Love Through The Writing: Ars Poetica, Conversation Starting, and Ancestral Memory In The Midst of Ferguson
By Rich Villar
My boy Erik Maldonado is filming one of my poems on 3rd Street, between Avenues B and C, in front of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. A couple of weeks prior, in the building across the street, there was a shooting. When it happened, residents from that building ran into the Cafe and used it as a refuge. As a result of that shooting, the NYPD has installed a mobile observation tower on the corner.
There’s a line in the poem that reads, “Nothing about you says ghetto, but you love it/ when Biggie makes motherfuckers take dirt naps/ in songs where you didn’t even realize/ that a dimebag is not really ten cents.” Erik captures the NYPD tower in the shot, because that shit is ironic. I am ironic, because when I wrote the poem, I truly believed I was a stranger to this place, to Biggie, to drugs, to the police.
We film what we came to film. No one says anything. No one asks for a permit.
The poem we’re filming is called “Poetics Lesson At The Baruch Houses.” We decide to leave 3rd Street and make our way to the actual Baruch Houses, along the East River between Houston and the Williamsburg Bridge. I wrote this poem in 2004, based on the real-life experience of moving my best friend at the time, from her apartment on the 13th floor. Her building is almost a stone’s throw from the bridge, which dominates the sky. Nothing here is small. Everything looms.
When Erik takes out his camera, an OG from the neighborhood is walking on the opposite sidewalk. He sees us, stops, and calls out.
“Hey. Do you have cause to film here?”
Erik breaks the strap on his bag. He starts to fix it. Neither of us has answered this man, so he crosses the street.
“I’m talking to you.”
Erik is still fixing the strap. I’m waiting for him to answer.
Now the dude has crossed the street, and is standing in front of us, on our sidewalk.
“I asked you a question.”
Erik stands straighter. This is not our neighborhood. “Yeah, I’m from here,” Erik says.
With all the precision of a poet, the brother redirects the conservation. “That’s not what I asked you. Do you have cause to be fillming here?”
Erik: “Yeah. We’re from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.”
OG extends his hand. “That’s it. I’m done. That’s all you had to say.”
And he was gone.
Do you have cause? What is your business here? I asked you a question. We are poets, and thus we are okay. We are witnesses, and thus we are okay. He doesn’t even know what the poem is about, but he knows there is poetry to be said here, in the No Standing zone of Baruch Place, and we good. There is witnessing to be done, and he has given us his consent, and now this place is as much mine as it is his.
I have taken something. There’s a debt owed, and it must be paid back. That is my experience of art. That is my poetics.
That night, I visit St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, at the invitation of my friend Dr. Alex Trillo. The students want to engage the faculty and administration on a campus crisis of communication, on matters of language and politics. And so they call in a poet, an education scholar and race worker (Blanca Vega), and a bomba dancer (Cynthia Renta).
We dialogue. We tell our stories about language, Americanization, race, and ethnicity. We tell our stories about being invisible, and about how we made ourselves visible. We share our love-hate relationship with language and flags. We call out the problematic presence of sexism in the very Spanish language, in our everyday, in our songs. One student shares her story about shame, having been told by an administration member that it was disrespectful to speak Spanish in a roomful of non-Spanish speakers. The administrator is white. The student is Latina.
Worth noting: The students don’t know much about how to solve the problem, but they believe that a poet, a teacher, and a dancer might just have the answer. In the presentation to the students, in fact, they quote a poet by the name of Denise Frohman. Her poem, “Accents,” sets off the conversation: “My mom holds her accent like a shotgun, with two good hands.”
Blanca reminds us that the educational system is set up to erase Spanish from our mouths. And when they do put Spanish back in you, as a high school student, the privilege leans toward Spain. What drives that? What is that urge? Where does it come from? Whose rage is this?
Later, Barack Obama announces to the nation that he is changing immigration policy. The Republicans love to remind us how arrogant he is. How disrespectful. Arrogant. Disrespectful.
My craw is full. It’s time for a missive. Because I actually like the National Book Awards, and the fact that Lemony Snicket said some racist shit there… well, okay, here it is.
Dear White Writers.
Yeah. All of you.
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but racism still exists. (Okay, I’m not sorry.)
I understand why you think it doesn’t exist. You’re public people. You write for public consumption. And in public, racism is something we love to hide.
Try going online for, like, three minutes. Hit the comment sections of literally ANY news story. Doesn’t even matter what the story is about. You’ll find it there.
There’s one surefire way to kill it. (Assuming, y’know…that you actually WANT to kill it.) Don’t be racist. That’s it.
Irony doesn’t kill it. Making fun of racists doesn’t kill it. Trying to be funny at an awards show doesn’t kill it. ACTUALLY NOT BEING RACIST? That goes a long way. Calling people out for their racism? Squishing the PRIVATE behavior in PUBLIC? Now that’s important. In fact, isn’t that your job?
Brush up on your Baldwin, white folks. Racism kills YOU, too. Isn’t it time to kill it? Like, seriously kill it? Aren’t you tired of assholes messing up good things like the National Book Awards? Because here’s the thing…award shows and privileged institutions are not, by themselves, bad things. I WANT A NATIONAL BOOK AWARD, TOO, dammit! Don’t you? Don’t you want to go to somewhere with other brilliant people, and celebrate humanity in its brilliance, without having it marred by ignorance? Don’t you want that?
Let’s leave out the irony. Let’s get to work, man. This is bullshit.
Of course, I put it on Facebook. It gets mad likes.
Two writers, both white, both conscientious, take the time to send me notes. Both of them, in different ways, question the idea of addressing “All White Writers.” To generalize. To lump in. To put all of the White in one line of the missive.
They say to me: “Is that productive? Does that start conversation? Does that invite people in?”
I ask myself. I go there.
It’s not respectful, you mean. You’d like me to tone it down. You’d like me to invite you in.
“But let’s not slide back toward the same…”
I wait 45 minutes, you’re white, and you get seated quickly. The white woman moves her purse away from me on the train. The white cop tells the Latino couple to act like grown-ups. The white Latina tells the black Latino the proper pronunciation of the word “Puerto.” The white poet tells the black writer that poetry need not represent all the time. The white editor tells the Puerto Rican poet that he can’t publish an essay about Puerto Rican independence, because it’s too angry.
Do I believe these white people are racist? I don’t know what to tell you, because I’m not inside their heads. I am projecting my experience onto the situation. That’s all we can do. Cada cabeza es un mundo.
I can tell you that I don’t believe the two people who wrote to me are racist. I can tell you that they are just as victimized by racism as I am.Yes. Equally. If not more so.
Racism lives in the exercise of power. Redraw a Congressional district, gentrify a neighborhood, segregate a school, rip the Spanish out of a kid’s mouth. Racism requires us to believe certain facts about the people who deign to live next to us, and racism requires us to believe that we are fundamentally, biologically, different, because doing so results in certain monetary benefits to those who manufacture wealth — not to mention the retention of aforesaid power by that element. It’s got nothing to do with my friends on a Facebook thread, because neither of them actually own Facebook.
I wonder if they know that. I wonder if they are aware of the rhetorical gesture of address. That by calling out a generality, you work to the specific point I was trying to make: that all of us are in this, together, whether we like it or not, and we get nowhere by ignoring it, by pretending it’s something else. By inventing the language of dismantling, before we actually dismantle. I wonder if they know how much untruth lies in the word “postracial.” That the mere act of asking me to keep it civil, erases my memory of incivilities committed against me, undercuts what June Jordan called “the civilities that grease oppression.” Keeps me quiet.
To dismantle a system, one must name it. Maybe my mistake with that missive was not the generality of address, but rather the specificity of it. Maybe my mistake was in saying “Dear White Writers.” Maybe I should have said, “Dear White People.” Because, really, screw the literary world. It’s the place I work and breathe, yes, but it’s one place.
I am in my place when I confine my anger to white writers, and maybe this is what keeps this essay from being written, until right now. But I have rage, too. What is this rage? What is the thing I need for white poets to understand, before I am able to get white people to understand?
I’ve just finished Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN. I’m not afraid that white people will miss what she’s saying about racism and the trauma it inflicts. I’m afraid they’ll read it and not read it again.
I look up from the book, and it’s 6:30pm. In the cafe I’m sitting in, CNN is on. The St. Louis County prosecutor announced that the grand jury decision was coming at 9. The headline: NATIONAL GUARD TO SECURE IMPORTANT BUILDINGS.
This isn’t going to go well, is it?
I make my way to a poetry reading. I’m at Bar 13, at the louderARTS Project, a reading where I learned, more or less, how to be a poet. Where I first surrounded myself with people who thought the way I did about writing and art and citizenship. Tonight, I’m surrounded by old friends, by artists. By the people who have been running this space for 16 years. By three poets–Adam Mansbach, Kevin Coval, Willie Perdomo–who are conscious about what poetry does in moments such as these.
I write a poem. Or–I didn’t exactly write it so much as it wrote me.
The verdict comes in. No one is surprised. It hits everyone in the room like a truck.
I look outside.
My parents would not sleep until they knew I was on a Metro North train. All they really knew about my whereabouts last night was that I was in New York City on a night when their television showed them the sky on fire.
I am 37 years old and I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, the first planned industrial city in the United States. I grew up there for one reason only: my brown parents were denied housing access to the town next door, Clifton. So they bought a home across the border in Paterson, in a neighborhood they considered to be “the good section.”
I went to private Christian schools my entire life in order to avoid the state-run circus that was the Paterson public school system. While I was in these schools, we encountered racism and classism, coupled with the more insidious elements of Conservative politics and fundamentalist Christianity. While I did forge a few lifelong friendships and gained much needed perspective, the prevailing emotional landscape I recall from those years was that of being in a bubble, an island in the midst of a troubled river. It wasn’t perfect, but it was safe.
When I told my folks I wanted to spend my life writing poetry, the first thing my father told me was that poets die young. Young, and hunted.
When I brought them, in 2004, to the poetry reading I ran in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, they expressed regret for having shielded me all those years from an inner city experience.
I don’t yet know how to connect all these dots. I think I’ve started to, in conversations this week with my dearest ones, and with well-meaning friends in the literary world. This is what I can tell you so far.
Last night, I wrote a poem that came out of me in the way that poems used to come out of me: fast, furiously, and with the intent to slap somebody awake. Maybe me, maybe you. I haven’t written like that since I was a beginner. The language I had been holding back about my friend John, whose ashes we scattered in a river last August, suddenly and illogically–or, logically–conflating itself with the language of threat and legalized government violence. The language of civility and reason, conflating itself with the justifiably unreasonable and angered language of bodies in protest.
I woke up out of sleep to tell you this, on a social media platform that a government official would like us to believe was responsible for the fire on my parents’ television, and kept them awake until they knew I was getting the hell away from it. I woke up to tell you that my brown and othered American body has been under threat, in multiple ways, for my entire life, and someone, out of love, has always tried to shield me from the truth of it.
I will always remember where I was last night. Whatever language this produces, I will not ever apologize for it.
The words “ancestral memory,” which first popped into my head on Monday, will not let me go today. Neither will the notes, which come in one after the other, as I was gathering the storm for this essay.
My friend John, a poet at Virginia Commonwealth University, had a moment in his Africana Studies class, when younger white and black students ask him why the protesters in Ferguson are burning down “their own neighborhoods.”
My friend Vanessa, a memoirist, texts to tell me of the rage that sinks her to her knees. I understand this more as the days pass, and I tell her I see her. She texts me to love through the writing. It stops me cold.
My friend Jennifer, with whom I have been dialoguing all week, writes to tell me of an article linking the unrest in Ferguson to white rage — not black rage, mind you, but the institutionalized rage, distrust, and fear of white people in power, leading to the institutional racism of police conduct. She doesn’t want to believe this. I point out where the author left out Plessy v. Ferguson.
Jennifer signs off, to pause, to consider. She signs off, as she always does, with love.
If you’re reading this, Jennifer, there’s something specific that I did not tell you.
Where I grew up in New Jersey, corporal punishment on children in schools has been banned since 1867, two years after the end of slavery. We were the first state to ban it. In the states where it is banned, private schools still have the option to impose corporal punishment. In the states where private schools are able to impose corporal punishment, a great deal of them are evangelical schools like the ones I attended for twelve years.
In New Jersey, we went a step further — we were actually progressive in this regard — by banning corporal punishment in private schools, too. Iowa is the only other state that does this.
My first grade classroom was run by a white woman who brandished a wooden paddle as a disciplinary tool. It was dark brown, in the shape of a hand, and it had a Bible verse printed on it.
When it was time to punish a student with the paddle, the teacher brandished it like the weapon it was. She’d hold it up. She’d make sure we saw it. And then she’d go off into the hallway, where she’d sent the student, and she would paddle him. We’d be quiet when this was happening. Occasionally, you’d hear the smack of wood against body.
One day, we were in the process of cleaning our classrooms. There would be inspections of the desks. Mine was messy. (My desks are still messy, actually.) There had been warnings. I had violated my last one. So I was sent out of the room to await the sentence, from a woman who was not my mother.
When she came into the hallway, she had the paddle with her. She made me follow her a little ways from the classroom. She made me bend over at the waist. She tapped my backside with the paddle, like a golfer taking a practice swing, getting the aim right. The first swat hit so hard, it numbed me. The second swat actually hurt. To this day, I can literally taste the dark wood in my mouth, every time I recall it. When she was done, I started crying…not even from the pain, but from the shame of doing something that deserved being hit in this way.
When she was done, she prayed with me. I felt no comfort. I did not feel God present in the moment. I was embarrassed, humiliated. I don’t remember anything else about that day, not even telling my parents. But they heard about it from me. The school hadn’t even bothered calling home.
Mind you, everything about this was 100% illegal in the state of New Jersey. Had we been more aware of the law, that school could have been shut down. But this was a white woman, working in an inner city evangelical school, and she had the power to hit her students because they used religion as an argument to flout the law.
All my educational life, growing up in private evangelical schools, my teachers have been overwhelmingly white. All my life, those teachers have been battling what they view as disrespect in the classroom, and handing out illegal paddlings to correct it. What is that rage about? Why did my teacher choose to put the taste of a paddle in my mouth? Why do I remember this, thirty-one years after the fact? What permission did she feel she had? What power was she given?
How does this affect my poetics? How does this one act, my adult interpretation of it, affect my citizenship?How does this connect me to my ancestral memory?
Love through the writing.
Every writer I know is writing. Black poets are all over Twitter, at the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, putting their poems on video, saying that they are black poets, that they will not be silent while black people are being killed, that they have every right to be angry.
Love through the writing.
Do any of us really know what we are staring at when a city burns? Have we named this thing we are experiencing? A twelve-year-old was killed this week. He was being policed. From whom? For whom?
Love through the writing.
It took me this long to finish an essay because something was blocking the way. A story. Ancestral memory. What did I escape by being a young man in Paterson, in the good section, in the Christian school, in the private school? What drugs did I not pick up when I was not allowed outside? What did I find out anyway?
Love through the writing.
Let me tell you what makes this business better, if only a little. When the Ferguson decision was handed down, I looked out the window. Protests. A march was moving past our window. They chanted No Justice No Peace. They closed down University Place.
I stepped outside shortly after the protesters marched past our window. I had never been in a place with so many ghosts, crackling with so much energy. I stared into the faces of the people who were walking past me outside, to the train, to their homes. Two brothers were in a doorway, yelling into the air, no filter, about what a bullshit nation we live in. Everyone was their audience, and no one was. Everyone was minding their business, but everyone was on the same business. Every mind on that street was focused on the same thing. Maybe not the same thought about that thing, but on this night, you knew what the thing was.
Those of us who had gathered at Bar 13 observed a brief moment of silence, at the request of the Brown family. My friend Abena, who was responsible for gathering us all together in this space again, broke the silence in song — ”I Remember, I Believe,” by Sweet Honey in the Rock. Everyone cried. I cried.
There’s this passage in the James Baldwin story, Sonny’s Blues. I have told writers, poets, artists, anyone who will listen, what James Baldwin meant to me as a writer, and what the last scene of that story puts into focus for me. The narrator speaks here of his brother, Sonny the blues piano player, and the way in which he played:
Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how weç could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.
Sometimes, the thing you bring into focus has teeth, and it scares the shit out of you. That’s how memory works. That’s how the truth works. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told to put something in the past that will not stay in the past. It’s not in the past, because here we are again.
What do I need you to know, white poet? That you are white. That you are not postracial. That you are just as stained by it as I am. That there is still a stain. Our people in being killed in parks, on the street, by the dozens, by the hundreds. I am being killed. I am.
I come from a tradition that sees a poem as an act of witness, as an act of recovery. Ultimately, as an act of love, even when the seeing is difficult. I come from spaces where poetry is communal, where we create as an act of resistance. I come from a nation that wants to see me erased. Yet, I come from the tradition of Piri Thomas: You don’t see me? I’ll make you see me.
I remember. I believe.
Love through the writing.
I love being Puerto Rican. I love being Cuban. I love being an American. I was born here. I mix my languages unapologetically. I love these things despite the law, the violence, the cold white voice that has told me not to love these things.
I love these things because I am a poet. Because poetry is how I make sense of the world.
White Poets. What do you love?
What do you love about being white?
I want to know what you love. I want to know what you fear. I want you to know what your life is like as a white person, as someone who is not othered. I want to hear you speak honestly, to name it, to see yourself, so you can see me. We have a burden toward specific naming, because it’s one thing to know, another to speak. We cannot name this space postracial until we are able to create a place that IS postracial. Do we not have a duty to make this possible by naming what is, what is right here and now? In the confessional? In the sonnet? In the haiku? In the forms we have invented? In the American idiom? What conversation could be more American than this one?
Something has been taken. Something is owed. That is my poetics. That is how I repay the debt.
Originally published at literatiboricua.wordpress.com on November 28, 2014.