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.