Many people who say they want their work, writings, critiqued really don’t. They just want to include your stamp of approval on it. They want to include you in their circle of same friends, same crowds and same stages where they receive recycled applause. Unfortunately this will keep them exactly where they are, using their art as a part time hobby and working someone else’s dream full time.
The only thing safe in this game is your vision. What you ultimately want your work to be regarded as or categorized as. The voice or narrative you want to represent is the only thing you can control. But that is the opportunity with most writers. They don’t know who/why they are writing. It’s as if everyone is falling into the “I write for therapy” “I do this for me” reasonings. I don’t believe that. In fact, you will have a hard time trying to convince me of this. What I do believe is that due to a lack of reading and developing of worth or value for oneself a lot of writers cannot express why this art form has become so tangibly easy for them.
Before I could perform on stage or even write my own work, it was required that I read and memorize the literary greats that had come before me. I had to memorize and know the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, etc BEFORE I was allowed to share my own work. These were my dues so to speak. I am finding that nowadays writers are simply encouraged to write and express. “Write what you feel and then get on stage and kill it!” There is no base, no foundation. Just quickly constructed brick walls and rubber windows. Then artists stand hostage inside defending everything they write or perform.
Specifically poets often ask me how to be a full time artist. I always ask them to identify another poet who is working FT in their craft. Some of the usual responses are Saul Williams and Nikki Giovanni. Well, Saul lives in Europe and makes an incredibly living from his music and Giovanni is an educator and speaker in addition to poet. So I ask them to give me someone else they could contact to be a mentor for their poetry career that ONLY does poetry. I am still waiting on responses from the majority of them. See, this art thing is medicinal. It is not an individual thing. If your mantra is, “I do this for me” you’re on a paved road, a safe path with lots of company and acceptance. Not the wild road to discovery with silent strange faces and a million “no” responses. With that being said, poetry cannot be isolated. Poetry is the word. Poetry is the color of the sound. Poetry is the taste of the wind. Poetry is an integral part of the seven sciences connecting to “it all”. This understanding is how FT artists sustain.
I don’t know any FT artists who at some point do not incorporate education into their lifestyle as a workshop facilitator or speaker. But what are they talking about? They are talking about that base and foundation from which they developed their art from. They are protecting the vision, establishing the livelihood of their narrative. They are doing something most poets/writers cannot do these days.
So what are you saying? I’m saying, you need to read twice as much as you write. You need to study. You need to know your art form and the cause behind it better than anyone else. You must let go of the criticism that will come with your art and be more concerned with the status of the people holding together the foundation. With that knowledge will bring a security and confidence that will open doors and opportunities to you as a writer/poet.
“Poetry is always good to keep the juices flowing. Poetry is the training for any writer. For fiction writers, I’d have them write poetry for a year. It gives you a sense of voice, rhythm, economical use of words for power and mood. It teaches you to be brief. You don’t want to bore your reader.” John Williams
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Screw You, To-Do List
The merlot on my tongue
won’t allow me to speak.
I stain my pillow with attached prayers of something
betwixt the Ghana of my mane.
I walk with a cane looped to my belt to beat a fall
design distance from cerebral lessons
I wear tight shoes to ensure carefully calculated steps
and disavow chances and dances with love.
taken from the book:
(the prologue to Mississippi Window Cracks written in 2006)
A few years ago I decided that after all the books and movies I had read and seen related to the civil rights struggles and the state called Mississippi, it was time to take a visit. I arranged to spend a few days in Jackson, Mississippi, with a colleague of mine so I could walk the land that enveloped the energy of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Margaret Walker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Emmett Till and the streets of the infamous “Freedom Summers”. My time there was filled with meeting civil rights heroes that are still alive, pouring libation on slave plantations, visiting museums and other historic sites, relaxing on the porch fanning flies until the sunset, and of course the southern cuisine.
One morning, my friend declared she knew the best place in town for a good bowl of grits. Upon arriving at the cozy, corner diner downtown, she turned the car off and told me to put a crack in the window. I told her that living in Los Angeles, people really didn’t do that but I remember it from growing up in Kansas City, Mo. Effortlessly, she rolled a crack in the driver’s side window. I followed hastily already tasting the buttery grits in my mouth. She turned and looked at me then spoke with hesitance in her voice.
“What’s that?”, she asked.
“I thought you were going to put a crack in the window.”
“That’s a crack?,” she asked sarcastically.
Now feeling totally self conscious I affirmed, “Yeah, this is the kind of window crack I used to do in the summertime in Kansas City.”
“Well this ain’t Missouri, this is Mississippi! You better put a bigger crack in that window as hott as it is out here!”
I gave the handle on the window a few more turns to open it up.
She encouraged me, “A little more.”
I carefully cranked it until I gained her nod of approval, “Like this?”
“Yeah! Now that there is a Mississippi window crack!”
The funny part about this story is how serious it got! It was almost a borderline argument. But as we walked in the diner, we laughed and joked how that would be a good title for a poem and who was going to write it first. Well, here is my book of short stories that chronicle the tales fed to me through the trees, music, and people I met during my time spend in Jackson. Instead of vacationing in the Bahamas or Paris, take a visit down in the deep south to a part of history, your history, our history. You ever heard the saying, “There’s the United States and then there’s Mississippi?” It’s the truth! Go feel it for yourself!
PS – The grits were delicious!