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.

Susan Tichy on Telling the Story That Cannot Be Told Yet Must Be Told

In November 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect insurance monies. Relying entirely on the words of the legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert—the only extant public document related to the massacre of these African slaves—Zong! tells  the story that cannot be told yet must be told. When I first picked up a copy of Zong! and read those words, I knew it was a book I needed. The subject was doubly terrifying: the murders themselves, plus what M. NourbeSe Philip (a lawyer as well as poet) calls the magic of law, which can, through language, transform human beings into property. Yet the poet’s practice—finding the poem entirely within the evidence—was compelling, a mythic journey into facts, and into language. Flipping the pages, I found pulled phrases arranged by familiar tactics of lineation and parallelism, followed by what appeared to be elegantly erased pages, as inviting to the eye as to the curiosity. Yet deeper in, as the book’s sections unfolded, I came on more daunting pages, like those excerpted here from the section “Ferrum,” ungiving to the eye, difficult even to assemble into word and phrase. Would I be able to read this book? Would I be able to grow with it and into it? 

What I found is a book enacting the poet’s journey—and thus constructing ours—from a first section both easily read and emotionally available, through word clusters floating free from each other, with no phrase directly beneath another, onward to the breakdown and rebuilding of language achieved in “Ferrum.” At many points readers may want to drop out, feeling abandoned by the poet, disappointed in their own discouragement, angry at the text for what it asks of them. But look: discouragement contains courage only until we see that word, and free it. This is the method of Zong!—to see and to hear; to allow silence to exist, and grief; and to persist. Persisting, for Philip, meant seeking freedom within limitation by, as she puts it, locking herself in the text. Our job as readers is to feel that claustrophobia, and find our light within it, not passing too quickly through language and its discomforts. 

As the excerpt from “Ferrum” begins, the desire to read is baffled. What is all our f? What is ht fad? The pages offer no visual clues, no eye-rhythms for mind to follow, but the eye goes to work, gradually witnessing an emergence of image and narrative from chaos. We can rewrite the text, if we need to; it’s there to be found: and their fall our fall it was a bull market for guineas and for guinea negroes a bet in hope night fades to day day to night her dugs hang sacks of dry fear. What would we lose by this? At the surface, we would lose other words, floating into view then dissolving: ear mark, nig, and (continuing) heir and ear; the raise within praise and divisible from it; fragments of French, Latin, Yoruba, and ten other languages joining and splitting momentarily with English. Most of all, we would lose the passage itself, what Philip has called experiencing language as water. Water is a place to drown, as the murdered Africans drowned; but as she reminds us it is also true that sound carries far under water. 

Sound is concealed in these pages. To find it you have to read aloud, observe your own mouth, your own voice, reaching for completion, for the story. Sound helps you arrive, and as you arrive the grief and horror may break through, neither contained or containable. This kind of writing, this kind of reading, makes us accomplices, co-creators learning to voice the unknowable and the unbearable. It brings us closer to the dead while at the same time making tangible the uncrossable distance. Both sensations are the subject here, “the story that cannot be told yet must be told.” This is always the paradox of a “public” poem.

If you stare at these pages in bafflement, feeling skeptical, annoyed, shut out, or pissed off, start with the recordings at Pennsound, and just listen:

Writing Prompt

Imagine an archaeologist who excavates an isolated site and must draw evidence only from what is contained there. That’s going to be you. Choose a short source from the news, from history, or from an archive. Tragic or hilarious, clever, inspiring, or appalling—just make sure the subject is something you care about. Better yet: find a source you don’t quite trust. What is the story hidden there? Dig out of it every phrase and word you can find. Start with the obvious and work your way toward the most obscure, the most hidden. Write backwards, slice downwards, omit letters, recombine syllables, find or introduce white space, make audible what is silent. How many languages do you know? How many are lurking in your source? If you hope or suspect something may be a word, Google it. A hit might suggest a new direction, a hidden voice or character. It may help to know that the Gregson v. Gilbert decision, from which Zong!’s 182 pages were drawn, contains but a few hundred words. Curiously, it is also true that the ship was originally called the Zorg, meaning Care in Dutch, that the name was changed when the ship was refurbished and the painters made a mistake. Don’t fear your own mistakes. Don’t fear the journey. Every time you think you have reached saturation, extracted every shred of truth and nonsense from your source, begin again. What new text will you build from this dis- and re-assembly of “the facts”?

— Susan Tichy

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Susan Tichy

Susan Tichy

Susan Tichy is the author of seven books, most recently North|Rock|Edge (Parlor Press, 2022), a walker’s encounter with the coasts of Shetland, and The Avalanche Path in Summer (Ahsahta Press, 2019), a muscle-memory of a life in mountains. Her 2015 volume, Trafficke (Ahsahta Press), mingles prose and verse to investigate race, language, and her maternal family’s history, spanning from Reformation Scotland to the abolition of slavery in Maryland. She has written extensively about war and its human consequences, including the volumes Gallowglass (Ahsahta, 2010), Bone Pagoda (Ahsahta, 2007), and A Smell of Burning Starts the Day (Wesleyan, 1988). Her first book The Hands in Exile (Random House, 1983) was selected for the National Poetry Series. Her work has been published in the US, UK, and Australia, and been recognized by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, residencies at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat, and numerous other awards. She continues to research slavery in Maryland, with a focus on assisting descendants to identify their enslaved ancestors. Now Professor Emerita at George Mason University, she lives in Colorado, spending much of the year in a cabin she and her late husband built by hand.