Tag Archive: art


Arts Summit Revives SW Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(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.

(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!).

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.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Etcy.com)

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

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

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

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

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

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

Fundraiser for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop)

Those who can’t make this event, or who live out of the area, can support our work by visiting our donations page here.

Join us Sept. 20 at the 5th and K streets Busboys and Poets for a fundraiser benefit to support the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop.

For 12 years, the Workshop’s used arts education to transform the lives of kids living in D.C.’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often forgotten part of the city.

With a fundraising goal of $50,000, we need everyone’s help. Please spread the word!

Come out and support the work of the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop that’s resulted in thousands of students attending readings, plays and other literary events, winning dozens of writing awards, and enjoying a wealth of new experiences not otherwise available to young people in Ward 8.

Many of the Workshop’s graduates have gone on to study at New York University, George Washington University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, to name a few. One former student went to Harvard. Another, who graduated from George Mason University and continued his studies at Loyola University Law School, earned a paid summer internship at a Minneapolis law firm. Several former writing club members have graduate degrees or are working on them.

(Visit our website for additional information. Read why 2012 was the best year ever for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. You can also keep up with what’s going on with the Workshop by visiting our Facebook page or reading our blog.)

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Club)

Come out Sept. 20 and meet the staff while enjoying delicious finger foods, a reading by our students, and a screening of one of our films. There’s no cover. Come ready to give! If we reach our fundraising goal, all staff members will shave their heads!

Donation amounts and giveaways are as follows:

$50+ will receive an issue of hArtworks!, the nation’s only inner-city public middle school literary magazine. It is written and edited by students in the after-school writing club at Charles Hart Middle School.

$100+ get the latest issue of hArtworks! and a free journal

$250+ get a DVD of one of our movies, the latest issue of hArtworks! and a free journal

$500+ get all three DVDs of our movies, three issues of hArtworks! and a free journal

Reminders will go out as the date gets closer. Tell a friend! Let’s pack the 5th and K streets Busboys and Poet’s Cullen Room Thursday, Sept. 20.

See you there!

(Marlene Lillian Photography)

According to the Library of Congress’s website:

The Poet and the Poem is an ongoing series of live poetry interviews at the Library of Congress with distinguished artists. Webcasts are now available of recent events, including the appearances of two U.S. Poets Laureate and several Witter Bynner fellows. Distinguishing features of the show are the poets’ discussions with host Grace Cavalieri about their craft and sources of inspiration. The series is sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.

I really appreciate Grace Cavalieri having me on this show! Check out the recording here.

I got married last month!

(PHOTO: Marlene Lillian Photography)

I rarely post my personal business here, unless I’m writing about literature. But I just had to share these photos taken by my friend and soon-to-be celebrity photographer Marlene Lillian. Here’s her note that opens the wedding album:

I met Alan when he told me to crash Dr. Tony Medina’s Creative Writing Boot camp class at Howard University several years ago. I’m so glad I did; I wrote like I never wrote before, and along with Alan, forged some of the most endearing friendships in my life. Alan didn’t even have to ask me if I’d be interested in shooting his wedding; it was a yes before he even got it out! :) Tosin and Alan are some of the kindest people I know and I’m honored that they let me shoot the most important day of their lives. Thank you to Arica Gonzalez, my second shooter, you were amazing to work with as usual :)

You can see the rest of the photos by clicking here.

Graphic Novella in the works!

ImageFor my third semester project, in the Stonecoast MFA Program, I decided to team up with the incredible Cory Thomas to collab on a graphic novella. The illustrations are Cory’s interpretation of my short story (tentatively titled THE HAGAKURE OF CORNBREAD OTHELLO) that he completed so far for this project.

I’m hoping Cory and I can continue this and sell it to a publisher. I got a good sign from my homie, the wonderful poet Bianca Spriggs, who sent me some resources on a publisher that puts out comics and graphic novels. Keep your fingers crossed. Check out an excerpt from the graphic novella here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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