How Baptisms are Done in Mississippi: Pratt Poetry Contest

Last fall, Lisa Greenhouse of the Enoch Free Pratt Library contacted Little Patuxent Review. Would we be interested in partnering with the library on a statewide poetry contest? LPR had never sponsored a contest, but this one was appealing. We liked the prospect of working with Pratt. We loved that there was no fee to enter the competition.

Over 300 entries were submitted in the blind contest. In addition to myself, three other poets reviewed the 35 finalists: LPR Social Justice Issue Guest Editor Truth Thomas, LPR Secretary Linda Joy Burke and LPR Contributing Editor Susan Thornton Hobby.

Joseph Ross

Joseph Ross (Photo: Jeremy Bigwood)

Although we chose five finalists, four of whom will appear in the Summer 2012 Audacity issue, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” was the poem that each reviewer listed in his or her top three. Clearly, Joseph Ross’s poem had universal appeal. It spoke to each of us even though our poetic styles differed.

I asked the other judges to share their thoughts on the poem. Linda Joy said:

It reminds me of Lucille Clifton’s work in its elegant simplicity. This poem speaks to the brutality proliferated from an economy of riches built on the backs of enslaved people and the consequent inhumanity of the Jim Crow laws that were sanctioned by many of the so-called righteous. As we have seen since the election a black president, the prejudices and ideologies born of the era when the young boy Till was so horribly murdered still remain in the minds of many today. Instead of raging against God, the poet gives us an alternative: that God’s mother wouldn’t want to see this kind of damage done to any son–not her son, not any other mother’s son–and that the true nature of our souls should not be hidden by any means.

Truth added:

Clever counterfactual theorists tend to have a universal appeal. Joe assumes the posture of such a theorist in his poem in order to document racism and the horrific murder of a child. Its timeless quality comes as a result of the longstanding “killing black children business” that is the unresolved legacy of slavery in the United States.

At the time that we were reading the final poems, the Trayvon Martin case and its parallels to the Till murder had not yet entered public discussion. Now that they have, I cannot think of better poem to grace the windows of Enoch Pratt Free Library than “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”

I heard from Joe, who lives in Silver Spring, MD, soon after his poem was announced as the winner. Joe wanted to know if he was allowed to make a revision. The title and refrain are not grammatically correct. Having taught high school English as Joe does, I understood why one word didn’t sit right with him. However, I wasn’t sure that strict adherence to grammar was right for the poem. “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” has a musicality that would be lost in the edit: “If Mamie Till Were the Mother of God.” The voice in the poem speaks from the heart in an almost spiritual way.

When Joe and I discussed the poem on the phone, we talked about the call-and-response feel that the repeated line “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” creates. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Joe had been thinking of Catholic traditions and the pacing of a litany when he wrote the poem. Joe said:

I spent a lot of time reading about the whole Emmett Till, Mamie Till mess, and I’m just fascinated by her story–not an activist, a mother. I’m very much interested in the idea of the common person making a decision that has extraordinary consequences (“every coffin lid would be / glass”). Mamie Till ties into the image of Mary, a very common person to whom something very extraordinary happens.

The research meant that Joe’s early drafts were lengthy. Revising the poem was a process of deciding which facts of the Till case were most pertinent in a poem that simply communicates both anger and grace in response to the murder of a black teenaged boy.

Joe and I consulted with Truth about the proposed edit. Truth’s response was spot on: “The poem loses its power pinned to the wall of perfect grammar. What Joseph has captured is the language people really speak.”

“If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” will be unveiled in Enoch Pratt Free Library’s front windows on Saturday, April 14 during the CityLit Festival. Please join us there. Stop by our table and attend the Little Patuxent Review Presents session (11:30 am to 12:20 pm). In addition to LPR Social Justice issue contributors Kathleen Hellen, Jill-Ann Stolley, Michael Salcman, Clarinda Harriss, Alan King and Susan Gabrielle, Joe will read “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.” It is serendipitous that this particular poem, which speaks to Social Justice so audaciously, marks the transition between our Social Justice and Audacity issues.

Enoch Pratt Free Library Poetry Contest Winner:
If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God
Joseph Ross

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

one of the ten commandments
would forbid whistling.

No one would wear cotton
clothing, every cotton field

would be burned in praise
of fourteen

year-old boys
and their teeth.

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

every river would be still
so nothing thrown in

could travel downstream;
barbed wire could only be

worn as a necklace
by senators.

If Mamie Till was the mother
of God

every coffin lid would be
glass, so even God could see

how baptisms are done
in Mississippi.

Online Editor’s Note: To learn more about Lisa and the Pratt, read “Meet the Neighbors: Enoch Pratt Free Library.”

2 thoughts on “How Baptisms are Done in Mississippi: Pratt Poetry Contest

  1. david eberhardt

    The reptilian gun dealer- exemplar of capitalism
    Scales shining, squints at the little boy
    Who eyes the cased in Glock as if it were a toy-
    His American or Yemeni father smiles
    To see HIS boy grow up this way…
    The product having left the hand
    Of unthinking, conscience-less maker, wage slave,
    Proceeds to the gun shop in Virginia, death to come,
    Never enters the thought, the money changes hands,
    Gun and male, unchecked in its criminal society-
    Proceeds to the next killing spree.


  2. Pingback: Video: Joseph Ross Reading From ‘Meeting Bone Man’

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