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From Bob Holman’s The United States of Poetry

Tracie Morris is a multidisciplinary poet and performing artist. She is a writer, educator, scholar and actor who has worked in theater, dance, music, sculpture and film. She has toured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Africa and Asia as a writer and bandleader. Her poetry and essays have been extensively anthologized. Tracie has participated in over a dozen recording projects to date. Her sound poetry is at the Whitney Museum and the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning.

1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?

After the poems that socialized me as a child (Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and other classical European children’s poem and the 23rd psalm and other biblical poems as well as African American song lyrics — an important racially socializing phenomenon) I think it was “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. It taught me to feel satisfied with poems that *don’t* have “happy endings.” This was a very important element in teaching me to love all types of poetry.

2. What is something/someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers/colleagues? Why do you read it/them?

I’ve read a lot of classic sci/fi fantasy and still read the bible, especially Psalms and Numbers. I like literature that complements/compels the imagination. Unfortunately as a prepubescent teen this also meant *lots* of Harlequin romances. I’ve moved on from those, mercifully. I don’t like overly transparent plots in any genre.

3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?

Crucial. Conceptual frameworks always determine the scope and form of my poems. Particularly the improvised ones.

4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?

Most of my favorite poems are non-Anglo-Americans, so it’s hard to narrow it down. The list is too long. Why? They/we tend to be more comprehensive in terms of my varied tastes. In other words, I can find more poetry among poets of color that touch on most or all of my interests, whereas it is harder for me to find that type of variety of subject, theme and form in Anglo or Anglo-American based work. While this is not always the case, as my references in the previous questions show, I see this more as the case for myself probably because of the more panoramic vision often required to manage oneself in Anglo-American controlled environments.

5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?

I read lots of poetry — but in spurts. I’ll read a bunch of poetry books, then a ton of prose, usually multi-genre prose simultaneously (i.e.: a biography and a philosophy book and a science fiction book). Reading and hearing poetry is essential to my writing. I always write extensively as/after I read a poetry book.

6. What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?

All of my friend Charles Bernstein’s work. I tend to be a fast reader and I try not to do that with his books. He’s also a little intimidating and, it’s weird, I feel uncomfortable reading my friend’s books. If they become my friends *after* I’ve read their books, it’s better! Of course that would presume that my friends would never write again after I’ve met them…I didn’t say my system made sense!

7. How would you explain what a poem is to my seven year old?

The first form of communicating. It’s fun but it’s also so deep that there are many ways to understand one thing. It usually has a great sound in it somewhere.

8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?

I think the United States is the only country where one can even ask these questions. *That* is sad. We are very much out of the cosmic poetry loop here. The role of the poet is to utter. The role of the citizen is to participate. That participation can be passive or active.

9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):






10. What is the relationship between the text and the body in your writing?

The text is the body. The body tests text.

*here’s another video:

This conversation was presented by the Academy of American Poets at the Associated Writing Programs Conference on February 4, 2011. Claudia Rankine began her talk with a reading of Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” She then presented the following dialogue.

Claudia Rankine: I don’t like using the word racist because if you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that’s pathological. The new black is accomplished, assimilated, and integrated. The new black reaches across the aisle. The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, feel or deduce risks falling right into some white folk’s notion of black insanity.

It’s not a chance to take. The path is preordained: to think this is to be that. Don’t go there. Don’t be like that. Supreme Court Justice Roberts simply forgot the right words to swear in our first black President. He was probably nervous. Don’t go there. Don’t be like that.

So if white people are not allowed to use the n-word, and we know that is a understanding rarely disregarded, then apparently black people are not allowed to use the r-word or, in news jargon, play the race card. But sometimes, I have found, you have to hazard a little insanity.

* * *

I once had a colleague who wrote what some readers perceived to be a racist poem. When I first read it I thought, “What?”


Why I stuttered I don’t know but sometimes the purity of an emotion gets tripped-up by thought: This poem is an exploration of narcissism in our society, a parody, perhaps. Nonetheless, certain phrases from the poem stuck in my craw. Phrases like “I couldn’t help wanting / the white girl,” this “tough European blond,” “to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe, / with her pale eyes and thin lips” were being “pitted” against phrases like “so big and so black,” “big black girl from Alabama” with “cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms” and “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Were these phrases intended as a performance of the n-road?

I let the book close on the desk and stared out the window through non-existent trees. There is a parking lot out there. And though my emotions can at times feel wrongheaded, sometimes you just have to say it—what the fuck? It took me a minute, the kind that folds out into months, to get over the actual words on the page.

When I brought my gaze back to the poem, rereading, it occurred to me the poet was outing a certain kind of white thought. I already knew the nice white lady and her husband who always held the door open for me (thank you) might be thinking of me as the “so big and so black,” “big black girl from Alabama,” but I wanted my colleague to tell them right there in his poem that that kind of thinking…well, it’s just not right. But his point, it seemed, was this was whiteness thinking, surely not all of whiteness, and the black girl as “unintimidated” as she was was simply a sign of the end of the twentieth century. Lord, the times they are a changing. And for this brand of whiteness that is where that thinking stopped.

* * *

When asked what his thinking was while working on the poem, my colleague said this poem is for white people. Did he mean it was for white people to see themselves and their thinking? He did not say that. He said it was for white people.

What I heard was, I don’t need to explain myself to you, black girl. And though the last time I looked in the mirror I looked like my black mother, and not how she looked when she was a child, I was transporting the language of the poem, black girl, to refer to myself, and getting even angrier. And though I realized this was me thinking as him, and not in fact him speaking, when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.

And because I could taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat, I wasn’t saying much, but he was starting to shout at me so in his imagination somebody else must have been speaking. Needless to say, before our conversation started it was over. I can still see myself back then confused at the rate of escalation, given that I was so used to everyone reassuring everyone that everyone accepted everyone and race didn’t matter. Who let America in the room? How did things get out of hand so quickly? I sometimes wonder if one of us had had the presence of mind to say, easy slave girl, slow down grand Wizard, could anyone have laughed.

* * *

As I walk across the parking lot I wonder why he didn’t just say his poem is for white people because it is calculated to make them feel uncomfortable in the grey areas. No one was calling for a lynching in this poem, which we all know as criminal, racist behavior, but this other thing, this lack of support for the American tennis player, this identifying by skin color with anyone else across the Atlantic simply because the one right in front of you has black skin and claims all the same rights, was that not too racism? I imagine there were a trillion ways to worry my question, which is to say, he might have treated me like a friendly colleague asking a real question since the book was in the bookstore without a Whites Only sticker.

I was black people and I, as his colleague, had taken the time to read his book as an act of collegial support and respect. Instantaneously, my collegial assumption, the visibility I was claiming, the shared space, seemed like his moment of what? What! In short, his answer sounded like fighting words. And they were. And they weren’t.

As I turn his answer around and around like an object I am trying to find a place to store, I see it burns at both ends. Perhaps by invoking the “whites only” language of Reconstruction, he was suggesting his poem, as a language act, lived in that place. But even with this positioning, it’s not clear he wasn’t also directing the historically exclusionary signifier at me—he was after all speaking to me—but I really can’t speak for him.

Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable, by which she meant, I believe, there is no avoiding the word-filled sticks and stones of others. Our emotional openness, she added, is borne, in both its meanings, by our addressability. Language navigates this.

For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.

It was posted here:

Tony Hoagland’s poem is here:

Tony Hoagland’s response is here:

Claudia Rankine’s audio response to Hoagland’s response:

Many poets (academics) responded to the controversy here:

Crais Santos Perez commented on it here:




Someone asked, “What do you think of [Such & such a poet]?”

“The last time I saw him he borrowed forty bucks from me,” I said.

Of course that was just my facile attempt to side-step the expectation that I must judge the poet’s work, good or bad.

Poets, I believe, subvert the binary, especially all such formulaic ways of seeing the world, whenever possible. It was true the poet in question borrowed forty bucks, but that wasn’t really my point. The point was that the real world is so much infinitely more manifold than good or bad. I may not at the moment have any use for another poet’s poetic projects, but I might later. If I have confidence in my own work, that it will develop and advance and go the distance, then sooner or later it will democratically engage with other voices, whether I agree with them or not. We will end up on writers’ panels, on reading stages with others, at festivals, in reading series, on campuses and in the community, delivering our side to the public dialogue. We integrate the magazines and the bookshelves. If we want a more democratic culture, we have to go public. Poets, writers and artists ought to have that confidence in their own work, their own voices, in part because (particularly if we speak with minority, working class, gay or denied voices) our work represents.

All sincere poets, I happen to believe, make the world better precisely because on some level they are engaged in this subversion, diversifying POVs and eroding conformist worldviews. If you survive long enough, life might be generous with you and allow you to see the positive aspect of (self-admitted) boring work such as that of Kenneth Goldsmith—perhaps even Robert Frost. Reciprocate life’s manifold generosity by living long, subverting to the end.

Students regularly instruct me, looking into a poem which I shrugged off, thinking, “Really? That’s it?” where they scan usefulness or purpose which I missed. I’m taking a number, standing with everybody else in line waiting to pay. My thinking gets boxed in and standardized by habit and made ineffectual like anybody else’s. That’s how poetic diversity is useful.

Robert Desnos, Resistance fighter and Surrealist poet, who died in Theresienstadt concentration camp, 1945

somebody shouted: a red car drove away: Sunday NY Times: Japanese coastal destruction: superb walks walking: on any given day: look at an hour: look at it again in a year or 2: you’re kidding: you’re not kidding: sandwiches from Zoccoli’s Italian deli the line of girls busy behind the counter: Castroville Special: $6.42: Citlali ate cucumbers on the 7th floor above 3rd Avenue considering art projects

in my hulking, stinking self, there’s an England shrieking English, manufacturing design elements of mud & fiber, there’s a China, weeping into fingers of rice paste & green oil, in a tattered evening I did not wish the swollen people in the next vehicle well, in the spattered tours I did not give any regard to the single noisy man, in the broken hour that passed crushed underfoot like a pepper pod

The girl in the booth gave up her phone call and stamped a parking permit. She directed me to the lots flanking Loker student union and I tossed the permit on the dash of the borrowed car. I ordered coffee and Rod Hernandez met me at the food court. Upstairs Ballroom A, we hung around, waiting to start as staff from the bookstore arranged a table of books by the coffee urns and refreshment platters. Professors brought classes, packing in more than 200, SRO out the door. Even my wife put in a rare appearance, before slipping out. Randy Cauthen delivered a tremendous intro, and without knowing everybody to thank (Laura Perdew did terrific publicity and shot photos), I read pieces of ATOMIK AZTEX, INTERVIEW WITH JUAN FISH and WORLD BALL NOTEBOOK. Q & A, and a line of dozens to get their books signed. Toward the end, CSU Dominguez Hills student Anthony Portillo, red & green tat down his arm to the wrist, handed me a letter from his mom. “She said you wrote a poem about her mom’s murder,” he said. “Your grandmother!” I said, certain that I had at least changed their names and some details—perhaps not enough—in the book. Anthony asked me to sign WBN to the family. His mom’s letter was mostly about my mom and how she helped her as a child, making her Halloween costume and helping her get to summer camp. I asked how the family was now. I didn’t have to tell Anthony all that was long before he had been born. He said his mom would’ve attended the reading but was in Washington D.C. on business. Rod, Randy, Helen Oesterheld and several grad and undergrad students met us afterward at Musha’s for beer and Japanese beer food. Nearing midnight, the car I borrowed was the last one left at the far end of the lot, mist hanging on the street lamps.

Photographs by Laura Perdew and Gary Kuwahara of California State University Dominguez Hills

Friday, April 29/ 7pm / Felix Kulpa Gallery in downtown Santa Cruz

Bhanu Kapil has written four full-length cross-genre works–The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers (Kelsey Street Press, 2001), Incubation: a space for monsters (Leon Works, 2006), humanimal [a project for future children] (Kelsey Street Press, 2009), and Schizophrene (forthcoming, Nightboat Books). Recent classes at Naropa have engaged architecture, somatics, biology and memory as ways to approach or navigate contemporary narrative and poetics. An on-going experimental pedagogy and reflection can be found at her blog: “Was Jack Kerouac a Punjabi? [A Day in the Life of a Naropa University Writing Professor.]” Bhanu teaches across genres, with a particular focus on experimental prose writing.

Sesshu Foster does whatever, stands at odd angle to his own shadow, picks at a scab, reading the fish. "Fresh air and exercise, that's the ticket," he said, goof. Barns burnt, bodies steamed in the intersection, what does he know? Intercellular interstices, and he was like, "Whatever, infrarealist mundo of gimme coffee, [Bronx cheer, raspberry]." Or somebody was talking loud in San Jose airport, calling him bitch in a friendly way, people turned around and looked. He is the author of several unpublished notebooks, including LIVE CLEAN NOW DIRTY BASTARDS, IRONCLAD DIRIGIBLES OF THE CIVIL WAR, and I SAW IT BEFORE YOU. He lives with his family when allowed in the house.

For more information, contact Andrea Quaid at or Juliana Leslie at

I think the reading is free but I don’t know they don’t say.

photograph by Margaret Randall

Felix Kulpa Gallery:
107 Elm Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

(408) 373-2854

There’s time in oil and time in dirt. More time in oil or in dirt?

(Washing it off. Burning it off.)

More time in sunlight or in sunburn? (Peeling it off.)

More time in our conversations with the living or recordings of the dead?

Cross from one side to the other.

There’s time in waves, in the froth of the waves, rolling unseen currents of the deep.

More time in waves, in froth (as it disperses), or distilled in cold black depths?

We shall turn and look.

Q: What happens in an instant?

A: The heart shot through and through.

Corazon de Jose Leon Toral atravesado por una bala, 1928.

This picture comes into our hands because even underwater or in regular daylight when things are rippling, the solution is the notion of the heart shot through and through [“Corazon de Jose de Leon Toral, Cara anterior/ Cara posterior”], Mexican lead (“plomo”) caught in drafty history by John Reed’s books, fishy in the best sense, when your hands come away from the text inked with oceanic reek of cycles of years, and crossing in a crosswalk, everything in waves.

1. Time as a card, flat like that.

2. Shut.

3. Somebody can’t do something.

4. Then,

5. Somebody does it.

6. Or,

7. Nobody is trying to do anything.

8. Number eight.

9. The chiles growing.

10. Tomatoes.

11. Your own shadow.

12. And,

13. Chocolate while the ‘elite’ is ripping everyone off,

14. While the killers are raping the women they kidnapped, girls,

15. Then some riots and stuff,

16. Fires,

17. Ana Mendieta (thrown out of a window?),

18. After that, how much time has passed?

April 2011