1. What is poetry?
I’ve pocketed Audre Lorde’s definitions:
Poetry is “a revelatory distillation of experience.”
“Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”
“Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.”
—from “Poetry is Not a Luxury”
Lorde sees poetry as intertwined with identity, an artform essential to women and femmes’ self-expression. For us, poems are more than sentiments rendered on the page; they represent the responsibility of facing our truths, breathing life into those truths in attempt to free ourselves and others.
For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change. – Audre Lorde
Lorde doesn’t define poetry by its shape. In her own poems, structure shifts and bends. Some are epic narratives; others are brief but lasting reflections. Her lines can behave against the left margin or be pushed toward the center, enhanced by indentation.
I love all the ways poets do poetry. Claudia Rankine’s work often sits in prose blocks. M. NourbeSe Philip’s poems can be a chorus of voices spread across the canvas. My poetry manifests as field notes and visual collages. In whatever form we choose, Black women poets are doing the work of naming, distilling, and architecting.
2. Where and how did poetry start?
Poetry began as conversation, music, oration, contemplation. Poetry began the moment we outwardly expressed the inner landscape of our lives.
Its roots also touch our lineage. In her essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” Alice Walker thinks about how our foremothers never got the chance to be the artists they truly were. They endured worlds where their self-expression was rebuked. Walker imagines “the agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelists, Essayists, and Story-Story Writers, who died with their real gifts stifled within them.”
Our foundation as artists today begins with this legacy, and so our art is not without the highest stakes. We are called to embrace the poetic desires that our mothers and grandmothers were refused.
By writing poetry, I’m speaking to them, conjuring them up, keeping their music in my mouth.
3. What are poems meant to do?
Any and all things. But my favorite thing a poem does is pose questions. These questions need not be answered—in fact, I rather they not be. The questions are meant to form an opening, a passageway primed for consideration.
My love of questions came from reading Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Education of a Storyteller.” In the essay, she recounts a question routinely posed to her by a grandmother:
What are you pretending not to know today, Sweetheart? Colored gal on planet earth? Hmph know everything there is to know, anything she/we don’t know is by definition the unknown.
This is the ultimate affirmation—to be told your knowledge is infinite, that you are endowed with instinctual knowledge. Questioning my world is the way I channel this inherent knowledge in myself and in my readers.
4. Can poetry change our lives?
“Making a Fist” by Naomi Shihab Nye changed mine. I was assigned this poem in elementary school and had to create a slideshow of images that communicated its themes. It was the first time I was given permission to interpret a poem on my own, the first time I participated in the creation of a poem’s meaning.
I’ve been carrying “Making a Fist” around with me ever since. Certain lines have come to mind throughout my life. I’m always recalling this one:
I who did not die, who am still living.
It returns to me in unpredictable moments, unprovoked. I call it my little tune of resilience. When it shows up, I welcome it.
I recite lines from many poems. From Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me”: “I made it up / here on this bridge between / starshine and clay”, to the last line of Kamilah Aisha Moon’s “Initiation”: “When mothers are planted, / daughters begin a furious blooming.”
These poems are my partners. Their lines escape my memory to stand at the doorstep of my spirit—to remind me, to rise in me.
5. What makes for a good poem?
A good poem is one I must reenter. I go back again and again because something about the end of the poem requires an immediate return to its beginning. Read Nicole Sealey’s “Object Permanence” and Audre Lorde’s “A Litany for Survival” to see what I mean. These endings are open-mouthed. The kind of endings that resist conclusion.
And that’s what I love most about this genre. Poetry is not in the business of ending. Its purpose is to keep us going.
Do you have a poem or a line of poetry that you go back to again and again?Leave a Comment