Oklahoma

“when any heat at all rises,/ and becomes a visible thing”

When I was 24, my car broke down in Cherokee, Oklahoma, about 60 miles from my parents’ home, one week before I hopped on a plane that would take me to Fairbanks, Alaska. In Fairbanks, I would meet the poet Derick Burleson, who was born and raised in Cherokee, Oklahoma. There aren’t many people who have lived Oklahoma prairie and Alaska boreal forest. Derick lived this. He also lived Texas and Montana and Kansas and Rwanda and many other places. There aren’t many people who have lived a life as varied and rich as Derick Burleson’s, even though that life ended too early, at the age of 53, just a few nights ago.

I last saw Derick at AWP in 2014. I heard his laugh first, big and a little cracked. I followed the sound until I saw his beard, and then the rest of him. Like his facial hair, the man was bold and brilliant and slightly wild. He brokered no small talk, immediately moving to the horrors happening at UAF, and from that to championing the poetry of Marick Press, and of Alaska poets, and of Oklahoma poets, and of any other poets he could manage to champion in our short chat. We said we would try to catch one another later that week for a drink, perhaps while seeing Eddie Kim, whose poetry we were both so happy to see getting support and recognition at Kundiman.

We didn’t catch one another that week. And, aside from a few scattered emails over the last nine years, we didn’t really catch each other at all. I won’t pretend he and I were terribly close personally, because we weren’t. I was not, and am not a poet, and when I was in Alaska, and to a lesser degree now, I was/am a judgmental shithead, and he quite rightly didn’t really want to hang. He was very close to many others, though, and the outpouring of love for him across social media has been a heartening thing to see.

I did take a class with him, Forms of Poetry, and before the semester began, I met with him in his office and told him I was taking it so I could better teach an undergraduate Intro class, but that I had no delusions as to my poetic ability—I was not, and would never be a ‘real’ poet. He squinted at me until I finished talking, let me sit in a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, then told me that everything I had said was bullshit. I needed to celebrate taking that course. I needed to take that time to be a ‘real’ poet. That being a ‘real’ poet was about a way of seeing, a way of living. How privileged was I to be given the chance to spend time as a poet in this life?

That’s my paraphrase of our conversation, anyway, filtered through time and memory. But I do remember specifically that he used the word privileged.

Derick taught English in Rwanda from 1991-1993.  His first book, Ejo, bears witness to the community experienced before the genocide, the lives of those murdered, and the lives of those who survived. Most remarkable, I think, is his ability to celebrate and mourn with equal vigor, to see the joy and humor and sadness and horror and articulate it all. He brings this same honest eye to his books Never Night and Melt, which also celebrate the beauty and joy in life even amid its horrors, whether those horrors be enacted by the intimate violence of child abuse or by the global violence of climate change. Through all three books—throughout his life—Burleson kept his eye vigilant and steady, and he rendered, beautifully, what he saw with words and with paint.

I believe real harm is done by flinching away from life. Flinching happens in several ways. Sometimes it is the refusal to see life as it is at all, to close our eyes and make our own realities. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the joy. Sometimes it is willfully seeing only the horror. But to do any of this—to flinch—is to bear false witness. Art of any meaningful kind cannot flinch.

On election night this past year, like so many, I sent this poem to friends (pardon the GIGANTIC screenshot font, there is not a great deal of editing going into this post):

screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-2-22-06-pm

 

I wasn’t as surprised by the election results as others. I grew up among the stone throwers. I have lived among them elsewhere, as well. But even within places where the stones fall in hailstorms, I have found people building shields, mending wings, working to help the people taking aim question why they do so.

In this poem, whether there are good bones or whether this is solely a sales tactic is not explicit. In the weeks following the election, I found myself waffling over whether America has good bones or if social progress is simply a sales tactic of capitalism. I still do this waffling at times. I won’t pretend otherwise.

Right now, I think America does have good bones. There are also some shitty old pipes and entire walls that need to be demolished, and a helluvalot more work to be done as well, but the popular vote count has helped to reassure me that there are good bones, meaning, of course, that there are enough good people to get the work done.

Progress is not a solid, forever forward-moving process anymore than a house, once built, is forever sound. Both require diligent, vigilant, difficult work. The damage sets in, I think, when we flinch.

My adult New Year’s Eve tradition (barring the few times I have been persuaded out into the world, which have mostly ranged from disappointing to disastrous) is to light some candles, make several pots of tea, or pour several glasses of wine, or tip several measures of whiskey (usually all of the above), and write and read until I absolutely can no longer do so.

And while New Year’s Day belongs to writing and reading fiction (and eating black-eyed peas, which is a thing, I promise), New Year’s Eve night belongs to poetry. There is something more contemplative, for me, about the form, and I am at my most contemplative on this night, a natural enough response, I guess, to a communal marking of the passage of time.

I read again Heaney’s “Beowulf.” I read again the poems I favored in childhood, like Noyes’ “The Highwayman” and Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and certain Shakespearean monologues like Edmund’s bastard speech. I dig back into Richard Hugo’s letters. I go honky-tonking with Carrie Jerrell and head into Katrina with Natasha Threthewey. I let Claudia Rankine school me on my white privilege and fragility. I mosey back to Oklahoma with Joy Harjo and Jeanetta Calhoun Mish and John Berryman and B.H. Fairchild. I find poems from old friends on ancient computer files and read Jacob Robert Stephens, Brooke Sheridan, Lisa Janout, James Raines, Eddie Kim, Damien Cowger, and so many more. I pick-up books by newer friends like Melissa Range and Anne Barngrover. I spend some time just trawling the Poetry Foundation’s website with words I love—myopic, cleave, scurry, hollow, etc…

This year. This night. I will be reading Derick Burleson. A few poems of his—“Ejo” and “Never Night” (from which I pulled the title of this post)—are part of the yearly refrain, but this time I’m going to sink into all I have with all I have. Through child abuse, alongside genocide, beside melting glaciers, and more, Burleson looked at life and saw the good bones amid the real shithole. He saw it and he did what I hope to do this coming year and all my coming years. He kept a steady eye. He did not flinch.

Down in a Deep Dark Hole

In what was once Lootie, Oklahoma, a small coal mining town that dried up when the coal seams did, sits the ruin of a clapboard house my family calls The Old Place. It was inhabited by my great-grandparents, and my mother lived there for a time, when my grandmother was between jobs and husbands.

Growing-up, my mother would take us on a pilgrimage to The Old Place each Thanksgiving. Sometimes someone picked-up an old bottle or a tool, but we were really there to hear stories. My mother’s favorite stories, the ones she told most often, were of hard times hardening the people who lived through them.

There is the story of the time a dog got into the smokehouse and ate the meat and how her grandmother, who in most stories is the kindness woman to ever draw breath, beat that dog until it was nearly dead.

I know. I don’t like this story either.

But my mother does. Her eyes light-up when she tells it. She revels in this otherwise kind woman turning violent in desperation. In the past, I have judged my great-grandmother for her actions and my mother for her revelry in them. Part of me, I guess, always will.

But my life is one of privilege when compared to the lives of the people who lived in The Old Place. The life of a dog is worth more to me than it is to people who have hungered. I know this. We are shaped by our circumstances, and, in comparison, mine have left me a doughy mush.

There is another story my mother tells with delight that I have never enjoyed.

My great-grandfather (the husband of the woman in the story above) helped organize a union of coal miners who struck in demand of the black lung benefit. The strike lasted for seven years. Seven years of no food but what they could grow or scavenge. Seven years of hunger, of watching children and grandchildren hunger.

The union finally won, and the union men went back to work, and when the union men began dying, their widows and orphans received compensation.

But scab coal miners die the same dry-land-drowning union men do. And when their coughs turned, they came to my grandparents and asked if they might join the union, so their children and widows would be looked after.  According to the story, the sweetest-woman-to-draw-breath told them something along the lines of, “when my children went hungry, yours were fed, and this is the price for it.”

I don’t like this story. But I never watched my own grow weak. Never heard them cry with hunger. I have no idea how living through that would make me behave.

I know that a little over a year ago, I thought myself the kind of person who lived with a forgiving heart. Then a bad man entered my life. This man caused the suffering of those I love dearest. He caused a small child to suffer. He did this for a long time.

And suddenly, there it was, this hardness inside of me. This wish to see another human come to harm. There were times, I admit, I wished him dead.

And now I know something more of why my great-grandmother allowed those around her to go hungry when she might have eased their suffering. I still do not celebrate her decision, but if I saw those scabs as responsible for the suffering of my family? As responsible, no doubt, for the deaths of others?

I don’t know. I try my best to hold compassion towards my fellow humans. This bad man showed me there are times I am not able to do so. I resent knowing myself capable of such darkness, but knowing this has taught me compassion for the people in my mother’s stories, people whose hearts hardened under suffering.

The dark seam he exposed in me has provided some light.

Where the Winds of Change Do Not Sweep

When I was in grade school, my teacher sat myself and two boys down to let us know that we had the worst handwriting in the class. She turned to the boys and said something along the lines of, “But that’s okay. You’ll be doctors or professors someday.”

She turned to me and handed me a penmanship book.

This is the story I tell my students when they comment on my ugly handwriting. I explain that part of me developed my current scrawl out of spite, and that I continue to feed off of this nugget of resentment–each  and every slash is a small defiance against the misogyny in which I was raised.

My students are shocked by that story. They consider me to be old, but they still cannot believe that this ever happened to a woman who isn’t, like, ancient.

It’s one of the tamest stories I have. And I would not in any way be surprised to discover that such things were still being said to young girls in schools everywhere. It would especially not surprise me to discover that such things were still being said to young girls in Oklahoma.

Oklahoma is not a progressive place. In case you thought otherwise, please turn your attention to the recent OU Frat video. Or to the state’s consistent ranking as one of the worst states in which to be a woman. Or to pretty much anything that spews from the ignorance hole of Senator Jim Inhoff.

It was surprising, therefore, to discover that prostitution and solicitation are both misdemeanors and are treated equally under Oklahoma law. Pandering (pimping) is the felony.

In many places, for many years, solicitation has been treated as a lesser crime than prostitution. There are several movements currently seeking to end this, including End Demand, which focuses on how this discrepancy in the law has fueled human trafficking.

So it was weird to see that in Oklahoma, at least on the surface, johns and prostitutes are considered equally culpable.

But of course, there is the law, and then there are the people who enforce and interpret the law. You know, like the Ferguson PD or Antonin Scalia. Judges and police and lawyers are often placed under public microscopes. Most people at least know that they exist as part of the justice system, if for no other reason than it might actually be impossible to live in America and not see an episode of Law & Order. It would be like having never seen a McDonalds logo. Or the sky.

But until I read “We Extend Our Condolences” by Brian Ted Jones, published in This Land Press, I had no idea that another piece of the judicial system even existed. This piece is called the Crime Victims Compensation Board (CVCB). For those of you as privileged as myself (thanks again, white skin!), I’ll give a brief overview.

As you might have guessed by the name, CVCBs were established so that crime victims and the families of crime victims are not left in debt due to things like funeral costs, court costs, etc…California created the first program in 1965, and nine states were operating such programs by 1972. Oklahoma, ever on the cutting-edge, established its board in 1982.

It seems like a pretty good thing, all-in-all. The family of a murder victim, for example, shouldn’t go bankrupt from their deceased loved one’s medical bills.

But there are some restrictions on who can receive compensation. I’ve included the full list for Oklahoma in a note below, but it’s typical law stuff: jurisdiction, timeliness, cooperation. The last one, though, is troubling–

  • Compensation that could be awarded to a claimant shall be reduced or denied, depending on the degree of responsibility for the injury or death that is attributable to the victim.

Some people, this says, are responsible for their own pain, even their own deaths, and we are not paying these people.

Okay, as chilling as that thought might be, I guess I can imagine a scenario in which this seems to make sense. Imagine, if you will, a duel between Vince Gill and Garth Brooks.

vince gillgarth brooks

 

(because this is Oklahoma and because the thought of this cracks me up for some reason)

If Vince Gill challenged Garth Brooks to a duel, then spent time in the hospital after being shot in this duel, it would seem strange to then compensate Vince Gill for the hospital costs he incurred.

To my knowledge, however, this is not the sort of case the CVCB tends to handle.

“We Extend Our Condolences” focuses on the murder of Tiras Johnson, and explains that Tiras Johnson’s mother was denied compensation from the CVCB because of Tiras’s alleged gang activity. The letter his mother received, as Jones represents it, states:

—–On January 17, 2014, Netarsha Johnson, Tiras’s mother, received a letter from the board, explaining that “[a]n award of compensation cannot be made if the victim’s actions contributed to the criminal incident. The incident appears to be gang related and the victim exercised poor judgment by choosing to be a gang member.”—–

“We Extend Our Condolences” focuses on the process by which Tiras was tied to gang activity, then discusses how “gang activity” is often used to deny people of color their compensation in Oklahoma. Read the article. It’s intriguing in the best ways.

And since Jones does an excellent job of focusing on the race problem the CVCB has, I’m going to focus on something revealed in just in a few lines of the article:

—–The family of a male victim received a 50-percent reduction because of his “involvement with a known prostitute,” while a female victim’s eligibility was denied outright on the ground of “prostitution.”—–

I’m drawn back to those two lines. If you know me at all, or have read nearly any post on this blog, you can guess as to why these two lines caught me.

I checked with Jones to make certain that the woman and man mentioned above were victims of homicide. They were. This means that the CVCB denied compensation because they believe the john was partially responsible for his own death, and the prostitute was fully responsible for her own death. Why? Well, because he was a john and she was a prostitute.

The police did not say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths. The DA did not say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths. The court did not say that these victims were responsible for their own deaths. The police and the DA and the court investigated, arrested, and convicted people of their murders. Until the CVCB became part of the process, these two people were victims of homicide.

But the CVCB? The CVCB decided that they were not victims, they were accomplices.

This decision does not seem to align with the Oklahoma laws governing prostitution and solicitation. Prostitution and solicitation are both misdemeanor offenses, remember. And Oklahoma law treats these offenses equally, yet somehow the prostitute was 100% to blame for her own murder, while the john was only 50% to blame. Maybe there were other factors that went into these decisions, but these were the ones cited.

And should there have been other factors? Shouldn’t the same laws apply to the CVCB that apply elsewhere in the justice system?

The justice system is a troubled place. It most often rains its trouble on the vulnerable. Read the DOJ’s Ferguson report. Or talk to any public defender.

Every now and then it gets things right. Once, for instance, it investigated and arrested and prosecuted a person who murdered a prostitute. The police did not shove this case into a drawer because the victim was a prostitute. The attorney did not charge this person with a lesser crime because the victim was a prostitute. The court did not fail to convict because the victim was a prostitute.

But then, somehow, after all that went right, there was yet another piece of the system that said a woman was responsible for her own murder because she was a prostitute. This piece said to a murdered woman’s family that she was an accomplice in her own death.

I would ask how this is possible, but this is a question I don’t remember asking. Growing-up in a place like Oklahoma means that racism and misogyny, along with the abuse of power and the miscarriage of justice that can arise from these forces, have never seemed like tales from days of yore.

I envy the question, “How is this possible?”

 

___________________________________________________________________________

 

NOTE 1:

There is an appeal process for those denied compensation from the CVCB. However, the first step of this process sends the appellant directly back to the exact same CVCB that denied the claim. Then, if it is denied yet again, the appellant can resort to the court system. I could find nothing on the Oklahoma DA’s website that laid-out exactly how the process would work at this point, probably because this part of the process doesn’t work. What are the odds that the family of a victim denied compensation can afford this kind of drawn-out battle? A battle that is obviously meant to discourage appeals at all, or why would the first step be back to, rather than away from, the very people who first denied the claim?

NOTE 2:

Full list of conditions that must be met in order to receive compensation from the CVCB of Oklahoma:

  • The crime must have occurred in Oklahoma.
  • The crime must have been reported to law enforcement within 72 hours of the incident. The Board or administrator may find good cause for failure to report within this period. Exceptions are always made for child victims.
  • The claim for compensation must be filed within one (1) year of the crime-related injury of the victim.  The one (1) year deadline may be waived and extended to two (2) years for good cause, and may be extended beyond two (2) years only in child sexual assault cases.  In no event can other claims be extended beyond two (2) years.
  • The claimant is required to fully cooperate with the police, prosecution and other law enforcement entities during the investigation and prosecution of the offender.
  • Compensation shall not be awarded to a claimant if it would benefit the offender or an accomplice, and the claimant must not have been the offender or accomplice.

How to Grow a Racist from the Ground

Grow-up in sort-of-rural Oklahoma. Know very few black people. Spend 0 time thinking about the lives of black people and how they might differ from your own. All the terrible stuff, like slavery and segregation, happened forever ago. All the white people around you say as much.

Feel optimistic about the world.

You shouldn’t.

Have your grandfather explain that white people were created by God while black people evolved from apes. Tell your sisters this theory. Listen as they try to explain how to love a racist.

Feel confused.

You are.

Announce your crush on Dwayne Wayne from A Different World, have people start calling you “Jungle Fever.”

Feel embarrassed.

You should be, but not for the reasons you think.

Have the lone black woman in your church be asked to stop singing in the choir. Don’t be told her race is why, but recognize that one day there are only white people in your church.

Feel uncomfortable.

You should.

Be told not to drive down Leona Mitchell Street in Enid because it’s dangerous. Some other day, be told that the houses on Leona Mitchell Street are painted bright colors because black people live there. Leona Mitchell Street is dangerous. Leona Mitchell Street is where black people live. Black people are dangerous.

Feel naive.

You are, but not for the reasons you think.

Go to college.

Study theatrical performance and English literature. Get into arguments about color-blind casting and the music of Miles Davis. Do this only with white people in the room.

Feel righteous.

You aren’t.

Obtain a degree in English Literature without having ever read James Baldwin.

Feel bad.

You damn well should.

Move to Colorado.

Have a white dude at the posh resort where you serve drinks ask if you know what the other word for a Brazil nut is. Call the library reference desk because you think this is a genuine question, that he wants the scientific name, because you don’t recognize that he’s trying to connect with you as a fellow white person. Take that man’s tip.

Feel like a Judas.

You are.

Travel! See all of the places you’ve longed to see! Get drunk in Munich! View the Mona Lisa! Watch the sunrise behind Uluru!

Feel enlightened and brave!

You aren’t.

Move to Kansas.

Listen to your brother-in-law crack-up at the joke he and the other white people like to play in the packing plants and slaughter houses. They yell “Policia!” and watch all the brown people run.

Watch the other country club members you serve leave when the only black members arrive.

Feel like a coward.

You are.

Move to Alaska.

Have the white men in your workshop call Edwidge Danticat’s work ‘ham-fisted’ and ‘tone deaf.’

Date a man who thinks ‘the politics’ of Beloved gets in the way of its ‘art’ and that, overall, Morrison writes too much about slavery.

Take zero courses on African-American literature. In fact, leave with an advanced degree, one that allows you to teach college-level courses, having read only a smattering of books and poems by African Americans.

Feel like a fraud.

You are.

Move to Texas.

Get coffee with a guy who now works for a major publishing house who says, in regards to Junot Diaz, “I mean, I feel like as long as you’re a non-white person, they just hand you a publishing deal.”

Have a graduate student say he thinks there are genetic differences that make white people superior to black people.

Overhear that an undergraduate, in response to a slave narrative, said “I mean, we’ve all had shitty bosses.”

Don’t say much of anything to these people.

Feel like a dastard.

You are.

Move to Ireland! Write poetry! Go to the ocean! Write poetry about the ocean! Feel better!

You shouldn’t.

Move back to Oklahoma.

Overhear the n-word dropped by white people so many times you gotta scrap it outta your sneaker treads with a stick.

Go to a concert. Have a guy brandish his KKK membership card for a drink discount at the bar.

Have the campus police come to your classroom and arrest your only black student for reasons that are never made clear.

Feel like the problem.

You are.

Move to Missouri. Teach at an HBCU.

Teach in an entirely white department. Have too many conversations with people in your department about “thugs” and “criminals” and “the good ones.”

Have a colleague say, regarding the reading list you helped compile for the course, “Maybe we can read something that’s not about black people? You know, something for everyone?”

Teach “remedial English” by framing all the lessons as learning the language of power so that they can access it. Have it hit you one day that you can’t frame shit, and that you jumped from blue collar to white collar just so you can stand in the front of a classroom and jerk on iron collars.

Feel disconsolate.

You should.

But this is not enough. It is not enough to feel confused and embarrassed and uncomfortable and naïve and bad and like a dastard and lousy and like a Judas and like a fraud and like a coward and like the problem and disconsolate.

Feel all those things.

Go on now.

But don’t confuse feeling these things about racism with fighting it. Feeling these things is not the work. And your ass has got a helluva lot of work to do. Thankfully, people have already told you what you need to do.

So do the work.

It’s going to make you feel all kinds of terrible things. Go ahead. Feel all those things. Feel them, but don’t let them stop you.

You stop, people die.

Do the work.

 

End Note:

Writing about race from my own experience makes me feel like a Fox News panelist, but it’s the only experience to which I can speak. And silence is not the answer. So here this is, as much to myself as to others. But let me be clear—

I AM NOT WHO ANYONE SHOULD BE READING ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA

Instead, I think you should go read my friend Nicole Saltzman’s blog post. It was written after the murder of Trayvon Martin. She posted it again after the murder of Michael Brown. I hope she doesn’t continue to have cause to re-post it. I fear she will.