Words Are Cheap, But They Can Turn Out Expensive

I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself.” (Percival Everett).

The quote above is an excerpt from Percval Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. This was also the epigraph that inspired my first blog post this semester. Upon reflecting on this quote I can now see the full weight these words have on this course. The main message from this passage is the concept of identity. The passage hints at questions such as “who am I?” and “who am I to others?”. Identity is something that Percival Everett has talked about in numerous interviews. For example, in an interview on November 15th, 2012, Everett addressed his interest in identity stating; “Well I think that every work of art is about the theme of identity of some kind and there’s identity of the work itself. So, in that way I’m fascinated by it. I’m also fascinated by it, not only racially, but I’ve always been fascinated by that thing that is self-identity.”. It is easy to see the theme of “self-identity” throughout the works by Everett my class has read this semester. The novels Frenzy and I Am Not Sidney Poitier both depict characters searching for the idea of self identity.

In Frenzy the character Vlepo is who is searching for his identity. A being created by the god of wine Dionysus, Vlepo’s existence is dependant on the life of his creator. Neither human or god, Vlepo searches for his identity within the novel. This is shown in this interaction between Dionysus and Vlepo; “Dionysus smiled. ‘You’re not like them.’ ‘Then who am I like?’ ”(Everett 88-9). In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, the character Not Sidney Poitier struggles with his identity as a young black man who looks strikingly similar to Sidney Poitier, and even shares a very similar name. The character of Percival Everett says it best when he and Not Sidney are discussing Not Sidney’s identity. “ ‘I know, I know, you’re Not Sidney Poitier and also not Sidney Poitier, but in a strange way you are Sidney Poitier as much as you’re anyone.’ ”(Everett 102). Upon reading these two examples I became aware of the scope in which the literature we have read this semester emphasise the idea of identity.

This is my understanding as it is now, that identity is a crucial part to the works we have read; but what does this mean in terms of my take away in this course? Going back to that first epigraph I would like to note my original take away, so I may show the growth that has taken place this semester. I said in my first blog post “Many times it is hard to see an author’s perception of a story because we are so caught up in our own interpretations and ideas. My goal is to be able to read a work of literature and see the lens which the author is using to perceive an idea that has been said before.”. Looking at this now this is the exact opposite of what my feelings are now. Now, I have an understanding that it doesn’t matter what the author intends, it matters what the text is stating. Everett himself said in an interview from August 23, 2017:  “I never speak to what my work might mean. If I could, I would write pamphlets instead of novels. And if I offered what the work means, I would be wrong. The work is smarter than I am. Art is smarter than us.”.

My understanding of literature throughout this course has taken a complete 180, and I am happy because of it. I came into the first class of English 203 a scornful person who lived in a world of absolutes. I even defended scorn in class at one point. However, through class discussion and interpreting Everett’s work on identity I have grown to be able to see the grey in the world and the benefits of it. In all honesty I feel more emotionally fulfilled by the world around me when I view it in the way this course has taught me. My family has always known me to be a stubborn, fiery spirit, stoked with anxiety. This course, and Everett’s work has given me the ability to let things go. When something angers me, or makes me want to be scornful, I am more understanding and forgiving.  I have shifted from a predominantly fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

In Everett’s book of poems Re: f(gesture) the poem Zulus is a catalog of references to other texts, and events. One poem that is referenced is one title The Beasts by Walt Whitman. This poem follows a narrator’s desire to leave human torments behind, and their admiration for the animals. “They do not sweat and whine about their condition; They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins; They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God; Not one is dissatisfied- not one is demented with the mania of owning things.”(Whitman). My mentality at the start of the semester was akin to the human torments that The Beasts describes. I sweated over my condition, and I was dissatisfied. As I stand now, I am much more content with what, where, and who I am. 

In other words, this course has been a sort of therapy for me. Anxiety and the torments of being human clouded my sight to the beauties of humanity. These beauties are something I discussed in my post titled Subjective Perspective of (Logic). “There is a certain beauty in the fact that humans can even communicate at all, yet we fail to acknowledge it because it is so routine.” As a person with an anxiety disorder, it is easy for me to be frantic and hastey. My life was swept in the routine nature of day to day life, and I failed to see the beauties of life that I see now. Much of my growth that occurred during this course stems from the simple words Professor McCoy said in her comment on my first blog post; “SLOW DOWN. This REALLY applies to you!”. Professor McCoy in this case was referring to my writing but it was also what I needed to do with my way of life. I needed to slow down and appreciate the beauties around me. 

It is clear to me that over the course of this semester my identity has changed quite a bit from the anxiety ridden, close minded writer I once was. This change and growth of identity can only be credited to my peers, Everett’s writing, and Professor McCoy herself. By reading works such as Frenzy, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and Re: f(gesture) I have a better understanding of what identity meant in this course, and how my growth in my own identity was a very Everettian transformation. This is my take away from Everett’s message of identity. Identity changes, as did my own identity did over the course of this semester. As has become somewhat of a habit in my blog posts, I will leave you with some lyrics from a song. This song I believe summarizes the message of self-identity transformation, and my take away from this course. It summarizes where I was before this course and leaves me with a message that is very Everettian. This song is called Tenderness by General Public from 1984.

“I don’t know where I am but I know I don’t like it

I open my mouth and out pops something spiteful

Words are so cheap

But they can turn out expensive

Words like conviction can turn into a sentence”

Links to previous blog posts mentioned;

Not My(August)self Today

“Thank you,” I said. “I came back to this place to find something, to connect with something lost, to reunite if not with my whole self, then with a piece of it. What I’ve discovered is that this thing is not here. In fact, it is nowhere. I have learned that my name is not my name. It seems you all know me and nothing could be further from the truth and yet you know me better than I know myself, perhaps better than I can know myself. My mother is buried not far from this auditorium, and there are no words on her headstone. As I glance out now, as I feel the weight of this trophy in my hands, as I stand like a specimen before these strangely unstrange faces, I know finally what should be written on that stone. It should say what mine will say: I AM NOT MYSELF TODAY.” –Percival Everett 

Four months ago, when I first read this epigraph in our course syllabus, my notions about this class, English in college, and college in general were admittedly foggy.  I didn’t know who Percival Everett was. I didn’t know where the passage was quoted from. I didn’t know how relatable the epigraph would prove to be when reflecting upon it again in December.  

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Conversion From Scorn

While searching for inspiration for two more blog posts, I found myself rifling through interviews of Percival Everett, hoping I could further understand his thinking. I stumbled upon an interview of Everett written by Matthew Dischinger of VQR (a national journal of literature) in the summer of 2015. Here Everett says; “I have pretty strict rules about interpreting my own mission or my own works. It’s not my place. I’m a writer. I make novels, and then I stand away and let the novel do the work. What I think it means, what I want it to mean, it’s not only useless, but it’s pointless. It doesn’t affect it. It doesn’t matter.”

This quote prompted me to reconnect with a thought I had mentioned to Professor McCoy while reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier. While reading the (as the paratext calls it) novel, I noticed an attribute in the character Percival Everett that made me question the nature of our study into Everett(the author)’s work. In one particular scene Not Sidney is talking to Percival Everett, and Everett reveals a bit of his character. “Listen, Mr. Poitier, I’m going to hip you to the truth. I’m a fraud, a fake, a sham, a charlatan, a deceiver, a pretender, a crook.” (Everett 101). Here Everett admits to Not Sidney that he is in fact not what his students perceive him to be. This idea seeped into my own thinking as I was frustrated with the author’s writing up to this point in I Am Not Sidney Poitier. I asked myself if the author was admitting to the reader that he himself is a pretender. At the time I found this very compelling. Annoyed and scornful at my inability to analyze the author’s purpose in writing this novel, I found it easy to say that the writer, Everett, was not as profound as this course made him out to be. In my heat of scorn I found this an easy and satisfying understanding. My understanding was false. 

It is clear to me know, with the 20/20 vision that is hindsight, that there is some truth in my initial thought. It is true that it is possible that we as readers interpret more from texts than the authors intended, but that does not make Everett a fake, in fact it is part of the nature of writing. Everett admitted himself that “What I think it means, what I want it to mean, it’s not only useless, but it’s pointless.”. This is why Professor McCoy’s small lesson from the beginning of the year has grown to the subject matter of this blog post. That lesson is; we cannot assume the author’s intent, only our own interpretation of text. 

The Bedford Glossary defined the term interpretive communities and noted “that the meaning of a given text may differ significantly from group to group… no interpretation is likely to be considered valid by everyone.” (213). What I saw as a characteristic of a fraudulent writer (to put it harshly), was in fact a characteristic of beautiful writing. A piece of writing that can birth endless different interpretations is the sign of a great text. It is undeniably profound when the writings of one person can spur interpretation across all walks of life, through many interpretive communities. 

For much of my literary career I have had a somewhat close-minded view of literature. They way I understood it was that there is a set meaning that the author wants to get across. Much of that comes from things such as state and school testing, where there is a correct answer to “what the author means by..”, or “what the text is implying is…”. By reading the interview above of Everett, I now see that it doesn’t matter what the author means, it matters what it means to the reader. Literature does not lend itself room for the selfish writer. Publishing one’s work is an act of vulnerability and charity. To present your mind to the face of criticism, in hopes that someone can enjoy your voice shows that as an author you cannot expect people to see what you may see in your work. 

Seeing as this is my final blog post, I thought I would write a brief thank you. I am so unbelievably grateful to my fellow students, Professor McCoy, and Percival Everett, for expanding my mind and to developing me into a greater writer. This semester alone has been more eye opening and changing for me as a writer than any other year of my formal education. Thank you for letting me be vulnerable with my work and give it to you all. We may not all see eye to eye, but that itself if the beauty of writing. Let us not forget that. I leave you all with some words from Yusuf Islam.

Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

‘Cause there’s a million things to be

You know that there are

And if you want to live high, live high

And if you want to live low, live low

‘Cause there’s a million ways to go

You know that there are

An Icon of American Character

Reflecting on one’s actions and transforming from one’s realizations “is what education and learning are about” (Williams, Wooliams, Spiro 121). One transforms into a version of oneself who is better suited to achieve one’s goals. But what are we reflecting on? Are we reflecting on ourselves, or is it possible that we can observe a version of ourselves through the lens of what we “should” become based on American societal values? Can we claim that we are entirely ourselves just because we are not physically the role models our society believes we should become? Continue reading “An Icon of American Character”

What’s in a name?

Percival Everett’s abecedarian set of poems Zulus from his book re: f(gesture) comments on the importance of naming children. On two separate occasions, the speaker states, “Always name offspring” (Everett 20, 28). Zulus makes a statement on the power of names, and their necessity in forming identities; it highlights the tragedy that can occur when a name–the first gateway into identity–is carelessly left blank.

The cautionary phrase is first evoked in the “F” section of Zulus: “F is for Frankenstein, / who did not name his baby. / Always name offspring” (20). I have actually just read the romantic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley in my Nature of Inquiry class, and the speaker’s statement could not be more accurate. Many people think (myself included until I read the novel) that “Frankenstein” is the name of the re-animated monster in the story, mainly because modern-day media often portrays it as such. In actuality, Frankenstein is really the last name of the scientist who creates the monster, Victor Frankenstein. In the original novel, the monster is nameless, generally referred to as the “creature.”

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That Not Sidney Sure is Something

While supporting characters within the world of I Am Not Sidney Poitier, are flat caricatures, Not Sidney is characterized as being made real through a combination of story, dream, history, and his own lived reality. Supporting characters in the novel serve as conceptual backdrops, Not Sidney alone experiencing the world through the modes of reality, unreality, and hyperreality. I Am Not Sidney Poitier therefore creates verisimilitude for Not Sidney and for the audience.

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Archives and Intertextuality

On Monday, Professor McCoy allowed us to take a mini field trip around campus with the mission of finding as many “archives” as we could. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an “archive” as “a repository or collection especially of information.” As my group and I would soon discover, these repositories can be found in a variety of forms, from the library to a bulletin board to a tree. We even discussed how people could be regarded as archives as well; their brains act as a repository for all the memories and experiences they’ve had in their lifetime. I was keeping a record of all the examples we discovered, and I became a bit overwhelmed; I could barely keep up with the quickly lengthening list. As my group member Liz put it, “The world is your archive!”

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Pastiche Not Plagiarism

While reading I Am Not Sidney Poitier I found myself many times confused, amused, intrigued, and most often confused. My confusion was easily swept into frustration, as it is so oft to do. However, I remembered Professor McCoy’s advice on scorn, that is to reserve it for what truly deserves it. Sadly my scorn showed its confused face when I became agitated with the novel’s use of reference. On October 25th, My Classmate Susan Dolan noted my frustration with the novel’s allusion to the film The Defiant Ones in her Blog post titled Plagiarism with Purpose. “I remember during this conversation I shared Kevin’s frustration because I also could not recognize what Everett was doing.” (Dolan).” This frustration came, in part, to the lack of understanding I had, but it also stemmed from a moral dilemma I had been struggling with. This moral dilemma was plagiarism. 

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms describes Plagiarism: “In which one author steals a passage or idea from another, passing it off as his or his own and failing to credit the original source.”(Bedford 316). They key to understanding plagiarism, however, is intent. The Bedford goes on to explain that “deceptive intent” is required for any copying to be considered plagiarism. It was with this definition in mind that I faced the plagiarism tutorial Dolan described in her post. Dolan describes that the tutorial states “any reference to facts, ideas, or data that are not considered common knowledge must be properly cited.”(Dolan). Within this course I had been given two standards of plagiarism and asked to uphold both of them. I was made to believe by the Bedford that deceptive intent was what characterized plagiarism, but this lesson was telling me that even an accident could make me guilty of plagiarism. This confusion, again lead to frustration, and scorn. Which standard was I to uphold? 

While searching for the answer to this, I began to better comprehend what I Am Not Sidney Poitier was doing with its parallels between Sidney Poitier movies. Sadly, what comes with comprehension is critical thought, and thus the question was raised in my head as it was raised in Dolan’s; Is Percival Everett guilty of plagiarism? My initial answer was yes. At face value, Everett is using exact lines, and story arcs from movies to fill the plot of his novel. This made me, understandably, upset. Why should I as a student writer be held to a standard that not even a college professor such as Everett himself cannot uphold? Are the Masters not expected to be greater than the students? Roughly 78 pages of I Am Not Sidney Poitier parallel either The Defiant Ones or Lilies of the Field without a citation in sight (I took the time to count them myself). Everrett even prefaces before the novel begins, “All characters depicted in this novel are completely fictitious, regardless of similarities to any extant parties and regardless to shared names.” (Everett). In other words Everett is claiming that all of these said characters are completely fictitious and that he created them himself, seeing as he does not credit them to anyone else. 

Finally I believed I had a just reason for scorn, I was ready to write a blog post about the inequality between student and teacher, the failures of our academic standards, and the ridiculousness of plagiarism. As I was about to begin writing I decided to reserve my scorn, and make sure I had the proper information to support such a presumptive and bold statement. I again turned to the Bedford. As I looked again for the definition of plagiarism I came across the term pastiche. Pastiche is “A literary, musical, or artistic work that imitates another’s recognizable style or pieces together a medley of often incongruous elements from a number of existing works.”(Bedford 316). Yes, as you might guess I was again confused. How was this any different than plagiarism? What was I missing? The key lay in the next few lines of text. Here the Bedford explained “it is sometimes treated synonymously with parody, but is more often distinguished from the latter by its respectful tone.”(316). Pastiche it seems was a loophole from plagiarism. A copy? Sure in some ways, but one of admiration and respect. The intent is key, pastiche is an intent of homage. My scorn began to lessen as I realized that Everett wasn’t plagiarizing. He was implementing a literary device that until now, I hadn’t known. Under the definitions of the Bedford, Everett is not guilty of plagiarism. Without giving it much thought it may seem that he is, but with a more critical lens it is visible that I Am Not Sidney Poitier is making a point. This point however, I plan to explain further in a blog post of its own.

This internal struggle of understanding where the black and white line of ownership and plagiarism left me with an important lesson. This lesson was that writing is never black and white, it is usually grey. Grey is the line between tragedy and comedy. Grey is the line between genius and madness. Grey is the line between Sidney and Not Sidney. Grey is the line between plagiarism and pastiche. As budding writers and students, my classmates and I need this lesson now more than ever. Many of us have learned to write through rigorous structure and clear cut outlines. Now we are in college, where for many of us there is little to no structure, where freedom can either sink us or lift us to new heights. It is through accepting that writing is grey that we can find our own voice and become greater writers. Do not take my advocating for “the grey” as support plagiarism, far from it actually. Rather, I believe we should not let our confusion and scorn force us into decisions that aren’t well thought. Before we label someone guilty of plagiarism, let us think about what their intent was. If I had used this judgment I wouldn’t have been so scornful towards Everett. My tale of confusion and scorn in many ways itself parallels the confusion and scorn Not Sidney faces in his story. My hope, however, is that my life will be seen as pastiche, not plagiarism. 

“Baaaa” – Conforming to the Herd and its Rules

In Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett (the character) warns Not Sidney, “‘Don’t be a sheep, Mr. Poitier'” (90). The professor cautions against joining the herd; it seems he thinks people should be their own person, not just blindly follow the crowd. In my opinion, the novel attempts to evoke a conversation about conformity and its dangers; what are the repercussions when people try to fit in with the herd–with the status quo? I would like to explore this within the novel as well as in regards to our discussions about literature and film in class.

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“The Ship” (and Not Sidney?) are Not Themselves Today

During our class period on Friday, it became Susanna’s job to yell “The ship!” every time the philosophical problem of Theseus’ ship was applicable to some aspect of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Indeed, Susanna said this on multiple occasions (and with amazing delivery!) throughout our discussion. In particular, I would like to examine how this pesky problem applies to the formation of Not Sidney Poitier’s identity in the novel.

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