Yes, I deserve this

roses and cards from friends near and far

Anyone who works long and hard and seriously at their chosen art form deserves recognition.  Anyone.  But I am not anyone and I am so glad to have received the 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers.  It was a balm, a boon, and a joy to share with friends on May 23rd at the Century Club–so venerable, the balcony looks towards the Chrysler Building!  Strands of my life from Loft Jazz world, The Poetry Project, Bomb Magazine, Mabou Mines,  Vermont College, VCCA, Rhodes College, CUNY, St John’s Church in Park Slope, Cave Canem were all there. So many people, I did not get to greet everyone.  They came from Boston and Long Island and one of my hometown friends ws there! Nicole Peyrafitte posted part of my acceptance speech, thus the title of this blog.

My hair stylist Nadia Vassell made my hair look fab; a Lancome rep at Saks did my makeup.    I wore new clothes that Janet Goldner helped me shop for. I was happy.  I am thrilled and tired and glad that the ceremony and brouhaha are over.  I have plans for this good fortune, mostly paying bills and giving myself that cushion because I’ve had many many many rainy days and no cushion.  I do not come from money or a pedigree.  There are no relatives who went to Harvard or Spelman or even FSU!  I am the first person in my entire family to go to and complete college. I come from Forrest City, a small town in Arkansas in the Delta that is barely holding on, but was once a site of major cotton plantations and the ancillary businesses resulting from that.  Cotton is still there and rice and soy beans and corn, but people Black or White are not “on the land”-huge machines do what hundreds of poorly paid people did 50 years ago.  But the land is where my mama resides in a graveyard in the South end of town and land is what I co-own with my brother and sister in town.  And land is large and flat and green. I come from a verdant and violent place.

So I deeply appreciate the judges selection of my work. It means that you can come from a small place in a small state and make it big (well Bill Clinton did that first, but hey, he’s not a poet) in your chosen field.  I am not “big”, but this says that my work is important. And they give me money too! I am so pleased that this “win” is only about selection from a small universe of nominees and not one of us knew we were up for this prize.  This is about merit and spirit and recognition and yes, I deserve this.  Any poet who has been writing and publishing and editing and reviewing and caring deeply about language and the people who explore and explode it, deserves recognition.  So whomever receives this next year–enjoy the roses, the cards, the love and acclaim from friends and more scrutiny than one can possibly handle.  For now, the recipient is moi and moi is pleased and glad to have made an excuse for wonderful friends to celebrate and be joyful on a balcony in mid-town as the sun set and everyone dressed up!

Selfie with Lee Briccetti, dir. of Poets House

summer blessings and borders

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.

downsized_0606141624a (1)

Maya Angelou-thank you


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.

I saw Ms. Angelou perform in the late 80s and she was extraordinary.  She was tall and handsome and commanding and she had a voice that could either thrill the ears or freeze the heart depending on what she had to say.  As she aged she took some odd turns about things that I did not uderstand–the support of Mike Tyson for instance. But that was her way of remaining engaged in the currents of this nation.  I am sure that she like every other Black Southerner over the age of 40 was totally amazed with Obama’s election.  None of us saw that coming.  
Her book I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS which chronicled the daily challenges Blacks faced living in Arkansas, in the South in last decades of segregation should be read by every American.  Every last one including the people who most likely would continue the awful practices that were so intensely corrosive and oppressive.  And her description of how and why her voice return is a powerful statement about the NECESSITY OF ART, OF LITERATURE OF A LIFE OF THE MIND.
I salute her as a PHENOMENAL WOMAN who made the lives of many poor Black girls like me seem so much richer, textured and important.   She gave us that push into public spaces that we were not supposed to be.  REST IN POWER MAYA ANGELOU