what’s your sense of the state of health of the imagination in the US in 2018?
This is an interesting question. This is the distance, right? This is the gap for me between the people and the politicians. Because I would say for the politicians, even the well-meaning ones – the ones that I think are fundamentally well-intentioned – they’ve lost their imagination. They are locked into a very specific way of doing things. A very specific way of understanding things. A very specific way of speaking to things. They are completely stuck.
Whereas the poet, the author, the artist, the photographer, the painter, the musician, they are using the raw material of possible to say all of the urgent things. We’re on very different ends of the spectrum here. Politics, they use language to lie, or to evade, or to deceive, or to cloak. A very cloaked and daggered sort of way of using language. Artists, poets, writers, we use language to reveal, to peel back, to expose.
While politicians are locked in and seem to have aborted their imaginations, I think authors, writers, creatives are unlocking theirs. We recognise – we always have – the urgency in it. We can see it dying around us. We can see people being imprisoned by their own training and conditioning, this one habitual response, and we just don’t want a world that looks like that, you know? So sometimes we’re doing things purely to interrupt the space. Just to get people awake again.
Sometimes I say things in a space and it’s a very sort of rigid and noble atmosphere, I will say something that I know is inappropriate just to get people to feel something. We don’t have to actually sit here and do the dance. Go ahead and wake up and tell me I pissed you off. That’s cool. But be in your body. You know? Don’t do the robotic thing. Don’t do the, “Hey how are you? Good, how are you?” It’s like ships passing, it means nothing.
I’m not good at banter. I’m not good at empty. I need substance. We really are – if we’re creatives – we really are trying to suss out all that is urgent and necessary and important, and deeply human, about our imagination, and trying to envision a world that allows for us all to be whole and intact. True.
I mentioned in the email to you about how when I was researching for this and I watched a lot of videos of your performances, how the way that you communicate, and the beautiful way that you use your voice to be very passionate and then very quiet and to roll like a landscape, that even now when I read really boring things, if I imagine I’m reading them in your voice, they become really interesting. It’s great. It’s just fantastic. It feels like such an important time for all of us, and young people, to find their voices, and to be able to stand up and we see it in the #MeToo movement and we see it in lots of movements now with young people and the anti-gun stuff after the last shooting. As somebody who feels to me incredibly skilled at how you own a stage and you speak truth to power from that place where you are, what sort of advice or recommendations would you give to other people about how to do that?
I just think you have to mean it. I know how pedestrian that sounds but I can’t tell you how I feel like I am interacting with a pantomime, or the illusion of, or the hologram of, authenticity. You know, there are more people centre stage who have mastered the art of deception and pretending to care, than those who actually care and who mean it and who risk something or who bled to say it.
I just know that for me, I mean everything I’m saying. It’s not even for the stage. These are the things that I’m also vocalising in my life. This is not a performance for me and that’s why it works. I’m committed to the things that I have given voice to. I can’t do it any other way. It took me so long to say anything at all, that by the time I did, it was like I had to first get there on paper, and then from the age of 22 to the age of 34, I was just trying to figure out what my voice sounded like, and making sure it was mine before I said anything out loud, right?
I don’t pretend. I don’t perform. I don’t manufacture. I believe in the power of language. I know it’s a culture keeper. I know it shifts the atoms in a room. I know it changes the temperature in a room. I know it alters people’s existence. I mean, I know that. It’s not what I think. It’s what I know. To me, being your most honest self, your radically honest self, if you practice that, you will astonish yourself.
Because we are constantly lying, and evading. We’re even not completely honest when we’re writing. We’re always thinking about an audience and perception, and wanting to be understood and well-received and all of that. Sometimes, even then you’re contorting, right? I don’t do any of that. I don’t have time for that. I just don’t. Life is too short. I am not going to get off this planet without getting all my crazy done. Period.
I may mess it up, and you may not always agree with me, or understand me, but at no time will anyone ever be able to say, “She didn’t mean it”. That’s my advice. You gotta mean it. Do the necessary soul work first. Some things are tough to say. Some things are tough to name and own, and interrogate, and ponder. So do that work first. And then do the necessary work of curating language that you mean, that belongs to you, that you believe in, right? And then do the necessary work of putting it in a room and watching what happens to the ecosystem.
Not because you need to change something if it’s not perfect, but because that’s instructive. To pay attention to what happens in a room, when you’re doing nothing but showing up as yourself. That’s it. When you do that one thing it’s the most radical act you can do, truly. That’s all I’m doing when I’m on stage. That’s truly it. There is no magic. There’s no hat trick. I am not lying at all. I am not hiding at all. I’m not pretending at all.
If I am scared, you know it. If I’m broken, you know it. If I’ve been broken, you know it. If I am enraged, you know it. If I am elated, right, you know it. I’m not doing any shape shifting. I’m not participating in that model. That’s my strategy, is to have no strategy. I’m just going to be myself. I’ll stand out here, bleed or shine or whatever it is I’m doing. But it’s entirely mine. I mean it. I’m not changing or contorting to fit anyone’s narrative or anyone’s idea of what version of the story would be most palatable. I don’t have time for that.
My friend Manda, who was the person who said you must, must interview Dominique, her question was, “How do we make imagination contagious?”
By imagining. I do it. I did something that is purely about the amplification of, and the celebration of that which lived in my head. I share that vision with you, and then you, in seeing it, are interacting with it. You become inspired. It unlocks your own potential to imagine, to dream. And then you create something. And then you share it. It’s that. That’s exactly what it is. That’s what contagious is.
My children’s lives would look very different if there were certain things that they didn’t see from me. There are elements of their lives I know other 20 year olds and 17 year olds would never even think possible. But my children had it modelled for them. You know what I mean? I’m not even talking about grand scale things. I’m talking about sometimes just the permission that you need to live out loud, which a lot of times our parents try to keep that kind of measured. I don’t do that. So they know that. They get to be fully expressed. They get to live out loud.
I may not understand what the hell it is they’re doing, right? Or what it is they’re creating in the moment. But they get to create it. And they know that. They know that. So that is part and parcel of the gift of imagination. I would like for all of us to try on the idea that we only know a fraction of who we could be, or who we could become, what we’re capable of, how much stretch we have, how much brilliance we have, what our capacity is.
I’m confident that there are at least 25 to 50 more miracles that are only mine. That only belong to me. That I need to figure out, like what I’m here to do. But the only way I can get there is to engage in risk taking behaviour. In doing so I permission the space to do the same, right? You won’t die! People need to know that. You won’t die. Risk taking is just that. You take a risk. It’s a bit terrifying. It’s a bit jarring. Going into the unknown is always that, right? We love guarantees. Risk taking behaviour does not give you that.
But on the other side of it may be a miracle. On the other side of it may be the life you didn’t even know was waiting for you. That’s astonishing, and that’s worth stretching out for. That’s how you make it contagious. You model that. And you do it out loud. You don’t do it in the dark, in secret. I remember when I started writing – because I’m totally an accidental poet – but I remember that I was like, “Okay, so this is meaningful to me, and terrifying, and I’m saying things I never thought I’d say, but that’s cool. I’m just going to write it all down, put it in a trunk, under my bed, where it will stay forever. Okay, and then I’ll die, and then my great-grandkids will find the trunk and they will go, “Oh my god, our grandmother was a poet”.” That was my plan.
Okay. Didn’t work out that way. But that was my plan. This sort of Emily Dickinson method of creating. Just do it in the dark. I’m not sure we can afford that right now. There’s a level of urgency that requires us to do things out loud, in the light. I think so. Tht’s how we make it contagious.
One of the things that I’ve been looking at is about ‘what if’ questions. There are some great examples I’ve found of places that say… There’s a place in Belgium that said, “What if, in a generation’s time, a majority of food we eat in this town comes from the land around this town?” Then they open it up as a question and people come in with, “Ah, well I’m a baker and I can tell you about that” and then the whole thing is now really the story of that place. I’m really interested in what really good ‘what if’ questions can unlock. One of the things with that is for me about how do we keep really good what if questions alive over time? I know reading different things in the US, in the African-American community. Prison abolition is the most amazing ‘what if’ question. ‘What if’ we had no prisons? What if we had no police, and we just sorted it all out in a different way in our neighbourhoods? What is your sense, or your experience, of how you keep a really audacious ‘what if’ question alive?
It’s purely about the acknowledgement that there is not just one way, one singular way, of knowing. That the context in which you were born, that you inherited, you inherited it. It doesn’t mean that it’s fixed. It doesn’t mean that it can’t move, or that it shouldn’t move. In fact, it should move. We should constantly be moving the needle. The world should not look the way it did for my grandparents.
When we talk about police brutality and things like that in this country, it does. That’s why we can get to the what if question because we’re like, “Hundreds of years and you guys haven’t imagined a scenario whereby we can figure out a way to not do this this way?” That’s how you get those, right? Part of it is about in fact being appropriately offended. Right? Or appropriately annoyed.
“We’ve been doing it this way for x amount of years and at its base it’s illogical or it certainly hasn’t produced the results that we hoped it would; maybe we should try something else”. But see, again, that involves risk-taking behaviour, and it involves acknowledging and interrogating your inheritance, and a lot of people do not want to do that. It’s an inheritance.
“It was given to me by my mother. I will carry it forward and my daughter will”. Sometimes that’s bullshit. One of the great analogies for me is the pot roast analogy where there’s this grandmother and she’s making pot roast. She cuts the ends off so it fits neatly in her pan and her daughter watches this and learns how to make pot roast. Then when she’s making pot roast, she’s cutting the ends of the pot roast, and putting it in the pan. By the time you get three generations down, they’re still cutting the ends off the pot roast, and that person that’s doing that in 2018… the reason why the grandmother was cutting the ends of the pot roast in 1918 was because her pot was too small!
Your pot can hold the whole pot roast. But you haven’t asked the right questions, so you don’t know. You’re just replicating. You know what I mean? You’re just replicating and it doesn’t hold. Your pot can hold the whole pot roast. Your grandmother’s could not. There’s no reason for you to cut the ends of this pot roast. So that for me is sort of like one of those…
We have those moments in my family all the time. Like where my mother is doing something in the kitchen and then I’m writing it all down to make sure I do it exactly the way she does, and invariably I go, “Mama, why do you put such and such in the …” And she’ll go, “Oh you know, I don’t know. My mother just did it that way.” She has no idea. She has no idea why she’s doing it that way. And she didn’t expect me to ask. Right? I was just supposed to write it down, and replicate it. We’ve been doing that too long. What if questions are when we recognise we’ve been doing that too long. Replicating. Repeating. And not asking the necessary questions.
You might be cutting the ends off your pot roast when you’re pot is big enough. That’s what I have to say about that.
If it had been you who had been elected as President Christina in November 2016, and you had a run on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again – so your sense was we’ve got these huge profound challenges and the main way we’re going to find a way through it is by re-prioritising imagination in education, in public life, in everything. Most government’s come in, they say we have an Innovation Strategy, which is just of no use to anybody, but if you came in and said we’re going to have a National Imagination Strategy, we’re going to fire up the imagination across society so that people can see beyond these big problems, and they’re just full of ideas and possibilities, what might you do in your first 100 days in the Oval office?
I would have all of the corporate type A – the bankers, the money market people, the lawyers, the financial analysts, the stock market folks, the ones whose entire identity is so connected to money and gain and capitalism, and winning – they’d have to go on a 30 day no phones, no computer. They’d have to work on a farm, or on a reservation, or on a field, for 30 days. No electronics.
I’d be interested in getting those folks back in their bodies. I’d be interested in getting the folks that drive all the things that affect the quality of our lives, I’d be interested in getting them to feel what it’s like to be human again. I would be probably pushing for an unschooling process so that there’s an opportunity for kids to unlearn. Particularly the things that have been stifling, the things that have in fact reduced imagination. Get them outside. Get them using their hands. Get them playing music and remembering what it’s like to laugh and not have to hold it in because you might get in trouble if the teacher hears you.
Everyone would have to participate in some sort of cooperative event that benefits their specific community, whether you’re doing some urban farm or community garden, or trash pick-up, or some sort of cook share. Some sort of thing that has to be benefit your specific community which means you don’t get to dictate that. You have to actually talk to your neighbours. You know what I mean?
It has to be a cooperative. You have to actually sit down and talk about what you guys agree with. You know? Where you can find yourselves in the centre, and then build that thing. It’s probably what I would do. It would be some real hippy shit. Because I don’t like politics. I would just have everybody outside, holding hands, and I don’t know!
What’s your sense of what the #MeToo movement, and what’s happened over the last couple of years with that, has had on women’s imaginations? On the feminine imagination in our culture?
I don’t know. It’s a really good question. I don’t know. It may not have the outcome we want it to have on that. I don’t know if it’s doing much for the imagination. It’s doing something for ferocity. It’s doing something for the persistence of and the insistence of women. It’s waking certain women up to the fact that they always had a voice. That they should always have a voice. That they have authorship of over their bodies and their experiences. That they get to name, that they get to declare, that they get to accuse. It’s certainly doing all of that.
But again I go back to – which is why I haven’t actually – I support everybody, any woman, anybody period, who juts out to say a hard thing, to confess, to acknowledge, to name. They are my kindred. I know exactly what that feels like so I support them. But I never participated in the specific #MeToo thing. I never did. Even though I totally could. But I never did only because it’s one thing to model readiness, but I don’t want to compel it. It’s so sensitive a thing, right?
If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. It doesn’t matter that there’s a groundswell of women who find themselves right. Who gives a shit? If you’re not, you’re not, and you shouldn’t have to feel like now there’s this urgency to confess or name, because if not, what’s wrong with you? You know what I mean? That’s not the evidence of your having healed, or being progressive enough. There was an undercurrent, totally unintentional, but I think it made women feel obligated to confess that which I’m not sure they were ready to confess. That’s problematic because you end up lacerating yourself.
If you’re not ready, you’re just not ready. I don’t give a shit about what movement is happening. Right? I’m just not sure. I’m not sure #MeToo addressed the imaginations of women, but I do think it permissioned them, and I do think that it put some starch in their backs. I do think it made them feel a sense of ferocity. It created a sort of warrior clan. It created a kinship among survivors, and all of that is really good, really good stuff. Really, really important.
It’s what happens on the other side of that. That will be the imagination part, right there. The women who six months after they stared down the facts of their story, and named it, and in so doing interrupted everybody in their lives, because their mama didn’t know, their husband didn’t know, their kids didn’t know, their students didn’t know. But here they are on Twitter saying everything. Right? Six months after that is when we’ll see what it did for the imagination because she is going to have to do something with that.
It can’t stay in the body that way. It’s just too seismic. I’m curious about what happens after. What happens after you participate in something like that. I mean, that’s the other reason I didn’t participate because I’ve already done that. For me, that was several exits ago for me. The naming, and watching it fracture things in my life. Watching it interrupt people in my life. And I understood that it would do that, but it doesn’t matter how much you understand something intellectually. How it lives in the body emotionally is something different, right?
Intellectually, I was like, “This is going to be hard for the people in my life” because I show up so big in the room. And so this won’t make sense to them. And it didn’t. And people don’t like their version of the story being interrupted. At first they’re weird. Then they’re silent. And that can feel really abrasive, and really lonely. Then you can grow resentment from that. I mean, that’s a crazy thing. But then it was like after that – after I got on the other side of all of that, got the hurt flat enough to be able to acknowledge myself and honour where I was, and also honour where everybody else was, took some time, then I was on the other side of that – that I started creating.
This last book is all imagination because I didn’t know her, and I’ve never been experimented on, and you know. But she got permission, and I feel like she chose me because I had done all this necessary work as a result of naming the times, the moments and the spaces and places in my life where I did not have authorship over my experience or over my body and I couldn’t say a thing, you know.
Shit. I don’t know if I answered your question or not? I think MeToo is fabulous, okay? I think it’s fabulous. And I think we’ll have to keep growing things from it. That’s what I think.
I wondered as a story teller whether you might have any thoughts about how we might best tell those stories about how it (the future) turned out okay. Rather than telling stories of utopias where people go, “Yeah, that’s never going to happen” or the endless dystopias that seem to surround us everywhere we turn at the moment.
For me, I’m not living in a utopia now, but I’m also not at the bottom of a slave ship. Do you see what I’m saying? I’m not on a plantation either. So that’s it. I’m still the best version of possible. I’m still my ancestors’ wildest dream. So no, it’s not perfect, but it’s seismic. Like, that trajectory, it’s seismic. That’s where I can put my imagination.
I believe entirely in the capacity of the Mother. I do. I believe in her. I believe in her ability to restore and regenerate. She does it all the time. She does it over and over and over again. The Earth is one miracle after another. She’s reached a place though, like a wise elder would, where’s she’s like, “You’re going to have to help me up the stairs.” You know, “I still have the use of my hands, but I need your help now.” To participate. That’s what I think the relationship is.
That’s what the future is to me. It’s about the acknowledgement that we are the beneficiaries of a very giving Earth. She gave a lot for a long time. She’s still giving. She’s still scrappy as hell. She’s still plucky, but she’s also telling us in her own way, she needs help. She needs a hand. And why we would give it to her is the real question. Why wouldn’t you?
It looks like the same relationship – child to mother – when they are small they take everything. They extract every resource from the Mother. Every single one. And they almost never say thank you because they don’t even know they should. It’s a given. It’s an automatic. This is your only role, to do these thing for me. Then at some point the clarity comes. You realise, “Yeah, you know, I’ve gotten a lot from her. She’s walking a little slower now.” Yeah, she’s walking a little slower now. Maybe I should figure out a way for her to come up these stairs by herself. Or she doesn’t have a house with stairs to plague her at all”. You realise that, and then you participate.
Then the transaction between you changes. Because now you acknowledge the fullness of who she is, not just what she was doing for you. Right? That’s the relationship. That’s the movement, for us too with this planet. We are now in a phase, a critical juncture, whereby we need to pick our heads up and acknowledge what we are the beneficiaries of, and that we now have to participate.
Christina’s new book, ‘Anarcha Speaks: a history in poems’ is just published. You can order it here.