Interview: John Keene on Melvin Dixon’s Life & Work

Aside from being kind enough to answer these questions for me in the middle of the MLA conference, John Keene is an established writer in his own right & I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss Melvin Dixon’s work with him.

John Keene

For readers who may be unfamiliar with his work, could you give a brief introduction to Melvin Dixon?

Melvin Dixon (1950-1992), a poet, fiction writer, scholar, and translator of Francophone literature, was also one of the first out black gay male writers to gain wider public recognition in the period following the Gay Liberation struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was beautiful, brilliant, cosmopolitan, and fierce, in the truest senses of all these words. He encouraged younger queer and non-queer writers of all colors.  In his life and work, Melvin represents and offers an important, sometimes overlooked model for social and political engagement; through one’s creative work one can also help to achieve liberation, promote black and LGBTQ cultures, and create the mechanisms and structures which will enable our survival, resistance and successes.  He unfortunately passed away far too young, from AIDS-related illnesses.

You seem to have a strong connection to Melvin & his contribution to the arts. When did you first encounter his work?

Melvin Dixon

Melvin was also a noted translator of Léopold Senghor. Can you talk about the importance and possibilities of poetry translation?

Translation is extremely important; it is the one of the main means by which we come to learn about cultures other than our own, about other traditions, stories, and ways of living in the world. Literary translation is somewhat devalued, especially here in the US, where for various reasons we sometimes assume a very centripetal, isolationist attitude towards the rest of the world; unless it comes from here or is written in English it is of little interest. Per capita, I think the figures suggest, the US translates far less foreign literature than any other industrialized country, and it doesn’t help that although we have one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the Americas, most Americans cannot speak nor read this second language, even at a rudimentary level. Almost every important writer you can think of, including most of the writers from our literary traditions, has learned from writers producing work in other languages and traditions. Translation is especially important for black, LGBTQ and black and other LGBTQ writers of color, and our writing, because the fact is, unless we translate each other, there’s no guarantee that others might. I would just add that publishers still have a commercial incentive for translating fiction and nonfiction, both of which still do sell, sometimes very well, but as poetry usually earns little money for publishers, it really represents a labor of love. But we must do it if we can.

Aside from the fact that he was simply a brilliant writer in several genres, why do you think it’s important that we remember Melvin & continue to read his work?

Melvin is an important figure in our (black/LGBTQ) literary history. He emerged at a time when out black LGBTQ writers and writing were still relatively rare but beginning to come into our own. Only a few years before his death, in the mid-to-late 1980s, there was a Black Gay Literary Renaissance, especially in poetry, and his work was central to this.  He was a pioneer in juggling the multiple roles of creative writer, scholar, teacher, and translator, now not so unusual, though it once was. He was in conversation with many traditions, and conveyed them in his work. He is one of the major black gay writers felled by HIV/AIDS, and for that reason we must remember him and others  from his literary moment who suffered a similar fate, as they were wiped out before their time and risk being forgotten.  Lastly, in terms of aesthetic excellence and prodigiousness, his work offers an aesthetic model for new and emerging writers. I can only imagine what he might have produced were he still with us, and feel the same way about Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, Roy Gonsalves, Assotto Saint, and so many more.

Who are some contemporary writers you consider to be Melvin’s literary descendants?

There are quite a few and I would worry about leaving anyone out.  His descendents would include fiction writers, poets, scholars, critics, and generally fierce people working in other genres and fields as well. Among the better-known writers who might be listed among his heirs is Elizabeth Alexander, who has invoked him more than once in her work, and who balances the roles of poet and scholar. She isn’t LGBT, but her work carries his richness of spirit, his cosmopolitanism, his precision of imagery and music, and his engagement with the world beyond our borders. In terms of black queer men balancing the creartive and critical, I’d mention Thomas Glave, E. Patrick Johnson, Randall Kenan, and Carl Phillips, but I feel like I could rattle off a host of other names. Truly though, Melvin’s heirs are numerous, of all genders, sexual orientations….

Finally, this blog features a list of suggested readings for emerging queer writers of color. Could you suggest some books to add to the list?

Reinaldo Arenas, The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando; Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here; Tisa Bryant, Unexplained Presence; Cyrus Cassells, The Mud Actor; Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven; Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue; and Atlantis: Model 1924; Renee Gladman, The Activist; Reginald Harris, Twelve Tongues; Sterling Houston, Le Griffon: A Tale of Supernatural Love; Joseph Legaspi, Imago; Robert F. Reid-Pharr, GBM; Silviano Santiago, Stella Manhattan; Severo Sarduy, From Cuba With a Song; and Chea Villanueva, China Girls. And anything that you realize approaches what you consider to be aesthetic excellence.

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One response to “Interview: John Keene on Melvin Dixon’s Life & Work

  1. fantastic interview! yet another poet I, sadly, did not know of.
    And yet another good reason that I should try to learn Spanish. I’m no good at learning foreign languages!!!

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