& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Poems about identity

Racism should have no place in a society that constitutionally guarantees multiculturalism. However, that is pure fiction as anyone who lives here knows and understands. Everyone encounters racism every day in some form or the other. We all learn to tolerate it, ignore it, live with it, and get worked up over it. Different people and different groups experience it differently.

Two recently published volumes of poetry deal with racism – Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving (Tightrope Books) and Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white (Arsenal Pulp Press); although the treatment is different.

Michael Fraser’s To Greet Yourself Arriving is a collection of poems that profile black heroes. The poems are revelatory, educative, and inspirational. They tell (or retell differently) stories of heroes – some admired, loved; but many unsung, forgotten.  As Michael said in an interview to Open Book Toronto, “To Greet Yourself Arriving is expository in nature for readers who are oblivious to these great Black historical figures.”

That this is a historically significant book is evident on every page. In his foreword to the collection, George Elliot Clarke, puts it simply: “I think this book is an event in Anglo-Canadian poetry, which is usually about (white) anti-heroes: Billy the Kid, Louis Riel, even serial rapist and teen-girl-murderer Paul Bernardo (see Lynn Crosbie’s Paul Case). Moreover, these other portraiture poems tend to be of disturbed – and /or disturbing – personalities. But Fraser gives us characters who, even if tortured by their experiences of “race” and / or racism, win through to a stardom that edges into heroism, not just (justified) narcissism. The “Panthers” were bad black brothers in black leather and black berets, but they also “fly-kicked / and cold-slapped cotton-hooded laws with upstart intensity.” Can I get an amen? Fraser doesn’t just show his subjects with scars and flaws, gold stars and halos, but almost always with a generous, cinematic light, eliminating any notion of Squalor.”

What makes the collection memorable and masterly is that none of the poems are hagiographical. Each has been crafted and carved, polished and chiseled with care and attention. Here is one that will resonate with global audience.


I never allowed my feet to
drift the way others did,
even when my age occupied
the area of two splayed hands.
I placed flags and kicks in
the collective mind slavery erected.
I shattered racism’s edge and
introduced Brasil to itself while
Garrincha and I were TV heroes,
two of eleven disciples conducting
sermons on pitches greener than our
flag, the future’s symbol. It’s spinning
globe shouts, “ordem e progresso,”
order and progress through all the months
of February. When this carnival nation
started bleaching itself into oblivion,
I ushered in acceptance of black players
and distilled laughing sambas through
the ball’s movement. In a polyglot
world, there is only one true
language, and I’m its ambassador.

I interviewed Michael in March, just prior to his book launch, on my show Living Multiculturalism on TAG TV. Here's it is:

Vivek Shraya’s even this page is white is often an angry cry but is also sardonic, sarcastic plainspeak that doesn’t mince words. It frequently has the reader wincing at the raw and passionate exposure of wounded emotions. Articulate and vocal about her orientation and preference, Vivek often uses words as a knife, with a clear intention to wound not kill, just as racism doesn’t kill, but leaves a deep, permanent gash that never heals. Her poems are wounds that she shares with us, wounds that fester forever.

In a recent profile on the Toronto Arts Council website, Shraya describes the collection thus: “… [P]oetry allowed me to articulate truths and pose tough questions without needing to provide answers.” Shraya, who sees poetry as a freeing genre, in part, because there’s no sense of pressure to create a resolution for the reader. She goes on to explain that “Discussions around racism are often met with defensiveness so I am hoping that readers will allow the words to sink in and work through the questions posed in the poetry.”

Writing about the poems on the back cover of the collection, George Elliot Clarke, says, “even this page is white demands that all of us account for our visions of ‘colour’ and / or ‘race’ frontally and peripherally, with ocular proofs. Shraya is the poet-optometrist, correcting our vision and letting us see our identities without rose-coloured glasses, but with naked optics. Her book isn’t even-handed, but dexterous and sinister, in demonstrating, in revelatory poem after revelatory poem, why ‘often brown feels like but’ and why even a good white person – with a ‘golden heart’ – ‘can be racist.’ Reader, you have work to do!”

The collection is stark in its portrayal of everyday racism, the everyday encounters of prejudices and biases, and how these affect us all. Here’s a great sample from the collection:

the truth about the race card

is that even before i knew what it meant
i knew not to play it refused

to spin brown into excuse let it hold me back
believed you when you said we are the same

blamed my parents and camouflaged to prove
you right no wonder you couldn’t see me

people who said racism were whinny or lazy
and i was neither

but there’s no worth for my work no toll for my toil
when you hold the cards keys gavels

unravelled, brown is not a barrier you are
and when you say don’t play the race card

you mean don’t call me white.

I'm going to interview Vivek Shraya on my show in June. I'll post the video link once it's uploaded.

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