Interview w/Amalia Tenuta
Updated: Mar 21
On March 6th, Dead Mall Press began accepting pre-orders for the chapbook, The Primitive Accumulation of Realness , by Amalia Tenuta. This collection of (anti-)lyric and visual poetry collides relentlessly with the possibilities of life under racial capitalism. The language moves through a kaleidoscope of registers and modes, from citation to illustration to a damaged and vital lyricism. At its core is a sustained examination of gender, of how we theorize it, and of the irreducibility of transgender life.
To provide a more in-depth look into the book, which ships on April 3rd, I asked Amalia a few questions over email. Read the conversation below!
RM Haines: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Amalia! I first read your work in Protean, with the poem “PROTECT YOUR FAMILY FROM LEAD IN YOUR HOME” -- a poem I really love. That one was published in December 2021, so how do you see your work developing from there to the pieces in this new book?
Amalia Tenuta: Several pieces in this collection were written around the same time as "PROTECT..." and in that regard are similar in their engagement with the lyrical "I" in a register of radical romanticism, their commitment to a type of totality thinking ("everything there is has everything there is to look at" to quote Bernadette Mayer), and are frustrated by lyrical experientialism, "leading me to believe you should never write a poem / about what you did not do". Here, not much has changed.
I'm disinterested in poetics beholden to an inevitable abstraction of state violence, but this is – allegedly – very difficult to do in poetry, you know: poetry is supposed to be like the hospice of sentiment, and political poetry – we are told in poetry workshops – is contingently overdetermined (derogatory). So, in practice, I kinda ditched that scene, or at least began searching for poetics outside of "poetry".
I mean I'm not a very good poet [Editor: Don't believe her!] Most of my work I'm interested in, or working on now is in feminist political economy, data studies, STS, etc... and I think the poets I admire the most come from, or at least tend to that torsion between poetry and "theory" or w/e (Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Andrea Abi-Karam, Jackie Wang to name just a few). But in this turn away from poetry I encountered critiques of representation, of metaphor and abstraction, of language etc... and in identifying these critiques in my practice I developed I guess what you could call an imperfect epistemic duty, right--who and what community am I accountable to and for, you know–what are the stakes here in writing this, on the ground?
RMH: I wonder if you could say more about a “poetics beholden to an inevitable abstraction of state violence.” I can understand this a couple different ways. First, I think about how universities, foundations, and other major institutions in literary publishing are complicit in various forms of state violence, but usually in an indirect/”abstracted” way. But I also think about how this might refer to abstraction as an aesthetic element within various poetics. Am I on the right track with either of these readings?
AT: I think yes – here I am thinking about a scalar inequality between page and institution, and how certain poetics enunciate or rather mask this type of violence (the phrase “healthcare for employed transsexuals: a form of American economic imperialism” comes from a Vivian Namaste essays about healthcare for trans government employees in California and was very much relevant when I was thinking about my relationship to the university and the social reproduction of poetry) but I am also thinking here of how like implicit to certain aesthetics there is a type of violence. so like there's this quote by Frank Wilderson from "Gramsci's Black Marx" where he says "a metaphor comes into being through a violence that kills, rather than merely exploits, the objects so that the concept might live"-- and here, you know, he's writing within a specific genealogy of Black feminist performance studies coming out of like Hortense Spillers and Saidiya Hartman -- among others – making this claim that there is a certain paraontological value to Black death & suffering that is foundational to American democracy & rationality. Now, this quote is specific to a critical Black intellectual trajectory, but I always think about it – how are other metaphors, or their coming into being violent, what are they killing to make sense? And for me that is one violence of abstraction.
Specifically, in this collection I was kinda preoccupied with the idiom of prosthesis as it emerges within trans studies and literature in the 90s, and I really wanted to problematize its fluency with regard to gendered social relations – that the transsexual is also a project in prosthesis, or transhumanism etc. -- but more specifically, that early trans studies plagiarized so much from critical black studies! Susan Stryker’s preoccupation with the “flesh” of the medicalized transsexual does little to no work interrogating how “flesh” has been used in a very specific context to reflect that dehumanization of and afterlives of slavery. I know she has since commented on this, but this is still a problem in trans studies, from uses of plasticity, to conversations around animality and ontological transness!
RMH: “What is it killing to make sense?” is a very unnerving question to ask. And I can see this question at work in the poems. Toward the end of the collection, you write about being at “target” (which may or may not be the store of that name): “and thanatopolitical alibis for reproduction. i carry several // plushy & white hatchlings on my back. // I am responsible for so many deaths of an exceptional historical past. // dirty & handsome to smooth & endangered, / power’s massifying project of vitalization.” Here and elsewhere, it seems the poems are deeply concerned with how death is used to produce certain forms of life — and vice versa.
Hmm yes, one of my friends who was helping me edit this said that there is a preoccupation with violence, but specifically what violence might do, or how the poems might act violently. When I first started writing this I was reading a lot of Sianne Ngai lol. One of the things that Ngai talks about is “cuteness as a world ending strategy”, or cuteness as implicating violence–”The [...] cute [...] call[s] forth not only specific subjective capacities for feeling and acting, but also specific ways of relating to other subjects [...] the asymmetry of power on which cuteness depends is another compelling reminder [...] but the fact that the cute objet seems capable of making demands on us regardless [...] suggests that ‘cute’ designates not just the site of a static power differential but also the site of a surprisingly complex power struggle.” I was also thinking a lot about rotting (read: contamination/interoperability???) as it related to cuteness. People asked me, “what are you writing about?” I said, “rotting." They said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’m rotting!”
I returned to this relationship throughout writing, specifically because I wanted to write revenge poems, I wanted to write poems that were capable of harming the people and abstract social formations that are killing me and my friends. I was experiencing forms of violence that aren’t particularly photogenic, or rather that I didn't – and still don’t – know how to responsibly represent within my writing. Ultimately, I wanted the poems to be so hot that they are scary, but I think they’re just really weird lol.
RMH: To turn toward a more simplistic question, were these poems fun to write? Although they engage very theoretical and even violent subject matter, they are often incredibly fun to read due to the many registers of discourse and modes of writing that appear together. So I wonder what the actual experience of composing them was like for you.
I am happy that you have enjoyed reading them, that makes me very happy to hear :D: thank you for having faith in the collection <3. I don’t know if i would use the word fun to describe my relationship to their production process, maybe calibrating, or “a happening”, like doing my skincare routine, or pre washing my hair lol. I have this thing where I basically have no writing routine, but end up writing when I’m like out doing something. I think it’s about being in a group of people that gives me the energy to write. So like some of the poems were written while I was at work, on like paper plates and receipts, others were written at raves, the last poem was written at a bar while me and my friend were commiserating, some were written during an occupation, others formally in the workshop, etc… Regardless, I have always felt like writing is something that sets me apart, or precludes me from participatory action. I am still trying to negotiate this relationship, and I think a lot of the theory imported was my way of trying to rationalize this.
Amalia Tenuta is a poet & MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota. The Primitive Accumulation of Realness is available for pre-order now and will ship on April 3rd. You can place an order here.