I got an issue of Poets & Writers in the mail yesterday. I enjoyed what I read, but it was not inspiring at all. It was realistic. It was honest about the uphill battle it is to get a book seen. I know the work of this all too well. But this letter is not about books, this is about voice and the love and armor you will need to have yours heard.
When I think about being a writer in 2015, being a writer with a Black woman’s voice—as Lucille Clifton said, “I am a black woman poet…and I sound like one.”—with no agent, no powerful mentor opening doors, no financial support, no salary, no benefits, then I realize that this really is a crazy path.
Deciding to be a writer was beautiful. Writing is beautiful. Deciding that my concerns, dreams, hopes, and voice are valid, and committing myself to putting my visions on paper has been a deeply healing experience. This work connects me to people I have never set my eyes on. However, being a writer in a country that does not support art and writing from the heart of my Black woman mama mouth is a struggle that sometimes leaves me speechless. (But the point is to exhaust me/us beyond words, isn’t it? So I rest up and speak on.) Beloved, this landscape is actually more treacherous now than when I started nineteen years ago. I don’t say this to discourage you, I say this because you need to know that you are embarking on the path of most resistance; if you plan to walk it, you need to study and you need to endure.
Listen, there is all sort of color in academic conferences and departments now. Much of that writing is non-threatening and status quo. It’s the type of work that could have come from 18th-century nowhere. It’s work that no one in our communities or families could wrap around cold shoulders or grasp onto in desperate moments or even nod at in faint recognition. That, we are constantly being told, is poetry. That exsanguinated verse. But you and I both know poetry can be soulful, grounded, gravity-defying and irrepressible. If your poems walk picket lines, work in soup kitchens, gather dandelion leaves, sweat, jump rope, wear stilettos, shout, give birth, watch the phases of the moon, or know that it is appropriate to put flowers in the ocean on New Year’s Eve and pour liquor on the earth before anyone living takes a sip, then supposedly they are not poems. Supposedly, you missed the memo on craft, and your poems will be returned to sender. Save your postage. Honor your time.
Tap your Cimarron blood, tap the defiant DNA that gives your hair such good posture. Find a community of poets dedicated to writing and walking and being liberation. Study Hughes, Baldwin, Walker, Hurston, Shange, Baraka, Hayden, Dumas, Bandele, Johnson, Girmay, Moore, Rux, Hammad, Clifton, Rich, Boyce-Taylor, Medina, Madhubuti, Brooks, Forche, Ya Salaam, Rojas, Rivera, Knight, Esteves, Kaliba, Simmons, Kaufman, Sanchez, Finney, Betts, Espada, & Perdomo. This is your work and there are so many more to study; you will find them as you make your way. Read, write, edit and find a way—let the poems find their way—get those words read and heard. Find someone unbought to publish your stuff. Be really brave and publish the work yourself, but don’t stop there. Publish the poets around you who stand on the frontlines and refuse to bow down. Publish those mamas bringing their babies to readings, those poets whose works are in anthologies that they read in the food stamp office, those lettered poets who can’t make the rent, those poets with a day job who organize free workshops and salons, those poets who never lose their accents, the ones cast off in a spoken word ghetto because they actually dare to connect with an audience. Publish all of them, who are all of us, who fight this fight because we are determined to keep the doors open for the next generation, and because we would go crazy without our tongues, without our pens braiding the strands of our thoughts into some type of beauty. Not pressing our voices flat. Flat to that white rageless whisper. Not doing that and paying a heavy price.
And so it is.
For the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell and it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
- James Baldwin
It was good to receive your letter. I’m glad you were able to use some of my advice on editing. Remember that I can give you suggestions, but you will soon start to find your own rhythm. You asked me so many thoughtful questions; I’ll start with the one about what it means to be a writer.
I think being a writer means being a person. Being human. Humane. Being engaged. Being open. Curious. Caring. Being able to listen and look deeply. Being an artist means being connected with truth and speaking the truth as it reveals itself to you. Being an artist means that your heart will break, and it will be your work to mend it again and again.
You are right that my art is one form of my activism. This is because I have been the beneficiary of carefully chosen words delivered with love. Words delivered with love by Alex Haley and Malcolm X cause me to look in the mirror one day and stop frowning at my own face. I understood the history of my nose, mouth, and skin and suddenly, I was proud. Can you imagine? Those same words helped me to revel in the thicket of my hair, stop being ashamed, and I understood then, in a way I had not before, the power of the word. This is called “Nommo” by the Dogon. I attempt to wield my words as wisely as I would any sharp tool. It’s the job of the writer to do this.
Here is a story for you. A friend and I were talking about faith and natural healing. We were talking about the plants and prayer and our elders and all the wisdom they had that we needed to tap back into. My friend asked me if I’d ever heard of “talking the fire out.” I said I hadn’t. She went on to explain to me that her mother was able to use words—prayerful, intention, words—to make a person’s burn stop stinging and that was called “talking the fire out.” Now this is not fiction. So I said, “wow” because what else do you say to something like that? I remembered wishing I had the ability to “talk the fire out” too, but now I realize that in a way, I do. I realize that many times when I put my pen to paper it is an attempt to write the fire out. It’s an attempt to write the pain, the stinging of some wound or another. So when I decided to be a writer I decided my work would serve this purpose. When my work is not celebrating something, it is bearing witness to pain and the process of the healing which is a celebration of another kind. This is the celebration of resilience and the writing is—no matter how painful the subject matter—a shout of joy at still being here.
Consider that when you create art, you have medicine in your hands. Consider that you can pull people together for just reasons. What is just? I’d say it is what does not oppress or dismiss the humanity of anyone. What is just is compassionate and of love. I mean real love, which is not always romantic or beautiful. I mean the type of love that wakes up at 4 a.m. to work and provide a better life for a family, the love we saw at marches during the ‘60s, real love that does laundry, brushes hair, tills the soil, plants trees, chains itself to pipelines. Hard love. Difficult conversations and the willingness to sit down at the table and have them. Our writing can be all of that: the conversation, the table and the willingness. When I talk about art and activism, I am talking about love.
And so, even with all of your pointed questions about editing, knowing when a poem is done, and what to do to become a better writer, I ask you to remember that the life you live is art. Sit with yourself and ask why you want to be a writer. Determine what purpose you want your words to serve in the world.
Please send me your answer.
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