Celebrate poetry with the Rockville Public Library and Vernon Poet Laureate Pegi Deitz Shea. On this page we’ll post favorite poems as well as pieces written by Vernon community members.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Ntozake Shange
October 27 will mark the two-year anniversary of the death of Ntozake Shange, whom Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors this week. (You pronounce her name: N tow sa kay Shan gay.) Shange shocked the literary world with a new form she called “Choreopoem” that mixes dance, prose, poetry and music. A reporter for the NY Daily news said: “the word that best describes Shange’s works, which are not plays in the traditional sense, is power.” She is best known as the author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. The work was first published as a novel, which she adapted for a long run on Broadway, and was then adapted for a film, which was produced and directed by Tyler Perry. “For Colored Girls,” (2010) stars a “Who’s Who” of Black actors including Thandie Newton, Kerry Washington, Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine. It’s a MUST-SEE! The recipient of numerous awards and fellowships for her fiction, plays and poems, Shange said about her poetry, “I like the idea that letters dance.” For more information about her astounding career, go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ntozake-shange
for my dead & loved ones (for gail, tracie & viola)
whatever shall i do with my dead
my tombs & mausoleums
these potted plants tended by strangers
over yr eyes closed
maybe dreaming dead/ loved
so particularly i dont know
what to do with you
shall i see you dancin/
hold yr child askin/ what’s mammy like
should i sleep with yr husband
who sees yr childself in my memories
yr mother will she bosom talk me to death with you
pretend she has been no mother
our smokey robinson fantasies set aside
recollections comin to no good end
must i ride with yr daughters to sit
in the cemetery on sunny days/ weedin
yr womb/ wdnt it be better if i stayed
in my kitchen/ makin gumbo/ codfish cakes
watchin edge of nite/
rubbin me hands of my apron/ hummin
his eye is on the sparrow
yr photograph at 25 is on my wall
awready you had given yr woman over/
no one wd know you/ only mama is remembered
when waz there more
i shall not lie fondling a dead man’s love
bakin apples for a locket jammed with hair from
a head no longer arrogant
but what shall i do
with my dead/ loved so particularly
leavin me/ specifically
some never stop breathin
some disappear/ slammin the door
bangin the phone
one went off in a VW bus/ another
stole my sleep
i sit here drinking memories
entertainin ghosts/ longin for arms
no longer warm/ too enchanted
to tend the pulse pushin me on
to go off from you/ my dead & loved ones
when i meet a someone/ i must know
i place you round me like a court of holy seers
if this stranger is to have a space in my life
she must pull yr spirits to her own
for i wander regularly in moments of the dead
if you wd have me speak
you must learn the tongue of my dead & loved ones
i have been left behind
holdin out for more
This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Rickey Laurentiis, a young poet who led a writing workshop I took way back in 2015 at the Mark Twain House. (It was part of a Riverwood Poetry conference on racism.) The workshop was on Ekphrastic Poetry (poems inspired by art.) I felt liberated when they said that just about anything you see, touch, hear can be considered “art”. I wrote about the Christmas pot holders my mother made me make for just about every female relative! (What a message to give to a daughter!) Their first book, Boy with Thorn, was selected as the winner of the 2014 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. (Note: “Cave” rhymes with Avé). They have received many fellowships and awards, which you can see in detail at https://www.rickeylaurentiis.com
Like Rickey’s notion of “art,” the poem I’ve chosen, “Do You Feel Me?”, is a love poem. Any experience or thing or person can inspire love. I don’t know Rickey personally to say if the poem is about coming out and loving themselves; it could easily be about the “wild lotus” or “the water” or about the speaker’s “hands” or “feet,” or about a special person they have found, especially if it’s within themselves. I’d like to hear how you interpret the poem! To read more of Rickey’s work, go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rickey-laurentiis.
DO YOU FEEL ME?
First, wild lotus on the surface
of blue water, the great
blue heron striking the ways.
I need to find myself, I told myself.
To live the limits of this body.
Then, I invented “you.”
Like a bridge between two distances,
you guided me: here, fields
of the expansive, wild clover.
My hands, my feet. There,
fields of gray water. You
who increasingly made me
conscious of myself, continue.
Listen to me when I say
I will cross into Jordan.
Swamp lilies in the camplight,
the moonlight opening like a kiss.
This is what happens when
Any two things meet: some water,
a city enveloped, blue—.
How each becomes the revelation
of what the other can do.
Here’s a quiz: What female Black poet has three NY Times Best Selling Books, a feat unheard of for poetry? Hint: She is one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 Living Legends and has been given keys to two dozen American cities and holds more than 20 honorary degrees from colleges. If you guessed Maya Angelou, you’re close. Need a big hint? This poet has a species of bat named in her honor (Micronycteris giovanniae). Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Nikki Giovanni! In her eighties now, she has upwards of 20 books of poetry, some of which are for children. She is known for her fiery political poems, most of which I can’t reprint here because, well, she pulls no verbal punches. Given these turbulent times, I found one suitable for all ages. It’s a summons to action. To see more of her work and life, go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets.
there are no reservations
for the revolution
no polite little clerk
to send notice
to your room
saying you are WANTED
on the battlefield
there are no banners
to wave you forward
no blaring trumpets
not even a blues note
moaning wailing lone blue note
to the Yoruba drums saying
strike now shoot
strike now fire
strike now run
there will be no grand
and a lot thrown round
people won’t look up and say
“why he used to live next to me
isn’t it nice
it’s his turn now”
there will be no recruitment
where you can give
the most convenient hours
“monday i play ball
friday night i play cards
any other time i’m free”
there will be no reserve
no slacking off till next time
“let’s see—i can come back
better not wear myself out
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates one of the most celebrated young Black poets, Jericho Brown. How can you follow the success of a first book (Please, 2008) that wins the American Book Award? Easy, after a few awards for his second book, he wins the Pulitzer Prize for The Tradition. Brown is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing program at Emory University. He has won fellowships from organizations including Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, the Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Arts. He is the inventor of the “Duplex” form, which he calls a “mutt” that uses repetition to remake a previous line. He says it represents himself, who is Black, queer and Southern. To learn how to write one, go to this entertaining interview: https://therumpus.net/2019/04/the-rumpus-interview-with-jericho-brown/.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.
Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.
My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.
Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.
Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.
Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.
None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.
This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates a CT poet, Antoinette Brim Bell. I’d had the pleasure of seeing her present and read her work at the Mark Twain House several years ago, and she was one of our dramatic readers for my Witchcraft in Connecticut program last fall. I was so impressed that I booked her as featured poet in last February’s Poetry Rocks event. Do check out her YouTube readings. As you will see and hear, her voice sounds like velvet, but has a steely strength underneath. In fact, she has hosted radio and television programs. Her books include These Women You Gave Me, Icarus in Love and Psalm of the Sunflower. She is a Cavé Canem Foundation fellow, a recipient of the Walker Foundation Scholarship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and a Pushcart Prize nominee. A printmaker and collage artist, Brim Bell has also been an officer on Boards of Directors of several arts organizations. She is a Professor of English at Capital Community College. Learn more about her at www.antoinettebrim.com.
Her poem below is written in a new form called the “duplex,” which was invented by Jericho Brown (see next week’s post) which he describes as a mixture of a ghazal, sonnet, and blues song.
Duplex: Black Mamas Praying
Black Mamas stay on their knees praying. Cursing
the lies folks tell ‘bout how the world don’t need you—
“The world don’t need you” is a lie folks tell themselves
when they step over blood gelled black and slick.
Folks step over black blood gelled and slick to get
on with things—don’t bring bones to the cemetery.
Bones in the cemetery, hear the prophecy:
—together, bone to bone—tendons and flesh—skin—
bone to bone—tendons and flesh—skin—together,
four winds breathe into these slain, that they may live—
—breathe, four winds, into these slain. That they may live—
Calling forth prophecy is no light work, No—
but, for Joshua, the sun stood still—the moon stopped.
Black Mamas stay on your knees praying—praying—
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Cornelius Eady. I had the delight to see him perform twice: at the Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden in Farmington and at Willimantic’s “Poetry in the Park” summer series. Eady usually tours with musicians, so before or after his performance of poems, the audience enjoys his words put to music he makes himself. Eady is all about sharing the love of poetry. With Toi Derricotte, he co-founded the famed Cavé Canem, a fellowship program of workshops, retreats and resources for Black poets; and he has taught at universities all over the country. He is the recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont Prize, and fellowships including a Rockefeller, Guggenheim, and Lila Wallace – Readers’ Digest foundations. Soon after 9/11, he and his wife bought a country home in New York state. Little did they realize how much work it needed! With New Yorkers moving to CT to escape Covid-19 and to play outdoors, I thought the poem below was apropos. In his book Hardheader Weather, the section “Lucky House” gathers some of the most humorous poems I’ve ever read. My favorite, “The White Couch,” is too long to reproduce here, but you can see Eady perform it at https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=cornelius+Eady+the+White+Couch
The furnace wheezes like a drenched lung.
You can’t fix it.
The toilet babbles like a speed freak.
You can’t fix it.
The fuse box is a nest of rattlers.
You can’t fix it.
The screens yawn the bees through.
Your fingers are numb against the hammer.
Your eyes can’t tell plumb from plums.
The frost heaves against the doorjambs,
The ice turns the power lines to brittle candy.
No one told you about how things pop and fizzle,
No one schooled you in spare parts.
That’s what the guy says but doesn’t say
As he tosses his lingo at your apartment-dweller ears,
A bit amused, a touch impatient.
After the spring melt has wrecked something, stopped something,
After the hard wind has lifted something away,
After the mystery has plugged the pipes,
That rattle coughs up something sinister.
An easy fix, but not for you.
It’s different when you own it,
When it’s yours, he says as the meter runs,
Then smiles like an adult.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Alice Walker
This week of Sept. 7, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Alice Walker. Most people know her best as the author of THE COLOR PURPLE, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for fiction. But she has also written seven books of poetry, in addition to many other novels, volumes of short stories, nonfiction books, and collections of essays. Her books have been translated into more than 24 languages! Coining the term “Womanist,” Walker has been an activist for women around the world, in particular against female genital mutilation. To learn more about her, go directly to her website www.alicewalkersgarden.com.
They were women then
My Mama’s generation
Husky of voice—Stout of
With fists as well as
How they battered down
How they led
To discover books
A place for us
How they knew what we Must know
Without knowing a page
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Tracy K. Smith
POETRY ROCKS BLACK VOICES celebrates former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, a Director and Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton. Her book, Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize, and her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a National Book Award finalist. She told the Princeton Alumni Weekly, that her goal as Poet Laureate was to use poetry as a bridge to small towns and underserved populations. She trekked to “Kentucky, Louisiana, South Dakota, and other states, where she visited not only libraries but also prisons, rehab centers, retirement facilities, and youth detention centers.” Her poem “Unrest in Baton Rouge” is an ekphrastic poem, meaning that it was inspired by a work of art. I’ll include a copy of Bachman’s photo below. It immediately reminded me of the young protester putting a flower into the barrel of a tank in 1989 in China’s Tiananmen Square. To learn more about Smith and read more of her work, please go to www.poetryfoundation.org.
UNREST IN BATON ROUGE
After the Pulitzer-nominated photo by Jonathan Bachman (2016)
Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.
Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?
Even the men in the black armor, the ones
Jangling handcuffs and keys, what else
Are they so buffered against, if not love’s blade
Sizing up the heart’s familiar meat?
We watch and we grieve. We sleep, stir, eat.
Love: the heart sliced open, gutted, clean.
Love: naked almost in the everlasting street,
Skirt lifted by a different kind of breeze.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Etheridge Knight
Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Etheridge Knight. Knight dropped out of school to serve in the army from 1947-1951 in Korea. There, he was injured and treated with painkillers. Like many people today, Knight became addicted. He was jailed for robbery in 1960. While in prison, he learned how to write poetry and was visited by poets including Gwendolyn Brooks. His first book, Poems from Prison, was published in 1968. Upon his release, he joined the Black Arts Movement. He was so inspired that he edited a poetry volume called Black Voices from Prison. In 1990 he earned a bachelor’s degree in American poetry and criminal justice from Martin Center University in Indianapolis. Before he died in 1991, he was honored by the Guggenheim, the National Endowment of the Arts, and other organizations. To learn more about him, and read more of his works, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/search?query=Etheridge+Knight.
For Malcolm, A Year After
Compose for Red a proper verse;
Adhere to foot and strict iamb;
Control the burst of angry words
Or they might boil and break the dam.
Or they might boil and overflow
And drench me, drown me, drive me mad.
So swear no oath, so shed no tear,
And sing no song blue Baptist sad.
Evoke no image, stir no flame,
And spin no yarn across the air.
Make empty anglo tea lace words—
Make them dead white and dry bone bare.
Compose a verse for Malcolm man,
And make it rime and make it prim.
The verse will die—as all men do—
but not the memory of him!
Death might come singing sweet like C,
Or knocking like the old folk say,
The moon and stars may pass away,
But not the anger of that day.
As promised, this week Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Gwendolyn Brooks. She was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1950 for her book Annie Allen, AND to be named as the consultant for poetry to the Library of Congress, a post now known as National Poet Laureate. Her many other awards include the Frost Medal, the Shelley Memorial, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and numerous fellowships. The poem I’ve chosen, “The Boy Died in My Alley,” is heartbreaking in showing how people have become inured to deaths of black people. If Brooks (1917-2000) were alive today, she certainly would be marching. Her poem, “We Real Cool,” inspired Terrance Hayes to write “The Golden Shovel” using the words from her poem throughout his poem, but especially at his line endings. This became a new poetic form, and it’s used throughout America in creative writing classes. Try writing your own poem, using words from this poem below! If you wish, post it as a comment below. To learn more about Gwendolyn Brooks, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets.
“The Boy Died in My Alley” to Running Boy
The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died Alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.
The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.
Policeman pounded on my door.
“Who is it?” “POLICE!” Policeman yelled.
“A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?”
I have known this Boy before.
I have known this boy before, who ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.
I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.
I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.
He cried not only “Father!”
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.
The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Terrance Hayes
This week, my Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Terrance Hayes whose book, Lighthead, won the National Book Award in 2010. I had the delight of enjoying his generous reading at the Hill-Stead’s Sunken Garden Poetry Festival last summer. Generous because he spoke conversationally about his inspirations for particular poems, and even shared a few new drafts he hadn’t read in public before. That takes guts! Which is probably one of the reasons he is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation (“Genius”) Fellowship. Like all the other poems in the volume, this is titled after the book’s title: American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin Books, 2018, p. 81.) Hayes is also known for inventing new forms such as the “Golden Shovel” (which most creative writing students know about) in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks. More about her and the form next week! To learn more about Hayes, go to TerranceHayes.com; to see more of his work, go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets.
AMERICAN SONNET FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN
I remember my sister’s last hoorah.
She joined all the black people I’m tired of losing,
All the dead from parts of Florida, Ferguson,
Brooklyn, Charleston, Cleveland, Chicago,
Baltimore, wherever names alive are
Like the names in graves. I am someone
With a good memory & better imagination.
Can we really be friends if we don’t believe
In the same things, Assassin? Probably,
Ghosts are allergic to us. Because we are dust,
Don’t you & I share a loss, don’t we belong
Together, Brother, Sweetness, Sweetness,
Sweetness? Poor, ragged Heart, blind, savage
Heart, I’ve almost grown tired of talking to you.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Paul Laurence Dunbar
This week, “Poetry Rocks Black Voices” honors three powerful voices in effect. The elegy I’ve chosen, “Frederick Douglass,” written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, can also apply to U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), who passed away on July 17. Douglass’s and Lewis’s speeches have rhetorical flourishes that certainly qualify as prose poetry. Dunbar is widely recognized as the first African American male poet, publishing poems in Black dialect, as well as finely-crafted verse in formal English. Like Douglass and Lewis, he brought attention to racial injustice. Nevertheless, he had many white benefactors including Orville Wright. Though he died at the age of 33 in 1906, he succeeded in publishing many volumes of poetry, short stories and novels. Learn more about him at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/paul-laurence-dunbar.
A hush is over all the teeming lists,
And there is pause, a breath–space in the strife;
A spirit brave has passed beyond the mists
And vapors that obscure the sun of life.
And Ethiopia, with bosom torn,
Laments the passing of her noblest born.
She weeps for him a mother’s burning tears—
She loved him with a mother’s deepest love.
He was her champion thro’ direful years,
And held her weal all other ends above.
When Bondage held her bleeding in the dust,
He raised her up and whispered, “Hope and Trust.”
For her his voice, a fearless clarion, rung
That broke in warning on the ears of men;
For her the strong bow of his power he strung,
And sent his arrows to the very den
Where grim Oppression held his bloody place
And gloated o’er the mis’ries of a race.
And he was no soft–tongued apologist;
He spoke straightforward, fearlessly uncowed;
The sunlight of his truth dispelled the mist,
And set in bold relief each dark hued cloud;
To sin and crime he gave their proper hue,
And hurled at evil what was evil’s due.
Through good and ill report he cleaved his way.
Right onward, with his face set toward the heights,
Nor feared to face the foeman’s dread array,—
The lash of scorn, the sting of petty spites.
He dared the lightning in the lightning’s track,
And answered thunder with his thunder back.
When men maligned him, and their torrent wrath
In furious imprecations o’er him broke,
He kept his counsel as he kept his path;
‘T was for his race, not for himself he spoke.
He knew the import of his Master’s call,
And felt himself too mighty to be small.
No miser in the good he held was he,—
His kindness followed his horizon’s rim.
His heart, his talents, and his hands were free
To all who truly needed aught of him.
Where poverty and ignorance were rife,
He gave his bounty as he gave his life.
The place and cause that first aroused his might
Still proved its power until his latest day.
In Freedom’s lists and for the aid of Right
Still in the foremost rank he waged the fray;
Wrong lived; his occupation was not gone.
He died in action with his armor on!
We weep for him, but we have touched his hand,
And felt the magic of his presence nigh,
The current that he sent throughout the land,
The kindling spirit of his battle–cry.
O’er all that holds us we shall triumph yet,
And place our banner where his hopes were set!
Oh, Douglass, thou hast passed beyond the shore,
But still thy voice is ringing o’er the gale!
Thou ‘st taught thy race how high her hopes may soar,
And bade her seek the heights, nor faint, nor fail.
She will not fail, she heeds thy stirring cry,
She knows thy guardian spirit will be nigh,
And, rising from beneath the chast’ning rod,
She stretches out her bleeding hands to God!
Source: Dunbar, P.L. (1913). The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Phillis Wheatley
Imagine at the age of 7, being kidnapped, stuffed into a cargo hold of a ship with hundreds of other Black people, enduring starvation, filth, illness, and the deaths of others for months. You are bought and named after that rat-infested vessel and the man who made you their unpaid housemaid. This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Phillis Wheatley. Fortunately, the Wheatley children shared their lessons with her, and soon their parents decided to educate Phillis (when she wasn’t busy with housework). She learned to read and write not only English, but also Greek and Latin, and she studied the sciences as well. Phillis Wheatley became the first African American to have her poetry published. She wasn’t freed until after the death of the man who bought her, in 1775.
“To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works”
By Phillis Wheatley
TO show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,
And thought in living characters to paint,
When first thy pencil did those beauties give,
And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,
How did those prospects give my soul delight,
A new creation rushing on my sight?
Still, wond’rous youth! each noble path pursue,
On deathless glories fix thine ardent view:
Still may the painter’s and the poet’s fire
To aid thy pencil, and thy verse conspire!
And may the charms of each seraphic theme
Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame!
High to the blissful wonders of the skies
Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes.
Thrice happy, when exalted to survey
That splendid city, crown’d with endless day,
Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring:
Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring.
Calm and serene thy moments glide along,
And may the muse inspire each future song!
Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless’d,
May peace with balmy wings your soul invest!
But when these shades of time are chas’d away,
And darkness ends in everlasting day,
On what seraphic pinions shall we move,
And view the landscapes in the realms above?
There shall thy tongue in heav’nly murmurs flow,
And there my muse with heav’nly transport glow:
No more to tell of Damon’s tender sighs,
Or rising radiance of Aurora’s eyes,
For nobler themes demand a nobler strain,
And purer language on th’ ethereal plain.
Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night
Now seals the fair creation from my sight.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Natasha Trethewey
This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices features Natasha Trethewey, who rose from a tragic childhood to become a two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize (among other prestigious awards), and a professor at Northwestern University. After having published seven books of poetry, Trethewey, who is biracial, is releasing her memoir, Memorial Drive (Ecco Press) this month. Among the topics included are the murder of her mother by Natasha’s stepfather. I wish to feature her poem, “Flounder,” this week, in which her aunt admits a painful truth that it’s easier to grow up white in America than Black. The poem also acknowledges the identification struggles of biracial children. To learn more about Natasha Trethewey, go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/.
Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ‘bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle.
And I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle
swinging them just above the water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here and there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you grip the pole To cast your line out straight. Now put this work on your hook, throw it out and wait.
She sat and spit tobacco juice
into a coffee cup,
hunkered down when she felt a bite,
jerked the pole straight up,
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back. It’s a flounder, and you can tell ‘cause one of its sides is black. The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching this fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Langston Hughes
This week in Poetry Rocks Black Voices, I’m featuring Langston Hughes (1902-1967). You may know this poet, playwright, political essayist, and novelist as a leader in the Harlem Renaissance, a period from about 1910 to the 1930’s. Yes, we’re in the midst of the centennial of the artistic, cultural, and intellectual movement that launched luminaries such as Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Zora Neale Hurston. Many of you have probably heard Hughes’s famous poem, “Harlem” (better known as “A Dream Deferred”). What the world is experiencing now is more than the explosion he ends that poem with. It is a reckoning that has been coming for 401 years. This poem celebrates the indomitable spirit of Black Americans, and is just as relevant today as it was more than 50 years ago. You can learn more about him at www.poetryfoundation.org.
Some folks think
By burning churches
Some folks think
By imprisoning me
Some folks think
By killing a man
Stands up and laughs
In their faces
And says, No — Not so!
Harlem By Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
Poetry Rocks- Reginald Dwayne Betts
I’d like you to pause and answer the following questions one by one, before you read the next question:
What future would you predict for a 16-year-old honors student who took part in an armed carjacking?
What if that boy was tried as an adult?
What if that boy was black?
What you might not have guessed is that Reginald Dwayne Betts became a poet, educator, and lawyer. This week, Poetry Rocks is featuring him and his work. After serving more than eight years in prison (where he earned his GED), Betts achieved a BA from the University of Maryland, a Masters Degree at Warren Wilson College, and his JD at Yale School of Law, where is studying for his PhD. His award-winning books include A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival and Coming of Age in Prison, and his poetry volumes Near Burn and Burden: a collection of poems, Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Bastards of the Reagan Era, and his much acclaimed new book, Felon. I had the pleasure of witnessing Betts perform in Hartford, thanks to the Riverwood Poetry Series which specializes in social justice topics. To see the complete poem below, please click on the link to go to Rockville Public Library’s Facebook Page. Also learn more at www.dwaynbetts.com and www.poetryfoundation.org.
Elegy With a RIP Shirt Turning into the Wind
Some days, away from me,
the air turns & I pray
pistols into my hands, as if
there is a peace that will open
up with bullets, with the blucka
blucka blucka of a hammer’s siren.
In the street, the boys play a game they call
throwback. It is football, every man
for himself as he weaves under
the wires of Mississippi
Avenue. The sneakers swinging
above his juking body like scythes
are fresh: Jordans, Air Force 1s & Chuck
Taylors singing death songs when
the wind blows hard enough.
Touchdowns are as rare as angels
& when the boy turns his body,
the RIP shirt slants against the wind,
& there is a moment when he is not
weighed down by gravity, when
he owns the moment before he crashes
into the other boys’ waiting arms & they
all look like a dozen mannequins,
controlled by the spinning sneaker
strings of the dead boys above them.
Welcome to Poetry Rocks Black Voices! I have the honor of knowing Marilyn Nelson since the early 1990’s when she picked my brain about getting into writing for children. Her first book for young readers, Carver: A Life in Poems (Front Street, 2001), shot her into the starscape, where she continues to inspire readers of all ages with her award-winning volumes of poetry focusing on black history. She is a three-time finalist for the National Book Award, and has won the Frost Medal, NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Poetry, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. She is a professor emerita at UCONN and served as Connecticut Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2006. She has used her gifts to sponsor the development of black writers at her Soul Mountain Retreat. To know Marilyn, or even just her words on the page, is to love her. To learn more about her and read more of her work, please to: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/marilyn-nelson
On June 19, 1865, news reached Galveston, Texas that the Civil War had ended, putting the Emancipation Proclamation (issued in 1863) into effect. Slaves were finally free! June 19 has since been celebrated as “Juneteenth.” This poem, “Juneteenth,” by Marilyn Nelson, is from an early book for adult readers, The Homeplace (Louisiana State Press, 1995), in which she writes of her father, a Tuskeegee Airman.
With her shiny black-patent sandals
and her Japanese parasol,
and wearing a brand-new Juneteenth dress,
Johnnie’s a living doll.
Juneteenth: when the Negro telegraph
reached the last sad slave…
It’s Boley’s second Easter;
the whole town a picnic.
Children run from one church booth
to the next, buying sandwiches,
sweet-potato pie, peach cobbler
with warm, sweating pennies.
The flame of celebration
ripples like glad news
from one mouth to the next.
These people slipped away
in the middle of the night;
arrived in Boley with nothing
but the rags on their backs.
These carpenters, contractors, cobblers.
These bankers and telephone operators.
These teachers, preachers, and clerks.
These merchants and restaurateurs.
These peanut-growing farmers,
These wives halting the advance of cotton
with flowers in front of their homes.
Johnnie’s father tugs one of her plaits,
head-shaking over politics
with the newspaper editor,
who lost his other ear
getting away from a lynch-mob.
I’m beginning a series this week called “Poetry Rocks Black Voices,” a public part of my contribution to Black Lives Matter. I regularly feature diverse poets in my quarterly reading series, Poetry Rocks, in Vernon, CT. But not everyone can get out to enjoy poets reading their work in public. Each week on FaceBook, I’ll share the beginning of a poem written by an African American poet, share some biographical information, then ask you to visit https://rockvillepubliclibrary.org/books-more/rpl-poetry-page/ where you can read the complete poem. I’ll also suggest you visit https://www.poetryfoundation.org and click on “Poets” to learn more about them, and read more of their work for free. (Some have their own websites, and/or videos on YouTube!) And of course, I hope you explore the poetry by borrowing volumes from your local library or ordering books from your local book store. Enjoy this interactive journey of opening hearts, minds and spirits.
The first poem is (fittingly) “The First Book” by Rita Dove, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 1993-95. Not only was she the first African American poet to hold this post, she was also the youngest at age 40. She has also published fiction, plays and lyrics. She says, “There’s no reason to subscribe authors to particular genres. I’m a writer, and I write in the form that most suits what I want to say.” She is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
“The First Book” by Rita Dove
Go ahead, it won’t bite.
Well…maybe a little.
More like a nip, like. A tingle.
It’s pleasurable, really.
You see, it keeps on opening,
You may fall in.
Sure, it’s hard to get started;
remember learning to use
knife and fork? Dig in:
You’ll never reach bottom.
It’s not like it’s the end of the world—
Just the world as you think
Last month, I had the pleasure to lead a “modern haiku & senryu” writing workshop at Rockville Public Library. Briefly, modern haiku (about nature) and senryu (about human nature) don’t adhere to the arbitrarily-set syllable counts and line counts you may have learned in your schooling. (The Japanese wrote in one vertical line, and used the syllables of their punctuation words, ex. Com-ma.)
The following poems are some of works we came up with. Some authors agreed to share them with their names; some are anonymous. I hope you enjoy the poems, and try your hand! Just google “modern haiku and senryu” to learn more.
By Nancy Swanton
late for work—
staring through the window
the doe awaits
forget the item
on the bottom shelf
first sunshine after rain—
worms tracing patterns
by Charleen (Sistuh Clarity)
forgotten at home
green tomatoes glistening
cleaning by mood—
old school house
trees in forest,
by Carol Barcomb
oops, wrong car
piles and piles
purple and yellow
where am I
torn rotator cuff
large crowd waiting—