Friday, December 14, 2007

TGIF -- The Links

I'm stealing an idea from super-blogger, novelist Tayari Jones. She often sends her bloggers a slew of cool links to check out and, since so much is happening in the world, I decided to do the same.

1.) Check out the list of forthcoming African-American interest books from Publishers Weekly. Some interesting and others just ridiculous. It's disheartening when the tiny children's book list looks better than the long one for adults.

2.) My Nana will be happy to hear this news. Walter Mosley has just agreed to give birth to a new mystery man. He signed a three-book deal with a new publisher and we'll all reap the benefits. The rumor mill is churning about a literary novel that is to be part of the deal as well.

3.) Riverhead Books (Mosley's new home) is having a bang up year, as another wunderkind on their hefty author list has just been given the highest of honors by New York Magazine. Princess will be happy to hear the long-awaited comeback of Junot Diaz seems to have come full circle.

4.) On a not so literary note (but kind of one, at an angle) Denzel is looking good this year and got some huge nods from The Golden Globes. I cannot wait to see his portrayal of poet Melvin Tolson in The Great Debaters, his labor of love debuting this month. Go see it!!!

5.) Baby, it's cold outside, but Poetry Daily's pick for today is all about the summertime. Check out R.T. Smith's poem of the day. Intimate portrait with a little Gershwin thrown in for good measure.

6.) Last but not least, art for art's sake. Visit these artist blogs to see what genius has been finding its way to the modern canvas:

Didi Menendez - Cuban painter and editor of MiPOesias is looking for poet models. See who she's already immortalized.

Carolyn Beard Whitlow - Sister poet and Lotus Press author. Preserving our patchwork history through her beautiful hand-stitched quilts.

Krista Franklin - I carry one of Krista's journals everywhere I go. It helped give me voice. Her collages speak as well.

Happy Friday! I hope this is your first day in a long line of days to breathe easy for a while...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Can't Stop Listening To...

this fabulous Chrisette Michele song, Is This the Way Love Feels.

We need more female vocalists moving in the old tradition--using their voices as intruments and perfecting the swing between piano and forte, the slide into and out of crescendo.

Love the instrumental bridge/breakdown. The music reminds me of Prince, and Michele's howl is a soul-blues-gospel mesh.

Love it. Praising it for helping me make my way through a poem about the changing of the seasons today.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Yes, Yes and Yes

"To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."

--Mary Oliver

let it go-the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise-let it go it
was sworn to

let them go-the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers-you must let them go they
were born
to go

let all go-the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things-let all go
so comes love

--E.E. Cummings

If truer words have ever been spoken, I have not yet heard them. Each of us would do well to keep these things in mind. If we all could, really could, think of the world we'd live in, the forgiveness we'd carry with us each day.

Monday, November 26, 2007


How sad that I'm only managing a few posts a month rather than the few a week I aspired to when I began blogging. Time does slip away...

Anyway, this fantastic ghazal was featured on Poetry Daily and I thought I'd share it, since I've been working with formal verse quite a bit:

By Accident

First she gave me the wound by accident.
Then the tourniquet she tied unwound by accident.

Your friend may want to start running.
I gave his scent to the hounds by accident.

Balloons on the mailbox, ambulance in the driveway.
Bobbing for apples I drowned by accident.

Did someone tell the devil we were building Eden?
Or did he slither on the grounds by accident?

I said some crazy things, but I swear, officer,
I burned her place down by accident.

Only surfaces interest me.
What depths I sound I sound by accident.

"What should we look for in a ghazal, Amit?"
Inevitabilities found by accident.

--Amit Majmudar

While I was copying this poem, I realized that the poet's name sounded familiar. More than a year ago, I saved another poem that a friend sent to me because it was sharp and had such lush imagery. As it turns out, it's by the same poet. Here it is:


My mother when she feared that we might starve
would give us candy taking up her violin
and playing each of us a bar
My mother when we danced the winter from
our boots and kicked the walls of circumstance
would write the needed letters over newsprint
and crinkle crackling fire till our hands
came back to us attracted to her gift
My mother painted us a still life and we peeled
and ate the fruit for lunch my mother sculpted
my sister earrings out of pebbles sculpted me
out of abandonment and earth my mother said
you are not poor until you’re at a loss
for worlds you are not rich until like Alexander
you’ve conquered foreign languages
somewhere a rich man pokes his fireplace
reminding it to give him heat she said
somewhere a rich man’s hand lunges in search
of sweetness down his horn of plenty
but there is not a fruit his fingers recognize

--Amit Majmudar

It is quite a gift to be able to write with humor on one hand and devout seriousness on the other. I'm now on the look out for more poems by the brilliant Dr. Majmudar. Here's all I could dig up on him:

Amit Majmudar is a resident physician in diagnostic radiology living in Cleveland, Ohio. Check out his website for a bit more info.:

Friday, November 2, 2007

Reading at JMU on Thursday, 11/8, @ 7:00 PM

I'm reading with Hermine Pinson and E. Ethelbert Miller at the Furious Flower Poetry Center next Thursday. The reading is part of Cave Canem's The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South anthology reading series. I'm not sure if anyone is in Harrisonburg, VA or is close to it, but if so, please come out to hear some poetry.

If you haven't heard
of the Furious Flower Conferences or Dr. Joanne Gabbin, you are missing out on a huge part of American literary history. I was fortunate enough to attend the second Furious Flower Conference in 2004. I remember sitting in a room before one of the big readings began and seeing a force of nature everywhere I looked. Elizabeth Alexander was sitting behind me, Amiri Baraka was walking up the aisle, Thomas Sayers Ellis was across the row to my left and Lucille Clifton was right down front. It was a remarkable conference and Dr. Gabbin is the only reason it ever happened and happened again.

Click here to
check out the Gwendolyn Brooks poem that Dr. Gabbin says
inspired all of this:

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who Reviews Reviews???

A few days ago, I was very excited to find that my book had been reviewed in the Fall 2007 edition of The Antioch Review. This was exciting for a number of reasons:

1.) I really like The Antioch Review.

2.) I've only had two other book reviews.

3.) Those two other reviews were both written by people I know.

4.) The review published in The Antioch Review was done by a complete stranger.

5.) I would have never known the review was done had my press not sent it to me in the mail. Therefore, it was a nice surprise.

After I'd read the review and got excited about it and told my dad and my friends, I started thinking about the value of book reviews. This is an on-going conversation in the poetry world. In fact, I can recall having spirited conversations with the eternal laureate Rita Dove and Mr. Uprock himself Patrick Rosal about book reviews in the past year or so.

Ms. Rita was a guest at Cave Canem and spoke at length about what book reviews--good and bad--meant to her, which was, basically, nothing. She told us a story about a review that ripped one of her books to shreds and was published in a very, very reputable magazine. She said she agonized about it for a while, but eventually tried to forget it. What was strange was that she said people always remembered that she had been reviewed in the reputable magazine, but never, ever recalled that it was a bad review. I guess the incident kind of falls into the 'all publicity is good publicity' category, but it made me think about why some writers value reviews and if they can actually help or harm your career? One bad review certainly didn't hurt Ms. Rita's.

E. Ethelbert Miller once told me that I should write a book review for every book I read and try to publish each review. Ethelbert gives great advice, but I haven't published a single review and I certainly don't write one for each book I read. I'd never have time to write poems if I did! I think he had a valid point, though. He was encouraging me to analyze each book I read and condense my critical analysis to a few hundred words, so I'd have a snapshot view of what I thought of each book. Critical analysis is wildly important as a poet, even if just to find out what you like and why you like it, but how accurate or important is someone else's opinion of a book for the poet who is being reviewed? To make a long rant longer, this and these other questions about reviews have been plaguing me for the last five days:

1.) Who reads book reviews?

2.) Are book reviews important to publishers?

3.) Does a string of 'good or 'bad' book reviews truly reflect on the quality of the writing in the book?

4.) What value is there in poets reviewing books of poetry?

5.) Who is a better reviewer, someone who is primarily a literary critic or someone who is primarily a creative writer?

6.) Why do journals publish reviews without informing the writers that their books will be reviewed?

7.) Can a negative review ruin a literary career? Can a positive review make one?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

There Is Always Music

to write by. I have been in a strange writing rut and haven't been revising like I usually do. I've been on 'house arrest' for a few days because I sprained my ankle pretty badly on Saturday, but still no writing. The music saved me tonight.

Early in the day my lovely mother came over and we watched movies. Watching Diana's Oscar-worthy performance in "Lady Sings the Blues" always inspires me to seek out more music, more of the lush voices of the women who are often forgotten in our discussions of jazz and blues. I spent the evening listening to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and finally settled on Cassandra Wilson.

Wilson's version of "Time After Time" is stellar, pristine. She takes a classic and makes it more moving every time you hear it. Her inflection and pacing is better than most of the best poets I know. I guess that's why pitch perfect music inspires me. I never had Cassandra' tension, her silk, on or off the page and still don't, but tonight she helped me write a poem that's been just on the cusp of memory. This is music's gift and why I find myself referring to it so much on a blog that's supposed to be strictly about poetry. Music keeps me sane, but poetry is like air. I can't live without one, but I'd go mad living without the other.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Reading at ODU on Tuesday, 10/16 @ 12:30 PM

Old Dominion University's Women's Studies Department is holding their annual "Love Your Body" Poetry Reading next week and I'll be sharing the room with Til Cox, Nan Byrne, Lynne Downs and Andrea Nolan. The reading will be in the newly renovated Batten Arts and Letters Building (Room 9024), where I spent nearly my entire undergraduate career at ODU, so I'm looking forward to checking out the new digs :-)

The reading is in celebration of Love Your Body Day and in conjunction with the 2007 Love Your Body Campaign. Find out more about the campaign by visiting

Hope to see you there!

Monday, September 24, 2007

What a long, strange (beautiful) week it has been...(Pt. 3)

And then there was Stevie. When a friend of mine called a few months ago and left a frantic message about Steive being back on tour, I knew I had to be at at least one show. Last Sunday night, I walked into Baltimore's Pier Six Pavilion shining; I left aflame.

In case you were wondering: Stevie Wonder is the epitome of black American music, SOUL music. He is still every bit the performer he was here. This was recorded in Detroit in 1984. It's been more than twenty years since this was taped and he was still pure electricity. The crowd was on their feet and on fire. Genius is all there is here, there are no other words. I was thankful, my dreams bright and heavy with song, all night and the night thereafter.

What a long, strange week it has been... (Pt. 2)

On Thursday, Martin Espada made an appearance at Busboys and Poets in D.C. I was happy to finally get to witness him live. This i a clip of him reading his poem "Alabanza" and feeding the crowd. He fed us on Thursday, too. Listen and watch.

What a long, strange week it has been...(Pt. 1)


No other word will do. For that's what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"
he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."

--Raymond Carver

Bob Shacochis read this poem at the memorial service for Liam Rector on Saturday. It was a poem Tree, his wife, gave him early on, a poem Liam came back to years later after he'd beat cancer, heart disease. It seemed so poignant at the service. So many people came and mourned or at least paid their respects. I had friends there; I saw people I loved there. At least that--even in grief, we had to acknowledge that he brought us together again.

The following is a poem from Poetry Daily. It's appropriate here, too:

There Was No Farewell

We did not weep
when we were leaving—
for we had neither
time nor tears,
and there was no farewell.
We did not know
at the moment of parting
that it was a parting,
so where would our weeping
have come from?
We did not stay
awake all night
(and did not doze)
the night of our leaving.
That night we had
neither night nor light,
and no moon rose.
That night we lost our star,
our lamp misled us;
we didn't receive our share
of sleeplessness—
so where
would wakefulness have come from?

--Taha Muhammad Ali
tr. Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, Gabriel Levin

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Reading in D.C. on Monday, 9/24 @ 8:00 PM

Hey bloggers, friends, fam, poetry-lovers, if you're in the D.C. area, come and hang out with us on Monday night. I'll be reading in the Burlesque Poetry Hour Reading Series at Bar Rouge in DuPont Circle. It should be a fun reading; every poet has to auction off an item they're wearing to raise funds for the series, which should make for some interesting outfit choices :-) Please do come through if you're going to be around. You can check out the details on the Burlesque blog:

Hope to see you there!!!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Georgia On My Mind

Last week, I went down to Georgia for the Decatur Book Festival and hung out with some very cool folks. I interviewed Natasha Trethewey, hung out with Dan Albergotti, had lunch with Kwame Dawes, went to a reading featuring Khadijah Queen and pseudo-shopped with Nicole Sealey.

The highlight of my trip, though, was a surprise visit to Georgia Perimeter College where I got to hang out with Lita Hooper's class. She's teaching my book this term and the students were shocked to see me there on Friday. They were sharp and quite attentive during the reading. They asked questions and requested poems, we laughed, we cried (not really), an all-around good time was had by all (at least I hope so).

They were beautiful and carried some serious names on their backs. Of the few I can remember, there was Jacquiese--tall b-baller who got into the word, Tenacity--sweet Southern girl with a wide smile and Teena (yes, as in Marie)--who embraced the music of her name whole-souled. Lovely group, lovely campus. Thanks, Lita, for the push :-)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Entitlement: Books I Love to Hate

I think, as writers (and avid readers), we are entitled to certain things. Among those things should be: first dibs on the free book table at the university bookstore on the campus where you work, study or loiter, the one spot on the beach that has just the right amount of shade and sun for you to make it through half of _________________(enter your favorite book or whatever book du jour you're indulging in at the moment) before the midday sun wreaks havoc on you, assurance that you will not be bothered after having that long conversation with some great aunt or uncle at the family reunion and scampering off to scribble what you will begin to make of it under a tree in the park, and the right to love and/or hate certain books/poems/authors deemed as "classics". Therefore, after much thought and arguing over the years, I'm ready to publish my own list of BOOKS AND POEMS EVERYONE SAYS I SHOULD LIKE BUT THAT I REALLY, TRULY DON'T. Here's what I came up with:

Author that most people praise who still does nothing for me:

Jane Austen

(I wish I could say that Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility move me in some way, but they don't. I felt such guilt over not enjoying Austen that I ran out and read everything she ever wrote in hopes of finding something that would bring a tear to my eye. Alas, I found nothing, and I had to give away a whole bunch of books.)

Book that is on all of the World's Best Novel lists ever published that I can't stand:

Crime and Punishment -- Fyodor Dostoevsky

(After the murders, I was bored out of my mind. I just don't understand why anyone would torture students with this book. Now, I did like some of the symbolism. I remember a very riveting lecture by a professor who was teaching the book (probably the third or fourth literature class I had to endure with this book on the schedule) about Dostoevsky's abundant use of the color yellow. Seriously, it was a great lecture, but I still don't like the book. )

Book that I'm supposed to love just because I'm a poet but that didn't do anything for me:

Letters to a Young Poet -- Rainer Maria Rilke

(I have to say, I think I felt guiltiest about this one. I still do. I was so ready to be blown away by every word of this little book, but it didn't change my life. In fact, it didn't really inspire me at all. I just felt that the advice was meant for Kappus, not me. I did read Rilke's poems after this, though, in hopes of redeeming myself a bit for not loving his letters.)

Book that gets taught in most Black Arts Movement classes that I hate to see show up on the syllabus and that I would never teach:

Soul on Ice -- Eldridge Cleaver

(I know people have there reasons, but if I was ever forced to teach this book, I would only do so under the condition that I got to teach Sonia Sanchez's fiery review of it during the same class periods.)

Poem that I hate to see anthologized because it really sours students on poetry when I know there are tons of better examples of work by the author:

O Captain! My Captain! -- Walt Whitman

(Hello? Where are the excerpts from Leaves of Grass? "I sing the body electric...", come on people, it was good enough to be turned in to the climatic song for a musical for heaven's sake! Seriously, while I do love Fame and it's use of Whitman, I think if we showed students [myself included when I was stuck in ninth grade English and bored out of my mind] Whitman's "Song of Myself" and told them to write an essay on it or, better yet, their own 'song', we'd have some much more intriguing things to talk about in class.)

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. And though I am 'raging against the machine' (i.e. I guess in this case the 'man' would be the Academy, the New York Times book critics, I don't know...) here, I really punked out because all of author's are long dead, so I'm really not hurting anybody's feelings. I'd love to see some other lists of hated classics or, even better, contemporary lit that doesn't do it for you. Feel free to leave your own list in the comments, if you dare...

Monday, August 20, 2007

Poem of the Month, Week, Night

Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me

Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.
Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree.
The tree was a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,
and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
at which moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain –
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.
--Mary Oliver

I know this POEM OF THE WEEK is long overdue. Life has been happening, as it will, when you think you have time for rest or peace.

I chose this piece for a few reasons. I have been making my way back to Mary Oliver this summer. Her work is bucolic and wondrous and all the things I only dream of as a poet. I am not now nor will I ever be a "nature" poet. I think Oliver brings honor to the term, as it has taken much flack during the last decade, but what else can you call a poet who sings of egrets and mushrooms and trout and crickets with little 'mouth-caves'? She seems to find her peace in the land around her. I find peace in her peace.

Last night, a Nor'Easter blew through town and gave my little house a thrashing. I woke to all kinds of debris (most notably, two shopping carts from the store across the street and a sign) on my lawn strewn about the yard. The rain beat so loudly I couldn't sleep, and I can always sleep.

But it was good, cleansing, and on time. Each year since I've been here, all through my time in undergraduate school, a Nor'Easter blows through to welcome the first day of classes. It's like clock work and no one else seems to notice. Last night, I was in bed and kept looking out the window--waiting. I couldn't sleep until the rain came and then couldn't sleep because of it. I listened to it, tossed and turned, prayed a bit in the dark.

What a trying week it has been. The good always heaped in with the bad. Bennington lost Liam Rector last week. He was the center of the vortex and much of the community is spiraling now. What a strange and sad loss for all of us.

I chose Oliver's poem because I have been reading her newest book, Why I Wake Early, and have determined that she is the supreme optimist. I am trying to be both those things. In the poem above, everything leads back to everything else; we are all connected whether we know it or not. Every journey is our journey, Oliver is right, and in the midst of thunder and lightning and morning and rain, what a wondrous journey it is.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sammy Davis jr. - Mister Bojangles

I've been thinking a lot about Sammy Davis Jr. lately. Every few years, I search for new things I can find that memorialize him. This song has become his quentessential piece for me. I think it represented everything he was and everything he was frightened of becoming.

There are some performers who never really seem gone. Sammy is one of them for me. I think I am a constant fan because of his work ethic and his willingness to defy others for the things he loved. He was never enough and always too much for us. Brilliant man that he was.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Loss of Sekou Sundiata

I'm sad to report that the poet Sekou Sundiata has passed away. He has had numerous health problems in the past, as chronicled by some of his work, but suffered a series of heart attacks a few days ago and slipped into death yesterday morning.

The only time I actually had the pleasure of seeing him live was last September at the Dodge Poetry Festival. I'd read Sundiata's poems and heard some of his recordings. I'd been told by everyone that his live perfomances were the only things that did his work justice. At Dodge, his reading was toned down. He read a poem about his experience in New York City post-September 11th. There was no music (though his group had performed earlier in the day) and there was no else behind him. His look was toned down as well. He just wore a shirt and sweatpants, he was clean-shaven and looked a bit tired. But he read the work with precision and used his voice to make the story tangible. The audience was riveted, and it was no small crowd to tame. Indeed, he will be missed.

Below is his obituary written by Louis Reyes Rivera:

On Wednesday, July 18, 2007, at 5:47a.m. (ET), poet Sekou Sundiata passed away. A highly esteemed performing poet, Mr. Sundiata wrote for print, performance, music and theater. Born Robert Franklin Feaster in Harlem , on August 22, 1948, Sundiata came of age as an artist during the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

While attending the City College of New York (CCNY), where he began reciting poetry publicly, Sundiata converged with several other student activists, including once-mayoral candidate of Pittsburgh and longtime friend, Leroy Hodge, to form the basis for what soon became known as the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community of City College (BPRSC). This phalanx of 400 students soon made their own history, closing the 21,000-student campus during the Spring of 1969, to demand, among other things, that CCNY be renamed Harlem University . The net effect of the student takeover culminated in both an Open Admissions Policy that took effect in September 1970, the full legitimization of ethnic studies departments throughout the nation, as well as the requirement that all education majors within the City University take courses in African American History and to have Spanish as a Second Language.

Among his acknowledged mentors at City were Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and fellow student Louis Reyes Rivera, with whom Sundiata helped to establish the first Black student newspaper in the City University , CCNY's The Paper. Their association would span close to forty years of mutual respect and admiration.

Upon completing his Bachelor's Degree (circa 1974), Sundiata enrolled and completed his Master's in Creative Writing while regularly producing community-based poetry readings that were known to draw SRO crowds. In 1976, his creative sensibilities, his innate organizing skills, and his associations with a convergent generation of excellent poets, musicians and dancers immediately led to a collaborative project he directed that would commemorate 100 years of Black struggle for freedom and Human Rights. Titled The Sounds of the Memory of Many Living People (1863-1876/ 1963-1976) , this production, which included upcoming novelist Arthur Flowers and such poets as Safiya Henderson-Holmes, BJ Ashanti, Tom Mitchelson, Louis Reyes Rivera, et al, was staged in Harlem over a period of two days, signaling much of what was to come from Sekou's sense of vision, steadily breaking ground for what was then a new literary genre, Performance Poetry, fully anticipating elements of both Hip Hop Culture and Spoken Word Art.

In 1977, the aforementioned poets, along with Zizwe Ngafua, Rashidah Ismaili, Fatisha (Hutson), Sandra Maria Esteves, Akua Lezli Hope, Mervyn Taylor, and Sekou, among others, formed the Calabash Poets Workshop, which group signaled the arrival of a new literary heat in New York, regularly producing soirees and forums (1977-1983) that included all of the arts and culminated in a three-year attempt (1979-1982) to establish an independent Black Writers Union.

Upon the release of his first vinyl album (circa 1980), Are & Be, Sekou Sundiata was dubbed by Amiri Baraka as "the State of the Art." Since then, Mr. Sundiata established a longtime relationship with CCNY's Aaron Davis Performing Arts Center , through which venue he intermittently produced new material for the stage, consistently collaborating with musicians, dancers and actors. He was eventually selected for a number of earned fellowships, including a Sundance Institute Screenwriting Fellow, a Columbia University Revson Fellow, a Master Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts ( Florida ), and as the first Writer-in-Residence at the New School University in New York , in which university's Eugene Lang College he remained a professor.

He was, as well, among those featured in the Bill Moyers' PBS series on poetry, The Language of Life, and in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on HBO. Among several highly acclaimed performance theater works in which he served as both author and performer are: The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop, which toured nationally and received three AUDELCO Awards and a BESSIE Award; The Mystery of Love, commissioned and produced by New Voices/ New Visions at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia; and Udu, a music theater work produced by 651 ARTS in Brooklyn and presented by the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, the Walker Art Center and Penumbra Theater in Minneapolis, Flynn Center in Burlington, VT, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Miami-Dade Community College in Florida. Throughout this period and since 1985, he developed a close association with co-collaborator and legendary trombonist Craig S. Harris.

blessing the boats, Sundiata's first solo theater piece, an exploration into his own personal battles with kidney failure, opened in November 2002 at Aaron Davis Hall, NYC. It has since been presented in more than 30 cities and continued to tour nationally. In March 2005, Sundiata produced The Gift of Life Concert, an organ donation public awareness event at the Apollo Theater that kicked off a three-week run of blessing the boats at the Apollo's SoundStage. in partnership with the Apollo Theater Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation and the New York Organ Donor Network with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Since 2006, his the 51st (dream) state has been presented throughout the U.S. and in Australia . Both blessing the boats and the 51st (dream) state were produced in collaboration with MultiArts Projects and Productions (MAPP). In addition to working within community engagement activities at Harlem Stages/Aaron Davis Hall, the University of Michigan and University Musical Society (Ann Arbor, MI), the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC), the University of Texas Austin (Austin, TX), in Miami Dade College (Miami, FL), and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Sundiata has appeared as a featured speaker and artist at the Imagining America Conference (Ann Arbor, MI), at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston, MA), and at the Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed Conference (Minneapolis, MN), among others. Prior to his demise, he was engaged in producing a DVD documenting the America Project for use by universities and presenters as a model for art and civic engagement.In addition to the 1979 Are & Be album, Sundiata's other releases include a second album, The Sounds of the Memory of Many Living People, and two CDs, The Blue Oneness of Dreams, nominated for a Grammy Award, and longstoryshort. Each of these works are rich with the sounds of blues, funk, jazz and African and Afro-Caribbean percussion, with the latter two featuring Craig Harris.

He is survived by his mother, Virginia Myrtle Feaster, his wife, Maurine Knighton, daughter Myisha Gomez, stepdaughter Aida Riddle, grandson Aman, brothers William Walter Feaster and Ronald Eugene Feaster, as well as a host of relatives, admirers, students and friends.

A private funeral service of family and friends is scheduled for Saturday, July 21, and a commemorative celebration of his life and work is scheduled to take place on August 22, his birthday, at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House. Details to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in the name of Sekou Sundiata to the New York Organ Donor Network or to the National Kidney Foundation.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Poem of the Week

The Piercing Chill I Feel

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .

--Taniguchi Buson,
Translated by Harold G. Henderson

This poem was written around 1760 and has been anthologized all over the place. Whenever I am trying to find good examples of haiku, I always return to it. This poem is proof that a small poem can capture as much, if not more, emotion than a terribly long one.

The imagery and word choices do most of the work here. Words like "piercing" and the last phrase "under my heel", help ground the reader in the speaker's space. Just for argument's sake, I have to acknowledge the fact that this is a translation and the words here might be more Mr. Henderson's than Buson's, as I've seen other translations that have slightly different word choices and aren't as compelling. Henderson was an avid haiku reader and translator and spent years in Japan studying the works of poets like Basho and Buson, so I'm hoping he's a reliable source. This is always the trouble with translation, the fear that 'the poetry' will be what's lost when the words are taken out of their native tongue.

"The Piercing Chill I Feel" is a death poem, but we are not forced to look at death in it's entirety, at least it doesn't seem that way. However, each dissection of a line brings us closer to the speaker's realization: his wife is gone, he is lonely and there is nothing left of her but the remnants of things he finds in their home. This is the death poem that most of us are trying to write. The fact that Buson got it right in three lines is remarkable.

Punctuation is also used superbly here. This is what I try to get across to my students when they ask if punctuation (or any grammatical tool) is necessary in poetry. I think they ask these kinds of questions because they see good poets using little to no punctuation and wonder why they can't do it too. The key words here, however, are "good poets", meaning, of course, seasoned poets who already know what they are doing. Sure Lucille Clifton can write a poem with no title, six lines with no periods or capital letters and still say anything she wants to say better than you. But she's Lucille Clifton; it took her time to get there. Buson (and Henderson, as I'm sure some of the grammatical adaptation had to be indicative of the language the poem was being translated into) made use of each aspect of language, including good syntax, to make this poem sharp. I am especially impressed with the colon in the first line, which separates that all inclusive phrase and lets the reader know that the definition of it is coming, and the ellipsis that ends the poem, which indicates that much has been said, but much more has been left unsaid.

I know that many contemporary poets are interested in short forms like haiku, tanka, even sonku, but I'm not sure which venues are showcasing them. If anyone has suggestions on where to find some good contemporary haiku, please send them along...

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Caine Prize for African Writing

My good friend, Ada Udechukwu, has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and we are all glowing for her. They announce the prize winner in a few days and I am on pins and needles. She was nominated for her short story "Night Bus" which was published in The Atlantic Monthly's annual fiction issue last year. You can read an interview Ada gave about her life as a writer and visual artist and her story in The Atlantic here. Go, Ada, go!

Poetry Foundation Blog

If you're wondering what poet extraordinare Patricia "Shake it fast" Smith has been up to, check out the Poetry Foundation Blog. They call it Harriet :-) She posted the picture above to rub in the fact that she got to go back to Cave Canem again this year.

Other writers you get to check in with on the Poetry Foundation blog are: Rachel Zucker, Kenneth Goldsmith and Kwame Dawes, among others.

Not only can you get some insight into the lives of various writers, but you can comment on their posts. More often than not, they even take the time to write back. Cool.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Reasons We Need Cave Canem

Well, our little poetry project pretty much failed miserably. After the first day, no one in the group could manage to turn in or comment on poems, mostly because life got in the way. Fortunately, we all understood that without having to come out and say it. It wasn't a lost week, though. I know Aracelis has been on the road promoting her new book, John is getting ready for not one, but two trips to Provincetown, Kamilah (Aisha) is teaching and rediscovering the beauty of New York, Samantha is doing readings and writing companion books for a critically acclaimed television show and I managed to get off a few applications for some serious grants.
So, work was being done, we just couldn't manage to do the kind of work we would have done had we been at the Cave Canem summer retreat. But, in a way, I think that's as it should be.

Attending the Cave Canem summer retreat is like entering a different world. It's the only place I've ever been where I turned off my cell phone and ignored my e-mail for a week, survived on less than four hours of sleep per night and still managed to turn out a new poem every single day. I have written six new poems in the past month, and it has been a very, very good month. However, at Cave Canem, six new poems come in seven days and most of them turn out to be pretty good poems. This is part of the beauty of Cave Canem. The isolation and insulation it provides forces and allows you to do things you simply can't do at home. Last week, while we were in the midst of our CC alumni poetry challenge, I thought about writing a poem everyday. Between the forty-hour work week and all the deadlines wrapped up in it, grant applications, journal submissions, family obligations, bible study, cleaning house, friends and sleep, I just couldn't manage to find the time to write, at least not a poem a day. I wrote something everyday and did have a very productive week, mostly because I kept telling myself, "If you don't have a poem to send out today, you better have a darn good reason for it." So, John's challenge actually did help me write, just not in the way he originally proposed.

The Cave Canem retreat gives you the freedom of time and space, but it also gives you the tools you need to continue your work as a poet. It prepares you for submissions deadlines and applications. While I was completing grant applications this week, I realized that, without Cave Canem, I wouldn't have the work or the clarity of craft that I needed to even apply for most artist grants. I had the work and knew how to support it, but still didn't know how to condense it all and churn out a sharp proposal, so I had to call someone for help. Of course, it was a CC alumna. This confidence in our wok and the connections we make at Cave Canem are invaluable. This is why we need the place; it is a necessary gift.

Congrats to the 'newbies' who got their first taste of CC this year, the second years who knew how to tread the waters and the third years for completing the journey. All love to the ever-increasing fold.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cave Canem Retreat Week

Cave Canem officially kicked off its summer retreat yesterday and I am immensely jealous. I finished my years as a fellow there last summer and am having a hard time not imagining myself back in Pittsburgh this year. I keep dreaming Dante Michaeux will call and say, "We need you for something! Can you come volunteer?" Even in my fantasies I can no longer take part in the workshop, but I can still be there, running around the campus, delivering poem packets to Toi and Cornelius, maybe jamming it up with Patricia Smith late into the night.

Fortunately, I'm not the only one who feels this way. Got a call from the homie John Murillo who is enlisting other CC alumni to take part in a writing challenge similar to CC's this week. We are to write a poem every day this week and send them to the other participating fellows, via email, by a set time each day. I'm so excited that he's thought of this and asked me to participate. Other fellows caught up in the roll call are: Aracelis Girmay, Samantha Thornhill and Kamilah Aisha Moon. I'll post updates about how things are going throughout the week and mention anyone else who jumps into the mix.

If any 'retreating' fellows are reading this, send us updates please! You know we all have to live vicariously through you now :-(

Use the week to walk heavy with the spirits. Read well, write fire!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Poem of the Week


when I see the shadow of the hawk
but not the hawk itself do you know
what it feels like Boss a stone a stone
set on my chest it weighs me down
it's stronger than the horse's strain
against the plow lines Boss it's like
the river after rain I can't
hold back the pull the pull that makes
me like its heft I even like
the shadow's tiny yoke O Boss
I feel its curve around my neck
I see a flap of wings so black
it binds me to the furrows Boss
a shadow smarter than the sting
of a switch though it is lighter than
a feather though it is thinner than
a leaf that shadow stone is one
of many wonders Boss for all
the world it makes me think of you
you heavy thing you never move

--Maurice Manning

This poem is from a book called Bucolics, in which none of the poems have proper titles (the title if this poem and the others are just roman numerals). I haven't read the book. I haven't read any of Manning's books, in fact, but this is an intriguing poem.

Upon first reading it, I was a bit taken aback. It's clear from the onset that it's a persona poem, but by the third line, when I found the word "Boss" (the only word other than "I" capitalized throughout the poem), I became a little leery. I was very leery, cautious even, by the time I reached the twelfth line which reads: "I see a flap of wings so black/ it binds me to the furrows Boss..."

This stops me because of something Ms. Lucille Clifton said to me, to a group of poets at Cave Canem, I just felt like she was talking specifically to me, in a workshop once. She said, "Never use the words dark or black in a negative light. People have already done that enough." Since then, of course, I've been paying rapt attention, maybe too much. By the time I got to these lines in Manning's poem, I'd begun asking the questions. Is this a negative usage? Is that what the author meant? Did he know or think to know? Should I be jolted by it? This continued as I made my way down the page, dissecting each word or phrase as it came.

Some who stumble upon this blog might immediately get the sense of my dilemma, without any explanation, but I think, for my own sake in the very least, I should make sure there is no 'gray space' here. My immediate sense as I am reading this poem is that the persona is that of a black man--a slave perhaps, a sharecropper--stuck in the regiment of the old South. This is not a problem or even strange, until I discover that this poem was written by a white poet, or a poet I am assuming (as I do not personally know him) is a white poet. Now, the fact that I believe the persona is that of a black man is not an issue, I am not sure, however, as I have not read the book, whether it is meant to be one of many voices in a group of voices that rallies against the restrictions of class and economy, etc. or if it is one poem in a group of many that will lean more towards caricature than anything else, that border on appropriation in a way. This isn't a new argument/discussion, we've had it in the past and still have it. As a matter of fact, I was reading a group of poems by a black poet the other day who was writing about issues in another culture and I had to say, though some of them were spectacular poems, Some of these images are becoming repetitive and stale, mostly because you are not in and of this particular culture. You are creating caricatures without knowing it or intending to and this is problematic.

Truth be told, upon my first read, I liked this poem. I was knocked out by the pacing and the ending, but then, as I always do when I like a poem, I checked out the author. I was not so sure how I felt about the poem then. I scoured the Internet for information on the author, what little I found didn't sway me one way or the other. As far as I can tell, no one else has read this poem and asked these questions and the author hasn't spoken much about the poems either. Now, I could be off base on many things here. This poem could have nothing to do with race, the South or any of the other things that have gone through my mind. Some of the word choices and diction evoke images of the old South, whether they were intended to or not (though I can't really say I believe any contemporary American poet could write without intending to do so or at least with some knowledge of the denotative and connotative meanings of each chosen word--the title is Bucolics, for heaven's sake), but this is neither here nor there. I could be projecting my own existence and history, or the history of those who have filled my life and work, onto this work. This in and of itself is not wrong, I think we all do that with each poem we encounter anyway. Otherwise how do we get so many interpretations of the same poem? Nonetheless, in this case, I am beginning to judge the poem based on my 'leeriness ' about the intent of the poet. This is a problem for me.

I moved through five or six poems before I settled on this one as my POEM OF THE WEEK. I am sure I did this for a number of reasons, mainly because I am still not sure what to make of the poet and the poem and because I am jarred by my inability to separate the two. I thought it might be helpful to post the poem and my comments, in hopes of creating some dialogue about it. I might be giving Manning a bad rap here, as many of these assumptions might be as far away from the truth of his poem as he can imagine. (It bears mentioning that, especially given the collection's title, these could be 'God' poems, bordering on midrash in a way and that would put a whole new spin on things, especially for me, as that is one of my biggest interests.) Also, the truth of the matter is, had I went searching for the author and found him a black man, this conversation wouldn't even be taking place. It would have been a good poem and I would have added the book to my reading list without hesitation. The book is still on my reading list, though I hesitated about it before putting it there.

This is what I'd like to talk about, this hesitation, the 'circumstantial' reading of a poem and territory. Isn't even using the term 'appropriation' being territorial? Also can a reader really 'judge' a poem like this out of context. The sparse nature of the punctuation and the fact that it isn't titled may signify that it really can't be read a closely as it should be when it's outside of the collection. Anyway, just some thoughts...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Calls for Submissions

I'm trying to get some submissions going for the summer and wanted to share a few places that might be of interest...

A call from Honorée Fanonne Jeffers:

I am guest-editing a special black women's issue of the journal PMS: Poem/Memoir/ Story, to be published in Spring 2008. The issue will feature poems, stories and memoirs by black women writers, both established and emerging. In case you haven't heard about PMS, it's a great little journal (with a funny name!) dedicated to all women's literature, edited by Linda Frost, and published out of University of Alabama at Birmingham. PMS is pretty unpretentious, but despite that, in just seven short years, PMS has published such writers as Ruth Stone, Carly Sachs, Remica L. Bingham, Allison Joseph, and Natasha Trethewey. And the journal has received several accolades as well: A reading “pick” by the Small Press Review; poems included in Best American Poetry 2003 and 2004; a story included in New Stories from the South 2005; memoirs included in Best American Essays 2005 and 2007; and a memoir included in The Best Creative Nonfiction 2007. In addition, work from PMS has also received special mention for the 2005 Pushcart Prize and work has been included on former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser's online weekly column, American Life in Poetry.If you identify as a black (or African American) woman and would like to submit work to be considered for this special issue, the deadline is October 1, 2007. Please send up to 5 poems or 15 pages of prose (fiction or memoir) with SASE to: PMS (Black Women Writers’ Issue) University of Alabama at Birmingham Dept. of English, 900 South 13th Street Birmingham, AL 35294-1260. In addition to sending hard copies of your work to the snail mail address, please ALSO send an electronic copy of your submission (word format) to me at honijeff@aol. com. Take care, and please spread the word!

From Poetry Magazine:

"In June, July, and August 2007, Poetry will only consider work from poets who have not previously appeared in the magazine."

From Poets & Writers Magazine:

There are too many to list, but check the website for updates on deadlines.

My main goal this summer is to try to find new ways to get the work out there and to find interesting places to submit. Are there any new or re-vamped journals that have caught any one's eye lately?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Poem of the Week

The Boy Died in My Alley

to Running Boy

The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
"Apparently died Alone."

"You heard a shot?" Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.

The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.

Policeman pounded on my door.
"Who is it?" "POLICE!" Policeman yelled.
"A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?"

I have known this Boy before.
I have known this Boy before, who
ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.

I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.

I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.

He cried not only "Father!"
but "Mother!
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long
stretch-strain of Moment.

The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.

-- Gwendolyn Brooks
I've decided to add some weekly features to the blog, so I have a little structure. It helps keep me on track. That being said, this is my first POEM OF THE WEEK, "The Boy Died in My Alley" by Gwendolyn Brooks.

I came across this poem in a wonderful anthology called Cornerstones, edited by Melvin Donalson. All too often, as is done with most prolific writers, we see the same poem(s) anthologized over and over again. Don't get me wrong, "We Real Cool" is a good poem, but it isn't all Ms. Brooks had to offer. It has become her most famous poem, but is not in any way a scope into the complexity of her work.

In "The Boy Died in My Alley" Brooks recounts the story of a boy--perhaps one of the pool players from the Golden Shovel, maybe just some kid who carried groceries in the neighborhood to make spare change--who is killed in the alley outside her home. In the first stanza, Brooks sets up a simple rhyme scheme, a-b-c-b, and tells the story in a nutshell. The police have come, no one seems to know the boy and no one seems to have noticed his death, least of all the speaker. This changes as the poem moves forward. Brooks allows the speaker to reflect on the violence occurring close to home, the lost boy and the speaker's own part in the matter.

One thing that I love about this poem, and many of Brooks' gems, is the spectacular word choice and usage. The lines, "careening tinnily down the nights / across my years and arteries", for example, are wonderfully descriptive without being trite or predictable. "Arteries" isn't a word readers would expect to find at the end of that line, but it's an accurate one. Not only does Brooks call up the physical violence that is taking place here, but also the fact that the violence has become so commonplace that it has infiltrated the speaker's life, even the speaker's body, in an intimate way. Later on in the poem, the boy "ornaments" the speaker's alley instead of just running through it or lying in the street. She acknowledges her responsibility in the matter, though she does not know the boy personally, with the lines, "I joined the Wild and killed him / with knowledgeable unknowing... / I saw him Crossed. And seeing / I did not take him down." The use of the word "Crossed" as a created verb that alludes to the crucifixion is brilliant; the layers are endless.

After my first reading of the poem, the last couplet echoed in my head for weeks, "The red floor of my alley / is a special speech to me." These two lines work on so many levels. First, the "red floor" as an allusion to the boy's blood, the stain of his lost life, etc., seems like a simple. However, usually, an alley isn't a place that one would refer to as having a floor, but a home is. This is the speaker's home--the neighborhood, the block--in its entirety, and now it speaks to her almost as loudly as the shots that ring out so often. The repetition of the consonant sounds in the last line, "... special speech...", slows the reader down a bit. This is an important shift in movement, as the lines have gotten shorter in the last few stanzas and we've been catapulted down the page by the rhythm and the shorter lines and end rhymes create. But when the reader reaches the last couplet, there is space and a quiet shift, a reverence for the Running Boy and his life.

There is no hard and fast rhyme scheme or traditional meter in the poem. The rhythm is fluid, heightened by the scattered rhyme, the use of repetition and the variation of line lengths. Whenever I get up on my free verse high horse (mostly, I'm sure, because I am often intimidated by form) I return to Brooks, who infused her work with elements of form in such an innovative way that it's sometimes difficult to define the technique she uses in poems such as this. Brooks was able to take familiar subject matter and make it fresh by using elements of formal and free verse to create a narrative that captures the scenery and the many of the elements in her neighborhood, in most of our neighborhoods really. We have all "...joined the Wild..."

Clearly, Brooks does more here than I can discuss, but I just wanted to highlight the poem and drum up some discussion on the genius of Ms. Brooks' work. There are some folks holding down the fort as far as Ms. Brooks is concerned. Of course, everyone at Chicago State who had/has a hand in making the Gwendolyn Brooks Center a reality and keeping all of the books--even Maud Martha, Brooks' only novel--in print. Not to be forgotten is the Furious Flower herself, Joanne Gabbin, who always makes sure to uphold Ms. Brooks' legacy and delivered an outstanding keynote address on Ms. Brooks' importance at a non-literary conference ( I attended in March, and had the interdisciplinary crowd riveted, I might add.

I'd be interested in hearing about/seeing any poems that allude to the work of Ms. Brooks or to her life from those who'd like to share. Does anybody have any suggestions on where to find poems/poets who following in Ms. Brooks' footsteps?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

When Greatness Calls...

You jump, obviously. Prof. Sonia Sanchez herself dialed my digits last night and I almost crashed my car trying to answer my cell. After successfully answering and pulling over, I got the word that we had unfinished business. I started an interview with Ms. Sonia in December and have yet to complete it. All kinds of "life" things got in the way and we (we here meaning I) have been stutter-stepping ever since.

Ms. Sonia is so loving and gracious. She has given me space and time and now, a swift kick in the pants. So, we will wrap up this interview on Thursday and sent it off to the editors soon after. I've been working on a number of interviews with Black writers (poets, specifically, to-date) and am trying to put a collection together within the next two years. I'm wrapping up Ms. Sonia and wrapped up the illustrious Lucille Clifton last month. Interviews are hard work, though, and they take away from my other writing time. I definitely stalled out while I was working on the book and now I'm trying to jump start all of my projects again.

Interviews are a great way to help you start thinking about craft. Ethelbert taught me that when I was at Bennington; he made me conduct my first interview with my mentor, Tim Seibles. I make it a point to only interview people whose work I admire, so I get a lot of insight by probing about their process(es). There are so many writers I would love or would have loved to interview. Here's my dream list:

James Baldwin
Toni Morrison
Langston Hughes
Jessie Faucet
August Wilson
Mildred D. Taylor
Walter Dean Myers
Rosa Guy
Gwendolyn Brooks

Is anybody else doing interviews out there or does anyone know of places publishing insightful interviews?

Monday, June 4, 2007

Books I Can't Wait to Get My Hands On...

What better way to start this thing off than by talking about the books I've been waiting for? I am, indeed, a book junkie and am trying not to buy too many more books as I've already filled the bookcases in my office and had to beg my Dad to build extra ones upstairs (which he did--thanks, Dadddy). Even so, I know I'm going to break down and pick these up in the next month or so:

Linda Susan Jackson -- What Yellow Sounds Like (Tia Chucha)

Aracelis Girmay -- Teeth (Curbstone)

Kwame Dawes -- Impossible Flying (Peepal Tree)

Malcolm Gladwell -- Blink (Back Bay Books)

Colin Channer -- The Girl With the Golden Shoes (Akashic Books)

Cormac McCarthy -- The Road (Knopf)

If anybody has any suggestions for some really good contemporary fiction, please send them along. I'm never short in the poetry department, but I'm always on the lookout for good fiction that has flown under my radar.

Seriously, there are worse vices than books, chocolate and shoes, right???

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Jumping in...

I'm here, just barely, but I'm here, thanks to Amanda Johnston--web designer and poet extraordinaire.

More words to come in soon time.