Wednesday, February 6, 2019

#67 Backstory of the Poem "I Must Not Breathe" by Angela Jackson-Brown

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***This is the sixty-seventh in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 
Below Title Photo of Angela Jackson-Brown.  Copyright permission granted by Angela Jackson-Brown for this CRC Blog Post only.

#67 Backstory of the Poem
“I Must Not Breathe”
by Angela Jackson Brown

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? July 17, 2014, Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by NYPD officers, and his final words…final words he repeated 11 times were “I Can’t Breathe.” I can’t tell you how many times I watched that video. I can’t tell you how many times I sat watching it willing that young brother to “breathe.” I was consumed with rage. Rage over his senseless death. Rage that this was our new norm. Rage that this could be my son, brother, uncles, nephews, friends. THIS could be me. I had no clue what to do so I wrote this poem. It was my way of trying to express to those who still claimed to not understand why Black people where in such fear of the police that our fears were justified. Reasonalbe and rational. It was my way of releasing some of the emotions I was carrying. 
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. I was sitting in my den. The video of Eric Garner was playing on one of my computer monitors on repeat. Often when I write, I listen to music…music that will transport me into the world I’m writing about. So, if I’m writing about the 1940s, I might be listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Charlie Parker, Bessie Smith, Thelonious Monk, Ma Rainey, or Coleman Hawkins. But, for me to do justice to this poem, I forced myself to have Garner pushing me towards the words I needed to say. I don’t recommend this for everyone, but it works for me.
What month and year did you start writing this poem? July 17, 2014     
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I composed this poem on my computer so sadly, there are not “drafts.” This is of course one of the pitfalls of writing with a computer. Often times the writer is not able to share the process.
Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? The first stanza is exactly how I wrote it in that first sitting. However, the second stanza came about after revision, I do remember that. My first go at this poem was a much shorter version than what it ultimately became. It took me a few days before I felt satisfied with what I had on paper. That is usually the way I write…I sort of unload everything on paper in one sitting, and then I go back and massage and mold and sharpen my original thoughts. Most poems take a few days although I have a few I have been tweaking for weeks, months…some years.

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?  Set aside your thoughts and beliefs and allow yourself to become the person speaking in the poem. Be her. Be him. Be them. Sometimes, we read things or see things and we think to ourselves, “Well, that could never be me.” Well, what if it could be you? What if it was you? What if it was your son or daughter or sister or brother or mother or father or spouse or friend? What then? Because if words don’t have the ability to transport and transform lives, then what am I doing this for? I can’t get out in the streets and march due to health issues BUT I can share words that will hopefully give others windows into my life with the hopes they can at least understand a little bit better than before they read my words.
Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? Every time I wrote the words, “I Can’t Breathe,” I found myself choking up. I remember walking away from it several times. I remember taking several breaths as I finished the poem and I remember going to bed once I was done with it. It took everything out of me to write it. I understood what it meant to be spent.
Has this poem been published before? And if sowhere? Yes, by “When Women Waken” an online journal that no longer accepts submissions, but can still be found online at:  
House Repairs. Negative Capability Press.

Anything you would like to add? Thank you for this opportunity to share with your readers a few details about my writing process. My books can be ordered on Amazon, or if you would like an autographed copy, you can email me at

I Must Not Breathe

If I am stopped by the cops I must be quiet.
I must not breathe.
I must not ask questions.
I must not breathe.
I must not move.
I must not breathe.
I must not talk back.
I must be compliant.
I must not breathe.
I must not film the cop.
I must not call family or friends.
I must not breathe.
I must not put my hands up or down.
I must not breathe.
I must cooperate.
I must be docile.
I must stay in the car or get out, depending on the mood of the cop.

I must not breathe too loudly or too quietly.
I must only do what I am told even if what I am told to do goes against
my basic civil rights.
I must not breathe.
I must hope that the cop is having a good day.
I must hope that the cop is a “good cop.” I must hold my breath and not breathe. I must not be suicidal.
I must not be angry.
I must be civil.
I must be obedient.
I must grin and show all of my teeth.
I must shuffle and dance, but only on cue.
I must not get stopped but if I run, I must be prepared to die.
I must be prepared to die.
I must be prepared to die, even on a routine stop.
I must not breathe.
I must not breathe.
I must not breathe.

Angela Jackson-Brown is an award winning writer, poet and playwright who teaches Creative Writing and English at Ball State University in Muncie, IN. She is a graduate of the Spalding low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. 
She is the author of the novel Drinking From A Bitter Cup and has published in numerous literary journals.

Recently Angela’s play, Anna’s Wings, was selected to be a part of the IndyFringe DivaFest her play Flossie Bailey Takes a Stand was part of the Indiana Bicentennial Celebration at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. She also wrote and produced the play It Is Well and she was the co-playwright with Ashya Thomas on a play called Black Lives Matter (Too). 

In the spring of 2018, Angela co-wrote a musical with her colleague, Peter Davis, called Dear Bobby: The Musical, that was part of the 2018 OnxyFest in Indianapolis, IN. Her most recent book of poetry, House Repairs, was published by Negative Capability Press.


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”

043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”

045  December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”

046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”

047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”

048  December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”

049  December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”

O50  December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”

051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov

052  December 27, 2018
“Under Surveillance”
by Michael Farry

053  December 28, 2018
“Grand Finale”
by Renuka Raghavan

054  December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry

055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo

056  January 7, 2019
“The Seamstress:
by Len Kuntz

057  January 10, 2019
"Natural History"
by Camille T Dungy

058  January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister

059  January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave

060 January 14, 2019
by Pat Durmon

061 January 19, 2019
“Neptune’s Choir”
by Linda Imbler

062  January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone

063  January 25, 2019
“The heron leaves her haunts in the marsh”
by Gail Wronsky

064  January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas

065 February 02, 2019
“Summer 1970, The University of Virginia Opens to Women in the Fall”
by Alarie Tennille

066 February 05, 2019
“At School They Learn Nouns”
by Patrick Bizzaro

067  February 06, 2019
“I Must Not Breathe”
by Angela Jackson-Brown

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