Archive for November, 2011


Nancy Schwalb: A Community Champion

Full Disclosure: I’m the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop. I covered the award ceremony where Bank of America honored our executive director, and I wanted to share it here. Congrats again Nancy!

(PHOTO: Abbey Chung) Young-Writer-in-Residence Renita Williams, Executive Director Nancy Schwalb, and Board Chair Dr. John Cotman in their militant stand against the cold, wet weather of that evening.

With two young people from her program, Nancy Schwalb approached the podium. “As you can see, I brought my bosses with me,” she told a laughing crowd Thursday evening.

The DC Creative Writing Workshop’s executive director, known for her wit and sense of humor, continued. “Our organization’s so small—hey! There’s our senior program director! And over there’s our program manager,” Schwalb said, pointing into the audience. “That’s it for our staff—oh! And most of our board is also here tonight.”

Everyone in the packed penthouse laughed until their faces turned red.

Watching Schwalb work the room, the attendees couldn’t have known she was nervous in the days leading up to the award ceremony at the Bank of America building downtown.

She was among the Community Champions the financial institution honored Nov. 10 at the 2011 Greater Washington Neighborhood Excellence Initiative Awards.

Since 2004, Bank of America’s initiative has recognized, nurtured and rewarded organizations, local heroes and student leaders who enriched their communities and inspired others to get involved.

In 1995, Nancy Schwalb got involved when she founded the DC Creative Writing Workshop, which uses arts education to transform the lives of at-risk youths living in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often forgotten part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has educational hurdles.

For starters, among 16-19 year-olds, the high school dropout rate was 16 percent, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent.” The center also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8′s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.”

(PHOTO: Abbey Chung) Our students hard at work.

Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics.

Since its founding, the DC Creative Writing Workshop has expanded from its base of operation at Hart Middle School to two neighboring schools—Simon Elementary and Ballou Senior High—to accommodate increased demands.

The Workshop’s creative outlets help our students resist the lure of the streets. Through the nonprofit, thousands of students have attended readings, plays and other literary events, won dozens of writing awards, and enjoyed a wealth of new experiences not otherwise available to young people in Ward 8.

Many of our former students go on to universities such as NYU, George Washington, Penn State and UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, to name a few. (To see more photos of our students, visit our Facebook page!)

According to Bank of America, local heroes, like Nancy Schwalb, “are vital voices for change and role models who move into action, making life markedly better in their neighborhoods.”

(PHOTO: Bernie Horn) The whole crew: Program Manager Abbey Chung, Nancy Schwalb, Young-Writer-in-Residence Michael Johnson, Me, and Renita Williams.

The award ceremony and penthouse reception was a fitting way to honor a woman whose superpowers—according to those in the know—include “vocabulary boost, peripheral vision, cookie crumb pinpointing, and indestructibility.”

That night Schwalb was every bit the superhero in her black pant suit, posing for photos with her young-writers-in-residence—Michael Johnson and Renita Williams—who accompanied her earlier to the podium.

The $5,000 Bank of America awarded to Schwalb will help the DC Creative Writing Workshop hire more former students, like Mike and Renita, through its youth employment program.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vicky Leyva

The dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses startled the crowd when they dashed down the aisle of chairs on the Sub Level 1 floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Following them, a boy in his aqua-blue top, dark pink waist-tie and black pants shuffle-stepped among the dancers—his arms outstretched as if he were mimicking the movements of a plane.

These dancers were a highlight of an Afro-Peruvian Rhythms and Dance performance the Museum of African Art and Smithsonian Latino Initiative Pool presented Saturday. The headliners were Peruvian singer Vicky Leyva and her five-piece band.

This is the second event this year I’ve seen at the Museum of African Art. Last month, I saw MATCH + WOOD, a performance by poets Ernesto Mercer, Sami Miranda and a 10-piece band that explored the dynamic connections between Latino, African and American cultures.

Saturday’s event was a thread in an ongoing narrative of the Afro-Peruvian experience that started when the first slaves arrived in Peru in the sixteenth century, according to World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Peru: Afro-Peruvians published by the Minority Rights Group International. “By the nineteenth century, slaves formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labour force,” the publication noted.

And though the Peruvian government abolished slavery in 1854, Afro-Peruvians didn’t regain their ethnic identity until the 1950s. That’s when Afro-Peruvians created dance and theater groups to reaffirm their African identity.

(PHOTO: OralHistoryEducation.com) March on Washington, 1963

“Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, social groups formed to trace their African roots,” according to the publication. “Although these groups were short-lived, other groups have taken their place, including the Asociacion Cultural de la Juventud Negra, the Instituto de Investigaciones Afro-Peruano, and the Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo.”

During Saturday’s performance, Vicky Leyva’s Afro-Peruvian pride showed in her brown micro-shoulder-length braids, her wood-beaded cuff and her one-piece cheetah-print jumpsuit.

Even her smart phone exuded an Afro-Latina vibe. When it rang during sound check, the early attendees looked around to see who was blowing a wooden flute and smacking claves.

Leyva kicked off her set with a percussive-heavy number to which she stomped a foot and rolled her hips. The audience nodded and tapped their feet as the rhythm sped up. She jumped into another number that required crowd participation in the form of clapping. Leyva drove the crowd wild when she started winding her hips. She danced to each musician’s solo—even to that of the bass guitarist and electric keyboard.

This style of dance and accompanying music is festejo, according to afropop.org, the companion site for the radio series Afropop Worldwide, which served as a portal for Americans to learn more about Africa and the world for 22 years. The site is a network of researchers, writers, field recorders, photographers, videographers, audio engineers, producers, bloggers and on-air personalities.

According to the site, “The festejo is the most joyous of Afro-Peruvian music styles.” Vocalist Susana Baca, one of the site’s researchers, traced the dance and music to slavery in Peru. “After independence in Peru and the abolition of slavery,” she was quoted as saying, “people who were slaves only wanted to forget that part of their lives, to erase all memory of that stage of history.”

(PHOTO: Que Pasa Magazine)

She continued: “Erasing memory signified erasing melodies, erasing songs, erasing dances, and erasing traditions.

There were times in the early part of the 20th Century when an African descendant would be asked if he or she could remember a slave song. This person would say that they could not remember, but they remembered.”

Over time, the festejo became competitive among men, who gathered in a circle with their cajones (or box drums) and beat out “a series of fighting rhythms,” according to afropop.org. The festejo now incorporates sensual and undulating movements, the body’s way of talking. The percussionists are puppet masters whose rhythms trigger the dancer’s movements.

Vicky Leyva’s body interpreted the sounds and rhythms of cowbells and congas. The crowd jumped up and applauded when her body matched the violent rhythms of a cajone player whose box drum doubled as his stool. During that exchange, Leyva’s movements were as fluid as the underwater light patterns that rippled on a wall behind the performers. “I’m enjoying that,” she said after her dance. “Are you enjoying it?” We all yelled, “Yeah!”

Then Leyva performed a piece by a famous Afro-Peruvian poet to drums and hand claps. The poem, whose name escapes me, is about a little girl in Peru learning to embrace her African heritage. The little girl’s reluctance is the result of the current marginalization of Afro-Peruvians. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous PeoplesPeru, the Afro-Peruvian movement in Peru was weaker than those in Brazil and Columbia.

The publication also found that the Afro-Peruvians in rural areas live in extreme poverty without basic services or social programs. As a result, “anti-racism working groups have been formed in Lima, and organizations such as the Asociacion Palenque and the Asociacion pro Derechos Humanos del Negro have managed to make their voices heard.” However, the Peruvian press reports show continued discrimination that included a club in Lima barring entrance to people of African descent.

(IMAGE: usslave.blogspot.com)

The little girl in the poem’s reluctance comes from the fact that despite a strong presence of African group identity, black Peruvians have no special collective rights since they’re not officially recognized as a distinct cultural group.

Though Leyva performed the poem in Spanish—a language I learned, but was never close to speaking it fluently—it was clear for me that the back-up singers’ chants of “Negra!” started as a taunt.

But once the girl embraced her African roots, she turned the taunt into her affirming chant: “Negra!”

And Vicky Leyva’s performance was just as affirming, especially when the dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses came out. We clapped for the dancers moving the top layer of their dresses from side to side while they spun to the percussion. We shouted while the boy stepped to the cajone, congas and cowbell.

Leyva smiled while watching all this, and I wondered if she was once that little girl in the poem; if that was why she picked that poem to perform. I didn’t wonder long when Leyva, amid applause for the dancers who dashed back through the aisle, came back to the mic for her last affirmation. “I feel this music,” she said as we cheered. “African roots are in my veins. They’re in the veins of everyone here.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Kim Addonizio

In both Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me and Stephen Dobyns’s New Poems from Velocities: New and Selected Poems 1966-1992, the speakers are aware of the forces that connect everyone despite race and class.

Sometimes those insights manifest themselves to the speakers at a peep show[1] or a strip club[2]. Other times the speaker stumbles upon them while strolling through the city[3] or watching a pickup game of soccer[4].

Or they find it while firing their gun at a range[5] or reminiscing about a night at a foreign restaurant that war reduced to rubble[6].

Addonizio’s speaker first encounters that insight in “Quantum”:

You know how hard it is sometimes just to walk on the streets/ downtown, how everything enters you/ the way the scientists describe it—photons streaming through/bodies, caroming off the air, the impenetrable brick/of buildings an illusion—sometimes you can feel how porous you/ are […][7]

Those psychological details intensify the speaker’s paranoid tone and her germ phobia. They also allude to the atom as a metaphor for the “body of the world” to which we’re all connected, a body that insists on its recognition. And like atoms, that collective body consists of negative forces (electrons) that highlighted in these sensory details:

[...] the man lurching in circles/ on the sidewalk, cutting the space, around him with a tin can and/ saying Uhh! Uhhhh! Uhh! over and over/ is part of it, and the one in gold chains leaning against the glass of/ the luggage store is, and the one who steps toward you/ from his doorway, meaning to ask something apparently simple,/ like What’s the time, something you know/you can no longer answer; he’s part of it”[8]

(COVER ART: BOA)

These psychological details intensify the effect that the negative charges have on everyone inside that charged world-body:

[…] your tongue is as thick with dirt/ as though you’ve fallen on your hands and knees to lick the oil-/ scummed street, as sour as if you’ve been drinking/ the piss of those men passing their bottle in the little park with its/ cement benches and broken fountain.

Those lines explain why I’m repulsed when I see jellyfish-globs of mucus splattered on the sidewalk. My stomach turns as if I’m on my “hands and knees” licking them up. The electrons spark again when Addonizio’s speaker’s at the metro, hurrying “through the/ turnstile, fumbling out the money” as she considers how many hands those dollars passed through before reaching hers.[9]

In “Target”, Addonizio’s speaker is at a gun range. She rips “holes/ in the paper target clamped to its hanger” and enjoys nestling “a clip/ of bullets against the heel” of her hand and ratcheting “one into the chamber”, cocking “the hammer back” before she fires.[10] Her use of the weapon is erotic, especially “the recoil/ surging” up her arms “as the muzzle kicks up” and she’s in control.[11]

As a result of the erotic sensation of firing the gun with her “legs apart”, she’s empathetic with the negative forces of the world’s body: the boys who lift guns “from bottoms of drawers and boxes/ at the backs of closets, and drive fast into lives/ they won’t finish.”[12] The speaker lives vicariously through these guys who “lean from their car widows and / let go a few rounds into whatever’s out there.”[13]

What makes “Target” musical are the iambic first and second lines (“it FEELS so GOOD to SHOOT a GUN/ to STAND with your LEGS aPART”[14]) before the dactylic third, fourth and fifth lines that all end with spondees (“HOLDing a NINE milliMEter in BOTH HANDS/ AIMing at SOMEthing that CAN’T RUN./ Over and Over i RIP HOLES”[15]).

Those moments intensify the speaker’s erratic mental state that results in her seeing the gun as both a weapon of self-defense and a tool to victimize others. What’s scary is that there are people, like the speaker, for whom violence is an orgasm they’ll go to any lengths to experience despite the harm it does to others. They fire “until the gun feels/ light again, and innocent. And then […] reload.”[16]

(PHOTO: Ilya Varlamov)

The speaker’s use of science  to understand the world in “Quantum” returns in “Physics”. Addonizio’s speaker in “Physics” is at a peep show:

“[…] there’s a naked woman/ dancing before you and you’re looking/ at her knees, then raising your eyes/ to the patch of wiry hair which she obligingly parts/ with two fingers while her other hand/ palms her body from breast to hip/ […] you lift your face to hers she’s not/ gazing into space as you expect but/ looking back, right at you, with an expression/ that says I love you, I belong to you compl—/ but then the barrier descends.[17]

Other striking sensory details are the “black/ shade” that “has to close down,/ before slowly opening again like a pupil adjusting/ to the absence of light […]”[18] Reading those lines, I wondered who the pupil was—the peepers or the dancers? Then it’s clear they’re both the pupil.

From the speaker’s point of view, the dancer’s the one on display “as she thrusts herself over and over into/ the air between” them.[19] The dancer’s also the pupil because the speaker’s on display, “trapped there/ like some poor fish in a plastic baggie”.[20] The dancer gets a thrill out of watching the speaker open his “mouth just like a fish waiting/ for the flakes of food, understanding nothing/ of what causes them to rain down/ upon” him.[21]

Addonizio’s speaker also alludes to gluttony because, like the fish that eats itself to death, the speaker will never be fulfilled no matter how much he feeds his fantasy.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Stephen Dobyns takes a humorous and sympathetic look at fulfillment in ‘Topless” from his New Poems in Velocities. Unlike the patrons in Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”, the old men in Dobyns’s “Topless” aren’t dreaming of “fucking” the dancers.

Instead, the strip club is a therapeutic experience for the all-male patrons “with their gray faces […] ill-fitting toupees/ and sappy smiles”.[22]

Going back to the atom metaphor, Dobyns’s use of humor turns the strip club experience, another negative force in the world’s body, into a positive one. These sensory details in “Topless” show the harmless old men’s therapeutic experience:

Many/ were regulars, older guys in work clothes,/ sipping beers, out of shape, skidding between/ their first and second heart attack or stroke./ […] You know those mechanical toys, wind-up rabbits or bears,/ […] how they scuttle across the floor only to end up in a corner, banging/ their fragile tin bodies against the baseboard?/ These guys were like that. And the girls/ in a small way, would set them straight again.[23]

That the “plump girl” straddles a guy she knows enough about to ask him personal questions—“How’s the wife,/ how’s the back? How’re the arches holding up?”[24]— intensify the doctor-patient relationship between the strippers and old men. These striking sensory details not only show how ludicrous that relationship is but they also intensify the speaker’s sympathy for the patrons:

[…] as she spoke, she swung her shoulders, left/ and right, swinging her big breasts, so this guy,/ with his chin poked directly between her nipples/ kept getting punched, left breast, right breast,/ slapping across his face […]/ […] Pow, pow—piston strokes from some bright engine/ so that briefly the girl seemed the very center/ of the world’s own merry-go-round […]/ […] and clinging to their seats/ all these old guys, all the timorous and beaten.[25]

ARTWORK: Stock Image

The body of the world also takes a different spin in Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men In The Street: Number One”. While Addonizio’s speaker in “Quantum” and “Target” sees only negative forces, Dobyns’s speaker in “Five Men” sees both good and bad.

Going back to the atom metaphor, the pickup soccer game at lunch is the photon (or positive force) that brings together “four fellows in orange uniforms/ and a fifth in a dismal suit”.[26] According to Dobyns’s speaker, “The guy in the suit is a clerk who/ gets yelled at. The ones in orange sweep/ out a garage for a boss who thinks/ a uniform looks sharp.”[27]

Those sensory details allude to the class differences between the clerk and janitors. But those men are also bound by that atom’s negative forces: grief and death. “Not one will ever/ find an easy death,” according to Dobyns’s speaker, “and each will know/ a hundred forms of grief.”[28]

Grief and death also bound the waiter and restaurant patrons in “Somewhere It Still Moves”. In that poem, Dobyns’s speaker remembers a night of dinner and dancing at a restaurant in Sarajevo three years before the Bosnian War (1992-1995) reduced it to rubble.

Here’s what happened that night in 1989:

I was having dinner with my friends Howie and Francine./ […] The waiter kept knocking his head with his fist, trying/ to explain something. The only words we knew were Pivo—beer and Dobro—good. […]/ […] Okay, said Howie, sure. Bring it to me, whatever it is. […]/ When the waiter/ brought our dinner, there were our plates and on Howie’s/ plate a paper bag […] / […] Howie opened it carefully. Brains/ in a bag, lamb brains cooked in a paper bag. We recalled/ how the waiter made a circle, then knocked his forehead./ This was Howie’s dinner. […] He could/ barely breathe for all his laughter. We all  laughed/ and drank red wine.[29]

COVER ART: Penguin Books

Like Addonizio’s “Target”, the issue of senseless violence confronts Dobyns’s speaker in “Somewhere”. But unlike Addonizio’s speaker who empathized with predators, Dobyns’s speaker sympathizes for the victims: “The waiter who “is probably dead now./ Killed by a sniper as he crossed a street or stood/ by a window.”[30]

Dobyns’s speaker juxtaposes that spring night of 1989 with the picture of Sarajevo three years later during the Bosnian war, where “the restaurant, the entire block, has been transformed into rubble, so many rocks at a crossroads.”[31] That juxtaposition between a peaceful night and the rubble shows how unpredictable violence is.

The class difference alluded to in “Five Men” is also there in “Somewhere” between the waiter and restaurant patrons. And like an atom’s photons and electrons, that peaceful night in 1989 and the grief from the war are the world body’s positive and negative that binds the waiter and patrons, who the speaker imagines have been “blown to pieces” or “shot in the head”.[32]

That’s when Dobyns’s speaker reaches this conclusion about those conflicting forces that charge the body of the world: “We are the creatures that love and slaughter.”


[1] from Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”

[2] from Stephen Dobyns’s “Topless”

[3] from Addonizio’s “Quantum”

[4] from Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men in the Street: Number One

[5] from Addonizio’s “Target”

[6] from Dobyns’s “Somewhere It Still Moves”

[7] Kim Addonizio, Tell Me (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2000), 15

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 76.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 77.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 76-77.

[22] Stephen Dobyns, new poems in Velocities: New and selected Poems 1966-1992 (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 15.

[23] Ibid., 14.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 14-15.

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 3-4.

[29] Ibid., 21.

[30] Ibid., 22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

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