I’m a huge fan of Kehinde Wiley‘s work. His paintings – often inspired by medieval portraiture – juxtapose black masculinity and queerness as well as decidedly “urban” attire and fanciful backdrops. As he has discussed in interviews, he uses juxtaposition to de-stabilize or even explode our conventional notions of what it means to be a man/to be a black man/to be a gay black man/to be in power/to pose.
I think juxtaposition is one of the most powerful tools we have as artists. Setting two images/stereotypes/ideas on a collision course, so to speak, allows us, as writers & readers, to find comparisons and contrasts we might not have noticed otherwise.
For example, this weekend I read (and obsessed over) “Cyclic” the poem that opens Nancy K. Pearson’s Two Minutes of Light. The poem describes a memory of the speaker and her family looking for crabs and fishing at a marsh. “I am twelve. My father and his four girls / are fishing the yellow marsh. It is easy – / reeling in small loaves / of sunlight..”
In the middle of the poem, however, one stanza injects the present into that past. The speaker reveals, “I began slicing my wrists like fruit.. I demanded the world recognize / my suffering.” And then goes back to the memory of being at the beach. I found this structure to be a really interesting example of juxtaposition. We see a childhood memory juxtaposed against a blunt confession and even though the poem itself returns to that memory, we cannot forget the heavy information we’ve been handed. That juxtaposition has literally de-stabilized the memory. Pearson’s poem concludes, “We are four girls fishing / before the high tide, / before the water surrounds us // like a horse gallop, / how it explodes a field of birds — / black wings breaking a sure hunk of sky / into a thousand parts. “The poem is no longer about the time this speaker went fishing with her family. Rather, the poem becomes preoccupied with the time and experiences between that day at the beach and the woman the speaker eventually becomes.
I think Pearson’s strategy is brilliant. I think it’s worth taking as a lesson for my own writing.