10 TRIES, 100 POEMS (TAKE 8) :: CHET’LA SEBREE & MARGARET RHEE :: FIELD NOTES :: RACE IN THE MEDIA — A POETRY WORKSHOP
In this Field Notes entry, poets Chet’la Sebree and Margaret Rhee, together with participating poets from NYC, join forces with Alexandra Juhasz of “10 Tries, 100 Poems” to continue the dialogue about truth and meaning, real and fake news, media and media literacy in the digital age — this time through the lens of power, violence, and systemic racism. Responding to current and historical images (such as photos of Michael Brown and images from Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching series), newspaper clippings, and images from contemporary popular media, the group investigates dominant (read: white) cultural portrayals of black and brown bodies, relationships, desires, and emotions, using poetry as a means of resistance to the forces of erasure: poetry as “Refusal // to be fake or real. // Refusal to be dominating or to be // dominated. Refusal to be invisible, // and also refusal to be visible.” [2018 series editor: Adrian Silbernagel]
The following prompts and text were written collaboratively by Chet’la Sebree and Margaret Rhee. We were excited to conceptualize this workshop with a focus on race, media, and poetry for Alex Juhasz’s collaborative poetry project #100hardtruths-fakenews. Thank you to Poets and Writers for the grant support of this project. For any questions or comments, please email us at Racemediapoetics@gmail.com
In this two-hour workshop, we encouraged participants to think about representations of race in the media through poetry. Inspired by Claudia Rankine’s collection Citizen: An American Lyric, and other texts that grapple with race and visual images, our workshop encouraged creative writing responses to the media. In particular, we focused on representations of Black and Asian Americans in the media and questions of justice, solidarity, and poetics. We spent some time looking at historical and current cultural representations while offering poetry writing prompts based on media images. The workshop was a powerful space in which we had frank conversations about what it meant to be a person of a certain racial makeup in the United States and in this current political moment.
The following excerpt from Eula Biss’s essay, “All Apologies,” along with a selection of quotes about race and racism, were included in the schedule, setting the tone for the workshop:
“A boy hissed at me in the hall while I was on my way to the bathroom. As I spun around, angry, I realized that he might have thought I was another student. ‘Watch yourself,’ I said, ‘I’m a teacher.’ He gave me a low-lidded half smile and looked me up and down. A kid — he was a kid in a baseball cap. But he was a foot taller than me and he leaned in to say, ‘Mmmm, so wuz your name?’ Then I sat in the office of the Harlem school, sorry I had said anything, while my boss went to hunt down the kid. I had a sickening sense that I was about to be responsible for a lynching on my own tiny plantation. A boy came to the door of the office and looked at me uncertainly. ‘I’m sorry I sexually harassed you.’ I stared at him. He wasn’t the same kid. ‘But it wasn’t you,’ I said finally. ‘Yeah,’ he said as he pulled down his baseball cap and started to walk away, ‘but it might have been my cousin.’
Like me, my cousins have European blood. They also have the colonized blood of Jamaica and the massacred blood of Native Americans. My skin is white, but I have the ravaged blood of Africa in me.”
— Eula Biss, “All Apologies,” No Man’s Land
“I apologize for slavery. It wasn’t me, true. But it might have been my cousin.”
— Eula Biss, “All Apologies,” No Man’s Land
“Racism, specifically, is the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”
— Ruthie Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
“Film and television, for example, have been notorious in disseminating images of racial minorities which establish for audiences what people from these groups look like, how they behave, and “who they are.” The power of the media lies not only in their ability to reflect the dominant racial ideology, but in their capacity to shape that ideology in the first place.”
— Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States
We opened with a free write asking participants to investigate when they first learned about race generally and then their own race. Specifically, we asked them to:
-Recall the first time you learned about race? How old were you? Where were you? What did you hear/learn? Draw into senses such as taste, smell, touch, color to describe?
-Remember the first time you remember when you learned of your race. How old were you? Where were you? What did you hear/learn? Draw into senses such as taste, smell, touch, color to describe?
-Recall the first time you saw your racial group represented in the media? What was this representation? Where were you? What do you remember? Describe beginning with I see…
-Read over your freewrite. Circle key words and phrases that came up for you. Share with the larger group.
After the free write and subsequent sharing, we engaged with a series of images from popular media such as Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, art by Ken Gonzalez-Day, historical images, newspaper clippings, and contemporary media images. These images, paired with poetry writing prompts, asked participants to investigate beauty, power and violence, and systemic racism through a personal and political lens:
6 Poetry Prompts About Race
Beauty, Race, and Desire
Prompt 1: How do you grapple with your own understandings of “universal” and cultural beauty? Write a poem in which you unpack the self you present to the world.
Prompt 2: Reflect on the images we’ve provided of race and desire in the media. How do we rethink desire in Black and Asian relationships? What is the intimate gesture here, and is this an image that you’ve seen before? Write a poem in which you reflect on attraction, desire, and race: Who is supposed to be together, and not?
Power, History, and Violence
Prompt 3: Reflect on the provided Ken Gonzales-Day image from his Erased Lynching series is featured in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. In this photo, African Americans white people have lynched have been removed. What initial responses do you have to this photo? What does this image communicate without the lynched individuals? Write a poem in which you were complicit in an event. Or write a poem in which you wrestle with the way perception has been slightly altered to highlight a particular idea. Or write a poem in which your cultural existence has been erased.
Prompt 4: Reflect on the provided image from the racial integration of black students in the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Focus on the story of emotions in the photograph: anger, fear, bravery. Consider the body such as hands and eyes. Consider objects in the poem. Begin your poem from the point of view of an object (sunglasses, books, or a description of eyes/hands) and tell this story from there. Focus on emotions. What emotions are being expressed in this negotiation of race?
Race and State Institutional Violence
Prompt 5: In 1941, Time Magazine tried to help Americans understand the difference between Chinese and Japanese, who many saw as the enemy. These characteristics focus on the body. Start your poem by providing a poetic mapping of your face? What is this mapping? How do others see you? How do you see yourself? How do we remap dominant stories of our body and race?
Prompt 6: Consider the provided images of Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. What does each convey? Which one do you think the media used? Consider how the media would present you, in the service of news, in a poem.
The following are the poems that came from these conversations.
by Stacie Evans
I am not supposed to be beautiful. If I am famous — a signer, an actor, maybe I can be pretty, maybe striking, maybe exotic. Because the I am an exception, I can break the rules. But me — plain, ordinary, everyday woman — no. I am not supposed to be beautiful.
If I am beautiful, equations don’t square. If I am beautiful, where is the logic in keeping me hidden, selling me relaxers and skin-lightening creams. If I am beautiful, there is no need to cover my thick, nappy hair, hide me in the kitchen, shame me for my hips and thighs, mock me for my lips.
So I am not supposed to be beautiful. That is the forever domain of light women of white women, of any-shade-brighter-than-mine women.
My neighbor, walking home beside me in sixth grade, told me I was pretty. He said it with a clearly confused wonder, “You’re actually pretty,” he’d said. He couldn’t understand it. But then he worked it out, settled me into a category that explained how I wasn’t ugly: “It must be because you don’t have those nasty liver lips like most Black people do.”
Because even at 11 years old, he understood that I wasn’t supposed to be beautiful, that beauty in my face was some dangerous anomaly, some breaking down of natural law.
I am not supposed to be beautiful. My mother and her mother and all of her foremothers — we, none of us, are supposed to be beautiful.
And yet. And yet. And yet.
by Irene Villaseñor
Falling asleep while reading the Joy Luck Club (1989)
During breaks from IQ testing in elementary school
Must mean I’m one overworked Asian kid
But the truth is that book bored me–and I’ll fast forward
throughout its movie adaptation too. Mishima
was way more exciting because I’d rather be
a Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea than Waverly Jong.
I don’t know how I’m supposed to interpret compliments
That I’m beautiful like Mulan, especially when it’s coming from
sweet elderly Chinese women–like my acupuncturist. Am I
pretty like Disney’s Mulan (1998) or historical Hua Mulan?
Bridal Mulan or Warrior Mulan? Do they really think the only
striking reference I’ll have of an attractive or powerful Asian
woman is a cartoon? Or are they assuming I’d be familiar with
ancient Chinese poetry due to my studies? I will never know.
Nutshelling Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother (2011) means pointing
out Chinese people in the Philippines circled their wagons and
defended themselves by pursing excellence as their main protection
in hostile environments. But ended up eating their young in the
process. And some people keep spreading this disease.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018) may just upgrade old Asian stereotypes and
introduce new ones. Already there’s disapproval for a casting as a leading
man Henry Golding, who’s half-white. But his other half is Iban from Borneo.
That part of his heritage comes to the fore because I’m not looking for
whiteness. But seeking instances where being indigenous isn’t shameful,
ugly, remote, brokeass, or backward buffoonery. If more Asians could see
and value indigeneity, then maybe whiteness would be less important.
Follow the links to read other installments of 10 Tries, 100 Poems:
Chet’la Sebree is a poet, editor, and scholar. She is the author of Mistress, forthcoming from New Issues Poetry and Prose in Fall 2019. She was the 2014–2016 Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry and has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Richard H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Her work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Crazyhorse, and Guernica.
Margaret Rhee is a poet, artist, and scholar. She is the author of chapbooks Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011) and Radio Heart; or, How Robots Fall Out of Love (Finishing Line Press, 2015), nominated for a 2017 Elgin Award, Science Fiction Poetry Association. Her project The Kimchi Poetry Machine was selected for the Electronic Literature Collection Volume 3. Literary fellowships include Kundiman, Hedgebrook, and the Kathy Acker Fellowship. She received her PhD from UC Berkeley in ethnic and new media studies. Currently, she is a College Fellow in Digital Media Practice in the English Department at Harvard University, and an Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo in the Department of Media Study (starting 2019).