Archive for February, 2012


EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the weather was so good, I took my poetry students (only two showed up for class) out to Wisconsin Avenue NW in DC’s Georgetown. Their assignment was to people watch–observe how strangers interacted with one another. The students were supposed to also observe the strangers’ body language, and then create a flash fiction story. I took part in the exercise and wrote the story below.

(PHOTO: Peter Dworin/ NYTimes)

A BIKE MESSENGER WHIZZES BY, running late for a delivery she should have made an hour ago. She has one more time for a client to complain before she’s fired. She flies by the sound of Bengal music wafting from the red Honda Civic that waits for the traffic light to turn green.

She passes the cyclist whose rolled up yoga mat is in her bike’s rear basket rack. She passes a guy late for an interview. He’s got a folder with copies of his résumé. I should have worn a watch, he thinks. He puts his face against the glass panes of an art shop, and then bolts when the store’s clock tells him what time it is.

The courier passes the woman rolling her bag along. I don’t know how I let the sales lady talk me into buying this, she thinks. The pink and green rose pattern is so ugly. The courier passes a woman on the phone outside Long & Foster Realtors. Then the courier’s gone before a green Saturn whips a U-turn ahead of the silver Audi station wagon that’s about to pounce the intersection on the green light. The Saturn turns before the officer in the tinted out black Denali with strobe lights notices. It turns in front of the old guy who’s waiting for the cross walk signal. He shakes his head at what he thinks was a careless maneuver.

The old guy’s wearing black dress slacks under a mud-colored Parka and lily pad green winter hat. I should’ve checked the weather before I left home, he thinks. I’m burning up out here. It’s 65 degrees, for Christ’s sake. He looks around and spots a writer and two girls. Who’s that guy scribbling in his book? the old guy continues. What are those two girls doing up on that wall?

The old guy shoves the thought from his head when he’s nearly trampled by three students from Duke Ellington School of the Arts skateboarding down Wisconsin Avenue. One of them is a junior. He’s brave enough to wave at a teacher from his department, as if the junior didn’t have an art block class to attend. The skate boarders avoid the woman pushing a stroller up the sidewalk. The woman’s a young mother—she couldn’t be older than 21.

(PHOTO: Travel Smart)

The mother snaps her head away from the couple who both look as though they stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. Supercuts! the young mother thinks. That’s where they got their hair cut!

The couple laughs and points at a bald man in the passing pick-up truck. Pick-up truck dude’s smoking a cigarette and wearing a button-up shirt with too many medals to be a civilian. He stares at the writer and two girls hanging out on the wall. I fought in Vietnam for what—so some hippies could sit on some wall instead of working and write about nothing.

He shakes his head. And people like them wonder why republicans want to cut funding for the arts, he continues. Well, I’m all for it. Stop wasting that money and put it towards something useful, like war. But those comments are lost on the writer, who’s preoccupied with another old guy walking up Wisconsin Avenue in a biker’s jacket that probably fit him three decades ago. Now, the jacket grabs at his shoulders and elbows like officers subduing a perp on the run.

The writer glances up at his students staring at what’s across the street. To where, he doesn’t know or care. His attention’s on the woman in black tights and a light sweater. Every step she takes, her athletic legs flex like a whisper that teases him for looking—that is, until he remembers his fiancée at home. Next to her, the woman in black tights is Medusa. Every time he’s around his fiancée he pinches himself. That his fiancée is still there after the pinch, that he hasn’t awaken from what feels like a dream, only proves how lucky he is. The teacher’s jarred from his thoughts when one of his two students asks, “Mr. King, are we going to do this until five o’clock?”

Monica Hand’s *me and Nina*

Farmington, MA: Alice James Books, 2012. 78 pages. $15.95.

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

The world continues to remember Nina Simone (formerly Eunice Kathleen Waymon) as a storyteller through songs, whose body of work created a legacy of compassion, empowerment and liberation. At the time of Simone’s death on April 21, 2003, she was already among the 20th century’s most extraordinary artists.

But, to poet Monica Hand, this song griot was something else. Reading Hand’s poems, it’s clear that Nina Simone is the center around which a carousel of memories revolves in Hand’s new collection of poems me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012). And I have to agree with poet Terrance Hayes calling this book “a debut fiercely illuminated by declaration and song.”

Those declaration songs aren’t overshadowed by Nina Simone’s presence. Instead, Hand masterfully weaves Simone’s bio throughout her own. We get glimpses of Simone in the poem “X is for Xenophobia”:

like the x
in a geometry problem or hex
I don’t understand their pain
why they act like chickens in a pen
as if they felt at their nap
broken bone
why they want me alone hobo
for preaching hope
for reminding people we are Ibo
not bane
cause of soullessness they took an ax
to my happiness I want to open
the door play classical piano
now my hipbone
slips to Obeah
I am the unanswered z y x

(PHOTO: Courtesy) When Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003–according to Nina Simone’s official site ninasimone.com–she left a timeless treasure trove of musical magic spanning over four decades from her first hit, the 1959 Top 10 classic “I Loves You Porgy,” to “A Single Woman,” the title cut from her one and only 1993 Elektra album.

Hand’s speaker in “X” might be alluding to Simone’s critics unable to file her musical style. “Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in,” Simone wrote in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz.

“On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

The one thing Nina Simone struggled with musically was mixing politics with popular music. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from,” according to her autobiography. “I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from people it was trying to celebrate.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That was until “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s tribute to Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the four girls killed in the Alabama church bombing. The South banned Simone’s song and performances.

Hand’s speaker brings us from the South to New York City to see Nina Simone perform that song at the Apollo Theater in the poem “Black is Beautiful”. That night, Hand’s speaker and her friend “D” are rocking their “crushed-velvet jackets blue-jeans high heels” to see Nina Simone’s performance:

Nina is singing Mississippi Goddam. Me and D we look at each other and nod.
Nina plays the piano a long time as if she forgets we are there. But we are.
Nina goes Holy roller African all in one wave of her hands ragtime to classical
and back again. We are in her groove our seats rocking with our bodies. Our
young female bodies, big Afros and big dreams. The balcony is a smoky black
sway. The orchestra white. Someone fidgets. Another one coughs. Nina stops.
Quiet. Her voice a swift typhoon. You could hear their hearts hesitate. Stop.
Nina chuckles then returns to her song. Mississippi Goddam. It’s different now.
Bruised. Me and D we look at each other and nod.

Reading those lines, I wondered if the fidgeting orchestra members were uneasy from the song itself or that they were the only white people, it seems, in the Harlem venue. In either context, the white band members’ tension is akin to that of the white folks who were in the movie theater watching Rosewood, a movie by John Singleton that told the story of an almost unknown incident in a small Florida town.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The false testimony of a white woman accusing a “black stranger” of raping her set off a mob of angry white folks who hunted down and lynched most of the black men in town. According to rumors, the movie caused such a stir that white folks, attempting to avoid any assumed confrontation afterwards, snuck out of the theater before the movie ended.

In me and Nina, Monica Hand doesn’t shy away from confronting sensitive topics. “In these poems she sings deep songs of violated intimacy and the hard work of repair,” Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander writes of Hand’s book. Hand touches on that violated intimacy in the poem “Everything Must Change,” a poem in which Rufus, a boy from the neighborhood, invites Hand’s speaker to go see Nina Simone perform at the Blue Note.

As the poem goes, Rufus, who’s polite and respectful in front of Hand’s mother, turns out to be a jerk. Under the guise of going back to his parents’ spot to get some more money, Rufus lures Hand’s speaker into his basement bedroom. There:

he starts begging me to give him some—just a little he says. I’ve never done it before and/ I’m not scared just not really interested. I want to go. See Nina Simone. He / begs real hard. Even gets down on his knees like James Brown: Please, please,/ please. I give in. Stop his begging. It’s over. Quick. No big deal. I don’t feel a/ thing.

They never made it to the show. Part of repairing that hurt is not seeing Rufus anymore: “[…] when my mother asks what happened/ to him I just shrug my shoulders or tell her I think he’s dead. Just like, I tell the/ kids at school who ask where’s my daddy.”

In the poem “Daddy Bop”, Hand’s speaker gets herself into a mess of trouble trying to repair that hurt from her father. “Knew him like a fifth of vodka/ he tasted good with sugar and lime/–left me with the shakes/ so if you see me on the street/ acting like a bitch–/ I’m just missing my daddy,” according to Hand’s poem. “Lost all my self-respect/ in bed with some men some women/ who smelled like my daddy/ if they could love me, maybe he would too/ just understand everybody needs/ some respect he was my daddy”.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Monica Hand is a poet and book artist currently living in Harlem, USA.

And just when things seem hopeless, Hand’s speaker turns to Nina Simone for answers through her six “dear Nina” poems and the section “Nina Looks Inside,” which sets itself apart from the rest of book with white text on black pages.

“These poems are unsentimental, bloodred, and positively true, note for note, like the singing of Nina Simone herself,” according to Elizabeth Alexander.

Poets Terrance Hayes and Tyehimba Jess also agree. “She [Monica Hand] shifts dynamically through voices and forms homemade, received and re-imagined to conjure the music (and Muses) of art and experience,” writes Hayes.

After reading me and Nina, I felt that Jess best summed up this collection. “Monica A. Hand sings us a crushed velvet requiem of Nina Simone.” Whoa! That’s the best way to put it. “She plumbs Nina’s mysterious bluesline while recounting the scars of her own overcoming,” Jess continued. “Hand joins the chorus of shouters like Patricia Smith and Wanda Coleman in this searchlight of a book, bearing her voice like a torch for all we’ve gained and lost in the heat of good song.”

I don’t think I could’ve said it any better.

Last year, I reviewed Derrick Weston Brown’s debut collection of poems Wisdom Teeth (Busboys and Poets/PM Press, 2011). During that time, Brown was working on his book trailer to promote a collection that takes the reader along with the speaker, who’s searching for stability in every aspect of his life.

Well, it’s finally here! Check it out below, then go cop your copy!

Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) Click the artwork to view larger image.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered what brought on the unseasonably warm weather a couple of weeks ago. And, like me, you’ll see the cause of that was the scorching new issue of Tidal Basin Review (TBR).

I’m honored to have some work alongside writers who get down on this issue’s theme of beauty. In his poem “Essence And Object,” Kyle Dargan’s speaker, looking back on his childhood, is talking to his lover about the ways TV socialized him and other black kids:

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

images. Before I could be
weaned from the picture box—

its bright screen, bass, relentless
colors—hip hop commenced

proselytizing that I should want you
swollen, that I should want you

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

Damn! And, as a grown man, the speaker still struggles with that socialization, “trying to see the shapes/ etched in my head, the bodies,/ as the beauty I expect/ to shatter beneath.” But his informed understanding of how this “suckled ideal” misleads many youths helps him prevail. He rejects what he calls “a gene-coded hunt/ for figure-swells and heft” with this realization:

This ethereal tug I feel
between my groin’s creases,

I need it to be instinct and nothing
a television taught me of want.

[…] Let me be merely mammal—sniffing,
groping—let me crawl from thought

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

I’m with you on that, bruh! I’m also with TBR’s mission of propelling the current artistic landscape. “Our vision is to amplify the voice of the human experience through art that is intimate, engaging, and audacious,” according to TBR’s vision.

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) TBR's editors, clockwise from top: Truth Thomas (Poetry), Tori Arthur (Fiction and Non-Fiction), Fred Joiner (Poetry), Marlene Hawthrone (Photography), Randall Horton (Editor-in-Chief), and Melanie Henderson (Managaing Editor).

In its young existence, TBR, which came about in 2010, has already established itself as a journal that’s as much about community as it is craft. This past August, the journal took action on behalf of the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries when it co-organized a reading and book drive at the Marvin Gaye amphitheater in DC’s Watts Park.

That Saturday event kicked off a series of book drives around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore called the event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said on the day of the event. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

And TBR’s online advocacy is just as active. Their past issues have challenged the post-Black notion, while highlighting DC’s go-go scene. The theme for the next issue is cultural pride. These are TBR’s ways of creating a space that supports a full representation of the rich American landscape.

There are many highlights in TBR’s “beauty” issue. But, in the interest of time (I want you to go over to tidalbasinpress.org and check them out!), I’ll end with Jacqueline Johnson’s “Hair Stories,” a poem in which Johnson’s speaker cherished those times she got her hair done in her aunt’s kitchen. Here’s the second part of a four-part poem:

Hours later the ritual would begin;
a towel thrown across my shoulders,
Dixie Peach run all around edges of my hair.
Your boys jack knifing through the
kitchen missing the hot grease cans.
You always started at the back,
hot comb hissing like an angry panther.

Your technique impeccable, mother of
three sons, never burned me.
Edges so rough, so uncooperative,
so niggerish, they always reverted back to
their African ways at the first sight of rain.
Despite bending my ear beyond its capacity,
hot iron teeth left  burn marks,
African American tribal scars.
Each kink a bouncing black cloud
becoming a language
running from Aunt to niece.

You can read the rest of Johnson’s poem, or check out the entire issue, by clicking here. Past issues are available here! (Click on the cover of each issue to see inside.) Check out the Basin Rising newsletter. You can purchase a print version by emailing tidalbasinpress@gmail.com.

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