Kendrick, Pulitzer, & Responding to Dotun Adebayo, or A Thing Megan Is Not Qualified to Talk About Pt. 3

Last summer, in an attempt to be seen as “cool” by my mentees in Geneseo’s Access Opportunity Summer Scholar’s Program (AOP), I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., a new album they all had been listening to and discussing.

And then I listened to it again.

And again.

I didn’t listen to DAMN. repeatedly because I was hooked; I listened to it for comprehension. I knew my Broadway-and-a-cappella-loving white ass wasn’t going to understand any of the nuances of this strange, loud music unless I kept listening (while simultaneously googling the lyrics, because Kendrick isn’t exactly the king of enunciation).  I thought that if I could at least say what DAMN. is about, I’d reach my young, in-the-know mentees on their musical level.

Well, now I’m obsessed with DAMN., even though most of my friends and now former mentees have moved on.  I’ve listened to DAMN. forwards.  I’ve listened to DAMN. backwards.  I’ve mixed the songs from DAMN. in with songs from good kid, m.A.A.d cityand To Pimp A Butterflyin a playlist that I think could be the soundtrack to a Broadway jukebox musical (a musical with non-original songs).  I’ve made my mom listen to DAMN.  I can rap most of “XXX” from DAMN. DAMN. is my go-to driving album, shower album, and running-to-class-because-I’m-late-as-fuck album.  DAMN. was not written for minimally cultured white women like me, but DAMN. I love it.

As you can predict, when DAMN. was awarded the 2018 music Pulitzer, I was ecstatic.

Now, let me introduce you to someone who is less ecstatic (unless you’re already familiar with this human, in which case, lmk).  Dotun Adebayo, a British radio presenter, writer, and publisher (thanks, Wikipedia), published an article this morning titled “If we valued black art, Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer would have been for literature.”  I bet my classmates can predict Adebayo’s points: rap should be considered poetry, rap should be taught as literature in schools along with Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is basically R-rated anyway, so, like, rap isn’t encouraging violence any more than Romeo and Julietis (they were all stabbing each other for half the play).

If you ask me if DAMN. is poetry, I’ll say, “Um, obviously.”  If you ask me if DAMN. should have received the poetry Pulitzer instead of the music one, I’ll say, “I don’t care if the album received a journalism Pulitzer, we still have a Black rapper receiving a Pulitzer!”  Now, the winner of the 2018 poetry Pulitzer was this work called Half-light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, which I am not familiar with at all, so I’m not comfortable kicking it out of its place for Kendrick to get that poetry slot.  Really, I don’t think any of us can complain at the moment.

Regarding rap as poetry in schools, however, thatshould have been a thing back in the mid 2000s. It’s all Pearson’s fault, with its common core, College Board, white-as-fuck SAT questions, and lack of understanding that literature develops.  Fuck Pearson, fuck College Board, fuck Robert Frost and the woods he walked in (click the link), fuck the school-to-prison pipeline, fuck white privilege, fuck any non-Black person who raps the n-word while rapping along to Kendrick’s ”Element,” Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire,” and Jay-Z’s “Jigga is my N****.”

Not that that’s news to any of my classmates, though.

A poem in a psychology paper?

Guys, I found a poem!  No, it’s not a “found poem,” in that I constructed it.  I literally found a poem in Dr. Merrilees’ 2014 research!

Some context: Dr. M is a Psychology professor here at Geneseo.  She is also a peace psychologist, which means that she studies peace maintenance in conflict zones.  Dr. M’s research focuses on the conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, specifically on how the conflict affects adolescents’ social identity.  The text I’m featuring is from the discussion section of her 2014 paper. Here it is:

As youth develop a greater

awareness of group distinctions, naturally occurring

changes in sense of community &

group identity may shift.

I swear on my GPA, these words appeared just like this in the paper!  Even sans context, a poetry workshop could legitimately workshop this.  I’m blown away: poetry is everywhere!

 

When An Unfinished Poem Is Published…?

I have found myself in a bit of a pickle.

I sent the same draft of a poem to two poetry knowledge bases: my poetry workshop and Chrissy Montelli (Geneseo alum, poet, close friend).  See, I was hoping to get Chrissy’s comments before I submitted my poem for workshop, but Chrissy is neck-deep in “thesis land” for her MFA and couldn’t get notes to me in time.  Well, I edited my poem according to her notes and submitted it to MiNT Magazine (the magazine wanted more submissions, so I just sorta went for it).  However, after reading over my classmates’ notes for that same poem, I realize that the poem I submitted to MiNT is definitely not the final version of this poem!

Now, I’m not about to withdraw the poem from MiNT (because it’s not like I can submit the new version now).  However, it reminds me of something that somebody in the English department said (Rachel Hall? Jess Fenn?) about published work, how something can be published and still not be “done.”  Apparently, people change their published writing, and then publish it again!  That’s an option!  It’s so odd to me because I like to complete tasks before I show off my work to anyone, but I guess that’s just not how writing always works…If, by some chance, this poem makes it into MiNT without the edits from my class, I just have to be okay with it being there even though it doesn’t look like the finished product.  I mean, being published is not a bad problem to have, but my rigidity is not gonna take it well.

Have any of you found yourselves in this place?

The 11 Things That Occur When You Fall In Love With A Poet

  1. You verbalize thoughts as haikus because it makes him laugh.
  2. You prod him to reveal his new poems to you, but he doesn’t because he “wants them to be a surprise.”
  3. You send him your “workshoppable” poems so he can send comments that will help you make the poems ready for class workshop (he’s a Lytton fanboy, so you mostly trust his judgment).
  4. You read all of his previous love poems and admire their sincerity.
  5. You wonder if you’ll ever write a love poem as sincere as his, considering that you don’t typically write love poems.
  6. You wonder if he’ll even like the love poem you write for him.
  7. You lend him your leggings.  He wears them to Creative Writing Club and receives more compliments than you do when you’re wearing them, and you’re not even mad because he looks so damn good in them.
  8. He lends you his flannel (which is poetic, because it’s a flannel)
  9. You snapchat yourself in his flannel, and he makes that snap his lock screen, and you wonder if that could be a poem in and of itself.
  10. You wonder if his face when he looks at you could be a poem in and of itself.
  11. Finally, you wonder if you could make your grossly cute relationship into a poem that your peers will find worthwhile in workshop.

Two poetry-related things that make me anxious

  1. Writing the poetry book review
    I don’t “finish reading poetry books.” I have no desire to read an entire book of one person’s poetry.  Hell, I lack desire to read an entire book of collections of poetry!  When I want to read poetry, I read a few online and then walk away, because I typically don’t hold onto poems if I read twenty at a time.
    Also, does anyone really want me writing a book review?  I’ve only written one, and that was for my dad’s co-authored psychology memoir six years ago.  Now I have to review a book full of poems and find recurring themes and keep my ears open for rhyme and…

    Fourteen-year-old Megan spends recess and choir class in a classroom on the third floor.  Lined paper remains untouched as Megan attempts to conceptualize a poem analysis that will fulfill her teacher’s request.  She does not like handing in late assignments, but she had no choice when presented with this one; not even her dad could understand it, and he was an English major.  It is only on her third day of head-wracking and crying that her teacher finally says, “Just don’t worry about it.  Your grade will be fine, go to recess.”

  2. Not having a known poetic “style”
    We all know what a Grace Poem(TM) looks like, and what a Jasmine Poem(TM) look like, but I don’t have a history of taking workshops and being published so that people know what kind of shit I write. I don’t even know if there’s a theme or motif in my work the way there is in Julia’s.  Are my poems supposed to look similar?  Are they supposed to sound similar?  What if they sound too much like someone else?

Regarding poetry, what makes you guys anxious?

Remember when we were talking about images AS poetry? or A Thing Megan Is Not Qualified to Talk About Pt. 2

*SPOILERS FOR BLACK PANTHER*

I saw Black Panther with BSU today, and holy hell some of you would absolutely love dissecting some of these images. (field trip, anyone?)

Anyway, I have to touch on this one image (here come the spoilers): when T’Challa is laying in that snow coffin-pit-thing, nearly dead with just his head and chest visible, it paralleled an image that Black poets have been summoning in their poetry for a long time.  Some of you probably know where this is going (although Will Antonelli didn’t, so maybe not): it was Emmett Till in his open casket.  I mean, T’Challa’s face wasn’t disfigured (Hollywood wouldn’t do that to a Marvel hero, they have to look pretty), but the film mirrored all of those poems that evoke Till in the coffin.*  T’Challa’s body was even found in a river, just like Till’s, and carried to his grieving mother.  It’s damn poignant, but this isn’t even the poetic part.

You already know T’Challa isn’t dead; not only is he the title character, but Marvel has plans for him to be in Infinity Wars.  This is where the poetry comes in: T’Challa, after going into that spirit realm for a few seconds, literally rises from the snow pit!  Guys, they raise a Black man character from the dead, as his mother, sister, and lover surround him.  And, idk about you guys, but I think the poetry is conveyed when reality and fiction suddenly clash.  Black men are killed irl all the time, and only this fictional character is saved.  He lives on, in movies and comics, and the rest bleed and blend into pavement and dirt.

Besides a select few.  Emmett Till, for one.  (that’s where my thought ends; I know there’s something else significant there, but I’m not finding it at the moment)

 

*Also, I’m not quite sure why that particular image is utilized so often in poetry, save for the fact that people can place the tragedy fairly easily.  I’m looking into it now, I’ll get back to you if I figure it out.

As Long As You Got Something Out Of It…

I wish we could “thumbs up ” each other’s blog posts, so even if a blog post doesn’t get comments, the author can still know people are reading it.

At some point between sophomore and junior year, I embraced “individual reader response criticism” (IRRC, for short) as the primary measure of my own poetry’s quality.  If you didn’t read The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (perhaps you read something more scholarly), RRC represents the idea that how a reader experiences and interprets a written work is paramount.  The “independent” part indicates that there is no objective interpretation of a written work.  Now, deciding to view all literary interpretations of my poetry as valid (within reason) was an odd move for me.  Why would I, the person who insists on a single, objective answer for the meaning of life (to take care of one’s mitochondria) and the inherent nature of humans (we’re inherently selfish) allow for anything I write to be interpreted differently from my own interpretation?

Because I’d rather have more people get something decent out of my poetry than a few people get the right thing from it.

Maybe it’s selling out, but I’ve accepted positive reception quantity over interpretational accuracy.  Because I can’t control what people think, it would be highly difficult to write a poem that is understood by all readers the way I intend and also keep the poem’s poetic qualities (i.e. flow, form…).  What can I tell ya?  I like when people like my writing.  And if they get something out of it that I didn’t intend and liked it, I’m just gonna keep my mouth shut and accept the praise.

A Thing That Megan Is Not Qualified to Talk About, or Black Death in Black Writing

I’m a little fixated on death this week, and a lot fixated on not letting Black History Month go by unacknowledged by my writer friends [puts self-righteous SJW hat on].

In Creative Writing Club, we do this thing called the “Underrepresented Writer Workshop” every month, where the E-Board chooses a written work by someone of a minority race/gender/ability set/orientation and we workshop it as if a student had submitted it.  See, none of us on the E-Board are qualified to get too deep into “how does being [insert minority here] influence this writing?” which is why we just tell everyone to treat it like a normal workshop.  At the very least, our members are reading something they likely wouldn’t have read otherwise.

So, um, here are some under-baked, undereducated thoughts on some written works that deal with the death of Black people, written by Black people:

 

“Fish Boy” and “Anniston, AL” by Jason Guisao

When Guisao read “Anniston, AL” out loud at the Gandy Dancer launch party, I thought, “Oh my god, they put the N-word in Gandy Dancer!”  I’m not sure why I was surprised; maybe I was just young and didn’t realize that writing that word down is a type of reclamation of power.  The implication of the second stanza is interesting: once a Black person is dead, they’re not a n*****.  What are they, then?  I’ve heard the word used both as a type of self-identification and as a tool of erasure.  Is it both in this poem?

I don’t remember any thoughts I had about “Fish Boy” the day it was read out loud.  It’s obviously a reshowing of Emmett Till’s murder; the “shoot the n***** above its right ear and cast it out into the brook” line is directly in line with the description of Till’s body.  Good “t” work in that line, sounds harsh when read out loud.  Tangible images, great enjambment towards the beginning of the poem.  There’s a number of works inspired by Emmett Till’s murder; this is a particularly visceral one.

 

“Dead is the new black” by J. Drew Lanham

This poem has one of those “crickets” lines that just sounds right: “cracked bell’s toll.”  Unless I misinterpreted the cricket thing we talked about, which is a distinct possibility.

This one could be read as a series of short poems, but it’s listed as just one.  Lots of good sonic moments.  I’m especially taken with the “Beyond being the next sad story” stanza.  It calls back to this thing that is sometimes said about Holocaust survivors, that it was really a coin toss who survived and who didn’t.  I typically don’t think about what a crapshoot survival is with other minority groups; it’s 2018, I didn’t think the 1940s genocide logic applied.

 

“The Flowers” by Alice Walker

Forgive me if you’ve already read this one.

This is technically short fiction, but it reads like poetry.  Kind of like Jasmine’s “Apologia” from a couple Gandy Dancer issues ago, where some people didn’t know if they should classify it as CNF or Poetry.  It read like CNF to me, but “The Flowers” probably reads like a short story (maybe even flash fiction) to most people.

The following sentence sounds smooth, even when revealing some unfortunate circumstances: “Turning her back on the rusty boards of her family’s sharecropper cabin, Myop walked along the fence till it ran into the stream made by the spring.”  Nice assonance and consonance there.

Get this: Myop, the name of the ten-year-old subject of the poem, is short for Myopic, which refers to nearsightedness.  This was written in 1988, which makes this clever.  If it was written in 2018, I suspect we’d think she was trying too hard.  Just an observation.

This “coming to age by seeing dead organisms” is not a new thing; there’s the opening of Toni Morrison’s Home, and this one short story I vaguely remember about a boy who sees a dead boar…and many others, I’m sure.  I wonder, what’s the 2018 equivalent of stumbling upon a lynched Black body in a field?  I’m sure there is an equivalent.

Hamilton: My Intro to the Importance of Sound in Written Works

You will learn soon enough that I have no shame.

After selling some of my textbooks to Sundance, I had a decent hunk of cash to spend wherever.  I could have purchased noise-blocking headphones so I wouldn’t hear the Kelly’s patrons fighting and smashing bottles outside of my bedroom window.  I could have purchased the new Halsey album so I could play it at parties and my sorority siblings would think I’m cool.  Instead, I purchased that gigantic Hamilton book; you know, the hardcover that was in the Sundance window for a month with all the information about Hamilton the musical.  I’m the sucker that bought it.

While half of the book is juvenile gushing about how great Lin-Manuel Miranda is by some no-name writer (and I refuse to feed egos), the other half made me read closer than I’ve read any form of literature in a long time.  Every song was typed out and annotated by Miranda, explaining how he chose specific words and phrases for each verse.  Within the first third of these annotations, Miranda introduced the term “tonal assonance” to his readers (I donated the book, so I can’t give you the direct quote).  As it turns out, tonal assonance is Miranda’s “thing.”  He is particularly good at maintaining tonal assonance in a verse.  His consonance generating skills aren’t too shabby, either.

Let me show you: in Cabinet Battle #1, Jefferson and Hamilton are arguing about whether or not the federal government should assume state debt.  One of Jefferson’s lines is as follows:

“…Our debts are paid, I’m afraid

Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade”

For a Hamilton lyric, four assonance matches is pretty common.  Keeping a set of assonance matches in one or two lines is similar to what we read on Monday.  This next set from Hamilton’s rebuttal to Jefferson, however, looks somewhat different:

“Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President
Reticent—there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison
Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine
Damn, you’re in worse shape than the national debt is in”

That quote represents ten seconds of rapping.  That’s eight assonance matches in ten seconds!  I’m sure we’ll cover this in class at some point, but the placement of the assonances is fascinating to me.  So, we have four at the ends of these period-less lines (I don’t know the precedent for punctuation in song lyrics).  But then, within those first three-to-five syllables at the beginning of each line (besides the last one), there are assonances.  And even without the assonances, Miranda keeps the “s” consonance with “shape” in the last line.  And the “hesitant” placement seems arbitrary until you hear it, and it sets the whole section of this verse.  As you can see, I don’t quite have the academic language to describe what’s going on yet, but I do find it important to show (myself, mostly) that I’m seeing something here.

Also, the myriad of word options one has when creating assonance and consonance is exemplified immaculately in this chunk of lyric.  At a glance, “son” and “cine” are not alike.  Depending on how one pronounces them, however, they can sound alike!  Isn’t that cool?  Maybe you guys already knew that, but I think that’s really cool.  I suppose it’s about being able to hear different pronunciations of things in one’s head while writing to create this.  I bet we’ll cover that in class, too.

My mind is a bit blown.  I was never taught to think about how the meaning of written work changes depending on how the words sound both by themselves and together.  Paying attention to how I say words was emphasized (I took voice lessons for a long time), and finding words that didn’t sound “clunky” together while writing was part of my education at some point, but nothing deeper than that.  And even though I’m perfectly comfortable reciting memorized works, I don’t like reading new works out loud.  I become wary of how I say things and how quickly or slowly I read, and I stumble over words like a second-grader when I’m reading something out loud that I haven’t read before.  I don’t like surprises, from obnoxiously loud motorcyclists speeding up my childhood road to being called on to contribute noise I didn’t plan on contributing.

For me, sounds can evoke fairly intense, emotional reactions.  I slammed my hands over my ears when Jeremy Jackson read aloud Corinne Enright’s explosive short story about hearing voices, and I cried when I listened to Kendrick Lamar’s Damn backwards for the first time.  But emotional intensity sometimes leads to intellectual clarity, and more than anything I search for that clarity.  I want to understand things.  I guess (or I hope) sound in poetry will be the next thing.