This episode discusses “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou, in unpacking why you’re hearing so much historical (if still relevant) poetry in these parts, and little from the diverse voices of the now. Transcript follows the embedded player below.
Image of Maya Angelou is in the public domain, sourced from Wikimedia.org
Regular listeners will have noticed that the poetry shared has a distinct historical bias… With very few 20th Century and no contemporary works.
I wanted to touch on why that is, and how it fits with my desire to share a diverse range of poets, when minority voices had – by definition – much less visibility the further into the recent past we recede.
There are two factors at play.
Firstly, many of the more recent poems that I admire, such as Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which is among my favourites, have distinct narrative voices that are anchored in current and historic injustice.
I want to be clear here – I have no ethical objection to reading such a poem aloud, as that’s part of the experience of poetry, and taking on a speaker’s voice is also part of the empathy that poetry evokes.
After all, I have taken on the voice of a Pharaoh, a murderer, a statue, a God, a woman, an atheist and a prophet without hesitation, despite being almost none of those things.
And I will happily read “Still I rise” aloud to absorb it more fully and let it resonate through another of my senses – BUT
BUT there is an important distinction when a poem speaks for an individual who is a member of an oppressed demographic, and refers to a struggle that is ongoing.
On the other hand, it’s equally vital to remember that a poet who happens to identify with a particular community is not limited to writing speakers from that community – the usual rules of presumption and poetic empathy apply, even when a poet may incline towards writing from a particular perspective.
It’s important, in short, that seeking to empathise with and boost minority voices isn’t done in a way that limits them.
In “Still I rise,” the speaker addresses societal depictions of African American women in the U.S. She responds to these problematic presentations with a defiant distillation of power and the quiet optimism of inevitability, and it’s an utterly beautiful work – that is best shared by a more appropriate spoken voice than mine.
Can the poem speak to other struggles? Absolutely. It’s a broadly powerful piece, and readings from different perspectives may provide different insights and impact. But the imagery is such that it’s harder for my speaking voice to appropriately align with a poem that is profoundly gendered and profoundly rooted in a specific racial injustice that does not overlap with my own formative ancestry or experience.
I am not, to repeat myself, saying it’s immoral for me to read the poem – I think everyone should read this poem! I’m saying that a white, cis-male voice performing this particular piece, and others of a similar vein, would be a subversion of the narrative, and one of questionable value.
This distinction is also found at the heart of allyship, and is the difference between giving a platform to minority voices and co-opting or distorting those same voices. So I’ll encourage you to go and listen to Maya Angelou reading her own work, rather than diminish its impact by reading it myself – and I’ll leave a link in the show notes.
So that’s one factor at play – trying to ensure that pieces I choose to share here are appropriate when I read them – but the other concern is a little more pragmatic, and the same reason I don’t embed Maya Angelou’s voice in the podcast – it’s around copyright.
This varies slightly country to country, but I’ll use the US as an example, where copyright currently extends for 70 years from the death of an author. There are caveats on top of that – for example, the publisher of a particular edition has copyright for their presentation of the text – and fair-use rules can be thorny to negotiate, especially across different jurisdictions.
If this podcast eventually reaches a wider audience, I’d like to engage with some contemporary poets and have them share and discuss their work here – but that’s an aspiration rather than a plan at this stage.
Of course, if you happen to be a poet or a rights-holder listening to this episode, and would like to contribute, feel free to get in touch via Twitter or the website.
For now, though, this is an personal project with limited resources, which means a necessary focus on more historical pieces – but I didn’t want that mistaken for any arbitrary aversion to more recent and topical works.
I do have a particular love for 16th and 17th Century poetry, as well as the Romantic and Victorian periods—but there are many incredible poets alive and writing today whose works can cut and cure as readily as any of their predecessors.
So this episode comes with a little homework, which I’ll be doing myself. Jump onto Google and search for a contemporary poet.
Search for a poet who is also a refugee, like Behrouz Boochani. Search for a poet who has also experienced marginalisation because of their gender, like Trace Peterson. Listen to the breadth of their works, and both the universality and specificity in the voices of their speakers.
Because of their backgrounds, their unique contexts, they can evoke voices that I would struggle to reach, but impactful poetry is also a reliance on those regions where our shared cultural figures overlap, and a conjuration of empathy where it might otherwise elude our perception. It’s about finding moments of connection in the apparently different, and using them to slowly, inevitably, weave us together.