I taught seventh grade forever, it seems, and when I was allowed, I squeezed in poetry as much as possible. I can recall standing in front of some rather unenthused faces trying to convince them of the wonders of Evelyn Tooley Hunt's poem, "Mama is a Sunrise." It was one of the few poems that appeared in our anthology. In those days, we talked about the strategies of craft, but I wanted so much for them to see the simple delicacy of the choice of each word and line in this poem. As a teacher in a junior high, I did a lot of dancing, trying to infuse students' lukewarm bodies with new energy.
Mama is a Sunrise
When she comes slip-footing through the door,
she kindles us
like lump coal lighted,
and we wake up glowing.
She puts a spark even in Papa's eyes
and turns out all our darkness.
When she comes sweet-talking in the room,
she warms us
like grits and gravy
and we rise up shining.
Even at night-time Mama is a sunrise
that promises tomorrow and tomorrow.
In doing a bit of research, I realize that Hunt, who also wrote as Tao-Li, was famous for writing the poem "Taught Me Purple," the poem which inspired the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
Taught Me Purple
My mother taught me purple
Although she never wore it.
Wash-grey was her circle,
The tenement her orbit.
My mother taught me golden
And held me up to see it,
Above the broken moldings,
Beyond the filthy street.
My mother reached for beauty
And for its lack she died,
Who knew so much of duty
She could not teach me pride.
According to some sources I read, she liked to write about other cultures, and clearly from the use of her pen name, Tao-Li, she took that seriously. I am reminded of the "scandal" in 2015 when Michael Derrick Hudson's poem was published in The Best American Poetry volume under the name Yi-Fen Chou.
I admire Alexie's comments. You may remember that Sherman Alexie was the guest editor, and he defended Hudson's choice. Evidently Hudson had submitted the poem 40 times under his real name and had it rejected numerous times before he submitted under the pen name. Alexie stated that he certainly did not like the subterfuge, but Alexie adds, "Rereading 'The Bees, the Flowers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve' with the knowledge of Hudson’s true identity made it no less compelling . . . “most important, it didn’t contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn’t been fooled by its ‘Chinese-ness’ because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian.” Alexie is a Native American and he " admitted that he had been “more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American”, saying that there are “many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community”, and that he was “also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.”"
Evelyn Tooley Hunt was a white poet who took on pen name,, and published under that name, AND who reportedly influenced the writing of Alice Walker's novel, The Color Purple (and subsequently the acclaimed motion picture of the same name) about brown-skinned people. Note: Nowhere did I find a reference to the poem in researching Walker's novel. That info was a part of Hunt's bio.
Clearly, Hunt did not receive the acclaim/attack/flack that Hudson did, but both situations raise some eyebrows. Why did both Hunt and Hudson feel so compelled to write using pen names with a distinctly different cultural origin?
The whole question of nepotism that Alexie mentions intrigues me as well. As an associate editor of the Rhino Poetry journal, it's hard to ignore the name used to submit a group of poems. Sometimes one or more of the editors knows the poet, sometimes, the poet is "famous" by whatever standards one uses, and often an ethnicity is suggested by the name. Is an unbiased reading possible? I leave that for you to answer.
Personal preferences obviously plays= a role in what we read, in what we like, but I don't know how a truly unbiased reading takes place. There's a whole mix of what makes a poem "good" and it's likely more than "good bones," to borrow the title of Maggie Smith Beehler's stellar poem and book. True "blind readings" are hard to do in our information-saturated world.
I do know that I wanted my students to love poetry, to love the bones in Hunt's/Tao-Li's "Mama is a Sunrise," a poem which I can still remember pitching to twelve-year-olds twenty or more years later For sure. And truthfully, my "mama" was a sunrise.
And I do know, as a reader and writer of poetry today, it's often hard to separate the "bones" from the poet.
The Revival Tour
Poet Bloggers 2018
Kelli Russell Agodon-
Donna Vorreyer – https://djvorreyer.wordpress.com
Beth Adams – http://www.cassandrapages.com
Sandra Beasley – http://sbeasley.blogspot.com
Carolee Bennett – https://gooduniversenextdoor.com/
Mary Biddinger – wordcage.blogspot.com/
Andrea Blythe – http://www.andreablythe.com
Dave Bonta – http://vianegativa.us
Jim Brock --
Angela T Carr
Kevin Connor – https://ordinaryaveragethoughts.wordpress.com/
Jared Conti – http://www.theoracularbeard.com
Jenelle D’Alessandro – http://www.borderandgreetme.com
Laura E. Davis – http://www.dearouterspace.com/
Kate Debolt – http://www.katedebolt.net/blog/
Heather Derr-Smith – ferhext.com/
Risa Denenberg – https://risadenenberg.weebly.com/blog
Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow http://cschwartzbergedlow.blogspot.com
Lou Faber – https://anoldwriter.com
Jeannine Hall Gailey – webbish6.com
Gail Goepfert –In the Mix gailgoepfert..com/blog
Sarah Kain Gutowski – mimsyandoutgrabe.blogspot.com
Erin Hollowell – http://www.beingpoetry.net . T
Crystal Ignatowski – http://somehiatus.tumblr.com/
Charles Jensen – https://charles-jensen.com/kinemapoetics-blog/
Jill McCabe Johnson http://jillmccabejohnson.com/blog-chanson-daventure.html
Collin Kelley http://www.collinkelley.blogspot.com
Anita Olivia Koester https://www.forkandpage.com/
Lakshmi – thiswinterheart.tumblr.com
Courtney LeBlanc – wordperv.com
Lorena P Matejowsky https://nothingbutblueskies.wordpress.com/
Marilyn McCabe O
Ann Michael – www.annemichael.wordpress.com
Amy Miller – http://writers-island.blogspot.com/
James Moore – jameswmoore.wordpress.com
LouAnn Sheperd Muhm – https://louannmuhm.com/
Gill O’Neill – http://poetmom.blogspot.com
Shawnte Orion http://batteredhive.blogspot.com/
Susan Rich – http://thealchemistskitchen.blogspot.com .
Lee Ann Roripaugh https://runningbrush.wordpress.com/
Sarah Russell – https://sarahrussellpoetry.net
Kim Bailey Spradlin – www.kimbaileydeal.net
Bonnie Staiger –https://bonniestaiger.com/
Rosemary Starace https://thresholdview.wordpress.com/
Hannah Stephenson – http://thestorialist.com
Stephanie Lane Sutton
Christine Swint – https://balancedonedge.blog/
Dylan Tweney – http://dylan20.tumblr.com/
Michael Allyn Wells:
Allyson Whipple http://allysonmwhipple.com