Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: listening, and the listeners

I’ve heard so much about Evie Shockley. “She’s amazing,” one of my colleagues recently gushed. I’d never read any of her poems– or read any of her scholarly work about poetics and African American poetry. So when I saw that she was receiving the Stephen Henderson Award for “outstanding achievement in poetry” from the African American Lit and Culture Society, and that she would be giving a reading at the American Literature Association conference I’m attending this week in Boston, I was excited to see her.

I like going to poetry readings where I haven’t read the poems in print, because it makes me really listen to the poems and think about how their sound, as much as line breaks or stanza spaces, shapes the way they should be understood. And I really love how Evie Shockley’s poems sound.

At the same time that she conveys a strong voice, a sense of self, through her language, the words she chooses take on a shape and personality of their own, jostling against and sometimes dancing with one another through pun, internal rhyme, echoes, snippets of music (sometimes actually sung), and onomatopoeic pops, drumbeats, whispers, and moans. These sounds evoked spontaneous and sometimes incongruous laughter from all of us in the audience, as well as murmurs of assent and gasps of surprise. Take, for example,  this excerpt from her “fare-well letters” (which she read in their entirety last night):

dear ink jet,


          black fast. greasy lightning.
won’t smear. won’t rub off.
          defense: a visual screen: ask
an octopus (bioaquadooloop).
          footprints faster than a speed-
ing bully, tracking dirt all
          over the page. make every
word count. one. two. iamb.
          octoroon. half-breed. mutt.
mulatto. why are there so few
          hybrids on the road? because
they can’t reproduce. trochee
          choking okay mocha. ebony,
by contrast, says so much.

The Poetry Foundation (poets.org), from which I lifted that excerpt, aptly describes her poetry as being, among other things, “sentimental without being saccharine.” Some of her poetry indulges in the sort of black-mother-love and the close-to-discipleship of figures like W. E. B. DuBois that is so familiar to people who study African American literature and poetry. But somehow it avoids being trite. I think this is, in part, because Shockley carefully uses poetic form to give her ideas a kind of spine, a firmness that keeps her ideas from collapsing into a mush of feelings, associations, or emotions.

Last night she read sonnets and other forms of metrical verse, as well as visually structured poems. I loved her three-sonnet cycle “The Ballad of Anita Hill,” though I could not “hear” the sonnet form when she actually read it out loud. Now that I read the words, it’s clear that Shockley uses straight-up English sonnet form, but disguises it aurally through enjambment (breaking lines in the middle of a phrase, rather than having them coincide with natural pauses, commas, periods).

She also read poems that one would think could not be read out loud. One of them took a form I’d never heard of before: the mesostic, apparently invented by the avant-garde composer John Cage, it works like an acrostic, where the letters that begin each line of the poem themselves create a word or phrase when read from top to bottom, but instead, as the prefix “meso” indicates, the letters you string together appear in the middle of each line. Here’s the one she read:

doroThy dandridge
yellow maRy peazant
hAlle berry
helGa crane
marIah carey
Clare kendry

maMa day
lAni guinier
consolaTa
zora neale huRston
anIta hill
ntozAke shange
sapphiRe
aliCe walker
peacHes

saartjie bArtman
seThe

sallY hemings
nOla darling
maya angeloU
harRiet jacobs

joSephine backer
janEt jackson
margaret gaRner
Vanessa williams
desiree washIngton
sappho Clark
cElie

Now that I actually see the poem “on the page,” as it were, I wonder if it’s as effective as it was when she read it out loud. She explained what the form was before reading it, but did not reveal the mesostic message running down the middle of the lines until she had read all those names. By withholding the connecting theme of the poem, we listeners had to struggle to find the connections between these names– they are all black women, some historical, some fictional– and there was an audible gasp when Shockley “finished” the poem by stating what should have seemed obvious: that they were all “tragic matriarchs at your service.”

The poem that I both found most powerful and most troubling as a poem–funny how those things go together–was one that I believe has not yet been published. In her remarks preceding her reading of the poem, Shockley said that she started thinking about it when Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and then “reached backwards and forwards” to include all the young black men killed by police and other white authority figures: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, Freddie Gray– to name just a few. Her poem is a kind of meditation on the seeming dispensability of the lives of young black men in America; she ruminates about how many “black boys” it takes to do various things: how many is too many? how many not enough? The phrase “black boys” is repeated in every line, filling the poem with boys, boys boys. Boys that are so numerous that they lose any sense of individuality or value. Finally, the poem ends with a sort of motherly admonition, which Shockley conveyed with a sort of vocal shrug, by ending with an upward inflection: “Black boys don’t grow on trees.” You know this; we all know this; but we waste them anyway.

This last line was a punch in the gut– an indication of both the poem’s power, and what troubled me about it. The reference to the “strange fruit” of lynching, tossed off in the form of a dead metaphor, emphasizes through irony the lip service we pay to the preciousness of life, especially the lives of young black men. But I think it also comes across as a bit flip. Is irony really how we want to address the actual disregard many people have toward black lives?

As I thought about this, it struck me that the reading had been very noisy. Not the audience– though occasionally chuckling, laughing, gasping, applauding, the audience as a whole had been attentively hushed for the most part. But I suddenly realized that starting a few minutes into the reading, the bar staff at the back of the room was making a lot of noise. Clinking glasses, crashing bottles. They tore boxes and crushed down piles of plastic plates and cups in trash cans. They kept opening and closing doors, hauling trays and dollies and racks of glasses and bottles and cans in and out of the hotel ballroom.

Initially I thought they were just cleaning up after the open bar that had preceded the reading, where conference attendants (most of them, being college professors and grad students, just slightly more credentialed versions of hungry, opportunistic college students) had joyfully descended to partake in indifferent wine and bottled beer. Although I found the bar staff’s noisy industry incredibly rude, like everyone else, I just tried to tune them out.

But at the end of this particular poem, I realized that there was an edge to this noise. In fact, it seemed that the bartender– a plump, balding man with an unkempt red beard– was making most of the noise himself.

After the reading was over, they announced that the bar would be open for 5 more minutes and so I thought I (like the rest of my kind, not about to refuse a free drink) would get one more beer. As I approached the bar, I saw a middle-aged African American professor ask, with a smile, for a whiskey. The bartender glared at him, threw a couple of ice cubes in a glass, sloshed a slug of whiskey into it, and slammed it onto the top of the bar so hard that at least a third of the whiskey splashed over the sides. When it was my turn, he gave me the same glare. He savagely wrenched the cap of the beer bottle off and slammed that on the counter too. When I thanked him, he rolled his eyes, and muttered something through his teeth. I couldn’t understand what he said– all I could hear was a heavy Boston accent.

The guy was pissed. Furious.

And I realized, he’d been listening to Evie Shockley just like the rest of us. But his response was so different. To us, she’d said, “Oh, it’s so nice not to have to explain who Anita Hill is.” She’d repeated, several times, that she hoped her poems, including the “fare-well letters” excerpted above, wouldn’t “try our patience.” It was clear that when she said these things, she was not speaking to the bartender, but to the slightly more credentialed people sitting in the chairs arranged in neat rows in front of the podium at which she spoke.

She knew who she was speaking to, but was she hearing who was listening? Was her seeming obliviousness to the bartender a cool, cultivated response to the untold instances where service workers, servants, and slaves remain unrecognized as listeners, despite their presence, which is not just expected, but demanded? Or had she done the same thing that various men–white and black alike–had done to their “tragic matriarchal servants”?

I wonder. I suppose, now, that I am also asking.

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