I just returned from hearing Rita Dove, poet and professor, read from the published Penguin Anthology of 20th Century Poetry (which she edited). She is full of fun and laughter and sarcastic good humor. I would be her best friend if I could. She signed my journal and left a blessing: “Fill these pages with your songs.”
Seeing her reminded me it is a gift I give myself when I visit artists who paved the way. Rita Dove was the youngest U.S. Poet Laureate and the first African American woman. She is a teacher and it showed in her performance and presentation. I got home and pulled my old and just yellowing Vintage Book of African American Poetry down from the shelf. It’s in my lap right now, balanced on my left thigh, and it smells a little like sweat and coffee grounds and dusty storage bins.
In the past, poetry was always my quiet art, an intimate ritual I did for myself and by myself. Or for a few select people. But poems were different. Poems were open for all and they needed to be shared. I made whole binders full of other peoples poems. An amateur editor, I brainstormed ways to bind and redistribute poems I’d collected from volumes by Gwendolyn Brooks, Elizabeth Alexander, and Phillis Wheatley. I didn’t understand publishing rights then, of course. But I understood that words were important and poems were meant to be given to people you love and there were not enough poets of color, women of color especially, for my taste in the textbooks being handed to me.
Years later, I’m still moved by the portability of poetry. Poems move in more ways than one.
And they surprise. Poems lead to each other and to other things. When I opened the Vintage Book of AA Poetry, Jupitor Hammon, New England slave, Methodist preacher, early antislavery activist, was the first poet in the volume. I do slavery so I was suddenly happy to be reminded that he existed, he was real. Reading him again, I was also reminded how problematic he was. Witness the vague condescension in his poem for Phillis:
“O, come, you pious youth! adore
The wisdom of thy God,
In bringing thee from distant shore,
To learn His holy word.
Slavery salvation memes abound. And that’s only the first stanza.
But he lived. He was real. He was a slave and he was speaking and he was not a Toby-caricature of enslaved men. Surprise.
This visit to Rita had already led me (back) to Jupitor when I turned to the section of her poetry and found this piece, in honor of Billie Holiday (surprise), dedicated to Michael Harper, co-editor of the volume (surprise) and whose last line Farrah Jasmine Griffin used as the title of her book on Billie which I finished a few months ago and loved, loved, loved:
Canary For Michael S. Harper Billie Holiday's burned voice had as many shadows as lights, a mournful candelabra against a sleek piano, the gardenia her signature under that ruined face. (Now you're cooking, drummer to bass, magic spoon, magic needle. Take all day if you have to with your mirror and bracelet of song.) Fact is, the invention of women under siege has been to sharpen love in the service of myth. If you can't be free, be a mystery.
#Peace to the poets who unwrap our mysteries line by line by line. Honored to share the Earth with you.