March 2015 Editor’s Letter
February at Real Pants came in four neat weeks of Sunday through Saturday programming, which means we had two installments of What’s New in Poetry hosted by Bruce Covey. Most recently, Michelle Detorie reminded us that “It’s obvious that the whole world is haunted. Consider the disasters and broken spaces,” and “It is evil to imagine the self.” Tyler Gobble read an ecstatic sestina about peanuts and lettuce. And Jane Wong cut normality to the quick:
In the middle of the night, the cat ate the heads off the flowers. I almost killed her. I imagined twisting the neck and confess to no one. I obsessed over the clean socket of a chicken wing. Everyday hatred, everyday dread, stepping in water on the kitchen floor without expecting it.
Natalie Eilbert de- and re-mystified dualism:
My body has a geography charted to which I am always so loyal. I honor how it goes on without me, secretes, metabolize sky from crown to crotch.
In the previous installment, Peter Davis told us about Hitler’s mustache. Maryam Parhizkar did something with time and memory that I’m still wrapping myself around: “How lonely sits the place once filled with people I had loved.” Carrie Lorig, who turned up at my house on Friday night because she is a friend of a cousin of a friend of a friend with whom I co-host a discussion series, said in her video, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we did something helpful as we died?” And Nikki Wallschlaeger had this to say about history and art:
Everything that’s ever happened to our people on this continent has been recorded. When I say recorded I don’t necessarily mean with ledgers and fountain pens and scripture and all that pearly shit, although some of it is, except most folks don’t really understand what these stories are trying to say because they are categorized as ‘art’ or ‘literature’ or ‘gospel,’ which is part of the deflection process, the process of peeling people apart from themselves. There’s always a big knife in the kitchen.
Two days after Nikki’s reading went up, I visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, which opened last June. It’s right next to the World of Coca-Cola, which is kind of too bad, but is also appropriate because Coke is, a of all, the museum’s land donor, and b of all, probably our city’s most famous export next to Martin Luther King, Jr. The two coincide on one placard of the museum. Seems that the CEO of Coca-Cola, J. Paul Austin, admonished Atlanta’s business leaders for not buying tickets to a special dinner honoring the city’s Nobel Prize winner, Martin Luther King, Jr. Austin said, “We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Co. does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Co.” The placard ends with, “Within two hours of the end of that meeting, every ticket to the dinner was sold.”
Besides that paeon to corporate progressivism (and the museum’s chief benefactor), the museum is hardly a Coke and a smile. Yes, there are the triumphs of the movement, and there’s plenty of deserved recognition to the many sung and unsung, unknown, previously un-memorialized heros of that era and beyond. But the museum also documents the violence and the hatred and the appalling slowness of official redress. One wall of kiosks features prominent racists on video, and I can tell you that it’s one thing to read George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech and another thing entirely to watch and hear it. It also demands that we ask ourselves: Where are you in all this?
I first learned about Jim Crow and civil rights from my beloved first grade teacher. Ms. Irma Sanders stands out as the most formidable woman I encountered during childhood. She wore dark silk blouses and never raised her voice, but she would rap on the table with a hard object to get us to quiet down and listen. When she told us about separate water fountains, she spoke of a history that she lived. The lesson seemed out of nowhere, as if she simply felt called that day to tell us where we’d come from. There were no handouts or assignments, just Ms. Sanders and her quiet resolve to reveal hard truths to her six- and seven-year-old charges.
The boy sitting next to me cheered loudly and pumped his fists at the idea of white supremacy, as if he played for the winning white person team. I didn’t know the word racism yet, but I remember not understanding why he didn’t get sent to the principal’s office. He didn’t understand why I wasn’t cheering for our team, too. I never forgave him for the horror of that association. Before that, I knew I was white, and I knew my kindergarten teachers picked on black students more than white students, but that moment crystallized whiteness for me in a new and uncomfortable way. Later I asked my dad whether we’d have been against slavery if we’d been white southerners 125 years. We would’ve fought for the North, right? We would’ve known better? My dad told me no. We’d have been products of our time, no higher-minded than anyone else. “Everyday hatred, everyday dread.”
I was crushed. I wanted to be on the right side of history, but I wasn’t. I’m not. Sure, I can go to the civil rights museum and cry my eyes out. I can vote for hometown hero Rep. John Lewis every Congressional election (by now he’s usually unopposed) and I can read MARCH, his graphic novels about the movement. But as Michelle Detorie says, “It is evil to imagine the self.” To imagine myself as anything other than the product of my time would mean to deny all the benefits that whiteness confers on me. You can’t imagine reality away and call it art. As Nikki Wallschlaeger says, that’s deflection. It’s “peeling people apart from themselves.”
Here in Georgia, the month begins darkly. March is Women’s History Month, and today, Kelly Gissendaner is scheduled to die by lethal injection. Unless grace or good sense intervenes, she will go down in history as the second woman executed by the state of Georgia, and the sixteenth in the United States. Kelly Gissendaner befriended the great liberation theologian Jürgen Moltmann and calmed fellow prisoners who struggled with suicidal thoughts and mental illness. It would be amazing, yes, if she “did something helpful” by dying. But she won’t. She has to stay alive to do that, and from what I can tell, she certainly doesn’t imagine herself to be a martyr.
March will bring two more installments of What’s New in Poetry. Think about the name of the series for a second. What is new in poetry? Maybe what’s new is how we read it. We can refuse to think of art as separate from our living histories. We can stop deflecting, stop peeling apart, stop shoving things into categories, and listen.
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