No to the New Normal

I am about to return to California, to be part of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley’s Poetry Staff.  I am honored to work along side Robert Hass, Brenda Hillman, Cathy Park Hong Sharon Olds Kazim Ali and Juan Felipe Herrera.  There will be a benefit for the Community in Berkeley, CA on Friday, Jun 17. for ticket prices, details.  The event will honor the late C.D. Wright, a great poet and a fellow Arkansan.  She’d be pleased I think.

The past few days have been deeply challenging to anyone of any sensitivity or charity.  Almost every day where are mass shootings when 4 or more people are harmed or killed-the shooting at Pulse was an extreme of this new normality.  I grew up in the South where there were plenty of guns, but even back in the day this kind of daily murder was simply not even known, not exceptable.  Clearly it must be since a majority of Americans claim they must have guns to kill other Americans?  Toddlers, mothers, baby brothers, hair salon owners, war veterans, grandmothers, Congressional Representatives, high school football players,  first graders, drag queens, policemen, police women, clowns, and cabinetmakers are shot each and every day. This is the new normal.  I DO NOT LIKE THE NEW NORMAL.

Right now the Congressional Democrats are throwing the political equivalent of a hissy fit because time and time again, they have tried to get a bill banning assault rifles to be discussed and time and time again Paul Ryan and the GOP mouth platitudes and DO NOTHING.  So have that tantrum.  We need those kinds of tantrums for the American people instead of the other kind where all of America’s problems are laid at the hands of an ethnic group and religion–sounds like Anti semitism to me, but it is now Islamophobia.  Either way, it is awful.  We need less racism, not more.

I hope that by November, Americans will think and vote their thoughtfulness and not their awfulness–this anger fear and name calling only makes us weaker and less honored.  Why are we not aiming for our best?  America is great.  It is strong.  I have two nephews–one works many jobs in Texas to take care of his family (wife, son, step sons, daughters) and one has finished college and has started training to be a full-time cop.  They are part of why America is great.  Not again, but now.  That truly is one way to demand a better Normal.  In November count your blessings, not your problems.  Problems will always show up.  Blessings are the grace from living.

brash and bold–Giants go home, June 4, 2016

What a strange day– Muhammed Ali’s death while not unexpected is unsettling–it is as if the heavens are demanding the giants return and so one by one they return. that even Soul Cycle had a sign saying RIP says how large Ali loomed over the collective consciousness.

Tribute sign, SoHo

Tribute sign, SoHo

I saw him once in 1970 when as a college student I went to a Black Expressions conference in Indiana. He was just about to get back his position-he had been stripped of his championship–and he was speaking at the conference. He was magnetic, unbelievably handsome (yes that pretty) and I’ve never seen men so lit up by any other man. They had grown up with brash, bold “poet” who had innovated boxing. Truly he was the alpha male. And he loved being one.
Ali was no saint. His cruelty towards Joe Frazier was awful and there were always rumors about his womanizing. But he was deeply principled and his stance against the War in Viet nam led to his conviction of draft dodging and the loss of his title–this when he was 25 years old. He will be forever a symbol of what it means to be brash, bold, gorgeous, but also spiritual and moral and deeply principled who could come back and triumph again.

So, considering Ali’s joining the ancestors, I returned from a venture into Manhattan which more and more seems like Fantasyland for White people (mostly) and global tourists, it was odd to encounter another  moment of audacious sadness.

Here in Bed-Stuy, Spike Lee has organized a Prince born day party at Bed-Stuy Plaza. Many people in purple t-shirts were celebrating Prince’s born day, even as we all digest the news that he died from an opiod–how Midwestern. The irony of my book title Painkiller is that every time I’ve been prescribed them, I throw away 90% of the pills and believe me I hate pain. Clearly Prince pushed his body beyond what his 57 year old self should do and his body gave it up. And Ali’s Parkinson came from the great feats he did as a boxer. Both men were bold and it is a combination of boldness and spirituality that marks them.

There are plenty of bold guys right now, but they seem so extraordinarily empty–their boldness, their in your faceness, their twitter feeds do not add up to anything that literally changes the way a sport is played or music created/produced–they don’t invent, they just shift things from one side of the room to the other. Prince was intensely creative in ways that many are still trying to come to terms with.  Moreover, he explored in real time a range of ways to be masculine that few even dared to try–only Bowie strikes me as being that openly fluid, but then again he was white and British.  Prince’s passing was not expected, he was still a “young” i.e. middle-aged man. Maybe that is why Ali’s passing is unsettling. He lived a life filled with innovation in his sport; a powerful spiritual journey; a deep love of Black people; and the ability to learn from his many mistakes and finally the ability to sustain family. His essence was strong and it was that essence that could take him around the globe, always Muhammed Ali. ‪#‎boldandbrash‬

what perseverance brings aka poem with “legs”

broadside Kelly Writers House

broadside Kelly Writers House

Today I received this beautiful broadside from Kelly Writers House, for my program on April 21.  The poem, “Self-Portrait with Shop Window” is in A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems.  It is one of the poems that was not published, indeed it was rejected several times.  But I knew that it was a powerful poem and represented my work at its most complicated and so Dennis Maloney agreed that it should be in the collection  And now, it is in Best American Experimental Writing 2o16 from Weslayan U. Press– edited by Charles Bernstein and Tracie Morris.

Sometimes you have a poem, a song, a play, a book that seems to find no love in the current marketplace.  It could be that your ideas are just ahead of  or seemingly behind everybody elses.  Who knows.  But if you really think that poem, song, play or book is worth the talent, the time, the effort it took for you to make it–well that’s where perseverance is what you have to have.  Poetry, art making may be easy for those who are clever, but for most of us it is challenging, enthralling, mind enhancing or mind blowing depending and you just have to honor that crazy love for your work and keep on pushing.

I enjoyed the way the Kelly House artists selected parts of the poem and highlighted its fragmentations.  Now my home has a large and beautiful broadside of this complex poem.  I love where it is placed in A Lucent Fire.  I love that it will be in Best American Experimental Writing.  I loved the poem has legs.

no ice tea; some lemonade

I don’t really have anything to add or subtract from the ongoing Lemonade discourses.  I do  salute the ambition of a Black pop singer who clearly has an eye for innovative video and cinematic art.  But I must say it is fascinating to see the kind of exegesis done on something not 3 weeks old.  Whole dissertations have been launched given the lengths that some folk have gone through parsing every color, angle and possibly ripped off image. le sigh.  After reading bell hooks comments & some of the pushback, I wrote on Facebook:

I think it is perfectly fine to not agree with major public intellectuals. I think that some folk don’t even know or care about “intersectionality”; “empowerment” or a host of other such words. I do know some women who would never call themselves feminists or womanists for that matter, but they work in this world like every obstacle in their way esp. ones put up by men must be knocked down and so they do. Is the patriarchy going to be destroyed? Is the matriarchy going to be destroyed? I keep reading posts about how this that and the other will, must go and have been for like 40 years and yet this that and the other are still here. Not saying don’t try to make change, just saying we may be at the beginning of that shift, but it will be generations hence that will reap the benefits (what ever those may be).

Today on the Brian Lehrer program after a discussion of the phrase “political correctness” and how its use has morphed over the past 4 decades, Sherman Alexie came on to discuss his most recent efforts focused on naming. Names are important and often what trips me up by fellow Black intellectuals is the lack of names–“the black body”; “the black male body” “the aestheticized black body” are just some of those phrases.  Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland all have names.  They are dead from police or police wannabe generated violence. It is hard to think of them as “bodies.”  But then, my take is an outlier to many intellectual gestures,  well-considered and well-crafted and I value being the contrarian.  Names and naming are important.  And when names are detached from the humans with them, there is loss.  It is hard to call names of the dead.  It is hard to know that young people, good people, smart people, dumb people with parents and cousins and lovers and enemies and dear friends are dead from violence–the police, strangers, close friends, lovers any of them can shoot, stab, choke, poison.  The world is a dangerous place.

And yet as Beyonce’s Lemonade shows, even a pop star can develop a vision of moving through this world going from rage to reconciliation (at least there was no rehab here). At some point, each of us learns how to move through life understanding suffering and pain is part of it, but also love, forgiveness and joy.  And those emotions and conditions are attached to people with names.  Mine is Patricia.  What is yours?

Book tour comes back East-Philadelphia in April.

Charles Bernstein and the terrific people at Kelly Writers House at UPENN invited me to read and chat in Philadelphia in April.  It was the perfect thing to do during April is Poetry Month.   I like Philadelphia.  I’ve encounter interesting art exhibitions, vistas and hang with lovely people like Liz Abrams-Morley a fellow poet.  We went to an installation years ago at the Eastern State Penitiary, one of America’s gifts to world culture, i. e. prison design. The cells of this prison visited by dignitaries in the 19th century set the standards for solitary confinement.  The installations were amazing and that is when I discovered the powerful work of Homer Jackson, a Philadelphia-based artist and activist.

So this April I headed to Philadelphia early Thursday morning April 21 on the Amtrak and when I went in search of the cafe car, I ran into Latasha N. Diggs!  She too, was on her way to Philly to perform.  I felt like a real touring professional-that’s the first time I ran into a fellow poet/writer/perfomer.  She looked great.

on the train 4-21-16

on the train 4-21-16

It was a full day for me. First, Charles Bernstein’s class at UPENN.  They had some very complicated questions which I answered during a radio recording for “Close Reading”   Then later I joined Charles,  Al Filreis, the KWH Faculty Director, and Yolanda Wisher in a discussion of Akilah Oliver’s poem “is you is or is you ain’t” for Poemtalk.  Ms. Wisher is now the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and she is brilliant, attractive alnd energetic.  She’s going to do great things. It was a lively conversation about Oliver’s poem.  It also showed how much she is missed given her untimely death.

Finally, I did a reading at the Kelly Writers House.  Jessica Lowenthal and her crew were really helpful.  And we had a good audience on a very powerful allergy hitting day!  I gave one of my best readings because the audience truly listened.  One woman came early and she seemed to have the best time.  It feels like I left my voice in Philadelphia.

It is good to go out and read work to people who are interested but are for the most part strangers.  Too often we really do preach to the choir.  Our voices as poets need to reach as many listeners as we can.  They are there and they offer us advice, support and surprising insight.  My A Lucent Fire tour has been one of the best things I’ve ever arranged.

and yes, later we found that Prince has departed.  So the radio played great music and on tv, images of the always fashion forward Prince multiplied.  I wrote about his first major label album when I had a music column for Essence back in the 1980s and yes I loved what he was doing even then. He influenced my generation of poets and the subsequent ones.  Thank you Prince, gylph

Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein

and all.  Am sure Charles Bernstein agrees and if he doesn’t –well that’s my generation.



California dreaming on a chilly day

Yesterday, I knew I had truly returned to New York City.  It was cold.  The trains were not running–turns out some guy who stole a cell phone was hit by an F Train (served him right) and I got home to an email telling me NO, you are not getting that Fellowship that you’ve applied for a gazillion times.  Aah, but from last Wednesday to Sunday morning of week before I was in L.A. and I had a ball.

The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley had a party first day in Echo Park, a charming enclave with actual Victorian houses–some beautifully dressed up and appointed, others falling down, drunken ruins of buildings. Aah. The poets, writers, artists who gathered were charming and lively-the food delicious and I won a bottle of wine for coming the furthest (from Brooklyn) to this party.  Thanks Brett Hall Jones, et al.  I so look forward to serving as one of the staff poets with Kazim Ali who was there and Sharon Olds, Cathy Park Hong, Juan Felipe Herrera and Bob Hass, the director this June.  I went to Squaw, 3 times during the 1990s and many of my best poems started there.  To return as a teacher is really a blessing–I think Galway Kinnell is smiling about this.

AWP was held in the Convention Center and well I hung out in the Book fair and ran into good people I don’t get to see like Prageeta Sharma and people I see often like Reggie Harris.  There were many major conversations about poets who are going through difficult times and how the community is poorly dealing with all the mess of it.  Sad.  Poets House presented a spectacular program on poetry and protest with Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Luis Javier Rodriguez and Naomi Shahib Nye. There was a lot of candy at many of booths and tables (I took as much chocolate as I could really take).  I saw a good friend whom I need to reconcile with and we did.  L. A. was good for that kind of thing.

I read with Black Earth Institute Fellows: Lauren Camp, Taylor Broby, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Marcella Durand (woo hoo) and Melissa Tuckey at this weird bookstore on Sunset Blvd.  Getting there including getting the Uber driver to find us on Figuroa in front of the Convention Center–there are different kinds of blindness in L.A. and many one way streets.

I moderated Out of L.A.: A Tribute for Jayne Cortez that was organized by Laura Hinton who has done some serious scholarship on Cortez’ life in LA. as a young woman.  Aldon Nielsen, Jennifer D. Ryan-Bright and Pam Ward were the other panelists and they all contributed deep understanding and knowledge about Cortez’ development, but it was Mel Edwards who flew into the L.A. to attend the panel who pointed out that Cortez was NOT a member of the Watts Writers Workshop which was started post the riots of 1965 and enhanced info about the artistic scene that Cortez was a significant member of.  Love, courage and freedom–those are the words I think of when I think of Jayne and she is deeply missed.  Latasha Diggs is organizing several programs in Cortez honor that will take place in New York City this April.

What I loved the most was moving about downtown–the roundabout way to get to the Double Tree Hotel to meet a filmmaker doing interviews with poets for an upcoming documentary and seeing a Hindu wedding procession at it’s start; looking at the stream of L.A. Kings fans in their sports gear; a handsome man (designer/carpenter/gorgeous guy) talking with clients/friends outside a beautiful Japanese restaurant; martinis with my one my best male friends at the pretty Noe’s bar at Omni California Plaza;  bouganvilla on the side of massively ugly buildings; kissing a man I care about; running into a poet I’ve not seen since my first visit to Squaw.  In weather warm enough for daytime roaming, but too cool for nighttime hanging w/out serious sweaters, clear skies, and massive billboards with moving parts trans human–Blade Runner with out the murkiness.  Northern California was indeed cold and damp at night, but Southern California was simply cold.

I sold out my book,  A Lucent Fire: New & Selected at the White Pine Table.  I bought books by dear friends and new ones.  And best of all I kept running into Patricia Jabbeh Wesley who is the most exuberant poet/scholar ever.  You must read/hear her.

Poets at VIDA

VIDA table. Melissa Studdard, Patricia J. Wesley

VCFA's Table-everyone was great

VCFA’s Table-everyone was great

Myra Shapiro bought my last book at White Pine Press Table

Myra Shapiro bought my last book at White Pine Press Table

Poet friends

Black women make beautiful poets: E. Hunt, H. Mullen, T. Foster & E. J. Antonio

Crystal Williams & Matthew Shenoda in red lobby light

Crystal Williams & Matthew Shenoda in red lobby light

So many dear friends new friends so many poets and artists and writers and dreamers and hustlers and then at 5:30 or so on Saturday the EXODUS  out of the Center began–I was waiting for a parting of the escalators.

This is the year I go to California (a lot!)

photo by Rachel Eliza Griffths

photo by Rachel Eliza Griffths

This past week has been all about Resurrection, Renewal and Blessings.  A Lucent Fire: New & Selected Poem is a finalist for the Poetry Society of America’s William Carlos Williams Award.  The winner is Brian Shimoda.

And this past Thursday I was asked to join the faculty for the Summer Workshop at The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. I attended two conferences and created some wonderful work.  I so hope I will help other poets do when I am there.

So now I gear up for a day of teaching and then off again to California.

On Wednesday, I will join literally thousands of poets, writers, teachers, arts administrators, journalists (an occasional musician) and go Los Angeles for the 2016 AWP Conference.  It will be enthralling, overwhelming, occasionally delightful and full of stress.  All conventions are part professional networking, part party, part boredom–like why isn’t there downtown and where is the free coffee?  L.A. is always an odd place to be.  It is incredibly dense, but no one talks about that.  The traffic is non stop–people do talk about that.  It has wonderful bookstores, but you really have to search them out and places of powerful beauty and utterly awfulness.  And sometimes it is very warm, but every once in a while it is as chilly as the Bay Area far far to its North.

I have the great pleasure of reading with Fellows from the Black Earth Institute on March 31; I will be doing a book signing for A Lucent Fire on Friday April 1 between 2-3 at the White Pine Press table; signing The Best of Cutthroat on the same day at 1.  And on Saturday, Laura Hinton asked me to moderate the panel Out of L.A.: A Tribute to Jayne Cortez that will take place on Saturday, 3:15-4:30 with Aldon Nielsen, Jennifer Ryan, Pam Ward and of course Laura Hinton.  There are reunions for the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley; VCCA: and Vermont College.  And many readings that I may or may not make it too. These events are listed on my web sites: Readings & Events Page.

It will be slightly insane, useful, terrible, beautiful, slighty giddy and wearisome.  Oh writers, oh conferences, Oh California!


next to last day of winter

A couple of weeks ago I stood on a friend’s deck in Tiburon with the Pacific Ocean as background-hundreds of sea birds in the water.  The sky was as blue as a sky can be.  The air was warm, but not too warm.  All of the Bay Area seemed to be in bloom.  I’d never been in a California “Spring”–its lovely to look at; to smell; to touch.  I can see why people live there-the beauty is often overwhelming.  But the traffic, the density–it seemed almost too much.

I went there for a book tour–to read my poems from A Lucent Fire and engage with audiences and so I did from student and faculty at The University of Pacific, who were smart and curious and asked great questions to a reading with Clarence Major at the legendary Poetry Center at San Francisco State University.  I also got to read at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Ave the last bookstore standing on that storied street.

It was odd because the week before I went to MOMA and saw a documentary about Bob Kaufman, the brilliant and deeply troubled African American poet –he was a “beat”poet in the best sense.  But he was part of the bohemian world of North Beach in San Francisco.  Of course North Beach still exists but not as a haven for bohemians unless they are the ones who can afford Bohemian Grove.  The wealthification of urban centers is erasing culture in bits and pieces so that people with digital devices can make more of them and spend money made from making apps and stuff on other apps and stuff.  So boring really.

Thus I was grateful to spend Sunday morning at St. Gregory of Nyssa, an Anglican church in the mission where an old friend serves as one of the clergy.  She preached that day about getting through Lent and got me to be the lector. It was a strange and generous experience–there was step dancing and Quaker style comments and a great deal of singing which I loved.  The church has a hearty and close knit congregation and provides services and solace to the community which is at the edge of the Mission, but also where much property has appreciated over the past few years. I remember Adrienne Rich writing about “the interstices” and in many ways so much of life these days is in between (hope and despair); (financial ruin and getting by); (cynicism and anger).  It was good to be in a spiritual space with good people who believe and care and welcome.

So I thank Dr. Xiaojing Zhou, a fine scholar, educator, and translator who brought me to University of the Pacific and her colleagues.  Brenda Hillman and Bob Hass who were gracious enough to add me to a reading for Lunch Poems at UC Berkeley to Owen Moes, who has like one of the best bookstores on the planet; to Steve Dickinson, who really makes great things happen at The Poetry Center and to my good friend Sue who let me be a guest in her Oakland Hills bungalow.

Winter is officially over on the 21st, but there is a chill, the possibility of snow on Palm Sunday.  A reminder that the sun and earth may move in certain ways, but the temperature will do what it wants to do.  I welcome the soft chill, that final farewell to winter’s quiet.  And I welcome new possibilities and more natural beauty.  Flowers and trees and birds and bees and you know stuff like that.  Seasonal changes always throw me off my game and into another one–the mysteries, the interstices, the moments in between.

Dr, Xiaoing Zhou, U of Pacific

Dr, Xiaojing Zhou, U of Pacific

calla lillies do grow wild

calla lillies do grow wild

a strange tree in Oakland

a strange tree in Oakland

the Pacific Ocean as background

the Pacific Ocean as background

“hate California, it’s cold & it’s damp”

Never knew how Lorenz Hart could come up with such an odd lyric, but then again, he may have wound up on San Francisco sometime in June expecting sun and getting fog and chill.  I am in Stockton where it is sunny and it smells of cars and trucks and highways. I am to read at the University of the Pacific and then go onto the Bay Area, a place I find utterly beautiful and oddly estranged.  I will be reading at The Poetry Center with Clarence Major, a legendary space and a celebrated author.  I am really pleased.  To get here, you work for 4 decades on poems and ideas and finally people begin to notice.  (I am all for understatement).

What feels sad right now is this nation and the current bombasticity of political discourse –if you want to even given it that due.  It’s been a long time since stories of con men abound, so the populace seems ill prepared for being conned.  There are threads in the American psyche that loves to be lied to–it goes with White Supremacy-the invisible ideology. It allows otherwise intelligent people to make really bad decisions and then loudly declare the reasons why.  The KKK was at one point called The Invisible Kingdom.  These are the things you think about during Black History Month.  or at least I do.

G. Carter Woodson and others did a great thing in insisting on the making Negro History important.  I grew up with Negro History was celebrated for one week, so a whole month seems pretty darn good.  and of course what is really being dealt with is American History which frankly is not being taught the other 11 months.  So I hope that I can add some knowledge about my one little corner of  Black History here where it is not that cold and it is very dry.

Poetry Center poster

SFSU Poetry Center

My little Christmas Sermon/Solstice Greeting

I don’t ever tell people to have a “blessed” day because I believe that any of us at any moment can be in a state of grace. That said, today felt blessed to me even though I did not make it to church. It is Advent and in some ways it the season of yearning of waiting for something good to happen. Whether you believe Jesus was born in a manger, etc. is beside the point. That the myth is of humble birth surrounded by those who work with animals while Mary & Joseph are on their way to pay taxes and add to the census is pretty amazing. We live in a world where the poor, those who work in the fields, those who must travel far to perform civic duty of any sort are scorned, ridiculed or ignored. We do this at our civic and spiritual peril. To yearn for something good to happen to have that good embodied in the birth of a boy in a stable is a tale told with joyful music. Tomorrow the solstice, winter truly begins and we need the quiet, the darkness to understand the moments when we truly are in a state of grace. ‪#‎mylittleChristmassermon‬ My granddaddy who was a Church of God In Christ pastor. He would be proud. Peace and may the shortest day bring you the longest dreams.

Crech, Bed-Stuy, photo by Patricia Spears Jones

Crech, Bed-Stuy, photo by Patricia Spears Jones

Bed-Stuy Lights, Dec. 2014

Bed-Stuy Lights, Dec. 2014