Category Archives: poetry

Video: Reading at In The Meantime

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Poetry Review: Douglas Kearney’s Black Automaton

Douglas Kearney is not a poet to be read causally. His most recent collection of poetry titled the Black Automaton is a wildebeest, a wild beast, horned, hooved, and heavy. Automaton is defined as a “moving mechanical device made in imitation of a human being,” in other words a robot. Black Automaton, I believe, is meant not to describe African-Americans as robots, but the ideal of the “Black” experience as a robotic or same reality experienced from the south to the “city.” “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby,” “The Black Automaton in Tag” and the FloodSong poems speak to the robotic reality.

Reading “Tallahatchie Lullabye, Baby” a second time, I noticed the words Emmett Till at the bottom of the page and that made the poem come together, like an open wound being stitched up. At the age of fourteen in 1955, at the height of violence in the early days of the struggle for civil rights, Emmett Till was murdered, after falsely being reported flirting with a white woman. The shocking photographs of his open-casket funeral were published in Jet Magazine and the story was later picked up by Look Magazine and raised the question of “approved murder due to race.” With that understanding, the poem takes on an emotional urgency to the last word to reach an unthinkable and known ending.

The alliterations work to move the poem:

cattatil casts tattles Till tale,
lowing low along the hollow
crickets chirrup and ribbits lick-up
what’s chucked the ‘hatchie swallow

The cattails, plants that grow in abundance along the Mississippi, become eyewitnesses to Till’s death and they tattle or talk amongst each other, spreading what they know along the river bank, until the crickets chirp and frogs ribbit, creating this melancholy song.

Till's mother insisted on an open casket. Imag...

The visual-ness of “The Black Automaton in Tag,” makes it capable of being read different ways and the play on the “n” is genius. The “n” word debate, is it a word of empowerment or fodder for fools, has polarized the African American community – either “Black” people love it or hate it. The “Black Automaton in Tag” takes a historical context and is an argument for blacks who love “it”:


it’s best not to err and ER the A
if one must air the n _ _ _ _ _.
The ER is a looming heir
of that gloomy era where
n _ _ _ _ _s were in the air
in the best knots

The poem ends with reminding the reader that “it” is still the same word that it originally meant no matter how it is pronounced, spelled, or understood as.

The Floodsong poems seem to be connected via a Southern tributary, dealing with public worship, calling out in the Black church, religious song, and life along a river and how the river shapes living, seen through the eyes of animals: “Flood Song 1” is through the eyes of a canal rat, “Flood Song 2” is through the eyes of a water moccasin, “Flood Song 3” is through the eyes of an alligator, “Flood Song 4” is through the eyes of a mosquito, “Flood Song 5” is through the eyes of a bullfrog, “Flood Song 6” is through the eyes of a seagull, “Flood Song 7” is through the eyes of a catfish, and “Flood Song 8” is through the eyes of a stray dog.

The collection as a whole is a threaded mediation on the black experience from the south to the “city,” pieced together through negro spirituals, rap lyrics, questions, and a visual experience that leaves the reader with the lines, “knocking its broken neck against the smoke” and takes them back to “Negro” in tag.

Kearney is best experienced in person above the page. I not only saw him perform pieces from Black Automaton at Otis College’s Visiting Writers Series with Nick Piombino but also I got the chance to talk to Kearney about his creative process. He uses Abode InDesign to create his poems and later asks readers to “score” his visual poems. However the pieces are scored, is how Kearney reads the pieces live.

Books to read by Kearney

1. The Black Automaton (National Poetry Series Books)

2. Fear, some

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Notes on Shoe Shine Boxes: Another Essex Hemphill poem

A young woman wearing pink high-heels at Helsi...

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HOMOCIDE: For Ronald Gibson by Essex Hemphill

Ronald Gibson, 20, was found shot to death in the 2700 block of Arizona Avenue, N.W. Police said Gibson was wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes at the time of his death. According to Homicide Det. Lloyd Davis, Gibson, also known as “Star,” hung out during the past two years in the area near 14th and Fairmont Sts., N.W., an area frequented by drag queens who solicit sex for money. Detectives say they have no suspects and know of no motives in the case.
 The Washington Blade, 1/8/82

The poemHOMOCIDE: For Ronald Gibson by Essex Hemphill

Grief is not apparel.
Not like a dress, a wig
or my sister’s high-heeled shoes.
It is darker than the man I love
who in my fantasies comes for me
in a silver, six-cylinder chariot.
I walk the waterfront/curbsides
in my sister’s high-heeled shoes.
Dreaming of him, his name
still unknown to my tongue.
While I wait for my prince to come,
from every other man I demand pay
for my kisses. I buy paint
for my lips. Stockings for my legs.
My own high-heeled slippers
and dresses that become me.
When he comes,
I know I must be beautiful.
I will know how to love his body.
Standing out here on the waterfront/curbsides

I have learned to please a man.
He will bring me flowers.
He will bring me silk
and jewels, I know.
While I wait,
I’m the only man who loves me.
They call me “Star”
because I listen to
dreams and wishes.
But grief is darker.
It is a white dress
that covers my body.
It is a wig
that does not rest gently
on my head.


Published in Blacklight Vol. 4, No. 4

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Essex Hemphill: Brother From Another Planet

The first time I heard Essex Hemphill‘s name was in the documentary Black Is… Black Ain’t by Marlon Riggs. His poetry was interwoven into the documentary beautifully. Hemphill began writing at age 14 and studied English at the University of the District of Columbia.

Not only was Hemphill a poet but also an activist for equality and gay rights. In 1980 Hemphill outed himself during “a poetry reading at the Founders Library at Howard University. From the mid-1980s until his death, Hemphill became perhaps the most well-known Black gay male writer in the United States since James Baldwin,” according to Dr. Wilfred D. Samuels, General Editor of A Gift of Story/Encyclopedia of African-American Literature.

Watch When My Brother Fell Performed by a D.C. Native

Hemphill “first gained national attention when his work appeared in the anthology In the Life (1986), a seminal collection of writings by black gay men. In 1989, his poems were featured in the award-winning documentaries Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.” In 1990 Hemphill finished compiling Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, started by Joseph Beam. Beam died to AIDS-related complications in 1988. Brother to Brother won a Lambda Literary Award. Hemphill later published Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Plume/New American Library), which was awarded the National Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual New Author Award in 1993.

Hemphill’s poetry is in the new anthology, Persistent Voices: Poetry by Writers Lost to AIDSPoetry Anthologies), edited David Groff and Philip Clark (Alyson Books). Their have been readings from the anthology in San Francisco, D.C., and New York. Other poets anthologized in Persistent Voices are: Melvin Dixon, Chasen Gaver, Jim Everhard, Tim Dlugos, Reinaldo Arenas, Tory Dent, James Merrill, Paul Monette, and Joe Brainard.

“Persistent Voices is more than a catalogue of strong poetry by poets who were equally strong (in many ways),” Bryan Borland, an Amazon reviewer wrote. “Persistent Voices reminds us of the importance of poetry, of its place in society and of how it creates a degree of immortality. It teaches us, again, of how, with pen and paper, the truly persistent voices of these men and woman continue to be heard, to change lives, and to touch souls.”

Hemphill’s poetry is immortal. His poems have appeared in Essence, Black Scholar, Callaloo, Obsidian, Painted Bride Quarterly, The Advocate, and numerous other journals. His poems Dear Muthafuckin Dreams, Where Seed Falls, and American Wedding are in the anthology. In American Wedding Hemphill says:

They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

A powerful statement.

Watch Justin Vivian Bond Performing American Wedding

At an event titled Take Care of Your Blessings curated by Black Gay & Lesbian Archive Project, rare and unpublished manuscripts of Hemphill’s were featured. “Hemphill left three projects uncompleted: Standing in the Gap, a novel in which a mother challenges a preacher’s condemnation of her gay son who is suffering from AIDS; Bedside Companions, a collection of short stories by black gay men; and The Evidence of Being, narratives of older black gay men, which he had been working on since the early 90s in order to satisfy his curiosity about cultural and social history before the term “gay” entered popular usage.” Hemphill died in 1995 to AIDS-related complications.

One of my favorite Hemphill poems is The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts. Read The Father, Son and Unholy Ghosts below and watch two YouTube performances of Hemphill’s work.

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Starting Over: My journey as a writer

Maya Angelou Reading Still I Rise

Reading Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise made me want to be a poet at 14. I wrote silly poems, kept in a 3-ring binder, and read them to anyone who listened. By the time I started college, at 18, majoring in English (Poetry, Creative Writing, or Journalism) wasn’t an option. Computer Science was an option. Why I don’t know? I knew how to surf the web so I guess I thought Computer Science was the perfect major. Intro to Computer Science was the class I dropped fastest in college. The class was taught by an African man with a thick accent. For the first twenty minutes of class I thought he was teaching Swahili. After class I tried to read the book. It was like reading a foreign language. Circuits. Performing simple calculations. Systems. Programming. Those words were Swahili, meaningless to me. I went into panic mode. What major do I choose now? I chose Psychology. Psychology equals research and writing. I had papers due every week. My earliest lessons in “how-to write” came from my psychology instructors. One lesson that has always stayed with me is “Give Them What They Need” or make every word deliberate and on purpose.

Le film TV, réalisé par M. Mugler

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It wasn’t until after graduating from college that I thought about writing as a potential career. I was living in Ann Arbor, working at a library, submerging myself in reading “good fiction” and “good authors.” Shelving books one day on the third floor I discovered the “How To Write” section. I pulled one off the bookshelf. Two years later I started writing The Taste of Scars.

A “good job” moved me from Ann Arbor to Jacksonville. I got the opportunity to teach part-time at a career college and slowly walked away from the “good job.” A year in I was promoted to full-time and never went back to the “good job.”

Fast forward a year. My boss and I at the career college got into a heated argument. She told me she was changing my position from full-time to part-time. I told her thanks but no thanks and verbally submitted my two weeks notice. Not even two hours later I was unemployed. Since that day (up until March 2011) I devoted almost every waking hour to editing my book. I started to see life differently. Every hour I was at work, doing work that didn’t make me happy, I lost an hour to do what really made me happy, writing.

To all the high school seniors graduating this year. Don’t major in computer science because you think it’ll pay the bills. Major in life. Found out what really makes you happy. I took me a long time to figure that out.

Recommended Reading:

I Know Why the Caged Bird SingsBiographies & Memoirs by Ethnicity & Nationality)

Gather Together in My NameAfrican-American & Black Biographies & Memoirs)

Nikon D3100 14.2MP Digital SLR Camera with 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 AF-S DX VR Nikkor Zoom LensDigital SLRs)

Delaying the Real World: A Twentysomething’s Guide to Seeking AdventureHealth, Mind & Body Books)

Work Your Way Around the World: A Fresh and Fully Up-to-Date Guide for the Modern Working TravellerJob Hunting & Career Guides)

Read the poem that changed my life below.

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I’ve put down my beautiful cape: a poem

I’ve put down my beautiful cape
the bulls can chase me through the streets
carry me back home in gold and pink
red cloth fogged what they saw
a bearded man to flaunt
I’ve put down my beautiful cape

I’ve put down my beautiful cape
the bulls can chase me through the streets
I was so afraid what they’d say
the not-gods, I obeyed
them and the sadness
I’ve put down my beautiful cape

Countee Cullen Reading Heritage

Countee Cullen’s poetry haunts me. Cullen’s poem, “For A Poet,” is one of my favorites. The poem published in the book “Color” (1925) is used a symbol in my book, The Taste of Scars.

For A Poet

I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate, I am not even wroth
Who found earth’s breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.

— Countee Cullen

Countee Cullen, photographed by Carl Van Vecht...

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This poem inspired me to write “I’ve put down my beautiful cape.” Their are different theories why Cullen wrote “For A Poet.”

“Married to W. E. B. DuBois‘s daughter Yolande in 1928 (they divorced in 1930) and Ida Roberson only six years before his death (in 1946), Cullen had a steady string of male lovers in the United States and France,” according to Alden Reimonenq, Professor of English and Chief of Staff to the President at California State University, Northridge. “Cullen was a premier member of a thriving gay coterie in Harlem. Cullen and most gays of the period were, understandably, closeted publicly. The influence of gayness on Cullen’s literary imagination can be seen through the coded references to homosexuality in much of his poetry.”

“The poems “Tableau,” “The Shroud of Color,” “Fruit of the Flower,” “For a Poet,” and “Spring Reminiscence” can be classified as gay poems in which the speaker decries the oppression of those who are different.”

One theory is that “For a Poet” was “written at a time when Cullen was embroiled in unrequited love for Langston Hughes.” Langston Hughes is a black gay icon known for writing some of the most widely read poetry to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. Other important gay and bisexual writers from that period include: “Alain Locke, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and Richard Bruce Nugent” says Reimonenq.

To read more of Countee Cullen’s poems go to Poem Hunter.

Countee Cullens Poem Yet Do I Marvel Read by Todd Helens

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American reminders: a poem

Four centuries of American reminders
On my skin

Elders bare stripe welts

My inheritance from the gone
On my back

The pistol is there

We’re still
On the block

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