Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Heading Home (Kind of...)

Heading back to Phoenix makes me feel like the star in the old Issac Hayes song, but I'm not sure if I'm the one leaving or the one being left. You have all kinds of strange musings when you return to your childhood home. Even as I type I'm sitting in the Velma Teague Library and wondering how I got here...I'm trying to channel some of this distant beauty while I'm back in Arizona.

Much to say, too, about my trip to San Francisco/Napa. My Heliotrope reading was wonderful and I have Myron Michael, the H.E.A.T. poets, Jeannie and Travis, James and plenty of other folks to thank for that. A poem is calling, so I'm off again, but wanted to send a 'thank you' shout out to the folks who have already made this a fabulous getaway...more soon.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Reading at Mama Art Cafe in San Franciso on Friday, 12/12 @ 7 PM

I'll finally be back on the West Coast for a little fun next week. I'll be reading in poet/MC/teacher/late-night phone guru Myron Michael's HELIOTROPE reading series at Mama Art Cafe on Friday night. I am so excited to see some folks in the Bay and share the stage with Myron's talented students. They'll open the set and I'll feature.

I am especially nervous because I'll be introducing the new work to the world at this reading. Conversion has been out for some time and the second manuscript, What We Ask of Flesh, is floating around out in the world, so I'm ready to break out the poems nestled there. Even I'll be interested to see what kind of connections I find between the two bodies because I've never let them exist in the same space before, as they are so very different.

The flyer is posted below, but here's the main info.:

What: Heliotrope Reading Series sponsored by Rondeau Records
When: Friday, 12/12/08 at 7:00PM
Where: Mama Art Cafe
4754 Mission St. (between RUSSIA and LEO)
San Francisco, CA 94110Mama Art Cafe

If you're in the Bay, please come out to share the word and hang for a little while...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Back INSPIRIT -- NYC Dec. 4 - 6

INSPIRIT Dance Company is at it again in NYC and they are using one of my poems in their fall show, Dream and Visions. Here are the details:

The choreography of Christal Brown, the music of Farai Malianga, the poetry of Remica Bingham, the costumes of Trebian Pollard, and the performing power of INSPIRIT come together to make a Dream into a Vision.

Get your tickets now! Dreams and Visions runs December 4 - 6, Thursday - Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $25, $15 students/seniors. BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center is located at the Borough of Manhattan Community College at 199 Chambers Street (between Greenwich and the West Side highway, accessible from the 1, 2, 3, A, C, E , N, R , 4, 5, 6, J, M trains New Jersey Path train and the M20 & M22 buses). For tickets or more information call 212-220-1460 or visit

Check out some buzz on the show here and please go out to support these wonderfully talented artists if you're in NYC.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Whenever, Wherever, Whatever...

You will not believe what two fabulous writers helped me do last night...so Maxwell (yes, that is him looking all pretty up above) turned out the Landmark Theater and I was determined to get close enough to reach out and touch him. Well, everything came together: averted a few minor crises, got the cameras in working order, landed the most fabulous seats and came with reinforcements. I thought for sure security was going to trip me up, but even they gave in after I reasoned with them for a few seconds.

There is a good reason that I am clearly having some time of conniption fit in the picture below...this is me after I convinced security to let me run down into the orchestra pit and sidle up right below Maxwell...

Here's the full view of the same photo (thanks to Princess). There's me again at the bottom and what's that in Maxwell's hand, you might ask?...

Need a closer look?...

Just in case you're still not sure...

Yes, that is Maxwell, he is in the middle of tearing the house down and he does have an autographed copy of my book in his hand!!! This, of course, just after he reached down and took it from me while thanking me profusely for it...I always knew his Mama raised him right :-)

We had such an amazing time last night and I wouldn't have been nearly as successful at offering up some poetry (he is not going to remember who gave him those flowers or who threw those unmentionables on the stage!) to the man who inspires me in so many ways were it not for my two fabulous friends. Here's a shot of Princess and Lamar, all euphoric and beautiful after the show...

Oh and security wasn't stopping anyone from whipping out the heavy artillery, so I held it together long enough to record this...This Woman's Work is done and done well :-)

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Poem of the Month

Everybody is buzzing about the news that Obama was caught with a book of poetry in his hands yesterday. Of course, the poets were thrilled about this, but were even more interested in what/whom the president-elect was reading. I think we were all happy to hear it was Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, brilliant ambassador of poetry from the Caribbean.

I always teach the same Walcott poem at the very end of every one of my creative writing/poetry classes and it is one of the most important mantras in my life:

Love After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

--Derek Walcott

Even as I am typing this, I am in tears. Walcott is simply stunning here. And as you grow older (or as I do) the words have new meaning each time you reach and surpass a milestone in your life. The poem is about all the things we're ever told but find it difficult to remember: you are good enough; you are worthy; this too shall pass; this is a learning experience; no can love you until you learn to love yourself. This is the same thing we get from parents and self-help books, but Walcott uses a fraction of the space and time to say it so much better. You get the sense that he is convinced this is true and so you are convinced.

First, the opening declarative statement--"The time will come"--as opposed to a less forceful one such as 'The time may come', instantly creates a kind of omniscience on the part of the speaker. This authoritative voice is used throughout the poem to impart clear and essential advice to the reader. Walcott sets up a 'mirror image' in the first stanza. The poem is written using the second person point of view, so the reader immediately gets the sense that they are being given some personal life lesson. All of the action that takes place in the poem is that of the reader looking in on himself. He arrives 'at his own door', looks into 'his own mirror' and dines at his own table.

By the second stanza, the reader has the sense that they are meeting and old friend, but here the "me, myself and i" cliche is handled with more subtlety than it is in other art forms. There is much to be said about the infusion of the meal imagery here. The 'breaking of bread' is a sacred thing in most cultures. We have inferences of it some of our our pinnacle art, especially in the black community, not least of all Langston's reference to the table.

The original use of the term, and the imagery, is biblical. People literally broke bread together and shared not only food, but sustenance, literal and spiritual, around the table. Hence, Walcott's choice of cuisine--bread and wine--are deliberate and important. This particular food and drink has been a staple since ancient times. Everyone, from monarchs to paupers, partook in some form of the two. When Christ instituted the new passover memorial, he used bread and wine to symbolize his pure blood and body; he told his followers to do this 'in remembrance', to continue breaking bread together as a symbol of their devotion to righteousness and their commitment to continue to strive to be holy themselves.

All of this is evident in Walcott's poem. His overarching point is that, eventually, after superficial love, we will begin to recognize our own power and 'holiness'. In time, we will recognize 'the stranger who was your self' and love that person--whom we deny for an infinite number of reasons--as the great love/friend/confidant we've searched for.

By the time we reach the last stanza, Walcott's declarative statements become imperative ones. The speaker commands us to recognize our journey and power. In essence, he says you must "Sit. Feast on your life." The clarity of Walcott's language here is not to be confused with simplicity. His word choices are deliberate and sharp. Another principle example is the phrase "by heart" in the third stanza. Normally, knowing something by heart means merely that we've memorized it, but here it has a layered meaning. The 'stranger' here has not only memorized the mannerisms and choices of person the speaker is referring to but also literally knows this person's intimate thoughts, emotions and innerworkings, because they are one in the same. No one knows 'you' by heart more than you know yourself. And knowing one 'by heart' also means that there is an implicit love, one that is inextricably linked to a person's history--good or bad--that you always have, and eventually re-discover, for yourself.

It's difficult to elaborate critically on such a seamless poem. Walcott has done more in his fifteen lines than I could ever do here. I think it is one of the few perfect poems I have ever read and that may be the reason I've come to cherish it so. Glad to see that others, Obama included, have been mulling over this light. Maybe this will inspire new folks to turn to poetry in times fear or hope or celebration.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Group D -- Doin' the Doggone Thang :-)

CC '06 Group D is back in full effect. We're on day 24 of a 30-day write (a poem a day for thirty days) and have been encouraging each other every step of the way. I'm not sure who planted the seed (Christina? Dante? Lita?) but we began in the middle of last month and I can't believe we've gotten this far. This is a great exercise because it pushes you to find time for poems, despite whatever else is going on in the world or in your life. I had literally sent out my second manuscript the day before we began and I felt like I was all tapped out. I didn't want to see another poem, much less write one. Of course, we complain (or at least I do) while writing and submitting every poem, but I've been writing steadily and that's not something I am usually able (or willing) to do. The best part is, there are no real constraints. We don't even have a steady stream of comments on each poem--folks chime in when they want to and, most of the time, folks don't say anything at all. This practice has given the whole group time and space to just create freely without consequence or the perpetual fear workshop can create. Though we haven't finished yet, I just wanted to highlight some of the beautiful music we've been making, check out a few of the nice lines I've read from each...

Demetrice Worley:

"my livelihood


"Tell me about the cruelty of the sea."

"When last troops searched the dead, I laid down
on the nearest corpse and shielded the sun with my bare hands."

"Most days my crotch is cleaner than my hands."

"Arrogance is a genuine virtue."

Lita Hooper:

"The fire dims as the pot trembles

"I test the dangers of these streets."

"I will lie to him, just as my lover did
about tomorrow's plans."

Hallie Hobson:

"I reject this gift
here is my cosmic no"

"meditate on
wet flesh and time"

"I wish this for you: a handful of ash and a string
of ruined days"

(Reginald) Dwayne Betts:

links men to God.
Not nights sleeping
under another cat’s
dreams, or days knuckling
up with the burden of an hour."

"A bus drove
us towards the country &

"It is a man. He is someone’s son. A heartache.
When he screams, our eyes open again."

Samiya Bashir:

"This is not a poem
this is a cry."

"sparkle brighter than full
moon's midnight and northern lights"

"It's round about wine-thirty and I
got tail to shake and sense to make."

Christina Archer:

"I had loose arms
and dreams once"

"thirsty for samba at twilight and some honeyed song"

"You come as a nightmare
angry and yelling for our mother"

There has been a glorious bounty these past few weeks. I've even found a small symphony in our complaints. Here's a found poem using the disclaimers we all threw around by e-mail every day:

I Am Not Krunk

I'm so amp'd now.
I've been excited that this day was coming.
I love that it was ushered in by the full moon.
I stink because I forgot about the deadline
Greetings from Paris. Poem attached.

Here is yesterday's late creation.
I was having a very Harryette Mullen kind of day.
In addition to ignoring the muse,
I am also studying for my finance exam.
I am on the intermittent poetry plan,
slogging through the best I can.

I'm getting confused with all of these
messages, comments, poems.
I'm not taking enough risk in my work.

Just wanted to voice my discontent and boredom.
I did what you said and this is what plopped out.
Even though I've fallen off y'all are holding

me up with your brilliance.

It’s getting heated now.
Man, it’s getting hectic.
This is all I got today.
I'm reaching for poems.
An imitation of sorts.
P.S. I know the titles
are getting pretty generic.
Sorry about that. See attached

A day late and a dollar....
A poem behind. This joint slums too.
Still on the road, still running behind.
This one was really rough on me.
I’m gonna slush through this.
This one is kind of 'iffy'...but I like it.
Whew! I kicked
another one out.
See attached.

Hey, I wonder if this counts as today's poem? :-) Nah, my group is surely not going for that. Anyway, grab some friends and start your own poem-a-day writing project. You'll be dazzled by what you can do.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Workin' Day and Night

It has been a long time since I had time to post (and truth be told, I'm really stealing time now!) but I wanted to give some updates. Above is a print from a Hale Woodruff painting. His lines and coloration are so lovely. I am now intent on seeing this piece in person.

Over the past month I've been away from the blog, but here are some things I've gotten done:

--"Finished" my second manuscript, What We Ask of Flesh (more on this soon...)

--Sent the manuscript and chapbook, The Body Speaks, out to some contests and book prizes

--Went to court in Emporia (where they still have town-wide fire alarms) and felt happy that I wasn't the woman in the room caught doing 99 in a 55 mph zone

--Began conversing with a talented and enthusiastic young poet named Tierra Key thanks to the fabulous Dr. Joanne Gabbin

--Jumped headfirst into a thirty-day write (i.e. a poem a day for thirty days) with 2006 CC Group D

--Put Robin Thicke's Something Else and John Legend's Evolver in heavy rotation. Currently loving this...

--Read The Secret Life of Bees (which had its problems, but was a lovely read) and read and re-read Jericho Brown's new book, Please, which is nothing short of brilliant

--Worked as a reviewer for a wonderful arts organization in Kentucky

--Tested over 800 students (I am so ready for a vacation!)

--Tried to learn the new Beyonce moves more than once in my full length mirror

--Started prepping for a teen poetry workshop I'll be teaching soon at my local library

So, lots of good things happening and I'm just trying to keep up :-) More soon...

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reading at Pretlow Library on Tuesday, 9/30 @ 6:30 PM

We're in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month and the Norfolk Public Library is using its brand new Pretlow Branch to help spread the word. The Hispanic Heritage Poetry Slam is open to the public and will feature area poets reading the work of Latino/Latina poets of choice or original work that promotes an appreciation of Hispanic culture. I'm reading work by two women I love, Naomi Ayala and Sandra Cisneros. The flyer with all the pertinent info. and the contact for the reading coordinator, Ms. Abraham, is below. Come on by if you're in town!

Trinika Abraham
Library Assistant II
Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library
111 W. Ocean View Ave
Norfolk, Va 23503

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Poem of the Month (well, maybe...)

So, for Ada's sake, I'm going to try to do a focused reading of a poem at least once a month. She told me that's what she really likes to see on the blog and, since she is fabulous, brilliant, beautiful and wonderful, I'll try to do my part to keep her happy :-)

Poetry Daily is giving us a glimpse at W.S. Merwin's new collection and this is one of the featured poems:

The Pinnacle

Both of us understood
what a privilege it was
to be out for a walk
with each other
we could tell from our different
heights that this
kind of thing happened
so rarely that it might
not come round again
for me to be allowed
even before I
had started school
to go out for a walk
with Miss Giles
who had just retired
from being a teacher all her life

she was beautiful
in her camel hair coat
that seemed like the autumn leaves
our walk was her idea
we liked listening to each other
her voice was soft and sure
and we went our favorite way
the first time just in case
it was the only time
even though it might be too far
we went all the way
up the Palisades to the place
we called the pinnacle
with its park at the cliff's edge
overlooking the river
it was already a secret
the pinnacle
as we were walking back
when the time was later
than we had realized
and in fact no one
seemed to know where we had been
even when she told them
no one had heard of the pinnacle

and then where did she go

--W.S. Merwin

This poem is teaching me so many lessons I need this morning. First, it is one or two long, gloriously built sentences, but neither has standard punctuation or needs it. Merwin masters line breaks and white space here. Also, there is almost a syllabic feel to the way each stanza reads. No line is too heavy-handed. A little over half of the forty-one lines are made up of six syllables, but no line has more than nine. This also helps propel the poem forward and by the time the reader reaches the first stanza break, each description or image builds on the previous one, so it actually feels like the reader is moving up a hill, just like the teacher and child in the poem.

Second, various meanings and the way they're hinted at throughout the poem is "a special speech (Check out Ms. Brooks...) to me" today. The Pinnacle is the perfect title for this poem. I think the best titles are the ones that capitalize on as many definitions of the word, phrase (or theme of the poem) as possible. The pinnacle is obviously the central place in the poem. However, if we examine the other definitions of the word pinnacle, we see shadings of the poem's many allusions. Just to illustrate the title's complexity, I've copied some of the definitions of the word from my favorite dictionary and related them to the poem:

Pinnacle (noun)

1. a lofty peak. -The mountain the speaker and teacher visit.

2. the highest or culminating point, as of success, power, fame, etc.: the pinnacle of one's career. -The teacher, and her noted career, serve as a pinnacle to the speaker. He, (and assuredly the rest of the town) admires her years of service. She taught "all her life" and was revered for it. She was, in the speaker's mind, the pinnacle of success. Also, a smaller and less formal consideration might be the "different heights" of the small child and the seemingly giant adult; Miss Giles is a pinnacle to the child, in stature, manner and in life.

Miss Giles is also at the pinnacle of her life, as evidenced by the fact that "this kind of thing happened so rarely," this kind of open interchange and honesty between would-be student and educator, child and adult, seasoned veteran and adolescent still learning how things can disappear so quickly in life, and this walk up to the peak signals the climax of it all. Her denouement begins as soon as they travel back down from the place "no one had heard of" and she begins to be a fading memory in the speaker's life.

3. any pointed, towering part or formation, as of rock. - The highest point of the the pinnacle itself, which was the apex of the "the Palisades... at the cliff's edge."

What is never said in the poem is exactly how or why Miss Giles disappears and the reader is left to ponder this, just like the speaker. I would love to believe the teacher just fades from memory, like most people do who leave an imprint, then move on, but I'm inclined to think that Miss Giles has died. Of course, since the speaker is much older, recounting the story and Miss Giles was at least middle-aged when the memory begins, she would most likely have been long gone. However, her death, and its cause, is alluded to throughout the poem in subtle ways. The speaker mentions that they they had to take this walk because the opportunity "might not come round again" and that they went their "favorite way/the first time just in case/it was the only time" and if Miss Giles already knew her life would be ending (and part of it, possibly the largest part, had ended when her career reached its pinnacle), she would go the distance because this might be her only chance to do so, especially with a child, or anyone, again.

By the time I reach the last line of the poem, I deduce that Miss Giles has taken her own life at the the pinnacle, since the "walk was her idea" and "her voice was soft and sure" heading up to the place, "even though it might be too far." The pinnacle would have been the perfect location for her to commit suicide because "it was already a secret" and even when they returned, " no one/seemed to know where they had been." If Miss Giles had disappeared and the speaker was too young to really know or comprehend what had happened, it would be easy for to him to remember Miss Giles simply disappearing, or fading away, as the last line suggests when the speaker asks, "and then where did she go."

Though the poem is a simple narrative, there are a few images that are really well-constructed. One that stood out is the phrase "autumn leaves" that appears in the second stanza. On the surface, it also simply means that she is stylish and beautiful; her coat reminds him of the ochre color of leaves as they turn in autumn, as they transpire and fall to the ground or get carried away with the current. I find it interesting that the "camel hair coat" is the catalyst for this image, as a coat's connotative meanings can be interpreted in many ways. A coat can symbolize the changing of the seasons and hence, change in one's life; it can be a cold and harsher period; it can signal the beginning of a migration or long journey, etc. The "autumn leaves" image and phrase itself creates an subtle but effective double entendre here, the teacher has retired in spring, right before summer. They take this walk at the end of summer, just before the young boy will start school, and she is gone soon thereafter. She leaves in autumn, at least in his memory, and autumn leaves as well, there's nothing permanent about the seasons or life as either of the two knows it.

Simply stated, this is a beautiful poem. Merwin's constraint and precision help sustain the memory for the reader and asks, in a child's voice, one of the same questions we ask ourselves over and over: Where did they go? People disappear for various reasons--we fall out of love, we move away, we grow apart, we get married, we grow older, we take our lives and we lose them to 'time and unforeseen occurrence.' At some point, we are all the child speaker and we will all be someone's Miss Giles. We will all be looking and looked after, we'll be missing and missed. Merwin, in all his years as a poet, has never forgotten this lesson and has learned to frame the question as sharply as any poet I've ever witnessed. Beautiful work he does here, asking--without answering--the question of all our lives.

Friday, September 12, 2008


...and if you had any idea which tickets I just landed, you'd already be sending gifts to bribe me for them! I am infatuated with Maxwell and decided he was my future husband about the nineteenth time I cried myself to sleep listening to "Whenever, Wherever, Whatever" when I was 16.

I've really had a few glorious years as far as music is concerned. I finally saw Stevie tear the house down last September, I got a glimpse of Prince on his Musicology tour and now I get to finally see Maxwell again. It can't get much better...unless that Jackson Family reunion in Vegas pans out, Michael and Janet join up, and I win some tickets to opening night!

So, music is clearly my muse and I use it all the time when I'm writing, especially as I get nearer to the end of a major project. Sometimes I stay up well into the wee hours of the morning, blasting the same song/album over and over again until I feel like I've made some real progress. There's no doubt that Maxwell's newest will be on blast this winter while I write. In anticipation of the cold (and the blues you probably have now that you know your seats aren't as good as mine), here's something to keep you warm...oh and you're welcome for the extra eye candy thrown in courtesy of the movie The Best Man. This is one of my favorite favorites from Maxwell. It's always good to know when a brotha ain't playin :-)

Friday, August 29, 2008

Exciting News!

I have a poem in the September Collector's Edition of Essence. Thanks to fabulous fiction writer Jamey and brilliant poet and photographer Rachel for letting me know, because neither the press nor the magazine did! (That's a much longer story than I have time to tell...) Even so, I love Essence, always have, and am extremely excited about this, especially since they chose a poem about my Nana. Now that I think about it, it's the perfect month for it because the poem is about another historic event, the anniversary of which coincided with Obama's speech last night. So, if not for the inside look at the Obama family, pick it up for the poetry, but don't go to Border's in Eatontown, New Jersey because my Aunt Robin already bought every copy they had on the shelves :-) Gotta love family.

The next bit of exciting news is that Conversion has been nominated for the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award. This is a huge honor and I'm humbled by it--just check out the other nominees and the past winners of the award. It's a long shot, but I can't wait to get dressed up and step out for the gala in D.C. Macy's here I come!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Drama: Poetry Contests and the Poets Who Love/Hate Them...

So, some parts of the poetry world are in an uproar again. Two book contests have recently done some things that confound the poets who entered and those who eagerly await the birth of new books. First, poet Stacey Lynn Brown has started a blog and is recounting her seemingly horrendous experience with Cider Press Review. The nuts and bolts of the story are that she won their annual poetry contest and, after a battle with the press, had the prize revoked. She even had to hire a lawyer to settle things. After the fallout began, the press did eventually give their own explanation for what happened with this year's prize.

Second, the Cave Canem recently announced that there was no winner chosen for their annual first book prize. The whole community is a little fuzzy because we all personally know poets who submitted to the prize and believe that there was infinite potential in the manuscripts submitted, but we're not sure what the judge's process was and/or why the ultimate decision was made. In fact, the buzz has spread beyond the CC fellows. Everyone seems thoroughly confused, while some are just plain angry and disgusted.

All this talk makes me think about the value and validity of book prizes. I know this may seem rather strange because I won a book prize (more on this later) and have certainly benefited because of it. However, I think some poets who protest against the book prize system have valid points. For instance, check out my fellow Bennington alum Reb Livingston's take on things. Poets are definitely the step-children of the American literary (publishing) system. Most of us don't have a prayer of getting published unless it's through a book prize and, for the most part, the final final decision for a book prize comes down to one person's aesthetic taste and eye. When you enter a prize, you are a needle in an ever-growing haystack, and you might get thrown out with some of the hay just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Case in point: I won the 2007 Naomi Long Madgett Prize. I was excited and honored when I found out that Dr. Long Madgett had judged the prize herself that year and had personally chosen my manuscript. Now, this was fantastic, but certainly not the way the press (Lotus) planned things. As it turns out, there was another judge, but a problem with scheduling prevented him/her from judging the prize that year. So, the onus (or privilege, I'm not really sure which) eventually fell on someone else, if the press wanted the prize to be presented that year. After the field was narrowed down to finalists, fortunately Dr. Long Madgett found my work compelling and believed in its potential (as DeLana would put it), so she chose it to be published and my book was born. However, had things worked out as the press originally planned, it is very likely that I would not have won the prize and my book would still be floating in the ether, like so many other promising manuscripts.

And this is really my main concern and the thing I stress the most when talking to other writers (especially those who are discouraged by, leery about or not momentarily enamored of the book contest process): at best, contests are a crap shoot (yeah, I said it) and should be taken with a grain of salt whether you win one or not. Here lately I've been telling myself the same thing, as I'm about to embark on another foray into the world of book contests now that I have a real handle on my second manuscript.

Now, let's be clear, I do believe that there are some things people can do to increase their chances of winning or placing in a book contest. Here's a short list of tips that I've received (or just witnessed) that I think will always remain true:

  • Follow the presses' guidelines. If you buck their rules, they'll simply discard your work, and they have the right to do so. If you hate this concept, don't enter or start your own press and make your own rules.
  • Write a good manuscript. It may not be absolutely, positively "finished" when you submit it (i.e. you will probably want to tweak it some more before it's actually published), but it has to be polished and stand out from the hundreds to thousands of other manuscripts in competition.
  • Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. before you send the manuscript off and be consistent.
  • Don't enter a contest, if the judge is someone you know. There is so much drama about contest rigging that you should just steer clear of anything that could be perceived as favoritism by a judge.
  • Research the press before you submit your work. How else will you know if you even want them to be privileged to have your work?
  • Be prolific. Write while you're sending things out and revise while you have stuff out there.
  • Be persistent and keep track of all of your submissions. Yes, postage and contest fees can get expensive, but it often takes a few rounds of submitting to many contests to even get a little bit of interest in the work, mostly because of the reasons cited above.
  • Don't give up! Rejection is part of the writing life. If this is really what you want to do, unfortunately, you have to get used to it. Despite this, those small glimmers of hope and recognition are often sweeter because of what you did to get someone else to take notice.

Friday, August 15, 2008

I just love Johnny (and many Jon, John, Johnnie, Johnny's , as the case may be...clean it up kids, I'm talking about folks like John Legend (despite what my beautician says about him), Johnnie Knight (my grandfather), etc...). Notice I call Mr. Mayer "Johnny," as we are on very personal basis now. We've been together since before anyone ever cared about Room for Squares and certainly before the Grammy Awards and all the Hollywood hotties came calling.

And though I am always on the fence about remaking classics (on the one hand, I love the idea of paying homage to those artists who came before us, but, one the other hand, why remake something that was already wonderful?), I think even Tom Petty would have to give this one a nod. Such a subtle, sharp and enchanting acoustic mix. Thanks, Johnny, for helping me write today...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I am such a sap...

I cried for twenty minutes this morning after someone sent me a version of the video above from MSNBC. I don't know if it was the story or Whitney, but I just couldn't help myself. I did some research on the backstory and got to thinking about Isa. 11:6 and Disney's The Lion King (I know, I know the three seemingly have no correlation whatsoever, but that's the way my mind works!)

I'm telling you, PETA should option the story and this video. Showing it would be a lot more effective than throwing paint at people who wear furs. Click the picture above, watch the video and try, just try, not to be moved!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ms. Carrie...

She would want you to get up at sunrise and write poems.
She would want you to dance and not help her to the car.
She would want you to know her mother, her sisters, her brothers.
She would love, even at 93, she would accept a proposal.
She would send e-mails in ALL CAPS to get your attention.
She would say, You young people teach me so much, and mean it.
She would walk with us in Greensburg, pick flowers and smile.
She would tell you about us--beautiful and ugly--like Langston.
She would want you to know Ota Benga, how he was loved, lost.
She would covet our music and our words.
She would cook for you and brag about it.
She would gain another son and inspire him to immortalize her.
She would say, Thank you.
We all say, Thank you and Thank you and Love.

Ms. Carrie wrote the poem below as part of her long series about Ota Benga, but I think it's also fitting today:


The - Night Birds sing sorrow songs.
Joy - is no more, they walk
in - the woods alone, singing,
our - hero has gone away, our
hearts - are sad. No one
has - told us why our nights of fires
ceased; - no more days of the hunt with
our - friend, no more nights of the
dance - with the moon. Our teacher
has - closed his books and
turned - our dance

*Lamentations 5:15; King James

She'll be deeply missed...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

It's That Time Again...

Every two years, the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival takes place in Stanhope, NJ and over 100,000 poets and poetry lovers descend on the space. Of course, I'm heading up north with my girls and we get more and more excited each time they add a new poet to the schedule.

My favorite poet, Lucille Clifton, has been at every Dodge Festival since the festival began. There's even word that she packed 10,000 people into a venue there once. Another one of the poets I admire most, Sharon Olds, will also be back this time around. I cannot wait to hear her get down. (I'm secretly hoping to hear "The Premonition" or, at least, "Sex Without Love"...)

In addition to Clifton and Olds, Dodge has booked a slew of poets I know and love. Check out the entire list here.

The only problem is, this year, there are so many fabulous things happening here that conflict with Dodge! First of all, I have a bone to pick with my alma mater because they've planned their annual Lit Fest during the same week at the Dodge Festival! This is sacrilege! The Lit Fest is always in October and now (because we've already paid for Dodge, and poets do not have money to throw away) I'm going to miss one of the coolest brothas that ever stepped to the mic or the page: Mr. Doug Kearney. I'm pretty darn mad about this, as I have been talking him up with friends in Norfolk for an entire year, and now I won't even be able to see him bless the space with his fire, brilliance and general all-out insanity. Still, I can't boycott the Lit Fest because I've just fallen in love with Late Wife and the Lit Fest tapped the Pulitzer Prize-winning author to read as well.

And, if that isn't enough to drive all the writers here crazy, the city is also holding its first ever "Books in the Park" Day. They're asking all area authors to brings their books to sell. A write up that poet Toni Wynn forwarded me says this of the event: "Our event will be a paired with the 3rd Annual AT&T Sunrise to Sunset Acoustic Music Festival. The 'Books in the Park' Festival will be held on approximately 2 acres on the western end of Town Point Park. The area will have a village feel with a Children’s Pavilion, Poet Lounge, and larger tented areas with fiction and non-fiction genres..." A Poet Lounge?! I don't even know what's in a Poet Lounge, but I wanna be there! Alas, I won't be able to go because it's on the same weekend as Dodge :-(

My dream for Dodge weekend would be a marriage of both worlds or to find a way to be in two places at once, but I doubt that either of those things will happen. Nevertheless, below there's photo of Sekou Sundiata during his last performance at Dodge, but if you click on it, you'll find another poet waiting :-) This is as close as I could get to having the best of both worlds at my fingertips...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Get on the Good Foot!

Courtesy of one brilliant, good-hearted poet and journalist, L. Lamar Wilson, you too can check out the items famed auction house Christie's has up for sale from the Godfather of Soul. Just click here to get an eyeful of what helped brand him the hardest working man in showbiz.

also has a wonderful write up about James Brown in their American Masters series. James has to be considered when you think about groundbreaking artist who single-handedly helped change the face of America and its language. I remember reading Sammy Davis Jr's second memoir (which is fantastic, by the way...hey, Pop-Pop, did I ever give that book back to you?) and he discussed the way Brown's anthem "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" spearheaded the shift from colored to black, and how it's influence was felt from the street to the White House and beyond.

the picture below for some poetry in motion from Soul Brother Number One...watch me!

Monday, July 14, 2008

TORCH is here! Read, enjoy, submit!

TORCH: poetry, prose, and short stories by African American Women

Spring / Summer 2008 Issue Available Online
In this issue:

FLAME Tayari Jones interview by Ana-Maurine Lara

SPARK Kamilah Aisha Moon


Keli Stewart

Nicole Goodwin

Torch is currently accepting submissions. Please visit http://www.torchpoetry.org/ for guidelines.

Torch was established to promote the work of African American women. We provide a place to celebrate contemporary poetry, prose, and short stories by experienced and emerging writers alike. We prefer our contributors to take risks and offer a diverse body of work that examines and challenges preconceived notions regarding race, ethnicity, gender roles, and identity.
Within Torch, we offer a special section called Flame that features an interview, biography, and work sample by an established writer as well as an introduction to their Spark, an emerging writer who inspires them and adds to the boundless voice of creative writing by Black women.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

My new favorite superhero: WordGirl!

Leave it to PBS to create the superheroine of my dreams. Her name is WordGirl, and I love her madly. I discovered her flipping channels the other day where I found her nestled between Arthur and Clifford the Big Red Dog. She is a superhero that fights her enemies by using, explaining and defending the power of words!

In the episode above, WordGirl meets the Butcher, master of meat and mangler of words, and tries to prevent him from robbing a bank. She's funny, cool, brilliant, strong, beautiful and everything I want little girls (and boys!) to know they can be, plus she reads books!!! The only way they could possibly make this cartoon better is if, next season, she has a bevy of brilliant sidekicks with names like Sestina, Hyperbole and MetaForce. That would be astounding, amazing, astonishing, absolutely ostentatious and awesome :-)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Cave Canem: Round Four

All I have to say is, Dante Micheaux is one hard-working brotha! Nobody knows how much he was missed from this year's CC summer retreat more than the Blue Collar Scholars--Amanda Johnston and I. What a fantastic experience it was (of course), but we definitely earned our keep. Still, we found a little time to play hard, too :-)

Just a few of my highlights from the week in Greensburg:

The week was full and all-encompassing. So glad Alison, Toi and Cornelius saw fit to let me be a part of it all. Thanks fellows, for fellowship, laughter, and CC love. Til soon.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Connections/Ars Poetica

So, I was thinking about art (Irmagean's "Movin On" is pictured above) and poetry this morning and went to the Academy website and saw a feature on the art of the ars poetica, which got me thinking about how I would define the term and an ars poetica poem. And because I'm thinking about other things happening in my life and the "po biz", I was drawn to this poem:

Ars Poetica (cocoons)

Six monarch butterfly cocoons
clinging to the back of your throat—

you could feel their gold wings trembling.

You were alarmed. You felt infested.
In the downstairs bathroom of the family home,
gagging to spit them out—
and a voice saying Don’t, don’t—

--Dana Levin

Which, in turn, led me to this poem:

The Poems I Have Not Written

I’m so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.

And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing

and everything in a thousand
different tongues. So moving, so
filled with and emptied of suffering,
so steeped in the music of a voice

speechless before the truth,
the poems I have not written
would break the hearts of every
woman who’s ever left me,

make them eye their husbands
with a sharp contempt and hate
themselves for turning their backs
on the very source of beauty.

The poems I have not written
would compel all other poets
to ask of God: "Why do you
let me live? I am worthless.

please strike me dead at once,
destroy my works and cleanse
the earth of all my ghastly
imperfections." Trees would

bow their heads before the poems
I have not written. "Take me,"
they would say, "and turn me
into your pages so that I

might live forever as the ground
from which your words arise."
The wind itself, about which
I might have written so eloquently,

praising its slick and intersecting
rivers of air, its stately calms
and furious interrogations,
its flutelike lingerings and passionate
reproofs, would divert its course
to sweep down and then pass over
the poems I have not written,
and the life I have not lived, the life

I’ve failed even to imagine,
which they so perfectly describe.

--John Brehm

Which, in turn, made me think of this:

Myron Michael (or Mystro) has a track called "i am" on his new CD, Masters Thesis, that reminds of this poem. The gist of one of the verses runs along the same lines as the poem above.

Reading the poems and listening to the CD, in turn, made me think of this poem (though I didn't quite remember the expletives), which is also a type of ars poetica:

I Like My Own Poems

I like my own poems
I quote from them
from time to time
saying, "A poet once said,"
and then follow up
with a line or two
from one of my own poems
appropriate to the event.
How those lines sing!
All that wisdom and beauty!
Why it tickles my ass
off its spine.
"Why those lines are mine!"
I say
and Jesus, what a bang
I get out of it.

I like the ideas in them,
my poems,
ideas that hit home.
They speak to me.
I mean, I understand
what the hell
the damn poet's
talking about.
"Why I've been there,
the same thing," I shout,
and Christ! What a shot it is,
a shot.

And hey,
The words!
I can hardly stand it.
Words sure do not fail
this guy, I say.
From some world
only he knows
he bangs the bong,
but I can feel it
in the wood,
in the wood of the word,
rising to its form
in the world.
"Now, you gotta be good
to do that!" I say
and damn! It just shakes
my heart,
you know?

--Jack Grapes

Which, in turn, made me think of Lucille Clifton, who once said, 'If I'm the person that said the smart thing, then I'll repeat it', when discussing why she used one of her own lines as an epigraph to a new poem. I often think of this poem as one of Ms. Lucille's ars poeticas:

i am accused of tending to the past

i am accused of tending to the past
as if i made it,
as if i sculpted it
with my own hands. i did not.
this past was waiting for me
when i came,
a monstrous unnamed baby,
and i with my mother's itch
took it to breast
and named it
she is more human now,
learning languages everyday,
remembering faces, names and dates.
when she is strong enough to travel
on her own, beware, she will.

--Lucille Clifton

So, what is an ars poetica?
Well, Horace would have his say, but I'm still not sure how to define it in concrete terms. Generally, though, I believe when the term is used in contemporary poetry it simply means a poem about poetry or why one is or has been drawn to writing poetry, though I think it can be applied to other art forms as well. Since, in many ways, I deem the ars poetica a defining and connecting piece, this, in turn, leads me to believe that I am still writing/finding/mining mine...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre -- Wade in the Water

Front row. Center. Alvin Ailey. Revelations. Need I say more? Well, I guess a little more...

I finally scored tickets to see the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in Norfolk and they were phenomenal. When they unvelied the first memorable stance from Ailey's most famous piece, "Revelations", the audience went mad. We were all waiting for Ailey's 1960 masterpiece that helped solidify him as one of the most talented dancers/choreographers of the modern dance era. The Alvin Ailey Theatre is celebrating their fiftieth year in 2008. Fifty years of this timeless beauty.

While the entire performance was stunning, I found myself most entralled by the "Wade in the Water" section of "Revelations". You can watch the entire section in the clip above. I truly believe that, in another life and time, I was meant to be an Alvin Ailey dancer (stop laughing, Mom)...

I'm sure I was almost the last person on earth to get to see the Ailey ensemble live, but, in case you've somehow missed them, don't let them pass you by again.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Reading at Hampton Public Library on Thursday, 5/1 @ 6:30 PM

Thurs. May 1, 6:30 PM @ the Main Library: Writers on Writing on Thursdays - An evening with local poets Remica Bingham & Matilda Cox. We're also going to sneak some fiction in there with special guest Princess Perry. Please come out if you're in the area!!!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Jason Shinder/Wide Spirit

Jason Shinder was my last teacher at Bennington. I was told--by all of the poets, repeatedly, especially by my friend David--that I had to work with Jason and I had to save him for last. He was the man who could take a hundred seemingly distant poems and spin them into one coherent masterpiece, or so went the myth. The strange thing was that, with Jason, the myth was almost true.

The first time I entered Jason's workshop, he began by quoting an unbelievably long poem--some lovely verse by Dylan Thomas, I think--and we all sat astounded by his memory and the way he infused his own wide spirit into the words. If he would have said he'd written the poem, labored over it for years, we would have believed. Jason encouraged us to "feel" poems, move into them and through them. Memorization would help us do this, he said, and, though I struggle with this myself, I've found that he was right.

Jason was also an advocate for using our own words to spark new ideas. He told us never to throw anything away, all poems--good, bad and ugly--could spark more poems. He asked us to go back to old notebooks and highlight good lines or lines that struck us in some way and start the poem again, from there, without any of the reservations we might have had in the past.

When it was time to send Jason my work, I was hesitant. "I don't know how to put this thesis together. I have no idea how to order a book or even if it's a book," I told him one afternoon during a private meeting in one of the dining rooms. "Don't worry," he said, "I do. Send everything to me. You're a poet. Let's see what you've got." Throughout that semester, I learned more than I could have ever imagined form Jason. I did send him everything, and he sent me a back a manuscript complete with the essential poems, sections, clear divisions, comments and a blessed title. CONVERSION was scrawled across the top page in blue ink, beneath it, a handwritten letter praising my work. Of course, there was still much work to be done, but after receiving the manuscript and letter form Jason, I felt like there was a t least direction, something concrete and valuable to work towards finishing. I still have the letter and that manuscript and I take them out and look at them every once in a while.

Four years ago, when I sat down to meet with Jason, I could never have imagined what an impact he'd have on my work and life. He taught me about being honest with myself as a writer and about revising a body of work, not just individual poems. He also stressed the importance of being true to my own voice, despite that fact that some would say it was redundant or invalid or unimportant or uninteresting, and he assured us all that someone would, indeed, think or say all of those things about our work.

Writing wasn't enough, he said, we had to be community activists as well. We had to start writing programs at our local schools and neighborhood centers, we had to sit on arts boards and councils, we had to edit anthologies (lots of them) and never be afraid to move our own work. Jason taught me that a good poet is never without books, that a good poet doesn't turn down readings, that a good poet will share a poem on a street corner at midnight with anyone who seems to be in need of a good poem. Jason taught me to live poetry, to breathe it. I listened and am still listening.

When I got the news that Jason had passed away last week after a long (and mostly hidden, as was his way) bout with cancer, I sat and thought about all the things I learned from him, all the things he valued, big and small. He was friends with James Baldwin and told us once that Baldwin died thinking he hadn't accomplished much. I pray that Jason knew how much he impacted my life and the lives of those that knew him. He was a true poet who believed in the power of light and movement (Did I mention that one of my favorite tidbits about Jason is that he was a principle dancer in the film Grease? He lived so many different lives...) and sound, in all its manifestations.

Here's a beautiful poem about his own loss. How he'll be missed...


Just when it seemed my mother couldn’t bear

one more needle, one more insane orange pill,
my sister, in silence, stood at the end

of the bed and slowly rubbed her feet,

which were scratchy with hard, yellow skin,
and dirt cramped beneath the broken nails,

which changed nothing in time except

the way my mother was lost in it for a while
as if with a kind of relief that doesn’t relieve.

And then, with her eyes closed, my mother said

the one or two words the living have for gratefulness,
which is a kind of forgetting, with a sense

of what it means to be alive long enough

to love someone. Thank you, she said. As for me,
I didn’t care how her voice suddenly seemed low

and kind, or what failures and triumphs

of the body and spirit brought her to that point—
just that it sounded like hope, stupid hope.

--Jason Shinder

Monday, April 28, 2008

Remembering Dr. King at Boston U

So, I had a crazy month. I have been all over the place and done/saw some very cool things. I've been meaning to blog about this panel I managed to catch while I was at a conference out side of Boston early this month. Boston University is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s alma mater. His papers are housed there and they recently hosted several panel to commemorate his life and legacy. On April 4th, forty years to the day that Dr. King was assassinated, they assembled an impressive panel of artist to speak about their relationship to Dr. King and his legacy. The panel was moderated by Callie Crossley (whom I met in the airport a few days later and had a lovely discussion with about the way she wrangled the folks on stage). The panelists were: Sonia Sanchez, Derek Walcott, Nikki Giovanni, Simon Estes, Chuck D, Sam Cornish and Talib Kweli. I took several pages of notes and just wanted to list some random quotes (in no particular order)that struck me as a listener that night:

Sam Cornish said his major influences were Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall and Broadside Press, and especially Amiri Baraka. Quotes from Cornish:

"I think it's important to be dangerous, to be critical."

"The international language (art) is yours if you work for it."

Quote from Simon Estes:
"Hatred and war have never solved anything."
Simon Estes opened the panel with a beautiful rendition of the spiritual "Go Down Moses." He also mentioned that he had a close, personal relationship with the King family. Even so, Estes seemed wildly out of place on this panel and every time he had a chance to speak he ended up off-topic, usually encouraging the 1,000+ audience members to renew their faith in God...preachy but heartfelt, nonetheless. His real contribution, though, was his voice. Listen to him perform here.

Quotes from Sister Sonia:


I spoke with Prof. Sanchez not long after the panel and she told me that she felt that it was one of those instances where she could sit back and observe more than speak. And that's pretty much what she did. I think, after all the work she's done, she's entitled to just observing at times.

Quote from Talib Kweli:

(Upon being asked if artists have the responsibility of being political in their art) "The job of the artist is to be honest with themselves. My job as a man is to be responsible to my community."

(As a disclaimer about the language in his song "Hostile Gospel") "Hip-hop is an aggressive art."

No real quote from Callie Crossley, but she did a fantastic job of handling all of the egos up on stage. The panel was hastily constructed, ran much too long and had many kinks, but Ms. Crossley was the saving grace of BU that night. They should thank her, book her again and put some extra cash in her pocket for keeping things running smoothly (especially when she had to keep Chuck D and Sam Cornish from trying to outdo each other verbally...)

Quotes from Chuck D:

"I don't like history punkdefying Dr. King's legacy."

"Dr. King taught me that we have to protect those that want to do right."

"If you take the music away from the people , you take the history away by default."

"Be a nerd about what you about."

Walcott was pretty laid back, too. I guess once you've won the Nobel, you don't have to prove anything to anybody!

Quote from Derek Walcott:

(Upon explaining why he uses the word "black") "African-American is one of those hyphenated things that doesn't face the truth."

Quotes form Nikki Giovanni:

"The hero is misunderstood, though right in the end."

"If you're not dead, be alive."

(On being a fan of Hip-hop) "If you're not offending anybody, you're not doing something right."

All in all, I was glad I took the hour-drive (in the cold and rain) to witness the panel. Even so, here are some other notes I took for myself while I was there:

  • One thing I've learned: Artists really like to talk about themselves.
  • Chuck D talks loud and long but never really answers the questions. Callie cuts him off.
  • Question from a student that saddened me a bit: "I was raised by an older generation and I know they are supposed to teach us, but I've given up on that. So, tell me, what can we (the younger generation) do to educate ourselves."

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I am having a weird day already; I got up early and managed to plow through the million things that seem to need to be done before work in the morning, but am still a bit out of it, whatever "it" is. Some random things for today:

1.) Things I'm reading today:
  • Chapters from the Book of Luke
  • Poems from all the National Poetry Month e-mail lists (namely Poetry Daily, Knopf, and the Academy of American Poets)
  • The Undomestic Goddess - Sophie Kinsella (Given to me by Jane--my best friend since eighth grade--as a present)

2.) Things I can't stop singing today:

3.) Things I want my parents to get to do today:

4.) Things I'm looking forward to today:

  • Jon Pineda's reading/book release party this Thursday
  • Finally seeing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company (While Ms. Jamison is still director...)
  • Salsa Bootcamp (or some dance class) with the Road Dawgs

5.) Things I've browsed on the internet today:

  • We seem to even prefer dieting in the womb, girls.
  • You think you know Big Will, but you have no idea...
  • The Bluecast Variations on Funk Reading sponsored by Indiana Review. Take a listen.