The Writer’s Block Transcripts: A Q&A with Evie Shockley
Evie Shockley is the author of a half-red sea (2006) and the new black (2011), among other works. Her writing has been featured in several anthologies of African American and contemporary poetry and criticism. Her work interrogates tradition in both the poetic and political sense. She has been the recipient of fellowships from the Millay Colony for the Arts, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library, and she currently teaches at Rutgers University.
In June 2016, Shockley visited City of Asylum for Cave Canem’s annual retreat and poetry reading. In this interview with Sampsonia Way, she discussed the social structures she seeks to redefine in her work and the impact of social movements on contemporary poetry.
Why are you drawn to word play?
Oh, because who doesn’t want to have fun, right? Puns have just always amused me and what I like about word play in poetry is that a lot of the poems I write are on difficult subjects; they are subjects that people might not gravitate towards and I like to give readers something to keep them in the poem.
What cultural and social structures are your poems attempting to redefine?
Almost all of them! We are a nation that tells ourselves a lot of stories about who we are, from the story of the pilgrims to the story of Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence — just to name a couple of the narratives that I’ve intervened in, so to speak, or questioned and played around with in my poems. In other words, I’m interested in investigating and taking apart the narratives sustaining cultural and social structures that reinforce the power imbalance and the inequitable distribution of resources on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion, and so forth. The “official narratives” tell only one aspect of the truth and it’s always much more complicated than the kind of thing that has tended to find its way into the elementary and even secondary school history books. I like to contribute to the ongoing work by a wide range of poets of all types who have inserted their own voices, their own perspectives, and reimagined history from the ground up. We often get a top-down history.
What do you mean by “history from the ground up”?
Whether we are looking at American history, African American history, or a much wider global history, up until about the 1970s or ‘80s historians told the stories of kings, rulers, popes, monarchs, generals in the wars, the discoverers — with all of the problems that that implies. Left out of those stories were, generally, women and people of color, in their own places and in places where they had migrated, forcibly or not; the working classes, people who for a long time didn’t have a vote in many places; the people who don’t own land or don’t own businesses and whose functions have been to keep the wheels of capitalism going, over its 500- or 600-year history.
All of those voices were not the focus of the histories that were developed and taught for so long. Therefore, in the academy, scholars have been in a several decade’s long process to recreate those narratives and make them more inclusive. Poets have been trying to change those stories for a lot longer, but now we have so much more information to draw upon when asking different questions about the past. The newer work of scholars makes it much richer to write those poems.
You introduce your book, the new black, with a quote from Lucille Clifton: “I come to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” What makes poetry an effective mechanism to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?
Poetry is a wonderful vehicle for comforting the afflicted because it’s always been associated with healing, as it has been associated with song. And poetry travels. You don’t need a lot of money to write it, you don’t need a lot of money to print it and distribute it. The Black Arts Movement was one of those moments in the African American tradition when that was very palpable. The fact that you could make a Xerox of your chapbook and sell it for 50 cents on the street corners made it possible to comfort and call a whole range of African Americans to a kind of political consciousness.
To afflict the comfortable is always a hard thing, no matter what your vehicle, but because poetry at the same time offers the advantage of having been the province of a certain kind of elite and it’s one of our oldest genres. I mean the novel is a baby compared to poetry, the essay is new compared to poetry, print journalism comes in way, way after poetry. So, poetry has a long tradition that makes it culturally valuable—kings and aristocrats used to sponsor poets. It’s a part of what we know we’re supposed to know as a culture and that makes poetry a genre that reaches such a wide audience, whether in print form, on YouTube (these days), or at actual poetry readings. People stop and read poetry on the street or on the subway in New York. It travels.
How did growing up in Nashville influence your perspective on race?
It shaped my perspective on race in many ways. The Nashville I grew up in was very binary, meaning that at the time it was a largely black and white city. We hadn’t had large immigrant populations from Latino cultures or Asian American cultures; Native Americans were kind of a shadow presence for all of the reasons we know about. So, I grew up thinking about race in very dualistic terms that I have spent many years unlearning. It was the kind of place where my sister and I were taught not to be less than our best, but to be aware that being our best would make some of our teachers want to work against us. I was the valedictorian of my high school and there was a teacher that my mother was very afraid would actively work to make that not the case. And, that was a reality – that was a reality of the time and the place. It’s not the reality of race. It wasn’t a place where we learned about race as a mutable, constructed thing, but as a thing that was in your blood, so it gave me a perception of race in America and the world more broadly that is informed by its worst aspects.
But there were also things about Nashville that opened the door to different kinds of understandings of race that I’ve come to later. It was Music City, and as a result there were times and places where music brought people together across lines that were very much contested when I was growing up. I was growing up and going to school in the era in which busing was still a flashpoint as a word, as a function of how schooling was handled. Integration was brand new, and not because I’m that old but because Nashville waited as long as they possibly could before really desegregating. So, all of those are things that very much shaped and informed the understandings of race that I began my adult life with and to extent the ways those ideas have developed with broader exposure.
To what extent has the Black Lives Matter movement impacted your community of black poets?
It has enlivened and enraged and invigorated black poets in the communities that I operate in, Cave Canem among others. I think people feel a sense of purpose in writing that makes poetry more urgent than it sometimes is. And I think there were threads of that that have run consistently through the poetry in the African American tradition. But I really can’t say how much it has meant to a generation that is emerging — that is my community, but at a generation removed — to see them being able to make the connection between why Black Arts poets wrote the way they did and to realize that there are many ways to be a black poet, but one of them—a very important one—is to name these truths that matter, not just in the abstract, but in a very concrete sense to people that are outside of the community of poetry and readers of poetry.
Do you feel that the Black Lives Matter movement brought the emerging generation closer to earlier generations of poets?
In some ways. I think there are threads that have run through black poetry. You can look at people like Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden for the meticulous attention they bring to craft, the beauty of their language, their mastery of lyric poetry. But you can oppose them to writers like perhaps Langston Hughes, who really wanted to foreground black culture in a way that led him to create blues poetry, or someone like Sonia Sanchez or Amiri Baraka, who wrote out of the vernacular voice, out of anger, trying to wake people up, to stop you from thinking about poetry as something that is pretty on a shelf, but instead is speaking to you in your current situation and about those issues that matter to you.
What I think is that we have a generation of poets now who don’t feel like they have to choose between those two models and who, in fact, recognize that those models are not as separate as they might seem. They recognize that Gwendolyn Brooks participated in the Black Arts Movement, embraced a sense of empowerment that the Black Arts Movement brought to the forefront, and modified her style to some degree, while keeping some of the things that were important to her work (such as the sonic layers, and the somewhat dense vocabulary). She brought some of her long-term aesthetics forward into poems that spoke, as I think she would say it, more directly to black people. And by the same token, I think this is a generation that recognizes that Sonia Sanchez did not just get up on stage and recite poems that were chants or full of curses and outrage. She also writes in haiku, she writes in rhyme royal. Both of these writers are fluid models for how to raise your voice and talk about what matters to you at any moment, while making art of it.
The fact that it’s art and not just speech – I mean, speech is important, I’m all for speech — and when you’re at a rally, you want some of that direct speech. But a rally can also have poems and they bring something to that context that is art: something that is made to be beautiful, whether that beauty is in the truth, or the form, or simply in the embodiment or spirit of the person who is giving the poem to you in that moment.
Who is a poet that everyone should be reading right now?
There are many poets that I would like to recommend. One of the things that happens a lot is that you get very busy being a lot of things to a lot of people. And so a lot of the poems or books that I get to read these days are books that I’m blurbing, or writing about to help support those books. I would name a couple of those right now that I’ve blurbed recently. Douglas Kearney, a poet that I’ve been following for a number of years, published recently a book called Mess and mess and, a very evocative title that suggests the kind of play and . . . well, messiness that he’s working with. It’s an interrogation of all kinds of ideas and stereotypes about blackness and making black art. Another book that is really powerful is Play Dead by francine j. harris. It’s a wonderful book of lyric poems that are stark and startling in their imagery—a powerful work. These are just a couple of the many examples that I can give.