Last Tuesday, a long line of students wrapped from the doors of Finn House onto the sidewalk of Wiggin Street. The attraction was none other than three fantastic poets: Hanif Abdurraqib, Eloisa Amezcua and Emily Jungmin Yoon.
Speaking to a packed Cheever Room, they read their verses and talked about their writing process, along with other topics, such as the role of politics in poetry, K-pop, the arbitrary nature of awards season and Oscar best picture winner “Green Book.” Hosted by the Kenyon Review, the three poets offered revolutionary poetry: at times empowering, at times funny, but always deeply reflective.
The reading began with Abdurraqib. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist and cultural critic whose work has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American and various other journals. His essays and music criticism – which walk the line between poetry and prose – have been published in The FADER, Pitchfork, the New Yorker and the New York Times. They Can’t Kill us Until They Kill Us, his second book, was named book of the year by Esquire, NPR and Pitchfork, and his newest book, Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest is a New York Times best-seller. He is also a frequent instructor at the Kenyon Review Young Writers summer program.
Sporting a jean jacket and a backwards cap, Abdurraqib stepped up to the Cheever podium with his iPad and wasted no time. “I’ll be short,” he said. “I only have one poem to read.” The unpublished piece was a sprawling 13-part epic about blackface in America: a series of vignettes that sifted through Abdurraqib’s personal experiences with blackface as well as the history of blackface in American film. Detailing with sharp wit the movie scenes from the 1930s as well as his own skincare routine, Abdurraqib peeled through a racist tradition still relevant today. “I’m starting to think it’s more than just the color of my skin that you want,” he read. He was met with a loud ring of applause.
Next up on the podium was Eloisa Amezcua, the author of three poetry chapbooks: On Not Screaming, Symptoms of Teething, winner of the 2016 Vella Chapbook Award and Mexicamericana, as well as the book From the Inside Quietly. Hailing from Tucson, Arizona, Amezcua read poems about the tender relationship she holds with her family, her identity as a Latinx woman in America and the hyper-normalisation of school shootings. When asked by a student if it was hard to write about atrocity, Amezcua flatly replied: “It’s not hard to write about the ordinary, the daily. The horrible reality of school shootings is that they are so common now that they are part of our everyday experience.”
After Amezcua finished reading, it was Yoon’s turn. Yoon, the author of the poetry collection A Cruelty Special to Our Species, read what she called some of her “greatest hits.” One of the first poems that she read wrestled with global warming, while “Bell Theory” shared her experience as a Korean immigrant. She continued with another poem about the Korean War. She took short breaks between each poem, pausing to take sips of water. “Stay hydrated,” she reminded everyone.
Despite the number of accolades and awards that each poet has earned, they care less about their success as celebrities than their success as writers. “I don’t give a f— about awards,” said Abdurraqib. “I have a lineage to uphold.” Similarly, Amezcua mentioned that she could never write for an awards committee; she writes for community — for people that will read her work and consider it human.
Each poet, in their own unique way, ties the political to their writing. “No piece of writing is completely divorced from politics,” Yoon said in response to a student’s question. “That very stance, treating poetry as apolitical, has ideological implications. Even nature is political.”