I taught a poetry workshop for Poets House using “departure” as a way to allow writers to take a different direction; try new things. Everyone has certain ways of seeing, feeling–I know that I do. And any time I am asked to try something different, called to create from another vantage, I embrace the process. But I know it may not work. There is always risk in not making good or hopefully great work. Of having your writing in the company of others who have been deemed valuable. I know that my work is well-regarded and for some deeply admirable. But I am not a prize receiving poet. The New York Times does not know my name. My last book, Painkiller, of which I very proud received like 3 reviews. And yet, I am completing A Lucent Fire: New & Selected Poems for White Pine Press. I would love to get prizes and the monies attached. I would love to get the praise. But my work as a poet has been to keep going despite neglect or rejection–it is not about giving up hope. It is about thinking that maybe in the language I choose to work with, I bring something new, different, engaged to the discourse. I am not glib. I cannot reduce my work to a sound bite–that does not interest me. What does is that thrill of departure-the step towards something possibility familiar, but often completely unknown.
When Elizabeth Alexander asked me to write a poem in response to Jacob Lawrence Migrations series, I was deeply touched. This was not expected and I was not sure of what I’d do; how I’d do it. I had written a poem in response to Lawrence’s “Builders” series-a gorgeous, hopeful group of paintings. That poem was published in Black Renaissance Noire, thanks Quincy Troupe. But this was different and when I was at VCCA this past August, I was able to pull together the strands of thinking about Lawrence’s work and a panel in that celebrated series and make a poem. I will always be grateful to my fellow VCCA residents who heard the poem read aloud for the first time and my good friend Deborah Wood Holton for her insightful first reading. I will read the final version, May 1 at MOMA with Elizabeth, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Tyehimba Jess, Crystal Williams, Nathasa Tretheway, Terrence Hayes, and Kevin Young.
A few days ago I stood in the recording studio at MOMA holding the catalog and marveling at the hard work done to bring Lawrence’s work to a new generation; a large audience. From what I have heard from everyone who worked with him, he was a deeply kind, generous and hard working man. An artist whose gifts are giving with love and great honor to the ancestors. I am grateful to him for showing what vision and work whether quickly seen or gained over a lifetime means. It means that the thrills keep coming year after year after year. The show opens April 3. I hope you go see it and see the work of artists living and gone–depart from your own vision. See where the colors, lines, figures take you–the journey may be long or short, but it will be different.