On the social function of poetry, American poet Daisy Fried says, “America’s crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It’s not as though it’s optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.”
It’s a statement that couldn’t be avoided this past semester, as students of Professor Sally Keith’s Recent American Poetry (ENGH 356) sunk their teeth into some of the best recently published American poetry. Written by poets of various races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, and aesthetic inclinations, the ten collections exemplified modern American diversity. Some collections were written in direct response to a political event, while some sought to contextualize a construction of the self amidst America’s uniquely multifarious culture.
One of these unanimously hard-hitting texts was Claudia Rankine’s latest collection, Citizen: An American Lyric, which confronts racism in an innovative way.
The majority of the book is written in the second person “you” point of view, which might sound atypical of poetry. The second person point of view channels the the speaker’s conscience, which actually functions as a third person
omniscient perspective. The speaker is simultaneously the voice of the othered citizen, the black or white citizen, and the speaker’s personal sentiments. It conveys a kind of highly personal, collective consciousness. Claudia Rankine manages to bridge the communicative gap between the oppressed and the offender in her poems. It’s stunning. It’s kind of a huge deal.
Rankine told Eric Westervelt of NPR that all of the encounters described in her book actually happened:
“There’s no imagination, actually. Many of the anecdotes in the book were gathered by asking friends of mine to tell me moments when racism surprisingly entered in when you were among friends or colleagues, or just doing some ordinary thing in your day.”
“Poetry serves a function–beyond cultural capital, academia, or personal fulfillment–its political.”
These anecdotal building blocks in Citizen are known as microaggressions, a term Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined in the 1970’s to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group (although they are most frequently used in reference to race). The term was birthed in the cloak of academia but is now a part of our everyday social justice vernacular, and with good reason. For example, you have probably heard one of the following offhanded racial remarks:
“You are really pretty for someone with X color skin.”
A black person being asked,“Why do you act/talk white?”
“Oh you’re from Japan? Do you speak Asian?”
Professor Keith asked students to write their own microaggressions imitating Rankine’s style.
Given the horrendous racial texture of the our country’s current events, her students did not find inhabiting or musing upon the role of the oppressed to be a foreign task.
The results were positive, wide-ranging, and politically charged. Although students wrote various moving accounts of their experiences related to topics of homosexuality, feminism, and disability, I decided to include ten pieces that are about race and ethnicity, as they are directly related to Citizen.
“America’s crimes may be forcing poets back into the world. It’s not as though it’s optional. Eventually it becomes political necessity.” – Daisy Fried
For any of you out there who roll your eyes at poetry and could barely muster the interest to click this post because of the title, I feel you. It has no real function in this world and it’s impossible to understand. I get it.
You’re wrong by the way. Just read Citizen by Claudia Rankine, or take Sally Keith’s ENGH 356. Or scroll down and read your peer’s work.
Yes, poetry can sometimes seem elitist–self-contained and inert, oblivious to outside needs beyond its extraction. As a poet myself, I indulge in technicalities, am tempted by sound, and toy with the extremities of English, knowing that the value in doing so is virtually unrecognized. Yet emphasis on technique, sound, or language does not divorce a poem from its content. It does the contrary. These elements can extract and deliver nuances in content, revelations even.
This is what the art of poetry is all about.
The truth is, poetry makes a lot of sense when you approach it with an open mind and suspend your disbelief in regards to ways in which language is typically used.
Poetry serves a function–beyond cultural capital, academia, or personal fulfillment–its political. Throughout history, the violence of pristine rhetoric has been used to plant seeds of change like fire in the minds of our nation.
The more fervently the oppressed ache, the more you can count on the presence of poets (like your peers) to emerge from the sidelines of your awareness and meditate on pain, grieve the effects of injustice, and crystalize their sentiments into gems of human empathy that can be shared, tasted, kept.
We are proud to bring you these poetic microaggressions written by your Patriot peers.
Some fruit falls out of the tub you filled and held between your chest and your arm. Oh no, you laugh with your co-worker lime down. You hear him say lime lives matter, and stop. You stop laughing. Still in this narrow land behind the bar you make sure to stop talking, too, unsure of how your voice will echo in a work space that’s so confined, so close.
Back home, if you hear someone tell a story involving a person of color, then the race has to be known. If the person in the story is black, Asian, Hispanic, or Middle Eastern, for example, the story becomes: “it was a [race] guy.” If the person in the story is white, you can assume that he’s only a “guy.”
She asks for your name. You say it and she tells you he’ll be with you in a moment. You seem to be ready, you’ve prepared for the interview for a while now. You know everything about the firm. You have the grades, the experience. It’s all in your favor. He calls you into his office, and his eyes suddenly run to the corner of the room.
“Whoah, I didn’t expect to see someone looking like you with that name!”
“My name,” you say.
“That’s right, but you see decent enough.”
You’re not sure what that means, or where that came from. You don’t know what to say, you now don’t even know what your name is.
You are learning how to cut your own hair with a pair of clippers. They’re WAHL and they’re cheap; either they cut your ear because they are cheap, or your ear was cut because this is your second time using them. However, you are used to it; Army barbers in basic training are rough with their clippers, as if they use sandpaper to scrape your hair off. It sounded like a shovel in gravel, you think. But you’re out of basic training and you are in a barracks in Texas waiting to deploy to Iraq in a week. Today, you are more worried about your haircut.
You finish most of the cut, except the back of the neck and you want to ask someone to check. Only a few guys are in the barracks so you ask the three of them if they can look.
“Why are you asking us?” one of them says. Before you say anything, he speaks for you: “Because we are black. Because we are supposed to be barbers.”
Now you worry, the guys see you by how they think you see them.
You are sitting with your friends at Pilot House. It’s Friday night, the week is over, and you are all laughing and relaxing now that the weekend has finally arrived. Out of the corner of your eye, you see a girl approach. Her skin glows under the fluorescent lighting, flushed from a little too much to drink. She totters right up to your table, pausing your conversation. You don’t know why she points at you specifically, but she does, index finger accusatory. She asks you if you would be hurt if she called you the n-word, even if it was friendly and she ended it with “a” instead of “er”. You contemplate the question, trying to find the words to respond. You’ve had a few drinks tonight yourself, so you can’t help but smile sweetly when you answer––would you be hurt if I slapped you with my left hand instead of my right? She blinks, nods, and stumbles back to her table. You turn to your friends, and one asks how your test last week went. Quickly, the talk returns to jokes and stories. The girl is long forgotten now; it is as if nothing happened.
You’re driving home after taking the worst sleep test. You have seventy more miles until your exit. Music is playing loud, really loud. You were jammin’ too hard to see the speed limit. Bright flashing. Blue men honk. You pull over. The face is terrifying and hairy. Seventy in a fifty five zone.
“Could I see your identification and registration”
You hand him both. He starts asking questions. He writes is tall down. He asks about the owner of the car. You say it is your dad’s. He nods, goes to file a report. He comes back.
“And you are Latina, correct?”
Confused, you say, “No, Asian and white.”
He nods again. You wonder why it mattered. He puts away the notebook. He walks over to his partner and talks for a bit.
“I’m going to let this one slide. Just be careful to watch your speed.”
Your mind is fuzzy in the commotion. In a room full of acquaintances and strangers, the topic turns to politics. You sit quietly and listen as the group drinks and discusses the shootings of unarmed black teenagers and anti-Islamic rhetoric. You’re very quiet, only occasionally affirming that you think it is all wrong and that someone should do something. Tensions swell when the girl next to you suggests that not all police are racist. You sit and sip and hope that the subject changes, knowing a guy like you is rarely the hero in these situation.
You’re in the locker room, getting changed after practice. You’re not really thinking about anything.
“You know you do that pretty well, you know,” the guy says.
“What?” you say.
“Thanks,” you reply.
“Yeah, you do it better than most people like you and that’s impressive because you don’t see that very often. You’re like that one black guy.”
You didn’t want to think about that one black guy.
Footsteps approach as you lock the door of your car. You look up and smile at the woman passing your aisle of the parking lot.
At the moment when she is directly across from you, in the same opening between two cars, she catches herself, clutches her keys and remotely locks the door. She peers over all the other cars she has passed to make sure. You watch all this and still watch as she sees you again, bows her head and hurries away.
END: Have an experience to share? Write your poetic microaggression on the sidebar!