Closing Thoughts for National Poetry Month : Poems by Countee Cullen and Natasha Trethewey

I pledged at the beginning of April to post poetry that engaged in the conversation about race in America. I didn’t quite meet my goal of several posts a week, but NaPoMo is a busy time.

And then all hell broke loose in Baltimore — and so many people were saying things — poetry seemed like it might be a very small voice among all that noise. Searching online for “Baltimore + poetry” brings up many voices and images; I share two poems that seem horribly relevant.

First, this poem, called “Incident” by Countee Cullen, about a moment of racism in the early 20th century.


Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Second, this poem of the same name, “Incident,” by Natasha Tretheway, former U.S. Poet Laureate. She opens with a few comments about her life in 1950s Mississippi. Hear Tretheway reading it at this link.
The most interesting thing I found is this Harriet blog post on the Poetry Foundation’s website, in which Jericho Brown eviscerates Wolf Blitzer — “How Not to Interview Black People about Police Brutality” — worth the time to read and think about.

Jericho Brown

Poetry (if we let it) opens our ears and eyes to — and fills our hearts and imaginations with — the injustices of the world. What we do with those open eyes, those hearts and imaginations vibrating with expressions of anger, pain, fear, is up to us. How many more poems about “incidents” will people of all races have to write in America, before such things are history? I am not wise enough to know the answer. I know I ask this question from privilege and try to ask it none the less with humility.

Poetry About Race : Not My Voice Today, but Claudia Rankine’s

Writing about race as a white woman. Wanting to do the right thing, and yet falling short. Second guessing myself. Saying something stupid. Argh!

Rather than even go there today, I’m offering fans of the Cupertino Poet Laureate an essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, called “On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary: Where writers go wrong in imagining the lives of others.” I found this excerpt (adapted from the foreword to The Racial Imaginary, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, available from Fence Books.) on Literary Hub, my new favorite place.

This is my first favorite quote: … our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds. To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial—a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.

And this is my second …. Part of the mistake the white writer makes is that she confounds the invitation to witness her inevitable racial subjectivity with a stigmatizing charge of racism that must be rebutted at all costs. The white writer, in the moment of crisis, typically cannot tell the difference. What a white person could know instead is this: her whiteness limits her imagination—not her reader’s after the fact. A deep awareness of this knowledge could indeed expand the limits—not transcend them, but expand them, make more room for the imagination. A good thing.

Marliyn Chin, “How I Got That Name”

To continue with poetry engaged with questions of race, I present to you Marilyn Chin, a wonderful poet, novelist, and voice for justice. She is the winner of the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry, a national prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity, which includes Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison among its winners.

Chin was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. Her books have become Asian American classics and are taught in classrooms internationally. Marilyn Chin has read her poetry at the Library of Congress. She was interviewed by Bill Moyers’ and featured in his PBS series The Language of Life and in PBS Poetry Everywhere. (I copied this stuff directly from her website. She has a gorgeous website. Her book covers are gorgeous.)

Hard Love Province 9_10.indd

I went looking for her work because I remember this poem, “How I Got That Name” from a class, or a listserve, or something in my past. Once you read this poem, you never forget it. You can read it at with her biography. You can also find her at the Poetry Foundation, with another of her amazing poems, the astounding (visually and auditory) “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)” — that one you have to read out loud. Here’s one blogger’s analysis of it, and whether it’s racist against white people!

The poem I’m sharing today, “How I Got That Name” contains some playful, caustic, brutal, hysterical and terrifying imagery. For example:

History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!

(Please note the reference to William Carlos William’s famous poem — a poem that describes a reality Chin doesn’t feel welcome to, welcome in…. I’m going along horrified, until I get to that last bit, “We have no inner resources!” — then I have to laugh out loud.)

And then this bit, where an Asian-American woman, writes with perfect seriousness:

She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—

You really have to read this poem several times to catch all the references.

In case these little snippets don’t tempt you to read further, here’s a line from “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)” —

Succumb to the low-lying succubus     do!

Chin’s voice is wide-ranging, rhythmic, musical, self-deprecating, funny, exploratory and absolutely poke-you-with-a-stick unforgiving. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Poetry About Race

If you’ve been following me on Facebook, you might have seen my posts about New York Times op-ed writer, Nicholas Kristof, and his call for poems about race.

Here are two articles that he’s written in response to the 300+ poems he received. The commentary is interesting, but the poems are wonderful. Angry, beautiful, hopeful, terrifying.

I don’t want to quote from the poems here, I want you to go and read them all. Then I think we should all get together and write our own. Soon.