TORCH Creative Writing by Black Women
2016 SPRING / SUMMER
FLAME Elizabeth Alexander
SPARK Crystal Williams
CONTENTS From the Editor
Elizabeth Alexander, Flame
Elizabeth Alexander, Interview
Crystal Williams, Spark
Spark Six – Q&A
Featured Visual Artist
an ode to Rekia Boyd’s bloody weave
Mahogany L. Browne
Reading James Baldwin to the Class
Kelly Norman Ellis
you are a remarkable woman
t’ai freedom ford
something to put some thing on
t’ai freedom ford
For Mothers of Hashtags
Birds & the Bees Be Revolution
when your mother is god
what’s not to liken?
From the Editor Amanda Johnston
Dear Reader, I am overjoyed to meet you back in the pages of TORCH. Many thanks to Mahogany L. Browne and Tafisha Edwards for joining me as guest editors for this spectacular issue. It has been a long journey, professionally and personally, to hold this space for Black women writers and see the voices of our contributors come together once again through poems, stories, images, and ideas in our boundless narrative of literary creation. I image much has challenged you over the past few years with so much domestic and international unrest. We’ve protested together on and off the page against injustice. We’ve held our tongues and screamed the names of our slain sisters and brothers – both for survival and sanity. We’ve endured micro and macro aggressions from those who would wish us harm and those who come with open arms naming it love. We lean in to listen and understand. We pull back to contemplate and practice self-care. Filled pages, encyclopedias of our Black woman lives, gather within us and wait for our steady or shaking hands to release them word by word. And here we are at the letting of ink, our mouths dripping with Listen. I need to tell you this. Hear me. In this issue of TORCH, I talk with Elizabeth Alexander (Flame) about her stunning memoir The Light of the World, loss after love, and the power of food as eternal energy. We hear from Crystal Williams (Spark) on the challenges, joys, and surprises she finds in her writing life. Rachel Eliza Griffiths introduces us to the work of visual artist Nadia Alexis and powerful poets carry us through waves of grief to restoration with poems like “an ode to Rekia Boyd’s bloody weave” by saida agostini and “Birds & the Bees Be Revolution” by Kelly Harris with her lines: we make sweetness and kin in hot summers and cold mornings surviving blood and cotton and fire and every hate
Yes, dear reader, this summer and always, we make sweetness here of what may come. We are here and you are not alone. Meet us on the page. See us in the world. *** 5
FLAME Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and professor. In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. She has published six books of poems, two collections of essays, and a play. Her 2005 poetry collection American Sublime was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year.” Her play, “Diva Studies” (1996), was produced at the Yale School of Drama. Professor Alexander is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She is the former Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University. Her memoir, The Light of the World, was released in April 2015. Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Elizabeth Alexander Interview AJ: How long did you wait before you started writing the book? EA: I started writing very soon after Ficre passed, and it’s an important distinction. You know the writing was just little phrases, words, sentences, little tiny paragraphs, little tiny bits, that felt like grounding. That felt like anchoring. That felt like perception. They didn’t feel like I was making poems or anything I recognized. I didn’t feel like I was making a thing. I feel like I was writing because that’s what I do to be alive. It really felt as stark as that. Sometimes I do write to know how I feel. I start writing, and I don’t exactly know what I’m thinking, or feeling, or preserving, but by the time I’ve wrestled through something it becomes clear. This was like that but even deeper. I wrote to know where I was on a suddenly unstable planet. I did that quietly, privately. That was almost immediate after Ficre passed. Then a few months after that an editor who I hadn’t worked with but was a friend of mine approached my agent and said, “I heard what happened, I’m so sorry. I wonder if she’s writing anything and I feel like perhaps it’s inappropriate to even ask so if it is just tell me to go away, but if she chose to write she could write something beautiful, and I would love to help bring that to the light of day.” So I met with her, and she’s a person of my heart now, Gretchen Young. Very much to my surprise, I said I thought I could write a book. I didn’t believe it, but she did, so I thought let me see what happens. AJ: So you took what you had been writing privately, and then did you start to shape that, or did you do that with Gretchen? Did she kind of help take that and mold it into the book? EA: No. All the shaping was mine. And that was kind of crazy, too. I didn’t write a proposal. I didn’t show her a word. She bought this book on faith. Complete and total faith ‘cause I said, “I ain’t got a word to show you. I can’t write a proposal. I can’t say what this will look like. Not definitely, but just, like I cannot.” And she said, That’s OK. I believe this will work.” So, all the shaping was mine. I shared it with her when I had a draft of the complete thing. I didn’t show anyone before that. AJ: So, the book transitions across time, back and forth between the days leading up to his death, his birthday, and back to when you first met, the birth of your children, and even before you met – his growing up and his family. When you were putting it together, did you do that intentionally, to have it non-linear, or was that just how it made most sense? EA: Once I had about half of the pieces of the book, and they came out in those little chapters – and actually those chapters were originally all titled, like poems – the titles helped me make sense of them as units. I ended up taking those titles away. So once I had about maybe half of the book, I hadn’t looked at it as a whole to see what I had. So I started sorting the piles and seeing what I thought it was, and that was when a sense of shape started to emerge, and a few 7
things also came clear to me that I thought I needed to do. I had to tell the story about his death immediately, because I knew that that was both the raison d'être of the book, but also that when it went out into the world people would, know that they were buying a book about someone whose husband died, I just felt, like, just tell the damn story, tell it first, get it out of the way. AJ: The book is very beautiful, and you definitely captured love as a powerful entity and a real thing. I think you put that in there as kind of permission for readers to see that and accept that they might be in that, too. EA: I’m so glad you said that. The book tour has was so interesting and so many fascinating scenes came up for me. One of the things, among many that I’ve been thinking a lot about, is that you know I teach, and I teach a lot of young people, and you look today a lot of young women in particular in my life, a lot of young women of color, though not only, and they want to have a great relationship. They want to believe that love is around the corner. They want to believe that they can have their work and have their children and have richness of life. They want that so much. I, too, was a young woman who didn’t necessarily, and now I think maybe I always thought it could happen, but we get daunted along the way, let’s put it that way. I don’t think actually, especially for women of color, there’s not much that’s out there. We’re taught that we have to be so tough, we have to be so hard, we have to be so practical, we might have to settle for second best. You know we read these things that say you might have to manshare. I feel like that’s about not seeing black women as the princesses and queens that we are. And it’s not about living in a fantasy world. It’s about saying each of us is deserving and beautiful, and there are men out there, lots of men, but in this case I’m talking about black men, who will see that in us, and it’s just true. We have to believe that, and we have to act like it. I believe that, and I say that to my girls. I feel like that’s what the sharing piece of the book is, too. That I, too, was discouraged, but you never know what’s around the corner, and the important thing is that you must know when someone treats you with love and value. AJ: I read in the book about how Ficre would take traditional foods from his country and infuse it with food from the places he’d been like Italy and America. Food is also very personal. Sharing recipes – that’s a big deal. So, you put some in the book! Why did you make that decision to put some in the book? EA: Well, a couple of reasons. You’ll notice that each of the recipes is written in a different language of recipe. So the bolognese is just a list. The curried red lentils or the shrimp barka is like a New York Times type of recipe, and actually the shrimp barka recipe was published in the New York Times when there was an article about his restaurant a long time ago. Then there are other times when I just describe and say how we make it. Then the spaghetti with a hundred onions is told in the voice of the person who told us and first made it for us. There are so many different languages in which food culture is transmitted. Somehow I feel like that’s Ficre out in the world. That’s the way energy never dies.
AJ: In dealing with grief, while reading the book, my heart was broken, and I was joyous at the same time. It never felt tragic. It hurt to read the blow by blow of you losing your husband, but at the same time because you let us into so many intimate moments from the heart. I can’t imagine being there in the hospital, and the detail you wrote about seeing his body and knowing the difference of his body – with him in it and him out of it – to retracing your love story and how you fell in love, were blessed to have this long romance and two children. What are your thoughts about processing grief through writing? What advice might you give to someone going through this process or thinking about writing something that’s difficult to write about? EA: One of the things I’ve learned in the last few years is that grief is such a universal and something that we all have been touched by or will be touched by, hands down, 100 percent, everybody. It’s as true a universal as it gets. And each person’s grief process is so idiosyncratic and so particular. It was so striking to me realizing my grief process was not the same as my children’s. I felt that we had this shared family culture, and then we had this shared catastrophic loss, so surely we were all going through the same thing. Well, we were all in the same time going through this, and some of it was overlapping and shared, but each boy, too, had his own relationship to his father, his own temperament, his own process, as close as we all are and as intimate as we all are. I have been very careful about anything resembling advice. People’s resources – what they have, what they need, what the relationship was – it’s all so different. A couple things that I can say that I know are true is that I know that it cannot be done alone, that’s what was so interesting about this writing process, which was completely solitary, but the grieving can’t be done alone. You need human beings. For me, being a mother, a teacher, a bossy woman, first-born, I need to just be taking care of shit. That’s just what I do. I bring the covered dish. I run the errands and make the hard phone calls. I know what to do. I know who to call. And I couldn’t fully be that to myself and to my family. It just wasn’t an option. I had to let people help me. I think letting that happen is the most important thing I could say to other people. It makes us community. It lets us practice being community. And it is appropriately humbling. Grief should bring you to your knees. The loss of your partner should render you unable to function normally, so let’s not have the illusion. I think that’s what asking for help acknowledges, and it binds you very deeply to people. Also I know that it’s just so important to take care of your body when you’re grieving. In the midst of writing this book, I developed a herniated disk. I never had back problems in my life, and it was quite bad. So, literally that was about sitting in a chair and not moving enough and writing a book in six months on sabbatical very intensely in one place. I have a medical answer for why I got a herniated disk, but the metaphysical answer is that processing all of that grief had to take residence somewhere in my body. AJ: There’s a great line that kind of sums that up in the book where you write, “Ficre is in your stomach.” I thought that was beautiful. I’m very excited to try them myself. As far as poetry, you include “Family in ¾ Time” in the book, but are you writing any other poetry? 9
EA: The truth of the matter is no. I was making a lot of that and thinking, is it over? Am I just a different writer now? But where I came to is that there were times in my life when genre mattered a great deal. When I was learning how to write poems in my 20s, genre mattered a great deal. For me, learning how to write a sonnet mattered a great deal. Trying everything I could. Reading everything I could. Writing constantly and making poems every single day was what I had to be doing. And while I do think writing poems and make them better and better is a true lifetime practice and devotion, I feel like at this stage – given that this book came from the font that poems come from but came out in another form and that it’s a book I’m really proud of – I feel like the important thing is that I’m working. At the end of the day I’m working. Let’s see what happens next. This book showed me that writing never stops. Making art never stops. You have to be open to seeing what direction it goes in. It’s not a given that we get it. So if we get it, let’s not fuss with what genre it’s in. Let’s just see.
A New York Times Bestseller and First Lady Michelle Obama's Favorite Book of 2015, The Light of the World: A Memoir was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Letters: Biography and the National Book Critics Circle Awards: Autobiography. ElizabethAlexander.net
Elizabeth Alexander selects Crystal Williams as her Spark EA: I think Crystal Williams is a genius. One way I measure that is I think about poets whose poems make me want to write poems in a different way. Terrance Hayes is someone who is like that for me, for example. I see a Terrance poem, and think Oh, you could do that? You could do it that way? You could go in that direction? Wow! Harryette Mullen does this for me, I think, Oh, I’ve just been over here in my little corner, but there’s a whole playground out there. Crystal, in both her formal expansiveness and also in her content expansiveness, is someone who makes me want to write different and better poems. I think that there is tremendous depth, integrity, and richness in her poems. She’s very much interested in place. Something came about in her book, which is the one I love the most, Detroit as Barn, there is a very deep sense of rootedness, but that also she’s telling us about a place that we haven’t heard before, and that as much as Detroit is ground for her, it’s also cosmic space. So that combination of rootedness and infinity is something that I see in her poems all the time. I commissioned her recently to write a poem for a project I was really proud of. The Museum of Modern Art is showing Jacob Lawrence’s migration series. I was just so proud to have made that happen. I thought about poets, and in this regard thought about Crystal, who would have different understandings of our various relationships to ourselves. People whose families did or didn’t move from this place or that place in different points in time who might really take the opportunity to think about migration and diaspora through their poetry. I felt that Crystal commanded the reading. The gravitas in her work – gravitas being the word that I would say attends to all of her work – gave that extraordinary historical evening its sense of ballast. I think that’s what she brings in her person and in her poems. I think she’s gotten good attention, but I don’t think she’s gotten the attention and stature that I am sure is around the corner for her because I think she really is that great.
SPARK Crystal Williams is the author of four collections of poems â€“ most recently Detroit as Barn, finalist for the National Poetry Series, the Cleveland State Open Book Prize, and the Maine Book Award. Her third collection, Troubled Tongues, was awarded the 2009 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award. Widely anthologized, her poems also appear in journals and publications such as The American Poetry Review, Tin House, Northwest Review, 5AM, The Sun, Ms. Magazine, Indiana Review, Court Green and Callaloo, among others. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, and Madrid, Spain, Crystal Williams holds degrees from New York University and Cornell University and has received numerous fellowships, grants and honors, including a 2010 appointment as the Mary Rogers Field Distinguished University Professor of Creative Writing at DePauw University and a 2012 appointment to the Oregon Arts Commission by Governor John Kitzhaber. Crystal 12 Williams served on the faculty of Reed College for eleven years before being appointed Reed's inaugural Dean for Institutional Diversity. She is Associate Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer and Professor of English at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine.
SPARK SIX – Q & A with Crystal Williams 1. What current projects are you working on? I’m starting to write toward a fifth book of poems, though its full nature hasn’t yet fully materialized. Generally, however, I’ve grown more and more interested in inflection points – the intersections between seemingly dissimilar social events and human experiences – and how our humanity emerges and can be investigated through them.
2. What challenges do you face in the professional literary landscape? At the moment my most pressing challenge has to do with time and space. My current position often finds me working 70-hour workweeks and addressing issues that are often emotionally and intellectually fraught. So I work to find and protect the kind of internal landscape that allows poetry to take root. And while I’m not by nature a slow writer, under these circumstances, I am quite slow, which is a sadness and challenge of sorts. But I’ll also give a more existential answer because I have a sense from recent conversations I’ve overheard and threads I’ve read on social media, that many young writers struggle with some of the challenges I once did. For many years I was preoccupied with the accouterment that can come with a “successful” career in the arts—what prizes and fellowships people were awarded, to which positions they were being appointed—and in relief, my own status—what I was or wasn’t being awarded, etc . My sense is that this torqued view of “success” came into fruition for three important reasons (the third I’ll come to later). First, my ego, which craved external validation for a host of unhealthy reasons I won’t outline here and, second, because in my poetry as in my life, I aspire to be of service to others. Putting ego aside, not surprisingly, I quickly adopted the logic: good poetry = acknowledgement and accouterment = a larger public platform = more readers = a greater ability to be of service to the most thereby inextricably linking the quality of one’s art to the amount of public acknowledgement to one’s ultimate purpose. What a mistake! Those misunderstandings and conflations resulted in a growing sense that, largely unread (at least, that was my belief), I was moving into inconsequential artist 13
territory (if such a thing exists). On good days, I would sometimes rally and concoct the following twisted logic: Well, you are creating poems the content of which is consequential but which are wallowing in obscurity, and so you are creating inconsequential consequential work. The rhizomatic tangle of my logic even now befuddles and saddens me. Had I a dollar for every hour I spent mulling these issues over, I would be able to vacation at a French villa for a month, I’m certain. More seriously, in retrospect, I realize that my ego and its hunger were also informed by the third reason. I had been raised in a country and culture that relies on the idea of meritocracy as one of its primary social engines. That is: nearly every aspect of American life is informed by the notion that everything we do and experience—which schools and colleges we attend, jobs we hold, how or if we’re promoted, how much we earn, in what order children are picked on the playground, etc.—is a reflection by how “good” or how valued we are. Ours is the ultimate “cream always rises,” culture and if you are “good,” your success is inevitable. What we do not often say is that the inverse narrative is also a necessary part of this schema. That is: if you have not been rewarded as “good” you aren’t the cream. It’s an implicit diminishment that, for many artists, myself included, is deeply destructive. In my case, it was easy to get separated enough from the service orientation of my work, to believe that if I wasn’t on the receiving end of awards and fellowships, something was wrong with my work and that not only wasn’t I a good enough poet to merit rewarding, but that there was quite possibly some mysterious force—active or inactive--working against me. For most of my thirties I lived in a perpetual state of self-wounding and fear, frankly. Happily, once I began to interrogate the root of the meritocratic ideals upon which so much of my disheartening relied, I began to see and, importantly, believe, that in fact, “cream rising” is an unsuitable metaphor for human beings. It is deeply dangerous for it suggests that everyone has equal access to opportunity, that everyone has equal access to power, that the deeply pluralistic cultures from which Americans emerge can and should rely on a single normative culture that can define “good” or “excellence,” that formal and informal systems of exclusion do not exist, and so on and so forth. All of that is simply not true. So that left me, at the age of thirty-seven or thirty-eight, with the question: Will you continue to look to external sources for validation
of your art making? And if not, will you continue to conflate how widely read your work is with its consequentiality? I am now closer to fifty than forty and what I am most happy about is the freedom those “no’s” have provided me. No longer bound to any expectation other than my own, art-making has again become joyful and purposeful. I am again determined to be in communication with, conversation with, to be of service to others in a way that is uniquely my own.
3. How important is having a direct connection to place in your writing? Most simply: with the exception of my most recent book, Detroit as Barn, place hasn’t been an absolute and direct catalyst for any project I’ve undertaken. Rather, place has largely served as a backup singer, a melody within which I exist and therefore against which I write. That said, I am most productive when physically surrounded by the bodies and voices of people who operate within non-normative, non-dominant frameworks—the glassblowers, janitors, electricians, public school teachers, activists, artists, bakers. Like everyone, the world impacts me. The languages I hear on a daily basis impact my thinking, the way I hold my body, the cone of my critical gaze. When surrounded by non-normative cultures, my work grows bolder, more lively, shuns some of its adopted, foreign sheen, becomes more robust in both its discourse and in its dedication to be a part of whatever conversation is being had within that space and outside of it. Frankly, it also becomes more urgent about its assertions against normative frameworks. When I am surrounded by dominant and normative cultures, the work grows softer, less urgent, more philosophical and pensive. And I think that this is because, at root, much of my work is ethnographic, and so it deeply relies on its environs for sense-making. I, at root, am deeply philosophical by nature and can, if left to my own devices, rely on meaning making through metaphoric reasoning. Instead of thinking of this as a particularly troubled dialectic, I tend to believe that these poles generate good friction, growth, intellectual and artistic expansion. I have come to appreciate that the tension between the concrete and abstract is a fruitful space for me. So the poems I wrote while in Portland, Oregon, while substantively different than the poems I wrote while in Detroit, create an interesting conversation, a broader framework, a more rigorous series 15
of queries than would not otherwise have existed had the place I inhabited never changed. And that dialectic allows me a great deal of creative latitude, and an ability to inhabit and explore and undertake a broad range of aesthetics.
4. Can you describe your writing process? When I was a young writer, the music of a line came to me first and as pure sound to which I affixed language that could reflect the music’s meaning. A bit later than that I used to write poems beneath a fairly standard structure on the page: as a header, the poem’s metaphor and central emotions (imagine these listed as if title and subtitle), on the right margin, a list of words reflecting a brainstorm of all of the words and phrases that immediately came to mind (and sometimes I would mine these from the notebook where I had been jotting down ideas for months in advance), along the left margin, the beginnings of the poem, with arrows moving up to the top of the page to point to the metaphor and emotions and to the right to “use up” the metaphor-related words (and to ensure consistency of language, purpose, etc.). This was a process I undertook when I was still learning how to train my brain to think effectively about editing.
While still an iterative process, I do much less experimentation and excavation on the pages of moleskins these days. Rather, I hold poems for a long while in my head and heart, turning over their ideas, unpacking their meaning, and digging around for the most human moment I can find. I do that almost always away from the page, over the course of many months or years, sometimes. Once I go to the page, the poem emerges in fairly quick order, though I might edit for another several months (or, in rare cases, years). Now, even complex forms take shape and root in my imagination as there is no real distinction for me between content and form. I believe that those poems that need to be written are comprised of images or happenings that haunt you. So there is no need to worry that you will lose them. They refuse to be lost. Because I have found that to be true overall, I’m quite happy not to keep a moleskin other than for those moments when the whole thing comes crashing out. Even editing I nearly never do on the page anymore.
5. What is the most interesting place poetry has taken you? Ah! What a hard question. It’s tough to say: I suppose I’d start with forgiveness. Poetry has brought me to the lip of forgiveness. It’s also taken me to some amazing physical places: Nicaragua, MoMa, the National Poetry Slam, colleges, classrooms, a farm in Oregon, into conversations with people I’d never imagine being in conversation with. Poetry has taken me everywhere.
6. Who are you currently reading? I was just reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters. I’ve returned to Cornelius Eady’s The Gathering of My Name, Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats, and Jack Gilbert’s The Great Fires. I was dipping in and out of several books at once: Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Joy, Van Jordan’s The Cineaste. And I’ve got a stack that need reading, on top of which sits Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus. I’ve also been reading Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania and just finished Make Me, by Lee Child, and The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. I’ve also just learned of an author new to me, N.K. Jemisin, so I’m excited to dig into her work!
Harbinger By Crystal Williams
At the moment the dog dies, some last good leaves your body, harbinger, O, you woman without mother, father, lover, this dog with his final sweet breath snout. Omen, O you, lay thee down in the bracken & brush. In a morning beyond tomorrow morning, by some strength not fully your own, drag yourself to the dirt & wait. The birds will come with their hopping. The ants too. In the cold hours pray they again begin their small work, their dead dragging. For those who want to know, this is what I say: there is no competent language for loss. there is only how we sustain it. & grief, alas, is no destination. For some of us she is a cruel spitish companion, who gnaws on our vertebrae, feasts again, again, occupies her timeâ€” when she is not waving her symboled hands, when she is not shrieking her crimson languageâ€” in the muck of our bile & blood. When you see us hobbling towards you understand we should not be standing. Our spines are abnormal, preternatural, reconstituted by a darkling you do not care to know. Brother, Sister, I beg you, honor this thing with whom I walk, who clamps my hand. If ever you see me smiling, call it a miracle & turn your face to God.
Night Bloom By Crystal Williams For Jade, after Hayden
It makes no sense to say things will get better because you will not understand until they are better & they may not get better soon. There is always pain in the world & you have seen so much of it. I do not know how to explain other than to say, I am so sorry your mother has died, Girl, that her mother has turned her back, that your father is a rogue & you are having to do this grown-up work alone. I would like to tell you to be patient but understand that right now you might only know fear. Listen, then. & know this: it is okay to be fearful. If you cannot believe that things will soften, trust that I believe for you. You will not remember all of this pain. But when Darkness insists you attend his party you will know the trapdoors & gloomy corners of that house. & you alone will be able to find the garden where beautiful Cereus is opening her eyes in the pitch black.
Omen By Crystal Williams
It is Fall in Detroit & though it is time for the living world to take stock, shed its weak & protect its strong, it is odd how the goldfinches (so many!) are falling as if muted memories. Each morning a new soft body lay golden & dead at my door.
Nadia Alexis - Artist Statement In my photographic work, I use mostly natural and continuous light, and less often strobe lighting. I am largely concerned with creating photographs of Black women throughout the African diaspora. My intent is for these portraits to enter the wider photographic discourse by asserting the existence, stories and beauty of Black women. I’m interested in exploring Black womanhood as resistance to structures and messages that seek to demean or take away from it. In addition to collaborating with the women I’m photographing, I use various props and backdrops to achieve this. As a photographer who is also a poet, I’m excited about the possibilities that exist within the photographic medium to tell stories, pose questions, answer questions, and preserve what needs to be preserved. Things that influence and inspire me include my and others’ life experiences, as well as the work of other literary and visual artists. Some photographers who I admire and who make living more meaningful are Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, LaToya Ruby Fraizer, Saddi Khali, Gordon Parks and Robert Houston. Painters and other visual artists who I admire as deeply include Brianna McCarthy, Tamara Natalie Madden, Mickalene Thomas, Andrew Nichols and Frida Kahlo.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths on Nadia Alexis Nadia Alexis' imagery inflicts joy, intelligence, & beauty upon any eye that understands the selfknowledge of curves and color. In each of these portraits Alexis celebrates the natural and the architecture of the sublime, which is manifested in the soulful ways her subjects engage themselves as subjects and unconditionally, as black women. Resisting reductive tropes and never stripped of their powers, Alexis asks the women she has gathered in imagery and those who also surround her spiritually, as seers and writers, to participate. I adore the complexity of the narrative that Alexis acknowledges. One implicitly witnesses her visual ancestral bloodlines, such as Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Brianna McCarthy, Natalie Madden, and more. The strength in these portraits is their rootedness and uprootedness, theirs is a grounded and deserving inheritance, connected to the earth by which their own bodies are framed. I'm so very excited to celebrate and to share Alexis' work, her luminous seeing, and the expanding ways her lens speaks visually in its grace.
SAIDA AGOSTINI is a queer afro-guyanese poet, master dreamer, and social worker. Her work spans heartbreak, black love, and the icon Prince. A Cave Canem fellow, she is currently working on her first book, Uprisings in a Nation of Joy. 28 Saida's work has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including Pluck! and Beltway Poetry Quarterly. Photo by Lynora Lawless
ritual by saida agostini
I never knew what it took to die if no one closes your lids, your eyes are scotch taped closed, if your mouth is left open, someone will come and break your jaw--put your body back together so that your family can come and see something they know. the white hot violence it takes to break your body into something familiar. hides the bed sores hides the shit anything to pretend the work of dying never existed shuffled off into a patchwork of bodies twisted, broken, and turned into the humans we wanted them to be. maybe thatâ€™s why no one says much when bodies of trans women are found carved all over dark cities chopped into arms legs and limbs that canâ€™t be made whole or familiar, but instead strange leaving only teeth to identify whole lives by, picking out fillings and extractions to separate their blood from others. how did they say goodbye? what is left to bring back home to a cemetery or resting placeâ€”who will close their eyes, hold the body, and remember what is familiar in battle.
an ode to Rekia Boyd’s bloody weave by saida agostini
you, a worn note of sugar burnt white want the weft of hair left unbloodied and blacker then sky, I can dream the scissors that cut into you, the hands that grasped your scalp, as follicles sang out the intent of one bullet forged straight into your sweet, sweet skull, past the muscle of brain and caused the very life of you to seize up, your blank eyes a requiem to unthought kisses, the rough pad of feet down steps in mornings, the very cups of brewed coffee that will grow cold without you oh my dear heart, they cut so many of our dead women into pieces, they will not grieve your hair.
*After the conclusion of the trial of the officer who had killed Rekia Boyd, the Chicago Police Department mailed back Rekia Boyd’s effects to her family. Among her belongings was a Ziploc bag filled with Rekia Boyd’s hair.
Mahogany L. Browne an Executive Editor at The Offing, a Cave Canem, Poets House & Serenbe Focus fellow and author of several books including NAACP Image Award nominated Redbone. Browne has toured Germany, Amsterdam, England, Canada and Australia. Her journalism work has been published in magazines Uptown, KING, XXL, The Source, Canada's The Word and UK's MOBO. Her poetry has been published in literary journals Pluck!, Manhattanville Review, Muzzle, Union Station Mag, Apogee, Literary Bohemian, Joint & The Feminist Wire. She’s co-organizer of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, founder of Women Writers of Color Reading Room (housed on Pratt Institute) & is an Urban Word NYC Poet-in-Residence (as seen on HBO’s Brave New Voices). Mahogany earned her MFA degree from Pratt Institute (inaugural class) and serves on the Board of Trustees for Pratt 31 Institute. Mahogany is currently co-editing Black Girl Magic (Haymarket, 2017), is the Poetry Program Director of the Nuyorican Poets Café and lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Homer, Louisiana By Mahogany L. Browne i. When you are a black writer in America: it gets harder to ignore the bodies. To Step over the nameless namesakes and point apparatus to the sun. They say writing about the almost dead only gets harder. My grandma sigh "pray for them baby" I think "my god! Is this the fight? to be black and beautiful and breathing." ii. When I say freedom What I mean is American flag knotted in the spine & ripped from the root When I say root What I mean is Detroit Red What I mean is Malcolm X What I mean is Barack Obama What I mean is history repeating itself What I mean is history rewriting itself What I means is apple pie with a slave owner on the side iii. you know you black when no one wants to talk about how your blk hair kink up into clean circles how they white ass bathroom floor donâ€™t hide the coiled curls like ya mamaâ€™s tan tiles do so you crawl on all fours with toilet paper tap water damp around your knuckles so no one notices that you notice
that your kitchen is as nappy as they told you it was & here you be black ass grown ass woman on all fours who stay saying her afro is beautiful who been saying she love her black who keep saying she ainâ€™t afraid iv. When I say root What I mean is Fannie Lou Hamer What I mean is size 10 & no laces What I mean history repeating itself What I mean is history rewriting itself What I mean is apple pie with a prison warden on the side When I say side What I mean is handcuffed & kicked, stripped & water hosed, bare & ass & thighs debated on its firm during prime time When I say prime time What I mean is ratchet opera, hood rat antics turned fabulous, turned appropriated for honey boo boo chile consumption When I say consumption What I mean is -- O, say can you see Miley Cyrus & Raven Symone got a TV show called America ain't got no talent But we twerk & shake & can sale anything on top a black woman's ass & turn it solid gold v. Your people come from Homer, Louisiana & all you know is a tale of the night when Your grandpa Lester stole your great grandma Octavia
& great grandpa Nell from the spit shine sharecropper into a dirt poor freedom up North. How they threatened to lynch him & his dog before daybreak, how his slick mouth was a gunshot wound waiting. & you never heard him whistle Dixie, no. Only his southern twang riding high in Oakland, CA brown cracked fists shielding his eyes on the front porch every morning like prayer â€” & watch the sun rise
Kelly Norman Ellis is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Chicago State University. She is also Chairperson of the department of English, Foreign Languages and Literatures and the director of the MFA in Creative Writing program at CSU. She is a poet whose work has appeared in Sisterfire: Black Womanist Fiction and Poetry; Spirit and Flame; Boomer Girls; Essence Magazine; Obsidian; Calyx; The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South; PMS: Poem, Memoir, Story; Souâ€™wester; Crab Orchard Review; and Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing. Her first collection of poetry Tougaloo Blues was published by Third World Press in 2003. She is co-editor with M.L. Hunter of Spaces Between Us: Poetry, Prose and Art on HIV/AIDS (Third World Press) and her second collection of poetry, Offerings of Desire 35 (Willow Books), was published in 2012. Photo by Chicago Literary Hall of Fame
Reading James Baldwin to the Class By Kelly Norman Ellis For my African American Literature Class Spring 2012
Amina is crying in the back of the classroom her light brown cheeks turning a burnt pink as I read James Baldwin aloud. Today we speak of suffering and forgiveness. Amina is still crying and I wonâ€™t stop her because I am welling too. But I am the teacher. I do not cry in front of the class. It is the forgiveness that makes us water not the suffering or weakness or sin but the letting go and so she is crying And I am reading and Nate and Antonio are searching my face for how to do this thing, this forgiveness and Amina is covering her mouth now. Amaris and Mitchell and Ashley are watching. Teaching love is hard. How to forgive the word nigger hurled in middle school? How to forgive the father who vaporizes or a cop's murderous bullet? I close the book, return midterm papers think of trespasses we do and all the releasing and weeping to be done.
37 Jennifer FalĂş is a nationally ranked performer, writer, and actress. Gully since â€˜83. Nap Enthusiast. Mother. Assassin. Creator of "Love, Above All Things". Lives in Brooklyn. Believes in fashion; seriously.
Untitled By Jennifer FalĂş
And then the nigger ran And then the nigger walked on my property Cause everywhere, all the time, is mine And then the nigger screamed And then the nigger played music And then I noticed the nigger was just a child on her sofa And then I saw the nigger enjoying the sweet sixteen And then I realized the nigger was pregnant And then I put my taser by the nigger's dead body And then the nigger was going crazy And now all the niggers are going crazy Demanding breath And jail time And then I walked away And lived.
t’ai freedom ford is a New York City high school English teacher and Cave Canem Fellow. Her first poetry collection, “how to get over” is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. t’ai lives and loves in Brooklyn, 39 but hangs out digitally at: shesaidword.com.
you are a remarkable woman (now hurry up and die) By t’ai freedom ford after Kara Walker
together they gathered weapons and placed them gingerly into baskets like fruits their calloused fingers nimble and careful the weapons otherwise questionable— a hot comb brick a covered pot of grits a spade clumped with soil a soup ladle a few choice shards from a broken teacup a horseshoe a small cast iron skillet that smelled of cornmeal and burnt butter the men predictably had already removed real munitions from the big house leaving nigger wenches to fend for themselves— hardly defenseless after all they had no panties and pounds of black pussy
something to put some thing on by t’ai freedom ford after Rashid Johnson
where do chains go without an unwilling nigger? where do gold chains go without a willing nigga? where does the brand go without a shivering hide? what of the whip and welt without a back? where do we place this beastly black burden without a body of water where goes this vessel? this shackle gone to rust without a dusty foot what to make of trees bearing ordinary fruit? what good a noose without a nigger’s neck? where the flames gone shake their shimmy no body for nobody to climb on top of no mouth to speak of no thing like innocence to drape semen from nothing resembling a body or a booty or a table—something to put some thing on
Kelly Harris lives in New Orleans. She is the founder of BrassyBrown.com, a website dedicated to women of color in the Big Easy. Her poetry cd, Revival, will be released November 2015. She is a Cave Canem alum. Her work appears in various print and online journals. 42
For Mothers of Hashtags (or how we give birth in America) By Kelly Harris
Giving birth is a different scream the light you stare into has no intent to kill You are lying on your back among strangers tending to your belly, legs, blood Everyone gathered at your side wants to see the miracle of fingers and toes The whaaa of his lungs pierces the room a tiny echo of flesh uncurls, kicking air All of your guts are in your hands and here it begins: The tagging of wrists 6 lbs, 9 oz brown eyes male Black His first steps will be a lifetime of auditions to make others feel safe near his skin Your kiss to his forehead the dew of his breath warms your nipples you want to feed him this way forever the fear of police patrol lights turn in his newborn eyes The head you once steadied could be next headshot Suddenly youâ€™re the news mothering through megaphones weeping over a coffin turned icon eulogized by strangers on twitter You were once a shy woman only heard in beauty shops and misusing pronouns while getting your hair dyed The world believes this is the first time you have ever been faithful to your son as if TV funerals are dressing rooms
for imagined pain You are not dreaming up this rotation of hurt that contracts inside Your bottom lip shakes in front of cameras as you hold pictures of your sons Here you are again, screaming with no joy to push out your child laid in your arms as you narrate an obituary speaking for the body that made you mother
Birds & the Bees Be Revolution By Kelly Harris
we make babies knowing the crossroad of blackness is a lifetime of carefulness & prayer for white hands to act slow near our skin our sons we make sweetness and kin in hot summers and cold mornings surviving blood and cotton and fire and every hate pressed against our bone our bodies sweaty sanctuaries resting places in turbulence hallelujahs on naughty nights we are not afraid to make light and new planets and more flesh shall we close our roads that mapped us and fear the boots of law and men? the earth is ours too, baby and we gon make it over and over and over and over again
Raina J. LeĂłn, PhD, CantoMundo fellow, Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006) and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, has been published in numerous journals as a writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of three collections of poetry, Canticle of Idols, Boogeyman Dawn, and sombra: (dis)locate (2016). She has received numerous fellowships and residencies including the Macdowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Annamaghkerrig, Ireland and Ragdale. She is a founding editor of The Acentos Review, an online quarterly, international journal devoted to the promotion and publication of LatinX arts. She is an associate professor of education at Saint Maryâ€™s College of California.
when your mother is a god by Raina León
you don’t get the newest goth lipstick or bubblegum candy rings. daughter of mother without flaw, every man who sees wants to poke. in preschool you learn about erections from the dads circling her show and tell: an emerald, eye-size in her palm. mothers point their perking high, and the teacher pats your head: your mother tells such stories! such charm! you get the knowing smile, the reach of lunge anticipation – with such a mother, what a morsel you might be, even at 5 – morsel: the bauble of tendon pealed slowly from the horrored hand she never deliberates violets when the world would show its cruelty to women she is perfect-cruel and she sings so prettily to you children! what flair, pinache! i’ll teach you what that means: his wide brown eye thumb-sickle mother says be nice or she will eat she does anyway peregrine falcon swoop-gone new doll chiseled in white
persephone (call me perse)
vessel strut By Raina LeĂłn
she puts me on slides into skin diamonds fills from the mouth down hanging garden she nipped let flap loose useless the man i never was petty guillotine how quick falling spark flash i never knew to mourn cessation we remember the womb curling into one another mouths whispering into one anotherâ€™s ear blade just made us more twin she dust and spirit me vessel as marked an eon to watch sister decompose crumple peel sustain her child mind sweet babe i let her put me on leave the remnants for what never ages she crawls at first stumbles quick into a saunter they say she makes me strut
mae, two-spirit vessel, twin of maat
salvage yard by Raina LeĂłn
the contours of chisel and age stone remembrances of myrrh burn flower petal grace how it softens mallet and pitch those who day-witness my wrinkled glee and rags they prepare for stench-black mother wonder how hyacinth exhales mouth pores dreads lock i am the body sweet dance ammit consumer of the condemned astarte with her dagger belt and constellation eye bast fierce huntress the feasts of drunkenness and haze athirat sea walker hip turn tease subsume between the court charades street glide and night glimmer i climb the salvage yard fence to lounge dew-bathe in an iron tub among god-sign whisper consolations to those mossy divine in time forgotten gods break casings unbound by wood and stone i flicker the street lamps to slow star pulse you thought you saw me not me here but never here shadow-shadow skin slips among murk worship smoke ingĂŠnue laugh nearly squelched beneath ruined palm
huldah, prophetess and sister to god
Evie Shockley is the author, most recently, of the new black (Wesleyan, poems) and Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa, criticism). Her work appears widely in journals and anthologies, and her honors include the Stephen Henderson Award, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry. Shockley is an associate professor of English at RutgersNew Brunswick. She is looking forwad to living in freedom in a just society. Photo by StĂŠphane Robolin. 50
what’s not to liken? By Evie Shockley
the 14-year-old girl was treated like: (a) a grown woman. (b) a grown man. the bikini-clad girl was handled by the cop like: (a) a prostitute. (b) a prostitute by her pimp. the girl was slung to the ground like: (a) a sack of garbage into a dumpster. (b) somebody had something to prove. the girl’s braids flew around her head like: (a) helicopter blades. (b) she’d been slapped. the black girl was pinned to the ground like: (a) an amateur wrestler in a professional fight. (b) swimming in a private pool is a threat to national security. the girl’s cries sounded like: (a) the shrieks of children on a playground. (b) the shrieks of children being torn from their mothers. the protesting girl was shackled like: (a) a criminal. (b) a runaway slave. liken it or not —mckinney, texas, june 2015
Ebony Stewart is a touring performance arts spoken word poet and published author. She is a nationally acclaimed slam poet, has been featured in For Harriet, and has shared stages with the late Amri Baraka. Ebony is a sexual health advocate, former sexual health educator, and cupcake connoisseur. Online at EbPoetry.com
Altar By Ebony Stewart
When the mother becomes an altar the choir sings “Hell Mary” and everyone holds their mu’, their eyes, their breath. The body is rocking crooked knees still bent and the bones. Oh, the broken lineage the muscles weakened, oh “why.” She cries oh “how could they”? She screams, with other mothers. One clinching dust. One holding magic. Another one blowning glass. This is the morning gospel/the news. America's half mass children. Sleep and wake up. Like this. Like this. How black women have to grow their sons. How they undo their done daughters. The choir in procession. Sing the song loud/drown out those pleas. The music mothers keep/Hell Mary. Bloody/hands/signal. Hell Mary. Save us. Hell Mary/full of grace. See them sway/swell/mourn their seeds. Crops die at the altar/a risen prayer they be.
Venus Thrash is the author of The Fateful Apple which was longlisted for the 2015 PEN America Open Book Award.
UNSUNG By Venus Thrash What to make of this growing sorority? This kinship of sorrow? Mothers of unsung daughters killed by police, mourning baby girls in rooms unfazed by sudden death, where memory wonâ€™t die but leans back in an empty chair, fusses in a bathroom mirror, kicks off her shoes, or naps on the sofa to never wake, forever 7, forever asleep; or hangs out in an alleyway with friends, voluminous laughter bouncing along the walls still, rain logged teddy bears sag toward the ground, tattered ribbons blow away with the wind; or splays in the doorway where she last stood, giving up without a fight, where each subsequent sweep & mop, the threshold spills more blood, the floorboards, the doorjambs, the splattered walls, or rolls around in a hoopdie with a turbulent engine heard halfway down the block that will never pull up to the house again, every beat & throb of the speakers a reminder of a home now silent, every profanity an endless raging scream, every night a memorial no one else attends, every day another death, another restrained & choked unconscious, another tased to breathlessness, another trapped in the maze of her own mind abruptly put at ease, another ride-or-die come true, another old lady behind on rent, refusing to pay for freezing pipes, a toilet that wonâ€™t flush, a warm fridge, evicted without mercy in a hail of gunfire, another executed holding a son not even two, another gunned down in a no-knock on the wrong door, another hanging after three days in jail for a minor traffic stop. Chant their names in the streets. Hold them in your vigils. Count them among the lives that matter.
TORCH Journal A publication of Torch Literary Arts TorchLiteraryArts.org
Mahogany L. Browne
L. Lamar Wilson
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Torch Literary Arts is a nonprofit organization established to support and promote creative writing by Black women and girls. We publish contemporary poetry, prose, and short stories by experienced and emerging writers alike. Our online journal, TORCH, has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey and many more.
PROGRAMS TORCH Journal TORCH Wildfire Reading Series Wordy Girls Workshops & Retreats
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