A lot of good poetry comes from a simple question that’s been in your toolbox since childhood: “What if…?
There’s no end to playing this game, sometimes playful and sometimes serious. I often wonder, for instance, what if women ruled the world? Would it be safer? Saner?
My answer always seems to be yes, that the world would suffer much less ego and stupidity because of the switch, but you can’t be sure until the answer is test-driven. I’m heading to the dealership now.
Kevin Young plays the game in his poem “Negative.” He takes the concept of black and white and reverses it in interesting ways. The results—which tell us something about race—are striking, and one thing you always like to see from your poetry is “striking.” See if you agree:
Wake to find everything black
what was white, all the vice
versa—white maids on TV, black
sitcoms that star white dwarfs
cute as pearl buttons. Black Presidents,
Black Houses. White horse
candidates. All bleach burns
clothes black. Drive roads
white as you are, white songs
on the radio stolen by black bands
like secret pancake recipes, white back-up
singers, ball-players & boxers all
white as tar. Feathers on chickens
dark as everything, boiling in the pot
that called the kettle honky. Even
whites of the eye turn dark, pupils
clear & changing as a cat’s.
Is this what we’ve wanted
& waited for? to see snow
covering everything black
as Christmas, dark pages written
white upon? All our eclipses bright,
dark stars shooting across pale
sky, glowing like ash in fire, shower
every skin. Only money keeps
green, still grows & burns like grass
under dark daylight.
As a writing prompt, it’s both simple and audacious. You can even make a list to choose from before diving in. Go ahead. Pick up a pencil and pull out some paper: “What if…?”