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The poet Lucille Clifton says one should wish to celebrate, more than one should wish to be celebrated. So here she is, reading her poem, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me.”
I’ve just been made aware of the book, Poets on Place, by W.T. Pfefferle. To get these photos, WT drove over 20,000 miles in a motorhome to visit sixty-two writers in their homes. (Now that’s dedication.) The cover doesn’t do justice to the gorgeous photographs, so click to see a few of the photos here. If I had known about the scrumptious book before Christmas, you can bet I would have mentioned it to Mr. Claus. Well, there’s always Valentine’s Day– and you know who you are.
In Verse is a project that blends poetry with documentary photography. I wanted to bring your attention to “The Women of Troy” by Susan Sommers-Willet. Susan readers her poetry which is inspired by photographs of working-class women in Troy, New York. I have watched this video three times over the last three or four months. Each time I intended to blog about about it, but I wasn’t sure what to say.
The images are intense. I am labeling the video as NSFW, but not because they are sexually graphic, though there is a lot of skin. The photgraphs sort of give me the feeling that I am looking into people’s private lives and I am not sure if it’s okay for me to watch. Maybe this is why I have delayed posting. Susan is a wonderful poet, I dare you to listen and not be moved. My real question is about the images. Are they too much? Does it into “poverty porn”? Or does it matter who’s looking? It seems that this is the precious question of 2010.
The photos are part of a project called “Upstate Girls”. The artist’s statement is insightful and respectful. And when you look at the photos, you can tell that the people depicted must have a lot of trust in the people making the documentary. I’m on the line about these images. Still, I have to say that I can’t get them out of my head.
See for yourself.
There are so many good books nominated this year. Friends of the blog like Dwayne Betts, Camille Dungy, and Mitchell Douglass are up for awards. Other nominees include Atica Locke, Walter Mosely, Marlon James, and a whole bunch of other folks. (I have to say that it cracks me up that Steve Harvey’s how-to-catch-a-man book is nominated for “outstanding instructional literary work.” Ha!)
Here’s the whole list below:
Today I received my copy of Wench, the new novel by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I really loved this book. (And what a gorgeous cover!)The novel is set at Tawawa House– an actual Ohio resort where white plantation owners vacationed with their enslaved mistresses.
I know that there are some readers who are very tired of the American fixation with slave mistresses. I know know where you are coming from. However, this novel is different. For one thing, Wench is the story of four women who are in the same situation. This is a wonderfully modern twist on the historical novel. The four-friend structure, a sly wink at Terry Mac, allows us to see how different women respond to the conundrum of sexual slavery. Never in all my reading have I ever seen enslaved mistresses talk to each other. (Their conversations will give you a lot to think about.)
One of my favorite scenes is when one of the women is saying how much she liked Tawawa House because “we can spend time with our men.” Another woman says, “You know he’s not your man, don’t you?” A Tawawa House, some women play house with their “master” while others plan escape.
This is a hard book to describe. After reading it, I feel weird using the word “mistress.” I feel like we need a whole new vocabulary. What do you call a woman who is in a sexual relationship with a man who can sell her kids if he feels like it? Are you a “mistress” if you travel to a resort vacation literally in chains? This book is not romantic, nor is it preachy. Dolen wrestles with the truth and doesn’t blink.
The most impressive aspect of this story is Dolen’s way of making you unsure of who is right, and who has the best idea. I read this novel is one greedy gulp. The intellectual in me was intrigued by the historical matter. The philosopher in me was roped in with questions about the nature of freedom and progress.
Finally, the part of me that curls up in a slanket, well she stayed up late at night reading because I just had to know what was going to happen next.
Today, Leslie McGrath handed me a copy of Radha Says, the final volume of poems written by Reetika Vazarani. Leslie and I spoke yesterday about the volume and she offered a copy, so receiving the book wasn’t a surprise. What did surprise me was the chill that crept over my body as handled it. Toward the end of the book are poems written in the poet’s own hand, dated just days before she took her own life and that of her child.
The editors of this collection toiled for countless hours over these poems which were discovered in a sealed envelope addressed to Copper Canyon Press– who declined to publish them. I cannot imagine the emotional weight of sifting through half-finished and marked-on drafts written by a woman in the throes of a psychic break. Ravi Shankar and Leslie McGrath traced Vazarani’s imaginative footsteps, knowing the brutality to come, but unable to change history. I cannot imagine that they would put themselves through this if they did not believe that Vazarani’s voice is a vital part of the American literary tradition.
I have held the book here in my hand for over an hour now, but I have not begun to read the poems inside. Partly is because I feel revulsion for her final acts and because there are people who matter to me that were terribly wounded by these acts. But, if I am to be honest, I must also confess that I am fighting an almost supersitious dread of what her verses might contain.
On Sunday, I went to Ramscale Gallery for a fundraiser for Being Billie, a new documentary about Billie Holliday. I was mostly motivated to attend the event because I jump at any opportunity to visit RamScale and secondly because lovely Karma Mayet Johnson would be singing. I am so glad I braved the elements and traveled to Manhattan.
Being Billie offers a fascinating and empowering look at the life of Billie Holliday. Women artists and thinkers such as Angela Davis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Laylah Hathaway, Joni Mitchell, and Nikki Giovanni weigh in on the life and legacy of Lady Day.
All of them pointed out that women artists are so often reduced to the details of thier personal lives. (For contrast think of Miles Davis. His life was a disaster, but it has not tarnished his reputation as a genius.) Billie Holiday is remembered as a tragic figure– drug addict, bad relationships, etc. But what about her genius? And I am not using the word lightly. When you see this film you will ask yourself this question.
(One of the highlights of the film was Nikki Giovanni irreverently chronicalling the drug use of other stars of the same era. Why, she asks, haven’t these artists been smeared for all enternity. As she put it, “They act like Billie Holiday was the first singer to ever be a drug addict.”)
Film-maker Phyllis M. Croom was at the event, along with Producer, Rochelle “Rocky” Scott. I was very impressed with the dedication and just hard work they have put into reclaiming Billie Holiday from the “Lady Sings The Blues” melodrama. Of course, passion and dedication don’t pay the bills. You can imagine the expenses they have incurred trying to get the rights to music and film clips. They need to raise an additional $75,000 just to finish the project. Everyone one at the event was so moved that we all made donations, but more help is needed.
Visit the Being Billie website for more information. The website is a little tricky to navigate, but if you keep clicking, you’ll get to the donation page, so keep clicking.
Yesterday, my friend Cheryl gave me a novel called PUSH COMES TO SHOVE. I flipped to the back to read the description and This is what I read: THIS NOVEL IS FREE. Then, there was the fine print.
By taking this novel, you agree to give money away to a local charity, someone who needs it, or a stranger of the street. Where the money goes and how much you– that’s your call. When you’re done, pass this novel on to someone else (for free, of course) so they can give. It all adds up.
This whole project is an experiment by Concord Free Press. The next book on the docket to be published in THE NEXT QUEEN OF HEAVEN by Gregory Maguire, author of WICKED. It looks like they have raised a lot of money for a lot of different charities so far.
PUSH COMES TO SHOVE is the only Concord book I have seen, and I have to admit that I haven’t read it. (The Washington Post seemed to like it well enough.) But I can say that it is a handsome looking book– paperback original with french flaps. It doesn’t look “free” if you know I mean.
The catch is that writers do not get paid for their work. So you really would have who doesn’t need money, or who has tried to get money for a manuscript, but haven’t been able to get a deal. This is not to say that the books by Concord are second rate– I think we all know someone with a beautiful brilliant manuscript that can’t get a deal for it. Concord provides as opportunity to get the work out and to help the world.
It’s a good idea. I like it.
This is a great theatre season in NYC. Sarah Schulman has steered me to a bumper crop of new plays written by writers of color. If you are in NYC, please go out to support at least one of these events. (Full disclosure: I am only just now taking my trifling self to see Ruined, so I’m not judging. I’m merely urging.)
Here’s what’s coming up.
By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Public Theatre 10/21-12/13