Sjohnna McCray: Small Freedoms

We were thrilled to have Sjohnna McCray join us from Savannah, GA for our recent event with Tracy K. Smith and Joshua Roman.  Sjohnna’s book, Rapture, was selected by Tracy K. Smith as the winner of the 2015 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets and is forthcoming from Graywolf Press this April.  Sjohnna lives in Savannah and teaches at Savannah State, and we are delighted to have a special guest blog post from him about what it was like to meet one of his literary heroes at this unique event.

Small Freedoms

Speeding down I-95 in a rental car with a Marlboro Light, a can of Diet Coke as an ashtray and J-Lo blasting from the speakers was my idea of freedom. This was not a Martin Luther King kind of dream. It was after midnight and I was singing at the top of my lungs. I was Diet Coked up and my skin was greasy from hours of driving. I took on the persona of each song between drags and this involved finger wagging and head shaking. My love doesn’t cost a thing and like the great jazz song, “God Bless the Child,” I’ve got my own. Don’t be fooled by these rocks that I got. As I sung, I was sassy, glamorous and Latina (?). I was out of my mind with freedom. When the blue lights flashed, I realized: the faster the beat, the faster I drove. When the officer handed me the ticket, I knew there was a price for hedonism. It’s hard to explain why I love this memory—driving that highway with the window cracked, into the dark, I felt unlocked. Some people seek adrenaline highs, some people create drama, but I crave those moments when I feel myself opening, when my breath shifts inside my chest.

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When I’ve got a good poem, I feel like one of the great vocalists: Aretha, Ella or Barbra. I take the poem and match my breath to it. Sometimes, a poetry reading is as visceral as a pop song. Instead of shouting at the top of one’s lungs, one is listening with the utmost attention, trying to experience their freedom. Encountering Tracy K. Smith and her poem “Life on Mars” was experiencing dark matter as both cosmic and human. I felt singular in a church full of people yet entirely connected by the moment. Joshua Roman’s translation only added to its music. Harmonious and chaotic, his rendering was aided by the soprano who sang beautifully about ugly things.

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When my friends learned that Tracy K. Smith was on the roster for SAL, they said I had to come to Seattle. Months before, Ms. Smith had selected me for the Walt Whitman Award of The Academy of American Poets and singlehandedly changed my life. It was like Oprah yelling, “And you get a car,” while pointing her billion dollar finger at me. Actually, it was the poetic version of that so there were many small moments of being pleased with myself and smiling. Grinning like an idiot when the elevator doors closed. I’d been living on a planet by myself for years, sending signals into space, and finally someone heard me. Even though I had spoken to Ms. Smith over Skype, we had actually never met in person. Mostly, I knew her through her poems. Even though most people admire her for the “showcase” poems in Life on Mars, like the title poem and “My God, Its Full of Stars,” I prefer the more intimate, sensual even, poems in section four. During her reading she read one of my favorites, “When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me.” When she read the last lines:

From what dream of world did you wriggle free?

What soared—and what grieved—when you aimed your will

At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?  

I felt as if I was in that car with the windows cracked and a cigarette lit, driving into the unknown.

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Behind the Curtain

What was it like to meet Tracy K. Smith? I sort of knew what to expect, if you can know someone by the tenor of their voice. At any rate, I was still nervous. I wore a new blazer that I had ordered online from Banana Republic. Instead of a small pocket on the left breast, it had a short vertical zipper. It was a modern touch that only a poet could love. I wore a checkered shirt, Michael Kors jeans, and my new black belt. For a youthful touch, I added camouflage socks from Uniqlo and black shoes with white trim from Kenneth Cole. I’m still not sure if these look like pimp shoes, but they’re the only shoe that I own that’s not a sneaker. It was important to be formal but not too formal.

And yet, none of that mattered. Ms. Smith was like a modern day Diana Ross in a vibrantly colored short dress and boots that belonged in the mile high club. And yet, none of that mattered. When she spoke, it was like fine dining in a restaurant offering the most comforting foods. With a modern twist. It was a warm and refined intelligence. Bread pudding with a hint of cinnamon and bourbon. Without metaphors and pedigree, she seemed like a kind person with a sharp and generous intellect. I was nervous. I know I babbled on like a student in a professor’s office but I was jetlagged and so happy to be there: sitting in that tiny dressing room, before the poet took the stage and nudged everyone by the nape of their neck and plunged them into her world.

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