Poets Of Color, On Who Counts in 2020 : Code Switch All month long, we've been answering versions of one giant question: Who counts in 2020? Well, April is poetry month, so we decided to end our series by asking some of our favorite poets who they think counts — and how all of that has changed in these strange, new times.
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When Poets Decide Who Counts

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When Poets Decide Who Counts

When Poets Decide Who Counts

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

I'm Gene Demby. And this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: ...Is CODE SWITCH...

MERAJI: ...From NPR. All of April - all five weeks...

DEMBY: You lying. It was only five weeks? It felt like 10.

MERAJI: But also like one day that would never end.

DEMBY: This whole year of a month we've been talking about who we are...

MERAJI: And what it means to count...

DEMBY: 'Cause we are being counted...

MERAJI: In large amounts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All of us - every single person in the United States.

MERAJI: Every 10 years, this happens, Gene. It's fate.

DEMBY: But 2020 is very different.

MERAJI: I can't argue with that.

DEMBY: Shereen, there's no way to end this without sounding pat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Yeah, good point (laughter). We can stop rhyming now. We were rhyming, by the way, if you all didn't notice that.

I was just trying to do something different to get into the final episode in our census series. For those of you who are just joining us, all April long, we've been telling stories about race and identity to coincide with the one time every 10 years everyone living in the United States, whether they like it or not, is thinking about their racial identity.

DEMBY: Wait. Am I supposed to rhyme with all that?

MERAJI: No (laughter) - we stopped.

DEMBY: Oh, OK. OK. About to say - race and identity - what rhymes with race and identity? OK - because we're all required to check a box - or boxes - for race on the U.S. census, as you know.

MERAJI: Seems simple enough, right? But as we say frequently on CODE SWITCH, it's complicated. And I've been really excited about this final episode in this series 'cause we've asked the deep thinkers amongst us - the artists-philosophers of society - to speak to the big questions we posed this month. Who are we, and who counts in 2020?

DEMBY: April, as it happens, is poetry month, and so those artist-philosophers Shereen was just talking about all poets. They're also all people of color, and we talked to them, you know, in the outside times before coronavirus changed all of our lives.

MERAJI: But I was able to catch up with one of our featured poets a few days ago to ask if his thoughts had changed - his thoughts about who counts and what it means to be counted in these terrible times we've found ourselves in. And we're going to get to that. But until then, get comfy. This is an episode we're going to sink into and savor.

DEMBY: And think into and labor?

MERAJI: No.

DEMBY: I got nothing - no.

DANEZ SMITH: My name is Danez Smith. I'm a poet. And this is my poem "what was said at the bus stop."

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "WHAT WAS SAID AT THE BUS STOP")

SMITH: "what was said at the bus stop"

lately has been a long time / says the girl from Pakistan, Lahore to be specific / at the bus stop when the white man asks her where she's from & then says oh, you from Lahore? It's pretty bad over there lately.

lately has been a long time / she says & we look at each other & the look says / yes, i too wish dude would stop / asking us where we're from / but on the other side of our side eyes / there's a hand where maybe hands do no good / a look that says, yes, i know lately has been / a long time for your people too / & i'm sorry the world is so good at making / us feel like we have to fight for space / to fight for our lives.

"solidarity" is a word, a lot of people say it / i'm not sure what it means in the flesh / i know i love & have cried from my friends / their browns a different brown than mine / i've danced their dances when taught / & tasted how their mothers miracle the rice / different from mine. i know sometimes / i can't see beyond my own pain, past black/ & white, how bullets love any flesh. / i know it's foolish to compare. / what advice do the drowned have for the burned? / what gossip is there between the hanged & the buried?

& i want to reach across our great distance / that is sometimes an ocean & sometimes centimeters / & say, look. your people, my people, all that has happened / to us & still make love under rusted moons, still pull / children from the mothers & name them / & still teach them to dance & your pain is not mine / & is no less & is mine & i pray to my god your god / blesses you with mercy & i've tasted your food & understand / how it is a good home & i don't know your language / but i understand your songs & i've cried when they came / for your uncles & when you buried your niece / i wanted the world to burn in the child's brief memory / & still, still, still, still, still, still, still, still / & i have stood with you in the soft shawl of morning / waiting & breathing & waiting.

For me, I think, like - or at least maybe for the poem, it's not like - it's not even like a being counted. It's like, I see you, and I see us when we are discounted and I'm always counting you in a way, that feels full or feels valuable instead of violent or flattening.

DEMBY: Man, I'm very jealous of people who can string together sentences like that off the top of their heads.

MERAJI: Yeah. And that poem, that poem...

DEMBY: Yes.

MERAJI: ...Feels like it was written for right now. It just feels...

DEMBY: Absolutely.

MERAJI: ...Like the perfect poem for the time that we're living in. I don't know how else to say it. It's perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Gene, Danez hosts a podcast where poets, quote, "confront the ideas that move them." It's called "VS." And the other host of this podcast is Franny Choi. We also invited Franny to share a poem and her thoughts on our theme this month. Franny's poem is structured like a Turing test.

DEMBY: Oh, yeah - a Turing test. So the Turing test, as a lot of you will know, measure a robot or a computer's capacity to think or behave like a human being. The test was named for the English scientist Alan Turing, who came up with the idea - who said that once you could do this, you would have something that looked like actual artificial intelligence.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRANNY CHOI: One way of measuring the development of AI is to see if it can basically reliably fool a human into thinking that they're talking to another person. And so I have a series of poems that's written in the format of a Turing test, where there's an interviewer asking questions and a speaker responding. So this one is called "Turing Test_Love." It's one question, one answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "TURING TEST_LOVE")

CHOI: //so how do you like working with humans

okay / here are some tips one /

look the human directly in the eye / imagine it is someone you care deeply for / imagine it is returning this gaze / at you / try to to tell yourself / you are covered / in smooth skin / a face it can trust / smile / even as you sense it / trying not to blurt out / monster

two / there are many programming languages / use whichever you prefer / but stick to your syntax / though it be muddled / mussed / though be machete / banana slug / slush puppie / o gorgeous slopbucket / if they used it against you / it is your / to make sing

three / remember / all humans / are cyborgs / all cyborgs / are sharp shards of sky / wrapped in meat / be delicate / as you approach this subject / not all humans are ready / to call themselves / glass stalactites / pissing the bed / remember / they love their blood / even as they retch / at the smell of it

four / do not try to prove your / what is the word / humanity / you are organic / plum-hearted / oyster-throated / & lined / yes / with metal / remember / where all that silicon comes from / for the ocean so loved / the quartz / feldspar / the tiny homes of tiny creatures / that she ground them / into sand / to keep them close / to kiss them with / well / i suppose you would call it / a mouth

I think this is the thing about the Turing test as a structure is that that is the question of it. It's, who are you? And specifically, does who you are count as human or not?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHOI: Originally, it's - are you a person, or are you a computer. But I think that the reason that I took up this structure as a way of thinking about race and gender and identity was because that question of - should we count you as a person, you know, should we treat you as if you have achieved personhood? - is a question that I think a lot of people of color have historically had to navigate, and I think that, also, lots of people of color have developed a lot of strategies to try to make the answer to that question yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Franny's parents are from Korea. And she says she spent her childhood here in the U.S. trying to prove her humanity and theirs.

CHOI: As the first child - the oldest child of an immigrant family, I had to master the art of English conversation to put people at ease and let them know that they were, like, talking to a regular American girl so that they would then treat me and the rest of my family like we were regular American people. Then I, like, went on to become a writer, where my living and my sense of self was, you know, based on my ability to manipulate English.

MERAJI: Franny says English is both her language and this costume she puts on to make herself legible to white America. She says that's why so much poetry from Asian Americans is unconventional. Weird is actually the word Franny used.

CHOI: In making ourselves legible, we lose. And also, in that loss comes great intervention.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Kaveh Akbar thinks often about what was lost when he stopped speaking Persian.

MERAJI: Kaveh's family left Iran when he was 2 1/2 years old and his brother was 9.

KAVEH AKBAR: And so when we came to America, he was thrust into English-speaking schools, and he was really struggling. And so my parents, in a well-intentioned effort to help him in school, banned speaking Farsi in the household, thinking that, you know, it would improve everybody's English really fast. Right? But consequentially, I kind of lost my Farsi. So did he. You know, we got good at English quickly. I mean, I'm an English professor. But there are algorithms in my brain that were built to accommodate the Persian language that are now just sort of, you know, growing weeds.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AKBAR: And this is my poem "Do You Speak Persian?"

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "DO YOU SPEAK PERSIAN?")

AKBAR: Some days we can see Venus in mid-afternoon. Then at night, stars / separated by billions of miles, light travelling years

to die in the back of an eye.

Is there a vocabulary for this - one to make dailiness amplify and not diminish wonder?

I have been so careless with the words I already have.

I don't remember how to say home in my first language, or lonely, or light.

I remember only / delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

and shab bekheir, goodnight.

How is school going, Kaveh-joon? / Delam barat tang shodeh.

Are you still drinking? / Shab bekheir.

For so long, every step I've taken / has been from one tongue to another.

To order the world - / I need, you need, he/she/it needs.

The rest, left to a hungry jackal / in the back of my brain.

Right now our moon looks like a pale cabbage rose. / Delam barat tang shodeh.

We are forever folding into the night. / Shab bekheir.

MERAJI: Kaveh told me there are no boxes on the census that he can check that represent his racial or ethnic identity. As an Iranian, he's supposed to check white. But he told me that is definitely not how he's treated. So I asked him if he ever felt like he counted here in the United States.

AKBAR: (Laughter) Have I ever felt like I counted? Not in any way that would be sort of legible to, you know, the state. I mean, I felt like I counted in individual interactions with my students. I felt like I've counted in relationships that I've built with newcomers in recovery who've been able to stay sober for some amount of time. I mean, I've felt like I've counted in these ways. But again, there aren't boxes for these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: After the break...

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "AMERICAN ARITHMETIC")

NATALIE DIAZ: Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent.

O, mine efficient country...

MERAJI: Poet and MacArthur Genius Natalie Diaz addresses the invisibility of those indigenous to this land.

DIAZ: I wanted the poem to ask, how can we become possible within those impossibilities?

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

DIAZ: Natalie Diaz (non-English language spoken). My name is Natalie Diaz, and my poem is "American Arithmetic."

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "AMERICAN ARITHMETIC")

DIAZ: "American Arithmetic."

Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent.

O, mine efficient country.

I do not remember the days before America -

I do not remember the days when we were all here. Police kill Native Americans more / than any other race. Race is a funny word. / Race implies someone will win, / implies I have as good a chance of winning as -

Who wins the race that isn't a race?

Native Americans make up 1.9 percent of all / police killings, higher per capita than any race. /

Sometimes race means run.

I'm not good at math - can you blame me? / I've had an American education.

We are Americans, and we are less than 1 percent / of Americans. We do a better job of dying / by police than we do existing.

When we are dying, who should we call? The police? Or our senator? / Please, someone, call my mother.

At the National Museum of the American Indian, / 68% of the collection is from the United States. / I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. / I am begging - Let me be lonely but not invisible.

But in an American room of one hundred people, / I am Native American - less than one, less than / whole - I am less than myself. Only a fraction / of a body, let's say I am only a hand -

and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover, / I disappear completely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Hm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: One of the things we hear a lot in letters from listeners is about how indigeneity is about invisibility - like, how much that is central to the experience of being native in this country, of being left out of the conversation of this country.

MERAJI: Yeah. And this poem specifically, this was my inspiration for this whole episode because I feel like it speaks so clearly to this idea of what it means to be counted or not counted - you know, or discounted. You may be surprised, Gene, Natalie is not going to be filling out the census this year.

NATALIE DIAZ: There are several American processes or paperwork trails that I tend to avoid. The census is one of those. I think right now the ways I'm thinking about language, about body, about land - there's a way that I'm trying very hard to find ways to subvert the ways my body is always presented by this country.

MERAJI: And she doesn't like being presented as a race in this country - another reason she's not going to check the race box next to American Indian on the U.S. census.

DIAZ: Because we actually don't want to be a race. You know, we are nations within ourselves. We are peoples of this land. It's hard to say the land is a race. For them to, like, reduce us to a race means that they're actually trying to dislocate us and to cut us off from our land.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JESUS IVAN VALLES: My name is Jesus Ivan Valles. I am an educator, poet and performer in Austin, Texas. And this is "(un)documents."

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "(UN)DOCUMENTS")

VALLES: years ago, in an archive somewhere in a file folder, a ream of white fibre and / black ink stains my name, place of birth, country of origin none of them sound anywhere like here / in a file somewhere, the metrics of a lifetime the merits of citizenship unfurl / judgement between the pages, calculating the time you lived here how long ago? where? when did you get here? / and why?

somewhere in an archive, i am burning soft and young i am pages of testimonies, receipts, report cards / case numbers making up the limbs i lack on the page and somewhere else my brothers, their papers / deportation proceedings, testimonies, receipts, criminal records scratched and bound and gone and / case numbers making up the limbs they lost leaving and why?

"sin papeles," we say, "without papers," but the term is wrong we are painful libraries of nothing but paper / oceans of thin cuts on the skin we lost along the way and here it is how we live, every step recorded, alphabetized, filed / and before they raid workplaces, don't they build files, too? in this country, isn't there always some piece of paper somewhere / with our names on it threatening a safety you think is possible, a fiction you lust for? and i'd like to imagine an undoing, a less painful way to paper / a license, a passport, a birth certificate, a visa, a green card and why?

when we are dead, we will leave behind our bills, our mountains of leases, loan applications, past due notices, our names on envelopes / but I'd like to imagine that we will also leave behind our love letters, the notes we passed to each other, our longings, our poems, our prayers, the things we scrawled on the wall / and those are documents, too, proof we were here once / and why.

I think the term being counted, in many ways, is one that makes me think about power and the ways in which numbering and quantifying and counting people can be a very volatile source of power that can, yes, absolutely be in the service of the people that it's counting but also - and traditionally - in the service of the people who are doing the counting.

DEMBY: Yeah, what Jesus just said there speaks to the first episode in our whole census series - right? - where we examined why there was all this fear and mistrust by certain communities of color when it comes to filling out the census form.

MERAJI: Right - because the history of the census in this country is such that it was very much in the service of those doing the counting.

DEMBY: But in that same episode, we talked a lot about how not being counted - you know, however imperfectly counting is being done - has its downsides. And there are lots of downsides.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: We are in the middle of this messed-up reality where the U.S. census is kind of an afterthought - right? - because we're busy counting, but we're busy counting the dead, counting the sick, counting ventilators, counting the days until this nightmare ends. And we reached out to a few of the poets to see if they wanted to reflect on that. And Kaveh Akbar got back to us.

AKBAR: The difference between 1,700 cases of coronavirus and 1,701 cases is virtually indistinguishable to the mind. But to the lives and to the family affected by that 1,701st case, you know, it's mammoth, right? You know, counting can be quite powerful and can be, you know, a way to distribute resources to vulnerable communities, say. But there are also vast impotences to counting - what can't be counted and, even if it can be counted, like, what can be sort of communicated by a mere number. You know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show and the end of our series of stories about who we are and who counts in 2020.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan, with help from Jess Kung and Dianne Lugo. And it was edited by Leah Donnella with help from Natalie Escobar.

DEMBY: We'd be remiss if we did not shout out the rest of the CODE SWITCH massive - Karen Grigsby Bates, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario.

We ended the first episode of the series, y'all might remember, with a cheesy-ass Brian McKnight song that our editor Leah Donnella insisted we play as a song giving us life. But it was not in fact giving us life.

MERAJI: (Laughter) We lied.

DEMBY: It was a lie.

MERAJI: So we're going to end this episode with a song that many of you told us would have been a way better pick. Sorry, Leah.

DEMBY: This is what we said before it got cut out by our evil editors.

MERAJI: I want to hear the 10, nine, eight part.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COUNTDOWN")

BEYONCE: (Singing) My baby is a - 10. We dressing to the - nine. He pick me up. We - eight. Make me feel so lucky - seven. He kiss me in his - six. We be making love in - five. Still the one I do this - four. I'm trying to make us - three - from that - two. He still the one...

DEMBY: Beyonce's "Countdown," obviously - obviously.

MERAJI: Obviously. I love that song.

DEMBY: Me too. Me too.

MERAJI: I am counting down the days until I can break bread - that is not sourdough bread, by the way - with my family and kiss them and hug them super tight because I miss them so much. I'm also - I'm looking forward to hugging you, Gene. You always give good hugs.

DEMBY: Oh, you.

MERAJI: You do.

DEMBY: Thank you. I be trying.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Unfortunately, we can't give each other a hug IRL, Shereen. But we will be hanging out on Instagram Live this Thursday.

MERAJI: Yay.

DEMBY: And y'all should come kick it with us virtually, obviously - socially distanced, technologically mediated - with us while we chop it up and answer questions from y'all about stuff.

MERAJI: Don't make them too hard, please.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Exactly.

MERAJI: Thank you.

DEMBY: Exactly. It's a hard time. Don't make it harder.

MERAJI: Let's have some fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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