Archive for September, 2011


Bettina Judd’s Poetic Justice

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina Judd) Bettina

She didn’t go looking for poetry. In fact, it was the other way around, Bettina Judd told a packed house Friday evening at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

She was the Sept. 9 feature at the Nine on the Ninth monthly poetry event, the longest running series hosted exclusively by Hughes poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

Typically, a featured artist kicks off the event, followed by a 10-15 minute interview and audience Q&A with the artist called the BluePrint Sessions. The event culminates with a limited open mic. Bettina tore it up.

A bi-coastal Cave Canem Fellow, the Spelman College alumnus infuses her interest in women’s studies, social justice and spirituality in her poetry and visual art.

This practice echoes the point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux makes in their book The Poet’s Companion: “There is a world inside each of us that we know better than anything else, and a world outside of us that calls our attention.”

Bettina navigates both her internal and outer worlds by challenging interdisciplinary scholarship and intertextual narrative through her doctoral program in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The poems she read Friday came from her dissertation, a poetic and visual exploration of body, memory and the history of gynecological experimentation on Black women in the US, and an academic and creative venture on affect and Black feminist politics in Black women’s art.

(ARTWORK: uncopyrighted image of Anarcha)

Among those poems is the “Etymology of Anarcha I” that alludes to a slave woman named Anarcha who suffered severe vaginal tears from child-birth.

The damage resulted in Anarcha’s inability to control her bowels and bladder, according to various sources. Though the speaker in “Etymology of Anarcha I” is not Anarcha, the persona suffered from a similar ordeal although she wasn’t giving birth.

The audience at Busboys and Poets tensed and squirmed in their seats from the poem’s physical details: “when the tearing came there was/ no baby in the canal but a new route:/ fistula, with a hard f like fetal/ freak, fatal, furor.”

The audience bristled at the poem’s psychological details: “i needed the f when the break screamed/ no sound from me but fire, fuchsia/ becoming an un-fuckable woman is a freedom/ the black hole of my sex, a fare/ to the good doctor I will be flesh/ which you will think brutal.”

Slave women like Anarcha, Betsy (sometimes spelled “Betsey”) and Lucy were guinea pigs for Dr. Marion Sims, who experimented on them to hone his skills in what would later be called gynecology. The three slave women’s spirits, summoned by Bettina, haunted Busboys and Poets Langston Hugh’s room.

Betsy and Lucy come alive in “The Opening”: “betsey leans in with sure hands/ slosh of seeping liquid/ lucy prepares for metal on wet tissue/ menstrual blood to urine to feces.” There’s companionship between Betsey, Lucy and the speaker, who’s also been experimented on, when the speaker says: “we are an unfortunate journey, a plunder/ darkness’s heart and treasured coast.”

(ARTWORK: Courtey of The Anarcha Project)

These psychological details intensifies the horrors of experiments done on Black women’s bodies: “[…] introduce spoon and i am sacrament/ unforgivable sin and reprieve practice/ in the dark ghetto of my body.”

These psychological details illustrated the companionship between Bettina’s speaker and the other two women:

dear lucy, dear betsey
that we three weren’t so perfectly broken
the scent of us so eagerly hunted
if our mouths, when opened up
could light our darkness

Bettina’s speaker’s handle of trauma illustrates another point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux make in The Poet’s Companion: there’s no equation between good poetry and unhappy circumstances. “We each write out of our own constellation of experiences,” Addonizio and Laux writes. Last night’s reading was heavy–the weight of history so present.

But Bettina didn’t leave us there. She brought it home with her poem “Full Bodied Woman” that had women calling out uh huh! and I know that’s right! The women and men in the crowd exchanged knowing glances with one another when Bettina read:

a Full Bodied Woman gives life in edible chunks.
those who know partake. those who don’t
run to lesser women, and die of starvation.

The crowd’s shouts of affirmation got loud at this point of the poem: “from this we know She will return/ for who could  reign over a woman who/ sings I’m a Woman without apology? As in:
I am that I am.”

Bettina made us laugh during the Q & A with Busboys and Poet’s poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown, who started the monthly reading series six years ago. Asked how poetry found her, the poet covered her smile. “It’s a really embarrassing story,” Bettina said. “Big up to John Singleton!”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina)

This puzzled the audience until the poet elaborated. It was Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, in Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice that started Bettina off on her journey as a writer.

Like her speaker with the three slave women, Bettina found companionship with poetry. So much so that it still wakes her up with the 3 a.m. urge to write. “It’s like a ghost. It knocks against your head,” Bettina said. “It kept finding me even when I thought I was through with it.”

(SKETCH: Gregory Culp)

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction I wrote back in 2007. It first appeared in The Spoof, an online publication like The Onion that publishes satire. I thought I’d repost it here and introduce you, dear reader, to Geritol Hightower.

At 72, Hightower leads the fight against agism. Say “Iron Man,” and Marvel Comic fans automatically assume you’re referring to Tony Starks from the Avengers crew.

But unlike the superhero, 72-year old Geritol Hightower didn’t need a shrapnel wound to the chest nor did he have to sell out to the Vietnam Communist party to become Iron Man.

“How do I feel being compared to a comic book character? You’re a reporter, right? How would you feel if someone compared you to Clark Kent or Peter Parker?” he says reclined in a cushioned wicker chair at his Miami home. “It’s kind of sick if you ask me. I’m flesh and blood while this…this thing prances around with his friends. And he’s a super-hero?”

Joined by two auburn-colored women apparently in their mid-30s — whose rippling backs and carved buttocks are visible through the thin fabric of their two-piece bikinis — he takes off his shades while one of the women rubs the throbbing vein at his left temple after patting down the onyx shine the perspiration gives his cool, charcoal-colored skin.

A two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the Ironman Pro champ five consecutive times, Geritol defeated Puerto Rico’s Gustavo Badell and Australia’s Lee Priest in the 2005 competition.

Right now, he’s the most sought after power-lifter turned body builder, appearing on the cover of the current issue of Iron Man Magazine with Fitness Olympia’s spokesperson and hardbody model Timea Majorova.

(SKETCH: Danomyte)

Growing up, Geritol knew something wasn’t quite right when he discovered he could out-lift most men twice his age. At 15 years old, all he wanted was to be noticed by Carla Dibbs, who he’d had a crush on since elementary school.

Attempting to catch her eye, while playing a prank on a faculty member, he and his boy Drink Water lifted their high school gym teacher’s car three feet off the ground and walked it to another parking spot. That day etched him and Drink Water into high school history.

Geritol smiles as if the moments were reeling before him.

“Man, we didn’t know what girl troubles were before that happened,” he says. “But afterwards, we damn near needed a stick to beat off the ones that were begging for a bit of our time.”

“Things were different when we were coming up,” Hightower continues. “It was 1949. We had just gotten the right to vote and went crazy with whatever little freedom we had.”

During that time, the U.S. had entered into World War II, and with his father off fighting, he took a job at Dino’s Diner in Silver Spring, Maryland as a short-order cook, earning 43 cents an hour.

“We were hard workers, our generation. You don’t get that from the kids these days. And certainly not that wannabe-cartoon figure,” says Hightower, taking a bite of his veggie club and munching his beat chips before washing them down with a wheat grass smoothie.

“This generation doesn’t understand that. Most of them looking for a quick way to everything. Some even turn to violence for a means to an end,” he says. “Well, for you young people out there who think robbing old folks is fun, you won’t be the first or last to be introduced to a good ol’ fashioned, never had it quite like this, ass whuppin’.”

He continues, “I’m talking ’bout giving one of those type of beatings where the paramedics checking to see if you still breathing. Just try me.”

(IMAGE: Milosh Kojadinovich)

Geritol remembers such a case, when a young man assaulted him in a 7-11, wildly wielding a switch blade. The guy, who stood at 6′ 4″ and 320 lbs., had Hightower by four inches.

He acted like he was going for his wallet in the back pocket, then delivered a fierce backhand that sent a bloody tooth spiraling out of the boy’s mouth before he stumbled backwards.

After disarming his attacker, Geritol was still beating the boy when the cops arrived. It took 10 men clubbing him with nightsticks and shocking him with tazers to handcuff him while they strapped and rolled the kid out on a gurney.

“It’s not just the young. People, in general, see an elderly fella and dollar signs pop up where their pupils oughta be. Shiii.. Folks’ll never be done exploiting us,” he shakes his head. “Some guy from the drug company asked if I would be in one of his commercials for Viagra.”

Just then, the women start chuckling. Geritol stops abruptly, and without being verbal about it, he shoots them a look that says get the hell out the room! One makes her way to bring him some more beet chips while the other goes to prepare him another vegetable shake.

“I looked that fella in the eye,” he continues, “and said ‘Is you crazy, boy? Would a healthy man such as yourself allow his likeness to be used on a poster for herpes and gonnorhea? Get the hell outta here ‘fore I beat your ass off GP.’”

The interview’s interrupted again when Geritol’s eyes expand like rubber “O’s” after answering his cell. Then he jumps up. “Iron Man Mag wants to know if I’m available for a cover shoot with Lenda Murray and Anja Langer,” his pitch rises with excitement. “Hell yeah! How many 70-something year olds you know that can say they shared the covers with two legendary hardbody models?”

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