Eve Ewing Vs. the Apocalypse
Danez Smith: Versus is brought to you by The Poetry Foundation.
Franny Choi: And Post Loudness, a collective of independent audio shows by people of color, women, and queer-identified hosts.
Danez Smith: She's the one who got away, now you're fifty, alone, and regretting all your life's horrible choices, she’s Franny Choi.
Franny Choi: And they are the meanest hotel guests you've ever checked in, but you still want to be your best friend, Danez.
Danez Smith: And you're listening to Versus, where poets confront the ideas that move them.
Franny Choi: If you've never listened to our program before we bring on some of the poets that we know and love to talk about not only the creative work that they are doing but the ideas in the world that continue to move them to produce work in these trying times–– to get us all through it, to move us into new possibilities and new directions.
Danez Smith: Hopefully provide you with something to think about, maybe something to laugh about, maybe something to cry about.
Franny Choi: Like good cry though, not like weep from devastation. But like wow I feel truly seen.
Danez Smith: No, not like Hodor, Game of Thrones crying.
Franny Choi: (GASPS) Don't even say that. It is too early in the morning for such emotions.
Danez Smith: It’s like a year later.
Franny Choi: (SINGS) You’ve got me feeling emotions…
Danez Smith: Is that what you think of in your heart when you think on Hodor?
Franny Choi: It's like, it's like that but like the chopped and screwed very very sad version of that song.
Danez Smith: Cool, cool, cool. So for today’s show the poet and the idea we will be talking to Eve Ewing about surviving and survival.
Franny Choi: All of the many ways that we get through this here apocalypse while retaining some shred of our humanity.
Danez Smith: (SINGS) Oh as long as I know how to love I know I can stay alive. That’s all I can think about. Sorry, just had to sing that. So today we'll be talking to Eve Ewing who is an amazing poet, prosaist. Is that how you say that?
Franny Choi: I think so. If you want. You can say whatever you want.
Danez Smith: She write prose. She do poems. She make visual art. She a professor. A doctor.
Franny Choi: She thinks professionally.
Danez Smith: I look to her to just know like a) if Chia seeds are like actually good for me and what I should be doing to be a better Black person in the world. But we’re going to be talking to Eve Ewing today.
Franny Choi: You know like one of those people where like something crazy happens and it's like let me check this person's Twitter timeline. That's Eve Ewing for me.
Danez Smith: Eve is a poet and sociologist of education. She earned a B.A. from the University of Chicago and M.A.T from Dominican University and an M.E.D and Ph.D. from Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
Franny Choi: She’s got a lot of letters behind her name.
Danez Smith: She got a lot of letters, you know Ph.D., doctor––
Franny Choi: Teacher.
Danez Smith: LMNOP. Everything, girl. Her first collection of poetry, essays, and visual art, Electric Arches, is forthcoming from Haymarket Books in Fall 2017. I look to her to think about what I need to be doing in order to survive.
Franny Choi: You know, talking about the things in our literal and metaphorical knapsack in order to get through this destroyed world that we are trying to make lives in.
Danez Smith: What are the tools we use to keep on being out here.
Franny Choi: What about you, what are the tools? Have you been doing anything lately for your survival?
Danez Smith: You know, I think for me it's like eating an insane amount of pho and being really unashamed about it. You know just loving my pho life, figuring out like what the right ratio of like broth to blood needs to be in my body.
Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Oooh, broth to blood.
Danez Smith: Right, palm it! I've been going to the casino a lot.
Franny Choi: Wait, what?
Danez Smith: Yeah but not in like a Danez has a gambling problem kind of way. I'm like an old lady. I bring in my little 20 bucks and when that's gone I'm done and I just drink free Coke for the rest of the night
Franny Choi: What! I didn't know this about you, I didn’t know you were a casino goer.
Danez Smith: I'm a penny slot queen, girl, and trust me you will put me in with twenty dollars in pennies and I will walk out of there with $60, yes I will, go to a Famous Footwear in a second. So yeah I'm doing like little small things that bring me joy and allow me––whether it's fifteen minutes with a bowl of pho or two hours at a slot machine––it’s a necessary noise that I need to block everything else and it's been really great.
How about you? What you been doing to survive these everyday apocalypsae?
Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) Apocalypsae. Other than also copious amounts of soup––I think like six out of eight of my past meals have been soup––[00:04:16] but also our good friend Fatima Asghar, I've watched several Harry Potter movies with her in the last week and I think that it's critical to have those texts that you can return to in the darkest days. And Harry Potter is one of them because of like what to do in the face of great evil and in the face of great power that you can use for evil or for good. And also it's just comforting to have a story that you return to again and again, you know.
Danez Smith: It is, it is. And I think of that as one of the three seminal texts every human should have, right. It's like Harry Potter, the Bible, and Eve Ewing’s Twitter feed that will keep us going down the road. Let's just get into our interview with Eve.
Franny Choi: We're super super excited to have Eve here, Eve Ewing.
Danez Smith: E V E.
Eve Ewing: Hi friends.
Danez Smith: Did you get a lot of that when the Eve Show was on the air?
Eve Ewing: All the time I get a lot of E V E, double “e,” sometimes triple “e” even though that’s not my middle initial.
Danez Smith: Triple “e”?
Eve Ewing: Yeah one time I had a student who called me Triple E and I was like, you know it's not, and she was like, the other e's for excellent. I'm like OK, cool. So I embraced that. A lot of Christmas Eve. Not too, not too creative. A lot of where's Adam?
Danez Smith: All Hallow’s Eve?
Eve Ewing: Not so much. These is a level of creativity that has not been attained.
Danez Smith: I like All Hallow’s Eve because it's kind of like a dope gangsta rap name. It’s like “All these hollow tips Eve.”
Eve Ewing: Noted, pardon me as I write this down for future use.
Danez Smith: Well thank you for coming here. You look all golden, just coming back from Hawaii.
Eve Ewing: Thank you.
Danez Smith: How was it there?
Eve Ewing: It was great. Yeah I had an opportunity to visit.
Franny Choi: Do I see a video of a turtle?
Eve Ewing: Yes, I swam with a turtle and subsequently stalked a second turtle.
Danez Smith: What does it mean to stalk a turtle?
Eve Ewing: It means you're taking a nonconsensual video of the turtle from an aerial view.
Eve Ewing: I was just like walking behind the turtle in the water and taking a video of it as it swam. I'm doing turtle swimming fins that you can't see. This is a limitation of the podcast mode. You see you can't see my swimming fins.
Franny Choi: You can go to our website to see the behind-the-scenes footage.
Eve Ewing: Yeah it's just a very different, very different pace of life, but because I'm not really able to turn the sociology hat off I was just thinking about like what indigeneity means in that context, also thinking about like how we learn about the age of exploration in school and colonialism and who was really exploring what when, so. All kinds of fun history to read about Hawaii.
Franny Choi: I liked what you said about the sociology brain. Has it been on less since like leaving your program at Harvard or like more or what? Or what's it like to like walk around in the world now
Eve Ewing: That's a really good way of asking the question because usually people are like, you write poems and you do social science. How?
Franny Choi: How does that happen? How does that work? Explain yourself.
Eve Ewing: I'm like, every day I eat lunch and I drive a car, like how does it work? So now I have this really fortunate position which is I have a two-year fellowship at the University of Chicago and then after the two years I will assume a faculty position. So it's great for a number of reasons, one of which is that I have two years to just kind of do my own research and writing and thinking and developing projects and then also I know that I have a job at the other end so that I don't have to spend that time looking for a job. I often say like I'm doing one big project and that sometimes that project involves visual art and sometimes it involves research and sometimes it involves poetry or prose. But there are other times when it becomes really apparent that I'm preoccupied with one thing or another like metaphor preoccupies me a lot and I think that's kind of my poetry brain but then it influences the way that I do social science research and sociology research. And then like race and gender and social constructs and inequality are things that I'm always really attuned to that then resurface in my poems and in interesting ways or ways that I hope are interesting.
Danez Smith: That's beautiful.
Eve Ewing: The primary thing that I always want to be able to write that I struggle to write is fiction. And I think it's because when we're children that's the first thing that we read, right. It's like we're given lots and lots of fiction. And when I was probably from about like first through fourth grade I narrated all of my actions to myself in my head in the third person. So I would be like.
Danez Smith: Word, of course. (LAUGHS)
Franny Choi: Like all all? What do you mean by "all"
Eve Ewing: Yeah, 60 to 90 percent and it would be always in this like Cam Jansen-style prose or like Magic School Bus like child's prose. So it be like, you know, Eve looked with surprise at the teacher wondering what this could be about, you know, and that's also not really great prose, right. (LAUGHS)
Eve Ewing: Was it your voice or was it somebody else?
Eve Ewing: I think it was my voice. Yeah, I think it was my own little voice, child's voice.
Danez Smith: Beautiful.
Eve Ewing: Same as now little more nasal and, and allergy-ridden.
Danez Smith: I want to hop back to something you were saying earlier. You were talking about how, what was it, metaphor like often like saves you or like becomes like a tool. Franny asked about you know since graduating, I thought you were going to go since the election since I think I've been in like post-apocalyptic mode. Like never leaving.
Eve Ewing: Yeah a lot of us have.
Danez Smith: Yeah, I don't leave the house without like a bottled water, baby wipes, and like a knife, and so, just in case
Franny Choi: Or an axe.
Danez Smith: Axe, legit.
Franny Choi: The three essentials.
Danez Smith: Axe and also Axe body spray. Can be funky but (unable to make out).
Eve Ewing: One is a good choice. One is unsure.
Danez Smith: One is questionable. Has metaphor been helping you since then, you know like what or maybe the metaphor is like the images that have been on your mind are helping you out since the since the turn.
Eve Ewing: Since the turn since, since the end.
Franny Choi: Since the fall.
Eve Ewing: Something I've seen happening a lot is that people have been looking to historical analogues to help us understand the present moment either to find reassurance, like to say you know we've been through this before with this, or as a cautionary note of being like yesterday it was the the seventy-fifth anniversary of Pearl Harbor being bombed and a woman, Japanese and American woman in Chicago, she was talking about how the rhetoric now about Muslims and creating a registry and things like that very much sounds familiar to her as the same kind of rhetoric that led to Japanese internment. And it makes me think about how those either analogues, similes, or metaphors at different times on the one hand can help us because they can help us see what is possible for better or for worse. But on the other hand, we are always going to have the imperative of facing our moment which will always be distinct in its ways. And I wonder about how we can have our eyes open to construct new metaphors and new understandings as we go, and just be alert to this time of uncertainty. I had a colleague email me about something today and she was like I'm sorry, this is three weeks late, I've been in a spiral of despair that I've been trying to. And she just said it straight up. She's like I have no other reason.
Franny Choi: Super real.
Eve Ewing: And I said that I feel like the uncertainty of this time is what's really frightening, especially from a policy perspective, just because it's also coming from so many directions right. It's like the environment and health care and women's reproductive rights and Housing and Urban Development, all these different things it becomes impossible to figure out where to direct our attention or where to act so we end up doing nothing. But I think that this is also the role of poets and artists in these times of strife, right, is figuring out what our metaphor is and what our mode of understanding this time is going to be which will necessarily be similar to past moments and times but is going to be distinct. And we just don't know what it is or what that looks like.
Danez Smith: Word.
Franny Choi: Mmm, that's super real. So yes, where, where, I guess where do we look to Cause I think I've, I've been I've been thinking about this too and about how the sort of limitations of, of, of only looking at what has been proven to be possible in the past, you know, and how that's like good empirical data to be like using but kind of hems us into what's already been done. So are there things that you've read or seen recently that you feel like open up past those possibilities
Eve Ewing: That's a really good question. I guess I'll keep saying that because your questions are really good. I think that this is also where like speculative fiction becomes
Franny Choi: Yeah, totally.
Eve Ewing: Really helpful and like what does Octavia Butler have to tell us about this what does George Orwell have to tell us about this and also what does it mean to look to those things and to say wow something that was created as a somewhat hyperbolic but instructive model of a world gone completely out of control or The Handmaid's Tale is a great example of that as well where you read something and it's like this is an uncanny story and now it suddenly doesn't seem so uncanny. So I think that fiction is very instructive in that regard. And I think poetry on the opposite end is very instructive in imagining impossibilities and rendering them possible. The book that I have coming out next year is kind of about that, is using poetry to imagine alternative timelines of history or alternative dimensions.
Danez Smith: Oooh.
Eve Ewing: Or ways in which things could happen. Yeah it's a lot more mundane in practice than it sounds that description of my my unofficial tagline for the book is True Stories From The Past and Future. So a lot of the book is like retelling versions of the past or telling versions of the future or the present as though they were true. Something I say all the time in readings is like before I read a poem I'll be like this is a true story. All my poems are true stories and then I'll read something that is like demonstrably not quote unquote true. But to me it is, right, or it becomes it becomes so in the telling.
Danez Smith: The poet laureate of fake news.
Eve Ewing: I was realizing that as I said it. I was like, yeah, this sounds a lot it sounds very truthy it sounds very like fake news-y. I think that you know that this whole fake news thing is so bizarre and fascinating. But I do. I don't know if this is cynical or like calculating but I do wonder how as artists we can like reconfigure that same logic to do the same thing but for good. Again that's what like speculative work has always done is like imagining a different type of world and then seeing how it plays out. It's kind of like constructing like a computer science model or simulation or something as you wind it up and you let it go. Speaking of like the intersection between people who do scholarship and other kinds of writing is one of my favorite scholars, Derrick Bell, black legal scholar from Harvard who passed away a few years ago, and he has this parable, esentially, and it's about aliens coming to earth and they say well we'll provide everybody with something good if you let us take all the black people away and take all the black people out to space. And so this question that this poses is like how much is black life worth to society right.
Danez Smith: Well as a black person, can I also ask like are they taking them cause like.
Eve Ewing: That's what's not clear.
Danez Smith: I'm intrigued by the other.
Danez Smith: That's what's not clear. Are these Sun Ra aliens or are these like, uh.
Danez Smith: Sun Nah aliens.
Eve Ewing: Sun Nah aliens. Right, are these the aliens from Independence Day that are like there can be no peace and they're going to like eat everybody? We don't know, right. And if you could imagine a different hypothetical if aliens came and said if you let us take all of your children and we'll give you all these great things people would say no, right, because the risk would be too high. So he's a legal scholar but he's using this story to set up the scenario and then think about what are the natural implications of that. And I think that that's something that art does really well in a way that can then be instructive for the rest of life.
Danez Smith: Yeah, yeah. And we're able to like take it, like the range of the spectrum of words that we're allowed to imagine, or like far in that alienistic kind of way––alienistic, is that a word? It is today.
[It is now. You a writer, so that makes it official.
You right, alienic. But also could be like really close ways. Like Franny, I was just teaching your poem the other day to a group of high school kids who had never really involved with poetry. The one, "The Field Trip Museum of Human History," which imagines a like not-so-distant future post-police and you know they're looking at all these artifacts, they're looking at handcuffs and not really understanding what they are like sort of trying to figure out how that fits into their world. And that's a poem that feels so necessary to right now in a time where we do feel like super apocalyptic in our ways and it just feels like we're all kind of just like ticking down to like the three big happenings that are finally going to end the world. To not just imagine the world in which aliens come to save us or not or where everything does go Left but we actually imagine the world in which a few things go right, and try to build towards that, and it's such––talk about the power of poetry to watch the young peoples' brains sort of click and be like, oh, I can also imagine a world where everything is fixed and then use that to sort of backtrack my ways into actually getting there. Such it's a powerful moment for them.
Franny Choi: [I think that that's so that's so interesting because I went to this panel with the editors of the anthology Octavia's Brood. Do you guys know about this anthology?
Eve Ewing: Mmhm, yep.
Danez Smith: Yeah.
Franny Choi: It's science fiction stories coming out of social justice movements and they were talking about how utopia and dystopia are always happening at the same time so we think of some stories as like dystopia stories and some stories as utopia stories but like the Parable of the Sower the situation is terrible for all of the characters. But there are also people living in mansions like in that story too who you don't see and like currently there are people in our world now who are currently living in utopia, and there are people who are currently living in dystopia. And so I think...But I think like in all those stories there are these like pockets of utopia, like there's love that's being built even in those worlds. And I'm thinking of those as like utopia stories instead of dystopia stories. When I'm thinking about like what do I look to in these trying, trying times. Like that's what I look to, you know.
Danez Smith: You know I think this leads into a question that I have for you because I often think about your writing about how, how human you render the people and issues you care about to the fact that they're not just issues.
Eve Ewing: Thank you. That makes me really emotional.
Danez Smith: Look I think about a lot of people even thinking about like right we're recording this in Chicago. And so many people write about Chicago, the issue, like the whole city is rendered down to an issue, a problem, a checkbox, something that you can fix, check, shift, you know, get in there and tinker with and it'll be OK, or that we're just like leaving it for hell, which is not the story that any city wants told about them right. Think about the times when somebody's talked about your city in a way that embraces the people that live there. And so I've seen you like in poetry and in prose like talk about the Chicago, you know, things that are going on within the education system here but not in a way that forgets that the education system is a collection of people and families that want and need education, that deserve fairness, that have their victories just as well as they have their fights that you so beautifully render and celebrate and give voice to. And I was wondering what are like the rules or just like maybe cautions that you have when you're writing about people that you care about or communities that you care about or issues that you know are important.
Eve Ewing: Oh wow. First of all, thank you so much, that's such a huge compliment. And that's what I'm trying to do, so if I succeed that makes me happy.
Danez Smith: You doing it, girl.
(LAUGHS) Thank you. I actually gave a workshop about this recently. To me I define a community as the people to whom you consider yourselves accountable and that the inverse is true. They consider themselves accountable to you. That question of accountability means that when I write about people the three pillars for me are being personal, being respectful, and being critical. By personal I mean that every single thing I write about is something that I feel a personal stake in or that I feel invested in. And then by respectful I mean that I try to talk about people the way I would want them to talk about me which is that I'm like a full person, I have a three-dimensional life. And obviously within the confines of a thousand-word essay or whatever I can't give a full portrait of somebody's life but I try to use this framing called desire-based thinking which I'll talk about––I'm going to bookmark that and come back to it. And the third thing is I try to be critical of structures of power. So this is made easier by the fact that I live in like a really notoriously corrupt, like really low-key like often evil and sinister city where people in power always doing really shady things and sometimes people from other cities will write me like that investigative work was so deep whatever but to me it's like I just scratch a little and you know it's, it's like going to a thrift store or something and seeing something that's been spray-painted gold right. And all you do is take a little bit of sandpaper underneath you're like oh, this is actually garbage.
Danez Smith: Ooh, talk about it.
So you know my job and my desire is to always be challenging the narrative frameworks that are presented to us by people in power because, and this goes back to I think what Franny was just saying, and even the framing of that poem, who has the power to figure out what narrative is going to dominate and you know when you go on Wikipedia or whatever the future version of Wikipedia is in a hundred years like what are people going to say happened on this day. And will those be the things that actually mattered to us or not. So there's always a narrative that is coming from the top down that is engineered and designed to be beneficial to those in power and that part of my job as a writer is to scratch beneath the surface a little bit of that. The people who come to this city are never going to know that anybody else was there unless we tell those stories. And in my work a lot of what I do is interview people from Bronzeville made famous by––any Gwendolyn Brooks fans out there? And I've talked to young people who say like well when I drive down the street my mother and my grandmother tell me like this building was here, and we lived here, and this was our apartment number, because they recognize that there's no one else telling that history.
So anyway part of what I feel like is important is to offer a critical counter narrative to the erasure that otherwise would happen. And just to return really briefly to that bookmark about the idea of desire-based thinking, there's a scholar named Eve Tuck who, in addition to having a great name, is a really important scholar of Native Studies and Education and settler colonialism and critical pedagogy and all kinds of other wonderful things. And she wrote this open letter about ten years ago. In it she talks about how researchers come to Native communities and they spend all this time documenting all these horrible things and that people in those communities allow it to happen because they have this hope that you know what, there's a lot of struggle in our community. Maybe if somebody documents and writes about it people will know and we'll get some assistance or we'll get some recognition. But the thing is if that inaction in the first instance was based on the fact that people have a degrading or dehumanizing view of you and your community, then often them finding out how bad it really is doesn't really matter. And so she puts out this open letter where she says I really invite people to have not a damage-based narrative but a desire-based narrative. So right. Not just about how damaged our communities are but what do people in those communities want, what are our dreams for our kids, and that speaks to the utopia that Franny was talking about. And she says that to only tell the story of damage is such an incomplete story that if you only tell that story it's actually an act of aggression, like you're committing a violence against that community, so her work and that piece has influenced me a lot.
And basically since I read it I've tried it every single thing I've ever written to always think about like well what do people want.
Franny Choi: At some point in this past year I made a promise to myself that I would stop reading out loud poems that only put that damage on display and like made me feel actively terrible as I was reading them. Yeah that can have a personal toll on you.
Eve Ewing: Yeah, absolutely.
Franny Choi: Yeah I was wondering like what's the toll on Eve the person to be doing this kind of work.
Eve Ewing: Yeah, well, I cry a lot when I read. I mean I cry a lot.
[Like I hear depressing stories and I see depressing things and they upset me. Yesterday I did a panel at Stateville Correctional Center which is downstate. People that are incarcerated there are very interested in current events and things that are happening and so they've been having this series of panels organized by the Prison Neighborhood Arts Project where they have like activists come in and people to come and talk about different issues.
Franny Choi: That's so cool.
Yeah like what if a panel didn't just have to be in a university right? What if we had them in other spaces? And I taught a workshop there I guess about a month ago. And so a lot of the folks that were in the class, in the workshop I taught, came and they're like hey you know like when you see a student that you had last year and the like waving you in the audience, they're like hey, hey, hey Eve, hey, you know, and they're like kind of proud, they're like whispering to the other people that weren't in the class like that's Eve, right like they have a very like kind of familial sense of ownership. And we had this really really really great conversation that was inspiring and moving and thoughtful and anybody who has ever taught in a prison will tell you that people are incredibly engaged and have read a lot. So from a teaching or lecturing perspective it's really fun because you can be like well, as you know, Baldwin says, and everyone in the audience is like yep, yep, because like everyone has read it. And so. So we had this really engaging conversation. And on the way out there's this painful moment of being able to look into somebody's eyes and instead of being like yeah I'll e-mail you this reading or come to this event or you know you'd be so good for this workshop or you should really apply for this. Instead, you are like, well, see you later. And then we walk through this metal sliding door. And then they were gone and me and the other panelists walked through. And in that moment the two impulses I had, one, I was very close to bursting into tears, and it was such a quick switch because I was on a super high like that great like great conversation high. And then half a second later I wanted to like cry. And then the second instinct I had was there are two black men that came and I really wanted to hold hands with them and like walk back through because walking in and out is also this really trying like you have to show your ID to a guard every 15 seconds, and it's really scary. I'm very afraid of police, it's like a very anxiety inducing experience. And I really just wanted to like hold their hands and walk hand in hand out with them. And I don't know them like that. And so I didn't. But it was just like a very distressing moment. And I think that as poets, especially people of color, and especially people who come up through a performance tradition, we absolutely learn how to weaponize traumatic things that have happened to us. And I think that we have all had the experience of reciting that poem and feeling really empowered because we got to tell that story, doing a poem and having someone else come and tell you your poem saved my life, and also doing a poem and feeling really horrible at the end and feeling like I'm re-traumatizing myself, or I'm reenacting something, or doing a poem in a room that makes you really uncomfortable in the way that the gaze that's on you makes you really uncomfortable, and you're like I didn't write the story for you. And I think I've just started thinking a lot about informed consent. The same conversations we have about informed consent and other aspects of our life in our sexual partnerships and love and romantic relationships, thinking about how we can have those conversations with ourselves and with our peers so that we say like I want to give myself permission to say I don't want to do this. I want my peers to give me permission to say I don't want to do this, and I want it to be like an active and affirmative consent where it's like the same way we talk about sexual interactions, right, like just because I did it last week doesn't mean I feel like doing it this week or just because I did it in the past in this other space doesn't mean that I feel good about it now, and having it be OK, and it doesn't mean that you're less of an artist or less of a person or not strong if you don't want to do it that day or if you don't want to do it in that way or in that moment. The way we have taught young people to engage with their trauma through poetry is extremely toxic and extremely unethical, where I don't think that we have created norms of consent where young people feel like it's okay to say, "I don't want to do this." Or the reason we have something like statutory rape is because we understand that young people may not have the language or the thinking in that moment to even process like, is this something I want to do or not, and say yes or no. I think that we need to think that way about poetry too. So I just think that conversation is really hard but I think it also like begins with us having that conversation with ourselves. So that was a long answer to a short question.
Franny Choi: But, you know, it's a complicated question that I feel like I feel like I ask myself this question like every day, you know, like how do we how do we engage with this in ways that make us feel more human instead of less human.
Eve Ewing: And the tricky thing about that is that you are Franny all day everyday.
Franny Choi: That's true. (LAUGHS)
Eve Ewing: There's like twenty thousand things that make up you, right, from the time you wake up till the time you go to sleep to the dreams you have. And the people that know you and love you get the privilege of knowing that fullness of you, but the dynamic of poetry is such that that becomes a totality of you.
Danez Smith: Got to say a prayer for like all the babies out there that think that poetry means revealing your deepest darkest secret.
Eve Ewing: It don't.
Danez Smith: Cause it don't, it don't, it don't. It could, but you can also write a poem about grilled cheese.
Eve Ewing: Snaps.
Franny Choi: You can.
Danez Smith: But you also offer a lot in terms of like your social media presence especially, like you are so giving on Twitter in ways that like I will never understand. Like I sometimes I like look up like who is Eve responding to right now.
Franny Choi: Everyone, the answer seems to be everyone.
Danez Smith: Everyone. Like you know like this little middle school teacher who got the game messed up in like you know Muskego––is that a place? Yeah, sure. Muskego, like Montana, is like coming at Eve. And Eve is being like let me teach you like the promised land looks like my sister. How do you do it? Where does that patience come from? (laughs)
Eve Ewing: (LAUGHS) Thank you. Yeah, the Twitter thing is funny. I used to literally respond to every like up until maybe about like five to seven thousand follower mark I responded to every single person on Twitter that would @ me.
Franny Choi: Lord.
Danez Smith: Is that like a oh like your mama raise you right courtesy type thing
Eve Ewing: I think it's a mix of too much like desire to fix, or like respond, and like a little bit of teacherliness––I guess something we haven't talked about––I was a middle school teacher. I always say I teach everything like it's middle school, like college, master's students, like they get the same kind of zone.
Danez Smith: If you can make a middle schooler learn, you've taught.
Eve Ewing: Thank you, thank. Yeah, I kind of teach everything that way. And I think also just like––this is so silly and naive to say now––but I felt like it was rude because it's like, well, this person directly addressed me. Now I definitely do not respond to everything, but I have enough people asking me things at a given time that I can respond to some of them and it appears that I'm responding to everything. I think the logic that I try to use is like, one, is I'm always more likely to respond to like young people, teachers, people of color, black people, women, anybody that I feel some sort of like community accountability to. The thing is, is that like social capital is such that sometimes people ask me things and they don't have anyone else to ask. There have been so many times in my life when people have just given me critical information that changed the game for me. And there are people who have access to so much information and assistance with things that other people don't, especially things about like art and academia and how do you do this and how should I approach this, so I think about this all the time and I'm always like when is it going to be too much. Because, to be honest, the tweets are not the problem. I got an e-mail from this guy recently where he was like I was assigned to read your poem in school.
Franny Choi: What does it mean? (LAUGHS)
Eve Ewing: Can you explain it to me? (LAUGHS)
Danez Smith: Girl. Can I tell you, just, just on yesterday, I received one of said emails. Like hey, we are assigned to ask a poet some questions following like a three page e-mail with like every question about like every poem I've ever written. It felt like my Inside the Actors Studio. I'm like, I'm not quite ready for this level of email from you, college sophomore Gregory.
Eve Ewing: Shout out to college sophomore Gregory. Hope you got a passing grade. Stop emailing us.
Danez Smith: Yo, these answers are not coming from me.
Eve Ewing: Answers are not forthcoming.
I mean a lot of times kids actually this question kids asked me the most in emails are how do I do your poem correctly. And I always say thank you so much for reading my work. I really appreciate it. You can't read it the way I would read it because my voice is my voice and your voice is your voice and you're going to bring great things to it. I'm so excited to see what you bring to this poem. Practice really hard and do your best.
Danez Smith: You're such a good middle school teacher.
Eve Ewing: Your friend. I do everything short of, like, a signed, you know, like photograph of me giving two thumbs up and being like, good luck! The first time I got that it really was like, it made me puzzled about what teachers are telling kids about poetry and about like a right and a wrong way of performance and what that means. So I've just been thinking about that a lot and I always just tell them like, just do your best, good luck. And when I was a kid I used to write letters to, like, people.
Danez Smith: Who'd you write letters to?
Eve Ewing: Oh, let's see. I wrote a letter to Dino Don from Highlights Magazine.
Franny Choi: Oh my god, amazing.
Eve Ewing: And I believe I included a drawing of perhaps a pterodactyl or some sort of.
Danez Smith: Of course.
Eve Ewing: You know he's a dinosaur themed column and he wrote me back. Wrote a letter to the Ghost Writer Crew
Danez Smith: Just like a "what up?" (LAUGHS)
Eve Ewing: Yeah!
Danez Smith: Like I appreciate your work.
Eve Ewing: Yeah, like a "what up," you know, I appreciate your work, I'm a big fan. I think I told a story about like, you know, those pens around your neck that people used to wear to signify their membership in the Ghost Writer Crew. Shout out to the 90s, when writing was like considered a suitable topic for children's television.
Franny Choi: What's Ghost Writer?
Danez Smith: Ghost. Oh, Franny. (LAUGHS)
Eve Ewing: Oh, Franny. Your day is about to get so much better. Let me tell you.
Franny Choi: I'm ready.
Eve Ewing: OK. OK. So Ghost Writer was a PBS series in the 90s with like very a diverse cast of kids in New York, and this ghost, who––spoiler alert––was later was revealed to be an escaped slave.
Danez Smith: What? I did not know this. OK...
Eve Ewing: Yes, this ghost communicates with them by rearranging any letters that are in the room. So, like, you have this Nalgene bottle on the table, so you can like make an anagram of Nalgene which would be like "land gene." Like give them messages and they would use them to solve mysteries. And they also had various interpersonal conflicts that had to do with their life as urban young people.
Franny Choi: They're all writers.
Eve Ewing: They're all really into writing and they would also like use writing for different like, oh I got in a fight with my mom, let me write her a letter and like explain my perspective.
Danez Smith: Words as praxis.
Eve Ewing: It was great, it was great.
Franny Choi: Wow, that sounds like a great show.
Eve Ewing: It was so good. I sometimes go on a little late-night YouTube binges of Ghost Writer. And they all carried––so that they could be ready at any time to write a message to their ghost friend––they all would carry a little pen around their necks. Seven-year-old Eve also had a pen that I believe I purchased at a Scholastic book fair. (Laughs)
Franny Choi: Yesss.
Eve Ewing: Yeah. New party idea. Yeah, so I try, I don't know, oh yeah, so people writing letters. I don't know how long I'll be able to keep it up. But, yeah. If you get verified it makes some of those things easier. Like it makes your mentions easier to navigate but I refuse on principle.
Franny Choi: To get verified?
Eve Ewing: Yeah.
Franny Choi: Has that been presented as an option?
Danez Smith: Well, she's been popping in these Twitter feeds, how many followers you got? You got like..
Franny Choi: No, totally.
Eve Ewing: I have today like 32.
Danez Smith: See .
Eve Ewing: I've gone from a small liberal arts college to a reasonable state school of people.
Franny Choi: Eve University, Eve University.
Yeah and sometimes I imagine them all like sitting, like what would it be like if all these people were in a room, like who are they?
Franny Choi: So we were talking a little bit earlier about alternate realities and building these alternate worlds for ourselves to look to. If there were an alternate reality Eve Ewing, who would she be, what would she be doing? Like if one, if one thing had happened.
Eve Ewing: Had happened differently in my life?
Franny Choi: In high school that one day.
Eve Ewing: I have always secretly wanted to produce animated series, like to draw and produce. There's this guy Genndy Tartakovsky who is the creator of Dexter's Lab.
Danez Smith: Solid show.
Eve Ewing: Yeah, great show. And I believe also Samurai Jack.
Franny Choi: Samurai Jack?
Eve Ewing: And Franny's just getting her whole life today.
Danez Smith: You don't know Samurai Jack? Is that what's going on right now?
Eve Ewing: (SINGS) Gotta get back, back to the past, Samurai Jack.
Franny Choi: I didn't have cable at certain points in my life.
Danez Smith: You were a Quaker.
Franny Choi: I was not a Quaker!
Eve Ewing: Okay, first of all, stop calling Franny a Quaker. Second of all-–
Franny Choi: Danez's just out here calling people Quakers left and right.
Eve Ewing: Franny, I don't believe want you to believe that this is like a normative. If I went and asked a hundred people on the street what a Samurai Jack, unless Danez was one of those people, odds are not in my favor. So like don't worry.
Franny Choi: Well my question was is this a racist show.
Eve Ewing: Oh no. So it's about a samurai.
Franny Choi: It's actually about a samurai.
Eve Ewing: It's about a samurai who––.
Danez Smith: Who's not white.
Eve Ewing: Who is not white.
Franny Choi: Okay, okay, okay. That was my question. Cause his name is Jack, so I was like, hmmm. Is he Asian-American?
Eve Ewing: So he gets attacked and so the reason his name is Samurai Jack is because in the pilot episode he comes across these like alien kind of guys but they somehow talk like blaxploitation characters
Franny Choi: Sure, sure.
Eve Ewing: From like Shaft or something, and so they're like, "what's up Jack?" And so the show is called Samurai Jack.
Franny Choi: Got it.
Danez Smith: So it is racist.
Eve Ewing: So in that regard...well, they were just you know
Franny Choi: I feel like you'd also make a really great voice actor for animated shows.
Eve Ewing: Thank you! I am not going to lie. I too have this opinion. Anyone out there tryna put me on, holler at your girl.
Franny Choi: I think it's partly your, your voice and also partly the fact that you sometimes dress like a cartoon character.
Eve Ewing: (LAUGHS) Like today.
Franny Choi: Yeah. That is like the highest compliment I could give you.
Eve Ewing: That is the highest compliment. I know, I feel super super super special and really good that you said that. Yes.
Franny Choi: So good.
Eve Ewing: So I feel so good. I feel so good about myself in this podcast, thank you. To be honest I didn't feel comfortable doing visual art in high school because like a lot of young men in my life did it. And I felt like I wasn't good at drawing and like I wasn't good enough and maybe if patriarchy were different I would have like come into my own as an artist. Yeah, that's my alternate universe me. Now what if I never came up and I was just forever the person who like moves like Donald Duck's arm, just the one cell of his like moving arm––
Danez Smith: Damn.
Eve Ewing: And I was like, I like became an animator but I suck at it so I was forever at the bottom of the food chain.
Danez Smith: You would still have a good life though.
Eve Ewing: Imagine myself living in Tokyo in like a box-sized apartment like coming home from my job drawing like one arm of like––
Franny Choi: This is like a Murakami novel.
Eve Ewing: Like a cowboy. Oh this is so sad. And then I see a magical cat that like leads me. Anyway.
Danez Smith: Oh so sad.
Franny Choi: It is true that Eve's alternate reality is just like in another life, I'm just me.
Eve Ewing: But more sad, but more sad.
Danez Smith: That's exactly what I do.
Eve Ewing: Thanks guys.
Danez Smith: No problem, thank you.
Eve Ewing: Shout out to Franny for saying I dress like a cartoon character. That makes me so happy.
Franny Choi: That's my daily goal every morning. I have hearts in my eyes. You can't see this those of you listening at home but they are literal hearts in my eyes.
Danez Smith: Just like a literal cartoon character. And then there's steam coming out of her ears.
Eve Ewing: When I was a child I went to my father and I asked him Do you get highlights in your eyes. We be like Mom to had her to me and he said yes.
Franny Choi: The answer was yes.
Eve Ewing: He said yes. Then they got divorced. And all these stories are like great and also super sad. But I did, I was like do you see hearts, do you get hearts in your eyes when you see mom? And he looked at me like super straight faced and was like, yes.
Danez Smith: Last question. We were talking a little bit about the apocalypse which is upon us any day now.
Eve Ewing: Yep.
Franny Choi: Yeah, this was a thing our friend Cameron. Cameron Awkward-Rich was saying, was he said "I found it to be helpful to remember that the apocalypse happened a long time ago, and we have all been surviving and living and dying through it. This is just the next phase of it.
Eve Ewing: Mmm. True. Talk to a dinosaur see what they have to say about that.
Franny Choi: That's exactly right, that's exactly right.
Danez Smith: Talk to something that came after dinosaurs that we don't know about.(??) Hard to make out the end.
Eve Ewing: I think we've been marginalizing dinosaur history a little bit too much in our contemporary narratives.
Franny Choi: I very seriously agree. I know that was a joke really really agree.
Danez Smith: Okay y'all have been in academia, and like y'all been woke, for way too long, if you're starting to think about the intersectionality and like revisionist history of dinosaurs.
Eve Ewing: Okay everyone read Danez's poem "Dinosaurs in the Hood."
Franny Choi: That's true.
Danez Smith: I'm trying to kill them. I'm not trying to like give them agency.
Eve Ewing: Okay, true, true, true. You're not trying to give them agency or recognize their intersectional personhood.
Franny Choi: But the thing is that they were ruling for millions of years.
Eve Ewing: Franny's getting upset.
Franny Choi: But just think about dinosaurs ruling the earth for millions of years.
Eve Ewing: Yeah true.
Franny Choi: And if that asteroid had never hit humans would not have happened.
Eve Ewing: True. You know humans have only been on Earth for about 1.8 million years and the earth is 4.6 billion years old. So that's a very small blip of time. And the Ice Age which we think of as being a long time ago is about 11,000 years ago, which is also not very long. And that has been science hour.
Danez Smith: That was not the question I was asking.
Eve Ewing: I'm done, I'm done, I'm done.
Danez Smith: I love y'all so. But no, so we talk about the apocalypse which happened a lot of years ago if you ask the dinosaurs. My question is, though, should the apocalypse be upon us, what is in your apocalyptic knapsack.
Franny Choi: Maybe say like three to five items.
Danez Smith: Yeah. And those items could be like non-tangible. It could be like water but it could also be like courage.
Eve Ewing: Mmm. So the thing about me is that I used to play Dungeons and Dragons–.
Danez Smith: [Uh-huh.
Franny Choi: (WHISPERS) Oh my god.
Eve Ewing: Which means that I have had prior occasions to ask myself what items would I like to be carrying into potentially emergency situation. So I'm very prepared, very prepared for this moment. So number one is a rope. Rope is not a sexy answer but––.
Danez Smith: It's useful.
Eve Ewing: It's very useful. Also a very sharp knife for similar reasons. And...
Franny Choi: Like how big a knife?
Eve Ewing: The kind of knife that you can fit in your sturdy leather boot if you are like an adventurer rogue character.
Franny Choi: Sure, sure.
Eve Ewing: Third thing is equally like super uncool which is like a really good flask or canteen to carry water. And so now I have three very practical items: a rope, a knife, a canteen. So I guess the fourth thing would have to be like a notebook so that I could––.
Danez Smith: Still writing.
Eve Ewing: Record––still writing (LAUGHS) ––so that I could record my observations for posterity and then if I can go for a number five it would be a book. Now the question is what book. You know I want to say something like Audre Lorde or like you know Gwendolyn Brooks or whatever. If I'm really really really really real, I would probably have the Bible because.
Franny Choi: For sure. There's a lot of stories in there.
Eve Ewing: There's a lot of stories in there. It's long, right?
Franny Choi: It's really long.
Eve Ewing: I don't identify as Christian, but to quote our good friend Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, I have met no secular black people. Right like I don't identify as a Christian but I talk to Jesus a lot and I think that like the Bible has gotten people through a lot of really arduous situations, people who were a lot stronger and tougher and more capable than me so, if it was good enough for them...There's always something in there, you know.
Franny Choi: Yeah.
Eve Ewing: And then like in between the inspirational stories there's just like the really bizarre stories that could just entertain you on lonely nights around the campfire.
Danez Smith: That's true. I'm pretty sure if somebody's crazy during the apocalypse they might be Christian and so it might be like––.
Eve Ewing: It might be like oh, I'm already saved, right. Now you know what if you were like oh the apocalypse is coming. I have to grab my one reading thing and you accidentally grab like an Us magazine or something.
Franny Choi: Noooo!
Eve Ewing: Then you would just be stuck reading about like horrible celebrities like not even top-tier celebrities.
Franny Choi: Like quote it, like that becomes your truth, at the center of like your truth, your central text.
Eve Ewing: Right, what if that became like the text of the new society?
Danez Smith: But I feel like there'd probably still be like Us Weekly during the apocalypse. Like, like we got a sneak peek at Kim Kardashian's rations this week.
Eve Ewing: Right, right. I thought you were just going to say her rash.
Franny Choi: Sneak peak at her new rash.
Eve Ewing: Right, or her new rags that she's like wearing which, who wore these rags better?
Danez Smith: Lena Dunham has a really weird nuclear rash. Let's look at what's going on.
Eve Ewing: Who wore these shredded rags better?
Danez Smith: Who skinned it better?
Eve Ewing: Who skinned it better and just see like a picture of Kris Jenner like skinning like a possum.
Danez Smith: Oh this is, this should have a show.
Eve Ewing: This is just as we planned.
Danez Smith: LOL.
Danez Smith: Would you please read a poem for us?
Eve Ewing: Sure!
Danez Smith: And then maybe we'll talk about it, yeah, let's read a poem, chat about it real quick,.
Eve Ewing: Sure.
Danez Smith: And then we'll pay our meters and go home.
Eve Ewing: All right, all right, all right. This poem is called "Affirmation" and it's based off of a poem of the same title by Assata Shakur and I was commissioned to write for a program called Liberation Library that sends books to teenagers and young people that are incarcerated in prison. And so I, I decided to write a poem that could be of some use, hopefully, like that you could say to yourself in moments of trial or tribulation. I was thinking about how Maya Angelou gave us poems that young people are able to memorize and how beautiful and useful that is, like when you see like a four-year-old little black girl do like "Phenomenal Woman" or something, like how cool that is, so I was trying to write that type of poem.
[00:06:08] Speak this to yourself until you know it is true. I believe that I woke up today and my lungs were working. Miraculously my voice can sing and murmur and ask. Miraculously my hands may shake but they can hold me or another. My blood still carries the gifts of the air from my heart to my brain, miraculously. Put a finger to my wrist or my temple and feel it: I am magic. Life and all its good and bad and ugly things, scary things which I would like to forget, beautiful things which I would like to remember––the whole messy lovely true story of myself pulses within me. I believe that the sun shines if not here, then somewhere. Somewhere it rains and things will grow green and wonderful. Somewhere inside me, too, it rains and things will grow green and wonderful. Sometimes my insides rain from the inside out and then I know. I am alive. I am alive. I am alive.
Danez Smith: Thank you to all you haters and you lovers.
Eve Ewing: Enemies, friends, frenemies.
Danez Smith: Just sucker MCs.
Eve Ewing: Right (LAUGHS) Frovers––friends that are lovers.
Franny Choi: Yeah, frovers.
Eve Ewing: Eve, thank you so much for doing this. We're about to get kicked out of the studio.
Franny Choi: Yeah, okay, alright.
Eve Ewing: So stop making portmanteaus.
Danez Smith: I love you two but like, no more tangents, y'all. We have to wrap this up.
Danez Smith: That was Eve Ewing. Oh my god I love Eve so much, Franny.
Franny Choi: It was so great, it was so great to talk to her.
Danez Smith: I just want to lay at her feet.
Franny Choi: I want her to be my big sister slash best friend slash teacher.
Danez Smith: I want her to. Yeah exactly. I want wanted to be like my like second grade teacher. But like I get held back every year.
Franny Choi: It's awesome. It just gets better and better each year.
Danez Smith: More than anything I think I really want to live in the cartoon kids' show that she winds up developing.
Franny Choi: Right! Yeah. Speaking of all these kids' shows, if you were going to live in a children's television show, what would it be?
Danez Smith: Ok cool. Top three.
Franny Choi: Top three, okay.
Danez Smith: One, Madeline, because on the inside I'm really a clever, white, young French girl. Yeah, obviously. Two, Gullah Gullah Island, just because a) they were like a black and like b) like the first other kind of black I saw. And then also c), they had a pollywog that was a big ass frog. And then Rugrats because who wouldn't want to be on the Rugrats and just like causing mischief.
Franny Choi: That's true.
Danez Smith: I think that would be my role. Or maybe like the drunk adult in the corner of Rugrats.
Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) You want to be, you want to be on Rugrats as a drunk adult?
Danez Smith: Yeah, Tommy's black uncle, black drunk uncle. I'm down.
Danez Smith: Okay, my top three. Number one, I just want to be Ms. Frizzle from Magic School Bus. Like I could be a kid too but I just want to be like her. Taking like hordes of people on adventures through space and time, like that sounds awesome. And also, more than anything I think I just want to wear her dress with like the planets you know what I'm talk about?.
I think the second one is sort of cheating because it's like when you wish, when you like wish for more wishes. I think Wishbone because if you are Wishbone then you can go into any story.
Danez Smith: Yeah.
Franny Choi: And then maybe the third one would be, I guess like Alex Mack or something. I just want to be able to like move stuff around.
Danez Smith: Woah, I totally forgot about Alex Mack.
Franny Choi: Like make electricity.
Danez Smith: She could turn into a silver puddle of Capri Sun.
Franny Choi: Yep.
Danez Smith: And then move around places.
Franny Choi: That was really quite a thing in that era, the 90s era of like kids turning into silver like liquid. You know, it's true though, right? Alex Mack, Capri Sun Terminator? That's not kids but it's like a scary white man.
Danez Smith: We were obsessed with being gelatinous metals.
Franny Choi: That was what we were all about. Y2K, you know?
Danez Smith: Man, I hid under a table on midnight of Y2K, but that's for another podcast.
Franny Choi: (LAUGHS) That's for another podcast.
Danez Smith: I think we got some folks to thank.
Franny Choi: I personally want to thank Ursula K. LeGuin for writing amazing speculative fiction that keeps me going.
Danez Smith: LOL.
Franny Choi: And did not have anything to do with this podcast, but, really, but.
Danez Smith: Has everything to do with you, right.
Franny Choi: Right, has everything to do with it.
Danez Smith: I would like to thank Missy Elliott for just like clearing the way for like a Negro like me to be a Negro like me.
Franny Choi: Like every morning, wake up, thank Missy Elliot, and then go about your day.
Danez Smith: Yo, like sometimes you gotta throw on a trash bag and be fierce. And then we got some other folks we should probably actually thank.
Franny Choi: We also we also want to thank our producer, Daniel Kislinger,
Danez Smith: Wooh-wooh!
Franny Choi: Our guest today, Eve Ewing, of course.
Danez Smith: Haaay. Thank you to Post-Loudness.
Franny Choi: We want to thank Ydalmi Noriega and Elizabeth Burke-Dain at The Poetry Foundation
Danez Smith: Hey y'all, thank you.
Franny Choi: And Mystery Street Recording Company for making it all happen. You've been listening to "Versus," the show where poets confront the ideas that move them.
Danez Smith: You can follow us on Twitter and keep up with us in between shows. My Twitter handle is @D A N E Z underscore S M I F.
Franny Choi: And I'm @FannyChoir, like Franny Choi, but with the "r" displaced to the end which actually I guess kind of sounds like it's like a chorus of farts. But whatever. I will say that I mostly tweet about Pokémon and bread, so if you're into that, then come on over to my Twitter timeline.
Danez Smith: Mine is like politics, thought shit, and like the BET Awards, so like come, come, come hang out. We hope y'all stay safe out there, survive the apocalypse. See you next time.
Franny Choi: Bring a knife and a canteen.
Danez Smith: And a rope.
Franny Choi: Your party
Danez Smith: It's my party.
Franny Choi: Maybe.
Danez Smith: It's not copyrighted. Don't cheat on us with other podcasts, you vile, vile person.