HoCoPoLitSo has created a poetry prize in honor of co-founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy (1932-2020). The winner’s poem will be published on HoCoPoLitSo’s website and the winning poet celebrated with a press release, on social media, in a blog interview, and featured in our annual report.
We welcome submissions from poets of all ages and in all styles, including experimental, traditional, and short narrative poems. Each poet may submit one to three previously unpublished, original poems to total no more than 60 lines or three pages. HoCoPoLitSo-appointed judges will consider each poem separately and without identifying author information to select one winning poem of exceptional quality.
Entries must be submitted September 30, 2021. Each poem will be judged separately and read anonymously. The reading fee is $10. The winner will be notified by November 15, 2021. HoCoPoLitSo Board Members and staff are not eligible. Click here for the submission link.
Kennedy, a National Book Award finalist, co-founded the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in 1974 and served as chief executive officer until 2005, bringing literary luminaries including Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, Isaac Bashevis Singer, W.S. Merwin, Henry Taylor, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz, Derek Walcott, Allen Ginsberg and more to Howard County.
“Ellen’s brilliant, discerning love of literature, especially contemporary poetry, inspired the creation of this annual contest in her name. She delighted in nurturing and showcasing new voices who can move, inform, and connect our community through verse,” says Tara Hart, HoCoPoLitSo Co-Chair.
Proceeds will support HoCoPoLitSo’s live literary programs. HoCoPoLitSo’s mission is to cultivate appreciation for contemporary poetry and literature, to celebrate a culturally diverse literary heritage and to broaden exposure to the literary arts. The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s award winning writer to writer interview show, available on YouTube, has been viewed worldwide over 666,000 times. HoCoPoLitSo is supported in part by the Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County Government, the Community Foundation of Howard County, the Maryland State Arts Council, the Columbia Film Society, Dr. Lillian Bauder, and individual donors.
We are profoundly saddened and outraged by the recent violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) people and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We stand in solidarity with all those seeking to create long-lasting change in our communities.
HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment.
To this end, over the years HoCoPoLitSo has hosted an inclusive list of authors, and our video series reflects that diversity. We are committed to the ongoing collaborative process of inclusion. As a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations about the AAPI experience, audiences can watch featured authors reading their work, with introductions by local actors.
Poetry Moment and Writing Life videos by HoCoPoLitSo include:
Though this list is not exhaustive, HoCoPoLitSo also recommends these works by AAPI writers. Look for these titles on Bookshop.org to support independent booksellers around the country.
- Go Home! edited by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
- Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers edited by Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada and Shawn Wong
- We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
- All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
- Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
- The Girl at the Baggage Claim: Explaining the East West Culture Gap by Gish Jen
- The Magical Language of Others by EJ Koh
- The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee
- Fairest by Meredith Talusan
- Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank H. Wu
- Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
- White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
- The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata by Gina Apostol
- Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
- Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang
- Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
- The Resisters by Gish Jen
- East Goes West by Younghill Kang
- The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim
- The Interpreter by Suki Kim
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Drifting House by Krys Lee
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li
- Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
- The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
- No No Boy by John Okada
- The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy
- The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
- On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
- Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang
- Pilgrim Bell: Poems by Kaveh Akbar
- The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan
- Hybrida by Tina Chang
- Obit by Victoria Chang
- A Portrait of the Self as a Nation by Marilyn Chin
- DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi
- Soft Science by Franny Choi
- Bodega: Poems by Su Hwang
- A Lesser Love: Poems by EJ Koh
- The Last Incantation by David Mura
- Lucky Fish by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
- Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal
- 3 Sections by Vijay Seshandri
- A Nail the Evening Hangs On by Monica Sok
- Peach State: Poems by Adrienne Su
- A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon
HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College Present
The Thirteenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival
Russian-born poet Ilya Kaminsky headlines the Blackbird Poetry Festival to be held virtually on April 29, 2021. The festival is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, readings, and HCC Poetry Ambassadors on social media.
The Sunbird Reading features Kaminsky, Teri Ellen Cross Davis, local authors, and Howard Community College faculty and students. This free daytime event starts at 2:30 p.m., with registration required — click here to register.
The Nightbird program, hosted on Zoom, begins with a pre-show at 7:20 p.m. Presented live, the evening features an introduction by Cross Davis, a reading by Kaminsky, and an audience question and answer session. A link to the online event will be emailed to ticketholders. Nightbird tickets, $15, are available on-line. If you need help with your order, the Horowitz Center Box Office (443.518.1500) has limited phone hours to answer your questions.
Kaminsky, hard of hearing since the age of four, is the author of Deaf Republic, a 2019 National Book Award finalist. In Poets & Writers Magazine, Garth Greenwell wrote “Deaf Republic is a dramatic masterwork, a parable-in-poems that confronts the darkness of war and terror with the blazing light of ‘a poet in love with the world.’ ” The BBC selected Kaminsky as “one of the 12 artists that changed the world” in 2019. Kaminsky is also an editor, translator, and professor at Georgia Tech, where he holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry.
Kaminsky authored an earlier poetry collection, Dancing In Odessa (Tupelo Press, 2004). Shortly after the release of that collection, Kaminsky won the Whiting Award and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Carolyn Forché noted he was “more than a promising young poet; he is a poet of promise fulfilled. I am in awe of his gifts.”
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of a more perfect Union (The 2019 Journal Charles B. Wheeler Poetry Prize) and Haint (2017 Ohioana Poetry Award). She is the 2020 Poetry Society of America’s Robert H. Winner Memorial Prize winner and the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah to Deliver Keynote at Howard Community College’s Inaugural Bauder Lecture
Acclaimed author of “Friday Black” will be joined in conversation with local author Tope Folarin
COLUMBIA, MD – Howard Community College announced that Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, the New York Times-bestselling author of “Friday Black,” will deliver the keynote at the inaugural Bauder Lecture. Adjei-Brenyah will participate in the virtual event on March 4, 2021, at 12 p.m., which also will include a conversation with Washington, DC-based writer Tope Folarin.
Adjei-Brenyah’s debut work, “Friday Black,” is a collection of twelve short stories that explore the injustices experienced by Black men and women in the U.S. Adjei-Brenyah, a professor at Syracuse University, uses fiction, humor, and shock to tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest in America.
His work has appeared or is forthcoming from numerous publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Literary Hub, the Paris Review, Guernica, and Longreads. He was selected by Colson Whitehead as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees, is the winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and the William Saroyan International Prize, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for Best First Book, the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Aspen Words Literary Prize.
Following his keynote, Adjei-Brenyah will be joined by Tope Folarin, a Nigerian-American writer based in Washington, D.C., and the author of “A Particular Kind of Black Man,” for an in-depth conversation. Folarin won the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, was recently named a “writer to watch” by the New York Times, and was recognized among the most promising African writers under 40 by the Hay Festival’s Africa39 initiative.
The Bauder Lecture by Howard Community College is made possible by a generous grant from Dr. Lillian Bauder, a community leader and Columbia resident. Howard Community College will present an annual endowed author lecture known as The Bauder Lecture, and the chosen book will be celebrated with two student awards. Known as the Don Bauder Awards, any Howard Community College student who has read the featured book is eligible to respond and reflect on the book in an essay or other creative format. The awards honor the memory of Mr. Don Bauder, late husband of Dr. Lillian Bauder and a champion of civil rights and social justice causes.
“Friday Black” was selected by the Howard County Book Connection committee as its choice for the 2020–2021 academic year. The Howard County Book Connection is a partnership of Howard Community College and the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society.
To learn more about the Bauder Lecture and RSVP for the event, visit howardcc.edu/bauderlecture.
For more information on Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, “Friday Black,” and the Howard County Book Connection, visit https://howardcc.libguides.com/bookconnection2020.
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).”
HoCoPoLitSo’s 43rd annual Irish Evening on February 19, 2021 is a creatively conceived virtual event. Featuring award-winning author Joseph O’Neill, the evening includes an introduction by Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s Ambassador to the U.S., author Belinda McKeon serving as emcee, an Irish dance lesson with Maureen Berry of the Teelin School and musical performances by Jared Denhard, former MD. Governor Martin O’Malley, Laura Byrne and Sean McComiskey. Tickets, books, signature cocktail box available www.howardcc.edu/IrishEvening. If you need help with your order, the Horowitz Center Box Office has limited phone hours to answer your questions.
Joseph O’Neill has written four novels, most recently The Dog (longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize) and Netherland, which received the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction and the Kerry Fiction Prize. Born in Cork to an Irish father and a Turkish mother, O’Neill was raised in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran, and Holland before studying law at Cambridge. He emigrated to New York City more than twenty years ago. He is also the author of a book of short stories, Good Trouble (2016), and of a family history, Blood-Dark Track (2001). O’Neill’s stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Harper’s. He writes political essays for the New York Review of Books. “I’ve moved around so much and lived in so many different places that I don’t really belong to a particular place, and so I have little option but to seek out dramatic situations that I might have a chance of understanding,” he told the Paris Review.
The evening program, hosted on Zoom, begins with a pre-show at 7:20 p.m. Presented in a pub-like variety show format, the readings will be interspersed with music, Irish art, a dance lesson, an audience question and answer session, and a rousing sing-along. A link to the online event is $20 and several options are available. A signature cocktail kit, An Irishman in Istanbul (Jameson, cardamom, apricot and citrus), is available for pick up. Cocktail kits provide the ingredients for two drinks and must be ordered by 6 p.m. February 12 and will be available for pickup at The Wine Bin, 8390 Main Street, Ellicott City between noon February 18th through noon February 19th. Limited quantities of three of O’Neill’s books (The Dog, Netherland, and Good Trouble) are also available for purchase.
O’Neill joins the long list of illustrious Irish authors HoCoPoLitSo has brought to Howard County audiences, including Frank McCourt, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, and Emma Donoghue. For more than 40 years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has celebrated the substantial impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.
To the usual five stages of grief, poet Taylor Mali adds a sixth–humor.
These days, many of us are progressing through the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Sure, Shakespeare wrote, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” But what about laughter? With his poem “My Deepest Condiments,” Mali poses that humor can help one endure grief.
A four-time National Poetry Slam champion who studied at Oxford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mali hit it big with his poem “What Teachers Make.”
The New York Times called him “a ranting comic showman and literary provocateur.”
In his Writing Life interview, Mali cited Latin poet Horace, and his declaration that the task of the poet was to either instruct or to delight. The greatest praise, Horace said, should be reserved for those who can do both.
“I try to delight and I try to instruct. If I can’t do both of those, let me be merely delightful,” Mali explained. “The truth is that people are going to listen to the beauty of your words, and your words will find a deeper place and stay there if people can enjoy them on the way down.”
“My Deepest Condiments,” recited during his interview on The Writing Life, lingers on the small reprieves in grief that can sometimes arise.
The poem’s language–like “condiments” rhyming with “sentiments”–is playful, but the subject is serious, Mali’s father’s death. A friend’s letter of condolence arrives at Mali’s home, sending her “deepest condiments.” No one knows what to write in a sympathy card, but “deepest condiments” is probably not the best choice.
To Mali, riffing on the found poem of the card’s mistake, the gesture was “sweet relief.”
Laughter is the best medicine, so the saying goes, and this poem brings the funny, but in a bittersweet way. Because by the end, after the laughter, Mali returns to cry just a bit more.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Poets write a particular kind of history. While they might cite dates and names, as normal history books do, what poets record is an essence, their personal and political stories distilled into lines that evoke eras.
Poet Carolyn Forché, known for her own poems about civil war atrocities in El Salvador, spent more than thirteen years collecting work from poets around the world who had endured imprisonment, exile, repression, censorship, war.
In the 816 pages of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché anthologized more than 140 poets from five continents, spanning history from the Armenian genocide to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. And when it was published in 1993, she coined the term poetry of witness, to denote the method of describing history that poets under extreme conditions developed.
“I was interested in what these experiences had done to the poets’ imaginations and to their language,” Forché explained. “And whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether one could feel this suffering and the extremity in the poems.”
The work in this week’s Poetry Moment is a tiny excerpt of a longer poem, “Requiem,” read by Forché, but penned by Anna Akhmatova. Forché remembers being captured by this poem as a student, she says, it is perhaps the reason that her anthology exists.
Akhmatova was a Russian poet and translator who survived the Great Purge and Stalinist terror, more than fifteen years of her books being banned and suppressed, grinding poverty, harassment, and threats from the state police.
While the government restricted her, Akhmatova composed her poem “Requiem.” Subject to constant danger of search and arrest, Akhmatova told the long narrative poem, line by line, to her closest friends to memorize, then burned in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry.
She conceived of the poem while standing in line with hundreds of other women outside Leningrad’s prison. All carrying baskets of food they hoped to smuggle or bribe their way into their beloved prisoners, the women were waiting, like Akhmatova, to hear news of their families. One day, another woman heard that she was a poet, and asked her to get out the news about their vigil.
Akhmatova began writing. Her son was dragged from home in the middle of the night by state police because Akhmatova and his father, another subversive poet, spoke against the government. His father died in prison. Akhmatova waited outside the Leningrad prison for the seventeen months he was imprisoned there, and then at home when he was sent to a forced-labor camp. For decades she wrote in secret and hoped to see again her son, who after twenty years was eventually released and became a historian and translator.
Akhmatova chose not to emigrate, instead staying in the Soviet Union to act as a witness to the horrors around her. Because of its criticism of the purges, “Requiem” was not published in the USSR until 1987.
The Antioch Review wrote that the poems of Akhmatova, as well as the other poets that Forché collected, provide “irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities.”
Forché said her anthology takes its impulse from the words of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times.”
Especially in dark times, poets must sing.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16605586)
This repression order by the Soviet government condemned those speaking against the government. People placed into Category I were executed by shooting, people placed in Category II were sent to gulag forced-labor camps.
The weather is turning. We can wear layers and hats, but it’s stretching the limits of our cold tolerance to socialize outside. Considering the Covid-19 infection rates, though, that’s the only safe way.
Consequently, we’re all desperately missing hanging out with our friends. This week’s Poetry Moment offers a tiny shot of remembered happiness, a slice of summer. Sekou Sundiata wrote “Longstoryshort,” a portion of which he reads in this week’s Poetry Moment, about a scene that used to be normal: gathering with buddies in a park, sharing a drink, listening to poetry and music.
Sundiata, a poet, playwright, and musician who died too young, was born in the projects in Harlem and taught at New York’s New School University. This poem evokes the pleasures of hanging out with friends in one of those parks ubiquitous in New York City. In these lines we can smell the weed, taste the sweet wine, feel people we love slapping our shoulders or hands, hear the laughter and music.
Though Sundiata toured with his band and other musicians, performing his poetry around and between and over their beats, he did not consider himself a musician. He was simply a poet, he said, who could never ignore music.
“It’s damn near impossible to understand what contemporary Black poets are doing without understanding what’s going on with Black music and its relationship to Black speech and Black literature,” he told Poets.org.
Interviewed by E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet steeped in Black music and poetry, Sundiata explained that he began writing poetry in the late 1960s with a group of people who would hang out, listen to music, and write.
“The poem is really addressing the idea that here we were, outside of school, discovering this poetry on our own and exploring the idea of writing poetry ourselves,” Sundiata explains in the full Writing Life interview. “Looking for voice and sound and rhythms, and having an actual space in a park that we just named Mecca, where we would have these al fresco poetry workshops. It was a hip scene.”
In “Longstoryshort,” poetry and music and friendship surged through these young people’s bodies, invading “the membranes of our hearts,” as the line in Sundiata’s poem reads.
Sundiata didn’t have an easy life. He overcame heroin addiction, cancer, a broken neck, pneumonia, kidney failure and a subsequent transplant. One of his friends donated that kidney. I like to think that friendship saved his life in multiple ways.
Listen to a few of his poems over music and perhaps it will transport you to a place where, without fear, you can shake a friend’s hand, hug them, share a drink and a laugh
We’ll gather again, it will just take some patience. In the meanwhile, put on some mittens and head to the park.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Besides the turkey, the pies, and the Norman Rockwell sentimentality of the Thanksgiving meal, Americans love the story of that first friendly meal between Indigenous people and the pilgrims in 1621.
For decades, kids have carefully cut construction paper pilgrim hats and Native headdresses and reenacted the message of harmony that the holiday is meant to convey.
Sadly, the story just isn’t true. It’s mostly sad for the Native Americans whose land was stolen and whose treaties were broken by the American government. The myth of the first Thanksgiving was embroidered and invented during the Civil War by President Lincoln to promote unity. This video from the National Museum of the American Indian is a clever take on informing America about the creation of Thanksgiving, and the devastation to the tribes on whose land we now live.
Today’s and yesterday’s politics aside, harmony at the Thanksgiving table is just not historical. But the Thanksgiving story does prompt Americans to think about the Indigenous people who lived here when European colonists arrived. President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Heritage Month in 1990, after almost seventy-five years of advocacy by Seneca and Arapahoe and Blackfoot people.
This week, we’re featuring a poem by Edgar Gabriel Silex, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence and visited students in Howard County schools during the 1999-2000 academic year. With Native American, Chicano, and European ancestry, Silex grew up in a small reservation on the Texas-Mexico border. Author of four books of poetry and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities, Silex now teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
His poem “For Chris” springs from his memory of teaching poetry on a Diné reservation in Arizona, of meeting a young boy who confessed that his father had thrown him through a window. He bared his chest to show Silex the scars. Though the encounter between Silex and Chris took place on the reservation, the issue is not exclusive to Native Americans. Silex’s words address the universal ideas of family, abuse, anger, and love.
The evening after he met Chris, Silex said, he was so enraged that he couldn’t sleep. He tried to write about the boy and his abuse, but couldn’t at first. But as he thought about the boy, and about his own childhood peppered with violence, he began to see beyond “half the story,” as he says in his poem, and toward the idea that love can still exist inside abuse.
Most of his poetry is found, Silex told poet and interviewer Michael Collier: “all of us experience things as we go through life. The poets tend to be the ones who are more like witnesses. They capture and encapsulate the emotive experience of the event. … I found the poem or the poem found me, it was just a matter of getting the most experience per line down.
Poetry’s density sometimes frightens people; the compressing of so much life and feeling into such a small space sometimes feels like a thicket readers are fighting through. But that’s poetry’s magic trick—creating the links in the readers’ minds, sharing experiences that are universal, and letting that meaning bloom on the page for the reader.
Silex’s author’s statement for his book Acts of Love, addresses so many reasons for writing (and for reading) poetry: “a state of grace is our ultimate human condition, forgiveness is our highest form of love, awe is our only muse, suffering is our path to salvation, beauty is our only reward, displacement is our human inheritance, passion is our only freedom, restraint is our act of kindness, solitude is our wisest friend, simplicity is our most complex desire, reverence is our highest achievement, and poetry is our most constant state.”
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer