Making the Most out of Black History Month

Reflection of State Theatre Poetry Residency
February 4-15, 2013 New Brunswick New Jersey

Everywhere I go my heart obviously goes with me, but mine accompanies me as a palpable beacon. After all, I am a highly sensitive person and a poet. Is that a redundant statement? During the last two weeks in New Brunswick mi Corazon flashed signals more than usual. How would you know my heart is signaling? You would only have to ask my twin daughters: Amber and Celeste. They would testify to the copious amount of tears I daily shed and the clutching of my chest, when I witness beauty and also me saying, that speaks to me.

I am not completely sure why my heart was working on overtime during this stint — maybe because of the confluence of these events: My dads birthday on February 10. He passed 10 years ago. My grandmothers death day February 3rd; she died three years ago during the same week along with my spiritual poet mama, Lucille Clifton on February 6, 2013.

Or could it have been the combination of Black History Month and Valentines Day all rolled into to one? The other landmark moment was almost forty years to this past week. This month marks the moment that poetry found and claimed me. I was a nine-year-old girl sitting at a Black History Program presented at Aviano High School in Italy. There a poem performed by a high schooler Yolanda Walker, the coolest black girl that had ever lived. It knocked my poetic socks off.

1,968 Winters By Jackie Earley
Got up this morning
feeling good & black
Thinking black thoughts
Did black things
Played all my black records
And minded my own black bidness
Put on my best black clothes
Walked out my black door
And Lawd have mercy
White Snow!

1,968 Winters with its disarming wit packed a socio-political punch that has stayed with my work and me for forty years. I recited this poem countless time during this State Theatre poetry residency. Yes, I believe it was a confluence of all these moments not one — adding up to one big waterfall — flooding my heart making it ripe and ready to overflow at any moment. This was just the beginning.

I knew that Joyce Kilmer the poet most noted for the poem, “Trees” was from New Brunswick, New Jersey.

TREES by Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Obviously, Kilmer and I both share the love of poetry and trees. When on tour, I tend to seek out the local poets in the area. If they have passed, I like to visit their memorials or their homes preserved in their honor. I found the Joyce Kilmer house and was surprised to see this intersection one block away: Joyce Kilmer and Redmond Street. What a synchronicity.As a poet I am so interested in these metaphorical intersections. I am on the look out for more of how Joyce Kilmer and I merge. I am up for this poetic challenge.

During my residency I visited Correction Facilities too. While working in the prisons, we all sat in a circle of chairs. I conducted one group with the men and one group with the women. The first group with the men, they all sat steely face. When I finished one man raised his hand and said, You made me cry. I know I am slow on the uptake with male behavior. They do not always show their feelings openly. A young black man raised his hand and said, Can I have a copy of the last poem you read, We Swag Before Doorags? Then, they all asked for a copy. I was touched. I am learning never to judge people by their outward expressions all our wells are deep.

You can find this poem in its entirety at: http://www.tidalbasinpress.org I left there and went to the women’s group. We went even deeper. I performed less and read poems about domestic violence and abuse. We ended the group with my poem Scripted Hope.

Scripted Hope
Name every nighttime shadow.
Call them out
From every corner,
every crevice of the past.
Fill yourself with the power
named survival.
Your voice will flower silver
into a circle blooming
of compassionate witnesses
Burning trembling lights.
in the brightness
My voice becomes your voice,
your voice becomes mine.
Together, our voices form
a tight constellation of hope,
a calligraphy written in stars.

We also named our fears and obstacles. So, when I read the line in the poem Name every nighttime shadow. We went around the circle and named them. Here are few of our shadows: abuse, jail, father, depression, sorrow, loss of a loved one etc. Then, I asked them to name their light and their strength, so when I read: Fill yourself with Power. They called out: My mama, my son, and my character, my job. Then, I finished the poem and we closed our circle. One woman wept openly throughout the whole session. They all thanked me for coming and I was grateful for having been in their presence.

My two weeks were full and I am just mentioning only a few of the highlights. One of my highest points of the residency was at the New Brunswick Senior Center. Melanie Ford, a gregarious, intelligent and beautiful woman that directs the center. She opened the Centers door to poetry. We took the New Brunswick Health Sciences and Technology High School seniors and their teachers to meet with the Senior citizens to capture their stories.

I then taught a poetry workshop at the high school on how to treat factual information and turn it into either a persona poem or tribute poem. This would not have been possible without the dynamic support and participation of Dr. Deb Alexander, the principal of the school. She leads by example.

We returned to The New Brunswick Senior Center on Valentines Day; both groups were decked out in their best red and black Valentines attire. Then, the students shared their tribute and persona poems with their Super Senior. The culminating event we took volunteers of those that wanted to share their poems with the greater group. Twenty poems were read. Tears, laughter and hugs abound. The metaphors were powerful and palpable. Watching elders weep as they were honored was sacred moment many tears fell and many kisses and hugs were given. One elder said, “This was the best day of my life”.

February is already a full month and I am only half way through. Yet, I am grateful for the many poetic moments. There are too many wonderful moments to recall here, but at Middlesex County Academy. I will never forget the words of Xander. Who told me when I walked into his classroom: You look pretty today. Mind that he had never seen me before. I can already tell that you are going to be a great performer. He proceeded in giving me the hugest smile and thumbs up during my performance, as if to say great job and keep up the good work.

Bobby, a ten-year-old old soul told me: I am sure your knowledge is appreciated around the world and we appreciate your knowledge here too. I told Arthur Francis, the principal that Bobby should be made the spokesperson for the school.

Emily was one of my favorites. Asian girl hair dyed bleach blond with several facial piercings and a necklace sporting a pentagram. She came up and thanked me for bringing culture to her school. I loved the moment when I asked about tongue twisters during my performance. Then, she and Bobby got into a contest of saying: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood — two unlikelys communicating was a wonderful intersection.

I believe that is what this residency and life is about: unlikely intersections. If we are aware, we make space in our lives for these meeting places to occur more often. We just have to stop and witness them. I loved being at Rutgers University with the women from Africana House. They live in the same dormitory and also have to take a community action class together. I taught a poetry class to them. They were from all over Africa and America. It was a brilliant merging as they wrote about where they were from. When we brainstormed about food we went from Jollof Rice in Africa to barbecue pig feet in the South. Of course we learned a lot about our similarities and the differences. Love and struggle was a common thread between us.

Kendall Hall with the African American Rutgers Alumni Association was responsible for making that event happen at Rutgers University.This work is only possible because of the hard work of Vice- President of Education at the State Theatre, Lian Farrer and Program Manager, Jenn Cunha and a generous grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield Corporation. I did three performances BCBS in Wall, Trenton and Newark. Their diversity counsel makes it possible for to me to perform my work across New Jersey.

I will be returning later in April to conduct writing workshops. It will be a first time occurrence at BCBS of NJ. I believe poetry is everywhere and that everyone is a poet.It is only February 18 and I have now left New Jersey for the sunny state of Florida, but I was indeed made warm by the many connections I made throughout the Garden State. I’ll be back in New Brunswick in April during National Poetry Month and I will be on the look out for many more wonderful poetic intersections. Until then I hope your heart is flashing and that you will look for amazing connections happening in your own world. I have found love all around me and I am blessed to have a heart and a passion that recognizes this beauty.

Yours-n-Verse, Glenis Redmond