The Operating System

[re:con]versations :: OF SYSTEMS OF :: digging deeper with The Sensitive Boy Slumber Party Manifesto's Joseph Cuillier

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[quote]In April 2015, The Operating System’s 3rd Annual 4-Chapbook Series, OF SYSTEMS OF, appeared on the scene. A strikingly beautiful set, featuring original art created for the series by Emma Steinkraus, these slim volumes in fact contain multitudes — and their diverse, stylistically varied voices represent four new, decidedly distinct entries into the seemingly ever expanding landscape of young poets publishing today.

In celebration and anticipation of our launch reading this week at VON I wanted to dig deeper with these poets, giving them an opportunity to engage in process dialogue about these texts and their creative practice, and giving you the opportunity to break right through that fourth wall. 

I stole a line (which is to say, I recycled some of my own questions) from an interview I did with poet JP Howard, which appears in SAY/MIRROR  — and extrapolated from there in speaking to each of these poets, teasing out answers as different as the poets themselves. 

Please consider this template, approaching The OS’s key concerns of personal and professional practice/process analysis combined with questions of social and cultural responsibility, as an Open Source document — questions to ask yourselves or others about process and the role of poetry today. 

In this conversation, I talk to Joseph Cuillier about his work and his debut chapbook on The OS Press, The Sensitive Boy Slumber Party Manifesto.
Series Editor / OS Managing Editor Lynne DeSilva-Johnson [/quote]
[articlequote]So many people, friends, family, fellow Americans, systems, institutions hurt me by being silent. How could you be silent at a time like this? But the title isn’t just about that sadness, it’s also about organizing and politicizing for social change. That’s the “manifesto” part. – Joseph Cuillier [/articlequote]
Who are you?
I’m Joseph A. Cuillier III. I was born and New Orleans, LA and I grew up mostly in Baton Rouge, LA and Houston, Texas. I am a graphic designer by trade and an educator, street artist, performance artist, book artist, poet, and whatever else I need to be to get an idea out. I am also from an ancient tribe.
Why are you a poet?
It’s the most natural way for me to write/think. Most of my poems are just notes I take down when I’m alone talking to myself. I don’t think it’s crazy to talk to yourself. I think it’s crazy to talk to yourself and believe you’re talking to God.
When did you decide you were a poet (and/or: do you feel comfortable calling yourself a poet, what other titles or affiliations do you prefer/feel are more accurate)?
I decided I was a poet after I wrote my first book of poetry. I like calling myself a poet/artist because people are more accepting of eccentricities when they come from an “artist”. Artists are not only allowed to be free thinkers, it’s expected of them. So much of social life is just mutual lying, self identifying as an artist gives me the liberty to be a little more honest.
What’s a “poet”, anyway?
Poets are people who are obsessed with language, language is the medium we work in. As soon as I started to identify as a poet I started to look at language in a different way, a “Foucauldian” way. Like oh, it’s clay. I can bend it, mold it, break it, make it into whatever I want it to be.
What is the role of the poet today?
To interrogate language. Language isn’t frivolous. It’s how humans experience the world. We don’t just speak with language, we think with language.
What do you see as your cultural and social role (in the poetry community and beyond)?
Artmaking brought me to the realization that I have the capacity to transform my life and the world around me. So I want to make art that makes everyone realize they have the same capacity.
Talk about the process or instinct to move these poems (or your work in general) as independent entities into a body of work. How and why did this happen? Have you had this intention for a while? What encouraged and/or confounded this (or a book, in general) coming together? Was it a struggle?
I work in a few different mediums, which is difficult because there’s only so much time in a day. Also it’s hard to master one craft when you’re jumping from medium to medium. So when I got out of school I came to the realization that if I want to make work that is interdisciplinary I would have to start finding methods of doing double duty. In order for me to make street art, performance art, poetry, graphic design, and teach, I would have to combine these practice into one continuum.
So when I wake in the morning and chant and meditate it’s not just spiritual practice, I’m also writing a poem at the same time. And it’s not just a poem about anything, it’s a poem about research I’m doing on the history of the Black radical tradition or critical pedagogy. I’m still struggling to collapse all my disparate activities into one body of work, but it’s a good struggle.
I also struggle because I want to be making more work too. Working on this book has helped a lot. The mixing in mashing I do in my practice isn’t just a pragmatic pursuit either, it has also helped me develop my aesthetic. Being a poet has not only made me a better typographer, but a more unique typographer. I look at type with the same perspective that I look at poetry, it’s language and it can be bent and broken.


“Empires Dissolve”, wheat paste installation, HxH Magazine 1st Year Anniversary: First Class, Group Exhibition, Savannah, GA, 2015

Did you envision this collection as a collection or understand your process as writing specifically around a theme while the poems themselves were being written? How or how not?
My book is based on the title poem. I built a book around that poem. So I did have a specific theme in mind as I was writing and compiling work. I knew I wanted to explore sentimentality and Black radical politics. Those two things seem like they’re competing ideals, but they actually make a lot of sense together. It takes a sentimental person to be a true patriot.
Not a jingoism patriot, but a person that says I love my country and I want to devote my life’s work to making it better. America is a piece of shit, but it’s frustrating because it doesn’t have to be. It has so much potential to live up to what it claims to be, all those I ideals of freedom and democracy. Also I feel like race is a very painful part of American history because of the legacy of slavery. And we don’t talk about about race in America in a honest way because of how painful it is. Throughout human history, what’s more horrific than slavery? Not too many things. It takes a deep level of emotional engagement to talk about the things that I have chosen to talk about.
The four chapbook collection lives under the umbrella OF SYSTEMS OF, and yet the books are wildly different in content and style. How does the idea of systems, either metaphorically or literally, play a role in your work? Why do you think I chose this moniker?
I think in a very systematic way. I don’t just sit down and write a poem off emotion. I literally say “this” + “that” = “poem”. I determine what my source material is, rather it’s my own writing, an instructional manual on how to build a school, a timeline of Black art, then I plug in inputs and delete stuff and change stuff. Or I’ll write a lot of text in a stream consciousness over an extended period of time and then when I want to turn it into a poem I’ll just delete everything that isn’t “absolutely necessary” and carve out the theme. These are systems I’ve created or adopted as my process.
Every artist has their own process based on a series of systems. I think the popular myth of the artist is that inspiration comes down from the heavens and strikes like lightening, and that’s a compelling narrative, but it’s a myth. Inspiration is a labored process of systems. But there’s a lot of room for creativity in these system. Just like with language. Language is just another system, but it’s a system of limitless possibilities.
Speaking of monikers, what does your title represent? How was it generated? Talk about the way you titled the book, and how your process of naming (poems, sections, etc) influences you and/or colors your work specifically.
The title of my book is partly a joke, specifically the “slumber party” part of the title. I don’t know if my sense of humor comes through in my writing, but my poems are full of lines I think are hilarious, but they’re combined with some heavy shit. So it’s not about if people get the jokes. The other part of the title is based in a real emotion, the “sensitive boy” part of the title. I wrote the title poem in response to the decision not to charge the police that murdered Eric Garner. Like a lot of people I was hurt by that and the Trayvon Martin murder and the Mike Brown murder and the countless other Black and Brown men and women that have been murdered by this nation. Obviously it’s traumatic to literally see someone get murdered, and then it’s traumatic to watch the rest of the world see someone murdered and so many people not say anything.
So many people, friends, family, fellow Americans, systems, institutions hurt me by being silent. How could you be silent at a time like this? But the title isn’t just about that sadness, it’s also about organizing and politicizing for social change. That’s the “manifesto” part. As far as naming poems. I don’t think about it a lot. I try to keep things simple or do whatever feels natural. It’s hard for me to name things, so keeping it simple is the easy way out. And I like the idea of saying exactly what it is.
What formal structures or other constrictive practices (if any) do you use in the creation of your work? Have certain teachers or instructive environments, or readings/writings of other creative people (poets or others) informed the way you work/write?
My teacher Rachel Levitsky introduced me to John Keene’s “Annotations” in my first poetry class, which was transformative in so many ways. The parataxis method instantly made sense to me. It gave me permission to write like I speak. Also it’s a way to distill an idea down to it’s most essential elements. It’s more Mike Tyson than Muhammad Ali, short powerful lines instead of long lyrical flourishes. I also think short simple lines give the illusion of authority in the tradition of Jenny Holzer’s “Truisms”. I think it’s revolutionary as a Black man living in a White supremacy patriarchy to say “I am an authority.” Also a lot of my writing is about unearthing truth and wisdom, so the “truism” style fits.
Let’s talk a little bit about the role of poetics and creative community in social activism, in particular in what I call “Civil Rights 2.0,” which has remained immediately present all around us in the time leading up to this series’ publication. I’d be curious to hear some thoughts on the challenges we face in speaking and publishing across lines of race, age, privilege, social/cultural background, and sexuality within the community, vs. the dangers of remaining and producing in isolated “silos.
It’s good that this work is created in silos because I know I don’t want to be making work in the public because I think the work would be dumbed and dulled. This work is about social issues and it needs to be in the public realm in order to push the conversation along. Right now the public discourse happening in this country is so elementary, we can’t even get people to admit basic truths like racism exist. So, I don’t think this work does anyone any good if it remains in isolated silos. But I think we already had a Civil Rights Movement and it was necessary for that time. We need something different now. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m trying to figure it out. A lot of people are trying to figure it out. I think there’s something cosmic happening. When those two cops were murdered in Bed Stuy this summer, it hit me. Like “Oh, this historical.” This is going to be in the history books. I was out of town when it happened. Then I got back to NY and I stumbled across the memorial and it blew my mind. But more recently I’ve been thinking it might be bigger than that. I think it might be cosmic. I feel like an ancient tribe is returning. This is just the beginning.
>>> I want to make sure I understand what you’re saying here. What do you mean when you say that “it’s good that the work is created in silos,” but that you “don’t think the work does anyone any good if it remains in isolated silos.”
In case the question was unclear, this was meant to eke out your thoughts on the ways in which artistic and literary (but also publishing and academic and business) communities are often divided into groups that don’t communicate well with each other and remain often unfamiliar about each others production, practices, and work. This is even more serious if we consider how little contemporary work and communities most american poets are aware of that exist/is currently being produced outside the US/Canada (and other English speaking countries). Few of us read much contemporary poetry in translation — and there’s often not much of it available, since so much is produced on small and micro presses, or lost to spoken culture/ unrecorded.
Can you speak to that to add on to the question above?
Just speaking for myself, I want to make socially engaged work. And socially engaged work is typically made for a demographic that isn’t the art world or small artist communities, it’s for the people. In my case, I make work for my community, my friends, family, my brothers and sisters in the anti racist struggle, and the greater society. So, if my work just stays in small silos it fails. Regarding other contemporary artists, I wish there was so much more visibility for young artists putting new ideas into the word, but there’s so many barriers for entry for a young artist. But I appreciate people and organizations like Operating System who still find a ways to get those ideas out regardless. It’s so inspiring. And ultimately it’s our responsibility, not anyone else’s.

Joseph Cuillier x HxH, dashiki shirt screen printed with poetry, 2015

Talk to us about other projects you have going on. What’s the next step or other current steps for you? How are you integrating poetic practice with artistic practice in your current work?
Right now, I’m teaching a lot and I’m doing a residency at the Center for Book Arts. I’m really interested in the book, not just as a literary form, but also as an art object. Also I’m always exploring new ways to put my poetry out into the world, so I recently made some garments, dashiki shirts with my poetry printed on them. I also want to do some more street art and possibly make some large scale paintings with text from my poetry. It’s hard because I want to have the time and focus to work on my craft as a writer, but I have a lot of things, mediums and art forms, that interests me. So it’s hard to indulge in all my passion while also sustaining enough focus and commitment to one, so I can grow and perfect my craft.
In your bio, as well as in one of the sections of your book, we hear about a FREEDOM SCHOOL project, and are even given tools to help support/build one of our own. Can you tell me more about that?
The New Freedom School Journal is another project I’ve been working on. I envision it being a printed/online publication of work that blurs the line between art, activism, and education. The New Freedom School idea was inspired by the Freedom Schools in the South during the Civil Rights Movement created to educate Black students how to become agents of social change. I feel like the easiest way to effect change in the world is through the young, so I want to educate radicals and send them out into the world to change it. Education gives people the capacity to transform their own lives and communities, however, based on the facts of reality the traditional American education system has proven to be harmful to Black children, all children. So, in my work, as of late, I’ve been searching for alternative models for the school.

Praise for The Sensitive Boy Slumber Party Manifesto:
[articlequote]”The Sensitive Boy Slumber Manifesto is a creative, genius, and cleansing shower for the soul. This work challenges social, spiritual, and emotional intersections while exposing our own internal creative apprehensions. Author and artist Joseph Cullier remains responsible with his honest depiction of self acknowledgment and evolution in America.” – LaTarvia Moore[/article quote]
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Joseph Cuillier is a social practitioner deeply dedicated to art and design’s capacity to connect individuals, communities, and causes. His work, largely, focuses on human-centered, socially engaged, proactive practice through the use of graphic design, street art, artists’ books, poetry, sound, and performance. His work has been included in to Transform-action: Adventures in the Realm of Transformation Design, Five Conversations on Graphic Design and Creative Writing, The Prattler (11/2013 Issue), H x H Quarterly: “Out of Rules to Break” (Issue 2), and Extra—mural: “Mistakes” (Issue 2), and showcased at Naropa University and Pratt Institute, among others.
Joseph is the recent founder and Creative Director of The New Freedom School, a nonprofit art and education initiative based in Brooklyn. The New Freedom School seeks to established an alternative model for a school by educating students to be agents of social change through teaching, publishing, and public art. Joseph is an artist in residence at the Center for Book Arts for the year of 2015.
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