ONE. Diggs Gilmore Harvey

MuckWorks: A Cover Story
Author Statements
MuckWorks is edited by
Yona Harvey + Douglas Kearney
(we created it, too)
MuckWorks is designed by
Douglas Kearney
The cover photograph is by
Yona Harvey
but was tampered with by
Douglas Kearney
visit us at
©2009 MuckWorks. All rights revert to authors.
MuckWorks is an ePublication designed to be viewed as a PDF and as such, is not
formatted for printing or assemblage. Feel free to e-mail it to whomever you’d
like as often as you’d like. Enjoy! y+D=MuckWorks
Muckworks: A cover story
from yona harvey
Popular musical covers have a complicated and familiar history. In the 1950s and 60s
United States, musical covers entailed taking an original song, which was already a hit
among black musicians and their audiences, and re-recording it for a white audience.
Robert Witmer and Anthony Marks have commented in the Grove Music Database on
these unsubtle, racist and commercial endeavors. The writers also note a gradual shift
by the late 1960s and into the 70s, where covers become more tributary and nuanced,
keeping the original artist at the center of the work1.
MuckWorks, too, positions the original artist, Elizabeth Alexander, and original poem,
“Ladders” at the core of this issue. We invited our contributors to access an online
version of “Ladders” through The Academy of American Poets website (http://www. or via Alexander’s first book2. Each poet was
free to cover the poem as he or she saw fit, though we offered this for consideration:
—“A parody” and a cover are not the same thing. Parodying suggests an imitation of
style. Covering may not take the source’s style into account at all.
—“A remix” and a cover are not the same thing. Remixing suggests rearranging the
substance of source material. Rearrangement, however, may not lead to a cover at all.
Enter Elizabeth Alexander. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading her poetry (The
Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book and American Sublime) and
essays (The Black Interior and Power and Possibility: Essays, Review, and Interviews)
you understand that she is a true child of integration; which means on some level,
she relies on much invention and building as she goes. Her work, her very presence,
encompass so much artistry and history—examining the past and producing a body
of literature, which continues to benefit new generations of poets. When The Venus
Hottentot was published in 1990, Doris Jean Austin aptly described it in The New York
Times as “a historical mosaic with profound integrity.” We learned as MuckWorks
headed for release that President-Elect Obama named Alexander Inaugural Poet, and
Austin’s comments also feel rich with foresight. Rereading Alexander’s first book for
MuckWorks, the level of diversity, curiosity and innovation (form, subject matter,
persona) within the collection is striking.
Oxford University Press and Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc.
The Academy of American Poets website actually has a typo in the poem’s final stanza,
which Brian Gilmore pointed out. Specifically, line 21 has an extra “as”; it should read:
“As soon a live Jemima.” Additionally, the website adds an extra “n” in its spelling of
“Donnessa” and various mis-capitalizations. You can view the correct version in
The Venus Hottentot.
The same can be said for our very first MW contributors. Reading their poems
and process statements, you, too, will be awed by the multilayered versions of
“Ladders,” which reflect not only the poets’ writing talents, but their depth and
diversity as readers.
Brian Gilmore quickly pointed out in an e-mail that he and Alexander were born within
days of one another: “she was born may 30, 1962. i was born may 28. 1962. we were
like in line at the same time.” How fitting then, to see Alexander’s lyrics embedded in
Gilmore’s “ladders (a cover).”
These poets turned “Ladders” round and round before “messing” with it. Each rendition
reveals the poet’s sensibilities, interests and entryways; they demonstrate also
thoughtful readings or listenings. There’s an interesting process of transference
happening in the “fat eye” of Bao Phi’s “The Deported, Part 1: Antique Store” and the
conflicted buyer of Crystal Williams’ “Race Card.” Terrance Hayes and Amaud Jamaul
Johnson nod to Alexander’s structure, control of the line, and bend it with the gift
that is vernacular. And then there’s the intriguing game Donessa plays, for which
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs does not retreat: “DON-ESSA?”: “yeah she talking to you /
advance your space according to the spinner” the poet charges. From DC to California to
the love of music itself, the cross-overs and shared spaces here are startling. Almost as
exciting as the poems were the poets’ enthusiastic responses to the journey (the words
“wild” and “crazy” come to mind). Each sound is unique; yet each fits this collective.
Have a listen.
D + Y = MuckWorks
January 13, 2009
Moksha Patamu
LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs
lazarus kiddy subdivision stock
near nineteen-eighty-one
inebriated Aunt Jemima slithers to the floor
pool of swine, vice & bubble gum
smell of fruit loops contradicts flaunt
feast for the fleasflight of the flatworms
Auntie’s loop sided head tags over yonder
banana ponders purple sounder dragon puff eyelids
she a pot-likka pick-a-ninny field snot
deep southern exposure
more snakes to your ladders
if you were to regulate grand stands
you so serious at 11 & yeah she talking to you
advance your space according to the spinner
(paramapada sopanam)1
Donessa! Girl you hear me!
Don’t act like you don’t see me…
I know your mama!
circa twenty 0-2, you elevate to Central Park West
consequence eighty-four squares of seethe
looka ma duke spittle of jiffy kernels week old Cineplex
claims she feedin’ pigeons
no remorse
no subtlety
nothing debutante when she winks and regur—
good lordy backwood kacalaky in her
toboggan on down that embarrassed skinned gut
all for your proper behavior
go on now
the ladder to salvation
you apologize
karma’s a cashier reality late check
your contemporaries all up in that other habitat
proletariat, the dang literati can’t theorized with you
look a here girl them editor
you subscript
milk crates stack um up closer to nirvana chile
it’s all in the eyes asking
“You do remember me sir?”
your status makes a neo-nigga
wanna to act dumb
chica stocking sodas
sandwich wrapper cook dem eggs
your status makes a post-nigga
wanna to act dumb
& there’s yo mama again
your innards cramp
“Please, why this gotta be my mama.”
so what she doing now?
Donessa! Girl you hear me!
Don’t act like you don’t see me…
I know your mama!
oops upside your head
there your cousin goes again
in that wig, with the gin
with the drool right down her chin
how are you feeling now?
polyester floral rolls up against the wild irish rose
the been there done that sags of kohl mams,
oodles & oodles of holey hose
stretch marks
drag like the earth
when it cracks from the sun
how fancy that your education
led to more retail
how fascinating between age
& the dolly you pushing
no one knows you. no one sees you.
you just can’t mutilate the flustered memory
this is what you’ll always see
you go deaf when you see you in her
you ain’t even trying to find her
from the back of your neck
“Girl?” her reflection the silhouette
you keep packing them customer’s bags
mirrors haunt you don’t they?
the female kin the code of vodka
as soon as a live junkie walks on by
the shop, you shriek
the possibility of a what if
why can’t you get to the hundredth square?
“Girl? Answer me. You forgot?”
(paramapada sopanam)
LADDERS (a cover)
Brian Gilmore
hear strings.
like the
isaac hayes
“black moses,”
church women
look close,
it is
their faces
more than
or dimples
this is their
not much matters;
his brother didn’t
show, the reception
hall is tiny,
she’s in white
he’s in black
a cake
two rings
they hold hands
all day
no money worries; they
don’t have much anyhow.
they work
steady for the
uncle in washington
dc &
they are black
they will make it
raise children
it would be
a fabulous moment
in world history
even if they had been
in filene’s
department store
An Aunt Jemima floor
display. Red bandanna,
apron holding white rolls
of black fat fast against
the bubbling pancakes, bowls
and bowls of pale batter.
This is what Donna sees,
across the “Cookwares” floor,
and hears “Donessa?” Please,
this can not be my aunt.
Father’s long-gone sister,
nineteen-fifty-three. “Girl?”
Had they lost her, missed her?
This is not the question.
This must not be my aunt.
Jemima? Pays the rent.
Family mirrors haunt
their own reflections.
Ladders. Sisters. Nieces.
As soon a live Jemima
as a buck-eyed rhesus
monkey. Girl? Answer me.
talk of the magnificence.
they can hear strings.
they hold hands. & would have held them
even tighter in filene’s department store.
we should all be so lucky.
small cake. tiny reception hall.
the love of their lives.
this is what i see.
Yona Harvey
Sometimes you find yourself
facing it, after
early July approximations
have fizzled on
an urban patch
of green or sidewalk or down
at the Riverfront you
wisely avoided.
“Our Radiant Light,”
said The Stone.
(True that, true that.)
But who on Earth can stand it—
to be brilliant, but always
questioning the gift,
its smart, black packaging:
(What grace is
wrapped this way?)
Before you
know it, it’s in
your skin, your kin,
your bone:
I don’t know, you
keep saying. But
you do, no,
Dammit, you don’t.
Terrance Hayes
doesn’t leave the train station according to the story
Stagger tells, until tomorrow morning. We shoot up 23
North, singing our version of Tribe, put pedal to floor
doing a buck fifty, Stagger’s braids in a red bandana,
chrome on the rims, the cab smokey, the volume rolled
to its end. Beyond the insomniac nuclear silos built against
nature where the wind tastes like roadkill or tiny bowls
of fire, a gun in the glove box, there is no one badder
than Stagger speeding across two counties until I can see
he’s getting staggerly. I drive the rest of way, pedal to floor
because his train to Africa is leaving before she can please
him. We stop at a drive thru strip club where the poor and
lonely are working. Naked jaded sea hag looking sisters,
only one of them pretty, a dark chocolate chattering girl.
Stagger spends the next hour soaking his money in her
skin. Between there and Africa Simpson, all his questions
amount to “What’s someone like you doing here with the aunts
of poverty?” To which each of her answers sounds like “Rent.”
I had no money, but the whole time I napped she was haunting my body. I was so fucked up then, even the reflections
of truckers were godlike to me. She was one of my nieces
caught along a road named America or named Jemima
bucking for bills or company with the rhythm of a rhesus
monkey. We made the train but her image was still with me.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson
“…to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”
—John Donne
Batter my aunt, three-pancake girl; a store
Of fat bubbling across the floor. Near
Fifty—red, white, pale—long gone, my father’s
Sister, my mirror. He missed her. Please hear
Me. Answer me. Black is not the question.
Jemima’s wears? See Jemima’s red roll,
Her monkey. Depart! Miss this reflection!
“A display pays, girl.” A bandanna, please.
A buck? Sisters live and the family haunts.
Nineteen nieces. Don an apron. Cook. This
Is not, cannot be the ladder. Hold on.
Own this eye. See. Or lease a white mirror.
Rent-a-Jemima (the black bubbling).
Rent-a-Jemima, and hold fast to bling.
Douglas Kearney
“Madam, Buy A New Hat!”—Filene’s Ad, 1913
Filene’s Bargain Basement Department Store
c. 1953, an Aunt Jemima display on the cookware floor.
donning a red bandanna
and an apron, muffining
black blubber (for the role).
batter blubbles waxen
in a cradled mixing bowled over, o Donna peeps spots sees
it over by the kettles, pots—
this can not be my aunt.
c. 1953, and pops’ father’s
long (dog)gone sister
done gone found Donna
don’t does matter if they missed her
or not. this must not be my aunt
“lawsee”ing to “temptilate” ladies for rent.
Donessa dons “Donna” like a veil; the hant
keeps calling her name, spooking her.
rungs in the family?
down through sisters, aunts, nieces:
does it run in ya Donna?
ain’t ya aunt ya ya ain’t ya. answer: “…
Bao Phi
“You know, like when Oriental girls say,
me rike, me rike instead of like,”
he says
amongst Smurf tumblers
and she says nothing
to the white man old enough to be her father—
why should she?
He knows what she rikes.
His eye is fat with sambos eternally lifting watermelon,
injuns’ and squaws’ tomahawks leveled
at Mexican banditos ay yi yi
while Saudis draped in sand-colored sheets
look like Jawas next to a
Boba Fett action figure, its left boot gnarly,
chewed up by a cat.
Oh, yes, he watches me
from the round
corner of that fat eye
to make sure I don’t run off with
the afternoon’s tea.
On a mirrored shelf, plaster mushroom hat figurines
heft loads, gooky dwarves
chink eyes like inverted pickaxes slanted sideways—
mine hover, slopes
just above their dust,
my eyebrows cocked Spock-like.
On the globe, if you spin it hard enough,
the jagged borders of Vietnam
look like the silhouette of Tila
Tequila dancing, swear to god,
just try.
Sure they took it all, and they keep selling it
back to us.
Tea to a party
you can only be a servant to.
Fireworks to gunpowder
crater a wound shaped like
the country you left
and now get back
to where you came from.
Self-hate is the fucking Cu Chi tunnels
of oppression.
Just look at your G.I. Joe collection.
You reach for a worn copy of anything Tolkien
before a brand new Carlos Bulosan.
Walk where you want to.
Assimilation gerrymanders that ass.
Oh yeah me likee.
Crystal Williams
Dear Mr. Burke,
As you might remember from our conversation, my mom gave me this Race Card
(enclosed as per your request) at the beginning of the year because my college said
that every freshman needed one. But I never used mine. My aunt had already bought
my textbooks & everything else in the campus store seemed sort of goofy & irrelevant.
So since I haven’t used it & probably won’t ever, I contacted your department hoping to
either get a refund or an exchange.
I really appreciate the huge exception you’re making for me (&, as per your request,
I have not mentioned this to any of my classmates, although, most have used their
Race Cards anyway). I realize you can’t give me a refund but can exchange the Race Card
for some other type of gift card. After thinking about it for a while, I think a grocery
store gift card would be best. $50 will buy lots of Ramen noodles! Anyway, I know you
said your daughter is my age & is in college in Maryland. I hope she’s enjoying it there
as much as I am here & that someone in Maryland is as kind to her as you’ve been to me.
Thanks again.
Anza Jenesis Jones
class of 2012
Latasha Diggs
the title of elizabeth’s poem stuck to me while i sat with the poem. my version, a remix,
is in the spoken word tradition as it is meant to be recited over a track i composed
before actually writing. i kept thinking about what karma meant for this character
and the things i have had to learn through morality. all this helped me come up with
the title. all this led me back to the childhood game “Chutes and Ladders,” a game
originally called “Moksha Patamu” in 16th century India.
Writer, vocalist, and sound artist, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, is the author of three chapbooks
and one album. She hails from Harlem.
Brian Gilmore
I chose to do it like Isaac Hayes, the greatest cover artist of all time. Isaac had just
died so he was on my mind because I adored the guy and his music. Isaac loved intros;
he used strings and singing to make the songs become his own. He loved to go out
strong too, ad-lib. This is what I tried to do. “Ladders” is a great poem by a great
writer so it was easy to play around with it. Isaac Hayes I tried to become; I hope
it worked.
Native Washingtonian, Brian Gilmore is a poet, public interest attorney, contributing writer for
Ebony-Jet online, and frequent columnist for the Progressive Media Project.
Yona Harvey
Whenever I read “Ladders,” I get stuck on two lines: “This must not be my aunt” and
“family mirrors haunt.” While covering I kept repeating those lines. Then, there’s that
pesky grenade: “their own reflections” which came back to me when a brilliant, fellow
music-loving friend came to visit my husband and our family. My poem is written in
praise of Alexander and that friend.
Yona Harvey’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bat City Review, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, The
Journal, Ploughshares and West Branch. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Terrance Hayes
I think Elizabeth is always in some way casting a benevolent shadow on my work so I
wanted to use her poem as the literal scaffolding—the ladder—of my own.
Thus all of the end words in “The Last Train to Africa” are lifted from “Ladders.”
Content-wise I was most interested in the duo/partners/sisters of “Ladders.” The
speaker and Stagger in my poem, like the speaker and Donna in “Ladders” are on a sort
of “cultural adventure.”
Terrance Hayes is the author of Wind in a Box (Penguin 2006), Hip Logic (Penguin 2002) and
Muscular Music (Carnegie Mellon University Contemporary Classics, 2005 and Tia Chucha
Press, 1999). He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Carnegie Mellon University and lives in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his family.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson
After rereading “Ladders” several times the word “batter” began to ring in my ears.
For reasons that I cannot fully explain I remembered the opening line from John Donne’s
Holy Sonnets #14: “Batter my heart, three person’d God.” I made fourteen photocopies
of “Ladders,” cut and compressed each copy until I found the shape of a sonnet.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson is the author of Red Summer, winner of the 2004 Dorset Prize. He is a
former Stegner Fellow, and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Douglas Kearney
In researching Filene’s, I found archived ads documenting its transformation from
a “department store” to a “bargain basement” which struck me as the opposite
of Donessa’s—or “Donna’s”—trajectory. “Ladders” is full of such revisions, with
Alexander’s deft enjambment of “rhesus/monkey. Girl. Answer me.” as perhaps the most
brutal. My cover plays these alterations from the perspective of an anxious striver
like Donessa.
Kearney’s The Black Automaton (Fence Books, Fall ’09) is a National Poetry Series selection.
His first book is Fear, Some (Red Hen Press ’06). He lives in The Valley with his wife and their dog.
Bao Phi
When asked to remake Elizabeth Alexander’s great “Ladders” poem, my process was
to basically read it over and over again in an attempt to soak in both its form and its
tone. My own resulting poem wasn’t, at all, a strict adherence, but rather a remake that
I hoped replicated the emotional truth and captured the intent of the original.
Poet and community organizer Bao Phi is a two-time Minnesota Grand Slam champion and a
National Poetry Slam finalist. Phi has appeared on HBO Presents Russell Simmons Def Poetry,
and a poem of his appeared in the 2006 Best American Poetry anthology.
Crystal Williams
Alexander’s poem “Ladders” makes me think of inheritance, mobility, generational
shifts. Because I teach, I’m constantly at odds with/in awe of young people: how and
what they inherit and how that is manifested in the world, how they move so fluidly
amid such complication, how so often the ignorance of youth (my students last year
didn’t know who Angela Davis was!) is also our very best hope for significant change.
I wanted to write a poem that expressed some of that. And, I must admit, I was at the
time obsessing about the 2008 election wherein every other word, it seemed, was
“Race Card.”
Crystal Williams was raised in Detroit, Michigan and Madrid, Spain. She currently lives and
works in Portland, Oregon where she is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Reed College.
Right now, you’re probably asking, “What is MuckWorks?”
Answer: Poets Yona Harvey and Douglas Kearney with a trunk full of lab coats.
We believe that writers should get the opportunity to muck around a bit. To try new things,
but with the alibi: “MuckWorks made me do it!” And “it,” here, denotes one of a variety of secret
poetic experiments.
MuckWorks will produce a series of chapbooks, pamphlets and more in which some of our favorite writers will be invited to experiment with different projects and constraints. The results will
then be made available as free pdfs just like this one.