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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.

How Zoe Valentine Works

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine)

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

A lot’s happened in the nearly five years Zoe Valentine’s entertained and informed readers with her blog about what she calls “the most mundane of things” in her daily life.

Those adventures include the Missouri-transplant apartment-hunting in New York City, falling in love, and leaving an economic consulting gig in the Big Apple—fiancé in tow—for an executive administrative support position in the Urbana-Champaign, Illinois-area. Those posts and more gained her a wider readership and caught the attention thrice of web administrators at the popular online publishing platform that hosts her blog Zoe Says.

Not bad for a self-professed introvert. “Having an easily findable online identity is sometimes really scary to me,” the Louisiana-native says in a recent interview. “It’s not just my name, it’s that all of these personal observations and facts about myself are just…out there.”

Even if Valentine tried, this age of smartphones and social networking sites makes it impossible to avoid an online presence. “Already today’s smartphones used by teenagers to text friends have as much computing power as the Apollo spacecraft that traveled to the moon in 1969,” the husband-and-wife research team Ayesha & Parag Khanna tell tech blogger Kyle Munkittrick, of Pop Bioethics.

The Khannas are part of a research and advisory group at the Hybrid Reality Institute, which explores human-technology co-evolution and its implications for global business, society and politics. According to their book, Hybrid Reality, the “balance of innovation” eclipses the military “balance of power”.

The Khannas note this trend will advance for another decade. “Hewlett Packard estimates that by 2015, there will be one trillion devices connected to the Internet constantly recording and sharing information,” the Khannas says. “By 2020, we will literally live in technology.”

Another thing that makes Zoe Valentine’s online presence inevitable are current hiring practices. “In this era, [an] online presence is the best way [a] company can check your…background,” according to Dheeraj thedijje’s post at the tech blog Intelligent Computing. An online presence gives a company a sense of how well a potential employee uses technology, how well she/he writes, and how well the individual conducts themselves publicly.

(PHOTO: Zoe Valentine) That’s the smile, thanks to Zoe’s fiance Kevin .

Valentine built her presence through blogging, which resulted from her friends’ fascination with how she tells stories, either in person or through her narrative emails.

“I had always thought I would go into film or video editing…which is another medium for telling stories,” says Valentine, who earned a BA in Film & Media Studies at the University of Rochester. “But so far it hasn’t panned out that way. I wrote my first post about hunting for apartments in New York City with Craigslist, and the blogging seed was planted.”

Her most memorable and successful post is “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile,” a hilarious post about workplace etiquette. According to Valentine’s piece, this gesture is a “weird smile—sometimes an accompanying nod—that you give people…where you flatten your lips and smile tightly as you pass each other by.”

This post resonated with fellow bloggers. “How about the little ‘wave’ that you give along with the nod as you pass by someone,” writes Nikitaland, who blogs about her dog Nikita.

Think that gesture’s bad? It could be worst, according to Ugogo, a vegetarian and aspiring actress. “What’s really awkward,” she writes, “is seeing that person twice.”

“Courtesy Smile” was also a hit with WordPress administrators, who selected that post among their eight favorites to showcase, or, as it’s called on WordPress, “Freshly Pressed”—which results in a major traffic surge. “Courtesy Smile,” posted July 2011, grossed 12,915 hits in one day.

That post introduced me to Zoe Valentine, who I’ve followed since. And get this. “Courtesy Smile” marked the blogger’s third time being “Freshly Pressed”. The first (November 2010) recorded 2,065 hits, while her second (May 2011) clocked 4,195 hits. “It’s been an absolute honor each and every time,” Valentine says. “The thrill never gets old.”

What makes posts like “Courtesy Smile” successful is that—whether Valentine intended—they adopt what’s called the sitcom format. Like sitcoms, Valentine’s blog posts—whether about chucking a microwave for counter space, how she chooses her drugstores, or why she stopped listening to the radio—are short bursts of enjoyment that include the hero, anti-hero, love interest and buddy.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“Since sitcoms are only 30 minutes long, it is essential that the plot line be fairly tight and resolvable,” writes Winifred Fordham Metz, a media librarian and contributing writer to How Stuff Works, an award-winning website of explanations of how the world works.

In his article “How Sitcoms Work,” Metz adds, “Successful plots will typically fall within a family or workplace setting or some combination of the two.” In “Courtesy Smile,” Zoe’s the hero (for tackling the situations she encounters), the gesturing office mates are the anti-hero, and Valentine’s love interest/buddy is her fiancé Kevin, who demonstrates the gesture in a photo.

Now, here’s how Valentine works. “Sometimes I’m hit with a snippet of inspiration from the most mundane of things in my daily life,” she says. “A funny thought or personal quirk about myself will hit me, and I will whip out my iPhone and enter it into my Notepad.”

(PHOTO: rapgenius.com)

She gets her need to write things down from her parents, who are both prolific writers. “My mom is more poetic and she uses her writing to inspire and encourage others,” Valentine says. “My dad is currently working on publishing a self-help book that he has worked on for a very long time.”

Of her parents’ writing habits, she adds, “They write every single day, even if it’s just personal notes, thoughts, feelings.”

While Valentine’s not writing every day, she’s just as disciplined. “If I feel it’s been too long since I’ve put out a blog post, I’ll refer to my snippets of inspiration, put the idea into a draft, and develop it into a full post,” she says. She also responds to WordPress’s weekly photo challenges, which get her creative juices going.

Lately, her faucet stays flowing. “More often than not, I sit down at my computer with a strong idea of what I need to flesh out,” says Valentine, noting that articles online make up majority of her daily reading.

Those days when she’s dry, she’s learned not to beat herself up. “I went ten months without a new post between last year and this year as I had started a very demanding new job,” she recalls of the ups and downs writers experience. “As I’ve gotten older and developed my blogging muscle, I find I can’t stay way.”

Neither can Charles Gulotta (aka bronxboy55), a long-time  ZoeSays reader. “What a great blog this is, Zoe,” writes the veteran freelance writer and author. “It’s like a candy store that changes with every visit.”

And that’s key to successful bloggers—return readers. “Checking spelling and grammar is…a key to getting people to come back and read your blog,” Valentine’s advice to new bloggers. “Misspelled words or poor grammar (unless it’s ironic) keeps the reader from really delving in and getting lost in whatever you have to say.”

Another advice is to stay open to inspiration in its many forms. For Zoe Valentine, it’s a song line, scene from a favorite movie or TV show, a story line from a novel, and other bloggers. “That’s the beauty of writing blog posts,” she says, “anything can be fully realized in some fashion.”

(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:

Its 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. “WordPress.com 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.”

(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.

(Courtesy of Willow Books/Aquarius Press)

Started in 2007, Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press, is still in its childhood. Yet the six-year-old Detroit-based press is rapidly becoming the Motown Records of book publishing.

As America’s top Black-owned and operated record company and business, Motown Records signified a new day. The cultural icon’s chart-topping singles and often-imitated sound embodied the struggle for progress and optimism of a long-dispirited people.

Under owner/publisher Heather Buchanan-Gueringer’s direction, Willow Books’ mission is no different. The press develops, publishes and promotes underrepresented writers.

If a publisher’s personal triumphs show a press’s future successes, then I’m confident Willow Books will thrive as a luminary on the literary landscape. Heather Buchanan-Gueringer, an award-winning publisher-editor-arts consultant, is a former State Officer for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a past Vice-President of the Great Lakes Independent Publishers Association and American Business Women’s Association (Ambassador Tri-County Chapter).

A past COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities, Buchanan-Gueringer founded Aquarius Press in 1999 and continues to publish top talent from across the nation, many through the Willow Books literary imprint.

The press cut its teeth through partnerships with universities and literary organizations such as the National Book Foundation, Poets & Writers, Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., Poets House, Springfed Arts, Wayne State University, Chicago State University and the University of New Haven, among others. The press also hosts conferences such as the Idlewild Writers Conference and the LitFest Spring Retreat, and regularly exhibits at Associated Writing Program’s (AWP) Annual Conference.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King)

Willow Books’ mission of developing underrepresented writers stemmed from Buchanan-Gueringer’s service as a past executive director of the Detroit Writers’ Guild. She continues the literary imprint’s mission as an adjunct professor, most recently teaching at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the College for Creative Studies.

As an arts consultant, Buchanan-Gueringer served on the planning committee for what is now the Virgil Carr Cultural Arts Center. She also founded the Metro Detroit Performing Arts Center. Buchanan-Gueringer, a musician as well, serves on the board of the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to Buchanan-Gueringer, Willow Books is blessed to have award-winning writer Randall Horton, PhD., as its poetry editor. Horton’s honors include the Bea González Prize for Poetry, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Cave Canem.

Also on Willow Books’ staff are poet/photographer Jerriod Avant (editorial assistant) and award-winning poet Curtis Crisler (contributing poetry editor). I’d say, with that staff and their credentials, Willow Books is in good hands.

I’m honored to be among its word crooners such as Makalani Bandele, Krista Franklin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Derrick Harriell. The six-year-old press lost its baby teeth with its word warriors such as Kelly Norman Ellis, Tara Betts, and Tony Medina. (You’ll find Willow Books’ complete line-up on its authors’ page.)

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The unsurpassed excellence and sophistication the musicians and singers brought to Motown Records lives on in the works and accomplishments of Willow Books’ award-winning authors, many of which are professors with advanced degrees.

The fairly young literary imprint flexed its new muscles with the Literature Awards, Open Reading Period, and Emerging Writer Chapbook Series. This Saturday, Willow Books will flex those same muscles with its 2nd Annual LitFest, a mini conference/retreat with readings, book fair, networking and workshops.

In partnership with the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University, this year’s LitFest will include manuscript sessions, a panel discussion, public readings, and an open mic. It will also feature Willow Books Literature Awards Finalists’ Reading and Awards Ceremony, where the press will announce its poetry and prose winners. (Download the brochure here)

Most events are free and open to the public but require registration. (Download and complete the LitFest Registration Form). For more info, please visit Willow Books LitFest. You can also keep up with the press by liking the Willow Books Group Page.

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?”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

A therapy session goes wrong when Wade, an angst-ridden 16-year-old, pulls his therapist, Myra, into an oral sword fight after accusing her of “mind-fucking” him like he imagines she does her other patients.

To gain his trust, Myra discloses some personal stuff about herself, which Wade uses against her.

“You’re married for six years and don’t have any children?!” he spits before assuming Myra’s the cause of that for not sexually exciting her husband. That got a gasp from the crowd that packed a downstairs banquet hall on a chilly Saturday evening. This was Myra’s response: “Are you mad that your father used you for an excuse to stick around for 16 years?” Ouch!

That’s a scene from Bridget Dease’s work-in-progress, Advocates, one of eight plays  written by the Literary Media and Communications (LMC) department’s 12th graders at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. A crew of professional actors, directed by Renana Fox, helped showcase those scripts through stage readings that bookended the LMC’s annual dinner theater March 23 at Chevy Chase Baptist Church.

“High school can be one of the most demanding, stressful, and anxiety-inducing points in a person’s life,” notes Fox, alluding to this year’s theme “Out of Darkness.”  She continued: “These students have used their personal experiences, culture, education, and imagination to build a lot of great characters. My hope is that in seeing their work begin to come to life on stage they will be encouraged to continue developing and creating and pursuing whatever lights their fire.”

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

Those flames also burned for the teachers and parents who, over veggie fajitas with salsa and chicken tortilla soup, enjoyed an evening of laughs and a bar with beer, wine, soda, and water that, in part, made the evening worth the $25 tickets ($10 for students).

Another part was the string of plays with subjects ranging from a bi-racial wife’s adversarial relationship with her German mother-in-law (Madison Hartke-Weber, ‘13); to the sexual tension between a liberal arts college poetry professor and a prospective student (Rashawnda Williams, ‘13); to a love triangle that involves a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy, her boyfriend, and her sister (Dayanira Hough, ‘13).

“What I find so beautiful about theater is that the difficult and surprising stories are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves,” Fox observed. “And these young playwrights have quite a lot to say.”

Saturday’s fundraiser was also an opportunity for the LMC to announce the TEDxDESA event that’s less than a month away (visit our TEDx page here and go here to like our Facebook page). This independently organized event (“(W)Rite of Passage”), which resulted from the LMC’s collaboration with NYC-based nonprofit Writopia Lab, involves LMC students, with Writopia LabDC Scholastic Award winning writers, talking back to area and TED writers that include Kyle Dargan, poet and American University professor, and Writopia Lab Director Rebecca Wallace-Segall.

TEDxDESA also features performances, readings, talks, and video work about the urgency and role of writers in today’s society. Right now, I’m working with my sophomores and juniors on creating content that talks back to TEDx writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the danger of a single story) and Elizabeth Gilbert (your elusive creative genius).

imageThat came up in my conversation with a parent at last Saturday’s event. The father, a professional painter that teaches sporadically in a Low-Residency MFA program for Visual Arts, asked about my creative process as a writer and listened as I recounted what I recalled of Gilbert’s talk: that ancient Rome believed the genius was a divine entity inhabiting the walls of artists’ homes. The Romans, according to the presenter, thought that genius helped the artists create their works.

I like that theory because, as Gilbert said: “If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?”

The painter-parent smiled at that, but thought it narcissistic to consider our creative spirits “geniuses.” I told him that Gilbert used that word and “genie” interchangeably, and that what we do when our wells go dry—me doing writing prompts and him copying a portrait he’d already painted—was our way of rubbing the genie lamp, calling out that creative spirit. To that he nodded.

And just as memorable was the intermission, when we played a student-produced mockumentary of the LMC department. The 16-minute video opens with the theme song from NBC sitcom The Office. Check it here:

In addition to my department chair (Mark Williams) and colleagues (Koye Oyedeji, Kelli Anderson, Olivia Drake, and Cerstin Johnson), these special thanks go out to Rory Pullens (Head of School), Tia Powell (Director of Artistic Affairs), LMC Parent Group, Chevy Chase Baptist Church, Horwitz Family Foundation, Joe Green (Director of Institutional Giving at The Ellington Fund), and The Cheesecake Factory (we appreciated the donated cheesecakes!).

DRIFT, A Cyber Conversation on Process

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, poet and educator Curtis Crisler, recently taught my debut poetry collection, DRIFT, to his students at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. He emailed me his students’ questions, which resulted in this cyber conversation:

What did you say to the girl who approached you to apologize for her behavior towards you?

All I could do was accept her apology. She caught me off-guard because I hadn’t seen, or thought of, that person in so long. It’s always refreshing, though, when you have encounters like that, when someone from your past goes out of their way to try to make things right. All I could do was appreciate that moment and accept her apology.

Do you think the apology had anything to do with your success?

No. This person didn’t know I was a poet. I’m not on TV and I’ve been on the radio (a few people heard me on NPR, but that’s it). She didn’t know then what I was doing with my life. Again, I think she realized the opportunity to make things right and took it.

How do you feel about your first collection of poems?  Are you happy with how they ended up, or do you wish you could change some things?

I’m always going to want to change things. I guess that’s the nature of writers. When I wrote DRIFT, I did my best with what I knew then. That’s all we can do. Since Willow Books published DRIFT, I completed grad school with way more knowledge of the craft than I had when I wrote those poems. While I would change some things in that collection, I’m glad it’s the way it is. I look at it as a marker for where I was at that time. I’m currently shopping around a new manuscript for what I hope will be a second book. It’s tentatively titled POINT BLANK. In that manuscript, I’m working with a whole different set of techniques that I’m excited about. I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer.

(PHOTO: Agent Retro)

How did you come to the title, Drift?

I went through the manuscript, looking for a poem that I would title the collection after. When I came across “Drift,” I realized that, just how the speaker was drifting through that moment, the speaker also drifts throughout the collection. My goal was to take the reader from love, to social commentary, to poems about my family, to brotherhood, and so on. I wanted to bring the reader inside the speaker’s head, to have him/her drift along and experience those moments the way the speaker did. DRIFT sets up that expectation.

What inspired you to write “Blackberry Speaks/Txt?”

I had a BlackBerry then, and I was sick of hearing about the iPhone. I’ve since upgraded to an Android phone. But I thought about how the BlackBerry had its heyday as a device once used by state and federal lawmakers, businessmen and women, etc. And in a blink, it became outdated. Then I got to thinking about our elderly, who hold so much wisdom, but we miss out because we think they don’t know what they’re talking about. The idea is, “They’ve lived their lives. What they know about mine?” So I wanted to explore that through the voice of an unappreciated BlackBerry. I wanted it to be humorous and serious all at once.

What was it that made you want to be a poet?

My first encounter with poetry was a traumatic experience. There’s nothing more traumatic than knowing that if you couldn’t recite the assigned poem, you’d be on the wall during recess, watching your friends have fun. Once I got over my first encounter, I realized poetry wasn’t so bad. I wrote it for the girls in high school, then later became serious about it during undergrad. The more I read, the more I appreciated the craft, the more I saw what was possible—the subjects I could tackle, the various literary devices I could use, the different ways I could connect with people. Cait Johnson, a former mentor of mine, once said: “Poetry’s a shortcut to empathy.” I like to think that, as poets, we’re helping to shape society’s conscience. While that’s ambitious, and at the risk of romanticizing poetry, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that people turn to poems to celebrate love and remember those who pass on.

When did you know you were a poet?

I’d have to say it was when the older writers, who I saw as legends in D.C.’s arts community, pulled me aside and red-inked my paper. These were writers who didn’t waste their time with folks who weren’t serious. The fact that they saw or heard something in my work, enough to look it over and offer their critiques, still stays with me. They were passing their wisdom on to me. That’s not to be taken lightly. Some of those writers have moved on to other cities. The ones I do see, I always make sure I tell them—even nearly a decade later—how much I appreciated what they did for me.

(PHOTO: Heather Conley) The late-poet Ai

Who are your favorite poets and why?  Which writer was your biggest inspiration when you first began to write?

Whoa! I’ll start with my inspiration, which was Sonia Sanchez. I had her book, SHAKE LOOSE MY SKIN. It was a poetry collection that included her micro fiction. I had to read that book a few times to really appreciate it. I initially picked it up because another writer told me Ms. Sanchez was someone whose work I should know. So when I was able to appreciate SHAKE LOOSE, she showed that poems could both be a bullhorn for justice and quiet as a whisper in a lover’s ear. I loved her range and what she was capable of talking about in her work. Other writers that inspire me are Yusef Komunyakaa (I’m still in love with NEON VERNACULAR), Patricia Smith, Ai (she was my introduction to persona poems), Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns (I still go back to VELOCITIES), Sherman Alexie, and the list goes on.

At the top of that heap is Tim Seibles, who was my mentor both the first and last residency of my MFA program. What he admired about Jimi Hendrix and Sade Adu, he applied it to his poems. Just as Hendrix and Adu kept working at their craft until the product was seamless, Tim works at a poem ‘til all of it sings loud. There’s no weak lines in Tim’s work. His ability to use humor to tackle serious social issues is a skill I still admire. He’s been called the master of the “tickle-punch” poetry. He uses humor to trick his readers into dropping their guard, then he punches them with the message. When their guards go up, he tickles them again, then punches them with the message. He does that over and over. Because of him, I try to max out my poem’s full potential every time I write.

What moments in your life were your biggest influences for your writings?

The influences came from time with my family and from past romantic relationships. I write more about my family in my new manuscript. In DRIFT, they make brief appearances because I wanted to capture D.C., at least how I experienced that city. The biggest influence is people watching. I do it with a poet-friend of mine, Derrick Weston Brown. We’re always interested in the nonverbal communication between strangers. It’s a great way to get material for new pieces—that is after reading other writers, of course.

(PHOTO: jet200nyc)

I really like your poem 3a.m.—what inspired that poem?

Thanks! “3a.m.” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend, who had it in her mind we were going to get married. There’s the irony (she broke up with me). But I thought about our late night caper for food. I remembered how good it felt just being with her. That moment at the late night diner somehow burned itself into my mind. I didn’t know then that I’d write a poem about that night. I guess writers have those moments, when we’re sponges, soaking up every detail of a moment. Then years later, a song or smell brings those details out and you’re far enough away from that moment that you can write it.

It seems much of your poetry is symmetric in regards to lines per stanza.  Why is that so?

At the time I wrote those poems, I would have told you it was for uniformity of stanzas. But I recently found out I have OCD, particularly, “purely obsessional” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (some of those symptoms include intrusive thoughts and psychological compulsions). I think that has something to do with what my wife sees as me being neurotic, where I’m obsessed with the order of things. Tim Seibles helped me break out of that. He said, “Bruh, you’re poems don’t have to be neat. It’s OK if your stanzas are a little messy.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tryst

Where do you like to write your poetry?

Anywhere there’s noise—coffee shops (especially with the cappuccino machines whining and music spooling through hanging speakers), classrooms, restaurants (I got inspired by an Al Green song at the CiCi’s pizza buffet), outside on any street corner, etc.

Before writing, do you have certain rituals or certain things you always do?  Example: Where you write, certain notebook/computer, etc?  Or do you just jot down ideas as they come to you?

I tend to write in my head, at first. I’ll have an idea and let it incubate. Sometimes I’ll share that idea with Derrick and our conversation about it will help me figure out how to execute it. Other times, it incubated in my head, with a few lines coming to me. I’ll let it build until I have to put it on the page. Once I get it all out, I put the poem away, then come back to it after a few weeks or months. I try to put as much distance as I can between me and the poem (that’s my process now; it wasn’t when I wrote DRIFT). In the past, I sent raw work to friends for suggestions. Now, I distance myself from the poems by coming back to them after a few weeks or months. That’s when my mind’s fresh and I can play around with stanzas—moving them around, starting the poem with the last, second, or next to last stanza. Other times, I’ll ask myself questions: how much of the story is in this poem? Will someone coming to this poem without the information I have understand what’s going on in the poem? I also have the voices of people I’ve workshopped with—former mentors, friends, etc. I anticipate the questions they would ask if they saw the poem. Once I get it the poem to where I’m satisfied, I send it to a few trustful readers. I say trustful because these are people  who are honest with me. They’ll let me know what’s working and what I need to work on. They also tell me when I have to scrap it and start over.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I love the titles to your poems, so how do you come up with them because when reading some of them they made me stop and think, where did he get this from?  (After reading the poem).

Thank you. I don’t like titling my poems before I’ve finished a draft. So I’ll write a poem, then go through it, looking for the title. Sometimes the title answers a question posed by the poem. The title may set up the reader’s expectation. Either way, the title is doing work. That’s the goal.

When writing a poem, do you have a set message that you are trying to get across to your readers, or do you just write and see what your finished poems turn out to be?

I usually have a message or something I want to communicate. That’s the idea I mentioned in response to a previous question. Once I get the idea, I have to figure out how I’m going to approach it. I look at the poem as a vehicle that’s going to help me drive my point home. That’s something I’ve learned from Tim Seibles and the older writers I’ve workshopped with. With that said, I do let the poem surprise me. If I realize I’m forcing the poem to go in one direction, I ease up and let it take me somewhere else. I figure if I’m excited about the process, that makes the reader’s  journey to that message just as exciting.

Did you ever worry about legal issues when you wrote about drugs?

No. I never did drugs. I hung out with people who did them. I never judged them. Plus, I was not incriminating myself or them. If I mention names, it’s first names only. And I make sure they’re common names J

Was it difficult to talk about sexual things?

Not at all. I’m not the only person in the world that loves sex. I figure there are other people out there feel the same way I do. My goal as a writer is to make sure the reader experiences my poems in a way that makes him/her recall their own experiences and bring up memories they thought they’d forgotten. If I do that, then that’s where I’ve connected with the reader. That’s always my goal.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

What do you do when you run out of ideas?

I read as much as I can—both in and outside my genres (poetry and creative nonfiction). I go to museums. I spend time with my wife, in-laws, and my family. The whole point is to live. Experience new things. The poems will come. But, in the meantime, I’m in sponge mode.

What do you think about when you write your poetry, or what do you feel?

Unlike some poets I’ve heard say they get a line or two, I get an image. If a scent or song recalls a memory, I see what happened during that moment, which heightens my senses. Ask my wife, when she sees me in that moment, I’m usually staring into space. But, to me, I’m briefly reliving that moment. I soak out all the details, then start to write.

Have you written poetry all (or most of) your life?  What was your first exposure to it?

I’m 32. I’ve written poetry, seriously, for 14 years. In total, I’d say I’ve been writing for 16 years—that’s me including the silly poems I wrote when I started. My first exposure was in 4th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Garrison, had us read and recite poems. It was mandatory. If we couldn’t recite it, we didn’t get recess, hence, the traumatic experience I mentioned earlier.

When I studied poetry again in middle school, I fell in love with the rhyme and rhythm. Now that I don’t rhyme anymore in my poems, the rhythm stayed with me. I love rhythm in a poem.

Was your journey to becoming a published poet a difficult one?

That journey required me to learn patience. I had to develop tough skin and know that rejection would be a part of that process. But rejection is good, because it makes it possible to appreciate when things come through. Rejection’s also good because it humbles you. It’s a constant reminder that what you’re trying to do is going to take some work.

(ARTWORK: Derrick Weston Brown)

When you first began to write poetry, did you feel like you were constrained?  If so, what did you do to free yourself?

What constrained me in the beginning was meter. That’s how I learned poetry. I wrote sonnets and other forms. While I enjoyed that, I felt like the meter and form wasn’t allowing me to say what I wanted to say. I’m not against all forms. I actually like the villanelle, bop (an African American form), ghazal, gigan (another African American form), and pantoum.

But I didn’t feel like the sonnet allowed me to say what I really wanted to say (there are some formalist poets who’ll disagree with me, and that’s fine J). It wasn’t until I read Langston Hughes’ later works, along with Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, that I discovered free verse. I loved the freedom. But, with that freedom, comes great responsibility. Free verse may look easy, but it’s hard. Since you’re not writing in form, it’s easy for someone to argue that what you’re writing is not a poem. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing anecdotes instead of poems. With free verse, you have to consider a lot of poetic devices—is there rhythm and alliteration? Are my lines sharp, do they snap? Does this poem go beyond the moment? Is it bigger than the moment? What’s the takeaway from this?

It’s just so many things to consider. That’s why reading writers who write free verse well helps reinforce those literary devices that really make the poem sing.

What inspired you to write “Quasimodo in NYC?”

If you’re familiar with the story about the hunchback of Notre Dame, then you know it’s really a tale about unrequited love. We’ve all been there—you like someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. That’s what makes Quasimodo’s story so universal. Before I met my wife, I went through a Quasimodo moment when I kept running into women who couldn’t return what I felt for them. This poem was about a particular woman who I thought had the same feelings for me that I had for her. Anyway, when it wasn’t so, I went for a walk. We both met up at an annual writer’s conference that New York City hosted that year. I wrote the poem through Quasimodo’s persona because I connected with the hunchback. After a few rejections, you don’t feel so attractive.

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.

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