Curating From The Perspective Of The Other: A Dialogue With Logan February
Logan February is a Nigerian poet. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, The Southeast Review, Lambda Literary, The Adroit Journal, Paperbag, Raleigh Review, and more. He is a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, and his debut collection, Mannequin in the Nude (PANK Books, 2019) was a finalist for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets. He is the author of two chapbooks, and the Associate Director of Winter Tangerine’s Dovesong Labs. You can find him at loganfebruary.com
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and Nigeria via email.
Nkateko: Logan, congratulations on your new book and full-length debut, Mannequin in the Nude. Tiana Clark says in her blurb for this book, “The mannequin is a window, encountering semiotic others: as father, as magic, as mother, and more. The voice here is lush and maternal and masculine all at once, a true feat.” Luther Hughes speaks of how you are “morphing from animal to nature to human to folklore.” Of all the voices/characters you inhabit in the book (and in your work in general), which came first? Whose story were you first compelled to tell when you started writing, and specifically when you wrote the poems in Mannequin in the Nude?
Logan: Thank you so much! I’m so glad to see you mentioning these blurbs, too. They are so dear to my heart. I like the idea of a semiotic other, a sort of self outside the self. Like psychological voodoo. There is a multiplicity of thought that results in a lot of projection in my poems, where I am able to view myself from varying perspectives. So, it’s less of inhabiting voices, and more of a curation of the self, which at times is a shapeshifter. It probably comes from existing outside the gender binary and on the bipolar spectrum, just never having both feet on the same side. And it was very cool to try and diffuse that whole range of human complexities in one narrative. There’s a psychological basis behind most of the poems in Mannequin in the Nude. I started out compelled to tell my own story, but with Mannequin in the Nude, I had to step back and paint the self-portrait minus the self. It was most important to me to tell the story of The Other.
Nkateko: The idea of practising self-curation as a shapeshifter intrigues me because I have always thought that to curate an identity that has a shot at surviving in a heteronormative and ableist society, one must be very specific in selecting what fits into one’s reality (in line with societal expectations) and reject everything that is other, but the experience of curating from the perspective of the other (not just as looking outside of oneself but existing outside of what the world perceives as acceptable) comes with a lot of unlearning, as it means shutting down the disparaging voices that one once trusted as the authority.
In a recent interview (with SynCityNG), you advised young queer Nigerians to “make the mute button your friend” and I think that applies outside of the context of social media as well because often we must mute our own self-reproach. I acknowledge the difficulty of staying true to oneself in a country/society where it is unsafe to publicly denounce the conservative ideal. In the same interview you also said that “poetry is home” and it reminded me of Safia Elhillo’s poem, Self-Portrait With No Flag, where she pledges her allegiance to everything that she loves and rejects the idea of a geopolitical home or nationality as an exclusive identity marker. Apart from poetry, what are your other homes? What are the safe spaces you proudly pledge your allegiance to?
Logan: Yes, unlearning was and is a big part of owning my otherness. Although, it seems more like curiosity now. But something must come undone for the new thing to take its place. I have my curiosity now, for instance, but I spent time unlearning the idea that curiosity was something to ignore or be quiet about. That it didn’t matter, or it was a bad thing. And it’s like that with so many aspects of life, when you choose a path of your own. But the wonderful thing about being on the outside (perhaps “wonderful” is a bit too optimistic, ha) is that you also exist outside the reach of those voices of authority. They can make the rules, but then you realize you can say, “No no, these rules don’t work for me. I need something that works for me.” Obviously, not every resistance can be overt and sometimes we perform in order to be safe. What’s most important is that those voices stay outside of your head. Which is what I meant about the mute button. People always have a lot of loud and uninformed things to say about queer people, especially with social media providing so much access. And sometimes, I want to tell a queer person online that they don’t have to listen to that, or engage with that person. It becomes inconsequential, who wins an argument, when you understand that you are not wrong. Sure, we want to be heard, but it’s most important that we are being listened to, and not just tricked into performing our pain for the bigots.
Elhillo writes of a different kind of otherness than mine, but her work has paved the way for me, surely. In a different poem, she writes, “today i draw thick black lines around my eyes & they are a country.” That’s an electric idea, to me, that I could already have everything I need to feel at home. But I have to make that home for myself, or do the work of finding it. So, if poetry is home, does that mean I must live by the rules of poetry? Perhaps. I don’t think that would be such a bad thing, because poems (or at least, the kind of poems I love) tend to have strong humanistic leanings. So, the “rules” end up just being more of a framework. The real goal is actualization. I could live like that.
“There is a multiplicity of thought that results in a lot of projection in my poems, where I am able to view myself from varying perspectives. So, it’s less of inhabiting voices, and more of a curation of the self, which at times is a shapeshifter .“
Nkateko: When you talk about social media providing access, I think also of the sense of community that exists on Twitter and other platforms. As a writer who uses social media regularly, do you think that the positive aspects outweigh the negative? Does the support and acknowledgement that you receive from other writers on social media offset some of the negativity and restore hope that would have otherwise dwindled due to the ‘loud and uninformed opinions’ being spewed on a daily basis?
Logan: I’m eternally grateful for the community that social media brings me! It really has made me into the writer that I am today, and showed me how to be a good literary citizen, and how to be kind to my peers, even the ones I don’t know very well, you know, to celebrate their successes and send love and solidarity when things aren’t going too well. And of course, no community is perfect, but there are always those who are looking out for the vulnerable. Whisper networks to warn folks about exploitation and abusive behavior and unethical publications, stuff like that. So, yes, I do think the positives outweigh the negatives. But I am only just learning that Twitter does not have to be toxic, that it can be mostly good, and enjoyable. I’m being more specific with my content preferences, and less apologetic about muting people I might even know in real life. I just want a timeline that’s full of poems and art and memes and literary news. And cat videos, definitely.
Nkateko: I am intrigued by the notion of ‘making or finding’ a home in one’s body. In your poem “The Bodies of Dead Boys,” you speak of a boyfriend who claims to know you although you are ‘unfamiliar’ to yourself. The line ‘I sell my body to him/for information’ made me gasp because of the accuracy in its depiction of a relationship where both partners are trying to find themselves and each other simultaneously. The part where you refer to the relationship as the embalmment of your body, ‘a half-dead thing’, reminded me of Warsan Shire’s The House, where she writes, ‘At parties I point to my body and say This is where love comes to die. Welcome, come in, make yourself at home.’ Is the acknowledgement of the body as a home also the understanding that even terrible events can happen behind its closed doors?
Logan: Well, the idea of making a home in my body is one that intrigues me as well, because, you know, being genderqueer, there are days of frustration with my body, when it becomes a sort of metaphor for all the greater ways in which I am powerless. Lasky writes: “But the trap of your life / Is that you’re trapped in this body” and that’s something that really resonates, but also makes me more interested in making a home out of my body. If I’m stuck here, I guess I might as well. And that’s sort of where “The Bodies of Dead Boys” came from; the way that mental illness can warp self-image, so you need to know what you look like to somebody else. But that pessimism makes it so difficult to believe you are good, because you are this mind and you live in this body, you are so aware of the bad side of things. I think that a big part of growing into yourself and comfortable in your skin, is learning that there’s more than the terrible stuff.
Nkateko: You have mentioned the acts of choosing your own path and making your own rules. Do you feel that you are given the leeway to do this, or that you must toe the line and as you put it, not resist overtly? Does your age have anything to do with the extent to which you can make these rules for yourself? I refer specifically to age here because I have noticed that it is something that comes up often in your interviews. When I was in university, we had what was called a question bank, which had all the possible questions that could be asked in computer-based examinations. If interviews were exams, I am quite sure the question, ‘Is it a blessing or a curse to be so exceptionally gifted at your age?’ would be a recurring entry in your question bank. Do you feel uncomfortable when that question comes up? How do you deal with the ‘prodigy’ label you have been assigned?
Logan: I have to say: being called a prodigy while going through each day with imposter syndrome, is quite fascinating. It makes me blush, ha. I’m feeling like less of a faker lately, because of how busy I am now. I remind myself it means I’ve been working hard. But it’s nice to be labeled a prodigy, it reminds me that I’m young and I have a head start. It’s great to be debuting at nineteen, but my age does get in the way fairly often. There are spaces I’m not yet allowed into, or things I can’t do because I’m still an undergraduate student, still not free in certain necessary ways. And we both know how it is, being African, your parents don’t really understand that you’re an adult at nineteen. So, regular challenges. I see my age as a fact of itself. There’s so much life ahead of me, it’s terrifying. It can be comforting to know that some things are yet to come. I’m learning to be patient and just do the work. On my own terms. Grow and try to have fun with it. My twenties are around the corner!
Nkateko: ‘…going through each day with imposter syndrome.’ I can relate to that. I struggled with imposter syndrome throughout medical school, most prominently when our class made the transition from written to oral exams (in 4th Year), because that is when my voice began to betray me. I would doubt my understanding of the material I had studied and either speak very softly when asked a question or walk into the exam room with a tremor that affected my voice and my hands so I couldn’t even draw if I asked to illustrate whatever I was struggling to articulate. It was a tough time. When I was cast in a theatre production that same year, I became more comfortable using my voice and it helped me to gain the confidence to not only perform on stage but also to speak up during oral exams at school. It was as if I was freeing the knowledge that had been caged in my brain by fear.
Have you been able to find a common ground between your university studies and your art? In what ways do those two worlds intersect (or diverge)? Is there one environment where imposter syndrome has had a stronger grip, and does focusing on what you enjoy (even momentarily) help you to overcome it?
Logan: I haven’t done theater since junior secondary school! Which is probably for the best, I think I’ve become too much of an anxious person for that. I couldn’t even imagine my stress levels, if I had to take an oral exam. But it’s great that you made them work together. I like the idea of finding common ground, because I don’t really believe in coincidences. But for me, it’s been a bit different. I feel more like I’m just trying to do two things at once, which can be maddening. I have all these class deadlines along with work and publisher deadlines. Sometimes, I’ll get invited to an event in the middle of the semester, and I’ll have to really decide if I want to fit that into my student schedule. And it’s almost always tight. It doesn’t help that I study at one of those places that seems invested in frustrating the students’ efforts. Back in 2017, I tried to transfer out of my Psychology program, into a BA in Communication and Language Arts, you know, so I would get to write more. The application got denied. Little things like that, they collect, so when the semester is at a tough point, it can get a little upsetting, because I have no time to work or write, and I don’t particularly want to be here since this is a degree I might end up not using.
But on the flip side, I think that being in Psychology undergrad is good for me, and for my work. Being a young teenager on the bipolar spectrum, I was always pushed to overlook and ignore my symptoms. But now, I know what to look out for, how to handle things to a large extent, and how to help my friends handle tough situations, as well. I understand people a lot better now. And of course, I believe being a student of the social sciences is an advantage to any writer or artist. I’m more aware of what my poems and stories are doing now, and I’m inspired by different things, you know, theories, psychology jargon, case studies. For example, the poems I’ve been writing recently are influenced by dream logic and hypnosis and the perceptual process.
Nkateko: In an interview with Joanna C. Valente for Luna Luna, you mentioned that you want to learn to paint this year. You also mentioned this in the caption of a post on Instagram: ‘Perhaps this will be the year I pick up a paint brush.’ What does learning a new skill/art form mean to you? Is it a type of freedom? If you were to start working on a painting right now, what would you paint? Would it begin with one of your beautiful sketches? Or a photograph?
In the same caption you talked about ‘no longer holding on to agony for art’s sake’ and I found that to be a very powerful statement. Apart from the paintbrush, what are the things that you are picking up for the sake of pursuing happiness/releasing agony in this season of your life?
Logan: Yes, art is so important to me! And I’ve never really tried to paint, but I keep meaning to, I’m going to do it this year. I would like to develop my skills in different forms, because I have lots of interests. Sketching is just one of them. I have this little dream of going to art school in Sweden. I guess I just have a lot of ideas I’d like to explore, visually. And that definitely is a kind of freedom. I think a lot about what it must be to create art without sitting down to think of words. To be able to express and question and lament in a completely different way. Most of the time, when I sketch, it’s because I feel really sad, but it expresses itself as a totally new thing. I’ve found I am most prone to sketching pictures of women, drawn from my imagination. I haven’t psychoanalyzed myself far enough to know what that may mean, but I would definitely paint similar things.
Agony for art’s sake, I think many artists are familiar with this predicament. You come to poetry as a way of giving yourself a voice, unearthing your truth and whatnot, you know, you are learning to speak. And because pain demands to be spoken of, it can get very loud in the work. Sometimes unnecessarily so. Then you realize you are performing your pain, you are being excessively candid with your reader. For me in particular, this was how it happened. So now, I’m learning to write less towards what I already know, and more towards what I could know. To ask more questions, and grow more comfortable with hope. To just look outward more. I’ve been reading more fiction lately, and loving my work at Dovesong Labs where I create writing lessons on lots of interesting subjects. I’m also trying to meditate more, and take care of myself. I’m getting better at chilling out.
Nkateko: “To ask more questions, and grow more comfortable with hope.” I love this. It takes me back to what you said about unlearning the idea that curiosity is something to ignore. And I think when you start questioning things you give yourself the power to change your circumstances because you no longer believe the lie that “oh that’s just how things are” but start to ask why things are that way and who made them that way. For me that started to happen with religion, when I grew uncomfortable with certain things that were the norm in Christianity. Later, when I was diagnosed with clinical depression, I was made to believe that I was being punished for questioning God and was told several times to strengthen my faith and pray away the ‘demon’ that plagued me. That’s what led me to study Medicine. The need to know why I had become a stranger to myself, why I was inhabiting a body that felt foreign to me, without necessarily buying into the idea of being possessed. Going to med school was a sort of reclaiming of myself and I learnt how to live in this body and as you say, to “grow comfortable with hope” because I wanted to learn how to be happy again, to accept that there was something beyond the darkness. When I read Romasinder Blues by Dr Dami Ajayi for the first time, this part stood out for me,
“The beauty of intactness
Has made science God’s aficionado
But bantering angels commit glitches
That seep right out of God’s showroom.
Like a set of identical twins
Who need Haloperidol: halos
For pretty dolls.
Out of context is a
New differential for intactness.”
I reached out to Dr Ajayi after I read that poem and told him I was considering specializing in Psychiatry because of him. We are now good friends and I have a poem on his wonderful blog, but I believe Romasinder Blues is the greatest gift he ever gave me. I still go back to that poem because it strengthens my belief in the healing power of words and it affected how I treated patients during my Psychiatry rotation back then and more importantly, how I understand my own illness now.
Is there a poem or poetry collection that has changed your life? Something you secretly believe was written just for you? I know that the poems and fragments of Sappho are a great influence in your writing and dare I say, in your sketching too? Is Sappho your Muse?
Logan: One important thing to realize is that unlearning is a product of learning, and we must remain open to it. Christianity has a tendency to vilify curiosity, to say, “don’t bother asking, you don’t really need to know,” which I think is a very irresponsible approach to mental illness, especially. When we struggle with these issues, they try to hold us responsible for our own pain. It’s a ridiculous and unfair standard, since everyone knows better than to tell an asthma patient that they wouldn’t need their inhaler if they had enough faith. There’s just a lot of work to be done in terms of de-stigmatization of mental illness in Africa. We need to value science over superstition, and be more willing to seek help from professionals who have spent years learning to give competent care for these conditions.
I love your comment about understanding your illness, and I particularly like that you and I took similar paths in the face of the same struggle. I went in to study psychology so my mental landscape would be more familiar to me. I think we all need to stop underestimating our ability to understand what we are living through. We are capable of knowing ourselves and our world much more profoundly. I like the Dami Ajayi quote, the idea of a “new differential for intactness.” My concept of a worthwhile life is one aimed towards enlightenment, in whatever form.
Now, to the question of influence. It tends to be women poets who write those books that I feel deep down were written for someone like me; you know, Dorothea Lasky, Heather Christle, Safia Elhillo, those women who are badass poets without losing that delightful element of weirdness. But I don’t think I could accurately call Sappho my muse; it might be a bit of an obnoxious claim, as even Plato called her the Tenth Muse. I think of Sappho more as a poetic godmother, in that her work troubled the same questions that mine does: loneliness, desire, divinity. Her poems were written to be sung on the lyre, and I originally came into writing through songwriting, years before poetry. So I guess I find those similarities comforting and fascinating. And because what’s left of her poetry has been translated by so many (Anne Carson is my favorite Sappho translator, obviously), her words take on a different spirit each time, so as a reader, one is really able to take in the very essence of her poetics of Eroticism. Fragment 147 says: “someone will remember us / I say / even in another time” and it’s something that keeps me inspired, because I don’t think Sappho could ever have imagined a teenaged Nigerian boy in 2019 when she wrote those lines. Even though so much of the work has been lost or destroyed, this fragment motivates me to not freak out and to just focus on doing my own work. If I do, maybe it will be remembered, too.
Nkateko: Logan, thank you so much for having this conversation with me. I am really looking forward to reading Mannequin in the Nude. I have no doubt that I will see you again soon, whether in Nigeria, or wherever you will be in the world sharing your amazing work. Your trajectory has been amazing and inspiring to observe, and I have no doubt that you are going very far. All the best!
Logan: It’s been so lovely talking with you, Nkateko! Thank you for the thoughtful questions, and the space to share my perspective on things. I’m quite excited (and nervous, of course) to see where the future takes us, and I do hope we get to see each other again soon. Sending best wishes and solidarity to you, dear friend.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.