When I spoke to Chicago poet Roger Bonair-Agard earlier this week he was in New York. Having narrowly escaped the Snomageddon he was en route to Washington, D.C. to attend the celebrated literary conference AWP and looking forward to the American release of Gully, his second book of poems. The poetry collection deals with cricket culture in his native Trinidad, as well as his own personal history in America.
I wanted to talk to Bonair-Agard about a poem he wrote for last June’s edition of the Encyclopedia Show
, a cabaret event sponsored by Young Chicago Authors
. For each event, the organizers come up with a topic, in this case the circus, and ask each performer to address a sub topic. In Bonair-Agard’s case, it was flea circuses.
“At first I was like what the…?,” Bonair-Agard says about receiving his writing assignment. “The flea circus is such an obscure bit of Americana that I did not know where I fit in personally to write this piece. I wasn’t sure where to enter.”
So he researched the historical phenomenon of fleas trained as tiny circus performers, juggling tiny balls, cracking tiny whips, powering tiny Ferris wheels, and found himself strangely enticed by the subject matter.
“The first thing that drew my attention is the general madness of people deciding we’re going to make these creatures entertain us,” he says. “I’m not trying to be all PETA, but they did mad cruel things to fleas! Then as I read more it became symbolic of a larger human imperative of whiteness to dominate stuff for our personal enjoyment. This is by no means making fleas till the land.”
Based on these thoughts he wrote the elaborately titled, The poetic analysis of the socio-cultural relevance of the flea from the classical period through the Industrial Revolution. And somehow from that obscure bit of Americana Bonair-Agard produced a poem that’s both stunning and funny, tracing as it does the connection between this “frivolous entertainment” and the historical subjugation of people of color, while managing to evoke intersex South African runner Caster Semenya, Grandmaster Flash, the Arizona legislature and “the whole cast of Gone with the Wind.”
You can hear Bonair-Agard recite his poem in the audio excerpt posted above.
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Roger Bonair-Agard spoke to an audience assembled by Young Chicago Authors this past June. Click here to hear the event in its entirety, and click here to subscribe to the Dynamic Range podcast.