Tag Archive: Culture


Hustle vs. Heartache (UPDATE)

(STILL: Courtesy) Giovanni Adams in his role as Hustle.

Three years ago, I did a story on Jason Tyler and his film crew’s project, Hustle vs. Heartache  — a story about up-and-coming rapper, Hustle, fresh out of prison with a dream of making it big as a hip hop artist, forging a relationship with his young son and finishing old business with his soul-singer dad, Heartache.

Back in 2011, Jason was a grad student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

When I interviewed him and his crew, they already raised $30,000 with a goal of reaching $100,000 for what started as a thesis film and became a feature.

Jason’s team has since graduated, exceeded their fundraising goal and are now in post-production. They’re an edit away from picture lock, a stage in film editing before the changes are complete and approved.

Afterwards, Jason’s crew kicks their film into the next stage that includes additional edits and audio mixing.

They’ve also secured an impressive cast that includes Blu Mankuma, of Smallville fame, and Vanessa Bell Calloway, who old school heads will remember from Coming to America. Learn more about the cast.

A Poet on his Way to a Reading

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Sidwell Friends School) That’s me, right there!

Yesterday, I left work around 9:30am and hopped the red line to the Tenleytown Metro Station.

During my 13-minute walk, I took a deep breath and exhaled – praying that I don’t bore the students and that I don’t get caught off-guard with a question.

While the nervousness is normal for my school visits, that day’s session was a special one.

My friend and poet Hayes Davis invited me to speak to his class at Sidwell Friends, a prominent private school just north of D.C.

Chelsea Clinton and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margaret Edson are among the highly-selective Quaker school’s notable alumni. It’s where Malia and Sasha Obama are currently enrolled.

So you know I wanted to make a good impression with it being National Poetry Month, the only time “the world,” as blogger Marie Basile put it, “recognizes our obsession with white space…”

How’d I do? Read the school’s write-up to find out.

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.”

The Human Thing To Do (for National Blog Action Day)

(PHOTO: Tunisia Live)

In the spirit of Blog Action Day, a friend challenged me and a few others to join bloggers around the world in raising awareness about a single subject.

The premise hasn’t changed since this free annual event started in 2007. The goal is that what we post will start positive global discussions about an annually assigned topic and urge support for advocacy groups whose work coincides with that issue.

This year’s topic, “Human Rights,” is right on time with 800,000 federal workers out of a job because of a congressional showdown between the President and Tea Party Republicans. But I don’t want to tear House Speaker John Boehner a new one for not reigning in his “Young Guns”.

I don’t want to talk about how those loose canons are holding middle class families for ransom, how they hope the President and Senate Democrats cave so they can delay or de-fund Obamacare, attempting to tarnish the President’s legacy. I don’t want to talk about those human rights violations, with Congress so close to a deal.

I do want to talk about an email I received this morning about 46 women fatally shot every month by domestic abusers. That’s the issue that hits even closer to home with me — someone who admires his wife’s brilliance, his mom’s big heart and quiet wisdom, his sister’s strong spirit and his adorable 4-year-old niece’s inquisitive nature (“Uncle, what’s that?”).

This issue is also on-time with October being Domestic Violence Awareness month. This year, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a bipartisan coalition of more than 1,000 mayors, got a petition going to toughen gun laws that make it difficult for dangerous people, including violent partners, to buy weapons.

I wholeheartedly agree with this coalition’s efforts to stop what former Congressman Mark Green considered a threat to national security. “If the numbers we see in domestic violence were applied to terrorism or gang violence, the entire country would be up in arms,” Green once said. “It would be the lead story on the news every night.”

(PHOTO: unknown on Flickr)

Right now, the lead story is the government shutdown, which is nowhere as pricey as domestic abuse services that include health care and counseling, along with social and welfare programs.

The Advocates for Human Rights did some additional calculating in their 2011 report, including the cost of “police and criminal justice services, legal services, transportation costs, and housing and other refuge services used by victims of domestic violence and special education services used to treat children of abused women.”

The advocacy group found that healthcare services, alone, for abused victims was $4.1 billion, according to figures from1995. That the government shutdown — which doesn’t occur often — gets more news ink and TV time than violence against women — which recent stats show is prevalent enough to victimize one in four at some point in her life — says a lot about where women’s rights fall on our priorities. Additionally, consider the irony of domestic abuse awareness kept to a whisper during its dedicated month.

But what do you expect from elected officials who, during last year’s General Election, tried to redefine rape and tell women what to do with their bodies. Those oppressive behaviors would disgust even a Republican tycoon like Leland Stanford. To hear him tell it, “Women having to suffer the burdens of society and government should have their equal rights in it.”

That’s why advocacy groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns are important. We can do our part to promote human solidarity by adding our names to a petition “demanding action to end gun violence.” There are also other groups working on behalf of battered women such as American Bar Association Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, Battered Women’s Justice Project, Child Welfare League of America, and Equality Now, to name a few.

Here’s a full list of standout groups stopping domestic abuse. Let’s do our part to discuss a human issue. It’s a step in the right direction, according to actress and filmmaker Salma Hayek. “If you give me any problem in America I can trace it down to domestic violence,” Hayek once said. “It is the cradle of most of the problems, economic, psychological, educational.”

Arts Summit Revives SW Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

Like Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man, Iain Haley Pollock’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy is the invisible underdog. He’s a man torn between his “black mother’s blood”[1] and his white father. And, like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker battles the stereotypes that make him invisible since he’s not seen as a real person. This journey to identity is an involved one through which Pollack’s speaker revisits the middle passage[2] and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath[3]. Along the way he encounters an orisha[4] while roaming Philly’s mean streets[5].

The speaker’s longing for home is analogous to the enslaved Igbo’s longing for home in the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster,” a poem about the middle passage. About 15 percent, or nearly two million, Africans died while being transported from African countries to Europe, Brazil and the U.S. as part of the Atlantic slave trade, according to various sources. Pollack’s speaker in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” remembers what he read about the suicides from slaves throwing themselves overboard that contributed to the high mortality rates:

When salt swallowed breath,
Igbo souls leapt from the water
as great sea eagles. Talons gripped
black bodies as a she-bear lifts
her cub by the scruff. Wings
throbbed air until all passed back
to Igboland.[6]

And just as striking as those physical details are the psychological ones:

[…] I knew this,
knew before I heard
the stories, read the books,
knew from the whispering
of my black mother’s blood
into my marrow. Knew also
the mocking tap of rain
on the hull christened
in my white father’s city.[7]

(PHOTO: Random House) Ralph Ellison — an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer — was best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.

The physical details intensifies the speaker’s longing for identity. That “my black mother’s blood” whispered that history “into my marrow” before “I heard/ the stories, read the books” is the speaker’s allusion to ancestral memory, which also heightens his longing for identity. However, the speaker’s white father complicates that longing. That the “rain/ on the hull christened/ in my white father’s city” is a “mocking tap” means the speaker’s aware of how African Americans see his father’s white skin as a reminder of that history.

The musical moments in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” are in the recurring “creaked”:

creaked. Creaked and creaked.
All night, creaked. All day
that was night, creaked.
Over dull slap of waves
on brine-soaked wood, creaked.
[...] creaked. Creaked and creaked
In the hollow chamber of aboy’s ear—
creaked, timbers creaked.[8]

(PHOTO: first-draft-blog.typepad.com)

The onomatopoeia brought me inside the slave ship. I could feel it rocking from the “dull slap of waves.” I heard the “groans from hunger” and smelled the “foul air.” That this creaking echoes “in the hollow chamber of a boy’s ear” is a sign of the longing for identity echoing “in the hollow chamber” of his ear.

That music continues in the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuer’s Mark.” The poem’s “X” references the FEMA markings left on houses in New Orleans searched after Hurricane Katrina. The X distinguished the searched houses from others, and the markings in each X quadrant let rescuers know which houses had dead bodies, the date of the search and who did the searching. The music in “Chorus of X” is in the recurring X’s:

X say search party […]
X say live wire […]
X say no dead bodies,
[…] X say kitchen, […]
X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway,
[…] X say Lord you been flooding us too much,
[…] X say it got easier to die in water than live on land,
[…] X say lungs full of flood in the end […][9]

Pollack’s X is also analogous to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. Though X says a lot of things, it remains unnamed. Pollack’s speaker in “Chorus of X” also sheds light on a social issue with which America still struggles. Pollack’s speaker and use of X transforms the symbol into an inhumane image (“X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway”). That X’s four quadrants sums up any person’s life is a sign of the little regard we hold for human life. In “Chorus of X,” X is just as inhumane as calling New Orleans residents “refugees,” as if they weren’t citizens of a country touting its liberty and justice.

(PHOTO: blackagendareport.com)

Another musical moment is the recurring “say”:

[…] say month,
say day, […]
say gas leak, say floodwater,
say dead dog, dead cat,
[…] say one dead body, say two,
say three dead bodies, say four,
[…] say bedroom, say attic[10]

And so on. Both the recurring “X” and “say” intensifies the urgency of the situation. They almost overwhelm the poem the way flood waters overwhelmed rescuers in the gulf coast.

Going back to identity, Pollack’s speaker mirrors Ellison’s narrator another way. Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker is mistaken for a white man when he encounters a modern-day orisha of change in the poem “Oya in Old City.” The mistake happens twice: once by “the red-bone woman/ wearing two coats and sitting on a bench” who yells, “i ain’t Nigga Mary” in response to the speaker’s “how are you?[11] And again in a flashback of a childhood trip to Philadelphia when a homeless woman sees him staring and says, “take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga.”[12]

The speaker’s childhood image of Philly transforms in the poem “Killadelphia.” In the poem, it’s not so much the human actions within as it is the speaker’s grim portrait of Philly. Here are the physical details:

where pit bull
bitches—three,
chained, starved—
lurch scarred
throats into yowls

[…] molded lids
ticking open
and shut
over glazed
unreal eyes[13]

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Iain Haley Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Springside Chesnut Hill Academy, where he is the Cyrus H. Nathan ’30 Distinguished Faculty Chair for English. His first collection of poems, Spit Back a Boy (University of Georgia, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

Those details make Philly a city that scowls at outsiders. “Killadelphia” is an audible poem sprinkled throughout with onomatopoeias such as “poppa pop-pop pop” of gunshots and the “slap-clap” of “sneaker soles […]/ on asphalt” and daybreak’s “rumble-grumble” along with the “smack-/thwacking” newsprint and the “skittery-skitter/ of boys.”[14]

While the speaker’s tone ranged from sad to cynical to candid in the earlier poems, his scatting in “Killadelphia” makes his tone both playful and critical. The scat becomes background music amid the “security gates/ flung up in rickety-/ racket at Mt. Zion’s/ store front worship” and the “raccoon’s crash-/ dash as it drags/ a near-dead pigeon/ from a rust-pitted/ trash can” and the “fluttery-stutter/ of the bird’s one good wing/ flapping to lift/ its carcass into/ still-darksome dawn.”

And that’s as far as the similarities go between Iain Haley Pollack’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy and the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Up to this point, the similarities between both men echoed Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Most people are other people…their lives a mimicry.”[15]  But, unlike Ellison’s narrator who eventually embraces his invisibility, Pollack’s speaker continues his ongoing journey to find himself.

Going back to the poem “Oya in Old City,” Pollack’s encounter with the angry homeless woman (“take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga”) makes it clear which side of his biracial self the speaker’s leaning towards in terms of identity. It’s evident in his response to the homeless woman: “I flung my almost-white self/ into my mother’s embrace—that brown/ embrace I hoped would swallow me whole and spit back a boy four shades darker.”


[1] from the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster”

[2] Ibid.

[3] from the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuers’ Mark

[4] from the poem “Oya in Old City”

[5] from the poem “Killadelphia”

[6] Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 2-3.

[9] Ibid., 8-9.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 19.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 22-23.

[15] Oscar Wilde, Quotes About Identity, 2011, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/identity (September 2011).

(Courtesy of Willow Books/Aquarius Press)

Started in 2007, Willow Books, an imprint of Aquarius Press, is still in its childhood. Yet the six-year-old Detroit-based press is rapidly becoming the Motown Records of book publishing.

As America’s top Black-owned and operated record company and business, Motown Records signified a new day. The cultural icon’s chart-topping singles and often-imitated sound embodied the struggle for progress and optimism of a long-dispirited people.

Under owner/publisher Heather Buchanan-Gueringer’s direction, Willow Books’ mission is no different. The press develops, publishes and promotes underrepresented writers.

If a publisher’s personal triumphs show a press’s future successes, then I’m confident Willow Books will thrive as a luminary on the literary landscape. Heather Buchanan-Gueringer, an award-winning publisher-editor-arts consultant, is a former State Officer for the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and a past Vice-President of the Great Lakes Independent Publishers Association and American Business Women’s Association (Ambassador Tri-County Chapter).

A past COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities, Buchanan-Gueringer founded Aquarius Press in 1999 and continues to publish top talent from across the nation, many through the Willow Books literary imprint.

The press cut its teeth through partnerships with universities and literary organizations such as the National Book Foundation, Poets & Writers, Cave Canem Foundation, Inc., Poets House, Springfed Arts, Wayne State University, Chicago State University and the University of New Haven, among others. The press also hosts conferences such as the Idlewild Writers Conference and the LitFest Spring Retreat, and regularly exhibits at Associated Writing Program’s (AWP) Annual Conference.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King)

Willow Books’ mission of developing underrepresented writers stemmed from Buchanan-Gueringer’s service as a past executive director of the Detroit Writers’ Guild. She continues the literary imprint’s mission as an adjunct professor, most recently teaching at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the College for Creative Studies.

As an arts consultant, Buchanan-Gueringer served on the planning committee for what is now the Virgil Carr Cultural Arts Center. She also founded the Metro Detroit Performing Arts Center. Buchanan-Gueringer, a musician as well, serves on the board of the Orchard Lake Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to Buchanan-Gueringer, Willow Books is blessed to have award-winning writer Randall Horton, PhD., as its poetry editor. Horton’s honors include the Bea González Prize for Poetry, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and Cave Canem.

Also on Willow Books’ staff are poet/photographer Jerriod Avant (editorial assistant) and award-winning poet Curtis Crisler (contributing poetry editor). I’d say, with that staff and their credentials, Willow Books is in good hands.

I’m honored to be among its word crooners such as Makalani Bandele, Krista Franklin, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Derrick Harriell. The six-year-old press lost its baby teeth with its word warriors such as Kelly Norman Ellis, Tara Betts, and Tony Medina. (You’ll find Willow Books’ complete line-up on its authors’ page.)

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The unsurpassed excellence and sophistication the musicians and singers brought to Motown Records lives on in the works and accomplishments of Willow Books’ award-winning authors, many of which are professors with advanced degrees.

The fairly young literary imprint flexed its new muscles with the Literature Awards, Open Reading Period, and Emerging Writer Chapbook Series. This Saturday, Willow Books will flex those same muscles with its 2nd Annual LitFest, a mini conference/retreat with readings, book fair, networking and workshops.

In partnership with the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University, this year’s LitFest will include manuscript sessions, a panel discussion, public readings, and an open mic. It will also feature Willow Books Literature Awards Finalists’ Reading and Awards Ceremony, where the press will announce its poetry and prose winners. (Download the brochure here)

Most events are free and open to the public but require registration. (Download and complete the LitFest Registration Form). For more info, please visit Willow Books LitFest. You can also keep up with the press by liking the Willow Books Group Page.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

A therapy session goes wrong when Wade, an angst-ridden 16-year-old, pulls his therapist, Myra, into an oral sword fight after accusing her of “mind-fucking” him like he imagines she does her other patients.

To gain his trust, Myra discloses some personal stuff about herself, which Wade uses against her.

“You’re married for six years and don’t have any children?!” he spits before assuming Myra’s the cause of that for not sexually exciting her husband. That got a gasp from the crowd that packed a downstairs banquet hall on a chilly Saturday evening. This was Myra’s response: “Are you mad that your father used you for an excuse to stick around for 16 years?” Ouch!

That’s a scene from Bridget Dease’s work-in-progress, Advocates, one of eight plays  written by the Literary Media and Communications (LMC) department’s 12th graders at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. A crew of professional actors, directed by Renana Fox, helped showcase those scripts through stage readings that bookended the LMC’s annual dinner theater March 23 at Chevy Chase Baptist Church.

“High school can be one of the most demanding, stressful, and anxiety-inducing points in a person’s life,” notes Fox, alluding to this year’s theme “Out of Darkness.”  She continued: “These students have used their personal experiences, culture, education, and imagination to build a lot of great characters. My hope is that in seeing their work begin to come to life on stage they will be encouraged to continue developing and creating and pursuing whatever lights their fire.”

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

Those flames also burned for the teachers and parents who, over veggie fajitas with salsa and chicken tortilla soup, enjoyed an evening of laughs and a bar with beer, wine, soda, and water that, in part, made the evening worth the $25 tickets ($10 for students).

Another part was the string of plays with subjects ranging from a bi-racial wife’s adversarial relationship with her German mother-in-law (Madison Hartke-Weber, ‘13); to the sexual tension between a liberal arts college poetry professor and a prospective student (Rashawnda Williams, ‘13); to a love triangle that involves a woman in her first trimester of pregnancy, her boyfriend, and her sister (Dayanira Hough, ‘13).

“What I find so beautiful about theater is that the difficult and surprising stories are often the ones that teach us the most about ourselves,” Fox observed. “And these young playwrights have quite a lot to say.”

Saturday’s fundraiser was also an opportunity for the LMC to announce the TEDxDESA event that’s less than a month away (visit our TEDx page here and go here to like our Facebook page). This independently organized event (“(W)Rite of Passage”), which resulted from the LMC’s collaboration with NYC-based nonprofit Writopia Lab, involves LMC students, with Writopia LabDC Scholastic Award winning writers, talking back to area and TED writers that include Kyle Dargan, poet and American University professor, and Writopia Lab Director Rebecca Wallace-Segall.

TEDxDESA also features performances, readings, talks, and video work about the urgency and role of writers in today’s society. Right now, I’m working with my sophomores and juniors on creating content that talks back to TEDx writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (the danger of a single story) and Elizabeth Gilbert (your elusive creative genius).

imageThat came up in my conversation with a parent at last Saturday’s event. The father, a professional painter that teaches sporadically in a Low-Residency MFA program for Visual Arts, asked about my creative process as a writer and listened as I recounted what I recalled of Gilbert’s talk: that ancient Rome believed the genius was a divine entity inhabiting the walls of artists’ homes. The Romans, according to the presenter, thought that genius helped the artists create their works.

I like that theory because, as Gilbert said: “If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?”

The painter-parent smiled at that, but thought it narcissistic to consider our creative spirits “geniuses.” I told him that Gilbert used that word and “genie” interchangeably, and that what we do when our wells go dry—me doing writing prompts and him copying a portrait he’d already painted—was our way of rubbing the genie lamp, calling out that creative spirit. To that he nodded.

And just as memorable was the intermission, when we played a student-produced mockumentary of the LMC department. The 16-minute video opens with the theme song from NBC sitcom The Office. Check it here:

In addition to my department chair (Mark Williams) and colleagues (Koye Oyedeji, Kelli Anderson, Olivia Drake, and Cerstin Johnson), these special thanks go out to Rory Pullens (Head of School), Tia Powell (Director of Artistic Affairs), LMC Parent Group, Chevy Chase Baptist Church, Horwitz Family Foundation, Joe Green (Director of Institutional Giving at The Ellington Fund), and The Cheesecake Factory (we appreciated the donated cheesecakes!).

DRIFT, A Cyber Conversation on Process

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, poet and educator Curtis Crisler, recently taught my debut poetry collection, DRIFT, to his students at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. He emailed me his students’ questions, which resulted in this cyber conversation:

What did you say to the girl who approached you to apologize for her behavior towards you?

All I could do was accept her apology. She caught me off-guard because I hadn’t seen, or thought of, that person in so long. It’s always refreshing, though, when you have encounters like that, when someone from your past goes out of their way to try to make things right. All I could do was appreciate that moment and accept her apology.

Do you think the apology had anything to do with your success?

No. This person didn’t know I was a poet. I’m not on TV and I’ve been on the radio (a few people heard me on NPR, but that’s it). She didn’t know then what I was doing with my life. Again, I think she realized the opportunity to make things right and took it.

How do you feel about your first collection of poems?  Are you happy with how they ended up, or do you wish you could change some things?

I’m always going to want to change things. I guess that’s the nature of writers. When I wrote DRIFT, I did my best with what I knew then. That’s all we can do. Since Willow Books published DRIFT, I completed grad school with way more knowledge of the craft than I had when I wrote those poems. While I would change some things in that collection, I’m glad it’s the way it is. I look at it as a marker for where I was at that time. I’m currently shopping around a new manuscript for what I hope will be a second book. It’s tentatively titled POINT BLANK. In that manuscript, I’m working with a whole different set of techniques that I’m excited about. I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer.

(PHOTO: Agent Retro)

How did you come to the title, Drift?

I went through the manuscript, looking for a poem that I would title the collection after. When I came across “Drift,” I realized that, just how the speaker was drifting through that moment, the speaker also drifts throughout the collection. My goal was to take the reader from love, to social commentary, to poems about my family, to brotherhood, and so on. I wanted to bring the reader inside the speaker’s head, to have him/her drift along and experience those moments the way the speaker did. DRIFT sets up that expectation.

What inspired you to write “Blackberry Speaks/Txt?”

I had a BlackBerry then, and I was sick of hearing about the iPhone. I’ve since upgraded to an Android phone. But I thought about how the BlackBerry had its heyday as a device once used by state and federal lawmakers, businessmen and women, etc. And in a blink, it became outdated. Then I got to thinking about our elderly, who hold so much wisdom, but we miss out because we think they don’t know what they’re talking about. The idea is, “They’ve lived their lives. What they know about mine?” So I wanted to explore that through the voice of an unappreciated BlackBerry. I wanted it to be humorous and serious all at once.

What was it that made you want to be a poet?

My first encounter with poetry was a traumatic experience. There’s nothing more traumatic than knowing that if you couldn’t recite the assigned poem, you’d be on the wall during recess, watching your friends have fun. Once I got over my first encounter, I realized poetry wasn’t so bad. I wrote it for the girls in high school, then later became serious about it during undergrad. The more I read, the more I appreciated the craft, the more I saw what was possible—the subjects I could tackle, the various literary devices I could use, the different ways I could connect with people. Cait Johnson, a former mentor of mine, once said: “Poetry’s a shortcut to empathy.” I like to think that, as poets, we’re helping to shape society’s conscience. While that’s ambitious, and at the risk of romanticizing poetry, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that people turn to poems to celebrate love and remember those who pass on.

When did you know you were a poet?

I’d have to say it was when the older writers, who I saw as legends in D.C.’s arts community, pulled me aside and red-inked my paper. These were writers who didn’t waste their time with folks who weren’t serious. The fact that they saw or heard something in my work, enough to look it over and offer their critiques, still stays with me. They were passing their wisdom on to me. That’s not to be taken lightly. Some of those writers have moved on to other cities. The ones I do see, I always make sure I tell them—even nearly a decade later—how much I appreciated what they did for me.

(PHOTO: Heather Conley) The late-poet Ai

Who are your favorite poets and why?  Which writer was your biggest inspiration when you first began to write?

Whoa! I’ll start with my inspiration, which was Sonia Sanchez. I had her book, SHAKE LOOSE MY SKIN. It was a poetry collection that included her micro fiction. I had to read that book a few times to really appreciate it. I initially picked it up because another writer told me Ms. Sanchez was someone whose work I should know. So when I was able to appreciate SHAKE LOOSE, she showed that poems could both be a bullhorn for justice and quiet as a whisper in a lover’s ear. I loved her range and what she was capable of talking about in her work. Other writers that inspire me are Yusef Komunyakaa (I’m still in love with NEON VERNACULAR), Patricia Smith, Ai (she was my introduction to persona poems), Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns (I still go back to VELOCITIES), Sherman Alexie, and the list goes on.

At the top of that heap is Tim Seibles, who was my mentor both the first and last residency of my MFA program. What he admired about Jimi Hendrix and Sade Adu, he applied it to his poems. Just as Hendrix and Adu kept working at their craft until the product was seamless, Tim works at a poem ‘til all of it sings loud. There’s no weak lines in Tim’s work. His ability to use humor to tackle serious social issues is a skill I still admire. He’s been called the master of the “tickle-punch” poetry. He uses humor to trick his readers into dropping their guard, then he punches them with the message. When their guards go up, he tickles them again, then punches them with the message. He does that over and over. Because of him, I try to max out my poem’s full potential every time I write.

What moments in your life were your biggest influences for your writings?

The influences came from time with my family and from past romantic relationships. I write more about my family in my new manuscript. In DRIFT, they make brief appearances because I wanted to capture D.C., at least how I experienced that city. The biggest influence is people watching. I do it with a poet-friend of mine, Derrick Weston Brown. We’re always interested in the nonverbal communication between strangers. It’s a great way to get material for new pieces—that is after reading other writers, of course.

(PHOTO: jet200nyc)

I really like your poem 3a.m.—what inspired that poem?

Thanks! “3a.m.” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend, who had it in her mind we were going to get married. There’s the irony (she broke up with me). But I thought about our late night caper for food. I remembered how good it felt just being with her. That moment at the late night diner somehow burned itself into my mind. I didn’t know then that I’d write a poem about that night. I guess writers have those moments, when we’re sponges, soaking up every detail of a moment. Then years later, a song or smell brings those details out and you’re far enough away from that moment that you can write it.

It seems much of your poetry is symmetric in regards to lines per stanza.  Why is that so?

At the time I wrote those poems, I would have told you it was for uniformity of stanzas. But I recently found out I have OCD, particularly, “purely obsessional” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (some of those symptoms include intrusive thoughts and psychological compulsions). I think that has something to do with what my wife sees as me being neurotic, where I’m obsessed with the order of things. Tim Seibles helped me break out of that. He said, “Bruh, you’re poems don’t have to be neat. It’s OK if your stanzas are a little messy.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tryst

Where do you like to write your poetry?

Anywhere there’s noise—coffee shops (especially with the cappuccino machines whining and music spooling through hanging speakers), classrooms, restaurants (I got inspired by an Al Green song at the CiCi’s pizza buffet), outside on any street corner, etc.

Before writing, do you have certain rituals or certain things you always do?  Example: Where you write, certain notebook/computer, etc?  Or do you just jot down ideas as they come to you?

I tend to write in my head, at first. I’ll have an idea and let it incubate. Sometimes I’ll share that idea with Derrick and our conversation about it will help me figure out how to execute it. Other times, it incubated in my head, with a few lines coming to me. I’ll let it build until I have to put it on the page. Once I get it all out, I put the poem away, then come back to it after a few weeks or months. I try to put as much distance as I can between me and the poem (that’s my process now; it wasn’t when I wrote DRIFT). In the past, I sent raw work to friends for suggestions. Now, I distance myself from the poems by coming back to them after a few weeks or months. That’s when my mind’s fresh and I can play around with stanzas—moving them around, starting the poem with the last, second, or next to last stanza. Other times, I’ll ask myself questions: how much of the story is in this poem? Will someone coming to this poem without the information I have understand what’s going on in the poem? I also have the voices of people I’ve workshopped with—former mentors, friends, etc. I anticipate the questions they would ask if they saw the poem. Once I get it the poem to where I’m satisfied, I send it to a few trustful readers. I say trustful because these are people  who are honest with me. They’ll let me know what’s working and what I need to work on. They also tell me when I have to scrap it and start over.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

I love the titles to your poems, so how do you come up with them because when reading some of them they made me stop and think, where did he get this from?  (After reading the poem).

Thank you. I don’t like titling my poems before I’ve finished a draft. So I’ll write a poem, then go through it, looking for the title. Sometimes the title answers a question posed by the poem. The title may set up the reader’s expectation. Either way, the title is doing work. That’s the goal.

When writing a poem, do you have a set message that you are trying to get across to your readers, or do you just write and see what your finished poems turn out to be?

I usually have a message or something I want to communicate. That’s the idea I mentioned in response to a previous question. Once I get the idea, I have to figure out how I’m going to approach it. I look at the poem as a vehicle that’s going to help me drive my point home. That’s something I’ve learned from Tim Seibles and the older writers I’ve workshopped with. With that said, I do let the poem surprise me. If I realize I’m forcing the poem to go in one direction, I ease up and let it take me somewhere else. I figure if I’m excited about the process, that makes the reader’s  journey to that message just as exciting.

Did you ever worry about legal issues when you wrote about drugs?

No. I never did drugs. I hung out with people who did them. I never judged them. Plus, I was not incriminating myself or them. If I mention names, it’s first names only. And I make sure they’re common names J

Was it difficult to talk about sexual things?

Not at all. I’m not the only person in the world that loves sex. I figure there are other people out there feel the same way I do. My goal as a writer is to make sure the reader experiences my poems in a way that makes him/her recall their own experiences and bring up memories they thought they’d forgotten. If I do that, then that’s where I’ve connected with the reader. That’s always my goal.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

What do you do when you run out of ideas?

I read as much as I can—both in and outside my genres (poetry and creative nonfiction). I go to museums. I spend time with my wife, in-laws, and my family. The whole point is to live. Experience new things. The poems will come. But, in the meantime, I’m in sponge mode.

What do you think about when you write your poetry, or what do you feel?

Unlike some poets I’ve heard say they get a line or two, I get an image. If a scent or song recalls a memory, I see what happened during that moment, which heightens my senses. Ask my wife, when she sees me in that moment, I’m usually staring into space. But, to me, I’m briefly reliving that moment. I soak out all the details, then start to write.

Have you written poetry all (or most of) your life?  What was your first exposure to it?

I’m 32. I’ve written poetry, seriously, for 14 years. In total, I’d say I’ve been writing for 16 years—that’s me including the silly poems I wrote when I started. My first exposure was in 4th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Garrison, had us read and recite poems. It was mandatory. If we couldn’t recite it, we didn’t get recess, hence, the traumatic experience I mentioned earlier.

When I studied poetry again in middle school, I fell in love with the rhyme and rhythm. Now that I don’t rhyme anymore in my poems, the rhythm stayed with me. I love rhythm in a poem.

Was your journey to becoming a published poet a difficult one?

That journey required me to learn patience. I had to develop tough skin and know that rejection would be a part of that process. But rejection is good, because it makes it possible to appreciate when things come through. Rejection’s also good because it humbles you. It’s a constant reminder that what you’re trying to do is going to take some work.

(ARTWORK: Derrick Weston Brown)

When you first began to write poetry, did you feel like you were constrained?  If so, what did you do to free yourself?

What constrained me in the beginning was meter. That’s how I learned poetry. I wrote sonnets and other forms. While I enjoyed that, I felt like the meter and form wasn’t allowing me to say what I wanted to say. I’m not against all forms. I actually like the villanelle, bop (an African American form), ghazal, gigan (another African American form), and pantoum.

But I didn’t feel like the sonnet allowed me to say what I really wanted to say (there are some formalist poets who’ll disagree with me, and that’s fine J). It wasn’t until I read Langston Hughes’ later works, along with Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, that I discovered free verse. I loved the freedom. But, with that freedom, comes great responsibility. Free verse may look easy, but it’s hard. Since you’re not writing in form, it’s easy for someone to argue that what you’re writing is not a poem. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing anecdotes instead of poems. With free verse, you have to consider a lot of poetic devices—is there rhythm and alliteration? Are my lines sharp, do they snap? Does this poem go beyond the moment? Is it bigger than the moment? What’s the takeaway from this?

It’s just so many things to consider. That’s why reading writers who write free verse well helps reinforce those literary devices that really make the poem sing.

What inspired you to write “Quasimodo in NYC?”

If you’re familiar with the story about the hunchback of Notre Dame, then you know it’s really a tale about unrequited love. We’ve all been there—you like someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. That’s what makes Quasimodo’s story so universal. Before I met my wife, I went through a Quasimodo moment when I kept running into women who couldn’t return what I felt for them. This poem was about a particular woman who I thought had the same feelings for me that I had for her. Anyway, when it wasn’t so, I went for a walk. We both met up at an annual writer’s conference that New York City hosted that year. I wrote the poem through Quasimodo’s persona because I connected with the hunchback. After a few rejections, you don’t feel so attractive.

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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