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.

Yona Harvey on Memory and Trauma

Maya Lin was a senior at Yale University when her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was selected from a pool of over 1,400 submissions. Because Lin was not yet an architect, the late Kent Cooper of Cooper-Lecky Architects was hired to communicate with the federal Fine Arts Commission and oversee the installation of “The Wall” in Washington, DC. The monument was dedicated in 1982 after some controversy among veterans’ organizations and other groups who disliked Lin’s minimalist design of black granite inscribed with the names of approximately 58,000 veteran men and women who were killed or went missing in the Vietnam War. Two months before the memorial’s dedication, it was decided that a flagpole and a statue of three soldiers would be added to the entrance in a gesture of compromise. This more conventional addition was completed and erected in 1984. In 1993, a bronze sculpture featuring three women was also added to commend the work of the 10,000 plus women who served in Vietnam. These moments of indecision, handwringing, and compromise are not unlike the moments of tension in poetry regarding representation, audience, agency, authenticity, authority, seniority, access, and accessibility, and so on.

This piece is in praise of Komunyakaa’s leaning into black granite, and how the “black face fades, / hiding inside.” The poem sparks in its surreal moments, the ones in which a seemingly endless black mirror captures the man who stands before it—and everything around him. To say, “I’m stone. I’m flesh,” is to speak, perhaps, in a soldier’s voice. One can imagine a soldier reciting those very words seconds before entering combat or the chapel doors of a memorial service. It’s a moment, too, when Komunyakaa, a Vietnam Veteran, briefly introduces the duality and conflict that will persist throughout the poem. It seems, too, a nod to the unexpected in art, a nod to “getting” Lin’s design. Despite the initial controversy, after all, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the most popular national U.S. monuments, attracting thousands of visitors each year.

Much of the poem’s brilliance resides in its house of mirrors tango with the present, with memory, and with the past. The stone wall is an entity unto itself—one whose intensity shifts with the light. The poem’s images float and cut: brushstrokes and wings, pale eyes, and lost arms—brutality and deliverance. It’s a poem that conveys trauma and “triggering” in ways that outlast what sometimes feels like the overuse of those words to the point of meaninglessness or numbness. It’s a poem that communicates a haunting quiet and internalized doubt. It’s unlikely that many groups would have objected to a memorial of conventional statues back in 1982. I’m grateful for Lin’s art that unsettled its initial viewers, that trusted veterans and visitors would see themselves reflected in the granite for better or worse, and for “Facing It,” which encapsulates that power so memorably in a poem.

Writing Prompt

Visit a public work of art or memorial that is significant to you. Pay attention to the people who walk, talk, or shout around you. Pay attention to the source of light.

Combine or contrast two seemingly unalike or unrelated images. Remember why the site is important—not only to you, but to the people and the environment you inhabit—try capturing that feeling.

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Yona Harvey

Yona Harvey

Yona Harvey is the author of Hemming the Water, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award in poetry and the Lucille Clifton Legacy Award in poetry from St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  She contributed to Marvel’s World of Wakanda, a companion series to the bestselling Black Panther comic, and co-wrote Marvel’s Black Panther and The Crew