I was in a coffee shop three years after my grandmother died, and I wanted to write a poem. My father was going through this legal battle with my uncle over my grandmother’s house over why they should sell it. My father, the executor of her estate (though it had been given to all three of her living children), had to sign off on whatever they decided. My father wanted to keep the house. They built it from a shack with an outhouse to a three bedroom house with indoor plumbing, a living room (also doubling as my grandmother’s prayer room), and an eat-in kitchen. My grandfather, apparently in a drunken stupor, burned it down the last day my father saw him alive, and then left. My grandmother and her children re-built the house. The house, you should know, is located less than a mile from the waterfront in Charleston, South Carolina. You could stand on her green concrete porch and look out and see water. When they moved there, in the 1960′s, it was the only neighborhood at the time that blacks could own property. My grandparents bought two plots of land and settled down. Flash forward to late 90′s, early 2000′s, and the whole community was aging (like my grandmother) and real estate agents were swooping in and offering large sums of money for such “prime” real-estate. Pennies, probably for them; big, big dollar signs for my uncle who was waiting out my grandmother’s death.
Because my father is a lover and not a fighter, he sold the house. My uncle bought it back and flipped it and sold it to someone (who knows?) and after my uncle died, the last few times I visited Charleston, all I could do was drive by my grandmother’s house and peer from the car. We were wanderers. I thought this was similar to the Biblical Israelites’ travels through the desert looking for a home. I sat down and wrote the poem.
I’ve mentioned 2006 several times on this blog. It was sort of my poetic awakening. My first Cave Canem retreat happened that year, the 10th year anniversary in New York City, and I also took a trip to Chicago for the Gwendolyn Brooks Conference. Before Cave Canem, I had the chance to meet several fellows through my roommate, Raina, who brought poets down for this high school poetry festival at Chapel Hill. We also traveled to the Virginia Festival of the Book that year, to the reading which celebrated the publication of Gathering Ground, and I thought: I want to be a part of this family. Before all of these conferences, though, I’d received notification that Nikky Finney was still soliciting submissions for her anthology about black poetry focusing on the South. I thought: I’m a southern girl. I write poems. I printed out some poems and wrote my first cover letter (oh what I would give to see what that cover letter had said today) and put it in the mail.
I’d forgotten about the submission…that I had, for the first time, sent poems out into the world for someone to consider to publish. At our apartment in Carrboro, North Carolina, Raina was usually gone by the time I got home from class, so I checked our mail. One day there was a small envelope from Cave Canem. I settled onto the couch to open it.
My first yes.
My poem “Israelites” was chosen to be included in The Ringing Ear. I remember the day: it was bright outside, and Spring had broken.
Flash-forward to AWP 2007 in Atlanta. Patricia Smith had graciously offered me her couch in her hotel room, and because I was a student, I paid a few dollars to attend. I hopped in my Honda, and drove down from Chapel Hill. It was raining the whole drive, and my windshield wipers were broken. All I remember was holding the steering wheel firm and listening to Me’Shell Ndegeocello’s “Comfort Woman” and praying that I make arrive safely. I made it. The first panel I went to was one with a bunch of black poets on it. I got there early, joining a few people in the room. The woman in front of me had these gorgeous locks (I was only a year into my locking phase, and it looked it), and I recognized it as Nikky Finney. I had Poet-Rock-Star-Syndrome: that is, arguing with yourself over words to say to someone who’s written great great books that you are teaching yourself how to write better poems with, and you want to say, “Thank You,” without coming off as goofy or silly or childish. In addition to Poet-Rock-Star-Syndrome, I also had the “first-love” symptoms: Here was the first person who said yes to my poetry in a way that would make my poetry public. I would love her forever for that. I do, still.
So I sat behind her for a minute, with The Ringing Ear in my hand. Do I get her to sign it? What do I say? She hadn’t seen me come in; she was flipping through the pages of the conference program. So I furtively got up and moved to the row she was on…as if it were my intention to sit there all along. I put my hand on the chair between us to signal my presence. I said something like:
“Hi, I’m DeLana Dameron. I really love your poetry, and I wanted to thank you, because this (I held up the book) was my first publication. Thank you so much.”
She held her hands together in prayer, and did a slight bow. She said, I was welcome, and it was so great to meet the people she included in the book. She wished that she had her copy so that I could sign her book. We exchanged a few more words before the panel started, and I never got her to sign my book…
This last AWP in Washington, DC, Nikky Finney’s name was something like a greeting. “Hey! Good to see you! How are you?? Have you seen Nikky’s new book?” Each exchange I participated in or witnessed went along those similar lines. People would be in mid-conversation and someone would hold up a book: “Have you read it yet?” or, “I need to go get the book.” It became contagious, and not confined to the days of AWP: a facebook friend lamented how she was on a quest to find Nikky Finney’s book, to no avail.
When I left AWP on Saturday, I traveled to South Carolina (also another thing we have in common, being Carolina sisters) by train. Ten long hours and only two books from the conference with me. I picked up Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split and devoured it. Really. I have another story about how it was sitting on the table with me in the lounge car, and this man turns and looks and says, “What’s that book about?” and I say, “Poetry,” and he says, “Oh. It looks like it should be a book about divorce,” and I smile and think about the poems about Bush & his administration, especially the poems about Condoleeza Rice, and I think: maybe it is about a certain type of divorce…but I digress. The book brought me back to 2006: at the Cave Canem 10th Anniversary reunion. There I was, sitting in this huge auditorium at the faculty’s reading, so high up, surrounded by so many people gathered to hear poetry. The entire faculty read. I remember Afaa M. Weaver at the end calling out the names of our poetic ancestors to close out the night, and Sonia Sanchez reading from Does Your House Have Lions? (a book I continue to love), and Kwame Dawes reading his poems in a voice that no matter what he’s reading sounds like a song….and then, I remember Nikky Finney reading her poem, “Penguin, Mullet, Bread,” and being transformed, and then awed when she started in on the Condoleeza Suite Poems, and thought: this is brilliant. I want this in a book. And that was five years ago. And I waited this long. And now I have those moments in a book. I’m excited that she’ll be doing more readings and appearances in the future regarding the important (IMPORTANT) poems surrounding her own and our recent American history. The introduction alone is fire. But, I’ll leave you with a piece of the Suite, a piece I remember Nikky Finney reading in that big auditorium. “Concerto no. 11: Condoleeza and the Chickering”
“When she is a girl she learns to play to the Italian
in her blood. She is third-generation Black girl with
sensual, graceful, doing fingers. No other Black girl
in Bombingham, with the sound of music emerald
set so deep in her heart, has ever been told over
Sunday dinner, while the gravy is still passing through
the air, King is crazy.
In the future, when she plays Secretary of State on the
world stage, the black keys will always be a stretch.”
–from Head Off & Split, Northwestern University Press, 2011