Published February 20, 2017

On this week’s show, we spoke to poet Kiki Petrosino, a celebrated poet, author, and essayist.

Petrosino came to national prominence after writing a short poem, “Letter Beginning, ‘If My Body Is A Text’,” for WNYC’s Note to Self. Here’s the poem in full:


then you must learn to read. My hands, double book of them
the threat you think my hands become when they unfold, hello.

You find me in the cool of my car. Slim universe of my colored self, slim chance of saying what I need to say to turn my hands into a book

or turn me back into the child who memorized each rank of angels Thrones Dominions Virtues Thrones—

You, too, must learn to read.
There, in the lagoon of every book:

a body I pulled up
by the hand.

Another body I lift
beside mine, my thoughts
body of light
body of light

You, too, must learn to read.

How it feels for a colored child
to lean & loafe, to take her ease in a thought—

Like skimming across some blue wideness
the moon appearing in day-sky. You’ll say:

I didn’t know that was possible, didn’t know before
the possible—

You, too, must learn to read.

At Monticello, once:
the 13th amendment hung
for three days, brown & spotted
as a lion’s muzzle, pale syllables
of Lincoln’s signature slowly
fraying under glass.

I wanted that warm
page of skin, its words
slanted alternatingly, as if
the pen had wished
to loafe against another body
endless field of work, America, endless
animal face in the work—

You, too, must learn to read.

I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.
That ain’t no harm.

I drove my car this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.
That ain’t no harm.

I held my hands at 10 & 2, my mind stayed on freedom.
That ain’t no harm.

I spun the warm wheel of my life so smooth this morning.
No harm.

I drove towards sunrise this morning, all morning
my mind stayed on freedom.

No harm, no harm.
No harm—

You, too, must learn to read.

Listen to Kiki Petrosino explain “Letter Beginning, ‘If My Body Is A Text'”

Petrosino wrote “If My Body Is A Text” while immersed in wall-to-wall television coverage of fatal police shootings across the United States — the Guardian counted 1092 in 2016 alone.

“On the one hand we’re brought really front and center, because you can literally watch someone dying, which is probably the most intimate moment of a life,” Kiki told WNYC. “But we don’t know that person. We can’t touch them, we can’t talk to their family.”

As attention increased on police killings in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Petrosino was consumed with the fear that she, too, would be misread by police as a threat.

As a poet and professor of English, Petrosino tried to understand her fear in textual terms — what does it mean, she asked, to be read by others?

“[My] phenotype is read almost as a text,” she says in this week’s episode. “So the poem is about, if the body is a text, then how should we be reading this text?”

Petrosino’s poem is addressed to an anonymous “you”, who she implores to read her properly, as unthreatening.

“It isn’t just that we’re talking about white police officers,” she said. “I think the You is implicit bias, whoever may hold implicit bias.”

“We harbor these implicit biases and we don’t question them.”

At least, she adds, until it is too late.

You can listen to our full interview with Kiki Petrosino by following this link. If you’re interested in her reflections on black identity, consider reading her piece for the Iowa Review, “Literacy Narrative”. Here’s a short excerpt:

I don’t believe my poetry can redeem the past. There’s no poem I can write that will give voice to voices lost to time, or reverse the ruptures made by centuries of violence. When I write, it’s my voice. This is how I sound when I’m speaking to you. I know it’s not enough, but I offer it in this moment…I don’t always write about my blackness; sometimes I talk about spaceships, or breakfast. I write what pleases me. Still, my blackness is there, in the very language that threads itself across the screen. It’s in my literacy and how I feel it: a gift of threads.

What do you think of Kiki Petrosino’s work? How has coverage of police shootings affected how you view authority? Feel free to chime in with your views in the comment section below, or on our Facebook page.


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