When I first visited Ayiti/Haiti, exactly a year after the 2010 devastating earthquake I did not know what to expect, but I was deeply moved by the indomitable spirit of the people, by the immense artistry and beauty that they created everywhere and by the care and loving attention they obviously invested in their children.
But we never see or hear this portrayal of Ayiti in the media, and even less about the historical wanton exploitation of the land and resources and the people’s labor by Europeans, Americans and even neighboring Caribbean islands. All our hands are a little dirty.
However, what we are most guilty of is our negligence of thought that continue to speak of Ayiti as the “poorest” country in the western hemispher, and negates its foundational wealth, its unstoppable creativity and its undaunting determination to continue and thrive. This collective spirit is evident in the children I saw everywhere — their clean, clear eyes, their open curiosity, their keen sense of responsibility for themselves and their siblings and their innate, open beauty that was as welcoming and heart-stirring as the most beautiful flower, which of course they are, and to my delight, I felt many of them knew this, was shown and taught this, despite their immediate circumstances.
As I was driving by, I photographed this little girl squatting by the road, in charge of the two bags to her right and left. There was something golden about her manner, some assurance of belonging, some assurance that life was not going to simply use her up then sit her out. She was already installed on her throne, hence the color and texture that I employed in amending the photo.
At a vodun ceremony, I was arrested by this other girl, who was probably no more than six years old. It was her gesture, finger to mouth, angle of her upright arm, bold intensity of her eyes that I wanted to share. I am here and must be counted, her presence spoke to me. I am here and have something to share. I am here and will not be forgotten. I am here…See me!
See these children, really see them and see their island, and help them and their island to live the freedom they so daringly seized that others have been trying to pull from their hands. They are truly methaphysicians. They see beyond the immediate into a future where real freedom is a lived reality.
This is part of a larger photo/poetic project, in progress, entitled, Still: Ayiti’s Resoluteness
I am a writer who takes photographs. I am a photographer who captures lives. Actually I am a recorder who interprets and transcribes all that I see. I am a seer, learning to see more. I am a projector. I am a futurist. I am a creator of reality.
This is a picture of a Jamaican man. I don’t remember where in Jamaica I snapped his photography nor the year. I did not ask him to pose for me. He was sitting talking and I think I did ask if I could take his photograph, but that might be after I took it because the moment you ask and bring awareness, then another face is shown. I want to capture the raw, un-posed; the moment – unmasked, vulnerable and even intense.
This is what I saw or perhaps this is what I projected. I have tampered with this image as all artists tamper/alter/amend images. I do this through photo-shop, the way I use light — adding or darkening– the way I crop the image to create an effect I want, and the other ways I apply filters and other methods to alter the image, as in inverting.
I was taken with his eyes; I think I somewhat believe the eyes are the mirror to one’s soul – whatever we think that to be. I was drawn to his entire presence, solid, stocky, a man who speaks his mind, I believe. A man who insists on being listened to, a man who draws an audience. A man who might be pushed to hit his woman or perhaps not. He might be a push over, only wants to feel her back pushed up against his chest.
But now he is my man; I get to show him off the way I want him seen; I get to tell the story I give him or extract from him or impose on him. He is mine – My Mister Intense.
I see this every day, and every day it is new. I make sure every day I enjoy nature. I make sure every day I do what I love. I make sure I enjoy my life.
There are many people who admire me. There are some people who envy my life. And there are the odds ones who despise me or think I am arrogant. I do not place stock in any of these sentiments. I live my life.
There is truly apart of me that do not understand why so many grown people are not living their life. Why are they still trapped in jobs, relationships, a specific place/location that they resent, feel unloved or yearn for a different environment?
What are you allowing to stop you from living your life? I realize that since I was twenty years old, and graduated from college I have been living my life. I have not allowed the unknown or fear or lack of resources to stop me. I have never stayed in a job beyond a year that I did not like nor a home. Not even three children and single-parenting stopped me, although it slowed me down for a minute.
I do believe attitude is everything, and I have been and remain and idealist, an optimist, a believer in our innate good, our ability to transform our lives, our resilience to push through, to find and celebrate love in all we do, and to make a difference wherever we find ourselves in the world.
What projects aka dreams have you been sitting on, stuffing under a pile of false obligations, waiting until the right time or when you retire or your ship comes in. Your ship has been at the dock so get off the boat and enjoy the new landscape. Splurge! Celebrate! Just do it. Do it, and before you know it, every morning will be joyous and you will find that you are living your life — taking your daily walks on the beach or some place else, having a soothing cup of dandelion tea, enjoying a boiled egg with cucumbers, meditating in your tea-house, reading, writing, lounging, having an afternoon swim, conducting interviews of amazing people, speaking to your children via social media, steaming fresh fish for dinner with pumpkin and kale, reflecting on the sunset, going to a movie, holding hands, being, living your life, living you.
Some will argue that a poem is a meditation. The poet contemplates an idea, distills it, then shares it with readers, and this is certainly true of major’s latest collection of poems. The very first poem, “cosmology meditation #1,” sets the pace, and invites readers into a journey that is not based on any specific destination, but rather journey as exploration.
we are the memory
of the place without measures
that filled all space
that never was and ever will be (p.1)
major engages the reader in the very first line, and includes them in the process by using the pronoun, we. In this way major is being inclusive, but she is also saying to readers: you have a stake in this; this is not a poem from which you can absent yourself and merely be an observer, a reader, you are the we and the we is you. This inclusive quality is even evident when major uses “I” as she does in the poem, “the yes to life.” The refrain, “ i want to be born” is true of all of us – we are here because we wanted to be born, to be apart of this life circle. And as such we have to show up, we have to listen to and embrace one another, we have to participate in whatever change or unfolding we would like to see happen.
Major’s book could not have come at a more appropriate time as now when the clamor of despair is being spoken into the universe. But as many of us know, these are also times for listening to our hearts and minds and doing what’s right for the greater majority, the global world of which we are a part. Reading and really reflecting on the messages in these poems will help us to become our better selves. “cosmology meditation #2,” the final poem of this deeply motivational and spiritual collection ends aptly, “you are at the center/of the universe.” major returns to the collective you/we, and our place in the world, and as a result of our centering, our responsibility to the earth and to each other.
Major’s collection is philosophical and should be read slowly, so take the journey. There is no specific destination other than to be present to your life and all the other life around you. The poems are compelling with potent stories about war, family secrets, dementia, resilience and love, universal themes with which everyone can connect.
Below is an interview with devorah major about this collection and her life as a poet.
OPA: Congrats on the new collection of poems. I am very intrigued by the title, and then we became. Talk about what came before and what we become? How did you arrive at the title?
dm: I think that there is so much attention on getting there, whatever there means and wherever there is, yet I find myself far more intrigued by the idea of the journey, and in this case the journey is in becoming more humane and whole.
OPA: How did you arrive on the sections and order of the poems?
The section order seemed reasonable as the journey starts at spirit, then there is the idea that we are in a human family and thus are both our individual selves as well as the essence of others, but then of course we exist in our fragilities, only to hopefully through all of that become whole. Thus and then we become, spirit, other selves, fragile, and whole.
OPA: There are many poems in this collection that I love, but I think “cosmology meditation” is my favorite. Then two of the more complex poems, “the judge,” and “any name will do,” are so potent and froth with references and innuendos, can you speak to what sparked/solicited those poem?
“cosmology meditation” came from me trying to synthesize the ideas of string theory in conjunction with the human ideas of cosmology. “the judge” was written from someone I encountered, who was in fact a judge, and was faced at one point by his daughter brandishing a knife in his direction. I was troubled by the lack in introspection in what role he might have had in the occurrence, but I knew he sincerely was seeking counsel on how to improve the situation. “any name will do” started at a Cave Canem workshop where Sonia Sanchez told each of us to write a poem based on the saint whose name was above our (monastery) door. I had Mary’s mother, Anna, about whom almost nothing is known. My mother’s family had, for the most part, chosen to distant themselves from us when my mother married an Afro-Caribbean instead of the required Jewish man. Her grandmother was especially adamant. My brother and I knew little about her and discovered that even her name was a mystery. Was her name Anna or Hannah? I took the opportunity to intertwine the lack of knowledge of the saint and of my mother’s grandmother who she spoke of as saintly.
OPA: I know you have been asked this question over and over about process, so I will attempt to frame it differently. How has your process changed over the years? And secondly, what do you notice about your writing self now that might be different that when you were an active mother of young children and just getting your career started?
I was totally cathartic about my writing when I was younger. I wrote almost stream of consciousness and then sorted out the poem or poems. I did not trust the reader as much and had very long poems which spoke to each shading of a situation. I rejected writing in forms. Now while I do let the moment pull me into a poem or story, I sit down to write when I have time to write, not just when a creative impulse arrives. I make time to write! I am more purposeful in my writing. I also see the writing of forms as a way to strengthen my voice more than a way to be boxed in. When my career was getting started I did not think of it as a career. I wrote because I had to write to keep or gain a balance. I published or read publicly because others encouraged me. My children filled my life and my writing. Now there is not just the writing but the revisions. Once I resented editing, now I love it. The polishing and refinement lets me discover what my poem or story really is. While family still has a central part of my writing attention, I also, as seen in this collection, reach outward to the stars. And of course now there is the business of writing, which is its own animal.
OPA: You have enjoyed many successes, including, being the 3rd poet laureate of San Francisco, and last year you did a major performance piece with San Francisco International Arts Festival. How have these recognitions help to launch or stabilize your career as a writer? And secondly, talk a little about performing the poem.
In any art form I think the idea is visibility. How do you find an audience that hears you, that is fed by what you have to offer? Being SF Poet laureate increased my visibility and allowed me to meet many new audiences. The play,” Classic Black: African-American Voices in 19th Century San Francisco,” let me use the acting training that I had and working with a director showed me how to create a poetry play that had a dramatic arc and held tension, passion, sadness, irony in the telling.
As for performing, for me poetry is as much a performance art as a writtn one. The poem comes alive when given breath. I often read poetry aloud when I am reading it at home, my own to help me hear how it works and where it fails, and other people’s to understand it better by hearing and feeling their words and rhythms. I feel a poet has a responsibility to be able to present their own work with fire.
OPA: Although you are an adjunct professor at CCA, you still work with elementary students through the fine arts museums program where you have been the poet in residence for over twenty years. What is similar or different about teaching college students, young adults, as oppose to elementary and secondary school students?
Young people tend to take more chances, to be willing to jump into the poetry fray and see what comes out. They will sit down and write a poem, two poems, more on demand in a short time period. Older students want to be right and to do it in the correct way, or alternately the want to do it their own way despite lacking a foundation. They write more studiously but, if not writing majors, tend to share with youngsters an aversion to editing and rewrite. Older students however bring abstract thought, which appeals to me, and elders have the added benefit of time on the job which can bring a real depth t their poetry.
OPA: I feel as if the poetry scene has changed a great deal from when we began. There now seems to be a clear divide between academic poets and non-academic poets. I feel as if you and I straddle both sites. Speak to that and what you see as your “role” as a poet.
I think some institutions in wanting to control a thing must name a thing, therefore one has academic and non-academic poets and poetry. It is such a farce. Academic poets are, presumably, those who have gained entrance to or may become a part of the canon. They are the poets worthy of being taught. Lucille Clifton is in it now, but wasn’t for years, Gwendolyn Brooks was finally admitted but many others are excluded. What makes the academic world the arbitrator of this or any part of the arts world?
My role as a poet is to speak truth, to speak my vision of today, of the future with skill, integrity, and heart. In that I feel a responsibility to keep growing and to become stronger in my craft, but not through an arbitrary ideal of what constitutes a good line or poem structure. So much MFA poetry is strong in structure but weak in individuality, weak in originality, stifled in subject matter, such is the influence of the academic model. As a poet I try to write about what matters, and that is a large and complicated palette.
OPA: Do you have a poetry community, a tight-knit group of cohorts that you get together and with whom you workshop your work? And if yes, what is the value of such relationships?
Yes. Writing is a lonely task. Not that I feel lonely when I write. Indeed I am full of voices and music, but that it is done alone, often in quiet. Stepping out and having draft work reviewed by peers whom I trust gives me another perspective. How will the reader receive this work? Of course they are in some ways “the ideal reader” that the Italian writer Ecco speaks of in that they come with a certain amount of knowledge and an awareness of me, of each other. Still they are other ears, minds and hearts and they really do help me to see what I am doing and at times get unstuck in the poem or story. A trusted group comes with no agenda except to support each other in our writer journeys.
OPA: I know you are always working on multiple projects? What’s next for devorah? How can the poetry community or just your audience or anyone out there assist you in your next project?
I have another poetry manuscript almost completed, tentatively titled SNAP. I have a novel, novella and a few children’s stories finished and waiting for an agent or publisher to see and appreciate their possibilities. I am working on finishing a collection of short stories, mostly speculative fiction and/or science fiction, and a sequel to the science fiction novel I am now shopping. I am redacting tapes I made with my father for an eventual book, which will be his memoir with interjects and historical context by the daughter of the writer. Also, I am working on a book, with you, on how to teach poetry to secondary school students. To support any writer, buy their books if you can and/or attend their readings. Also if they have a website, visit and comment.
devorah major, and then we became. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2016; 80 pages
ISBN 978-0-87286-726-0, $12.95
It has been a week since women and men and children all over the world took to the street demanding justice and equity. Reportedly , On January 21, there were 673 Sister Marches all over cities in the USA, the largest in Washington, DC, as well as the rest of the World, including Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.
I participated in the Women March in St Croix, USVI, led by a group of women with about 4 thousand participants. In good St Croix fashion, the participants were multicultural, and the event include blowing the Tutu –the conch shell horn, music, dancing, singers, speeches, recitation of poetry reflecting the diverse range of this community.
Why were women marching? What did they hope to achieve?
It was a call to action, a call to unify against the current US President who appears to want to turn back the clock. It signals the forging of alliances across lines of race, gender and sexual identification, and was a demonstration of the willingness of those individuals who want to ensure justice for all.
Above all it was a hopeful and positive event that made it clear that many people understand their self-agency and will not sit back and allow their rights nor the rights of others that many died for, be overridden.
At the end of this positive and moving event, several women took the mic and said what they were marching for, and central of course was for their grandchildren and the future generations so that they will have a voice, but also for able-bodied and physically challenged people, for Muslins and religious freedom, for the right of gays to marry, for women’s right to own their bodies, for democracy, for freedom. I was marching to say thanks to my ancestors for taking us this for and to end child abuse and domestic violence.
Although we were each marching for different causes , the common denominator was our humanity and the continuation of all our basic rights as people to live as we choose as long as we do no harm to others.
I am positive and optimistic that this movement has just begun world wide, and women who have held up and continue to hold up much more than half the sky/world, will truly rise up and take our rightful place in a feminist/womanist manner that will heal the world and bring compassion and mindfulness to all we do, and how we nurture the world.
Do you really want to have what you want?
Do you even know what you want and not what the media or your neighbors or even your parents and what others tell you that that is what you should want?
Do you daily see yourself having what you want?
Do you have love and share love freely and daily with everyone you encounter?
Are you thankful for what you currently have?
Do you complain and put others down?
Do you envy or celebrate other’s accomplishments?
Does your joy and happiness feed others?
Do you marvel at the sun, moon, the people you see, the animals around you?
Do you spend quiet time reflecting on your life?
Do you eat what is right for your body because you have checked in with your body and not what is trending?
Do you exercise so you limbs and joints can rejoice at their power?
Do you keep all promises your make, regardless of how small or large?
Do you just speak thoughtlessly, saying all the things you can do, or are going to do, but forgetting the moment the words are out of your mouth?
Do you truly value yourself, thank your mind, your spirit, your heart, your body for contributing positively to life?
Do you feel connected to others, and are you willing to work with others for the greater good?
Do you feel empowered and that you, and you alone can single-handedly make a difference for someone other than yourself.
Are you willing to grow and change, when necessary, an out-dated idea, belief, action, way of being?
What are you thankful? To whom are you thankful? To whom are you accountable?
Who helps you to grow outside and beyond yourself?
Can you measure or demonstrate ways you have changed and grown in the last year, in the last two years, in the last five years?
Who have you helped lately, and in what way was the help tangible?
Having reflected on all of the above, go in peace, be peace and share your divine peace with others.
I had resisted going to see Queen of Katwe because it is produced by Disney, and I am weary of Disney’s penchant for romanization and fabrication of a perfect reality, often at the cost of truth or accurate representation of history to sell to “young people.”
Nonetheless, I braced myself and went, and am glad that I did. Queen of Katwe is the important story of ten-year old Phiona, who after many years becomes the leading chess player and master in Uganda.
Performed by Madina Nalwanga, who is exquisitely beautiful, the story is set in the impoverished city of Katwe, Uganda. Phiona’s curiosity and wanting an escape from selling maze to help feed her family, leads her to chess, and over the years of steady progress, exposure to life outside of the slum, she strives for a home and more opportunities for herself and her family.
Lupita Nyong’o, herself a beauty, plays the mother who supports Phions in her goals despite misgivings; and David Oyelowo, plays Robert Katende, Phiona’s chess tutor who teaches her about life and emotional struggles and expanding her horizons. This is a stalwart cast that appears so at home in the setting that as a viewer I was right there, as hopeful as the people of the Katwe community.
But I was also acutely aware of the vast disparity and class biases so evident throughout most of Africa and the Caribbean. They might all be Ugandans, but class divide is rife in those communities, and the colonial legacy exacerbates the gulf between the poor and the rich, the latter, who often do not see the need to help those less fortunate. Watching the movie had my chest tight for other reasons –just witnessing the plight and poverty of Katwe, which is a mirror of many, many cities, towns and villages all throughout Africa and the Caribbean, and I can’t help but point fingers.
While it is true that those former colonial societies have had corrupt leaders who have squandered money from the people, they are not the real thieves, even though the West wants us to focus on a handful of such leaders. The fact is Europe and America daily feign amnesia, and act as if their exploitation of these societies have not led to their impoverishment, while developing the cities of Europe and the USA.
Why Europeans are not deeply ashamed of their exploitation, why they don’t drop to their knees to seek forgiveness for how much they have and continue to steal and rape the African continent, speaks to their deep-seated denial of their savage actions. Given Uganda’s natural wealth, reported as the 133rd largest export economy in the world and the 81st most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI), Katwe and other such cities and towns throughout Uganda should not exist.
Endowed with numerous natural resources, including, gold, tungsten, tin, beryl, and tantalite in the south; tungsten, clay, and granite, mica, copper, limestone, and iron in the north, and is said to be so fertile it could easily feed the entire African continent if it were farm commercially, so why does such poverty exist? Uganda was the original Garden of Eden.
Given these resources there should be no city like Katwe and no child or adult in Africa should live in the abject conditions depicted in that movie. Collectively, we all should feel deeply ashamed and work to eradicate those conditions for once and for all. It is not enough to have Phiona, in as much as we applaud her. There are thousands like her, and in order for Africa and the Caribbean to catch up and recovery from the holocaust of slavery, we have to provide opportunities for many thousands Phionas. Let repatriation begin.
Europe must be made to compensate by building schools, housing, universities and hospitals, and equipping them with the latest technology for the masses who are still reeling from the terrorism and violation of slavery that build Europe for more than 500 years.
A stormy day, but I was not about to miss seeing Daughters of the Dust (1992) and hearing Julie Dash, the writer, director and filmmaker speak, and thanks to my friend, Alem all this was possible.
I had not paused to think it was over 25 years ago when I first saw the film in Oakland, and loved it. I still remember that first viewing, being swept away by this original narrative that did not present African Americans as poverty trapped victims who needed to be rescued by benevolent whites. There are no such white folks in this film, and African Americans are able to speak and direct their own lives.
The Gullah people remind me of the Maroons in Jamaica, so much so that after seeing this film, I wanted to, and many years later, did in fact get to visit one Gullah community in South Carolina and meet some of these people.
I was flooded with these memories as I sat in the theatre waiting to see if this film could do it again. Well I was not prepared for Standing at the Scratch Line, Dash’s most resent short documentary on migration, with a satchel as the main character. I love Dash’s sensibilities and this documentary is so clever yet simple, and poignant and beautiful. It is a meditation, a song, a dance, a homage, a surprised all wrapped in one elegant package in film. Seeing it made me more certain than ever that I will direct a movie before my demise.
And yes, Daughters of the Dust did it again, and I suspect if I were to see it ten more times it would do it again, every time. Daughters of the Dust is the story, but it is more than the story. It is the Peazant people on St Helena Island, and their lineage and intersecting stories, and their defiant beauty. When I first saw the movie, I remember thinking that the director must love her some black folks, especially black women in our natural beauty, not fired and dyed and laid to the side with so much make-up our skin cannot breathe and shine through. In Daughters of the Dust our beauty is on parade and we are so-so fine.
When a member of the audience, during the Q&A, asked Dash if she thought about having subtitles as the dialect was hard to understand, her response was right on point. Paraphrasing, but in a nutshell she said, train your ear to listen to how we speak in the same way you listen to Irish or other accents that are equally unfamiliar and difficult to understand. In other words, respect how we speak and listen keenly, and for that reason, except for a few subtitles in the beginning, Dash sees no reason to do more. Also, she mentioned that a study was done and there are over 20, 000 words or more used in mainstream American that have their roots in West African languages and lexicon.
25 years ago when I first saw this film, this was a common compliant –not being able to understand what they were saying—by both African-Americans as well as whites. However, I understood what was being said and attributed that to my Caribbean heritage and hearing similarities in our nation language.
Daughters of the Dust is lush, and full of relevant cultural material, and everyone should see it. I am glad the Mill Valley Film Festival decided to honor Dash and her movie, which believe it or not was “the first full-length film by an African-American woman with general theatrical release in the United States in 1992. In 2004, Daughters of the Dust was included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.”
All its life the poem has been a wanderer
a voyeur too
and a shameless eavesdropper
in the garden it sniffs
at the blossoms
trying to find the
sex of the bee
deposited on leaves
and caught on small branches
the poem peeps through the foilage
then takes a good look
how else can it write the
nectar of honey
if is does not
lick the stickiness