Closing Thoughts for National Poetry Month : Poems by Countee Cullen and Natasha Trethewey

I pledged at the beginning of April to post poetry that engaged in the conversation about race in America. I didn’t quite meet my goal of several posts a week, but NaPoMo is a busy time.

And then all hell broke loose in Baltimore — and so many people were saying things — poetry seemed like it might be a very small voice among all that noise. Searching online for “Baltimore + poetry” brings up many voices and images; I share two poems that seem horribly relevant.

First, this poem, called “Incident” by Countee Cullen, about a moment of racism in the early 20th century.

Incident

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

Second, this poem of the same name, “Incident,” by Natasha Tretheway, former U.S. Poet Laureate. She opens with a few comments about her life in 1950s Mississippi. Hear Tretheway reading it at this link.
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Additionally:
The most interesting thing I found is this Harriet blog post on the Poetry Foundation’s website, in which Jericho Brown eviscerates Wolf Blitzer — “How Not to Interview Black People about Police Brutality” — worth the time to read and think about.
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Jericho Brown

Poetry (if we let it) opens our ears and eyes to — and fills our hearts and imaginations with — the injustices of the world. What we do with those open eyes, those hearts and imaginations vibrating with expressions of anger, pain, fear, is up to us. How many more poems about “incidents” will people of all races have to write in America, before such things are history? I am not wise enough to know the answer. I know I ask this question from privilege and try to ask it none the less with humility.

Poems and Photos from the Cherry Blossom Festival

What a great day I had at the Cupertino Cherry Blossom Festival yesterday. I posted all my photos on Facebook, and you can see them at this link. David Perez, Erica Goss and I did our magic with typewriters and the imagination of strangers.

Some of the poems were especially lovely. Like this one I wrote with a young man, based on his answers to my questions.

Aman’s Poem

I also play the violin
I like kicking goals in soccer
Pasta with mushrooms tastes like happiness
I wear Lord Shiva on a silver chain
My favorite flowers are sunflowers
My name means peace.

amans poem

This poem, I wrote with this dad, because his kids were too shy, but they got into the poem!

jsb and the dad

One of my favorite poems was a collaboration with a sweet young person named Christina, who kept saying “I don’t know” when I’d ask her things. Funny what appears in poems.

christinas poem

Japanese Poetry

As part of my 2015 International Poetry Cantos celebration, April (which is also National Poetry Month, and so quite crowded) is also my opportunity to celebrate Japanese poetry.

I’ll be attending the Cupertino Cherry Blossom Festival, Saturday April 25, which is sponsored by “Cupertino Toyokawa” — the Sister City relationship between Toyokawa, Japan and Cupertino, established in 1978. Come by and chat, and if you’ve got Japanese poetry to share, please please please bring it by booth 15.

I can’t begin to link here all the splendor and history that is the poetry of Japan. Ancient and strong, the tradition is powerful and delicate at the same time. Here are a couple of links, however, to get you started.

Wikipedia does a good job of getting us started.

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Here are some biographies (in English) of famous historical Japanese (in America) poets:

  • Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) here and here.
iza saraba / yukimi ni korobu / tokoromade

now then, let’s go out / to enjoy the snow… until / I slip and fall! [1688]
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  • Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1828) here and here. Translated by Robert Hass here and here.
  • Yosa Buson (1716-1784)  translated by Matthew Rohrer here. And by Edith Shiffert here (below).

The light of a candle
               is transferred to another candle—
               spring twilight.

Read more about Japanese forms at these links:

Michael Dylan Welch (Japanese poetry aficionado and current PL of Redmond Washington) deserves his own shout out. Learn all about Japanese poetry at his website, Graceguts. This tanka is by MDW.

tanka from Graceguts

And, in case you are beginning to wonder if Japanese poetry ended with the death of Issa in the 19th century, or was only written by men, these links provides a wonderful orientation to modern Japanese poetry and poetry by Japanese women.

  • Poetry Kanto — Japan’s longest-running bilingual poetry journal. Really.

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Poetry at the Cherry Blossom Festival

Tomorrow is the Cupertino Cherry Blossom Festival, at Memorial Park. The festival is both days, Saturday April 25 and Sunday April 26, but I’ll only be there on Saturday, with my poetry booth and my poet friends. Erica Goss, Los Gatos Poet Laureate, and David Perez, Santa Clara County Poet Laureate, will both be with me (in booth 15) after about 11 am. I’ll be there the whole day.

(Read about Japanese poetry before you come, if you’re new to the subject).

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Come by for a chat, for a free poem (written on the spot just for you by a real poet!), to play with my magnetic poetry or my Haikubes (highly in-authentic, but fun).

haikubes

I’ll have books of haiku and senryu, both by Japanese poets and by Americans. I’ll also have anthologies and lesson books from California Poets in the Schools.

I hope to see you there!

San Jose Poetry Festival

This was my first year at the annual San Jose Poetry Festival. It was a busy day, well attended, with many local poets, coming from Santa Cruz to Berkeley to join in the fun. I’m grateful to Pushpa MacFarlane for getting me involved, but the biggest kudos go to David Eisbach, who produced this year’s event.

sjpf building

It was also my first time visiting the (Le Petit) Trianon Theatre in downtown San Jose. A GREAT venue.

I missed the morning, so I missed my friends Erica Goss (and her metaphor workshop) and Renee Schell (and her poetry and music reading). I’m sure they were swell.

I enjoyed reading my work with two other fine poets, new to me, during one of the featured readings held after lunch. (The only problem was missing the other sessions in which other awesome featured readers read.) Here I am with Harry Lafnear (who read some wonderful poetry about animals, sweet and not at all sentimental) and David Sullivan (who gave a lecture later on the poetry of war). I wouldn’t have been able to make the mic work without them, and I enjoyed our camaraderie immensely.

jen with two others at sjpf

For some better photos of us, read this really friendly and fantastic write up of the day by Cupertino’s own Crystal Tai for Cupertino Patch.

After my joint reading with Harry and David, I slipped upstairs for the poetry slam portion of the afternoon. I have to confess, right now, that this was my first ever slam. The slam was hosted by Dennis Norren and MC’d by Scoripana X. It’s hard to describe how much fun this was. The format is very smart: judges picked on the spot from the audience, poets reciting their poems and following all kinds of rules (no hand gestures — or was it no props? and time limits and when your phone isn’t a prop and when it is…). Then the judging, which tends to “creep” as the slam goes on, so the scores get higher and that’s why the poets have to read in a randomly chosen order — any way, it was so much fun. Very much an audience participation event. I was amazed by the artistry, the passion, the voices! I didn’t catch everybody’s name, but you’ll recognize Kim Johnson, a past featured reader on Chaos Never Dies Day and winner of the Silicon Valley Reads 2014 poetry contest.

kim at sjpf slam

Kim Johnson

scorpiana x

Scorpiana X

another slammer other slamer red slammer

After the slam, I was energized enough to stay for another event. Pushpa MacFarlane created a truly wonderful reading, inviting poets from all over the world and the bay area to read what she very smartly called “World Poetry” — perfectly in keeping with my theme for National Poetry Month, these were poems written about what it means to be from all over the world. The poems were in most cases read in English either after or before being read in the language they were written in: Spanish, Mandarin, Persian/Farsi, Japanese, German, Hindi, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Native American (by Joy Harjo) and Maori. What a splendid music.

crystal at sjpf

Crystal Tai reading her own poems in Mandarin and English

pushpa and japanese lady at sjpf

Pushpa MacFarlane reading the English translations of Japanese haiku, read by Shizuko Shands.

Okay. That’s about all I’ve got. Again, I’m so grateful to have been part of this lovely day. I hope it’s repeated next year.

Some Awesome April-is-Poetry Month Links + Two Silly Poems

NaPoMo is overwhelming. Here is a collection of things I’ve salvaged from the onslaught.


The Library of Congress is Uploading 75 Years of Poetry and Literature Recordings

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Robert Frost

Yesterday selections from the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress became available to stream online for the first time — the launch of a project digitizing some of their 2,000 recordings from the past 75 years of literature. “I think that reading poetry and prose on the page is important, but there’s nothing that can replace listening to literature read aloud, especially when it is read by the creator of the work.”


International Lit Mag Focuses on Dissidents, Exiles and Asking the Hard Questions

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(Review of World Literature Today, March/April 2015 by Nichole Reber)

The Children’s Poetry StoryBox is a physical traveling box that was launched at The Thurber Center in February 2014 and has returned to Columbus, OH.

(I want to do this so much, but it will have to wait until another April….)

story box

At a reception at the Thurber House, you will hear poetry that was begun by famous children’s poets – including current poet laureate Ken Nesbitt, Jane Yule, Georgia Heard, Nikki Grimes, George Ella, Lyons, David Harrison, Alan Wolf – and finished by hundreds of primarily elementary students around the nation.


Shakespeare’s Sonnets, All 154, Reimagined Through A New York Lens

(Yes, really, all 154 sonnets, with video. Oh my.)

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A crew filming Sonnet 108 at the John T. Brush stairway. Credit Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Mr. Williams tried matching sonnets with locations based on their “imagery and rhetorical arguments,” pairing, for example, the legal-minded Sonnet 46 with the State Supreme Court building. He mixed well-known locations, like Grand Central Terminal and the Unisphere, with less familiar ones, like the Holocaust memorial near Madison Square Park.


That’s enough for now. Whew. What a month.

I even wrote a poem, sort of a rant, really, actually two rant-like poems, very much the same. Here’s the second one.

SATURDAY POETRY SERIES PRESENTS: THE OPERATING SYSTEM FOR NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

Another take spin comment cluster of love about National Poetry Month (aka April). I’m on my way to check out Operating System.

As It Ought to Be

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Editor’s Note: April is National Poetry Month. According to the Academy of American Poets, who founded the annual event in 1996, “National Poetry Month is the largest literary celebration in the world, with tens of millions of readers, students, K-12 teachers, librarians, booksellers, literary events curators, publishers, bloggers, and, of course, poets marking poetry’s important place in our culture and our lives.”

Today I want to highlight one of the countless organizations that has picked up the gauntlet the AAP has thrown down. This April the Operating System celebrates its 4th Annual 30-on-30-in-30 Poetry Month Celebration:

“Over the course of Poetry Month The OS brings you 30 poets (+ writers, musicians, and artists) writing on 30 (+ a few extra) poets for 30 days (every day in April). The intention is simple, but crucial: to explode the process of sharing our influences and joys beyond the random. To…

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Poetry About Race : Not My Voice Today, but Claudia Rankine’s

Writing about race as a white woman. Wanting to do the right thing, and yet falling short. Second guessing myself. Saying something stupid. Argh!

Rather than even go there today, I’m offering fans of the Cupertino Poet Laureate an essay by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, called “On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary: Where writers go wrong in imagining the lives of others.” I found this excerpt (adapted from the foreword to The Racial Imaginary, a collection of essays edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, available from Fence Books.) on Literary Hub, my new favorite place.

This is my first favorite quote: … our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds. To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial—a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.

And this is my second …. Part of the mistake the white writer makes is that she confounds the invitation to witness her inevitable racial subjectivity with a stigmatizing charge of racism that must be rebutted at all costs. The white writer, in the moment of crisis, typically cannot tell the difference. What a white person could know instead is this: her whiteness limits her imagination—not her reader’s after the fact. A deep awareness of this knowledge could indeed expand the limits—not transcend them, but expand them, make more room for the imagination. A good thing.