Last week I went shopping in the little Crown Heights design studio of the innovative fashion designer, Sue Rock. Rock, who is a wizard at crocheting, and her husband, who can sew a stunning tunic dress, work with the fabric remnants abundant in their native New York. They have so much fabric they can't use it all for just themselves, and so they run a program to help women who are victims of domestic violence get back on their feet. They teach classes on sewing and crocheting, teaching the women to make their own clothes so they can build their wardrobes at minimal cost. The fabrics they use are some of the best the industry has to offer, often vintage, and quite chic. Everyone who takes part in the program makes clothes for the shop, and on certain days of the week, like the one I was lucky enough to enjoy, these hand-made items are on sale to the public. Proceeds go to support survivors of domestic abuse. It's rare I can feel so good about dropping a bit of extra cash on new clothes.
What does this have to do with poetry? Everything. Poetry is the reason I came to know about Sue Rock and her little Brooklyn shop. Sue found a copy of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry in the public library. Pleased by the vision of the world she read in my book, Sue found my website and wrote a generous thank you note. Because I like to respond to the people who write me (for reasons I might expand upon in a later Harriet post), I wrote back to thank her for her thank you. I also clicked on a link at the bottom of her email and fell in love with one of the skirts. (I'm now in possession of a very similar item). I was going to be in New York in a couple months, I told her. Would it be okay if I came by the shop?
This Saturday, while I was in the dressing room trying on skirts and tunic dresses, Sue and I talked about four things: how Sue came to choose this way of supporting victims of domestic violence, why she loved making clothes, what life was like for me in California, and poetry. We talked about poets we admired, we talked about the work I'd collected in Black Nature, we talked about Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (a book that directly confronts the toll of domestic violence), we talked about what I'm writing about and how and when and why I write. We talked about our lives, and both of our lives are deeply informed by poetry.
It is not uncommon for poetry to work itself into my everyday conversations with people who have nothing to do with the small world of nationally-published poetry. At a dinner party in Virginia this Thursday, attended by a number of non-poets, a poem was the first thing to come to one friend's mind when I repeated the story I'd been told that afternoon of my 86-year-old friend Jack Scudder's only real brush with death. Jack claimed that being hospitalized for over a month with a bad case of pneumonia in the early 1940s probably saved his live. A counterintuitive concept until you realize Jack had enlisted in the Army Air Corp and was about to get his assignment when he fell ill. Jack's a short man with good aim. "You know what they did with men under 5' 6" in the Air Corp?" Jack asked me. That night, at dinner, I repeated the story, complete with Jack's question. When prompted to state what would have happened to Jack, Vic Sizemore answered succinctly, quoting the last line of Randall Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose."
Poetry is everywhere I am, and not always because I've put it there. Poetry is part of people's lives, and I'm reminded of this regularly.
There's a story I could tell about a winery that names its wines after poetry and includes a poem on every label. There's a story I could tell about a nonfiction writer who never starts a day of memoir writing without reading a few poems first. There's a story I could tell about a flight attendant I caught reading Neruda in the galley during her break. There's a story I could tell about a ski instructor who dabbles in verse. There's a story I could tell about the heir to a pharmaceutical company who valued Poetry enough to endow it handsomely. There's a story I could tell about a carpenter who recites poetry every second Tuesday in the company of a roomful of other every day people whose church is the church of poetry. I could tell you dozens of stories about youths who tell me they want to be writers, that they want to write poetry, and that they want to study how a poem is made. I could tell you a story of a funeral for an 18-month-old child and the mother's request that an e.e. cummings poem be read. I could tell you a story of an engineer and a Food Bank resource manager whose wedding ceremony consisted of a 5-minute homily recited by a fellow engineer and four poems read by old friends.
I can tell you, thank heavens, that those folks who go on and on about how this nation's interest in poetry is dead or dying don't know the people I know. I'm delighted to be back on Harriet blogging this month and to be writing about poetry and why poetry matters and to be writing about how the people I meet every day tell me so.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...