Category Archives: Feature

Curtis Crisler’s New Book “…Out-Schools Every School of American Poetry”

Curtis L. Crisler’s new book, “This” Ameri-Can-ah (Cherry Castle Publishing, 2016) “out-schools every school of American poetry.” That’s according to Jericho Brown, American Book Award Winner.

Indiana’s Poet Laureate George Kalamaras called Crisler “…the bone man, the heart man, the roaming coyote-man howling from the breath’s bowels.”

And the praises don’t stop there.

“Curtis L. Crisler has a humorist’s knack for off-kilter Rockwellian portraiture,” noted Douglas Kearney, National Poetry Series Award Winner.

By now, it’s obvious Crisler’s new collection is a knock out among these rising literary heavyweights. “This” Ameri-Can-ah launched yesterday.

Watch this video for Crisler’s take on his inspiration for this collection and the themes with which he’s working.

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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Announcements, Commercial, Feature


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Universal Children’s Day – No Age Limit on Making a Difference

(PHOTO: Samantha Paul) For her ninth birthday, Rachel Beckwith asked her family for donations to help bring clean water to people in poor countries. She died in a car crash before she could see her $300 goal exceeded a thousand times over.

Ryleigh Kastra and Joshua Williams fed needy people in their communities. Rachel Beckwith brought clean water to African villagers. These young people, all of whom Youth Service America (YSA) recognized as Everyday Young Heroes, weren’t in their teens when they decided to make a difference…they were children.

Yesterday was Universal Children’s Day, which the United Nations and its member countries observed for two reasons: 1) promote mutual exchange and understanding among children and 2) to promote the welfare of the world’s children.

Of the former, these young people weren’t waiting on anyone to take action. They did it, themselves – like Rachel Beckwith of Seattle, Washington. On her ninth birthday, Beckwith asked her family for donations to Charity: water. She set up a website with the nonprofit, hoping to meet her $300 goal (she only reached $220 by her birthday).

Ryleigh Kastra from Charlottesville, Virginia, was just as ready to affect change when she joined a national food drive initiative started by another Everyday Young Hero. Kastra was 8 years old when she created flyers, asking for canned goods donations. She distributed nearly 400 of her flyers. She collected 700 pounds of food to deliver on her first trip to Neighbors-4-Neighbors.

Joshua Williams, of Miami, Florida, and his family were on their way to feed the homeless when officials told them it was against public health laws to distribute food without a permit.

(PHOTO: Lance Cheung) The White House recognized 11-year-old Joshua Williams, of Miami, last year as a “Champion of Change” for strengthening food security in the United States and around the world.

He was initially inspired by what he saw on TV. “I was watching Feed The Children, and I felt sad for the children,” Williams said in the Sodexo Foundation’s video, which included interviews with Williams’s aunt KerryAnne McLean and his friend Alexander Bailey. Of Feed the Children, Williams added, “I wanted to do [something similar] in Florida.”

That’s when his mom, aunt and a consultant helped him start his own foundation, Joshua’s Heart, when he was 5 years old. “It was amazing because his friends and other family members — everyone — was excited to help…and put a smile on someone else’s face,” McLean said.

The Foundation has since raised over 400,000 pounds of food to needy families in South Florida, while teaching some recipients how to prepare healthier meals. “We have volunteers and elves,” Williams said. “Volunteers are adults, and the elves are children. They’re my friends, or friends of my friends.”

An elf admired Williams’s selflessness. “I think Joshua has a very big heart,” Bailey said. “I would say that he’s a very thankful person and he’s very helpful.”

Universal Children’s Day is an opportunity to be as helpful in promoting the welfare of the world’s children. Two years ago, Generations United teamed up with the MetLife Foundation to help the Ryleighs, the Joshuas and the Rachels out there, looking to put their entrepreneurial spirits to work.

(PHOTO: Stock)

Through our youth-led jump-start grants, young people developed volunteer projects working with, or on behalf of, older adults. I remember what a teenager, who took part in our project, once reported. “One thing I learned through this project is to respect your community and your history,” he said. “For all of the retired teachers we worked with, most had lived here for a while, and even though they are done working and could leave if they wanted to, they did not. I learned through their stories that your community has a way of shaping you and your history, and that your community never leaves you.”

Generations United promoted the welfare of the world’s children by stating our support for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the Philippines two weeks ago – leaving thousands, who lost everything, struggling to survive without food or medical care. We used our weekly e-newsletter, Generations This Week, to direct support to HelpAge USA and Save the Children.

At our Signature Report event next month, we’ll tackle the zero-sum framework (funding programs like Social Security and Medicare for Americans over 65 vs. addressing college debt and youth unemployment), which sets up a false conflict between our older and younger generations.

As we celebrate Universal Children’s Day, let’s nurture our children’s potential and show them there’s no age limit on affecting change.


Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Feature


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Arts Summit Revives SW Community

(PHOTO: Azeez Bakare) Australian artist MEGGS produced this mural that wraps around the walls and ceiling.

There are no pews in this darkened sanctuary. Atop the booming pulpit, a DJ spins a sampled sermon for the head-nodding congregation, colored in sweeping orange and yellow spotlights, the few among them kicking MF Doom lyrics the way a disciplined believer spits scripture.

The revival on the second floor is fitting for hiphop’s holy ghost to take hold of those snapping Instagram shots of Australian artist MEGG’s floor-to-ceiling mural that wraps around the room. The building, itself − at the corner of Delaware Avenue and H Street SW − is a work of art. The lava lamp patterns of red, purple, blue and green cover the exterior walls of what was once the Friendship Baptist Church, which sat vacant for two decades.

This visual overhaul is so far out that if funk-era’s Extraterrestrial Brothers showed up opening night, there’s no doubt they’d marvel at this functional canvas and swear it spawned from George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic machine of the 70s.

Now, a crowd gathers inside the new Blind Whino: SW Arts Club for the G40 2013 Art Summit (Sept. 13 – Oct. 6). This year’s theme, the “Art of transformation,” is about reclaiming spaces and objects. Which is what four “street artists” accomplished through the Heineken Mural Project, whose D.C. stop coincided with this year’s arts summit. Along with Brendan Tierney and EVER, Aniekan and Rubin transformed D.C. into a citywide art gallery that starts at the Shaw metro, continues to Capital View, through 3rd and L streets NE, concluding at H and 6th streets NE.

Since its inception in 2010, the G40’s international drawing includes more than 300 artists and 500 works showcased in a giant exhibit of canvas work, installation walls, and mural wraps. I recognize some artists from previous shows like Angry Woebots (Aaron Martin), known for his enraged panda wood prints, and Gigi Bio, who captures urban-scapes in her stitched panoramic photos.

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Aniekan Udofia) Udofia's "Return of the Shaolin Pencils" series was a hit at the arts summit.

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Aniekan Udofia) Udofia’s “Return of the Shaolin Pencils” series was a hit at the arts summit.

Then there’s Aniekan Udofia, whose new work includes the “Return of the Shaolin Pencil” series, which features three panels of various warrior women in fierce poses. Udofia’s shift from acrylic paints to oils animates his heroines in their bright Chinese dresses − brandishing fat pencil nunchucks and retractable lead claws. I’m still thinking about my friend’s eerie discovery that one of Udofia’s illustrated women, the one donning a bamboo hat and graphite sword across her back, shares my wife Tosin’s likeness.

I’m glad “Tos” finds that flattering. I’m also glad Blind Whino, an arts nonprofit, will operate the space as an arts club following the G40. Ian Callendar, who co-founded Blind Whino with Art Whino’s Shane Pomajambo, didn’t respond to a request for comment at press time. Our objective is simple,” according to Blind Whino’s website, “to provide our youth, our elders and everyone in between with an organic, art inspired environment for both learning and creating within the arts culture.”

In an August interview with The Southwester’s Sam Marrero, Callendar explained the excitement around Blind Whino. “Blind Whino introduces the Speakeasy concept where people met to mix and mingle,” he said. “These places were destinations for art, jazz, and social gatherings.”

(PHOTO: BlindWhino) “Art Whino commissioned Atlanta based artist HENSE to produce a full building mural wrap around the entire perimeter of the venue.” (

And that’s fitting for the arts renaissance coming to D.C.’s SW quadrant, which includes the nearby Randall School building’s renovation into a modern arts museum. “With Mera Rubell’s Family Collection and Redevelopment coming to the old Randall School, this quadrant of Southwest is set to become a booming Arts District,” Callendar told The Southwester.

Of moving forward with Blind Whino, he added: “We plan to house planned town hall meetings, art groups and organizations, and even special events.”

It’s jumping at the Blind Whino this closing weekend, which included Friday night’s performances by Locke KaushalTheophilus MartinsFootwerk Band, and Beyond Modern to conclude the Rock Creek Social Club (RCSC)’s weekly F.A.M.E. (Fashion Art Music & Entertainment) event.

Resident DJ Jerome Baker III, a self-described cog in the RCSC machine, also performed. He couldn’t be happier with the social club’s success at the arts summit. “We were given Friday nights to create any environment we wanted thematically,” says Baker, whose organization offered free entry to anyone donating winter clothes at the Feed DC booth they set up.

Saturday, the second floor is just as energetic with the producer showcase, featuring DJs GrussleT Mos and Triple Threat. Their journey through cascading drums and bass-heavy tracks almost makes me break my neck from nodding. So much so that the host DJ JUDAH calls me out for making the screw face. I’m not an emcee, but the beats are so inspiring that I’m tempted to lose my mind like Ghostface Killah and start rhyming about calzone purses and fettuccine shoelaces.

An actual lyricist, The Goddess of Light, is also inspired − giving props to Piff Huxtable. “This man @Grussle” − Piff − “got so damn nasty on the crowd,” she tweets. “That beat was incomprehensible. I dumbed out. Crazy.”

Banafsheh Ghassemi, still elating from an exhilarating closeout, tips her hat to Blind Whino’s Ian Callendar and Shane Pomajambo for pulling off the summit. “Thanks for all you do!” she tweets. “You guys rock this town’s soul.”


Posted by on October 10, 2013 in Feature


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Meet Robert Hookey, aka “The Hook”, aka the Chronicling Bellman

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Editor’s note: This is part one of an on-going series about successful bloggers and their habits. Read  part two here and click here to read part three.

There’s nothing typical about being a bellman. Robert Hookey knows this first-hand as a steward at the Niagara Falls Canada-hotel where he works.

One minute, he’s calling a cab and giving directions to a couple visiting from Australia, who tip him with smiles and a handshake. The next, he’s attending to Min. Louis Farrakhan’s bodyguards, who won’t let Hookey handle the Nation of Islam leader’s luggage without supervision.

Such conditions require Hookey’s quick wit and ability to small-talk strangers – skills that also serve him well as an author and the popular blogger, The Hook, who divides his time between his brainchildren, The Book of Terrible and You’ve Been Hooked.

The former gives readers an eyeful of Hookey’s obsession with pop culture. “I usually scan entertainment and news sites to find inspiration,” he says in a recent interview. According to Terrible, The Hook’s origin is as follows: “I [was] the kid whose life really changed the day his parents handed him that first comic book.”

Hookey’s now, according to the bio, “a forty-something white Canadian male who doesn’t like hockey (I know, what’s up with that?) and doesn’t drink beer or eat back bacon.” He’s also a husband and father, proud that his only daughter, Sarah, inherited his writing talents. “She represents everything good and pure in my life,” Hookey says, amazed at the 14-year-old’s way with words.

While he doesn’t engage in what passes as Canada’s pastimes, he enjoys movies with Sarah as they stuff their faces with popcorn and guzzle soda (Oh, I’m sorry; they call it “pop”). As The Hook, he watches how people react to their popularity.

(PHOTO: ibelieveinthejoker)

“Most celebrities have no idea of the magnitude of the gift they have been given and so they squander their talents,” according to The Hook’s bio. “I’m here to point out that fact and hopefully, entertain a bit in the process.” And nothing’s off-limits, not even Barbie. Here’s what The Hook writes in a post about the doll’s declining reputation: “The 55-year-old plastic diva appears to have become the Reese Witherspoon of the doll world.” Ouch!

It’s the rave among fellow bloggers. “I love your enthusiastic attitude,” writes Jackie Paulson, a single mom and Sagittarius. “Your batman logo is awesome.”

Maddie Cochere, an Ohio-based author, was also ecstatic. “How did I not know of this super secret and amazing blog?!” she writes. “Am I missing anything else?”

Hookey’s just as funny when he’s sharing his bellman (mis)adventures on his other blog, You’ve Been Hooked. His work life sounds like a successful sitcom. “I’d love to adapt my work to another medium,” Hookey says, “but I simply don’t have any idea how to get started.”

So, instead, he self-published his earlier posts in a book of essays titled The Bellman Chronicles: Shining Light on Mankind’s Missteps From The Trenches… “If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, you know what it’s like to make fun of your customers the second they’re out of the room,” writes Jefferson, an Amazon customer. “With [T]he Bellman Chronicles you get a peek into the life of Hotel service…step into their break room and listen in, poking fun alongside them.”

The bellman’s blog is just as amusing. “My hotel posts write themselves,” says Hookey, a nearly three-year blogger and native of St. Catharines, Ontario, a 15-minute drive from where he works at Niagara Falls Canada. He adds, “I’m not clever enough to fabricate the situations I write about.”

No fabrication needed for the post about the gorgeous woman who thinks her husband ignores her. Upon check-out, she sends hubby and their five kids to wait downstairs, while she pours her heart out to The Hook in the empty hotel room, waiting for the nervous bellman to make a move. “Its funny how some people will just bare their souls to perfect strangers,” writes Hookey in the post “The Hook Dodges a Bullet – Barely!” He continued:

It’s also funny how some people will start to move slowly towards their bellman with the same look The Coyote gives the Road Runner! Actually, it isn’t funny when it does happen. I responded by simply asking her a question as I moved towards the door, quickly.

He didn’t have to fabricate his post about the International Union of Elevator Constructors who organized a two-month elevator strike that delayed lift operations and construction throughout the Greater Toronto Area.

When those setbacks affect his hotel, Hookey acts quickly. He jumps into United Nations-negotiating mode to please frustrated tourists who either waited 30 minutes for the lift or stood terrified when the Journey Behind the Falls elevator stalled 10 feet into its 150-foot ride to the bottom of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. His efforts paid off, with those guests tipping him generously.

Another payoff was when WordPress “Freshly Pressed” two of his posts – one from The Book of Terrible and the other (two years later) from You’ve Been Hooked. Now, for the uninitiated, “Freshly Pressed” is when WordPress picks eight of its 500,000 blogs to highlight. “Getting promoted to Freshly Pressed is a major traffic win,” according to the popular blogging platform. “ receives a huge number of page views every day…so being highlighted exposes your post to a wide audience and brings you a flock of engaged new readers.”

(COVER ART: Robert Hookey)

That was my introduction to The Hook. His “Freshly Pressed” post on The Book of Terrible recorded 4,110 hits that day, while his You’ve Been Hooked post drew in 1,283 hits. The excitement last for a few days. “Then,” according to Hookey, “things get back to normal.”

But, again, we’re talking about a bellman whose day is everything but. Hookey’s blogs and book gained him admiration from his colleagues. “I am a bit of a Grade D celebrity,” he jokes. Of his book, he adds, “The only real reward worth nothing has been the realization of a lifelong dream.”

That Grade D celebrity buzz also thrust him into an unfortunate, but hilarious, encounter with a hotel guest. While transporting luggage for an elderly guest and his too-young “companion” to their car, Hookey worked his charm with some elevator chitchat. “The housekeeper told us you were that guy who wrote a book on hotels,” the guest inquired. “Is that true?”

When The Hook mentioned his book on adventures in Hotel Land, the “golden-aged” man unsuccessfully tried to punch the bellman’s face. The man’s rage stemmed from the fact that he owned a chain of inns. He mistook Hookey for another author whose book about “all the dirty, little secrets and tips hotel owners don’t want you to know” landed him a spot on 20/20’s expose on hotel practices.

That situation aside, he enjoys the perks of his job that include enough writing material to make any author jealous. And that’s not all. “I occasionally get a whole range of swag,” Hookey says, “from snow tires” – he’s dead serious! – “to Red Bull hoodies.”

There’s also downtime to write his blog posts and self-publish a book. Of the latter, Hookey says, “I sold to pretty much everyone at the hotel and made my money back pretty quickly.” That makes his wife, Jackie, almost as happy as her Vampire Diaries TV series. As an occasional social media user, she sparingly reads You’ve Been Hooked.

And The Hook’s OK with that. His current priority is getting his daughter’s work out there. “I’m trying to concentrate on helping my daughter launch her book series, The Misadventures of Misery,” he says.

The series revolves around a young girl, who owns a bookstore in New York City, and her best friend Misery’s perpetual bad luck. Together, they visit Misery’s hometown and learn that Misery’s relatives are supernatural beings. These connected tales encourage everyone to celebrate their differences, while embracing their common interests.

That creativity is among Hookey’s inspirations. “I’m a people watcher,” he says. “The world never fails to inspire me.”


Posted by on July 24, 2013 in Feature


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Curtis Crisler: Migration of a Latchkey Boy

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.

But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)

The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”

Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”

Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”

That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”

The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.

The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).

Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens  with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:

…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.

“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.

Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille]  Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”


Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.

Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.

At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”

And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.

That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”

His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.

She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”

Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.

His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”

Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:

now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.

The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.

That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”


Posted by on October 19, 2012 in Article, Feature


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The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”


Posted by on July 8, 2012 in Article, Feature


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2012 Awards Mark Best Year Ever for DC-based Nonprofit

Full disclosure: I’m the senior program director for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. We’re always bragging about our students. They’re always doing amazing things. Here’s another post about what they’ve accomplished.

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) TyJuan Hogan (right) is hard at work on the after-school writing exercise. This year was a big one for the 7th grader who read before the mayor and had his poem recorded on NPR. He also won awards in three youth poetry contests.

TyJuan Hogan threw off the gloves when he stepped to the mic last Saturday. Earlier, while the other finalists read their poems aloud, the 7th grader went over his lines with the focus and determination of a shadow boxer going through fight routines, snapping his jabs and slamming his right hooks at the air.

In Hogan’s case, he punched with his words. “Paint first a house with graffiti./ The words will tell/ the city I lived in when I was first born,” he recited on May 5. Hogan’s lines from his poem “To Paint The Portrait of Home” tagged a roomful of fellow young poets and their parents at the 30th Parkmont Poetry Festival. He concluded: “This is home./… You will know it’s good if/ the rain doesn’t devour/ the color.”

The 7th grader was among the 13 writing club members who won the Parkmont. This unprecedented feat marked what the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, an in-class and after-school program based at Charles Hart Middle School in Southeast, calls its “best year ever for awards.” In sum, Workshop participants won nearly one-third of the Parkmont prizes this year. Not only did Hart students dominate the Parkmont, they also left their mark at the 3rd Annual “Finding Gabriela” D.C. Poetry Contest Award, the Kids Post Poetry Contest, and the Larry Neal Writers’ Awards.

The Workshop’s Executive Director Nancy Schwalb was as ecstatic as she was two years ago, when Hart accomplished the same task of turning out more winners than any other school at the Parkmont Poetry Festival. “Year after year, our students win a disproportionate share of writing awards,” Schwalb said then. “It’s an amazing literary feat, especially considering the challenges that our students face in everyday life.”

For 12 years, the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop has used arts education to transform the lives of kids living in D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often forgotten part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has huge educational hurdles.

(PHOTO: D.C. Creative Writing Workshop) Kayla, Tatiana, Ty’shea love their new books!

For starters, among 16-19 year-olds, the high school dropout rate was 16 percent, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent.” The center also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8’s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.” Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics.

Since its start in 2000, the Workshop has expanded from its base of operation at Hart Middle School to two neighboring schools—Simon Elementary and Ballou Senior High—to accommodate increased demand attributed to the Workshop’s proof that arts education effectively helps youths overcome the educational hurdles.

Last month, TyJuan Hogan and Nia Adams shined despite the cold and rain at the 3rd Annual “Finding Gabriela” D.C. Poetry Contest award ceremony. The annual contest sponsors include the In Series, the Embassy of Chile, the Embassy of El Salvador, the Humanities Council of WDC, Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and the Gabriela Mistral Foundation. Adams received the award for first place in the age group category for 12 to 15 year-olds. Hogan won first place overall.

(PHOTO D.C. Creative Writing Workshop) Writing club members had a blast at the Arena Stage.

Demarco Tucker was the lone Hart student who won the Kids Post Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Washington Post. “The skin on my body covers up my bones/… The grass on the ground covers up the dirt,” the 6th grader was quoted from his poem “Thin Ice.”

“The words people use cover up empty things/ people are scared to think/ The gift you buy is covering up the things you’ve done/ The moon covers up the stars.”

The night before the poetry festival, it was clear skies for the Hart stars at the Larry Neal Writers’ Awards. Sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, the honor recognizes the best writing by D.C. adults, youth, and teens in a handful of categories. Winners receive cash prizes at a formal ceremony at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

This year, D.C. Creative Writing Workshop students swept the Youth Poetry category: TyJuan Hogan placed first, Muhammad Ali got second, and LaShanda Jones was third. The Workshop’s Program Manager, Abbey Chung, won first place in the Adult category for fiction.

That momentum continued at this year’s Parkmont Poetry Contest, which is a citywide competition that designates 20 winners in the lower school division (6th through 8th grades) and 20 in the upper school division (9th through 12th grades). The Parkmont attracts contestants from some of the city’s most élite schools, this year including The Kirov Academy of Ballet, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the British School of Washington.

But those élite names didn’t stop Shaniyah Lesane from taking the mic. “When I’m loud I get wild/ like a wildfire going everywhere,” the 6th grader recited from her poem “My Loudness.” Nor did it deter Demarco Green, whose “Symbols of Personality” summed up the pride of the Workshop students. The 8th grader recited, “I’m a lyrical genius, got lyrics for days.”

These are all 13 of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s Parkmont Poetry Contest winners:
From Hart Middle School: Alpha Conteh, Zena Craig, Kuela’H Simms, Demarco Green, Asia Chaney, Mitchel Tolar, Hailey Lewis, Daisha Wilson, Shaniyah Lesane, Ladeisha Meriweather, TyJuan Hogan, and Donte Harris.
From McKinley High School:
Zinquarn Wright

Want to stay updated on what’s happening at the DC Creative Writing Workshop? Visit their Facebook page here.


Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Feature


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How Linette Got Her Scream Back


(PHOTO: Courtesy) Linette Marie Allen is a 10-year marketing professional.

Linette Marie Allen heard it first 20 years ago.

A freshman Business major in her first semester then at Howard University, she wasn’t aware yet of what she would later call her “inner scream.” The introduction came on the fall of 1990 in the basement of the university’s Blackburn Center.

That night, she was preoccupied with her thoughts in the “Punch Out,” a campus cafeteria that doubled as a lounge for open mic events.

That night, the place was packed. She’d memorized her own poem for the occasion. The lights were dimmed for effect. Halfway through her piece, Allen drew a blank, forgetting her lines.

That’s when she heard her inner scream. Whatever you do be a voice of encouragement to others, it told her. Use your gifts and talents to uplift others. She had no way of knowing then that her business ventures would make her a resource for the unemployed or those switching careers.

“I wanted to be a launching pad,” Allen, 38, recalled in a recent phone interview.  “I really wanted to get behind and inspire people.” Those gifts and talents would have her coaching clients to develop action plans for starting a new business or making adjustments in their personal lives. Those gifts and talents would eventually lead her to write a book inspiring others to tap into their inner scream.

But that night in the “Punch Out,” Allen looked into the crowd, reassured to see her friend and fellow student Yao Hoke Glover. “It was a charged time,” said Glover, a Bowie State University professor. He met Allen through a comparative black literature course that same year.


Though he can barely recall the details of that night 20 years ago, he said of that time, “It was a different type of poetry environment [then]. It was a whole activism bent that was connected to poetry.” Knowing her poem by heart that night, Glover mouthed the words of the next line to Allen. She got back on track and finished her performance. The crowd cheered.

The inner scream hasn’t left her alone since. In fact, that night was just the start of a journey that would later whisk her away from a good-paying job she landed after graduation. It pulled the native-Washingtonian from her hometown to grad school in the United Kingdom, and eventually to briefly live with her husband and teaching in Italy.

Perhaps that inner scream was the product of her birth to teenage parents in 1972 at DC General Hospital, the city’s first and only public hospital that operated for 200 years until it closed in May 2001 (the hospital was recently converted to a homeless shelter).

With a 15-year-old mom and 17-year-old dad, Allen’s grandparents, who had four children, helped raise her in their home. “My mother, in many ways, was like my older sister, although I addressed her properly,” Allen said, adding that her mother — who had Allen reading by age three — has been a motivator from the beginning.

The neighborhood’s boundaries included Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, Fendall Street SE, and Maple View Place SE. The boundaries also ran along the eastern and southern sides of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site to High Street SE.

Located east of the Anacostia River, according to various sources, the neighborhood remains a famous one in the Southeast quadrant of the city. Anacostia’s history goes back as far as the Nacochtank Native Americans who settled along the Anacostia River before Captain John Smith explored the area in 1608.

(PHOTO: Stock Image) A map of Anacostia and its boundaries.

The name, Anacostia, means “trading village,” according to sources. The Nacochtank villages at the river’s south side were busy trading sites for Native Americans in the region. War with and diseases from European explorers nearly wiped out the tribe, which ceased to exist as “a functional unit” during the last 25 years of the 17th century.

The first wave of European settlers came to the area in 1662. By 1791, the neighborhood became a part of DC. Allen’s grandparents bought their two-story brick home for $11,000 just after the Great Depression of 1929. Her grandparents were pioneers in a sense, moving into an area where Whites once comprised 87 percent of the population until the 1950s.

With public housing apartment complexes springing up throughout the neighborhood, and then the flight of middle class residents to suburbs, Anacostia’s demographics shifted to a predominantly Black neighborhood (the 2000 census showed African Americans made up 92 percent of residents).

(PHOTO: anacostianews.blogspot)

With the impact of deteriorated infrastructures and the drug trade, Anacostia’s crime rate peaked, according to sources, in the 1990s. But Allen has a different take on growing up during that era.

She grew up in “a little row house” in the 1300 block of Talbert Terrace SE, where her grandmother still lives to this day. “Growing up in Anacostia was actually the opposite of what the stereotypes might imply,” said Allen, who now lives in Gaithersburg, Md.

All the neighbors knew one another. She went to Savoy Elementary School on Shannon Place SE and Jefferson Junior High School on 7th Street SW. “It was probably insular in the sense that the neighborhood had a one-way street,” said Allen, who won the DC Miss Teen Beauty Pageant while a student in the Humanities program at Ballou High School in 1987.

She took on bohemian ways, hanging with DC’s poets, artists and musicians during her time at Howard. “She seemed to march to the beat of her own drum,” said Brian Gilmore, a clinical associate professor and director of the Housing Clinic at Michigan State University College of Law. Also a poet and writer, he met Allen through Glover in the DC arts scene around 1992.

He recalled reading an article by Eleanor W. Traylor, who at the time was professor of English and chair of the department of English at Howard University. In the article, Dr. Traylor cited Allen as a new emerging poet to watch out for.


“When I saw Linette and mentioned it, she was just so very humble about it, like she felt honored to even be mentioned,” Gilmore recalled, adding that he was impressed by Allen’s humility. “A lot of that is missing today because poetry, and poets, are a bit self-indulgent, and self promotional to an extreme almost.”

He added that as a result, “The work, the tradition, gets lost, but Linette back then… understood the tradition.”

Everything in her life up to that point might have been orchestrated by her inner scream before Allen knew what it was, before it introduced itself to her that night in the “Punch Out.” That same year she met Gilmore, Allen transferred to the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where she got free tuition since her mother was an employee there. She landed a job at the former Pricewaterhouse (now Pricewaterhouse Coopers), after graduating from UDC in 1996.

With skills as an analytical thinker and dubbing herself “spreadsheet queen,” Allen’s inner scream told her the skies were the limit. At the career coaching firm, she worked in the managing consultant division. “It was a good job,” she said. But not where she would stay long.

A special encounter on a metro bus during her Howard days had set off a series of events that eventually had her studying organizational and social psychology at the London School of Economics (LSE). To hear Allen tell it, it started with a pair of shoes. She noticed them while riding the 70 bus on her way to Silver Spring after her classes.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

The unusual pair of heels were thick, high-stacked and with “European”-styled buckles. They were unlike anything Allen, who thought they were cool, had seen before. They were worn by Lara Oyedele, who Allen thought was an eclectic-looking African woman. Oyedele sat at the back of the bus, looking out the window.

Prior to their conversation, Allen couldn’t have known the woman was Nigerian, that she spoke with a British accent, and that she was an exchange student from Bradford England studying Radio-TV-Broadcast at Howard University. “I happened to glance over and look at her shoes,” Allen recalled. The two became “fast and hard” friends who went everywhere together.

While at Pricewaterhouse, Allen remembered Oyedele had invited her to fly out for a week in London.  She made the trip in 1996, taking in the sights and meeting Oyedele’s grad school professors at LSE. Allen talked with one professor for an hour. “I talked about my background and my interests,” she said. “This one professor just poured into me.”

When she got back, she had a number of decisions to make. Initially, George Washington University was her first choice for grad school. But after an unpleasant encounter with a GW admissions counselor, Allen applied to LSE and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland—and got into both.

(PHOTO: Guardian News) London School of Economics

Then there was her job. “They had offered me another position,” she said. If she took the job, it meant she wouldn’t be able to do grad school the following year. Her inner scream told her to take a risk, and so she did by turning down the job and going to LSE.

That decision didn’t surprise Gilmore. “She is outgoing,” he recalled, “a bit of a chance taker in a lot of ways.” It’s a decision she doesn’t regret to this day. “When I arrived, I absolutely loved the city,” Allen said. “London was a good fit for me.” There, she found a similar bohemian scene she had back home.

Then there were the free lecture series, where she recalled catching a lecture at LSE by  former South African President Nelson Mandela, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. “You had Pulitzer Prize winners and authors who had published work,” she recalled. “The culture was so rich.”

The diversity in the classrooms was just as rich. “I had students in my program who were from all over the world”—from places like Sweden, Italy, Scotland and South Africa, said Allen, who was one of three Black students. As the only African American there, she made an observation about the classroom dynamic.

(PHOTO: Stock Image) Long established as an entertainment district, according to sources, for much of the 20th century Soho was popular among those of the night life and film industry.

“They [her fellow grad students] would speak open with me about what they thought about Americans and America, in general,” she said. “European men and women didn’t treat me like I was an African American. They actually treated me as if I was just an American.”

Glover noted the significance of Allen’s experiences. “She’s well traveled. That’s what I admire about her,” he said. “She’s my hero in the sense of getting out of the city and seeing how big the world is.”

Back in America, Allen was aware that race was thoroughly woven into the social fabric. Unlike Europe, she noted, America seemed to be hung up on labels. For instance, if a Black person won an award or did something spectacular, according to Allen, that person would be celebrated in America as an African American receiving an award.

But in Europe, it was different. “If I won an award, I was the American student,” she said.

Things were also different overseas on the dating tip. “I found that European men approached me just as boldly and as regularly as Black guys [back in the U.S.],” she said. “It was a little shocking to my fabric.” She met her husband, a native Italian, while studying in London.

They married in 1999 and divorced in 2007. During the marriage, she moved to Italy where her husband was finishing the doctoral program in Linguistics. They lived there for two years, when she learned the language at the University of Perugia in Perugia, Italy. She then landed a job at the University of Macerata in Macerata, Italy, teaching business communication to undergraduates.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) On Jan. 15, the e-book version will be available for the Kindle.

Allen, a mother of three, described her marriage as “a desert period,” where her inner scream was dried to the point of her almost losing her passions. “I stopped writing for a period of eight years. I wasn’t driven really to fulfill the work that I was called to do,” she said. “By the time I finally climbed out of the pit I was in, I didn’t even recognize myself.”

She continued, “It was a process of coming back and being true to that original inner scream…[that] says to me, today, louder than ever, ‘you are a writer.’”

She got back her inner scream two years ago, when she started writing her book, Operating in the Dream Zone: How to Kick Your Dreams to the Sky and Thrive in Any Economy. It’s a book, according to the front flap, about dusting off the imagination and “counting yourself in and counting your excuses out.”

Glover saw Allen’s strength when she counted herself in and her excuses out. “She’s an interesting character,” he said. “She’s always got a lot on her plate.”

She got back her inner scream by starting two businesses. In 2006, a year before her divorce, she started The Resume Ring, a small business that specializes in transforming resumes into effective marketing tools.

“I wanted to do something that would allow me to express my gift of writing,” said Allen, recalling her inner scream advising her 20 years ago to uplift and inspire. “Because I have a business background, I wanted something where I could act as a coach.”

And when The Resume Ring became too small for her vision, she started DreamZu in 2010. With her personal development consultancy firm, Allen does a number of things that include her walking clients through a step by step process of discovering their strengths, weaknesses, talents, skills, interests, and personality type.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Author and businesswoman, Linette Marie Allen said, “There is no word greater than possibility.

In addition to helping identify obstacles and determine ways to overcome them, she helps her clients as a resource to additional information and resources.

And for those still unsure about their inner scream?

“I would recommend they take inventory,” Allen said. “There are a couple of tools you can use.” They’re located in a section of her book called the “Dream Shop,” a map that will take readers through various stages of accessing what they see as limitations.

Don’t underestimate the mind, Allen will tell anyone. “Whatever it is, you can actually imagine your way out of a circle of impossibility.”

To keep up with Linette Marie Allen, visit her at DreamZu.



Posted by on December 20, 2010 in Feature


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Zine Gives Black Filmmakers A Platform

(PHOTO: NeoBlack Cinema) Crystyn C. Wright is an educator, entrepreneur and journalist.

As a self-described “movie buff,” Crystyn C. Wright loves films, especially those reflecting the lives of African Americans. At one time, the Bronx-native, going by mainstream’s offerings, settled on the assumption that not enough black filmmakers were producing those films.

That assumption was corrected after she traveled to various film festivals. But Wright, a journalist active in various genres of the arts, figured if someone as film savvy as her initially had a hard time finding good black films, it showed her what the media thinks of independent black filmmakers.

So she decided to do something about it and teamed up with Abdul Ali, a NY-native-turned-D.C. resident, to found NeoBlack Cinema, an online independent film magazine for people of color. With a Mt.Vernon, NY-based operation and a staff of more than 35 writers nationwide, the magazine highlights films and the people, production and politics involved in the filmmaking process. “We like to call it a one-stop shop,” the editor and CEO said Wednesday in a conference call with Ali.

This one-stop shop also features a section for books, equipment, financing, reviews and commentary. “It’s very useful to have a publication tackling the many facets of the independent film world for filmmakers of color,” said filmmaker/poet Nijla Mu’min, founder of Sweet Potato Pie Productions.

Perusing the website, one can read profiles on established and up-and-coming filmmakers. “There are so many black filmmakers and filmmakers of color who are doing amazing, provocative, bold films today,” Mu’min said. “It also brings further unification between artists, and serves as a foundation for dialogue, publicity, and progress.”

The online voting, expert advice, film festival coverage and articles on the challenges faced by black filmmakers are all ways NeoBlack Cinema tries to engage and connect African Americans with independent black film communities around the country.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Abdul Ali

“The idea that there would be a new venue for a new generation to write about independent black film is very exciting to me,” said Esther Iverem, founder and editor of A former staff writer for The Washington Post, New York Newsday and The New York Times, Iverem has written about black film online for 10 years.

During that time, she’s covered both mainstream studio and independent black films, which has taken her to the Urban World Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival. At some of those events, “I saw films that I never actually saw released to the general public in a large-scale way,” said Iverem, who’s also a contributing critic for Tom Joyner’s “I really understand the need to concentrate on those films…If NeoBlack Cinema can do that, that’s great.”

The idea, which started as what Wright calls “a seed,” germinated through a discussion she had with Ali more than a year ago. “This idea that there needs to be someone to help usher in a radical shift in the images of black people in film…was the sort of cooling board in all of this,” said Ali, the managing editor. “The mission came out of the hours of conversation…about what’s wrong with black films, what’s right with it, what we would like to see more of.”

According to Ali, one black movie that got it right was Love Jones. Written and directed by Theodore Witcher, the 1997 romantic film, which stars Larenz Tate and Nia Long, is set in Chicago.

Darius Lovehall (Tate), an aspiring writer and poet, meets Nina Mosley (Long), a gifted and aspiring photographer, before he gets on the open mic to perform a poem at the Sanctuary, an upscale night club presenting jazz and poetry. The film explores the ups and downs of Hall’s relationship with Mosley. It’s also loosely based on the life of poet Regie Gibson, who wrote the poem “Brother to the Night” that Tate performed in the movie.

(PHOTO: New Line Cinema)

In his article for The Root, Ali makes the claim there hasn’t been a film since that captures black romance like Love Jones. “So much is right with this movie. The chemistry of Nia Long and Larenz Tate is remarkable,” Ali writes. “The characters hang out in smoky spots where men and women dress up and wear nice clothes. Not one gun in the entire film.”

Ali adds, “And when was the last time you saw a black film where the main characters quote George Bernard Shaw, invoke Gordon Parks, and play Charlie Parker?”

With Ali on-board, the seed was planted. And since that discussion more than a year ago, as Wright puts it, “NeoBlack Cinema has been watered, nurtured and protected, and it has finally sprouted from the earth.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Phyllis Stickney.

The inaugural issue sprouted on March 2010 just in time for Women’s History Month. “Getting it together it really worked out well,” Wright says. “When we were looking at the line up, we were trying to get powerful strong black women who left lasting impressions on people to highlight.”

Among them was Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, whose list of movie appearances includes “Jungle Fever,” “The Inkwell,” and “How Stella Got Her Groove Back.”

Perhaps Stickney is best known for her career as a stand-up comic. She was among the first comedians of color to perform at the Juste Pour Rire Comedy Festival in Montreal, Canada. She’s also performed her stand-up at the Apollo Theater, and is a motivational speaker and published author and poet.

In addition to being an accomplished stage performer, Stickney is the founder/executive director for a non-profit community-based organization for the arts. “She has a really strong background and she was the essence of someone who I would like to uplift for women’s history month,” Wright says.

Another woman highlighted in the current issue is Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer Neema Barnette. She made history by becoming the first African-American woman to direct a sitcom with “What’s Happening Now” in 1986.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Neema Barnette

Among the list of television series she oversaw included “The Cosby Show”, “Hooperman”, “China Beach”, “A Different World”, “Diagnosis Murder” and “Seventh Heaven.” Barnette has also directed eight motion pictures for television and two feature films, “Spirit Lost” and “Civil Brand” starring Mos Def, LisaRaye, N’Bushe Wright, and Monica Calhoun and Da Brat.

Under her company Harlem Lite Productions, Barnette was the first African-American woman to receive a three picture deal at Columbia/Sony Pictures where she developed four screenplays, two television pilots and a television series.

She currently sits on NeoBlack Cinema’s Board of Advisors with Audrey Peterson, editor-in-chief of American Legacy Magazine, and Mark Anthony Neal, Ph. D, professor of African and African American Studies at University.

“There are several…images that people want to promote in black media, and we’re serious about making that better,” Wright says.

(PHOTO: Ishmael Reed, a prominent African-American literary figure, has been described as "one of the most original and controversial figures in the field of African American letters"

Her comment comes amid the recent backlash of “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.” In a Feb. 4, 2010 New York Times column, poet-essayist-novelist Ishmael Reed stated his beef with the movie. According to the mail he received, the conversations he had and the comments he read about the film, Reed noted he wasn’t alone.

“Among black men and women, there is widespread revulsion and anger over the Oscar-nominated film about an illiterate, obese black teenager who has two children by her father,” he writes.

The author Jill Nelson was quoted in Reed’s column as stating: “I don’t eat at the table of self-hatred, inferiority or victimization. I haven’t bought into notions of rampant black pathology or embraced the overwrought, dishonest and black-people-hating pseudo-analysis too often passing as post-racial cold hard truths.”

Reed added, “One black radio broadcaster said that he felt under psychological assault for two hours. So did I.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Irene Monroe is a religion columnist, public theologian, and motivational speaker.

Rev. Irene Monroe also fired away in a March 17, 2010, column for the Windy City Times, a Chicago-based gay media outlet. “The historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of Black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at this year’s Oscars,” writes Monroe. “And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie Precious based on the novel Push by Sapphire as a ghetto-welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can.”

While NeoBlack Cinema’s Women’s History Month issue might appease Reed and Monroe, Wright and Ali have a different mission: to expand the territory of what’s considered black films. “It’s not really a matter of saying we want good films or happy films, it’s saying we want to get the full picture of who we are as people,” she said. “We want to see everything about what we’re doing for better or worse.”

This balancing act will require NeoBlack Cinema to educate, entertain, exchange, experiment, enlighten and evolve movie viewers. It’s a full-time endeavor for Wright, who currently funds the operation out-of-pocket. “Hopefully” — in the future — “we’ll have grants and donors and will be able to fund staff,” Wright said. Meanwhile, it’s a labor of love for her staff.

(PHOTO: Sutikare) Esther Iverem, veteran journalist

Iverem, the veteran journalist, noted that the operation can’t stay a labor of love for too long. Her advice to Wright and Ali is to develop a working model immediately to secure funds and keep the site updated. “Those things can be very difficult, but if you have a commitment to whatever you’re doing it’s important to try,” she said. “Otherwise, I could see how you can start off strong but after awhile everyone is going to get burned out.”

As for Ali, he’s charged up and ready to carry out the mission of NeoBlack Cinema. He said, “The real beauty of this project is that it’s so necessary that it needed to happen.”

All inquiries about NeoBlack Cinema can be directed to Crystyn C. Wright via email at, or by phone at 850-570-0197.



Posted by on April 8, 2010 in Article, Feature


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Kobie Nichols: The Wind Rider

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson) Kobie Nichols and his wife, Tyechia Thompson-Nichols

He’s organized film festivals, facilitated panels, got a novel-in-progress and recently staged a live reading of his screenplay while procuring a traveling art show. The 36-year-old’s also a sailor, and has done all those things outside of his day job.

But whether grinding at his nine-to-five or promoting his production company, Kobie Nichols will tell you he’s never off the clock.

In fact, the Richmond, Va.-native has been on the clock since he left his hometown for D.C. more than 10 years ago, after receiving a phone call from Eric Hudson, a childhood friend who had already relocated to the nation’s capital.

Nichols recalled Hudson’s question, “Yo, what you doing?” At the time, Nichols was a year out of school, having graduated with a degree in Industrial Engineering from North Carolina A&T State University in 1998. He was back in Richmond, working as a graphic designer for a pharmaceutical company. His contract would be up soon. Then afterwards? “Nothing,” Nichols told Hudson, who replied: “Yo, why don’t you move to D.C.”

It sounded like a good idea. Nichols would be closer to his then-3-year-old daughter, who lived with her mother in Maryland. And wasn’t D.C. where he ultimately wanted to live? he wondered. Hadn’t the city stolen his heart those undergrad years, when he watched Chocolate City’s finest strolling A&T’s campus? “We had a lot of Maryland and D.C. girls,” Nichols said, “and all of them were my favorite girls on campus.” So much so that Nichols and his friends had a Fab 5 list of “Maryland Chicks,” similar to Michigan’s Fab 5 list of top college basketball players. With his mind made up, Nichols told Hudson, “Cool!”

(PHOTO: Jefry Wright)

He was 26, when he came to D.C. in 1999. Three years later, he would be on a metro bus going to and from work, when he would pen the first draft of a screenplay about sex in D.C., a story loosely based on his experiences since his arrival. “I went to Bar Nun”—the lounge later called PUR—“a lot,” Nichols recalled. “There were just so many beautiful women around.”

That script, which he wrote the entire first draft of on legal pads, won’t have a title until its second draft. That title will come from Nichols browsing his bookcase and spotting Shel Silverstein’s “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,” which would influence future versions of the script “Merser Piece Meets O.”

Screenwriting is a passion that goes back to Nichols’s childhood. With his mom working to make ends meet and his father living out-of-state, “TV and movies were my primary baby sitters,” Nichols said. “We always had cable, so HBO and Cinemax were my uncles.” But it wasn’t enough to just be passionate; he also had to learn the industry. In the process of creating an outline for his script in 2002, Nichols enrolled in a workshop at DCTV, a public access television station dedicated to building communities through telecommunications.

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

Since 1988, the member-based non-profit has allowed D.C. residents the opportunity to create and telecast their own shows for the local communities on cable television. That’s where Nichols learned TV production, which encompassed scriptwriting and technical skills such as stage lighting and operating a TV control room.

That’s where Nichols found a support group. “A place where I can talk to folks who were interested in the same things I’m doing,” Nichols said. That’s where he got an opportunity to produce a monthly TV show called Hot Topic with Marcus Jones and Krushea Starnes. DCTV also contracted Nichols to do sound for shows like More Room on the Outside, Most TV and YAP TV, where he’s script supervisor.

That collaborative approach is what Kimberly C. Gaines, Nichols’s friend of more than nine years, appreciated when they collaborated a year ago with Hari Jones on the traveling exhibition for the African-American Civil War Museum.

Jones, the curator, compiled the exhibit’s text from his lectures, the  first-hand accounts from military letters, Harper’s weekly, and information from the National Archives, according to a January 2009 post  on Gaines’s blog “Sondai: Tale of a Visual Goddess.” Nichols researched the images and assisted with the layout. “He’s quite the thinker,” she said. “He challenges those around him to do the same.”

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

(PHOTO: Eric Hudson)

When he enrolled at DCTV in 2002, Nichols founded Fresh Produce Entertainment Group (FPEG), a production company focused on providing “intimate views of urban life” through film, stage, and print media. Not long after, Nichols teamed up with Ayo Okunseinde, co-owner of Dissident Display Gallery in D.C.’s H Street corridor, and began a series of film festivals around D.C. called Fresh Produce Film Festival.

The first one took place in 2003. He and Okunseinde served wine, showed their films and opened the floor for comments and suggestions. Three more events followed at venues around the city including the former Blue Room (now Bourbon) in Adams Morgan. Submissions came from filmmakers in the city, around the country and overseas.  “It grew,” Nichols said. “We showed 12 films.” The last film festival was held at the Visions Bar Noir, an independent movie theater at the crossroads of the city’s Dupont Circle, Kalorama and Adams Morgan neighborhoods.

The theater, a redesign of the old Embassy Theater on Florida Avenue, opened its doors in May 2000. At the time, “We entered a marketplace when there wasn’t anything going on,” Visions president Andrew Frank told the Washington Post in a 2004 article. “We filled that specialty niche and revived it for a while at a time when the city was under-screened.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of

(PHOTO: Courtesy of

But in 2002, the two-screen theater faced competition from newer, better-funded theaters that caught on and entered the niche marketplace of independent and art house movies, the Post reported. Among them were Landmark Theatres’ multi-screen Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema, Regal Theaters in Rockville, Loews Cineplex Georgetown, the American Film Institute Silver Theatre and the Avalon. The number of screens within a six-mile radius of Visions jumped from 89, in 2002, to more than 130.

Add to that the mounting debt, and the theater’s owners knew their days were numbered. After Vision’s final event, Nichols moved on to collaborate on other endeavors. His most ambitious among them was the staged reading of his script “Merser Piece Meets O,” inspired by “The Missing Piece Meets the Big O” by Shel Silverstein.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Harper Collins)

In Silverstein’s story, a circular creature realizes one day it’s missing its wedge-shaped piece. So it sets out on an adventure to find it. Nichols, whose script — loosely based on his life — started out as a story about a guy addicted to sex in D.C., saw the potential for improvements in his script. Nichols saw his main character, Merser, through his sexual escapades, also searching for something to complete him.

But if you ask Nichols who’s the big O or the missing piece he’ll smile, consider your question, and then tell you: “It’s all about perception.” To the women in Mercer’s life, he was the big O only because they were in pieces. But Merser was in pieces too. Oya, the woman Merser chases, is named after the Yoruba goddess for change. She’s Mercer’s big O.

The script, itself, works as a commentary on dating. “The conversation about relationships is interesting,” Nichols said. “A lot of people are looking for something specific in relationships when they need to look for themselves” first.

The script went through several edits, a process that took Nichols seven years to get it to the version staged Nov. 20, 2009, at the Goethe-Intitut/German Cultural Center near downtown Chinatown. Melani N. Douglass saw the entire process. “I feel like I saw sketches of this play go from a thought to a draft to the stage,” said Douglass, Nichols’s friend of more than seven years.

(PHOTO: Pete Taylor)

That process was possible because of sponsors such Carafe Wines in Alexandria, Va., and Universal Flowers. Others included Dr. Eleanor Traylor at Howard University, Lorraine Brown, Diane Brander and Nichols’s mom.

Douglass jumped at the opportunity to play Xi when another woman selected for the role couldn’t do it. The character Xi is one of Mercer’s love interests. Xi also represents energy and is the element for fire. (“Every time she comes into the scene something hot is going on,” Nichols said.) Douglass said, “I love what he did with that character. So I was excited.”

A major edit was when Nichols removed five sections from the first draft. “He keeps working at it,” Douglass said. “As a fellow artist, it was an honor to be a part of one of the stages of completion of this play.”

The night of the reading was a cold one. But that didn’t deter Hadiya Williams from being among the 80 people who packed out the auditorium in the Goethe-Institut. “The reading was excellent!” she posted on his Facebook page the next day. “The readers were great.”

With a review like that, why push the script to go on the big screen instead of a stage? “The energy of D.C. dictates that this be a movie that takes place on the streets of Washington, D.C.,” Nichols said. “That’s why I was specific about locations.” To put it on the stage, he added, would take away from what he wants his audience left with. “When people see it in a different city,” he said, they should “feel Washington, D.C.”

(PHOTO: Pete Taylor) Kobie Nichols with the ladies of his casts.

Williams had to appreciate that. “Thank you for the experience,” she said, “and much success on the next phase”—which includes Nichols introducing the screenplay in other cities through live readings. “One reading per city. I don’t want to over-saturate,” Nichols said. It’s enough if people are talking about it, which he hopes will keep it fresh. “I would rather them talk about it than keep seeing it.”

Nichols is also busy wrapping up a novel-in-progress he started back in Richmond. The story’s a speculative fiction about a guy who has three dimensions of living. The story chronicles the day of the guy’s death, from when he wakes to the time he’s killed. In each dimension, the guy – a prototype of Merser’s character – dies the same way, which alters the course of the character’s life. At the end, the main character remembers a conversation he had with God while in the womb. “We all have a path with God before we’re born,” Nichols said. That path determines “how our life plays out before we die.”

(PHOTO: Pete Taylor)

At the moment, Nichols is more alive than ever, especially after getting his sailor’s license in September 2009. “I have a strange love for water,” Nichols said. “I’ve always liked boats.”

After film, he said his next move is to offer the bed and breakfast experience on water, with boats at various ports around the world. Meanwhile, Nichols will settle for sailing his 19-foot boat, the “Flying Scott,” out at the Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria, Va., when the weather permits. He’s licensed to sail nationwide.

Considering Nichols’s journey to the person he’s become, perhaps his love of the water isn’t so strange after all. “I’m a where-the-wind-blows kind of guy,” he said. “That might be why I like sailing,” which has a rule, he added: “Know where your destination is first, then let the wind take you there.”

Nichols is riding an even bigger wind since that November night at the Goethe-Institut, when he watched his friends bring his characters to life. And to know that seven years worth of sweat equity wasn’t wasted, to see a dream on the verge of coming to fruition, could overwhelm anyone. “I don’t usually show my emotions,” the director said. “But that night, I was moved to tears.”

For updates, visit Kobie’s facebook page, myspace page and Tune into “Hot Topics” on the web at



Posted by on January 11, 2010 in Article, Feature


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