Details about the events can be found here.
Remarks, Poet as Public Citizen, AWP, February 2011
I’m interested in talking about trauma and poetry; both personal and historical trauma.
I’m going to start with a poem by Lucille Clifton
About a week ago, during the 10 minute break in my evening Intro to Creative Writing class, I went to the women’s bathroom and in a stall in the newly refurbished bathroom, on the third floor of the cathedral of learning, written in really permanent ink on slick marble, there were these lines of a poem:
Won’t you celebrate
That everyday something
Has tried to kill me
And has failed.
It wasn’t exactly delineated the way Lucille’s poem is in the book, but for me, that made it even more amazing, because it said to me that the woman hadn’t copied the poem, that she had written it from her heart—(I’m pretty certain it was a woman, but you can’t be sure!). It meant that she carried those last four lines with her through her life like a prayer, or a note about when the revolt will begin passed from one slave to another.
Messages, graffiti, are common on bathroom walls, of course, but believe me, not on the walls of the bathrooms in the cathedral of learning at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. I have never ever seen anything written on another bathroom wall there . . . And, yet, having a poem written on a bathroom wall of an academic institution, especially a poem by Lucille Clifton, was intriguing. First of all, the person had written that poem behind closed doors, in a place where only certain people would see it, and at a certain time, when they were in the most humble position, vulnerable, kind of naked; I think the person who brought Lucille into that secret place knew that she is still dangerous, that she could get you into trouble.
What would Lucille have said about her poem being written there?
Lucille often said she wanted the respect of her peers. It was the thing she wished in her last interview in the current Writer’s Chronicle. I have heard her say it before. She had to know she was one of the most loved and popular poets in the world. Maybe this is exaggerated but someone told me that 20,000 people attended her reading at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, and she had been a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets for years. And, yet, still, I think she smelled an old truth: that the poetry in the anthologies of the 20th century was not written by poets who looked like her, and they did not contain poems about the subjects that she was writing about. Every time she received one of those big awards, she was more than thrilled, she was shocked. It was as if she couldn’t believe it, that this good thing that she wanted so badly was coming to her.
She told me this story. When her first book was published, her stair step children, six, were following behind her at the mall, she looked in the bookstore window and saw one of the first copies of her book, finally published! She ran into the bookstore and grabbed the first salesperson pointing excitedly at the window, “that’s my book!” she exclaimed to the woman. The woman looked at her with the level gaze, and, without too much thought, said to her, “no it isn’t”. Lucille said that for a moment she believed her.
Lucille has told us in her poems that she’s faced it all, the death of her beloved and only husband, the loss of two of her children, cancer for many years, medical intervention, kidney replacement, dialysis, that along with the early years of poverty, racism, she lived with it all. In the poem Mercy she spells out the sexual molestation by her father when she was a young girl.
My students don’t want to believe it. Don’t want to read it. When they read Push by Sapphire they say that can’t happen, no mother would ever protect the rapist, no father would ever rape his baby daughter. And then when some woman in the class points out that 50 percent of women are the victims of some kind of physical abuse, they shut up and it begins to sink in.
Lucille’s poem doesn’t address any large identifiable social issue; however, she couldn’t be more of an example of a poet as public citizen. Often personal trauma holds within it historical trauma passed down from previous generations that didn’t get and couldn’t be resolved at the time it was experienced. I have said that we learn the painful lessons of history in our parents' bed. We are sent on their mission. Writing personal poetry, in this case, refutes the oppressor inside, the one that is often the worst, and, in so doing, opens up the public space for the freedom and respect that every human being is entitled to. I remember the fighting words of Audre Lorde about personal poetry: shame produces silence and silence keeps everything the same.
Won’t you celebrate with me: to celebrate implies more than endurance and survival; it implies a power that is finally self-authored, self-referential, not defined anymore by outside forces. It speaks to everyday victories too, the triumph of getting your coat on on a dreary cold dark Pittsburgh night and going out to your Intro to Creative Writing class.
I am the founder of an organization called Cave Canem whose main purpose is to provide a safe space for the writing of African American poets. Cornelius Eady and I founded CC 16 years ago, where a little group of poets, 24 from all over the country, for the first time, came together to sit in a circle, to meet and to study with other African American poets, many of whom had never read or studied an African American poet in college and grad school, or been in a workshop with another African American poet; in the case of faculty, had never taught another African American poet. At CC there is no particular style that is promoted, no particular subject, it’s not like in the days of Ralph Ellison and Richard wright when you had to choose: are you a poet (indicating “real” poet, that is, you are not writing about race, but writing poems with “universal” themes, or you are a black poet, that is, writing about race. On the first night of each retreat, the now 60 poets sit in a circle and look at each other. They go around the circle and talk about the journey to here, why they came. The tears flow with the stories.
There is an image in my memoir The Black Notebooks, of women who have never talked about what it was like to grow up in the south during the time of Jim Crow laws, uncles and grandfathers whose parents had been alive during slavery who would not go talk about the secrets of slavery and its aftermath. Perhaps the most powerful weapon at times is the one that no one knows about, one that cannot even be found. The CC opening circle is a symbol; it says we are not a hierarchy, there is no up and down, we are all necessary and equally important. And, in the center, is this powerful held space, this opening. I truly believe that, finally, those that couldn’t speak are speaking. And now there will be nothing that can stop them.
Yesterday I was talking to Ellen Bass and she said: “Isn’t the greatest poem the one that is remembered? You may read a thousand poems, some stunning, brilliant poems, but most you will never think again. I want surreptitiously to take all of my students in the intro to creative writing class into that bathroom to read that poem. Then I want to come back to class and talk about the poet as public citizen.