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The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”

I’m quoted in this WaPo article about DC poetry!

(PHOTO: Andrew Councill/ Washington Post)

That’s right! Lauren Wilcox, the Washington Post Magazine reporter, came through the DC Creative Writing Workshop and interviewed me, the program’s Exec. Dir. Nancy Schwalb, and our students. It was a great time!

Here’s an excerpt from that article:

On a recent weekday in Frances Harrington’s classroom at Hart Middle School in Anacostia, there was a steady volley of balled-up wads of paper into the corner trash cans and a constant mid-level clamor from the desks. The effect wasn’t disorder so much as uncontainable exuberance, which was shepherded by Alan King, one of Hart’s writers-in-residence, a big man with a gentle, shambling presence.

King teaches creative writing at Hart, in an after-school program called the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop as well as in some of the school’s English classes. He had asked the seventh- and eighth-graders of Harrington’s afternoon English class to read a poem called “Appetite,” by Tim Seibles, and use it as a model for a poem about their own cravings. “I have eaten the donuts, the plain-cake, / healthy, whole-wheat donuts,” the poem begins. “…I attacked without reason like a great / Afro-American shark finning the crowded / streets of America — my nappy dorsal / splitting the air, the pale victims / going down fast like Fig Newtons . . .”

“Okay, based on what we know about sharks, are they neat eaters or messy?” King asked the class, explaining the poet’s use of simile.

“Messy,”

they chorused. The students hunched over sheets of notebook paper, frowning.

***

The program’s approach to creative writing is surprisingly traditional. It teaches poetry the way poetry has been taught for nearly a century, the way it is taught in MFA workshops across the country: by studying a poem and then writing one. The program’s teachers are published writers who either have or are working on degrees in creative writing. The best of the student work is published in the school’s literary journal, hArtworks.

If the work is sometimes challenging for the students, the program’s director Nancy Schwalb, who started the workshop in 2000, prefers that to the alternative. Schwalb originally created a competitive poetry slam league for middle-schoolers citywide, but she ended up dismantling it. Judging, she felt, was often a popularity contest that had the kids “relying on cuteness or humor” in their performances; more important, they weren’t learning to write.

“The focus on publishing their work, seeing their work in print, really encourages the kids to be more literary, to use more literary devices,” Schwalb says.

A blond-headed girl named Dajanik Brooks stood next to her desk and read her poem aloud. “I eat chips like a Pac-Man game. I crush on seeds like a trash truck.” There was a smattering of applause.

Read the rest of the article here.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Indigo Moor during his presentation Thursday.

During his discussion Thursday, Indigo Moor had a question for his fellow Stonecoast grad students. “How many harmonica players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He looked around at the puzzled expressions of writers straining their brains to figure out the punch line. Then everyone laughed when Indigo quoted a harmonica player: “We don’t worry about the changes, man. We just blow.”

His advice to his peers, looking to write in multiple genres, was not to be the person who blows, or makes light of another genre. This was Indigo’s graduating student presentation Taming the Hydra: From Jacking to Mastering Multiple Literary Forms.

For an hour, Indigo covered various genres from the ground up, went over the differences between singular arts (writing poetry and/or fiction) and collaborative arts (writing stage scripts and/or screenplays), and the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres.

It was the perfect way to start the sixth day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency. Today, which also marked the second half of the 10-day retreat, we started our poetry workshop with Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

Prior to Jeanne’s workshop, I took the Writing On Race and Difference mixed-genre course that Deb Marquart and Alexs Pate led. The first half of the residency, poet and activist Martin Espada was the guest poet. I really enjoyed his craft talk I’ve Known Rivers: Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry.

“Some places are forgotten through negligence,” Espada said. “Others are forgotten deliberately.” And sometimes those places aren’t mentioned because the unspeakable happened. During his talk, Espada used the poems of Nazim Hikmet (Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist) and Etheridge Knight (an African-American poet) as examples of writers giving voice to those who dwelled in such places.

For both Hikmet and Knight, who spent time behind bars, prison was an unspeakable place until they enabled the voices of other prisoners through their poems. In that case, Espada said, “Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and body.” Espada’s visit culminated with the poet reading to a full house later that evening.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Martin Espada during the guest reading.

There were faculty readings just about every night this week. I read and got to hear students in poetry, creative nonfiction and popular fiction flex their literary muscles on the open mic. There was even a Romance: Happy Hour, sponsored by the popular fiction students who write romance stories.

Amidst all this, I managed to find time to talk with Indigo Moor. We both write in multiple genres (I write poetry and creative nonfiction, while Indigo–who published two poetry collections, Taproot and Through the Stonecutter’s Window–has written creative nonfiction, a stage play, a screenplay, and is working on a novel).

I told him I have a hard time switching back smoothly from creative nonfiction to poetry, without writing prosaic stanzas. When he said that’s what his Thursday talk would be about, I knew I’d be there.

During Indigo’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between his and the one Cait Johnson led five days earlier. Both Cait and Indigo talked about writing across genres. But, while Cait’s specifically focused on poetry and creative nonfiction, Indigo’s included popular fiction, stage scripts and screenplays.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe)

And I’ll admit that the thought of writing in those genres can seem as daunting as going up against the beast of many heads. This literary hydra, according to Indigo, is not unlike the Lernean Hydra that Hercules killed.

But, unlike the Greek god, our role as writers is to tame the hydra—not kill it. And taming the hydra entails knowing the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres. Among the cons were the time, energy and practice invested into the efforts.

“If you think about how much energy you put into the genre you write in, you have to put more energy into the next genre because you’re carrying baggage from the previous one,” Indigo said, adding that the effort is worth it. If an idea doesn’t work in one genre, a multiple genre writer has other avenues to express that idea.

Taming the hydra also included both prose writers and poets entering other genres with an understanding of the rules. Prose writers experimenting with poetry have to start by distilling their sentences down to its essence, while balancing the lines that carry imagery with those that carry statement.

In poetry, Indigo noted, sentence structure takes a back seat to musicality. He advised the poets to do the opposite, which involves them knowing the art of the simple sentence. In prose, the sense of music takes a backseat to the story line. “It’s so easy to look at fiction and say, ‘It’s not as hard as poetry,’” Indigo said. “That’s not true. You have to learn how to write in an expansive form.”

(PHOTO: Stock)

Cait Johnson raised some eyebrows and made a roomful of writers blush when she talked about orgasms. According to Cait, a Stonecoast faculty, the best orgasms happen when two people are vulnerable and intimate with each other.

To hear her tell it, that same intensity’s achieved when writers engage in other genres. Cait’s wise words resonated with both students and colleagues during her presentation Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF [Creative Nonfiction] Writers Offer Each Other.

For starters, poetry offers the magic of words.

“Writers are magicians,” Cait said. “Words are magic.” And part of that magic are the imagery and rhythms that affect people physiologically. “Writing poetry itself is a healing,” the multi-genre instructor added. “I believe we are a culture suffering from disconnection.”

What makes creative nonfiction significant is its knack for smoothly incorporating research information into prose. “That’s what’s going to help your poetry,” Cait said, “if you can ground it in something real and something juicy.”

Cait’s presentation fell on the second day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency, where I’m starting my third semester. The previous semester, I had a wonderful time working with Joy Harjo as my mentor. During our time together, I produced new poems, including the imitations that accompanied my annotations.

Through Joy’s guidance, I strengthened those poems through revision. Joy and I also took a deeper look at T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for Prufrock” and other poems, and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

I remembered telling Joy that after reading Eliot’s poems, I saw how rich his poems are with details, how they felt complete without giving too much away to the reader.

That was my takeaway: to write complete, detail-rich poems that are open enough for the reader to come to their own conclusions or discoveries.

What I discovered, going through Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency and looking at what changed in between the first and last collections included in that volume, was a shift in his influences.

Baraka’s early collections seemed informed by his personal life, while current events–both domestic and abroad–inspired his poems half way through Transbluesency. The jazz music and musicians influenced Baraka’s later poems in the volume. And that’s how my twice-a-month phone conversations with Joy went during my second semester.

The first night of the residency, I was glad that Joy, despite the airline losing her bags, made it in time to present at the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Sarah Braunstein, Annie Finch, Nancy Holder, Cait Johnson, James Patrick Kelly, and Debra Marquart (who, with Alexs Pate, is teaching the Writing About Race and Difference workshop that I’m in for the first part of the residency).

Joy read an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which she noted took her 14 years to write. “I kept running away from it,” she told the audience during her reading. She repeated it to me and Amanda Johnston, my Cave Canem sister who is starting her first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program.

It was good to see Joy. I made her laugh when I told Amanda that, in terms of my poems, Joy was my fitness instructor during the second semester. Joy’s feedback on my poems was helpful. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. I also include more details and I’m not afraid to write long poems.

Joy laughed when I said her suggestions have my poems posing like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. She laughed louder when I told Amanda that the entire second semester Joy forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cait Johnson

Cait Johnson pushed us just as hard during her presentation, when she paired up students in creative nonfiction with those in poetry.

The added advantage of both genres is that poetry’s a shortcut to empathy, while creative nonfiction teaches poets how to tell detailed and engaging stories.

The class exercise involved poets finding a story line in their poems and turning it into prose, while creative nonfiction writers wrote a poem describing a character or setting from their pieces.

“That’s what this presentation’s about—lighting things up,” Cait said, before turning to Mary Karr and Li-Young Lee, two writers who’ve successfully used elements from both genres to light things up in their work.

In Viper Rum, Karr’s creative nonfiction influences are in the autobiographic subject matter she tackles in her poetry collection. Each poem’s a revelation of Karr’s demons such as alcoholism and her suicidal thoughts.

Karr’s blending of the techniques paid off, according to a reviewer at goodreads.com. “Fierce, brilliant work here. Like exploring an open wound,” the reviewer wrote. “Not for those unwilling nor unable to explore…go outside the bounds of textbook time-lines.”

Li-Young Lee went outside the bounds with his memoir The Winged Seed, what an amazon.com reviewer called “part poem, part waking dream, part remembrance.” What makes this memoir unconventional is its beautifully crafted lines.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“He takes us on a journey to his psyche,” Cait said. “He makes us feel, with him, the immense experience from the inside.” Lee’s blending of both poetry and creative nonfiction grounds his lyrical Winged Seed in the stories of real people.

Though Lee’s mostly known for his poetry, his memoir is an example of what Cait said happens when creative nonfiction students experiment with poems while working on their memoirs: they come back with “a mother lode” of imagery to bring back to their creative nonfiction.

Of Li-Young Lee, Cait concluded, “He’s writing about writing; he’s writing about memoir, and he found his way in.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

When I wrote about Rachel Eliza Griffiths back in March 2010, the post focused on her skills as a photographer who’s credited for a number of author photos that appear on the backs of several poetry collections.

And after publishing two of her own—Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), a Small Press Distribution best-seller, and The Required Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)—I’m excited about her third collection Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which is available for pre-order on AMAZON and due out this September.

Voices from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and others inspired Rachel’s speakers in Mule & Pear. “Each struggles beneath a yoke of dreaming, loving, and suffering,” according to the publicist. “These characters converse not just with the reader but also with each other, talking amongst themselves, offering up their secrets and hard-won words of wisdom, an everlasting conversation through which these poems voice a shared human experience.”

(ARTWORK: New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Poet and educator Frank X. Walker elaborated on what Rachel’s created with this collection. “Griffiths gifts us with deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a VIP pass to wander the sets of some of the greatest literature of our time,” Walker writes in the blurb. “The reader won’t be able to resist the urge to reread Hurston, Morrison, Larson, et. al. or put this new way of seeing perhaps a new poetry technology down.” He added, “But what else should we expect from an artist who sees the world through so many mediums?”

And Rachel mixes the mediums by providing a book trailer for Mule & Pear, which I will review for a later blog post. The trailer’s gotten Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s (SIUE) attention. “The book trailer includes images of black women, Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ as the soundtrack, and short excerpts of writings, presumably poems by Griffith,” according to the SIUE Black Study Blog, an online platform where Black studies, technology and active citizenship come together in an exchange of ideas among African-American academics.

Of Rachel’s book trailer, the blog notes, “The women in the video are shown in different poses, some wearing far out attire.”

Rachel’s attire consists of many hats she wears as a poet, writer, photographer, and painter. Her literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE, Puerto Del Sol, Brilliant Corners, Indiana Review, Lumina, Ecotone, The Acentos Review, PMS: poem memoir story, Saranac Review, Torch, The Drunken Boat, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Inkwell, Black Arts Quarterly, African American Review, Comstock Review, Hambone, and many others.

“And many others”? My friend is a busy woman. Others have also taken notice. “I’ve been hearing about or more accurately viewing Griffiths’ presence on the black poetry scene for a minute now,” according to SIUE’s Black Study Blog. “Griffith had already been building and establishing herself as a noted poet and photographer.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

Part of establishing herself was the “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Rachel,” an ongoing documentary on African-American poets, that opened in Brooklyn’s DUMBO community that month. I wrote an advance story on the exhibit in my March 2010 post.

Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed by her talent and low-key demeanor. We met each other in 2007 at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. I’ll never forget her kind and warm presence.

She loves hugs, is always encouraging her friends to be their best selves, and is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others.

She’s not one to boast about her own accomplishments. When Rachel and I reunited during my second time at Cave Canem (CC), I didn’t know my CC sister was working on the “Arts Poetica” exhibit, or that she had three collections of poems and a novel done—all of which were manuscripts at the time.

Knowing Rachel, she wouldn’t have told me about her credentials and accomplishments. Or that she received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. I had to do some digging to find out she also received fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, and others.

“And others”? You mean there’s more? Yeah, Rachel has definitely been busy—and she’s got a trailer, too! “I’m excited about the implications of a book trailer focusing on a volume of African American poetry,” the SIUE blog stated. “The release of this video further solidifies her reputation as poet and visual artist.” There, you have it. Check out the trailer, then preorder your copy of Mule & Pear!

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And you thought mixed martial arts, football and boxing were tough contact sports? Take a stroll on any city sidewalk, and you’re bound to get shoved, kicked and shouldered.

These sidewalk hogs plow through the middle of walkways. Sometimes they travel in a group of two or three and pretend not to notice you, unwilling to give up any space on the concrete; other times, it’s someone staring you down, daring you to brush them or complain once you’ve been knocked from the curb to the grass.

And just because they’ve forced you into a game of sidewalk chicken doesn’t mean you have to be helpless.

Several writers, through their blogs and news articles, added their voices to a discussion ranging from their take on sidewalk hogs, to scientific studies on walkers’ rage, to the deteriorating street etiquette. They also offered advice on how to handle aggressive pedestrians.

Among them is Shuana Marie, whose brush with aggressive pedestrians came while job hunting in Florence, Italy. She noted that the sidewalks there are so narrow people have to turn sideways to allow one another to pass.

“Generally the locals do not notice when they bump you with their shoulder, arm, shopping bags, or my most recent experience of the oversized designer purse,” Shauna wrote on her blog Italian Living. “I’ve been struck and thrown off balance on several occasions…this has required a major adjustment for me, accustomed as I am to the ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, and ‘excuse me’ that I’m familiar with back home [in Calgary, Canada].”

(ARTWORK: Kenneth Kelsoe)

Recounting a story of what happened one morning on a way to her job interview, Shauna was still surprised by the sidewalk hog she encountered. “My formidable opponent is a master of the game and comes in the guise of a petite woman wearing 5″ heels,” she wrote. “Striding down the centre of the busy street’s narrow sidewalk, she refuses to give me an inch to pass.”

Though Shauna “mastered the art of wide-eyed intimidation” in the regular game of chicken, she was no match for the “stiletto-clad drill-sergeant.” “As a mere mortal faced with her well-practiced battle skills, I admit defeat, and withdraw by stepping off the curb.”

Shauna watched the woman’s “umbrella and oversized designer purse flanking her like medieval weaponry,” and took a lesson from that incident. “I need an intimidating purse,” she concluded, “large, preferably in black, and ornamented with grey skulls & multiple metal studs.”

During an online correspondence, Zoe (whose blog article “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile” inspired this post) told me, “Once, a friend of mine and I were walking together down the street and a guy barked at my friend to MOVE!”

This guy, and others like him, would be called “Sidewalk  Ragers,” according to the Wall Street Journal article “Get Out of My Way, You Jerk! : Researchers Study ‘Sidewalk Rage,’ Seeking Insights on Anger’s Origins and Coping Techniques.”

It’s a concept real enough for one scientist to create a “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale,” which looks at how ragers express anger. “At its most extreme, sidewalk rage can signal a psychiatric condition known as ‘intermittent explosive disorder,’” researchers told WSJ.

Intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, is a behavioral disorder that manifests itself through aggressive actions that make a situation more than it really is, according to the Mayo Clinic staff. The outbursts or temper tantrums involve ragers attacking others to the point of causing bodily harm and damage of property broken during the incident.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The strange thing about IED is that it’s unpremeditated. According to sources, it’s currently listed among the other impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association that includes standard criteria for classifying mental disorders.

After an IED episode, the Mayo Clinic staff said, “people with intermittent explosive disorder may feel remorse, regret or embarrassment.”

John Kalish, a Manhattan television producer, noted that IED’s effects are a sign of the times. ”There was a time that any real New Yorker had a built-in sonar in terms of walking down the sidewalk, even a crowded one, and never bumping into someone. Now—forget it,” Kalish said in the New York Times article “Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain.”

Offering clinical terms for Kalish’s and others’ frustrations with aggressive pedestrians, the Sidewalk Etiquette site roughly estimated that the average sidewalk consist of four by four concrete tiles. And given that a person’s shoulders span about two feet, according to the website, there’s no reason pedestrians should brush one another on walkways.

At the top of the rules listed on the site is Stay Right. “There’s nothing worse than the individual who has  a width of ten feet in their path and the bravado to squeeze you for every inch by brushing against your shoulder as they walk by,” according to Sidewalk Etiquette.

Jennifer Worick, a Seattle-based author and lecturer, echoed those sentiments. When people ask if she’d want the superpower of flight or to become invisible, Worick chooses flight because, as she puts it, “I’m already invisible”—at least, that’s how it seems when she’s walking down her block.

(PHOTO: Eagle Tae Kwon Do)

She usually encounters a gang of sidewalk hogs caught up in their conversations. “They don’t acknowledge my existence,” she wrote on her blog Things I Want to Punch in the Face. “They wouldn’t know if I was tricked out in fetish gear or pointing a flamethrower directly at them,” she continued. “Even a fiendish mime would escape their attention.”

As they got closer, it was clear to Worick that she was a forced participant in the game of sidewalk chicken. “I always lose,” she wrote. “At the last minute, I veer out of their way, usually tripping into a tree bed or slamming into a building.”

The staff at the Mayo Clinic urged aggressive pedestrians to seek treatment for their disorder. “Treatment may involve medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses,” according to the staff.

But Worick was ready to take some action of her own to set them straight. “I’m staging a silent protest and I’m asking you to join me,” she wrote. “When you encounter a line of people coming at you, stop. Stand still. Break their synchronized stride and make them flow around you.”

And if that doesn’t work?  “You saw The Karate Kid,” Worick wrote. “Sweep the leg.”

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas) Derrick Weston Brown holds an MFA in creative writing, from American University. He is a graduate of the Cave Canem summer workshop for black poets and the VONA summer workshop.

Snagglepuss is bitter. He airs his frustrations with the Pink Panther on E! True Hollywood Story, after their short-lived love affair:

“When the big money came calling
Ol’ Pinky packed his bags and gave
me some song and dance about how
I’d never have to work again […]” (from “Snagglepuss Spills his Guts on E! True Hollywood Story”).

Then there’s Bonita Applebum. She’s not just a classic hip hop song anymore. In fact, she’s a grown woman “with a mortgage/ and two degrees under her belt” (from “Remembering Bonita Applebum”).

These are just a few of the characters that populate Derrick Weston Brown’s debut poetry collection, Wisdom Teeth. It’s an apt title for a book in which the speaker cuts his teeth on issues ranging from slavery and gentrification to love and hip hop.

I fell in love with DC all over again after reading “Missed Train”, though that poem could be a testament on dating in DC:

I smelled you at the Metro stop
Tasted you on the Yellow
Glimpsed you on the Green
Caught you on the Orange
Loved you on the Red
Lost you on the Blue

Now I need a transfer
or at least exit fare.

The elusive woman in “Missed Train” could be a metaphor for unmet expectations either on a date or in a relationship that takes us “for every dime” after investing our time in other people with no returns.

In Wisdom Teeth, the speaker’s searching for stability in every aspect of his life. It’s a journey that takes him through 110 pages and five sections—Hourglass Flow, The Sweet Home Men Series, The Unscene, Wisdom Teeth and Ajar.

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Busboys and Poets/PM Press)

And if you’re new to the city, the speaker lets you know what to expect in “What It’s Like to Date in D.C. for Those Who Haven’t”: “It’s like having a mouthful of prayers/ when all you looking for is that one/ Amen.”

Reading Wisdom Teeth, I felt like a passenger invited along for the ride, especially with the poem “Building”. The speaker’s details brought me with him into the coffee shop, where I noticed the “syrup of sunlight” like a second glaze on the wooden tabletops.

I heard the “trash talk and chuckles” of black men playing dominoes. I dug the music in “the snap crack/ of dotted flat backs” and the “dry bones/ glossy bones”.

It would have been easy to take that moment as a commentary on brotherhood and bonding, and not realize the game of bones is just a vehicle the speaker uses to drive his point home with the reader. The true commentary’s in the “steady trash talk” after “Fingers drum the table”: “I’m on my third house./ Where you at?! Jati?/ HUD is officially/ in the building!

Watching “the bones…/ like unhinged teeth”, I thought of the deteriorating houses in DC’s rundown neighborhoods. Watching as “Jati resets the fracture/ smiling as houses change ownership”, I thought of so-called neighborhood revitalization projects that displaced former residents.

And Jati’s response to his friend’s trash talking? “Eminent domain Fred!/ You getting gentrified!

I loved the speaker’s clever use of brothers bonding over a game as commentary on the changing demographics in America’s major cities. The speaker’s playful tone in “Building” reminded me how some of us use humor to help swallow those bitter truths.

What also helps those truths go down easy is the fellowship of black men  who “finish/ each other’s sentences” and chase red beans and rice “with/ rum that/ warms the gullet/ makes gut chuckles flow easy” in the poem “Kitchen Gods”.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) l-r: Brandon D. Johnson, Brian Gilmore, Joel Dias-Porter, Patrick Washington, Ernesto Mercer, Alan King, Fred Joiner, Derrick Weston Brown.

The men in this poem could be my dad, uncles and grandfather. These are men who “dust off/ old stories like records that hadn’t seen a turntable/ in some time.” And, contrary to masculine myths and stereotypes, these ordinary men “resuscitate the/ ghost of old lovers/ angry indifferent or otherwise.”

That resuscitation is really these guys assessing their life choices—where they’ve been and where they are now. These are hardworking men who support their families, men who’ve grown as a result of their experiences.

The physical details in “Kitchen Gods” are striking. I could see these guys mapping “[…] out/ a woman’s dimensions”, molding “hips out of thin air/ recreating/ her walk and/ arching calves.” I also saw the men dapping up each other and bumping fist “so hard/ rings skip sparks”.

I could hear the conversations punctuated with “g’dams” and “g’lords”. I even smiled at the memory of being shooed “out of the kitchen/ with gentle hands” when I was too young for the adult talk. Now that I’m old enough, I can appreciate the times I’ve been a part of “a small kitchen crew”.

One reason I love Wisdom Teeth is the poem “Gust”:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The sky snarled.

We heard God swallow cumulus,

stratus, and anvil headed nimbus

before the hush.

We ventured outside

Peered up into the calm.

The sky      a frosted snow globe

swirl of stars.

The moon

a glossy clear polished

fingernail sliver

winked.

Odd

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The wind so strong

I could lean into it

arms out and not fall.

I was Pisa.

What did I know

of nature’s way

of teaching lessons?

That there is

an eye of the storm.

Watch me smile.

My back to the rifle

sight of lassoed menace

clueless to the coming stretch

and yawn of ruin.

In “Gust”, the speaker revisits Charlotte, North Carolina, ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I love this poem for other reasons.

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas)

If storms are metaphors for troubling times in our lives, then “Gust” speaks to the current political climate: the US military in Libya, rising militias and hate groups, politicians cutting funds for social programs as a solution to the budget deficit.

The “cumulus,/ stratus, and anvil headed nimbus” were the delusions of politicians and some finance experts who convinced everyone else that the markets were economically sound when history has shown us otherwise. “What did I know/ of nature’s way/ of teaching lessons?” Just replace “history” with “nature” and I’m sure that line says what we all were thinking.

God swallowing those delusions was reality setting in. That an alarming amount of people lost their homes to foreclosures makes Hurricane Hugo a metaphor for the current economic crisis, its “rifle/ sight of lassoed menace”.

That corporate CEOs, whose businesses stayed afloat with bailout money from the federal government, went on with business as usual is the sign of lessons not learned.  “Gust”, in its own way, warns against that kind of ignorance that keeps us “clueless to the coming stretch/ and yawn of ruin.”

Wisdom Teeth is right on time. In this collection, as one writer puts it, “Truth cuts its way beneath the unspoken like new teeth on their way to light.” I couldn’t agree more, grateful for their arrival.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) For many years, Ruth L. Schwartz made her living as a public health educator, trainer and consultant specializing in AIDS and cancer.

In both Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, the speakers tempt God: “tell me why you ever thought/ you could improve on this/ music, this hunger[1]”. They call out the crazy notions floating around in both American history and its politics.

The difference between these two collections is that while Elvis Presley is Alive… is loud with a cast of personalities, Edgewater is quiet. Plants, animals, water and the sun populate Schwartz’s collection, as if she intended on taking us back to the Garden of Eden, before man’s destructive action.

Death’s possibilities hover over Edgewater. In this collection, nature is a teacher whose overall messages teach us that life is too short to wonder “what if”, so just do and have fun in the process.

We learn this in Schwartz’s opening poem, “Fetch”, where the speaker’s on a beach, tossing a stick to her dog. Here’s the physical details about the dog I thought were striking:

This one keeps swimming out into the

icy water for a stick,

he’d do it all day and all night

if you’d throw it that long,

he’d do it till it killed him, then he’d die

dripping and shining, a black waterfall,

the soggy broken stick still clenched

in his doggy teeth […][2]

(PHOTO: HarperCollins)

Here are the psychological details: “…watching him you want to cry/ for all the wanting you’ve forsworn”. While it’s unclear what the speaker’s rejected, or “forsworn”, it might be an opportunity for the reader to fill in the blanks with things he/she have rejected either out of fear or something else. I know people who want love and success but self-sabotage because of their fears of being hurt again or having so much expected of them.

I wanted to know more about the speaker’s situation—what “all the wanting” was about. But both the physical and psychological details intensify what the dog becomes to the speaker. Looking at the stick that’s thrown as the speaker’s affection for her four-legged companion, the dog’s act of retrieving it each time—“all day and all night”—to the point “he’d do it till it killed him” makes him courageous in a way the speaker is not.

While she’s rejected what she wanted (maybe love), the dog continuously goes after what he wants at that moment—the object of affection—despite the danger nearby, the dog possibly being “the soggy broken stick” clenched in the mouth of the icy waves.

A musical moment in this poem is the recurring “he’d do it”: “he’d do it all day and all night/ if you throw it that long,/ he’d do it till it killed him […]” That repetition is not unlike the stick being thrown and the dog retrieving it over and over.

(PHOTO: Carrie_W on flickr)

That “his body surges…as if to say/ Nothing could stop me now—[3]” is a lesson for both the speaker and reader to go after what you want in life.

The sexual charge in “Oh God, Fuck Me” is unbelievable. Here are some physical details: “[…] trees in spring, exposing themselves,/ flashing leaf-buds so firm and swollen/ I want to take them into my mouth.[4]

At first, those images seemed pretty easy, but the surprises came with the “kitchen faucet, dripping/ like a nymphomaniac,/ all night slowly filling and filling,/ then overflowing the bowls in the sink—[5]

If the speaker’s job is to arouse the reader, then it worked with me. While reading Schwartz’s poem, I felt like I was reading an erotic tale with surprises that were just as arousing. Here’s another surprise from Schwartz: “[…] English muffins,/ the spirit of the dough aroused/ by browning, thrilled by buttering.[6]

And this:

(PHOTO: Allison Thorton)

Fuck me with orange juice,

its concentrated sweetness,

which makes the mouth as happy as summer,

leaves sweet flecks of foam […]

along the inside of the glass.

Fuck me with coffee, strong and hot,

and then with cream poured into coffee,

blossoming like mushroom clouds,

opening like parachutes.[7]

Damn! The speaker’s tone is both playful and excited. A musical moment in the poem was the recurring “Fuck me”: “Fuck me, oh God, with ordinary things,/…Fuck me with my kitchen faucet, dripping/…Fuck me with breakfast.”

That Schwartz’s poem is a conversation the speaker’s having with God mocks the religious notion of the spiritual father as some elderly man repulsed by sex. Some readers might be put off by this poem, but it’s that same absurdity the speaker finds in the notion that God would be repulsed at all by sex, the thing he created.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also raises a question: is it possible for parents to censor what their children watch when sex is all around us, even in the “ordinary things”?

(PHOTO: Sean Bonner)

Each “Fuck me” seemed to work not only as transitions between thoughts, but also intensified the pleasures experienced by these “ordinary things”. I automatically thought of my fiancée craving a slice of chocolate cake or key lime pie.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also turns the idea of sex as something dirty on it head while implying that the act itself is a kind of church: “Fuck me…/ with the downstairs neighbor’s vacuum,/ that great sucking noisy dragon/ making the dirty come clean.” The church is in “the dirty”, or the sinner, becoming “clean”, or in good standing with God.

I could go on with other examples of what Schwartz’s speaker tackles in her 107-page collection, but, in the interest of space, I’ll keep it to the earlier examples and Schwartz’s poem, “Edgewater Park”:

Even now, at the end of the century,

when our survival as a species

seems a matter of dumb luck,

our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness

the way so many dying insects

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

bead the spider’s web—

even now, on the cliffs above the beach,

I see two men who meet for pleasure,

nothing else,

fully clothed, in a cove of bushes,

standing face to face, as if to dance—

but one has both hands on the other’s cock

and is pulling at it, tenderly—

and the body, at least, would name this Love,

and who are we to contradict

the pure animal body?

all around us, in expensive houses,

men and women married many years

touch far less joyfully than this,

with less attention to the hunger of it.

And truly, what do we have left

but moments of this gazing, pulling

at each other, at ourselves,

(PHOTO: Rukhlenko)

the shells ground finer and finer

under our feet,

making a kind of jagged sand,

the insects we call Canadian soldiers

rising from the water in great swarms

to mate and die—

on my window they looked like tadpoles,

hundreds of them flooding toward

the light—

and some of them

made their way in,

the whiteness of the ceiling

became their water,

they massed there as full of joy

as if it were the sea.

By morning they were dead,

their many bodies

light and dry,

littering the tabletops.

And the spiders, lucky spiders,

ate for weeks.[8]

In “Edgewater Park”, the speaker’s examination of the quality and condition of human nature is through her comparison of humans to the “Canadian soldiers”, insects that rise “from the water in great swarms/ to mate and die—”

The speaker’s tone is pity, especially for homophobes, who, in this poem, haven’t evolved beyond the insects that “bead the spider’s web—” I mentioned earlier that life is too short to wonder “what if,” that the overall message is to just do and have fun in the process.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

Well, these two guys seem to get it, having found the “jewels of tenderness” within their bodies. If the spider is death, would you wait for it to weave a web for you to stud? Obviously, the two men wouldn’t.

The few musical moments in “Edgewater Park” didn’t enhance the context or take away from its contents. Here’s one of those moments: “our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness…” Reading those lines aloud, “our bodies studded with” made me think of a jazz drummer setting up his solo. I counted two trochees and one dactyl, which sped up the falling meter before the swing rhythm of “these jewels of tenderness”.

Other musical moments are the “O” sounds in “fully clothed, in a cove of bushes”, and the “S” sounds in “standing face to face, as if to dance—” There’s also the recurring “even now”: “Even now, at the end of the century,/…even now, on the cliffs above the beach”. The repetition seemed to bring the poem back on track from the extended metaphor of “our survival as a species”.

Going back to the two men, their economic status is not known. But the speaker makes one thing clear: that they found happiness instead of the appearance of it only enhances their quality of life more than the married couples “in expensive houses”. That the two men pleasure each other makes their act more courageous than the well-to-do “men and women married many hear” who “touch far less joy fully than this.”

Whether it’s the LGBT or black community, the speakers in Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem are bullhorns for oppressed groups.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Unlike Schwartz’s speaker—whose overall tone were at times playful, excited and melancholy—the tone of Gilmore’s speaker ranges from sarcastic and loving, to angry and pitying.

For anyone who thinks Elvis Presley is the king of Rock n’ Roll, Gilmore’s speaker is here to clear up the history of popular music, remind us of freedoms taken for granted and to scrutinize race relations in America. He starts with the opening poem, “Angry Voices”, which is in four parts. The first three honors Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bo Diddley, all of whom paved the way for a bitter Chuck Berry in the fourth part, titled “Memphis (the stolen)”:

“any wite boy wit’ dat much nerve,

to come in ‘ere wit’ that recorda’ ‘n all,

rite in front of all these spades,

wit’ all this hate,

wit all this energy jus’ ready to explode,

has gotta be a king.”[9]

For the most part, the speaker’s tone is a controlled-anger. In “Elvis”, the sarcasm cuts like a blade in a knife fight. The speaker transforms Elvis Presley and the mass of white imitators into an oversized animal that terrorizes black culture: “[…] i swear i/ saw him in harlem/ everyone bolt your doors!/ […] board up your windows!!/ […] stop […] singing […] !!![10]

The speaker calls out “the hug monster looming over us” and attacks it directly here:

(PHOTO: Daniel A. Norman)

a wailing soul simulating bantu and yoruba wearing

zoot suits and breaking more black sisters’ hearts

than chuck berry could mend with ‘maybelline’ or

‘thirty days.’[11]

A musical moment in Gilmore’s “elvis” is here: “such a mass,/ such a disturbing mass. such a wallowing in the mud/ mass          such a dangerous mass.[12]” I saw the recurring “such a” as exclamations. With each “such a” the mass seemed to grow to something “disturbing” and “wallowing in the mud” until it became “dangerous”. I also enjoyed the “M” sounds close together in “mud/ mass”. (I also appreciated the reference to Muddy Waters, who was another musician from whom “the mass” stole their sound, having wallowed “in the mud”.)

Here’s another musical moment: “the mass couldn’t do it all because mud   is like/ blood;          mud is about emotional outrage![13]” I like the internal rhyme of “mud” and “blood”. And like the earlier example, the recurring “mud” punctuates the seriousness of the matter.

Here are musical moments in Gilmore’s poem, “september is not change”, which focuses on the political casualties in South Africa:

(PHOTO: Robert Ruark)

in september leaves fall

from trees like the dead

children don’t wait until

december to be seen naked[14]

Reading those lines aloud, I enjoyed the “E” sounds in “leaves”, “trees” and “seen”. The stretched sound in “leaves” and “trees” slowed the rhythm to set up the surprise of “like the dead”.

Reading those lines, I thought of the Bisho massacre that happened in 1991, a year before Third World Press published Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive… According to various sources, the Ciskei Defence Force shot at 100,000 protestors, leaving 29 dead in Bisho, the capital of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

In the months leading up to the Bisho massacre, according to those same sources, the African National Congress was found guilty of human rights violations in some of their exile camps, and the violence between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party left 46 dead. Then you have the Bisho massacre in September, hence the poem’s title, “september is not change”.

Like Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem “Edgewater Park”, Gilmore’s poem is a plea for humanity. The other musical moments in “september is not change” intensifies this plea:

(PHOTO: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)

the september papers read like

august papers

july papers

june papers

headlines of blood and fire

burning ash between my fingers

in september i pray for jesus

i pray for mohammed

i pray for someone

somewhere to make september

not like all the other months[15]

The listing of months, followed by the recurring “papers” helps illustrate the redundancy, or excess, of “headlines of blood and fire”. The recurring “i pray” gives the speaker an urgent tone, with each “i pray” as a plea not only to jesus and mohammed, but to some god who can “make september/ not like all the other months”. The recurring “september is not change” throughout that poem won’t let us forget.

Gilmore’s poem, “We must not be cows”, captures overall uses of both his and Schwartz’s speaker in their examination of the human condition and quality:

(PHOTO: Micro Cinefest)

I’ve always hated wiggly lines:

wiggly lines on my TV set

making the picture impossible to comprehend;

my doctor says—

this can ruin your eyes

this is unhealthy.

Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,

make them swell and start cuttin’,

I am watching news and eating chocolate

forgetting about next week’s check-up.

I ate a steak last night,

there was a little TV set on the

fatback,

(PHOTO: Narayan Vivek)

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks afrika is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

I sleep hard at night              dream of wiggly lines

that wiggle,

I eat jigsaw puzzles while reading Koran,

shatter dishes            scan the Bible,

when I wake I toss my television with the sliced up

(PHOTO: Banksy Graffiti Street Art)

newscaster out the window,

He still talks of country

still makes my tooth ache

still

makes

my sirloin taste

strangely like

hamburger.[16]

Gilmore’s poem is clearly about the media’s distortion of facts. With the physical details in “We must not be cows”, I heard the static from the TV and saw the “wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face.” I also saw the speaker “watching news and eating chocolate” or the “steak last night”.

The psychological details are just as striking: “Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ make them swell and start cuttin’”. That the “wiggly lines irritate” the speaker’s “wisdom teeth” and none of the others was a clever play not only on “wisdom”, but also the idea of rejecting the distorted information. The title adds context to the speaker’s plea for his readers to not be cows grazing the grass they’re fed from manipulative people.

(PHOTO: Digital Burn)

When I think of the “wiggly lines”, I recall what I learned about America in elementary school: our great armies and humanitarian efforts. Many of my teachers, who I’m sure meant well, unwittingly became the newscaster on the TV screen covered by wiggly lines.

A look at American pop culture shows that those wiggly lines also speak to distracting TV ads and consumerism. Like the speaker, I used to “sleep hard at night” dreaming “of wiggly lines”. It wasn’t until college, when I started reading more on my own about America, that I discovered her hypocrisies. That’s when I awoke. Like the speaker, I tossed “my television with the sliced up/ newscaster out the window” and started thinking for myself.

Here’s a musical line: “forgetting next week’s check-up.” The “eh” sounds—“forgetting”, “next” and “check-up”—mixed in with “K” sounds—“next week’s check”—made it pleasurable to read “We must be cows” aloud.

There’s also music in the wiggly lines’ recurrence: “wiggly lines on my TV set/[…] Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ […] wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face […] wiggly lines/ that wiggle”. That repetition successfully recreates the pattern of “wiggly lines” on a TV set. (In this case, the speaker’s message isn’t twisted by the “wiggly lines”.)

(PHOTO: LG Studio)

The barbed wit in “We must not be cows” is in the speaker’s sarcastic tone, which cuts at America’s ethnocentric ways in which it approaches other cultures:

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks africa is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

In both Brian Gilmore’s Elvis is Alive… and Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater, the speakers have undertaken the ambitious task of calling out any absurdities no matter where they pop up. And looking at the 21stcentury, two things are clear: 1) their task is far from over, and 2) the speakers have their work cut out for them.


[1] from Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem, “Talking to God on the Seventh Day”

[2] Ruth L. Schwartz, Edgewater, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 3

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 43

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 44

[8] Ibid., p. 5-6

[9] Brian Gilmore, Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, Chicago: Third World Press, 1992, p. 6

[10] Ibid., p. 7

[11] Ibid., p. 10

[12] Ibid., p. 8

[13] Ibid., p. 9

[14] Ibid., p. 15

[15] Ibid., p. 15

[16] Ibid., p. 54

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ross Gay is a Cave Canem fellow and a recipient of a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts. In addition to being a book artist, a basketball coach and an editor with chapbook press Q Avenue, Ross teaches poetry at Indiana University in Bloomington and in the low-residency M.F.A. program at Drew University.

The speakers in Ross Gay’s Against Which and Paul Martínez Pompa’s My Kill Adore Him are not afraid to step into taboo territory. They’re not afraid to question or dare anyone: “What-chu gonna do now?[1]

Whether choking out a drunk[2] or stepping to sucker mcs[3], they don’t back out of situations in which they find themselves. But the speakers are neither meat heads nor neighborhood bad asses holding down their blocks.

There’s tenderness in how they engage the environment around them that dispels the myth of masculinity hovering over young boys trying to understand what it means to be a man in the world. After reading both collections, another thing becomes clear: the speakers aren’t wimps, but guys liberated in knowing they don’t have to live up to the myth.

The overall tone in Against Which shifts from joyful and sarcastic, to sad and angry, to humorous and sincere. I heard that sincerity in Gay’s opening poem, “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street,” where the speaker, who’s driving, is distracted by a scene on the street. I was brought into the poem by these physical details:

you, too, would’ve nearly driven into oncoming traffic

for gawking at the clutch between the two men

on Broad Street, in front of the hospital,

which would not stop, each man’s face

so deeply buried in the other’s neck—these men

not, my guess, to be fucked with—squeezing through

that first porous layer of the body into the heat beneath.[4]

(IMAGE: CavanKerry Press)

Right there, the speaker not only sets up the scene, but gets into the taboo issue of public displays of affection between men without being judgmental. In a homophobic society, where the country is divided on the issue of gay rights, the men in the poem don’t have to be lovers. The act of them embracing each other publicly is enough to set off alarms in the most conservative of individuals.

In Gay’s poem, the speaker also dispels the myth of masculinity. These aren’t small men, according to the speaker, but men “not…to be fucked with.” These are men with “burly fingers.”

When I think about what it means to be a man—how we’re expected not to look weak, or show any sign of emotion—I’m thankful my dad showed me I didn’t have to live up to that myth. I remember when he came home from rough days at work as a master electrician—days that sometimes had him in the cold, hammering a metal spike into the earth to ground the new panel box service he installed in customer’s house—and embrace my mom in front of my brother, sister and me as if he couldn’t wait to get back to the tender things in his world.

My dad wasn’t bothered by what people thought about his public displays of affection he expressed to his sons, kissing us on our cheeks and hugging us when he dropped us off at school. If the kids taunted us for that show of affection, Dad would tell us they were misguided. My brother and I grew up, knowing it was OK to be tender in public. Even now, standing at 6-foot-2, I hug my best guy friends publicly if we’re out and they drop some news of family affairs or something else that’s got them down.

There’s something liberating about not buying into the myth. The speaker sees that same liberation in the two men hugging on a busy street, “their burly fingers squeezing the air from angels/ on the backs of their denim jackets.”

That moment between the two men is intensified by these psychological details:

[…]I float unaware of the 3000 lb machine

in my hands drifting through a stop light while I gawked

at their ceaseless cleave go deeper,

[…] so that Broad Street from Fairmount

to the Parkway reeked of the honey-scented wind

pushed from the hummingbirds now hovering above these two men,

sweetening, somehow, the air until nectar,

yes, nectar gathered at the corners of my mouth like sun-colored spittle,

the steel vehicle now a lost memory […][5]

(PHOTO: Unknown)

There are musical moments in Gay’s other poems, “Unclean. Make Me” and “Alzheimer’s.” In “Unclean. Make me,” the speaker rejects the notion of some religions that consider women on their cycles to be unclean. Here are some musical lines: “Lay tongue/ to the lathe, the blessed lather[6].” Saying those lines aloud, and feeling my tongue tap out the rhythm, made me think of xylophones. In that sense, Gay is Roy Ayers working those lines, where the “L” sounds are high notes mixed in with the alliteration of “T” sounds—“tongue/to the”—or low notes.

Gay’s poem is also musical here: “Song like marble spun/ into silk[7].” There are two trochaic feet in “Song like marble,” and I imagined someone pounding on a large marching drum. “Spun/ into silk,” which moves fast, made me think of drumsticks rapidly rapping a snare drum.

The musical moments intensified the playful tone of the speaker in “Unclean. Make me,” allowing him to delicately flip the notion of what it means to be unclean.

“Alzheimer’s” was a poem that hit close to home because my grandmother suffered from it before she died. I remember my grandmother asking who I was, and shaking her head with a lost look when I tried to explain. In that poem, the speaker’s grandmother’s memories are “cherry blossoms” loosened by the “breeze,” or disease[8].

There’s a musical moment when the speaker describes how the “petals” are whisked away: “flipping through her open arms[9].” That line is trochaic tetrameter, with the last foot missing an unaccented syllable. Reading those lines, I got a fluttering feeling, that feeling of something being blown beyond reach. For the speaker’s grandmother, it’s whatever memories she has left of her family.

As I stated earlier, there are moments in both Against Which and My Kill Adore Him, where the speakers are brave without being obnoxious. The best example of that is Gay’s poem, “Broken Mania”:

(PHOTO: PowerLlama on flckr)

This is not a joke

when I wrap my hand tight

around the drunk man’s throat,

the drunk who heaves his girlfriend

around the Chevy, while she begs

no and please and the pub’s other drunk men

won’t be bothered because the Flyers play

the Red Wings in game 2 for the cup.

This, Drunk Man, is not a joke, and when

I left my pal’s house for some hot tea

at 7-11 I did not know that we would meet,

but meet we did, intimates we have become, I would say,

what with that gurgling noise slurping

about in your throat. And your girlfriend clutches my

arm, wide-eyed and sad, not sure for whom

she roots, but she knows her duty, where

she sleeps. This is not a joke,

Drunk Man. If the time and place

were right, you would have been dead, your tongue

yanked out and nailed to your forehead, but the time

(PHOTO: Telegraph.co.uk)

was not right, bouncers tore me from you,

and I was wearing bear slippers, big, furry,

with soft claws. Maybe

I was too self-conscious to finish the job.

Maybe it was my friend at my side,

just released from a funny farm for a psychotic

episode, whispering and quaking. That’s enough,

that’s enough. You did not

know this about me, or my friend, did not

know the previous day his hand dug

hard into my shoulder from the car’s back

seat as we approached another hospital, pleading

Please don’t let them

do this to me. Don’t do

this to me. That he hasn’t

slept in five days and is wired, told me

things I can’t repeat for fear of my tongue

turning black rot and infecting my brain,

that it has nothing to do with samaritinism, the woman,

or humanity, this Drunk Man, is about me,

(IMAGE: Deviant Art)

about me shrinking your universe

around your throat like a noose, showing you that

to you, at this second, I am God,

and until my friend’s mania is broke

my arm melts rocks and is a machine

for murder[10].

The physical details that had me in the 7-11 parking lot, watching the speaker choke out a drunk man who tosses “his girlfriend/ around the Chevy.” I could hear the loud TV from a nearby bar, where the other drunk men are too caught up in the Flyers and “Red Wings game 2 for the cup” to notice the woman yelling “no and please,” and what happened when the speaker came to her rescue.

The speaker’s use of person shifts, regarding the drunken man. I was already in the scene, somewhere amidst the onlookers. But when the speaker shifted from third to second person, that switch was a zoom button that brought me closer to the incident. I could see the drunk’s girlfriend grabbing the speaker’s arm, “wide-eyed and sad, not sure for whom/ she roots, but knows her duty, where/ she sleeps.”

(ARTWORK: 8tracks.com)

There are two tones in “Broken Mania”—anger for the drunk and sincerity for the drunk’s girlfriend. The speaker is sincere without being judgmental of the woman. The speaker’s anger is intensified by these psychological details: “[…] If the time and place/ were right, you would have been dead, your tongue/ yanked out and nailed to your forehead […]”

There are musical moments in the midst of the violence. Take the repetition of “This is not a joke”: “This is not a joke/ when I wrap my hand tight/ around the drunk man’s throat/ […] This, Drunk Man, is not a joke […]/This is not a joke,/ Drunk Man. If the time and place/ were right, you would be dead […]”

The repetition intensified the seriousness of the situation. The first “This is not a joke” does not address Drunk Man, but the reader. The second and third time the speaker addresses Drunk Man directly. I felt the tension build with each “This is not a joke.”

The repetition also worked as the speaker’s way of drumming the message in all men, not just Drunk Man. It’s a message that says: Beating women is neither funny nor entertaining. To the women beaters, it’s a message for them to stop doing it and seek counseling. To the men, in general, it’s a message that says: if you see a domestic dispute, don’t ignore it.

Like the poem “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street,” “Broken Mania” also deals with redefining manhood and dispelling the myth of masculinity. In redefining manhood, the message is clear: beating women does not make you a man. The speaker’s act of choking the drunken man says indirectly that only weak men hit women.

(PHOTO: Alex Slitz/Daily News/AP)

In “Broken Mania” the speaker also dispels the myth of masculinity by making note of what he’s wearing. In another time, and a different circumstance, “wearing bear slippers, big, furry/ with soft claws” would not be considered manly. But given the situation, where the speaker has another man fighting for his life, I doubt anyone would make fun of the speaker’s slippers to his face.

The turn in Gay’s poem is when the speaker’s friend—“just released from a funny farm for a psychotic/ episode”—is introduced (I enjoyed the alliteration of that line—“from a funny farm for”). After that, it became clear that the situation in the parking lot was not the point of the poem; while the subject is an important one, it sets up the reader for another issue: mental illness.

Like the woman in that 7-11′s parking lot, the speaker’s friend is also victimized. But, unlike the drunken man, the illness is not someone the speaker’s able to shove around and tell him to knock it off; the speaker’s helpless when his friend says, “Please don’t let them/ do this to me. Don’t do/ this to me.” So out of frustration, he takes out his displaced anger on any physical target available at the time, which also reveals the speaker. “It has nothing to do with samaritinism, the woman,/ or humanity, this, Drunk Man, is about me […]”

So what was first thought to be an act of sincerity was, instead, the speaker using force—“shrinking your universe/ around your throat like a noose”—to make up for his feeling of helplessness. I’m left wondering had the speaker’s friend not been mentally ill, would he still have stuck up for the abused woman?

An overlapping theme in both Gay’s and Martínez Pompa’s collections is manhood. Take Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Film Strip,” that opens his My Kill Adore Him. The guys are in a sex education class, “isolated from the girls/ to learn our bodies.” Here are the physical details that brought me into that classroom:

(PHOTO: latinopoetryreview.blogspot.com) Paul Martínez Pompa lives in Chicago and teaches composition, poetry and creative writing at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois.

[…] Our desk harder

than our hairless asses. They shudder

beneath us when Mr. Griffey fingers

the 16mm reel […]

[…] We swell

Into concentration as grainy scenes

flicker past our heads. The projector’s

clatter surrounds us like criminals:

narrated cross-section of the testicles[11].

There’s a sexual energy woven through Martínez Pompa’s poem:  the students’ “hairless asses” that “shudder beneath” them “when Mr. Griffey fingers/ the 16mm reel,” and how they “swell into concentration”. I remember being both scared and excited while learning about my body and the physical changes that would occur as part of my development.

I love the music of “clatter surrounds us like criminals,” a dactylic trimeter, with three perfect feet. Saying that line aloud made me think of the break down in a song, when the beats seem to cascade in a falling rhythm.

Thinking of what that line means—“clatter surrounds us like criminals”—the falling rhythms intensified the speaker’s suspicious tone, as if the class were ambushed by what they saw the way criminals ambush their victims. That the “grainy scenes” flickering past the speaker’s head were likened to criminals shows how intrusive those scenes were, especially those that triggered a memory of another unpleasant moment:

The animated penis a cruel reminder

of our fathers. Strange men we’ve seen

through cracked doors. Their nude

bodies a revelation, a portrait of manhood

larger than anything we could imagine[12].

(PHOTO: Searchamelia.com)

I stated earlier what it means to be a man in the world—how we’re expected not to look weak, or show any sign of emotion—and, like my dad, the speaker in Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Clamor,” doesn’t buy into that myth.

In “Clamor,” the speaker’s on a bus when he notices the lovers, and is overwhelmed with longing. Here are the psychological details that brought me inside the speaker’s head: “remember when we were young./ bold enough to love that hard. trust was our eyes. closed./ our mouths undoing each other’s. bodies.”

That “the bus fills and empties like an aluminum lung[13]” gives a sense of what’s happening during the ride besides the couple, and how frequent the stops were since—like a lung takes in air as fast as it pushes it back out—the bus gets packed almost as fast as it empties.

That line is musical with the repetition of “L” sounds—“[…] like an aluminum lung”. Saying that line aloud gave me that feeling of xylophones that I felt earlier in Ross Gay’s poem, “Unclean. Make Me”. That fluid movement in Martínez Pompa’s poem made me feel like a passenger on that bus, working my way through an aisle of folks staring, with the speaker, at the couple and “how. she breathes him. how he is / draped in the orchestra of her. fingers.”

The title, “Clamor,” is defined as 1) “any loud and continued noise,” or 2) “a vehement”—intense—“expression of desire or dissatisfaction.” The word appears twice in Martínez Pompa’s poem, each one with a different meaning and level of intensity. There’s the first definition in “the clamor of. gears. bodies.” and “words” that intensified the sound on the bus. I felt the seat vibrating from the loud engine that drowned out the words of the couple, who were “untouched/ by this. city of broken lovers”.

(PHOTO: Dcist.com)

The second definition of clamor—as an intense “expression of dissatisfaction”—is in “youth & desire fleeing/ their seats” at the sight of the lovers. This intensified the passengers’ dissatisfaction of the couple’s public display of affection.

That the other passengers, including the speaker, are residents in the “city of broken lovers” made me wonder three things: 1) if the passengers have been burned by love enough to where the “L” word’s almost as taboo as the public display of affection expressed in Ross Gay’s poem, “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street”; 2) if the lovers existence broke the rules of that “city”; and 3) if, in that “city,” the lovers were tourists passing through, or were they trespassing.

The Martínez Pompa poem that captures the themes of the collection as a whole—manhood, love, and tensions between ethnicities—while displaying the tenderness with which both speakers in Against Which and My Kill Adore Him approach the world is “Pulling Tongue”:

(PHOTO: Stock)

Lissette opens me with her fingers.

I struggle to breathe

with  her tongue in my mouth.

Suddenly we are stars

in a Mexi-Rican romance film

that unravels on her aunt’s stoop.

Backlit by the flickering streetlamp

an audience of boys forms

and I feel the pressure to comply.

Catcalls & uneasy laughter,

I kiss harder. My finger stutters

Over her knee, her thigh—

You fuckin Mexicans kiss like girls

as she slaps my arm,

the crash of the metal storm

door behind her. The boys

swell into a mob set to detonate

the entire block. I rise

& brace myself for their eyes,

their bodies that wet the night.[14]

(PHOTO: thedigicult)

The musical moment happens in the last line of the first stanza and the beginning of the second stanza. The repetition of “S” sounds—“Suddenly we are stars/ in a Mexi”—and “R” sounds—“Rican romance film”—conjured up the image of maracas; I could hear the beads shaken to the rhythm of those lines.

That they “are stars/ in a Mexi-Rican romance” is a clue to the reader that it’s a Mexican boy and Puerto Rican girl kissing. That act, which attracts “an audience of boys,” seemed innocent at first. I remember how my first kiss in a daycare attracted so much attention from my peers despite the girl and I both being African American.

The physical details pulled me in right away. I was in that “audience of boys,” watching it all go down on Lissette’s “aunt’s stoop.” I saw the speaker and Lissette lit “by the flickering streetlamp.”

But, in “Pulling Tongue,” the act’s innocence is lost when Lissette breaks away from the speaker and says, “You fuckin Mexicans kiss like girls,” an allusion to the myth of masculinity.

I know how hard it is to bounce back from a fall like that.

That his attempts to “kiss harder” and his finger that “stutters over her knee, her thigh” weren’t enough made the fall that much harder.

And to add insult to injury, Lissette “slaps” the speaker’s arm afterwards, as if almost to show she’s more of a man than the boy. An allusion to that fall is in this physical detail: “I rise/ & brace myself for their eyes.”

But another look at that scene made me wonder something different: what if Lissette liked the kiss, but had to pretend otherwise because of her friends and the expectations of loyalty to her people. In that context, it was impossible to read “Pulling Tongue” and not think of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Arthur Laurents’s West Side Story, both stories of  lovers caught between the drama of their feuding families.

The speaker’s age is not mention, which made me also wonder what if Lissette was too young to know what she liked.

(IMAGE: University of Notre Dame Press)

Another musical moment in “Pulling Tongue” is in “Backlit by the flickering streetlamp.” That line is trochaic tetrameter, with one dactyl over “flickering” in the third foot. The trochees in that line conjured up the same sound of the large marching drum I felt earlier in Ross Gay’s poem, “Unclean. Make me.” The dactyl in “flickering,” which speeds up the rhythm of that line, also conjured up the sound of sticks rapping a snare drum.

The trochees also made me think of the large drums in kung fu movie scores that let the audience know a conflict is about to happen.

It has that same effect in Martínez Pompa’s poem, where the speaker’s tone shifted from joyful to sad, allowing tension to build in the third stanza before the conflict in the fourth.

The speaker’s fall in “Pulling Tongue” is an example of the consequences that face both speakers in Against Which and My Kill Adore Him for baring themselves in a world of hard edges.

Like Gay’s, Martínez Pompa’s speaker falls, but is not broken as a result of it. That the speaker in “Pulling Tongues” is able to “rise & brace” himself “for their eyes” is a manly act despite the apparent weakness. In fact, that act is what makes the speaker the braver than the “audience of boys” and the “mob set to detonate/ the entire block.”


[1] from Paul Martínez Pompa’s poem, “The Performer”

[2] from Ross Gaye’s poem, “Broken Mania”

[3] from Paul Martínez Pompa’s poem, “Sucker MCs”

[4] Ross Gaye, Against Which, Fort Lee, NJ: CavanKerry Press, 2006, p. 5

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 10

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 11

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 12-13

[11] Paul Martínez Pompa, My Kill Adore Her, Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009, p. 3

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 17

[14] Ibid., p. 5

(PHOTO: John Campbell) Dorianne Laux's fourth book of poems, Facts about the Moon, is the recipient of the Oregon Book Award and was short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.

After reading Dorianne Laux’s Smoke and Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination, some things have been affirmed for me: that the dead do haunt the living, and in various forms.

In these two collections, what haunts is the ghost of “a girl in a cotton slip” who sits “beneath the staircase/ built from hair and bone[1]”; it’s the ghost in the face of a 14-year-old nephew who strikingly resembles a dead brother[2]. It’s also the fictitious black man invented by Susan Smith and Charles Stuart[3].

The speaker in Smoke contemplates death and the loss of friends and lovers. In the poem, “Abschied Symphony,” a lover, or an ex-lover whom the speaker’s remained friends with, is dying in the hospital. Almost immediately, the speaker’s physical details of “maneuvering through/ the dimly lit tunnels, under low ceilings,/ following yellow arrows stenciled at intervals/ on gray cement walls[4]” brought me into the underground garage at the hospital.

These psychological details brought me inside the speaker’s head:

[…] I think of him,

moving slowly through the last

hard days of his life […]

[…] I can’t stop crying.

When I arrive at the tollgate I have to make

myself stop thinking as I dig in my pockets

for the last of my coins, turn to the attendant,

indifferent in his blue smock …

and say, Thank you, like an idiot.[5]

The details are so familiar to me. I lost an uncle to medical malpractice (he went in for a check-up, was diagnosed with colon cancer, hospital meds put him in a coma, where he died two days later). I also lost an aunt to cancer two years ago. In both cases, I remember the presence of death feeling as real as the people in the hospital room.

In the case of my aunt, whom I was very close to, I could relate to how the speaker saw things that were once blurred into her background, things the speaker might have glanced at without a thought now reminding her of the deceased:

Everything is hideously symbolic:

the Chevron truck, its underbelly

spattered with road grit and the sweat

of last night’s rain, the Dumpter

behind the flower shop, sprung lid

pressed down on dead wedding bouquets—

even the smell of something simple, coffee

drifting from the open door of a café,

and my eyes glaze over, ache in their sockets.[6]

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

The image of the Dumpster’s “sprung lid/ pressed down on dead wedding bouquets—” suggests that maybe the speaker and her dying lover were engaged, or had planned to be. But the illness, like the “sprung lid,” crushed those hopes: the “dead wedding bouquets” in the Dumpster.

But back to the “hideously symbolic,” I often thought about my deceased aunt. One Christmas, since she often called family back in Trinidad and Tobago, I bought her several calling cards. After her death, I couldn’t pass a gas station that might’ve sold those cards without my eyes glazing over to the point of aching in their sockets. They also glazed over at the smell of hot combs and burnt hair, which reminded me of the hair salon that my aunt ran from the back of her home until her illness.

And like the speaker, there were times I wanted to go “numb with forgetfulness” and not imagine my aunt, once plump and upbeat, thin and fragile in her hospital bed just as the speaker didn’t want to imagine the guy “drawn thin and pale, unable to swallow.”

Here’s the irrefutable evidence of intimacy between the speaker and the dying friend :

[…] the tumors

ripening beneath his skin, flesh

I have kissed, stroked with my fingertips,

pressed my belly and breasts against, some nights

so hard I thought I could enter him […][7]

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Love Is Dead

The depth of how the speaker wanted to “enter him, open/ his back at the spine like a door or a curtain[8]” is intensified by the image of “a small fish” that slips “between his ribs,/ nudge the coral of his brain with my lips,/ brushing over the blue coils of his bowels/ with the fluted silk of my tail.[9]” Those details, which brought me inside the dying man, also intensified the speaker’s level of love for this person. This love is so intensified it makes me wonder two things: 1) the speaker and the guy were still involved when he became sick, or 2) for whatever reason they weren’t together anymore, the speaker was still in-love with him.

The speaker’s willingness to become as small as a fish inside this person shows how larger than life this person once was, or still is to her despite his illness. That the speaker would brush “over the coils of his bowels” says how far she’s willing to go to bring back, not just her love but what they had. It’s also a sign that the speaker’s still bargaining with death, which is the third stage of grief. At this point of the poem, the speaker’s tone has gone from angry to sad.

When the speaker says, “Death is not romantic,[10]” it’s clear that the tone is depression, which is the fourth stage of grief. The speaker’s numb, though the tones of anger and sadness remain. She’s moving toward acceptance, but not there yet. The fact that her lover’s dying becomes “stark and one-dimensional, a black note/ on an empty staff.”

Back in the car with the speaker, we get additional psychological details that help the experience become real for the reader:

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

[…] I hate this music

that floods the cramped insides

of my car, my head, slowing the world down

with its lurid majesty […][11]

In “How It Will Happen, When,” the speaker enters the final stage of grief: acceptance. In that poem, the speaker has been “crying,/ curled up on the couch, the floor, at the foot of the bed […][13]”:

Someday, years from now […]

You’ll be reading, and for a moment you’ll see a word

you don’t recognize, a simple word like cup or gate or wisp

and you’ll ponder it like a child discovering language.

Cup, you’ll say it over and over until it begins to make sense,

and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead

He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.[14]

I’m brought into the poem with these physical details: “[…] there they are: his socks, his shirt, your/ underwear, and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile/ next to the bathroom door.[15]” Without the speaker saying it, I got the sense that I was in the bedroom. The “loose pile/ next to the bathroom door” could be symbolic of two things: 1) the future plans between the speaker and her lover that will not be accomplished, or 2) the mess of things death has made and what the speaker’s left to sort through for some kind of understanding.

The poem that best capture’s Death’s indifference, its effects, and the speaker’s loss and reaction as a result of it is the title poem, “Smoke”:

Who would want to give it up, the coal

a cat’s eye in the dark room, no one there

but you and your smoke, the window

cracked to street sounds, the distant cries

of living things. Alone, you are almost

safe, smoke slipping out between the sill

and the glass, sucked into the night

you don’t dare enter, its eyes drunk

and swimming with stars. Somewhere

a Dumpster is ratcheted open by the claws

of a black machine. All down the block

something inside you opens and shuts.

Sinister screech, pneumatic wheeze,

trash slams into the chute: leftovers, empties.

You don’t flip on the TV or the radio, they

might muffle the sound of car engines

backfiring, and in the silence between,

streetlights twitching from green to red, scoff

of footsteps, the rasp of breath, your own,

growing lighter and lighter as you inhale.

There’s no music for this scarf of smoke

wrapped around your shoulders, its fingers

crawling the pale stem of your neck,

no song light enough, liquid enough,

that climbs high enough before it thins

and disappears. Death’s shovel scrapes

the sidewalk, critches across the man-made

cracks, slides on grease into rain-filled gutters,

digs its beveled nose among the raved leaves.

You can hear him weaving his way

down the street, sloshed on the last breath

he swirled past his teeth before swallowing:

breath of the cat kicked to the curb, a woman’s

sharp gasp, lung-filled wail of the shaken child.

You can’t put it out, can’t stamp out the light

and let the night enter you, let it burrow through

your infinite passages. So you listen and listen

and smoke and give thanks, suck deep

with the grace of the living, blowing halos

and nooses and zeros and rings, the blue chains

linking around your head. Then you pull it in

again, the vein-colored smoke,

and blow it up toward a ceiling you can’t see

where it lingers like a sweetness you can never hold,

like the ghost the night will become.[16]

(IMAGE: Michael Godard)

The mystical meaning of smoke, according to dreamsleep.net, is that it’s a sign of disappointments to come. In that context, it’s apt that “Smoke” opens the collection, and that the poems that follow serve as examples of those disappointments the speaker will have to overcome.

The physical details brought me into the room with the speaker. I could feel the draft coming from “the window/ cracked to street sounds, the distant cries/ of living things.” I saw “smoke slipping out between the sill/ and the glass, sucked into the night” the way I imagined our last breaths will be sucked out of us and into death’s mouth. “The coal” as “a cat’s eye in the dark room” intensified the darkness of that room so that I could see the speaker hidden in the dark except for her lit cigarette.

That Death swirls the breaths “past his teeth before swallowing,” as if he were enjoying a cognac after dinner, and his indifference of the lives taken only made him seem more menacing. I could hear the high-pitched clawing sounds of “Death’s shovel” as it “scrapes/ the sidewalk, critches across the man-made/ cracks.” That barely bearable sound of the city is eerie within the context of this poem.

The speaker seems to be both frightened and comforted by death. She’s frightened of the night she won’t enter because of “its eyes drunk/ and swimming with stars.” The speaker’s description of night almost makes it seem reckless and random in its actions, as if to be caught in it is to gamble her life. The speaker seems jumpy at the sounds of the Dumpster “ratcheted open by the claws/ of a black machine,” or trash slammed “into the chute.” These physical details show paranoia without saying it:

You don’t flip on the TV or the radio, they

might muffle the sound of car engines

backfiring […/] scoff

of footsteps, the rasp of breath, your own,

growing lighter and lighter as you inhale.[17]

(PHOTO: masterprophetblog.com)

Those details imply that the TV and radio are distractions, and that the speaker is determined not to be caught off guard when Death comes. Here, the tone is anxiety, as the speaker listens for what she thinks are a warning of Death’s coming: “car engines/ backfiring,” “scoff/ of footsteps,” the rasp of her own breath “growing lighter and lighter,” or even the sound of “Death’s shovel” scraping “the sidewalk […/] its beveled nose among the ravaged leaves.[18]

Going back to the night, or darkness, the speaker will not let enter her or “burrow through,” there’s an irony in the light she won’t stamp out (her cigarette) out of fear of the night. The thing that will eventually kill her has, at that moment, become what she thinks will protect her from the darkness. The light may also be a false sense of her life, that everything’s OK, the speaker’s fear of facing the darkness, or the reality of what’s going on.

Where the speaker finds comfort is in “the scarf of smoke/ wrapped around” her shoulders. For some reason that physical detail of the smoke and the coal as “a cat’s eye in the dark room” made me see the smoke as a feline resting by its owner’s head on a cushion.

In world mythology, cats are symbolic as guardians of the otherworld (or underworld). For instance, in Ancient Rome, the cat’s considered to be “a guardian of homes and a symbol of domestic goodness,” according to a website on cat symbolism. The cat was honored in Muslim lore for protecting Mohammad from a snake attack. The site goes onto explain, “Here it is believed the ‘M’ marking on the forehead of many tabby cats is the mark of the prophet.[19]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The image of the cat, evoked by the details in “Smoke,” had me seeing a cat paw, instead of fingers, tapping “the pale stem” of the speaker’s neck.

The speaker also found comfort here: “[…] So you listen and listen/ and smoke and give thanks, suck deep/ with the grace of the living […][20]” I could see and smell those fuming “halos/ and nooses and zeros and rings, the blue chains linking around” the speaker’s head. “There’s no music,” according to the speaker, for the comfort of smoke, another irony since the smoke is “the ghost the night”—the thing that frightened the speaker—“will become.”

In both Smoke and Brutal Imagination, sadness and anger are the dominant tones. Cornelius Eady’s fictitious black man is just as haunting as Laux’s ghosts. In both books, these poems hit close enough to home to make the hairs on my neck stand up and try to run.

But Brutal Imagination deals with another kind of death, one that involved being born again. When a person is baptized, their former self is washed away and a new self is lifted out of the water. My former self believed everything I learned about America from text books that often omitted the contributions of people of color and lifted white people on a pedestal of false legacies. Those books had a narrow focus on the truth, if any at all.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry, including Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems (Putnam, April 2008).

Cornelius Eady’s collection reaffirmed what my new self knew, after my baptism with several previous important books that awakened my consciousness. My new self does not believe racism ended in those text books, or that America was ever on its way to becoming post-race. The speaker is an imaginary black man, created by Susan Smith as an alibi after she murdered her two sons, who were asleep in the backseat when Smith let the car roll into the lake. The fictitious black man reappears as an alibi for Charles Stuart, who killed his wife and then shot himself in the arm as a cover-up.

This imaginary character provides social commentary on contradictions in America’s actions and the phrases of her Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness,” the sovereign rights of all Americans. The speaker in Brutal Imagination shows us that’s not the case, that racism still exist, and that people of color will continue to be scapegoats.

In these poems, the speaker takes shots at America’s justice system, where a white person’s word trumps that of everyone else’s. Unlike Smoke, the tone in this collection is heavily sarcastic, which sharpens the blows so they cut to the meat. You’ll see that in “How I Got Born”:

So now a mother needs me clothed

In hand-me-downs

And a knit cap.

Whatever.

We arrive, bereaved

On a stranger’s step,

Baby, they weep,

Poor Child.[22]

You see it again in “Sightings”:

A few nights ago

A man swears he saw me pump gas

With the children

At a convenience store

[…] I left money in his hand.[23]

The title, “Sightings,” alludes to the UFO sightings that started in the late 19th century. Within that context, the speaker makes the point that a black man with two white kids would stick out anywhere like an alien on earth. That no one has any specifics description of the person makes the people in this poem seem as bizarre as UFO proponents, claiming to see flying disc:

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Police Sketch

Mr. _____ now knows he heard

The tires of the car

Everyone is looking for

Crunch the gravel

As I pulled up,

In the wee, wee hours

At the motel where

He works the night desk.[24]

In that same context, the speaker transforms a South Carolina community into Roswell, with the intense controversy surrounding the Susan Smith incident, and the fictitious black man that landed there out of nowhere. Without saying it directly, the speaker discredits the night desk worker:

I signed or didn’t sign the register.

I took or didn’t take the key from his hand.

He looked or forgot to look

As I pulled off to park in front

Of one of the rooms at the back.[25]

After throwing those jabs, the speaker’s hook comes in the irony and image as haunting as the ghosts in Smoke: “Did I say I was traveling with kids?/ Who slept that night/ In the untouched beds?” Bam! There it is.

The situation is so ludicrous that Uncle Ben, Jemima’s Do-Rag, and Stepin Fetchit have to chime in. Of those poems in the second section, “Stepin Fetchit Reads The Paper” was the most powerful poem for its historical context and its allusions to the present day:

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Lincoln Perry's typical film persona and stage name have long been controversial, and seen as synonymous with negative stereotypes of African-Americans. However, a newer interpretation of his film persona contends Perry was ultimately subversive of the status quo.

Not the dead actor,

Historically speaking, but the ghost

Of the scripts, the bumbling fake

Of an acrobat, the low-pitched anger

Someone mistook for stupid.

This so-called bruiser rattling the streets,

Heavy with children, I’d like to

Tell him what a thankless job

It is to go along to get along.

All the nuances can and will

Be rubbed smooth and by the time

It’s over,

By the time you’re dead and the people

You thought you were doing this

On behalf of are long forgotten,

There’s only an image left that they

Name you after, toothy, slow,

Worthy of a quick kick in the pants.

I used to have bones, I’d tell him.

It was a story that

Rubbed out my human walk.[26]

(Sketch: Courtesy) Composite

The speaker seems to admire the fictitious black man for stirring up white folks. Here, the tone is bitter with the speaker’s knowledge that it doesn’t pay “to go along to get along.” I felt like I was in the dressing room, after a shoot, watching Stepin Fetchit frown at his reflection in the mirror. When he wipes away the make-up, he transforms back to Lincoln Perry. I felt his frustration for being misunderstood: the “low-pitched anger/ Someone mistook for stupid.”

It’s impossible to read those lines and not think of Dave Chappelle, who walked away from his successful Chappelle’s Show in 2005 for fear of being misunderstood. Chappelle’s comedy is described in a recent article on alternet.org as being “centered around skewering racist stereotypes with a subversive, sophisticated, line-threading light.[27]

What did it, according to various reports, was the filming of “the black pixie” skit, when a white member of the crew “laughed just a little too hard” at Chappelle who was dressed as a Jim Crow minstrel that tried to trick the main character to play into the stereotypes. “I know the difference [between] people laughing with me and people laughing at me,[28]” Chappelle told Oprah during his appearance on her show in February 2006. “It was the first time I had ever gotten a laugh that I was uncomfortable with.[29]

Chappelle’s concerns and those of other comedians engaged in progressivism politics echoed that of the speaker’s in “Stepin Fetchit Reads The Paper,” who says:

(IMAGE: Courtesy) Sketch of Stepin Fetchit

All the nuances can and will

Be rubbed smooth and by the time

It’s over,

By the time you’re dead and the people

You thought you were doing this

On behalf of are long forgotten,

There’s only an image left that they

Name you after, toothy, slow,

Worthy of a quick kick in the pants.[30]

While the speaker in the “Brutal Imagination” section of the book points his finger at white bigots and the white power unjust structure, the speaker in “The Running Man Poems” doesn’t let his own people off the hook. According to the speaker, some black folks are just as much to blame for the destruction of other black folks.

Running Man is every smart black child in the hood without opportunities or a way out of his/her circumstance. He/she is the black child too smart for his/her own good; the one everyone chides for “acting or talking white,” for thinking he/she is too good for his/her own people. Running Man gets it from everyone, even his parents. “I don’t want to hear my father and mother/ Call me a fool, call me worse than a fool[1].” His father even sexually abuses him with a toothbrush: “This will shut my mind, they hope…[2]

In “Failure”, Running Man is every child burdened by the imposing dreams of their parents:

(IMAGE: demotivation.com)

One day, she promised,

The world’s going to surrender

Everything to what my shadow

Demands,

But I didn’t feel the hunger

That keeps his talons sharp.

I thought about the dark cloud

That dropped

Upon that poor sparrow’s breast.

Then I felt her hand fall lightly

On my shoulder[3].

As a result of this, Running Man doesn’t let anybody get close. He, instead, retreats into a false image for protection, while transferring his hurt onto others.

In both the “Brutal Imagination” section and “The Running Man Poems”, black men are victimized. While Susan Smith’s and Charles Stuart’s accounts make black men the target of a witch hunt, Running Man is ridiculed by the very people he expected to be his community.

(PHOTO: Steven M. Cummings) "Ghost"

Back to “Stepin Fetchit Reads The Paper,” Perry goes through a process that’s the reverse of what happens to the imagined black man. While the fictitious man becomes real with Susan Smith’s retelling of her alibi, Stepin Fetchit’s been reduced to a caricature.

I thought of how mainstream media emasculates black men, or how they take our heroes whom were once feared because of their ideas and reduce  them  to souvenirs.

I also thought of how athlete’s like Lebron James Kobe Bryant play into the caricaturization of black men. Their actions on the court confirm the myth that black men possess super-human athletic abilities and gifts, while their off-court affairs confirm the myth for some whites that black men have insatiable and uncontrollable appetites for sex, or that we’re quick to anger and slow to reason.

And African Americans are just as guilty for believing in the hype. Standing at 6-foot-2, I’ve been both the imagined black man and Running Man. As the imagined brotha, I embody white people’s myths of black masculinity. I’ve seen white women pick up the pace at the sight of me, or—if they’re in front of me—look over their shoulders every second, as if I were a rapist who fooled the parole board to let me out on good behavior.

As Eady’s imagined persona, I’ve also had people assume I possess athletic abilities despite the contrary (“You mean you’re not playing football?,” one guy told me. Another said, “I bet if you played basketball, you’d make one mean wing man”).

(PHOTO: Zulapi)

When I tell folks, especially black folks, that I’m not interested in sports, I become Running Man. All of a sudden, something’s wrong with me. I was Running Man in high school when I made the Spanish Honor Society, and every time I raised my hand in class.

To be clear, not every athlete plays into that caricature. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson were politically active and used their celebrity status to speak out against America’s injustices to its own citizens and people abroad. But with athletes like Lebron James and Kobie Bryant turning their blind eyes to the conflicts here and overseas, they reinforce another stereotype of black men: big children that just want to play and not face up to their responsibilities.

In both sections of Brutal Imagination, both Eady’s imagined black man and Running Man show that everyone’s responsible and no one’s off the hook.


[1] Cornelius Eady, “Sex”, from Brutal Imagination, New York City: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001, p. 88

[2] Ibid., p. 89

[3] Ibid., p. 74


[1] from Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Death Comes To Me Again, A Girl”

[2] from Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Ray At 14”

[3] from Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination

[4] Dorianne Laux, Smoke, Rochester, NY: BOA Editions Ltd, 2000, p. 21

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 21-22

[8] Ibid., p. 22

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 22

[11] Ibid.

[12] Dream Moods. February 28, 2011. < http://www.dreammoods.com/dreamdictionary/f2.htm&gt;

[13] Laux, op.cite, p. 28

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., p. 13-14

[17] Ibid., p. 13

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Cat Animal Symbolism: Symbolic Meaning of Cats”, on What’s Your Sign? Discover The World of Signs and Symbolic Meanings. February 28, 2011. < http://www.whats-your-sign.com/cat-animal-symbolism.html&gt;

[20] Laux, op.cite, p. 14

[21] Cornelius Eady, Brutal Imagination, New York City: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001, p. 5.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., p. 8

[24] Ibid., p. 9

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 32

[27] Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, “7 Bad Ass Comedians — Including Dave Chappelle, Richard Pryor, George Carlin — Who Refused to Sell Out”, on AlterNet. February 28, 2011. < http://www.alternet.org/story/149927/7_comedians_who_were_spurred_by_politics_to_change_up_their_acts&gt;

[28] “Chappelle’s Story”, on The Oprah Winfrey Show. February 28, 2011. < http://www.oprah.com/oprahshow/Chappelles-Story/5&gt;

[29] Ibid.

[30] Eady, op.cite, p. 32

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