Reflections On "Poem For the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent Well-Read Person Could Believe In the War Between Races"
Hi Ms. Cervantes,
I am a freshman at Lenoir Rhyne college and am currently working on a poetry presentation for english class. My group chose "Poem For The Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person, Could Believe In the War Between the Races" for our project and I am in charge of researching and presenting some historical background for the poem. I was hoping you could provide for me some information on this topic, maybe some things like: any specific events that triggered this poem? what were some things happening at this time? anything really would be of great help. Thank you for your time.
I spoke about this poem last year at UC Berkeley in the Poetry For the People class, and there is a video. There is a foto, too, of me taking a break from painting my new office/ living room aqua and sitting on the floor and typing a revision of what I think is this poem, if not the poem before it, "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway." I'll have to scan it for the blog. I suppose I was around your age, maybe a year older, when I wrote it.
I often say that I write poetry because I didn't speak, or rather, speak up. Poetry affords you the wonderful opportunity, sometimes, of getting the last word in. This poem was "written" in a speaking state, that is, I paced around my living room/ office late at night and spoke the poem out loud in its entirety before ever writing anything down. I recited it over and over - more to let off steam and to get it said. Something I needed to say. Something I couldn't say then. Something maybe unsayable as it is so much an individual experience, an experience of racism. And as an experience, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end; so the poem is sort of necessarily didactic as strategy. And, rhetorical.
The occasion was a party our circle of friends had; we were all writers living clustered nearby and had frequent barbeques and pot-luck dinners together. My best friend was the Chicano writer, Orlando Ramirez and his good friend was the novelist, James Brown (no relation to the singer) who is the "young white man" addressed in the poem. We were all young. And with different cultural if not socioeconomic experiences. I had founded my magazine, MANGO, and press, MANGO Publications which was publishing the first works of what is now regarded as the best of the best new Chicana and Chicano writers aside other writers including the talented and brilliant, James Brown who was younger than us all. And a bit of a drinker back then. I was a dedicated cultural activist, "cultural worker" as I liked to call it - I still am that. Well, we came head to head one night over my allegiance to the experience (of racism) - even though he knew in heart and sense that I couldn't "believe" it - and he asked me that exact question at the end of the night, at the end of what became a very heated argument where I spent most of the time flustered and tongue-tied. "How can you, an intelligent well-read person, believe in the war between the races?" By the time I got home to my little house next door (we all lived in what I think was a former farm workers camp in San Jose, California) I felt like a beer in a bottle, shaken up and ready to burst. That's when I commenced to recite. That's the only time I ever wrote a poem like that. I'm sure I had just written, or finished after several years, the poem, "Beneath the Shadow...", and I was reacting to its overt lack of politics and lyricism. I wanted to write a political poem. I was conscious of using the emotional energy of the catalyst of the event and words to propel me through. And, in no way is the poem a reflection on James, for whom I still feel a deep affection and respect for him as a writer and person.
I don't like this poem. I don't think its a very good poem. Its imagery is flat and uninspired. But I love this poem. I love its logopoeia. I love it when I read it - and cry. I love it when it makes others cry - because it hits a mark, a smudge, a truing, proud flesh.
It surprises me that this has become one of my most anthologized poems, appearing in about 200 publications and text books, not to mention circulated online. It ought to be considered in relation to my other work, about 500 other poems which do other things - as strategy, a literary strategy which is sometimes better than doing, or saying, nothing. The poet, Robert Hass, my "guru" and teacher for five years at San Jose State once critiqued this poem. I wrote it and turned it in for one of his tuesday night workshops. He said that the problem with it was that it was a political poem - and that political poems had to be smart. That never left me, that idea that political poems have to be smart; which I tried to replicate and rejuvenate in subsequent poems which I think of as smarter rewrites of this one: "Visions of Mexico While At A Writing Symposium in Port Townsend, Washington" and others that didn't turn out as well, and, in particular, my new series of 5 "docupoems" which include the published long poems "Bananas" and "Coffee."
The poem is not a political poem; it is a poem of the experience of racism. It is not smart, it is smarting; it is an emotional poem: e-motion: that movement after an act.
I usually present this poem in the context of my pro-literacy nonviolence work with youth. I always dedicate it to my high school counselor, who had once told my very Anglo boyfriend upon arriving at the school "not to expect much of this school as it's 86% Mexican" - and who told me not to apply to the college of my choice - or any college - in order to realize my stated goals of achieving my PhD from UC Santa Cruz and becoming an university professor. "I think you're setting your goals too high. You will only fail. You are not college material." So I followed her advised trajectory: I never applied to Yale. I went to San Jose "City" College where I graduated with high honors, then transferred on to San Jose State where I graduated with the highest honors, then I was accepted into the esteemed doctoral program in History of Consciousness where I am All But Dissertation. I am now a tenured professor in the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Poetry is sometimes the best revenge.
Thanks for asking.
Lorna Dee Cervantes