Three months ago, I posted the poem, “The Light Inside,” which was inspired by my daughter, Jazmyn King.
I wrote that poem while my wife and I awaited her arrival. She’s six weeks outside of the womb, now! Here’s the video for the poem:
Three months ago, I posted the poem, “The Light Inside,” which was inspired by my daughter, Jazmyn King.
I wrote that poem while my wife and I awaited her arrival. She’s six weeks outside of the womb, now! Here’s the video for the poem:
Syndicated humor columnist and author, Ned Hickson was so gracious to indulge me in this experiment – a video version of the profile I did on him a while back.
Here’s an ad for the upcoming video blog post.
Three years ago, I did a story on Jason Tyler and his film crew’s project, Hustle vs. Heartache — a story about up-and-coming rapper, Hustle, fresh out of prison with a dream of making it big as a hip hop artist, forging a relationship with his young son and finishing old business with his soul-singer dad, Heartache.
Back in 2011, Jason was a grad student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.
When I interviewed him and his crew, they already raised $30,000 with a goal of reaching $100,000 for what started as a thesis film and became a feature.
Jason’s team has since graduated, exceeded their fundraising goal and are now in post-production. They’re an edit away from picture lock, a stage in film editing before the changes are complete and approved.
Afterwards, Jason’s crew kicks their film into the next stage that includes additional edits and audio mixing.
(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 email@example.com with “Newsletter Item” in the subject line, and it’ll go out in next month’s newsletters (it’s bimonthly). Peace!
EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m writing this article as the Communications Specialist at Generations United. I had a great opportunity to catch Ms. Edelman’s talk earlier this week.
Marian Wright Edelman’s pep talk earlier this week came from a different place. It wasn’t the usual eloquent oration of a gifted speaker whose decades of fighting for disadvantaged Americans earned her the status of civil rights legend.
Instead, she delivered her appeal as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren,” she told a packed room Oct. 28 at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention in D.C. “They have re-radicalized me all over again.”
Edelman’s initial spark came from the racial injustice she saw as a lawyer with the Mississippi office of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She tackled segregation laws, represented activists during the 1964 Freedom Summer, and helped setup a Head Start Program. In 1973, she founded the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), an advocacy and research center for youth issues.
The CDF is also a co-founder of Generations United, a national advocacy group whose intergenerational strategies improves the lives of children, youth, and older people.
Evoking the inspiration her granddaughters gave her, Edelman re-radicalized the Gray Panthers, an intergenerational advocacy organization. She charged them to be “pit bulls up there on the hill” for young people disadvantaged by poor educational systems (“We want universal preschool through K,” Edelman said, “it shouldn’t stop at kindergarten”) and gun violence (“a violent crime occurs every 26 seconds,” according to the FBI’s 2012 crime data).
Though we weren’t mentioned by name, Generations United was present in Edelman’s address, especially when she urged the older adults to advocate for children and youth. “We’ve got to make a raucous,” she said, “but it’s got be a continuous raucous.”
Through our Seniors4Kids program, older adults make a continuous raucous in support of early childhood development whether they’re in Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska or New Jersey, to name a few.
“What does early education have to do with older adults?” Drs. Joan Lombardi and Mary Catherine Bateson asked in their May 14 Huffington Post Op/Ed, “United Across the Generations to Assure a Strong Start for Children.”
“The well-being of our nation’s children and our own grandchildren will have a huge impact on our quality of living,” according to Lombardi and Bateson. “If our children emerge from our education system ill-prepared for the work world, we will suffer along with them, because we will be dependent upon them.”
Edelman echoed that sentiment at the Gray Panthers’ National Convention. “You are the indispensable,” she told the grandparents – some of whom mentored troubled teens and young mothers through the foster grandparents program.
“You’re the most talented and educated generation of grandparents and advocates,” Edelman continued before expressing her admiration for grandfamilies, or multigenerational households headed by grandparent caregivers. There are now 2.7 million grandparents in the U.S. who have sole responsibility of the children living with them, according to Generations United’s data.
Edelman joked about her experiences as a grandmother. “I love my grandchildren, but I sure am happy when they go home,” she told a laughing crowd. “They wear you out.”
But Edelman doesn’t take the social enrichment her grandchildren give her for granted. “I have three great sons,” she said, “but when I had my first two granddaughters, I didn’t know how lonely I’d been all of those years.”
This weekend’s forecast is rife with symbolism. Take the snarling sky and the thunderheads rumbling through the district.
Take the flash floods, the pounding winds, the power outages. And what you have is a local storm analogous to the one in Congress that shutdown the government last week, leaving this country’s defenseless citizens to wonder what this means for intergenerational programs.
Among those effected is the USDA’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program — which, in addition to serving 40 states and two Native American reservations — benefits Kent County, Michigan’s 1,300 low-income elderly. This older adult group is over 60 with an annual income below $15,000. According to NPR’s All Things Considered, the weekly food packages “include some dried milk, pasta and two different types of juice.”
This national impasse hit North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad Regional Council, trimming staff at the Area Agency on Aging (AAA). During the shutdown, the AAA reduced its full-time employees’ work hours by 25 percent, while temporarily laying off part-time staff. This limits or delays the agency’s ability to empower seniors and disabled people by affecting change in existing policies.
If this shutdown continues, it could drain funds from the Older Americans Act (OAA) that secures physical and mental health services, retirement income and housing for older generations, while protecting them against ageism in hiring practices. The OAA also helps youth through its National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP), which allows state agencies to use 10 percent of program-allocated funds to support grandfamilies, or households with caregivers over 55 raising a related young person.
Across the country, rental assistance programs aren’t sure how they’ll survive if the political deadlock, which stalled activity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, stretches into November. These voucher services aid grandparent caregivers, who already face barriers to housing access (“More than 1 in 4 older caregivers live in overcrowded conditions,” according to Generations United, while “more than 1 in 6 pay over half their income in rent”).
It’s times like these, I wish Hubert Humphrey was here to lend Congress his common sense. “The moral test of government,” according to the former Vice President, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” This was Humphrey calling on the American government to protect its vulnerable citizens.
A global example of helping the defenseless is The Girl Declaration, which fights intergenerational poverty by tapping into the potential of adolescent girls, who too often are without educational resources.
“Bringing together the thinking of 508 girls living in poverty across the globe with the expertise of more than 25 of the world’s leading development organisations, the Girl Declaration is our tool to stop poverty before it starts,” according to girleffect.org.
If three foundations and a coalition can start a movement that helps young girls abroad, there’s no reason Congress can’t help struggling households at home. To make matters worse, the U.S. is at risk of defaulting if legislators don’t raise the debt ceiling.
Last Thursday, AARP President Robert Romasco explained to Bloomberg TV’s “Market Makers” how a default catastrophically affects seniors hard. “It puts every single obligation we have — from bonds, to social security payments, to contractors — at risk,” said Romasco, whose organization lobbies for 37 million older adults. “Somebody’s not going to get paid. That could be social security recipients, it could be veterans, it could be bond holders.”
That’s why it’s important, more than ever, for some serious soul-searching on Capitol Hill. They can take a cue from Mahatma Gandhi, who once said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Let’s hope Congress loses itself doing what’s right.
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” 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 and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. Along the way he encounters an orisha while roaming Philly’s mean streets.
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
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.
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.
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 […]
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.
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
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?” 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.”
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
throats into yowls
[…] molded lids
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.”
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.” 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.”
 from the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster”
 from the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuers’ Mark
 from the poem “Oya in Old City”
 from the poem “Killadelphia”
 Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 2.
 Ibid., 2-3.
 Ibid., 8-9.
 Ibid., 8.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 19.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 22-23.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following true story is part of the crazy world series I’m doing for the World We Don’t Know (WWDK) blog, the brainchild of Kelli Anderson, my colleague in the Literary Media and Communications department at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and our freshmen students. Kelli asked me to contribute. So I kicked off my first post with a story about Black Jesus, which is among the materials I’ve collected for poems and stories from people-watching. Here’s another true story.
Back in my undergrad days at Howard University, I used to roll down to Wanda’s on 7th St. NW, a hair salon on the first floor and barbershop upstairs. One day, a woman, waiting for a cut in the shop upstairs, was bad-mouthing her man. “That n—-‘s lazy,” she said. He was living with her and her son rent-free, and he wouldn’t help out around the house. She couldn’t even get him to pay the cable, of which she found the overdue bills collecting in the glove box of his pick-up.
This woman wasn’t a regular. The only thing anyone knew about her until the rant was that she had a big booty; everything else was hidden by her windbreaker jacket. She had long nails that curved like delicate claws. They were so long they touched when she gripped her Red Bull can and slurped the energy drink through a crazy straw.
Anyway, she’s going on about her worthless man. And at this point, the brothas will say anything to get, and stay, on her good side, hoping the booty’s part of the reward for their support. A few brothas shake their heads, listening to her blues. One cat says, “That n—- must be a f—-. He prolly don’t like women.”
“I know,” said another. “How this dude gonna have a fine woman and not even try to help out.” “That’s where you messed up at,” a young brotha said. “Leave them boys alone, and get with a man.”
For a while, they were all on one accord. Then something happened. Foxx, an old-head barber making conversation, introduced himself to the woman by the moniker he earned from his days running the streets. He asked, “So what they call you.” And she answered: “My name Hollywood.”
Until that moment, you heard clippers humming across smooth heads and buzzing around shape-ups. If you were reading the paper or doing a Sudoku and heard monotone buzzing, that meant someone’s clippers were idling. And, in that shop, idle clippers meant someone was bullshitting.
I learned that a month before Hollywood’s visit, when a heavyset cat stepped into the shop. A barber selling Viagra out his shirt pocket pitched some to the big man, who scoffed at the offer. “Nah,” he said, “my shit all-natural, baby.” In fact, it was supposedly so good, he put it on a rich white widow, who spoiled him with a car, some jewelry, and spending money.
I didn’t need idle clippers to tell me he was full of it. This grown man had braces and a texturized high-top fade. His heavy breathing up the shop’s steps said that if he attempted what he was talking, he’d long be gone from this earth. I remembered the clippers idled, and I looked up to see most of the barbers and the brothas twisting their lips.
And they did the same to Hollywood after learning she was an exotic entertainer. Funny how that bit of information tipped the scale of empathy away from her and towards her so-called “no-good n—-.” With that piece of information, it made sense to them why her man treated her the way he did.
I wish I could say I cursed out everyone, then told them they hated their mothers if they thought any woman deserved to be mistreated.
How could these guys be self-righteous? They weren’t the holiest or wisest of brothas. My shop experience prior to Hollywood involved me listening to these cats joke about stealing cable to watch a Pay-Per-View boxing match for free.
And the way some brothas blew through cash at casinos, you’d think they were a CEO somewhere and not a struggling barber. I’ve heard guys bragging about the serious bread they dropped on the newest Basketball sneakers. Listen to them long enough, and you’d know their “good clothes” were sports jerseys, designer jeans, and fitted hats over doo-rags.
From what I knew of them, Hollywood was way out of their league. She paid her mortgage and, aside from her occupation, didn’t live a flashy lifestyle. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why Hollywood confided in those men. The only explanation is she might’ve wanted some insights into why men do what they do. After all, those brothas were no better than Hollywood’s man.
Whatever the case, I wish I was big enough to leave the shop at that moment and never go back, instead of sitting there, justifying my inaction as story-gathering. That moment in the shop was my opportunity to be an advocate of individual freedom, instead of surrendering to the attitude of “that’s the world.”
I wish I had another attitude then. “You take a number of small steps which you believe are right, thinking maybe tomorrow somebody will treat this as a dangerous provocation,” according to the Hungarian writer and activist George Konrad. “And then you wait,” he continued. “If there is no reaction, you take another step: courage is only an accumulation of small steps.”
I wish I had taken those steps that day, instead of listening to Nate, another barber, excuse her boyfriend’s actions by saying, “He did what he did ’cause she a hoe.” (I was glad Hollywood was in the bathroom when all this went down.)
“How she gonna put his business out there like that?” one guy said. “That’s the sign of a triflin’ woman.” The young brotha from earlier, who advised Hollywood to leave the boys for a grown up, said: “What happened to stand by your man?”
Foxx, who seemed unfazed by Hollywood’s disclosure, continued shaping up a customer, who mumbled something to the barber. They both laughed before the guy took out his wallet and slid Foxx a $20 bill. “That’ll work, playa!” the barber smiled. “I got fifty bucks,” Foxx told the shop. “Who else tryna’ go in on a private party when she get back?”
EDITOR’S NOTE: My friend, poet and educator Curtis Crisler, recently taught my debut poetry collection, DRIFT, to his students at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. He emailed me his students’ questions, which resulted in this cyber conversation:
What did you say to the girl who approached you to apologize for her behavior towards you?
All I could do was accept her apology. She caught me off-guard because I hadn’t seen, or thought of, that person in so long. It’s always refreshing, though, when you have encounters like that, when someone from your past goes out of their way to try to make things right. All I could do was appreciate that moment and accept her apology.
Do you think the apology had anything to do with your success?
No. This person didn’t know I was a poet. I’m not on TV and I’ve been on the radio (a few people heard me on NPR, but that’s it). She didn’t know then what I was doing with my life. Again, I think she realized the opportunity to make things right and took it.
How do you feel about your first collection of poems? Are you happy with how they ended up, or do you wish you could change some things?
I’m always going to want to change things. I guess that’s the nature of writers. When I wrote DRIFT, I did my best with what I knew then. That’s all we can do. Since Willow Books published DRIFT, I completed grad school with way more knowledge of the craft than I had when I wrote those poems. While I would change some things in that collection, I’m glad it’s the way it is. I look at it as a marker for where I was at that time. I’m currently shopping around a new manuscript for what I hope will be a second book. It’s tentatively titled POINT BLANK. In that manuscript, I’m working with a whole different set of techniques that I’m excited about. I’m excited to continue to grow as a writer.
How did you come to the title, Drift?
I went through the manuscript, looking for a poem that I would title the collection after. When I came across “Drift,” I realized that, just how the speaker was drifting through that moment, the speaker also drifts throughout the collection. My goal was to take the reader from love, to social commentary, to poems about my family, to brotherhood, and so on. I wanted to bring the reader inside the speaker’s head, to have him/her drift along and experience those moments the way the speaker did. DRIFT sets up that expectation.
What inspired you to write “Blackberry Speaks/Txt?”
I had a BlackBerry then, and I was sick of hearing about the iPhone. I’ve since upgraded to an Android phone. But I thought about how the BlackBerry had its heyday as a device once used by state and federal lawmakers, businessmen and women, etc. And in a blink, it became outdated. Then I got to thinking about our elderly, who hold so much wisdom, but we miss out because we think they don’t know what they’re talking about. The idea is, “They’ve lived their lives. What they know about mine?” So I wanted to explore that through the voice of an unappreciated BlackBerry. I wanted it to be humorous and serious all at once.
What was it that made you want to be a poet?
My first encounter with poetry was a traumatic experience. There’s nothing more traumatic than knowing that if you couldn’t recite the assigned poem, you’d be on the wall during recess, watching your friends have fun. Once I got over my first encounter, I realized poetry wasn’t so bad. I wrote it for the girls in high school, then later became serious about it during undergrad. The more I read, the more I appreciated the craft, the more I saw what was possible—the subjects I could tackle, the various literary devices I could use, the different ways I could connect with people. Cait Johnson, a former mentor of mine, once said: “Poetry’s a shortcut to empathy.” I like to think that, as poets, we’re helping to shape society’s conscience. While that’s ambitious, and at the risk of romanticizing poetry, I think there’s something to be said about the fact that people turn to poems to celebrate love and remember those who pass on.
When did you know you were a poet?
I’d have to say it was when the older writers, who I saw as legends in D.C.’s arts community, pulled me aside and red-inked my paper. These were writers who didn’t waste their time with folks who weren’t serious. The fact that they saw or heard something in my work, enough to look it over and offer their critiques, still stays with me. They were passing their wisdom on to me. That’s not to be taken lightly. Some of those writers have moved on to other cities. The ones I do see, I always make sure I tell them—even nearly a decade later—how much I appreciated what they did for me.
Who are your favorite poets and why? Which writer was your biggest inspiration when you first began to write?
Whoa! I’ll start with my inspiration, which was Sonia Sanchez. I had her book, SHAKE LOOSE MY SKIN. It was a poetry collection that included her micro fiction. I had to read that book a few times to really appreciate it. I initially picked it up because another writer told me Ms. Sanchez was someone whose work I should know. So when I was able to appreciate SHAKE LOOSE, she showed that poems could both be a bullhorn for justice and quiet as a whisper in a lover’s ear. I loved her range and what she was capable of talking about in her work. Other writers that inspire me are Yusef Komunyakaa (I’m still in love with NEON VERNACULAR), Patricia Smith, Ai (she was my introduction to persona poems), Martin Espada, Billy Collins, Charles Simic, Stephen Dobyns (I still go back to VELOCITIES), Sherman Alexie, and the list goes on.
At the top of that heap is Tim Seibles, who was my mentor both the first and last residency of my MFA program. What he admired about Jimi Hendrix and Sade Adu, he applied it to his poems. Just as Hendrix and Adu kept working at their craft until the product was seamless, Tim works at a poem ‘til all of it sings loud. There’s no weak lines in Tim’s work. His ability to use humor to tackle serious social issues is a skill I still admire. He’s been called the master of the “tickle-punch” poetry. He uses humor to trick his readers into dropping their guard, then he punches them with the message. When their guards go up, he tickles them again, then punches them with the message. He does that over and over. Because of him, I try to max out my poem’s full potential every time I write.
What moments in your life were your biggest influences for your writings?
The influences came from time with my family and from past romantic relationships. I write more about my family in my new manuscript. In DRIFT, they make brief appearances because I wanted to capture D.C., at least how I experienced that city. The biggest influence is people watching. I do it with a poet-friend of mine, Derrick Weston Brown. We’re always interested in the nonverbal communication between strangers. It’s a great way to get material for new pieces—that is after reading other writers, of course.
I really like your poem 3a.m.—what inspired that poem?
Thanks! “3a.m.” was inspired by an ex-girlfriend, who had it in her mind we were going to get married. There’s the irony (she broke up with me). But I thought about our late night caper for food. I remembered how good it felt just being with her. That moment at the late night diner somehow burned itself into my mind. I didn’t know then that I’d write a poem about that night. I guess writers have those moments, when we’re sponges, soaking up every detail of a moment. Then years later, a song or smell brings those details out and you’re far enough away from that moment that you can write it.
It seems much of your poetry is symmetric in regards to lines per stanza. Why is that so?
At the time I wrote those poems, I would have told you it was for uniformity of stanzas. But I recently found out I have OCD, particularly, “purely obsessional” Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (some of those symptoms include intrusive thoughts and psychological compulsions). I think that has something to do with what my wife sees as me being neurotic, where I’m obsessed with the order of things. Tim Seibles helped me break out of that. He said, “Bruh, you’re poems don’t have to be neat. It’s OK if your stanzas are a little messy.”
Where do you like to write your poetry?
Anywhere there’s noise—coffee shops (especially with the cappuccino machines whining and music spooling through hanging speakers), classrooms, restaurants (I got inspired by an Al Green song at the CiCi’s pizza buffet), outside on any street corner, etc.
Before writing, do you have certain rituals or certain things you always do? Example: Where you write, certain notebook/computer, etc? Or do you just jot down ideas as they come to you?
I tend to write in my head, at first. I’ll have an idea and let it incubate. Sometimes I’ll share that idea with Derrick and our conversation about it will help me figure out how to execute it. Other times, it incubated in my head, with a few lines coming to me. I’ll let it build until I have to put it on the page. Once I get it all out, I put the poem away, then come back to it after a few weeks or months. I try to put as much distance as I can between me and the poem (that’s my process now; it wasn’t when I wrote DRIFT). In the past, I sent raw work to friends for suggestions. Now, I distance myself from the poems by coming back to them after a few weeks or months. That’s when my mind’s fresh and I can play around with stanzas—moving them around, starting the poem with the last, second, or next to last stanza. Other times, I’ll ask myself questions: how much of the story is in this poem? Will someone coming to this poem without the information I have understand what’s going on in the poem? I also have the voices of people I’ve workshopped with—former mentors, friends, etc. I anticipate the questions they would ask if they saw the poem. Once I get it the poem to where I’m satisfied, I send it to a few trustful readers. I say trustful because these are people who are honest with me. They’ll let me know what’s working and what I need to work on. They also tell me when I have to scrap it and start over.
I love the titles to your poems, so how do you come up with them because when reading some of them they made me stop and think, where did he get this from? (After reading the poem).
Thank you. I don’t like titling my poems before I’ve finished a draft. So I’ll write a poem, then go through it, looking for the title. Sometimes the title answers a question posed by the poem. The title may set up the reader’s expectation. Either way, the title is doing work. That’s the goal.
When writing a poem, do you have a set message that you are trying to get across to your readers, or do you just write and see what your finished poems turn out to be?
I usually have a message or something I want to communicate. That’s the idea I mentioned in response to a previous question. Once I get the idea, I have to figure out how I’m going to approach it. I look at the poem as a vehicle that’s going to help me drive my point home. That’s something I’ve learned from Tim Seibles and the older writers I’ve workshopped with. With that said, I do let the poem surprise me. If I realize I’m forcing the poem to go in one direction, I ease up and let it take me somewhere else. I figure if I’m excited about the process, that makes the reader’s journey to that message just as exciting.
Did you ever worry about legal issues when you wrote about drugs?
No. I never did drugs. I hung out with people who did them. I never judged them. Plus, I was not incriminating myself or them. If I mention names, it’s first names only. And I make sure they’re common names J
Was it difficult to talk about sexual things?
Not at all. I’m not the only person in the world that loves sex. I figure there are other people out there feel the same way I do. My goal as a writer is to make sure the reader experiences my poems in a way that makes him/her recall their own experiences and bring up memories they thought they’d forgotten. If I do that, then that’s where I’ve connected with the reader. That’s always my goal.
What do you do when you run out of ideas?
I read as much as I can—both in and outside my genres (poetry and creative nonfiction). I go to museums. I spend time with my wife, in-laws, and my family. The whole point is to live. Experience new things. The poems will come. But, in the meantime, I’m in sponge mode.
What do you think about when you write your poetry, or what do you feel?
Unlike some poets I’ve heard say they get a line or two, I get an image. If a scent or song recalls a memory, I see what happened during that moment, which heightens my senses. Ask my wife, when she sees me in that moment, I’m usually staring into space. But, to me, I’m briefly reliving that moment. I soak out all the details, then start to write.
Have you written poetry all (or most of) your life? What was your first exposure to it?
I’m 32. I’ve written poetry, seriously, for 14 years. In total, I’d say I’ve been writing for 16 years—that’s me including the silly poems I wrote when I started. My first exposure was in 4th grade. My English teacher, Ms. Garrison, had us read and recite poems. It was mandatory. If we couldn’t recite it, we didn’t get recess, hence, the traumatic experience I mentioned earlier.
When I studied poetry again in middle school, I fell in love with the rhyme and rhythm. Now that I don’t rhyme anymore in my poems, the rhythm stayed with me. I love rhythm in a poem.
Was your journey to becoming a published poet a difficult one?
That journey required me to learn patience. I had to develop tough skin and know that rejection would be a part of that process. But rejection is good, because it makes it possible to appreciate when things come through. Rejection’s also good because it humbles you. It’s a constant reminder that what you’re trying to do is going to take some work.
When you first began to write poetry, did you feel like you were constrained? If so, what did you do to free yourself?
What constrained me in the beginning was meter. That’s how I learned poetry. I wrote sonnets and other forms. While I enjoyed that, I felt like the meter and form wasn’t allowing me to say what I wanted to say. I’m not against all forms. I actually like the villanelle, bop (an African American form), ghazal, gigan (another African American form), and pantoum.
But I didn’t feel like the sonnet allowed me to say what I really wanted to say (there are some formalist poets who’ll disagree with me, and that’s fine J). It wasn’t until I read Langston Hughes’ later works, along with Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez, that I discovered free verse. I loved the freedom. But, with that freedom, comes great responsibility. Free verse may look easy, but it’s hard. Since you’re not writing in form, it’s easy for someone to argue that what you’re writing is not a poem. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing anecdotes instead of poems. With free verse, you have to consider a lot of poetic devices—is there rhythm and alliteration? Are my lines sharp, do they snap? Does this poem go beyond the moment? Is it bigger than the moment? What’s the takeaway from this?
It’s just so many things to consider. That’s why reading writers who write free verse well helps reinforce those literary devices that really make the poem sing.
What inspired you to write “Quasimodo in NYC?”
If you’re familiar with the story about the hunchback of Notre Dame, then you know it’s really a tale about unrequited love. We’ve all been there—you like someone who doesn’t feel the same way about you. That’s what makes Quasimodo’s story so universal. Before I met my wife, I went through a Quasimodo moment when I kept running into women who couldn’t return what I felt for them. This poem was about a particular woman who I thought had the same feelings for me that I had for her. Anyway, when it wasn’t so, I went for a walk. We both met up at an annual writer’s conference that New York City hosted that year. I wrote the poem through Quasimodo’s persona because I connected with the hunchback. After a few rejections, you don’t feel so attractive.
At any moment, the human mind rapidly shifts between thoughts. It’s that movement Seibles mimicks when arranging the sections of his books. “If we’re really listening, we’ll go from rage to tenderness pretty quickly,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I try to put together different kinds of poems in a section…approximately the ways in which our minds move.”
The results are five books that take readers on an exciting ride through a surprising twist of tone and subject matter on each page. This skill is one reason the National Book Foundation selected his latest collection Fast Animal as a 2012 National Book Award Finalists.
“Established in 1950, the National Book Award is an American literary prize given to writers by writers and administered by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization,” according to nationalbook.org. A panel of five judges in each genre chooses five finalists from those submitted in their category, which ranges from 150 titles (Poetry) to 500 titles (Nonfiction).
The Foundation will honor Seibles and other finalists Nov. 14 at New York City’s Cipriani Wall Street. The evening before, he’ll be among those presenting during the National Book Award Finalists Reading at The New School.
News of his nomination pinballed through the national literary scene, with poet and activist Tony Medina weighing in. “Tim Seibles’ NBA nomination not only validates what has been a steady, stellar commitment to the word with an incredible body of personal, political, bitingly satirical poetry of integrity,” Medina says. “It also shines some much-needed light on the great, risk-taking work independent presses are engaged in in the face of such precarious times in publishing.”
Cornelius Eady is also ecstatic. “I’m really pleased about his nom,” says Eady, who co-founded the Cave Canem week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent, where Seibles taught workshops. Of the nomination, Eady added, “It’s way overdue.”
That excitement spread to Seibles’ Facebook wall, where friends and colleagues congratulated him. Among them was Debra Marquart, who teaches with Seibles in the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing. “Not a bit surprised,” she posted, “but very much delighted by this news!”
“Yaaay, Tim!” posted Marilyn Nelson, poet, translator and children’s book author. “Congratulations!”
Seibles felt the love. “Most beloved friends!… It means a lot to have so many good people in my corner,” according to his wall post. “Again, I so appreciate your belief in me and my poems. For me, being a writer is all about these kinds of connections, fam. May only sweet luck rain on every one of you.”
To hear Seibles tell it, his nomination is icing on top of icing that includes his more than two decades of sharing his work to both national and international audiences. Philly born and bred, Seibles is a member of Old Dominion University’s (ODU) English Department and MFA faculty. A teaching board member of the Muse Writers Workshop, he received fellowships from both the Provincetown Fine Arts Center and The National Endowment for the Arts. He won the Open Voice Award from the 63rd Street Y in New York City. The Stadler Center for Poetry awarded Seibles a Poet in Residence post at Bucknell University. His poems appeared in many journals and anthologies, including Best American poetry 2010.
The National Book Award Nomination is also payoff for Seibles’ patience and sweat that produced his previous collections: Body Moves, Hurdy–Gurdy, Hammerlock, and Buffalo Head Solos. He got the news while he and Jamaican-American poet Shara McCallum visited the Nichols School in Buffalo, NY. “We read poems…talked about how you write poetry, how you analyze it,” Seibles recalls. He tried to ignore his vibrating phone. “Finally, I pulled it out of my pocket in the middle of class and looked at it and saw: ‘Congratulations, National Book Award Finalist.’”
Cait Johnson is another Stonecoast colleague thrilled by her “compadre’s” nomination. “I’ve been a fan since I read his Hurdy-Gurdy and realized that here was a rare man who honors the divine feminine while maintaining a warm, dynamic, and very muscular masculinity,” Johnson says. “Such luscious balance! Such gritty, real, and often lyrical work.”
My first encounter with Seibles’ work was in 2004, when I Googled him and came across his poem “For Brothers Everywhere” (from Hurdy-Gurdy). What blew me away was him calling the streetballers “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.” Since then, I’ve always admired how Seibles sweats a poem to its maximum potential. Another example is his poem “The Applecake,” where he offers this stunning sequence:
I like to consider your applecake
smiling on the kitchen counter, dressed
only in its sweetness, its round face
a jubilant island of apple and sugar—
no mere strudel or sloppy cobbler—
it is a baked cathedral of promises
kept, your applecake
opening up like a three-day weekend,
a Good Friday for the mouth, a jailbreak
from the hard, inedible, unthinkable city.
He makes it look effortless, yet it’s a labor-rich process. “When I think about a poem, I think about it being analogous to a song,” Seibles says. “I think about the songs I love the most.” Among those is Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Love” from his Band of Gypsies album. “In those five minutes, there’s so much happening in that song both in terms of lyrics and…the sound of the guitar,” he recalls. “Man, I have played that song, since 1970, probably 10,000 times.”
Another inspiration is Sade Adu’s title song “Soldier of Love”. “The musical composition behind her voice sonically is perfectly conceived…the instrumentation is perfect, the inflection of her voice is perfect, the tonal and timbre qualities of her voice is perfect,” Seibles says. “It’s like everything is in place and it makes the song so rich, second by second that it’s irresistible.”
He added: “I know the only way Sade…and Hendrix did that was they worked their asses off. They kept thinking, ‘I can do more. I can make this better.’ They went into the studio and stayed until it rang. So what I try to do, when I think about my poems, is try to approach that work with the same integrity of Hendrix, Sade, and many others.”
DC poet Brandon Johnson certainly puts Seibles up there with Sade and Hendrix. “I admire Tim Seibles’ work because of his ability to inject deep tones into conversational communications,” he says, citing Seibles’ skill at turning pop culture into social commentary.
He does this through his persona poems that speak through Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, where a classic cartoon subtly shifts into a discussion on human character. “Tim’s work always speaks to me because of his sensible way of reminding me that the complex can be explained without charts and graphs,” Johnson says, “just an entreaty to pay attention and think past yourself.”
Seibles developed that skill and integrity as a young poet, 19 years old, dreaming of writing books and sharing his work with the world. “Once I got hooked on writing, I was going to be writing something, and most of it was going to be poems,” he recalls. “I was just really thinking, “I’m going to be writing poems, nothing’s going to stop me, and—damn it!—somebody’s going to hear me at some point.”
He learned humility from his teachers Michael Ryan, John Skoyles, and Jack Myers at Southern Methodist University (and later from Mark Cox, Myers again, Susan Mitchell, and Richard Jackson at Vermont College, where he got his MFA). “Because of the ways my teachers spoke about paying your dues, like how many rejection slips they got and how long it took before someone was even willing to publish one or two of their poems, let alone a book, I just assumed it was going to take a long time to get much notice,” Seibles recalls. “That’s just the nature of things. There are a lot of writers out there who are better…who’ve been doing it longer, whose craft is sharper. You just keep doing your thing and eventually someone would notice what I was doing.”
Sarah Browning and Melissa Tuckey definitely noticed. “As his many devoted readers know, Tim’s poems are tender and righteous, playful and erotic, lyrical and full of heart,” says Browning, who met Seibles at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in 2006.
That year, she attended his panel on the erotic in poetry. “Needless to say, I was knocked out,” recalls Browning, director and co-founder of Split This Rock, a nonprofit that celebrates the poetry of witness and provocation through a biannual festival, where Seibles read and led a workshop. “Every book of Tim’s has been extraordinary and, last month, the National Book Foundation wised up,” Browning says. “I’m thrilled that the NBF’s recognition will bring more readers to Tim’s essential work. He is truly one of the most urgent and necessary poets of our time.”
Melissa Tuckey agreed. “I love the humor and joy and political engagement in his work, his generous imagination,” says Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock. She served as co-director of the nonprofit from 2008 to 2010.
She first heard Seibles read at Ohio University more than a decade ago. She’s been a fan since. “I am super excited about Fast Animal‘s National Book Award nomination,” Tuckey says. “It’s well deserved, terrific to see his work in the national spotlight.”
The nomination still feels surreal to Seibles. “I’m only now beginning to realize how big a deal it is,” he says. “I always imagined it would be a big deal to get a major award or to be nominated for a major award.” The closest thing he’s experienced to a National Book Award nomination was when he won the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 1990. That year, Seibles was among the 40 people the federal arts agency awarded.
However, the National Book Foundation spotlights five writers in each genre: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature. “That’s a very big thing,” Seibles says. Of being among the five, he added: “It really puts you in a tight set of company.”
In addition to comments on his Facebook wall and my conversations with his friends and colleagues, I constructed this article from a small part of an interview I conducted with Tim Seibles for an extended Q&A-piece that’s forthcoming in BOMB Magazine.