Archive for January, 2012


Makalani Bandele’s *Hellfightin*

Detroit, MI: Willow Books, 2012. 65 pages. $14.95.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

There’s a lot of music in Makalani Bandele’s debut Hellfightin (Willow Books, 2012). The title’s a subtle bow to the Harlem Hellfighters (or the 369th Infantry Regiment) that fought in both world wars I and II.

As the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, according to sources, those men continued blazing the way for future Black soldiers.

In that spirit, the musicians that Bandele honors—Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, and Elvin Jones, to name a few—blazed the way for younger musicians, such as Eric Lewis and DC’s Young Lions.

This 65-page collection of poems is one long jam session that took me back to those nights at DC’s HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues.

Before it moved from 14th Street NW to the other side of the city, I use to pay either $8 or $10 and could sit through two sets of the Antonio Parker Quartet or bob and twist to the amazing Eric Lewis killing the keys, while appreciating every moment of it.

And I’m not even a jazz head—well, not one as serious as Bandele, whose passion for the music exuded through Hellfightin. Reading this collection was like walking down a hallway, where each poem was a door opening to a memory of every past encounter I’ve had with jazz. One door opened on a Thursday night in 2007, when Herbie Hancock just happened to be chilling inside the now-defunct Café Nema on U Street NW.

That night Mr. Hancock was there checking out his friend, Allyn Johnson, who plays keys for the awesome Young Lions band, a dynamic trio of well-traveled and humbled thirtysomething-year-old brothas. The intensity of Bandele’s hellfightin’ poems matched our anticipation that night for Mr. Hancock to play something. We all chanted, “Herbie! Herbie!” but he just waved us off.

I remembered Nema’s owner, who earlier took pictures with the jazz legend, throwing on his coat and walking through a corridor of friends who shared his excitement in Mr. Hancock blessing the spot with his presence. Then something happened. While jamming out a fast-paced numbered, Mr. Hancock moved to a bar stool closer to the band. The music got all up in him and he nearly fell off his stool twitching to every note.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Noticing that, Allyn Johnson smiled up at his friend and mumbled something. According to accounts from people who were near both men, Johnson asked his friend, “You want some of this?” To which Mr. Hancock replied, “I don’t mind if I do.”

The crowd erupted and the owner threw off his jacket and ran back to the bar. Everyone snatched out their digital and cell phone cameras snapping at Mr. Hancock jamming with the other two Young Lions members.

Makalani Bandele matches that excitement with his poem “and the jam session extends after hours and into early morning at 63 hamilton terrace,” which–coincidentally–is about Herbie Hancock:

Herbie on piano heavy/ ebonies,         few ivories./ you can no longer see
The blues,/          but hear long              aloof chirps/ of brass.
and the jam session extends/          after hours          night shine/          trades
eights     with the shadows/ of box elder branches          playing/          in a
zephyr.

And for all of jazz’s improvisation, Bandele’s a formalist. In fact, he’s a genius, who not only successfully uses the contrapuntal (a form of poetry that’s read as either one poem or two poems in their distinct columns) to mimic jazz on the page but to also show that while the notes seem to fly wildly from horns and pianos, there’s still an order to the process.

Bandele also gives us an intimate moment with these musicians. His persona poem “introspective, eric dolphy” reads like a transcript of a treasured never-before released interview with the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist:

(PHOTO: Makalani Bandele) Makalani Bandele

a certain mind/ leaves its footprints along land’s end          thanking sea spray,/          it charts flight/ of gulls          on staff paper, their insistent calls/          called back          in gust:     the flute’s shrill,/ the breadth of horizon.     In my fingers/ how i know     time-/          signatures swirl          loose/ boundaries of decibel.     i logged thousands/ of hours   in—
clarinet lessons./          father added a room/          to woodshed in—the wayfaring/
has made my blood and teeth clean/         but sweet          in my fingers

Makalani Bandele delves deep into America’s history of disenfranchising people of color, especially African Americans who were once considered three-fifths of a person. In Hellfightin’, Bandele sees jazz as a blueprint for correcting these past injustices (“i like my government like/ i like my improvisation: mellifluous,/ full of organic changes/ progressions”):

to right the constitution,
then rewrite it, extempore.     give it
arms, legs, hands, feet, teeth, a mouth—shake
your psyche to it—we making us
a whole black man  (from “jazz in the key of democracy”)

This poetic and musical journey through history speaks to Bandele’s craft as a poet and musician. In his past life, he was an ordained minister who pastored a church in North Carolina. Now, he’s moved his church to the page.

If you read this book, don’t be surprise if you hear Joe Nanton and Johnny Hodges playing as Ivie Anderson sings, “It don’t mean a thing, if ain’t got that swing.” Just know that Hellfightin is definitely swinging.

Voices from the LMC

(PHOTO: JJG3 Photography) Duke Ellington's students in the Literary Media and Communications Department

As part of the art faculty at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, I created the school’s first-ever digital poetry anthology that represents the students in the Literary Media and Communications Department. Here’s an excerpt from my introduction:

The online anthology derived its name from the famed print anthology Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, which has a range of voices that came out of what the New York Observer once called “a big, dark, brick-walled loft on Third Street and Avenue C.”

Founded around 1973, the Nuyorican Poets Café is a non-profit organization that started in Miguel Algarin’s East Village apartment, according to various sources.

An overflow of poets and audience members eventually led the writer, poet, and Rutgers University professor to move the café to its current location in Alphabet City, Manhattan. The café’s cofounders, according to those same sources, include the late-poet Miguel Pinero, Bimbo Rivas and Lucky Cienfuegoes.

Since its founding, the Nuyorican Poets Café’s been a source of support for the Nuyorican arts movement and is a venue for poetry, music, hip hop, video, visual arts, comedy and theatre. “The philosophy and purpose of the…Café has always been to reveal poetry as a living art,” Miguel Algarin writes in Aloud’s intro. “Poetry is not finding its way, it has found its way, back into everyday life.”

It’s in the tradition of those Nuyorican poets that the LMC students at Ellington write, aware of how pop culture, DC’s streets and neighborhoods, and—as New York Newsday’s Patricia Volk once put it—their lives “being a vital particle away from death” affect their poetry.

To read more, please click here!

NPR Interview

(ARTWORK: NPR)

Tuesday, I was interviewed on NPR along with Lauren Wilcox, the Washington Post Magazine reporter who wrote the cover story “Is Poetry Dead?” (the article I’m quote in). Check out the show here!

I’m quoted in this WaPo article about DC poetry!

(PHOTO: Andrew Councill/ Washington Post)

That’s right! Lauren Wilcox, the Washington Post Magazine reporter, came through the DC Creative Writing Workshop and interviewed me, the program’s Exec. Dir. Nancy Schwalb, and our students. It was a great time!

Here’s an excerpt from that article:

On a recent weekday in Frances Harrington’s classroom at Hart Middle School in Anacostia, there was a steady volley of balled-up wads of paper into the corner trash cans and a constant mid-level clamor from the desks. The effect wasn’t disorder so much as uncontainable exuberance, which was shepherded by Alan King, one of Hart’s writers-in-residence, a big man with a gentle, shambling presence.

King teaches creative writing at Hart, in an after-school program called the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop as well as in some of the school’s English classes. He had asked the seventh- and eighth-graders of Harrington’s afternoon English class to read a poem called “Appetite,” by Tim Seibles, and use it as a model for a poem about their own cravings. “I have eaten the donuts, the plain-cake, / healthy, whole-wheat donuts,” the poem begins. “…I attacked without reason like a great / Afro-American shark finning the crowded / streets of America — my nappy dorsal / splitting the air, the pale victims / going down fast like Fig Newtons . . .”

“Okay, based on what we know about sharks, are they neat eaters or messy?” King asked the class, explaining the poet’s use of simile.

“Messy,”

they chorused. The students hunched over sheets of notebook paper, frowning.

***

The program’s approach to creative writing is surprisingly traditional. It teaches poetry the way poetry has been taught for nearly a century, the way it is taught in MFA workshops across the country: by studying a poem and then writing one. The program’s teachers are published writers who either have or are working on degrees in creative writing. The best of the student work is published in the school’s literary journal, hArtworks.

If the work is sometimes challenging for the students, the program’s director Nancy Schwalb, who started the workshop in 2000, prefers that to the alternative. Schwalb originally created a competitive poetry slam league for middle-schoolers citywide, but she ended up dismantling it. Judging, she felt, was often a popularity contest that had the kids “relying on cuteness or humor” in their performances; more important, they weren’t learning to write.

“The focus on publishing their work, seeing their work in print, really encourages the kids to be more literary, to use more literary devices,” Schwalb says.

A blond-headed girl named Dajanik Brooks stood next to her desk and read her poem aloud. “I eat chips like a Pac-Man game. I crush on seeds like a trash truck.” There was a smattering of applause.

Read the rest of the article here.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Indigo Moor during his presentation Thursday.

During his discussion Thursday, Indigo Moor had a question for his fellow Stonecoast grad students. “How many harmonica players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He looked around at the puzzled expressions of writers straining their brains to figure out the punch line. Then everyone laughed when Indigo quoted a harmonica player: “We don’t worry about the changes, man. We just blow.”

His advice to his peers, looking to write in multiple genres, was not to be the person who blows, or makes light of another genre. This was Indigo’s graduating student presentation Taming the Hydra: From Jacking to Mastering Multiple Literary Forms.

For an hour, Indigo covered various genres from the ground up, went over the differences between singular arts (writing poetry and/or fiction) and collaborative arts (writing stage scripts and/or screenplays), and the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres.

It was the perfect way to start the sixth day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency. Today, which also marked the second half of the 10-day retreat, we started our poetry workshop with Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

Prior to Jeanne’s workshop, I took the Writing On Race and Difference mixed-genre course that Deb Marquart and Alexs Pate led. The first half of the residency, poet and activist Martin Espada was the guest poet. I really enjoyed his craft talk I’ve Known Rivers: Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry.

“Some places are forgotten through negligence,” Espada said. “Others are forgotten deliberately.” And sometimes those places aren’t mentioned because the unspeakable happened. During his talk, Espada used the poems of Nazim Hikmet (Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist) and Etheridge Knight (an African-American poet) as examples of writers giving voice to those who dwelled in such places.

For both Hikmet and Knight, who spent time behind bars, prison was an unspeakable place until they enabled the voices of other prisoners through their poems. In that case, Espada said, “Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and body.” Espada’s visit culminated with the poet reading to a full house later that evening.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Martin Espada during the guest reading.

There were faculty readings just about every night this week. I read and got to hear students in poetry, creative nonfiction and popular fiction flex their literary muscles on the open mic. There was even a Romance: Happy Hour, sponsored by the popular fiction students who write romance stories.

Amidst all this, I managed to find time to talk with Indigo Moor. We both write in multiple genres (I write poetry and creative nonfiction, while Indigo–who published two poetry collections, Taproot and Through the Stonecutter’s Window–has written creative nonfiction, a stage play, a screenplay, and is working on a novel).

I told him I have a hard time switching back smoothly from creative nonfiction to poetry, without writing prosaic stanzas. When he said that’s what his Thursday talk would be about, I knew I’d be there.

During Indigo’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between his and the one Cait Johnson led five days earlier. Both Cait and Indigo talked about writing across genres. But, while Cait’s specifically focused on poetry and creative nonfiction, Indigo’s included popular fiction, stage scripts and screenplays.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe)

And I’ll admit that the thought of writing in those genres can seem as daunting as going up against the beast of many heads. This literary hydra, according to Indigo, is not unlike the Lernean Hydra that Hercules killed.

But, unlike the Greek god, our role as writers is to tame the hydra—not kill it. And taming the hydra entails knowing the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres. Among the cons were the time, energy and practice invested into the efforts.

“If you think about how much energy you put into the genre you write in, you have to put more energy into the next genre because you’re carrying baggage from the previous one,” Indigo said, adding that the effort is worth it. If an idea doesn’t work in one genre, a multiple genre writer has other avenues to express that idea.

Taming the hydra also included both prose writers and poets entering other genres with an understanding of the rules. Prose writers experimenting with poetry have to start by distilling their sentences down to its essence, while balancing the lines that carry imagery with those that carry statement.

In poetry, Indigo noted, sentence structure takes a back seat to musicality. He advised the poets to do the opposite, which involves them knowing the art of the simple sentence. In prose, the sense of music takes a backseat to the story line. “It’s so easy to look at fiction and say, ‘It’s not as hard as poetry,’” Indigo said. “That’s not true. You have to learn how to write in an expansive form.”

(PHOTO: Stock)

Cait Johnson raised some eyebrows and made a roomful of writers blush when she talked about orgasms. According to Cait, a Stonecoast faculty, the best orgasms happen when two people are vulnerable and intimate with each other.

To hear her tell it, that same intensity’s achieved when writers engage in other genres. Cait’s wise words resonated with both students and colleagues during her presentation Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF [Creative Nonfiction] Writers Offer Each Other.

For starters, poetry offers the magic of words.

“Writers are magicians,” Cait said. “Words are magic.” And part of that magic are the imagery and rhythms that affect people physiologically. “Writing poetry itself is a healing,” the multi-genre instructor added. “I believe we are a culture suffering from disconnection.”

What makes creative nonfiction significant is its knack for smoothly incorporating research information into prose. “That’s what’s going to help your poetry,” Cait said, “if you can ground it in something real and something juicy.”

Cait’s presentation fell on the second day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency, where I’m starting my third semester. The previous semester, I had a wonderful time working with Joy Harjo as my mentor. During our time together, I produced new poems, including the imitations that accompanied my annotations.

Through Joy’s guidance, I strengthened those poems through revision. Joy and I also took a deeper look at T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for Prufrock” and other poems, and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

I remembered telling Joy that after reading Eliot’s poems, I saw how rich his poems are with details, how they felt complete without giving too much away to the reader.

That was my takeaway: to write complete, detail-rich poems that are open enough for the reader to come to their own conclusions or discoveries.

What I discovered, going through Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency and looking at what changed in between the first and last collections included in that volume, was a shift in his influences.

Baraka’s early collections seemed informed by his personal life, while current events–both domestic and abroad–inspired his poems half way through Transbluesency. The jazz music and musicians influenced Baraka’s later poems in the volume. And that’s how my twice-a-month phone conversations with Joy went during my second semester.

The first night of the residency, I was glad that Joy, despite the airline losing her bags, made it in time to present at the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Sarah Braunstein, Annie Finch, Nancy Holder, Cait Johnson, James Patrick Kelly, and Debra Marquart (who, with Alexs Pate, is teaching the Writing About Race and Difference workshop that I’m in for the first part of the residency).

Joy read an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which she noted took her 14 years to write. “I kept running away from it,” she told the audience during her reading. She repeated it to me and Amanda Johnston, my Cave Canem sister who is starting her first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program.

It was good to see Joy. I made her laugh when I told Amanda that, in terms of my poems, Joy was my fitness instructor during the second semester. Joy’s feedback on my poems was helpful. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. I also include more details and I’m not afraid to write long poems.

Joy laughed when I said her suggestions have my poems posing like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. She laughed louder when I told Amanda that the entire second semester Joy forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cait Johnson

Cait Johnson pushed us just as hard during her presentation, when she paired up students in creative nonfiction with those in poetry.

The added advantage of both genres is that poetry’s a shortcut to empathy, while creative nonfiction teaches poets how to tell detailed and engaging stories.

The class exercise involved poets finding a story line in their poems and turning it into prose, while creative nonfiction writers wrote a poem describing a character or setting from their pieces.

“That’s what this presentation’s about—lighting things up,” Cait said, before turning to Mary Karr and Li-Young Lee, two writers who’ve successfully used elements from both genres to light things up in their work.

In Viper Rum, Karr’s creative nonfiction influences are in the autobiographic subject matter she tackles in her poetry collection. Each poem’s a revelation of Karr’s demons such as alcoholism and her suicidal thoughts.

Karr’s blending of the techniques paid off, according to a reviewer at goodreads.com. “Fierce, brilliant work here. Like exploring an open wound,” the reviewer wrote. “Not for those unwilling nor unable to explore…go outside the bounds of textbook time-lines.”

Li-Young Lee went outside the bounds with his memoir The Winged Seed, what an amazon.com reviewer called “part poem, part waking dream, part remembrance.” What makes this memoir unconventional is its beautifully crafted lines.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“He takes us on a journey to his psyche,” Cait said. “He makes us feel, with him, the immense experience from the inside.” Lee’s blending of both poetry and creative nonfiction grounds his lyrical Winged Seed in the stories of real people.

Though Lee’s mostly known for his poetry, his memoir is an example of what Cait said happens when creative nonfiction students experiment with poems while working on their memoirs: they come back with “a mother lode” of imagery to bring back to their creative nonfiction.

Of Li-Young Lee, Cait concluded, “He’s writing about writing; he’s writing about memoir, and he found his way in.”

(PHOTO: Nancy Bratton Design)

I don’t know about the other attendees, but I’m still swooning from Jan Beatty’s reading at Split This Rock 2010.

That year marked the second time for the biennial literary festival that Sarah Browning started as a way of providing a “permanent home for progressive poets.”

Since it started in 2008, Split This Rock has attracted high-profile participants such as Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Dennis Brutus, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Sharon Olds. The inaugural festival even got Washington Post reporter David Montgomery to pay attention.

“The poets are in town. Dozens — no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine?” Montgomery wrote in his article Averse To War: “They are everywhere.

“In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes’s old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth — ‘Through me many long dumb voices’ — over the hummus and merlot.

“They are signing fans’ battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.”

(PHOTO: Jill Brazel Photography) The late-poet Dennis Brutus reading at the inaugural festival.

The poets at the 2010 festival–which included Chris Abani, Cornelius Eady, and Martin Espada–came at time when the U.S. was in two wars, dealing with struggling economic recovery, and a host of other social and environmental ills. Despite those issues, the artists are still optimistic.

And Sarah Browning’s shining the bat signal again this year for all “poets, writers, artists, activists, dreamers and all concerned world citizens” to meet in DC March 22-25 and demand social justice, “imagine a way forward and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change,”  according to Split This Rock’s website.

Among those poets and dreamers at the 2010 conference was Jan Beatty, who gave a hell of a reading from her third collection Red Sugar. I didn’t see her coming like a southpaw’s punches. Other poets who brought down the house included Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, and Toni Asante Lightfoot.

They’ll join for four days of readings, open mics, Poetry in the Streets, and a book fair. The theme for this year’s conference is “Poetry by and for the 99%!”–a shout out to the nationwide occupiers protesting from their tent towns.

“As people’s movements ignite here at home and throughout the world in response to economic inequality, political repression, and environmental degradation, the festival will consider the relationship of poets and poetry to power and to the challenges to power,” according to the web site.

(PHOTO: Lynda Koolish) June Jordan

This year’s festival, marking the 10th anniversary of June Jordan‘s death, will honor the life and work of the late-poet, essayist, teacher and activist.

For more information or to register now, go to http://www.splitthisrock.org.

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