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Chantal Gibson

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Chantal Gibson examines the politics of “add to cart” culture and activism

When Chantal Gibson came across a slave ship yoga mat advertised for $48 online, it triggered her to respond to our “copy and paste” world, where virtually anything can be reproduced and sold on a T-shirt, coffee cup, keychain – or yoga mat.

“The most offensive thing I used to think about would be, like, a dance version of [Billie Holiday’s] ‘Strange Fruit.’ When I first saw the slave ship yoga mat, it met me at that level. … I knew that I was going to talk about pain, but I was not going to be exploiting anybody’s pain. I had to find a way to talk about what I was going through without highlighting or marketing this pain, and that’s why this book became about withholding.”

Gibson’s second collection, with/holding, published by Caitlin Press, was written in the span of a few months in early 2021, though she had been collecting ideas since 2018 with the help of her “life algorithm,” a series of link exchanges between friends, including writers Canisia Lubrin and Fiona Tinwei Lam.

Gibson – whose debut collection, How She Read, was a finalist for the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize – is also a nationally acclaimed artist and teacher.

“I have a life algorithm because of the cul-ture work that I do. People see something and they’re like, ‘Hey, just showing you this link,’ or ‘Did you see this?’ And so the book is really a testament to people sharing with me. … Once I decided I was going to write this book, I went back and got the emails, collected all the documents, everything that I’ve been noting.”

Though Gibson’s first book received the 2020 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, following up on this success wasn’t on her mind. In 2020, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Ejaz Ahmed Choudry, as well as anti-Asian racism in the midst of the pandemic, made headlines.

“I wasn’t writing the book in 2019 or 2020. … 2020 was really hard for Black and Brown people,” Gibson says. “I was getting these lovely emails saying, ‘Are you okay? Can I do something for you?’ It was very strange to have this algorithm of horrific things coming up on my phone and email, but also having people care about me and check in with me.”

Gibson turned to her life algorithm and asked poet Otoniya J Okot Bitek a harrowing question: “What would it be like if Black people weren’t here?” Gibson began writing the visually arresting “Blacksquare” poems as an exercise in thinking about this loss and violence.

Appearing in the first section of with/holding, “Blacksquare” interrogates the internet activism of Blackout Tuesday, the day on which people posted black squares on Instagram to protest police brutality and to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, a form of expression that came to be criticized as virtue signalling.

Gibson writes “to: those who remain // unmoved / by the bloated head- / lines / by the swollen type- / face- / by our herniated names.”

For Gibson, the act of withholding is a matter of audience: “What one person takes from a poem is going to be different from another.” By drawing on a rich lineage of Black writers and thinkers such as Dionne Brand and Christina Sharpe, Gibson says, she was immersed in thinking about the word hold.

“I was completely surrounded by the discourse of what a hold is – a chokehold, the hold of a ship, the withholding of information – this era that we live in. It seems to capture all of the stuff that I was struggling with.”

Masks also develop the theme of withholding. Speaking about the language of hype and marketing, Gibson scrutinizes the emptiness of language. “One of the things I’ve tried to do with the book is to use this masking language of advertising. … It’s meant to satisfy you at the surface. If you linger longer, it becomes opaque. There’s nothing, it’s empty. … It’s kind of weird, because as I was writing, I realized there’s content in this book, but it’s a book about no content.”

As an artist, Gibson engages with the concreteness of text, reminding us that meaning can also be made through the materiality of language itself.

In a long poem entitled “Blackfish,” Gibson gradually drops vowels and language whittles down into a raining heap of what look like exclamation marks on the page.

“They’re not exclamations,” Gibson says. “They’re small letter i’s.” Gibson pauses for a moment to let the weight of this effect sink in.

“For me, the small letter i is not the colonized I, it’s the i of the ancestor, it’s the i of the person who’s aware of themselves. The capital letter I, for me, is always like that first I, the I of grammar and the I of the colonizer. … Those little i’s are kind of like the little figures in the slave ships. … They’re small little i’s with little heads, little bodies, and when they flip upside down, they’re kind of dive-bombing, suiciding.”

Though with/holding is dark, resonant, and timely, Gibson takes a longer view. “People have asked me, ‘How did you get through 2020?’ and part of it is because of the kindness of others, but part of it was my choice to be a good ancestor now. That’s what this is, to me. It’s legacy work. This book is not about me, it’s about – it’s my love letter to Black people,” Gibson says, sniffling back soft tears.