Tuesday Mar 28

KarenAlaynaThimell Karen Alayna Thimell is currently working toward her MFA in poetry at The University of Pittsburgh where she also teaches. She is a co-founder of the conceptual project, A Joint Called Pauline, a collection of art and poetry, and is also a poetry editor for the journal Hot Metal Bridge. She has interned for the non-profit literary magazine Rhino as well as 826 National, Dave Eggers’ non-profit organization for the development of literacy and literary arts for children and teenagers.  Her current manuscript is concerned with light, speech, and landscape as memory.

Karen Alayna Thimell interview with Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

You and I have talked about what you call “the disposable virtues of literature and history.” How you address some of those issues in your own work?

I think literature and history exist to reflect the vast topography and narrative of the human experience.  It would seem that in our current society--or our current condition--our apathy has become systemic, an insidious tumor in the marrow.  I find myself drawn to this because I am troubled by it and troubled by our inability or refusal to acknowledge or respond.  What I have written I wouldn’t necessarily call “political” poetry.  However, if we are to assume that all writing is political, my intentions are less motivated by conflict than they are by struggle.  I believe in the responsibility of the artist to act as a vessel, to interrogate the world’s failings by rendering it as a kind of communion with the reader, insight yielding understanding.  

Four of these featured poems come from a chapbook that you’ve written titled The Maybe Years, which takes as its title a line from African American poet Margaret Walker’s poem, “For My People.” Walker’s poetry is firmly located in the African American tradition of social protest, and within a much earlier historical and aesthetic era than yours. As a white poet of the early 21st century, what about her work spoke to you? What drew you to Walker?

Walker’s art is concerned with pricking the American conscience, with ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.’  In an interview with Maryemma Graham, Walker reflects on the compilation This Is My Century, and explains that since a young age “[she’d] been dealing with the meaning of the century,” a span of time she describes as the “century of protest.”  Born in 1915, there were only a few meager years left to the twentieth century when Graham interviewed Walker in 1992: chronicling the lives of African American people and the evolution of this country as it headed into the next millennium was the “theme” in her life’s work.  I was drawn to this idea of a social chronicle--as though her work were a letter capturing the essence of the 20th century, an inherited challenge for my century to rise out of an ingrown apathy and to realize a human consciousness.

Why do you think Walker’s poetry wasn’t as recognized in her modernist context as, say, Melvin Tolson or Langston Hughes and others?

I’m certain some scholars would have better explanations than I could give.  In part, because Margaret Walker’s aesthetics were largely influenced by her early reading of Shakespeare and shaped by studying the Bible in her protestant upbringing, particularly the Psalms, I think some of her work, more notably her sonnets and her poems with Christian themes and allusions, came to be seen by some as simple or  “traditional” as opposed to the more esoteric and difficult poetry of Tolson and Eliot or the jazz and blues poetics of Hughes.  

Another reason for her omission from the modernist canon is that her work echoed traditional ballads of African American folklore tradition, call-and-response styled verse, a collective “I” versus the modernist emphasis on the individual, and also remained, for the most part, very located in the southern landscape rather than the urban centers where the Chicago and Harlem Renaissances were formed.  

It seems, though, that these are rather weak or obvious answers to a conundrum that so obviously lapses into a form of erasure.  Perhaps Walker’s poetry is not aesthetically similar to the Harlem Renaissance poets, but I would argue her work might be all the more raw, innovative, and bold writing from a black woman’s perspective particularly in the 30s and 40s, which is what simultaneously sets her apart from the Modernist tradition and what makes her work even more fitting to be included as revolutionary.  “Bad-Man Stagolee” and “Big John Henry” are a couple examples of her deep-rooted folklore ballads, but “Kissie Lee” and “Molly Means” were Walker’s feminist legends of the intellect and strength of African American women, subverting the model of folklore within its traditional territory and granting the agency to women.  It would seem that those women who have made a political presence within tradition are often those who are historically censored and abandoned the most.

Initially, before I had even begun to read her work, I was most perplexed by a used copy of her collected works that I held in my hands:  a sticker on the spine, a stamp over the leaves of its pages, and a library book-log bare, unmarked as if new, completely clean of familiar traces—pencil smudge or ink. Inside the front flap was another stamp: Discarded By The Kenison Library of Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.  The blues of the book slowly fading.  It was too disturbing in all of its symbolism. I felt compelled to write, to answer to the patterns of historical amnesia and the erasure of women that is ever-present in our century.

It’s interesting that you find “universal” elements in Walker’s poems and then, signify on these elements to write your own brand new poems. Yet at the same time, you still locate them very much in a particular African American context. How were you able to do those two things?

Well, I think Walker was concerned with humanity and its struggle, which is a universal theme in that “when my brother struggles, I struggle” sort of sense.  I never felt so far removed from my poems in this project.  I didn’t see the writing as taking on an identity entirely detached from my own.  Because the lineage of this century is her century, it is in that way that we are bonded, however loosely.  In her tradition of protest, the poems in my chapbook attempt to evidence social issues that continue into our contemporary moment, issues that have answered twentieth-century questions of peace and racial divides and those that mirror similar questions with new apathetic sentiments that seem already to define our young century.

The subject of disharmony continues marked with a new concern for our current state of evolutionary social change—technology, industry, family, and individual and capitalist ideologies—that births a deepening apathy.  For instance, a couple of my poems that are written after Walker’s “A Litany from the Dark People” and “Today” explore a people sinking further and further, irrevocably marked by the soft despotism of capitalist structures and the impossibility of rising again—where a family is given what appears to be choice and option in the form of what appears to be freedom, but instead acts as a pacifying, temporary relief, treating the symptom but ignoring the illness.  I think these issues were particularly evident throughout Walker’s work, what began as social apathy created a narrative arch of a realized Black consciousness.

In the story of Addie Polk, the speaker accuses society for its dispassion and failure to hear the outcry of others’ suffering.  Polk, then a 90 year-old black woman of Ohio, became a heroine out of the recent economic collapse and the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac foreclosures.  She refused eviction from her 101 year-old home where she had lived for over 30 years.  When police knocked on her door to make the last of multiple attempts to contact Polk, she decided she would rather die in her house than live to see it taken from her.  Polk survived the wounds after shooting herself twice in the chest with a rifle and lived, instead, to see her home given back to her after this story hit national news. Addie Polk becomes the Kissie Lee of black feminist folklore in Walker’s poetry and symbolizes a proletarian rise against a capitalist death-sentence.

I envisioned this grouping of poems as a document of societal divisions and displacement that compose striated sediment in a rock face, ridged and furrowed as historical narratives of cultural fatigue. And it was only through my attempt to write these poems that I recognized how intrinsically mirrored our social landscapes are.  We are two daughters of ministers-turned-professors, two daughters of the South and the City—I hear her voice still echoed by reason and I see her century still reverberating in ours.

I wanted to ask a blunt question that some folk might not view as very polite, but that they secretly want answered. You know, “Everything you wanted to know about poetry but were afraid to ask.”  So, that said, as a white poet, what were some of your fears about approaching an African American literary icon like Margaret Walker and writing at least some of her story?  And do you feel there are any special considerations or preparations you took on when writing in a culture that is not yours?

I think I went through a lot of tensions in the writing process--from worrying about sensationalizing burden or pain to simplifying hardship, from maintaining a voice that is distinctly my own yet infused and possessed by a rendition of Walker, from fictionalizing a life or only scraping the surface of one.  Though I admit it wasn’t easy.  For example, I wrote the poem “Serpentine” after Walker’s friendship with Richard Wright, and it was a poem I felt needed to be included.  Because there is speculation and tendency to believe Walker and Wright actually had a relationship of some kind, there is a speculation present, though latent, within the poem.  And because Walker always seemed to state quite candidly that her feelings for Wright were that of a dear friend, I think “Serpentine” does the work of this honesty and yet maintains the curiosity of the outsider.

There are absolutely special considerations for any writer not writing strictly autobiography.  And though I cannot say I am in any way a scholar on the life and work of Margaret Walker, I studied her work and its criticism tirelessly.  Fiction, poetry, other poets and writers of the time, interviews, biographies, I almost didn’t want to actually begin the project for fear I had not adequately lived and breathed everything-Walker.  She said once, though, that writing should never be just for black or just for white audiences “but most inclusively” and “it is the business of all writers to write about the human condition, and all humanity must be involved in both the writing and in the reading."

And you have to begin.  And it was filled with risk.  And, yet, I felt possessed by that risk, not damned by it.  Possessed in the sense that something else would write the story, not me.  If poetry is a kind of communion in a sacramental sense, then it cannot be raced, cultured, identified in terms of “power,” though the world may continue to be.  Margaret Walker called herself a humanist poet and said she believed “mankind is only one race--the human race,” but that “the world has yet to learn to appreciate the deep reservoirs of humanism in all races, and particularly in the Black race.”  I view all art as a kind of social dialogue; the artist has a responsibility to respond in that dialogue--if not, what will the conversation gain when no one engages it?   I am reminded of Emmanuel Levinas, that the self always has one responsibility more than all the others.  This is how we learn to listen to one another, no matter the discomfort of borders.  

Again, I’ve always wanted to ask this question of a non-black poet: besides gaining a “social commentary” or a “historical record,” what do you feel mainstream American poetry can gain—and learn—from African American poetry and poetics in terms of craft and aesthetic?

I find it difficult to separate the social or cultural narrative from any poet’s craft and aesthetics.  Even more difficult to assume an essentialist aesthetics of any race or identity. For instance, omitting feminism, power struggle, and histories from social landscape and asking what male poets can gain specifically from female poetics seems less determinable or relevant once the politics are stripped.  

That said, if we are to look at the germinal movements of African American writers, we would without doubt see signature influences in white, mainstream poetry, though influences that white mainstream writers might not readily recognize as their forebears. You look at the collective voice in Langston Hughes or Margaret Walker and can sense the rising impulse of a Black consciousness in America.  In the bleak outlook in our own contemporary moment, we are again witnessing a rising collective consciousness in poets and writers of feminist, queer, and other communities deprived of power and mobility.  Language turning away from a poetics of a singular I and toward the non-subject or an all-subject, ultimately to gain the voice and agency that we learned first from perhaps the most broadly discriminated and disenfranchised African American community.  I would further argue that the blues poetics has been the paradigm of democracy and protest that pervades much of American contemporary poetry.  

I think poetry has everything to gain, and has gained, from all poetry. When we remain within ourselves, we remain forever exactly as we are and perhaps we even devolve.  I think humans perfect one another.
from the maybe years
1. Serpentine[1]

“For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years...”
Margaret Walker

In Chicago, there is a man,

I have loved in the way I
have seen the red leaf falling
like sacrament,

now waving past me,
caught the train with
a trail of tweed flapping behind.
Sometimes, in the middle
of the day, I still hear
his fictive fingers hitting
the keys of a typewriter—
here, the rhythm of mottled rain
smells a rage for a crescent moon, or
what I sensed him for:
belly of serpentine instinct
full of waver: medusa
staring down medusa
a spiral height of canyon,
a soul made stone.

2. Grown
When I am grown, I will taste no more salt
but years from their bitter years of the whip
brooding lashing reddening to bite the lip-
light sinks itself into night like a fault
then shale or sand takes its whip of the waves:
and when whose hands are no longer whose hands,
the parts shed their parts in incandescence.
What speech will act to grant a people grace?
Destroy a world destroyed, how to begin?
Wars wars wars and a child tucked into bed.
You hear a rape, the cutting into flesh.
You hear the green light guttering in sin.
I want to see new stars, when I am grown.
Body of one, broken for you, body of one.
3.  Womanhood
“Here I am a strange creature with a woman’s body—a man’s
mind in a woman’s body. That is a very peculiar thing to be.”
Margaret Walker
She wills “wanderlust”
like serpentine,
the valley is the greatest
evil, broad-shouldered
but weak-limbed. You carry
two wash-buckets, you cover
your hair in white cloth.
Men will lead you
with the apple will claim you
both cruel and stupid.
Whose sight have you now?
Your father’s, your mothers’ was blind—
What is whispered away is returned,
again and again: you will fill your days with water
or your days will be filled with drought,
cries of a child, the silence in a bed and the page.
Addie Polk
In the wake of the Fannie May and Freddie Mac foreclosures, police attemptedto evict a 90-year-old woman from Akron, Ohio.  She survived the wounds after shooting herself twice.
there in a house, lying
in a white house, on the bed
of the 101 year-old white house,
the old woman lying in her own
dark blood with the tree fallen
in a wood—what does not make
a sound, what blast does not make
a sound, if no one was there to hear it:
here is Akron, Ohio, city of great
migration, rubber, methamphetamine,
what is owed to feed a hungry horse
that never tires of hunger, a country
of slick cycle, sick conveyor belt,
faster and faster
on the bed quilt-covered, a porcelain
prayer, a great oak frame,
and what cannot be tamed
is a hedonist’s genius:
all belly and boom,
all enterprise, progress,
all tumor and swell.
here is a letter from the evicted,
sealed to Fannie in blood
on the quilt-covered bed,
a broken deal.
Mélange [2]
They will break through the crest of water, blink away its red clay, and dive back down to the earth’s surface. In this place what hammers through the thick lake or Sisyphus, for what will be pebble, shale, bits of mud, a rock, a diamond once etched out of a million. There is a war I’d like to keep my limbs for. Under there, it is cold, he says, two hours breathing through a hose, and keep your eyes closed, combing the bed with my fingers to cup beads of rice or my legs caught beneath sound, tangled in the webbed rope and stuck without seeing what worth is my hand.

[1] In the biography Richard Wright: Daemonic Genius, Margaret Walker draws an analogy between Wright and Greek mythology’s Medusa in her description of Wright’s relationships with women.  Walker’s interpretation, inspired by Louise Bogan’s poem “Medusa,” suggests that “For Wright, a woman was an enemy” who always rejected Wright and who Wright would always reject (Walker 107).  “Medusa is a woman, and throughout Wright’s life she reappears.        [ . . . ] Medusa is also the woman in him, the capricious feminine self that was part of his acute sensitivity” (108).

[2] In parts of West Africa, particularly in Sierra Leone during the blood diamond wars, “diamond divers” will spend days and weeks on end diving into rivers and lakes in search of diamonds. These divers risk their lives each time they dive, sometimes drowning after getting tangled up in tubing that emits more carbon monoxide than oxygen. A single diamond might get them seven dollars in return.