I found out today (through my Facebook friend Laura Hartmark) that, yet again, a woman poet of African descent has passed on.
Ai identified as mulit-racial, a woman with Cheyenne, Choctaw, Chicasaw, Irish, Japansese, and African ancestors, but when I was a very young woman–a girl, really–I came upon her work and it was so important to me, as a budding black woman poet.
The anger, the rage, the craft, the beauty. I grabbed ahold to Ai’s poetry, and it kept me afloat emotionally and politically.
I remember meeting Ai one day, years ago at the AWP conference. It was back in the Spring of 2001. I had heard that she was supposed to be at the conference, and then, I heard that she wasn’t coming because of flight delays. I was walking down a path that crawled through the middle of the hotel (it was a strange place), when I recognized Ai.
I ran up to her, and said, “Oh, you are finally here! I’m so happy!” And she said to me, “Thanks a lot,” only not in a sweet way, but a sort of mean way.
I guess this is not the kind of story you should tell when somebody passes. You should try to find a really nice story to tell. But you know what? When I think about it, those few seconds that I interacted with Ai seemed familiar, considering her poetry. Her work was raw and relentless. It wasn’t nice kind of work, but it was necessary kind of work.
And in the moment when I discovered her, when I was just a girl back in the early 90s, raw and relentless was what I needed. I didn’t need nice, I needed angry. I needed to get my mind right because I was fighting to stay who I was. And if I had known how truly difficult things would be, even more difficult than I ever imagined, I don’t know that I would have kept going.
As the poet Sonia Sanchez told me, just a few weeks ago, you can’t always get what you need being quiet and polite. Ai wasn’t a woman who pandered to people in her poetry. Why should she pander in real life?
Now, in these days where many, many poets are pandering to the other poets, instead of trying to make friends with regular readers out there, through their own poetry–and criticizing readers as “dumb” instead of doing the hard work of staying smart but writing real, which is so hard to do–I wonder a lot about this world I’m in.
Money’s drying up, when there’s not much money to be had in the first place, and I am praying hard these quick, empty days, trying to figure out why God is taking all my pillars away, these black woman poets who didn’t even know I needed them, but who gave me so much anyway. These are the folks that stood around me, protecting me from the world.
I wonder what God is trying to tell us black poets who remain here on this earth. Every time an elder in the black writing community passes–and we black poets claimed Ai, even if she didn’t claim us–some of us say, “We have to fill their shoes.”
Are we doing that? Do we even know what those shoes look like, much less how to stand in them?
Today, I want you to ask yourself, how are you walking in the world as writer? Are you the same person on the page as you are in real life?
If you are black, are you the same person in a room full of “brothers and sisters” as you are in a cocktail party filled with white folks, and you are the only Negro in the room? Are you swallowing your tongue over insufferable verbal assaults because you want to make your paper–as I have done, and only stopped doing just a few years ago?
This morning, I woke up mad. You know how you have a really bad dream, and the fingers of that dream are still clutching you when you wake up? That’s how I felt just a few hours ago. I woke up mad and confused and crying. I was ready to fight somebody. Now, I guess I know why.
What is the universe trying to tell us, with our elders falling down around us? This morning, why wouldn’t my dream let me go?