Once I was:
lone brown spot
in a garden
of upright stems
what do you have to say
let your dry lips open
let cocoa powder
rain onto our desks
they stared at me
for six days
as if I were a peach pit
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Once I was:
Life! Ay, what is it? E’en a moment spun
From cycles of eternity. And yet,
What wrestling ’mid the fever and the fret
Of tangled purposes and hopes undone!
What affluence of love! What vict’ries won
In agonies of silence, ere trust met
There are, I think, two very different dynamics involved in the making of a poet. One is learning that you already know everything you need about writing before you even begin. The other is an extended reading of the literature, to understand what has been done, why, and what its implications might be.
The first sounds easy, but is in fact the harder of the two tasks. Many starting writers never solve the problem at all, which means that they’re destined to fail. The difficulty is what happens in that instant between the moment before you even begin and the moment once you’ve begun, into which is inserted every vague notion you may have about what writing is, how it is done, who does it, and every conceivable fantasy you might harbor about being a poet or a novelist. Before you begin, the blank page or screen is in front of you, absolutely free of any irrevocable marks, literally virgin territory. Once you begin, however, you instantaneously discover yourself burdened with
One never grows weary of The Weary Blues. Langston Hughes’s first book, published by Knopf in 1926, is one of the high points of modernism and of what has come to be called the Harlem Renaissance—that flowering of African American literature and culture in the public’s consciousness. Really an extension of the New Negro movement that began toward the start of the twentieth century, international as much as based in New York, the Harlem Renaissance represented different things to different people: to “race men” like W. E. B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, the black cultural ferment found from the teens to the nineteen twenties and beyond provided an opportunity to prove in culture things sometimes denied black folks in society—namely, their humanity.
For a younger generation of black artists like Hughes, their humanity proved self-evident. What’s more, the freedom of expression they sought and Hughes insisted on in his 1926 manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
One evening, after my course on Asian North American literature, I struck up a conversation with two students. One of them asked what else I was teaching that term, and I responded that I was teaching contemporary poetry. This produced quite a divergent response:
“I would never take that class.”
“I would love to take that class!”
“No way. I hate poetry.”
“What’s wrong with poetry?”
“I don’t know. It doesn’t interest me. It’s just too difficult. I feel like I can’t get a handle on it. It’s harder to get what you need out of it.”
“Really? I think it’s easier. There’s so many things you can talk about—tone, structure, imagery, style...What, are you interested in plot?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Teachers of poetry will no doubt find this argument familiar. In Asian American literature, however, the student who dismissed poetry enjoys the backing of professional Asian American literary critics. Like my poetry-loathing student, Asian