Harlem Is Hijaz Is Havana Is Harar, Or: The Whole Point of the Black Arts Movement Is That They Were Moving by Momtaza Mehri

BOMB 148 Summer 2019
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“We will scream and cry, murder, run through the  streets in agony, if it means some soul will be moved, moved to actual life understanding of what the world is, and what it ought to be.”

— Amiri Baraka

 “I made a decent amount last year, too, and nothing really changed. Except I live farther. Everybody’s still sad. Everybody’s still dying.”

— Vince Staples

Poets really think they’re doing the most with the least. At the reading, I yearn to be unraveled. I work against the granularity of modern life. Try to exist in the room with & for other people without thinking, at least not too much, about what lies outside it. A reading is an out-of-body experience for everyone involved. A theater of echolocative sociality. Maybe the reading won’t change anything, as long as we are, in however fractional a way possible, changed by it. Poetry is the dream or the collective delusion of this possibility. No one is here on a rainy Thursday night for the sake of clarity. The world has enough of that. Murderous amounts to last us several epochs & then some. Besides, poetry is only ever a means to an end. Some of us would like it to be an end by all means, but we don’t all get what we want, or know what we want when we get it. Poetry is the confessional slide of cold tomato soup down the throat. An unintentional intentionality gushing from the spring of language, collecting its limitations in a pool of palms. The poet is a scalpel, mediating a room full of contradictions with practiced finesse. The poet performs public relations for the poem. Both do the work of disavowal. At its best/worst, the reading is an act of glorified self-flagellation. It lends grace to the auction block. The poet participates in, or tries to sabotage—which is another form of participation—the seamlessly transactional reality of the reading. The poet disappears within the folds of the poetry market, the capital-L Literature industry as configured and accommodated by finance capital. The poet revises their own self-mythology at least twenty times before breakfast. We are our own hype men. We are meticulously invested in the metanarratives of our marrows. It’s a hard life but somebody’s gotta live it (& it always has to be us). The poet attempts to grapple with these contradictions but subconsciously ends up quoting mostly men. The poet externalizes what they have internalized.

Everyone deserves a grace period. Even the graceless. Maybe, like all other assumed solidarities shared between the living, redemption is something you have to wean yourself off. Micro-dose your penchant for melodrama. Maybe a currency of wedding songs & cassette tapes doesn’t prepare you for a poetry market on a dying planet. I don’t want a seat at the table; I want a deck-chair from which to watch the table’s long-overdue burning. Maybe my problems with poetry are not my problems, to paraphrase the official bard of disavowal, Azealia Banks. They’re everyone else’s problems. It’s not you, I promise, it’s the wage relation. Will your book free us? To quote Marvin X quoting Sonia Sanchez. Apparently not since the stores are full of Black books & we still ain’t free. You’re not really supposed to answer your own question. The poet will not lead anyone that’s worth following. Maybe I’m just debilitated by the anemic paucity of our gestures. Maybe expecting the poem to do the work of freedom is self-preservation disguised as consciousness-raising. Maybe we demand too much of each other & too little of ourselves. There are battles I have no interest in fighting. I would love to say I figured this out the hard way, but I have an ineffable talent for giving up (which is another way of saying I belong to a people who can peep a rigged game when they see one, so why play a losing hand? Why play at all?). 

You would think getting published is a form of guerrilla warfare the way some people talk about it. I think of the reading and its countless absences. The subjects who I attempt to call into the room with me, as if their absence is not an intentional fixture of a self-reproducing ecosystem which mechanically incorporates me in their place. Mamas feeding babies, babies in classrooms trying to make it through the day with their souls intact, with their dreams intact, babies on the streets killing babies, babies in cages, babies underwater, babies being lied to their whole lives, babies believing these lies. I think of that time I was invited to a panel on the poetics of resistance the very same week a truck bomb killed 587 people in Mogadishu. If existence is resistance then who decides the Black poet exists? Who decided the Black poem is a Black poem? I declined the invite. I apologize for being unable to conduct myself unapologetically. A friend once said I’ve been cursed with the inability to lie to myself. Forgive me for being unable to scrape the insides of my mouth clean of falseness, of affected insurgency. Maybe the poet has to believe all this shit or they’ll go crazy. For Black Poets Who Think Of Suicide. Shout-out to Etheridge & all the mandem. Black poets should live, not leap from steel bridges. Prison poems ain’t nothing but poems written in this World. I tend to my arrogance like a needy lover, like a poet. Water it. Nurture it. Hoard its capacity for self-renewal in the soil of the communal hagiographies I sometimes call a poetics. A poet is drenched in a singularity, sodden with its viscous specificity. A poem speaks for itself exactly when it declares it speaks for others. The Black poet is an isotope of both hope & despair. The Black poet is both a reluctant & enthusiastic interlocutor of what is known as the Black condition, which conditions & structures the World that invented it. The Black poem asks you where it hurts & demands no particular answer. The Black poet knows this is a question one can spend a life trying to answer. The Black poet knows this is an unutterable well of an inquiry, one that folds in on itself in a serpentine loop of half-lives & hauntings. The Black poet knows this is a question too serious, too precious, too devastating to be left to poetry. Black poets work across various disciplines & this should color the contours of their poetics. Uber drivers, dishwashing divas, overworked single mothers, bored cashiers, crack fiends, snot-nosed toddlers with sticky fingers reaching for the games on your phone, sharp-tongued grandmamas, sore-footed granddaddies, detainee dreamers, fraud boy schemers, barbershop theorists, corner-shop vagrants, red-bottomed babes, white-thobed akhis, evil-eyed aunties, persistent mixtape peddlers, nurses who eulogize the dying twilight from the backs of night buses. These are the poets I pledge allegiance to. I know no other way. 

Momtaza Mehri’s writing has appeared in Vogue, Granta, Poetry, and elsewhere. She served as the Young People’s Poet Laureate for London from 2018 to 2019.

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Originally published in

BOMB 148, Summer 2019

Featuring interviews with Mary Weatherford, Nanfu Wang, Lee Quiñones, Venkatachalam Saravanan, Tyshawn Sorey, Ben Whishaw, Édouard Louis, Geovani Martins, Prageeta Sharma, and James Thomas Stevens.

Read the issue
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