Dawn Lundy Martin
Afaa Michael Weaver
Sorry, no pictures. My camera takes lousy pictures in low light. And they had a professional photographer at BU, so I wasn’t about to stand up with my little Kodak.
There had to be at least 250 people at the event! And I like to think that my get-the-out-word efforts helped a little. Here are some highlights from the panel and reading.
(The panel spoke for about 40 minutes, with a Q&A for 20 minutes. I won’t rehash the questions, but instead offer the best lines of the evening.)
The events this week take place as the college remembers Martin Luther King Jr., who did his graduate work in divinity at BU, and as the country remembers his “Mountaintop” speech.
Elizabeth Alexander invoked the words of Langston Hughes with the following quote to answer the question, “What are the criteria for being an African American poet?”
“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
“Standing on the mountain seemed appropriate given the King remembrances.” Elizabeth also is a graduate of BU, and was an MLK Jr. Scholarship recipient.
Cornelius Eady: “The poet should have a consciousness about the world we live in. It’s what we allow others to know about ourselves to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable."
Quincy Troupe: “I’ve never seen myself as an other. It’s important to believe in the “
‘this’ and the ‘that,’ not just one or the other.”
Yuesf Komunyakaa: “I define poetry as confrontation and celebration.”
Yusef says that there has always been this definition of what it means to be African American, but not by African Americans. Robert Hayden may have been the first to re-examine of the definition. I interpret that as Hayden being an African American who writes poetry, but wrote in a style that was more universal.
Major Jackson: “History will mark this place in time, and gage how successful this culture is based on the art and literature of our time. But groups like Cave Canem are not new. There have always been collectives and writing groups along the way.”
Yusef: “There isn’t any topic that is taboo, but it has to have a system of aesthetics—love, beauty, truth. Poetry is a distilled meditation.”
And my favorites quote of the night. Again, from Yusef:
The poet has to find his way to truth. He/she has to ask, “What am I willing to risk dreaming?” He goes on to say that, “A certain kind of blossoming or freedom must take shape. Where does this attempt at consciousness take place?”
As for the reading, hearing Cornelius read his poem “Gratitude” was perfect. And if you’ve never heard Sonya Sanchez LIVE, you must seek her out because she’s electric. Elizabeth read her Muhammad Ali poem (it’s a poem in 12 sections or “rounds”). And after the shooting at Va. Tech, it did my heart good to hear Nikki Giovanni read. But it really wasn’t about one poet over another. There was a genuine sense of unity and purpose to this special night.
Lastly, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, which is where last night's event took place, has the papers and writings of MLK Jr., but also Afaa M. Weaver, Sonya Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni, among others. The writers’ exhibit was on display in the back of the room, so it was thrilling to see the works of these living treasures, AND then hear them read aloud!