You find yourself compelled to go through your closet. And dresser. Thoroughly. When I get into this mode– of thinking I need my space to be organized before I can possibly start writing– I know writer’s block is either imminent or already in full swing. It may be that my efforts to “de-clutter” are a literal analogue to what I want to happen in my mind.
I’m trying to write a section of the introduction to How the Other Half Laughs about how ideas about humor and comedy changed in the United States at the turn into the twentieth century. You’d think this would be fun to write about, but I’ve discovered it involves reading lots of really boring books. It’s the academic version of the idea that if you have to explain a joke, you’ve killed it. Academics, being rather humorless sorts to begin with, don’t seem to understand this. And I don’t want to continue the genocide.
Even though I’m not writing much these days, and even though I’m bored by my research, I have read a really good book in the past week. It’s actually a book of poetry and essays– something I would have been highly unlikely to pick up in the days before I started my Weekly Poem Project (yes, I know I am a bit behind on this but poems have also been a casualty of the writer’s block I’ve been struggling with). The book is Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, nominated last week for the National Book Award. It also happens to be published by Graywolf Press in Northfield, MN, where I learned the rudiments of book design and typography in a summer internship way back in 1990.
The cover design provides an excellent introduction to the book’s subject and themes:
Yes, that’s a black hood from a hoodie sweatshirt on the cover, and yes, part of it is about Trayvon Martin. I was curious to read Citizen because so many of the reviewers have noted how difficult the book was to get through. “Citizen comes at you like doom,” says Hilton Als. Marjorie Perloff says the book has “a shock value rarely found in poetry.” Jonathan Farmer, who reviewed the book for Slate, said, “It is one of the best books I have ever not wanted to read.” How could you not want to read a book that gets press like this?
One of the interesting things about the book is that Rankine uses second-person point of view to portray the paradoxical position experienced by blacks in America: both never-not-visible, and almost-always-invisible. In second person, you end up inhabiting the persona of the speaker, seeing through her eyes, feeling what she feels. So that you can experience this feeling yourself, here is a short prose poem from the book, which incidentally also happens to be about humor. I think Rankine really kills this joke here (in the good sense, not in the sense I’m afraid of doing ;-)). I quote the entire poem:
Someone in the audience asks the man promoting his new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect–context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among ‘the others out in public’ and not among ‘friends.’
Another great surprise about this book is that the entire second section is an essay about racism in tennis. Most of you reading this know that I am a tennis nut, so I ate up this part of the book. Rarely do you ever see sports written about with eloquence, or even with care. Sometimes baseball gets this treatment; sometimes golf. But I never expected to read about tennis in a book about racism in America.
Most of the essay is about Serena Williams, a tennis player I have no love for. Rankine’s essay, though, made me gain a lot of respect for her. The ongoing discrimination she experiences on and off the court, as an assertive black woman in a country-club sport, is shocking–and depressing. But I can’t say I disagree with any of it.
So, I strongly recommend Citizen. You may not enjoy reading it, but I don’t think you’ll be sorry that you did.