Mary Peelen, Toni Mirosevich, and myself,
all smiles at the
James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center
Yes to words. Yes to warm rooms with wooden paneling, where the only reminder of the rain outside is the cold chill you get when you feel a poet's words as your own. Yes to people listening to poetry wearing the glistening remains of the wet journey they took to reach it. Wearing smiles that warm like fire. Wearing anything from soft cardigans to hard leather jackets, because it doesn't matter who's listening or who's performing or how, when we've all come together for the words. Yes to words.
Yesterday I wrote about performance in poetry
. Then last night, I got a chance to read in two very different spaces. I thought I'd have plenty to report back on about performance, but the truth is, the thought hardly crossed my mind. Each person I saw read was performing in her or his own way, adding not fluff but the natural movement of a writer with her words, and in the end all it came down to were the words.
It wasn't just poetry. At "Our Oblique Strategies," Toni Mirosevich giggled and told tales between her readings, while Mary Peelen tried her best to give the literary crowd some context for her mathematical poems. I loved every minute over it. Then, I left the library to venture into the rainy Mission District for New Poetry Mission, hosted by Sam Sax, Nic Alea and Andrew Paul Nelson. Local poets signed their names to an open mic list and read their words amidst music and cheers from the loving crowd.
The experience of reading at both was so much fun. They certainly felt different. Following the thrill of reading at the library, I had a renewed energy and a whole new delivery when I spontaneously closed the show with one of the same poems at New Poetry Mission.
My closing the show was part of an exciting announcement: I'll be the featured reader at New Poetry Mission on March 10! I'll provide details at it approaches. I'll be thinking about performance until then, though not worrying about it so much, as I remember now that it will just come naturally. Click here
for the poem I shared at both readings. Let's see how it stands without performance. Yes to words!
Sam Sax at Quiet Lightning
I've been lucky enough to see some really great performances lately. Last month
I saw Amiri Baraka and Roscoe Mitchell at Yoshi's. And I can't lie -- this week I saw the performance of a lifetim
e, and it's making me seriously consider giving up this writing business and taking up my dream of adoring Prince full-time.
But don't worry, I won't abandon you just yet. There's still much to explore, and with tonight's reading
on my mind, I'm thinking about performance in poetry.
I've never thought of myself as much of a performer when I read my poetry (feel free
of me reading
to agree or disagree). I mostly just read it as it's written. But I have a lot of admiration for those who are more courageous than I am, and can take to the stage without a page or a pause and lay down a poem with the confidence of a powerful performance.
I can think of many examples from recent Bay Area literary events. Take the most recent Quiet Lightning
, which took a risk earlier this month by giving the delectable Sam Sax
a full thirty minutes to close the show. Sam pulled it off with what I would call brilliance, but then I already know and love Sam and his work. What did this SF Weekly review
of the event call it? "Berkeley shit." The writer didn't totally tear the event down, but he criticized the straying from Quiet Lightning's regular format by including the "banter" it usually avoids.
Evan Karp responds to the review on Litseen here
, and includes videos of the readings so you can form your own opinion, and watch Sam do what he does best as a slam poet. He reminds us of the rich history of poets like Sam.
It's true that it's no easy feat to perform as a poet. When a poem is performed well, it usually doesn't take away from the writer's connection to the words at all. I'll continue to read my poems as they're written (tonight's event is at the library
, after all; it's no bed-laden night club, so I suppose I shouldn't try to foray into performance tonight), but I definitely think I could have something to learn from performance poets.
But that's me. What do you think of performance poetry? Does it take away from what's written, or bring the words to life?
I'm so thrilled for the reading I have coming up this week! On Thursday I'll be part of "Our Oblique Strategies"
at the San Francisco Public Library. Here's the quick back story about how I know the phenomenal writer Toni Mirosevich: she ruined my life. Seriously! There I was, a semester away from graduating from the undergraduate Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to write fiction. Still, I missed poetry and I thought that revisiting the poetry side of my writing life might enliven something in my fiction. So, I thought, for one of my last requirements I'd embark on the adventure of one of Toni's poetry classes. Silly me, thinking I could just slip in and out
of a Toni Mirosevich class without being permanently changed. You know how the rest of the story goes.
The class open my eyes in ways I never thought possible, and I fell in love with poetry all over again. Now I'm unable to escape it, and it's all Toni's fault. So if you're in the Bay Area this Thursday, February 24, come to the library to hear Toni read from her new book, The Takeaway Bin, and to
discover why she's such an influential force in literature. I'll be reading some of my poetry, for which Toni is to blame, and poet Mary Peelen will also be reading. See event details on the library's website, or on Facebook.
Yesterday would have been the 77th birthday of my poet queen, Audre Lorde
. So as I promised when I showed off my newest literary tattoo
, here are photos of my other literary tattoo, along with the powerful Audre Lore poem that inspired it.
Tattoo by Marco of Picture Machine
Photo by Darius Johnson
by Audre Lorde
Haunted by poems beginning with I
seek out those whom I love who are deaf
to whatever does not destroy
or curse the old ways that did not serve us
while history falters and our poets are dying
choked into silence by icy distinction
their death rattles blind curses
and I hear even my own voice becoming
a pale strident whisper
At night sleep locks me into an echoless coffin
sometimes at noon I dream
there is nothing to fear
now standing up in the light of my father sun
I speak without concern for the accusations
that I am too much or too little woman
that I am too black or too white
or too much myself
and through my lips come the voices
of the ghosts of our ancestors
living and moving among us
Hear my heart's voice as it darkens
pulling old rhythms out of the earth
that will receive this piece of me
and a piece of each one of you
when our part in history quickens again
and is over:
the old ways are going away
and coming back pretending change
masked as denunciation and lament
masked as a choice
between eager mirrors that blur and distort
us in easy definitions
until our image
shatters along its fault
while the other half of that choice
speaks to our hidden fears with a promise
that our eyes need not seek any truer shape--
a face at high noon particular and unadorned--
for we have learned to fear
the light from clear water might destroy us
with reflected emptiness or a face without tongue
with no love or with terrible penalties
for any difference
and even as I speak remembered pain is moving
shadows over my face, my own voice fades and
my brothers and sisters are leaving;
Yet when I was a child
whatever my mother thought would mean survival
made her try to beat me whiter every day
and even now the colour of her bleached ambition
still forks throughout my words
but I survived
and didn't I survive confirmed
to teach my children where her errors lay
etched across their faces between the kisses
that she pinned me with asleep
and my mother beating me
as white as snow melts in the sunlight
loving me into her bloods black bone--
the home of all her secret hopes and fears
and my dead father whose great hands
weakened in my judgement
whose image broke inside of me
beneath the weight of failure
helps me to know who I am not
weak or mistaken
my father loved me alive
to grow and hate him
and now his grave voice joins hers
within my words rising and falling
are my sisters and brothers listening?
The children remain
like blades of grass over the earth and
all the children are singing
louder than mourning
all their different voices sound like a raucous question
but they do not fear the blank and empty mirrors
they have seen their faces defined in a hydrants puddle
before the rainbows of oil obscured them.
The time of lamentation and curses is passing.
My mother survives now
through more than chance or token.
Although she will read what I write with embarrassment
and a small understanding
my children do not need to relive my past
in strength nor in confusion
nor care that their holy fires
more than my failures
Somewhere in the landscape past noon
I shall leave a dark print
of the me that I am
and who I am not
etched in the shadow of angry and remembered loving
and their ghosts will move
whispering through them
with me non the wiser
for they will have buried me
either in shame
or in peace.
And the grasses will still be
From 'Americans Who Tell the Truth'
By Robert Shetterly,
Confession: I never know what to do about Black History Month. It occurs to me that it's late in the month and I've yet to mention it on my blog. But I'm stumped. What am I supposed to say? "Welcome to February, the time of year when your children learn fairy tale versions of black history in school. Let's talk about race, as we should every other time of year..."Luckily there are plenty of other people figuring it out, so
I can refer you to them. The good folks of Oakland's Ella Baker Center
for Human Rights, for example, are on to the right idea. What I remember from elementary school is that Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr. are the heroes of Black History Month, but rather than focus on those well-loved figures, the Ella Baker Center is reminding us of those who are often forgotten. Today's Friday Friend is Ella's Voice, the blog for the Ella Baker Center.
Ella's Voice is always a source of inspiration for action, and this month is a special treat with the "Unsung Heroes of Black History" feature, chronicling the work of such figures as Walter Turner, Barbara Smith and Henriette Delille. While there, you can also check out the grea work of the Ella Baker Center, such as the great Books Not Bars
program for California's incarcerated youth. So go on, stop listening to me ramble about how to discuss race and give some time to the folks who know what they're doing at Ella's Voice.
'Double Consciousness' by Zeal Harris
I've been putting off making this blog post like nobody's business. Which makes me stop to ask myself why, exactly, I'm so uncomfortable writing about diversity
as it applies to the Free University of San Francisco
I think it's the idea of being asked to speak for other people. Ask me, Maisha Z. Johnson, about Maisha's experience with the Free University of San Francisco's first teach-in, and I'll tell you as an individual how exciting it was to hear Diane Di Prima
speak on Visionary Poetry, how thrilling to learn from Martin Holden about San Francisco's native wildlands, how enlightening to hear from Alan Kaufman about connections between Thelonious Monk, Jack Kerouac and Jackson Pollock. But I don't believe I've been asked as an individual. I believe I've been asked to share, as a person of color, how people of color feel about the University of San Francisco. I usually balk at the invitation to speak for "the community," mostly because, big surprise here, communities are made of individuals, all of whom can vary wildly from one another. I won't pretend to speak for all of us. But I gave my individual opinion.
The result is that my opinions as an individual appeared as part of a general commentary on the lack of diversity in the FUSF's first teach-in, in this San Francisco Bay Guardian article
. I'm thankful that this discussion, which has been going on for a while,
has spread. Still, I'm a little disappointed in the use of sensationalism to frame the discussion in such a negative light.
My position in this discussion reminds me of a question W.E.B. Du Bois
writes about in his collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk
. How does it feel to be a problem?
Du Bois says this is the underlying question when white folks politely asked the resident black person for his or her opinion on issues surrounding race. He was writing in 1903 of the double-consciousness
that still affects people of color today -- that is, we are aware of both ourselves as individuals and of the dominant society's perception of us.
What does this mean for my position in an endeavor like creating a free university? Well, out of this discussion, two sides of a debate have emerged. On one hand, some argue that the doors of the Free University are open to all, and that should be enough. They say that deliberate outreach to people of color simply for the sake of checking of the "diversity" box is condescending and unnecessary, as people will choose to become involved if they'd like to. The other argument, part of the point I was making when I was quoted in the article, is that we can't expect folks to show up if they haven't been invited and welcomed, and that one way to reach other communities is to spread the word that the FUSF is open to their vision, rather than simply advertising what we have to offer.
It's not a matter of reaching "the community" to share the knowledge the Free University already holds. It's about reaching individuals of all kinds, recognizing them as individuals and not as a box to check off, and asking what they have to bring to the table. Not asking how does it feel to be a problem?
but how does it feel to be empowered?
and supporting all of the people in feeling that way.
The overall impression of the FUSF's first teach-in was a positive one
, with many folks leaving feeling inspired by all who were involved. Though classes fell short in the aim of incorporating more diversity, there's no reason to paint it all in a negative light. We know that we have many more people to reach in order to be a university of the people, so to me, the future of the Free University of San Francisco sounds pretty damn exciting.
To learn more, visit the FUSF website
, or feel free to contact me
for more information on upcoming outreach meetings and more. Note: As I mentioned later in this post, I've since decided to step away from being a part of the Free University collective, though I wish them the best of luck!
I've been thinking about what it means to be, as Langston Hughes said in the words I shared
in my last post, free within ourselves
. Do we find the labels that define us, categorize ourselves
and find our people to feel free? Or do we dare to step outside of our comfort zone, being free within ourselves even in the face of danger
?One of the reasons I love Hughes' poetry so much is that it reminds me to love myself for who I am, regardless of the danger. I love this video, which includes Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues," one of his classic celebrations of his people.
No Friday Friends today
. Instead I'm working on putting together all of the blog posts I've been neglecting this week (sorry! deadlines are calling!).First up: showing off my new tattoo, mostly because I'm really excited about it and also because it's relevant -- it's literary, I promise.
Everything from how the tattoo was paid for to the meaning of the tattoo itself relates to writing. So here's the story. The fantastic people of a fantastic literary magazine called Fourteen Hills throw a fantastic party.
In December of 2009 I attended their release party. I was blown away by the readings,
and of all the coveted raffle prizes, I came away with the one I wanted most, a gift certificate to Green Apple Books
. So when the same party came around in December 2010, I couldn't wait. And I had my eye on this year's number one raffle prize -- a gift certificate for a tattoo from Body Bazzare in Sacramento. The party itself was a prize,
with thrilling readings from Jason Bayani
, Myron Michael
, Stephen Elliott
, and more
covered the event, complete with videos of those great readings, in this article
. Then came the raffle. The tattoo was mine, and I let it be known, figuring putting the energy in the air that this tattoo and I were meant to be couldn't hurt. They called my name...and I won dinner. I don't remember where to, and I probably didn't even look, because I was too busy trying to figure out if a tattoo artist might be willing to trade dinner for work. When they called a name for the tattoo, the woman who went up to claim her prize did not look much like a tattoo aficionado -- and my good friend and Fourteen Hills intern Matthew James DeCoster
asked her if she was one. A good friend indeed. When she answered "no," he and I asked if she'd like to trade with me, and so the tattoo was mine. I did a little dance, witnessed by many, and got started planning my tattoo. It's technically two tattoos. I've been thinking of the words for a while, from Langston Hughes' essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain."
At first I planned
a longer quote, but in the end I shortened it to just the last three words from the end of the essay:
"We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves
© Langston Hughes (emphasis mine)These words mean a lot to me and my sense of pride in myself, and they've been especially meaningful recently in my life. So my tattoo includes those words, as well as birds to symbolize freedom, hope, community. But this barely scratches the surface of what this all means to me, so maybe I'll revisit that at another time. I also have another literary tattoo, words from an Audre Lorde poem, to show off at some point. But without further ado, here's my newest tattoo! Thanks, Fourteen Hills!
I spent a lot of time thinking about HIV yesterday
, and at some point I jotted down this short poem. Hopefully I'll get a chance to revise it at some point. Virusyou
sleep between our sheetsand, rather than face us, you slip into our blood and tuck yourself in like the fear beneathour bedtime storiesyou etch your initials into our historieswhere someday, you'll stay.
Today is National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. With the disproportionate rates
at which black communities are affected by HIV and AIDS, I'm thankful that we have a day designated to pay attention to a health issue we should keep in mind all year long. Here are some ways you can recognize National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, whether you're a part of the black community or not:
- Get tested. The simplest, most effective way to fight the spread of HIV is to know your own status. If each of us knows our own status, we can reduce the rising cases of those who spread the virus without even knowing they have it. Find a testing site here.
- Attend an event. There are events happening throughout the country to honor Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, to support those who are living with HIV or AIDS and to hear from community leaders who are making a difference in the fight against AIDS. San Francisco is having a march and a candlelight vigil. Visit the NBHAAD website to find out about events in your area.
- Create or appreciate some art related to the cause. You know I'm all about how we can get art or poetry involved. Here are some options. Check out Visual AIDS: A Gallery of Art by HIV-positive African-Americans. As far as film goes, you can watch this trailer for "All of Us," a documentary on HIV and AIDS among black women. And for literature, read Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS from the Black Diaspora (my favorite note: it includes the work of local Living Room Reading Series veteran Arisa White!). Or create your own art. Take a few moments to consider the role HIV and AIDS play in your world. What can you create to fight back? This work can be just for you, but remember the impact it can have when others see it. Let's begin discussions, build momentum, and never lose another life to lack of awareness.