Craft Capsule: Craft Is Not Objective

Joy Priest

This is no. 65 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

In order to discuss ways to practice craft—the sustained attention that distinguishes poets from those who occasionally write poems or carpenters from those who once made a table of compromised integrity—we must first establish that craft is not an objective activity. Craft is not simply technical. If we take our craft seriously, or even if we want to play, we must realize that what we bring to craft is the world that crafted us. The way we work, our technique, holds all of our subconscious anxieties and desires. 

Toni Morrison talked about the U.S. literary imagination as one that has been wholly constructed from an uninterrogated unease. That is, a subconscious response to the presence of Blackness, and all of the resulting politesse, avoidance, shorthand, and metaphorical language—purity and innocence (read: light), and sinfulness and evil (read: dark)—that maintaining such an anxiety requires.

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison writes,

For some time now, I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions conventionally accepted among literary historians or critics and circulated as “knowledge.” This knowledge holds that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year old presence of, first, Africans and then African Americans in the United States. It assumes that this presence—which shaped the body politic, the Constitution, and the entire history of the culture—has had no significant place or consequence in the origin and development of that culture’s literature…. Just as the formation of the nation necessitated coded language and purposeful restriction to deal with the racial disingenuousness and moral frailty at its heart, so too did the literature, whose founding characteristics extend into the twentieth century, reproduce the necessity for codes and restriction. 

This “knowledge” has been internalized, to some degree, by all Americans, but some of us are subjects of it, and some of us are subjugated by it. Still, Morrison is interested in how this phenomenon occurs in the U.S. literary imagination not because it is a problem of Black people—as is often assumed when a Black writer writes about race—but because she wants to understand “the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it,” to “see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters,” and to “observe how their lavish exploration of literature manages not to see meaning in the thunderous, theatrical presence of black surrogacy”—that which is released, which seeps out uninterrogated, undetected, that subconscious obsession. 


To practice craft, let us go back to the child. To that time before an awareness of formal craft: the beginner’s mind. To that fleeting moment before we fully absorbed the tropes of the U.S. literary imagination. Is this possible? Was it ever? Did we retain any of what we worked so hard to outgrow? 

As a subjugated child, what drove my craft—my record of little noticings and the subsequent piecing of them together, like the box puzzles I worked on with my grandfather—was a desire to know the truth about myself in a household where the adults secreted (secret-ed and secreted) my Blackness; hid it and released it; quieted it and let it seep; vigilantly avoided it and therefore obsessed over it. I knew that I was keeping a secret for my white grandfather, even if I didn’t know why. I noticed the releasing and seeping, even when he didn’t. After all, I was a child. 

After all, I was a Black child. The world outside my grandfather’s house wouldn’t let me avoid this truth.  


What shapes your craft? Your technical discipline? What shapes what you notice and therefore what you attend to? What do you refuse to notice and therefore deny? 

What do you see about yourself? Is there an active, critical interrogation of the self? Is there self-discipline (which is distinct from being policed or policing the self)? Self-discipline is an internal cultivation or a spiritual exercise, while being policed or self-policing is an external social force placed upon us to protect the material interests of the ruling elite. This must be a spiritual practice, this craft thing. Because, otherwise, this new knowledge-construction, this record-making, will reproduce the official knowledge and narratives of the status quo, inherent in which is that uninterrogated unease, that subconscious, but seeping, racism. 

When you go back to the child, when you achieve the beginner’s mind as an adult, you aren’t an authentic beginner anymore. Once you know craft, no matter how much you unlearn it, you hold that knowledge, alongside your newly remembered childhood attentiveness. Place this unlearning next to a self-discipline instead of a canonical knowledge or academic discipline. 

If you are white, notice yourself:

When you are sitting there working on an image, a metaphor, a simile, a symbol, an allusion; when you are considering personification, the narrative, the elliptical, the word choice, the music and your approach to music; when you are working in an elevated, established, and legitimized system of prosody—

What are you avoiding? What are you leaving out? What is uninterrogated? What trope is activated in that allusion, that figuration? What is behind your shorthand, your word choice, your line break? What is behind the way you employ color? The language of color? Who do you sacrifice for your music?

Are you exhausted? Good. The child isn’t. Don’t be the “knowledge”-holding adult. Be the noticing child. 


What did Ciara, Hannah, Markis, Abigail, Devonte, and Jeremiah notice before Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove them over that cliff in 2018? What did they have to notice as they tried to survive? What did the adults, who could have protected them, refuse to notice?

What do the children at the border notice from inside the cages, where they remain, still, today? Our avoidance, our passive refusal to notice them, keeps them there. 


Joy Priest is the author of Horsepower, which won the 2019 Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in September. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including BOAAT, Connotation Press, Four Way Review, espnW, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Review, and Poetry Northwest, and have been anthologized in The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, September 2020), A Measure of Belonging: Writers of Color on the New American South (Hub City Press, October 2020) and Best New Poets 2014, 2016, and 2019. A doctoral student in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston, Priest has also been a journalist, a theater attendant, a waitress, and a fast food worker. She has facilitated writing workshops and arbitration programs with adult and juvenile incarcerated women, and has taught composition, rhetoric, comedy, and African American arts and culture at the university level.

Thumbnail: New York Public Library