Category Archives: Education
The following essay was written as part of a larger art exhibit curated by Roberto Jones called “The Contemporary Form,” which explored androgyny as a contemporary social and artistic concept. I provided the following essay as a plea to explore gendered expressions as not simply a political or artistic curiosity but rather a survival mechanism.
The Body Is Where We Live:
On the Importance of Questioning Gender and Embracing Androgynous Forms
A Short Essay
By Derek Berry
Gendered language is the sarcophagus but not the corpse within. You can
claw your way out of the coffin, sure, but how to escape the body? You live there,
every experience, every moment, every love, every thought filtered through the
reality of existing in that corporeal being, one you cannot escape except through
sleep or orgasm or suicide. Even dead, you cannot escape the tongues of
others—those who will name you boy or girl when you only ever named yourself
God or fairy or Leelah Acorn. The catch, that skin stretches around our
bones, a flesh-prison. A strange virtual reality video game, in which we sit rattling in
the consoles of our skulls, controlling human-shaped vehicles. In these vehicles, we
collide and crash and zip and brake—we live our entire lives within bodies. We do
not even understand what it means to live beyond the body, whether death be a
coda or refrain. So we have these: we own bodies, though several own the language
that describe our bodies. How can we own a name that does not belong to us, one
our tongues have never learned to properly speak? How can we own a body so
inscribed with meaning we did not choose, a library of misinterpretations that
mangle bones, that fertilize graves, and that trap us with organs, with body hair,
with blood. We do not properly understand the physical effects of gender, that these
transgressions do not only happen in discourse or in the classroom or in some
theory-ruled vacuum but rather on the body, in the body, to the body. Always the
body is the final secret exhumed, the final consideration behind the name on the
headstone or taste of the dirt. This is a cemetery we continue to dig.
Take some time to check out this online radio interview with Chris Pendergrast on his show “Echo Cast.” I talked with him for approximately 10 minutes about my inspiration for poetry, the process of writing poems, and the particulars of the poem “Fork,” which came from a story concerning my speech impediment.
I also discuss the “Fun Home” controversy, Roberto Jones’ haven for artists, the meaning of truth in poems, and upcoming projects.
Other artists are also featured, and you should listen to their music and interviews as well. To hear me, go to minute 40 and take a listen. I am very excited to have made connections on Soundcloud and have begun to find a wider audience for my spoken word poems. Enjoy and make sure to comment.
You can find the interview here:
Also, make sure to check out Chris’s music here: https://soundcloud.com/chris-pendergraft
And his art here: http://chrispendergraft.deviantart.com/
In late February, South Carolina Representative Garry Smith punished the College of Charleston for its choice of College Reads! book, which was Alison Bechdel’s tragi-comic Fun Home. Although the state’s funds did not actually fund the College Reads! Program, the state legislature chose to cut $52,000 in funding to the College. This caused quite the kerfluffle among CofC students, including myself, who began a series of protests against the legislature’s decisions. This coincided also with the appointment of Glenn McConnell as College president after a politically dubious search process. On Monday, we held another protest, as Fun Home the Musical came to Charleston. Having watched the show myself, I hope it great success and also hope that the play helps spread the message of how homophobia can destroy people’s lives.
I read the following poems at last Friday’s protests:
Several writers across the country have also spoken up about academic freedom, information for which you can find here: https://www.facebook.com/outloudsc
Find media on the protests and controversy here:
rides the elevator constantly holding a coffee
with creamer and two sugars,
and she says, “You know what tonight is?”
The afternoon maid shrugs,
equally aware that Friday has arrived,
but might be less excited because she
must work on Saturday.
“It’s date night,” said the British manager,
biting her lip and raising her eyebrow to
infer something almost certainly sexual.
“I’m going to get it on.”
This latest statement confirmed
she did indeed, mean to suggest sex.
The afternoon maid shrugs,
and we all enter the elevator together,
and ride in silence down to the lobby.
[Based on true events that happened today. A conversation.]
He nodded at me. “Sure, used to be a cop. Dad was a cop. All my friends were too.” His legs were skinny, the muscles shrunk from disuse. He wore a beard hastily shaved, and I couldn’t guess his age, though he was older than most professors. For the past hour, we had been talking about his involvement in the War on Drugs as a police officer.
“What was that like? I mean, what did you feel about what you did?”
“It was great, don’t get me wrong. Worked Interstate 95 right out of Camden, Georgia. What you have to understand is, the drug trade runs through there. My daddy—he was a sheriff. One time he stopped a car and got three million dollars for the department.”
“Because it was drug money. Bought cars, uniforms, everything. For Camden officers, the War on Drugs is the best thing that ever happened. It gave us purpose, not to mention funding we’d never had before. Don’t look at me this way. It’s cocaine—we dealt mostly with cocaine.”
I never caught his name, but we had been speaking for an hour about his life; he sat in a motorized wheelchair eating just the chicken from a Chick-fil-a sandwich. “Cocaine?” I asked, shifting my books from my lap. “I didn’t realize rural Georgia had a coke problem.”
“Sure, they don’t. The local cops—they just bust people for marijuana, but me—cocaine.” I wanted to ask him if he had been injured in the line of duty, but that would be rude. “See, you understand, cocaine comes out of Miami. You can get Coke there with 90% purity, maybe a kilo for $25,000. So you drive up through Georgia on the way to New York, where coke is maybe 30% pure. So you cut that coke into three piles, mix it with meth, Adderall, sugar, what have you—you can imagine these drug runners made a shit ton of money.”
“Sure, sure. And you think that’s okay? I mean, I don’t condone anyone taking cocaine, but what about the War on Drugs. Don’t you think the money is misspent?”
“Federally? Sure. But in my department, it was the one thing still funding us. Pull over three cars a year—they may have a couple million each in them. Used to work with my father, and with one bust, he could afford patrol cars for the entire force. I’d say it’s worth it. I mean, I agree with you about marijauna. That should be legal, even though I’d never try it.”
“Even in your condition.”
“Well, you could get addicted.”
“Addicted to marijuana?”
“Sure. You see, now that’s it’s legal in some states, the THC levels are higher. So kids start smoking sooner, they develop physical addictions. You’ve heard about this?”
“Yeah, actually. They keep making more and more potent weed, until it has become dangerous.” I nodded, then looked at his legs. “So, what happened?” I gestured broadly at the chair.
He shrugged. “Car accident. Gotta tell you, only about three weeks after the accident, the seat belt was recalled. What do you expect? Korean company.”
“Uh-huh. Well, that’s shitty. I’m sorry.”
“Well, we went to court, reached a settlement. They gave me millions of dollars but—I mean, what the hell is that? Just throw money at me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paralyzed from the waist down. Doesn’t change the fact I’m in a chair. Mind getting my smokes?”
Rifling through the bag on the side, I found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I handed him the cigarettes and helped him light it, then sat back down. “That’s rough. Corporations—well, you know.”
“I mean, the same thing is with marijuana. Even when I was a cop, I didn’t think having it illegal was wrong, but hell—now? Now that it’s becoming legal, it’s becoming dangerous. Not that I care that people smoke it—long as they don’t drive.”
“Of course. Just like drinking.”
He nodded, and before rolling away to class, he added, “You want to get them going south.”
“The cocaine dealers?”
“Sure. You get ’em going south, you get millions of dollars, but going north, who cares? You bust them and all you can confiscate is piles of cocaine. What’s the use in that?”
Reality and gravity have lately
been doing a terrible job of keeping me down.
I’ve found my mind works smoother
when it’s in the clouds, when it’s floating free,
when it doesn’t know where it is
though it’s got no place to be.
Don’t call it summertime sadness:
it’s just the sunburn blues.
I’ve been feeling lately there are too many me’s
and not enough of you’s.
And my friends, they walk trails
that are taking them to the moon,
around the world,
or into oblivion.
I spend my days in books,
swimming, and writing poetry
I’ve been learning about self-preservation.
I’ve been learning that life cannot always be
an out-of-body experience.
I’ve been learning to be comfortable
in my own body.
I’ve been learning how to cook
mostly things with instructions
printed on the back of the box.
I’ve been learning about Japan in the 1980’s.
I’ve been learning about Immanuel Kant.
I’ve been learning about marksmanship
with bullets that do not kill.
I’ve been learning.
Let’s answer every news confidential we read
so that no one will end up lonely
or puppy unwanted
or lawnmower unfixed.
There is not a lot of forward motion.
I’m governed by a static presence,
a cycle of the same of the same of the same of the same
and maybe that’s just introspective B-S
or maybe the sunburn blues.
[A poem about a specific event in Cuba, though severely exaggerated. It had an interesting impact and summed up much of what I learned while I was in the country. I’ll post a live reading of it when I debut it at an open mic, which should be some time next week.]
On my final night in Cuba, while strolling home
from the Malecon, drunker than Hemingway
and more nostalgic than Buzz Aldrin during a full moon,
a boy spat on my shoes and screamed,
“Screw you, dirty American. You ruin everything!”
That is the edited version of his comment,
bleary-eyed and angry as he was.
My entire life I had grown up being called names:
Spazz, geek, twitch, space cadet, nerd, stupid face,
weirdo, pothead, loser, Southern boy, and usless.
But nothing hurt my pride more than
being called, a “dirty American.”
Which in Latin America is a strange insult:
they too are America, not just the United States,
which the US citizens tend to forget.
Without breaking a sweat, I turned about face
and stood in the place before him and said,
“Look, don’t you realize—don’t you see?
I love you!”
We stared each of us for a moment, tense,
and I said, “Look, man, we’ve got a war going on,
and we’re losing. Love is losing.
We’re being drowned in a sea of apathy
while our violence is anything but holy.
But we need to return to the sacred, to the human,
to the soul and to our passions.
We’re facing giants of oppression
and if we don’t learn our lesson, we’ll be done for.
So you and me, we gotta stick together.
We have to rally on the side same,
and what’s the point of shouting at each other on the street
when you’re little brother doesn’t have anything to eat?
Why would you want to fight like this
when you don’t own a toilet where you can take a piss?
So, I’m here for you, and I’ll always be here for you,
so don’t you dare talk to me that way.
I know, I know, you can only get drunk and forget your life
only because today was a good day.
But what about tomorrow?
When will we fight for tomorrow?
When will we wield our imaginations like swords?
I’ll charge into the battlefield mounted on a unicorn
There’s no time to squabble and there’s no time to mourn.
Because it’s bigger than us.”
I realized as he nodded his head
He didn’t understand a damned word I said
But he understood my voice and with what passion I spoke
and I guess he figured I was an alright bloke
He shook my hand and I went on my way
and we got drunker, because today had been a good day.
Sometimes, words won’t do, and sometimes
we fail ourselves—that’s evolutionary
But if we live and we love,
that act is revolutionary.
“A Savage Yawp” happens to be the first poem I ever published (in the 2011 Poetry Matters anthology). After looking through old poems, I decided to rewrite it in my modern style, a more spoken-word-laden piece concerning the public education system and the notion that tests can determine futures. Listen to both versions and give your thoughts below.
I hope this offers some insight into particularly the philosophy of education expounded by South Carolina public schools.