Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
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.
Monday, April 28, 2008
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."
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...)
"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."
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
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:
- Homecoming - Kanye West ft. Chris Martin (from Coldplay)
- Feels Good - Rahsaan Patterson (Thanks to Dr. Campbell, who reminded me what a soulful voice Rahsaan has)
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.