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Introductions

Introduction for Jonah Mixon-Webster at Michigan State University, presented by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, April 6, 2022

Generously co-sponsored by the MSU Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (IDI) and presented in partnership with HIVES Research Workshop, MSU Native American Institute, MSU American Indian and Indigenous Studies (AIIS), MSU Department of African American and African Studies, MSU Creative Writing, MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center, and the Salus Center

 

Jonah Mixon-Webster is a poet-educator, scholar, and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, Michigan. His debut poetry collection, Stereo(TYPE), won the PEN America/Joyce Osterweil Award and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. He is an alumnus of Eastern Michigan University and Illinois State University. He is the recipient of the Windham Campbell Prize for Poetry and fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, Images & Voices of Hope, The Conversation Literary Festival, and the PEN Writing for Justice Program. His poetry and hybrid works are featured in various publications including ObsidianHarper’sThe Yale ReviewThe RumpusCallalooPennsoundBest New Poets, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the inaugural Mellon Arts Postdoctoral Fellow in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University.

Note on Content: As I will describe, Mixon-Webster’s work makes frequent use of the N-word or rather a near derivative of it, and as this is a thoughtful authorial choice that is essential to the work, in my introduction to Mixon-Webster’s work I will be reading the word aloud as the work demands.

The first time I taught Mixon-Webster’s collection Stereo(type), at the University of Pittsburgh in 2018, at some point I noticed that only the Black students were reading the word “nigga” aloud, while non-Black students were instead substituting “blank” wherever the word appears—which is a lot. Eventually I asked why everyone was not reading the text as written. Some were afraid of how their classmates would take it if they spoke the word aloud. One suggested that the way Mixon-Webster is using the word is meant to make non-Black people uncomfortable. But, as I said back in 2018, I would argue that Stereo(type) is not intending to make non-Black readers uncomfortable any more than Stein or Brontë intended to make me so. Stereo(type) is simply not oriented around their familiar compass. That the book forces every reader to engage with its own terms on its own terms is revolutionary. That it pulls the revolution off successfully is genius.

In an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet the Blog called “Poetics of the Iterative: On the N-Word in Black Poetry & Language,” Mixon-Webster writes, “In Black language and life the word ‘nigga’ has become a key to a very peculiar process of attempting to alter the racialized realities of the United States. This particularly Black form of amelioration, the conscious decision to change the meaning and application of a pejorative slur, operates endlessly to subvert the extreme terrorizing systems from where the word derives. The word “nigga” itself now appears as a sign of this never-ending project.” While Mixon-Webster goes on to say that not every Black American will agree with this particular act of subversion, his ambivalence to the word manifests in his attunement to its complexity and power.

The competing resonances of a conjure-word derived from pejorative slur underscore Mixon-Webster’s versatility as a poet of phenomenal range and superlative skill. He moves dexterously from the hilarious reimagining of the Sisyphus myth, “Black Existentialism No 13: The Myth of Niggaphus” and searing parody “Twitter Fingers,” in response to the conceptual poet Vanessa Place, to intimate lyrics of eros like “On Juking with Another Black Boy.” “Based on Actual Events/ Attempts to Survive the Apocalypse” is a documentary excavation of the Flint Water Crisis. In his acceptance speech for the PEN America/Joyce Osterweil Award in 2019, Mixon-Webster noted that with Stereo(TYPE) he “set out to tell the truth about what’s going on in Flint.”

The new edition of Stereo(type), which came out from Knopf earlier this year as a revision of the 2018 Ahsahta Press edition, is itself an enactment of a Poetics of the Iterative, of transformational repetition. The updated and expanded version of Mixon-Webster’s earlier documentary poem of the Flint water crisis reveals the relentlessness, the endless repetition and exhaustion of living with a crisis that is still ongoing and the past and present failure of government officials to protect their own residents. Mixon-Webster writes in the expanded prologue, “Today, Flint citizens continue resisting the crisis through advocacy and action groups, counter-narratives, and organizing their own water and food drives to defend their families from terrors both invisible and inevitable.”

For its documentary poetics dimensions, Stereo(TYPE) is a work of both art and activism. And through his insistence on the shapeshifting properties of a word that is at once subversive tool and a specter of everyday terror, daring to spin it in surprising and revelatory directions, Mixon-Webster has wrested center stage from the great white canons and comforts—the ancient Greeks, the white conceptual poets, the indifferent government pamphleteers, the cable news networks, even the most conscientious white progressives who would be much more comfortable saying “blank”—and swerved the lights to focus on what has always been central, the Black lives and speech at the heart of a popping, careening, stumbling, scatting, falling, diving, and deliberating text. 

It is my great pleasure to welcome Jonah-Mixon Webster.

Introduction for Layli Long Soldier at Michigan State University, presented by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, April 6, 2022

Generously co-sponsored by the MSU Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (IDI) and presented in partnership with HIVES Research Workshop, MSU Native American Institute, MSU American Indian and Indigenous Studies (AIIS), MSU Department of African American and African Studies, MSU Creative Writing, MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center, and the Salus Center

 

Layli Long Soldier holds a B.F.A. from the Institute of American Indian Arts and an M.F.A. from Bard College. Her poems have appeared in  POETRY Magazine, The New York Times, The American PoetThe American ReaderThe Kenyon ReviewBOMB and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an NACF National Artist Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award. She has also received the 2018 PEN/Jean Stein Award, the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award, a 2021 Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and the 2021 Michael Murphy Memorial Poetry Prize in the UK. She is the author of Chromosomory (Q Avenue Press, 2010) and WHEREAS (Graywolf Press, 2017). She resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Everything is in the language we use,” Layli Long Soldier writes in the poem “38,” which remembers the 1862 mass execution of 38 Dakota men at the end of the “Sioux Uprising.” In her extraordinary debut collection, Whereas, Long Soldier reveals the power of language as a force for both violence and love. In “38,” through clear declarative sentences and direct statement of both the facts of history and of her sentence-by sentence construction of the poem, Long Soldier lays bare the stark horror of that history. The contrast between her straightforward approach and the U.S. government’s “muddy, switchback trail of broken treaties,” “trickery” that had left the Dakota people with no option other than retaliation, reveals how language can be and has been weaponized to commit injustices, violence, genocide. The poems in Whereas constantly remind us: Language is power. Use it with intention, use it with care.

In an interview with Melanie Odelle for the New School’s Creative Writing Program, Long Soldier notes, “Language is a very physical thing. It affects you. We don’t always remember that.” Sometimes the most forceful poem has no language at all. Early in the “Sioux Uprising,” Dakota warriors executed Andrew Myrick, a white trader who had refused the starving Dakota people credit, proclaiming “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” “When Myrick’s body was found,/ his mouth was stuffed with grass,” writes Long Soldier. “I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem./  There’s irony in their poem. There was no text./ ‘Real’ poems do not ‘really’ require words.

Maybe neither do real apologies. In the sweeping 40-page title poem, “Whereas,” a response to the 2009 Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans, which was signed without ceremony and subsequently buried in the 2010 Defense Appropriation Act, Long Soldier alternately interrogates and transforms the obfuscating language of the Congressional apology. “Whereas” suggests that a real apology, like real poetry, would transcend language to become action, which the Congressional resolution does not, as evidenced by the language itself. At one point, Long Soldier likens the effort of accepting such an apology to scrubbing away layers of hardened pigeon droppings from an abandoned nest on her porch.

Because  when unconvinced                from this pigeonhole and no other                  I can

bleach and scrub          forehead sweat             rubber arms     physical effort

mental force    art and shape               muscle my back           languageness         a list of moves

            to loosen the hold                    yes I can             shake my head wag                  my finger too

                        at that good faith         white cake        in white            hole

                                    that stained                  refusal to come            clean.

Language can be a “list of moves” a government uses to wriggle out of taking responsibility for its actions, but as Long Soldier’s work shows us, language also provides the capacity to name, to repair, to transform a relationship or a life, to leap off a platform or out of a box. Later in “Whereas,” Long Soldier quotes a speaker who explains that “each People has been given their own language to reach with.” Then she, the poet, adds, “I understand reaching as active, a motion.” It is this sense of motion, this potential to reach through the present, out of the past, and toward a future not yet inscribed in language that makes Whereas so extraordinary—and reminds me of the transformative power of poetry as both action and text.

Please join me in welcoming Layli Long Soldier.

Introduction for JJJJJerome Ellis at Michigan State University, presented by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSUApril 6, 2022

Generously co-sponsored by the MSU Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion (IDI) and presented in partnership with HIVES Research Workshop, MSU Native American Institute, MSU American Indian and Indigenous Studies (AIIS), MSU Department of African American and African Studies, MSU Creative Writing, MSU Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center, and the Salus Center

 

 

JJJJJerome Ellis is a Black stuttering animal who prays, reads, gardens, circles, rains, and plays. Through music, literature, and performance he researches relationships among Blackness, disabled speech, divinity, nature, sound, and time. Born in 1989 to Jamaican and Grenadian immigrants, he grew up and lives near a heron rookery in Virginia Beach, USA. He’s currently building a sonic bath house—stay tuned! (He didn’t mention this in his bio, but he recently won a Creative Capital grant and United Artist fellowship.)

 

“I speak with a stutter. I am black.                   And I’m a musician. And I’m interested in the intersection of these things, especially vis a vis             time,” Jerome Ellis says AND writes in The Clearing, his groundbreaking corresponding album and book. In them, Ellis transcends mediums to explore his thesis that blackness, dysfluency, and music are “forces that open time” and further, to ask, “Can stuttering, blackness, and music be practices of refusal?” The term “dysfluent,” applied to stuttering, Ellis reminds us, is derived from the Latin verb fluere,” to “flow” and since it is water that carried our captured African ancestors here against their will, he seems to ask, could dysfluency be both a site of resistance, a mode of refusal, and a way of redirecting time’s flow, reorienting our relationship to the past or how we engage with the present, opening into the future?

 

This understanding of dysfluency as refusal places Ellis in a lineage of resisters invoked in The Clearing—the captured Africans aboard the Postillion slave ship in 1704 who played music to muffle the sound of their breaking shackles before coming above deck to attack their captors, and  the enslaved Africans in North Carolina who, when forced to build a canal, marched into the water singing, or James, Stepney, Raymundo, Caesar, Titus, and Tim, names of “so-called runaway slaves” described as having speech impediments, whom Ellis found scouring the fugitive slave ads in 18th and 19th century newspapers. In a virtual talk for the Yale School of Art, Ellis describes this engagement with the archive as an “ancestral practice.” Because stuttering can be hereditary, and Ellis inherited his stutter from his mother, he points out, “Especially when I am dealing with the ads from Jamaica… there is a small but real possibility that one of the runaways who’s described is a blood relation of mine.” 

 

In Ellis’s videopoem “Impediment Is information,” which premiered for Issue Project Room last Juneteenth, fugitive slave ads are read by several different voices, sometimes with a stutter, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains and a musical tapestry of birdsong, flute, saxophone, and strings. Ellis’s erasures of the ads expose their counternarratives: “They try to mark black being as not free. They suspect black being is free.” When I played part of “Impediment Is Information” at a Center for Poetry staff meeting, some of our interns pointed astutely to the underlying tension between content and form with observations like “I find this so soothing, but I’m not sure I’m supposed to.” For me, that tension, which permeates much of his work, points to the heart of Ellis’s project. As he notes in the Preface to the book The Clearing, a clearing could be “a place where the enslaved gathered in the woods at night to plan escapes and revolts, to dance, sing and pray. But the clearing is also the act of clearing native plants and Native peoples.” He goes on to ask, “What dwells between noun and verb here? A barely held breath, traveling past the past?” Between the liberatory noun and the violence of the verb are the two other clearings Ellis names: the gaps in speech stuttering creates and the crossroads, a place of possibility. I understand both the tension and the care of Ellis’s work as an enactment of what the scholar Christina Sharpe calls “wake work,” as a way of moving forward in the wake of slavery. But Ellis’s wake work, surprisingly harmonious in its dysfluency, takes us not forward but past the past, to a clearing, a gap between time and utterance, when, as he writes, “music walks into silence.”

 

Please join me in welcoming Jerome Ellis.

 

Introduction for Jennifer Sperry Steinorth “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, February 2, 2022

 

Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s books include Her Read, A Graphic Poem (Texas Review Press, 2021), A Wake with Nine Shades (TRP, 2019), a finalist for Foreword Reviews Best of the Indie Press Award, and a chapbook, Forking the Swift (Michigan Cooperative Press, 2009).  A poet, educator, interdisciplinary artist, and licensed builder, she has received grants from Vermont Studio Center, the Sewanee Writers Conference, Community of Writers, Bear River Writers Conference and the MFA for Writers at Warren Wilson College.  Her poetry has recently appeared in Cincinnati Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Pleiades [Plee-e-deez], Plume, Rhino and TriQuarterly.  She is a lecturer at University of Michigan and resides in both Ann Arbor and Traverse City, Michigan. Steinorth began her artistic life as a dancer, studying and performing with the Houston Ballet, the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet, Interlochen Center for the Arts and elsewhere.  For ten years she was president and lead designer for a design-build construction firm specializing in environmentally-responsible homes; her architectural work has been featured in Fine Homebuilding and other national journals. Her interdisciplinary work has appeared in several galleries including Women Made Gallery in Chicago.  

 

Her Read, a Graphic Poem is both record and product of Steinorth’s transformative encounter with a male-centric text, Herbert Read’s seminal 1931 The Meaning of Art. To describe Her Read as an erasure project seems inadequate. By erasing, severing, mutating, and transforming Herbert Read’s text, Steinorth exposes Read’s erasure of womxn artists, and through this act of exposure, she manages—if not to resurrect the womxn missing from Read’s text, then to coax a chorus of womxn’s voices to speak out from the erased, excavated, altered, subverted, embellished, bedazzled, loved, graced, mutated, and devastated pages of a text no longer Read’s but entirely her own.

 

On page 97, a chorus of first-person lyric “I” speakers arises from between the text blotted out with buff, pink, eggshell, and mahogany correction fluid, calling out in a litany of I statements: “i rat     iii apple i i  ire I I I I i i I  mind I I I I I I spirit   transcendent I I I overstep limits I I mean I I harmony I I Bacon I strange I I port I architect I I i deny I obey I I I I I I I servant I master I pure I  I particular I O king free play I I I I I I I Egypt I here again I I I dent I age I I I I I ritual I I essential I I I I other I change I con I convent I I I I I I I I I I I – I cult I object I I I kin I I origin I I I model I clay I I I baby a bundle of papyrus stems lashed and over I lay—the papyrus being very stiff and firm.—I Alice pass.” Steinorth’s multifaceted womxn speakers are at once architect and model, master and servant, they age and dent and ritual and object and create, they spirit and transcend.

 

Later in the book, Steinorth constructs the following statement: “In this book every SHE is a construct a remodel a reconstruction a symbol born of destruction. Likewise each HER derives from here and there where and whether either rather and other.” The book’s HEs and HIMs are similarly unstable. At times Steinorth’s chorus of speakers seems to comment on recent events and patriarchal forces more immediate than Herbert Read, as on page 203, when the speaker cries “impeach imp each imp peach.”

 

At other times the speakers address Read directly, as with “O Mr. READ touch me where I bleed, put your sensitive hands in the wound,” as though, like doubting Thomas in the New Testament story so often depicted in classical art, Mr. Read is demanding proof of a resurrection. 

 

The proof, of course, is the book itself. In an interview for Poetry Northwest, Steinorth notes, “I think the curious reader can see a progression of rule breaking as the book progresses. To my mind this was a development of craft on my part that coincided with the female speakers gaining authority.”

 

Through increasingly inventive approaches, Steinorth pushes the art of erasure into new territory, sometimes cutting text from one page and placing it over reproductions of art on another so that the womxn speakers interrupt the work of the male masters. Sometimes Steinorth forms words letter by letter. Sometimes pages invite the reader to participate in ways of reading that remind me of playing chutes and ladders, following arrows in a maze to make meaning up or down the page. Near the end of the book, an authorial-sounding speaker declares, “Behold instead of ‘mother and child’ I offer up Frankenstein’s portrait.”

 

In other words, she’s created a monster—that is, a mutant, a hybrid, a product of radical transformation. In the essay “Mining the Dead: On the Making of Her Read, a Graphic Poem,” Steinorth explains Frankenstein’s presence in the book. “I felt like the Doctor hunched over my would-be creation. Like Frankenstein’s, my creature was made of recycled parts, and I dug the association with Mary Shelley—a woman shaped by numerous tragedies particular to women of her time. Not Mary the Virgin mother whose image is second only to Jesus in the Western cannon, but Mary, mother of a most beloved monster.”

 

Monstrosity is a superpower. Like its mercurial cast of speakers, this book can shapeshift, be and do and say many things at the same time, and allow the reader into its corporeal being along with Sir Herbert Read and doubting Thomas. In the Poetry Northwest interview, Steinorth says, of erasure, “The artist creates the vacancy, then surrenders it to the reader who may then populate the expanse with their own ghosts, theories, lovers, demons. This feels like an act of generosity, of love.”

 

Please join me in welcoming Jennifer Sperry Steinorth.

 

Introduction for Divya Victor “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, October 6, 2021

 

Divya Victor is the author of CURB (Nightboat Books); KITH, a book of verse, prose memoir, lyric essay and visual objects (Fence Books/Book*hug); Scheingleichheit; Drei Essays [Du-ry (Merve Verlag); NATURAL SUBJECTS (Trembling Pillow, Winner of the Bob Kaufman Award); UNSUB (Insert Blanc), THINGS TO DO WITH YOUR MOUTH (Les Figues) [FEEGE]. Her work has been collected in numerous venues, including BOMB, the New Museum’s The Animated ReaderCrux: Journal of Conceptual WritingThe Best American Experimental WritingPOETRY, and boundary2

 

Her work has been translated into French, German, Spanish, and Czech. She has been a Mark Diamond Research Fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a Riverrun Fellow at the Archive for New Poetry at University of California San Diego, and a Writer in Residence at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibit (L.A.C.E.). Her work has been performed and installed at Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Los Angeles, The National Gallery of Singapore, the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition (L.A.C.E.), and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  She has been an editor at Jacket2 (United States), Ethos Books (Singapore), Invisible Publishing (Canada), and Book*hug Press (Canada). 

She is currently Associate Professor of English at Michigan State University. 

 

Divya Victor’s work continuously interrogates, troubles, and complicates assumptions around the role of the poet and what poetry should do. In the face of violence, rupture, and grief, a poetry of resistance–her work argues—cannot simply apply a balm, revelation, or easy resolution. To just provide comfort in the face of systemic violence and trauma is, ultimately, to maintain the status quo. In a 2019 essay for the Poetry Foundation blog called “[WOMAN WAILING]: On the Problem of Representing Trauma as a Brown Woman Within the Institution of Poetry,” she asks, that when, as she puts it, “Poetry is the after-dinner mint offered after a trauma buffet,” “Who heals, from what, and to what end? Who benefits from such healing?”

 

She goes on to interrogate her own position in such an economy: “Am I, in becoming and remaining an American poet, a willful or willing hired mourner? When people are grateful for my mourning, my work of witnessing pain, what is the currency in which I am being paid for my services?” she asks. For a brown woman immigrant poet to make poetry that is not easily consumable, that does not explain itself, that requires or even demands deep engagement from the reader, is a subversive act. It is also a way of reconfiguring relationships around poetry and one another, offering a poetics of engagement, accountability, and kithship.

 

In her most recent book, Curb, Victor explores how people of South Asian descent navigate space in the United States, a negotiation frequently curbed by misrecognition, displacement, and violence. She does this through a range of forms. One of the most haunting sections for me is “Frequency (Alka’s Testimony)” dedicated to Serena Chopra, where instead of focusing on the content of a widow’s testimony three days after her husband, Divyendu Sinha, was murdered by a carload of assailants, Victor lists the background sounds in the courtroom. Sequence 10 reads

             f [forte] The wobble or wah-wah of feedback (above witness)

            f           A soft intake of breath or sniff to retain thin mucous

            f           A slick smack form a thicker clutch of very thin sticks or a camera shutter

            f           Something slippery but light being gathered up (like sheets of ice) very close to

                        witness

This focus on all the interference curbing Alka’s testimony underscores the impossibility that any institutional proceedings can compensate for a stolen life, particularly given that institution’s position within a system that devalues Black and Brown lives. At the same time, the enormity of Divyendu Sinha’s absence speaks louder than all of these very loud noises. Refusing to be a “hired brown mourner,” Victor doesn’t tell me any of this directly. Instead she gives me the agency to enter the work of the poem and thereby take some of the mourning and the responsibility on myself.

 

In a video feature on the MSU College of Arts and Letters news site published this June, Victor says, of poetry, “It asks the reader to figure things out for themselves. That’s what I respect about the form, it’s that it refuses to explain, that it places the responsibility for understanding on the reader, which echoes for me the responsibility that people have when they encounter the stranger or when they encounter the immigrant, the responsibility is theirs to understand our place here. It’s not ours to explain why we’re here.”

In the wake of recent attacks on critical race theory for, essentially, causing discomfort to the already comfortable, Victor’s insistence on a poetics of responsibility, of difficulty, of engagement and not just consumption, seems all the more urgent. Whether she is interrogating the 18th-century painter John Singleton Copley’s decision to make a Black body the fulcrum of his painting “Watson and the Shark,” or reinventing a suspicious and constricting immigration form as a poetic form that makes space for the humanity the systems at hand are bent on refusing, or collaborating on multimedia projects that invite a community of artists into the constellating conversation of CURB, Victor’s work always trusts us, her community of readers, to do the work. Through such a relational poetics, her work invites us to grow from passive consumers to partners in resistance, fellow agents for change.

 

It is my great honor to welcome Divya Victor.

Introduction for Serena Chopra “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, October 6, 2021

 

Serena Chopra is a teacher, writer, dancer, filmmaker and a visual and performance artist. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Denver and is a MacDowell Fellow, a Kundiman Fellow and a Fulbright Scholar (Bangalore, India). She has two books, This Human (Coconut Books 2013) and Ic (Horse Less Press 2017), as well as two films, Dogana/Chapti [Doh-gahn-a Choptee] (Official Selection at Frameline43, Oregon Documentary Film Festival, QueerX and Seattle Queer Film Festival) and Mother Ghosting (2018). She was a featured artist in Harper’s Bazaar (India) as well as in the Denver Westword’s “100 Colorado Creatives.” She has recent publications in SinkFoglifterMatters of Feminist Practice and the anthology Alone Together: Love , Grief and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 (Central Avenue Publishing). In October 2020, Serena co-directed No Place to Go, an artist-made queer haunted house with Kate Speer and Frankie Toan. Serena is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Seattle University.

 

In one of the epigraphs to her book Ic, Serena Chopra quotes Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons: “In automania, in the militancy of post-workerism, there is no outside, refusal takes place inside and makes its break, its flight, its exodus, from the inside.” In Ic, riffing on the Icarus myth of the boy whose wings melt when he flies too close to the sun, Chopra repeats and severs language in a way that feels like a rupturing of the Modernist writer Gertrude Stein’s idea of a continuous present. Instead of beginning again and again and again to amass weight through circling as Stein does, Chopra’s repetition of rupture pokes holes in the fabric of time and motion, flitting down and across space to suggest a flight from the very structures of language from within language, as when she writes, in Ic,

 

A string of birds

exits the wind

ow pane a string

of birds exits

the window pane

a string left too

suspiciously

in this rhythm,

future anthem

adheres to this

trembling day (77)

 

As a guest on the podcast “What the Folk: Real Talk and Real Tunes 4 Revolutionary Times” last December, Chopra said, “I think that being a visionary inside of the system necessitates that we have a relationship with our spiritual self and that our spiritual self be given expression, freedom of expression.” All of her work—as a poet, filmmaker, multidisciplinary artist—shows how collapsing the walls between mediums and spaces and times can resist dominant systems by transforming them—whether through an animation’s ancestral flowering, or a collage of queer Indian and Indian American women and nonbinary people’s stories and voices heard against a dazzling ever-shifting image-scape, or the way she points out “hunger detached as the day swelling/ from its ligament of pointed hours” or “what thin strangeness/ are words like hands/ in deep/ repetition.” In the same podcast, Chopra says, “I’ve begun to think of the poem or poetry not as a genre of literature, but as an experience, as a way of being.” She goes on to say that a poem is “supposed to help us access the poetic.” By allowing the poetic to seep through many doors and windows and sunroofs and escape hatches, by queering all the forms and the boundaries between them, Chopra’s work across genres and mediums invites us into poetry as a way of being, as only a visionary can. Even within the structures that bind us, she reconfigures the architecture, offers the possibility of flight.

 

It is my great honor to welcome Serena Chopra.

 

Introduction for Marilyn Nelson “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, co-sponsored by the MSU Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, April 7, 2021

 

Marilyn Nelson is the author or translator of seventeen poetry books and the memoir How I Discovered Poetry. She is also the author of The Fields Of Praise: New And Selected Poems, which won the 1998 Poets’ Prize, Carver: A Life In Poems, which won the 2001 Boston Globe/Hornbook Award and the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, and Fortune’s Bones, which was a Coretta Scott King Honor Book and won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. Nelson’s honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, a fellowship from the J.S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Frost Medal. She was the Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut from 2001-2006.

 

In a 2016 interview for Krista Tippett’s NPR show On Being, Marilyn Nelson says that over the course of her career in poetry she’s “become more open to histories. To other people’s histories.” For many poets who work with history and for many poets who work with form, and particularly for Black poets who work with history through form (like me), Nelson’s work as a poet of histories and a keeper of forms has opened doors. I first encountered Nelson’s work in a graduate class where we read her 1975 poem “Churchgoing,” where the speaker reckons with her doubts over practicing a religion that was for our ancestors entangled with slavery: “That Christian, slave-owning hypocrisy/ nevertheless as by these slaves ignored/ as they pitied the poor body of Christ!” “Churchgoing” is written with a dominant iambic pentameter, and that week I started writing the voice of my enslaved great-great grandmother in iambic pentameter. Nelson’s work gave me permission to take certain kinds of risks in my own.

 

Her 1990 book The Homeplace, a family history in verse, imagines a complicated relationship between a white man and an enslaved woman, whose son Pomp would grow up to be Nelson’s great-grandfather, and that nuanced rendering of history preceded my own ancestral reckonings. In a poem called “Diverne’s Waltz,” Nelson’s enslaved great-great-grandmother Diverne meets a white Confederate soldier named Henry Tyler at a dance—or rather he’s at the dance and she’s working in the kitchen when he comes to ask for a drink and decides to “give her a twirl.’” The poem is in rhymed quatrains, predominantly in iambic pentameter. At a time when popular conceptions of Black poetry often emphasized orality, Nelson’s use of ultra-European formal literary traditions to tell African American stories is essentially an act of subversion.

 

That tension comes to a head or a mountaintop with her extraordinary heroic crown of sonnets “A Wreath for Emmett Till.” True to the form, the 15 sonnets are intertwined, the last line of each of the first 14 sonnets forming the first line of the next, and the first lines of each poem converging to form the final sonnet. In her introduction, Nelson writes, “The strict form became a kind of insulation, a way of protecting myself from the intense pain of the subject matter, and a way to allow the Muse to determine what the poem would say.” Remembering the brutal murder of the fourteen-year-old-Black boy who made the mistake of whistling at a white woman in 1950s Mississippi this week as Derek Chauvin stands trail for the murder of George Floyd, I am reminded that for many, with each repetition, with each new death, each new open-coffin photograph or viral video, the intense pain returns. Or the intense pain has never really ceased.

 

Spending time with Nelson’s work, I have begun to think of forms as cradles that hold us and rock us through difficulty. And as I mark 13 months without a human hug, the idea of being held by a poem has real saliency. Even if I decide to subvert it, even if I make my a cradle into a raft, it’s still what’s holding me up. Marilyn Nelson’s work reminds us that we need forms and frames and narrative structures to transform experience into art and testimony, into activism and advocacy. 

 

In an “Author’s Note” on the memoir in verse How I Discovered Poetry, Nelson writes, 

 

I prefer to call the girls in the poems “the Speaker,” not “me.” Although the poems describe a girl whose life is very much like mine, the incidents the poems describe are not entirely or exactly “memories.” They are sometimes much enhanced by research and imagination. 

She goes on to say, “Some of the poems that seem to be ‘about me’ are as much about the “Red Scare,” the shadow of the atom bomb, racism, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, or the first stirrings of women’s empowerment.”

 

In other words, the poem is the instrument for understanding personal experience in the context of history. It is also the springboard from which to transform those experiences through imagination. Nelson’s work reminds me that forms are gifts for grappling with difficulty, that constraints are catalysts for creativity, that narrative structures help us make meaning in difficult times, and that as a species all this has helped us to survive. 

 

It is my great honor to welcome Marilyn Nelson.

Introduction for Yona Harvey “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Creativity and Collaboration In and Out of Bounds” with Marcel Walker, presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, February, 18, 2021

 

Yona Harvey is the author of the poetry collections You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love (Four Way Books, 2020) and Hemming the Water (Four Way Books), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.  She contributed to Marvel’s World of Wakanda and co-authored with Ta-Nehisi Coates Black Panther and the Crew. She has worked with teenagers writing about mental health issues in collaboration with Creative Nonfiction magazine.  Her website is yonaharvey.com.

 

When I first read Yona Harvey’s poetry debut, Hemming the Water, in 2013, I was awe struck by the stunning musicality of its language and star struck by the strong women figures whose influence winds through its pages—women like the activists Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper, the painter Frida Kahlo, the hip hop and R&B star Mary J Blige, and towering above them all, the jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. In “Turquoise,” Harvey’s speaker tells a younger woman, “wearing turquoise jewelry & Frida Kahlo skirts doesn’t make women artists.” For the MFA student I was when I first read it, the question of what it means to be a woman artist seemed paramount, and Harvey’s subversion of the usual tropes presented more than one possible answer. In a review of Hemming the Water for Aster(ix) journal that I year I wrote that “shiftiness is Harvey’s particular genius. In poems that weave tenderness and violence, the expectation and the surprise, Harvey thwarts the grand cliché even as she courts it, stitching together a polyphony of voices, visions and songs in a patchwork too slippery for any matinee idol to wear.”

 

In the time between the release of Hemming the Water and Harvey’s second poetry collection, You Don’t Have To Go to Mars for Love, she has become one of the first two Black women to write for Marvel comics, writing for the characters Zenzi in World of Wakanda and Storm in Black Panther and the Crew. Reading the latter now as the pandemic has both isolated me from other humans and made me hyperaware of the interdependence without which we cannot survive, I am struck less by any one superhero in Black Panther and the Crew and more by how collectively the characters form a complex landscape of family, friendship, comradery, love, rivalry, deception, and betrayal. Maybe like Mary Lou Williams, who remains a relatively obscure figure compared to some of the famous male musicians she mentored, we are all the heroes of somebody else’s story while muddling through our own.

 

This complex understanding of relation infuses You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love with both its fierce humor and its grief. Harvey’s second poetry collection has less influence on multifaceted heroic figures and more on the everyday familial and romantic relationships on which we stake so much, try so hard, and fail so valiantly, all the big and small losses, aspirations and redacted memories, and the deep griefs no superhero can save us from, because to escape grief would be to turn one’s back on love. For a relationship caught in time and space, there is no rocket ship to Mars for a reset. And in a universe that kills Black people, there is no center to hold the grief of a loved one’s death. In both of Harvey’s collections, I’m reminded that the music of language is tricky. The devil’s lurking in a lullabye, and a refrain sometimes makes griefs multiply. But repetition, one of Harvey’s signature tools, can also retrain the mind.

 

As someone who struggles with OCD, I’ve sometimes been instructed to record the fear I am ruminating about, in as much detail as possible, and replay the recording on a loop until my mind gets tired and moves on. It doesn’t always work, but the exercise suggests that repetition can be a door to transformation. In the last poem in You Don’t Have to Go to Mars for Love, the “River Wanderer,” the speaker, mourning her sister’s death, meets her sister in the river Ganga, river of purification and forgiveness. Harvey writes:

 

                                                                                                I’ll meet you at the River’s

              Bottom,

              dressed in silver scales with fin. You’ll clutch               my hand

              we’ll swim in circles.

     Taunt the serpents, taunt the sharks. & when the glaciers get to melting,

              all God’s Rivers we shall haunt. All God’s Rivers we shall haunt.

 

It takes a lot of repeating to emerge out of the past and into the future. The poem’s repetitions nudge the speaker and the sister she is grieving forward, transformed into sea creatures who haunt “All God’s Rivers” not once, not twice, but continuously, even as the planet itself is sieged by climate change, even as glaciers melt. Not a rocket ship but the art of repeating is the true force for propulsion, and it holds a power far deeper, nursing grief right to the point where grief splits into song.

 

It is my great pleasure to welcome Yona Harvey.

Introduction for Marcel Walker “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Creativity and Collaboration In and Out of Bounds” with Yona Harvey, presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU, February, 18, 2021

 

Marcel Lamont (M.L.) Walker is an award-winning graphic-prose creator and expert in social applications for comic-book art.  A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native, he graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and has taught classes and workshops in comic-book creation for over 25 years. is He is the lead artist, book designer, and project coordinator for the acclaimed comic-book series CHUTZ-POW! SUPERHEROES OF THE HOLOCAUST, published by The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. He is also the president of the board of directors for the ToonSeum, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that champions comic books as a force for social good. Awards he’s won include the BMe Community Genius Fellowship and 2017 Best Local Cartoonist as voted by readers of the Pittsburgh City Paper.

 

In an interview on Pittsburgh’s public radio station WESA, Walker describes the origins of the cover image for Volume One of the CHUTZ-POW!: Superheroes of the Holocaust comic book series, of which he was lead artist, book designer, and project coordinator. The series features a number of relatively unsung real-life superheroes, including Les Banos, the legendary Pittsburgh sports photographer famous for his photographs of Roberto Clemente’s 3000th hit and Franco Harris’s “immaculate reception.” It turns out that Banos had also been an agent for Allied intelligence during World War II, and because of his fluent German, Banos, who was Jewish, was recruited to infiltrate the Nazi SS in Budapest. While posing as an SS officer, he was able to forge papers, misdirect German supply trains, and use his staff car to transport Jews in hiding, refugees, and shot-down Allied pilots to safety, hiding over 200 people, over the course of the occupation, in a secret crawl space in his aunt’s factory. In the cover image for Volume 1, Walker depicts Banos in an SS uniform, which he’s ripping open to reveal a Star of David underneath. It’s a direct reference to Clark Kent ripping open his shirt to expose the S emblem on his uniform, and in this moment of revelation, transforming into his other self, his secret identity as Superman. In the interview, Walker says, of the cover, “We’re using the metaphor of the superhero, so in my mind it was important to make that overt.” But what ultimately made the cover work was the balance provided by five other characters (or real-life heroes) behind Banos, a composition which Walker says was inspired by a 1970s X-Men cover. It’s also a reminder that while ordinary people can be superheroes under extraordinary circumstances and also less extraordinary ones, nobody does it all alone. Perhaps real superpower is in showing empathy for one another. This principle extends to Marcel Walker’s work as an artist and educator, “championing comics as a force for social good.” As he told Pittsburgh City Paper in 2019, “When your childhood role models include Fred Rogers and Superman, you can’t help but want to help, serve, and protect others.”

 

Please join me in welcoming Marcel Lamont Walker.

 

Introduction for Shara McCallum “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Alternate Histories, Disrupted Representations, and the Art of Creating from Colonial(ist) Archives,” with visual artist Alex Callender, co-presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and RCAH’s Lookout Gallery, November 9, 2020

 

From Jamaica, Shara McCallum is the author of six books published in the US & UK, including No Ruined Stone (forthcoming August 2021), a verse sequence based on an alternate account of history and Scottish poet Robert Burns’s near migration to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation. Her previous book, Madwoman, received the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Poetry and the 2018 Motton Book Prize from the New England Poetry Club. McCallum is a Liberal Arts Professor of English at Penn State University and on the faculty of the Pacific University Low-Residency MFA Program.

 

Shara McCallum’s forthcoming book, No Ruined Stone, is bookended by two title poems, the only poems in the book in the author’s own contemporary voice. In the opening poem, she asks the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns,

            So why am I here

            resurrecting you to speak

            when your silence gulfs centuries?

            Why do I find myself

            on your doorstep, knocking,

            when I know the dead

            will never answer?

 

The book pursues this question across centuries, mining Burns’s poems, songs, journals and letters, as well as the history of slavery in Jamaica, to tell the alternate history of what might have happened if Burns had actually boarded any of the three successive ships on which he booked passage to Jamaica in 1786, with the plan to become a “Negro Driver” on a slave plantation there. The historical Burns did not ultimately go to Jamaica due to the sudden success of his poetry in Scotland, but McCallum’s Burns does. Thus this alternate history is narrated in two voices: first the voice of a fictionalized Burns grafted off of the historical Burns, and second the voice of his fictional “mulatto” granddaughter, Isabella, a white-passing Black woman who migrates to Scotland with her grandmother posing as her servant. At one point, Isabella confesses, “in this carrion history/ I was born without purchase born/ of rape thereafter/ what could I be/ what could my body be/ but ransom.”

 

For me, No Ruined Stone is a chart or map for how to move through the world in a ransomed body. And also how to create in one. Many contemporary Black and mixed-race women live with the knowledge that our very existence is inextricably linked to a history of slavery and sexual violence. How, then, do we reckon with the fraught legacies of both our biological white forefathers and our literary ones? In the opening poem, McCallum’s authorial speaker tells Burns, “Your words invade/ my mind’s listening, manacle/ my tongue when I speak.” How do you write yourself into a history and a literary tradition that was not made for you but, considering the economic conditions that supported it, from you or people like you? How do you hold those influences without being manacled by them? The book asks but doesn’t answer, pointing backward while leaning forward. As McCallum’s Burns says, “The way past is always the way/ through.”

I’m so thrilled to welcome Shara McCallum.

Introduction for Adam Wolfond “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Neurodivergent Poetics: Four Nonspeaking Autistic Poets Reinvent Language,” co-presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and Unrestricted Interest, October 15, 2020

 

Adam Wolfond is a non-speaking autistic artist, poet and presenter. He is completing high school and is the co-founder of The A Collective in Toronto where he also works in visual art and poetry. Wolfond also collaborated on the PhD dissertation Neurodiversity in Relation: Movement, S/Pace, Collaboration with Estée Klar at York University in Toronto, Canada. His collaborative exhibition film installation S/Pace at Critical Distance Centre for Curators in 2019 as part of the Access is Love and Love is Complicated group exhibition. His other film and art work can be viewed at esteerelation.com. Wolfond is interested in the movement of language (which he refers to as “languaging”) and expression, and how neurotypical language forms delimit neurodiverse expression. His poetry has been featured on poets.org. His chapbooks of poetry In Way of Music Water Answers Toward Questions Other Than What Is Autism and There Is Too Music in My Ears, are available through his publisher, Unrestricted Interest.

 

In “The Walls Are Never Still,” Adam Wolfond writes, “I think people/ don’t take the time/ to explore/ their steps and that/ means they just think/ about their own without/ extending the choreography.” Wolfond’s poems masterfully extend the choreography to include many kinds of thought-motion, inviting the reader to move with and through navigations of language, time, and space. With surprising syntax that spurs surprising thought, language drifts and reforms like the water that runs through so many of Wolfond’s poems, as the non-talking speaker is continuously planting, growing, and consuming language. In the poem “I Answer More Than I Like,” Wolfond writes:

            The always rock thinks

            upward and it aspires

            to think easily with

            language and I

            want to think

            about

            behind rather than up

 

In thinking behind rather than up language Wolfond engages language on his own terms and simultaneously expands them for the reader. This question of expansion seems key. Sometimes in the fall in particular, I feel hypervulnerable, like my boundaries are porous. I often describe it as existing like a sieve. I have always felt that this produced a greater capacity for hurt, but Wolfond’s poems remind me that even for “the open/ thinker who/ feels too much,” uncontainment, or porousness, can also be expansive—throwing open the door to tall ideas, to expert movement, to watering thoughts like rain. 

It is my great pleasure to welcome Adam Wolfond.

,

Introduction for Sid Ghosh “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Neurodivergent Poetics: Four Nonspeaking Autistic Poets Reinvent Language,” co-presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and Unrestricted Interest, October 15, 2020

 

Siddhartha (Sid) Ghosh is a 13 year old non-speaking poet with Down Syndrome and Autism, based in Portland, Oregon. Sid communicates and writes poetry by spelling on a letter board. 

Sid has published his first chapter in the book “Leaders Around Me” in 2019, and has presented at World Down Syndrome Day at the United Nations.  

 

Sid describes himself as a free thinker, rebel, poet and intellectually equal to his peers. 

Like Adam Wolfond, Sid Ghosh is a movement expert, but his mind-body poetic thought tends less toward the drift of water and more toward the motion of spinning. As he writes in “Rotary Club,” “Spinning I harness/ poetry of the Earth.” Ghosh cites a kinship with the Sufi dervishes who spin as a form of meditation, reaching toward the divine. That makes him a kind of descendant of the 13th century poet Rumi, who is believed to have started this ceremony of spinning. Indeed, the pattern of internal rhyme in “Rotary Club” turns the poem. But I also keep thinking of another association with spinning, the fairy tale about spinning straw into gold, because there’s a kind of alchemy, a process of transformation, at work in these poems. Ghosh writes, in “Tuning Goes Frig” (and I couldn’t pick an excerpt, so I wound up quoting the whole poem):

            Resonance is

            for people

 

            

           with frequencies.

            I am going

 

            

            on without

            a tuning fork.

 

           

            My frequencies

            go to other

 

          

            zeniths. My life

            is in poetic

 

            

           pause.

 

If a revolution is defined as an instance of revolving, then by “going// on without/ a tuning fork,” Ghosh’s poems are revolutionizing language and thought many times over. 

 

I’m so excited to welcome Sid Ghosh.

Introduction for Imane Boukaila “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Neurodivergent Poetics: Four Nonspeaking Autistic Poets Reinvent Language,” co-presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and Unrestricted Interest, October 15, 2020

 

Imane is a thirteen-year-old nonspeaking autistic poet and songwriter living in Toronto, who discovered the power of communication in December 2018. Her first writings expressed outrage toward the lack of efforts from the Ministry of Education to support differently abled students. Imane strives to fight for the rights of nonspeaking autists, is determined to tell the truth about the hidden potential of differently abled minds and aspires to become an Astrophysicist one day. Her work has been featured in Unrestricted Interest, Explicit Literary Journal and The Indie’s Nest.   

 

While Sid Ghosh’s poems can expand the possibilities for how poetry conveys movement through space, Imane Boukaila’s poems often enact movement through, or stasis in, time. I experience her work as intensely present, and I mean both present in focus and present in tense. Boukaila sometimes accomplishes this, which I want to call present-ing, through an explosion of present participles—those vital –ing words that let us know we are alive in a moment that is already underway now and will continue into another moment and then another. For example, “Reinventing Stressed Tressing” is a title evocative of stress tests that deliberately push the subject to the breaking point. Boukaila deploys her present participles with a heavy alliterative lean to carry the poem forward in time as she simultaneously remixes language to produce new meanings and new possibilities, as tressing braids but does not break. 

 

“If Reinventing Stressed Tressing” moves the present forward, then the timely poem “In The Quarantine Body” slows time to the point of nearly stopping it in its tracks. The very short lines make the reader pause in each moment as the moments accumulate with slow intensity, “spreading/ short mastering/ plots.” The poem enacts, as much as describes, how it feels to exist in the state of suspension that quarantine becomes, as a body and also as a mind.

 

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Imane Boukaila.

 

Introduction for Hannah Emerson “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, for “Neurodivergent Poetics: Four Nonspeaking Autistic Poets Reinvent Language,” co-presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and Unrestricted Interest, October 15, 2020

 

Hannah Emerson is a nonspeaking autistic poet from LaFayette, NY, on the historical land of the Onondaga Nation. Her work has been featured in Unearthed, Nine Mile, and The Brooklyn Rail. Her first chapbook, YOU ARE HELPING THIS GREAT UNIVERSE EXPLODE, was published by Unrestricted Editions in 2020.

 

When I first encountered Hannah Emerson’s poems, I was reminded of the legendary Modernist poet Gertrude Stein–in Emerson’s radical approach to sound and syntax, her exuberant repetitions and wordplays, and especially her ability to produce multiple layers of meaning in a few short words. But Emerson surpasses Stein in what I want to call heart, by which I mean heart as producer and receiver of love and sometimes of hurt and also the organ that beats with greater and greater strength toward a self-realization through language—as when Emerson writes, in “The Listening World” (and once again I’m quoting the whole poem):

 

            Say prayer for little

            things, things that live

            in deep hurt. Feelings

            language take to lair.

 

            Let it signal God’s

            light, I say for want

            of light feelings. Is my

            ear deep or deeper?

 

Emerson’s capacity for deep feeling and deep listening, for care, suggests an antidote to the cruelty and carelessness that, in our current historical moment, so often take center stage. The poems remind me that while those yelling the loudest can seem to take up all the space, real possibility for transformation lies in attentiveness to little things, which is the work of poetry. When Emerson writes, “Please love poets we are the first/ autistics. Love this secret no one knows it,”  I want to leap out of whatever chair I’m sitting in and exclaim with her yes yes yes! 

 

It’s my honor to welcome Hannah Emerson.

Introduction for Reginald Dwayne Betts “at” the Residential College in Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University, co-presented virtually by the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU and RCAH’s Wednesday Night Live, September 23, 2020

Cosponsors: Office of Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education (APUE), College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, College of Arts & Letters, College of Education, College of Law, College of Nursing, College of Social Science, Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), the Graduate School, James Madison College, and Lyman Briggs College.

 

Reginald Dwayne Betts is a poet, essayist, and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice. He writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society. His most recent collection of poetry is Felon. He is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Bastards of the Reagan Era and Shahid Reads His Own Palm, as well as a memoir, A Question of Freedom.   Between his work in public defense, his years of advocacy, and Betts’ own experiences as a teenager in maximum security prisons, he is uniquely positioned to speak to the failures of the current criminal justice system and presents encouraging ideas for change. As a result of that work, President Barack Obama appointed Betts to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and  Governor Ned Lamont of Connecticut appointed him to the Criminal Justice Commission, the state body responsible for hiring prosecutors in Connecticut.

 

Named a 2018 Guggenheim Fellow and a 2018 NEA Fellow, Betts’s poetry has long been praised. His writing has generated national attention and earned him a Soros Justice Fellowship, a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Ruth Lily Fellowship, an NAACP Image Award, and New America Fellowship. Betts has been featured in The New York TimesThe New Yorker, and The Washington Post, as well as being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air, The Tavis Smiley Show, and several other national shows. He holds a B.A. from the University of Maryland; an M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, with his wife and their two sons.

 

In an interview with Rachel Eliza Griffiths in The Paris Review, Reginald Dwayne Betts says of his new book, Felon, “I think after the book comes out, people are gonna be like Man, Dwayne is a lot of people, man, and most of them I don’t like.” Both the risk and the genius of the book, for me, lie not just in the range and versatility of its forms but also in the multi-dimensionality of its speakers, all of them caught in the web of a criminal justice system that is anything but just, and who can simultaneously hurt and be hurt, grapple with pain and responsibility and how to live in a world or a mind that even after release can’t quite let them ever be free. As the speaker of the closing sonnet crown “House of Unending” says, “ The rooms in my head keep secrets that indict/ Me still; my chorus of unspoken larcenies.”

 

Over the last couple weeks my RCAH 111 class has been tracking Betts’s complicated, shifting speakers throughout the book, noting how he sometimes moves between different points of view in a single poem, and how multiple speaking “I”s populate the book and may or may not ever coalesce into one. The lyric “I” disappears entirely in the book’s four redaction poems, which Betts has created by blacking out legal documents filed to challenge the incarceration of people for not being able to afford bail. Rather than create another narrative from beneath the document, as many erasure poems do, Betts strips away excess language to reveal the human lives and stories that have been obscured by pages and pages of dry legalese. The effect, as one of my students described it, is an “overwhelming feeling of horror.” In Felon Betts wrestles both with the relentless horrors of the systems we all live in and with, when we are actively aware of it and also when we are not, and with the private, intimate, devastating horrors that live in us. Ultimately this endless tug-of-war suggests that if we want real change or a freedom that’s truly free, then the private reckoning is as crucial as the public one.

 

It is my great pleasure to welcome Reginald Dwayne Betts.

Introduction for Tyrone Williams at the University of Pittsburgh, with Julie Patton, presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, in partnership with the Humanities Center, September 30, 2019

 

Tyrone Williams teaches literature and theory at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of several chapbooks and six books of poetry: c.c., On Spec, The Hero Project of the Century, Adventures of Pi, Howell and As Iz. A limited-edition art project, Trump l’oeil, was published by Hostile Books in 2017. He and Jeanne Heuving edited the anthology Inciting Poetics (2019).

Last week my class finished up a two-part discussion of Williams’s 2011 collection, Howell. I chose that book for its formal and thematic ambitiousness, its scale and the sheer range of possibilities Williams brings to the page. In the Notes, Williams writes that inaccurate newspaper reports of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing situated one of the bombers “near Howell, Michigan.” With this as its seed, the book spins into a larger project excavating the history of Howell, Michigan and also the larger American projects of colonialism and nation-building, the lineage or landscape from which right-wing domestic terrorists spring. That landscape is vast and versatile, as evoked through the range of forms, approaches, and disciplines Williams brings to it. 

 

He mines and mutates histories of Howell and other cities in a larger trajectory of U.S. expansionism; engages Lacan’s philosophy and Hogarth’s woodcuts, uses game theory to create graphic poems that reference, simultaneously, a racist British pub game and an abolitionist children’s book; projects racial and class tensions upon an equine canvas through an imagined interview with a mine pony, who subsequently appears as an ill-fated talk show host; and takes science of DNA and RNA to debunk the myth of the US. culture as fundamentally Western European in origin. As Williams writes in a note in the online magazine Interval(le)s, where some of these poems first appeared, “The culture that was ‘brought over’ did not arrive unchanged by the voyages. The experiences at sea, however “uneventful,” had to alter, mutate, however minutely, that culture.” The poems in this section follow DNA and RNA sequences as a map or constraint, utilizing only words that begin with those letters, though the words come from languages from across the globe, and some biologist poets in my class were even able to connect content in some of the poems to the particular DNA or RNA sequence named.

Through serious play, Williams’s work exceeds every parameter of language, medium, form, and genre to expand the possibilities for how a poem knows, partly by calling the reader’s attention to all the things it (and we) can never know and the many layers of lost, suppressed, distorted, and reframed histories on which all our operating assumptions sit. 

 

The construction of history is at the heart of Williams’s 2008 book On Spec, which is directly concerned with blackness but with blackness examined through histories that are interrupted, interrogated, re-contextualized, tweaked, obstructed, by various means troubled. In it, Williams intersperses Moby Dick references with the biography of Thomas Green Bethune, a blind piano prodigy, born in slavery, whose former owners profited from his talents for decades after Emancipation. Williams remembers “Negro Tom (1710-1790)” otherwise known as Thomas Fuller, an enslaved genius who became well known as a mathematician, but Williams tells this story in two columns, with the right-hand column devoted to Fuller’s mathematical prowess, while the left-hand column complicates that narrative, with quotes from the time that refer to Fuller as someone’s “property” or someone else’s “tool.” The poem “Brer R(g)” is a five-scene play in which an act of police violence occurs but is never named.


If On Spec’s complicated historical reckoning disrupts the expectation of proceeding linearly from A to Z, Williams’s 2018 book As Iz does so in the very title. In it, Williams confronts a climate of U.S. xenophobia and Islamophobia by situating his excavating poetics in the ancient and contemporary Middle East, but still not so far from U.S. nation-building, as Captain John Smith of Jamestown fame makes a sudden epistolary appearance, remarking “What is at issue is neither the events nor their sequence but only the question of interpretation, how these markers are to be held—or if you will, published—as history.”

And what is the history we are writing now?


In October of 2016, Tyrone Williams received a general call for work from Hostile Books, a “collective of writers invested in the exploration of strategies for complicating (or otherwise making perilous, hazardous, or toxic) the activity of readership.” Four days after the November election, he responded with a proposal: 52 crushed tissue boxes containing tissues marked with epithets directed at Donald Trump, the irony being that most of the epithets involve serious wordplay that would likely be lost on the President himself. Williams called this project “Trump l’oeil,” after the art technique that creates the optical illusion of three dimensions. I obtained a copy for the CAAPP library, and last week I invited my class to pass around the box and pull out the tissues one by one. “Irregular Mouth Movements. “Wasp Same As It Ever Wasp,” “More Chickens… More Roosts,” and “He Who Must Bay.” With the impeachment inquiry underway, I want to know if there is another iteration, a reimagination or a recalibration once the illusion ends. I am still searching for the antonym for “Trump l’eoil,” which, Williams’s work has shown me, even the future histories won’t know.


It is my great honor to welcome Tyrone Williams.

Introduction for Karen Lillis at White Whale Bookstore, with Edmund Berrigan and Lauren Russell, August 17, 2019

 

Karen Lillis is a writer and bookseller. She is the author of four novellas, including Watch the Doors As They Close (Spuyten Duyvil). Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Evergreen Review, LA Cultural Weekly, Lit Hub, Local Knowledge, Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, among others. She has been a writer in residence at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, an art reviewer at The Austin Chronicle, a regular contributor to the anti-war/poetry newspaper New York Nights after 2001, and once wrote a short story on the side of a freight train. Her books earned her a 2014 Acker Award for Avant Garde Excellence in Fiction. 

 

 

In Karen Lillis’s most recent novella, Watch the Doors as They Close, the unnamed narrator remarks, “I suppose the strong instinct to write a tell-all comes from Catholicism, I thought upon waking up today. The concept of a Confessor is so specific, and doesn’t get replaced with anything else in society once you leave the Church.” She goes on to say, “In the world outside the Church, ‘to sin’ just means ‘to experience.’ To exist in a ‘state of sin’ really just means that you haven’t survived your experiences yet.’” Lillis’s deceptively clear and forthright prose tells the story of a short-lived romance of extreme intensity, a romance that plays out against the backdrop of New York City in the early oughts, a city that is changing so rapidly the memory of the older city is grafted onto the one the characters are inhabiting. The novella begs the question of whether anyone can really survive their experiences, or what is on the other side if they do. And, I began to wonder, is narrative—the narratives we tell about ourselves and our relationships to people and places—simply a way of reframing experience as survival?

Introduction for Edmund Berrigan at White Whale Bookstore, with Karen Lillis and Lauren Russell, August 17, 2019

 

Edmund Berrigan is most recently the author of More Gone from City Lights in 2019. Other recent publications include We’ll All Go Together (Further and Fewer, 2015) and Can It! (Letter Machine Editions, 2014). Berrigan was the guest blogger for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog in March of 2019, and has had essays included in the collections Lovers of my Orchard: Writers and Artists in Frank O’Hara ( Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2017) and Joe Brainard’s Art (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

 

I first met Eddie 15 years ago in the courtyard outside the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, when we were both late to a reading. I’ve been a fan of his work ever since. I have always associated it with a slantwise autobiographical sensibility that resists outright confessionalism through its startling images and weirding of language and syntax. In his recent work I’ve been struck by Eddie’s capacity to remix fragments in a meditative dance across language and memory, perhaps best exemplified in the extraordinary 14-page poem “Foil in the Wires,” which anchors Eddie’s most recent collection, More Gone. On one level, it is an elegy for a cat, as the cat Foil flits through the poem. At one point, Eddie writes, Foil

 

 

 

was fascinated by the
keys hitting the ribbon
which occasionally I’d find
in a tangle over the front
of my old manual typewriter
her works involved
destruction
shifting sounds to the
left or right fear
sentenced to subways
transposing
out of ear I keep being
awkward shapes of
continuity like studying
the cells in the back of
my hand over the
decades Foil arrived in
2003 ….

 

 

 

 

This is a microcosm of how the poem knows, moving seamlessly from Foil’s works of destruction to the speaker’s meditation on his own hand and back to Foil. Like the typewriter ribbon the cat tangles into new works of destruction, the poem itself feels like a mass of threads or wires that tangle, separate, move on, align, retangle, and finally amass into a slippery, intimate web of grief, joy, memory and present continuing, simultaneously into and away from possibility.

It is my great pleasure to welcome Edmund Berrigan to Pittsburgh.

Introduction for Ross Gay at City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Alphabet City, with Saretta Morgan, co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, February 15, 2019

 

Ross Gay is the author of three books: Against WhichBringing the Shovel Down; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Catalog was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry, the Ohioana Book Award, the Balcones Poetry Prize, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award, and it was nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at Indiana University.

 

Being something of a cynic, I was skeptical when I saw the title of a Book of Delights, though I should not have been following Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, where the short-lined poems propel a kind of nuanced thinking/feeling where gratitude can merge with grief. The bold titles of both books make me think of The Triggering Town, where Richard Hugo warns poets like me, who live in fear of appearing “sentimental,” that “if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.”

 

And to be close to your inner self you must also be close to your physical self. One of the many delights chronicled in The Book of Delights is that of writing by hand, “the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.” The writing itself is an enactment of another of the author’s delights, loitering, or wresting one’s time “from the assumed owners of it, who are not you, back to the rightful, who is.” This loitering, this slowing down and focusing in that a writer can only really do in longhand–whether remarking on the bumbling choreography of a hug, or noticing that a “friend’s air quotes are unabashed, two-handed, two-fingered punctuative dances during which, often, he will lean back or put a hip out like he’s setting a Hula-Hoop into motion.” Among my great delights in this book are Gay’s marvelous, spot-on but surprising images: the hyphen is “the handshake of the punctuation world,” the sight of a handwritten ID tag on a bag “truly filled my heart with flamingos, or turned my heart into a flamingo.”  Loitering in prose also creates a space for associative leaps (no, not leaps, more like associative meanders), so that delight can very quickly bleed into a fraught or violent or desperate space, from which it cannot ultimately be separated. Like the act of writing by hand, delight itself is inextricably tied to the body, and therefore to mortality. Gay writes,

 

It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how ever person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. … Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated.

 

I’m reminded of our own Toi Derricotte’s assertion that joy is an act of resistance, for, as Gay writes, “one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering, and suffering from blackness. And yet, and still, as Ross Gay writes, “You have been reading a book of delights written by a black person. A book of black delight./ Daily as air.” It is my great delight to welcome Ross Gay.

Introduction for Saretta Morgan at City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s Alphabet City, with Ross Gay, co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, February 15, 2019

 

Saretta Morgan is the author of the chapbooks Feeling Upon Arrival (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018) and room for a counter interior (Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs, 2017), as well as a forthcoming full-length collection, Plan Upon Arrival (Selva Oscura/Three Count Pour, 2020). Her work addresses relationships between narrative and physical space. Her most recent writing considers the impact of environmental shifts and natural resource management on Black living. She holds a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from Pratt Institute and has received fellowships and residencies from the Jerome Foundation, Arizona Commission on the Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, among others. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona and teaches creative writing at Arizona State University, and she is the inaugural Center for African American Poetry and Poetics-City of Asylum Dream Space Resident.

 

Often in the Fall in particular I feel hyper-vulnerable, porous, like a sieve, so that everybody else’s feelings seem to penetrate my borders and my own seep out in reckless, unwieldly excretions that impede movement, puddling at my feet. It is a state of overwhelm. Sometimes it is a state of despair. It is also a state of profound empathy, even as it’s an empathy that might destroy me. Points in Saretta Morgan’s work sometimes feels like a textual rendering of that experience. As she speaks to the erosion of tenuous boundaries between people, I’m reminded that sometimes depression and desire may be rooted in the same human need for connection. As her first-person plural speaker remarks, in feeling upon arrival, “contact dawned in us like poetry, old trauma. we begged questions. Responded in gestures. our shins full of glass.” And yet, the speaking “we” also of the forthcoming Plan Upon Arrival, so emphatically plural, is after a particular body, a singular body, opening: “We desired a particular body. Animate breath, weight and now, already the burden our probable failure. We bent over, sat quietly or rubbed each other until our gestures became unclear. We gorged on sweet seeds. Putrid fruit. Our skin rawed in places our ankles became sore.” But the quest for this singular body is plural, is shared. Its text, a material form of ink on paper, of sentences and fragments deliberately shaped, exists where the bodies merge and separate, where ideas become corporeal.

 

The desire to connect, to erode our boundaries, is simultaneously sensuous and grotesque. Saretta Morgan writes, “An appendix washed up near the barn, pages current-smoothed, leaning funny. We stood and watched the skin stretched and sewn. The so-called imaginary, so called-interior, so-called paradoxical private sphere.” The work of poetry, at least poetry that is shared, is also the work of human connection, of living as “we,” of eroding the borders between interior and exterior, the private imagination and the public, and sometimes that work is labored and sore and chaffing and irritable and its sentences stick and its smells are putrid, and sometimes that work is lithe and sensual and grasps at its own extraordinary good fortune, its music, its sex, its tastes, its forms: “we craved sensuality and other expressions of coherence./ good fucking. james brown. Crumbs from breakfast toast.”

 

Please join me in welcoming Saretta Morgan.

Introduction for Rickey Laurentiis at the University of Pittsburgh, with Terrance Hayes, presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, January 24, 2019

 

Rickey Laurentiis was raised in New Orleans to love the dark. They are the author of Boy with Thorn (2015), which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, the Levis Reading Prize, and was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Other honors include fellowships from the Whiting Foundation, the Lannan Literary Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and the Poetry Foundation. Their poem, “Visible City,” opened Notes for Now, the art catalogue for Prospect 3 New Orleans, and he has partnered on other curatorial collaborations or programs with the Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art and, most recently, the Andy Warhol Museum. Laurentiis lives in Pittsburgh, and is the inaugural Fellow in Creative Writing at the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

“Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial,” Laurentiis writes in his poem “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen.” This fifty-part poem draws on language from Wallace Stevens’ “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery” and on images from lynching photographs. What is crucial about the dark? The first time I taught Boy with Thorn, I showed my class a clip from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, set in the Sea Islands of South Carolina around the turn of the 20th century. In the clip, three black women have a conversation about rape and lynching while sitting in a tree. Daughters of the Dust is shot in daylight, is dazzling, the sun never sets even on this shadow conversation in which so much is said in silences, between the crooks of branches. What would happen, I asked, if the exposure in “Of the Leaves that Have Fallen,” were reversed? What if it was cast in bright light like Dash’s film? Without darkness, my students insisted, the poem would not work.

 

Darkness, with its many shades and weights, its desires, delights, violences, and unutterable secrets is both a theme and an orientation in Laurentiis’s work. It is also the racialized darkness of these United States. In the poem “Continuance,” written after Mike Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Laurentiis addresses the darkness, writing, “you can enter me, Mister Dark.” Here darkness is invited to participate in another of Laurentiis’s obsessions, penetration, with its potential for violence, for pleasure, for transformation. In an essay in the Warhol’s exhibition catalog for Devan Shimoyama’s Cry, Baby, Laurentiis writes,

Penetration, finally, as what makes a pressure in and of, as an irruption of knowledge that leads to eventual eruption. It could kill, it does kill—as did each bullet penetrating Trayvon, Michael, Tamir—but it might also heal (think of a finger, a hand, pushing into the wound, as to pause the flow of blood).

 

Penetration becomes a site of pleasure in “Feeling Myself,” where Laurentiis writes,

               On my knees, then not

     So much kneeled

             As lying down, on my stomach,

     How I like it: my body became his observatory,

             A way to knowledge—Oh

     How I have wanted

             A man to throw down

     His strength onto the slight

             Flare of my hips and spike

                                                      me

      To the known ground.

 

“How I have wanted,” an expression of desire, is as crucial a recalibration as the image of the speaker’s body as an observatory (which opens up, commanding an expensive view, as opposed to the interiority of say, a tunnel). Once, in somebody’s kitchen toward the end of a Writing Program party, Rickey mentioned that he was writing about penetration and suggested that, if we flipped the perspective, it would be called envelopment. Such a reversal or reframing begins to articulate a poetics of agency. In the Cry Baby catalog, Laurentiis writes, “Penetration, finally, must mean more than death, than black injury, than this act, I think, that black flesh—particularly, especially again trans or femme black flesh—is subject to, come up under or against, decided by.” Such, too, is the potential for darkness. Later in “Continuance,” Laurentiis’s speaker says to the dark:

      Aren’t you the mirror in which all lights balance?
      Aren’t you the line on which all lines cross?
      Anything lives in you, so that that dark over there
      Can be the dark of Mike Brown, full of breath; that the dark
      Right here can be the dark of my own bastard mind;
      That this dark come closest to my lips
      Is a shadow’s knowledge, full, not ever empty,
      Charitable as is wicked, risky as is good; 

 

In considering their own darkness and darkness as plentitude rather than absence, Laurentiis embraces the dark as a partner. His poems do not cast light onto shadows so much as they speak into and among shadows—penetrating the very darkness that is penetrating them. Or is it enveloping? “Brilliant” is first defined by Merriam-Webster as “very bright: glittering: a brilliant light,” but here the dictionary falls short. Rickey Laurentiis’s brilliance arises out of the dark, out of silences, unspeakable histories and lush, fraught, finally articulated desires.

 

It has been our good fortune to have Rickey here this last year and a half as the inaugural Fellow in Creative Writing at CAAPP. Please join me in welcoming him to the mic.

Introduction for Jonah Mixon-Webster at the University of Pittsburgh, October 10, 2018, and Boom Concepts, October 11, 2018, co-presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and the Black Unicorn Library and Archives Project

 

Jonah Mixon-Webster is a poet-educator and conceptual/sound artist from Flint, MI. His debut collection Stereo(TYPE) was selected by Tyrone Williams for the 2017 Sawtooth Poetry Prize from Ahsahta Press. He is completing his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University, and is the recipient of fellowships from Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation Literary Festival, and Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. His poetry and hybrid works are featured or forthcoming in MuzzleCallalooSpoon River Poetry ReviewAssaracus, VolubleBest New Poets 2017, and Best American Experimental Writing 2018. He is 1/6th of the Detroit-based multidisciplinary Black arts collective CTTNN Club (Can’t Take These Niggas Nowhere). 

 

Last week my Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics class had a lively discussion of Jonah Mixon-Webster’s collection, Stereo(type). At some point I noticed that only the black students were reading the word “nigga” aloud, while some non-black students were instead substituting “blank” wherever the word appears—which is a lot. Eventually I asked why everyone was not reading the text as written.  Some were afraid of how their classmates would take it if they spoke the word aloud. “I think the way he is using the word is meant to make non-black people uncomfortable,” one of the white students offered. But I would argue that Stereo(type) is not intending to make non-black readers uncomfortable any more than Stein or Brontë intended to make me so. Stereo(type) is simply not oriented around their familiar compass. That the book forces every reader to engage with its own terms on its own terms is revolutionary. That it pulls the revolution off successfully is genius.

 

In his Author Statement on the Ahsahta Press website, Mixon-Webster writes,

I’ma keep it a buck, I’ve been a nigga my whole life. My niggas been my niggas my whole life. My daddy and brothers are all niggas. Sometimes, my sisters are niggas…and my homegirls. I meet a new nigga at least ten times a day. All my boyfriends were niggas, and my husband probably will be too. Where I’m at (and where you are), niggas are created every day. This word’s status in my life comes from hearing it at every crossing of my existence, and in contexts with various and almost always conflicting ends. This quotidian phenomenon of nigga synthesis and the inherent dangers on both sides of being a nigga is what gets most niggas caught up. It’s what had me facing two counts of resisting a “peace officer.” It’s usually what gets most niggas killed.

 

The versatility of the word “nigga,” simultaneously signifying home and risk, underscores Mixon-Webster’s versatility as a poet of phenomenal range and superlative skill. He moves dexterously from the hilarious reimagining of the Sisyphus myth, “Black Existentialism No 13: The Myth of Niggaphus” and searing parody “Twitter Fingers,” in response to the conceptual poet Vanessa Place, to the overheard conversation of “In the Figurative, I Respond—This shit be killing me!,” to intimate lyrics of eros like “On Juking with Another Black Boy” and violence like ‘Psalm 66.” In “Existentialism No 12: Da’ Bad Nigga Blues,” Mixon-Webster uses Steinian repetition to interrogate the book’s favorite term against the backdrop of a blackface minstrel tune, while “Based on Actual Events/ The Real Nigga Attempts to Survive the Apocalypse” is a documentary excavation of the Flint Water Crisis.

 

By placing the word “nigga” at the center of the text and spinning it in a plentitude of surprising directions, Mixon-Webster has wrested center stage from the great white canons and comforts—the ancient Greeks, the white conceptual poets, the indifferent government pamphleteers, the cable news networks, even the most conscientious white progressives who would be much more comfortable saying “blank”—and swerved the lights to focus on what has always been central, the  black lives and speech at the heart of a popping, careening, stumbling, scatting, falling, diving, and deliberating text.

Introduction for Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem Reading at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, June 12, 2017

 

“John Punch” is the opening song on Cornelius Eady’s CD Singing While Black. Punch was an African servant in colonial Virginia. In 1640 he tried to escape with two white indentured servants. After they were caught, the two white men were sentenced to longer indentures, while Punch permanently lost his liberty, making him the first legally sanctioned slave in the Chesapeake. “John Punch’s story is the moment black people’s status in the colonies changed from indentured servants to slaves,” Eady says in an interview in Drunken Boat. “He’s also related to President Obama on his mother’s side—the first slave and the first Black President on the same family tree—what’s more American than that?”

 

Even more American, perhaps, is the primary speaker of Brutal Imagination, the imaginary black man Susan Smith blamed for the murder of her two young sons. In the second poem, he states: “Susan Smith has invented me because/ Nobody else in town will do what/ She needs me to do.” If, as DNA evidence suggests, Barack Obama is the literal descendant of John Punch, that first African American slave, is the black man in white imagination Punch’s figurative descendant?

 

If imagination can make some Presidents and some slaves, imagination is also how poetry knows. The imagery in Brutal Imagination stuns me, but the restraint with which it’s delivered intensifies the punch.

     Susan hopes the sheriff will recognize what she’s stitched

     Under my lids. Perhaps I’m a young boy whose dark skin

     Ricocheted off her and her friends on a playground.

    Now I drive about, my gaze a blown switch.

 

Eady’s imagery can stun, but it also cherishes detail, holds a moment up to a magnifying glass or sometimes a jagged funhouse mirror. Hardheaded Weather, a selected edition of poems written between 1980 and 2007, is full of such moments. Of the blues legend Leadbelly, Eady writes, “Sometimes the only way to discuss it/ Is to grip a guitar as if it were/ Somebody’s throat/ And pluck.” In “Sherbert,” a white waitress refuses to serve an interracial couple. The poem’s heat grows in the space between the couple and the manager who eventually serves them.

       … what language

      Do I use

     To translate the nervous

     Eye motions, the yawning

     Afternoon silence, the

     Prayer beneath

     His simple inquiries.

 

Cornelius Eady’s genius is his ability to tease out these moments between and among people, and the imaginations—brutal, banal—that lie beneath.

 

It’s my great pleasure to welcome Cornelius Eady to the mic.

Introduction for Sites of Memory, a Language for Grieving, featuring M. NourbeSe Phillip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck, presented by the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh, April 5, 2017

 

I am Lauren Russell, Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and a research assistant professor in the English department here at Pitt.

 

I have been dreaming of this event for over a year, since my interview for this position, before I knew if I would get the job, before I knew what the Center would become or much about the logistics of making this happen, before I had any idea of what political moment we would now be inhabiting or what losses I might now be grieving. When, as a candidate for the position, I was asked what events I’d like to see at the Center, I said, “Has anyone read Sonya Posmentier’s essay in The New York Times?”

 

In that essay, “A Language for Grieving,” Posmentier describes her visit to the Whitney Plantation Museum in Louisiana, a “site of memory” focused on the lives of the enslaved people who lived and labored there. The museum’s director of research is Ibrahima Seck, who is also a professor in the History Department of Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal. “In turning the plantation into a memorial site and reorienting it to highlight the perspective of the enslaved, the owner and museum director constructed an architecture for grief,” Posmentier writes. “Can poetry do the same?” She goes on to discuss how by “making violence strange and unfamiliar,” poets like M. NourbeSe Philip “have gone beyond merely repeating its effects, like a viral video of a police shooting, and beyond the realm of the evidentiary to that of the imagination, where we might not only observe violence but mourn and counter it.”

 

M. NourbeSe Philip’s extended poem cycle Zong! is based on the text of the legal decision Gregson vs. Gilbert, the only extant public document related to the murder of 150 Africans aboard the slave ship Zong in 1781. In an interview in Room Magazine, Philip writes that “archives are often very one-sided—having been constructed and preserved by the very people who were responsible for destroying the cultures and histories of so many peoples.” She continues, “Hence my interest in the archive of silence, the archive of the gap, the archive of the space, the archive of the erased space, the archive of the rupture.”

 

My Readings in Contemporary Poetry Class has been discussing Zong these last couple weeks. In a discussion board post, one of my students wrote that books like Zong are “not just going backward to ‘the archive’ and dancing with or confronting archives, but are also establishing themselves alongside them, and becoming part of something that is still being created and continuing to go on.” When this idea came up in class discussion, another student got up and drew a graph on the board: If the Y axis is the present, dividing the X axis into what has occurred in the past and will occur in the future, she said, then “imagination” is another field that exists off the board, influencing, and influenced by, the activity on the graph, while existing in its own dimension.

 

Today, a moment that has leaped from the dimension of the imagination right onto the Present point where the axes meet, we welcome M. Nourbese Philip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck, to consider questions of mourning and imagination and the challenges of working with one-sided archives. “How might the archive (as a site of memory) provide (or fail to provide) an architecture for grief?”

 

My colleague Imani Owens, Assistant Professor of English, will introduce Sonya Posmentier. Sonya will be followed by Robert Bland, Visiting Assistant Professor of African American History, introducing Ibrahima Seck. Dawn Lundy Martin will introduce M. NourbeSe Philip, and after NourbeSe reads, she will join Sonya and Ibrahima in a moderated discussion followed by a Q&A.

There are books for sale in the anteroom, and a book signing will follow the reading.

Please join me in welcoming M. NourbeSe Philip, Sonya Posmentier, and Ibrahima Seck to the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics and the University of Pittsburgh.

Introduction for Dawn Lundy Martin at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented by the Felix Reading Series, April 20, 2016

 

Dawn Lundy Martin is the author of three books of poetry and three chapbooks. Of her latest collection, Life in a Box is a Pretty Life (Nightboat Books 2015), Fred Moten says, “Imagine Holiday singing a blind alley, or Brooks pricing hardpack dandelion, and then we’re seized and thrown into the festival of detonation we hope we’ve been waiting for.” Martin is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh and co-director of the new Center for African American Poetry and Poetics there. She is also a member of a three-person performance group, The Black Took Collective, and of the global artist collective,

HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN?, the group that withdrew its work from the 2014 Whitney Biennial to protest the museum’s biased curatorial practices. Martin is currently working on a hybrid memoir, a tiny bit of which appears in “The Long Road to Angela Davis’s Library,” published in The New Yorker in December 2014.

 

“Form arrives at the end of language,” Dawn Lundy Martin writes in Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life, and all of her works push the limits of form through language, forcing the reader to reimagine what it is possible for language to be and do. In A Gathering of Matter A Matter of Gathering, a breach becomes a presence, the weight of what can and cannot be spoken—in stammers, in silences, in shard-like sentences navigating a post-traumatic space. Discipline, “a partial history of fabulously forgetting,” engages a speaker who troubles the idea of what it means to remember, peering at herself through fragments. An “I” that is “more relaxed/ when it is hunted” will not settle into an easy kind of grief.

 

In an interview in Literary Hub, Martin says, “Genre, like identity, is socially constructed, but we all collude to try to make our categories seem natural, imminent. What is the form for the thing that wants to be said? That is not an already answered question when I set out to create something.” Martin’s formal innovations are not ends in themselves but necessary interventions where the preexisting constructs place limits not only on what we can make but on who we can be. The title of Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life is “ironic, yes, and attending to incarceration, but incarceration writ large. All our big and little prisons,” Martin tells the Boston Review. One of the prisons is the prison of embodiment or of being in a racialized body, a gendered and sexualized body, how a body becomes a container for the “I” that can or cannot move, whistle, take up space. “What is the body but a leaking form?,” Martin writes in Life in a Box Is A Pretty Life. “No room for leaking. A form so tight around my form it cannot seep or gesture. Complete enclosure.”

 

When I was an MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh, I attended an end-of the-year department party and at some point in the evening found Dawn Lundy Martin bemoaning the ease of the party. It was too comfortable, she said. She wanted something uncomfortable to occur. Dawn brings this discomfort with comfort (or is it comfort with discomfort?) to her work as a poet and as a teacher. I don’t know anyone who is better at cultivating a creative practice from a position of uneasiness, making work out of the unsettling lodged both within us and around us, that has in fact already arrived at the department party, that was there from the beginning. In the interview in Literary Hub, Martin says, “I’m a big believer that the tension produced by making something from a place of discomfort, instability, and not knowing is what creativity, in fact, is.” It is my great pleasure to introduce Dawn Lundy Martin.