Summer is here, a garden, a massacre

Japanese Garden

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

0617151505Last Wednesday on a day that represented my break from teaching, I walked about the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.  The day had begun soft, gray, moist, but once I got to the garden around 2 p.m. the sun began to break out a huge bright smile over this very walkable feast of a place.  The Garden is undergoing rapid change–new plantings, old trees that fell during Superstorm Sandy.  The variety of roses were in various stages of blooming and closing–the old roses slowly being brought back after a horrific blight.  Yellows, pinks, reds, whites, lilac, even silver colors and climbing flowers make the garden one of the mirthful places in this world.  I remember walking with my sister many years ago in the garden and we found varieties from 1919, the year our Mother was born.  And ones named for movie stars and Presidents.  But it is the Japanese Hill and Garden that I was really happy to see after too long an absence.  White and purple irises were in bloom, and there have been recent prunings of the trees–in many ways the Garden is an arboretum.  And the paths towards the Shinto Shrine, one of the oldest examples in the U.S. had been cleared and recent plantings made it seem particularly lush.  All that green and the glorious orange red portal in the pond.  I have prayed there.  said good bye to a lover there.  Called the names of those lost to terror or storm or old age.  I had no idea that later on, so much terror would be unleashed but in Charleston, SC and nine Black American church people including Rev. Clementa Pinckney would be assassinated.  Who could think of such horror while walking through the beauty of a garden, which is a very human made sculpture?

We can make gardens, but we have difficult time in these United States of looking at our history; at the brutal, vicious and violent treatment of African Americans and finding ways to end racism and brutality towards Black People.  The assassin who sat for an hour in Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church did not expect welcome.  Had no idea that Black people are polite and sharing.  Seemed almost undone by courtesy.  But not enough.  The Devil’s work had to be done.  Not a phrase used, but giving the religious overtones of this political assassination, Rev. Pinckney was a sitting state senator, it seems appropriate.  The assassin is not mentally ill.  He is filled with hatred and he had a gun (gift?) and he wanted that most American of celebrity–infamy.  His name will not be mentioned here.

But if he wanted to trigger a war between the races, he failed.  The race war is between Whites.  This is where Whites of decency, generosity, civility are going to have to decide how much longer they can benefit from White Supremacy, an ideology that does not bother saying its name and ignore those Whites who are brutal, mean spirited, violent and racist who kill, maim in their name.  Because believe me, Black people are done with this.  We are not interested in being moving targets for angry White people.  We know that White Supremacy exists and are done with explaining to the people who created this ideology what they are doing.  We are most willing to defend ourselves, but as Richard Wright noted many many years ago, they got more guns.

So I am hopeful that with the demand to remove the hateful Confederate battle flag from South Carolina capitol grounds; with the commentary in social media from Blacks and Whites and Asians and Native Americans and others on hate crimes, racism that others also have come to that enough is enough moment.  Because with the murders of decent, hard working, charismatic, generous African American citizens who were studying their Bible, a shift in the zeitgest is underway.  America has and may never be “post-racial.”  Barack Obama is President because he was the best candidate for the job and thinking people know that. But his election is but one of the many things that show how the zeitgeist is unfolding.  We are at the start of a serious discussion about ending racism in this country.  This is not a conversation on race–that is stupid.  Racism represents the worst of America’s character and character can be altered, changed.  Racism has got to go.

Rock Rose-BBG. In memory of the Nine.

Rock Rose-BBG. In memory of the Nine.

on recent curation–WORDS SUNDAY

One of the best things about being a poet is that I am also a reader and a listener.  And like many other readers and listeners, when given the opportunity, I enjoy organizing readings.  Atim Oton, an entrepreneur and in her own way community activist decided to open a “Pop Up” of her store, Calabar Imports, in Bed-Stuy near my home.  So I took the opportunity to create WORDS SUNDAY.  A Fall Schedule ended with a great reading by Gregory Pardlo from his brilliant second collection, Digest which recently won the Pulitzer Prize and Alexis De Veaux who’s amazing career includes poetry, fiction collections, and an important biography of Audre Lorde.  The Spring events started with younger, emerging poets Terence Degnan and Soraya Shalforoosh.  Soraya, while volunteering with Four Ways Books asked me to read for their series a week before 9-11.  Poets are elephants, we remember especially the kindnesses of our colleagues.  And the final event in June included Janice Lowe, who I asked to start the entire series; Tai Allen and Ekere Tallie–they were lively and we had a great conversation about the continuing influence of the Black Arts Movement.   I am proud of my work as a curator and hope to do more of this part of my work.  Some pictures from WORDS SUNDAY, Calabar Imports Bed-Stuy Pop-up Brooklyn New York.

Words Sunday

Chat with Gregory Pardlo and Alexis De Veaux November 2014

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Renato Rosaldo and Patricia Spears Jones chatting

Words Sunday, March 2015

Words Sunday, March 2015

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June 7 event-first one w/ three readers. Janice Lowe was joined by Meredith Wright and Yahann, musicians and singers

The day after May Day thank you Jacob Lawrence with event link!

03311520130501152026a03301519020330151954a If I could say that someone waved a magic wand around me, I would say it is because of Jacob Lawrence, an important artist whose work continues to refresh the imagination to this day.  I first saw half of the Migrations Series in the 1970s at the Philllips Collection in D.C.  I think because of Richard J. (Rick) Powell, who was then a artist/scholar/curator kind of guy.  I was stunned.  These little paintings told stories about the South and the very real reasons that Black people left-had to leave.  The next time I saw the panels was at the Whitney I think along with other series, The Builders, etc.  Again, the stories in colors vivid and bold lines–the generosity towards Black folks, the pride of Black folks, the folk of Black folks–his painting allowed the narrative to sing through.

So when Elizabeth Alexander  (she’s the very tall imposing diva next to moi) asked me to create a poem in response to the Series, I was both excited and terrified.  How to do justice to this work?  How not imitate in words what he had already done in paint?  How to add to the discourse on the Black Migration?  How.  Last August when I was the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I re-looked at each of the panels and realized that Panel 57 was what I returned to.  She’s the only single female figure in the entire series.  She’s wearing white.  There’s a cross in the picture.  I thought of my cousin Hassie, who was head Usher at the Baptist church she attended.  I thought of the aunts who came down from Chicago and Detroit looking fly.  I thought of the harsh beauty of the south and the hard heartedness of southern white leadership.  And then I realize that the best way into the poem was through scent.  If you get the catalog you can read “Lave”.  If you attend the exhibition, up till September 7, you can hear me and the other poems read our work in one of exhibition room.   You can hear great music in other rooms (I am in a picture with the great opera singer, Kevin Maynard)  On May 1, May Day, International Worker’s Day, we read at the Museum of Modern Art.

Hopefully, this link will take to what was one of my proudest moments as a poet and a Black woman who has lived long enough to know the harsh beauty remains in the South as does menace towards Black people, poor people–but I also know that the struggles have moved North, have taken a more complicated hard heartedness.  But like our ancestors, we keep moving and when needed like the laundress, we find work, we do the work, we stand on whatever ground we can.

Again, I thank Elizabeth Alexander.  Leah Dickerman, Sarah Kennedy, Jennifer Harris and a great crew at MOMA; the film studio guys, the really nice guards, the wait staff for any and all dinners, the whole sense of conviviality.  Because ultimately, Lawrence shows how Black people embrace life in all of its complications from loving to loss; from brutality to struggles for justice.  We really do keep on keeping on.  And if you cannot embrace that simple thought you are starved of humanity.  Praises to the Ancestors.  Praises to the poets.

The reading was live streamed on youtube, here is the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pdPZ5Wag9BM#action=share

 

la vida es la sueno, sometimes

0331152013  Jacob Lawrence at age 23 showed a series of small paintings narrating the GREAT MIGRATION–the movement of thousands of Black people from the South of these United States to hopefully better lives in the North.  This is the largest voluntary internal migration-all others were forced.  I kept that in mind as I developed the poem, “Lave” which is part of the Poetry Suite commissioned by Elizabeth Alexander for the Museum of Modern Arts exhibition of the entire series for the first time in 20 years.  One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series and Other Visions of  The Great Movement North is now up at MOMA and it is worth seeing because it shows how active, innovative and politically engaged African American artists were during the Great Depression into War Years and beyond.  We are still working through the power of their imagery, those ideas, and of course their challenges.   This panel is the one I focused on when writing my poem, though others are in the poem as well.  Every poet in the suite came to Lawrence’ work from their own perspective, just as  artists came to their response to the growing urbanization of Blacks differently from Lawrence.   My life is like a dream, sometimes at least when it comes to poetry.

On May 1, a Debut Reading of the Poetry Suite  moderated by Elizabeth Alexander will include me and Rita Dove, Nikky Finney, Terrance Hayes, Tyehimba Jess, Yusef Komunyakaa,  Natasha Trethewey, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Crystal Williams, and Kevin Young.

At the preview exhibition, I had a chance to commune with my Panel, but I am sure when I go again, the gallery will be packed.  Here’s the link: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2015/onewayticket/

May your life be a dream sometimes, too.

 

 

Spring finally- Palm Sunday notes

Today is Palm Sunday.  I go to St. John’s Episcopal church in Park Slope.  I went to Episcopal mission school in Arkansas and I find the ritual and the thoughtfulness helpful to calm the many many noises that go on in my creative brain. I was raised in the Pentecostal Church, which is as ritualized as the Anglican churches, but with movement, great music and serious “testifying”.  The noises in my my creative brain often felt amplified.  But I miss the music.  My mother before I was born was the Preacher’s singer–the woman (always a woman) who sang the most emotional hymn before the Preacher preached.  She was in a harrowing car accident and she stopped singing. But she remain a devoted, dedicated Christian and in a few years joined a Christian Methodist Church, where over the years she became one of the matriarchs.  I’ve been in NYC for along while and years ago when I told people I believed in God they seemed surprised.  Often these were people who are now Buddhists, but mostly they had either been Roman Catholic or Jewish or had been raised with no spiritual tradition.  None of the people who believed in African religions never said anything like that.  Belief is a personal choice.  It is something that you come to for many different reasons, but at it’s essence, it is also deeply emotional and filled with the necessary words of testimony–how the Lord got me over.

One of the reasons, I love Carolyn Rodgers “how I got ovah” was that she was able to connect her deep faith to our desires as Black people for freedom, safety, love.  Today is Nina Simone’s birthday and my poem  “The Perfect Lipstick” was one of the first to receive wide readership because it has Ms. Simone as a figure of great importance.  When she sings spirituals, civil rights songs she reminds me of the sisters testifying:  “I give my honor to God . . . ”  She gave her honor to the people, Black people.  I often wish I could attain that level of confession and purgation.  But I think of The Passion of Christ and I think of the Passion of Black People in the United States and I think of redemption and transformation.  For me it is the transformation of that suffering into something powerful-the Holy Spirit’s bright message that I find of deepest interest.  I don’t know whether I want to go to “heaven” unless my mother and the many good people I have met in my life are there, but the idea of transformation of moving away from the bad habits, anger, mistrust to a place of freedom, beauty, community–I can feel that sometimes in church and yes in art.

Spring is here finally, the crocuses are sprouting, forsythia is on its way and when the white blossoms of the living bradford pears come, I may cry.  I will assuredly smile and so will many many others.  We have had a winter too frigid, too snowy, too gloomy and we need every blossom the Creator brings. 0329151354

 

 

time to start to look back

last year of my 50s! at Cafe Loup, photo by Karen Bell

last year of my 50s! at Cafe Loup, photo by Karen Bell

Since 2008 I have been writing about being  a Black Bohemian in the East Village in the 1970s.  I am trying to discover who I was as a way to understand how I’ve been able to be a poet and artist and person in this world.  It has been daunting, but slowly the memoir is coming together.

Thanks to Malaika Adero for presenting my brief look at 1976 the photo by Amos Rice that shows Stanley Crouch, Alice Norris, David Murray, Carlos Figueroa, me, Phillip Wilson Victor Rosa and Charles “Bobo” Shaw.http://homeslicemag.com/outside-tim-palace-photograph-1976/

I hope to publish more pieces over the next several months

 

progress is not a trick

“We do a disservice to the cause of justice by intimating that bias and discrimination are immutable, that racial division is inherent to America.  If you think nothing’s changed in the past 50 years, ask somebody who lived through the Selma or Chicago or Los Angeles of the 1950s.  Ask the female CEO who once might have been assigned to the secretarial pool if nothing’s changed.  Ask your gay friend if it’s easier to be out and proud in America now than it was thirty years ago.  To deny this progress, this hard-won progress -– our progress –- would be to rob us of our own agency, our own capacity, our responsibility to do what we can to make America better”.  President Barack Obama

Progress is not a trick, but assessing it can be tricky.  I am of an age where I see clearly how much this nation has changed since 1965 and yes there is much un-finished business.  Racism and hatred and violence are those societal elements that we must constantly struggle with.  Justice is often denied, but sometimes justice is made.  Ferguson as our President pointed out is not “unique”–the worst corruption there is is small town corruption.  I know because I grew up in a small town.  But as the President, the Representatives and the still living foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement constantly point out, we have destiny in our hands.  To not vote, the pretend that your vote doesn’t matter means to me at least that you give up any right to complain about anything because you have ceded your power and most likely to the very people who will do you the greatest harm.  Black people, progressive people sat out the 2014 elections and see what kind of Congress we got now.

I am tired of people saying well these people are racists and therefore more honest.  I know he’s a thief, so I will vote for him and not complain when he dips his hand in the collective till.  Racists are no more honest than anyone else.  But greed, stupidity, meanness, misogyny and misanthropy reign supreme in the halls of Congress.  But there has been greed, stupidity, violence, et al in the past.  And when it got too bad-the VOTERS through the rascals out.  I have voted in every election but one since I registered to vote right out of college–that means Presidential elections. primaries, school board elections, State and local contests.  All of them in three cities: Atlanta, New York and Boston.  Sometimes my candidates win, sometimes they lose.  But I can complain and praise and put my two cents in with pride.  People died.  Black people died so that I could participate in this democracy, a very far from perfect experiment.

There are terrible things going on in every state in this Union-men and women hell bent on destroying public education; on destroying collective bargaining and unionization not only in the public sector, but the private sector as well–a good way to KEEP WAGES DOWN; on making health care unaffordable and almost inaccessible for poor and working class people;  and policing women’s bodies esp. during childbearing years.  These people hate art and culture and think that anybody or maybe robots should teach.  Of course their children go to expensive private schools.  They will sell of park lands.  Gut the budgets of child welfare offices.  They are there because less than 50% of people show up and vote.  And as long as “progressives” sit on their hands and occupy their grievances these people will do even more harm.  Plenty people talk about revolution and societal transformation, but few are willing to DO THE WORK to make laws; to set policies; to administer them.  And so the right takes more and more control.  The people who were beaten and brutalized by the STATE OF ALABAMA 50 years ago wanted to vote in order to gain power and  make change.  The mayor of Selma is Black.  The mayor of Selma is Black.

many poets at Wilson Hall/Furious Flower PC, Virginia

many poets at Wilson Hall/Furious Flower PC, Virginia

Belle du Jour

The housewife birds

To another house-black lace stockings

Here sex is transactional

I.E.

She gives a little.  He pays a lot

 

She birds back-sofa purchased

Suits cleaned.  Walk here and there

The shops @) and (@) and (@)

Chanel, Dior, Hermes

Silks and leather –Leather and silk

She memorizes the number of tassels

On her brand new whip.

 

Silk and leather and diamond shaped bird

Her earnings consumed in pretty things

Husband finds –mis understanding Where

He beats her after sex

She gives a little. He takes a lot.

 

She considers the whip.  She considers the blood

Down his back.  She considers the sofa.  She

Puts the bird on her chest.  She refuses to

Flutter.

 

Husband washes his hands and considers

The necessity of marriage.  What is wife but

Bird. But if bird, what is husband.  Hunter or

Just another bird.  Blood runs down his back.

 

Home is après ski and minor gossip

Home is husband

Home is where the cat’s claws

Remain untrimmed.

 

Poem posted in The Ashbery Home School–thanks to Emily Skillings.

La vida de la poet

One of the things about writing poems is to take risk or to use unlikely sources.  On my birthday I share this poem selected by The AshberyHomeSchool organized by Adam Fitzgerald and Emily Skillings.  Many years ago, I took Thulani Davis to see Belle Du Jour for her birthday.  We felt oh so sophisticated.  That seems like a century ago and indeed it was in the last century of the last millennium. Years later I thought about the film, but also more about what is marriage since it has been on everyone’s mind-gay marriage; divorce rates; why get married; why men are happier married, etc. etc. etc.     I am not married, but probably would have made an interesting wife had I been married.  But who knows.  I do not.  But the film gave a look at how marriage represses women.  And the ways in which she “liberates”  or does not “liberate” herself is at the heart of the film.  Of course it’s a film by the great Spanish director Bunel and given his misogyny, the liberation focuses on her use of sex.  Of course women liberate ourselves in a range of ways and that is a good thing.   We need more liberty.  We need to think about what marriage or not marriage is.  We need to find language that allows our full selves to be claimed by our full selves.  As a poet who is living her life as best she can, I know that it is not easy to live one’s full life.  But I urged each of us to do so as best we can.

At MOMA, with Jacob Lawrence catalog, January 2015

At MOMA, with Jacob Lawrence catalog, January 2015

http://ashberyhomeschool.org/gallery/patricia-spears-jones/