An Affirmation for This Day: Meditate on Sonia Sanchez

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A few hours ago, I saw a public service ad online about doing something meaningful for September 11th, which, of course, was a horrible day in American history. So on this day, I’ve decided to celebrate my friend and beloved mentor, the renowned African American poet, educator and activist, Dr. Sonia Sanchez.

She celebrated her seventy-ninth birthday two days ago (on September 9th) and continues to bless us with her astounding poems and her courageous, do-right presence in the world. She is one of the most cherished people in my life. I cannot tell you how much I love her.

And, just as a slight, shallow aside, doesn’t she look really beautiful to be seventy-nine years old?! The picture to the right was taken very recently. And I promise you, she’s just as cute in person and she did not buy that hair, okay? It’s all hers, in its thick, wonderful glory. That’s what living a good life and eating a healthy diet can do, y’all.

I met “Miss Sonia” on the page before I’d met her in person, as if the case with many of us “young”—black poets.  She knew my father, as he had been a member of the Black Arts Movement and I had read her germinal volume We a BaddDDD People, which had been published by Broadside Press, the same press (then) of my father.

Sidebar: I don’t know how “young” I am anymore, but I still feel like a girl around Miss Sonia. She can do that to you, and you must always remember your manners around her. At least, I do.

And so, when I finally met her in the flesh in my teens—I was sixteen or seventeen—at a small gathering at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, I was a bit surprised at how tiny Miss Sonia was. I was expecting a much, much bigger person to match the huge voice in her poetry, not the tiny-boned, petite woman I encountered. But she was commanding in an almost overwhelming way when she spoke to me. Her air was one both of graciousness and gravitas.

Thirteen or so years later, I saw her again at Cave Canem, the workshop retreat for African American poets. It was the summer of 1998 in upstate New York, and I believe that in a few years, scholars of black poetry will write about that summer, not because I was there—I’m not being modest, just honest—but because of the collection of black poets who were.

Cave Cavem had been founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, well-known poets. Elizabeth Alexander was there as faculty, as was Lucille Clifton—another woman who became beloved to me—and Michael S. Harper. The author and editor Eugenia Collier was there as special guest. And several of the fellows present that year are published poets now, including Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Shara McCallum, Kate Rushin, John Keene, Reginald Harris, Monica A. Hand, and R. Erica Doyle.

I was walking down the hallway of the monastery (where the retreat was heldthat year) when I approached the open door of Miss Sonia’s room. Out of respect for the privacy of a famous person, I kept my head down and tried to pass, but her voice snagged me.

“Hello, my dear sister,” she called out.

My southern home training required a polite exchange but I didn’t want to act like a “groupie,” nor did I want to trade on her past acquaintance with my father—already, I’d caught some shade from my contemporaries for being a “second” generation black poet. I poked my head in, tentatively.

“Hello, Ms. Sanchez. How are you?”

“I’m well, my dear sister. And you?”

“I’m good, thank you.”

She asked my name. Now, I really was in a quandary, and sure enough, when she heard “Jeffers,” she said, “Ah, Lance’s daughter!” She even remembered our first meeting, over a decade before. I was trapped, sucked into the identity of my father, when I was trying to make a name for my own self.

But the next few days weren’t so bad. In fact, they were life-altering. Her poetry reading that week ties as one of the best I’ve ever experienced—it ties with the one Miss Lucille gave that same week. When Miss Sonia read, it was like being in church. No, it was like being in church during revival week, with a full gospel choir, and fried chicken and lemon pound cake afterward, in the fellowship hall.

Over the years, Miss Sonia has become my good friend and my mentor, and I call her about once a month. Mostly, I pretend I’m calling to “check on” her, but really, I’m just calling to hear that voice, that combination of stern, no-nonsense and tender nurturing.–I remember the first time she said she was proud of me, I burst into tears. Right there on the phone. Yes, I should have been ashamed at my display. But no, I was not. I’d been waiting a long time for her to say those words.

Sometimes, I must admit, I do still marvel that I am sharing conversations and laughter with—and receiving wisdom from—one of my literary heroes, and I do have “groupie” moments, like when she calls The Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison simply “Toni”. My heart sort of stops a couple of seconds every time that happens and I have to suppress a little squeal. I can’t lie. I mean, Toni. Morrison. But mostly, I just love to hear Miss Sonia’s voice and the way she draws out “hey” like a Birmingham, Alabama lady when she knows it’s me on the phone. And how she calls me “my dear sister” and makes me feel, well, dear.

If you don’t know who Miss Sonia is, here are some links for you to “refresh yourself,” in the words of another dear black woman. (My mother.) I hope that Miss Sonia’s words will bless your day the way she blesses mine, whenever I call her and she answers the phone.

Sonia Sanchez’s official website 

Sonia Sanchez’s Wikipedia Page

Information about the Black Arts Movement

And finally, there is a documentary being made about Sonia Sanchez! It promises to be fantastic. Here is the link to the trailer of the film in progress. Enjoy!

Why I'm No Longer A Black Poet

Robert Hayden

“Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet”

………by Reginald Dwayne Betts, ………PR Guest Blogger

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Forgetting is the gift to folks who don’t mind circling the same wagon, year after year, decade after decade. It seems that is the case for black poetry in America, this circling of the wagon, a perpetual seeking of place and definition. How one manages racial identity in these fifty states has become something that can always be mined for content and controversy.

I’m thinking about Robert Hayden and about his position on the infamous question, “Am I a poet, or am I a black poet?”—that “to be or not to be” used to bludgeon African-American men and women who write in America.  It’s what prompted the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee; it was an historic gathering of writers, civil rights workers, and others to discuss the image of the Negro in literature.

At the Conference, the poet Robert Hayden remarked, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it has been given importance it should not have.” His remarks preceded those of Melvin Tolson, who famously went on to proclaim, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet. I’m no accident – and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.”

This contentious encounter is all recorded in the June 1966 issue of Black Digest, and if you aren’t careful, after reading the account of this encounter, you might walk away thinking that Hayden’s and Tolson’s poetics were a world apart. But read a bit of Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia and you will find Tolson doing what Hayden did time and again: write about black folks with a serious sense of wordplay, with panache. Tolson’s poetry makes this public spat over the question all the more interesting, and all the more redundant.

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Melvin Tolson

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The backstory to this is everything Robert Hayden’s writing has taught me: Nat Turner, the Amistad Mutiny, all those figures from the (Detroit) Paradise Valley series, Bessie Smith, the meticulous emotional turmoil that was the Middle Passage, Paul Robeson – all names and historical moments that are but a sample of what I found early on in his verse. I think that I benefited from having read Hayden before I had any real idea that I wanted to be a poet, because at that time I read him alongside Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lucy Terry and countless others, including the anonymous authors of the Spirituals and Work Songs, without yet having a social or historical context.

There is no one that could walk away from the Hayden’s Collected Poems not knowing these poems were soaked in what it meant to be black in America from slavery to beyond the 1960s. Hayden was the guy with narratives, history, myth. He dropped science in a way that the other poets I read just weren’t.

At this point, it’s almost a waste to go into comparisons between Hayden and poets of the Black Arts Movement. Any such comparison would be more about personality, less about poem. And at the end of the day, Hayden maintained an exquisite balance in his poetry, work that didn’t seek to demonize or make heroic the figures that found their way into those poems.  Hayden sought less to grant historic black figures anything (be it humanity or heroism) and more to carve a truth out of words that didn’t exist, exactly that way, before they were written. When I first learned of the Fisk Conference controversy, of Hayden’s not wanting to be referred to as a “black” poet, I hadn’t thought about how naming can be akin to handcuffing.  And frankly, I left that issue alone. I wanted to be black because I already had been black as a failure and so I wanted to be black as a success.

For me, being black, wanting to be a writer, wanting to engage in the world larger than my block and my fears, have been about using color as the first filter. I was the kid who wanted to know why we read Shakespeare in high school and not Chinua Achebe, the kid who read the Stolen Legacy and waxed poetic about how Aristotelian thought was stolen from a library in Egypt. My mind was the constant playing of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—and I had yet to hear the album.

The thing is, you get older. And when I did, I recognized how racial solidarity addled my brain. My obsession with race became more important than the history I didn’t know.

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Langston Hughes

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In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” (1926) published in The Nation, Langston Hughes did not argue for a singular blackness, but I read it that way, missing the part where he wrote, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” No, I was stuck on his chastising Countée Cullen for his desire not to be known as a “Negro poet,” his wanting to be brave where Cullen seemed so awkwardly afraid of his blackness.

This craving worked as gift and detriment for me. And it was silly.  At the time, I viewed black poetry—all black literature—as a kind of service literature. The problem, of course, is that the best of black literature is far more than service, even when the writers are completely devoted to a kind of service. Ultimately, when I am moved to shirk racial symbolism, it’s partly because no one wanted my wearing “race” when I ran wild in the streets, and partly because there is a little dishonesty in the ordeal–as the idea of blackness too often replaces the fact of blackness. And so, a group of black writers who scrape with words to create a world gets reduced to: “X confronts his black identity (or decides to abandon it).”

What has been lost as I enter into present, public conversations about black literature is the myriad ways of conveying blackness. Conversations about “blackness” always overshadow the elements, the sounds, the nuance, the slang and vibrancy that reduce regional distinctions in African America to places where words become worlds. In having discussions about what it means to be a black poet, I forget that my moms went to work at four every morning without having to name herself “black” anything. That my folks, all of them, lived fully in their black skins, and, when need be, discussed racism and dealt with it—but they needed no obsession with adjectives. None of my friends who aren’t writers or reading the books about “post black” use these terms, or talk about them. They talk about the cost of daycare, of healthcare, of rent – and I imagine there is a poet singing his songs right now who only will be noticed for writing “black”—or being black while writing.

All of this returns me to Robert Hayden, whose “blackness” was called into question because he, like Cullen, didn’t want to be relegated to a literary ghetto (like today’s black literature section in popular bookstores). I’ve come to realize that black poets’ racial solidarity has become tantamount to another restraint: our thinking about black poetry has been reduced to how and why we represent racial issues—and our commitment to language has been allowed to fall slack. We will not call it service literature, but we do want it to serve.

I have found access within the black literary community and felt at home, but that community sometimes has looked askance at me when I’ve admitted to feeling at home at largely white institutions, too. As the saying goes, I am “the Negro of the moment.”—And yes, there is a trace of truth to this saying, but the idea behind it is corrupt and corrupting. Am I to understand the entire history of literature and black folks in America as merely a succession of chosen Negroes?

What is apparent is that the erasing of history that goes on is layered and complex. If you aren’t careful someone will dress you in a beret and an Afro pick before your first good line is written, or they will have you referring to your complexion as a mere coincidence.  It’s all from the same bag, a not-so subtle-way to erase the nuance out of you.

Sometimes the black community that raised me is a far cry from the community represented in the work I read, often the work I write. Sadly, many of the people who are my “black” peers display an overwhelming gap in information. But our poems dance. They dance before a crowd that has no sense of literary tradition. (Or does). They dance before those most concerned (if concerned at all) with what moves them, and little else.

And at a time when we black poets must demand our presence be acknowledged, must scrap and badger with decision makers and power holders of largely white institutions, we have survived, in large part, due to racial solidarity.  Yet, this same solidarity has now lead to a climate where to criticize the work of another black writer is tantamount to racial treason.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe these aren’t real issues issue at all.

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I want to say I stopped being a black poet when I discovered that black poets had the audacity to question Robert Hayden’s authenticity—but the truth is that it is deeper than that. The truth is I have found myself longing to be fuller in my own skin, to dismiss the rhetoric that surrounds what it means to be a black poet and find a way to write a poetry that better reflects the sounds I hear in my sleep, the sounds I hear when I walk down the streets that are most familiar with me – and the sounds that I hear when I am in a strange place filled with black faces.

At the Fisk Conference, Robert Hayden ended his speech by saying the blackest thing ever said at an academic conference (at least to me). Speaking to those whom he expected to disagree with him, Hayden remarked, “Baby, that’s your problem, not mine.”

With that statement, he took it back to where the truth always exists: don’t listen to what a person calls him- or herself, just listen to what is said when the guards are down. And the proof is always in the poems, because if your guards aren’t down when you go to that necessary place, then you were lying before you even started.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes!

Today, I want to say Happy Birthday to Mr. Langston Hughes. I think there’s something very appropriate about his birthday starting off Black History Month/Afropalooza and I hope you do, too.

Langston Hughes is just The Man.  And really, that’s what this blog post is about, how fabulous Mr. Hughes was/is.  This is Black History Month, yes, but this also is a blog for grown people who I hope can do their own reading. But I will say that Langston Hughes—along with Zora Neale Hurston, who I must get to sometime during the course of this month—is the most well known creative writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

To read about the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement that produced several geniuses—or, I should say, several geniuses produced the Harlem Renaissance—click here.

Because I’m doing a bit of writing on the Harlem Renaissance for my real job, I’m going to focus on some of the figures of that time in the next twenty-eight days. Did you know this is leap year? Not only is Black History Month my favorite month, but leap years are my favorite years because I get one extra day to Afropalooza!

Sidebar: Yes, Afropalooza is both a verb and a noun. When I make up words, they are multifunctional, like pig meat grease. Tell me something.

And if you want to read an extensive biography of him and the gajillion books Mr. Hughes published—I told you he was The Man—please click here. This is the best bio I’ve read of him so far.  It’s really excellent.

So let’s get to why I love Langston Hughes so much.

Like many African Americans of my generation, I learned to recite poetry by memorizing Langston Hughes’s poetry as a child in elementary school. I attended Fayetteville Street Elementary in Durham, North Carolina, a bastion of Black History in its own right.  North Carolina Central University was there—formerly North Carolina College at Durham—and the wealthy Spaldings lived in Durham; they were the founders (in 1898) of the first African American life insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance. I was in a Brownie troupe with one of the Spalding descendants; my mother was extremely proud of telling people that, too, much to my embarrassment.

And I know that some of my Black readers know at least one Langston Hughes poem by heart. Who can forget “Mother to Son,” the favorite poem of female talent show contestants at predominately African American high schools and colleges across this country? All I need is to recite the first five words, and many Black folks can recite the next eight words.

Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

And I don’t know one Black poet who doesn’t know “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” I can’t recite by memory the entire poem, but I bet you any Black poet can tell you the last lines of the poem.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

By the way, it’s because of Langston Hughes that I developed a fondness for colons in my poetry! I just love a colon in a poem. It’s really cute on the page, don’t you know.

To honor Mr. Langston Hughes Otherwise Known As The Man, I am posting my favorite ever poem by him.  The poem is called “The Weary Blues” and it’s the title of Mr. Hughes first published book.

I could tell you why I love it, but then again, I can’t. I just do. And I don’t want to find reasons. It’s like loving a person. It’s just a feeling inside, and I don’t care if no one else approves. That’s that real love.

And guess what?  I found out that I can actually purchase “The Weary Blues” collaboration of Langston Hughes and Charles Mingus! You know I cannot live any longer without owning that collaboration. My life will not be complete without it.  I’m ordering it today.

Here’s a link to podcast about the Hughes/Mingus collaboration. And here’s the poem below.

The Weary Blues

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Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
……I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
……He did a lazy sway . . .
……He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
……O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
……Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
……O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan–
……“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
…….Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
…….I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
…….And put ma troubles on the shelf.”

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more–
……“I got the Weary Blues
…….And I can’t be satisfied.
…….Got the Weary Blues
…….And can’t be satisfied–
…….I ain’t happy no mo’
…….And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

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Reginald Dwayne Betts: Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting

Hey Y’all:

I’m so excited to introduce Reginald Dwayne Betts, who has joined PhillisRemastered as a regular guest blogger!

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.

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“Black Poetry, the Night, and Notes on Forgetting”

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The fourth of July weekend, 1997, found me bracing myself for cuffs once again. Already in prison I was headed for a cell all my own, a little spot in C Building to celebrate my lack of freedom. The reason I was going to the hole isn’t as important now as it was then, the invented assault on an officer charge then a way to demonstrate how little control I had over my own life and now a point of humor.

The only relevant part is that I ended up in that single cell on the bottom floor, in the summer time when the heat was so oppressive that men would strip naked and lay on the small plastic covered mattress with a cup or two of water poured over them. A makeshift cold bath. Nothing of the situation had me expecting my life would change, nothing of the situation expected me to find the one thing I’d get from prison and hold on to forever, as if it were some life line.

This was my second time in the hole, and I’d already learned that with a book I could deal with my cell door never opening. Quickly I learned that despite the library cart not coming to the hole there were hundreds of books back there. Books that were read and passed on, having either been brought back there by people who had time to think before they were hauled off to solitary, or snuck back there by guards and the housemen who worked those hallways, passing out our meals, cleaning showers and sweeping the hallways under the not so careful watch of the C/Os.

One day I stood at the steel grill of my cell door, and shouted down the hallway for a book, any book, to read. Moments later Dudley Randall’s “The Black Poets” was tossed under my cell. Up until this point I’d never heard of Robert Hayden, of Lucille Clifton, of Sonia Sanchez. I’d never heard of Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and so many others. You were expected to read the books and pass them on–so I began copying poems long hand in a little blue folder. And this is how I became a poet.

This is also why when I think about poetry, when I hear people saying that poetry saved their lives, I imagine it to be true. What I learned when I came home is writing can exist in a superficial way in the lives of those who claim to love it, that it could be reduced to arguments that did little to advance the art, little to interrogate the art, but much to lift the intellectual status of the arguer. I found myself in those same conversations, sometimes leading them.

It has all been a manner of forgetting what it was like when the stakes were so high that the frivolities of my own criticism were lost in my pursuit of the poem that didn’t need me to criticize it. Back then I knew two poets, and didn’t talk about poetry much to anyone, and it was enough. Now I know scores of poets, and talk about poetry often, and it is often not nearly the bread it was before.

II.

A few days ago, maybe a little longer, a friend of mine told me that I was a poet in the MFA generation. I had no real idea what “the MFA generation” was, but in retrospect understood some of what he was saying. We, a generation of writers who became writers under the academia sponsored tutelage of other writers, our readings directed and in some ways predicated on the institutions we went to, are susceptible to having gaps in our hearings. Which is to say gaps in the writers who we have been encouraged to take as literary mentors.

The argument is that for the black writer, this is more troubling, because if one is to accept the authority of the institutions that degree us, one must, almost, also accept that barring any reclamation projects (i.e. Zora Neale Hurston) that the writers of color who were not acknowledged as writers by this hugely generalized beast called academia are not writers of quality.

He misses the point though, because even where he is correct, it isn’t the fault of the institution that we forget writers. Writers have and always will be forgotten. Alan Dugan won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his first collection of poems and I can’t recall any poet ever mentioning him to me. I went through undergrad at a fine institution without once reading Steinbeck or Faulkner, while majoring in English. I also didn’t read many writers of color outside of classes that fell under the rubric of African American studies. But this is besides the point. My friend, fine writer that he is, has chosen (in this brief conversation) to advocate agitation over the work.

I am not a poet of the “MFA generation,” if there is any such thing. I understand that it is a clever way of framing a conversation about all that literature in America lacks, but in the end it fails to discuss what is vibrant, or even what one can do about the missing pieces, or why the missing pieces are important.

Regardless, I am a poet of prison, which is to say that if you have been to prison you might understand fully how almost every conversation for me appears a sort of circling the wagon, of returning to some point where the nights were bleak and what I saw out of my window was barbed wire. I blame those nights for making me a poet, and blame those nights for introducing to Neruda and Knight, to Brooks, Alexander, Baraka and Hemingway.

All of which is to say that I was introduced to authors by my own whim, and am a bit disappointed in what I’ve forgotten, disappointed in how some of what drove me to want to write has been dismissed by writers and writing programs I have been a part of without me acknowledging that those poems carried something that drove me. We should be disappointed in what we forget and what others fail to acknowledge, but the idea that it is not totally our duty to do the remembering (in ways that move beyond critique and complaint) strikes me as naive.

In 1997, the second collection of poems I purchased was Michael Harper’s anthology Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep. I remember reading a poet in there, Sherley Anne Williams. She first gave me the idea to write poem as epistle. Just a few days ago I was searching for her name, and couldn’t find a trace of those poems anywhere on line. I did find a Sherley Anne Williams who wrote “The Peacock Poems,” but wasn’t sure if that was her. A friend pointed me to the journal Callaloo, where her series of poems (the series I remembered) “Letters From A New England Negro” were published.

Williams’s first collection The Peacock Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award when it was published. Yet, her name too, I have not heard mentioned, have not mentioned myself. So now, as a free man, with a wealth of friends who are writers, I find it harder to discover and rediscover poetry that I should love than I did when I was in prison. And I ask myself why, and I’m convinced that the problem, if there is a problem, is that black poets have been tricked into believing that there is this homogenous thing called the “black community.”

And so we imagine that we get what we need, we must get what we need, because we are in this community. But we lack—and we bicker, and we complain. And while those these are great, and are indeed vital, we (this fictitious, homogenous whole) seem not to remember with the same ferociousness that we bemoan the forgetting. And then we fail to discover why we do this. Or to remember.

None of this is to argue I’m innocent in any of this. I think it’s to say that in prison I hoped to find a community where I could raise my children, and they would say with pride that, “Such and such used to come by my dad’s house, it would be him, him, her and her and they would be talking about poems and drinking and cursing and laughing.”

That my children would say this and be amazed each time that they thought about it how vibrant the arts community I was apart of was/is—and my biggest failure as a poet is that I have not worked to create that kind of community around myself, being far too concerned with the trappings of national recognition than the happiness of true community.

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Why I Love Phillis Wheatley's Word

As anyone who has had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes knows, I am writing a book of poems on the 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, imagining her life and times in colonial New England.

What some folks don’t know is why I started writing the book in the first place, why I thought Miss Phillis would be someone that I would dedicate years researching and writing about. And yes, it has been three years now. That’s just how much I love her and her world.

Just last week, I published an essay about my journey to Miss Phillis in Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:

As a student at two historically African American colleges during the early 1980s, I was taught Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, but my professors’ implicit message was that black folks had the responsibility to read her because of her historical status as an African American “first.” Not one of my professors ever mentioned we should read Wheatley because of her artistic merit as a poet. It was stressed to me that Wheatley was neither a political revolutionary nor a “real” poet with any recognizable talent. And frankly, I agreed; based upon my reading of Wheatley’s most well-known poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” and its then-troubling first line—”‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land”—I dismissed her poetry for over twenty years.

You can read the rest of the essay over at Common-Place by clicking this link.

Now, I hear y’all saying, “Why would I want to read an essay? That’s, like, completely boring.”

Well, y’all know me: I always stir the pot and start some controversy wherever I go. I don’t know why I’m such a troublemaker. I really, really try to be well-behaved, but it never ends up that way.  In the essay, I start a little trouble, and also, I reveal a piece of never-before published information concerning Phillis Wheatley research as well. And you KNOW you want to know what info is!

You can read some poems, too from the manuscript in progress. Even if you don’t like poetry, you know you’re nosy enough to want to see whether I’ve got skills or not.:-) So click this link to read the brand new Phillis Wheatley poems, too. I hope y’all like them. If you don’t, let me know and why in the comments section. I may not follow your advice on the poetry, but this work isn’t set in stone yet and I am always open to criticism.

The Sister-Poet Numbers: Count Number Two

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a Black male poetry colleague of mine, Major Jackson, and how I felt as if he erased me from Black poetry history in an interview in Poets and Writers; he mentioned attending the very first retreat of Cave Canem African American Poets in 1996, but only mentioned the two other men (besides himself) to attend that year and to publish poetry books. He did not mention me, the only woman out of the first group of 1996 Cave Canem fellows to have made an ongoing career in poetry. I felt the oversight was, well, sexist.

That blog post–Count Number One in the Black Poetry World– set off a firestorm. Actually, “fire” is not the right first syllable of that word, but as you know I try not to curse on the blog. (In real life is another story.)  After the post, I was attacked for criticizing Major Jackson; criticizing Cave Canem, the most influential Black poetry organization there is out there; and just generally being a Black-male-poet-hating, evil heifer who needed several bouts of therapy, a good drink– and some good something else, too.

Surprise.

I will admit that I have been vocal over the years by what I have viewed as favoritism in the Black poetry world for the Brother-poets. And I’m one of only a few Sisters who will make those charges in public—and in print. I’m not counting whispering as “public.”

I don’t criticize other Sisters for not being vocal, though; it’s understandable when they remain silent, considering the attacks that have been leveled against me recently. Not that I can’t handle them. Let’s be clear about that. But I have had some serious support from some Sister-writers, some White women writers, and actually a few Brothers, too. And, of course, my mama. And that support makes me stronger.

So those Sisters who remain silent out of fear don’t bother me.–No, the ones who bother me are the Sisters who join in on the attacks. And there were several to do that. And the ones who really bother me are those who have ribbed me up to talk about these issues of sexism and then desert me when I need some backup.

Sidebar: I gotta tell you, nothing is more annoying than Black women who encourage my “courageous truth-telling spirit” in my poetry and then, they don’t understand that what happens in real life is, like, the truth.

Okay?

But the talk of sexism against women writers of all complexions in the “mainstream” writing world—not just poetry– has been all over the blogosphere lately.

Slate.com has run several pieces, one just recently by Meghan O’Rourke.

And yesterday, Cate Marvin and Carol Muske-Dukes published another piece.

Last week in Huffington Post, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner talked about the way that reviewers at the most prestigious publications (especially the New York Times Book Review) ignore women writers when it comes to reviews.

Weiner said the following:

‎The [NY]Times tends to pick white guys [to review]. Usually white guys living in  Brooklyn or Manhattan, white guys who either have MFAs or teach at MFA programs…white guys who, I suspect, remind the Times’ powers-that-be of themselves, minus twenty years and plus some hair.

And there are several women writers associated with the fabulous, sassy women writers’ site vidaweb.org who have joined the discussion, too. The poets Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin are the co-founders, and they are in the midst of compiling a count of how many women of all complexions have won prestigious awards, etcetera. They are still tallying up those numbers.

However, I want to help the conversation by looking at the numbers of African American female poets, too; surely, this is a very specific target group, but it is my specific target group, after all. Now, I’d like to include the numbers for Sister fiction writers as well but I need help with that. So any of my readers who are Sister-fiction writers and who don’t mind being public on this issue–because I’m not gone work with somebody in private–just give me a holler. I will be so grateful.

So, I decided to start with one of the most prestigious fellowships there is, the Fine Arts Work Center of Provincetown, Massachusetts. FAWC gives you an eight-month fellowship which includes a monthly stipend and a rent-free place to stay, including utilities.

Now let’s talk about the numbers. Here goes.

Did you know that in the entire forty-one year history of the Fine Arts Work Center—since they started admitting writers and not just visual artists—there  have only been eight Black poets to have won this prestigious fellowship?

And did you know that not one of those eight Black poets are female?

That’s right, no Black women poet has ever been a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center.  If you can tell me differently, please leave a comment below.  I went through the entire list, but I may not have recognized a name. There is always a chance that I made a mistake. You can read the list here.

[NOTE: On 9/16/10 A Facebook Friend pointed out that I was wrong that not one Black woman poet has won. Donna K. Rushin–who goes by “Kate Rushin” now– won thirty-three years ago and was in residence 1977-78. And Brenda Marie Osbey won a year-long FAWC fellowship twenty-three years ago and was in residence from 1987-88. Thus, it has been twenty-three years since a Black woman poet has won a year-long fellowship at FAWC. Not quite as bad as “never” but still, that’s pretty bad. ]

Here are the names of all the Black male poets I could locate who have been fellows at FAWC:

1980 Yusef Komunyakaa

1982 Cyrus Cassells

1991 Timothy Seibles

1995 Thomas Sayers Ellis

1999 Ronaldo Wilson

2000 Major Jackson

2004 Tyehimba Jess

2007 John Murillo

[Second update 9/16/10 One of my readers just let me know in the comments that there is a new Black male poet who is currently a 2010-2011 Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center. His name is Marcus Wicker.]

I want to be clear about why I think this information matters. First,  if you go to the FAWC website and you look at the list of names, you will recognize some of the most famous and canonized poets in American poetry. The Fine Arts Work Center provides an entry into the elite, top-tier group of American Poets. Here’s what they say on the website.

Past Fellows have won virtually every major national award in their respective fields, including the Pulitzer, MacArthur, Whiting, Pollock-Krasner, Tiffany, Prix de Rome, Guggenheim, NEA, and National Book Award.

Those writing awards listed above come with a lot of money, money that could buy you time to take off from your job to write your book, while still paying your rent, your bills,  and the weekly charge for your babies’ daycare.

Get the picture? Those that get these type of awards are usually more productive writers than those of us who don’t. Then you can use those awards to barter for a raise if you are teaching in academia–so you finally pay off your student loans with the capitalizing interest. So wanting these awards is not about “classism” or “elitism.” It’s about survival of the productive artist. Believe that.

Second, I don’t have some personal beef that makes me perversely keep bringing this stuff out. I’m concerned about why Black women poets don’t get the same attention as Black male poets and since I’m a Black woman and a poet, sure, this is personal, but it’s not some beef, it’s some politics.

However, I also want to be clear that, just because Black males get the lion’s share of attention, that’s still very little attention overall for Black poets.

That said, though, I don’t think it’s fair to expect us Sisters to keep quiet and wait–and wait and wait– just so the Brothers can go first and get their little bit before us. I don’t think it’s fair, especially when I hear very few of the Brother-poets I know–like, three, out of  hundreds– speaking up for Sisters and against Black male privilege in the poetry world in public and in print.

Again, whispering does not count as public, especially if that’s your “sensitive, conscious” rap when you’re trying to impress a Sister to get yourself some. Sugar, please. That’s a game from a dusty player’s handbook left in the attic of a minor poet of the Black Arts Movement.

Anyway, how many well-known, powerful Black male poets are mentoring Black female poets right now–writing them letters of recommendation for jobs and large-purse fellowships, writing blurbs for the backs of their books, giving them the inside information they need to further their careers along, talking to editors at their prestigious New York presses to get those women published, “walking” those women’s poems over to the best journals, and mentioning their names in interviews in high profile magazines as the “poets to watch”?

How many Black male poets are standing by us Sisters?

Because just about every Sister-poet I know is working with a Brother-poet  and helping to nurture his career in some kind of way, and throwing every bit of influence she has behind him. But that’s what we’ve always done in some capacity in this community for Black men. We’ve always looked out for them. Why should the poetry world be any different?

[Stay tuned for Count Number Three of Black Women Poets. Come on—you know you want to know!]