Posts Tagged ‘poet laureate’

Photo: Robert W Kelley/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Langston Hughes on the front steps of his house in Harlem, June 1958.

Before Suzanne and Erik moved to Providence, they were living in a lovely renovated brownstone in Harlem.

There’s a fine line between newcomers investing where there’s been too much disinvestment — and gentrification. The early changes seem to benefit a neighborhood and its people, but inevitably rising property values push out many longtime residents and institutions.

Today, a group of Harlem artists from various disciplines are banding together to keep a significant piece of the Harlem Renaissance around to nourish African American arts.

Tom Kutsch writes at the Guardian, “All that signifies the legacy of a house once occupied by the poet laureate of Harlem is a small bronze plaque, partially covered by a cedar tree’s branches and the green ivy that envelops much of the building.

“The onetime home of Langston Hughes has sat largely unoccupied for years, but a new movement is trying to reclaim, for a next generation of artists, the space of a man who is forever intertwined with the Harlem Renaissance.

“Spearheaded by writer, performer and educator Renée Watson, the collective effort is busily trying to raise the necessary funds to purchase a lease and make needed renovations to the house. …

“Watson plans to make the Hughes house the home of the I Too, Arts Collective that she launched alongside the effort, which aims to, in her words, have ‘programming that nurtures, amplifies, and honors work by and about people of color and people from other marginalized communities.’ …

“The collective gets its name from one of Hughes’s most famous poems – I, Too – in which his narrator concludes by intoning:

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.

“Watson is using the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to solicit donations for the project, for which they’re hoping to raise at least $150,000 to cover a lease and begin the renovation process. By the time of publication, they had raised more than $54,000, already exceeding the $40,000 Watson says would cover at least a six-month lease. …

“For more than a century, Harlem has been inextricably linked to black life and culture in America; the birthplace of the aforementioned Harlem Renaissance, which fostered a wide array pre-eminent black artists and writers, from Zora Neale Hurston to Claude McKay and Duke Ellington. …

” ‘The erasure of black Harlem may come despite our best efforts …’ said Tracey Baptiste, a local children’s author who is involved with Watson’s collective. ‘But this project is about making sure that gentrification doesn’t also happen in the hearts and minds of our artists.’ ”

More here.

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I was in New Shoreham in the spring, stopping at the bagel place, and Suzanne pointed out that on a patio table there was a little birdhouse where people were encouraged to contribute a poem to a small notebook. I added a haiku and a jingle I wrote decades ago.

Two days later, it hit me. I had participated in Poetry of the Wild, and I had written about it already here.

Rhode Island Monthly had a bit more on the subject.

Poetry Project founder and former RI poet laureate Lisa Starr told reporter Casey Nilsson about the April weekend when Poetry of the Wild was to be launched. “We’re finding ways to expose people to things that they might not be exposed to, to broaden the horizon while working on creative projects.

“One of the English teachers, Nancy Greenaway, started a project, Favorite Poems: Voices from the Village. She finds members of the community who have never come to a Poetry Project — like the guy who runs the deli or the music teacher — and asks them to choose their favorite poem … Nobody knows who they are until the day of the event.”

Starr also describes the new addition to the Poetry Project weekend, Poetry of the Wild: “a public art installation featuring boxes made by members of the community that contain a particular poem. The poems are meant to enhance whatever setting they’re in.

“The tech ed teacher at the Block Island School, Mark Mollicone, and the art teacher, Lisa Robb, [were eager to help.] They worked with the entire seventh and eighth grade class. Each student either made their own box or partnered with somebody. The kindergarten class made their own box and the first graders worked with a local bookshop owner on a box, too.”

The boxes were ultimately placed around the island. And I saw a birdhouse-like box outside the bagel shop.

More here.

Photo: Rhode Island Monthly
Carrying a box for a poem past Harbor Baptist Church, New Shoreham.

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Nancy Greenaway, also known to readers of this blog as the Snowy Owl Poet, just told me about two New England poetry events taking place this spring.

The ninth annual Block Island Poetry Project, featuring Rhode Island Poet Laureate Lisa Starr, will be offering four workshops, starting in April 12 and going to May 13.  Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins will be there there May 12 and 13. I include a photo of Collins from the event website.

The other event is scheduled for a city best known for witches: “The fourth Massachusetts Poetry Festival will be held Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, April 20–22, in historic Salem. The three-day event, which will bring 1,500 poets and poetry lovers to the city, will showcase a variety of extraordinary local and regional poets, and engage the public through poetry readings, interactive workshops, panel discussions, music, film and visual arts, and performances geared toward a diverse statewide audience.” Check the line-up. It looks super.

(I see that my brother’s longtime friend Michael Ansara is on the advisory board!)

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Philip Levine, 83, is a poet laureate for our times. He expresses, as the NY Times puts it, the “gritty voice of the workingman.”

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric …”

Read the Times article.

Levine’s appointment as poet laureate feels timely to me for several reasons.

While income inequality in the country has become increasingly pronounced over the last few decades, public attitudes toward the labor unions that worked to level the playing field have become markedly negative. Are unions really no longer needed? Certainly, there have been abuses of their power: for example, the way some teachers unions have protected bad teachers. And weak government officials in Central Falls (RI), having routinely succumbed to the demands of public safety workers, now find there is no money to pay the promised benefits. This summer Central Falls filed for bankruptcy.

But intensely hostile antilabor actions in Wisconsin, Ohio, and even Maine are like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A balance between workers and other stakeholders seems to make more sense. Workers are still sometimes abused, after all. That’s why I was happy to see unions helping out foreign “cultural exchange” students to protest conditions at a Hersey’s plant in Pennsylvania last week. (I blogged about that here.)

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