‘When writing about race in our poetry, we have to hazard rejection’
From Evening Will Come:
Evie Shockley: When trying to kick off a discussion in class, I often ask my students to begin by stating the obvious. So I’ll take my own advice here, in hopes that others will find herein a (k)not to worry or a sturdy scaffold upon which to hang some heavy ideas.
When writing about race in our poetry, we have to hazard rejection. We learn to deal with rejection quickly, writers do, unless our writing goes directly from notebook or printer to locked drawer. If we’re sharing our work with friends or strangers, at a microphone or via a submissions manager, we are taking the risk that someone will not like our style, will not understand our words, will find our ideas and our means of expressing them trivial, weird, or outright wrong. When our work is rejected – not published, not applauded, not acknowledged or taken seriously – we must figure out how to cope with it, how to keep writing, how to learn from it, and how not to internalize it. Now add race to the equation. As with any other “touchy” or taboo subject, introducing race into a poem in any noticeable way means that some of the rejection is going to be rejection of that transgression itself. But how do we know when rejection is attributable to our audience’s discomfort or disagreement with our ideas about race, as opposed to our unconventional syntax, our lack of compelling imagery, our failure to bring the speaker or scene alive? Then, too, when is our syntax, imagery, speaker, or scenario problematic or unengaging because of the way race manifests itself in our poetry or in our audience’s reading of it?
If you write about race, you have to be prepared to have your poems praised and rejected on racial grounds. Who might reject your work and under what circumstances and why — and who might praise you and how much and why — will differ depending on who you are, what you write, how you write, to whom you disseminate it, and whether or not the first black president has been elected yet or not. The repercussions of writing about race differ, too. Who likely can walk away from the subject, turn to other matters, and be easily reincorporated into communities that were uncomfortable with the poetry about race? Who is likely to feel that being unable to write about race (prohibited from it, discouraged from it) is paralyzing or painful or horribly awkward or infuriating? Who is likely to be seen as writing “about race” whether they are or aren’t?