Anaïs Duplan is a trans* poet, curator, and artist. He is the author of the book I NEED MUSIC (Action Books, 2021), a book of essays, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture (Black Ocean, 2020), a full-length poetry collection, Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016), and a chapbook, Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus (Monster House Press, 2017). He is a professor of postcolonial literature at Bennington College, and has taught poetry at The New School, Columbia University, and Sarah Lawrence College, amongst others. In 2016, Duplan founded the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, an artist residency program for artists of color, based at Iowa City’s artist-run organization Public Space One.
Raising Kids, Raising Institutions
A child has, of course, a will of her own. To guide a child while recognizing her relative autonomy is a special sort of feeling. Something like surrender.
Something like surrender happens when we create arts institutions, too. An institution develops its own will, seems to develop in semi-autonomous ways, etc. Beyond that, however, raising children isn’t that much like starting a creative project with other people at all, though I would’ve said at some point that the Center for Afrofuturist Studies (CAS) was our “baby”—mine, John’s, and Kalmia’s. It has traces of each of us and as a result of our shared stewardship has developed a level of independence from us.
Six or seven years ago, I approached John and Kalmia with a proposal to buy a house and run a Black arts residency program as a two-year incubator project. I proposed a fairly maximalist version of the program that, ironically, quite resembles what we now run. What’s our parental dream for the CAS, as it were, having made this “baby” together? It’s not endless growth necessarily, though we do keep surpassing the progress markers we’ve set up for ourselves. We could have stopped the project two years in, when we’d initially planned to, or at the five-year mark. In our early days, the director of our local theater told us, “After five years, you’ll be just at the beginning of what you can do as an organization.” Wouldn’t that be as much reason to stop as it would be to keep going after five years?
I laugh a little when I think of the time (we lasted about four or five months) we frequented a marketing coach. We’ve never been great at the more traditional fundraising approaches—donor stewardship and whatnot—and discovered, after months of politely avoiding our coach’s suggestions, that our aversion for donor stewardship wasn’t just stubbornness (though that is at play, no doubt) but rather was ideological. If you can imagine ideologically-rooted play, whose impracticality is not a sorry side effect but sort of the main idea, then you’ve got a picture of how we’ve tried to run our organization. Nonetheless, all institutions want to perdure and we are no different. We owe our continuing good fortune to years of community embeddedness (which have generated levels of community buy-in that other organizations only dream of, in my not-so-humble opinion), being in the good graces of the local city government, and a solid grant writing strategy.
There was a point when it would’ve made sense for me to be called the “leader” of the CAS, when I would’ve called it my project. But I haven’t been back to Iowa City in over a year now, the longest I’ve been away since moving away. After grad school, I moved to New York City to teach poetry at Columbia. I got an all-lowercase email (with no subject line) from an administrator there, a day or so after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who asked if I could adjunct the following semester. My postgraduate plan, before I accepted that offer, had been to hop into another MFA program, the Visual and Critical Studies program at SAIC, and to imagine a life commuting between two Midwestern poles: the queer quaintness of Iowa City and the third largest city in the United States. The news about Columbia meant that as a team, the CAS had to imagine what my being so far away would mean for us. We could walk away from the project altogether, we could figure out how to move the CAS to New York City with me, or we could get into a long-distance relationship with each other. It was the first instance—for me anyway—of imagining the CAS apart from me, my will. Our collective sense was that Iowa City was the best location for the program—Iowa City a stranger and more compelling container for our particular brand of Afrofuturist ideation than most other places. We shuttled into our current configuration: me on the east coast and John and Kalmia in Iowa City.
I’m raising a family now. Or rather, I’ve adopted two teenagers and I’m doing my best to remediate the just-under-two-decades of emotional turmoil they lived through before our paths crossed. Not that I would’ve started a family at the outset of grad school, but I am settling into the life I thought I would’ve created in Iowa City. The yearning for domesticity then was the impetus, at some deeper level, for starting the CAS. I wanted to create a sense of home.
In 2021, I left the gray-washed environment of New York City amidst autistic burnout and a global pandemic to further stabilize my life. I returned to rural New England, where I grew up, got full-time professorship, bought a Subaru—the ultimate queer parent-mobile—and a house, and turned to the task of raising children. I want to avoid the impulse to be dismissive about the relative conformity of my life trajectory. This urge towards deep stabilization roots in my own unstable upbringing, which nonetheless brought with it many gifts: an embedded sense of comfort with travel, familiarity with different cultures, languages, landscapes. I’ll always be someone who likes structure more than I like surprise.
It’s amazing just to be alive, as a person and as an organization, and to have made it this far. I remember a Common Field panel called, “We Like Our Size, Thank You.” I remember the oddness of the seating arrangement: two or three concentric circles, where the innermost attendants sat on the carpeted floor. I was the only CAS representative in the audience, and at the conference. During the Q&A, after a handful of arts organizations with budgets under $200k/year had made arguments for their relative smallness, I made a critical remark about the culture of growth amongst arts grantmakers, targeting in particular those who design funding applications that require prospective grantees to spin narratives about upwards and outwards growth (more budget, more audience, more real estate, etc). That story of more-and-more-and-more growth doesn’t map neatly onto every organization, certainly not onto ours, and it sucks to have to lie about it to get more funding. A slender woman stood up after I was done ranting. She introduced herself as a representative from the VIA Art Fund and revealed that she recognized the name of my organization, and that they’d recently received our application. The room giggled nervously on my behalf. She asked for my feedback on how to better formulate grant application questions about growth. I told her that when I imagine growth, I imagine a tree—and that while some growth was visible (in this analogy, this would be above-ground growth—branches, leaves, and all that), there’s just as much growth happening underground, invisible to the eye. My sense of our own relationship-based, de-hierarchical strategy is that it often works in ways we can’t anticipate, for reasons we can’t anticipate. We ultimately received that grant. Two years of funding that changed the game for us.
Are we small or are we big now, as an institution? We’re much bigger than before. Our space and budget is larger. Is it possible at any size to run a decolonial institution? Our first year together, we imagined the CAS like a rhizomatic organization, a centerless Center, that spread throughout the United States via collaboration. While we may be shy of that goal, our team does encompass three time zones and five cities, and the sense of sprawl that creates for us seems to be motivating rather than inhibiting. We’re at seven core members now, up from three. As a rule, we avidly welcome new leadership perspectives, as it allows us to stay tapped into a more anarchic way of operating. Nonetheless, our priorities are aligned: if there’s growth, it ought to be in the growth of our community, not in a specialized subset of that community. We’d know we’d taken a wrong turn if we were profiting while our community was suffering. We’re also receptive to what comes, whatever it is our organization decides it would like to be. Even as we share a hope that our organization will continue to flourish, we are perhaps impractically open to changing course, shifting our direction, failing. It’s seemed to work so far.