This is a summer that is truly a summer. The weather in late June seemed to as beautiful as the world’s activities grew more violent, volatile. Something says to me the Creator is working overtime to provide humans relief for bad human activity–at the borders of the US and Mexico; Israel and Palestine; Nigeria and Chad–borders where children give them selves up; where children are kidnapped and murdered; where children are kidnapped, sold or murdered. Borders where evil weaves a ugly web of lies, brutality, fear. So to wake up for several days to bright sunshine and little humidity in Brooklyn–to roses blooming, birds singing, dogs being walked. To wake up fairly healthy with things to do; students to teach; people to see; food to eat and wine to drink is to have many blessings placed upon me. But all blessings are provisional. So are the bad human activity. Should we be Iraq? Should we help Nigeria find stolen girls? Should we reduce our energy use so that fracking, etc. was not so profitable? or is the phrase: “Could we”? It is July 4th. It is rainy and quiet. My brother is staying home, mowing his backyard; my sister in Arkansas is planning her church work and planning to see friends. My eldest nephew is probably working overtime in a high end hotel in Dallas. My nephews and nieces are eating barbecue and watching videos. in Texas and Tennessee. We are a small family spread around the U.S. We are also feeling the loss of my mother who this year last year was still alive. Still engaged in the world of the living, but shutting down. Later somebody in Bed-Stuy will attempt to show off the illegal fireworks bought most likely in Pennsylvania. As a Southerner, I understand crossroads. But borders. Borders are places of deep terror. Borders are where too many children are lost.
On Monday evening I was able to join many poets and poetry enthusiasts for the annual Poets House Gala that follows the Bridgewalk. I was one of the featured poets in the late 1990s so I feel as if I am part of a very special group of poets to have read work on the Brooklyn Bridge. Lee Bricetti and her staff (Stephen Motika, Jane Preston, Reginald Harris, Krista Manrique, and several others) make what I know is a massive endeavor look very easy. Got there just as Mark Doty launched into “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, Whitman’s poem that Galway Kinnell read each year until he could no longer join the proceedings–he is missed of course and I know he was sending good vibes to the audience and to Mark. The high point of the evening was the winner of the Poetry Out loud National Recitation Contest Anita Norman’s recitation of a Stanley Kunitz poem. She worked that poem in front of an audience that a) knew the poem well and b) knew Stanley. The ovation she received was well deserved. But this is when things gets strange–Norman. I went over to speak with her and her father and found that he is the son of one of my former classmates and his grandfather was my elementary school principal. Poets are connected in all kinds of ways. Thom Lux and Vijay Seshadri also read well and Naomi Shahib Nye’s acceptance speech for the Elizabeth Kray award was tender and full of humor. Great to Laureanne Bosselaar, Ira Silverberg, Dave Johnson, Kevin Young, Cornelius Eady and Sarah Micklem, Hettie Jones-I could go and on. Poets House is important to poetry, to New York City, indeed to the globe. www.poetshouse.org.
This past Sunday, Pentecostal Sunday, I left church and got on the subway from Brooklyn to Harlem to meet with Holly Hughes BFA students who are getting an immersion into NYC arts. It is always interesting to meet students of the arts. They ask interesting questions. They see things differently or they walk lockstep w/ whatever trends there are. It is always tricky to look at, critique and create culture. So they were there to see Carrie Mae Weems Museum Series, a group of large scale photographs there were not hung at the Guggenheim during her retrospective. They should have been at the Guggenheim.
But also there is a terrific show When the Stars Began to Fall http://www.studiomuseum.org/exhibition/when-the-stars-begin-fall-imagination-and-the-american-south which is up until the end of June. As a Southerner who has lived Up North for decades, I am also pleased when Black artists from the South or artists interested in the South are exhibited. I really enjoyed the David Hammons piece which consists of several bottles in which he has created pieces representing his take on the Delta-here it is lightning in the bottle. Lightning bolts are common –given the quick and harrowing thunderstorms that arise in the Delta so to see them is in a bottle (contained, yet powerful) makes me smile.
And while the Weems display is very powerful as her black clad figure stands in front of museums from the Pergamon in Berlin to Project Row House in Houston–that one is odd as it is modest,new and in a part of Houston that remains stubbornly proudly Black, I was also pleased to see the work of Beverly Buchanan. Ms. Buchanan has been creating sculptures that mimic, deconstruct, examine Southern vernacular architecture. Her father was a Agri agent and she used to join him on his rounds and so saw many farm houses throughout North Carolina. Years ago, I saw her work and was inspired to write “Shack with Vines” one of the poems in “Why I Left the Country” suite. There was something about the shack’s fragility and its necessity that she was able to convey. Her more recent works are more deconstructed, but they are made of materials that are fragile. She continues to explore how for many shelter is makeshift, modest and can at any moment be blown away or burned down. At any moment.
In many wonderful ways. On top of a recent interview with me for Mosaic Literary Magazine that Rochelle Spencer wrote, a new online journal, “The Otter” has an interview with me conducted by Lewis Warsh. Lewis was my first poetry workshop leader–his workshop at The Poetry Project produced a diverse and powerful group of poets: Robin Messing, Bill Kushner, Maggie Dubris, et al. We are all in a mimeo journal called 8:30, because that is when the workshop begain. Lewis was a great teacher. And he continues in that role at Long Island University. Also, the journal is a great addition to several ongoing and new online literary publications out of NYC: tribes.org; kwelijournal; EOAGH; now The Recluse from the Poetry Project. Poetry always finds a home. Here’s the link to the interview with Lewis http://ottermagazine.com and to new poems: http://recluse.poetryproject.org/
The Poetry Project and all of New York City and the universe is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Frank O’Hara’s great poetry book: Lunch Poems with a read every poem reading n June 11 at St. Mark’s Church–to say it’s an all star cast of New York School and beyond poets would be an understatement–be there or be square. Plus, I’ll be reading with Jocelyn Lieu, Sharan Strange, Jessica Greenbaum and Lydia Cortes as part of a new series at the Bryant Park Reading Room on June 19 at 12:30. So Frank O’Hara’s spirit abides.
Many good friends get to go away in June which is hard of course. But even poets and artists and musicians need to escape, recharge, revive spirits and increase good health. So this is a month to look out for roses and rainbows and register to vote-much is at stake in this election locally and nationally. And I want to say thank you to Shirley Verrett whom I saw in Carousel, back when Audra MacDonald played the ingenue, because her version of You’ll Never Walk Alone brought tears to people’s eyes. But her leading off on June is busting out all over brought great smiles. Art can do that. Poetry, music, stories, even the Mammy-Sphinx at the Domino Sugar Factory–soon to be gone-matters. I look forward to doing and seeing more of everything that the season offers even the rain.
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.
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
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.
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. www.sandrapayne.com. 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.
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.
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. http://www.sundaysalon.com/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.
photograph by Patricia Spears Jones
The Poetry Project and Cave Canem did a great job of paying homage to Amiri Baraka/Leroi Jones poetic roots and branches this afternoon. Poets and musicians performed Baraka’s works and/or paid tribute in poems to him. Quincy Troupe’s “Avalanche” had us thinking of Baraka’s welcome to that “unknown country” that he has now gone to. Julie Patton deconstructed his name melody collaborating with a bassist. David Henderson read his work/a Baraka poem and also a fine poem from Diane DiPrima. Cornelius Eady and Rough Music (Poetry’s house band) did a gorgeous multi-vocal arrangementl. I was also moved by Tracie Morris and Vijay Iyer’s deconstruction of “My Favorite Things”.
Bob Holman’s exegesis on Baraka’s most famous poem, you know the one about 9-11, the one that got the New Jersey legislature to remove the Poet Laureate position, which as Bob pointed out leads Baraka to be New Jersey Poet Laureate in perpetuity. It was a masterful critique of the poem, poet and situation. Thank you Bob Holman.
Steve Dalachinsky almost matched his wonderful performance at Jayne Cortez’ memorial last year w/ a wonderful piece in collaboration Matthew Shipp. Greg Tate brought some of Baraka’s prose from Black Music (me thinks “The Changing Same” is one of the great essays of the 20th century, just saying) reading a short riff on Wayne Shorter. And Martha and Basil King who met “Leroi” in the 1950s, Latasha Diggs, Toi Dericotte and James Brandon Lewis added to a generous and diverse group of poetic and musical voices in the tribute.
I almost left and then I realized I had to stay for Anne Waldman, who along with Henderson, Troupe, the Kings was a long time friend of Baraka and so her perspective had to be heard. She read a lovely elegy from Hettie Jones, Baraka’s first wife. Anne also discussed Baraka’s connection to Naropa. and the she and her band Ambrose Bye, Steven Taylor, and Devin Waldman served the material well. Because Anne did a fiery version of “BLACK DADA NIHILISMUS from “The Dead Lecturer”. I remembered how fascinated I am by the readings of poems across genders and Baraka was very much the enraged hetero male and Anne brought out her masculine side and worked those words. And then she ended with a kind of blessing on Baraka’s spirit and for all of us from her own summoning of female power.
I agree with Ammiel Alcalay who remarked that there are more works to unearth from Amiri Baraka and that he was extremely generous to the scholars and poets at CUNY Grad Center. Baraka, indeed all of the poets, Black and White who created the downtown literary scene deserve more scrutiny, to be read, wrestled with. They were not all Beats or Buddhists. They were as diverse as the neighborhood they lived and worked in. I am a huge O’Hara fan as many of my friends know, but I am also glad to have been part of the downtown scene in it’s third iteration in the 1970s w/ Anne and Lewis Warsh and Bernadette Mayer and Ted Greenwald and dear dear Lorenzo Thomas as my mentors, teachers, friends. It is good to see Bernadette and Ted begin to get their due and Lewis is now carving out more poets at LIU. As Steve Cannon told me, “Roi” always came back”. In many ways Baraka went back to Newark but Leroi/Amiri came to New York for friends, fun, the chance to wear his boogie shoes. And finally, Oliver Lake’s solo was extraordinary and his tribute poem a thing of great joy and admiration. Plus, he wore the most beautiful garment-truly a shirt of many colors. Where ever Baraka is he was tapping his feet.
I thank all the poets/ musicians and all the great people who made their way to the Sanctuary to pay tribute.
photograph by Patricia Spears Jones
April 7, RUTH MALECZECH ART + IMPACT
Tribute to Ruth Malaczech
w/ Lee Breuer, Joanne Akalits, Sharon Fogarty, et al
Co-curated by Dr. Jessica Silsby Brater
Segal Theater, CUNY Graduate Center
34th & Fifth Avenue
April 13 Housing Works Downtown Literary Festival
Tribute to Alice Notley
Group Reading organized by Alice Whitwam
Bowery Poetry Club
April 17, Dante Alghieri’s Inferno Reading
9-midnight after Maundy Thursday Service
Group Reading organized by Marilyn Nelson, et al
Cathedral of Saint John the Divine
Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street
April 22, Brownstone Poets
Organized by Patricia Carragon
w/ Yuyutsu Sharma, et al
57 Seventh Avenue
April 27, Sunday Salon
Organized by Nita Noveno
w/ Terence Degnan, Kim Friedman & Sweta Vikram
Jimmy’s No. 43
43 E. 7th Street
I have always said that April is cruel to poets month. Poets are reading everywhere. Some are writing a new poem each day–oh you productive ones. Sometimes, we just post each others’ work on Facebook elsewhere. It is that feast more than famine moment month. But as a poet, I am pleased for the feast. It is good to hear poets as diverse as Cyrus Cassells, , Scott Hightower, Julie Patton, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Anne Waldman, Simone White and that’s just the first two weeks in New York City. At the end of March, I was pleased to launch my new chapbook Living in the Love Economy Berl’s Poetry Shop, a wonderful space for poetry books and all who read them in DUMBO, beneath the Manhattan Bridge and to attend the Center for Black Literature’s National Black Writers Conference. I look forward to readings and events in April.
photograph by John Casquerelli
This past week I led a Master Class at the 12th National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College and I used “Mourning the Queen of Sunday” by Robert Hayden as the prompt. It is Hayden’s centenary and I envy Tony Medina and others who attended a conference in Detroit at Wayne State University. Whether it Academy of American Poets poem-a-day; your local library’s Poem in a pocket Day or if in NYC, you visit the luminous as in daylight Poets House in Tribeca, open your mind and heart to the efforts of we would be bards. You never know what you find there. Some time powerful, forceful, feelingforce, thinkingforce, beingforce. Poems can generate great light or deep darkness. That is good. Poems are human made for humans’ use.