Today's a big day for me! The autumnal equinox is here
, ushering in fall, my favorite season of the year. I can tell just by looking out my window, where I see, instead of late summer sunshine madness, the familiar calm, gray sky of the Bay Area's characteristic overcast weather. I feel ready to welcome any changes this autumn brings.
Especially because the first change is this: I am now the proud author of my first chapbook, Split Ears.
And today is my big launch!Split Ears
is the result of a collaborative project that's been brewing for the past couple of months. As writer-in-residence at West Oakland's Aggregate Space art gallery
, I've been writing on conversation with artist Christopher Burch
's exhibition, The Missed-Adventures of Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Death in the Land of Shadows.
What does it mean to be a writer-in-residence? Well, to put it simply, it means that I've been on an adventure of my own. I've had the chance to use words to play with the incredible multi-media experience of taking in Christopher's work, an installation and and graphic narrative that includes floor-to-ceiling illustrations, found art objects, and a documentary film. The exhibit examines the folktale character of Br'er Rabbit
, and focuses on Christopher's own reimagined character of Br'er Death, whose presence reveals a darker side of Br'er Rabbit's antics, the subversive resistance within his comedic gestures.
The work is stunning, but don't take my word for it – you'd really have to see it yourself to believe the whole truth of it. And today is your last day to do so, as the gallery closes the exhibit with the Featherboard Reading Series, also known as the moment of take-off for my chapbook. I cannot even begin to capture Christopher Burch's work on the page, but I stepped up to the challenge by incorporating what I already knew of trickster figures and the legends of resistance. The poems in Split Ears are like none I've written before, influenced by blues music, oral storytelling, and mythology of Native American, African American, and Trinidadian cultures. The title of this post comes from one of my Split Ears poem titles, and similarly, I feel a certain overlap between my chapbook and other areas of my life – the need to speak my truth, to remember my communities' shared histories, and to be unafraid of embracing my own subversive side, to walk in my own land of shadows.
You can read more about the Featherboard Reading Series writer-in-residence project in the San Francisco Chronicle
(yes, that's me in the Chronicle!), more about Christopher Burch's exhibition on Oakland Art Enthusiast
, and more about Aggregate Space on SFAQ Online
And don't miss my chapbook launch tonight at Featherboard Reading Series! Today, September 21, 2013 at 5:00 pm. Aggregate Space, 801 W. Grand Ave (entrace on West), in Oakland, CA. Also featuring readings by Cedar Sigo and Mary Burger.
Catch up on my events page
for other opportunities to hear my read from my new chapbook, and if you can't make it to a reading but you'd like a copy of Split Ears, get in touch!
Thank y0u, thank you, thank you, for all of the inspiration and support.
Me & my shiny new degree
School's out! One week ago, I graduated with my MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. It's hard to believe that my first residency there was already two years ago
, and now, my turn to walk across the stage as a graduate has already come and gone. Tonight, I'm showing off what I learned at Oakland's Beast Crawl, not by reading poems from my MFA thesis, but
by reading brand new work, all about vengeful sex. What can I say? I guess I needed some kind of release. If you can, come hear me read during leg 3 of Beast Crawl at Anger Management & Revenge: Dirty Trixxx
.I do have plenty of reflections about what my new degree means for my life and writing moving forward, though. I'll have lots more time now for sharing about this life here on the blog, but for now I'll leave you with
this – a version of the graduate presentation I gave at my last MFA residency. It's edited to remove the poems I included (gotta keep those to myself for now, in case of publication), and it doesn't quite carry the full effect of me delivering all this truth-telling in a little chapel hall full of people, of all places, but you'll get the idea of my journey through all of the learnings of the last couple of years. Click below to read more.
Following a trail at
the Elk Grove winery in Oregon
Sorry I've been so quiet, dear readers! I'm currently in Forest Grove, Oregon for my third residency of the Pacific University MFA program. Each residency has been a unique experience so far, and I'll update soon on how this one's going. One of my fellow students is blogging thoroughly about it - check her out at Sobre Mariquita
in the meantime. And speaking of quiet, what happens when a shy, quiet person like me comes to a place like this, with the potential to make invaluable connections with other writers around me, if only I can emerge from my shell and speak? I'm finding out, and I'll let you know. Here's a piece I wrote on the subject after attending the Trinidad's Bocas Lit Fest in April.
Friends, I’ve found love – with the Caribbean literary world. We’ve been long-distance lovers for a while now, and now that we’ve had our first real, in-person dates, I can tell you our love is true.
Today I’m sad to return home and part with my love, but I’ve got plenty of words and memories to keep with me until we meet again. Yesterday, the final day of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, was all about speaking from the heart. In a discussion with Loretta Collins Klobah, Karen Lord, and Shara McCallum about post-colonial writing and literary tradition, writer Kei Miller said, “Love is a big part of what I’m doing.” In his writing and in his words about his work, the love shows, as he invites readers into his world without any of the arrogance he said he hopes to avoid.
Love also came through in the other final day events I attended. Prize ceremonies celebrated some of the year’s most accomplished writers. Authors of the books short-listed for the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize read from their winning works – The Twelve Foot Neon Woman
by poetry winner Loretta Collins Klobah, George Price: A Life Revealed
by non-fiction winner Godfrey P. Smith, and Is Just a Movie
by fiction winner and overall OCM prize winner Earl Lovelace. And the Allen Prize ceremony celebrated the work of some of Trinidad’s most promising young writers, ages 12-19. These youth, unaffected by the pressures “professional” writers face, write the only way they know how, straight from the heart, and it shows in the best way.
shares her sweet songs
Later in the day, more self-expression came from the hearts of those involved in the Bocas Lit Fest. The festival ended with uplifting music by Gillian Moor
, the Freetown Collective
, Ruth Osman
and more. But the fun wasn’t over yet – last night, writers were limin’ and dinin' at the home of Earl Lovelace, and I tell you, if a bunch of Caribbean writers dancing the night away isn’t an expression of love, I don’t know what is. It was all pretty surreal, and I’m still not entirely sure if that last part was real or a wild, jet lag-induced dream of mine, but I’m pretty certain it really happened.
I’m so grateful for the past few days of immersion in the literary spaces of Trinidad and the other Caribbean islands. I’ll be carrying all of it with me, in my work and in my life, and I hope to return to this unforgettable world sometime soon. It’s all the love this writer needs.
It's Day 3 of the Bocas Lit Fest
in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and yep, I'm still having an amazing time. Tonight, it's all catching up to me - the intensity of travel is wearing me down, yes, but I also mean all of the wisdom these writers have been sharing is coursing through me, and I can feel the tremendously powerful weight of carrying it all. I've learned more over the past few days than I ever expected, and there's still one more full day of events to absorb all of the overflowing insight the writers are offering. Can this be life always, please? I'm trying to figure out how to keep this feeling going,
thinking about the possibilities for next year's Bocas and wishfully eyeing next month's return of Jamaica's Calabash Literary Festival
. Say, if anyone has any ideas about how to make a career out of attending Caribbean literary festivals, please send them my way. Of course, such a career might not be possible,
and maybe it's not totally necessary for maintaining this feeling, either. One of today's events showed me a glimpse of what happens between these festivals, as Nicholas Laughlin hosted a reading and discussion with Trinidadian poets Andre Bagoo and Vahni Capildeo. Nicholas expressed his excitement over this event, because of the talent of the writers, and also, he admitted, because they are both good friends of his. The two poets are also friends with one another, and the respect and admiration they all have for one another was clear.
The many witnesses
to today's conversation
Creative works with common ideas are often said to be "in conversation." Today's writers were in conversation. In addition to their own work, each of the poets read a poem by the other, and as they introduced the borrowed poems, you would think they were referring to some absent, revered writer, rather than a friend sitting at their side. While these talented poets have plenty of strength on their own, today I saw the positive effect of writers' mutual support. Nicholas, Andre and Vahni spoke naturally and intimately, and it was a treat to witness this compelling conversation between them.
These days, with ways to connect through social media as well as through literature, writers can be both literally and figuratively "in conversation" with one another. I know networking with other writers has its perks, providing opportunities to get your work known. Today's featured writers also showed that being in conversation can uplift and inspire us to do our best work, striving to exhibit the ways we earn the respect of our closest friends and allies.
reads from new work
As you may have noticed from yesterday's lack of a blog post, I was left speechless after Friday's Boca Lit Fest
events. This morning, I'm still feeling like I don't have the adequate words to describe it, but I'll try, at least, to give a taste of what happened. Daytime readings and discussions included Fawzia Kane, Fred D'Aguiar, Nicolette Bethel and one of my favorite novelists, Achy Obejas.
There was also a breath-takingly good emerging poet, Valdimir Lucien, who bravely stepped in for a writer who was delayed, saying that he's "three-quarters of a way through" his first collection of poems. I'll be eagerly awaiting the completion and release of that collection.
The legendary Earl Lovelace
After all that and more, plus a trip to visit my grandmother, I was almost too exhausted to make it out to the evening festivities. But wow, I'm sure glad that I decided to give it a try. It was a night of legends - steel pan music by Ray Holman, readings by Caribbean literary heroes including Merle Hodge, Mervyn Morris, and the awe-inspiring Earl Lovelace. I got to meet Mr. Lovelace, who promised to remember my name, to which I say, ha! It's amazing that such a promise was made, even though I doubt it'll happen. I couldn't believe how lucky I was to even stand in that room, among such icons. It was a truly unforgettable experience.
And I have to mention another highlight of the day, getting the chance to read at one of the open mics. I got to connect with some local poets, real poets, who may not be published or recognized, but who know how to take to the page and speak from the heart. It was an honor to read for a Trinidadian audience one of my "Trinidad poems." I consider it an old poem of mine, which shows me how young my writing career feels, as I wrote it about a year and a half ago. And it's a poem I wrote in tribute to my grandmother. The audience gave me a very warm reception, and after I read, an older Trinidadian woman gave me the best compliment I could ask for - silence, holding her hands out in thanks to me, with tears in her eyes.
Sometimes, speechlessness is the most powerful way to show your thanks. So I'll stop blabbing on now, and leave the events of yesterday where they'll remain, in my heart. For my Granny A, here's the poem I read yesterday, from a 2010 reading at Quiet Lighting during Litquake.
Albert Laveau, Kenneth Ramchand,
Penelope Beckles, and Bhoe Tewarie
get ready to kick off the Bocas Lit Fest
Hello! I’m blogging to you live from Port of Spain, Trinidad, home of the second annual NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, a celebration of writers and writing from the Caribbean. Today was the first of four jam-packed days of readings, workshops, music and film, and the festival’s off to a great start. I’m already having a blast.
This year makes fifty years since Trinidad & Tobago gained its independence, and a celebration of local literature is a great way to honor fifty years of freedom from colonial rule. Today’s events kicked off with local luminaries reading from classic works by Samuel Selvon, V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Eric Williams, and satirical columnist “Macaw.” These readings set the tone for the rest of the day, paying homage to writers whose work came out of the Independence era, and lifting up the writing that has followed.
Pride is a universal language. Surrounded by people whose voices and bodies are swelling with pride, I can’t help but feel some of what they’re feeling – love for themselves and for others who have lived lives like theirs. This festival isn’t about trying to appeal to what’s popular in literary communities in other parts of the world, not even those countries that tend to dominate conversations about the most significant literature in the world. No, here at Bocas Lit Fest we’re recognizing that the literature of the Caribbean is powerful and important, telling the stories of Caribbean people.
Today was memorable in many ways, but two writers in particular stood out to me. The first was Jamaican poet and fiction writer Kei Miller
. Now, I face my own challenges writing work with queer themes, but Kei Miller directly confronts Jamaica’s violent homophobia
with courage I could only dream of. He also manages to use humor, and unapologetic honesty, creating compelling, captivating stories and poems. I’ll get a chance to hear more from him later in the festival, so I’m very much looking forward to that.
The other person whose reading is still echoing in my mind is New Talent Showcase writer Stephen Narain
. He’s the kind of writer who inspires me to explore all of the possibilities of my complex voice as a writer. This might be partly due to the fact that he’s only a year older than I am, but as I listened to him read, and participated in the Q & A discussion that followed, I felt like I was hearing the words of somebody with decades more wisdom than I’ve acquired. I had to recognize, at a point, that he’s not much different than I am, speaking from his unique perspective and creating space for voices that aren’t often heard. And he’s diving straight into the stories that call him, risks and all, and doing a brilliant job of it.
If this festival continues to inspire me as it’s done today, I’ll have the makings of a lifetime of work by the time it’s over. My hope – scratch that, my plan
is to run with that inspiration before it fades, risks and all, shaking off self-doubt and taking pride in the voice that’s uniquely mine.
I took this photo on my last visit
to Trinidad, in 2008
I'm spending this week in Trinidad & Tobago!
I'll be visiting family, and I've also coordinated this trip to attend the NGC Bocas Lit Fest
, a literary festival celebrating books, writers and writing from the Caribbean and the rest of the world. I can't wait to immerse myself in the world of Caribbean literature. The festival schedule
has me giddy with excitement, ready to connect with and hear from writers I'm familiar with, like Achy Obejas
, as well as those I'll be getting to know, such as the authors reading in the emerging writers series, the New Talent showcase
. There will also be films, musical events, and chances to read at open mics, so if I can find the courage, I may step up to the mic at some point.
2008, Standing in front of the house
where my father grew up
For my dad, who's traveling with me, this trip will be one of going home. He'll walk the streets of the neighborhood where he grew up, and folks will shout out to him, by name and by nickname, in spite of the fact that he's been living in the United States for decades. When we visited in 2008, we spent time in the house where he was born, and around the corner, the house where he grew up. I heard his accent become stronger than ever, as he spoke with folks who spoke like he does.
I suppose it's not right for me to claim Trinidad as home, as I wasn't born or raised there, but there's something about it that feels like home to me, and it's hard to explain. For most of my life, I've felt like an "other," like an outsider in many ways. There's something that feels familiar about going to Trinidad, where my dark skin doesn't make me different. Sure, I'm still an outsider, not quite blending in a as a local. But in my search for a feeling of home, there is a piece of the puzzle that shifts into place when I'm in Trinidad.
I will do my best to blog about the festival and other happenings while I'm there. Stay tuned for my Caribbean adventures!
I feel so lucky for the chance to work with Kwame Dawes
at Pacific University. He's one of my wonderful workshop leaders at this residency
(along with Ellen Bass
), and I'm also going to get to work with him one-on-one throughout the semester as he serves as my faculty advisor. I am, to say the least, thrilled. He gave an incredibly moving reading last night, and after hearing him and the amazing Patricia Smith, I spent the evening in a giddy poetry nerd trance. It was almost too much. What's a girl supposed to do with all that inspiration?
I'm working hard on the answer. But my time here at the residency isn't nearly the extent of my admiration for Kwame Dawes. Earlier this month was Caribbean American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, and as you may know, both the Caribbean and HIV prevention are passionate topics for me.
This is why I adore Dawes' Emmy awarding-winning website, LiveHopeLove.com
, which draws attention
to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Dawes' home country of Jamaica. Kwame Dawes' remarkable poetry sheds light on the lives of those who are living in Jamaica with hope, love and HIV. Visit the website for the full experience of LiveHopeLove. Here's a glimpse of it, with Kwame reading his words among images of Joshua Cogan's photography. Also, this Monday, June 27th, is National HIV Testing Day. Will you participate?
Black Father/Daughter by Chiu
Happy Father's Day!
I'm feeling immensely grateful for my dad, without whom I'd never be here in Oregon, having this amazing experience
of my first MFA residency.
So here's a poem for you, Dad, and for all of the fathers whose gifts emerge when their children dare to follow their dreams.
my father says
he once wrote, too
and this isn’t another effort to
grasp at some way to relate
when he grew up on an island
that feels many moons away
from this land on which he raised me
this, i know, is truth
i can see it now
though i’ve never seen it before--
my father, younger even
than i am now,
still breathing gingerly
this new land’s air,
skin with a dark glow,
freshly plucked from
beneath the caribbean sun
before the scrubs of medical school,
before the touch of my mother,
whispering words in an accent
still thick with memory
before placing them on the page
and this is how i know
his words were never buried
this is now i know
those stories aren’t lost--
when i finish writing a poem
and look to see that it’s finished
i find a voice there that isn’t my own
a voice thick with memory
whispering all that i’d rather not remember
but mustn’t forget
-Maisha Z. Johnson