Intersectionality And The Black Poet, by Clara B. Jones

“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.

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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.

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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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HELLO. EUROPE CALLING. EUROPE CALLING. CAN YOU HEAR ME? HELLO? HELLO? by Joe Horgan

I’d like to start with a little story which is in itself quite trivial but in the context of what’s just happened is I think quite telling. I was born in England and lived there until I was in my thirties. In all of that time I lived in inner city areas and worked in them and drank in them. I’m from the inner city, you see, from the working classes of England, from an immigrant community within those places but from those cities, those streets. In one of the cities I lived in we were once visited by someone who hadn’t really spent a lot of time in areas such as the one we were in. Now this person was far more English than I ever was, far more wedded to the symbols of Englishness than this son of Irish immigrants and had spent their whole life living in the fair land of England. It was just that their England had never necessitated an involvement with this England that I knew. On the afternoon of the visit we went out for a walk along the streets to the local park. Walking along the red brick, multi-cultural streets of England. As we passed some local people, some local Asians, the English person with us said, ‘how nice it is to see people wearing their traditional costumes.’ Like I said it’s a trivial little story, isn’t it? I’ll come back to it though, later, see if it might light our way a bit.

 

I’m writing this now far away from those streets. I’m writing from rural Ireland. I’m writing from within the European Community. So looking on now I just feel bemusement. I mean I don’t even live in the UK anymore anyway and haven’t done for seventeen years, so what could I possibly know? And it also bemuses me because incoherent, inarticulate things, things like the Brexit vote, are inherently bemusing. But I can guess at some things. I can guess that a bigoted opportunist like Nigel Farage has seized his chance and I can guess that an opportunist willing to dance with bigotry like Boris Johnston has seized his. I can guess that the internal obsessions of the Tory Party have held a country, if not a continent, to ransom. I can guess that a Prime Minister without a vision took a gamble and lost. Guessing aside, though, I think two things are clear, even from way over here, even amongst all that bewilderment. One is that the press and certain sections of the political elite have deluded notions about Great Britain and its place in the world. In fact, it’s not even Great Britain they are deluded about but England, an England of yeomen and shopkeepers and the white cliffs of Dover. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. Secondly, it is that the right have done what they always do and tricked the disenfranchised in to thinking that the fault lies not in an unfair class system or in a rigged economic system but is the fault of the foreigner. It’s the age old canard of the right. Don’t look up and ask why they have so much and you have so little, look sideways and ask, what’s he doing here. In that way the press and Nigel Farage, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnston pretending not to look on, have stirred up what is a plain and simple bigotry. The Brexit vote is a racist vote. At least if you voted that way, have the courage to admit that. You voted leave in the hope of keeping out foreigners, keeping out immigrants, keeping out refugees. It wasn’t over the subtleties and different textures of economic union, was it? It wasn’t about the injustice of the European project being taken over by neo-liberals on the economic right. It was bigotry. At least let us have that out in the open. You voted to keep out Muslims, or Turks, or Poles, or whoever got a mention. Didn’t you?

 

As I’ve written here I’m from an immigrant family and I have spent most of my life living in immigrant areas of England. I passionately believe that immigration enhances society and I still passionately believe that a multi-cultural society is the best one. Give me the mixed race streets and city of my birth over the mono-cultural enclave any day in any year at any time. I am aware though that those inner city areas, those working class streets may just have been the very places that voted Brexit and handed over Britain, or England anyway, to Farage and co. Which pinpoints another reality about this vote and about England itself. However wonderful immigration is, and it is, it can and does bring cultural and social strains. I grew up in and always lived in areas where that was self-evident. Immigration is a thing, after all, directly experienced not just by the immigrant but by those the immigrant arrives amongst. So, of course, growing up in immigrant areas I heard and saw racism, I knew bigotry existed. I could see in the area I grew up in as it became increasingly Irish, West Indian and Asian that this must have left the mainly older, settled English population somewhat perplexed. In our rush to embrace the positives of a multi-cultural experience it is dishonest to ignore the dislocation of seeing a street’s population utterly change. We cannot ignore that very human, very understandable confusion that must lie at the heart of those who are directly experiencing immigration, be they the immigrants or those they come to live amongst. Throw into the mix with this years of Tory mandated austerity, of a working class so disenfranchised and dismembered that it is no longer a badge of pride but a term of abuse, no longer seen as a member of a thriving culture but as a chav, of a sea of redtops stoking up open bigotry, of an industrial base eroded beyond sustainability and what do you get? You get that vote and you get a class that will now be looked down upon even more. Which brings me back to the beginning. For I’m going to dare to suggest that it is all well and good for those who see their fellow citizens wearing their everyday clothes as people ‘wearing their traditional costumes’ to sit in the shires and bemoan the crude anger of others. It is all very well for those who appear as tourists in their own country to have no real understanding of the stresses and strains of immigration. It is all very well for those on the fortunate side of economic injustice to bemoan the backward, atavistic urges of those who aren’t. It is all very well for those who are out of the cold to dismiss the rage of those who can’t get warm. But bigotry doesn’t come out of thin air; it comes from the fertile breeding grounds of the political right and the situation of the socially and economically ignored. It comes from years and years of an economic and cultural attack upon the English working class by both Tories and New Labour. Seriously, know a bit more about your own country and the people in it and you might understand why you are where you are.

 

I’d just like to add that when I lived in the UK I worked for nine years in the NHS which, whatever its failings, is, as a pure idea, the best British thing ever. I worked in the South, the Midlands, and the North of England. With that in mind, having made a plea of understanding for all of those working class areas who voted for Brexit, but still calling them out on what was clearly a manifestation of bigotry and racism, I would like to point out to them one thing. This best thing about Britain ever was, in my experience of working in it, something that would not have functioned for more than ten minutes if it were not for the immigrants and the children of immigrants working in it. Because, that’s simply the best of British. Isn’t it?

Bombing Syria by Joe Horgan

What would you have thought if during the 1970s or the 1980s the British government had decided to take direct action against the IRA in a different form? Say, for instance during the 1970s when the IRA was at its most lethal or during the 1980s when the IRA attempted to blow up the British government itself, they had decided on something new. What if the attempt on the British Prime Minister’s life in Brighton in 1984 had resulted in the House of Commons debating a new form of military action against the IRA? After all, if the bloodshed of the 1970s, the torrents of spilt blood of that decade, were not enough to provoke the British then surely the Brighton bombing would have been. So what would you have thought if the British government had decided to bomb the IRA? What would you have thought, if they had decided that the Falls Road and South Armagh were to be targeted? Would you have thought, fair enough, the IRA are murderous and bloody, wipe them out? Or would you have hesitated and thought but what of the people living there, the children and the innocent men and women? Or would they not count? Would defeating the bad guys have been enough? I mean, all’s fair in love and war, is it not? And deaths aren’t even deaths are they if you don’t mean them, they are merely collateral casualties. True too that those bombs falling on the Falls Road and Crossmaglen would have been aimed at stopping the further decades of IRA violence to come. So would it not have been alright?

Now ISIS make even the IRA look tame and I wholeheartedly agree with Hilary Benn in his House of Commons speech when he called them fascists. If there has ever been a fascist power since the Nazis it is this lot. I agree too with him when he declared the rightness and bravery of those who fought against Franco’s fascists and fought against Nazi Germany. I think too that his speech in the debate not only showed up the paucity of other contributions but showed up the poverty of debate in our own Dail. And I’m not a great admirer of neutrality or a believer in pacifism as sustainable. I abhor the militarisation of our planet for sure and the way our free market system allows the selling of arms to whoever bids for them. That means that the likes of David Cameron can sign lucrative arms contracts with the Saudis and their intolerant, repressive, terrorist friendly regime and still position himself as the saviour of Syria. But Ireland’s neutrality alone shows where such a questionable position leads, it leads to sending condolences to Germany on the death of Hitler and to US troops flooding through Shannon. But for all that I think the decision to bomb Syria is the wrong one for two reasons. One, how exactly will it help to defeat ISIS and protect our freedoms? And two, how many innocent people will it kill too? For just like bombing the Falls Road or South Armagh would have definitely weakened the IRA I doubt very much it would have defeated them. In terms of recruits it might well have strengthened them. Now at this point I should accept that the comparison I’m using between South Armagh and Syria and the IRA and ISIS is flawed and the military situation probably completely different. I’m just using it to get a point across. But in one respect there is no difference. Those children on the Falls Road who would have bled beneath British bombing and those mother and fathers too would have bled exactly the same blood as the children in Syria will bleed. And Hilary Benn and David Cameron and their cheerleaders here in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail should remember that whenever they cheer the bombing of anywhere. The pretence that bombing is an exact science that only kills bad guys is a fiction.  After all, just a few weeks ago, the Americans bombed an Afghani hospital in an incident that should have seen all those Facebook pages sporting the Afghan flag. But it’s still true that one sure-fire way we will defeat ISIS is by making sure that we value life whether it is Syrian or Irish, in Kabul or in Crossmaglen, refugee or resident, poor or rich. British governments, after all, have a track record in bombing faraway places and even if the likes of Hilary Benn want to do so with the best intentions the result is usually the same.