Archive February 2019

Memory, Lyric, and Line: Workshops for Kinship Elders

Nordette N. Adams received an MFA in poetry from the University of New Orleans. Her poetry has appeared in Rattle’s Poets Respond series, Unlikely Stories Mark V, Quaint Magazine, About Place Journal, Nasty Women Poets: An Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse, and included in social justice curricula. Her essays have been referenced in multiple books and journals and media outlets including HuffPost, Pajiba, SheKnows, NOLA.com, Slate, Vox, and the Washington Post.

Ms. Lodonia, a white-haired senior citizen, recites from memory a poem written by her mother. Ms. Charlotte comes with verses of a Halloween poem she’s penned and a meditation on her visit to India. Ms. Mary, Mr. Lloyd, and Ms. Quencell listen to lines of a ballad. Their faces brighten as they recall their youth, and Mr. Francis, who is blind, weighs every line, every lyric he hears. When he adeptly analyzes a verse, other workshop members nod in agreement. These were the participants who sat in my Friday workshop series last October and November at the Kinship Senior Center in New Orleans—most past seventy—some struggling to recapture memories, others with memories sharp as crystal.

My goal with the workshop series, sponsored by Poets & Writers, was to engage seniors with poems I believed they could access and explore. Too often people are afraid to discuss poems much less attempt to write them, so I opened the series with a bit of fun, a type of Name That Tune music game with selections from decades the seniors were likely to remember. I told them that song lyrics are the kissing cousin of poetry. After hearing part of a song, the seniors named it and at least one artist who had covered the song. The first person to answer scored a point. Three songs later, they discerned what the songs had in common and guessed, based on the song selections, the subjects of the poems we discussed that day.

The first week, songs were narratives about fathers, the next week mothers, and by the last week, songs of political protest. Often, after a few bars, one or two seniors would start singing along, sometimes with great gusto which led to laughter and the sharing of life stories. Then I would introduce them to poems with the same themes as the song selections by both well-known and locally-known poets. Participants might observe a poem’s form or lack of form. Did they hear rhyme or feel a rhythm? What was the speaker’s attitude toward the subject, and did the poem move them? Seniors offered profound insight into darker poems as well as witty takes on lighter poems. I asked them to write a few lines of their own on the theme of the day or to try writing something in a similar style, blues for example.

I hoped to plant a seed, to help them remember a former love of verse, or to discover a new love. I believe the workshop series succeeded in sparking an appreciation for poetry in its different shades and colors. The seniors were grateful for the sessions, and I am grateful to Poets & Writers for making the workshops possible for them, and for me.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program in New Orleans is provided, in part, by a grant from the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others, and from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Nordette N. Adams (Credit: Nordette N. Adams). (bottom) Workshop participants with Nordette N. Adams.

Latinx Poetry Series at Bronx Community College

Vincent Toro’s debut poetry collection, STEREO.ISLAND.MOSAIC. (Ahsahta Press, 2016), was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award and the Sawtooth Poetry Prize. He is a Poets House Emerging Poets Fellow, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Poetry, and winner of the Caribbean Writer’s Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize and Repertorio Español’s Nuestras Voces National Playwriting award. Toro is a professor at Bronx Community College, a contributing editor at Kweli Journal, a writing liaison for the Cooper Union’s Saturday Program, and participates in school programs for DreamYard and the Dodge Poetry Foundation.

When Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta and I started the Latinx Poetry Reading Series at Bronx Community College (BCC) back in 2016, our intention was to provide the students in our Latino Literature classes the opportunity to have direct contact with some of the writers they were studying. What began simply as a means of adding dimension to our curriculums quickly became so much more.

Ninety-six percent of the students at BCC are students of color. Sixty-three percent of that population is Latinx. A great many of these students are first or second generation immigrants. In contrast, the majority of the faculty is white, and outside of the Latino Literature classes, Latinx authors and texts are grossly underrepresented on class reading lists. This makes the school’s Latino Literature classes one of the few places in which they can find themselves, their own cultures and histories, represented in the curriculum.

The lack of access to writing by, for, and about Latinx people extends itself beyond the campus and into the Bronx. As of 2016 (when Barnes & Noble in Co-op City closed its doors), the Bronx, a territory with 1.5 million residents, has exactly zero bookstores. Even our college lacks a physical campus bookstore (it was closed during the 2017-2018 school year). The message to the students, and to the Bronx community at large, is that literature—both that which reflects their experience and any other kind—should not be considered important in their lives.

Nevertheless, our students cannot contain their excitement when they begin reading Latinx texts in their classes. In all my years as an educator, the Latino Literature classes at BCC are the only classes where the students regularly do not want to leave when time is up. Students who formerly claimed to never read anything that wasn’t assigned in a class suddenly ask me for further reading suggestions.

This enthusiasm is only amplified when we get them in a room with Latinx poets. At each of the BCC Latinx Poetry Series readings, I survey the audience to see how many of them are attending a poetry reading for the first time. As it stands, about ninety percent had never experienced a live poetry reading. Yet during these readings and the Q&A sessions that follow, they’re riveted. They keep the poets there long after the reading is over to take pictures with them, get books signed, and ask more questions. This year, after an hour, I had to drag the poets away from students so they could catch their train. Many students have asked where they can find more poetry readings afterwards.

Clearly, there is a need for these kinds of literary and cultural events at the school and in the Bronx. But because BCC has an underserved population of people of color in an underserved borough of people of color, there are no resources to support these events. It is only with the assistance of Poets & Writers that we are able to provide compensation for our guest poets. Now in its third year, the BCC Latinx Poetry Series has hosted some of the most exciting and important Latinx poets currently working in the United States. We have been visited by Darrel Alejandro Holnes, Nancy Mendez Booth, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Bonafide Rojas, Raquel Salas Rivera, Roberto Carlos Garcia, and BCC’s own Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta, who is a widely published author, associate professor in the English Department, and coorganizer of the reading series.

We are already in the early planning stages for next year’s reading. It is our hope that the series will be around for many years to come and that over time its audience will build, drawing in more members of the college and the public while helping to fulfill the need for greater support of Latinx literature in the Bronx and beyond.

Support for the Readings & Workshops Program in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Frances Abbey Endowment, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Photos: (top) Vincent Toro (Credit: David Flores). (bottom) BCC students with Vincent Toro, Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta, and guest poets Raquel Salas Rivera and Roberto Carlos Garcia .