Yes, I deserve this

roses and cards from friends near and far

Anyone who works long and hard and seriously at their chosen art form deserves recognition.  Anyone.  But I am not anyone and I am so glad to have received the 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers.  It was a balm, a boon, and a joy to share with friends on May 23rd at the Century Club–so venerable, the balcony looks towards the Chrysler Building!  Strands of my life from Loft Jazz world, The Poetry Project, Bomb Magazine, Mabou Mines,  Vermont College, VCCA, Rhodes College, CUNY, St John’s Church in Park Slope, Cave Canem were all there. So many people, I did not get to greet everyone.  They came from Boston and Long Island and one of my hometown friends ws there! Nicole Peyrafitte posted part of my acceptance speech, thus the title of this blog.

My hair stylist Nadia Vassell made my hair look fab; a Lancome rep at Saks did my makeup.    I wore new clothes that Janet Goldner helped me shop for. I was happy.  I am thrilled and tired and glad that the ceremony and brouhaha are over.  I have plans for this good fortune, mostly paying bills and giving myself that cushion because I’ve had many many many rainy days and no cushion.  I do not come from money or a pedigree.  There are no relatives who went to Harvard or Spelman or even FSU!  I am the first person in my entire family to go to and complete college. I come from Forrest City, a small town in Arkansas in the Delta that is barely holding on, but was once a site of major cotton plantations and the ancillary businesses resulting from that.  Cotton is still there and rice and soy beans and corn, but people Black or White are not “on the land”-huge machines do what hundreds of poorly paid people did 50 years ago.  But the land is where my mama resides in a graveyard in the South end of town and land is what I co-own with my brother and sister in town.  And land is large and flat and green. I come from a verdant and violent place.

So I deeply appreciate the judges selection of my work. It means that you can come from a small place in a small state and make it big (well Bill Clinton did that first, but hey, he’s not a poet) in your chosen field.  I am not “big”, but this says that my work is important. And they give me money too! I am so pleased that this “win” is only about selection from a small universe of nominees and not one of us knew we were up for this prize.  This is about merit and spirit and recognition and yes, I deserve this.  Any poet who has been writing and publishing and editing and reviewing and caring deeply about language and the people who explore and explode it, deserves recognition.  So whomever receives this next year–enjoy the roses, the cards, the love and acclaim from friends and more scrutiny than one can possibly handle.  For now, the recipient is moi and moi is pleased and glad to have made an excuse for wonderful friends to celebrate and be joyful on a balcony in mid-town as the sun set and everyone dressed up!

Selfie with Lee Briccetti, dir. of Poets House

Spring will hang you up the most

April is often the cruelest month for me.  Poems and mss get rejected.  Lovers leave.  Money gets tight even when the budget is followed.  And those lovely budding plants means serious allergy reactions.  So that song “Spring will hang you up the most” makes sense esp. when sun by Sarah Vaughn or Betty Carter, women whose knowledge of the world was vast and whose emotional reserves were deep.  I am old enough to have seen them perform live although for some odd reasons I’ve never seen Aretha Franklin and it was only a year or so ago that I finally saw Chaka Khan.  But those magic voiced women from jazz vocals glorious era–the daughters of Billie and Ella, they were sublime. Spring hangs on the sublime. And this April there was affirmation and prizes and forthcoming money and an outpouring of love and respect.  This culminates on May 23rd with an awards event in mid-town Manhattan, where I will read some poems and thank everyone I can think of and feel a bit like Sally Fields’–You like me you really like me!

Every artist goes through those times when the world is dis-pleased with the work being done.  You write free verse, everyone angles for form.  You speak of the current trials and tribulations, others say poetry must transcend the times.  You transcend the times, others write their current trials and tribulations.  All any poet, no matter the style, can do is seek some version of truth in language, in line, in rhythm and rhyme, in a jumble of sounds that mimic sidewalk chatter or words as spare and austere as a French garden.

A part of me is learning to accept affirmation, to see that years of work has found favor and that more people will read my work.  Another part of me hopes that I have the energy and good health to continue make work worthy of a wide audiences of serious readers, thinkers, et al.  And now I really cannot hide behind the wall of indifference that often greeted me or my poetry for so many years.  It’s a challenge, but a good challenge.  I am happy to have good challenges and problems.  As Dickinson pointed out “Success is counted sweetest. . .”

Tulips at BBG

Emperor Tulips, Brooklyn Botanic Garden

No longer quick

Over the past several years ghosts and spirits (the words, the concepts) have found their way in my poems sometimes invited, sometimes not.  I remember many years ago hearing Ishmael Reed respond to a questioner’s skepticism about worlds other than the one we encounter daily.  He said that we live in many worlds and at times we can enter the other ones when we are open to that visit (poor paraphrasing on my part here).  I think I understand what he was saying.  There’s a membrane between the living and the dead.  When I was a child, the Episcopal creed used the phrase “the quick and the dead”—that “quick” has been altered to simply say “living” but the sound of “quick” is more focused and startling.  I can remember it 45-50 years later.

At this moment when so much of my life is overfull with accolades and support, I think of ghosts, of those whose showed me ways to move, to write, to think, to act.  Who listened to me and understood what I was trying to do and who said, keep going.  Their love and dedication and stories and gestures, their tender mercies towards me kept me from going under, fading away.  Oh how I wish they were here:

David Earl Jackson

Peter Dee

Brenda Conner Bey

Lynda Hull

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Weiss

good friends make life a little sweeter

Audre Lorde

June Jordan

Lorenzo Thomas

Ruth Maleczech

David Warrilow

Julius Hemphill

Butch Morris

Jayne Cortez

Ray Hill

Betty Ruth Merrick

Adrienne Weiss at one of my Cafe Loup birthday bashes–she had fun.

Brenda Conner Bey in the middle.

Brenda Conner Bey at Book Fair, 2009-2010?

The Jackson Poetry Prize –I am grateful

I am still so deeply honored to be named the 11th Jackson Poetry Prize winner.  The first ever recipient was Elizabeth Alexander and I love this picture us at the Museum of Modern Art at a reception that was part of the Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series exhibition.  She organized a reading that I was part of with nine other Black American poets for the  exhibition.  Tyehimba Jess who recently won the Pulitzer Prize this year was another reader that night.  We were all thrilled and honored-thanks again to Elizabeth for putting that evening together.  And thanks to the Jacksons for creating the Jackson Poetry Prize.  It is not only a great honor, but the funds will be extremely helpful.

 

E. Alexander & me at MOMA, April 2015

Here’s the Jackson Poetry Prize announcement from Poets & Writers.  I am so grateful to the judges and to whomever nominated me.  This is about work, the work I’ve been doing since 1974!  Being a poet, at least to me, is a calling that is now a profession.  I am wealthy in family and friends, but not in finances.  My independence has been both a strength and a challenge.  I have walked this path in my own way for a very long time.  And I know that I have serious readers and I hope to have more.   I thank all of you who have believed in me and who have read my work and challenged me to expand and explore.  #gratitude

https://www.pw.org/about-us/jackson_poetry_prize

 

 

 

a good morning-those first real blooms

public art work-Bed-Stuy

This morning was a pretty one–sun shining, warm.  Storefronts on Fulton closed until the shopkeepers open them up.  Folks clustered at bus stops on their way to work.  Many people smiling  because sun was shining and it was warm.

Brooklyn is loudly branded as a place for hip White people and hip Black people and occasionally others are mentioned.  But it is a place for ordinary people who get up in the morning and go to work in banks’ back offices; for the MTA; clerks at Macy’s or Bloomingdales or in the countless restaurants, bars,hotels, sports centers,  juice joints, etc. that make up the “hospitality industry”, and a few work in fashion or media. Paychecks, bills, families,rent or mortgages to pay.  So a warm Wednesday morning was most welcome.  In Whitman’s prologue to Leave of Grass he catalogues jobs Americans do (did) and it is good that he did.  We have a record of those jobs. We have a picture of the people who made their living.  We now do some of what they did: we serve food or perform in theaters or exchange money.

Today, the Poetry Foundation posted my essay in the Harriet blog:      https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2017/04/colloquy-1-words-on-freedom-confusion-resistance-poetry/

and I hope people read my work.  I am glad to  be part of that industrious mix all the way from Brooklyn.

The cold, then warm, then cold weather is making our green and blooming friends most unhappy–they just want to bloom and get on with it and a few hearty blooms are fighting for show and a flowering tree across the street from a row of daffodils –we all want Spring. Even the plants are working hard.

the only tree flowering

corner yard, Bed-Stuy

purple salutes the green

Poetry Month -musings on my first week!

Whitman statute, Whitman Birthplace Huntington, LI

On Saturday April 1 I read in two very different venues: Passaic County Community College in Paterson,  New Jersey, as I was a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize and Howl Happening, a East Village arts gallery for a book launch of WORD: An Anthology which featured poets and artists or poets as poets and artists. It reminds me that like Whitman, I contain multitudes.  From the broken city across the Hudson where mill building stand, while wood frame houses fall from fire, neglect, despair to the shiny overpriced formerly bohemian EV where I grew up as a young poet and writer and became the woman I am.  The poets range from the academic to the anarchic–I seem to fit in with them all.  I thank Whitman for that inclusiveness of words and tempo and ideas.

Why because on April 7, I took part in the Walking with Whitman series organized by George Wallace for the Whitman Birthplace and Historic Site in Huntington, LI.  Going to LI is not without trepidation.  It’s a haul and I found one of the few express trains there.  I also encounter the not so gentle racism of the place. I sat down in the train car, took out my book to read on the train and this nice middle-aged woman said, “this train does not stop at Jamaica” assuming that somehow I must be on the wrong train.  I politely told her I knew what train I was on and where I was going.  The provincialism of suburbia always amazes me.

But a new friend picked me up at the train station once I got there.  His car had heated seat (nirvana) and off we went to this lovely center which has a beautiful yard, that was the original one for Whitman’s family.  And all things Whitman and a great list of poets in residence there.  I got there in time to hear the “open mic” which was pretty good–most of the poets were middle-aged or older, one very young person.  Then some pleasant music and then George Wallace introduced me and it was one of my best readings.  I read for about 40 minutes & was given an ovation-my first ever. And it was genuine and surprising and I am glad that it was.  I’ve gone to many venues where poets gin up things emotionally or otherwise to get an audience up and off their feet, but I don’t do that, at least not intentionally.

Afterwards there was a Q&A & the questions, the things on people’s minds are the things on mine:-how are we to be poets in this difficult time; how are we to create; what can we do to sustain ourselves and how and what must we do to consider the Future. Whitman talks a lot about the Future in his work, we do as well but it almost always dystopian.  We have to start to think well if we could make a better place for humans and all other creatures and be of good cheer in this cosmos, well what would that be like?  What does it mean to be inclusive, to allow for a range of expressions of sexuality, talent, civility? What will the family be like 50, 100, 200 years from now, that is if humans are still around.  I don’t know.  But I have faith that many of us are working hard to do as poets have done since the first one sang–we create, we present, we hope to connect. We seek knowledge and we hope for love.

Mark Doty, Richard Michelson, me after Paterson Poetry Prize reading.

medallion Walt Whitman Birthplace, Long Island

Palm Sunday

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, a day of celebration and foreboding in the Christian calendar. One that shows triumph, jealousy, pride, fear and treachery in the making. Holy Week is one of the great dramas. Today I talked with my sister who is a CME pastor about her plans for the week and we both talked about Maundy Thursday–which follows The Last Supper and the betrayal of Jesus at Gethsemane. I said to her it is not Judas’ who most bothers me–his treachery is so well-defined. It is Peter’s–who as Jesus said betrayed him three times all out of fear. There are many Peters in this world–who claim they will do the right thing the just thing the loving thing, but cowardice and fear are very strong. Peter was forgiven but he had to work hard to regain that trust. How many Peters of this world have each of us forgiven. How many times have we out of fear betrayed out best selves? No one ever said a spiritual path of any sort is easy. But it is a path.

Window, St. John’s Episcopal -Park Slope

April brings fire and rain

The assassination of Martin Luther King was a day that broke a forward motion leaving many shards, some picked up and moved forward, others still deep beneath the soil. I still remember the silence on the streets of Memphis the day after the riots. I remember the tanks and rifles. I am trying to carry one of those shards. But the ones under the soil–they poison us all.

 

45 and the American headache

Anthology from Pam Ushuk,et al

Cutthroat Journal pub this amazing collection 2-2017. Proceeds go to ACLU

These days we have colds that linger.  Feet sore from marching.  Minds boggled by the long list of bad ideas paraded as policy that make America First.  I did not vote for the current President.  Indeed, the majority of voters did not vote for him, but the Electoral College gave him more votes that his opponent.  And now we have a political migraine and no real antidote.  Other than protest and engagement, which actually is a good thing.  For too long Americans, particularly liberal or progressive leaning Americans have been complasant or cynical and thus disengaged from politics and in the mean time the right has increased in power.  So we now have the perfect storm for all those bad ideas from access to health care to an un-needed border wall are now in play.  Also, the current President is calling for the elimination of the NEA, the NEH and the CPB, which is a middle fnger to creative people.

Here’s my NEA story -I applied 13 times before I finally got an NEA grant. The money wasn’t all that much, but it made a difference in the ways in which I was treated as a poet. I came up through the independent literary scene and so had a catch is as catch can kind of artistic life. But the NEA grant was critical because of the recognition it gave me. It is crucial because it funds journals that many of us are published in. At one time, it supported literary organizations across the country so that any one with a thirst for knowledge could take classes, hear writers, build their own idea of literary culture. But more than that, the NEA gave grants to organizations so that all kinds of musics could be presented: classical, jazz, new. Theater companies could mount new work. Galleries that presented work by artists of color or folk artists or craftspeople found support from Seattle to Memphis. That our nation considered cultural activity important enough to fund so that millions could visit galleries and museums, hear concerts, read new books of poetry or fiction, and annually celebrate American culture on the Mall in Washington, DC is extremely significant. It bears out our best ideals and brings forth some of most important ideas. Controversies come and go, but a nation that disrespects its creators: poets, dancers, composers, filmmakers, basket weavers, textile artists, architects, actors, welders, novelists,storytellers is a nation in decline. The NEA reminds us that our greatest measure is the power and glory of our artistic achievements.

Republicans are now the party of the Wealthy Only and a specific kind of wealth.  The rest of us do not count.  But we do if we protest, engage, and vote the party out.  Then the headaches will go away (miraculously)

International Women’s Month–for me it’s about friends

Joy Harjo and me, off site reading, 2017 AWP DC

For my birthday this year I left NYC and my usual confab of friends and went to the 2017 Conference and Bookfair organized by AWP.  I only went for 2 days of the 4, so missed many panels and events and moments to schmooze. But I did get to participate in the Truth to Power reading organized by Pam Ushuk and the wonderful people who put together Cutthroat Journal.  Joy Harjo, whom I missed started off the 2 hour event.  I’ve known Joy since we were young and upcoming poets in the mid 1970s.  She already had a couple of books out, looked like a model and was just all embrace the world.  We were at a CCLM aka CLMP meeting–I ran the Grants Program and she was one of the jurists.  We were in Austin, Texas and somewhere after a day of deciding how to give some money to several different kinds of literary magazines, we along with Cecilio Garcia Camarillo, a Chicano poet, decided to go dancing in a local rock and roll club.  As soon as we walked in the door we INTEGRATED THE PLACE!  And we had a ball.  Nothing like being in your 20s and dancing to loud loud music while folks drank beer and the scent of marijuana wafted through the club.  Good times!  I’ve not seen or heard from Cecilio since the 1970s although I hope he is alive well and writing.  But Joy andI have remained friends and it is good to see her still look like a model and write even more amazing books of poetry.

Next day I got to hang with Metta Sama who is a more recent friend.  She’s an amazing writer, critic, educator, caretaker and arts enthusiast.  My kind of people.  People who love knowledge.  Who care deeply & who have a strong sense of style.  We were able to get tickets through the help of other friends.  It was great to do this with her and pay her back for the great hospitality she showed me and the writer Meera Nair when we read and workshopped in North Carolina.

birthday at NMAAHC in DC

Outside the NMAAHC in DC on my birthday.

Good people.  Creative people.  People who love to dance make life worth living.  Great women poets and artists.

Soraya Shalforoosh and me at her book launch, Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn 2014

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

post reading at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, Dec. 2015 w/ Lydia Cortes

I have those people in my life. #gratitude.

Poet friends

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

Belladonna reading, March 2015

Kimberly Lyons, Laynie Brown, et al,March 2015