Searching for Language



Written for the Institute for Inquiry and Poetics, University of Arizona Poetry Center

Join us for An Evening with Luis Rodriguez, Luivette Resto, Michael Warr & Peter J. Harris hosted by Literary Director Diana Delgado, on December 10 at 6:00 PM, Arizona Time.

Learn more here. 


Poetry is incapable of creating the conditions for change. Every day, however, poets prove that their art and action are fully capable of contributing to the radical transformation of society. Our society, which obscenely worships at the altar of maximum profit, feeds on social division and exploitation maintained through a perpetual denial of belonging. Artists possess the ability to activate and deploy their creativity in the interest of a multitude of belongingness.

I wrote “What Not To Do…(an unfinished poem)” under the conditions of an epidemic of immoral, state-sanctioned, killings of black boys and men that has plagued America since slavery. In writing, reciting, publishing, and digitally distributing this poem in response to systemic legal lynching I intend to consciously and collectively transform the conditions that birthed and perpetuate the terror. I name the victims of police killings, spell out the circumstances under which the force of the state randomly materialized in their lives, and capture how they were executed. It is a serial and “unfinished” work because, since 2018, I have continued to revise the poem with the names of new victims — offering a mere sampling of the ongoing slaughter. 

The poem “What Not To Do…” is typical for me in terms of content, theme, and emotion. I trace my exposés of police brutality and killings to my witness, encounter, and intervention in an incident where I found a police officer nervously shaking a .357 magnum in the face of an unarmed black boy, even younger than I was at the time, only two blocks from my family home and just a few weeks following my graduation from Woodrow Wilson High School in San Francisco.

As common as the theme of police brutality and police killings have become for me as a writer, the role of poetic form and the language that I use in “What Not To Do…” are very uncommon in my writing. It may be the least poetic of my poems in terms of language. Following is an excerpt of what has become an unfortunately long serialized work:


What Not To Do...

(an unfinished poem) 


Breathe:  Eric Garner (choked)
Sell  (loosies) 
Resist  (to death)
Stare:  Lamont Hunt (shot.) 
(back of head)
Make:  Akai Gurley (a jarring sound) (shot.) (“accidentally”)
Stand:  Amadou Diallo (in vestibule)
Carry  (wallet)
Loiter  (while walking) 
Look  (out of place)
Act  (suspicious) (forty-one. fired.) (nineteen. bullets. kill.)
Walk:  Terence Crutcher  (hands in air) 
Appear  (intoxicated) 
Have  (a “very hollow look”) (shot.) 
(in back)
Drive:  Samuel DuBose (without) (license plate) (shot.) (in head)
Drive:  Walter Scott (with broken taillight) (shot.) 
(in back) 
Move:  Kendra James (into driver seat)
(after driver arrested) (shot.) (in head)
Sit:  Jordan Edwards (unarmed in car) (shot.) (with rifle)
Reverse:  Diante Yarber (too suddenly)
(thirty. bullets. fired. ten. kill.)
Park:  Tanya Haggerthy (on side of road)
Talk  (on cell) (on side of road) (shot.) (on side of road)
Drive:  Philando Castile (with broken brake lights) 
Carry  (legal firearm)
Announce  (you have a gun) 
Shout  (not reaching for gun) (shot.) (five. bullets. two. to. heart.) 
Crawl:  Daniel Shaver (toward officers) (as instructed) 
Pull  (loose gym shorts) (too suddenly)
Beg  (not to be shot) (shot.) (anyway) 
Approach:  Oscar Grant (the police) 
Beg  (not to shoot) 
Kneel  (shot.) (anyway) 
(in back)
Fail:  Sandra Bland (to signal) 
Act  (too uppity) (found hanging in cell)
Carry:  Anthony Lamar Smith (planted weapon) (shot.) (five. bullets.)
Carry:  Tamir Rice (toy gun) (shot.) (with. real. bullets.)
Carry:  Cameron Tillman (BB gun) (shot.) 
Carry:  Rumain Brisbon (prescription bottle) (shot.)
(two. bullets. to. torso.)
Carry:  Laquan McDonald (knife in road) (shot.) (sixteen. bullets.)
Carry:  Miles Hall (gardening rod) 
Have (schizoaffective disorder) (shot.)
Carry:  Steven Demarco Taylor (baseball bat) (at Walmart)
Have  (a manic episode) (shot.)
Not carry:  Keith Lamont Scott (a gun) (when told to drop it) (shot.)
“Drop”:  Kajuan Raye (a gun) (“found” later) (shot.) 
(in back.) 
Be:  Natasha McKenna (schizophrenic)
Be (“superhuman”)
(stunned while shackled) (50,000-volts) (to death)
Be:  Tanisha Anderson (bipolar) (head slammed to pavement)
Be:  Michelle Shirley (bipolar) (while driving) 
(thirty. bullets. eight. to. chest. back. arms.)
Be:  Shereese Francis (off) (meds) (four police bodies suffocate) (on bed)
Be:  Aaron Campbell (suicidal)
Be  (unarmed) (shot.)
Be:  Yvette Smith (“armed”) (when not armed) (shot.) (on front porch)
Be:  Mike Brown (“too large”)
Be  (same height as shooter) (shot.) (six. bullets.) (two. to. head.) 
Be:  John Crawford (an “imminent threat”)
Shop  (for Walmart air rifle)
Carry  (Walmart air rifle) (at Walmart)
Talk  (on cell phone) (at Walmart) (shot.)
(with. real. bullets.) (at Walmart)
Be:  Terrance Franklin (a suspect) (shot.) (five. bullets. to. head)
Be:  George Floyd (a suspect)
Be  (a 6-foot-7 Black man)
Be  (claustrophobic)
(asphyxiated) (knee on neck) (while handcuffed)
Be:  Tony McDade (trans)
Move  (“consistent with using a firearm”) (shot.)
Pose:  Ezell Ford (an “immediate threat”) (shot.)
(while schizophrenic)
“Display:”  Manuel Loggins Jr. (a “mean expression”) (shot.) 
(in front of daughters)
Call:  Charleena Lyles (police) (while mentally ill) (shot.) (seven. bullets.)
Fit:  Jordan Baker (“the description”) (shot.)
Flee:  Freddie Gray (“unprovoked”) (spine severed) (in custody)
Run:  Stephon Clark (through grandmother’s yard) 
Carry  (cell phone) (shot.) 
(twenty. bullets. fired.) (eight. hit.) (“primarily”)
(in back)
Run: Chinedu Okobi (unarmed in traffic) (tased) (to death)
Run:  Walter Scott (shot.)
(in back)
Jog:  Ahmaud Arbery (shot.) (two. bullets. kill.) (while hunted)
Play:  Atatiana Jefferson (Call of Duty) (in bedroom) 
(little Zion watching) (shot.) 
Sleep:  Alyana Jones (on couch) (shot.) (one. bullet.)
(to. seven-year. old. head.) 
Sleep:  Breonna Taylor (in bed) (shot.) (eight. bullets. kill.) 
Sleep:  Rayshard Brooks (at Wendy’s)
Flee  (for daughter’s birthday)
Point (dead taser over shoulder) (shot. two. bullets.) 
(in back) 
Walk: Elijah McClain (home)
Look (sketchy)
Play (music)
Wave (hands)
Wear (ski mask)
Shop (for iced tea)
Carry (iced tea)
Resist (contact)
Act (“crazy”)
Explain (can’t breathe)  
Beg (to go home)
Be (“super-human”)
Be (anemic)
Be (an introvert)
Be (suspicious)
Be (agitated)
Be (“tense”)
Be (“on something”)
Be (medicated)
Be (undetermined)
(choked) (to death)




The starkness, the cold autopsy-like cataloging, the focus on the victim’s name, the exaggerated punctuation, the painfully plain language are purposeful. My intention is to honor the victims, make the unaware aware, and expose both the perpetrators and the mundaneness of the incidents precipitating the killings. 

Typically, poetic form is less important to me than the music, rhythm, and message of the poem. In “What Not To Do…” the form is critical and so necessary, that I had to create a structure to maintain creative continuity in a poem that I would be revising with morbid regularity as the killings continue. I had to discipline myself to resist turning each despicable act into a separate poem. I had to restrain my journalistic instinct to add more detail and background. While writing and editing the poem I was concerned less with whether or not it was poetic and more concerned with creatively conveying its content. It’s truth.

In contrast, in the poem that I wrote in response to an invitation to honor the poet Bob Kaufman on the release of Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman, released by City Lights Publishers, I adopted language that to some extent is not my own. I did this not as a plagiarist but as an explorer seeking language that fits the purpose of the poem. I knew Bob Kaufman only through the wizardry of his words, which is why my poem is titled “Searching for Bob Kaufman.” 

I was born in 1955, the year Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" at Six Gallery in North Beach, and although my literary journey began in San Francisco, I was not directly influenced by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beats. I was, however, radicalized as a teen during the Black Power, anti-war, American Indian, La Raza, and Feminist movements, I assume that those movements and the Beats, including Bob Kaufman, indirectly influenced me. Kaufman was among the poets in Three Thousand Years of Black Poetry, an anthology that I stole as a teenager. I credit many of the poets in that collection for my adolescent audacity to claim myself as a poet. I was entranced by Kaufman’s unique style as I wrote a praise poem to him. I was writing again in a form that was atypical for me.


Searching for Bob Kaufman 


Hieroglyphic petals 
illuminate an adolescent trek
through the paper fields, flat plains
and edited savannahs
of “3000 Years Of Black Poetry.” 
The traveling Trickster emerges 
centuries of chapters away from
Africa’s ancient poets Anonymous 
spine-to-spine with those known: 
Wheatley, Dunbar, Brown, Hughes, Brooks, 
King, Jones, Evans, Giovanni, and Cruz 
bound to the sticky fingers 
of this Black Boy 
seeking non-mystical space
between liberation and Ecclesiastes.
He never knew this sometimes 
speaking-in-tongues saxophonius poet 
except through sorcery etched in ether, 
in improbable perfect juxtapositions, 
in mind-bending visions manifest
in maddening unmarred stone, in gravity- 
defying language turning the underground 
upside down,
in silence deafening to those who want 
to listen, in sonic waves of syllables
soothing the soul of Blue Whales, 
in explosive lines fueled by heavy water,
in inaudible beats drowning out fascistic love-ins,
in inescapable jailbreaks from forced criminality,
in masses of massive solitude out in the open, 
in iterations blocking unblocked iterations, 
in revelatory secret acts of resistance.
Inside the mind of a Milky Way 
a black hole absorbs our light
to be enlightened.


I believe that ultimately the form and language of my poems are tethered to their purpose. I am conscious of the shift made when moving from observation, commentary, cataloging, and searching, to a mode in which I am writing with the hope of transforming minds and conditions. When I write with the intention of transformation, I struggle with my belief that “language is not enough.” Based on the intent and purpose of “Searching for Bob Kaufman” I find that language is enough. For the intended purpose of “What Not To Do…(an unfinished poem)” I find that language is not enough. I feel the need to connect that poem and its language to social movements, organizations, distribution platforms, and to people beyond the book or screen. I feel the same way about belonging. 

I identify with the words of John A. Powell and Stephen Menedian in The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging

Belongingness must be more than expressive; it must be institutionalized as well. To counteract othering, we must focus on providing access to resources and critical institutions to disadvantaged groups.

In the introduction to my anthology Of Poetry & Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, I write:

As a lifetime practitioner in the arts brandishing creativity sometimes as a subtle and often blunt instrument for radical commentary and dreams of sculpting social transformation, I think of this book as a singular tool in a toolbox of many tools that will be lifted to fix what ails America. It is my intention to reflect a universe in which it is impossible for poets and poetry to exist in a social vacuum. Ultimately there is no protective divide between the acts of the poet and acts of the society and system in which they create. The frequently automated brutality, unrelenting inequality, and senseless, unjustified, amoral police killings, confronts and endangers each of us in some way at some point. This book is as much a call to action as it is a call to embrace the relevance and humanity of its creative content. 

Language is one of those tools.

In Teaching to Transgress Bell Hooks responded brilliantly to Adrienne Rich’s line “This is the oppressor’s languages yet I need it to talk to you.” Hooks writes:

Reflecting on Adrienne Rich’s words, I know that it is not the English language that hurts me, but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize. 

What will we “do with it?” There is much we need to do. I suggest we include the act of seizing belongingness with both the language of liberation and the instruments of social transformation.

Learn more about Michael Warr here.