M Archive: After the End of the World (Duke University Press) is the second book in Durham-based "poet, activist, and queer black troublemaker" Alexis Pauline Gumbs's groundbreaking poetic trilogy engaging with the work of black feminist scholars. It communes with M. Jacqui Alexander the way 2016's Spill did with Hortense Spillers and the forthcoming DUB will with Sylvia Wynter. As a "black feminist researcher" and "speculative documentarian," Gumbs creates an archive of the aftermaths of worlds. But the darkness of the invisible is not something to be feared. Rather, Gumbs imaginatively investigates the bottoms of oceans, the outer linings of horizons, the sonics of breathing, and the soft underground intimations blossoming within, alongside, and ahead of us even in the midst of apocalyptic destruction. Gumbs invites us into a collective practice of preparing for a future where we survive by returning to—and becoming accountable to—the deepest parts of ourselves.
INDY: M Archive is so hard to describe in terms of genre. It feels like part theoretical intervention, part historic revision, part fantasy novel, part allegory, part eco-poetics. Can you tell me a little about the hopes, intentions, and obsessions that led to M Archive?
ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS: It's being marketed as poetry, black feminist theory, and science fiction, and I don't know if any other book has been marketed in that way. Those are all accountabilities and traditions that are important to me. It's my obsession with citing black women and my daily practice of allowing myself to go where that work takes me, in a way that I am fugitive from having to explain the work of black feminists or seeking to use it in a project that colonizes it. There are so many dynamics at work in black feminism. We deserve a depth of engagement that resists ownership, resists slavery, resists capitalism.
M Archive is deeply in dialogue with M. Jacqui Alexander's Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. You write in the opening pages of M Archive that Alexander's book is "ancestrally cowritten." How does engaging a cowritten text change how you enter it?
In the writing process itself, I entered through Jacqui every day: the first thing I did was just rereading the text and pulling out phrases. Those images and questions became a lens for my daily life. What I realized in this process is that I enter as someone who identifies as a researcher at the end of the world. I am a black feminist researcher, researching these publications that do not exist anymore, people who have died, and here I am after the end of the world and in relation to the worlds they created.
You write that the form you use for M Archive is one of "speculative documentary." Why did you feel drawn to write toward the speculative?
In Durham, this coalition of black documentarians was starting to coalesce, led by Michelle Lanier, and at one of these meetings the go-around question was, "What documentary work are you currently working on?" I realized, oh, this is documentary work, but speculative documentary work. It's not evidence of what has happened, but it is a possible interpretation of the evidence we are making now. It might be different than taking a camera and interviewing someone, but it is cowritten with the future survivors of this moment.
Why was it so important for you to work through and with archives?
Archives are really sacred spaces for me. That has been the case for a very long time. I remember my first archival encounter. I think I was fifteen. It was the Auburn Avenue library in Atlanta. I had the opportunity to work with the original newspapers of the Black Panthers, and I was like, OK, this is time-travel technology, a form of intergenerational connection that has very much shaped who I am and how I think. In the structure of this book, I am asking the reader to join me as someone who sits and sorts through things. I want to invite more people into that process, where you don't have all the answers.
There's a notable emphasis on the "we" and the "us" throughout M Archive: "We became a people by remembering. We remembered by becoming a people ... We remembered us." Why this repeated return to the first-person plural?
It's an orientation I feel raised into. It is always about we; it is always about us. Audre Lorde was M. Jacqui Alexander's teacher and mentor. Jacqui is living in Audre Lorde's legacy in such a healing and miraculous way. Because of the influence of Audre Lorde, and the influence of that entire generation, there is this understanding that even the most individual-seeming experiences, even your dreams or subconscious reality, are always connected to a collective possibility. The reason I write the way that I do is to work with a collective, even beyond death, generation, and geography. For me, the point of being an artist is to tap into that connection.
Dark, interior, and unseen feminine energy, a kind of return to nature, and the core physical elements are all prominent in M Archive, which creates an intermingling of inside and outside. Can you tell me more about those tensions?
There is something really important about the destabilization of what colonialism and the forms of enlightenment that enabled colonialism and slavery have said about the deep interior and the exterior. There's actually a narrative violence that is reproduced that presents both of those as spaces of exile. What connects those things for the paranoid colonial mind is that they are dark and that there are possibilities that cannot be controlled. What does it mean to examine those as spaces of possibility? It is a beautiful thing that there are all of these possibilities that cannot be controlled, before all of that fear, that have created everything. What would it mean to honor that? It's the reason why black feminism is relevant to everyone.
When we are living in such a spectacularly violent time, politically and economically, there are inevitably debates around what the work of poetry can or should be. How do you relate poetic work to the logistics of survival and resistance?
I think what we are witnessing now is a consequence of language. We have been taught that lying to ourselves will help us survive, but that is also a lie. It is so incredibly visible in this particular moment where the lies are more and more flagrant. For me, the purpose of tapping into our dreams and trusting our intuition, and for sure the work of poetry, is to say what Audre Lorde has already said: we have to tell ourselves and each other the truth if we are going to survive. This allows us to participate in an un-training and a rededication of our language, and nothing can happen logistically without that.
What do you have coming up now that M Archive is in the world?
The third book in the trilogy is called DUB: Finding Ceremony, in reference to the "W" in Sylvia Wynter's name and also dub poetry as a Caribbean poetic form and a way of community-building in diaspora—all the things that dub can mean in terms of doubling and sound. It has the structure of coral because I was working through what it means to be an organism that is collective and various, with many openings but one source of resources. I'm also compiling my writings about Audre Lorde. We have created the Mobile Homecoming Living Library and Trust to honor what "archive" actually means, to honor the books and artifacts and papers that participants have offered as a community resource, but also articulating how the lives of queer black elders are a community resource we should relate to accordingly.