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Journal, Day Two

By Major Jackson

It was no less a revolution blistering with historic urgency, 10 years ago in June, when poets and teachers Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady auspiciously convened the first weeklong gathering of black poets on the Hudson River in Esopus, New York, one week prior to Father’s Day. Poets of varying ages of African descent came from Colorado, Washington D.C., South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Chicago, California, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, and Austin, Texas.

They came with no poems in hand, because one of the demands of the gathering was to write a poem each day. After having printed and disbursed copies of poems in the morning, those poems were rigorously critiqued and workshopped by Cornelius and Toi. Simple enough. Poets Elizabeth Alexander and Afaa Michael Weaver served as guest faculty that summer, testifying and sharing their own journeys as black writers of poetry, their roads from pain and joy to art and language to grace and affirmation. Since that important first summer, a literal Who’s Who of African American poetry have joined this important American literary enterprise: Cyrus Cassells, Rita Dove, Kwame Dawes, Nikky Finney, Michael Harper, Erica Hunt, Yusef Komunyakaa, Harryette Mullen, Marilyn Nelson, Sonia Sanchez, Tim Seibles, Patricia Smith, and Al Young.

Since 1996, in addition to its annual summer workshop, the vision of the organization has grown to include regional workshops, a poetry book prize, a legacy conversations, and annual anthologies of past participants work. And they named all of this institutional building and literary work: Cave Canem (pronounced kah-Vay-ka-Nem), Latin for Beware the Dog. (www.cavecanempoets.org)

Last month, over the course of three days, in NYC, 10 year’s worth of Cave Canem workshop participants, faculty, and extended family of friends, board members, and well-wishers congregated in celebration by attending a series of festivities, public readings, panel discussions, and communal talks. For anyone who cares about poetry, who has a modicum of historical awareness of the social and political struggles of black folk in America and the acute significance of Cave Canem’s work of affirming and crafting intelligent black poets with a passion for language and a vision of the spirit, it was difficult not to be moved by the high jubilant feelings permeating and arresting each event. I’ll not add to the storehouse of testimonials that have since emerged in Blogville, but point you to poets Tara Betts and Cherryl Floyd-Miller’s sharp and comprehensive summaries, pictures, and play-by-play of that festive occasion.

Last night, an assembly of poets living and working in New England (Venise Battle, Colin Enriquez, Kate Rushin, Nehessaiu De Gannes, and Afaa Michael Weaver) extended the celebration of Cave Canem, Inc. and its accomplishments with a reading at the Blacksmith Poetry Reading Series in Cambridge. The poetry reading exhibited the high level of regard and engagement with language, history, and cultural meaning one comes to expect at a Cave Canem event: Venise read a sharp poem, envisioning Jesus and Mary Magdalene as two young black lovers in modern day Minneapolis; Colin adroitly swirled a song of black male bravado, diminished opportunities, and urban pathos in a praise poem to malt liquor; Nehessaiu made art-song of a congregation of familial voices in her Trinidadian cadenced lilts and lifts; Kate Rushin, in a swelling anaphoristic poem of great music, urged the audience to imagine the beleaguered and tragic life of poet Phillis Wheatley; and finally Afaa summoned the energies of Ifa deities Shango, Oya, and Oshun in poems piercingly informed and surging.

Although other forces were at play 10 years ago, Cornelius and Toi have helped to radically change the landscape of American poetry. Anyone in the know will tell you as much. How tempting it is to roll call the number of important black poets writing today! And to urge you to imagine your artist colonies, literary journals, anthologies, and creative writing programs without their presence.

But, so much more can be done; you know it and I do. The country club mentality still holds sway. Just think of all the books of poetry by black folk and other non-white Americans that do not get reviewed in the Sunday New York Times. Yes, a few high profile poets make the A-list, but the vast majority are still ignored.

Moreover, the attitude of indifference to and lack of serious attention in the mainstream to poetry written by Arab-, Asian-, African-, Latina-, and Native American writers is one that causes serious alarm. Ghettoizing lesson plans or syllabi is not the answer either, but envisioning the extraordinary attributes of people who give our communities, playgrounds, and Wal-Mart aisles, as well as the founding principles of this country, its largeness of meaning and import demands that we create opportunities to exalt and begin to create a wider literature and bookshelf that values and is reflective of such glorious plurality.

Such institutional building and communal support that is Cave Canem, Inc. is what a poet like Phillis Wheatley deserved when she stood before the country’s founding fathers to testify to the authenticity of her poetry, across the river from where I write in Boston, or to steel her against the criticism she received from Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phillis Wheatley, but it could not produce a poet.” But, as June Jordan tells us, she was the first. The tenor and continuum of denial of Wheatley’s genius and humanity, and poet’s who share her ancestral gifts and responsibilities is what spawned Toi and Cornelius to found Cave Canem, Inc. 225 years later. I congratulate them, then, and I do so now, with a nod to all of the people who have supported Cave Canem, Inc. over the past 10 years.

Dopest Rhyme of the Day

Artist: De La Soul
Album: AOI * Bionix
Song: “Trying People”


I cry a lot but admit to it;
Enjoying life now but I’ve been through it.

Sometimes I wish that I can go back.
No bills, no kids, just getting tore back.

I want a wife; I love women.
How could I front like I don’t be in love with them?

A li’l man that I can teach.
A li’l sand but not the beach.

I figure excess’ll only bring an excessive amount of fussing.
So when I’m gone, make sure the head stone reads, “He did it for us.”

I’m like your modern day Jesus.
I cherish warm thoughts like a gray goose.

And float soft kisses to my baby. (Yo, aint that Dave’s little girl?) Yeah, respect her for that. She gon be somebody,

Instead of somebody-baby-mama.
You see, young minds are now made of armor.

I’m tryin to pop a hole in your Yankee cap.
Absorb me.

The skies over your head aint safe no more, And Hip Hop aint your own.


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, November 14th, 2006 by Major Jackson.