On a warm June day in 1989, the young man in the white shirt stands in front of the line of Chinese Army tanks. When they steer toward the crowds in Tiananmen Square, he again places himself in the path of the treads. He climbs onto the tank and talks into the cavity. He jumps down and blocks the tanks again. The Chinese Army had cracked down the day before and shot and killed an unnamed number of protestors. But the young man stands before the tank casually, still holding his shopping bag. Two men in blue pull him away and Tankman, as the anonymous youth was nicknamed, has never been heard from again.
Marilyn Chin, this year’s recipient of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize given by the Poetry Foundation, wrote a love poem addressed to that anonymous young man, “Beijing Spring,” which we reproduce here this week’s Poetry Moment. Chin, who was given the big prize last month in a virtual ceremony [http://poetryfoundation.org/video], writes in her poem, “I believe in the passions of youth./ I believe in the eternal spring.”
Tankman’s gentle but insistent gesture reminds me of the Vietnam War protestor inserting a daisy in the barrel of a rifle during the March on the Pentagon in 1967. And of Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit in 2019. And of Emma Gonzalez’s speech after the Parkland shootings during the March for Our Lives. And of the photos of the young protestors in the Arab Spring.
Young people are putting themselves at the forefront of many of the world’s movements. Just this week, thousands of pro-democracy youth are taking over the streets in Bangkok, raising the three-finger salute popularized in The Hunger Games novels to signify youth solidarity against power. In America, young people are stepping up to work as poll judges on Nov. 3 so the usual workers, the seniors, can sequester from the virus. They’re demonstrating and organizing Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Columbia that drew praise from president Barack Obama. Young people are designing signs, giving money, signing up to vote, working to make communities safe, and crushing social media. That’s the spirit Chin was channeling in “Beijing Spring.”
This kind of activism isn’t a new thing. Youth protested child labor laws in the 1900s and school segregation in the 1960s. The movements for rights for Dreamers, for Civil Rights, for Native rights, all have been invigorated by youth participation.
Chin’s poem evokes the white blossoms of a Chinese spring, but also the spirit of youth–passionate, innocent, and determined. Her poem is a loving tribute to young people who work for a better world. Follow her lead, and theirs. Vote. Young people have died for that right, including, possibly, that lithe Chinese man standing in front of the line of tanks.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Baseball is heavily and romantically played in American literature, from “Casey at the Bat” and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural through Gish Jen’s The Resisters. Martín Espada turns that beautiful green diamond on its head when he writes about brown people’s baseball experience in this week’s poem, “The Trouble Ball.”
At the moment, we are hip deep in the playoffs. The World Series starts Oct. 20, and the teams are sure to have men of many ethnic backgrounds rounding the bases. Jackie Robinson integrated the league when he started at first base for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, but before that day, baseball was lily white and aggressive about keeping it that way.
Espada’s poem, “The Trouble Ball,” tells the story his father told him, about going to his first American baseball game at Ebbets Field in 1941 as a new immigrant. Eleven-year-old Frank Espada had gotten off the boat from Puerto Rico not long before he and his father went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. Little Frank wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher. In Puerto Rico, Frank and his family watched games with players from the minor leagues and the Negro leagues, and Frank idolized Satchel Paige. Paige named his pitches, one he called Bee-Ball because he said it was so fast it buzzed, and nicknames like Midnight Creeper and The Trouble Ball.
The Trouble Ball was a change-up, a pitch that looked for all the world like a fastball, but one that would stall and drop. “It makes the batter swing early and look like a fool,” Espada said on the full interview on The Writing Life. But he named his book after the pitch because “on a whole other level, it refers to other troubles. There was no greater trouble, at that time in history, and for that matter, there may not be today, than the trouble of race and the trouble of racism.”
Little Frank, sitting with his peanuts in the cheap seats at Ebbets Field in 1941, expected to see his hero Satchel Paige and the other great Negro Leaguers he’d watched in Puerto Rico. But when his father whispered to him in the stands that Black players weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues, it became a defining moment. “It was a discovery that resonated well beyond the ball field itself, and had implications for my father for the rest of his life,” Espada said.
While he did play pretty good baseball, his father instead made his living as a photographer who documented the Puerto Rican neighborhoods around him, and as a community organizer, to fight against predatory landlords, to lead marches for safer streets, to register voters. And his son, Martín, became a poet who documents trouble around the world, in hopes of changing it.
“I think memory is absolutely essential to us as a society, and poets have a role to play in restoring the collective memory and retaining the collective memory,” Espada told me in an interview.
And while many share a nostalgic fondness for baseball, Espada tells the field of dreams story from a different angle, so our collective memories also include the trouble in America.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Watch this year’s Lucille Clifton reading, “Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice,” featuring Joseph Ross reading from his latest book Raising King. In this event, Mr. Ross is introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller. The reading is followed by a Q&A session hosted by HoCoPoLitSo board member Susan Thornton Hobby. Ninety minutes.
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1870.
This week’s Poetry Moment resonates with Dickinson’s famous lines about the power of literature. Read by Baltimore’s own, the very proper Josephine Jacobsen, she titled her poem “Gentle Reader.” With a sly nod to the etiquette-wise mode of address in nineteenth-century novels–think Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre—Jacobsen’s lines capture the shock of reading poetry in a way that is most ungentle.
With her cap of careful curls, her pastel jackets, and her soft tones, Jacobsen looked as ladylike as she acted, polite in a way that only native-born Canadians raised in Baltimore’s Roland Park are.
“I expect that if I look in the dictionary and see the word ‘lady,’ it will be Josephine’s picture,” said poet Lucille Clifton in the 2003 memorial tribute show from which this footage is taken. “She was always such a person who valued others and understood there were a lot of ways of being a good poet.
But this lady spoke about literature, particularly in ”Gentle Reader,” like a mystic, a lover, a cult leader.
In the first stanza, Jacobsen sets up a normal evening with city and stars, reading a poem. But by the end of the stanza, the poem’s speaker has encountered a poet, “dangerous and steep” and we’re about to head off the cliff with her. The poem “juices her like a press,” and eats her “gut and marrow.” Her ear’s lust, at the end of the poem, enthusiastically agrees with James Joyce’s Molly Bloom: “yes, yes, yes, O, yes.”
That ecstasy is not often equated with poetry. Sometimes it is necessary, however, to describe a visceral response to a good poem.
Not well recognized as a poet until she was in her 70s, and with no college education, Jacobsen wrote essays, op-ed pieces, poetry, and short stories most of her life. From 1973 to 1975, Jacobsen served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, the position later renamed as the National Poet Laureate. In 1997, the Poetry Society of America gave her the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry.
Both joy and terror lived in Jacobsen’s poetry, and underneath lay a kind of mystery, which is likely the same source of Dickinson’s cold and Jacobsen’s “savage sight.” Jump off that steep and dangerous cliff with Jacobsen, and with HoCoPoLitSo.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Consultant and producer of The Writing Life
How we need this week’s poem, with its voice that calls for grace and saviors. Lucille Clifton, the Lilly Poetry Prizewinner and HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for decades, wrote “blake” and put it in her collection The Terrible Stories. But she didn’t read it to audiences very often, and HoCoPoLitSo recorded the only video of her reading this piece.
In the midst of the poems in The Terrible Stories, which address cancer, mastectomy, Biblical lust, and rage and despair over a history of slavery, this poem calls for a plume of hope.
Clifton said the poem was conceived after she had been living in the South for a while, remembering and living with its history of slavery and racist violence. She was being driven to her home in Columbia, watching out the car windows at the trees flashed by, and remembering William Blake and his visions.
Blake, a poet and artist who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrote that when he was 9, he saw angels in the trees. In fact, Blake said he had visions almost daily, and angels figured heavily in those mystical experiences. He often painted angels, especially in his illustrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Celestial beings fluttered through his poems, guarding him, surveying the world, watching over children. The world has made famous his line: “Cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
While Clifton didn’t often write about angels or visions directly, she always had her eyes open. In the same collection, Clifton writes about the female fox that often sat by her window, how they watched each other through the glass and acknowledged each others’ power.
“child I tell you now it was not/ the animal blood I was hiding from,/ it was the poet in her, the poet and /the terrible stories she could tell.”
“blake” is not an inspirational poem to be put on a flowery background and posted to Instagram. There are terrible stories in it, in the leaden way Clifton writes “the face/ of what we have become” and “this hunger entering our loneliness.”
But she ends the poem by coming home, “back north,” and searching the branches for poems.
Tonight, HoCoPoLitSo will host its tenth annual Lucille Clifton Reading on Friday, Oct. 2, featuring Joseph Ross reading his work based on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s good to remember Clifton’s work this week and always. Her short lines and direct language could evoke whole other worlds, and her words both challenged and inspired readers.
Clifton’s line from “blake” about “the flutter that can save us” lingers with me. I’m watching the trees, waiting for poems or angels. Perhaps they are similar things.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
The Agony in the Garden is a small painting by William Blake, completed as part of his 1799–1800 series of Bible illustrations commissioned by his patron and friend Thomas Butts. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Luke which describes Christ’s turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and Crucifixion following Judas’s betrayal. In Blake’s painting a brilliantly coloured and majestic angel breaks through the surrounding darkness and descends from a cloud to aid and physically support Jesus in his hour of agony. The work is dominated by vertical lines, formed both from the trees and from the two arms of the angel. Two inner lines converge on Christ’s palms, evoking the nails driven through him during his crucifixion.
The Agony in the Garden was bequeathed by Blake collector Graham Robertson to the National Trust in 1948. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery the following year.
George Floyd and Emmett Till had many things in common, but two similarities rise to the top. They were both killed by white men who believed they had power over Black bodies. And they both called for help from their mothers just before they died, Floyd on a Minneapolis street in May 2020, Till in a Mississippi barn in August 1955.
Willie Louis heard those cries that summer morning in 1955, and like the witnesses to Floyd’s death, he spoke up about the unjust death.
This week’s Poetry Moment recalls the courage of Willie Louis in a poem by Joseph Ross, “When Your Word Is a Match.” On Oct. 2, Ross will read from his new collection of poetry, Raising King, based on the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The online event, HoCoPoLitSo’s annual Lucille Clifton Reading, commemorates the beloved poet and our artistic advisor, Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010.
The event, entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice,” continues a recurring theme in Ross’s poetry, the country’s history of racial injustice and the struggle against that injustice. Near the beginning of his poetry career, Ross won the Enoch Pratt/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest with his poem, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
In doing research for that poem, he came across the story of Willie Louis, a young Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who was a witness in the trial of two white men accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Emmett Till.
“I was just so moved by the decision an ordinary person made. He wasn’t an activist or a hero in some way, he wasn’t a policy-maker,” Ross tells The Writing Life host, poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Miller will introduce Ross at the Oct. 2 event.
In 1955 Louis was an 18-year-old sharecropper walking down a blazing Mississippi road on a summer morning, when he saw Emmett Till in the back of a green Chevrolet pickup truck. White men, related to the woman who said Emmett flirted with and whistled at her, were in the cab of the truck. Louis then saw the same truck parked outside a barn, and heard someone inside being hit, and calling for his mother to save him.
When a white man with a pistol walked out of the barn for a drink from the well, he asked Louis if he had seen anything. Louis said, “No sir.”
But later in 1955, in a Mississippi courthouse, Louis testified against the men who had kidnapped Till. Despite Louis’ testimony at two trials, the white men were acquitted of murder, and later kidnapping. In 1956, in an interview with Look Magazine, the men admitted they had shot Emmett, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to weight him, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
After having to hide until the trial, News reports said Louis spoke so softly at the trial that he was barely able to be heard. But when asked, he stood and pointed to the men he saw in the truck and outside the barn. The audience in the courtroom gasped when he did.
Black people just did not testify against white people at that time, in that place. Louis had to be convinced by civil rights workers to testify, and kept hidden until the trial to keep him safe. The evidence of what could happen to him was Emmett’s body at his Chicago funeral, a coffin that Till’s mother Mamie insisted stay open so that the world could see what the men did to her son.
According to The Washington Post, Wheeler Parker, one of Till’s relatives who was sleeping in the house when Emmett was kidnapped, said he assumed that Louis had been lynched after his testimony. Instead, Louis fled Mississippi to Chicago, changed his name, and stayed under police protection, living out his life quietly as a hospital orderly.
The Post quoted Parker as saying, “You have to live those times to understand what it was like, the pure terror. His stepping forward, his testifying, it was just a very courageous act on his part. It’s beyond words for me to explain.”
Research goes into many of Ross’s poems. The horrors of Till’s murder, the institutionalized racism that allowed his killers to go free, the agonizing injustice of the crime and the trial could have overpowered any poem written about the event.
“I felt so strongly about what he had to go through, but doing the research controls that a little bit, and lets the poem say it in a way that’s not just shrieking or screaming,” Ross explains in the episode of The Writing Life from which this video is excerpted. “The research provides a lane for the passion to go through, so it’s not an explosion of passion, which is sort of uncontrolled and not moderated.”
Louis lived out his life in secrecy and relative obscurity. In an interview in 2003, he told 60 Minutes, “I couldn’t have walked away from that like that … because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life. And he come to visit his grandfather, and they killed him. That’s not right. When they had the pictures, when I saw his body and what it was like, I knew that I couldn’t say no.”
Speak softly. Don’t say no. Scream. Write a poem.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
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
Joseph Ross launches his new book of poems, Raising King, introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller in a virtual presentation.
Now available to watch online:
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.
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