February 4, 1944
Théâtre de l’Atelier
“Je suis là pour dire non.”
- Antigone, Jean Anouilh
(Neutral décor. Three identical doors. At curtain rise: all the players are on stage. They are seated … They are chatting, knitting, playing cards. One of them, The Prologue, stands up and moves down center to the proscenium edge.)
The Prologue addresses the audience: So, here we are. These characters are going to play for you the story of Antigone. Antigone is that skinny little girl seated over there, and who isn’t talking… She’s thinking. She’s thinking that she’s going to be Antigone, that in a minute, she’s going to suddenly spring up from… the little girl no one took seriously… to …
To have known on your bare feet
the feel of palace floors,
to have tip-toed
to reach the hand
of your father,
Could any of this
(or only just this)
have prepared for that clanging,
of the last Theban gate
closing behind, drowned out
by the fear drumming
in your heart.
Expulsion from home:
on the road, on foot,
in rain in cold,
in rags in menses;
the daily desperation for food,
the exquisite knowledge,
the cost of saying:
Another February 4th
Rosa McCauley Parks, February 4, 1913—October 24, 2005.
Whether she had ever heard it said,
ever read of Thebes and that other girl’s “No,”
her own refusal was bound to spread.
Small matter that only the slightest thread
connects her birth to a French Résistance show,
whether she had ever read, or heard it said.
What counts is how the dates are read,
are fixed in the head, when someone needs to know
how refusal of humiliation is bound to spread;
how standing up by sitting down only led
more resistance to persistence of old Jim Crow,
whether or no she had ever read, or heard it said
how word, how song, how ancient play was thread
enough to string a steady way through throe.
Her civil, disobedient refusal was bound to spread.
Care for the ill grandmother, then mother, instead
of high school was her earliest lot, yet even so
whether she ever heard Antigone’s name said,
her own iconic refusal would become widespread.
Janet Joyner’s poems have appeared in numerous magazines, with prize-winning poems honored in the 2011 Yearbook of the South Carolina Poetry Society, Bay Leaves of the North Carolina Poetry Council in 2010, 2011, and in Flying South ’14. Her poetry manuscript, Waterborne, is the winner of the 2015 Holland Prize and will be published by Logan House Press in the fall.
Q: Discuss your process as a poet, what sparks a poem and how you work it through to completion (or abandonment.)
A: Usually what sparks a poem for me is a deep feeling, then, possibly, a meditation upon it. Often the writing, the attempt to capture it, is a way toward the understanding, the reliving, or the letting go, of it.
Q: Your career as a teacher of French language and literature can be seen in the first of these poems – in what other ways do you think this immersion in another tongue has affected your own writing?
A: That’s an interesting question. I imagine all writers are influenced to some degree by reading other writers, especially the study of others’ works. And of course fluency in another tongue is also fluency in another culture, which always offers a purchase for viewing, understanding one’s own. I do think the sound of the language, the fact that poetry in a language which has no accented stress as English does, no weak and strong syllables, and depends, therefore, on repeated sound for its rhythms, has influenced my ear. specially, the lyrical quality in much of my poetry, as in the villanelle here.
Q: What did you collect as a child – rocks, insects, stamps? – and why?
A: I wasn’t a collector, but as a child of the out-of-doors, I was a fascinated observer of tadpoles in streams and lizards that miraculously changed their color, or taunted with that billowy tongue!
Q: You’ve beautifully linked the cost of refusal from ancient times to the 20th century. As we confront incidents of horrific violence on American soil over the past few years, in what way might we find a new voice to say no – or to say an equally powerful yes?
A: It’s the great question for every age, isn’t it? What it will tolerate, what embrace. It is my hope that remembrance of the long past out of which we come, its highs and lows, will enable us to reject what blinds us from our common humanity in favor of choices that might realistically further the path towards genuine community and peace.