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Joanne the Poet - The Poetry of Joanne M. Clarkson

Not Black or Native. Daring to Become Other Even for an Evening

I am so thrilled to have my poem “The Girl Who Wore Cedar” in the recently released WA129 Anthology put together by Washington poet laureate Tod Marshall.  This is a true poem made from the joining of two stories that began in my childhood.  It is dedicated to “Judy” someone I was almost able to call friend, especially in later years.  We were separated by ethnicity and culture, something neither of us could quite overcome.  I always felt her Native American heritage made her wonderful in a way I could never fully understand and certainly could never truly be.  She passed away from a heart attack two years ago.  There were many things I wished I had told her.  I think I made partial amends through my poem.

I encountered a similar quandary this spring when deciding which poet to channel for the Olympia Poetry Network Dead Poets Reading.  I read the work of many, many poets over the past several months, searching for words I resonated with and also for poets that expressed some sentiment that would both protest and heal the System.  The words I felt most drawn toward were those of Gwendolyn Brooks, a loving talented woman, the most famous poet that I have actually met in person. But I felt reluctant to assume her persona.  Unworthy, I guess.

I have never lived the Black experience.  How could I presume to speak words from that perspective?   There are elements of Brooks’ life that I could identify with: motherhood, working womanhood, even having less economically than many of my peers in childhood.  But I have never even driven through the south side of Chicago.  So I chose another poet.  But then I came back.

I realized that by rejecting the intense study of and communion with Brooks’ thoughts, words and soul (for what is great poetry if not soul?!) I was showing a false humility, maybe even prejudice.  So I took her on, as mentor, as heroine, as sister.  And what I gained was amazing.

To depict her character I wore a long black skirt, black blouse and black boots.  In many of her photos she is wearing a turban or snood so I ordered a black one off the Internet.  And I stood proud and tall on the platform and proclaimed – for this brief time and space I will have the courage to become a Black woman in the Projects, a mother so impoverished there is no choice except abortion.  A poet who sings from second- if not first-hand experience, a truth that is universal.

Thank you, Gwendolyn.  Thank you, Judy.  I am a more complete person because of what you risked through me.

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