Earlier this month, I virtually attended Solmaz Sharif’s book launch for Customs, a brief (Zoom) window into a brilliant poet’s work and thinking. Sharif alternated between reading poems and discussing process, while responding to audience questions. A new friend had invited me to watch the reading in their apartment, and I felt my nostalgia for an intimate literary evening soften as the two of us chatted and riffed on their couch. At one point, in response to a question about language and the syntax of power, Sharif talked about stripping back authority in her approach to writing, particularly an imperialist, white, western, academic authority. She brought up the adage “show don’t tell” as an example of something writers often blindly follow, and said that “telling” is necessary to make revolutionary writing. “Showing,” she explained, can be a tool of the oppressor, a beautiful distraction, a cover-up.
A question I ask myself when I read for journals or presses—is this poem transformative? Does it undo my expectations of craft? Such questions come from a perspective that is inextricably tied up with notions of authoritative power. And I do think language has power. Reading poetry for publication demands an attention to language, and the way a submitter directs my attention, particularly with literary device, usually directs my comments. As I read, I consider how language is sometimes used as a shield. Like how passive voice blurs violent actor and victim in an article headline (e.g. “Protester was shot in the arm” vs “Police shot protester in the arm”), do metaphor and image—effectively tools of “showing”—work similarly to obfuscate?
When writing my first book, I thought often about the way trauma can be inexpressible, inscrutable. But in writing, I did not want to give violence image. It felt like it missed the mark. Describing violence through image did nothing to convey my experience of it, the way it was rooted in me. Such replication was not only insufficient for describing the scope of violence, but was also devoid of the impact I actually wanted to write. I did not want to hide my response to trauma behind salacious descriptions of trauma.
The way I think about my writing has deepened my approach to reading submissions that focus on trauma, crystallizing my sense of poems that reproduce violence as too focused on a shock effect. As a reader, I find a poet’s need for the depth of violence to be understood often more uncomfortable than interesting—instead, I want to understand how the speaker reacts to the violence. In college, a mentor forewarned against this type of engagement with violence with an anecdote about a poem she had written in which a delicate bird is crushed by a hand—a metaphor for sexual violence. The poem had music, gorgeous colors, but why write a poem that cloaks a perpetrator in literary device? Beauty did little for that bird, but much aggrandizing for the fist.
In the poetry class I’m currently teaching, I invited students to define testimony. We had been discussing Martín Espada’s book Floaters. We talked about testimony as “bold statements of truth,” as verbal or written material that has been recorded in some way and preserved because of its archival importance, not only for retelling. But of what use is testimony in poetry? When I read poetry that aims to make the particularities of an experience understood, I want something other than a courthouse document. I look for submissions that transform testimony into an expression of process—that use testimony to reveal a new understanding of the self.
I often return to Cathy Park Hong’s essay “Against Witness,” which focuses on the passive stance of “witness” in poetry, particularly in poetry that addresses violence, through a consideration of an installation of Doris Salcedo’s work. Hong writes, “I cannot sit in your chair, eat at your table. I cannot open your dresser and touch your shirts that will trigger eidetic memories of a dance or late night walk. The proximity between you and me is infinite.” As readers, we don’t have access to the experience of the author. Any image or metaphor that would stand in as representation of experience could not replicate it. Whether I’m reading a lone poem or a full collection, I’m interested in the play that happens in the work—the opening up of one’s own subjectivity, position, perspective. I love reading poetry that hinges on revelation—not just of secrets or vulnerabilities, but of one’s own unique way of understanding.
I’m brought back to Sharif’s positioning of “telling” in poetry as a necessity for revolutionary writing, coupled with Hong’s figuration of witness. Hong asks if poems of witness do enough by merely remembering:
Why valorize poetry for being a living archive when memory has become our most booming industry? In an era when eyewitness testimonies, photos, and videos are tweeted seconds after a catastrophe, poetry’s power to bear witness now feels outdated and inherently passive.
I’d argue that the digital media Hong lists have a subjectivity to them as well, and are not inherently more objective than a poem. Still, I love a poem that reveals its own subjectivity, that exalts in it. My readerly interest is ensnared by work that balances Sharif’s call to write unobscured and Hong’s call to write beyond mere retelling.
“Telling” is not as simple as stating the facts of the experience. How something is “told” is richer, and can ground experience in perspective. Further too, can shake off the shroud of metaphor. Can do what another mentor instructed: “say the thing” in the poem. When I read, I wait for the works that tell the writer’s perspective, in real time, in retrospect, in supposition.
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