Marlin M. Jenkins is a writer, runner, dancer, and MFA student at U Michigan
Marlin M. Jenkins is the author “Pull my ends/ and see if/ they return/ to centre,” published in The Puritan Issue 30, poetry edited by Katherena Vermette.
I’ve tried for a long time to write about romantic relationships and about dance (I teach and DJ for a dance called West Coast Swing), but for a long time both of those efforts failed. I had plenty of drafts that didn’t go anywhere, so I decided to stop trying—figured after so much forceful effort I would leave it alone for a while and let writing poems about these topics happen organically.
When a Facebook friend posted the music video for Kanye West’s song “Runaway,” I finally found a jumping point to craft a poem exploring both relationships and dance. I felt incredibly inspired by the song and video. Musically, I loved the build from the piano, how the song starts out so minimal and then layers on top of that. Then, the lyrics: the song is filled with self-awareness and guilt as the character asks his partner to run away because he knows how difficult a relationship with him must be. These expressed feelings resonated all too closely with how I felt about myself in regards to a break-up a few months before. Most notably, I found the visuals striking—the way the ballerinas act as individuals within a collected mass, how they moved sharply to the crashing percussion in unison but with different movements, how the woman sits at the table (facing away from Kanye and the dancers—stoically watching and not participating in the toast everyone else at the table is raising.
I thought about that separation, about what it would take to bring the woman toward the piano and the dancers, or even better, to bring the speaker back to the table. I thought about the contrast between the dancers fluid motions and sharp movements, about the pain of learning to dance, the beauty that results after so much work and injury and bodily strain, how that pain can breed both uncertainty and a freedom of growth and expression.
Because the visual setting and the movement of the dancers so strongly connected to the music in the video, I wanted my poem to have a sense of rhythm that echoed its dancing imagery. As I listened to the song, I was drawn to the minimal piano in the opening. Though the song is actually in 4/4 time, that piano intro reminded me of a waltz (6/8 time), similar to the piano in A Great Big World’s “Say Something.” I used 3-syllable lines to try to mimic the movement of a waltz: circular and constantly in motion, always pulling the dancers through each movement to the next. I wanted the breaks to provide a rhythmic syncopation within the poem’s flowing unity from start to finish, like how the movements in a dance can be broken down into individual patterns but often appear as a continual string of connected movements.
Though this is the first poem I’ve published that discusses dance so directly, music is often a huge influence for my work. I’ve published poems inspired by Eminem and Tupac, and I’m working on poems inspired by Kendrick Lamar, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, Li’ l Wayne, and others. As a dancer, I think of my movements not just as interpreting the music, but as creating something new that draws inspiration from a connection to the music. I think of poetry in the same way, as a part of the conversation within and between arts while also being in conversation with whatever the poem is about. When a song or an artist deeply connects with me, I want to explore that connection and see if I can make something of it. And that was exactly my goal with “Pull my ends/ …”—to explore what it was that inspired me so much about the song and video, making it personal to me through the art-form of my poetry.
Marlin M. Jenkins was born and raised in Detroit, graduated from Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan, and will be attending University of Michigan’s MFA program this fall. His writings have found homes in River Styx, Yemassee, and Midwestern Gothic, among others. You can find him online at marlinmjenkins.tumblr.com and @Marlin_Poet.