A Conversation With Evie Shockley
Kate Greenstreet: Do you believe that poetry can create change in the world?
Evie Shockley: I do. For example, poetry contributed to the political/social changes in American society during the 1960s. The poets of Black Arts Movement were able to communicate ideas for black empowerment and critiques of white supremacy to large numbers of African Americans who might have been more willing to listen to poetry than read a political tract. Their need to get poetry to the people, so to speak, forced them to be creative about distribution in ways that have been influential and could be seen as forerunners to the ways many poets today use the Internet and DIY to publish the poetry that seems most urgent to them. And the Black Arts poets’ refusal to apologize for their subject matter, their use of black vernacular, and their engagement with African American culture has made it a lot easier for African American poets in the last several decades to pursue their writing in ways that would have pushed them completely off the literary map in the decades just before the 1960s. Harlem Renaissance poets did a similar type of work, aesthetically speaking, but those lessons had been largely lost by the time the young Black Arts Movement poets began to emerge.
So did this poetry create a political revolution of the type their works sometimes called for? No. But does change have to be revolutionary to count as change? Poetry can create change in a society’s competing ideologies or an individual person’s perspective in the same way that such change is created through elections, court cases, protest marches, political rallies, educational programs, mentoring efforts, heartfelt conversations, volunteer organizations, etc., etc.–slowly, non-linearly, often unquantifiably, but meaningfully just the same.
Leonard Schwartz from The Conversant: 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.
HL from Dead Mule: I know that you don’t use capital letters in your poetry (but do in your prose). Can you explain why? I thought e.e. cummings already did this. I don’t have a problem with it I just don’t understand. I understand that all educated, English-speaking people use standard American English in their prose. No need to explain that.
ES: E.E. Cummings may have something to do with my becoming open to the possibilities of foregoing capital letters and other kinds of alternative typography. I did my American Lit term paper on Cummings when I was a junior in high school, and I was a huge fan of his work. But I wasn’t writing poetry then, myself. More conscious influences upon my interest in writing in all-lowercase letters have been Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. I don’t know why they’ve chosen this typography; I can only speak for myself. I like not having to privilege certain words, visually, just because they’re at the beginning of a sentence or function as proper nouns. I’d rather have the reader’s eye focus on the beginnings and endings of my lines, than the beginnings and endings of my sentences. Even in prose poems, where the sentence is the unit in which I’m working, I like the way all-lowercase lines allow a reader’s eye to glide along, uninterrupted by visual obstacles that have nothing to do with the concerns of the poem. I’ve heard some people argue that it suggests a low self-esteem if you don’t capitalize the first person “I.” My response to that would be simply that “i” am not more and no less important than “you” or “we” or “she.” Finally, for those with boundless curiosity, there is a really interesting history of the invention of capital letters in a book by David Sacks called /Language Visible/.
HL: That makes sense to me. Now suppose you were asked to write a paragraph or two describing your own poetry. How would you categorize it? Or would you? If you wouldn’t, what would you say?
ES: I’d say that, for several years now, I’ve tried to write poetry so as to confound the applicability of categories to my work—and, as far as is possible, to blur the boundaries between most categories of poetry beyond recognition. In particular, I reject the false dichotomy between “political” poetry and “personal” poetry. I would say that political issues/stances and personal concerns/responses both fall along a single spectrum; rather than being mutually exclusive elements of a poem, both are typically present, though one or the other may be foregrounded. I’m also not interested in the lines people draw in the poetic sand to divide “formal” poetry from “avant-garde” poetry and to distinguish both of these categories from “mainstream” (typically free verse, epiphanic, lyric) poetry. I’m definitely unsympathetic to definitions of poetry that exclude work that might be described as “rap,” “hip-hop poetry,” “spoken word,” “slam poetry,” or “performance poetry.” I’m saying this as a writer—I can’t deny that, as a critic, one does often need to use descriptive labels in order to communicate effectively (though I try to use them as tools to open doors rather than to brick up walls).
But when it comes to my thinking about my poetry, there isn’t any style of poetry that I can’t learn from, no poetic tool I wouldn’t use, no formal structure (meaning not only traditional given forms, but also free verse, procedural poems, and the many other “experimental” styles of writing that are grounded in form) that I wouldn’t try out. Of course, I don’t write equally well in all styles of poetry! And I certainly rely more heavily on certain forms and tools than others. But when I sit down to the work of poetry, nothing in the world’s traditions of poetry is prohibited to me, except by my own ignorance of them. My ignorance is probably greater than my knowledge at this point—from a global perspective—due to language barriers and the very Ameri-centric poetry culture in which I, like many of us, have learned my craft. But I’ve got time ahead of me and a gret deal more poetry to read and write.
Sarah Giragosian from Barzakh: Do you have any advice for the young student of poetry?
ES: Lately, I’ve been advising students to think more consciously and carefully about audience—not to arrive at any predetermined position on matters of reception, but in order to make questions of audience a more deliberate and generative part of the writing process. When you read, I say, think about whether you feel addressed, or even imagined, as a part of the audience for a poem. Does the language, subject matter, set of references, point of view, or structure of the poem invite you in? Deliberately exclude you? Something in between? How much work are you willing to do to find your way into a poem? Will you Google things? Ask around? Read a book? Watch a movie? Does it matter what the “payoff” is for that work? Does it matter whether you trust the poet? How does a poet gain your trust? Asking questions like this about poems one is reading then helps you think about what kinds of cues you’re giving your own readers—or the various kinds of readers you might have or want to have. And, again, the point of this thinking is not to have all poets come down in favor of “accessibility” or, on the other hand, in favor of “difficulty.” What’s important, from my perspective, is that the poet is aware of how her poem might be read (or not read!) by different potential audiences and is thinking about ways to do what she needs to do aesthetically without unintentionally limiting the possible readership. An important essay for my thinking on this question is Harryette Mullen’s “Imagining the Unimagined Reader.”