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can you believe (me)!?: on identifying the politics in poetic imagination

Clouds forming on the horizon

I. on imagination

A foundational concept to the study of society is sociological imagination. A phrase coined by C. Wright Mills, meaning the awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society. Here, we can begin an articulation for how we are to make sense of any & all we socially engage, voluntarily & otherwise. Here, we are going to tool through this kind of imagination & its practicality for the poetic—here, the poetic, meaning the space between poet & reader. Sociologists are tasked with contextualizing the material world that other disciplines theorize. Sociology is not without theory, but a kind of field practice is usually required. (This relationship between the sociologist and the studied unfortunately relies on kinds of surveillance & subjugation with rare material benefit of the subject.) There is a need for human contact in some capacity, physical or otherwise, to make sense of what is being imagined. The harvest of the work, however, always depends on the field hand tending, or the holder of the lens will always reveal more about their scope than the subject. I’ve mixed the metaphor. You can imagine me a collagist. You could imagine me a poet. But how do you imagine my hands, my mind making? This question is futile. Sociology is not psychology. The important distinction being the position, not of “the self in the world,” but how this world makes its variety of selves. Here, a troubling must occur, for us as we, both readers & writers of poetry, wield these imaginations, what do we bring, what do our imaginations say about us?

Let’s re-apply this investigation to poetry: we read poems from people who are not like us, every day. Dead poets. Rich Poets. Straight Poets. Cisgender Poets. White Poets. Degreed Poets. The Like. For some of us we can go too long in our literary education, regardless of formality, without seeing voices like ourselves & still we find ways to language that tools us in & out of our bodies. This has not prevented a multitude of writers from a spectrum of voices from finding what they needed & repurposing (or de-purposing) the tools for their own narratives. To rephrase, even if the lens is archaic, if the holder is capturing the future there is still a rendering available to us. Consider when a pantoum becomes rap lyric or a bop becomes a folk song. Let’s re-re-apply this to poetry: we write poems to people outside of our bodies, outside of our homes, tongues, mouths. We are praised by nurture & vulture alike. Reading demands an empathy which is rarely returned to us. We are praised most when we are readily readable in the imagination of the imaginer. Poets, writing from the bombastic alleyways & over-policed borders & rising shores of literary visibility, are rendered by the temporality of their distance. The Black poet can never decide what is Black enough to the White reader. The Trans poet can never decide what is Trans enough for the cisgender reader.

Still, as poets we are (or should be) writing toward our realties as best as possible. Still, we are never writing to our mirrors, instead we make them for the world(s) we navigate. So the poetry we consume should serve in this way, but so often, we read our realties onto the poet. This is not a problem but a reality unto itself. It’s no-ONE’s fault, making then every-ONE’s responsibility.

II. imaginary figurines

If we focus the lens on the poet’s imagination(s), we can see the subjects they render as indicative of their field’s topography. The fields in which they harvest narrative, lament, ode & confession. To illuminate the process of image (un/re)making, I am going to apply my own lens to four works that utilize some aspect of the imagined to materialize truth about the self, noting the triumphs & possible mis-readings of each project. Each of these works utilize an imaginative figure or a figurative imagination to both (re/de)-position the reader while ultimately & ardently attempting to position themselves. I will trace these works by what I consider their sociological excess—what is tangibly offered to bridge that awareness between personal experience and the wider society. Each of these works is a necessary too much.

Too real—         Popular culture is a reliable site for identity formation. We find assurance in ourselves through representation, and its gaps have detrimental effects on society at large. We hold up the visible, the iconic, the renderable as blueprints for how to make ourselves. However, the self is made up of many selves. Histories, language traditions, culture touched & untouched by popularity. Meaning both the unpopular & the mundane, the uncomfortable & innocuous. Morgan Parker’s collection, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, houses the pop star’s persona & humanity with the delicacy of someone attempting to hold themselves. Parker’s Beyoncé both is & is not our Beyoncé—parallel Parker, as a Black, Woman, Sad, Poet is ours in what she offers, but not ours in all the keeps. She positions a self in her Beyoncé, she writes: I mouth Free and Home into a crowd / but they only hear gold extensions (“Beyoncé is Sorry for What She Won’t Feel"). Parker positions the obscurity of Beyoncé uplifting a nation that has never not wanted her dead. Never not wanted Parker dead. Never not wanted the Black Woman dead. Or impervious to any kind of pain—the unfortunate extremes. The imagined Beyoncé is not an unreal image but as a mirror Parker has shattered for herself. Reassembling outside of a particular predication for what is explicit, while still not tempering any image too fantastic.  A(nother) self speaks again through Parker: People say things they think are true, / like ‘I love you’ and ‘I feel in a particular way,’ / I want to be so close and bold. The self consciously desires a reality that even speaking on can only mean so much. Parker’s Beyoncé relies less on how the reader is required to imagine the pop star or her persona than on what the making of her persona indicts in our empathetic rendering.

Too Loud—      Language is significant. Language, here, meaning: vernacular, dialect, lexicon. Our linguistic tonalities vary from exposure both assimilative & symbiotic. We learn how to speak. We learn how to tell on ourselves. Language can be forced, served jagged & imported. Language can be retooled & unwoven & re-fabricated. Language, here, is avoiding a kind of semantic rigor. It’s not so much how a thing is said but what is rendered from the saying. Or, what mouths can we imagine for ourselves? Lambda Literary Award-Winning Poet, Musician & Artist KOKUMO siphons a necessary power from the speech she utilizes in her collection Reacquainted with Life. In her poem, “Love Is Not The Revolution," she writes: I’m tiyad ah speakin ah truf don’t nobody wanna hea. /  I’m tiyad ah fightin fa otha people’s right ta have a love / I ain’t gon eva kno. The only antagonism is being able not to imagine or decipher. KOKUMO eliminates a respectable tone & pitches her cry to the potentially obscured. She makes her unknown unknowable to unimaginative readers. She provides not a key to the identities present in the poem’s world but renders the poetics in harmony with the world’s ear. Her Black, Intersex, Fat, Trans self, in need of love is couched in an unpretentious & still most tender lyric. Elsewhere in the collection, KOKUMO writes: When did community become a form of currency? / They only love you as long as they can use you. / They only show up when the bodies hit the ground. / And eum then, it’s just ta take pictures ova da corpse (“Psychological Share-Croppin’”). She maintains the multitudinous dialect. What are the implications for the reader? The unanswered question, succeeded by value platitudes, contouring into another tongue reminding the reader what subjectivity means in real time. The voice, dialectally performative is not inauthentic but ethnographic. The language’s tonality indicative & urgently indigenous to its source. It’s only distorted based on perceived distance.

Too Flesh—       Reverence, though often considered a desirable value, is easily weaponized to protect influential or (in)arbitrarily foundational artists & texts. This practice of reveling & meditating on what could be considered classics or landmark texts can spur necessary queerings & critique of tradition. Revisiting or revising or recalibrating or retelling a text. Not recycle. Repurpose (I still think de-purpose works better, not demeaning but a departure from original purpose). This act of creative departure—both on the micro level through individual attempts at craft/form to macro considerations of genre-making works—is how the self fabricates its own necessary narrative in Chase Berggrun’s RED, a book-long eraser of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. With the nominal omission of the source material’s central figure, a new subject fills the page. Berggrun’s Dracula, if you will, only exists so far as to position the speaker’s selfhood in relationship to exteriority. The malignant & still canonized violence in the Stoker’s work gets a new autopsy. We, as witness to this subtle & delicate horror, are to make & disregard certain monstrosities. In Chapter two of RED, Berggrun writes: I unsealed the seriousness of sound / Freedom melted in the weatherworn abyss / Some weird effect of shadow could allow an opportunity to resist / I took pleasure in disobeying. This passage delightfully distills some of the bloody work happening in this text. The erasure serves as a gutting, the limitations Berggrun placed on her approach, necessitated more intention in making this voice flesh. As every review reminds us, Berggrun’s collection was created in parallel to her transition, so the reader must honor the intentionality of queer-self.  The self made from un-making a revered subject. This new self, a configuration of the omitted & the remnant.

Too Perfect—                  The consistent fear in any rendering identity (exterior or interior) through artistic practice is the temporality of its authenticity. Or we are so many things at so many times, any one moment can only be such a complete or coherent profile. The poet is never just poet, she is the provider, the student, the teacher, the laborer, the lover, the loved, the loving. A forgiveness is required in rendering the self, especially as a practical art making. When parts of the poet are the subject, there needs to be as much protection as vulnerability. The poetic becomes a place for us to imagine all the nuance within the poems’ complexes while also rendering the subject’s place in the world. There is a safety in refashioning a symbolically perfect yet totemic temporal subject for the self. Consider how many poets utilize gods, saints, ghosts alike—each perfect in their liminal commodity, making their symbolism malleable & irreverent, again, depending on the conjurer. Multi-genre Asian-American writer Victoria Chang plays almost chemically with a placeholder of Amerikkkan beauty standards, the Barbie Doll. Barbie Chang, the central figure in Chang’s collection, interrogates less directly the known mythology of the plastic propagandista. Chang materialized the figure into a necessary opaque & porous site to hold. She writes: Barbie Chang’s tears are the lights/of the city that go off on//off on the men walking around the city/move but Barbie Chang//doesn’t she cannot promote herself if/she had legs she would//stop begging if she had a head she/would stop her own (“Barbie Chang’s Tears”). Chang utilizes the couplet’s form & the enjambment’s timbre to require the reader to imagine how this otherwise familiar object must be held. Here, the work of identity value-making can be consequential on an exterior body, while still revealing the delicacies of interiority.

These figures or lenses are in many ways inevitable. They operate to calibrate not only the selves being made in the texts, but to signal how we must render the subjects present. Parker’s Beyoncé, KOKUMO’s dialects, Berggrun’s Dracula, & Chang’s Barbie, are also meant to obscure the poet from undue & unjustifiable psychosis. The imagination cannot be only psychological (remember). These poets, like many excellent writers among them, serve as auto-sociologists. These texts each are their own kind of field work & these figures serve as the researcher & researched. The soapbox & the message. The poet holding the space in-between with all they can.

III. imagine none of this matters

I wrote a poem about poetry once. I wrote a poem about how every time I use the English language I am reminded how this language, as it was taught, is not & cannot ever be indigenous to my body. This is not a metaphor, I’ve already written the poem. You can find it. I am telling you about it now. I wrote about cargo ships, & salt water, grammar & rhetoric & lynching. I wrote a poem about poetry once but it was about all these things. I said them. I named them. I rendered a poem about the poem & it was a poem about the field & sharecropping. I wrote a poem about poetry once. I wrote a poem about how every poem I write feels autoerotic, here, not an unintentionally illicit act but another ritual of dispelling my body of what it makes.

This poem that I wrote, on two separate occasions, has meant almost anything but these things to the readers. This poem has been recited on YouTube by a white queer. This poem has been discussed by two cisgender men, both not Black, on a podcast whose motto was something about the healing power of poetry. This poem has been read by bodies molecularly unfamiliar with the realities I attempted to manifest in the work. What they rendered however could not be called inaccurate or unfair. This poem can only be so much. This poem can only push one’s imagination so far. I wish this poem was imagined better in these instances & for those who get it, they have truly gotten it.

We can’t & should not be expected to have all the tools to imagine all we read. We most certainly have a material call to respect & decipher the politics present in all the poems we encounter. This, of course, requires desperately new understandings of empathy. Who knew?

Originally Published: July 9th, 2018

Literary and performance artist jayy dodd is a blxk trans femme and is the author of the poetry collections The Black Condition ft. Narcissus (Nightboat Books, forthcoming 2019) and Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press, 2017), and the chapbook [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press, 2016). Their work has been featured in Teen Vogue and Entropy. They are the...