Friday, March 30, 2018

#SplitThisRock2018 Sessions: Youth

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018 invites poets, writers, activists, and dreamers to Washington, DC for three days of poetry, community building, and creative transformation. The festival features readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, parties, activism—opportunities to speak out for justice, build connection and community, and celebrate the many ways poetry can act as an agent for social change.

On-site registration is available every day during the festival at the festival hub: National Housing Center, 1201 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20005. A sliding scale of fees is available for full registration, beginning at $200. Student registration (with ID) is $75. One day passes are $85. Two-day passes are $170. 

Full festival schedule with session descriptions is available on the websiteThe Festival Mobile App is Live! Download the free app  for iOS and Android today for easy access to the schedule, session descriptions, presenter bios, and more! Just search your app store for Split This Rock. 

We are pleased to present a selection of youth-focused sessions.

In partnership with the Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives, several youth-focused sessions on Saturday, April 21 are free and open to the public. These are noted below.

Wordplay: Poetry & Self-Advocacy for Youth with Autism (Workshop)
 Presenter: Donnie Welch

Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives Conference Room
Thursday, April 19, 1:30-3 pm

Dreaming America: Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Prison (Workshop)
Presenter: Seth Michelson

National Housing Center Room C
Friday, April 20, 1:30-3 pm

20 Years of Voice: Teaching, Writing & Activism with Community-Word Project (Panel)
Presenters: Ellen Hagan, Javan Howard, Michele Kotler, Karla RobinsonNational Housing Center Room D
Saturday, April 21, 9 - 10:30 am

Exploring The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database, A Professional Development Session for Educators, Open to All (Workshop)
Presenters: Joseph Green and M. F. Simone Roberts

Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives Conference Room
Saturday, April 21, 9-10:30 am - FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Youth-Led Writing Workshop for All (Workshop)
Led by Members of Split This Rock's Ushindi Performance Tribe
Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives Conference Room
Saturday, April 21, 11-12:30 pm - FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Youth Open Mic - Hosted by Festival Featured Poet Terisa Siagatonu
Mic Open to Young People 20 & Under—Audience Open to All!
Charles Sumner School Museum & Archives Memorial HallSaturday
April 21, 1:30-3 pm - FREE & OPEN TO THE PUBLIC

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Paul Tran

By C. Thomas

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at:

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Paul Tran is Poetry Editor at The Offing and Chancellor's Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Their work appears in The New Yorker, Prairie Schooner, and RHINO, which gave them an Editor's Prize. A recipient of fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, VONA, Poets House, Lambda Literary Foundation, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Home School, Vermont Studio Center, The Conversation, Palm Beach Poetry Festival, Miami Writers Institute, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, Paul is the first Asian American since 1993 to win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam. Since 2013, Paul has taught creative writing and coached the slam poetry teams at Barnard College, Brown University, Columbia University, Hunter College, New Urban Arts in Providence, RI, and Urban Word NYC, as seen on HBO Brave New Voices. Paul is working on their first poetry collection. The manuscript examines intergenerational trauma, sexual violence, and U.S. empire after the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Learn more at their website. Photo by Chrysanthemum Tran.

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C. Thomas (CT): As a spoken word artist myself, I feel that often performance poets discover poetry as an outlet, a release for their emotions. How did you discover poetry and when? Why poetry?

Paul Tran (PT): Poetry, for me, is investigation. The poem is at once archive and archival material. It provides space to document the triumphs and tragedies of people, places, and things I love in their complexity, complications, and contradictions.

I first came to the page after seeing Franny Choi and Jamila Woods perform during my first week at Brown University in 2010. Their power, their magic, their precision and imagination rendering visible the experience of women coming of age, confronting the outside gaze on our bodies, the bodies of subjects in the aftermath of war and intimate violence, blazed a path for me to see the poem not only as site for language arts, for play and persuasive communication, but as sanctuary for critical evaluation of the commonplace ideas, systems, and behaviors that shape our lives as well. My poems, therefore, begin with a question. Why did my father molest me while my mother slept in the other room? What brought him to that decision? When and how did I understand what he did and what did that to him? How did I rationalize my survival in order to, in fact, survive? Is this survival?
I do not have answers, and I may never. But the attempt to respond, to say something about being human and witnessing what humans do to each other, propels me to slam my words onto the page, to transfigure this breath leaping from my throat into song, and illuminate what has been obscured, overlooked, or deliberately annihilated to secure someone else’s comfort.

Poetry, for me, is not comfort. It is not release or recovery. It is not beauty or brutality, though it can be all this and more. Poetry is alchemy. Poetry is the acquisition of new knowledge. It is a vehicle for transporting us from one mode of thought to another, demanding we assess what we think we know and how we know it in order to, at best, change our lives and how we choose to live. If I am not changed by my own poems, then I am not doing the work of what my teachers call “the true poet.”

(CT): Of your contemporaries, who has inspired you the most as an artist? Who would you say has had a deep influence on shaping your work as a queer artist?

(PT): I owe a great debt to the women poets, queer poets, and poets of color who cultivate not just my writing but also my soul and my mind. I would not be here without their instruction, their generosity and sacrifice, and I am determined to pay forward their magic in my pursuit of being a teacher, editor, and advocate for voices that, as Toni Morrison writes, move in the margins.

I am currently studying at Washington University in St Louis, where I am a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellow in The Writing Program. My teachers and classmates embolden me not just to read, think, and write better. They push me to be a better person in the world: to live not for the goal of exacting revenge on circumstance or people who hurt me, but to live for the joy and mystery that accompanies being human and being with others who are also trying to make the most of our humanity.

I am also grateful to my blood and chosen family. Praise the group chat. Praise Team MDH and The Heterosexuals. Praise Brooklyn and Nuyo and UDUB and The NYC Union. Praise my sisters from Seattle to Providence. Praise my brothers deep in the heart of Texas and deep in my heart. Praise The Theys. Praise The Bottoms. Praise the Leaches and the Kwons and the Wongs and the Yangs. Praise Victory and Rob and Lissa. Praise Naoko Shibusawa and Francoise Hamlin. Praise Ocean and Tiffanie. Praise Hieu. Praise my mother who calls every night exactly at 10 PM. Praise my grandmother and every year she tells me she is still 87 years old and that she will always love for me who I am and that she likes my flower crowns on Instagram.

They inform my work. They are the reason I work.

(CT): You live your life out loud and unapologetically. I applaud you for this because as a queer poet myself, I know it is important. Being an openly queer person can draw homophobic reactions. How do you deal with this ignorance? In what ways does your experience of gender identity influence your work and how you navigate the world as a queer poet or activist?

(PT): My mother came to the United States from Vietnam in 1989. She worked three jobs. She met and extricated us from a man who did not love us the way we asked to be loved. She raised me on her own when he disappeared in 1999. We ate sesame crackers dipped in soy sauce or whatever I brought home from the dumpster behind my middle and high school where free and reduced lunches were stashed.

I replay these years in my mind when a man tells me he is going to kill me on the subway platform. I replay the nights I thought we might not endure when people spit at me on the street or tell me to go back wherever I came from. I replay the scene in which my mother tries on a Chanel dress, studying her reflection in the Nordstrom mirror, as a clerk follows my brown face around the store when strangers set their dogs on me and my sister, Chrysanthemum; or when they film us buying Hot Cheetos and cigarettes at the gas station, laughing at how we transformed our bodies into the women we are.

Nothing that happens to me, as a queer and transgender poet, surmounts what my mother and I confronted to become New Americans. I draw on the strength gleaned during those times to forge my way through life with love, compassion, understanding, openness, and grace. It is my job to teach people how to treat me, how to see and love me, and I attempt to advance such imperatives each time I speak, think, instruct, and write.

(CT): You have a way of using persona poems to explore hidden pain and trauma, the erasure beneath false narratives. Your poem “#1 Beauty Nail Salon,” for example, uses the voice of a Vietnamese manicurist as a metaphor to explore atrocities committed by the US military. Referencing the manicurist’s tools, it tells us: “A pen is all you need to be #1, honey, to make an ugly truth look beautiful.” What’s the poem you’re still hoping to write to dismantle an ugly truth made to look beautiful? What do you hope these poems open up for audiences?

(PT): My poetry investigates human suffering. I want to know what compels and helps us to rationalize violence towards others, the world, and ourselves. I am fascinated by the matrix of power, pain, and pleasure rooted in the operations and technologies of violence. I think my purpose as a writer is not only to craft poems that examine the why and how of violence. My job is to craft poems that ask if the knowledge gleaned from such scholarship is sufficient for our survival.

After being raped at Brown in 2013, I wanted so badly to carve my way out of this life. I thought I stood on the precipice and saw nothing good enough to keep me here. I felt stupid, ashamed, and incredibly resentful at the premise of staying alive. Why live, I thought, if this is what the living does to each other? And still I stayed. I woke up each day and endured every terrible thought or thing because some part of me desperately wanted to know the answer to that question. And then I realized: this is the question—the great ghost, the unbearable and generous spirit—haunting my poems. I wrote and continue to obsessively write about family incest and sexual violence because I have yet to sufficiently answer this question. But every attempt I make, I hope, brings me closer to that dream.

And, I write to share my attempts with those for whom they can serve.

I am an immigrant writer. I am a queer writer. I am a transgender writer. I am a writer from a neighborhood where people I love are threatened by police brutality, deportation, and all possible iterations of disenfranchisement. I am a writer whose writing has been censored, criticized, and cast aside. Yet I am the first in my family to read and write in English. I am the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college. I am the first in my family to complete an advanced degree in any field. I, therefore, do not have the luxury to look the other way while people I love hurt. I do not have the luxury to look away while they fight and rise and fail and fashion joy and purpose and prayer and dreams from the rubble at our feet. I write the poems I feel my ancestors and gods and past lives sent me here to write, however they take shape and whatever shape they take, and I hope my poems make it possible for writers like me to do their work on their terms in the full glow of their glory.

(CT): What advice would you like to give to young poets inspired by your work? Is there advice you would like to share with young Vietnamese American artists in particular?

(PT): Keep going. We have no other choice.|

(CT): In our current state of the world with all the various calls to action regarding sexual assault, hate crimes, domestic violence, racism, and more, what do you feel is the unique role of poets? Is there more that you'd like to see poets doing or doing better?

(PT): I believe the poet should investigate. Investigation is important to me because our world, as every world before ours, needs thinkers to illuminate the human condition: why are we here and what does it mean for us to be here? What is our purpose and how do we forge, challenge, or resist it? What animates and gives dimension to our desires, dreams, and determination to exact what we think we want by any means necessary? To what lengths would we go to be happy, safe, or satisfied with the shape of our lives and at what costs?
Poetry helps us answer these questions. That means, for me, at the heart of every poem is a writer trying to reach for and grapple with a possible or temporary or difficult answer to these questions. Poetry, from this view, is not a “reliving” or “retelling” of events. It is not transcription, as Carl Phillips reminds us. It is transformation.

Poetry elucidates from the evidence of our lives, histories, and research a kind of information and way of thinking that was not previously available to us because we had not or were not able to ask the right queries. Take, for example, the typical response to a poem: What does it mean? Implicit in that reaction is the expectation that a poem should and does mean something. It reflects hope that everything we see or experience in the world has, in fact, a meaning of some significant degree. Poems of great merit to me, of indispensable social or political value, by that logic, are not indulgent or parochial or invested in appearing to rebel against power when, instead, they remain constitutive of business as usual. Poems should say something. Poems should say what elided our view. They excavate what we, by choice or in compliance to the status quo, kept buried.

And, they marshal with excellence the craft necessary to exact their aims.

(CT): What's on the horizon for you? Anything else you would like the Split This Rock community to know?

(PT): Split This Rock has been my lighthouse and ship since the first time I participated in 2014, sitting in the auditorium at National Geographic beside Cathy Linh Che and Ocean Vuong, with whom I presented a reading of Vietnamese poetry in a backless outfit I cut and sewed and studded on the Megabus on my way to the Festival. Thank you for taking me through the night, for giving me flight across ceaseless seas. I feel lucky being part of the urgent and necessary work you do.

I bow to you.

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Additional Links

Paul Tran visits with The Poetry Gods (SoundCloud)

Tran’s poem “Boy Dreams of the Wolf” (Poet’s House)

Dinnerview: Paul Tran, by Danielle Susi (ENTROPY)

Tran’s poems “The Santa Ana” & “ I WANT” (The Quarry)

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No stranger to the stage, C. Thomas has graced numerous venues. Along his journey, C. has blasted his story at Studio 2001 Art Gallery, Angelina College, Howard University, Eleanor Roosevelt High School, and Journey of Faith United Methodist Church, among other venues. C. Thomas raises his voice through his art for the benefit of Child Abuse Prevention Awareness, Black Lives Matter, SGL (Same Gender Loving) and the LGBT community. He knows there are many other minds, bodies and souls to be touched by his message. He intends to continue to challenge mindsets and command stages.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Kwame Dawes

By Teri Ellen Cross Davis

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at 
Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at:

We offer a sliding scale of registration levels, and opportunities to volunteer in place of a registration fee. Registration is open online until March 28, 2018. Visit the 
registration page to register or volunteer now.

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Kwame Dawes has authored thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and essays, including, most recently, City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern, 2017). Speak from Here to There (Peepal Tree Press), co-written with Australian poet John Kinsella, appeared in 2016. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska where he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English, a faculty member of Cave Canem, and a teacher in the Pacific University MFA Program in Oregon. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May of each year. Dawes is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Learn more at his website. Photo by Andre Lambertson.

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Teri Cross-Davis (TCD): With 21 published poetry collections since your first book, Progeny of Air in 1994, how do you think the poetry publishing industry has changed (or has it?)

Kwame Dawes (KD): Progeny of Air was published in the UK and I was fortunate enough that Peepal Tree Press existed at the time, as it was in the early stages of filling a major gap for the publishing of Caribbean poetry that was a longstanding problem for the Caribbean. I was extremely fortunate to have a home in Peepal Tree Press, and even though it limited the extent to which I was known, read or even appreciated in the US, I had the space to grow as a poet, take risks, and benefit from the remarkable editorial skills and commitment of Jeremy Poynting.

My first US publication happened years and four books later when I won the Hollis Summers Prize for Midland. I will admit that I wrote and designed Midland to enter the US market. Jeremy Poynting agreed with me that this would be a good career move, and so I submitted that manuscript to over forty venues in the US. I knew it was an important and solid book, but the fact that it was rejected (albeit with extensive letters) by so many US presses, reminded me of just how difficult it can be for an immigrant poet in the US. I was not surprised that Eavan Boland, an Irish poet working in the US, was the judge who selected that manuscript for the Hollis Summers Prize. 

A lot has transpired since then in American poetry, especially for writers of color. I am confident that any study of the constitution of judging panels for prizes and awards in the US over the last decade will reveal that they have become increasingly more diverse, and as a result, writers of color have had a better chance of winning awards. This is not a matter of tribal loyalty, but the simple fact that more diverse panels bring broader knowledge, understanding and familiarity with a wider set of poetic aesthetics, and this has meant that more voices have been heard and appreciated in the US. 

The advent of intense social media in the last decade has also introduced a culture of hype that has come to shape the way we understand poetry today. This hype is predicated on what I call the “Columbus-Imperative." Largely white publishers are constantly recycling a narrative of “discovery” of writers of color who are young and the “great new thing” out there. It is a pernicious habit because it is seductive to the writers, who struggle to not be convinced by the hype, and whom when eventually abandoned by the industry for the next new thing, find themselves deeply confused and sometimes petrified by the prospect of matching that early hype and adoration. The hype is also picked up by well-meaning liberal arts outfits, again led largely by white directors, who construct a system of value, not necessarily on the maturation of poetic craft and skill, but on the tyranny and seduction of topicality.

It is almost churlish to complain about this as the fact is that poets of color are getting some more play than ever before. But it is important to recognize that this is happening, and to admit that so much of what is deemed reviewing, is in fact consumed by this hype. I am not suggesting that the current industry is inventing “flavor of the month” practices, but it is especially apparent these days, and sadly, it is doing a disservice to so many poets who, above all, need secure and supportive poetic “homes” where they can grow, take risks, and have a realistic sense of their development over time.

But enough carping. The fact is that American poetry is in a very strong place. There has never been a period in which American poetry has been as diverse, vibrant and engaging as it is today. This is a good thing. This has happened because of the hard work of individuals, organizations and a general culture, and we should remain vigilant about ensuring that these gains are not reversed because American poetry is, frankly, the better for this development.

TDC: One interview I read noted that many praise your mentoring. What role do you think that plays within the poetry community? What has surprised you in mentoring poets?  What is one particular thing about mentoring that you might pass on to other poets?

KD: The term “mentoring” is a strange one to me. I am happy to be a mentor if those who regard me as a mentor are willing to call me that. But I feel it presumptuous of me to declare myself a mentor.  

My commitment is to support poets, to open doors for poets, to find ways to create a space in which poets can grow in their skill and can produce work of power and strength. The initiatives I have started have all been prompted by the most obvious needs in the world. In South Carolina it was clear that we simply did not have a publishing culture for poets to match the energy of poetry writing existing in the state.  With poet, Charlene Spearen, I  to change that with the South Carolina Poetry Initiative.

In Jamaica, it was clear that the absence of training, exposure and awareness at the highest level to support literary writing and publishing was limiting our ability to launch the careers of very talented writers. With Colin Channer and Justine Henzell, I started the Calabash International Literary Festival, with its seminars, workshops and sophisticated plan of creating a branding of Jamaican writing. We regard the emergence of writers like Kei Miller, Ishion Hutchison, Margaret-Ann Lin, Garfield Ellis and Marlon James (to name a few) as successes in that regard.

In the UK, in the early 1990s, an exciting cadre of black poets who were dominating the performance stages around that nation, were acutely aware that they were not having the same impact or access in publishing. Bernardine Evaristo invited me to lead extensive workshops for Black poets in the UK in a series we called The Afro-Style School. I did this for six or seven years, and it is almost impossible to name a single successful black poet in the UK, who cannot be, in some way, tied to that ground-breaking series.

Finally, five years ago, it became clear to me that African poetry was just not being published in manner commensurate to the talent and energy existing among poets on the continent. In five years, The African Poetry Book Fund, with its amazing team of volunteer editors and mentors, Chris Abani, Bernardino Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, Aracelis Girmay, Gabeba Baderoon, John Keene, and Phillippa ya de Villiers,) has transformed the landscape for African poetry. This is no exaggeration. These are just a few small examples that I hope explain how I work. I have done similar work through my editing roles with Peepal Tree Press, with Prairie Schooner and through my involvement with organizations like Cave Canem and so many others.

I have skills and vision in this regard, and I see myself as merely carrying out a role in support of the writing community. I do not expect every writer to do this kind of work. It is not for everyone. But without it, so many poets would simply not emerge. Is this mentoring? Maybe. But I regard it as something more than that. I work to advance the work of poetry in the world.

You don’t stay in one genre. You’ve written fiction, articles, plays—any advice to other writers who start off in one genre but feel called to others?

KD: I am not being flippant or facetious when I say this, but my answer is, “Do it.” I believe that these lines are somewhat unhelpful and unrealistic, and what should guide whether one works in different genres or not is talent and discipline. The poet writing fiction must know that she gets no special breaks for attempting fiction—it better be good. Similarly, novelists attempting to write poetry should not whine about how this is new to me, when someone says the work is not good. Look, the fact is that poets are just more ordained than other writers, but there is no need to harp on this—that would be so rude!  ☺

TCD: You said once that “poetry is your companion in the world.” When has it benefited you the most, having this companionship with poetry?

KD: I think it was Emerson or some nineteenth century American thinker who equated the capacity for contradictory thought with humanity and intelligence. He may not have been talking about poetry, but I would say that poetry offers us the capacity to carry in us and express the contradictory impulses that make us human. Poetry helps me to know what I am thinking and feeling. Before I make a poem, I really think I know this, but poetry, for some reason, helps me to truly see this.

TCD: You have said many times that you write out of a reggae aesthetic. When did reggae begin to talk to you? Has it always? Can you define the political and the spiritual within that aesthetic? Is there anything that reggae can express that poetry cannot? And vice versa?

KD: As you might imagine, tackling such a question in the context of an interview like this is unlikely to be successful. It has taken me a few books, many articles and many, many poems, to work through this issue. I moved to Jamaica from Ghana in 1971 when I was nine years old. I have known and lived with reggae since then. It was the music that marked my coming of age, and it has been a key part of the soundtrack of my life. I came to reggae with the same level of hunger, need, and quest for understanding and belonging that I characterized my relationship with Jamaican culture and language.

Reggae music of the sixties and seventies became inextricably connected to Rastafarianism and all the related revolutionary and post-colonial faith systems of Jamaican society. The quest for an aesthetic in this music is marked by an effort to identify what might be crudely defined as qualities of “beauty” in this music. I learned a great deal from African American thinkers and artists like Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, and Kalamu ya Salaam who sought to extract from the Blues and Jazz, a poetics that could be transferable to the literary arts. In Cuba of the pre-revolutionary era, Nicolás Guillén, was developing his own “Son” aesthetic derived from “Son” music. These are just some of the necessary acts of artistic independence and creativity which include the work of poets like Kama Brathwaite, Ntosake Shange and big, large-visioned philosopher-artists like Sylvia Wynter and Wilson Harris, that appealed to me and influenced my aesthetic ambitions.  

I knew instinctively that reggae was a critical part of the discourse that shaped my view of the world and my engagement with the world, and so I sought to discover a way of speaking to this.  My book, Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic seeks to make the case. In this sense, it is hard to offer an answer to the question of whether there are things that reggae expresses that poetry can’t, as it presumes that these two things are different. At best, I would say that it is true that the song and the poem can have different capacities, but this is true as a general truth. But when I speak of the reggae aesthetic, I am speaking about the aesthetic undergirding the music.

TCD: You have worked with Kevin Simmonds and others, pairing your work with music. What effect do you think music has on your work? Do you feel like your writing changes after each pairing; or when you move from one genre to another, do you ever feel the effects of that genre on your poetry?

KD: I don’t honestly know whether music has an especial effect on my work. I suppose the danger of speaking about a reggae aesthetic is that people mistakenly come to my work expecting me to be writing songs. I write poems, plays, stories, essays, and songs. Those are genres. Poetry, in the western tradition and in the African tradition and the traditions of so many other cultures, is deeply connected with the idea of song and music. I am not saying anything special or new here. So, it is inevitable that my poetry will reflect elements of musicality, as is likely with the work of most poets working today. Above all, I am aware of sound, aware of the ways in which poetry employs song, and this just makes me a poet seeking to master all the various elements that are available to the poet.

My collaborations with Kevin Simmonds, a dear friend and an artist I truly admire, have been characterized by one key principle: I respect that he is a gifted and talented musician who is producing music of the highest quality to partner with my poetry which I hope is up to the task. I really enjoy working with talented people in their fields. What results is new, and, more importantly, what I can’t produce on my own.

TCD: With your book on Bob Marley, I think one can safely say you know Marley’s music. What songs would you suggest to listen to in this current political climate?

KD: In 1980 a year before his death, Marley released Uprising. There is a grim sense of seriousness and hints of deep psychic disquiet found in the urgent and blunt lyrics of this album. Most people remember “Redemption Song” from this album, but for our times, the song, “We and Dem” remains profoundly instructive, emotionally honest, vulnerable and revelatory.  

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Additional Links

A Review of Duppy Conqueror by Major Jackson (New York Times)

Excerpts from “Illuminations with John Kinsella (Boston Review)

KWAME DAWES ON RHYTHM, DIASPORA, AND POLITICAL POETRY: An Interview, by Mathew Baddona (Literary Hub)

Kwame Dawes: The Harmonizer, an interview by Camille Goodison (Guernica Magazine)

Poems at Poetry Foundation

An archive of Dawes’s poems at Poetry International
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Teri Ellen Cross Davis is a Cave Canem fellow and has attended the Soul Mountain Writer’s Retreat, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work can be read in: Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC; and the following journals:  Beltway Poetry Quarterly,  Gargoyle,  Natural Bridge, Torch, Poet Lore and The North American Review. Her first collection, Haint, by Gival Press, was published in 2016. She lives in Silver Spring, MD. Photo by Mignonette Dooley.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

I L L N E S S: A Flash Memoir Prologue

Photo of poet Jeanann Verlee speaking into a microphone. She has long, reddish hair. There is a jukebox in the background.
Split This Rock presents this essay, below, as part of our participation in Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body, this year's programming of the national Poetry Coalition. To read more about this initiative, supported in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation, visit the website of the Academy of American Poets.

Jeanann Verlee will read at two events with Split This Rock in Washington, DC, March 17 and 18. Details at Split This Rock's website.

by Jeanann Verlee

Since April of 2015, I have been ill. Quietly. Secretly. My body turning against itself, devouring. Ravaging and shrinking me. I have not had the courage to talk about it. It was six months before I even confessed to my spouse that I was sick. Nine months before I consulted a doctor. Shame is thicker than blood.

Let me go back. I was already ill. I’ve been ill much of my life. Though my illnesses are often regarded differently. I was misdiagnosed with depression as a teen. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my mid-twenties. In my late thirties, I was also diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. I have bipolar disorder. Hypomania. Depression. PTSD. Chronic anxiety. I am, and have been, ill.

For more than three-quarters of my life, I have been on and off countless cocktails of medication in treatment of my illnesses. My medicines, manias, depressions, and bouts of anxiety do not prohibit a full and productive life, but are a daily consideration. Sometimes, hourly. I flinch. I shut down. I grow fangs. Each, with exacting efficiency. 

Now this—my body seemingly turning itself inside-out—an apparently rare and incurable disease. One that is prohibitive of a full and productive life. Little is known about its progression, treatment is radically hit-and-miss, and its cause is unknown. Many doctors suspect this disease is caused by long-term use of SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, more commonly known as antidepressants). Oh, irony.

Still, there are other experts who have drawn links to long-term use of more benign drugs, such as Ibuprofen and other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. Still others suggest genetic links. Many speculate that it may be an autoimmune disease, likely triggered by bacterial infection. 

The answer is that there is no answer. Science doesn’t know the cause because science hasn’t studied it. More research needs to be done, they say. Very rare, they say. No one is researching because, like many systems in the U.S., this system is broken. Doctors are dismissing or best-guessing their way through diagnoses and treatments while my body consumes itself.

Many psychiatrists believe that autoimmune disorders are linked to psychological trauma. Most psychiatrists believe there is no distinction between body and mind. The line is not merely blurred—there is no line. My body-mind is testament to this. My body is not separate from my mind. I am conscious of both because I have a mind, but together, as one, my illnesses affect all of me. Through my writing, I have worked for years to dispel the stigma of “mental” illness, trying to underscore that illness is illness. That my illnesses are simple. Incurable. Treatable. Nothing to fear. Something to understand. Human.

And so, it is possible—even likely—that the traumas I have survived fractured my psyche which led to treatment with psychiatric medicine which led to my body devouring itself. Or—equally likely—traumas fractured my psyche AND led my body to devour itself, regardless of medicine. More research needs to be done, they say.

I am sick. Chronically. My whole body-mind. Every day. I cannot predict what each morning will bring, but I know it will be some assortment of varied levels of pain, nausea, numbness, swelling, cramping, discomfort, exhaustion—AND—fear, sadness, rage, anxiety, hypervigilance, and shame.

* * *

After almost three years, five doctors, four clinics, and countless lab technicians, I was only officially diagnosed five weeks ago. Initially I was dismissed. Then misdiagnosed. Repeatedly. I refused to accept their amorphous answers. I tried again. And again. Each new clinic, each new set of doctors and staff, I was humiliated and mistreated and shamed. Dejected, I would give up for a time, then start over, refusing to be dismissed. I had to take my health into my own hands because medical professionals had simply thrown their hands in the air (one doctor did so quite literally).

I had to bully my way through. To be heard. To be seen. It took stamina. It took energy I often didn’t have. I spent countless nights sobbing, begging my body to stop hurting. Some nights I wanted to die. Many nights I thought I might be dying. Our system is broken. I had to do the work myself. Alone. I had to take the notes, keep the records. I had to repeatedly subject myself to the same tests, to endure the same humiliations, as each technician or doctor simply ticked off the same go-to list, Just to be sure.

Meanwhile, my body continues eating itself. Meanwhile, I am smaller and smaller and smaller. I have lost one quarter of my body mass, and I was already a fairly small person. My gums are receding, my hair is loosening from the root, my menstrual cycle is erratic, my skin is…you get the idea. Rattling changes. But this disease is not terminal and just knowing that has brought indescribable relief. Still, treatment has not improved my condition at all. I’m in a daily battle with my body-mind to avoid the host of ailments that come of malnutrition.

Unrelated—but not unrelated—during the throes of all this, a different doctor found a lump. Yes. In my left breast. Simultaneously, a painful cyst developed on my left ovary. It burst. It returned. It continues to grow. These other issues derailed my progress with new tests, sonograms, biopsies, prodding and groping in effort to determine any diagnosis and treatment for—well, everything else. My brain caught fire. Am I dying? After all this surviving? After fighting to stay? Why everything all at once? For now, we wait. To see if the lump changes. If the cysts change. I am being monitored. Just wait and see. Just wait.

Further to it all, though I am among those lucky enough to have medical insurance, mine is woefully insufficient. My annual deductible is so high, I never actually see the financial benefit of medical coverage. I have to pay out-of-pocket for everything (visits, tests, procedures, prescriptions) until I meet the improbable deductible, at which point coverage would begin and I would pay the more reasonable costs of tiered co-pays. 

However, I have never met that deductible. I pay out-of-pocket all year, and then suddenly it’s January and we start all over again. This out-of-pocket cost is in addition to the insurance fees deducted from my paycheck—in essence, I pay for the luxury of paying full-price for medical services. I am now in debt for medical expenses despite having medical insurance. Our system is broken.

It is through this demoralizing process that I have gained renewed respect for other individuals with chronic illnesses. While I’ve long imagined myself compassionate, I did not—could not—understand. I am beginning to understand. I have a long road ahead of me, but I have a road. I am here. I am sick. But I am here.

When Sarah Browning of Split This Rock queried if I had any ideas to share for the blog, I was at a loss. I don’t want to talk about any of this. I am not ready. I am not ready to write about this. I have not yet found a treatment that manages my pain and daily discomfort. I haven’t determined a reasonable method for financing medical costs. I have too much fear and there are too many unknowns to address the topic with any proficiency. But just last night, roused from sleep yet again, wrestling back tears in the desperate blur of 4 a.m., begging my body to stop hurting, I decided to give myself permission. To write—something, anything. This.

In the spirit of Split This Rock, I offer this prologue as introduction to some of the poems that have sustained me throughout this period—poems that yes, bear witness and provoke change. These poems address the numerous and complicated realities of the body-mind, from stigma to genetics to shame to resurrection to the immeasurable ways that we love—and are loved—through life, illness, survival, and loss. These writers are not only powerful artisans of language, but heroic livers of life. Writing with unflinching rigor and sight, challenging our many broken systems through voice and story. These are just some of the poems that have beckoned, shaped, healed, and held me—and I am immeasurably grateful.

·        Litany with Blood All Over by Danez Smith
·        Angel Nafis by Angel Nafis
·        my eyes in the time of apparition by Rachel McKibbens 
·        Post-Diagnosis by sam sax
·        Surgery Psalm by Liv Mammone
·        Let Me Handle My Business, Damn by Morgan Parker
·        As Around the Sun the Earth Knows She’s Revolving by Casey Rocheteau
·        Cleave by Ian Khadan
·        Someone Asked Me if My Hair Was Mine Today by Siaara Freeman
·        Ode to Lithium #75: Mind over Matter by Shira Erlichman

JEANANN VERLEE, a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow, is the author of Said the Manic to the Muse (Write Bloody Publishing, 2015) and Racing Hummingbirds (2010), which was awarded a silver medal in the Independent Publisher Awards. Her third book, prey, was first runner-up for the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. She received the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize, and her work appears in Adroit, BOAAT, Rattle, and BuzzFeed Reader, among others. 

Verlee has served as poetry editor for various publications, including Union Station Magazine and Winter Tangerine Review, in addition to a number of individual collections. The former director of Urbana Poetry Slam, where she served as writing and performance coach, Verlee performs and facilitates workshops at schools, theatres, libraries, bookstores, and dive bars across North America. She collects tattoos and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her at