#NationalPoetryMonth 27/30

white people do not consider the war of space

too used to having so much

not having to fight for so little

Raina J. León, PhD

Today’s read: Profeta Without Refuge by Raina León – Nomadic Press – 2016

A few years back, I began a practice of demanding. If a person was asking for something then I demanded that they acknowledge me first. It doesn’t have to be much, just a smile Hello, or How are you? will do. But if there is no acknowledgement then I began to call people out. In the time I have been doing this practice there continues to be one repeat offender: Anglos.

Anglos have a way of just demanding things from me without any kind of simple acknowledgement. So one day, I just paused and then after a long pause I looked at the Anglo in the face and told them that I don’t do anything for anyone without an acknowledgment.

This is when it gets interesting.

A few times, I have had the person recognize their error and thank me for pointing this out to them. I usually smile but do not respond to them any further.

The normal scenario is that the person is just stunned. I am not sure what they are more confused about: their lack of manners or my resolve. Either way, they usually walk away at this point which is fine by me.

The worst was the white woman at a local spice shop who was utterly fascinated by the sweatshirt I was wearing. It said “Unconditional Education” on the back and she thought it was the most amazing thing. Amazing enough to tell me to stop and model the sweatshirt for her friend. I went into my resolute stance and let her know I don’t respond to orders. She accepted this and agreed but then went on to tell me how her friend is an educator and would love to see this message. I leaned into the word No and kept up with my business. The white woman then did what white people do: use the power of whiteness.Turn it on and off as fits the situation, and when things get real tough, turn it on so bright that then you just blend into the background.

#NationalPoetryMonth 26/30

Every man and every artist, whether he is Nietzsche or Cézanne, climbs each step in the tower of his perfection by fighting his duende, not his angel, as has been said, nor his muse. This distinction is fundamental, at the very root of the work.

— from “”Play and Theory of the Duende”

Today’s read: In Search Of Duende, Federico García Lorca – New Directions Publishing – 1998

I see myself moving closer to understanding duende but I would be lying if I said that I understood it more know than before. I have read this particular book a few different times during my poetic career and it is always a welcome read. This time around it helps prove that in poetry the more you learn can be the less you know.

I would say that there have been three times that I have come into contact with duende.

1) I was seriously drunk on stage. I read a poem with a particular refrain and the line caught on. I am sure it started with another poet friend who was also drunk and soon the whole audience was joining me in refrain. This continued through the poem and even after I walked off stage. It was exhilarating and completely false. It would mark the last time I would ever go on stage drunk.

2) I was poetically very young and invited to join in a group piece with some very talented poets.I had a few lines in the poem, some in concert and some solo. I was most nervous of one line in particular. When it came time for that line I delivered it from my toes through my skull. It lit the room up and helped make the piece a success. I have no memory of the actual words I spoke.

3) I was in the semi-finals of a poetry slam competition. I had put everything into memorizing and delivering my poems. It was the last round of the competition and I was mathematically eliminated. Even a perfect score would not get me to the finals. I felt humiliated and angry. It was time to deliver my last poem for the night and I did something I did not think I would do. I came to the stage, adjusted the mic, put my hands to the side, and delivered the poem without moving my body. I had learned this technique from Patricia Smith but never had the courage to try it. With nothing to lose, I followed through and the whole poem came out through my face and mouth. The duende for sure came out. I remember the whole moment because I came to the mic with the intention to be still but at a certain point I could not move at all. My body was frozen and it was no longer my decision. This is what the poem demanded because it was all building to one line and one word in my poem. And as soon as the word left me the duende went with it. I was exhausted but had control of my body back and walked off stage proud. I had given myself up and the poem came from all the places I had written and rewritten it from to be performed one time. I still have the poem. In fact, it is actually anthologized but that version and any other version of that poem will never be the poem that came through me that night.

#NationalPoetryMonth 25/30

the suspect is black & always in his early 20s

— from “the suspect is black & in his early 20s”

Today’s read: Nappy Edges* (*the roots of your hair/ what turns back when we sweat, run, make love, dance, get afraid, get happy: the tell-tale sign of living/) by Ntozake Shange – St. Martin’s Press – 1978

I was pulled over once in the Bronx in my late 20s. I had a busted taillight and knew it but it was the weekend. I figured I’d get fixed on Monday. A Latino cop pulled me over. He seemed a lot more interested that I was driving with two friends. Cop asked me to pump the brakes and the taillight worked. Cop was not happy. He asked me to do it again and the light worked again. Cop was really not happy. His partner told him to let it go but he cop was not having it. He finally let me pass. I checked a lil later and the light was definitely not working.
I don’t know why I got a pass on those days. I also don’t know why those particular Latinos were determined to get me those days.

One of my best friends in the Bronx grew up and became a cop. He always wanted to be a cop. He was that guy who when he saw someone skip a line or yell at someone smaller would step up and say something. Even before he had a badge. I remember talking to him about the first pull over. The one about the brake lights. “Oh, it’s because you were in the car with someone darker. It’s one of the first things you find out about in the force. They don’t teach it to you outright. It’s something you pick up. ‘Multiple passengers, different ethnicity, probable drug dealing.'” You serious? You can’t roll with no other homies in the ride? “You can. And you’ll get pulled over. Just a question of time. Don’t worry though. Show em that mini badge I gave you and tell them you are my half-brother.” I did and cop still wanted to write me up for a stupid busted light. “I know. Cops be on some bullshit.”

We stayed friends for a long time but he let me know that over time he wasn’t feeling it. He started to realize that where once he had some cop friends, and would go to some cop events that soon all he had was cop friends and all he was going to was cop events. Same story with his wife. She found herself surrounded by cop wives while at cop parties talking about what its like being married to a cop.

He eventually left New York and made a switch in his life. We’ve connected on and off through the years. I am sure if he read the above poem, the refrain, the historical framing, and that it’s all still the same he would same the same thing to me: “I know. Cops be on some bullshit.”

#NationalPoetryMonth 24/30

I strip, listen
To the sound of my skin scrape against the earth,
And dance to the music of the only instrument
I ever learned to play: the dirt.

— from “Cemetery”

Today’s read: Calendar Of Dust by Benjamin Alire Sáenz – Broken Moon Press – 1991

I always wanted to be a b-boy. I wanted to make music out of all the things I grew up around in the Bronx. A Bronc that was around before there was a name for hip-hop.

We didn’t know what to call it but we knew you could pull out a cardboard box from the side of any bodega counter, take it to the front sidewalk, flatten it out, and you had a spot to bust a move. Not dance. We knew it was a dance but it wasn’t the hustle or salsa. It was its own thing without a name. And if you needed some music then you plugged a radio up to the nearest lamp post. You just wedge a quarter into the side to pop off the aluminum lid and just plug right in. And if you didn’t have a radio then you just found a milk crate and somebody could conga a beat. And if you didn’t have even that much well then you just tapped out the beat in your head, slap your thigh, pop your lips, smack your tongue, to bring out a rhythm that didn’t have a name.

I wanted to be all these things because my father was an early architect of sound. A DJ at the local college radio station which was even more freedom then we had. He had access to Hector Lavoe, Manu Dibango, Miles Davis, Ruben Blades, James Brown, Fleetwood Mac, the Jackson 5, Celia Cruz, Stevie Wonder, Herb Alpert, and all the remaining Fania All Stars and Motown hits. He would sneak in all the 45s into the house. This would be the mix and we just knew it was music. And I broke them all. Each 45.

The story is that I did some kind of mischief in the house. In return, I got a spanking. The old kind. No lesson. No words. Just a lot of slaps of belt until my dad thought I had learned something. Which I did. I learned the payback, the big payback. I took some classic wax and found out that it just snaps in your hands. Even when you are little and don’t know how to make a proper fist. Your hands can still make things break. I found out that my hands could make things disappear.

Then we started to really dance. We got into the deep mix. I got whooped some more and then more records would turn to shiny dark crumbs. And back and forth. Whips to break, slaps to shards, lesson to lesson. This was the rhythm of my education. I didn’t have a name for it.

I guess then I was always a b-boy even before there was a name for being.

#NationalPoetryMonth 23/30

Across the street an old woman hobbles by.
My mother tells me: She is unhappy here.
She thinks she would be happier
back home.
But she has forgotten.

— from “Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park”

Today’s read: Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park: Poems by Nellie Wong – Kelsey St. Press – 1977

The place of this poem still exists. It is no longer a railroad park but still lives on as a one block garden park that also houses a child care facility and help center for immigrants. As well as one of many refuges for Oakland’s homeless population. I have driven past it many times and always enjoyed how it breaks up the rows of Chinatown small homes with a small splash of lawn and a modest pagoda that never seemed out of place. I have wondered how it has survived so long through the waves of gentrification. The poetry optimist in me imagines that Nellie Wong’s collection and title poem may have something to do with it. This image of generations of women, native and displaced, asking questions, speaking answers. You can see this cycle still happening in that same corner. Who deserves to be here? Where is the happiness? What does it mean to belong?