When Quenton Baker speaks, you get the sense his words would feel lonely without his hands to emphasize his points. For someone who’s dedicated his life to expressing much with little—printed words, blank space—and is generally averse to taking up space, his reliance on gesticulation is remarkable.
To signify the thematic evolution of his poetry, Baker slides his connected palms across the wooden counter of the bar of The Station Café on Beacon Hill. Later, he stretches his arms wide to denote how his poems will be blown up to wall paintings at the Frye Art Museum this month. With nearly cupped hands, he makes a small circle around his body to indicate the concept of Black interiority. This recognition of the textured psychological and personal inner landscape of Black people underlies everything he writes.
“Almost 100 percent of ‘accepted’ knowledge about Blackness and Black people is information that can be gleaned via surveillance, via exterior observation,” says Baker, a 2017 Jack Straw fellow and a former Made at Hugo House fellow. “Any concept or understanding of Black inner life is completely missing from American social life. That kind of texturing, taking up space, is reserved for white people.”
It is with hesitation that he will take up more literal and figurative space than he’s ever occupied before during his solo exhibition, Ballast, opening Oct. 6 at the Frye. Until recently his work was relegated to paper and mic; now his poems swell in size and dimension, becoming 10-foot by seven-foot wall paintings and projections in the gallery. “It feels weird,” he says, “I’m still trying to navigate that, to be OK with being visible. Or rather, the positive aspects of being visible.”
Ballast is a physical spin-off of a still-in-progress poetry book, supported by Baker’s 2016 James W. Ray Venture Project Award, a cash prize for Washington State artists that comes with an exhibition at the Frye. When complete—no publish date has yet been announced—the book will consist of both erasure poems and “invented form” poems that are readable from every direction, packing, like a matryoshka doll, multiple poems in one.
Both the book and the exhibit take as a point of departure the 1841 slave revolt on a ship named the Creole, the only sizable successful revolt of U.S.-born enslaved people in the country’s history. From there, Baker traverses the both timeless and seemingly never-ending terrain of anti-Blackness and the “afterlife of slavery.” Theorized by scholar Saidiya Hartman, the idea is that the history of slavery is not history, as Black lives have been and are still devalued, resulting in “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration and impoverishment.”
“It’s a non-narrative project,” Baker explains when I meet him on a sunny September afternoon at The Station, a couple of blocks from the house where he grew up. “It’s multi-voiced, and the poems can be read in any direction: Bottom to top, in different columns, across and down columns.” The form is intended to induce a disorienting and alienating experience approaching the anti-Black reality.
“To exist in a society where you are considered a non-being, that’s impossible to conceive of. Narrative frameworks can’t hold that kind of rupture,” he says. “There’s no way to tell it straight.”
The recorded facts of the revolt on the Creole come only from “official” white voices: testimonies and depositions from the ship’s crew and officers given to the U.S. Consul in Nassau and later released to the U.S. Senate. According to these reductive accounts, the revolters, en route from Virginia to Louisiana to be sold, steered the brig toward the Bahamas, a British island where slavery was abolished, effectively freeing themselves.
Baker, who considers himself a scholar of history, first learned about the event some three years ago while researching something else. When he stumbled on the passage briefly describing the revolt, he halted, taken aback. “I was under the impression there were no successful large-scale revolts of American-born enslaved people. I don’t have a Ph.D. in history or anything, but with the amount of research and reading I do, I should have encountered it.”
So, he did what he usually does: more research. He read countless books and wrote to the Senate Office of Public Records and archives in Texas to obtain scans of documents. This was early 2016. Baker was four months into writing and compiling his first full-length book, This Glittering Republic, published by Willow Books in December of that year.
In it, Baker demonstrates his poetic prowess, chronicling both a hungry, insatiable love in “Love Letter” and later slapping the reader with a caustic, rhythmic “Jazz Standard,” a blood song about Black bodies’ “lockstep with death.” Snaking through the collection are name-drops and dedications to poets, musicians and people such as George Stinney, Jr., a 14-year-old sentenced to the death penalty by an all-white jury in 1944, in South Carolina.
In “Diglossic in the Second America,” also the name of his first chapbook, Baker writes:
What I mean is: two tongues: high and low speech, white teeth
and suit or thug.
But don’t I have it both? Little mulatto codebreaker, identity
that jump cuts like a running back.
Wait, am I even black? How black? On a scale of rapist
to corner boy?
How black? What if I rapped, played ball and sold drugs?
But did it with white people? Judge: how black?
What I mean is: two countries. Binary. Between which lies
the dialectic of my body.
Diglossic, a term from sociolinguistics, refers to just one of the treacherous binaries in which Baker finds himself bound: speaking two different languages for two different social situations.
“Not code-switching,” he specifies, but “speaking the same language with two different tongues.”
We venture out into the blazing sun to walk to his mother’s house (Baker’s promised to water her flowers) and I’m reminded of an acerbic line later in the same poem: “But my mother is white; How close to an oppressor do I sleep? Am I your enemy?”
As the son of a Polish-Jewish mother and a “Black country boy” from Illinois, Baker’s reality has been diglossic from day one. “You talk one way, you act a certain way. But the reality is that you never totally get away from it. You’re still saying it from a Black body.”
Slender and tall, Baker spent much of his youth playing basketball, reading and rapping. His English major seemed an evident choice, more because he loved to read than because he realized he was a good writer. To him, rap wasn’t poetry, and he wasn’t a poet. Finishing his writing assignments in class at Seattle Central College was just a hurdle to jump over on his way to rap shows in Portland, where he lived back then and rapped with Gray Matters under the nom de plume “Intro,” short for introspective.
“I was a very earnest rapper back then, making sad-ass music, writing about existential things,” Baker says. “I was really depressed. Nobody really needed to hear that shit.” People wanted to, though. The group was successful and produced two albums, went on tour. It was a Big Thing you were supposed to feel good about, yet Baker didn’t. Hip-hop and rap were art to him, but it felt like business.
The winding poem “Transient,” also published in This Glittering Republic, offers a series of vignettes of life on the road and stage: Portland, San Diego, Sacramento. Cigarette smoke, Pabst, weed bricks, Dayquil. Still drunk at 7 a.m. Same songs every night, every show.
Both the book and the exhibit take as point of departure the 1841 slave revolt on a ship named the Creole.
In search of a more contemplative life, Baker moved back to Seattle and briefly considered becoming a monk. “That seemed a little too contemplative. So I was like, what’s halfway between rap shit and being a monk? Poetry.” In 2010, with one foot still in the rap world, he got into a poetry MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
When Baker started writing poetry he kept his hip-hop background largely on the down-low, trying to stay a step ahead of people’s stereotypes. But there’s no way around it, he says: The way he constructs his verses comes from doing the same around snares and kicks. “When I write now, the sonic compression and the weight of the line matter to me a lot.”
In hip-hop as in academia, he cites his sources and inspirations. This Glittering Republic is peppered with epigraphs, citations and dedications: poets and scholars such as Fred Moten, A.B. Spellman, Elouise Loftin and Anne Carson, along with Whitney Houston and Thom Yorke. Elucidating his creative inspirations is a question of virtue to Baker. “I think it’s really rude when writers or artists act like they did it all themselves,” he says. “Come on, no one’s believing that shit. In hip-hop, samples and lines are important. Paying respect to people who made you possible.”
What he mostly hears though, listening to his early songs, is a “kid trying to wrestle with the realities of complex trauma.” They’re attempts at self-therapy.
Three years ago, Baker found his way to an actual therapist. Figuring out his mental health has largely coincided with the writing of Ballast. “The more I’ve been able to learn about myself and the way I survive in the world has informed the way I’m looking at Black interiority. That’s what this whole long arc of social life in the U.S. has been: people trying to navigate an endlessly traumatic situation.”
In the midst of it all, he’s a human trying to heal, a poet trying to speak about living in an anti-Black reality outside of the white imagination. “I don’t have any interest in meeting whiteness where it lives,” he says. This Glittering Republic addressed whiteness in a way he’s not interested in anymore: “If I’m talking about police violence, bruised and battered Black bodies, there’s such a long history of that trauma and pain feeding a white myth-making. It just too closely echoes the kind of meaning that the white imagination already affixes to Blackness.”
As a former and current performer of hip-hop and poetry, respectively, it’s perhaps fitting that many of Baker’s preoccupations center on performativity, being on display and the spectacle of Blackness and its destruction. His dedication of the poem “Museum of Man” in This Glittering Republic to Sara Baartman makes clear how this visibility is violent: She was a South African woman exhibited as an attraction in Europe and called “Hottentot Venus.” Not free from this dehumanization after death, a cast of her body and dissected body parts were displayed at the Paris Museum of Man.
“One of the ways that power polices its borders is by making a display of those it enthralls, by demanding a certain kind of performance,” Baker says of his preoccupation with the idea of being on display. “For example, if a Black woman is being followed in a retail store, and she makes a public accusation, raises her voice, gets angry, there is a way that she’s being made to display what whiteness, through anti-Blackness, considers to be a Black, feminine performance. There’s also a lived experience of this traumatic experience. These are occurring simultaneously, but one is invisible and considered unimportant. A lot of my work is interested in that invisible and ignored interiority.”
That’s exactly, he says, what’s missing from the Senate documents relaying the events on the Creole: The people and what they thought. He took it upon himself to look for the speech that could be excavated from within these documents, graveyards with actual voices, bodies and bones buried beneath the language. In the sun, sitting on the steps of his mother’s house, Baker opens a folder full of pages with almost no letters left; he took a Sharpie to these official testimonies, eclipsing the white narrative in the hopes another would transpire. It did. But: It’s a “flawed victory,” Baker says. “The fact of the matter is there is no redress.”
The victory’s flawed, too, because they’re erasure poems, something he’s always hated. They always seemed just clever experiments. “Cleverness is my least favorite thing of all in poetry,” Baker says. “If there’s no consideration to the human reality and the human risks at stake with poetry, sort of a stake in life, no heart, I get frustrated.”
Mistrusting his own distaste, he decided to find more erasure poetry. Do more research. Understand. Mary Ruefle’s white-out erasure poems in children’s books and Tom Philips’ long-term a project “A Humument,” in which the artist erases by adding visual splendor to the page instead of white-out, instilled a newfound regard for the genre. Baker’s research into erasure poetry—at that point just a side project—coincided with the arrival of the Senate documents he’d requested for research two weeks earlier. He wasn’t planning on it, but when he started reading, he got so angry he started erasing the words with white-out, and eventually Sharpie. “I was mad at the language, I was mad at what it elided, at what it hid.”
Even for all its poetic prowess, scholarly glory, invented form, and yes, cleverness, there’s no way to mistake Baker’s work for an intellectual game without heart. What’s at stake is clear: survival. A human reality away from, outside of, dehumanizing forces.
It is perhaps this life-affirming quality of poetry, that Baker feels most beholden to. He fears not honoring both his audience and his artistic forebears. “The biggest risk is that my work makes false with the people I write for; people who have a robust and completely self-contained concept of and investment in Black life outside of the white imagination,” he says. “That I don’t add anything, don’t pay homage and give back to those people, artists, thinkers who’ve influenced me, given me so many ways to think about the world and myself in that world, who valued me. Who made my existence possible.”