Tag Archive: opinion


Our Government Shouldn’t Default on its Youth and Seniors

(PHOTO: Reuters)

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.

(ARTWORK: David Horsey)

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.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

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.

The Obvious

(ARTWORK: Zach Wrup)

Never bet against your wife.

My cousin Alvin tried to teach me that through his marriage crash course. “Love”–Alvin’s pet name for his wife, Natasha–”is always right,” he once told me. “Even when she’s wrong, she’s right.”

Conventional wisdom tells guys being “wrong” is better than sleeping on the couch. You’d think I’d heed that advice and those of  Hugo Schwyzer, whose article (“Why Women Are More Often Right“) points out that women’s experiences, in addition to giving them “standpoint privilege” in arguments with men, also contribute to their perception of things.

“In a relationship between two people who are of different sexes, classes, or ethnic backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that each person’s knowledge of the world will have been shaped in no small part by their status,” writes Schwyzer, a professor who’s taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He continues:

Class and sex and race and faith are some of—but surely not the only—prisms through which we see and interpret the world…. Feminists point out the deeply obvious: The class of persons most likely to be discriminated against by the system are also those most likely to be aware of the system itself.

Tosin’s macro focus trumps my micro vision anytime. That’s why I won’t ever doubt her again, especially after what happened this morning. I put my Ninja blender against her Nutri Bullet. I was going to prove my point that the Ninja made better smoothies than the Bullet.

My wife, Tosin, thought otherwise a few nights before. So, this morning, I used the Ninja to make an Energy Elixir smoothie after the gym–throwing in two handfuls of kale, 1 frozen banana, 1 cup of red grapes (stems and all), 1 cored apple, 1/8 cup of walnuts, water, then let the blades rip for 5 minutes.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

(PHOTO: Alan W. King) l-r: Nutri Bullet, Ninja blender, and my delicious Energy Elixir smoothie.

What happened afterwards was disappointing. The Ninja, for all its roar and grind, left me a pulpy blob of sweet green stuff. I mean it was sad the way it sat there–lumpy in some parts, runny in others.

Thinking of that debate, when I ran down what seemed obvious (my claims that the Bullet’s tight two-blade system was no match for the Ninja’s three-tiered sabers), I realized my mistake. “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact,” the late Arthur Conan Doyle, physician and writer, once stated.

Looking back, I see our debate was more than about kitchen appliances and smooth juice. Tosin’s never been one to go with what seems obvious. In fact, her analytical mind combs through “fact”, crunching and verifying all relevant data, before accepting or rejecting the seemingly obvious. She keeps me on my toes–something I appreciate, though I don’t always show it.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

I’m an artist, which means she expects more from me. That includes me not settling for what seems obvious. After all, that’s how the late-Lebanese artist and writer Khalil Gibran described art: “a step from what is obvious and well-known toward what is arcane and concealed.”

With this morning’s experiment, the art came when I looked at the Nutri Bullet–its bright teeth smiling, as if to say, “Let me handle that.” Which it did, turning what was barely edible into some holy nectar I believe the ancient Greek gods sipped, lounging at a lake while nibbling a platter of grapes, figs and juicy meat chunks.

I can see that ancient Greek sun glossing their olive skin, their perfect bodies glinting in my workout goal horizon.

I will never doubt my wife again. And, instead, be grateful when she’s right–all the time.

A True Story About Hollywood

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.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

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.

(PHOTO: Simonin)

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.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

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?”

Rejoicing in the Church of Poetry

(PHOTO: Steven Pinker)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

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

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

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

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

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

Last night, I watched Clint Eastwood talk to an empty chair that stood in as President Obama. He asked a piece of furniture for explanations about his “failed” policies, then answered his own questions. This passed for humor with the convention audience as they laughed ‘til their faces turned red.

The entire time I couldn’t help but think Clint Eastwood showed his age—”Dirty Harry” had morphed into an angry old man, who looked disheveled and out-of-place. At times, I wondered if he knew where he was. And his stunt with that chair didn’t help. Instead, Eastwood came off as the mentally disturbed guy you see in parks, mumbling to himself and the birds.

I was sure an aide would come up and gently take Eastwood by the arm and guide him away from the podium. His stunt with the chair, however, was telling of the Romney-Ryan campaign and their supporters. Like Eastwood and the other speakers at the 2012 Republican National Convention, most Republicans continue to see things that aren’t there, like Romney’s credentials and his chances of becoming president.

They saw substance in a convention, where the speeches were hollow. None of the speakers gave real reasons for why Mitt Romney should be president (even Olympians at the convention struggled to make the case by recounting how the Republican presidential nominee saved the 2002 Olympic Games). Two nights ago, the Romney campaign played a video of former presidents George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush. They talked about their times as president and what it took to sit in the Oval Office. The video felt more like a tribute to Bush Sr.’s service in office instead of making the case for what Romney will do for Americans.

When Bush Jr. declared Mitt Romney the person to bring America around, Bush Sr. had that glazed look that Clint Eastwood had when he stared out at the convention audience. When it was his turn to speak, all elder Bush could say about why Romney should be president was that “he’s a good man.”

Clint Eastwood and the convention crowd were only able to see everything they thought President Obama did wrong with the economy—his “failed” stimulus plan; his failure to keep the GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, functioning; the deficit he caused along with a host of other things corrected by FactCheck.org.

(ARTWORK: Mitt Romney and GST Steel)

I’ll bet the folks at that non-partisan, “consumer advocacy” nonprofit haven’t worked as hard as they did at the 2012 Republican National Convention. The most recent “false claims” and “misleading statements” was Vice Presidential Nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech that accused President Obama of “funneling money away from Medicare” to his health care law. According to FactCheck.org, “Medicare’s chief actuary says the law ‘substantially improves’ the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.”

Ryan slammed Obama for not acting on recommendations from the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan deficit commission. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson explained why that comment was deceptive. “Ryan failed to mention that he was a member of the Simpson-Bowles commission,” Robinson wrote in his Thursday column. “He also failed to mention that he was part of a minority of panel members who flatly rejected the ‘urgent report’ he now blasts Obama for ignoring.”

Ryan didn’t act alone. The 2012 Republican National Convention organizers framed their theme “We Built It” around a Obama quote taken out of context. Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, is as delusional as Clint Eastwood. She accused Obama of doing nothing for the 850,000 women who she claimed lost their jobs during Obama’s presidency.

However, Chornenky forgot to update her statistics. Recent information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that jobs for women were 401,000 lower in July than when Obama took office. “That’s less than half the figure claimed by Chornenky,” FactCheck.org stated. “And her outdated percentage figure is now even more wildly off base.”

And just as off base is College Republican National Committee Chair Alex Schriver, who said “half my generation didn’t get up and go to a job this morning.” That statement was enough to make the fact-checkers do a double-take. “We’re not sure exactly what the 23-year-old Schriver meant by ‘my generation,’” they wrote, with good reason. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data reported nearly 64 percent of Schriver’s generation, which includes the 20- to 24-year-olds, had jobs as of last month.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Vermin Supreme is an anarchist and activist who is running as an alternate candidate.

“And when looking at those who are actually in the labor force — not in college or the military, for example — the percentage is far higher, almost 86 percent,” FactCheck.org added. “The labor force includes both those who have civilian jobs and those who say they want work and have looked for it in the last four weeks.”

But don’t try to correct Clint Eastwood and anyone else at the 2012 RNC. They’ll simply dismiss you the way everyone does Vermin Supreme, a protestor at the convention in Tampa. The giant boot he wears on his head makes him stand out at the major political events he gets around to, where he attempts to rally support for his presidential bid that’s been written off as bogus.

Tuesday, Supreme gave his own “keynote” speech to the only audience he had outside the Republican Party’s convention: the security force. His platform, according to various news reports, included “zombie preparedness; harnessing zombies for labor; research into time travel so we can go back in time and kill Hitler.” He even promised his supporters free ponies.

Call him what you like. At least he’s sane enough to not waste 10 minutes talking to an empty chair.

(Marlene Lillian Photography)

According to the Library of Congress’s website:

The Poet and the Poem is an ongoing series of live poetry interviews at the Library of Congress with distinguished artists. Webcasts are now available of recent events, including the appearances of two U.S. Poets Laureate and several Witter Bynner fellows. Distinguishing features of the show are the poets’ discussions with host Grace Cavalieri about their craft and sources of inspiration. The series is sponsored by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.

I really appreciate Grace Cavalieri having me on this show! Check out the recording here.

Monica Hand’s *me and Nina*

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

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tidal Basin Review Doing Big Things!

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

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

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

We were born then wrapped
within the age of prancing

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

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

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

plush […]
[…] pelvis more

elephant head than arrow.

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

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

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

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

towards your fragrant, burdened hills.

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Thomas Sayers Ellis) The Black Issue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Indigo Moor during his presentation Thursday.

During his discussion Thursday, Indigo Moor had a question for his fellow Stonecoast grad students. “How many harmonica players does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He looked around at the puzzled expressions of writers straining their brains to figure out the punch line. Then everyone laughed when Indigo quoted a harmonica player: “We don’t worry about the changes, man. We just blow.”

His advice to his peers, looking to write in multiple genres, was not to be the person who blows, or makes light of another genre. This was Indigo’s graduating student presentation Taming the Hydra: From Jacking to Mastering Multiple Literary Forms.

For an hour, Indigo covered various genres from the ground up, went over the differences between singular arts (writing poetry and/or fiction) and collaborative arts (writing stage scripts and/or screenplays), and the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres.

It was the perfect way to start the sixth day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency. Today, which also marked the second half of the 10-day retreat, we started our poetry workshop with Jeanne Marie Beaumont.

Prior to Jeanne’s workshop, I took the Writing On Race and Difference mixed-genre course that Deb Marquart and Alexs Pate led. The first half of the residency, poet and activist Martin Espada was the guest poet. I really enjoyed his craft talk I’ve Known Rivers: Speaking of the Unspoken Places in Poetry.

“Some places are forgotten through negligence,” Espada said. “Others are forgotten deliberately.” And sometimes those places aren’t mentioned because the unspeakable happened. During his talk, Espada used the poems of Nazim Hikmet (Turkish poet, playwright, novelist and memoirist) and Etheridge Knight (an African-American poet) as examples of writers giving voice to those who dwelled in such places.

For both Hikmet and Knight, who spent time behind bars, prison was an unspeakable place until they enabled the voices of other prisoners through their poems. In that case, Espada said, “Poetry humanizes, giving the prisoner a face and body.” Espada’s visit culminated with the poet reading to a full house later that evening.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe) Martin Espada during the guest reading.

There were faculty readings just about every night this week. I read and got to hear students in poetry, creative nonfiction and popular fiction flex their literary muscles on the open mic. There was even a Romance: Happy Hour, sponsored by the popular fiction students who write romance stories.

Amidst all this, I managed to find time to talk with Indigo Moor. We both write in multiple genres (I write poetry and creative nonfiction, while Indigo–who published two poetry collections, Taproot and Through the Stonecutter’s Window–has written creative nonfiction, a stage play, a screenplay, and is working on a novel).

I told him I have a hard time switching back smoothly from creative nonfiction to poetry, without writing prosaic stanzas. When he said that’s what his Thursday talk would be about, I knew I’d be there.

During Indigo’s presentation, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between his and the one Cait Johnson led five days earlier. Both Cait and Indigo talked about writing across genres. But, while Cait’s specifically focused on poetry and creative nonfiction, Indigo’s included popular fiction, stage scripts and screenplays.

(PHOTO: Helen Peppe)

And I’ll admit that the thought of writing in those genres can seem as daunting as going up against the beast of many heads. This literary hydra, according to Indigo, is not unlike the Lernean Hydra that Hercules killed.

But, unlike the Greek god, our role as writers is to tame the hydra—not kill it. And taming the hydra entails knowing the pros and cons of writing in multiple genres. Among the cons were the time, energy and practice invested into the efforts.

“If you think about how much energy you put into the genre you write in, you have to put more energy into the next genre because you’re carrying baggage from the previous one,” Indigo said, adding that the effort is worth it. If an idea doesn’t work in one genre, a multiple genre writer has other avenues to express that idea.

Taming the hydra also included both prose writers and poets entering other genres with an understanding of the rules. Prose writers experimenting with poetry have to start by distilling their sentences down to its essence, while balancing the lines that carry imagery with those that carry statement.

In poetry, Indigo noted, sentence structure takes a back seat to musicality. He advised the poets to do the opposite, which involves them knowing the art of the simple sentence. In prose, the sense of music takes a backseat to the story line. “It’s so easy to look at fiction and say, ‘It’s not as hard as poetry,’” Indigo said. “That’s not true. You have to learn how to write in an expansive form.”

(PHOTO: Stock)

Cait Johnson raised some eyebrows and made a roomful of writers blush when she talked about orgasms. According to Cait, a Stonecoast faculty, the best orgasms happen when two people are vulnerable and intimate with each other.

To hear her tell it, that same intensity’s achieved when writers engage in other genres. Cait’s wise words resonated with both students and colleagues during her presentation Passionate Bedfellows: What Poets and CNF [Creative Nonfiction] Writers Offer Each Other.

For starters, poetry offers the magic of words.

“Writers are magicians,” Cait said. “Words are magic.” And part of that magic are the imagery and rhythms that affect people physiologically. “Writing poetry itself is a healing,” the multi-genre instructor added. “I believe we are a culture suffering from disconnection.”

What makes creative nonfiction significant is its knack for smoothly incorporating research information into prose. “That’s what’s going to help your poetry,” Cait said, “if you can ground it in something real and something juicy.”

Cait’s presentation fell on the second day of the Stonecoast MFA winter residency, where I’m starting my third semester. The previous semester, I had a wonderful time working with Joy Harjo as my mentor. During our time together, I produced new poems, including the imitations that accompanied my annotations.

Through Joy’s guidance, I strengthened those poems through revision. Joy and I also took a deeper look at T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song for Prufrock” and other poems, and Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

I remembered telling Joy that after reading Eliot’s poems, I saw how rich his poems are with details, how they felt complete without giving too much away to the reader.

That was my takeaway: to write complete, detail-rich poems that are open enough for the reader to come to their own conclusions or discoveries.

What I discovered, going through Amiri Baraka’s Transbluesency and looking at what changed in between the first and last collections included in that volume, was a shift in his influences.

Baraka’s early collections seemed informed by his personal life, while current events–both domestic and abroad–inspired his poems half way through Transbluesency. The jazz music and musicians influenced Baraka’s later poems in the volume. And that’s how my twice-a-month phone conversations with Joy went during my second semester.

The first night of the residency, I was glad that Joy, despite the airline losing her bags, made it in time to present at the Flash Faculty Reading that included Tony Barnstone, Sarah Braunstein, Annie Finch, Nancy Holder, Cait Johnson, James Patrick Kelly, and Debra Marquart (who, with Alexs Pate, is teaching the Writing About Race and Difference workshop that I’m in for the first part of the residency).

Joy read an excerpt from her upcoming memoir, which she noted took her 14 years to write. “I kept running away from it,” she told the audience during her reading. She repeated it to me and Amanda Johnston, my Cave Canem sister who is starting her first semester in the Stonecoast MFA program.

It was good to see Joy. I made her laugh when I told Amanda that, in terms of my poems, Joy was my fitness instructor during the second semester. Joy’s feedback on my poems was helpful. Because of her suggestions, I now consider various levels on which my poems work. I also include more details and I’m not afraid to write long poems.

Joy laughed when I said her suggestions have my poems posing like bodybuilders, showing off their new muscles. She laughed louder when I told Amanda that the entire second semester Joy forced my poems to do extra bench presses despite them being tired and wanting to relax.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Cait Johnson

Cait Johnson pushed us just as hard during her presentation, when she paired up students in creative nonfiction with those in poetry.

The added advantage of both genres is that poetry’s a shortcut to empathy, while creative nonfiction teaches poets how to tell detailed and engaging stories.

The class exercise involved poets finding a story line in their poems and turning it into prose, while creative nonfiction writers wrote a poem describing a character or setting from their pieces.

“That’s what this presentation’s about—lighting things up,” Cait said, before turning to Mary Karr and Li-Young Lee, two writers who’ve successfully used elements from both genres to light things up in their work.

In Viper Rum, Karr’s creative nonfiction influences are in the autobiographic subject matter she tackles in her poetry collection. Each poem’s a revelation of Karr’s demons such as alcoholism and her suicidal thoughts.

Karr’s blending of the techniques paid off, according to a reviewer at goodreads.com. “Fierce, brilliant work here. Like exploring an open wound,” the reviewer wrote. “Not for those unwilling nor unable to explore…go outside the bounds of textbook time-lines.”

Li-Young Lee went outside the bounds with his memoir The Winged Seed, what an amazon.com reviewer called “part poem, part waking dream, part remembrance.” What makes this memoir unconventional is its beautifully crafted lines.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

“He takes us on a journey to his psyche,” Cait said. “He makes us feel, with him, the immense experience from the inside.” Lee’s blending of both poetry and creative nonfiction grounds his lyrical Winged Seed in the stories of real people.

Though Lee’s mostly known for his poetry, his memoir is an example of what Cait said happens when creative nonfiction students experiment with poems while working on their memoirs: they come back with “a mother lode” of imagery to bring back to their creative nonfiction.

Of Li-Young Lee, Cait concluded, “He’s writing about writing; he’s writing about memoir, and he found his way in.”

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