surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely but whenever I begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
is there under that poem always
an other poem?
— Lucille Clifton, “surely i am able to write poems”
I am choosing to consider Lucille Clifton’s epigraph partly because I felt challenged by Dr. McCoy’s remark that nobody had really tackled it in their blog posts. In addition, I’m really interested by the question that Clifton raises: “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (9-11). I wonder who Clifton is addressing this question to, and I wonder whether that “other poem” is self-imposed. Is Clifton frustrated that others are assigning a meaning to her poem that she did not intend? Or is she frustrated in her own writing process, where she cannot seem to give words to what, exactly, she means? These questions have a double implication for me, as both a student and a writer. As a student, I want to take care that I am not trapping writers within my expectations of them. As a writer, I find myself worrying about the idea that I cannot control the way others understand my work.
In her poem, Clifton seems to begin, stop, and then start again several times: “surely i am able to write poems… / chesapeake shore like a familiar” (1-5). This image ends on an unfinished sentence—a familiar what?—and then Clifton begins again, writing, “poems about nature and landscape / surely” (6-7). The white space that follows, dividing “surely” from the rest of the line suggests that the speaker has stopped, has gone silent again. The speaker then acknowledges these abortive beginnings, lamenting that “whenever I begin / “the trees wave their knotted branches / and…” (7-9). Even this self-aware beginning ends abruptly. In fact, the only full and complete sentence in Clifton’s epigraph is her question: “why / is there under that poem always / an other poem?” (9-11). The deliberately abortive, self-aware ‘blank spots’ in Clifton’s poem suggest the speaker is experiencing a difficulty in beginning.
In the same way, as I consider the “story” of my time in this class, I find myself struggling over where to begin. I truthfully took this course out of simple interest and a desire to revisit texts that I felt I hadn’t fully understood as a freshman. Because I had already read several of the books, I don’t know if I was expecting to learn something entirely new or to simply reconsider things I had learned previously. However, at the semester’s end, I find that many of the ideas suggested from this class have really stuck with me, changing the very shape of my thought process. In Elsa Barkley Brown’s “African-American Women’s Quilting,” she describes the term gumbo ya ya, which means “everybody talks at once” in Creole: “How can anyone be listening to everyone else at once while they are also themselves speaking? …the various voices in a piece of music may go their own ways but still be held together by their relationship to each other” (925). This concept of gumbo ya ya, which is both many-voiced and harmonious, is one that feels relevant as I consider the texts and conversations of the semester, in which we have repeatedly confronted and rejected linear models of understanding. Instead, we have stopped and started again; we have found many beginnings.
To return to Clifton: I wonder if the speaker’s awareness of an underlying “other poem” is paralyzing, as if she cannot ever write quite what she means to write. Her choice to describe this underlying consciousness as “an other poem” strikes me, because the phrase might possess two different meanings. First, more simply, whenever the speaker writes a poem, an additional poem or meaning seems to present itself. At the same time, the break between “an” and “other” makes me wonder if Clifton is acknowledging a pressure to write an Other poem, or a poem about feeling “Other”-ed. Perhaps the misinterpretation Clifton is responding to might be a pressure to write about Blackness exclusively—as though even in her poems of celebration and nature, the presence of the poet’s Blackness lingers. Perhaps this “other poem” that Clifton keeps unearthing is the result of her own double-consciousness, or her awareness of her identity as a Black woman. For example, in “from Elements of Style,” Suzan-Lori Parks discusses the reciprocal relationship between form and content, writing, “It’s like this: I am an African-American woman—this is the form I take, my content predicates this form, and this form is inseparable from my content. No way could I be me otherwise” (8). I wonder if the choppy, start-stop-start-again style of Clifton’s poem reflects her attempts to resolve her form and her content, her poem and “an other poem” beneath it.
Even if this pressure is partially self-imposed, I can’t help but guess that “other poem” might also be the result of readers’ expectations. Are white readers and critics assigning Clifton’s poetry certain underlying meanings, simply because she is a Black poet? This makes me think of Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” Afterword, in which she dismisses the idea that her story is about slavery. Despite this explicit statement of authorial intent, readers have continued to read “Bloodchild” through a lens of American slavery and have even confronted Butler herself, asking her to “finally admit” the story’s true meaning. When I first read Butler’s Afterword as a freshman, I felt somewhat bothered by her statements on what “Bloodchild” was and was not about. I remembering voicing in class that I felt Butler’s Afterword was a limitation on the reading experience, which is by nature a process of individual interpretation. I worried it might set a precedent that there is a right and a wrong way to read a book, as if you just have to line up all the evidence and you can unlock a book’s secret meaning. I didn’t believe that was how critical reading should be done, and truthfully I still don’t. At the same time, my feelings are more complicated now. I don’t know if freshman Jen was wrong, but I think maybe she lacked some empathy.
In a past blogpost this semester I wrote about authorial control in a hopefully more thoughtful manner: “When I write a story, every bit of that story is mine to control—down to the choice between an em-dash or a comma—right up until I let somebody else read the story. After that, people are somewhat free to misinterpret that story however they wish… In theory, that’s something I love about literature—the experience of reading means every reader will consume a text differently. However… [Butler’s Afterword] has made me reconsider that freedom of (mis)interpretation… the danger of putting art out into the world is that it can be repurposed, assigned an entirely new and sometimes harmful meaning. That’s really alarming to me.”
Looking back at my blog-posts, trying to chart the narrative of my semester, I can see my evolving obsession with misinterpretation and the gaps in the way we understand each other. I don’t fully know if I attribute this concern to my self-identity as a writer or to the environment of the campus around me, but I am left considering Butler’s Afterword in a new way. I don’t know if you can call it a wrong interpretation, but the readers asking Butler to ‘fess up’ seem to demand that Butler’s work address Blackness, and seem to then equate Blackness exclusively with slavery. I can only imagine the trap of these expectations—I can imagine Butler’s frustration at writing a beautiful uncomfortable story about a complex negotiation of power, only to have her work reduced by an expectation that Black readers are always operating within the shadow of slavery. To me, this demand placed on Butler echoes Toni Morrison’s assertion that “Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” It seems to me that Morrison is suggesting that readers never truly manage to divorce Black literature from its Blackness, and that this association is damaging because readers only associate Blackness with certain traumas and historical events.
After reading Parks’ “Elements of Style,” I wrote a blogpost considering how pretty much any practice of doing language—spoken or written—requires a constant negotiation between our meaning (content) and the words (form) we use to express that meaning. In that post, I wrote that “It seems to me that there will always be a slight, dissatisfactory gap between what we mean to say and the words we choose.” I think that gap might be reflected in the literal gaps of white space Clifton places in her poem. Her many beginnings suggest she is working through that process of negotiation, trying to find words to say what she means to say, to reconcile that “other poem” with the poem she is writing. This is only a projection of my own feelings, of course, but I can imagine Clifton’s white spaces contain her own anxieties about misunderstanding. I don’t know if Clifton’s epigraph offers an answer, but once again maybe I can project my own. In response to my worries about this dissatisfactory gap, Dr. McCoy answered me with a “Bloodchild” quote: “…accept the risk. There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner.”
I guess this is my incredibly roundabout way of saying that, yes, Clifton’s epigraph does pull a string through all the literature we’ve engaged with this semester. In a simple sense, I think the work we are doing as English majors is always the job of making meaning or finding “under that poem always / an other poem.” I think we must then accept the risk that comes with making meaning. I don’t ever want to lose the freedom of an individual reading experience, but I think we must consider the expectations we bring to a piece of text. Whether we know it or not, readers are “plugged in” to the hierarchies of a literary canon structured by institutions of power. Clifton begins her epigraph by saying, “surely i am able to write poems / celebrating grass…” (1-2). The phrase ”surely i am able” is interesting, because it seems to express uncertainty. Again, I find myself wondering who grants permission—is Clifton wondering at her own ability to write this poem, or is Clifton wondering whether readers will allow her to write this poem? I never want to be the kind of reader who traps an author with my expectations. And while I can safely say I’ve never publicly demanded an author “admit to” my personal interpretation of a text, I know I’m guilty of wanting to assign a stable, unchanged meaning to a text. The texts that most troubled me this semester—“Imperceptible Mutabilities,” for example—were the ones that resisted one stable reading.
At the end of the semester, I’m beginning to understand that I will probably never totally overcome that dissatisfactory gap, or entirely avoid the risk of misinterpretation. But I don’t see this conclusion as a defeat or a non-answer. Instead, I think the practice of reflection has allowed me to see the underlying stories in my own academic development—not a linear trajectory to success, but loops and false starts and white spaces. Even GLOBE’s two-part emphasis on Broad Knowledge and Specialized Knowledge is not a straight line, but is fractal—within Broad Knowledge is a multitude of Specialized Knowledge. I’d like to think that I have taken a step away from the safety of one, stable reading this semester and have started to consider literature as an act of partnership, and therefore an act of risk. I don’t think Clifton asks us to answer the question posed in her epigraph, but simply to reconsider our own beginnings—and then to stop as many times as needed and start again.