Madeira Mondays: An analysis of Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Declaration’

To mark the 4th of July, I’ll be spending the next couple of ‘Madeira Mondays’ looking at various artistic responses to the Declaration of Independence. Some incredibly powerful and serious artworks, some quite lighthearted and silly.

For international readers, the 4th of July is an annual American holiday celebrated to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was a document signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, in which the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. “(T)hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States,” the document reads. It also explains why they are declaring their independence, listing out the colonists’ grievances with King George III (they list his ‘abuses and usurpations’ in a basically bullet point list format: ‘He has done THIS wrong and also THIS and, oh wait, THIS too!’). This document was mailed to the King who was, understandably, not happy about it and the Revolutionary War kicked off in earnest (there had already been some smaller battles). If the Americans had lost the war for independence, those that signed the Declaration would certainly have been executed for treason. But, as you know, history went another way!

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The famous painting ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1819) by John Trumbull, accessed via Wikipedia

It’s a beautifully written document (you can read a transcription of it here) and is widely viewed as a sort of mission statement for American democracy. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote some famous and enduring phrases in it such as:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a powerful declaration of not just American rights but also human rights. Yet, whose rights were we talking about here? The 18th century was a time when women had few rights. They were basically, legally, their husband’s property (they obviously couldn’t do things like vote but they also had no control over their finances, their bodies, their children etc.). It was also a time when Africans – women, men and children – were forcibly being kidnapped and sold into bondage to labor on the American continent. I’m talking of course about American slavery, the institution with effects and impact that we can see throughout American history (from the American Civil War, through to segregation and Jim Crow) and are still seeing today (through mass incarceration and urgent calls for criminal justice system reform).

But slavery was an issue on the American founders’ minds too and contrary to popular belief, many of them did know that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration, called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot’, while also benefiting from the institution and enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Others, like my personal favorite of America’s founders (for various reasons) John Adams from Massachusetts, was vehemently anti-slavery and never kept any enslaved servants on principal. Yet it would take a civil war the following century, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, to officially end it.

Slavery was (and is) part of the American story and it remains a great irony that the men who wrote so eloquently about liberty and freedom in the Declaration were, themselves, keeping other people enslaved. It’s this topic which is taken up in former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s poem ‘Declaration’.

You can read and listen to the poem here.

‘Declaration’ is an erasure poem. An erasure poem takes a preexisting text and makes a poem by erasing or removing words from it. In this case, Smith takes the Declaration of Independence as her starting point and erases words until a new poem is left. As you read her poem, you can quite clearly see what it is evoking: slavery.

There are several reasons why ‘Declaration’ works so well. Firstly, the form itself. Erasure poetry is by its nature a bit radical and iconoclastic because you’re hacking away at an existing document and making something new. It’s rebellious, just like the Declaration itself. Yet it’s also about erasing things, removing them from sight, which is exactly what the founders did with slavery, which is never mentioned in the Declaration. Jefferson had written a passage about it, basically blaming the institution on the King, but it was struck out, Jefferson claimed, at the insistence of other southern colonies. So it isn’t there. Smith’s poem inverts this original erasure, turning Jefferson’s words against themselves so that the poem now focuses on slavery and the original intent of the document (about the white male colonists’ grievances with the King) has been erased.

The poem also changes the meaning of the pronoun ‘he’. In the original document, this ‘he’ referred to King George III (e.g ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…’). But now this ‘he’ is more nebulous and tough to pin down: he could now be white slavers, but also America, generally, or the institution of slavery personified.

Another reason it’s so powerful is the use of frequent ’em’ dashes (those are the longer dashes), which is the only punctuation that Smith seems to have added (although you could think about all the white space as a kind of punctuation). The em dashes seem to indicate where the phrase continues in the original document but words have been removed e.g. ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ from the original becomes ‘he has plundered our-/ravaged our-/destroyed the lives of our-‘ in Smith’s poem. In addition to reminding us that this is an erasure poem and words have been removed, all those dashes, also suggest, to me, that in some ways these crimes remain unspeakable. The phrase: ‘Taken away our’, followed by an em dash, is an example of this. Taken away our…what? Our lives? Our spirits? Our humanity? The reader is forced to fill in that awful blank.

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Photo I took in December 2017 at Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina, of a slave cabin on the site

The poem ends on one of these dashes and it’s quite significant, I think, that the final two words are: ‘to bear’. This suggests to me several meanings. Firstly, enslaved people forced to bear (or carry or pick up) tools, but also to bear children, perhaps (sexual violence against enslaved women was pervasive). Yet it also suggests that people are still ‘bear(ing)’ the legacy of slavery now. The poem isn’t finished (there is no end stop), which suggests that the effects of slavery aren’t finished either. It is something that we as a nation must ‘bear’ too.

Smith’s poem cleverly subverts a document which, by its very nature, erased the lives of many. Her words, instead, foreground and express their suffering, while at the time time suggesting that this suffering is inexpressible. It’s a powerful poem and one that reminds me how poetry can change the way that we look at our history and our world.

Let me know what you thought of the poem. Had you read it before? What did you notice about it? Next week, we’re looking a very different artistic response to the Declaration of Independence. Hint: It’s a movie. Any guesses?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is of an 1823 facsimile of the Declaration, and accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

My New Poetry Pamphlet: ‘Anastasia, Look in the Mirror’

Big announcement today, my friends: I’m delighted to introduce you to my new poetry pamphlet – Anastasia, Look in the Mirror – which will be published by Stewed Rhubarb Press on July 2nd, 2020!!

For those who might be new to the blog, HELLO! I’m happy you’re here. I’m Carly, an author, spoken word poet and academic. Here on this blog, I mostly write about random historical tidbits (like the history of ketchup or 18th century fashion on RuPaul’s Drag Race), review books and occasionally muse about the writing process. But TODAY I wanted to tell you a little bit about my new poetry pamphlet, which has been four years in the making…

So, what’s this book about?

Here’s the description of Anastasia, Look in the Mirror from the Stewed Rhubarb website:

This pamphlet from Scottish Slam Poetry champion Carly Brown explores acts of looking out of and in to oneself. The heroine of an erotic novel stares at her own reflection and doesn’t recognise herself. Scottish painters look for inspiration in fin-de-siècle Paris, and a girl in 17th-century America goes looking for trouble and inadvertently kicks off the Salem Witch Trials.

In these lyrical and witty poems, Carly Brown deftly mixes personal histories, introspection and political truths, bringing new, surprising and necessary images into sharp focus.

If you’re curious to see a sample poem or two, you can read three of the poems from the collection here in the Glasgow Review of Books. Or you can check out this spoken word poetry video for my poem ‘Reading Fifty Shades of Grey’ which is the first poem in the pamphlet (the pamphlet title is actually taken from a line in this poem).

Basically, this is a pamphlet jam-packed with topics that I love – poems about early American history and Scottish history, about sex, about literature – all brought together in a gorgeous package. I can’t thank Stewed Rhubarb enough for the beautiful design. Just take a gander at the cover!

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Here are some really lovely things that people have said about my poetry in the past:

Brian Donaldson, The Scotsman: Wit, warmth and wisdom aplenty [] The future health of spoken word seems safe in their hands.

Haley Jenkins, Selcouth Station: With each poem there is a refreshing comedic integrity but also a brilliant truth that both enlightens and terrifies.

Maria Sledmere, US Studies OnlineHer poems delivered sass and wit, while using lush imagery and spirited accents to render themes of identity, politics and belonging […] Brown’s performance gave a sense of reaching across discourses, time, and space to invite empathy, understanding, and productive cultural exchange.

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Me performing at the Scottish Storytelling Center at the Loud Poets Fringe Show, August 2019. Photo by Perry Jonsson.

What exactly is a poetry ‘pamphlet’?

In the USA, pamphlets are also referred to as ‘chapbooks’. This means a short poetry collection, usually under 30 pages, rather than a full length collection, which are more like 50-100 pages. It’s common for new poets to release a pamphlet or two before putting out a debut full-length collection (More about the distinction between pamphlets and collections here if you’re curious).

This is actually my second pamphlet. My first one – Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone – was published back in 2014. That book was a collaboration between myself and American artist Lydia Cruz. It sold out its first edition, but copies of the second edition are still available online in the Loud Poets’ Etsy shop here.

Who is publishing it?

Stewed Rhubarb is a spoken-word and literary publisher based in Edinburgh.

I wanted this pamphlet to be published by them, because I’d been reading and admiring their books for years. They’ve published Jo Clifford, Harry Josephine Giles, Hannah Lavery, Rachel McCrum and many other brilliant writers. I love that Stewed Rhubarb is Scotland based (like me), that they champion spoken word (many of their writers perform live in some capacity), that their list is diverse, and also (quite frankly) that they make very beautiful books.

How am I feeling about the fact that soon Anastasia will be out in the world?

In a word: excited! Of course, it’s strange to be launching this book during a pandemic. There was meant to be a launch party here in Edinburgh, and one in Glasgow, next month to celebrate but of course that can’t happen. But I’m still looking forward to sharing this book with you – even if I can’t do that in person, just yet!

I also want to take this time here to thank my diligent and creative editor Katie Ailes, as well as James Harding and Charlie Roy at Stewed Rhubarb. I’d also like to sincerely thank everyone who joined ‘The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb‘, the successful crowdfunding campaign that Stewed Rhubarb ran last year to help cover the costs of publishing my pamphlet as well as three others. If you supported that, I can’t thank you enough.

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Over the next few weeks, I’ll be publishing a few different blog posts here about the historical research and inspiration behind the book, as well as the editing and publication process. So be sure that you’re following the blog to receive those! And do let me know if there’s a particular aspect of the book, or the poetry writing process, that you’re curious about and I’ll see if I can do a post on that too. In the meantime…

You can pre-order the book now: Link HERE

Avid readers and writers will know that pre-ordering is a great way to support authors, because it shows publishers that there is a demand for their book. So if the book sounds like your cup of tea and you’d like a copy, now would be a perfect time to grab one! 🙂

Thanks and happy reading xx

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PS The Featured Image for this post is a painting entitled ‘Hip, Hip, Hurrah! Artist Festival at Skagen’ by Peder Severin Krøyer c. 1888

Blogging for StAnza 2016

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be the in-house blogger for StAnza, Scotland’s International Poetry Festival this year, as well as doing Social Media for StAnza on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Here are some reflections on my relationship with StAnza, what the festival means to me, and things I’m looking forward to at StAnza 2016.

It’s almost time for StAnza, the festival that I look forward to every spring. I’ve been volunteering with this amazing festival since my first year at the University of St Andrews (five years ago!). My volunteer role that first year was taking publicity photographs. I proudly pinned the ‘Photographer’ badge on to my cardigan and huddled at the back of auditoriums, cafes and bars with my camera. I quickly fell in love with the entire festival. There’s a wonderful buzz and atmosphere at StAnza, an excitement you feel mingling with the crowds in the bright Byre Theatre foyer or while hearing poets from all over the world speaking about and reading from their work. I was hooked.

Since that year, I’ve volunteered for the festival in many different capacities: managing venues, liaising with poets, introducing events, even serving on the Festival Planning committee. I’ve also performed my poetry at the festival and spoken there about my picture book, I Love St Andrews, released last year. StAnza has had a big impact on my life and my career. It was winning the StAnza Poetry Slam in 2013 that qualified me for Scottish Nationals in 2013 (which I went on to win). I then represented Scotland at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris and placed 4th in the World. The StAnza Slam basically kick started my career as a spoken word poet and every year the Slam is still an amazing place to see rising talent alongside celebrated performers from Scotland’s spoken word scene. I also met one of my best friends through volunteering at StAnza, the poet Laala Kashef Alghata (remember her from the Creative Friends feature?). Many other great friendships and connections have blossomed over a cup of coffee in the Byre Theatre bar.

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The Byre Theatre Cafe Bar, StAnza 2014

One of the festival themes this year is City Lines, looking at architecture and how poetry can help build personal and public creative spaces. StAnza has greatly shaped my creative life, helping me build personal and creative connections that have inspired and supported me for the past five years. This year, I’m so excited to be the in-house blogger for the festival, as well as doing Social Media for them. If you don’t already follow StAnza on Twitter/Instagram, what are you waiting for? 🙂 I’ll be writing blogs throughout the festival on what I’m seeing and doing. Hopefully they’ll be an enjoyable read for those who are there and they will give a nice flavor of the festival for those who can’t make it in person.

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Inside The Byre Theatre, StAnza 2014

I’m looking forward to so many things at this year’s festival (Have you seen the line-up? It’s incredible!), but I’m especially looking forward to seeing Jane Yolen, acclaimed US poet and children’s writer as well as the amazing Pascale Petit. Jemima Foxtrot’s Melody is another show I’m looking forward to catching. I interviewed her during the Fringe about it and it’s really unique and moving show combining spoken word and song. Clive Birnie, of Burning Eye Books, is going to be getting up to some exciting things as well as with HashtagPoetry# and I’m looking forward to checking out Poetry Tattoos. Rebecca Sharp’s installation pairing poems with perfumes is something I’m looking forward to seeing (and smelling) as well.

StAnza 2016 looks like it’s going to be another year of great poetry, great art and great conversation. I cannot wait.

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Outside the Byre Theatre, StAnza 2012. Photo by Carly Brown.

StAnza runs this year from March 2-6th, 2016 in St Andrews, Scotland. I’ll be blogging on the StAnza website here so be sure to keep an eye out for those!