My poetry is often guided by an impulse to fail.
When this is the case, writing is an attempt to salvage something from the mess.
The bluesman makes an assertion, then revises it, restating it. The repetition is no righter than the originary line, but he’s moving on. Perhaps the accumulation of variations will be right. Maybe that tongueless guitar will talk it for him. He clenches his teeth, plays, listens.
The Gospel Singer’s bending the word “Lord” in her mouth. And in Lord there’s the “o” of ode and moan. She pushes it up, but it bats against the ridged ceiling of her palate. She pulls it down but it gutters out in her belly. It takes her no closer to Heaven than her body has ever let her go. Even so: lord lord lord.
The wildstyle sears the train. It’s writing that argues over being looked at versus read. Is the argument with the car? The city? The viewer? When the graffiti is as common as the metal, brick and concrete it bombs, whose name do we call? How much Krylon til one’s invisible again?
I want my poetry to work like things that aren’t poetry while inhabiting poetry’s precinct of language. “Oh hell naw, but yet it’s that, too.”—Andre 3000
The poet + critic Fred Moten says:
I listen to some music that I love and it inspires me to write a poem. My poem is not going to be that music. And if my poem only attempts to imitate that music, it’s not going to be worth a lot. But if it’s an attempt to get at what is essential to that music, perhaps it will approach the secret of the music, but only by way of that secret’s poetic reproduction.
I found the Moten quote in an interview in Callaloo about five years ago (it’s reprinted in his 2010 collection, b jenkins). I’ve sweat over it since. Sweat like work. Sweat like anxiety. Sweat at its heat. It’s the most precise description of interdisciplinarity that I’ve come across. There it is, offering a challenge for something that isn’t strictly ekphrastic. I suspect the greatest poem written in the manner of Moten’s assertion would never mention the musician, the title, “saxophone” or “drum”—it wouldn’t be about the catalyzing song. It would do what the song does without the song at all.
I can’t call it ekphrasis. The poetry wants to claim the secrets of other arts. To steal them away. To take them and make them work in strange fields of white space. Ain’t this a failure of character?
Said I’m not going to call it ekphrasis. The poetry wants to take other arts into its mouth. But not to chew them up. Just keep them there, so the words have to make their way around them, through them, with them.
In my first book, Fear, Some, there’s a poem called “‘Live/Evil’”—a slight titular variation of the Miles Davis album Live-Evil. It is one of my first attempts to do what Moten articulates even though I hadn’t read Moten yet and spoke mostly of poems attempting to enact something of their subject matter.
I wrote the poem because a friend, the poet Amaud Jamaul Johnson, suggested so after I told him I smashed all of my Miles Davis CDs. I did this, I explained, because of Pearl Cleage’s essay, “Mad At Miles, ” in which she suggests destroying his LPs, cassettes and CDs in protest of his abuse of women.
You see, I am highly suggestible.
The poem is a document of failures. What Cleage and I consider Davis’ moral failure coupled with what my friend likely considered a failure of judgment on my part, set the poem on its course and the comparison of these acts was as far as the poem would go. Yet somewhere around the center of the poem something else happened.
The poem opens with a trio of images: a pin’s point affixing a butterfly to a collector’s box; Davis’ fist pummeling his one-time wife, Cicely Tyson; and my mallet smashing Davis’ CD. These images shift, the acts of violence switch victims, revising and restating the lines. This is a strategy I use frequently, the language of the poem becoming a kind of rubble I pick through. The effect as I see it is a transformation of language from individual words into larger assemblages—phrases, sometimes whole sentences. Shifting these units into different syntactic contexts changes their sense. To my mind, this transformation retroactively affects all preceding usages in the poem and colors the concurrent usages. This happens each time the phrase is re-used thus expanding its meaning. I understood this technique first in rap music when DJs and producers use sampled phrases to create dialogue, comments and refrains in the track.
But in “‘Live/Evil,’” the syntactic context remains the same (victimizer to victim) which flattens critical understanding (Tyson’s particular victimhood) into a simpler recognition. These things are similar. Butterflies, CD cases and Cicely Tyson are similar.
When I recognized this, I realized another failure. My failure here was to use a rhetorical strategy of comparison (demesnes of metaphor, simile, personification) which equated a human being with an insect and CD packaging. Particularly problematic in a poem intended to lament Tyson’s dehumanization at Davis’ hand—an act some would argue dehumanized Davis as well.
My first instinct was to start over. To erase the unintended failure and proceed apace, secure in a public right-mindedness.
Poetry lies. That doesn’t stop it from being poetry. We sit down to lie. To craft a lie we hope will reveal truth—generally not in spite of the poem, but because of the poem. I sat down to write my lie about Davis, Tyson, Cleage and me, about doing what I thought was the right thing and the doubts that followed. About whether one separates the art from the artist. I meant to.
The unintended failure, however, was truth in spite of the poem. A more profound truth that in the making of literary art, dehumanization happens figuratively as a matter of course. That the enforced displacement of metaphor, the ontological violence of simile that riddle the blason in our love poems have a dynamic kinship with the slurs that ornament invective.
I would not argue that linguistic and physical violence are the same. But in a poem, what other kind of violence is there? And as the poet, I committed that violence—not against the CDs, but against the personhood of Cicely Tyson.
I kept it in and began to pick up the pieces. This led to a question I didn’t anticipate:
“What have we made???!!!”
I still don’t know. But I know the “we” didn’t exist before I realized my failure.
The poem is a step toward a kind of synthesis. To translate certain aesthetic methodologies from other arts into poetry. A beginner’s step: It doesn’t erase the sources—Davis as a figure and various Davis metonyms populate the poem. I quote a bit of Cleage’s essay as an epigraph.
Still, the second section of the poem is meant to function as a jazz solo. I use visual alignments of key phrases throughout. Variations of “this is the song of a man” among others—are horizontally aligned to enact the structure at the root of jazz improvisation. Dynamic swings in type size suggest sudden bursts of volume and measured blank spaces function as rhythmic silences. It’s a visual score for how to read the poem.
Since writing “‘Live/Evil,’” I’ve re-used some of the devices. I hope to discuss them further in the coming weeks. I will explore some poems that pre-date this one or take other strategies in hand altogether. It is my sincere hope that by the end, I will be writing about new possibilities for grander failures. Equally sincere is the hope that you will join me then as well, perhaps salvaging something good from the mess I make.
—Moten, Fred. “Words Don’t Go There” b jenkins, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010 p 106
—Outkast, “Humble Mumble” Stankonia, 2000
Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, California. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and is also a graduate and fellow of Cave Canem. In the Los Angeles Times, poet David St. John observed, “What...