“I think I’ll borrow from Walt Whitman here and say, ‘I contain multitudes.’ I write out of who I am, and who I am is a cis-hetero woman, a Caribbean native, an immigrant, a woman of color, a member of the African, Latino, and South Asian diasporas, a New Yorker, a lover of British crime dramas and ‘Doctor Who’, an Italian-speaker, etc., etc. The poems come out of all of me: I’m not black more than I’m a woman. I’m not a woman more than I’m an immigrant. I understand why people ask these types of questions, but I find them impossible to answer as it always makes me feel like I’m reducing myself somehow, slotting myself into a box. And if I select a particular identity, how do I prove it? Am I then supposed to write a certain way or have certain poetic heroes or write about certain subjects? I want to be known as a good writer who is, also, quite proudly, all of these other things.” Paulette Beete (2018).
The purpose of this brief essay is to present a tentative hypothesis about the practice of poetry by African-American writers and to illustrate my ideas using examples from a chapbook by Paulette Beete (Voice Lessons, 2011, Plan B Press) and by presenting quotes from an interview I recently conducted with her. In particular, I intend to show how form and content can be employed in the service of transformative, even, radical, reinventions of The Race Project. The old project derives from Modernism’s (post-Romanticism—->pre-WWII) reliance upon grand narratives (e.g., Marxism, Fascism, Science) and binaries (e.g., black-white, he-she, fact-fiction) that, applied to the present case, advance the centrality and essential import of race to African-Americans located as victims in a hostile, alienating American landscape. The new project that I discuss herein is rooted, instead, in Post-Modernism, acknowledging a world diffracted, not essentialist—characterized by relativity rather than absolutes and by meaning that is fractured rather than coherent. From this perspective, the world is heterogeneous rather than unified and predictable—an unstable universe of mutable facts and shifting identities.
In 2015, writing in the poetry journal, Yellow Chair Review, I proposed that some African-American poets appear to demonstrate what I termed, “self-directed writing”—discussing what I considered to be an increasing tendency for these authors to project “identity’s heterogeneity and complexity” rather than project themselves from a fundamentally race-based place (consider, for example, poets associated with the Black Arts Movement such as, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, or Amiri Baraka). The “self-directed” poets who come most readily to mind are C.M. Burroughs, Gregory Pardlo, Francine J. Harris, Ishion Hutchinson, Ross Gay, and Alan King, among several others. In this note, I suggest that African-American poets increasingly project themselves intersectionally—as writers with multiple identities and interests, creating work, often, from an interior, subjective place, and, occasionally, from no political or racial or sociological place at all. These authors compose with personal voices, more or less unconstrained by stereotypes and pressures imposed from society and other outside forces.
My concerns in this note derive, not from empirical research, but from my earlier interest in “self-directed writing” and from anecdotes based upon personal experiences. Several months ago, I attended a reading by a Washington, DC poet—Caribbean-American, male, 45 or so. The reader presented some strong poems; however, I found it noteworthy that his work communicated no angst, no opposition or resistance to the status quo, few references to historical markers that might have identified him as a member of a historically oppressed group. I came away determined to explore my own reactions of surprise and discomfort as well as the extent to which independence from topics generally associated with poetry by marginalized poets might be more common than I might have speculated (see, for example, epigraph, above by Beete). As a result, I was fortunate to be exposed to Beete’s poetry and decided to test the validity of my ideas by studying her forms and content and by interviewing her directly. I was, especially, interested to assess my intuition that writing by some proportion of African-American poets conforms to post-modern criteria (“the new project”).
One such criterion, for example, holds that a poem as a whole may not be meaningful though fragments or particular words, phrases may be meaningful to the reader. In a post-modern world, then, the reader or observer has interpretive control. Some critics have pushed the foregoing perspective to the point of deflating the roles of both reader and author by stating that a poem is about itself. I asked Beete, “What do you want your readers to know about you?” She replied: “The most important thing that I’ve ever learned about poetry—thanks to the poet Maureen Seaton—is that you don’t have to understand what a poem means to appreciate the poem. It’s fine if you just like the sound of it in your ears. Or the way the words feel in your mouth as you recite it out loud. Or how it looks on the page. Or maybe you just catch hold of a phrase or two. And, it’s fine not to like the poem at all. I hate that idea that there is some right answer to what a poem means. That probably doesn’t answer the question of what my readers should know about me, in particular, but it’s absolutely what they need to know about poetry.” What we need to know about P-O-E-T-R-Y!—rather than what we need to know about Beete. Notwithstanding, the author’s poems are often intimate, telling us a great deal, indeed, about her and her experiences (“Why do I write? Because that’s who I am…Writing is how I make sense of the world. It is how I make sense of myself.”). Yet, her governing framework remains idealistic, even, intellectual, and, as her reply indicates, the poem is, ultimately, about its relation to the reader.
Like much of the canon of post-modern poetry, Beete’s work can be classified as “experimental” in the sense that she explores form (and, content) in non-classical, non-traditional ways. For example, she pushes the bounds of what we mean by a sonnet. Her poem, “Eva Cassidy Sings At Last” (p 33), is an understated reference to jazz (and race?) in 14 lines (but, not in every line!) with universal import: “1. To be gone is to swing or be inspired/2. vibrato & trill-laced ravings, an imaginative flight of melody/or rhythm/….” As Beete explains in her book, this poem “is collaged [sic] from” several sources, including, Simone de Beauvoir, a personal e-mail, and a newspaper article, among others. To “collage” a poem is to arrange and re-arrange fractured parts, not, necessarily, for coherency, but, consistent with a post-modern worldview, for the artistic act itself.
Other “experimental” constructs appear throughout Voice Lessons, violating expectations in numerous ways. Like Gertrude Stein, Beete employs repetition so frequently that it might be said to be her signature convention. In the poem, “She wears her beauty” (p 20), this phrase begins a line 13 times in a 26-line poem that includes other repeated phrases. Using lines such as, “She wears her beauty all out of proportion.” and “She wears her beauty like a ghostwritten memoir.”, Beete disguises elements of personal narrative with subtle lyrical, often, metaphorical, undertones. Elsewhere, she combines humor and surprise and self-effacement and seriousness, as in the poem, “Curriculum Vitae” (p 31): “1. I write poems to itch things out, to measure the antediluvian folds of/the body, the woman’s abdomen, stretchmarked hoarder of near misses.” Again, identity is heterogeneous and imprecise and, while not exhibiting herself literally as a person of color, the author communicates that she is no stranger to struggle.
It is in this, and other ways, that the author confronts different aspects of her identity—or, maybe not. Again, in a post-modern mode, accurate or literal interpretation is not the point. Though she may refer to jazz or to physical weight or to God or to sex, etc., it is not her primary intention for the reader to form a stable, predictable impression of her “being in the world.” In this note, I have used a few examples from one African-American writer’s words in an attempt to show how an intersectional, heterogeneous pose re-invents what it means to be a writer of color. A related dimension of this perspective inherent to the phrase, “self-directed writing,” is the suggestion that African-American poets are claiming the power to define themselves and to create work on their own terms. I will continue to follow what I think may be a trend. These poets are empowering themselves and creating their own niches that often seem to be independent of the expectations and characterizations others might try to impose on them.
Clara B. Jones practices poetry in Silver Spring, MD (USA). She, also, conducts research on experimental poetry and radical publishing. Clara is author of four chapbooks and one volume (/feminine nature/, 2017, Gauss PDF), and her poetry, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared, or are forthcoming, in various venues.
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