Chris: Welcome to Lyric Essentials, where writers and poets share with us a passage or poem which is “essential” to their bookshelf and who they are as a writer. Today Gabrielle Bates reads “The Times” by Lucille Clifton.
I love learning how poets found the work that inspires them. Do you remember when you were first introduced to Clifton’s poetry? What about this particular poem, any specific memory?
Gabrielle: When I graduated from high school, one of my dad’s friends (a badass female attorney), gave me a stack of poetry books. Clifton’s 1988-2000 selected Blessing the Boats came to me in that stack. As a seventeen-year-old, I knew I loved words, but as far as poems go, I’d only read collections by ee cummings and Pablo Neruda. Clifton’s work opened my eyes to poetry that dared to 1) reach beyond cleverness for clarity and 2) write from a female perspective about real-world issues, both public and private.
Despite studying creative writing in both undergrad and graduate school, I can’t remember ever being taught Clifton’s poetry. All the critical reading and thinking I’ve done in her relation has been on my own.
Poets have long looked to their own bodies to answer the question, “What is poetry?” Emily Dickinson said, famously, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” A. E. Robinson said something like “If it raises my hackles enough that I might cut myself while shaving.” For me, I know what I’ve read is poetry if it makes me clutch a part of my own collarbone as if it were something worn and in danger of falling off.
Last September, something told me to grab Blessing the Boats off my shelf before leaving for a seminar on San Juan Island. When I reached the last line of “The Times” (“these too are your children this too is your child”), something broke in me. I saw Tamir Rice. I saw Trayvon Martin. And beyond those specific lives hovered all the others—the untold masses who have been murdered for nothing more than the fact that their very existence made a white person feel suspicious or afraid. A white person like me.
This poem—particularly that last line—is a statement against all that seeks to dehumanize or desensitize us.
I decided I needed this poem with me always, so I walked into the woods and didn’t come out until I had it memorized.
Chris: The lines right in the middle of the poem, “If this/ alphabet could speak its own tongue/ it would be all symbol surely;” create an intricate image—symbols speaking in symbols. What do you think this image contributes to the poem?
Gabrielle: Ahh, yes, an incredibly intricate image. Endlessly complex. (Can you believe people often think of Clifton as a writer of “simple” poems? Shame on them for mistaking clear syntax and brevity for simplicity).
The way I see it, this is where the poem pivots into the realm of ars poetica.
Language does not have a physical, mortal body. We do. There’s bound to be something lost in the translation of a body’s experience into a’s, b’s, and c’s. The way I see it, Clifton’s deep disappointment and emotional fatigue in this poem apply firstly to the endless onslaught of racial violence against children, and secondly, to the inability of language to do anything other than approximate experience and reflect back on the person who wields it. The two are related.
As someone whose own poems often rely heavily on image, I see Clifton grappling with the limits of language in this section of the poem, specifically the limits of objective correlatives (sup, Eliot?). There is a danger, not just a difficulty, implicit in this limit. If language in its purest form renders living beings (the cat, the spindle fish) and dead beings (the dust) immediately upon naming into pat symbols, what does that mean for the murdered child? For humanity? For elegy?
These are the sorts of questions I see Clifton circling around.
What would it look like to give language total agency, removing the human from the equation? Clifton can’t even really conceive of this hypothetical—Who can?—so her thought experiment breaks down before our eyes. In the end, our shared humanity is all there is, all that matters.
Chris: It’s interesting to see a poet speak about the limitations of language, and Clifton doesn’t mince her words—as you said, she’s brief and utilizes clear syntax. What do those devices (brevity, clarity, concision) add to this poem, or Clifton’s poetry in general?
Gabrielle: My poems seem to be sprawling larger and larger these days (a side effect of working for a literary journal that only publishes long work, no doubt), so it’s important for me to come back to poets like Clifton who do so much in a small amount of space. To remind myself it’s possible.
One aspect of Clifton’s style I admire is her ability to achieve surprising effects using fairly commonplace diction and whole units of syntax. She’s perfectly capable of writing what she calls “clever” poems with fragmentary syntax, uncommon words, and obscure literary allusions, but she chooses not to. She doesn’t get off on excluding readers without PhDs, and I admire that. Her brevity and clarity invite both the poet and the non-poet to enter, experience, and be changed.
Like Clifton, while I can appreciate a poem whose primary function is to tickle my intellect, I am not very interested in writing such poems. I am drawn to poems that grab for the gut, the throat, the bones. I want a poem to take off at a gallop from the first line and leave me flailing wildly at the edge of a ravine, not knowing how this fur got in my teeth. Clifton and I write very different poems, but we’re both interested in unsettling effects. “I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” she says. I think that’s maybe the highest goal poetry can have.
Chris: You mentioned Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. “The Times” is a poem that seems to be born from, and grappling with, politics of identity and what it means to be black in the United States. Is the most essential poetry that which is “political?” Or is all poetry inherently political?
Gabrielle: I’ve been thinking about the inherent politics of poetry a lot lately, especially in relation to race. Unfortunately, the word “political” is often used to describe poetry as if the word is synonymous to “bad.” As if one must choose between making a political stand in one’s poem and utilizing craft techniques—political content or language innovation. It’s an absurd distinction.
I believe, as Jericho Brown points out in his essay “Love the Masters,” all art is political in that it either supports or critiques the status quo. Because we are all raced beings, whether we consider ourselves to be or not, all our poems are in conversation with racial issues. I tend to read and write every poem, whether it mentions race explicitly or not, through this lens.
Chris: Are there writers writing today that affect you in the same way Clifton does—make you reach for your collarbone?
Gabrielle: Of course! In fact, the vast majority of the poetry I read and adore is contemporary. Entire books that immediately come to mind are Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, Beth Bachman’s Do Not Rise, Roger Reeves’ King Me, Richard Siken’s Crush, and Judy Jordan’s Carolina Ghost Woods. Individual poems: “It Was the Animals” by Natalie Diaz, “The Boxers” by Andrew Feld, “Veronicas” by Carolina Ebeid, and “Cold Comfort in October” by Keetje Kuipers. But there are so many more. So, so many more.
Gabrielle Bates is a Southern poet and writer living in Seattle, where she serves as coordinating editor of The Seattle Review and twitter editor of Broadsided Press. She is an Indiana Review Poetry Prize finalist, winner of Gigantic Sequins’ poetry comic contest, and her work appears or is forthcoming in Best of the Net 2015, Black Warrior Review, New South, Rattle, Guernica, Southern Humanities Review, The Journal, Radar Poetry, and Thrush, among other journals. She will graduate with her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington in June 2016. Find her at www.gabriellebatesstahlman.com, on Twitter (@GabrielleBates), and on Instagram (@Gabrielle_Bates_Stahlman).
Chris Petruccelli has successfully survived and escaped Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s back home in Tennessee, still breathing, still writing, and his poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Cider Press Review, Nashville Review, Still: The Journal, and elsewhere. You can check out his chapbook Action at a Distance over at University of Indianapolis’ Etchings Press. In his free time Chris continues to enjoy drinking whisky and smoking cigarettes with older women.
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This is truly beautiful, the reading!