Talk from the Middle East to the Middle West: A Conversation on Place, Race, Gender and Poetry with Steve Davenport

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Lea Graham:  One thing I’ve been thinking about is how there’s a difference in perception of place depending upon how long you’ve been there.  I was living in Florence this past fall and it was interesting in that short time to remember my first impressions and how they changed (or didn’t) as I kept living there.  In traveling, the weight of all you don’t know and how you’re trying to cipher the clues of sensory experience alongside what you’ve read (or been told) is another version of place.  I’m in Jerusalem right now and trying to figure out what the mood is, how I might understand this place in such a short time.  Then, there’s the familiar place where we stay.  As both of us have overlapping regional geographies, I thought we might think together on the impact of longevity of place.  My family has been in the same corner of Arkansas for a few generations and that rootedness juxtaposes my own peripatetic nature.  I’m interested in what you have to say about place and perception….

Steve DavenportSteve Davenport: Lea, good morning.  It’s pre-dawn here in the middle of the middle.  Can I get a “Bullshit” from the congregation?  Middle of what middle, Mr. Geocentric Preacherman?  Why, as learned Mr. Gass says, the heart of the heart of the country.  Don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m selling.  Heart ain’t Florida.  Heart ain’t California.  Heart’s tucked in.  Middler, the better.  I was one evening in transit on a Greyhound bus from Normal, Illinois (see middle) to Alton, Illinois.  As we moved in the dark off the interstate from small town stop to small town stop, I could hear the occasional passenger take part in that locational call-and-response.  Where are we?  Where we are.  Where’s that where?  Middle of nowhere.  I wanted to grab the mic and say we are always somewhere, always in transit.  “Middle of nowhere” means they have no name for where they are, no way of making specific use of the place, every bus stop and back road the same.  These passengers make bad poets.  We are always somewhere.  Where are you, Lea?  I mean right now.  I mean middle of what middle?  Preach it.

Partition near the Western Wall

LG:  Good evening, Steve, from Tel Aviv where shabbat is nearing an end.  I have marveled at the quiet both here and in Jerusalem yesterday evening after returning from the Dead Sea.  Both of these cities are vibrant in their own ways–Jerusalem so old it seems to define “ancient;  Tel Aviv, on the other hand, so new even by U.S. standards (officially recognized in 1934) and so it has been a bit strange to be in them without the noise of public transportation, foot traffic diminished, most restaurants and shops closed.   So where am I?  I’m sitting here in my friend Yoav’s apartment while he’s cleaning the floor and I’m writing to you.  The theme song from Chariots of Fire is playing on the radio (and just shortly before, Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”…it seems a firey theme going on).  And what you’re talking about “where am I/where are we?” is definitely on my mind as I’ve spent the afternoon in the Tel Aviv Art Museum and was thinking about how much of the art is titled with place names: Janco’s Ball in Zurich, Leger’s The Roofs of Paris, Vuillard’s The Nurses at Park Batignolles, Chagall’s The Wailing Wall.  Even those without specific place names still contend with place:  Tanguy’s Endless Space, Magritte’s The Secret Landscape and Kandinsky’s abstractions that suggest hills, clouds.  Yi-Fu Tuan, in his book,  Space and Place, talks about how we define place through the parameters of our own bodies (what’s to our left or right hand, how what we see in front of us is valued, even sacred, while what is behind us is “profane,” etc.), but I might also suggest that places help define us–who we are depends on where we are, where we are from.  Being an Arkansan transplanted in New York by way of Massachusetts and Chicago and to a lesser extent, New Jersey, is a defining characteristic of my person.

Who are we at any given moment?  I’ve been trying to trace my thinking and even mood as I’ve been here and moving from Tel Aviv to Jersualem, from the heights of Masada to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea. Being here in Israel has also complicated my thinking about having been born into a Southern Baptist family in Arkansas where I grew up memorizing lengthy passages of the Bible where so many of the names I’ve passed on the highway or spotted on my map (Judea, Be’er Sheva, Jericho) began in my imagination launched through “the word.”  It raises larger questions for me about how culture is always in transit, despite our efforts to try to keep it, to root it, to name it “tradition.”  It is a protean thing, a traveling business!  So maybe I’ll throw this back at you:  Who are you “in place”?  How has reading and writing connected you to the actual experience of place?

SD: Except for a six-week French Club trip to Europe when I was sixteen (damn straight earned that summer-school D at Université de Strasbourg), a couple of summers in Baton Rouge in my mid twenties to visit my suddenly transplanted family, and the occasional brief vacation, I have made my home here in Illinois.  Like Israel and Arkansas, Illinois is simultaneously finite and infinite, locatable on a map and unmappable because time and space don’t play a table game.  When I was a kid, I understood place as a fixed series of Chinese boxes (Universe, Virgo Supercluster, Milky Way, Solar System, Earth, North America, USA, Midwest, Illinois, Madison County, Bethalto, 306 Albers Place, my bedroom, my bed, my body, my brain (the middlest of middles).  I now better understand place as lived/remembered experience, rhizomatic, spreading, unfixed, unreliable, more Borgesian Garden of Forking Paths than one thing inside another.  Who am I “in place”?  Or maybe it’s who am “I” in place?  I’ll accept my name and Social Security number as useful markers.  DNA, fingerprints, teeth in case of crime or morgue-need.  If we’re playing Map (Where’s Stevo?), I’ll accept Illinois.  I’ll accept my origins in and along American Bottom (floodplain across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, a narrow patchwork of industrial suburbs, one of them my father’s home town).  Here in Urbana, 150 miles northeast, where Lynn and I tend our four-pack of daughters, I’ll accept Central Illinois even if Central suggests we must understand the state in thirds.  I don’t accept “downstate” because that would mean I’m being understood in relation to Chicagoan geocentrism.  I’m upstate (and over) from American Bottom, and Chicago’s downstate from Waukegan, which is downstate from Winthrop Harbor, and so on.  As for how my reading/writing connects with, as you put it, my “experience of place,” I love reading county plat maps since they carry historical information that, if uncomfortable, gets erased from tourist maps.  Here I’m thinking about uncomfortable historical information from my childhood that led to my essay “Naming Negro Lick” (http://gasolinelake.com/naming-negro-lick/) about a Central Illinois creek I knew well growing up because it runs through my mother’s home town, a creek that was not named Negro Lick except on Civil War post office lists and post-1970s’ tourist maps, a farm land creek that was marked by a highway sign carrying the real name (Nigger Lick) until a state highway crew was quietly asked to take it down (not long after the TV series Roots sensitized some folks).  To this day it’s the only creek on that stretch of road that’s unmarked.  Places like Lick and American Bottom (maybe 30-40 miles south of Lick), not Illinois, make me a writer, feed me selected bits of information, fertilize memory, map the unmappable, make it mine, a Davenmap if you will.  As I say above, time and space don’t play a table game.  I’ll probably never visit Israel, and I know I’ll never find your Arkansas.  Where is it, Lea?  And have you made/remade it, or any part of it, yours?

Hartford 1955

Hartford, Illinois, 1955

LG:  It’s serendipitous that you bring up the politics of place and naming.  I’m waiting to board my flight here in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion bound for London’s Gatwick.  Of course today of all days, the airline decides to make an issue of the fact that there is a rip in my passport that is very close to my signature.  It got me booted off my first flight and came close to doing it again on the second flight I booked. Earlier today, I found myself saying things like “I need to return to my country” and slapping the counter for emphasis as if I had some urgency to the whole of the United States. As if the U.S. was what sustained me rather than my beloveds, my job or even my attachments to regions and cities that I love: driving past Chicago’s Near Westside skyline with its green copper domes, the wildness of Southern Maine beaches in winter, the echoes among the cliffs at the Buffalo River.  Meanwhile, I’ve been reading about the racial violence that keeps occurring in our country….  So who we are and where we are and where we are from–and “what” we are– feels real to me in a way that it rarely has before.

Tonight while I was waiting in one of the many very long security lines, I was next to a multi-generational Arabic family with a grandmother, mother and three teenage/young adult children.  We all stood and watched as the 14-member Jewish Orthodox family was allowed past us in line so they wouldn’t miss their flight.  They were the same family that clogged the check-in counter earlier and seemed oblivious to everyone else.  I write this in full recognition and even shock at my own irritation and prejudice.  And I was not alone, given the expressions on the faces of my Arabic neighbors.  I found it funny and upsetting that my own comfort (or discomfort) level had me making lazy and stupid generalizations.  Given the large families in my own family’s past, why does it bother me that there were so many of them?  Given my own history, raised in a conservative religious and patriarchal family, what is especially offensive about their version of it? When I began to realize my own thinking and review what I had experienced in line, I thought…wow, that family seemed happy, they worked well together for so many and for so many who were young and close to the same age group.  As the family trooped past me, one of the pre-teen girls said to her sister, “It’s like we’re VIP’s!”  Typically youthful, joyous,  oblivious.  I think about these kind of regular occurrences within the context of the anomaly that travel still feels like to me and it widens my parameters of acceptance.   Still, if I’m not careful (read: tired, irritated, worried, lazy) and I stop working as a writer, stop observing what is actually happening, I don’t realize the humanity around me.

But back to Arkansas and your question:  My Arkansas is a complicated place.  I suppose most people’s homes are if they think about it.  I’ve come to realize as an older adult that my version of Arkansas is mine alone.  It’s not my brothers–which is a place with a lot more freedom.  It’s not my other friends who grew up in different kinds of families than mine (who spent less time in church and dwelling on religion).

I would say that one defining characteristic of my Arkansas has to do with gender (as race seems to be for you).  I grew up with a lot of unspoken and spoken  limitations placed on girls.  I’m sure this would have been a lot different for me if I had been a good athlete (as it was, I was “middlin,” as they say…and more interested in reading).  Also, it was confusing because the adult women in my life were tough people in different ways, but still deferential.  My maternal grandmother was the head nurse at the County Public Health Department in Northwest Arkansas.  She used to go out to the hollers and attend to the families who lived there: check on the pregnant women, see who needed immunizations, that sort of thing.  I never really knew exactly what she did until I was well into my adult years as the only thing she would say about her work  was that the people would always welcome her in and offer her a cup of coffee.  This was the same woman who used to vacuum their farmhouse in her bathing suit and high heels because my grandfather liked it!  She would also wake up at 4 a.m. with him and go up to turn on the chickenhouse lights as they ran a large, working farm with four chickenhouses, a dairy and more.

Western Wall

Still, one of the defining characteristics of Arkansas for me was being stuck at home.  It’s not hard for me to understand my travel lust as an adult.  I have a visceral memory of sitting on my grandfather’s rock fence and seeing the Milky Way for the first time.  At that moment, I remember thinking about NYC and all the people there (like actual stars, I suppose) and all that was happening and how I wanted to be there.  My Arkansas is a place of discontent.  “Going to town” was a phrase that was exciting to me.  “At home” was about chores and routines that served other people–almost entirely a male world. And that world was one that was solidified through religion and silence.  Reading was my subversive act that helped me quietly form different ways of being in the world–or at least, wanting to be in the world.  What carries some irony for me, as I write this deep in my travel experience in Israel, is that both going to the Western Wall and to King David’s tomb in Jerusalem were experiences marked by gender segregation.  At the Western Wall, the women stood on chairs looking over the partition at the men, who were singing or otherwise, seemed to be having a rowdier time.  I thought that was a bit silly until I went to David’s tomb (who probably isn’t actually there) and was the only woman on my side of the wall.  I could hear the men chanting and I couldn’t resist standing on the chairs next to the partition to look over.  Who we are defines our experience in the world and traveling for me has confirmed that as much as anything else I’ve done.

So, I’m curious about your interest and commitment to race and place.  Where did that recognition start for you?

SD: So much to talk about, Lea.  Race and place developed slowly for me as themes.  I grew up in spaces or towns that were white, not sundown towns but white, by which I mean the visible or total absence of black bodies.  A sundown town would attempt to reschedule a high school football game, make the Friday night tradition a Saturday noon event, if it meant black folks would be on the field or in the stands.  My high school didn’t do that.  Of course, our daily lives are filled with things, large and small, we don’t see and, if we do, don’t remember.  The things we do remember get distorted as they move into story.  That said, here’s a story that may tell you something of worth about me, race, and place.

It’s Friday, April 5, 1968.  I’m fourteen years old, twenty-two days past my birthday.  I don’t remember many of my birthdays, but I remember that one.  That evening, March 14, I watched the last episode of my favorite TV show, Batman, out back of our corner store (family house attached) in the privacy of Grandma Lucy’s tiny house.  Batman, Robin, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, Joker, Catwoman.  Pow!  Boff!  Thwack!  I don’t remember dreaming at all of moving to Gotham City from Bethalto, Illinois, the small town we moved to, just up and off the Bottom, when I was a toddler, though years later if I was home from University of Illinois, where I was working on a PhD, and my dad was watching a movie and there happened to be a scene in a deli, he would yell, “Charlie, come here.  Look.  I can see you there.  In a place like that.  In New York.”  Why he called me Charlie is another story, which is what stories do: they advertise the form like we’re all Scheherazade, abandoning one story for another to maintain interest, when we should get back to the point of the one we’re telling and finish it with no fear of death at the Sultan’s hands.

It’s Friday, April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. is shot dead in Memphis.  It’s the last day of the week, and my little white town, just a few miles down Route 140 from Alton (birth place and home town of James Earl Ray, captured two months later in London at Heathrow Airport), is bursting at its pale seams with fear.  I wouldn’t know a thing about it except parents are showing up at Wilbur Trimpe, my junior high, to remove their kids from school.  Word eventually circulates among desks and in the halls that our classmates are being taken home because blacks from Alton are marching, or are assembling to march, in our direction, down Route 140 to make a violent statement in Bethalto.  Never mind that they could more easily find all the white folks they want right there in Alton or march down Broadway to East Alton and Wood River and maybe hook a right to Hartford and right to my old neighborhood, the northeast quadrant (AKA Gasoline Lake in my writing).  No one knows at this point that James Earl Ray is from Alton, but we’re white and some of us are gripped by race hysteria, collective Negrophobia, call it what you will.  I call it some dumb-ass shit.

So does my mother, though she wouldn’t use that language.  It’s Friday, April 5, 1968, and my mother’s working in our family grocery store, which tells me that Grandma Lucy, my father’s mother, transplanted from southeast Missouri to spend most of her adult life working at the International Shoe Tannery situated between my birth home (Hartford) and the refineries that polluted my old neighborhood (personally mythologized as Gasoline Lake) before joining us at the store when the tannery shut down, must have had the day off, which is good considering the racism she would most likely have brought to any conversation in the store that morning.  Grandma Lucy doesn’t like dagos either, as she calls them one day within my hearing, which means by now my memory, because she doesn’t like the smell of their food at lunch.  Garlic offends.  Dagos, she says.  (I loved my grandma, but this is the woman I watched pick up the store phone and call the mother of a woman her youngest son was about to marry and say before, as was her custom, hanging up, “Hi, this is Lucy Wintjen.  I hear my boy is marrying your daughter.  We’ve never had a Catholic in the family before, but I guess it’s okay this time.”  Click.  Not good-bye.  Click.  Memory.  Story.)

It’s April 5, the morning after Martin Luther King Jr. has been reported shot and declared dead.  The occasional customer comes into our little grocery store, known as The Little Store, with talk of angry blacks coming our way, marching with ill and violent intent.  My mother’s response, probably kept to herself?  Nonsense.  Absolute nonsense.  But all alone, with my father working down on the Bottom a mile east of our old Hartford neighborhood at Shell Oil, with Grandma Lucy gone, my mother finds herself caught up in the race hysteria.  From mid morning to early afternoon she declares nonsense, absolute nonsense, then closes the blinds, turns off the lights, locks the front door, retreats into the house, redeclares nonsense, absolute nonsense, comes back out to the store, turns the lights on, opens the blinds, unlocks the door, waits on a customer, repeats.

Grandpa Raymond and Grandma Lucy Davenport

Grandpa Raymond and Grandma Lucy Davenport

Me, I’m at Wilbur Trimpe, watching other kids leave, sitting at my desk near Floyd, a greaser who declares more than once with a show of brass knuckles he pulls from his black leather jacket, which he may or not be wearing, which I may be including because they fit the story, that he has something for those “n—–s” if they’re stupid enough to mess with him, at which point his mother knocks on the classroom door, asks for her little Floyd, he hops up, hustles to the door, and they leave together.  Me, I’m at my desk until the end of the school day, at which point I walk home.  My mom does not come get me early.  My mom is too busy being ashamed of herself for locking/unlocking/locking/unlocking the door and giving in to group-think, to race-think, to something nearing communal hysteria, which involves a neighbor woman bringing my three younger sisters home early from grade school without asking my mother, without the school asking for a parent’s signature.

Fourteen-year-old me, I walk home.  It’s not far, and my all-white town is remarkably free of angry, marching Negroes.  I use “Negro” because that’s the nicest, best word they received in those days in my town.  More typical was Floyd’s descriptor, which Grandma Lucy used one night during the evening news when she was watching Blacks riot in some city somewhere.  I used to think it was Watts, but she probably wasn’t in the little house behind The Little Store by then.  Although I’d heard her complain about the “dagos” that one time (the time I remember), I’d never heard her cuss (that I remembered).  So when I heard her say with considerable heat as she moved from her chair and TV to her kitchen, a distance of maybe nine feet,  “goddamn n—–s,” I was shocked.  The N word was shocking, but it was the cuss word and the heat she lit it with that mostly got me.  I was used to sporadic, usually casual or dismissive declarations of that word around town.

I have in fact a very specific memory of using it myself around that time.  It would be a tidy, sense-making story if the three events happened in the order I used to remember them: MLK assassination, Grandma Lucy’s “goddamn,” and then my use of the N word (influenced specifically by her use).  I loved my grandma.  I spent many a week and weekend with her in Hartford before she moved to Bethalto.  She was a tough woman, who might have, like your grandma, vacuumed her floor in a bathing suit and high heels if she owned them and her man wanted the show.  In fact, while doing a little post-research for Murder on Gasoline Lake I was told on the phone by someone I’d never met, someone older than me that Grandma Lucy was, in his words, “a whore.”  That, of course, is another story that had to do with a man leaving his wife and children to marry her.  (Scheherazade!  Pow!  Swack!)  This story, the one I’m finishing now (finally!), ends in southern California.  I’m in the back of a camper with a couple of cousins I haven’t seen since we were toddlers, brothers, one a year older, one a year younger.  My uncle and Grandma Lucy have left the truck to go into a store, and I see through a window slit that an elderly black man is getting out of a car behind us.  I suppose to impress my cousins, I yell the N word out the window.  The man looks around.  We duck down, even though he couldn’t have seen inside the camper.  My older cousin is horrified or maybe just angry because we might get in trouble, and I immediately know I’ve done a thing so bad I’ll never do again.

I’m pretty sure this trip happened the summer before the spring in which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and no African Americans marched to Bethalto to make a point about racism in America.  I have for the last ten years or more been making a point about that point, racism in America, losing some friends along the way, folks who don’t like what I have to say.  I have transformed that moment in that camper and put in my Black Guy Bald Guy series, in the same story in fact (“Where the Water Runs Uphill”) that features an unsanitized, relocated version of the creek we now call Lick.  A tidy telling of these events from the latter half of the Sixties would have me yelling the N word a couple of months after hearing my grandma yell it, but I doubt that’s the order of things.  Even if it were, the word was part of the way we talked and thought back then about people we had never met.  Race in an all-white town, especially in an all-white town, is part of growing up, and I’d be a less honest writer if I didn’t address it.

LG: Yes, “people we had never met….”  That seems to me a reason to travel, to meet people and learn and look from a different perspective.  But as much as people will often tell me that the travel I do (often solo) is “brave” or somehow impressive, I think that your talk about the stationary (which isn’t so stationary) is moreso.  How do we gain deeper understanding of the others and the world as we geographically stay in the same place? I would say this especially given that you write from outside of large, urban spaces where the world comes to you.  Given the recent violence in Paris, I wonder at how peace and understanding can be made in a geography of difference and tradition?

Beach at Tel Aviv

SD:  You tell me.  You talked earlier about “regions and cities that [you]love: driving past Chicago’s Near Westside skyline with its green copper domes, the wildness of Southern Maine beaches in winter, the echoes among the cliffs at the Buffalo River.”  As beautiful as that language is, these places surely have their individual suppressed histories.  I also love the poetry in your phrase “a geography of difference and tradition,” but wonder how it too suppresses or pretties what’s at stake.  What would you say is at stake in Paris?  What’s at stake here?  Do political cartoonists have the freedom to lampoon race, ethnicity, and nationality here in this place we call The States that the French have or once had?  Should they?  How free is our speech and at what cost?  I’ll add gender and sexual orientation to that short list of topics.

LG: I’ve been thinking about this freedom of language, too, and wondering.  I think about the situation in Paris and the value in their tradition of satire.  Of course that’s going to bump up (Smash! Thwack!) against the difference of a tradition of what? Reverence?  The sacred?  I don’t know enough to speak to the intricacies of that particular geography and what is fully at stake.  If I think about this in terms of our conversation of place, race, sexual orientation and gender, you know that I would be angry at published slurs against my own values regarding these issues.  Yet, I wouldn’t want to ban that speech for the way in which it still allows an opening for response, argument and education. Also, the idea that you would murder people based on their words seems to replicate a playground fight:  “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words may never hurt me.”  Well, we know that words do hurt.  But to take that hurt and turn it to the physical demise of others seems utterly wrong.

The beauty of the language vs. those histories or, as you put it, the suppressed history is something I think poetry addresses.  Why does language  in whatever beautiful form need to negate the ugliness of the past?  How might it create a paradox in which we can understand how beauty and injustice are right there together?  Let’s go back to your Negro/Nigger Lick, for a moment.  It’s hard for me to read that name and harder for me to type it out on this screen because of the pain that that word has caused and continues to cause and what it stands for.  However, I can hear the beauty of the sounds of the name–the short “i” sounds, the hard “g” and “ck” and I think it complicates the horror of the history.  The beauty of language can help us, I think, understand how easy it is to go along unthinking with the prejudices and the larger unjust structures of the day.  I think it also helps us think about how the crimes committed against peoples are often masked with beauty or some ideal.  Likewise, I think about how Blues music speaks back to that injustice with its own beauty and covert language.

SD: The beauty of language.  Sound and sense.  The sonic properties of words that, being words, carry freight.  Here’s Jabari Asim in his smart, historically rich book The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why (2007) writing about a late 19th-century American “carnival and fair attraction frequently billed as ‘Dump the Nigger’ (a.k.a ‘Coon Dip’), a dunking booth where athletically inclined contestants, hailing from places like Nigger Run Fork, Virginia, or near Dead Nigger Creek in Texas, could aim for the target while stuffing their cheeks with Nigger Hair tobacco, which went on the market in 1874.”  There’s some freight right there that’s anything but covert because it doesn’t need to be.  It doesn’t need to hide.  One contestant’s fully public identity-candy is another contestant’s poison.  Next time you’re in Chicago, ask people who are old enough to remember Riverview Amusement Park (1904-1967) if they remember “Dump a Nigger” from the 1940s and 1950s, the long lines of white people, reportedly the most lucrative park concession of its time, and how the gamekeeper caved to PC pressure and renamed it “African Dip” until the killjoy NAACP finally succeeded in getting the game removed in 1957.

Good Old Days.  Good for photographers, for painters.  Good for movies, for stories.  Good for poetry.  Good for Chicago and Illinois and long-time state Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, who knew there were poems to be made from race and place practices and attitudes.  Good for you and me, for poets everywhere, world over, regardless of race position and skin tone, class status or gender, if we use what the Good Old Days gave us, which is to say pairs of glasses through which we can see what the Good Old Days continue to give us, which is to say the Good Old Days ain’t ever quite over.  Good art out of bad times and places.  Put it on a tee shirt and go to work.  And if good for poetry, then good for song and good that you mention the Blues and the poetry of sound and word that tradition brings and has always brought to the conversation.  Between Christmas and New Year I went on a Youtube binge.  Individual Blues songs, Blues albums, Blues documentaries.  I read again in Tom Williams’ novel about the last True Delta Bluesman, Don’t Start Me Talkin’ (2014).  I went in search of I don’t know what and I came out with Howlin’ Wolf and ideas about what I might do to become a better writer.  Covert language, you say?  I came out with the lesson that a Bluesman’s complaint about his woman was usually or often a coded complaint about the Boss Man.  I came out with a better understanding of art practices, financial, social, of particular times and places.  And the N Word?  It rarely came up except in descriptions of disparagement.  If you want a smart Blues’ use of the N Word, you can Youtube “Bourgeois Blues” by Lead Belly (AKA Huddie William Ledbetter) and find it.  You’ll note, though, that he uses it in relation to a very particular time and place and there’s nothing beautiful about it, about the time, the place, or the word.

Coincidentally or ironically (you pick), as we close this discussion of place, race, and poetry, today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which should mean it’s everyone’s day  This January morning, unusually mild, I’m opening the windows, cranking up “Smokestack Lightnin,” and heading to Facebook and tumblr to see what my friend and graphic artist, writer, and culture-critic Ronald Davis (AKA upfromsumdirt) is up to, what he has to say about things since he should have been the one at this poet mic, not me.  Here’s what I go looking for, what I find, lines he strings like beads one after another in a series of quick posts as if the whole thing’s a poem.  Here’s what Ron teaches me:

im a cultural critic who writes philosophy, history, mythology, and anarchy as satire through prose… and calls it “poetry”.

niches within niches;

im a son-of-a-niche.

i write for the aesthetic of spirits. for the appeasement of the voices in my head. to keep the shadows that stalk my walls at night from seeing me as prey and choking me in my sleep.

this isnt for you to brew over during lunch break… my brogue is for the borealic.

something like a rocky aura show; half african, half isotope.

a Hardly Boys Mystery no. 1: “the ballad of the shivering penumbra”

the blood in my veins: the Skeet of Petey Wheatstraw.

i talk in my steep: the Slope of Black Folk… it isnt safe here.

every phrase, pot liquor & collage. a barrage of Stolen Property / this is not your father’s naming ceremony.

every poem: prototypical ceruloplasmin…

…ether/ore.

100% sigh-fi.

and if my Maker cauls and i dye tonight: know that i’ve always loved you.

Here’s my response.  Know that art abides despite or because of bad practices.  Know that the dirt we come from is the first foundation and the best vantage point from which we might see what needs seeing and shape what needs shaping.  And know that when I turn to social media to find Ronald Davis, it’s not coincidental.  It’s not because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Ron’s magically black or blackly magical.  I check in on Ron Davis most every day because he is a bodhisattva rising above dirt I think I understand and want to know better than I do.

 

Photo By: Stefano Corso

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About Author

Lea Graham is the author of the forthcoming chapbook, This End of the World: Notes to Robert Kroetsch (Apt. 9 Press, 2016), the poetry book, Hough & Helix & Where & Here & You, You, You (No Tell Books, 2011) and the chapbook, Calendar Girls (above /ground press, 2006). She is an Associate Professor of English at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York when she is not on a bus in the Andes, hiking through Galicia or stuck in an airport somewhere. She is a native of Northwest Arkansas.

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