Sometimes we are given exactly what we need to do; exactly what’s required of us. And when this happens it means we have been gifted with the immense good fortune to know and understand, Purpose. Even if it is Purpose only in a moment and not for one’s whole life or something impossible like that, we should count it amongst our blessings.
It is with that in mind that I’m sitting here thinking about what to talk about in a blog platform for Best American Poetry in the few days I have the opportunity to do so. I tell my students all the time, to write not just ‘what they know’ , but to write from their current obsessions. What do you care most deeply about in the moment? What do you obsess over? Write from that place. To teachers I say, teach from that place. Let the immensity of the love or rage that is currently consuming you drive at least some of the pedagogy that informs your practice.
How then to talk about Baltimore?
I’ve been searching for ways ever since Trayvon Martin’s murder, and particularly since the absolution of his murderer, to use my life as a writer, as platform to speak to the experience of being Black in America, an experience that the Martin case I thought, was going to finally hip America to. I wrote poems, essays, manifestos about places from which I pledged to begin the work of making America see us. I thought the time was so ripe for work to begin and for some other parts of America to finally recognize that the work needed to be done, right now. And then we got us another Trayvon, almost once a week up until Baltimore’s Freddie Gray. The evidence keeps mounting in the form of dead black bodies, made so by white police, or individuals who feel they have every right to police our bodies. At different turns, I found myself outraged, hurt, weeping, too paralyzed to get out of bed, feeling guilty for no longer being young and taking to the streets, for needing to take care of my daughter instead, for not treating my own body as a more holy object all these years, for not recognizing that I had the right to say No.
This past week was announced the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, awarded to Gregory Pardlo, a Black man for sure, a friend, one whose book was rejected – according to the New York Times – by every major publisher… before Four Way Books snatched it up. In a week of such sadness and rage, I saw how the celebration of the brother was a godsend and absolutely needed. I hadn’t spoken to him in the minute, but I sent him a note.
Look… I understand no less than Auden has told us that ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ Fuck him on this one. Turns out he has several more intelligent and useful quotes. Poetry helps me not run into the streets and get suicided many days. It allows me to celebrate my child, and not spend the lion’s share of my time weeping into full glasses of alcohol. Poetry helps me grid the impossible with the unimaginable enough to make sense of what my body is doing in the world, with its ‘trying to walk around’, with its ‘doing things’ and ‘pushing forward’ when it seems like these might be the most pointless pursuits ever. Many times it feels pointless for no reason other than the skin I’m in. I teach Creative Writing in a juvenile jail, so I’ve become very aware too, that poems (and all art for that matter) allows young men who have been narrowly defined, to add something to their evolving definitions of self, that is of their own making. They get to do – ironically, while confined – what we believe might be the most central emotional work of any adolescent; to build and reframe the ‘I’ with which they’ll eventually be tasked with ‘trying to walk around’ and ‘pushing forward’ (that is, if our brilliant idea of charging children as adults, lets them out of prison before they’re 40). I get to see poetry do some very concrete and real shit, and so with the pictures of Baltimore etched indelibly on my brain, I called the local bookstore. They said they had one left. I paid for my drink, left the Bulls game at half time, climbed on my bicycle and headed there to get Pardlo’s book, Digest before the store closed.
I don’t know what I expected to find in Pardlo’s book. I’d enjoyed his first offering, Totem from 2007. The brother is cerebral as all hell, sometimes difficult so. His vocabulary makes me feel lightweight stupid at times. I certainly didn’t expect some sort of Baraka-esque response to what was happening around me, but I knew the brother could write his ass off, could build an image and extend a metaphor until your heart is up in your mouth, there being no space left in your chest for it. I expected Pardlo’s book to make me feel.
The first time I read any poem I read it just for the enjoyment. I want to be surprised and taken aback. I want to experience wonder or feel a new way to experience grief. I want to be moved to celebrate or throw a Molotov cocktail. The second time I read a poem I’m almost invariably (if I loved the poem) trying to figure out how to teach it, how to lead discussion and built a writing exercise out of it, and most often I’m thinking about my guys at Free Write Jail Arts at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. I’m probably depriving myself of some very wonderful moments with poetry, going back to it so quickly to analyze and pull apart rather than allow it to soak in again. But we live in desperate times, and often my life feels like there isn’t a moment to lose. Part of the pedagogy is about staying relevant, teaching living poets because they too, have to live through the Baltimores and the Fergusons we’re having a hard time wrapping our minds around.
The cliché of course from all of us who teach incarcerated youth is that ‘they could have been anything’ if not for poverty, the wrong crowd, the social set-up that leads some inexorably towards crime. When I work with youth in the free world, the same applies of course, but more often than not they’re not facing the prospect of something so gargantuan that the idea of Future Possibility is rendered moot. We can confidently tell them they are the next generations leaders because well… they are – and they have the youth, energy and opportunity to make it so.
One of the more riveting photos to emerge from the Baltimore rebellion today features a young woman with hot pink hair, a cell phone in one hand, a brick in the other ready to launch. She is wearing too, tights with an attractive cubist looking print. Like so many other youth of color in America, she has reached the end of her rope. She is done and is now turning to face the police who injure and kill citizens in her city every day. The shot echoes the now iconic shot of a young man in Ferguson, this past summer, clad in an American flag tank top, about to return launch a teargas canister at the cops. Both pictures made me proud of our youth, of the fact that they refuse to back down, that they have the energy, passion and sense of leadership to take to the streets and demand a change with their very bodies if necessary. I want to prepare my boys to be able to do that when the time comes, to know the world and the History that has brought them to this place, such that they might have cogent analyses of their times and be able to bring them to bear when they’re called upon to do so. I wondered last night as I thumbed through Pardlo’s book how would I help them ‘do that time’ and keep their minds intact enough to be ready when they were out and that day came. Pardlo’s first poem, Written by Himself, offered this:
I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet
whispering my name. I was born to rainwater and lye;
I was born across the river where I
was borrowed with clothespins, a harrow tooth,
broadsides sewn in my shoes…
Our young people (incarcerated or otherwise) will need among other things, the capacity for crafting their own mythologies. The ability to mythologize the circumstances of our birth, to imagine ourselves special beings brought here through extraordinary circumstances, is akin to the deep solemn pride I take on when I consider myself the descendant of folk who survived the Middle Passage, slavery, the aftermath of slavery, neo-colonialism, neo-imperialism, and well… the GOP. In Pardlo’s first poem is the bold declaration of a body come through multiple trials designed to thwart it to even get here. I want that innate knowledge for my boys, this idea that, according to Pardlo, I walked a piece of the way alone before I was born.
I was excited to find the poem as soon as I opened his book, and equally so today, when I got to Philadelphia, Negro (to be clear the poems in this book are phenomenal; gem after gem grace these pages). In it the poet as a young boy recalls America from the vantage point of the bi-centennial celebrations in 1976, and his introduction to the television series Roots. He writes:
…I was not in the market
for a history to pad my hands like fat leather mittens. A kind
of religion to make sense of a past mysterious as basements
with upholstered wet bars and blacklight velvet panthers, maybe,
but as such a youngster I thought every American a Philadelphia
Negro, blue-eyed soulsters and southpaws alike getting
strong now, mounting the art museum steps together
like children getting swept up in Elton’s freedom from Fern Rock
to Veterans Stadium, endorphins clanging like liberty-
themed tourist trolleys unloading outside the Penn Relays,
a temporal echo, an offspring, of Mexico City where Tommie
Smith and John Carlos made a human kinara with the human
rights salute while my father scaled the Summit
Avenue street sign at the edge of his lawn holding a bomb
pop that bled tricolor ice down his elbow as he raised it like
Ultraman’s Beta Capsule in flight from a police K9 used to
terrorize suspicious kids…
If you feel the breathlessness of that verse in the same way you feel the breathlessness of the History being made while you watch images of young people who can finally take no more and have resolved to fight back, it is because like any poetry that (sorry Auden) does something, it find the moment it is written for before the moment arrives sometimes and Pardlo makes it so what it do with a sentence that begins back at A kind of religion, in the second line of this excerpt and doesn’t end until the end of the excerpt. As if that’s not enough, Pardlo’s line breaks are doing so much Work – what with the Summit which his father scaled ending the line, though mid-phrase to pull you towards the next line where his father is further exalted at the top of the street sign where he is holding that bomb/pop. It is, one might argue, at this point of the sentence that the un-ending image finds purchase, at its highest point, and thank God that it is there for us to find, for me to find on a day that Baltimore appears to be burning. Thank God, someone had the good sense to recognize its brilliance, its relevance, such that the book earned its author one of the most prestigious prizes anyone can hope to secure. Thank God Gregory Pardlo defied Auden and wrote a book that does something.
I did not share Philadelphia, Negro with the boys today. I’d already prepared a curriculum for today that involved Written by Himself, Saul Williams’ Children of the Night and Federico Garcia Lorca’s City That Does Not Sleep. I’ve seen young men leave our classrooms and head toward County to begin long sentences – 6 years, 15 years, 40 years. I have seen them do short stints and emerge into the world already. They leave almost all of them believing themselves to be also poets and artists. They’re fixing their minds for the long haul, to emerge from the hardest part of their lives ready to lead. This is the legacy of work like Pardlo’s that this week also had the good and deserved fortune to be announced as a Pulitzer Prize winner. Look at Baltimore. Find the real news about the youth mobilizing and leading there. This is what we’re a part of. This is what Poetry can do.