I have a sense that, present company excepted, most editors are not so interested in poems about race. I could be over-interpreting rejections, as writers tend to do. It’s not that magazines are falling all over themselves to publish my poems about sex, death, history, travel, and photosynthesis. And why one poem, out of any particular batch of five, gets snapped up while the others have to shuffle sadly over into another submission queue—that’s generally mysterious to me. Maybe my white-person-thinking-about-race poems just aren’t as smart or deft or surprising as my photosynthesis poems.
In any case, my piece in Tahoma Literary Review was triggered by a distinctly uncomfortable conversation about race, with some discomfort about class and disability in the background. The auditor I describe in the poem identified as white, as do most of the students in my Washington & Lee classes, but he was older, local, and suffering from illness. He sat in on my contemporary poetry seminar to keep himself focused on art he loved during a difficult time, and I’m glad he could, but he was definitely the odd man out. His comments, even his presence, sometimes unsettled his classmates. Based on body language and subsequent office-hour debriefings, a few of my undergraduates were angry after his claim, quoted in “Sticky,” that “we are all racists deep down.” I don’t much like being grouped in that “we” either. I can see that human beings tend to seek out and favor likeness, but race isn’t always a primary factor in our affiliations, is it? I don’t think so, yet I can hear my own anxious defensiveness in that “but.”
Don’t most good conversations begin with provocations like the one my auditor leveled at us? The class had been discussing Amiri Baraka’s work, and Baraka was a provocateur extraordinaire. His poems want us riled up. Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, and others in my writer-tribe sometimes seem more polite in their challenges, but poetry is always negotiating between pattern and anarchy. Even when you think you know a poem well, some weirdness can jump out at you—we wouldn’t reread and talk about poems if nothing lived in them anymore. We don’t have to agree with each other, but in the privileged space of a classroom or a poem, we can put our disagreements on the table and examine them. The very act of trying to communicate our differences holds us together, if uncomfortably.
Read Lesley’s poem “Sticky” in our current issue.