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A Brief But Spectacular take on humor and humiliation in poetry


Amna Nawaz: Megan Fernandes is a writer and assistant professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses on poetry and environmental writing.

Tonight, she shares her Brief But Spectacular take on humor and humiliation in poetry.

Megan Fernandes, Lafayette College: The first time I read a piece of poetry that moved me was, I had two books in my house. One was a book by Kahlil Gibran, and the other was Emily Dickinson.

And she was very diminutive almost and, like, creaturely. And Kahlil Gibran was, like, very ceremonial. And I think, somewhere in between, I found a space where I could say really grand things, but about really small, creaturely feelings.

We're going to be hearing a poem called "Do You Sell Dignity Here?" from my forthcoming book "I Do Everything I'm Told."

There's somebody in this in this audience right now whose heart is broken, has been broken, is about to be broken. This is for you.

The piece is about humor and humiliation and that feeling of being sort of at the rock bottom, at the bottom of the world, looking up and thinking there's nowhere further I can go down.

At the grocery store, I ask where they sell dignity. And when the clerk says, sorry, what'd you say, I explain that I'm looking for dignity, having lost so much in the last year. I was wondering if it was neatly placed by the baking powder or perhaps refrigerated with the perishables, given its fragile shelf life.

And, yes, I really did ask this partly because I was being funny and trying to make a friend, but also I would have taken a hug or any acknowledgement that I'm a person who can laugh at myself, despite walking with that odd angle of defeat.

So the thing about humiliation is that it's really easy to dwell and get indulgent in that space, because doom is very romantic. So it's always a good idea to bring humor in early on and sort of check yourself, because humor is humanizing and it helps us sort of kind of remain in a space of authenticity and lightness.

Children have no dignity, and I really admire that about them. I love their ruthless response to injustices, their desire to feed birds in the park, to grieve the sea, their right to be tired in public. Do you sell dignity here, I asked one last time, and then tell them how it went down, how I had lost mine in Bushwick, of all places, near a building covered in glass, and white girl gentrifiers having their white girl epiphanies, such bad coming-of-age trash.

Jesus, all my parents' sacrifices for this? For what? Is this why I came here from Africa? They would say over my flat body, hopefully, in the shape of a shrug, I am undignified.

I think that a sense of humor is a really high form of intelligence, and it's a way of sort of moving through dark spaces. And it gives humiliation a lot more dimensionality, whereas, usually, there's a sense of, like, social banishment when we feel humiliated. Humor is, like, deeply humanizing in those moments.

I want everything as cheap and damaged as this feeling. When they go low, we go high, a president's wife said. I go low some days. I go so low, you cannot tell me from the animals we sell, from the hard grain my body has become.

(Cheering and applause)

Megan Fernandes: Thank you.

My name is Megan Fernandes, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on humor and humiliation in poetry.

Amna Nawaz: And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at

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