blog post by Laura Yoo
Ilya Kaminksy’s poetry collection Deaf Republic (2019) is a book that should be studied from cover to cover. Start with the brick wall of an ear against the black and white background. On the very first page inside, read the praises for Deaf Republic. Back of the inside cover page – note the names of all the artists who contributed to the book: the cover designer, the cover artist, and the artist of the interior illustrations. Read the “Notes” at the end of the book for the poet’s comments on signs and silence. Read the “Acknowledgements” page for the poet’s dedication of certain poems for fellow poets like Jericho Brown, Brian Turner, and Patricia Smith. You can see that it took a village.
Turn to the back cover: “What happens when the citizens of a country no longer hear one another?”
Deaf Republic tells the story of a town that goes deaf in the face of brutality and oppression, and the collection includes drawings of hands that represent signing. The first image is a sign for “town” – two hands held up facing each other, tips of fingers touching, making a tent-like shape. Later, we see signs for “town watches”, “army convoy,” “hide,” “match,” “curtain,” “the town watches,” “story,” “kiss,” “be good,” “earth,” and “the crowd watches.” At the end of the book, the poet writes that the “In Vasenka, the townspeople invented their own sign language. Some of the signs are derived from various traditions (Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, American Sign Language, etc.) Other signs might have been made up by citizens, as they tried to create a language not known to authorities.”
In appreciation for the visual art of Deaf Republic, HoCoPoLitSo invited Jennifer Whitten, the artist responsible for the hand drawings in the collection, to share her experience of working with Ilya Kaminsky and his poetry as well as her vision for the project. We invite you to visit Jennifer’s Instagram page for examples of her art and to take a look at the videos of Jennifer at work (at the end of this article).
For those who are new to your art, how would you explain your aesthetic?
I began my career as a student of medicine, and though I made the difficult decision to pursue my passion for art over what many called the ‘sensible’ path of a doctor, science still colors my aesthetic. I’ve been called a hyperrealist painter, but my dogged attention to detail has very little to do with a metric for skill; after a great deal of reflection, I realized that my meticulousness was my response to a chaotic and troubled upbringing, one riddled with tragic death and loss. In this sense, I relate very deeply to Deaf Republic, insomuch that it serves, as a work of art, to process the past, and, to connect with others, even if their experiences aren’t facsimiles of our own. When you’re entranced by the process, you can tune out the external cacophony over which you have no control. So I make that process as difficult and all-consuming as possible; to make a reverse glass painting, not only do you have to contend with an incredibly slick and disobedient surface, the image is painted both backwards, and flipped. I first discovered reverse-glass painting in a private collection in Lake Como; while teaching myself the process, I grappled for information, anything that could help me navigate such difficult and uncharted territory, but learned that there are only a handful of other people in the world mad enough to take it on and they aren’t very vocal about their methods. Treading water in the deep-end left me a little more open to error and exploration than I had ever been before, which led to more ambitious installations and the incorporation of 3D, even 4D (time-based) media, like live music and video, into the 2D medium of painting. I think this experience prepped me in how to understand sign language illustrations as 2D representations of a 4D gesture.
How did you come to do the artwork for Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic? Can you tell us about the process of working with the poet and/or the poetry?
In 2017, I did a residency at the Vermont Studio Center. VSC has a unique advantage in that they bring in established writers and artists to offer the residents mentorship. Enter Ilya Kaminsky. The whole cohort was buzzing with talk of him and I confess that at that stage, I didn’t know who he was. But boy, did I find out, crammed into a main hall packed with people eagerly awaiting his reading. How can I describe what it was like to hear Ilya read, other than to say it was like keening, preaching and crooning all at once? The room was riveted, people were in tears. I only realized that I wasn’t breathing when he paused. And then, it was like the séance ended and the medium was back to his smiling, affable self. At some point during the week, VSC conducted Open Studio, where we would wander through each other’s workspaces to reflect on what we’d made so far; Ilya and his agent joined in. The next day, in the lunch line, he approached me and said he’d been quite taken with what he’d seen in my studio and asked if I’d be interested in collaborating, in illustrating his upcoming book of poetry. I was so flabbergasted, I nearly dropped my tray, while somehow managing to blurt out a resounding ‘yes’.
What was your approach to creating the drawings for Deaf Republic? Are the drawings a representation of American Sign Language or another sign language?
What Ilya had seen during Open Studio that night were the line drawings I do in preparation for the paintings on glass […]; although minimal and unfinished, these lines were the aesthetic Ilya had had in mind. From what I gather, some of the signs are actually ASL (I recognized “Kiss” for example), while others were invented by Ilya. It was a challenge to distil my usual aesthetic, turning what normally serves as preparatory into a finished work (people often misinterpret simplicity for ease, but distillation is difficult!). The reference images provided to me were very sparse, so I relied on verbal descriptions for guidance—luckily, Ilya is a poet (and a damn good one)! This highlighted the intersection between the verbal and the visual for me. There was a bit of back and forth, particularly with “Hide”, where Ilya asked me to conceal the thumb behind the fingers a bit more, as though it were hiding. This made me hyper-aware of how creatively illustrative sign language can be. I saw my hands in a new light, anthropomorphized. To use my own as reference was so meaningful and it’s an honor to literally have had a hand in Ilya’s masterpiece. To form the signs with my fingers as I read meant that I wasn’t a passive reader, but rather one actively and corporeally engaged.
How do you think your drawings contribute to the meaning of the poems?
In Ilya’s words to me, “the image and the narrative are so connected, their moods often depending on each other”; it was important to me to capture the simultaneous blunt force and tender intimacy of Ilya’s poetry visually. Again, in Ilya’s words, “the lines [in your drawings] create their own continuum among the signs, how they present themselves eloquently, assertively, yet intimately.” Hearing readers are conditioned to associate the written word with sound, which is a part of language that is inaccessible and therefore meaningless/superfluous to a Deaf or Hard of Hearing individual. The written word was originally created as a representation of linguistic sound; my illustrations serve to question that automatic association in Hearing readers. I hope that my images reinforce what poetry, what sign language do in their own right, which is to remind readers that the written word has a visual component, both in terms of its morphology, but also in terms of its placement on a page and the negative space with which it interacts (I see a strong link in the way in which the naked glass in my painted works relate to the negative space on Ilya’s pages, both communicating absence, loss and silence). Blocks of text in prose do not use the visual aspect of language to drive the narrative—not in the way poetry can, or illustration can. The creativity behind sign language compels us to linger on individual words, the visual asking us to pause and consider what a word means at its core. Which is what poetry does. It’s a beautiful experience, like knowing that the German word for “lightbulb” is “glow pear”.
On your Instagram page, I love the astrology series, which are hand-painted backwards on glass. (I’m an Aries, and the image of the ram is stunning!) Can you tell us more about that collection?
The Zodiac series has a bit in common with the images I did for Deaf Republic, in that both have semiotics at their core. But honestly, it began as a break from the scholastic, theory-laden vantage point I’d developed during my Masters program. I just wanted to reconnect with paint itself, to relish in the feel of it sliding over glass and in the satisfaction of creating the illusion of a variety of textures using only black and white. Working with the imagery of the Zodiac let me indulge in the exquisite differences between wool and scales, tentacles and horn, a butterfly’s wings and a crab’s claws. However, given the fact that a painting takes me not hours, but months to complete, I found myself, before long, listening to scholarly podcasts about astrology while at the easel. Some of my favorites were about Jung and archetype and I learned that astrology itself is a language, a system of intricate geometry and symbol.
Moreover, I realized that this incredibly rich, cultural mine has been largely left out of art historical discourse and scholarship, despite its prominence, and has been entirely rejected by the Science it originated. This is something astrology has the misfortune of sharing with glass painting, which, though once esteemed enough to be considered holy, devolved into a decorative/utilitarian craft over time. Though I hadn’t taken the Zodiac seriously at the outset, I’ve since been thoroughly moved by how it has captured the imaginations of civilizations all over the world and by how it’s a way for human beings to systematically apply meaning to the patterns we seek and find in chaos.
This is something that the Zodiac shares with language and music as well (how humans are able to apply pattern to random sounds and call it musical); my Zodiac paintings are part of a larger installation for which I developed an algorithm to translate the Zodiacal constellations (upon which the animals are based) into notes for cello. As a whole, it’s a translation from literal to abstract and calls attention to the impulse to do this, which is uniquely human.
Regretfully, this year’s Blackbird Poetry Festival is now cancelled due to the public health crisis.
Poet and PBS Senior Correspondent Jeffrey Brown headlines the festival, April 30, 2020, on the campus of Howard Community College, a day devoted to verse, with workshops, book sales, readings, and patrols by the Poetry Police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Mr. Brown, local writers, and Howard Community College faculty and students, starts at 2:30 p.m. and is free. Mr. Brown will read from and discuss his poetry during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Monteabaro Hall of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts.
Brown’s 2015 volume of poetry, The News, was selected as one of best poetry books of May 2015 by The Washington Post. In the forward, Robert Pinsky notes “The News is more than a venture into art by someone prominent in another field. In these poems, an unconventional subject for poetry is dealt with from within, by a real poet.” In the afterward, Brown says “I got hooked as a reader long ago. But why write poetry? Why write these experiences through poetry? To explore what happened from another angle, to see beyond the camera, to imagine what might be there, to use the language in a different way. Like the news, poetry seeks to inform our lives and helps us to reflect upon who we are and the conditions, disastrous or delightful, of the world in which we live. Here it is — I am talking to myself, again — your day.”
Workshops, open to the public, will take place in the Kittleman Room of Duncan Hall at 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Ann Bracken, the author of two collections of poetry, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom (2017) and The Altar of Innocence (2015), will offer a workshop on poetry as a way of reporting your life as part of the festival. Bracken, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, will hold her free workshop at 9:30 a.m. in the Kittleman Room.
Nightbird admission tickets are $15 each (seniors and students $10) available on-line here: GET TICKETS. For tickets by mail, send a self-addressed envelope and check payable to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Mississippi’s Poet Laureate Beth Ann Fennelly headlines the eleventh annual Blackbird Poetry Festival for HoCoPoLitSo. The festival, set for April 25, 2019, on the campus of Howard Community College, is a day devoted to verse, with workshops, book sales, readings, and patrols by the Poetry Police. The Sunbird poetry reading, featuring Ms. Fennelly, as well as poet Teri Cross Davis, local authors, and Howard Community College faculty and students, starts at 2:30 p.m. and is free. Ms. Fennelly will read from and discuss her poetry, including her most recent work, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Monteabaro Recital Hall of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Nightbird admission tickets are $15 each (seniors and students $10) available on-line at https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4026338 or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Fennelly’s newest book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (2017), was selected as one of the ten best Southern books of 2017 by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Readers, you are in for a hootenanny of a wild ride. This is Fennelly at her most laid-bare, wickedly funny, and irrepressibly poetic best,” raves Kirkus Reviews. The director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, Fennelly has published her work in more than fifty anthologies and has won numerous awards and honors, including a Pushcart, the Wood Award from The Carolina Quarterly and The Black Warrior Review Contest. Fennelly is the author of three poetry collections: Open House (2002), Tender Hooks (2004), and Unmentionables (2008). She is also the author of a book of essays, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (2006), “may be the best book ever to give for a baby shower” noted the Tampa Tribune. In 2013, Fennelly and her husband, Tom Franklin, co-authored a novel, The Tilted World, set during the 1927 flood of the Mississippi River.
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is the author of Haint, winner of the 2017 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. A Cave Canem fellow serving on the advisory council of Split This Rock, Davis is the poetry coordinator for the Folger Shakespeare Library. Reviewing Haint, The Triangle’s Sam Sweigert wrote, “Beginning to end, Cross Davis beckons her readers to shine a light and to witness the slow magic of a soul’s journey through life’s knowings and unknowings.”
Steven Leyva, a Cave Canem fellow and author of the chapbook Low Parish, will offer a workshop on “The Poetics of Animé” as part of the festival. Leyva, who is an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore, will hold his free workshop at 9:30 a.m. in the Rouse Company Foundation Student Services Hall, room 400.
Hanna Al-Kowsi, of Marriotts Ridge High School, will perform her winning poetry recitation at the Nightbird. Hanna won first place in the regional tri-county and second place in the state-wide Maryland Poetry Out Loud competition that recognizes great poetry through memorization and performance.
For more than 40 years, HoCoPoLitSo has nurtured a love and respect for the diversity of contemporary literary arts in Howard County. The society sponsors literary readings and writers-in-residence outreach programs, produces The Writing Life (a writer-to-writer talk show), and partners with other cultural arts organizations to support the arts in Howard County, Maryland. For more information, visit www.hocopolitso.org.
HoCoPoLitSo 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.
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.
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.
As a writer exploring vulnerable curiosity, Eunice Braimoh 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.
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
The Fierce Revolution of Marilyn Chin
HoCoPoLitSo and HCC’s Tenth Annual Blackbird Poetry Festival
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’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.”
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its ninth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival is award winning writer and slam poet Tyehimba Jess. The Blackbird Poetry Festival, to be held April 27, 2017, 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 Mr. Jess, as well as Washington, D.C., writer and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller and Howard Community College students, will start at 2:30 p.m. Mr. Jess will read from and discuss his most recent work, Olio, as well as leadbelly, winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Nightbird admission tickets are $15 each (students and seniors are $10) available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2551545 or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
Tyehimba Jess, Associate Professor of English at College of Staten Island, a Cave Canem and NYU alumnus, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team. With rare skill, Jess welds the immediacy of slam poetry with the craft of poetry on the page.
Jess is the author of two poetry collections: leadbelly (2004), a biography in poems of the legendary blues musician Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter, and Olio (2016), about African American performers from before the Civil War up to World War I. About Olio, 2011 National Book award winner Nikky Finney said: “Tyehimba Jess is inventive, prophetic, wondrous. He writes unflinchingly into the historical clefs of blackface, black sound, human sensibility.” Jess’ fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals and anthologies including Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry, American Poetry Review, and Ploughshares.
Ethelbert Miller, editor of poetry anthologies, author of two memoirs and numerous books of poetry, including his latest, The Collected Poems of E. Ethelbert Miller (2016), will read and offer workshops.
HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its eighth annual Blackbird Poetry Festival is former New York State Poet Laureate and acclaimed author Marie Howe.
The Blackbird Poetry Festival, to be held April 28, 2016, 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. Howe, as well as Washington, D.C., poet Sandra Beasley and Howard Community College students, will start at 2:30 p.m. Ms. Howe will read from and discuss her most recent work, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, as well as new, unpublished poems, during the Nightbird Poetry Reading, starting at 7:30 p.m. in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts. Nightbird general admission tickets are $20 each (students and seniors are $15) available on-line at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2476204 or by sending a self-addressed envelope and check payable and mailed to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Horowitz Center 200, Columbia, MD 21044.
“Marie Howe’s poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life.
Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible
only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”—Stanley Kunitz
Acclaimed poet and teacher Marie Howe served as the Poet Laureate of New York State from 2012 to 2014. Her mentor and former U.S. Poet Laureate Stanley Kuntz said: “Marie Howe’s poetry is luminous, intense, and eloquent, rooted in an abundant inner life. Her long, deep-breathing lines address the mysteries of flesh and spirit, in terms accessible only to a woman who is very much of our time and yet still in touch with the sacred.”