Archive for March, 2010


The Never-Ending Journey

(PHOTO: Jupiter Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of national poetry month coming upon us in less than two weeks, here’s an essay on a young poet’s never-ending journey  and the lessons learned along the way.

Standing in front of my fourth grade Eng/Lit class, I had only one goal: to recite every line correctly. It was more than just a goal; it was mandatory. Mrs. Garrison would assign us poems that had to be memorized and recited back to her.

I don’t remember the names of the poems or who the poets were. But I remember if you couldn’t pull off the task, you spent your recess on the wall watching your friends have fun. That thought, alone, was torment enough. That was my introduction to poetry.

If you asked me then what I thought of it, I might’ve told you he was no friend of mine. I might’ve also likened him to the kid the teachers never caught picking on his classmates, the kid who got everyone in trouble. I’d learn much later that he was misunderstood and only did what he did for attention. After a few more encounters — in middle school, high school and college — we became friends.

Since our friendship, I’ve published two chapbooks and completed two full-length manuscripts. My work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Alehouse, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and Rattle. I’ve also received fellowships from VONA (Voices of Our Nation) and Cave Canem, and was recently nominated for both a Best of the Net selection and a Pushcart Prize.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And while I’m a long way from that nervous fourth grader, poetry doesn’t seem to be impressed with that. No matter the accomplishments, it still asks me to prove myself to the craft, or to take it to the next level. In fact, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of poetry’s possibilities, including the advocacy it involves, until I started teaching at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C.

This advocacy, according to poet Martin Espada, involves “speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard.” Through their poems, the kids at Hart speak on behalf of friends and family members who they see as underdogs.

They speak on behalf of a community that’s been misrepresented in media coverage and with grim statistics that often describe Hart’s location — in the southeast section of D.C. — as a high-crime and high-poverty area. (The median income for area households is $24,905, according to publicschoolreview.com, an online database of schools and their surrounding communities. With  31,688 residents living around Hart, only 10 percent of those 25 years and older have college degrees.)

What I admire about my students is their courage. Even when statistics show they have a tough life ahead of them, they turn to what’s practical for them: poetry. In a July 2007 interview with Bill Moyer, Espada explained what I had yet to learn, but what my students knew all along. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self-respect,” the poet said. “They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Patricia Smith

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Patricia Smith.

To equip them for that, I’ve turned to three contemporary poets. If they were X-Men, Patricia Smith would be Rogue, Tim Seibles would be Iceman and Tony Hoagland would be Beast. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where they hone their powers for the betterment of humanity. But these three are more than just mere poets; their mutant-like abilities set them apart from others in that camp.

Rogue can absorb psyches and abilities of individuals or several beings at once. In Patricia’s case, she can take several poetic forms — including the villanelle and sestina — and spin them on their heads with the ease of penning prose. As if the sestina wasn’t complicated enough, Patricia effortlessly executes the double sestina challenge.

Every time I read her work, I’m inspired to push myself harder in the craft. “While she writes from the ‘I,’ she writes selflessly so,” according to the Book of Voices, an online library of poetry in spoken word, performance and text.

Just like Rogue, Patricia can also absorb and reflect anyone’s memories, knowledge, talents, personality and physical abilities in her own poems. “The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of others,” the Website states. Those muscular poems seem to breathe, sing and dance on their own while possessing an “enlightened, worldly political conscience” I wish I could accomplish in my own writing.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tim Seibles.

Sometimes I catch my poems trying to be as cool as Tim “the Iceman” Seibles. Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in Hurdy Gurdy, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, titled “For Brothers Everywhere,” Tim compared the streetballers to “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”

Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” poet Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are as slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.

Tim’s work also has a “streetwise” lyricism that gives his poems a conversational tone. It’s that same lyricism in my own work that puts my poems in conversation with his. My poem, “The Sweet Urge,” was an unsuccessful attempt at mirroring the intensity in some of Tim’s poems.

Another technique I’ve borrowed is one used by both Tim and Tony Hoagland: humor.

“It’s important to weave really substantive issues into poems that have pronounced humor in them,” Tim wrote to me in a December 2006 email. “It catches people off-guard, so they really hear something before they can go into the ‘denial zone.’”

As for Hoagland, his poems have been described as “playful, provocative, and sometimes even a little mean.” Like Beast, he possesses “a super genius intellect.” At the same time, his poems aren’t afraid to do hand-to-hand and acrobatic combat with issues considered taboo. “To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of the social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms,” Hoagland told Miriam Sagan in an interview on Tres Chicas Books Web site.

One such poem that set off alarms among Black writers was “Rap Music”:

…I have a bad suspicion
there’s a lot of dead white people in there

on a street lit by burning police cars
where a black man is striking the head of a white one
again and again with a brick,

then lifting the skull to drink blood from the hole—

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tony Hoagland.

I didn’t know how to feel about this poem the first time I read it. I was conflicted; on the one hand, I appreciated the poet’s honesty — what I struggle with in my own work. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel offended at some points in the poem.

But isn’t the poet’s responsibility to be a “rabble rouser”? Hoagland seems to think so. “A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not a safe…experience, but that poetry is about open-heart surgery, being woken up or taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous.”

At Hart, I’m always inspired by my students’ courage to go to those “unexpected and dangerous” places by using what’s practical to them: poetry. It’s what  helps them “maintain their dignity” and “sense of self-respect” despite what the news and statistics say about them. They also have what I wish I had in fourth grade: an interaction with poetry that isn’t frustrating and a discovery that the written word is a powerful thing, and that their voices matter.

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(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Marcus Jackson

Marcus Jackson is counting down the days until his friend’s art showcase and exhibition. If you ask, he’ll say it’s a long time coming. With the event two weeks away, he also anticipates that evening will be an emotional one. “I grew up trying to act like a tough dude,” Jackson says, “but you might catch me dropping a couple tears in public.”

He’s among several poets who were documented in portraits that will be on display March 18 at “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths” at the Cave Canem Foundation’s Brooklyn loft at 20 Jay Street.

The event—which starts at 6 p.m. and goes until 8 p.m.—will open with a reception, which will be followed by a reading of several poets included in the 25 portraits. “Some of the poets are reading poems generated from their engagement with a particular image from the show,” says Griffiths—a photographer, painter, poet and writer.

Before and after the reading, there will be live jazz by the Guillaume Laurent Trio. The opening reception is open to the public. “We’re all very much looking forward to it,” says Camille Rankine, program and communications coordinator for the Cave Canem Foundation, which is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African-American poets.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) photographer-painter-poet-writer Rachel Eliza Griffiths .

The exhibition is the result of a three-year partnership between Griffiths and the foundation. In fact, Griffiths—whose visual art and writing have appeared in various publications including Callaloo, The New York Times, Indiana Review and RATTLE—got the project idea when she joined the Cave Canem community in 2006.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet John Murillo.

“The event is something we’ve had in mind for years, since Rachel has been taking photographs for Cave Canem and we’ve become more aware of her talent,” Rankine said. “Now that we have this beautiful loft space in the artistically-rich DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, we’re thrilled to be able to showcase her work and host this wonderful opening event.”

By definition, the Ars Poetica is a literary device that employs the use of poetic form to define or describe the nature of poetry itself. Often introspective rather than on the surface, it’s a poet’s attempt to explain what poetry is or should be by using the forms and traditions of poetry.

Jackson and others believe that definition is apt in describing Griffiths’s work. “Rachel’s work exudes the power of an eye and heart that are not only privy to the importance and beauty of blackness, but also to that of poetry,” he said. “Her appreciation and comprehension of these elements always seems to render breath-halting photography.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Toi Derricotte, co-founder of Cave Canem.

Ars Poetica will run through May 31, with viewings by appointment. There are several reasons why Jackson anticipates the event being an emotional one. For starters, the showcase will focus on a group of people many feel America’s literary landscape tends to overlook: “writers of color.”

A testament to this, for many, is the tale of Cave Canem. Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to remedy the under-representation of African-American poets in MFA programs and writing workshops, Cave Canem has become a home for the many voices of African-American poetry.

Another reason for the tears may be that some of the poets photographed have since passed on. “It’s been difficult,” Griffiths says. “Since I’ve been a part of Cave Canem in 2006, we’ve lost members of our family.” The literary world is still coping with the loss of a giant, Lucille Clifton, who passed away on Feb. 13. Last summer, Griffiths was fortunate enough to photograph her, along with poet Nikky Finney, in Virginia.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Tyehimba Jess.

Ars Poetica, Jackson says, “is the unearthing of a rich mineral from which our eyes and hands have too long been diverted.”

“With this exhibit, we hope to bring from the margins to the center the cultural accomplishments of African American writers,” Rankine says. “Though much has been documented about the Harlem Renaissance, there’s not an abundance of material on contemporary black writers.”

And of course, the event is to highlight Griffiths’s talents. Jackson says, “There is great anticipation for the opening of Rachel’s ‘Ars Poetica’ because of her artistic skill.”

Frank X. Walker, another poet documented in the portraits, agrees. He refers to Griffiths’s portraits as poems. “One of the poems she shot with her camera pulled me to the project head first,” he says of his friend who he’s known for what seems like a lifetime.

Walker—who, as he puts it, is “trying to conjure up an opportunity” to get him to New York—is not sure if he’ll make the event. “The positive energy surrounding this project…is palpable,” he says, “even from Kentucky.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Frank X. Walker.

The showcase and reception, Griffiths says, is just the beginning. “I see a book of these photographs.  I would like the photographs to travel to different cities where Cave Canem poets might also have readings in conversation with the exhibit,” she says. “It’s all elastic—the collective will continue to grow and I hope the photographs…will reflect its movement.”

For more information, visit www.cavecanempoets.org. You can also contact Camille Rankine at 718.858.0000, or by email at camillerankine@ccpoets.org.

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