The East Side

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.

Item 65 poem and image

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

divers by John Ahearn, Coney Island

divers by John Ahearn, Coney Island

thinking more than feeling.

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.



Hotter than July–really

Art from Kongo, 17th c.

Art from Kongo, 17th c.

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.

No to the New Normal

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. for ticket prices, details.  The event will honor the late C.D. Wright, a great poet and a fellow Arkansan.  She’d be pleased I think.

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.

brash and bold–Giants go home, June 4, 2016

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.

Tribute sign, SoHo

Tribute sign, SoHo

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

what perseverance brings aka poem with “legs”

broadside Kelly Writers House

broadside Kelly Writers House

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– 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.

no ice tea; some lemonade

I don’t really have anything to add or subtract from the ongoing Lemonade discourses.  I do  salute the ambition of a Black pop singer who clearly has an eye for innovative video and cinematic art.  But I must say it is fascinating to see the kind of exegesis done on something not 3 weeks old.  Whole dissertations have been launched given the lengths that some folk have gone through parsing every color, angle and possibly ripped off image. le sigh.  After reading bell hooks comments & some of the pushback, I wrote on Facebook:

I think it is perfectly fine to not agree with major public intellectuals. I think that some folk don’t even know or care about “intersectionality”; “empowerment” or a host of other such words. I do know some women who would never call themselves feminists or womanists for that matter, but they work in this world like every obstacle in their way esp. ones put up by men must be knocked down and so they do. Is the patriarchy going to be destroyed? Is the matriarchy going to be destroyed? I keep reading posts about how this that and the other will, must go and have been for like 40 years and yet this that and the other are still here. Not saying don’t try to make change, just saying we may be at the beginning of that shift, but it will be generations hence that will reap the benefits (what ever those may be).

Today on the Brian Lehrer program after a discussion of the phrase “political correctness” and how its use has morphed over the past 4 decades, Sherman Alexie came on to discuss his most recent efforts focused on naming. Names are important and often what trips me up by fellow Black intellectuals is the lack of names–“the black body”; “the black male body” “the aestheticized black body” are just some of those phrases.  Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland all have names.  They are dead from police or police wannabe generated violence. It is hard to think of them as “bodies.”  But then, my take is an outlier to many intellectual gestures,  well-considered and well-crafted and I value being the contrarian.  Names and naming are important.  And when names are detached from the humans with them, there is loss.  It is hard to call names of the dead.  It is hard to know that young people, good people, smart people, dumb people with parents and cousins and lovers and enemies and dear friends are dead from violence–the police, strangers, close friends, lovers any of them can shoot, stab, choke, poison.  The world is a dangerous place.

And yet as Beyonce’s Lemonade shows, even a pop star can develop a vision of moving through this world going from rage to reconciliation (at least there was no rehab here). At some point, each of us learns how to move through life understanding suffering and pain is part of it, but also love, forgiveness and joy.  And those emotions and conditions are attached to people with names.  Mine is Patricia.  What is yours?

Book tour comes back East-Philadelphia in April.

Charles Bernstein and the terrific people at Kelly Writers House at UPENN invited me to read and chat in Philadelphia in April.  It was the perfect thing to do during April is Poetry Month.   I like Philadelphia.  I’ve encounter interesting art exhibitions, vistas and hang with lovely people like Liz Abrams-Morley a fellow poet.  We went to an installation years ago at the Eastern State Penitiary, one of America’s gifts to world culture, i. e. prison design. The cells of this prison visited by dignitaries in the 19th century set the standards for solitary confinement.  The installations were amazing and that is when I discovered the powerful work of Homer Jackson, a Philadelphia-based artist and activist.

So this April I headed to Philadelphia early Thursday morning April 21 on the Amtrak and when I went in search of the cafe car, I ran into Latasha N. Diggs!  She too, was on her way to Philly to perform.  I felt like a real touring professional-that’s the first time I ran into a fellow poet/writer/perfomer.  She looked great.

on the train 4-21-16

on the train 4-21-16

It was a full day for me. First, Charles Bernstein’s class at UPENN.  They had some very complicated questions which I answered during a radio recording for “Close Reading”   Then later I joined Charles,  Al Filreis, the KWH Faculty Director, and Yolanda Wisher in a discussion of Akilah Oliver’s poem “is you is or is you ain’t” for Poemtalk.  Ms. Wisher is now the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and she is brilliant, attractive alnd energetic.  She’s going to do great things. It was a lively conversation about Oliver’s poem.  It also showed how much she is missed given her untimely death.

Finally, I did a reading at the Kelly Writers House.  Jessica Lowenthal and her crew were really helpful.  And we had a good audience on a very powerful allergy hitting day!  I gave one of my best readings because the audience truly listened.  One woman came early and she seemed to have the best time.  It feels like I left my voice in Philadelphia.

It is good to go out and read work to people who are interested but are for the most part strangers.  Too often we really do preach to the choir.  Our voices as poets need to reach as many listeners as we can.  They are there and they offer us advice, support and surprising insight.  My A Lucent Fire tour has been one of the best things I’ve ever arranged.

and yes, later we found that Prince has departed.  So the radio played great music and on tv, images of the always fashion forward Prince multiplied.  I wrote about his first major label album when I had a music column for Essence back in the 1980s and yes I loved what he was doing even then. He influenced my generation of poets and the subsequent ones.  Thank you Prince, gylph

Charles Bernstein

Charles Bernstein

and all.  Am sure Charles Bernstein agrees and if he doesn’t –well that’s my generation.



California dreaming on a chilly day

Yesterday, I knew I had truly returned to New York City.  It was cold.  The trains were not running–turns out some guy who stole a cell phone was hit by an F Train (served him right) and I got home to an email telling me NO, you are not getting that Fellowship that you’ve applied for a gazillion times.  Aah, but from last Wednesday to Sunday morning of week before I was in L.A. and I had a ball.

The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley had a party first day in Echo Park, a charming enclave with actual Victorian houses–some beautifully dressed up and appointed, others falling down, drunken ruins of buildings. Aah. The poets, writers, artists who gathered were charming and lively-the food delicious and I won a bottle of wine for coming the furthest (from Brooklyn) to this party.  Thanks Brett Hall Jones, et al.  I so look forward to serving as one of the staff poets with Kazim Ali who was there and Sharon Olds, Cathy Park Hong, Juan Felipe Herrera and Bob Hass, the director this June.  I went to Squaw, 3 times during the 1990s and many of my best poems started there.  To return as a teacher is really a blessing–I think Galway Kinnell is smiling about this.

AWP was held in the Convention Center and well I hung out in the Book fair and ran into good people I don’t get to see like Prageeta Sharma and people I see often like Reggie Harris.  There were many major conversations about poets who are going through difficult times and how the community is poorly dealing with all the mess of it.  Sad.  Poets House presented a spectacular program on poetry and protest with Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Luis Javier Rodriguez and Naomi Shahib Nye. There was a lot of candy at many of booths and tables (I took as much chocolate as I could really take).  I saw a good friend whom I need to reconcile with and we did.  L. A. was good for that kind of thing.

I read with Black Earth Institute Fellows: Lauren Camp, Taylor Broby, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Marcella Durand (woo hoo) and Melissa Tuckey at this weird bookstore on Sunset Blvd.  Getting there including getting the Uber driver to find us on Figuroa in front of the Convention Center–there are different kinds of blindness in L.A. and many one way streets.

I moderated Out of L.A.: A Tribute for Jayne Cortez that was organized by Laura Hinton who has done some serious scholarship on Cortez’ life in LA. as a young woman.  Aldon Nielsen, Jennifer D. Ryan-Bright and Pam Ward were the other panelists and they all contributed deep understanding and knowledge about Cortez’ development, but it was Mel Edwards who flew into the L.A. to attend the panel who pointed out that Cortez was NOT a member of the Watts Writers Workshop which was started post the riots of 1965 and enhanced info about the artistic scene that Cortez was a significant member of.  Love, courage and freedom–those are the words I think of when I think of Jayne and she is deeply missed.  Latasha Diggs is organizing several programs in Cortez honor that will take place in New York City this April.

What I loved the most was moving about downtown–the roundabout way to get to the Double Tree Hotel to meet a filmmaker doing interviews with poets for an upcoming documentary and seeing a Hindu wedding procession at it’s start; looking at the stream of L.A. Kings fans in their sports gear; a handsome man (designer/carpenter/gorgeous guy) talking with clients/friends outside a beautiful Japanese restaurant; martinis with my one my best male friends at the pretty Noe’s bar at Omni California Plaza;  bouganvilla on the side of massively ugly buildings; kissing a man I care about; running into a poet I’ve not seen since my first visit to Squaw.  In weather warm enough for daytime roaming, but too cool for nighttime hanging w/out serious sweaters, clear skies, and massive billboards with moving parts trans human–Blade Runner with out the murkiness.  Northern California was indeed cold and damp at night, but Southern California was simply cold.

I sold out my book,  A Lucent Fire: New & Selected at the White Pine Table.  I bought books by dear friends and new ones.  And best of all I kept running into Patricia Jabbeh Wesley who is the most exuberant poet/scholar ever.  You must read/hear her.

Poets at VIDA

VIDA table. Melissa Studdard, Patricia J. Wesley

VCFA's Table-everyone was great

VCFA’s Table-everyone was great

Myra Shapiro bought my last book at White Pine Press Table

Myra Shapiro bought my last book at White Pine Press Table

Poet friends

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

Crystal Williams & Matthew Shenoda in red lobby light

Crystal Williams & Matthew Shenoda in red lobby light

So many dear friends new friends so many poets and artists and writers and dreamers and hustlers and then at 5:30 or so on Saturday the EXODUS  out of the Center began–I was waiting for a parting of the escalators.