Thursday, March 27, 2014

Notes Toward A More Adequate Response to Being “Swollen” by Thomas Sayers Ellis’ “Spike Lee At Harvard” [Skin, Inc: Identity Repair Poems, 2010]

 “Spike Lee at Harvard” starts out clear, slow, methodical, with a neutral, even cinematic, close up that later zooms out, and builds a tense lyric trance that sustains restraint and can generate multiple meanings, as it accrues both narrative and conceptual weight:

 At the Grolier…
I got my first glimpse
Of the life of poetry….
And where the life of poetry
First governed me
Toward discipline and surrender.”

This seems like it could be a useful apprenticeship for a young working class writer, but some questions arise: does poetry require “discipline and surrender” and, if so,  who (or what) is being surrendered to?  In section two, it becomes clear that he bookstore (like most literary institutions in America) is segregated: the photo of AI is a metonymy of the tokenism that is not even as much of a presence as a black dot on the white side of the Tao’s yin/yang logo. Justified rage bubbles beneath the speaker’s surface as he finds himself working:

For nothing
But their work
Their likeness
The colorless absence
Of noise between
Images and words….

As publishing, like
The Gulf War, filled
The world with
More ghosts…”

The use of the word “like” here is a powerful simile that is a fitting rebuke to Poetry magazine’s claim that Ellis is wasting his time directing his ire against a target as “small” as the Grolier rather than, say, the Gulf War. For Ellis, the two are manifestations of the same (one could say “imperialist”) phenomena: the macrocosm is seen in the microcosm. In this poem (like many in Skin, Inc.) Ellis thinks globally, but act locally; writing about what he knows and drawing the lines between the racism he experiences and its other manifestations.

The 4th joint (or section, or two-page stanza) contrasts with the portrayal of the “life of poetry” he experienced at The Grolier in the first three sections. The first (seven line) sentence breathes life into simple words that have become well-worn clichés contaminated by over-use (even in much poetry):

In my other life,
I was given an audience,
The keys to darkness,
an office of shadows,
and an editor’s sense
of control over
my own crew of light.”

This “other life,” at first, seems opposite than the (alienated) labor of The Grolier. Because the literal meaning is left purposely vague, these images can act primarily as symbols. In contrast to the “audience for apprenticeship” he’d have to create (in section one), here an audience is given to him. “The keys to darkness” tropes on black and white thinking and realities in both racial and ostensibly non-racial ways; it could even be interpreted as the power of night, of the essential solitude, that many (white) poets have praised: a subterranean (if not secret) and extra-terrestrial aerial ballet of digging, flying—but it’s not simply an image of “internal” personal autonomy. He’s given what seems a social power, “an editor’s sense/ of control over/ my own crew of light.”

Even a cursory read of TSE’s short bio reminds us that he is a photographer who also helped form the (“Coloreds Only”) Darkroom Collective, both of which these can refer to---if we assume that the speaker is supposed to be Thomas Sayers Ellis (as opposed to, say, Spike Lee). But the next line of the poem reminds us that this “lyric monologue” is part of a dialogic narrative (employing strategies of both ‘memoir’ and ‘argumentative essay’ to transcend the narrowness of genres).

TSE steps outside the lyric flow in an “aside” providing voice-over commentary, as Spike Lee often steps outside his cinematic plots as a comic, but believable, speaker (sit-down; stand-up): a smile and a gaze, an actor-playwright writing his own lines (or at least some of them)—to deliver a pleasantly charming jab at “Champions/ of identity politics.” This hooks me precisely because it pulls the rug out from under the infinite possibilities of the image (or some would say ‘usurps the critic’s role’), while not quite breaking its spell. Then he drops the punch-line that grounds, limits, and even ‘locks up’ the image in the ‘prose’ of simple description:

I had an evening job
As a projectionist-security guard
At the Harvard Film Archive,…”

His “other life” is just another job. Increasingly, you had to have at least two during the 1990s, so it isn’t really the choice it may have seemed (between, say, the ‘white mask’ of his Grolier role, and the “real” identity). The contrast is between social roles in contemporary white-run America. As I catch myself having fallen for the sly brilliance of this poem’s lyric structure, and reading it through the eyes of a “champion/ of identity politics,” I am reminded that sometimes (at least in most American creative writing workshops) the image comes first: darkness is just darkness (just as they taught us in Freud Class that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar); the keys are just keys; the audience is an actual audience in a movie theatre. But, in this aside, Ellis is having it both ways, using poetic ambiguity as a weapon in his aesthetic toolbox to dance both in and around essentialism (of race and culture) in an attempt to move beyond the “double consciousness” of which Du Bois and others have written at length.

As this poem (like others in Skin, Inc.) interrogates the tension between words like ‘light’ and ‘dark,’ it’s useful to note that this job as security guard/projectionist (which is at least 2 jobs in one) is not a night job, but merely “evening job,” as one becomes guard, entertainer (and even entertained and educated) at his job. Evening is not dark enough to show a movie unless you’re indoors.

In evening, the walls of the theater create a space for darkness, and the white lights of the ceiling must be turned off in order for the colored lights (or even black and whites) to be projected. A champion of identity politics could say that evening, by definition, isn’t fully dark or fully light, or even that it’s the most desegregated time of the day (if day is white supremacy, and night is ‘colored only,’ then evening could be the coming together, but this job doesn’t even the score; we need more ‘night’ before that can truly happen; we need, for instance, to stop ‘day’ -as half of a 24 hour unit- from calling itself the entire 24 unit).

Segregation is certainly not done away with in section 4: It is, after all, Harvard, and the architectural designs of Le Corbusier (even his plans for a more ‘democratic’ Radiant City) have been used to increase segregation of race and ‘low-income’ people in the names of development and ‘urban planning.’ Both jobs are on the lackey end of the art world, or cultural superstructure, but the theater at least is a little:

…less restricted
than the Grolier’s marquee-like anthology
where the white people
in the framed photographs
rejected the glamour
of the white people
in movie stills.”

The theater, at least, is more dynamic (just as this second sentence is 20 lines long, full of jump-cuts and suggestive montage transitions that can be experienced and analyzed repeatedly). Between the black words working for the white page, and the ‘crew of light’ working in the dark room, a contrast is felt, but it’s not the difference between day and night. Still, this life of white movies is at least a little closer to the soul of this young, gifted and black auteur/author than the life of white owned poetry institutions. It may even be more poetic than the life of white poetry, even in its bloody stills. As Ellis observes the condescension (or defensive snobbery) the white writers have toward the white actors, he may even find some inter-racial common ground, or solidarity, with the actors (which in Shakespeare’s time, if not necessarily Lee’s, were called “shadows”). Ellis thus encourages the cultivation of “true allies of color” (as he puts it another poem).

After all, the distinction between the so-called “high” (or “advanced”) art of literature and the more popular arts of the moving-pictures (to say nothing about music here) is historically an Upper Class European/American distinction that has trickled down to the working class. Ellis finds a degree of solidarity with the whites who do not accept this distinction, who understand that any definition of poetry that doesn’t include movies (and music), as legitimate, and even potentially superior forms that give more to the world than they take from it—is not really poetry (or doesn’t have a hold on craft, as he concludes in the poem’s section).

In Joint 5, the life of the movie (or the life of poetry in movies) overtakes the pale white lights of The Grolier: The auteur includes the author, even if you have to call your joint a stanza (a little room). That doesn’t mean you have to be in synch with ‘N Sync or other so-called “blue eyed soul.” Despite my blue eyes (albeit with Eritrean blood and build), I can very much identify with the economic struggle in these lines:

This is where the soundtrack
would begin if poetry
paid enough for one
and if the public
paid more for poetry.”

These lines bring to the fore the issue of poetic economy (another “elephant in the room” in this era of ripening cautiousness). I can’t speak for Ellis, but I know some choose to work in “poetry on the page” partially because it’s the cheapest art one can make on one’s own. But it’s only cheaper to make for the same reason it doesn’t pay enough to make a soundtrack (unless one wants to go all low-fi like, say, Casiotone For The Painfully Alone”). The kind of soundtrack I imagine here would require more money (or collective man-and-woman-power) to make—but it could also be more popular (and thus pay more if we’re working in money).

The Economics here is not merely personal: it’s a poet, and especially a black poet, fighting for the right to use the fullest of his talent to create an art that can do at least as much as Spike Lee (just as even Ezra Pound said that ‘poetry should be as well written as prose,” as well-performed as a Malcolm X speech, stand-up sermon or James Brown package show; at least that’s a legitimate goal to be worthy of). I start hearing Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which Spike Lee used effectively in the soundtrack for Do The Right Thing. I also hear many white voices arguing softly (but with a big stick) that this song is not poetry (often to their peril).

But a close look at these lines reveal how it’s not merely a matter of poetry paying more, but of who pays for it, and how it’s paid, and how this can have aesthetic and ethical consequences. Public Enemy wouldn’t get an NEA Poetry grant (or MacArthur Genuis award) for the same reason they didn’t need to. Why? Because they are relevant to the public.

Ellis is not suggesting there be more grants, or even patrons (I almost wrote pardons) to pay writers. Often, they pay more for poetry on the condition that it isn’t popular, much less populist. This is why TSE holds himself to the standard of courage to not accept “any award/ that helps you and hurts others” (“Ways To Be Black In A Poem”). For the working class cultural-worker, this choice of lyric genre in a specialized society may not be ones first choice---but genres, as TSE reminds us in his “Perform-A-Form” manifesto, are not just specialized; they are segregated, placed into an unequal economic and cultural relationship. So even these few lines about payment suggest a way to liberate poetry from the shackles of writing for a genre-patron (a system that hasn’t really changed since Brecht’s “Song Of The Cut Priced Poet”)—and help widen the limits of what is called poetry; even as TSE works within its limits, he redefines its implicit and explicit ethical protocols to be a more collective act, which can mean more than money. By making the economics explicit, the poem is free to move on, and become more than that.

If you can’t get a licensing deal from a local worker-owned collective to do “ad copy,” at least you can do away with the isolating individualism that prides itself on “kicking the money changes out” (on the page at least) when it’s more profoundly kicking the cymbals, snares and foot stomping out. You may have to allow the shape of exchange into the poem (which, however artfully structured, may be encouraged to become ‘mere notes’ for a performance that could even become an organizational meeting that is part of a wider poem). So, it’s not really just about the money, it’s about the music: the movement of the music and the music of the movement (in the movie about the movie that pretends to be a poem about poetics—all writing is implicitly about writing).

This process of “identity repair” here becomes one with a call for reparations for slavery (as repair is the root of reparations, and Gil Scott Heron asks “Who’ll Pay Reparations On My Soul”) So, yes, I do feel swollen by TSE’s portrayal of an uneven world—swollen beyond catharsis, as he begins to release the tension that was held by the more restricted and restrained first 3 sections (and, thank you, TSE, for addressing me as a listener, more than a reader).

The release I feel most in the direct address to the listener in this final section of “Spike Lee At Harvard” becomes a call to action, an invitation (or plea) to:

toss a traschcan,
like a lidless metaphor,
through the poem’s
narrative, wild style…”

He’s not asking us to throw a trashcan through the window of The Grolier per se, but through the poem’s/ narrative. TSE doesn’t mind us throwing stones, either because he’s not worried about living in a glass house or knows that, if he is, you have every right, even obligation, to smash it! Though you may not take up that invitation if you’re afraid of having your own glass walls smashed. Anyway, he can dish it out because he’s already taken it. The employers at the Grolier may not even consciously know the stones they have thrown at him (and many others who are trying to find “African American work” that isn’t slave labor).

The lidless metaphor is more infinite than a more uneven/unequal simile (the segregation the device “simile” is used to linguistically effect was explored in “As Segregation, As Us”), and “wild style” can be both noun and verb! Here Ellis is, in effect, asking us to bring the RIOT in, to let the poem be wide enough to include the riot. To use a simile: He may use a language more like Le Roi Jones, but the message and the feeling is more like Amiri Baraka. Let them call you a bull in a China Shop, or white-owned pizza parlor, or Iraqi Oil War disguised as another benign “entertaining” book party. It could be kind of fun to strip away the book from the face and face an audience of performers who face you until you all face something other, like a container “whose symbolism/ is unknowingly superior to standard usage---a brilliant attitude loved by good.” (30).

A riot may sound like anarchy to some, but this is more like a post-riot disciplined craft, like Spike Lee’s well-organized portrayal of a riot to admit the necessary rage that isn’t just a B-movie starring Ronald Reagan, but better A New Reality. Surrendering to the public rather than the duplicitous white “Judges of Craft” can create something that would have more power to change things than if he had actually tried to throw a trashcan through The Grolier’s window—whether from inside or outside. As “Auteur and author,” the movie TSE is beginning to script here is also pedagogy: at the very least let more life into your poems; they can be weapons and a public (if not The Grolier’s more specialized pseudo-public) will applaud (even ‘people who don’t read poetry’).

It’s one thing to see bookstores like The Grolier go down in shards of glass in the 21st economy (allegedly due to Amazon, and the increased rents), but it may be their own damn fault for their narrow definitions of poetry; beyond this, I can’t help but envision the potentials of a worker-owned collective (that is both book store, movie and music store with a stage for book parties that are also dance parties that can bring people together) an energy that it takes more than one—the heroic individualistic poet—to harness. Thus, the poem (or the well-crafted “Perform-A-Form”) can continue to pour after its performance. As even The American Poetry Review’s Tony Hoagland noted, the poem becomes “visionary” and in the best sense of the word, and beyond (before) the word, and its process of ‘identification.'

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