Archive for December, 2011


2011 in review

Here’s what the “WordPress.com stats helper monkeys” came up with in their  2011 annual report for this blog.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Shameless Plug

Order your copies today!

Drift (Willow Books, 2012) is now available. Order it from Small Press Distribution or get it directly from me:

Praise for Drift:

“Tender and tough, the poems in Alan King’s wonderful debut book of poems, Drift, reveal the cities of memory, love and friendship with the precise and caring eye of a poet deeply invested in the lives of those around him.” –Ching-in Chen, author of The Heart’s Traffic

“Alan King’s first collection is aptly named. The pictorial poems he posits drift between two worlds: the angst-ridden coming-of-age confessionals of the prescient observer and the ironist picking apart each airborne particle of memory’s introspective infernal excavation. The metaphors and imagery herein
startle while what they reveal lingers like the strands of a song that won’t let you go.”—Tony Medina, author of My Old Man Was Always On The Lamb and Broke On Ice

“In this collection Alan King’s words sparkle like the season’s first snow, here we marvel at the  crystals of language that have accumulated into stanzas that wall the city of his imagination. Like the brick and mortar metropolis in which his work is set, this city is oriented to the Cardinal points. Here Love brightens the night sky and a young man learns to navigate by its gleam. Here the neon glow of the Diner, the flicker of the street light, the white finger of the headlight is Polaris. Let us be thankful we have this star to follow.”Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade), author of 4000 Shades of Blue and Libation Song (CD)

Alan King is a poet and journalist, living in the DC metropolitan area. He writes about art and domestic issues on his blog at http://alanwking.wordpress.com. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. King’s poems have appeared in Alehouse, Audience, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and RATTLE, among others. He is a Cave Canem fellow, VONA Alum, a Stonecoast MFA canditate, and a two-time Best of the Net nominee. He’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Drift is his first collection of poems.

What’s Going On

It’s been years since I’ve heard
your voice, since we last saw
each other on a night like this:
stars hemmed to the sky

like glittery sequins on a dark
formfitting dress. Even then, I wanted
to be so many things: the cursive
script of light in your long wavy hair,

the iridescent glow glazing your
olive skin. And weren’t we so determined
to keep our friendship we disregarded
the possibilities?

Driving through your old area,
each street takes me back to
that night outside the record shop–
you in the Soul Train line and me

wanting to be the imaginary hool-a-
hoop your hips were working. All I have
now is a missed call and your message.
I don’t know what to call this current

tugging us both after so long
when I’m minutes from calling you
before a friend breaks the news
of your engagement.

Order your copy of DRIFT:


(PHOTO: Alan King) l-r: Derrick Weston Brown, Evie Shockley, Iain Haley Pollock, and Khadijah Queen.

The panel of poets at a Baltimore City Library quietly considered an audience member’s question: “When did you know you were a poet?” Evie Shockley, a presenter, smiled as the response brewed in her mind.

She’d been asking herself the same thing until she took a poetry workshop led by Lucille Clifton. If you wrote a poem, then you’re a poet, Shockley recalled the late-poet saying. “Own it and claim it.” Shockley passed on the advice.

That question was among the sane ones asked during a Q&A, the most bizarre of any that I sat through. It followed Sunday’s reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which featured four Cave Canem poets who launched their books this year.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Derrick Weston Brown

Among them was Derrick Weston Brown, who kicked the event off with poems from his debut collection Wisdom Teeth (Busboys and Poets/PM Press, 2011).

It’s an apt title for a book in which the speaker cuts his teeth on issues ranging from slavery and gentrification to love and hip hop. As the poet puts it, “To consider Wisdom Teeth is to acknowledge inevitable movement, shift, and sometimes pain.”

The audience got a glimpse of that pain in Brown’s “Legacy”: “My father’s vocabulary/is extensive but/he still can’t find the words/for I love you/ […] I guess this is why I am/ a poet./ I inherited the words/ lost to his dictionary.” Brown’s words touched the woman sitting next to me, who mm hmmed and nodded.

The quiet library crowd perked up when Shockley, reading from her second collection the new black, jumped into a poem about the post-Black wave that took off after Barack Obama’s election as America’s first Black president:

[…] some see in this the end of race, like the end of a race that begins/ with a gun: a finish(ed) line we might/ finally limp across,” she read. “for others,/ this miracle marks an end like year’s/ end, the kind that whips around again/ and again: an end that is chilling,/ with a lethal spring coiled in the snow.

What’s lethal about Shockley’s the new black is how it blends past and present notions of blackness through verses. It’s an ambitious undertaking that serves as a reminder that our racial past impacts our present moments.

And just as ambitious is Khadijah Queen’s Black Peculiar, which looks at how those in power shape perceptions on race and history. “In the 19th century, those unwilling to face the incongruities of a nation espousing freedom while simultaneously perpetuating terror used the phrase our peculiar institution as code for slavery,” according to poet Noah Eli Gordon’s blurb for book.

Gordon continued: “Here, with equal part precision and aplomb, humility and humor, erudition and absurdity, the work in Khadijah Queen’s Black Peculiar decodes, uncovers, and recasts such lexical wound dressing, exposing the abraded, scarred flesh of a consciousness both beset upon and liberated through language.”

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poets after grabbing some grub (l-r): Tony Medina, Reginald Harris, Khadijah Queen, Bettina Judd, Derrick Weston Brown, and Judy Cooper.

Then things took a bizarre twist when two guys in the audience turned the Q&A into a circus.

The first one rambled on about only reading Russian poets because younger Black poets wrote from a “quiet complexity” instead of an “existential angst.”

When a presenter asked him to clarify, he couldn’t explain what he meant—just that he enjoyed the works of Amiri Baraka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

To hear him tell it, contemporary writers—including the presenters—lacked “existential angst” in their work. Khadijah Queen asked him to name one contemporary writer he’d read. Silence. When poets Iain Haley Pollock and Derrick Weston Brown tried to engage him, the guy debated them.

Watching that exchange only affirmed why I’m not a fan of Q&As. While they give writers a chance to engage their audience, they also become platforms for “know-it-alls” like “existential angst” man to ramble about nonsense.

And, when I thought it couldn’t get worse, the second guy raised his hand. When I spoke with Derrick Weston Brown afterwards, he said the guy’s vibe seemed off. “He came in, sat right up front, and started mean mugging us,” the poet said.
The second guy asked the poets if they were still slaves.

At that point, I was glad I got up during the reading for refreshments and decided to stand at the back of the room for the rest of the reading. That meant only poet and activist Tony Medina was close enough to hear me swearing under my breath. After hearing the second guy’s question, Medina leaned over and whispered to me, “These readings always bring out the kooks.”

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poster

Up front, the presenters exchanged confused looks with one another. Khadijah Queen was the only one among them who took the guy serious enough to respond. “I grew up in a house where both of my parents were in the Nation of Islam,” Queen said.

She grew up listening to Malcolm X’s and Elijah Muhammad’s speeches. “So I’m very much aware of how we’re modern slaves in the way that we have to survive by working for someone else.” The guy, apparently satisfied, got up and left the room.

But the event wasn’t ruined completely. In response to the woman’s question about knowing when he was a poet, Iain Haley Pollock cracked us up when he jokingly said, “I still don’t feel like a poet.”

Pollock’s debut collection Spit Back A Boy won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

In addition to having two annual book contests, Cave Canem is a summer retreat that Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded for writers of African descent.

Since 1996, emerging poets have had a safe space to take artistic chances. It was there Pollack said that he felt more like a poet.

Derrick Weston Brown chimed in with a Nicaraguan saying: “We’re all born poets. Society takes it away, and it’s our job to get it back.”

The Q&A’s highlight was a 14-year-old, who asked about finding an audience. It resonated with Brown, who once wondered how his work would be received—that is, until a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove assured him he was doing the right thing.

Brown passed on the former poet laureate’s advice to the aspiring poet: “While you’re writing, never think of your audience—they will find you.”

(PHOTO: Erin Patrice O'Brien) Major Jackson

The speakers in both Major Jackson’s 11-part poem “Urban Renewal” (from Leaving Saturn) and Audre Lorde’s Coal are both city dwellers coming to terms with the changing landscape. They fear possibly being displaced and mourn the once familiar structures city officials left “crumbling to gutted relics.”[1]

The speakers aren’t alone in their suffering. “A chorus of power lines/ hums a melancholic hum,” while the “sun dreams the crowns of trees behind skyscrapers.”[2] And, though the long-term effects of displacement are just as unsettling, both Jackson’s and Lorde’s speakers know that “the heart is its own light.”[3] But is it enough to keep them optimistic?

Jackson’s speaker attempts to find that out in “Night Museum,” part one of “Urban Renewal.” The speaker puts the block on display from the mother “straddl[ing] a stoop of brushes, combs,/ a jar of Royal Crown” to everyone else “that festive night the whole block  sat out/ on rooftops, in doorways, on the hoods of cars.”[4] Stevie Wonder was the soundtrack for that moment blaring from speakers above “Bullock’s Corner Store.”

“Urban Renewal’s” first section is certainly not a “night museum” for the residents. Instead, Jackson’s speaker exhibits them  as if the reader is an outsider, or tourist, getting a glimpse of the real city—away from the marble monuments and bronze statues. During his observation, the speaker notices a girl getting her hair done, who cocks her head  “to one side like a Modigliani.”[5]

At that moment, the speaker evokes the famous Italian painter and sculptor. Amadeo Clemente Modigliani, who lived in France, according to various sources, was known for his style of painting and sculpting women with blank expressions and elongated torsos. Like the stoop dwellers in Jackson’s “Night Museum,” Modigliani knew hard times. His poverty, overwork and addictions to both alcohol and narcotics aggravated his tubercular meningitis, according to sources.

By evoking Modigliani’s spirit, I wondered if Jackson’s speaker attempted to be the late-artist, who created works simply as a way of sharing with outsiders the world he saw. The first line of “Night Museum” alludes to this: “By lamplight my steady hand brushes a canvas.” And, like Modigliani’s women, the people who inhabit “Night Museum” are expressionless: “[…] I watched/ a mother straddle a stoop of brushes, combs,/ a jar of royal crown. She was fingering rows/ dark as alleys on a young girl’s head […]”.[6]

(PHOTO: laallen) An alley in Philly.

These psychological details allude to how Modigliani’s purpose for his work (showing what he saw) influences the speaker: “[…] I pledged/ my life right then to braiding her lines to mine,/ to anointing the streets I love with all my mind’s wit.”[7]

If you consider the poem’s title “Urban Renewal,” which refers to land redevelopment in cities, it’s clear that Jackson’s speaker is doing more than “anointing streets […] with all [of his] mind’s wit.”

While urban renewal beautifies the cities’ once neglected areas, it often results in people being displaced. In this case, it’s happening in the speaker’s hometown of Philadelphia. Most of these folks are long-time residents with decades’ worth of institutional memory, the city’s history a tourist won’t read in brochures.

Some of that history explored in “part two of Urban Renewal”. The first lines of that section takes the reader back to the 17th century: “Penn’s Green Countrie Towne uncurled a shadow […]/ that descended over gridiron streets like a black shroud/ and darkened parlors with the predatory fog of prosperity […].”[8]

Inga Saffron’s Essay “Green Country Town” contextualizes the moment captured in Jackson’s poem. William Penn, a real estate developer, Saffron writes, “envisioned Philadelphia as a lush American Eden,” which would later be called green (sometimes “greene”) country town.[9]

However, it turned out to be a disaster. “Having bequeathed those five public squares to the city as part of the plan,” according to the essay:

Penn then established the great Philadelphia tradition of not funding them. Because no money was allotted for turning the wild blocks into landscaped parks […] They became convenient places to hang criminals and bury the poor. It wasn’t until 1820 that the city government agreed to take responsibility for their upkeep.[10]

Perhaps the towne’s “shadow” and “the predatory fog of prosperity” to which Jackson’s speaker refers was how Penn’s vision displaced the  “workers in cotton mills and foundries,” who “shook [their] heads in disbelief.”[11]

(PHOTO: simon_music) The Parthenon in Athenian Acropolis, Greece.

It’s also clear that Jackson’s speaker sees urban renewal as a type of revisionist history.

His speaker in “part two of Urban Renewal” doesn’t hide his anger in these psychological details: “Step on a platform in our time, the city’s a Parthenon,/ a ruin that makes great  literature of ghostly houses/ whose skins is the enduring chill of western wind.”[12]

And Jackson’s speaker isn’t done. Here’s some more venom for William Penn and other revisionists: “Stare back down cobbled alleys that coil with clopping horses,/ wrought-iron railings, the grand boulevards that make a fiction/ of suffering; then stroll these crumbling blocks, housing projects,/ man-high weeds snagging the barren pages of our vacant lots.”[13]

The past and present collide in “part four of Urban Renewal,” where b-boys battle outside the Liberty Bell’s “public gallery of bronze statues/ whose Generals grimace frightened looks at the darkening scenery.”[14]  That the bronze Generals “grimace[d] frightened looks/ at the darken scenery” is Jackson’s speaker alluding to a contradiction in American history: the American Revolution.

While they fought for their freedom from Great Britain, those bronze Generals and other armed Americans weren’t concerned with the freedom of enslaved Black folks. In fact, the idea of abolishing slavery unsettled some of the freedom-loving Americans.

And I don’t think that contradiction was lost on the black youth “break-danc[ing] the bionic two-step” outside the “Liberty Bell’s glass asylum.”[15] That the dancers in “part four of Urban Renewal” treated the public space as anything but a historic landmark is their way of telling the super patriots were they could stick their Independence Day.

(PHOTO: Archives)

In that sense, it echoes the sentiments of the late-abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass, who blasted a crowd of about 600 people in his 1852 Independence Day speech.

Here’s what Douglass told the crowd that day at Rochester, New York:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveal to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery […][16]

And the dancers outside “the Liberty Bell’s glass asylum” return the “hollow mockery” with their “Kangoled head[s] spin[ning]/ on cardboard, […] windmill[s] garnering allegiance/ […] Break beats blasting […] limbs to Market.”[17]

In the context of urban renewal, the young people’s presence on that public space is a political statement affirming their existence despite them being the “ghost bloom in the camera’s flash.”

And the “ghost bloom” of memory is also present in Audre Lorde’s Coal. Like Jackson’s, Lorde’s speaker is also affected by the changing landscape. But Lorde’s speaker personalizes the city structures in a way that Jackson’s speaker doesn’t.

The reader sees this in “Rooming Houses Are Old Women”: “Rooming houses are old women/ rocking dark windows into their whens/ waiting incomplete circles/ rocking/ rent office to stoop to/ community bathrooms to gas rings and/ under-bed boxes of once useful garbage/ city issued with a twice monthly check.”[18]

(PHOTO: Black Enterprise's archive) Audre Lorde

These “rooming houses,” according to various sources, were often family homes that took in lodgers, who rented rooms. The rent sometimes included meals and laundry service that the host/hostess provided.

But, with hotels and apartments now, rooming houses are things of the past. Lorde personifies these structures as though they were elders with a story about everyone in the community. While reading “Rooming Houses,” I wondered what stories they’d tell about their lodgers.

The “old women” metaphor for rooming houses intensifies the feeling of abandonment the elders usually experience when they’re around young people. The sexual energy in “Rooming Houses” also heightens that loneliness:

[…] the young men next door/ with their loud midnight parties/ and fishy rings left in the bathtub/ no longer arouse them/ from midnight to mealtime no stops in between/ light breaking to pass through jumbled windows/ and who was it who married the widow that Buzzie’s son/ messed with?”[19]

Reading those lines, I thought of the rooming houses as past lovers who once opened up themselves to the “young men” passing through. I see them now as old women reminiscing about those days when they were once the hottest things on the block—that is, until something better came along.

Now, all these “old women” have are one another’s company. The stories pass between them as easy as the gossip about “the widow” and “Buzzie’s son”—the whole time these women knowing they’d give anything to be in the widow’s shoes.

(PHOTO: Archives) An old rooming house.

These sensory details also intensify the loneliness: “Rooming houses/ are old women waiting/ searching/ through darkening windows/ the end or beginning of agony/ old women seen through half-ajar doors/ hoping/ they are not waiting/ but being/ the entrance to somewhere/ unknown and desired/ but not new.”[20]

Some positive things about urban renewal are the jobs it brings. Lorde’s speaker in “The Woman Thing” observes the unemployed men (“hunters”) looking for work in construction or the ensuing retail opportunities:

The hunters are back from beating/ the winter’s face/ in search of a challenge or task/ in search of food/ making fresh tracks for their children’s hunger/ […] The hunters are treading heavily homeward/ through snow that is marked with their own bloody footprints/ empty handed, the hunters return/ snow-maddened, sustained by their rages.[21]

The “winter’s face” is the cold, cruel world in which these “hunters” are looking for ways to support their families. This alludes to the patriarchal society’s definition of a man as hunter and gatherer. And, when these men fall short of that ability, they head home defeated, “treading heavily […]/ through snow that is […] marked/ with their own bloody footprints.”

That their rages sustain them only means they’ll take out their frustrations on “the unbaked girls,” according to Lorde’s speaker, “[who] flee from their angers.” She continues: “Empty handed the hunters come shouting/ injustices drip from their mouths/ like stale snow melted in sunlight./ Meanwhile/ the woman thing my mother taught me/ bakes off its covering of snow/ like a rising blackening sun.”[22]

Knowing my mom and how she raised my sister, “the woman thing” is the speaker having sense enough to put some money away for emergencies. It’s because of “the woman thing” that the family won’t starve.

(ARTWORK: Dreams Time)

Lorde’s speaker faces the cold world again in “Generation”: “How the young attempt and are broken/ differs from age to age/ We were brown free girls/ love singing beneath our skin/ sun in our hair in our eyes/ sun our fortune/ and the wind had made us golden/ made us gay.”[23]

The speaker lost that innocence in the “season of limited power,” which could mean the odds stacked against young people. Reading “Generation,” I’m reminded of a boy I interviewed for a story.

He said his older brother’s high school conditions forced him to make a decision: drop out of school or stay in school and join a gang. His brother dropped out because there was no support to help him do the right thing and graduate.

Like Major Jackson’s speaker, Lorde’s speaker in “Generation” is aware of the institutional memory lost as a result of urban renewal.

Without the elders’ stories to guide them, young people are left to learn life-lessons the hard way. Lorde’s speaker says just as much in these psychological details: “But who comes back from our latched cities of falsehood/ to warn them that the road to nowhere/ is slippery with our blood […]”[24] Lorde’s speaker is just as hopeless as Jackson’s own in “part three of Urban Renewal” when he talked about the eyes of the dead floating from murals around a city in transition (“Aching humans. Prosperous gardens”).[25]

That the brick-and-mortar structures get more attention than the suffering residents only shows how cruel and cold it is in the “latched cities of falsehood.” Lorde’s speaker says just as much in the last stanza of “Generation”: “How the young are tempted and betrayed/ into slaughter or conformity/ is a turn of the mirror/ time’s question only.”


[1] part three of Major Jackson’s “Urban Renewal”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Major Jackson, Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Inga Saffron, “Green Country Town,” from The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/green-country-town (Dec. 5, 2011)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op.Cite, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927.html (Dec. 5, 2011).

[17] Op.cite, 6.

[18] Audre Lorde, Coal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 7.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Major Jackson, “Urban Renewal,” Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 5.

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