I’m sorry that it’s taken me this long to write back but, it has. I spent the week following AWP in very cold Boston, with my grandson, three months old. How I wish you could see him. It was good to be that cold, struggle my older body down iced sidewalks, this body now so used to scalding summers.
Oh but how the body remembers the way to walk across ice, leap over slush puddles and turn the back to the wind. Jeff, I’ve lived half my life now. You’ve been gone seven years and right now how I want to talk with you. That long talk we shared — friends, brother-sister, late arriving to poetry and the saying. We wrote together. You said, “You’re color-blind.” There on the front stoop of my Boston house. It was June and isn’t Boston wonderful in June. You said that and ever since, I wondered about how to live with that saying. How can it be true when it is clear I see you warm brown skin, your curls. What is it to be blind? What is it to be bound to our cultures? How is it you and I do not descend into incendiary language and finger pointing? How did we?
I ride the red line to the green line in the city of our past. I am composing how to respond to the readings I went to at the conference. How to blog this. How to say that. Wanting to be noticed. Then there is no pen in my purse, can you imagine, I’m out in the world without a pen. So I beg my mind to remember but it fades and fades to only images and sound. How this resonates, still three weeks later.
I see the African-American female poet (how I had wanted to hear her poetry) create a performance of sorts, starting with a non-present white-guy poet’s poem being read by a younger white guy. And then she was followed by a older, well respected, white guy with his poems on paper, leaves being shuffled. He work black, I think. His white hair reminded me of my late father-in-law. But by the time he read my shoulder hurt and the good lady poet, exquisite in diction and persistent with verbal scalpel. . .had stirred the pot.
I remember wishing she’d put the poem up on a screen rather than had it read so we could find the voice of the poem in our own minds, see the line breaks, see the words. Let the poem stand for the poem and maybe talk about the issue of “I” being the poet or the poem. I haven’t looked the poem up yet, Jeff. I don’t want to. I sat at the reading with my roommate, a member of the Anishinaabe nation, a newly publish poet. When I hear the speaker say ‘racism’ I wonder if she feels this. I wonder why that word and not ‘bigot’.
I wonder who fits what label and what conversation you and I would have. I whine in my mind: really? now? all I want is poetry! dazzle me with meter, image, I am thirsty for verse. But no. The Race card is dealt and we’re all hijacked into the game. I remembered a first teacher saying, ‘when you use the word ‘blood’ in a poem, then that’s all reader sees.” And the same is true, say ‘racism’ in a public forum and it’s ‘them’, it’s Black and White. But where are the Vietnamese, the Chippewa, the Chileans or Tejanos?
I’m wondering how Yusef would have handled this. . . but then again, he does in his work. I’m thinking of his poem, “Blackberries”, fruit, knowledge the twist on the racist-tinged cliche about sweet juice. I’m thinking about “Facing It”. How the speaker’s black face is reflected on the black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial. How the voice in vulnerable and strong and facing truth without the lecture.
Earlier at a panel on narrative voices in poems, Mr. Eady read a poem in the voice of the disinterred casket of Emmit Till. In his poem a family of opossum had found shelter in the empty casket, where as, the truth is raccoons had been discovered. Mr Eady said as much in the discussion of voice. Then to hear him read the poem. I found an elegant and deft use of language that leaves the reader with what most consider an ugly white, nocturnal animal.
What resonates from her talk is the images from the poem she used as argument to call out, call down this white male poet. I see the African-American tennis player beautiful and strong, the other player small, shrinking in the poem. I hear those last lines from Langston Hughes’ “I too Sing America”. “Besides,/ They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed–//I, too, am America”
My years in higher ed administration left me with cynicism about what ‘higher ed really means. I wonder if this presentation was all jousting for the Academy. A platform to call out the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program and their tenure policy.
Jeff, I wish you could write back. I wish I could hear your voice and we’d talk this out. No fingers pointing. I rubbed my hands on my jeans for I could not applaud for long. My hands hurt, my elbow hurt. A poem disturbed another poet,this is one major function of art, the power of language. I’m a poet Jeff, like you, because life rubs against our skin and begs for language. Other poetry tells me things I don’t know, should hear. I just can’t be lectured anymore. Raise the conversation and put pen to paper.
Jeff, write soon.