Mar 5, 2019

Unlearning Poetry with Pat Parker

Sometimes it’s hard to engage with a love song when you’re not feeling loved. Sometimes you’re in love and cannot relate to pain. Sometimes your feelings are not sophisticated enough to understand the poem. Perhaps this is why I’ve been in a loop of reading the poetry of Pat Parker for the past two years. The complete volume of her work sits on my coffee table next to a wine bottle I use for water. They say dehydration is the reason to all your aches, so I keep it in the range of my sight as a reminder to drink. When I first laid my hand on Parker’s work, it was not hard to fall in love with a radical handsome woman who casts waves of meanings from her vulnerabilities and strengths. Her queer jokes made me giggle, her love poems fell on me like stones. I continue to return to her poems with no expectations yet feeling safe and assured that I will find something. The more I grow and experience, the more her poems reveal themselves to me.

Parker’s poetics are not sentiments or rhetoric, they are epistemological sounds that can only be received and transmitted on common grounds. When I share her work with friends and lovers, most of them writers or artists, they are quick to judge its aesthetic of ease, flow, vernacular, and rhythm (aka non-elitist black aesthetics); they call it “simple.” The abrupt shortness of her poems is not amusing to them, the absence of titles signifies a lack of craft. I was amazed to find out that such accusations were not new to Parker’s work. In her day, the same judgments were communicated in reviews.

Sometimes, they were even addressed in tributes to her work. In her review of Parker’s Jonestown and Other Madness, Adrian Oktenberg writes: “if Parker’s poetry is simple it is deceptively so. She gets down on paper complicated states of feelings, lightning-quick changes of thought, and she deals with complex issues in language and imagery that any bar dyke can understand… You don’t have to have an education in poetry to read her poems, though the more you have, the better the work becomes.”

Perhaps as Oktenberg suggests, it is the reader that fails to enjoy Parker’s simplicity in non-simplistic terms. The elitist conditions of expecting poetry to come over you as an explosion of images, an exhibit of tools, a disarming breath-taking experience surely make it hard for the contemporary reader to relate to Parker’s poetics — their senses are too sharpened, sanitized, and sensitized for a poet who breathes very slowly through her memories, pains, and loves. Even her contemporary, Cheryl Clarke, has taken fault with Parker’s unpolished writings, and tried to justify it as an intentional move from the author to not lose her “vernacular power.”