Tag Archive: miscellaneous


Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

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

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

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

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

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

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

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

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

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

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

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

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

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

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

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

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

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

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

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(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Carolyn Malachi's 2008 debut project, 'Revenge of the Smart Chicks,' is a rally call to empower women in the arts.

Five minutes before her set, Carolyn Malachi was at a corner booth near the stage, pulling up poems and song lyrics on her tablet.

Behind her were two open booths. The empty chairs last night outnumbered the audience in the Langston Room at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

The empty seats were noticeable enough to unsettle Busboys poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

“This is embarrassing,” he told me. He put the word out through Facebook and his email list. Still the crowd was small. “Is it because of the three-day weekend,” he wondered aloud. To which I said, “It’s possible.”

But the turnout didn’t faze Carolyn. She’d performed for fewer people back in 2005, when she was building her reputation as a singer.  That’s before she made her rounds at various open mics throughout DC and Baltimore, before her songs made it on the radio, before the buzz and Grammy nomination. So no, she wasn’t bothered by the turnout Sunday night, even if the crowd appeared to be there for just dinner and drinks.

Before her performance that Sunday night, I was the only person who signed the open mic list. The low murmurs of conversations continued despite the poet-in-residence kicking off the night with his poem “The Mic Is Now Open,” which has been customary since Derrick started the Nine on the Ninth event six years ago.

“Attention! Attention! The mic is, and ever shall be, open,” he concluded. “Check 1. Check 2. Next up to the mic”—he pointed throughout the audience—“is you, and you, and you, and you.”

(PHOTO: washingtondcjazznetwork.ning.com) Her second album 'Revenge of the Smart Chick II: Ambitious Gods' earned her honors and accolades.

The talking stopped abruptly when Carolyn Malachi took the stage and pulled the red shawl from over her low-cut fade.

Whatever the crowd expected, I’m sure it wasn’t a six-foot woman wearing baggy African-print pants and a dark form-fitting blazer. She also had a feather taped to each side of her face.

Noticing the puzzled looks, Carolyn said, “I wear the feathers because I want everyone to remember vision takes flight.” The crowd nodded “ah-haa.” And in that moment, the 27-year-old songstress, musician, dancer and spoken word artist went—in the audience’s mind—from an oddity to an eclectic entertainer worth listening to.

I’ve seen Carolyn perform before. She’s usually with three or five other musicians bringing the house down. But that Sunday night, she was solo.

Her set last night reminded me a lot of Lauren Hill Unplugged, where the former Fugees artist stripped away the big budget production sounds and, instead, made it about her guitar and raw feelings.

For 20 minutes, Carolyn gave the audience a raw glimpse at some unsettled things in her life. “Is it hard to love?” she asked the crowd. “Shout it out.”

One guy said it wasn’t and quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: 27”: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” A woman countered by saying, “You might not get the love back.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi) Malachi founded the Smart Chicks, Inc. organization and its ever-growing, Smart Chicks Network brand, to develop visibility and leadership opportunities for women in the arts.

There was a time I might’ve agreed with that woman, when each relationship at the time was a one-sided scale. In each case, I had more invested than the other person. Those times, it was important for me to surround myself with positive people. I thank Derrick, the poet-in-residence, who I’ve known for a decade, and my boy Fred. Both guys kept me optimistic during those turbulent times.

Going back to what the woman said that Sunday night, I recalled a quote from Sharon Salzberg, a spiritual teacher, author and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

“If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated,” Salzberg once put it. “Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on.”

My light has stayed on since I met my fiancée two years ago. Now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I wanted to tell that woman who said it was hard to love to turn on her light.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi)

It was obvious Carolyn Malachi kept hers on, even as she reminisced about past loves. Her performance was as much therapeutic for the woman and others in the crowd as it was for Carolyn herself. So much so that we all cracked up when the artist said, “Remember, what’s said here stays here.”

Carolyn’s been compared to avant-garde artists such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae for the otherworldly vibe of her music. Her Grammy-nominated song “Orion,” off her EP Lions, Fires and Squares, is a love story between an astronaut and mermaid.

She sang it capella:

Hey, Space Cowboy. I want you in my interplanetary good vibe zoneDon’t be coy, Space Cowboy. I’m a dish you’ll enjoy. At least I will be when I get rid of these scales. I’m all fins and tails. You’re all stars and fly and just like you I like to stick to what I know, dear. Lately this water’s been jail. I feel the need to get me some sky and, just like you, I could use some variety.

The highlight of Carolyn’s performance was her “capacity for love and happiness” despite her romantic setbacks. She laughed about past loves, not bitterly but remembering the good times.

She read an epistolary to a lover, a letter she said she sent him and didn’t get a response. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn read, “In the afterglow/ of yes and no, I bask/ beautifully.” The women nodded while they snapped. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn continued, “You are fresher/ than Adam’s first breath.” To which the crowd yelled “What?!” and “Go on, girl!”

Carolyn smiled and cleverly spun her past lover’s rejection. “I know, right?” she said, responding to the outburst. “Fellas, what would you say if a woman came at you like that?” Silence. Then Carolyn, still smiling, said: “That’s what I thought.”

(SKETCH: Gregory Culp)

Editor’s note: This is a work of fiction I wrote back in 2007. It first appeared in The Spoof, an online publication like The Onion that publishes satire. I thought I’d repost it here and introduce you, dear reader, to Geritol Hightower.

At 72, Hightower leads the fight against agism. Say “Iron Man,” and Marvel Comic fans automatically assume you’re referring to Tony Starks from the Avengers crew.

But unlike the superhero, 72-year old Geritol Hightower didn’t need a shrapnel wound to the chest nor did he have to sell out to the Vietnam Communist party to become Iron Man.

“How do I feel being compared to a comic book character? You’re a reporter, right? How would you feel if someone compared you to Clark Kent or Peter Parker?” he says reclined in a cushioned wicker chair at his Miami home. “It’s kind of sick if you ask me. I’m flesh and blood while this…this thing prances around with his friends. And he’s a super-hero?”

Joined by two auburn-colored women apparently in their mid-30s — whose rippling backs and carved buttocks are visible through the thin fabric of their two-piece bikinis — he takes off his shades while one of the women rubs the throbbing vein at his left temple after patting down the onyx shine the perspiration gives his cool, charcoal-colored skin.

A two-time Olympic Gold medalist and the Ironman Pro champ five consecutive times, Geritol defeated Puerto Rico’s Gustavo Badell and Australia’s Lee Priest in the 2005 competition.

Right now, he’s the most sought after power-lifter turned body builder, appearing on the cover of the current issue of Iron Man Magazine with Fitness Olympia’s spokesperson and hardbody model Timea Majorova.

(SKETCH: Danomyte)

Growing up, Geritol knew something wasn’t quite right when he discovered he could out-lift most men twice his age. At 15 years old, all he wanted was to be noticed by Carla Dibbs, who he’d had a crush on since elementary school.

Attempting to catch her eye, while playing a prank on a faculty member, he and his boy Drink Water lifted their high school gym teacher’s car three feet off the ground and walked it to another parking spot. That day etched him and Drink Water into high school history.

Geritol smiles as if the moments were reeling before him.

“Man, we didn’t know what girl troubles were before that happened,” he says. “But afterwards, we damn near needed a stick to beat off the ones that were begging for a bit of our time.”

“Things were different when we were coming up,” Hightower continues. “It was 1949. We had just gotten the right to vote and went crazy with whatever little freedom we had.”

During that time, the U.S. had entered into World War II, and with his father off fighting, he took a job at Dino’s Diner in Silver Spring, Maryland as a short-order cook, earning 43 cents an hour.

“We were hard workers, our generation. You don’t get that from the kids these days. And certainly not that wannabe-cartoon figure,” says Hightower, taking a bite of his veggie club and munching his beat chips before washing them down with a wheat grass smoothie.

“This generation doesn’t understand that. Most of them looking for a quick way to everything. Some even turn to violence for a means to an end,” he says. “Well, for you young people out there who think robbing old folks is fun, you won’t be the first or last to be introduced to a good ol’ fashioned, never had it quite like this, ass whuppin’.”

He continues, “I’m talking ’bout giving one of those type of beatings where the paramedics checking to see if you still breathing. Just try me.”

(IMAGE: Milosh Kojadinovich)

Geritol remembers such a case, when a young man assaulted him in a 7-11, wildly wielding a switch blade. The guy, who stood at 6′ 4″ and 320 lbs., had Hightower by four inches.

He acted like he was going for his wallet in the back pocket, then delivered a fierce backhand that sent a bloody tooth spiraling out of the boy’s mouth before he stumbled backwards.

After disarming his attacker, Geritol was still beating the boy when the cops arrived. It took 10 men clubbing him with nightsticks and shocking him with tazers to handcuff him while they strapped and rolled the kid out on a gurney.

“It’s not just the young. People, in general, see an elderly fella and dollar signs pop up where their pupils oughta be. Shiii.. Folks’ll never be done exploiting us,” he shakes his head. “Some guy from the drug company asked if I would be in one of his commercials for Viagra.”

Just then, the women start chuckling. Geritol stops abruptly, and without being verbal about it, he shoots them a look that says get the hell out the room! One makes her way to bring him some more beet chips while the other goes to prepare him another vegetable shake.

“I looked that fella in the eye,” he continues, “and said ‘Is you crazy, boy? Would a healthy man such as yourself allow his likeness to be used on a poster for herpes and gonnorhea? Get the hell outta here ‘fore I beat your ass off GP.’”

The interview’s interrupted again when Geritol’s eyes expand like rubber “O’s” after answering his cell. Then he jumps up. “Iron Man Mag wants to know if I’m available for a cover shoot with Lenda Murray and Anja Langer,” his pitch rises with excitement. “Hell yeah! How many 70-something year olds you know that can say they shared the covers with two legendary hardbody models?”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ernesto Mercer

Depending how one might see it, the 20th century could be something most folks around the world wouldn’t mind watching go up in smoke. For starters, there were two World Wars, Nazi death camps, the Great Depression and Vietnam.

In the great ol’ U-S-of-A alone, we had the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Klansmen and lynching. And if those weren’t enough, the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy also dot that century’s timeline of atrocities.

With his Gunpowder + A Match (outbackintheshack + Carolina Jones Ink, 2011), Ernesto Mercer aims to make sure the 20th century sizzles for his global brothers and sisters.

This limited-run collection is a chapbook, meaning it’ll have nearly 40 pages and either be saddle stitched or stapled along the folded spine. It’s the oldest form of publishing that goes back for centuries. It’s an affordable way that helped writers get their work out.

These publications range from inexpensive productions to handmade editions that sell for hundreds of dollars. The inexpensive productions (between $5 and $10) helped Mercer get out his earlier work. (Read his poem “THE BEG.”) And this time around, he enlisted the help of a friend to run off a limited batch from her copier.

Poet Randall Horton, a professor and publisher, can’t wait for his copy. “I have been waiting to read something from Ernesto for a minute now,” he said. Horton’s among the writers interviewed for this story, who haven’t read Gunpowder + A Match. All each writer has to go on is Mercer’s earlier work they either heard at readings or read in literary journals and anthologies.

Horton first read Mercer’s work as an editor for the literary journal Tidal Basin Review. “I have been a big fan since,” he said of the work he published, noting that Mercer’s right on time with Gunpowder + A Match.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

What Horton found engaging about Mercer’s work was that it stimulated on multiple levels.

“If you are a fan of Adrian Castro”—the Afro-Latino poet, performer and interdisciplinary artist—“then you are going to love what Ernesto does on the page,” Horton said. “Ernesto is coming from many traditions.”

Among them is Mercer’s practice as a priest in the Cuban tradition of Palo, a religion developed by Central African slaves brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo. Those slaves, mostly of Bantu lineage, created a belief system that respected ancestral spirits and nature’s powers.

Those slaves and their belief system also inspired Mercer’s title Gunpowder + A Match. According to the religious practice, the soil, sticks, bones and other “natural objects” are believed to have spiritual powers. During the main ceremony, according to various sources, a priest places those items inside a sacred vessel.

And only the spirits of the dead, which dwell in those vessels, or Nganga, guide all religious activities performed with the Nganga.

In Spanish, the tradition’s known as “La Reglas Bantu” (“The Bantu Rule” in English). Among its several branches are the Mayombe (the oldest) and Brillumba. Mercer’s a Mayombe priest with rights in Brillumba. As a Mayombero, with 23 years in the religions, he’s the priest of Nsasi—the god of lightning, fire and explosions among other things.

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

Where the title Gunpowder + A Match fits into all of this is the intense healing ceremony that requires Mercer using gunpowder to draw intricate patterns on the ground. “These designs are usually only seen by initiates and those who seek the healing of Mayombe,” he told me in a recent interview.

Due out in September, what Mercer called “a nice-sized plate of poems” will be available to everyone, not just initiates. It’ll be available for those seeking a healing from their 20th century wounds that, for many, resulted from the rise of illegal drug trades both globally and in America’s urban neighborhoods.

The remnants of that 20th century era, for many, are the loved ones still strung out on or that died from crack and heroin. Mercer raises the issue in “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” a poem from Gunpowder + A Match, in which the speaker is a ninth grader digging on M, an older sister of a former classmate.

“Every dude/ loved M + she/ knew it,” Mercer’s speaker says in “e-FLAT BOOGIE.” M’s a ‘hood honey who uses what she’s got, and takes advantage of the speaker’s feelings by telling, instead of asking, him “to walk her to/ the store.” To which the speaker’s accommodating.

On their way, Mercer’s speaker is confronted by some unsavory elements of the drug game, in which the speaker likens the dealers to pimps: “& even with/ Star Crystal &/ Mary Jane/”–cocaine, crystal meth and reefer (or weed)–”working right/ across the street/ the guys still/ hated me anyway/ walking with M.” And fortunately for the speaker, the hate didn’t go beyond the dealers’ angry stares.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) younger Ernesto Mercer

Gunpowder + A Match will also be available for those curious about Mercer’s whereabouts for the last decade. It was the poet’s attempt to heal himself while he figured some things out about love, lust, loss, anger and fear. “I hope readers follow me through a few obsessions, ruminations and preoccupations,” Mercer said. “I hope they are willing to wander with me through the vagaries of my voice and voices.”

That journey resulted from the poet almost losing his voice around 1999. At that time, Mercer stopped publishing consistently after completing his third fellowship with the Cave Canem summer retreat for writers of African descent. He published poems here and there in literary journals and anthologies until his responsibilities took over.

At the time, his hands were full, working as a welfare case manager in DC. Additionally, Mercer was seven years into a 14-year apprenticeship to be a Mayombe priest, learning Creole while studying plants and herbs, along with chanting, dancing, divination and more from his priest-teachers.

Even still, he thought about poetry a lot and where he was going with his. “I discovered that I could not write the way I heard the poems in my head,” he said. The job and his apprenticeship (which had him bouncing between DC, the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the weekends) made that difficult.

That’s when Mercer knew he’d have to do something about the outside demands sapping his creativity. “Over that time,” he said, “I’d write for myself and challenge myself.”

And given that the playwright, poet and essayist Jay Wright and the African Diaspora influenced Mercer’s older poems, Sharan Strange got excited at the news of Gunpowder + A Match. “The title of the collection is provocative,” said the senior lecturer in Spelman College’s English department.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Strange can’t wait to read Mercer’s new collection. “I’m expecting that he wants to provoke, perhaps even explode the usual responses to his work, or address some smoldering issues in this contemporary sociocultural moment.” She added, “I hope the community will be open to the work, engage it, and talk back.”

Challenging himself, Ernesto Mercer reemerged in the arts scene with three performances at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art that included a libretto for Ayo Ngozi’s “Fela 70” and two productions with his long-time collaborator and partner Tosha Grantham in “The River Never Rests/Man Unda Wata” and “Nnandi and the Hunter’s Shirt.”

And just when it seemed he got his rhythm back, Mercer almost lost it again around 2009. He’d sent some poems to an interested publisher, thinking his work would reach a larger audience.

Instead, they sat on a shelf, collecting dust. “Sometimes it seems that folks like or want my work, and then don’t know what to do with it,” Mercer said. Of that time, he added, “I don’t hear or know what happens to my work sometimes.”

It didn’t take Mercer long, however, to hear something after regaining his work from the publisher and sharing them at readings. “I kept getting asked by audience members and fellow poets: ‘Where can I get these poems?’” he said. And with that enthusiasm, the poet knew what he had to do.

Since the announcement posted two weeks ago on various blogs, it created an ongoing buzz among writers. “As with any poet who has shown skillful and harmonious eclecticism…I am certainly paying attention to how and where Mercer guides me in his collection,” said Ashaki M. Jackson, a social psychologist and poet residing in Southern California.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

“As a writer who is generally impatient in life, I’d also enjoy seeing what a meditative writer has to offer through his exploration of self in the world, in others, in spirit, in love, and in other spaces.”

Jackson noted that Gunpowder + A Match will be part of a recent wave of fresh writing from poets of color. It’s the result of organizations such as Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA and Callaloo—literary institutions of color using their skills and resources to help marginalized writers.

Mercer’s new collection is also, for Jackson, “an important part of what should be an increasingly consistent stream of publications from these writing communities.”

The social psychologist and poet hoped Gunpowder + A Match will be a strand woven into both the national and international literary fabric. Mercer’s voice, according to Jackson, “is one that resonates at the street-level and the God-level.”

Derrick Weston Brown, who recently read with Mercer at Busboys and Poets’ Sunday Kind of Love reading series, agreed. “His poems are unlike anyone else’s, and that’s the good thing,” said the educator and poet-in-residence at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. “His voice and his subject matter are distinct. They come from an older D.C.”

And while that era’s fondly remembered by lifelong residents for the abundance of black-owned businesses and tighter communities, it also had its negative elements. Going back to “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” Mercer’s poem is a portrait of a DC, where prostitution once defined 12th and 14th streets NW: “too many girls/ on 14th St so/ 12th & Que/ got to be the Ho/ Stroll extended,” according to Mercer’s speaker.

And though M, the ’round-the-way honey, was known for “cussing/ out bamas for/ 4 hot blocks,” she’s still a lady. So much so that the speaker places her above those on the stroll. For him, M wasn’t just an object of attraction, but a mentor.

(ARTWORK: Jermaine Rogers) Afro Punk art

The way he’s treated by M informs how he treats her baby sister S, who he knows was “crushing on” him. “I could tell M/ liked the way I/ was carrying it,” according to Mercer’s speaker, “just let her hang/ a thing I’d picked/ up from M herself/ how she’d say/ to walk her to/ the store…”

While walking to the store, M asks the speaker about his new school. The speaker tells her he’s “thinking/ about getting/ a Mohawk &/ joining this band.” Mercer gives the reader another glimpse of the negative elements from the “older DC” when they hit Logan Circle: “we/ could see bumper to/ bumper on the/ inner & outer lanes/…all slow riding/ to check the girls.”

That’s the D.C. poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown learned about after moving there in 2001 for grad school. That year, the Charlotte, North Carolina-native stumbled upon the tail-end of Mercer’s Afroche reading series and workshop at the now-defunct Kaffa House, once in the 1200 block of U Street NW.

After hearing about Mercer for the first time, Brown unsuccessfully tried to hunt down a copy of The Black Rooster Social Inn, an anthology that included poems from Mercer, Brandon Johnson, Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade), Renée Stout and Gary Copeland Lilley—all of whom made up the “Black Rooster Collective.”

Brian Gilmore’s also from the “older DC.” The poet and public interest lawyer noted that Mercer’s been M.I.A. for a while, and hoped that Gunshot + A Match will change that.

“Hopefully, this will mean he will be out and about with the poets somewhere for a minute,” said Gilmore, who’s known Mercer since the late 80s. “It is always a big deal when Ernesto puts out work or performs,” Gilmore said of that time.

Of Mercer’s new chapbook, the poet and public interest lawyer said, “I am just anxious to read the work and experience it as always.” Gilmore added, “He is going to take you somewhere and it is not where you think you are going either.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

And Ernesto Mercer’s aware of how that might affect some readers. “There’s a lot that folks won’t like in here,” he said. “But I’ll let some of that be a surprise. There’s enough stuff in the poems to get me shanked.”

Though Mercer’s from another time, the poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown said, “His spirit is young, and so the poems have vitality and urgency.”

Brown noted that both qualities were essential to preserving the history of a city whose demographic is rapidly changing. “His poems make the reader remember as well as be mindful of the community that exists and is ignored at the same time,” Brown said.

Gunpowder + A Match will make up for what Brown couldn’t hunt down his first year in D.C. “I get a second chance to hold a physical collection of Ernesto’s newest work,” he said.

Those interested in snatching up Mercer’s new collection can pre-order their copies from PayPal (read Ernesto’s 4 easy steps to pre-ordering GUNPOWDER + A MATCH), or from Mercer himself (either in-person or through his Facebook page). “When they’re all gone, they’re all gone,” Mercer said, noting that neither he nor his partner is trying to be a publisher.

“No reprints and no reruns. This is it and out,” said the man who’s currently busy preparing with a band for an evening performance in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira.”

The performance, “Match + Wood,” takes place Oct. 22. “I’m back,” Mercer said, ready to travel the country with his Mojo-swagger.

“I’ll ride the Chinatown buses up and down the Coast, read at open mics—featured or not, known or unknown—and, as I did when I was younger, have my chapbooks in my bag.” Oh, he’s back, alright. And, according to Mercer, “That word is bond.”

Two Year Blogiversary!

(PHOTO: Piero Sierra)

Today marks the second anniversary for Alan W. King’s Blog. Last year’s anniversary came and went silently. I wanted to do something different this year.

When I thought about writing an anniversary post, the idea seemed good. I would retell the story about the circumstances that led to me blogging, how the blog’s evolved since then from only having articles to including essays and even a short story. I wanted to write about the benefits of blogging, but I already wrote that and everything else in the earlier post.

Well, not everything. My benefits go beyond an invitation to speak as a panelist on cultural issues. They go beyond serving as a consultant to a journalism grad student preparing for a class presentation on communications and social media. They go beyond me having a platform for my ideas and reporting stories below the mainstream media’s radar.

(PHOTO: allposters.com)

While I’m grateful for those opportunities, I’m even more grateful for the film school student, foster teens, and DC public school students and libraries — all of whom benefited from the outpouring of readers moved to give their time, money and books to worthy causes. The benefits include the blogging communities I’ve found both here on WordPress and in a blogging group recently started on Facebook.

I still pinch myself when I remember a DC soul singer requesting to be profiled after reading and following this blog. Every time her songs came up shuffled on my iPod, I couldn’t help thinking, “I actually profiled this amazing artist!” And a look into the archives shows she’s not the only amazing artists I’ve had the pleasure to write about.

Additionally, the benefits of blogging are you, dear readers — some strangers, friends and family members. Thanks to the people I met in-person, who appreciated the topics addressed here. I’m grateful for your trusts, which I don’t take lightly. Thank you for reading, and then sharing my articles and essays on Facebook, Twitter, email, etc.

Thank you for carrying my words farther than this blog could take them. As I’m writing this, my blog is at 25,337 hits. Since I’ve started, you helped me average about 1,000 hits a month — something that was good to mention in my resumes and cover letters to potential employers in the new media industry.

The average monthly hit count answered their questions about my ability to drive traffic to a blog using social network websites, and my familiarity with Web Analytical Tools to track that traffic. Thank you for the ongoing lesson in accountability. With every issue covered here, I tried to write about them, responsibly.

(ARTWORK: zazzle.com)

Recently, independent online media sources started picking up my posts published here. So, here’s a shout-out to those social media gurus on twitter for extending their platform: @contemplation (for “The Literary Daily”), @punchj (“Punch’s Library Daily”), @FarhanDanish (“The Blogs Daily”) and @IMPACTHIRING_BR (“IMPACTHIRING SOLUTIONS.COM”).

In January, the WordPress staff crunched the numbers to check this blog’s overall health for 2010. And, according to them, “the Blog-Health-o-Meter” read: “Wow.” Thank you for ensuring the overall health of this blog and for a wonderful two years!

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.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

When I wrote about Rachel Eliza Griffiths back in March 2010, the post focused on her skills as a photographer who’s credited for a number of author photos that appear on the backs of several poetry collections.

And after publishing two of her own—Miracle Arrhythmia (Willow Books, 2010), a Small Press Distribution best-seller, and The Required Distance (The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011)—I’m excited about her third collection Mule & Pear (New Issues Poetry & Prose), which is available for pre-order on AMAZON and due out this September.

Voices from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and others inspired Rachel’s speakers in Mule & Pear. “Each struggles beneath a yoke of dreaming, loving, and suffering,” according to the publicist. “These characters converse not just with the reader but also with each other, talking amongst themselves, offering up their secrets and hard-won words of wisdom, an everlasting conversation through which these poems voice a shared human experience.”

(ARTWORK: New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Poet and educator Frank X. Walker elaborated on what Rachel’s created with this collection. “Griffiths gifts us with deleted scenes, alternate endings, and a VIP pass to wander the sets of some of the greatest literature of our time,” Walker writes in the blurb. “The reader won’t be able to resist the urge to reread Hurston, Morrison, Larson, et. al. or put this new way of seeing perhaps a new poetry technology down.” He added, “But what else should we expect from an artist who sees the world through so many mediums?”

And Rachel mixes the mediums by providing a book trailer for Mule & Pear, which I will review for a later blog post. The trailer’s gotten Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s (SIUE) attention. “The book trailer includes images of black women, Nina Simone’s song ‘Feeling Good’ as the soundtrack, and short excerpts of writings, presumably poems by Griffith,” according to the SIUE Black Study Blog, an online platform where Black studies, technology and active citizenship come together in an exchange of ideas among African-American academics.

Of Rachel’s book trailer, the blog notes, “The women in the video are shown in different poses, some wearing far out attire.”

Rachel’s attire consists of many hats she wears as a poet, writer, photographer, and painter. Her literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE, Puerto Del Sol, Brilliant Corners, Indiana Review, Lumina, Ecotone, The Acentos Review, PMS: poem memoir story, Saranac Review, Torch, The Drunken Boat, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Inkwell, Black Arts Quarterly, African American Review, Comstock Review, Hambone, and many others.

“And many others”? My friend is a busy woman. Others have also taken notice. “I’ve been hearing about or more accurately viewing Griffiths’ presence on the black poetry scene for a minute now,” according to SIUE’s Black Study Blog. “Griffith had already been building and establishing herself as a noted poet and photographer.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Rachel's self-portrait

Part of establishing herself was the “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Rachel,” an ongoing documentary on African-American poets, that opened in Brooklyn’s DUMBO community that month. I wrote an advance story on the exhibit in my March 2010 post.

Ever since I’ve known her, I’ve always been impressed by her talent and low-key demeanor. We met each other in 2007 at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. I’ll never forget her kind and warm presence.

She loves hugs, is always encouraging her friends to be their best selves, and is genuinely happy for the accomplishments of others.

She’s not one to boast about her own accomplishments. When Rachel and I reunited during my second time at Cave Canem (CC), I didn’t know my CC sister was working on the “Arts Poetica” exhibit, or that she had three collections of poems and a novel done—all of which were manuscripts at the time.

Knowing Rachel, she wouldn’t have told me about her credentials and accomplishments. Or that she received the MA in English Literature from the University of Delaware and the MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. I had to do some digging to find out she also received fellowships including Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, Vermont Studio Center, New York State Summer Writers Institute, Soul Mountain, and others.

“And others”? You mean there’s more? Yeah, Rachel has definitely been busy—and she’s got a trailer, too! “I’m excited about the implications of a book trailer focusing on a volume of African American poetry,” the SIUE blog stated. “The release of this video further solidifies her reputation as poet and visual artist.” There, you have it. Check out the trailer, then preorder your copy of Mule & Pear!

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And you thought mixed martial arts, football and boxing were tough contact sports? Take a stroll on any city sidewalk, and you’re bound to get shoved, kicked and shouldered.

These sidewalk hogs plow through the middle of walkways. Sometimes they travel in a group of two or three and pretend not to notice you, unwilling to give up any space on the concrete; other times, it’s someone staring you down, daring you to brush them or complain once you’ve been knocked from the curb to the grass.

And just because they’ve forced you into a game of sidewalk chicken doesn’t mean you have to be helpless.

Several writers, through their blogs and news articles, added their voices to a discussion ranging from their take on sidewalk hogs, to scientific studies on walkers’ rage, to the deteriorating street etiquette. They also offered advice on how to handle aggressive pedestrians.

Among them is Shuana Marie, whose brush with aggressive pedestrians came while job hunting in Florence, Italy. She noted that the sidewalks there are so narrow people have to turn sideways to allow one another to pass.

“Generally the locals do not notice when they bump you with their shoulder, arm, shopping bags, or my most recent experience of the oversized designer purse,” Shauna wrote on her blog Italian Living. “I’ve been struck and thrown off balance on several occasions…this has required a major adjustment for me, accustomed as I am to the ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, and ‘excuse me’ that I’m familiar with back home [in Calgary, Canada].”

(ARTWORK: Kenneth Kelsoe)

Recounting a story of what happened one morning on a way to her job interview, Shauna was still surprised by the sidewalk hog she encountered. “My formidable opponent is a master of the game and comes in the guise of a petite woman wearing 5″ heels,” she wrote. “Striding down the centre of the busy street’s narrow sidewalk, she refuses to give me an inch to pass.”

Though Shauna “mastered the art of wide-eyed intimidation” in the regular game of chicken, she was no match for the “stiletto-clad drill-sergeant.” “As a mere mortal faced with her well-practiced battle skills, I admit defeat, and withdraw by stepping off the curb.”

Shauna watched the woman’s “umbrella and oversized designer purse flanking her like medieval weaponry,” and took a lesson from that incident. “I need an intimidating purse,” she concluded, “large, preferably in black, and ornamented with grey skulls & multiple metal studs.”

During an online correspondence, Zoe (whose blog article “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile” inspired this post) told me, “Once, a friend of mine and I were walking together down the street and a guy barked at my friend to MOVE!”

This guy, and others like him, would be called “Sidewalk  Ragers,” according to the Wall Street Journal article “Get Out of My Way, You Jerk! : Researchers Study ‘Sidewalk Rage,’ Seeking Insights on Anger’s Origins and Coping Techniques.”

It’s a concept real enough for one scientist to create a “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale,” which looks at how ragers express anger. “At its most extreme, sidewalk rage can signal a psychiatric condition known as ‘intermittent explosive disorder,’” researchers told WSJ.

Intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, is a behavioral disorder that manifests itself through aggressive actions that make a situation more than it really is, according to the Mayo Clinic staff. The outbursts or temper tantrums involve ragers attacking others to the point of causing bodily harm and damage of property broken during the incident.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The strange thing about IED is that it’s unpremeditated. According to sources, it’s currently listed among the other impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association that includes standard criteria for classifying mental disorders.

After an IED episode, the Mayo Clinic staff said, “people with intermittent explosive disorder may feel remorse, regret or embarrassment.”

John Kalish, a Manhattan television producer, noted that IED’s effects are a sign of the times. ”There was a time that any real New Yorker had a built-in sonar in terms of walking down the sidewalk, even a crowded one, and never bumping into someone. Now—forget it,” Kalish said in the New York Times article “Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain.”

Offering clinical terms for Kalish’s and others’ frustrations with aggressive pedestrians, the Sidewalk Etiquette site roughly estimated that the average sidewalk consist of four by four concrete tiles. And given that a person’s shoulders span about two feet, according to the website, there’s no reason pedestrians should brush one another on walkways.

At the top of the rules listed on the site is Stay Right. “There’s nothing worse than the individual who has  a width of ten feet in their path and the bravado to squeeze you for every inch by brushing against your shoulder as they walk by,” according to Sidewalk Etiquette.

Jennifer Worick, a Seattle-based author and lecturer, echoed those sentiments. When people ask if she’d want the superpower of flight or to become invisible, Worick chooses flight because, as she puts it, “I’m already invisible”—at least, that’s how it seems when she’s walking down her block.

(PHOTO: Eagle Tae Kwon Do)

She usually encounters a gang of sidewalk hogs caught up in their conversations. “They don’t acknowledge my existence,” she wrote on her blog Things I Want to Punch in the Face. “They wouldn’t know if I was tricked out in fetish gear or pointing a flamethrower directly at them,” she continued. “Even a fiendish mime would escape their attention.”

As they got closer, it was clear to Worick that she was a forced participant in the game of sidewalk chicken. “I always lose,” she wrote. “At the last minute, I veer out of their way, usually tripping into a tree bed or slamming into a building.”

The staff at the Mayo Clinic urged aggressive pedestrians to seek treatment for their disorder. “Treatment may involve medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses,” according to the staff.

But Worick was ready to take some action of her own to set them straight. “I’m staging a silent protest and I’m asking you to join me,” she wrote. “When you encounter a line of people coming at you, stop. Stand still. Break their synchronized stride and make them flow around you.”

And if that doesn’t work?  “You saw The Karate Kid,” Worick wrote. “Sweep the leg.”

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas) Derrick Weston Brown holds an MFA in creative writing, from American University. He is a graduate of the Cave Canem summer workshop for black poets and the VONA summer workshop.

Snagglepuss is bitter. He airs his frustrations with the Pink Panther on E! True Hollywood Story, after their short-lived love affair:

“When the big money came calling
Ol’ Pinky packed his bags and gave
me some song and dance about how
I’d never have to work again […]” (from “Snagglepuss Spills his Guts on E! True Hollywood Story”).

Then there’s Bonita Applebum. She’s not just a classic hip hop song anymore. In fact, she’s a grown woman “with a mortgage/ and two degrees under her belt” (from “Remembering Bonita Applebum”).

These are just a few of the characters that populate Derrick Weston Brown’s debut poetry collection, Wisdom Teeth. 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.

I fell in love with DC all over again after reading “Missed Train”, though that poem could be a testament on dating in DC:

I smelled you at the Metro stop
Tasted you on the Yellow
Glimpsed you on the Green
Caught you on the Orange
Loved you on the Red
Lost you on the Blue

Now I need a transfer
or at least exit fare.

The elusive woman in “Missed Train” could be a metaphor for unmet expectations either on a date or in a relationship that takes us “for every dime” after investing our time in other people with no returns.

In Wisdom Teeth, the speaker’s searching for stability in every aspect of his life. It’s a journey that takes him through 110 pages and five sections—Hourglass Flow, The Sweet Home Men Series, The Unscene, Wisdom Teeth and Ajar.

(IMAGE: Courtesy of Busboys and Poets/PM Press)

And if you’re new to the city, the speaker lets you know what to expect in “What It’s Like to Date in D.C. for Those Who Haven’t”: “It’s like having a mouthful of prayers/ when all you looking for is that one/ Amen.”

Reading Wisdom Teeth, I felt like a passenger invited along for the ride, especially with the poem “Building”. The speaker’s details brought me with him into the coffee shop, where I noticed the “syrup of sunlight” like a second glaze on the wooden tabletops.

I heard the “trash talk and chuckles” of black men playing dominoes. I dug the music in “the snap crack/ of dotted flat backs” and the “dry bones/ glossy bones”.

It would have been easy to take that moment as a commentary on brotherhood and bonding, and not realize the game of bones is just a vehicle the speaker uses to drive his point home with the reader. The true commentary’s in the “steady trash talk” after “Fingers drum the table”: “I’m on my third house./ Where you at?! Jati?/ HUD is officially/ in the building!

Watching “the bones…/ like unhinged teeth”, I thought of the deteriorating houses in DC’s rundown neighborhoods. Watching as “Jati resets the fracture/ smiling as houses change ownership”, I thought of so-called neighborhood revitalization projects that displaced former residents.

And Jati’s response to his friend’s trash talking? “Eminent domain Fred!/ You getting gentrified!

I loved the speaker’s clever use of brothers bonding over a game as commentary on the changing demographics in America’s major cities. The speaker’s playful tone in “Building” reminded me how some of us use humor to help swallow those bitter truths.

What also helps those truths go down easy is the fellowship of black men  who “finish/ each other’s sentences” and chase red beans and rice “with/ rum that/ warms the gullet/ makes gut chuckles flow easy” in the poem “Kitchen Gods”.

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) l-r: Brandon D. Johnson, Brian Gilmore, Joel Dias-Porter, Patrick Washington, Ernesto Mercer, Alan King, Fred Joiner, Derrick Weston Brown.

The men in this poem could be my dad, uncles and grandfather. These are men who “dust off/ old stories like records that hadn’t seen a turntable/ in some time.” And, contrary to masculine myths and stereotypes, these ordinary men “resuscitate the/ ghost of old lovers/ angry indifferent or otherwise.”

That resuscitation is really these guys assessing their life choices—where they’ve been and where they are now. These are hardworking men who support their families, men who’ve grown as a result of their experiences.

The physical details in “Kitchen Gods” are striking. I could see these guys mapping “[…] out/ a woman’s dimensions”, molding “hips out of thin air/ recreating/ her walk and/ arching calves.” I also saw the men dapping up each other and bumping fist “so hard/ rings skip sparks”.

I could hear the conversations punctuated with “g’dams” and “g’lords”. I even smiled at the memory of being shooed “out of the kitchen/ with gentle hands” when I was too young for the adult talk. Now that I’m old enough, I can appreciate the times I’ve been a part of “a small kitchen crew”.

One reason I love Wisdom Teeth is the poem “Gust”:

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The sky snarled.

We heard God swallow cumulus,

stratus, and anvil headed nimbus

before the hush.

We ventured outside

Peered up into the calm.

The sky      a frosted snow globe

swirl of stars.

The moon

a glossy clear polished

fingernail sliver

winked.

Odd

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The wind so strong

I could lean into it

arms out and not fall.

I was Pisa.

What did I know

of nature’s way

of teaching lessons?

That there is

an eye of the storm.

Watch me smile.

My back to the rifle

sight of lassoed menace

clueless to the coming stretch

and yawn of ruin.

In “Gust”, the speaker revisits Charlotte, North Carolina, ravaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. I love this poem for other reasons.

(PHOTO: Marlene Hawthrone-Thomas)

If storms are metaphors for troubling times in our lives, then “Gust” speaks to the current political climate: the US military in Libya, rising militias and hate groups, politicians cutting funds for social programs as a solution to the budget deficit.

The “cumulus,/ stratus, and anvil headed nimbus” were the delusions of politicians and some finance experts who convinced everyone else that the markets were economically sound when history has shown us otherwise. “What did I know/ of nature’s way/ of teaching lessons?” Just replace “history” with “nature” and I’m sure that line says what we all were thinking.

God swallowing those delusions was reality setting in. That an alarming amount of people lost their homes to foreclosures makes Hurricane Hugo a metaphor for the current economic crisis, its “rifle/ sight of lassoed menace”.

That corporate CEOs, whose businesses stayed afloat with bailout money from the federal government, went on with business as usual is the sign of lessons not learned.  “Gust”, in its own way, warns against that kind of ignorance that keeps us “clueless to the coming stretch/ and yawn of ruin.”

Wisdom Teeth is right on time. In this collection, as one writer puts it, “Truth cuts its way beneath the unspoken like new teeth on their way to light.” I couldn’t agree more, grateful for their arrival.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) For many years, Ruth L. Schwartz made her living as a public health educator, trainer and consultant specializing in AIDS and cancer.

In both Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, the speakers tempt God: “tell me why you ever thought/ you could improve on this/ music, this hunger[1]”. They call out the crazy notions floating around in both American history and its politics.

The difference between these two collections is that while Elvis Presley is Alive… is loud with a cast of personalities, Edgewater is quiet. Plants, animals, water and the sun populate Schwartz’s collection, as if she intended on taking us back to the Garden of Eden, before man’s destructive action.

Death’s possibilities hover over Edgewater. In this collection, nature is a teacher whose overall messages teach us that life is too short to wonder “what if”, so just do and have fun in the process.

We learn this in Schwartz’s opening poem, “Fetch”, where the speaker’s on a beach, tossing a stick to her dog. Here’s the physical details about the dog I thought were striking:

This one keeps swimming out into the

icy water for a stick,

he’d do it all day and all night

if you’d throw it that long,

he’d do it till it killed him, then he’d die

dripping and shining, a black waterfall,

the soggy broken stick still clenched

in his doggy teeth […][2]

(PHOTO: HarperCollins)

Here are the psychological details: “…watching him you want to cry/ for all the wanting you’ve forsworn”. While it’s unclear what the speaker’s rejected, or “forsworn”, it might be an opportunity for the reader to fill in the blanks with things he/she have rejected either out of fear or something else. I know people who want love and success but self-sabotage because of their fears of being hurt again or having so much expected of them.

I wanted to know more about the speaker’s situation—what “all the wanting” was about. But both the physical and psychological details intensify what the dog becomes to the speaker. Looking at the stick that’s thrown as the speaker’s affection for her four-legged companion, the dog’s act of retrieving it each time—“all day and all night”—to the point “he’d do it till it killed him” makes him courageous in a way the speaker is not.

While she’s rejected what she wanted (maybe love), the dog continuously goes after what he wants at that moment—the object of affection—despite the danger nearby, the dog possibly being “the soggy broken stick” clenched in the mouth of the icy waves.

A musical moment in this poem is the recurring “he’d do it”: “he’d do it all day and all night/ if you throw it that long,/ he’d do it till it killed him […]” That repetition is not unlike the stick being thrown and the dog retrieving it over and over.

(PHOTO: Carrie_W on flickr)

That “his body surges…as if to say/ Nothing could stop me now—[3]” is a lesson for both the speaker and reader to go after what you want in life.

The sexual charge in “Oh God, Fuck Me” is unbelievable. Here are some physical details: “[…] trees in spring, exposing themselves,/ flashing leaf-buds so firm and swollen/ I want to take them into my mouth.[4]

At first, those images seemed pretty easy, but the surprises came with the “kitchen faucet, dripping/ like a nymphomaniac,/ all night slowly filling and filling,/ then overflowing the bowls in the sink—[5]

If the speaker’s job is to arouse the reader, then it worked with me. While reading Schwartz’s poem, I felt like I was reading an erotic tale with surprises that were just as arousing. Here’s another surprise from Schwartz: “[…] English muffins,/ the spirit of the dough aroused/ by browning, thrilled by buttering.[6]

And this:

(PHOTO: Allison Thorton)

Fuck me with orange juice,

its concentrated sweetness,

which makes the mouth as happy as summer,

leaves sweet flecks of foam […]

along the inside of the glass.

Fuck me with coffee, strong and hot,

and then with cream poured into coffee,

blossoming like mushroom clouds,

opening like parachutes.[7]

Damn! The speaker’s tone is both playful and excited. A musical moment in the poem was the recurring “Fuck me”: “Fuck me, oh God, with ordinary things,/…Fuck me with my kitchen faucet, dripping/…Fuck me with breakfast.”

That Schwartz’s poem is a conversation the speaker’s having with God mocks the religious notion of the spiritual father as some elderly man repulsed by sex. Some readers might be put off by this poem, but it’s that same absurdity the speaker finds in the notion that God would be repulsed at all by sex, the thing he created.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also raises a question: is it possible for parents to censor what their children watch when sex is all around us, even in the “ordinary things”?

(PHOTO: Sean Bonner)

Each “Fuck me” seemed to work not only as transitions between thoughts, but also intensified the pleasures experienced by these “ordinary things”. I automatically thought of my fiancée craving a slice of chocolate cake or key lime pie.

“Oh God, Fuck Me” also turns the idea of sex as something dirty on it head while implying that the act itself is a kind of church: “Fuck me…/ with the downstairs neighbor’s vacuum,/ that great sucking noisy dragon/ making the dirty come clean.” The church is in “the dirty”, or the sinner, becoming “clean”, or in good standing with God.

I could go on with other examples of what Schwartz’s speaker tackles in her 107-page collection, but, in the interest of space, I’ll keep it to the earlier examples and Schwartz’s poem, “Edgewater Park”:

Even now, at the end of the century,

when our survival as a species

seems a matter of dumb luck,

our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness

the way so many dying insects

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

bead the spider’s web—

even now, on the cliffs above the beach,

I see two men who meet for pleasure,

nothing else,

fully clothed, in a cove of bushes,

standing face to face, as if to dance—

but one has both hands on the other’s cock

and is pulling at it, tenderly—

and the body, at least, would name this Love,

and who are we to contradict

the pure animal body?

all around us, in expensive houses,

men and women married many years

touch far less joyfully than this,

with less attention to the hunger of it.

And truly, what do we have left

but moments of this gazing, pulling

at each other, at ourselves,

(PHOTO: Rukhlenko)

the shells ground finer and finer

under our feet,

making a kind of jagged sand,

the insects we call Canadian soldiers

rising from the water in great swarms

to mate and die—

on my window they looked like tadpoles,

hundreds of them flooding toward

the light—

and some of them

made their way in,

the whiteness of the ceiling

became their water,

they massed there as full of joy

as if it were the sea.

By morning they were dead,

their many bodies

light and dry,

littering the tabletops.

And the spiders, lucky spiders,

ate for weeks.[8]

In “Edgewater Park”, the speaker’s examination of the quality and condition of human nature is through her comparison of humans to the “Canadian soldiers”, insects that rise “from the water in great swarms/ to mate and die—”

The speaker’s tone is pity, especially for homophobes, who, in this poem, haven’t evolved beyond the insects that “bead the spider’s web—” I mentioned earlier that life is too short to wonder “what if,” that the overall message is to just do and have fun in the process.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

Well, these two guys seem to get it, having found the “jewels of tenderness” within their bodies. If the spider is death, would you wait for it to weave a web for you to stud? Obviously, the two men wouldn’t.

The few musical moments in “Edgewater Park” didn’t enhance the context or take away from its contents. Here’s one of those moments: “our bodies studded with these jewels of tenderness…” Reading those lines aloud, “our bodies studded with” made me think of a jazz drummer setting up his solo. I counted two trochees and one dactyl, which sped up the falling meter before the swing rhythm of “these jewels of tenderness”.

Other musical moments are the “O” sounds in “fully clothed, in a cove of bushes”, and the “S” sounds in “standing face to face, as if to dance—” There’s also the recurring “even now”: “Even now, at the end of the century,/…even now, on the cliffs above the beach”. The repetition seemed to bring the poem back on track from the extended metaphor of “our survival as a species”.

Going back to the two men, their economic status is not known. But the speaker makes one thing clear: that they found happiness instead of the appearance of it only enhances their quality of life more than the married couples “in expensive houses”. That the two men pleasure each other makes their act more courageous than the well-to-do “men and women married many hear” who “touch far less joy fully than this.”

Whether it’s the LGBT or black community, the speakers in Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater and Brian Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem are bullhorns for oppressed groups.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Unlike Schwartz’s speaker—whose overall tone were at times playful, excited and melancholy—the tone of Gilmore’s speaker ranges from sarcastic and loving, to angry and pitying.

For anyone who thinks Elvis Presley is the king of Rock n’ Roll, Gilmore’s speaker is here to clear up the history of popular music, remind us of freedoms taken for granted and to scrutinize race relations in America. He starts with the opening poem, “Angry Voices”, which is in four parts. The first three honors Ray Charles, Sammy Davis Jr. and Bo Diddley, all of whom paved the way for a bitter Chuck Berry in the fourth part, titled “Memphis (the stolen)”:

“any wite boy wit’ dat much nerve,

to come in ‘ere wit’ that recorda’ ‘n all,

rite in front of all these spades,

wit’ all this hate,

wit all this energy jus’ ready to explode,

has gotta be a king.”[9]

For the most part, the speaker’s tone is a controlled-anger. In “Elvis”, the sarcasm cuts like a blade in a knife fight. The speaker transforms Elvis Presley and the mass of white imitators into an oversized animal that terrorizes black culture: “[…] i swear i/ saw him in harlem/ everyone bolt your doors!/ […] board up your windows!!/ […] stop […] singing […] !!![10]

The speaker calls out “the hug monster looming over us” and attacks it directly here:

(PHOTO: Daniel A. Norman)

a wailing soul simulating bantu and yoruba wearing

zoot suits and breaking more black sisters’ hearts

than chuck berry could mend with ‘maybelline’ or

‘thirty days.’[11]

A musical moment in Gilmore’s “elvis” is here: “such a mass,/ such a disturbing mass. such a wallowing in the mud/ mass          such a dangerous mass.[12]” I saw the recurring “such a” as exclamations. With each “such a” the mass seemed to grow to something “disturbing” and “wallowing in the mud” until it became “dangerous”. I also enjoyed the “M” sounds close together in “mud/ mass”. (I also appreciated the reference to Muddy Waters, who was another musician from whom “the mass” stole their sound, having wallowed “in the mud”.)

Here’s another musical moment: “the mass couldn’t do it all because mud   is like/ blood;          mud is about emotional outrage![13]” I like the internal rhyme of “mud” and “blood”. And like the earlier example, the recurring “mud” punctuates the seriousness of the matter.

Here are musical moments in Gilmore’s poem, “september is not change”, which focuses on the political casualties in South Africa:

(PHOTO: Robert Ruark)

in september leaves fall

from trees like the dead

children don’t wait until

december to be seen naked[14]

Reading those lines aloud, I enjoyed the “E” sounds in “leaves”, “trees” and “seen”. The stretched sound in “leaves” and “trees” slowed the rhythm to set up the surprise of “like the dead”.

Reading those lines, I thought of the Bisho massacre that happened in 1991, a year before Third World Press published Gilmore’s Elvis Presley is Alive… According to various sources, the Ciskei Defence Force shot at 100,000 protestors, leaving 29 dead in Bisho, the capital of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province.

In the months leading up to the Bisho massacre, according to those same sources, the African National Congress was found guilty of human rights violations in some of their exile camps, and the violence between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party left 46 dead. Then you have the Bisho massacre in September, hence the poem’s title, “september is not change”.

Like Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem “Edgewater Park”, Gilmore’s poem is a plea for humanity. The other musical moments in “september is not change” intensifies this plea:

(PHOTO: Cooperative Baptist Fellowship)

the september papers read like

august papers

july papers

june papers

headlines of blood and fire

burning ash between my fingers

in september i pray for jesus

i pray for mohammed

i pray for someone

somewhere to make september

not like all the other months[15]

The listing of months, followed by the recurring “papers” helps illustrate the redundancy, or excess, of “headlines of blood and fire”. The recurring “i pray” gives the speaker an urgent tone, with each “i pray” as a plea not only to jesus and mohammed, but to some god who can “make september/ not like all the other months”. The recurring “september is not change” throughout that poem won’t let us forget.

Gilmore’s poem, “We must not be cows”, captures overall uses of both his and Schwartz’s speaker in their examination of the human condition and quality:

(PHOTO: Micro Cinefest)

I’ve always hated wiggly lines:

wiggly lines on my TV set

making the picture impossible to comprehend;

my doctor says—

this can ruin your eyes

this is unhealthy.

Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,

make them swell and start cuttin’,

I am watching news and eating chocolate

forgetting about next week’s check-up.

I ate a steak last night,

there was a little TV set on the

fatback,

(PHOTO: Narayan Vivek)

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks afrika is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

I sleep hard at night              dream of wiggly lines

that wiggle,

I eat jigsaw puzzles while reading Koran,

shatter dishes            scan the Bible,

when I wake I toss my television with the sliced up

(PHOTO: Banksy Graffiti Street Art)

newscaster out the window,

He still talks of country

still makes my tooth ache

still

makes

my sirloin taste

strangely like

hamburger.[16]

Gilmore’s poem is clearly about the media’s distortion of facts. With the physical details in “We must not be cows”, I heard the static from the TV and saw the “wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face.” I also saw the speaker “watching news and eating chocolate” or the “steak last night”.

The psychological details are just as striking: “Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ make them swell and start cuttin’”. That the “wiggly lines irritate” the speaker’s “wisdom teeth” and none of the others was a clever play not only on “wisdom”, but also the idea of rejecting the distorted information. The title adds context to the speaker’s plea for his readers to not be cows grazing the grass they’re fed from manipulative people.

(PHOTO: Digital Burn)

When I think of the “wiggly lines”, I recall what I learned about America in elementary school: our great armies and humanitarian efforts. Many of my teachers, who I’m sure meant well, unwittingly became the newscaster on the TV screen covered by wiggly lines.

A look at American pop culture shows that those wiggly lines also speak to distracting TV ads and consumerism. Like the speaker, I used to “sleep hard at night” dreaming “of wiggly lines”. It wasn’t until college, when I started reading more on my own about America, that I discovered her hypocrisies. That’s when I awoke. Like the speaker, I tossed “my television with the sliced up/ newscaster out the window” and started thinking for myself.

Here’s a musical line: “forgetting next week’s check-up.” The “eh” sounds—“forgetting”, “next” and “check-up”—mixed in with “K” sounds—“next week’s check”—made it pleasurable to read “We must be cows” aloud.

There’s also music in the wiggly lines’ recurrence: “wiggly lines on my TV set/[…] Wiggly lines irritate my wisdom teeth,/ […] wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s/ face […] wiggly lines/ that wiggle”. That repetition successfully recreates the pattern of “wiggly lines” on a TV set. (In this case, the speaker’s message isn’t twisted by the “wiggly lines”.)

(PHOTO: LG Studio)

The barbed wit in “We must not be cows” is in the speaker’s sarcastic tone, which cuts at America’s ethnocentric ways in which it approaches other cultures:

wiggly lines splintering a newscaster’s

face who thinks africa is really a

“COUNTRY”:

Nigeria must be NY.

Mozambique is Florida.

Egypt is Michigan.

Rwanda is Rhode Island.

In both Brian Gilmore’s Elvis is Alive… and Ruth L. Schwartz’s Edgewater, the speakers have undertaken the ambitious task of calling out any absurdities no matter where they pop up. And looking at the 21stcentury, two things are clear: 1) their task is far from over, and 2) the speakers have their work cut out for them.


[1] from Ruth L. Schwartz’s poem, “Talking to God on the Seventh Day”

[2] Ruth L. Schwartz, Edgewater, New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 3

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 43

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., p. 44

[8] Ibid., p. 5-6

[9] Brian Gilmore, Elvis Presley is Alive and Well and Living in Harlem, Chicago: Third World Press, 1992, p. 6

[10] Ibid., p. 7

[11] Ibid., p. 10

[12] Ibid., p. 8

[13] Ibid., p. 9

[14] Ibid., p. 15

[15] Ibid., p. 15

[16] Ibid., p. 54

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