Evie Shockley: A Modern Master

Conley Hurst

Two weeks ago, the University’s Glasgow Endowment presented a literary reading featuring authors Asali Solomon, Helena Maria Viramontes and Evie Shockley.

Solomon, a former W&L professor, gave an engaging reading from her new novel Disgruntled. The book tells the story of a young African American girl growing up in West Philadelphia who transfers from her neighborhood school to a mostly-white private school and must learn to deal with the unfamiliar challenge of finding her identity. Solomon presented a passage that dealt with the complexities of race through contemporary language and quick humor.

Viramontes read from her novel Their Dogs Came With Them which deals with the lives of four young Mexican American women living in Southern California. While Solomon’s writing was contemporary and humorous, Viramontes’ language was personal and deeply emotional. Her prose worked to portray the struggles of life as a poor minority American in the mid-twentieth century.

Unfortunately, the bad weather kept Shockley from getting to Lexington, so she attempted to Skype into the reading to present a selection of her poetry. The Skype experiment was unsuccessful, though, and Shockley could only present a small sample of her work.

This really was too bad. As I have learned from studying her work in Professor Deborah Miranda’s creative writing class, Shockley is a modern poetic master. As Professor Lesley Wheeler explained at the beginning of the reading, Shockley draws heavily from both the past and the present to establish a unique perspective on race and identity in contemporary America. Indeed, history is one of her primary influences.

One poem that displays this well is her “Duck Duck Redux.” It is in her recently published book of poetry entitled the New Black and was a piece that Shockley attempted to read at the Friday gathering before the Skype connection went down.

In “Duck Duck Redux,” Shockley takes nursery rhymes such as “This is the Way We Wash Our Face” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and interjects both historical and contemporary references into them in a self-proclaimed “Remix.” The result is a fast-paced poem that catches the reader’s attention with the stark juxtaposition of distant and recent history.

Though it was not read at the reading, Shockley’s “A Sonnet for Stanley Tookie Williams” also displays this juxtaposition of the historic and the contemporary. She modifies the traditional sonnet form that dates past Shakespeare to discuss her feelings surrounding the 2005 execution of Crips co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams. Along with her direct diction, this juxtaposition of past and present gives Shockley’s poetry another dimension.

It was such misfortune that Shockley could not attend the Friday reading, and for more reasons than that I couldn’t get my book signed. Her poetry is engaging and unique, especially her the new black. Through the use of both history and contemporary culture as inspiration, she expresses her concerns on race, gender, and identity with authority.

She is a true modern master.