New York is very much alive

Three great poets

At CUNY Grad Center, Victor Hernandez Cruz, David Henderson, Ammiel Alcaly

Empire State, Halloween

New York City is very much alive.  While 8 people died from a terrorist attack even as tiny ghouls, smurfs, pirates, heros and sheros walked about with huge bags demanding candy.  Meanwhile those with little or nothing on shivered in the chilly Halloween weather.

New York City is very much alive. While the mayoral race is on, many people are learning what they can and cannot do politically.  Politics in this state must change-new people should be allowed to run; new voices need to be heard.  Too much is done as if this was the 19th century.

New York City is very much alive.  At the CUNY Grad Center Victor Hernandez Cruz read from his latest book and one of his oldest and best poems to a group of grad students, fellow poets like Don Yorty and me and then he sat down for a public interview.  It was fun.

New York City is very much alive and moving and dealing with possible deaths and awful disruptions and yet the masks and costumes; the candy and liquor; the poets and critics were all out and about.  Truck drivers, shoe bombers, radicalized racists won’t stop the music of any great city.

good bye John Ashbery

sign, St. Mark’s gate

It seems fitting to post this picture of a humble sign placed on the gates in front of St. Mark’s Church. Today’s morning sky was BRIGHT as in BRIGHT and the air a soft chill.  Adam Fitzgerald, Emily Skillings,  Eileen Myles and the staff at The Poetry Project organized an informal, intimate farewell in the church’s austere sanctuary.  A place where John had sad many a time.  The last time I went to an event like this was the one organized for Amiri Baraka, which I chronicled in an earlier post.  Since it was early and I live in Brooklyn, I got there about half hour into the proceedings just in time to hear David Shapiro, shaking and frail, tell anecdote after anecdote, mostly it seemed about himself, but really about the relationship he had with Ashbery.  He read a letter Ashbery sent to him when he was 15!  He read a beautiful poem.  He made me want to just sit him down.  I did not cry.  But I think Emily did as she played an audio of John reading from a recent poem–every once in a while he would cough, but then his voice would regain vigor–that performance thing that kicks in no matter what.  I had not realized that Emily was one of Ashbery’s many assistants.

Marcella Durand talked about his inscriptions–they were often lines from specific poems in the books and she read the inscriptions and then the excerpts from the poems.  Fred Moten told us he never met John, but had some words to say and so he said them–it was a fine salute.  Dorothy Friedman talked about being part of Ashbery’s first class for the Brooklyn College MFA program back in 1974.  Her voice boomed out and she noted that a week or so after Ashbery’s demise, she got a letter from him (the post office is really getting slow) thanking her for her review of his recent art show.  Todd Colby also talked about that program, but by the time he got to Brooklyn John had left–that MacArthur grant made a huge difference.

I think that because John travelled, wore suits on occasion and was a most courtly of gentlemen poets, some folks thought him rich–he was not.  He worked hard all his life and you could see the range of that work in the kinds of pieces poets used.  Bob Holman talked about creating a performance script from Girls on the Run, Ashbery’s booklength poem based on the Henry Darger art work.  And he read a fine tribute poem. Jeff Wright told a joke that John liked to tell.  And Paul Muldoon read the final poem Ashbery published in The New Yorker.

I was going to read from The Vermont Notebooks, which is not the most sophisticated of Ashbery’s ouvre but maybe the most fun–it’s the collaboration with Joe Brainard.  And there they are on the cover looking super masculine-lots of hair, work clothes oh so 70s! Oh before AIDS.  Anyways, I left the book in my living room and well basically said I represented all the Black poets (Fred included) who really loved John’s work and also the ones who knew him.  And I read my poem for John’s 90th birthday: “Le Tribute

Le Tribute

Funny you request 90 words for 90 years

Okay the thing about Ashbery

Is that he makes us

unsure of which direction is the direction home

But, there is always home in Ashbery’s work, now isn’ t there?

Home & fame’s odd wit.

John tells me about seeing Marlon Brando Boston tryout

in  A Streetcar Named Desire.  A new masculine norm.

The abstracted beauty of it all & odd tempered music

and the ears ready to hear.

That he has

Something to say

and will just

Say it. So there.

Then Adam Fitzgerald gave story and anecdote and quip and love in the form of stories, anecdotes, quips expressing his deep love for his mentor and friend.  I did not hear John sing Old Man River–that might have been too much, but I got back for le restroom to hear Rachmaninoff-Ashbery’s favorite music.  Tres romantic.

Walking out into the bright mid day–I knew that a mass murder took place in New Orleans, that our President seemed to have an inability to communicate with people who are not White, rich and male, that there are more people sleeping on subway benches and that the subways frequently breakdown and the sun will set and it will rise as we humans regard:

“The climate, the cities, the houses, the streets, the stores, the lights, people.”  John Ashbery, The Vermont Notebooks.

He’s got many friends in Poetry Heaven–I bet the party has started.

ijustcan’t even

First I am deeply honored to be a featured guest of the University of Arizona’s Thinking in Presence (TIP) conference–here’s the link: https://www.thinkingitspresenceconference.com/

That’s like the really good news.  There are other personal and spiritual things that are really good too, but the heart of America is rotting by the minute.  A President who instead of finding better ways to assist the peoples of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where actual American citizens live, tweets nasty remarks about the mayor whose resources are at best limited.  Is the President over the age of 10?  Is he?

There is so much more, but what has been great is that the literary, performing and arts community across racial and ethnic lines have stood with the people of Puerto Rico.  We understand that a man who so easily picks and chooses the winners and loosers from NATURAL DISASTERS is not to be respected or trusted.  Whatever dignity the office confers upon him is gone.

So really & truly Ijustcan’teven say his name or wish him well. Ijustcan’t.

Houston under water, America troubled

The news has been of Houston flooded and more rain coming.  There is a FEMA director which is good, that’s about it in terms of federal support.  The governor and mayor are fighting over the evacuate not evacuate issue.  Even with a natural disaster, we cannot get along.

Our President has set a divisive tone from his bizarro world take on the White Supremacists rallies in Charlottesville and the spirited resistance and response to Nazis, White Nationalists and Klan members and the death of law enforcement officers and the murder of Heather Heyer.  If ever someone wanted to illustrate a definition of the phrase “speaks with forked tongue” it would be of Trump at that news conference a few days afterwards. This is deeply disappointing, but unfortunately not surprising.  45 is a man of few words, but most of them hurt: Muslims, women, transgender people, refugees, migrants esp. from Mexico, and of course Black people–he was the guy who created the “birther” narrative.  But mostly he hurts this nation and so few in his party have either the power, courage or concern to actually stand up to him and his ilk.  The more obvious White nationalists are off the White House staff, but the ideas are there and will not go away.

I hate racism.   I work hard to uphold the beauty and power of my tribe: Black Americans are amazing group of humans.  Everything that could be done to humans has been done to us by those who adhere to White supremacy–even those who claim”I am not a racist”.  Well maybe you’re aren’t, but your comfortable life is based on institutional racism: it curbs competition for education, jobs, political power; it upholds the cultural idea of who is supposed to “look American”; it allows for policies that ultimately hurt everyone-esp. the militarization of police departments across this nation.

The irony about Houston under water and what will have to happen for funding to recover this part of Texas is that the very legislators who voted TO NOT FUND SUPERSTORM SANDY RECOVERY are now going to have to ask for help.  Many of these Congresspeople do not think climate change exists and they are often elected on their anti-science, anti-environmental, racist attitudes disguised as pro-law enforcement–they like the President speak with forked tongues.  In this nation and in this world, our troubles are man made.

Poet friends

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

In an era of intense #resistance to what is now the status quo, we need to remember how important it is to know history; to honor those who love and built our nation, not those who fought to tear it apart; that those in power esp. those who bully and dishonor their positions need to imprisoned, not pardoned.  #Resistance is important, but sometimes fighting back is also and ultimately, replacing those who create, produce and support racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-environmental, anti-science, anti-rule of law policies.  If we do not, the clownish concentration camp that Sheriff Joe once ran will be in every city and state in this country.  We deserve so much better than what we have right now.

San Antonio has many accents

Riverwalk, San Antonio

one of the many bridges over the river.

I am not sure what I was expecting when I agreed to be a featured speaker and workshop leader for the 2nd annual Gemini Ink Writers Conference.  I knew that I would be paid okay and I’d have a hotel room and meet some really great writers from all over the country because that is what conferences do.  But I had no idea of how much I’d like San Antonio.  The hotel was straight out of the 1950s and yes it was LBJ’s campaign headquarters.  The Tiki Bar was small and tacky-the music was great or awful depending on the lounge lizard on the floor.  The staff was attentive or not depending.  San Antonio is majority Latino, but you can see that power is in the hands of Anglos.  And the place is all about male vanity.  Indeed, the hats, boots, well ironed cotton shirts–every man had some sort of attire that said this is who I am or what I do.  And women dress to please them. The heels high. The necklines flattering.  Or they dress to defy them.  Either way the patriarchy is rules Texas even in its gentler form in San Antonio.

That’s the human sort of thing, but what was thrilling was the shape of the city, the architecture, the sun blasting all creatures, buildings, streets and water.  There was this engagement with the river and the street and the sun that really enthralled me.  The heat is serious.  The colors are bright and then blasted by the sun light.  The black and white mural on Navarro Street seemed to say-we have to seek the very basic of colors–black and white, all the others wil

Mural-San Antonio

l be bleached away.  The conference was a great success I think.  But for me it was revealing–a reminder that the history of this nation is varied and complex and one 300 year old city can showcase the greatness and the smallness of our ideas, ideals and civility.  It was pointed out that 25% of the local Hispanic population is illiterate.  It was also explained to me that there is no unified school board, no citywide

support of public education.  That illiteracy rate goes to show how power is not shared in San Antonio and why there are many many people exploited each and every day even as the flowers blossom and the river curves its way into the heart.

Riverwalk Tile mural

Tile work is important in San Antonio

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?

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

Waiting to Inhale–2017

The past 6 weeks have been to an assault on the collective nervous system of this nation and the world.  A new President with a variety of dicey dudes and former daisy dukes have moved in.  It feels like a parody except people are being deported; health care is being altered; houses of worship (mosques, synagogues and churches) have been desecrated and bomb threats called in across the U.S.  And people have been murdered.  It has been over several decades since the “peaceful” transfer of power has brought so much violence, fear and yes response.  We talk about backlash as exclusively on the right, but of course that is not true.  Many people: moderate, liberal, progressive and even further left are on line, on the phone, in the offices of their “representatives”,  in the streets.  Too early to call it an uprising, but #resistance is good.

In the meanwhile, poets have organized many events and are developing language in response to these tumultuous times.  As well we should.  The past few years have seen so much change–some very good; some very very bad–and our work as poets, writers and artists is consider those changes.  In the Raoul Peck documentary on James Baldwin, there is a passage where JB talks about being a witness and a participant–how they often bleed into each other.  Right now, whether we want to or not we are witnessing deep stresses on our democracy.  And we are participating as citizens in response.  No one other than the propagandists are writing the script.  None of us knows how any of this will turn out.  We have our hopes and our fears.

As a poet, I do what poets always do.  I write.  I publish.  I join in the festival of words that help all of live our lives.  I am grateful for the wit, wisdom, anger and anguished displayed over the past several weeks.

Over the past several months, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing my work online and in a number of anthologies.  Here are three recent ones–check them out, get them, get them in your library.  You will be pleased with your choices.

T. Medina ed. antholgy

Tony Medina ed. this anthology of poems in resistance to police violence.

Anthology of poems for Gwendolyn Brooks

Anthology honoring Gwendolyn Brooks-so glad to be in this.

Anthology from Pam Ushuk,et al

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

New Year New Blues for The Lady in Blue

Shawl

Shawl by Marion DiCaires Lake bought in 1976-77

The new year starts with defiant slogans, poems and anxiety and the sore winners telling everyone to get over it-like get over slavery; get over rape; get over racism; get over violations large and small.  Get over it.  Thus words of resistance and feelings of anguish.  So I think this is a good time for the blues. Gutbucket or glamrous–old school or new.  We need to have a feeling place, something our voices can stroke.  An American invention that despite going in and out of favorite keeps bringing us some of what we need and now we need a lot.   I think Laurie Carlos knew and understood how to re-shape the blues for modern times.  Take Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday on up to Koko Taylor sprinkle with La Lupe and Celia Cruz (ah salsa) and she wasn’t a musician. She was a consummate actress and director.  Her work with Robbie MacCauley and Jessica Hagedorn was innovative-game changing.  A maker of theater and a serious mentor to a generation of young artists after he moved hometown New York City to new hometown Minneapolis, which is where I last saw her.  Her transition is wrenching.  The shawl in this picture is one I bought from Marion DiCaires now Marion DiCaires Lake because Laurie did not think it bright enough.  She was the Lady in Blue in the original cast of For Colored Girls and she was  amazing.  She also looked much like her cousin the incomparable Diana Sands.  So a New Blues is upon us and the Lady in Blue has joined many others making art among the stars.