Tag Archive: education


(PHOTO: Stock Image)

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Kelli Anderson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

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

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

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

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

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

Fundraiser for the D.C. Creative Writing Workshop

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Club)

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

Donation amounts and giveaways are as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

See you there!

The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”

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.

Randall Horton’s *Roxbury*

Cleveland Heights, OH: Kattywompus Press, 2012. 33 pages. $12.00.

(ARTWORK: Randall Horton and Kattywompus Press)

It was a Sunday evening nearly a decade ago when I first met Randall Horton. We were downstairs in the Teaism Penn Quarter Restaurant at 8th and D streets NW in Washington, DC. That night in 2003, I waited to read on the open mic that followed the slam, in which Randall competed for a spot on what was then the DC/Baltimore team (which later split).

When his turn came up, Randall wowed us all with his poem “Little Shorty,” a tale of a boy the streets swallowed and spit back. “Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream!” he said during his moving performance that night. I had to approach him afterwards and let him know I enjoyed his piece.

Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream! Those words echoed in my head that night. I said them jokingly when I ran into Randall at the city’s venues over the ensuing years when we became friends and Randall’s frustrations grew each time he didn’t make the slam team.

I hadn’t thought of his poem “Little Shorty” as possibly being autobiographic until the release of his chapbook Roxbury (Kattywompus Press, 2012), an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published memoir Father, Forgive Me. I bought and had him sign my copy when he was in town last month.

Randall Horton’s story of incarceration blew me away, especially the part about his father loving him enough to cry before the courtroom during Randall’s sentence modification hearing. Despite his son stealing from him and repeatedly breaking his family’s heart, Mr. Horton loved Randall enough to plead for his freedom before one of the toughest judges in the justice system.

Roxbury, which gets its name from the prison that housed Randall for five years, reveals the man he once was. “There are folks already in my housing unit who can vouch for my street credibility,” Randall writes, “that I am a legendary dude who hustled and played as fair as one could in the cutthroat game of hustling.” I would’ve avoided this person at all cost.

That cutthroat hustle found Randall as an undergraduate student at Howard University during the early 80s. Not even his two-parent household could deter him from going after the hustle. Despite a loving and supportive family, Randall dropped out of school to smuggle cocaine from the Bahamas to Washington, DC.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Dr. Randall Horton, a poet and assistant professor, is a recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and a Cave Canem fellow.

But this isn’t a glory story of drugs, women, and fast cars. In fact, it’s the opposite. Roxbury’s a fast-paced cautionary tale that immediately whisks the reader away:

If I had known what I know now, I would not have
pulled into the next office complex. I would not have driven up
the concrete ramp and parked on the second floor, but fate is an
uncalculated science, and so I did. My girlfriend and I would not
have exited the light blue van and taken the back stairwell that lets
out into the second floor carpeted hallway, nor would we have
discussed the quick score for ten grand we were about to make,
but we did….within five minutes of picking the
door lock we knew time had been wasted. Going in and out of
each cubicle of the accounting firm revealed cheap technology
with no resale value. We didn’t find the high-tech state of the art
laptops we needed to score big. So we retraced our once eager
steps back down the carpeted hall to the stairwell, down the stairs
to the garage, and back to the van. When I opened the door to the
van, glanced out the corner of my left eye and saw a flood of
plain-clothes police officers rushing towards us with guns in the air
yelling Freeze muthafuckas freeze. Before muthafuckas echoed off the
garage walls—I was gone.

The chase lasted a short while before the officer caught Randall. Upon entering Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown, Maryland, Randall introduces the reader to some interesting characters, who he has to align himself with if he’s going to survive. Among them is Randall’s first cellmate Deboe, who’s from DC and was six years into a 60-year sentence for murder.

Randall does a great job of showing how guys feel each other out with small talk. In this case, he and Deboe each try to see if the other guy earned his street cred. Here’s how it plays out:

I can tell Deboe is suspicious of me…I am suspicious of him as
well. After menial small talk, the conversation begins with how
dudes sold fake televisions in the box to unsuspecting victims over
by the Shrimp Boat on Minnesota Avenue. Deboe mentions The
Black Hole and Celebrity Hall hosting all the live go-go parties
back in the day… We both reminisce the heyday of
Portland Avenue and the Jamaican wars during the late 80s. This
barrage of questions and answers continue until I am determined
to be legitimate.

One legit thing about Roxbury is Randall’s story of redemption, which didn’t stop at the courtroom. That night I met Randall in 2003, he was a student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), wrapping up his undergraduate studies. From there, he went on to earn an MFA in Poetry from Chicago State University and a PhD in Creative Writing from The State University of New York (SUNY) Albany.

He’s the author of two books of poetry, The Definition of Place and The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, both from Main Street Rag. He’s won awards for his work and is now assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven. He’s come a long way from Roxbury and what poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts called “the hard roads that damn near broke him…”

What I like about Roxbury is that it’s poetic. I’ve never heard anyone make go-go music the means to restoring sanity while also acknowledging that it’s the off-spring of work songs—that is, until Randall Horton. Check it:

Night is a deafening silence filling every inch of the
housing unit with opaqueness. Every stir amplified by the isolation
of a closed cell door. The beat-thump begins simple enough. It is
an intense percussive, drawing on West African influences, called
go-go, the indigenous music of the District of Columbia. Two
doors down in Cell 19, Sebastian got the go-go fever induced by
mail call after shift change. Five years into an eight-year bid, his
girlfriend, who stays in Clifton Terrace, informed him she will no
longer vigil the memory of his street heroics. His image has faded
from the landscape and so would she. There is no question the
right fist is balled, driving the cadence like a conductor calling out
to a crew of Gandy Dancers laying eight foot railroad track: Get a
grip in ya hand, whoa na, work wit it chillin, whoa na.
The left hand, palm
open, balances the driving narrative of gut-bucketed pain, much
like a mauling driving six-inch spikes into the crossties: Let it swang
on down, whoa na.

To order Roxbury from publisher’s site, click here.

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)

National Poetry Month!

(PHOTO: Melanie Taub/NPR)

What’s exciting about National Poetry Month is this series NPR is doing called Muses and Metaphors. Last month, NPR’s Producer Argin Hutchins and Senior Producer Davar Ardalan reached out to the DC Creative Writing Workshop to participate in this month’s Muses and Metaphors.

I tweeted lines from poems written by two of the Workshop’s writing club members, TyJuan Hogan and Daisha Wilson. I also tweeted, at the request of Argin and Davar, lines from my poem. Argin came through and recorded us reading our tweets.

I’m grateful to NPR for reaching out the DC Creative Writing Workshop and allowing our students to shine for National Poetry Month! You can hear me, TyJuan, and Daisha reading our tweets here! You can also visit us on Facebook here.

Monica Hand’s *me and Nina*

Farmington, MA: Alice James Books, 2012. 78 pages. $15.95.

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

The world continues to remember Nina Simone (formerly Eunice Kathleen Waymon) as a storyteller through songs, whose body of work created a legacy of compassion, empowerment and liberation. At the time of Simone’s death on April 21, 2003, she was already among the 20th century’s most extraordinary artists.

But, to poet Monica Hand, this song griot was something else. Reading Hand’s poems, it’s clear that Nina Simone is the center around which a carousel of memories revolves in Hand’s new collection of poems me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012). And I have to agree with poet Terrance Hayes calling this book “a debut fiercely illuminated by declaration and song.”

Those declaration songs aren’t overshadowed by Nina Simone’s presence. Instead, Hand masterfully weaves Simone’s bio throughout her own. We get glimpses of Simone in the poem “X is for Xenophobia”:

like the x
in a geometry problem or hex
I don’t understand their pain
why they act like chickens in a pen
as if they felt at their nap
broken bone
why they want me alone hobo
for preaching hope
for reminding people we are Ibo
not bane
cause of soullessness they took an ax
to my happiness I want to open
the door play classical piano
now my hipbone
slips to Obeah
I am the unanswered z y x

(PHOTO: Courtesy) When Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003–according to Nina Simone’s official site ninasimone.com–she left a timeless treasure trove of musical magic spanning over four decades from her first hit, the 1959 Top 10 classic “I Loves You Porgy,” to “A Single Woman,” the title cut from her one and only 1993 Elektra album.

Hand’s speaker in “X” might be alluding to Simone’s critics unable to file her musical style. “Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in,” Simone wrote in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz.

“On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

The one thing Nina Simone struggled with musically was mixing politics with popular music. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from,” according to her autobiography. “I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from people it was trying to celebrate.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That was until “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s tribute to Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the four girls killed in the Alabama church bombing. The South banned Simone’s song and performances.

Hand’s speaker brings us from the South to New York City to see Nina Simone perform that song at the Apollo Theater in the poem “Black is Beautiful”. That night, Hand’s speaker and her friend “D” are rocking their “crushed-velvet jackets blue-jeans high heels” to see Nina Simone’s performance:

Nina is singing Mississippi Goddam. Me and D we look at each other and nod.
Nina plays the piano a long time as if she forgets we are there. But we are.
Nina goes Holy roller African all in one wave of her hands ragtime to classical
and back again. We are in her groove our seats rocking with our bodies. Our
young female bodies, big Afros and big dreams. The balcony is a smoky black
sway. The orchestra white. Someone fidgets. Another one coughs. Nina stops.
Quiet. Her voice a swift typhoon. You could hear their hearts hesitate. Stop.
Nina chuckles then returns to her song. Mississippi Goddam. It’s different now.
Bruised. Me and D we look at each other and nod.

Reading those lines, I wondered if the fidgeting orchestra members were uneasy from the song itself or that they were the only white people, it seems, in the Harlem venue. In either context, the white band members’ tension is akin to that of the white folks who were in the movie theater watching Rosewood, a movie by John Singleton that told the story of an almost unknown incident in a small Florida town.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The false testimony of a white woman accusing a “black stranger” of raping her set off a mob of angry white folks who hunted down and lynched most of the black men in town. According to rumors, the movie caused such a stir that white folks, attempting to avoid any assumed confrontation afterwards, snuck out of the theater before the movie ended.

In me and Nina, Monica Hand doesn’t shy away from confronting sensitive topics. “In these poems she sings deep songs of violated intimacy and the hard work of repair,” Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander writes of Hand’s book. Hand touches on that violated intimacy in the poem “Everything Must Change,” a poem in which Rufus, a boy from the neighborhood, invites Hand’s speaker to go see Nina Simone perform at the Blue Note.

As the poem goes, Rufus, who’s polite and respectful in front of Hand’s mother, turns out to be a jerk. Under the guise of going back to his parents’ spot to get some more money, Rufus lures Hand’s speaker into his basement bedroom. There:

he starts begging me to give him some—just a little he says. I’ve never done it before and/ I’m not scared just not really interested. I want to go. See Nina Simone. He / begs real hard. Even gets down on his knees like James Brown: Please, please,/ please. I give in. Stop his begging. It’s over. Quick. No big deal. I don’t feel a/ thing.

They never made it to the show. Part of repairing that hurt is not seeing Rufus anymore: “[…] when my mother asks what happened/ to him I just shrug my shoulders or tell her I think he’s dead. Just like, I tell the/ kids at school who ask where’s my daddy.”

In the poem “Daddy Bop”, Hand’s speaker gets herself into a mess of trouble trying to repair that hurt from her father. “Knew him like a fifth of vodka/ he tasted good with sugar and lime/–left me with the shakes/ so if you see me on the street/ acting like a bitch–/ I’m just missing my daddy,” according to Hand’s poem. “Lost all my self-respect/ in bed with some men some women/ who smelled like my daddy/ if they could love me, maybe he would too/ just understand everybody needs/ some respect he was my daddy”.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Monica Hand is a poet and book artist currently living in Harlem, USA.

And just when things seem hopeless, Hand’s speaker turns to Nina Simone for answers through her six “dear Nina” poems and the section “Nina Looks Inside,” which sets itself apart from the rest of book with white text on black pages.

“These poems are unsentimental, bloodred, and positively true, note for note, like the singing of Nina Simone herself,” according to Elizabeth Alexander.

Poets Terrance Hayes and Tyehimba Jess also agree. “She [Monica Hand] shifts dynamically through voices and forms homemade, received and re-imagined to conjure the music (and Muses) of art and experience,” writes Hayes.

After reading me and Nina, I felt that Jess best summed up this collection. “Monica A. Hand sings us a crushed velvet requiem of Nina Simone.” Whoa! That’s the best way to put it. “She plumbs Nina’s mysterious bluesline while recounting the scars of her own overcoming,” Jess continued. “Hand joins the chorus of shouters like Patricia Smith and Wanda Coleman in this searchlight of a book, bearing her voice like a torch for all we’ve gained and lost in the heat of good song.”

I don’t think I could’ve said it any better.

Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) Click the artwork to view larger image.

If you’re like me, you probably wondered what brought on the unseasonably warm weather a couple of weeks ago. And, like me, you’ll see the cause of that was the scorching new issue of Tidal Basin Review (TBR).

I’m honored to have some work alongside writers who get down on this issue’s theme of beauty. In his poem “Essence And Object,” Kyle Dargan’s speaker, looking back on his childhood, is talking to his lover about the ways TV socialized him and other black kids:

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

images. Before I could be
weaned from the picture box—

its bright screen, bass, relentless
colors—hip hop commenced

proselytizing that I should want you
swollen, that I should want you

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

Damn! And, as a grown man, the speaker still struggles with that socialization, “trying to see the shapes/ etched in my head, the bodies,/ as the beauty I expect/ to shatter beneath.” But his informed understanding of how this “suckled ideal” misleads many youths helps him prevail. He rejects what he calls “a gene-coded hunt/ for figure-swells and heft” with this realization:

This ethereal tug I feel
between my groin’s creases,

I need it to be instinct and nothing
a television taught me of want.

[…] Let me be merely mammal—sniffing,
groping—let me crawl from thought

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

I’m with you on that, bruh! I’m also with TBR’s mission of propelling the current artistic landscape. “Our vision is to amplify the voice of the human experience through art that is intimate, engaging, and audacious,” according to TBR’s vision.

(PHOTO: Tidal Basin Review) TBR's editors, clockwise from top: Truth Thomas (Poetry), Tori Arthur (Fiction and Non-Fiction), Fred Joiner (Poetry), Marlene Hawthrone (Photography), Randall Horton (Editor-in-Chief), and Melanie Henderson (Managaing Editor).

In its young existence, TBR, which came about in 2010, has already established itself as a journal that’s as much about community as it is craft. This past August, the journal took action on behalf of the ill-equipped DC public schools’ libraries when it co-organized a reading and book drive at the Marvin Gaye amphitheater in DC’s Watts Park.

That Saturday event kicked off a series of book drives around the city to help benefit DC Public School libraries. Poet and public interest lawyer Brian Gilmore called the event a shift in approach to the educational shortcomings of a community attempting to take back control of education for city youths.

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

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

And TBR’s online advocacy is just as active. Their past issues have challenged the post-Black notion, while highlighting DC’s go-go scene. The theme for the next issue is cultural pride. These are TBR’s ways of creating a space that supports a full representation of the rich American landscape.

There are many highlights in TBR’s “beauty” issue. But, in the interest of time (I want you to go over to tidalbasinpress.org and check them out!), I’ll end with Jacqueline Johnson’s “Hair Stories,” a poem in which Johnson’s speaker cherished those times she got her hair done in her aunt’s kitchen. Here’s the second part of a four-part poem:

Hours later the ritual would begin;
a towel thrown across my shoulders,
Dixie Peach run all around edges of my hair.
Your boys jack knifing through the
kitchen missing the hot grease cans.
You always started at the back,
hot comb hissing like an angry panther.

Your technique impeccable, mother of
three sons, never burned me.
Edges so rough, so uncooperative,
so niggerish, they always reverted back to
their African ways at the first sight of rain.
Despite bending my ear beyond its capacity,
hot iron teeth left  burn marks,
African American tribal scars.
Each kink a bouncing black cloud
becoming a language
running from Aunt to niece.

You can read the rest of Johnson’s poem, or check out the entire issue, by clicking here. Past issues are available here! (Click on the cover of each issue to see inside.) Check out the Basin Rising newsletter. You can purchase a print version by emailing tidalbasinpress@gmail.com.

Interested in subscribing to Tidal Basin Review? Click here to get started.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,070 other followers