Don't Write So Close To Me

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A while back, this old man came up to me in the post office and started a conversation with me, but after a few seconds, I realized it was a continuation of a previous conversation from the day before. Only, I wasn’t there for that conversation.

“Have we met?” I asked.

“Sure we have. You were in here just yesterday,” he said.

“No, it was too cold. I was at home,” I said. I looked at him over the top of my glasses.

“You sure?” he persisted, and pursed his lips. It was clear he thought I was trying to fool him.

“Pretty sure,” I said. I was being so patient because he wasn’t trying to flirt at all. He was nice old dude, a gentleman.

We went back and forth like that. This was a White man, but I’m used to nice old men of all colors—Black, White, you name it. I did a lot of growing up around old people in the South, so he didn’t bother me at all.

After a while, when I saw that he realized I wasn’t the lady he thought I was, I gave him my most radiant smile; I didn’t want him to feel embarrassed. And no, I did not think he was pulling that “all y’all Negroes look alike” routine. I thought he was old. The memory ain’t got the same snapback at his age.

Then he told me, I had a twin in town. She was a real nice lady, too,he said,  just like me. I asked was she cute; he laughed real loud and he went to the counter to get his stamps.  That was that.

I bet that “you’ve got a twin scenario” has happened to everybody, or at least three quarters of the world’s population. And if you’re a writer, while you hope and imagine that your work is completely original, sooner or later, you realize there really is no new subject. Not only are there no new subjects, there aren’t any new situations, or new feelings. There aren’t even any new people, as my encounter in the post office proved.

There are only new words to describe what has been described before. You have to be very careful to pick those new words and you have to arrange them in a new way. It’s my worst nightmare to think that one day, someone will pick up a book of mine and say, “Hey, that sentence [or stanza or whatever] is identical to something I read in a book by [insert writer’s name here].” Only, that collection of words had been published before mine. I think if that would ever happen while I am still alive I would stab myself. Or like, have people hold me down so I couldn’t stab myself.

But lately, I’ve been reading poems and stories and novels that resemble each other, sometimes in small, incidental ways and sometimes in large, disturbing and shocking ways, and although I wish I were confused, the answer is pretty obvious to me: there might be too many people out there who want to be professional writers, and originality is drying up.

Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

I’m not the first person to say this in private. I know this is supposed to be blasphemy for someone like me, a practicing, publishing writer who teaches creative writing and who writes letters of recommendation for students to go study creative writing. I also do readings of my work—or did, who knows what will happen in this bad economy now.

But the truth is, I worry that the profession of writing isn’t equipped to handle all those professional writers out there now. It’s not only the money, either. It’s a matter of logistics. Can there really be all those wildly talented people out there touched personally by the Hand of God?

As I heard a Black preacher say once about entering the ministry, “Some are called. Some are sent. And some are sent by they mamas.”

Right now, there might be a whole bunch of writers sitting up in graduate school or even teaching young writers who have been sent by their mamas.  I’m just saying.

That doesn’t mean that I think I’m the Grand Poobah who decides who’s really a writer and who isn’t. Or that I’m the only real writer out there, and everyone else is a faker. Nor do I think we should go around crushing the dreams of the young people that we teach, because you never know.

I read an excerpt from Robert Hayden’s Collected Prose, where he talked about a teacher telling him he would never be a poet. Because of how that teacher hurt his feelings, he vowed never to tell a student of his that he had no talent or that he would never be a poet. But what Hayden did tell his students is that poets are not made but born. I would assume that principal applies to novelists and memoirists as well.

Right now, though, because there is the possibility of making real money as a novelist through advances, or making a decent living teaching writing at a university as a poet (and collecting enough reading fees to buy you a couple of household appliances each year in readings), there are huge numbers of students entering creative writing programs so someone–other than God–can make them into writers, and they are borrowing serious amounts of dough to pay for it.

Because there are so many students in so many MFA programs, it’s time to question how many can access something truly special and unique in their talents, let alone hit the proverbial big time.  Add to that the tendency of some creative writing teachers to impose their own personal aesthetic tastes on students’ writing and you end up with a bunch of people who write about the same thing in much the same way, repeatedly.

Which brings me back to my original point. It’s not just the White folks who sound alike, ok? We Black folks can lie to ourselves about our dogged originality, but it’s just that: a lie.

I’m a Black poet and fiction writer, representing a generation of Black writers coming of age artistically in the early- to mid-nineties. My generation is the first large group of Black writers who were formally trained–not self-trained— to write about “Blackness” in ways that enabled us to publish in mainstream (read: White) journals and get our hustles on.

We Special Negroes learned how to write about aspects of Black culture—basketball, jazz, hair-pressing day, Holiness Pentecostal churches, Hip Hop, and the list goes on—in ways that were easily identifiable and non-threatening to White academic readers. The problem is that it’s really hard to be on your hustle and be original, too. It’s very possible, yes, but it’s stressful as hell. It requires more and more artistic innovation, and thus, finding a voice and sticking to it is called “laziness” in your craft.

We Special Negroes went to MFA programs where we were “the only ones” in each workshop class.  Many of us came out emotionally scarred by racism, cultural indifference, or ignorance of our culture. For example, every Black writer I know who’s been through an MFA program has been told by their White classmates and teachers that “you need a glossary” at the back of a story or poem. If you look in the back of all three of my books, you will find a notes sections.

Please don’t judge me. I just got tired of fighting The Publishing Man on that one.

After those traumatic experiences in MFA programs, so many of us thought we were going to change the White creative writing establishment; we were going to change the game and discover a way to make money as a Black writer but yet, not compromise in our cultural truths. We were going to be the ones, like Barack was going to change the world simply by his mere brown presence.

I got four words for you: Gulf Coast Oil Slick.

Instead, some of us colored folks are running out of ways to be original and please White readers at the same time, and thus, some of us are starting to sound alike, too. After all, now that everybody and their brother is attending an MFA program to learn how to write, instead of learning on his or her own, how special can we Special Negroes be anymore? And what is the solution to this issue?

Don’t look at me. I don’t have any solutions to this problem. I’m just putting my career on the line naming the problem in public. Somebody else is going to have to put her career on the line to propose a solution–in public, and not on the phone with her girlfriend. I ain’t calling no names, though.

Now that the economy is in trouble, and the money has stopped flowing like wine, it will be interesting to see how many of us still want to be writers through entering MFA programs. Perhaps then, some of these mamas will start to send for their children to come on back home. I just hope my mama don’t send for me.

5 thoughts on “Don't Write So Close To Me

  1. Honoree,

    You’re on to something here. I’m not sure it’s any different for lawyers, or doctors or janitors either. That is to say, why should there only be a few poets? Or better yet, that’s to say that while other professions that flood the market with young professionals – they have a means of weeding out the average from the talented – or at least the lazy from the driven. Poetry doesn’t have that as much. Or if it does, it doesn’t have it in a way that the judges are both people in the bubble and people outside the bubble.

    But I guess dealing with the creative carries an expectation of the original, and maybe also the expectation of numbering but a few. I think though, the larger problem isn’t the failing to be original, but the failing to say something that someone really cares about. In the post, you said that folks were sent to writing by their mamas – that may very well be true, but I’ve felt like, for a minute, that many poets (not so much novelists) don’t even care if their mamas read their work, let alone like it.

    Samantha Thornhill floored me with something she and some folks are doing in NY. They’re getting on trains seven deep and holding poetry readings guerilla style. Like, you want to ride this train, well you’re going to hear this poem. I think most of us shy away from that as writers, and maybe we want writing to resemble other professions where you can do your two years in school and get a license to teach, write, etc. Because to have that kind of assembly line takes out the challenge of art – the challenge of connecting with real people who may not care what a couplet is, but know when you say something that makes them want to hold someone close or ball up their fists.

    I don’t care that I’m not original. I’ll steal. In a heart beat. I’ll pick a poem out a book and read it to my woman again and again so that when I use the riff she recognizes where it comes from. (Unfortunately no one has yet said I look like James Brown begging with a doo rag on tied straight into the night – but we can’t have it all.) But, if I’ll steal, I hope at least that in my utter lack of originality, I say something worth saying.

    Maybe the truth that we aren’t really confronting – cause you can’t really criticize another black person’s writing, is that some of what we see as a lack of originality, is both that and a lack of chops. There are probably three or four black critical magazines out there and I can’t recall someone getting blasting in their the way Tony Hoagland just got shredded in the Poetry magazine. In fact, I can’t recall picking up a few magazines I won’t name without feeling like the poetry published wasn’t anything but a product of being on a LIST. And again, it doesn’t matter to me for real – but it just points out that the obsession with publishing hides the obsession we lack (some of us) and that’s the obsession to be hot in the streets. The same thing has happened to hip-hop. Back in the day a classic line was Redman saying “F billboard I’m a bullet on the block.” But now, just as in hip hop, our mentality is more “F the block I just got a (fill in prestigious award here).” The sad thing is that we could do both, and some of us do – but most of us don’t .

    I think the solution, a solution to this, is to figure out a way to make poetry matter to regular people again. Back in ’96 when CC was first jumping, I was a snotty nose kid who would have loved to be introduced to poetry by a Brian Gilmore, a Renegade. I would have loved to have met a fly ass woman who made me feel like words were a way to being cool. But, I think even then, the poetry was at least cloistered away from the spots where my folks were. And maybe that can’t be helped, but I wish it could.

    There was that article in Poetry magazine about poems and poets disappearing from the public sphere, about us becoming so specialized that in a real way we are irrelevant. Afterwards a few black writers bashed the guy, understandably pointing out the fact that this guy didn’t mention one black writer in the essay (okay he mentioned Baraka, but he then called him a quack), didn’t mention one latino writer, writer of color at all – and failed to recognize that these folks are writing political work. But then I thought, even if those criticisms are true, it’s also true that I’m far more political in my life than in my poems. In my life I am married to a black woman and have a son whose teeth I brush on a regular basis, who sees me wake up in the morning and knows that I can make him a mean bowl of oatmeal. Why those things are political has never been in my poems.

    Then too, as a speaker, as someone in the community – I’d never hit people with some of what I’ve written as if it mattered in a conversation. I just wouldn’t. I’m way more real in my real life than I am in poetry. I cried two weeks ago. That doesn’t happen in my poems, matter fact i can’t remember the last time I read a poem where a cat cried. Where someone was just like – my bills are so late that I could chase the moon instead of walking into this living room again, staring at my kids hungry. Or, someone captures that emotion where you’re getting tailgated and you are two seconds away from pulling a Mike Tyson and knocking someone out in a fit of road rage.

    I’m rambling, but my point is that we may sound the same because we still wear the mask, and when there were only a few special negroes the mask was original, because no one had seen the mask or the face. Now the mask is a little played out, and the skill is in showing your face with some style. Some of us already show our faces. I think you do, and I think you get down. But the truth is, some of us need to be disbarred.

    1. Bay-Bruh Dwayne:

      I don’t think you are rambling at all! The truth be told, I’m so glad someone else feels this way–and is courageous enough to say it in print! LOL I used to think–back in the day–that I was just too deep for folks who weren’t other poets–folks of whatever color, not just White folks or whoever is supposed to be in power. No, I thought I was too deep for EVERYBODY.:-) I thought that other people just didn’t have any emotional literacy (this is a phrase of my friend Cherise Pollard, who is deep to the nth degree). I thought that the poetry world was for “us” folks (of whatever color) who resided within a golden circle of feeling and understanding. Now, I am no longer that naive.:-) I know now that many poets don’t have emotional literacy either, and aren’t even trying to fake the funk. But that attitude that we poets reside in that golden circle that is off-limits to other people still prevails. And THAT–I think–is why very few people in the poetry world are trying to connect with real readers outside of academia. If we lie and tell ourselves that “they”–real folks–aren’t smart or deep or whatever else enough to understand us, then we won’t even try. I’ve stopped lying to myself. I know that it’s hard for me in this insulated world to get other people outside of that world to listen, but Lord Jesus, I want them to. I spent much of my formative years around my mother’s working class, country relatives, and they felt things just as deeply as anyone else. It’s just that, like anyone else, they hid those feelings because those feelings embarrassed them or those feelings were too painful. Or I should say WE felt things just as deeply as anyone else, because those are my people. I have to hope that if I say something worth listening to, they would feel me. But I do think that’s why I started writing fiction. There’s a greater chance of my book actually being in a bookstore if–when, Lord, WHEN!:-)–I finish the novel and it gets published.


      1. Honoree,

        When I was younger, I’d sit on the stoops with my boys and watch them sell drugs to whoever would cop. We’d all be sitting there for hours, trading stories and talking trash. But they’d be there, working to get someone high for some change.

        I just finished my thesis, and it’s sad, because I doubt any of my friends have heard a poem in it. Some days I wish I had the audacity and the ignorance of a nigga sell dope on the corner. At least they stand there, expecting someone to want to get high off of their supply. The only thing close, for me, in the literary world, are slam poets, are folks who ply their trade at open mics with small chapbooks that they sell for a dollar. I feel like I missed my boat too. Be so tired at night after giving the young one a bath and rapping with my wife, that I couldn’t imagine hitting an open mic. But I think I’m ill, you know. And it’s like – at some point we all have to stand up for what’s written with the same bravery and stupidity that leads a 13 year old to believe that a bag of white powder will lead them out of the hood, will lead them to some timberlands.

        I start writing because I hungered for something, and I’d send my bad poems to everyone in my family. I’d read them joints on prison rec yards. Now that I feel I have a gift, I leave that it on word documents on my mac. I send them out to journals, with editors both black and white, that let me know I’m not talking to them.

        One of these days…

        I took my mom to see Jitney for her birthday one year. It was her first play, and she loved it. The audience was there and the whole experience was one of my livest ever. I went to see Two Trains Running and felt the same way.

        One of these days I’ll memorize poems and breath them into the air as I walk down streets. I’ll start every thing I say with lines from a poem. End everything I say with the memory of me and a few friends freestyling in the rain, passing around a blunt as if it was a peace pipe, because we believed in our own words.

        One of these days I’ll be picking up your novel in Borders, wishing Karibu was still open.

  2. Steady, poets. Love one another and bring the truth and peace will come. I truly believe it. And, yes, have an eye outside the literary world to the people who inspired your poetry in the first place. I never want to forget standing around an open fire on a hillside with my cousins, roasting anything we could find, or slagging spindles in the cotton mill. My words would have a different rhythm without those places. Poetry should be everywhere–on the street corners, the stoops, on the sides of buildings, on paper bags at the grocery market. And don’t forget inside the ladies room at Neiman Marcus where some woman just looking for salvation. I believe we make opportunities for each other and what goes around will come.

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