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What We Write About When We Write About


Last month, sitting in a Brooklyn living room at a salon for women writers, a poet was talking about content. There was this notion among poets, she said, that a poem need not be about anything. That a poem ought not be about anything. She said that this idea had permeated her MFA program, and it produced an anxiety in her now, because her own recent work was very much about things.

I perked up. I rarely hear anyone acknowledge what I’ve perceived as a mild distaste for that earnest inclination to say something in a poem and really mean it. Earnestness is so terribly uncool these days.

I’ve been sorting through these suspicions that there exists a certain prejudice against poetry that addresses and expresses ideas about the world, people, history, society—poetry with purpose. It’s as if poetry that exhibits an overt attempt to communicate an idea about anything remotely political is treated as a sort of strident, second-tier exercise. As if this work, work that has something to say, is less serious than work born of a more esoteric impulse. Or as if this work is that loud-mouthed uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner table bringing up the war when WE WERE ALL JUST TRYING TO HAVE A NICE MEAL OKAY?

The poet who broached this issue at the salon had noticed a trend: this attitude comes most often from a particular population of poets and critics—often male, often white, often of a certain socio-economic class. When she said it, I felt that relief that comes from not having to be the one to say it. The woman was white. I may as well tell you that I am not.

As a woman of color operating in a world where I’m not often surrounded by people who look like me, my first instinct is to second guess an idea like this the moment it comes out of my mouth. Maybe it’s just me but…? I tend to avoid speaking about this kind of thing when I can’t see someone’s face and gauge their relative discomfort, feel out when to tone it down, when to move on, to assuage, to avoid being that angry black woman1 who just can’t get over it already. Well, I’m not especially angry. Not always, anyway. But I do take notice. And even though I can’t see your face, I’m going to keep talking.

When I look around at the types of poets who choose to engage in some level of sociopolitical discourse in their work, most often, I see black poets, women poets, latina/o poets, working-class poets—I see members of marginalized populations. When I go to a Cave Canem reading, I see poets who are writing all kinds of poems but so frequently poems that are engaged with what’s broken or what’s been broken in the world. I look around at the audience. It's mostly people of color.2 Sometimes it seems as if this kind of work is thought of as a project of the marginalized, for the marginalized. Those issue-driven types all up in arms about injustices and stuff! How quaint!

In response to the question, “What’s African American about African American poetry?” Cyrus Cassells tells the Poetry Society of America, “It is our task, as today's African American poets, to evoke the slave-holding past's denigrating, soul-crushing weight. This symbiotic task is a distinctive feature of the work-that-must-be-done for contemporary poets of color.”

I wonder about this phrase, “the work-that-must-be-done.” Is this my work? Must I do it? What does it mean if I don’t think so? What does it mean if I say I don’t think so? What does it mean if I do this work? If I don’t? I wonder about duty. Do I have a duty as a woman of color to speak about issues of race, gender? In my poetry? In a forum like this one? If I do, then doesn’t everyone? Or why doesn’t everyone? I approach the question, I turn away from it. I wonder what it means to approach the question, to turn away from it. I am defiant. I defy it. I ignore it. I can’t ignore it. The question follows me around. That question of what to say, what to speak up about, what kind of work my words will do—it’s always loud in my mind. And I don’t know the answer. But I do know that my poetry is about. It's about a lot of things. Things happening, things having happened, things people feel, things people fear, things people do and things people don’t. I have so much I want to tell you. And whether or not I choose to use my work to engage with my history, our history, with our present, our exploits, our misdeeds, that decision feels like a political one.

I imagine for any poet these questions exist on some level. I hope they do. But I don’t get the sense that for the white male poet of a certain class there’s a community of peers prodding him with questions about the work that must be done and how he is or isn’t doing it. His biography is invisible, is seen as Default American, is a blank slate, free of taint, and therefore universal,3 and therefore he is free to say anything or nothing at all. The world doesn’t ask him to engage, really, not the way I feel the world asks me—there isn’t that resounding question of responsibility, that pressure, that imperative, that perceived urgency.

And this is the part where I feel the need to apologize for myself. I’m that boor at the dinner table causing a fuss again. FORGIVE ME WHITE MALE POETS OF A CERTAIN CLASS. Some of my best friends are you! I know you must feel singled out. It’s not your fault you were born this way.

Really, though. I’m not interested in polarities. I don’t believe in believing there’s a them to our us, or an array of neatly divided camps battling it out for resources, dominance, attention. Or, at least, I don’t want that. This is anyone’s conversation. We all live in the world and participate in its unfairness. We’re all products of some screwed up history or another without which we would not exist. And we can all write about that. Or we can not write about it. I want us all at the table. I just wish we could be equals. I am writing about it. Please don’t think less of me.

1. See Claudia Rankine’s "Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry" for more on the phenomenon of the angry black person.[back]

2. See Simone White’s "Flibbertigibbet in a White Room / Competencies" for more on the phenomenon of the segregated thing that is poetry in New York City. [back]

3. See this ridiculousness for more on the phenomenon of the white man as the everyman. [back]

Originally Published: April 24th, 2014

Born in Portland, Oregon, poet Camille Rankine earned a BA at Harvard University and an MFA at Columbia University. Rankine’s nimble, urgent poems are often concerned with landscape, history, and intimacy. Slow Dance with Trip Wire (2011) was chosen by poet Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s New...