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Thursday, June 27, 7:30 p.m. Monteabaro Recital Hall, The Horowitz Center
at Howard Community College
A look at Katrina New Orleans through a selection of Smith’s Blood Dazzler poems set to the music of Wynton Marsalis’ Octoroon Balls.
“Reading poems like these, overflowing with life but
contained by art, makes us all feel a little bit helpless.
These poems are blessings that will move like white
light through your veins.” – American Book Review
Straight from its world premiere at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, this powerful blend of poetry and music is “breath-taking” and “not-to-be-missed.” Patricia Smith recites poems from her collection Blood Dazzler in the voices of the people lost in the floods and fury of Hurricane Katrinia accompanied by the rich, spicy music of Wynton Marsalis played by Washington D.C.’s Sage String Quartet. Marsalis’ At the Octoroon Balls is a dramatic gumbo of jazz, blues, Americana and European classical music. This performance was conceived and premiered at the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and has never been performed elsewhere.
Tickets available through the Columbia Festival of the Arts website.
Toi Derricotte’s poems speak pain plainly. A wince from long ago when her father dangled her by her hair for failing to clean her plate. The deep ache of her grandmother trying to pass for white in Saks Fifth Avenue in the 1940s. And the torment of insomnia – wee hours of the morning full of anything but sleep: raw nerves, to-do lists, stubborn grudges.
In her poem “Invisible Dreams”, Derricotte’s lines embody insomnia, give it a color (rust), map out the suffering of leaden bones, name the smell of an ocean of decay.
Derricotte has an ability to take the personal and make it, if not universal – there are a few who blissfully sleep through every lucky night—then open to many. Born a light-skinned African-American girl with “good hair” into a family of undertakers, Derricotte started writing poetry at age 10. She now teaches English at the University of Pittsburgh and has written five acclaimed books of poetry and a memoir, The Black Notebooks. Just this year, she won the PEN/Voelcker Poetry Prize.
Poet Sharon Olds has called her work “vibrant poems, poems in the voice of the living creature, the one who escaped—and paused, and turned back, and saw, and cried out. This is one of the most beautiful and necessary voices in American poetry today.”
On Nov. 2, Derricotte will read her work and talk about the legacy of the late poet Lucille Clifton in HoCoPoLitSo’s opening event for the fall, the Lucille Clifton Poetry Series. We’ve called the event “Good Times”, after one of Clifton’s famous poems of dancing in the kitchen when the rent is paid and the electricity is back on. While we probably won’t be dancing (though who knows?), we will celebrate the power and light of Lucille Clifton, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for years and taught many poetry workshops at Cave Canem, the writers’ retreat program Derricotte co-founded. A new collection of Clifton’s poetry – a sturdy volume with many previously unpublished poems – came out last month and it reveals plainly the pain and joy in Clifton’s work.
Clifton and Derricotte both write about painful subjects – child abuse, history, family ties, racism – and they knew each other well. One of the things Derricotte admired about Clifton was her endurance. She writes: “In her poetry Lucille Clifton models survival for all of us with toughness and humor. And I don’t mean just physical endurance. I mean the ability to prevail over the many things that are able to kill body and spirit. The poets who manage to keep writing reveal this attribute in their lives and their work.”
Derricotte, also, has survived to write her own poems of prevailing over things that want to kill body and spirit. Heavily influenced by the confessional poetry of Sylvia Plath, Derricotte writes personal poetry. And much of it is painful – working out abuse by her parents and rage over that kind of childhood. But her latest collection, The Undertaker’s Daughter, seems to work through the anger at her parents and ends with glimpses of joy and peace.
As she writes in a poem “After a Reading at a Black College,” from her collection Tender, which won the Patterson Prize, “Poems do that sometimes, take/ the craziness and salvage some/ small clear part of the soul, / and that is why, though frightened, / I don’t stop the spirit.”
On Nov. 2, join HoCoPoLitSo for good times in this time of craziness, to help salvage our spirits with poetry, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, from Derricotte and Clifton.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
Tickets for the event, Friday, Nov. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Monteabaro Recital Hall (HCC campus), are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/280070. Admission is $15, and $10 for seniors and students. For information, call 443-518-4568.
La poesie vit d’insomnie perpetuelle
There’s a sickness in me. During
the night I wake up & it’s brought
a stain into my mouth, as if
an ocean has risen & left back
a stink on the rocks of my teeth.
I stink. My mouth is ugly, human
stink. A color like rust
is in me. I can’t get rid of it.
It rises after I
brush my teeth, a taste
like iron. In the
night, left like a dream,
a caustic light
washing over the insides of me.
What to do with my arms? They
coil out of my body
They branch & spit.
I want to shake myself
until they fall like withered
they bend the right way—
until I fit in them,
or they in me.
I have to lay them down as
carefully as an old wedding dress,
I have to fold them
like the arms of someone dead.
The house is quiet; all
night I struggle. All
because of my arms,
which have no peace!
I’m a martyr, a girl who’s been dead
two thousand years. I turn
on my left side, like one comfortable
after a long, hard death.
The angels look down
tenderly. “She’s sleeping,” they say
& pass me by. But
all night, I am passing
in & out of my body
on my naked feet.
I’m awake when I’m sleeping & I’m
sleeping when I’m awake, & no one
knows, not even me, for my eyes
are closed to myself.
I think I am thinking I see
a man beside me, & he thinks
in his sleep that I’m awake
writing. I hear a pen scratch
a paper. There is some idea
I think is clever: I want to
capture myself in a book.
I have to make a
place for my body in
my body. I’m like a
dog pawing a blanket
on the floor. I have to
turn & twist myself
like a rag until I
can smell myself in myself.
I’m sweating; the water is
pouring out of me
like silver. I put my head
in the crook of my arm
like a brilliant moon.
The bones of my left foot
are too heavy on the bones
of my right. They
lie still for a little while,
sleeping, but soon they
bruise each other like
angry twins. Then
the bones of my right foot
command the bones of my left
to climb down.
— Toi Derricott
“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents,” says author Emilie Buchwald. That’s a nice cuddly sort of sentiment, isn’t it? But she’s right. Most of us with children do read to them, almost from birth. It’s one of the best tools we have to introduce them to the vast new world around them.
We read to teach colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and textures. To teach them about animals and flowers, babies, and brothers and sisters, mommies and daddies. We read to teach them about themselves and living among others, about their world and their place in it. We read to help them learn to think. And in the process, we fervently hope – in fact it’s our duty – that we spark in them a sense of curiosity and a love of words, both so powerful that they will learn and love to read and to seek out answers on their own.
There’s an old joke about bringing up kids that goes something like this: We spend the first two years of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk. Then we spend the next sixteen trying to get them to sit down and shut up. Isn’t it more or less the same thing when, after we teach and encourage our children to explore the world through reading, we allow a book to be removed from a school curriculum or public library shelf because a vocal parent or small group in some way objects to its contents?
It happens more often that you might think. Every year, for the past thirty years, the American Library Association has recorded all reported challenges and bans of books in schools and public libraries in the United States. That’s hundreds of challenges every year. And those are only the reported ones. The ALA estimates that four out of five challenges go unreported. Most of the challenges come from well-intentioned parents trying to protect their children from some difficult idea or information. And that would be within their rights if they were protecting their children. The problem, however, is that challenges and bans might also deprive other children whose parents don’t share the same objections.
The challenging or banning of a book is akin to pulling the reading rug right out from under our kids. Take a look at the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books of the 21st century. You’ll see that along with the usual characters – Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on – are a host of children’s and young adult books, the very books that we should be thrilled that our children are reading.
Reading is an active process of discovery. Our children will encounter new ideas and new ways of thinking; it’s bound to happen more and more as advances in technology continue to shrink our world and move us ever closer to true globalization. If as responsible parents we embrace such encounters as teachable moments, helping our kids “enter into a dialogue” with what they are reading, instead of saying, emphatically, “NO, you can’t read that,” we will teach our children to truly think for themselves, to consider the tough questions of our world, to make it a better and more accepting place.
In a nation that bemoans the fact that our educational system and student performances are lagging behind those of other developed nations, why would we ever even consider, if we hope to regain the intellectual edge, denying our children the opportunity to think by preventing them from exploring through reading? It may not sound quite as cuddly as what Emilie Buchwald says, but what a world of good we could do if we made our children thinking “readers on the laps of their parents,” and then let them read to their hearts’ content.
The American Library Association’s 30th Anniversary Banned Books Week observance is September 30-October 6. Join your Howard County neighbors and supporters of your First Amendment rights. Celebrate your freedom to read by reading a banned book – or by sharing one with your children.
Assistant Professor of English
Howard Community College
Join HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College in their celebration of Banned Book Week at “Freedom to Read: The Historic Role of Grove Press in the Publication of Banned Books,” with Jeannette Seaver and Michael Dirda, Tuesday, October 2, 2-3:20 PM in Monteabaro Recital Hall in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College. The event is free and open to the public.
Book: Naked Lunch
Author: William S. Burroughs
Controversy: First published in 1959 by Olympia Press in France, Naked Lunch (initially misprinted as The Naked Lunch) was banned in the United States because of obscenity laws. The book’s subject matter deals with drug use, sexually explicit acts and obscene language.
Challenge: In 1962, Grove Press published the unedited American edition of The Naked Lunch, that is, as it was originally written for publication. It was banned in both Boston and Los Angeles, and European publishers were harrassed for printing and distributing the book. However, in 1966 the Massasschuetts Supreme Judicial Court reversed the decision finding that it did not violate obscenity laws. The book was deemed to have social value.
Impact: While his book dealt with “risque” subjects under the McCarthy Era, Burrough’s book also tackled the problems of drug addiction and protesting the death penalty. The book ‘s overall theme deals with failings of society through the exploration of the main characters encounters with the books more risque subject matter.
Burrough’s Naked Lunch was said to have influenced Thomas Pynchon, J. G. Ballard, and William Gibson.
It is included on Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923-2005”.