Happy publication day to Kamden Ishmael Hilliard’s debut collection MissSettl! To celebrate, Nightboat Fellow Snigdha Koirala interviewed Kam about typographical intervention, performance and the American imperialist project, and more. Take a look below!
Snigdha: The collection is at once playful as it is filled with rage, as you trouble the assumptions around language, race, and settler colonialism in Hawaii. What was the process of cultivating playfulness and rage at the level of language and poetics?
Kam: I grew up playing football, a game that often intentionally courted rage. Rage can be a technique of play.
Further, I guess I don’t know if I agree that it’s rage at work in the collection, but maybe it is, idk. I do know that I learned and read all about these laws and reason and order and ways of things (in text and in other mediums) but lived a completely different reality. Baldwin is right when he writes that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
I find the sentiment useful a few reasons:
1) this country is a specific place (that can end and should end), also, it’s just a gang, jus the gang that won. Plz see “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime” (Tilly, 1985)
2) even “relative” consciousness can be a doorway to understanding so those who don’t want you to understand must be extraordinarily invasive and intentional, and as such, we should regard ourselves as under consistent, public, private, and anti-accidental violence.
3) the particular use of the article “a” in “a rage” reminds me that rage is an engagement, a dance, a riot, a release, a fight, a terror, but most importantly, the article reminds me that the rage is not in me, though I am of it.
I was all thumbs as a kid, so reading really was my favorite thing to do. The Boxcar Children, poems from Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, and Clive Barker’s Abarat were faves.
Writing felt like trying to be in communication with these people I thought were awesome. So, by the time I started writing, the poems introduced themselves as places for wordplay, texture, sonics, and juxtapositions. It was very ASMR. Relaxing. My poems were not awesome, but they taught me something about the pleasures and freedoms possible in language. I loved it.
But ya know, it’s, uh, hard to keep playing any kind of game if the rules prove arbitrary, capricious, antiquated, or otherwise unkind. Good play, of any kind, requires safety unavailable to so so so many living things. You cannot play any games in a war because you might die.
So, living under a white supremacist state makes playing difficult. In fact, playing in a white supremacist state requires some connection to that redness-rage-warmth-fire. You must be able to protect yourself and those you love. Lately I’ve been trying to track the source for a quote but it’s something like if you survived hell you probably grew claws. Very: living under oppressive systems means that you need to develop defense mechanisms to survive, let alone thrive. In this very way, some choices become dangerous: the choice to be soft, to be slow, to care (too much, not enough, about the wrong thing). Claudia Card’s “Women, Evil, and Grey Zones” does a great job thinking about the possibility of choice under the threat of genocidal autocracy, white supremacy, etc., btw.
So, I feel like the nonbinary Black Edwina Scissorhands tryna pass the beach ball back during last Coachella at the end of the world.
Snigdha: MissSettl is concerned with a kind of typographical intervention in the larger context of American imperialism. Can you speak to the historical and theoretical underpinnings of the book, especially as it pertains to your play with and use of language?
Kam: Oh Yes. The Text. The Record. It Always Talks Like This, With Capital Letters & Countenance & RSVPs & Fellowships or Deacons. I am done now.
Yeah, so, I have to constantly remind myself that all of these official records, institutions, governments we interact with daily were structured by people that regarded women and many kind of people as property. Those people suck. Everyone sucks though.
I teach Plath, but I also cuss her out for the just mean hearted obsession with race. I taught Eula Biss’ “This Is Kansas” from a collection of essays which she kind of apologizes for in “Eula Biss: ‘A book I can’t defend, a book I can’t renounce.’”, originally published in Lit Hub.
It is fine to be bad, smelly, or non-ideal. That happens. It is not fine to like, descend the ladder of violence which ends in genocide to defend your alleged “right” to be non-ideal.
I am interested in the record. I want to know some things about the record: who keeps it, why do they want it, what is it made up of, and who, when looking upon it, can be recognized as human and worthy of protection?
We can’t like… trust These People (and by “These People” I mean the White [or-and white practicing / passing] professionals of, say, Enron, Stanford University, Corinthian Colleges, Uber, or The Catholic Church).
You and I live alongside murder, rape, and natal alienation as daily realities. That fact makes it tough for me to take much History seriously.
Like, the USA intentionally deploys disease on indigenous and generally non-white populations… specifically in the cases of The US Public Health Service’s “study” in which they intentionally and without consent or treatment infected Black men with syphilis or the FDA’s laconic response to HIV.
Real live sports doctors at some of the largest and most powerful Universities in the USA have been sexually abusing world class athletes. The “Varsity Blues” scandal confirmed that, yes, some people matriculate at highly selective colleges and universities, not because they applied, but because the institution got a significant donation (pay-off) from the allies of the applicant.
Right now, the Southern Baptist Convention is reeling from the release of a list of known sexual abusers kept by the very same church who claimed it could do nothing about the abusers publicly… As a subject of institutions, the only lessons I have found taught consistently are those of theft, extraction, irresponsibility, and chaos. As such, I am deeply mistrustful of institutions. My language acts accordingly.
Snigdha: The collection offers a textured, expansive, and even visual reading experience, in part because of the ways in which you play around with citational poems and the digital on the page. What kinds of relationships were you hoping to cultivate between the two in MissSettl?
Kam: I think I am trying to replicate a certain kind of affective plane that identity can send you to. You are in the gym, in the cafeteria, at the mall—and then, out of nowhere, the entire racial regime can come plowing down upon your sorry little head. Everybody is friends, the music is good—and then, horror, isolation, violence, dissolution, disillusion. I am so interested in that moment because racial hate in America is a feature, not a bug.
Those wonderful moments, those beautiful moments when we are allowed to communicate with others outside the bandwidth of historical force. These moments are what people want to mean when they say “regardless of race” or “I don’t care if you’re white, black, brown, purple, or green…” The funny thing is that ongoing expectations of civility and public politeness mask the very real structures of domination which form the imaginations of white people and non-white people alike. I mean to say, that there are no moments which can occur outside the bandwidth of historical force.
So, to be clear (lmao), I like how the citational and digital spaces don’t quite fit together. For me, the odd couple kind of starts to represent the pure immediacy of othering. Like, I remember being a child and having to make groups for projects and such. Of course, no luck on the first or second round etc. And because of those inexplicable moments of loneliness, for a long time I just thought I was just icky. Now, I know that my Asian, light skinned, and white peers grew up in the same anti-Black Hawai’i that I did. And, though no one ever says this, anti-blackness becomes a kind of virtue, a practice, a signal that you are of a place and for a place, an instantiation which annotates every moment of life, death, and both their borders. Also, this is why when racist things happen, sometimes those who feel unaffected are merely announcing their whiteness. It is a way of saying, nothing is wrong, and if you feel wronged it might be because you are wrong (for me this can be read further, as a threat, which sounds something like white, cis-het abled bodied experiences are the best kinds of experiences and if we are always striving for the best kinds of experiences, what should be done with those who do not align with those experiences?)
No one ever says any of this, though. That’s the worst part. You must learn on your own. Horrible lessons. Do not recommend.
Snigdha: The poems throughout the collection feel at once disparate and in conversation with one another, offering a kind of polyphonic, symphonic read. How would you characterize the relationship between the two, and what was the process of cultivating it like?
Uhm… yeah… if I am a citizen of anywhere, I am a citizen of the island of misfit toys. As such, my girls and I tend to hail from there and surrounding territories. Unfortunately, no one likes our songs. Rather, our songs sit uneasily with the pronationalist and settler colonial American literary project. And here, if I may, I would like to name Jayson P. Smith, Izzy Casey, Benjamin Krusling, Toby Altman, Alyssa Moore, Kate Gibbel, Nora Claire Miller, Stephen Ira, and Marlene and Janelle Affiong Effiwatt as allies here. I am lucky enough to work around writers strange, different, and wholly loving. These people helped me learn that my quirks, habits, ticks, traits, etc., were not only worthy, but foundational to my worth, first, as a person, and second, as an artist.
Also, institutions (the state) are so… stale. They are late… they ought to be condemned. Really, consider it. If any other organization managed to automate violence, at such predictable and unavoidable scale, we’d destroy it. We’d try something else.
Right, so when writing the book, I felt like the world’s nicest casting director for a musical where all the songs are just a lil off. It makes things easier when you just abandon the strictures of perfection, when you can outrun perfection as a goal, when you can remove it from your spectrum of visible light.
Snigdha: MissSettl refers to and circles around various places/sites/people of performances and the performing arts—from Goodwill Hunting to Nickelodeans to Robert Alexander Anderson. And there are links between them and the larger project of American imperialism and Americanism. Can you expand on this relationship, and the ways it shapes the text on the page?
Kam: Oh, bless this question. Yes! These things are related! I am interested in what media does and is for after the recorded beating of Rodney King by the LAPD. Similarly, television coverage of the OJ Simpson Trial, The Waco massacre, 9/11, The Oklahoma City Bombing… These moments turned TV from a place where entertainment happened to a place that gets you closer to the action, the “news”. It’s the same logic as that applied in the justification of High Definition TV—getting closer. Can’t help but recommend Elizabeth Alexander’s “Affirmative Action Blues” on this idea as well.
Television, Internet, Podcasts, all serve these purposes. Getting you closer. The problem is that none of these venues are real. They don’t get you closer. Your eyes are real, ears too; they can get you closer. The television is lights and energy and images, I have little else positive to say about technology. For me, it is the literal snake oil of our time. As such, I am obsessed. It’s a wild trick and I am determined to explain away its mystery, pleasure, and acceptability.
Further, the US is truly shaped by media. One of the poems in my book considers a small film by Thomas Edison called “Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan,” I so took to the film because it sent me into understanding film and media as political techniques. Consider Nazi filmography, the infamous (and aptly named!) Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms, or the recent club handed documentaries of Dinesh D’Souza.
Let’s remember that Edison introduced the electric chair as a “humane” method of execution in 1890—worse, Edison produced Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, a 1901 filmic reenactment of the execution of Leon Czolgosz. The “panorama” was taken the day of the execution, though Edison was denied permission to film the actual execution. This is a historical example of how film serves political purposes. Edison provided a kind of televisual theater-therapy via animated public death reenactment. The reenactment stars Edison’s own electrical innovation and neatly slots in the system of order which kills the evil and protects the good. In an article called “The Trial, Execution, Autopsy, and Mental Status of Leon F. Czolgosz, Alias Fred Nieman, The Assassin of President McKinley,” published in the January, 1902 edition of The American Journal of Insanity, author Carlos F. MacDonald writes of the execution, “that conscous life was absolutely destroyed the instant the first contact was made, was conceded by all of the medical witnesses present; also that organic life was abolished within a few seconds thereafter” (MacDonald, 376). As an athlete, a poet, a teacher, a lover, and a friend, “a few seconds” can be a very long time. In Edison’s filmic telling, those seconds do not exist. The way Edison tells it, this won’t hurt a bit. A more modern example: what commonalities exist between The OC and, say, the American political Right led by FOX News? The OC is a FOX property! The characters on The OC modeled the political, social, and economic gravities to which FOX news desperately subscribes. The OC and the right-wing talking heads of FOX have aligned interests and variant strategies to achieve their particularized visions of propertied Christian capitalist white nationalism.
Soft power (media, pictures of people shaking hands, language institutes, nonprofits, churches, universities) and Hard power (armies, police, churches, universities [lol]) work hand in glove to enforce passive strictures of white supremacy. So, yeah! This all shakes out for me, at least. Like, okay, here’s another: Tom Cruise. Now, the difference between the violence of Top Gun and the violence of The Church of Scientology (which he has yet to publicly disavow as of my writing this “sentence”), is that The Church of Scientology is hard power, Top Gun is soft. This is what I mean. You cannot relegate pop culture to teeny boppers or whatever, pop culture is one of the disciplinary tools of the ruling elite.
Also, where do you think all that money hides? It hides in art, in NFTs, in grantmaking organizations, nonprofit publishers, universities, financial management firms, restaurants! These organizations are collaborative by nature because it seems like we could make a good go of it without them. Of course, it feels odd, off, or maybe unhelpful to consider the end of our “society” a good thing, but, maybe our society ought not be defended too vigorously, and to directly butcher Foucault, our society (the state) is suicidal, homicidal, and genocidal. People are out here moving earth to make your phone light up. Do you need your phone to light up or do you need a planet? People think they have the right to everything they could ever possibly touch and it’s so horrible. Yusef Komunyakaa’s “For You, Sweetheart, I’ll Sell Plutonium Reactors” helps me remember that whatever I am willing to do for someone I love, is at least what everyone else is willing to do for their loves, as well, and around all these dangerous practices of love and self and other making, it is best to keep one’s head, as my father would say, on a swivel.
KAMDEN ISHMAEL HILLIARD is a non-binary poet, educator, and scholar. They are the author of MissSettl (2022). They are also the author of three chapbooks of poetry: distress tolerance (2016), perceived distance from impact (2017), and henceforce: a travel poetic (2019). Kamden also serves as a board member at VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, a reader at Flypaper Lit, and was the 2020-2022 Anisfield-Wolf Fellowship in Publishing and Writing at The Cleveland State University Poetry Center.