Lived Experience

I am not feeling wise in my choice of poetic forms this year. Okay, do I ever feel particularly wise this early in the month? Maybe when I did tanka. That form felt made for me. And maybe with aruns, too, but that should probably go without saying. 🙂

But epistolary poems and me, not anything like a match made in heaven. I’m struggling with rhythm, with balance, with rhyme. I’m struggling with content, with placement of myself in the dynamic. I’m just struggling. Full stop.

And also, my childhood sounds so awful in these poems! Good lord. I mean, yes, all of these things were awful, but there was plenty of excellent stuff, too. Not tonight, though. Tonight, I’m writing again to 12-year-old me. And 12 was kind of a banner year of suck. As if the jeans fiasco wasn’t enough.

What They Called You
Twelve, Epithet #1

Does it even take two seconds to say it,
to spray it like hot tar over your skin.
You weren’t prepared — should you have been prepared?
How would you ever have been prepared?
I think about both moments —
in class with one boy, at summer camp with the other —
each boy spit it out so easily.
The word was there,
that word, so specific, so clear
so close to the surface.
Close enough, that they must have thought it often,
perhaps every time they saw you.

A white boy with no lived experience of Black folks,
what inspires him to let “nigger” fall out of his mouth?
When does he practice it?
When did he learn it?
How long has he had it in his back pocket, wating?
How many times does he part his lips, ready?
You wondered then. I’m still wondering.

You helped the first boy learn never to say it again,
at least not to you.
He surely still has the scars you gouged into his throat.
The second boy got off easy,
your (white) girlfriends harangued him.
One even wrote a taunting poem
(which you can still recite, by the way).

I know you were alone in those moments,
surrounded by white people
who couldn’t feel what you felt.
You hated the not-one-of-us-ness of it,
the way it made you gargantuan and microscopic.
Both, at once.

Today I wonder if either man remembers.
In his FB profile pic,
The first is a man you’d think would grow from the boy.
And it’s easy to imagine the word
just as familiar on his tongue.
The second has changed.
He has quite famously changed:
his career centers on anti-racism.
His work has been powerfully resonant.
Still, I wonder if he remembers that sunny summer morning,
using one simple word like a punch in the face.

You’ll remember.
And again, and again …
It won’t hurt. That power faded long before now.
It won’t hurt, but neither will it fade.

It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.


4 thoughts on “Lived Experience

      1. I know you are struggling with this form – and I, too, have trouble discerning “prose” and “poetry” but my inner voice feels your writing is siding more on the poetry side


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