I have been trying to think differently about the process of ethnographic storytelling these days, about what sensations/feelings/experiences language can or cannot reach. This has me turning to poets, more often than ever. I’ve always been a fan of Paul Beatty’s poetry, and I just put down his Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991) for the five thousandth time. I always think of it as an inspiring window into how urban black cultural expressions attempt a kind of mellow mastery over racio-existential angst. This time around, it was the power of Claudia Rankine’s collection Citizen (2014) that sent me back to Beatty.

I am currently reading two new books of poetry, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity (2016), by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Mz N: The Serial (2016), by Maureen N. McLane. I have subtitled (for myself) the latter book “Scenes of White Feminist Fugitivity,” but only because of how interesting and moving it is to read these offerings together. And because of how much I appreciate Gumbs slamming her political cards on the table so unflinchingly. Stylistically—and in terms of tone and topics—the two books are very different, but there is something about their attempts to write on, through, and against the things usually emphasized or silenced in discussions of gender that prod me to flip back and forth between the two poets as though they had conspired together all along.

As I read poetry from Gumbs and McLane, my next major project marinates: an ethnography and one-person performance piece about Paschal Beverly Randolph, a nineteenth-century mesmerist, sex magician, and spirit medium who wrote in every genre imaginable, including ethnography. An African American born free in New York City around 1825, Randolph is credited with moving America from the learned passivities of spiritualism to the agential manipulations of occultism. My performance will use his fascinating life story (complete with tales from his excursions in the Middle East and Europe, along with his attempts to sell sex cures through the mail) to make an argument about the discipline of anthropology’s current fascination with a kind of occulted methodology, a disembodied empiricism that allows the field to miss important questions about some of its own ideological commitments and essentialist longings. I retool and reimagine Randolph’s critique of spiritualism to ground a contemporary response to institutionalized forms of ethnographic practice.

I think that the poets can help immensely in that effort.