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(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.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ernesto Mercer

Depending how one might see it, the 20th century could be something most folks around the world wouldn’t mind watching go up in smoke. For starters, there were two World Wars, Nazi death camps, the Great Depression and Vietnam.

In the great ol’ U-S-of-A alone, we had the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Klansmen and lynching. And if those weren’t enough, the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy also dot that century’s timeline of atrocities.

With his Gunpowder + A Match (outbackintheshack + Carolina Jones Ink, 2011), Ernesto Mercer aims to make sure the 20th century sizzles for his global brothers and sisters.

This limited-run collection is a chapbook, meaning it’ll have nearly 40 pages and either be saddle stitched or stapled along the folded spine. It’s the oldest form of publishing that goes back for centuries. It’s an affordable way that helped writers get their work out.

These publications range from inexpensive productions to handmade editions that sell for hundreds of dollars. The inexpensive productions (between $5 and $10) helped Mercer get out his earlier work. (Read his poem “THE BEG.”) And this time around, he enlisted the help of a friend to run off a limited batch from her copier.

Poet Randall Horton, a professor and publisher, can’t wait for his copy. “I have been waiting to read something from Ernesto for a minute now,” he said. Horton’s among the writers interviewed for this story, who haven’t read Gunpowder + A Match. All each writer has to go on is Mercer’s earlier work they either heard at readings or read in literary journals and anthologies.

Horton first read Mercer’s work as an editor for the literary journal Tidal Basin Review. “I have been a big fan since,” he said of the work he published, noting that Mercer’s right on time with Gunpowder + A Match.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

What Horton found engaging about Mercer’s work was that it stimulated on multiple levels.

“If you are a fan of Adrian Castro”—the Afro-Latino poet, performer and interdisciplinary artist—“then you are going to love what Ernesto does on the page,” Horton said. “Ernesto is coming from many traditions.”

Among them is Mercer’s practice as a priest in the Cuban tradition of Palo, a religion developed by Central African slaves brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo. Those slaves, mostly of Bantu lineage, created a belief system that respected ancestral spirits and nature’s powers.

Those slaves and their belief system also inspired Mercer’s title Gunpowder + A Match. According to the religious practice, the soil, sticks, bones and other “natural objects” are believed to have spiritual powers. During the main ceremony, according to various sources, a priest places those items inside a sacred vessel.

And only the spirits of the dead, which dwell in those vessels, or Nganga, guide all religious activities performed with the Nganga.

In Spanish, the tradition’s known as “La Reglas Bantu” (“The Bantu Rule” in English). Among its several branches are the Mayombe (the oldest) and Brillumba. Mercer’s a Mayombe priest with rights in Brillumba. As a Mayombero, with 23 years in the religions, he’s the priest of Nsasi—the god of lightning, fire and explosions among other things.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

Where the title Gunpowder + A Match fits into all of this is the intense healing ceremony that requires Mercer using gunpowder to draw intricate patterns on the ground. “These designs are usually only seen by initiates and those who seek the healing of Mayombe,” he told me in a recent interview.

Due out in September, what Mercer called “a nice-sized plate of poems” will be available to everyone, not just initiates. It’ll be available for those seeking a healing from their 20th century wounds that, for many, resulted from the rise of illegal drug trades both globally and in America’s urban neighborhoods.

The remnants of that 20th century era, for many, are the loved ones still strung out on or that died from crack and heroin. Mercer raises the issue in “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” a poem from Gunpowder + A Match, in which the speaker is a ninth grader digging on M, an older sister of a former classmate.

“Every dude/ loved M + she/ knew it,” Mercer’s speaker says in “e-FLAT BOOGIE.” M’s a ‘hood honey who uses what she’s got, and takes advantage of the speaker’s feelings by telling, instead of asking, him “to walk her to/ the store.” To which the speaker’s accommodating.

On their way, Mercer’s speaker is confronted by some unsavory elements of the drug game, in which the speaker likens the dealers to pimps: “& even with/ Star Crystal &/ Mary Jane/”–cocaine, crystal meth and reefer (or weed)–”working right/ across the street/ the guys still/ hated me anyway/ walking with M.” And fortunately for the speaker, the hate didn’t go beyond the dealers’ angry stares.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) younger Ernesto Mercer

Gunpowder + A Match will also be available for those curious about Mercer’s whereabouts for the last decade. It was the poet’s attempt to heal himself while he figured some things out about love, lust, loss, anger and fear. “I hope readers follow me through a few obsessions, ruminations and preoccupations,” Mercer said. “I hope they are willing to wander with me through the vagaries of my voice and voices.”

That journey resulted from the poet almost losing his voice around 1999. At that time, Mercer stopped publishing consistently after completing his third fellowship with the Cave Canem summer retreat for writers of African descent. He published poems here and there in literary journals and anthologies until his responsibilities took over.

At the time, his hands were full, working as a welfare case manager in DC. Additionally, Mercer was seven years into a 14-year apprenticeship to be a Mayombe priest, learning Creole while studying plants and herbs, along with chanting, dancing, divination and more from his priest-teachers.

Even still, he thought about poetry a lot and where he was going with his. “I discovered that I could not write the way I heard the poems in my head,” he said. The job and his apprenticeship (which had him bouncing between DC, the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the weekends) made that difficult.

That’s when Mercer knew he’d have to do something about the outside demands sapping his creativity. “Over that time,” he said, “I’d write for myself and challenge myself.”

And given that the playwright, poet and essayist Jay Wright and the African Diaspora influenced Mercer’s older poems, Sharan Strange got excited at the news of Gunpowder + A Match. “The title of the collection is provocative,” said the senior lecturer in Spelman College’s English department.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Strange can’t wait to read Mercer’s new collection. “I’m expecting that he wants to provoke, perhaps even explode the usual responses to his work, or address some smoldering issues in this contemporary sociocultural moment.” She added, “I hope the community will be open to the work, engage it, and talk back.”

Challenging himself, Ernesto Mercer reemerged in the arts scene with three performances at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art that included a libretto for Ayo Ngozi’s “Fela 70” and two productions with his long-time collaborator and partner Tosha Grantham in “The River Never Rests/Man Unda Wata” and “Nnandi and the Hunter’s Shirt.”

And just when it seemed he got his rhythm back, Mercer almost lost it again around 2009. He’d sent some poems to an interested publisher, thinking his work would reach a larger audience.

Instead, they sat on a shelf, collecting dust. “Sometimes it seems that folks like or want my work, and then don’t know what to do with it,” Mercer said. Of that time, he added, “I don’t hear or know what happens to my work sometimes.”

It didn’t take Mercer long, however, to hear something after regaining his work from the publisher and sharing them at readings. “I kept getting asked by audience members and fellow poets: ‘Where can I get these poems?’” he said. And with that enthusiasm, the poet knew what he had to do.

Since the announcement posted two weeks ago on various blogs, it created an ongoing buzz among writers. “As with any poet who has shown skillful and harmonious eclecticism…I am certainly paying attention to how and where Mercer guides me in his collection,” said Ashaki M. Jackson, a social psychologist and poet residing in Southern California.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

“As a writer who is generally impatient in life, I’d also enjoy seeing what a meditative writer has to offer through his exploration of self in the world, in others, in spirit, in love, and in other spaces.”

Jackson noted that Gunpowder + A Match will be part of a recent wave of fresh writing from poets of color. It’s the result of organizations such as Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA and Callaloo—literary institutions of color using their skills and resources to help marginalized writers.

Mercer’s new collection is also, for Jackson, “an important part of what should be an increasingly consistent stream of publications from these writing communities.”

The social psychologist and poet hoped Gunpowder + A Match will be a strand woven into both the national and international literary fabric. Mercer’s voice, according to Jackson, “is one that resonates at the street-level and the God-level.”

Derrick Weston Brown, who recently read with Mercer at Busboys and Poets’ Sunday Kind of Love reading series, agreed. “His poems are unlike anyone else’s, and that’s the good thing,” said the educator and poet-in-residence at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. “His voice and his subject matter are distinct. They come from an older D.C.”

And while that era’s fondly remembered by lifelong residents for the abundance of black-owned businesses and tighter communities, it also had its negative elements. Going back to “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” Mercer’s poem is a portrait of a DC, where prostitution once defined 12th and 14th streets NW: “too many girls/ on 14th St so/ 12th & Que/ got to be the Ho/ Stroll extended,” according to Mercer’s speaker.

And though M, the ’round-the-way honey, was known for “cussing/ out bamas for/ 4 hot blocks,” she’s still a lady. So much so that the speaker places her above those on the stroll. For him, M wasn’t just an object of attraction, but a mentor.

(ARTWORK: Jermaine Rogers) Afro Punk art

The way he’s treated by M informs how he treats her baby sister S, who he knows was “crushing on” him. “I could tell M/ liked the way I/ was carrying it,” according to Mercer’s speaker, “just let her hang/ a thing I’d picked/ up from M herself/ how she’d say/ to walk her to/ the store…”

While walking to the store, M asks the speaker about his new school. The speaker tells her he’s “thinking/ about getting/ a Mohawk &/ joining this band.” Mercer gives the reader another glimpse of the negative elements from the “older DC” when they hit Logan Circle: “we/ could see bumper to/ bumper on the/ inner & outer lanes/…all slow riding/ to check the girls.”

That’s the D.C. poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown learned about after moving there in 2001 for grad school. That year, the Charlotte, North Carolina-native stumbled upon the tail-end of Mercer’s Afroche reading series and workshop at the now-defunct Kaffa House, once in the 1200 block of U Street NW.

After hearing about Mercer for the first time, Brown unsuccessfully tried to hunt down a copy of The Black Rooster Social Inn, an anthology that included poems from Mercer, Brandon Johnson, Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade), Renée Stout and Gary Copeland Lilley—all of whom made up the “Black Rooster Collective.”

Brian Gilmore’s also from the “older DC.” The poet and public interest lawyer noted that Mercer’s been M.I.A. for a while, and hoped that Gunshot + A Match will change that.

“Hopefully, this will mean he will be out and about with the poets somewhere for a minute,” said Gilmore, who’s known Mercer since the late 80s. “It is always a big deal when Ernesto puts out work or performs,” Gilmore said of that time.

Of Mercer’s new chapbook, the poet and public interest lawyer said, “I am just anxious to read the work and experience it as always.” Gilmore added, “He is going to take you somewhere and it is not where you think you are going either.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

And Ernesto Mercer’s aware of how that might affect some readers. “There’s a lot that folks won’t like in here,” he said. “But I’ll let some of that be a surprise. There’s enough stuff in the poems to get me shanked.”

Though Mercer’s from another time, the poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown said, “His spirit is young, and so the poems have vitality and urgency.”

Brown noted that both qualities were essential to preserving the history of a city whose demographic is rapidly changing. “His poems make the reader remember as well as be mindful of the community that exists and is ignored at the same time,” Brown said.

Gunpowder + A Match will make up for what Brown couldn’t hunt down his first year in D.C. “I get a second chance to hold a physical collection of Ernesto’s newest work,” he said.

Those interested in snatching up Mercer’s new collection can pre-order their copies from PayPal (read Ernesto’s 4 easy steps to pre-ordering GUNPOWDER + A MATCH), or from Mercer himself (either in-person or through his Facebook page). “When they’re all gone, they’re all gone,” Mercer said, noting that neither he nor his partner is trying to be a publisher.

“No reprints and no reruns. This is it and out,” said the man who’s currently busy preparing with a band for an evening performance in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira.”

The performance, “Match + Wood,” takes place Oct. 22. “I’m back,” Mercer said, ready to travel the country with his Mojo-swagger.

“I’ll ride the Chinatown buses up and down the Coast, read at open mics—featured or not, known or unknown—and, as I did when I was younger, have my chapbooks in my bag.” Oh, he’s back, alright. And, according to Mercer, “That word is bond.”

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.

Truth Thomas’s “Bottle of Life”

(PHOTO: Melanie Henderson) Truth Thomas studied creative writing at Howard Unviersity with Dr. Tony Medina and E. Ethelbert Miller, and earned a M.F.A from New England College in 2008.

It’s “…the language of collard greens and black-eyed peas seasoned with fatback and Big Mama’s sweet tea” was how one writer put it in a blurb. Another writer called its contents “…intoxicatingly sweet, sharp, with a dash of bitter, good for the soul’s health.” A third one noted the poet finds “heaven in his Mama’s macaroni and cheese…”

And I have to agree with them; the food analogies are fitting for Truth Thomas’s Bottle of Life (Flipped Eye Publishing, 2010). Knoxville-born, DC-raised, Thomas brings a streetwise wit and lyricism to his third collection of poems. He’s been compared to Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove the way he chronicles what one writer called “the atrocities of our violent, ‘soiled world.’”

Within these 75 pages Thomas has ended the literary food shortage. Bottle of Life is a Thanksgiving Dinner with all the trimmings. Or it places the reader at the buffet table, with delicious imagery steaming under a heat bulb.

But read each poem again, go through the surface, and the scene morphs into something else; the heat bulb becomes an interrogation lamp. In place of the food are the ugly realities Thomas brings to the surface of his readers’ conscience. Take “Up Growing” for instance, which opens the collection. Aiming the interrogation lamp at the violence, abuse and denial of childhood, Thomas skillfully juxtaposes the ugly with the beautiful:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

…in “one small
step for man” days,
in Jackson 5, “ABC,”
“Stop the Love you Save”
days, there were no fights,
no duels in bruises.
No stepfathers
ever broke
faces of door frames
to lattice boys in
choke hungry fingers.

Here’s another example of that juxtaposition in the same poem:

Never did a Knoxville,
take-no-shit woman,
scratch the mug
of a 6-foot
cheating husband,
and never
did this wannabe Shaft,
wannabe man,
wrestle a woman
to the ground – not yesterme,
yesteryou, not yesterday –
not on streets where boys
would shadow box
like Muhammad Ali,
and spin,
and shuffle
and float over
girls with names like
Alice Haxton,
or Teresa Youngblood.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Thomas is a former Writer-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society in Maryland and his work has appeared in many journals and anthologies including the "The 100 Best African American Poems" edited by Nikki Giovanni.

Another theme of this book is war. His poem, “The War is Here,” questions America’s involvement in the so-called “war on terror.” It also alludes to social injustices committed on American soil whether it’s post-Katrina treatment of Gulf Coast residents, or gang violence and child prostitution:

Dial down the swagger in your trigger
finger. The war is here—not over hills,
everywhere. Shots fired in New Orleans,
a community down, please respond. Shots
fired in Bodymore, the unwired down.

…Repeat: insane days
and nights—right here. Little girls who
could be your girls, selling for a dollar in
Harlem, in Chinatown—right now—right
down the street from your 1600 dome.

The ironies Thomas masterfully captures are as bizarre as a trick-mirror image. Here’s a Christmas night robbery on a Baltimore street while “Silver Bells” plays in the background of his poem, “Baltimore: Dressed in Holiday Cheer”:

Walking on Saratoga Street, a gun barrel stops
and asks me for a smoke, and all my money.
“Silver bells, silver bells, it’s Christmas

time in the city…” My fingers fumble through lent
like quicksand in my pockets. Outside my
body, I watch as Andrew Jackson unfolds

in my hand, and rises like Superman’s cape. “City
sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday
style…”
As three windows in King Tut Jewelers

keep watch by night, the handgun flies away,
a trash truck passes, and you ask me, “What
do I recall?”

At times, Bottle of Life could be a 40 ounce poured out on the curb as Thomas remembers those who’ve passed on. Here’s a poem in memory of his friend, Tony.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Dr. Tony Medina, Truth Thomas and Dr. Randall Horton.

A Dynamite Player

Tony was a
dynamite player
blew an alto to bits—
hit notes Bird
forgot to play
or missed—lit
bebop fuses over
P-funk cakes
spooned women
like Chinese food,
would feast
and be hungry
an hour later.
Yes, Tony was
a dynamite player—
had a dynamite gig
left Philly stages
smoking—was
an equal opportunity
fiend—was
every jones like
Chaka Khan was
every woman, and
I wanted to be him—
from his Pork Pie
to his sleep-deprived
keys—‘til he
fell asleep
in a crack pipe
and burned
all the way down
to his reeds.

Thomas is clever. “Villain ‘L’” is a poem that remembers Grammy-award winning singer Jennifer Hudson’s nephew, Julian King, who was shot to death by his father in 2008. The poem’s title is a play on the name of the poetic form, villanelle, in which he wrote the poem:

“Gunshots steal a child, a city is slain./A mother, an aunt, track serial tears./ Your pawns leave the board, take the rap in chains.”

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone Thomas) "Bottle of Life," a celebration of the santity and fragility of life, reaffirms Thomas' arrival as a major new voice in American poetry -- a very necessary one.

Bottle of Life, however, is not entirely what a writer called “an exquisitely crafted urn…” The book has its tender moments in poems like “Love Poem to a Lesbian” and “When Mama Does the Cooking.” Here’s “Night in Topeka”:

“No muted/trumpet/are you,/nor ever/were your/touches/gloved,/your/grooves/outside/the pocket./Solos—/so high/you make me—/happy,/as a pillar/in the/flatlands.”

Bottle of Life is refreshing. I have to agree with another writer on the music woven through this collection. “Each page,” the writer stated, “is like plucking the strings of a bass guitar, but the beat never gets too heavy, the message is always clear, the craft exquisite and masterful.”

I’ll close out with a poem that touched a chord with me and might do the same for anyone whose sibling(s) is(are) currently serving or has served in the armed  forces.

Roller Coaster of Love

We are all strapped in past points of
“no going back,” from moments
wombs welcome us to days. As I
wait on the runway of a roller coaster

with my older brother Andre. I am
reminded of this, although I cannot
help but wonder if this ride they call
Kingda Ka, here at Six Flags, means

“Scared shitless” in another time and
Tongue. But, can a man say “scared”
In a poem? Even when zero becomes
128 miles an hour in 3.5 seconds,

And a hot dog is poised to rise from
a vomit launch pad, in loop de loops,
this is hard for me to say. And so, I
captain silence with an iceberg tongue.

And, as usual, I go along with Andre.
“It’s going to be fun,” he tells me, just
like he did when we used to
smack the asses of cars, to set off

their alarms when we were kids. And
it was fun, until Lucky Thompson’s
father came out with his .44, cussing
holes in summer evening, aiming

at all creation. We had to hide for
twenty-seven days under Mr. Richards’
green Chevy nova—or was it half an
hour? And later, was it an extension

cord or a telephone pole that Daddy
used to build us up on every leaning
side? Andrew never cried, though we
were guilty as roaches in the

refrigerator—not then, or in 2006,
when his right leg met a roadside
bomb in Iraq. He never cried when
nightmares came, and sleep became

a desert storming lead. Even after
years of underbelly unemployment,
he never loosed a sniffle. “Tears are
not the clothes of kings,” he likes to

say—something that he read in a book,
I think, like he reads me now on these
rails. He tells me I should “man up,”
“get tough,” step up my arms in air

of amusement squeals. And I do—as
I am used to doing, all except question
this man, who once would SpongeBob
snot from my nose. But a week from

next Wednesday, when he jumps from
the roof of his 30 story life, and witnesses
say he sailed to earth without a sound,
I will wonder if tears finally came to

ride his cheeks down, just like we were
riding this coaster. I will wonder if he
closed his eyes to wipe them away, and
wish that I could catch that holy water.

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