Poetry & Criticism by Carl Philips
A Politics of Mere Being
The Famous Black Poet is
speaking of the dark river in the mind
that runs thick with the heroes of color,
Jackie R., Bessie, Billie, Mr. Paige, anyone
who knew how to sing or when to run.
I think of my grandmother, said
to have dropped dead from the evil eye,
of my lesbian aunt who saw cancer and
a generally difficult future headed her way
in the still water
of her brother’s commode.
I think of voodoo in the bottoms of soup-cans,
and I want to tell the poet that the blues
is not my name, that Alabama
is something I cannot use
in my business.
But at no point did I think of myself as having an agenda that could be called political. Rather, my agenda, to the extent that it can even be called that, has always been to speak as honestly as possible to my own experience of negotiating and navigating a life as myself, as a self — multifarious, restless, necessarily ever-changing as the many factors of merely being also change — in a world of selves. Which is to say, I was simply being myself in those first poems — what other choice is there? But I became a poet who, according to reviews, spoke unabashedly — daringly, even — of what many wouldn’t, in terms of sex. As for race, I’d unknowingly thrown a gauntlet down to a long tradition of assumptions as to what blackness meant and, especially, as to how a poet of color should speak, and about what.
There are countless aspects to a self; race and sexual orientation are only two of them, it seems to me, neither the least nor the most important. It’s more accurate to say there’s a constant shifting of hierarchy, depending on any given moment in experience. Am I a gay black man when roasting a chicken at home for friends? Sure. But that’s not what I’m most conscious of at the time. Am I necessarily, then, stripped of political resonance at that moment? Or is not the sharing of food with others a small social contract analogous to the contract of giving and taking — of interaction — that we call citizenship in a democratic society? Is this a stretch? Can we only be political when we are speaking to specific issues of identity, exclusion, injustice?
Originally publihed as A Politics of Mere Being by Carl Philips at the poetryfoundation. Photography by Robin Layton & Deana Lawson & Jason McLean Art by Jason McLean