Joseph Ross launches his new book of poems, Raising King, introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller in a virtual presentation.
The 2020 Lucille Clifton Reading Series provides an opportunity to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves as Ross explores through verse the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ross based his poems on King’s own writing in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where do We Go from Here. Ross will read and discuss his work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in a virtual presentation.
Ross says Raising King “invites readers to journey with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Montgomery to Memphis. These poems, some in Dr. King’s voice, some in other voices from his time, offer the reader a new way to understand the compassionate and prophetic life of Dr. King.” Joseph Peniel, author of The Sword and the Shield: Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. writes: “Raising King is a groundbreaking poetry collection that helps to rescue the radically compassionate legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Joseph Ross brilliantly reminds us that King’s power derived from the way in which he forced American and global citizens to confront uncomfortable truths about race, poverty, citizenship, war. A must read.”
Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Meeting Bone Man (2012), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Ache (2017). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martín Espada. He served as the HoCoPoLitSo’s 23rd writer-in-residence and teaches high school English is Washington, D.C. He is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee and his poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. Raising King will be available from Willow Books in mid-September.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections. He hosts the WPFW morning radio show On the Margin with E. Ethelbert Miller and hosts and produces The Scholars on UDC-TV which received a 2020 Telly Award. Miller’s latest book If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press) was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus. Click here to view the E. Ethebert Miller Collection at GWU.
Zoom attendance is limited to the first hundred registrants. Additional virtual attendance will be available through live streaming on Facebook.
Donate to HoCoPoLitSo to help make this and other events like this important discussion happen.
a blog post by Laura Yoo
In the time before quarantine – do you remember? – people used to sit in a room together for readings. We shared a physical space and we were there not only in mind but also in body. When a poem was read, we reacted. We observed the small changes in each other’s bodies: tilting of the head, rigorous nodding, maybe a rolling tear, or uncrossing then recrossing of the legs. Maybe a faint smile or an uncomfortable cough. Maybe a small sound – like “oof” or “whew” or “wow” – escaping our mouths involuntarily. Maybe two strangers’ eyes would meet – and maybe they’d smile or raise an eyebrow in agreement. Then, having experienced the reading together, friends or strangers might stand around the refreshments table or stand in line for the book-signing and debrief: What did you think? I didn’t expect that! I loved that one poem about… I am thinking about that line…
In the time of COVID, attending readings is a very different experience. I’m alone in the bedroom with a glass of wine. That’s it: me, wine, and computer screen. Most of these virtual events show only the author and the moderator (for a good reason) and there is little or no interaction. If I make faces or a gasp escapes my mouth, it’s just for me. Sometimes I cry alone. Other times I laugh and snort all to myself. I might hop online to order a copy of the author’s book even as they’re still reading. I might text my husband to please bring me more wine. It’s a solitary experience.
If a friend is also joining the reading from the comfort of her own home with her own glass of wine, we might text each other. Instead of exchanging looks, we exchange emojis, maybe a “WTF” or an “OMG”. But this isn’t always possible – sometimes it’s work, sometimes it’s kids’ meal times or bed times, and sometimes it’s just that there is nothing left to give at the end of a COVID-day.
Recently I was in a virtual open mic reading when a debate arose: one of the poets read a poem in which he uses the n-word and one person in the audience shared in the chat that they were offended. The moderators responded, then the poet addressed the issue – about how and why he’s using the word. I wished I could hear that audience member’s voice and see their face. What would I have heard or seen? Anger? Sadness? Pain? I also wished I could turn to a friend or a stranger and look for a reaction. I wished I could stand by the refreshments table and ask, “So what did you make of that?” Instead, I emailed a few friends about it and we met a couple of days later on Zoom to chat about it. That led to an important conversation about who, what, where, when, why, and how of the n-word in poetry. And that was good. Still. What I missed was the opportunity to commune with others spontaneously, the chance to exchange looks and ideas with each other as it was unfolding.
In the “before time,” why did people even go to poetry readings? We can find an endless supply of videos of writers’ readings, talks, performances, and lectures online. Still, we got tickets, we got babysitters, we drove, we got ourselves to places on time, we found our seats, and we sat with others to listen. We made dinner reservations or post-reading drinking plans. What was all that for? For the community. For the shared sound of language. For the faces. For the movement of bodies. For the physical proximity to the creators of art. For the reaction from and discussions with other patrons of art.
I miss people. I miss sharing space with people. But I realize it’s a trade off. And I have a feeling that even when we “go back” we may never go back to the way we used to do things, including literary readings. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.
I am grateful that we could eavesdrop on Eula Biss’s (Having and Being Had) conversation with Cathy Hong Park (Minor Feelings). What an incredible opportunity it was to listen to Ibram X. Kendi (How to be an Antiracist) along with 1000 other people. When Claudia Rankine and Robin DiAngelo had a conversation about Just Us for New York’s 92Y, everyone with a link (and $15) could watch. How cool that Purdue Creative Writing presented Cameron Awkward-Rich (Dispatch) and Franny Choi (Soft Science) and made the registration open to the public and free. Even though Frances Cha, the author of If I Had Your Face, was at her home in Korea, she could have a conversation with Eun Yang (NBC news anchor in Washington, D.C.) at 7 p.m. on a Friday evening (EST). It was 8 a.m. in Korea.
In this time of stress and uncertainty, having access to art virtually significantly improves the quality of my life. And I am grateful for that.
So, I hope you will join me at some of these virtual events that are coming up.
- Sunday, September 27, 2020: The Creative Process
Wednesday, September 30, 2020: Inclusion
Sunday, October 4, 2020: Representation
- Time(s): 7:00pm – 8:30pm
- Hosted by Howard Community College’s Arts Collective and Howard County Poetry and Literature Society
- Friday, October 2, 2020
- Time: 7:30pm
- Jose Ross reads from his new work Raising King
- Introduction by E. Ethelbert Miller
- Hosted by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society
- Tuesday, October 6, 2020
- Time: 11:00 am
- Conversation host: Laura Yoo (yeah, that’s me!)
- Hosted by Maryland Humanities One Maryland One Book and Howard County Library System in partnership with Howard County Poetry and Literature Society
If we’re lucky enough, we remember elders reading books to us as children. And then, if we’re doubly lucky, we become readers, and pass the literary love down to successive generations.
In this week’s Poetry Moment, Li-Young Lee distills this moment of everyday parenthood into a poem that transforms the act of reading into something sacred. A mother reads to her child in the next room. A listener can hear the cadence, the love in the voice, but not discern the story.
Lee explains the origin of the poem in the full Writing Life interview from 1995.
“I was waking up every morning and listening to my wife read to our son in the other room, morning after morning after morning,” Lee said. “Every morning I woke up experiencing that, I realized I was in the presence of something really magical and wonderful, and on the one hand, eternal, and on the other hand, very impermanent. I didn’t know how much longer he would allow his mother to read to him like that. I knew that somehow I was in the presence of poetry, and it was up to me to find the place in myself where I could pay attention enough to write this.”
And by paying attention to this moment, Lee calls readers of his poem to attend as well.
“It’s unconscious when I’m writing,” Lee said. “I’m hearing a story being read, I never hear the story, I just hear the voice. The poem is trying to enact the voice. I’m really interested in, not so much the particular stories that are being told, but I feel as if there’s a greater telling that goes on in the universe. That there’s a telling voice that is telling all the time. Everything is discourse–leaves, trees, clouds–it’s all discourse, not only language. Or we can say everything is language. I’m curious about what that other language is. Sometimes it’s clearer when you don’t hear the words, because of the wall that separates you, but you hear the intonation of the voice, so you know you’re in the presence of a telling, but not necessarily what is being told. So it’s the telling voice that I’m really just in love with.”
Lee had a harrowing early start to his life. His father had been Mao Zedong’s personal physician, but his parents fled China as political exiles. After settling in Indonesia, anti-Chinese sentiment rose in that country and his father was arrested and held as a political prisoner for a year. After a five-year trek through Macau, Hong Kong and Japan, the family finally settled in America. But he does remember his father reading to him, even during their flight, and how later his father required him to memorize literature and recite it.
The poetry Lee writes has a quality of mysticism to it, a way of taking a sacred look at everyday events, such as reading a story to a child. He compares writing poetry to praying. In an interview with Poets & Writers, Lee said that part of the mission of poetry was to help build heaven on earth.
“The condition of prayer is a state wherein we have a kind of focus and yet we have a wide peripheral attention, and somehow it seems to me that good poems enact that kind of condition, where we are very focused, very concentrated, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have a very wide periphery, a wide awareness,” Lee said in The Writing Life interview.
Lee’s memoir of his early childhood, The Winged Seed, is an amalgamation of his memories, his father’s sermons, dreams, prayers, and lyrical moments: “My father asleep at a train window is a member of the rain fallen momentarily out of favor. And only he and God know he’s changed his name again to flee yet another country. And the child singing beside him is me. And I am so many things: An expert in tying and untying knots. A traveler stranded on that ancient peak called Father’s Heart. A hidden grape distilling light and time to render news of the living.
A man fallen asleep at his desk while reading is apple blossoms left lying where they fell. The child who comes to wake him by kissing his hands is so many things: Love succeeding. The eye of the needle. Little voice calling the flowers to assembly.
May the child never forget the power of the small.
May the man never wake a stranger to himself.”
Lee never forgot the power of the small, the sacred moment of reading to a child. This poem helps readers do the same.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
During a pandemic overlaid with protests over systemic racism, fear is something with which we’ve grown comfortable, like our masks and our distance. And perhaps our racism.
Joy Harjo, this nation’s National Poet Laureate, is acquainted with racism and fear, but she doesn’t accept them. The first Native American to hold the national position with the Library of Congress, Harjo has been writing poetry, playing music, dancing, and painting since she was in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma.
She visited HoCoPoLitSo in October 2005, playing her flute and reading poetry at the Howard County Conservancy, in a time that feels like another universe.
This May, Harjo got a call from Cheryl Strayed, who writes the Dear Sugar column in the New York Times. During the pandemic, Strayed added a podcast to her repertoire and named it Sugar Calling.
The two authors had a talk about writing during a pandemic. The conversation turned to the poem in this week’s Poetry Moment, “I Give You Back.
“This is one of the earliest poems I wrote,” Harjo told Strayed. “And I’ve begun to think that a lot of these poems have come to me because they’re coming through me. And then I have to do my part. I have to bring out my hammer and nails, and build a place for them to live. So this one came when I desperately needed it. It’s called “I Give You Back.” And it’s helpful, I think, during this time because it’s to get rid of fear. And we’re in a pandemic, something we’ve never been in before, in a time like the times we’re in now. And what does that mean? And what’s going to happen to us? So this poem is to get rid of fear. I think it comes out of the tribal tradition of writing poems to be useful to go out into the world—OK, poem you have work to do. And you have to go out and help people not be afraid.”
Harjo, whose name translates from the Muskogee (Creek) as “so brave, you’re crazy,” told me in an interview a decade ago that as she was coming of age, so was the Native rights movement. And while she tried to resist writing poetry, instead trying to concentrate on her visual art, music, and dancing, she found she had to write.
“The revolutionary times in Indian country demanded that my spirit learn to sing with words,” she told me. And while she still makes music and writes songs, poetry has become her medium.
I Give You Back” is one of those foundational poems that Harjo’s audiences ask for again, and again. Addressing fear as a foe, the poem has at its heart a line I return to, “I take myself back, fear.”
In the interview Harjo gave with poet Barbara Goldberg in 2005 for The Writing Life, Harjo explained that she still got letters about “I Give You Back.”
“The poem has served me well since the 1970s. I get a lot of letters and emails saying this poem saved their life,” Harjo explained.
She went on to say that she believes poems live beyond the page, that they have a purpose in the world, and that they create change.
“Poetry for me was soul talk, crafted soul talk,” Harjo said. “Words literally had power to change the weather, to make things happen. Poetry was a way to document the spirit of people.”
Giving fear back, rejecting racism, hoping for revision. Those are words to change the weather.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Back in April, HoCoPoLitSo conceived of its Poetry Moment series as a dose of soothing literature during the pandemic shut-in. When George Floyd was murdered in May, renewing the Black Lives Matter movement, we changed our focus. In support of the racial justice, HoCoPoLitSo wanted to amplify the voices of the Black poets who have read for our audiences here in Howard County. Now it’s September and we’re inviting other voices to join our verse party to continue these conversations about what divides and unites us.
Poetry Moment will now include poets of other backgrounds, including Irish, Chinese, Muscogee (Creek), Latinx, and Baltimorean, including Lucille Clifton and Josephine Jacobsen.
We’re starting with Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winner and force of nature who read for our audiences three times. Called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney died in 2013. But the hour-long interview from 1988, excerpted here, remained in our archives until we could negotiate and pay for rights to air it. We finally secured those rights last year, and we’re grateful to Padraic Kennedy for his donation that covered those costs.
This week’s Poetry Moment also includes a face many in Howard County knew and loved, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, who co-founded HoCoPoLitSo in 1974, and died this past February. Padraic and Ellen, married for nearly 65 years, are the foundation that HoCoPoLitSo is built upon.
At the beginning of this week’s video, Ellen can be heard, and then seen, requesting Heaney’s poem “Digging.” “Recited,” she adds. Heaney smiles. He knew Ellen well, and like most in the poetry world, could not refuse her.
He then recites his iconic poem. When I was teaching students this poem, they didn’t understand how the rhymes fit together until they heard it in his voice. Then they understood the connection between “ground” and “down” and “sods” and “bog.” They didn’t know that when Heaney pronounced “gravelly ground,” it sounded just like the scrape of a shovel into soil.
Any time we can offer poems in the voice of the author, we’re doing the world a service. And this voice seems timely to hear now because of the increasing fracturing of our country over racial justice, and political divisions in general.
Heaney’s voice was well known in Ireland during the troubles, the sectarian divisions and violence that pitted citizens of different religions against each other from the 1960s to 1998.
“Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence,” Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead said during a Trinity College of Arts and Sciences tribute to Heaney after his death. “Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and (had) the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence.”
While he was never overtly political, Heaney talks in this hour-long episode of The Writing Life about an intimately violent poem he wrote in the seventh section of Station Island, the shooting of a young man he knew in Ulster after police arrived at his door.
“Because, see, in Ulster, as in shall we say, you could have imagined a situation some years or decades ago in the Southern states of the United States, where someone could be a virulent bigoted Klan member, but also be wearing the uniform of impersonal justice, in other words a policeman, so that they hygiene of the uniform is no guarantee. You actually have the festering stuff underneath it,” Heaney tells the audience in 1988. He explains that he isn’t pinning blame in his poem, he doesn’t accuse the police, he’s talking in universal terms about the killing of a man he knew. And he finishes with explaining, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course it’s necessary for those of us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. I think that writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than with the second or third circle, where the big parties are watching and you’re getting publicity. Poetry isn’t concerned with publicity.”
Poetry not publicity. Sounds like a great motto. Now more than ever, poetry’s witness and wisdom provide a window of understanding into other’s lives. Listen to this voice, so specifically Irish, and hear the universal, as when Gwendolyn Brooks spoke of her seven at the Golden Shovel in “We Real Cool,” or Tyehimba Jess read about Blind Tom the musical savant, or Patricia Smith channeling the voice of a hurricane. HoCoPoLitSo’s mission is to amplify literature’s voices, to allow words to change the world.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Fifteen years ago today, Hurricane Katrina blew apart the bayou.
While many people suffered in the storm and its aftermath, Black and brown people who lived in the path of that category 5 Atlantic hurricane were disproportionally traumatized.
New Orleans and its surrounding bayous were soon filled with the dead bodies of more than of its 1,200 citizens. Eighty percent of the city was under water and didn’t drain for weeks. Survivors waited on bridges and rooftops for days in the blistering sun. The Superdome shelter became a vision of hell—steaming hot and filled with thirsty, wounded, and moaning hurricane survivors. The government’s lackluster rescue operation, as well as the determination that the Army Corps of Engineers had built faulty levees that failed to protect the city’s residents, are the bitter pills that New Orleans had to swallow.
Poet Patricia Smith, like most of the rest of America, watched horrifying images on television of the storm and its aftermath. But Smith turned the horror into something beautiful, a collection of poems, Blood Dazzler.
In 2013, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, HoCoPoLitSo hosted Smith. She read her suite of poems about the hurricane as the Sage String Quartet played Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” for an audience that was struck silent and teary-eyed.
HoCoPoLitSo also produced a television interview that weekend. Poet Joseph Ross interviewed Smith for a conversation that touched on her origin as a writer listening to her father tell stories on their Chicago back porch, and her inspiration for Blood Dazzler. Ross describes the collection as coming from a choir of voices, including that of the hurricane herself. Smith explained that she’s not from New Orleans, she has no tether to the Gulf region.
“The primary role of a storyteller is as a witness,” Smith said. “And Katrina was not just a regional story, it was a national story. You’re seeing what your country is capable of. I watched Katrina unfold the way thousands of other people did. The difference is that in my role as witness, in my role as writer, I felt that I could use my writing to process that story. I’m trying to make the story makes sense–that’s how I approach a lot of stories–this can’t be possible, this can’t be true. Let me enter it through my writing and see if I can find something that I’m not seeing on the surface.”
This Poetry Moment’s poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005”, is in Katrina’s commanding, menacing voice. Finding Katrina’s voice, Smith said, was easiest for her.“Persona allows me to enter a story in a way that is going to open up a lot of other avenues right away,” Smith said. “It never occurred to me not to give Katrina a voice. That also left me some touchstones – I tried to keep it roughly chronological and follow the development of the storm, but every once in a while, I’d say, “Now Katrina is feeling this. Now she’s angry, now she’s remorseful, now she’s saying ‘Maybe I overdid it.’ ”
Katrina, like one of the Greek goddesses spurred into destruction by humans’ blunders, came down hard on the planet. But she was fed with warm water from the oceans, growing warmer by the minute thanks to humans causing climate change.
This summer has been a hard one for so many. As I write, Hurricane Laura is barreling toward Category 4 status, with the Gulf Coast in its path. Wildfires are blazing in California, destroying homes and animals and redwoods and people’s lives. Death Valley hit 130 degrees, the highest temperature recorded since 1913 on this planet. Climate change isn’t in the distance. It’s here. And there is an intimate link between racial injustice and climate change, with communities of color disproportionately suffering as the world warms.
Poetry can tell stories, and it can bear witness. We’re going to need to witness much more in the coming years, as climate change whips up storms and harsh weather that will batter this country, and the world. Words can change the world, yes, but only if humans listen.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Students across the nation are returning to their studies this fall in a time of fear and in methods that are bizarre. Most of them won’t board buses with their parents sniffing back tears on the sidewalk. They won’t giggle in clusters or eat in cafeterias. College students won’t be packing stadiums or gathering on the quad. This fall, hardly any students need new backpacks full of crisp lined paper and pointy pencils.
Instead, there are masks outside their homes, and Zoom inside. Instead, students are learning on their own. They’re sharing computers or borrowing them from schools. And freshly reopened wounds of systemic violence and racism against Black Americans are compounding the pandemic pain. Students are suffering in ways that adults can’t begin to understand.
HoCoPoLitSo can’t fix things. But we can offer a token of our appreciation of the circumstances. This week’s Poetry Moment is a shot in the arm from Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling writer of books such as Long Way Down, Patina and the rest of his track series, All-American Boys, and the Marvel Comics graphic novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man.
Reynolds, who grew up in D.C. and Maryland and had never finished a complete book until he was 17, used the power of poetry, rap, and his own determination to become an author. He’s now won the Walter Dean Myers Award, a Newbery, a Kirkus Prize, the Coretta Scott King Award, and an NAACP Image Award.
In this Poetry Moment, Reynolds reads from his book For Every One, a sort of pep talk in verse, recorded in 2018, long before a pandemic was dreamt of.
“This is a pep talk for me,” Reynolds explains. “This isn’t a book of answers, I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know how it feels to have it feel broken.”
His book isn’t a self-help book, he explains, because he doesn’t feel qualified to assist. In fact, he tells young people, he needs help to get done the things he does. Writing is difficult, Reynolds says. Without editors, he says, he wouldn’t be able to get by. “I still don’t know how to use a comma,” he says.
In his writing, he says, he tries to show his characters’ vulnerability and the difficulties that they’re facing. Just like students, he says.
“I tell the teachers, you have no idea what some of your students had to do just to get there,” he says.
Named in January as the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Reynolds is evangelizing words as a power to change the world.
“The truth is, if we’re looking at history as our compass, it will show us over and over again that the way to change is through children. The way to change is through youth,” he said, in an interview after his appointment as ambassador.
His new book, Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, is a remix for young people of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the first chapter, Reynolds explains what he’s hoping to talk about in the book: “This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book. A book about the here and now.”
The here and now is pretty rough. And we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But Reynolds is mindful of uncertainty. In fact, his books embrace an unconventional plot strategy. We never know whether Patina or any of the other characters from his series about a track team of runners, win their races. “They show up,” Reynolds says. And that’s enough.
Patina’s story, he explains, “doesn’t tie up in a neat bow, but none of my books do, only because I think life doesn’t do that. … I think it’s disrespectful of the reader to give away answers. I think our job is to lead them to the point where they can do the rest of the work themselves.”
Sending strength for the rest of the work to students, teachers, parents, and every one, from Jason Reynolds and HoCoPoLitSo.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
For thirty-nine (39) years the HOward COunty POetry and LITerature SOciety (HoCoPoLitSo) has awarded book prizes to honor students nominated by their teachers for Promise and Achievement in Language Arts. To foster lifelong reading habits and a love of literature, HoCoPoLitSo presents book awards with personalized bookplates. The tradition continued this year with modifications. Instead of HoCoPoLitSo board members making presentations at Howard County public high school honors assemblies for graduating seniors, books were delivered to students’ schools or mailed directly to students with the assistance of board members Susan Thornton Hobby and Anne Reis (Homewood Media Specialist), and Howard County Public School System’s Secondary Language Arts Coordinator, Nancy Czarnecki.
Twenty-eight students were chosen by their English Departments to receive HoCoPoLitSo’s Promise and Achievement Award in Language Arts. The honorees were: Victoria Adler, Cameron Goodwin-Schoen (Atholton), Helen Pantoulis, Tobias Moser (Centennial) Kaitlyn Walker, Harrison Young (Glenelg), Rose Kinder, Christopher Parris, Jr. (Hammond), Dré Campbell, Gale Freeman (Homewood Center), Emily Gorny, Richard Zhou (Howard), Autumn Salcedo, Andrew Vesey (Long Reach), Audrey Casper, Jiwoo Moon (Marriotts Ridge), Ian Roe, Douglas Stewart (Mt. Hebron), Mikhi Kelly, Maheshwari Shukla, Genesis Houston, Kiana Macharia, (tie) (Oakland Mills), Esha Bhatti, Melissa Rayo (Reservoir), Tess Redman, Chutian Weng (River Hill), Ananya Chand, and Aden Noyes (Wilde Lake).
Supported by a generous donation by Dr. Lillian Bauder, students received books by such outstanding poets and writers as: Maya Angelou, Carrie Brown, Michael Dirda, Lauren Groff, Joy Harjo, Colum McCann, Alice McDermott, Randy Pausch, Stanley Plumly, Jason Reynolds and Ocean Vuong. Students were also invited to view the authors who have visited Howard County talking about their work at www.youtube.com/hocopolitso.
We get mail!
This week’s poem contains a legacy.
Like a story told and retold on families’ front porches, this Poetry Moment features author Toi Derricotte reading a poem that changed her life, “Southern Road” by Sterling Allen Brown.
With colloquial rhymes and dialect, the poem’s haunting rhythms echo the stories and songs of chain gangs. Conceived during the Civil War to provide free labor, chain gangs proliferated in the South until the 1950s, when they were largely phased out in most of the nation. The practice lingered in Georgia and North Carolina until the 1970s, and was resurrected in the 1990s “tough on crime” era.
Prisoners, many of whom were Black and most of whom were convicted of minor crimes, were shackled together at the ankles to provide states free labor. They broke rocks, built the nation’s roads and highways, dug holes. Treated cruelly, prisoners were sometimes kept in cages, and usually fed little and beaten liberally. For photos and history of the chain gang, see this fascinating and horrifying history project by the University of North Carolina Greensboro.
Brown’s poem called forth the chain gang’s speech and song in a way that American readers had never seen. Poet Derricotte explained that besides Langston Hughes, she read no works by Black writers in grade school, in high school, or even in college. When she started reading Brown’s poems, “they blew my mind.” In this Poetry Moment, Derricotte reads only the last three stanzas of Brown’s iconic poem.
Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., attended Harvard, then returned to Howard to teach for more than 40 years until he retired in 1969. Brown, whose father was born into slavery and became a prominent minister and professor at Howard, became a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary Black poets like Derricotte.
A 2019 finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, Derricotte visited HoCoPoLitSo in November 2012 to read her own poetry and talk about the legacy of Lucille Clifton, our longtime artistic advisor and the nation’s beloved, award-winning poet. Before she read for our audience, Derricotte filmed an interview about her work with E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and activist from D.C. who knew Brown well. Miller asked her to read some poetry that inspired her. Derricotte chose a Sylvia Plath poem, and this work by Brown.
Derricotte has her own legacy to pass on. She and poet Cornelius Eady formed Cave Canem, a retreat and foundation to support and host African American poets. Cave Canem, which translates from Latin as “Beware the Dog,” was named after the mosaic of the protective dog at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, preserved in Pompeii (see image below). Founded in 1996 to nurture Black poets, Cave Canem has supported thousands of Black poets with workshops, prizes, and readings. Fellows of the program have published more than 250 books.
Try one of their books, listen to “Southern Road” here, pick up The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, read some of Derricotte’s confessional and personal work. Then sit on the porch with your family and tell these stories.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Sterling Brown Photo: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42296826
Amiri Baraka did not mince words. He wrote words, he played with words, he even sang words. But mince? Never.
One of the founders of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka was known as a fiery, frenetic speaker, a firm believer in the insertion of Black music and culture into poetry, and an indefatigable advocate for free speech.
Here is an excerpt from “Home”, one of a series of his essays published in 1996: “The black artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.”
Words were weapons for Baraka, and he was going to wield them as bravely as he could.
New readers are discovering his work, a good companion to the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for human rights in this country. His famous “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was this summer the subject of a Poet’s House project, offering electronic access to the original 1961 chapbook, video about Baraka, and scholarship about the poet and his work.
After his death in January 2014, thousands of people watched our episode of The Writing Life featuring Baraka, interviewed by poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller. One viewer wrote: “Be part of the struggle to transform reality. Legacy indeed.”
In this Poetry Moment, Baraka reads and croons a portion of his epic history poem, “In the Tradition,” in which he names Black people who added to American life—Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, H. Rapp Brown, Thelonius Monk, and countless unnamed musicians, thinkers, and artists. He dedicated his book to saxophonist Arthur Blythe.
Critic William J. Harris wrote about the poem, “The black tradition Baraka affirms in this poem is more complex than any conception of black culture he had expressed in the past. It is a tradition of heroes … and it is a tradition of villains … . But while the poem is nationalist, affirming black people, it is revolutionary nationalist rather than culturalist.”
After Baraka died, The New Yorker’s Jellani Cobb penned a tribute with the headline, “The Path Cleared by Amiri Baraka.”
Cobb wrote, “His poetic voice, with its Ebonics conjugations and sly rhythms, was that of the man on the Newark boulevard or the Harlem avenue. If black people can exert a valid claim on American democracy, Baraka seemed to be saying, then there’s no reason for their language not to have equally powerful standing in American literature.”
Baraka has achieved that powerful standing in literature, and to get there, he never minced words.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer