Sunday, October 15, 2006

Panel Photos by Amanda Johnston

Fellows' Panel: Inner Workings

Outside St. Marks Poetry Project.
Former director Carolyn Micklem with current director Alison Meyers.

Panelists (L-R): Dante Micheaux, Ronaldo V. Wilson, Gloria Burgess, Phebus Etienne, Jacqueline Johnson, Ross Gay

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Panel Photos by Amanda Johnston

The Master's Tools: Aesthetics & Poetry of the African Diaspora

Tara Betts on Walter Mosley's keynote address and the 10/13/06 Cave Canem Faculty reading

Sometimes the best way to learn about poetry is not just in the books, but in the mouths of the writers themselves. The stories from which the poems emerge and the voices that float, jettison, soothe and project. Novelist Walter Mosley began his brief opening address with two short anecdotes preceding tonight's Cave Canem Faculty reading at the CUNY Graduate Center. He talked about a meeting for the Poetry Society of America that he was attending where a white woman had asked if she could be a part of Cave Canem. When Mosley told her no, she replied with, "It's not fair." Mosley's thoughts were maybe it's not, but it hasn't been fair for us (meaning Black people). He talked about how Cave Canem is drawing attention for its work, and how this draws people to its positive energy that is counterbalanced by the struggles and pain born from Black life. "If you don't want the pain, you can't have the value," Mosley said.

Mosley also related a story about attending a reading by Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Forche and Etheridge Knight. At the reading, each of the poets shared their stories about receiving money that basically saved them at crucial times in their career. Stone talked about how the money she got from a poetry award helped her finally buy a dishwasher. Clifton talked about receiving award money when she was homeless. Forche was confronting a South American dictator who then spilled the ears of her enemies on the table between them. Etheridge Knight then talked about how he had been in "the pen-i-tent-chee-airy" where he "defined himself as a poet then went to the library to figure out what he defined himself to become." Mosley went on to jokingly say that he couldn't be a poet with that kind of struggle going on, but Cave Canem is a place that helps poets become. Mosley shared a brief address in which he called Cave Canem "a school of real truth-tellers," but his critique of the larger literary world and the ongoing war of propagating literature by Black writers is still going on. Hopefully, the full text of Mosley's brief essay will be available here soon since Mosley offered to share it with Cave Canem.

By the time the faculty were aligned and the crowd had amassed, Proshansky Auditorium was almost at its 489-seat capacity. Executive Director Alison Meyers took to the podium and announced that Lucille Clifton was unfortunately unable to make it for the reading tonight, and then introduced all the faculty in alphabetical order to avoid long introductions for the 14 faculty members who read tonight: Elizabeth Alexander, Cyrus Cassells, Kwame Dawes, Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Nikky Finney, Erica Hunt, Yusef Komunyakaa, Harryette Mullen, Marilyn Nelson, Sonia Sanchez, Tim Seibles, Patricia Smith and Afaa M. Weaver.

Elizabeth Alexander's first poem was "Today's News" from her first book, The Venus Hottentot (originally released as part of the Callaloo Poetry series, then rereleased on Graywolf Press in 2003). Alexander prefaced the poem with the idea that she was trying to imagine a space like Cave Canem. The rest of her reading was a careful plumbing through each syllable of a few poems from her Pulitzer Prize-nominated collection American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005), including "Black Poets Talk About the Dead," "Ars Poetica 1002: Rally" and "Ars Poetica 17: First African American Esperantist." She closed with “Absence” and “Translator” (about James Covey), two excerpts from her long poem “Amistad.” She paused before actually reading the poems after noticing the grumbles of understanding from the audience. “If you read here, you don’t have to say anything about the Amistad,” Alexander echoed what many writers have felt. There’s not a need to explain the history that is known to people who already understand, who are familiar with its significance or at least the general details.

If there is something to be said for knowing the details, Cyrus Cassells’ poems from his new manuscript Gospel According to Wild Indigo, set in the Carolina Sea Islands. He opened with the poem “Dayclean,” the title taken from a Gullah term for “broad daylight” and continued with a dazzling accumulation of objects and names that placed the listener directly in the geography of Gullah life. Cassells was among the faculty in one consistent trait that reappeared in the faculty’s poems—the walloping power of the concluding line in poems like “Childhood A’s” (“the music of how do and I recollect”) or “Caesars and Dreamers” (“who better to define freedom but a slave?”). Cassells veered from the new poems into “Oh,” a poem from More Than Peace And Cypresses (Copper Canyon Press, 2004) about the poignancy of burying a father and the title poem from Soul Make a Path for Shouting (Copper Canyon Press, 1994), a piece about Elizabeth Eckford set in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Kwame Dawes shifted the tone of the room by reading from his New & Selected Poems (Peepal Tree Press, 2003) about his brother’s insanity and eventual death in “Ward Twenty-One” which drew muffled witnessing sounds humming throughout the audience. Dawes deftly shifted again to talk about how he was recently deferred on his application for a visa to the U.K. and wanted to know how Weapons of Mass Destruction have been found to justify this, a perfect segue into some of the lyrics of Bob Marley’s “Catch a Fire” and one of his popular poems “Fat Man.” This poem in the voice of a conquering power that want us all to be “his little boys” and will sell “Jesus and Hollywood.” Dawes read his third and final poem “This Skin” from Wisteria (Red Hen Press, 2006). “This Skin” builds anaphoric fury that departs from affirmation. Instead, it is a warning of sorts, “if you bite me, you likely to eat crow.” At its end, Dawes departed from the stage to receive high fives and rousing applause.

Dawes made room for Toi Derricotte to ask, “Do you see the ancestors dancing? Let’s give the ancestors a round of applause!” In typical Derricotte fashion, she reminded us of the hurt that our ancestors suffered to make us possible now. “Joy and sorrow brought us here, and I have to accept it,” Derricotte revealed. It is these moments that are always evident in her work and push it forward. She read an excerpt from her memoir, The Black Notebooks (Norton, 1999), entitled “Revealing I’m White.” The more Derricotte read, the more I saw the shifting of women, dark and light, rustling around me, but so much of it was true. This introspection of thoughts often remains unarticulated. When is it safe to admit you are black when you seem ethnically ambiguous to some? What do you tell a black child who comes home afraid she will be chased by the n-word, the epithet loose in the neighborhood like a monster? What does it mean when other Black people say “She think she white” and they don’t say she’s acting white? Even in this tense moment, where she acknowledged how people ostracize, Derricotte brought the audience back to a point of togetherness by reading “The Journey” from Tender (University of Pittsburgh, 1997).

Cornelius Eady broke into song, but not just any song. He chose Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come” and thanked all the people who sent emails, cards and letters during his recent surgery for prostate cancer in August. In a sense, Eady stayed true to the sense of why Cave Canem faculty is so important by reading two poems—one was inspired by a title of an AWP Conference panel title and one of his teaching experiences at Sarah Lawrence College (“Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?”). His second poem spoke from a empathetic voice of a 36-year-old MFA student that still funneled hurt and anger into a vessel now known as the poem “Gratitude” from The Gathering of My Name (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1991). The line “I am a brick in the house that is being built around your house” is the line that often gets cited, but tonight Eady’s concentration pinpointed a certain frustration that a student might feel when he returned to the line, “I have a natural inability to sustain rage.” In short, not all poets of any persuasion are angry, and this assumption is infuriating like most assumptions, but some angers sharpen into radiant heat that burns a hole through to some painful black truth.

Nikky Finney broke open such truths tonight with new poems such as the sweet love poems for a mother chewing her baby’s food so it can be digested in “Penguin, Mullet, Bread” and “Segregation Forever” taking in the sight of three black boys playing concluded with the foreboding line “I know history. I know what happens next.”

None other than Condoleeza Rice was held under the magnifying glass of Finney’s pen in what Finney called three “1-minute conciertos” focus on Rice’s childhood mastery of the piano and its parallels with her current political career in “The Condoleeza Suite.” After “Concierto No. 5” and “Condoleeza and The Watergate: Concierto No. 7,” the final momentum stung in the last line of the third poem “Condoleeza and the Chicory”: “She refuses to hear how the opera might sound if she only take her eyes off the score.” When one considers that Rice, Finney, Angela Y. Davis and the four girls (Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair) killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham were of the same generation, it is not unusual that such a suite would be born, especially when McNair was Rice’s classmate.

Erica Hunt read all new poems tonight with her knack to play with voice and the multiple meanings of words and their unexpected relationships. Her first short poem “How It’s Done” sketched the impression of a domineering partner who expected 365 hot meals a year. With glasses pushed down on her nose and demands with a level of comedy that balances with its subtlety. “A History of Love” altered Hunt’s stance altogether as she caressed the side of the podium like a lover. Her linguistic agility only got more limber as she launched into “Invisible Hands” from Piece Logic (Carolina Wren Press, 2002) plays with the economics term coined by Adam Smith, but then flips into an image of countless hands that do incalculable amounts of undervalued labor. “Natural Mathematics” was dedicated to Hunt’s father, but the line “someone has to write it and know it” reverberated. Even her last poem “James Baldwin and Ella Baker Under a Night Sky” lets the two characters dialogue on thoughts about the stars.

Yusef Komunyakaa descended on the stage. His height leaned into the podium and began his bob and weave with each word. In “Requiem,” he sounded as if he was mourning the New Orleans of his home state Louisiana. He continued with the last section of his new 33-part poem “Autobiography of my Alter-Ego.” The lines housed such stunners as “forgive the schizoid gatekeeper his book of crooked excuses.” He closed with two favorites recalled by many CC fellows—“Ode to the Drum” and the paean to the body “Anodyne.”

Harryette Mullen stayed thoughtful of the time and read an excerpt from one of her earlier works Trimmings (Tender Buttons, 1999) that has just been reprinted with S*Perm**k*t (Singing Horse Press, 1992) and Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press, 1995) in one volume called Recyclopedia (Graywolf Press, 2006).

Marilyn Nelson read work from two of her latest projects that draw heavily on Connecticut history, particularly the state’s African American residents. One of those residents was Venture Smith who was kidnapped as a child to serve as a slave in 1726. Smith did so for 30 years. He bought his wife, children and about 4 or 5 other people out of slavery. He dictated the story of his life that would become the first book published in Connecticut. This text is still in print as A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture A Native of Africa But Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America. As a result of this record and his descendants, now in their 8th and 9th generations, Smith may be the one slave who survived who can offer us a full story of Middle Passage. Nelson’s first poem “Meg” is for Venture’s wife and inspired by the negritude poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, and the poem “Farm Garden” where Smith strains to remember the dances and the praise songs, so he takes pride in the fact that he owns himself.

Nelson also read three sonnets from Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color (Boyd’s Mills Press, 2007) by Nelson and Elizabeth Alexander. The two poets chose to write in the voices of the young black girls who studied at Prudence Crandall’s school, rather than in the often recognized teacher. One of the girls who spoke tonight was alive in “Miss Anne Eliza Hammond,” adamant in her determination to stay at the school unbudged and letting whoever’s listening know that “people’s dreams brought her here.” Again, one of the concluding lines stood triumphant when Nelson read, “I auction myself, and I make the highest bid.”

Sonia Sanchez pulled on a myriad of influences to fortify the political awareness of the crowd by citing lyrics from the hip hop classic Rakim’s "Casualties of War” and a quote from Camus: “The nobility of our call lies in…refusal to lie about what we know and resistance to oppression. These thinkers led Sanchez into mentioning her pending December 1, 2006 court date at 8:30 a.m. in Philadelphia’s Community Court, located at 1401 Arch Street. She urged people to come support her and the other elder women who protested the enlisting of more young people and asked that they be sent instead earlier this year. These women were arrested and detained overnight before they were sentenced to trial in December.

Since the anniversary reminded Sanchez of the anniversary of her father’s death she talked about their conversations, what it meant for Black men like her father to prove their manhood, especially after the death of Sanchez’ mother, the strife and the reconciliation of father and son, even in the face of a daughter’s unflinching love. Sanchez was almost in tears but maintained her composure to read several pieces from the rhyme royale form blended with the Wolof spoken by African ancestral voices assumed by the father and brother in does your house have lions? (Beacon Press, 1998).

Tim Seibles mostly read tenderly from his most recent collection Buffalo Head Solos (Cleveland State U Poetry Center, 2004). “Friend and Beloved” is based on a note passed from a child to a mother. “Ago” describes the park where Seibles played with his boyhood friends and how it looks so much smaller and only vaguely familiar. Seibles was about to close with what would eventually be his last poem “Late Shift” when a request was coming from the back of the auditorium. After much urging, Tim Seibles tried to say he couldn’t read “Faculty Meeting” from Hurdy Gurdy (Cleveland State U Poetry Center, 1992). His refusal was thwarted by what can best be described as a run-by booking where Toni Asante Lightfoot dashed from the top of the stairs to the podium with the volume in hand. Seibles was compelled to read about the paper cup man that the speaker in the poem has to draw during what has to be an unbearable faculty meeting gone bad.

Patricia Smith told a story about an elementary class that she visited today where she told the students about the poets that she worked with at Cave Canem. Smith showed the students a picture of the 2006 graduating class. When the students saw it, one of them said, “I thought they were writers.” The statement obviously pointed to how even children do not see people like themselves as writers. In such a painful anecdote, Smith began with the first poem in her latest collection the National Poetry Series-winner Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006). “Building Nicole’s Mama” details how the children in a 6th grade class in Florida are all willing to share their stories with a visiting poet about their experiences with the reaper, including one little girl who admits that her mother is gone. She asks the poet if she can help her remember her mother. In her ongoing homage to black men of her father’s generation, Smith read the humorous poem about bluesman John Lee Hooker “How to be a Lecherous, Little Old Black Man and Make Lots of Money” and the praise poem “For My Million Fathers Still Here Past.” She publicly retired another CC favorite in the voice of Terrell Anderson Jr. cutting hair in his Afrocentric Fade Palace and Wild Style Emporium and did what she claims will be her last reading of “Terrell’s Take on Things”. Now, we’ll just have to see about that last time, won’t we? Smith may have to come back like Jay-Z after doing “The Black Album.”

Afaa M. Weaver, ever mindful of the time ticking away on tonight’s reading, started with no mic. He talked about how he worked in a factory for 15 years and how he was entrusted with closing the warehouse every Friday night. Now as an elder, he was entrusted with guarding this house of Cave Canem. He was received warmly, but got even more applause when his microphone was restored near the beginning of a new poem entitled “American Income”—a commentary on the worth of black men in America. His second poem was “Hey Girl” for Latasha Harlins appears in volume six of the ten 10 X 10 booklets produced by Sarah Micklem featuring 100 ten-line poems by CC faculty and fellows. Weaver closed the evening with “A Chant of Saints” or a call on literary ancestors. As each of name was called for the likes of Melvin B. Tolson and June Jordan, a growing response of ashe followed each name, and the church said Amen, perhaps just as loudly as the CUNY security guards who were willing to stay a little later past their allotted time to let people mill around a little longer in the overwhelming flow of poems in a long night.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Head Voice: The Ten-Year CC Reunion Faculty Reading
Blogger: Cherryl Floyd-Miller

Who Read:

Elizabeth Alexander
Cyrus Cassells
Kwame Dawes
Toi Derricotte
Cornelius Eady
Nikky Finney
Erica Hunt
Yusef Komunyakaa
Harryette Mullen
Marilyn Nelson
Sonia Sanchez
Tim Seibles
Patricia Smith
Afaa Weaver

*Lucille Clifton could not join us, and so I searched the archives in my head for her most memorable poems.

**Who’s missing in my head: Michael S. Harper, Al Young, Rita Dove, Quincy Troupe, Kevin Young.

Tara Betts does such an incredible job of relating the details of the faculty reading that I’ll focus my thoughts on some my own subsurface self-dialogue.

First, we went more than an hour and a half over our allotted time. Why is it that we allot time again? … oh, yeah, the space is physically owned by someone else even when it belongs to us. But we seem to never grow tired of one another or of our words. I don’t know another space on the planet where this is true.

Two of the most arresting moments of the night (but there were many arresting moments, weren’t there?) came when both Cornelius and Kwame (whose music in a room is large and invigorating) sang. Music as a poetic form just stops you at the ankles and moves slowly in goose bumps over the terrain of your skin. Makes you watch the communion between singer (poet) and muse. Between poet and audience. Between muse and audience. Where does he go, this Kwame Dawes, when he closes his eyes? How is it that he could carry a whole room with him?

Cornelius joked that Toi was the more spiritual of the CC dynamic duo -- he's always been the notoriously unspiritual of the two. I thought immediately that self-perception is certainly not the same as public reception. I have always "received" this poet as an amazingly spiritual one. What I have always admired about Cornelius Eady as a presence is the fact that he and his work seem to be deeply spiritual -- he is a protector and carrier of the sacred, but one who finds no need to belabor the merit of his myriad missions. Instead, he just does what needs to be done.

And tonight, he needed to sing. To push words into us on the breath of a melody. An irony and a juxtaposition, an unexpected preparation for the Nikky Finney poem “Penguin, Mullet, Bread” that would come after his singing. In the moment of his song, he was a father figure chewing on the journey, softening the texture of things tough to swallow so that what we would eat of these words might be easier going down.

Sonia Sanchez
The eyes of Sonia Sanchez are deep rivers. You must know how to swim them, how not to be swallowed. These are eyes that know the shifting borders of distant countries, know the aftermath of both creation and destruction, eyes that know years, plus the bodies that have been scattered among the years.

As Mama Sonia read tonight, I was drifting in and out of anguish. I remembered being at Esopus with her in 1999. It was morning and she was pacing the immense hallway just outside her room. I had just finished a walk to the river to gather rocks to take home with me. I wanted to be able to touch them and invoke the spirit of this place at whim. We had just heard Miss Lucille (Clifton) relay a story from her own life about Mama Sonia showing up at the hospital when she and her daughter were preparing to have surgery for a kidney transplant. Without opening her eyes, Miss Lucille’s daughter knew it was Sonia Sanchez in the room. Who else, Miss Lucille said, would be here at a late hour trying to tuck them in?

Hearing this from Miss Lucille had made me think of all the people over the years Sonia Sanchez must have taken care of – family and others. This was the year she would turn 65. Who would take care of her, I wondered?

As I found her in the hallway, I asked this question. She could not look at me. She stared off in the distance with watery eyes, said, “That is the question, isn’t it, sister,” and walked away.

Last year, when she visited Atlanta for a two-day writing/reading retreat, I reminded her of this question. Again, her eyes watered. She still could not answer the question, but she thanked me for remembering it.

Tonight, her eyes watered again. She remembers a friction between her late father and her late brother. She remembers the day the rift between them was mended. “My father said, ‘I’m glad to have a son.’ My father said, ‘I’m glad to have a son,’ as he talks to his daughter.” This was a moment full of pain, it seems, exacerbated by the fact that there is no longer a father here in her world to negotiate feelings with.

Mama Sonia asked us to show up on Dec. 1 when she and a group of grandmothers will be tried for attempting to enlist in the army and go to Iraq. (Is this really the charge?) They wanted to talk to grandmothers in Iraq about ending the war. Since their arrest, she said, she’s had eight gigs cancelled. No real solid reasons given, organizers of said gigs just had to get someone else. The Sanchez quote of the evening: “Every poet I know has resisted.”

This generous caretaker spirit is not one whom I believe would ask so loudly for help. But it was clear as I watched her tonight that she needs our support. She asked us to show up. I’m certain there’s a lot more she needs that she won’t ask for. To whom much has been given, much is required – isn’t that our cliché? What about … To she who has given much? What is required?

Tim Seibles
The way Tim Seibles talked about intersections tonight made me approach this entry about the faculty reading in the way that I have. In 1976, he said, Sonia Sanchez came to Southern Methodist University, when he was about 20 years old. He was young and didn't quite get what she was saying. Perhaps his involvement with Cave Canem was a second-chance, he said, a way to be involved in repeating patterns.

"Thank you sister Sanchez for just still being here so I could grow up and figure out some things," he said.

Seibles also had an introduction to Cornelius' work by way of the Harper's publication of work from Victims of the Latest Dance Craze. He had no way to know then that he would become a faculty member for Cave Canem, but here he is.

And perhaps, he said, conversations we are having right now are echoes of conversations already had by Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes ... this talk was the prelude to his reading of the poem "When We Met Again."


It is true, when we convene, when we gather, in so many ways, we really are meeting again.

Toi Derricotte
I don’t always pay attention to the distance between a writer and her work – the time between the first draft and the final publication version, the distance between writing and reading, the emotion of being inside the work as a writer and outside of the work as a reader/performer. Tonight, Toi made me think of all of this … and of distance.

There was a moment as Toi was reading from her memoir The Black Notebooks, when an “Oh my God … oh, shit” (half-whispered) slipped from her mouth followed by a slight pause. I wondered for a moment if I were witnessing how a writer can be surprised at what she wrote. How the words get away from you when the writing of them is done. When those words come back to you, there is a moment in which you, the writer, must become a listener, and you can be blown away by something that becomes very clear and articulate to you in a way you hadn’t yet imagined.

The way that Toi delivered her excerpted “Revealing I’m Black” chapter from The Black Notebooks was filled with ebb-and-flow comedy. At moments, we could not contain ourselves or the laughter that swelled in us. Other moments, we hummed and nodded, acknowledgement that Toi’s words struck us deep and true. No matter how hard this book had been to write, Toi was in a place tonight where she could laugh at some of the details, and we laughed right along with her. I know at the time that many of these things happened, neither life nor the (constant) negotiation of identity could have been easy or funny. I believe, though, there is a fantastical humor that can come from making it through pain and gazing back at it from the other side.

When Toi starts her reading, [we are serious. Attentive.]

“I still have that response when I see a dark person – not just a black person – in some nearly all-white environment. The feelings of distance and recognition …as if I were trying to push something away, a narrowing of my vision …”
“Perhaps I perceive others differently because I perceive myself differently.”

“I get into conversations with other black people which are so friendly, it makes me think they know I’m black.

[We flourish with laughter.]

Toi comes out of performance voice to speak directly to us: “It’s so weird to read this thing. I wrote this along time ago, but I guess it’s out now, right.”

[More hysterical laughter.] She returns to performance voice.

"Or else, black people are totally more friendly than white people.

Or perhaps, I am friendlier to black people than to white, and therefore, they are friendlier back.”
“Revealing I’m black even to a black person can cause a moment of discomfort, so that twenty minutes into the conversation, often they say something that lets me know that they didn’t get it.”
“‘Am I some kind of crazy white lady professing to black for God knows what reason?’ Some may wonder why anyone who looks white would take on such a burden.”

“I remember one time in an audience somebody said to me, ‘Toi you look like an optical illusion.’”

My face does look different, as if the bones of my blackness have risen up to the surface.

“How can we tell when reality has been so twisted, what we see?”

“‘She think she white’ was one of the worst insults hurled from childhood. It was not only a judgment. It was a punishment as well, for it embodied the consequence of exile, of exclusion.

Our laughter with Toi tonight was always sobered, though, by very affecting phrases: “’She think she white’ is not the same as ‘She wants to be white.’ It means, ‘She thinks she is white.’”

“There is no dictionary to refer to. Perhaps every word we have uttered since slavery has been a contention between possibility and doubt, language twisted like a horrible face, the tension from which art itself arises.”

“It might be the key not that you wore a pretty dress, but that you wore it in a certain way, as if you were proud of it as a fact of your being [Oh my God … oh shit] [slight pause] as if you deserved it, took it as a personal accomplishment.”

"['She think she white'] aims not only to make the hearer think they have done something wrong, but to assault the very idea of the self to deal with shattering blows to the center of all thought, the self as perception. Isn’t that racism’s greatest injury?"

Nikky Finney
There is no question Nikky Finney brought down the house with these three poems (not sure about line breaks, so I’m keeping text intact without breaks):

“Concerto No. 5”
“At piano you are a major sound, more than the articulate ivory key …when you open your mouth, there is that brilliant delayed count. We dive through your Shostakovich gap.”

“Condoleeza at The Watergate: Concerto No. 7”
“… where she and the piano are the only black people in the room.”

The final piece is what moved us all out of our seats:

“Condoleeza and the Chickering”

“Practice, practice, practice. Use your great mind to play and read with precision …”

“…but the black keys even then will always be a stretch for her.”

“…she refuses to imagine grace notes, half counts, a full spontaneous pause, or how else the opera just might sound if she would only take her eyes off the score.”

It is what Nikky said afterwards, though, in the foyer area talking to Doug Kearney that will stick with me most whenever I read or hear these poems. “Because I love her, I had to write them,” she said. I am surrounded by people, especially artists, who love to hate on Condoleeza. This doesn’t mean that they actually hate her … just that they like to use whatever means they have access to as a criticism vehicle for Condoleeza’s words, actions, life in office. So, this admission by Finney, that she loved Condoleeza enough to place her observations (her questions) in a poem, was a warm surprise.

Marilyn Nelson
Marilyn Nelson’s talk of Venture Smith who owned his property and his people this evening made me think of CC material ownership … what would it take for us as an org to own property? Retreat space? Land? Office space? Money, I know, but what else? Is this even possible if the org is nonprofit?
Viva la Gala!
Blogger: Cherryl Floyd-Miller

I felt so grungy from travling that I wanted to change my clothes. But what good would that have done without a shower? Since I gazed around the room and saw that many other people had on jeans, I felt safe to stay dressed as I was. Some people were dressed to impress -- of special note, our beloved Dante Michaux, who changed into a a black velour jacket, crisp white shirt and matching tie. Gorgeous!

I mostly watched the room. There were so many faces that brought me joy just to see them again. But the room was so crowded, it required special maneuvering to reach people, and by the time you could get to them, they were off to the next person they had seen in the crowd. I stood in the back of the room with Tara Betts and Sean Hill. We caught up a little on each other's entrances and exits in poetry and ate generously from fancy hors d'oeuvre trays floating on the extended palms of smiling servers.

The food was certainly not retreat fare: Spicy tuna on peppered crackers, smoked salmon on toasted wheat rounds, chicken skewers with a mustard sauce, assorted sushi, mushroom cups, gargonzola and carmelized onions on miniature croissant circles ... fruit, cheese, wine.

Live jazz played in the background.

A silent auction table bearing these things for sale: first edition prints of harder to find books (Toi Derricotte's Captivity being one), all of Tony Kushner's plays, a reading/performance by Yusef Komunyakaa, dinner with a politician ... great finds on that table.

An adjacent table held CC T-shirts, tote bags, 10 x 10 anniversary booklets, and books from fellows and faculty as far as the eye could see.

I was very pleased that we took a moment to acknowledge those lovely souls who had the courage to come to that first retreat in the mountain. Phebus Etienne read the names and offered a gift to those present:

Herman Beavers

Omari C. Daniel

Hayes Davis

Ronald Dorris

Michele Elliott

John Frazier

Rachel Harding

Yona Harvey

Shayla Hawkins

Terrance Hayes

Major Jackson

Suzanne Jackson

Valerie Jean

Honoree Jeffers

A. Van Jordan

Sherry Quan Lee

Carrie Allen McCray

Renee K. Moore

Dominique Porter

D.J. Renegade

James W. Richardson, Jr.

Lorelei Williams

Vincent Woodard

(Names highlighted in blue were present for this event.)

These souls, too, are our founding voices. Because they dared to come together in 1996, toil over poems, talk about poetics, forge a safe space, we are all able to move in a tradition.

I'm grateful to them all.
Blackness and the Sounds of Other Colors: New Media & African American Poetics

Blogger: Cherryl Floyd-Miller

Panelists: Tonya Foster, Duriel Harris, Mendi+ Keith Obadike

Moderator Evie Shockley introduced this panel by owning the fact that she is “intrigued, but intimidated and lives outside the realm of black new media poetry.”

Her first experience with this kind of art form, she said, was when Mendi + Keith Obadike, in 2001, offered Keith’s blackness for sale on Ebay. Evie admitted she laughed initially when she saw the advertisement, but this event made her follow the art of Mendi + Keith more closely.

[Note: Everyone had much to say about the plus sign as opposed to an ampersand in the Mendi + Keith collaboration/partner construction ... it elicited much positive response in this panel session.]

Some of the questions Evie wanted to pose to the panel:

*^* What examples currently exist of black new media poetry, including hypertext video poems, sound poems, etc.?

*^* Is there a community of black new media poets/artists? If so, how can interested poets enter that space?

*^* How does someone gain the technical expertise to do new black media poetry?

*^* Are there low-tech forms that allow those without the money or institutional resources to buy or use expensive equipment?

*^* Do new media forms challenge our conventional forms of creativity?

*^* Do new media poems have different approaches to process than poets who work primarily towards the written or performance piece?

*^* What is the role of words in a new media poem?

*^* What is new media poetry?

Evie let us know that all the panelists had told her they were not going to answer these questions (though, amazingly, somehow, they did).

Tonya Foster

Tonya Foster, who could not join the panel in person, was conferenced in via speakerphone to give her presentation. She was supposed to join us by videoconference, but there was a glitch in this matrix that prevented the video from happening.

[Note: It becomes a comedy, somewhat, the way Tonya Foster is present with us without being with us as flesh. At one point, the connection is lost and she has to ring us back right in the middle of Duriel's presentation. At another time, as we are all absorbed in Duriel's presentation, when some part of our consciousness seems to have forgotten that Tonya is still in the room with us, we hear Tonya's voice say, "Play it." She's egging Duriel to play a sound clip she's made reference to but says she won't play for us. Duriel looks at the phone, touches the receiver and says, "Tonya, you so black and lovely. The technology of this workshop -- both Tonya Foster on the phone the Mac computers plus large television monitors for the panelists presentations -- added new texure to the meaning of this gathering.]

Tonya Foster writes poetry, fiction, and essays. She is the co-editor of Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art, published by Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She has written a chapbook, A Swarm of Bees in High Court (2002, Belladonna Press). She is currently working on The Mathematics of Chaos, a cross-genre piece on New Orleans and Monkey Talk, an inter-genre piece about race, paranoia and surveillance. She teaches at Bard College and Cooper Union.

Tonya started her talk with these words: “I am not a real person.”

(We laughed at this, but how did we know she was real in that moment? There was no body, no normal means of identification, as proof. There was only a voice which responded to the name Tonya Foster. Of course, we believed she was configured as flesh and bone somewhere, but today, she was a voice more than she was a real whole person. It was an amazing moment to be inside of … on a panel whose topic was “New Media Art,” our first speaker came to us as a voice, long distance from “a room in Houston somewhere,” unseen, a vibration of sound through a telephone.)

Tonya told us that she doesn’t consider herself an expert on new media; she’s just begun a project that could be considered new media. There is a visual component and a DVD, along with text.

She opened her presentation with a question: Is Projection of Verse and Voice Programmable Art?

There are two ways, she said, that we come to know things: There is what we know because of what we do and what we know because it is what we think. Tonya wanted to know what this means for our ideas of new media technology or our notions of poetry.

The first image that comes to mind for her as she questions the meaning and impact of new media is the image of The Burning Bush – “voice of Judeo-Christian God speaks through voice called out from the midst of an object. Could this be considered as roaming voice mail?”

An irony of Tonya Foster transmitting her voice as a means of communication: She doesn’t own a cell phone. Long ago, she admitted, she joined the tribe of the IPod, laptop, digital video camera, CD/DVD player, flash drive, and voice mail. She, however, has resisted the cell phone. Having a cell phone, she said, says demands accessibility and continual interactivity.

“When one can be reached at all times, one is expected to be an audience and/or to be in front of an audience on demand,” she said.

Tonya said she believes that despite the notion that the reader can be co-creator of the meaning of text, the direction of words generally on a page are unidirectional - flow in one direction, from the writer to the reader.

Computers, however, offer a different kind of exchange. It is true that the way we interface with computers is informed by books … computers are meta language, a code in which all other media are represented. The page, for example, is represented in a computer, and having a computer does not erase our dependence on the printed page.

A page is “a rectangular surface containing limited info designed to be accessed in some order and having a particular relationship to other pages. Navigation of the web is dependent on our familiarity with the page. There is still a reliance on print …I still prints PDFs from the web to read them.”

Tonya reminded us that computer media offers exciting possibilities for invention and interaction, but sometimes the interaction that is beyond our control can be frightening:

“What who is interacting with what whom and to what end? The reader, who assumes s/he is clicking privately, is being watched.”

The example she gave was this one: One poet/anthologist was upset that another poet/blogger had trashed her book, but the blogger, who was very tech savvy, was able to track the anthologist’s obsessive visits to the blog site (ten hours). Anonymity, she said, is not what it used to be.

The reader often enters an interface with text where s/he can be id’d by the writer. The reader, who has often been in a position to be the watcher, is placed in a position to be watched.

Tonya also talked about the use of computers to give rise to something called the Flarf Movement, considered by some to be the first major literary movement of the 21st century. Flarf as a term seems to have been coined by poet Gary Sullivan and a flarf poem is created by doing extensive googling of odd search terms and then using the search results to write something hilarious and disturbing. Many people are not fans of this kind of art.

Tonya read a Gary Sullivan poem that she says inaugurated the Flarf movement:




Mm hmm

It’s true

Big birds make big do

Gary Sullivan submitted this poem to, and it prompted other artists to do the same kinds of poems. They were building an aesthetic based on google searches and their idea of "community" was generated from the idea that one idea in a poem was linked to the idea in another poem. Apparently, this movement caused a lot of fuss (scandal) when linked the names of poets to flarf poems that they didn't write in order to entice people to submit poems to contests.

The flarf art is something Tonya Foster admits she's not fond of. After she read the poem, she said, "This is a bad poem." But there are other forms of new media art that she admires -- Keith Obadike's blackness for sale, for example and damali ayo's

Duriel Harris

Author of the 2003 Elixir Press published Drag, co-founder of the Black Took Collective, and poetry editor for Obsidian III, CC alumna fellow Duriel Harris teaches at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York.

Duriel wanted to read excerpts of a paper she had already prepared for another panel titled, "The Demands of Dis/Ease" and she wanted to segue into talking about some of the new media art she's engaged in at the moment, including the "Amnesiac Media Art Project."

She started by playing a recorded poem for us that used her voice, sound clips from other sources, and music. The piece was titled “Pomofunk Memo: Notes to Myself,” and it appears in Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Quotes Community: Notes For Black Poets. At some point in the course of her introducing her work to us, Duriel said, "Pomofunk is my aesthetic." I wanted to hear more about this, but was okay, too, with her leaving us with that as a statement and letting us find our way with it. It allowed me to listen to the connections between all the media of her work. Here is a small excerpt from her "Dis/Ease" paper:

"By vocation, poets are called to imagine, to be enthralled by words … and to invent ... We poets are charged to be transformed by language and are granted the opportunity, by means of language, to facilitate others’ transformations ... We are also charged to pay attention."

Duriel's current works are very focused on trauma:

“Trauma is defined by its capacity to wreak havoc and to sustain itself … Unleashed, it multiplies itself, infects the sensory organs, roots in the soft tissues.”

She is most interested in the idea that the victims of trauma are its hosts and the vicitms of racism, poverty and sexism are more susceptible to traumatization than the general population.

New media is giving us an opportunity to explore much of what Erica Hunt calls for in her notes on oppositional poetics. And new media is more than just putting technology together with poetry and language. It means to actively engage the difficult.

One of the cautions Duriel issued about new media, though, is that it gives us an opportunity to be less concerned with concrete conditions and disparities as issues in our community than with mastubatory exercises in intellect. It is our task to develop poetics in new media that address this danger.

Amnesiac Media Project takes an opening quote from Olga Broumas' Artemis: "I’m a woman committed to a politics of transliteration … for which, like amnesiacs in a world on fire, we must find words or burn. The project has four components -- a book, DVD, sound recording and website."

She played an excerpt form the Amnesiac Project titled "Self-Portrait." Over music, her voice on the sound track kept repeating the lyric/words, “Spoiled Negra is the meat.”

Duriel also played another excerpt, "Living Body" to give a demonstration of an Apple software program called GarageBand. She showed us how she used this program to record, loop, cut, overlap and merge sounds. The program costs about $80 and makes this kind of art generation possible for people who might not have thousands of dollars or tons of resources to invest. We have many things like GarageBand at our disposal to explore.

Mendi + Keith Obadike

Mendi + Keith Obadike are interdisciplinary artists and have performed their work internationally. Their album, The Sour Thunder, (also called an internet opera) was released on Bridge Records. They have done commissioned work for the Whitney Museum (The Interaction of Coloreds), by a Rockefeller Media Arts Fellowship (TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves), and most recently for Northwestern University.

They decided to talk us through several projects and explain how the projects came to be and what kinds of processes created them.

Keeping Up Appearances

This project, Mendi said, had its origins at Cave Canem. She was having lunch with Duriel Harris, Toi Derricotte and Harryette Mullen, and they were talking about sexual harrasment. The timing of this talk also intersected with a course Mendi was teaching on black women's autobiography, which gave a history to things that people didn't talk about.

She was interested in exploring the theme of what lives behind language ... what's unspoken -- left out -- in a conversation, how what's left out gives a completely different narrative sometimes. Aesthetically, she and Keith were interested in playing with white space on the page and in playing with hypertext language.

They created net-based hypertext pages in which some text which tells a story appears on the page. Some of the backstory and subtext for the seen text does not appear, though, until a cursor is moved over the white space.

This device helped them explore, Mendi said, all the things we might see if we could see what was behind the language that we see up front.

Keith added that the way hypertext usually works is that it links you to a new page. For this project, it was important to keep all of the text contained on the same page.

The Sour Thunder

This musical project is called an internet opera, defined broadly by the Obadikes as music and poetry coming together to tell an epic story. The structure of this project as performance art explored the positioning of audiences. The opera is a live performance piece first performed at Yale Caberet and the Afro-American Cultural Center on Yale's campus simultaneously. At the same time, audiences online could see both of those spaces at the same time. This online audience could also read backstory and download MP3s. In real time, the actors were moving back and forth between theatre spaces on the Yale campus. At intermission, the audiences switched spaces.

The Sour Thunder is an art piece that Mendi described as "half autobiographical and half speculative." The autobiographical component arose from Mendi going to the Dominican Republic and learning to speak Spanish. She learned how changing language changes reality. The speculative component tells the story of Sesom, who goes to another world on a mission to find something called The Sour Thunder. In this other world, scent is a language.

Keith said Thunder is grounded in the idea that language is akind of technology, something that people created to make their lives easier. In that way, it was technology ... and a technology in flux, as it is constantly changing and adapting to our needs.

Keith played an excerpt of The Sour Thunder called "Trouble." This piece uses text from other artists, including a few CC fellows (Dawn Lundy Martin, John Keene, and Duriel Harris, to name a few.)

The Pink of Stealth

The Pink of Stealth was a project commissioned by the New York African Film Festival and Electronic Arts Intermix. Keith and Mendi created the work for this commission for a show called "Digital Africa."

The artistic ideas for this project came from thinking about how the color pink worked in two films, one of which was Six Degrees of Separation. In this film, Will Smith plays a black con man who charms his way into the lives of wealthy white people. He tells them he’s the son of Sidney Poitier. They like him so much they give him a pink shirt. He wears that shirt throughout the film and it functions like a piece of skin.

The other film that motivated this project was Pretty in Pink. This is the (early Molly Ringwald) story of a poor girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with a rich guy ... she wants to be "pink enough," so to speak.

The third element that inspired The Pink of Stealth was the British Parliament debate about whether to outlaw foxhunting. They vote on it every couple of years. Mendi and Keith were thinking about how foxhunting related to the color pink. There’s a term: “To be in the pink of health”…which, believe it or not, came from foxhunting. Thomas Pink first became known for making English hunting jackets about two hundred years ago. If you were doing well, you were said to be "in the pink." Another saying suggested if you were doing physically well, you were "in the pink of health." (There is now a corporate entity called Thomas Pink, which makes specialty clothing. The company gets its name from the Thomas Pink who made the jackets a couple centuries ago.)

The Pink of Stealth uses a videogame of foxhunting, which Keith and Mendi played us an excerpt of.

In the same way, Mendi + Keith's other projects draw on story and art from other sources: Four Electric Ghosts is inspired by a novel by Amos Tutuola, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts and the age old videogame, Pacman; TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves, about a woman who goes through a transformation while trying to become a lady, is based on Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks and the notion of the debutante ball. (With the TaRonda work, your body triggers music when you enter the space and your movement in the space constructs the walls.)

Team Obadike is now working on a new piece commissioned by the black museum at Northwestern University titled "____ Disclosure" (couldn't catch the full name of this). It's a dance piece to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the slave trade. They let us know the piece is leaning towards a 200-hour long series of house music. The project gets its name partially from the citywide Chicago law that if you do business with the city of Chicago, you have to disclose whether you profited from slavery.

A snippet of Q&A:

Brandon Johnson recommended open source software, Audacity, for those with limited funds who are interested in trying to make new media projects but might not have the resources or equipment to do so.

Q: I'm concercerned with the idea of the term "interdisciplinary" vs. "collaboration." What are the aesthetic values that are native to new media that allow us to reach a hybrid form and not just a different form of production?

A: Keith : "I do not really have a conviction to new media. Poetry is always at the root of what we do." Mendi: "We are using tools that are at our disposal, tools that will be old. Some people will come up and say, 'You're using hypertext. That's kind of passe.' I don't care. I'm using hypertext. The idea is that I do something I really want to do." Duriel: “When I started moving in this direction, it was because Drag as a book was not enough. The printed media was not enough. I like the digital option because it gives you these different kinds of texts and different layers and different ways for people to access them.”

Q: (for Duriel) Are you suggesting that a specific gender, race is akin to a kind of trauma or are you saying that those experiences make you more susceptible to trauma? How does new media relate to all of this?

A: I think I"m saying both. What I see as possible with new media is that I can create actual spaces for bodies to inhabit. My challenge is to make sure that I don't retrigger the trauma.
Arrivals and Departures
Blogger: Cherryl Floyd-Miller

Arriving in New York and at the CUNY Graduate Center was no easy task, but after navigating my way from Penn Station, around bodies that will not move for you, through chatty lunchtime New Yorkers, the successive, small pockets of smells (bodies and street food and heavy, greasy air), and a huge red Macy's sign (yay!), I made it. The buildings here made me feel tall, as opposed to how they always dwarf me. I think it's because here in New York, just as much occurs closer to the ground as it does in the busy-ness of a highrise or a skyline. There is something happening at every level of the view.

I arrived at the CUNY center, met the beautiful face of Phebus Etienne, who had a conference pass waiting for me, and turned to hug Carolyn Micklem ... deeply ... extralong! Time has not diminished her capacity to love you bone deep in the limitless space of a hug. My ears were cold from the walk and she didn't mind at all letting me warm them for a moment against her face.

In the foyer area, Executive Director Alison Meyers and Executive Multi-tasker Dante Michaux were setting up the tables for the auction that would come later in the evening. They both stopped what they were doing for a moment to introduce themselves. This was an important gesture and a kindness from the universe after the long trip that brought me here. Another table in the foyer had so many lovely and distracting book covers that I stopped to let myself get engrossed. It was a large moment within a small one in which I realized I had met almost every author who had a book on the table! On an historical occasion like this observance of the orgin and projection of this incredible community -- this dream that we all dreamed and then dreamed some more in order to live -- I quietly retraced our history-making evolution.

I moved in on the first panel session already in progress (actually, almost at its end) and took a seat on the floor to try to find a listening entryway into the conversation. It didn't really happen. I had missed most of the panel discussion, so I took the time breathe at arriving, to peek from my low position on the floor to find faces among the audience. Since I attended my 20-year class reunion last year, I was prepared for the small blaze of heat that expands in your chest when you see someone you haven't seen in a very long time. The sun rises in you. Perhaps you don't recognize them, but something -- the way they dart their eyes, the way a cheekbone lifts on the upswing of a smile, the special way they make their nose wrinkle -- triggers a familiarity and all you can do is just smile to contain yourself. I immediately spotted John Keene, who did not have dredlocs the last time I saw him, but whose bright eyes always let me know he's John. Where I hear the name Tyehimba Jess, I will always turn and look for one of his signature hats. Tara Betts always, always is a smiling, inviting face, even when she's cussing. Toni Asante Lightfoot, who hugged me before saying a word, is always a voice to me. It is the sound of her that always invokes my familiar, how her voice has just enough smoke in it to seep into you and linger even after she's left the room.

I remember Toi saying (when the CC retreat space was Mt. St. Alphonsus) that from year-to-year she could see that the bones in our faces shifted each time we return to Cave Canem; she would stand smiling in the hallway and watch us (absorb us) as we returned to the mountain, like a mother welcoming you home from college or war (when those are two separate events). It was like she was really seeing us become ourselves. Whenever I needed to know about my own humanity, how it came out of me, I needed only to find Toi's face. Those eyes, intense, told me everything I needed to know.

In this moment, too, I noticed how bones and bodies have reconfigured among us. I vaguely heard Greg Tate in the background being challenged by some serious sistervoices in the room about the misogyny of rap lyrics, heard Elizabeth Alexander read poems, saw Yusef Komunyakaa lean into the table to check out Greg Tate's response to the challenge from the sistervoices ... before the panel was declared out of time.

I was thinking that this has nothing to do with the panel -- is departure -- and therefore is not relevant to this blog space ... but only for a minute. I soon remembered that I am among people whose very existence inside a tradition called Cave Canem is a departure, and completely relevant, and what has sustained and charged us.

Alas, coming in at the conclusion of a panel was an almost perfect way to enter the communion of these spirits ... in medias res, the work and the joy already in progress, because they always are. I had time to be close to all my people while stealing some internal time to reflect on all that we have become - are becoming.

Posting Note: I thought I would be able to blog continuously while the reunion was happening, but the fullness of such an event does not sanely allow for that. I wanted to be fully present, so I took notes and used my tape recorder in order to start giving accounts after the reunion retreat. I am decompressing now, but will keep transcribing and reporting on the reunion, so keep watching the space for more.

Photos from Prize Winners Reading by Amanda Johnston

Tracy K. Smith, Major Jackson, Constance Quarterman Bridges, Kyle Dargan, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Amber Flora Thomas, Dawn Lundy Martin

Afaa M. Weaver and Major Jackson

Tara Betts on the 10/12/06 CC Prize Winners Reading

Tonight, the audience of about 200 at Proshansky Auditorium at CUNY Grad Center was greeted by Cave Canem's new Executive Director Alison Meyers who introduced one of CC's designated elders, CC faculty member Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez insisted that the room should be packed for these young writers insistent on this challenge of publishing in America, not to mention publishing poetry period. She called on the words of noted Cuban poet Jose Marti and led the audience through an incantation of clicks and ululations interspersed with the first names of the Cave Canem Prize winners that read including winners (from 2000-2006) Major Jackson, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Tracy K. Smith, Amber Flora Thomas and Dawn Lundy Martin. Unfortunately, Natasha Tretheway, who was the inaugural winner of the Cave Canem Prize for Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000) in 1999, was not a part of the reading.

Dawn Lundy Martin was the first reader she began by thanking Carl Phillips, who selected her book A Gathering of Matter/A Matter of Gathering as the 2006 winner to be released on University of Georgia Press. Although she began with a longer poem called "After Drowning," there is a measured sort of lyrical heft in her phrases that is compelling and almost as lethal as the glittery skull & crossbones on the black cap cocked to the left and pulled low over her eyes as she read. When the stage lights got turned up, she brightened too and shared two more poems "Bearers of Arms, 1775-1783" and a poem for her father "Last Days."

Since Sanchez opened the reading by reading everyone's bios, there was a continuous flow from one poet to the next, and up next was Constance Quarterman Bridges, who read from Lions Don't Eat Us (Graywolf Press, 2006). Bridges started in a conversational tone to call on her familial ancestors by name as if they spoke to her. "Call our names so they don't forget us," Bridges recalled. She talked briefly about how the book was based on her mother's journal, photographs and notes, and she admitted that writing the poems about her father were more difficult because she had to imagine his voice. "Rhoda's Song," "Albert's Story," the Native American ties to Black families emerging in "Where Wolves Live," the way the earth is always soft to a good man in "Plowing," and "Place," all took the audience on a journey through the poet's bloodline that runs through one narrative of the African American experience.

Amber Flora Thomas picked up another thread in this narrative that drew on the sensuality of details from the earth and memory. Thomas, now living in Alaska, shared a few poems from Eye of Water (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), but was almost bursting to share new poems that she had written in June 2006 during the summer retreat, including "Heart from the Interior View," which explores abstract dimensions of a plasticized actual human heart included in the BODIES exhibit that's been traveling all over the country and is currently in New York City until December 2006. For info on this exhibit, visit the BODIES' website. The other poems just reinforced how Thomas' softspokenness is really about taking the time to notice. The poems were "Swarm" and two ekphrastic poems, namely "Staring at the Red Canna at the Georgia O'Keefe Museum" and another poem about an installation exhibit at Pittsburgh's Mattress Factory, which has been home to some of Cave Canem faculty readings.

Kyle Dargan, who usually has that knowing look like he's about to crack a joke or make Aaron McGruder-like commentary, opened by asking all the fellows and faculty to stand up since most people don't really realize what Cave Canem looks like and what it CAN look like. Around the room there was the range of people, men, women, younger and some more experienced, some looking a little more rugged and some looking more business-like, but always looking like someone familiar to each other, but there were other people who were sitting and watching and maybe that says something to people that Black identity, African or African-American or Diasporic identity has a lot of different faces and so many different voices. Kyle is no exception to that rule. He began by reading Toi Derricotte's "On the Turning Up of Unidentified Black Female Corpses," a poem that still rocks people to hum and make that thoughtful sound at its painful turns. Dargan then delved into poems from The Listening (University of Georgia Press, 2004). (According to Dargan, he was reading from that 'cause that's what's getting sold. Yes, the Dargan that some of us know & love peeked out with his sense of humor.) He read "Search for Robert Hayden" which is about searching through boxes original copies of books by Black poets in a garage and "Old Ways" that still grips me with its last line "It was the sea/ that brought us our pain/ in the first place." He also read "Semiotics" (a reaction to Newark gang violence), "Emaciation" (with its first line-"You can't eat God."), "Folk," "Piccolo Black Art," and the last poem in his upcoming collection "Only Cowboys Stay in Tune Anyway."

Tracy K. Smith followed a tune just fine by not missing a clip in the applause and taking her poised space after Dargan. She read some of the poems from her upcoming book Duende, due for release in June 2007. Other than the title poem, she shared "Slow Burn" and "Theft" inspired by the story of a Native American boy from the Ho-Chunk (meaning "people of the big voice") tribe who was separated from his tribe in order to "improve upon" Indian children like him until members of his tribe found him. Each poem grapples with notion put forth by Frederico Garcia Lorca, and yet I can't help but think of Claudia Rankine and how there's often this unexpected connection in her work that links one poem to the next, even in the dark, unwieldy places that artists that include Smith, Lorca, Rankine and many others.

One of the things that I enjoy most about Cave Canem readings is the convergence of so many streams of influences. History, parents, bloodline, notable Black poets, Native American people, music and duende being the main ones thus far, but poets & MATH?!?! Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon integrated metaphor and mathematics by reading work from her new manuscript Open Interval, a mathematical term that describes a line that doesn't contain its endpoints. The endpoints that Van Clief-Stefanon designates here are "body" and "identity" so it's clear that a linear measurement does not make a whole. Science and math is not just numbers and formulas, but an accumulation of actions, reactions, gatherings and separations, changes and much more. Poems like "Andromeda," the exploding of "electrons that pop from atoms" in a kiss while people mouth something that could be as meaningless as "rhubarb" in "Transit of Venus" and "Garden" are poems that can lead you down the path of the fantasy world that the scientific mind explores. She shared a poem in Afaa M. Weaver's Bop form inspired by Rilke's Duino Elegies. She thanked Afaa from the stage and talked about how she teaches at Cornell and teaches as a volunteer at a men's prison, how her apartment looks down at the projects and up at Cornell University. The Bop she read embodied all that in a form that she unabashedly loves. She also composed a series of sonnets that she has dubbed RR Lyrae sonnets. Now, if you're not into astronomy, RR Lyrae stars are stars that are particularly useful for calculating distances. (You can read more about RR Lyrae stars by visiting and clicking on the rrlyrex.htm folder or check them out via google.) So, yes, I was feeling that all these elements came together like a big bang of creation, like the quote from a Jasper Burns poem that Lyrae cited, "the universe, that cancer of alleleuia."

Major Jackson was the last reader who wasn't seeking an Amen for himself, but instead thanked Cornelius, Toi, Sarah and Carolyn Micklem, the outgoing Executive Director. Jackson pointed her out at the back of the auditorium, and Carolyn humbly waved hi, unknowingly to what became a standing ovation. Although he read mostly from his new collection Hoops (Norton, 2006), Jackson opened with "Rock the Body Body" from Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia, 2002). If you haven't heard this poem, then you don't know what boys will do to get a girl's attention, or at least what they think will get a girl's attention, like trading algebra tutoring sessions for breakdancing lessons. Jackson cited Gwendolyn Brooks as one of his heroes and the final section of Hoops is a series of letters written to her septet stanzas (Check the ABABBCC rhyme scheme, y'all). So, he read "Spring Garden" (which borrows loosely from Brooks' love poem "When You Have Forgotten Sundays") and "Cecil B. Moore." "Cecil B. Moore" not only pokes fun at the penchant for pretentious gadgetry like iPods, GPS systems for cars and "i google therefore i am" but it rattles you with lines like "We are mapping the human genome;/We'll soon design kids to match our homes." In addition to these poems, Jackson also read "Towers"-a poem that was inspired by a story told to Jackson by a Jewish journalist who was active during the Civil Rights Movement who had heard someone say that Black people are unable to think or read in the abstract. The poem's intricacies were an outright refutation. It reminded me somewhat of a poem with a 60-word title that begins with "Composition for White Critics..." in Afaa M. Weaver's Multitudes (Sarabande Books, 2000), which shouldn't be unusual if some of you read the January/February 2002 edition of Poets & Writers magazine.

As Jackson exited, Ms. Sanchez returned in her purple applejack cap crowning her salt & pepper shimmer dreadlocks. She let us know in the words of Grenadian Maurice Bishop that work can inspire us, unite and build us, even as some people aspire to tearing it apart like Grenada, like "a nice piece of real estate." Sanchez made the point that Iraq is seen the same way. She said these facts without ever saying that everyone has a responsibility but went on to point out what Tolstoy said, "Not that a poet should write to the masses, but that they should be intelligible to the masses." She urged us to keep asking what it means to be human, implored poets to rise up, rise up, rise up, warned us that if we heard what Al Gore and Dick Gregory are saying these days that we don't have a long time to save this planet, and trying to save it means care with words and crafting powerful words is more important than ever.

So, many poets listened, read, clapped, laughed. A few signed books. Some broke bread in different parts of Manhattan, but there was a call to remain focused on the work and to appreciate what we have in each other, whether it be in Cave Canem, as members of a larger literary community, or as citizens of the world.