We’ve all been swirling around in the frenetic cloud of crazy that has been the last twelve months. For HoCoPoLitSo, one thing has settled out of the hubbub. Poetry is something that helps. Hearing poetry, reading verse, listening to another soul speak truth is a balm.
National Poet Laureate Joy Harjo explains it well.
“When I began to listen to poetry, it’s when I began to listen to the stones, and I began to listen to what the clouds had to say, and I began to listen to other. And I think, most importantly for all of us, then you begin to learn to listen to the soul, the soul of yourself in here, which is also the soul of everyone else.”
If there’s any time we need to listen to our souls, and to the souls of other folk, it’s now.
The Poetry Moment series was created as a response both to the pandemic and to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since 1974, HoCoPoLitSo has been deliberate in its inclusion of authors to represent the fullest range of human experience. We have long believed that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment.
The project evolved from a broad-based poetry video series to focus for the first eleven weeks on amplifying the voices of Black poets who have visited our audiences. Later, we added the voices of poets of different backgrounds.
And in November, we started videotaping young actors from Howard Community College’s Arts Collective reading introductions to the archival video of poets and their work. Directed by Arts Collective’s Sue Kramer, these actors–Chania Hudson, Sarah Luckadoo, and Shawn Sebastian Naar–spent many Monday evenings learning about poetry, tripping over tricky names, and recording video introductions that help explain the poems to viewers. They handled their own styling, and even set up their own lighting and sets.
I asked the actors a few questions about the project and its evolution, and loved their responses. Naar, who portrayed Langston Hughes for HoCoPoLitSo’s 2019 Harlem Renaissance Speakeasy, has taken on roles for Spotlighter’s, Wooly Mammoth, Howard University, and the Kennedy Center. Hudson, who was the Harlem Renaissance Gwendolyn Bennett, is receiving her bachelor in fine arts from UMBC this spring in theater, and has played in many Arts Collective shows, as well as performances at UMBC and Rep Stage. Sarah Luckadoo is an actor, choreographer, movement coach, and teaching artist who has worked with the equity company Ozark Actors Theatre in Missouri, Red Branch Theatre Co., Laurel Mill Playhouse, HCC’s theater department, and of course Arts Collective.
The enthusiasm these actors brought to their work gave me such hope, and reminded me of when the 22-year-old inaugural poet Amanda Gorman read her uplifting lines on January 20:
We will not march back/
to what was/
but move to what shall be/
A country that is bruised but whole …
Perhaps watching a Poetry Moment featuring these young actors and the master poets will let a poem will take up residence in your bruised heart, and help you through the chaotic, difficult times ahead.
HoCoPoLitSo: Had you ever read poetry before?
Shawn Sebastian Naar: I have read poetry for performances (Langston Hughes, Shakespeare, Amiri Baraka, etc.) and I have read poetry recreationally for enjoyment (Maya Angelou, Shakespeare, Rupi Kaur, etc.)
Sarah Luckadoo: Yes! I was introduced to poetry at an early age and have always found myself drawn to it. My theater teacher in high school, who was also a published poet, was the driving force behind that love. Most, if not all, of the theater projects we did had some sort of poetry involved, including participating in the poetry recitation competition, Poetry Out Loud.
Chania Hudson: Yes! I’ve read poetry for HoCoPoLitSo and Arts Collective’s Harlem Renaissance event as Gwendolyn Bennett, and recently I read a few poems as Audre Lorde for Howard Community College’s Women’s Studies Salon: The Power Within virtual event.
HCPLS: If you did read poetry before, did you enjoy it?
SL: 100%! I love that poetry has this unique ability to tell full, intricate stories through its varying structures or even just a few words. It really shows how truly powerful words can be.
CH: Yes, I love reading poetry! I’ve found some of my favorite poems through working with HoCoPoLitSo.
SSN: Yes, I enjoy reading poetry. Reading great poetry is like listening to great music. When a poem or a song hits me in the right way and expresses a universal truth, it resonates deeply, and I am moved to tears or fits of laughter in the moment.
HCPLS: Did your perceptions of poetry change as we went through the project?
CH: I’ve always had a respect and love for poetry but this project turned my attention to the poet, and understanding the WHY of their poetry. It has felt like a behind the scenes look at how and why poems come to be.
SSN: Before this project, my personal selection of poetry was limited to more well-known poets or poets from school. Through this process, I’ve found some new favorite hidden gem poems, I’ve been introduced to Poet Laureates, and I even have some international poets that I’ve fallen in love with (Seamus Heaney, I’m looking at you).
SL: I’ve always enjoyed poetry, but this process has reignited the love I had for it. I hate to admit it, but I forgot what it felt like to just sit and read or listen to poetry. With the busyness from day to day and this “go go go” mentality, I’ve had a separation from it and this project made me realize how much I miss it.
HCPLS: Was there a favorite poem that you worked on (and why)?
SL: Such a hard question! I’ve honestly loved all of the poems I’ve worked on, but if I had to pick favorites it would probably be “blake” by Lucille Clifton and “Beijing Spring” by Marilyn Chin. “blake” was one of those poems that just reached out and grabbed me from the get-go … the words, the story, all of it. And I appreciated it even more when I discovered why Lucille Clifton wrote it and what she was trying to say. For “Beijing Spring” I particularly connected with it because of Marilyn Chin’s message of youth empowerment. She focuses on the innocence and determination of youth throughout history and demonstrates how they can quite literally move mountains to create change and defend their democratic rights.
CH: “Mrs. Wei Wants to Believe the First Amendment” by Hilary Tham, because it introduced me to a new perspective that I wasn’t fully aware of before reading it.
SSN: It’s tough to single out a favorite, but a couple poems of note would have to be Amiri Baraka’s “In the Tradition” and Josephine Jacobsen’s “Gentle Reader.” Baraka is one of my favorite playwrights and poets. The intensity of the passion and fire of “In the Tradition” is special. Conversely, I had never heard of Josephine Jacobsen before this project, but I love how she plays with opposites in “Gentle Reader.” The language is sensual, and the poem is sexy. Not what I expected at all from the refined Jacobsen and that is exactly what makes the poem brilliant.
HCPLS: Was there something you came across in the project that will stay with you?
CH: The majority of the poems featured will stay with me because of the way these poets have impacted their communities and the world around them. Each poem was like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes and I know that will stick with me for a while.
SSN: It feels to me that poetry gets overlooked sometimes in the arts. I’ve come across an incredible array of poets in this project and what will stay with me is the appetite for great poetry of the past, present, and future.
SL: In such an unprecedented time, it can be difficult to feel inspired or remember what good is left in the world. This project did both of those things. These poets shared stories about places, people, their lives–the good and the bad all wrapped together. What will stay with me is not only their stories, but their willingness to be vulnerable and share them. At the end of the day, we all have something to share, something to contribute and that’s pretty special.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Poetry Moment series producer
Up next for the Arts Collective is their What Improv Group! and “A Valentine Affair (from afar).”