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Experiments in Joy: Cut the Cake or Ven Devórame Otra Vez

Coenobite passport photographs. 12 August 2016. (photographs provided by author)

You give yourself to something and it sucks on you until you disappear

—Lisa Samuels, Tomorrowland
(Deep Surface Productions, 2012)

I. Along the continuum of desire.
—An invitation to follow the eye inward to emptiness and the locus of suffering (backside joy). Coenobite (also cenobite) and coenobitic: Late Middle English derived from ecclesiastical Latin coenobita, via late Latin from the Greek koinos “common” and bios “life.” Coenobite: a member of a monastic community. The community of monks living together: coenobium.
—Who will go?
Witness and chosen kin. Metal lens and long bone and song of yellow marrow.

II. Who Suffers and Is Impervious to Pain
I found the first Hellraiser series Pinhead action figure in a specialty toy store in New Orleans while there for a conference, meandering with activists as we walked off a heavy meal. I purchased it and, later, several more. Individually wrapped, they are kept in storage with their assorted accessories (miniature gate-to-hell puzzle boxes, pillar of souls, bloody implements, etc.). Though I had no urge to “collect them all,” I was fascinated for a time. It wasn’t hell or torture or the ecstatic or the uppermost registers of human pain that intrigued me. I wasn’t interested in pushing the limits of experience; if anything I would have rather contained it.

Detailed miniatures complete with scored flesh. Pinhead (the movie series’ head cenobite and gatekeeper of Hell), had been refashioned in my mind. He became He Who Suffers and Is Impervious to Pain (HWSAIITP): a symbol of resilience and integrity. One free from the threat of harm and emotional distress. And a symbol of choice. It is my choice to love and protect the flesh from injury just as within me is another course of action, the option to be another—the one who tortures (who also pleases and alternately rages). The monster I choose not to be though is verily within me.

And Pinhead, rather than the other cenobites because there was something serene about him. The matter of fact. The worst, passed. And though his pallor is suggestive of an exsanguinated corpse, his head and face are adorned with nails rather than disfigured by them and the grid from which they protrude represents order and precision. Symmetry.


III. The Monster. Take Two.
An awareness. The intensity of my resistance to identifying with the monster/the monstrous suggests that operating from gratitude and loving kindness has become more challenging than I'd like to admit. In preparation for the start of school, I again took to regularly listening to the news and to reading a range of articles to keep abreast of current events and conversations. Returning to the classroom also means I am engaging more people in a day than I had been encountering in two full weeks. I cannot discount the impact of the climate of the U.S., the world—it has been known to pervade public spaces and private sanctuaries alike. Ignorance. Bigotry. Hatred. Hypocrisy. Revenge. Thing-ification. Like a stench. Or something in the water. Algae. Lead. Or Naegleria fowleri. Through the nose, through the olfactory nerve, into the frontal lobe. Feeding. “Taste our pleasures,” it says: “Say not the struggle availeth naught.”

To the bone and the spaces within

Endocannibalism: eating one of one’s own tribe, usually after
     the beloved dies
Exocannibalism: eating the other

To secure between teeth, under tongue
To swallow

To surrender to mysteries, to the beloved—the multitude—as if death
     is past
A ritual, choosing

V. Ven Devórame Otra Vez: DrPoMo’s Coenobium Surround Sound: Music. For. Your. Life. (Or, at least, mine. #Multitudes.)

In a newly initiated practice, I am compiling short 5 song/20 minute playlists to assist me in shifting my energy when I sense I am giving myself to the absence of empathy, the absence of imagination. Twenty minutes with the waves of these faves. Good for (among other things):
     • Freewriting, stream of consciousness
     • Stretching
     • Power Nap
     • Power Walk
     • Cardio (Bike, Elliptical, Treadmill, Rowing Machine/Erg)
     • Nobody’s-Watching Dance
and returning to an optimal joyful-peaceful-powerful state.

DrPoMo’s Five Alive Throw Back Get Life Playlist
1. Can You Feel It (1981)—The Jacksons
2. In the Stone (1979)—Earth, Wind & Fire
3. What Can I Do For You (1974)—LaBelle
4. Blessed (1977)—The Emotions
5. As (1976)—Stevie Wonder

DrPoMo’s Cut the Cake Throwback Fiver
1. Cut the Cake (1975)—Average White Band
2. Black Betty (1977)—Ram Jam
3. The Chain (1974)—Fleetwood Mac
4. I’m a Woman (I’m a Backbone) (1974)—Rufus featuring Chaka Khan
5. Another One Bites the Dust (1980)—Queen


In a newly initiated poetics project, I am inviting poets and artists to participate in my creative-critical arts practice by attending to the Call & Response Performance Ensemble’s prompt to conduct Experiments in Joy (first announced at Antioch College in 2014). Folk are invited to share reflections and creative works towards shared joy and our collaborative creation of the worlds we inhabit—and the worlds that inhabit us. These are some of the responses.


“I love myself when I am laughing…”
Rosamond S. King
Brooklyn —Port-of-Spain
USA          —Trinidad & Tobago


they do not love your flesh
they yonder
they do not
love your flesh
they do not love

your flesh
under them
do not love

on love
love your flesh
love under your flesh
do not not love

do not love yonder
on their flesh

they love.
they do not love
your flesh.

do nothing

they do not have your flesh

Most of the world conspires against our joy. The same forces that restrict our professional, creative, and economic aspirations, that take aim at our spirit, that threaten our bodily integrity and our “right mind,” are ready to crush any joy that manages to bloom.

These forces say things like who are you to be happy? Do you deserve that? How dare you be happy while the world and so many people are in crisis?  These voices suggest we shouldn’t bother with joy, which is likely to quickly dissipate or be taken away anyway—right?

I don’t trust you with my joy.
It’s not thin as glass.
But I don’t want to see your
teeth marks in it.

When I was very young, several people told me that my laugh was too loud, that it was unseemly or unladylike, so I suppressed it. I stifled it, so that even my joy wasn’t really happy. But that only lasted a few years; I love laughing too much not to do it fully.

Not long after I embraced my laughter, a man I didn’t know approached me in a restaurant and asked me if I was an opera singer. When I looked confused, he explained that I have “an eight-octave laugh.” More incentive to never stifle laughter, to never tamp down joy.


(I love myself when I am laughing, and then again when I am looking mean and impressive. —Zora Neale Hurston)

I love myself
        when I am

                                he hee! ha ha ha whoooeeee!

You didn’t think
          I could do it didja?
                Thought I was hard
                        like stone like rock
                                candy                                                         mean
                                        and then again                                 mean
                                thought you could melt

Watch out man be

        I         love myself
        I love         myself
        I love myself when I am
        I love myself
                                          when I am looking



like water from a spring: adventures in collaboration
Marva Jackson Lord
Wales, U.K.

1. Tell the truth

My relationship with poetry began when I was a small child, reading sickly sweet odes to an 18th century concept of friendship, that did not include me. But, I loved the rhythm of verse. Like music, literature is a source of joy for me. Poetry like the blues is the soul of the world in which we live. In years to come I would be inspired by writers like T S Eliot, Sylvia Plath, e e cummings, Margaret Atwood. Then years later, a coming home to Caribbean rooted language and storytelling through the words of Miss Lou, Lillian Allen, mandiela, Dionne Brand, Afua Cooper, Nourbese Philip, Clifton Joseph among many others. Poetry of my African and Aboriginal kin.

2. Make something new

I've begun writing poems publicly again. I first began writing poetry consciously when I was 14 or 15. I determined proudly to be a poet. Simply because I enjoyed writing poetry. I put myself on a strict writing schedule, often walking to the local Woolworth's store to find a stranger to read and critique my poem. It didn't occur to me that anyone might think this odd for a black child to be doing in a small Canadian town. Indeed the local newspaper published my poems and wished me well for a future as a writer. But this writing of poems became a hidden thing as disapproved by parent. I hid the thing that most mattered, and in that lost my voice. Over the years I would write a few things, hidden inside factual articles on events or profiles of artists, and later, in corners of the internet under pseudonyms. The voice of the poems is not Jamaican. Hmm, perhaps if you listen closely you might hear the lilt that was erased by a parent intent on his child fitting into the colonised world he knew.

3. Invite someone in

I determined to change my habit of hiding my poems by starting a group where I could share with others at any stage in development. We would meet monthly at Tomatitos, the local Tapas restaurant. It started off slowly and grew, but then became difficult to continue as I tried to build a visiting artist component where I actually paid the poets a fee and looked after their accommodation. I had to stop eventually. When my mother passed away it became more difficult to focus. Looking back sharing with others a love of poetry was healing, fun and productive. I learned that not enough people know about the significance of the Harlem Renaissance or black literary tradition around the world, and how contemporary language and literature has been affected by the work. Beginning to read my poems publicly brought me back to voice. I recorded a poem last autumn that I uploaded to an online audio recording community of musicians and singers called Wikiloops. The poem has been remixed many times by various musicians. Each interpretation has been delightful for me, to hear how others relate to my recording, both the voice and poem.

This has happened for the sheer joy of exploration and has deepened my understanding of some of the ways we can collaborate in creativity online.

4. Document

The original recording I made for Wikiloops.

My first attempt at creating a remix with a backing track by Wikiloops member FrankMil


Blues version

Jazz-Rock version

Electronic-Rock version

Classical version

5. Repeat

Yes, repeat.


Emptying the Laughing Barrel:
An Archival Experiment in Black Joy, in Sound

CTTNN Club (Jonah Mixon-Webster, Casey Rocheteau & jayy dodd)
Errywhere, USA

[T]hanks to the great influx of Negroes, the uproar from laughing barrels could become so loud and raucous that it not only disturbed the serenity of the entire square, but shook up the whites’ fierce faith in the stability of their most cherished traditions. On such occasions the uproar from the laughing barrels could become so contagious and irresistible that any whites who were so unfortunate as to be caught near the explosions of laughter would find themselves compelled to join in.
—Ralph Ellison, “Going to the Territory”

This collaborative project, “The Laughing Barrel,” is an immersive investigation of history and Black Joy. On plantations and in marketplaces throughout the south, public expressions of black joy were seen as an affront to white people. If a Negro were to feel laughter seizing control of them, they were to tip the upper half of their body into a laughing barrel and release their laughter inside. The project initially existed in a collective thought with CTTNN Club members Jonah Mixon-Webster, Casey Rocheteau & jayy dodd—as we celebrated the settlement Sistahs on the Reading Edge received after being kicked off The Napa Valley Wine Train for laughing too loud, the conversation turned its attention to the history of the laughing barrel and ways to create out of this context. The ritual frame of the “Experiment in Joy” prompt became a means of avowal for this project, allowing us to attend to the truth that the sound of Black Joy itself is a pollutant to those who instinctively and historically hate it. Here we were able to respond to such truth/such hate with disregard by creating an audio archive of Black Joy from recorded CTTNN Club gatherings, and inviting others in on the process. From the audio documentation we would then: compose/curate multiple laugh tracks and mixdowns to play errywhere in front of errybody, write reflections on the experiment, and do it all again.

From July 9th - July 11th the CTTNN Club came together at the house Casey won with poems in Detroit. Over that weekend we recorded over 30 hours of sound documenting the daily occupation of our lives: we listened to music at inordinate volumes, set folks or got set by folks in spades, jayy cooked a gang of meals, we ate together, wrote poems and other works, workshopped, rode through the city, had some other Detroit artists over—dramatists, filmmakers, and writers—Zarinah Ali, Jova Lynne Johnson, Reuben Telushkin, Vanessa Reynolds, Corina M. Fadel, and Clay Drew Gary II. We had an impromptu party, danced and didn’t dance, had impromptu poetry readings, got tatted, turnt up, were lit, were unbothered, talked ad infinitum, watered gardens, cut ass, discussed ideas for future art projects, congregated on a porch, went to the altar, discovered the Sun/Rising/Moon signs of some of our closest friends, star gazed, snored, looked at work by artist Martine Syms and Vanessa German, had a photo shoot in the backyard, tried new cigars, smoked too many Newports, etc—regardless.


Reflections in Brief

JMW: How easily they make such ordinances to relegate Black Joy to a sonic realm of the abject—the sound of Black Joy is always a threat to “civility”— a bass line, a holler, a laugh. We know that it’s not just the land that’s still colonized, but the air above it as well.

CLR:  I think Paul Mooney’s funniest joke is when he says “oh, look at you, scared like ‘Oh Paul’s gonna get us in trouble with Massa. I can’t get you in trouble. You’re black in America, you’re already in trouble.” Joy can be a crucible for Black folks, trying to find it hidden somewhere in the fog of fear and anxiety that is our history in this country.  People have often told me that my laughter is infectious, and when I’m with my squad, I hope it’s a contagion. I think of The Laughing Barrel as patient zero.

jd: something about the containment of Black joy. how do you contain a holler of a future? an undead cackle? the laughs of Black folk always manifest as plasma, a matter terrifying & electric. glowing even when encapsulated. here is the conceit of Black joy—it materializes unfamiliar for those unaware of it’s power. it strikes fear in the feeble & unimaginative. our joy, however, is the only way we sustain our histories.

Originally Published: August 31st, 2016

Duriel E. Harris is a poet, performer, and sound artist. She is author of the poetry collections No Dictionary of a Living Tongue (Nightboat, 2017), Drag (2003), and Amnesiac: Poems (2010). Multi-genre works include her one-woman theatrical performance Thingification, as well as Speleology (2011), a video collaboration with artist Scott Rankin. Recent and upcoming appearances include performances at the Lake Forest...