Tag Archive: 2011


Shameless Plug

Order your copies today!

Drift (Willow Books, 2012) is now available. Order it from Small Press Distribution or get it directly from me:

Praise for Drift:

“Tender and tough, the poems in Alan King’s wonderful debut book of poems, Drift, reveal the cities of memory, love and friendship with the precise and caring eye of a poet deeply invested in the lives of those around him.” –Ching-in Chen, author of The Heart’s Traffic

“Alan King’s first collection is aptly named. The pictorial poems he posits drift between two worlds: the angst-ridden coming-of-age confessionals of the prescient observer and the ironist picking apart each airborne particle of memory’s introspective infernal excavation. The metaphors and imagery herein
startle while what they reveal lingers like the strands of a song that won’t let you go.”—Tony Medina, author of My Old Man Was Always On The Lamb and Broke On Ice

“In this collection Alan King’s words sparkle like the season’s first snow, here we marvel at the  crystals of language that have accumulated into stanzas that wall the city of his imagination. Like the brick and mortar metropolis in which his work is set, this city is oriented to the Cardinal points. Here Love brightens the night sky and a young man learns to navigate by its gleam. Here the neon glow of the Diner, the flicker of the street light, the white finger of the headlight is Polaris. Let us be thankful we have this star to follow.”Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade), author of 4000 Shades of Blue and Libation Song (CD)

Alan King is a poet and journalist, living in the DC metropolitan area. He writes about art and domestic issues on his blog at http://alanwking.wordpress.com. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. King’s poems have appeared in Alehouse, Audience, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and RATTLE, among others. He is a Cave Canem fellow, VONA Alum, a Stonecoast MFA canditate, and a two-time Best of the Net nominee. He’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Drift is his first collection of poems.

What’s Going On

It’s been years since I’ve heard
your voice, since we last saw
each other on a night like this:
stars hemmed to the sky

like glittery sequins on a dark
formfitting dress. Even then, I wanted
to be so many things: the cursive
script of light in your long wavy hair,

the iridescent glow glazing your
olive skin. And weren’t we so determined
to keep our friendship we disregarded
the possibilities?

Driving through your old area,
each street takes me back to
that night outside the record shop–
you in the Soul Train line and me

wanting to be the imaginary hool-a-
hoop your hips were working. All I have
now is a missed call and your message.
I don’t know what to call this current

tugging us both after so long
when I’m minutes from calling you
before a friend breaks the news
of your engagement.

Order your copy of DRIFT:


(PHOTO: Alan King) l-r: Derrick Weston Brown, Evie Shockley, Iain Haley Pollock, and Khadijah Queen.

The panel of poets at a Baltimore City Library quietly considered an audience member’s question: “When did you know you were a poet?” Evie Shockley, a presenter, smiled as the response brewed in her mind.

She’d been asking herself the same thing until she took a poetry workshop led by Lucille Clifton. If you wrote a poem, then you’re a poet, Shockley recalled the late-poet saying. “Own it and claim it.” Shockley passed on the advice.

That question was among the sane ones asked during a Q&A, the most bizarre of any that I sat through. It followed Sunday’s reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which featured four Cave Canem poets who launched their books this year.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Derrick Weston Brown

Among them was Derrick Weston Brown, who kicked the event off with poems from his debut collection Wisdom Teeth (Busboys and Poets/PM Press, 2011).

It’s an apt title for a book in which the speaker cuts his teeth on issues ranging from slavery and gentrification to love and hip hop. As the poet puts it, “To consider Wisdom Teeth is to acknowledge inevitable movement, shift, and sometimes pain.”

The audience got a glimpse of that pain in Brown’s “Legacy”: “My father’s vocabulary/is extensive but/he still can’t find the words/for I love you/ […] I guess this is why I am/ a poet./ I inherited the words/ lost to his dictionary.” Brown’s words touched the woman sitting next to me, who mm hmmed and nodded.

The quiet library crowd perked up when Shockley, reading from her second collection the new black, jumped into a poem about the post-Black wave that took off after Barack Obama’s election as America’s first Black president:

[…] some see in this the end of race, like the end of a race that begins/ with a gun: a finish(ed) line we might/ finally limp across,” she read. “for others,/ this miracle marks an end like year’s/ end, the kind that whips around again/ and again: an end that is chilling,/ with a lethal spring coiled in the snow.

What’s lethal about Shockley’s the new black is how it blends past and present notions of blackness through verses. It’s an ambitious undertaking that serves as a reminder that our racial past impacts our present moments.

And just as ambitious is Khadijah Queen’s Black Peculiar, which looks at how those in power shape perceptions on race and history. “In the 19th century, those unwilling to face the incongruities of a nation espousing freedom while simultaneously perpetuating terror used the phrase our peculiar institution as code for slavery,” according to poet Noah Eli Gordon’s blurb for book.

Gordon continued: “Here, with equal part precision and aplomb, humility and humor, erudition and absurdity, the work in Khadijah Queen’s Black Peculiar decodes, uncovers, and recasts such lexical wound dressing, exposing the abraded, scarred flesh of a consciousness both beset upon and liberated through language.”

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poets after grabbing some grub (l-r): Tony Medina, Reginald Harris, Khadijah Queen, Bettina Judd, Derrick Weston Brown, and Judy Cooper.

Then things took a bizarre twist when two guys in the audience turned the Q&A into a circus.

The first one rambled on about only reading Russian poets because younger Black poets wrote from a “quiet complexity” instead of an “existential angst.”

When a presenter asked him to clarify, he couldn’t explain what he meant—just that he enjoyed the works of Amiri Baraka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

To hear him tell it, contemporary writers—including the presenters—lacked “existential angst” in their work. Khadijah Queen asked him to name one contemporary writer he’d read. Silence. When poets Iain Haley Pollock and Derrick Weston Brown tried to engage him, the guy debated them.

Watching that exchange only affirmed why I’m not a fan of Q&As. While they give writers a chance to engage their audience, they also become platforms for “know-it-alls” like “existential angst” man to ramble about nonsense.

And, when I thought it couldn’t get worse, the second guy raised his hand. When I spoke with Derrick Weston Brown afterwards, he said the guy’s vibe seemed off. “He came in, sat right up front, and started mean mugging us,” the poet said.
The second guy asked the poets if they were still slaves.

At that point, I was glad I got up during the reading for refreshments and decided to stand at the back of the room for the rest of the reading. That meant only poet and activist Tony Medina was close enough to hear me swearing under my breath. After hearing the second guy’s question, Medina leaned over and whispered to me, “These readings always bring out the kooks.”

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poster

Up front, the presenters exchanged confused looks with one another. Khadijah Queen was the only one among them who took the guy serious enough to respond. “I grew up in a house where both of my parents were in the Nation of Islam,” Queen said.

She grew up listening to Malcolm X’s and Elijah Muhammad’s speeches. “So I’m very much aware of how we’re modern slaves in the way that we have to survive by working for someone else.” The guy, apparently satisfied, got up and left the room.

But the event wasn’t ruined completely. In response to the woman’s question about knowing when he was a poet, Iain Haley Pollock cracked us up when he jokingly said, “I still don’t feel like a poet.”

Pollock’s debut collection Spit Back A Boy won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

In addition to having two annual book contests, Cave Canem is a summer retreat that Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded for writers of African descent.

Since 1996, emerging poets have had a safe space to take artistic chances. It was there Pollack said that he felt more like a poet.

Derrick Weston Brown chimed in with a Nicaraguan saying: “We’re all born poets. Society takes it away, and it’s our job to get it back.”

The Q&A’s highlight was a 14-year-old, who asked about finding an audience. It resonated with Brown, who once wondered how his work would be received—that is, until a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove assured him he was doing the right thing.

Brown passed on the former poet laureate’s advice to the aspiring poet: “While you’re writing, never think of your audience—they will find you.”

(PHOTO: Erin Patrice O'Brien) Major Jackson

The speakers in both Major Jackson’s 11-part poem “Urban Renewal” (from Leaving Saturn) and Audre Lorde’s Coal are both city dwellers coming to terms with the changing landscape. They fear possibly being displaced and mourn the once familiar structures city officials left “crumbling to gutted relics.”[1]

The speakers aren’t alone in their suffering. “A chorus of power lines/ hums a melancholic hum,” while the “sun dreams the crowns of trees behind skyscrapers.”[2] And, though the long-term effects of displacement are just as unsettling, both Jackson’s and Lorde’s speakers know that “the heart is its own light.”[3] But is it enough to keep them optimistic?

Jackson’s speaker attempts to find that out in “Night Museum,” part one of “Urban Renewal.” The speaker puts the block on display from the mother “straddl[ing] a stoop of brushes, combs,/ a jar of Royal Crown” to everyone else “that festive night the whole block  sat out/ on rooftops, in doorways, on the hoods of cars.”[4] Stevie Wonder was the soundtrack for that moment blaring from speakers above “Bullock’s Corner Store.”

“Urban Renewal’s” first section is certainly not a “night museum” for the residents. Instead, Jackson’s speaker exhibits them  as if the reader is an outsider, or tourist, getting a glimpse of the real city—away from the marble monuments and bronze statues. During his observation, the speaker notices a girl getting her hair done, who cocks her head  “to one side like a Modigliani.”[5]

At that moment, the speaker evokes the famous Italian painter and sculptor. Amadeo Clemente Modigliani, who lived in France, according to various sources, was known for his style of painting and sculpting women with blank expressions and elongated torsos. Like the stoop dwellers in Jackson’s “Night Museum,” Modigliani knew hard times. His poverty, overwork and addictions to both alcohol and narcotics aggravated his tubercular meningitis, according to sources.

By evoking Modigliani’s spirit, I wondered if Jackson’s speaker attempted to be the late-artist, who created works simply as a way of sharing with outsiders the world he saw. The first line of “Night Museum” alludes to this: “By lamplight my steady hand brushes a canvas.” And, like Modigliani’s women, the people who inhabit “Night Museum” are expressionless: “[…] I watched/ a mother straddle a stoop of brushes, combs,/ a jar of royal crown. She was fingering rows/ dark as alleys on a young girl’s head […]”.[6]

(PHOTO: laallen) An alley in Philly.

These psychological details allude to how Modigliani’s purpose for his work (showing what he saw) influences the speaker: “[…] I pledged/ my life right then to braiding her lines to mine,/ to anointing the streets I love with all my mind’s wit.”[7]

If you consider the poem’s title “Urban Renewal,” which refers to land redevelopment in cities, it’s clear that Jackson’s speaker is doing more than “anointing streets […] with all [of his] mind’s wit.”

While urban renewal beautifies the cities’ once neglected areas, it often results in people being displaced. In this case, it’s happening in the speaker’s hometown of Philadelphia. Most of these folks are long-time residents with decades’ worth of institutional memory, the city’s history a tourist won’t read in brochures.

Some of that history explored in “part two of Urban Renewal”. The first lines of that section takes the reader back to the 17th century: “Penn’s Green Countrie Towne uncurled a shadow […]/ that descended over gridiron streets like a black shroud/ and darkened parlors with the predatory fog of prosperity […].”[8]

Inga Saffron’s Essay “Green Country Town” contextualizes the moment captured in Jackson’s poem. William Penn, a real estate developer, Saffron writes, “envisioned Philadelphia as a lush American Eden,” which would later be called green (sometimes “greene”) country town.[9]

However, it turned out to be a disaster. “Having bequeathed those five public squares to the city as part of the plan,” according to the essay:

Penn then established the great Philadelphia tradition of not funding them. Because no money was allotted for turning the wild blocks into landscaped parks […] They became convenient places to hang criminals and bury the poor. It wasn’t until 1820 that the city government agreed to take responsibility for their upkeep.[10]

Perhaps the towne’s “shadow” and “the predatory fog of prosperity” to which Jackson’s speaker refers was how Penn’s vision displaced the  “workers in cotton mills and foundries,” who “shook [their] heads in disbelief.”[11]

(PHOTO: simon_music) The Parthenon in Athenian Acropolis, Greece.

It’s also clear that Jackson’s speaker sees urban renewal as a type of revisionist history.

His speaker in “part two of Urban Renewal” doesn’t hide his anger in these psychological details: “Step on a platform in our time, the city’s a Parthenon,/ a ruin that makes great  literature of ghostly houses/ whose skins is the enduring chill of western wind.”[12]

And Jackson’s speaker isn’t done. Here’s some more venom for William Penn and other revisionists: “Stare back down cobbled alleys that coil with clopping horses,/ wrought-iron railings, the grand boulevards that make a fiction/ of suffering; then stroll these crumbling blocks, housing projects,/ man-high weeds snagging the barren pages of our vacant lots.”[13]

The past and present collide in “part four of Urban Renewal,” where b-boys battle outside the Liberty Bell’s “public gallery of bronze statues/ whose Generals grimace frightened looks at the darkening scenery.”[14]  That the bronze Generals “grimace[d] frightened looks/ at the darken scenery” is Jackson’s speaker alluding to a contradiction in American history: the American Revolution.

While they fought for their freedom from Great Britain, those bronze Generals and other armed Americans weren’t concerned with the freedom of enslaved Black folks. In fact, the idea of abolishing slavery unsettled some of the freedom-loving Americans.

And I don’t think that contradiction was lost on the black youth “break-danc[ing] the bionic two-step” outside the “Liberty Bell’s glass asylum.”[15] That the dancers in “part four of Urban Renewal” treated the public space as anything but a historic landmark is their way of telling the super patriots were they could stick their Independence Day.

(PHOTO: Archives)

In that sense, it echoes the sentiments of the late-abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass, who blasted a crowd of about 600 people in his 1852 Independence Day speech.

Here’s what Douglass told the crowd that day at Rochester, New York:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveal to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery […][16]

And the dancers outside “the Liberty Bell’s glass asylum” return the “hollow mockery” with their “Kangoled head[s] spin[ning]/ on cardboard, […] windmill[s] garnering allegiance/ […] Break beats blasting […] limbs to Market.”[17]

In the context of urban renewal, the young people’s presence on that public space is a political statement affirming their existence despite them being the “ghost bloom in the camera’s flash.”

And the “ghost bloom” of memory is also present in Audre Lorde’s Coal. Like Jackson’s, Lorde’s speaker is also affected by the changing landscape. But Lorde’s speaker personalizes the city structures in a way that Jackson’s speaker doesn’t.

The reader sees this in “Rooming Houses Are Old Women”: “Rooming houses are old women/ rocking dark windows into their whens/ waiting incomplete circles/ rocking/ rent office to stoop to/ community bathrooms to gas rings and/ under-bed boxes of once useful garbage/ city issued with a twice monthly check.”[18]

(PHOTO: Black Enterprise's archive) Audre Lorde

These “rooming houses,” according to various sources, were often family homes that took in lodgers, who rented rooms. The rent sometimes included meals and laundry service that the host/hostess provided.

But, with hotels and apartments now, rooming houses are things of the past. Lorde personifies these structures as though they were elders with a story about everyone in the community. While reading “Rooming Houses,” I wondered what stories they’d tell about their lodgers.

The “old women” metaphor for rooming houses intensifies the feeling of abandonment the elders usually experience when they’re around young people. The sexual energy in “Rooming Houses” also heightens that loneliness:

[…] the young men next door/ with their loud midnight parties/ and fishy rings left in the bathtub/ no longer arouse them/ from midnight to mealtime no stops in between/ light breaking to pass through jumbled windows/ and who was it who married the widow that Buzzie’s son/ messed with?”[19]

Reading those lines, I thought of the rooming houses as past lovers who once opened up themselves to the “young men” passing through. I see them now as old women reminiscing about those days when they were once the hottest things on the block—that is, until something better came along.

Now, all these “old women” have are one another’s company. The stories pass between them as easy as the gossip about “the widow” and “Buzzie’s son”—the whole time these women knowing they’d give anything to be in the widow’s shoes.

(PHOTO: Archives) An old rooming house.

These sensory details also intensify the loneliness: “Rooming houses/ are old women waiting/ searching/ through darkening windows/ the end or beginning of agony/ old women seen through half-ajar doors/ hoping/ they are not waiting/ but being/ the entrance to somewhere/ unknown and desired/ but not new.”[20]

Some positive things about urban renewal are the jobs it brings. Lorde’s speaker in “The Woman Thing” observes the unemployed men (“hunters”) looking for work in construction or the ensuing retail opportunities:

The hunters are back from beating/ the winter’s face/ in search of a challenge or task/ in search of food/ making fresh tracks for their children’s hunger/ […] The hunters are treading heavily homeward/ through snow that is marked with their own bloody footprints/ empty handed, the hunters return/ snow-maddened, sustained by their rages.[21]

The “winter’s face” is the cold, cruel world in which these “hunters” are looking for ways to support their families. This alludes to the patriarchal society’s definition of a man as hunter and gatherer. And, when these men fall short of that ability, they head home defeated, “treading heavily […]/ through snow that is […] marked/ with their own bloody footprints.”

That their rages sustain them only means they’ll take out their frustrations on “the unbaked girls,” according to Lorde’s speaker, “[who] flee from their angers.” She continues: “Empty handed the hunters come shouting/ injustices drip from their mouths/ like stale snow melted in sunlight./ Meanwhile/ the woman thing my mother taught me/ bakes off its covering of snow/ like a rising blackening sun.”[22]

Knowing my mom and how she raised my sister, “the woman thing” is the speaker having sense enough to put some money away for emergencies. It’s because of “the woman thing” that the family won’t starve.

(ARTWORK: Dreams Time)

Lorde’s speaker faces the cold world again in “Generation”: “How the young attempt and are broken/ differs from age to age/ We were brown free girls/ love singing beneath our skin/ sun in our hair in our eyes/ sun our fortune/ and the wind had made us golden/ made us gay.”[23]

The speaker lost that innocence in the “season of limited power,” which could mean the odds stacked against young people. Reading “Generation,” I’m reminded of a boy I interviewed for a story.

He said his older brother’s high school conditions forced him to make a decision: drop out of school or stay in school and join a gang. His brother dropped out because there was no support to help him do the right thing and graduate.

Like Major Jackson’s speaker, Lorde’s speaker in “Generation” is aware of the institutional memory lost as a result of urban renewal.

Without the elders’ stories to guide them, young people are left to learn life-lessons the hard way. Lorde’s speaker says just as much in these psychological details: “But who comes back from our latched cities of falsehood/ to warn them that the road to nowhere/ is slippery with our blood […]”[24] Lorde’s speaker is just as hopeless as Jackson’s own in “part three of Urban Renewal” when he talked about the eyes of the dead floating from murals around a city in transition (“Aching humans. Prosperous gardens”).[25]

That the brick-and-mortar structures get more attention than the suffering residents only shows how cruel and cold it is in the “latched cities of falsehood.” Lorde’s speaker says just as much in the last stanza of “Generation”: “How the young are tempted and betrayed/ into slaughter or conformity/ is a turn of the mirror/ time’s question only.”


[1] part three of Major Jackson’s “Urban Renewal”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Major Jackson, Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 4.

[9] Inga Saffron, “Green Country Town,” from The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, http://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/green-country-town (Dec. 5, 2011)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op.Cite, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927.html (Dec. 5, 2011).

[17] Op.cite, 6.

[18] Audre Lorde, Coal (New York: W.W. Norton, 1976), 7.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Major Jackson, “Urban Renewal,” Leaving Saturn (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002), 5.

Nancy Schwalb: A Community Champion

Full Disclosure: I’m the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop. I covered the award ceremony where Bank of America honored our executive director, and I wanted to share it here. Congrats again Nancy!

(PHOTO: Abbey Chung) Young-Writer-in-Residence Renita Williams, Executive Director Nancy Schwalb, and Board Chair Dr. John Cotman in their militant stand against the cold, wet weather of that evening.

With two young people from her program, Nancy Schwalb approached the podium. “As you can see, I brought my bosses with me,” she told a laughing crowd Thursday evening.

The DC Creative Writing Workshop’s executive director, known for her wit and sense of humor, continued. “Our organization’s so small—hey! There’s our senior program director! And over there’s our program manager,” Schwalb said, pointing into the audience. “That’s it for our staff—oh! And most of our board is also here tonight.”

Everyone in the packed penthouse laughed until their faces turned red.

Watching Schwalb work the room, the attendees couldn’t have known she was nervous in the days leading up to the award ceremony at the Bank of America building downtown.

She was among the Community Champions the financial institution honored Nov. 10 at the 2011 Greater Washington Neighborhood Excellence Initiative Awards.

Since 2004, Bank of America’s initiative has recognized, nurtured and rewarded organizations, local heroes and student leaders who enriched their communities and inspired others to get involved.

In 1995, Nancy Schwalb got involved when she founded the DC Creative Writing Workshop, which uses arts education to transform the lives of at-risk youths living in DC’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 educational hurdles.

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.”

(PHOTO: Abbey Chung) Our students hard at work.

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 founding, the DC Creative Writing 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 demands.

The Workshop’s creative outlets help our students resist the lure of the streets. Through the nonprofit, thousands of students have attended readings, plays and other literary events, won dozens of writing awards, and enjoyed a wealth of new experiences not otherwise available to young people in Ward 8.

Many of our former students go on to universities such as NYU, George Washington, Penn State and UNC’s Chapel Hill campus, to name a few. (To see more photos of our students, visit our Facebook page!)

According to Bank of America, local heroes, like Nancy Schwalb, “are vital voices for change and role models who move into action, making life markedly better in their neighborhoods.”

(PHOTO: Bernie Horn) The whole crew: Program Manager Abbey Chung, Nancy Schwalb, Young-Writer-in-Residence Michael Johnson, Me, and Renita Williams.

The award ceremony and penthouse reception was a fitting way to honor a woman whose superpowers—according to those in the know—include “vocabulary boost, peripheral vision, cookie crumb pinpointing, and indestructibility.”

That night Schwalb was every bit the superhero in her black pant suit, posing for photos with her young-writers-in-residence—Michael Johnson and Renita Williams—who accompanied her earlier to the podium.

The $5,000 Bank of America awarded to Schwalb will help the DC Creative Writing Workshop hire more former students, like Mike and Renita, through its youth employment program.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vicky Leyva

The dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses startled the crowd when they dashed down the aisle of chairs on the Sub Level 1 floor of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.

Following them, a boy in his aqua-blue top, dark pink waist-tie and black pants shuffle-stepped among the dancers—his arms outstretched as if he were mimicking the movements of a plane.

These dancers were a highlight of an Afro-Peruvian Rhythms and Dance performance the Museum of African Art and Smithsonian Latino Initiative Pool presented Saturday. The headliners were Peruvian singer Vicky Leyva and her five-piece band.

This is the second event this year I’ve seen at the Museum of African Art. Last month, I saw MATCH + WOOD, a performance by poets Ernesto Mercer, Sami Miranda and a 10-piece band that explored the dynamic connections between Latino, African and American cultures.

Saturday’s event was a thread in an ongoing narrative of the Afro-Peruvian experience that started when the first slaves arrived in Peru in the sixteenth century, according to World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples – Peru: Afro-Peruvians published by the Minority Rights Group International. “By the nineteenth century, slaves formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labour force,” the publication noted.

And though the Peruvian government abolished slavery in 1854, Afro-Peruvians didn’t regain their ethnic identity until the 1950s. That’s when Afro-Peruvians created dance and theater groups to reaffirm their African identity.

(PHOTO: OralHistoryEducation.com) March on Washington, 1963

“Inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, social groups formed to trace their African roots,” according to the publication. “Although these groups were short-lived, other groups have taken their place, including the Asociacion Cultural de la Juventud Negra, the Instituto de Investigaciones Afro-Peruano, and the Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo.”

During Saturday’s performance, Vicky Leyva’s Afro-Peruvian pride showed in her brown micro-shoulder-length braids, her wood-beaded cuff and her one-piece cheetah-print jumpsuit.

Even her smart phone exuded an Afro-Latina vibe. When it rang during sound check, the early attendees looked around to see who was blowing a wooden flute and smacking claves.

Leyva kicked off her set with a percussive-heavy number to which she stomped a foot and rolled her hips. The audience nodded and tapped their feet as the rhythm sped up. She jumped into another number that required crowd participation in the form of clapping. Leyva drove the crowd wild when she started winding her hips. She danced to each musician’s solo—even to that of the bass guitarist and electric keyboard.

This style of dance and accompanying music is festejo, according to afropop.org, the companion site for the radio series Afropop Worldwide, which served as a portal for Americans to learn more about Africa and the world for 22 years. The site is a network of researchers, writers, field recorders, photographers, videographers, audio engineers, producers, bloggers and on-air personalities.

According to the site, “The festejo is the most joyous of Afro-Peruvian music styles.” Vocalist Susana Baca, one of the site’s researchers, traced the dance and music to slavery in Peru. “After independence in Peru and the abolition of slavery,” she was quoted as saying, “people who were slaves only wanted to forget that part of their lives, to erase all memory of that stage of history.”

(PHOTO: Que Pasa Magazine)

She continued: “Erasing memory signified erasing melodies, erasing songs, erasing dances, and erasing traditions.

There were times in the early part of the 20th Century when an African descendant would be asked if he or she could remember a slave song. This person would say that they could not remember, but they remembered.”

Over time, the festejo became competitive among men, who gathered in a circle with their cajones (or box drums) and beat out “a series of fighting rhythms,” according to afropop.org. The festejo now incorporates sensual and undulating movements, the body’s way of talking. The percussionists are puppet masters whose rhythms trigger the dancer’s movements.

Vicky Leyva’s body interpreted the sounds and rhythms of cowbells and congas. The crowd jumped up and applauded when her body matched the violent rhythms of a cajone player whose box drum doubled as his stool. During that exchange, Leyva’s movements were as fluid as the underwater light patterns that rippled on a wall behind the performers. “I’m enjoying that,” she said after her dance. “Are you enjoying it?” We all yelled, “Yeah!”

Then Leyva performed a piece by a famous Afro-Peruvian poet to drums and hand claps. The poem, whose name escapes me, is about a little girl in Peru learning to embrace her African heritage. The little girl’s reluctance is the result of the current marginalization of Afro-Peruvians. According to the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous PeoplesPeru, the Afro-Peruvian movement in Peru was weaker than those in Brazil and Columbia.

The publication also found that the Afro-Peruvians in rural areas live in extreme poverty without basic services or social programs. As a result, “anti-racism working groups have been formed in Lima, and organizations such as the Asociacion Palenque and the Asociacion pro Derechos Humanos del Negro have managed to make their voices heard.” However, the Peruvian press reports show continued discrimination that included a club in Lima barring entrance to people of African descent.

(IMAGE: usslave.blogspot.com)

The little girl in the poem’s reluctance comes from the fact that despite a strong presence of African group identity, black Peruvians have no special collective rights since they’re not officially recognized as a distinct cultural group.

Though Leyva performed the poem in Spanish—a language I learned, but was never close to speaking it fluently—it was clear for me that the back-up singers’ chants of “Negra!” started as a taunt.

But once the girl embraced her African roots, she turned the taunt into her affirming chant: “Negra!”

And Vicky Leyva’s performance was just as affirming, especially when the dancers in dark pink and aqua-blue flamenco dresses came out. We clapped for the dancers moving the top layer of their dresses from side to side while they spun to the percussion. We shouted while the boy stepped to the cajone, congas and cowbell.

Leyva smiled while watching all this, and I wondered if she was once that little girl in the poem; if that was why she picked that poem to perform. I didn’t wonder long when Leyva, amid applause for the dancers who dashed back through the aisle, came back to the mic for her last affirmation. “I feel this music,” she said as we cheered. “African roots are in my veins. They’re in the veins of everyone here.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Kim Addonizio

In both Kim Addonizio’s Tell Me and Stephen Dobyns’s New Poems from Velocities: New and Selected Poems 1966-1992, the speakers are aware of the forces that connect everyone despite race and class.

Sometimes those insights manifest themselves to the speakers at a peep show[1] or a strip club[2]. Other times the speaker stumbles upon them while strolling through the city[3] or watching a pickup game of soccer[4].

Or they find it while firing their gun at a range[5] or reminiscing about a night at a foreign restaurant that war reduced to rubble[6].

Addonizio’s speaker first encounters that insight in “Quantum”:

You know how hard it is sometimes just to walk on the streets/ downtown, how everything enters you/ the way the scientists describe it—photons streaming through/bodies, caroming off the air, the impenetrable brick/of buildings an illusion—sometimes you can feel how porous you/ are […][7]

Those psychological details intensify the speaker’s paranoid tone and her germ phobia. They also allude to the atom as a metaphor for the “body of the world” to which we’re all connected, a body that insists on its recognition. And like atoms, that collective body consists of negative forces (electrons) that highlighted in these sensory details:

[...] the man lurching in circles/ on the sidewalk, cutting the space, around him with a tin can and/ saying Uhh! Uhhhh! Uhh! over and over/ is part of it, and the one in gold chains leaning against the glass of/ the luggage store is, and the one who steps toward you/ from his doorway, meaning to ask something apparently simple,/ like What’s the time, something you know/you can no longer answer; he’s part of it”[8]

(COVER ART: BOA)

These psychological details intensify the effect that the negative charges have on everyone inside that charged world-body:

[…] your tongue is as thick with dirt/ as though you’ve fallen on your hands and knees to lick the oil-/ scummed street, as sour as if you’ve been drinking/ the piss of those men passing their bottle in the little park with its/ cement benches and broken fountain.

Those lines explain why I’m repulsed when I see jellyfish-globs of mucus splattered on the sidewalk. My stomach turns as if I’m on my “hands and knees” licking them up. The electrons spark again when Addonizio’s speaker’s at the metro, hurrying “through the/ turnstile, fumbling out the money” as she considers how many hands those dollars passed through before reaching hers.[9]

In “Target”, Addonizio’s speaker is at a gun range. She rips “holes/ in the paper target clamped to its hanger” and enjoys nestling “a clip/ of bullets against the heel” of her hand and ratcheting “one into the chamber”, cocking “the hammer back” before she fires.[10] Her use of the weapon is erotic, especially “the recoil/ surging” up her arms “as the muzzle kicks up” and she’s in control.[11]

As a result of the erotic sensation of firing the gun with her “legs apart”, she’s empathetic with the negative forces of the world’s body: the boys who lift guns “from bottoms of drawers and boxes/ at the backs of closets, and drive fast into lives/ they won’t finish.”[12] The speaker lives vicariously through these guys who “lean from their car widows and / let go a few rounds into whatever’s out there.”[13]

What makes “Target” musical are the iambic first and second lines (“it FEELS so GOOD to SHOOT a GUN/ to STAND with your LEGS aPART”[14]) before the dactylic third, fourth and fifth lines that all end with spondees (“HOLDing a NINE milliMEter in BOTH HANDS/ AIMing at SOMEthing that CAN’T RUN./ Over and Over i RIP HOLES”[15]).

Those moments intensify the speaker’s erratic mental state that results in her seeing the gun as both a weapon of self-defense and a tool to victimize others. What’s scary is that there are people, like the speaker, for whom violence is an orgasm they’ll go to any lengths to experience despite the harm it does to others. They fire “until the gun feels/ light again, and innocent. And then […] reload.”[16]

(PHOTO: Ilya Varlamov)

The speaker’s use of science  to understand the world in “Quantum” returns in “Physics”. Addonizio’s speaker in “Physics” is at a peep show:

“[…] there’s a naked woman/ dancing before you and you’re looking/ at her knees, then raising your eyes/ to the patch of wiry hair which she obligingly parts/ with two fingers while her other hand/ palms her body from breast to hip/ […] you lift your face to hers she’s not/ gazing into space as you expect but/ looking back, right at you, with an expression/ that says I love you, I belong to you compl—/ but then the barrier descends.[17]

Other striking sensory details are the “black/ shade” that “has to close down,/ before slowly opening again like a pupil adjusting/ to the absence of light […]”[18] Reading those lines, I wondered who the pupil was—the peepers or the dancers? Then it’s clear they’re both the pupil.

From the speaker’s point of view, the dancer’s the one on display “as she thrusts herself over and over into/ the air between” them.[19] The dancer’s also the pupil because the speaker’s on display, “trapped there/ like some poor fish in a plastic baggie”.[20] The dancer gets a thrill out of watching the speaker open his “mouth just like a fish waiting/ for the flakes of food, understanding nothing/ of what causes them to rain down/ upon” him.[21]

Addonizio’s speaker also alludes to gluttony because, like the fish that eats itself to death, the speaker will never be fulfilled no matter how much he feeds his fantasy.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Stephen Dobyns takes a humorous and sympathetic look at fulfillment in ‘Topless” from his New Poems in Velocities. Unlike the patrons in Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”, the old men in Dobyns’s “Topless” aren’t dreaming of “fucking” the dancers.

Instead, the strip club is a therapeutic experience for the all-male patrons “with their gray faces […] ill-fitting toupees/ and sappy smiles”.[22]

Going back to the atom metaphor, Dobyns’s use of humor turns the strip club experience, another negative force in the world’s body, into a positive one. These sensory details in “Topless” show the harmless old men’s therapeutic experience:

Many/ were regulars, older guys in work clothes,/ sipping beers, out of shape, skidding between/ their first and second heart attack or stroke./ […] You know those mechanical toys, wind-up rabbits or bears,/ […] how they scuttle across the floor only to end up in a corner, banging/ their fragile tin bodies against the baseboard?/ These guys were like that. And the girls/ in a small way, would set them straight again.[23]

That the “plump girl” straddles a guy she knows enough about to ask him personal questions—“How’s the wife,/ how’s the back? How’re the arches holding up?”[24]— intensify the doctor-patient relationship between the strippers and old men. These striking sensory details not only show how ludicrous that relationship is but they also intensify the speaker’s sympathy for the patrons:

[…] as she spoke, she swung her shoulders, left/ and right, swinging her big breasts, so this guy,/ with his chin poked directly between her nipples/ kept getting punched, left breast, right breast,/ slapping across his face […]/ […] Pow, pow—piston strokes from some bright engine/ so that briefly the girl seemed the very center/ of the world’s own merry-go-round […]/ […] and clinging to their seats/ all these old guys, all the timorous and beaten.[25]

ARTWORK: Stock Image

The body of the world also takes a different spin in Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men In The Street: Number One”. While Addonizio’s speaker in “Quantum” and “Target” sees only negative forces, Dobyns’s speaker in “Five Men” sees both good and bad.

Going back to the atom metaphor, the pickup soccer game at lunch is the photon (or positive force) that brings together “four fellows in orange uniforms/ and a fifth in a dismal suit”.[26] According to Dobyns’s speaker, “The guy in the suit is a clerk who/ gets yelled at. The ones in orange sweep/ out a garage for a boss who thinks/ a uniform looks sharp.”[27]

Those sensory details allude to the class differences between the clerk and janitors. But those men are also bound by that atom’s negative forces: grief and death. “Not one will ever/ find an easy death,” according to Dobyns’s speaker, “and each will know/ a hundred forms of grief.”[28]

Grief and death also bound the waiter and restaurant patrons in “Somewhere It Still Moves”. In that poem, Dobyns’s speaker remembers a night of dinner and dancing at a restaurant in Sarajevo three years before the Bosnian War (1992-1995) reduced it to rubble.

Here’s what happened that night in 1989:

I was having dinner with my friends Howie and Francine./ […] The waiter kept knocking his head with his fist, trying/ to explain something. The only words we knew were Pivo—beer and Dobro—good. […]/ […] Okay, said Howie, sure. Bring it to me, whatever it is. […]/ When the waiter/ brought our dinner, there were our plates and on Howie’s/ plate a paper bag […] / […] Howie opened it carefully. Brains/ in a bag, lamb brains cooked in a paper bag. We recalled/ how the waiter made a circle, then knocked his forehead./ This was Howie’s dinner. […] He could/ barely breathe for all his laughter. We all  laughed/ and drank red wine.[29]

COVER ART: Penguin Books

Like Addonizio’s “Target”, the issue of senseless violence confronts Dobyns’s speaker in “Somewhere”. But unlike Addonizio’s speaker who empathized with predators, Dobyns’s speaker sympathizes for the victims: “The waiter who “is probably dead now./ Killed by a sniper as he crossed a street or stood/ by a window.”[30]

Dobyns’s speaker juxtaposes that spring night of 1989 with the picture of Sarajevo three years later during the Bosnian war, where “the restaurant, the entire block, has been transformed into rubble, so many rocks at a crossroads.”[31] That juxtaposition between a peaceful night and the rubble shows how unpredictable violence is.

The class difference alluded to in “Five Men” is also there in “Somewhere” between the waiter and restaurant patrons. And like an atom’s photons and electrons, that peaceful night in 1989 and the grief from the war are the world body’s positive and negative that binds the waiter and patrons, who the speaker imagines have been “blown to pieces” or “shot in the head”.[32]

That’s when Dobyns’s speaker reaches this conclusion about those conflicting forces that charge the body of the world: “We are the creatures that love and slaughter.”


[1] from Kim Addonizio’s “Physics”

[2] from Stephen Dobyns’s “Topless”

[3] from Addonizio’s “Quantum”

[4] from Dobyns’s “Santiago: Five Men in the Street: Number One

[5] from Addonizio’s “Target”

[6] from Dobyns’s “Somewhere It Still Moves”

[7] Kim Addonizio, Tell Me (Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2000), 15

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 19.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 76.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., 77.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 76-77.

[22] Stephen Dobyns, new poems in Velocities: New and selected Poems 1966-1992 (New York: Penguin Books, 1994), 15.

[23] Ibid., 14.

[24] Ibid., 15.

[25] Ibid., 14-15.

[26] Ibid., 3.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 3-4.

[29] Ibid., 21.

[30] Ibid., 22.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

(PHOTO: Katherine Frey / TWP. Each year, the DC Creative Workshop has the highest number of students who win the city-wide poetry competitions.

If you’ve read my “About” page, then you know I’m the senior program director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop, a wonderful nonprofit based in DC’s Congress Heights community.

On Nov. 9, we will be participating in Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, a massive one-day regional online fundraiser to support local programs.

Our programs, started in 1995, continues to transform the lives of kids in the Congress Heights neighborhood, an often ignored part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has educational hurdles.

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.

A recent success story is Kiana Murphy, who despite those hurdles, overcame a lot to make it to her first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall. Kiana’s story started when she joined the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s after-school writing club in 2005. “Writing Club is a true, life-changing experience. It helped me to express feelings so powerful that they scare even me sometimes,” according to Kiana’s essay on her experiences with the DC Creative Writing Workshop.

In writing club, Kiana and her peers read and gave critical responses to works of writers from various cultures and periods. She wrote her own poems while mastering literary devices and learning new vocabulary. “I am grateful that Writing Club has become such an important part of my life,” Kiana writes.

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) Kiana was the valedictorian at Friendship Collegiate Academy's high school graduation this year.

In 2007, Kiana was among the seven students hired through the Workshop’s youth employment program, helping students resist the lure of the streets.

As a young-writer-in-residence, she assisted the writers-in-residence by providing extra support for classroom management and helping with other administrative duties. “I have had such a great time in this program—new people, new places, and a whole new life of words, stanzas, and emotions,” writes Kiana, who went on to win the Parkmont Poetry Contest.

She was also part of the Workshop’s drama club, which creates original adaptations of classical plays by reading the texts and rewriting them line by line before the Workshop brings in a professional director to help them rehearse and perform their works on a stage for the community.

During her time in the writing club, Kiana excelled in her classes to become the valedictorian at Hart and again at her high school, Friendship Collegiate Academy.

Prior to graduating, Kiana was among five students from her high school to win a Posse Scholarship, which covers the cost of books, tuition, and her room and board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The scholarship’s process—that entailed her being nominated by the school dean and sitting through three intense interviews with Posse reps—was a grueling one.

Kiana, who sought and received her Posse Scholarship letter of recommendation from the Workshop, was up against more than 1,000 other DC students for the scholarship. But, like the hurdles in her community, she overcame the process because she had to. “This is an opportunity to get out of DC and be in a different atmosphere,” she said, during a Dec. 23, 2010, interview on FOX 5 News.

Her goals? “I’m looking at going into Psychology and English, specifically Clinical Psychology,” she told Fox 5 News. “I want to help others because growing up in my neighborhood I was exposed to a lot of things.”

Earlier this year, a gunman shot and killed Raheem Jackson, a 16-year-old student at Woodson High, just outside of Kiana’s apartment in the 1300 block of Congress Street. There have been six shootings on Kiana’s block so far this year, three of them fatal. But, like everything else, she overcame those situations and is looking forward to a bright future.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

If you ask, Kiana’ll tell you the DC Creative Writing Workshop kept her from being a negative statistic. “It’s made me stronger in another way, too. I am now able to speak out loud and say what I’m thinking without any fear,” writes the young woman, who’s secure in being her own person with her own opinions.

“I would also like to thank my writing instructors for helping me to find out who I am, figure out my goals, and plan my route to the future,” Kiana continued. “Now I know why I’m here: to strive for the best, succeed in life, and do remarkable things to change the world.”

With all that we’ve been able to provide for Kiana and others like her, we’ve been fortunate enough to stay afloat during the economic crisis. But we’re not clear of these tough times and the effects. With heavy emphasis on testing and little support for the arts, our funding is decreasing.

Additionally, the fewer arts opportunities in Congress Heights schools make it clear our services are more vital than ever. Our resources are stretched thin.

We’re counting on you to help us generate donations for the Give to the Max Day. Our goal is to raise as much money as possible and gain as many supporters as possible. If we make it to the Top 44 for most unique donors, we could win up to $10,000 in awards.

But we need your help with these three things:

- mark your calendar for Nov. 9th and add this link from our fundraising page.

- like us on facebook, link to us on your blog, and help generate buzz.

- forward this email to your friends, family, and anyone who might be interested in supporting literary arts access for underserved kids. Add a personal message about why our cause means something to you.

With your help, we can continue to provide opportunities for others like Kiana. Let’s make this our biggest individual donation day ever! Thank you for your support.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) T.S. Eliot

A well-known poet once defined the poets’ role as that of “forensic scientists.” But, instead of a crime scene, poets comb the world around them, looking for evidence that the poem occurred.

In that context, the speakers in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems: 1909-1962 and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995 aren’t just concerned residents and nosy neighbors. Whether digging through mythology, religion or the news, these speakers document the ever-changing urban spaces.

In Collected Poems, Eliot’s speaker is a private investigator tasked with catching the poem in the act of being. He comes across a betrayal in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”:

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the horned gate.

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;[1]

(IMAGE: tallmadgedoyle.com)

That “the Raven” constellation drifts above the lewd acts of Sweeney and the woman “in the Spanish cape” is an allusion to two stories of Apollo and the raven.

According to the first story, Apollo’s sacred bird was the raven, once a beautiful bird with silver feathers and able to talk to humans. Apollo charged the raven with protecting his pregnant wife, Coronis. But when Coronis falls for a mortal, the angry Apollo turned the Raven’s feathers black and had his twin sister Artemis kill Coronis.

In the second story, the raven, who went for Apollo’s water cup, arrived late and blamed his tardiness on the water snake. Apollo banished both the raven and water snake to the sky.

Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” adapts those Greek myths. In that context, the unnamed woman (Coronis) engages in an extramarital affair with Sweeney (the mortal).

The poem documents London’s transformation in 1920, six years after Eliot immigrated from the U.S. to U.K. “The lifting of war time restrictions in the early 1920s created new sorts of night-life in the West End,” according to an online timeline. “Entrepreneurs opened clubs, restaurants and dance halls to cater for the new crazes: jazz and dancing.”[2]

Sweeney and the unnamed woman are brushstrokes in Eliot’s portrait of that “night-life.” The speaker intensifies the activity by introducing another woman: “Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;/She and the lady in the cape/Are suspect, thought to be in league.”[3]

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a poem about greed and sexual immorality, two associations with city living that goes back to the bible (the prodigal son and Sodom and Gomorrah). And, if those points are unclear, “Rachel nee Rabinovitch” is Eliot’s cue to the reader that Rachel’s a married woman with as much at stake as the unnamed woman.

(IMAGE: Woodrow)

Eliot’s speaker’s observations continue in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which opens with a man walking the streets at all hours of the night (“Twelve o’clock/ […] Half-past one/ […] Half-past two/ […] Half-past three/ […] ‘Four o’clock’”[4]). Eliot’s speaker appears to have lost his mind (“Whispering lunar incantations/ Dissolve the floors of memory/ And all its clear relations”[5]).

While the speaker never says what caused him to lose his mind, “Rhapsody” in the title does enough work to set the reader up for irregular rhythms and the speaker’s sudden change of topics to intensify his ecstatic emotions. He is a mad man who talks to street-lamps he encounters each hour. Even the “woman/ […] in the light of the door”[6] who hesitates toward him thinks Eliot’s speaker is nuts.

But the speaker’s not as crazy as we think. Re-reading this poem, one realizes it’s about mental illness and how those people are treated. My mind immediately went to St. Elizabeths in DC, a psychiatric hospital that once housed 8,000 patients (among them Ezra Pound, Mary Fuller and William Chester Minor) at its peak of operation, according to various sources. The hospital’s community-based healthcare included local outpatient facilities and drug therapy, which allowed patients near-normal lives.

My dad recalled his encounter with a patient nearly a decade ago. It happened around lunch time, in a nearby McDonald’s. Dad read his newspaper while eating his cheese burger and fries, when a man about his age approached him. Dad said the guy picked his nose, then asked him, “You going to eat that”—pushing his finger into the hamburger bun. To which Dad said, “Not anymore.”

In “Rhapsody,” Eliot’s speaker uses irregularities to bring the reader inside the mad man’s mind, which makes the reader empathetic. Moving through the world in his own way, subtlety is a trademark skill the speaker weaves through the poems in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems.

(PHOTO: Nan Melville) Amiri Baraka

On the other hand, the speaker in Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems: 1961-1995 prefers an in-your-face approach. While Eliot’s speaker is content with simply catching the poem in the act of being, Baraka’s speaker not only accomplishes that but speaks directly to the reader.

Take Baraka’s “A Poem for Deep Thinkers,” where the speaker calls out decision-makers whose power and class status put them out of touch with their constituents:

Skymen coming down out the clouds land/and then walking into society try to find out/
whats happening—‘Whats happening,’ they be saying/look at it, where they been, dabbling in mist, appearing &/disappearing, now there’s a real world breathing—inhaling/exhaling concrete & sand, and they want to know what’s/
happening.[7]

It was impossible to read those lines and not think of the current political climate, where “Skymen”—with their heads far enough up in the clouds to dabble “in mist”—claim to speak for “the American people.” What also comes to mind is the spectacle of the 2008 elections, when presidential candidates scaled down their spending and spun personal narratives to make themselves seem in-touch with working-class Americans.

John McCain’s claim was hilarious since, unlike Obama, he never advocated for people on low or fixed incomes. The kicker was when he couldn’t remember how many houses his family owned. “I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain said in a 2008 interview.[8]

But if they were wondering, Amiri Baraka’s speaker in “A Poem for Deep Thinkers” breaks it down for the “Skymen”:

What’s happening is life itself […]/[…] stabbed children in the hallways of/
schools, old men strangling bankguards, a hard puertorican/inmate’s/
tears/exchanging goodbyes in the prison doorway […][9]

(IMAGE: Val Brussel)

Baraka’s speaker also alludes to Icarus:

[…] blinded by sun, and their own images of things,/rather than things as they actually are, they wobble, they/stumble […]/[…] the skymen stumbling, till they get the sun out/
they eyes, and integrate the inhead movie show, with the/material reality that exists with and without them.[10]

Those lines speak to failed policies for low and middle income Americans politicians passed without talking with their constituents, thinking they knew what the people needed. Also, like Icarus, politicians fall from grace when they’re “blinded by sun,” or their own self-interests.

And Baraka’s speaker doesn’t stop there. He goes on to challenge Christ and Christian fundamentalists in “When We’ll Worship Jesus.” This poem, published in 1972, addresses the scandals, atrocities and oppression of the time. During that year, the U.S. was already at war with Vietnam and Nixon was re-elected despite the Watergate Scandal, which later resulted in his resignation.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Leading up to “When We’ll Worship Jesus” being published, the draft occurred and the National Guard fatally shot four students—while wounding nine—for protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State in Ohio.

These events contextualize Baraka’s speaker’s angry tone: “We’ll worship Jesus/ When jesus do/ Somethin.”[11]

The poem is a wish list from Baraka’s speaker to Jesus, asking for payback on a number of things: the U.S. bombing of Cambodia (“jesus blow/ the white house/ or blast Nixon down”[12]), Muhammad Ali jailed for protesting the war (“jesus get down/ […] & box w/ black peoples/ enemies”[13]) and police brutality (“jesus […]/ […] scare somebody—cops not afraid”[14]), to name a few.

“When We’ll Worship Jesus” is an opportunity for Baraka’s speaker to successfully flex his hyperboles, which intensifies his alarmed tone.

(IMAGE: gaspinvestigations.com)

Like T.S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” Baraka’s “Jesus” is a poem about betrayal. To which Baraka’s speaker responds by reducing Jesus to the lowest of the low.

Jesus becomes everything from a prostitute (“jesus, in a red/ check velvet vine + 8 in. heels”[15]), to a pimp (“jesus pinky finger/ got a goose egg ruby/ which actually bleeds”[16]), to both a coon and a tom (“jesus at the Apollo/ doin splits and helpin/ Nixon trick niggers”[17]), to even a self-deprecating Cyclops (“jesus w/his one eyed self/ tongue kissing johnny carson/ up the behind”[18]).

At times, the hyperbole of Baraka’s speaker seemed too over-the-top, just as there were times when the subtlety of T.S. Eliot’s speaker seemed too passive. Still, both speakers opened a young poet up to possible approaches in tracking the poem down.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 49.

[2] Exploring 20th Century London. Oct. 11, 2011. <http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=nav.40&gt;.

[3] Op.Cite, 49-50.

[4] Ibid., 16-18.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Amiri Baraka. Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995. Ed. Paul Vangelisti. New York, NY: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. 165.

[8] Politico, “McCain Can’t Recall Number of Homes He Owns,” 20 Aug 2008.

[9] Op.cite.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 158.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Carolyn Malachi's 2008 debut project, 'Revenge of the Smart Chicks,' is a rally call to empower women in the arts.

Five minutes before her set, Carolyn Malachi was at a corner booth near the stage, pulling up poems and song lyrics on her tablet.

Behind her were two open booths. The empty chairs last night outnumbered the audience in the Langston Room at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

The empty seats were noticeable enough to unsettle Busboys poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

“This is embarrassing,” he told me. He put the word out through Facebook and his email list. Still the crowd was small. “Is it because of the three-day weekend,” he wondered aloud. To which I said, “It’s possible.”

But the turnout didn’t faze Carolyn. She’d performed for fewer people back in 2005, when she was building her reputation as a singer.  That’s before she made her rounds at various open mics throughout DC and Baltimore, before her songs made it on the radio, before the buzz and Grammy nomination. So no, she wasn’t bothered by the turnout Sunday night, even if the crowd appeared to be there for just dinner and drinks.

Before her performance that Sunday night, I was the only person who signed the open mic list. The low murmurs of conversations continued despite the poet-in-residence kicking off the night with his poem “The Mic Is Now Open,” which has been customary since Derrick started the Nine on the Ninth event six years ago.

“Attention! Attention! The mic is, and ever shall be, open,” he concluded. “Check 1. Check 2. Next up to the mic”—he pointed throughout the audience—“is you, and you, and you, and you.”

(PHOTO: washingtondcjazznetwork.ning.com) Her second album 'Revenge of the Smart Chick II: Ambitious Gods' earned her honors and accolades.

The talking stopped abruptly when Carolyn Malachi took the stage and pulled the red shawl from over her low-cut fade.

Whatever the crowd expected, I’m sure it wasn’t a six-foot woman wearing baggy African-print pants and a dark form-fitting blazer. She also had a feather taped to each side of her face.

Noticing the puzzled looks, Carolyn said, “I wear the feathers because I want everyone to remember vision takes flight.” The crowd nodded “ah-haa.” And in that moment, the 27-year-old songstress, musician, dancer and spoken word artist went—in the audience’s mind—from an oddity to an eclectic entertainer worth listening to.

I’ve seen Carolyn perform before. She’s usually with three or five other musicians bringing the house down. But that Sunday night, she was solo.

Her set last night reminded me a lot of Lauren Hill Unplugged, where the former Fugees artist stripped away the big budget production sounds and, instead, made it about her guitar and raw feelings.

For 20 minutes, Carolyn gave the audience a raw glimpse at some unsettled things in her life. “Is it hard to love?” she asked the crowd. “Shout it out.”

One guy said it wasn’t and quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: 27”: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” A woman countered by saying, “You might not get the love back.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi) Malachi founded the Smart Chicks, Inc. organization and its ever-growing, Smart Chicks Network brand, to develop visibility and leadership opportunities for women in the arts.

There was a time I might’ve agreed with that woman, when each relationship at the time was a one-sided scale. In each case, I had more invested than the other person. Those times, it was important for me to surround myself with positive people. I thank Derrick, the poet-in-residence, who I’ve known for a decade, and my boy Fred. Both guys kept me optimistic during those turbulent times.

Going back to what the woman said that Sunday night, I recalled a quote from Sharon Salzberg, a spiritual teacher, author and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

“If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated,” Salzberg once put it. “Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on.”

My light has stayed on since I met my fiancée two years ago. Now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I wanted to tell that woman who said it was hard to love to turn on her light.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi)

It was obvious Carolyn Malachi kept hers on, even as she reminisced about past loves. Her performance was as much therapeutic for the woman and others in the crowd as it was for Carolyn herself. So much so that we all cracked up when the artist said, “Remember, what’s said here stays here.”

Carolyn’s been compared to avant-garde artists such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae for the otherworldly vibe of her music. Her Grammy-nominated song “Orion,” off her EP Lions, Fires and Squares, is a love story between an astronaut and mermaid.

She sang it capella:

Hey, Space Cowboy. I want you in my interplanetary good vibe zoneDon’t be coy, Space Cowboy. I’m a dish you’ll enjoy. At least I will be when I get rid of these scales. I’m all fins and tails. You’re all stars and fly and just like you I like to stick to what I know, dear. Lately this water’s been jail. I feel the need to get me some sky and, just like you, I could use some variety.

The highlight of Carolyn’s performance was her “capacity for love and happiness” despite her romantic setbacks. She laughed about past loves, not bitterly but remembering the good times.

She read an epistolary to a lover, a letter she said she sent him and didn’t get a response. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn read, “In the afterglow/ of yes and no, I bask/ beautifully.” The women nodded while they snapped. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn continued, “You are fresher/ than Adam’s first breath.” To which the crowd yelled “What?!” and “Go on, girl!”

Carolyn smiled and cleverly spun her past lover’s rejection. “I know, right?” she said, responding to the outburst. “Fellas, what would you say if a woman came at you like that?” Silence. Then Carolyn, still smiling, said: “That’s what I thought.”

(IMAGE: New Issues)

You’ve seen that movie or read the novel, the one where the ending blindsided you. The hero or heroine, for whom you rooted throughout the drama, was either captured or killed. Or maybe it was another story with an ending that left you hanging.

In either case you left the theater or closed the pages, slightly disappointed. But that didn’t stop you from dreaming up alternate endings for your satisfaction.

That’s what Rachel Eliza Griffiths does with Mule & Pear (New Issues, 2011), her third collection of poetry. “Many of these poems convey the intimacy I’ve developed and sustained through reading,” Rachel writes in a brief introduction. “From this act and all of its powers, my imagination gathered some of my most admired literary characters and their creators in one space, one intricate body…in hopes that each voice would make its way towards other voices.”

Rachel gathered characters from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and a host of other novelists, including DC’s own Edward P. Jones.

Alice walks right off the pages of Jones’s The Known World and into Rachel’s poem “Alice Paints the Moon.” In the novel, Alice is a slave who wanders away from the plantation every night. And each time she’s captured by the patrollers who bring her back to Henry, her Black slave owner.

According to Jones’s novel, Alice’s madness is the result of a mule kick to the head, or as Rachel puts it poetically: “a mule kicked her spirit into the middle/ of some unknown world.” (I dug the play on the novel’s title in those lines).

And while Jones’s back story humanizes Alice, Rachel’s poem goes further in that task. That the “hemorrhaged world” inside this madwoman was more exciting than her reality not only intensifies how severe her mental injury was but also speaks to the pain of slavery.

It also takes the onus of madness off Alice and puts it on the oppressive world around her. Had I been living during Alice’s time, it wouldn’t take a mule kicking my head for me to go mad. A Black man owning me would get the job done.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

The madness takes on a different form in the poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet.” Both characters appear courtesy of Valerie Martin’s novel Property.

The story, told in Gaudet’s voice, takes place on a sugar plantation north of New Orleans. Sarah’s the unwilling mistress of a slave owner, whose wife, Gaudet, is in a bad marriage. Gaudet, unable to have children, despises Sarah, who birthed two kids for her master.

Sarah escapes in a slave revolt that kills Gaudet’s husband and severely injures the woman.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet” flips the point of view from Gaudet to Sarah, who rarely speaks in the novel.

And like Alice, Sarah doesn’t have to own someone else’s perception of her being “crazy”. Instead, through Rachel’s poem, Sarah turns that perception back on the oppressive world of which both women are victims.

Sarah also turns it on the perverse Gaudet, who suckled Sarah’s breasts for milk to further subjugate the slave woman. “Understand this:/ I didn’t offers my breast to her. The night she come/ into my room like a man hunting my nipple,” Sarah says in Rachel’s poem. “Mistress knows nobody going listen/ if I tell it. How can I tell/ what’s crazy or real anymore?”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Self portrait.

What makes these poems great is that there’s music amid the madness. Take the poem “La Tête du Soleil,” where the music is in the recurring “baby”: “Baby, baby in your mama’s calabash/ […] Baby of kola & palm wine, baby/ whose eyes will never close/ […] Baby, baby in your basket of war.”

Another musical moment is in the recurring “basket”: “[…] basket of war/ […] In a basket your laughter/ […] A child’s head rolling inside the gutted basket.”

“La Tête du Soleil” was inspired by events from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which explores the lives of two women during the Nigerians-Biafran War (1967-1970).

The musical moments intensify the speaker’s disgusted tones, which play off the English translation of the poem’s title: “Lord, I beg Your Pardon”: “I beg your pardon. I beg/ your pardon. Lord,/ I beg your pardon.” At that point, the tone goes from disgust to a plea for the war’s end.

A poem just as musical is “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You”. Reading this poem, it was impossible not to think of a woman’s body nailed to a crucifix: “a body/ with wounds” and “a moan beneath laughter” (they know not what they do).

Mercy, the silent heroine, takes on the sins of the world—“the waterlogged/ song of Emmett Till”, “[…] girls/ buried beneath a bombed-out church”, “a shadow removing/ its eyeless hood”.

(IMAGE: Dane of travelpod)

The musical moments are the recurring “say” and “it is”:

But say it is a body
with wounds

Say it is my father
bursting into tears alone
above his newspaper

Or is it the blood-flecked
underbelly of a rabid dog
named Thank You

Maybe it is the dark cinema
of my camera […]

Say it is four tongues
that puncture
a compass

[…] Say it is new as a haircut
Say it is hard as a strawberry
Say it is useful as ugliness
Say it is necessary as hands

Say it is the vantage
from God’s knees

and so on.

Those recurrences make the poem a chant, which was relaxing. I imagined Mercy chanting along, drawing into herself and that spiritual place to heal.

I enjoyed Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Mule & Pear for the same reasons Carl Phillips did. “Griffiths is a master at capturing persona, and uses that gift, especially, to consider the notion of heritage,” according to his blurb. “The ambition of these poems dazzles, as does indeed their achievement.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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