Tag Archive: review


(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

Like Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man, Iain Haley Pollock’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy is the invisible underdog. He’s a man torn between his “black mother’s blood”[1] and his white father. And, like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker battles the stereotypes that make him invisible since he’s not seen as a real person. This journey to identity is an involved one through which Pollack’s speaker revisits the middle passage[2] and Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath[3]. Along the way he encounters an orisha[4] while roaming Philly’s mean streets[5].

The speaker’s longing for home is analogous to the enslaved Igbo’s longing for home in the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster,” a poem about the middle passage. About 15 percent, or nearly two million, Africans died while being transported from African countries to Europe, Brazil and the U.S. as part of the Atlantic slave trade, according to various sources. Pollack’s speaker in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” remembers what he read about the suicides from slaves throwing themselves overboard that contributed to the high mortality rates:

When salt swallowed breath,
Igbo souls leapt from the water
as great sea eagles. Talons gripped
black bodies as a she-bear lifts
her cub by the scruff. Wings
throbbed air until all passed back
to Igboland.[6]

And just as striking as those physical details are the psychological ones:

[…] I knew this,
knew before I heard
the stories, read the books,
knew from the whispering
of my black mother’s blood
into my marrow. Knew also
the mocking tap of rain
on the hull christened
in my white father’s city.[7]

(PHOTO: Random House) Ralph Ellison — an American novelist, literary critic, scholar and writer — was best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.

The physical details intensifies the speaker’s longing for identity. That “my black mother’s blood” whispered that history “into my marrow” before “I heard/ the stories, read the books” is the speaker’s allusion to ancestral memory, which also heightens his longing for identity. However, the speaker’s white father complicates that longing. That the “rain/ on the hull christened/ in my white father’s city” is a “mocking tap” means the speaker’s aware of how African Americans see his father’s white skin as a reminder of that history.

The musical moments in “Port of Origin: Lancaster” are in the recurring “creaked”:

creaked. Creaked and creaked.
All night, creaked. All day
that was night, creaked.
Over dull slap of waves
on brine-soaked wood, creaked.
[...] creaked. Creaked and creaked
In the hollow chamber of aboy’s ear—
creaked, timbers creaked.[8]

(PHOTO: first-draft-blog.typepad.com)

The onomatopoeia brought me inside the slave ship. I could feel it rocking from the “dull slap of waves.” I heard the “groans from hunger” and smelled the “foul air.” That this creaking echoes “in the hollow chamber of a boy’s ear” is a sign of the longing for identity echoing “in the hollow chamber” of his ear.

That music continues in the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuer’s Mark.” The poem’s “X” references the FEMA markings left on houses in New Orleans searched after Hurricane Katrina. The X distinguished the searched houses from others, and the markings in each X quadrant let rescuers know which houses had dead bodies, the date of the search and who did the searching. The music in “Chorus of X” is in the recurring X’s:

X say search party […]
X say live wire […]
X say no dead bodies,
[…] X say kitchen, […]
X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway,
[…] X say Lord you been flooding us too much,
[…] X say it got easier to die in water than live on land,
[…] X say lungs full of flood in the end […][9]

Pollack’s X is also analogous to Ralph Ellison’s narrator in Invisible Man. Though X says a lot of things, it remains unnamed. Pollack’s speaker in “Chorus of X” also sheds light on a social issue with which America still struggles. Pollack’s speaker and use of X transforms the symbol into an inhumane image (“X say that dog was a loud-ass, mean-ass bitch anyway”). That X’s four quadrants sums up any person’s life is a sign of the little regard we hold for human life. In “Chorus of X,” X is just as inhumane as calling New Orleans residents “refugees,” as if they weren’t citizens of a country touting its liberty and justice.

(PHOTO: blackagendareport.com)

Another musical moment is the recurring “say”:

[…] say month,
say day, […]
say gas leak, say floodwater,
say dead dog, dead cat,
[…] say one dead body, say two,
say three dead bodies, say four,
[…] say bedroom, say attic[10]

And so on. Both the recurring “X” and “say” intensifies the urgency of the situation. They almost overwhelm the poem the way flood waters overwhelmed rescuers in the gulf coast.

Going back to identity, Pollack’s speaker mirrors Ellison’s narrator another way. Like Ellison’s invisible narrator, Pollack’s speaker is mistaken for a white man when he encounters a modern-day orisha of change in the poem “Oya in Old City.” The mistake happens twice: once by “the red-bone woman/ wearing two coats and sitting on a bench” who yells, “i ain’t Nigga Mary” in response to the speaker’s “how are you?[11] And again in a flashback of a childhood trip to Philadelphia when a homeless woman sees him staring and says, “take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga.”[12]

The speaker’s childhood image of Philly transforms in the poem “Killadelphia.” In the poem, it’s not so much the human actions within as it is the speaker’s grim portrait of Philly. Here are the physical details:

where pit bull
bitches—three,
chained, starved—
lurch scarred
throats into yowls

[…] molded lids
ticking open
and shut
over glazed
unreal eyes[13]

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Iain Haley Pollock lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Springside Chesnut Hill Academy, where he is the Cyrus H. Nathan ’30 Distinguished Faculty Chair for English. His first collection of poems, Spit Back a Boy (University of Georgia, 2011), won the 2010 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

Those details make Philly a city that scowls at outsiders. “Killadelphia” is an audible poem sprinkled throughout with onomatopoeias such as “poppa pop-pop pop” of gunshots and the “slap-clap” of “sneaker soles […]/ on asphalt” and daybreak’s “rumble-grumble” along with the “smack-/thwacking” newsprint and the “skittery-skitter/ of boys.”[14]

While the speaker’s tone ranged from sad to cynical to candid in the earlier poems, his scatting in “Killadelphia” makes his tone both playful and critical. The scat becomes background music amid the “security gates/ flung up in rickety-/ racket at Mt. Zion’s/ store front worship” and the “raccoon’s crash-/ dash as it drags/ a near-dead pigeon/ from a rust-pitted/ trash can” and the “fluttery-stutter/ of the bird’s one good wing/ flapping to lift/ its carcass into/ still-darksome dawn.”

And that’s as far as the similarities go between Iain Haley Pollack’s speaker in Spit Back A Boy and the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Up to this point, the similarities between both men echoed Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Most people are other people…their lives a mimicry.”[15]  But, unlike Ellison’s narrator who eventually embraces his invisibility, Pollack’s speaker continues his ongoing journey to find himself.

Going back to the poem “Oya in Old City,” Pollack’s encounter with the angry homeless woman (“take a motherfuckin picture     aint you never/ seen a nigga”) makes it clear which side of his biracial self the speaker’s leaning towards in terms of identity. It’s evident in his response to the homeless woman: “I flung my almost-white self/ into my mother’s embrace—that brown/ embrace I hoped would swallow me whole and spit back a boy four shades darker.”


[1] from the poem “Port of Origin: Lancaster”

[2] Ibid.

[3] from the poem “Chorus of X, the Rescuers’ Mark

[4] from the poem “Oya in Old City”

[5] from the poem “Killadelphia”

[6] Iain Haley Pollock, Spit Back A Boy, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 2-3.

[9] Ibid., 8-9.

[10] Ibid., 8.

[11] Ibid., 18.

[12] Ibid., 19.

[13] Ibid., 22.

[14] Ibid., 22-23.

[15] Oscar Wilde, Quotes About Identity, 2011, http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/identity (September 2011).

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.

Randall Horton’s *Roxbury*

Cleveland Heights, OH: Kattywompus Press, 2012. 33 pages. $12.00.

(ARTWORK: Randall Horton and Kattywompus Press)

It was a Sunday evening nearly a decade ago when I first met Randall Horton. We were downstairs in the Teaism Penn Quarter Restaurant at 8th and D streets NW in Washington, DC. That night in 2003, I waited to read on the open mic that followed the slam, in which Randall competed for a spot on what was then the DC/Baltimore team (which later split).

When his turn came up, Randall wowed us all with his poem “Little Shorty,” a tale of a boy the streets swallowed and spit back. “Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream!” he said during his moving performance that night. I had to approach him afterwards and let him know I enjoyed his piece.

Get the cream, Little Shorty! Get the cream! Those words echoed in my head that night. I said them jokingly when I ran into Randall at the city’s venues over the ensuing years when we became friends and Randall’s frustrations grew each time he didn’t make the slam team.

I hadn’t thought of his poem “Little Shorty” as possibly being autobiographic until the release of his chapbook Roxbury (Kattywompus Press, 2012), an excerpt from his yet-to-be-published memoir Father, Forgive Me. I bought and had him sign my copy when he was in town last month.

Randall Horton’s story of incarceration blew me away, especially the part about his father loving him enough to cry before the courtroom during Randall’s sentence modification hearing. Despite his son stealing from him and repeatedly breaking his family’s heart, Mr. Horton loved Randall enough to plead for his freedom before one of the toughest judges in the justice system.

Roxbury, which gets its name from the prison that housed Randall for five years, reveals the man he once was. “There are folks already in my housing unit who can vouch for my street credibility,” Randall writes, “that I am a legendary dude who hustled and played as fair as one could in the cutthroat game of hustling.” I would’ve avoided this person at all cost.

That cutthroat hustle found Randall as an undergraduate student at Howard University during the early 80s. Not even his two-parent household could deter him from going after the hustle. Despite a loving and supportive family, Randall dropped out of school to smuggle cocaine from the Bahamas to Washington, DC.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Dr. Randall Horton, a poet and assistant professor, is a recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and a Cave Canem fellow.

But this isn’t a glory story of drugs, women, and fast cars. In fact, it’s the opposite. Roxbury’s a fast-paced cautionary tale that immediately whisks the reader away:

If I had known what I know now, I would not have
pulled into the next office complex. I would not have driven up
the concrete ramp and parked on the second floor, but fate is an
uncalculated science, and so I did. My girlfriend and I would not
have exited the light blue van and taken the back stairwell that lets
out into the second floor carpeted hallway, nor would we have
discussed the quick score for ten grand we were about to make,
but we did….within five minutes of picking the
door lock we knew time had been wasted. Going in and out of
each cubicle of the accounting firm revealed cheap technology
with no resale value. We didn’t find the high-tech state of the art
laptops we needed to score big. So we retraced our once eager
steps back down the carpeted hall to the stairwell, down the stairs
to the garage, and back to the van. When I opened the door to the
van, glanced out the corner of my left eye and saw a flood of
plain-clothes police officers rushing towards us with guns in the air
yelling Freeze muthafuckas freeze. Before muthafuckas echoed off the
garage walls—I was gone.

The chase lasted a short while before the officer caught Randall. Upon entering Roxbury Correctional Institution (RCI) in Hagerstown, Maryland, Randall introduces the reader to some interesting characters, who he has to align himself with if he’s going to survive. Among them is Randall’s first cellmate Deboe, who’s from DC and was six years into a 60-year sentence for murder.

Randall does a great job of showing how guys feel each other out with small talk. In this case, he and Deboe each try to see if the other guy earned his street cred. Here’s how it plays out:

I can tell Deboe is suspicious of me…I am suspicious of him as
well. After menial small talk, the conversation begins with how
dudes sold fake televisions in the box to unsuspecting victims over
by the Shrimp Boat on Minnesota Avenue. Deboe mentions The
Black Hole and Celebrity Hall hosting all the live go-go parties
back in the day… We both reminisce the heyday of
Portland Avenue and the Jamaican wars during the late 80s. This
barrage of questions and answers continue until I am determined
to be legitimate.

One legit thing about Roxbury is Randall’s story of redemption, which didn’t stop at the courtroom. That night I met Randall in 2003, he was a student at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), wrapping up his undergraduate studies. From there, he went on to earn an MFA in Poetry from Chicago State University and a PhD in Creative Writing from The State University of New York (SUNY) Albany.

He’s the author of two books of poetry, The Definition of Place and The Lingua Franca of Ninth Street, both from Main Street Rag. He’s won awards for his work and is now assistant professor of English at the University of New Haven. He’s come a long way from Roxbury and what poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts called “the hard roads that damn near broke him…”

What I like about Roxbury is that it’s poetic. I’ve never heard anyone make go-go music the means to restoring sanity while also acknowledging that it’s the off-spring of work songs—that is, until Randall Horton. Check it:

Night is a deafening silence filling every inch of the
housing unit with opaqueness. Every stir amplified by the isolation
of a closed cell door. The beat-thump begins simple enough. It is
an intense percussive, drawing on West African influences, called
go-go, the indigenous music of the District of Columbia. Two
doors down in Cell 19, Sebastian got the go-go fever induced by
mail call after shift change. Five years into an eight-year bid, his
girlfriend, who stays in Clifton Terrace, informed him she will no
longer vigil the memory of his street heroics. His image has faded
from the landscape and so would she. There is no question the
right fist is balled, driving the cadence like a conductor calling out
to a crew of Gandy Dancers laying eight foot railroad track: Get a
grip in ya hand, whoa na, work wit it chillin, whoa na.
The left hand, palm
open, balances the driving narrative of gut-bucketed pain, much
like a mauling driving six-inch spikes into the crossties: Let it swang
on down, whoa na.

To order Roxbury from publisher’s site, click 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.

Makalani Bandele’s *Hellfightin*

Detroit, MI: Willow Books, 2012. 65 pages. $14.95.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

There’s a lot of music in Makalani Bandele’s debut Hellfightin (Willow Books, 2012). The title’s a subtle bow to the Harlem Hellfighters (or the 369th Infantry Regiment) that fought in both world wars I and II.

As the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, according to sources, those men continued blazing the way for future Black soldiers.

In that spirit, the musicians that Bandele honors—Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, and Elvin Jones, to name a few—blazed the way for younger musicians, such as Eric Lewis and DC’s Young Lions.

This 65-page collection of poems is one long jam session that took me back to those nights at DC’s HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues.

Before it moved from 14th Street NW to the other side of the city, I use to pay either $8 or $10 and could sit through two sets of the Antonio Parker Quartet or bob and twist to the amazing Eric Lewis killing the keys, while appreciating every moment of it.

And I’m not even a jazz head—well, not one as serious as Bandele, whose passion for the music exuded through Hellfightin. Reading this collection was like walking down a hallway, where each poem was a door opening to a memory of every past encounter I’ve had with jazz. One door opened on a Thursday night in 2007, when Herbie Hancock just happened to be chilling inside the now-defunct Café Nema on U Street NW.

That night Mr. Hancock was there checking out his friend, Allyn Johnson, who plays keys for the awesome Young Lions band, a dynamic trio of well-traveled and humbled thirtysomething-year-old brothas. The intensity of Bandele’s hellfightin’ poems matched our anticipation that night for Mr. Hancock to play something. We all chanted, “Herbie! Herbie!” but he just waved us off.

I remembered Nema’s owner, who earlier took pictures with the jazz legend, throwing on his coat and walking through a corridor of friends who shared his excitement in Mr. Hancock blessing the spot with his presence. Then something happened. While jamming out a fast-paced numbered, Mr. Hancock moved to a bar stool closer to the band. The music got all up in him and he nearly fell off his stool twitching to every note.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Noticing that, Allyn Johnson smiled up at his friend and mumbled something. According to accounts from people who were near both men, Johnson asked his friend, “You want some of this?” To which Mr. Hancock replied, “I don’t mind if I do.”

The crowd erupted and the owner threw off his jacket and ran back to the bar. Everyone snatched out their digital and cell phone cameras snapping at Mr. Hancock jamming with the other two Young Lions members.

Makalani Bandele matches that excitement with his poem “and the jam session extends after hours and into early morning at 63 hamilton terrace,” which–coincidentally–is about Herbie Hancock:

Herbie on piano heavy/ ebonies,         few ivories./ you can no longer see
The blues,/          but hear long              aloof chirps/ of brass.
and the jam session extends/          after hours          night shine/          trades
eights     with the shadows/ of box elder branches          playing/          in a
zephyr.

And for all of jazz’s improvisation, Bandele’s a formalist. In fact, he’s a genius, who not only successfully uses the contrapuntal (a form of poetry that’s read as either one poem or two poems in their distinct columns) to mimic jazz on the page but to also show that while the notes seem to fly wildly from horns and pianos, there’s still an order to the process.

Bandele also gives us an intimate moment with these musicians. His persona poem “introspective, eric dolphy” reads like a transcript of a treasured never-before released interview with the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist:

(PHOTO: Makalani Bandele) Makalani Bandele

a certain mind/ leaves its footprints along land’s end          thanking sea spray,/          it charts flight/ of gulls          on staff paper, their insistent calls/          called back          in gust:     the flute’s shrill,/ the breadth of horizon.     In my fingers/ how i know     time-/          signatures swirl          loose/ boundaries of decibel.     i logged thousands/ of hours   in—
clarinet lessons./          father added a room/          to woodshed in—the wayfaring/
has made my blood and teeth clean/         but sweet          in my fingers

Makalani Bandele delves deep into America’s history of disenfranchising people of color, especially African Americans who were once considered three-fifths of a person. In Hellfightin’, Bandele sees jazz as a blueprint for correcting these past injustices (“i like my government like/ i like my improvisation: mellifluous,/ full of organic changes/ progressions”):

to right the constitution,
then rewrite it, extempore.     give it
arms, legs, hands, feet, teeth, a mouth—shake
your psyche to it—we making us
a whole black man  (from “jazz in the key of democracy”)

This poetic and musical journey through history speaks to Bandele’s craft as a poet and musician. In his past life, he was an ordained minister who pastored a church in North Carolina. Now, he’s moved his church to the page.

If you read this book, don’t be surprise if you hear Joe Nanton and Johnny Hodges playing as Ivie Anderson sings, “It don’t mean a thing, if ain’t got that swing.” Just know that Hellfightin is definitely swinging.

(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.”

2011 in review

Here’s what the “WordPress.com stats helper monkeys” came up with in their  2011 annual report for this blog.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 13,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Alan King) Derrick Weston Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Alan King) Poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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