Wholeness through hybridity: A conversation with D. Allen
Interdisciplinary poet/artist D. Allen talks about their book, “A Bony Framework for the Tangible Universe,” out now on The Operating System
Thank you for talking to us about your process today! Can you introduce yourself, in a way that you would choose?
Thank you for talking with me! My name is D., I use they/them pronouns, and I’m a multidisciplinary poet and artist. I identify as queer, genderqueer/nonbinary, and disabled; I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) in my mid-twenties. I’m now based in Minneapolis, MN, but I was born and raised north of Durham, NC, and have strong ties to southern Vermont and Madison, WI.
Why are you a poet/writer/artist/creator?
Poetry is my calling. I have chosen poetry over and over again when I could have turned away, but poetry made the first move. That original why remains a mystery.
When did you decide you were a poet/writer/artist (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet/writer/artist, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I have been writing poems and making art since I was small, but like many of us it took me a while to figure out when/how/if I was allowed to call myself a poet-artist. I’ve gone through periods where those words felt right and easy, followed by times where I wasn’t sure I could or should use them. Sometimes my resistance to calling myself a poet-artist has been because I felt like an imposter, especially when I compared myself to others who seemed to be doing more/better/faster. These days, even when I feel confident in myself and my work, I still try to ask when, why, and with what intentions I use specific titles for myself; I don’t want to participate in that sticky art/lit-world hierarchy that deems some creators worthy of titles like “poet” and others unworthy. All of us are capable of wielding our titles as weapons to exclude others from what we consider our territory. We are equally capable of using our self-determined identities to model inclusion and access; I now call myself a poet-artist in nearly every situation, and I mean it to be a door held open for anyone who might be listening nearby, unsure of whether they’re allowed to walk through.
For the past couple of years I’ve settled on calling myself a multidisciplinary poet-artist, but if I have to choose one I just say poet. Though I work in many mediums, “poet” feels like an umbrella identity that not only refers to what I make, but also to my methods, intentions, intuitions, and the relational approach I bring to my work.
What’s a “poet” (or “writer” or “artist”) anyway?
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the literary / artistic / creative community and beyond)?
As a poet, everything is my job. Poetry allows and requires me to be open, pay attention, connect, reflect, respond, transform, and participate in public life while remaining attuned to my inner life. Poetry, for me, is inherently relational and involves more than words. I feel most like a poet when I’m baking bread to share with my people, or when a friend and I take turns going to each other’s doctor’s appointments. It’s true, I’m an introvert with a very slow artistic process; I do need substantial alone time to create my work, but my process would be nothing without the conversations, collaborations, and human exchanges I have daily within my communities.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing or making specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written / the work was being made? How or how not?
All of the text within these pages emerged in 2014–2017, but this project began in 2012 as a handful of poems that I wrote in response to my new EDS diagnosis. Those early poems were mostly for me; I needed a container for my grief and frustration, and I also wanted to try to reconcile my expansive, queer, vibrant desires with chronic pain, injury, and fatigue. I could first make out the silhouette of a book when I had amassed enough individual poems that were thematically and narratively related, but as much as I tried, they never quite lit up when I placed them side by side. I then decided to let go of the rigid conceptual structure I’d planned — originally, each bone in the human body was going to correspond to one poem or section of a poem — and experiment more with form, genre, and image. The book became a single continuous text rather than a collection of parts. I found wholeness through hybridity. The work came together more easily after that. I found myself lovingly taking the early poems out one by one until none were left. The first dictionary erasure poem I did, “needle,” led me to create the visual, object-based lyric essays at the center of the book, and the other pieces arranged themselves into the first and last sections accordingly. I had so much generous support and guidance along the way. The book absolutely would not be what it is without my community.
Many times, I won’t even write down the earliest of early drafts, but will keep phrases and concepts rolling around in my mind until clearer shapes emerge from that primordial soup.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings/work of other creative people informed the way you work/write?
I’ll often generate initial drafts without imposing any constrictive practices or formal structures on the work. Once I get a sense for what the piece wants to say, I will experiment with form and media from there. Many times, I won’t even write down the earliest of early drafts, but will keep phrases and concepts rolling around in my mind until clearer shapes emerge from that primordial soup. That said, I often make centos, erasures, detail-oriented visual work, and collages when I’m stuck or feeling restless, or I’ll find something to respond to, like an artwork or a specific place. I also have a collection of dictionaries and other reference books that I mine frequently for ideas.
My work is informed by too many texts, people, and ecosystems to name here, so I’ve paid tribute to them in my Process Notes and Gratitudes sections.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (individual pieces, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
I really struggle with titles, so I typically use placeholders for a long time. I called the collection Connective Tissue for the first several years, but when the project’s hybrid identity emerged, that no longer fit. In a later stage of revision, I was flipping through the text looking for possible title ideas (at the suggestion of my MFA cohort) when the phrases “bony framework” and “tangible universe” — from the dictionary erasure poems “body” and “material” — caught my attention. I squinted my eyes, trusted my instincts, and A Bony Framework for the Tangible Universe came into being. Titling some of the individual poems by their first lines also felt right after years of using boring placeholder titles, as did letting the dictionary erasure poems serve as titles for the pieces in the middle section of the book. Sometimes it’s best to recognize your weaknesses and lean in instead of trying to cover them up.
What does this particular work represent to you as indicative of your method/creative practice? your history? your mission, intentions, hopes, plans?
This is my first book. It emerged from immediate grief, expanded into memory, became a love letter, and now holds all of these truths simultaneously. Whether I’m creating text objects, visual work, stage performances, or other media, I intend to keep following my work across lines of discipline and genre — and always listen to the body.
What does this book DO (as much as what it says or contains)?
This book casts a spell for:
What would be the best possible outcome for this book? What might it do in the world, and how will its presence as an object facilitate your creative role in your community and beyond? What are your hopes for this book, and for your practice?
A Bony Framework for the Tangible Universe came out of my networks, relationships, connections, ecosystems — the book is my gesture of giving back to those systems, and I hope that intention translates. My illness has changed (is changing) the ways in which I’m able to physically engage in both public and intimate spaces, so my dream is that the book will now go out into the world to build its own relationships and communities, whether or not I, the creator, am involved. I want the book to find its way into the hands of people who need it — especially queer and trans folks with disabilities, people with EDS who don’t find their experiences reflected in many places, those dealing with body grief, other artists whose work doesn’t fit neatly into categories, and anyone who has loved.
If I’m lucky, one reader might bury the book in their garden to see what grows.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.”
First, I want to say that I’m responding to this as a queer, genderqueer, disabled artist with US citizenship, white privilege, current access to healthcare, and a robust support network. That said, I want to make the distinction between silos and havens: the former is a stale echo chamber where innovation cannot thrive, while the latter is a nurturing community space that we can move in and out of to recharge. When presenting public work, many artists with marginalized identities are already constantly engaging across lines of difference, intentionally or not. This can create surprising, generative connections and deepen our artistic practice. It can also put artists at risk of burnout, microaggressions, violence, diminishment, tokenism, and more.
I want to make the distinction between silos and havens: the former is a stale echo chamber where innovation cannot thrive, while the latter is a nurturing community space that we can move in and out of to recharge.
When I was newly out as queer, I joined LGBTQ Narratives, an activist-writer’s group in Madison, WI, founded by bighearted activist and scholar kiki kosnick. During my three years in the community, Narratives was intergenerational and identity-inclusive; we met every other week and also created a monthly open-mic, a monologues play, and other community projects. At the time, someone in my life asked, “Why do you have to be a queer writer? Why can’t you just be a writer?” I didn’t know how to respond in the moment, but now the answer seems simple: I needed to hold and be held within a specifically queer space in order to strengthen my writing practice and rebuild my resilience. Narratives was essential not only for my artistic development, but for my literal survival. I found members of my chosen family in that space. I found my voice after losing track of it in a thicket of depression, harassment, illness, rejection, and loss. Even now, when I live in a different city and haven’t attended a Narratives meeting in years, I hold that community within myself and try to bring its values everywhere I go. Especially for writer-artist-humans of marginalized groups, it’s essential to have access to community spaces like Narratives, while also continuing to exchange work and ideas across identity lines.
Is there anything else we should have asked, or that you want to share?
This project is relational, and it’s yours now. Thank you for being here.
D. Allen is a queer poet and multidisciplinary artist whose work often examines gender, intimacy, disability/illness, and the natural world. Their work takes many forms: word architectures, painted surfaces, light drawings, textured sounds, soft spaces, slow dinners, sustained listening, tender assemblages, quiet gardening, deep breaths. They value each of these endeavors equally. D. earned an MFA from The University of Minnesota, and has received a 20% Theatre Company Q-STAGE Fellowship, a VSA Minnesota Emerging Artist Grant, a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant from The Loft Literary Center, and a Michael Dennis Browne Fellowship. They have been an artist in residence at Mallard Island, The Lighthouse Works, Write on Door County, the H.J. Andrews Experimental Research Forest, and The Atlantic Center for the Arts, and their work has been published in Rogue Agent, District Lit, Black Warrior Review, QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, and elsewhere. A Bony Framework for the Tangible Universe is D.’s first book.
for work from A Bony Framework for the Tangible Universe (some of these are previous versions that have been changed/adapted for the current version of the manuscript)
“Meet me in the garden,” Jet Fuel Review, December 2017/Issue 14
“Power,” Poetry City USA, December 2017/Volume 7 (text not available online)
“In which two voices discuss the merits of writing about pain,” Lockjaw Magazine, February 2017/Vol 5
“The Rust Collection,” District Lit, July 2017
“spine” and “thorn” D. Allen
“Autobodiography,” Connotation Press, September 2016
“Singing Bowl: A Round for Eight Voices,” Rogue Agent, July 2016/Issue 16
“Possession” and “A Collection of Thorns,” QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology, ed. Raymond Luczak, Squares & Rebels Press, November 2015 (text not available online)