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On a warm June day in 1989, the young man in the white shirt stands in front of the line of Chinese Army tanks. When they steer toward the crowds in Tiananmen Square, he again places himself in the path of the treads. He climbs onto the tank and talks into the cavity. He jumps down and blocks the tanks again. The Chinese Army had cracked down the day before and shot and killed an unnamed number of protestors. But the young man stands before the tank casually, still holding his shopping bag. Two men in blue pull him away and Tankman, as the anonymous youth was nicknamed, has never been heard from again.
Marilyn Chin, this year’s recipient of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize given by the Poetry Foundation, wrote a love poem addressed to that anonymous young man, “Beijing Spring,” which we reproduce here this week’s Poetry Moment. Chin, who was given the big prize last month in a virtual ceremony [http://poetryfoundation.org/video], writes in her poem, “I believe in the passions of youth./ I believe in the eternal spring.”
Tankman’s gentle but insistent gesture reminds me of the Vietnam War protestor inserting a daisy in the barrel of a rifle during the March on the Pentagon in 1967. And of Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit in 2019. And of Emma Gonzalez’s speech after the Parkland shootings during the March for Our Lives. And of the photos of the young protestors in the Arab Spring.
Young people are putting themselves at the forefront of many of the world’s movements. Just this week, thousands of pro-democracy youth are taking over the streets in Bangkok, raising the three-finger salute popularized in The Hunger Games novels to signify youth solidarity against power. In America, young people are stepping up to work as poll judges on Nov. 3 so the usual workers, the seniors, can sequester from the virus. They’re demonstrating and organizing Black Lives Matter protests, including one in Columbia that drew praise from president Barack Obama. Young people are designing signs, giving money, signing up to vote, working to make communities safe, and crushing social media. That’s the spirit Chin was channeling in “Beijing Spring.”
This kind of activism isn’t a new thing. Youth protested child labor laws in the 1900s and school segregation in the 1960s. The movements for rights for Dreamers, for Civil Rights, for Native rights, all have been invigorated by youth participation.
Chin’s poem evokes the white blossoms of a Chinese spring, but also the spirit of youth–passionate, innocent, and determined. Her poem is a loving tribute to young people who work for a better world. Follow her lead, and theirs. Vote. Young people have died for that right, including, possibly, that lithe Chinese man standing in front of the line of tanks.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Baseball is heavily and romantically played in American literature, from “Casey at the Bat” and Bernard Malamud’s The Natural through Gish Jen’s The Resisters. Martín Espada turns that beautiful green diamond on its head when he writes about brown people’s baseball experience in this week’s poem, “The Trouble Ball.”
At the moment, we are hip deep in the playoffs. The World Series starts Oct. 20, and the teams are sure to have men of many ethnic backgrounds rounding the bases. Jackie Robinson integrated the league when he started at first base for the Dodgers at Ebbets Field in April 1947, but before that day, baseball was lily white and aggressive about keeping it that way.
Espada’s poem, “The Trouble Ball,” tells the story his father told him, about going to his first American baseball game at Ebbets Field in 1941 as a new immigrant. Eleven-year-old Frank Espada had gotten off the boat from Puerto Rico not long before he and his father went to see the Brooklyn Dodgers. Little Frank wanted to be a professional baseball pitcher. In Puerto Rico, Frank and his family watched games with players from the minor leagues and the Negro leagues, and Frank idolized Satchel Paige. Paige named his pitches, one he called Bee-Ball because he said it was so fast it buzzed, and nicknames like Midnight Creeper and The Trouble Ball.
The Trouble Ball was a change-up, a pitch that looked for all the world like a fastball, but one that would stall and drop. “It makes the batter swing early and look like a fool,” Espada said on the full interview on The Writing Life. But he named his book after the pitch because “on a whole other level, it refers to other troubles. There was no greater trouble, at that time in history, and for that matter, there may not be today, than the trouble of race and the trouble of racism.”
Little Frank, sitting with his peanuts in the cheap seats at Ebbets Field in 1941, expected to see his hero Satchel Paige and the other great Negro Leaguers he’d watched in Puerto Rico. But when his father whispered to him in the stands that Black players weren’t allowed to play in the big leagues, it became a defining moment. “It was a discovery that resonated well beyond the ball field itself, and had implications for my father for the rest of his life,” Espada said.
While he did play pretty good baseball, his father instead made his living as a photographer who documented the Puerto Rican neighborhoods around him, and as a community organizer, to fight against predatory landlords, to lead marches for safer streets, to register voters. And his son, Martín, became a poet who documents trouble around the world, in hopes of changing it.
“I think memory is absolutely essential to us as a society, and poets have a role to play in restoring the collective memory and retaining the collective memory,” Espada told me in an interview.
And while many share a nostalgic fondness for baseball, Espada tells the field of dreams story from a different angle, so our collective memories also include the trouble in America.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1870.
This week’s Poetry Moment resonates with Dickinson’s famous lines about the power of literature. Read by Baltimore’s own, the very proper Josephine Jacobsen, she titled her poem “Gentle Reader.” With a sly nod to the etiquette-wise mode of address in nineteenth-century novels–think Charlotte Bronté’s Jane Eyre—Jacobsen’s lines capture the shock of reading poetry in a way that is most ungentle.
With her cap of careful curls, her pastel jackets, and her soft tones, Jacobsen looked as ladylike as she acted, polite in a way that only native-born Canadians raised in Baltimore’s Roland Park are.
“I expect that if I look in the dictionary and see the word ‘lady,’ it will be Josephine’s picture,” said poet Lucille Clifton in the 2003 memorial tribute show from which this footage is taken. “She was always such a person who valued others and understood there were a lot of ways of being a good poet.
But this lady spoke about literature, particularly in ”Gentle Reader,” like a mystic, a lover, a cult leader.
In the first stanza, Jacobsen sets up a normal evening with city and stars, reading a poem. But by the end of the stanza, the poem’s speaker has encountered a poet, “dangerous and steep” and we’re about to head off the cliff with her. The poem “juices her like a press,” and eats her “gut and marrow.” Her ear’s lust, at the end of the poem, enthusiastically agrees with James Joyce’s Molly Bloom: “yes, yes, yes, O, yes.”
That ecstasy is not often equated with poetry. Sometimes it is necessary, however, to describe a visceral response to a good poem.
Not well recognized as a poet until she was in her 70s, and with no college education, Jacobsen wrote essays, op-ed pieces, poetry, and short stories most of her life. From 1973 to 1975, Jacobsen served as the Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, the position later renamed as the National Poet Laureate. In 1997, the Poetry Society of America gave her the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry.
Both joy and terror lived in Jacobsen’s poetry, and underneath lay a kind of mystery, which is likely the same source of Dickinson’s cold and Jacobsen’s “savage sight.” Jump off that steep and dangerous cliff with Jacobsen, and with HoCoPoLitSo.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Consultant and producer of The Writing Life
How we need this week’s poem, with its voice that calls for grace and saviors. Lucille Clifton, the Lilly Poetry Prizewinner and HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for decades, wrote “blake” and put it in her collection The Terrible Stories. But she didn’t read it to audiences very often, and HoCoPoLitSo recorded the only video of her reading this piece.
In the midst of the poems in The Terrible Stories, which address cancer, mastectomy, Biblical lust, and rage and despair over a history of slavery, this poem calls for a plume of hope.
Clifton said the poem was conceived after she had been living in the South for a while, remembering and living with its history of slavery and racist violence. She was being driven to her home in Columbia, watching out the car windows at the trees flashed by, and remembering William Blake and his visions.
Blake, a poet and artist who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrote that when he was 9, he saw angels in the trees. In fact, Blake said he had visions almost daily, and angels figured heavily in those mystical experiences. He often painted angels, especially in his illustrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Celestial beings fluttered through his poems, guarding him, surveying the world, watching over children. The world has made famous his line: “Cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
While Clifton didn’t often write about angels or visions directly, she always had her eyes open. In the same collection, Clifton writes about the female fox that often sat by her window, how they watched each other through the glass and acknowledged each others’ power.
“child I tell you now it was not/ the animal blood I was hiding from,/ it was the poet in her, the poet and /the terrible stories she could tell.”
“blake” is not an inspirational poem to be put on a flowery background and posted to Instagram. There are terrible stories in it, in the leaden way Clifton writes “the face/ of what we have become” and “this hunger entering our loneliness.”
But she ends the poem by coming home, “back north,” and searching the branches for poems.
Tonight, HoCoPoLitSo will host its tenth annual Lucille Clifton Reading on Friday, Oct. 2, featuring Joseph Ross reading his work based on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s good to remember Clifton’s work this week and always. Her short lines and direct language could evoke whole other worlds, and her words both challenged and inspired readers.
Clifton’s line from “blake” about “the flutter that can save us” lingers with me. I’m watching the trees, waiting for poems or angels. Perhaps they are similar things.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
The Agony in the Garden is a small painting by William Blake, completed as part of his 1799–1800 series of Bible illustrations commissioned by his patron and friend Thomas Butts. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Luke which describes Christ’s turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and Crucifixion following Judas’s betrayal. In Blake’s painting a brilliantly coloured and majestic angel breaks through the surrounding darkness and descends from a cloud to aid and physically support Jesus in his hour of agony. The work is dominated by vertical lines, formed both from the trees and from the two arms of the angel. Two inner lines converge on Christ’s palms, evoking the nails driven through him during his crucifixion.
The Agony in the Garden was bequeathed by Blake collector Graham Robertson to the National Trust in 1948. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery the following year.
George Floyd and Emmett Till had many things in common, but two similarities rise to the top. They were both killed by white men who believed they had power over Black bodies. And they both called for help from their mothers just before they died, Floyd on a Minneapolis street in May 2020, Till in a Mississippi barn in August 1955.
Willie Louis heard those cries that summer morning in 1955, and like the witnesses to Floyd’s death, he spoke up about the unjust death.
This week’s Poetry Moment recalls the courage of Willie Louis in a poem by Joseph Ross, “When Your Word Is a Match.” On Oct. 2, Ross will read from his new collection of poetry, Raising King, based on the writings of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. The online event, HoCoPoLitSo’s annual Lucille Clifton Reading, commemorates the beloved poet and our artistic advisor, Lucille Clifton, who died in 2010.
The event, entitled “Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice,” continues a recurring theme in Ross’s poetry, the country’s history of racial injustice and the struggle against that injustice. Near the beginning of his poetry career, Ross won the Enoch Pratt/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Contest with his poem, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
In doing research for that poem, he came across the story of Willie Louis, a young Black man who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who was a witness in the trial of two white men accused of kidnapping and killing 14-year-old Emmett Till.
“I was just so moved by the decision an ordinary person made. He wasn’t an activist or a hero in some way, he wasn’t a policy-maker,” Ross tells The Writing Life host, poet E. Ethelbert Miller. Miller will introduce Ross at the Oct. 2 event.
In 1955 Louis was an 18-year-old sharecropper walking down a blazing Mississippi road on a summer morning, when he saw Emmett Till in the back of a green Chevrolet pickup truck. White men, related to the woman who said Emmett flirted with and whistled at her, were in the cab of the truck. Louis then saw the same truck parked outside a barn, and heard someone inside being hit, and calling for his mother to save him.
When a white man with a pistol walked out of the barn for a drink from the well, he asked Louis if he had seen anything. Louis said, “No sir.”
But later in 1955, in a Mississippi courthouse, Louis testified against the men who had kidnapped Till. Despite Louis’ testimony at two trials, the white men were acquitted of murder, and later kidnapping. In 1956, in an interview with Look Magazine, the men admitted they had shot Emmett, tied a cotton gin fan around his neck with barbed wire to weight him, and threw his body into the Tallahatchie River.
After having to hide until the trial, News reports said Louis spoke so softly at the trial that he was barely able to be heard. But when asked, he stood and pointed to the men he saw in the truck and outside the barn. The audience in the courtroom gasped when he did.
Black people just did not testify against white people at that time, in that place. Louis had to be convinced by civil rights workers to testify, and kept hidden until the trial to keep him safe. The evidence of what could happen to him was Emmett’s body at his Chicago funeral, a coffin that Till’s mother Mamie insisted stay open so that the world could see what the men did to her son.
According to The Washington Post, Wheeler Parker, one of Till’s relatives who was sleeping in the house when Emmett was kidnapped, said he assumed that Louis had been lynched after his testimony. Instead, Louis fled Mississippi to Chicago, changed his name, and stayed under police protection, living out his life quietly as a hospital orderly.
The Post quoted Parker as saying, “You have to live those times to understand what it was like, the pure terror. His stepping forward, his testifying, it was just a very courageous act on his part. It’s beyond words for me to explain.”
Research goes into many of Ross’s poems. The horrors of Till’s murder, the institutionalized racism that allowed his killers to go free, the agonizing injustice of the crime and the trial could have overpowered any poem written about the event.
“I felt so strongly about what he had to go through, but doing the research controls that a little bit, and lets the poem say it in a way that’s not just shrieking or screaming,” Ross explains in the episode of The Writing Life from which this video is excerpted. “The research provides a lane for the passion to go through, so it’s not an explosion of passion, which is sort of uncontrolled and not moderated.”
Louis lived out his life in secrecy and relative obscurity. In an interview in 2003, he told 60 Minutes, “I couldn’t have walked away from that like that … because Emmett was 14, probably never been to Mississippi in his life. And he come to visit his grandfather, and they killed him. That’s not right. When they had the pictures, when I saw his body and what it was like, I knew that I couldn’t say no.”
Speak softly. Don’t say no. Scream. Write a poem.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
If we’re lucky enough, we remember elders reading books to us as children. And then, if we’re doubly lucky, we become readers, and pass the literary love down to successive generations.
In this week’s Poetry Moment, Li-Young Lee distills this moment of everyday parenthood into a poem that transforms the act of reading into something sacred. A mother reads to her child in the next room. A listener can hear the cadence, the love in the voice, but not discern the story.
Lee explains the origin of the poem in the full Writing Life interview from 1995.
“I was waking up every morning and listening to my wife read to our son in the other room, morning after morning after morning,” Lee said. “Every morning I woke up experiencing that, I realized I was in the presence of something really magical and wonderful, and on the one hand, eternal, and on the other hand, very impermanent. I didn’t know how much longer he would allow his mother to read to him like that. I knew that somehow I was in the presence of poetry, and it was up to me to find the place in myself where I could pay attention enough to write this.”
And by paying attention to this moment, Lee calls readers of his poem to attend as well.
“It’s unconscious when I’m writing,” Lee said. “I’m hearing a story being read, I never hear the story, I just hear the voice. The poem is trying to enact the voice. I’m really interested in, not so much the particular stories that are being told, but I feel as if there’s a greater telling that goes on in the universe. That there’s a telling voice that is telling all the time. Everything is discourse–leaves, trees, clouds–it’s all discourse, not only language. Or we can say everything is language. I’m curious about what that other language is. Sometimes it’s clearer when you don’t hear the words, because of the wall that separates you, but you hear the intonation of the voice, so you know you’re in the presence of a telling, but not necessarily what is being told. So it’s the telling voice that I’m really just in love with.”
Lee had a harrowing early start to his life. His father had been Mao Zedong’s personal physician, but his parents fled China as political exiles. After settling in Indonesia, anti-Chinese sentiment rose in that country and his father was arrested and held as a political prisoner for a year. After a five-year trek through Macau, Hong Kong and Japan, the family finally settled in America. But he does remember his father reading to him, even during their flight, and how later his father required him to memorize literature and recite it.
The poetry Lee writes has a quality of mysticism to it, a way of taking a sacred look at everyday events, such as reading a story to a child. He compares writing poetry to praying. In an interview with Poets & Writers, Lee said that part of the mission of poetry was to help build heaven on earth.
“The condition of prayer is a state wherein we have a kind of focus and yet we have a wide peripheral attention, and somehow it seems to me that good poems enact that kind of condition, where we are very focused, very concentrated, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we have a very wide periphery, a wide awareness,” Lee said in The Writing Life interview.
Lee’s memoir of his early childhood, The Winged Seed, is an amalgamation of his memories, his father’s sermons, dreams, prayers, and lyrical moments: “My father asleep at a train window is a member of the rain fallen momentarily out of favor. And only he and God know he’s changed his name again to flee yet another country. And the child singing beside him is me. And I am so many things: An expert in tying and untying knots. A traveler stranded on that ancient peak called Father’s Heart. A hidden grape distilling light and time to render news of the living.
A man fallen asleep at his desk while reading is apple blossoms left lying where they fell. The child who comes to wake him by kissing his hands is so many things: Love succeeding. The eye of the needle. Little voice calling the flowers to assembly.
May the child never forget the power of the small.
May the man never wake a stranger to himself.”
Lee never forgot the power of the small, the sacred moment of reading to a child. This poem helps readers do the same.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
During a pandemic overlaid with protests over systemic racism, fear is something with which we’ve grown comfortable, like our masks and our distance. And perhaps our racism.
Joy Harjo, this nation’s National Poet Laureate, is acquainted with racism and fear, but she doesn’t accept them. The first Native American to hold the national position with the Library of Congress, Harjo has been writing poetry, playing music, dancing, and painting since she was in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma.
She visited HoCoPoLitSo in October 2005, playing her flute and reading poetry at the Howard County Conservancy, in a time that feels like another universe.
This May, Harjo got a call from Cheryl Strayed, who writes the Dear Sugar column in the New York Times. During the pandemic, Strayed added a podcast to her repertoire and named it Sugar Calling.
The two authors had a talk about writing during a pandemic. The conversation turned to the poem in this week’s Poetry Moment, “I Give You Back.
“This is one of the earliest poems I wrote,” Harjo told Strayed. “And I’ve begun to think that a lot of these poems have come to me because they’re coming through me. And then I have to do my part. I have to bring out my hammer and nails, and build a place for them to live. So this one came when I desperately needed it. It’s called “I Give You Back.” And it’s helpful, I think, during this time because it’s to get rid of fear. And we’re in a pandemic, something we’ve never been in before, in a time like the times we’re in now. And what does that mean? And what’s going to happen to us? So this poem is to get rid of fear. I think it comes out of the tribal tradition of writing poems to be useful to go out into the world—OK, poem you have work to do. And you have to go out and help people not be afraid.”
Harjo, whose name translates from the Muskogee (Creek) as “so brave, you’re crazy,” told me in an interview a decade ago that as she was coming of age, so was the Native rights movement. And while she tried to resist writing poetry, instead trying to concentrate on her visual art, music, and dancing, she found she had to write.
“The revolutionary times in Indian country demanded that my spirit learn to sing with words,” she told me. And while she still makes music and writes songs, poetry has become her medium.
I Give You Back” is one of those foundational poems that Harjo’s audiences ask for again, and again. Addressing fear as a foe, the poem has at its heart a line I return to, “I take myself back, fear.”
In the interview Harjo gave with poet Barbara Goldberg in 2005 for The Writing Life, Harjo explained that she still got letters about “I Give You Back.”
“The poem has served me well since the 1970s. I get a lot of letters and emails saying this poem saved their life,” Harjo explained.
She went on to say that she believes poems live beyond the page, that they have a purpose in the world, and that they create change.
“Poetry for me was soul talk, crafted soul talk,” Harjo said. “Words literally had power to change the weather, to make things happen. Poetry was a way to document the spirit of people.”
Giving fear back, rejecting racism, hoping for revision. Those are words to change the weather.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Back in April, HoCoPoLitSo conceived of its Poetry Moment series as a dose of soothing literature during the pandemic shut-in. When George Floyd was murdered in May, renewing the Black Lives Matter movement, we changed our focus. In support of the racial justice, HoCoPoLitSo wanted to amplify the voices of the Black poets who have read for our audiences here in Howard County. Now it’s September and we’re inviting other voices to join our verse party to continue these conversations about what divides and unites us.
Poetry Moment will now include poets of other backgrounds, including Irish, Chinese, Muscogee (Creek), Latinx, and Baltimorean, including Lucille Clifton and Josephine Jacobsen.
We’re starting with Seamus Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winner and force of nature who read for our audiences three times. Called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, Heaney died in 2013. But the hour-long interview from 1988, excerpted here, remained in our archives until we could negotiate and pay for rights to air it. We finally secured those rights last year, and we’re grateful to Padraic Kennedy for his donation that covered those costs.
This week’s Poetry Moment also includes a face many in Howard County knew and loved, Ellen Conroy Kennedy, who co-founded HoCoPoLitSo in 1974, and died this past February. Padraic and Ellen, married for nearly 65 years, are the foundation that HoCoPoLitSo is built upon.
At the beginning of this week’s video, Ellen can be heard, and then seen, requesting Heaney’s poem “Digging.” “Recited,” she adds. Heaney smiles. He knew Ellen well, and like most in the poetry world, could not refuse her.
He then recites his iconic poem. When I was teaching students this poem, they didn’t understand how the rhymes fit together until they heard it in his voice. Then they understood the connection between “ground” and “down” and “sods” and “bog.” They didn’t know that when Heaney pronounced “gravelly ground,” it sounded just like the scrape of a shovel into soil.
Any time we can offer poems in the voice of the author, we’re doing the world a service. And this voice seems timely to hear now because of the increasing fracturing of our country over racial justice, and political divisions in general.
Heaney’s voice was well known in Ireland during the troubles, the sectarian divisions and violence that pitted citizens of different religions against each other from the 1960s to 1998.
“Ireland has been characterized by a tradition of sectarian violence,” Duke University’s President Richard Brodhead said during a Trinity College of Arts and Sciences tribute to Heaney after his death. “Not armies against armies, but between people who live together by day and (had) the violence suddenly intrude on their domestic lives. His poems are an uncanny evocation of this intimate violence.”
While he was never overtly political, Heaney talks in this hour-long episode of The Writing Life about an intimately violent poem he wrote in the seventh section of Station Island, the shooting of a young man he knew in Ulster after police arrived at his door.
“Because, see, in Ulster, as in shall we say, you could have imagined a situation some years or decades ago in the Southern states of the United States, where someone could be a virulent bigoted Klan member, but also be wearing the uniform of impersonal justice, in other words a policeman, so that they hygiene of the uniform is no guarantee. You actually have the festering stuff underneath it,” Heaney tells the audience in 1988. He explains that he isn’t pinning blame in his poem, he doesn’t accuse the police, he’s talking in universal terms about the killing of a man he knew. And he finishes with explaining, “Politics in Northern Ireland, and politics in El Salvador and politics in Iran and politics in Israel, it’s all spectator sport for most people. Of course it’s necessary for those of us outside to be concerned, but the real energy is intimate. I think that writing has to concern itself with the first circle, with the intimate place where everything is exact, rather than with the second or third circle, where the big parties are watching and you’re getting publicity. Poetry isn’t concerned with publicity.”
Poetry not publicity. Sounds like a great motto. Now more than ever, poetry’s witness and wisdom provide a window of understanding into other’s lives. Listen to this voice, so specifically Irish, and hear the universal, as when Gwendolyn Brooks spoke of her seven at the Golden Shovel in “We Real Cool,” or Tyehimba Jess read about Blind Tom the musical savant, or Patricia Smith channeling the voice of a hurricane. HoCoPoLitSo’s mission is to amplify literature’s voices, to allow words to change the world.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
Fifteen years ago today, Hurricane Katrina blew apart the bayou.
While many people suffered in the storm and its aftermath, Black and brown people who lived in the path of that category 5 Atlantic hurricane were disproportionally traumatized.
New Orleans and its surrounding bayous were soon filled with the dead bodies of more than of its 1,200 citizens. Eighty percent of the city was under water and didn’t drain for weeks. Survivors waited on bridges and rooftops for days in the blistering sun. The Superdome shelter became a vision of hell—steaming hot and filled with thirsty, wounded, and moaning hurricane survivors. The government’s lackluster rescue operation, as well as the determination that the Army Corps of Engineers had built faulty levees that failed to protect the city’s residents, are the bitter pills that New Orleans had to swallow.
Poet Patricia Smith, like most of the rest of America, watched horrifying images on television of the storm and its aftermath. But Smith turned the horror into something beautiful, a collection of poems, Blood Dazzler.
In 2013, as part of the Columbia Festival of the Arts, HoCoPoLitSo hosted Smith. She read her suite of poems about the hurricane as the Sage String Quartet played Wynton Marsalis’ “At the Octoroon Balls” for an audience that was struck silent and teary-eyed.
HoCoPoLitSo also produced a television interview that weekend. Poet Joseph Ross interviewed Smith for a conversation that touched on her origin as a writer listening to her father tell stories on their Chicago back porch, and her inspiration for Blood Dazzler. Ross describes the collection as coming from a choir of voices, including that of the hurricane herself. Smith explained that she’s not from New Orleans, she has no tether to the Gulf region.
“The primary role of a storyteller is as a witness,” Smith said. “And Katrina was not just a regional story, it was a national story. You’re seeing what your country is capable of. I watched Katrina unfold the way thousands of other people did. The difference is that in my role as witness, in my role as writer, I felt that I could use my writing to process that story. I’m trying to make the story makes sense–that’s how I approach a lot of stories–this can’t be possible, this can’t be true. Let me enter it through my writing and see if I can find something that I’m not seeing on the surface.”
This Poetry Moment’s poem, “8 a.m. Sunday, August 28, 2005”, is in Katrina’s commanding, menacing voice. Finding Katrina’s voice, Smith said, was easiest for her.“Persona allows me to enter a story in a way that is going to open up a lot of other avenues right away,” Smith said. “It never occurred to me not to give Katrina a voice. That also left me some touchstones – I tried to keep it roughly chronological and follow the development of the storm, but every once in a while, I’d say, “Now Katrina is feeling this. Now she’s angry, now she’s remorseful, now she’s saying ‘Maybe I overdid it.’ ”
Katrina, like one of the Greek goddesses spurred into destruction by humans’ blunders, came down hard on the planet. But she was fed with warm water from the oceans, growing warmer by the minute thanks to humans causing climate change.
This summer has been a hard one for so many. As I write, Hurricane Laura is barreling toward Category 4 status, with the Gulf Coast in its path. Wildfires are blazing in California, destroying homes and animals and redwoods and people’s lives. Death Valley hit 130 degrees, the highest temperature recorded since 1913 on this planet. Climate change isn’t in the distance. It’s here. And there is an intimate link between racial injustice and climate change, with communities of color disproportionately suffering as the world warms.
Poetry can tell stories, and it can bear witness. We’re going to need to witness much more in the coming years, as climate change whips up storms and harsh weather that will batter this country, and the world. Words can change the world, yes, but only if humans listen.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life
Students across the nation are returning to their studies this fall in a time of fear and in methods that are bizarre. Most of them won’t board buses with their parents sniffing back tears on the sidewalk. They won’t giggle in clusters or eat in cafeterias. College students won’t be packing stadiums or gathering on the quad. This fall, hardly any students need new backpacks full of crisp lined paper and pointy pencils.
Instead, there are masks outside their homes, and Zoom inside. Instead, students are learning on their own. They’re sharing computers or borrowing them from schools. And freshly reopened wounds of systemic violence and racism against Black Americans are compounding the pandemic pain. Students are suffering in ways that adults can’t begin to understand.
HoCoPoLitSo can’t fix things. But we can offer a token of our appreciation of the circumstances. This week’s Poetry Moment is a shot in the arm from Jason Reynolds, New York Times bestselling writer of books such as Long Way Down, Patina and the rest of his track series, All-American Boys, and the Marvel Comics graphic novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man.
Reynolds, who grew up in D.C. and Maryland and had never finished a complete book until he was 17, used the power of poetry, rap, and his own determination to become an author. He’s now won the Walter Dean Myers Award, a Newbery, a Kirkus Prize, the Coretta Scott King Award, and an NAACP Image Award.
In this Poetry Moment, Reynolds reads from his book For Every One, a sort of pep talk in verse, recorded in 2018, long before a pandemic was dreamt of.
“This is a pep talk for me,” Reynolds explains. “This isn’t a book of answers, I don’t know how to fix it, but I do know how it feels to have it feel broken.”
His book isn’t a self-help book, he explains, because he doesn’t feel qualified to assist. In fact, he tells young people, he needs help to get done the things he does. Writing is difficult, Reynolds says. Without editors, he says, he wouldn’t be able to get by. “I still don’t know how to use a comma,” he says.
In his writing, he says, he tries to show his characters’ vulnerability and the difficulties that they’re facing. Just like students, he says.
“I tell the teachers, you have no idea what some of your students had to do just to get there,” he says.
Named in January as the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Reynolds is evangelizing words as a power to change the world.
“The truth is, if we’re looking at history as our compass, it will show us over and over again that the way to change is through children. The way to change is through youth,” he said, in an interview after his appointment as ambassador.
His new book, Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, is a remix for young people of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the first chapter, Reynolds explains what he’s hoping to talk about in the book: “This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book. A book about the here and now.”
The here and now is pretty rough. And we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But Reynolds is mindful of uncertainty. In fact, his books embrace an unconventional plot strategy. We never know whether Patina or any of the other characters from his series about a track team of runners, win their races. “They show up,” Reynolds says. And that’s enough.
Patina’s story, he explains, “doesn’t tie up in a neat bow, but none of my books do, only because I think life doesn’t do that. … I think it’s disrespectful of the reader to give away answers. I think our job is to lead them to the point where they can do the rest of the work themselves.”
Sending strength for the rest of the work to students, teachers, parents, and every one, from Jason Reynolds and HoCoPoLitSo.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer