Talking How We Talk: On Exploring the Poetic Plenitude of Black Life
Ali Black Considers the Shape of Voice, Theme, and Symbolism
I get serious whenever I go in the hood to teach poetry because I know it’s me sitting in those seats. I can play one of two roles when I’m teaching: I can either be the teacher the kids forget because my lesson was wack or I can be the one they remember because my lesson was exactly what they needed. Poetry can be a hard sale to Black kids who could care less about it. And yet, when I walk into a classroom my work is the only thing I have to connect with this so-called tough crowd.
The same thing happens if we’re talking about poetry with the Black adults around me. I’m talking about a specific kind of Black adult. I’m talking about the ones who couldn’t tell you who Amanda Gorman is even though it’s assumed she’s a household name. I’m not knocking us. I get it. I know that nine times out of ten some of us just didn’t watch the inauguration because we didn’t know it was on, it wasn’t on our mind, or we were at work.
But I’m always wondering why my work connects with these audiences. How is it that I can walk into the Dog Pound—a hood ass bar in Cleveland—and get asked by my niece to perform one of my poems? How is it that her ask is very “let-me-show-you-off” and the only thing she does to introduce me is say, “Watch. She got flow,” so all I can do is prove her right? In this setting, I don’t have a mic. I don’t have a stage. This ain’t a poetry crowd. And, ain’t nobody, besides my niece, even thinking about poetry! But, 15 seconds in, the bar is quiet and all eyes are on me. How is that?
Or, how is it that after performing one of my poems to a group of 10- to 18-year-old Black girls they voluntarily sign up to memorize it for a performance? What is it about my work that makes one of them—on separate occasions—continuously ask, “Ms. Ali, can you read me one of your poems?”I get serious whenever I go in the hood to teach poetry because I know it’s me sitting in those seats.
How is it that I publish my first book of poetry, sell it to a friend and then two weeks after reading the book he asks if I was talking about him in a poem where I write, “…one of the smartest niggas with us took off his ‘I Love Sharon Reed’ shirt and bounced as if he remembered his mother telling him to never ride four deep in a car…”? Why is it that my friend thinks I’m referring to him when I say, “one of the smartest niggas?” And, why does he think this poem—a poem written in my husband’s voice—was written by my husband?
What is it about my poetry and other Black poets such as Jericho Brown, Danez Smith and Khadijah Queen that resonates with Black folks?
For one, it’s voice—the mixture of diction, tone, speaker and writing style. In Brown’s poem “N’em” my students relate to the unknown speaker because they, too, have family members who have told them to, “say goodnight and not goodbye.” We have flavor when we talk—a certain kind of rhythm when we speak. There’s a richness to it. When that flavor and richness appear in our writing, it snatches the reader’s attention. This is the reason why my tenth grade student enthusiastically asks, “We can do that when we write?” after reading the first line in Smith’s “fall poem.” Smith writes, “the leaves done done their annual shimmy.” My student smiles when I respond, “Absolutely!”
In undergrad, when I was learning about voice, I was told by my white professors and white classmates that my poems carried a sad tone. They described my voice as painful. Twenty years later, the white classmates in my MFA program describe the speaker’s tone in my poem—about a five-month-old baby who was killed—as depressed. Meanwhile, my Black students describe the speaker’s tone as serious and reflective.
I remember when one of my white classmates asked me, “Why are your speakers always Black?” “Because I’m Black!” I told him. I choose Black mothers, brothers, fathers, wives, boys, girls, and so on as my speakers because I’ve spent years reading and studying white speakers. I want to read and write about speakers who look and sound like me. Plus, there’s no question who’s on my mind when I’m writing—it’s us. Black folks. And so, our choice of words and our speech cadence is ingrained in me. I never stray away from that when I’m writing.
In my book, If It Heals At All, I’m exploring Black life. I’m writing about love, death, joy, illness, family, victory, friendship, nightlife, the Black body and more. The messages throughout my book connect with Black people because the work is speaking to them. I can’t be concerned with white readers who say the themes in my work are “too heavy.” I’ve wiped clear the idea that poetry can only be enjoyable if you’re writing about themes that some consider to be light.
And it’s my use of symbolism—the do-rags, the cans of Pepsi, the catfish, the bullets, the bamboo earrings, the braids, the rivers, the skates, and the hoodies. These are all big nods towards blackness. I drench my poem “THE WOMEN IN MY FAMILY ALL CLEAN THE SAME” with references to the Black women who use “newspaper to wipe their glass tables” or who “scrub their toilets & tubs with flathead toothbrushes” because I want readers to know that the people in my poems are Black.
White people have called my work “accessible.” Sometimes I take issue with the word accessible because there’s subtext there that says my work is easy for Black people to understand, which can imply that Black people can’t understand poetry. I prefer to use the word “reliable” to describe my work. The work is honest. It’s trustworthy. It’s the reason why a 13-year-old Black girl says, “Ooh, you talkin’ about me in that poem!” She sees herself in the poem so therefore, she trusts it.
I’m unlearning everything I’ve been taught about craft. Or, I’m coming to it with a new perspective. When I’m teaching craft in public schools, I don’t even use the word craft. I teach my students about honesty and being observant as writers. I talk about using poetry as a way to get things off our chests. We all come to the classroom with stories and my goal is to teach them how to tell our stories. I don’t want them to learn how I learned. I don’t want them to think that when we say poetry it means reading or writing about things that don’t matter to us or that we can’t relate to.
I’m going to continue to write reliable poems. I need them. My students need them. My peers need them. My city—where 66 percent of residents are functionally illiterate—needs them. I have to be myself when I write. I have to get it right when I write. If I’m going to write a persona poem I can’t be changing things. I can’t make my speaker say isn’t if he said ain’t. I can’t be afraid to talk how we talk.