Poetry & Refusal


In preparation for writing this blog, I have been making a practice of taking into consideration what I find compelling about poetry.  I consider myself a poet, though I often find myself working at transgressing the perceived boundaries of what poetry “is”, a kind of border-vocabulary for something I appreciate for its capacity to call the “sense” of borders into question. 

My earliest encounters with poetry that I can recall were in the folding chairs of Mission Temple of Faith, the black pentecostal church of my childhood.  It was the oratorical skill of the preacher, but also the song and hum, the moan and unsayable things carried on the black noise of those who worked the too-long hours during the week and were able to lay their burdens down in a Sunday morning riot of sound.  It was the sound.  The tradition of speaking in “other tongues”, sound structured into something unrecognizable as if to turn the rational ordering of an anti-black world on its head.  Tongues as Glissant’s din, which if we are take him seriously know “is discourse too.” And there is something so black about all of this, which is to say there is something so fugitive and expansive that I find compelling about poetry, it is poetry’s tendency for refusal. 

In her 2019 breathtaking book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Saidiya Hartman writes of the wayward, which is to say radical, practices of young black women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Towards the end of the book Hartman has a chapter titled “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible” where she speaks to waywardness as “the avid longing for a world not ruled by master, man or the police.  The errant path taken by the leaderless swarm in search of a place better than here.  The social poesis that sustains the dispossessed.”

And this is perhaps what I find to be among the great possibilities in poetry, in blackness, it is its committed dissatisfaction with the present ordering of the world.  A dissatisfaction that isn’t interested in rearranging the binary of ruler and ruled but eliminating it altogether.  The promise that I find inside those early encounters I had with poetry, which is to say sound, which is to say blackness, is an everyday anarchy, a skillful ungovernability.  Blackness, a kind of country for those who with Brand, “don’t want no fucking country” is the possibility of an otherwise belonging, one that will not fit into the mechanics of a market that thinks in best-of lists and sleek catchphrases.  Give me a poetry, that like the black congregation of my childhood will structure sound into something unrecognizable to order.  A poetry “in search of a better place than here.”

Chaun Webster is a poet and graphic designer who draws from an interest in graffiti, collage, simultaneity, and the visuality of text. Webster utilizes these methods to investigate race--the instability of blackness and black subjectivities, geography, memory, and the body. These investigations engage the question of absence, archiving what is missing from the landscape as a number of communities watch neighborhoods, once populated with familiar presences, dissolve in the vernacular of redevelopment and its attendant colonial logic. Webster’s debut book, Gentry!fication: or the scene of the crime, was published by Noemi Press in 2018 and received the Minnesota Book Award for poetry.

Brand, Dionne. Land To Light On. McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997. 48

Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. University Press of Virgina, 1999. 123

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. W.W. Norton, 2020. 227