Orlando White: In 2005 when I was an undergraduate in creative writing I entered a poetry-residency contest. One of the competition’s rules was that the applicant must be of Native American descent. A couple months passed and I received two letters: one thanked me for submitting my poetry and congratulated me on making fourth place; the other was filled with comments by the final judge. The first paragraph quickly stated the poems are repetitive in style and form, the “line breaks, line lengths, word spacing” distract from the subject matter. But in the second and third paragraphs it mentions there is “no centralized theme” except in language itself, and continued to comment on its unfocused connections to “shapes of letters and punctuation—and bones or skeletons.” But the most interesting part of the evaluation was in the fourth paragraph, where the judge stated, “I would ask this writer to think about what is important to him as a Native person and to incorporate these values within the poetry.” When I read that sentence I thought: so I guess my poems don’t know what it means to be Native American? At the same time I also wondered why the judge hadn’t considered the “art of it” as having more leverage and importance. Her analysis, in my opinion, was that the “centralized theme” should have centered more around Native American viewpoints. In my mind, poetry doesn’t have to address subject matter directly, especially if one creates art and writing with some sort of vision that contributes to an exploration of imagination and language.
When I write a poem, notions of race as subject do not resonate in my mind. I am much more interested in language and the deep sense of immediacy. I am not saying I don’t think about race—I do—or have not experienced prejudice or racism—I have. I’m only saying when it comes to writing, my intuition and intellect prefers to explore the art of poetry instead. One can argue language is always connected to race and vice versa. But I find, despite other poets’ clever and innovative ways of using race in writing, my sensibilities are attuned to how a poet builds his or her poems rather than theme and race, as content, which can overwhelm the poem. As a reader and listener I am more mindful to hearing sound, understanding form, experiencing imagery, emotional intensity, and intellectual urgency within language.
When I think of well-constructed poetry I think of Santee Frazier’s Mangled poems from his book, Dark Thirty, is a series of poems following a protagonist named Mangled through various episodes of his life. Almost every one of the poems is in prose-block form, but one can still hear the sounds of the poetic line (which employ a few of Richard Hugo’s ideas on sound and word choice). As in many of his poems Frazier here explores the art of the sound of words rather than investing too much in their meanings. In an interview with Ann Mayhew at readingthroughcollege.com Frazier comments on how Mangled began as music first and only later developed into a character. This idea of transforming sound into being is interesting when we consider that the word “person” is formed from per- which means through or by means of and the root of “sound,” son. Mangled, the character, though fictional, he is cast “through sound” as a real per-son, as a circus performer who throws knives, who loves comic books and the heavy drink, whose face resembles a skillet, and who constantly finds himself involved in disparaging adventures and prolonged solitude. He is an embodiment of movement and rhythm discovered through line and language. And the only reference Frazier makes to Mangled’s skin tone is when he describes him as “bean-juice colored,” a phrase which acts as an anodyne interpretation of race. But when we read Frazier’s sentences first, rich in sound and rhythm, perhaps we can begin to see that poetic language could subvert and transcend readers’ expectations of race in poetry?