I Juke The Apocalypse: Teaching “Gravity”
Let’s face it. I’m a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.
I don’t always open the workshop by saying this is one of the most important poems of the 21st century when I’m about to teach Angel Nafis’s “Gravity” but I could, and I do sometimes, because it is. In a cultural moment where students have an ever-expanding ensemble of terms to describe their experiences of alterity (micro-aggression, fetishization, anti-blackness, appropriation), but not always the tools needed to deal with the way interlocking systems of domination affect them in their everyday lives, Nafis’s poem strikes me as an instrument for living, a special resource for those of us trying to sustain a kind of life in a place we were never meant to survive. Whenever I ask the students what’s happening in “Gravity,” i.e., where the heat is, they invariably talk about not only the astonishing beauty of the language, but also how the poem feels, to them, like the best version of what they wish they had said in a moment of racist or sexist encounter, what they would say back to the people and institutions that have made them feel small, monstrous, insignificant over the years. We talk about the titles of each of the poem’s two sections, how the relationship between “The Straw” and “The Camel’s Back” extends even beyond the popular idiom. We all agree that the eponymous “straw” of the poem’s first section is indeed the last straw, the straw that broke the camel’s back. But then there arises, almost immediately, this question of what a camel’s back might signify all on its own. Adrian says that the camel’s back is an illusion if you think about it and I don’t know what he means at first. He goes on to say that a camel’s back both is and isn’t what it looks like, that what you imagine is only flesh or bone is actually this deep deep reservoir the camel calls upon for life in the harsh climate it calls home and that maybe there are other things like that too. Maybe there is always this caesura between the infinite perceptions mapped onto us in a given day and what we feel is most true about ourselves. And perhaps those perceptions—rooted as they are in systems that do not love us, systems that cannot apprehend us fully by their very design—are not worth our energy. They merit analysis, for sure, but not investment. Not belief.
Oft times, the moment of micro-aggression is one that forecloses response, shutting down our capacity to react to the slight that occurred only a moment ago, often because we are still reeling from the surprise of it, its sheer absurdity. “Gravity,” I would argue, gives us a vocabulary for those encounters. By the time we get to the second section, a radical revision of the worldview presented in the first has taken hold. The seemingly endless flow of casually antagonistic monologue which constitutes “The Straw”—the result, in part, of Nafis’s refusal to give the reader even a brief respite in the form of punctuation or white space—is overturned from the underground, upended by the agility and lyric force of the first three lines of “The Camel’s Back”: “When you born on somebody else’s river in a cursed boat it’s all downhill from there. Ha. Just kidding. I’d tell you what I don’t have time for but I don’t have time. Catch up. Interrogate that. ” Sarah says this is her favorite part of the poem, and that turns into a conversation about joy and playfulness, in the face of unrelenting terror and aggression; how it is even possible to move so swiftly from the violent language of “The Straw” to the joke that opens “The Camel’s Back,” this refusal of black life as tragedy, as emptiness, as the story of a people born(e) on a cursed boat, suspended in nothingness. In response to the vitriol that serves as our entrée in the world of the poem, the speaker laughs. Each “ha” doubles as both a break and a kind of musical accompaniment, a beat to transport the reader from image to image, each more surreal than the last, a breath to rest while the speaker elaborates upon what their splendor makes of the world. One might assume that the speaker would want to respond directly to the voice behind “The Straw,” to assert their humanity in the face of such unrepentant degradation. But they don’t have time for all of that. And indeed, it is in this very refusal to respond, this unwillingness to answer to the language of white supremacist ideology, that so much of the poem’s power lies. At a certain point, we come to see that the poem isn’t really about the speaker in the first section at all. They appear and are quickly forgotten. They can catch up later. They can try. But they’ll never be able to keep pace with the speaker of “The Camel’s Back,” never keep track of the fugitive possibility the speaker carries in their wake. For once, they are not here to be interrogated. They are here to talk about beauty, about blackness, about blackness as a kind of beauty that has the capacity to transform the lived environment: “I’m here and your eyes lucky. I’m here and your future lucky. Ha. God told me to tell you I’m pretty. Ha. My skin Midas-touch the buildings I walk by. Ha. Every day I’m alive the weather report say: Gold.” In “Gravity” blackness is that which alters all that it touches, the un-thought, unseen force holding the world together.
At the close of the session, I have the students think together about what it means, and costs, to assert that we are more than the destructive language we have inherited. As a class, we give our oldest, most resilient shames to the page, re-imagining scenarios in which we were objectified, derided, and did not feel as if we could speak back to the voice condemning us. Time and time again, I have seen students emerge from this exercise with poems that lifted the entire room. Lyric assertions of their own beauty, brilliance and strength, pages upon pages of counter-history filling the table in front of us. This is the sort of social and political work a poem like “Gravity” makes possible. A language for our fullest selves; an elsewhere in which we can be defiant, together, unabashedly alive.
Link to "Gravity" by Angel Nafis:
Joshua Bennett hails from Yonkers, NY. He is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Princeton University, and has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust, and the Ford Foundation. Winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, his poems have been published or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, the Kenyon Review, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory and elsewhere. Penguin Books will publish his first collection of poems, The Sobbing School, in 2016. Joshua is also the founding editor of Kinfolks: a journal of black expression.
Speaking from Fracture
Let me start with a confession, something personal. Last winter, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. We were estranged at the time. I hadn't seen him in nearly a decade when I visited him in the foothills of Tennessee. It was Christmas Eve day. He was in a hospital bed in the living room of his sister's house. He died ten days after I saw him.
I discovered Sharon Olds' poetry over a decade ago when I was a first-year student at James Madison University. Thank god I found that copy of The Dead and the Living when I did. I was eighteen years old and had just left home – an ex-railroad town in rural Virginia with a crippled economy and a bedrock of racism.
I was an avid keeper of notebooks and gatherer of fragments, an accidental poet in the making. Besides trying to simultaneously come to terms with and shake a family history of alcoholism, poverty, and trauma, I was lonely. This was not because I needed someone (that would come a few years later) but because I craved, without knowing it, a more ardent exploration of a sense of self.
The occasion of Sharon Olds' poem "I Go Back to May 1937" is the speaker imagining what might have happened if she had been able to prevent her parents' marriage.
The first time I encountered this poem, I recognized the parents as my mother's parents. I recognized the speaker as both my mother and myself. I recognized the family that would be made and unmade.
Olds' poetry is personal and visceral. She often writes of the body and its fluids and processes – birthing, shitting, fucking, eating, dying. In a 2011 interview with The Independent, Olds describes figures and images that frequented her early work: "Poems started pouring out of me and Satan was in a lot of them. Also, toilets. An emphasis on the earth being shit, the body being shit, the human being being worthless shit unless they're one of the elect."
The situation with my father, our estrangement and his death, was as fucked up and awful and real as you might imagine. When we saw each other that Christmas Eve day, neither he nor I could do anything to resolve it. We had both waited too long.
After he died, I wrote about it and wrote about it until I couldn't see outside of it. I published some of that writing. I won contests, paid my rent, and made a living with that writing. I have no apologies to offer for this. I don't know what is appropriate to think, feel, write, and publish and when. Appropriateness has never been a skill or an interest of mine.
I am my experience and my perception of that experience. He is my experience (as was I for him, however seldom we saw each other). My work is my experience.
I know this is not true for every poet, nor do I think it should be. But this essay is a defense of the confessional and post-confessional modes and their capacities for complexity. This is simultaneously a call for directness and openness.
I was recently in a graduate workshop with the talented poet, essayist, and editor Carmen Giménez Smith. Much like her writing, Giménez Smith's workshop style was precise, intuitive, and to the throat. After nearly seven years of graduate school, I know the conventions and limitations of a writing workshop. Sometimes the atmosphere in these classes can turn hostile as aesthetic camps and personalities clash and divide, but what I've more commonly found to be true is the opposite: sometimes we're just too nice.
Yes, we're afraid of offending the poet, but I think we're more often afraid of inhabiting poems – spending actual time and mental and physical energy with the complex thing before us, figuring out its parts, how it works, and what it is trying to do.
Giménez Smith was neither nice nor hostile, but she had inhabited the poems we'd submitted for workshop that day. She held us accountable to them. Why did you make this choice? How is this title more than a placeholder? What is the purpose of this list, this fragment, or this rhetorical move? How can the entire poem rise to the occasion of its best line? Simply put: she wasn't afraid of stating things clearly or asking questions directly.
We exist in a culture that openly mistakes female directness for aggression. What I want to stress is this: the same willful cultural misunderstanding and aversion to female directness is reflected in attitudes toward confessional and post-confessional poetry. The root of the problem is the same, especially when it comes to the intelligent, articulate, and unapologetic female voice. Especially when that voice is interrogating the personal: sex, violence, the body, motherhood, desire, categories of identity, shame and the interconnectedness of all of these. When she is speaking of the interior workings of the home and the family that should be kept under wraps. (As you probably know, Olds' work has often been criticized and resisted for its content and directness.)
Under wraps: literally the veiling of the body and its processes. To cover up.
But doesn't the thing still exist beneath what hides it? The body continues to pulse, the life ticks on in days and kitchens and bedrooms. Still we strive for this constriction of the body, of language, of transparency. (Let me be clear: I'm not talking about truth or authenticity; these notions are problematic enough for me.)
For the workshop with Giménez Smith, I'd written a poem about my grandfather. More specifically, my poem was about nightmares I've had of him since I was a child, and how these dreams can bleed over and shape the surreal landscape of day. From what I have gathered, he molested most of the women in my immediate family. This wasn't in the poem, but the poem revolved around the fact.
"This poem has a lot of secrets," Giménez Smith said. "We get a lot of the effects but not the causes. You need to just stay what happened, what's going on. Name it."
Naming can be horrifying. To name a thing can risk giving it authority as well as taking it away. I've written this before in another essay: When we talk about a thing, name a thing, do we increase or reduce its power? When I say a word over and over does or gain or lose momentum?
In October, I attended a lecture by Carolyn Forché at Marquette University. As a poet of witness and a curator of poetry of witness, she acknowledged (and I am paraphrasing here) the potential problems associated with "political poetry" – how poetry that is ideological cannot succeed because meaning (the message) is decided before the poem is written.
But things can come into being in and through language. Meaning making, according to Forché, can come from an openness to accident, to a state of not-knowing.
Confessional and post-confessional poems that fail do so for the same reasons as didactic political poems: if the goals, expectations, or motivations are overtly predetermined, if the representations are simplistic or binary, and the poem is self-interested only.
Navel-gazing, proselytizing, lecturing, masturbating, self-pleasingness.
You've heard all this before. These points have been made. I don't know that I am breaking ground here, but I've learned that some questions are worth constantly revisiting.
What are we overlooking in regards to confessionalism and post-confessionalism? In his essay “Confessional Poetry: My Eyes Have Seen What My Hand Did," Regan Good claims, "Certainly, we all weary of sentimental poems lacking in craft. But to reject the confessional mode as passé or reductive would be to reject a kind of poem that has a great capacity to humanize.”
To look at a thing directly or to speak about a thing directly or dare to give it a name does not mean we are decided. I do not aim to foreclose uncertainty. Forché centered on the importance of inspiration being born from the words (the disposition) "I don't know."
She referenced Wisława Szymborska's perpetual wonder at the accident of being: "And why am I here? / On a day that’s a Tuesday? In a house not a nest? / In skin not in scales? With a face not a leaf?"
Forché spoke of how each answer (poem) will be makeshift, never complete, and done with necessary humility. This reminded me of something the Alaskan poet Joan Naviyuk Kane said when she gave a reading here in Milwaukee in September. Kane had recently taken a small group of Inupiaq women elders to visit King Island (Ugiuvak in Inupiaq) – a small, rocky island in the Bering Sea where a group of Inupiat people lived until they were relocated to the Alaskan mainland in the mid-1900s. At the reading, someone in the audience asked Kane what she had learned from the trip and if she was going to write about the experience.
I think we all expected some tidy nugget of wisdom but Kane, fortunately, refused to sum it up. She said (again, I'm paraphrasing from my notes), "What I learned from that trip is how little I actually knew in the first place, how much there still is to understand." I thought, yes, that is poetry: the more we learn, the more we write, the more we realize how little we know.
Poetry, Forché said, should move toward rupture, fragment, and lock picking. Regarding confessionalism, Good writes: "Only by ruthless scrutiny of personal weaknesses–and the relinquishing of one’s reason to associative thinking–are clear, moving, necessarily fleeting portraits of the self possible. The brevity of these insights – the slipperiness of them – fills the analyst’s hour (and great confessional poetry) with its exquisite pathos. There is no absolution, no purification, no easy answer to the searching lyric “I” of true confessional poems."
"Poetry is born out of insecurity," Chris Marker, Sans Soleil.
The central mistake is when we believe poetry written in the confessional or post-confessional mode cannot be multivalent, that these poems can't be borne of the "I don't know" disposition. We misstep when we assume these poets are only interested and invested in their own experience, when we assume that their concerns, the concerns of the work, do not reach beyond the personal, the individual. Of course there are self-indulgent and self-centered people and poems, but the real majority of powerful writing being done in the personal realm is neither self-indulgent nor self-centered.
Olds in her interview with The Independent: "I've never said that the poems don't draw on personal experience, but I've never said that they do. The dialogue that I'm comfortable having about them is one to the side of that actual subject. Art is so different from life. It's just so different."
We write about ourselves and our experiences to purge the self, to write through the self, and see her from the outside, yet still stand on the inside (ultimately, we cannot escape this position, at least not while alive). To meet or speak to other people, other women, there who can relate to our experiences, our suffering, our hunger. We write of the self to be a person in a world among other selves. Is this not the human project in one of its most obvious forms? Not that we can explain ourselves to each other or solve, but that we acknowledge.
When contemplating post-confessionalism on Harriet, The Poetry Foundation's blog, Jeffrey McDaniel writes: “I guess for me, ‘post-confessional’ would apply to poems that enter into a place of psychic fracture, often involving family, and elaborate on or develop techniques used by the confessional poets.”
In her lecture, Forché said the ethos of poetry constitutes a response to these things. She was referring specifically to poetry written after state-sanctioned trauma. I'm interested in writing in the midst and the aftermath of private, domestic trauma.
After his death, I discovered all these photographs of my father I hadn't seen before or had forgotten about. In many of these photos, our smile (grimacy, wide, apologetic, hopeful) is the same: finally something of myself reflected back to me in the world. This is a form of following, haunting, an acknowledgment in retrospect. All these poems, simply: I'm sorry I was so late.
Despite her desire to prevent the harm they will cause each other, the speaker in "I Go Back to May 1937" decides against intervention: "I want to live. I / take them up like the male and female / paper dolls and bang them together / at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to / strike sparks from them, I say / Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it."
She chooses existence and experience, to be made and unmade, to seek out a sense of self, however shifting. To speak from a place of psychic fracture.
Forché: "Poems can be ghosted language."
Giménez Smith: "Haunting can be active."
Link to "I Go Back to may 1937" by Sharon Olds: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/176442
Caitlin Scarano is a poet in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program. She was a finalist for the 2014 Best of the Net Anthology and the winner of the 2015 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, judged by Eduardo Corral. She has two poetry chapbooks: The White Dog Year (dancing girl press, 2015) and The Salt and Shadow Coiled (Zoo Cake Press, 2015). This winter, she will be an artist in residence at the Hinge Arts Residency program in Fergus Falls and the Artsmith's 2016 Artist Residency on Orcas Island.
I forget how old I was then, but during one of my father’s birthdays we threw a party for him. He got really drunk and at some point he was sitting at the breakfast nook in our kitchen crying, uncontrollably. He used to drink this Spanish brandy— Fundador. When I was young that bottle felt so large and ominous in our cabinet. When I was old enough to want to try alcohol I snuck a taste of it and I remember how it felt like a punch to the throat. The party was still going, but my mother took him to bed. She came down the stairs, and I asked why he was crying. It’s because he misses home, she said.
That was the day I understood what it was that my parents had lost by coming over to this country. That our experience in America comes from a foundation of loss. That this is the sacrifice you make to give your family a better life. You grow up seeing these things. You try to make sense of the ways that each of your parents adjust and grow into being a person living here. You see the wide chasm between your experience and theirs. You grow frustrated with the lapse in communications. I was their first American born child. It’s a terrible thing, to grow up looking at your own parents as foreigners. But I wonder about their own difficulties in having a child who is completely familiar and their own, who is their flesh and blood, and yet speaks a different language.
I don’t know why I wanted to become a writer. When I picked up a Creative Writing major during undergrad, I thought I could tell some stories. I thought I might be good at that. I hardly considered poetry. I didn’t grow up with a Youth Speaks or have young poets come to my classroom and put me on to the power of expression. I just thought it was dry and obtuse. Then during my Junior year I met Jaime Jacinto. He was teaching at SF State at the time. I took some of his classes and even TA’d for him once. Before him, I had never met a writer who was Filipino. I felt invisible in my program and there wasn’t anyone who was really paying attention to me. Only Jaime was.
I think about his poem, Heaven is Just Another Country, often. It was the only thing I had seen written that reflected my own experience back to me. It is a poem that is very Filipino, but more than that is very Filipino American. My people tread a lot in non-verbal communication, but there is a quiet desperation to connect that is so pervasive. In the poem there is a moment when the voice recalls combing their father’s hair.
At the mirror, I draw
my comb through his hair,
wipe the gleam of pomade
from his forehead, and again
he tells me he’s dying.
It’s the only time there is any touch in this poem and it’s so absolutely heartbreaking to me. Beyond the specter of death that looms over the poem, there is this need from the speaker to express love and care for their father. Earlier in the poem the speaker talks about hiding the father’s whiskey bottle after noticing that he’s gotten a bit too drunk. It’s a subtle gesture, but at this moment this is how they know to show love to this father who is probably as vulnerable as he has ever been, who may be dying, though nobody is talking about it. I remember doing that same thing to my father’s cigarettes. I did it because I wanted him to find it and know it was me who hid them. So he could see me and know how scared I was for him. That moment when the speaker combs his hair is the realest, most intimate thing that can be done. And this is the moment where they most effectively communicate.
There are different ways I can look at the title of this poem and what to make of its ending. Do we believe that to leave home the ways in which we did was to suffer a kind of death? The death of who we once were in order to become this new thing we are now. Or do we say to those we love, that to leave us would be just like taking that long journey across the Pacific— that we know this route well, that we should not be afraid to say goodbye when the time comes?
I think of my father crying at the breakfast nook and the idea of the weight of loneliness that is mentioned in the poem. And how much that weight existed in my home. In a lot of ways it kept our family together. In a lot of other ways it can be a burden we carry with us. I don’t write because I need to express anything. I really don’t give a fuck about expression. I am desperate for answers. I’m desperate to understand who we are in this country. I may never get an answer I want or one that even makes sense— but who we are, our pain, our struggle are as viable as our joy, our elation, and our triumph. Our stories are a beautiful thing. And I could spend the rest of my life wading through all of our beauty just to get a glimpse of a life that makes any sense.
Heaven is Just Another Country
by Jaime Jacinto
From his usual spot
at the head of the table
in a Chinatown restaurant
I can hear him saying,
I’m going to die,
not to me or anyone
in particular, it’s the weight
of loneliness he’s talking to
and though he’s already
had a few, he orders another
whiskey before dinner.
With mother giving
the signal, lips pouted,
pointing with her mouth
as if to say enough already,
I slide his drink behind the
bottles of vinegar and soy sauce.
When the food arrives
I help him from his chair
to the men’s room.
He relieves himself,
fingers like knobby roots
on his fly, guiding a yellow
stream down the steaming tiles.
At the mirror, I draw
my comb through his hair,
wipe the gleam of pomade
from his forehead, and again
he tells me he’s dying.
I pretended not to hear
unaccustomed to your trust
and instead remembered
when we first arrived here,
how you were still a young man
new to a country
that needed your work,
to sit at a desk,
chain smoking and drawing
blueprints for houses
you never even saw.
I wanted to be seven again
and ride with you past the
factories and railroad yards
down to the warehouses,
to your desk of scattered papers
and an ashtray piled with cigarette stubs.
But then we are back home
and I watch you slump into an armchair,
your body soaked with whiskey.
Tonight, you say,
heaven is just another country,
and getting there is no harder
than that trip 40 years back,
on your first airplane ride to America
when you sang and prayed
like your own son beside you
because far below there was
nothing but blue sea
and the empty sky
that brought us here.
* “Heaven is Just Another Country” has been reprinted with the permission of the poet and Kearny Street Workshop
**Jaime was associated with Kearny Street Workshop. The organization was started in 1972 by a group of visual artists and poets in San Francisco. They did so to create opportunity and spaces for themselves because the mainstream art world wasn’t offering it. Although he wasn’t a founding member he was around a few years in. They published his first book of poems. Today I work for this organization as the program manager.
*** Along with Jaime, there were many Filipino poets that came up in the Bay Area during the 70’s including the late Jeff Tagami, Shirley Ancheta, Virginia Cerenio, Lou Syquia, Oscar Peneranda, and more. And not to mention, the long time OG poet of Manilatown, the late Al Robles, who my friend, Regie Cabico, once referred to as our Walt Whitman.
Jason Bayani is the author of Amulet from Write Bloody Press. He's an MFA graduate from Saint Mary's College, a Kundiman fellow, and is currently the Program Manager for Kearny Street Workshop. http://jasonbayani.com/