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"Dirt Being Dirt": Creative Writing from the Breaks

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

by Irene Cooper | June 6, 2023

cracked stone ecru-colored wall with dark blotches
photo by Hannah O'Leary

The poet Carl Phillips won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his collection, Then the War. Phillips is a favorite poet—sensual, surprising, and cerebral. He’s a Black man, and gay, and has embodied and explored those identities throughout his body of writings, starting with his first collection, In the Blood, published in 1992. In 1992, AIDS is rampant, and riots break out in Los Angeles after four police officers are acquitted of the beating of Rodney King.

Bouncing around Google just after Phillips won the Big P, I came across a video of the poet reading his poem, “Dirt Being Dirt.” Obvious to say, but it bears repeating: A poem is one thing on the page, and another on the tongue. The last line hits hard, and differently, across experience: “You broke it. Now wear it broken.”

Some weeks ago, Sherrilyn Ifill, who for ten years served as the head of the Legal Defense Fund— the non-profit civil rights organization and law firm founded by Thurgood Marshall—gave the annual Robert B. Silvers lecture at the New York Public Library, entitled, “How America Ends and Begins Again.” Friends, it is an example of rhetoric such as we have not seen in some time—honest (brutal, even), informative, and, impossibly, hopeful.

I’ve seen a lot of references, lately, in creative nonfiction and elsewhere, to kintsugi, the Japanese art of finishing the mended seams of broken pottery with gold: Cracks not only visible, but celebrated. It’s often difficult, however, to celebrate our fractures and fissures, our breaks. But there are other, perhaps more practical responses.

Ifill talks about listening to the people in the margins, the falling off places, if you want to hear the truth. She offers, too, a number of actionable suggestions on what to do with that truth. Phillips writes:

The orchard was on fire, but that didn’t stop him from slowly walking straight into it, shirtless, you can see where the flames have foliaged—here, especially—his chest. Splashed by the moon, it almost looks like the latest proof that, while decoration is hardly ever necessary, it’s rarely meaningless:

Writers sometimes worry they have nothing to write about, that their writing is merely decorative, or otherwise unworthy of attention. I would argue that the pull to write indicates the need to write, and a need for that writing. Creative writing takes courage, as well as time and energy and fortitude. That is, if the writing is trying to get at something. Which is not to say that truth is always the catastrophic fracture: One may crack a joke, or break into a grin, or bust out laughing.

The bold, golden seams of a vase or bowl that has undergone kintsugi suggest to me that the piece is stronger, now, at the site of the break—and that the piece was worth the attention to repair it. Ultimately, we may not want our revisions to be exhibited quite so nakedly in our work. But as I read through my first draft and start to be aware of the various fault lines and fires, I understand that this is where the beauty begins, in the attention to the unfinished, needful edge.

This is where I’ll learn how to wear it broken.

Learn more about how to invest in and develop your creative writing at The Forge. Already a Smithy? Go write.

Kintsugi treated black bown with gold seams on a mat of concentric indigo circles on top of a wooden plank surface, under a night sky with a full moon obscured by clouds

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