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Lucille Clifton Reading Features Joseph Ross – Why We Can’t Wait: Poetry of History and Justice

Joseph Ross launches his new book of poems, Raising King, introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller in a virtual presentation.

Now available to watch online:


HoCoPoLitSo opens its literary season October 2 with “Why We Can’t Wait” featuring Joseph Ross and the debut of his new book of poetry, Raising King.

The 2020 Lucille Clifton Reading Series provides an opportunity to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves as Ross explores through verse the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ross based his poems on King’s own writing in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where do We Go from Here. Ross will read and discuss his work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in a virtual presentation.

Advance registration is required and donations are appreciated.

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Ross says Raising King “invites readers to journey with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Montgomery to Memphis. These poems, some in Dr. King’s voice, some in other voices from his time, offer the reader a new way to understand the compassionate and prophetic life of Dr. King.” Joseph Peniel, author of The Sword and the Shield: Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. writes: “Raising King is a groundbreaking poetry collection that helps to rescue the radically compassionate legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Joseph Ross brilliantly reminds us that King’s power derived from the way in which he forced American and global citizens to confront uncomfortable truths about race, poverty, citizenship, war. A must read.”

Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Meeting Bone Man (2012), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Ache (2017). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martín Espada. He served as the HoCoPoLitSo’s 23rd writer-in-residence and teaches high school English is Washington, D.C. He is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee and his poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. Raising King will be available from Willow Books in mid-September.

Joseph Ross and E. Ethelbert Miller

E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections. He hosts the WPFW morning radio show On the Margin with E. Ethelbert Miller and hosts and produces The Scholars on UDC-TV which received a 2020 Telly Award. Miller’s latest book If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press) was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus. Click here to view the E. Ethebert Miller Collection at GWU.

Zoom attendance is limited to the first hundred registrants. Additional virtual attendance will be available through live streaming on Facebook.

Click here to register for this online event.

Donate to HoCoPoLitSo to help make this and other events like this important discussion happen.

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Poetry Moment: Patricia Smith stuns with hurricane poem

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

Poetry Moment: Jason Reynolds offers a pep talk for everyone

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

Poetry Moment: Toi Derricotte evokes a legacy of poetry and cruelty

This week’s poem contains a legacy.

Like a story told and retold on families’ front porches, this Poetry Moment features author Toi Derricotte reading a poem that changed her life, “Southern Road” by Sterling Allen Brown.

With colloquial rhymes and dialect, the poem’s haunting rhythms echo the stories and songs of chain gangs. Conceived during the Civil War to provide free labor, chain gangs proliferated in the South until the 1950s, when they were largely phased out in most of the nation. The practice lingered in Georgia and North Carolina until the 1970s, and was resurrected in the 1990s “tough on crime” era.

Chain gangs became part of American culture, with Nina Simone and Sam Cooke writing songs about the lines of prisoners often seen along Southern roads.

Prisoners, many of whom were Black and most of whom were convicted of minor crimes, were shackled together at the ankles to provide states free labor. They broke rocks, built the nation’s roads and highways, dug holes. Treated cruelly, prisoners were sometimes kept in cages, and usually fed little and beaten liberally. For photos and history of the chain gang, see this fascinating and horrifying history project by the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

Brown’s poem called forth the chain gang’s speech and song in a way that American readers had never seen. Poet Derricotte explained that besides Langston Hughes, she read no works by Black writers in grade school, in high school, or even in college. When she started reading Brown’s poems, “they blew my mind.” In this Poetry Moment, Derricotte reads only the last three stanzas of Brown’s iconic poem.

Sterling Brown

Brown was born on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C., attended Harvard, then returned to Howard to teach for more than 40 years until he retired in 1969. Brown, whose father was born into slavery and became a prominent minister and professor at Howard, became a bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and contemporary Black poets like Derricotte.

A 2019 finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry, Derricotte visited HoCoPoLitSo in November 2012 to read her own poetry and talk about the legacy of Lucille Clifton, our longtime artistic advisor and the nation’s beloved, award-winning poet. Before she read for our audience, Derricotte filmed an interview about her work with E. Ethelbert Miller, poet and activist from D.C. who knew Brown well. Miller asked her to read some poetry that inspired her. Derricotte chose a Sylvia Plath poem, and this work by Brown.

Toi Derricotte

Derricotte has her own legacy to pass on. She and poet Cornelius Eady formed Cave Canem, a retreat and foundation to support and host African American poets. Cave Canem, which translates from Latin as “Beware the Dog,” was named after the mosaic of the protective dog at the entrance to the House of the Tragic Poet, preserved in Pompeii (see image below). Founded in 1996 to nurture Black poets, Cave Canem has supported thousands of Black poets with workshops, prizes, and readings. Fellows of the program have published more than 250 books.

Try one of their books, listen to “Southern Road” here, pick up The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown, read some of Derricotte’s confessional and personal work. Then sit on the porch with your family and tell these stories.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life


Sterling Brown Photo:  By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42296826

Poetry Moment: Amiri Baraka 
serves up fiery words

Amiri Baraka did not mince words. He wrote words, he played with words, he even sang words. But mince? Never.

One of the founders of the Black Arts Movement, Baraka was known as a fiery, frenetic speaker, a firm believer in the insertion of Black music and culture into poetry, and an indefatigable advocate for free speech.

Here is an excerpt from “Home”, one of a series of his essays published in 1996: “The black artist’s role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and, if they are black men, grow strong through this moving, having seen their own strength, and weakness; and if they are white men, tremble, curse, and go mad, because they will be drenched with the filth of their evil.”

Words were weapons for Baraka, and he was going to wield them as bravely as he could.

New readers are discovering his work, a good companion to the Black Lives Matter movement and the push for human rights in this country. His famous “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” was this summer the subject of a Poet’s House project, offering electronic access to the original 1961 chapbook, video about Baraka, and scholarship about the poet and his work.

After his death in January 2014, thousands of people watched our episode of The Writing Life featuring Baraka, interviewed by poet and activist E. Ethelbert Miller. One viewer wrote: “Be part of the struggle to transform reality. Legacy indeed.”

In this Poetry Moment, Baraka reads and croons a portion of his epic history poem, “In the Tradition,” in which he names Black people who added to American life—Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, W. E. B. DuBois, H. Rapp Brown, Thelonius Monk, and countless unnamed musicians, thinkers, and artists. He dedicated his book to saxophonist Arthur Blythe.

Critic William J. Harris wrote about the poem, “The black tradition Baraka affirms in this poem is more complex than any conception of black culture he had expressed in the past. It is a tradition of heroes … and it is a tradition of villains … . But while the poem is nationalist, affirming black people, it is revolutionary nationalist rather than culturalist.”

After Baraka died, The New Yorker’s Jellani Cobb penned a tribute with the headline, “The Path Cleared by Amiri Baraka.

Cobb wrote, “His poetic voice, with its Ebonics conjugations and sly rhythms, was that of the man on the Newark boulevard or the Harlem avenue. If black people can exert a valid claim on American democracy, Baraka seemed to be saying, then there’s no reason for their language not to have equally powerful standing in American literature.”

Baraka has achieved that powerful standing in literature, and to get there, he never minced words.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: A cool recitation 
by Gwendolyn Brooks

In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks arrived from Chicago in Washington D.C., to become America’s first Black person to hold the position of Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.

Early in her term, she read at the Howard Woodson High School in D.C. As she began to recite her signature poem, “We Real Cool,” students popped up around the library, chanting her lines and snapping their fingers.

“I loved that,” she told the Library of Congress’s Alan Jabbour and poet E. Ethelbert Miller, who were interviewing her for HoCoPoLitSo’s first author interview show, which would become The Writing Life. “Young people like it because it has a kind of insouciance and a staccato effect that they enjoy.”

More than thirty years before, she had won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, but by the mid 1980s, Brooks had reached the pinnacle of her success. The very young poet and activist Miller and Jabbour interviewed Brooks in 1986 in a small room at the Library of Congress, supervised and produced by HoCoPoLitSo founder Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Here is that interview in full.

Brooks had also recited “We Real Cool” September 30, 1985, in front of a packed audience, after 300 people had been turned away from the Library of Congress’s auditorium. Her most anthologized work, the poem had become one that audiences would request.

The Library of Congress, just this past April, digitized and uploaded the recording of that reading, during which Brooks says, “At this point I better recite ‘We Real Cool’ before I forget. I know some of you are sick and tired of this poem, because if you see my name, you see it. It’s been published in a good many school textbooks, but it has also been banned here and there—chiefly because, I understand, the word ‘jazz’ has been considered a sexual reference. That was not my intention, though I have no objection if it helps anybody—but I was thinking of music when I used the word ‘jazz.’ ”

In the HoCoPoLitSo interview, Brooks explains the short poem’s origin, which still speaks volumes to the nation’s treatment of young black people.

“I wrote it because I was passing by a pool hall in my neighborhood in Chicago one afternoon. And I saw, as I said in the poem, seven boys shooting pool,” Brooks said during the episode. “I wondered what they felt about themselves. I decided they felt not quite valid, certainly they were insecure, not cherished by the society, therefore, they would feel that they should, well, spit in the face of the establishment. I used the month of June as an establishment symbol. Whereas the rest of us love and respect June and wait for it to come so we can enjoy it. They would “jazz June,” derange it, scratch at it, do anything that would annoy the establishment.”

When Brooks recites the poem, she drops her voice at the end of the lines on the word “we.” She told interviewer George Stavros in 1969 that she does so because the protagonists are questioning their own validity.

“I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty, which they don’t bother to question every day, of course,” Brooks explained.


— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life

A Poem for Freedom: HoCoPoLitSo presents its third Poetry Moment

The former National Poet Laureate and official national treasure Rita Dove stars in this week’s Poetry Moment, featuring her poem “Lady Freedom Among Us.”

In an episode of The Writing Life, Dove explains to fellow poet Michael Collier that in 1993, she walked down to see the massive bronze statue of Freedom. The statue was lowered from its perch atop the U.S. Capitol Building by helicopter in May 1993 for repair and cleaning.

Dove thought the statue looked disheveled and dirty, rather like a homeless woman, and was inspired to write a poem.

Freedom, who wears a helmet of stars topped with an eagle’s head and a robe trimmed in fur, holds a sheathed sword, a laurel wreath, and the shield of the United States. On Oct. 23, 1993, when the buffed-up and repaired statue was lifted back onto its pedestal atop the Capitol building, Dove read her poem for the ceremony.

Dove visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences in 1999 and in 2015. In this clip, Dove reads her poem about the statue, “Lady Freedom Among Us” from her book On the Bus with Rosa Parks.

— Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer of The Writing Life


HoCoPoLitSo Stands Against Racism; Poetry is One of Our Weapons

HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment. We all benefit when we seek to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves.

We are profoundly sad and outraged by the violence perpetuated against black lives and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We believe black lives matter, and we stand in solidarity with all those seeking to effectuate long-lasting change in our communities.

In an effort to do our part, we offer something new — HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment — as a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations. Starting today, we will be showcasing poems written and read aloud by black authors hosted by HoCoPoLitSo over our forty-five years, whose art examines and illuminates our American experience.

— The board and staff of HoCoPoLitSo

Poetry Moment: Terrance Hayes reads “Carp”

Terrance Hayes is an American poet and educator who has published seven poetry collections. In conversation with the poet Tara Betts in this #PoetryMoment clip from 2011, he reads “Carp” from the book Lighthead.

Because Black Lives Matter: Introducing The Poetry Moment

HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment. We all benefit when we seek to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves.

We are profoundly sad and outraged by the violence perpetuated against black lives and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We believe black lives matter, and we stand in solidarity with all those seeking to effectuate long-lasting change in our communities.

In an effort to do our part, we offer something new — HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment — as a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations. Starting today, we will be showcasing poems written and read aloud by black authors hosted by HoCoPoLitSo over our forty-five years, whose art examines and illuminates our American experience.

Sincerely,

The HoCoPoLitSo Board and Staff


Poetry Moment: Lucille Clifton reads “good times”

#BlackLivesMatter #HoCoPoLitSoPoetryMoment #PoetryMoment

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