Tag Archive: poets


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.

(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.

National Poetry Month!

(PHOTO: Melanie Taub/NPR)

What’s exciting about National Poetry Month is this series NPR is doing called Muses and Metaphors. Last month, NPR’s Producer Argin Hutchins and Senior Producer Davar Ardalan reached out to the DC Creative Writing Workshop to participate in this month’s Muses and Metaphors.

I tweeted lines from poems written by two of the Workshop’s writing club members, TyJuan Hogan and Daisha Wilson. I also tweeted, at the request of Argin and Davar, lines from my poem. Argin came through and recorded us reading our tweets.

I’m grateful to NPR for reaching out the DC Creative Writing Workshop and allowing our students to shine for National Poetry Month! You can hear me, TyJuan, and Daisha reading our tweets here! You can also visit us on Facebook here.

Voices from the LMC

(PHOTO: JJG3 Photography) Duke Ellington's students in the Literary Media and Communications Department

As part of the art faculty at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, I created the school’s first-ever digital poetry anthology that represents the students in the Literary Media and Communications Department. Here’s an excerpt from my introduction:

The online anthology derived its name from the famed print anthology Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, which has a range of voices that came out of what the New York Observer once called “a big, dark, brick-walled loft on Third Street and Avenue C.”

Founded around 1973, the Nuyorican Poets Café is a non-profit organization that started in Miguel Algarin’s East Village apartment, according to various sources.

An overflow of poets and audience members eventually led the writer, poet, and Rutgers University professor to move the café to its current location in Alphabet City, Manhattan. The café’s cofounders, according to those same sources, include the late-poet Miguel Pinero, Bimbo Rivas and Lucky Cienfuegoes.

Since its founding, the Nuyorican Poets Café’s been a source of support for the Nuyorican arts movement and is a venue for poetry, music, hip hop, video, visual arts, comedy and theatre. “The philosophy and purpose of the…Café has always been to reveal poetry as a living art,” Miguel Algarin writes in Aloud’s intro. “Poetry is not finding its way, it has found its way, back into everyday life.”

It’s in the tradition of those Nuyorican poets that the LMC students at Ellington write, aware of how pop culture, DC’s streets and neighborhoods, and—as New York Newsday’s Patricia Volk once put it—their lives “being a vital particle away from death” affect their poetry.

To read more, please click here!

(PHOTO: Nancy Bratton Design)

I don’t know about the other attendees, but I’m still swooning from Jan Beatty’s reading at Split This Rock 2010.

That year marked the second time for the biennial literary festival that Sarah Browning started as a way of providing a “permanent home for progressive poets.”

Since it started in 2008, Split This Rock has attracted high-profile participants such as Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Dennis Brutus, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Sharon Olds. The inaugural festival even got Washington Post reporter David Montgomery to pay attention.

“The poets are in town. Dozens — no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine?” Montgomery wrote in his article Averse To War: “They are everywhere.

“In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes’s old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth — ‘Through me many long dumb voices’ — over the hummus and merlot.

“They are signing fans’ battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.”

(PHOTO: Jill Brazel Photography) The late-poet Dennis Brutus reading at the inaugural festival.

The poets at the 2010 festival–which included Chris Abani, Cornelius Eady, and Martin Espada–came at time when the U.S. was in two wars, dealing with struggling economic recovery, and a host of other social and environmental ills. Despite those issues, the artists are still optimistic.

And Sarah Browning’s shining the bat signal again this year for all “poets, writers, artists, activists, dreamers and all concerned world citizens” to meet in DC March 22-25 and demand social justice, “imagine a way forward and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change,”  according to Split This Rock’s website.

Among those poets and dreamers at the 2010 conference was Jan Beatty, who gave a hell of a reading from her third collection Red Sugar. I didn’t see her coming like a southpaw’s punches. Other poets who brought down the house included Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, and Toni Asante Lightfoot.

They’ll join for four days of readings, open mics, Poetry in the Streets, and a book fair. The theme for this year’s conference is “Poetry by and for the 99%!”–a shout out to the nationwide occupiers protesting from their tent towns.

“As people’s movements ignite here at home and throughout the world in response to economic inequality, political repression, and environmental degradation, the festival will consider the relationship of poets and poetry to power and to the challenges to power,” according to the web site.

(PHOTO: Lynda Koolish) June Jordan

This year’s festival, marking the 10th anniversary of June Jordan‘s death, will honor the life and work of the late-poet, essayist, teacher and activist.

For more information or to register now, go to http://www.splitthisrock.org.

(PHOTO: Katherine Frey / TWP. Each year, the DC Creative Workshop has the highest number of students who win the city-wide poetry competitions.

If you’ve read my “About” page, then you know I’m the senior program director for the DC Creative Writing Workshop, a wonderful nonprofit based in DC’s Congress Heights community.

On Nov. 9, we will be participating in Give to the Max Day: Greater Washington, a massive one-day regional online fundraiser to support local programs.

Our programs, started in 1995, continues to transform the lives of kids in the Congress Heights neighborhood, an often ignored part of the city. According to recent data from the Social Justice Center at Georgetown University, Ward 8, which encompasses Congress Heights, has educational hurdles.

For starters, among 16-19 year-olds, the high school dropout rate was 16 percent, “substantially higher than the district average of 10.1 percent.” The center also found that “one third (34 percent) of Ward 8′s population over 25 did not have a high school diploma, which was about average for the District.” Additionally, 7 percent of residents don’t even have a 9th grade education, and the Median Annual Income is $32,348, according to recent statistics.

A recent success story is Kiana Murphy, who despite those hurdles, overcame a lot to make it to her first semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison this fall. Kiana’s story started when she joined the DC Creative Writing Workshop’s after-school writing club in 2005. “Writing Club is a true, life-changing experience. It helped me to express feelings so powerful that they scare even me sometimes,” according to Kiana’s essay on her experiences with the DC Creative Writing Workshop.

In writing club, Kiana and her peers read and gave critical responses to works of writers from various cultures and periods. She wrote her own poems while mastering literary devices and learning new vocabulary. “I am grateful that Writing Club has become such an important part of my life,” Kiana writes.

(PHOTO: DC Creative Writing Workshop) Kiana was the valedictorian at Friendship Collegiate Academy's high school graduation this year.

In 2007, Kiana was among the seven students hired through the Workshop’s youth employment program, helping students resist the lure of the streets.

As a young-writer-in-residence, she assisted the writers-in-residence by providing extra support for classroom management and helping with other administrative duties. “I have had such a great time in this program—new people, new places, and a whole new life of words, stanzas, and emotions,” writes Kiana, who went on to win the Parkmont Poetry Contest.

She was also part of the Workshop’s drama club, which creates original adaptations of classical plays by reading the texts and rewriting them line by line before the Workshop brings in a professional director to help them rehearse and perform their works on a stage for the community.

During her time in the writing club, Kiana excelled in her classes to become the valedictorian at Hart and again at her high school, Friendship Collegiate Academy.

Prior to graduating, Kiana was among five students from her high school to win a Posse Scholarship, which covers the cost of books, tuition, and her room and board at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The scholarship’s process—that entailed her being nominated by the school dean and sitting through three intense interviews with Posse reps—was a grueling one.

Kiana, who sought and received her Posse Scholarship letter of recommendation from the Workshop, was up against more than 1,000 other DC students for the scholarship. But, like the hurdles in her community, she overcame the process because she had to. “This is an opportunity to get out of DC and be in a different atmosphere,” she said, during a Dec. 23, 2010, interview on FOX 5 News.

Her goals? “I’m looking at going into Psychology and English, specifically Clinical Psychology,” she told Fox 5 News. “I want to help others because growing up in my neighborhood I was exposed to a lot of things.”

Earlier this year, a gunman shot and killed Raheem Jackson, a 16-year-old student at Woodson High, just outside of Kiana’s apartment in the 1300 block of Congress Street. There have been six shootings on Kiana’s block so far this year, three of them fatal. But, like everything else, she overcame those situations and is looking forward to a bright future.

(IMAGE: Courtesy)

If you ask, Kiana’ll tell you the DC Creative Writing Workshop kept her from being a negative statistic. “It’s made me stronger in another way, too. I am now able to speak out loud and say what I’m thinking without any fear,” writes the young woman, who’s secure in being her own person with her own opinions.

“I would also like to thank my writing instructors for helping me to find out who I am, figure out my goals, and plan my route to the future,” Kiana continued. “Now I know why I’m here: to strive for the best, succeed in life, and do remarkable things to change the world.”

With all that we’ve been able to provide for Kiana and others like her, we’ve been fortunate enough to stay afloat during the economic crisis. But we’re not clear of these tough times and the effects. With heavy emphasis on testing and little support for the arts, our funding is decreasing.

Additionally, the fewer arts opportunities in Congress Heights schools make it clear our services are more vital than ever. Our resources are stretched thin.

We’re counting on you to help us generate donations for the Give to the Max Day. Our goal is to raise as much money as possible and gain as many supporters as possible. If we make it to the Top 44 for most unique donors, we could win up to $10,000 in awards.

But we need your help with these three things:

- mark your calendar for Nov. 9th and add this link from our fundraising page.

- like us on facebook, link to us on your blog, and help generate buzz.

- forward this email to your friends, family, and anyone who might be interested in supporting literary arts access for underserved kids. Add a personal message about why our cause means something to you.

With your help, we can continue to provide opportunities for others like Kiana. Let’s make this our biggest individual donation day ever! Thank you for your support.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Marcus Jackson

Marcus Jackson is counting down the days until his friend’s art showcase and exhibition. If you ask, he’ll say it’s a long time coming. With the event two weeks away, he also anticipates that evening will be an emotional one. “I grew up trying to act like a tough dude,” Jackson says, “but you might catch me dropping a couple tears in public.”

He’s among several poets who were documented in portraits that will be on display March 18 at “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths” at the Cave Canem Foundation’s Brooklyn loft at 20 Jay Street.

The event—which starts at 6 p.m. and goes until 8 p.m.—will open with a reception, which will be followed by a reading of several poets included in the 25 portraits. “Some of the poets are reading poems generated from their engagement with a particular image from the show,” says Griffiths—a photographer, painter, poet and writer.

Before and after the reading, there will be live jazz by the Guillaume Laurent Trio. The opening reception is open to the public. “We’re all very much looking forward to it,” says Camille Rankine, program and communications coordinator for the Cave Canem Foundation, which is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African-American poets.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) photographer-painter-poet-writer Rachel Eliza Griffiths .

The exhibition is the result of a three-year partnership between Griffiths and the foundation. In fact, Griffiths—whose visual art and writing have appeared in various publications including Callaloo, The New York Times, Indiana Review and RATTLE—got the project idea when she joined the Cave Canem community in 2006.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet John Murillo.

“The event is something we’ve had in mind for years, since Rachel has been taking photographs for Cave Canem and we’ve become more aware of her talent,” Rankine said. “Now that we have this beautiful loft space in the artistically-rich DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, we’re thrilled to be able to showcase her work and host this wonderful opening event.”

By definition, the Ars Poetica is a literary device that employs the use of poetic form to define or describe the nature of poetry itself. Often introspective rather than on the surface, it’s a poet’s attempt to explain what poetry is or should be by using the forms and traditions of poetry.

Jackson and others believe that definition is apt in describing Griffiths’s work. “Rachel’s work exudes the power of an eye and heart that are not only privy to the importance and beauty of blackness, but also to that of poetry,” he said. “Her appreciation and comprehension of these elements always seems to render breath-halting photography.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Toi Derricotte, co-founder of Cave Canem.

Ars Poetica will run through May 31, with viewings by appointment. There are several reasons why Jackson anticipates the event being an emotional one. For starters, the showcase will focus on a group of people many feel America’s literary landscape tends to overlook: “writers of color.”

A testament to this, for many, is the tale of Cave Canem. Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to remedy the under-representation of African-American poets in MFA programs and writing workshops, Cave Canem has become a home for the many voices of African-American poetry.

Another reason for the tears may be that some of the poets photographed have since passed on. “It’s been difficult,” Griffiths says. “Since I’ve been a part of Cave Canem in 2006, we’ve lost members of our family.” The literary world is still coping with the loss of a giant, Lucille Clifton, who passed away on Feb. 13. Last summer, Griffiths was fortunate enough to photograph her, along with poet Nikky Finney, in Virginia.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Tyehimba Jess.

Ars Poetica, Jackson says, “is the unearthing of a rich mineral from which our eyes and hands have too long been diverted.”

“With this exhibit, we hope to bring from the margins to the center the cultural accomplishments of African American writers,” Rankine says. “Though much has been documented about the Harlem Renaissance, there’s not an abundance of material on contemporary black writers.”

And of course, the event is to highlight Griffiths’s talents. Jackson says, “There is great anticipation for the opening of Rachel’s ‘Ars Poetica’ because of her artistic skill.”

Frank X. Walker, another poet documented in the portraits, agrees. He refers to Griffiths’s portraits as poems. “One of the poems she shot with her camera pulled me to the project head first,” he says of his friend who he’s known for what seems like a lifetime.

Walker—who, as he puts it, is “trying to conjure up an opportunity” to get him to New York—is not sure if he’ll make the event. “The positive energy surrounding this project…is palpable,” he says, “even from Kentucky.”

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) poet Frank X. Walker.

The showcase and reception, Griffiths says, is just the beginning. “I see a book of these photographs.  I would like the photographs to travel to different cities where Cave Canem poets might also have readings in conversation with the exhibit,” she says. “It’s all elastic—the collective will continue to grow and I hope the photographs…will reflect its movement.”

For more information, visit www.cavecanempoets.org. You can also contact Camille Rankine at 718.858.0000, or by email at camillerankine@ccpoets.org.

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