The following piece is a companion to Brittani Telfair’s (‘22) poem, “On Orange Juice.”
Brittani told me that the title of her poem “is meant to be commentary on the endless hyping of obliqueness in poetry and a bit subversive in having the very direct ‘ON’ in front.” I didn’t need to look any further than the first page of The New Yorker’s poetry section to find a poem with the titular “On.” And you don’t need to look any further than Nass merch to find evidence of the Nass’ buy-in to the elite world of institutional poetry—the Nass tote is stylized to emulate the popular The New Yorker tote bag (which comes with a subscription).
In short, the Nassau Weekly is no stranger to the prepositioned-title industrial complex. “Some established poets market poetry very much as piercing the veil, you’re experimenting with language, you’re doing something new and unexpected. But poetry has been turned into this institution in the United States and very much made to be inaccessible and opaque to most people,” Brittani told me.
A Twitter thread by William Fargason highlighted the many problems with the poem “May 5, 2020” by John Okrent that was published recently in the eminent poetry journal, Ploughshares. Okrent, a white doctor, writes about the death of a maintenance man who worked in his hospital. Fargason analyzes how the language of the poem betrays Okrent’s reductive view of the man, Juan.
Brittani said to me, riffing on Fargason’s commentary, “[John Okrent] basically lists all the facts that he knows about the man, and that reveals that he didn’t have the right to write this poem. He could’ve just written it and left it in his drafts, but that would’ve revealed he did view this person not just as a supporting character—as a background character in his life. He never knew that person, viewed that person as anything other than his labor.”
Brittani and I have both been involved in The Nassau Literary Review, Princeton University’s very own hyper-exclusive literary publication—the crowd is self-selecting (at least for the last round of staff applications, nearly everyone was accepted), but the content is curated with reckless narrowness. The winter issue features five poems; we received dozens of submissions.
After being a poetry reader as a first-year, I served as managing editor last semester. I recently resigned, and I’m now working informally with current leadership, especially co-EIC Ashira Shirali on ways to make the publication more inclusive, but, to be short, it’s not easy. Exclusivity often manifests in traditions and institutional habits; it’s hard to change ways of working, especially when you become emotionally attached to it. I had a great time being a poetry reader last year with my pod of three people—I wouldn’t want to deprive anyone of that joy, so I’m more hesitant to change the process, even if the pod system ensures decisions are made behind closed doors (or in private zooms) by small groups of volunteers, rather than as a group. You can find Brittani’s own reflection on creative writing at Princeton specifically on The Daily Princetonian’s website.
I won’t say too much about Brittani’s poem itself—I think she and it speak for themselves. But let’s return to the beginning: “i don’t trust poetry.” What a way to begin a work of, well, poetry. If the poet doesn’t trust poetry, why should we trust her work?
The reason I myself still write poetry (and on poetry) is because it is not merely what Ploughshares, The New Yorker, and the Nassau Weekly make of it.
Brittani demonstrates with great thoughtfulness what the poem can be, against institutional poetry. Having read “On Orange Juice” and experienced the culture of our homegrown literary magazine, all I can see on pshares.org is those who grow and cultivate suffering. “There is violence happening constantly. Saying there’s a way to write about suffering isn’t to say it shouldn’t be written about,” Brittani said.
When I write poetry, it’s because I’m at a cliff’s edge of what we consider prose, looking down into impossible worlds where our languages aren’t spoken as we speak them or written as we write them. And that’s what poets learn and create, the vernaculars of those depths.