Interrogating the Narrative of Injustice: Daphne Santana Strassmann interviews Enzo Silon Surin

Enzo Silon Surin's headshot: a Black man smiling with a short beard and a quarter-zip sweater. Daphne Strassmann's headshot: a woman with thick, rounded glasses, dark hair, and a light sweater.

 

Haitian-born poet ENZO SILON SURIN gives “voice to experiences that take place in what he calls broken spaces.” These are the spaces he writes about, writes for, and writes from. In his latest poetry collection, American Scapegoat, following the success of his last book, When My Body Was A Clinched Fist, Surin illuminates our opaque relationship with the truest history of Black America. His poems invoke an urgent conversation, which is why the word “interview” here feels unmalleable; Enzo and DAPHNE STRASSMANN had a vulnerable exchange about the inheritance and meaning of a broken space.

Daphne Strassmann: During the pandemic, trying to make sense of the new strange world, you and I spoke about the poems that became American Scapegoat. “This book is important,” I told you then, and today, closing our conversation, I whispered the same thing, this time to myself: “These poems are important. They are oxygen.” How would you describe American Scapegoat and the poems that created it?

Enzo Silon Surin: They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but some benefited a great deal from history, so they have no qualms about holding on to the fruits of the past. American Scapegoat was the book I needed to write because I was tired of talking and feeling like my voice and those of other Black Americans were not being heard. And that our pain was not being felt or treated with the dignity and respect it deserves, especially considering how long we have carried it. The lack of humane treatment and decency of Black people that continues to proliferate the American psyche and has been persevered within the annals of American policy is astonishing. It is no longer a matter of trying to convince others to listen because we’re beyond that point, and this collection echoes the reasons why. And you will find that this perpetual tree is bipartisan in nature. It is an uncomfortable and at times painful truth, but one we can’t keep running away from if we want to heal as a nation.

DS: The book is told in seven parts. The titles of each poem are familiar stories about being a Black American. As a reader, I am placed in painful truths and can still safely breathe to take the words and images in. Why does poetry, especially, work for telling aching stories and invoking us to listen?

ESS: Poetry allowed me to write about these truths, despite all of the fear of the heightened risks in doing so, because I could do it in doses. If I was writing a novel to try to fictionalize this, I would have to worry about so many parts. If I was writing this as nonfiction, I would have to worry about certain accounts that wouldn’t allow me to fully get at the heart of the important message. Poetry is that great balance between the two where I can emphasize and use imagery to get at the heart of the injustice. At the same time, it allowed me to protect myself because I couldn’t spend too much time meditating on all of this; it takes an emotional toll. Whereas, I can write a poem and take a break, and I can write another section and take a break. In some of these poems, I’d also switch the camera angle often, saying let me address this from one angle and then another! Same scene but with different points of view.

 

Poetry provides a natural path to foster an extra layer of tension and pressure and also a way to break through.

 

Whereas if you try to do that with prose, functionally, it doesn’t work as well. Prose presents a narrative in which there is very little interruption. As such, the only way to have a say is to provide a counter-narrative. And I grew tired of reading and writing counter-narratives.

I also didn’t want the reader to be overwhelmed but did want them to feel affected. This works so well in comedy—a smart comedian knows how to break that tension, and poetry provides a natural path to foster an extra layer of tension and pressure and also a way to break through. Poetry says Stop. Take a look at this. Now, look at this. Look at that. Okay, now step back. What do you see? It allows people to actually arrive at a more meaningful and accurate conclusion.

DS: “Scape goating” is a practice of collective absolution, but we seem to have gotten casual when using the phrase as if it has lost connection to its biblical and historical origins. Your book’s title digs toward the roots of the original scape goat. The noisy justifications aimed at decoding the unceasing murder of Black and Brown bodies need a culvert, don’t they? Otherwise, we sit in too much discomfort.

ESS: Yes. So, the story of the “American Scapegoat,” though framed through the experience of Blackness, is an appeal to our humanity more than it is to politics, religion, race, or whatever other device the powers that be use to justify our lack of humane treatment of people.

Everyone knows the term “scapegoat.” But a lot of people don’t know where it comes from, and poetry allows me to go back to its origin. It is considered spiritual in nature, but it’s more than just spiritual; it is religious in that scapegoating is an act and is how someone practices their faith, especially here in America.

We have an established system that says this is how we do things. And so I wanted to make a connection to this system and show why these Black deaths aren’t by accident. Like, this is the way our country propagates its math. This is the way this country deals with its Black citizens. I wanted to show that the violence and injustice are rooted in a system that a lot of people have signed up for, some knowingly and others out of this blind devotion and obligation to do “what we’ve always done.”

During the pandemic, I took a closer look at who made the headlines. And I said, Yeah, we’re focusing on the goat that was sacrificed here. But why was that goat sacrificed in such a public way? You’re sending a message. Right? And so then you go back to the original biblical story of the scapegoat; it’s not just for atonement. One goat was an offering. An innocent goat was sacrificed as an offering to a higher power. And then another goat was selected to absorb the sins of the people and to set an example. Because that goat was never killed, it was set free and served as a reminder to the people about who was really in charge and the need to be obedient to and compliant with the laws of that higher power. Black people represent something that America doesn’t want to see because we remind it of its sins. So some innocent people are sacrificed as an offering and others are left to carry the burdens of the nation. But this practice has gone on for so long that it goes beyond the African diaspora. As such, the scapegoat is not always the person that you think it is. And all this is done to preserve that higher power.

DS: Unlike the background static noise surrounding the inhumane treatment of Black Americans, the poems in American Scapegoat deliver existential questions on repeat. Without the babel of competing narratives distorting basic understanding, you lay bare the cool brutality of murders of so many victims we’ve known by name who were murdered by police. The questions in your poems invite us to imagine empathy or, at the very least, ask us not to denigrate or downplay the story of a murdered human being. In contemplating the questions, American Scapegoat begs us not to pretend we don’t know what we already know. What is the role of this spiritual silence in these questions?

ESS: Existential psychology proffers observation and description of existent data as the content of experience. This means an individual is able to explore their range of freedom to be themselves and the forces, both internal and external, that limit their desire to simply be. To me, this is not a philosophical exercise when you are Black in America. Black deaths that occur in America at a disproportionate rate exist as part of the natural stages and normal growth of this country. History tells us that much. We already know about the many truths that continue to be ignored while false narratives claim the headlines. And I’m just tired. I’m exhausted. So I needed those silent breaks because I have to create my own solace. I mean, I’m a father of two young and beautiful Black boys, and I’m also not a stranger to being considered a “suspect.” I needed to create a safe place for myself.

At the same time, I couldn’t remain quiet because I feel there’s something deeper at work here. Instead of just saying, look what happened to a Black person, I’m like, look what happened! Look at what is being done to another fellow human being. And then look at the number of times this happens to a Black person. The truth is many types of violence experienced by Black people in this country are not experienced by White people.

Is that a problem? You tell me.

I want readers to answer that question. Throughout the book, there are open-ended questions—a few lanes within one avenue. I cannot live with this discomfort on my own and allow the pathology of it to lead to my demise. In the poem, “American Libretto (A Letter of Resignation),” I wrote, “is that muffled agony feeling like a check / praying the streets will never cash.”

I am asking, how are we going to turn this around before we completely lose our humanity? I am beckoning us to finally have this long-awaited conversation.

 

The cameras are gone and protests in the streets have waned, but why can’t I stop hearing George Floyd begging for breath?

 

DS: What does it mean for you to put this book out into the chaos of this world, especially when we’ve seen no change for the better? I feel like blessing it and calling our ancestors to look over it. You’ve said that you don’t want the reader to read the book and start running toward the hills because they’ve already been hit with atrocity after atrocity and injustice after injustice. You’ve said that American Scapegoat needed to be digestible. What I hadn’t realized until right now is how much you had to first protect yourself while crafting these poems.

ESS: To be honest, I didn’t want to write this book, Daphne. And what I mean by that is, I didn’t want to have to write this book. But I needed to. There are three places I believe we write from when we’re dealing with extreme situations, when the nervous system and brain are being consumed by something that we can’t fully comprehend. We often write from either a place of desperation or a place of exhaustion. And you’re not in control of the pen in those moments, right? As such, the reader inherits this loss of control, and I don’t think that helps to resolve the problem at hand.

So I’m that person that says, okay, the cameras are gone and protests in the streets have waned, but why can’t I stop hearing George Floyd begging for breath? Why can’t I stop hearing Breonna Taylor’s voice calling 911 for help? Those are the quiet moments when everything happens. It’s the after-life. And that’s grief, right? That’s the grieving process. And so I wrote from grief, the third place one can write from. And the collection goes through all the stages of the grieving process and invites the reader to experience them with us. I wrote it so we don’t have to keep asking to be heard.

DS: The cover of American Scapegoat features the image of Vincent Valdez’s sculpture Requiem. Valdez says it’s important to him that the subjects of his art are modern and that, “It’s the idea of how, in America, the noose has evolved in various ways. It’s no longer a rope over a tree, it’s a slow death of incarceration, drug wars, combat wars, poverty, lack of education, and racial profiling” (Vincent Valdez Official Site). His imposing realist work, he’s explained, is to “incite public remembrance and to impede distorted realities that I witness, like the social amnesia that surrounds me.” How does Vincent’s work sustain the conversation with American Scapegoat?

ESS: I use all types of mediums to inform my poetry. Art is a very big part of that. When I saw the video of the making of the Requiem for the Suffering from Realness exhibit in MASS MoCA, I understood that without meeting each other, Vincent and I were having a conversation. Yes, the eagle is charred as a symbol of America. And we can see that. And the metaphor itself is one that is easy to comprehend. So as a poet, if anybody can come up with that, why was I so drawn to it? It was because Valdez and Adriana Corral had the public write letters explaining significant dates and encounters of their experiences in America—good or bad—and then they burned the letters and used those ashes to stain the eagle. Those dates and people are part of the fabric of this country. But the art itself reminded me that in our country, the symbolism of freedom is often way more important than actual freedom; that an idea becomes more important than a person. And that means one can be denied actual freedom in order to protect the idea of freedom.

DS: It’s coincidental, and not surprising, that right before our conversation, a racist Fox anchor was found marveling at his lust for violence and murder after watching a kid being beaten. In the same message, he backs out of that licking-his-chops moment with what appears to be a realization that he was wishing death upon a human being, but describes the person being beaten as a “creep.” The confessional-and-repentance dynamic is how we’ve been conditioned to see evil hiding in plain sight. The chants for justice, no matter how deafening, recede into the background until the next time. We’re talking about resounding noise and quiet again, aren’t we? Like the use of negative and positive space. How else are you creating that physical space for the reader?

ESS: Sometimes when truths are truths and people know it and they don’t talk about it, it is because they know this country has a way of silencing people. As such my approach was not to make claims or present an argument. I allow the reader to come to their own conclusion when they interact with the subject of the poem. I approached the poems in American Scapegoat like a producer stripping drum beats from a song, and keeping the breath and the voice. I want to remind people that what they saw with these murders is exactly what they saw.

The noise and the anticipation of chaos can keep us from hearing ourselves, and so then we can’t hear each other. These poems give me an opportunity to complete the sentence without having to compete with the noise. And since Earth is getting louder by the minute, another way I create space is during my readings, which tend to be a place where I invite the quiet. I want the audience to listen to the human truth that each of these poems conveys.

DS: How do we take a collective breath of what is ahead? We exist in a thick fog of uncertainty because of the broken spaces we’ve just named. What is your wish for us in reading your words?

ESS: I want American Scapegoat to remind us about what it means to be a community and to have each other’s best interests at heart. I think we have strayed away from meaningful and intentional relationships with one another, and as such, we don’t really know or understand what goes on in each other’s lives. A community falters when the only form of communication it practices are shallow exchanges or heated discussions. We don’t really hear each other in all that noise or brief chats. I want us to be able to have tough conversations and not run away from them. And also support each other through the discomfort of such conversations. It’s the only way to reclaim our humanity and consequently our country. And we have no other option but to do it together.

 

Enzo Silon Surin is a Haitian-born, award-winning poet, educator, librettist, publisher and social advocate. He is the author of four collections of poetry, including American Scapegoat (Black Lawrence Press, May 2023), which interrogates the socio-political framework of a democracy at war with itself and its humanity, and When My Body Was A Clinched Fist (2020), winner of the 21st Annual Massachusetts Book Awards for Poetry. He is co-editor of Where We Stand: Poems of Black Resilience (Cherry Castle Publishing, 2022), and the recipient of a number of honors including a Brother Thomas Fellowship from the Boston Foundation and grants from the New England Poetry Club and Chateau d’Orquevaux in France. He is also Founding Editor and Publisher at Central Square Press and Founder/Executive Director at the Faraday Publishing Company, Inc., a nonprofit literary services and social advocacy organization.

Daphne Santana Strassmann is an essayist and educator. She writes about the intangible spaces between her Latino heritage and American life; Her writing has appeared in Creative NonFiction, GrubWrites, Tex{t}Mex, and several writing textbooks. She is the founder of “Rekindle Your Craft,” a free generative writing workshop for writers of all levels and genres to explore their connection to storytelling. She is a former student turned instructor and board member at GrubStreet and a ​creative writing professor at MassArt College of Art and Design. Daphne also leads a memoir writing workshop at MIT, where she launched the group’s first publication during the pandemic.

Interrogating the Narrative of Injustice: Daphne Santana Strassmann interviews Enzo Silon Surin

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