Meilani Clay, 'Birthright'

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An African-American woman in a blue shirt smiles in a selfie.
Oakland-based poet Meilani Clay. (Meilani Clay)

Editor's Note: Welcome to National Poetry Month. Twice each week in April, KQED Arts & Culture will present a poem by a Bay Area poet. This series is curated by Rightnowish host Pendarvis Harshaw, who also speaks with each poet about their work.

"Birthright," by Meilani Clay

i tired of writing poems for white people

so i gave birth to one they can’t read

a copper-skinned poem

revised for 37 weeks and 5 days

a poem with my exuberance

wound helix around each curl

laughing loud toward the sky

a poem with my resistance

etched into a tiny furrowed brow

i gave birth to a poem with my rage

alchemized into a gilded voice

never backing down

never silent on command

a poem with my hope

sewn carefully to its sternum

a little patchwork yet certain all the same

i gave birth to a poem

that doesn’t know any words

but synonyms for love and freedom

a poem that careens down sidewalks

ecstatic shrieks prayers laid at the highest altar

this poem’s eyelids

are lined with the silk of my faith

this poem is invincible

still, one day, though i gave birth to this poem

this people’s poem

i know someone will try to read her, anyway

failing they will demand i translate

but the poem i birthed

was never meant for their understanding

for between the lines of this poem’s lashes

i placed a single dream:

a future that is this poem’s

and this poem’s alone

to write

Meilani Clay
Oakland poet Meilani Clay, whose book 'and the creek don't rise' was published in Dec. 2021. (Meilani Clay)

Pendarvis Harshaw: What inspired this?

Meilani Clay: Early in the pandemic I was in the audience of a Zoom fundraiser for Marcus Books with some of the dopest poets (e.g. Chinaka Hodge, Danez Smith, so forth) and someone there—I feel so bad I can't for the life of me remember this person's name—talked about writing a poem about a concept or person, where instead of naming it, you say "this poem is/does/etc," and then proceeded to share incredible examples.

I had been trying to successfully write a poem about my almost 3-year old (at the time) but they all came out hella corny or just not what I was trying to say. After hearing this poet, I was able to use that setup to craft the love letter to her I had been aching to write.

How did it feel to birth this poem?

It felt like a release! Much in the same way her actual birth felt, I let out this huge sigh of relief that I had managed to get her earthside safely.

You came up in Bay Area poetry circles (Youth Speaks). How does it feel being an adult doing this art in the Bay now? Any difference? 

What's interesting about my journey is that I haven't been able to participate much in the adult poetry scene in the Bay. I came back home during a time in my life where I was really struggling to write, then that snowball of grad school, career, family took me even further from the work and I've been coming back into myself larger during this pandemic, where the human connection so vital to any of the arts has been missing.

All that to say, I feel new to this, even though I'm true to this. But I've been blessed to be connected to ridiculously smart and creative people who bring me into the fold. I'm on my way back.

More information about Meilani Clay's recently published poetry book, and the creek don't rise, can be found here.