Category: Essay


A Lifeline for Guys Passing as Sports Fans

(PHOTO: Nick Matthews)

As a 30-something male in a sports-dominated world, my boredom with watching guys running on a court or rushing a field might seem odd to most folks. To them, my disinterest in an apparent global pastime drops my testosterone and spikes the estrogen.

And it’s easier said than done to brush off what sports lovers might think of me. That’s what drove me to find men who also felt alien on Planet ESPN. Which landed me on The Straight Dope message board, under “I’m a guy and I don’t like sports.”

The thread reads like confessionals from a support group for guys made to feel their manhood was somehow defective. (This post is not me trying to wear my disinterest in team paraphernalia as an emblem of courage. To each his own. Rather, I’m extending a hand to some poor soul, a lifeline for those who considered passing as sports fans when their masculinity’s not enough.)

To know how I feel about televised recreational activity, there’s Tim Seibles’ poem “Playing Catch” (from Buffalo Head Solos), about a hypothetical day when the balls disappear. “[...] the televisions were jam-packed:/pre-season football, rugby, golf, even softball,” wrote Seibles, a sports fan and a 2012 National Book Award Finalist.

He continued, “If you didn’t know better changing/channels could make you think the world/was a giant field divided by white lines and water,/that life was mainly a chance to fall in love/with one of the many man-made spheres.”

(ARTWORK: J.Gabás)

Dallas Jones, a man over 50, couldn’t agree more. “The college basketball team playoffs last all goddamn month long! All. Damn. March!” he posted. “I never knew there were that many colleges in the entire country, but there are, and they all play basketball in March. All. Goddamn. Month!”

As if that’s not enough, “ccamp,” another man over 50, gets tripped up in small talk with his clients. “In business, it is sort of an icebreaker,” he wrote. “I have several contacts who always launch into sports talk, and I wonder what they think when I can never offer anything back besides…[the] BS I can string together.”

Lord knows I’ve done that, going so far as to read headlines and watch sports highlights for something to contribute in office discussions, then stroll off, victorious that I proved myself. I had to do it again, last week, while trying on a suit for work.

The sales rep asked about the previous night’s game between Washington (I refuse to say or print the racist team name) and Green Bay Packers. My eyes glazed over before I caught myself, then threw out some familiar names and hammered the clerk with questions about his team loyalty.

That’s my awkward sports talk strategy: revert back to the journalism technique of speaking less and listening more, getting more info out of the other guy than he gets out of you. Pulling it off doesn’t take as much effort as knowing everything about the game, a complaint even die-hard fans legitimize.

“The rules and regulations ARE overwhelming. On top of keeping track of the hundred or so different rules in every league and knowing how they apply to the game and scenario at hand[,] depending on whether you’re watching the college or pro version, you have to keep track of which rules are changing,” wrote Logan Rhoades in his BuzzFeed article “5 Reasons People Hate Sports — That Sports Fans Secretly Understand.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The columnist continued, “Just take a look at the NFL rule book over the last few years. Plays and hits that were legal 20 years ago are no longer permitted, and even the guys playing the game don’t fully know what’s allowed anymore.”

It doesn’t help me that, at 6-foot-2 and over 240 pounds, I look like I should be on a field, sacking quarterbacks and ramming linebackers. That’s what “Game Hat,” a 29-year-old, did through high school with zero interest in sports.

“Even as a kid — I really wondered WTF the big deal was. I never had a favorite team and never felt any sort of connection with any athlete,” he wrote.

Perhaps fueling his disinterest is that the down time outweighs the action in most sports. “…[T]he average NFL game is just over three hours, while the time the ball is actually in play on the field is only about 11 minutes,” according to Rhoades, who noted that this ratio doesn’t solely apply to football.

“A baseball fan will see 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action over the course of a three-hour game,” Wall Street Journal’s Steve Moyer reported in a July 16 article. “This is roughly the equivalent of a TED Talk, a Broadway intermission or the missing section of the Watergate tapes.”

It’s enough time for “Game Hat” to put things in perspective. “Around my junior year of high school,” he said, “I quit all sports to join the debate team and the jazz ensemble.”

Four Year Blogiversary!

(PHOTO: Cai Studio)

Combined, the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall and Opera House seat about 4,700. Beijing needs 13 gigawatts of power to work.

At the time of this posting, which marks this blog’s four year anniversary, readers viewed this site more than 63,000 times. If this blog was a performance running in both the Concert Hall and Opera House, it would take 13 sold out shows for that many people to see it. If the views were gigawatts of electricity, they could power Beijing 4,850 times.

Those views ain’t breaking 100Ks, but they’re more than I imagined when, at a friend’s suggestion, I started this blog back in 2009. I was recently unemployed, then, as a staff writer at a Black-owned Baltimore newspaper.

The thought of a blog, then, brought on what I would later learn was a common fear among first-time bloggers: “No one will care what I write about”. I like how Michael Martine, at Remarkablogger: Cutting-Edge Business Blogging, gives practical ways of overcoming it.

“When you are trying to start a fire, it always begins as a very small flame….Just some tinder, some heat, and some air creates the tiniest flame,” Martine writes in his post “11 Blogging Fears and How to Overcome them for Good — Part 1”. He continues, “But we nurture that tiny flame until it becomes a roaring, toasty fire.”

I don’t know about “roaring,” but I got a modest flame going — made even nicer by bloggers Zoe Valentine (of Zoe Says) and Robert Hookey (of You’ve Been Hooked and The Book of Terrible), both of whom I recently profiled in previous posts. I’m grateful to them for spreading the word and linking to the features I wrote on them; I’m also thrilled their readers boosted my number of views, followers and likes.

When I was a new blogger, the articles and posts about “best practices” seemed overwhelming, though I appreciated the info, which included successful habits — like interacting with readers through comments, using web tools to publicize posts, reading other bloggers, etc.

Then there’s the ongoing debate over blogging routine — whether to post everyday, twice a week, or monthly. “Some bloggers do best when they’re in a steady routine,” writes Ali Luke (of Aliventures), in his guest post at problogger.net. “If you find that posting once or twice a week quickly ends up as posting once or twice a month, then you might actually find it easier to post every day. That way, you can build a strong writing habit.”

I don’t think it’s wrong to blog once or twice a month if you’re posting longer (800-1,500 words), in-depth, well-researched pieces that give your readers enough to chew over until the next post.

In its early stages, I wanted my blog to showcase magazine-style articles about the artists, educators and advocates I met while drifting through under-the-radar D.C. I wanted to introduce them to my readers. For that, I knew I didn’t have the creative endurance to generate post ideas daily, let alone twice a week.

And that’s not what this blog wanted, anyway; it certainly wasn’t feeling what I envisioned for it. In many ways, this blog is analogous to my soon-to-be-four-year-old niece who pretends to fall asleep at nap time before wiggling herself across the bed, away from “Nana” (my mom), who’s nodded off.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) My niece, Anicia

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) My niece, Anicia

This is the same girl who corrects strangers when they mispronounce her name: Anicia (ah-NEE-sha) — the one who smiles while imitating Nana and “Poppa” snoring. She once told “Nana” she’ll one day be “Dr. Anicia.”

Her sense of self is as frightening as it is exciting. “By the time your child is three years old, she has made remarkable developmental strides — some willingly, others less so,” Dr. Michael Meyerhoff, a child specialist, writes in his article “Understanding How Children Mature”.

”These strides are not only intellectual but social and emotional as well,” he continues. “Though still dependent upon you, your three year old has begun to establish her sense of self and many of the elements of her adult personality.”

(ARTWORK: Stock Image)

Now, if a child specialist calls a 3-year-old’s actions normal, then why should I expect different from my blog — my baby — that’s a month older than my niece. I knew what I had to do, which resulted in my blog being a far cry from what I initially wanted.

Letting it evolve on its own terms, under my paternal guidance, resulted in a shift away from covering D.C. to including book reviews and — during my grad school days — essays and short stories. My once or three-times a month blogging schedule became whenever I could.

And I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for Zoe Valentine’s advice on avoiding burnout. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” Valentine told me last month. “I’ve had my ups and downs, as any writer/blogger does.” But she didn’t beat herself up for not posting weekly. That, she said, helped keep her going.

I’d feel bad if it wasn’t for the fact that you all love me anyway — enough to keep following me or checking in to see what’s new. And, while it’s easy for any blogger to take their readers for granted, I think you should know how much I appreciate all 2,880 of you.

I’m far from a rock star blogger, but your attention’s enough to make me feel like a headliner jamming before a packed concert hall. It’s enough to make me feel electric, charged off you gigawatts of bright energy.

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

Like Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man, Iain Haley Pollock’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy is the invisible underdog. He’s a man torn between his “black mother’s blood”[1] and his white father. And, like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker battles the stereotypes that make him invisible since he’s not seen as a real person. This journey to identity is an involved one through which Pollack’s speaker revisits the middle passage[2] and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath[3]. Along the way he encounters an orisha[4] while roaming Philly’s mean streets[5].

The speaker’s longing for home is analogous to the enslaved Igbo’s longing for home in the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster,” a poem about the middle passage. About 15 percent, or nearly two million, Africans died while being transported from African countries to Europe, Brazil and the U.S. as part of the Atlantic slave trade, according to various sources. Pollack’s speaker in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” remembers what he read about the suicides from slaves throwing themselves overboard that contributed to the high mortality rates:

When salt swallowed breath,
Igbo souls leapt from the water
as great sea eagles. Talons gripped
black bodies as a she-bear lifts
her cub by the scruff. Wings
throbbed air until all passed back
to Igboland.[6]

And just as striking as those physical details are the psychological ones:

[…] I knew this,
knew before I heard
the stories, read the books,
knew from the whispering
of my black mother’s blood
into my marrow. Knew also
the mocking tap of rain
on the hull christened
in my white father’s city.[7]

(PHOTO: Random House) Ralph Ellison — an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer — was best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.

The physical details intensifies the speaker’s longing for identity. That “my black mother’s blood” whispered that history “into my marrow” before “I heard/ the stories, read the books” is the speaker’s allusion to ancestral memory, which also heightens his longing for identity. However, the speaker’s white father complicates that longing. That the “rain/ on the hull christened/ in my white father’s city” is a “mocking tap” means the speaker’s aware of how African Americans see his father’s white skin as a reminder of that history.

The musical moments in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” are in the recurring “creaked”:

creaked. Creaked and creaked.
All night, creaked. All day
that was night, creaked.
Over dull slap of waves
on brine-soaked wood, creaked.
[...] creaked. Creaked and creaked
In the hollow chamber of aboy’s ear—
creaked, timbers creaked.[8]

(PHOTO: first-draft-blog.typepad.com)

The onomatopoeia brought me inside the slave ship. I could feel it rocking from the “dull slap of waves.” I heard the “groans from hunger” and smelled the “foul air.” That this creaking echoes “in the hollow chamber of a boy’s ear” is a sign of the longing for identity echoing “in the hollow chamber” of his ear.

That music continues in the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuer’s Mark.” The poem’s “X” references the FEMA markings left on houses in New Orleans searched after Hurricane Katrina. The X distinguished the searched houses from others, and the markings in each X quadrant let rescuers know which houses had dead bodies, the date of the search and who did the searching. The music in “Chorus of X” is in the recurring X’s:

X say search party […]
X say live wire […]
X say no dead bodies,
[…] X say kitchen, […]
X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway,
[…] X say Lord you been flooding us too much,
[…] X say it got easier to die in water than live on land,
[…] X say lungs full of flood in the end […][9]

Pollack’s X is also analogous to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. Though X says a lot of things, it remains unnamed. Pollack’s speaker in “Chorus of X” also sheds light on a social issue with which America still struggles. Pollack’s speaker and use of X transforms the symbol into an inhumane image (“X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway”). That X’s four quadrants sums up any person’s life is a sign of the little regard we hold for human life. In “Chorus of X,” X is just as inhumane as calling New Orleans residents “refugees,” as if they weren’t citizens of a country touting its liberty and justice.

(PHOTO: blackagendareport.com)

Another musical moment is the recurring “say”:

[…] say month,
say day, […]
say gas leak, say floodwater,
say dead dog, dead cat,
[…] say one dead body, say two,
say three dead bodies, say four,
[…] say bedroom, say attic[10]

And so on. Both the recurring “X” and “say” intensifies the urgency of the situation. They almost overwhelm the poem the way flood waters overwhelmed rescuers in the gulf coast.

Going back to identity, Pollack’s speaker mirrors Ellison’s narrator another way. Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker is mistaken for a white man when he encounters a modern-day orisha of change in the poem “Oya in Old City.” The mistake happens twice: once by “the red-bone woman/ wearing two coats and sitting on a bench” who yells, “i ain’t Nigga Mary” in response to the speaker’s “how are you?[11] And again in a flashback of a childhood trip to Philadelphia when a homeless woman sees him staring and says, “take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga.”[12]

The speaker’s childhood image of Philly transforms in the poem “Killadelphia.” In the poem, it’s not so much the human actions within as it is the speaker’s grim portrait of Philly. Here are the physical details:

where pit bull
bitches—three,
chained, starved—
lurch scarred
throats into yowls

[…] molded lids
ticking open
and shut
over glazed
unreal eyes[13]

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Iain Haley Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Springside Chesnut Hill Academy, where he is the Cyrus H. Nathan ’30 Distinguished Faculty Chair for English. His first collection of poems, Spit Back a Boy (University of Georgia, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

Those details make Philly a city that scowls at outsiders. “Killadelphia” is an audible poem sprinkled throughout with onomatopoeias such as “poppa pop-pop pop” of gunshots and the “slap-clap” of “sneaker soles […]/ on asphalt” and daybreak’s “rumble-grumble” along with the “smack-/thwacking” newsprint and the “skittery-skitter/ of boys.”[14]

While the speaker’s tone ranged from sad to cynical to candid in the earlier poems, his scatting in “Killadelphia” makes his tone both playful and critical. The scat becomes background music amid the “security gates/ flung up in rickety-/ racket at Mt. Zion’s/ store front worship” and the “raccoon’s crash-/ dash as it drags/ a near-dead pigeon/ from a rust-pitted/ trash can” and the “fluttery-stutter/ of the bird’s one good wing/ flapping to lift/ its carcass into/ still-darksome dawn.”

And that’s as far as the similarities go between Iain Haley Pollack’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy and the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Up to this point, the similarities between both men echoed Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Most people are other people…their lives a mimicry.”[15]  But, unlike Ellison’s narrator who eventually embraces his invisibility, Pollack’s speaker continues his ongoing journey to find himself.

Going back to the poem “Oya in Old City,” Pollack’s encounter with the angry homeless woman (“take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga”) makes it clear which side of his biracial self the speaker’s leaning towards in terms of identity. It’s evident in his response to the homeless woman: “I flung my almost-white self/ into my mother’s embrace—that brown/ embrace I hoped would swallow me whole and spit back a boy four shades darker.”


[1] from the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster”

[2] Ibid.

[3] from the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuers’ Mark

[4] from the poem “Oya in Old City”

[5] from the poem “Killadelphia”

[6] Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 2-3.

[9] Ibid., 8-9.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 19.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 22-23.

[15] Oscar Wilde, Quotes About Identity, 2011, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/identity (September 2011).

The Obvious

(ARTWORK: Zach Wrup)

Never bet against your wife.

My cousin Alvin tried to teach me that through his marriage crash course. “Love”–Alvin’s pet name for his wife, Natasha–”is always right,” he once told me. “Even when she’s wrong, she’s right.”

Conventional wisdom tells guys being “wrong” is better than sleeping on the couch. You’d think I’d heed that advice and those of  Hugo Schwyzer, whose article (“Why Women Are More Often Right“) points out that women’s experiences, in addition to giving them “standpoint privilege” in arguments with men, also contribute to their perception of things.

“In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status,” writes Schwyzer, a professor who’s taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He continues:

Class and sex and race and faith are some of—but surely not the only—prisms through which we see and interpret the world…. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: The class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.

Tosin’s macro focus trumps my micro vision anytime. That’s why I won’t ever doubt her again, especially after what happened this morning. I put my Ninja blender against her Nutri Bullet. I was going to prove my point that the Ninja made better smoothies than the Bullet.

My wife, Tosin, thought otherwise a few nights before. So, this morning, I used the Ninja to make an Energy Elixir smoothie after the gym–throwing in two handfuls of kale, 1 frozen banana, 1 cup of red grapes (stems and all), 1 cored apple, 1/8 cup of walnuts, water, then let the blades rip for 5 minutes.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

What happened afterwards was disappointing. The Ninja, for all its roar and grind, left me a pulpy blob of sweet green stuff. I mean it was sad the way it sat there–lumpy in some parts, runny in others.

Thinking of that debate, when I ran down what seemed obvious (my claims that the Bullet’s tight two-blade system was no match for the Ninja’s three-tiered sabers), I realized my mistake. “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” the late Arthur Conan Doyle, physician and writer, once stated.

Looking back, I see our debate was more than about kitchen appliances and smooth juice. Tosin’s never been one to go with what seems obvious. In fact, her analytical mind combs through “fact”, crunching and verifying all relevant data, before accepting or rejecting the seemingly obvious. She keeps me on my toes–something I appreciate, though I don’t always show it.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

I’m an artist, which means she expects more from me. That includes me not settling for what seems obvious. After all, that’s how the late-Lebanese artist and writer Khalil Gibran described art: “a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed.”

With this morning’s experiment, the art came when I looked at the Nutri Bullet–its bright teeth smiling, as if to say, “Let me handle that.” Which it did, turning what was barely edible into some holy nectar I believe the ancient Greek gods sipped, lounging at a lake while nibbling a platter of grapes, figs and juicy meat chunks.

I can see that ancient Greek sun glossing their olive skin, their perfect bodies glinting in my workout goal horizon.

I will never doubt my wife again. And, instead, be grateful when she’s right–all the time.

A True Story About Hollywood

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following true story is part of the crazy world series I’m doing for the World We Don’t Know (WWDK) blog, the brainchild of Kelli Anderson, my colleague in the Literary Media and Communications department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and our freshmen students. Kelli asked me to contribute. So I kicked off my first post with a story about Black Jesus, which is among the materials I’ve collected for poems and stories from people-watching. Here’s another true story.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Back in my undergrad days at Howard University, I used to roll down to Wanda’s on 7th St. NW, a hair salon on the first floor and barbershop upstairs. One day, a woman, waiting for a cut in the shop upstairs, was bad-mouthing her man. “That n—-‘s lazy,” she said. He was living with her and her son rent-free, and he wouldn’t help out around the house. She couldn’t even get him to pay the cable, of which she found the overdue bills collecting in the glove box of his pick-up.

This woman wasn’t a regular. The only thing anyone knew about her until the rant was that she had a big booty; everything else was hidden by her windbreaker jacket. She had long nails that curved like delicate claws. They were so long they touched when she gripped her Red Bull can and slurped the energy drink through a crazy straw.

Anyway, she’s going on about her worthless man. And at this point, the brothas will say anything to get, and stay, on her good side, hoping the booty’s part of the reward for their support. A few brothas shake their heads, listening to her blues. One cat says, “That n—- must be a f—-. He prolly don’t like women.”

“I know,” said another. “How this dude gonna have a fine woman and not even try to help out.” “That’s where you messed up at,” a young brotha said. “Leave them boys alone, and get with a man.”

For a while, they were all on one accord. Then something happened. Foxx, an old-head barber making conversation, introduced himself to the woman by the moniker he earned from his days running the streets. He asked, “So what they call you.” And she answered: “My name Hollywood.”

Until that moment, you heard clippers humming across smooth heads and buzzing around shape-ups. If you were reading the paper or doing a Sudoku and heard monotone buzzing, that meant someone’s clippers were idling. And, in that shop, idle clippers meant someone was bullshitting.

(PHOTO: Simonin)

I learned that a month before Hollywood’s visit, when a heavyset cat stepped into the shop. A barber selling Viagra out his shirt pocket pitched some to the big man, who scoffed at the offer. “Nah,” he said, “my shit all-natural, baby.” In fact, it was supposedly so good, he put it on a rich white widow, who spoiled him with a car, some jewelry, and spending money.

I didn’t need idle clippers to tell me he was full of it. This grown man had braces and a texturized high-top fade. His heavy breathing up the shop’s steps said that if he attempted what he was talking, he’d long be gone from this earth. I remembered the clippers idled, and I looked up to see most of the barbers and the brothas twisting their lips.

And they did the same to Hollywood after learning she was an exotic entertainer. Funny how that bit of information tipped the scale of empathy away from her and towards her so-called “no-good n—-.” With that piece of information, it made sense to them why her man treated her the way he did.

I wish I could say I cursed out everyone, then told them they hated their mothers if they thought any woman deserved to be mistreated.

How could these guys be self-righteous? They weren’t the holiest or wisest of brothas. My shop experience prior to Hollywood involved me listening to these cats joke about stealing cable to watch a Pay-Per-View boxing match for free.

And the way some brothas blew through cash at casinos, you’d think they were a CEO somewhere and not a struggling barber. I’ve heard guys bragging about the serious bread they dropped on the newest Basketball sneakers. Listen to them long enough, and you’d know their “good clothes” were sports jerseys, designer jeans, and fitted hats over doo-rags.

From what I knew of them, Hollywood was way out of their league. She paid her mortgage and, aside from her occupation, didn’t live a flashy lifestyle. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why Hollywood confided in those men. The only explanation is she might’ve wanted some insights into why men do what they do. After all, those brothas were no better than Hollywood’s man.

Whatever the case, I wish I was big enough to leave the shop at that moment and never go back, instead of sitting there, justifying my inaction as story-gathering. That moment in the shop was my opportunity to be an advocate of individual freedom, instead of surrendering to the attitude of “that’s the world.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I wish I had another attitude then. “You take a number of small steps which you believe are right, thinking maybe tomorrow somebody will treat this as a dangerous provocation,” according to the Hungarian writer and activist George Konrad. “And then you wait,” he continued. “If there is no reaction, you take another step: courage is only an accumulation of small steps.”

I wish I had taken those steps that day, instead of listening to Nate, another barber, excuse her boyfriend’s actions by saying, “He did what he did ’cause she a hoe.” (I was glad Hollywood was in the bathroom when all this went down.)

“How she gonna put his business out there like that?” one guy said. “That’s the sign of a triflin’ woman.” The young brotha from earlier, who advised Hollywood to leave the boys for a grown up, said: “What happened to stand by your man?”

Foxx, who seemed unfazed by Hollywood’s disclosure, continued shaping up a customer, who mumbled something to the barber. They both laughed before the guy took out his wallet and slid Foxx a $20 bill. “That’ll work, playa!” the barber smiled. “I got fifty bucks,” Foxx told the shop. “Who else tryna’ go in on a private party when she get back?”

Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

I’m coming off a high after graduation last month. I finished the Stonecoast M.F.A. Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine, a two-year journey I started for time to write and complete another manuscript to shop around.

It allowed me to expand my network, see Maine (a place I otherwise would not have visited), and to work with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles. While he was the hook, Stonecoast introduced me to other faculty members with invaluable insights: Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, Scott WolvenAnnie Finch, David Anthony Durham, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Cait Johnson.

That high, in part, resulted from my last residency experience—where I spoke on a panel about third semester projects, introduced Tim Seibles before his reading and Q&A, conducted an hour-long seminar on collaborations, and got an amazing intro from Tim at the Graduating Student Reading. My wife, parents, and sister flew in, met the faculty, and fellow Stonecoasters.

I rode that high back to D.C., determined that nothing would kill it—not even Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post column “Is Poetry Dead?,” which dumped Poetry in a hospice. “Can a poem still change anything?” she wrote. “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” That most people I encounter share Petri’s sentiment doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the anti-poetry comments bombard me: from my dad constantly asking how writers feed themselves, to “good for you” responses after people hear I’m a published poet, to the forced smile my wife’s sorority sister gave me when she found out what an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) was and what I studied.

I shook my head after a poetry buddy told me about an unsuccessful spoken word artist who recently said, “I don’t do that poetry shit anymore.” When the anti-poets spew their rhetoric, I’m grateful for this excerpt of Donald Hall’s 1989 essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry”:

After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

The Church of Poetry ain’t short on hallelujahs—not when poetry’s still read at weddings and funerals, not when people turn to poets or attempt to write their own verse on Valentine’s Day or anytime they declare their love for someone special. Could it be what Cait Johnson once said, that “poetry is a shortcut to empathy,” and that “poetry gets at the soul faster”?

My soul sambaed the evening I watched a couple wait for a table at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets in D.C. Attempting to woo his wife, the husband pulled a random poetry book off the shelf, an action prompted by his wife’s question some time before: “Why don’t you read me poetry?”

After reading a few poems aloud, he said, “This is really good.” He bought the book, then, hearing the author was present, asked the poet to pose with him for a photo. When the host called their name, the husband shook the poet’s hand and said that book will help their marriage.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Students in the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s After-School Writing Club.

The gospel doesn’t stop there. I’d love to take Alexandra Petri to Hart Middle School in D.C.’s most neglected community (the Congress Heights neighborhood in the city’s southeast quadrant). Every week, she’d see kids, who thought they didn’t like poetry, laughing as they scribbled their raps.

She’d see a 7th grader sweat each line of his poem about going to visit his dad’s grave that day after school. She’d see an 8th grader writing about her dual heritages (a Jamaican dad and Panamanian mom).

If after all that, Petri said, “That’s nice, but shouldn’t they be doing something more practical,” I’d turn her attention to a 2007 interview, where Bill Moyers asked poet Martín Espada the same thing. “Well, for me, poetry is practical,” Espada said. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it– poetry makes that practical contribution.”

I’d love to take Petri to Duke Ellington School of the Arts on the well-to-do side of town, where she’d see  a 10th grader using poetry to deal with her mother’s passing last year. I wonder how she’d feel about her thesis after watching a classroom of students fired up after reading a poem about the ill-treatment of a hit and run victim.

I wish she could hear those 10th graders calling America on her hypocrisies before writing their own poems in the hit and run victim’s voice—addressing the drivers who honked their horns, the detectives who swapped jokes above her, or the shaken witness who stole the crime scene spotlight. I’d turn to Petri and–imitating Espada’s voice–say, “You just saw poetry make ‘…the abstract concrete…the general specific and particular.’”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I’d recommend the Post columnist shadow poet Patricia Smith on one of her school visits through Chicago. I’d like to see Petri’s reaction when Nicole asks Smith to help her remember her mother she lost to drug addiction.

I’d send Petri to Durham, NC, where Dr. Randall Horton brings poetry to a halfway house where he was once a resident. I could imagine Petri speechless, watching those men and women count haiku syllables on their fingers. She might even yell “Damn!” when a guy’s poem reminisces about a fine woman’s sundress that was “ghetto dandelion yellow.”

It’s obvious Alexandra Petri’s out of the loop. “The problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed,” DC poet Joseph Ross wrote in a blog post, which listed a literary institution and contemporary local poets. Ross even offered to show Petri other places where Poetry lives in D.C. “Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading,” he wrote. “Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C., that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.”

And that’s nice, considering what every poet wanted to give Petri. Her column wasn’t just “breathtakingly uninformed”; it was offensive. The poets expressed this through the cyber beat down they gave Petri. I’m talking about angry comments posted to her column, an open letter with a reading list, and “irate tweets calling me ‘pretty [expletiving] stupid,’” Petri recalled in a follow-up column, retracting her initial thesis.

But a few thrown stones don’t stop the Church of Poetry from rejoicing, which brings me back to my high and my M.F.A. degree. I could go into what poetry did for me, but I’ve done that enough (plus, it’s on my “About” page). For those who don’t know, this Poetry Church is so funky the gospel wafts like cannabis clouds in a hotboxed car. We welcome nonbelievers to catch contact highs. There’s always room in the cipher.

Last night, I watched Clint Eastwood talk to an empty chair that stood in as President Obama. He asked a piece of furniture for explanations about his “failed” policies, then answered his own questions. This passed for humor with the convention audience as they laughed ‘til their faces turned red.

The entire time I couldn’t help but think Clint Eastwood showed his age—”Dirty Harry” had morphed into an angry old man, who looked disheveled and out-of-place. At times, I wondered if he knew where he was. And his stunt with that chair didn’t help. Instead, Eastwood came off as the mentally disturbed guy you see in parks, mumbling to himself and the birds.

I was sure an aide would come up and gently take Eastwood by the arm and guide him away from the podium. His stunt with the chair, however, was telling of the Romney-Ryan campaign and their supporters. Like Eastwood and the other speakers at the 2012 Republican National Convention, most Republicans continue to see things that aren’t there, like Romney’s credentials and his chances of becoming president.

They saw substance in a convention, where the speeches were hollow. None of the speakers gave real reasons for why Mitt Romney should be president (even Olympians at the convention struggled to make the case by recounting how the Republican presidential nominee saved the 2002 Olympic Games). Two nights ago, the Romney campaign played a video of former presidents George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush. They talked about their times as president and what it took to sit in the Oval Office. The video felt more like a tribute to Bush Sr.’s service in office instead of making the case for what Romney will do for Americans.

When Bush Jr. declared Mitt Romney the person to bring America around, Bush Sr. had that glazed look that Clint Eastwood had when he stared out at the convention audience. When it was his turn to speak, all elder Bush could say about why Romney should be president was that “he’s a good man.”

Clint Eastwood and the convention crowd were only able to see everything they thought President Obama did wrong with the economy—his “failed” stimulus plan; his failure to keep the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, functioning; the deficit he caused along with a host of other things corrected by FactCheck.org.

(ARTWORK: Mitt Romney and GST Steel)

I’ll bet the folks at that non-partisan, “consumer advocacy” nonprofit haven’t worked as hard as they did at the 2012 Republican National Convention. The most recent “false claims” and “misleading statements” was Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech that accused President Obama of “funneling money away from Medicare” to his health care law. According to FactCheck.org, “Medicare’s chief actuary says the law ‘substantially improves’ the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.”

Ryan slammed Obama for not acting on recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan deficit commission. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson explained why that comment was deceptive. “Ryan failed to mention that he was a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission,” Robinson wrote in his Thursday column. “He also failed to mention that he was part of a minority of panel members who flatly rejected the ‘urgent report’ he now blasts Obama for ignoring.”

Ryan didn’t act alone. The 2012 Republican National Convention organizers framed their theme “We Built It” around a Obama quote taken out of context. Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, is as delusional as Clint Eastwood. She accused Obama of doing nothing for the 850,000 women who she claimed lost their jobs during Obama’s presidency.

However, Chornenky forgot to update her statistics. Recent information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that jobs for women were 401,000 lower in July than when Obama took office. “That’s less than half the figure claimed by Chornenky,” FactCheck.org stated. “And her outdated percentage figure is now even more wildly off base.”

And just as off base is College Republican National Committee Chair Alex Schriver, who said “half my generation didn’t get up and go to a job this morning.” That statement was enough to make the fact-checkers do a double-take. “We’re not sure exactly what the 23-year-old Schriver meant by ‘my generation,’” they wrote, with good reason. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported nearly 64 percent of Schriver’s generation, which includes the 20- to 24-year-olds, had jobs as of last month.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vermin Supreme is an anarchist and activist who is running as an alternate candidate.

“And when looking at those who are actually in the labor force — not in college or the military, for example — the percentage is far higher, almost 86 percent,” FactCheck.org added. “The labor force includes both those who have civilian jobs and those who say they want work and have looked for it in the last four weeks.”

But don’t try to correct Clint Eastwood and anyone else at the 2012 RNC. They’ll simply dismiss you the way everyone does Vermin Supreme, a protestor at the convention in Tampa. The giant boot he wears on his head makes him stand out at the major political events he gets around to, where he attempts to rally support for his presidential bid that’s been written off as bogus.

Tuesday, Supreme gave his own “keynote” speech to the only audience he had outside the Republican Party’s convention: the security force. His platform, according to various news reports, included “zombie preparedness; harnessing zombies for labor; research into time travel so we can go back in time and kill Hitler.” He even promised his supporters free ponies.

Call him what you like. At least he’s sane enough to not waste 10 minutes talking to an empty chair.

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.

(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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