December 6, 2017

Cave Canem, and Listening

photos in a line of Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award winners and finalists Ross Gay, Vievee Francis, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May
L-R: Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award winners and finalists Ross Gay, Vievee Francis, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May

“I wonder, how could ‘forgive’ ever fit inside of my mouth?”

This line is from the spoken version of “Sky now Black with Birds” by Jamaal May, which is a poem obviously meant to be read aloud and, moreover, heard. I believe it is irresponsible not to sit for awhile with this question. What May wonders is fair; how can we ask him, or anyone, to forgive the systematic cold blooded murders, the occupation of neighborhoods, and the purposeful thwarting of black communities? It is, in fact, far more fair than what is demanded of the American black community every day: forgive.

In April of this year, critic and theorist Frank Wilderson III came to Pomona College to give a speech entitled “Irreconcilable Anti-Blackness: A Conversation with Frank Wilderson III.” Students in attendance wore black to mourn the ontological death of the black body. The thesis of Wilderson’s talk was in one way, simple. Blackness is not reconcilable with humanity in America. This country was founded on the notion of freedom, but to be free meant not to be a slave. More specifically, freedom meant to not be black. Being black was the antithesis of meaningful human existence, and nothing has changed because this condition cannot change. Every police shooting, every person imprisoned in the modern chattel slavery institution that is the criminal justice system, every neighborhood redlined into permanent poverty merely underscores the obvious. The “absolute dereliction” of the black body and black communities, according to Wilderson, is a fundamental part of our culture and identities.

When Jamaal May asks, in his poem, “if ‘forgive’ could ever fit inside of [his] mouth,” he captures the same sentiment. Perhaps there is anger in the question. There is certainly the oppressive weight of history and of the present. But it seems more significant that this question is unanswered. The rhetorical question must ring like an echo; in that moment, hearing the echo is the ethical duty of listener—because what else can we do? Is there anything but to listen, to cooperate, to recognize? This position in which a listener finds herself is the reason why the question is effective as a poetic device, though to put it this way is to minimize its significance. After all, May inhabits his poetry—it is life and death—and the stakes of literary analysis are rarely so high.

Still, poetry must be a part of this conversation, and not only because this is a poetry blog. Certain black poets today have revitalized and repurposed contemporary poetry. Though they continue the traditions super-charged during the Harlem Renaissance, the movement is distinct. Poets such as Jamaal May, Danez Smith, Terrence Hayes, Vievee Francis, and countless others represent poetry as protest, but beyond. Through their poetry, protest is transformed into something that is more than even ephemeral hope or pure representation. I believe that these poets have written something that is even more than ethnographic or historical. There is so much more than anger, pain, or even hope in their work. The beauty of poetry has often done real good in the world: to reveal, to uncover, to map—and yes, to protest. But rarely has it reclaimed.

And reclamation is the goal of Cave Canem, an organization that puts together poetry workshops, poetry prizes, readings, summer retreats, anthology publications and more. The black poets of this organization also see themselves as protectors of poetry—the first line of defense, as fully belonging to the house of poetry, as the first impression for anyone visiting. Cave Canem was founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to push back against the partitioning of black poets in MFA programs and writing workshops. The words “Cave Canem” mean “beware of the dog” in Latin. This is because the two founders visited the house of the tragic poet in the lost city of Pompeii, and those words were written on the gate. Terrence Hayes, a former fellow of Cave Canem, asked in his speech honoring Cave Canem for the Literarian Award, “What does it mean to be the dog guarding the house of poetry?” Certainly, it means more than to interrogate poetry’s gatekeepers.

Behind the scenes, Cave Canem has produced, assisted and honored some of our greatest living poets. In fact, because this institution has been deeply associated with so many enormous, un-ignorable voices, it also shares association with the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Awards. 2016 Kingsley Tufts winner Ross Gay was a Cave Canem fellow, as was our current award judge, 2000 Kate Tufts Discovery Award winner Terrence Hayes. In 2010, 2017 Kingsley Tufts awardee Vievee Francis won the Cave Canem award for her book Horse in the Dark, and this year she selected the winner for the same prize. 2016 Kate Tufts winner Danez Smith is a current Cave Canem fellow. The organization describes itself on its blog as “the major watering hole and air pocket” for living black poets, and proves by the sheer excellence of its members the value of having a safe space.

While safe spaces are sometimes derided, in actuality they provide (among other things) crucial shelter for developing voices. Rather than hermetically seal off individuals and communities from the world at large, safe spaces provide a moment of peace so that those who live under stressful societal conditions can gather their strength in a community of those with similar experiences. Part of the value of such a moment is the freeing of the mind. And thus, Cave Canem’s success proves that not only is offering refuge, platform, and solidarity something ethical, but it is also unbelievably productive.

Maybe in the quiet of this community, May (also a Cave Canem fellow) will figure out the answer the answer to his rhetorical question. Maybe not. But as bell hooks said of Beyonce’s album Lemonade, by transforming their experiences into art, these black artists seem to generate positive, revelatory work that is “not a measure of our capacity to endure pain, but rather a celebration of our moving beyond pain.”  All the while, these poems additionally bear witness, document, interrogate and uncover the wrongs and horrors (as well as, occasionally, the complexly woven-in good and righteous) of America’s political and ideological foundations and day-to-day. Poetry is in a good position to provide staging for these testimonies, and these poets exploit this advantage amply.

The echoes are exquisite as they are difficult to hear. But the appreciation is more than aesthetic. I do not view the contemporary moment as an experiment, in the way that Modernism was. These poets don’t seem to be baffled and vexed, working new modes of thought against new modern realities. And as a reader, sitting with the questions they pose, rather than flinching away, is not merely intellectual, it is vital. Contemporary American poetry, like the gospel music with which it shares roots, seeks to report the “bad news” while transforming it into something that fits in our mouths. If we hope for forgiveness, we first must listen and digest what we hear, and frankly we could not hope for how palatable, how gorgeous, the testimony is. 

—Kelly Eisenbrand