Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Power of the P... Poetry, that is.

      Several years ago, I knew a brilliant woman. She was a musician, filmmaker, writer, shrewd businesswoman, weekend science buff, was deeply immersed in LA’s ‘90s art scene, and was well versed across a wide spectrum of subjects. Whatever the topic, it seemed she’d read up on it and could converse knowledgably. She was sometimes an insufferable show-off but she backed her intellectual flossing with substance. She had a grating quirk, however. Whenever she discussed anything personal, no matter how dark or painful (and there was a lot of truly dark, truly painful shit in her life) her manner of speaking would change dramatically. Her voice would rise in pitch; the velocity of her spoken words would become torrential and she’d become engulfed in rolling laughter. Soon, she’d be all but slurring her words as she guffawed loudly and hysterically, near impossible to understand. Whether discussing the violent stalker ex-boyfriend who drove her into hiding for over a year, the fatal violence that had ripped her family apart (a female relative having been murdered by her boyfriend), or the disease of mental illness that had claimed family members, she’d dissolve into gales of “laughter” that would render her indecipherable. Eventually, every conversation took this character (or I finally noticed that every conversation had this character) and I found myself dreading any interaction with her at all, even as I spent a lot of time in my own head dissecting possible causes for this conversational quirk.

      It was obvious that the hysterical laughter was a complex defense mechanism. It was a buffer against the emotional pain caused by discussion of difficult issues but I also came to believe that for all the arrogance and swagger this woman had, something of the laughter was also rooted in the dark ages of gender roles: it was a way for her to soften the blow of her intellect, which could be intimidating, especially to men. (Her insane ex-boyfriend being one example.) It was very much an old-school female tactic, a way for her to be self-deprecating and non-threatening as she rolled forth her dazzling intelligence. I think it was also partly rooted in insecurities about her physicality. She was a loudly and proudly self-identified black woman of biracial – Black and Jewish – parentage who had gotten a lot of shit in her life over her looks. (I’d love to hear her response to the moronic mantra that Barack Obama “isn’t really black.” Based on her replies to folks who said the same thing about her, I know her response would be wonderfully, venomously biting.) She and I don’t hang out anymore because it just got to be too much. I’d sit down for dinner with Near-genius and by dessert be staring into the eyes of Damn-crazy; her untreated issues led her to cross some lines I couldn’t forgive.

      Back to the laughter defense: I’ve since noticed other women friends and quite a few gay males who have adopted the same or a similar “shield.” I hadn’t thought much about that particular defense tactic, though, until earlier this year when I finally met in-the-flesh someone I’d known about for a long while and with whom I began a correspondence about a year or two ago – another brilliant soul, a black man who happens to be gay, is hugely knowledgeable on a wealth of topics, and is something of a hero to me for his fusion of soulfulness and intellect, for his deeply considered Marxist politics and his love of good poetry. When we finally met face-to-face, though, I was taken aback at how thickly his insecurities wafted from him – and how he punctuated almost every utterance with a nervous, high-pitched laugh. Not long ago, I read an online posting from him; in it he declared he was “the real thing,” and posted this Gwendolyn Brooks poem as explanation:

The Life of Lincoln West
by Gwendolyn Brooks

Ugliest little boy
that everyone ever saw.
That is what everyone said.

Even to his mother it was apparent—
when the blue-aproned nurse came into the
northeast end of the maternity ward
bearing his squeals and plump bottom
looped up in a scant receiving blanket,
bending, to pass the bundle carefully
into the waiting mother-hands—that this
was no cute little ugliness, no sly baby waywardness
that was going to inch away
as would baby fat, baby curl, and
baby spot-rash. The pendulous lip, the
branching ears, the eyes so wide and wild,
the vague unvibrant brown of the skin,
and, most disturbing, the great head.
These components of That Look bespoke
the sure fibre. The deep grain.

His father could not bear the sight of him.
His mother high-piled her pretty dyed hair and
put him among her hairpins and sweethearts,
dance slippers, torn paper roses.
He was not less than these,
he was not more.

As the little Lincoln grew,
uglily upward and out, he began
to understand that something was
wrong. His little ways of trying
to please his father, the bringing
of matches, the jumping aside at
warning sound of oh-so-large and
rushing stride, the smile that gave
and gave and gave—Unsuccessful!

Even Christmases and Easters were spoiled.
He would be sitting at the
family feasting table, really
delighting in the displays of mashed potatoes
and the rich golden
fat-crust of the ham or the festive
fowl, when he would look up and find
somebody feeling indignant about him.

What a pity what a pity. No love
for one so loving. The little Lincoln
loved Everybody. Ants. The changing
caterpillar. His much-missing mother.
His kindergarten teacher.

His kindergarten teacher—whose
concern for him was composed of one
part sympathy and two parts repulsion.
The others ran up with their little drawings.
He ran up with his.
tried to be as pleasant with him as
with others, but it was difficult.
For she was all pretty! all daintiness,
all tiny vanilla, with blue eyes and fluffy
sun-hair. One afternoon she
saw him in the hall looking bleak against
the wall. It was strange because the
bell had long since rung and no other
child was in sight. Pity flooded her.
She buttoned her gloves and suggested
cheerfully that she walk him home. She
started out bravely, holding him by the
hand. But she had not walked far before
she regretted it. The little monkey.
Must everyone look? And clutching her
hand like that. . . . Literally pinching
it. . . .

At seven, the little Lincoln loved
the brother and sister who
moved next door. Handsome. Well-
dressed. Charitable, often, to him. They
enjoyed him because he was
resourceful, made up
games, told stories. But when
their More Acceptable friends came they turned
their handsome backs on him. He
hated himself for his feeling
of well-being when with them despite—

He spent much time looking at himself
in mirrors. What could be done?
But there was no
shrinking his head. There was no
binding his ears.

“Don’t touch me!” cried the little
fairy-like being in the playground.

Her name was Nerissa. The many
children were playing tag, but when
he caught her, she recoiled, jerked free
and ran. It was like all the
rainbow that ever was, going off
forever, all, all the sparklings in
the sunset west.

One day, while he was yet seven,
a thing happened. In the down-town movies
with his mother a white
man in the seat beside him whispered
loudly to a companion, and pointed at
the little Linc.
“THERE! That’s the kind I’ve been wanting
to show you! One of the best
examples of the specie. Not like
those diluted Negroes you see so much of on
the streets these days, but the
real thing.

Black, ugly, and odd. You
can see the savagery. The blunt
blankness. That is the real

His mother—her hair had never looked so
red around the dark brown
velvet of her face—jumped up,
shrieked “Go to—” She did not finish.
She yanked to his feet the little
Lincoln, who was sitting there
staring in fascination at his assessor. At the author of his
new idea.

All the way home he was happy. Of course,
he had not liked the word
But, after all, should he not
be used to that by now? What had
struck him, among words and meanings
he could little understand, was the phrase
“the real thing.”
He didn’t know quite why,
but he liked that.
He liked that very much.

When he was hurt, too much
stared at—
too much
left alone—he
thought about that. He told himself
“After all, I’m
the real thing.”
It comforted him.

      Reading that poem and knowing that this particular newborn friend absolutely sees himself this way ("Black, ugly, and odd...") / because the world has seen and treated him this way… broke my heart. What do you even say behind that? But I suspect that when he reads that poem it’s more than a mirror/relief valve for pain. I suspect (hope) that it not only speaks for him but – in doing so – actually provides some measure of comfort. That’s what the great poems and poets do. Yes, they can broaden what we know of the world, inform us, educate us in terms of global politics and cultural nuances of others… but they also hold up mirrors that let us see ourselves, become microphones that let us speak our subjective truths and realities.

      A poet who does all of that for me is Pamela Sneed. I’ve posted in the past about how her first book of published poems, Imagine Being More Afraid of Freedom Than Slavery (Owl Books, 1998), is one of my favorite contemporary tomes of poetry. Her new and long awaited collection Kong & Other Works (Vintage Entity Press) has been on my bedside table for over a month now and I’ve been nibbling it like it’s the richest chocolate. Like Imagine, Kong – without simply being derivative – reminds me a lot of my favorite poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, especially the former. I’m a big fan of poetry that is direct, blunt-spoken, drawn from the language of the way ordinary folk speak. Sneed’s language is deceptively simple. There’s a lot of thought in her “plots” and how they are worked, but undue attention is not called to the mechanics; there’s powerful but not strainingly obvious craftsmanship. But I think what I love most is simply the courage of her being her whole self – a sensitive, politically aware, smart, funny, intellectually curious, conscious and conscientious Negro who is also a lesbian, and who brings all of those identity components to the table in her work. That’s hugely important, now more than ever.
      In Kong, the poem “Elvis” begins:

As an avowed feminist, intellectual, writer and professor
in a privatized city college
One thing I don’t allow is bible thumping, proselytizing,
no Jesus or Judaism freaks…

      She goes on to talk about a student from Pakistan who looks like, “a Muslim Elvis Presley / with exquisitely arched Black eyebrows…” and her classroom frustration when he presents a paper on a topic he hasn’t cleared with her – which turns out to be about Islam as religion of peace. The paper itself, she tells the reader, is rambling and unfocused but leads her into a conversation with him in which he drops nugget after nugget that shatters preconceptions about the religion, its followers and how the faith manifests in everyday life. It’s incredibly moving to follow their conversation as he admits his fears and the prejudices he has encountered, even from some of his professors. Though Sneed doesn’t address her sexuality or her manner of physical bearing at all in this particular poem (nor does she do so explicitly in her real life classrooms, though she doesn’t hide either), for the reader there is a mounting tension of expectation – what, if anything, might this outspoken young man say about his professor’s presumed sexuality or the ways in which she presents herself as a woman? As it turns out, he says nothing. What we get instead, in an unforced way, is the sense of a genuine exchange of ideas and mutual respect, and the poem ends thusly:

our conversation carries from the classroom to the street
until parting we come to a traffic light-
I warn him against religious dogma
but confirm he must speak
and we must hear
walking away- he says in that potent kind of ESL way
language that cuts straight to the core
without mincing the way native speakers do
their juxtapositions are much more risky and metaphoric
which makes ESL students always my favorite as a poet
Thanks Miss
I happy.
You give courage

      I love that this outspoken, proud young Pakistani Muslim has fellowshipped with an outspoken, proud Black American dyke, taking courage and inspiration from her. One of the gifts Sneed gives is not just her talent as a writer and a teacher, but the example of being forthright in the totality of who she is. That is revolution. That is what pushes cultural and individual evolution forward. She gives courage.

      Here is another poem from Kong:


I probably should have thrown her out
one of my students, a young black girl who blurted out
in one of the first few classes, "I hate Gay people."
I questioned myself later, if I would have accepted
the same statement said about Blacks or Jews
Years ago, I refused to help a young white girl with a swastika
carved in her arm
But instead of shutting this new student down or
issuing a verbal reprimand,
I gently steered the conversation away from her.
She was hard I think-
not rich or middle class, wore du-rags
clothes always riding up or down
But one day I told her she was smart
and I could tell she barely heard it before
I could see a light in her start to glow
with just a little attention
she started showing up to classes on time
or before, when she never had-
Over the semester, many lessons and conversations
I saw stone melt
innocence emerge
bright and shiny
So, what do you think of the class, I asked
Truthfully, I never thought of some of this stuff before, she said.
Then something forced me to look at her and say, I saw you grow
and we held onto that moment
briefly between us, as if something very deep
was exchanged or understood
then we turned away.

I posted Ms. Sneed's poem "Final Solution" on this blog over two years ago, and it has been blazing in my head in light of the gang rape of a Richmond lesbian a few weeks ago. Click here for a news article on the incident. Click here Final Solution.

Advance copies of Kong will be available in two weeks. For more information, contact Steven G. Fullwood at info@vepress.com


The text following the two clips just below is cut & pasted from a post on the Okayplayer site from a few days ago. Someone who is on the email list for the poet Suheir Hamad posted this and I am re-posting it here. It is an email from Hamad, filled with links:

i wish for you health love family music light dance heart poetry justice love all year.

below links i’ve been reading and researching. i’ve received emails from folks wanting to understand gaza, hamas, this current time. i’m at a loss, deep. i keep thinking this is all my family has ever known.

i tried to find articles esp written by women. i’ve done mad research to find alternative jewish voices for peace and justice. when possible, i’ve also tried to include background info on the writers themselves. there is no order to the articles, they are all related somehow. i did try for some kind of order out of the chaos. but please feel free to make your own.

don’t get overwhelmed. because of my own weak stomach these days, and out of respect for the dead and the living, i have not posted any of the images of the murdered. but i have promised myself i will look. we must. when you can, watch the rest of the world’s media, and look at what has happened. we must.

***found this while researching picasso’s painting, guernica.. the link below tells the story of how the writer arrived to gaza. originally published in italain, vittorio arrigoni is the writer


*** ilan pappe, israeli scholar now head of the history dept at exeter, published this on electronic intifada. it offers a sense of how zionism, the ideology and the facts on the ground of it, is at the heart of all political and military action taken by the state of israel. his home site is linked below.


*** the honorable cynthia mckinney has joined the free gaza movement. she was on the boat dignity, to deliver emergency aid to gaza within days of the first air attacks. the site offers images and eyewitness accounts from the previous 4 trips the boat made (they got in!) and this last journey, which was stopped when the israeli navy rammed the boat over and again until water leaked into it.


***marcy newman is an educator, scholar, an activist and a witness. i’m always moved by her commitment to the right of return and social justice. she has posted my own work in the past, and recently put up one of the breaking poems. her site is full of links to other writers (palestinian!) and more information than one woman should be able to warehouse. brava m.



*** another person committed to truth, justice and peace is naji ali. each week his podcast, introduced by mumia abu jamal, invites different people to talk about all things related to palestine. i recorded an interview with him in december about breaking poems, i’ve posted it below the link to the home page. do check out his archive.


***watching the tv, reading the papers, i don’t understand the sound of war. the din of it. below a link to a muslim tv page airing eyewitness video in gaza just after an air attacke. the image is blurry and shaking. if you can’t take the scene, just listen to the noise.


***jennifer loewenstein’s article last week on counter punch. an analysis of the latest incursion, within a framework of what life is like for the people in gaza.


***sarah roy’s piece in the london review of books was written before these attacks even began. a commendable job of explaining the state of emergency gaza has been under since the siege on it’s ports and freedom of movement. most of the people have been hungry, sick, without water or electricity for months. for years. also an article from the christian science monitor.



***info in english:


***info on boycotts and divestments


***it’s so much, i know.
i want to leave you with images of life, hope. below the sites and art of a few palestinian artists. those who create through the destruction.








***thanks for following this all the way to the end. it’s just the beginning.
pls fwd any of the links you think would help your own friends and family. more questions than answers.

this eblast list is actually to keep you up to date on the books, film and work i do. i’ll send anther email soon with info on future dates. if you’d rather not get this kind of info, please do let me know. i’d never want to abuse your email addy, or your expectation of what you signed up for.
this was the best i could do right now…as always, if you know folks who’d want to be on this list, let me know and i’ll invite them.

at last. a gift. john coltrane playing my favorite things.

and one


EH said...

To my readers...

Apologies for this long post. I've received more than a few emails telling me I should shorten my posts, they're too long, too hard to follow. That sucks to hear. But the truth is, no matter how long my posts, I always forget to include something. Even with this post.

Oh, and I'm gonna try to update more frequently. Seriously...

Oh, and buy my book.

Paul Branton said...

I hope my book contains all these elements that continue to move people & be nibbled like bedside chocolate

butch said...

I tend to be put off by long blog posts (if only because they're hard to read at work) but this one was such a heartfelt odyssey that I am reconsidering my position. I hadn't heard of Pamela Sneed or read Brooks' Lincoln West poem and am grateful for an introduction to both.

Effective writing takes its readers to some other place off the charted plane. I value your work not just because I appreciate where it takes me but because I like myself so much more when I get there.

Mehammed "Abou" Mack said...

thanks for posting this
you don't have to shorten if you feel that's the appropriate length, once you start reading, it's easy to get to the end and you're glad for doing it

Anonymous said...

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