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

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).

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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!

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.

Poetry Workshop for Teens at Cupertino Library

Please join me and my friend David Perez, the current Santa Clara County PL, this Thursday evening at the Cupertino Library for a poetry workshop. Celebrate National Poetry Month with us!

I’ll warm up the crowd with a poetry warm up full of colors and David will run his part of the workshop in his inimitable way.

Bring a poem of your own, or come ready to write and hang out.

Register at the library website at this link. Hope to see you there!

Teen Poetry Workshop at Cupertino Library

Marliyn Chin, “How I Got That Name”

To continue with poetry engaged with questions of race, I present to you Marilyn Chin, a wonderful poet, novelist, and voice for justice. She is the winner of the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry, a national prize for literature that confronts racism and examines diversity, which includes Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Junot Díaz and Toni Morrison among its winners.

Chin was born in Hong Kong and raised in Portland, Oregon. Her books have become Asian American classics and are taught in classrooms internationally. Marilyn Chin has read her poetry at the Library of Congress. She was interviewed by Bill Moyers’ and featured in his PBS series The Language of Life and in PBS Poetry Everywhere. (I copied this stuff directly from her website. She has a gorgeous website. Her book covers are gorgeous.)

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I went looking for her work because I remember this poem, “How I Got That Name” from a class, or a listserve, or something in my past. Once you read this poem, you never forget it. You can read it at http://www.poets.org with her biography. You can also find her at the Poetry Foundation, with another of her amazing poems, the astounding (visually and auditory) “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)” — that one you have to read out loud. Here’s one blogger’s analysis of it, and whether it’s racist against white people!

The poem I’m sharing today, “How I Got That Name” contains some playful, caustic, brutal, hysterical and terrifying imagery. For example:

History has turned its stomach
on a black polluted beach—
where life doesn’t hinge
on that red, red wheelbarrow,
but whether or not our new lover
in the final episode of “Santa Barbara”
will lean over a scented candle
and call us a “bitch.”
Oh God, where have we gone wrong?
We have no inner resources!

(Please note the reference to William Carlos William’s famous poem — a poem that describes a reality Chin doesn’t feel welcome to, welcome in…. I’m going along horrified, until I get to that last bit, “We have no inner resources!” — then I have to laugh out loud.)

And then this bit, where an Asian-American woman, writes with perfect seriousness:

She was neither black nor white,
neither cherished nor vanquished,
just another squatter in her own bamboo grove
minding her poetry—

You really have to read this poem several times to catch all the references.

In case these little snippets don’t tempt you to read further, here’s a line from “Brown Girl Manifesto (Too)” —

Succumb to the low-lying succubus     do!

Chin’s voice is wide-ranging, rhythmic, musical, self-deprecating, funny, exploratory and absolutely poke-you-with-a-stick unforgiving. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Lovers of the Poor”

Oh my. Oh my — slap in the face — goodness.

I went looking for an Easter poem, hoping to find one that also discusses race. This poem, “The Lovers of the Poor,” which is presented in all it’s terrible glory on the Poetry Foundation website, is such a poem. You can read it there, and also hear it read — I hope by the poet, although I am not sure. Listening to the poem, recited at a fast clip, is magical — the poem is full of rhythm and sounds that surge with a forward momentum, with words I don’t recognize and some made up, I expect. I had to read the poem several times through before I could catch all the meanings, the details, the depths.

I can’t possible explain the poem as well as the poem itself explains itself. So, please read it, or listen to it being read. Then notice details, such as these:

The pink paint on the innocence of fear; 

(What an amazing way to describe the faces of white women visiting the black neighborhood)

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Their guild is giving money to the poor.
The worthy poor. The very very worthy
And beautiful poor. Perhaps just not too swarthy?
perhaps just not too dirty nor too dim
Nor—passionate. In truth, what they could wish
Is—something less than derelict or dull.
Not staunch enough to stab, though, gaze for gaze!
God shield them sharply from the beggar-bold!
The noxious needy ones whose battle’s bald
Nonetheless for being voiceless, hits one down.

(God protect the white women from the passion of the poor! The sounds in this section pound and gouge like clubs or knives…)

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They …
Buy the right books in the best bindings; saunter
On Michigan, Easter mornings, in sun or wind.
Oh Squalor! This sick four-story hulk, this fibre
With fissures everywhere! Why, what are bringings
Of loathe-love largesse? What shall peril hungers
So old old, what shall flatter the desolate?
Tin can, blocked fire escape and chitterling
And swaggering seeking youth and the puzzled wreckage
Of the middle passage, and urine and stale shames
And, again, the porridges of the underslung
And children children children. Heavens! That
Was a rat, surely, off there, in the shadows? Long
And long-tailed? Gray? The Ladies from the Ladies’
Betterment League agree it will be better
To achieve the outer air that rights and steadies,
To hie to a house that does not holler, to ring
Bells elsetime, better presently to cater
To no more Possibilities, to get
Away. Perhaps the money can be posted.

(What happens to you when you see the word saunter followed so closely by squalor — and then swagger and then shadows … ?)

I had to think a long time before I understood the term “loathe-love largesse” — I think Brooks is describing the hate behind the faux love that presents itself as generosity — how the women who come to the slums love to feel their generosity, but hate the people (dirt, rats, noise, passion) they must be generous towards. What a beautiful sonorous name for something so ugly.

The mastery of language is amazing and humbling to me. The content of the poem slaps me in the face. I am ashamed of the times I’ve been afraid, and even more ashamed to remember how I hoped that my fear might not have been noticed.