Life in Public

What Sparks Poetry is a new, serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. In the newest series, Life in Public, we ask our editors to examine how poetry speaks to different aspects of public experience.

What does it mean to say that a poet is, as C. D. Wright has put it, “one with others”? What is poetry’s place in the public sphere today, of all times? How has life in that sphere been expressed in poems? Is all published poetry public speech? What is a private poem? What is occasional poetry? What is political poetry?

With questions such as these in mind, we asked each of our editors to select a poem written by another poet that addresses an aspect of public experience—that celebrates, historicizes, memorializes, critiques, questions, or subtly references its public element—and to write about what interests and inspires them about that poem.

We are excited to present to you the resulting sixteen meditations on the private and the public, and how the intersection of these states sometimes results in poetry.

Amaud Jamaul Johnson on Moving the Crowd

I first fell in love with language through Hip Hop. As a child of the late 1970s and early 80s, born and raised in Compton, a community rapidly changing, hung over from the collapse of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, let’s say, I inherited a skepticism of John Locke’s idea of a “social contract.” Of course, I didn’t understand anything about economics, politics, or history, or for that matter, systemic racism. I knew enough not to trust politicians or preachers. There was pain around me; inside my home and in the streets. I had cravings, a hunger for joy, a longing to escape my surroundings. I studied distraction. Maybe a desire for distraction is what makes us most human, but equally vulnerable and dangerous. I didn’t see my life represented in the media, aside from occasional news stories depicting my neighbors as animals. I couldn’t articulate what was missing. I wanted to feel visible, but not in the way a target is visible. All parts of me, the humor, the rage, the erotic, I searched for a voice both outward and intimate, performative and prayer-like. As a preteen, Hip Hop was gospel. While my grandmother was humming along with Mahalia or Johnny Mathis in the family room, I was in the back of our house, replaying unlabeled cassette tapes, hand-ferried across our junior high lunch room, featuring rappers like Egyptian Lover, Toddy Tee or DJ M.Walk, precursors to N.W.A. and Too Short. Uncut, uninhibited speech, street reporting. Those voices were “real.” Real talk, dope beats. This was private and public speech. I wasn’t much of a reader growing up, so my Sony Walkman was my most cherished possession. Now when I chastise my sons for spending too much time alone in their rooms on their phones, through their side-eyed smirks, I see my younger self glaring back at me.

Think of Hip Hop as the great-grandchild of the Blues, listing the Black Arts Movement and Old School Funk as its birthparents. Sterling Brown’s “Ma Rainey” is essentially a concert poem. Rainey, the legendary Blues singer from the early twentieth century, has been the subject of numerous critical and creative works, such as Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, or August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Like Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction, Sterling Brown’s poetry captures those “spiritual strivings,” the hurt and humor that continues to shape Black life. Brown’s poem draws from the Black Vernacular Tradition, reminiscent of his influences, Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Ma Rainey’s gravitational pull is the true subject of the poem. Brown catalogues, maps, and traces how multiple Black communities find a singularity through Rainey’s voice. Considering lines from Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar”: “The wilderness rose up to it,/ And sprawled around, no longer wild,” Rainey’s audience, from the “river settlements,” “the blackbottom cornrows,” and “lumber camps,” the “gold-toofed” “jokers,” are all moved to tears and made whole. Of course, Stevens wouldn’t have been invited to this party. This is a pilgrimage. “Folks from anyplace/ miles aroun’,/ From Cape Girardeau,/ Popular Bluff,/ Flocks in to hear/ Ma do her stuff.” The trails and tributaries of rural Black life funnel into her voice, her body. This isn’t entertainment. Rainey speaks for them, those who felt unwanted or unseen. For Brown, Ma Rainey is a template for the role of the artist as a public figure. Call and Response, the Cypher, the Ring Shout, this poem is a dance of voices: the speaker’s, Rainey’s, and the crowd’s. Rainey reaches into the spirit. Brown writes, [she] “git way inside us”…”She jes’ catch hold of us”…”She jes’ gits hold of us dataway.” What more can we expect from art? Who doesn’t want to be moved?

Writing Prompt

My first concert was the 1986 Raising Hell Tour. I was fourteen and the headliners were Run DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys, Whodini, and Timex Social Club. At the time, it didn’t feel particularly historic. My mother dropped me off at the Long Beach Arena with my two younger cousins, Kenny and Ryan. Midway through Whodini’s performance a riot broke out. Thinking back, riots bookend my adolescence, but that’s another story.

What’s your Woodstock? Write a poem from the point of view of someone behind the scenes of a concert or a public event, not a performer or fan. Who’s working security? Think of a custodial worker, the stage crew, or someone at the concessions stand, the people responsible for the quality of your experience. Offer them a song!

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Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Amaud Jamaul Johnson

Amaud Jamaul Johnson is author of two poetry collections, Darktown Follies and Red Summer. His honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, the Dorset Prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the Edna Muendt Poetry Award, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Kenyon Review, Best American Poetry, the Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, Crazyhorse, and elsewhere. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. More at https://amaudjamauljohnson.com/.