Here’s me entering an MFA program in 2008 because I thought I wanted to write fiction. Here’s me emerging in 2010 fully committed to poetry. We don’t always know who we are; the trick to finding out is to put one foot in front of the other, to travel along the road to discovery.
Here’s a photo of my mother as a young woman enjoying a night out with girlfriends, cocktails and dinner, at a place called the Loendi Club in Pittsburgh’s historic Hill District.
Harlem Renaissance poet, Claude McKay, dubbed The Hill, “Crossroads to the World,” because it was home to Billy Eckstein, Earl Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey and Joe Harris, to name a few greats and including entrepreneur, Gus Greenlee, owner of the Old Negro Baseball League Team, The Pittsburgh Crawfords.
Here’s me submitting a manuscript titled Good Dirty Down to The National Poetry Series 2017 Competition. On Wednesday, September 13, 2017, I received an email announcing winners and informing me that from 1,500 manuscripts, my collection Good Dirty Down was chosen as a finalist. The email concludes, “Many congratulations again on an extraordinary manuscript.”
So I’m thinking, what made me a finalist and not a winner. These thoughts prompted me to rethink, revise and refashion the collection. During the extensive reconstruction, I realized that, among other things, the title was wrong. It did not capture the essence of what I wanted the poems to reveal.
My mother began speaking. She was aggressive and gentle; she pushed and soothed until finally the magic clicked. I thought about that haunting photo of her, my Christian, upstanding community member mother (the mother I knew) sitting in an after hours club with friends, relaxed and enjoying food and cocktails. I think by studying the photo, my mother gave me permission to dig deeper, to dismiss the obvious, to linger long (a phrase my friends and I used to say during heated Bid Whist parties at my house back in the day) on the blurred and uncertain in order to make sense of the seemingly senseless, thereby discovering or rediscovering the valuable.
Here’s me realizing that the poem I’d written about my mother needed to take a front row seat, if not in placement, then certainly as the needle and thread that would anchor the collection. After reworking and improving her poem, everything else fell into place.
I wrote an earlier post about a collection I’m writing called The Book of Spells. In my mind, The Book of Spells was supposed to be my next published book. But, we don’t always know what we are doing; the trick to finding out is to put one foot in front of the other, to trust the process, to travel along the road to discovery.
Daughter Mouth Blues (formerly Good Dirty Down) will be published by Blacksmith & Bones Press, available here.
I think Daughter Mouth Blues articulates signs and symbols of our time, including magic; the differences between prophecy and divination; the change from ancestral analysis to sculpted concealment; and the ramifications of profit or passage.
Daughter Mouth Blues reveals necessary work at the crossroads, the “sudden transformation, sudden certainty, sudden articulation, long legged talking finally foaming from [our] daughter mouth blues.”
The idea of “still life,” (the representation of inanimate objects, such as fruit, in paintings or photography) intrigues me. One day, I set out arranging and rearranging items in pleasing manners to take photographs. Maybe for quilt ideas, or if the images came out real good, to frame and hang on my walls. The image I liked best is this one: my shoes, hat, guitars, quilt, water, glass, magic leaves.
If you are a fledging musician, like me, and your timing is cockeyed, and you can't get your fingers to move fluently over the guitar strings, from one chord to the next, my advice is to study Tupac (Gangsta Party and California Love; both music and video) and Muddy Waters (Champagne and Reefer, and Too Young To Know. Search youtube for old footage of Muddy.)
Both of these artists radiate music through voice, timing, and percussion. In Gangsta Party, there is no slide in, no pause: "Picture perfect," before we realize the verse has even begun. In Too Young to Know, Muddy sings/narrates, but the conversation is between young girls and the more mature women who knows very well. Both are lightening and thunder. Spontaneity, exaggeration and craft. I honor them. They are more than inspiration, they motivate me to add my voice to the conversation.
So, the mind as mixture, seemingly askew, but not, simply bubbling excitement, and these artists, with our shared origins, led me to go back further, to research other artists and was there such a thing as homemade stringed instruments. This is a sampling of what I found.
Stunning beauty and creativity all around the African continent and the Diaspora. The images are excitement and contagious. The artists have the nerve to create, are in possession of the artists' way. Create, no matter what. So I thought, what if? The following is Blue Belle, my homemade cigar box guitar.
I’m writing a book on my experiences using Tarot, and want to dispel the notion of negativity as relates to magic, spellwork, and divination. What is the etymology of the word “spell,” what does the word really mean and what are its origins. From the American Heritage College Dictionary:
My next burgeoning project began as songs, just me playing around with lyrics and guitar chords. One of the songs that emerged, White Night Falling, seemed a strong contender for the main voice of something. I just didn’t know what.
Artists, you know that in these times of seemingly jumbled information, the thing to do is wait, listen to day and night dreams, believe and ask the question, what if?
So I thought--
What if the project was poems and music?
I’m writing, I’m writing.
What if the project expanded to include other written forms?
I’m writing, I’m writing.
What if the title and book cover had to do with trance states, magic words, the awesome-ness of still lives, those inanimate objects that portray the power of seemingly motionless form?
I’m writing, I’m writing.
What of heterodoxy, the challenge of taking the least walked or new path?
I’m writing, I’m writing.
What if you include a cd of musical forms and selected poems?
I’m writing, I’m writing.
The project birthed itself as The Book of Spells, became a bubbling cauldron, a mixture of picture perfect swerving heterodoxy, something like Tupac and Muddy Waters making low down music on angel harps. Make. Do. Become. “Lick candle wicks. Wish. Work spells. Pounce.”
This collection is continuing to move through my need to tell it what to do. The collection is teaching me to shut up and let it tell me. It's in it's eighth iteration. Here's me learning patience.
Steps one through five on one version of creativity:
The following shows how Steps 1 -5 can be translate into actual production:
1. Initial inspiration.
One day I searched goodreads.com for something to read and found a book titled All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, The Feminist Press, 1982.
2. My feeble attempt to create something.
The title, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, inspired me to write a poem about how I think black women are, and are not, seen in the media, particularly television and movies. It was an OK poem.
3. The actual inspiration.
One day, as I was looking for an image online, instead of the image I was searching for, the ancestors gave me the following image:
The image shows a little girl. She is no older than 10. She and the other children are slaves. While the mothers of the babies are working the field, the older child watches the children. She is the babysitter.
4. Listening ears
A tiny, soft voice began talking to me. She spoke in a tiny, soft voice, but as a rebel, with clear, concise, emotionless directions. She woke me up. I reached for my notebook just in time to catch her initial thoughts: "Of all the dandelions, it’s me, I am the most beautiful.”
5. Free-flow writing
I said, “Yes Berthenia. You are the most beautiful. I sat at the computer. She continued to speak and I transcribed her words. She even sent me back to retrieve the initial OK poem I had written inspired by the book title, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave.
It was an easy fix. Berthenia showed me my mistakes, and how to re-imagine the poem so that it could take its rightful place in her story.
The name, Berthenia Belle, entered the session in the midst of Berthenia's narration.
Berthenia is an artist: songwriter, musician, craftswoman. She gave me the lyrics to one of her songs, and she created her own Diddley Bow.
Back in 2016, I was beginning to teach myself how to play guitar because some of my poems wanted to be songs. In researching early musicians, especially Blues musicians, I wondered what they played before the guitar, as we know the guitar today. One of the instruments they played was the Diddley Bow.
The following pictures show my Diddley Bow. It is nailed to a door frame in my kitchen. The door frame surrounds my Ilé `Ọrun (my family ancestor shrine or altar).
As was the custom, Berthenia's Diddley Bow is nailed to the front porch post of the cabin where she lived with the babies.
Berthenia Belle, the most beautiful flower. Thank you for your life, your power, your struggle, your creativity.
I thank God for Berthenia Belle, this brave child, this wondrous woman baby girl.
Some of the ancestors are children.
Berthenia Belle spoke her story to me as one long, book length poem.
Find Berthenia Belle, a poem, here.
This is how we listen. This is how we create.
Read more about the Diddley Bow
Hear Mr. One String Sam, below singing My Baby Don't
Mr. Moses Williams playing Diddley Bow, 1984
Photo Credit: Graham, Andrea, Collector. Moses Williams playing the diddley bow - Orlando, Florida. 1984. Color slide. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 28 Jun. 2017.<https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/121981>.
Children Creating Music on Didley Bow
Cuyahoga Valley National Park, located in Ohio, invites teaching artists to develop arts activities that connect with the Park Association's interdisciplinary environmental education curriculum. Artists live in a cottage in the forest for 6-8 weeks and besides teaching, have time to work on personal art projects. In 2001, I accepted the invitation and enjoyed the end of summer, fall and the beginning of winter.
The children and I created a narrative, mural quilt depicting Ohio environments from the early 1800’s through present time; we wrote theater pieces that documented Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and created structures in the forest using only material that had fallen to the forest floor. To see more, click images below.
While I was there, the environment inspired me to create a quilt titled "Cuyahoga Forest Spirit." The surface design was created using a technique I call abstract positioning. It is the same technique used in Bebop in the Small of Her Back.
Other techniques include machine quilting, machine embroidery, beadwork, and stamping. Materials include cotton and synthetic fabrics, found objects, wood, paint, glitter, beads, sequins, and threads.
The stick included at the top of the quilt was waiting for me one morning on the steps when I went outside to drink my coffee. A gift.
Our Name Is Memory is a reissue of my collection of poems (first published in 2013 as Wild Howling Woman). The new and improved second edition is available here.
I decided to use Cuyahoga Forest Spirit as the cover, and with a little manipulation with filters came up with the following image.
Purchase Our Name Is Memory here.
This is a blog about how we make things.