I’m Tired of the “Isms,” So Click On This

People, it’s been a deep couple of weeks, during which time all kinds of crazy “-isms” reared their proverbial ugly, need-some-blue-hair-grease heads, especially racism and sexism. Let’s start with the attack on black women, which is not backed by the law, at least not obviously.

Rather, these current attacks on black women are subtle—nuanced, as my mama can say. Instead, what the mainstream media is doing is hopping into the heads of black women and beating them from the inside out, making them—us—feel not good enough. It’s working with some of us, too. That’s another issue.

This is nothing new, but it is new that the interior beat-down that black women have experienced for many, many years, has moved, yet again, into the white mainstream. This happened once before with the Moynihan Report back in the sixties, when some old white guy who didn’t know Jack or Jill about African Americans blamed the breakdown of the black family on female-headed households. We still haven’t gotten over that, really, in the black community. I still encounter brothers in Stacy Adam’s gators and flare-legged pants telling me all about Moynihan, and blaming my “singleton” status (to paraphrase Bridget Jones) on my big, brother-man-hating mouth.

Sidebar: And by the way, after these attacks on Sisters, I’ve been thinking about getting all militant and putting a big “B” on my “black.” I think it’s time, at least in my non-fiction prose. My mother has been chastising me about my little “B”s for years.

Anyway, last week ABC News hosted a Nightline “Face-off” which asked the question: “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find A Man?” I’m not kidding you. A major news outlet descended into that pathetic Tyler Perry zone, when there are wars and famine and earthquakes going on.

There were four guests on the panel, Sherri Shepherd from The View, Jacque Reid from Vh-1, Hill Harper—who is, I must admit, super-fine, but after his performance on Face-off, I lost a lot of respect for him—and Jimi Izrael. I have had the absolute displeasure of meeting Jimi Izrael back in the 90s, when he was writing his anti-Black woman rhetoric for some independent magazine in Cleveland, and now, this brother is writing for The Root and has a book out called, The Denzel Principle. (There’s a reason there isn’t a link for book. If you want to purchase this piece of misogynist manure, you have to do your own research, baby. I’m sorry.)

Steve Harvey was supposed to be one of the moderators, but of course, he couldn’t keep his opinions to himself, so he chimed in with the (supposed) voice of reason when he felt the other panelists weren’t coming correct, explaining to Black women why they needed to change their romantic outlooks. And of course, we really needed to hear from Steve, being the cheating, twice-divorced, thrice-married expert on long-term marital commitment to Black women that he is.

The internet has been blazing with rebuttals by Black women. I haven’t wanted to jump the gun and post on this issue, because I know what I am going to say is going to piss off some Black folks—and some Black women–and so, I have to gather my courage because I know I might get a public beat down. For now, I will say that I’ve been thinking about this whole Black woman’s dating thing for years, and I’m convinced it’s time for serious measures. Public desperation on the part of Black women is not one of those serious measures.

I told you I was going to piss some folks off. I will expound on my theory next week, but here are a few public responses until I move out of coward mode:

Farai Chideya goes hard—and brilliant—on ABC News.

Cocoa Popps says this is war against the Sisters. (I gotta tell you, I’m not digging the name, but Ms Popps does have something very intelligent to say so give her a chance.)

Melissa Harris Lacewell of Princeton University (and you see her all the time on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC) breaks down the meaning of the statistics, sister-intelligentsia-style.

Now, let’s move on to the exterior beat-down that The Law has put on Mexican folks in Arizona. It’s a scandal.

A few days ago, the senate of Arizona voted to pass SB-1070, which requires “suspected” illegal aliens to show identification to prove they are legal. Here’s the problem: how do you suspect one somebody who is Mexican of being illegal and not suspect another somebody who is Mexican of being illegal? This is what you call arbitrary. It’s also what you call racist, mean-spirited, and reminiscent of Fugitive slave laws for slaves back in the nineteenth century.

All together now: Shame on you, Arizona. Shame, shame, shame.

It’s amazing to me that all these really nice, well-meaning white folks—and a few bewilderingly misguided Black folks—were JUST talking about we had now entered a “post-race” society now that Obama is president. That was last year, remember? Instead, it seems like the racists have climbed out of the woodwork with no shame at all and are using the law to push people around. Again.

It reminds me of when I used to live in this funky apartment in a bad neighborhood (on Campbellton Road in Atlanta—eh, Lord!) back in the 1980s when I was attending Clark College. When I went into the kitchen and turned on the light, the roaches would be everywhere. I would scream and scream, but those bad boys were so bold, they would just look at me like, “Girl, what?”  Those roaches remind me of them Tea Party people.

Here’s a mindblowing blogger piece called “Imagine If the Tea Party Was Black.”

And I don’t mean to mix my state metaphors, y’all, but you can best believe that if this type of racism is boldly going on in Arizona, the 2012 presidential election is going to be an Alabama dog fight. Get ready for the white racist crazies to get ugly—I don’t mean verbally ugly; I mean physically ugly—because white crazy racism has gone mainstream. These crazies are making good white folks just look so bad. I feel sorry for y’all nice white folks who are trying to make the world a better place for all of us, but them Tea Party folks are just bringing y’all down. But now y’all how I feel every time I see Lil Wayne on a music video, embarrassing the Black Race. That child needs Jesus bad.

I still have panic attacks thinking about what would have happened if McCain had been elected president. And you know where he stands on this immigration issue. Click on this.

Here are some reasonable (in my opinion) responses to the Arizona law.

A Yale University study finds that they don’t just pick on Hispanic and Latino folks in Arizona. They do that in other parts of the country as well.

Dr. Boyce Watkins talks about how Black folks and Brown folks could use this issue to come together.

My former colleague and my present friend, the brilliant Native American (Osage) scholar and the president of the Native American and Indigenous Scholars Association (NAISA), Robert Warrior writes the governor of Arizona. Warrior (as some good folks like to call him) was polite and nice, but you know he got the governor told.

Tayari Jones, bestselling novelist and blogger extraordinaire puts her money where her mouth is. She TURNS DOWN A PAYING WRITERS GIG in Arizona. Brava, Sister-woman!

Tayari went to Spelman College where they raise up young Sisters up the proper way. How do I know? Y’all know my mama (better known as the Black Goddess of Eatonton, Georgia) is a Spelmanite, right?

‘Nuff said.

*Hustle Alert! April 30, 2010 Deadlines!*

It’s time to get yourself in gear for the end of the month deadlines, but especially the end of THIS month, because traditionally, this time is the end of the mad frenzy of deadline submissions. Now that we are in the middle of the internet craze, some magazines have started taking submissions in the summer, but still, things calm down considerably because many contests out there are connected to journals housed by universities, and the submission deadlines go from September to May and then the faculty scatter for the summer. Or like me, they will be teaching summer school, and do an abbreviated scatter.

If you miss these deadlines, never fear. Things churn back up in the fall, with a new crop of deadlines. But I suggest that if you DO miss these deadlines, take this opportunity to get into a regular writing schedule this summer and get some real work done.  Especially if you are a fiction writer.

I have found that my poetry comes whenever; sometimes during inconvenient times like at 2:45am when I’m asleep and dreaming and about to have a sweet dream about Michael Ealy and Morris Chestnut fighting each other over me—okay so I am a feminist but sometimes the fantasies are old-fashioned and nearly patriarchal. I’m sorry; please don’t snatch my WC (Womanist Card). I’ll be egging on these two hotties to throw some ‘bows, all in the name of my love, and then, one of them will turn to me and start speaking a poem. And then, my fantasy is over and I am wide awake and reaching for a pencil and my Moleskine that I keep beside me in bed.

But the fiction is usually never that easy. I can’t just write fiction in snatches and grabs like poetry.  I have to set aside time for fiction and sometimes it is a serious non-sexy grind. Sometimes, it’s like a man–ooh, like Michael or Morris!– coming to bed to his woman wanting to make love; he’s expecting her to be in some lacy boy shorts with her hair—or weave, you know, whatever—hanging down her back and instead, she’s got on her wrap scarf and some  big ole granny panties she bought in a twelve-pack at the WalMart. That’s just not right.

Sometimes with fiction, I do get that feeling in my flesh like a song which means the words are right, but many times, I have to labor to reach that next flesh-song. It’s like a relationship. When it’s good, it’s good, but when it’s giving you trouble, you have to stick with it and make it work. So this summer I am determined to get a groove going and give some quality love time to the novel.  And I am hoping there will be no big drawers involved.

I’ll keep you updated.  In the meantime, look below and make the post office happy and richer by carrying yourself down there and mailing off submissions. Some of these have May 1 deadlines, but you know the drill: wean yourself off that CP time and send something off early, already.

—-

Cave Canem Foundation Poetry Prize
Deadline: April 30, 2010
Entry Fee: $15
Web site: www.cavecanempoets.org

Crab Orchard Review Literary Prizes
Deadline: April 30, 2010
Entry Fee: $10
Web site: www.siu.edu/~crborchd/dyer.html

The Ledge Poetry Award
Deadline: April 30, 2010
Entry Fee: $10
Web site: www.theledgemagazine.com

University of Iowa Press
Iowa Poetry Prize
Deadline: April 30, 2010
Entry Fee: $20
Web site: www.uipress.uiowa.edu/authors/iowa-prize.htm

University of Pittsburgh Press
Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize
Deadline: April 30, 2010
Entry Fee: $25
Web site: www.upress.pitt.edu

Anhinga Press Prize for Poetry
Deadline: May 1, 2010
Entry Fee: $25
Web site: www.anhinga.org

Fugue Prose and Poetry Contest
Deadline: May 1, 2010
Entry Fee: $20
Web site: www.uidaho.edu/fugue

The Journal Short Story Contest
Deadline: May 1, 2010
Entry Fee: $10
Web site: english.osu.edu/research/journals/thejournal/shortstorycontest.cfm

Wick Poetry Center
Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize
Deadline: May 1, 2010
Entry Fee: $20
Web site: www.kent.edu/wick

My Taken Back Night

Photo courtesy of Kent State University

I didn’t find out until a few days ago that in addition to April being National Poetry Month, it is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This is an issue that has been close to my heart for a long time: I am a survivor of sexual assault.

I never intended to discuss this on my blog. I didn’t want people–okay, black men—looking at something that I wrote here about black male privilege or domestic violence, and saying to themselves, “Unh-huh, I knew it. I knew that’s why she was a feminist. And that’s why she hates black men, too. She’s probably even a lesbian.”

Sidebar: Not that there’s anything wrong with being a lesbian. Matter of fact, there’s everything right with it. if you read Essence Magazine this month, you will discover that if I was a lesbian, I’d probably be happily married with some kids by now, as impossible as my chances are for actually getting a black man to marry me.

I thought as well about any students of mine who might read this blog. Did I want them to know this painful, personal item about me? Would it make them not want to take my classes?

Whenever I thought about the issue of sexual assault, I would just move my mind to the side and then, skip around that issue. Until yesterday. Something told me, “Let the fear go, Honorée. Say what you need to, and then, let it do what it do.”

And for real, though, I realized if I was scared, I should have thought about that, like, fourteen years ago before I became a published writer.

The information is already out there for anyone who wants to find it. I’ve talked about my being a survivor in in my poetry. I’ve talked about it in written interviews as well. Or, if no one has read my books or interviews, somebody can look at my performance in Aishah Shahidah Simmon’s groundbreaking, brilliant documentary film, NO!, a film about sexual assault against black women, and see my cute face in there. I was ten years younger when Aishah filmed me, a little chubbier, and I didn’t have  nine gray hairs like I do now, but yep, that’s me in the film, performing a long, personal poem about sexual assault.

What I’m trying to say is,  if I want to be a coward and not reveal myself as a survivor of sexual assault, it’s a little too late  for that now.

And guess what else? Regardless of what I have revealed to you in this blog post,  I’m still fine-as-wine, sassy, brilliant, and accomplished. I still wear seriously cute outfits; if it’s after five pm on any given day and someone invites me out, I’m liable to don a tiara.

Not a thing has changed inside me by revealing what someone else did to me without my consent. What might change is what’s outside, such as someone’s perception of me.  But someone else’s perception of me is not my concern.

As Lucille Clifton has said, “What they call you is one thing. What you answer to is something else.”

What I’ve done, by sidestepping the issue of my own sexual assault is what a lot of people do in my community.  But I can pretty much guess at what white folks and other folks do, because all communities tend to behave in similar ways surrounding issues that they view as shameful. And sexual assault—rape (stranger or acquaintance) of women or men and child molestation—is considered shameful. Even though the shame should be on the perpetrator and not the victim/survivor, still it’s hard not to feel it when somebody tells you otherwise. That’s why we survivors keep silent.

Black folks pretend. They sidestep the issue when a child, male or female, confides that a family member did something violative. I know they do that in my family. I bet they do that in yours, under the pathetic excuse of “not airing dirty laundry.”

Sidebar: And to the sister I talked to on Facebook–who inspired this blog post–who said, we don’t air our dirty laundry in the black community, let me say this with all the love and respect I can muster: if you don’t want your nasty, violent business aired in public, don’t do nasty, violent things to children or other people who can’t defend themselves. It’s not up to the victim/survivor to keep a perpetrator’s secret; to ask her/him to keep that secret is to continue to violate him/her over and over.

And further, it’s not like it’s a secret anyway because nobody in a black family can keep a secret in the first place. That’s why I don’t tell one of my mother’s sisters (who shall remain nameless ’cause I don’t want to embarrass her) nothing right now, ok? ‘Cause telephone, telegram, tell that particular auntie.

Up until a couple of years ago I used to feel that black people just walked around in bubbles, that unless something hit them close to home, a particular issue wasn’t important, and so, it wasn’t something they wanted to talk about. Now I know I was wrong: when it comes to the issue of sexual assault, especially if sexual assault does hit close to home, it’s not something people want to talk about. Ever.

Take Mo’Nique’s family. They were just on Oprah, revealing stoic, pain-filled faces, while Mo’Nique’s older brother admitted that he had molested her when he was eleven and she was seven. This wasn’t news to us survivors. Mo’Nique already had dropped that dime on old boy a while back and we knew that she wasn’t lying.

And you know how we knew? Because when you drop the dime on a black male of whatever age, and you are a black female who is related to that black male, you give up the warmth of your family bosom in exchange for telling the truth. You become an outcast. You become a pariah. You will not be able to enter your ancestral home and partake of the holiday sweet potato pie that comes with all the other perks: the love, the care, the laughter, the understanding—all the cultural cushions that you need to fall on as a black person in this society.

In the black community, we need those cushions. I won’t whine about it; it just is what it is. That’s how come I know why it took so long for Mo’Nique to spill that family news on a national scale and I know she wasn’t lying. You don’t give up all that love for a lie, and you don’t give up your family for the promise of cheap publicity.

On Oprah, Mo’Nique’s family explained that they thought everything was okay, that she was past her brother’s sexual abuse of her, and that’s why they never talked about it. She and her brother seemed to get along very well, her parents said. Her other brother said the child molestation situation had been “blowed up out of proportion.”

In response to which, black female survivors–and black male survivors, too–across this great land of ours uttered a single phrase together: “Negroes, please.”

If this was the way this family talked on Oprah, lying and whatnot in front of a studio audience and millions of people watching around the world, how do you think they had talked to Mo’Nique at the family home when there was no one there to see? Oh sure, her parents really thought everything was fine with Mo’Nique, when the brother that had molested Mo’Nique then went on to molest somebody else’s child and went to prison for it for twelve years.

Unh-huh. Dirty laundry, indeed.

Even if you aren’t talking about your molestation at the hands of your own brother but you are talking about your rape as a young adult at the hands of a “brother” you know, the attitude is as follows: You better not try to destroy that brother’s life. All he did was take a little bit. What’s a little bit? It wasn’t like what Master Tom did to Kizzy Kinte. That was different–this is a brother, not a white man–so get over it, already.

If you try to call the police, hopefully, they won’t laugh you out of the precinct when you inform them that you and homeboy were making out, and you two had had sex before because he was your long-term boyfriend and you’d been hoping one day y’all might get married, but this time, when he wanted to have sex, you said, “No,” because he was getting rough and wouldn’t pay attention when you told him he was hurting you, so you started fighting him, and then he started slapping you, and…

You get the picture.

But let’s say, you try to tell one of your girlfriends on the yard—that would be your college yard—that your long-time boyfriend raped you, and your girlfriend doesn’t even have a man, and she can’t understand why you’re tripping because your boyfriend is a member of an upstanding African American fraternity founded in the early 20th century, he’s the first in his family to make it out of the projects, he’s the possessor of a 3.8 grade point average, and he’s going to be making good money one day and…

You get the picture.

What black woman is going to go against that grain? What black woman’s going to hold herself up to that sort of scrutiny and scorn from her own people, maybe even her own family? What black woman is going to turn her back on the only folks she knows and loves, in order to receive justice at the hands of an already racist criminal justice system?

And what about when we are talking about a little black child? Just who is going to direct a child who has been sexually assaulted through the already impossible maze facing grown black women? What courage does a child have access to?

So, Miss Lady lecturing me on Facebook about dirty laundry, please don’t hate on Mo’Nique for waiting thirty-plus years to tell her truth in public, until you have walked in her shoes.

I have walked in those shoes, and they pinched and gave me corns, but I just kept on walking and telling myself I was feeling fabulous, I was glamorous, I was strong, I was beautiful, I was a child of God, I was clean, I was talented, I was really past what somebody took from me even if I slept with the light on in the hallway because I was scared of the dark. Until finally I really was past it, and I could turn that light off in the hallway and love who I was in the dark. A dark which finally belonged to me.

It’s been a year and a half for me without that night light. This is not a metaphor. This is the truth.

Yay for me, goddamnit.

And yes, I cursed. You can do that when you are a black woman taking care of herself. This is how we do it, on the grown folks’ side of town where we have survived.

I’ve always tried to keep it real when it comes to issues that affect black women and the black community, and I hope I will continue to do so. But if you’re wondering why it took me a while to get all-the-way real,  to take back my own night, now you know. I hope you understand my silence, but if you don’t, that’s okay, too.

It is my night, after all.

RIP Dorothy Height (March 14, 1912-April 20, 2010)

This report has been confirmed by CNN news. Dorothy Height, the chair and president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women, and someone whom President Obama called “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement” has died at the age of 98 years old. She was one of the great activist black women that we younger sisters looked to, as a model of grace and strength combined.

May God bless her and may she rest in peace.

What IS The Practice Of Poetry, Anyway?

Hey Y’all:

I asked my mentor, Jerry Ward, Jr. to comment on what poetry should be, for National Poetry Month, and he was so sweet to send me something. It is, of course, brilliant.

By the way, have you been keeping track of Poetry Daily’s Poetry Picks? Remember what I said about poetic segregation just a couple of days ago? No, I was NOT lying to y’all. I just got my “Walt Whitman” Poetry Pick email this morning.

Dr. Ward’s piece is below.

Of Traditions, Canons, and Poetry

Some teenagers at John McDonogh High School in New Orleans are reading tributes for a seventeen-year-old classmate who did not survive.   She was murdered the week before along with her sister and her sister’s two children.  Four victims and no witnesses except God and the executioner.  God is silent.  Were the killer capable of guilt or grief, he might give words to the truth. The children were his first-cousins.  He is a silent, handcuffed image in prison orange on the television screen.

The teenagers are reading their poems for their slain classmate.  Ritual murder and poetry are endemic in New Orleans, in urban America.  Joining death and words is normal, as normal as the wounded consciousness that transforms pain into eulogy and elegy. The confluence of death and poetry is traditional.  It is an enactment of a people’s canon. Countee Cullen understood as much.

Most of us who write are not killers. But were we capable of absolute honesty, we might confess that we are accessories to metaphoric murders.  When our fellow writers go silent into night, we are like the teenagers who reach into the corners of their souls for the right words to speak about the now empty seat at the cafeteria table.  But even in the most sacred spaces there are no right words.  There are only words provoked and extirpated by the many guises of death.  And perhaps it is the absence of rightness alone that prevents our dwelling too long upon the fact of death.  It is a curious thing, nevertheless, that poems both mitigate our grief and amplify our guilt.  Many of us are so busy ego-tripping in our poetic gardens that we never say “thank you” to the writers we treasure until they are as cold as chiseled stone.

Poets have reason to examine the traditions and the canons in which they have located themselves.  It may be the case that the teenagers in New Orleans have the ability to make poetry when it is most needed without agonizing over aesthetic tradition or the major and minor sorting out that obtains in the secular canon.  For them, a poem is a matter of practice not of artifice.  It is an act of dealing with the ineluctable raw deals of life, of having blues with a feeling.  They are the heirs of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Langston Hughes, whom it might be argued were singers of broken dreams for their damaged but determined people.  They are in the tradition of culture-bound expression that defies the imprisonment of the anthology and the inquisitions of the gender-neutral literary priesthood.  They act and react within the frame of biocultural evolution.  What they do is deemed dreadful and quite beneath the dignity of criticism by those who insist on worshipping idols on multicultural altars.   Are the teenagers who make poems for real occasions not our primal and necessary iconoclasts?

In time some of them may attain the excellence of craft modeled by Gwendolyn Brooks, and we shall be blessed by their achievements. For the moment, let us applaud their seeing through stone as did Etheridge Knight.  They see through stone, provoked by death to articulate the poem as the universal link between earth and sky.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 13, 2010

Poetic Segregation

If any of you follow me on Twitter or have friended me on Facebook, you might have seen some of my posts griping about Poetry Daily’s National Poetry Month Picks. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me catch you up.

Every April (National Poetry Month), the website Poetry Daily asks thirty poets (of their own choosing) to present one of their favorite poems and then discuss the poem. Then Poetry Daily sends a poem a day to their subscribers. (You can subscribe for free).

The poem should be eighty years old or more and has moved into the public domain, because of copyright laws and all that.  For example, the public domain issue is going to affect my favorite book in the whole world, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This will happen in about seven years. Frankly, I don’t know how I feel about that, because while I’m thrilled that more people will be able to read this book—online for free—I’m not thrilled that publishing companies will be able to make money for publishing this book, while Hurston’s family will not see a dime.

Anyway, a while back, Poetry Daily asked me to present a poem, which was really nice of them. In fact, I’ve been asked twice. The first time, I chose Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought From Africa to America.” The second time, I chose Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “A Negro Love Song.”  When I chose the Wheatley poem, I didn’t know I was supposed to get all scholarly with my explanation on why I loved it, but I’d caught on by the time I picked Dunbar.

I hear you saying to yourself, “Honorée, if you’ve been chosen to present a Poetry Daily Poetry Pick, what’s your beef?”

Or, to quote Lawrence Fishburne  as Ike Turner,” Now, what the problem is?”

Well, my issue is that for several years now, I’ve noticed that the poets during National Poetry Month—nearly all of them white—overwhelmingly pick white, male poets to talk about. I’ve never seen a white poet choose a black poet, let alone a Native American, or Latino. There have been a couple of ancient Asian Poetry Picks, and the Hispanic exceptions usually have been Lorca and Neruda, but I’ve never heard either of these guys called “Latino.” I can’t hate on Neruda and Lorca, because they have soothed my soul more than once. And there are some dead white male poets—along with some live ones—that I dig as well, like Whitman and Shakespeare and Keats. (Etc., etc., etc.)

Now let me say this: it is not Poetry Daily’s fault that the National Poetry Picks are usually all white. They just ask the poets to pick. But since there are thirty days in April, it might occur to Poetry Daily that if you only ask two black poets and a couple more colored folks only every other year then you aren’t going to get anything but white poets picked.

What I’m saying is, I didn’t know National Poetry Month was supposed to be called “All White Poets Except for Langston Hughes and A Couple of Other Negroes Besides Him National Poetry Month.”

The poetic segregation is hard to notice. I noticed once that one of my good friends who is a black poet chose Keats one year to talk about, perhaps in an effort to encourage racial cross-pollination, but you know what? His choice didn’t work. He just became the one brother who picked a white guy to talk about during National Poetry Month. Bless his heart.

Most of the young white poets I know who have earned MFAs are familiar with black poets who published during the past thirty years. They can talk all day long about Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Natasha Trethewey, Major Jackson, Terrance Hayes, or Van Jordan. And that’s a good thing, for sure.

But ask them most of them about somebody like Countée Cullen and they say, “Who?” I’m serious. One of the most major poets of Harlem Renaissance, and they have never heard of him.

A while back, I mentioned Gwendolyn Brooks to a young white poet–who had finished her undergrad degree and was now in graduate school–and she hadn’t heard of Brooks. When I said, “Well, you should find out who this woman is,” this young poet shrugged her shoulders.

I am asking you white poets out here who teach to please let your students that black poetry did not begin with Rita Dove. And if you need to go back and do some reading, don’t feel ashamed. I’m always having to step up my reading on white poets, myself. That’s what cultural literacy is all about.

Although, I love me some Rita Dove, there is a whole canon of earlier African American poetry that is actually quite good. Let’s start with the Harlem Renaissance and then let’s move back to, say, George Moses Horton.

Here’s a poetry pick of my own by Cullen to get this ball rolling. This is one of my favorite poems of all time–and by the way, Cullen LOVED himself some John Keats. I guess he knew a thing or two about cultural literacy.

When you get to the last two lines, you’ll know why I love it and I figure I won’t need to explain anything else about this poem.

Yet Do I Marvel

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Happy National Poetry Month!

I spent the first day of National Poetry Month the same way I spend the first day of the year: writing. There’s some old superstition that tells me that what I am doing on crucial days of the year is what I will be doing the rest of the years’ days. So I don’t want to make any false moves. Fortunately, April 1 this year is on a Thursday, and I don’t teach on those days.

I slept late, which I am trying not to do too much (but I took a chance because I just felt like it), and I woke up feeling lazy and not wanting to be productive at all. I stayed in my pajamas—which are my favorites, by the way: personally monogrammed Land’s End men’s pjs that are three sizes too big. No, unfortunately, sexy lingerie does not inspire me to write.

The TRULY sexy part is the writing. You didn’t know? You better ask somebody, baby.

I puttered around, ate a late breakfast, and then opened up my moleskine notebook (I have a gajillion and I just love them) and started typing out poems I had written in the middle of the night. I wake up from dreams where poems talk to me and then I write what I need to write, and I roll back over and go to sleep. I call it a “poem quickie.” I told y’all it was sexy–and extremely efficient. (Ok, I’m being slightly naughty here.)

After this happens several times in a row, I let the poems marinate on the page and then I start typing and revising.

I won’t post any of these brand new poems, because chances are they are still crappy and need further revisions. But I will post a poem of mine that was just published in a new journal called Cavalier Literary Couture. Isn’t that a sassy name?

For some reason, I thought I had posted this poem before, but when I went back through my posts, I didn’t find it. So, I hope you enjoy it on this second day of April, the second best month of the year! (February, Black History Month, and March, Women’s History Month are, of course, tied for first place.) And just to make sure my mind is not bad and I am not recycling poems, I will post something else in a few days.

Let the poetry madness begin!

PS My poem is a little tongue in cheek. But, like, not much. I was sort of fed up with the “business” of poetry when I wrote this.

Blues: Contemporary American Poetry

I walk away from my spinster’s
body in the mirror,
this lamb I butchered
in the service of the word.

I could have been an accountant.
I could have pleased my mama.
I could be married with three kids by now—
and no student loan debt.

No one’s pretending that thirty
lines will save us anymore.
Metaphors my workshop gave me,
the fire next time doused in a stream:

Around a bush in New England.
A deer with white-socked feet.
Some rain clouds, some strange sex.
An obscure quote by Voltaire.

These are the blues of a mid-list poet
who’s too scared for a mid-life crisis.
I’m too safe to start things over
and too uppity to chase after men.

I’m too sensitive to drink bad liquor
and too poor to afford the good.
The rest of my precious liver
I’m saving for a special occasion.