Thursday, April 26, 2018

Poet Diane Burns writes, Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question

photo © Mark Butkus 2006
No, I don't know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.

How do you do?
No, I'm not Chinese.
No, not Spanish.
No, I'm American Indi—uh, Native American.
No, not from India.
No, we're not extinct.
No, not Navajo.
No, not Sioux.
Yes, Indian.
Oh, so you've had an Indian friend?
             That close?
Oh, so you've had an Indian lover?
             That tight?
Oh, so you've had an Indian servant?
             That much?
Oh, so that's where you got those high cheekbones.
Your great-grandmother, eh?
Hair down to there?
Let me guess — Cherokee?
Oh, an Indian Princess.
No, I didn't make it rain tonight.
Yeah, it was awful what you guys did to us.
It's real decent of you to apologize.
No, I don't know where you can get peyote.
No, I don't know where you can get Navajo rugs real cheap.
No, I didn't make this. I bought it at Bloomingdales.
Thank you. I like your hair too.
I don't know if anyone knows whether or not Cher is really Indian.
Yeah. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
Uh-huh. Yeah. Spirituality. Uh-huh. Mother
Earth. Yeah. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Spirituality.
No, I didn't major in archery.
Yeah, a lot of us drink too much.
Some of us can't drink enough.
This ain't no stoic look.
This is my face.


— Diane Burns


Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question is a poem that transcends it's author, Diane Burns. One of the most important poems of the 20th century is a teaching tool in the 21st century. Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question appears in many curricula — from middle schools to universities — as a tool to discuss stereotypes, tolerance and respect.

Diane Burns (1957–2006) came to New York City on scholarship to study at Barnard College. Dropping out in her senior year, she would become part of the burgeoning Lower East Side poetry scene. She claimed to have come upon poetry as a profession by accident, and her life as a poet was exemplified by readings at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church where she spoke and wrote poignantly about being a Native American and her struggles with addiction.

She published only one slender volume of poetry in her lifetime, Riding the One-Eyed Ford in 1981. Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question is purported to have been written in 1989 and as such there variations of the poem. As it appears here, Sure You Can Ask Me A Personal Question is an amalgamation of different iterations.

She died three days before Christmas 2006 from liver and kidney failure.