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A DC Creative Writing Workshop Cypher

A few years ago, I started as a writer-in-residence with the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, and worked my way up to senior program director.

I owe this nonprofit and its Executive Director Nancy Schwalb so much. I shot these clips, not sure what I would do with them.

They sat on my phone for two years until now. So here’s my small way of saying thanks to Nancy and the young poets in the after-school Writing Club.

 
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Posted by on May 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Marian Wright Edelman Fires Up Intergenerational Advocates

Edelman

(PHOTO: Alan King) Marian Wright Edelman after her talk at the Public Policy building in Dupont Circle

EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m writing this article as the Communications Specialist at Generations United. I had a great opportunity to catch Ms. Edelman’s talk earlier this week.

Marian Wright Edelman’s pep talk earlier this week came from a different place. It wasn’t the usual eloquent oration of a gifted speaker whose decades of fighting for disadvantaged Americans earned her the status of civil rights legend.

Instead, she delivered her appeal as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren,” she told a packed room Oct. 28 at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention in D.C. “They have re-radicalized me all over again.”

Edelman’s initial spark came from the racial injustice she saw as a lawyer with the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She tackled segregation laws, represented activists during the 1964 Freedom Summer, and helped setup a Head Start Program. In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), an advocacy and research center for youth issues.

The CDF is also a co-founder of Generations United, a national advocacy group whose intergenerational strategies improves the lives of children, youth, and older people.

Evoking the inspiration her granddaughters gave her, Edelman re-radicalized the Gray Panthers, an intergenerational advocacy organization. She charged them to be “pit bulls up there on the hill” for young people disadvantaged by poor educational systems (“We want universal preschool through K,” Edelman said, “it shouldn’t stop at kindergarten”) and gun violence (“a violent crime occurs every 26 seconds,” according to the FBI’s 2012 crime data).

Though we weren’t mentioned by name, Generations United was present in Edelman’s address, especially when she urged the older adults to advocate for children and youth. “We’ve got to make a raucous,” she said, “but it’s got be a continuous raucous.”

Through our Seniors4Kids program, older adults make a continuous raucous in support of early childhood development whether they’re in Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska or New Jersey, to name a few.

“1 in 6 Americans live in a multigenerational household,” according to Generations United’s data.

“What does early education have to do with older adults?” Drs. Joan Lombardi and Mary Catherine Bateson asked in their May 14 Huffington Post Op/Ed, “United Across the Generations to Assure a Strong Start for Children.”

“The well-being of our nation’s children and our own grandchildren will have a huge impact on our quality of living,” according to Lombardi and Bateson. “If our children emerge from our education system ill-prepared for the work world, we will suffer along with them, because we will be dependent upon them.”

Edelman echoed that sentiment at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention. “You are the indispensable,” she told the grandparents – some of whom mentored troubled teens and young mothers through the foster grandparents program.

“You’re the most talented and educated generation of grandparents and advocates,” Edelman continued before expressing her admiration for grandfamilies, or multigenerational households headed by grandparent caregivers. There are now 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. who have sole responsibility of the children living with them, according to Generations United’s data.

Edelman joked about her experiences as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren, but I sure am happy when they go home,” she told a laughing crowd. “They wear you out.”

But Edelman doesn’t take the social enrichment her grandchildren give her for granted. “I have three great sons,” she said, “but when I had my first two granddaughters, I didn’t know how lonely I’d been all of those years.”

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Out of Darkness, Comes Art and a Lighter Side of Ellington’s LMC Staff

(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!).

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2013 in Review

 

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Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

I’m coming off a high after graduation last month. I finished the Stonecoast M.F.A. Low-Residency Program at the University of Southern Maine, a two-year journey I started for time to write and complete another manuscript to shop around.

It allowed me to expand my network, see Maine (a place I otherwise would not have visited), and to work with National Book Award Finalist Tim Seibles. While he was the hook, Stonecoast introduced me to other faculty members with invaluable insights: Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, Scott WolvenAnnie Finch, David Anthony Durham, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Cait Johnson.

That high, in part, resulted from my last residency experience—where I spoke on a panel about third semester projects, introduced Tim Seibles before his reading and Q&A, conducted an hour-long seminar on collaborations, and got an amazing intro from Tim at the Graduating Student Reading. My wife, parents, and sister flew in, met the faculty, and fellow Stonecoasters.

I rode that high back to D.C., determined that nothing would kill it—not even Alexandra Petri’s Washington Post column “Is Poetry Dead?,” which dumped Poetry in a hospice. “Can a poem still change anything?” she wrote. “I think the medium might not be loud enough any longer.” That most people I encounter share Petri’s sentiment doesn’t surprise me. In fact, the anti-poetry comments bombard me: from my dad constantly asking how writers feed themselves, to “good for you” responses after people hear I’m a published poet, to the forced smile my wife’s sorority sister gave me when she found out what an M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) was and what I studied.

I shook my head after a poetry buddy told me about an unsuccessful spoken word artist who recently said, “I don’t do that poetry shit anymore.” When the anti-poets spew their rhetoric, I’m grateful for this excerpt of Donald Hall’s 1989 essay, “Death to the Death of Poetry”:

After college many English majors stop reading contemporary poetry. Why not? They become involved in journalism or scholarship, essay writing or editing, brokerage or social work; they backslide from the undergraduate Church of Poetry. Years later, glancing belatedly at the poetic scene, they tell us that poetry is dead. They left poetry; therefore they blame poetry for leaving them. Really, they lament their own aging. Don’t we all? But some of us do not blame the current poets.

The Church of Poetry ain’t short on hallelujahs—not when poetry’s still read at weddings and funerals, not when people turn to poets or attempt to write their own verse on Valentine’s Day or anytime they declare their love for someone special. Could it be what Cait Johnson once said, that “poetry is a shortcut to empathy,” and that “poetry gets at the soul faster”?

My soul sambaed the evening I watched a couple wait for a table at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets in D.C. Attempting to woo his wife, the husband pulled a random poetry book off the shelf, an action prompted by his wife’s question some time before: “Why don’t you read me poetry?”

After reading a few poems aloud, he said, “This is really good.” He bought the book, then, hearing the author was present, asked the poet to pose with him for a photo. When the host called their name, the husband shook the poet’s hand and said that book will help their marriage.

(PHOTO: DCCWW) Students in the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop’s After-School Writing Club.

The gospel doesn’t stop there. I’d love to take Alexandra Petri to Hart Middle School in D.C.’s most neglected community (the Congress Heights neighborhood in the city’s southeast quadrant). Every week, she’d see kids, who thought they didn’t like poetry, laughing as they scribbled their raps.

She’d see a 7th grader sweat each line of his poem about going to visit his dad’s grave that day after school. She’d see an 8th grader writing about her dual heritages (a Jamaican dad and Panamanian mom).

If after all that, Petri said, “That’s nice, but shouldn’t they be doing something more practical,” I’d turn her attention to a 2007 interview, where Bill Moyers asked poet Martín Espada the same thing. “Well, for me, poetry is practical,” Espada said. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self respect. They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world. And so I think it– poetry makes that practical contribution.”

I’d love to take Petri to Duke Ellington School of the Arts on the well-to-do side of town, where she’d see  a 10th grader using poetry to deal with her mother’s passing last year. I wonder how she’d feel about her thesis after watching a classroom of students fired up after reading a poem about the ill-treatment of a hit and run victim.

I wish she could hear those 10th graders calling America on her hypocrisies before writing their own poems in the hit and run victim’s voice—addressing the drivers who honked their horns, the detectives who swapped jokes above her, or the shaken witness who stole the crime scene spotlight. I’d turn to Petri and–imitating Espada’s voice–say, “You just saw poetry make ‘…the abstract concrete…the general specific and particular.'”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I’d recommend the Post columnist shadow poet Patricia Smith on one of her school visits through Chicago. I’d like to see Petri’s reaction when Nicole asks Smith to help her remember her mother she lost to drug addiction.

I’d send Petri to Durham, NC, where Dr. Randall Horton brings poetry to a halfway house where he was once a resident. I could imagine Petri speechless, watching those men and women count haiku syllables on their fingers. She might even yell “Damn!” when a guy’s poem reminisces about a fine woman’s sundress that was “ghetto dandelion yellow.”

It’s obvious Alexandra Petri’s out of the loop. “The problem with her column is simple. It’s breathtakingly uninformed,” DC poet Joseph Ross wrote in a blog post, which listed a literary institution and contemporary local poets. Ross even offered to show Petri other places where Poetry lives in D.C. “Alexandra, let me take you to a poetry reading,” he wrote. “Let me introduce you to the poetry world in Washington, D.C., that I know. Maybe I’ll even give you a poetry book.”

And that’s nice, considering what every poet wanted to give Petri. Her column wasn’t just “breathtakingly uninformed”; it was offensive. The poets expressed this through the cyber beat down they gave Petri. I’m talking about angry comments posted to her column, an open letter with a reading list, and “irate tweets calling me ‘pretty [expletiving] stupid,’” Petri recalled in a follow-up column, retracting her initial thesis.

But a few thrown stones don’t stop the Church of Poetry from rejoicing, which brings me back to my high and my M.F.A. degree. I could go into what poetry did for me, but I’ve done that enough (plus, it’s on my “About” page). For those who don’t know, this Poetry Church is so funky the gospel wafts like cannabis clouds in a hotboxed car. We welcome nonbelievers to catch contact highs. There’s always room in the cipher.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2013 in Essay

 

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2012 Awards Mark Best Year Ever for DC-based Nonprofit

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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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in Feature

 

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Blackbird Poetry Festival

(IMAGE: HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College)

This time of year, Poetry gets a lot of attention from the mainstream public. News organizations around the country that would otherwise snub her appearance play paparazzi, recording her whereabouts and goings-on.

Thousands of businesses and non-profits celebrate her vital place in American culture through readings and festivals, through book displays and workshops.

And for a month, she’s the life of the party. The national attention’s enough to make her think the country takes her seriously, that she’s more than a national obligation the Academy of American Poets started in 1996. The month-long festivities continue until April’s final days before the public moves on to the next celebration, before her limelight dims enough for certain publishers, booksellers and literary organizations to still recognize her.

This year, Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo aren’t letting Poetry go out like that. They’re announcing her presence with a bang April 26 at the 4th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Come celebrate at the “Poetry In Harmony” Coffee House reading by Michael Cirelli (a National Poetry Slam individual finalist, winning the finals in both San Francisco and Berkeley), Kim Addonizio (considered “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets”), Naomi Ayala (poet, freelance writer, and consultant), and a performances by musical group Mother Ruckus (Sahffi and Gayle Danley). (Click the link for performer’s bios.)

There will also be readings by faculty and students from Howard Community College, where it’s all going down. Check out the workshops and watch out for the “Poetry Police,” who’re citing anyone caught without poetry on hand for National Poem in Your Pocket Day.

(IMAGE: Blackbird Festival) Clockwise form top left: Kim Addonizio, Mother Ruckus, Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli.

The day’s events are mostly free, except for the Mother Ruckus performance. (Tickets will be $15 general admission, $10 for seniors and students with ID and open to the public, others for students only. Get your tickets online by clicking here.)

The festival’s schedule is as follows:

9:30 – 10:30 Naomi Ayala speaks at Howard County School System (HCPSS) Professional Development Day Session I

10:40 – 11:40 Naomi Ayala speaks at HCPSS Prof. Dev. Day Session II

10:00  Poetry Police start to patrol HCC at campus looking for National Poem in Your Pocket Day violations

11:00 – 12:20 Kim Addonizio meets with HCC’s Creative Writing Class (closed)

11:00 – 12:20 Michael Cirelli meets with students and community (open and free)

2:30 – 4:30    Readings by: Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio and regional poets, HCC students and faculty (open and free)

7:00 Doors open for “Poetry in Harmony,” a coffeehouse-styled reading

7:30 – 9:30 Readings by Michael Cirelli and Kim Addonizio, and a performance by musical group Mother Ruckus, which includes performance poet Gayle Danley and songstress Sahffi. ($15, $10 for seniors and for students with an id)

 
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Posted by on April 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Get Ready For Split This Rock!

(PHOTO: Nancy Bratton Design)

I don’t know about the other attendees, but I’m still swooning from Jan Beatty’s reading at Split This Rock 2010.

That year marked the second time for the biennial literary festival that Sarah Browning started as a way of providing a “permanent home for progressive poets.”

Since it started in 2008, Split This Rock has attracted high-profile participants such as Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Dennis Brutus, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Sharon Olds. The inaugural festival even got Washington Post reporter David Montgomery to pay attention.

“The poets are in town. Dozens — no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine?” Montgomery wrote in his article Averse To War: “They are everywhere.

“In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes’s old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth — ‘Through me many long dumb voices’ — over the hummus and merlot.

“They are signing fans’ battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.”

(PHOTO: Jill Brazel Photography) The late-poet Dennis Brutus reading at the inaugural festival.

The poets at the 2010 festival–which included Chris Abani, Cornelius Eady, and Martin Espada–came at time when the U.S. was in two wars, dealing with struggling economic recovery, and a host of other social and environmental ills. Despite those issues, the artists are still optimistic.

And Sarah Browning’s shining the bat signal again this year for all “poets, writers, artists, activists, dreamers and all concerned world citizens” to meet in DC March 22-25 and demand social justice, “imagine a way forward and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change,”  according to Split This Rock’s website.

Among those poets and dreamers at the 2010 conference was Jan Beatty, who gave a hell of a reading from her third collection Red Sugar. I didn’t see her coming like a southpaw’s punches. Other poets who brought down the house included Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, and Toni Asante Lightfoot.

They’ll join for four days of readings, open mics, Poetry in the Streets, and a book fair. The theme for this year’s conference is “Poetry by and for the 99%!”–a shout out to the nationwide occupiers protesting from their tent towns.

“As people’s movements ignite here at home and throughout the world in response to economic inequality, political repression, and environmental degradation, the festival will consider the relationship of poets and poetry to power and to the challenges to power,” according to the web site.

(PHOTO: Lynda Koolish) June Jordan

This year’s festival, marking the 10th anniversary of June Jordan‘s death, will honor the life and work of the late-poet, essayist, teacher and activist.

For more information or to register now, go to http://www.splitthisrock.org.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2012 in Announcements, Review

 

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Shameless Plug

Order your copies today!

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

Praise for Drift:

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

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

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

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

What’s Going On

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order your copy of DRIFT:


 
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Posted by on December 13, 2011 in Announcements

 

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The Black Poets United And They All Got Down

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Alan King) Derrick Weston Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Essay

 

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Urban Renewal: Major Jackson and Audre Lorde

(PHOTO: Erin Patrice O'Brien) Major Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: laallen) An alley in Philly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Archives)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Black Enterprise's archive) Audre Lorde

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Archives) An old rooming house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ARTWORK: Dreams Time)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 4.

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

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op.Cite, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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

[17] Op.cite, 6.

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

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Ibid.

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

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2011 in Essay, Review

 

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