Tag Archive: history


(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).

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.”

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.

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Alan King) Derrick Weston Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Erin Patrice O'Brien) Major Jackson

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: laallen) An alley in Philly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Archives)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Black Enterprise's archive) Audre Lorde

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Archives) An old rooming house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ARTWORK: Dreams Time)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 4.

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

[10] Ibid.

[11] Op.Cite, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

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

[17] Op.cite, 6.

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

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 8.

[21] Ibid., 9.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., 13.

[24] Ibid.

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

(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.

(IMAGE: New Issues)

You’ve seen that movie or read the novel, the one where the ending blindsided you. The hero or heroine, for whom you rooted throughout the drama, was either captured or killed. Or maybe it was another story with an ending that left you hanging.

In either case you left the theater or closed the pages, slightly disappointed. But that didn’t stop you from dreaming up alternate endings for your satisfaction.

That’s what Rachel Eliza Griffiths does with Mule & Pear (New Issues, 2011), her third collection of poetry. “Many of these poems convey the intimacy I’ve developed and sustained through reading,” Rachel writes in a brief introduction. “From this act and all of its powers, my imagination gathered some of my most admired literary characters and their creators in one space, one intricate body…in hopes that each voice would make its way towards other voices.”

Rachel gathered characters from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and a host of other novelists, including DC’s own Edward P. Jones.

Alice walks right off the pages of Jones’s The Known World and into Rachel’s poem “Alice Paints the Moon.” In the novel, Alice is a slave who wanders away from the plantation every night. And each time she’s captured by the patrollers who bring her back to Henry, her Black slave owner.

According to Jones’s novel, Alice’s madness is the result of a mule kick to the head, or as Rachel puts it poetically: “a mule kicked her spirit into the middle/ of some unknown world.” (I dug the play on the novel’s title in those lines).

And while Jones’s back story humanizes Alice, Rachel’s poem goes further in that task. That the “hemorrhaged world” inside this madwoman was more exciting than her reality not only intensifies how severe her mental injury was but also speaks to the pain of slavery.

It also takes the onus of madness off Alice and puts it on the oppressive world around her. Had I been living during Alice’s time, it wouldn’t take a mule kicking my head for me to go mad. A Black man owning me would get the job done.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

The madness takes on a different form in the poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet.” Both characters appear courtesy of Valerie Martin’s novel Property.

The story, told in Gaudet’s voice, takes place on a sugar plantation north of New Orleans. Sarah’s the unwilling mistress of a slave owner, whose wife, Gaudet, is in a bad marriage. Gaudet, unable to have children, despises Sarah, who birthed two kids for her master.

Sarah escapes in a slave revolt that kills Gaudet’s husband and severely injures the woman.

Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet” flips the point of view from Gaudet to Sarah, who rarely speaks in the novel.

And like Alice, Sarah doesn’t have to own someone else’s perception of her being “crazy”. Instead, through Rachel’s poem, Sarah turns that perception back on the oppressive world of which both women are victims.

Sarah also turns it on the perverse Gaudet, who suckled Sarah’s breasts for milk to further subjugate the slave woman. “Understand this:/ I didn’t offers my breast to her. The night she come/ into my room like a man hunting my nipple,” Sarah says in Rachel’s poem. “Mistress knows nobody going listen/ if I tell it. How can I tell/ what’s crazy or real anymore?”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Self portrait.

What makes these poems great is that there’s music amid the madness. Take the poem “La Tête du Soleil,” where the music is in the recurring “baby”: “Baby, baby in your mama’s calabash/ […] Baby of kola & palm wine, baby/ whose eyes will never close/ […] Baby, baby in your basket of war.”

Another musical moment is in the recurring “basket”: “[…] basket of war/ […] In a basket your laughter/ […] A child’s head rolling inside the gutted basket.”

“La Tête du Soleil” was inspired by events from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which explores the lives of two women during the Nigerians-Biafran War (1967-1970).

The musical moments intensify the speaker’s disgusted tones, which play off the English translation of the poem’s title: “Lord, I beg Your Pardon”: “I beg your pardon. I beg/ your pardon. Lord,/ I beg your pardon.” At that point, the tone goes from disgust to a plea for the war’s end.

A poem just as musical is “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You”. Reading this poem, it was impossible not to think of a woman’s body nailed to a crucifix: “a body/ with wounds” and “a moan beneath laughter” (they know not what they do).

Mercy, the silent heroine, takes on the sins of the world—“the waterlogged/ song of Emmett Till”, “[…] girls/ buried beneath a bombed-out church”, “a shadow removing/ its eyeless hood”.

(IMAGE: Dane of travelpod)

The musical moments are the recurring “say” and “it is”:

But say it is a body
with wounds

Say it is my father
bursting into tears alone
above his newspaper

Or is it the blood-flecked
underbelly of a rabid dog
named Thank You

Maybe it is the dark cinema
of my camera […]

Say it is four tongues
that puncture
a compass

[…] Say it is new as a haircut
Say it is hard as a strawberry
Say it is useful as ugliness
Say it is necessary as hands

Say it is the vantage
from God’s knees

and so on.

Those recurrences make the poem a chant, which was relaxing. I imagined Mercy chanting along, drawing into herself and that spiritual place to heal.

I enjoyed Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Mule & Pear for the same reasons Carl Phillips did. “Griffiths is a master at capturing persona, and uses that gift, especially, to consider the notion of heritage,” according to his blurb. “The ambition of these poems dazzles, as does indeed their achievement.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Bettina Judd’s Poetic Justice

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina Judd) Bettina

She didn’t go looking for poetry. In fact, it was the other way around, Bettina Judd told a packed house Friday evening at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

She was the Sept. 9 feature at the Nine on the Ninth monthly poetry event, the longest running series hosted exclusively by Hughes poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

Typically, a featured artist kicks off the event, followed by a 10-15 minute interview and audience Q&A with the artist called the BluePrint Sessions. The event culminates with a limited open mic. Bettina tore it up.

A bi-coastal Cave Canem Fellow, the Spelman College alumnus infuses her interest in women’s studies, social justice and spirituality in her poetry and visual art.

This practice echoes the point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux makes in their book The Poet’s Companion: “There is a world inside each of us that we know better than anything else, and a world outside of us that calls our attention.”

Bettina navigates both her internal and outer worlds by challenging interdisciplinary scholarship and intertextual narrative through her doctoral program in Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The poems she read Friday came from her dissertation, a poetic and visual exploration of body, memory and the history of gynecological experimentation on Black women in the US, and an academic and creative venture on affect and Black feminist politics in Black women’s art.

(ARTWORK: uncopyrighted image of Anarcha)

Among those poems is the “Etymology of Anarcha I” that alludes to a slave woman named Anarcha who suffered severe vaginal tears from child-birth.

The damage resulted in Anarcha’s inability to control her bowels and bladder, according to various sources. Though the speaker in “Etymology of Anarcha I” is not Anarcha, the persona suffered from a similar ordeal although she wasn’t giving birth.

The audience at Busboys and Poets tensed and squirmed in their seats from the poem’s physical details: “when the tearing came there was/ no baby in the canal but a new route:/ fistula, with a hard f like fetal/ freak, fatal, furor.”

The audience bristled at the poem’s psychological details: “i needed the f when the break screamed/ no sound from me but fire, fuchsia/ becoming an un-fuckable woman is a freedom/ the black hole of my sex, a fare/ to the good doctor I will be flesh/ which you will think brutal.”

Slave women like Anarcha, Betsy (sometimes spelled “Betsey”) and Lucy were guinea pigs for Dr. Marion Sims, who experimented on them to hone his skills in what would later be called gynecology. The three slave women’s spirits, summoned by Bettina, haunted Busboys and Poets Langston Hugh’s room.

Betsy and Lucy come alive in “The Opening”: “betsey leans in with sure hands/ slosh of seeping liquid/ lucy prepares for metal on wet tissue/ menstrual blood to urine to feces.” There’s companionship between Betsey, Lucy and the speaker, who’s also been experimented on, when the speaker says: “we are an unfortunate journey, a plunder/ darkness’s heart and treasured coast.”

(ARTWORK: Courtey of The Anarcha Project)

These psychological details intensifies the horrors of experiments done on Black women’s bodies: “[…] introduce spoon and i am sacrament/ unforgivable sin and reprieve practice/ in the dark ghetto of my body.”

These psychological details illustrated the companionship between Bettina’s speaker and the other two women:

dear lucy, dear betsey
that we three weren’t so perfectly broken
the scent of us so eagerly hunted
if our mouths, when opened up
could light our darkness

Bettina’s speaker’s handle of trauma illustrates another point Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux make in The Poet’s Companion: there’s no equation between good poetry and unhappy circumstances. “We each write out of our own constellation of experiences,” Addonizio and Laux writes. Last night’s reading was heavy–the weight of history so present.

But Bettina didn’t leave us there. She brought it home with her poem “Full Bodied Woman” that had women calling out uh huh! and I know that’s right! The women and men in the crowd exchanged knowing glances with one another when Bettina read:

a Full Bodied Woman gives life in edible chunks.
those who know partake. those who don’t
run to lesser women, and die of starvation.

The crowd’s shouts of affirmation got loud at this point of the poem: “from this we know She will return/ for who could  reign over a woman who/ sings I’m a Woman without apology? As in:
I am that I am.”

Bettina made us laugh during the Q & A with Busboys and Poet’s poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown, who started the monthly reading series six years ago. Asked how poetry found her, the poet covered her smile. “It’s a really embarrassing story,” Bettina said. “Big up to John Singleton!”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Bettina)

This puzzled the audience until the poet elaborated. It was Janet Jackson’s character, Justice, in Singleton’s 1993 film Poetic Justice that started Bettina off on her journey as a writer.

Like her speaker with the three slave women, Bettina found companionship with poetry. So much so that it still wakes her up with the 3 a.m. urge to write. “It’s like a ghost. It knocks against your head,” Bettina said. “It kept finding me even when I thought I was through with it.”

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Heinemann)

The fight scenes from the Rocky movie series were brutal. Whether taking on Apollo Creed, Mr. T or Drago, the match resulted in the men beating each other beyond recognition.

I remember the men’s eyes swollen shut, the bloody tissue stuck out of busted noses while corner men fixed up the fighters. I also remember the fighters limping around the ring, throwing tired punches—their bodies worn from the physical abuse.

Even still, those brutal fight scenes appear as mere child’s play, compared to the no-holds-barred verbal brawl between Okot p’Bitek’s speakers in Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol.

Lawino and her husband, Ocol, both of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda and South Sudan, are in a fight between traditional and modern ways. In that sense, the conflict between Okot p’Bitek’s speakers touches on a common issue of married African couples around the time p’Bitek published Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol (1967).

During those times, the husbands, who once loved and adored their wives, despised them once they surpassed their wives’ level of education. These men, whose broadened horizons resulted from their travels abroad, returned to their countries with a sense of superiority, scorning what they saw as the “out-of-touch” ways of their wives and people.

Ocol’s treatment of Lawino is no different. After ridiculing his wife for what he perceives as her ignorance, both speakers knuckle up, metaphorically. Both parties’ words pack punches that even leaves the reader winded and dazed.

As a traditionalist, one way Lawino dismisses the modern ways is in the poem “I Do Not Know The Dances of White People,” in which Lawino uses dance as a form of commentary. “I am ignorant of the dance of/ foreigners/ And how they dress/ I do not know,” she tells Ocol. “I cannot dance the rumba,/ My mother taught me/ The beautiful dance of Acoli […]/ I cannot dance the samba!”[1]

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The physical details here are even more striking: “When the drums are throbbing/ And the black youths/ Have raised much dust/ You dance with vigour and/ health […]/ When the daughter of the Bull/ Enters the arena/ She does not stand here/ Like stale beer that does not / sell,/ She jumps here/ She jumps there./ When you touch her/ She says ‘Don’t touch me!’[2]

The throbbing drums, the “raised…dust ”and “the daughter of the Bull” jumping “here” and “there” intensifies the Acoli dances’ liveliness and free-spirited nature. It also intensifies the speaker’s excited tone.

Lawino’s use of humor jabs at Ocol here: “the daughter of the Bull/ […] does not stand here/ Like stale beer that does not/ sell.” Lawino’s humor also jabs at European dances, which pale in comparison. She fires away again:  “I cannot dance the ballroom/ dance./ Being held so tightly/ I feel ashamed […]/ Women lie on the chests of men […]/ Women throw their arms/ Around the necks of their / partners […]/ Men hold the waist of the/ women/ Tightly, tightly . . .[3]

That the European dances require women “being held so tightly” and laying their heads “on the chests of men” only reinforces Lawino’s belief that the European culture men like Ocol impose on their wives is another way of former colonizers continuing their oppression of African people.

And on the topic of old-fashioned vs. contemporary, that conflict isn’t restricted to only couples in developing countries. That conflict also exists here among American couples who debate over issues ranging from child rearing (to beat or not to beat, that is the question) and sexual preferences (anal vs. vaginal, oral vs. none, missionary position vs. something new), to dating habits (man pays vs. going Dutch) and a spouse’s employment preference for the other (stay-at-home vs. a career).

(PHOTO: 3D Photo)

While the speaker’s excited, hurt and disappointed tones jab in “I Do Not Know The Dance of White People,” Lawino’s right hooks fly in “The Woman With Whom I Share My Husband.”

She throws punches at both Ocol and his mistress, Clementine: “Brother, when you see/ Clementine!/ The beautiful one aspires/ To look like a white woman.”[4]

And that’s just the set up before she unleashes these striking physical details: “Her lips are red-hot/ Like glowing charcoal, She resembles the wild cat/ That has dipped its mouth in/ blood,/ Her mouth is like raw yaws/ It looks like an open ulcer/ […]Tina dust powder on her face/ And it looks so pale;/ She resembles the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance.”[5] Ouch!

That Clementine “resembles the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance” means that Ocol’s shallow desire for this woman will hurt him in the long run. Lawino’s tone is condescending when she reduces Ocol to something caught and devoured by the woman who “resembles the wild cat” with its “mouth in/ blood.” Those lines are also Lawino foreshadowing that since the chase is over, Clementine will toss Ocol into a pile of playthings that once amused her, but were now boring.

The psychological details are just as striking: “The smell of carbolic soap/ Makes me sick,/ And the smell of powder/ Provokes the ghosts in my head;/ […] The ghost-dance drum must/ sound/ The ghost be laid/ And my peace restored.”[6]

Those details intensify Lawino’s sardonic tone sparked by Ocol’s desire for a woman with “powder on her face,” a woman pale enough to resemble “the wizard/ Getting ready for the midnight/ dance.” That Lawino likens the powder on Clementine to “ash-dirt,” which represents death and decay (“ashes to ashes, dust to dust”), she finds it ludicrous that Ocol could love someone so flaccid and lifeless.

(PHOTO: stock image)

A musical moment in that line is the recurring “mouth”: “[…] mouth in/ blood,/ Her mouth […]/ […] looks like an open ulcer.” The repeated mouth, followed by “in/ blood” and its comparison to “an open ulcer” only intensifies the foreshadowed heartache Clementine will bring upon Ocol.

Lawino’s striking physical details of Clementine’s appearance mirroring the European standard of beauty raises this question to Ocol: how can you embrace a culture that’s taught you self-hate?

Unable, or unwilling, to face Lawino’s question and warnings, Ocol becomes frustrated. He comes out swinging (“Woman/ Shut up!/ Pack your things/ Go!”[7]), which only confirms Lawino’s portrait of him. Any empathy towards him on the reader’s part is lost in the first chapter of “Song of Ocol” (“Woman/ Shut up!/ Pack your things/ Go!”)

But to hear him tell it, he’s the victim of the backward ways of his wife, ethnic group and the continent. It’s that feeling of betrayal, Ocol seeing his traditions as a hindrance to becoming successful in the white man’s world, which sparks his tones that are at times disgusted, patronizing and scornful.

And though his physical details that follow are striking, Ocol unwittingly incriminates himself. He loses his credibility as a victim by reducing Lawino’s anger and hurt to “the confused noise/ Made by the ram/ After the butcher’s knife/ Has sunk past/ The wind pipe,/ Red paint spraying/ On the grasses.”[8] Blinded by his disdain for his wife and culture, Ocol can’t see that if Lawino’s “the ram,” he’s “the butcher’s knife/ […] sunk past/ The wind pipe.”

(PHOTO: online composite sketch archive)

Reading those lines, I thought of the male outcries against women writers such as Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange and recently Sapphire, who presented less flattering portraits of African-American men.

The Black men accused these women of conspiring with White society’s attempt to continue demonizing Black men. And just as those men did with Walker, Shange and Sapphire, Ocol dismisses Lawino’s reality as mere fantasy and myth.

Clementine and European culture did a number on Ocol. He hates his people and the continent, what he called: the “Idle giant/ Basking in the sun,/ Sleeping, snoring,/ Twitching in dreams;/ Diseased with a chronic illness,/ Choking with black ignorance,/ Chained to the rock/ Of poverty,/ And yet laughing,/ Always laughing and dancing,/ The chains on his legs/ Jangling.”[9]

These thoughts of Africa (“Diseased with a chronic illness,/ Choking with black ignorance”) are not Ocol’s, but that of the European culture he embraces.

That Africa basks “in the sun” all day, “sleeping, snoring” and “twitching in dreams”; that it’s “always laughing and dancing” evokes the Coon image of Black men that dominated American movies and television during the early 20th century. The Coon is a character type that reinforces America’s stereotype of Black men as big, lazy children that would rather play than face responsibilities. (And that image hasn’t gone away. The media redressed that image for today’s movies and TV show sitcoms.)

Ocol’s words, in that context, make him a Tom, a character type also popular in 20th century films and television. The Tom image reinforces America’s stereotype of Black people who think Whites can do no wrong. Everything the White man has, the saying goes, the Toms got to have it. Lawino alluded to this earlier when she raised the question to Ocol: how can you embrace a culture that’s taught you self-hate?

(PHOTO: Ben+Sam)

When Okot p’Bitek published Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol in 1967, I don’t think he knew its relevance to the struggles of marginalized Americans.
At its heart, the conflict between Lawino and Ocol—old-style vs. what’s current—is really about education: those without access to proper resources vs. those privileged to have them.

In that context, Lawino’s a spokesperson for those disadvantaged because of poor schools, mediocre teachers and lack of decent books.
And Ocol’s a representative of those fortunate and privileged enough to excel in better learning environments.

While reading this book, I couldn’t help wondering what if Ocol had shared with Lawino what he learned from his travels instead of ridiculing her. And, if “education is a better safeguard of liberty,”[10] as a late politician and educator once put it, wouldn’t it have served Ocol to use the former colonizers’ tools against them instead of continuing that oppression on his wife and people? I think so.

However, Ocol’s disdain for his wife and ethnic customs make it difficult for him to see the error of his ways. He’s too busy throwing verbal hooks and uppercut, comparing Lawino’s lament to the “rotting buffalo/ Left behind by Fleeing poachers,/ Its nose blocked/ with house-flies/ Suckling bloody mucus,/ The eyes/ Two lumps of green-flies/ Feasting on crusts/ Of salty tears,/ Maggots wallowing/ In the pus/ In the spear wounds.”[11]

Ocol unwittingly sets himself up, again. If Lawino’s cries are the “rotting buffalo,” then Ocol’s added insult to injury are the house-flies in her nose. His insults are the “green-flies/ Feasting on” Lawino’s tears, and the “Maggots wallowing” in her wounds.

At its heart, Okot p’Bitek’s Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol is a story about irony that arises in Ocol’s superiority complex because of his advanced education. That’s the irony the late historian Will Durant alluded to, when he said, “Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.”[12]


[1] Okot p’Bitek, Song of Lawino & Song of Ocol, Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1967, 42.

[2] Ibid., 42-43

[3] Ibid., 44

[4] Ibid., 37

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 121

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 125

[10] Edward Everett, Brainy Quote, 2001-2011, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/topics/topic_education.html (August 2011)

[11] Op.Cite, 124

[12] Op.cite.

What Gets Lost In Pseudonyms

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Nearly two years ago, I was laid off from my job as a staff writer for a black-owned newspaper in Baltimore. I didn’t cry or worry about my finances.

I gathered my stuff quietly. (My co-workers didn’t know then they wouldn’t see me again.) Once in the back parking lot, I jumped for joy. No more working nearly 12 hour-days for eight hours’ pay. No more being forced to work over the weekend with no compensation.

I called and broke the news to family and friends, one of whom suggested I start this blog. “Build your own archive, yo,” that friend told me then. And even before my first post went up, I knew it was important to blog under my real name.

I couldn’t have known then that a job I took at the DC Creative Writing Workshop as a substitute writer-in-residence would turn into a senior program director position. At the time, I was on various job sites still trying to find work in communications.

My blog became a portfolio I sent potential employers to by mentioning it on my résumé and cover letters. It kept me current, which is what communications professionals want. This blog was my answer to the ubiquitous question: So what have you done during your unemployment?

Blogging anonymously would have killed my credibility as a journalist. And that decision affects just about every sector, including nonprofits. On her blog post “Shine While Your Light’s On: How to Build Your Personal Brand by Starting a Blog,” Rosetta Thurman elaborated on the benefits of blogging under her name.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

“I thought about blogging anonymously at first…But being anonymous would have defeated the entire purpose of blogging for personal branding,” wrote Thurman, who worked in the nonprofit community for more than eight years as a fundraising professional and leadership development practitioner.

Blogging under her name gave Thurman a reputation that, even four years since she started her blog, still speaks for her when she’s not around.

She recounted a story about a holiday party she went to on a December night in 2009. “I’m an extreme introvert, so I really don’t like going to parties unless I think that someone I know will be there,” Thurman recalled. “The biggest benefit of being a popular blogger, though, is that now when I go to nonprofit events, people know me. I don’t have to know them.”

She added, “And the best thing you can do for your nonprofit career is to make sure lots of people know who you are.” Thurman’s reputation spoke loudly enough for her four years ago to make it possible for her to start Thurman Consulting, an education company that specializes in leadership, entrepreneurship and social media initiatives. That reputation’s allowed her to become an author, trainer, speaker and coach.

Her life might have been different if she blogged anonymously. “If no one knew who was writing the articles, I would have reaped absolutely no benefit to my professional reputation,” Thurman wrote. It was also about courage for her. “I had to learn how to stand up for my ideas no matter what people said about me,” she wrote. “That’s part of being a leader. It remains my greatest leadership experience that I’ve had through my blog.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Going back to credibility, blogging under my name and being as thorough as I can in my research and reporting has granted me access to press events that allowed me to share information with my readers.

And because of that access, my blog topics range from medical experts’ updates on H1N1 Flu and DC youths speaking out about school reform, to foster teens advocating for better services and poets rising for better public school libraries, to Step Afrika! bringing the house down and a summer program that educates teens about African films.

My personal brand resulted in me being invited by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists to speak as a panelist on cultural issues. I was even a consultant to a journalism grad student, who was working on a class presentation about communications and social media.

Like Thurman, I made a conscious decision to be courageous and stand by my ideas no matter what people said about me. It’s also a good career move, according to Penelope Trunk.

That’s point #2 out of five mentioned in her blog post “Blog under your real name, and ignore harassment.” As she puts it, you already spent so much time learning a topic and becoming an expert. “But how can you get credit in your field for this expertise if you blog under a pseudonym?” wrote Trunk, whose career advice runs in 200 newspapers.

So what if you’re worried that blogging under your real name on your personal blog will jeopardize your corporate job? She has an answer for that, too. “Check out Steve Rubel. He is employed at Edelman and is sort of inventing the wheel as he goes along,” Trunk wrote. “He makes mistakes very publicly, and we all learn from them, and he’s a great model for making a blog and a corporate job work together.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Trunk, who started blogging 12 years ago, knows first-hand the hassles of blogging under a pseudonym. Since her college days, she’s changed her name three times. Born as Adrienne Roston, Trunk changed her last name to “GreenHeart” after being influenced by the feminist movement in school.

The second time she made up a name was to slap it on her master’s thesis, a collection of short stories. At that time, Trunk was working at a software company. Despite the master’s thesis winning an award, Trunk’s boss–who, until then, was supportive of her writing career–considered the stories embarrassing since he thought they were pornographic. He warned Trunk that if she put her name on the thesis, it could jeopardize her promising career in corporate America.

The third and last name change wasn’t of her own doing. The editor at Time Warner, her first job as a columnist, assigned her the pen name “Penelope Trunk”. Juggling two identities wasn’t easier once her columnist job became full-time. “I thought of writing under Adrienne Greenheart, but I already had too much invested in Penelope Trunk,” Trunk wrote. “That’s who people had been reading for three years. It was too late to change. So I posted my photo by my column and I became the name officially.”

Juggling two different emails—one for each name—proved just as difficult. “I was always forgetting which email client I was in, and I sent email with the wrong name on it all the time. And surely you know that people delete email from names they’ve never heard of,” she wrote.

On the phone was no better. “I also had a lot of people calling me…and hanging up when they heard Adrienne Greenheart on my voicemail,” she recalled. “So I took my name off my voicemail.”

Going back to credibility, Trunk’s third point was that blogging under a pseudonym defeats the purpose of networking. “People were very unsatisfied to hear that they thought they knew me but in fact I was not giving them my real name,” she wrote. “And people who were just getting to know me got hung up on the name issue – they couldn’t believe that I was so well known by a name that wasn’t my name.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

She lost some of her readers’ trusts. “Having a pseudonym is like having a wall up between you and everyone else,” Trunk wrote. “It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s usually how people perceive it when they find out.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take my readers’ trusts for granted. However, there are some who will argue the benefits of blogging anonymously. “The downside to naming your blog after yourself is that it can eventually become a prison,” according to Remarkablogger’s post “How to Brand and Name Your Blog.”

“As soon as you shut your mouth, there is no personal brand,” according to the article. “If you stop blogging, you stop existing.”  It goes on to note that blogging under your name makes it impossible to hire a team of writers to take over when you just don’t have it anymore. “Me, personally? I don’t want to be that guy,” the article stated. Me, personally?

The advantages of blogging under my name far outweigh the disadvantages.

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