An Other Poem

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
and…”           why
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. Continue reading “An Other Poem”

Back on the Bus

“A bus covered in dust. This dirty, gray bank safe came crawling down the block, and folks nearly went to tears. There were passengers inside it already, too many, in fact… But the bus stopped. A few people got off, which meant there was room for a few more… But finally everyone agreed: a quartet of senior citizens walked to the bus door” (356).

This is my second time reading Big Machine and yet I had no memory of this brief scene of people crowding onto the bus after the explosion in Garland. This moment seems to resolve the haunting image of “That shabby man… scowling from the shoulder” who was thrown off the Greyhound at the beginning of Ricky’s story. I think the reason that man remains in Ricky’s thoughts is because he comes to represent the cast-out or despised, who have been failed by institutions. However, by the end of the book, Ricky encounters a bus full of people who shift and make room for more. A group of anxious people agree to let the neediest people get on the bus. In fact, in the wake of tragedy, Garland seems to be full of people making room and inviting others in: “Couples, trios, and quartets of people walked together on the streets. Holding each other up. Some of them crying, others still shocked. But no one seemed abandoned. Someone grabbed you up if you were alone. They pulled you close.” Even before Ricky officially takes on the mission to invite them back in, the text is acknowledging his new perspective. Continue reading “Back on the Bus”

America the Monument

The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character….Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?—or their parallels to the hundred other names that have spread themselves over the world from our little island in the course of’ the last thirty years, and blest or delighted mankind by their works, inventions, or examples?

Sydney Smith, “Who Reads an American Book?” 1820

I knew I wanted to write something about monuments, and so I went back to the syllabus to try and find a way to connect my thoughts to the texts of the course. This quote, monumental in itself, immediately stood out to me. To me, this quote is trying to “define” American culture, to assign America a monolith identity or character. What makes this quote especially humorous to me is that Smith can only seem to understand American culture through his own critical lens. Smith’s quote suggests that the only indication of genius is a resemblance to the Great Figures who have come before. This perception seems counterintuitive to the way I think about genius, as a spark of something entirely new, but I can’t say it’s not a perspective I’ve encountered in academia.

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We’ve been there… We’re returning

In the documentary  “The Last Angel of History,” the statement is made that “black existence and science fiction are one in the same… we’re not believed… people don’t believe us.” I wrote this down immediately because it felt like an idea that held a lot of possibilities within it. I was reminded first of the uncertainty of our language during Bloodchild when we spoke about T’Gatoi. Was T’Gatoi a person, a being, a creature? Was T’Gatoi the alien or were the humans alien? The other presence in my mind while watching “The Last Angel of History” were the first photographs of a black hole, released recently. I’m currently enrolled in an Astronomy class, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the language and color we assign to the less-understood phenomena of the galaxy: black holes, brown dwarfs, dark matter, dark energy. I can’t help but see a pattern of language which associates darkness or blackness with uncertainty or unknowability. “The Last Angel of History” features a series of artists who seem to find inspiration and power in that nebulous, uncertain identity. “We live estrangement,” one artist said. Another, “We’ve been there [to space]… We’re returning.” Continue reading “We’ve been there… We’re returning”

What I Mean to Say Is…

The goal I set for myself at the beginning of this semester was to more actively consider the practice of “doing language.” My conversations with Dr. McCoy have helpfully provided me with the metaphor of being “plugged in” to sockets that I am not aware of or did not consent to. Today’s exercises were a very useful literal example of “doing language” on the microscale—considering “thE” and “thUH,” considering whether a sound originates from my chest or from my throat. I don’t often think of language as such a physical, bodily process. Continue reading “What I Mean to Say Is…”

The “Cult” of Academia

This is my second time reading Big Machine, and I still find myself puzzling over the Washerwomen and the power they held over Ricky and his family, all while preaching a gospel of doubt: “Half the Bible is folks getting tricked! So maybe we rethink doubt. Not as our enemy but our ally.” This perspective surprises me because it seems that most systems of faith, both religious and secular, emphasize loyalty above all else. In my mind, loyalty and doubt will always be at odds.

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White-Out Poetry: Water Moccasin’s Spiritual

In the poem “Floodsong 2: Water Moccasin’s Spiritual,” Douglas Kearney begins with the familiar refrain of the song “Wade in the Water,” which we have read and listened to many times in class. The first two refrains resemble the song we heard in class: “wade in the water / wade in the water, children / wade in the water / god’s gon’ trouble the water.” After that, however, the familiar verses seem to fall apart. Meaning shifts as words disappear and reappear. To me, the poem takes on a feeling of urgency or even panic: “children / gon’ / in the water / trouble / in the water / trouble / in the water.”

This poem reminds me of the practice of “blackout poetry,” a popular exercise in which a poet takes a piece of existing text—the page of a book or a newspaper article—and blacks out the majority of the words until only their chosen words remain, building a poem through elimination. Continue reading “White-Out Poetry: Water Moccasin’s Spiritual”

“Booboo the Fool” & Bloodchild

At his reading last night, Jamel Brinkley spoke about his experience as a person of color in a creative-writing workshop, in which his white peers spent twenty minutes puzzling over the term “Booboo the fool.” He writes, “for those unfamiliar with that reference, Google would have been a quick solution. But the refusal on the part of some folks to do even that, and to expect the story to spell it out for them, to spend time faulting the story and its writer for not spelling it out, was total nonsense.” Brinkley explained that the term was a familiar phrase within his family, and so he hadn’t considered it wasn’t universal. At the same time, he was annoyed by his peers’ expectation that he “translate” every unfamiliar, non-caucasian phrase for them.

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This summer I was lucky enough to attend a creative writing conference where I participated in a class on writing dialogue. The instructor, a well-established author, outlined a couple of major “no-no’s” in writing dialogue: most prominently, in all-caps, DO NOT WRITE IN VERNACULAR. He described vernacular as a lazy tool for writers, a quick and sloppy way to characterize through insulting caricature. He encouraged us to consider modern-day texts which used vernacular or phonetic spelling to illustrate an accent, and I ended up thinking about the Harry Potter series. Continue reading “DO NOT WRITE IN VERNACULAR?”

We Do Language

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.– Toni Morrison

I think the reason Toni Morrison’s epigraph stands out to me so much is the oddness of the phrase “we do language.” The idea that we “do” language is really unusual to me, because I had always thought of language as something that surrounds us, that we are brought up inside of language. Maybe that’s a privilege that comes with growing up in a place where my first language (English) was the default language, where I was read to and encouraged to read. Language was something that existed all around me, not something that was done.

Continue reading “We Do Language”