Eve L. Ewing Creates Poetry Out of History

Eve L. Ewing Creates Poetry Out of History

Eve L. Ewing Creates Poetry Out of History

We talked to the Chicago writer about her latest collection 1919, and how she uses her poems to create new stories, new worlds, and new communities.  


Eve L. Ewing is a Chicagoan first and foremost. The rest of her titles—sociologist, professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, poet, occasional playwright, Marvel Comics writer, beloved Twitter celebrity—are all in the service of her deep love for the city and its people. After coming across a report called The Negro in Chicago, written in 1922 by the citizen-chaired Commission on Race Relations, while during research for her first nonfiction book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, she decided she had to do something with the study, which looks into the causes of the relatively unknown race riots that roiled the city a hundred years ago. The result is 1919, a poetry collection spanning the decades before and after a black boy named Eugene Williams was killed, starting the unrest.

Ewing experiments with poetic form in 1919 as she educates the reader on the horrific history of racial violence in Chicago. (One of my favorite poems in the book, “Coming From the Stock Yards,” happens to be an abecedarian, a kind of poem in which the start of every line follows the previous one alphabetically.) What struck me most when I spoke with her is how willing she is to bring you into her world and how invested she is in the idea of writing as a means of extending community. In other words, she is, above all, a rare thing: a great pedagogue.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rosemarie Ho: The Negro in Chicago held so much material for you that you felt compelled to do something with it, even if you couldn’t incorporate it into your academic work. Why was poetry the form you used to engage with the study?

Eve L. Ewing: Poets find themselves saying things like, “Well, it wanted to be a sonnet,” or, “The spirit was moving me.” Sometimes that’s my answer more generally. For example, in my first book, Electric Arches, there’s a short story called “The Device.” I had really struggled to write fiction for many years at the time. When I started writing “The Device,” I thought it would be a poem. But it wanted to be a short story, and suddenly, it wasn’t hard to write fiction—because that’s what the concept wanted to be. Some people believe in muses or divine inspiration. I don’t believe in those things so much as the fact that a thing just manifests in your brain in a certain way.

But in this case, it’s a little different. I saw a lot of poetry already embedded in The Negro in Chicago, so many lines that were deep and fascinating and intriguing, and I thought it would be really interesting to have a craft conversation with these writers and to dig out parts of the language that could be doing something else in a different context, if you let them. There are a lot of places where poetry lives where we don’t expect it, and I think part of the poet’s job is to be attuned to those places.

The 1919 Chicago race riots are something that a lot of people just don’t know very much about. And I thought, “OK, I could spend five more years writing another nonfiction book about this, or I can figure out a way of presenting a microcosm of this story that hopefully is intriguing enough and inviting enough to people that they would go out and continue to do more with that work on their own.”

RH: It’s as though poetry is a unit of information and part of the poet’s job is to excavate it in some way.

EE: I love that way of putting it. A poem is like a thing that’s already happening in the world. It’s like a Pokémon that’s out there, a firefly that’s waiting to be put in a jar, something that’s already doing its thing without you. The question is whether you feel like stopping to be an interlocutor with it.

RH: This is fascinating to me, especially because you’ve talked so much about being Afrofuturist. There’s a sense in 1919 that if history is a construction, then poetry is one too. Could you expand on what you think about poetry’s relation to time?

EE: I’m a big advocate of thinking about nonlinear time. I’m writing this book called The Afrofuturist Dialogues really slowly. It’s a series of Socratic dialogues, two unnamed characters talking to each other about Afrofuturism. One of the things I’ve been writing about is that the notion of linear time is bound up with a lot of troubling things. It is, for example, deeply embedded in the project of capitalism, deeply embedded in the false narrative of progress in the United States. The idea that things just naturally get better, ideas about productivity, ideas about death, about ancestry becomes a lot more complicated if you don’t take for granted that time marches along in a unidirectional system.

I think that poems can really trouble those presumptions in interesting ways. Because every poem is creating a small world and you don’t fully know the conditions of the world until you’re in it. Think about The Twilight Zone or Star Trek—the whole sci-fi trope of people meeting a constraint and having to ask the “what if” questions to overcome the constraint.

Poems do that but in a much more micro way. A poem like “I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store” immediately creates a condition created that’s different than our reality: Emmett Till is alive and was never murdered, or he’s murdered and he’s back. In our reality, Emmett Till is murdered as a teen boy. In the reality of the poem, he’s alive. And not only is he alive, but I’m going to see him in this extraordinarily mundane circumstance.

The poem in this sense is an alternate telling of a story. It’s like a retelling. But Emmett Till becomes the last of these three boys that we hear from in 1919, beginning with Eugene Williams and later on Laquan McDonald. The fact that they don’t come in chronological order says something about the nonlinear, eternal return of violence. So that’s obviously way more sad and depressing. I want people to interrogate what it means to believe that the world just gets better and better all the time.

That’s the thing that a poem can do for free—and really quickly and really effectively. Much of my work as a social scientist is concerned with documenting the world as it is while also trying to push people to think about the world as it could be. But people have a lot more questions. They’re like, “Well, how much is that going to cost? Well, how do we know that that’s going to work?” Nobody has any of those questions about a poem. You can just do it. It’s a cost-free initiative. It’s all self-contained in the world of the poem. I find that really powerful.

RH: 1919 grapples with the long history of white supremacist violence against black folks. I was wondering how you figured this tension between making art and without reducing suffering to art, especially because of the piece “There is no poem for this.” You just provide this paragraph from the report, a horrific description of the persecution of innocent black people. There’s just blank space.

EE: Yeah, I have a slightly different perspective on it. I don’t think that art has to be beautiful. Many of the artists that have been most influential in my life, both the people whose names I know and the black ancestral artistic tradition, people whose names I will never know—that art has often been about suffering. I’m a Chicagoan, and one of our homegrown art forms is the blues. It’s music that people listen to while they’re drinking on a weekend with people they care about, tapping their toes. But it’s deeply melancholic music. I think a lot of what I write is blues in different ways.

I’ve often had this conversation with friends, especially with other black writer friends a lot. I think the way I’ve come to usually describe it is that black artistic production is about a double helix of sorrow and joy. We might also describe it as like agony and ecstasy. In the artistic legacy in which I’m most interested, those two things have always been inextricable. A lot of cultures actually are much more comfortable with this duality than white Western culture, and lots of cultures have a much more nuanced—one might venture to say healthy—understanding of the relationship between death and joy. Believing that people are not really dead allows you to access ancestry in a different way, and that belief in turn rests upon a willingness to believe in nonlinear time.

RH: Another poem in this collection, “sightseers,” begins with “forgive me / for writing a somewhat didactic poem.” You’re definitely not a didactic writer, but you’re interested in poetry as a pedagogical tool. How do you teach and extend community without being didactic in a poem?

EE: There’s a poet that I really admire a lot, Hieu Minh Nguyen, who has this quote: “Allow the reader to do some of the work as well; push your reader to guide themselves through your writing.” As a teacher, as an educator, and as a poet, I believe in leaving space for people to explore. What makes teaching exciting for me is my firm belief in the infinite potential of human creativity in the human mind. And if I believe in that, then it’s not my job to tell people what is. It’s my job to open a space for people to engage in critical dialogue with themselves with their peers, with texts, and with the world. And they can’t do that if I give them all the answers. That applies to poetry as well.

I was raised amongst a really strong performance and slam community. Being reared in those communities exposed me to much more poetry where people just come out and say what they mean. Poems like that can be deeply moving for people. But for me, I’m just a big believer in the old truism of showing and not telling. I really believe in leaving space for people to make meaning by themselves.

People are going to read this and hate me, but I have a really strong personal bias against saying “-isms” or “-ation” words in poetry. Any word that you would read in a sociology textbook, just saying it in the poem, I have a strong aversion to that. It’s not about beauty. For me, I’m trying to present a set of questions or ideas that I want people to grapple with on their own. And if I come out and start talking about deforestation, then I just told you the answer. I’m just saying what it is, without building you an adequate, an affective, or aesthetic space to really engage with what I’m actually talking about. Now you don’t get to figure out what the poem is really about. Wikipedia can tell you what deforestation is, but my job always is to make you feel what it would be like to enter a grove that you had been coming to your entire life and suddenly see that it’s been rendered into ruin. That’s my job. My job is not to be Merriam-Webster, you know what I mean?

In a way, I’m also writing against some of what people expect it means to be a black woman political poet. Everything I’ve ever written in my life is political, you know. But I may not make it explicit in a way that’s legible to everybody at first glance. I think that’s political as well.

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