After going to the Page Poetry Parlour performance of Janice Lowe for her brilliant volume Leaving CLE--where she performed her poem/songs with a stellar group of musicians–she’s a great composer/arranger as well as poet–I walked out into the late summer evening and beheld the slowly waning harvest moon. Odd, cop car mid street at 9th Avenue and as I walked along past a building where I heard fantastic drumming (Michael Carven) I saw more cops, a WPIX van and asked two guys, what’s going on. “Explosion” between 6th and 7th. Masses of people were hanging at the corner , no one was panicking just another night in Gotham-one with bombs and 29 people injured. This is life during Wartime. It has been that way for 15 years. And we continue to make art, make love, make our lives as best we can. So this huge moon like the strawberry moon in June reminds me of cycles and sustenance–that things pivot and yet stay the same. There are terrible people who have time and bad intentions on their minds and we can no more stop them then we can stop the wind. They are not going to go away. So I say make your art–poems, stories, songs, paintings, installations, movies, whatever. Make them. Reap a harvest of new work to share. This is nurture. This is the good intention that we all can do as we live our lives as best we can under whatever huge moon we see.
I sent my brother my extra copy of Of Poetry and Protest: from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (WW Norton). He’s thrilled to have it and I am thrilled to be in it. This has been a year where so many Black poets have had to to “yet again” respond to the ongoing violence against our persons and community -vigilantes, police the political elite esp of one party. It’s 2016. Today is the 15 anniversary of the attack on and destruction of the World Trade Center, two edifices that tourists from around the globe seek to see. The irony of that is not lost on me or most New Yorkers.
As I said elsewhere my animus is focused mostly on the men who carried out the attack. They had the opportunity to not murder over 3,000 people. They chose not to. It might have been a matter of belief, but so what. People believe in all kinds of things, worship God or Gods or Goddesses and yet do not kill 3000 people. The event led to many other more horrific ones including America’s invasion of Iraq. Death and destruction continues.
It makes me realize how easy it is to war. To start and sustain conflict and put bodies in place to carry out the orders. The use of drones is just one more measure of the mechanization of this human effort. Whether by a soldier’s hand in combat or hand on a computer screen other humans die. Many other humans.
Peace is hard. Peace is about grown people finding ways to not lash out, not destroy, not manifest rage on somebody else body. And right now few people are ready to wage peace. That the Syrian president-a trained opthamologist is willing to drop chlorine bombs on children tells all of us just how bad the people who wage war want to win. I don’t even know if there is a place in hell for such a “leader”. Or maybe there is a new hell. Peace is hard. And no it will not be in my lifetime that peace will take root, but maybe in my grand nephew’s? I so hope.
Because as LaBelle sang “We need Power” but also “We need love.”
There is a reading of about 15 poets at Jefferson Market Public Library, 10th and 6th avenue, 2-4 p.m. FREE.
Come by. Commemorate.
The past several days I’ve been going the East Side of Manhattan. For good reason. One was to hear famous and soon to be famous African poets read their work at the Ford Foundation–a reception organized by Elizabeth Alexander for the African Poetry Book Fund. The Fund is the brain and heart child of Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani–also there was Matthew Shenoda. I was invited through the other wonderful Patricia, Patrica Jabbeh Wesley, a great poet/scholar and exurberant force of all things positive in this world. She was super dynamic, everyone was. But getting there meant taking the East side express which is super crowded and navigating Grand Central –at least I remembered how to get to the Ford Foundation, with the UN Building and Tudor City to its East. A couple of nights later I had drinks and dinner with Major Jackson–who is writing great poems; teaching all over the joint and is now a distinguished professor at the University of Vermont–he’s also a proud papa and has found the wife he’s been searching for. Good for him.
Then today, I joined Nita Noveno, a terrific Filipina-American writer who teaches at CUNY and who is just so smart and pretty and wise and we had lunch at the Asia Society (shivering) while outside the air just got thicker. After the lunch, I suggested we go see the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer–Nita was like what? I explained that the Met has taken over the uptown Whitney Museum space as the Whitney is all the way downtown–she was kind of skeptical. I am glad we walk into the think air for a few blocks and found our way into the museum. Here’s my thoughts on the Arbus exihibition:
The Diane Arbus exhibition at The Met Breur is really important. There’s something about looking at an artist’s work as it changes-the nuances, the sudden shifts. Arbus’ has been so analyzed and analyzed and that it is great to see things not seen before–the be in a fresh place with her. The city she encounters is no longer here and yet–the odd intimacy she captures; the “performing” children–they work in circuses, in vaudeville, as “city kids” showing off; the actual performers: singers, freak show actors, female impersonators; and the “ordinary” who are not so “ordinary” all in glorious black and whites and grays in small format (for these days). Indeed it is a shock to see the large format photographs-all famous in the last gallery. They seem not so much a step into the major leagues as a kind of huge shift away from something that could no longer be done or expressed–am not sure of how to say this. They did not seem like a culmination of practice, but a recognition that the practice no longer worked. Walking through, well actually meandering through the installation was a kind of treat. It reminded me of my first few years in the city, taking a new path, finding a new way to get from the East Side to the West; from Canal Street to 23rd, all by foot. Please see this exhibition. See if you can discern the beauty, the pain, the comic, the silly and the dream in her work.
Sometimes you take the plunge when there is no water
here the divers-three divers on a board rise up out of sand
then fall into a blue day, made bluer by the cleansing
winds from the Caribbean. We are witness to the falling
to the divers 3 in the sands of Coney Island. John Ahearn
bids us greetings and farewells, sunsets and sunsets.
Sometimes you take the plunge when the water is not near.
Poem by Patricia Spears Jones–art by John Ahearn
Atmosphere by Coney Island, July 2016
On Bastile Day a truck drove into a crowd in Nice France and killed 80 people (so far). The driver is dead. A man shoots policemen in Dallas, he is dead. These suicides/murders seem to be proliferating–a tactic from the Middle East makes it way to Europe,then the U.S. where does it stop–Mongolia?
I wish I were smarter or braver or could predict some way out of this time of violence, terror, and fear. I cannot. But no one can. This kind of overwhelming volatility is outside ordinary thinking. We need to accept that the West gave up on a generation of people and now that generation’s children are fighting back and they are as unkind unfeeling and dismissive as those who were unkind, unfeeling and dismissive oftheir kin. They come out of the prisons “radicalized” which is another way of saying they come out of prison with skills to avenge whatever wrongs they felt were placed upon them and little in French or Belgian or American society is done to undermine these tendencies. It really is that reaping and sowing moment.
I am a poet. I know that language matters. The rhetoric in the American campaign esp. on the part of the right has left many people feeling unwelcome in their own country. The dismissal of criticism –oh that’s PC when something is the work of an anti-Semite or a racist (the KKK) or (YOU NAME THE SUBJECT) by the presumptive candidate for the Republican Party is one more way of allowing the worse of our actors onto center stage. Language matters and questions matter. Why are pollsters asking about trust? Most people do not trust their family members so how is that 67% of Americans somehow trust Donald Trump? Trust him to do what? Why are pollsters asking what candidate has created legislation that supports you? Or called for innovation in some way shape or form and do you agree with it? I don’t trust politicians. I do agree or disagree with policies. But then I am an adult and I am not interested in adolescent responses. I want to hear from people who are curious, look at facts and demand real answers. I don’t want to wait from the avengers to come after the rest of us.
The past week is one that tries all our souls. The deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and the Dallas police and traffic officers are awful. But remember it is very rare to ambush policemen. However 3-4 people are fatally shot by the police in this nation each day–the Washington Post has been keeping an account. Sterling and Castile would be alive today if the officers had refrained from shooting first and asking later and please, none of needs the “they should have done this that or the other” in order to stay alive. Citizens treated with respect rarely die in police custody. Both men were disrespected, their movements misinterpreted and their 2nd amendment rights to carry guns ignored.
I am not pro-or anti-police–that is an absurd phrase. I do think that policing by those who actually understand law, know the communities that are being policed and work with the people in them makes sense. My brother exemplifies that kind of work and he has taught that to his son. I know others whose families have police who are absolutely appalled at the lack of professionalism on the part of their fellows in blue. The other kind that seems to find many people further impoverished, overly imprisoned and dead ain’t working. #blacklivesmatter and this idea/hashtag/movement is not going away because of a terrible ambush.
The list of Black, Brown, Native American, Asians, and yes White folks who have been un armed; peaceful; playing in the park; talking to their wives; their girlfriends; the best friends; on the way to a job interview; leaving work late; minding their own business; driving down a road in early evening; late day; the morning; midnight, etc. seems to bring out the worst fantasies of a subset of officers who are frightened and dangerous–they are not bad apples, there are too many of them. Those officers are part of the norm and the norm needs to change. We can lift up the lives of those who were shot in the line of duty, their sacrifice was great. We can also demand justice for the victims of police violence and the kind of police work that continues to dignify that sacrifice. Anything less is cablenewstv talkingheads world–one none of us needs to live in.
Art from Kongo, 17th c.
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. email@example.com
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.
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.
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
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–http://www.wesleyan.edu/wespress/bax/ 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.