Rediscovering Language (And Myself) Through Poetry

I visited Arkansas this month, and for the first time in a long time, my excitement superseded any concerns about navigating an unfamiliar space as a Black woman, alone. I peered through my airplane window to stare at thick groves weaving over open fields like spidery veins. Black-bodied animals crowded murky ponds. Their water-slick hides glistened in the sun. Later, woods of remarkable green folded in around me as my driver navigated our car along narrow roads, cruising through the Ozark Mountains toward the writers’ colony that awaited me. 

Nearly two hours later, I stood on the welcome mat of the room where I’d stay for my weeklong writing residency. I opened the door — painted a striking sapphire blue — and stepped into The Langston Hughes Suite. It’s almost cliché to admit I exhaled my tensions into the room. Writers are always documenting exhalations, either theirs or those of the weary characters in their stories. But standing in a space reserved for me, chosen by me, I had finally arrived at the conclusion of a long travel day, embracing both my destination and the stillness that accompanied it. It was impossible not to notice the incremental changes happening in my body in that moment. 

I chose this particular suite because of my fondness for Langston Hughes. I admire his innovation as a poet and novelist, but mostly I aspire to attain what he and other artists achieved during the Harlem Renaissance. I have always dreamed of being part of a thriving artist collective and I long to tap into (my) vibrant creative energy and purpose. In some ways, I hoped the proximity to symbols of Hughes would imbue me with a little of both during my residency. It was a coincidence that I also stayed in the suite while I participated in The Sealey Challenge, a poetry movement that has contributed to my personal and literary growth.

In 2018, I read a tweet from a poet arguing that nonfiction writers should be required to read poetry. It wasn’t a kindly suggestion but the beginning of a passionate invective that tore into nonfiction writers’ inability to wield prose in any meaningful way. Quite a few folks joined in with their own harsh criticisms and declarations that nonfiction writing is brittle and flat. There was no nuance to their discussion. No one offered practical instruction. It was painful to read and difficult for me not to internalize the discourse. When I dragged myself away from the Twitter thread, I was both angry and doubtful of my own writing ability.

I stumbled onto The Sealey Challenge soon after the thread had wormed its way into my mind. Participants read a different poetry chapbook or full-length collection each day in August, then posted photos of their reads on social media. Nicole Sealey, a poet and professor, created the challenge in 2017 after feeling like she had been neglecting her pleasure reading between balancing her work responsibilities and promoting Ordinary Beast, her debut full-length poetry collection. 

I can’t remember where I first read about The Sealey Challenge, but I do know that it was from a Black writer who had shared what they were reading for the last day of the challenge. Curious, I clicked the associated tag (#TheSealeyChallenge) and scanned the pictures it generated. Nearly every book cover I saw was unfamiliar to me. 

I blanched at my paltry poetry collection on my bookshelves. I owned The Collected Poems Of Langston Hughes and nothing else. Don’t get me wrong, I read poetry at the time, but not regularly. I didn’t keep multiple collections on my shelves. I didn’t hold poetry close to me. I didn’t turn to it to decipher the words tripping across my own tongue.

I’ve participated in The Sealey Challenge every year since learning about it in 2018. And every year my literary lens widens and my focus sharpens. I have found new tongues in the words of Eduardo C. Corral, Tyehimba Jess, Mary Oliver, and Kaveh Akbar. Where I once saw with my own two eyes, poets have taught me ten new ways to see.

My intention during the challenge is to read as widely as I can, but I often seek work that translates my human experience. That means I read more non-white authors than those famous white men I’m sometimes asked about during my virtual guest lectures. Unsurprisingly, I find the most revelation and restoration in the words of fellow Black authors.

Reading Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon: Poems revealed then unwound a knotted tension hiding in my heart. It exposed the fear and callousness I had been holding against my incarcerated uncle, a person who I last saw — though I don’t remember it — when I was two years old. We have been writing to each other for over a decade, but Felon encouraged me to break through my growing hesitancies to nurture the long-distance niece-uncle relationship that had begun to stagnate. I finally saw my uncle face-to-face virtually soon after I read the poetry collection.

The powerful, erotic, and soulful love of June Jordan’s Haruko/Love Poems showed me how to write reverentially of the whole self and to be unflinching in depicting the truth. Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro strummed the taut Black ancestral chords inside me and reminded me that we can never write enough about our blackness.

Enzo Silon Surin reflected on trauma, death, and loss from his childhood in When My Body Was A Clinched Fist. Reading it in 2020, a year when all three could be found in abundance, brought peculiar relief. Surin’s lament for the pain in the universe, for the love he wished to have, and for the freedom he hopes to enjoy in the future with his son guided me as I figured out what that would look like for me and my daughters in an ever-declining world.

For 2021’s challenge, I began by reading Bloodwarm, a debut collection by Taylor Byas, Ghost In A Black Girl’s Throat by Khalisa Rae, and Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s Vulnerable AF. I found more of my past in these collections. Not just a younger me, but the parts of me that I left behind because I could not pick her up, could not find the hands to guide her forward. 

I purchased Gwendolyn Brooks’ Blacks a few months ago without knowing much about it. I’m spending most of the month reading and meditating on it, and like most collections I read each August, it’s changing me, teaching me.

Lately I’ve found myself yearning for magic in my life. An electricity that I can harness. An electricity that will never leave me. I’ve convinced myself that I have to turn away from my own life to find it. And when I say “life,” what I really mean is who I am confined between four walls of my house during the pandemic. I don’t believe that people want to read about that life now. Or maybe I’ve convinced myself that it’s not interesting and worth sharing.

In reading Brooks’ poems, I’ve found that she celebrates the ordinariness of life, adorning everyday moments with urgency and vitality. Whether it’s a person sitting on a front porch, a couple having a spat, or the end of a long day, Brooks’ poems contain the energy that I’m searching for. A quarter of the way through Blacks, I wondered if I could uncover that energy here in the Ozarks.

Instead, I found comfort in my own language, in the poetry of my own words.

As I delivered my first public reading in the garden of the Eureka Springs Carnegie Library, I had a slight out-of-body experience. I heard the words in the essay I read as if I were the audience, not the speaker. I noticed their elegiac tones, their musicality, and I was struck that these words were mine.I have always possessed a creativity of prose. I can see it in my early works, but reading poetry regularly has encouraged my prose, developed it, shaped it — and shaped who I’m becoming as a writer. I know that I may not always be who people want me to be, but I’m who I need to be in this moment. The process of living and writing my life, even its ordinary moments, is a process of slow transfiguration.

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