Like Nina Simone, I too just want to be understood. However, I do waver back and forth on the question of whether I write accessible poetry. I suppose the answer is that it depends on what you, the reader, have had access to. Have you had access to people of color? To women? To women of color? The immigrant experience? What is it you know and what is it that you are willing to find out?
The canon of American literature allows marginalized voices to exist in opposition to it, never beside it. Blackness in opposition to and after whiteness, femininity in opposition to and after masculinity. In my writing I try not to take these unspoken doctrines into account. The poems I do write about race focus on being raised in a jointly Nigerian Islamic and American Southern Baptist household and what it means to be of two countries and cultures. As a child, my mother would wake my sister and I up for school, spread her prayer mat east, count her beads alongside her blessings and recite one hundred Allāhu Akbars. On weekends, I saw countless people catch the spirit, speak in tongues, and get baptized at my grandmother’s Baptist church. After nine years of Catholic school, I still crave its rituals, love the Stations of the Cross, have Catholic hymns on my iPhone, and still find myself at Mass some Sundays. There were times we celebrated Christmas, times we celebrated Kwanzaa. My mother taught African dance classes from our Akron home and signed us up for tap and ballet. We’d go straight from school to our father’s art gallery and studio where, with a pencil, he’d show me how the right amount of pressure could turn a geometric shape into a body—and where I learned to cut molding and glass. I can cook tuwo shinkafa and kuka as well as shrimp and grits. The experience of the black immigrant is not synonymous with that of a black American. Yet, there are few spaces allowed in mainstream America for divergent voices, even fewer for the intricacies of race: the stories interior of what’s allowed to be the blanket experience of the other.
Poetry should not be, nor attempt to be “universally accessible.” There’s grave danger in that. Poems should require work. Poetry forces us to understand each other or, at the very least, to try. It’s the job of the poet to offer challenges to their reader, whether through content, form, or linguistically. Though poetry can be entertaining, it is not entertainment, one of those “predictable pleasures” described by Dana Gioia as exploiting and manipulating “who we are rather than challeng[ing] us with a vision of who we might become.” A poem should have layers, a new thread to unravel after each reading, a new question it asks of us. However, when we talk of accessibility we mustn’t forget that we are speaking of access, whom we allow to come through our doors, what we allow them to say, and the weight we place on their discourse once they’ve been permitted to enter and speak. I do not write to give it all away, but I distrust the poem of locked doors. A poet must constantly consider what they’re asking their readers to work towards.
The issue is that Poetry is not for everyone. poetry belongs to the world, whereas Poetry is a tool of the educated, the elite. In America, we still segregate education—in most areas of the U.S. public schools are funded through property taxes, leaving schools in minority communities heavily under-resourced or altogether destitute. As both a person of color and a woman of color, I don’t want to aid in obscuring any story. The status quo already obscures the stories of the marginalized on a daily basis. The state of education in economically disadvantaged areas of America ensnares us, ensuring that too many are not given the tools to tell their own stories, let alone engage with poetry in any of its forms.
I believe in poems of employment. That the poem’s job is to communicate. And poems are capable of communicating everything from the way grief feels in August to the absurdities and inadequacies of language. There will always be value in avant-garde poetics because words still have value, and in our society, a voice is a thing you must fight for. Poetry, as Robert Frost said, “is a way of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget.”
It concerns me, however, that accessibility is often looked at as a lack of complexity. I fear what’s ignored often when we talk of accessibility is cultural, economic, and racial bias. Helen Vendler’s response to The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, is a more than adequate example. Vendler refers to Dove’s introduction as “folksy,” and seems to take issue that “multicultural inclusiveness prevails.” Vendler’s comments are patronizing and demonstrate a clear disregard for the other. Marginalized voices that tell their stories in what is considered an “accessible” fashion do not lack complexity. They lack thousands of years of acknowledgement from mainstream culture. There are fewer complications in being Kenneth Goldsmith on the back of Walt Whitman than Ed Roberson on the back of Langston Hughes. Avant-gardism is privilege; the privilege to write away from and distort one’s place because that place has been tirelessly validated.
Historically, the avant-garde (and thus privilege) redraws the boundaries of our belief in what’s acceptable, and therefore accessible. In terms of black poetry, as Elizabeth Alexander put it, “have we ever had a black doctrinaire in poetry? Is there really and truly and effectively a black poetic hegemony?”We can argue that it’s all been done, but can we, in good conscience, claim that all experiences—all groups have been heard, understood, and validated by the status quo? Questioning the boundaries of art and language holds an equally important place in today’s poetics as does questioning culture, economics, and our current gender and racial constructs.
To the masses poetry might be dead. The contradiction is that poetry is a continuously essential feature of the lives of the masses, especially the emerging multicultural generations who, in this era of profound transformation, don’t place much faith in the status quo’s ideological, philosophical, and cultural precepts. Poetry is one of the ways we chronicle our individual and shared experiences. Poetry is the ledger we can return to, a bookkeeping of sorts.
Regardless of whether I write “accessibly” or from an avant-garde poetics, the fact is mainstream poetics has not yet made room for the myriad of marginalized voices trying to engage it.
So, I write what I write. I write towards the emotions of the complex stories from which I’ve emerged. I write to take leaps, to blur the lines between seemingly divergent ideas, images and responses to the everyday. I write to climb the walls built for marginalized people to speak from behind. I write because, despite what we are led to believe, there’s no one voice or audience that counts. There are many, often overlapping, audiences receptive to multiple messages from multiple voices and they’re receptive because they’re curious. I write to tell as many of the stories that the status quo ignores and, at times, actively conceals. I tell these stories because I’m able, because someone has to tell them until they are understood.