The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, guest editor Nicole Sealey talks to poet Dante Micheaux. He is the author of Amorous Shepherd (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010). His poems and translations have appeared in PN Review, The American Poetry Review, Callaloo, and Rattapallax—among other journals and anthologies. He has been shortlisted for the Benjamin Zephaniah Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize. Micheaux’s honors include a prize in poetry from the Vera List Center for Art & Politics, the Oscar Wilde Award, and a fellowship from The New York Times Foundation.

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

I do not think of myself as a writer, though I do write and often use the label for convenience: being a writer is much easier to explain than being a poet. Historically, “writers” have ascribed a set of responsibilities to themselves or committed allegiances that have always seemed disingenuous to me. That being said, being a poet began to inform my identity not so long ago. I have been composing poems since I was twelve but it took the candor and encouragement of Hettie Jones, in my junior year of college, to help me see myself in this vocation.

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

Carl Phillips.

Where is your favorite place to write?

In complete silence, low temperatures, overlooking a landscape—preferably rural.

Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?

No, but I should have been. I do not care to discuss.

Obsessions are influences—what are yours?

Men. God(s). Desire. Power.

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

When I was younger, I often composed poems against rivals, for desire or power, and read them in public. I have also composed a poem about my relationship with my mother, which was difficult to make.

What is the responsibility of the writer?

One would have to ask a writer.

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

Out of whose fashion has it fallen? Certainly, not mine! Intellectuals are still here and we are still writing, composing, conversing with one another, in private and in public. I think the notion of “the public” as an entity has fallen out of fashion or is devolving into something unrecognizable from the cooperative enterprise that forges democracy and nurtures civic accountability. At my snarkiest, I suppose that individuals who make up “the public” are merely stupid but, when I am thinking on an even keel, I know that most of those individuals have been convinced that their sole responsibility is to consume. Capitalism is decimating humanity—Americans in particular, are increasingly seduced by its shimmer, at the expense of our souls.

I do not believe writers have a collective purpose but, again, one would have to ask writers. I think writers think that their collective purpose is truth. That is, however, speculation on my part.

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

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo.

Where is the line between observation and surveillance?

The line between observation and surveillance is action for any purpose other than art. Once one takes non-artistic action based on an observation, it becomes surveillance. In other words: I could observe The Honorable John Boehner as close as is legally possible, in order to compose a satirical poem about the quality of his job performance (observation). The Honorable John Boehner could have me observed as close as is legally possible, in order to arrest me for violation of the Patriot Act (surveillance).  

On March 19, 2015, 6:30 pm at The New School’s Wollman Hall, please join writers Dante Micheaux, Darryl Pinckney and Tiphanie Yanique as they discuss the tensions and complications between James Baldwin and the places about which he wrote. Visit Cave Canem’s full calendar here.