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Ethelbert Miller
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So there we were (yesterday ) sitting in the historical Thurgood Marshall Center (located at 1816 12th Street, NW). I thought I heard Langston Hughes walking around outside the room. The Marshall Center is one of the sites for the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. A 2 pm discussion was called "Reclamation, Celebration, Renewal and Resistance: Black Poets Writing on the Natural World." The focus was on Camille T. Dungy's important anthology - Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry published by The University of Georgia Press. This book is dedicated to Reginald Shepherd. In her introduction Dungy explains the reason for her book: "For year, poets and critics have called for a broader inclusiveness in conversations about ecocriticism and ecopoetics, one that acknowledges other voices and a wider range of cultural and ethnic concerns. African Americans, specifically, are fundamental to the natural fabric of this nation but have been noticeably absent from tables of contents. To bring more voices into the conversation about human interactions with the natural world, we must change the parameters of the conversation." Festival participants gathered to listen to poems and remarks from a few of Dungy's contributors. Reading from the pages of Black Nature were Gregory Pardlo, Remica L. Bingham, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Mark McMorris and myself. I was really impressed by Lady Bingham's interpretation of some of the poems included in the book. Remica was one of my students when I was a core faculty member with the Bennington Writing Seminars. I think the program does an excellent job helping writers to develop not only their own work but to read, interpret and appreciate poetry. Bingham is one of those poets who hopefully will publish a collection of essays in a few years. Spending an afternoon listening to African American writers talking about their relationship to nature was not a post-racial moment - it was more an example of what is happening in African American poetry these days. Thanks to organizations like Cave Canem, someone like Noah would have a difficult time selecting just 2 - for the ark. There are many talented Black poets blooming these days that Mother Nature must be jealous. What I like about these new poets is that they are making sure some of their elders are not overlooked. Discussion in the Marshall building turned to the work of Ed Roberson. Is this guy still in Pittsburgh? His poems are included in Dungy's anthology. Roberson is the author of Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In and Atmosphere Conditions. In Black Nature we find his poem "blue horses" and his talent is wearing a suit: the cold has put blue horses where lambs were. and quiet cows that fattened in the night upon the grass are driven in and stones wild veined with ice have taken over in the fields: the moon is chewing on the snow. and something watching from a stand of pines has tied off screams into a hanging knot the road has... Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
The Split This Rock Poetry Festival started yesterday. I missed the opening ceremony and the featured readings with Andrea Gibson, Wang Ping, Cornelius Eady, Holly Bass, Beny Blaq and Derrick Weston Brown. I was over at American University teaching a class of D.C. teachers who had been reading my memoir Fathering Words. I did run over to Busboys and Poets in the afternoon and grab the program guide listing the events that will take place the next few days.Thursday morning I have to go listen to Nancy Morejon. I guess one could call her the First Lady of Poetry for Cuba. I haven't seen Nancy in several years. It will be nice to give her a poetry hug. The title of her last book is With Eyes and Soul: Images of Cuba. This is a book of poetry and photographs.The pictures were taken by Milton Rogovin. Here is Nancy Morejon's "Hour of Truth (IX)" from her collection of poems: And I sing in Cuba. Sing in my native tongue forever. Young people pass by with their tufts of red hair floating in the wind of Revolution, its prow turned to the sun of our New World. And I swim above the city. And above the blue of the city, and above the sudden change in the city. And above its latest generation. And we're building and building, higher than our isolation, higher than their profiteering. Here's where I want to be. Crossing bridges, rivers, centrifuges. I dip myself in nickel: - I unearth the bird's tongue. How lovely is my land. Morejon's work captures that political spirit we associate with poets who witness social change. It's similar to the poem by Langston Hughes that is used as the umbrella for the D.C. poetry festival: Big Buddy, Big Buddy. Ain't you gonna stand by me? Big Buddy, Big Buddy, Ain't you gonna stand by me? If I got to fight, I'll fight like a man. But say, Big Buddy Won't you lend a hand? Ain't you gonna stand by me? So when should poets mix their poetry with politics? This is an endless debate. Do we view Morejon's work in a different light because she lives in Cuba? When we hear Langston's "Big Buddy" recited do we want to throw our hands in the air like we just don't care? Oh, and why should one fight like a man and not fight like a woman? Is it that language thing again? The Split This Rock Poetry Festival is important because the focus is on poems of provocation and witness. Would every poet in America be happy attending the various panels that have been organized? Of course not, but I think the events being held this week should remind all poets that there are earthquakes happening beneath our feet. The world is moving. Do your words move the world? Continue reading
Posted Mar 10, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday, Holly Karapetkova's manuscript came in the mail. The title is Words We Might One Day Say and it's going to be published in a few months. Holly wants a book blurb. I met her several years ago when I gave a reading at Marymount College in Arlington, Virginia. I don't know her work well, so reading the manuscript comes with a few risks. Will I become excited by her work? What if I don't like anything I read? Will I send her an email and tell her I'm too busy with my own work? I don't think so. I'm honored that Holly asked me. I also like to be around when poets give births to books. Giving a blurb is like participating in the naming ceremony or baptism. I hope I find Holly's work to be very different from my own. This is how I try to keep growing and learning. I'll read Holly's collection of poems several times before making notes and writing on the pages. I'll look for poems that are memorable and maybe different from what I've been reading the last few months. Finally, I will write a blurb that has some color to it. I work on writing blurbs the way I work on the introductions I give writers at readings. It's serious work - and it's good work. Since the early 1970s, fifteen people have placed blurbs on my poetry books. Six people from this list are no longer living. Four never wrote a poem. Four would be considered literary critics, twelve are African American. One is a television personality. Eight are women. I guess people blurb and move on. Only one person on my blurb list of fifteen have I seen in the last few months. I hope this doesn't happen to me and Holly. I need the poems, I need the book, but I also need the poet. It's a sad day when literary friendships are reduced to ________. Continue reading
Posted Mar 9, 2010 at The Best American Poetry
I have a house full of books. 4 floors. I recently informed readers of my E-Notes that I was going to give away a number of poetry books. I was amazed at the response I received. Many people wanted the goods. It was hard saying goodbye to my "children" but many of the books needed better homes. They needed to be read. One person who contacted me was Lauren Stuart Muller. She asked if I might be interested in donating some of my poetry books to the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco. I told her I didn't even know there was a school named after June. Now, the post office might be having problems, but as soon as I heard about the Jordan school a box was in the mail. Where would I be without June Jordan? She was the woman who filled my ears with laughter. I loved her politics and the poems that addressed so many issues. She was often the first defender when it came to the difficult times. How many voices had the courage to speak for Palestinians when it wasn't popular to do so? June Jordan died in 2002. She fought the good fight. My favorite collection of her work is still Things that I Do in the Dark. I was visiting her in Brooklyn the day this book arrived on her doorstep. I still remember the little party that we had. I think we even invited Alice Walker over to join us. June and I wrote many poems to one another. Her "Grand Army Plaza" can be found in her collection Passion. It contains those memorable lines: We are not survivors of a civil war We survive our love because we go on loving There are a number of Jordan classics that should be taught across America. At the top of the list would have to be "Poem about My Rights." And -yes, don't forget those poems Sweet Honey In The Rock made delicious to our ears. Yes- I need an absolutely one to one a seven-day kiss. Continue reading
Posted Mar 8, 2010 at The Best American Poetry