Prose from Poetry Magazine

A Politics of Mere Being

Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?

When my first book of poems came out in 1992, I learned what it could mean to be seen as a political poet for no other reason than because of who or what one is. Rachel Hadas, who selected the book for publication, wrote a wonderful and uncannily accurate introduction, from which the publisher excerpted the following for the back cover:

Internal evidence would seem to indicate that [this] is a poet of color who is erotically drawn to other men. The reductiveness of such terms is one lesson of In the Blood, with its    ...    constant dissolving of one world into another.

I say uncannily accurate because I had yet to acknowledge to myself, let alone others, my being gay; about the color part, I’d been pretty aware, of course, all my life. Sexuality would end up being the primary lens through which my early work got read; and given how relatively new it still was to speak of queerness openly, and given the relative newness — and unknown-ness — of HIV and AIDS, the poems were seen as particularly relevant: political, let’s say.

As for color — blackness — there are only two poems in the book that speak to this issue specifically (or as others have put it, there are only two “black poems” in the book). The first, “Passing,” is a kind of resistance to being told that black experience has to come down to a single experience:

The Famous Black Poet is
speaking of the dark river in the mind
that runs thick with the heroes of color,
Jackie R., Bessie, Billie, Mr. Paige, anyone
who knew how to sing or when to run.
I think of my grandmother, said
to have dropped dead from the evil eye,
of my lesbian aunt who saw cancer and
a generally difficult future headed her way
in the still water
of her brother’s commode.

I think of voodoo in the bottoms of soup-cans,
and I want to tell the poet that the blues
is not my name, that Alabama
is something I cannot use
in my business.

In the other poem, “Blue,” the child of a biracial couple — one black, one white — (aka me) speaks of a space between the two, a space of individuality, where it becomes possible to be left alone to pull “my own stoop-/shouldered kind of  blues across paper.”

But at no point did I think of myself as having an agenda that could be called political. Rather, my agenda, to the extent that it can even be called that, has always been to speak as honestly as possible to my own experience of negotiating and navigating a life as myself, as a self — multifarious, restless, necessarily ever-changing as the many factors of merely being also change — in a world of selves. Which is to say, I was simply being myself in those first poems — what other choice is there? But I became a poet who, according to reviews, spoke unabashedly — daringly, even — of what many wouldn’t, in terms of sex. As for race, I’d unknowingly thrown a gauntlet down to a long tradition of assumptions as to what blackness meant and, especially, as to how a poet of color should speak, and about what.

There are countless aspects to a self; race and sexual orientation are only two of them, it seems to me, neither the least nor the most 
important. It’s more accurate to say there’s a constant shifting of 
hierarchy, depending on any given moment in experience. Am I a gay black man when roasting a chicken at home for friends? Sure. But that’s not what I’m most conscious of at the time. Am I necessarily, then, stripped of political resonance at that moment? Or is not the sharing of food with others a small social contract analogous to the contract of giving and taking — of interaction — that we call citizenship in a democratic society? Is this a stretch? Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?

Resistance might be the one thing that governs what we think of as political. And in that light, I’d hardly call roasting a chicken a political act (unless perhaps I were to roast a chicken and serve it defiantly to my vegetarian friends ... ). But who determines what the things we choose to resist should be? We’ve heard the term “politically correct” forever, it seems. But increasingly there seems a push to be 
correctly political. How this translates is that there are a small group of things that we — by which I mean poets of outsiderness, of whatever kind — are expected to write from and about, and it comes down to an even smaller group of identity markers (race, gender, sexual orientation, as I’ve mentioned), when in fact there are so many aspects by which identity gets both established and recognized. This is in no way to say that the identity markers I’ve mentioned aren’t immensely important; they just aren’t solely important.

Though a kid, still I was old enough in the sixties to understand the upheaval of the times — especially the particular upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement: I’d watched on television the dogs being released on a crowd of   black protesters, I’d heard the words of George Wallace, of Dr. King. I was also, as I mentioned earlier, the child of a biracial couple, a white, English mother, my father black and from Alabama. So, more locally, I more than understood — I experienced racism in a daily and visceral way, in school, in the neighborhood — as of course my parents did also, with the added responsibility of raising three children in this environment.

It was only as a teenager that I thought to ask my parents why they hadn’t been activists, why they’d never joined any protests and fought for the cause. Their response: they’d chosen to protest in their own way, by simply existing and in so doing showing by example that a mixed-race family was nothing for people to be afraid of — was as unexceptional, one might say, as any other family, once people looked past assumptions about race and the mixing of races.

I suppose in this case silence was not death, then, but its own form of resistance to what might be expected of my parents from both sides — that of radical protesters and that of a largely white neighborhood that viewed my family with suspicion. I, of course, dismissed my parents’ response as completely lame and made a mental note that this was yet another of the many ways that I vowed never to become like them — by which I think I meant politically irresponsible.

I was wrong about that. So many problems in this life come down, it seems, to some variety of a single defect in thinking, namely, limitation.
 I had yet to understand the idea of passive resistance, for one, but also the ideas of patience (something I’m told I’ve never grasped entirely) and of subtlety. I’d also overlooked how the same overtly political stance that for some is an unignorable calling might be, for others, a luxury, given the daily responsibilities of working hard, then coming home to the ongoing work of raising a family and maintaining a household. Or maybe my parents were, ultimately, just being who they were — was that not their right?

“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” says Kevin Young in a recent 
issue of Harvard Magazine (the quote excerpted from Young’s nonfiction book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness). He is speaking of the deservingly famous Dark Room Collective, of which I have been here and there listed as an early member. What the article in Harvard Magazine doesn’t mention — nor does any other piece I’ve read on the Dark Room — is how I was ousted from the group roughly six months after having been asked to join. I wasn’t officially kicked out; I’d say it was more that I was informed that I wasn’t welcome, and — this is a little fuzzier to pin down, but I felt it — the reason had to do with my not really being in step with the group’s agenda. (The moment I fully understood that I was no longer a member was when we were all at the original Furious Flower conference at James Madison University, and I learned that the Dark Room Collective was reading as part of the conference and that I was not on the program.) My takeaway, as they say, was that I wasn’t writing the kind of poems that were correctly “black,” a problem, presumably, for a group whose purpose, among many, has been to make a space for black voices — for black sensibility — in a space (Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time) dominated by a white establishment that has historically tried to keep all others out. But, as with the Black Arts Movement, a black collective that arbitrates what blackness must be — excluding, for example, a Robert Hayden — is not so different from an exclusionary white establishment. Same game in the hands of new players.

As I say, the details are fuzzy at this point. I might almost have come to think I’d imagined it all, if not for an email I received only a few years ago from one of the Collective’s cofounders, graciously apologizing for how the group had treated me. I am grateful for the apology 
and its corroboration of my memory, and I remain supportive of and very much admire and respect the Dark Room — indeed, I count many members as my friends. My brief tenure with and subsequent exile from the collective, however, stands as a sobering lesson to me about the dangers of naïveté, or more exactly of assumption — on my part, theirs too, I suppose — that having color in common would mean we saw the world, and more specifically our craft and aesthetic, the same way, or that we’d have every cause in common.

“What color are the people in your poems? You don’t say.”

In the March 2016 issue of Poetry, there’s a terrific portfolio, curated by Francisco Aragón, called “Pintura: Palabra,” an ekphrastic project in which various Latinx poets have written poems in response to pieces of visual art. In his introduction to the portfolio, Aragón highlights three of the poets in particular, because their poems aren’t explicitly political — he wants to show how wide-ranging the poetry is, as opposed to being self-limiting:

I highlight these poets and artworks to demonstrate that where one might expect a more explicitly political poetry, that expectation is thwarted. This is not to say that there aren’t any political 
works here — there certainly are — but Latino art and poetry are too often assumed to be exclusively political.

I take his point, and agree with it. Why should we be bound by the expectations of others?

But when I look at one of the poems highlighted by Aragón — Tino Villanueva’s “Field of Moving Colors Layered,” a response to Alberto Valdés’s abstract Untitled — I find a passage explicitly political where Aragón does not. Villanueva is here speaking of several shapes of 
color he sees in the abstract piece:

They are wayward energy, moving right
to left (the right one more sensuous than the rest)
about to dive
into the deep-blue waiting — call it the unknown.
I’d like to be there when they meet that blue abyss
head on.
Will they keep their shape, I wonder,
or break up and rearrange themselves
into a brighter, more memorable pose
...    into a bigger elemental thing?

I’m really asking this:
When they run into the landscape of blue,
will these figures lose their logic of luster?
Will they lose their lucid argument of color,
their accumulated wealth of geometry?

To my mind, these lines are very much about the tension between being oneself and assimilation, and also about the challenge of assimilating without having to be compromised — how to be uniquely 
oneself while engaging, necessarily, with a world of differences, those differences the gift, the dilemma, both at once. Speaking of this in terms of colors on a canvas allows Villanueva’s poem to resonate, for me, both with race and with queerness, though neither of these gets mentioned. The poem speaks to difference as a large, abstract, and very real thing, without being attached to particularity. There would be nothing wrong if it did speak to particularity — it just doesn’t. In this sense, the poem, as Aragón says, isn’t explicitly political. But it is political. For all I know, Villanueva has the specifics of racial identity in mind here. Or he is merely writing about what he sees on the canvas, and where that takes him. Maybe he’s just writing about the engagement of one imagination with another.

How we write seems as valid a way of being political as what we choose to write about. In the case of Villanueva’s poem, the poet moves from the more overt description of the painting that we’d expect with ekphrasis to the imagining of differences (in terms of colors on the canvas) as, in a sense, forms of integrity, and he considers the ways in which to unite with a more dominant other (the blue that occupies most of the canvas) might mean a loss of integrity (understood as a “logic of luster” and a “lucid argument of color”) — 
a choice, then, to write about a painting in an unexpected way, a resistance to the traditions of ekphrasis, a resistance that can be viewed as political. But also, if I am correct in thinking Villanueva might have race in mind, this becomes a choice to consider that subject in ways that are more oblique, less direct, and somehow just as political — just differently so — as another poem that might have opted for making the color-race equation more straightforward. This choice, for me, is a political act.

I’d say the choices Villanueva makes have mainly to do with approach to a given subject, and with this approach as it gets conveyed in language. The language itself remains clear, demotic, and conventional enough in its handling of syntax and diction. But a 
manipulation of actual language is yet another form that the political can take. In my own case, it took someone else, as usual, to point out something “radical” (his word) that I was doing — my obliviousness having everything to do with my lack of conscious intention. A poet friend suggested that I’d made a new kind of language, a new way of handling English, noticeable in my first book but consolidated in the second. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I did what I usually do when afraid of seeming clueless: I nodded with apparent understanding. It was through reviews that I learned the issue was syntax, that my sentences were inflected in ways likely traceable to a background in Greek and Latin. I had truly never considered this; my sentences are pretty much models of how I actually think, but it does seem reasonable that a way of thinking might be influenced by one’s exposure to other ways of thinking, down to the level of the sentence. And, years before studying Greek and Latin, I’d lived in Germany for four years as a child and become fluent in German, itself a highly inflected language.

None of this is especially political in and of itself. But in the context of a contemporary poetry largely governed by the demotic use of language — i.e., sentences that reflect how the majority of people in this country speak on a daily basis — a choice to use sentences that, in their inflectedness, sound other becomes a potentially political act. (In this case, it’s interesting to think about how a syntax that is very old — not just in Western Europe, but also evident in the American sentences of Melville, Emerson, and Henry James, all of them 
influenced by the Greco-Roman oratorical tradition — can seem suddenly radical once the context, in terms of grammar and syntax, has shifted.) Add the context of my sexuality, and suddenly another way to put it is that I’m queering language and, by extension, the sentence itself. I think this queering of language can be political in at least a couple of ways, one more nuanced than the other. A writer can deliberately take the usual elements of language and turn those elements against the traditions they have served historically — the reason for doing so being to speak on behalf of those who have been oppressed by said tradition. At the level of form, Hayden’s deft fusing of the Negro spiritual, English hymn tradition, and blank verse to describe a slave mutiny and address racial oppression more broadly, in “Middle Passage,” is a clear example. So is W.S. Merwin’s rejection of the hierarchies that implicitly come with the use of punctuation. And so is Adrienne Rich’s restless sifting through, reshaping of, and abandoning of prosodic forms across a career spent questing for a common language.

That is one way, then, to queer language — deliberately, and for the purpose of tailoring it to one’s own purposes. The other is less intentional, and is the one I myself more relate to. I make sentences not to argue for outsiderness, but as the only space in which my outsiderness makes sense to me. From the start, I’ve thought of writing as a near-physical wrestling with all-but-unpindownable concerns. Though I may have been surprised by Hadas’s introduction to my first book, I absolutely knew I was trying to make sense of my sexual self, and I seemed unable to get anything onto the page when I tried writing in the more straightforward style of the poets I admired at the time — William Carlos Williams, in particular, whose clarity was enviable to me. But clarity was not, I think, what I was ready for, in terms of thinking about being gay. And in this light, it makes sense to me that the sentences that made sense to me were on one hand the ones that felt most natural, but they also were sentences that would tell and not tell, ones that could possibly distract from what they were telling by telling it, as Dickinson would say, slant.

In a sense, I see this as the mind’s way of rescuing; it allows the poet to process, as it were, his sense of crisis and to give voice to it, but in a way that spares him from having to directly face facts — as if the mind knew we might not yet be ready for that. I also see it as simply being how I write — which is to say, being who I am. It’s also political.

“I liked it when you were still a gay poet,” an audience member said to me at a Q&A once, saying that I’d moved away from that after my second book. What he meant, I think, is that he preferred the queerness served without surprise or nuance. That book contains several overtly sexual scenes between men, there’s the desire to flaunt sex itself as the main part of liberation — a desire appropriate, I’d say, to someone who’s just come out, especially back in the early nineties. I don’t disavow those poems at all, but they don’t reflect the maturity of thinking that comes after sex becomes understood as but an aspect — possibly the easiest to fathom — of an identity that’s ever-shifting as the contexts of age and experience shift in turn. Another way of putting it is that I’m gay when I’m having sex, sure; but I’m no less gay when I’m thinking about sex more abstractly.

Me: I’m having some difficulty understanding the intentions of your poem.
Male grad student: That’s because when I write it’s mainly for a male reader.
Me: Uh, excuse me, but I am male.
Male grad student: I mean like a male male reader.

The above exchange says many things, but the part I’m most interested in here is how some writers are deliberately writing toward a 
particular audience and how this works as a political act. To my mind, the point of writing is to communicate something to someone — by which I mean, to anyone who wants to read what I’ve written. By this logic, the choice to ignore one audience for another, to privilege a chosen audience, is highly political, inasmuch as it’s a choice to refuse to engage — and hence risk compromising — with an otherness on that otherness’s terms. This is related to but different from Countee Cullen writing, for example, a Keatsian sonnet, a form that we could say invites a white reader in, but in terms of subject matter critiques the conditions imposed by a white readership. It’s more like Langston Hughes’s argument for turning to the daily language of the Harlem he knew, and employing that in poetry — it is doubly political, because on one hand it is rejecting an accepted “white” vernacular for a “black” one, and on the other hand, in doing so, making an argument 
for black vernacular as equivalent to, i.e., just as worthy of being poetry, as white vernacular. I think of the Black Arts Movement as well, part of whose agenda was to write a poetry of immediacy, as in immediately accessible to an audience that might not ordinarily turn to poetry. This makes sense when the point is to motivate a community toward effective and efficient action; poetry that requires an MFA or a PhD in philology isn’t going to do the trick. Nuance is also not the best tool in this situation. Hence the clarity — necessarily blistering, at times — of that movement. It’s worth noting, as well, how those poems largely eschew punctuation and/or its traditional usage, what we’ve seen in Merwin, what we often see in language poetry and its various descendants — which is to say, it’s interesting to see how the same political method crosses racial borders; radicalism is often a lot more democratic than we at first suppose.

But what about the opposite of choosing which readers to write for? What if, by their mere being, our poems speak to an audience we hadn’t not chosen, we simply hadn’t intended it? A poem of mine, “White Dog,” has many things to say, I hope, but the basic situation of the poem is as unexciting as follows: a speaker walks his dog, who is white, in a snowstorm, and contemplates unleashing the dog even though he knows the dog — a female, incidentally — won’t come back. At the Q&A afterward (I begin to see the Q&A as a concept itself fraught with potentially political resonance), an African-American woman asked me why the dog in the poem was white. I told her the truth — the dog I owned at the time was white. She seemed dissatisfied, and sat down. But she approached me again at the reception, and insisted that my poem was a critique of white women on the part of a black man, the speaker presumably myself, in control (via the leash) of a whiteness and femaleness that I then considered releasing — hence the poem considered black male enslavement of and ultimate rejection of white femaleness.

My students routinely tell me that everything in a poem is potentially a metaphor and/or a symbol, and I routinely disagree. Sometimes things are refreshingly only what they are, on the page and off. “White Dog” is a poem ultimately about recognizing something about oneself that one would like to let go of, as a way of saving it from the less pleasant parts of a self. The woman at the reception had equated the speaker with myself; she’d missed the part in the poem where the speaker equates the dog with his better self. In some ways, I’m glad she missed that, since I can imagine a line of thinking by which I equate my better self with the dog’s whiteness    ...    from there to the anxieties of miscegenation    ...    from there to madness .    

And yet, it seems fair enough — and more to the point, beyond my control — if a reader brings her own concerns and lenses of experience to a poem and comes away with a reading different from, and more politically charged than, the one we’d intended. Fair enough, if the reading is extrapolated ultimately from what the poem itself provides. The dog’s whiteness and femaleness are facts. Less so, the speaker’s race or, for that matter, gender, since neither is specified in the poem. In a sense, then, a reader’s experience is the catalyst for a reader’s response, and that response can be the catalyst for the politicization of a poem that was, otherwise, merely being itself. Again, fair enough. Though vaguely troubling.

The opening section of Rita Dove’s debut, The Yellow House on the Corner — specifically, its sequencing — is a fascinating example of what I’m calling a politics of mere being. I’d first learned of Dove, back before I’d written a book myself, from Helen Vendler’s The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry, at the back of which Vendler mentioned that “Dove often writes historical poems about the black experience in America,” and that her early books contained “as well poems about her own life here and in Germany.” A black writer, who also had a connection with Germany? I was intrigued, and found the book in the library.

The book’s first section contains ten poems, the first seven of which say nothing that indicates a black speaker or observer. Had I not known otherwise, I’d have assumed a white author behind these poems variously addressing childhood, a “Bird Frau,” Schumann’s music; there’s a love poem; there’s in particular the mysterious “The Snow King”:

In a far far land where men are men
And women are sun and sky,
The snow king paces. And light throws
A gold patina on the white spaces
Where sparrows lie frozen in hallways.

And he weeps for the sparrows, their clumped feathers:
Where is the summer that lasts forever,
The night as soft as antelope eyes?
The snow king roams the lime-filled spaces,
His cracked heart a slow fire, a garnet.

Nothing here about blackness, or nothing anyway tells me to read blackness especially into it. After this poem, there’s “Sightseeing,” a poem in which two tourists examine the ruins left by the Allies in a European town, ruins that consist of smashed statues, some of which have been partly put back together; it seems to me a meditation on what remains, what we make of it, and also on representation and how deceptive it can be. Again, though, nothing specifically black in theme.

The eighth poem, though, the one that immediately follows “Sightseeing” is the well-known “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, In a Dream,” in which the speaker encounters the prominent Black Arts Movement figure, and rejects him:

“Seven years ago    ...    ” he begins; but
I cut him off: “Those years are gone — 
What is there now?” He starts to cry; his eyeballs

Burst into flame.

After which, the speaker says:

I lie down, chuckling as the grass curls around me.
He can only stand, fists clenched, and weep
Tears of iodine    ...    

It’s a rejection not just of Don Lee but of what he stands for, those clenched fists recalling a black power fist, but reduced now, in the context of tears and helplessness. Only when I come to this poem do I understand the political gesture that the first seven poems have been — a refusal to write according to the expectations of a political movement rejected outright in poem eight.

Two more poems follow, though, and they complete the political argument that’s been laid out. “‘Teach Us to Number Our Days’” describes, among other things, an old neighborhood that I only 
consider a black one because it follows the Don Lee poem. “The alleys smell of cops,” Dove says, and mentions “low-rent balconies stacked to the sky,” as well as a boy who “dreams // he has swallowed a blue bean,” and again a patroller who, “disinterested, holds all the beans.” This could be any neighborhood, but I see it as black in the context of what’s preceded this poem. I even begin to think of the boy’s swallowed bean in a dream as being in conversation with Hughes’s “dream deferred” — surely this has something to do with having just been made to think about the Black Arts Movement one poem earlier. If there’s room for doubt, though, about the community being black in “‘Teach Us to Number Our Days,’” Dove concludes the sequence with “Nigger Song: An Odyssey,” which leaves no doubt that its speakers are black, and in which the phrase “nigger night” anchors the first stanza and sets the final, third stanza into motion:

We six pile in, the engine churning ink:
We ride into the night.
Past factories, past graveyards
And the broken eyes of windows, we ride
Into the gray-green nigger night.

We sweep past excavation sites; the pits
Of gravel gleam like mounds of ice.
Weeds clutch at the wheels;
We laugh and swerve away, veering
Into the black entrails of the earth,
The green smoke sizzling on our tongues    ...

In the nigger night, thick with the smell of cabbages,
Nothing can catch us.
Laughter spills like gin from glasses,
And “yeah” we whisper, “yeah”
We croon, “yeah.”

Seven poems that don’t announce blackness. Then a poem that raises the subject by arguing for more than one way to speak of blackness. And then two poems that, in different ways, exemplify the possibilities: there is room for the poem that could be about blackness but doesn’t have to be; and room as well for the poem that is very much about blackness but also about something that looks past race and speaks to passage from one space to another, and to a concomitant feeling of heroic invincibility — “nothing can catch us.” This is blackness, sure, but it’s also what Dove refers to in her title, an odyssey, and I have no doubt she has Homer’s Odyssey in mind here, aligning black experience with white tradition even as she argues for it as its own tradition. Or perhaps she is saying that identity is finally not so clean, so inextricable from other identities; it’s a rejection of the simplification of identity and instead an instancing — an enactment — of being as not only mere, but wildly various.

We read a sequence of apparent “white” poems, only to have them be reconfigured in the context of blackness. Just as we might read the two poems that follow “Upon Meeting Don L. Lee, In a Dream” through the lens of a particular black stance toward Lee’s stance, we are also — I am, anyway — inclined to go back and revisit, if not revise, our thinking about the earlier poems. To return to “The Snow King,” for example, does the snow king’s whiteness mean more than we’d assumed? If the sparrows lying dead in his palace have to do directly with him — sparrows vulnerable to cold, and he a snow king? And if those fallen sparrows bring to mind the black, shot-down starlings of Hayden’s “A Plague of Starlings,” the birds stand-ins for the black militants who criticized Hayden, at a 1966 conference of black writers held at Fisk, for his unwillingness to be considered merely a black poet? And/or the starlings as perhaps stand-ins for blacks killed fighting for freedom during the Civil Rights Movement? Can Dove’s poem be speaking to racial imbalance here? Or instead about mortality, and how we sometimes have an inadvertent hand in destroying those whom we love? And how is it, by the way, that to speak about such things as immortality isn’t black? And notice how, by being a black poet herself, Dove can be seen as being radical merely by presenting speakers and subjects that don’t specify a blackness — when, in fact, all she may be doing is being herself, which presumably includes many things besides race?

None of what I’m saying here is in any way meant to speak against a more overtly political poetry or to deny its validity or, indeed, its necessity. If anything, I’m arguing against too narrow a definition of political. I know political has chiefly, as a word, to do with governing — and usually, more specifically, the governing of an entity such as a nation, a body of citizens — from the Greek politikos, relating to citizens, the people of the state, polis in Greek. But in these post-Emersonian, post-Thoreauvian United States, there’s surely room for the idea of government of the self by the self. There’s plenty that we can’t control in life, and merely being oneself is not always a given — plenty of places, still, where to be open in certain ways can mean ostracism, even death. But poetry is, in particular, so rooted in individual sensibility, it seems a shame if we can’t be free to express ourselves as we choose — or more realistically, I think we have no real choice in the matter. A reason to broaden the definition of political is because each individual is different, and our poems will necessarily reflect that. In a democracy, that seems to me to mean that those who must write as witness to the savagery of, say, war should do so — that’s part of the record of what it means to be alive right now in 2016. So too, though, is the intimacy between a parent and child, so too is the agony of private despair that can blind us to what also counts as part of life — joy, in its myriad forms. To be alive has never been one thing, any more than a period of history is. At the same time, people are complex creatures, and we manifest our sensibilities in many ways. Writing is just one of them. Which is to say, speaking for myself at least, my poems are simply how one aspect of my sensibility gets enacted; other parts might be manifest in how I dress, or interact with others, or by the hobbies I choose. Not everything gets written down, nor does it have to be. We should no more make assumptions about who a person is, based on that person’s poetry, than we should be assuming how they should write, and about what, based on who we think a person is.

To each his own urgency. Or hers. Or theirs. How is it not political, to be simply living one’s life meaningfully, thoughtfully, which means variously in keeping with, in counterpoint to, and in resistance to life’s many parts? To insist on being who we are is a political act — if only because we are individuals, and therefore inevitably resistant to society, at the very least by our differences from it. If the political must be found in differences of identity, who gets to determine which parts of identity are the correct ones on which to focus? I write from a self for whom race, gender, and sexual orientation are never outside of consciousness — that would be impossible — but they aren’t always at the forefront of consciousness. Others write otherwise, as they must, as they should — as we all should, if collectively we are to be an accurate reflection of what it will have been like to have lived in this particular time as our many and particular selves.

Here’s a poem, “Cathedral,” from my book Double Shadow:

And suddenly — strangely — there was also no fear, either.

As a horse in harness to what, inevitably, must break it.

No torch; no lantern — and yet no hiddenness, now. No hiding.

Leaves flew through where the wind sent them flying.

Is this a black poem? A queer poem? Why or why not, and who says.

Originally Published: December 1st, 2016

Referred to as “one of America’s most original, influential, and productive of lyric poets,” Carl Phillips is the author of a dozen books of poetry and two works of criticism. He was born in Everett, Washington in 1959, and his family moved frequently around the United States. He earned a BA from...

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