My dear writer-readers, I know so many of us have been struggling to write through the election fallout as we continue to witness the incomprehensible at our nation’s highest level. We’re coping with fears for the future. Real fears. The loss of civil liberties, healthcare, and medicare, a rise in hate crimes, the possible dismantling of public education, total disregard for the environment and the health of the planet, and on and on. How do we recover our voices? How do we continue to hold hope? Ultimately the answer is to show up to the page, that transformative, thoughtful place that allows us to access the deepest parts of ourselves. One of the most inspiring reads I’ve come across recently is NTOZAKE SHANGE: ON A BRILLIANT BALANCE OF ANGER AND POETRY, which also speaks to sharing, community, and collaboration.
Zaki always knew who she was talking to and who she was singing for: her peers, her sisters, her community. She always understood that creative writing is enmeshed in a community. Her mind was not focused on literary critics or the commercial publishing establishment. To say that she did not see writing as a professional career is not quite right; rather she always thought poetry was like making music, something you did with your friends to celebrate being alive.
So from the beginning Zaki’s efforts were almost always in collaboration—with other writers, with musicians, with artists, with dancers, with actors. Her body of work is more collaborative than any other writer I know. It’s the community again, a community of artists and friends that grounds and surrounds her work and locates it in its historical specificity. And that specificity in Zaki’s case meant being a woman and being Black in the America of the 1960s, a situation that demanded political involvement. The women’s movement had already taught us that the personal is political—and if you happened to be a woman, if you happened to be black in this society at this time, the personal was intensely political and politics, the politics of oppression and resistance was inescapable. And oppression generates anger, or more precisely outrage, which is anger at injustice, which can be a great danger to the poet or artist. For, while outrage can be an enormously powerful motivator of political action, it holds the danger of corroding the creative spirit.
But anger was required if you were a black woman poet who found herself in a deeply racist and misogynist society, and in the 1950s and 60s that was pretty much the case with America. And anger is hard for the poet who, as Auden says, sings songs of praise of what is. It’s hard to sing if you’re angry.
What always impressed me about Zaki’s work was that she was able to keep that just anger hot and alive, but she also knew how to keep it properly focused, to keep it in check and not to let it consume her entire being. “Combat breath” she calls it in one of her essays. Mastering the anger rather than being mastered by it, she could go on being essentially—even quintessentially—a poet, one who celebrates the impact of the live moment as it bursts into language and song.
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