Noct–The threshold of Madness: a Preview
Garden-pathing, it was recently explained to me, is a grammatical sentence that lures readers into one meaning, only to be misled, whether through syntactical arrangement or flat-out lexical deception. Isn’t this, I wondered, what poetry is? Maybe. This is how I began to consider Joey De Jesus’s take on erasure when I first had to write the copy for the book’s preorder page. As I sat with this book and learned more about the hold it had on meaning—that is, a subversion of intention and mysticism—I started to see lexical deception differently. Poetry is not a syntactical arrangement nor flat-out lexical deception. Or rather, it is not only this. It begins with syntactic tools only to disrupt expectations of grammar. The question evolved. Isn’t it that poetry is an alternative logical guidance for which we must insist on politically activated urgencies? And isn’t it, that when those insistences falter, we need look no further than the systems that enable politically sanctioned art? In an era that capitalizes on White Witch Culture™️, De Jesus perceives the implications of black magic as a recapitulation of Black violence. Notions of darkness have been famously canonized as the settlers’ conquest. In a world where Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie sell witch merch, Darren Wilson—the cop responsible for the lynching of Michael Brown—can refer to a black teenager as “it” and justify the murder by telling the white courtroom, “It looked like a demon.” White and black do not simply evince a mysticism; they carry the atrocities of polarizing, othering, and annihilating the marginalized. We should be suspicious, always, of such ensorcelled possibilities.
In Noct–The Threshold of Madness, De Jesus chronicles identity disrepair by internalizing the homology of blackness with the demonic. They write, “I—I / trick of my mind / Goal and motive coming to me / As the I speaks forth.” There is a possession to their disrepair, one that throttles intended meaning into a spatiotemporal sphere of one. The language is at once devastating as it is curated by a mastermind. Here, agency is pushed under the lens as with everything else. The “I” is as void as it is also muscle. It sings without epiphany. It takes great pains to explore the splintering consequences of Whiteness. I had the opportunity to learn from this mastermind. Here is a poet I trust as a thinker and activist, who is not seduced by the glimmer of status-quo publishing; in fact, they know just how culpable the literary world can be.
from Noct–the threshold of madness
Before the jury
he had a mind
for the holy:
to fear blindly an identity
thought evil, lesser, unseen, different from…
I try to dismiss you
not force of will, non-worship
mis-wisdom it, light behold!
what I thought to be beautiful
was blond, pale, smirking
some inside joke
with a tone familiar to me. I logic.
I said, yes.
in other words
“man, prove me wrong
make me simple”
okay, I speak using quotes
I head the night nonverbally
I concentrate alone
I thought a theory
I end the soul
An Interview with Joey de Jesus
Natalie Eilbert: Tell us about the concept and process behind Noct–The Threshold of Madness. When did you find the original text? What inspired the erasure?
Joey De Jesus: I began redacting NOCT- The Threshold of Madness in 2014. The week following Michael Brown’s death, I spotted a “how-to” book in conducting “black magic” atop a stack of donations on a Brooklyn stoop. I suppose I was drawn initially to the sigils on its cover. As I flipped through, I kept noticing deeply anti-Black formulations in which the author exhausts cliché associations between blackness, devilry and demonism. I thought the book presented me a psychological portrait of the white occultist and could not help but imagine invisible operations of white wickedness in our world. I abruptly took the book, curious about the occultist’s ability to forge power out of nothing.
In the following month, September, I recall encountering the testimony of Darren Wilson, the officer who murdered Michael Brown. Wilson testified to the Grand Jury, “It looked like a demon” referring to Michael Brown’s face. This comment affected me deeply because I saw and see myself in it. It’s a peculiarly hateful thing to say, this death sentence. Here, Wilson’s use of the pronoun “it” reveals he believed Brown to be less-than-human, while simultaneously, the “demon” signifies a belief that somehow Brown (in his size) possessed supernatural or more-than-human ability. Wilson’s hate triggers a series of synaptic operations that prevents him from recognizing Brown’s humanity. And I thought to begin redacting this book into a chronicle of identity disrepair beginning with the face because I too am implicated in this violence as Boricua living a sort of exile conferred with certain light-skin Latinx privileges.
I have a hard time using the word “inspired” to describe my relationship to the work because I believe the problem of it central to unanswered questions of the book; I am not inspired by Black death. But there is something to the word, -spirare, from Latin, to breathe. I still breathe. When our loved ones draw their last breaths, what breathes into us? How might I breathe into life a thing, a book, a body? According to the OED, the word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, a spirit, that imparts a truth or an idea. Perhaps, I was trying to diss inspiration. I looked for language to speak to internalizations of external anti-Black forces as they play out in my being, in an attempt at adapting an adept’s language to conjure power otherwise. I failed, but I suppose you could say I failed up.
NE: You are a poet who utilizes performance often in their poetry readings. In fact, I remember seeing you perform this poem at the now-shuttered indie library Mellow Pages. How has erasure informed your performance, especially when the source text is espoused to notions of black magic?
JDJ: That’s an awesome question.
The poet makes a political choice when they decide to stand at a podium to read the work, which is to say every poet who reads to an audience is utilizing performance. This standardized mode of performative reading is rooted in an Anglo-Christian post-confessional tradition. It is normal and needs to be disrupted. We know the poet who stands solo at the podium has figuratively, in advance of that moment, atoned for their “sins.” They’ve prostrated their errors to some previous authority who has sanctioned their inclusion in the literary service. This standardization of reading-practice is heinous to me. Not only does it limit the ways in which we share work, it limits what we imagine a poem can be. It also limits the relationship the poet has to their work—not every poem is authored or authorized.
Today, poets rarely think about what the microphone does to the phonic, ponic (as in to labor/toil), and sonic materiality of their voice. When the poet speaks into a microphone, they are augmenting qualities of their voice through a sort of prosthesis. The object performs the affective labor of amplifying the word. I try to recognize and name invisible labor in the world as it relates to my work. What does the labor of carrying the voice? It is not just the poet’s vocal organ; I think of “poet’s voice,” for instance, this grating switch in speech that some poets affect. When we’re not thinking critically about the performance of our words, some of us American poets default into a minstrelsy of Black voice. And because of the post-confessional performative mode of standing as authority behind the podium, this expression of anti-Blackness continues, sanctioned in the world.
I use a TC-helicon, RC loop-station, mixers, augmented-reality technology and other devices to augment my voice while I read for several reasons: to disrupt the normative reading practice of speaking at the podium; to unsettle the presumed distance between me and the audience—the audience is not safe from my conjuring; to reveal autonomous entities of sound; to elevate chance in the word’s work in the world and, most importantly, I use technology to draw power from this denial of my humanity and transgress into being(s) otherwise. I don’t want to sound human when I read because the human is an exclusionary concept that predicates upon the death of nonhumans to survive. The white poet who plays in “poet’s voice,” without realizing it, does this too; that is, he secures the bag that is not his to take.
So yes, I sonically redact my voice, creating palimpsests and loops, layers of sound, delays, echoes, warps. I have to listen to these sonic entities that I’ve conjured in the world in order to improvise with them. The poem serves as a script but there’s a lot of uncertainty in the production of sound. My favorite performances have been areitos performed with collaborators including B Taylor and Sammy Roth, in which we collectively perform “the poem.”
NE: I want you to talk about the Darren Wilson epigraph in this chapbook. How does this inform the reading of NOCT-? In this way, what were your intentions in pairing Darren Wilson and Vievee Francis as the quotes preceding the poem?
JDJ: Vievee Francis’ Horse in the Dark is a collection of poetry to which I often find myself returning. I love “Creation Myth,” which appears toward the end of the collection. When I teach it, I usually teach it alongside Kiki Petrosino’s “Ragweed” and Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me.”
Francis begins the poem riffing an elemental cliche, “There was a wind—this is always the start . . . ” The speaker presents a paradoxical situation, she dictates her own formation of “the breath of chaos . . . ,” her voice preexists her being in the world; it is at first entirely exterior, then interior to the flesh of her, as her being forms into matter. The poem is asking, how can this be?
The speaker says, “I said, I might die for lack. I said, I am so contained I am the container. I said, break me.”This moment expresses so effortlessly what I am trying to accomplish in the entirety of NOCT-. NOCT- explores psychosomatic consequences of internalizing obliterating forces (anti-Blackness) in my being. “I am so contained,” she says. The speaker is confined within an apparatus that makes of her its microcosm. But she resists, “I am so contained, I am the container,” she says, recognizing herself as an instrument forged in the likeness of that chaos, which imposes itself upon her. Her being is paradoxical; she emerges of a world that seeks to obliterate her as Black woman. How might she free herself? “Break me,” the speaker says, courting rupture. What pessimism. She realizes the limit, requiring death be symbolic. But this is a creation myth, a poem of the birthing of a world. Francis retires the logics of exclusion that position life and death in opposition. When the poem climaxes, she is birthed into the world, formed firstly at the mouth: “And I, now, with a mouth to speak, openly moan as chaos reshapes itself in my own form, feel myself quicken to its will, itself in my hands.” Perhaps I am a paranoid thinker, but I relate to this sentiment. I feel so contained by the efforts of the several who’ve sought to demonize me in my world and life at-large that when I assume villainous form, and intentionally step into the identity the oppressor fears, when I demonstrate the identity imposed upon me, my inheritance, I grow in power toward the body-mind’s limited threshold. A rupture. Un-writing NOCT- demanded staying with my own internalized anti-Blackness in an effort to uproot it. It is a self-destructive process that sees no end. That’s what NOCT-’s all about, I think. The conclusion of “Creation Myth” informs a strategy toward survival—“The lip of insistence”—a way to feel myself quickening to a collective will that we must collectively and consensually repurpose if we are to recuperate a livable planet from ge(n)ocidal whiteness. If “the breaking of silence is the sonic privilege of whiteness,” as Jennifer Lynn Stoever writes in The Sonic Color Line, then NOCT- is an open moan in response to the ongoing obliteration of Black life.
NE: NOCT- fixates on names, sex, and desire in this totally nihilistic way. It’s almost as if, for the speaker to find power, they must shunt themselves of any preordained identity. Since the language is taken from an original text, did you have a sense of direction or thesis or did it fall into place as you mined and culled language?
JDJ: I suppose in some ways there was a thesis and in other ways there wasn’t. The thesis, I believe, serves as proposition in the settler-colonial project of Reason, but NOCT- is an untethering. If there is a thesis, it responds to the question, how do I survive (in/after) this text? Might I survive by obliterating it anew?
Yes, I think your question marvelously names a shunting that I am trying to accomplish in order to arrive at otherworldly power. I think the first part of your question offers a fantastic lens through which to read Francis’ “Creation Myth.” (“I said, Break me.”) I do hope NOCT-, in some capacity, demonstrates the delusional nonsense of post-raciality and/or rigid identitarianism, on the one hand, while, the other underlines the very real, mortal, psychic stakes in the violent slide from human to thing.
I’m not so sure I am enacting a culling. When I think of culling, I remember my studies as a researcher of human-wildlife conflicts in Kenya (2007) and later Botswana (2009). Culling is a ritual killing of entire communities of wildlife for the sake of an ecosystem’s health. It is practiced by the State. Derrida and Artaud each imagine the word “the cadaver of psychic speech.” How can I kill something already dead? Perhaps the process of producing an erasure poem requires the reanimation of the word. Maybe the cruelty is in producing such a Frankenstein language, words are not long for their lives.
I honestly cannot explain how I went about composing the poem. I like to think that someday, when I have disappeared, becoming some mountain encircled by ghoulish wind, someone will find the palimpsest I produced, the source-text I inscribed over, with its geometrical images and layers of redactions. I hope they will lose themselves attempting to discern the reason behind aesthetic decisions made to produce this forgery. Only in that way might I ensure myself enfleshed again.
NE: Do you consider this chapbook a spell or invocation? If yes, towards what or whom? If no, do you think the original book carries any power? You can answer both, if one informs the other.
JDJ: Absolutely. Though, I know not to name what or whom—not so casually. Whatever “it” is, was or will be must evade my futile efforts at capturing it through language. This inability to speak plunges my whole being in rage. Without realizing it, the source text demonstrates fanatical valorization of whiteness; its practitioners encrypt anti-Blackness as systemic knowledge. They would see the world reduced to dust. I hope that by erasing the original, I might affect the reversal of such a death sentence. Practitioners of the original text are lost to matters of truth. Black Lives Matter, yes, and I hope to know how black lives matter, as in physically matter in our understanding of space, time and world. Whiteness desensitizes us to matters of truth, not universal truths, but truths as they pertain to the physical mechanics of space, of plenum(s).
NE: Who are your main influences?
JDJ: Influences include: Michael Morse, Kazim Ali, Patrick Rosal, LaTasha N Nevada Diggs, Cathy Park Hong, Vievee Francis, Marie Howe, DA Powell, and Fred Moten . . . As poetry co-editor, I’m influenced by every Apogee poet we’ve selected for publication in the journal, especially Saretta Morgan, Nikki Walleschlaeger, Juliana Huxtable, Sueyeun Juliette Lee and Jennifer Tamayo. I have learned so much from my incredible co-editors Muriel Leung, Zefyr Lisowski, and Alexandra Watson. I love Kiki Petrosino’s poetry. Myung Mi Kim’s Common has been a model for me in thinking of my forthcoming work with The Operating System. Douglas Kearney is phenomenal. My favorite poems to teach have been by Lucille Clifton, Toi Derricotte, Raquel Salas Rivera, and Gary Copeland Lilley. I love Missy and The Knife / Fever Ray. I really could go on and on. I love reading, even the works of writers with whom I vehemently disagree—though I won’t name them now.
Joey De Jesus is the author of HOAX (Operating System, 2020), NOCT- The Threshold of Madness (The Atlas Review, 2019), and co-contributor alongside Sade LaNay to Writing Voice into the Archive vol. 1, organized and edited by Jennifer Tamayo with support from UC Berkeley’s Center for Race and Gender. Joey co-edits poetry at Apogee Journal, and participates as Advisory Board Member at No, Dear Magazine. Joey received the 2019-20 BRIC ArtFP Project Room Commission for the omniana of HOAX and a 2017 NYFA/NYSCA Fellowship in Poetry, which named them Gregory Milliard Fellow. Poems have appeared in the Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day, Bettering American Poetry, Barrow Street, BOAAT, The Brooklyn Rail, The Cortland Review, The Literary Review, Newtown Literary Alliance, Southern Humanities Review, and several other venues. They've been performed and/or installed in Artists Space, Basilica Soundscape, The New Museum, The Poetry Project and elsewhere.