Michael Broder for Word for Word Poetry, August 4, 2015
Featuring Cave Canem
On Tuesday, August 4, the Bryant Park Reading Room presented a reading in partnership with Cave Canem, an organization founded in 1996 by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady to support the creative and professional growth of African American poets. Cave Canem is perhaps best known for its fellowship program. Each year, some 20 poets 15-25 Cave Canem Fellows attend the annual Cave Canem Retreat at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Most Caven Canem Fellows attend three such retreats in total, after which they become Graduate Fellows.
Reading this evening were Angel Nafis, JP Howard, and Brian Gilmore.
Much of Nafis’s work ponders questions of life, love, pain, and death. She read “Ode to Voicemail,” a new poem written this summer at the Cave Canem retreat. Voicemail is a mixed bag. It pulls us out of our daily life with messages from debt collectors and diagnostic laboratories. On the other hand, it also brings you the voice of your father. “Even the messages I don’t want tell me who I am,” the speaker says.
The poem “Open,” from her book BlackGirl Mansion, is in the voice of Celie from The Color Purple.
I tell her ‘bout my cramps,
how it hurt so much I think
there should be ash where
my womanhood be.
Nafis’s poem “Legend” wonders what it will be like to experience the death of her beloved father. “I curse and lift up every clock,” the speaker says, dreading the time when her father is gone. “Black Girl Plays the Dozens with Dr. Seuss” is a meditation on how young black women perceive themselves, and are perceived by others, for better and worse, and on the existential tension between black girls and the white world they grow up in, or against, or outside of.
JP Howard, a native New Yorker, is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow. Her first book of poems, SAY/MIRROR, was published by The Operating System Press in 2015. She curates the Women Writers in Bloom Salon Series, a supportive forum for women writers. Howard is a Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA)/Voices Writers Workshop alumna, as well as a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow, among other honors and awards.
Howard’s debut collection places history in conversation with memory and juxtaposes vintage photographs of her mother, Ruth King (a prominent African-American runway model in 1940s and 1950s Harlem) with snapshots from the poet’s childhood. The book thus explores the social and cultural meanings of motherhood and daughterhood, girlhood and womanhood, and meditates on questions of beauty, beauty standards, and black feminine beauty in a predominantly white society and culture.
Other poems focused on the plight of young black men struggling to survive in the white dominant authoritarian culture that surrounds them. The poem “Chant” invokes the bodies and spirits of young black men who have died in officer involved shootings as well as a celebration of young black men who survive the culture of authoritarian violence and surveillance that targets them. “Remember their names, repeat their names, repeat after me,” the speaker intones.
Likewise, the poem “We Beautiful Black Boys” takes inspiration from the classic “We Be Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, exploring the trials and tribulations imposed on young black men by the white majority surveillance state—being endless, disproportionately, and irrationally carded, stopped, frisked, etc., by police and other authorities.
Gilmore read his poem “billy bathgate (for chico),” inspired by the award-winning E.L. Doctorow novel about a fifteen-year-old Irish-American boy who becomes the protégé of mobster Dutch Schultz. The poem is the source of the book’s title, as the speaker recounts:
we couldn’t juggle balls
didn’t know any gangsters,
all we had was ice cold michelob
and red juicy melon
holy like water.
The poem paints a haunting picture of misbegotten American male youth, with all of its innocence, possibilities, promises, struggles, and disappointments. What will become of that innocence and promise when they are challenged by the harsh realities of adult life, the poem seems to ask.
Gilmore returns again and again to this harsh urban landscape and the toll it takes on young manhood, particularly among young men of color. In poems like “King of New York” (“He was shot in the chest in the middle of the day, close range”); “2001: A Space Odyssey” (“I want to go away to college, I tell my parents”); “Jaws” (“As we cruise through the campus, their isn’t a black face in sight”); and “’Round Midnight” (“My mother and father have been gone for hours”) and others, we return again and again to versions of the poet himself, born into straightened circumstances, eager to break out, yearning to be more than what the dominant culture expects him to be, wants him to be, will allow him to be: yearning to fulfill his true potential.
Michael Broder is the author of This Life Now (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), a finalist for the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. His poems have a appeared in American Poetry Review, Assaracus, BLOOM, Columbia Poetry Review, Court Green, OCHO, and other journals and anthologies. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband, the poet Jason Schneiderman, and a backyard colony of feral cats.