Tag Archive: arts


Arts Advocates, Unite!

(PHOTO: Alan King) The D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s writing club members who placed at the 2013 Parkmont Poetry Competition.

In a previous post, I talked about why poetry matters. Now, with the shift towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) curriculum, advancing the arts is more important than ever.

I’m still hellbent on convincing my opponents that arts education is as important as mathematical skills. In fact, while “you can replace some math skills with a calculator,” according to Hal Sparks, “there’s no calculator for human interaction.”

That human connection — which I enjoy as a creative writing instructor and nationally published poet — is, as Hendrik Willem van Loon once put it, a true barometer of what’s going on in our world.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Mark Williams, chair of the Literary Media and Communications department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, cracks up after hearing Khat’s joke: “Why do basketball players wear bibs?” Answer: “Because they dribble a lot.”

I’m glad that two columnists, The Desert Sun’s Floyd Rhoades and Florida Today’s Suzy Fleming Leonard, are using that barometer to measure how arts impact today’s education. The emphasis placed on STEM — minus the “A” — worries Rhoades.

”Certainly a well-rounded education is critical, but when we put all the emphasis on right-brained education, what happens to the left-brained students?” Rhoades wondered. “What about an A for the Arts? We should be talking about STEAM” — (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) — “not just STEM….It’s also about quality of life.”

As a poetry teacher, I can attest to that. The arts fulfill my life and those of my students. During my craft lessons I teach throughout the D.C./Baltimore region, I make my classes aware of sensory details (what brings the reader into the speaker’s world) and psychological details (what brings the reader inside the speaker’s mind or what shows the speaker’s reactions to the sensory details).

What I enjoy most about teaching is how my students light up when they realize that every time they write poems, they’re casting spells. The goal is to keep the reader spellbound until the end. They also learn to enhance an already rich experience with other literary devices such as rhythm and alliteration, both of which crank up a line’s musicality so it hits the reader like a bass thump to the chest.

For the students I taught at both Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, those craft elements paid off when their work won recognition in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and the Parkmont Poetry Festival in addition to D.C.’s citywide competitions.

(PHOTO: Alan King) Kayla swagging at the after school writing club.

The arts also provides abundant possibilities, according to columnist Suzy Fleming Leonard, who interviewed about 900 folks on Facebook. The outcome affirmed her hypothesis that arts appreciation does more than “produce…just talented artists.”

Leonard’s notion alludes to the creative economy, what Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, describes as “creativity…turned into big commercial innovations lead[ing] to new businesses, new jobs, higher wages and economic growth.”

In a September column for The Atlantic, Florida noted a recent study by two analysts at the London School of Economics that looked at the United Kingdom’s “creative industries” — among which are advertising, architecture, publishing and design.

“But, as the researchers pointed out, creativity extends beyond these specific firms and industries,” wrote Florida. “Roughly 2 million people are employed in creative occupations across the U.K. Economy, more than 40 percent of which are in other industries.”

Back in the U.S., Mijee Bain and Debbie Vordemark Wells are part of that economy. They told Florida Today’s Suzy Fleming Leonard how their childhood appreciation of the arts equipped them for unlikely careers.

“Because of my education in the arts — both at school and in Brevard County community theaters — I learned a good amount of the skills I needed to become an international business consultant,” Bain said. “I would never have been able to travel and consult with major companies on six continents without my background in the arts.”

It also informs Debbie Vordemark Wells’s skills as an engineer. “I think what makes the arts so attractive to complete education is the use of the other senses,” Wells said. “I have been lucky to have started serious musical training at 9 and played alone or in groups for many years. . . . As a result, I’m a very creative engineer. Sound, smell, sight and feel play a huge role in evaluating technology.”

As for me, I’m in the business of advancing art. I did it for four years as senior program director for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop. My communications strategies included developing outreach materials — often quoting Americans for the Arts in my grant applications to corporate and private funders, informing them that “The arts…are essential to a thriving community, creating a sense of place and fueling social and economic growth.”

Duke Ellington’s Literary Media students rehearsing their talk for TEDxDESA, the first-ever high school TED talk.

I also took my crusade to the airwaves, promoting arts education through an on-air interview and radio spots, all of which resulted from my partnership with National Public Radio. Additionally, I served as an advisory panelist for the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, improving the commission’s application/review process.

And despite these accomplishments, I know my work — like other arts advancers — is a drip, compared to the downpour of programs and services that arts advocacy coalitions offer their member organizations and artists.

That’s why — more than ever — we need to make a stronger case for arts education, which requires collaborating with other arts defenders, echoing a Michael Jordan quote: “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.”

It’s time for us to support groups championing the arts, doing our part to help score opportunities for more Americans to take part in and appreciate all forms of the arts.

I’ve been BOMBed!

(PHOTO: Courtesy) TIm!

Bomb Magazine posted the full interview I conducted with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles, who I also profiled in an earlier post.  Here’s an excerpt from the intro:

Tim Seibles is among the rare literary talents whose work is alive on and off the page. In fact, he’s out of this world. If Tim was an X-Man, he would be Iceman. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where he hones his skill and powers to defend humanity.

Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in 2004, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, “For Brothers Everywhere” (from his second collection Hurdy-Gurdy), Tim compared the streetballers to “ . . . muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”

Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy-Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.

Read the full interview by clicking here.

(PHOTO: D.C. 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.

Dear friends and supporters,

For the past 12 years, it has been a great pleasure sharing with you the joys and triumphs of the multitude of young writers who have participated in our programs: thousands of poems published in our literary magazines, more than 100 city-wide writing awards, dozens of college scholarships awarded, and the list goes on. But in our current economic climate, creative writing is in jeopardy. Extra-curricular activities for under-served youth have been drastically cut, and arts programs have been hit the hardest. These past few years, the D.C.Creative Writing Workshop has been the only after-school arts activity available for hundreds of young people in Congress Heights, and the one safe space open to children who have been thrown out of other programs and would otherwise be on the streets.

We’re asking for your help. On Thursday, September 20, the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop will be holding a fundraiser from 6-8 pm at the Busboys and Poets 5thand K Streets location, and we would like you to make a contribution. Our supporters are lovers of self-expression and the written word, advocates for young people who need a second chance—we know you’re not the kind of people who can write huge checks to all your favorite causes. But our program needs whatever you can afford to give.

The D.C. Creative Writing Workshop has an astonishing record of preparing our students for successful lives. One hundred percent of the participants in our Young-Writers-in-Residence program have graduated from high school, compared with a rate of less than 60 percent at their neighborhood school. And the youths who ask for our help applying to college and finding the funds to pay for it have gotten personal assistance from our writers. Our graduates are currently attending colleges like the University of Wisconsin, Trinity University, and the University of North Carolina. In just the past few weeks, we were able to send another three students off to college—kids who had dreamed of higher education, but had no idea how to pursue that goal. We want to be there for those students when they come home on their holiday breaks to describe the wonders of college life to their younger peers. And we want to be there at the start of the following school year for all the little ones who wait outside our door on the first day of school asking when Writing Club begins.

Please help us continue to provide a lifeline for the young people whose voices need to be heard. We’re looking forward to seeing you at the fundraiser on September 20, where we’ll be offering an opportunity to meet our students and see their award-winning work. But if you aren’t able to attend, please consider making a donation on-line by visiting our donations page here.

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson)

Walking past DC’s Watts Park in Northeast, the people stopped in their tracks when they heard  Mister Señor Love Daddy, from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, speaking.

The fictitious disc jockey was invoked through a poem by Fresno, Texas-poet Jonathan Moody. Through Derrick Weston Brown’s reading of the poem, Love Daddy held court for three minutes, long enough to lend his voice to an issue of concern not just for the folks on foot, but those driving by, who pulled over to get the 411.

“My people, my people,” he said. “What can I say; say what I can.” And just as baffled as the character and Brown himself were other poets and organizers who took over the park’s Marvin Gaye amphitheater August 6 to do something about the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries.

(PHOTO: Shelia Henderson) Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander and Melanie Henderson.

“It seems the politics of this city are costing our children their right to a quality education,” Melanie Henderson, an organizer for Saturday’s event and managing editor of the literary journal Tidal Basin Review, said in an interview afterwards.

“It is unimaginable what the effect on a child’s self-esteem might be when walking into a nearly-empty school library,” Henderson said.

The last straw for many was the Jan. 23, Washington Post article on Ballou Senior High’s poorly-stocked library. “The literature section of [school librarian] Melissa Jackson’s library…had 63 books one morning last week, not enough to fill five small shelves,” Post Reporter Bill Turque wrote in his article “Librarian at D.C.’s Ballou High Scrambles for Books.”

“In the area marked ‘pure science,’ there were 77 volumes,” he continued. “This is not because the students at the Southeast Washington school had scoured the stacks and checked almost everything out. Ballou’s entire collection consists of 1,185 books, about one per kid.”

And that’s just at one school. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore described the public school library system as horrific. “The DC Public School libraries I have seen resemble a library I once saw at Lorton Prison when I taught there in the 1990′s,” he said. “Few books, hardly any good books of any relevance, and the books are ragged, old and insulting.”

“And,” in the words of Mister Señor Love Daddy, “that’s the double-truth, Ruth.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Jericho Brown before the event. Thanks for the books, Jericho!

Henderson and others at this past Saturday’s Summer 2011 Literary Arts in The Park wondered how the historic traditional public schools in the nation’s capital were below the 100 book per student threshold. “Our kids here deserve not just enough, but the best,” Henderson said.

Another point of contention were the current disparities in educational resources between the city’s haves and have-nots. “I have also seen libraries at private schools in the area and these libraries are usually stellar,” Gilmore said.

Among those private schools with stellar libraries is Sidwell Friends School, where Sasha and Malia Obama are among the 1,109 students.

In a post on her award-winning website, author and freelance writer Susan Ohanian noted that the school has three libraries. “The Upper Level school library contains over 20,000 volumes,” wrote the former educator and current fellow at both the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University.

Ohanian noted that Sidwell Friends has a separate area for books about the study of China, adding that students also have access to more than 50 magazines and journals. “The library also subscribes to ProQuest for online periodicals in full text,” she wrote. “This service is available both at the school and to students when off-campus.”

Ohanian sent out a charge for the First Family to correct the disparities. “I know there are thousands of schools across the country hurting for the lack of books, libraries, and librarians, but when we see one little light of a school trying to buck the anti-library tide, we must try to help,” she wrote. “And we should urge our First Family to do likewise.”

The poets and organizers at the Saturday event at Watts Park responded to a similar call to action sent out by Tidal Basin Review, Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Abdul Ali shared a poem about his experiences at a creative writing workshop at Howard University.

The event kicked off a series of book drives to take place around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries.

Gilmore, who was on the program to perform but didn’t make it because of a last minute scheduling conflict, did collect books for the drive. Though there in spirit, he called Saturday’s event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

“Instead of complaining about a broken school system that is not designed to work for children of color, and never was, this is a grassroots effort to fill in a much-needed gap,” Gilmore said. “It also…sends a message to the children that someone really does care and you are not just a number on a ‘No Child Left Behind’ report.”

But more needs to be done, Gilmore noted. He suggested the organizers creating a grassroots coalition or a nonprofit to work outside what he calls “the toxic dysfunctional government apparatus.” This coalition or nonprofit would regularly collect and make literature available to DC public school libraries.

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) That's me, there!

Saturday’s event was just the initial effort, Gilmore noted, applauding the organizers for “a small, yet, symbolical way” of showing DC youths they’re not alone.

Henderson agreed. “Events like these empower average people to cause change in their own and in the communities of others,” she said. “It puts the power back into the hands of the people, whose love and connection to a place or space will push them to work harder and give more to the positive development and preservation of the culture, or cultures, that have nourished them.”

Henderson hoped residents left inspired to affect change in their own ways. She also hoped the event would spur “wider and stronger community involvement in support of youth.” Like Gilmore, Henderson offered suggestions on how to take the next step.

“This is a problem with a practical solution that everyone can be a part of and feel good about,” Henderson said. “The idea is to take what you know, your own talents and gifts, and your resources and networks and use them to better your community.”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Yao Hoke Glover and Randall Horton chopping it up.

During the event, the poets took the stage after posing for a group photo with organizers and Ward 7 Council member Yvette M. Alexander.

Among them was Abdul Ali, who jumped at the opportunity to be part of the effort. “I liked the idea of sharing poems with a book drive,” Ali said. “It’s a rare opportunity to do literary activism and a reading all in one.”

Poet Yao Hoke Glover agreed with Ali. “Literacy and the promotion of reading is the foundation of a community’s ability to transfer ideas [and] connect with one another,” Glover said. “The concept of books and literature must be cultivated in the children at an early age.”

That the event took place in Ward 7, with construction on the new Woodson High School in the background, made it all the more symbolic for the poet. “I would hope the event is a very concentrated and solid beginning to the strengthening of D.C. Literary Culture, particularly in the African American Community,” said Glover, who closed out the reading with poems about his father.

The highlight of the event was Mister Señor Love Daddy’s appearance on that humid Saturday. “Yes, children, this is the cool-out corner,” the fictitious disc jockey said in a poem written by Jonathan Moody and performed by Derrick Weston Brown, who opened up his set with OPP (Other People’s Poetry) before reading his own.

The character’s words summed up the mood of those gathered that afternoon in the park. He said, “I’ll be giving you all the help you need.”

For those interested in donating books, please contact Melanie Henderson via email at communitybookdrivedc@gmail.com.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) James Tindle, an award-winning writer and high school senior at Booker T. Washington Charter School, is a writing club veteran.

Full disclosure: I’m the senior program director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop. The article below features the story of one of our high school students who takes part in the writing club. I thought his story was worth sharing here.

Thinking of where he would’ve ended up without the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s after-school writing club, James Tindle shook his head.

The 18-year-old’s been a part of the program since 2004, when he was a 7th grader at Charles Hart Middle School, where the Workshop operates. Considering what’s happened in his life since joining the writing club, Tindle shook his head again, thinking of the direction his life headed seven years ago.

“I don’t know, but it didn’t look good,” he said. “I was a delinquent before writing club.” He fought a lot with his peers if he attended classes at all; other times, he skipped school altogether to run the streets with his friends.

Tindle ended up in writing club when a school counselor referred him to the DC Creative Writing Workshop after he got into a fight with another kid with whom he later became friends. Through the Workshop’s unique and creative programming, Tindle learned to take his aggression to the page instead of taking it out on his classmates.

Taking it to the page, the award-winning writer excelled at Hart before enrolling into Booker T. Washington Charter School. As a result of the Workshop, the high school senior’s got a bright future ahead of him as he decides on one of the four colleges that accepted him.

Tindle’s story is just one of many students making their mark in a literary renaissance going on in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood, an often ignored part of the city.

That renaissance—which is uniting parents, teachers and students—started when Executive Director Nancy Schwalb founded the DC Creative Writing Workshop in 1995. Since then, the Workshop’s expanded from Hart to two neighboring schools, Simon Elementary and Ballou Senior High, making creative writing instruction available to nearly 600 new students in fourth through twelfth grade.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) After a group interpretation of a poem written by a famous poet, Michael Johnson hard at work on his own poem.

From September through early June, the DC Creative Writing Workshop conducts 500 classroom sessions and 120 after-school club meetings each year.

The Workshop’s writers-in-residence work with English teachers at Hart and Ballou to give intensive literary instruction to students in all grades, while Simon’s fourth and fifth graders also enjoy creative writing classes.

Sequan Wilson’s been with the writing club since he was in 8th grade. He and Tindle are among the seven young writers-in-residence the Workshop hired through its youth employment program, helping students resist the lure of the streets.

As young writers-in-residence, Wilson and Tindle assist the writers-in-residence as extra supports for classroom management and help with other administrative duties. Aware that the award-winning status makes him, Tindle and the other young writers-in-residence role models to the younger writers, Wilson’s careful not to let it go to his head.

“Truthfully, I appreciate that they look up to us,” said Wilson, 17. “But if they explore themselves, they’ll see they have just as much to offer as we do.”

Each student keeps a personal literary portfolio to document his or her progress throughout the year. As a result of the program’s expansion, club activities are open to students ages 9-19 throughout the Congress Heights neighborhood.

As a writing club member, James Tindle and Wilson worked with their friends on a variety of projects throughout the year, which included creating an original adaptation of a classical play.

This includes them reading the text of the play and rewriting it line by line before the Workshop brings in a professional director to help them rehearse and perform their work for the community.

The drama club’s updated plays by Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, and Euripides, virtually exhausting the supply of suitable plays from ancient Greece.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Drama club members on the set of "R Town".

In 2010, the Workshop hired Tom Mallan, theater director and educator, to direct our students’ original adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and together they created a masterpiece. “R Town,” written by and starring 40 students from our drama program, is the first feature film produced through the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s collaboration with Mallan’s Educational Theater Company.

The movie had a Hollywood-style red carpet première at the UPO/Petey Greene Center on Martin Luther King Avenue SE and a crowd of more than 100 formally attired students and their friends, parents and siblings, teachers and administrators.

The crowd overflowed the screening room as community members watched in amazement before erupting into applause as the closing credits rolled. The Washington Post covered the event. (Our home page at http://dccww.org has links to the Post article and both the movie trailer and the entire movie.)

Since the Workshop’s expansion, students from the three schools 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 writing club graduates go 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 just finished his first year 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.

In James Tindle’s case, he got accepted into SUNY Purchase, the American Musical Dramatic Academy (AMDA), Barry University and Virginia Union University—choices he might not have otherwise had without the DC Creative Writing Workshop that’s kept itself afloat while other nonprofits folded.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Sequan Wilson, an award-winning writer and senior at Ballou High School, enjoys a good book after writing club.

In these hard economic times, it’s the youths who suffer when budget cuts affect funding for arts programs. The DC Creative Writing Workshop’s long history makes it the only thing constant in their lives.

It was for Tindle, who attributed his change in direction to the Workshop. “It’s all accumulated experiences—I got a chance to do poetry, act and sing,” he said. “This is where I thrive—being in this community, being around other artists.”

And while he hasn’t yet made up his mind on where he’ll go next year, Tindle’s sure about one thing: “No matter what college I go to, I want to study English, Literature and Theater.”

Interested in donating to the DC Creative Writing Workshop? Visit them online here, then click on the “Donate Now Through Network for Good” button to get involved.

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas) Derrick Weston Brown holds an MFA in creative writing, from American University. He is a graduate of the Cave Canem summer workshop for black poets and the VONA summer workshop.

Snagglepuss is bitter. He airs his frustrations with the Pink Panther on E! True Hollywood Story, after their short-lived love affair:

“When the big money came calling
Ol’ Pinky packed his bags and gave
me some song and dance about how
I’d never have to work again […]” (from “Snagglepuss Spills his Guts on E! True Hollywood Story”).

Then there’s Bonita Applebum. She’s not just a classic hip hop song anymore. In fact, she’s a grown woman “with a mortgage/ and two degrees under her belt” (from “Remembering Bonita Applebum”).

These are just a few of the characters that populate Derrick Weston Brown’s debut poetry collection, Wisdom Teeth. 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.

I fell in love with DC all over again after reading “Missed Train”, though that poem could be a testament on dating in DC:

I smelled you at the Metro stop
Tasted you on the Yellow
Glimpsed you on the Green
Caught you on the Orange
Loved you on the Red
Lost you on the Blue

Now I need a transfer
or at least exit fare.

The elusive woman in “Missed Train” could be a metaphor for unmet expectations either on a date or in a relationship that takes us “for every dime” after investing our time in other people with no returns.

In Wisdom Teeth, the speaker’s searching for stability in every aspect of his life. It’s a journey that takes him through 110 pages and five sections—Hourglass Flow, The Sweet Home Men Series, The Unscene, Wisdom Teeth and Ajar.

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Busboys and Poets/PM Press)

And if you’re new to the city, the speaker lets you know what to expect in “What It’s Like to Date in D.C. for Those Who Haven’t”: “It’s like having a mouthful of prayers/ when all you looking for is that one/ Amen.”

Reading Wisdom Teeth, I felt like a passenger invited along for the ride, especially with the poem “Building”. The speaker’s details brought me with him into the coffee shop, where I noticed the “syrup of sunlight” like a second glaze on the wooden tabletops.

I heard the “trash talk and chuckles” of black men playing dominoes. I dug the music in “the snap crack/ of dotted flat backs” and the “dry bones/ glossy bones”.

It would have been easy to take that moment as a commentary on brotherhood and bonding, and not realize the game of bones is just a vehicle the speaker uses to drive his point home with the reader. The true commentary’s in the “steady trash talk” after “Fingers drum the table”: “I’m on my third house./ Where you at?! Jati?/ HUD is officially/ in the building!

Watching “the bones…/ like unhinged teeth”, I thought of the deteriorating houses in DC’s rundown neighborhoods. Watching as “Jati resets the fracture/ smiling as houses change ownership”, I thought of so-called neighborhood revitalization projects that displaced former residents.

And Jati’s response to his friend’s trash talking? “Eminent domain Fred!/ You getting gentrified!

I loved the speaker’s clever use of brothers bonding over a game as commentary on the changing demographics in America’s major cities. The speaker’s playful tone in “Building” reminded me how some of us use humor to help swallow those bitter truths.

What also helps those truths go down easy is the fellowship of black men  who “finish/ each other’s sentences” and chase red beans and rice “with/ rum that/ warms the gullet/ makes gut chuckles flow easy” in the poem “Kitchen Gods”.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) l-r: Brandon D. Johnson, Brian Gilmore, Joel Dias-Porter, Patrick Washington, Ernesto Mercer, Alan King, Fred Joiner, Derrick Weston Brown.

The men in this poem could be my dad, uncles and grandfather. These are men who “dust off/ old stories like records that hadn’t seen a turntable/ in some time.” And, contrary to masculine myths and stereotypes, these ordinary men “resuscitate the/ ghost of old lovers/ angry indifferent or otherwise.”

That resuscitation is really these guys assessing their life choices—where they’ve been and where they are now. These are hardworking men who support their families, men who’ve grown as a result of their experiences.

The physical details in “Kitchen Gods” are striking. I could see these guys mapping “[…] out/ a woman’s dimensions”, molding “hips out of thin air/ recreating/ her walk and/ arching calves.” I also saw the men dapping up each other and bumping fist “so hard/ rings skip sparks”.

I could hear the conversations punctuated with “g’dams” and “g’lords”. I even smiled at the memory of being shooed “out of the kitchen/ with gentle hands” when I was too young for the adult talk. Now that I’m old enough, I can appreciate the times I’ve been a part of “a small kitchen crew”.

One reason I love Wisdom Teeth is the poem “Gust”:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The sky snarled.

We heard God swallow cumulus,

stratus, and anvil headed nimbus

before the hush.

We ventured outside

Peered up into the calm.

The sky      a frosted snow globe

swirl of stars.

The moon

a glossy clear polished

fingernail sliver

winked.

Odd

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The wind so strong

I could lean into it

arms out and not fall.

I was Pisa.

What did I know

of nature’s way

of teaching lessons?

That there is

an eye of the storm.

Watch me smile.

My back to the rifle

sight of lassoed menace

clueless to the coming stretch

and yawn of ruin.

In “Gust”, the speaker revisits Charlotte, North Carolina, ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I love this poem for other reasons.

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas)

If storms are metaphors for troubling times in our lives, then “Gust” speaks to the current political climate: the US military in Libya, rising militias and hate groups, politicians cutting funds for social programs as a solution to the budget deficit.

The “cumulus,/ stratus, and anvil headed nimbus” were the delusions of politicians and some finance experts who convinced everyone else that the markets were economically sound when history has shown us otherwise. “What did I know/ of nature’s way/ of teaching lessons?” Just replace “history” with “nature” and I’m sure that line says what we all were thinking.

God swallowing those delusions was reality setting in. That an alarming amount of people lost their homes to foreclosures makes Hurricane Hugo a metaphor for the current economic crisis, its “rifle/ sight of lassoed menace”.

That corporate CEOs, whose businesses stayed afloat with bailout money from the federal government, went on with business as usual is the sign of lessons not learned.  “Gust”, in its own way, warns against that kind of ignorance that keeps us “clueless to the coming stretch/ and yawn of ruin.”

Wisdom Teeth is right on time. In this collection, as one writer puts it, “Truth cuts its way beneath the unspoken like new teeth on their way to light.” I couldn’t agree more, grateful for their arrival.

The Journey for the Unseen Beauty

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Editor’s note: The essay below is in response to the What Book Changed Your Life Contest by Marita Golden. Winners receive an autographed copy of Marita Golden’s newest book THE WORD: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing. Submission deadline: February 5, 2011. Click here for more contest info.

When Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems by Sonia Sanchez came into my life a decade ago, I wasn’t aware of how it would change my life.

I was a spoken word poet then trying to make a name for myself on the open mike scene in DC, doing poems I thought the crowd found entertaining instead of what I felt from my heart.

I used to frequent Bar Nun on U Street (the venue later changed its name to “Pure Lounge“). I still remember those Monday evenings standing in line two hours before the open mike in unsuccessful attempts at trying to get a good spot on the list, which was any slot before midnight.

In retrospect, the perception time provided is priceless.

It’s easier for me now to see the red flag I missed then, when I spent more time writing what I thought were poems than I did reading the works of established masters, such as Sanchez. But, as the Irish poet and novelist James Joyce once put it, isn’t a mistake a portal “of discovery”?

My introduction to Shake Loose My Skin came at a time when my reading list consisted of only two names. The introduction occurred while browsing the shelves at what was then the Landover, Md.-location of the now-defunct Karibu Books. Some poems in the collection are politically-charged while others are sensuous.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And whether writing about a mom pimping her baby daughter to feed her crack habit or an older woman schooling a young sister on love, the range of the poems in that book showed me the possibilities.

The role of Shake Loose My Skin can be summed up in an anonymous quote. “A good teacher is like a candle—it consumes itself to light the way for others,” so the saying goes.

Since our encounter in the bookstore, that collection continues to light my way as a poet. In those pages, I found poems used as tools of observation and as a way of documenting life’s unseen beauties; these were poems that shined in the heart of the world.

So it was OK for me to write about my family and childhood. It was alright for me to write about Black men longing for loving relationships (in spite of contrary notions in public space). Those poems in that collection also showed me that vulnerability, itself, was an unseen beauty that permeates my work the same way the jazz and blues energies saturate the poems in Shake Loose My Skin.

That same energy hits me now the way it did 11 years ago, when I moved through the book aisles of Karibu, unaware of the beauty I’d find there. Time and distance from those open mike days gives me a perspective on the near-truth of a German writer’s words that echoes in my head now the way it did then. “A soul that sees beauty,” according to Johann von Goethe, “may sometimes walk alone.”

Looking back, I’m grateful for the journey and the companionship of the poems in Shake Loose My Skin that didn’t let me walk alone.

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