Acclaimed poet inspires dialogue about race, belonging, in the U.S. today

Reprinted with slight edits from the student-produced Weather Vane, Oct. 2, 2014. Written by first-year student Liesl Graber.

Lyrical words filled Lehman Auditorium last Wednesday evening, capturing the attention of both poetry fanatics and novices alike at the latest installment of Writer’s Read.

Members of the EMU community gathered together to hear the words of acclaimed poet Evie Shockley. She offered a challenging perspective on modern racism.

The innovative young poet commanded attention from the audience with fullness of voice and idea, aiming to inspire dialogue about the meaning of race and belonging in today’s society.

“Give me good energy,” Shockley encouraged, “because I can feel it in the air.”

Her request was unnecessary; energy seemed to surge from the audience as she read her works.

Reading primarily from her newest book, “The New Black,” Shockley used her craft to encourage thinking, to encourage feeling, and to question preconceived notions about race.

She proposed that freedom and equality do not exist in the quantities we have idealized; not enough has changed to liberate us from our pattern of sparking the hope of change before slipping back into racism.

Reflecting on Obama’s election in her poem “My Last Modernist Poem #4 or, ‘Re Re-Birth of a Nation,’” Shockley notes, “This miracle marks an end like year’s / end, the kind that whips around again / and again.” The song of hope is cyclical, soon to be drowned out by the echoes of history.

Through her poetry, Shockley highlights the tension she feels between positive and negative legacies of her childhood.

“My inspiration for this next poem,” Shockley chuckled, “came from a good friend of mine who tried to sell his blackness on eBay.” The audience expressed both relief and devastation by her jest, uplifted for a moment out of the crushing weight of sorrow evoked by the tangible darkness of her previous poems.

Shockley concluded by sending a metaphorical breath of life into several poems, including “acrobatics” and “duck, duck redux.”

She chose to compose these poems “just for fun because language is fun.”

The audience seemed to be in agreement, showing their affirmation with laughter and delighted murmurs of appreciation.

Following the poetry reading, listeners were invited to engage Shockley in a question and answer session.

… [Questions] varied from “What is your favorite poetic form?” to, “As a southern black woman, what are you looking for when you look back on history?” to, “Can you see poetic language as a healing process for the United States?” Shockley gave answers to each question.

“[We need] to take seriously the lessons of the past,” Shockley advised. “Having the mindset that we’re all in this planet together would prevent all the calamities we hope never come to pass in the future.”

The sense of authority in her words lingered in the air long past the conclusion of the evening. Mike Medley, chair of the language and literature department, publicly complimented, “That was one of the most moving poetry readings I’ve attended.”