NaPoWriMo #15: Poem That Begins With a Line From My Spam Folder

Ya know I’m playin’ catch up here and tryin mah damnest to get this 30/30 challenge done.

For those looking for a writing prompt, try this: Before hitting delete, peep some of the titles of that random spam that hits your inbox. Some of it is high-la-ree-us and comes with a little bit of musicality to it.

Here’s my riff off one of my spam folder titles. For an added flavah, feel free to click the embedded YouTube at the bottom to give this poem a soundtrack to go to.

Poem That Begins With a Line From My Spam Folder

[Poem was here.]

NaPoWriMo #14: Tribute for Malcolm McLaren

I got word that Malcom McLaren passed away right as I was arriving in Denver for AWP and it really shook me up. Not in the same way it would if a friend or loved one passed but in the way that I feel a lil bit more of my childhood is slipping away.

I also feel a big sense of loss for the hip-hop culture as a big part of what made ole skool hip-hop also begins to disappear and by that I mean serious cross-collaboration. I’m not talkin’ bout a rapper laying some rhymes in the middle of a pop song or some glitzy marketing campaign jazzed up with a random lyric. I’m talkin’ bout the days when a DJ would dig deep in his crate and pull out the most left-field joint he could find and challenge the crowd to move to it. That was the true spirit of Afrika Bambaata and Kool Herc, not the auto-tune world it’s turned into.

Damn, I sound like such an old man.

Let’s take a step back and think: If young adults don’t even know the 40 year history of hip-hop; how do we expect them to know about the Civil Rights Movement, the Holocaust, Apartheid, United States Expansionism, the Aztecs, the Incans?

Yeah, I am an old man.

The quick hip-hop history you need to know is that not only was Malcolm McLaren the genius behind the Sex Pistols but he was also one of the first outsiders who saw the true possibility of hip-hop. How a dude from London walks into a house party in the late 70s Bronx and says, “This will be a global phenomenon,” is beyond me. Here’s the poem:

for Malcolm McLaren

[Poem was here.]

NaPoWriMo #13: Building Diverse Communities

Exactly one week ago, I was getting ready to deliver my first ever panel presentation for AWP. Lemme tell ya, it was nerve wrackin’. I just spent the last few days listening and learning from a variety of writers sharing some expert advice is a variety of topics including: Poetry in the Age of Obama, Teaching Bilingual Workshops, Identity & Aesthetics in Multi-Cultural Poetry and the Building of the Republic of Poetry, to name just a few. The common denominator: all the presenters were authors with full-length poetry collections. I’m not tryin’ to knock mahself down, just acknowledging that AWP is not all about the institution (read: graduate level writing programs) that there is room for a variety of voices.

Is that room easy to make? No. Is it easy to just walk into this room and claim your space? No. Is that room a given for all writers who are doing work in spaces outside the institution? Hell no.  Can you be easily dismissed if you don’t bring your A game?  Of course.

That pressure to deliver my very best and show that a writer without a full-length collection who is not presently associated with a graduate level writing program can contribute and broaden the AWP conversation had me stressed out a bit but I knew that sooner or later, someone would say something dismissive about writers in community and  that would set off my presentation.  Sure enough, that’s pretty much how it went down.

The key moment happened at the very excellent Republic of Poetry panel.  In a packed room, after Martín Espada, Tara Betts and David Mura gave dynamic presentations demonstrating the power and possibility of modern poetics to shape our present society into a more just union through community, a man asks, “But what can we do to generate interest in the creation of poetry in other communities? There is so much disinterest in poetry in outside communities.”

Oh, no, he, didn’t.

I already had an outline for a presentation written the night before but that comment was the fuel I needed to make my notes and thoughts into a piece of writing I can really be proud of.

So is it a poem? No, it doesn’t have any metaphor or concerns for music or language. And, yes, since it wouldn’t be possible without poetry in my life and I was able to transfer nine years of recitation experience into one of the best performances I’ve ever had in front of a mic.

Also, I was not the only person who rocked it at this panel. All my co-panelists (Barbara Jane Reyes, Jan Beatty, Tim Kahl and Susan Kelly-DeWitt) were equally passionate about their belief that poetry is not a single-faced monolith; poetry is its own vibrant, magnificent, myriad creature of many names. And many thanks to Camille Norton for bringing us all together.

Thank you to everyone on this panel especially Camille for bringing us all together.

Building Diverse Communities

I’ll be speaking today about leading independent poetry centers and set it off with a quote from Walt Whitman: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens, whatever interests the rest interests me”

Right now, I am in the city of AWP and the interest is poetry but I do not live in the city of AWP on a regular basis so know I must share this interest in my regular city, which is outside the AWP/MFA path.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not a tirade about the pros and cons of MFA, I’m talking about writers for whom MFA is not even an options–writers like myself who only attended a semester of college and then went out into the workforce; writers who come to poetry in high school or even grade school; writers in prisons; writers who have all the credentials to attend graduate school but achieved those credentials in other countries; writers who have already completed, or are in the middle, of their post graduate studies in law, medicine, education and don’t have the desire to return to school. There may more scenarios but these are some I know about firsthand. These aren’t hypothetical situations, these are real stories of people who would love to become better writers but have to do it through another path than the MFA.

My own path to poetry was through a variety of roads and intersections: open mics, slams, community sponsored workshops, local arts workshops and just kicking it with friends over brunch, either talking about our work or the poets who we recently encountered (both in print and in person).

The last combination I just mentioned may have been the magic bullet for me, a writer with no connection to an MFA program. The exposure to a variety of voices was key and any writer who has access to a local venue that can bring in an eclectic mix of voices will benefit immensely and most likely develop into a poet with a unique voice. I say this knowing I’ve been lucky to live in two of the U.S.’s strongest poetry hubs, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area. Places where there is so much live poetry happening I’ve had to make hard choices on different nights and choose to attend one poetry event over another. Even the act of making those choices forced me to make clear aesthetic choices and develop poetic priorities early in my writing life.

I say to any one in this audience who seems to see the same faces come through to the same readings with the same poems: reach out to the community around you and invite in poets from as many different backgrounds as possible, variety in programming will lead to variety in your own poetic community. Go radical, have one poet with a strong background in printed work come in one week and then have a poet who primarily works in performance come in the next; even better, have them read together, you’d be surprised how often the line between page and stage begins to blur.

Do not be afraid to be a curator, mentor, trusted listener and honest reader. Embrace those titles and live up to what they really mean: be a leader for your community. Not a gatekeeper, or single leader of the pack, true leadership in diverse community is shared. I think of Seth Godin’s excellent book, Tribes, and how he challenges his readers to find a road and stick to it, how this commitment will bring others onto our same path, how to share your victories with your own group, and take personal responsibilities for any failures.

This week at AWP, I heard someone ask: “But what can we do to generate interest in the creation of poetry in other communities? There is so much disinterest in poetry.”

I don’t think there is disinterest in community poetry. I think the disinterest is in taking leadership to create that new poetry. There are so many potential writers out there who are looking for that leadership, looking for the chance for something different, looking for a chance to share their stories. Give them that chance. Find the opportunity to agitate by bringing in the diversity all true writers seek, because if you don’t then those writers will not disappear quietly–they will gravitate to those communities models of the past or their current incarnations. I see Hip-Hop, Macondo, Cave Canem, Kearny Street Workshop, Kundiman, the Basement Writers, the Asian American Writers Workshop, Intersection for the Arts, Acentos, louderARTS, the Nuyorican Poets Café, the Bowery Poetry Club, Bronx Writers’ Center, Tia Chucha, The Affrilachian Poets, Prison University Project, Poetry for the People, the National Poetry Slam, Youth Speaks, Urban Word, Girls Write, La Casita, Flor y Canto, VONA, Spanic Attack, Amiri Baraka’s basement, California Poets in the School, PAWA* and AWP.

Yes, you AWP writers, you have the privilege of writing, the privilege of time and travel, the privilege of knowledge, and now you have the opportunity to share it and fulfill your obligation as poet citizens.

For those of you who think sharing this knowledge outside this convention or the conventions of your institutions, is just a dream. Or that the dream to create new institutions is to daunting; I leave you with the words of famed Nuyorican poet, el Revernedo Pedro Pietri: “Do not dream, if you want your dreams to come true.”

Thank you.

* For the sake of time, I listed only a few community programs. I know many more exist and to those organizations I did not to get mention, my for-real apologies. If you are connected with a program I did not list or would like to alert me about one: Please leave some information about your community program in the comments section.

NaPoWriMo #12: Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

port authority
Originally uploaded by Ralph Hockens

The following poem comes from a writing exercise where I had to “interview” one of my classmates about a serious life event. We were given a couple of topics we could talk about: early sexual experiences, when we were born or near-death experiences. We weren’t limited to those topics but they were the main ones. I asked my classmate about their near-death experience and got a whopper of a story that went off on a few tangents but that’s ok cuz I do the same with my own stories.  I think part of the exercise is to listen attentively but I skipped that part and started jotting down notes since I do that in the real world anyways.  After we finished, I told my classmate about the time I was born which I traced back to leaving Ecuador and arriving in the loving arms of Idlewild Airport.  A good story with (you guessed it) a ton of tangents including an Ecuadorian diplomat, a Code Pink, deep in-law beef, and one confused little kid in a powder blue 70s tux complete with wide lapels and ruffle shirt. I’m still waiting for the poem to come back to me.

Once again, for those keeping score at home, the exercise goes:
• Find a person to interview
• Ask them to relay a story about their life
• Listen attentively
• Craft into a poem

Here’s the poem (with residual tones of the insistent cop from the last NaPoWriMo joint) for today.

Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy

Are three words loaded with meanings
The simple truth is that it’s a dull ache
Set to rest in the corners of my bones
Another way to look at it is it’s a squatter
Who put up camp in the trenches of my nerve endings
But that would set this story in a political direction
And that’s not how I cross the street

Which is how we got into this mess to begin with
I was on my bike navigating the smog soup of Jersey
When a random hit-and-drive became my call
Into a manhood where the questions don’t matter
As much as the canned soup responses

I digress but only to give you perspective
Let’s view it from a poetic lens

The ring of insistent questions lives in my marrow
My face pasted together with forget and numb
This message of pain travels from the brain
With no rush hour schedule to speak of
Not so much the vehicle of my enlightenment
More like a backseat driver with an expired map
Or an expired license but now promoted
Passenger seat status with all the privileges
And deniability that office and title carries

Another version, courtesy of an unreliable witness
Claims I was riding my bicycle in the wrong direction
150 miles an hour in a slow your role zone
Coming and going at the same time

This is not a cool story or an appropriate way
To signal the onset of puberty
This is about lessons learned with a crushed
Windshield as my blackboard and an IV needle
Scrawling testimony on the edges of my spine

This is old news, at best, but to keep it modern
I will switch the channel and put on COPS
Shot on location in my memory with real life
Officers dedicating themselves to protecting
Me from harming myself in an attempt to grow
As a person and get past this recollection

We join our scene already in progress:
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    The crosswalk.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    The crosswalk.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    I was in the cross, saying prayers, then I walked.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    I was walking towards a cross. Yes.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    I was the cross, not walking, more floating
    on the chorus of my prayers and moans.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    The crosswalk.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    My parents can attest to the validity of my character
    and the quality of my education and assure you
    I know the difference between a crosswalk and street.
  Were you in the crosswalk or street?
    1’m 99% percent sure-the crosswalk.
  Not entirely sure?
    Sure as history.

The leap in the story involves how I learned
To walk on crutches without touching the ground
A modern Passaic Messiah with no congregation
To say “Flock off” to but of this Earth
And in a Heaven of my own making

I cross streets with an eye on the road, street,
Crosswalk and above so I know I earned
A Guardian Angel in all this
One who walks the righteous PATH train
To all the dead end stops and busts a cul-de-sac
Turn whenever Port Authority rears its head
Out it’s own assumptions of who I am
And where I’m finding myself

NaPoWriMo #11: One Question, Several Answers

Originally uploaded by Steve Rhode

Barb first put me on to Claire Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s excellent poem “One Question, Several Answers” back when she was working on her Black Jesus poems, part of her Poems for the City That Nearly Broke Me series. (Yes, I know the poems are no longer there but I’m linking to remind folks that you best read a poet’s blog ASAP or else you might miss out on some of that necessary poetic goodness.)

Kageyama-Ramakrishnan’s poem is so evocative, alive with crisp details and haunting in its refrain. I really dig what she is doing with a very simple but personal question and how it shows the true power of anaphora.

In contrast, the poem I drafted (using the same form and structure but a different question) has a more menacing presence about it.  Right away I started thinking about when I’ve heard that same kind of insistent questioning and I was drawn away from a spiritual place and right smack dab into a police state.  Interesting how the City can impose itself like that, how the questions surrounding us are very external.  I’m also trying to work on a follow up based on a true life incident involving me and one of my old homies.  It’s difficult to write because the story/poem is equal parts humor and menace and driven by an eavesdropped conversation, which makes it a better candidate for poetry than it does prose.

Enough tangent sidestory, here’s the poem:

After the poem by Claire Kageyama–Ramakrishnan

[Poem was here.]