In the Twenty-First Century, the rate of black unemployment is double that of whites in America, and a new Jim Crow exists where there are more black men in jail than were enslaved before the Civil War. Poems that address that pain are no less legitimate than poems about flowers.
In the context of creative writing, everyone has something important to say. In the framework of poetry, everyone has the capacity to craft work that is piercing and powerful. I firmly believe this. While it is true that not everyone—not anyone—will write like Gwendolyn Brooks or Lucille Clifton or Emily Dickinson, each of us embodies a unique creative fire. It is my job to spark those flames—to ignite controlled artistic burns—in order for poets to grow more fearless, more honest in the expression of their singular gifts. In my upcoming Salon Series workshop, “Writing Past Taboo,” I will require writers to examine the work of poets who have crossed bridges of courage by developing a capacity to write beyond the point of pain, shame or political correctness.
A social science dissertation is not required to see that America has a race problem. Certainly Brooks was aware of this as much of her work documents black pain.1 The poisonous legacy of slavery profoundly affects both descendants of slaves and descendants of slave masters in the United States. However, healing discussions on the subject of race are seldom heard apart from shouting matches over canyons of cultural divides. To be sure, themes of race (and politics) are quite often seen as inappropriate poetic fuel–a self-imposed taboo, if you will–in mainstream poetry circles. Thankfully, groundbreaking writers are not bound by the ignorance of others. In the Twenty-First Century, the rate of black unemployment is double that of whites in America,2 and a new Jim Crow exists where there are more black men in jail than were enslaved before the Civil War.3 Poems that address that pain are no less legitimate than poems about flowers. Indeed, poems brave enough to document racism in the hope of amending it are just as valuable now as when Brooks made them staples of her high art.
Similarly, one does not have to be Dr. Phil to be aware of ever increasing instances of child abuse in America and all over the planet. Its escalation represents a malignancy of inhumanity devouring the land. Clifton was a fiery survivor of the cancer of child abuse. In an interview with Grace Cavalieri on NPR, Clifton said: “…abuse is a subject that is not talked about in our country, and yet it’s rampant…I wanted to write this poem, though it was difficult, but I did.”4 At the best of times, writing is difficult. Notwithstanding that, we must prayerfully learn to face our greatest difficulties: our fears. We must summon up a Clifton-like will “to do” in spite of life’s most troubling obstacles.
When I address the subject of overcoming life’s difficulties, I cannot help but think of Dickinson. I am constantly impressed by the wisdom and knowledge of the world she expressed in her poetry. Poetry largely composed while never leaving her house, poetry rejected by lesser talents, poetry that endures. There is an unrepentant honesty that is evident Dickinson’s work (and that of Brooks and Clifton, as well). In my view, honesty is one key element—arguably the most crucial ingredient—in the measure of great writing. Whether we are popular or relegated to obscurity, we must write with veracity what is most needed to be written. Whether that “most needed thing” is painful or soothing, we must write it. Whether we find critical acclaim or disdain, we must write it. Whether we are sick or well, we must write it. Perhaps especially when we are sick, we must fight to enter the life raft of our muses. If only one writer who attends my workshop is inspired to answer the courage call of his or her gifts, I will count it a success.
1 Haki R. Madhubuti, “Gwendolyn Brooks Beyond the Wordmaker—The Making of An African Poet.” In Stephen Caldwell Wright (Ed.), On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
2 Jean McGianni Celestin, “College Degrees Won’t Shield Blacks From Unemployment: The jobless rate among black college graduates is nearly double that of whites. Why?” The Root, March 5, 2011.
3 Dick Price, “More Black Men Now in Prison System than Enslaved in 1850.” LA Progressive, March 27, 2011.
4 Grace Cavalieri, “The Poet and the Poem: An Interview with Lucille Clifton.” NPR, 2003.
The Salon Series Truth Thomas poetry workshop will be held Monday, April 25, 7:30 PM at the Columbia Association Art Center, 6100 Foreland Garth in Columbia, Maryland. For more information, please call 410-730-0075.
To learn more about Thomas, see “Truth Thomas Times Two.”