“Evie Shockley seems to step to us wearing an alluring silk gown and steel-toe guerilla boots. She possesses that rare combination of grace and subversiveness.” This is poet Terrance Hayes commenting on Evie Shockley’s most recent book the new black.
I couldn’t agree with Terrance more.
Art that tackles topics like politics, race, injustice, and identity can be hard to get right. Personally, I’ll take a quiet film like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment over a brash, hyperbolic Oliver Stone flick any day of the week. Shouting is easy, but it takes real talent and skill to mix the personal and political and end up with compelling art. (Just ask the filmmakers who worked under Hays Code for nearly 40 years).
But subtlety spiked with truth-telling has its advantages: resonance. Shockley doesn’t need to shout to get our attention. Her poems will echo through your mind long after you’ve shut the book.
Shockley is a genius of language, form, and wordplay. The poem “x marks the spot” is appropriately shaped like an X, while another poem forms an almost perfect circle. She playfully uses fonts, superscript, line breaks, and spacing. She shuns capital letters not as a gimmick, but to allow her readers’ eyes to focus on lines, instead of sentences. As Shockley told The Dead Mule, ” I like the way all-lowercase lines allow a reader’s eye to glide along, uninterrupted by visual obstacles that have nothing to do with the concerns of my poem.” Luckily her publisher, Wesleyan University Press, has accommodated her inventiveness with language. The only downside is that there are many excellent, eccentric poems whose formatting simply refuses to translate into HTML on the web.Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Shockley’s Southern heritage shines through her poems. The tired cliched of a Southern magnolia becomes something entirely new in her hands.
In her interview with The Dead Mule, Shockley said, “What I mean when I speak of myself as a ‘southern poet’ is that I grew up: hearing certain accents and vocabularies and speech patterns that were the aural essence of ‘home’ or the audible signal of danger, depending; thinking that racism wasn’t much of a problem in other parts of the country; eating a cuisine that was originally developed under conditions of make-do and make-last; enjoying five- or six-month summers and getting ‘snow days’ out of school when the forecast called for nothing other than ‘possible icy conditions’; knowing that my region was considered laughable almost everywhere else; assuming there was nothing unusual about finding churches on two out of every four corners; and believing that any six or seven people with vocal chords could produce four-part harmony at the drop of a dime—and that all of this informs my poetry, sometimes directly and sometimes in ways that might be unpredictable or illegible.”
The rigorous, compassionate “silk gown”/”steel-toe guerilla boots” combination pulsing through the new black is a knockout.
In 2011 The Academy of American Poets asked Evie how she begins a new poem:
“There is a fullness in my mind, a crowding and jostling and rumbling of ideas, outrages, phrases, and images, reaching as far as my mind’s eye can see in any direction, and I begin wading into the crowd and trying to make a space from which to think about what some (or all) of the things in it have in common or what they might have to say to each other—if I could only create an arena where that analysis or conversation could happen.
There is an emptiness on a page, a vacuum represented and magnified by the whiteness of the space, that goes until it ends but even in ending implies an endless continuation of that blank refusal of inscription, and I begin to muss it up, to get it dirty, to bring it into contact with the world in which it exists, to pollute it with laughter, injustice, loss, ambiguity, laundry, and any other thing that goes into the human experience of life.”
a background in music
music city u.s.a. it was, nothing doing without a song,
and not just twangy tunes that rhyme southern drawls
with guitar strings, though it’s true i knew charlie pride
before charlie parker, but music, music, music, broadway
numbers (one! . . .) broadcast over speakers in the park,
pointer sisters fingering ohio players on the school bus,
the elementary chorus performing a patriotic medley
for the bicentennial, the high school madrigals wringing
the carol of the bells out of our overworked throats each
december, WVOL simulblasting car wash or little red corvette
out the windows of every deep ride rolling in the black
neighborhoods, melodies to carry over the clap*slap*snap
of our hands clocking time (miss mar-y mack mack mack)
or to keep us out of trouble with the jump rope, pep squad
cheers to perfect, spontaneous spirituals in the church
parking lot, and, yes, some country, the mandrells, the oak
ridge boys, tuning in to hee-haw’s banjo humor and gloom,
the music was howdy and whassup, hell naw! and aw yeah!,
merry, happy, baby-baby, and god loves you if no one else does:
to ourselves, to applause, in talent shows, in choirs, on cue
and (mostly) in key, we sang everything there was to say.
statistical haiku (or, how do they
discount us? let me count the ways)
only 3 of 100 black boys
entering kindergarten will graduate college—
in the night sky, shooting stars
every day a black person
under 20 years old commits suicide—
plucked magnolia blossom’s funereal perfume
a black man is 700% more likely
than a white man to be sentenced to prison—
scattered thundershowers in may
every 3 minutes
a black child is born into poverty—
pine needles line the forest floor
—after langston hughes’s “johannesburg mines”
notes to my nieces
(or, essays in fortune-telling)
when i was younger, trees
were green, money was green, money
grew on trees, or trees grew up
and became money. now, money is clearly
plastic, spreads like cancer, getting it
trust me on this. g o d stands
for good old days, and if you have enough
faith, you can remember them almost
like you were there, on your knees
with us, scrubbing them clean or
praying for the millennium, that next life,
when the g o d would be n e w : not
mother is black and your father is loving.
answer: what’s loving got to do
that your cows ain’t like mine, that you
won’t understand why i gave up
say the past is a muddy
river. say the future is a belated alphabet
with which you and i might spell
different things. say the present
is something we can pass back and forth
between us, like an acorn, like
a sonnet for stanley tookie williams
won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?
‘cause all i ever have: redemption songs.
all month this country has careened toward cold
and winter’s celebrations: what a star
announced—a birth—and then a chance to fold
a year away, pull one fresh from the drawer,
if not clean, well, unworn. in just a few
months arrives the ice-hot day of the dead-
come-back-to-life—time then to ask how new
and re- beginnings differ. mary bled
for the december miracle, as some-
one must. did you imagine sacrifice
as you called the crips to life? did they come,
those youngbloods, at the crackling of your voice,
like lazarus to christ? vigilant night.
on the road to san quentin, candlelight.
where you are planted
he’s as high as a georgia pine, my father’d say, half laughing. southern trees
as measure, metaphor. highways lined with kudzu-covered southern trees.
fuchsia, lavender, white, light pink, purple : crape myrtle bouquets burst
open on sturdy branches of skin-smooth bark : my favorite southern trees.
one hundred degrees in the shade : we settle into still pools of humidity, moss-
dark, beneath live oaks. southern heat makes us grateful for southern trees.
the maples in our front yard flew in spring on helicopter wings. in fall, we
splashed in colored leaves, but never sought sap from these southern trees.
frankly, my dear, that’s a magnolia, i tell her, fingering the deep green, nearly
plastic leaves, amazed how little a northern girl knows about southern trees.
i’ve never forgotten the charred bitter fruit of holiday’s poplars, nor will i :
it’s part of what makes me evie : i grew up in the shadow of southern trees.
About Evie Shockley
Evie Shockley is the author of two books of poetry, the new black (Wesleyan University Press, 2011) and a half-red sea (Carolina Wren Press, 2006), and two chapbooks, 31 words * prose poems (Belladonna* Books, 2007) and The Gorgon Goddess (Carolina Wren Press, 2001). the new black won the 2012 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry and was also recognized by Library Journal as one of the Best Books of 2011 in Poetry and by the BCALA as a 2012 Honor Book in Poetry.
Her poems have also appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Nation, TriQuarterly Online, qarrtsiluni, Brilliant Corners, Mandorla, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry,Home is Where: An Anthology of African American Poets from the Carolinas, and New America.
Her honors include the 2012 Holmes National Poetry Prize, a Leo Maitland Fellowship from the Millay Colony for the Arts in 2011, and residencies from Hedgebrook and The MacDowell Colony. From 2007-2011, she co-edited jubilat; in 2007, she guest-edited a special issue of MiPOesias (called “~QUEST~”) that features contemporary African American poets. Shockley currently serves as a contributing or advisory editor to Evening Will Come, a monthly journal of poetics; Lemon Hound; Backbone Press; Carolina Wren Press; and At Length.
She greatly enjoys giving readings of her poetry, which have taken her to colleges, universities, museums, primary and secondary schools, libraries, festivals, and bookstores across the U.S., as well as locations in the UK. Two of her poems, “a thousand words” and “the changing of the guards,” were mounted in the Biko 30/30 exhibit, a commemoration of the life and work of anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko, which toured the major cities of South Africa in 2007, the 30th anniversary of his death. She has served as faculty for such programs as the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Poetry Workshop, the Naropa Summer Writing Program, the Cave Canem NYC Workshop, and the North Carolina Writers’ Network Summer Residency Program.
Shockley is also a literary scholar and critic. Her critical book, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (University of Iowa Press, 2011) has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. She has critical reviews and literary essays published or forthcoming in such journals and anthologies as Callaloo, Contemporary Literature, Indiana Review, Contemporary African American Literature: The Living Canon, Mixed Blood, Rainbow Darkness: An Anthology of African American Poetry, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, and A Broken Thing: Contemporary Poets on the Line.
Additionally, articles from her earlier work on the gothic in African American and British Victorian literature appear in African American Review and in the essay collection Jamaica Kincaid’s Caribbean Double-Crossings. She brings her theory of the “gothic homelessness” that circulates in African American literature to the broader cultural context of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in an essay that appears in Katrina’s Imprint: Race and Vulnerability in America, an interdisciplinary collection of analyses of Katrina’s significance for New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the U.S. as a whole.
Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Shockley has lived in a variety of states in the South, Midwest, and Northeast, but has yet to take up residence in any place west of the Mississippi River. She currently lives in Jersey City, New Jersey and teaches African American literature and creative writing at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
You can browse all of the Gwarlingo Sunday Poets in the Sunday Poem Index.
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All poems © Evie Shockley. These poems appear in Shockley’s book the new black from Wesleyan University Press © 2011. All rights reserved. These poems were reprinted with permission from the author.