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 - 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—