Poet Laureate’s News

July 2020

Dear Sonomans,
Phyllis MeshulamSo, July. July 4 coming up. Independence Day, they say. Time for those of us with white privilege to think about this a little differently. Read about it from the point of view of those whose right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is challenged daily. Listen. And write about it if we can.
For our county anthology I had conceived of a section on “Honoring Our Pain for the World.” I think writing on race can be included in this section. But if we are to write about the Black or Brown experience in this country, we’d better either be Black or Brown or be extremely respectful in addressing this. Prompts for this topic are offered with great humility….  
Incendiary ActOne of the best books I have ever read is Patricia Smith’s Incendiary Art (Tri-Quarterly Books, Northwestern University Press 2017). Here’s what she told an interviewer from The Millions in August of 2017 about the genesis of this book:
“I was teaching a class, telling my students that they should always listen for the voices they weren’t hearing. I talk about taking the time to look for an unexpected entry point into a poem. At the time, every two weeks or so there was another shooting of an unarmed man–usually by the police. I had my students look at news stories and I said, what is the voice we’re not hearing? I realized that there was always a very frantic shot of a mother in the beginning of the story and another frantic shot of a mother at the end when the person responsible for the death of her son or daughter was deemed not responsible for the death of her son or daughter. And then after that last frantic shot, the mothers disappeared. I thought about these mothers trying to re-enter their lives and what that might be like.”

And if you want to hear her read an excerpt from “The Sagas of the Accidental Saints,”
here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RohgTj8wS4A

That long poem, in the section “Accidental” is followed by 12 poems that are introduced with a paragraph describing the death of unarmed Black person – most of these will be people you’ve never heard of. And this was intentional on Smith’s part. Here’s what she says in the interview:

“I want people to know that while they see these things in the news every once in a while, the tragedy is a more constant and consistent drumbeat. There’s a case in the news and then maybe a case a month later, but no, it’s more often than that. It’s something unfortunately that’s numbing and a certain portion of the population gets used to it. If there’s something very public or brazen about it then maybe it makes the news. Nowadays it makes the news usually because there’s film. I wanted people to say, I don’t know that name, I didn’t know that name, I didn’t know how many times people committed suicide with their hands tied behind them. I wanted it to be relentless, but I didn’t want it to be too much.”
March 12, 2012, Pasadena, CA – Kendrec McDade, 19, was chased and shot seven times by two police officers after a 911 caller falsely reported being robbed at gunpoint by two black men. McDade’s final words were “Why did they shoot me?”

As the moon tangled its beams and grew
monstrous huge over his body, he wanted 
that answer. As usual, I arrived too late —
he had already dispersed, and become an
awkward hour. Son of the mother of mistake,
his timing and root were askew. But
because walk because upright because Africa because decision because Tuesday
because loaded gun because running because two black because identified because
uniform because breathless because unable because America because yo mama
because Mississippi because uniform because Obama because the chase because
unarmed because convenient because mistaken because threatened because ritual
because no one will miss you because beast because innocent because they could
because they could because they could because they could because they –
I usually give my boys names anybody can remember.
Scapegoat. Target. Perp Walk. HeDidIt. Oversight.
The name Kendrec so quashed his potential. He should
have been Victim. Identify. Bullseye. NotAgain.
Miracle. 2BlackMenWithAGun. How about –
I never had children.
I just had accidents.
(Used with poet’s permission)
So, it could be a rich source of material to look up the names of other unarmed Black people who have been killed by police or vigilantes – but pick someone whose name has not become famous. Just one of the many hundreds of ones who haven’t been memorialized and see if you can find a way in. “What is the voice we’re not hearing?” For Patricia Smith, it was the voice of the mother. But there could be many angles.
Trophic CascadeAnother poet I’d love to call your attention to is Camille Dungy. The work of hers I’m most familiar with is Trophic Cascade, Wesleyan University Press 2017. This book is loaded with motherhood, race, history, heart, as well as environmental concern. The poet was a new mother when she wrote it and addresses various topics on motherhood in a series of “Frequently Asked Question” poems. One of my favorites is # 7, which you can read here: https://www.slowdownshow.org/episode/2019/11/12/252-frequently-asked-questions-7

I’m actually not sure what to recommend as a prompt from this poem of Dungy’s – it’s so straightforward – as she says “nothing figurative” about it. But it really does pack a whallop Please read it.
The following poem is from The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, but part of it appeared earlier in Trophic Cascade, as “Brevity” and consisted solely of first line of the second couplet, with one more repetition of “ash, bone.” This poem is a meditation on how the shorter poem came to her.
On Brevity

My daughter’s three months old. A nightmare
rocks me awake, and then fourteen words: Brevity.
As in four girls; Sunday dresses: bone, ash, bone, ash, bone.
The end. 1963, but still burning. My darkening girl
lies beside me, her tiny chest barely registering breath.
Had they lived beyond that morning, all the other explosions
shattering Birmingham — even some who called it home
called it Bombingham — three of the girls would be 70,
the other 67. Somebody’s babies. The sentences I rescue
from that nightmare, I make a poem. Four names, 
grayscaled at the bottom of the page:
Addie Mae Collins. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Denise McNair.
Revision is a struggle toward truth. In my book I won’t keep, The end.
For such terrible brevity — dear black girls! sweet babies — there’s been no end.

(Used with poet’s permission.)
So that might be a way into this story – the fear we all feel for our own children magnified by the knowledge that, as a different race, they would be so much more likely to face what those four little girls in Birmingham met up with.

Wolf Stands Alone in Water.Another poet I admire who does a fantastic job of writing about race, though he himself is White, is from our neighboring county, Marin, Joseph Zaccardi. The poem I’m about to include is from his book, A Wolf Stands Alone in Water. (CW Books, 2015) One section of this book addresses various ways in which humans deny each other humanity, whether because of race, homelessness, sexual orientation.

If he had the sense he was born with but he did if he’d taken off
his doughboy uniform that a hostile band of whites demanded
but he didn’t there in Blakely Georgia in that spring of 1919
when he arrived at the railroad station after the war and he said
these were the only clothes he had but they said well walk home
in your underwear but he didn’t he wore that uniform for two weeks
he did and some folks said they didn’t think it was right that a black
no less should parade around dressed up like a white hero no less
but he did the nerve they said when Private William Little was found
on the outskirts of town badly beaten when this doughboy veteran
was killed because he wouldn’t and didn’t doff the only clothes
he had and walk home in his underwear he wouldn’t
he was wearing his uniform when found
(Used with poet’s permission)
I am impressed with the way Zaccardi captures the disorientation of the situation in his run-on description. And I admire the research he has done to find these stories to tell. You could try telling a story of some injustice in this breathless, disoriented way.
CitizenFinally, if you’re not familiar with Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, please check it out! (Graywolf Press, 2014) Rankine’s writings were in part prompted by the murder of Trayvon Martin, but she has chosen to write prose poems addressing what she calls micro-aggressions, in which the violence does not escalate to beatings, tasings, etc. and loss of life, but creates in the victims outrage, misery, a steady erosion of confidence. I have even had good success in getting my 6th grade students to write prose poems using her model. You can read some of her poems and some student work in this lesson plan of mine published in Teachers & Writers:

But here’s a favorite one not included in the lesson:

The new counselor specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Oh, she says, followed by oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.

If you read the lesson plan, you’ll get some ideas of how to approach writing a poem like this.

I look forward to receiving poems you write to any of these prompts! Please send to: phyllie@sonic.net

Phyllis Meshulam
Sonoma County Poet Laureate (2020-2022)


Archives of previous Poet Laureate columns may be found here for 2012,  2013, 2014,  20152016-2017, 2018-2020 and 2020-2022.

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