In honor of Litmus Press’ forthcoming collection of Leonard Schwartz interviews with female poets, we will offer an ongoing series of transcribed talks from Schwartz’s “Cross Cultural Poetics” archives.
Interview with Evie Shockley, from CCP Episode #233: The New Black. April 7, 2011. Transcribed by Kelly Bergeron. Schwartz’s previous interview with Shockley can be read here.
Leonard Schwartz: Welcome to Cross Cultural Poetics. Poets and writers from all over the world talk about their art and their language. I’m Leonard Schwartz. Today’s guest on the phone from Jersey City, I’m very happy to say, is Evie Shockley. She’s a poet and return guest to Cross Cultural Poetics. She’s an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of a half-red sea, The Gorgon Goddess and the forthcoming study Renegade Poetics. Her most recent book is the new black. It’s published by Wesleyan University Press. About the book Claudia Rankine writes:
Evie Shockley’s the new black is our contemporary passage through a mosaic of historical and literary constructions. This stunning collection remembers all that has moved through the black body to bring us into the 21st century; and not since Jean Toomer’s Cane has the black female body in particular been portrayed with such compassion and love. This formally inventive work makes signifyin’ its casting call, as Shockley becomes the master “composer of genealogies.”
Welcome, Evie Shockley.
Evie Shockley: Hi. Thanks!
LS: Great to have you on the line and to be hearing your voice again and great to have your new book the new black from Wesleyan University Press in hand and out just so very recently. Could you say a little bit about the terms of composition and that phrase “composer of genealogies”? The book goes deep into American history and experience but also is absolutely contemporaneous. For example, Obama is a figure that runs through the book as a whole. So that’s got to be complicated—a work that is historical and absolutely of the present moment simultaneously.
ES: First let me say how much of a pleasure it is to be back again and talking with you in this format. Thanks for having me. I’m also really pleased by the kind of construction you’ve put on the book so far. It’s very much about that attempt to have history and the present moment in direct conversation. This is a book that was inspired by, I suppose, two sorts of generational gaps or generational moments. One emerges in my teaching, where I’m coming in contact with a generation of college students who really don’t have access to certain parts of history that even ten or twelve years ago, when I started teaching, students still were present to in their own lives. I knew it was a moment when Rodney King was no longer somebody that my students had heard of, for example. And then the other moment was the birth of my twin nieces about four years ago, and the kind of thinking about the world that they were going to grow up in that their birth initiated, and my wondering if they would have the same relationship to blackness that I do—or perhaps knowing that they couldn’t possibly, trying to think what that was about. I began to think about friendly arguments I had had with my mother in previous years when I couldn’t understand her take on race, and seeing that sort of progression through time of each of us entering the historical stream at a different moment and thus having a very different perspective even about things that we share common knowledge about. Those kinds of issues were very much on my mind in the course of those three or four years that I was writing poems that went into this book.
LS: You know the book begins with a text entitled “my last modernist poem, #4 (or, re-re-birth of a nation).” Of course I noted the way it had something to do with ending, “my last modernist poem,” — although “# 4” suggests it might be a series that goes on — and then follows with a sense of re-re-birth of a nation, so, you know, it involves that sense of endings and beginnings and the complexity of telling the one from the other. I wondered if you could read that piece for us and maybe we could talk about it a little bit?
ES: Absolutely. [Reads:]
my last modernist poem, #4
(or, re-re-birth of a nation)
a clean-cut man brings a brown blackness
to a dream-carved, unprecedented
place. some see in this the end of race,
like the end of a race that begins
with a gun: a finish(ed) line we might
finally limp across. for others,
this miracle marks an end like year’s
end, the kind that whips around again
and again: an end that is chilling,
with a lethal spring coiled in the snow.
ask lazarus about miracles:
the hard part comes afterwards. he stepped
into the reconstruction of his
life, knowing what would come, but not how.
LS: Evie, thank you so much for the reading of the poem. Could you take us a little bit into the anxiety of contact between “last modernist poem” and “re-re-birth of a nation” and maybe a little bit of the history of that phrase “birth of a nation,” which is now being doubly re’d?
ES: Yeah. The main title, “my last modernist poem,” references a kind of occasional series that I add to from time to time. They’re poems that come out of the form that I call “son-nots,” because they look like sonnets but they’re not. So there is a coincidental nature, in a sense, between that “last” and the rebirth, but coincidental in a way that a lot of times language presents those fortuitous revelations that may not be fully intended. “re-re-birth of a nation,” of course, is my play on the title of the very, very early film that was a cinematic reproduction of the book called The Klansman. Those who know this film history know that it was a very powerful and, of course, disturbing representation of white anxiety about the newly emancipated African Americans and an example of the kinds of representations that they needed to produce to reassure themselves of their racial superiority, I think is the only way to put that. I was thinking a lot in the process of writing this book about the moment of Reconstruction or really post-Reconstruction, both of which were more or less turn-of-the-century moments. I was reading Paula Giddings’ biography of Ida B. Wells during this time also and thinking about how much hope they had, how everything seemed like it had changed for the good, forever, and that there was no turning back and so forth, with African Americans being elected to Congress and local offices, and making economic strides and educational strides. It reminded me of the kind of discourse of hope that was being offered in the country at the turn of this century, or very close to it, around the election of Barack Obama. If we look at the history, the post-Reconstruction moment really dashed, in a lot of ways, those hopes. What followed that intense moment of possibility was the instantiation of Jim Crow. So I’ve been really conscious and thinking about the potential for this contemporary moment to somehow go dreadfully awry. The idea that history “progresses” in a forward line, inevitably, is just something that’s been disproved.
LS: No, it’s really intriguing: from D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and the importance of that as a major breakthrough work in cinema, with all of its racial implications, to the notion that what happens after the civil war is Jim Crow, not something glorious, and how that might apply to the election of the first African American President, and how what comes after needs to be watched very carefully. So I think that’s really intriguing. The way your poem brings that discussion to the fore is crucial. You know on the 19th century or on the historical side of the work that you’re doing in the book, you have a text entitled “from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass,” dated June 5th 1892. I wondered if you could put that gesture on your part into context and then perhaps read that poem for us?
ES: Yes. Sure. That poem is actually probably one of the oldest poems in the book, and I wrote it around the moment that I first learned some of the things about Douglass’ life that were coming out that showed him to be—as heroic and essential as he was as a fighter against, first, slavery and, then, racism—to be limited and blind to other matters. In particular, I’m thinking about matters of gender. So one way that this poem speaks to the first poem I read is this sense of being able to be clear-sighted about some things and blind to other things at the same time. And then it also speaks, I think, to the danger of hero worship or creating idols of our various leaders and activists and other people who do things that we admire—we have to remember that they are human at the same time as change-makers, for lack of a better word.
LS: Yeah, great reminder.
ES: So, should I go ahead and read now?
LS: That would be wonderful, yeah.
ES: I guess I should say one more thing about this poem before I read it, just for context.
LS: Yes. Sure.
ES: Thomas Auld was the person that “owned” Douglass in the early part of his life, and Ottilie Assing, whom you’ll hear a reference to, was a German translator who translated Douglass’ work for a German-speaking audience. And his daughter is Rosetta Douglass. The letter is to her. [Reads:]
from The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass
June 5, 1892
Can you be fifty-three this
month? I still look for you to peek around
my door as if you’d discovered a toy
you thought gone for good, ready at my smile
to run up and press your fist into my
broken palm. But your own girls have outgrown
such games, and I cannot pilfer back time
I spent pursuing Freedom. Fair to you,
to your brothers, your mother? Hardly.
what other choice did I have? What sham,
what shabby love could I offer you, so
long as Thomas Auld held the law over
my head? And when the personal threat was
ended, whose eyes could mine enter without
shame, if turning toward my wife and children
meant turning my back?
Your mother’s eyes stare
out at me through yours, of late. You think I
didn’t love her, that my quick remarriage
makes a Gertrude of me, a corseted
Hamlet of you. You’re as wrong as you are
lucky. Had Anna Murray had your
education as a girl, my love for
her would have been as passionate as it
was grateful. But she died illiterate,
when I had risked my life to master language.
The pleasures of book and pen retain
the thrill of danger even now, and you
may understand why Ottilie Assing,
come into our house to translate me into
German, could command so many hours,
years, of my time—or, as you would likely
say, of your mother’s time.
Rosetta, for broaching such indelicate
subjects, but as my eldest child and
only living daughter, I want you to
feel certain that Helen became the new
Mrs. Douglass because of what we shared
in sheaves of my papers: let no one
persuade you I coveted her skin.
I am not proud of how I husbanded
your mother all those years, but marriage,
too, is a peculiar institution.
I could not have stayed so unequally yoked
so long, without a kind of Freedom in
it. Anna accepted this, and I don’t
have to tell you that her lot was better
and she, happier, than if she’d squatted
with some other man in a mutual
Perhaps, I will post, rather
than burn, this letter, this time. I’ve written it
so often, right down to these closing lines,
in which I beg you to be kinder, much
kinder, to your step-mother. You two are
of an age to be sisters, and of like
temperament—under other circumstances,
you might have found Friendship in each other.
With regards to your husband—I am, as
ever, your loving father—
LS: Evie, thanks for that reading. It’s a terrific poem and really interesting for me to think about the appearance or reappearance of Frederick Douglass in various kinds of fictional guises lately. I was speaking with Russell Banks, the novelist, who wrote a novel about John Brown, Cloudsplitter. Frederick Douglass figures as a character in the book and Cloudsplitter is more about, of course, the complications in the figure of John Brown—again to work against the idea of hero worship, which you spoke of earlier. Brown is on the one hand a great abolitionist and on the other hand a tyrant over his sons and a fanatic and a murderer. So all of that is true simultaneously. Interesting to hear you talk about a similar ambition or a kind of cultural imperative to produce that kind of work with Frederick Douglass. Could you say a little bit more about gender and Frederick Douglass?
ES: Well, he was such a complicated figure. What the poem is trying to point to is at once a kind of sympathy for what it would mean to be someone who was so eloquent and for whom language was so important and really a kind of a sign of freedom, what would it mean for him to be committed for life to a woman who enabled his freedom in ways that he kind of downplays in the narrative that he wrote (the “slave narrative”), but who didn’t share that intellectual passion. So there is sympathy for that situation, but at the same time a real need to critique his inability to see the way that gendered assumptions excused behavior that was not unlike the behavior that he was condemning in white people and their treatment of blacks. So it gets at the interconnectedness of racial oppression and gender oppression, among others—I think most of these forms of oppression are interconnected in ways that mean working against one can’t be done at the expense of overlooking or ignoring or excusing another sort. They aren’t going to fall one by one. They are going to fall all at once or not at all.
LS: That’s interesting. You have the phrase “the peculiar institution,” of course referring to slavery. But marriage, too, is a peculiar institution. It’s really a biting phrase at that point. Yeah, really interesting. Are there other lost letters of Frederick Douglass in your writing?
ES: You know, I don’t have that as a plan, but I get such a good response to this poem—I think Frederick Douglass has a real hold (of course for obvious reasons) on the cultural imaginary and he remains of interest to me as a figure—so I’ll just put an ellipsis there and we’ll see.
LS: We’ll say, “To be continued, possibly.” You have another poem that I’m really interested in, entitled “owed to shirley chisholm” and that’s not O-D-E ode but O-W-E-D, “owed to shirley chisholm” and I think pertaining to…I’m old enough to remember Shirley Chisholm running for mayor of New York City or maybe running for president at one point, too. Could you say a little bit about Shirley Chisholm and then read the poem “owed” to her for us?
ES: Absolutely. She did indeed run for president of the United States, and the poem happened upon my having the chance to see the documentary on her life, Unbought and Unbossed, which was one of her phrases about her politics. Seeing that documentary of her life and getting a chance to understand really how painful that moment was for her: the kinds of persecution, really, and absence of support that she got from the black community or, particularly, black male leaders and politicians in that era—it was really eye opening. It was a piece of history that I came to later than I would have liked. So I got interested in her and the fact that, as the Obama election campaign unfolded, there were a lot of references to Jesse Jackson, but none—well, not none but relatively few—to Shirley Chisholm, who had run for president before Jackson did. So I wanted to do my part to keep her memory alive, and this is the poem that resulted. It’s a list poem, I guess you could say, in response to the title.
owed to shirley chisholm :
a nation outrageous in its hunger
for heart (not hearts) and enough sun-touching
ladders to go around : hearty anger
unquenched by wet (american) (crutching)
dreams, unmuted by the sound of rising
dough : yards of respect wrapped round her shoulders,
more warming than fur because comprising
her due as a woman who ate boulders
for breakfast, bravely : credit for having
an analysis of power sharper
than sapphire’s tongue, and props for behaving
like a natural woman, a world-shaper,
who deserved a room—a trust—of her own :
the oval office : democracy’s throne.
LS: Again, it’s really intriguing to think about this poem and some of the other poems in the book that have this direct address to (in the case of Obama) power and (in the case of Chisholm) the desire for power. There has been a disconnect between, let’s say, American poetry and American power. Many people find Walt Whitman’s poems to Lincoln compelling, but since then, is there an example…is Maya Angelou’s poem for Bill Clinton’s inauguration as compelling or persuasive in the same way? I don’t know if you have a thought on that. But it’s interesting to me to think about the way in which you write towards Obama, towards Chisholm, to figures like that. But what I’m trying to formulate or ask is how you might talk about the relationship between poetry and power?
ES: Wow. Well, if there is any place where “we should speak truth to power” holds an important role for me, it’s in poetry. And what’s interesting is the way that you are connecting power specifically to political power in the most—well, I would say obvious, but I don’t want to…
LS: No, in the most explicit and obvious way. Obama and Douglass and Chisholm: figures who are striving for power or striving to engage in politics in that very explicit way.
ES: Governmental power. So being able to speak to power and critique both the desire for it and the exclusion from it: that’s just really essential to what I need poetry to at least be able to do. It’s harder, interestingly, and this is not meant to change the subject, but it’s harder to sort of speak to the power that moves in less obvious ways. Right now I think we are living in a world in which our elected officials are not only figureheads but they stand in and direct traffic, in a sense, for the places where power is flowing more forcefully, and that’s through the economic world, and that’s a much harder target to pinpoint in many ways. So I don’t know if I’m maybe in some ways saying that I’m taking the easy way out, by speaking to these people that kind of put themselves on the front line in this direct way, but…
LS: Well, what interests me is that there is a kind of experimental, formalist side to your writing, and most of the poets who conceive of ourselves as working in that tradition think of ourselves as working in subterranean ways, in grammar, in places where we don’t normally think that power is at work. There is that dimension to your writing to be sure, but there is also this direct kind of address to governmental power and to the public commonweal that wield power or that are deprived of power and so on. So it’s interesting to me that you have both of those discourses occurring in the book simultaneously. I know that in addition to being a poet and an English professor, you also are or were an attorney, so maybe I have this overdetermined sense of you as engaged in legal strife as well as literary struggle, so it’s just interesting to see that coming up in the book. If I can put it this way, democracy’s throne: “who deserved a room—a trust—of her own : the oval office : democracy’s throne.” So there is a contestation, I think that occurs there. Again, about the book Terrance Hayes has written:
In these remarkable new poems Evie Shockley seems to step to us wearing an alluring silk gown and steel-toe guerilla boots! She possesses that rare combination of grace and subversiveness. As a poem like ‘x marks the spot’ demonstrates, she elegantly wrestles with/against staid notions of culture, identity and influence. Her synthesis of poetic styles (the sonnet, the epistle, the tarot, the diagram) produces a poetry that is recognizable and strange, engaging and revolutionary. the new black is a book of stunning urgency and invention.
We were just talking, Evie, about that synthesis of poetic styles in which you have a sonnet that’s not a sonnet and a work that is speaking truth to power directly and engaged in the subterranean work of experimental poetics simultaneously, so I appreciate what Hayes says there. We had discussed going on to reading “(mis)takes one to know one.” I wondered if you could say a little bit about that title and that poem in which both Douglass and Obama appear, and then read the poem for us?
ES: Sure. The title came out of my interest in the fact that both Douglass and Obama are hailed in their moments as important black political figures and leaders and both of them have one white parent (or at least it’s understood that that’s the case for Douglass). And the question of black identity, what it means now and what it meant then, and how those two things are related, is one of the things that interested me about the discourse around Obama’s campaign and as it has continued in his presidency. I wanted to explore…you know, it’s always such a terrible liberty that we take to put words into our ancestors’ mouths and for me to say “well, this is what I think Douglass would have to say about Obama,” but I couldn’t resist. I thought that he would be a person who would be in a particularly good position on many levels to understand what kinds of things Obama is facing and the kinds of challenges that he has to work with and within, so this is the poem that resulted: [Reads:]
(mis)takes one to know one
i dreamed i told frederick douglass
barack obama isn’t black. not yet
the gray elder statesman, in the shape
he assumes for oneiric work, he gave
me the look that covey surely took
with him to his grave: direct metal
to match the channel carved between
his brows, the cheekbones driving
up toward decision-making. the child
follows the condition of the mother? don’t
mix up servitude with race. i would think
the president of the united states could
not be a slave to anyone or anything
except his own desires. but black? answer
this: what is the story your president tells
of his life? that is the question. always,
some among us have chosen to be or
not to be what laws or customs inscribe
in our blood. race is not biology: it is
the way the wind blows when you enter
a room, how you weather the storms,
how you handle being becalmed. black,
white, red—colors, symbols, myths. i
never knew a white parent to stand
between a colored man and his destiny.
pshaw! he rebutted my cocked eye-
brow. don’t tell me times have changed!
of course they have! i saw so much
change in my lifetime, some days i lost
my breath in the drag winds off worlds
hurtling into history. when I was a lad,
you’d never have convinced me white men
would kill white men by the hundreds
of thousands freeing the negro—even as
the desperate, calculated means to purely
economic ends. exhaling outrageously,
he adjusted the vest around his barrel
chest and relaxing waistline. but war
came and, in its wake, amendments—
if not amends—were made. seven years
after its end, i was running for vice-
president of the union. no, the equal rights
ticket didn’t win, and it only took
another one hundred and thirty-six years
to put a colored man in the white house.
i saw the steel in his eyes glimmer—
or glint. your president will be what
his country has taught him to be, will
do what his experience leads him to do.
don’t mix up change with progress.
LS: Thank you, Evie, for the reading and the poem. I think you spoke on this analysis or view of history earlier in the conversation, but can you comment on that last line “don’t mix up change with progress?”
ES: Yes. It was again a moment when I was thinking about the parallels between the post-Reconstruction era and this millennial moment, the kind of discourse about hope that both moments circulated, and how what history shows us is that the hope of the post-Reconstruction period was not borne out: that what followed that moment when anything seemed possible in terms of race relations and equality (racial equality in any event) was segregation, legal and de facto, through most of the nation. This was another poem in which I wanted to present a bit of a cautionary tale. It’s not that I want to see anything less than a move toward something better than what our history has held for us. But it doesn’t seem to be something as simple and as impossible as electing an African American president that is going to make change that’s lasting.
LS: Yeah. So if I can I ask a question on your take politically or political analysis: do you see, in fact, our moment as analogous to the disappointments of Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction? Do you feel a sense of disappointment to what has happened so far in the Obama administration?
ES: Well, you know in some ways it’s too soon to make that comparison all the way through. It took a good decade for the sort of achievements that were made within Reconstruction to be dismantled—basically, for Plessy to come down and start the real turning of the tide into segregation. Two years is not only a short time to evaluate an administration, but it’s also a short time to measure the change of a century. However, what’s clear to me already is that the rhetorical responses that one finds to the Obama presidency have already taken a turn that demonstrates how not post-race we are, and in that sense at least, it’s pretty clear that there is still a lot of work to do. And whether Obama’s administration, in one term or perhaps two, will move that work along, or simply be sort of a backdrop to an unfolding narrative of race in America that extends farther back than the country’s history as a nation, per se—that still remains to be seen.
LS: I appreciate the care with which you speak there—as opposed to demanding, as many do, an immediate accounting of success or failure with a particular administration or series of moves in history. You know the last section in your book is called “the fare-well letters,” and I was hoping that you could read one of those fare-well letters: “dear yesterday’s zero.” Maybe you could say a little bit about “the fare-well letters” as a series?
ES: It was a really fun series to write, and one of the poems or sequences in which I do a lot more playing around with language than in some of the particular poems that we’ve read today. It was a chance for me also to pull certain threads of ideas, and even in some cases certain threads of language, together in a way that wasn’t the kind of thing that would tie them into a bow—the poem that you are asking me to read is the very last one in the book—but that would give them another chance to resonate or vibrate off one another in a slightly different context. So I was thinking about “fare-well” in both the sense of a goodbye and in the sense of a wish that we will do well together as a society. And then the poem, rather than talking about any of that explicitly, just takes off on some sonic and associational riffs that were really a lot of fun to put together, as I said. So this last poem in the sequence is called: [Reads:]
dear yesterday’s zero,
you were a beacon of just-
is. an iron maiden carrying
a dark torch, you’re off for
tomorrow’s equation with a
long-fixed formula: the some
is greater. here’s a new math,
maybe involving less division.
a chance to set a light out for
the territories. suited you to
a tee, to sink a whole in one.
e pluribus the same old unum.
today the game has changed.
new rules. you’ve met your
match. score, for now, love all.
LS: Evie, thank you. It’s such a terrific and playful poem, the way “justice” becomes “just-is” and the ironies, the incommensurabilities between justice and just-is (so nimbly and so subtlety within the sound of the word justice and just-is), are terrific, and the game does keep changing through the course of the poem, so really a terrific piece in terms of that section. There is a sort of an announcement in the back of the new black about a forthcoming critical study, I think, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. I’m looking forward to reading that book when it comes out. Anything that you could say for us in advance, as to the issues it might address and maybe even the way in which the formal play in the last poem you read, and the demands of speaking truth to power, are sometimes seen as mutually exclusive, although your work and the work of Harryette Mullen and other poets we could name make it clear that they are not.
ES: Well, Harryette Mullen is actually one of the figures that I treat in the book. So there are a lot of connections. The two books were very synergistic for me, and I was working on them at the same time. Renegade Poetics is, just briefly, an attempt to reckon with the concept of black aesthetics, not even so much as it actually operated within the Black Arts Movement (the 1960’s and 1970’s sister movement to the Black Power movement), but the idea of black aesthetics that got solidified out of that movement, after that movement was over, and which has come to represent black aesthetics as a concept: a very limiting prescriptive set of terms for what black poetry is or should be. That term symbolizes for me, in a lot of ways, the kinds of expectations that various readers of different races would bring to what they think of as black poetry, and the book is an attempt to look at poets and poems who would be considered what I call “recognizably black,” and those that might not be considered “recognizably black,” and analyze them for ways in which they are both working with, against, and through those expectations in order to have readers experience their work in a less pre-determined way. So I talk about Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, and Harryette Mullen together, as black women writing epics that engage both racial and gendered expectations for poetry. And then a second section of the book looks at what we might call black nature poets: Ed Roberson, Anne Spencer from the Harlem Renaissance, and Will Alexander, all of whom bring racial experience and ideology to bear, in ways that are not entirely obvious, on thinking about the natural environment, what that idea of nature really is, and the relationship between humans and the rest of it. So it’s a book that tries to look at the 20th century not comprehensively, but by touching on poets from a number of periods and regional spaces and historical moments, to give us a more expanded sense of what black aesthetics might be.
LS: Yeah it sounds terrific and, as you say, Renegade Poetics sounds like a companion piece on the critical/scholarly/intellectual side to the new black, your own collection of poems. So that’s exciting to think about: the mind at work and those multiple media working on related thoughts and complicated questions that both poetry and intellectual discourse can engage in their own ways. It’s been great to hear you read and hear you talk about the new black. It’s wonderful to be back in conversation with you again. Thank you so much, Evie for coming to the phone.
ES: Thank you.
Evie Shockley is the author of two poetry collections, the new black (Wesleyan, 2011) and a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006). From 2007-2011, she co-edited the poetry journal jubilat. Her work also includes a critical study: Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, 2011). She is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, where she teaches African American literature and creative writing.