Tag Archive: faith


A Christmas Post

A lot’s happened since October. I started two new jobs — one full-time (communications specialist for a national nonprofit) and the other part-time (senior editor at a global hip-hop journal). Though the former, more so than the latter, leaves me less time and energy to blog here, I couldn’t be happier. With both positions, I make a living doing what I love: writing. And they help me get my work to a larger audience, even if — at times — with the the full-time gig, I’m a ghostwriter.

They’re also the reason this Christmas is special, why it’s the first one — in a long time — of which I’m excited. It took me working a regular schedule to appreciate this week off. I took advantage of the break and knocked out my holiday shopping before the last minute rush. I also baked an eggplant parmesan, worked with my wife on a gluten-free veggie lasagna and assisted her with baking four 7-Up cakes and dozens of muffins (the 7-Up replaces baking powder, helping the cake to rise).

This morning, I’m looking forward to the chicken and waffle breakfast with Kirk Franklin’s gospel Christmas album on repeat. I’m looking forward to sipping hot cocoa and to eating dinner at my parent’s with my wife, siblings and my niece, Anicia — who, as I’m writing this, fills the house with her sweet sounds, bugging “Nana” and “Poppa” for attention.

(This is Anicia’s  fourth Christmas and the third she’ll actually remember). I’m also looking forward to dessert at my aunt and uncle’s, hanging with my cousins and some family my wife and I haven’t seen since our wedding nearly two years ago.

In addition to my new jobs, I started my newsletter, The Hourglass Flow, of which I snatched the title from a friend’s poem inspired by MF Doom’s verse on De La Soul’s “Rock Co.Kane Flow“: “…to write all night long/the hourglass is still slow/flow from hellborn/to free power like Wilco”. (Check out the back issue and the holiday sale I got going with said buddy that will continue through New Years, then subscribe to the newsletter).

Besides inspiring the title, Doom’s verse also alludes to the love and energy  we bloggers put into our posts, especially since we’re willing “to write all night long” because we have something to say. Every time I wonder how long I’ll keep this up, I think about how fortunate I am to have a platform that promoted several authors and helped a film student raise funds for his feature-length thesis film.

I’m fortunate for a platform to post my articles and essays that would otherwise sit somewhere, collecting dust. I’m grateful to have this platform, without which my ramblings would stay idle voices echoing in my head.

So here’s a short post, checking in, and a long way of wishing everyone happy holidays. I’m excited for what the new year will bring such as, among other things, a piece I wrote on an amazing photographer that will debut in the next Words Beats & Life hip hop journal. I’ll keep you posted on when the new issue is out. Also, if you have anything you want promoted in The Hourglass Flow, hit me at nyckencole@hotmail.com with “Newsletter Item” in the subject line, and it’ll go out in next month’s newsletters (it’s bimonthly). Peace!

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.

But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)

The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”

Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”

Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”

That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”

The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.

The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).

Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens  with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:

…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.

“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.

Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille]  Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”

(PHOTO: Etcy.com)

Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.

Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.

At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”

And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.

That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”

His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.

She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”

Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.

His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”

Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:

now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.

The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.

That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) T.S. Eliot

A well-known poet once defined the poets’ role as that of “forensic scientists.” But, instead of a crime scene, poets comb the world around them, looking for evidence that the poem occurred.

In that context, the speakers in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems: 1909-1962 and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995 aren’t just concerned residents and nosy neighbors. Whether digging through mythology, religion or the news, these speakers document the ever-changing urban spaces.

In Collected Poems, Eliot’s speaker is a private investigator tasked with catching the poem in the act of being. He comes across a betrayal in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales”:

Apeneck Sweeney spreads his knees
Letting his arms hang down to laugh,
The zebra stripes along his jaw
Swelling to maculate giraffe.

The circles of the stormy moon
Slide westward toward the River Plate,
Death and the Raven drift above
And Sweeney guards the horned gate.

Gloomy Orion and the Dog
Are veiled; and hushed the shrunken seas;
The person in the Spanish cape
Tries to sit on Sweeney’s knees

Slips and pulls the table cloth
Overturns a coffee-cup,
Reorganised upon the floor
She yawns and draws a stocking up;[1]

(IMAGE: tallmadgedoyle.com)

That “the Raven” constellation drifts above the lewd acts of Sweeney and the woman “in the Spanish cape” is an allusion to two stories of Apollo and the raven.

According to the first story, Apollo’s sacred bird was the raven, once a beautiful bird with silver feathers and able to talk to humans. Apollo charged the raven with protecting his pregnant wife, Coronis. But when Coronis falls for a mortal, the angry Apollo turned the Raven’s feathers black and had his twin sister Artemis kill Coronis.

In the second story, the raven, who went for Apollo’s water cup, arrived late and blamed his tardiness on the water snake. Apollo banished both the raven and water snake to the sky.

Eliot’s poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” adapts those Greek myths. In that context, the unnamed woman (Coronis) engages in an extramarital affair with Sweeney (the mortal).

The poem documents London’s transformation in 1920, six years after Eliot immigrated from the U.S. to U.K. “The lifting of war time restrictions in the early 1920s created new sorts of night-life in the West End,” according to an online timeline. “Entrepreneurs opened clubs, restaurants and dance halls to cater for the new crazes: jazz and dancing.”[2]

Sweeney and the unnamed woman are brushstrokes in Eliot’s portrait of that “night-life.” The speaker intensifies the activity by introducing another woman: “Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws;/She and the lady in the cape/Are suspect, thought to be in league.”[3]

“Sweeney Among the Nightingales” is a poem about greed and sexual immorality, two associations with city living that goes back to the bible (the prodigal son and Sodom and Gomorrah). And, if those points are unclear, “Rachel nee Rabinovitch” is Eliot’s cue to the reader that Rachel’s a married woman with as much at stake as the unnamed woman.

(IMAGE: Woodrow)

Eliot’s speaker’s observations continue in “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” which opens with a man walking the streets at all hours of the night (“Twelve o’clock/ […] Half-past one/ […] Half-past two/ […] Half-past three/ […] ‘Four o’clock’”[4]). Eliot’s speaker appears to have lost his mind (“Whispering lunar incantations/ Dissolve the floors of memory/ And all its clear relations”[5]).

While the speaker never says what caused him to lose his mind, “Rhapsody” in the title does enough work to set the reader up for irregular rhythms and the speaker’s sudden change of topics to intensify his ecstatic emotions. He is a mad man who talks to street-lamps he encounters each hour. Even the “woman/ […] in the light of the door”[6] who hesitates toward him thinks Eliot’s speaker is nuts.

But the speaker’s not as crazy as we think. Re-reading this poem, one realizes it’s about mental illness and how those people are treated. My mind immediately went to St. Elizabeths in DC, a psychiatric hospital that once housed 8,000 patients (among them Ezra Pound, Mary Fuller and William Chester Minor) at its peak of operation, according to various sources. The hospital’s community-based healthcare included local outpatient facilities and drug therapy, which allowed patients near-normal lives.

My dad recalled his encounter with a patient nearly a decade ago. It happened around lunch time, in a nearby McDonald’s. Dad read his newspaper while eating his cheese burger and fries, when a man about his age approached him. Dad said the guy picked his nose, then asked him, “You going to eat that”—pushing his finger into the hamburger bun. To which Dad said, “Not anymore.”

In “Rhapsody,” Eliot’s speaker uses irregularities to bring the reader inside the mad man’s mind, which makes the reader empathetic. Moving through the world in his own way, subtlety is a trademark skill the speaker weaves through the poems in T.S. Eliot’s Collected Poems.

(PHOTO: Nan Melville) Amiri Baraka

On the other hand, the speaker in Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency: Selected Poems: 1961-1995 prefers an in-your-face approach. While Eliot’s speaker is content with simply catching the poem in the act of being, Baraka’s speaker not only accomplishes that but speaks directly to the reader.

Take Baraka’s “A Poem for Deep Thinkers,” where the speaker calls out decision-makers whose power and class status put them out of touch with their constituents:

Skymen coming down out the clouds land/and then walking into society try to find out/
whats happening—‘Whats happening,’ they be saying/look at it, where they been, dabbling in mist, appearing &/disappearing, now there’s a real world breathing—inhaling/exhaling concrete & sand, and they want to know what’s/
happening.[7]

It was impossible to read those lines and not think of the current political climate, where “Skymen”—with their heads far enough up in the clouds to dabble “in mist”—claim to speak for “the American people.” What also comes to mind is the spectacle of the 2008 elections, when presidential candidates scaled down their spending and spun personal narratives to make themselves seem in-touch with working-class Americans.

John McCain’s claim was hilarious since, unlike Obama, he never advocated for people on low or fixed incomes. The kicker was when he couldn’t remember how many houses his family owned. “I think — I’ll have my staff get to you,” McCain said in a 2008 interview.[8]

But if they were wondering, Amiri Baraka’s speaker in “A Poem for Deep Thinkers” breaks it down for the “Skymen”:

What’s happening is life itself […]/[…] stabbed children in the hallways of/
schools, old men strangling bankguards, a hard puertorican/inmate’s/
tears/exchanging goodbyes in the prison doorway […][9]

(IMAGE: Val Brussel)

Baraka’s speaker also alludes to Icarus:

[…] blinded by sun, and their own images of things,/rather than things as they actually are, they wobble, they/stumble […]/[…] the skymen stumbling, till they get the sun out/
they eyes, and integrate the inhead movie show, with the/material reality that exists with and without them.[10]

Those lines speak to failed policies for low and middle income Americans politicians passed without talking with their constituents, thinking they knew what the people needed. Also, like Icarus, politicians fall from grace when they’re “blinded by sun,” or their own self-interests.

And Baraka’s speaker doesn’t stop there. He goes on to challenge Christ and Christian fundamentalists in “When We’ll Worship Jesus.” This poem, published in 1972, addresses the scandals, atrocities and oppression of the time. During that year, the U.S. was already at war with Vietnam and Nixon was re-elected despite the Watergate Scandal, which later resulted in his resignation.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Leading up to “When We’ll Worship Jesus” being published, the draft occurred and the National Guard fatally shot four students—while wounding nine—for protesting the Vietnam War at Kent State in Ohio.

These events contextualize Baraka’s speaker’s angry tone: “We’ll worship Jesus/ When jesus do/ Somethin.”[11]

The poem is a wish list from Baraka’s speaker to Jesus, asking for payback on a number of things: the U.S. bombing of Cambodia (“jesus blow/ the white house/ or blast Nixon down”[12]), Muhammad Ali jailed for protesting the war (“jesus get down/ […] & box w/ black peoples/ enemies”[13]) and police brutality (“jesus […]/ […] scare somebody—cops not afraid”[14]), to name a few.

“When We’ll Worship Jesus” is an opportunity for Baraka’s speaker to successfully flex his hyperboles, which intensifies his alarmed tone.

(IMAGE: gaspinvestigations.com)

Like T.S. Eliot’s “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” Baraka’s “Jesus” is a poem about betrayal. To which Baraka’s speaker responds by reducing Jesus to the lowest of the low.

Jesus becomes everything from a prostitute (“jesus, in a red/ check velvet vine + 8 in. heels”[15]), to a pimp (“jesus pinky finger/ got a goose egg ruby/ which actually bleeds”[16]), to both a coon and a tom (“jesus at the Apollo/ doin splits and helpin/ Nixon trick niggers”[17]), to even a self-deprecating Cyclops (“jesus w/his one eyed self/ tongue kissing johnny carson/ up the behind”[18]).

At times, the hyperbole of Baraka’s speaker seemed too over-the-top, just as there were times when the subtlety of T.S. Eliot’s speaker seemed too passive. Still, both speakers opened a young poet up to possible approaches in tracking the poem down.


[1] T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 49.

[2] Exploring 20th Century London. Oct. 11, 2011. <http://www.20thcenturylondon.org.uk/server.php?show=nav.40&gt;.

[3] Op.Cite, 49-50.

[4] Ibid., 16-18.

[5] Ibid., 16.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Amiri Baraka. Transbluesency: Selected Poems 1961-1995. Ed. Paul Vangelisti. New York, NY: Marsilio Publishers, 1995. 165.

[8] Politico, “McCain Can’t Recall Number of Homes He Owns,” 20 Aug 2008.

[9] Op.cite.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 158.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 159.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

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