A few weeks ago a friend sent me Hilton Als' latest article in The New Yorker - a profile on U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith - along with the subject line "thought of you" as my only preview of what was to come. I speak fairly often with my friend, poet and professor Raina J. Leon, about our various writing goals and accomplishments. She is one of the few people who knows that my biggest goal for 2018 has been solidifying my unique "voice" as a writer. It's a goal that will continue into 2019, I'm sure, and evolve over time as my voice changes with my life experiences. But, as an emerging poet it's always at the top of my list to hammer out at least the basic tenets of my creative style. So, I was immediately curious what the essay might tell me about Als' impression of Ms. Smith and her formidable voice.
If I'm being for real for real, though, I clearly wasn't curious enough because it took me waaaayyy too long to carve out time to actually read the article. Y'all.
In my defense, y'all know I have been working on my priorities and time management as another goal for the rest of 2018 into 2019. I've said before that I don't feel like I'm reading nearly enough or as widely as I want to be though my problem has more to do with my lack of a schedule than anything else. Trying to do better with that, I've started using my laundry duties on Sunday mornings as one opportunity to catch up on my reading during the wash/dry cycles. It's making a difference!
Anyway, when I finally scrolled back to her email from early October and clicked on the link, I was thrown at first to figure out what could have made my friend think of me. My writing has some aspects of physicality, in its descriptions of food and detailing the impact of chronic illness on my psyche, but Als' focus seemed to be on the way Smith invokes desire and the sensual onto the Black woman's body. Physical, yes. But in a very different way. I wouldn't exactly consider my work sensual or focused on the body. I kept reading anyway.
Like most poets, I greatly admire Smith's work; and her second book especially, Duende, has been recommended to me several times by those who recognize my experimental leanings. I could learn much, I've been told, from her ability to craft a new poetics with her use of musicality and politicism with language and voice. I began to see the connection Raina may have made, when Als mentioned Smith's ties to another influential poet before her, Ntozake Shange. The New Yorker having published this critique on October 1st, Ms. Shange had not yet transitioned. Of course, by the time I got around to reading the article that was no longer the case and I'd just finished re-reading Shange's most famous work, For Colored Girls..., along with her newest collection of poetry, Wild Beauty, as my own private homegoing service for the icon.
So, I immediately knew where he was going when Hilton Als asserted that Tracy K. Smith's poem “'Serenade' evokes a passage in Ntozake Shange’s 1975 'choreopoem.'" He was talking about my Lady in Blue. I was raised in the Bronx. I've been shaped by that borough and it's blending of Black and Latinx cultures. So, I have always identified most with the early vignette from the Lady in Blue as she waxes poetic about sneaking into a Latin club in the Bronx and dancing as if it were "proof of origin" and she were "jibarita herself that nite/ & the next day."
I have walked Southern Boulevard many-a-Saturday-afternoon and celebrated along with every Dominican on the block (though she was Afro-Cuban) the installation of a mural dedicated to Celia Cruz in the local "high-class" McDonald's on the corner - if someone can find a picture anywhere on these internets, PLEASE help a sister out! I have shouted out lyrics to Marc Anthony's cover of Aguanile in the hair salon, thinking it was the original, until some kind Boriquas set me straight on the history of Willie Colon & Hector Lavoe's classic song. I have mourned the loss of Celia's mural when our bougie McDonald's lost its shine and eventually shut down, taking the queen of Salsa along with it. And, I have done all this as a proud "African-American" Black girl invested just as much in honoring murals for the late Biggie Smalls, Aaliyah, & Tupac Shakur as for Lisa Lopes & Big Pun.
Ntozake Shange's lady in blue helped validate my connection to mambo, bomba, merengue, and of course, salsa during times when I doubted my right to speak on those topics. Times that haven't fully gone away. And, there lies the crux of my issues with voice. The child of two parents who are direct products of the Great Migration, every facet of my being - my body - seems drawn and quartered in different directions toward a history I'm not always sure I have a right to claim. As I continued to read The New Yorker piece on Tracy's upbringing, I could see how she too makes offerings of reassurance in this regard. It was a joy to see Hilton make mention of Tracy's introspection into her "twin selves."
My father's people are from Northern Mississippi and my mother's from North and South Carolina Geechee territory, but I am a product of Chicago and the Bronx. I write about each of these legacies because I'm stubborn, spoiled, and I refuse to be told no ... but, secretly, internally, I am always petrified that my voice is that of a fraud. Not authentic enough. Is it a lie to call myself a Geechee girl? What do I know about the Mississippi Delta? Or Chi-Town, for that matter, when I was only born there and left at four years old? Do I need permission to write in Spanish? I'm not even in the Bronx anymore - has living in Atlanta for ten years softened my gully?
These are the questions that wrack me even as I am confident that embracing them will unlock the strongest parts of my writing. I often say that my work is an exercise in contradiction and equivocation. I am both poet and playwright. Visual artist and fiction writer. Essayist and performance artist. And, hopefully, always an activist for change. I attended a workshop earlier this year and the instructor, Jericho Brown, pointed out that my poems are a challenge and a joy to read because I invoke so many voices into a single work. So many speakers all at once. Having no formal training in poetry, I didn't realize I was doing this, but upon further reflection I love it! I was glad he encouraged me to refine those voices rather than abandon them.
Duality and multiplicity are central to both my writing and my visual art - which focuses on the idea of past selves vs future selves within Black womanhood. The largess that is created by such lack of traditional boundaries across time and space are what always intrigue me the most. So, when Als referenced Smith's poem "Interrogative" and her examination of pre-birth Tracy "afloat, akimbo, awake, or at rest", my mind immediately jumped to one of her other forebears mentioned earlier, Lucille Clifton. I have adored Clifton's "My Poem," especially the fifth breakout, since it was first introduced to me as an example of expansiveness without sacrificing subtlety.
Clifton goes from the external, to the interior pre-birth self, to the self, to the mother figure, to the grandmother figure, to the ancestral, and ultimately to a Black Power invocation of Afrikan identity and retribution. It's downright ungodly the way the woman channels literally ALL. OF. THE. VOICES. And, it's why I refuse to give up my many voices, even if I am still working to make sure they are coherent, considerate of my readers, and uniquely my own. After all, I greatly admire Tracy, Ntozake, and Lucille along with countless other Black women poets and writers. But, if I am to forge my own career, I also cannot BE them. I must be inherently Constance. Sometimes the magnitude of that work to etch out my own space among such greatness leaves me feeling as if I should follow a more traditional, narrative route, but I could no more chop off a limb on my own body. Reading this essay has helped me to see that a little bit more. Which is why I'm so glad my friend "thought of me."