On ‘Ballast’, black geographies, and gathering in: an interview with Quenton Baker

our escape then/
a hinterland

Oversized in white text on a translucent mesh screen, these words appear as if broadcast on and through a television suspended from the ceiling. Broadcast through, these words, and their permutations, find other temporary homes including the wooden floor beneath the screen, and the walls parallel to it. Those permutations include fragments from the poem, such as letters “e s” or “a” or “n t” stretched and flipped in ways that both undo and imbue different meanings.

Soon, these words disappear from the screen. Their fleeting presence directs the eye elsewhere. On white walls are vertical black blocks. On closer inspection, these blocks are paragraphs where most words in once-written text have been blacked out to create erasure poems with only a few words visible. From old paragraphs new meanings appear such as “this wound, this public instrument.” Meanings continue to oscillate: upon closer inspection, the blacked out paint is not opaque but translucent, allowing a strained reading of the original text.

This work comprises Ballast, an exhibition by Seattle-based poet Quenton Baker, which runs at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA through February 3, 2019.

Ballast, “examines,” from language from the Frye’s website, “the 1841 slave revolt aboard the brig Creole, using the event as a kaleidoscopic lens through which to consider the position of blackness and the ongoing afterlife of slavery.” More from the Frye’s website:

The Creole revolt occurred when a group of enslaved persons, led by Madison Washington, commandeered the ship en route from Virginia to Louisiana, and steered it toward the British island of Nassau. Britain abolished slavery in 1833, meaning that no authority could be exercised over any of the enslaved who landed on English soil, and 135 people gained their freedom as a result. It is the only successful large-scale revolt involving U.S.-born enslaved people in American history.

Ballast then centers the slave revolt on the Creole, a scantly written about event, through two main aesthetic orientations, Baker’s “erasure poems—made using pages from the Senate document detailing the Creole case,” and Baker’s poems in invented form that appear and disappear in segments on screens throughout the space. As such, Ballast aesthetically uses poetry to, in Baker’s words, “resolve … without speaking for people, because that’s impossible and demeaning … to create a language in the void” of silences and erasures of black life. Ballast asks viewers to consider new languages, absences, and presences as an imperfect way to center the lives of black people chronically devalued in and erased from archives. “I want them to feel gathered in,” Baker told me.

What follows is more from our conversation. (Interview edited for length).

JASMINE MAHMOUD: I’d love to hear more about your background, especially the influence of geography. You are from Seattle, you have an MFA in Poetry from the University of Southern Maine, and just debuted this show inspired by a slave revolt from Virginia to Nassau. How do the various geographies with which you dialogue influence your work?

QUENTON BAKER: Geography is an interesting one for me. I was at Cave Canem this summer …

MAHMOUD: What is that?

BAKER: A retreat for black poets.

MAHMOUD: Where is it?

BAKER: It’s held … they’re based in New York, but it’s held in Greensburg, Pennsylvania on a satellite campus for Pitt. It’s run by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. They started twenty some years ago.

So at Cave there’s 34 fellows per … all black poets from across the world really. I was talking to Dante Micheaux about where I lived and moved … born in Seattle, grew up in Seattle, lived in Seattle for most of my life. Moved to Portland, Oregon when I was rapping, and that was where that career took place and then I went to Portland Maine.

He was curious, he was like “those are obviously all like really not black spaces … but with your work, knowing what I know of your work, it makes sense that you would choose those places, because you don’t have a provincial focus, or because you’re focused on these broader themes.”

That made me think about it, because that was the first time I really thought about geography in my work. I think because of how black folks are positioned globally, but specifically here in Seattle, there’s just this extreme isolation. Even of course, even if you have a community, even if you have folks, just the way that the city is oriented and created. It’s meant to … even in community, you’re meant to be isolated from so many of the broader moves and most of the city. And I think that influences me, and influenced me, my experience in the city, but also as a writer. Essentially it dictated my internal landscape, so much. So for me it’s less about the external geography. As a poet of place, I really consider myself to be a poet of the interior. So, it’s the ways in which these places have created and folded into that interiority.

So really I think I’m drawn to places where I am externally isolated, because that matches the isolation that blackness as a position inhabits within civil society. And where I can retreat in some ways to work, and still have community when I do venture outside, but really … because when you write in New York, or San Francisco or like the Bay … the city becomes a character in some way and you have to attend to that. But, here I felt like I can think and write broadly, using my understanding of how civil society enacts itself through the lens of Seattle, but without having to attend to the physical geography or topography in anyway.

MAHMOUD: How did you first learn about the Creole and how did your engagement with the revolt influence your process?

BAKER: While I am a poet of the interior landscape, I’m also a poet of research and history. I was writing a project about the Negro Leagues, Negro league baseball. One of the directions I ended up reading about was the secondary slave market. Partially it was also because I had just gone to New Orleans for my sister’s wedding. She got married in New Orleans and … the barracoons are just right there. There’s still slave markets and shit. The slave pens are still right there. Which of course, that was my first time in the south, so that was like damn. So then I wanted to read about those.

Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson is a fantastic book and [Johnson] mentions it just briefly, and I was like, “wait what? A what?” Because I was under the impression that there were no large-scale revolts that succeeded. So I started tracking down more information, which was difficult because it’s very sparse in comparison with something like the Amistad of course, which got Spielberg treatment. Coming across this story, and feeling like there was something there, that was worthy of looking at, was really what grabbed me.

MAHMOUD: In the exhibit you do blackout poetry on the US Senate document that details the Creole case. What was your process with engaging with that text? And also, how were you thinking geographically about Virginia, Louisiana, Nassau?

BAKER: You have to think geographically when you’re thinking about chattel slavery, for so many different reasons. Geography influences life outcomes, potential for escape, family, kinship ties, everything. The geography becomes… it’s such a determining factor, you can’t help but think about it. When I first came across it and started reading about it, I really thought I was going to do a straight narrative, maybe persona work. I just really thought it would be pretty straightforward, just like I’m going to write about this thing because this thing I think deserves more attention.

It’s emblematic of a certain kind of reification of black non-being or black non-existence. The way we can be banished to no place instantly. So that I just wanted just to look at it. To give it time. It’s like Claudia Rankine says [to paraphrase], “bring forth the forgotten bodies, the forgotten names.” I just wanted to do that. But, it really changed a lot, because I also assumed there’d be more material to engage with.

MAHMOUD: How much was it? What does the archive look like?

BAKER: Fredrick Douglass wrote his only piece of fiction, he wrote a novella about this.

MAHMOUD: Oh wow, I didn’t know that.

BAKER: Yeah, it was one of the first things he ever wrote, and the only piece of fiction. It was essentially an abolitionist tract. So, what I found was that most of it was turned into like pro-abolition propaganda, basically, which felt like a different kind of erasure. And, a frustrating one. Obviously, the abolition movement was so problematic. No one was interested in making an engagement with how the slave position was entangled with social death. No one was interested in resolving that, because of course it would mean the complete demolition of the social structure. So, abolition became this call for etiquette basically.

So Madison Washington. The leader of the revolt, there’s some things that we know: we know he did escape slavery and ended up in Canada. And we know that for some reason he went back. We know he was a skilled laborer, but we know very little about him. What Douglass — and there were some other people who wrote novellas about this abolitionist — they all hit on the fact that he was going back to save his wife, and there was variations, sometimes the wife was on the ship, and then he saw her and decided to–

It’s always this very clean narrative, and then a very clean sort of delineation of a kind of agency, which is ahistorical and obliterating in a lot of ways. And so it was at that point, I was reading the narratives of these other people, and of course their novellas are fiction. But that really set me off the concept of … that made me have a really long, still ongoing session with myself about what it means to engage with this kind of material. What it means to consider the slave … to really have a really really solid understanding of what chattel slavery and modern anti-blackness mean in terms of how black people and blackness are positioned within civil society. That became paramount, so that really changed everything. Mainly being so aghast and offended because the most frustrating thing was Douglass. Because I’m like, “bruh, you are in the Bahamas, you’re in Jamaica, you’re in all these places. You could have gone to Jamaica and talked to these folks, but you didn’t.”

No one did. The fact that no one, 135 five people, five of them went back to New Orleans, 130, I think one or two died. I mean 128 people who mostly all went to Jamaica, you wanted to find them, you could of found them. You wanted to write about them, you wanted their story, you toured with it, you orated, you gave all these talks but you didn’t go, no one went and talked to them.

That was so frustrating for me. So I wanted to resolve that without speaking for people, because that’s impossible and demeaning. But I wanted to speak. I wanted to find a language, I guess, to create. In my mind, the way that I could approach redress, of course I could never succeed, but was to create a language in the void. It wasn’t going to be their language exactly. It’s not going to be my language exactly, but there is a void, there’s these and other, all these voices, all these interior spaces missing and, in that elision I can put something. It won’t be perfect… it’ll be something I hope, that’s the hope. So, that’s how I came to … so my methods really just did a complete shift over the process of researching and thinking through it.

MAHMOUD: I want to talk to you about the aesthetics of the show itself. How did you make the decisions about what Ballast would look like, and how it would dialogue with the meanings you were making as a poet?

BAKER: The erasure stuff … I started writing this in 2015 and then adapted it for the show. So, all the erasures existed already on the page in similar formats.

MAHMOUD: So you would put the blackout text on a page?

BAKER: Yeah, so that’s part of the manuscript and then it was just a natural fit, so then it was, okay let’s find a way to adapt these. So they’re not exactly the same because I painted them in.

MAHMOUD: In that space?

BAKER: In that space. Then also thinking more about they’re gigantic now, so how do I maintain a level of visual interest that maybe isn’t necessary or possible on the page? I think it comes back to wanting to dig underneath that obliteration, because when I read the … I originally just got the Senate document just for research, just because it was a primary document. You want to get your hands on everything that you can. As many primary documents, as many secondary sources as you can.

I was reading it and got very angry. The Senate document is a back and forth between the US Consulate in the Bahamas and the British Consulate in the Bahamas, and it’s very political language. It’s very polite but also they’re super mad at each other.

And, then it’s testimony, sworn affidavits from the white crew members. It’s for the United Stated Senate, so it’s hard to layer more hegemony in one document than what’s there already. Essentially the US … he’s trying to get the United States’ property back, but he’s also trying to make a point about how Britain is overstepping their … because this whole thing. Most of the reason why there is any record of this is because it was a political kerfuffle. Because the United States and Britain were about to go to war, potentially. They were at odds and then this was another thing, and so it was just … and of course this still happens all the time now but just to have your existence, your life, which of course isn’t really considered that at all.

To have it be a chess piece, like a strategic move, because you see them making strategic moves against each other, you see the game being played at a very high level, but what it’s being played over. It’s just this constant paving over of what’s actually happening, what’s actually occurring when we’re talking about … So it really became just out of anger, I just wanted to … it just felt like digging into a very deep grave to just toss back all of these layers of soil to get at anything that wasn’t that.

Just to find any echo, anything that could … to find in their language, in this language, anything that could speak or attend to what was important there. What actually happened there. Of course, yeah it was a successful revolt and that’s good, it is, but it’s also so inconsequential because there’s no freedom from social death. There’s no freedom from non-being. There’s the ways in which, as the unimpeachable Saidiya Hartman says, we give ourselves redress, we give ourselves these flawed victories. And so to think that this fantastic and wonderful flawed victory was still so hidden and still so paved over, but then also that we would have to do so much work just to pay homage to essentially a wonderful failing also fuels the anger. So that’s what the erasures became about for me, just a way to attend to — however inadequately or unexpertly — to attend to just what was lost and alighted and what an elision for your whole existence, and the existence of everyone that you could possibly care about to be able to be like in elision is, of course these theorists in chattel slavery and of course the experience in our modern moment as well. And so it was just, “how do I attend to that within this document?”

MAHMOUD: Have you read Saidiya Hartman’s “Venus in Two Acts”?


MAHMOUD: I was just thinking about that these girls, you know girls who were horribly abused and murdered, that their only life is documented in a footnote.

BAKER: Yeah, that attends to the same issue.

MAHMOUD: What does this exhibit mean for Seattle? Many have written about the role of restrictive covenants and redlining (and more broadly the spatial dispossession of black people and other people of color) in the making of Seattle, as a city, that despite its reputation for progressiveness, was founded on the dispossession of indigenous people. What does your exhibit – engaging a slave revolt nearly 200 years ago – mean for Seattle today? How is this show resonating with Seattle for you and also from what you’re hearing from people?

BAKER: Yeah, there were a lot of previews. One of the previews was mostly black and brown folks and so the questions that they had for me, specifically black folks. … I felt like how they were engaging with the work made me feel like what was being communicated was on point, like that’s what I wanted, the kinds of questions they were asking were the kinds of questions that I would want.

MAHMOUD: Do you remember what some of those questions were?

BAKER: Yeah, so someone asked me about … so it was this younger cat, I mean he’s probably 20 something and he just walked me over to one of the pieces and he was like “I don’t get this.” And I was like “that’s cool. You ain’t got to get it necessarily,” but I took him through what I was thinking about it and he was like, “oh damn.” He’s like, “I never really thought about that, but that makes sense.” And that’s really like … I want black folks or people who have an investment and care for black life outside white imagination … I want them to feel gathered in, in a way. Like I’ve done all this work so that when people encounter my work, they can feel seen and called to expand if they want to. Because that’s how I felt and that’s how I feel when I come to the work that changes what I think is possible or inspires me or expands me in some way. So that’s what I want to do, I don’t know if my work is doing … obviously I’m conditioned to not think of myself very highly. But I want … ideally in a community we expand each other.

Even if we encounter something that we already know, in encountering it over and over again, we’re expanded. Encountering it in a new space or even just to see ourselves again, considered. Just for people to feel like they’re … that they were attended to, in some way is what I got from the questions.

Someone asked me about the title of the show Ballast. And I gave them the real answer. … I want people to walk into the show, or read the book, when and if it comes out — to know what they are. There’s a way in which … we all value each other’s survival. We all value the way we create under constraint and provide what we can for one another but we also live in like a civil society that in no way attends to our actual entanglements. In no way, can call on or make visible our interiority, so of course it’s on us to make it visible for one another. So that’s all that I want, is just for that to take place.

MAHMOUD: What does the title mean?

BAKER: Ballast. For me there’s something … what I think is so unique about chattel slavery but really the position of blackness is like a historical and current force within the way that American social life and global social life is ordered, is that the ways in which black people are made to be the counterweight to their own destruction.

And so obviously with Ballast, it’s the counterweight that a ship carries before it on loads its cargo and then it’s offloaded at the port; well now they use water but back in the day, bars of iron and take the bars of iron out, leave them at the port and load in any of the cargo. Of course, sometimes it was humans, sometimes it was tobacco, sometimes it was molasses, whatever. But just the ways in which black people were like the semiotics that we engage with, the kind of myth-making around blackness, the way that whiteness only coheres through violence against black flesh and blackness as a concept. Like of all those ways that we’re made to perform our own death until then when we actually die.

And I think like … to me this comes up in police brutality a lot, like shootings … it’s always that the black person was scary and aggressive. There’s a way in which the black people are made to perform that aggression, and you’re made to perform that aggression for an exact moment. The ways we have to, no matter how hard we try not to, we have to hold the space for what undoes us. … There’s no way for the ship to run without that weight and there’s no way for the ship to return to port without its cargo. There’s no way that the whiteness [in] America civil society functions without blackness and black flesh as both counterweight and property.

MAHMOUD: What I really liked about the projections was the way they cascaded. You saw a phrase and then words disappeared. Which kind of mimicked a performance of reading, or a performance of listening. Because it made me pay attention to words, so I appreciated that.

BAKER: I was really happy with how it turned out. That was a challenge to– the inventive form poems are on the page, are very spread out and they’re meant to be read like in any direction.

There isn’t really a way … there maybe is a way, but with what else was going on in the show, there really wasn’t a way to like demonstrate that, so yeah, we settled on like … then let’s really have people consider this but also try to get some of that, I guess autonomy of each couplet or image or thought. So that was one of the challenges. But it’s funny cause it’s kind of an inversion in the ways … in the manuscript view, the erasure poems are like pretty straightforward and then the invented form poems are much wider and sprawling and then in this space you can choose any direction to go with the erasure poems and then the inventive forms are like pretty determined.

It was a weird flip, which I wasn’t necessarily like … when I set out, I wasn’t intending that but I liked how it ended up.

MAHMOUD: Do you have any other final thoughts you want to add?

BAKER: Well, you asked me what does it mean for Seattle, I don’t think I answered that. I hope what it means is that some folks who would never go to a museum, or would never go to a museum and think that anything was in there for them, I hope that those folks will go and see the show. And feel like something was for them. Maybe not for like a museum, not for like anything, but just somebody was thinking about you and somebody made work for you.

This work and all my future work really is for people who are able to think about black life free from the white imagination because it’s so damaging when people can’t … and living in that and within that, it’s traumatizing and horrifying and there’s no reprieve and no let-up. And I don’t think that my work will be a reprieve but I just think it’s part of those flawed victories.

Quenton Baker: Ballast runs at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA through February 3, 2019.