Lately, I’ve been reading A Martian Muse: Further Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry by Reginald Shepherd. Many people are now familiar with Shepherd’s Oprheus in the Bronx the collection of essays published shortly after his death.
When I read the essays in Orpheus in the Bronx last winter, something in me broke open. I was sitting in a coffee shop, reading as much as I could before my poetry workshop that evening, and then next thing I knew, I was crying uncontrollably, embarrassingly. I can’t tell you what it is about Shepherd’s work that resonates so deeply with me. Perhaps it has something to do with my realization that so many of my black gay mentors in the word are gone: Melvin Dixon, Reginald Shepherd, Essex Hemphill, E. Lynn Harris, Don Belton.
It seems that I’m a student of ghosts. (Then again, most writers could very well say the same.) In tribute to these ghosts, I will be writing about their work throughout the summer. It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of them (or perhaps you love them even more than I do.) Regardless, I want to honor their memory & their words.
I’m working on a more elaborate post about Shepherd’s poetry but, for now, here’s a passage from his essay “What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry” that I read yesterday & have been running over my tongue ever since:
Some years ago, when I lived in Chicago, I attended a screening of a film biography of the late Martinican Negritude poet Aime Cesaire, a fascinating and challenging poet who also had a rather interesting life. During the question and answer period someone asked, “What does this film have to say to the average black kid on the street corner?” I wondered, “Why does it have to speak to him? Isn’t there enough in our culture that’s addressed to him, that panders, however patronizingly and exploitatively, to him?” And isn’t it insulting to assume that he couldn’t find something interesting and engaging in Cesaire if he were given the chance to do so? To assume that the mythical “average person” can’t appreciate anything complex is rank condescension. But in our culture, anything “intellectual,” anything complex or difficult, is not only marginalized but dismissed as irrelevant or, most damningly, “elitist,” often by members of the socio-economic elite.