Poetry Rocks Black VoicesAnna2021-04-20T12:06:49-04:00
Poetry Rocks Black Voices
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Tiana Clark
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Tiana Clark. The last several years of her career have been so demanding, so full of publications, awards, fellowships, readings and teaching that she says the pandemic actually forced her to slow down and take care of her accelerating migraines and ulcers. She also realized that constantly answering questions about Black suffering was re-traumatizing her and other Blacks. “I think it’s more important that people investigate and revel in Black delight, Black romance, Black blessings, Black science fiction, Black Magic and beyond,” she told Poets & Writers Magazine.
So, let’s consider some of her exhausting achievements during the past five years alone. After being selected for the anthology, Best New Poets 2015, she published Equilibrium, winner of the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. She won the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize. In 2017-2018, she won the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, and other fellowships since then. Her first full volume, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood in 2018 won her the 2019 Pushcart Prize, an NEA Fellowship, and the 2020 Kate Tufts Discovery Award. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. So, let’s make a point to see a film, listen to an album, or read a book by the many Black artists, and appreciate their contributions to the world’s cultures. Start with checking out Clark’s website, http://www.tianaclark.com. Here’s a poem we all can identify with!
My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work
I control & panic. Poke
balloons in my chest,
always popping there,
always my thoughts thump,
thump. I snooze — wake & go
boom. All day, like this I short
my breath. I scroll & scroll.
I see what you wrote — I like.
I heart. My thumb, so tired.
My head bent down, but not
in prayer, heavy from the looking.
I see your face, your phone-lit
faces. I tap your food, two times
for more hearts. I retweet.
I email: yes & yes & yes.
Then I cry & need to say: no-no-no.
Why does it take so long to reply?
I FOMO & shout. I read. I never
enough. New book. New post.
New ping. A new tab, then another.
Papers on the floor, scattered & stacked.
So many journals, unbroken white spines,
waiting. Did you hear that new new?
I start to text back. Ellipsis, then I forget.
I balk. I lazy the bed. I wallow when I write.
I truth when I lie. I throw a book
when a poem undoes me. I underline
Clifton: today we are possible. I start
from image. I begin with Phillis Wheatley.
I begin with Phillis Wheatley. I begin
with Phillis Wheatley reaching for coal.
I start with a napkin, receipt, or my hand.
I muscle memory. I stutter the page. I fail.
Hit delete — scratch out one more line. I sonnet,
then break form. I make tea, use two bags.
Rooibos again. I bathe now. Epsom salt.
No books or phone. Just water & the sound
of water filling, glory — be my buoyant body,
bowl of me. Yes, lavender, more bubbles
& bath bomb, of course some candles too.
All alone with Coltrane. My favorite, “Naima,”
for his wife, now for me, inside my own womb.
Again, I child back. I float. I sing. I simple
& humble. Eyes close. I low my voice,
was it a psalm? Don’t know. But I stopped.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Danez Smith
This week Poetry Rocks honors the young Danez Smith, born and raised in St. Paul, MN., I couldn’t think of a more suitable poet to feature this week, given the attention on George Floyd’s trial and now the murder of Daunte Wright by a police officer who thought she was using her taser. But also because of their strident and moving works that demand action against what seems like never-ending injustice. Smith, who identifies as “queer, non-binary, and HIV-positive,” is a dynamic performer on stage as well as on the page. They are a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist and a two-time Rustbelt Individual Champion. They performed on the 2014 championship team Sad Boy Supper Club, and were also the 2014 festival director for the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam.
Smith’s latest book Homie (Graywolf, 2020) is “Part friendship diary, part bright elegy, part war cry,” and was also a finalist for both the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and the 2021 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. Organizations including the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, and Voices of Our Nation (VONA) have awarded Smith fellowships. To learn more about Smith and watch videos of their performances, please go to http://www.danezsmithpoet.com.
(I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?)
prayer who learned to bite & sprint
a mother’s joy & clutched breath
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Ms. Jeffers until reading her poem, “Note to Black Women in America,” published in the NY Times Magazine, March 28. It blew me away; its fatalism regarding the worth of Black Americans, especially women and children, truly frightened me. One isn’t sure of who the speaker is, only that the speaker has authority. It could be a slave master; it could be the government; but it could easily be the person down the block. Please take the time to read this stunning poem.
Ms. Jeffers is also a novelist, critic, and professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. Her brand new book is the novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois. Her latest (fifth) poetry volume, The Age of Phillis, is about the Black colonial poet Phillis Wheatley, whom I have profiled in this feature several months ago. She’s won fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. She is the winner of the 2018 Harper Lee Award for Literary Distinction, a lifetime achievement award. For more information, please go to http://www.honoreejeffers.com/.
Don’t think well of your self
(drink your anger)
Don’t think well of your body
(eat your anger)
Don’t think well of what
you do with your hands
your feet your tongue
your mind your god
whispering rare prophecies
that no one else can hear
(drink your anger)
Don’t think well of your
heroines your revolutions
(eat your anger)
Your courageous ones
whose voices won’t
rattle when they demand
what is due what to do
in this nation of cages
and well-explained blood
(drink your anger)
don’t think well
of your children
or your children’s children
(eat that anger)
They are only on loan
to you until we name
the day of the slaughter
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Carl Phillips
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Carl Phillips, whose 12th volume of poems, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, came out last year. In a Kenyon Review article, the author wrote that the words in Carl’s poems are “constantly shifting ground…so that the central subject is never made baldly explicit. The poems (most of them) will support several interpretations, though no single interpretation perfectly.” Some readers get frustrated by ambiguity in poetry: Does it mean this? Or That? Phillips might answer “yes” to both of them. More than any other format of literature, poetry invites and honors any response, because it asks readers to ponder, to think of the many meanings suggested. A favorite example of Phillips’ “invitation” is his pairing of the words “Be wild. Bewilder” (from his poem “Ghost Choir”). What do those words mean to you, individually? Paired? Have fun pondering!
A scholar of Greek and Latin, and professor of Creative Writing at Washington University in Saint Louis, Phillips has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Library of Congress, and the Academy of American Poets. Among his many awards are the Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize. He has been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. For more information, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/carl-phillips.
No eye that sees could fail to remark you:
like any leaf the rain leaves fixed to and
flat against the barn’s gray shingle. But
what leaf, this time of year, is so pale,
the pale of leaves when they’ve lost just
enough green to become the green that means
loss and more loss, approaching? Give up
the flesh enough times, and whatever is lost
gets forgotten: that was the thought that I
woke to, those words in my head. I rose,
I did not dress, I left no particular body
sleeping and, stepping into the hour, I saw
you, strange sign, at once transparent and
impossible to entirely see through. and how
still: the still of being unmoved, and then
the still of no longer being able to be
moved. If I think of a heart, his, as I’ve
found it…. If I think of, increasingly, my
own…. If I look at you now, as from above,
and see the diva when she is caught in mid-
triumph, arms half-raised, the body as if
set at last free of the green sheath that has—
how many nights?—held her, it is not
without remembering another I once saw:
like you, except that something, a bird, some
wild and necessary hunger, had gotten to it;
and like the diva, but now broken, splayed
and torn, the green torn piecemeal from her.
I remember the hands, and—how small they
seemed, bringing the small ripped thing to me.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Wanda Coleman
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Wanda Coleman (1946-2013), known unofficially as the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. Having grown up in the Watts section of L.A., Coleman found the public schools “dehumanizing.” She began writing poetry at an early age—5—and focused on issues of racism, poverty, and the resulting rage. She persisted in pursuing creative writing, despite becoming a working mother of two children before she was twenty. Writing workshops supplemented the college courses she took. Her passion, dedication, and performing skills were eventually rewarded with rapt audiences, major publication, and national acclaim. She won a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1981-82) and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Poetry (1984). A prolific writer of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and even soap opera scripts, she published more than 20 books, including the 1998 poetry collection Bathwater Wine, which received the 1999 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the first given to a work by a black woman. To learn more about her, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/wanda-coleman.
The Saturday Afternoon Blues
can kill you
can fade your life away
friends are all out shopping
ain’t nobody home
suicide hotline is busy
and here i am on my own
with a pill and a bottle for company
and heart full of been done wrong
i’m a candidate for the coroner, a lyric for a song
saturday afternoons are killers
when the air is brisk and warm
ol’ sun he steady whispers soon the life you know will be done
suicide line i can’t get you
best friend out of town
alone with a pill and a bottle
i drink my troubles down
the man i love is a killer
the man i love is thief
the man i love is a junky
the man i love is grief
some call saturday the sabbath
it’s the bottom of the line some say
whether last or first, my heart’s gonna burst
and there ain’t no help my way
here with a pill and a bottle
and a life full of been done wrong
i’m a candidate for the coroner, a lyric
for a song
This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Countee Cullen (1903-1946), a force in the Harlem Renaissance of African-American arts of the 1920’s. Educated at Harvard, Cullen won many awards kept from Black scholars and artists, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. For the past century, critics and artists have had a love/hate relationship with Cullen because he insisted on writing within white European poetic traditions concerning form, rhyme and meter, instead of free verse or poetry with Black vernacular that celebrated jazz and street language. He aimed to show the white elite that black poets could write as well as anyone else, while tackling racial subjects such as slavery, and the continued discrimination and violence toward people of color. The recent decades have seen a rise in the use of form (and for some, a new appreciation of Cullen’s works); however, Black writers are creating new forms (See Terrance Hayes’s “Golden Shovel”), or toying with old ones (See Jericho Brown’s “Duplex.”). Whichever way one feels about Cullen, one cannot dismiss his mastery of skills and his talent. For more information about him, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/countee-cullen.
FROM THE DARK TOWER
(To Charles S. Johnson)
Source: My Soul’s High Song: The Collected Writings of Countee Cullen (Anchor Books, 1991)
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made to eternally weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark,
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Sonia Sanchez
How many poets can claim that they’re the subject of an Emmy-nominated documentary? This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Sonia Sanchez, who has been lauded by artists such as Roots drummer Questlove for sparking the rise of hip-hop and spoken word art forms. There are actually more online video posts of Sonia Sanchez performing her poems than online text versions.
Sonia Sanchez was the Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Temple University. Her many awards include the Robert Frost Medal, the Langston Hughes Poetry Award, the PEN Writing Award, the American Book Award for Poetry, and the Peace and Freedom Award from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. For more information about her, please go to https://soniasanchez.net/
Next month, Beacon Press is publishing Collected Poems, Sanchez’s 18th book of poems. She has also published children’s books, plays and recordings in audio and video. Born in 1934, Sanchez has dedicated her life to Black liberation and studies, social equality and women’s rights. She has described herself as “a woman with razor blades between my teeth.” The poem below was written for her daughter, and it celebrates Black people of all shades of color. Here is a YouTube link for Sanchez performing “To Anita”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9mItCJtj6w&list=RDM9mItCJtj6w&index=3
walken like the sun u be.
move on even higher.
laugh at yo/color
have not moved
to the blackness we be about
cuz as Curtis Mayfield be sayen
we people be darker than blue
and quite a few
of us be yellow
all soul/shades of
cuz some of us
be hearen yo/sweet/music.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Ross Gay
This week Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Ross Gay. Take a look at his website, www.rossgay.net, and you’ll immediately want to sit down with him, have a beer, and watch a hoops game. Or hunker down on all fours and weed the garden with him. I’ll get to his poetry credentials in a sec, but I’d first like to highlight what makes him different from most poets. He is a founding editor of an online sports magazine called Some Call it Ballin’; a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard—a non-profit, “free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project”; and an editor of The Tenderness Project, a quirky online website that celebrates all the ways we humans can be kind to each other. MCC is running a virtual reading by him Tuesday March 2 at 7pm, so you can experience him right away! The link is https://ctedu.webex.com/meet//TByomcc.commnet.edu.
Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry, of which Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at Indiana University.
If you find yourself half naked
and barefoot in the frosty grass, hearing,
again, the earth’s great, sonorous moan that says
you are the air of the now and gone, that says
all you love will turn to dust,
and will meet you there, do not
raise your fist. Do not raise
your small voice against it. And do not
take cover. Instead, curl your toes
into the grass, watch the cloud
ascending from your lips. Walk
through the garden’s dormant splendor.
Say only, thank you.
Having heard the bellow of fire roaring
against this house, we hear it evermore
in our imaginations and night dreams.
So terror operates: there when it is
and there when it is not, ambient, dull
and insistent, indelible. We read,
work, walk, sing; we pray to vanquish the flames.
I have never met souls hungrier for
learning, that which splits the world akimbo,
is hope itself in the absence of grace,
Who would I be if I did not teach these
young ladies, little misses of color?
Know I will never no never turn back.
My girls, we must sail across the treetops.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Yusef Komunyakaa
This week Poetry Rocks honors Yusef Komunyakaa. His numerous books of poems and prose have won so many literary awards, I can’t list them here. Readers who are military veterans may be interested to know that he won The Bronze Star for his service in the Vietnam War, and the Pulitzer Prize for Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems 1977-1989, which includes many of his works about his war experiences. Critics have called his book, Dien Cai Dau (1988) one of the best books of war poetry from the Vietnam War.” Born in 1947 in Louisiana, he is a senior faculty member in the NYU Creative Writing Program, and has been elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In April, his 18th book, Everyday Mojo Songs of the Earth, will be published. To learn more about Komunyakaa and read more of his work, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/yusef-komunyakaa.
We tied branches to our helmets.
We painted our faces & rifles
with mud from a riverbank,
blades of grass hung from the pockets
of our tiger suits. We wove
ourselves into the terrain,
content to be a hummingbird’s target.
We hugged bamboo & leaned
against a breeze off the river,
slow-dragging with ghosts
from Saigon to Bangkok,
with women left in doorways
reaching in from America.
We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds.
In our way station of shadows
rock apes tried to blow our cover,
throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons
crawled our spines, changing from day
to night: green to gold,
gold to black. But we waited
till the moon touched metal,
till something almost broke
inside us. VC struggled
with the hillside, like black silk
wrestling iron through grass.
We weren’t there. The river ran
through our bones. Small animals took refuge
against our bodies; we held our breath,
ready to spring the L-shaped
ambush, as a world revolved
under each man’s eyelid.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Toi Derricotte
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices spotlights Toi Derricotte, the winner of the prestigious 2020 Frost Medal, given by the Poetry Society of America for lifetime achievements. Together with Cornelius Eady, she founded the nonprofit organization, Cave Canem (pronounced Cah vay Cah nim), in 1996 to nurture, publish, reward and promote Black poets. Many of the poets I’ve featured in this series have won fellowships to its workshops and retreats. But Derricotte has committed herself to nurturing every writer. Early in the pandemic, she released three YouTube videos called “Creativity in Isolation. See the first one at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2eZM54qPemo
Professor Emerita at the University of Pittsburgh, Derricotte herself won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, The Rockefeller Foundation and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her awards include three Pushcart Prizes, the 2012 PEN/Voelker Award for Poetry, and the 1998 Paterson Prize. She is the author of six poetry collections, and the memoir, The Black Notebooks, which was named a 1998 New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
Born near Detroit, Derricotte often writes about her identity and experience as a light-skinned Black woman. Here is the first half of her poem, “Passing” which appeared in her volume, Tender.
A professor invites me to his “Black Lit” class; they’re
reading Larson’s Passing. One of the black
students says, “Sometimes light-skinned blacks
think they can fool other blacks,
but I can always tell,” looking
right through me.
After I tell them I am black,
I ask the class, “Was I passing
when I was just sitting here,
before I told you?” A white woman
shakes her head desperately, as if
I had deliberately deceived her.
She keeps examining my face,
then turning away
as if she hopes I’ll disappear. Why presume
“passing” is based on what I leave out
and not what she fills in?
In one scene in the book, in a restaurant,
though no one checked her at the door—
“Hey, you black?”
My father, who looked white,
told me this story: every year
when he’d go to get his driver’s license,
the man at the window filling
out the form would ask,
“White or black?” pencil poised, without looking up.
My father wouldn’t pass, but he might
use silence to trap a devil.
When he didn’t speak, the man
would look up at my father’s face.
“What did he write?”
my father quizzed me.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Ed Roberson
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Ed Roberson, whose escapades around the world have informed his work which often focuses on the environment. Including two books two out this year—Asked What Has Changed and MPH + Selected Motorcycle Poems—his volumes number ten. He has motorcycled across America, climbed the Andes mountains, and has gone on expeditions through Alaska and Bermuda, among other sites. The 2020 Recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize, he has also won the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize, the Poetry Society of America Shelley Memorial Award, and others. Called a “scholar and jazz-like innovator, he is an emeritus professor in Northwestern University’s MFA in Prose and Poetry. To learn more about how his travels—and often being the only Black in an expedition—inform his poetry, go to this fabulous interview:
There is a place in me for air as part
of me of a piece with how I live.
And I am in it making sense like a cart
we are each other’s horse before. given.
loaded with flowers. both
our breaths a fragrance of sound wave and beat.
word of the heart. The music goes
on to explain it is moved by the feet
taking the place apart into other places to see.
where is the surface the air impresses upon
what forms bounce into shape and form
patterns of doing. the way they do that they be.
themselves ourselves scattered across the drumhead
shod with a vibration of the unsaid.
geometries of air shod with a vibration
of the unsaid dance out their ordered sentences
to freedom the felt articulated into action
a balletic leap that seeing trails resemblances
of not knowing to knowing of silence
to song of being bound to flight.
A place in the air achieved space—
not even aware the speaking might
be music. Or that the place of air in us
might be singing the fragrance of the flowers
already worded in stone the airy cupolas
of temples lifted off into the idea of showers
of bubbled light and the poem as the champagne
of what the body has bottled in its strain.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Amanda Gorman
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Amanda Gorman. When I featured Maya Angelou and her inaugural poem last week, I said I’d feature Amanda Gorman this week. I thought I’d be introducing her to you. Well, no need now, because she blossomed on the boldest stage, and the media went viral with “The Hill We Climb.”. What a wordsmith! What a powerhouse! And only 22. As President Biden overcame stuttering by reading and reciting poetry, Gorman did similarly. “God’s gift to me was my stuttering,” Biden has said. “But don’t let your learning disability define you.” Gorman told The Harvard Gazette in 2018, “I always saw [my auditory disorder and vocal impediment] as a strength because…I became really good at reading and writing.” A former United Nations Youth Delegate, she won a Milken Family Foundation Scholarship and graduated Harvard cum laude and Phi Beta Kapa. Her awards and honors will only grow with each passing day.
Those of you who are interested in how to write anything, I urge you to study the text of “The Hill We Climb” to see the rhetorical and poetic skills she uses: repetition, alliteration, assonance, true rhyme & near rhyme, and inversion of phrases to form different effects, e.g. “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.” She also alludes to Angelou’s inaugural poem, the bible and Hamilton, specifically with the line, “history has its eyes on us.” In addition, she used many signs in American Sign Language to illustrate her reading. In case you missed her powerful performance, here’s a link to it. https://www.npr.org/sections/inauguration-day-live-updates/2021/01/20/958743170/poet-amanda-gorman-reads-the-hill-we-climb
After you watch this, you’re going to want more. So, I’m sharing a different poem, one that Amanda Gorman wrote for the inauguration of Tracy K. Smith as National Poet Laureate. (See my post on Tracy K. Smith).
There’s a poem in this place—
in the footfalls in the halls
in the quiet beat of the seats.
It is here, at the curtain of day,
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say.
There’s a poem in this place—
in the heavy grace,
the lined face of this noble building,
collections burned and reborn twice.
There’s a poem in Boston’s Copley Square
where protest chants
tear through the air
like sheets of rain,
where love of the many
swallows hatred of the few.
There’s a poem in Charlottesville
where tiki torches string a ring of flame
tight round the wrist of night
where men so white they gleam blue—
seem like statues
where men heap that long wax burning
where Heather Heyer
blooms forever in a meadow of resistance.
There’s a poem in the great sleeping giant
of Lake Michigan, defiantly raising
its big blue head to Milwaukee and Chicago—
a poem begun long ago, blazed into frozen soil,
strutting upward and aglow.
There’s a poem in Florida, in East Texas
where streets swell into a nexus
of rivers, cows afloat like mottled buoys in the brown,
where courage is now so common
that 23-year-old Jesus Contreras rescues people from floodwaters.
There’s a poem in Los Angeles
yawning wide as the Pacific tide
where a single mother swelters
in a windowless classroom, teaching
black and brown students in Watts
to spell out their thoughts
so her daughter might write
this poem for you.
There’s a lyric in California
where thousands of students march for blocks,
undocumented and unafraid;
where my friend Rosa finds the power to blossom
in deadlock, her spirit the bedrock of her community.
She knows hope is like a stubborn
ship gripping a dock,
a truth: that you can’t stop a dreamer
or knock down a dream.
How could this not be her city
our American lyric to write—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the brave,
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
Tyrants fear the poet.
Now that we know it
we can’t blow it.
We owe it
to show it
not slow it
hurts to sew it
when the world
skirts below it.
we must bestow it
like a wick in the poet
so it can grow, lit,
bringing with it
stories to rewrite—
the story of a Texas city depleted but not defeated
a history written that need not be repeated
a nation composed but not yet completed.
There’s a poem in this place—
a poem in America
a poet in every American
who rewrites this nation, who tells
a story worthy of being told on this minnow of an earth
to breathe hope into a palimpsest of time—
a poet in every American
who sees that our poem penned
doesn’t mean our poem’s end.
There’s a place where this poem dwells—
it is here, it is now, in the yellow song of dawn’s bell
where we write an American lyric
we are just beginning to tell.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Maya Angelou
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices finally features Maya Angelou, perhaps the most beloved poet of the 20th Century regardless of skin color. Since I began this series on Juneteenth, 2020, I have so hopefully—because I doubted the current president would have a poetry reading if he were re-elected—waited until this Presidential Inauguration week to feature her Inauguration poem. In 1993, she became only the second poet in modern history to read a poem at the Inauguration of a U.S. President. The first was Robert Frost at JFK’s event in 1961. Obviously, she was the first Black poet and first female poet to do so. Click on this link to see who else has read. https://poets.org/inaugural-poems-history. (Next week, I’ll feature the 22-year-old Black poet, Amanda Gorman, who will read at Biden’s Inauguration.) Obama presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. Her list of honors and awards is delightfully exhaustive, so I will simply send you to https://www.mayaangelou.com. You can see her perform her Inauguration poem at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59xGmHzxtZ4. Its themes of past violence and fear and hope for a future of unity resound more loudly today than nearly 40 years ago.
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today, you may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers — desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I the River, I the Tree
I am yours — your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, and into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
With hope —
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - June Jordan
This week, “Poetry Rocks Black Voices” celebrates June Jordan (1936-2002). She forged a path for many Black poets to embrace writing for children as important as writing for adult readers. Her work encouraged me to write multicultural works for young readers, while continuing to write in various forms for “grown-ups.” She knew that children, our future leaders, need to see themselves in literature. She said that the role of the poet is “Always to be as honest as possible and to be as careful about the trust invested in you.” A Jamaican-American born in Harlem, she was a prolific author of 27 books of poetry, numerous essays, articles, and children’s books. She won honors and awards including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and the National Association of Black Journalists Award. Jordan taught at prestigious universities and mentored young students, encouraging them to write in Black vernacular. To read an array of tributes to Jordan who died of breast cancer, please go to http://www.junejordan.net/.
I chose this short Japanese-form poem by June Jordan not only because she wrote it for a fellow female writer featured in my series; but mostly because it speaks to today’s various wars inside our own country, and to the eternal peace and unity offered by nature. I fully credit today’s children for comprehending it, too.
For Alice Walker (a summertime tanka)
Redwood grove and war
You and me talking Congo
gender grief and ash
I say, “God! It’s all so huge”
You say, “These sweet trees: This tree”
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Shane McCrae
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates SHANE McCRAE, author of seven books of poetry, his latest being Sometimes I Never Suffered. He is a contemporary poet, whose work has made that jump from publication by small presses and university presses to major publishers. Both his newest book and The Gilded Auction Block were published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A professor of poetry at Columbia University, McCrae has won numerous fellowships including a National Endowment for the Arts, and awards including The Whiting Writers Award, the Lexi/Editor’s Choice Award; and his book, In the Language of my Captor was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the William Carlos Williams Award. In this collection’s poem, “(hope)(lessness),” McCrae shows that the white “keeper” (of slaves or prisoners or Blacks in general) suffers from the act of keeping. The relationship is still complex, as recent history has proven. To learn more about McCrae and read more of his work, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/shane-mccrae.
“And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought, Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.”
The keeper keeps me / He tells me
Because he has no hope
I have become an
Expression of his hopelessness // My kind
Out-breeds his kind
He says / And I have lived
With the keeper long enough to know
He thinks that means // Eventually
Will murder him and everyone he loves
and live in / His house
And eat his bread.
He fears he can’t defend
His house his bread he
Has put his faith in things
That can’t be loyal in return
And also all his hope is gone
Because he tells me
he has kept me for so long
How could he / Free me
And not fear I / Would seek revenge /He says
he keeps me here
because he would if he were
Me seek revenge
He is a strange
Man he will not acknowledge
my humanity in-
sofar as it is mine /But will
Ascribe his traits to me
in all / Their human / Complexity
pleases him to do so
I tell him // He is hopeful / He doesn’t fear me
Because I am different from him
but because he hopes
I will become him
Poetry Rocks Black Voices
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Kwanzaa and some of the poets who have published works about this special time. Please take a few moments to read the poems at these sites to learn more about the principles – a different one each day from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1. If everyone, no matter the skin color, embraced these practices, the world would be a more just and peaceful one. Happy Kwanzaa!
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Robert Hayden (1913-1980) who was the first Black man to be appointed United States Poet Laureate (the post formerly known as Consultant in Poetry to the Library Congress). Though he often wrote about Black history from the slaves’ roots in Africa through the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, he insisted that poetry written by Blacks be considered as English and world literature, not segregated as its own category. His strong belief and leadership roles in the Baha’i faith led Hayden to reject racial classification of his and other Black writers’ work. (Baha’i’s recognize all faiths and work towards unity in the world.) For more information about him, please go to: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/robert-hayden.
Then fled, O brethren, the wicked juba
and wandered wandered far
from curfew joys in the Dismal’s night.
Fool of St. Elmo’s fire
In scary night I wandered, praying,
Lord God my harshener,
speak to me now or let me die;
speak, Lord, to this mourner.
And came at length to livid trees
where Ibo warriors
hung shadowless, turning in wind
that moaned like Africa,
Their belltongue bodies dead, their eyes
alive with the anger deep
in my own heart. Is this the sign,
the sign forepromised me?
The spirits vanished. Afraid and lonely
I wandered on in blackness.
Speak to me now or let me die.
Die, whispered the blackness.
And wild things gasped and scuffled in
the night; seething shapes
of evil frolicked upon the air.
I reeled with fear, I prayed.
Sudden brightness clove the preying
darkness, brightness that was
itself a golden darkness, brightness
so bright that it was darkness.
And there were angels, their faces hidden
from me, angels at war
with one another, angels in dazzling
combat. And oh the splendor,
The fearful splendor of that warring.
Hide me, I cried to rock and bramble.
Hide me, the rock, the bramble cried. . . .
How tell you of that holy battle?
The shock of wing on wing and sword
on sword was the tumult of
a taken city burning. I cannot
say how long they strove,
For the wheel in a turning wheel which is time
in eternity had ceased
its whirling, and owl and moccasin,
panther and nameless beast
And I were held like creatures fixed
in flaming, in fiery amber.
But I saw I saw oh many of
those mighty beings waver,
Waver and fall, go streaking down
into swamp water, and the water
hissed and steamed and bubbled and locked
shuddering shuddering over
The fallen and soon was motionless.
Then that massive light
began a-folding slowly in
upon itself, and I
Beheld the conqueror faces and, lo,
they were like mine, I saw
they were like mine and in joy and terror
wept, praising praising Jehovah.
Oh praised my honer, harshener
till a sleep came over me,
a sleep heavy as death. And when
I awoke at last free
And purified, I rose and prayed
and returned after a time
to the blazing fields, to the humbleness.
And bided my time.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Claudia Rankine
This week, Poetry Rocks celebrates Claudia Rankine. Rankine is a master of media and a genre-bending author of six collections of poetry, including Just Us: An American Conversation, Citizen: An American Lyric and Plot; three plays, and video collaborations. She is co-editor of anthologies including The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, and co-founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII). When I saw her perform at the Hartford Public Library several years ago, it was the first time I’d heard the term “micro-aggressions.” After you read her prose poem below, perhaps you’d agree that the situations qualify as aggressions, period. There is nothing “micro” about them. And I wondered how many times, I may have committed them without knowing. The Professor of Poetry at Yale (and a resident of New Haven), Rankine has received a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship as well as Guggenheim, Lannan and NEA fellowships; her awards include the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry and the Poets & Writers’ Jackson Poetry Prize. Rankine often writes in the prose poem format, and in the hybrid format that my utilize line of poetry, prose, and play lines. (I apologize if Facebook formatting does not keep the original line endings here of the prose poem below.) For more information, please go to www.Claudiarankine.com.
Excerpts fromCitizen: “You are in the dark, in the car…”
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term — John Henryism — for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
A man knocked over her son in the subway. You feel your own body wince. He’s okay, but the son of a bitch kept walking. She says she grabbed the stranger’s arm and told him to apologize: I told him to look at the boy and apologize. And yes, you want it to stop, you want the black child pushed to the ground to be seen, to be helped to his feet and be brushed off, not brushed off by the person that did not see him, has never seen him, has perhaps never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.
The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards, she says, like newly found uncles and brothers.
The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.
At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Charles Fort
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Charles Fort, who was born and raised in New Britain, CT. He is the author of six books of poetry and ten chapbooks including: The Town ClockBurning,We Did Not Fear the Father,Darvil, Prose Poems Book 1, Frankenstein was aNegro, Prose Poems Book 2, Mrs. Belladonna’s Supper Club Waltz, Book 3. Fort is Distinguished Emeritus Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, and Founder of the Wendy Fort Foundation Theater of Fine Arts, which is named for his wife—a dancer and choreographer who died young. His awards include a MacDowell Fellowship, “Individual Artist Award in Poetry” given by the Connecticut Commission on the Arts, Faculty Scholar Award given by Southern Connecticut State University, The Writer’s Voice Poetry Award, and the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize. A few years ago, he spent time in CT, and I had the pleasure of hearing him read his villanelles in-progress for his manuscript, “One Had Lived in a Room and Loved Nothing, 220 Villanelles,” which won him a Yaddo Fellowship last year. Poetry Rocks will feature him in a Zoom reading during February, Black History Month. Here is a villanelle dedicated to his deceased wife. And to learn more about Charles Fort, check out his website, www.poetcharlesfort.com.
They heard a cry behind the carousel
under the Bushnell Jazz Festival Arch.
Who whispered, I love you, in the morning?
The white raven landed on your shoulder
and in your hand the broken devil’s wand.
They heard a cry behind the carousel.
The serpent hissed under the altarstone
a sacrificial, unheard, sacred toll,
who whispered, I love you, in the morning?
These were the whispers of a loved woman
another century’s caul of stars.
They heard a cry behind the carousel.
There were cries and whispers of a loved man
another town’s ghost factory food line.
Who whispered, I love you, in the morning?
This was no back alley for the unloved.
Two daughters embraced the widower’s nest.
They heard a cry behind the carousel.
Who whispered, I love you, in the morning?
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Prisca Afantchao
Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Prisca Afantchao, a first-generation Togolese-American poet who is a senior at Windsor High School. You can see her read on Zoom next Monday, 7:00 on my Poetry Rocks reading series. (The first two poets are the veterans Doug Anderson and Roger Singer. See my earlier post this morning.)
Prisca’s work received the Silver Key from the 2019 Scholastic Writing and Arts Awards, and was featured in the finals of the Pulitzer Center’s 2019 Fighting Words Contest. She has three poems forthcoming in the 2020 Youth Speaks Anthology. She seeks to expand her own understanding of herself and the world, as well as help others do the same through her poetry. She said, “I like writing about fear, especially fear of the future, exertion or loss of power, and geography’s influence on identity.” Her Instagram account is @prisca.pdf and check out her website, www.plntnrepublic.com (Plantain Republic).
That Californian girl will never know why I did what I did, why I went behind your back to tell her how I felt. I was sick of you but still clingy, wanting to know I would still have us if she didn’t say yes. But when she said sorry I said goodbye to speeding through you and began loitering, running idle. When it was time for me to leave myself, I did turn around, right back to your smile lines, and your brown eyes, held your face, but kept from First Kissing someone I might never kiss again.
When you crossed your legs and looked away from me, I began chasing counties that would never give me their names, let alone their numbers. So, I made some digits up and called them, opened my mouth to so many dial tones I now know how much I need the taste of yours. The feeling of the plastic landline, cold on my fingers, still couldn’t replace memory of holding onto you. Thoughts of calling someone else beloved only made me miss you more, write your name next to my name more, realize fleeing isn’t what’s going to make me more.
Drive Through State, Nothing State, Rich and Poor State, Black State, White State, Brown State, Not Quaint or Charming Just Boring State, My State, Connecticut, I think I love you. When I do leave you for good it will be for the better but I will keep calling you in the whispered winter and the forlorn fall. When I do leave you for good it will be for the better but I will keep claiming you, even if there’s no love for me left at your place.
Every bad thing that has ever happened to me; garbage bags to punching bags, snow angel removal, graveyard playgrounds, old wallpaper introducing asthma (still pretty wallpaper), train track walks, plastic knife hitting the fan, safety scissors giving secret haircuts, safety scissors threatening secret surgeries, bullied body growing into me, blunt force drama, what I thought was perfect English being broken English, saving tears until I got home (from homecoming), running around the house we shared with construction and church and all the ghosts who got to rent that place before us — it has all happened with you. I’m not sure if that means I should stay away or if that means you are the only person who has always been there for me but I am sure I want to hold you close, come back to you for the fifteenth time like I am fifteen again and you’re my loser of a crush. I am sure I want to keep sharing that one kind of ice cream I only have with you.
I am sure I will wander and you will let me because, damn it Connecticut, I think I love you, but you know I do.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Camille T. Dungy
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Camille T. Dungy. I had the pleasure of hearing Ms. Dungy read at UCONN in 2015. I bought her book, Smith Blue, (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011) and the poem below has resonated with me in its continued relevance, regarding war, climate change, school shootings, and the plight of the medical professionals who must sweep up our messes. Author of four books of poems, and an essayist as well, Ms. Dungy was awarded Guggenheim Fellowship in 2019. Other awards include the American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, two NAACP Image Award nominations, and other fellowships in both poetry and prose. She currently is a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University. For more information about her, please go to www.camilledungy.com.
The poet’s hands degenerate until her cup is too heavy.
You are not required to understand.
This is not the year for understanding.
This is the year of burning women in schoolyards
and raided homes, of tarped bodies on runways and in restaurants.
The architecture of the poet’s hands has turned upon itself.
This is not the year for palliatives. It is not the year for knowing what to do.
This is the year the planet grew smaller
and no country would consent to its defeat.
The poet’s cup is filled too full, a weight she cannot carry
from the table to her mouth, her lips, her tongue.
The poet’s hands are congenitally spoiled.
This is not one thing standing for another.
Listen, this year three ancient cities met their ruin, maybe more,
and many profited, but this is not news for the readers here.
Should I speak indirectly?
I am not the poet. Those are not my hands.
This is the year of deportations and mothers bereaved
of all of their sons. The year of third and fourth tours,
of cutting-edge weaponry and old-fashioned guns.
Last year was no better, and this year only lays the groundwork
for the years that are to come. Listen, this is a year like no other.
This is the year the doctors struck for want of aid
and schoolchildren were sent home in the morning
and lights and gas were unreliable
and, harvesters suspect, fruit had no recourse but rot.
Many are dying for want of a cure, and the poet is patient
and her hands cause the least of her pain.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Nate Marshall
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates Nate Marshall who has just published his second full length book, Finna (One World). While he and his first book, Wild Hundreds, have accumulated the accolades, awards and fellowships that distinguish a notable poet, he has been on a mission to elevate Hip-Hop to the high ranks of poetry, to broaden the meaning of the term “poet” and what a “poem” is. He is co-editor of The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. He himself is an MC and rapper, with his own album, Grown (2015). Learn more about him at https://www.nate-marshall.com. In the poem below, first published in the journal Poetry, September, 2018, you can hear the music as well as read the clever wordplay. Marshall said in a recent interview with the magazine Poets & Writers that he is “fascinated by state-of-being verbs.” He noted that the word “is” can be harmful when used to label people, but it can also provide a starting point “move forward from.”
i be but i don’t is. i been & i
am one who be on my own biz. i love
not a b____. but see know i been loved. i’m
one who been that & then not deserved much
cuz i been on my own dirt. i don’t know
love. i been a lie but don’t be a lie
i be fly sometimes but don’t be a fly
sometimes i be addict-like but not high
like an addict’s like. just scratching low stones
like an addict might. stop? not an option.
i be getting mine. been getting over.
been over this but be caught in a cycle.
but you be what you be & it be good.
& i be moved & making new habits.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Audre Lorde
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices celebrates LGBTQ+ activist Audre Lorde (1934-1992). In addition to writing award-winning poetry and prose, she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, and helped found Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organization that raised awareness about women oppressed by apartheid. Lorde often wrote and spoke about the necessity and right to express anger as a woman, as a person of color, as a lesbian. She expressed that anger can not only be cathartic; it can bring about positive change, as we have experienced in recent racial protests and in the national election’s results. In June 1981 at UCONN, she gave the keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference. You can read her presentation here: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/1981-audre-lorde-uses-anger-women-responding-racism/. To learn more about her, please go to https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde.
Who Said It Was Simple
There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
Poetry Rocks Black Voices - Frederick-Douglass Knowles II
If you’re looking to book a Black poet in Connecticut, I highly recommend Frederick-Douglass Knowles II, who read for my series, Poetry Rocks, last February. He prepares listeners with just the right amount of context for each poem—without giving much away. He’s an emotional and dynamic performer of his works. The first Poet Laureate of Hartford, he is Associate Professor of English at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, known as the Black Rose City, its official flower. Knowles grew up in Norwich, and his book brings the city and its characters to life. His poems have appeared in publications including the Martin Luther King Jr. Anthology (Yale University Press), Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: AIDS Anthology (Third World Press), and Folio, the Southern CT State University Literary Magazine. He is the author of Black Rose City, and he’s completing his next book, Mentors, which contains elegies and tributes to people who have contributed to his life. Having read the nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was even more deeply moved by Frederick’s poem about her, forthcoming in Mentors. In light of our coming Veteran’s Day commemoration, here’s a poem about a sacrifice that stirred Frederick’s soul. To learn more about him, please go to www.frederickdouglassknowles.com
CHI-CHI HANK: Private Raymond Keith Knowles Jr.
into his graduation pic
grappling over lost time.
A stern figure
emits a soldier’s glare.
His solid eyes pierce
the scoping lens.
Chiseled jowls crease
at 90 degrees; no smile, focused.
His ancestral La Nubian heritage
resonates like Che
liberating the Congolese;
Zapata amalgamating haciendas in Morelos.
A red-white-blue republic flag
crops a darkened background
by his broad shoulder.
The legacy of a 4th generation, Knowles
tatts the left side of his uniform;
his code of honor flanking the right.
Chi-Chi Hank ain’t little no more, baggy jeans
pulled to the waist side,
elongated white “T’s”
tucked below the belt,
Nike “Air-Force One’s”
marching to a stammering
commander in chief.
M-4 lock and load(ed).
Bullet-proof armor plates
Deterring shraps of hot lead.
pack atomic blasts.
30 round magazines strapped.
He’s 7 ½ lbs. stronger, deployed
in the land of mortars,
sand-dusted helmet fastened
no games on this field
—fourth and short—
cloaked as children.
Chi-Chi Hank ain’t
my little nephew no more,
laminated photo clutched
in the palm of my hand.
His spirit, still
like a freedom-fighter totting BlackSteelinthehourofChaos,
praying that his devout faith
will keep the shepherd’s flock
from the war-wolves
bloodthirsty for crude.
This week, Poetry Rocks Black Voices honors Nikki Grimes, an accomplished artist and singer, as well as a beloved poet and fiction author for children and adults. Writing since the age of six (she just celebrated her 70th birthday), Grimes is a master of tapping into young people’s point of view. Her website (www.nikkigrimes.com) shows she’s a supreme ambassador of poetry, with all kinds of resources helping children to write and guiding educators to instill in students a knowledge and appreciation for the achievements, talents, and history of people of color. In turn, she has won scores of awards, including the American Library Association’s Children’s Literature Legacy Award, the National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and the Coretta Scott King Award for (my favorite book of hers) Bronx Masquerade. It’s a collection of persona poems exploring the many “masks” worn by high schoolers. In “Long Live Langston,” I love the way the fictional speaker, “Wesley Boone,” calls forth Langston Hughes’s persona of Jesse B. Simple, and references Muddy Waters and the Apollo Theater. The “mask” this student wears is of an activist for Black Culture. But below, I will share a different poem performed at a fictional Open Mike, written by the persona of “Chankara Troupe.”
By Chankara Troupe
A midnight thirst sent me
padding to the kitchen
for a jelly-jar of water
and an accidental run-in
with my sister.
She tiptoed in, late
and limping, her cheek
raw as red-brown meat.
I caught a quick glance
In the chilly glow
of the refrigerator
before she had
a chance to hide
the latest souvenir
her boyfriend gave her.
“I bruise easily”
is one of the lies
she sprinkles like sugar.
But I’m fifteen,
not brainless. Besides,
I knew the truth at ten.
“He’ll never do it again,”
But he will, because
she’ll let him.
I’ve got no use
for lame excuses
or imitation love
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