Monthly Archives: December 2009

Advice from Mark Bibbins

Ask questions. Don’t ask too many questions (i.e., don’t be a pest, lest someone smother you with squeak-grease). Read things you like. Read things you don’t like. Then read more things you like. Go find Kenneth Koch’s poem “The Art of Poetry,” which is full of better advice than I usually have, and read that. Appear to be patient, even if you’re not.

Mark Bibbins was born in 1968 in Albany, New York, received his MFA from The New School, and has lived in New York City since 1991. A founding editor of the journal LIT,he has taught at SUNY-Purchase, and now teaches in The New School’s MFA program. Individual poems have appeared in Boston Review, Colorado Review, The Paris Review, Poetry, The Yale Review and elsewhere, including the anthologies T he Best American Poetry 2004 andGreat American Prose Poems.Bibbins received a Lambda Literary Award for his collection of poems Sky Lounge (Graywolf, 2003), and was awarded a 2005 Poetry Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His most recent poetry collection The Dance of No Hard Feelings (Copper Canyon Press) came out this year.

from “When It Was Always Dark” by Mark Bibbins

Even porch lights that made gold of the grass
are lost,
and those birds that stitched across the moon—
not birds, something else.

No, do not think angels.

Fireflies, hands over flashlights—who wants them now?
And what could shine its way again,
so easily, through these fingers?

Go to the Cortland Review to read the rest of this great poem.


Interview: John Keene on Melvin Dixon’s Life & Work

Aside from being kind enough to answer these questions for me in the middle of the MLA conference, John Keene is an established writer in his own right & I was thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss Melvin Dixon’s work with him.

John Keene

For readers who may be unfamiliar with his work, could you give a brief introduction to Melvin Dixon?

Melvin Dixon (1950-1992), a poet, fiction writer, scholar, and translator of Francophone literature, was also one of the first out black gay male writers to gain wider public recognition in the period following the Gay Liberation struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was beautiful, brilliant, cosmopolitan, and fierce, in the truest senses of all these words. He encouraged younger queer and non-queer writers of all colors.  In his life and work, Melvin represents and offers an important, sometimes overlooked model for social and political engagement; through one’s creative work one can also help to achieve liberation, promote black and LGBTQ cultures, and create the mechanisms and structures which will enable our survival, resistance and successes.  He unfortunately passed away far too young, from AIDS-related illnesses.

You seem to have a strong connection to Melvin & his contribution to the arts. When did you first encounter his work?

Melvin Dixon

Melvin was also a noted translator of Léopold Senghor. Can you talk about the importance and possibilities of poetry translation?

Translation is extremely important; it is the one of the main means by which we come to learn about cultures other than our own, about other traditions, stories, and ways of living in the world. Literary translation is somewhat devalued, especially here in the US, where for various reasons we sometimes assume a very centripetal, isolationist attitude towards the rest of the world; unless it comes from here or is written in English it is of little interest. Per capita, I think the figures suggest, the US translates far less foreign literature than any other industrialized country, and it doesn’t help that although we have one of the largest Spanish-speaking populations in the Americas, most Americans cannot speak nor read this second language, even at a rudimentary level. Almost every important writer you can think of, including most of the writers from our literary traditions, has learned from writers producing work in other languages and traditions. Translation is especially important for black, LGBTQ and black and other LGBTQ writers of color, and our writing, because the fact is, unless we translate each other, there’s no guarantee that others might. I would just add that publishers still have a commercial incentive for translating fiction and nonfiction, both of which still do sell, sometimes very well, but as poetry usually earns little money for publishers, it really represents a labor of love. But we must do it if we can.

Aside from the fact that he was simply a brilliant writer in several genres, why do you think it’s important that we remember Melvin & continue to read his work?

Melvin is an important figure in our (black/LGBTQ) literary history. He emerged at a time when out black LGBTQ writers and writing were still relatively rare but beginning to come into our own. Only a few years before his death, in the mid-to-late 1980s, there was a Black Gay Literary Renaissance, especially in poetry, and his work was central to this.  He was a pioneer in juggling the multiple roles of creative writer, scholar, teacher, and translator, now not so unusual, though it once was. He was in conversation with many traditions, and conveyed them in his work. He is one of the major black gay writers felled by HIV/AIDS, and for that reason we must remember him and others  from his literary moment who suffered a similar fate, as they were wiped out before their time and risk being forgotten.  Lastly, in terms of aesthetic excellence and prodigiousness, his work offers an aesthetic model for new and emerging writers. I can only imagine what he might have produced were he still with us, and feel the same way about Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs, Craig Harris, Donald Woods, Roy Gonsalves, Assotto Saint, and so many more.

Who are some contemporary writers you consider to be Melvin’s literary descendants?

There are quite a few and I would worry about leaving anyone out.  His descendents would include fiction writers, poets, scholars, critics, and generally fierce people working in other genres and fields as well. Among the better-known writers who might be listed among his heirs is Elizabeth Alexander, who has invoked him more than once in her work, and who balances the roles of poet and scholar. She isn’t LGBT, but her work carries his richness of spirit, his cosmopolitanism, his precision of imagery and music, and his engagement with the world beyond our borders. In terms of black queer men balancing the creartive and critical, I’d mention Thomas Glave, E. Patrick Johnson, Randall Kenan, and Carl Phillips, but I feel like I could rattle off a host of other names. Truly though, Melvin’s heirs are numerous, of all genders, sexual orientations….

Finally, this blog features a list of suggested readings for emerging queer writers of color. Could you suggest some books to add to the list?

Reinaldo Arenas, The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando; Dionne Brand, In Another Place, Not Here; Tisa Bryant, Unexplained Presence; Cyrus Cassells, The Mud Actor; Michelle Cliff, No Telephone to Heaven; Samuel R. Delany, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue; and Atlantis: Model 1924; Renee Gladman, The Activist; Reginald Harris, Twelve Tongues; Sterling Houston, Le Griffon: A Tale of Supernatural Love; Joseph Legaspi, Imago; Robert F. Reid-Pharr, GBM; Silviano Santiago, Stella Manhattan; Severo Sarduy, From Cuba With a Song; and Chea Villanueva, China Girls. And anything that you realize approaches what you consider to be aesthetic excellence.

Reading My Way into 2010

I was so busy this past semester with my thesis & other academic concerns that I didn’t get to read as much as I would like. Heading in 2010, my goal has been to buy several books a week. Here are some of the books that I’m reading or planning to read as I Naomi Campbell walk my way into the new year.

The Fire This Time – Randall Kenan

Walking on Water – Randall Kenan

Book of Salt – Monique Truong

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (re-reading)

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin (re-reading)

Portrait of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

Willful Creatures – Aimee Bender

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness & the Literary Imagination – Toni Morrison(re-reading)

Paradise – Toni Morrison

The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House

Best Online Essays of 2009

Don’t you just love reading a good essay now & again? Well, I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight some great essays I came across this year. They discuss everything from the writer’s life to racism in the LGBT community to Jimmy Carter’s thoughts on faith & equality.

“Annie Dillard & the Writing Life” by Alexander Chee

In my clearest memory of her, it’s spring, and she is walking towards me, smiling, her lipstick looking neatly cut around her smile. I never ask her why she’s smiling—for all I know, she’s laughing at me as I stand smoking in front of the building where we’ll have class. She’s Annie Dillard, and I am her writing student, a 21-year-old cliché—black clothes, deliberately mussed hair, cigarettes, dark but poppy music on my Walkman. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m funny. She walks to class because she lives a few blocks from our classroom building in a beautiful house with her husband and her daughter, and each time I pass it on campus, I feel, like a pulse through the air, the idea of her there. Years later, when she no longer lives there, and I am teaching there, I feel the lack of it.

“It’s Not You, It’s Your Color” by Terrance Dean

Well, in a modern twist on an old paradigm, peruse any social gay dating website and one will turn up loaded “preferential” or discriminatory profiles from black men stating “no white men,” and white men in similar fashion stating “no black men.”

It seems like the good ol’ boys of yesteryear — those of all types who don’t take too kindly to interracial mixing — are gay too. And, it’s no secret. Silently, the community has allowed it to happen, and has just come to accept it. The proof is in the various occasions where you will not find black and white gay men marching defiantly together for LGBT rights — simply check any local gay pride event, marriage equality rally, or any gathering tied to a hot-button issue. And rarely do we see black and white couples showing public displays of affection while taking a stroll together.

“Does This Purple Mink Make Me Look Gay” by Jonah Weiner

No homo‘s appearance in hip-hop coincided with the rise of the so-called “down-low brother,” a closeted black figure often demonized as a disease-spreading boogeyman, invisible by definition and thus potentially, frightfully, everywhere. Saying “no homo” might have started as a way for rappers to acknowledge and distance themselves from the down-low phenomenon. As the phrase has spread, many have decried no homo as depressingly retrograde, a pigheaded “That’s what she said” for homophobes. But the term functions in a more complicated way than a simple slur. As society becomes increasingly gay-tolerant, hip-hop is reassessing its relationship to homosexuality and, albeit in a hedged and roundabout way, it’s possible that no homo is helping to make hip-hop a gayer place.

“A Sequined Glove That Mesmerized the World” by Guy Trebay

There is no way to know what was on Michael Jackson’s mind as he journeyed from boy to man and partway back, from a brown-skinned man to one so pale he required an umbrella when he went out in the sun, and from a pop star with a quirky but defined masculinity to one who seemed most comfortable in a more nebulous zone. What seems clear is that all of it was considered. All of it was intentional.

“Losing My Religion for Equality” by Jimmy Carter

I have been a practising Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Elizabeth Alexander on Melvin Dixon & Gay Black Poetry

Lately, I’ve been reading Love’s Instruments Melvin Dixon’s posthumous collection of poems which open with a powerful introduction from Elizabeth Alexander. Reading what she says breaks my heart & reminds me why I write.

“AIDS has, of course, defined and devastated our times, and the ranks of artists and people of color have been particularly decimated. When literary historians try to write the story of gay black poetry in the late twentieth century, it will be a history swathed with absence. There are the absent whose books are left behind as well as those whose works only remain in anthologies, or perhaps in notebooks hidden from the rest of the world. And there are those who fell silent as they devoted their physical and psychic energies to struggling with disease. But as the background of a painting shapes its composition, absence can also be understood as presence. We can see and hear and read absence as a presence that profoundly marks the cultural history of our times.

Melvin was my friend and mentor for many years; I would characterize him as most essentially possessing fierce elegance, the fiercest, not a decorative elegance but rather a distilled and streamlined way of being and presenting. Or, in the vernacular, Melvin was fierce.”

Elizabeth Alexander, 1995

In Praise of The Kwansaba

photograph by Jonah Willner

1. For the last month or so, I’ve been teaching an after-school writing workshop at a charter school here in Newark and it has been an absolute pleasure. Working with these students, all of them young women of color, has reminded me why poetry and arts education are crucial to the success of our youth. This post will focus on a recent assignment to workshop took on: the KWANSABA.

2. The Kwansaba is a genuinely African-American poetry form. Created during the peak of the Black Arts Movement, in coordination with the creation of Kwanzaa itself, a kwansaba is praise poem that is seven lines long with seven words in each line with no word longer than seven letters. Given the significance of the number seven to Kwanzaa, the celebration’s meaning is literally built into the poem.

3. The Kwansaba is usually the first form I introduce to my students. Typically, formal poetry is taught as if the European writing tradition is the only one civilized enough to have created valuable and lasting forms, as if there aren’t countless Latin, African, and Asian forms that are equally important and useful. (Most teachers like to throw in a cursory explanation of the haiku as a fun little excursion into the poetry of “Asia”.) My students will learn about the sonnet from me (How could they not?) but for now, I want them to enjoy writing in a form that comes from their own heritage. This is not because I believe black poetry is for black people but because it’s crucial that we remind our young people that literature and literacy are not inherently WHITE.

4. Another reason the kwansaba is a great form to teach young people, high school and middle students especially, is that it’s a poem of praise. Young writers are often only moved to write about their own extreme sadness, love, or anger. These emotions are valid and should be recognized, but they are not the only emotions out of which poems can spring. Challenging students to write a kwansaba requires them to shine a light on their own lives, to meditate on gratitude for a least seven well-crafted lines. Working with students in a city like Newark, I’ve noticed that they could use some optimism. These students are incredibly intelligent, but also a bit cynical. They have seen loved ones go to the jail, die in the streets, so forth and so on. Sometimes writing a kwansaba can help remind them that, even in the midst of hardship, there are joys worth praising and preserving on the page.

5. As far as form goes, the kwansaba is great for beginnings. No need to count syllables or stress over meter. It’s all about the number seven. Seven lines. Seven words. No more than seven letters. The form’s accessibility keeps students from panicking (I dare you to ask a 14 year old to write a villanelle.) but also challenges them. My students found the seven letter requirement to be pretty tricky. One girl pulled out her vocabulary card and started making lists of words no longer than seven letters. That’s a wonderful & useful challenge.

6. Finally, kwansabas like all forms, are great because they force young writers to slow down. My students often think that if they can’t complete the poem in less than five minutes, the poem is never going to happen. By its nature, however, the kwansaba forced the students to work on their poems for the entire week (gasp!) and to meditate on the importance of words down to the very letter.

7. Finally, here’s the kwansaba I have written in honor of the workshop students at Northstar Academy in Newark, New Jersey.

To Polaris

Not even day can outshine you, star.

Lost in skyward gaze, I see you

and think of wayward ships. Your light,

our guide home, away from world’s edge

again and again, but aren’t you tired?

Explain your faith in us. Tell us

what you see in our dark voyages.

Books That Rocked Me in 2009

Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind by Chavisa Woods

Freedom in This Village edited by E. Lynn Harris

Jezebel by Leslie Hazelton

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Quiver by Susan Somers-Willett

Body Betrayer by Beckian Fritz Goldberg

Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Some of Us Did Not Die by June Jordan

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan

Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting by Anna Journey

Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio

Orpheus in the Bronx by Reginald Shepherd

What the Right Hand Knows by Tom Healy