Tag Archives: Justin Vivian Bond

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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The Creative Spark: how to unlock the creative process and inspire: read michelle tea

“There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies” — Winston Churchill.

Community is important to me as a writer. I had to create community (an online community) through YouTube and blogs. No money. No formal writing education. Living in Backswamp Florida no literary festivals came my way. I scoured the internet for writers whose work inspired me and allowed me to see writing as a living thing. Writing as a method of storytelling. With sounds, colors, and experiences. Michelle Tea is one of those writers I pretend sat in creative writing class with me and we read and

Sister Spit - Michelle Tea

Image by cathredfern via Flickr

listened to each others work.

How I discovered her I can’t remember. But it was on YouTube. The video clip, Michelle reading at Sizzle, a monthly literary series held at Femina Potens Art Gallery in San Francisco on Market Street. The piece, a 30 year-old queergirl visits her mother in Florida after a devastating hurricane hits her city. The narrator is sleeping with her mother’s 24 year-old neighbor Aidan. Aidan’s going into the military and Aidan’s sister is 17 and pregnant. The group, with two hicks Marcus and Hank, are driving to karaoke night at a Chinese restaurant.

Michelle Tea Reading at Sizzle

I listened to that clip while I wrote. I turned it up high while I showered, while I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, all I could afford to buy. The language and style put me in the scene, in the car, in the restaurant.

Read the excerpt below:

Holy goddamn, Angela said, her snout pressed up against the glass, her eyes picking out shapes in the dark. There’s a boat, she narrated. There’s a couch, there’s fridge or something—a stove? Her hands with their chipped and bitten nails were folded under her belly, cradling the thought of it. How long you think it’ll take to get normal here? Not that it was ever normal, but you know. She gave me a look, like we were in on knowing that this place wasn’t normal, the two of us together in a vehicle of boys who thought this road was the whole world, more or less.

Additional excerpt:

Something about the layout of the karaoke place felt like a really bad brothel. The carpet was chunked with geometry and spattered with oblong cigarette burns; it rolled down a hallway that sprouted private rooms and dead-ended where the hurricane had ripped a chunk of the back wall off. The proprietor shrugged and pointed—I’m still the luckiest! I’m still here! Our room was lined with Naugahyde benches, the covers split, revealing a bulk of foam stuffing. A table was piled with binders listing songs, and a remote control that plugged the songs into the system. The proprietor demonstrated: “The Greatest Love of All” chimed into the room, joined by a video of sheep in a meadow. One sheep turned to face the camera, chomping on grass. It looked alarmed. Everybody’s searching for a hero. The words lit up across the pasture. Never found anyone who could fill my dreams. The proprietor left with a wave.

Michelle, a staple in the San Francisco lit community, is curator of her own reading series, Radar and a founder of a touring poetry/spoken word troupe called Sister Spit. Michelle and Sini Anderson, Sister Spit co-founder, “gathered together a group of some of the most notorious, talented, and just frickin’ interesting women and dykes, and went on tour all over the U.S, according to Sister Spit’s website.

I went through all of Michelle’s videos on YouTube. One of my favorites is titled Passing on the Pen, April 15, 2008 (PART 7). The video forced me to reevaluate some of the chapters in the book and go back and really think about what I was writing and how to pull in the reader.

Michelle Tea Reading at Passing on the Pen

Sister Spit is on tour now. Joining Michelle is Dorothy Allison, Justin Vivian Bond, Cheryl Dunye (Cheryl wrote, directed and starred in her first film which was the first African American lesbian feature film The Watermelon Woman), Erin Markey, Cassie J. Sneider, Kit Yan (an Asian American transman from Hawaii).

Check out Sister Spit for more information.

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