“Individuals often turn to poetry, not only to glean strength and perspective from the words of others, but to give birth to their own poetic voices and to hold history accountable for the catastrophes rearranging their lives.” --Aberjhani from Splendid Literarium: A Treasury of Stories, Aphorisms, Poems, and Essays. ©Postered Poetics based on original poetry Spencerian calligraphy art by G.A. Gaskell. #NPM16 #PocketPoem
The launch of National Poetry Month, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, in April 1996, came just three years after the debut issue of the Savannah Literary Journal in 1993. In addition to 49 poems by 35 brilliant writers with regional and national reputations, the 1996 edition of the journal featured six works of fiction and three pieces of creative nonfiction.
My contribution to the journal that year was a personal essay but the title of it, Angels and Shakespeare (later published in I Made My Boy Out of Poetry), revealed the central place verse has always held in my life. So did this epigraph borrowed from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda:
“For this reason Monday burns like
Both National Poetry Month and the publication of the journal (up until 2001) could be considered as invitations to readers, writers, and publishers to explore a more deeply intimate relationship with language. These invitations coaxed them as well to experience the different levels of power words can wield when endowing our lives with either newly-claimed or wholly-unexpected meaning.
The responses, now 20 years down the timeline, have mushroomed into a worldwide cultural mainstay where National Poetry Month (NPM) is concerned. In regard to the Savannah Literary Journal, published by the former Savannah Writers Workshop, it has confirmed the value of one of the city’s most prized artistic legacies.
Of Bloggers and Nobel Laureates
But what should we say of poetry as a whole during the last two decades when life as so many once knew it shape-shifted into a spinning mass of digital signals, globalized communities unbounded by geographic borders, and astounding varieties of terror clashing head-on with determined demands for liberty?
That now populous demographic of humanity known as bloggers did not exist in 1996 and programmer Peter Merholz would not condense the term “weblog” to invent the word “blog” until 1999. Nevertheless, poetically-inclined bloggers during the first and second decades of this 21st century have done a great deal to ensure poetry occupies a prominent position within the global imagination and humanity’s collective ethical consciousness.
Moreover, the ever-mindful Nobel Prize Committee actually saw fit in 1996 to award the Nobel Prize in Literature to Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) "for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality." And in 2011 it bestowed that same honor upon Sweden’s Tomas Tranströmer , "because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality."
A Movement Designed to Inspire
Obviously the Academy of American Poets’ commitment to recognizing, honoring, and documenting literary excellence within the work of American Poets did not begin with the establishment of NPM. That happened back in 1934 when founder Marie Bullock surveyed America’s literary landscape and came to a certain conclusion.
Despite the quietly-evolving cultural canonization at the time of such poets as Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Jean Toomer (1894-1967), Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), and other American quill-masters of the period, it became apparent that more needed to be done to place poetry on some level of esteem comparable to what it stirred in the literary capitals—such as Paris, London, and Dublin––of Europe.
National Poetry Month more than half a century later represented a game-changing upgrade from previous efforts. Since its start, affiliated programs each successive year have helped observations to grow in scope and influence. Initiatives such as Poem in Your Pocket Day (observed this year on April 21), the Dear Poet Project, and Poem-A-Day (via email) contribute immensely to sustaining the sweet joyful howl of poetry in these new millennial times. The key words and hashtags that dominate social media every April––like #npm16, #pocketpoem, #jazzpoetry, #celebratingpoetry, and the tagged names of favorite poets––denote only one small measure of how successful the campaign has become.
It also did not hurt when citizens of the United States elected a lover and writer of poetry, Barack H. Obama, as their first African-American president in 2008. The following is from a 2009 essay written to commemorate both NPM and Jazz Appreciation Month:
…The birth of the Academy meant the birth of a movement designed to inspire, cultivate, and preserve the voice of American poets. And although it likely was not his intention to do so, President Barack Obama extended that movement not only by bearing the “stigma” of being an accomplished wordsmith but by inviting Elizabeth Alexander––an author of several books but of whom many had never heard until Obama spoke her name––to serve as his Inauguration Day poet.
If there is one thing populations of the world have needed, and received, from poetry for the past two decades, it has been inspiration. But not only inspiration in that classic form which reaffirms the value of faith.
Poetry in our post 9/11 era provides the kind of inspiration that defiantly raises poets’ voices against the brutalities of war, the insanities of terrorism, and the indignities of oppression in all its toxic forms. It empowers the simplest of lives to confront the most extreme sorrows with courage, and motivates the mightiest of offices to humbly heed lessons in compassion.
Although the last edition (to date) of the Savannah Literary Journal was published in 2001, its legacy continues to stand as a richly inspiring one. Many of the poets, essayists, fiction writers, and creative nonfiction writers featured in its pages have since gone on to win national and international acclaim in various fields. These are but a few listed in no particular order: Janice Daugharty, Linda Rocheleau, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, David C. Hightower, Susan Johnson, Lily Keber, Ja A. Jahannes (1942 -2015), Errol Miller, Kathleen Thompson, Toussaint St. Negritude, Dufflyn Lammers, Anis Mojgani, and Vaughnette Goode-Walker. Again, these represent only a few.
Most would probably tell you their greatest contributions to the literary arts thus far have not been particular poems or stories or books. They have instead been the relationships cultivated with the hearts and souls who heard what they had to say and then drew from that hearing enough motivation to speak their own truths to power and pain and joy.
Despite the Cacophony
Whether through contributors to literary journals, the sustained dedicated efforts of members of the Academy of American Poets, or bloggers content just to have a platform where they could post lines at will, poetry has maintained a dynamic living breathing presence in the world.
Despite the cacophony of bombs and bullets which so often drown out the music of laughter (or possibly because of them) poetry at this point in history may very well be more commanding than any other previous time. There are many reasons to believe its potency, and its beauty, shall grow even stronger in the future.
© National Poetry Month 2016
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Among the many literary marvels for which the world can be grateful to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison are the numerous interviews she’s given over the years. Her inspiring genius sparkles as brilliantly in conversation as it does in her novels, librettos, children’s books, and lectures. In one such interview conversation, she expressed as her biggest fear that of being stranded somewhere without a book of some substance to keep her company. That makes flawless sense to those of us addicted to books at an early age.
I would not go so far as to call myself an abibliophobe but I am far more comfortable in spaces and places that accommodate books with some degree of delight than in those which ban them from the premises. To avoid such a potentially traumatizing condition, I try to stay as well-supplied with more books than I am likely to read––for pleasure that is––in a month, as a Beverly Hills fashionista remains stocked up on shiny shoes, bags, and credit cards.
El Nino on the Way
So with meteorologists predicting a 2015 - 2016 winter El Niño that could make some of us spend more time indoors than usual, lining up reads for the chilly wet days and evenings ahead is not a bad idea. My own mixed bag of pages includes biography, literary fiction, history, poetry, and social criticism. A couple of the titles I’ve already read once or twice but feel the need to revisit; several have been on the bookshelf for several months and patiently awaiting my attention. They now have it.
The list, which features a comment or two on why I chose a given title, could change over the next month or so. But, for now, you might call those already on it my literati posse for the duration of the 2015-2016 winter El Niño. The numbers are not to imply any kind of ranking but may say something about how my cerebral passions and priorities tend to cross-pollinate:
MY 2015-2016 EL NINO WINTER READING LIST
1. Tiny Windows (poetry) by Duncan McNaughton. One of the founders of San Francisco’s New College of California Poetics Program, McNaughton’s work as an educator and poet has long captivated and empowered many. Tiny Windows is his latest and to me that makes contemporary poetry a lot more interesting than before its publication.
2. Black Prophetic Fire (history and social criticism) by Cornel West and Christa Buschendorf. This book follows the same tradition as the great volume of dialogue between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (as well as those with Baldwin and other profound thinkers). It’s also reminiscent of the excellent Literary Conversations series, but with the dialogue centered by Cornel West’s expansive brilliance it obviously reaches beyond literary concerns.
3. Jean-Paul Sartre: A Life (biography) by Annie Cohen-Solal. I’ve read novels, plays and essay on philosophy by Sartre but this will be my first time reading a full-length comprehensive biography on him. As it happens, Cornel West wrote the foreword for this “Sartre Centennial” edition so that had some influence on my decision to buy this specific title.
4. The State of the World Atlas (globalization reference) by Dan Smith. This is the ninth edition of Smith’s book. He finished it in London in 2012 and it was published in 2013, which means significant changes have already occurred since it the last printing. It makes a good comparative reference though for helping to place current events in a developing historical context.
5. God Help the Child (novel) by Toni Morrison. I actually started reading this before the official publication date earlier this year. Because it is Morrison I chose to save it for a special occasion and El Niño popped up it so here we are.
6. Life of William Blake with Selections from His Poems & Other Writings (biography plus) by Alexander and Anne Gilchrist. This was the first major biography on Blake and is still considered among the best because the Gilchrist husband and wife literary duo met with contemporaries of Blake to complete it.
7. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (philosophy of education & social criticism) by Paulo Freire. This modern classic by a highly-revered author has been recommended to me many times over the years. With the various demographic shifts and cultural migrations currently taking place, now seems like a good time to give it some serious attention.
8. Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling (criminal justice, comics, graphic novel) by Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer with a foreword by Michelle Alexander. There’s no such thing as overstating the crisis of oppressive human rights violations represented by the so-called “high school to prison pipeline” in the United States and its devastating impact upon African-American communities. The modern industrial prison complex is dangerously emblematic of apartheid-like practices. Dismantling it means coming to terms with how it came to be and why it continues to expand.
9. American Poets: The Journal of the Academy of American Poets (Vol. 49). True, this is not an actual book in the literal sense but it just arrived in the mail so feels right to place on the list. A quick peep inside indicates an interesting interview with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, some new poems by Joy Harjo and Yusef Komunyakaa, and notes on some older ones by Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hayden, Sylvia Plath, and W.B. Yeats. There’s a big announcement also from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation regarding their acquisition of Mark Strand’s personal library.
10. Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away edited by Susan Srigley. That title kind of says it all doesn’t it. Reading of course is not the only way to stay pleasurably engaged during cold soggy El Nino days and nights. It is, however, for this author one of the most sweetly enduring and warmly compatible.
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Any attempt to write a biographical essay about someone as multi-talented and prolific as the late Ja A. Jahannes would be incomplete without immersion––or re-immersion––into a comprehensive sample of his works. In Jahannes’ case that would mean listening to diverse genres of music, going through numerous powerful poems, revisiting provocative essays, and revisiting intensely-original memoirs, novels, and plays.
Getting it all done in the short amount of time allotted by deadlines would not be possible but enjoying the challenge would be. In the course of rising to meet that challenge by penning the essay 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together, Celebrating Ja Jahannes, I naturally looked for suitable quotes to include with the essay. Upon finding more than I could use, I was inspired to create the three quotation graphics posted with the article.
From that point, it wasn’t much of a leap to realize that our modern shell-shocked world could possibly benefit tremendously from a collection of quips and witticisms distilled from the glittering torrent of fiction, sermons, librettos, stories, papers, etc., that seemed to flow with such ceaseless determination from Jahannes’ inspired soul. A good title for the collection might be The Wit, Wisdom, and Genius of Ja A. Jahannes. Moreover, if I were a traditional publisher taking on such a project I would push for both an illustrated hardback edition and a primarily text paperback edition.
The Notion of Being Geniuses Together
The first part of the 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together essay contains a short discussion on my allusion to the notion of collective genius. Specifically, I identity the following as a central theme binding the larger body of multi-discipline works by Jahannes:
Being geniuses together (to borrow the phrase from Kay Boyle’s and Robert McAlmon’s classic memoir) makes it possible for human beings to serve as each other’s heroes rather than simply function as each other’s antagonistic nemeses. (from 5 Ways to be Geniuses Together)
I was fortunate enough to experience Jahannes’ application of that concept through a number of shared projects. We first met when he visited a Waldenbooks store I managed in the Savannah Mall (Savannah, Georgia) during the early 1990s. His careful study of the New York Times bestselling titles on the shelves and the sustained attention he gave to the African-American Studies section told me he was someone of rare intellectual sensibilities. I was not offended when he gently waved me away after I offered my assistance but let him know I was there if he should need it.
The Black Writers Project: Something Magical
The first time we actually worked together on a cultural arts project was probably in 1996 when he was one of the authors profiled in the stage production debut of 4 Native Voices. The play was produced by the Savannah Writers Workshop, with which I worked for a decade to help produce literary events and co-edit the Savannah Literary Journal. The next year his long poem “Communion,” dedicated to photographer Roland L. Freeman, was published in the Journal.
In 1998, 4 Native Voices was revived for the first Savannah Literary Festival, coordinated by Miriam K. Center. As part of that same festival, Jahannes joined Word Sculptor Iris Formey Dawson and me as part of a panel discussion on “Southern People of Color Write about the South.” With our more formal introduction via 4 Native Voices and the literary festival behind us, I accepted invitations in 1999 to join him, author Michael Porter, and Formey Dawson at different venues to share our individual brands of poetry with the community. Jahannes named “our little group” The Black Writers Project.
The group might not have been as large or dynamic as the throngs of authors, poets, painters, and musicians who flooded New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, but as black literary artists sharing our works in public spaces we were doing something new. We were helping create what eventually would evolve into the modern spoken word movement.
One of the group’s first assignments was undertaken in March when we joined him at Abyssinia Baptist Church where he served as pastor. For another, we went to the Hitch Village Library and read to a group of excited children. Jahannes knew I had lived in Hitch Village myself until the age of 10 and had often spent time reading and playing in that very same library. He therefore introduced me as one of their own who was now a bookseller and a writer who had returned to them after having lived and written in other parts of the world.
Something magical happened when I passed out copies of a poem called Black Then as I Am Black Now so the children would be able to follow along as I read. I had written it specifically for the occasion to emphasize that being black meant more than the reports about gun violence and drug-busts taking place in their neighborhood and which they saw on the news almost every evening. Halfway through the poem, they picked up on one particular phrase and turned it into a repeating refrain after each remaining stanza:
“…I was black back then
They had added their genius for rhythm to the poem and made it their own. Each time they repeated the lines following my recital of a new stanza I was nearly overcome with emotion. That kind of transference of creative catalyst from one generation to another gave meaning to a way of being geniuses together that Jahannes seemed to appreciate the most. He was, after all, an exceptional educator who made it his mission to not only inform young people but empower them. In this instance, the children had given me as much through their voices as I had hoped to give them through mine.
Further Adventures in Literary Savannah
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.