Tuesday Mar 28

HonoreeJeffers Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of three books of poetry, The Gospel of Barbecue (Kent State University Press, 2000), winner of the 1999 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize;  Outlandish Blues (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)  ; and Red Clay Suite (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), a winner of the Crab Orchard Open Competition and the Paterson Prize for Literary Excellence. She has received awards from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the MacDowell Colony, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in several journals, including African American Review, American Poetry Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Kenyon Review, Iowa Review and in over a dozen anthologies including Blues Poems (Random House/Everyman, 2003) and The Civil Rights Reader (University of Georgia, 2009). A fiction writer as well, she was included in “100 More Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories 2009 and she is the recipient of the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Fiction from the Sewanee Writers Conference. Honorée is a native southerner but now lives on the prairie where she is Associate Professor of English at the University of Oklahoma and teaches creative writing.

I won’t lie. I’ve seen Poetry that doesn’t matter. I’ve seen Poetry that doesn’t seem to be aware that an audience even exists, much less that an audience needs to be connected with. I’ve seen Poetry locked up in the House of Academy, with graham crackers and journals on the kitchen table, and a mama that tells it, “No, you can’t go out to play.”
But let me switch up here and say, I don’t want to talk about Poetry with a Big P. I want to talk about life. I want to talk about the world. I want to talk about necessity, not the necessary self-awareness—“Look at me, I’m pretty and I got rhythm, too!”—but rather, the necessary questions: “The poem is finished. It is written. It is read. What now?”
What now?
Because, after all, poetry is the product of poets and we are only human beings. We are not even exalted human beings, better than others who cannot write a poem. (Poor thangs.) We exist in a world in which we have to live, to paraphrase James Baldwin. I think sometimes we forget that. Certainly, I forget that, when I am posturing about this poet’s life I’ve chosen.  Though a workshop leader may tell you otherwise, the poem is not disconnected from the author—or the world. A poem doesn’t breathe on its own, though I would like to think that because that would take away my responsibility for my words in the world.
Like anyone, I have my favorite poets; most of them tend to be interested in what I am interested in, music and history and God. For this feature, however, I resisted the incestuous impulse. I wanted to collect a motley crew of poets, most of them brand new or emerging, except for a couple of exceptions, because sometimes, what makes me comfortable is the worst thing for me. (Like mashed potatoes with cream and butter and bacon fat gravy all over, for instance). And I wanted to choose poets who wrote across a range of aesthetics, to elicit some surprise. But these poets are joined by a large sense of how language can create a sense of urgency. A sense of  “Look now—be now—before it’s too late, you humans.” I must admit I like that very much.
The poem lives in a body, and that body is the poet. Whatever that poet is, so shall that poem be. I’m sure I’m not the first person to say those words, because they feel too familiar, though I would like to think I am. That words come from inside to join a profound outside that we all must exist in seems a simple concept, until I remember that if a poet does think poetry can matter, if a poet does connect with real people, if a poet does thinks that poetry can exist outside the Academy, then his or her poem will think and breathe and act accordingly. And dang, that’s kind of deep.