Thank you, Twitter! Last year, I saw a tweet asking “What are crackers?” and, as someone who can claim the title, I replied. Later, this poem came around, and it got published in B O D Y Literature on April 1. 2019, the first day of National Poetry Month: https://bodyliterature.com/2019/04/01/michele-sharpe/
Crackers, most simply, are people from Florida, or people whose ancestors have been in Florida for generations. That would be me. But language is rarely simple.
“Cracker” can be a slur hurled against working class white (or white-ish) people.
Some might say that “cracker” is the Florida version of “white trash” or “trailer trash.”
Some might say that a cracker is any white rural Southerner.
Some students of language say “cracker” comes from Middle English or Gaelic “craic,” meaning boaster, braggart, loud talker.
Some historians say the first Florida crackers were landless cowboy types in the 1700’s and 1800’s who herded cattle in the Florida backcountry using whips (the crack of the whip) and dogs.
The term has been used to denigrate loudmouth people since Shakespeare’s time. Yes, I learned this and other things about the etymology of cracker from Wikipedia.
In the 1990’s, lyric-narrative poetry was all the rage, and I spent way too much time trying to figure out how to define that. Labels are often more trouble than they are worth.
But who doesn’t like a story? And a story combined with poetry can be very, very lovely. You get plot, character, setting, and all the rich sounds of poetry.Epic poems, like The Odyssey, are narrative poems, as are shorter poems like “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. And by the way, a fabulous new translation of The Odysseyby Emily Wilson came out recently. Highly recommended by me, and better people than me.
Contemporary poets like Sharon Olds and Aaron Smith write narrative poems. For some poets, narrative can be a way of working through trauma by becoming the storyteller and taking control of the story.
You know that saying “The winners make history”? Well, not necessarily. As Sharon Olds wrote “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.”
The poem below, originally published in The Powow River Anthology and in my chapbook, The Glass Transition, is a narrative poem. Like many narrative poems, it’s written in blank verse, which is unrhymed iambic pentameter. The “Angels” mentioned in the poem are the motorcycle club, The Hell’s Angels.
Hold a pebble in your mouth to reduce the sensation of thirst.
— Survival tip
It started in a washed-up biker bar,
First letting Judy, former puffer-queen
And party-girl for Angels brag on me,
Her college girl. The bikers lined up shots
And beers for me. I thought that I could take
The things I wanted from that world and walk
On whole to what I thought was next.The bar
Was full of idle whores who’d doped themselves
Together, piece by piece, so they could give
Up any piece they chose to later on.
Who did I think I was? They jumped me on
The sidewalk, snarled their hands around my hair,
My imitation pearls, as if these were
Just ropes to pull me to the leveled ground. The pearls spilled off into the gutter, small
White mice escaping sudden light. The girls
Got bored and went back in the bar, left me
To limp away, to leave a trail of hair
Along the bricks. What did I give up first,
To get the things I craved? This story rolls
Just like a pearl inside my mouth. It clicks
Against my teeth, against all kinds of thirst.
Charlotte Bronte, the author of Jane Eyre and other classic novels, had a method for getting unstuck in her writing. When she’d struggled during the day to write that next line, next scene, next bit of dialogue, she put herself to sleep wishing for direction from a dream.
It worked for her. In a big way.
I love vivid dreams, the kind that come in color, the kind you recall, the kind you try to slip back into if you wake too soon, the kind you write about.
For thousands of years, people have been interpreting dreams. Most of the time, I don’t feel qualified to do that. But the dream that inspired the poem below seemed to be a message about voice, and control of voice.
I’m still not sure exactly what that message might have been, but at least I got a poem out of it, a pantoum. The poem was originally published in Rogue Agent, a journal that publishes poetry that’s rooted in the body. The editor, Jill Khoury, is a fine poet herself. If you write poems about bodily experience, and you are looking to get them published, try Rogue Agent!
— for Mary Rowlandson
I pull out my own tongue,
having no trouble grasping it.
I tear it out gradually,
and when it comes loose, I fling it on the quilt,
having no trouble grasping
I must live now without a tongue.
When it comes loose and I fling it,
perfectly mauve, sleek as a fish,
I wonder: what can I swallow without a tongue?
It’s smaller than I’d imagined,
and I try swallowing without it
only to discover I’ve grown another already,
smaller than I imagined,
perhaps under the first all along.
If only to uncover another,
I pull out my own tongue.