“…survival is not an academic skill.” — Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
When I wrote this poem as a modern ekphrasitc response to Rihanna’s music video, I was met with some resistance from various sources in my life and M.F.A. program. When I worskhopped the poem, I wanted my cohort to watch the music video first. A white, male poet refused to watch. Instead, he turned his head away. I told him he was refusing to look at me.
I was told not to publish the poem. I was encouraged not to write about pop culture, and definitely not pop music. I was told the poem was too violent. I was told the poem would make white people feel uncomfortable, and then a white person actually said, “This poem frightens me.” I was told that I should be more concerned about legacy, and that poems should stand the test of time. I was told Rihanna would not stand the test of time.
It still astonishes me that certain white artists can have privileged access as interlocutors, freely dipping in and out of blackface to exploit and appropriate black art for their gain. What’s good Miley? What’s good John Berryman? But when I, a black artist, want to use black art that was made for me (FUBU poetics), somehow that’s not allowed or not deemed as elevated or worthy enough of a subject for a timestamp.
But what if my concerns are so present and urgent and necessary, that I don’t have the privilege to consider the bourgeois fears of tradition and inheritance?
I’ve never had anything passed down to me. Growing up, my mom never had any surplus cash for a savings account—no inheritance or heirlooms, no security for her future or mine. Our life was mostly paycheck-to-paycheck, sometimes a money order and making a Papa John’s Alfredo Chicken pizza last a week. My poetics were built on this need for some slice of survival concerned with communicating not in the future and for all time, but trying to save myself right now because I’m hungry. “I’ll eat you to live, that’s poetry,” Terrance Hayes says in his poem, “Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy.” And for me, poetry has always been a means of persistence, black persistence, by making, breaking, and re-imagining the possibility of received forms, especially my adoration and obsession for ekphrasis.
“There is something transgressive in writing about the visual arts,” Edward Hirsch says about ekphrasis. “A border is crossed, a boundary is breached, as the writer enters into the spatial realm, traducing an abyss, violating the silent integrity of the pictorial.” But what if the image isn’t always silent? Perhaps, that dynamic image is what Ezra Pound describes as “…a radiant node or cluster…a VORTEX.” For me, that massive whirling image is Rihanna repeating “pay what you owe me” while punching a payphone and when she gleefully tries to find the right weapon to attack her accountant who has presumably screwed her out of millions.
When I teach my students about ekphrasis, I urge them to make a static image sing. We start by reading Rilke’s famous sonnet, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which ends, “For here there is no place / that does not see, you must change your life.” I ask my students to tell me about a piece of art that has dazzled them to the point of transmutation. I often repeat what Carl Phillips told me and what Ellen Bryant Voigt told him at Bread Loaf: poetry is not the mere description of an experience, but the transformation of an experience. Hands shoot up across the classroom as they excitedly tell me about their favorite songs, plays, and movies. They tell me how they felt like a different person after, somehow even their cells have rearranged. I tell them they can use it all. Respond to it all. I repeat: nothing is off limits. I give them that sense of permission and freedom to explore what fascinates them, because I have to remind myself that it’s okay to respond to my current obsessions too. As a teacher, I’m not in the business of telling my students what poetry can’t do.
For me, there was no place that I did not see myself in Rihanna’s music video, which opens up with her naked blood-drenched body smoking a blunt covered in cash—her cash—signifying her power and entrepreneurship, her audacity, and ferocious revenge fantasy.
In Picture Theory, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that, “Ekphrastic poetry is the genre in which texts encounter their own semiotic others.” He describes a triangular relationship between: the poet, the art, and the poem—or the self, the other, and the image, as well as the listening subject all working through the meaning and multiple forms of linguistic and imagistic communication. And this is why I replayed the music video over and over and over again. Each click on my cursor felt like a rapture. I was encountering an electric otherness that I wanted to claim as my own, because Rihanna signified a luxurious power that I did not see reflected in my own tired life. I was tired of tact, tired of legislating the volume of my anger, tired of becoming a stereotype. For once, I was not ashamed of myself after watching “BBHMM.” For once, I could have the audacity to try and transcend my trauma.
Yes, there’s a graphic violence in the music video with viewer discretion advised, but haven’t we all been bombarded enough through literature and media with tortured images and descriptions of the black female/femme body beaten and/or lynched and/or raped and/or killed, often at the discretion of white men? However, this time, Rihanna is taking her own pleasure and dominance in a revenge fantasy that is often relegated to male actors and the male gaze. For example, Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for the best original screenplay for “Django Unchained,” which Roxane Gay writes, “is a white man’s slavery revenge fantasy, one where white people figure heavily and where black people are, largely, incidental.” But in “BBHMM,” the inverse is true. Rihanna is fully foregrounded and in control for seven minutes and two seconds (with 134,743,912 views as of 11/8/18).
But somehow “Django Unchained” is critically acclaimed, lauded as brilliant and subversive high art, whereas “BBHMM” is deemed, to some, as aggressive, low art trash, especially by several white feminist critics who were upset by Rihanna’s character kidnapping and torturing the accountant’s wife as collateral damage for the wrongdoing of a man. Rihanna is unworried about the well-being of a blond and beautiful white woman, because her own survival is at stake, which such a commanding visual metaphor, a comparison colliding two unlike things: black women and possessing power, black women and lynching the European standard for beauty, black women and the wage gap, womanist vs. feminist, and the dichotomies continue ad infinitum. Robert Frost writes, “…unless you are at home in the metaphor…you are not safe anywhere…you are not safe in history.” But what if I’ve never felt safe…anywhere? Let alone in my own black body. Nia Wilson’s throat reminds me that my breath is always at risk. I am anxious every single day about my well-being, and this is what I wanted to explore in my poem: the economy of sex and desire based off of retribution. I wanted to dare myself not to be scared, if not in life, as least for the length of one poem.
A few years ago, I went to a workshop with the badass poet, Kendra DeColo. She brought in a poem by Hanif Abdurraqib titled “E•MO•TION” after Carly Rae Jepson. This prose poem was a giant permission slip. It was another reminder that I could use it all and that nothing was off limits. I’m fascinated by this muscular poem and how Abdurraqib zips back and forth between the viral nature of black murder from police brutality, while weaving in an interview from Jepson about falling in love, all in a gorgeous container that wrestles with longing and persistence. Abdurraqib writes, “I say I, too, am a romantic, and I mean I never expected to survive this long. I have infinite skin.” After reading “E•MO•TION” the Rihanna poem just barreled out of me, almost a fully formed fist.
Abdurraqib also writes, “It's been said that pop music desires a body—a single, focused human form as an object of interest.” But I didn’t realize that the body I desired was my own. It wasn’t Rihanna’s body, but my own damn body on the brink. I wrote the poem in celebration of a persona, a lyric self, unconcerned with the burden of approval or workshop critique. I needed a poem to save me and keep saving me, and that’s I why I wrote “BBHMM,” as a legacy for me.