Made to Explode is out! I want to pause and celebrate that, even though I couldn't do what I would customarily do--fill a room with folks, several times over and within a 14-hour driving radius, for readings and hugs and pints and signings. March and April will bring a number of online, Zoom-based events (check out my schedule on the right-hand side of this blog), but I miss what tactile reality. Still, it is a gorgeous book and I'm grateful to W. W. Norton, my blurbers, and for those who have already reached out to say they are reading it. If you think you might want to teach the book and want guidelines, or even a virtual classroom visit, just reach out and let me know. The life of a poetry collection is long--this is the hardback, there will be a paperback incarnation, and there will be the chance for future conversations.
I aim for each of my collections to have a couple of craft conversations going on. Count the Waves was about iterative modes, and included six sestinas and a series in dialogue with "The Traveler's Vade Mecum." Made to Explode is the first collection where I've deeply engaged with the prose poem, particularly in a series of monument and memorial interrogations with the title "____, Midnight," meant to evoke visiting those places in the liminal nighttime hours. But it's also a collection that holds two Golden Shovels, and I wanted to write a bit about what that form's (relatively brief) history, its implications, and how it might advance into poetry's collective consciousness.
In 2010, Terrance Hayes published Lighthead, his third collection, which would go on to win the National Book Award. In the notes at the back, he spends the most time defining the pecha kucha, a mode based on the format of Japanese business presentations. But he also acknowledges that his poem "The Golden Shovel" "is, as the end words suggest, after Gwendolyn Brooks' 'We Real Cool.'" A few entries later, he notes, "'The Last Train to Africa' is after Elizabeth Alexander's poem 'Ladders.' Like the form used in 'The Golden Shovel,' the end words come from her poem." Hayes would later elaborate on the backstory, which involved asking his two children to memorize poems--one by Langston Hughes, the other by Gwendolyn Brooks--and, after becoming preoccupied with their nightly attempts at recitation, deciding to "string the whole poem down the page and write into it." Multiple drafts resulted, two of which made it into the collection.
"The Golden Shovel" would be a striking, classroom-friendly poem under any circumstances, because it showcases Hayes' gift for the heightened lyric vernacular, his disciplined and yet playful lineation (sometimes enjambing mid-word), and an ongoing thematic concern with the father figure. But something caught afire about this "nonce form"--a term I assign because it's invention that can be credited to a particular poet, in a particular moment, that may or may not carry forward. What fueled interest is both excitement for Hayes' work and shared reverence for the figure of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), an incredibly brilliant poet--the first Black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, the first Black woman to act as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. The opportunity to teach these two important voices in conversation helped move the form from the realm of "nonce" to "contemporary form," as multiple poets began engaging the mode at the same time.
The chief engineer of this initiative is Peter Kahn, himself a noted poet with an MFA from Fairfield University who, as a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths-University of London, founded the Spoken Word Education Training Programme. Kahn has taught in Chicago's high schools since 1994, and his investment in distilling and assigning the Golden Shovel to students seeded a cohort of young poets. He co-edited, with Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which came out in 2017 from the University of Arkansas Press. The anthology's intent, which Kahn described in an interview, was the place student work alongside that of more established poets, all of whom would constitute a "second generation" to Hayes' original experiment. Hayes' blessing, in the form of introducing the anthology, offers the clear dictate that "the 'Golden Shovel' form belongs to no one so much as Ms. Brooks. Peter Kahn, a citizen of Brooks' Chicago understands as much."
My contribution to the anthology is "Non-Commissioned: A Quartet," which uses the text of Brooks' opening in the "Gay Chaps at the Bar" series. Brooks' sonnet is a poem I have taught countless times, often in tandem with Gregory Orr's theory of the four temperaments. (In the original theory essay, considering the possibility of a poet who might perfectly balance story, structure, music, and imagination, Orr offers up the model of William Shakespeare; I'd counter with the model of Gwendolyn Brooks.) I won't try to unpack my own poem here, other than to say it's thinking about the experience of 20th-century soldiering; before appearing in the anthology, the poem won the 2015 C.P. Cavafy Poetry Prize from Poetry International, and now it appears in Made to Explode.
Brooks is one of my favorite poets, full stop. So it felt organic to spend the hours required to "write into" one of her poems. Yet I also became increasingly aware of the forms' challenges--if we break the full text of a sonnet into a series of end words, we are talking about a really long poem (~100 lines). I was not surprised, in looking through the anthology to see that most people opted for briefer excerpts of longer texts. This flexibility has resulted in contributions from amazing folks, more than might have taken part otherwise, and it is fun to see how they intersect based on the common choice of a Brooks poem: both Aracelis Girmay and Hailey Leithauser, for example, write into "The Anniad." Other poets taking on lines from "Gay Chaps at the Bar" include CM Burroughs, Laura Mullen, Christine Pugh, Danez Smith, and Lewis Turco (and, though he didn't make it into the anthology, Reginald Dwayne Betts).
Will the form survive into becoming not only a contemporary form, but a received one? I don't know. Should the form be prescribed as specifically a tribute to Brooks, that uses her poems exclusively? Even Hayes himself uses the form on an Elizabeth Alexander poem (though it should be noted that they're kindred spirits, and Alexander edited The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks). Can the "Golden Shovel" be relaxed into a form that uses any previously published poem, as the description in this Writer's Digest entry suggests? What about song lyrics? Does an author have any responsibility to pick up the concerns of the original text?
I felt compelled to work within the entirety of each Brooks poem in part because I wanted to guarantee any reader's immediate access to her poem's entire text. One of the things I love about this contemporary form is the title, which is actually a matter of relative coincidence: the "Golden Shovel," in the epigraph to the original Brooks poem, is the name of the pool hall where these seven youths gather. But as I've broken it down when explaining the form to students, the title contains somewhat paradoxical impulses: to make something "golden," a.k.a. to gild, but also to bury, e.g. the "shovel" at work. Because isn't even a celebratory occupation still a kind of colonizing? Am I truly writing "into," or am I writing over?
In this thinking, I'm guided by Solmaz Sharif's insightful later-wave meditation on erasure aesthetics, "The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure," which first appeared in Issue 28 (April 2013) of Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics. I'm also thinking about this as a white poet writing in tribute to and in (attempted) conversation with a poet held dear by the African-American community. "Non-Commissioned: A Quartet" is one of the oldest poems in Made to Explode. "Black Death Spectacle," which takes its name from Parker Bright's protest at the 2017 Whitney Biennial, is one of the last ones I completed as part of the manuscript. Parker wore a gray t-shirt on which he'd written that phrase, and stood between viewers and Dana Schutz's painting. The poem deals frankly and in a meta-mode with these issues, in part by applying the Golden Shovel to the entire text of Ms. Brooks' “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till."
I haven't known what to write in people's books, as I send out copies of Made to Explode, any more than we've known how to begin and end our emails to each other in these twelve months of the pandemic. "Stay safe"? "Hope to see you again"? But one thing I've been able to say is that I'm glad to be a poet now, in this time, because poetry is complicated and robust. And considering our emergent forms, and how they will (or won't) propagate is a big part of that. Neither of my Golden Shovels has been published, to date, anywhere online. With that in mind, I'll share them here. But I would ask that they only be taught in full dialogue with the Gwendolyn Brooks poems that shaped them. So I will include those texts, as well.
Gay Chaps at the Bar
...and guys I knew in the States, young officers, return from the front
crying and trembling. Gay chaps at the bar in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York...
—Lt. William Couch in the South Pacific
We knew how to order. Just the dash
Necessary. The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech. How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum. No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death. We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,
To holler down the lions in this air.
NON-COMMISSIONED: A QUARTET
A Golden Shovel
after Gwendolyn Brooks,
“Gay Chaps at the Bar.”
No one chose us. We
chose ourselves. What a man knew
in the concrete embrace of bunkers—how
or who—would never make it to
the foxhole. A sergeant catches the order
as it trickles down his just
commander’s leg. We hauled the
water. We led the dash.
We’re the vertebras necessary
so the skeleton can dance. We’re the
eighteen rounds in the length
of a minute; the fifty pounds of
an M1928 haversack. We’re the gayety
of five-card draw in
dead night, the muffled barter of good
smokes for bad booze. Privates taste
fear. A corporal will spit it out. Whether
a man remembers to thread the
diaper of his pack: the stuff of raillery,
except when it should
save your life. We chose to be
grenade men. There was no slightly.
There is no plum butter, no bread, no iced
tea, no lemon. There is a meat can, and
there may be meat in it. What’s given
to a boy as he trembles, as he turns green,
is the lesson of swim or
goddammitswim. You serve or are served
on a stretcher. Once home, belly up
to the bar and speak of the hot
dusks—how you aimed the mortar—and
remember us, who stayed in the jungles lush.
The difference between liver and
foie gras, we were taught, is in how we
hold a beast’s head before feeding. We knew
the throat lining to be beautifully
calloused, like a palm. We learned how
to load the gavage, to
simmer corn in fat to give
their flesh fat in return. They told us to
keep the men. We discarded women
after hatching and the
smell was foul, but so goes summer.
We could almost taste the spread,
rich in iron, surrendering to a tongue the
way an ice cube melts in the tropics.
Nothing was wasted and of
the lies they’ll tell, that’s the worst: that our
care was a form of waste. It was love.
Everything stings less when
shot with rye. We took time to
pin tin to each swollen breast, to persist
even when they hollered or
the cage held more than it could hold.
We stroked their throats and called it a
sign of hunger
if they swallowed. We took off
shoes that shone with their filth. We knew
their feathers would not stay white.
No one had to give that speech,
nor show us how
their eyes would glaze when ready to
slaughter. How can I make
you understand? This is not a
form of betrayal. Look.
In the field, the officer’s job is to make an
office: anything else is an empty omen.
If a mother cradles her son’s face and
praises how brave he is, how smart,
how nimble or athletic,
she is teaching him the language
of easy victory—ten points scored for
his team, the test aced, the prick of this
needle to which he did not weep. An hour
in the trench offered what was
a different dictionary. We do not
speak of smart, or brave, or honor in
battle. That’s for telegrams to the
parents, the posthumous curriculum.
Little sprinter, you have no
advantage in this marathon, no stout
legs to carry you to the finish line’s lesson.
Those soldiers who showed
grace with a bayonet understood how
the body must become a weapon to
be wielded; how every chat
is a conversation with
the self we want to save; how death
listens in, nodding. We
laughed at the lieutenants who brought
photos of sweethearts, because no
girl wants to kiss a mouth full of brass.
If the only volume is fortissimo,
it’s not music that’s playing. Among
every hour, what I recall is our
silences. Our greatest talents—
accomplishing with a look what to
a weaker man required a holler.
We raised them. We laid them down.
We learned faces but not the
names, and we left lording to the lions.
The roof of the house I lived in
had a chevron’s peak. I took in this
breath and then there was no other air.
[["Non-Commissioned: A Quartet" appears in Made to Explode, W. W. Norton, 2021]]
The Last Quatrain Of The Ballad Of Emmett Till
(after the murder,
after the burial)
Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.
BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE
A Golden Shovel
after Gwendolyn Brooks,
“The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.”
A man asks those viewing Open Casket what comes after
their shock, when from the
safe distance of cocktails the boy’s murder
becomes a matter of palette, of line and stroke, after
someone fumbles their way through the
—drowned? Was he drowned? Wasn’t the Chicago burial
a kind of show, they say, curated by Emmett’s
mother? The painter says, And I, too, am a mother.
Our tools seduce. Ask what the shovel is
burying. Know that the paintbrush sees only a
canvas: Make it yours. Make it pretty.
Carolyn Bryant is here and shit-faced
again and muttering that she couldn’t do a damn thing
to stop them, bacon burned, wheels off the
wagon, that if her husband had heard even a tint
of recanting he’d have slapped her silly. Of
course she’s here—moth pulled
to the flame, one kid jealous of another’s taffy.
Now that a white woman’s hands are all over this, she
wants in. Carolyn paces, paces, sits.
Ask the poet what gets colored in.
Ask the poet what gets colored in a
Ask the poet who sits in a red room, drinking.
Most oil painters will not use pure black.
They build their black instead, from shades of coffee
and navy. When she
leans toward the painting she almost kisses
the tacky surface. There. She adjusts the spot-lamp, her
skin catching the glow off what has been killed.
Emmett Till is a fourteen-year-old boy,
quick to laugh and
to help his mother with the laundry, and she
offers driving lessons if they go to Omaha. But he is
determined to be Mississippi-bound. Does he say sorry?
Does he promise, next time? Before the chaos,
he tucks a pack of bubblegum in
his pocket. She brings him home to the windy
city so thousands can file by in their best church grays.
At the Biennial, the man’s T-shirt challenges those passing through.
BLACK DEATH SPECTACLE. They murmur over the bloom of a
wound, seeing red without seeing red.
Question the shovel, he says, that’d till this prairie.
Just a reminder of the Golden Shovel form--reading the end words of each of my poems, above, will embody the full text of the Gwendolyn Brooks poem cited in the dedication line. Please do not replicate these texts except for educational purposes. ~SB