Art You Engaged. / Are you engaged? is an emergency issue of The James Franco Review. Writers, editors, and artists around the country explored what it means for them to be politically or consciously engaged in their work and to also examine literature’s relationship to safety.
Even One Name Is Too Many
In Laura Tohe’s poem, “One Name Is Too Many”, the speaker is holding her son’s hand. They are standing in front of the Vietnam Memorial. He reads the names and asks, “What do these names mean?”
Here is the line that follows:
We can imagine her explanation was punctuated (read: punctured) with false starts and pauses. We can imagine her eyes and hands working together to help the slow unraveling of words needed to explain.
But how to explain?
We explain to our sons and daughters, to loved ones, to anyone who will listen. We try to explain the meaning of _________ and _________, often leaving behind more _________ than explanation. We explain to ourselves and it comes out sounding like _________.
When explanation turns to _________, I turn to literature. I turn to story telling and poems to make _________ felt. Inside the stanzas, (Italian for “rooms”) I can let my hair down and say outright how hard the explanations were. Maybe, in this hard way, literature can become part of our explanation.
Literature! The sideshow bill that reads: For the Voiceless and the Speechless: Enter Here!
“What do these names mean?” he asked
“Even one name is too many,” he said.
In May 2015, a #SayHerName protestor in San Francisco raised up a sign that said, “Rest in Power.”
Words were painted across her bare chest. The women protesting alongside her were also topless. Words like “love” and “fight” cascaded over the curves of their breasts. The women stood together on Market Street, stopping traffic. On the morning of the protest, the sky was Grey, the sky was Garner, the sky was Boyd, the sky was Moore.
Every morning, the names. Her name, and his name, and their name. Written across faces. Written across the sky.
There is nothing safe about being a writer. There is nothing safe about being an artist. Our art can only be as safe as we are, which is to say, never.
I think of Mary Prince, a West Indian slave born in Bermuda in 1788. She could not say words like oppression and subjugation when she published her life story in 1831, so she explained in other words:
“Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone.”
If we translate her experience into verse, we stand in her place, Brackish Pond, Bermuda:
so many hours.
feet and legs, dreadful boils,
to the very bone.
Reading and writing literature is always an act of dangerous translation – we are decoding words and experiences. When no direct translation is possible—we explain that this word or this experience is irrevocably untranslatable. Bear with me. Listen, but translate also. But even then, there is no safe explanation.
When I think about safety and danger in literature, I often think about Sharon Coleman’s poem “Pedro Point”, which breaks expectations in a way that leaves me breathless. Here are the ending lines:
homes grasp down the craggy hills
to the water almost
Reading the poem aloud, the cacophony forms a slow rhythm that trudges me forward into the last line. “Water” moves me faster until the line drops me unsuspectingly away. At “almost” I nearly fall over the cliff but my breath holds me back. How beautiful the way Coleman gets us to relive both the risks we take and our eagerness to hold on.
When I founded Poecology in 2011, I wanted to make room for more voices to speak non-traditionally about environment, nature, and place. One of our goals is to celebrate writers who are working with the boundaries of place and nature. For me, it’s important to keep working earnestly to find and create meaning at the edges of where we are.
And in recent years, there has been a wellspring of publications, conferences, and discussions about environmental literature. In this small corner, we’ve come a long way in a short span. But the publishing community still largely functions on a reject/accept paradigm that undermines more voices than it champions.
Poecology, for the time being, is no exception. As an editor, I feel a lot of pain when I click “Decline” and close a door on a writer’s voice. I am closing a door on relationships, experiences, and ideas. It’s crippling and it’s inaccurate: I am saying “No” outwardly with many “Yes’s” embedded within. The conversation is cut short; it doesn’t engage. Even one name, one story, or one poem stamped out is one too many.
Recently, I received an important response to a form rejection letter. In a kind email, the writer replied: ”Thanks! Next stop is self-publishing. DIY seems less ignoble than constant rejections. Oh well.”
I liked receiving such a plucky response. It made me hopeful for the writer’s resilience. But I know the hardness of rejections. For many, these rejections undermine the spirit behind the craft. When it comes down to it, submitting work is rarely safe or honorable. Of course, self-publishing is an option. But sometimes it’s the option writers choose when they are forced to strike out on their own, having been rejected by a community.
Among writers, the mantra of rejection is: “what does not kill us makes us stronger.” It’s a mantra held by too many for too long.
We become our own land sometimes,
no important nation, the hand on our door, the ship mast come
up over the flat ocean of dishwater.
The opening lines of Ada Limón’s poem, “High Water” unmasks the loneliness of the imagination. The poem tells the story of a woman who walks straight into a river and disappears, faintly reminiscent of the tale of La Llorona. Limón’s poem walks us through the life of rivers, dips us into floods and a sink full of dishes, and rises up with a missing woman and a song: Loo-rye, loo-rye, loo-rye, loo.
The poem explains _________. It explains that one life lost is too many. That one name is too many. But the poem, like all literature, also says: come in where it’s safe and not safe. Come in: seek safety or reject it. But whatever you do, come in.
Kristi Moos is a writer from the Central Valley of California. Her work appears in Crab Orchard Review, Denver Quarterly, Ecotone, Flyway, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment, New American Writing, Orion.org, Prairie Schooner, Terrain.org, and others. Winner of the Harold Taylor Prize from the Academy of American Poets and nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Kristi is currently finishing a first collection of poems. She is the recipient of fellowships for the Breadloaf Orion and Napa Valley Writers’ Conferences and was a finalist for the 2015 Writers@Work Fellowship. She serves as editor-in-chief of Poecology and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.