Friday, December 4, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


It's been a long time since I had a few moments to reflect on poetry and the way things converge in the world of poetry, as I've been happily busy thinking about the future for the past few months. But this morning, I ran across the picture above of a woman with a Bukowski poem tattooed on her arm and it sparked thoughts of other poems and poets that muse about words made flesh.

In the spring, I'll be teaching the book Fire Wheel by Sharmila Voorakkara in one of my classes and she has a sonnet about what it means to carry someone else with you in perpetuity:

For the Tattooed Man

Because she broke your heart, Shannon's a badge—
a seven-letter skidmark that scars up
across your chest, a flare of indelible script.
Between Death or Glory, and Mama, she rages,
scales the trellis of your rib cage;
her red hair swings down to bracket your ankles, whip
up the braid of your backbone, cuff your wrists. She keeps
you sleepless with her afterimage,

and each pinned and martyred limb aches for more.
Her memory wraps you like a vise.
How simple the pain that trails and graces
the length of your body. How it fans, blazes,
writes itself over in the blood's tightening sighs,
bruises into wisdom you have no name for.

--Sharmila Voorakkara

Re-reading Voorakkara's poem put me in the mind of another piece about body art and how it can create a kind of communion. Marcus Jackson published the poem below last year in the New Yorker:

Mary at the Tattoo Shop
She counted her money
before we went in,
avenue beside us anxious
with Friday-evening traffic.
Both fourteen, we shared a Newport,
its manila butt salty to our lips.
Inside, from a huge book
of designs and letter styles,
she chose to get “MARY”
in a black, Old English script
on the back of her neck.
The guy who ran the shop
leaned over her for forty minutes
with a needled gun
that buzzed loud
as if trying to get free.
He took her twenty-five dollars
then another ten
for being under age.
Back outside, the sun
dipped behind rooftops,
about to hand the sky over to night.
Lifting her hazel hair,
she asked me to rub
some A&D ointment
on her new tattoo;
my finger glistened in salve
as I reached for her swollen name.
--Marcus Jackson

As poets, we seems to be fascinated with scarring and remembrance. We embrace not forgetting. I think this is why so many of us are enraptured, in our lives and in our art, with marking the body. Case in point: poet John Murillo, whose forthcoming book Up Jump the Boogie is an homage to the battering urban dwellers receive each time they brave the world around them.

Trouble Man
--after Brandon D. Johnson

It’s the bone of a question
Caught in your throat,
The first sighs of the next
Day’s traffic, shoulders
Made fists under the skin.
And say it’s raining
This morning. Maybe a car
Lingers at the stop sign
Outside your window.
And maybe you know
This song. How long since
A man you called father
Troubled the hi-fi, smoldering
Newport in hand, and ran
This record under a needle.
How long since a man’s
Broken falsetto colored
Every hour indigo. Graying
Beard, callused hands, finger-
Nails thick as nickels. You
Were the boy who became
That man without meaning
To and know now, a man’s
Life is never measured
In beats, but beat-downs,
Not line breaks, just breaks.
You hear Marvin fading
Into a new day, and it caresses
You like a brick: Marvin, and men
Like him, have already
Moaned every book
You will never write.
This you know, baby. This
You know.
--John Murillo

Of course, looking at these candid portraits of Marcus and John made me think of the photographer. Rachel Eliza Griffiths, an intensely beautiful poet and photographer, is also fascinated with capturing us, scars and all. She honors our true light and terrible beauty with her lens. I've no doubt that she was ecstatic when capturing John's ink since it honored their mentor and brilliant poet, Martin Espada. Espada does the same arduous work that illuminates the fragility of lives and bodies, then makes art of what can and will or has become of us. It's only fitting, then, to let him have the final word here, a praisesong for the unsuspecting shadows that will forever mark us:

Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100

for the 43 members of
Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees
Local 100, working at the Windows on the World restaurant,
who lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook's yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy's music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.
Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.

Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook's soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God's beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.
--Martin Espada

And just in case you've never been blessed to hear Espada sing these praises aloud and rattle us with the terribly beauty tattooed across our histories, watch the clip below to see why his words inspire so many others to craft light:

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dwayne Betts is the Man...

My friend and fellow poet, Dwayne Betts, is having a very good year. So many wonderful things are happening with his work and I just wanted to post a few links in case you've been living under a rock and haven't heard any of the buzz:

  • Dwayne as Poet Extraordinaire: Shahid Reads His Own Palm, Dwayne's first book of poetry is already award-winning and will be published by Alice James Books in 2010.

  • Dwayne's space: Check out his personal website for reading dates, reviews and more ways to keep track of all his success.

If you haven't read Dwayne's memoir, do yourself a favor and get with the program. It's poignant, honest, and makes you re-evaluate how fortunate we are to be given second chances.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sweet Suite...

This weekend, I spoke at length with poet Lamar Wilson about the way he's been moved by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers' third book, Red Clay Suite. Later, while deep in conversation about the past with another sweet, sweet man, I couldn't help hearing the echo of one of my favorite pieces from the book ringing in my ear:

for my mother

This is the end for you two, though he doesn’t see
it or that he’ll be dead in four years,
heart just stopping, but not this day

when he sits in the armchair
which sags under his will, reads a book.
You speak a simple word to him—

we are leaving for good this time—
but I lose what it is,
so quick to be gone.

Something to indicate that we won’t be coming back,
no last chances
like his assuming he can show up at the shelter

or drive further down south
to Grandma’s house to collect us.
Or, I get the moment wrong and he goes down

to the basement first, puts on a record
—Rachmaninoff, loud—
walks upstairs, and then he sits down,

opens up his book, ignores you,
stops, cocks his head in the fine, sensitive
way that I continue to adore, ignores you some more,

tries to find blues in that European music.
A paradox,
but that is my father, kind to strangers,

slapping one of us upside our heads
at home, searching for beauty
in everything except his family

or his own reflection,
not bothering to plead with you
like he has the other times,

I’m sorry, baby.
Don’t go. Please don’t go.

The way a man is supposed to in the best songs.

I want you to toss something hard at him.
I’m scared we will return.
I’m scared we won’t return.

I’m so angry with you and I haven’t yet learned
how much weaker than a girl a woman can be.
How silly I am to assume you are stronger than he.

How arrogant I am to assume you are not.
The point is that I live, you live,
whether my father’s music plays or doesn’t play,

and we are driving off in the truck,
leaving him turning the pages of his book.

What is that word? Forget about it.
We leave him there.
We left.

--Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

The first thing that arrests me here is "the armchair/which sags under his will." This could just be a simple surface image, but since it is clear from the poem's first line that this is the end of a relationship, the final end of whatever was or could have come, the image is indicative of what has been the plight of this man's household. Everything here has been distorted, re-shaped, maybe even broken, "under his will."

Next, this idea of the missing word, some forgotten lexicon, is a subtle push throughout the poem. The speaker can't remember exactly what the final word was or how it was said, but none of this is of any importance. That small detail escapes but the fact is that, regardless of what was spoken, things were different this day in the familiar house. Much like the few words the mother spoke to ensure their leaving, they, too, would be "so quick to be gone" once she'd decided this was the end.

I can't help but imagine the missing lexicon is a piece of the puzzle that might explain the paradox of the man depicted here. He contradicts himself in the speaker's memories--at times he is silent and at other time he finds that pleading works best. Maybe he reads the mother the way he does the books that reappear in his hands. Maybe he plays her the same was he spins a record, dropping the needle gently then leaving it be.

The tone of this poem, especially the speaker's longing and regret coupled with fear and admiration, is its most compelling layer. This is the human way--fear a man and love him just the same; watch a woman leave, even get indignant, then beg her back as soon as you think she'll stay. The fact that the speaker loves her father and finds him beautiful even when he is being hurtful, when he "cocks his head in that fine, sensitive/way that I continue to adore, ignores you some more," is the inexplicable part of our selves. It's the accusation and condemnation of oneself just as it is the accusation and condemnation of the father for all his wrong doing. The mother here is condemned too for waiting so long, for being begged back again and again. This is the quiet, difficult work of the poet: to illuminate our simple, awful human beauty and ugliness too.

By the time we reach the poem's last stanza, the speaker still can't recall the word that got them where they are, "driving off in the truck...leaving him turning the pages of his book." But none of that matters. What does matter, however, is that they have broken free of him, despite this twisted love and hate, despite themselves.

Red Clay Suite is poignant, sharp and fierce, must like its author. "Lexicon" is only one gem among the many housed in the book. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and pick it up. It's tragic that there are no YouTube clips of Honorée reading, as she is one of the most brilliant and compelling forces I've ever seen on stage. If you're in the Kentucky area, don't miss her at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference next month. The whole line up, in fact, is incredible (you won't want to miss Affrilachian Empress Nikky Finney or Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander, just to name a few).

When I'm trying to piece together the past, I'm always reaching for this kind of vividness and clarity. I think Lamar was right, poems like these help you write your own story. Poets like Honorée help make clear how complex we really are...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Wondrous Work We Do...

REVISION re⋅vi⋅sion  
1. the act or work of revising.
2. a process of revising.
3. a revised form or version, as of a book.

Origin: 1605–15; <>revise ) + -iōn- -ion

Related forms:
re⋅vi⋅sion⋅al, re⋅vi⋅sion⋅ar⋅y, adjective

Synonyms:1. alteration, correction, emendation. Unabridged Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2009.

Revision, or re-vision, to re-see something, to re-learn, to find another way to say or say it more clearly, clarification, clarity. This is the work that poets (all writers!) do. This has been my only work for the past few weeks. This morning, my work is finding the best word to suit a particular phrase in a line. One early search went like this:

  • Find a word to replace "unravels" (because this word is used at a pivotal point in another poem in the manuscript and that annoys me tremendously, especially when there are so many other--perhaps more fitting--words to be used)
  • Go to the Dictionary/Thesaurus
  • Look up "unravel" and look up the noun it became an adjective/verb for in the poem
  • Decide "unravels" works but there are other alternatives
  • List other alternatives: unwind, loosen, untwine, untwist, shake loose, come undone, free, unfold, uncoil, unfurl, untie, slacken, lax, withy-cragged (okay, that one made the list just because it tickled me...)
  • Narrow the list, then try each suitable alternative in the poem
  • Read the poem aloud twice using each word
  • Listen for assonance
  • Listen for discordance
  • Listen for rhythm and internal rhyme
  • Listen for meaning
  • Listen for meaning
  • Read for meaning
  • Listen for rhythm and meaning again
  • Think about layering and denotative/connotative meanings of each word (i.e. "untwist" works because the noun literally untwists but it sounds playful and the line highlights a rough action taking place, therefore, "untwist" works sonically and denotatively but not connotatively, so it's out of the running to be the replacement word...)
  • Work with the three words that make the cut (loosen, unwind, untwine)
  • Shuffle the iPod (selections from Erykah Badu's Worldwide Underground have served me nicely thus far, now it's on to Fall Out Boy)
  • Start the search process again using only the three words that made the cut

So clearly the revision process for one word, in one line that makes up one phrase, in one couplet of one poem, can take hours, days, weeks. This is the work we do. There is nothing lazy, haphazard or accidental about decent writing. Oh and did I mention all of this work is going into a poem that has already been published and that I considered "finished" nine months ago? This is the work we do: laborious, tedious, fierce, exacting, hard work. We hunt for clarity, every day, over and over again.

Here's the lesson: the next time you read a great article, stand in awe of a pristine poem or get your hands on a real page-turner, imagine how much hard work went into the piece,then do the author a solid and spread the word about its beauty.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another Part of Me...

Can it be I stayed away too long?...Every impulse is an MJ song these days. It has been a long month with much excitement and travel, but it all comes back to what's now missing. I was on staff at Cave Canem when we got the news of Michael's passing and, though I missed being home with my parents--the folks who bought me all three of my Michael Jackson dolls, my red walkman, and my multiple Thriller tapes--there was no other place I would have wanted to be. The hardcore crew loaded up in cars and found a bar with CNN and some serious karaoke and sang ourselves into the night. When it was time to head back (since people still had those Off the Wall-inspired poems to write...), we lit up the campus with music and danced (and wrote!) until dawn.

To be among artists when a great artist is lost is truly a gift. No one questions why this work was invaluable and how it shifted lives because they are already assured that this is what art does, what it's meant to do. Music was my first art. My family says there is a reel-to-reel lost in someone's attic that has a clip of me singing Diana Ross' eulogy to Marvin Gaye and others with such feeling and anguish that no one would believe I was only three years old when the song was captured. And while I've always been 'struck' by certain music in a way I could never articulate, there are a few artists--Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, maybe one or two others--who, over the years, became the soundtrack to my life. It sounds strange to think of it that way, but there's no other way to explain it. I can pinpoint every moment of my life by their voices, their changes in style and movement, their lyrics, their harmony, their melodies. Every moment of my life has been punctuated by their work. And, as an artist, the loss of this kind of legacy, affects me so deeply. It's like losing someone who traveled with me every day of my life.

I'm always impressed by artists who live and breathe their work. This is not my life. If it were, I'd probably be a better artist or practicing another kind of art. But I am in awe of those who go unchallenged as some of the greatest artists who ever came to be. The video below shows Michael as that kind of consummate showman. He knew how to work a stage and whip a room into a frenzy. He perfected his art. He loved it, and how it moved us:

In the months to come, just like in all the years passed, we'll hear countless reports about money and drugs and all of MJ's humanness, what we won't hear enough about is his boundless charity and empathy, his 10,000 book library and his love for poetry. Friends say he was reading Tagore just before he passed and that he relished in Emerson. Emerson's words serve as a fitting eulogy the man who gave every bit of himself to art, to love:

Give All to Love

Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-frame,
Plans, credit and the Muse,—
Nothing refuse.

’T is a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high
It dives into noon,
With wing unspent,
Untold intent:
But it is a god,
Knows its own path
And the outlets of the sky.

It was never for the mean;
It requireth courage stout.
Souls above doubt,
Valor unbending,
It will reward,—
They shall return
More than they were,
And ever ascending.

Leave all for love;
Yet, hear me, yet,
One word more thy heart behoved,
One pulse more of firm endeavor,—
Keep thee to-day,
To-morrow, forever,
Free as an Arab
Of thy beloved.

Cling with life to the maid;
But when the surprise,
First vague shadow of surmise
Flits across her bosom young,
Of a joy apart from thee,
Free be she, fancy-free;
Nor thou detain her vesture’s hem,
Nor the palest rose she flung
From her summer diadem.

Though thou loved her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day,
Stealing grace from all alive;
Heartily know,
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Good Poets in Hampton on Thursday, 6/4

Hampton Public Library has a great program called Writers On Writing On Thursdays and this week Toni Wynn and Indigo Moor will share the venue.

Toni's a VA rider by way of Jersey and Indigo is coming all the way from the west coast to take part.

If not for Toni's promise of a little get together after, come out to hear some fantastic poetry. Here are the particulars:

WHO: Toni Wynn and Indigo Moor
WHAT: Writers On Writing on Thursdays, Poetry Reading
WHEN: Thursday, June 4 at 6:30 PM
WHERE: Hampton Public Library -- Main Branch, 4207 Victoria Blvd.
Hampton, VA, 23669 Phone: 757/727-1154

And just to whet your appetite, here's a poem from Toni that would please most mommas, mathematicians and phrenologists alike:

from Cornrow Calculations

If I see your hands flying though my child’s hair
and I’m holding your baby and the telephone
is silent and the television is not on,
can we talk about what you’re doing? It starts
out regular, then whoops, turns science fiction—
the range of your skills is fantastic. The geography
of the head—you the cartographer
negotiating roads through these thickets.
We get to art (go ahead and smile),
which is where you were coming from anyway.
Then uh oh,
you’re at math, using an ancient matrix
and twenty-first century knowledge to make bank.
I pay you well because you know how it’s done
in formulas/soulscape/exchange,
living for living.

A power move putting braids in hair. A path to beauty.
Using the tools, the braider with sweet breath
and some laughter crowns a new queen.
Power glimmers, glides into vision
for seeing more, seeing deeper. We know
the promise of infinity
and you are the Plus One.

--Toni Wynn

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Living/Writing for the Summer/Weekend

The long weekend and the unofficial beginning of summer is nearly upon us and the that means a little more free time to read, write and listen to my heart's content. I've been digging into some good books lately, namely Craig Werner's Higher Ground and Philip Schultz's Failure.

Higher Ground (a quick nod to one of Stevie's classics) is a book of connected critical essays about the rise and fall of American soul music. Werner highlights three of the all-time greats: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield. I bought the book while I was at the Stax Museum in Memphis and couldn't put it down. Nothing like some brilliant and passionate non-fiction to make you re-think what you love about art and its message. If you think you know anything about these artists and their impact, and especially if you think you don't, you should absolutely run out and get this book.

Failure won Philip Schultz the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and it contains some of the clearest and most unaffected language I've seen out of the Pulitzer camp in years. Even clearer than Stephen Dunn, and I firmly believe Different Hours is a book the masses should be forced to read. There are some outstanding poems in Failure (two of my favs are "Husband" and "Kodak Park Athletic Association, 1954") but I did take issue with some of the characterization/dialect in "The Wandering Wingless" poem which makes up half of the book. Schultz excels beyond belief when recounting his own experiences, highlighting familiar failures, poverty and all it's havoc. But, despite the fact that there are numerous similarities in his upbringing and the circumstances of black men that he finds himself working with later in life, he creates caricatures of his workmates instead of fleshing them out the way he does all others in the book, even the animals he's come to love. It's a sad shift and especially disappointing because Schultz clearly possesses the skill and depth to paint meaningful, round, full-bodied portraits and, apparently, chooses not to do so in some cases.

Not really in any order, here are a few miscellaneous asides for the long weekend:

  • The guy making a cameo in the video might look familiar, but the real surprise is his flow. Is anyone else fascinated that this is the same person? That's what I get for watching TeenNick and listening to college radio stations...

And a poem for the road...Denise Duhamel is a beast on the page. I try to emulate her versatility and improvisation with form all the time. More often than not, I fail miserably, but she continues to surprise me with her take on various forms. Maybe I'll put her on deck for the weekend. Some good beach reading indeed! Here's her twisted sestina as a parting gift:

Delta Flight 659

—to Sean Penn

I'm writing this on a plane, Sean Penn,
with my black Pilot Razor ballpoint pen.
Ever since 9/11, I'm a nervous flyer. I leave my Pentium
Processor in Florida so TSA can't x-ray my stanzas, penetrate
my persona. Maybe this should be in iambic pentameter,
rather than this mock sestina, each line ending in a Penn

variant. I convinced myself the ticket to Baghdad was too expensive.
I contemplated going as a human shield. I read, in open-
mouthed shock, that your trip there was a $56,000 expenditure.
Is that true? I watched you on Larry King Live—his suspenders
and tie, your open collar. You saw the war's impending
mess. My husband gambled on my penumbra

of doubt. So you station yourself at a food silo in Iraq. What happens
to me if you get blown up? He begged me to stay home, be his Penelope.
I sit alone in coach, but last night I sat with four poets, depending
on one another as readers, in a Pittsburgh café. I tried to be your pen
pal in 1987, not because of your pensive
bad boy looks, but because of a poem you'd penned

that appeared in an issue of Frank. I still see the poet in you, Sean Penn.
You probably think fans like me are your penance
for your popularity, your star bulging into a pentagon
filled with witchy wanna-bes and penniless
poets who waddle toward your icy peninsula
of glamour like so many menacing penguins.

But honest, I come in peace, Sean Penn,
writing on my plane ride home. I want no part of your penthouse
or the snowy slopes of your Aspen.
I won't stalk you like the swirling grime cloud over Pig Pen.
I have no script or stupendous
novel I want you to option. I even like your wife, Robin Wright Penn.

I only want to keep myself busy on this flight, to tell you of four penny-
loafered poets in Pennsylvania
who, last night, chomping on primavera penne
pasta, pondered poetry, celebrity, Iraq, the penitentiary
of free speech. And how I reminded everyone that Sean Penn
once wrote a poem. I peer out the window, caress my lucky pendant:

Look, Sean Penn, the clouds are drawn with charcoal pencils.
The sky is opening like a child's first stab at penmanship.
The sun begins to ripen orange, then deepen.

--Denise Duhamel

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


The semester is (finally) coming to a close and I barely have time to breathe, but there are a few interesting things floating around that I wanted to spread the word about. The image above is the logo for this year's, almost lost Calabash Festival. It's the first link on my list:
  • Calabash is back on and it you have any sense at all you will head down to Jamaica Memorial Day weekend to take part in a few days of love, literature and leisure. The man himself, Kwame Dawes, is one of the co-founders of the fest.

  • On to more solid news, Maxwell is really coming back this time! The proof is here and here and here. What a lovely summer :-)

  • And back to reality, I don't know about you, but I've been having ongoing discussions with my colleagues about the sense of entitlement my students seem to have these days. Clearly--and sadly--we aren't the only ones thinking about this.

  • Love Lucille Clifton? If you don't, you should. If you want more information about why she is one of our most celebrated and revered poets, I hear the Furious Flower Poetry Center at JMU still has a few open slots for their week-long seminar on Ms. Lucille that will be held in June. If you can go, do yourself a favor and be present. I know Ms. Lucille sure will be!
Here's one of Lucille Clifton's newest poems, from the poem-a-day list, to wet your appetite:


who would believe them winged
who would believe they could be

beautiful who would believe
they could fall so in love with mortals

that they would attach themselves
as scars attach and ride the skin

sometimes we hear them in our dreams
rattling their skulls clicking

their bony fingers
they have heard me beseeching

as i whispered into my own
cupped hands enough not me again

but who can distinguish
one human voice
amid such choruses
of desire

--Lucille Clifton

Monday, April 13, 2009

That's my dreamworld...

This is pretty fantastic prank a group of folks pulled off and it's taking the web by storm. All of the taglines are asking things like, "What would you do if you were waiting on train and a full-on musical number erupted around you?" Well, that's my dreamworld! I'd be the one trying to learn the steps and join in! How much would I have loved to be part of this choreographed madness (that's an oxymoron, just to reassure you that this blog is still about language some of the time...)

Speaking of fantasy lives, here's another of my favorite all time musical scenes that I wanted to be a part of. I pray that anyone who actually had the privilege of going to a 'school for the arts' actually had this experience once of twice during their tenure there:

Musicals aren't the only things that fill my dreamworld, well-lit stages abound as well. Last night, I escaped from a bit of Spring semester madness and went to listen to one of my favorites croon about his "Dreamworld" among other things. Robin Thicke is always a vision and his voice was stellar last night. I do long for the B-sides from his first (wildly underrated) album, so my dreamworld would include the likes of him serenading the inhabitants with songs like this:

And because no dreamworld of mine would be complete without an abundance of poems, we'd stock the classrooms, libraries, syllabi, backpacks and bedposts with anthologies like this:

Every month would be National Poetry Month and each day we'd carry poems like this--one's in which we could find music everywhere, even in the everyday lilt of ordinary things--in our pockets and pass them around:

The Healing Improvisation of Hair

If you undo your do you would
be strange. Hair has been on my mind.
I used to lean in the doorway
and watch my stony woman wind
the copper through the black, and play
with my understanding, show me she could
take a cup of river water,
and watch it shimmy, watch it change,
turn around and become ash bone.
Wind in the cottonwoods wakes me
to a day so thin its breastbone
shows, so paid out it shakes me free
of its blue dust. I will arrange
that river water, bottom juice.
I conjure my head in the stream
and ride with the silk feel of it
as my woman bathes me, and shaves
away the scorn, sponges the grit
of solitude from my skin, laves
the salt water of self-esteem
over my feathering body.
How like joy to come upon me
in remembering a head of hair
and the way water would caress
it, and stress beauty in the flair
and cut of the only witness
to my dance under sorrow's tree.
This swift darkness is spring's first hour.

I carried my life, like a stone,
in a ragged pocket, but I
had a true weaving song, a sly
way with rhythm, a healing tone.

--Jay Wright

Friday, April 10, 2009

It's National Poetry Month! -- Readings/Workshops/Travels

April is National Poetry Month and there is good stuff galore. Here's what I have going on for the next few weeks:

There will be several National Poetry Month readings at Pretlow Library in April. I'll be reading at my favorite Norfolk library on Monday, 4/13, at 6:00 PM. I'll read some from Conversion and give the folks a taste of the new work. Please come out if you're in town! Contact info. for the reading coordinator, Ms. Abraham, is below:

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

Next week, I'll be doing my part to make the wide world of academics think about poetry in new ways. At the ACTC Conference in Memphis, I'll be delivering a paper on Natasha Trethewey and highlighting poems from Domestic Work, Bellocq's Ophelia and Native Guard. The panel title alone should pique your interest--Poets and Poetry as the Core of America’s Future Memory--but we'll get deep into the reclamation and investigation of images in my paper, “Reclaiming Memory, Inventing History: Barthe’s Punctum in the Poetry of Natasha Trethewey.”

When I return I'll be hosting an Open Mic for the NSU Spartans (details to come) as well as continuing my Teen Poetry Workshop. We've done historical biographies, collage poetry, odes and we'll keep the words flowing for a few more sessions. Even if you're not a teen, you can come out to support poetry and pen some new verses with us. Here are the particulars:

WHAT: Teen Poetry Workshop -- Verse Biographies/Charting Our Own History
Activity Summary: For ages, poetry has been used as a means of charting our history in the world. It is a fast-paced art that pays attention to the minute details of our lives as well as the universality of human emotion. In this workshop, participants will engage in writing exercises that help generate poems that will tell their own stories and, ultimately, will become autobiographies in verse. No prior writing experience is needed. Students should, however, come prepared to write at each workshop and possibly share their work with others.
WHEN: Monday, 4/27, from 4:30 - 6:00
WHERE: Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library
111 W. Ocean View Ave.
441-1750 ext 323 or 324

Many fellow poets are engaging in a '30 Poems in 30 Days' project this month, I couldn't pull that off because I have so many other things going on. Even so, I'm enjoying reading the poems and have been going back to some of the greats to help my muse get her mojo going. Here is a beautiful poem that inspired me from Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems: Volume One. I hope it inspires you too:


You can
die for it--
an idea,
or the world. People

have done so,
their small bodies be bound

to the stake,
an unforgettable
fury of light. But

this morning,
climbing the familiar hills
in the familiar
fabric of dawn, I thought

of China,
and India
and Europe, and I thought
how the sun

for everyone just
so joyfully
as it rises

under the lashes
of my own eyes, and I thought
I am so many!
What is my name?

What is the name
of the deep breath I would take
over and over
for all of us? Call it

whatever you want, it is
happiness, it is another one
of the ways to enter

--Mary Oliver

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Watching Stevie get another much deserved accolade on PBS a few nights ago, I was reminded of the new brilliance of Esperanza Spalding...

and after watching Esperanza, I began thinking about improvisation and how we, as artists, are called on to re-create on a daily basis. Each day, I go to the page to write a poem that, in one way or another, is much like the poem a thousand other poets have already written. Often my task is much like Esperanza's here--to try to breathe new life into a work that has already reached its pinnacle. While I could be extremely biased here, no one will ever be able to re-do "Overjoyed" in any way that substanstially changes the imprint that Stevie Wonder has made with this particular piece of music. Even so, Esperanza found a way to make this song her own. She found a way to honor and uphold its brilliance while breathing her own life and rhythm and sound into a piece built on someone else's fierce life and rhythm and sound. And she did a bang up job of it. And made it look nearly effortless.

So watching Esperanza made me think about yet another Stevie tribute performance that me me think about not only improvisation, but the interweaving of voice and style. Here's a clip of a performance that brought together to very different vocalists, Kathleen Battle and James Ingram, to re-create another kind of sound:

...All this thinking about improv and interweaving made me think about one of my favorite poetry exercises. An exercise I used to use to break myself out of whatever mode I was writing (or not writing) in was to take a short (preferably less than twenty lines) poem by another poet, re-type it and literally write in between the lines to make not one, but two new pieces. First, the piece you create in conversation with another poet is new. Second, the new lines that you write, when separated, can stand on their own as a poem. The poet, then, is asked to improvise on a piece that already has its own life, tone, space, diction, etc. and find some way to break into the piece and create new points of departure within it. This exercise (much like the performances above) are often more useful if the writing style of the original poet and that of the current poet are divergent.

While thinking about this, I pulled some books of the shelf and flipped through until I found a poem that looked interesting on the page and was relatively short. I stopped somewhere in Erica Hunt's book, Local History. Here is her original poem:


Curves are sharp and the
noises mysterious. I close my
eyes and I'm still coming around
the curve. Afterimage on retina
park. And I don't know what will
happen next. There is no guide to
context for this leap to land into.
Rigor of rope and railing, failing
that what parallel lines
we keep.

--Erica Hunt

Now, Erica Hunt is known to break the backs of words and sounds and not always in a linear fashion. This is not something I feel like I do much in my work. Therefore, I felt like I was entering new, odd space by trying to write in-between, but still around, Hunt's lines. Here's what I came up with after sitting with her poem (and the music above) for a few moments:


“…Over hearts, I have painfully turned every stone…” –Stevie Wonder

Limestone and granite
curves are sharp and the
underbelly, leaden and heavy, makes familiar
noises mysterious. I close my
body to the sound of his turning body, open my
eyes and I'm still coming around
though the sounds are mistaken. I swear I hear, I see
the curve. Afterimage on retina
his back, in reverse, everything backward. We
park. And I don't know what will
keep us from ending up on the underside of what might
happen next. There is no guide to
steer us, no boxes to be checked, no
context for this leap to land into
the curious fall. He says, Climb, but the
rigor of rope and railing, failing
is leaving too much to chance and I doubt
that what parallel lines
string together—the marble beams, unsteady ladder--
we keep. We tether,
but only for so long.

--Erica Hunt/
Remica L. Bingham

And here's what I came up with when removing Hunt's lines and trying to create a cohesive poem of my own using the lines I wrote in-between her lines:


“…Over hearts, I have painfully turned every stone…” – Stevie Wonder

Limestone and granite
underbelly, leaden and heavy, makes familiar
to the body the sound of his turning body, open my ears
though the sounds are mistaken. I swear I hear, I see
his back, in reverse, everything backward. We
keep us from ending up on the underside of what might
steer us, no boxes to be checked, no
curious fall. He says Climb, but
leaving too much to chance I doubt
string together—the marble beams, unsteady ladder--
We tether, but only
for so long.

--Remica L. Bingham

This interweaving of words is a useful exercise because I think it helps us create something we never would have created otherwise. By thinking about ways to reside in someone else's artistic space, we probably stretch ourselves and our vision much more than we generally would when we come to the page with our own particular writing style in mind. The clips above are evidence that breaking something open and creating your own mold for it (while still having reverence, respect, maybe even awe) for the original being is a great way to discover what strikes you most about another's art and how you can bring your own unique rhythm to a canvas, then improv some type of harmony.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Since Chicago...

I've learned a great many things, since heading to the Chi for AWP. Here are a few links to pique your interest:

And here's a quaint little Tate poem that reminds all of us writers a thing or two we might want to remember about ourselves...or maybe not. Nevertheless, the Post might be fond of this one, too:

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn't have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
"You look like a god sitting there.
Why don't you try writing something?"

--James Tate

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Soundtrack of My Life

IF YOUR LIFE WAS A MOVIE, WHAT WOULD THE SOUNDTRACK BE? A good friend of mine sent me a (chain) note with this heading the other day. It's supposed to be a random, shuffling game you play with the music you have stored on your computer, but because I am slightly off-kilter, I think about this all the time. Not because I think my life has been so exciting that it's movie-worthy, but because I truly do want my own soundtrack. I've been designing it in my head for years! Anyway, here's how I would write my own personal score:

Opening Credits:
Ascension -- Maxwell

Waking Up:
Happier Than the Morning Sun -- Stevie Wonder

First Day At School:
School -- New Edition

Making Your New Best Friend:

Falling In Love:
Easy Conversation -- Jill Scott

Breaking Up:
Ain't No Way -- Aretha Franklin

Get Me Bodied (Extended Mix) -- Beyonce

No Such Thing -- John Mayer

Life's Okay:
The Longest Time -- Billy Joel or these guys

Death of a Close Friend:
Show Me -- John Legend

Mental Breakdown:
Harder to Breathe -- Maroon 5

Follow Me -- Usher

It's So Hard to Say Good bye to Yesterday-- Boyz II Men

Getting Back Together:
Let's Stay Together --Al Green

Wedding Scene:
So Amazing -- Luther Vandross

Birth of Child:
Zion -- Lauryn Hill

Car Accident:
Time After Time -- Cassandra Wilson

Final Battle:
Purple Rain -- Prince

Death Scene:
Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer -- Stevie Wonder

Funeral Song:
525,600 Minutes -- Rent (The Musical)

End Credits:
Girl Blue - Stevie Wonder

Liner note: Can I just say that YouTube might be the best thing ever invented...
Hey, I think I'll do the Poems/Books of my life next :-)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Workshop at Pretlow Library on Monday, 1/26 @ 4:30 PM

Starting next Monday, I'll be teaching a Teen Poetry Workshop at the Mary D. Pretlow Branch of our local library system. I'm so excited to get a glimpse at some fresh faces and spark a few fresh ideas for the new year.

The workshop is open to all teens and will be held on the last Monday of each month up until May. Who knows? If we spark enough interest, we might get to hold a *showcase* for all the work created there by the time we're done.

If you're not a teen, but know some who like poetry, please spread the word! Here are the particulars:

WHAT: Teen Poetry Workshop -- Verse Biographies/Charting Our Own History
Activity Summary: For ages, poetry has been used as a means of charting our history in the world. It is a fast-paced art that pays attention to the minute details of our lives as well as the universality of human emotion. In this workshop, participants will engage in writing exercises that help generate poems that will tell their own stories and, ultimately, will become autobiographies in verse. No prior writing experience is needed. Students should, however, come prepared to write at each workshop and possibly share their work with others.
WHEN: Monday, 1/26/09 from 4:30 - 6:00
WHERE: Mary D. Pretlow Anchor Branch Library
111 W. Ocean View Ave.
441-1750 ext 323 or 324

Monday, January 12, 2009

Reading at B&N in MacArthur Center on Sunday, 1/18 @ 3:00 PM

Hey VA, if you're in town please, please, please, come out to my reading at Barnes & Noble in MacArthur Center this Sunday. This college bookstore-based B&N is trying to spawn a successful local authors series and is reaching out to area writers for support.

I'll be signing books and premiering new work during the reading. It has been a long while since I've had a reading in town, so I'd love to see some of the folks I'm always missing even though we live so close.

I don't want to call anybody out but if your name happens to be Nicole, Rashad, Princess, Til, Mister House or any number of possibilities, you may want to attend, just to see what new things people will know about you after the reading is over :-)

Here's the pertinent info:

WHAT: Local Author Reading and Book Signing
WHEN: Sunday, 1/18/09 3-5 PM
WHERE: Barnes & Noble at TCC
MacArthur Center
300 Monicello Ave
Norfolk, VA 23510
tel 757-625-3459

Hope to see you there!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back...

So, the new year has already begun and I still haven't processed all that happened at the end of 2008. In short, I had a wonderful trip home and got to write about many of the places I knew as a child. I also got to spend time with some good people that I adore. Here's are some snapshots (along with my weird captions) that I took during my travels. I wrote lots of memory/landscape poems while I was out West. If you'd like to guess what I might have been thinking about at any of the locations below, leave me a note in the comments section and I promise to send you a few of the poems I wrote in return...

San Fran (Thanks to Myron Michael and Sweet James)

The Queendom, Wine Country

Mountains near Laveen

Bright autumn

Early morning skate-park

Brown Street mural

The Lady appears



Okay, okay, maybe that last one isn't too inspirational, but it is proof that I was actually at any of these places and it showcases how gorgeous my beloved friend was on her wedding day :-) I'm glad I got to witness and bear witness to so many beautiful things to close out the year. Here's a poem that always reminds how good it is to start anew:

won't you celebrate with me

won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.