Maya Angelou-thank you


photo by Patricia Spears Jones–rail road crossing Forrest City, Arkansas

this morning I was listening to the BBC, sending out a quick announcement to may email list and prepping for a difficult day at the college I teach in when the plummy voice of the BBC announcer said that American poet Maya Angelou has passed.  Maya Angelou looms large in African American and American letters.  So I change some of the what I said to family and friends:   I have to say this:  Maya Angelou, who just passed away-she was 88 was the first poet that I found out was from Arkansas.  If you grow up in the Delta, you don’t even think of Arkansans as poetic, much less of people who can write poetry.  That knowledge helped me understand that I could make work from where I was from and where I wanted to go or tried to go.  I THANK HER FOR THAT.

Most people have no idea of how isolated Arkansas can be especially for Black people.  Most of us are in the Delta–part of the 50 counties that make up one of the most fertile places on the planet and one of the most violent and volatile places in the nation.  But much of the history of the state is covered over, razed–places where lynchings took place simply removed.  Silence, fear and alienation are as common asf family bonds, community pride and courtesy.  Bad jokes, marching bands and the ability to drive fast are part of what I grew up with–now there are gang signs along with professionalism–the library that I could not use as a child is now headed by an energetic Black woman. Arkansas is a place where Black people will themselves into a better place because there is little support for their efforts.  So we are often the unlikely pioneers:  The Little Rock Nine; boycotts in Marianna; farmers fighting to keep their land.  Maya was there during the Depression in another part of the state–a time when my own mother was a young and she witnessed a lynching.   The women and men who grew up and learned to find their way as humans in this world powerfully testify to a deep spirit and great courage.  I can only imagine the depth of despair many felt and the utter desire to make the world a much better place which they went about doing in small or big ways as Ms. Angelou did.  The debt to them is almost unpayable.

I saw Ms. Angelou perform in the late 80s and she was extraordinary.  She was tall and handsome and commanding and she had a voice that could either thrill the ears or freeze the heart depending on what she had to say.  As she aged she took some odd turns about things that I did not uderstand–the support of Mike Tyson for instance. But that was her way of remaining engaged in the currents of this nation.  I am sure that she like every other Black Southerner over the age of 40 was totally amazed with Obama’s election.  None of us saw that coming.  
Her book I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS which chronicled the daily challenges Blacks faced living in Arkansas, in the South in last decades of segregation should be read by every American.  Every last one including the people who most likely would continue the awful practices that were so intensely corrosive and oppressive.  And her description of how and why her voice return is a powerful statement about the NECESSITY OF ART, OF LITERATURE OF A LIFE OF THE MIND.
I salute her as a PHENOMENAL WOMAN who made the lives of many poor Black girls like me seem so much richer, textured and important.   She gave us that push into public spaces that we were not supposed to be.  REST IN POWER MAYA ANGELOU

First Mother’s Day w/out Mother

On Mother’s Day I called my brother, then my sister.  I got myself together.  I went to Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Park Slope.  The day was startling  beautiy.  Sky cloudless.  Air warm.  Many people carrying flowers–mostly men and children.

I have not always appreciated the solemnity of Mother’s Day.  I am one to send cards and when flush, bouquets and such.  But this is the first one in which I am not carrying the red carnations–a custom known in the South and I think in many places: red for living; white for dead.  I took the white carnation.  I felt a great deal of heaviness.  I saw many other white carnations. Much mother loss in the church.

I did not carry my white carnation from church, but left it in the garden because I think that is where it belonged. many of my fellow parishioners were also carrying white carnations. but there were new moms there too with their chubby legged children making noise during service the circle opens and closes. opens and closes.


photo by Patricia Spears Jones


Black tulle and brilliant hued gems–thanks Sandra Payne brief update

Cover art by Sandra Payne

Cover art by Sandra Payne

THANKS TO SANDRA PAYNE for making work even while facing many personal and family challenges–through it all she focused on beauty and some of that became the cover for my poetry collection.  I am blessed with brilliant, talented, dedicated friends.

0508141659 Today started gloomy-as if Spring wanted to show that yes it can get chilly and gray and oh so not fun again.  So what to do-well I had an appointment to see work by Sandra Payne.  I’ve known Sandra since the late 1970s’s/early 1980s and we’ve both seen NYC change in some ways for the good/in some ways for the bad.  C’est la vie!  One thing we have in common w/ a number of Black American and African Diasporic artists is Just Above Midtown Gallery run by the incomparable Linda Bryant, at one time the only contemporary art space devoted to Blacks and other people of color in Tribeca.  David Hammons, Senga Nengundi, Lorraine O’Grady, all manner of later to be famous folk got their first major gallery shows there.  There were sightings of DeNiro (never saw him), et al.  But mostly there was a powerful committed to conceptualism by Blacks and installation work and stuff that wasn’t seen as “Black” i.e. THE AVANT GARDE.  As someone who had been in the East Village from day one of my journey in NYC, I was used to Bohemia, to conceptualism, to installation, performance art–it was simply refreshing to see the artists be pretty much the same color as me!

So back to Sandra–she’s an artist who has been working in a combination of the accretted–elaborate manipulated sculpture pieces made of colored aluminum or collages that explore our fascination w/ luxery items: pearls, jewels in patterns and colors that seem like an explosion of displays from Cartier, Tiffany’s or DeBeers.  And then there are the items from the natural world-driftwood and minerals and feathers–what she does with peacock feathers is magical.  This in an apartment the size of a NYC EV studio, but one w/ high ceilings (thank God for height) so there are cabinets of wonders–each time she opened a drawer, it was a surprise.  And she has collections of mid-century Americana; Black memorabilia; copper utensils; and beautiful boxes with items that will one day find a way to be exhibited in just the way she wants them to be.  Years ago, I saw a work of hers which alas could not be reproduced for a book cover, but it was of a circle of black tulle with different hued gems–a kind of storm of desire.   Her capacity to organize all of these materials and make a space that is comfortable and full of delight is why she is so very special to we who are her friends and admirers.

My visit was to see work that may (hopefully) adorn the cover of my new and selected which may be called The Perfect Lipstick or The City Proper or  At the Fringe of Town–don’t know just yet.  So today’s outside gloom was met with explosions of beauty, radiance, commentary on African American history–didn’t talk about her use of Black memoriabilia–and I am so grateful that she is one of the artists that were part of that unruly band that started out at Just Above Midtown.  She may not be as known as many of her compadres from back in the day, but she is deeply committed to making work of intense beauty and wit.  I am really looking forward to what is on that cover for my White Pine Press volume.

May is here, but April was amazing

Before April–I had the great pleasure of reading from my new book, Living in the Love Economy at Berl’s Poetry Shop with Erica Hunt and Anselm Berrigan, two great poets and very good friends.  Joey Infante, et al brought my vision for this collection to a bright fruition.  I am so very proud of it  and the chapbook Swimming to America, from Red Glass Books  both serves as a platform to my New & Selected coming out in 2015 from White Pine Press.


As I’ve often said, April is Cruel to Poets Month–there were so many readings and so little time esp if you are a poet!  So I did my best. Heard Cyrus Cassells in conversation with Charif Shanahan at NYU. It was a lively and reflective dialogue after a fine reading by Cyrus.  It was great to hear him talk about finding his voice after early and high praise. His new poems are taking even more lyric leaps.

Earlier in the month, went to the CUNY housed Chapbook Festival.  My new chapbook, Living in the Love Economy was on display and sold!  Song Cave, CUNY’s brilliant Lost & Found series-a must have for serious poetry scholars and readers–and of course Overpass Books were there.   Amiel Alcalay, et al read and discussed the latest Lost & Found series including 2 booklets of Adrienne Rich’s writing about teaching at CUNY in the SEEK program.

Brenda Hillman was in town and I got to hear her read at Berl’s Poetry Shop with Evelyn Reilly–a great evening brought to us by Belladonna Collaborative.

And finally, it was really wonderful to attend A Painter and His Poets: The Art of George Schneeman at Poets House on April 26.  Maureen Owen was in town from Denver; Bill Berkson, co-curator from Boston, Alice Notley in from Paris, and Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin, et al from NYC.  Padgett who was the other c0-curator was an affable presenter and the readings and comments conjured a world where spontaneity and chance were as much a part of collaboration as talent and the ability to take risks.  In an era where folks are waiting for funding for . . . these poets worked with a painter who was open to words as they were open to his artistic vision.


Maureen Owen & Bob Holman, Poets House

Maureen Owen & Bob Holman, Poets House

I read in very disperate events:  the Ruth Malaczech Art & Impact event at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at CUNY Grad Center where the living members of Mabou Mines and other avant garde theater people discussed the life and art of the great actress and founding member of Mabou.  The Reading of the Inferno by Dante at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Maundy Thursday organized by Marilyn Nelson–saw some wonderful friends and it ended before midnight!   And  an Alice Notley  tribute reading for the Downtown Literary Festival; and finally for Nita Noveno and Sara Lippman’s fine series, the Sunday Salon with Terence Degnan, et al.  They posted a video.

And now it’s May–the sun is shining FINALLY and on May1, I saw photographs from The Birmingham Project by Dawoud Bey at The Mary Boone Gallery on Fifth Avenue.  Bey has grown as an articulate and fierce documentary photographer of the Black Experience.  His artistry is at its best in these works that were done in Birmingham in response to the legacy of the Black Alabamans who struggled for civil and human rights and the children who now live in the city.  It is a major work and should be seen and housed in a major museum and soon.

Carrie Mae Weems and Sandra Payne at Dawoud Bey's exhibition.

Carrie Mae Weems and Sandra Payne at Dawoud Bey’s exhibition.