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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.
- Read a poem. Out loud. Feel it the sound of it move through you and into the air.
- Watch and listen to Billy Collins’ Ted Talk.
- Practice the math of counting syllables by writing a 5-7-5 haiku.
- Follow HoCoPoLitSo on Facebook. And Twitter.
- Read a Poetry Blog.
- Stop by the library on the way home and borrow a volume of poetry.
- Read the latest issue of Little Patuxent Review.
- Tweet some poetically purple prose. Retweet someone else’s.
- Email a friend a favorite poem.
- Print out a poem and put it on a bulletin board for others to see.
- Watch a poet on YouTube.
- Bilingual? Have a go at translating a poem. Not? Try the exercise with a friend that has a second language.
- Write a love poem, just for fun. Share it with the intended.
- Subscribe to Poets.org’s Poem a Day email.
- Make a comment on a Poetry Blog.
- Find a soon to be significant other and read Neruda’s 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair to each other.
- Donate to HoCoPoLitSo.
- Read a poem out loud to someone else.
- Go to a poetry reading at a coffee house. If it is an open mic, share your own work.
- Jot down an ode to something ordinary in your life.
- Buy tickets for yourself and a friend to the Nightbird Reading, featuring Kim Addonizio, Michael Cirelli, Nayma Ayala, and Mother Ruckus. After the evening reading, post on the HoCoPoLitSo page about your experience.
- Support a poet, buy their book. Now really support them: read it.
- Celebrate National Poem in You Pocket Day, April 26th, by carrying a poem in your pocket and sharing it with others.
- Take on Poets.org’s list of 30 things to do for National Poetry Month.
- Tweet about poetry. If it’s Friday, tell your followers to #ff @hocopolitso.
- Memorize a poem and carry it around inside you. Let it out again and again when the occasion warrants.
- Add a quote from a poem to your email signature for a month. Switch it with a new one next month. (No reason to stop the practice just because it isn’t National Poetry Month in May.)
- Watch an episode (or two) of HoCoPoLitSo’s The Writing Life on YouTube.
- Tell a poet what their work means to you. They’d love to hear. Face to face, in email, in a good old fashioned card.
- Encourage someone else to join you in taking on this list. After all, poetry is a thing best shared with others.
Clear the Calendar: Blackbird Poetry Festival, April 26th – Addonizio, Cirelli, Ayala, Mother Ruckus
Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo are proud to present “Poetry In Harmony,” the 4th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. This year’s festival, mainly on location at the College will feature Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio, Naomi Ayala and Mother Ruckus. There will be readings (including by faculty and students), workshops, performances and the ‘Poetry Police” who cite students caught without poetry on hand for National Poem in Your Pocket Day.
The day’s events are mostly free and open to the public, others for students only. The evening will feature a “Poetry in Harmony” Coffee House reading with Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio and a performance by musical group Mother Ruckus; tickets for this performance will be $15 general admission, $10 for seniors and students with id (now available for purchase online, click here).
- 9:30 – 10:30 Naomi Ayala speaks at Howard County School System (HCPSS) Professional Development Day Session I
- 10:40 – 11:40 Naomi Ayala speaks at HCPSS Prof. Dev. Day Session II
- 10:00 Poetry Police start to patrol HCC at campus looking for National Poem in Your Pocket Day violations
- 11:00 – 12:20 Kim Addonizio meets with HCC’s Creative Writing Class (closed)
- 11:00 – 12:20 Michael Cirelli meets with students and community (open and free)
- 2:30 – 4:30 Readings by: Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio and regional poets, HCC students and faculty (open and free)
- 7:00 Doors open for “Poetry in Harmony,” a coffeehouse-styled reading
- 7:30 – 9:30 Readings by Michael Cirelli and Kim Addonizio, and a performance by musical group Mother Ruckus, which includes performance poet Gayle Danley and songstress Sahffi. ($15, $10 for seniors and for students with an id)
Michael Cirelli has been a National Poetry Slam individual finalist, winning the finals in both San Francisco and Berkeley. Cirelli has performed all over the country while teaching writing workshops to teenagers up and down the West coast. While in L.A., he was the director of PEN Center West’s, Poet In the Classroom program. He is currently the Director of Urban Word NYC. He is also the director of the Annual Spoken Word & Hip-Hop Teacher & Community Leader Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin that won the 2007 North American Association of Summer Sessions “Creative and Innovative Program Award.” His collection of poetry, Lobster with Ol’ Dirty Bastard was a New York Times Book Review independent press best seller. Vacations on the Black Star Line is his second work. blog.grdodge.org/2010/05/21/poetry-fridays-2010-festival-poet-michael-cirelli/
Kim Addonizio has been called “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets.” Her latest books are Lucifer at the Starlite, recently a finalist for the Poets Prize and the Northern CA Book Award; and Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within. Kalima Press recently published her Selected Poems in Arabic. Addonizio’s many honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA Fellowships, and Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and the essay. Her collection Tell Me was a National Book Award Finalist. Other books include two novels, Little Beauties and My Dreams Out in the Street. Addonizio offers private workshops in Oakland, CA, and online, and often incorporates her love of blues harmonica into her readings.www.kimaddonizio.com
Naomi Ayala makes her residence in Washington, DC where, until recently, she served as the coordinator for curriculum and instruction at the National Council of La Raza’s Center for Community Educational Excellence, and the Program Director for Celebra la Ciencia: The Hispanic Community Science Festivals Project of the Self Reliance Foundation and the Hispanic Radio Network. As a freelance writer and consultant, Ms. Ayala currently helps develop, edit and promote curricula and other educational materials – in both her native Spanish as well as English – for innovative education programs and national organizations. She runs professional development workshops for teachers, conducts specialized residencies in public and private schools (K-12), while presenting her poetry to diverse audiences around the U.S. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Teaching for Change. Ms. Ayala is the author of two books of poetry, Wild Animals on the Moon, selected by the New York City Public Library as one of 1999’s Books for the Teen Age, and This Side of Early. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies around the U.S. and beyond.
Mother Ruckus Sahffi and Gayle Danley: featuring a combination of slam and song. Mother Ruckus has performed at the International Festival in Baltimore and the Teavolve Café. To get a sense of their sound, check out: www.sahffi.com. Sahffi is part of a group called t3n (pronounced ten) www.t3n.us/p/music.html