Process Notes: Browsing White

84º (no heat index!) ~ a beauty of a day, the lawn begs mowing, enough rain and then sun to make every living thing grow

The father poems seem to have slipped my grasp as I’ve been consumed with the turmoil of the world again, with Philando Castile, Charleena Lyles, the London high-rise massacre, the UPS facility shooting, the Pulse memorials, the capitalist zeal for repealing the Affordable Care Act, and so much more.  With these events heavy on my mind, I am also prepping for classes this fall, and one of those will be a special topics course on writing political poetry. We will be using Carolyn Forché’s anthology, Against Forgetting, as well as Marie Howe’s What the Living Do, Brian Turner’s Here, BulletPatricia Smith’s Blood Dazzlerand Danez Smith’s Black MovieI am excited to teach the class, but also conscious of the fact that UCA is in no way a homogenous institution (student-wise anyway). There will be students from both political parties in the room, and students with differing religious and cultural views. I will have to work hard in the first few weeks to establish a sense of community and trust.

When thinking about political poetry, I always come back to the idea that the personal is political. Because of this, I fall in the camp of “all poetry is political.” However, for this class, I’m shifting my attention to poetry that is overtly political, something we will question and explore as a group over the semester.

All of this being said, when I sat down to write today, I was struggling with the idea of privilege, and with the question of what I can do to help right the wrongs going on all around me. Of course, my first stop was The Oxford English Dictionary database and a thorough reading of the entries for “privilege.” I was struck by the first entry, which had to do with the “privilege” one could buy in the past from the Pope, a practice I knew about thanks to having to take British Lit and having to read The Canterbury Tales. After that introduction, I found criticisms of the practice sprinkled throughout most of Western literature of the Enlightenment. And so, this line appeared in my journal and started the poem:

I purchased this privilege with my skin

Then, the two ideas, privilege and commerce came together. As the title of the poem indicates, it’s topic is shopping while white and the privilege that affords. In the poem, the speaker (yes me, but also, I hope the white reader of the poem) is allowed to browse at will and then becomes woke (again…the idea being that with privilege it is easy to “fall back to sleep” and close one’s eyes against injustice) when she sees a woman of color being harassed by the store clerks, and ends with the speaker’s white guilt for doing nothing. Yes, the poem is based on a slightly similar personal experience, but it’s highly fictionalized.

I found myself writing this poem differently than the father poems or any of my poems in the past. In this case, I had a big-picture idea hovering over it all, driving the poem down the page. Yes, I was still writing to discover my own thoughts and emotions, but it was a more-focused process. I was surprised to find elements of sound developing naturally within the lines (no form here), and I was surprised to find the poem developing into a single stanza (20 lines). Frequent readers will know that I love myself a couplet or a tercet. This poem seemed to eschew white space. It seemed to need to be connected all the way down the page. I will let it sit and reconsider the form when I return for revision, but it’s feeling pretty whole at the moment.

Here are my worries: 1) clichés seem an even bigger concern when working with political material, how do I make the language specific and new when dealing with such well-known material? 2) in writing about my own whiteness, I have included a person of color, am I further “colonizing” that person’s experience by “using” them in the poem? 3) is this poem necessary, isn’t it more necessary to have poems from people of color, people who are actually experiencing aggressions both micro- and macro-? 4) will I ever write a poem about which I have no worries?

Luckily, the grass is tall and mowing = time to contemplate.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn