Tag Archive: teaching


The Residency and Immersion

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Jaed Coffin grew up in Maine and has worked as a boxer and lobsterman before becoming a writer and Stonecoast MFA faculty member.

Jaed Coffin’s goal is to aim for the big idea when he’s working on a writing project, often immersing himself in his subjects’ worlds. And he didn’t expect anything less from his students, who he urged yesterday to do their subjects’ stories justice by giving readers the big picture.

There was a lot to take away from Coffin’s presentation YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS SH*T UP!: An Introduction to Immersion/Literary/Longform Journalism. Yesterday was also the second day of the Stonecoast MFA summer residency, which started with a tour of the Stone House for first semester students by journalist and author Sam Smith, who spent his childhood summers living in the Casco Bay waterfront estate.

I came back this year as a fourth semester student, who for the last six months worked on my third semester project (a creative collaboration with a comic strip artist that produced a comic book) while starting a new job and promoting my debut poetry collection in addition to getting married.

And I’m still charged from Friday’s Flash Faculty Reading, where Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the novel WENCH, peeled our wigs back with a short story she hadn’t published yet. The award-winning writer, who’s also a former University of California postdoctoral fellow and graduate of Harvard, is guest faculty at this residency. I enjoyed talking to Perkins-Valdez about married life (she’s going on nine years) and appreciated her insights on parenting.

Just as priceless was my first day in the cross genre workshop Explorations in Masculinity, co-facilitated by David Anthony Durham and Jaed Coffin. What’s interesting is there are only two guys in this workshop of seven students. Yesterday, we started our workshop in a room at the Stone House, where we have all our workshops and presentations.

This grand estate is striking with its multiple stone porches and fireplaces. The beautiful stained glass, wood, and tile work are as breathtaking as the ocean view from each room. On the extensive grounds of the Stone House are rocky pathways to harbor vistas, nationally renowned heather gardens, and historically organic farmland.

I was glad that Durham and Coffin took the workshop to the deck behind the house, where our conversations flowed from different male archetypes presented in Twilight and Harry Potter, to the dominant-submissive theme in contemporary literature. We also talked about so-called traditional male types that over-populated action flicks. Coffin asked us if those guys even existed.

(PHOTO: Selectism) Gay Talese, author and pioneer of literary journalism.

That question about the truth was a great lead  up to Coffin’s presentation on literary journalism, or what he called narrative nonfiction. “To me, it’s the least pretentious term,” he said. It’s also a form of long journalism pioneered by writer Gay Talese, who wrote the most memorable profile of Frank Sinatra for Esquire more than four decades ago.

As the story goes, Talese came to  Los Angeles to profile Sinatra. “The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed,” according to Esquire’s editorial note. “So Talese remained in L.A., hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself whenever he could.” This resulted in the 11,000-word article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” that Esquire published April 1966.

Coffin used the profile as a great example of  the three-part zoom functions used by literary journalists. At 1X (wide frame): the writer captures the subject’s environment, atmosphere, regionalism, culture, subculture, race, identity, and class. The writer zooms in to 2X (narrow focus), where they capture the subject’s home, community, family, past, genealogy, origins and lore. Then, at 3X (narrower focus), the writer zooms directly on the subject. At this focal point, the writer  captures the subject’s eyes, ears, speech, charms, patterns of behavior, clothing, and so on.

Talese does that throughout his profile of Sinatra. That long-form of journalism is defined by an Esquire editor as “a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”

That struck a chord with Coffin, who at 18, knew he wanted to be a writer. At first, he tried his hand at fiction. “The first novel I tried to write [then] I got 25 pages into it and lost myself,” said the Stonecoast instructor, whose passion followed him from undergrad at New England’s Middlebury College through graduation, when he moved back home with his mom and took a job as a lobsterman while he worked on his writing. “I kept using reality as an amplified spring-board,” he said, to do the type of writing he wanted.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) A 21-year-old Jaed Coffin spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery.

Then the literary inertia pulled him to nonfiction when writing the truth became beneficial. “Most of the time truth is better than fiction,” Coffin said. “The social aspect of nonfiction is why I’m in the game. Nonfiction has this beautiful social element. You get to be out in the world.”

Coffin’s explorations took him from Brunswick, Maine, to his mother’s native village in Thailand, where he became a Buddhist monk after his junior year at Middlebury College.

He captured that experience in his memoir A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants (Da Capo/Perseus), which is a tale of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging. According to the book jacket, it’s also a record of Coffin’s “time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays.”

The other benefits of writing nonfiction are just as alluring. “You make a lot of money and get to hang out with people,” Coffin said. “You also get to use every skill that fiction writers and poets use.” He’s currently working those skills in Roughhouse Friday (Riverhead/Penguin), his forthcoming book about the year he fought as the middleweight champion of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.

Though he loves the adventure, Coffin advised it’s not a prerequisite to writing narrative nonfiction. “Do not feel like, because you have a domestic life, you cannot do literary journalism,” he said. “Reality, on its own terms, is strange and full of conflict. You just have to be patient enough to dig up the conflict.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Ernesto Mercer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Ernesto Mercer)

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Mignonette E. Dooley) younger Ernesto Mercer

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(ARTWORK: Jermaine Rogers) Afro Punk art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Ernesto Mercer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Gets Lost In Pseudonyms

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Nearly two years ago, I was laid off from my job as a staff writer for a black-owned newspaper in Baltimore. I didn’t cry or worry about my finances.

I gathered my stuff quietly. (My co-workers didn’t know then they wouldn’t see me again.) Once in the back parking lot, I jumped for joy. No more working nearly 12 hour-days for eight hours’ pay. No more being forced to work over the weekend with no compensation.

I called and broke the news to family and friends, one of whom suggested I start this blog. “Build your own archive, yo,” that friend told me then. And even before my first post went up, I knew it was important to blog under my real name.

I couldn’t have known then that a job I took at the DC Creative Writing Workshop as a substitute writer-in-residence would turn into a senior program director position. At the time, I was on various job sites still trying to find work in communications.

My blog became a portfolio I sent potential employers to by mentioning it on my résumé and cover letters. It kept me current, which is what communications professionals want. This blog was my answer to the ubiquitous question: So what have you done during your unemployment?

Blogging anonymously would have killed my credibility as a journalist. And that decision affects just about every sector, including nonprofits. On her blog post “Shine While Your Light’s On: How to Build Your Personal Brand by Starting a Blog,” Rosetta Thurman elaborated on the benefits of blogging under her name.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

“I thought about blogging anonymously at first…But being anonymous would have defeated the entire purpose of blogging for personal branding,” wrote Thurman, who worked in the nonprofit community for more than eight years as a fundraising professional and leadership development practitioner.

Blogging under her name gave Thurman a reputation that, even four years since she started her blog, still speaks for her when she’s not around.

She recounted a story about a holiday party she went to on a December night in 2009. “I’m an extreme introvert, so I really don’t like going to parties unless I think that someone I know will be there,” Thurman recalled. “The biggest benefit of being a popular blogger, though, is that now when I go to nonprofit events, people know me. I don’t have to know them.”

She added, “And the best thing you can do for your nonprofit career is to make sure lots of people know who you are.” Thurman’s reputation spoke loudly enough for her four years ago to make it possible for her to start Thurman Consulting, an education company that specializes in leadership, entrepreneurship and social media initiatives. That reputation’s allowed her to become an author, trainer, speaker and coach.

Her life might have been different if she blogged anonymously. “If no one knew who was writing the articles, I would have reaped absolutely no benefit to my professional reputation,” Thurman wrote. It was also about courage for her. “I had to learn how to stand up for my ideas no matter what people said about me,” she wrote. “That’s part of being a leader. It remains my greatest leadership experience that I’ve had through my blog.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Going back to credibility, blogging under my name and being as thorough as I can in my research and reporting has granted me access to press events that allowed me to share information with my readers.

And because of that access, my blog topics range from medical experts’ updates on H1N1 Flu and DC youths speaking out about school reform, to foster teens advocating for better services and poets rising for better public school libraries, to Step Afrika! bringing the house down and a summer program that educates teens about African films.

My personal brand resulted in me being invited by the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists to speak as a panelist on cultural issues. I was even a consultant to a journalism grad student, who was working on a class presentation about communications and social media.

Like Thurman, I made a conscious decision to be courageous and stand by my ideas no matter what people said about me. It’s also a good career move, according to Penelope Trunk.

That’s point #2 out of five mentioned in her blog post “Blog under your real name, and ignore harassment.” As she puts it, you already spent so much time learning a topic and becoming an expert. “But how can you get credit in your field for this expertise if you blog under a pseudonym?” wrote Trunk, whose career advice runs in 200 newspapers.

So what if you’re worried that blogging under your real name on your personal blog will jeopardize your corporate job? She has an answer for that, too. “Check out Steve Rubel. He is employed at Edelman and is sort of inventing the wheel as he goes along,” Trunk wrote. “He makes mistakes very publicly, and we all learn from them, and he’s a great model for making a blog and a corporate job work together.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Trunk, who started blogging 12 years ago, knows first-hand the hassles of blogging under a pseudonym. Since her college days, she’s changed her name three times. Born as Adrienne Roston, Trunk changed her last name to “GreenHeart” after being influenced by the feminist movement in school.

The second time she made up a name was to slap it on her master’s thesis, a collection of short stories. At that time, Trunk was working at a software company. Despite the master’s thesis winning an award, Trunk’s boss–who, until then, was supportive of her writing career–considered the stories embarrassing since he thought they were pornographic. He warned Trunk that if she put her name on the thesis, it could jeopardize her promising career in corporate America.

The third and last name change wasn’t of her own doing. The editor at Time Warner, her first job as a columnist, assigned her the pen name “Penelope Trunk”. Juggling two identities wasn’t easier once her columnist job became full-time. “I thought of writing under Adrienne Greenheart, but I already had too much invested in Penelope Trunk,” Trunk wrote. “That’s who people had been reading for three years. It was too late to change. So I posted my photo by my column and I became the name officially.”

Juggling two different emails—one for each name—proved just as difficult. “I was always forgetting which email client I was in, and I sent email with the wrong name on it all the time. And surely you know that people delete email from names they’ve never heard of,” she wrote.

On the phone was no better. “I also had a lot of people calling me…and hanging up when they heard Adrienne Greenheart on my voicemail,” she recalled. “So I took my name off my voicemail.”

Going back to credibility, Trunk’s third point was that blogging under a pseudonym defeats the purpose of networking. “People were very unsatisfied to hear that they thought they knew me but in fact I was not giving them my real name,” she wrote. “And people who were just getting to know me got hung up on the name issue – they couldn’t believe that I was so well known by a name that wasn’t my name.”

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

She lost some of her readers’ trusts. “Having a pseudonym is like having a wall up between you and everyone else,” Trunk wrote. “It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s usually how people perceive it when they find out.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t take my readers’ trusts for granted. However, there are some who will argue the benefits of blogging anonymously. “The downside to naming your blog after yourself is that it can eventually become a prison,” according to Remarkablogger’s post “How to Brand and Name Your Blog.”

“As soon as you shut your mouth, there is no personal brand,” according to the article. “If you stop blogging, you stop existing.”  It goes on to note that blogging under your name makes it impossible to hire a team of writers to take over when you just don’t have it anymore. “Me, personally? I don’t want to be that guy,” the article stated. Me, personally?

The advantages of blogging under my name far outweigh the disadvantages.

At 30, I’m OK Being Unhip

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

While teaching in an after-school program one evening, Epiphany walked up and punched me in the face. It happened in the middle of a writing exercise I gave my students. The enthusiasm of some had them writing right away, while others sighed and laid their heads on the desks.

One of them rolled her eyes and said, “I’m guh!” To which I said, “You’re what?” As the students laughed, unwilling to tell me what it meant out of concern that an outsider will know their coded language, I felt every bit of 30—and some.

I thought of when I once sat where they were, laughing with my friends at the strained expression on our teacher’s face. We used a word she wasn’t familiar with and she asked us what it meant. Instead of an explanation, all she got was us laughing and pointing at her just like my students’ response to my unsuccessful efforts at getting one myself; these middle school kids weren’t talking.

I had to ask a high school student, who’s among the few that come back each year to their alma mater to hang out with their friends at the workshop. When she told me what it meant, I wondered how did this happen? How was it possible for a member of the hip hop generation to be anything but?

I don’t know if that was what Sophocles meant when he said, “A man growing old becomes a child again,” that no matter how old we get life still has a thing or two to teach us. Another thought crossed my mind. When I sat where my students sat, 30 seemed so old it was depressing. At the time, my friends and I asked each other, “Is there anything to do after 30, besides die?”

At the time, our thinking was that you had fun in your teens, settled down in your early 20s, then got ready for old age after 25. If only someone told us then that growing old, as singer and actor Maurice Chevalier once put it, “is the reward of a well-spent youth.”

(PHOTO: puregrowthorganics.com)

If only we knew then that old age wasn’t the “sad and melancholy prospects of decay,” but the “hopes of eternal youth in a better world,” as Chevalier puts it.

Since then, I’ve learned better than to fear what comes after 25, even if it means being as unhip as we once thought our parents were. That day in the after-school workshop wasn’t the first time Epiphany smacked me over the head.

She did it a year earlier, when I was giving a young woman a ride. The woman worked under my fiancée at a nonprofit advocacy group. That day, everyone was in a festive mood after pulling off the first-ever youth-led hearing that addressed the issues of foster teens aging out of the system without proper supports.

I was proud of all the teens who testified that day in the council chamber. They had the ear of DC Council Member Tommy Wells, who chaired the Committee on Human Services, which is responsible for welfare, social, and youth affairs.

The young woman and I were on our way to the restaurant where everyone else was waiting. She sat in the back, nodding to Pharoahe Monch, Cannibal Ox, and a slew of other underappreciated emcees I had playing through my stereo.

I felt good putting a 16-year-old on to some real music. Watching her in the rearview mirror, I smiled at how she seemed to enjoy what she was hearing. I smiled at the thought of being 29 and still hip—that is, until she said, “I think it’s cool when old people listen to hip-hop.” And out of nowhere, came the scratching sound of a record needle across vinyl grooves.

(PHOTO: super.heavy/Flickr)

When I told her 29 is not old, she rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, OK.” I guess I shouldn’t have taken it personal, considering Betty Friedan’s wisdom. “Aging is not lost youth,” the writer and activist once said, “but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”

That day in the after-school workshop was also Epiphany’s way of reiterating her message. The word “Guh,” according to the high school student, is a term used in the DC-Maryland-Virginia area to express when someone or something frustrates you.

So, I made my students “guh.” Even Mr. Hip-hop—with his ability to recall every rhyme from his favorite emcees; who played his music loud inside his car, sometimes with the windows down—couldn’t escape becoming his parents. Or that teacher back in middle school, who frustrated my friends and I because she pushed us to produce our best work.

When I told my students, “I’m sorry for making you all so guh,” they looked at one another before busting a gut. And given what Epiphany’s shown me, I don’t feel so unhip despite their comments. “Nah, Mr. King,” they said, still laughing. “It don’t sound right when you say it.”

Putting It On The Line

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Editor’s note: Joseph Ross, a poet and guestblogger at Tidal Basin Review, asked me to write an essay on where I find hope. The essay below, which will also be posted on the Basin Blog, is an attempt at illustrating that source.

I’m challenged whenever I walk into the classroom.

Especially every Tuesday that Truth Thomas and I conduct an hour-long workshop for the Legacy Poetry Project at the Homewood Center in Ellicott City. The project, held on a bi-weekly basis during the school year, is sponsored by the Horizon Foundation.

The school, which opened in 2002 and currently serves more than 100 of the 49,542 students enrolled in the Howard County School District, is not the typical middle and high school.

Unlike its traditional counterparts, Homewood operates through three programs designed to meet the individual needs of students who struggle with learning in a regular classroom because of chronic academic and behavioral difficulties.

Among those programs is Passages, which provides transition opportunities and support for students heading back into the public school system from facilities such as juvenile detention centers. The other two programs are Bridges and Gateway.

Bridges is a special education program for students with emotional disabilities.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

The issues of those in Gateway are behavioral. In addition to counseling, those students require social skills instruction and a positive behavior management system.

“The Legacy Poetry Project” is part of the therapeutic services offered to students at Homewood. With a goal of teaching at-risk students the power of positive self-expression through poetry, the project exposes them to much more. During a workshop session, students read poetry, participate in discussions, or work on writing prompts.

Field trips are also part of the program to help enhance the students’ experience with art and nature.
“These trips have exposed our young poets to the beauty of art and have enriched the poetry that our young poets create,” according to a quote on the Horizon Foundation’s website from Homewood’s Media Specialist Anne Reis.

Homewood’s Principal Tina Maddox, who was also quoted on the foundation’s website, agreed with Reis. Of the poetry workshop, Maddox said, “It is a constructive and creative way for our students to share the multitude of trauma they have experienced in their lives.”

On paper, these teens might seem like a handful. But in the classroom, they’re inspiring.

(PHOTO: Stock Image)

Like one young girl, who pinballs between poetry and fiction, and does both of them well. Then there are the two emcees aspiring for more than just the rap game. (One emcee recently made honor roll and is currently seeking college scholarships).

At the completion of the program, students will submit their poems produced in the workshop as entries for various contests and participate in the Homewood Poetry Reading featuring their own work.

Truth also told me that the school plans to publish a collection of student poems in pamphlet form.

At a recent session on elocution, I watched a soft-spoken young poet overcome her fear of sharing her work aloud. When asked about her goals after high school, she said she wants to be a writer.

And that’s when it hit me. “Learning is the discovery that something is possible,” according to the late-German Psychoanalyst, Fritz Perls.

Learning is also a two-way street. That’s where the challenge comes in.

Through their poems, some of our students wrestle with issues of abuse and drug addiction. They put everything on the line when they write—what I struggle with doing in my own work.

(PHOTO: Stock Photo)

Every time I approach the page, I’m like the soft-spoken young poet, who used to tremble from stage fright. The internal voices heckle me from somewhere in the dark, yelling: “How much you’re going to reveal, Alan?!”

When this happens, I close my eyes and go back to a moment in the workshop when I watched another young poet write a poem to process her father’s death.

She also wrote about alcohol and her self-destructive path that was halted by a teacher’s concern and the encouraging words of staff members.

Then I open my eyes and know what I have to do. Put it on the line has become my new mantra. I open my eyes and the words of William Arthur Ward, the American scholar and pastor, echo through the halls of my mind whenever I come back to the page from a meditative trip. Those words give some context to why Truth and I do what we do and what we end up with as a result.

“When we seek to discover the best in others,” the scholar said, “we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.” I can’t speak for Truth, but I can speak the truth regardless. For me, Ward’s words ring true every Tuesday morning.

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The Never-Ending Journey

(PHOTO: Jupiter Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of national poetry month coming upon us in less than two weeks, here’s an essay on a young poet’s never-ending journey  and the lessons learned along the way.

Standing in front of my fourth grade Eng/Lit class, I had only one goal: to recite every line correctly. It was more than just a goal; it was mandatory. Mrs. Garrison would assign us poems that had to be memorized and recited back to her.

I don’t remember the names of the poems or who the poets were. But I remember if you couldn’t pull off the task, you spent your recess on the wall watching your friends have fun. That thought, alone, was torment enough. That was my introduction to poetry.

If you asked me then what I thought of it, I might’ve told you he was no friend of mine. I might’ve also likened him to the kid the teachers never caught picking on his classmates, the kid who got everyone in trouble. I’d learn much later that he was misunderstood and only did what he did for attention. After a few more encounters — in middle school, high school and college — we became friends.

Since our friendship, I’ve published two chapbooks and completed two full-length manuscripts. My work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Alehouse, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and Rattle. I’ve also received fellowships from VONA (Voices of Our Nation) and Cave Canem, and was recently nominated for both a Best of the Net selection and a Pushcart Prize.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And while I’m a long way from that nervous fourth grader, poetry doesn’t seem to be impressed with that. No matter the accomplishments, it still asks me to prove myself to the craft, or to take it to the next level. In fact, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface of poetry’s possibilities, including the advocacy it involves, until I started teaching at Charles Hart Middle School in Washington, D.C.

This advocacy, according to poet Martin Espada, involves “speaking on behalf of those without an opportunity to be heard.” Through their poems, the kids at Hart speak on behalf of friends and family members who they see as underdogs.

They speak on behalf of a community that’s been misrepresented in media coverage and with grim statistics that often describe Hart’s location — in the southeast section of D.C. — as a high-crime and high-poverty area. (The median income for area households is $24,905, according to publicschoolreview.com, an online database of schools and their surrounding communities. With  31,688 residents living around Hart, only 10 percent of those 25 years and older have college degrees.)

What I admire about my students is their courage. Even when statistics show they have a tough life ahead of them, they turn to what’s practical for them: poetry. In a July 2007 interview with Bill Moyer, Espada explained what I had yet to learn, but what my students knew all along. “Poetry will help them survive to the extent that poetry helps them maintain their dignity, helps them maintain their sense of self-respect,” the poet said. “They will be better suited to defend themselves in the world.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Patricia Smith

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Patricia Smith.

To equip them for that, I’ve turned to three contemporary poets. If they were X-Men, Patricia Smith would be Rogue, Tim Seibles would be Iceman and Tony Hoagland would be Beast. Contemporary American Poetry would be the Westchester mansion where they hone their powers for the betterment of humanity. But these three are more than just mere poets; their mutant-like abilities set them apart from others in that camp.

Rogue can absorb psyches and abilities of individuals or several beings at once. In Patricia’s case, she can take several poetic forms — including the villanelle and sestina — and spin them on their heads with the ease of penning prose. As if the sestina wasn’t complicated enough, Patricia effortlessly executes the double sestina challenge.

Every time I read her work, I’m inspired to push myself harder in the craft. “While she writes from the ‘I,’ she writes selflessly so,” according to the Book of Voices, an online library of poetry in spoken word, performance and text.

Just like Rogue, Patricia can also absorb and reflect anyone’s memories, knowledge, talents, personality and physical abilities in her own poems. “The audience is free to step into her shoes as they will, trying on her point of view as her writing slips into the identities of others,” the Website states. Those muscular poems seem to breathe, sing and dance on their own while possessing an “enlightened, worldly political conscience” I wish I could accomplish in my own writing.

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tim Seibles.

Sometimes I catch my poems trying to be as cool as Tim “the Iceman” Seibles. Understanding that cold is slang for hip and fresh, Tim is one of the coldest poets publishing today. When I first read his work in Hurdy Gurdy, it was clear what made him so cold. In his poem, titled “For Brothers Everywhere,” Tim compared the streetballers to “…muscular saxophones/ body-boppin better than jazz.”

Every poem I’ve written since have been failed attempts at trying to master Tim’s cool. “This is not a poetry of a highfalutin violin nor the somber cello,” poet Sandra Cisneros wrote in the blurb for Hurdy Gurdy, “but a melody you heard somewhere that followed you home.” His poems are as slick as the ice slides the Iceman glides over at high speeds.

Tim’s work also has a “streetwise” lyricism that gives his poems a conversational tone. It’s that same lyricism in my own work that puts my poems in conversation with his. My poem, “The Sweet Urge,” was an unsuccessful attempt at mirroring the intensity in some of Tim’s poems.

Another technique I’ve borrowed is one used by both Tim and Tony Hoagland: humor.

“It’s important to weave really substantive issues into poems that have pronounced humor in them,” Tim wrote to me in a December 2006 email. “It catches people off-guard, so they really hear something before they can go into the ‘denial zone.’”

As for Hoagland, his poems have been described as “playful, provocative, and sometimes even a little mean.” Like Beast, he possesses “a super genius intellect.” At the same time, his poems aren’t afraid to do hand-to-hand and acrobatic combat with issues considered taboo. “To me, a good poem threatens the reader a little, crosses over some line of the social contract, or the poetic contract, which sets off alarms,” Hoagland told Miriam Sagan in an interview on Tres Chicas Books Web site.

One such poem that set off alarms among Black writers was “Rap Music”:

…I have a bad suspicion
there’s a lot of dead white people in there

on a street lit by burning police cars
where a black man is striking the head of a white one
again and again with a brick,

then lifting the skull to drink blood from the hole—

(PHOTO: Courtesy) Tony Hoagland.

I didn’t know how to feel about this poem the first time I read it. I was conflicted; on the one hand, I appreciated the poet’s honesty — what I struggle with in my own work. On the other, I couldn’t help but feel offended at some points in the poem.

But isn’t the poet’s responsibility to be a “rabble rouser”? Hoagland seems to think so. “A really good poem is the poem which breaks through the television screen into the world and reminds the reader that reading or listening is not a safe…experience, but that poetry is about open-heart surgery, being woken up or taken somewhere unexpected and dangerous.”

At Hart, I’m always inspired by my students’ courage to go to those “unexpected and dangerous” places by using what’s practical to them: poetry. It’s what  helps them “maintain their dignity” and “sense of self-respect” despite what the news and statistics say about them. They also have what I wish I had in fourth grade: an interaction with poetry that isn’t frustrating and a discovery that the written word is a powerful thing, and that their voices matter.

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First Person Plural

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was short notice for me, too. But there’s still time. Bethesda Urban Partnership and Bethesda Magazine‘s Essay and Short Story Contest Topic: What is your approach to life? Reveal your personal philosophy. Requirements: Essays should be limited to 500 words or less. Winners will be honored at the Bethesda Literary Festival, April 16-18, 2010. Deadline to submit is February 26, 2010.

Had you met me in high school and asked me then where I saw myself in 10 years, I would’ve told you anywhere but unemployed, living in my parents’ house and sending out rounds of resumes and cover letters to online job postings.

But that’s been my reality since I was laid off from my job as a staff writer for the Afro-American Newspaper in Baltimore. I was laid off after working there for a little over a year. Now, someone else might see the situation as cause to panic, or cause for something worst. Instead, I choose to see it for something else. I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, one to always see a silver lining in any situation—no matter how grim the circumstances may appear.

(PHOTO: http://scandinavian.wisc.edu) Hans Christian Anderson

But my situation is not grim at all. In fact, it’s a blessing. The job was a stressful one, where I was overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. I was going through the motions waiting for something better to come along. If the Danish author and poet, Hans Christian Anderson, were around to see me then, I’m sure he’d shake his head and say, “Just living is not enough.” To hear him tell it, “One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”

My sunshine and freedom came that August day I was laid off, collecting unemployment, trying to figure my future out. In the past, time to figure it out would have been a luxury lost when I was assigned a former colleague’s beats in addition to generating my story ideas and working over the weekend. In the past, I was prone to hallucinations and could see the deadlines punching their palms with a wink and a smile.

But since that August day, I’ve smelled the flowers and took advantage of my free time by completing a poetry manuscript and participating in a big writing project for a literary journal. During that time, I was nominated for both a Pushcart Prize and to be published in the Best of the Net anthology. I also considered switching career fields after jumping at an opportunity to teach creative writing in an afterschool program.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of The New York Public Library) W.H. Davies

I also put that free time to good use when I applied and was accepted to the Stone Coast MFA writing program at the University of Southern Maine. Looking back, it would have been difficult to accomplish any of this. Those accomplishments would have remained mere dreams if I hadn’t been laid off.

Looking back, I’m reminded of the Welsh poet and writer, W.H. Davies. The question he posed in his poem “Leisure,” as well as its answer, was a lesson for me. “What is this life if, full of care, / We have no time to stand and stare…A poor one…”

Davies, I couldn’t have said it better.

For more information on the Bethesda Short Story and Essay Contest, please the First Person Plural Blog.

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