Tuesday, March 08, 2005

because today is international women's day. think about it. dont stop.

"Poetry is a Political Act":
An Interview with June Jordan
by Julie Quiroz

June Jordan’s career as a poet, writer, teacher, and activist started in the early 1960s and spans the globe. The author of twenty-five books, June has just completed her childhood memoir, Portrait of the Poet As a Little Black Girl (1999). She is currently Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she also directs Poetry for the People.

ColorLines: You have written that "poetry is not a shopping list, a casual disquisition on the colors of the sky, a soporific daydream, or bumpersticker sloganeering. Poetry is a political action." What is poetry to you?
June Jordan: Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. In the process of telling the truth about what you feel or what you see, each of us has to get in touch with himself or herself in a really deep, serious way. Our culture does not encourage us to undertake that attunement. Consequently, most of us really exist at the mercy of other people’s formulations of what’s important.
But if you’re in the difficult process of living as a poet, you’re constantly trying to make an attunement to yourself which no outside manipulation or propaganda can disturb. That makes you a sturdy, dependable voice—which others want to hear and respond to. So, poetry becomes a means for useful dialogue between people who are not only unknown, but mute to each other. It produces a dialogue among people that guards all of us against manipulation by our so-called leaders.
CL: How did you become a poet?
JJ: I became a poet because my father forced me to read and memorize and recite from Shakespeare’s plays, the Bible, and the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Edgar Allen Poe—all before I was five years old. This literature was completely incomprehensible to me, but I became immersed in the sounds of the language of these great writers. That, of course, was the hook that I seized in order to try and memorize this stuff so I could avoid getting beaten in the morning. The music of language became extremely important to me, and obvious to me. By the time I was seven I was writing myself. I was a poet.
CL: How did you become a political activist?
JJ: I was living in the public housing project in New York with my son when I met Evie Rich and her children at a playground. Evie lived across the street with her husband, Marvin Rich, who was the director of national CORE. CORE was committed to nonviolence, but I was not. But, based on my friendship with Evie as young mothers, I started going on freedom rides in 1966. The purpose of my first freedom ride was to try to desegregate the bus route from New York to Maryland. I said I’d go, but I didn’t say I’d be nonviolent.
We got to New Jersey someplace, and we went in to get a cup of coffee, and they wouldn’t serve us. We waited so long I fell asleep at the counter. The next thing I knew, this big white guy in a Marine uniform was waking me up and talking about I should get up and give him my seat. I just turned around and went "boom" with my elbow. We traded words and oh, it was a mess! People from our side came over to talk to me, and I thought, this nonviolence thing is not working for me. The rage I felt never left me. I kept thinking, if my son had done what I did, he would have been killed.
I decided from that point forward that I was "in," but "in" on my own terms. I remember listening to Dr. King on the radio saying "if any blood shall flow in the streets of Birmingham let it be our blood and not the blood of our white brothers and sisters." I really thought he had lost his mind. I think that was the first time it occurred to me that I had my own ideas. Dr. King was my hero. I just realized that I completely disagreed with him. I thought, "No way. It’s not gonna be our blood."
CL: What does it mean to be a black radical in 1998?
JJ: It means to educate myself incessantly about the world around me. We need to fathom the varieties of oppression that have made human beings suffer not only in this country but around the world, and to battle against the competition of miseries, to instead search for connections among peoples who have suffered from white supremacy or capitalist obsessions or unmitigated power.
I guess I’m saying that I don’t think of myself as a "black radical." Every one of us is becoming more precise about how we understand who we are. For example, I’m half Asian—my dad was half-Chinese and my mom was half-East Indian. I think it’s important for everyone, including so-called white people, to be more precise about who you are, to just be truthful and sane. This would help to mitigate against the dichotomizing demagoguery that has poisoned so much of radical politics here in the United States. Too many folks are unwilling to recognize that race is a social construct and that it was put together for certain reasons. That unwillingness continues to maim the ability of progressive people to come together without fighting each other.
CL: In your own work, which poems have been most transforming for you?
JJ: It’s difficult because every poem I write changes me, but I guess "Poem About My Rights." It specifies the struggle against apartheid, but it was about all kinds of stuff, not just South Africa. It documents a conceptual breakthrough that was also an emotional breakthrough for me. "Ghaflah," about my mother and her suicide, was also very important for me. "Poem About Commitment," which I wrote this past spring, was the first time I’ve said in a poem what I intend to do. It was a poem coming from my rage.
CL: Which of your poems have had the biggest public impact?
JJ: "Moving Toward Home," "Apology to the People of Lebanon," and then, way later, "Lebanon, Lebanon." I wrote those poems for myself, as a way of being a soldier here in this country. I didn’t know the poems would travel. I didn’t go to Lebanon until two years ago, but people told me that many Arabs had memorized these poems and translated them into Arabic. Haas M. Mroue [Lebanese American poet] has told me what it meant when he read the lines "I was born a black woman. Now I have become a Palestinian." This was unbelievably shocking to Arab peoples.
If I may, I’d like to say something about poetry. What’s important about poetry in the context of leadership is that most of the time, power has to do with dominance. But poetry is never about dominance. Poetry is powerful but it cannot even aspire to dominate anyone. It means making a connection. That’s what it means.

Poem about My Rights" (1980)

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can't
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can't do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin and
suppose it was not here in the city but down on the beach/
or far into the woods and I wanted to go
there by myself thinking about God/or thinking
about children or thinking about the world/all of it
disclosed by the stars and the silence:
I could not go and I could not think and I could not
stay there
as I need to be
alone because I can't do what I want to do with my own
body and
who in the hell set things up
like this
and in France they say if the guy penetrates
but does not ejaculate then he did not rape me
and if after stabbing him after screams if
after begging the bastard and if even after smashing
a hammer to his head if even after that if he
and his buddies fuck me after that
then I consented and there was
no rape because finally you understand finally
they fucked me over because I was wrong I was
wrong again to be me being me where I was/wrong
to be who I am
which is exactly like South Africa
penetrating into Namibia penetrating into
Angola and does that mean I mean how do you know if
Pretoria ejaculates what will the evidence look like the
proof of the monster jackboot ejaculation on Blackland
and if
after Namibia and if after Angola and if after Zimbabwe
and if after all of my kinsmen and women resist even to
self-immolation of the villages and if after that
we lose nevertheless what will the big boys say will they
claim my consent:
Do You Follow Me: We are the wrong people of
the wrong skin on the wrong continent and what
in the hell is everybody being reasonable about
and according to the Times this week
back in 1966 the C.I.A. decided that they had this problem
and the problem was a man named Nkrumah so they
killed him and before that it was Patrice Lumumba
and before that it was my father on the campus
of my Ivy League school and my father afraid
to walk into the cafeteria because he said he
was wrong the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong
gender identity and he was paying my tuition and
before that
it was my father saying I was wrong saying that
I should have been a boy because he wanted one/a
boy and that I should have been lighter skinned and
that I should have had straighter hair and that
I should not be so boy crazy but instead I should
just be one/a boy and before that
it was my mother pleading plastic surgery for
my nose and braces for my teeth and telling me
to let the books loose to let them loose in other
I am very familiar with the problems of the C.I.A.
and the problems of South Africa and the problems
of Exxon Corporation and the problems of white
America in general and the problems of the teachers
and the preachers and the F.B.I. and the social
workers and my particular Mom and Dad/I am very
familiar with the problems because the problems
turn out to be
I am the history of rape
I am the history of the rejection of who I am
I am the history of the terrorized incarceration of
my self
I am the history of battery assault and limitless
armies against whatever I want to do with my mind
and my body and my soul and
whether it's about walking out at night
or whether it's about the love that I feel or
whether it's about the sanctity of my vagina or
the sanctity of my national boundaries
or the sanctity of my leaders or the sanctity
of each and every desire
that I know from my personal and idiosyncratic
and disputably single and singular heart
I have been raped
cause I have been wrong the wrong sex the wrong age
the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the
wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic
the wrong sartorial I
I have been the meaning of rape
I have been the problem everyone seeks to
eliminate by forced
penetration with or without the evidence of slime and/
but let this be unmistakable this poem
is not consent I do not consent
to my mother to my father to the teachers to
the F.B.I. to South Africa to Bedford-Stuy
to Park Avenue to American Airlines to the hardon
idlers on the corners to the sneaky creeps in
I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name
My name is my own my own my own
and I can't tell you who the hell set things up like this
but I can tell you that from now on my resistance
my simple and daily and nightly self-determination
may very well cost you your life

- June Jordan


At 4:51 PM, Blogger oscar said...

that was wonderful!

thanks for sharing it with us.


Post a Comment

<< Home