Blogger: Cherryl Floyd-Miller
*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.
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?
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.
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?"
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’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?