It is the end of November 2014. I send a lengthy email to my Poetry Writing 1 students; in it, I apologize—not for having been arrested, but for canceling class on a scheduled day of presentations. With an earnestness I reserve for assigning projects, I tell them to think seriously about what the university’s administration has called “the unrest.” I tell them to listen. I tell them, There is within all of it a desire to love each other and to be loved in this country, this world, which is expressed as a very vivid disappointment. I have trouble formulating thoughts lately. I exist between exhaustion and anxiety about the privilege of being exhausted. To my students—most of whom have known nothing but the privilege to not be exhausted—I want to give something tangible. A struggle, maybe, a bruised rib, a hard thirst. But I type love and disappointment.
It is February 2015. Snow, ice, and negative degrees-Celsius have hedged up the protests throughout Saint Louis. I won’t have edited a full issue of poetry in response to the Black present in time for Black History Month; I don’t want to. In a message, I typed We still live in America. That was December. We still will in March, April, May, so on. Lately I confuse refusal and failure, the productivity of both. If I solicit poems about people of color being systematically murdered and erased in the U.S. and abroad, I will have shown you that we are mourning, that we can’t / won’t / don’t stop. My back will still be a snarl. My mind will still flip the word “depression” like a business card over and over. We will still need those poems. I want to ask how I should go about healing. Are these closeable wounds? Is recovery also a privilege? Is even the diurnal attempt to recover revolutionary? I have a Black body, a Black life. What in this world will show me how to properly care for them? What of the rasp of making space for I when we already can barely move?
It is May. I have somehow pieced together (myself and) this issue of eight young poets whose voices I revere and in whose work I recognize the friction of pushing through the hostile environment of this supremacist nation-state a body and life continually made an abject object, and going beyond: toward love, toward the incredible optimism that is caring for a Black/Brown self/other in the spaces in which their destruction is engineered and promoted. It is incredible, and it is what it is, every day. It is nearly June, and women of color—who have not once left the front lines of liberation movements, who are those lines—have to remind us to care about them. There are more than bullets punching holes in us. I have to tell myself to shut up and listen. I have to remind myself—and some of you—that there is no one kind of protest or one kind of poem to counter the multifaceted attacks of a racist/sexist power structure. There is no one time. I thank these poets for reminding me and for helping me to grow.
The speakers of Cam Awkward-Rich’s conversational poems generously invite me through bodies with hallways and buildings with teeth to seek (again) beauty in the violent, thorn-walled margins of their nostalgia, and, with their timeless urge toward a Black and queer future, I pass that invitation to you.
With insistence and urgency near breathlessness, Jacqui Germain then opens chest-raking inquiries into the politics of interracial desire, the nature of betrayal, the requisites for self-forgiveness, and what it is to see and be seen.
Following these hauntings, Rickey Laurentiis turns a critical eye on the self during intimacy—how it is compromised by the body, declared and revised by that pronoun “I”, simultaneously hoping for wholeness and inviting fracture—meanwhile invoking the pivotal work of Michel Foucault, Nicki Minaj, Leo Bersani, and Beyoncé.
Commanding the imagistic momentum of epics, the poems of Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes offer entrancing surrealism and encapsulating breadth of vision as her speakers’ lived mythologies compel me toward concrete questions of fate, devotion, and the price of grace.
t’ai freedom ford, further troubling grace, elevates the Shakespearean sonnet form to an efficient site of interrogation and inventory of archetypes in the American mythos of race, and the effect is an anthemic hobbling of casual self-identification.
When you arrive at Aziza Barnes’ poem, you should have made room: her speaker wrestles failure in innumerable arrangements, facing off against racial and sexual stereotypes, gender ideals, the body as autonomous fact, and fidelity—particularly to oneself. Barnes’ authority, candor, and vulnerability fasten like both shadow and light.
Amber Atiya blurs so well the communal and the personal that it becomes difficult to not feel both inhabited by and embraced within these poems. Evoking agape—that unconditional and most-extoled love—and then trailing it through an ode to the City, Atiya’s speakers ask to be known and likewise pray to be made unfamiliar.
At last, Christopher Soto commits to an exhaustive and cathartic list of answers to a question for which there may be none (and yet their persistence is true, I think, to the spirit of this issue) while offering glimpses of a too-often effaced narrative of life-affirming, queer Latin@ love.
This is about our lives. This is still about throwing off a system that profits from dehumanizing people of color. These poems would exist and move and, as primary function or side-gig, attempt to decenter the project of whiteness wherever they were read if not here. Sometimes, the fight is saying I am here and you are here and I care about us. Sometimes, it is necessary to make a daily routine of this. These are poems not just for this moment for every moment that we breathe into. These poets assert—with their work and their lives—that we are, and we will continue to be.
Justin Phillip Reed is the author of the chapbook, A History of Flamboyance (YesYes Books, Fall 2015). His poems appear / are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, joINT., Vinyl, The Offing, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Saint Louis, where he is the Jr. Writer-in-Residence in Poetry at Washington University.