Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Our Difficult Telling—Issue 61, January 2016)

J. Michael Martinez & Khadijah Queen
Our Difficult Telling: Introduction

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon describes how race may begin at the skin. In one famous anecdote, from the force of the racializing gaze, Fanon cannot help but unwillingly perceive his own body through the eyes of “the other, the white man…who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, and stories.”1 Race, like a vague and powdery cloud, pours out from observing eyes onto Fanon’s body, blanketing him in narrative.

Caught, Fanon identifies how the “Other fixes me with his gaze, his gestures and attitude, the same way you fix a preparation with a dye.”2 Fanon viscerally experiences how sight performs an art onto the body when composing racial identity. Scholars like Stuart Hall and Nicole Fleetwood agree, for Fanon, this is, “the inscription of race on the skin.” Race arrives as a kind of writing, a perceptual poetic unleashed onto the body. Like gender, Fleetwood reminds us, this writing is anterior to the body, “a cultural and discursive schema, not genetic or physiological.”3

Comprehending Fanon’s ideas on perception and race, as writers of color, we know we not only produce potential representations of our actual realities in poetry, we are also realigning and reimagining the “schemas” that define “poetry” and “race.”

As such, for this feature of the Volta, Khadijah Queen and I pursued Fanon’s inquiries into visuality by looking for creative work whose prosody and content may be seen as broadly interrogating “the visual regimes that define it as such.”4 

For example, Emily Yoon’s collage poetics reexamines and reconstructs a voice for the Korean “comfort women” silenced and forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WWII. One the other hand, Christopher David Rosales’ surreal short story, El Mal de Ojo, or The City Called the City, is a Latin@ sci-fi mystery equal to any classic issue of LOVE & ROCKETS, alive with Zeppelins, mountain lions, and a doomed, bizarre love triangle. Meditatively, Sam Ross reflects in his gorgeous contribution, “Vox Humana,” “Is there a quieter/ space than a precarious/ sense of ending?”

In addition to creative work, we also sought pragmatic responses on how to ethically engage contexts, like the MFA workshop, as sites of cultural and perceptual invention. As a teacher of creative writing, I may be teaching a craft, however, I am also teaching, through my conversation and language, the ethics of my craft. Thus, we sought honest and informed responses to aid in potential conflict situations that may arise in classroom critiques: how to engage offensive or cliché racial characterizations, offensive or cliché gender representation, sexist or homophobic imagery, etc.

We asked, how does one create a moment of dialogue concerning the characterization so the needs of the students and the teacher are met?

We asked, How does one address the unspoken emotional needs of the sole student of color who is in a workshop when a situation arises?

Comprehending the workshop as the site where our craft is refined, it will, by definition, possess situations and work in need of refinement. As counselor Maya Marshall compassionately points out in her excellent contribution:

When we walk into workshop, we sit down as a group of adults though not necessarily peers. While your role as professor is to be the most informed, you are not the authority on acceptable behavior. You don’t have to make it a safe space, but it is much easier to make a safe-space, as defined by the people in the group, from the outset than to try to re-build a sense of safety after some infraction has happened.

Reflecting upon such infractions, Anastacia Tolbert’s hybrid essay speaks to the anger, grief, and difficulty one may have navigating academia as a person of color, “speaking three languages all day (one language to my teachers, one language to my friends of color and one language to white peers and friends).” While “race” may be a “cultural construct,” this construct erects very real walls.

In the creative writing classroom, “White,” Black,” or “Latin@,” Marshall realistically reminds us, “the instructor is not always the most culturally aware person in the room.” Having a sexy book of poetry or simply being a person of color doesn’t necessarily make a professor/teacher the best person to advise in these complex situations. As such, for students and teachers alike, it is always advisable to pursue those trained allies, like Maya, who’ve spent their careers in the midst of these delicate and inevitable discussions. Most universities have conflict and resolution offices with trained therapists and counselors that MFA departments should be in contact with (and if they aren’t, that may be a good and necessary first step to foster a diverse and healthy community).

In the end, Khadijah Queen and I wished to offer a space where the difficult beauties of being, of whatever being, are allowed to speak their unfinished integrity. There is no end to “identity” or the roles we give them. There is not any single “Black,” “Latin@,” or “White,” experience that may claim validity over any other. There is only our difficult telling. Our endless conversation “as a political program of uplift.”5


1Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York, Grove Press, 2008, pp. 91.
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2Ibid, 81.
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3Fleetwood, Nicole. Troubling Vision: Performance Visuality and Blackness. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011, pp. 21.
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4Ibid, pp. 21.
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5English, Darby. How to see a Work of Art in Total Darkness. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010, pp. 9.
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