Behind The Poetry: Emperor Penguin

Posted 2/12/2010 by smartblackboy in Labels: , , , ,

I have rarely actually talked about my own poetry - I like to think that the work speaks for itself.

However, since much of my poetry is autobiographical (and I recently had a great conversation with some friends about autonomy and art) - I figured that I will start a series where I expand on some of my poems - VH1 style - and discuss the real life situations that were going on that made their way into the poem (or didn't).

We will see if this is worthwhile or not.

Emperor Penguin

Ive been frozen in the suburbs for 19 years

without a parka on. Slippin on black ice, all white,

all boy school; Goin between two worlds in one city,

without a snowmobile – I was snowdriftin,

with friends chasin snowpowder,

brain freezing, trippin on ice, hangin down to our knees

wonderin why these white lines were makin nose bleeds?

And why Im behind this dumpster hidin from the police?

Shocked at the world behind popped collars and khakis.

Last month Giancarlo threw himself in front of a train.

Unable to flee suburban gated caged communities.

An atlas on piano he couldn’t shrug the weight.

Didn’t get to see 21, so we pour liquor,

gettin drunk tryin to make tears freeze-dry quicker.

I was trapped in a blizzard and thought he was still alive,

but its so cold in the snow you can’t feel people dying –

And even though my fingers are forever stuck to this pen,

my frost bitten hand can’t ever write him back in.

Crazy to think last summer we were snowdriftin;

Goin to the conduit, mac, and west village,

with shauna, danny, cour, and nikki.

We were all so young, so talented, and so damn hungry

Our eyes so wide we couldn’t watch TV.

My pen’s so charged I short circuited the electricity.

On frozen dark nights I’ve taken the stars and replaced them with black ink.

They call me young Dante cause I’ll show you the way,

And tell you bout them other things.

How I walked 8 blocks with a lonely lady who was an amputee,

but got her daughter into college cause of her infirmity.

Her story made me want to cry, it was beautiful to see

how her love for life transcended her vulnerability.

But I kept my face turned up, so hard and icy

Had to keep muggin them cause they keep muggin me.

Behind The Poetry:

One of the biggest challenges that I dealt with as a teenager was this incongruency between my surroundings, my culture, and my self. The first stanza, is really one of the strongest stanzas I've written in my life. There is this feeling that because you are from the 'burbs you don't have anything interesting to say, or that your story doesn't matter.

There are certain customs and mores that are respected in the 'burbs - the fixtures of the American Dream, and a certain level of "this is how we do things". So the first line of the poem is really announcing - this is where I am from: the suburbs, and I've been stuck there for all 19 years of my life.

However, it was never really that simple - and I really hope my poetry suggests that these types of issues of culture and place aren't ever really simple - because all of my life I have been caught between very different cultures.

There was the culture of my extremely wealthy, white, elite, prep-school. Then there was the culture of the mostly minority, mostly poor, West Dallas middle school where my mother worked, and where I would spend a couple hours at every day after school. And finally there was the culture of the middle class - where I grew up in DeSoto, Texas.

My daily life growing up in high school was divided between these different cultures that really could seem like entirely different worlds. However, what was surprising for me is that the drugs and violence that most people would associate with urban culture - I experienced them in the context of the elitist culture.

My first encounters with serious drugs, cocaine, was at a party in an Mansion filled with rich prep kids. The first time I ever had to hide from the police was at the elite liberal arts college I attended. And there was always a sense of shock for me - that wow this world, that is so hidden to most of the people I knew who were middle class or below, is really crazy - and just as crazy if not more crazy than what is portrayed as urban culture.

And, I am still trying to deal with how this reality didn't make sense with what I learned through the media, namely rich and white equals safe and successful. However, this poem was written because of the story in the second stanza - Giancarlo, a former school mate of mine, had committed suicide.

Now, at this time I was still super mentally and emotionally unstable - this is pre-therapy - and I had decided some time in high school, that I wasn't going to make it past being a teenager. So, to have a friend of mine, who was an incredible artist, had a scholarship to Stanford for his ability to play piano, a very creative and nice guy, who went to the best school in Dallas just like me - for him to have killed himself felt like a precursor and validation of my own eventual demise.

But the thing that bothered me was that I found out about it on a trip abroad where I gotten these grants to make art - and there was this sense that I had to keep on being productive, I had to finish this installation I was doing for a show in Panama. So, I couldn't even really grieve for him - I felt that I was too wrapped up in my own life. And when I finally did get around to doing it (this poem), I ran into the problem that this was just a poem - it is a nice gesture but it doesn't bring GianCarlo back- and that felt very sad to me - because I believe in the power of art as creation, and that when we create we are most like God - but in this case it wasn't going to bring him back.

So I did what everyone does when they realize they can't bring the dead back to life - reminisce about the "good times". I hung out with other artists -as most young artists do - and we were just starting to really believe that we could all change the world - that electrical grids would fail and stars would be replaced by the power of my art. However, I pivot from merely bragging about how great I was and my friends were, to telling you about "the other things". And this is really a form of more bragging, because I stole the rhetorical strategy that Dante uses in the Inferno - during this period of my writing I enjoyed slipping in references to classic literature - namely to let an informed reader (probably an old white one) know that I wasn't just another slam poet.

The final story in the piece is true - it happened while I was working at Target and had to help this lady take her purchases to the bus stop and then helped load them into the bus. And I remember being touched by the story - but as I said I was pre-therapy and didn't believe in crying. In fact, the ending is really about this need to always be tough and resilient no matter how much crazy stuff happens to you. Even if a friend dies, even if you are doing all these crazy dangerous and illegal things, even as you go between these different cultures, even as you are an artist, and yes, even when you hear a good sob story, you can't let your guard down, you have to stay strong, because if you don't - the world will tear you apart.

If you slow down and ease up for a second - you will be overwhelmed and devoured.

I definitely believed that at 19, and to a certain degree I do now. The world is often a cold and overwhelming place, and you do have to keep moving to survive. However, I don't think you have to be so hard - I think there is a lot more room for vulnerability than I would have allowed at that stage of my life.

But that was the reason I named the poem, Emperor Penguin - because these birds are amazing survivors and take amazing journeys. They are able to handle environments that most other animals couldn't. There is something majestic and royal about the species, and at the end of the day I was hoping that my life and experiences could be redemptive like that - that all of the craziness, all of the journeys between different cultures, the heartbreak, sadness, and pain, the human condition - that all of it would ultimately be redemptive and make me a stronger person, and I think that so far it has.

1 comment(s) to... “Behind The Poetry: Emperor Penguin”


Buckley Wheatish said...

Thank you for taking the time and effort to take us through this. Appreciated. :-)

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