The Operating System

POETRY MONTH 30/30/30 : Inspiration, Community, Tradition : DAY 5 :: Caits Meissner on Adam Falkner

photo: jonathan weiskopf

Adam Falkner is a poet, musician, high school English/Creative Writing teacher and former Michael Jackson dance-off champion – although he will probably deny the latter of those if asked. In addition to being published in anthologies and journals including decomP Magazine, The Esu Review, and The Other Journal, Adam’s poems have also been featured on HBO, BET, Michigan and New York Public Radio and in Time Out New York. He lives and works in Brooklyn.
Succinct Musing from Caits Who is Secretly in Love with Adam, but Only His Brain Because She is Married to Someone Else:
A few short months ago over dinner, I looked at Adam with a suspicious side eye. He appeared a blurry apparition through the candle light, or maybe from the second glass of wine I’d just finished. He was smiling a very nice smile because he is a very nice guy. I was giving him this unusual look because everything he said was eerily familiar. The voice in my head said, Are you me?
If he had chosen to respond in poem form, he might have answered in this scene from high school years,
…”When it’s safe, you twist up a toothpick
for yourself, adjust the volume on the stereo
to your favorite anthem, smoke. Eyes closed,
seat reclined, you imagine yourself a dope boy
from Brooklyn, perusing the rat maze of your ‘hood
with the top down, wiretaps in your phones,
feds staked out behind your house- a life
that couldn’t be any further from the cushy
Midwestern one your parents gave you: swimming
lessons, choir practice, golf retreats, family vacations.”
(From the poem The Year The Blueprint Drops)
Which is to say, yes. Though you are a girl from West Sand Lake, New York and he is a boy from the Midwest, you may very well be the same person. Or at least you were when Jay Z’s sixth album dropped.
I have always appreciated and connected with Adam’s work. He writes poems about imitating Michael Jackson, alongside hilarious, poignant descriptions of his teaching experience in the classroom that leave me simultaneously moved, and in stitches. But this night at the restaurant, perhaps sensing our uncannily similar life paths, Adam hands me a brand new chapbook with the words WHAT IS NOT YOURS hovering on the cover. The words are in all caps like that, as if a finger shaming you, pointing out all the times you’ve claimed something distinctly not yours. I start to count all the things in my life that are not mine. The list is long. A gift, he says. I blush and slip it into my bag. I am a fan.
I devour the book on the train in between the half-hearted hype men’s claps for their teenage dance counterparts on the 1 line home. I am actually thankful for these dancing boys and their audible bickering about the lack of hype-ness. They allow me a small break from the place the poems pull me into. It is a place of deep questioning, embarrassing reflections and revealing vulnerability. The boys give me a moment to pause and surface for air, to shed the questions that are staring me in the face, too. Which is exactly what I’m allowed to do by nature of the body I was born into, I can step away. Which is Adam’s whole point.
“Nathan and Davis had the wad of bills we stole from Davis’ father’s work coat so when they led us down the block to Hop In we followed because we were thirsty and had no idea the darker skinned of us would only minutes later end up with their chests on the pavement, a stranger’s hands scaling their waistlines and thighs while the lighter skinned of us would watch from the sidewalk with out tongues pretzeled into knots like the barrels of cartoon rifle and I was nine-years-old on the verge of a fifteen-year obsession to prove I was not whatever it was that kept me off the pavement alongside Nathan and Davis…” (from The Definition of Privilege)
These words are the first lines of the book’s opening prose poem, a monologue in one long breath without periods or stops. The section is called “The Whitest Thing.” His whole collection, for the most part, is about whiteness and other markers of identity. That glaring truth of our shared skin color and the shame it has brought us growing up and into it. These poems are everything I have ever wanted to say about race, about my experiences in the world, about secret feelings I once felt (and maybe sometimes still do feel), that are terrifically un-PC, unsexy and, in truth, terribly offensive in their own desperation. They are uncomfortable poems because they have to be, and they are deeply important—and moving.
“You used to stare at a freckle on your right arm
and imagine your whole body that color,
how much easier it would be to be “you”
if that were the case- and until someone
tells you otherwise, that is black too.
It isn’t that you don’t know you are white.
In fact, less white is all you really want to be–”
(From The Whitest Thing)
But there are also poems about the things that make us human beyond race, like losing a loved one, or our grandparent’s quirks, which moves the book into a space that doesn’t feel like an attack, but an invitation to explore, discover, and maybe even admit some things, where it is safe to, because Adam does—at least for a moment. These are loose thread poems. When you pull them, the whole sweater unravels. What began as an innocent exploration comes crashing down, exposing the underbelly, the part no one wants to see. And for this, I wish everyone would read the poems in this book. Especially white people. White people who think they are “down.” White people who hate other white people. White people who hate black people. White people who think they are post-racial. White people who date people of color. White people, white people, white people. White people, read this book.
Caits Meissner is a poet, writer, musician, designer and educator who recently released a book with poet Tishon, and currently serves as education Program Developer at Tribeca Film Institute and a Founding Editor at Well&Often.
Excerpt of Caits’ Work (A poem about high school and identity):
For Lucille Clifton, in thanks for The Lost Baby Poem

Because fourteen was a cruel, desperate year
I shore my hair to scalp and strapped on steel-toed
boots to look bad, blistered healed, bent on dreaming
Because I was feminist, revisiting mom’s old magazines
from the 70s and Our Bodies, Ourselves and pictures of
vaginas, real vaginas where they were called vaginas
that looked like clams and other small animals uncaged
and curious and I taught myself guitar, proud callused fingers
and folk music, angry music, angry women who were fed
up with the patriarchy!Because hair sprouted from my arm pits, raised like tiny fists
and I scorned any girl who put a razor to her perfect prickly skin,
those traitors, those pretty faced devil girls who would ask me
for advice about their yeast infections because I was wise,
a pink haired sage who hated them and secretly envied them
for their dumb careless mess, because the stars meant nothing
to me, the sky, an empty void that magnified my loneliness ten fold
so exaggerated in my chosen difference, the clouds whispered
no one here caresBecause I was lonely, so lonely, I was lonely but didn’t know
how to spell it. I needed to know there was someone
who understood there was something beyond this
small town, the cheerleaders and their boyfriends
the tractors and horses, this country landscape, what a
good gone joke, these woman who lusted after mannequins
while my best friend from summer camp had an abortion at thirteen
and tried to commit suicide that year and was on heroin and
wrote me long aching letters, and I was in love with
a girl, because I was not like them, I was in love with a girl
who looked like a boy who was in love with me,
who was angryBecause I was angry because someone needed to tell the world
about what it is like to be a real woman, a real woman with
poverty and black and mistakes and hurt and sex and slaughter
and love and guilt and forgiveness, and something different
from what I was in, from what I was, because I needed someone
to say this is ok, you can be forgiven, I needed someone to
teach me about forgiveness, to teach me to forgive.

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