Poem of the Week | August 04, 2014

This week we offer another poem from our new summer issue, 37.2. Valerie Nieman’s second poetry collection, Hotel Worthy, will be published in spring 2015. A 2013-2014 North Carolina poetry fellow, her work has appeared in Poetry, New Letters, Blackbird, and many other journals as well as several anthologies. Her third novel, Blood Clay, was the 2012 winner of the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Prize. Nieman graduated from West Virginia University and received an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and serves as poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.
 
Author’s note:

The girl show or “hootchie-kootchie” of the carnival midway featured pretty female dancers, either costumed or in varying degrees of undress. Shows might be themed, including a “jig show” in the era of segregation. This poem from my current work-in-progress, The Leopard Lady Speaks: A Novel in Verse, is told by Hagar, a biracial orphan from Kentucky, as she joins a traveling carnival in the late 1940s after being abandoned by her lover in Pennsylvania. The shape notes, the only music allowed in the home where she was raised, refers to harmony singing based on musical notation using different shapes for the note heads. It is also called “Sacred Harp” after the first hymn book, published in 1844. This traditional art form is alive and well, with “singings” across the country including at John C. Campbell Folk School in the North Carolina mountains, where I teach fiction each summer.

 

How I Was a Jig

 

I never danced afore I step on that stage
in naught but a grass skirt and some beads –
the Gastons not holding with
card playing nor music
’cept the shape-notes.
Not for themselves and not
a’course for me, even was I proper clad.

 

Straightaway as I hook on
with the traveling show,
there in Oil City,
this man (I come to call him The Patch)
askt me if I was wanting
kindlier work than gen’ral labor –
like the sign says, no free rides.
“We got a kootch show, mixed now
but we’re headed South and I got two
colored, plus you, as you’re willing,
to make a jig show for the crackers.”

 

What is a jig, I askt.
“Why honey, you’re a jig! Colored,
negro, jig. Jigaboo. You must come
from back of beyond
if you ain’t heard that by now.
Tell me you’re 18, right?
Yeah, well, you ain’t gotta
do nothing but shimmy what you got.”

 

What I got, the other girls
say, warn’t much.
You ought ta eat a little fatback,
they tell me, put flesh on your
bones. Long’s they see
your titties, though,
it don’t matter if they big.

 

So I jigged.
Made that grass skirt sing
like ripe wheat reaped
into the cradle, easy work long
as I did not look into the eyes
of the rubes, round and wet
as river stones.

 

The Patch says for me not to worry
when the inside talker
pulls the menfolk aside and speaks low,
special drawing for one night –
holding up a brass hotel key –
you don’t much get a chance
at a strong young girl like this,
firm as a new apple.

 

It was what they call a con,
a key con, them red tickets
took up so careful,
one hope by one,
then throwd away to tumble
with the free wind
as we pulled stakes
and blew town.

 

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