Photo by Hieu Minh Nguyen

In this week’s PEN Ten, Kyla Marshell, writer and development/marketing associate at Cave Canem Foundation, speaks to Cameron Awkward-Rich, a poet based in the Bay Area whose debut is Sympathetic Little Monster.

Kyla writes: “& have you ever known a body/to not be haunted?” Cameron Awkward-Rich asks in “Theory of Motion (6), Nocturne.” He is a teller of ghost stories—but of course, they’re not the stories of goblins or ghouls; they’re the stories of people, bodies, identities that change, in our memories and before our eyes. And in his poems and responses here, he is careful and particular in considering what those identities—current, past, or in-between—can mean.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

I had a sense of myself as a writer fairly early on—let’s say 12, 13—but I only hung out online in collectives of people who identified themselves as writers, and who identified me as such. I’ve said this in interviews so often that it should no longer be embarrassing, but, embarrassingly, I spent my teen years posting my writing to sites like,, and one weird message board whose name I don’t recall. This is embarrassing mainly because I get the sense that, for other people my age, the Internet was a place where they developed profound self-knowledge, a sense of their sexual, gendered, and/or political identities. But hanging out virtually with others who had common interests, aims, desires, dissatisfactions, and so on led me only to know that I was OK at writing, and that this was a part of me that was somehow meaningful.

Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?

Oh, well, I often say that writing is, for me, primarily a practice of thievery and hyperbole. I suspect that I am always stealing, usually unconsciously, sometimes without attribution, always with the consequence of putting my life and writing in the neighborhood of writers I admire, writers I despise, writers who are my dearest loves.

If the question is something more like, What work are you envious of? What books do you wish you had written? then the answer might be: Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Alexander Chee’s Edinburgh, Darieck Scott’s Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imaginationthis and many other poems by Toi Derricotte, the quality of lonely intimacy that marks the voice of Jason Shinder’s Stupid Hope, everything my friends touch.

Where is your favorite place to write?

The airport. Or, really, anywhere I can be alone with other people and sit still while everything around me is in motion. Alternatively, the space between 5:00am and 7:00am. 

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?


Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

How to construct the most efficient route from point A to B to C to A again. Soap operas. TV, generally. Academic/artistic personas (the way intellectuals’ and artists’ performances of themselves in public come to resemble their habits of thought/writing and vice versa. Like people and their dogs, dogs and their people). Gossip—both being in the know and knowing how information changes as it travels. Sad gay novels. How we represent intimate violence.

What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?

Once, in middle school, I wrote some admittedly unclever joke about being an Oreo on a T-shirt and wore it all day. I was like so many of us, a strange, shy, school-smart black kid. And, in those days, this meant that I felt imperiled all the time. Teachers (white), until they got to know me, always seemed bewildered by and suspicious of my intelligence. And then, when they did get to know me, they held me up as The Exception or The Example, which was invariably worse. Most other black kids either ignored me or were also suspicious and bewildered (or outright hostile)—you know, the old story about “acting white.” My friends (mostly white) did not understand my predicament. Or, more nearly, why I felt that this was a predicament at all. Also, it must be said that some of my non-black classmates sometimes assured me that many of my successes had to do, in fact, with my being black.

Anyway, I was, as a result, perpetually confused. About the content of “race.” Who I was. Whether I should be. The usual. But then I took the word that was often used as an insult against me, Oreo (Black/Not Black), wore it as a bad joke, and, afterward, everyone more or less left me alone. The words themselves were not daring, I don’t even remember them, but I do think this was the first time I took a word or concept that had been intended to degrade and repurposed it in order to make space for myself to breathe. At the time, it was driven by desperation, but I do think, now, that making space for ourselves in indifferent, hostile worlds is the most daring thing we can do.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

I’m not sure there is really such a thing as “the writer,” only scattered or loosely affiliated people who are writing alone or together at any given historical moment. Some of them will be remembered as “the writer” of X time/place/people/object; most will not. But, because of this, there are many responsibilities, diffused. To witness. To document. To dream. To galvanize. To withdraw. To look, to listen, to ignore, to speculate. To perpetually register a protest. To build a few extravagant, fragile habitats. To make living possible. To loosen our attachments to the here and now. To collect together. To disassemble. To mourn, to rejoice, to refuse to do anything at all …

Has the role of the writer and artist changed at all?

My first impulse is to say that the role of the artist changes with the needs of the time/place/people for which they are called to be “the writer/artist.” So, yes, it is always changing.

But, because I am writing this in January of 2017, less than two weeks before Trump will officially be installed in the highest office in the country and two months after his election forced us all to recognize and reckon with it as a symptom of the already terribly changed social/political landscape, I have a hard time not reading this question as asking whether or not the role of the writer/artist has changed now, given this. And my answer, I think, is: I hope not.

I hope not because, looking around, for the last decade or so, certainly the last five years, the art that has been most compelling to me, the art that tries to give us a syntax for grappling with the violence at the heart of things—for naming it, yes, and working its incoherencies, and singing in its shadow—has also tended to be the art that has been winning the prizes: the finalist list for the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Awards this year is one example. While one can take issue with the way the literary award machine works, I do think it is a good index of what kinds of things the reading public is hungry for at a given moment, what resonates, what role we are asking “the writer/artist” to fill. So. I hope that once Trump is in the Oval, this is still the kind of work we call on our writers and artists to do; we will need it as urgently as ever.

But I am afraid that we will wind up having to take up a defensive position, to literally defend the institutional and extra-institutional spaces that have been vital in producing this particular moment in, especially, American poetry: Cave Canem, Kundiman, CantoMundo, VIDA, the various conferences—small and large—that give us the occasion to be physically proximate, the journals that have collected us together and that have insisted that poems be aware of and responsible for their politics, the living rooms/bars/bookstores, the MFA and PhD programs that have both injured us and given us some momentary time and space and money. Anyway, I worry that “the writer” will now be asked, more than before, to defend the existence of the places where her writing happens. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but because a defensive posture is always in some way a conservative posture—a way of keeping things the same—it does seem in tension with some of the more radical aspirations of contemporary writers and writing, artists and art. Also, I worry that the need to defend will be felt as in tension with the need to allow those spaces themselves to change, to continually become better versions of themselves.

While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?

Has it fallen out of fashion? It seems to me like there are many, many people who operate as public intellectuals these days.

Anyway, I suppose I do fundamentally believe that writers are here to tell us about the world—its pasts, presents, and futures; as well as to give us resources—narrative, imaginative, political—for living in it. No one writer, simply by being a writer, has any more insight into the question of what the world is and how to live in it than does a mother, a teacher, a chemist, a bowerbird. But taken collectively, these people who attend lovingly to the world, to what makes up the world—the self and other selves; language, the way it moves and cages us and fails to; imagination and its failures; architecture, material and otherwise; the aliveness of things; to what and how writers before them paid attention; and, yes, even flowers—who pay attention and compulsively record and communicate what they find—if this is what writers do, how could they not, inadvertently, provide us with the most adequate map of the territory?

What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. Chris Abani’s Kalakuta Republic. Nelson Mandela’s Conversations with Myself. All of the evidence in the world that confinement cannot demolish human creativity.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

Observation and surveillance involve different orientations to their object. A person or place only becomes an object of surveillance after being deemed an enemy or suspicious: it’s a way of looking that makes people into suspects. Surveillance knows what it’s looking for, and looks with the purpose of containing, controlling, warding off. There are only two definitions for “surveillance” in the OED: “Watch or guard kept over a person, etc., esp. over a suspected person, a prisoner, or the like … less commonly, supervision for the purpose of direction or control” and the kinds of “devices, vessels, etc., used in military or police surveillance.”

Observation is much more open-ended. It’s a kind of looking that ideally assumes nothing about its object other than that it is worthy of being looked at, and is aimed at learning about and from the object, which can wind up being nefarious but need not be. The earliest meanings of observation have to do with ritual and custom (“An action, esp. of a religious and ceremonial nature, performed in accordance with prescribed usage; a customary action, ceremony, or ritual”) and with deferential or “attentive care.”

The tricky part is that, especially in this particular technological age, it is not necessarily apparent when and by whom we are being watched.

Has the role and importance of narrative changed in this new digital landscape where false narratives and fictions are taken as truth?

I don’t know. The question is: how do we hold onto the crucial insight that truth is fragmentary, partial, situated while also insisting that what feels true is not necessarily, and that this difference matters? What forms can compel us to slow down, to be careful, to take stock, to both trust our gut instincts and also not be beholden to them? How do we train each other to be better readers, to be interested in the mess?

Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Transit (Button Poetry, 2015). A Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, his poems have appeared in Narrative, The BafflerHayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.

Poets Cameron Awkward-Rich, Tara Betts, Hayes Davis and Nathan McClain will read from their recent collections at New York University’s Lillian Vernon House on March 3, 2017 at 5:00pm. For more information, visit Cave Canem’s calendar.