Jennifer Chukwu - Mark Baumer Prize for Language Art

After his friend Nick Gomez-Hall died in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, Mark Baumer composed a series of blog entries and poems about crying, which I felt called to reread after listening to "All these tears got to be going somewhere," a multimodal poem that collates forms and materials—hand drawings of bodies with text inside them ("It's everywhere / Where is it?"; "SAVE US"), xeroxed palms, and collaged magazine cuttings—to articulate a deeply specific yet nebulous "THIS." That THIS is at once HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, mental illness, and the experience of being a black body under perpetual siege: life with THIS living death. Albeit disparate, Mark's voice and the author's voice feel connected, and illuminate each another. In a poem called "microphone tears," composed on December 6, 2016, Mark wrote: Have you ever / done / freedom / by / crying / into a microphone / until / the only song / allowed / on the radio / is people crying / into microphones? In "All these tears got to be going somewhere," the author archives Jet's Top 20 Albums from 1993 (Janet Jackson, Luther Vandross, Bobby Brown) while crying into the mic—the page—thereby transmuting an endless grief into a fecund form of protest. Doing freedom, the poem sings, delivering catharsis. Simultaneously, it performs self-reflexive headstands: SONGS AND POEMS NEEDED *TO BE SET TO MUSIC*, a cut-and-pasted advertisement reads. YOUR SONGS OR POEMS MAY EARN MONEY FOR YOU. SEND POEMS OR SONGS FOR FREE EXAMINATION! With this gesture, the poem becomes both a speculative ticket to freedom and an infected body under investigation, wherein "doctor's a two legged dog [...] not even trying to do / something bout it / [...] cat's got more brains than him."

     

Mark also wrote on December 6, 2016 that It should be more socially acceptable to cry in front of large corporations. Writes the author of "All these tears...": "need that money that white money / need that white money to be seen." The poem meditates on Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson's class privileges while a headline about AIDS on Ebony Magazine's cover is juxtaposed with the news of MC Hammer's new $20 million home. "They got that white money / they'll live forever," the speaker (the singer) declares before asking a psychic whether she's going to die. But the psychic can't find her life line; and she also wants money the singer doesn't have—"gimme 10 / and i'll try and find it again," she says. 

 

I am thinking now of the late poet C.D. Wright, who wrote that "We must do something with our time on this small aleatory sphere for motives other than money. Power is not an acceptable surrogate."

 

As I spent time getting to know "All these tears got to be going somewhere," my mind kept returning to how, after he almost got expelled from college for writing the only article he ever wrote for his school newspaper, Mark started a zine called G.M.B.O. That zine was an act of journalism, of revolt. My heart selected this poem for The Mark Baumer Prize for Language Art not only for its intuitive craft and emotional depth, but also because it too is an act of journalism: the author gathers; she analyzes; she participates in political community. In doing so, she delivers a life line. She rises.