A Safe Space for Students: The Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House

As a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I joined the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, a living-learning program that puts students interested in creative writing in one dormitory and conducts workshops and classes in the same building. The people I met there, staff and students alike, not only dramatically improved my writing but catalyzed a mental revolution in how I thought about language and art, all while fostering close friendships (in New York I still live with two of my friends that I met through Writers’ House).

Writers’ House also afforded opportunities to explore other aspects of writing by providing support for programs like a regular open-mic night (the previously mentioned TerPoets) and a literary journal, and taking on the roles of performer or editor also expanded my view of the literary word. The woman who continually protects and develops this magical space is Johnna Schmidt, who recently led her students to the 2014 Split This Rock Poetry Festival. Johnna talks about this experience:

Priya is in my office, explaining that she regrets not being more involved in the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House. She wishes she had more time, she’s been overcommitted. And it’s true that I have had almost no contact with her. I tell her (a) the door is open, and (b) she owes me nothing. When I look up her record after our meeting I see she is a BIO SCI: PHNB major and I don’t even know what that means, other than that she must have a skill set much more lucrative than mine. This is how it is with college students these days. Having gone through K-12 with the emphasis so firmly set on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math for those of you who have somehow been spared the acronym), many of them reach college starving for artistic or literary engagement but remain too busy putting together their resumes to be able to carve out the room in their schedules for something so unnecessary as art. After all, it won’t lead to a real career, right? And their parents, who are probably sacrificing quite a bit to foot the bill for college, are firm on this point:  You better major in the sciences, business, or technology.

And here am I, teaching poetry and fiction writing at University of Maryland, insisting that such a pursuit is worth your time. I suggest to Priya that she might want to attend the field trip to Split This Rock. I’m only being practical; I have purchased 20 student passes to Split This Rock and am trying to make sure they get used.

A few weeks later Priya is on the Shuttle-UM bus to the metro, surrounded by 19 other students. She is reading Natalie Diaz’ book of poems When My Brother Was an Aztec. We are on the way to meet Natalie and I’ve offered my copy around. I love watching the students read and write. Their attentive bodies. They way everything stops and they become so focused. It’s almost like they enter a different world. I suppose they do.

Natalie Diaz reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. (Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Natalie Diaz reading at Split This Rock Poetry Festival. (Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Downtown, in the conference room at the Institute of Policy Studies, Natalie Diaz is suggesting that we need to explode our language. She suggests we crack things open. She confesses that she has tried to write sestinas several times but hasn’t figured out how to break the form yet. She says if we use the word “apple” we need to be aware not only of the etymology of the word but also the mythology, the aphorisms, common usages, and associations. “Apple” is carrying all of that and more to the reader. She finally suggests that we only really know things when they are broken. How many times have we heard some version of “I didn’t know how much I used my right index finger until I broke it.” Even with family members who die or become very ill, we understand their place in the family better when they are absent. It strikes me now that we seem incapable of fully understanding the interconnectedness of things while they are fully functioning.

All of us are listening intently. Priya  keeps asking questions, even after our time with Natalie is supposed to be over. It’s turning into a tete-a-tete between Priya and Natalie. I’m sorry I have to cut them off and let everyone go. Natalie offers that anyone who has additional questions for her can email her.

(Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

(Photo courtesy of Split This Rock.)

Waiting for me at my office on Monday is a thank you note from Priya for giving her the opportunity to attend Split This Rock over the weekend. She’s had several conversations with writers she admires over the weekend, and she uses the words “incredible” and “awesome.”  But my favorite phrase is this one: “this festival was one of my first exposures to spoken word/slam poetry, and I’ve completely fallen in love with it.”  She also asks for Natalie’s email address.

Is there any better pursuit for a college student than to fall in love?  Reason tells us yes, there are better pursuits, skills to learn, career enhancements, work to be done. But, dear reader, who I am assuming to be middle-aged like myself, do you remember your body, back before it was broken, when you were 18, 19, 20 years old?  The body will not be denied ecstasy. Do you remember the urgency of youth, how we pursued things so impatiently, how passionately we loved and believed? I have no doubt that Priya has experienced a turning point. That she’s coming away from the festival with more interesting thoughts than ever and perhaps a new set of antennae with which to gauge the changing environment.

Perhaps it has always been this way, the vitality of the arts spilling into our lives and making converts of us one by one, when we all had more practical uses planned for our time. Art the inevitable interruption; in the face of something really great we drop our Excel spreadsheets. All the parents and administrators in world pushing on the younger generation can’t stop them from falling in love.

My feelings mirror Priya’s. Not only do I feel incredibly grateful for the program that Johnna has shaped, but Split This Rock in particular is an incredibly charged and thrilling way to experience language. It was at the 2012 Split This Rock Poetry Festival that I was first blown away by the DC Youth Slam Team and first learned about June Jordan. At Split This Rock I stood on the steps of the Supreme Court and delivered one line of poetry in a cento of protest. I went home feeling like language and reality were more closely bound together than ever, and that we were all engaged in building that language, that reality. If you haven’t been to the poetry festival yet, be sure to go in future years. Thanks also to Sarah Browning and her staff.

Unleashing Monsters: The DC Youth Slam Team

Jonathan Tucker

Jonathan Tucker is a transformative power on this planet. As a freshman, lost and lonely in a large student population at University of Maryland, I found my home at the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House through the open mic series that he co-founded, TerPoets. TerPoets still goes on strong to this day, and Jonathan is still giving the gift of his transformative power. These days one of the recipients of that gift is the DC Youth Slam Team, and they are passing it on. While attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2012, members of the Team electrified every room they performed in. Seeing them perform was one of the times I’ve most been excited by words. To tell you more about the Team, I give you Jonathan Tucker:

My students wrote a poem about the social norms objectifying women through girls’ Halloween costumes. The video of their “Monster” performance at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival (BNV) in summer 2013 went viral right before Halloween: over 600,000 views at the time of this writing (Online Editor: Written November 1st, 2013. Now over 1.3 million views as of this posting.) Co-author of the poem, 16-year-old Hannah Halpern summed up the message of the piece:

We decided to write a poem changing the way we see monsters; [to show that] women can be fierce, hot-tempered, or what have you. We connected this to Halloween and how as girls grow older, they are convinced that their costumes must get skimpier and show more skin to be sexy. After brainstorming, we realized that our key point was women should wear what they want. Slut-shaming is not the answer, nor is peer pressuring women and girls to wear sexier outfits if they don’t want to.

She’s amazing, clearly. As a teaching artist and coach of the DC Youth Slam Team, a program of Split This Rock using poetry to empower teens to speak up about issues of social justice,  I couldn’t be more proud. The overwhelming positive response from feminists around the world via twitter and facebook is sweet. The exponential growth of our online following is dope. The small fame our teenage poets are garnering is not what makes me proud though; it’s the lesson they and half-a-million viewers of their poem are learning that makes me the most proud papa poetry coach.

Poetry matters. Youth voice matters. Combined with passion for social justice issues like challenging the rampant sexism in our world, they are most powerful.  Poetry is not only relevant, real, and important, but it can be fun and entertaining too.

Along with my fellow coaches and teaching artists at Split This Rock, I’ve been teaching this lesson for years. It’s difficult to be convincing when the rest of the world sees poetry as confusing emotional babble from dead white men. To many people, it has no bearing on their lives besides an English class once or twice in grade school and maybe a scene in a movie like Love Jones. But for the teenagers in our programs, often marginalized youth who feel like their voice isn’t heard and doesn’t matter, the empowering lesson learned through poems like this Monster piece, and the response to it, are life-changing. In my humble opinion, helping students learn to value themselves, their thoughts, and creativity is more important than anything the schools test them on.

Spoken word and performance poetry, such as the slam at BNV where that viral video was recorded, changes the way young people experience poetry. It is, just as it began thousands of years ago, a living, breathing art form. It speaks directly to them when teaching artists like myself and other poets from the community visit schools and coach after-school poetry clubs. Yes, we write like all poets, but we also speak directly to the students and perform our poems with a passion and intensity comparable to that of Shakespearean (or hip-hop for that matter) theatre. We encourage everyone to write, not just the talented or advanced students, using whatever language, grammar, or spelling they desire, to express themselves. After all, that is the point, right? We help them tell their stories and use famous works of art (including music, theatre, film, and visual arts) and movements for social justice, to inspire them. We rigorously workshop, revise, and rehearse poems. Then we do something dangerous, silly, and possibly stupid: we compete. Our goal is for every school to have and support a poetry slam team just as they do their sports teams. This might sound crazy, but the passion and poetry of our young people is just as important, if not more so, than their ability to tackle one another.

The DC Youth Slam Team (Photo: Jonathan Tucker)

Poetry slam was invented in the mid-1980’s by Marc Kelly Smith and it turned performance poetry into a sport. The goal was, and is, to gain a larger and wider audience for poetry. The goal has never been to rank, categorize, and demoralize poets, though that can and has unfortunately happened sometimes, just as it does in sports. What’s also happened, as my students on the DC Youth Slam Team have experienced firsthand, is that being a poet on a team has transformed the lives of many people who never would have otherwise thought of themselves as poetic, talented, or valuable. The tragic feeling of losing a poetry slam by one-tenth of a point dissipates quickly. The empowerment created by a room full of people, often your peers, applauding you and your poetry, does not fade as fast. It builds confidence, character, and self-worth. It helps survivors of traumatic and violent experiences process their emotions and strengthen their healing process. For me, as a young poet, it helped me find myself, my voice, and my purpose. As a coach and host of an open mic, it also helps me build community. We came in 2nd place this year, out of 50 teams at BNV, losing to Denver, CO by less than one point. Though we were certainly disappointed that we didn’t claim 1st place and champions of the nation, we’re far more concerned with the world hearing our poetry and the important messages therein.

As a teacher of poetry I’m working to help everybody realize their potential as brilliant, critical-thinking, passionate poets. They may not have known that they wanted to be a poet performing on stages across the world, but something about putting their truth on paper through poetry opened them up to the possibility that they are indeed as great as they imagined, as their teachers told them they were. Indeed, these young poets are monsters; powerful, compassionate, and talented monsters who have survived terrible and surreal experiences and are no longer scared of the blank page or center stage.

You can find more videos of the DC Youth Slam Team’s performances at their Youtube channel. You can learn more about the team and support their work by visiting their website.

Jonathan B. Tucker is a poet, educator, and youth programs coordinator for Split This Rock, where he coaches the DC Youth Slam Team. Two-time winner of the Community Oriented Underground Poet (COUP) Award from the National Underground Spokenword Poetry Awards, JBT is passionate about using poetry as a community organizing tool. His book, I Got the Matches, and other poems are available at jonathanbtucker.com.

Science and Revelation: The DC Science Café

Ivan Amato

“The scientific story, to me, is the greatest story ever told,” Ivan Amato says to me. “It’s a revelatory thing, scientific discovery.” Ivan isn’t just talking about a scientist’s “eureka” moment, but rather the equally important discoveries of participants at the DC Science Café. To date, Ivan has organized 17 evenings of discussion led by neuroscientists, geneticists, ecologists, and physicists as well as historians, artists, and even a poet familiar to LPR, Michael Salcman. And people are showing up in droves at the Busboys and Poets at 5th & K to receive that revelation.

The first science cafés started in the 1990s in England and France where scientists and the public started to share concerns about social issues arising out of modern technology such as genetically modified foods and mad cow disease. Neither party felt that the government or media could be trusted to give an accurate picture of controversial developments of the day. The DC Science Café is driven by a similar desire for direct access to scientific experts for an open, less mediated discourse.

I was curious to learn what that discourse would look like. Ivan walks me through the evening, which begins at 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. A slideshow of science imagery pulled from the night’s topic as well as Ivan’s book, Super Vision, serves as a backdrop while the audience socializes with a themed drink. After a half hour, Ivan opens the mic up to the audience, inviting participants to take a minute to share a creative project of their own. That night’s discussion leader then takes the mic and gives a twenty to thirty minute presentation. The entirety of the remaining time (roughly an hour) is dedicated to active discussion. After the event concludes, no one seems to want to leave, with large crowds forming around the discussion leader and elsewhere, continuing to question, connect, and talk.

A Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic by Zach Weiner.

But this is only the structural element of what the discourse looks like. What language would be used? How would the metaphors common in scientific lexicon play between experts and audience?

Writers and scientists face similar problems in this regard. Figurative language is symbolic and abstract, and oftentimes the communicating parties don’t share the common background upon which such language relies. Depending on the science (or the writing), these abstractions may be symbolic of phenomena that are already themselves abstract and inaccessible, such as chemical bonding or black holes.

The key, Ivan says, is in becoming “comfortable with the compromise in rigor and specificity” and “valuing the feel it gives to the layperson.” This sounds familiar to me as a writer; at some point I had to make my peace with post-modernism.

As a scientist who, like Ivan, ultimately desires the audience coming to value the “scientific way of knowing,” I’ve stayed restless. My allegiance still lies with the devil in the details, and it’s hard for me to trust that I’ve communicated that scientific way of knowing unless the metaphors are somehow made transparent.

It is difficult for me to reconcile my two different reactions to what is essentially the same problem: trusting your audience to find meaning and value in your expression, even if it is not precisely the meaning and value you intended. Is it possible that some of the hostile contemporary public perceptions of science and literature are shaped by a lack of this trust? Are scientists and writers perceived as refusing to set aside the inscrutable particulars of their business and commit to engaging with audiences in whatever form the conversation must take?

Ivan’s efforts have proven quite successful. He noted he sometimes must intervene during discussion to define jargon used by discussion leaders or to recast questions asked by audience members, but discussion leaders like Steve Rolston noted, “A number of people stopped by to thank me and comment about how interesting the topic [quantum mechanics] was.” Evidently participants have been undeterred by technical difficulty; some audience members have only missed one or two events out of the entire series. Discussion leaders also feel like the Café is filling a unique niche. Poet and biologist, Myra Sklarew (who will be interviewed in our upcoming Science issue), said, “It was a great pleasure to finally address an aspect of poetry that had always been part of the way I saw the world and to do so with an audience informed and curious about science.”

It seems that if my questions are on the mark, then Ivan, Myra, and all the audience members and discussion leaders at the DC Science Café are finding great success in building a more complete and open discussion of science and our society.

If you’re interested in the DC Science Café, visit their website or view this video  from the Joint Quantum Institute at University of Maryland, who filmed physicist Steve Rolston’s night at the Café (the discussion portion is in a separate video). The next Café will be held Monday, September 30th (more details here).

Music Makers: Van Morrison

Those familiar with our Winter 2008 Nature issue know that Michael Oberman is an accomplished nature photographer. His “Truce…Great Blue Heron and Red-Winged Blackbird” appears on the cover, and other images are reproduced inside. At the end of the profile by Linda Joy Burke, he compares the magical moments he experienced in nature with those encountered through his connections to the music industry. Since music is the theme of our Summer 2013 issue, we decided to delve into the latter.

Michael Oberman, James Brown

Michael Oberman interviews James Brown in 1968 at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC.

During the time that Michael was a journalism student at the University of Maryland and, subsequently, the writer of the “Music Makers” column for The Washington Star, he interviewed over 300 top recording artists, including Otis ReddingJim Morrison, Janis Joplin, David Bowie and James Browna veritable Who’s Who of popular music. Currently, Michael is revisiting those interviews for an upcoming book and has graciously agreed to give us a series of sneak peaks at his work in progress.

So, here’s Michael in his own words.

The Interview

The interview that I conducted with Van Morrison appeared in the “Music Makers” column of The Washington Star on October 23, 1971 and read as follows:

Since his childhood in Belfast, Ireland, Van Morrison has been a fan of American rhythm-and-blues and blues.

Although when speaking he has a heavy Irish accent, Van’s singing voice sounds American–probably because he practiced imitating Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters.

When he was 16, Van formed his first group, The Monarchs. “In those days you had to be crazy to be a musician,” Van said. “Anybody who thought about being a musician was thought to be a maniac, a nut or something.

“It was hard work. We did seven sets a night, seven days a week, with matinees on weekends—and if you didn’t do twenty encores of ‘What I Say,’ you were lucky to get out of there alive.

“One time,” he said, “we went for a job to this place in London. We had been sleeping in the park ’cause we didn’t get much money in those days, and after two weeks of sleeping in the park, we finally got an audition at this place.

“So, when we showed up, everybody in the band was wearing something different. One had long hair, one had a brown sweater, one had sneakers.

“We played about six numbers and the cat said, ‘You’re really fantastic, one of the best things I’ve ever heard, but you’re a scruffy pack and if you get some suits, you can get the job.’ So we got some suits and played there. There was nothing else we could do.”

In 1964, Van became lead singer for an English group Them. An American producer, Bert Berns, heard some of their tapes and went to England to produce the group.

Them had hit singles with “Here Comes the Night,” “Mystic Eyes” and “Gloria” (penned by Morrison). Them’s records were especially well received in America. In 1966, the group toured this country and shortly after broke up.

Van went back to England to write poetry and get into other kinds of music besides rhythm-and-blues. In 1967, Bert Berns formed his own record company, Bang Records, and asked Van to record for him. Van accepted and moved to America.

His first single for Bang, “Brown Eyed Girl,” was a hit. In 1968, Berns died and Van signed with Warner Brothers. His first LP was Astral Weeks.

The eight songs on the album “are thematically related through the same characters and places,” Van said. With the release of Astral Weeks, he picked up what was almost a cult following. The lyrics from the record have been studied and debated.

“One time a guy came up to me and said that Astral Weeks had kept his family together,” Van said. “Most of the things have seven meanings anyway, so I’m not surprised that people are always finding new things in it.”

In 1969, Van released Moondance, his first LP to be accepted by a mass audience. One of the songs on the album, “Come Running,” was a Top 40 hit. Soon after, Van moved to Woodstock, where he became friends with some of that town’s best musicians, including The Band. Van co-authored one of the songs on The Band’s latest album (Cahoots) and sings on the cut.

Van’s third album, His Band and the Street Choir, released in 1970, contained a Top 40 hit “Domino.” His fourth effort for Warner Brothers, Tupelo Honey, was released this week.

Van no longer thinks he can work with just one group of musicians as he did with Them. “For me the concept of a group doesn’t work because you’re limited to those four or five guys,” he said. “Somebody’s gonna say something you don’t like. With Them, I’d see a lot of stuff they wouldn’t pick up on. They’d want to go and hang out in a club or something.

“I was conscientious. I can’t rely on four or five guys to make decisions for me.”

The Postscript

In 1974,  I was working for WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) in their branch office in Maryland. I had left The Washington Star in 1973 to take the WEA job. While we were not in New York or LA, we were often invited by the individual labels to attend conferences or events around the country and beyond. Paris for a week for Atlantic Records’ 25th anniversary, a dude ranch in Arizona for an Elektra Records’ conference and a Carnegie Hall concert headlined by Van Morrison.

I had attended hundreds of great concerts as a writer and was really looking forward to the party that would be thrown for Van after this concert. It was to be held at the home of a legendary music executive, Mary Martin. Mary had encouraged Bob Dylan to work with The Band, signed Leonard Cohen to his first management deal, signed Emmylou Harris to her first record deal at Warner Bros., negotiated and secured Vince Gill’s first solo recording contract and managed Morrison and Rodney Crowell.

I had taken an early morning train from DC to New York. By the time the party began, I had been awake for over 20 hours. Mary’s house in Chelsea was packed with music business types, celebrities and others. After a couple of drinks, I wandered upstairs and found a vacant bedroom. Hoping to chill out for a bit, I went into the bedroom, closed the door and sat down on the bed, where I nodded off.

I was awakened by the door opening and two men walking toward the bed. I soon realized that they were Kurt Vonnegut and Roman Polanski. I had read every Vonnegut book and was a big fan of Polanski’s films. I was speechless. They both looked at me, acknowledged my presence with polite nods and proceeded to sit down on the bed beside me. Polanski reached for the television’s remote control and turned on the last minutes of The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson was interviewing a friend of theirs, author Jerzy Kosinski.

When the show was over, the three of us walked back downstairs. Van had been at the party while we were watching television and had already left. That was OK since my magical moment of the day was watching Carson with Vonnegut and Polanski.

There were times when no photographer was available to accompany him on his assignments, so Michael brought along his own Nikon. We’d love to share some of the photographs that he took, but he’s still working out copyright issues. Since we don’t have one of Van Morrison, here’s the next best thing (it is about the music, after all):

Book Review: Truth Thomas’s Speak Water

speak water

Truth’s new poetry book

I live in an 1830s mill worker’s house on the Patapsco River in the picture-postcard part of Ellicott City, MD. A year ago, Truth Thomas, guest editor for our Winter 2012 Social Justice issue, sat at my dining room table. Before we got down to business with Linda Joy Burke, an LPR contributing editor, two things occurred.

First, Truth heard a train rumbling along the tracks on the high bank forming the other side of the river and ran out to the front porch. He watched it go by with all the delight of a small child. Then, after he came inside and Linda Joy joined us, he told us about the time he was looking in the window of an antiques shop down the hill from my house and two white men driving by in a blue pickup truck hurled racial slurs at him. The juxtaposition of those two things tore my heart.

The latter occurrence served as an impetus for Truth to learn to “speak water,” a term offered with a smile but no precise definition. And made me want to make absolutely sure that I got the right person to review speak water when it came out. That was Joseph Ross, who not only knew about prejudice from being a gay white male but could also turn that into poetry about the African-American experience, as amply demonstrated by “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God,” published in our Summer 2012 Audacity issue.

When I asked Joseph if he might be willing to write a review, he said he would be happy to do this. No need to send a review copy. He already had speak water sitting on his bed stand, waiting to be read. Once he finished reading it, this was what he wrote:

If  the word “scripture” means “sacred writing,” then speak water is, in a sense, scripture. Biblical images weave all through this powerful collection. The poems dare to both lament and celebrate, they have both memory and vision.

As in the Bible, speak water divides into two sections. The first, “The Dry Land Earth,” uses images from the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. The second, “Hand Dances at the Well,” draws largely from New Testament images. But these poems are not religious in the traditional sense. These poems use biblical images, looking back, in order to focus the reader on the present world. This is the collection’s strength: these poems witness and call. They describe our human condition in sometimes searing, sometimes playful language.

The book begins, as you would guess, with a poem called “Genesis.” The poem opens with the biblical creation mantra “In the beginning…” and then hurls us into the present, or near-present.

In the beginning, God made heaven, earth
and Shalanda “Sha Sha” Haywood, born in
Brooklyn, August, 1972—died in Maryland,
July, 2010. None of this you will remember

“Genesis” continues as a kind of creation story, or a genealogy. We learn of a family’s losses and its humanity.

“What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” continues the Genesis imagery in a humorous way. Taking the tempting voice of Eden’s snake, we hear a new version of seduction. This snake flirts with Eve, calling her hips “wide as sky,” naming her a “goddess.” Sadly, we never hear Eve’s response. But the snake urges relentlessly. You can almost see him winking as he says, “Just let me introduce you / to a little nibble. I’m sure God will understand.”

Among the most moving poems in this section is “Auntie.” This poem celebrates a woman’s strength and love. We learn that she “parted coupon seas / at the Kroger.” The speaker and the woman “rode all over segregation’s / feathered carcass.” Finally, in a tender closing, the speaker “snuggled in her side like a rib / returning home.”

I couldn’t help laughing out loud while reading “On Flat Langston’s Escape from Busboys and Poets Plantation.” Here, Thomas writes of an event in the Washington, DC poetry scene where a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes was stolen from a restaurant. This poem is hymn-like in its four-line stanzas and echoes Hughes with its careful rhymes. Thomas stays true to his justice themes as well. The cutout is, after all, liberated from a “plantation.” One almost wants to shout “Hallelujah!”

In the second section, “Hand Dances at the Well,” Thomas continues with poems that move because of their carefully crafted quality. Echoing the first section’s “Genesis,” this section begins with “Sunday Kind of Love,” which fuses the first miracle in John’s Gospel, the wedding feast at Cana, with a modern woman’s challenging life.

Shayna reads the Word and takes
the story of that first miracle as
serious as unpaid electric bills in
winter—

The poems in this section are replete with New Testament images and language. We get hints of the Sermon on the Mount, the Gospel of Mark, Judas’ thirty pieces of silver, the need to born again and more. Thomas uses these images with a light touch. If these poems preach–and they do–they are not preachy.

We are treated to both craft and insight. In “Sermon on the Block,” he tells us:

Blessed are the homeless who find ATM asylum for
their offering kingdom does not sleep nor slumber.

Blessed are those who do not mourn the death of paychecks:
for eviction shall overlook them like the Passover angel.

“The Third World” struck me as a powerfully written poem using the image of Mary standing at the foot of the cross as an entry point to consider the effect of lengthy incarceration on a prisoner’s mother.

Woman behold thy son–thy daughter, eighty-sixed in 8 by 6,
leg iron limp–wait, growling gut–wait, food arms wagging
steel door lips for bread of birdcage shit.

This compelling book closes with three poems that provoke the reader to consider the power of race, memory and art itself. In “Revelation,” we hear the African-American game of the Dozens in a reflection on race.

You so black,
eclipses wear you
for sunglasses.

This clever poem ends with a warning and celebration:

so black–so so so
eggplant, banana black, red-
boned, peanut butter, you can

never be
black
enough.

“We Too, The Foundation” takes us back to Hughes and celebrates other ancestors such as Aristotle, Malcolm X, Whitman and Martin Luther King.

This beautiful book closes with thoughts on the power of poetry and art. “Intersections” recalls a reading series of the same name in Washington, DC.

…on a snowplow rumbling
night, art wanders in off the street
to hold its own hand…

We see an art here that

will not “be good.” It will
interrupt you when you are speaking
and not say “excuse me.” It will duck
inside your door and eat up all your
cookies because it is hungry. It is
always hungry—especially here in
Anacostia’s abandoned mouth—

Thomas has created a strong and beautiful book of poems here. For those who don’t know biblical images, some of his descriptions might not land where he wants. For those who are turned off by biblical images, this might not be their book either. But if one gives these poems a chance, they can do what the best poems do: take us deeper into our own lives and deeper into the world.

In his review, Joseph captures the same contrasting aspects of Truth and his world that I witnessed that August afternoon at my home. But he cannot reproduce Truth’s speaking voice from a print book. Since Truth is a singer-songwriter as well as a poet, he deserves to be heard. Here he is reading his work at our Salon Series event. Listening to the speak water poem “What The Snake Whispered in Eve’s Ear” there was pure pleasure.

Note: You can get more background on speak water from a recent interview. And you can hear Truth read on August 9 at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.

Book Review: Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey

Bloodcoal & Honey

Dan Gutstein’s award-winning book (Cover design: Justin Sirois)

When I find myself unaccountably crying as I reach the end of a collection of poems, when the combined weight of the poet’s felt human presence and the loss seeping through the poems brings tears, I know something powerful is about. This happened as I read one of the last poems,“The Last Out,” in Dan Gutstein’s Bloodcoal & Honey, which I finished while on a long bus journey.

The last time I remember tears burning at the end of a book of poems was when I read Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing of the Seasons. The ambush was easier to understand: Hacker’s sonnet sequence tells the story of a love affair from birth to breakup.

I was more surprised to feel a lump in my throat with Bloodcoal & Honey. Although many of the poems paint human affection and loss with skill, just as many are forays into surrealism, verbally stunning poems that are obscure in meaning and feel to me like odd objects behind a gate that few readers may be able to penetrate. This isn’t a criticism of the collection. But it is a fact that lots of poems there have bizarre, disjointed imagery and syntax that doesn’t gel around anything real and that surrealism isn’t my thing. Yet, somehow, I mostly loved the book. Gutstein is a really interesting poet.

Many surrealistic poems are fantastic in their pure sound, such as this from “the chance”:

never let it be said that fields change. the smallish pumpkins
are sunken crowns. the stolid headstones, tablets of law.

where the wood gives a deep stand, the spotted deer glance
marbles a bound. where the wind’s raw palm thumps the season.

They alternate with poems that provide a solid sense of the speaker–his feelings and sharp, quirky perceptions–and the emotional situation. That’s where sadness seeps in.

The backdrop of Bloodcoal & Honey is the random alleyway murder of a man named Warren, someone close to the poet. Although only six poems center on the murder and criminal investigation, a sense of things being heavy, grim and out-of-joint pervades the first section. (Six poems in the last section of the book concern the death of Gutstein’s brother and take on a gentler mournful tone). It’s not a depressing read, though, because the writer’s voice feels like company and because he, the grieving survivor, so intensely observes and interacts with the world around him as he goes about his business.

It’s clear how ragged grieving is: thoughts of Warren and the shooting, which the speaker didn’t witness, intrude at the most mundane times. In “The Speed Break,” the poet is trying to break a board in karate class:

“Come on, man,” my teacher says. But I’m all stares
at the black knot. Staring, as he concludes, softly, “—Shit.”
A scene I can’t possibly imagine. The gun tapping Warren’s back.
Then a twitch, then a flash. No pain, nothing but a thin mix
curling down the shoulder chunk. A hole in his back. The black knot.

In “The Alleyway Now,” he’s walking in a meadow with a friend:

…as I turn and see you
hipdeep, a stalk between your teeth.
You call my name, Daniel.
I tilt my head, thrust my hands toward blue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I heard footsteps, a gun clatter off brick.
I followed blood drops behind a dumpster
where I found Warren, a hole in his back.
A lamp came on in the alleyway.
Night had moon but no color, shots but no rescue.
If I could fabricate, I’d say, yes,
I cradled his shoulders.

The title suggests that the alleyway of the shooting is within the speaker at every moment. That’s fitting because these poems are urban. There’s an edginess to them. Even when we can’t be at all sure of the situation or story, we know we’re in a city spot, a gritty one. In some poems, details show we’re in DC. Gutstein seems to be fascinated with hidden corners of the urbanscape, especially anything industrial, low-tech or decaying:

Filmy
here as in tonnage of diesel,
a transformer humming sidewise torsion.
Loopy flowers unbuckle beside barbed wire.
(“Industrial Island”)

A crowd grew across the street from the wrecking ball, which thumped the dying hospital further into a spaghetti of rebar and boxy rubble.
(“Redoubt”)

I liked the book’s eclecticism, and I wasn’t the only one. How depressing to plough through a new collection and find 45 poems from the same mould. Not here! There are prose poems, anecdotal poems, unidentifiable stanzaic forms, lyrics, stuff smacking of “language” poetry and more. Still, techniques characterizing Gutstein’s voice permeate the poetry: language heightened by unusual, juicy word choice; a tendency to write in fragments; vivid images that don’t quite coalesce into a unified scene; phrases repeated unsettlingly. A touchstone mood: besides loss and urban grit, missed human connections.

In considering why reading Bloodcoal & Honey feels glorious rather than sad, I’m reminded of something Harriet Barlow, Director of the Blue Mountain Center, said to me: “Poems about sad things aren’t depressing. Meaningless things are depressing.” Gutstein’s poems never feel meaningless, opaque though some may be.

It was gratifying to see that the local Washington Writers’ Publishing House awarded Bloodcoal & Honey the 2011 poetry prize and is still publishing gems.

Dan Gutstein

Dan Gutstein self-portrait

Online editor’s note on the author, lifted from his siteBloodcoal & Honey is Dan Gutstein’s second collection of writing. His first, non/fictionwas published by Edge Books in 2010. His writing has appeared in more than 65 publications, including Ploughshares, Denver Quarterly, Ninth Letter, The Iowa Review, The American Scholar, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English and The Best American Poetry, 2006 as well as aboard metrobuses in Virginia. He has received awards from the Maryland State Arts Council, University of Michigan, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and other groups. He works at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and served as Visiting Assistant Professor in creative writing at The George Washington University. He was named the 2010-2011 “hottest” professor in America by Rate My Professors, and his body temperature has risen accordingly.

Audacious Ideas: Housing Artists

Audacity defines the best and worst within us. It is boldness or daring, accompanied by confident or arrogant disregard for personal safety, conventional thought or other restrictions. It is also effrontery, insolence or shamelessness. The “Audacious Ideas” essay series celebrates this theme, which serves as the basis of our Summer 2012 print issue.

Reginald Gray set design La Boheme

Set design for Act 1 of La bohème, Reginald Gray, 2010

Housing artists in decrepit garrets is all well and good when you’re, say, designing sets for La bohème. But I’m here to tell you that there’s nothing romantic about a place that gives you pneumonia merely because you decide to gain more living space by situating your mattress directly on the freezing floor of what had heretofore been an enclosed second-story porch or where you find your resident rat has gnawed on each of a basketful of root vegetables right before you’re ready to make some sweet potato pie.

I was, therefore, delighted to learn that a local group had not only had the audacity to imagine that artists might be more creative and productive if they had pleasant places to live but also to do whatever it took to implement that vision. “We shamelessly stole the idea from a group called Artspace in Minneapolis,” Charlie Duff, president of Jubilee Baltimore, told Urbanite in 2010 just prior to the opening of City Arts Apartments in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District.

Decidedly intrigued, I contacted Talya Constable, Director of Resource Development at Jubilee Baltimore, to learn more. Here’s what Talya sent me:

Baltimore’s first building designed specifically for artists began with a collaboration between a local foundation, Baltimore Neighborhood Collaborative, and a national nonprofit specializing in artist housing, Artspace. BNC asked Artspace to assess whether Baltimore could support the creation of such a building and, if so, where the building should be located. Artspace determined that the vacant city-owned lot at the corner of Oliver Street and Greenmount Avenue in Station North would be ideal because more than 300 artists already lived or worked within a two-block radius. The downside was that Oliver Street contained several vacant lots, a row of vacant houses and a factory building that had been vacant for more than 25 years.

For years, Station North struggled from disinvestment and an alarming number of vacancies. Prior to the recession, many artists there had lived in two large buildings on Greenmount West, the residential portion of Station North, that were now slated for redevelopment. Knowing that they were at risk of displacement, Jubilee set out to ensure that affordable housing opportunities for artists would be preserved. Jubilee and partners TRF Development Partners Baltimore and Homes for America were selected by Baltimore City through a competitive bid process to develop the vacant lot that had been identified by Artspace as the future site of City Arts Apartments.

The City Arts team was awarded approximately $13.5 million in low-income housing tax credits to develop the building, which contained 69 residential units situated above a ground-floor gallery where residents could display their own work and that of other local artists. It incorporated the findings of a market study where over 700 self-described artists were interviewed and included sustainable design elements such as low-VOC  paints, urea-formaldehyde-free composite woods and Green-Label-certified floor coverings. The result was a building designed with artists in mind that was also healthy and had minimal impact on the surroundings.

City Arts was the first new residential building of any kind to be built in this neighborhood since the 19th Century. Once completed, it was fully leased within four months–seven months ahead of the anticipated leasing schedule–and now has a long waiting list. By creating affordable housing for artists, City Arts strengthened the Station North Arts and Entertainment District and served as a catalyst for additional neighborhood investment such as the following:

      • Adjacent to City Arts, TRF Development Partners recently purchased an entire row of vacant houses and renovated them fully.
      • TRF plans to build eight new row houses next to City Arts, which should be under construction within months and offered for sale by the end of the year.
      • A block from City Arts, a former clothing factory vacant for more than 25 years is now being redeveloped and will be the home of the Baltimore Design School.
      • The Maryland Institute College of Art–MICA–completed the first phase of a $19 million renovation of Studio Center on North Avenue.
      • North Avenue Market owners are about to begin a $1 million restoration of the historic façade that stretches more than 200 feet along North Avenue.
      • The former Chesapeake Restaurant at the gateway to Station North, vacant for more than 20 years, is under construction. By year’s end, it will house two restaurants and a second Milk & Honey market.
      • In February, Jubilee Baltimore purchased the largest vacant building in Station North, 10 E North Avenue, for a multi-tenant arts facility containing artist studios, galleries, theaters and arts-related venues.

All this sounded far better than I’d anticipated, so–just to make sure–I contacted an artist actually living there to get her take. Conveniently, Ashby Foote also happened to be the marketing coordinator at City Arts and had recently completed a piece on what it was like to live there. Here’s some of what she sent me, together with a photo of her in her apartment with her mother Suzie Foote assembling jewelry to sell at a local event:

What artists want is a connection to other dedicated, creative people. When they live in close proximity to each other, a contagious creative energy can grow and multiply. Here, residents represent all fields of creative endeavor. They are producers, performers, play- and screenwriters, poets, dancers, musicians and visual artists.

My role is to build a sense of community, since it is challenging enough to succeed as an individual artist. Buildings and communities like this one bridge the gap between people, allowing individuals to form the connections that open up new opportunities. The opportunities here bring people out of their comfort zones to try something new in a way that may not have occurred outside this unique beehive of creative activity.

Our gallery expands our role beyond merely providing affordable housing for select artists. With storefront windows and high visibility, it invites the public in to experience art and get involved. Initially conceived as an area where residents alone could exhibit their work and perform, residents and managers decided to open it up to anyone from the area once they started working together to establish the gallery.

Baltimore needs places like this because artists help create a strong local economy. One reason why Baltimore is so successful in attracting people is the arts and creative scene. We see many people coming in from surrounding cities because it is possible to lease larger amounts of space here. When artists spend less money on living, they can spend more on producing creative work.

As a former urbanite now living in the burbs, all this made me somewhat envious. Which brought me back to Artspace. Artspace, you see, has a site in suburban Maryland.

In the late 1990s, four DC suburbs–Mount Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood and Hyattsville–joined forces to form the Gateway Arts District, revitalizing a two-mile stretch of the historic US 1 Corridor through an infusion of art and artists. The first project, the $11.7 Mount Rainier Artist Lofts, created 44 affordable units in a newly constructed four-story building one block from the DC border. This represented the first Artspace live-work environment established in an entirely new facility.

Residents have the best of both worlds. They enjoy the high ceilings and large windows of historic warehouse lofts while living in a modern, energy-efficient building. Low rents, proximity to public transportation and Mount Rainier’s small-town charm make it even more appealing. So does the ground floor with its 7000 square feet of commercial space.

So perhaps there’s hope out here as well. Perhaps someone will have the audacity to steal City Arts’ idea the same way that Charlie Duff and his colleagues once appropriated a wonderful one from Artspace. Here’s a slideshow for inspiration:

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