Hi! Welcome to plzplztalk2me, a semi-regular feature in which I’ll be talking to people who want to talk to me about things they want to talk about.
The first person I talked to is Eve Ewing. Ewing is a poet, essayist, scholar, and visual artist from Chicago. Her work has appeared in venues such as Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, Union Station, the anthology The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, and many other outlets. Her first collection of poetry, essays, and visual art, Electric Arches, is forthcoming from Haymarket Books in fall 2017.
We chatted just a few days after the election, so we talk a lot about that, as well as art, hero-worship, and the Harold Washington Library.
p.e. garcia: I don’t even really know—the idea of this whole interview project is to be low-key, relaxed, and low-stakes—
Eve Ewing: I like relaxed, I like low stakes.
garcia: Well, I started doing these interviews, and I’ve been doing a lot e-mail correspondence with folks before the election.
Ewing: Hmmm. Yeah
garcia: Yeahh. So suddenly everything’s become super heavy and intense. So. I don’t know how relaxed anything is anymore.
garcia: But how are you? How’s Chicago?
Ewing: It’s good. Kind of day-to-day, touch and go. Today is the first day I came into work in several days. I think—I’m trying to remember—the election, that Tuesday might have been one of the last days I actually came into work. The first few days I was really reassuring a lot of people, just like, “You gotta keep doing what you’re doing, keep going. Just be about the work, and you know, we’re going to push through this.”
And I was asked by the Fader to write something on Wednesday, the day after the election. So that was nice, to have some processing. When they first asked me, I thought I had nothing to say. I was literally writing an email to say I had nothing to say, and then in the middle of it, I realized, oh that’s not true. So in the first few days I was kind of good-ish.
Then on that Sunday—it’s funny that elections are always on a Tuesday, adds to this documentary element of it, so you sort of can account for it day by day—that Sunday I did a panel at the Chicago Book Expo with Angela Jackson on poetry and protest. They asked me to do the panel, and no one was really clear on how it was supposed to go. There was literally like a title and some names on the program, and that was it. I was basically prepared for anything, with a little statement, and I was ready to read some poems. I thought it was going to be a small thing, but all these people showed up. And it was nourishing to hear her as a poet of the Black Arts movement to talk about—I think just of an interesting lens of a movement that very much inspired and guided my own work—it was nourishing to hear her and to be sitting next to her.
I went from that to Bill Ayers, who is a mentor of mine—he has a new book called Demand the Impossible. He made these shirts that say “Demand the Impossible,” and he’s saying to people all the time. I think it’s great—you should have a book title that’s like a manifesto. Something you can shout at people. It was supposed to be a book talk, but he ended up making it open forum with commentary about the election.
So between being able to write about it right away, and then kind of leaning on intergenerational knowledge, I felt pretty good. And then by Monday or Tuesday, I was like, oh. This is forever.
It seemed like a feat to just get through the first few days, and I had felt like I had made it. And then Monday came, and I really just felt. So doomed. And then Tuesday came. I feel like Monday I was able to do some work—Monday I stayed home all day in my pajamas, hiding in my house, but I was able to do some work. Oh, that’s not true, I was able to speak at a high school somehow.
On Tuesday I stayed in my house all day. On Wednesday I was able to be back at it again; I gave another workshop with some kids. I saw Angela Davis give a talk. And then yesterday, I was like, oh my god I’m super depressed. So literally just every single day.
It’s an interesting zeitgeist moment. The only thing I can think of is maybe September 11th, when there was this collective air of something. Maybe like Christmas. Christmas is the Christmas spirit. The sights and sounds all around give you this feeling. It’s this inescapable feeling, like a zeitgeist. It’s like that, but the thing that’s in the air is depression and despair.
There’s also this sense of urgency. I think in the last few years, Black people have described feeling depressed, but now it feels like every new day brings some new horror or something new to deal with so that we’re like, what are we going to do now? What is the strategy? So me right now, I’m thinking, what can we do on a daily basis? So that’s a good thing I think. We’re all thinking: what can we do? What can we do?
And I think about how it’s different for everyone. For people who have law skills, people who have art-making skills, people who have protest practice skills—each of us, if there’s one thing that I think we need to shift—instead of being broad and general, we need to think about our individual gifts—so like if you can knit or cook or whatever—how can you use that in this moment?
One of your questions was how is Chicago. So I’m also thinking about how this amplifies what’s going on in our own homes and how this intersects with our national moment. So the past week, the head of Chicago Public Housing sought approval from the federal government to approve kicking families off of vouchers after a certain time limit, and that has to be approved by HUD. So that’s the very local issue that’s tapping into this national moment.
Sorry, that was a lot.
garcia: No, I think that that’s something that is very important for people to think about. I know in Philadelphia, with Trump calling for an end to Sanctuary Cities, that’s a big deal here, at least. And I’m sure it is in other Sanctuary Cities, as well—Chicago is a Sanctuary City, isn’t it?
Ewing: Yeah, it is. So yeah, he’s threatening to end federal funding to the cities. And in Illinois, we don’t have a state budget, so.
garcia: Oh wow. Okay.
Ewing: Yeah, we haven’t had a state budget in about a year and a half?
I’m really impressed that you could go out and do work at all. The day after the election, I was supposed to teach, and I canceled my class. I felt sick. It was rough. I don’t know. I was talking to a friend this morning about it, and it’s so strange. Like you were saying, I don’t remember another time when this feeling has so permeated the public consciousness. And it’s even stranger because it’s an election, so it’s something that is continually unfolding, so it’s not just a solitary event that is just over. It’s just beginning, which is kind of the horror.
Ewing: It hasn’t even begun, which is the crazy part.
garcia: It’s just been such a surprising kind of trauma.
Ewing: I think the question of being able to work—the Wednesday I spent the whole day in the Harold Washington Library, which is one of my favorite places to work—it’s just a really big public library. It was reassuring to go there, and all of the people who were normally there were still there.
One of the reasons I like it is because it’s one of the places where it’s still acceptable to be poor in public and not be harassed by the state. So people are there who are sleeping, people are homeless, people are speaking languages other than English, people are looking up resources that they need to help them with taxes or immigration or homework. It’s an institution that I believe in, and it’s a microcosm of the world as I would like it to be. And to see that that would continue to hum along—just to be in that space was very reassuring for me.
But today I think artists can feel like, “what am I doing?” They’re feeling a sense of inadequacy or question themselves. And in the last 36 hours—because we now live in a crazy, alternate universe—I guess it was Megyn Kelly who said, “So is it going to be like Japanese internment camps?” And everyone was outraged by this. So I went on Twitter and did a survey, asking “did you learn about Japanese internment camps?”
garcia: Oh yeah, I saw that.
Ewing: Did you see the results? You can say no, it’s like, you have other things to do with your day.
garcia: Oh no, I didn’t see the results! I saw some of the retweets you did, but I didn’t see the actual results.
Ewing: Almost 5,000 people responded to it, which was great because it was only open for an hour. I like these really short polls—they give me little flash answers. Obviously there are so many limitations to this, but almost half the people said they had learned in K-12. A quarter of people said they learned on their own. And 12% of people said they didn’t know what that is. And 12% is about 400 people.
Ewing: And those that learned on their own, it could be that they were in second grade and really precocious and read a book, and a lot of people were just responding, and saying they learned in college, or they went to grad school and a lot of their friends didn’t know. But a lot of people said they learned from novels, from young adult novels.
And I did a similar question last year, where I asked white people a book they read that made them first learn about racism. And so many people said fiction or books of poetry. It reminds me that all these people who took AP US history or social studies classes or whatever, so many people still said fiction because that is the way they can gain empathy and that in-depth human understanding.
There are those people who quote unquote learn, but it’s just a paragraph in a textbook, as opposed to being able to get inside someone’s head and to understand what’s at stake and to understand what it feels like to lose your family and what it feels like to give up your possessions and to live in fear and uncertainty.
And it just reminds me, we have to make art. And not just the art that literally tells stories, but the art that asserts our humanity and documents our humanity as it is.
You’re right. This is heavy.
garcia: Yeah, I don’t know. I guess things have to be heavy, though, these days.
Ewing: Yeah, that’s okay.
garcia: I found myself really struggling to write about the election. I just did an essay for HTMLGiant that came out yesterday
Ewing: Oh I want to read it!
garcia: Yeah, I mentioned you actually!
Ewing: Oh really?
garcia: Yeah, I had to teach—I teach a comp class that’s based on public space in Philadelphia, and so we talk about race and gentrification and gender and these kinds of issues anyway. So connecting it to the election was pretty natural.
But uh yeah. It’s pretty weird. It was a weird day to talk about the election. Particularly because the majority of my students are white suburbanites. I’ve been struggling a lot to even get them to think about race. So I played them several recordings of poets reading their poetry, all Black poets. I played the video of you reading “Epistle for the Dead and the Dying.”
Ewing: Oh wow! I always forget that that video exists! I mean that’s the only video of me ever! I don’t do anything else, and I always forget that it exists.
garcia: I think it’s really wonderful. I put it up on the projector.
Ewing: Thank you, wow
garcia: It’s such a vulnerable poem and moment, and I think the urgency and immediacy that you were writing it in is really apparent, and it’s really nice.
Ewing: Thank you
garcia: So I did that, and I had them read a quote from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.
Ewing: Oh yeah, a classic. “Black people can’t write poems.”
garcia: Yes, exactly! That’s exactly the quote. So trying to get them to understand the disjointedness of –I’m trying to verbalize it. Like asking them what it meant for people of color to come up in a country that was founded by a person who did not believe that they could even write poetry.
Ewing: And to see that person celebrated and to be told that that person is a hero!
garcia: Exactly! But what surprised me was the disjointedness in my student’s thinking, that they can talk all the time about these very general, very broad ideas that “media representations of people can cause self-esteem issues.” They can think about that. But they can’t think about how seeing Jefferson might impact how a Black person might feel.
And a lot of my students were coming back with, “I don’t think we need to judge Jefferson through our modern moral lens” which is absurd. Because when was it ever okay?
Ewing: And there were people in his time who were like, “This is wrong.” But that’s an interesting point. A lot of sociological work that I do—well all of the sociological work I do is about race—but part of it is about racism and what people think it is and how they talk about it. And even the response of “well it’s not fair to call him this or to condemn him” is kind of missing the point.
My—not having been in the room—but I feel safe assuming that you weren’t saying: well the main point here is that we make Thomas Jefferson feel sad about himself. And we condemn him, as a rapist who owned his own children—all these things being true—and that he’s evil.
His evilness is an important acknowledgement of history, but it seems beside the point that you seemed to be making, which is consider the human experience of the people who live with that as the legacy of this country. And the cognitive dissonance we experience at a very young age when we first learn the truth about these people and how we are to confront this and understand it and their continued ubiquity in all of life. And they’re everywhere.
Questions like, “Is it fair to judge them by their time?” really used to puzzle me, and I didn’t know how to respond to that. But to hear it now, it sounds like the analog of “Well, are all the Trump supporters racists? We don’t know. We can’t call them racists.” It’s this preoccupation with the intentions of individuals, which materially is just irrelevant. It just doesn’t matter that much.
garcia: Right, and that’s sort of what puzzles me so much, and in a way it surprises me but also doesn’t—when I see my students respond this way to any kind of topic about race—they’re constantly seeking comfort.
Ewing: Right, reassurance
garcia: Right, reassurance. Like “I’m going to keep believing Jefferson was a good dude, because that’s easier.” I don’t know what it is. And I feel like it’s easy for everyone to get caught up in that sometimes, being the most hopeful they can be, or giving someone the benefit of the doubt that doesn’t deserve it.
Ewing: I think some of it is people are afraid of what they are going to lose. I think some of it is reassuring people that it’s okay to let things go and that life will move on.
Another example is Nate Parker. It was really helpful to me when Jasmine Sanders, a really great writer and a friend said, “Black genius is not scarce.” We have to believe that if we let Nate Parker go, someone else will make a really great Nat Turner movie. We have Ava DuVernay. We have people you don’t even know about yet.
And this fear—defending people like Bill Cosby, defending people like Nate Parker—comes from a fear of, if we let them go, what will we have? And whenever you are asking people to let go of their emotional attachments—whether it’s to a Confederate Flag or Kanye West, in my case,—there’s an element—it was really helpful when she said that to me because it made me realize the role that fear plays there and that we’re using logic and rhetoric and analogies and all these kinds of rhetorical things to try to argue about these topics that really ignore the underlying emotional things that aren’t logical, that are fear. And I hope that in naming it, it can set you free.
To say, “I’m afraid to lose this person because I love this person’s work and I’m afraid there won’t be anyone to fill the void.” And you can either acknowledge that and mourn, and we need to give ourselves space for that mourning and to say “Their work really meant a lot to me and it makes me sad that I can’t have that relationship with their work anymore.”
Which I think when we have this rhetoric of “oh this person is problematic, dump them. Boo they suck. You loved them yesterday, and now you’re supposed to hate them”—it doesn’t give space for that mourning and that sadness and loss that is very real. So that’s one option.
Or you could be like, “Well, there’s space for the next person. And there’s space for somebody else and their art.”
And I think in the case of Thomas Jefferson—I can let Thomas Jefferson go, and I can learn all about the other principles and ideas and thinkers and political philosophers, and it’s okay. America will go on for however long it goes on, even if you don’t have a hero worship of someone who is very flawed. I think that that fear is, it really helped to formulate it that way.
garcia: Yeah, and I think that’s a very strange and very true thing about American culture, this hero worship, and really taking people as a manifestation of an ideology.
Ewing: Right, that they never represented, or that they’re symbolic. And there’s also a liberating thing in separating the symbol from the person. I’m not like—I’m not uplifting myself to any of the people we’ve been talking about—but I got a DM from somebody the other day that was “Hey Eve, it’s been great working with you, however briefly, and it’s been really great following your career.”
And I was like, I have no idea who this person is. I don’t have a hint or even a suspicion. I just don’t know how I know you, or where I know you from, or where we might’ve worked together, and I almost wrote her back, “Oh thank you” and just fake it, (hopefully she doesn’t read this) or should I say, “Oh thank you, I’m sorry can you remind me of who you are, I’m getting really bad with names these days (which is true)” or would that be really hurtful?
And I’m just not going to respond, at least not at the moment. Because when she said “Following your career has been really great for me,” that’s just a projection of her and whatever her preoccupations are, and I’m just a vessel for that, just a catalyst for that, and it has nothing to do with the real human me, because we don’t have a real human relationship, so she doesn’t need me for that. And I can just let that be whatever it’s going to be for her, symbolically, in her head.
And that’s not to be like, “Yeah, as a Kanye-stature person!” but yeah, it’s just part of a larger point of the symbolic role we play for each other.
garcia: And I think that’s a really great point, and it’s something that I think clarifies for me the role of the writer and the artist in this kind of time and what you can be for someone else. So that’s really meaningful for me.
Ewing: Okay good! Cause I feel like kind of a jerk.
garcia: No! I think it’s really good. I think it’s something that will be helpful to a lot of writers and artists out there, trying to figure out what they should do next.
Photo of Eve Ewing by RJ Eldridge.
The plzplztalk2me logo and other art by p.e. garcia. If you want to talk2me about something, hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org.