Surprise and Delight: Julie Marie Wade on Karisma Price’s I’m Always So Serious

In the February 27, 2023 issue of The Tulane Hullabaloo, Karisma Price was interviewed about her work as a poet and professor. Describing her experience teaching college students at Tulane, she said, “I get to be that person that shows them how to enter the poem, and the rest is up to them.”

Now that I have read Price’s debut collection I’m Always So Serious, I see how she is also teaching her readers how to enter her poems, and by extension, her book. As a writer, Price is making the poem-films, but she’s also managing the projection booth and ushering readers into the theater of her pages. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned from the same source that Price is also a practicing filmmaker: “sometimes I think I use poetry almost like a camera lens ... with poetry, you capture images and little vignettes.” So let’s talk about the frames that comprise I’m Always So Serious, shall we,including those images and vignettes that make this such a vivid, sui generis project!

Price’s book is comprised of 39 poems arranged in three sections—a classic triptych structure befitting a writer who is also a visual artist. But before readers enter the linked panels of this poetic triptych, we first pass through a prologue poem called “Self-Portrait.” Once again, Price evokes the visual arts with a reference to portraiture, and her self-portrait serves for me as a kind of artist’s statement, painted in the medium of words and responding to my perennial first question: Who is the speaker who will guide me through this book, the creator and the docent of the art that is to come?

Here’s the next surprise: Price’s “Self-Portrait” (5) is accompanied by the attribution “after Chen Chen,” putting readers in mind (or in search) of Chen Chen’s “Self-Portrait With & Without,” another remarkable poem from another memorable debut collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA Editions, 2017). It seems to me a profoundly generous and humble act to share with readers—in this case, from the very first poem—the influences who have shaped Price’s own art-making. Imagine if, instead of the film tradition’s inspired by actual events, all poetry collections commenced with some version of inspired by actual poets—as all collections inevitably are!—and these tributes were made explicit.

Price mirrors the structure and anaphora Chen uses in his self-portrait, but instead of the words “with” and “without” to shape her text, she uses “as.” Price’s self-portrait is anchored in analogies rather than ancillaries, each “as” a pixel bringing the speaker’s personhood and history into fully realized form and color by the poem’s end. The first pixel: “As happiness.” (Whatever else this speaker shows us, we must not forget to picture her as happiness—not adjacent to, but happiness itself, happiness herself.)The second pixel: “As the wailing tambourine/ that replaced my uncle’s gun [...]” (Aural imagery almost immediately present.) The third pixel: “As the dancing/ it does when he waves it at the man who cut him/ off.” (Kinesthetic imagery, which is to say movement, almost immediately present.) Do you feel how multi-sensory and multi-modal this poem already is? Skip down to the eighth pixel: “As a lie as red as a crow’s mouth.” (A meta-pixel really: a minute illumination made brighter by the invocation of actual color.) Now the fifteenth pixel: “As the bay leaf inside the pot of red beans boiling/ on Mardi Gras day.” (Color, place, taste, occasion: all commingling in a single fragment.) The seventeenth pixel, which is for me also a heart line for this whole book, a tagline for all these poem-films: “As something/ so dark you have no other option but to call it/ precious.”

Maybe this “Self-Portrait” serves as a preview of coming attractions for the rest of the book. I’m happy to read it that way. The first poem also ushers in the first panel of Price’s triptych, which commences with the first of five title poems, “I’m Always So Serious.” As readers, we’re looking to the Table of Contents, too, as a preview of coming attractions, and patterns that surface there encourage us to lean in, to watch and listen more closely.            

In the first “I’m Always So Serious” (9) poem, we’re watching a movie in the form of a dream: “in the winters I dream/ of owning a multifloored mansion/ in New Orleans. Specifically, one/ on St. Charles Ave. with a wraparound/ porch and white pillars that would only/ see the likes of me if I were/ the maid, the midwife [...]” I can see this place, can’t you? I’m there, transported, with the speaker as my guide. Soon, she tells me: “In this particular// dream, I’m the mailman.” Our speaker is directing the film of the poem, but she has also cast herself as character within it—the way we often say of our dreams, it was me, but it also wasn’t me. In dreams as in life—and in poems especially— we get to be more than one thing at once. We become multi-valent as our language.

Let’s leap ahead to the next “I’m Always So Serious” (27), where Price develops her complex montage further. This is a single-stanza poem with a title that wraps around into its first line like the porch of an old New Orleans mansion: “I’m Always So Serious//and I’ve decided to be kind to Faith/ because she has a dead mother, and I/ too will lose a parent in the next month.” The candor here is staggering, with the speaker cloaked in the peculiar prescience of future tense. We freeze-frame with our speaker in the weeks before her father’s death. We dread with her a pulsing inevitable. In this poem-film, there is a character named Faith who has lost her mother, a speaker who is about to lose her father. But the pairing of these losses is only prelude to the poem’s final epiphany. Watch how Price reminds us again of her poems’ still-and-moving photographic medium: “Every day I feel like God/ watches me through a viewfinder whispering,/ It’ll be worse next time. It’ll be your mother.” Price is behind the camera, yes, but there’s also an executive director behind her, making final cuts. As with every poem in this series and collection, the imagery compounds, and the metaphors extend. We’re now watching God watching the speaker watching her friend and her father. We’re also picturing with this speaker the speculative loss of her mother, a future elegy yet to be filmed.

The third “I’m Always So Serious” poem (59) commences the third panel of this collection’s triptych. Arranged in couplets, the poem occupies the visual field of the page differently, once again, from the others in its series. These couplets are notable because, like the moving-image arts, they are also designed to evoke movement rather than stasis. Consider:

 I wrote this because I want to live

            in the house I cannot own because
I am not white. Forgive me. I’ve said this

            before but I was in a different state,
a softer mania [...]

We see the lines shifting and sliding rather than adhering to a more standard, left-margin alignment. We also hear the speaker reaching back to something we’ve seen before—that house on St. Charles Ave. that serves as both singular artifact and representative example for this book’s meditation on race, gentrification, and power. I’m beginning to realize that Price’s work might be rightly called poetic documentary. Swiveling the camera’s lens back to us, her reader-viewers, the speaker notes: “You watch me accumulate in particulars.” Yes! Yes, we do! Yes, we are! Then, she turns the camera back again to that house:

Inside the home I want for the wrong reason,

            There is a lamp that won’t work. I know because
the owners keep their blinds open.

The dream, the viewfinder, the blinds: what are these but means of watching, various screens onto which Price projects her words? In I’m Always So Serious we find poems of nuanced attention that grow by accretion, that “accumulate in particulars.”

The penultimate “I’m Always So Serious” poem (75) pivots again. It’s another single-stanza poem, longer than the second in the series, and once again, we rightfully expect our speaker to pivot. How will she address vision this time, the nature of watching, which is also to say the nature of witness, in this poetic documentary? Here’s: “I exist with white/ and static stars bursting in the center of my vision./ It is after the concussion. I fear I may go blind.” Now the eye exam becomes literal: “You’ve/ canceled your date with the bank teller to chaperone/ me to a room the color of absence/ where a flashlight/ beams into my already expanded pupils.” It’s a short, a brief but pithy movie. We’re watching a scene unfold before us. Later, we’re watching our speaker and her friend watching others in what we presume is the waiting room of this clinic or ER: “Friend, look, across from us:/ there is a couple whose hair is a coiled collection/ of clouds covering their peripherals. They hover/ over the beaded head of their child [...]” Every poem, like every film, is nexus of stories, “coiled,” “beaded.” Everything we see in the poem’s landscape mirrors this collection’s themes of intersecting and overlapping lives, multiple histories in progress at once.

Our speaker travels to and from the eye exam by city train. Early on, she shows us, “Beyond the laminated glass,/the air is the overwhelming color of doves.” Another screen, another partition. Glass facilitates looking but also prevents touch. This “laminated glass” joins the dream, the viewfinder, and the blinds as another medium that mediates our own and our speaker’s experience of reality. At the poem’s end, the camera pivots again: “The subway whooshes us over the buildings dressed/ in white coats. We sit in the clack clack of movement.” Aurally and kinesthetically charged from the prologue, these poems resemble films with Ocar-worthy soundtracks.

And then we arrive at the fifth and final “I’m Always So Serious” poem, this one subtitled The Golden Shovel (81). It is the golden shovel, not a golden shovel, because Price is paying direct homage to Gwendolyn Brooks in the spirit of Terrance Hayes, who created the form in 2010 to pay homage to Brooks. As in Hayes’s inaugural golden shovel, Price replicates “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks down the right-hand margin of her page—but of course the poem she writes using Brooks’ text as visual, sonic, and symbolic touchstone is as distinctive as any other poem in this book. Price does not mimic Hayes or parrot Brooks; rather, she situates herself once again within a tradition—of groundbreaking poets, of groundbreaking Black poets. Adjusting her camera lens once more, Price invites her reader-viewers not only to look at “We Real Cool” and the golden shovel form but specifically to look up to these poetry elders.

Here, in her golden shovel, our reading and viewing experience is conspicuously altered to accommodate the poem’s long lines and perhaps also to signal the collection’s impending close. While we entered the book through a “Self-Portrait” presented in portrait orientation, the default formatting mode, we prepare to leave the collection through landscape orientation, by physically turning the book, literally adjusting our gaze. And a poem formatted in landscape orientation calls our attention to land, meaning the places we alight, the spaces we occupy, the here-we-are-ness and the where-we’ve-been-ness that this collection has also sought to map.

The poem begins: “All the continents now pulled apart by Earth’s knowledge of us [...].” Can you imagine a more vivid way to begin a landscape poem? (I can’t.) Do I think Price was being deliberate when she changed Brooks’ “real” to “reel” in the second line of her golden shovel? (I do!) “A knife cuts at our combs and the both of us reel/ back into our honeys.” Film isn’t the explicit context for usage here, but we can’t encounter the word “reel” without our minds conjuring reels of film. We have been watching our speaker, watching with our speaker, for 38 poems now, and we have been also reeling, as Price spins us through these “images and little vignettes.” She writes, “Of course we’ll all disturb the earth [land] at the end of our thin/ lives when called, and begin/ our stay in the ground [land].” We have read Price’s elegies for the dead and for the living, for the past and for the future, and even we are implicated, “our thin/ lives” that will also end.

Turning the page to the final poem, reset in portrait orientation, I can’t help but think of all the bodies not lying horizontal in the ground, including my own, all the bodies standing tall and ready to face the world before them. The title of this poem? “Can’t Afford Sadness in a Time Like This.” I trust a poet named Price, at least this poet named Price, to address the cost of things. Remember, too, our speaker begins by pairing herself with happiness. She doesn’t have to buy it because she is it. But she won’t spend her time, her reels, on a sadness that stagnates—only a mourning that moves, with the power to transform.

The last lines of this book do not constitute a spoiler alert but a resolution: “I’ve been running from what needs me./ I refuse to make either of us cry in this poem [film] so//I’ll just tell you that the willow weeps.” When she tells me this, I hear: Let the willow weep so we, the “either of us” that constitute the speaker and her audience, can run toward what needs us most.

What is the running time for this collection? It can’t be clocked in minutes, though it might be measured in recursions, flashbacks, voiceovers, voltas, and salient allusions. What are we going to do with the images and little vignettes Karisma Price was shown us, has rendered for us, in I’m Always so Serious? What are we going to purchase instead of sadness in a time like this, a time characterized by so much distrust, isolation, and despair? It’s not the poet’s job, or the filmmaker’s job, to tell us the answer, only to summon the questions. Remember what Price said: “I get to be the person that shows them how to enter the poem.” She has escorted us into the theater, dimmed the lights, lowered the screen, and set the reels spinning. She has primed us for the watching and the reckoning. The rest is up to us!

Julie Marie Wade is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, her collections of poetry and prose include Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, Small Fires: Essays, Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems, When I Was Straight, Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems, Just an Ordinary Woman Breathing, and Skirted. Her collaborative titles include The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose, written with Denise Duhamel, and Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, written with Brenda Miller. Wade makes her home in Dania Beach with her spouse Angie Griffin and their two cats. Her newest projects are Fugue: An Aural History, out now from New Michigan Press, and Otherwise: Essays, selected by Lia Purpura for the 2022 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Book Prize.