A recent article on nbcnews.com featured Asian-American Poets to Watch in celebration of National Poetry Month, and that’s how I was introduced to Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai’s performances.
Tsai is a spoken word poet, and her works range from a beautiful tale of Lili, an overseas “contract worker” from Philippines who works as a maid for Tsai’s aunt in Taiwan, to a message to presidential candidates about race in America called “Black, White, Whatever.”
I find her entertaining, powerful, and bold. She speaks things that I think I have thought many times but didn’t have the words or the guts to articulate them – and I realize in a very real way what “voice” means.
As a mother, now I see the importance of having representation of all Americans in our cultural and arts media. Recently, Misty Copeland made history by becoming the first and only African American dancer in the American Ballet Theatre. If young African-American boys and girls don’t see African-American ballet dancers performing onstage, they can’t imagine themselves becoming ballerinas.
And if young Asian boys and girls don’t see people who look like them performing poetry on stage, they couldn’t imagine themselves becoming spoken word poets. I think it’s a well known stereotype that Asian children are pigeon-holed into certifiable careers like lawyer, doctor, pharmacist, and even an academic. And these are important works and it’s noble to serve our world in those capacities. However, I think, what hurts is when we can’t or don’t give our children access to a myriad of other fulfilling works that also serve the world – like dancers, singers, writers, artists, poets, comedians, filmmakers, actors, and so many more.
In most of what my son watches on TV or movies, no one looks like him. When they do look like him, they have thick accents and they act silly. The other day, he got so excited when he heard a cat speaking in Korean in a show called Little Miss Pet Shop. As I sat there watching it with him, I felt a little sad for him. Even as an American boy born in the States to one parent who was also born in the States and another who has been living in the States since adolescence, he is in danger of being treated or seen as an outsider or “the other.”
I fear the day when something or someone will make him see himself differently from his friends – and my fear is not that he will see the difference but it is about how he will feel about that difference. And it’s daunting – the task of preparing him for that moment – so he can face it without bitterness or hatred or self doubt or sadness – so that he can face it with pride and understanding and hope and goodwill toward others and himself.
I am tempted to say that there are no words to describe the events of the Blackbird Poetry Festival. But that would be a lie. I have many words.
The morning and afternoon activities engaged Howard Community College students in exploring poetry. The morning workshop led by two poets – Steve Mendes and Chris August – asked students to read, write, and share poetry. There were more than 50 students in that room, but Chris and Steve created a sense of community among those students through poetry.
The afternoon’s Sunbird event is really a unique one as it offers a platform for student poets to read their own works and share the stage with master poets – last year it was Billy Collins and this year it was Taylor Mali. Sunbird event allows students the opportunity to learn from other poets while – through performance – gaining confidence as poets in their own right. I’ll never forget the student who walked up to the podium somewhat timid. He was soft spoken and shy but he read his poem about a friend whose talents he admires. As he read, I think, his voice got stronger.
Listening to Mali’s performance was great, of course, but what was really special was watching him speak with student poets off stage, joke with them, comment on their works, and even tease them a little. Nsikan Akpan of HCC will always remember reading her poem to Mali during an intimate lunch gathering and having him sign her poem. Faheem Dyer of Atholton High School will always remember sitting on the stage next to Mali for a chat. Katy Day of University of Maryland (formerly of HCC) will always remember her talk with Mali about “dropped titles”.
The readings and the performances of Sunbird and Nightbird brought words to life – made me laugh and cry. But it is Mali’s moments of teaching and sharing with students that I will always remember and appreciate about Blackbird Poetry Festival at Howard Community College. (That and Mali’s demonstration of how a 3-legged dog pees.)
Today, Mali comes to Howard Community College to read and perform at the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival, and so I’m watching – probably for the fifth time – “Totally Like Whatever.”
“What has happened to our conviction? […] It is not enough these days to to simply question authority. You gotta speak with it too.”
These words are especially important to me as a writing teacher. My students have much to say, I believe. However, I don’t think we make available to them the appropriate platform upon which they can speak with conviction. What is more, we don’t always give them access to language in all its complexities with which they can speak as authority. And – you know what I’m going to say – poetry can do that. It can crack open a door to the intricacies and the powers of words (and punctuation, grammar, syntax, form and on and on). Through interacting with poetry, students can practice the complexities of language as well as the deep-thinking, questioning, and reaffirming that poetry demands of us.
In this piece, I highlight a few of my favorite lines of poetry, including the words of Lady Macbeth:
[…] Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty. Make thick my blood.
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, […]
What has helped me overcome my fear is witnessing and interacting with LIVE poetry. My long-term relationship with HoCoPoLitSo has meant many opportunities to hear and see poetry in action, and that has made all the difference.
Then recently I received another powerful treatment through Naomi Shehab Nye’s talk on “The Art of Teaching Poetry.”
Columbia, Maryland is a special place, a unique place. It was called “The Next America, and an article in Smithsonian.com written by Jimmy Stamp in 2014 captures it this way:
In Rouse’s view, we’re at our best in smaller communities where there is a sense of responsibility to one’s city and to one’s neighbor. He imagined a beautiful, self-sustaining American City–a new America, really–that fostered economic, racial, and cultural harmony. The name of this new city on a hill: Columbia.
Among other things, Rouse cared about what things were called around town. A fascinating book called Oh, you must live in Columbia by Missy Burke, Robin Emrich and Barbara Kellner (can be purchased through the Columbia Archives) notes that Rouse oversaw the naming of streets, villages and even the apartment complexes. Upon seeing some of the proposals, he was quoted as saying, “This is dull, unimaginative and inappropriate. […] it may be boring to have to pay attention to this one [detail] but NAMES ARE IMPORTANT” (page 5).
Thank you Mr. Rouse!
So we got lucky. Around Columbia, we find many neighborhoods, villages, and streets named after works of art and literature.
The village of Swansfield has street names that draw from paintings of James Abbott Whistler.” Many of the street names in Hobbit’s Glen – surprise! surprise! – are references to J.R.R. Tolkien. On page 31-34 of Oh you must live in Columbia, we see names like “Barrow Downs,” “Green Dragon Court,” and “Wood Elves Way” – all taken from Tolkien.
One of my favorites is the neighborhood of Longfellow in Harpers Choice. And of course these street names are taken from Henry Wadworth Longfellow’s poetry.
Endymion Lane from “Endymion”
“On such a tranquil night as this,
She woke Endymion with a kiss,
When, sleeping in the grove,
He dreamed not of her love.”
Harvest Moon Lane from “Autumn”
“Thy shield is the red harvest moon,
So long beneath the heaven’s
How wonderful it must be to live on a street with such beautiful words associated with it. You can get from Eliot’s Oak Road to Hesperus Drive to Iron Pen Place to Mad River Lane – and travel among several of Longfellow’s poems. Or from Hesperus Drive you can find yourself on Mystic Court or Paul Revere Ride or Phantom Court or Summer Day Lane. The possibilities are endless.
I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Rouse – it IS important what we call things.
But such a beautiful story can’t be without its endearing bloopers, among them the story of Satan Wood Drive. It was rumored to be a misspelling of “Satinwood Drive,” which comes from Amy Lowell’s poem, “A Pantomime in One Act.” For years, the street was called Satan Wood Drive until 2000 when the new sign went up. The old sign now lives at the Columbia Archives.
James Rouse once said that humans “will rise to the big, dramatically good plan – they will yawn at the timid, the cautious, the unconvincing.” The street names in The Next America inspire no yawns. They’re not timid. Perhaps there’s magic in the lyrical labels that mark our streets. (page 7 of Oh you must live in Columbia)
Most likely if you’re a resident of Columbia you will be familiar with these stories about street names. I highly recommend this interesting book Oh you must live in Columbia, and learn about the beautiful poetry that surrounds our town.
I see the poem as being about our desperate attempts to make sense of the world – and in the process how we find scapegoats onto whom we place undue blame. It’s also about that moment of decision that we all face. We can decide to say something or not; do something or not. And while many of our day to day choices seem insignificant, there are those that can alter the course of history of a person, of a community, of a world. And the scary thing is that we don’t always know which of these moments will have consequences that we cannot foresee – and which will simply dissipate the moment we make a decision and move forward.
I stare at my wet hands
dripping water on my shoes
and wonder if I should run
and tell Omar or just run.
We don’t know what the young boy speaker of Miller’s poem does – or doesn’t do. Which path will he take? Will he run or will he tell Omar? The poem is called “Looking for Omar” – why? Is the title referring to Pinto and the “big boys” who will look for Omar after school? Or does it refer to the speaker’s search for Omar that day – and for years to come?
The poem ends with the word of the speaker’s mother:
Boy, always remember to wash
your hands but always remember
you can’t wash your hands from
These words are kind of chilling – because they implicate us. And they should. Because I know each of us has faced this decision – to help Omar or to run.
Some time ago – maybe years ago – I was in my car driving when I saw a group of elementary school children on the sidewalk waiting for the school bus. A few boys were chasing around one boy – and I couldn’t tell whether they were playing or if the one boy was being picked on. But something in my stomach told me it was perhaps the latter. I had this feeling that I should pull over and check on them – that maybe I should get out of the car and see for myself what was happening and to intervene if needed.
I didn’t. I kept going, turning my head to look at them as long as I could. I probably convinced myself that nothing was going on, that they were just playing together – that I was overreacting because I am a mom. But I still think about that moment time to time. Not just about the boy but about me – about my inaction.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a long time friend to Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, and I was introduced to him after the reading. Anyone who might have had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Miller would agree, I think – he is approachable, funny, and kind. Thoughtful, too.
I feel so lucky – and I count my blessings – to have opportunities to meet and speak with poets. For many years, I feared poetry. As an English major in college, I “saved” the required poetry class til my second semester of senior year. But in the last 10 years of living in Howard County, teaching at Howard Community College, and serving with HoCoPoLitSo, I have discovered poetry as a living thing – something that breathes, feels, thinks, changes, moves, hungers, and grows.