Historical Persona Poetry and the Challenge of Authority

This month, I am pleased to introduce guest blogger, Kwoya Fagin Maples, author of the new poetry collection, Mend, which I just pre-ordered on Amazon. You should, too! 

Historical persona poetry is poetry written in the voice of someone or something else other than the writer. It is unique in that the voice recalls a particular history. The scenes and situations may be imagined by the writer, but they are based on real people and events.

In Turn Me Loose: the Unghosting of Medgar Evers, Frank X Walker writes in the voice of Medgar Evers’ murderer, (Byron De La Beckwith), De La Beckwith’s wife, Medgar Ever’s wife and even the bullet that killed Medgar Evers. In Brutal Imagination, a poetry collection by Cornelius Eady, Eady writes in the voice of an imagined black man who was created by Susan Smith to cover up the murder of her own children. In this case, Eady uses an imaginary person/character who never existed to reveal the real story of Susan Smith, and to highlight the injustice and effects of the accusation. More recently, Jeanie Thompson explores the rich life of Helen Keller in The Myth of Water.  I could list others, but these books were my chief companions for my own collection of historical persona poetry.

My own collection, Mend, tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. It is based on a case of medical experimentation that occurred in Mt. Meigs, Alabama, between 1845 and 1849. I didn’t set out to write such a collection. I was simply intensely stunned by the story when I encountered it. More than anything, the lack of information and records about the women is what compelled me to write about them. The first poem I wrote for Mend came in the voice of a traditional “speaker” of a poem. It was suitably titled “The Door,” and later, my editor chose it to be the prefatory poem for the book.

Doubt was my loudest enemy the entire time I wrote this collection, particularly because it was historical persona poetry. I wasn’t writing in my own voice. I was trying to imagine the experience of people who existed in a different time and circumstance than myself.  I couldn’t help asking, who was I to write this story? Did my blackness and my gender alone authorize me to tell it? The answer I gave myself was no. After writing “The Door,” I stopped writing and conducted research. It was a year before I would begin writing poems again. I poured through hundreds of slave narratives and read several books surrounding the case, including Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid, which related several cases of medical experimentation conducted on people of color in the United States. Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other unnamed women of Mt. Meigs were not alone. I found that medical experimentation was commonly practiced by doctors and slave holders. In her book, Washington uses the term “medical plantations,” arguing that what yielded for these doctors (instead of a traditional crop) was advancement and wealth in their respective fields. (The poem I wrote in direct response to this idea is “What Yields,” an eleven-sectioned sonnet corona.)

After spending so much time in research, when the poems came again for the book, they came in the voices of the women themselves. I still had doubt to fight—at every turn— but the unfairness of the story and it needing to be told pushed me forward. Some poems I wrote came in scenes that surprised me— tender scenes of catching lightning bugs and nursing newborns. There were also poems where the women pointedly held the doctor accountable and criticized his actions. Ultimately, the poems don’t just reveal the devastation of what happened to the women. I wanted to explore who they were as humans, and it became my purpose to display an array of human emotion. We are all complex beings.

Ultimately, I made a decision, not about who I was as a writer, but about who these women were to me. They were my elders. They wanted to tell me a story to remember. Like my own family members who make me still my body and listen, they called for my attention.  I made an effort to give it.

Mend is available for purchase at all major book sellers including Amazon. To purchase directly from the University Press of Kentucky, click here: bit.ly/MaplesMend.

Kwoya Fagin

KWOYA FAGIN MAPLES is a writer from Charleston, S.C. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama and is a graduate Cave Canem Fellow. In addition to a chapbook publication by Finishing Line Press entitled Something of Yours(2010) her work is published in several journals and anthologies including Blackbird Literary Journal, Obsidian, Berkeley Poetry Review, The African-American Review, Pluck!, Cave Canem Anthology XIII, The Southern Women’s Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. Her most recent poetry collection, Mend, was finalist for the AWP Prize and is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky. Edited by Lisa Williams, Mend tells the story of the birth of gynecology and the role black enslaved women played in that process. This work received a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

Maples teaches creative writing and directs a three-dimensional poetry exhibit which features poetry and visual art including original paintings, photography, installations and film.

 

 

 

 

On “Crack Jenny’s Teacup” By Kate Garrett

When I came across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” on Talk Like a Pirate Day many years ago, a course was set that would reach its destination in a poem of the same name, and finally a chapbook named after a line in said poem. The phrase means, quite simply, to visit a brothel, and it got me thinking—pirates and sex workers in historical and fantasy fiction are often united in the popular imagination. Even the ever-family-oriented Disney have always included a few in their Pirates of the Caribbean films. Historically, it’s accurate—I realize this, not only in stumbling across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” but because famous female pirate Anne Bonny, it is said, was close friends with a bisexual man who also happened to be a brothel owner.

Learning about Anne Bonny’s friend led me round another spiral of thought: the many examples of queerness and empowered women in the world of historical pirates. (I was already pirate-obsessed, but more reasons to adore them are always welcome.) Anne Bonny’s crewmate Mary Read lived parts of her life as Mark Read, with male pronouns, and was equally happy being Mary with female pronouns. As well as being genderfluid, Mary was possibly also bisexual, and I know of at least one history book written entirely about gay male pirates. Buccaneer Jacquotte Delahaye also lived as a man for a time. After Jacquotte came “back from the dead,” a woman again, she refused to marry or have a relationship at all, because she didn’t think any power balance in that situation would be fair to either partner, and she was more concerned with providing for her disabled brother (which is why she was a pirate in the first place). Empowered women, ahoy.

With all of this in mind, my first port of call was thinking of a way to reclaim the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup.” I mean, it sounds rough, crude, a bit disrespectful—all the things you’d expect from nautical slang regarding this popular shore leave activity, really. But what if the pirate visiting was also a woman? And what if the two women, both outsiders by profession in a very ‘masculine’ world, were actually in love, in a committed relationship, so bringing a further layer of separation between themselves and the men around them, and between the human beings and the jobs? After all, we speak of so many people in history as if they were only their title or profession: kings, queens, knights, cowboys, outlaws, highwaymen – pirates. I wanted to find the people behind the stereotypes this time, even if in this poem they are fictional. And the people I found were two women completely dedicated to each other.

It would’ve been all too easy to make the sex worker an observed character, to have given the speaking power to the woman in the traditionally masculine job, so I made her the narrator instead of her pirate lover. Both women stand up to the “final customer” of the evening: the speaker “shoos” him away, and when he starts to get lippy through familiarity with the speaker, her girlfriend shoots him a look and he leaves. And when, in the wee hours, our narrator is off duty, she and her lover can spend a rare night together while the latter’s ship is docked. Behind closed doors and underneath her sailor’s clothing, our lady pirate loosens “her hair and her smile,” and there is another side to her, which our narrator adores just as much as the dashing rogue: “I love her when she’s soft, or when she’s hard.”

When I started reading this poem at events, I was surprised to discover it chokes me up, and I have to read it through tears–particularly the last stanza: “now she wakes: deadly, delicate” and “but I lose her each time / to breeches, boots, and ship.” I’ve never been a pirate or a sex worker. The characters in this poem are fictional, but I can feel the narrator’s sadness as she remembers the inevitable separation from her girlfriend, because that’s something any person who’s ever loved another can understand. Pirates might be thieves, even murderers, and certainly they were terrors at sea, but that’s just it—they lived their life at sea. If any of them did have a loved one, they would be away from them for long periods of time as much as any Royal Navy sailor. And why would a pirate not have a loved one? They’re still people. Even Blackbeard had a wife.

“Crack Jenny’s Teacup” was first published at Melancholy Hyperbole, and is included in Kate’s tiny chapbook of historical pirate poems Deadly, Delicate.

Kate Garrett

Kate Garrett’s poetry has been widely published in online and print journals, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and longlisted for a 2016 Saboteur Award (in pamphlet form). However, while her poetry is busy doing stuff, Kate bums around reading books and hanging out with her husband, children, and cat in Sheffield, England. (Okay, okay, she also edits at Three Drops from a Cauldron / Three Drops Press, and Picaroon Poetry.)  Stalk her on Twitter (@mskateybelle), Instagram (also @mskateybelle), and Facebook (facebook.com/kategarrettwrites).

Featured Image: http://lesluv.deviantart.com/art/Anne-Bonny-Black-Sails-437042617

Wading into the Sea Change –by James H. Duncan

I sometimes contemplate whether or not it was wrong of me to think, upon discovering I had cancer, “I don’t want to be a cancer poet.” Please understand I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a poet exploring that experience, especially when it’s their experience, but there’s a fear of being boxed in that comes with writing about this new life. There’s a worry that this disease will overwhelm the creative desires and processes and narrow the vision.

I’ve made an effort to write about as broad a life as possible, but fighting against the sea change was a losing cause, as cancer will eat away at your existence in constant, subtle (and not so subtle) ways, just as it will your body. As such, I began noticing the details of this new life coming to the fore and calling for attention. So I gave it, and I found that writing about those details, rather than the overwhelming fears that came with this harrowing journey, comforting, rewarding even.

One of the details I noticed, repeatedly and quite hauntingly, was the empty waiting room. This limbo territory I found in doctors’ offices, hospitals, and labs became a fascination. Sometimes, they weren’t empty, but even the small groups, couples, or individuals felt remote from one another—separate tribes wandering a strange land, quiet and wary of what came next. When empty, the rooms were still littered with the detritus of those who came before and moved on, and for all we knew, may never return. How many people have read that Time or Elle? How many children that Highlights magazine? Who else has tapped on the tank of lethargic fish gurgling out an existence in the window overlooking Madison and 53rd Street? The song playing overhead from dusty speakers embedded into drop-ceilings, who else heard that muffled tune and didn’t realize that maybe it was the last song they’d ever hear?

Details like these made the experience not one of being “a cancer patient” but of being a human working through a homogenous system of rooms and regulations, of dulled grays and beiges meant to comfort but somehow dehumanizing the movement from healthy to dead, or at least being lost somewhere in between. I suppose it does circle back to some of the great fears we have, the core human emotions—loneliness and the uncertainty of what lies behind that final door. It’s something we can only know for sure once we’ve walked through it, our final appointment with the last grim doctor any of us will ever see.

Out of this experience came the poem, “Last Appointment of the Day,” which appeared in Kleft Jaw #4 and is slated to appear in my upcoming chapbook We Are All Terminal But This Exit Is Mine. I hope you enjoy the poem, or at least, can relate to it. Then again, perhaps it’s for the better if you can’t and never will. If only.

For the audio version, click here or below.

Last Appointment of the Day

across the table where picture books and
children’s magazines wait for small hands,
across the green carpet where plastic cars
and wooden jigsaw puzzles lie patiently

for children who may never return

there is a fish tank, the saddest looking pit
of gloom ever, dark as a thunderhead
in tornado alley, listless fish waiting
on death, floating nowhere in the murk

there’s a scream in my mind but there’s
no sound, like a horror film on mute,
internal and forever, and all these
empty chairs surrounding me

the receptionist calls out my name
so I get up and go inside while music plays
from somewhere overhead
as they shut the door behind me

James Duncan

James H Duncan is the editor of Hobo Camp Review, a former editor with Writer’s Digest, and is the author of What Lies In Wait, Berlin, Dead City Jazz, and other collections of poetry and short fiction. His work has appeared in American Artist, Up The Staircase, 3:AM Magazine, Boned, and Poetry Salzburg Review, among other journals. He resides in upstate New York. For more visit www.jameshduncan.com.

Photo Credit: the dark door by adamy on deviantart
http://pezcame.com/ZGFyayBkb29y/

Cozy in Your Cage –by Mathew Pereda

“ego” (more on the lowercase in a moment) draws on insecurities I felt in my relationship at the time that I wrote this poem. More specifically, it addresses themes of jealousy and control in relationships. While we were together, my partner was in love/infatuated/in limerence with a (for all intents and purposes) straight man. It was something that put a strain on our relationship and troubled me (and him) for a very long time.

About two months before we decided to separate (we are still very good friends, by the way) I wrote this poem. As I usually do, when I’m going through writer’s block, I used a prompt. I can’t remember if I found the prompt online or used a random word generator—at any rate, these are the words I got: salmon, aluminum, concord, can, cage, ballast, and pry. It’s interesting to see how well they all worked together.

In the first line, the speaker says, “I decide to keep you.” Immediately, we see the speaker exercise his control; he is the one who “decides.” He goes on: “in a can, to have you / all sealed up on my shelf / like pink salmon—.” The speaker wants this person for himself and goes so far as to objectify him with the salmon analogy to prove his point.

In the next few lines, the speaker justifies this possessiveness: “your soft meat swimming / in itself, safe from any bears.” The speaker calls the subject (who we can presume is his partner) “soft,” and for this reason is protecting him from outside threats (“bears”). While this could be interpreted as purely an act of love, the next lines reveal another motivation: “and all / those other men out there, / cozy in your little aluminum cage.” The speaker doesn’t care about the threat of bears; he is motivated by jealousy. “[All] those other men out there” are the real threat; and not necessarily a threat to the subject, but to the speaker and his possibly small ego (hence the lowercased “ego” title). The speaker acknowledges his possessiveness by calling the “can” a “cage.” The subject is likened to a prisoner, but the speaker insists the partner is “cozy” and compliant with this situation.

Here is where the poem shifts, and we get more information about the speaker’s psyche: “cozy in your little aluminum cage, / you this little thing / I ballast myself against.” He both objectifies the subject and acknowledges his role in keeping him balanced. He realizes/remembers how much he relies on him. Still objectifying, the speaker addresses his partner’s (or maybe his own) perceived shortcomings: “this thing / too small to pour myself into fully.” He wants to give himself over to the subject entirely, but there just isn’t enough room for him.

Recognizing his faults, the speaker attempts to release his partner from the prison he’s made for him: “cutting my fingers trying to pry you / open again—the sweet / concord of my hand bones breaking, the love-sound / of my tearing flesh.” Here, in the last third of the poem, the speaker romanticizes his actions. It’s as if he were valiantly sacrificing so much of his well-being to set his partner free, even though it’s his jealousy that leads him to confine the partner in the first place. He’s cutting his fingers; his bones breaking make a “sweet” harmony; he even describes the sound of his flesh tearing as a “love-sound.” From the imprisonment to the release attempt, the speaker believes his actions come from a place of love.

For the audio version, click here or below.

ego

I decide to keep you
in a can, to have you
all sealed up on my shelf
like pink salmon—
your soft meat swimming
in itself, safe
from any bears and all
those other men out there,
cozy in your little aluminum cage,
you this little thing
I ballast myself against, this thing
too small to pour myself into fully,
cutting my fingers
trying to pry you
open again—the sweet
concord of my hand bones
breaking, the love-sound
of my tearing flesh

“ego” was originally published in Mesmer: A Journal of Poetry and Drawing

mathew-pereda-pic

Mathew Pereda’s hobbies do not include fishing, hunting, bird watching, pearl diving, fortune telling, matter splitting, coin collecting, or jigsaw puzzles (he’ll never like those) though he does love the word “jigsaw.” He loves words, in general. Read more of Mathew’s words at Outrageous Fortune, Microfiction Monday, Sweet, and MockingHeart Review.

Featured Image: Jar (Sketchless Phorography)

Shut the Front Door! –by Rachel Nix

This week, we hear from guest-blogger, Rachel Nix, who discusses her haunting poem, “This House”! Enjoy…

Shanti and I met last November when I nudged her to go with me to see Andrea Gibson perform in Birmingham. Well, that’s when we met in the normal sense. I poem-stalked her much earlier after we were published in the same issue of Bop Dead City a while back and got to know her a bit online. If you’ve read her work, you know she doesn’t really sound like other writers. She seems to draw inspiration from places most of us would never think to look.

That’s the interesting thing about poetry: ideas are everywhere, even when you’re locked in a nasty spell of writer’s block, which is where I was prior to taking part in NaPoWriMo 2015. If you’re not familiar with how National Poetry Writing Month works, you attempt to write a poem every day for the month of April. There are various prompts circulated online to assist in drawing out these poems. One prompt grabbed me immediately: the word swing. I made myself write about the first thought that came to mind when I saw the prompt words. Brains are weird, and I’m probably too Southern for my own good. I thought of a screen door swinging shut—the creak the old hinges make and how it can jar the daylights out of a quiet room. I’m also very demented; let’s get that out there.

My poem, “This House,” basically has to do with a woman, likely a wee bit ill-tempered (and probably rightly so, because you just don’t argue with a southern woman’s temper), who gets rattled by the way her husband enters their house. Who knows what the rascal has done beyond daring to come home, but his entrance is enough to make her wonder if she’d rather be haunted by the guilt of his demise than to look at him another day.

I’m not married. I doubt anyone’s gonna ask now. It’s cool.

Originally published in Rust + Moth, Spring 2016

For the audio version, click here or below.

This House

The screen door
swings open.

She jumps–
off her guard;

on edge
all evening.

This house
has no ghosts.

Husband’s home.
She eyes him

coldly,
wondering:

how much
he’ll haunt her.

oldbridge

Rachel Nix is a native of Northwest Alabama, where pine trees outnumber people – as they ought to. She is the Poetry Editor at cahoodaloodaling and can be followed at @rachelnix_poet on Twitter or on her poorly kept blog: chasingthegrey.com

Featured Image at top: The Farm, 1958.
“Grandmother looking out screen door.”
William Gedney Photographs and Writings
Duke University David M. Rubinstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gedney_TF0015/