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Muscle Memory/Blood Memory
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs on Code-Switching, Poetry, and Twerking

By Shannon Gibney

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ work is polyphonic, cackling with energy, and impossible to categorize. She calls herself a writer, vocalist, and sound artist, but what she really is is an intercultural mestiza—at once an interloper and a translator, an authentic and an inauthentic voice of “the Other,” occupying a space that most would recognize as peripheral, but is actually movement itself. Her work, spanning a range of histories and social locations, embodies multiple languages in an effort to communicate that what is known is always contested, and what is unknown may be of equal or even more importance.

Take the first lines of the poem “la loca ningyo,” in her new book of poems TwERK (Belladonna, 2013):

El oishii zutsu creo gran confusion

The delicious headache caused havoc

y la ningyo, gunya-gunya y flaueza, fue bebido

and the mermaid, flabby and weak in character, was drunk.

At first glance, the poem appears to be translation, but look again and there is something missing… or added. The languages are not just Spanish or English, but a hybrid of the two, at times, and what appears to be Japanese. But what is it that the poem itself is “saying,” who is it saying it to, to what end, and in whose language(s)? These are the questions that drive Diggs’ poetry—those of identity and ownership, the legible and the obtuse. What is clear for one person is someone else’s cesspool, but for Diggs, the distance between these two realities is a productive one. It is a space in which the “obvious” and everyday American popular culture expressions are made strange, and where the rarest language is universal. It is perhaps the space in which “the Other” can finally see herself in the eye of “the Normal,” and “the Normal” recognizes a horrific difference at its core.

In a recent conversation with Minneapolis-based writer Shannon Gibney, Diggs discusses the universality of “twerking” throughout African diasporic cultures, the relationship between sound and text, and “ghost translations.”

Shannon Gibney

The Urban Dictionary defines “twerkas: “The rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner with the intent to elicit sexual arousal or laughter in ones intended audience.” A simple Google search also yields this instructive video as an explanation. How do these definitions relate to your book title? Why did you choose this title, and how does “twerking” as a cultural phenomenon inform the book? And how do your style and content align with or elide these and other mainstream understandings of “twerking”?

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

I’ve watched that video several times, and I personally think that, physically, the movement itself is a lot more than how the urban dictionary defines it. It is the training of several muscle groups—not to get all sports medicine here, but follow me a second—and where these actions are moving in the opposite direction creating what folks call “twerking.” But in truth, the same gesture has been given other names in previous narratives, and the movement is, at times, just part of an assortment of movements in a singular routine. Or another truth is that this gesture appears throughout the African diaspora. There’s gouye/gouyad in Haiti and El Mapale in Colombia. In Senegal there is the ventilateur. The vacunao is from Cuba, and the mapouka is from Cote d’Ivoire. There is the Cameroonian zingué and the Zimbabwean kwassa kwassa. Somalia has niiko. The Afro-Arab communities in Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates can get a shy bootylicious with their malaya. And dutty whine or winin’ you can find in Jamaica. So maybe it is not so much about muscle memory than it is about blood memory. Am I suggesting all black folk can innately manipulate their backside? No. Is twerking new? Absolutely not.

I don’t particularly think of twerking as a cultural phenomenon simply because White America got wind of it or a handful of feminists now find it necessary to defend it (or not) in essays throughout the web. Yes, I am aware I may anger some folks with that statement. The gesture and the music that inspires it have been around for some time. The gesture has a long history.

If we were to talk about muscle training and the book, let’s talk about that. The muscularity, the polyrhythmic movement that takes place with the knees, the back, the waist, the arm: there’s a lot going on. The title itself came about during a conversation with Douglas Kearney, who designed the book cover for me. We were joking about titles and “twerk” came up, and there you have it. How it relates to the book I feel is pretty obvious. Here I need to refer to Missy Elliott. If you were to listen to her albums, what makes them amazing is the willingness to make these projects not just about Hip Hop, but also dancehall, house music, R&B, drum line, Irish step dancing—these layers of blackness, these modes of code-switching, vernaculars, and otherness shaped her much like all the references in my book. That is the muscle training. So relating that to my book, yes, it is all that. The book is informed by all and attempting to connect all of them. I don’t personally feel obligated to place one influence in one corner and another in the opposite. Instead, I am having a party with all of them. I am twerking them. I am activating them.

Gibney

You are a poet/writer, but also a sound artist, vocalist, and performer. The importance of sound is evident in all of the poems in TwERK, so I wanted to ask you about what information you feel gets communicated via reading and text, what information can only be communicated via sound, and how you make choices as a multidisciplinary artist, as far as which mediums to present your work in. For instance, in “have you forgotten any personal property,” I was completely enveloped in the sound of the poem while reading it, but at the same time, I felt like I really needed to hear the poem out loud in order to appreciate all the levels in which it is working.

Diggs

If you really needed to hear the poem aloud, you should read the poem out aloud. Nowhere in the book does it state that you cannot sound out these poems. I believe there is a natural hesitation/fear/avoidance that hinders most because they feel the norm is to wait to hear the poet recite/perform first or to just read the poems and sound them out internally. Why is that? The same with languages: you’re expecting the writer to read aloud these non-English words first. And yet, we’ve all experienced mispronouncing an English word as youth and as adults.

There was a deliberate choice not to entertain a conversation about the book, including a CD, on my end because of this question you ask. It was a challenge for me to separate—for a second—where I live within these poems and what I’m doing with these poems on the paper or on stage. I wanted to pass that challenge over to the reader, too. Not to be mean, but to see how much—and here’s the muscle memory again—the reader will flex their muscle. I do not have any expectation for the reader. I am merely inviting them to dance with me.

Gibney

You seem very interested in the concept of cultural “understanding/misunderstanding,” especially as it relates to various languages. (The second section of TwERK is titled “no entiendo,” for example.) Could you discuss how this issue, and questions related to it, inform your work?

Diggs

“No te entiendo” which means “I do not understand you,” was a category in the Mexican casta system in early colonial history. I was researching the differences between the casta system in Perú and México, and when I came to that category, the idea that colonialists would classify someone as so “mixed” they were no longer anything other than a confusion, I laughed. This space of being not entirely understood because of what you are or what your interests are in, to be mistranslated because someone is unable to translate you, your body, your being… I like investigating that space. This is important to me, because I insist to see myself as an artist—to write, to make sound, to make video, to produce, to curate, to dance, to juggle identities confuses people. I also enjoy mistranslating, because words never truly mean what you expect them to mean.

Gibney

You have a glossary of sorts at the end of the book (called “rhinestones, acrylic on panek, knives, mirror…”), although you don’t necessarily tell readers it is there at the beginning of the book. What role do you see a glossary playing in a book like TwERK? What kind of “meaning(s)” do you intend to facilitate through the poems and various and wide-ranging cross-cultural (American pop culture, Japanese culture, Spanglish, Black culture, etc.) references within them?

Diggs

Funny. I do not think about that much, the non-mentioning. But I found it difficult to name that section of the book “notes” or “glossary.” It felt limited, and my process is more tangible, I feel, than these terms. If we look at TwERK as a piece of art (and poetry is an art form and needs to be seen as such), an assortment of materials was used to create it. Yes, some are directly from the web, from reading, from viewing, from listening. However some are beads, twine, paint, tambourines, and a two-step. I won’t admit to being a hoarder, but what I see myself doing (and perhaps doing more in newer works) is digging into that personal archive of materials, histories, and life chapters. So this glossary becomes more of that listing of materials beside a mural/collage/sculpture that is installed in a gallery. It makes more sense that way.

Meanings? If were to look a shy deeper at popular culture (I know it is hard), there’s something fascinating about all the cross-cultural politics happening. We could talk about appropriation, but we could also talk how Bruno Mars’ body is not “read” as “black,” and yet his music is very much informed by “black music.” We could talk about how much Hip-Hop culture is informed by East Asian culture—martial arts, dress, philosophy—which could be viewed as appropriation, too.

So something is pretty wonderful about American culture really being this mash-up of other identities and yet completely unaware of where something may be coming from. And then there is this claiming/reclaiming occurring, too: an action to introduce readers to the whole myriad of tongues and code-switching spoken in the States and not just abroad.

Gibney

Code-switching is a dominant theme in your work, and the phrase itself appears often enough, as well. Please discuss the role, if any, you feel that code-switching plays in the contemporary American poetry aesthetic. Are there certain audiences and linguistic groups that are necessarily centered and others necessarily excluded once we even begin the very process of language or poetry? If so, what are the implications of this? And how are contemporary poets dealing with this in this digital, super-fast word of language communication (texting, Facebook, etc.)?

Diggs

Here I feel obliged to quote the Vietnamese poet Linh Dinh in a YouTube video I watched. Dinh says, “As an immigrant, you’re conditioned to translate; translating is a natural conditioning for me.” As someone who is not considered an “immigrant,” I relate to this as a person of color. And as such, I am conditioned to code-switch. Most of us are. It is a natural occurrence living in this country first and growing up in the communities for which I grew up in second. As a poet, this work is not genuinely me if code-switching is absent from it. And even more conventional forms of American poetry could easily be another display of code-switching.

There are contemporary writers—like Douglas Kearney, Jai Arun Ravine, Lisa Linn Kanae, Cathy Park Hong, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Urayoán Noel, and Edwin Torres—who are looking at this and have been for quite some time. And with the Internet, with the rise of translation engines online, language becomes both material and invitation. But, again, I don’t believe this examination of language, linguistics, and code-switching is new when we’re talking literature as a whole.

Centered? Excluded? Interesting question. There are three or four colonial/imperial tongues in the book up against a majority of tongues that were colonized by them at some point. Then there are occasional English translations in gray font that I consider “ghost translations.” But why am I calling it a “ghost”? What does it mean to the reader when I say this represents a ghost? And even the ghost here is included. Exclusion sounds more like a pathology that has nothing to do with what I am examining in the book. And exclusion only occurs if one’s ears are not open.


Shannon Gibney is a writer, teacher, and activist who lives in Minneapolis.

“I don’t particularly think of twerking as a cultural phenomenon simply because White America got wind of it or a handful of feminists now find it necessary to defend it (or not) in essays throughout the web. The gesture has a long history.”

“There’s something fascinating about all the cross-cultural politics happening. We could talk about appropriation, but we could also talk how Bruno Mars’ body isn’t ‘read’ as ‘black,’ and yet his music is very much informed by ‘black music.’ We could talk about how much Hip-Hop culture is informed by East Asian culture—martial arts, dress, philosophy—which could also be viewed as appropriation.”

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs

“How to Twerk”

Dancer Tweet Boogie offers step-by-step instructions in this Howcast YouTube video.

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, TwERK, 2013