Marcus Jackson is counting down the days until his friend’s art showcase and exhibition. If you ask, he’ll say it’s a long time coming. With the event two weeks away, he also anticipates that evening will be an emotional one. “I grew up trying to act like a tough dude,” Jackson says, “but you might catch me dropping a couple tears in public.”
He’s among several poets who were documented in portraits that will be on display March 18 at “Ars Poetica, Photographs by Rachel Eliza Griffiths” at the Cave Canem Foundation’s Brooklyn loft at 20 Jay Street.
The event—which starts at 6 p.m. and goes until 8 p.m.—will open with a reception, which will be followed by a reading of several poets included in the 25 portraits. “Some of the poets are reading poems generated from their engagement with a particular image from the show,” says Griffiths—a photographer, painter, poet and writer.
Before and after the reading, there will be live jazz by the Guillaume Laurent Trio. The opening reception is open to the public. “We’re all very much looking forward to it,” says Camille Rankine, program and communications coordinator for the Cave Canem Foundation, which is committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African-American poets.
The exhibition is the result of a three-year partnership between Griffiths and the foundation. In fact, Griffiths—whose visual art and writing have appeared in various publications including Callaloo, The New York Times, Indiana Review and RATTLE—got the project idea when she joined the Cave Canem community in 2006.
“The event is something we’ve had in mind for years, since Rachel has been taking photographs for Cave Canem and we’ve become more aware of her talent,” Rankine said. “Now that we have this beautiful loft space in the artistically-rich DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, we’re thrilled to be able to showcase her work and host this wonderful opening event.”
By definition, the Ars Poetica is a literary device that employs the use of poetic form to define or describe the nature of poetry itself. Often introspective rather than on the surface, it’s a poet’s attempt to explain what poetry is or should be by using the forms and traditions of poetry.
Jackson and others believe that definition is apt in describing Griffiths’s work. “Rachel’s work exudes the power of an eye and heart that are not only privy to the importance and beauty of blackness, but also to that of poetry,” he said. “Her appreciation and comprehension of these elements always seems to render breath-halting photography.”
Ars Poetica will run through May 31, with viewings by appointment. There are several reasons why Jackson anticipates the event being an emotional one. For starters, the showcase will focus on a group of people many feel America’s literary landscape tends to overlook: “writers of color.”
A testament to this, for many, is the tale of Cave Canem. Founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to remedy the under-representation of African-American poets in MFA programs and writing workshops, Cave Canem has become a home for the many voices of African-American poetry.
Another reason for the tears may be that some of the poets photographed have since passed on. “It’s been difficult,” Griffiths says. “Since I’ve been a part of Cave Canem in 2006, we’ve lost members of our family.” The literary world is still coping with the loss of a giant, Lucille Clifton, who passed away on Feb. 13. Last summer, Griffiths was fortunate enough to photograph her, along with poet Nikky Finney, in Virginia.
Ars Poetica, Jackson says, “is the unearthing of a rich mineral from which our eyes and hands have too long been diverted.”
“With this exhibit, we hope to bring from the margins to the center the cultural accomplishments of African American writers,” Rankine says. “Though much has been documented about the Harlem Renaissance, there’s not an abundance of material on contemporary black writers.”
And of course, the event is to highlight Griffiths’s talents. Jackson says, “There is great anticipation for the opening of Rachel’s ‘Ars Poetica’ because of her artistic skill.”
Frank X. Walker, another poet documented in the portraits, agrees. He refers to Griffiths’s portraits as poems. “One of the poems she shot with her camera pulled me to the project head first,” he says of his friend who he’s known for what seems like a lifetime.
Walker—who, as he puts it, is “trying to conjure up an opportunity” to get him to New York—is not sure if he’ll make the event. “The positive energy surrounding this project…is palpable,” he says, “even from Kentucky.”
The showcase and reception, Griffiths says, is just the beginning. “I see a book of these photographs. I would like the photographs to travel to different cities where Cave Canem poets might also have readings in conversation with the exhibit,” she says. “It’s all elastic—the collective will continue to grow and I hope the photographs…will reflect its movement.”
For more information, visit www.cavecanempoets.org. You can also contact Camille Rankine at 718.858.0000, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.