Yesterday, a group of my students had the nerve to pretend like they weren't afraid of Evie Shockley's poetry. Please. I've been reading Shockley's work for years now and teaching her volume the new black (2011) since it was released. I've met few beginning poetry scholars who didn't admit to just a little intimation when it comes to explaining Shockley's approaches in her more unconventionally designed writings.
But here we were in class with folks proclaiming their bravery in the face of Shockley's poetry. I was surprised and excited that we were moving in this new direction where poetry that had been previously viewed as challenging, seemed now to present no obstacle.
"So her poetry is easy, you say?" I asked some of those who had spoken up. "Cool. Let's hear your takes on what she does with design and the arrangement of words in 'mesostics from the american grammar book,' 'x marks the spot,' 'at the musee de l'homme,' and 'explosives.'" I waited to see who would volunteer to speak first.
Students began flipping through pages, looking at the poems mentioned, and then, I noticed the usual fears beginning to emerge when folks are called on to try to describe and explain what Shockley was up to with her placement of words well beyond the left margins like we've become accustomed to in most of the poems we read so far. It turns out I had misunderstood them.
What they had really said, they informed me, was that "some" of Shockley's poems were easier to explain than others, but they had not said "easy." And they certainly had not meant the poems where she "does things" with design. Beyond the design, one student noted too, that she had an easier time understanding Shockley than the "anger" and violence that she had witnessed in Tyehimba Jess's leadbelly, which we had previously read. Another student chimed in pointing out that she thought the different responses to Jess and Shockley were "gendered." (I'll take a closer look at the so-called "anger" of Jess's poetry in a future entry).
Building up comfort levels analyzing Shockley's approaches to design will serve as one mark our courage as we confront our fears dealing with challenging (or ambitiously playful) poetic practices.
• Who's Afraid of Black Women?
• A Notebook on the work of Evie Shockley