Quenton Baker: Port Townsend Writers Conference Faculty Spotlight

In 2015 Quenton Baker was reading Walter Johnson’s 1999 book Soul by Soul, an investigation of the slave trade in antebellum America, when they stumbled upon a brief mention of an unfamiliar event: an 1841 revolt aboard the ship Creole, in which enslaved people successfully overtook the brig and escaped to freedom in the Caribbean. “I was like, What is this?” Baker says. How had the history buff never heard this story before?

After a largely fruitless inquiry to the U.S. Office of Records, Baker reached out to a University of Wisconsin professor (who had included the Creole story in one of their courses) and obtained a 19th-century U.S. Senate document — one of the few contemporaneous accounts of the revolt. But it included only depositions of angry white slavers and crew members, who misshaped this incredible tale and drowned out the voices of enslaved people.

To channel their strong emotional response, Baker turned to erasure poetry, a form they’d previously not had much interest in. But this document seemed to demand it.

“I was really mad reading the document,” Baker says. “I wanted to redact or do an erasure because I felt like this document is emblematic of the civic level of erasure of Black folks.”

Using a black Sharpie as a scalpel, Baker began blacking out the words of white slavers and shaping the rest into thoughts they imagined those enslaved people might have spoken or felt. Tilling the soil that would later become their 2023 book, ballast, Baker turned this documented violence and historical indifference into a channel to the past:

it has been impossible for me

the mutiny and murder



“These people are buried beneath this document,” Baker remembers thinking. “If I chip it away, will something come out that’s an echo or a ghost or a haunting of them?”

As a poet Baker orbits the “afterlife of slavery,” a term coined by historian and theorist Saidiya Hartman to express how chattel slavery’s legacy persists in the lives of Black folks. While focusing on stories willfully skimmed over by historians, Baker is careful not to project agency backward where it didn’t exist.

“It’s part of the poet’s responsibility and part of the artist’s responsibility to not let these people be forgotten,” Baker says, citing an influential Claudia Rankine interview on her poetic philosophy. “And in that lack of forgetting also not revictimizing or retraumatizing them.”

In their 2016 book This Glittering Republic, Baker evokes George Stinney Jr., a Black child executed by the United States in 1944. They underscore the boy’s childlike innocence by imagining him licking an ice cream cone in “Drip”: Take your time/enjoy the fat chill/of each lick/and don’t let nobody rush you.

In “Museum of Man,” Baker sits with Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman exhibited in a freak show in 19th-century Europe, reflecting on her exploitation and humanity. There will never be a moon/or a season free from the heritage/of your harvested skeleton–/but you’re more than dismemberment/aren’t you?

Original Story by Jas Keimig as part of Crosscut’s Black Arts Legaces project, which Centrum is a proud supporter, on April 25, 2023.

To read more about Quenton Baker, visit his site.


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