Reading through Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”

For my WGST-310: Race, Class, and Gender class, we have been reading Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”. It’s a book of lyric poetry that examines issues of(you guessed it) race, class, and gender in the United States. I think part of the reason why I’ve been enjoying this book so much is because of its use of the second person perspective. I really enjoy the second person as a writer and as a reader because I think it does multiple things at once. I think for the writer it can distance themselves from their subject matter in a way that highlights the ways humans distance themselves from their problems on a daily basis. For readers, it can help you locate yourself amidst the text.

For Rankine, I think the second person highlights her anger. She speaks on Serena Williams, and the unfair treatment she’s received from referees and sports media because of her skin color. Rankine notes that Williams is stereotyped as an angry black woman—angry because she’s black, rather than angry at the unfair treatment she’s received. The second person makes the many rhetorical questions asked in this book feel like punches being thrown at the reader. As a reader those punches feel like they deserve to be thrown. There’s a palpable, justified anger on the page that the second person does a great job of directing towards the reader.

When discussing issues of race, the historical disenfranchisement of blacks in America, and the violent racism that’s been so rampant in the U.S., it’s hard to not feel angry. It’s hard to not want to smash tennis rackets through the white faces found smiling on a photograph on page 91 entitled “Public Lynching.” Rankine fights against the stereotype of the “angry black exterior” though, because she’s able to justify her anger, an anger shared by so many others.

Bo Burnham’s Egghead

The first book of poems I ever bought was Bo Burnham’s Egghead. I bought his book after watching his first Netflix stand up comedy special, what. The collection of poems is rather silly and humorous, but there’s a moment when the book pauses to ruminate on something Bo has recently opened up about in his life: anxiety.

He made his directorial debut this past year with the film 8th Grade, which he also wrote. While I still haven’t gotten around to seeing the film, I’ve watched a lot of interviews of Bo talking about the project. He spoke on creating something that represented his experiences with anxiety, and performing professionally as someone with debilitating anxiety. Reading Egghead now, with the new knowledge of Bo’s anxiety, I can garner a new reading experience.

The pages of Egghead aren’t numbered, and the content can shift dramatically from poem to poem (which are often more akin to jokes). About ten pages in or so, there’s a poem titled “Chameleon,” which reads “I put a chameleon on a red dildo. / He blushed.” That’s the entirety of the poem/joke. But, immediately following this, is a poem entitled “Flowers:”

“On the third of June, at a minute past two,                                                              where once was a person, a flower now grew.

Five daises arranged on a large outdoor stage                                                    in front of a ten-acre pasture of sage.

In a changing room, a lily poses.                                                                                  At the DMV, rows of roses.

The world was much crueler an hour ago.                                                               I’m glad someone decided to give flowers a go.”

The juxtaposition between these two poems is pretty stark, and it’s clear that Bo doesn’t want to keep you laughing throughout your reading of his book. This is very similar to his comedy specials, too. He’ll take a joke about messy burritos from Chipotle and flip it on its head to show his audience that life isn’t just jokes. That his art isn’t separate from his anxiety and that humor is often a product of pain. Even the title of his book, in its entirety, reads Egghead, or You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone. I purchased this book when I was seventeen and now, at twenty-one, my reading of it feels more complete. It’s a fun book, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it isn’t dumb. If you’ve never heard of Bo Burnham or Egghead, I suggest you look him up, and I hope you soon find yourself laughing.

Revising Poetry

Most of my poems make me nervous because the genre feels very flexible.  Almost too flexible. The different forms and paths you can take a poem down sometimes overwhelm me. This is one reason why I love reading the different rewrites of my poems (S/O to Abby, Mya, and Sarah) because it helps me get a better feel for what I stand to gain and lose by altering the form of my poems.

I think my first post on this blog was in regards to my bewilderment at the different choices some of you make for your poems, in terms of form. I think I still largely feel the same way now. There’s so many choices that feel very deliberate and thought out for others’ poetry, and this concerns me, because most of the formal techniques I use in my poems are just sort of instinctual. Some of the feedback I got on that first blog post was that many of you feel similarly, and that form often does come from a place of instinct. However, instinct is sort of the opposite of revision. Revision is where you question every instinct you have and force yourself to justify those instincts.

I haven’t tried to revise my poems yet. I’ve given it some thought, but I don’t quite feel ready to sit down and start hacking them up. Not because I feel overly attached to them, but because poetry feels overly flexible to me. When I revise prose, I usually think in terms of scenes. Which scenes are essential, how they drive the story, etc. Perhaps I just trust my prose instincts more and that’s why poetry feels overwhelming. I feel like I know what my prose pieces want (whether I execute that is another matter), but I find my poems speak in quieter tones. I can’t always hear their desires. That whole concept of knowing what a poem wants, rather than what the author wants, feels very abstract to me anyways.

So, as I head into the process of revising my poems, I want to know how you all go about that process yourself. Do you have any methods you return to when revising your poetry, or does it feel instinctual to you?

Fluidity in Language

After reading David Herd’s Through, as well as having time to talk with him in our class, and finally getting to hear him read in Doty, I went home thinking about the ways language is fluid. Herd talked to us about how a Prime Minister in England had hoped to treat the issue of illegal immigration with hostility. And although I’ve forgotten the woman’s name who served as Prime Minister, and her words here are paraphrased simply from Herd himself, Herd seemed to take issue with term hostile. And reasonably so, I suppose, as you’d hope that a leader of a nation would want to treat people in their country with hospitality, rather than hostility.

Through, then, seems like Herd’s way to counter this movement of hostile language, or perhaps to counter the disregard of the weight of language. I don’t want to get too political, but in watching Donald Trump’s campaign and eventual presidency, I noticed, as I’m sure much of the world did, that he’d altered expectations regarding the lexicon in debates, speeches, and interviews for a presidential candidate. He’s mocked a disabled reporter, referred to his opponent as a “nasty woman,” he insulted ABC News reporter Cecilia Vega more recently by stating that she’s “not thinking. You never do.” So while you may be in support of his presidency or against it, I think it’s clear to everyone that Trump has taken liberties with language as the POTUS, in a very public and informal manner, that’s unprecedented.

Through doesn’t comment on the Trump administration, to my knowledge, but I think many of the issues Herd speaks to, which are largely in regards to the U.K., are relevant here in the U.S. Whether we like it or not, language will remain fluid and the battle that Herd is participating in might never come to an end.

“Through” and Borderlands

From my reading of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, and from our reading and discussion of Through in class, I’ve been thinking about spaces. Anzaldúa notes that a “borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (3). I think the concepts in Through relate well to borders, but I’ve been trying to consider transitory spaces or events from my own life.

One transitory event that my mind immediately jumps to is graduation. Specifically from high school, because I’ve already done that, but also graduating from college as an undergrad, since that will be happening this May. It’s interesting to me how, as a society, we’ve constructed major moments of transition. Graduation is one, but so are moments like being able to test for your driver’s license, or being able to vote, or drink alcohol. Looking at alcohol specifically, and how in the U.S. the legal drinking age has changed from eighteen, to nineteen, to the current age of twenty-one, it’s obvious that these moments are constructed by external forces. We all eventually reach those moments.

When I think of moving through, I think of moving on, or maybe passed. For Anzaldúa, and the people living in borderlands, their culture is constantly being moved through, and even passed. These zones are basically blind spots to everyone that simply moves through them. Acknowledging that, and looking at transitory experiences from my own life, I think it’s important to not look passed those moments. It’s important to not only see what’s on either side. This is a confusing concept, and I’m still trying to fully conceptualize my thoughts on it, but I think I know that it’s important, either way.

Portfolio Decisions

After work-shopping my first poem, I decided I wanted to do something different with my second poem. Largely I’ve found myself writing poems about relationships, and love, I suppose, but there’s so many ways to see one topic.

With my first poem, I wanted to capture a memory, and in doing so, capture how it feels to be kind of stuck in the past. I think as a writer I’ve become accustomed to trying to fill in the gaps of my life, the areas I can’t understand or rationalize, by writing them anew in my head. This is sort of dangerous, though, and often it makes me feel like I’m trapped in those re-writings.

My first poem tried to deal with that idea. I wanted to show how memories can be addictive; they become more enticing than real life if you let them. But I also wanted to show that they’re hollow. In my second poem, I found myself still writing about relationships, but I didn’t want to write about the same thing.

I tried to focus more on indulging in vices. In the case of that poem, the relationship was more about the speaker and pain, than the speaker and the “Dear” of the poem.

Going forward, thinking about crafting a portfolio, it seems pretty likely that much of my poetry this semester will be about relationships, memories, dreams, and my relationship to all of those things. But, I don’t want one poem to bleed into the next, I don’t want them to be replications of each other. That sounds boring. So moving forward, I’m going to really focus on making sure each poem has a unique identity, even if the subject matter feels somewhat consistent throughout my portfolio.

Have any of you thought about your portfolio yet? Do you see yourself working/returning to similar ideas in each of your poems?


This past week, author Hilary Zaid performed a reading of a chapter from her novel Paper is White. I attended this reading knowing little about Zaid, but I’ve always enjoyed hearing authors read their own work. However, I was also lucky enough to have gotten lunch with Zaid and several other students the day after the reading. Reflecting on this, I discovered a well of regret.

As a brief digression, I’ve often felt like college is a job. I show up, I do what the job requires to my best ability, but then I go home and disconnect from that job. I’ve also struggled to identify with the basic idea of being a college student. Because of all of this, and my tendency to be reserved and occasionally awkward, I’ve only gotten to know a couple of writers outside of class. As a senior, most of my time to do this is already spent.

After this week, and getting to hear Zaid talk about her experiences as a writer, and some of my classmates’ experiences as well, I found myself regretting not having reached out to more of my fellow writers along my college path. I regret feeling like I couldn’t reach out to people because I wasn’t interesting enough, or that my own writing wasn’t interesting enough. Writing workshops are often filled with intimate, sensitive material that we share with each other, in earnest hope to improve our craft. This is an odd practice to me because I think we write what matters to us, hoping that it matters to other people too. We share that writing with others not only because we want to improve our writing, but because we hope what we’re writing is worthwhile. At least, that’s what I hope.

So, if you’re reading this and you feel like you want to talk about writing with someone else who wants to talk about writing, feel free to shoot me an email:

“A Note on Stress” from Hass

Perhaps some of you are scansion wizards already, but my first attempt at our scansions did not go great. It was my first attempt at it on my own, so I can cut myself some slack, but I still hope to improve. I really enjoy analyzing  some of language’s most detailed components, but for now I sort of feel like I’m just guessing. This week’s reading didn’t necessarily provide me with an epiphany on how to scan like a champ, but I thought it was helpful to hear about the different ways stress is used. From pages 394-395, Hass outlines the reasons that stress exists on different syllables in words. As a writer and as a reader, I always try to image what words, characters, images, conflict, dialogue, etc. would look like and sound like either in real life, or as a movie/TV show. This is mostly because I like to think of language as a means of connecting with people.

So, I connected most with Hass’ analysis of “rhetorical emphasis”. While stress may be crucial to poetry, how stress impacts speech is more relevant in my life, outside of our workshop. The same words can mean different things in different contexts, and while this effect is present in poetry and prose, I think it’s best displayed in either real life or in movies/TV. Stress in everyday speech feels like it just happens naturally, so it was odd to give it thought and notice how I use stress and how those around me place stress on words or syllables.

How the Words Won’t Stop Hip-Hopping in my Head

I have an obsession. It’s something I’ve carried around in my head since my childhood and I carry it with me now. When I’m in class and my thoughts drift, when I’m doing chores around the house, or when I’m alone, bored, and the silence has grown old.

I memorize song lyrics and play them over and over in my mind. I did this before I ever wanted to, or tried to. Particularly though, I memorize hip-hop lyrics. I love hip-hop because it’s been hyper-focused on language for decades. Lyrical acrobatics has always been a fun way of thinking about the way words and ideas get phrased in hip-hop. I’ve always liked poetry because it’s seemed to be the closest thing that I’ve found in academia to writing hip-hop lyrics. However, I’ve witnessed several class discussions about rhyming in poetry workshops and it seems that for the most part, rhyming is somewhat frowned upon. I think this is fair, in a similar way to the semi-joke of the perfect iambic pentameter sentence: the same, the same, the same, the same, the same.

Rhyming can create certain expectations in a poem, which might make the poem begin to sound monotonous. I’ve found myself trying to write poems this semester and only being able to write lines that rhyme. Because I’ve listened to and stored away so many different hip-hop songs, I’ve found it difficult to not imagine the words needing to fit a rhyme scheme, or lead into each other to form new rhyme schemes. It’s a bit odd, and I didn’t really expect anything like this to be a part of my writing process, but I’ve been trying to consider the ways in which it might be beneficial to my poetry.

Reflections on Form

I have never seen myself as a poet. I write things, and poetry is typically written, so in that way I can see myself as a poet, but I don’t feel at home in poetry. We discussed form a lot in our last class and I’ve enjoyed learning more about form because it resists me. I don’t see my writing as visual art. I hear my writing. I always read what I’ve written out loud to myself to hear how it sounds on the page. I love how words sound and how tone and inflection can change what they mean. But the way it looks? I’ve never really cared.

Maybe that’s a little bit sacrilegious to write on a poetry blog. I’ll elaborate. I want to care, but I don’t have the natural instinct to place line breaks and broad spaces between words to craft a certain form. It’s very new to me, but I want to understand it better and play with different forms. I find free verse a bit daunting at times because it demands vision, which as a poet I haven’t quite yet found. I’ve always thought that writing is a way to explore what I don’t understand, but yet have ideas about. If “form is never more than an extension of the content” of a poem, I find that intimidating. It seems to suggest that a poem wants to fill a certain form, but yet I might not understand what the content demands.

Fears like these keep me writing. Perhaps some of you feel similarly about form, or about the content of your poems, but ultimately I’m excited to exist in a place where I don’t exactly know what to do with my words. There’s possibility living in that space.