In issue 87, poet Lisa Ampleman reviews three new books by Jericho Brown, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Rickey Laurentiis—three African American poets who each write about faith, identity, and injustice in different ways. We asked her to reflect a little on the connection between poetry, empathy, and justice. She was interviewed by Mary Kenagy Mitchell.
Image: First of all, when it comes to understanding people who are different from us, what does the reading of poetry have to offer that’s unique—that’s different from face-to-face interactions—or from prose?
Lisa Ampleman: Poetry, like anything we read, happens inside our heads, as we take in someone else’s words and think them through. We might also say those words out loud, putting them on our tongue and speaking them as if they are our own. Such experiences can help us with empathy. Studies have shown that reading fiction makes you more empathetic and that reading poetry makes you more self-reflective and stimulates the part of your brain that works on memories. The biggest difference between poetry and prose is the compactness of poetry, that you’re reading a condensed thought or meditation, rather than entering a created world.
This meditative, self-reflective act is very different from a face-to-face interaction, when we’re likely to reply immediately and therefore not listen as carefully. Poetry is something you can sit with and respond to later, or not at all. I’d also add that it’s not something you can see “comments” on or know who else has liked, unless it happens to be a poem linked on someone’s social media page.
Image: You reviewed work by three terrific emerging poets: Jericho Brown, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Rickey Laurentiis. How has spending time with their work changed you—personally or politically or as a writer or neighbor?
LA: It’s a little too early to say how they might impact me as a writer (I haven’t had as much time to work on poetry lately). I’d love to try an exercise like Rickey Laurentiis’s interrogation of the Wallace Stevens poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery,” to enter the language of another poet but utterly transform what is said. Rachel Eliza Griffiths uses the page in more expansive ways than I’ve ever tried, and Jericho Brown is just flat-out fabulous. I feel like I can’t even aspire to the clarity and richness of his meditations. I will say that each of these poets addresses spirituality in a way that is unapologetic and exploratory; I do hope to be able to do that in future work.
As a neighbor, I hope to be someone who listens and pays attention to others’ struggles. Each of these poets does that and encourages others to do so by their choice of subject matter.
I should add that although I chose these three poets because of their attention to spiritual matters, plenty of other emerging poets are part of the larger conversation about race and social justice. Here are just a few: Harmony Holiday, TJ Jarrett, Douglas Kearney, Nate Marshall, Jamaal May, Roger Reeves, Erika L. Sanchez, Danez Smith, Phillip B. Williams, and the late Jake Adam York.
Image: You grew up in Florissant, Missouri, just down the road from Ferguson. What was it like for you to watch the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting and not-guilty verdict unfold?
LA: After Michael Brown’s death and the protests that followed, I saw friends and family bewildered by the depth of the emotions in the protesters. A meme on Facebook with a grumpy-looking cat said, “Hey Ferguson…the whole world is sick of your shit.” When protesters lay down in the street in a busy shopping district for four and a half minutes in November, a friend of a friend commented, “That’s nothing a fire hose in these temperatures won’t solve.” It is strange to hear a town name I knew so well used as shorthand for the broiling state of race relations in contemporary America.
I wanted to be able to do something to show my support for my community, and conversations on social media left much to be desired. Being three hundred miles away, I had limited options. My sister who still lives there went to mother-to-mother events, and my brother-in-law has gotten involved in the restoration of Greenwood Cemetery, the first nondenominational commercial African American cemetery in the area.
So how could I contribute to the conversation? Race and injustice are subjects I haven’t been able to confront in poetry; in fact, right now it makes more sense to me to listen to those who know what they’re talking about. Reading their insights is the first step in a process towards understanding, and perhaps reviewing a few emerging and talented poets is the second.
Image: You’ve just recently had a baby. Do you imagine your son growing up and living in Missouri? Do you feel hopeful for Missouri?
LA: I would love it if my son had the chance to grow up in Missouri. I have a deep fondness for the state and the Saint Louis region, and I’d love for him to be able to know his extended family and get to experience some of the things I did as a kid: going to the (free!) zoo and riding on the train; visiting the Arch grounds, currently under renovation; floating down one of the many lazy rivers in the state. (That said, we live in Ohio, which has its own charms.)
In fact, I do feel hopeful for the Saint Louis area and for North County in particular. Though it’s impossible to fix extensive problems overnight, I hope that recent efforts help people there begin to understand each other a little more. The state passed a law limiting the amount of revenue municipalities can collect in fines and fees, so it’ll be interesting to see how that alters the relationship between law enforcement and those they serve. I’m also watching to see if the Ferguson Commission report leads to any changes.
Image: What themes or obsessions are you working with right now in your own poetry?
LA: I’ve become interested in how we experience, observe, and/or consume suffering. My desensitization to violent TV shows and movies seems to have gone away, and I can’t stand watching people be cruel to each other. For example, when my husband and I watched Twelve Years a Slave when I was four months pregnant, I had to ask him to turn it off. It made me feel sick. How can we be a witness to others’ suffering if we can’t bear to watch? How can we share our own tragedies with others when it’s difficult to speak of them? I don’t think I can answer these questions, but I’m sitting with them as I work on new poems.