Aba Micah Collins-Sibley: I became familiar with you and your work when you read at Smith College in Spring 2015, but if you were to attempt the, perhaps impossible, task of explaining the ethos of your writing and your studying to someone who was not familiar with your working, what would you say?
Bettina Judd: Go to my website? See this.
Aba: You describe yourself as an “interdisciplinary writer, artist, and performer”: what does that mean to you in your personal practice of creating, and what does it mean to you as a writer/artist/performer working in a larger historical and contemporary creative context?
Bettina: This naming myself is an evolutionary process that is more about what I think about myself in relationship with how much I have to explain myself to the world. I would hope it would be enough that I could say that I am Bettina, and what I do is my work in the world which takes shape as it must for the moment. But for the sake of “selling” myself, which is a crude but honest way to describe how I have described myself as an “interdisciplinary writer, artist, and performer,” I acknowledge the very different and hardheaded worlds that I inhabit: As interdisciplinary writer I acknowledge that I work within the academy. It is an odd way of saying I write in this way, and that. That it will take some work to read me. As artist, I think I am being broad and yet not broad enough. I mean that I pick up whatever tools a project needs and do my best to use them and respect them well. Performer, because I sing and that is a part of my work that doesn’t always get acknowledged by the term “artist.”
Aba: In your 2014 collection, Patient., your poems dance through the past and present, through your own encounters with medicine and black women’s encounters with medicalization throughout history. How did you balance voicing your own experiences and the voices of the women you write through? How did you begin to find, in your own mind and writing, these women’s voices?
Bettina: I don’t know that I balanced it. The project is about the imbalance of it all. That the poet/researcher/patient is a part of this speaking as much as the voices of Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, Joice, and on. I have said elsewhere that I was/am haunted by these women, and this remains true. I am haunted. I think many Black women are. When we encounter everyday moments, we are carrying a history with us that magnifies meaning. That is something I call haunting.
So that’s how I began. There is something within me, an implicit history about not trusting doctors that is verified in the history of experimentation. A cultural skepticism that is rooted in a very real past and present. Then I learned about the women specifically: Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy (the three women experimented on by J. Marion Sims); Joice Heth (the woman publicly dissected after being a part of a side show put on by P.T. Barnum); Saartjie Baartman (the so-called Hottentot Venus); Henrietta Lacks (the unwitting source of the HeLa cells which has advanced science exponentially in the past 50 or more years); Esmin Green (who died on the emergency waiting room floor of King’s County Hospital of neglect). I learned about them over time, in study, from the news. Their stories are connected. I am connected to them. The book is about that connection.
Aba: I recently read, for the first time, your chapbook,
BINDING, and while I feel like I’m still digesting that work and understanding it, I’m wondering if you could talk about your multimedia use in that project. For you, how did the inclusion of videos and recordings of your text, affect the relationship of intimacy between the poems and the reader?
Bettina: The poems require a voice to read them to you. I think I am influenced here by my work as a singer. I sing best when I am directly singing to someone—not a crowd. I’ve done these performances where I am directly singing in someone’s ear. It is a kind of intimacy that was forced on me as a child since I was always told to sing to my elders by my elders. It is a very vulnerable, intimate, and sacred act. So singing to individuals is how I learned to sing in some respects. Poems ring in my ear like a song. There is a melody to the words as I write them and that giving of song is one of the most intimate things I can think of doing. It is a kind of nakedness. A nakedness of the inside of my body, hanging out there as an offering.
BINDING itself is about intimacy. It is about giving the body over and making the body for someone else. It is about the kind of intimacy that asks to be made by another. So of course, the voice is important to the concept of the project.
Aba: I want to turn now towards your work-in-progress, Feelin Feminism: Black Women’s Art as Feminist Thought, which, first of all, strikes me as so, so luminous and I cannot wait to engage with it.
Bettina: Thank you. It is a long time coming. Pray.
Aba: How did you come to thinking about “feelin” as a lens through which to examine the creative productions of black women?
Bettina: Feelin is so Black, it’s so human. It is the way we know that we know something. I take that seriously. I take forms of knowledge that are indigenous to Black folks seriously because it is a kind of knowing that has survived and was invented out of serious duress. Duress might come again.
Aba: Can you talk about both the trajectory of the book and of your studying before you began writing and as you continue working on this project?
Bettina: The book project began as a way for me to write about what it means to create feminist thought, to create theory in ways that exist outside of Eurocentric (specifically Cartesian) notions of meaningful knowledge. I was defending a future me that wanted to write free of the restrictions of what counts as theory or useful knowledge. I wanted to take seriously the notion that the creative work that Black women produce is not for art’s sake alone, that it is useful, practical work and should be understood and engaged with as such. I think this has become more important to me as I have talked about Patient. with journalists and there is still this difficulty in understanding the emotive factor involved with the art as a part of the research involved in the work itself. The book is often understood as either decoration to the history I present or history devoid of art. Both notions are wrong, dangerously wrong in fact. So Feelin Feminism is about how Black women have been producing thought as experiences. That felt knowledge is something important to Black and indigenous folks. We have experienced what it means to be in danger for merely remembering, for knowing ourselves. They didn’t kill off all of our knowledge. We packed it in deep. That’s feelin. That is also what Patient. is about.
Aba: Your website says your research towards this book “is conducted and presented through poetry, mixed media, personal narrative in addition to academic research methods and prose”. What is your experience moving between those genres and forms of knowledge production? How do you see those different forms pulling you and your writing in different ways?
Bettina: I am pulled by different institutions rather than genres. I think it is important to make that distinction because the genres themselves have no meaning without those institutions. I am an academic. I work in a university. I am not affiliated with a creative writing or any other kind of fine arts program. That is a deliberate choice of mine but it is also what enforces a way of communicating that makes what I do legible to (single) disciplined academics that are my peers. Then there is my central argument that bucks that notion. What else do I do with that? I have to speak in a hybrid form because I am within a system and yet I am not.
I’d like to be at a point where I experience the pulling as a matter of what works best rather than what I must sound like. Maybe after tenure.
Aba: And finally, to end, another perhaps impossible question: the world facing young Black poets is full of so much pain, as is the history we study and exist through, but it’s equally full of joy and creation and living. What are some words you could offer towards to emerging young Black poets, writers, artists, creators, who are imagining the future, in the face of our past and our present?
Bettina: White supremacy cannot exist in the same space as love for Black people and joyful Black lives. Us for us. To that end, we have a lot of work to do. With the vicious head of white supremacy and fascism feeling comfortable enough to march in the streets in hoods, we have a lot of work to do. If we understand Black lives to matter, we have to write, sing, dance, paint, document our Black lives living in joy and love. Best revenge is our joy. We must be willing to face the capitalist politics of pleasure that undermine our joy. To cultivate joy that lasts generations. We must seek joy that cannot be stolen or under the threat of being stolen. We must tell each other about this joy and practice it in the face of fascism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, sexism, homophobia transphobia, and ableism. Joy is in our present and in our past. To hold on to it, to craft new ways of feeling it is our task as artists. We have the tools. I am a follower of the words of Lucille Clifton on this: In order to experience joy, we must be willing to face despair and pain. We cannot run from that. We must be willing to fight for this joy. Fight for our resources, our water, land, our communities. Much pain is in our present, our past, and surely with the incoming administration, in our future. We cannot feel joy in any kind of denial about that fact. We have to choose it every day.
Bettina Judd is an interdisciplinary writer, artist, and performer whose research focus is on Black women’s creative production and our use of visual art, literature, and music to develop Black feminist thought. Her collection of poems on the history of medical experimentation on Black women titled Patient. won the 2013 Black Lawrence Press Hudson Book Prize. She is currently Assistant Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.
Aba Micah Collins-Sibley earned a degree in Africana Studies at Smith College and is currently an MFA candidate at UMass Amherst. Their poems have appeared, or are forthcoming in, Poetry.org and Sucarnochee Review. You can follow them on Tumblr.