Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Trinidad, a photosynthesis, PT. 1

This summer I had the immense pleasure of spending a week in my homeland of Trinidad and Tobago with my friend and fellow poet Queen Godis. Follow the link below to get a peek into our day in Laventille hills, through poetry, photography and digital media!


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Art of Risking

Risk is a topic artists often talk, discuss. When poets look over each others poems and give constructive thoughts, the question often comes: what is this poem risking?

What do poets risk by making our private thoughts public? By committing experiences, afflictions, lies, and shames to paper? What do we risk to gain? What do we risk to know? What do we risk to change? What do we risk to reveal? What do we risk to risk?

This risk business can become all very abstract.

I believe that every poem is a risk of some sort. Even if the risk is spending precious time on something that sucks.

We were five poets strong on this bustling Saturday in New York City. Any one of us could have been doing many other things. We risk time.

I had to tear myself away from my novel, which was actually going well for once. I risk momentum.

Joining us for the first time, Ngoma rolled out of bed and flew straight downtown to meet us. He risks a growling stomach.

This September 11, I was on my way to the Bowery Poetry Club to do a taping of the Illiad. I was to be Helen of Troy. I hopped the 6 where a veteran for peace was speaking against war, which inevitably means speaking against this country's policies.

Standing not far from him, a stalwart American, much younger in years, began shouting, dubbed him anti-American. By the time I exited the train, the two men had come to blows.

And all I could think about was PUP. We risk getting beat up.

I believe greatly in risk. Tangible risk. Risk you can rub between your fingers and smear on a wall. Risk that changes climates, not just weather.

I think to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, who, after his poems incited revolt and got him arrested in 1938, was tortured, placed knee deep in shit on the warship where his trial was held. To survive that stench he sang at the top of his lungs every love poem he knew.

He risked everything.

Now here I was on the train listening to Adam our resident songbird, blessing our ears with:

If you all right say yeah. Yeah. If you all right say yeah. Yeah...

Though his heart may have been racing like this train, his face showed no fear. I was so inspired by his willingness to bear that burden of being first today. That risk. I never take for granted all of the work a poet must do to meet at the Ghandi statue. To swipe that card and stand clear of the closing doors. To see all of these people peacefully reading, dreaming inside their I-Pods, carrying on conversations. Then to interrupt all of that. To be so bombastic in this belief that this lump in the throat is so crucial that it must bogard the silences between us.

As Adam launched into his piece, I thought. What will I risk?

And so, I had to pull out my ode to twins.

Yes, boobs.

It is a discussion of the body. My body. Its wild ways. And toward the end, I cupped my breasts in the middle of this train car and I felt no fear. Because of this, I know I am freer today than I was yesterday. I risk nothing.

Ngoma was a crazy man! I will ride the train with this brother anytime. He filled the potentially awkward silences with his singing, swinging around, and pushing his pelvis into the pole as he made love to Nefertiti inside the imagination of his poem. He was so incredibly free.

Jon will stun the air with a poem in the voice of the black woman he once overheard on a bus in Queens, then turn around with his white boy litany, a self portrait that juxtaposes how he sees himself with how others see him-- through the prism, race.

And Marcy. Ever since the earthquake hit her mother country, this poem has been coming. It begins with a mournful song. Once people realized the poem was about Haiti they paid extra close attention. I could hear the tears rising up in her throat and wondered if she would make it. Gut wrenching, her line about Haitians worshipping a white Jesus, only to find their own faces white with dust.

Afterwards I told her that I had never heard that piece. Her response: I've never done it before.


On one of our rides a stranger was moved to take center stage and start free styling, making us all clap and rejoice. In that brief moment between not knowing and knowing, I thought he was one of us. And he was.

Some physicists believe when you drop a stone into a pond, the ripples last forever.
These are probably the same physicists who believe that every moment lasts an infinity.
And in the physics of words, I believe both of these theories to be true.

In her poem, "One Art", Elizabeth Bishop instructs us to lose something every day.

I would like to replace lose with risk.

--Samantha Thornhill

Monday, July 5, 2010

Gleaming in Mansion and Moonlight, a Toilet Tale of South Africa

June 8, 2010. Right before I boarded my Emirates flight from Dubai to Johannesburg, I picked South Africa’s Guardian from a buffet of South African newspapers splayed out for the boarding passengers. Aside from the president’s personal affairs, most of the paper covered the World cup, which was to officially begin in three days. I could certainly feel the fever there on this here plane. A flock of Mexicans in their green Adidas soccer jerseys and gargantuan sombreros certainly added to the noise level especially with the help of all you can drink booze. I was surprised to find a smattering of empty seats—a foreshadowing of what I was to later learn. That as a whole, South Africa and FIFA expected more people. Imagine entire hotels, built in anticipation and never used. Bars that bought flat screens hoping their counters would be packed with elbows only to find them near empty, night after night.

The most compelling news of the day concerned Cape Town, a place I can see myself building a life someday. The headline “Township Toilet Wars” snagged my eye along with the photo of a simple toilet standing in broad daylight in someone’s yard. Toilet disputes were going down in Khayelitsha, the massive ghetto that accompanies one for most of the journey from Cape Town’s airport to town, miles and miles of shacks.

For decades, township residents have lived without proper sanitation. The DA, the governing party in Cape Town, installed toilets minus enclosures for families throughout the townships, inspiring feelings of insult among township residents. The rivaling political party, the ANC Youth League responded in an uproar, for the blatant lack of dignity the poor were being afforded by being expected to defecate in broad daylight. The president of the DA, however, claimed that they wanted to encourage the families to take ownership and build their own enclosures, their argument being that people should take initiative and not always expect handouts from the government. To appease the uproar, the DA began building ramshackle enclosures, some of which members of the ANC Youth League subsequently tore down, stating that they should dignify the poor by building proper concrete enclosures so that families can feel secure and well protected. These actions lead to volatile conflicts between the protestors and the police force. So here we have two political parties who once fought together against the Apartheid regime, fighting in the streets over an issue so intimate to our every day lives as Americans. Here, using the bathroom is a political act. To shit or not to shit?


Dusk as Langa transported me from OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg to my guest house in Pretoria, which some call the capital of Apartheid. The stunning tree canopied roads made me feel I was in a wonderland, that is, until I spotted the high, razor-wired walls encasing ashamed mansions.

Trickling from the gates of these homes are the working class, leaving after a long day to return to their respective township. I wondered for the mental shift even the most accustomed day laborer must make to leave the township so early each morning to clean the insides, manicure the grasses of these concrete monstrosities. To relieve yourself in a bucket at night to avoid having to go outside the comfort and safety your home, only to enter these high walls in the morning with 10 toilets to gleam.


June 10, 2010: My first evening in Cape Town, I found myself accompanying Teba (who I write snail mail letters to all year long) and Langa to the townships to run errands. We went to the Marcus Garvey a section in the Phillipa where the Rastas reside. On the way there, Teba popped in his new reggae track entitled “No!” which he wrote out of anger and grief after a member of the Marcus Garvey Rasta community was murdered unexpectedly in his home in the night.

It was well past dusk and the streets were clear, save for the sad packs of mongrel dogs. While the strays in Trinidad have a habit of lying down in the middle of the street, only to raise up just before the knowing Trini driver advances with aggression, these dogs chase your car as you leave, sometimes coming so close to the wheels it is understandable why at least one dog in the pack walks and runs on only three legs.

In Marcus Garvey, I waited outside in the quiet, semi dark. And in the front yard of one of the shacks I spotted a toilet, vulnerable and stark in the night, gleamed by the rag of moon.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Birthing the Staccatode, a nonce form

In 2001 in Tallahassee during Black on Black Rhyme week, I taught a poetry workshop to my peers. There, I shared my short poem, Prince Charmin'.

Prince Charmin'

I want
a man like
toilet paper

gentle enough
to wipe
away my tears

strong enough
to take
all my shit

We began discussing short poems (that aren't haiku.) What do short poems accomplish that longer works cannot? How does silence serve us then? And since there are so few words how is the title then forced to function in the larger message of the poem? And what to name this poem?

Thus, the staccato was born. Staccato is a short and detached note of music. Think staccato fire.


Two criteria for staccato:

1. Brief, though no prescribed length

2. Title should be integral, enhances the experience of the poem greatly.


My Half Brother

Man! What happened to your legs?

-Staccato by Keith Rodgers


Staccatoes come in all types ranging from raw, disturbing, thought-provoking, silly, and just downright laugh out loud funny. And yes, clever. Outside of a handful, I never did write too terribly many and felt like less than a person whenever I would speak to Keith, who would always ask, write any staccatoes lately? Keith however, has been mastering the craft and has kept the form alive on fb and in the form of poetry workshops to young people, who love them!


Meanwhile, thanks to Senor Pablo Neruda, I have been entertaining an obsession of my own. You guessed it...the ode. Most commonly they are said to be poems of praise, though I like to call them poems of dedication. Really for me it becomes an honest conversation to or about something that matters about stuff that matters. Robert Hass once told me that all poems were once odes.


Today my head is almost as empty as the sky seems. Just returned stateside from a month long poetry tour in South Africa, I have very few words. But I want to write something. And so I open my pen, and ink, all over my hands.


Staccato + Ode: = Staccaode!!

Staccatode to My Rolling Writer Pen

Black woman
you explode
when we fly

Just a first stab. We'll see what happens...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Write up of Yours Truly in a South Africa paper

The below link is to an article published last week in a local paper here in South Africa. Upon my arrival to Pretoria, a journalist at Pretoria News, Kgomotso Moncho, a lover of the arts, greeted me warmly at a down town cafe where we sat for some time and conversed. As we spoke, Kgomotso's eyes flashed with the curiosity of a blade and her questions were simple and most probing. Our interaction was warm, full of laughter, and this article is the result of it. Enjoy!


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Forever young, an evening to remember

Cave Canem headquarters in DUMBO is a lovely, inviting space for a poetry, especially with Rachel Eliza Griffith's photos of Black poets splashed across the walls. Mama Lucille and Nikkey Finney, holding hands and laughing. Dear Rita, on her ballroom floor, about to take flight.

The audience consisted mostly of the middle school aged poets there to present, along with their supportive parents. Tonight was a reading celebration of young writers, who have been working hard all year on their writings with the help of Ms. Raspberry, a woman who does her job, does it well, and damn, damn, it showed, shined through each their works. Any one can tell that a whole lot of nurturing went into them in order for their pens to shine so like gems.

Thankfully, I have been privy to many talented poets and writers of the next generation, a generation said to be lost. When I first started doing this work, I often found myself surprised by the sheer intellect and imagination that springs from youthful pens. Sometimes when youth shine we adults tend to watch them in equal parts awe and surprise--underestimating them all this while. But I have learned that once a young person is handed a pen, a violin, the opportunity, guidance, encouragement, they flourish, as all flowers should, once they are given permission to tap into that magical space inside of them. The only reason it is a surprise to us is because we do not see it enough. So we gotta do what we can about that.

As I listened to the young people tonight, the 12 year old girl contemplating the purpose of socialization, the 12 year old boy who wrote a litany to jazz that made my mouth almost break under the weight of my grin. After intermission a woman sang operas to poems about the F train & Brooklyn, all written by Brooklyn youth.

I closed out the evening with a 25 minute set. My day had been long. It started with a early morning faculty meeting at Juilliard, one that lasted 3 1/2 hours as we discussed each first year student in depth. From there I rushed to the Bronx, sailing into my journalism classroom seconds after the bell rang. Fifty minutes later, I make the trek from Bronx to Brooklyn. and got there just in time to hear the first set of poets. And when I stepped on stage, my stomach was growling, awakened by the pulverized banana I had just scarfed down seconds before they called my name.

But you know, I went up there, all 5 of the youth poets watching me expectantly from the front row, and suddenly I had all the energy in the world for them. All tiredness evaporated from my shoulders, tense from hiking up the subway stairs with my books on my back. I performed a Lucille Clifton, 3 odes, and read from my chapter book as well as the first chapter of my YA novel, set in Trinidad. Vulnerable an experience as any, it was my first time reading this chapter aloud to anyone, more less and audience of kids and their parents--it felt like an anointing, a blessing. This particular chapter of Seventeen Seasons addresses the leatherback turtles that are born in Trinidad only to venture out into the wide blue world and return to their birthplace to lay their eggs.

Afterwards, I was vibing with the striking young boy that wrote the jazz litany. I noticed his eyes had been fiercely attentive as I shared my work, fixed on me 95% of the time. He's a math and science kid, who recently picked up the pen and now adores the practice. He said he enjoyed the bursts of Trinidadian culture in my novel. I revealed to him that I've had to return to Trinidad in more ways than one in order to achieve what he sensed.

And he responded: so you're the turtle.

Friday, May 7, 2010


After leaving Juilliard, where my first year students put up Pecong, set in the Caribbean. It is a beautiful monster of a play, one that left me with thoughts, heavy on my brain, as heavy as my desire for a strawberry margarita at CPK, where I went afterward, to unpack the tickles and disturbances that emerge from the witnessing. I mused on infanticide and the power dynamic between women and men--especially in the Caribbean.

But I didn't have too much time to muse. I myself was supposed to be performing at a center in the Bronx that support the drug addicted. My buddy Jon teaches a poetry workshop t here once a week and it was to be his first one. He asked me to come in as a guest poet. And when I arrive there, and enter the room, Jon is speaking Spanish to the participants and looks at me sheepishly. It turned out half of the group did not speak English!

Sorry for the curve ball, Jon said. I shrugged. I didn't mind. I was up for the challenge, an inevitable learning experience.

Performing my poems for a crowd not of my tongue was perhaps as vulnerable and as freeing as doing poems to an entire train car. To know straight off that I will not be understood by half my audience was freeing in a that's life kind of way. The circumstances forced me to ponder the idea of being not understood yet comprehended. I have to believe that something translates--every song does. My poems are songs. I know this now more than ever, especially after working long hours on my next CD.

I did three poems. I felt myself naturally working more with my hands, to let the poem speak through my body as well. Some listened with wide eyed appreciation. Others looked down in their laps. One woman shrugged afterwards, as if to say, I don't know what to say because I don't know what you said. While the man on the other side never let the smile leave his face. I appreciated the experience, and will take from it as much as I possibly can.

All I can do sometimes is thank the skies for the places its powers put me in.