July 6–12, 2020
Diane Exavier is a writer, theatermaker and educator who creates performances, public programs and games that invite audience participation and reject passive reception. With a point of departure located in Caribbean Diaspora, Exavier explores what she calls the four Ls: love, loss, legacy and land. Intersecting performance and poetry, her work has been presented at Haiti Cultural Exchange, the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Romania, Bowery Poetry Club, Dixon Place and other venues. Exavier’s writing appears in publications including the Atlas Review and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, and her play Good Blood received a 2017 Kilroys List Honorable Mention. Her forthcoming book, The Math of Saint Felix, will be published by the 3rd Thing Press in 2021. She lives and works in Brooklyn.
A People Long Divided
three parents: to survive
four: since I had hands in raising myself
six: since my sisters must now rear me
five: if you minus my father subtracted three times—
once by diagnosis
again by loss of wife
thrice by arm amputation eye removal
his tripled disappearance made final a fourth time canceled out by the one
who gathered us two into three
after raising another five six
multitude village clan race (if you tear open the r cut the a in half)
the mouth turns into a flat zero to utter the word for total family
(if you drag the o shorten the e) a move race caused infinite distance from her sister
but it was really just one condition
consequence of one disease: fluid filling in two lungs
no hand could stop that
which is why she placed our four remaining palms in her own
kept them close after she had been left on the hill’s side
kept them closer after he had been driven to Brooklyn’s edge
How is it decided who will hold what carries over? What makes one
ready to balance the quotient teetering above the head like the pot of water your mother sent you to carry back to the house but you got distracted by a girl a disruption a conspiring miracle sending the pot to the ground at the threshold of your feet water splashing cool the pot in pieces in front of the sun you scared your mother’s wrath you clever walking home sun at your side blaming someone else’s daughter for why there is no water atop your head to transfer into your mother’s arms as she stands at the open door gripping a cleaver
me laughing at the sum of you, my second mother: a girl
fighting other girls a girl spilling water in dirt a girl clacking across clay toward the butcher’s house a girl going home a girl too small to solve anyone’s problems
total before being forced to become a totality
Mommy, we always like that the way we was.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about systems of organization. It’s part of how I understand things—listening, then attempting to place into shape or context. That’s part of what the process of relation means to me: a kind of recognition by doing the math. And “doing the math” might mean seeing, feeling, smelling, hearing, tasting, parting, adding, kneading in ways that abide.
This has always been the way I’ve tried to understand my family. I come from a big family. In order to keep track of who’s who and who did what when, you have to keep doing the math, which is ultimately about memory. In this poem, I am trying to remember or recall my own memories and memories of people in my family in an attempt to relate to them. In order to do that I had to (and still have to) lay all things out—from losses to joys to geographies and all the tiny particles in between. Those particularities of the water spilling, the sun, the organs, the sounds of vowels in Kreyòl … they are all details that add up to what it feels like for me to be a person in my family.
What are you working on right now?
BIG SIGH, what are any of us working on right now? Most acutely, I am working on living—trying not just to survive, but to live, which in this moment, feels like a quieting, even (or especially) with all the surrounding noise.
I teach playwriting at an independent school in Brooklyn, so I’m spending some time in Brooklyn summer mode, which means something entirely different this summer with COVID-19. I’m also revving up on a few projects that have been in the works for a while. One of those projects is the manuscript this poem is from, The Math of Saint Felix. I’m working with the 3rd Thing Press, an independent press that is most committed to publishing what they call “necessary alternatives” to what is already in the literary market. What I’ve appreciated about working with my editor so far is that we are thinking about and around this book not as a collection of poems, but as an event that calls for poetry. As a writer who works between forms, it’s an important intention that keeps me from getting seduced by the trappings of genre. While the book is about many things, it is ultimately a work of grief; and the illegibility of grief has it jumping between poetry, prose and dramatic writing in ways that make sense to me.
I’m also working on developing my play Bernarda’s Daughters, an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba. My play is set in present-day Brooklyn and shares the story of five sisters who are trapped in their mother’s house in Prospect Lefferts Gardens. It’s a meditation on grief, women, freedom, gentrification and nationhood. I wrote the first draft two years ago and it is eerie, but somehow not at all surprising, how salient it feels in this moment. With the theatrical landscape so irrevocably changed by this pandemic, I am working with my collaborators to imagine different ways in which we can share the work with audiences, which is leading us down really interesting paths.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me is one with brilliant, brilliant light. It’s why summer is my favorite season. Also, the hotter, the better.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
My family. I was born and raised in Flatbush. Most of my family moved here from Haiti in the mid-seventies. Depending on the time you’re looking at, you can track much of the movement of Haitian immigrants to New York, Miami, Boston and Montreal. There are other pockets, I’m sure, but that was the path for my family and much of their extended relations.
I’ve lived in Washington Heights, Western Massachusetts and Providence; what always brings me back to Flatbush is my family.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Contrary to popular belief, growing up in Brooklyn is not actually a personality, just like moving here isn’t one, either. Even I have to catch myself with the “Oh, but that’s a Brooklyn thing” quips, especially since the borough is so large. There are so many different kinds of Brooklyn. But Flatbush really is its own country (or countries) precisely because the sense of diaspora is so strong. What you get in Flatbush are not just visual modifiers or metaphors of “Brooklyn life,” but rooted and active behaviors, traditions, sounds, tastes and textures of people who have movement in their bones. The point of Flatbush, in my experience, has never been to settle or take over. Flatbush is about a kind of constant, chaotic flux; and I really do love that about this place. It has instilled in me a respect for, a sense of chaos and flux, a knowing that movement—even in stillness—is always the thing.
That’s why the gentrification of Flatbush aggravates me. Gentrification is not about flux. It’s about pushing out, plopping down, rubbing away. The new buildings that have gone up at every turn feel like they’ve just been dropped into neighborhoods without any context. You see it visually, but also functionally—the ways in which these new fortresses are made to protect against the flux. It’s at once enraging and tacky. I hate it. And I can’t stand the people who invest in it.
More specifically, I grew up at Flatbush Junction, where Flatbush and Nostrand Avenues meet. It’s a crossroads and an edge, marking a major transportation transfer hub, as well as the neighborhood shift into Midwood and more southern points. I think that’s why I’m drawn to crossroads and edges, geographically speaking. When I lived anywhere else, I always found myself at a junction or at the edge of a neighborhood. In a recent talk, abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “Edges are interfaces.” I think about that a lot in relation to the places I’ve lived and life in Flatbush.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
Ugh, there are too many! One of my favorite defining Flatbush experiences is the annual arrival of Haitian mangoes, which signals the beginning of summer. Just before proper summer hits, all of the Korean grocers that stretch along Flatbush get their shipments of Haitian mangoes—those giant ones that are almost the size of your head. It’s like people set an alarm to fill their baskets and bags with twenty at a time. It’s really the first juicy bite into a Haitian mango that says, “Summer: it’s here.”
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
Someone once told me that poetry is the encounter. When I think about a poetry community, I think of people encountering each other’s encounters. It is always so wild to me, in the most amazing way, how much poets show up for each other, as witness to someone else’s attempt to witness something. It’s crazy!
The word community is difficult for me to wrap my mouth around most days. I returned to Flatbush three years ago in a move that seemed to usher in a long-lasting season of loss, a season that has swelled to include our current global moment. It is a season of grief; and grief can be such a private phenomenon that words like community or collective don’t quite follow.
If I am being honest, I think I find myself in a personal moment where I most appreciate watching other poets commune. I think it goes back to that quieting I mentioned earlier. I really do enjoy seeing poets show up for each other and feel a sense of relief that I may also be held in those ways.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Honestly and truly there is no poet more important to me than a fast-talking Caribbean yelling at the top of their lungs on Newkirk or Farragut or Lenox. The eh-ehs, eyos, heeeeeys and whoeeeeys are lingual delights like no other!
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Playwriting is actually my “primary” mode of writing: and so I always feel like I come to poetry as a humble appreciant. The first poetry workshop I ever took was actually last year led by Angel Nafis with a group of the most caring collaborators anyone could ever ask for. What I find most influential about the poets whose work I appreciate is their commitment to language. I don’t just mean in the way of finding the right word or manipulations of grammar. I mean the ways in which they are always searching for the sound to say the thing they need to say. There is something so essential about that, and I don’t always see that kind of attention in playwriting.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I am currently reading The Dyzgraphxst by Canisia Lubrin, which requires total surrender. That book is not simply “a poem,” as its cover describes. The book is an event in such a total, experiential way. It asserts its relation to the reader by introducing the encounter in ways that—I think this is important—don’t assume what language means or how language works for anyone. No spoilers, but the book’s announcement of how it will work actually delegitimizes a presumptive mastery of language, which you have to do with English because it is such a violent tongue. Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk is another book that really sticks with me. It took me a year to read it; and it is a book you return to as you’d return to something that is presently/perpetually occurring. The Blue Clerk is always happening. I often find myself physically stirred by how and when the event of that book suddenly shows up in my life. It demands endurance, in part because of what empire has forced people to endure; but it insists on abiding.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I finally got a copy of The Black Shoals by Tiffany Lethabo King, which I am really excited for because of the connections it draws between Black studies and Indigenous studies. What this book sits with is urgent (always has been) and requires a kind of poetics we rarely see, given how people approach Black histories and Indigenous histories in this country. I also need to get into Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, who, in addition to being a phenomenal writer, also has a strong cocktail-making game if you follow her on Twitter.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I like to read a few books over several years. It is a special/exactly my kind of chaos to return to a book a few months or years after I started it as if I’m catching up with an old friend. I get a lot of reading recommendations from Twitter, which, while Babylon, is also a place of meeting for some pretty brilliant thinkers and artists. I prefer a physical book, but if the digital version is a thing of convenience, I’m happy to get down with that. I find it harder to take notes in digital texts because you don’t return to them in the same way. So, if I’m reading something on a Kindle or iPad, I’ll actually record quotes and notes on my phone; whereas if I’m reading a physical book, I’ll jot everything in the margins. In The Math of Saint Felix there are actually a few poems that are composed almost entirely of margin notes.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Something I’d like to try that I fear I don’t have the patience for is a contrapuntal, in particular one where the punctuation really tracks because I’m a little obsessed with grammar (what happens when you are schooled by nuns). A contrapuntal is essentially about two distinct entities abiding, but the abiding—the relation—takes work.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
Because I’m not much of a coffee drinker, coffee shops aren’t always the place for me. A solid half-shaded park table is my favorite warm weather go-to! I also really like setting up shop at the Grand Army Plaza library or the lobby/café at BRIC Arts.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love the Flatbush Malls. They’re such a lush dark green and a place where all you can do is drive, walk or bike around. I really appreciate how they escape what we understand as function (which really means participating in some transaction of capital). I also love Red Hook because it still feels like the edge of the world. My absolute favorite place in Brooklyn is Taste the Tropics on Avenue D, an ice cream shop that has been holding it down for decades and is truly the most Caribbean locale in the tri-state area.
Because what you need is always on sale at Key Food.