POET: Tonya Ingram
PIECE: Unsolicited Advice to Skinny Girls with Bitten Nails and Awkward Glances, after Jeanann Verlee
TOPICS DISCUSSED:
Groups, Organization, and Interaction
SUMMARY:
A survival guide written from experience. The intensity of Ingram’s delivery weaves a gripping story of trauma, struggle, heartache, and most of all survival.

Key Lines/Phrases

Key Line/Phrase
Discussion

“You are resurrection.
You are silence turned shotgun
and death has no place here.”

“Unsolicited Advice to Skinny Girls with Bitten Nails and Awkward Glances, after Jeanann Verlee” by Tonya Ingram is a survival guide through the currents of culture. The intensity of Ingram’s delivery weaves a gripping story of trauma, struggle, heartache, and most of all survival. Without judgment or apology, Ingram’s poem is a blueprint for the recuperation of agency. Also, a great poem for to illustrate dramaturgy, particularly impression management and behavior.

Full Transcript of Poem

When your best friend’s father invites you over, say no.
When the girls at school tease you for wearing Payless leg ups, do not wrench your face. Smile and tie your laces.
When you finally learn how to Dougie and it’s 2011, show off to everyone you know.
When you finally learn how to do the original Harlem Shake and it’s 2011, keep it to yourself.
When your mother asks you to buy her a pregnancy test, do not slam the door behind you. Do not snatch the 20 from your birthright.
When she says that she is pregnant, do not sacred suck your teeth. Do not holy roll your eyes.
When the boy with the intrusive shadow calls you a white girl, do not cowl your head. Do not question you’re Black.
When your grandmother says you act like an old lady, take it as a compliment. Set the tea pot, knit the turtle neck, check the apple pie.
When the next NYU student asks to touch your hair, laugh and ask if you can touch theirs.
When your best friend’s father invites you over, say no.
When you catch your brother with a porno, act surprised, laugh it off. Do not call him a sinner.
When your mother asks why you take so long in the shower, tell her you hate this cancer, this dark that wears you like a plague.
When you discover your grandmother is bipolar and schizophrenic, hug her. Then Google each illness.
When you question if you are anything like her, hug yourself, then Google each illness.
When you cry in front of your brother because he has just learned that you are not his full sister, do not slump your shoulders. Your eyes are a wealth of thirsty crave. Pour into him.
When you visit your brother at Rikers Island, do not blink to hold back the tears.
You are Moses, he is the miracle, this is the Red Sea.
When your mother brings your sister home from the hospital, do not hide your hands. Do not fear you will drop her. She is a medallion in a collection plate of screws. Treasure her.
When the older woman with silver hair and loose teeth calls you a nigger, give her the finger. Give her Jay Z’s The Blueprint. Give her the word of God.
When your mother’s ex-boyfriend puts his hands on your brother, grab the chair. When your mother’s ex-boyfriend puts his hands on your sister, grab the frying pan. When your mother’s ex-boyfriend puts his hands on your mother, grab the phone, grab the knife, grab your voice. This is Armageddon. This is taking back what the devil has stolen.
Do not fear. Do not cower. Do not question.
When your best friend’s father invites you over, say no.
You are resurrection.
You are silence turned shotgun
and death has no place here.

In-depth Analysis

“Unsolicited Advice to Skinny Girls with Bitten Nails and Awkward Glances, after Jeanann Verlee” by Tonya Ingram is a survival guide written from experience. The intensity of Ingram’s delivery and the imagery employed in her poem weave a gripping story of trauma, struggle, heartache, and most of all survival, to which her audience can relate. Without judgment or apology, Ingram’s poem is a blueprint for the recuperation of agency.
The poem recounts difficult experiences that address family and social dynamics, race, and love—issues almost everyone has dealt with. Each experience forces the speaker to question her identity and her power. For example, Ingram writes, “When the boy with the intrusive shadow calls you a white girl, do not cowl your head. Do not question you’re Black.” Ingram recounts an experience that shakes her, has her second-guessing her identity. She describes the boy as having an “intrusive shadow,” as if to make clear that he has no business labeling her in the first place. The only person who can label the speaker is the speaker: she has the agency and with it, she does not question that she is Black. The next event described in Ingram’s poem deals with family dynamics and expectations. Her grandmother says she acts old, as if she must not act that way, but like something she is not. Again, Ingram advises the skinny girls with bitten nails and awkward glances to take it in stride, to continue to “set the tea pot, knit the turtle neck, check the apple pie.” In order to survive, one must act with conviction.
Later in the poem, Ingram works to show her intended audience that they have power, even in displays of (so-called) weakness or femininity. She writes, “When you visit your brother at Rikers Island, do not blink to hold back the tears. You are Moses, he is the miracle, this is the Red Sea.” In other words, by showing her brother that she cares, that his placement in prison upsets her, she just might be able to create change in both their lives. Ingram also encourages her listener(s) to stand up for her family. She says to “grab the chair… grab the frying pan… grab the phone, grab the knife, grab your voice. This is Armageddon.” Skinny girls with bitten nails and awkward glances can overcome even the biggest obstacles when they have pride in themselves.
In conclusion, Tonya Ingram’s poem gives unsolicited advice on how to survive life’s curveballs. Ingram speaks with fervor and wisdom when she encourages the skinny girls with bitten nails and awkward glances of the world not to despair when they do not have the answer or do not like what they see/hear. Her survival guide encourages these girls to have the courage of conviction, to have pride in themselves and their experiences. She seems to say, ‘There need not be an apology for being Black, for acting old, for dancing, for sinning, for being sick, for crying, for being yourself.’ Furthermore, she actually declares, “you are the resurrection” after Armageddon. When Tonya Ingram ends her poem with the words, “You are silence turned shotgun and death has no place here,” it becomes abundantly clear that skinny girls with bitten nails and awkward glances must affirm their own agency, believe in their own power, and take pride their own identity in order to survive the trials and tribulations of life. (Gabbi)

Follow-up Resources/Discussions

Resources
Discussion/Follow-up Questions

Follow-up Sociology questions:

  • How might the advice given in the poem need to change to be more universal (i.e. applicable to persons of different genders, ages, races)?
  • How do you think unsolicited advice is usually received? Do you think the format (form and delivery) of this advice changes its reception by the intended audience (skinny girls with bitten nails and awkward glances)? Why or why not?
  • In the poem, how does the speaker reclaim her agency? What does it mean for the speaker to reclaim her agency?

Artist Comments

This space is reserved for any comments the author of the piece may have about the points he was trying to get across and the background of why he wrote the poem.