Process Notes: 17 Shot in Little Rock Club

82º feels like 87º ~ dew point 73º = soggy air, sweat on skin simply standing ~ bright sun, light breezes, some small rain yesterday, perhaps more tomorrow, all living things thrive

While my website was down this week, I’ve continued to read and think about political poetry, as I mentioned in my last post.  As I’ve read essays in preparation for the class I’ll be teaching, I’m struck most by the positioning of the poets writing the political poems. I continue to ask: must I have experienced the specific oppression or violence in order to write it? This would mean writing poems about feminist, class, gun control, anti-intellectual, and environmental issues for me. It would mean a more nuanced approach to writing about racial oppression, since I am a member of the privileged group in that case. It would mean interrogating whiteness.

In terms of drafting, last night when I did my evening meditation, I added the thought, “I am going to draft a poem tomorrow.” When, I woke up, I didn’t immediately want to get out of bed, so I grabbed my phone to check email and Facebook. There I discovered the news of a shooting at a Little Rock night club. As I went about getting ready for the day, I reminded myself that I would write a poem. When I sat down, news of the shooting popped back into my head, especially these facts: 17 people shot, no fatalities, more people injured trying to get out. Something nagged at me, so I broke my taboo of using the computer at the beginning stages of a draft, and I went online to read about this violent event.

Lines began forming before I finished the article. Lines composed of fragments. Broken syntax appropriate to the situation of the poem. I began:

In the chaos. In the aftermath.

I thought I was writing a political poem about gun control in Arkansas, a state where anyone with a license can now carry a gun on my college campus, concealed no less. But, as I returned again to the article (from the conservative, right-slanted Arkansas Democrat-Gazette) what struck me was that while race was not mentioned in the article, there were many ways the language, and the omissions, conveyed race. In some cases these indications came from police and city spokespeople, and in some cases from the phrasing used by the journalist. (Later, I did watch some footage of the shooting captured on cell phone, but you’ll notice that the Dem-Gaz article only has pictures from the morning, pretty empty crime scene.) I started thinking about how spokespeople frame their statements, how journalists compose their pieces, what each group’s responsibility is, and how a privileged, white audience would read the piece. Now, I’m not saying that police & city spokespeople and journalists need to put a racial qualifier before every noun that indicates personhood. I know that these are often reserved for specific instances where race is a central part of the story. However, at the moment, I’m thinking about how language communicates cultural norms and how these norms influence how we think about those who are different than ourselves.

As the poem evolved, in short lines, in fragments, I came to this:

The facts accumulate.

Facts like the time of the incident, the placement of the club “downtown,” the name of the performer for the evening (Finese2Tymes), that the performer is from Memphis, the shooting was a result of a dispute between individuals, etc. The result of reading the article was that it was easy for me to say, “oh, that was a black club, that will never happen to me or most of the people I know. It’s terrible that people were hurt, but it’s not my main concern of the day.” Well, given my reaction to shootings on school, college, and university campuses, and given my reaction to the shooting at Pulse, I had to stop and interrogate why I was able to distance myself from this shooting. What inner, institutionalized racism still exists in me?

In terms of form marrying content, the poem came out as free verse, short lines, all in a left-justified column. (Light bulbs!) I knew I had to recast it as a newspaper column, block-justified (although, will the new generation of internet news readers recognize the roughly 2-inch column for what it is?) When I moved to the new form, there were new issues of spacing. I had to do some cutting, and some rearranging of sentences. For that, I had to really question the order of the information as presented, which involved not only how the poem created meaning, but also sound. Finally, regardless of switching to the block-justified column, I had not included a first-person speaker in the poem. While I was interrogating my own sense of race in this instance, I did so by referencing location. Most of the poem is a report on the shooting. The last 3 lines, though, refer to readers living in “The Heights” (my very white neighborhood) consuming the news of the shooting. Perhaps it is the coward’s way out to remove myself from the poem. Perhaps I’ll try to write a first-person narrative about the situation soon.

*A note on the title: updates now say 25 people shot. For now, I’m sticking with the original headline and 17.

Posted by Sandy Longhorn