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???