stable first person narrative subjectivity


CW: police violence, anti-blackness, interpersonal and institutional racism, erasure of difference between black people, scientific racism

What does it take to make an I?

  1. perception: two black little girls, best friends, “are you sisters?” Confused for the only other black girl at the high school because darkness obscures meaning. Single suspect, black male in hoodie stopping every black man walking the streets, being refused recognition as discrete.
  1. body: we habeas corpus dead on the street, after gunshot, chokehold, taser steal the breath, words, heartbeat and other essential elements. Still have the body but they’ve taken away what makes it human – the Black Body strip-mined for it’s vitality backs turn to the eyesore medical examiner has the body.


  1. discernment: “I didn’t mean to,” “Don’t take it like that,” “Look at the circumstance,” “How could it possibly be.” a national gaslighting.


  1. free will to chose between two houses behind a red line, between sink and shower for lead water, between earth and air for toxic waste, between left and right for seat at back of bus, between super-predation and life in hell for representative on the world stage.




Process Piece: I was thinking about the conversation we were having toward the end of class on Tuesday about the preponderance of seemingly stable first person narration in What I Say and what might make certain forms or styles of poetry more difficult than others. This line of thought lead me to wonder about the ways that the stability of personal subjectivity – as a concept – could be informed by race and in what ways the lived experience and psychological content of racism might undermine the stability of a first person narrative voice from its very inception. Above is a somewhat poetic (hopefully!), inexhaustive list of possible necessary constituents of first person subjectivity and the ways that racism troubles or explodes them. The piece is not meant in anyway to suggest that Black people do not or cannot have personal narrative subjectivities. Rather it might suggest the ways that such subjectivity, as a deracinated or race-neutral concept, obscures and denies the circumstances of and incursion upon Black subjectivity formation. In actually putting together the writing, the question of license continually arose. I ended up making the choice not to use the word I within the poem (except in quotations) in order to both avoid complicating the point about subjectivity with explicit authorial voice and seeming to speak for experiences which I do not personally share. Also, this is definitely a draft and I think I’m looking for some guidance on how best to approach editing poetic writing.

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2 Responses to stable first person narrative subjectivity

  1. Erica Mena says:

    This is wonderful!! I’m really interested too in the idea of an “I” that is stable and how that becomes either universalized (usually taking a white, cis, male subjectivity and extending it, erasing legitimate other subjectivites) or subjectivized (writing about specific racialized, gendered, etc. experiences) as though those two are mutually exclusive, even in traditional poetics. I like that you’ve identified four ways of making an “I” and I’m interested in the order of them – perception comes first, implying to me the primacy of being (or not being) seen. I wonder about self-perception? And then about dissonance between how a self is perceived by oneself and how it is perceived by others? And then about how self-perception can and does change over time, and how an “I” can allow for that kind of mutability?

    In terms of editing poetic writing, I tend to push towards extremes. So I’d identify how the work is engaging with tools of language and poetics and then see what happens when those elements are pushed as far as they can go, until the poem breaks down, and then pulled back. For example, what if this list had every possible way of interpolating an “I” listed? What if the imagery that comes in at the end “earth and air for toxic waste” were extended throughout the list? Etc.


  2. Erica Mena says:

    It occurs to me too, that Noah’s reading of John Keene’s self portrait engages with these ideas as well:


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