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Pop Culture in Poetry: The Obviation of Timelessness

Illustration by Jordyn Flood and Dahlia Theriault, former Literary Illustrator Interns

On the first day of my senior year English class, my teacher handed each of us an anthology he compiled of poetry written by both classic and living poets; piquing my interest instantaneously was Morgan Parker’s “Slouching Towards Beyoncé”—a reference to both the pop-cultural icon Beyoncé and the essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem written by Joan Didion—and “Untitled While Listening to Drake,” which would later become one of my favorite pieces. As I recognized these musical artists, I knew I would be able to apply my understanding of their work to the text in front of me. Recognizing how these references contributed to the pieces made the process of reading these profound works even more enriching. 

Morgan Parker’s collection There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé explores Black womanhood, performance, and sexuality using Beyoncé as a poignant metaphor and vessel; however, Parker has been both criticized for and interrogated about her incorporation of the popular musician in her work. In an interview with New York Magazine, Parker pointedly defends her poetic choice: “It’s racist that people think that because I’m invoking a particular pop culture [reference] that it’s kind of new or different. Poets throughout time have included visual art and music and just the stuff of their world — but that stuff was like, the room at the Met that I skipped. We think of that as high art. It’s really just white art. That’s not art that I’m looking at; that’s not art that my friends are making. If I’m going to write poetry, it has to reflect who I am and the things that are making up my world and the things that I’m consumed by.” Parker critiques the culture by which she is surrounded in her poetry in a manner that is relevant for her and her contemporaries. While some view references to popular culture in poetry as cheap, they are truly ekphrastic; directly or indirectly, the poet has produced both a commentary on the artists and a vivid portrait of their associations with them. This is not so different from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work historically regarded with high esteem. 

Additionally, Morgan Parker’s highlight of the prejudicial criticism is crucial to understanding the significance of this discourse, as she is not the only poet who has experienced this exclusion. Poet David Tomas Martinez discusses the challenges he faced in his own literary communities in an interview with the literary journal 32Poems: “I have my memories of cultural, racial, class divides in [the] workshop where I felt excluded because I am not the traditional creative writing student. My parents were working-class and not college-educated, so my milieu was not filled with fine art, but pop art, if any art at all. That being said, I’m very proud of my upbringing. I wouldn’t change anything in my life.” Criticism of the inclusion of pop culture in

poetry often comes from a place of prejudice, as if the only valuable references in a piece of art are those belonging to “high-brow culture,” a term that in and of itself invalidates pop culture. Martinez’s upbringing is reflective of a large population of poets, and to exclude these brilliant 

writers by dismissing their work as cheap is disgraceful to poets and to the art form itself. The inclusion of one’s surroundings in one’s work is both primal and sophisticated. The array of poets using well-known imagery goes beyond those who are living. Ocean Vuong, another acclaimed poet, and novelist, discusses the natural inclusion of popular culture in all forms of art in an interview with Houstonia Magazine: “This goes back to me being a poet. I’m a poet, so I’m informed a lot by poets. It also goes back to William Carlos Williams’ credo of ‘no ideas but in things.’ He’s speaking of the modernist and imagist movement. His belief was that, particularly as it relates to American identity, that these icons and objects and the zeitgeist are what date and amplifies a lived life. We think of Andy Warhol being obsessed with Coca-Cola. He saw it as a democratic ideal. Whether you’re the King of Spain or somebody down the block, Coca-Cola tastes exactly the same for everybody.” These images are not mere pieces of linguistic kitsch. They are signifiers of time and space, unifying reader and poet. This instills empathy within the reader, strengthening both their relation to and understanding of the poet. A common critique of pop culture references in poetry is that it eliminates the possibility of timelessness; however, the works of these living poets suggest a greater human need for planting ourselves in time with a snapshot rather than recycling vague descriptions. We must ask ourselves why we value timelessness over immediacy, especially in a country with a sociopolitical climate that feels consistently tumultuous. Morgan Parker herself expresses her thoughts on timelessness in an interview with The Creative Independent: “Folks think of poetry as this timeless something that’s in a vacuum of beauty…I guess in our current American climate there’s such a need for urgent art, and poetry has a way of getting to the point. A lot of poets are able to say more and say it more honestly. A lot of people are just ready for it. They’re ready to hear something real. I think a lot of poetry is doing that. Also, poetry is scary to people because it isn’t always about logic or understanding.” The incorporation of references to pop culture is one example of poetry at its best: a meaningful collection of thoughts and ideas about one’s surroundings. It is of utmost importance that we encourage contemporary poets to continue to critique their surroundings and express their truths using whatever vessels they desire. When poets examine some of the most pertinent cultural issues while drawing from both our reference pool and theirs, we must thank them for being a driving force for our collective reckoning with our surroundings, however beautiful or frightening they may be.

Skye Tarshis
Skye Tarshis

Skye Tarshis is an eighteen-year-old first-year student studying at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Bienen School of Music. Her writing has been featured in high school publications such as BeaconInk and The Beacon Beat, as well as choral works written by composers André de Quadros and Pulitzer prize-winning Ellen Reid.

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A case for the land and its stories.

For many years, our collective imagination has been starved,  and we have only recently started to feel the hunger pangs. Amidst the explosion of art and writing that bursts forth from modern creatives, something is conspicuously missing.

Illustration by Camara Ward, a former Literary Illustrator Intern

The land.

As a society, we have largely thought about the land we live in and on as either a background or a resource; something to be appreciated for a moment or used, if it even crosses our mind. This isn’t a new tendency of course. For hundreds of years, colonization and manifest destiny have shaped western patterns of thought. Think of the US Bureau of Land Management or National Parks, for example. For all the various good they may do, they still distanced us from the animacy of the non-human and insisted that land is productive or beautiful or dangerous, but always it is for us

Now, though, we are facing the consequences of this narrative. The stories we have consumed for generations, the Johnny Appleseeds, the Paul Bunions, the classic westerns have made it all too easy to exploit the land while remaining deaf to its warnings. But the land has stories of its own to tell. 

It is time we listened a little more closely, tune back into the voices of our non-human neighbors and family. But how do we do that? As we have seen over and over, it’s hard to convince a people to unlearn the thoughts of generations.

I believe the place to start is with our stories. Stories are how we make sense of the world. They take the chaotic and overwhelming and make them into memories and lessons we act on. As Patricia Hempl put it, “What is remembered is what becomes reality.” 

For hundreds of years, the stories we remember as a society (and of course “western society” is an enormous generalization) have been those of colonizing powers, like the bucolic ideal of Huckleberry Finn or the man vs nature conflict in Robinson Crusoe. Other, healthier, more nuanced stories exist, but have often been overlooked or suppressed. The first and easiest step we can take to combat the narrowness of the dominant stories is to seek out those others. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amitav Ghosh, Linda Hogan, Arundhati Roy, NK Jemisin, and so many others both historic and modern have been pushing back against the idea that humanity is the center of everything (also known as anthropocentrism). Try reaching for one of these authors the next time you look for something to read.  

As the above authors show, the saving grace for us and our stories is our capacity for imagination. In stories, we are not bound to the rules of what we have been told is possible. Stories are what we make them, and we change who and how we are based on those stories. So what happens if we all imagine a different, perhaps even better world? 

I will freely admit that this is easy for me to say, and entirely another thing to make it a reality. The key, I think, is to start small. To borrow a term coined by the great Kenyan writer and activist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, we have to first decolonize the mind.

 Start by seeking out those buried stories. They can help you think beyond what we have been told is true, and to trouble the waters of our learned narratives. Then, if you can, bring some of those new ideas, those questioned premises, into your own life. Start small. Instead of just picking a flower for its beauty, think of what life is like for that flower. Think about the bird outside not just as a beautiful song, but as a small being of its own. As the environmentalist Aldo Leopold suggests in his Land Ethic, “enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals; or collectively: the land.” It takes practice and time to change how we think, but it is possible. The more you work at it, the easier it gets.

Finally, when the narrative has been complicated and thoughts have been expanded, it is time to craft new stories of our own.

For storytellers, and we all are storytellers in a way, this re-acknowledgement of the land is both a boon and a weight. Our imagination is enriched beyond measure when we think outside of the confines of ourselves, but it also makes the dangers like global warming that we collectively face even more pressing. Reading stories and noticing trees may feel vanishingly insignificant when compared to the scale of the challenges we face as a planet. I know it often does for me. But we as a people and a species need to change how we see the world and our place in it before we can take more concrete actions. 

So please, pick up a new book that challenges you. Read an article or poem that makes you think in a new way. Maybe take a moment to consider why you think the way you do. Whatever you do, though, I hope you will close your eyes and notice the earth underneath you. Then, go and tell someone about it. Not for you or for me, but for all of us.

Brandon Mcwilliams
Brandon Mcwilliams

Brandon McWilliams is a student at Seattle University, where he combines his passion for writing and the environment.
His work has appeared in Hidden Compass MagazineBay Nature, Fragments, and the Seattle Times. When not writing, he works as an environmental educator, climbs tall things, and cooks needlessly elaborate meals.

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We Stand With Our Community.

We Stand With Our Black Community, Now & Forever.

Lucky Jefferson (LJ) stands for and with the Black community.

It should be no secret that we take acts of brutality against our community very seriously and to heart. Since our founding, we have dedicated our work to consistently publishing writers of color and increasing the presence of Black authors and professionals in the literary and publishing community. Being also founded by women of color, the issues that affect one impacts us dually and personally; we are committed to upholding the work required to one day see unequivocal equality for all.

We stand with the people risking their lives to vocalize our pain; who stand unflinchingly on the front lines; who see and hear us. We stand with you! 

Black lives will matter today and forever, as all lives should.

We appreciate the support of our LJ family and your patience as we purposely shift publication timelines to let the voices of our people and greater community ring. We hope that during this troubling period you join us as an ally and not only listen, but find ways to support your community so that we might see better days and true justice.

Respectfully,

NaBeela Washington, Founder, Editor-in-Chief
Lucky Jefferson

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Poet Feature: Swapnil Dhruv Bose

This summer, we’ll be featuring different poets, writers, and artists to foster constructive and inclusive conversations around new works, provide greater context for newly published pieces, and generate increased visibility for writers and artists amidst global disruption. For our very first feature, we’ll be highlighting budding poet Swapnil Dhruv Bose.

Swapnil Dhruv Bose is an English Literature student at Presidency University, Kolkata. He loves playing chess and is a massive fan of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays and the work of Samuel Beckett. He has been published in Ohio State University’s literary journal Asterism. He hopes to become a professor of postmodern literature someday.

Check out his poem Counterfeit Children, a piece included in the 365 Collection, and his break down of the piece below:

Counterfeit Children

I got a landmine for my last birthday.
She ordered me to plant it in our yard.
The government had given it away
Because it lost its citizenship card.

They send a maintenance team once a year
To make sure we kneel before it and pray.
I had to sell the new car and my ear,
Only to stuff our dilated mouths with clay.

The neighbours hide in Papier-mâché shelters
When we light pink flares in our garden.
They complain about the fire hazards.
I smile and hide it in our oven.

She scratched out each number on its skin.
We put a dress on it and named it “Fin”.

First stanza: I wanted to address the significant political atrocity that has been occurring since the end of 2019. The government passed a law called the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which grants citizenship based on religious orientation, and therefore discriminates on that very basis. They demand documents to prove that one is a citizen but in a country like India, many people do not have proper documents. On top of that, the entire process of being documented is often abused and sometimes citizenship cards are issued in the name of Hindu Gods.

My main motive was to talk about how the government’s priorities regarding citizenship criteria leads to the retroactive creation of corrupt economies. The bomb becomes a locus of mortality anxiety as well as xenophobia. It is not acknowledged by the government as a useful resource as soon as it loses what lends it subjectivity: its nationality (according to the government’s definition). It becomes the “Other”.

Second Stanza: I wanted this stanza to focus on how the landmine slowly demolishes all feelings of security. The maintenance team (of domestic explosive devices) that arrives to take care of the bomb does not care about the technical details but rather the ideological conformity of its caretakers, to make sure they do not use it against the government while making them feel as if the government cares about them. To pay for the maintenance, the speaker has to sell himself off in pieces within a year of receiving it. 

With this, I wanted to talk about how unfair it is for the underprivileged to pay taxes just to see their hard-earned money go to the Defense Budget instead of actual welfare programs; instead of superficial ones like the Bomb Maintenance Squad.

Third Stanza: For this stanza, I wanted to develop the idea of the neighborhood as a microcosmic reflection of the general population. The neighbors project all their xenophobic anxiety towards the undocumented bomb while hiding in dysfunctional shelters provided by the government. They survive because of this false sense of security as well. 

The speaker lights “pink” flares (the government does not provide red ones in order to dismiss any lit flares during emergencies as celebratory) to draw attention to his dire condition but the maintenance team has already visited this year. Therefore, the government can justify neglecting the ones who need help. The neighbors protest against the lighting of the flares when they should be protesting the existence of the bomb, but they don’t because the government has taught them that bombs are good, people are bad.

Swapnil Dhruv Bose
Swapnil Dhruv Bose

Swapnil Dhruv Bose is an English Literature student at Presidency University, Kolkata. He loves playing chess and is a massive fan of Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays and the work of Samuel Beckett. He has been published in Ohio State University’s literary journal Asterism. He hopes to become a professor of postmodern literature someday.

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Exposed Poets Announced!

Exposed is a very powerful issue in that it takes the act of testifying and need to tell our individual stories, stories we saw boldly professed in our breakthrough issue Testament, to reveal the hues of our souls—hues that not only capture the light we all experience in this life, but also the darkness of such an experience.

We wanted writers to reach deep within themselves and expose the very depth of these stories, no matter what that looked like. While it’s important to acknowledge the good that encapsulates us all, it’s equally valuable that we not overlook the details that aren’t always so glamorous because, in reality, it’s generally those things that make us the people we are in this very moment.

We’re excited to welcome new poets to Lucky Jefferson and generate even more support for those not as new to the writing community.

Take a peek at some of the poets in this issue here and order Exposed for your own chance to hold these stories in your hands and experience a new kind of journal here.  

We will continue our search for empowering poems in April, as we gear up for our Summer 2020 issue, Labyrinth.

We hope you enjoy this issue as much as we do!

NaBeela Washington, Founder & Editor-in-Chief

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Lucky Jefferson Announces Student Relief Fund

WASHINGTON, D.C.— Lucky Jefferson has created the Lucky Jefferson Student Relief Fund to support students affected by COVID-19.

The Lucky Jefferson Student Relief Fund will award aid between $25 and $100 to students who live in the Boston, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, D.C., and Maryland area whose well-being and lives are being adversely impacted by COVID-19.

With students being forced out of dorms and off-campus and experiencing a shift in their education resulting in courses being taken online, without much technological preparation, students are now at risk of:

  • losing scholarships
  • access to resources to support their overall well-being and studies
  • experiencing temporary or permanent homelessness
  • forfeiting their college education altogether

The Lucky Jefferson Student Relief Fund will begin awarding aid and open applications on March 23 to affected students.  The Lucky Jefferson Student Relief Fund will remain open until May 1, 2020, or as funds are available. 

“It’s important that we help others outside of simply sharing and promoting their work. Lucky Jefferson wants to make sure people can continue being successful despite what’s happening around us,” said NaBeela Washington, Founder of Lucky Jefferson.

The Lucky Jefferson Student Relief Fund would be available to provide aid for the following:

  • Meals/Groceries
  • Transportation
  • Moving/Storage Expenses
  • Tech/Software Needed To Go Remote
  • Costs Incurred From Classes That Are Canceled Or Inaccessible 
  • Loss Of Income From Work-study & TA Programs


Applications will be made available on Monday, March 23, and will continue to be accepted as funds allow.

To support our efforts and make a donation, please visit: http://bit.ly/luckyjeffersonstudentrelieffund

——

Press Contact:

NaBeela Washington, Founder, Editor-in-Chief

editor@luckyjefferson.com

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