"Dawn and I had the chance to “GChat,” in person, about her newest collection of poetry, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books, $15.95 [paper]), one cool, cloudy October day at her house in the Hamptons, just down the road from Jackson Pollock’s old studio. We wanted to do an interview that had a time limit, that included the immediacy of the present, rather than tinkering with responses for days. But we also wanted the freedom of typing, not having to transcribe later. We did take a break at one point to walk down to Maidstone Beach. The sun, after being hidden all day, was just barely breaking out from under the clouds at the horizon. On a rock in the jetty someone had painted “I LOVE BEATY”—the U, absent, still sounded in our voices and out across the still water of the inlet. It felt somewhat perfect, this U, whose sound the meaning of the misspelled word so depended upon, seemingly absent. I think this is what Dawn’s poetry manages to do over and over again, make visible the effects of the invisible, the ringing in our ears and across our flesh of what we can’t, or don’t always want, to see. Her poetry forces us to question what any beauty-obsessed reader might have first gone looking for.
Karen Lepri: I want to begin at the beginning, if that’s possible. Could you talk about the genesis of your project, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life? It’s hard not to read the title as an ironic critique of incarceration. Is this a wrong entry point?
Dawn Lundy Martin: The beginning of a project can be very difficult to access. I know, though, that I never meant for the book to address the prison–industrial complex directly, though it is part of a larger critique I want to make. I am always writing something, working on something, that is a kind of before the beginning. It was like that with Life in a Box is a Pretty Life. At some point the project gains focus, like a little click, and a conceptual shape emerges around the work. The title happened somewhere in the middle of a poem. It’s ironic, yes, and attending to incarceration, but incarceration writ large. All our big and little prisons."