Genre & Genre Theory
The first poem I wrote that let me know that I might be a poet took up the story of Yusef Hawkins, the black teenager who was murdered by a mob of young whites in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, while responding to an ad for a used car. Bensonhurst was, then, a “safe,” mostly Italian area. “Residents of Bensonhurst,” reported the New York Times, “a well-kept working-class neighborhood of tree-shaded streets, with low brick homes, flowering geraniums and religious statuettes, expressed shock at the killing, and friends of the four teen-agers [who were charged] said they were stunned. ‘I can leave my kids with these guys and I know nothing would happen,’ said Joe Chirieleison, a storefront mechanic.”
This was 1989, the beginning of old Bush’s presidency, and my poem, titled “Poem Unearthed by Regression,” won a prestigious (for my campus) undergraduate award. I was rocked by the brutality of the killing and the ensuing uprising that accompanied the murder; the poem was my attempt to make sense of racial violence. No one had told me that poems were an appropriate place for this kind of internal struggle about an external event, but as a young black person, who was implicated, by my very being, in the fight for black life, this mode of figuring out felt not only urgent but right—like a lock clicking into place.
We had no creative writing program at my university—undergraduate or graduate—but I was lucky enough to study with Marilyn Nelson, a poet I consider a New Formalist, who provided a focused and deep education in poetic narrative, received and invented forms, and the conventional elements that constitute and animate the poem. Poems, for over 25 years, were the genre that allowed me to stretch my legs and to tell stories for which I had no language—the ones that my body held but were inaccessible to me. Poetry was the genre that allowed for a manipulation of language so that it could be stretched beyond its everyday capacity to accommodate horrific realities that make up human experience. It creates an illogic, an appropriate response to the rational narratives that attempted, with little success, to provide language for Yusef Hawkins’s murder.
I have long been rather devout in my belief that poetry is special in its ability to do this. It’s where breaking the ordinary rules of linguistic construction yields meaning that we otherwise couldn’t get to. It leaps in its sense-making and provides space for readers to enter into the text as active participants in not only the meaning-making of the poem, but, also, as I am known to argue, in the meaning-making of the world. When poets push the boundaries of the very genre, however, this is where another kind of magic happens. In my book tote right now, I’m carrying Sawako Nakayasu’s So We Have Been Given Time Or, Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton, Rosa Alcalá’s MyOther Tongue, giovanni singleton’s American Letters, Hoa Nguyen’s Violet Energy Ingots, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Daniel Borzutzky’s Lake Michigan, and Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire. (This is the honest to God truth. I just grabbed my bag to see what’s in there.) I can turn to any page in any of these books and encounter a moment of disorientation. But isn’t disorientation just what we need? If I wanted bad fried chicken I’d walk down to the corner pizza/chicken/burger/shrimp shop and gorge myself until I threw up—I like that when I’m feeling thick in a regular feeling. This thing we call poetry puts me in an irregular feeling—a discomfort—and the poetry in my bag makes me question poetry as a very thing. These occupations are very much without boundaries; they push outside of the genre itself.
Some people aren’t as excited by this boundary-crossing as I am. They are happy, comfortable, and comforted by the stroke of genre-borders like nations like colors like races that glow only because a construction is successful when it feels like a natural thing. A cross burns in that front yard because someone put it there and set it right on fire. The American landscape is lit up by such iconography. Where is the outside of this textual interpretation in our USA? Unimaginable outsideness because we know the burning border in our bodies so well? There’s the burning cross and then there’s everything that surrounds the burning cross. How is it that the burning cross, a cut through the throat of God, in the name of God, becomes a center, and we the periphery? What does genre have to do with it?
I am no longer devout. I wear a rosary made of orange wood around my neck. The Jesus fell off one day while I waited to retrieve my brother who’d recently been jailed. I propped the Jesus up in my bathroom on the sink, but then I forgot all about him. I don’t know what happened to the plastic figurine after my partner and I moved to Brooklyn.
If we cannot communicate across a genre “divide,” then perhaps we cannot communicate across a race “divide.” If one person says, “You take away my guns, you’re taking away my freedom,” and another says, “Your right to guns does not trump my right to life,” and another says, “I cannot even walk across my own back yard carrying a cell phone without being shot dead by police,” then what kind of impasse of language and understanding creates the unfathomable gulf? What is the depth of this devastating breach? But, maybe the converse is also a productive question. If we can communicate in between or trans-genre, then maybe the thing we’ve agreed to call “race” isn’t an impasse at all. Maybe these speech clots, when they come together, are regurgitant tears, the panicked stare of a squirrel shaking in the middle of the highway. Maybe my body belongs to no category. This is not, a Rodney King-like plea, as in, “Can’t we also just get along?” but an argument for rogue, innovative, disoriented languages, knowledges, forms, and genres—ones that splinter our otherwise cohesive thoughts, body imaginings, and our frozennesses. The elasticity of the so-called “poem” can change the shape of a room. And, I’m not talking about your pleasure-sickle, the one that nails you down with its repeated invitations to lick lick lick. The elasticity I’m talking about, as my homegirl, Duriel, would say, is a “black thing,” a funky thing. It will stink up a room with its sweat “blackness,” a subjectivity we do not yet know.
This black elasticity is also vulnerable and hot in the mouth. It is rarely rewarded.
It is fugitive and freaky. Like many of the works in giovanni singleton’s American Letters, it resists category and representation. Black death is unimaginable in Singleton’s makings.
Let us come back to the university. Black thought and Black making, of course, have a fraught relationship to the university. If the respite itself is a discursive manipulation that prefigures the public as an out there to be determined by those inside, then why not, as Fred Moten so pointedly works out with Stefano Harney in Undercommons, go underground inside the institution, operating fugitively to place its “unsafe neighborhood” within the sacred, which is to say, within ourselves. This operation might be a profound disorganization, or say, the embrace of “diversity,” or the embrace of what Sam Rockwell’s character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri calls, “persons of color.” “You can't say nigger torturing no more,” he says, “you gotta say persons of color torturing.”
Around now, you might be asking, “What does poetry and/or the university have to do with persons of color torturing?” I return to my story about trying to write a poem to understand something about the horrifying world. I was a baby when I wrote that Yusef Hawkins poem, so I did baby things in it. I know now something that poets like Daniel Borzutzky teach me. In his new book, Lake Michigan, he dramatizes the corporeal effect of state violence. Human bodies, “illegal,” “immigrant,” “raped,” “killed,” “beaten,” “caged,” “bloodied,” and “black,” become “illegal,” “immigrant,” “raped,” “killed,” “beaten,” “caged,” “bloodied,” and “black” via power enacted by the “authoritative body” in the book. It’s really so that the authoritative body can maintain its authority. It takes everything and gives nothing back. Like the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, Daniel Borzutzky’s melancholic dystopias (e.g. the actual USA) refuse to yield, and provide little room for breath.
What we get instead is a persistent percussive that carves a visceral shape defined in part by the repetition on that left edge (of the margin); there you’ll find an anaphoric derangement akin to the stutter, child-speak, or the rocking one might engage when the thing one must speak is too much for the mouth. Lake Michigan, like some of Borzutzky’s other work, is almost prose, teetering just there at the precipice.
This work, I think, gets really close to the disorganization of the unsafe neighborhood. Whenever the university (or the publishing company, for that matter) claims its embrace of persons of color, and then on the other hand, reifies its old ways of working in the false names of collegiality and tradition, the bamboozle is finding yourself in confinements—genre, race, language, and other—that feel a lot like freedom.
I am in that confinement, too, aching and stretching, itching and maneuvering, kicking and screaming, working toward a reinvention/dissolution of the enclosure for its own benefit, and for ours. I believe that I’m lucky. I have a job as a professor at a university where I run the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. And there, I bring poets and other writers together with visual artists, architects, filmmakers, sound artists, actors, dancers, musicians, and some scholars, to see what we can discover newly when art forms come together in conversation and collaboration. From here, I/we enact (I think) a kind of subversion, going underground to be the unsafe neighborhood, ostensibly giving the university what it needs, but also acting to transform it, to break down its walls and meet at intersections, overlaps, or in productive disagreement or divergence. My heart races as the “poem” crosses its own boundary. There are no safe border crossings. We know that. We have felt the risk of entering uninvited into an other’s neighborhood. We have felt the tongue-snatching grief of it. A woman tried help Yusef Hawkins on that day. Again, from The Times:
About 10 minutes later, Mrs. Galarza - who is trained to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation - ran downstairs to find Mr. Hawkins on the ground with two bullet wounds in his chest, she said. He was clutching a candy bar, she added.
''His pulse was still there - it was pretty good on the neck,'' she said. ''He was blinking his eyes. He couldn't talk. I pulled up his T-shirt. I saw two bullet holes in his chest.'' 'Terror in His Eyes'
She went on: ''The young boy clenched my hand. When his pulse stopped, he clenched tight and let go. He was frightened. He had terror in his eyes. He was so young and so frightened. I said, 'Come on baby. You'll be fine. Take small breaths. Just relax. God's with you.' ''
World re-imagining and re-building as we return again and again to the repetition of this assault on black people—this rip in our hearts—is also messy and destructive. Art and poetry, I believe, must be destructive too. We cannot be neat. We cannot stand smiling in front of the roaring crowd.
Poet and activist Dawn Lundy Martin earned a BA at the University of Connecticut, an MA at San Francisco State University, and a PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her poetry collections include Discipline (2011), chosen by Fanny Howe for the Nightboat Books Prize, and A Gathering of Matter/A Matter...