Peter J. Curry: “In his memoir, The Words I Chose, Wesley McNair says that ‘poets are menders of broken things.’ When I think about the poems I’ve written, I see they come mostly from that impulse—to mend something, or to bring some kind of order to an obviously broken world.”
Rattle #52 features a tribute to 21 Los Angeles poets, and a lively conversation with one of L.A.’s most vibrant voices in Brendan Constantine. Los Angeles is our home city, but we’re an international magazine and not especially sociable, so we wanted to peek in and see what’s happening in the local scene. Greater Los Angeles is home to almost 20 million people, including a very eclectic but widely dispersed poetry community: Take your pick of the many poetry readings and open mics happening daily—but good luck driving there! It’s also a city full of complicated history and cinematic beauty. As always, we put out an open call for submissions, and were impressed with what Angeleno poets had to offer, including a love poem for Los Angeles by L.A. Poet Laureate Luis J. Rodriguez.
The open section brings together sixteen poets from other regions of the world, with all the passion and compassion and honesty Rattle issues are known for.
Manchester M2 7AQ
2012, 67 pp., $19.95
Swerving, in the book of Julith Jedamus, is an act of giddy rigor, born of riddle-me-a-riddle wonder. This wonder permeates her first poetry collection, The Swerve—and not just the title poem, but also theless successful or more somber pieces. Jedamus’s habitual questioning can be rhetorical, but it is as often genuinely—if at times ingenuously—curious. Regarding the Cistercian abbot Aelred, she wonders: “Who can read your mind, absent friend,/defender of solitary sisters and fraternal love,/ griever for the weak-willed, saver of men/ and brimming rivers?” And: “…did God murder/ us all with too much love?” More pertinently and personally, the title poem’s speaker asks: “If she swerves, pursues the firefly’s path, ignores the moon’s/ rectitudes, who will follow her through doubt and danger?” The answer is evasive and, since the “I” seems to correspond to the actual poet, prematurely regretful: “Not I, who discovered her too late….” For The Swerve proves that it has not been too late for Jedamus to follow a path—observing, reflecting, writing—leading to the creation of poetry that dances with random abandon through doubt and danger, dances among the many sensations the world offers.
What makes The Swerve so arresting, so basically good despite the minor flaws, is the fact that these tics, firstly, occur among so much lovely, discerning imagery. Secondly, they strike me as by-products of an organic search, both personal and artistic. Jedamus takes risks, teasing out the sometimes ungainly ramifications of ideas and emotions and reporting her findings as a conscientious wordsmith. The results of such searches are not always easily transformed to art, but Jedamus remains true to both her craft and her vision. Without being narcissistic, her poems reflect the poet’s sensibility, notably its whimsically free-associational sense of humor and excellent ear for the music of words. The loose ends, gathered in the formal constraints of each poem, better evoke the disheveled quality of human experience than would too neatly pruned and packaged sentiments.
So the book not only swerves but also see-saws. We are asked this rather tepid question in “The Drowning of Drenthe:” “Who can say now what rhymes are told/ In this drowned world?” The same poem, however, presents vivid images: “Bronze dagger, pin and carcanet,/ Twice-strangled girl rescued from peat/ Bright waves obscure.” Similarly, “Circumspect” is a haunting chant, each stanza repeating key words like “ravelling, ravelling” and “hunting, hunting.” But these apt repetitions are jarringly echoed by “testing, testing” in a context where the connotation of microphone-checking is emphatically not wanted. As for the title “E.T. in the Isère,” perhaps it is a free-associational quirk of this critic alone that caused her to assume that it referred to a popular extra-terrestrial instead of the possibly less famous English poet Edward Thomas. Never mind the title, though; I think poetry lovers will agree that Jedamus has chosen wonderful words to appreciate those of Thomas:
river of words might have flowed from Arras and your
surviving self to make the resin of this wood
palpable? Feather of cirrus and yarrow, sloe-
stain and nettle-sting, black boars
rooting for walnuts, crows writing slow
circles over corn or carrion: no beauty’s
too slight, no fear too deep to escape your notice.
Jedamus has clearly learned from this beloved poet. Indeed, the last phrase is valid praise for Jedamus herself.
The breadth of her attention is indicated by the temporal and spatial sweep of her subject matter: from the 3000-year-old landscape-carved White Horse of Uffington, in England, to Merce Cunningham’s last rehearsal, in 2008, in a “disused Ford motor assembly plant overlooking San Francisco Bay.” Among her influences are Herbert, Lorca, and Frost, and her palette of forms includes quatrains, sonnets, ghazals and free verse. As she is about her inability to swerve, Jedamus is self-deprecatory, albeit lightheartedly, about her predilection for writing formal verse. The title “Fixed Form” reminded me, along with some of its tense questions, of Plath’s “Words,” with its phrase “fixed stars govern a life.”
What malice cramped my hand?
Who fixed my form?
I wish a lime-scented wind
would make me warm.
Again, her fears are exaggerated, even a tad inaccurate. Jedamus does dismiss them, but with a lame ending. If this poem is unsuccessful, it is despite not because of her practiced use of form (in this poem, rhyming quatrains). The error of “Fixed Forms” is in failing to perceive that all this dabbling in forms is neither mere pastiche nor indicative of being a control freak, but a valid and effective manifestation of Jedamus’s inquisitive, imaginative nature, including her ability to play, painting and making music, with words. Games are fun precisely because of the rules.
The last poem, “Directive,” was inspired by Robert Frost’s poem of the same name. Like Frost, Jedamus is concerned with the ambivalences and ulteriorities (Frost’s term) inherent in language, which seem to reflect the very mysteriousness of existence and extinction. Her “Directive” is dedicated to photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed by mortar shells in Libya. Like several of the poems, notably those about Whistler and Van Gogh, “Directive” was inspired by a visual artist. Literal and figurative vision is paramount for Jedamus; she repeatedly urges us or others to look and, a step further, to see. The first line directs us: “Come close. Press eye to subject.” Her last directive is: “Prove, from his wounds, the force/of love’s violence, and say, with emphatic/silence: This is Christ. This is not Christ.” At this chasm of opposites, Jedamus is well situated. My directive for her is: bravo for the rhymes and syllabics and sonnets. Keep dancing through the maze of love and death, and especially keep looking at, seeing, and singing to us about the strange bond between murder and love, risk and life.
Alexandra Yurkovsky is a writer and teacher living in Berkeley. Her reviews and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various publications, including Poetry Flash,Fish Drum, Mudlark, Parabola, The Bark, and the San Francisco Chronicle. A poetry collection, Wanting, was published in 2005 by Beatitude Press.
Dream Horse Press
PO Box 2080
Aptos, Ca 95001-2080
80 pp., $17.95, Paper www.dreamhorsepress.com
Note: The following interview was conducted by Timothy Green over email during August of 2009.
GREEN: When I came across Disloyal Yo-Yo, my first thought was, Can this really be Bruce Cohen’s first book? We’ve published several of your poems and an essay at Rattle, and your work always has the consistency and depth of someone well into a poetry career. Tell me about the book’s journey. Did you only recently start sending manuscripts around, or have you been shopping them for a while? What was the lag-time between first poem published, and first book published?
COHEN: That’s so nice of you to say that, Tim. I can’t, of course, speak for other poets, but I surmise that the notion of the “first book,” for many, may be a misnomer. If anyone were foolish enough, or had bad enough taste, to publish what would have, in actuality, been my first book, I don’t think you’d be tossing around words like “consistency” and “depth.” I was extremely lucky to have studied at The University of Arizona in the late ’70s with Steve Orlen and Jon Anderson and, although I did not entirely appreciate it at the time, I was surrounded, inspired and greatly influenced by some of the most talented poets of my generation, who happened to be friends and fellow classmates. To name-drop just a few, David Rivard, Michael Collier, Bill Olsen, Tony Hoagland and David Wojahn. It was clear to me, being realistic not humble, that I was simply not as talented as those folks, nor was I as ambitious. Furthermore, I was a little intimidated, and not at all attracted to the prospect of scratching and clawing to get a book out in the hopes of landing a university job in Podunk.
I recognized a few things about myself—I was in love with my girlfriend, soon to be wife, and wanted to raise a family. And I intuitively suspected that if my career were dependent upon poetry, my poetry might get stale and suffer. I didn’t want to publish a weak book. I liked money and comfort a little more than most poets seem to. And I worshipped poetry to the point that I didn’t really feel in a rush to publish. I knew I would compose poems for my entire life; it would be a constant in my world. That knowledge calmed me, left me less anxious. I felt that I could take my time, hone my craft, and I aspired to have every poem in my book published in magazines before I would send it off, which I did. In fact, if I remember correctly, I was so un-ambitious I originally thought if I could have just one poem accepted at a really good magazine, I would be satisfied. And I was, and am, honestly. The Ohio Review. Wayne Dodd was kind enough to have been receptive to my poems. And, as corny as it sounds, the fact that my poems were in the same magazine that had published James Wright was gold star. The acceptance note literally brought a tear to my eye.
The books now are gravy. Stuff occurred though, none the least of which was one son, then another, then another. I luckily landed well-paying gigs right out of graduate school as a director of academic support programs for athletes—first at The University of Arizona, then UC Berkeley, and, for the past twenty years, at The University of Connecticut. My anti-poetic career. My wife and I balanced our lives quite hectically—working different hours, getting the boys to all their sports’ events, music lessons, their brief and painful stints in Boy Scouts, SAT prep classes, the whole shebang. All the while, though sometimes sporadically, I kept writing and working on poems. To answer your question, in a nutshell, Disloyal Yo-Yo is comprised of poems that transpired over a ten-year period, and a good deal of the subject matter is what my pal Tony called “Domestic Surrealism.” Frankly, I had nothing else to write about as that was my day-to-day. Earlier poems are stashed somewhere. I always read a good deal of poetry and kept up with the new voices, and I came to the point where I said to myself—not egocentric mind you—that a good number of the first books that I was reading seemed no better than my stuff.
Only a couple of years ago did I start really thinking about sending my manuscripts out, so I read up on the contemporary process and thought, Jeez, it’s a lottery now! My best hope, I thought, was poetry-nepotism. I had good connections, but unfortunately my friends are honorable and ethical. I wonder where they went wrong? I was horrified that poets had to pay money for even a chance. It seemed to prey on the weak. What a scam, I thought—we helpless, meek poets were being victimized by The Man. Frankly, I felt a little deflated. I assumed my work would not stand out and my chances were non-existent. Nevertheless, I submitted to a few of the big contests without acceptance, although I think I was like a semi-finalist or finalist in some. I assumed they told many people that they were, just teasing-carrots to entice poets enough to keep them sending in their dough. So I said the hell with it and began concentrating on writing more intensely. The boys got older, driving themselves to games and such, so I started submitting poems, publishing in the magazines, and I eventually applied for a grant and was fortunate enough to get one. So I decided I’d put together a couple of manuscripts and be business-like about it. I took a chunk of the grant money and sent two manuscripts out to about fifteen places. I sort of forgot about them and all of a sudden, within the same week, I think, I got lucky, and both manuscripts were accepted. Voila.
GREEN: It’s great that you can keep poetry in perspective—few seem to do that, at least overtly. I’ve always felt that the writing is what matters, having that level of engagement with your own experience, and that everything else that may or may not come with it is incidental. So let’s talk about the writing process. Most of the poems in the book seem to start with a premise—exact life-time, the deli line of the dead, etc.—and then you let your imagination run with it. You might say the poems themselves are the disloyal yo-yos—once you let them go, we as readers have no idea whether they’ll come back to where they started, of if they’ll fly off to someplace new. Freedom and surprise, not as subjects, but as aesthetics, seem central. Is that what your writing process is like? Do you ever know where you’re going before you start to write, or is it always a surprise?
COHEN: Clever-clever, Tim—I never thought of the poems being disloyal yo-yos, but you are probably right. I like that notion, yes. If I recognize, or even get a whiff of, where the poem is going while I’m writing I stop writing or take a side street, walk backwards, hail a cab, something different. I’m constantly bored with myself, like most people I guess, (maybe that’s why we write poems and have hobbies) so why on earth would anyone wish to write what he already knows? If you know the outcome, why bother. Watching reruns of Law & Order is the exception however. Most of us, it seems, are not all that sharp—language is infinitely smarter, wiser, and funnier, than we. I’ve learned to trust it, see where it takes me. If I’m not writing out of language, I follow a situation that bangs my funny bone; it hurts badly, but I laugh, and likewise, follow those impulses. I’m as surprised by the direction of my poems as the reader must be. I hardly know what I’m doing till its over. I rarely have a clue.
That is applicable to most things in my life. I find the type of art that I enjoy most, whether it’s music, painting, cuisine, poetry, whatever, is surprising, mysterious, familiar but unfamiliar, posing questions, euphonious, shocking to the senses. I like to be simultaneously startled and comforted. I guess I am in a constant state of confusion and bewilderment and I’d rather not know what I think until I see how things string out, then, I want it all to have seemed inevitable. I guess I trust my sub-conscious, my intuition, “Leaping” as Bly suggests. In life I am afraid and often paralyzed, in poems I am fearless because nothing really is at stake at the moment of composition. I can throw poems out on their ears and try again. Nobody is watching me; it’s a secret murder. I am constantly struggling to figure out my poems during composition, to recognize truths and rhetorical patterns as I go along, unravel pleasing musical and intellectual puzzles that reveal themselves to me if I’m patient and quiet. For many years, because of long work-hours and young kids—we played zone—I wrote with one foot against the door which made my poems not fully realized, rushed out of necessity. I have a stack of unfinished poems. Now that I have a little more time, as I said, as soon as I can see around the next corner of a poem I go in a different direction, but not arbitrarily though, just another choice that seems to make sense at the moment. I don’t care how long a poem sits, even if it pesters and nags me.
For poetry, I live on my own time. If the poem wants to get worked on, seduce me, tell me something I don’t already know. Force me to work on you. It’s my job to listen, which I take seriously, but the poem has to meet me half-way. Perhaps that’s why end-rhyme drifted so far out of fashion. The sound of each word restricts, limits, your word choice and ultimately handcuffs your imagination. Then again, if you listen carefully, all words rhyme, so I don’t stress much about music although I love, love, a line with an abundance of accents, muscular lines, and I like imaginary handcuffs, handcuffs that I invent for myself in each poem, and I try like hell not to repeat my patterns, although I suppose we all do. The handcuffs are not kinky; I can still type with them on. I like to let my poems have their own lives; I like my poems to be sixteen-year-old inquisitive kids with a new driver’s license. Not reckless, just a little wild, a little Marlon Brando in his youth, but not stupid. I hope I have given them the proper guidance; I hope I raised them right, but ultimately they have to make it in the world on their own. Emily said something wonderful in a poem about that but I can’t remember what it is right now. Maybe I’ll wake up at 2 a.m., remember, and not write it down, which is one of my best poetic techniques. I don’t like to remember too precisely; I find it restricting. Life is surprising, shouldn’t art be? I am in constant wonder. I was taught to reinvent poetry every time I sat down to write. This is an intimidating concept for many writers; who wants that responsibility? Who is so brilliant to invent an art form? I know it’s impossible, but I find it extremely liberating. I have my own personal rules of course, but they change from poem to poem, and I make an effort to engage in linguistic and imagistic venues that are unfamiliar to me, to fracture my own rules, even within the same poem. I like to find new, cool moves in others’ poems and try to incorporate them into my own (I probably shouldn’t admit this).
When I was a kid, I learned basketball moves from Earl “The Pearl” Monroe. After a game I’d go out to the court and fantasize that I was “The Pearl” and imitate his signature spin move. Once I mastered his moves, I’d throw in my own little wrinkle, and the personal challenge for me would be to make my new move not seem at all like Earl’s. Earl in clever disguise. There are few truly original artists, no? Maybe none. Although everything I just said is truthful, it is also a lie. Does that answer your question Tim?
GREEN: Ha, yes, in about five different ways! So given this, that wild teenager behind the wheel, how do you put a coherent book together? Of all the poems you felt were good enough to be in the book, what percentage fit? How big is the B-side? And once you have that body of work that feels like a book, how do you go about ordering it? I noticed that “Domestic Surrealism II” precedes just plain “Domestic Surrealism.” What’s the reason to that rhyme?
COHEN: Oh, nice catch! I’m really bad at math, counting in particular, and thought nobody would read the book closely enough to notice. Actually, there was a point that I wrote a whole series of Domestic Surrealism poems, most of which I had to junk. The survivors, for whatever reasons, kept their original titles so when it was time to put the manuscript together I was concerned with the poems’ content, not the titles. I thought it interesting, as well, in a small way, to emphasize that the order that poems are written is not necessarily the proper order that they should appear in a book. I like books that have varied styles, which seem to have their own logic. I like the themes of individual poems to sort of play off one another; I like poems to be reactions to previous poems in manuscripts. I like the poems to snowball so that the book feels as though it has more substance and inertia than any of the individual poems. I’m not saying I accomplished this, but that’s, at least, what I was striving for. I like record albums that have no pauses between songs. Ultimately, my favorite poems are poems that seem to be born out of necessity and some form of obsession, poems that seem as though they had to be written, that spill over into something that’s life affirming, life altering, or life-repair, ideas and language that can no longer be contained in its human perception-form.
I also like loads of personality in voice, a normal human being talking to me. The poems in this collection, in my mind, are thematically connected in that way and in voice. Many are of the domestic variety, the day-to-day with raising my family, death of parents, nostalgic memories, swimming in their mildly surrealistic pools. I threw out a lot of poems that seemed to repeat and diminish strategies. I have many stalled poems, poems that run away from home and never call. I write many poems that simply never amount to much, are not pleasing to my aesthetic. So, the B-side takes up the lion’s share of my poetry universe.
As corny as it may sound, the poems that I ultimately selected for Disloyal Yo-Yo were poems that had meaning to me. I didn’t feel that this book could endure the same whimsy as some of my more recent stuff. In some ways, I think of this book as being somewhat flat, speaking directly. Order…that’s a tricky question…I ordered the poems the same way I write: intuitively. But because the book was composed over a number of years I was graced with a variety of styles, within my own limitations of course, and I love books whose poems seem varied but from the same voice. They were poems, I guess, that I wanted to have an attachment to, that were attached to me, and were personal without being exclusionary. As much as I can muster, I think of the book as being sincere, heartfelt.
GREEN: Well I think you succeeded on all those goals—if “imaginative” is the first adjective that comes to mind, then “honest” is certainly the second…the domesticity of “Domestic Surrealism” —there’s a sense that your true psychological home is within these poems. Do you ever feel naked, now that the book is out in the world? It’s one thing to confess to facts about your personal history, but it’s another thing altogether to expose the inner-workings of your own mind. I’m thinking in particular about the first poem in the book, “Sober Trees,” which ends with a revelation about the emptiness that fills half a life. Do you ever worry that family, friends, co-workers in your “anti-poetic career,” will read the book and learn a little too much?
COHEN: Yes, on all accounts. When I was younger I was quite worried that family, friends, drinking buddies, anti-poetry pals, would get to know more than I wanted to share, or think something strange about me. I didn’t know how the polar aspects of my life would fit together. It took time; the components had to come together, like a brash wine. Many of my “athletic” compatriots didn’t even know I wrote poetry until the book came out. Naturally some teased me in a semi-good-natured way. I didn’t want to mix my worlds; outer space DNA doesn’t inbreed well with human blood…many movies attest to that fact.
But now that I’m older, I guess I simply don’t care. I am who I am, comfortable in my cross-breeding alien skin. My real friends accept me for my inconsistencies, contradictions, complexities and flaws. Plus, my wife says my friends from the other world simply scratch their heads ’cause they don’t read poems and won’t spend the time to figure them out anyway…and, they’re probably too embarrassed to admit their ignorance of art or laziness. Some were kind enough to come to my first reading, bought the book and invented a compliment about one or two of the poems. I appreciated that. I guess I’m at the point in my life that I have no qualms about being myself and I hope my new poems benefit from that.
GREEN: I like that metaphor; poetry really is its own planet. Or maybe a little moon falling forever around the regular world. What do you think poetry’s place should be? What’s its purpose? You seem very grounded as a poet, happy to have it as just one aspect of a broader life. Do you feel content with our current cultural cosmology? I guess what I really want to know is, do you think your athletic friends’ disinterest in poetry is equivalent to a poet’s disinterested in, say, football? Is there any difference?
COHEN: I’m probably talking out of both sides of my mouth here, but I think poetry is elite and commonplace; most people don’t read contemporary poetry and certainly most people don’t spend the amount of intense time trying to compose it in a serious way, but if you stopped almost anyone on the street, I bet virtually everyone, at some time or another, has written a poem and certainly has read a poem. I’m a blue collar type of poet, an ordinary, regular American guy, who happens to have read a great deal of literature simply because I like it, in the same way I enjoy a number of things.
Even though I probably could, I find it pretentious and annoying to make esoteric literary allusions in poems, so I don’t. (Yeah, I get it; you’re smart and well read.) I like accessible poems, though some might argue that some of mine are not. I’m not a footnote type of guy and I’m sort of lazy and don’t want to look stuff up. Now which Greek God was that? What was his super power? But my approach to writing is not lazy; it’s blue collar, working man. I write something every day whether I feel like it or not and put my time in. I go to work sick. I’m rarely inspired and I have no patience for waiting for some sort of Muse. In fact, I don’t think I have a Muse, I just try to talk to people in my poems who I know and want to talk to. My father got up at five every morning, went to work and never complained. I try to do that—especially with my poetry. Lunch pail stuff.
Many of the “athletic” people whom I’ve been friends with for many years are not what you might think. Many are extremely thoughtful, well-read, interesting people, open to ideas. And they work hard and laugh off failure. What I learned from them is you recruit 20 players and, if you’re lucky, you get one who is good. They move on. I have no qualms about writing twenty poems to get one decent one. It’s a sort of rain off a duck’s back approach. I’m rarely wedded to any one particular poem. If it doesn’t work out; I write another. People involved in sports still have to fracture the myth that they are only interested in physical prowess and intellectualism is not part of their lives. Athletes, by and large, respect hard work and accomplishment, in any realm. I guess I don’t see them as that different from poets I know and respect…so I guess I would respectfully disagree: I don’t think as a rule of thumb, that poets are disinterested in football or vice versa. Everyone seems different, right? After a billion gene possibilities at this point of Man’s existence, we’re all mutts anyway.
But getting back on track, I do think on some level that poems should be accessible to anyone willing to read carefully. An alien could not come to earth and watch a football game and appreciate all the idiosyncrasies and nuances or even the rules of the game, without instruction. Poetry is similar I think, except, the average person does have the linguistic skill to appreciate a poem with no training, if the poet does a good job. Why do people love Frost so much? Plain talk? There’s something to be said about the simple and direct.
There are moments in my life that something happens and a line from a poem I love pops into my brain and I have a life-insight due to that poem and conversely have a deeper understanding of the poem than I’d ever had. It’s as though I instinctively knew the poem was wonderful and I should remember it, but I didn’t know why or when I’d have to draw on it. Then it happens, and it is. I have no idea what poetry’s purpose is for anyone other than myself. It helps me digest the world so that it goes down easier. It’s comforting in that I know there are others out them like me; it makes me less lonely. It makes me recognize something I didn’t know I knew, or explains something that I sensed but never fully grasped.
And images. I love inventive images and the music of American diction. And surprises and life-insight. I like the way interesting people talk, people who are excited or resigned to something. I get bored easily so I enjoy folks who have lots of interests, lots of passion…I don’t find it inconsistent for someone to love the New York Football Giants and John Ashbery. In fact, those are the people I like best. That’s how my boys were raised and they seem fairly well grounded and normal. You can bring up any topic and they seem comfortable with the conversation; all things are simultaneously important and unimportant. In fact, didn’t the Ancient Greeks, (one son alluded to them as the Ancient Geeks) who were fairly smart guys, have to pass some type of intellectual test before qualifying for the Olympics? I think I remember reading that somewhere.
It’s a Zen thing, too, I think: all things being of equal value, having their place. As much as I love poetry and find it useful in my everyday life, I’m not sure it’s more important to me than the Giants winning the Super bowl and, clearly, I recognize that it’s not important to everyone. Should we be pedaling poetry door-to-door like religious zealots? Passing out pamphlets? Poetry helps me understand what it is I am and sports help me forget, abandon myself temporarily, as do other things: gardening, TV, etc. It’s a sort of ying and yang see-saw. If you think about the show Kung Fu, Grasshopper was quite spiritual, exploring the intricacies of the natural and human dimension, or lack thereof, with Master Po, unraveling the nature of the universe in prime time. But, when confronted with bad guys, who often were one dimensional (clue), and who demonstrated a single obsession, he would kick their ass, in perfect slow motion. Hence, you can be a tough guy and poet. I guess those type of poets are my favorites, except Rilke. I like Rilke but he wouldn’t survive in a street fight, unless Rodin had his back.
So I appreciate you saying I’m grounded. I have tried to keep things in balance, in perspective. I do the best I can at my job, raising my family, working on poems, given my own imperfections and flaws. As I said, my wife and I made some serious sacrifices to make sure the boys got to their games and music lessons, do/did well school—and did my poetry suffer, my production, as a result? Of course, but that’s who I am. And that suffering may have contributed to my development as a poet. Poetry is what I studied in college, what I have always done since I was a kid; it’s been a central passion in my life; it’s been a constant. When things are going badly in life it is a pal and mistress, when things are going well, it patiently waits on the sidelines, holding an umbrella for me, to ward off rain or the excessive sun. It has no demands and infinite demands on me. Although poetry is somewhat different, of course, from song lyrics, most everyone enjoys music, so can’t we say almost everyone loves poetry? One can almost always hear the radio blasting from passing cars in summer when the windows are rolled down. We all sing along in our cars or in front of the mirror in our private teenage rooms. And the molecules of the music evaporate into the air. So maybe poetry is a kind of artistic physics, and our cultural cosmology is that real poetry can neither be created nor destroyed. Wow! How did I get here?
GREEN: Well, that’s what I was trying to get at—I think there’s a tendency to overvalue contemporary poetry, in a way, simply because it’s under-appreciated in our culture. If I had to choose between poetry and recreational sports, I’d probably choose poetry, but it wouldn’t be an easy decision. They’re each important in entirely different ways, and I’d never thought of it in terms of yin/yan before, but that model fits. And strangely, it’s the action of sports that quiets the mind, and the inaction of poetry that disquiets.
Let’s take a little breather—tell us your five favorite poems, if you can. Not your own, but no restrictions, just the first five that come to mind. I see interviewers ask about favorite poets all the time, but I think it’s more interesting to be specific. Gives us something of digestible length to run and look up.
COHEN: Oh God, Tim, that is a wicked hard question…I love so many poems, and my favorite poems are not necessarily written by my favorite poets, but maybe they are… What do my choices say about who I am as a writer? I would say, Lowell, “Memories of West Street” and “Lepke,” two Larkin poems, “Reference Back” and “Talking in Bed,” “Musee De Beaux Art,” Auden of course, “Refusals,” Jon Anderson, and Weldon Kees, one of the Robinson poems, but I can’t remember which one…I’ll have to look it up.
GREEN: Well that’s why I asked it—three of the poems you mentioned I’ve never read. I’m going to run off to Google when we’re done and see if I can find them. There are so many great poems in the world, sometimes the best thing poets can share is simply suggested reading.
Okay, back to you. It seems this is the year you’ve cashed in on your patience—this fall, your second book, Swerve, is coming out from Black Lawrence Press, just six months or so after your first. In an email to me, you described Disloyal Yo-Yo as the “older and more civilized” book. So what does the uncivilized Bruce Cohen look like? How does Swerve swerve? Tell us a little about the book.
COHEN: I would like it documented, in this interview, that yesterday I was at the Mets’ game with two of my sons and we witnessed the first game-ending unassisted triple play since 1927!
I think in Disloyal Yo-Yo, mostly, I’m talking to myself, and if other people eavesdrop, so be it. In Swerve, the pace and voice and music are more frenetic, obsessive. I am talking to others, more publically, mostly. For lack of a better description, I think the poems are a little more zany, out there, anxious, unafraid. Stylistically, I was influenced by those poets who had a more quirky sensibility and a tone, who wrote with heavier accents and more in-your-face alliteration, internal rhymes and bluntness. Quirkier syntax. Not that I’m a very subtle writer, but I think I pushed that envelope a little and the poems are unabashedly brash and speedy. Not seeing, or caring to see, that which is in front of me, going faster than I probably should in poems—not in real life; in real life I’m a wicked slow driver, I swerve when a little girl runs into the road following her soccer ball or a couch falls off the pick-up in front of me after a tire blows out, but I keep going, because, in life, mostly that’s what we do. We close our eyes, hope for the best, and keep going. That’s what we have to do to make any sort of progress in small and large ways. We all know people who are frozen in a particular time due to some horrific catastrophe or life-altering event, and it’s sad. They live forever in that terrible moment. We pity them and secretly, or not so secretly, are glad it is not happening to us. Life gets thrown at you from every direction, meteorites hit the earth, and maybe the people who survive are the ones who dodge the flying objects, who are able to swerve. Those who are light on their toes without heavy suitcases.
And I want to be among them. I never wanted to be a helpless victim in art; I never wanted to be afraid to take risks in poems: I always aspired to say “the hardest thing.” Even though it’s possible, I never wanted my poems to sound like other people’s poems. I believe the poems in Swerve have a little more courage and gusto than Disloyal Yo-Yo, more confidence, a little more of myself. In life, I’m extremely responsible. In my newer poems, not so much. I hope that you never know what I will do or say. So you have to pay attention and hold onto your wallet or you may crash or find yourself alone on a deserted street with no way of getting home, no ID. You can’t even prove who you are, and you might have to start from scratch, re-invent the world, and would that be such a terrible thing? In art, of course not.
GREEN: Or football! Thanks, Bruce, this has been terrific.
“On the Self and Others” by Gary LehmannPosted by Rattle
ON THE SELF AND OTHERS:
SOME THOUGHTS ON THE CRAFT OF POETRY
When I first started writing poetry, I began writing about the most interesting subject in the world. Me. I had loves and hates, deep disgust and infinite wonder to share. It was all about me. Me, me and more me. I found that every new experience was intensely interesting, and I wanted to share it with the world. It felt a bit selfish, but I reasoned that since I’m such a darned interesting guy, people would naturally gravitate toward my words.
It didn’t work out that way. When I tried sharing my poems, I discovered that few people understood them. Fewer yet expressed any liking for them. Even my mother said polite meaningless things after reading them, and no one expressed any desire to publish them. I found their indifference quite surprising, even alarming. How could the world react so coldly to the thoughts of a guy who was pretty much the nicest guy in the universe?
My experiences were common enough. Why didn’t people understand when I talked about them? How could the world be so stupid? All people had to do was to put themselves in my shoes. Then they would understand how I felt.
The problem, which I only discovered years later, was that my poetry failed to tell the reader the context of my feelings in a way that highlighted their universal character. The problem was complicated because at that time I didn’t perceive my life as progressing through a series of experiences others had had as well. To me, life was being born as I lived it. The waves were parting before my prow for the very first time.
SHE DANCES LIKE MUSSOLINI by David JamesPosted by Rattle
Review by James Benton
SHE DANCES LIKE MUSSOLINI
by David James
March Street Press
Greensboro, NC 27408
2009, 60 pp., $15.00 marchstreetpress.com
Imagine those famous paintings of dogs playing poker. Now imagine the kind of person who hangs those paintings on the wall of his man-cave, not because he thinks of them as art, but because they are so insipid they make him laugh like a fourth-grader at a fart joke. Meet David James in She Dances Like Mussolini. From the title forward, James reminds us in plain language that winking at the silly often gets us through the dire.
What of the title poem? Using crisp, finely seen details, the poem’s speaker lets us in on a blind date that goes not as badly as one might think. It opens with a few economical lines that capture the essence of the scene like a photograph:
Short & stout
her hair unable to fly loose
from her head
my blind date marches across the dance floor,
The dancer bashes around the room, fist-pumping at the ceiling, and generally flailing in a bizarre parody of dance. But after a while, the rest of the room has fallen in sync with her manic energy, “marching in rows, everyone ordering Chianti.” Past embarrassment or even wonder, the speaker too, finally, succumbs to this woman’s fierce abandon, confessing, “God knows I’m sick: / I dance back.”
This opening sets the tone for the remainder of the book. Check out these titles: “The Politics of an Idiot,” “Dear Feet,” “The Hangover of Love,” “The New Life Soup Game,” “Last Thing a Man Would Ever Say.” Don’t they portend the literary equivalent of a velvet Elvis? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the simple diction of the poems, their clear and direct address toward their subjects at first make many of them sound underdeveloped. On the other hand, the humor and skewed vantage point of the poems reveals a writer in control of both content and craft, often producing surprisingly humane results.
A poem like “The Other Side of the Coin” is a good example. The poem, a strange, satirical look at gender politics, is best understood in the context of its epigraph from Andrea Dworkin: “Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women.” In response, the speaker of the poem throws himself at his wife with tenderness expressed in terms of contempt thereby exposing the Dworkin comment as blather.
As good as this volume is, it is also somewhat uneven. A poem like “The Romantic,” seeks to extol the virtues of plain women over the exotic. “I am looking for the dumpy one,” the speaker says, but as egalitarian as he wants to be, in the end he remains merely lecherous, concluding unconvincingly that
I can only imagine
Some of the poems would be improved by the omission of their final prosaic commentaries. For example, “If Men Ran the World,” begins as though it is a satirical swipe at men for whom “Dogs Playing Poker” remains high art. Its tone is lighthearted, self-deprecating, and the male reader laughs with guilty self-recognition while the female reader nods knowingly with recognitions of her own.
“When your girlfriend needed to talk to you during the game, she’d appear in a little box in the corner of the TV screen during a time out,”
reads the unattributed epigraph, and the poem that follows is a witty realization of this man-cave fantasy. But in the final stanza, the tone turns a little mean:
The fact is if men really ran the world,
Virtually all interaction with women
would be like this—one click
& she’s in a little box in the corner of the TV,
another click, she brings in ribs & beer,
click, she’s naked,
click, click, she’s gone.
Ouch. This stinging rebuke undercuts the far more successful poem that precedes it. Without these final lines, the poem remains a kind-hearted jab at men’s more slovenly tendencies; because these tendencies are constrained by the conditional “if”of the title, they remain forgivable. With these lines, those tendencies assert themselves and become irredeemable.
Yet meanness in a poem, as Tony Hoagland points out, can be a virtue when handled properly. Take for example “For Open Mic Readers,” an apostrophe to poets-in-training in need of, well, more training. Anyone who has been to a poetry reading with an open mic will understand the withering snarl directed at “neophyte’ poets confident in work “where you rhyme ‘in-ya’ with ‘zinnia.’” We’ve all been there, we all know the feeling, but we have mostly been trained not to speak these thoughts out loud. James manages to break free of the social niceties of polite but false praise and say what we all would say…if only. The final lines sum it up nicely:
You have every right in the world
to be here
And we have every right
Thank you David James for the courage to be snarky and intemperate on our behalf.
Below the humorous surface of these poems lies a serious engagement with serious matter. Poems that at first seem to be about the minor irritants of daily life turn out on deeper inspection to address weighty themes like the indignities of advancing age or the difficulties of sustaining one’s public persona while the private one gnashes at the seams to bust out. “Only So Much No” is not really about a poet whining over rejection slips so much as it is about maintaining one’s sense of dignity and self worth in general. “Dear Memory,” another apostrophe, this time to an aging man’s unfaithful recall, confronts the unavoidable sense of loss we experience as we contemplate our mortality. And there are many other fine examples in this collection that whistles past the graveyard for us.
Plain spoken and unambiguous, the volume reaches its peak in the touching final poem, “I’ll Take Your Face.” While the title suggests another lighthearted vignette, this expectation is pleasantly subverted, and instead of jokes, the reader is treated to a tender and uniquely conceived love song. The speaker here, at first, is so lost in the frenzy of his emotions that he fails to notice, or to care, about the dead metaphors sputtering from his lips. Following a stanza break, the speaker manages to collect his wits and in a wonderful moment of selflessness, offers his imperfect soul as fertile ground in which his lover’s virtues might
take root & blossom
over every inch of flesh,
petals blooming everywhere
until I’m beautiful enough
It is a beautiful turn, and a beautiful way to close a worthy collection.
“Descent and Transcendence…” by Meta DuEwa JonesPosted by Rattle
Meta DuEwa Jones
DESCENT AND TRANSCENDENCE IN AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY: IDENTITY, EXPERIENCE, FORM
“To submit, just follow our regular guidelines, and include a note that you are of African American descent.” This was the compelling compulsion Rattle issued to writers submitting to this tribute to African American poets. Such a request seems simple and self-explanatory. We readers and writers all know what that means, don’t we? I heard the editors’ call as them frankly asking: Tell us, dear poet, who you are, or in the racially coded version, who you be. The goal of this identity-based caveat was not to police or politicize black bodies, as if the body could ever be free of such external or internal scrutiny. Instead, I imagine the editors hoped, through this prescreening, to distinguish between poetry written about African Americans, and poems written by them. They sought to insure that the racialized group of writers celebrated in this issue actually authored—created, authorized, and served as an authority on—the writing celebrated. This aim is important, especially for a journal such as Rattle, which has a predominately (though not exclusively) white readership. It helps to insure that black writers maintain positions as subjects and agents of verse concerning their individual and collective lives and avoids positioning them as objects passively acted upon or written about.
But what does it mean to be of African American descent? What does it mean to be an African American poet? More than a century ago poet Countee Cullen* told the world it was “a curious thing/ to make a poet, black, and bid him sing.” Paul Laurence Dunbar also implied that black poets, whether singing, speaking, or scribbling verse, “mouth with myriad subtleties” through a feigned smile, wearing “the mask that grins and lies.” (Dunbar) If truth is the poet’s province and lies are the domain of the storyteller, then Dunbar’s lament led me to wonder what blackness might mask and mark in American poetics. This essay seeks to explore contemporary African American poetry and the relationship between identity, experience, and form. I am, like Dunbar, curious about the relative importance of lines of literary, racial, and cultural descent, and how those lines become racialized into boundaries, and how poets transcend them.
Is “Black” mama’s baby but “Poetry” papa’s maybe? Is race a determining factor in one’s poetics or is it an accident of birth with no correlation to the concerns of black poets? Can one write about race in a manner analogous to writing about vocation, as a poet in a previous Rattle tribute to nurses did, that one is a poet who happens to be black? History indicates that distancing oneself from an inscribed blackness by evoking race as a coincidental or incidental matter is not so easily accomplished. Poets such as Toi Derricotte illustrate why we should not only ask what blackness means but how we learn its meaning from birth. In her poem “Workshop on Racism,” a child rails against other children taunting her as “The Black Briana!” to distinguish her from another classmate with the same name. Derricotte reflects: “Already at five the children understand,/ ‘black’ is not a color, it is a/ blazing skin.” (Derricotte, 30) This concern with the politics of pigmentation as a distinctive feature of African American identity is also signified in Tracie Morris’s scrambled haiku, “Why I Won’t Wear a Tattoo: skin color marks me/ been paying for it/ indelible already.” (Morris, 35) If the meaning attributed to blackness in these two examples seems to be primarily punitive, this is because both poets are speaking to the historical contexts of racial identification and indoctrination through personal and collective experience.
But when black poets choose to explore how notions of race are formed and informed by history and experience, they risk being aesthetically and artistically compartmentalized. In the U.S. context, racialized others, especially, though not exclusively, African Americans, are believed as possessing (a) race, and also being possessed—that is haunted, consumed, obsessed—by race matters. By contrast, Anglo American writers are often perceived to be primarily race-neutral in their writing. Even in instances when poets such as Tony Hoagland engage in explicitly self-reflexive meditations on white masculinity, white writers are not viewed as being obsessed with writing about “the European American experience” in a representative or politicized fashion. All too often, blacks bear the burden of racial representation, hefty as a ton of coal.
In poems such as “Coal,” however, the poet Audre Lorde, an alchemist of the word, transforms the sedimented rock of race, which she pictures as “the total black/ being spoken/ from the earth’s inside,” into a gleaming diamond of a poem. The terse couplet in the penultimate stanza flowers into acute imagery:
Love is a word, another kind of open.
As the diamond comes
into a knot of flame
I am Black
because I come from the earth’s inside
take my word for jewel
in the open light.
At its core in “Coal,” the changing same of blackness, earthy and dark as the underbelly of the Mississippi River, creates an essential and essentialist racial origin myth. Reading poems such as these penned by black poets during the ’60s, one might say that African American poetry chose to descend from racial concerns, while other mainstream American poetry strove to transcend, if not altogether ignore, racial issues. But I don’t find such gross oversimplifications satisfying. They obscure the very complex creative process through which all artists combine language and experience, intellect and emotion to compose poetry. While Lorde affirms the power of black identity, she equally affirms the power of poetic imagination. While Lorde mines the English language to uncover its etymological linking of the color black with evil and evil with blacks, she also uses that same language to create new vistas of racial and human perception. While Lorde says “some words/ bedevil me,” she concurrently sings: these words will bejewel me. “Coal” illustrates her deft handling of the base materials through which poets work their will and their wares: word, sound, and image.
“It is never to be forgotten that it is the business of poets to make poems, justas it is the business of readers and critics to appraise them,” Paul Fussell says in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, (Fussell, 155) and I hear him. Or rather, I hope more readers of African American poetry will listen to this advice. Regardless of its apparent themes or social contexts, the best poems written by African Americans are first and foremost that, poems. As such, they should not be mined for racial, political, and cultural ore. When I read criticism of some black poets’ work, I notice how much critical light shines on a poet’s subject matter, identity, history, politics, culture, and/or personal biography. Comparatively less limelight is given to illuminate the writer’s meticulous work with form in metrical or free verse: his or her line integrity; penchant for assonance, alliteration, parataxis or punctuation; dense or sparse stanzas; use of syllabic or anagrammatic patterns; subtle or stark use of volume, intonation, and cadence to amplify or mute their performances; or crafting of tension and release through these and other poetic devices.
But attending to contemporary black poets’ engagement in the freedoms and restraints of vastly different poetic forms yields profitable insight, providing potential answers to a query I posed earlier: What does it mean to be an African American poet? To practice poetry. To write. To read. To speak. To publish. To produce. To perform. To work with forms. As the poet Terrance Hayes asserts about his own aesthetic, “it can be limiting to put certain kinds of constraints on subject matter. But I also think it’s completely liberating to put other kinds of restraints on the form, so there’s sort of that tension—if I’m going to make any boxes for myself it’s going to be around the form and not around what’s inside the form.” (this issue, 172) Without getting mired in the form/content conundrum, I suggest many African American poets just might have experience with the dangers of making assumptions based on an exterior form (say, for instance, physical appearance) as revealing aspects of an individual’s interior motivations (say, for instance, potential behavior). Blacks’ experiences with racial profiling by police have led to this dilemma’s coinage in terms such as DWB—“driving while black;” I propose that its literary, if not literal, corollary, WWB—“writing while black” is also an insidious form of racial profiling by readers, editors, and publishers. The price of the ticket for trafficking in strategies that chain-link a poet’s race to her subject matter without fully considering her formal or formally innovative approach is high. It can lead to false divisions, interpretations, and identifications of the artistic arc, ambitions, and achievements of contemporary black poets.
Instead of writing poems that lift every line and sing with unassailable
certainty, “black is…black ain’t,” instead of constantly declaring, “I’m an African American and this is what it means to be an African American,” instead of articulating a single black poetic voice, emerging and established poets have created a kaleidoscopic poetics by employing a complex and colorful variety of literary forms, themes, and styles. As the poetics scholar Keith Leonard affirms, “the triumph of the African American formalist poetic tradition is the fact that African American poets from slavery to Civil Rights did indeed resolve the opposition of [the] binary logic of race politics in their best poems by combining the aesthetic power and social validity of traditional formalist artistry with the complexities of African American experience, culture, and heritage.” (Leonard, 3–4) Since the Civil Rights era, poets such as Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, Yusef Komuyakaa, Wanda Coleman, and Cornelius Eady have continued the tradition of formalist excellence, writing finessed sonnets, syllabics and sestinas, as well as fine-tuned tercets, terza-rima, and triolets. The contours of formal innovation and graphic experimentation have also been expanded by artists such as C.S. Giscome, Ed Roberson, Harryette Mullen, Ronaldo Wilson and Dawn Lundy Martin. In her prose poem suite, “Negrotizing in Five or How to Write a Black Poem,” for instance, Martin inscribes the embodied and intangible interstice between race, reproduction and poetic form. She announces in the first sequence: “One. Formlessness./ One enters an unforgiving, inchoate world. No mold to make, fossilizing… Some castigating black marks condition the body, soften the skin, open into sepulcher. But the body will not be buried there. It will put down a thing on a page.” (Lundy, 11) Other poets’ adept manipulations of form lift lines and lyrics from the page into visual or oral performance. Poets with divergent aesthetic and performance sensibilities such as Carl Phillips and Patricia Smith illustrate how even the same metrical choice, like trochaic meter, can run very different routes. Phillips’ sophisticated use of trochees harnesses this galloping meter’s sense of abandon to meditate on the body’s hunger and the tethers of love, the desires of the flesh, and the fleshing out of the word through subtle shifts in syntax and punctuation. His high lyrics shape stunning semantic and erotic possibilities. While Smith’s strong and savvy fashioning of poems completely in trochaic meter demonstrates in print and performance how well the trochee’s accentual-syllabic lilt accommodates the skip, slang, and prepubescent rhymes of girls jumping double-dutch. Her disciplined use of trochaic form reveals a skilled and seasoned poet at work.
The base, the beat, and the groove booming through funk, rap, and hip-hop music has also influenced the forms of scripted and sonic performance by current artisans of the spoken word such as Saul Williams, Carl Hancock Rux, Duriel Harris and Crystal Williams. Yet this has not meant that poets have abandoned jazz or blues as sources for poetic inspiration. Across generations, poets such as Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Major Jackson, and Linda Susan Jackson have trumpeted different genres of jazz vocalists and instrumentalists through their own verse suites, idioms and individual riffs. Where Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Alvin Aubert, and Shirley Anne Williams unleashed the power of the blues as music, iconography, and an enduring indigenous poetic form on 20th century readers, in the 21st century, contemporary African American poets as stylistically varied and accomplished as Sterling Plump, Harryette Mullen, Tyhemba Jess, and Honorée Jeffers have taken the blues, its pain-tinged whines and pleasure-teased moans, and played its changes. In Jeffers’ “Muse, a Lady Cautioning,” the blues form informs the cultural frames of race and gender; the blues muse croons her cautions through a channel of rich metaphors. She sings, “She’s aware—yeah, I’m going to kiss some man’s sugared fist tonight.” Jeffers’ “tableau” of Billie Holiday’s vocal “horn blossoming into cadenza…hollers way down dirt roads.” Yet it is not gravelly roads, but shapely little rooms, stanzas, that bring such terrible beauty into scenic view; taut quatrains retune the (vocal) chords bruised by one too many “predictable fifths” of cognac coating the musician’s dark throat. (Jeffers, 3–5) Nor have these and other poets taken the blues and gone down the disappointing path of cultural dilution, as Hughes bemoaned in earlier times. Rather, black poets have transformed the blues through an enthusiastic embrace of multi-ethnic cultural hybridity, churning out blues ghazals, blues villanelles, and blues sonnets with lyrical sensitivity and technical agility.
Still, work within the current crop of poets warns readers against the too-convenient correlation between black poetry and blues poetics, with good measure. The itinerant poems’ speakers in Thomas Sayers Ellis’ grandly geographic The Maverick Room, for instance, travel from Northwest quadrant to Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C. His evocative and precise quatrains are not quarantined in the District’s Blues Alley; rather, they break out the percussive pulse of “Go-Go” music till “The Break of Dawn” at “The Black Hole and block parties/ In hard-to-find-inner-city neighborhoods.” Ellis’ “family discussion of percussion” in persona poems such as “Cowbell” put the “tambourine, vibra-slap, ratchet” on display; metallic pings and rings are “what gets heard” as “a prayer above crowd noise and soul.” (Ellis, 52) In an arresting counter-example, Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s elegant Gravity, U.S.A highlights what does not get heard on various sonic frequencies. In the opening poem, the speaker declares, “I cannot hear you/ You are speaking/ to my bad ear,/ my right side” where “a hushed mumbling,/ the refined titter of bored parishioners/ interrupts the message of light…” That light in LaMon’s powerful poetic lexicon beams through the fire of soul and R&B balladeer Chaka Khan’s voice, which the poem’s speaker, absorbed by “a single kiss,/ pale green and translucent…paisley chiffon and gossamer” ignores in “Muting Chaka.” LaMon’s lyric refinement calls readers to listen to “the glorious chord of refrain” beyond the blues, to hear “a dirge for cello and voice,/ soprano lilt, and tympani” as equally instrumental to black poetics. (LaMon, 13, 39, 59)
In a different sonic and lyric register, seasoned poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Eugene Redmond have created new forms bearing both individual imprint and ethnic cultural import, such as the sonku, the bop, and the kwansaba, respectively. Weaver debuted the bop at a Cave Canem summer writing retreat for African American poets. Despite the form’s relative youth, it has blossomed in the full flowering of its adolescence through its popular circulation, and importantly, publication, in several first-book collections. Incorporating lines from song lyrics, G.E. Patterson begins his debut collection of verse, Tug, with “Green,” a bop that opens the (lyrical) heart of the “hard love” between black men. (Patterson) In contrast, a fine example of how to blues the bop is evident in Lyrae Van Clief Stefanon’s “Bop, A Haunting” in which tensions between mother and daughter haunt the poem’s speaker. She transforms the grief over amorous love described in “St. Louis Blues” into a filial mourning by using the familiar refrain: “I hate to see/ that evening sun/ go down” to evoke her parent’s passing. While Mendi Lewis Obadike hip-hops the bop in her poem “What You Are,” hooking GrandmasterFlash and the Furious Five with the refrain “roaring as the breezes blow.” (Van Clief-Stefanon, Obadike) In many cases, poets employ forms that may or may not emerge from within racial or ethnic cultural expressive modes. By doing so, they transcend the boundaries implied by racial imperatives to draw their ink only from the well of black experience.
Nevertheless, some readers—and writers, too—still expect one’s racial identity to reign over and rein in a poem’s subject matter. As Alan Fox observes, “some people think African American poets should stick to the African American experience. Others think, no, you’ve got to be universal.” (this issue, 171) Advising black poets to embrace or eschew writing through the colored lens of racialized experience is not a new phenomenon. During the late ’60s and early ’70s when black cultural nationalism and the correspondent Black Arts movement were in full swing, the tilt “towards a black aesthetic” demonstrably influenced writers and critics. In his landmark essay, Hoyt Fuller argued that to foster “black cultural community empowerment” a black writer’s work must “reflect the special character and imperatives of the black experience.” (Fuller) In the wake of critical articulations of these aesthetic and socio-political modes and movements, more plural and expansive concepts and practices in contemporary black poetry have emerged that supplant the notion of a commonly shared singular
racial experience. Decades later, critics began categorizing creative work by artists who grew up after the civil rights era as “post-black,” “post-soul,” and even “post-race.” Considering that the current president of the United States is an African American man, the catch phrase “post-Obama” may be added to the series of periodic signposts for developments in black political, cultural, and artistic expression.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander, bestowed the honor of reading a poem at President Obama’s historic inauguration, for example, favors a poetics that subverts attempts to quantify and codify race and celebrates the elastic nature of African American identity. In the second stanza of “Today’s News” she explains:
I didn’t want to write a poem that said “blackness
is,” because we know better than anyone
that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things
Not one poem We could count ourselves forever
and never agree on the number…
(Alexander, “Today’s News”)
That the search for color everywhere can be found anywhere the writer chooses to focus her gaze, is evident in veteran poet Gwendolyn Brooks’ response to being asked to define the “black experience,” in a late ’90s interview. Brooks insisted that “[t]he black experience is any experience a black person has.”(Brooks, 275) While Toi Derricotte put it this way: “Everything you write has something to do with your whole experience, if you’re white or black or whatever.” (this issue, 152)
Derricotte suggests that writers have traveled a long way from the time and place in which universality was a language, mode, form, truth or claim about writing that “had nothing to do with race,” but I am not so sure. The inadvertent implication of Fox’s observation of the opposition often placed between black experience and the universal—the fact of that constructed dichotomy—gnaws in the back of the black writer’s mind. Or at least, admittedly, this black writer’s mind. The sense that black people and black poets are somehow still not considered fully part of that category that comprises the allegedly race-neutral “universal,” and by extension, the category of the putatively race-neutral but historically racially biased “human” still endures, if in more subtle guises, in American poetics. Derricotte implies that this perceived gulf between black experiences (note the plural) and universal ones can lead to racial essentialism and exceptionalism in literary publishing. As she tells Alan Fox:
You know, [Rattle’s] doing a special section on African
American poets… In some ways, that’s good that you’re
doing that, but at some point, of course, we’re hoping
that that doesn’t happen anymore. I mean, when I was
growing up, there were special sections in books called
“Negro poetry”…as if it wasn’t the same, as if it’s a
different poetry… [W]hen I was at NYU—I graduated in
’84—a professor, when I asked why he had never read
an African American poet, said, “We don’t go down that
low.” (this issue, 151)
Derricotte’s retelling of her decades-old exchange with one of her former creative writing professors is telling. His casual dismissal of African American poetry, and the implicit claim that black poetry was beneath the purview of one pursuing mastery in the fine arts at NYU, was delivered with confidence in his ignorance of these poets’ verses and assurance that their writing was beneath him. Quoted a quarter of a century later, the unnamed professor’s commentary still reeks with the stench of racial supremacy; its musty odor has fanned through centuries of enlightenment, imperialist, and colonialist ideologies which held that the art, music, philosophy, and yes, writing derived from European cultures was “Cultured”—with an uppercase “C”—that is, reflective of intellectual and artistic refinement and ethnic cultural superiority. By contrast, not only were indigenous writing systems by Africans unacknowledged, but also Africans, and their descendants in America, were viewed as beneath the biased barriers of “Culture” and “Civilization.” As such, they were seen as incapable of yielding the fruits of such cultured civilization, unable to produce imaginative art. The division between so-called elite or “high” and popular or “low” art forms is a racial, gendered, and class-based legacy of this history.
So, too, is the tendency to associate the most authentic forms of artistic expression (e.g. spirituals, blues, hip-hop, and before its ascendance into the realm of the high, jazz) in African American culture with the vernacular, with the “low.” Vernacular, of Latin origin, “vernaculus,” meaning “indigenous,” and the meaning from which that meaning descends, my dictionary tells me, is “homeborn slave.” And if the vernacular is the language of the everyday, if it is the common speech, if it is the voice of the slave, if it is polarized against the language of the literary, if it is the foil through which formalized diction distinguishes itself, then it is no wonder that African American poetry was outside the scope of that professor’s course syllabi. From his biased perspective, reading black verse meant descending from the heights of the high brow into the depths of the low. Such history-laden logic pits the rough against the refined, the slave against the master, and, to invert the dichotomy, the seasoned professor against the young, gifted, and black MFA student.
I have read or heard Toi Derricotte retell versions of what I refer to as the “we don’t go down that low” story in different venues; each time it makes the (black) writer, professor, and student of poetry within me wince. The increased visibility and variety of African American poetry today leads me to believe, I hope not naively, that no professor teaching any genre of literature would have the gall to reject all of African American poetry a priori. Yet personal and professional experience tells me that traces of bias against African American literature—indeed against literature or art by members of other historically maligned or marginalized groups—still seeps through, within, and beyond the university setting.
How many readers of Rattle, I wonder, not only host or attend a reading, purchase books by, and read African American poets, but teach their verse? How many include whole collections of African American poetry in their creative writing or literature syllabi—beyond a token week or two, or during Black History Month? How many teach in a way that both engages and transcends a specialized ethnic or racialized context? How many teach poems and books by black writers that don’t contain explicitly “ethnic content?” How many use a poem by a black writer to illustrate an adept execution of poetic craft, form, or performance technique? How many teach black poets who are virtuosos of the pantoum, the sonnet crown, or the prose poem as well as those who write fiercely formally innovative anagrammatic scat or engage in performatively accomplished poetry slams? I hope, dear readers, that many of you already do go up that high. I hope, too, as a result of the fine quality and diversity of contributions to Rattle’s tribute to African American poets, that many more of you will find fitting poems in an array of forms by writers of African American descent to read, relish, recite, and teach.
*Note: In the original version this quotation was mistakenly attributed to Paul Laurence Dunbar. The lines are actually from Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel.”
Alexander, Elizabeth. “Today’s News,” The Venus Hottentot (Graywolf Press, 1990).
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Conversation with B. Denise Hawkins, ed., Joanne Gabbin,The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry(University of Virginia Press, 1999).
Derricotte, Toi. “Workshop on Racism,” Tender (University of Pittsburg Press, 1997).
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. “We Wear The Mask,” ed., Joanne Braxton, The Collected Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, (University of Virginia Press, 1993).
Ellis, Thomas Sayers. “The Break of Dawn,” and “Cowbell,” The Maverick Room (Graywolf Press, 2005).
Fuller, Hoyt. “Towards A Black Aesthetic,” The Critic 26.5 (1968).
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (McGraw Hill, 1979).
Jeffers, Honoree. “Fast Skirt Blues,” and “Muse, A Lady Cautioning,” Outlandish Blues (Wesleyan University Press, 2003).
LaMon, Jaqueline Jones. “Bad Ear,” “Muting Chaka,” “Calling All Grace Notes in Pianoforte” (Quercus Review Press, 2006).
Leonard, Keith. Fettered Genius: The African American Bardic Poet From Slavery to Civil Rights (University Press of Virginia, 2006).
Lorde, Audre. “Coal,” Undersong: Chosen Poems Old & New (Norton, 1992).
Martin, Dawn. A Gathering of Matter / A Matter of Gathering (University of Georgia Press, 2007).
Morris, Traci. “Why I Won’t Wear a Tattoo,” Intermission (Soft Skull Press, 1998).
Patterson, G. E. “Green: A Bop,” Tug (Graywolf Press, 1999).
Van Clief-Stefanon, Lyrae. “Bop: A Haunting,” Black Swan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002); see also, Mendi Lewis Obadike. “Bop: What You Are,” Armor and Flesh (Lotus Press, 2004).
META DUEWA JONES is an Assistant Professor in English at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses exploring formal innovation in American poetry, gender and sexuality in jazz performance, as well as visual culture and African American literary theory. Her articles, interviews and poetry have appeared in African American Review, Souls, Callaloo, American Book Review, AWP Writers Chronicle, Black Arts Quarterly, PMS: Poem-Memoir-Story, and The Ringing Ear, among others. She is co-editing, with Keith Leonard, a volume for MELUS on “Multi-Ethnic Poetics,” expected in 2010. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University as well as fellowships from the Mellon, Rockefeller, and Woodrow Wilson foundations. Her book, The Muse is Music: Jazz, Poetry and Gendered Performance, is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Press.