February 28, 2021

The Golden Shovel: On the Legacy of Ms. Brooks and the Future of the Form

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.

-Gwendolyn Brooks



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.


-Sandra Beasley

[["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.

-Gwendolyn Brooks



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.

-Sandra Beasley

[["Black Death Spectacle" appears in Made to Explode, W. W. Norton, 2021]]


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

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