Colloquy #1: Words on Freedom, Confusion, Resistance & Poetry
. . . . . What happened? they ask
a question without an answer—our confusion
—David Rivard, “Freedom in the Midst”
Insight often disappears but leaves residues, . . .
—Elizabeth Alexander, “The Gift”
There are two kinds of writing: sound writing and unsound writing.
Sound is grace. We don’t earn it, but it is forever there for us, in its plentitude, as the social-material dimension of human language.
—Charles Bernstein, “Sounding the Word”
Levitsky: I think flesh memory is about inviting the weight to hover around the body, instead of settling into the body. It’s very much about bringing something into the language, into a realm of possibilities, something that is not mediated.
I don’t think it’s about resilience. It’s about habitation. In the books that followed, I think the weight, if it doesn’t enter, it doesn’t hover either. It becomes the site, the dwelling.
—Interview with Rachel Levitsky by Ana Paul in The Brooklyn Rail, March 1, 2017
The ancient war
between obsession and responsibility
will never finish and has been the same
for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore
—Derek Walcott, “Sea Grapes”
It is odd to think that a brief passage from an elegant and emotional elegy for Deborah Digges by David Rivard could serve as entry into thinking about the contemporary conditions of poetry, or for that matter anything else, but somehow, for me, it does. It's those questions he asks. The questions we ask when someone dies, particularly by their own hand. Death is difficult enough—we must face up to our own mortality. But when someone commits suicide, it drags out other equally troubling questions about values, demeanor, our ability to befriend, or our responsibility as family—just who am I to the deceased? Who is she or he to me?
Literature has asked the intimate and difficult questions about life and death since that first story was recorded. What is our genesis? Why is there death? How do we mourn, why is life precious? Whose life matters--#blacklivesmatter or #alllivesmatter became a battleground for and on which we struggle to define our values, demeanor, responsibility. But the most-urgent questions are always intimate and are in response to the deceased and those left behind—the lover, the child, the friend, whoever was last to see him or her alive. Deborah Digges was a complicated woman. I had the pleasure, and it really was a pleasure, to co-run a workshop she led at Bread Loaf when I was a Fellow there. She was generous and helpful and direct to the students—a far cry from when I first met her at Vermont College where she had been incredibly guarded. Working with her gave me a better understanding of how to work with writers who have often paid greatly to get to an arts residency and thus expect a great deal of attention and often praise. She provided attention and gave praise when praise was due, but she was never overly complimentary. I share that ability and am grateful that I can and do. But what was in her life that led to her taking it, I will never know. None of us will. But those complications are in Rivard’s poem and so is our confusion and sadness.
We are living in days of confusion and sadness—the body politic poisoned by the very things that have always poisoned American culture: racism, White Supremacy, economic stress for many and economic success for the few. Added to that, sexism and homophobia, and millions of people (citizens) of this country are at risk. And those are the citizens. Those who are not citizens are being hunted and harassed and made unwelcome in small and large ways—these are also days of hatred and violence. David’s poem seems to be part of a conversation that I could join as I revisited my own sadness and confusion, not only in regards to Digge’s death, but to other deaths that were not as fraught: the loss of Elizabeth Murray, Lorenzo Thomas, David Earl Jackson, Peter Dee, Jayne Cortez, so many others. As Alexis De Veaux pointed out, if you live long enough, you find yourself saying goodbye to many friends as well as your kin.
These private losses are now overly matched with public deaths. My work is in an anthology, Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (Norton), published in 2016. It is a handsome volume, carefully edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr. The poems consider the Black body politic—how much of who we are and how we be (or not be) in these United States has so much to do with “the skin we are in,” to paraphrase the late, great Sekou Sundiata. In 2015, Tony Medina called for and quickly put together Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (Jacar Press), featuring diverse poets on the topic of police and extra-legal killings of Black people. In it, Lynne Thompson’s poem “In America’s Mirror” ends with this couplet: “But neither smoke, nor spinet, neither blue/stem nor stammer in the white mayhem.” These lines consider how this violence seems to serve an insatiable hatred from a cohort of White Americans, many now in power in Washington, D.C., and for others; it is a way to continue to create sadness and confusion for all.
The 2016 campaign and the election (installation) of Donald J. Trump has put in stark relief more madness than sadness and greater clarity than confusion. Many who were complacent and disengaged have found themselves in the streets in all manner of dress, including pink knit hats. They are carrying signs that say
I took this photograph during the New York City Women’s March on January 21 and wrote this poem that was posted on Facebook.
Respeta mi existencia o espeda resistencia said the pink and
a language I do not know and yet I know when RESPECT is
we are women men children gay straight trans ported
on a day of clear skies, bright sun
the tiny hands man was standing in front of a wall of
martyrs and he was lying
he was lying in front of a wall of American martyrs
while children chanted with voices ready for the future
Poets are in the forefront of resistance to this political and cultural moment because we know that this is about LANGUAGE. We know this is about the future. And as Derek Walcott poignantly notes in his poem “Sea Grapes”: The ancient war/ between obsession and responsibility/will never finish.” There are several anthologies online and in print attempting to capture this particular moment in poetry. To me, the most focused is Truth to Power, edited by Pam Ushuk as a special issue of Cutthroat. But all these anthologies serve a worthy purpose. While all of this allows the poets, who WANT TO DO SOMETHING, to express their pain and anger, the Arkansas-raised woman that I am knows the politics expressed in the Oval Office are not new. The Obama years were too much of a balm for too many people. He spoke our language, he danced to Al Green. He is mixed-race and from a diverse family—he looked like the America that is coming. But for those White folks who have no problems with a police officer being afraid of a 12-year-old Black boy, thus not ever indicting the cop who murdered the boy, Obama was their worst nightmare. And now they have given us a man with the attention span of a flea. Well well. And now many are woke!
Much of the language during the political campaign reduced the complex lives of America’s working classes to the “White working class,” which was for the most part gendered male. Where, where was the Black working class, the Chinese working class, the Latino/a/x working class, the queer working class? Working people’s lives, their gullibility, racism, stubborn faith in the President remains the focus of critique even as it is shown that the majority of those who voted for this President are wealthy, professional, and living quite comfortably in the gated communities from coast to coast. So, while we may be woke, what are we woke to? Are we woke because for the most part poets are often service workers, everywhere overworked and underpaid and without health care or any other benefits? Are we woke out of fear of a serious and thorough breakdown of the Republic? Are we woke because we can see that confusion and sadness is the mark of the President’s hauteur? Our questions are as important as the answers we create. As important as the poems, the signs, the chants we create.
When Michael Broder asked for contributions to his online project on the “transition” from Obama to Trump, my initial response was this is not time for poetry. It seems too damn prosaic. Then I noticed that many of us were seriously drinking—not beer, not wine, not silly cocktails, but hard liquor—whiskey, vodka, gin. So, I wrote this poem that considers the death of Leonard Cohen, the post-election marches in the streets, and ghosts, one of the many ghosts that haunt this Republic—here is an excerpt:
Good bourbon helps
And old songs sung well
By well hung song makers
Ah Leonard Cohen, you must have been
As smooth as the bourbon on my tongue tonight
Before the moon grew larger
And sirens blasted Brooklyn’s avenues
Wave after wave
On the streets of Portland, Denver, Chicago, New York
Detroit,—it feels like a Heat wave!
Combustion and courage—the ardent media watchers
Are loving the chaos they raised for ratings.
But lives are on the line. The “billionaire” and his bride
have entered the White House
But the cameras are off
So, what will the man with the very small hands do?
So best to read about a red dwarf that has haunted Detroit
American history is full of strange ghosts that linger at
Minefields, where a bridge meets the street
—Patricia Spears Jones
The gifts of song were what I could return to. I had to hear the sounds that would help me make a poem worth reading and speaking. And as Charles Bernstein pointed out in his essay on the anniversary of the first recording, “Sounding the Word” from Pitch of Poetry: “Sound is grace. We don’t earn it, but it is forever there for us, in its plenitude, as the social-material dimension of human language.” And in Cohen’s just-this-side-of-the-grave-voice, I could hear two things happening—the results of cynicism, hatred, and concentrated wealth on the one hand and a powerful desire to hold and thrive on this earth with what remains for us to hold to. Young people did not vote for this new order. Young people took to the streets. Taking with them the sounds and signs of their lives and they were not whistling “Dixie.” It strikes me that we are living out a line from Whitman’s “Democratic Vistas”: “For our New World, I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come.” And it is those “results to come” that fascinate me.
In the March issue of The Brooklyn Rail, an interview with Rachel Levitsky delved into the work and the ideas of the late poet, Akilah Oliver. Oliver’s stance, as a poet, performance artist, and educator, was rigorously oppositional. I can hear Rachel speaking these words as I read them as she opined on Oliver’s idea of “flesh memory”:
I think flesh memory is about inviting the weight to hover around the body, instead of settling into the body. It’s very much about bringing something into the language, into a realm of possibilities, something that is not mediated.
I don’t think it’s about resilience. It’s about habitation. . .. It becomes the site, the dwelling.
This may well be that time when we are developing a new “flesh memory” by utilizing the externalization of that memory via digital devices and social media—the very ones that helped to bring us to this political and cultural moment, but also may help take us away from it. We have this New World. This is a young nation, and throughout its fraught history, complex and interwoven ideas about liberty, status, race, sexuality, territory, even time have been in conflict and embraced. How we create a realm of possibilities in language is an extraordinary and important mission and one that these resistance poems may entail.
Again, I return to Rivard’s poem, which begins “Freedom in the midst of necessity means us/to be less willful than watchful & alert.” What are we conscience of? How are we in touch with those we love, care for? When do the routines of lives leave us disinhibiting our own sites of flesh memory. That question and the impossibility of answering it. Where are those “residues” Elizabeth Alexander speaks of in “The Gift”? This is about interiority, and in these days of calls and shouts and bombasts, it seems possibly out of touch. But is it? Poets are aware of how language is and is not embodied. Poets have the tools to explore the deepest, hardest questions because we are called upon to respond to essential issues of the daily lives of our species—births, deaths, the seasonal changes that roil our hearts and souls. Yes, this is often the stuff of lyricism, much maligned, but like painting, it ain’t dead. A lyric in the hands of a poet who knows they business can catch the breath of a change in human consciousness or the death of empires. And while Rivard’s powerful poem gives cold comfort for those conversations after a suicide, it does capture that ambivalence, confusion and, yes, sadness. As does Tony Medina’s “#IfIDieinPoliceCustody,” which in five stanzas declares one Black man’s profound desire to outlive those who would kill his body and the community’s spirit with a pathological mythology.
If I die in police custody
Don’t let my bone fragments
Puzzle the police
When the police insist
I reached for a gun
That if I had magic powers
I would not use them
To end my little life
But to save it.
The last two stanzas compress over 400 years of state-sponsored exploitation and brutalization of Black people—our names erased, our lives bonded to others, our citizenship devalued, our children under-educated, our communities red lined, our bodies sacrificed—but we also declare a conscious resistance to those efforts. Medina’s point of view is clear, even the outcome seems foretold—but that talk-back to the violators is powerful. We may not disarm the police, but we must disarm our own fear if we are to fight back.
Any serious shift in human consciousness starts in resistance to the ways in which power is carried out. It could start with changes in religious belief—Jesus was seen as a rebel against the Roman Empire—or political thoughts—this is the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution—and there are many other forms of resistance. During the modern Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement in the 1960s, poets found themselves in the thick of the struggle. But they also found themselves in conflict about the role of the poet, with many staying above or out of the fray, or so they tried. When Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich and Amiri Baraka, to name a few, challenged the status quo, they lost jobs, marriages fell apart, they were maligned. As were the abolitionists prior to the Civil War and Suffragettes and those involved in seeking civil rights for homosexuals. At every turn, these progressive people and their ideas were sharply met with violence and contempt. For those who are struggling with the current political and cultural moment, this is a time when your work is praised and quickly distributed—where the costs are not high. But that may not last. Just a way of saying, do not simply listen to the echo chamber and prepare yourself for unexpected challenges to your work, your values and your demeanor.
I look to the young people, some of whom are my students, who are now so engaged. They know that #blacklivesmatter. They are not homophobic. They are economically struggling. They want to succeed, but are beginning to ask what that means. They are looking for a language that can transport them and help transform this world. And they seem to understand, despite those digital devices and social media, that the changes they want will not be coming anytime soon. It is not that they are patient, it is that they are woke. And it seems that we poets are at a moment where we are both awake to our own growth in consciousness and awake to the responsibilities to speak truth to power, or more importantly, change the way power is understood. Our language must be able to do that. Our soliloquies often become colloquies—conversations out of our private concerns and our public stances.
I am deeply pleased to be with David Rivard, Tony Medina, Rachel Levitsky, Elizabeth Alexander, and Charles Bernstein, as one of the many American poets alive today making work that explores our interior lives and those public stances. We are but a handful of wordsmiths who recognize the power of resistance to the current political and cultural moment. These are words that gird the heart and the mind and help prepare us for societal transformation, during this fight against police and citizen violence, racism, anti-immigrant policies, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, environmental degradation, and the unrelenting materialism that consumes this entire planet. We know also language that allows us the tender, the sorrowful, that confusion and sadness are equally powerful. And whether as a poet you write from a lyric, dramatic, experiential, or schematic vantage—I ONLY CARE that you write with your truth. We have little choice as thinking humans. I cannot look at what can only be called a White nationalist fantasyland now operating in the White House and not only resist these awful ideas, but diligently make work that claims a future. As Medina pointed out, our “little” lives matter and they are more precious each day to those for whom truth is a thing that sometimes holds power.
- David Rivard “Freedom in the Midst” is from StandOff Gray Wolf 2016. Rivard was my advisor at Vermont College and his poetry can be as subtle or as direct as he wants it to be.
- Deborah Digges (1950-2009) was an acclaimed poet, educator, and memoirist. Fugitive Spring: Coming of Age in the 50’s and 60s is a valuable memoir.
- Elizabeth Alexander “The Gift” is from Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems Gray Wolf, 2010.
- Charles Bernstein “Sounding the Word’ is from Pitch of Poetry. University of Chicago Press, 2016. This essay considers recorded sound particularly of the written word.
- Rachel Levitsky Interview with Ana Paula March 2017 issue of The Brooklyn Rail was on the 10-year anniversary of The Putterer’s Notebook, and the fifth-year anniversary of Akilah Oliver’s untimely death. Levitsky is the founder of Belladonna Collaborative and a poet and educator. Belladonna has published two of my chapbooks: repuestas and Stardust, landmines, and cartoons.
- Tony Medina “#IfIDieinPoliceCustody” Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky (Jacar Press) 2016 Anthology includes poems by Mark Doty, Joy Harjo, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Kamilah Aisha Moon. Sonia Sanchez , Lynne Thompson, Quincy Troupe and Afaa Michael Weaver. Medina is poet, children’s book author, anthologist and educator.
- The proceeds from the sale of the anthology go to Whitney M. Young Social Justice Scholarship sponsored by the Greater Washington Urban League.
- Pam Ushuk TRUTH TO POWER: Writers Respond to the Rhetoric of Hate and Fear is one of the many post-election anthologies with a decidedly Native American slant. [email protected]
- Derek Walcott “Sea grapes” Poems 1960-1980 Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1980. Walcott transitioned while this piece was being written. His voice was powerful and protean and expanded the possibilities of language because of his Caribbean perspective.
- Michael Warr and Phillip Cushway Of Poetry and Protests: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin showcases poetry and mini-essays with photographs of the writers. While the focus was on violence against Black youth, the poetry and commentary expands from that horrific fact. I am one of the featured poets along with Angela Jackson, Tyehimba Jess, Sterling Plumpp, and Rita Dove. And Harry Belefonte gets the first contributor’s words.
- Patricia Spears Jones “good bourbon helps” was first published online http://www.indolentbooks.com/transition-poem-6-nov-14-2016/.
Born and raised in Forrest City, Arkansas, poet Patricia Spears Jones was educated at Rhodes College and earned her MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Art and music inform her poems, and she offers portraits of individuals in transit, engaging themes of class and social change with wry...