Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel: “the suckling”

Earlier this summer I reviewed the new multimedia memoir by Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, a bold retrospective of his 66-year career as an author, political artist, and graphic designer. This month I’d like to share one of his poems that was not included in this collection. It displays his characteristic immediacy, darkness and tenderness commingled in a moment that slips away almost before you grasp it.

the suckling

they say
breast milk
contains toxins
of every aspect
of plant and/or any animal
ever consumed

and multiplied
by toxins of every thing
multiplied by
and so forth

and if any attempt
were made to market
milk of breasts
across state lines
that product would be denied

they say
for lack of touch
any one of us might die
of want

so for want of touch
i want to draw you
unto my breast
without reserve
and suckle you
until i die

Revealing Self: Tom Taylor/The Poet Spiel’s Multimedia Memoir

Visual artist Tom Taylor, a/k/a The Poet Spiel, is a creator of varied personae, with a 66-year career spanning genres from graphic design to mixed-media collage and installation art, poetry, and now memoir. His new book, Revealing Self in Pictures and Words, is an impressionistic retrospective of his personal journey and the dramatic shifts in his style and materials over the decades.

Boldly colored reproductions of his artwork are interspersed with vignettes, aphorisms, dreamlike or nightmarish memories, and previously published poems reformatted as prose paragraphs. These written sections are set off in quotation marks, like tantalizing snippets of an overheard conversation, and formatted in a multi-hued script that creates the impression of an artist’s journal. (This font was admittedly a challenge to read in large amounts, but the necessity of slowing down may have helped me absorb more of the meaning.) Instead of traditional narrative transitions, third-person summaries of the action, in a more businesslike sans-serif font, serve as occasional signposts to situate the samples of his creative work within the chronology of his life and travels.

And what a life: Born in 1941, Spiel was a maverick from the start. He grew up on a Colorado farm on the Great Plains, a repressive environment for a gay artistic boy with migraines and manic-depressive tendencies. The early pages of his book speak candidly, in intense and hallucinatory flashbacks seared with humor, about the burden of his mother’s mental illness and her violation of his intimate boundaries. His bond with animals and nature kept his soul alive, a connection he would later channel into successful commercial posters and landscape paintings of wildlife, inspired by his travels in Zambia. In the 1990s his work took a surreal and expressionist turn, protesting social conformity and war. His life as a gay man in America has given him an outsider perspective on the hypocrisy of conventional mores, and a rage against the stifling of his authentic life force. These themes show up in his raw, satirical, unpretentious poems. Revealing Self invites the reader to experience Rimbaud’s maxim that “A Poet makes himself a visionary through a long, boundless, and systematized disorganization of all the senses.”

Spiel has kindly permitted me to reprint this poem, first published in his chapbook Human (Pudding House Press, 2003).

Poetry by Rick Lupert: “I Meet Alexa”

Rick Lupert is the founder of the venerable online literary community Poetry Super Highway, and the author of 22 poetry collections, ranging from lyrical midrash on Jewish sacred texts to humorous travelogues. His new book, Beautiful Mistakes (Rothco Press, 2018), falls in the latter category, featuring work inspired by recent travels in the Pacific Northwest.

In this poem, he muses on those popular voice-activated Amazon Echo robots and the strange way they’ve insinuated themselves into our lives. My husband has installed at least five Alexas throughout the house and home office, on the pretext that “it’ll help our child learn to talk.” Currently, Shane uses them to play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” several times a day. Meanwhile, I often catch myself, in the car or a hotel room, about to ask the empty air, “Alexa, what’s the weather today?” Whatever happened to looking out the window?

I Meet Alexa
by Rick Lupert

Every room here has an Alexa Dot for the talking to.
I spend the early part of our discourse with the
expected mundanities – Alexa, where is the fitness
room? Alexa, what temperature will it be here tomorrow?
But it quickly moves into my obvious insecurities.
Alexa, do you think this shirt is okay? Alexa, we’re
your favorite guests who’ve ever stayed in this room,
right? And then a little weird – Alexa, show me pictures
of your family…Alexa, do they ever let you spend time
off with the Alexas in the other rooms? Alexa, what
can I do to be your favorite? I’m willing to do anything.

Two Poems from Nancy Louise Lewis’ “Girl Flying Kite”

Nancy Louise Lewis is a retired journalist and college professor, and the founder of Legalities, Inc., a nonprofit that helps low-income litigants afford access to the court system. Her self-published debut poetry collection, Girl Flying Kite (2018), came across my desk via Winning Writers subscriber news, thanks to her diligent publicist at Author Marketing Ideas.

The subjects of this visionary, God-haunted book could not be further from the innocent quotidian scene suggested by the title. In fact, the title itself is our first clue to the menace and mystery Lewis finds beneath the surface of daily life, as it refers to a child victim of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the shadow of her last playful moments forever burned into the wall. Other poems draw inspiration from the author’s Appalachian childhood, stories of father-daughter incest, and enigmatic encounters with a divinity whose presence we can neither completely discount nor rely on. Lewis is most at home in the liminal space between belief and doubt, like the constantly eroding and re-forming shoreline of the ocean that appears in many of these works.

Lewis’ distinctive voice and ambitious metaphysical questioning are evidence that great talent exists outside the gatekeeping of traditional publishing. There were a couple of areas in which the book might have benefited from an outside editor. At times it felt overly lengthy and repetitive, and lacked a clear narrative movement or structural progression. A few poems were a little too enigmatic for me, but that’s true of a lot of work that comes out of university presses, too! Overall, this collection showed a maturity of thought that is unusual in a first book of poems. Read the mesmerizing selections below and see for yourself.

Moon

Like my mother’s eye,
its diameter is extreme, haunting—a certain
breadth that denotes coldness. And in its light

pollen and rabbits appear everywhere.
When I was ten, I looked out the window
and said to God, “If you are there

let a rabbit appear,” and one did.
But you can’t put any credence
in it. She just looked at me

and said, “Get the celery dish
out of the sideboard.” So many
things, you know, just dispel

rumor of the most awful kind as
remnants of humanity loom about
looking for reward…

I never expected it,
never asked for it. It was simply
the bag of grain given me at my birth.

Meanwhile, all expands toward a semblance
of what I thought. One yearns
to be the same no matter what

perspective one takes, disregarding
the angle of forethought
that looped one to it

in the first place. A boomerang!
I’d gone out on the rift
hoping for the barest glimmer

to open closed minds, a nectar of the
purest sort. But
there was never a hint

of a precept to follow, and I sensed
it was falsity. No matter where
one wanders, there is the odor

of permanence, the look of
a winking eye. And how
to end seepage? How

to look the thing straight
in the eye and say
it’s only geometry?

****

Ever Easter

The moon charts a course one can
believe in, a form
which offers hope
that an escape hatch exists: a hole
into some other universe of
knowing one merely intuits,
but senses bodily almost. I mean
to say that
if any circle can beckon one
with its promise of release,
then this full moon
is no less than
the epitome of guarantee: a resurrection
just out of sight
one can rely on every bit as certainly
as the curt edges
confronting one at this juncture.
But if reason
prolonged belief interminably, would
a requirement be this surfeit? Why
question? Why the mind’s constant
foreplay
when fulfillment is unobtainable, at least
here, now? Why torment oneself
with the tease that the unseen is
immutable, irrefutable,
when proof to the contrary is ever
present? Take, for instance
the way the tides humble
themselves
to its bidding,
forsaking a permanence of aspect
for this
ebb and flow,
putting faith on the line even
on a moonless night. Yet
why center the debate here,
when the proof is always
washing ashore somewhere, doubt
circling the globe
close behind, but never narrowing the gap
between mere speculation
and formal reconciliation, the worshipful
waves ever kneeling down, then
rising up with alleluias?

Poetry by K. Dymek: “How Not to Come Out to Your Grandmother”

I had the pleasure of hearing K. Dymek perform their poetry when they were hosting Northampton Poetry’s Tuesday night slam at The Deuce, our local World War II veterans’ club. K. is a gender-fluid writer and artist who has been published in the online journal Slamchop and in Huimin Wan’s experimental anthology Could You Please Pass the Poem. This selection from K.’s chapbook Anatomy Lessons mirrored my own awkward yearning for a gender transformation that defies definition in conventional terms. Contact them at kdymektn@gmail.com to purchase a copy.

How Not to Come Out to Your Grandmother

She tells me not to curse because it’s “unladylike”
like that’s something that would stop me,
like that wouldn’t, in fact, encourage
F-Bombs to launch themselves from my fricative-hungry lips;
I’m feeling smart-ass,
feeling sassy,
toss out
“Good thing I’m not a lady, then…”

Yes you are, she paints
my ribcage raw & pink–

I am my own worst antagonist at this point,
purchasing pain with the prolongation of this conversation
I retort, “No I’m actually part boy”

in my smile voice,
in my, this-is-all-an-elaborate-joke-or-is-it voice,
testing the waters.

No you’re not, the waters snap back.

“How would you know?” I challenge, rather than ask,

Which is when her sister cuts in with:
You don’t got a thingy!

But I’ve got momentum now;
got need,
got tell-it-like-it-should-be:
all parallel-universe-what-if,
I tell her, “Yeah, I got a little one, grew in when I was thirteen,”
like it’s the truth,
like it’s okay that I’m stealing someone else’s story to get
the level of comprehension I am looking for here,
like the truth isn’t vastly more complicated:
my gender
a confusing and, at times, painful thing,
writhing beneath my skin
desperate to break through…

She huffs in dismissal but maybe
I’ve planted a seed of doubt?
I hang onto that like a falsehood matters,
like I haven’t taken this too far already
exchanging half-truths like I can rewrite my body,

like a penis would complete it.

Two Poems by African Political Poet Ndaba Sibanda

Born in Zimbabwe, Ndaba Sibanda is the author of several poetry collections, including Of the Saliva and the Tongue and Cutting-edge Cache, both published last year. Visit his Amazon page for a full list of publications, check out his website, and follow him on Twitter @loveoclockn. As a subscriber to our Winning Writers newsletter, he keeps me posted with his latest awards and writings, including these new poems, which he has kindly allowed me to publish here. Sibanda’s work often tackles topics of political corruption and injustice.

Is There Dignity In That Immensity?

she said: if that’s greatness
then it`s also big dumbness

at the centre of a storm
was a disheartening slur

does a fooling fortress
feel a people’s distress?

an outcry from Haiti?
an immigrant’s dignity?

at the centre of a storm
was a demeaning affront

aimed at amplifying inferiorities
and shutting out minorities

at the centre of a storm
was a disparaging injury

aimed at scarring ethnicities
and massaging supremacies

was there an outpouring of rage
from African nations and all?

in contemptuous terms
supremacy became diplomacy

who knew that immigration
was degradation in a great nation?

who knew that protection
wasn’t other people`s right?

who knew that being an immigrant
was no assimilation but a crime?

what was Africa’s contribution?
was that not ungrateful dumbness?

what could be a poor immigrant’s input?
maybe the question was: who wasn’t one?

****
As If They Didn’t Know

was our unkind king frog
nocturnal in nature?
they asked when
he had been ferried away

he spent most of the day
snoozing in his citadel
hidden amongst gold
and lies and loot

was our unkind king frog
gregarious in nature?
they asked when
he was unable to croak

he travelled with countless frogs
to many foreign ponds and lakes
he liked lounging in the exotic
meadows and wetlands too

did our unkind king frog
have a sensual soprano voice?
they asked
as if they didn’t know

he was active in the evenings
and at night: inflating his throat
pouch about the urgent need
to protect our lakes and ponds

did our unkind king frog
protect our lakes and ponds?
they asked
as if they didn’t know

November Links Roundup: Body Positive

Twitter served up this adorable story today about two male lions in Kenya who were observed in an affectionate mating scene. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist captioning the pics “Gay pride” and “Can you feel the love tonight”. If I didn’t already have a lion tattoo, I would consider inking one of these images. The article notes:

While male lions engaging in sexual activity is a rare occurrence, it is far from unknown.

In fact, studies published in the 20th century indicated that about eight per cent of ‘mountings’ observed by scientists had been male lions with other males.

Male lions have been observed courting other lions, including showing affection and caressing, as well as mounting. Lionesses are also known to couple up, however this has mainly been observed in captivity.

Lions are by no means the only animal species where homosexual relations exits. Biologists have recorded same-sex sexual activity in more than 450 species including flamingos, bison, beetles and warthogs.

A 2010 study of Alaskan Albatrosses found that a third of the pairs actually consisted of two females.

Possible reasons for homosexuality in animals include teaming up to protect young and occupying the attention of surplus males. Non-reproductive bonding behavior can still advance an animal’s genetic interests by improving the survival of its social group. Now I want someone to write a children’s picture book about gay lion uncles.

Author and singer-songwriter Vivek Shraya recently released a video of the title song from her new album, “Part-Time Woman”. The video features Shraya and nonbinary activist Alok Vaid-Menon singing about femininity as something that you know inside, not something you must perform to prove your identity to other people. It’s a powerful message delivered in a tender, intimate style.

Holy Foreskin, Batman! Issue 17.5 of DIAGRAM, a well-regarded online journal of experimental and hybrid literature, published this provocative prose-poem by Caroline Crew. (Content note: “Reliquary” is illustrated with a disturbingly graphic medieval painting of baby Jesus’ circumcision. He is definitely giving the mohel the side-eye.) Crew plays with concepts of authenticity, incorruptibility, and holiness. She questions the value that the Church ascribes to changelessness, even as the Church itself has changed its doctrines over the centuries.

f you must imagine the Holy Foreskin still survives, look upward. Prefiguring the Church’s lockdown on this most intimate of relics, 17th century theologian Leo Allatius declared all Holy Prepuces fakes—the true foreskin of Christ had quit this mortal coil, and transcended to space. The rings of Saturn, that was the true location of what remains of Christ’s cock. A body so stopped in time it’s frozen in lightyears. Starlit forever.

A relic of the past. When referring to a person, perhaps whose views are archaic or abhorrent as a “relic,” we attempt to place that person in a history that refuses any connect to the present. We want to stop time, isolate its horrors.

But history is a body, not an object. It moves, and rots and corrupts, and moves on.

Recent relics, according to the headlines: manufacturing, soap operas, marital rape, herbal medicine, mail delivery, national identity, moral relativism, a home cooked meal, slavery, ethernet cables, ambassadors, religion. It is easier to believe in relics than it is to believe in a body. Bodies change. Bodies corrupt.

Let me rot, so I may change.

 

Two Poems from em jollie’s “A Field Guide to Falling”

Western Massachusetts writer em jollie’s new poetry collection A Field Guide to Falling (Human Error Publishing, 2017) is like a stained-glass cathedral window: even in scenes of suffering, the glorious colors give joy and uplift. Much of the book processes the aftermath of breaking up with a beloved woman, though at the end, the narrator seems to find a new beginning with another partner and a greater sense of herself as complete and sufficient. But this therapeutic summary can’t do justice to the mystical meaning of her journey. The speaker bravely walks up to the edge of everything we consider permanent, looks into the clouds swirling above the bottomless gulf, and finds a way to praise their ever-changing shapes. These poems imply that the value of falling–in love, out of love, out of Eden into a world of loss–is in how it challenges us to keep our hearts open, to say Yes despite it all.

Specificity keeps these classic themes fresh. A lesser poet would risk pathos with the extended metaphor of “How to Set a Firefly Free” as a farewell to a relationship where love exists but is not enough. This poem works because it is a real firefly first, a symbol second.

Firefly, suddenly setting aflame cut crystal hanging
from ceiling fan pull-chain. Greenish glow in each facet
while all night dogwood salts dark-wet sidewalk
flowers ripped gloriously open in rainpour.

Isn’t that a love poem all by itself? Those “flowers ripped gloriously open” already remind you of your own worthwhile heartbreak, whatever that was. The ending, which makes the personal connection explicit, only confirms what you felt it was about from the very first lines.

…If only
I didn’t know why lightning bugs blink.
If only I wasn’t so wise to the fact that your light
does not belong to me, will not ever.
If only I didn’t know that was right.

So naturally I just Googled why lightning bugs blink. Wikipedia says the trait originally evolved as a warning signal to predators that the bug was toxic to eat, but now its primary purpose is to communicate with potential mates. This dual meaning of sex and death confirms the speaker’s sad verdict on this love affair, which earlier in the poem she compared to the bond between a neighbor and his snarling dog: “[w]e said they were so mean they belonged together. Yet there/was something sweet about the belonging.”

jollie has one stylistic tic that I understand is common to the Smith College “school” of poetry, which is the occasional (and to my mind, random) omission of “a” and “the”. I’m sorry to say this is a pet peeve of mine. It creates a missing beat in the rhythm of a sentence, which distracts me. It’s fine to twist grammar to make a more compressed line, but I feel that this works best when the entire poem is written in an unusual voice, not when a single part of speech is excised from otherwise normal English.

jollie has kindly allowed me to reprint the poems below. It was hard to choose just two! Buy her book here.

Object Constancy

Sand can be grasped in a palm, yes. But wind
will take it eventually. Heart is body’s hourglass,
holding its own beginning
& end, its constant ticking tipping moment into
granular moment, for a while. You could take my skull
in your hands, but you will have to give it back
at some point. As will I.

Sure, Freud’s nephew came to understand
that Teddy Bear was just over edge of crib when it
disappeared from sight. But where is that Teddy now,
if not in some museum, curators desperately
fighting its inherent impermanence? Presence has to be
interrogative, doesn’t it, rather than declarative?
Dust is still dust. What I mean is: how
do I trust more than what I learned in the chaos
of childhood when since then I’ve been ingrained with loss
upon loss, like every human walking wings of light
through time?

Feather the paintbrush of my fingers across your jaw.
Feather the paintbrush of your fingers across my jaw.
We color each other for this moment. Just this one.
Then it’s done, days like hungry teeth devouring
endless could-have-beens into the finite sacred what-was.
I say: I love you (I have no choice)
What I mean to say: I let go (I have no choice)

****
A Few Desires, or How to Hunger

I want to be the malleable soap
your hands sculpt as you cleanse yourself,
as ordinary and as daily and as caressed as that.

I want to be the cutting board, that firm surface
you can lay edges against, that allows you
to divide roughage from nourishment.

I want to be the pillow case, containing all
the softness for resting your public face
and the slim canvas you play your private dreams onto.

Let me suds into joining the stream of water
down the drain, become the bamboo board
oiled so many times until finally, split, I am

placed on the compost pile. Let the laundry
tear my threads until, like the pillow case,
I cannot contain, but let every thriving thing seep out.

But in truth I can be none of these things,
just this tiny self loving you, accepting your gifts,
providing what sustenance I can in return.

In other words, use me up, until I am done with myself.

September Links Roundup: A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest

At her blog the prowling Bee, Susan Kornfeld has been analyzing each of Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems since 2011. This 2012 post looks at a poem where the moment of greatest anguish paradoxically clothes itself in the appearance of vitality. In Emily’s words:

A wounded Deer –leaps highest –
I’ve heard the Hunter tell –
‘Tis but the ecstasy of death
And then the Brake is still!

The smitten Rock that gushes!
The trampled Steel that springs!
A Cheek is always redder
Just where the Hectic stings!

Mirth is the Mail of Anguish –
In which it cautious Arm,
Lest Anybody spy the blood
And “you’re hurt” exclaim!

I confess I’ve only studied a small fraction of Dickinson’s output, the oft-quoted verses most likely to appear in school anthologies. She is something of a cottage industry round here (Amherst is the next town over from us) so I have also toured her house and seen two movies about her, most recently Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion”, which came out this summer.

This film, starring Cynthia Nixon, left me wanting to delve more deeply into the poems, but also feeling troubled and strangely soiled. As it was no doubt intended to do, “A Quiet Passion” inspired righteous anger about how the religious and gender-based constraints of 19th-century society would chafe the soul of an eccentric female genius. At the same time, the film’s portrait of Emily was a compendium of humiliating spinster tropes: lonely, emotionally needy, prickly and barely tolerable even to her loved ones, stunted at an earlier developmental stage while her female peers moved on to the adult roles of wife and mother. I squirmed on her behalf, imagining how this woman who’d made a fetish of privacy would react to the knowledge that her social gaffes and chronic pain were displayed on widescreen for us to gawk at. Is there no merciful oblivion for such things, 150 years after her death?

Fairfield University English Professor Emily Orlando wrote in the July 13, 2017 Daily Hampshire Gazette (our Northampton newspaper):

Perhaps most troubling is Davies’ focus on Dickinson’s decline and decease. Here’s the thing: Emily Dickinson — unlike, say, Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allan Poe — is not known for her death. She is known for her vibrant body of work. And yet, the director chooses to put his viewer — and the exceedingly excellent Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson — through an excruciating, poorly directed death scene. The same is true for the seizures that precede her passing: too long, too agonizing…These overwrought and disturbing scenes, while perhaps intended to illustrate the inadequacies of medical treatment in 19th-century New England, effectively privilege the dying and dead female body — the passive trope of the female corpse that is replicated across Victorian visual culture (think: The Lady of Shalott, Beatrice, Ophelia)…

…One wonders why the film ends with Dickinson’s death, with no mention of, say, the goldmine of nearly 1,800 poems Dickinson left for future generations to discover.

On the multi-authored social justice blog The Establishment, Isabel C. Legarda, M.D. has just published an incisive essay, “Emily Dickinson’s Legacy Is Incomplete Without Discussing Trauma”.

There has already been some scholarship exploring the idea of Emily as a trauma survivor. A research study published in Military Medicine noted evidence that she, along with other notable historical figures, “developed symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath of repeated potentially traumatizing events.” A paper from the journal PsyArt finds in her poetry “a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and cognitive state.”

In 1862, Emily herself wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”…

…Who was the “the spoiler of our Home” whose footfall Emily dreaded, who committed a “Larceny of time and mind,” and of whom she writes, “He put the Belt around my life?”

Of all the poems that support the possibility that she might have suffered sexual assault, and possibly at home, “Rearrange a ‘Wife’s’ affection” is perhaps the most telling and disturbing, filled with notions of violence and self-harm in the first stanza; devastating shame in the second; “Trust entrenched in narrow pain,” “Anguish — bare of anodyne” in the third; and two recurring tropes in her poetry, the “crown” of wifely duty and an image from Calvary, in the fourth…

She opens the last verse with, “Big my Secret but it’s bandaged — ”; it is both a wound and something to hide. In “A great Hope fell” she confesses of this wound that “The Ruin was within” and that there was “A not admitting of the wound / Until it grew so wide / That all my Life had entered it.”

Many poems — “She rose to His Requirement,” “Title divine is Mine,” “I live with Him — I see His face,” and “It would never be Common” — suggest ongoing trauma, specifically the trauma of being expected to be someone’s sexual partner against her will; they express despair at having to fulfill the obligations of a bride without the legitimacy and joy of real marriage. “But where my moment of Brocade?” she asks…

This piece validated my unease with both the Dickinson of “A Quiet Passion” and the general public image of Emily as a stereotypical recluse or “damaged” woman. She was a triggering figure for me because she evokes pity or distaste instead of outrage. We don’t identify with that Emily, we’re not on her side, we don’t want to be her. (Even I, the fame whore, would think twice about the cosmic bargain: “People will buy your books two centuries from now and put your face on a tote bag, but everyone will also think you’re an unsexy weirdo.”)

Legarda finds persuasive hints of sexual assault, probably incest, in Dickinson’s poems, and links to articles by other doctors and critics who see evidence of childhood abuse or PTSD. Although I have mixed feelings about psychoanalyzing authors based on their art, in this case the endeavor seems like it could restore some dignity to a poet who continues to suffer from the assumptions of a sexist culture.

 

After Charlottesville: Readings for Racial Justice

As my readers are probably aware from the national news, a few hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Klansmen and their fellow travelers held a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA this weekend to protest the removal of Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s statue from a nearby park. The New York Times has the summary of events. One of the racist movement’s supporters drove his car into the crowd of anti-fascist counter-protesters, killing a young woman named Heather Heyer. Violent clashes claimed two other lives and injured 34 people. “President” Trump issued a weaselly statement condemning “violence on many sides” but did not single out the white nationalists, who happen to represent a loyal part of his voter base.

The rally was protected by a large police contingent who have been criticized for not doing more to prevent the violence. As Jia Tolentino wrote in her New Yorker piece “Charlottesville and the Effort to Downplay Racism in America”, “the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America…Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse.” Tolentino’s depiction of the genteel pretense of post-racial liberalism at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia reminds me of the fictitious Winchester University in the sharply funny Netflix series Dear White People. Watch it and learn.

We white liberals are belatedly waking up to the reality of the other America that black people have lived in for centuries. It’s a privilege to be surprised that this kind of violent hatred has never gone away. As Columbia Journalism professor Jelani Cobb said on Twitter, “The biggest indictment of the way we teach American history is that people can look at Charlottesville and say “This is not who we are.'” The best remedial education is to immerse one’s self in stories by and about African-Americans. For me personally, one year as a judicial clerk, reading real-life cases of minority New Yorkers’ encounters with the police and public housing authorities, was worth seven years of critical theory in college and grad school.

With that in mind, let me offer a few literary works from the Winning Writers contest archives that will move you and teach you something about race relations (if you’re white) or hopefully validate your experience (if you’re not).

Winfred Cook’s novel Uncle Otto won first prize for literary fiction in our 2016 North Street Book Prize. In the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots and Queen, Cook uses research about his forebears as raw material for dramatizing a representative story of racial oppression, migration, and economic mobility during the first decades of the 20th century. The novel covers the “Great Migration” of African-Americans from the rural South during the period around World War I; the emergence of, and resistance to, the black middle class in the North during the 1920s; and the cultural upheavals of the Prohibition era. I’m looking forward to reading Cook’s new book, Wayfarers, a Civil War era interracial gay romance.

Geoff Griffin’s essay “Hey White Guy!” from the 2007 Tom Howard/John H. Reid Fiction & Essay Contest is a humorous look at the social awkwardness of unlearning prejudice and privilege. Accustomed to his whiteness being un-coded, unmentioned, Griffin has a moment of realization about the unequal ways he notices race. Another runner-up from the 2009 contest, Sally Hermsdorfer’s “In the Colored Waiting Room”, depicts a white pharmacist in 1950s Memphis who finds a clever way to silence opponents of his integrated practice. It’s both entertaining and instructive about effective allyship. In “Trayvon”, first-prize nonfiction winner for 2015 Madeline Baars describes the odds against black boys and the persistence of hope in a poor New Orleans neighborhood where she was a clinic worker.

Myron L. Stokes won the 2012 Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for Traditional Verse (subsequently combined with our Tom Howard Poetry Contest) with “For My Ancestors”, a lyrical and passionate ode to forebears who endured slavery: “Their bludgeoned dreams bled of a time/when their children’s children could chase the stars,/learn behind ivy walls…”

In our Sports Literary Contest, which ran from 2012-14, A.A. Singh took a runner-up prize with his essay “Team Sports”, exploring the intersections of his Indian, Trinidadian, Canadian and American identities: “if America doesn’t want me after I’ve learned how to ride a bike here, after I’ve given it my first day of school—after I’ve driven my first car, drank my first beer, moaned in bed with my first hangover, experienced my first love, kiss, and heartbreak—if America doesn’t want me, what country does?”