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How My Name Fell Off, or: What is a Bourbon Biscuit, or: The Internet is Lying to You [by Marty McConnell]
I don’t know how else to say this: The Internet is lying to you. Or to be more specific: The first Google search page is not the holy grail of accurate information. This week, the United States Postal Service unveiled a limited-edition stamp featuring Maya Angelou’s visage and a really lovely line of poetry that she did not write. An intrepid reporter from the Washington Post, with the remarkable insight to go to beyond quotable.com as a resource, discovered that the stamp used a line actually written by Joan Walsh Anglund. What I take from this is that Maya Angelou and I are basically the same person. I kid, I kid, I’m blogging from Midway Airport on a two-hour delay on my way to AWP. But really, we have at least this in common. Backstory: In the mid-2000s, I was writing a series of poems in the voices of martyrs, speaking to people alive today -- mostly Catholic saints speaking to celebrities. I believed that the series had roughly run its course when a life-changing breakup happened and I found myself reaching for some structure through which to write about the experience that wasn’t the inconsolable free-form ramblings of a sobbing woman on the subway. I’d always read the stories of saints and their kind as cautionary tales, rather than injunctions to live the kind of life the martyr had. I’d also long held a fascination with Frida Kahlo, as a strong, loud, queer female artist in a long-term and at least intermittently dysfunctional hetero relationship with a genius-level fellow artist. I was, however, even in my fascination, determined not to lead her life. So when the relationship ended, I found myself compelled to write one last poem in the martyr series: Frida Kahlo to Marty McConnell. The poem became a staple of my readings, and was published in Salt Hill Review in 2009. Eventually it fell out of rotation as new break-ups and new break-up poems blossomed. I figured that was the end of it and tucked it away with the other martyr poems, all destined not even to make it into a full book manuscript. Then a funny thing happened in Internetlandia. Ever since I learned what a Google alert was, I’ve had one set for myself. Generally what pops up are re-postings of video footage or poems published online, the occasional mention on a blog, and people using the name “Marty” in the same sentence as a rant against Senator Mitch McConnell (no relation). People really really hate Senator Mitch McConnell. I started to get a lot of alerts letting me know that people were reblogging the poem, especially on Tumblr, which as you may know is a social media site that is, for some reason, wildly popular with perennially heartbroken adolescent girls and people who write fanfic (look it up.) So that was great! Lots of people were reading the poem and it was making them happy, or at least less sad. And I was building...
Posted Apr 10, 2015 at
The Best American Poetry
I Will Not Surrender to History, and Other Promises [by Marty McConnell]
Something I have been wondering: would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but Walter Scott would still be dead. Would I give up my whiteness to be Black? The answer is yes, but let’s not mistake it for sacrifice or pretend Walter Scott would not still be dead. I spend time in Black spaces, in Black family, amid Black love, I know Black genius and have known Black bodies and know just about nothing of what it is to be Black but I would be it, would surrender my whiteness to be it and Walter Scott would still be dead. Something I have been wondering: what would happen if whiteness as we know it disappeared? What if whiteness carried on its broad pale back the unbearable weight of enslavement, of three-fifths, of Jim Crow and Tuskegee and the prison capitalist industry and the long and unqualified failure of Brown vs. the Board of Education? What then for my blue-eyed nephews, my pastel godson? Would Walter Scott still be dead? Would my father? My grandfathers? Theirs? In trees? Behind trucks? In fields? As experiments? On ships? In rebellion? Running away? I can tell you I would not exist. My mother’s mother met my grandfather during the Great Depression; he was driving a boat and she was swimming off the family’s lake house pier. My mother met my father at a dance in the same lily-toned summer community. Remove skin privilege and the stories fall apart, my DNA a rope unraveling. Make fate stronger than this, make them meet in bread lines or protest rallies and I exist, but who am I? Shift the locus of my birth, shift the solidity of my public schooling, shift the capacity of my parents to pay for college, shift the easy slip into employment, shift my safe white walk through everywhere – turn it all on its head, an inversion, and name me someone else. Because I am white, which is indivisible from privilege. And what if tomorrow it all were different. If in an instant, skin became no indication of whom to kill or kidnap or fire or disdain or dismiss or enslave or arrest or detain or shrink from, clutching one’s expensive handbag on the subway. Would we find another marker for target, and construct a new national horror story on that? It would need to be visible, like skin. Be inherited, generationally unshakable. Who would be Walter Scott then, be Michael Brown, be Tamir Rice, be John Crawford, Mariam Carey, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Alberta Spruil? Who’d be dead? So much conjecture, and Walter Scott is still dead for nothing. Dead for nothing but his pure skin. And my father is alive, and my nephews and my godson being raised into good men. And my grandfathers died of old age and cancer and I can’t surrender or abandon or strip off this whiteness any more than I can bring back the dead. But I can ask...
Posted Apr 8, 2015 at
The Best American Poetry
Against Dismissal: Toward a Curiosity Aesthetic [by Marty McConnell]
A story: I entered an MFA program knowing two things for sure: I loved poetry, and I couldn’t stand Emily Dickinson. Admittedly, my exposure to Emily Dickinson’s work was limited to say the least, consisting entirely of anthologized poems and the weekly ritual of singing “Because I could not stop for death” to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” at the end of a local open mic. (The latter possibly contributing to my sourness around Dickinson given the host’s noisy obsession with her and eventual shunning of me after I dated said host’s ex-girlfriend, thus introducing me simultaneously to Poetry Community Drama and Lesbian Community Drama, two joys I’d come to know all too intimately in years to come.) In my first year of grad school, I expressed my distaste for Dickinson to a professor in conference who, after dropping her shoulders and narrowing her eyes in either despair or distaste, pushed the left side of her signature mane back with a deliberate hand, leaned to me and said something to the effect of, “You are allowed to dislike Emily Dickinson, but you are not allowed not to understand Emily Dickinson.” A prequel: When I was a sophomore in high school, a new girl moved into the neighborhood. She had a nose ring, blue hair, and a palpable disdain for everything. My mother, quite uncharacteristically, tried to insist that we become friends. I didn’t like her. I explained this to my mother who said something about judging books by covers and guilted me into at least riding the bus with her a few times. The everything New Girl disliked included me, so we managed largely to avoid each other despite our respective mothers’ efforts. About six months later, I was sitting in the school pick-up/drop-off area waiting for my ride to the orthodontist when an ambulance blew in and New Girl was carried out on a stretcher: bad acid trip during lunch period, possible overdose, reliable sources reported. A point (or two): When we meet a poem that doesn’t fit our aesthetic – that is too abstract or too narrative or too political or too minutely descriptive of the bark of an old oak tree – we often say “this is not a good poem” or “I don’t like this poem” or “this poem has little or nothing to teach me.” But what if we approach the poem on its own terms? What if we assume that the poet who formed it and put it out in the world did so with great purpose and focused effort? What if we begin with curiosity instead of criticism? If we do this, we can discover things to which our initial judgments blinded us. This is relatively common practice in educational settings where groups of people gather to analyze published work and learn from it, but it’s equally applicable when we approach poems in workshop settings, on open mics, in slams, and so forth. There’s a parallel to this in human...
Posted Apr 7, 2015 at
The Best American Poetry
The Only Way to Stop the Ascot-Graspers, or: Unacknowledged Privilege Makes Poetry Matter Less [by Marty McConnell]
Given: We cannot write outside our time. We are invariably and inextricably in and of the times in which we live. Given: The expansiveness with which we define “our times” and the ways in which we include the experiences of people other than/othered from ourselves in our work is variable and generally well within our conscious control. Given: The practice of recognizing and including in our art the experiences of people marginalized or threatened in ways that are different from the ways that we ourselves are marginalized or threatened (if we are at all), is a personally, politically, and artistically risky act. The very real dangers of co-optation, appropriation, and/or reinforcing otherness are always present. Given: We need to do it anyway. The we I’m speaking of here, in particular, is we the privileged. Those of us with any combination of skin privilege, class privilege, gender privilege – that we. And there lies a primary challenge: if there’s a we, there’s a they. And it feels dangerous to think in terms of us and them, because that way lies segregation and supremacist thinking -- it would be so much lovelier and rosier just to think and speak of a grand us, a human us. But to do so is to deny the very real fact that groups of human beings, particularly in our United States, move through the world with vastly different threat types and threat levels, and some conversely with vastly different levels of protection and opportunity. And denying that in our art makes us liars, and contrary to some people’s belief, liars do not make great poets. So if we’re going to tell the truth of our times in our poems, we need to recognize and examine our privileges and marginalizations, as well as our human connections and commonalities. To be clear: this is not a call to “give voice to the voiceless” or any of that patronizing artist-as-savior business. People without or with less privilege have voices, make no mistake. Nobody needs us to speak for them. This is, however, a call to dig deep into the personal and cultural histories that inform and platform and buttress our privilege, and expose those to the world’s bright eye. To examine the intersections between our privileged lives and the lives of those held outside that, particularly where those intersections do not cast us in flattering light. To practice the subtle and necessary balancing act that is speaking up and out in ways that expand the platform for other voices rather than usurping, speaking in place of, or silencing them. Given: We’re going to fuck this up. As long as we’re writing out of our own immediate, personal, experience, pretty much the worst we’re doing to do is write a bad poem. No harm, no foul. But the moment we step outside that, things get dangerous. And well they should: nothing crucial is safe. And safety is a privilege denied to many. It is precisely because we could choose to...
Posted Apr 6, 2015 at
The Best American Poetry
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