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Eight months into the pandemic, we're trying to find a new use for this blank time, how we can make music of our being here inside, separated, but still together. But here is a fraught word these days.
COVID-19 is still here to stay, but hundreds of thousands of our loved ones aren't anymore. Many of us arrived here overnight, suddenly suffering from food, job, and housing insecurity. Some of our communities have been here surviving these very conditions for generations. So how do we learn to be present here, human and together, without looking away?
In April, when we first got here, Scalawag gathered three of the best poets living and writing in the South to answer that question for an audience of online listeners. Folks from around the country (Shouts to Puerto Rico!) tuned in for Scalawag's first Virtual Jubilee to hear prize-winning poets Taylor Johnson, Jericho Brown, and Alexis Pauline Gumbs read to us and stan for each other.
Learning how, as Taylor says, to make music of our being under the current pressures is a skill that requires play. Play is what we do in our homes, and our hoods, with those of us we feel most intimate with. Playing the instrument of our shared language, thanking the ancestors for being here before us, and welcoming our questions with grace, these three poets created a home for us out of thin air. Watch excerpts of their entrancing reading below.
Originally from DC but currently residing in New Orleans, Taylor is one of the best emerging poets in the game; and we've been publishing them since 2018. When we got Taylor's first submissions to Scalawag, our editors gushed over the tender intentionality with which Taylor approached existential observation.
The Black proletarianization of the bourgeois form isn't Kanye West's gospel samples
O, Death. Your singular eye. My mother speaks the King's English. Makes quiche. Makes clove pomanders in winter. Pawned her flute. Cleaned my elementary school classroom. What is hers? Brilliant song, my mother, sotto voce, in her chair asking for touch. It is drowning she means, not freedom. I swam fine. Don't you get it, O Death, my mother is elegant alive, entering the blue hole of evening, alone. You could reach into the frame, pull her out. O Death, I've been crueler—I've watched.
Read: Club 2718
Taylor Johnson understands the poet's job is the human's job. It is no longer enough to watch, we must witness. It is not enough to merely assent, we must testify. Sing. Testify. Witness. Praise. Johnson attends to even the most discrete mundane acts, reading a used book, listening to shared music, standing in the light, with poignant verse.
How we all felt on: "I sing and find it underlined by a beloved stranger. It's like turning the record over and knowing you're hearing what I'm hearing."
Johnson's debut collection, Inheritance, just came out. Order it now!
All Southerners come from a trauma. Some call it baggage, others tradition. But for American Book Award winner and poet Jericho Brown, religious, familial, and poetic traditions can become a place of shelter. The limber strength of Jericho's poems allows us to live and love within our messy traditions without always needing to resolve them. Indicting, forgiving, lamenting, spiting, and ultimately living alongside, his body of work is a powerful testament to what grace can bear.
Romans 12:1, from Brown's second book The New Testament.
If you're Black in America, if you are born in this region, the most sordid myth may be that of home, but Jericho builds one with his new poetic form—the duplex. Despite its name and couplets, this form refuses to be buckled into any binary. Sonnet frame, ghazal remodel with a blues decor at its interior, the duplex carves out a space for our ironies, our weeping and woes, and dervish beauty.
What I love most about the duplex is its sustainability, the way it is able to adapt lines and repurpose them. That's a Black practice, a Southern practice, a conjure practice of calling upon past lines for renewed strength and meaning. Jericho's newest book The Tradition was a finalist for the National Book Award and features this new form. It can be ordered here.
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Scalawag's love for Alexis is pretty much unparalleled. We've written several reviews of her work and continue to use her insight and experimentation as a touchstone for radical Southern imagination. Rooted and generous, her engagements with Black feminist query led her to write a thick poetic triptych—Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, M Archive: After the End of the World, and her latest Dub: Finding Ceremony. Each book is a "dangerous investigation of what our lives depend on," as she wrote in the introductory note to Dub, for the sake of helping us arrive at a greater kinship. Alexis carried that same practice over to Wednesday night's reading, asking us to bring all our rich and lush relationalities into communion.
"What I wanted to do was a triptych oracle. I'm interested in the questions that are with you at this time… I want the place where your intuition meets the work that I'm bringing through to be the place that I get to be in with you tonight.
Attendees on last week's call wrote their vulnerable and honest questions into the chat along with a number. Alexis then used that number to decide which poems from her books to read as oracular responses to those questions.
To the question what are these parables for?
"There were spaces we made in our palate to preserve what preserved us, be it blood, water, waste…"
"What she knew was that if the body could gather enough salt, it could stay."
We were floored at how these poems could resonate above the static of the moment and deliver such insightful truths.
Resonance means "the reinforcement of sound by reflection or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object." It was the exact word to describe our connection during our first Virtual Jubilee. We've always been neighboring objects, whether physically or virtually. In this time of waiting and wringing, over 100 people on a Zoom call inhabited a collective space of shared synchrony and reflection.
And perhaps we became music.