In anticipation of the inaugural evening of the First Person Plural Reading Series on March 5th, Untapped caught up with Margo Jefferson who will be one of the first readers.
Margo Jefferson is a cultural critic and the author of On Michael Jackson (Vintage). She was a staff writer for The New York Times for 12 years, and received a Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Bookforum, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Grand Street, The Nation, and MS. She has been anthologized in The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death (Norton), Best African American Essays 2010, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, The Mrs. Dalloway Reader, The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader and The Jazz Cadence of American Culture (Columbia). She also wrote and performed a solo theater piece, Sixty Minutes in Negroland at The Cherry Lane and The Culture Project. Currently, she teaches writing at Columbia University and Eugene Lang College.
Here at Untapped Cities, we’re very excited about the First Person Plural Reading Series. How did you get involved in that?
Two of the organizers, Amy Benson who teaches at Columbia, and Wendy Walters, who teaches at Eugene Lang, where I also am, invited me. Wendy is a poet and essayist and Amy is a creative nonfiction writer who’s done a very interesting memoir and also is writing art criticism in very distinctive and unusual ways. Some of them read like prose poems and some like intimate personal essays.
What does the idea of the First Person Plural mean to you?
You know, it means: what do we have to question as writers, as people, about the “we’s” that we belong to or consider ourselves remote from? We can’t ever take them for granted anymore. There’s the “we” of your family, the “we” of your community as a writer. There are so many “we’s.” Some of them are imagined. Some of them are constructed. Our eyes are changing constantly in relationship to how the “we’s” around us change. As a critic, it’s especially interesting to me because “we” is a very traditional term that critics like to use to convey a kind of easeful intimacy with the audience while at the same time presuming a kind of authority to lead the audience. And it’s something I have done as a critic, but I’ve always tried to be very aware of when I was saying “one,” when I was saying “we,” when I was saying “I” and the different inflections that each one had in terms of my relationship to the work and my relationship to the audience.
So in a way the “we” is a natural perspective for a critic to take on, even more so than a novelist or a poet?
Yes, I think that’s probably true because criticism in some way is a public act, and you know immediately. Novelists will often say “I’m writing for myself.” Poets will say that too. Ultimately they are writing for an audience. But the critic always knows it. We are writing for the audience and for ourselves. We’re both with them and apart from them, so it’s a tricky relationship, mutually intrusive sometimes.
Criticism as a genre is often seen as separate from or even competing with the arts. So how do you think the critic can shape our collective consciousness?
I think one way is to be able, I mean of course with the usual critical tools: acute senses, a working mind, but I think with a real awareness of the intimacy of our own relationship to the work of art and the complexity of how we’re using that art as a bridge to talk to a larger audience. You want to think, who am I speaking for when I speak for myself? Who am I speaking to? What “we” do I want to address? Again, in society, do you want to address the “we” of a particularly trained and educated constituency? Do you want to address a “we” that includes opponents, dissidents, people who you might consider your enemy in some way? All of those are going to require different tones. Are you championing a work? Are you trying to understand it yourself? Are you trying to explain something you’ve fallen in love with, some piece of art, against all odds? All of that matters. The more honest we are with those negotiations, the better we are in terms of our relationship to larger culture.
So how do you think that’s distinct from the way the other readers, such as Sam Lipsyte, a novelist, might approach the “we”?
Well, god knows what Sam, fanciful Sam, will come up with! But the piece that I’m working on and will be reading from involves me as a reader encountering and entering–as a younger person–certain books: an essay, two works of fiction, and different ways that I encounter them as an “I,” as a “we,” as a reader who belongs to many “we’s.” So it is in that way a kind of hopefully creative, critical remembrance.
That’s a very good term for it. I was just wondering: criticism, personal essay, memoir”¦
All of those elements, I think. So yes, I just made that up, so I’ll go with it for now. You’ve named properly all the elements that are there.
So is this something new you’re working on or it is taken from a previously published selection?
No, it’s part of a book that I am working on, which is an effort to combine cultural history, which is a form of memory, and criticism with memoir, which is very personal. A combination of personal criticism and recollection. So yeah, it’s part of an ongoing book.
Interesting. When is that going to come out?
Oh, I’m sorry you asked that, Laura! I’m working very hard. I’ve completed a draft. The wonderful thing about a draft is you know you can’t go back. The terrifying thing is you see all that still needs to be done. So that’s where I am now.
Considering this role and the mixing of roles of critic, personal essayist, memoir writer, how do you see this as changing or evolving on the literary scene right now?
You mean the relationship between those?
Yeah, I’m thinking about the way people communicate today, for example with social media and technology. Do you think that has an effect on”¦
I think it does. I’ve been thinking recently about blogging, and you know, what’s a blog? It can be one day or one moment, it can be a kind of critical essay. It can be a letter. It can be a rant. It can be a piece of fiction if you want it to be, a fantasy. It can take any form you wish it to. Tumblr is in a way a kind of commonplace book, where you put together images and quotes that move you. So these are all forms that are mutating and that are affecting each other in different ways. I was thinking in terms of the web. And there are chatrooms. There are so many “we’s” you can choose in a very fanciful way to enter, and there is always that element that there is a “me” choosing to enter this fantasy and choosing certain elements possibly from my real life or possibly constructing a new identity entirely for this game, for this chatroom. That’s a form of fiction depending on what chatroom you’re in. It might be highly modulated and modified memoir in another. I can’t pretend, as I’m still on benevolent but nervous terms with technology, that I have real predictions about it. But how can this not be affecting our sense of form? Newspapers are dying in some way. All of this has to affect very much the medium as well as the media that we use and that stir us.
Right, I think the good thing about it is that it’s so accessible.
Yes, exactly. It doesn’t have to intimidate anyone who wants a mode of expression, and I think it can encourage experimentation and that’s a good thing.
So what would your advice be for a young writer or blogger who wants to get involved with cultural criticism?
You know a combination of the freewheeling-ness that you get if you’re blogging, even tweeting. You know, a smart tweet can even be a mini-work like an epigram; the freewheeling-ness of that and old-fashioned discipline. Read everything, see everything, whatever form you love or whatever mingling and cross-mingling of forms. Be a student perpetually. Never stop learning. Try out all forms. Try the online and offline in every way.
So one of the goals of the First Person Plural reading series is to reach out to this other audience of people in Harlem specifically, which is different from the readings downtown”¦
Exactly. And Harlem is in its own way an evolving first person plural. It’s had this long history as a very mixed and mingled black community. Harlem is now more racially integrated than it was for many years. There’s a student population nearby. There are long-term residents. There’s every age group. So the reading in itself and the place embodies the nature, the changing nature, and the challenges of these pluralities. The other thing I like about it is, there’s a fiction writer, there’s a nonfiction writer and then there are two installation artists. You don’t often get that at readings. They tend to be this is a poetry reading, you’re a novelist, you’re a nonfiction writer. And I think this is terrific. I think this is a real future for how readings should go. This mixing of genres and forms.
Right, so the first person plural perspective allows for the mixing of forms”¦
Exactly, it allows for that aesthetic variety. Yeah, definitely.
Do you know if they’ll be reaching out to more artists and writers outside the Columbia community?
Yes, I’m sure they will. Sam and I are both Columbia, but the third and fourth artists–the installation artists–are not. Amy is Columbia. Wendy is not. So yes, I think there’s going to be a full range.
It’s all very exciting!
New York is the city of all possible kinds of readings, staging’s. I think it’ll have a nice theatrical element and I love that. So here we go!