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Poetry, music, cocktails at HoCoPoLitSo’s 41st Irish Evening of Music and Poetry

HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its annual Irish Evening on February 8, 2019, is the award-winning poet Vona Groarke, recipient of the 2017 Hennessy Hall of Fame Award for Lifetime Achievement. Groarke’s reading will be followed by a concert of Irish music and championship step dancing. During intermission, complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic beverages will be available. Irish coffee, specialty cocktails, and Guinness will be offered for sale beginning at 7 p.m. and during intermission. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. A special two for one ticket promotion is in effect through January 8, 2019, with two tickets for $40. After January 8th, general admission tickets are $40 each. Tickets are available on-line (starting Nov. 23) https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3905864, by phone or mail. To purchase by phone, call 443-518-4568 or by mail, send a check and self-addressed envelope to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.

Vona Groarke’s most recent collection, Selected Poems, won the 2017 Pigott Prize for the best collection of poetry by an Irish poet. Noted as “brilliant and original” by the Irish Times, Groarke writes haunting and candidly sensual poems. At Irish Arts Center’s annual PoetryFest in New York, organizer and author Nick Laird extolled Groarke’s voice as “always modulated beautifully, assured and daring, often wry, (that) in the end keeps faith with the world.”

Groarke has published ten books, including a 2016 book-length personal essay, Four Sides Full and one translation, Lament of Art O’Leary (from an eighteenth-century Irish classic). A new collection of poems, Double Negative, is due in 2019. Her work has been recognized as one of Irish poetry’s “most consistently satisfying voices” (Agenda magazine) and “among the best Irish poets writing today” (Poetry Ireland Review). She has been the recipient of many prizes and grants, including the Brendan Behan Memorial Prize for her first collection, Shale (1994), the Michael Hartnett Award for Flight (2002), and is currently a Cullman Fellow at New York Public Library.

Groarke 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.

 

HoCoPoLitSo’s 45th Season Opens with Poetic Trio.

HoCoPoLitSo opens its literary season October 26 with “Ordinary Wonder: Three Poets on Writing and Reality,” featuring Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi. The 2018 Lucille Clifton Reading Series highlights three Maryland poets with new, acclaimed collections. Collier, Spires and Yezzi will read and discuss their work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the Monteabaro Recital Hall of the Horowitz Center for the Performing and Visual Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. Join us in celebration of HoCoPoLitSo’s forty-five years of literary programming at this year’s Lucille Clifton Reading Series. A book signing and wine and cheese reception will follow. The suggested donation for this event is $5.

LCliftonReadingTrio

Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi

The three poets, in their own ways, hold up the ordinary world to the light of poetry and examine everyday mysteries, both beautiful and horrible.

Michael Collier’s most recent collection is My Bishop and Other Poems (2018). Poet and professor A. Van Jordan wrote, “My Bishop and Other Poems reminds us of the power of the observant in an age when, too often, we move too quickly to notice the world unfolding around us. These poems bring a passion, an empathy, and a way of seeing I had forgotten was possible.” Collier’s other collections include An Individual History, a finalist for the Poet’s Prize, and The Ledge, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.  He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland, a director emeritus of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, and a former Maryland Poet Laureate.

Elizabeth Spires‘ most recent poetry collection, A Memory of The Future (2018), was influenced by Zen and Asian art. The New York Times wrote of the work, “In these lyrical verses, Spires questions the quotidian, elevating the everyday to a meditational art form.” Spires’ other collections include Worldling, Now the Green Blade Rises, and The Wave-Maker. The author of six books for children, Spires lives in Baltimore and is a professor of English at Goucher College.

David Yezzi’s newest collection of poems is Black Sea (2018). Other collections include Birds of the Air, Azores, and The Hidden Model. Reviewing Birds of the Air (2013), Farisa Khalid noted the poem Orts “does something that many poems strive for but don’t quite get at, and that’s conveying with clarity the otherness of our world—the strange beauty of what we experience and the mystery of what we can’t always understand.” Yezzi has contributed poems and criticism to The New York Times Book ReviewThe Times Literary SupplementThe Wall Street JournalThe Paris ReviewThe New RepublicPoetryThe Yale ReviewPoetry Daily, and elsewhere. Yezzi, who lives in Baltimore, is the editor of The Hopkins Review and poetry editor of The New Criterion, and chair of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.

 

Ordinary Wonder:
Three Poets On Writing and Reality

Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi

Friday, October 26, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.

Monteabaro Recital Hall at the
Horowitz Center for the Performing Arts
Howard Community College

HoCoPoLitSo, a private, nonprofit literary organization, receives funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the state of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County government; The Columbia Film Society; Community Foundation of Howard County; and individual contributors.

Coffee-Stained Margins: a guest post by Eunice Braimoh

Marilyn Chin reading at the 10th Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival hosted by Howard County Poetry and Literature Society and Howard Community College on April 26, 2018

I had never heard of Marilyn Chin. But there I sat in the hazy Smith Theatre, listening to the petite, flip-flop-clad lady unfold her Chinese heritage, her voice’s rich resonance baptizing life into her words. Peppered with rhetorical questions and salted with snark, Marilyn Chin’s poetry invited the audience into conversation. As she discussed her experience with assimilation, I thought back to my years of insecurity with my Nigerian identity.

During my childhood, I tugged at my belly, my hair, my skin. I hunched in over myself. But I remember watching a spoken word from YouTube during youth group, the same lines which had echoed through my house the entire week prior because my mom, the youth leader, had been so fascinated by the video. Ears straining to keep up with the whiplash tempo, the laughing cadence, I snapped my fingers, riveted by the rain of spitfire, desperately beckoning the words barked out of the poets’ lips to be mine.

Slam poetry was alive.

A tandem of voice and pulse, spoken word went beyond sonnets and “thou”s and lofty declarations of love; it playfully teased out slant-rhymes and sidestepped the conventions of language. Poetry, I discovered, could be as unorthodox as I wished, and listening to the crowd of adroit artists (cough-SarahKay-PatrickRoche-BlytheBaird-OmarHolmon-cough) has since stirred a hunger.

For what?

Maybe I am looking for truth, naked and unholy. Maybe I write because I’m looking to sing what could be my gospel, to scream it in the shower, to spit it into the mic, to whisper it in an ear, to let it breathe ink and paper and dust.

While I write, I’ve knocked on Petrarch’s door, revisiting the poetry I once scoffed, imbibing in myself a greater appreciation for the art. Analyzing syntax and diction is what I love to do—maybe because I regularly eye my friends’ texts. (There’s a world of difference between “ok” and “Okay.”) While I am yet to be convinced that every inch of a poem is birthed from divine inspiration, I nevertheless believe that the spectrum of poetry—from spoken word to the coffee-stained margins—contains a delicateness that ought to be explored with careful hands and open eyes. As a writer, I wish to infuse electric vulnerability in my writing, inviting readers and listeners to unwind, to laugh, to have conversation.


Eunice Braimoh

Eunice Braimoh finds herself in a limbo between cultures: in her room hangs the Nigerian flag, while Maryland’s mosaic fusion has grafted itself into her heart. As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, she wishes to symphonize conversation regarding race, gender, and diversity. When not effusively fangirling over slam poetry and intricate word-play, Eunice can be found writing (and rewriting) her own poetry and fiction. Previously recognized with two Regional Keys from the D.C. Metro Region, Eunice recently received a Silver Key for her poem “in which icarus does not drown”. She will be attending University of Maryland, College Park as an English major starting this fall.

“Up Close and Personal” at the Recent Blackbird Poetry Festival

During Olympics’ coverage when I was a kid, ABC’s genial Jim McKay used to do interviews with athletes called “Up Close and Personal.” Sure, ice skating and swimming competitions were cool to watch, but “Up Close and Personal” was always my favorite because those talks felt intimate.

HoCoPoLitSo’s own versions of “Up Close and Personal” are the workshops that acclaimed writers offer aspiring writers. During the 2018 Blackbird Poetry Festival, featured poets Marilyn Chin and Joseph Ross read their work during the afternoon and evening. But on the morning of April 26, Ross and Chin offered forty students a close-up version of writing and reading poetry.

Students from Howard Community College’s creative writing and English courses were assigned some of Chin’s poetry to read, and she brought those poems to life, reciting and reading works like “How I Got That Name,” in which she explains how her father repurposed her Chinese name, Mei Ling, to become Marilyn. As a dark brown Chinese child, she wasn’t beautiful and wasn’t honored, Chin explained to the students.

“I’m this little Chinese girl, born dark, underweight, a little weak. How shall I speak? I shall speak loudly,” Chin said. “I shall speak for that little brown girl who was unwanted.”

Chin and the students also talked about “loaded words,” like “slant” and “bitch,” and how Chin wants to repurpose those words and take the power away from the negativity that bigots have used.

“You can take the power back,” Chin promised.

When Joseph Ross claimed the microphone, he turned the tables and asked the students to write. “Every poem is political,” Ross said, because as Langston Hughes wrote, “Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow, must lead a very quiet life.” Whether you choose to write about sunsets or sexual assault, snow or police brutality, those are political choices, he explained.

Then he asked students to write ten to fifteen-line poems including these phrases: line from a song, a phrase someone might hear on public transportation, words someone might speak in a kitchen, and title of a favorite book or poem or movie.

Sofia Barrios, who also read a powerful political poem during the afternoon reading, wrote a poem that logically incorporated the line, “Next stop, Glenmont.”

The next assignment Ross suggested was to write an apology that the author wanted to hear. One student wrote the apology her father should give to her. Another wrote an apology to his inner self that included the sentiment that he was sorry he didn’t believe in himself more.

After the workshop, Chin listened to one student’s story. Chunlian Valchar told Chin that as a baby girl born with a birth defect in China, her birth parents left her by the side of the road near the market. Valchar’s adoptive family wanted her, though, so Valchar said her situation was slightly different from Chin’s, but she still identified strongly with Chin’s work.

Chin enfolded Valchar in a hug, they took a photo and Chin left her with a simple thought: “You’re loved and cherished.”

Afterward, Valchar explained that she’s not really angry at her birth parents, since she doesn’t really know what they were going through. But she liked Chin’s poetry.

“It’s interesting to see a poet on paper, and then to hear the background,” Valchar said. “It’s more impactful to hear the back story.”

Up close and personal indeed.

 

Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo board member

 

 

Presenting Marilyn Chin — Tenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival — April 26

The Fierce Revolution of Marilyn Chin

HoCoPoLitSo and HCC’s Tenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival

 

Marilyn Chin

Award-winning poet and author Marilyn Chin headlines the tenth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival for HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College (HCC). Born in Hong Kong and raised in Oregon, activist poet Chin unflinchingly explores the intersection of the Asian and American worlds.

The Blackbird Poetry Festival, held April 26, 2018, on the campus of Howard Community College, is a day devoted to verse, with student workshops, book sales, readings, and patrols by the Poetry Police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Ms. Chin, as well as Washington, D.C., poet and educator Joseph Ross, local authors, and Howard Community College faculty and students, starts at 2:30 p.m. Ms. Chin will read from and discuss her poetry, including her most recent work, Hard Love Province, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Hard Love Province won the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf National Prize for Literature that confronts racism and examines diversity. Former winners of this prize include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston, Gwendolyn Brooks and Oprah Winfrey. Nightbird admission tickets are $20 each (seniors $15 and students $10). Click here for tickets.

Marilyn Chin co-directs the MFA program at San Diego State University and has won numerous awards for her poetry, including from the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Stegner Fellowship, the PEN/Josephine Miles Award, four Pushcart Prizes, the Paterson Prize, and many others.

Chin is the author of four poetry collections: Hard Love Province (2014), Rhapsody in Plain Yellow (2002); The Phoenix Gone, The Terrace Empty (1994); and Dwarf Bamboo (1987). She is also the author of a novel, Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen (2009). Pulitzer Prize-winner and Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove noted about Hard Love Province, “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfur, Irrawaddy River to San Diego.” In his review of The Phoenix Gone in The Progressive, Matthew Rothschild said Chin “has a voice all her own — witty, epigraphic, idiomatic, elegiac, earthy…She covers the canvas of cultural assimilation with an intensely personal brush.” Booklist contributor Donna Seaman described the tone of Rhapsody in Plain Yellow as “Chin paces the line demarcated by the words Chinese American like a caged tiger, fury just barely held in check.”

Joseph Ross

Joseph Ross’s newest collection of poems, Ache, was published in 2017. Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, noted “The poems in Ache do just that, they ache – from the wounds inflicted by racism, from history’s ravages. The wail, the poems insist, ‘is the language/inside every tongue.’ Joseph Ross’s moral vision is unsparing, truth-telling, fierce.”

Mike McCormack to read at HoCoPoLitSo’s 40th Irish Evening of Music and Poetry

HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its 40th annual Irish Evening on February 9, 2018 is the award-winning novelist and short story writer Mike McCormack, whose latest novel is a tour-de-force in a single sentence. McCormack’s reading will be followed by new and traditional Irish music by Narrowbacks featuring Jesse and Terence Winch, with stepdancers from the Culkin School. Irish coffee, Guinness and other beverages and snacks will be offered for sale beginning at 7 p.m. and during intermission.

Mike McCormack’s most recent novel, Solar Bones, won the 2016 Goldsmith’s prize, given to fiction with “qualities of creative daring,” and was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. The book, which takes place in the mind of a middle-aged Irish civil engineer, has little punctuation and no chapter breaks, and Goldsmith’s chair of judges Blake Morrison said of the book, “its subject may be an ordinary working life but it is itself an extraordinary work.”

The Guardian subtitled their review “an extraordinary hymn to small-town Ireland.” The Times U.K. named Solar Bones one of the best fiction books of 2017 and noted that the novel, “follows meandering memories of his wife, his adult children and his work; these simple materials make for a beautiful and strangely compulsive read.” The Wall Street Journal also listed it as one of the best new books of 2017. Former Irish Evening guest novelist Colum McCann wrote, “With stylistic gusto, and in rare, spare, precise and poetic prose, Mike McCormack gets to the music of what is happening all around us.”

In 1996, McCormack won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for his first collection of short stories, Getting It in the Head. His novel Notes from a Coma was shortlisted for the Irish Book of the Year Award in 2006; in 2010, John Waters of The Irish Times described it as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade just ended.” Val Nolan noted in an article in Ariel (April 2012) “McCormack’s fiction is cerebral and often surreal, depicting a west of Ireland that moves beyond narrow, realistic interpretations and into spaces that exist outside of government and history.” McCormack has also published the novel Crowe’s Requiem (2012) and a short story collection, Forensic Songs (2012).

McCormack 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 40 years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has celebrated the substantial impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature. The evening program begins at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. General admission tickets are $35 each; available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3099986 or by sending a check and self-addressed envelope to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044. Each ticket purchased by January 15, 2018, includes a complimentary adult drink.

HoCoPoLitSo works to cultivate appreciation for contemporary poetry and literature and celebrate culturally diverse literary heritages. The society sponsors literary readings and writers-in-residence outreach programs, produces The Writing Life (a thirty-minute writer-to-writer talk show), and partners with the public schools and cultural organizations to support the arts in Howard County, Maryland. For more information, visit www.hocopolitso.org.

Click here to download a pdf of this press release.


Wrap-up your holiday shopping at smile.amazon.com/ch/52-1146948 and Amazon donates to Howard County Poetry & Literary Society.

 

Life, Death, and Social Media: Staying Human in the Digital Age with Author Laurie Frankel

Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye For Now

A Howard County Book Connection Event
Wednesday, November 1, 2017 • 1 p.m.

Rouse Community Foundation Student Services Hall, Room 400
Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD 21044

If you could connect with your beloved dead through technology, would you? Laurie Frankel’s novel, Goodbye for Now, is a love story with technology at its heart. Join us to hear Frankel read from her ground-breaking book at HoCoPoLitSo’s series celebrating ground-breaking poet and HoCoPoLitSo artistic advisor Lucille Clifton. Gather with a group of curious minds for this intriguing discussion. The New York Times said Frankel’s book, “extends the reach of technology just beyond our fingertips, where it feels possible.” This program is brought to you by the Howard County Book Connection; a partnership between Howard Community College, the Howard County Public Library System, and the Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo). A book signing will follow. Tickets not required.

Seniors can request transportation by calling 410.715.3087. For other accommodations, call 443.518.4568 by October 16

This event is free. Click here to register and let us know you are coming.

 

facing the chaos of truth: Tara Hart on the Poetry of Tyehimba Jess

Tara Hart, Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitSo Board of Directors and Professor of English at Howard Community College

A blog post by Tara Hart, Co-Chair of HoCoPoLitso Board of Directors

Especially at this time, when the arts are so clearly at risk of losing national support, we are so grateful to live in a community composed of people who value what poet Marilyn Nelson calls “communal pondering” of meaning, who value spacious perspectives.

At the ninth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival, we were dazzled all day by the presence of two important master poets, E. Ethelbert Miller and Tyehimba Jess, who conducted student poetry workshops in the morning, charmed us over lunch, inspired a variety of eager new poets and poetry lovers in a free open reading of many voices, taped a TV interview for our show The Writing Life, and finally, after we squeezed them up into balls and rolled them towards overwhelming questions, we let them have a dinner break and catch their breath before Mr. Jess took the stage for the last time for the Nightbird Reading.

Tyehimba Jess at Blackbird Poetry Festival @ Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre

It was my honor to introduce Pulitzer Prize winning poet Tyehimba Jess to the Howard County community. Years ago, at one of the wonderful Dodge Poetry Festivals held bi-annually in New Jersey, Tim Singleton and I and several other HoCoPoLitSo board members did our usual reconnaissance to see who we thought we should invite for you. During one debriefing, I remember Tim saying, “Tyehimba Jess, Tyehimba Jess!” and I said “Yes! I saw him too, he’s amazing. And his name sounds like a song, or a prayer.” And then when we finally did connect with Mr. Jess and he accepted our invitation to come, he said, “HoCoPoLitSo! It sounds like a dance!” So I think this music Jess and HoCoPoLitSo made that evening at Nightbird Reading was meant to be.

Tyehimba Jess is the author of two award-winning books Leadbelly and Olio, and their significance and groundbreaking nature are difficult to convey sufficiently.  Olio, the collection of first generation freed voices from the post-Civil War era to World War I does, as those at  Found Poetry Review said, “distract you from your preconceived notions about what poetry can be, what it can do, and, ultimately, what you think you know. More than a book (and many reviewers have commented at length about what a fantastic object the book is), Olio is an extended performance, a musical score, and an epic libretto…”

Olio is made up of poems that Mr. Jess directly invites us to read in our own way and in any order (you can read the lines straight across the page, or up one side and down the other). “Weave your own chosen way among these voices,” Jess invites. There are even instructions for turning some of the pages into a sort origami that allow you to make the poems and their meanings three-dimensional. You’ll find interviews, historical documents, lists, and hymns. He faces the chaos of truth, and of our own fickle, diverse, various ways of seeing and not-seeing, and makes it all sing. Truly it is both deconstructive, giving voices back to the silenced, the misunderstood, the invisible, the abducted and it is creative – weaving them back together into patterns and inviting the reader to weave them back in ways that they choose.

There are even other ways to read the poems – I think they also tell the story of what the poet himself is achieving. Even as the poet breathes life into these people from the past, his words illuminate the impact of his own art. I’m using his words now: They “show the world the gut meaning of grace.” They are “a hurricane of back and forth notes.” They are “the sound of one mallet against history’s pale fist.” They say, “listen to how we’re bound in unison, this is our story I want you to hear.”

In his poems, boxes and trunks packed long ago are opened up, and what we find makes us question everything we thought we knew.

In the collection Leadbelly, the poems ask, “how to weed graveyard from his garden of tongue? What rainbow of prayer to pull between teeth?” They ask how we might find “a place where I can dream drought into rain, pray storm cloud out of spotless sky” or find the hope that “our wondrous oneness exists”? They speak in the voices of women as well as men, and in the voices of the objects we tie our meaning to, like guitars, or streets.

Overall, I agree with Brigit Pegeen Kelly that “It is exhilarating to be invited into a world so large and muscular, so rooted in history, a world where so much is at stake.”

And, finally I must say that the work of Mr. Jess, as well as the Poetry Out Loud program itself, are the two best arguments I know of for sustaining the National Endowment of the Arts, if these tremendous artists and their work are the result of that small investment.

 

black nature – a reading for earth day and national poetry month

By Laura Yoo

April is National Poetry Month, and Saturday, April 22nd is Earth Day. And I have a book recommendation that can help celebrate both: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature edited by Camille T. Dungy.

Black Nature edited by Camille T. Dungy is edited by .

Black Nature offers a different perspective through which we might read, understand, and talk about the 93 black poets and their 180 poems included in this anthology. Dungy writes a compelling introduction in which she describes the noticeable absence of black writers from anthologies and discussions in ecocriticism and ecopoetics. She reminds us of the complex and unique connection that African Americans have to “land, animal, and vegetation in American culture”.

Despite all these connections to America’s soil, we don’t see much African American poetry in nature-related anthologies because, regardless of their presence, blacks have not been recognized in their poetic attempts to affix themselves to the landscape. They haven’t been seen, or when they have it is not as people who are rightful stewards of the land. They are accidentally or invisibly or dangerously or temporarily or inappropriately on/in the landscape. The majority of the works in this collection incorporate treatments of the natural world that are historicized or politicized and are expressed through the African American perspective, which inclines readers to consider these texts as political poems, historical poems, protest poems, socioeconomic commentary, anything but nature poems.

I want to test this new perspective, and with this in mind I turn to the poetry of Tyehimba Jess, the newly minted 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry winner, who is coming to headline HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College’s annual Blackbird Poetry Festival on Thursday, April 27th. He will be reading and speaking with E. Ethelbert Miller during the Sunbird Reading. Notably, Miller’s “I am Black and the Trees are Green” is included in Dungy’s anthology.

Much of Jess’s acclaimed body of work illuminates on the African American experience. About Olio, Wave Books says, “Part fact, part fiction, Jess’s much anticipated second book weaves sonnet, song, and narrative to examine the lives of mostly unrecorded African American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I.”

In an interview with LitHub about Olio, Jess spoke about the power and the politics of song: “To be able to sing under that kind of oppression I think, in a lot of ways, is the very essence of survival, of a people, of the ability to have to the hope to make something beautiful amongst so much wretchedness. That’s critical to the concept of human survival. And in this particular context, of African Americans working through slavery… that’s what we had.”

But in the context of Dungy’s Black Nature, I turn to Jess’s leadbelly with a different ear.

In “john wesley ledbetter,” Jess writes,

singing a crusade of axe and machete i take virgin texas territory by force, clear it of timber and trouble. each eastern twilight, i till top soil ’til sun plants itself back into that western horizon. i keep struggling against a brooding moon’s skyline until dark sleep is my friend again, a place where i can dream drought into rain, pray storm could out of spotless sky.

The poem goes on with, “there’s only one way out of slave time dues: hump this land down till it shrieks up a crop of cancelled debt into your wagon.”  In this poem, we see an illustration of what Dungy describes as African Americans’ “complex relationship to land, animals, and vegetation.”  She says, “African Americans are tied up in the toil and soil involved in working the land into the country we know today,” and she reminds us how they were  “viewed once as chattel, part of a farm’s livestock or asset in a bank’s ledger.”

In “leadbelly: runagate,” Jess writes,

where water and land meet is shore, and on shore is iron in fists of jailers in sun of texas swamp. i wade into bubble and blue ink of red river, my head is shaven, bobbing, brown island of shine. […]

i want to let the water take me, i want to surrender to this river’s rock and swirl, come up clean and white as death itself, but the black in me breaks into blues, and i feel the coffle of their claws. i am stepping toward dry land, the dance of ankle chains, where i scream history into song that works itself into blood, sweat, memory.

The water in this poem reminds me of Dungy’s description of the “river” in Rita Dove’s “Three Days of forest, a River, Free”: it is “more than a moving body of water. It is a biblical allusion, a historical reality, a geographical boundary, a legal boundary, a decoy, the center of emotional and personal change, an aspiration, a metaphor: all these things at once.”

Tyehimba Jess’s leadbelly

As I re-see the poems in leadbelly with a different framework, I am reminded how the way we group, categorize, thematically arrange, and shelf literature can limit or expand our experiences of literature. We put the poems under one category or another, and it’s hard to imagine what else it can be.

Dungy’s  Black Nature is important, because it acknowledges the African American perspective these 93 poets highlight while introducing what else their work is – and how that “what else” amplifies our understanding of their works.  As Dungy says, Black Nature “encourage[s] readers to divert their gaze into new directions, demanding they notice new aspects of the world and accept alternative modes of description.”

To put it another way, a book like Black Nature is like a hearing aid. It can give us that extra power to hear poetry in an even more powerful way. It can help us turn up the volume on that work – perhaps turn up the bass or the treble and experience the poem in a myriad of ways.

Laura Yoo
HoCoPoLitSo Board member and Associate Professor of English at Howard Community College.

an English major goes to a literary reading for the first time

Author Belinda McKeon reading on stage at the 39th Annual Irish Evening – photo by Lee Waxman

A guest blog written by Christina Smith, a student in Professor Ryna May’s literature class at Howard Community College

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Admittedly, I had never attended a literary reading prior to the HoCoPoLitSo Irish Evening on February 10th. I hope that it is not too shocking that I say this, given that I am an English major. So, I am happy that I finally had the opportunity to experience a literary reading at the 39th Irish Evening held at the Smith Theater at Howard Community College.

Before I went I knew little about the program, only that the author would read from at least one of her two books, and that there would be Irish music and dancing for entertainment. Even though my friend Amy and I were probably some of the youngest people to attend that night, I did not feel awkward there. On the faces of the people there, you could tell everyone was having a fantastic time. The entire evening was a hit.

Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, Ambassador Anne Anderson, and Susan Thorton Hobby at the 39th Annual Irish Evening- photo by Lee Waxman

I was shocked to see that the program boasted the Ambassador of Ireland, her Excellency Anne Anderson. She was very gracious, and it was impressive that Mrs. Anderson was able to join us for the Irish Evening despite her busy schedule. A list of her accomplishments made me feel lazy and slightly light-headed at the enormity of her dedication to civil rights and women’s right’s worldwide.

While I like to think myself well read, I had not been made familiar with Belinda McKeon’s work. It was a treat to have her read from both her books, Solace and Tender. I was quite taken with her reading from Tender as I could feel the insecurities that her characters suffered from, the anguish of unrequited love and how truly awkward it is to be a young 18-year-old. She was witty and kind with her characters, as though greeting an old friend. Hearing the author read her own work gives you an idea of how those characters really present themselves in her mind. From her reading, the audience got a feel that these characters were real, that they had pains, hopes, flaws, and humor.

I loved the reading from Tender so much that I even ordered it from Amazon when I got home. Now when I read it, I will have the added pleasure of knowing how the author intended for it to be read. And in a way I will be able to connect with the characters on a more personal level.

The evening wrapped up with a performance from the Narrowbacks and Irish step dancing by the Culkin School. The music was traditional Irish music, a perfect nightcap to a fantastic evening.

I admit that I got some strange looks when I told people about my Friday night, but it was definitely worth it to let my inner nerd have a fun evening.  I look forward to attending more events produced by the HoCoPoLitSo.

And a big thank you to Professor May for making it possible for me and a plus one to attend.

By Christina Smith

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