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By DéLana R.A. Dameron

 

 

My great, great poet friend, Randall Horton suggested to me a while ago–ok, several years ago–that I read Wrapped In Rainbows, a biography of Zora Neale Hurston. I was looking for a book to read at the time. I wrote it down on my to-read list, and kept moving. Two years ago, I walked down the hill to the Harlem Book Festival in sweltering heat (it’s always in the thick of summer, on a main drag of Harlem that has little trees. We need to fix that) to check out what it was about. It was several avenues long, filled with food and African-print clothing and rows and rows of books. I remember passing by the Penguine table and seeing big posters advertising the publication of another friend’s book, R. Dwayne Bett’s A Question of Freedom. I picked up a postcard and kept strolling down the aisles. I came across a table for $5.00 books, and stopped to check it out. Right where I stopped to browse, there it was: Wrapped in Rainbows.

The book is over 400 pages. That’s a big commitment, I thought. I bought it, because I said I would, but it stayed on my bookshelf for over a year–past another Harlem Book Festival, and into the colder months of last year. During that time, I’ve been trying to clear some space in my studio as my books are taking over my life. I thought this was charming at first, until I realized I also want to live and not trip over books. I had to look long and hard at what I had around me, and purged books and decided to be on a book-buying moratorium for a while and really try to get through the ones I already purchased, the books I had already around me. I picked up Wrapped in Rainbows, which I had tried to start several times before (the underlining and marginal notes up to page 50 or so indicated that). This past December, I committed to it.

In addition to just being an important book about an important writer, Wrapped in Rainbows documents a black woman writer’s life in a time when it was difficult and almost impossible to be. I can’t count how many times it was mentioned, but an important echo throughout the book was that many decisions Ms. Zora made all throughout her writing life were to accomplish this dream of “Making a living as a writer” or “Making her writing pay for her living.” Which, I think the second distinction is most important. Ms. Zora seemed to not want an extravagant life–maybe that was impossible for her, coming from very meagre upbringing in Eatonville, moving around the country, landing for a time in New York City, with only her words–and her hands, if she had to take on domestic work–to support her. She seemed blessed to be awarded some of the prestigious writing awards and was funded by the schools she attended to do anthropological work, which she seemed especially interested in, but all for the means to produce some writing with her discoveries. I think, growing up, and knowing this about Ms. Zora, that she also had a background in anthropology, and that helped her know more about the characters she wrote about, helped me justify my inclination to choose History as a field of study when I got to college and realized I didn’t want to be reading the same British writers over and over in efforts to acquire an English Literature degree. I wanted stories. I wanted narratives. I wanted to read stories about other people, understand the places from which they came.

What I didn’t know about Ms. Zora was her patron saint, whom she called Godmother, the woman who funded a lot of Ms. Zora’s quiet hours and jaunts back and forth from New York to Florida and around the south with Langston Hughes to write plays and collect folklore and write short stories. I think reading it now, after I’ve lived a few years “as a writer” (for, my family didn’t use that label with me until I had published a book…even though I felt all along I was a writer), and understanding what that means financially–which is to say, it means not much at all unless you find funding from outside sources. The Godmother figure in Ms. Zora’s life could be paralleled to organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts or places that award stipend money w/o needing to do some type of “work” in exchange, but that let you live where you are, work for a bit on your own endeavors, and just write.

It was heartbreaking to read this book now, to see that what I wanted to do–to write only, to write enough that it pays for my living–is unattainable without giving away another part of myself. We say, as writers today, it’s impossible to make a living as a writer w/o at least a teaching job. My mother asks me constantly if “what I want to do in life” is teach, because that’s what I do now in part with academic advising at a university, and I pause for a moment, and think about it, and I say: “No. I understand it as a means to an end, and I like doing it. But that is not my passion. Ultimately, I just want to write.”

This same passion was the undercurrent for Wrapped in Rainbows, and that same passion seemed to fuel Ms. Zora’s every decision. In all of the documented exchanges between Ms. Zora and anyone else in her life, she’d tell about whatever it was she was doing, and mention how hard at work she was on her plays, on her research for her next project in Haiti, or on her second or third novel. When she had what she needed: a room of her own, and enough food to sustain her, she wrote freely and produced some of her best work. Their Eyes Were Watching God was produced under these conditions, and written in the course of several months! She was not, at that time, juggling academic appointments, and grading papers and preparing lectures. She was at her typewriter or in her apartment or small house with the beautiful garden with pen and paper in hand, writing.

I think the passion for writing, and only writing made her make other “sacrifices”–several times she entered into a marriage and then we would find her in one part of the country, and her husband in another part of the country, and she would report to whoever she was communicating with that she was in that part of the country fastidiously writing. Always writing.

It was when she had to use whatever money she made to pay for other things than “living” that her writing changed. I was heart broken to hear about the charges brought against her, and how it damaged her reputation and her own resolve as someone resilient, someone just wanting to put some words on a paper. She received an advance that could have helped her produce another great, great work of literature, but that money had to go to pay back lawyer fees, and such. She was no longer writing to live, but writing to pay back. There was a different desire to get a book out into the world. The context of what writing was and meant and could be for her, changed. Writing had to pay for other things.

I would be remiss to not mention the sections of the book that mention Ms. Zora’s time in Harlem, and her relationships with other writers and thinkers and visionaries. What is so beautiful about not having so many technological advances then is that these exchanges were documented somewhere that other people could find them, and later, write books about them. That scares me when I see everything turning to electronic this, and electronic that. Yes, this blog post is electronic, and could be erased from the world and there might have been no proof that I had written it. And my e-mails to Randall, and our gchat conversations. But maybe I’m old school, and the Historian in me resists this to some degree. I still hand-write anything I’ve ever intended to type up and send out for publication. To hand-write is part of my process. To document on paper. To write a card by hand to say, “Thank you for your constant push,” and put a stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox.

Where’s this going? I don’t know. I think we’re losing something and gaining something each day as writers. We sacrifice the word to pay the bill. We can polish the word better when the bills are paid. In Wrapped in Rainbows, there’s a section of photographs of Ms. Zora. My favorite one is her sitting at what looks like an entertainment tray holding her typewriter. The chair looks to be like a dining room chair. Her hair is held down by a bandana tied in the front. The room is small, and i think, yes, that’s a mattress right behind her. She’s slouched over a bit, because the table only comes up to her knees, and is probably not ergonomic, but she’s doing it. Her fingers are pressing keys, and a piece of paper is sticking out of the type writer.

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By DéLana R.A. Dameron

 

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

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By DéLana R.A. Dameron

 

 

When I was younger, and my mother was trying to stave off my tendency towards following my dad around and doing everything he did, she gave me “girl-y” things. My sister and I owned the Barbie Dream House, thousands of Barbies, and other play things. When I was old enough to want for jewelry and other bodily adornments, she started gifting me jewelry boxes. One was this porcelain jewelry box that she made in her Home Ec class in high school. Thinking back on it now, she called it her Alabaster box, for all of its Christian connotations, but I remember it as this heavy shoe-box sized thing that I was supposed to put necklaces in, and it was painted Mother of Pearl, and if you turned it around under a light, portions of it changed colors. It was good enough to sit on my dresser and hold an earring or two.

One night we got into a fight, and while I don’t remember the fight, I remember being close to this thing my mother made and loved and had given me in the hopes that I would love it, too. I picked up the jewelry box, and threw it across the room. It hit the door jamb first. Then fell to the floor. Ironically, the hard wood of the door jamb didn’t break it, but the carpeted floor did. Maybe it was the combination of the two. I remember my mother’s look on her face. Suddenly, at the breaking of the jewelry box, it was no longer about the fight. It was clear, I had ended that. Then, it was about the jewelry box that she had made that I had broken. When I saw her face, I wanted so badly to not be the person that made it that way. My throwing the jewelry box was about her understanding that she hurt me somehow, and that I wanted, any way I could, for her to understand my hurt, and I used whatever power I could, and that was destroying something in the process.

She walked away and didn’t say anything. There was this broken jewelry box between us. I probably stood there for a moment figuring out how to fix it–like my father, I’m always looking for ways to fix something broken, to try and save something–and then I realized, there was no fixing it, and even if I did try to put it together again, it wouldn’t be the same jewelry box my mother made. I guess I got a broom and dust pan and swept it up into the trash can.

***

Besides trying to articulate this into a poem or some piece of writing, I think this situation is kind of like writing/writing life for me. I find myself looking for ways to insert/assert myself. People are living their lives, and going about their business, and I come in and sit between them for a bit. Maybe I stir things up. Maybe I say some things that might not feel good. Maybe I might write a poem or a blog or a letter stating my discontents. Then I watch things break around me. I watch faces shift, and I look at what my hands might have done, and immediately, I want to try and fix it. Or write more about it, thinking perhaps the writing is doing the fixing, that a poem will glue the broken pieces together.

What was beautiful, I think, about the moment described above, is that I came to my mother hours later, after the dust had settled, and I said, “I’m sorry.” I was old enough to have my hair in four plaits on my head with plastic barretts at the end. She looked at me, and wiped my face, stroked my hair, and said, “It’s all right.”

***

Besides a certain level of selfishness–I’m old enough to understand it–and maybe, reckless thinking, I can find reasonings for launching that jewelry box across the room. Someone was hurting me. Someone was not listening to my hurt. I had to take more drastic measures in order to –what I thought would happen–have my voice heard. Maybe writing is also like that, and publishing, and writing the things we think our families and friends and lovers will hate us for. I remember at the Cave Canem retreat in 2006, Toi Derricott gave that reading with Samiyah Bashir (Ms. Lucille read, and Cornelius, and others..) but Toi either talked about or read it from her book The Black Notebooks, that in preparation for her writing about her mother and her tenuous relationship with her mother she had to, “Be prepared for [her mother] to never speak to her again.” I imagine there was a broken jewelry box between them, too. And an effort to put the pieces back together, to un-say what was said, even though the sayer felt the urge to speak her truth. But isn’t that daring? Isn’t that, writing? To be so convicted by your truth-telling that you’re willing to say what needs to be said for your greater good, for others’ greater good, even if it might hurt someone you love…even if it might widen the chasm between you?

***

My own mother and I had a tenuous relationship. I believed that, when my parents were going through their affairs, my mother had been the one to throw our proverbial jewelry box in the middle of the room and walk out. I realize now, I created my own narratives to the story based on who I valued more in the family, and that no one is innocent in those situations. I wrote about it to process my own dealings with it, to consider my own inheritances of coming of age in a family that openly fought about their infidelities, and how that might have marred my own vision of love and marriage and family.

***

Kwame Dawes runs the South Carolina Poetry Initiative through the University of South Carolina–the organization in which my manuscript was selected for publication. After the book was published, I was invited down to my hometown to do a reading/workshop along with poets Sharon Olds and Rosanna Warren. After our talks about “Risk-taking,” I took my own risk. I read this long poem –the central piece to my new manuscript–which maps out my own discovery and dealings with my parents’ affairs and interrogating how that affected my sister and my own relationship (you could argue, lack there of, or violent, or, unstable/unsafe, at the time) with men. I call it a type of inheritance. We inherited this. Either way, with Toi’s words behind me, and with the theme of the summit being “The Art of Risk in Poetry,” I read the poem, all 8 sections of it, and looked out into the audience and saw my mother and father sitting there, in the back row, listening.

Again, the Porcelain Jewelry Box.

When I got to my parent’s house, I was trying to figure out what words to say to my parents. On my way to the airport, my father asked me–he’s NEVER asked me, you should understand–for a copy of the poem. My mother, turned to me and said, “I know you were scared to read that poem when we walked in. You shouldn’t be. I understand this is part of your story, too.” And I said, “Thank you,” and we said, “I love you’s” and I got on the plane back to New York.

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My first Cave Canem circle was in 2006. I was 21, the youngest member at the time in all of Cave Canem. The oldest member at the time was Carrie Allen McCray, 93 and living in my hometown of Columbia, South Carolina. It was an interesting parallel–so many generations of black poetry in one space. My first Cave Canem was magical.

What happens in the circle stays in the circle, we say, but I remember listening to stories of people who had gone off to an MFA program, usually in an all-white town, so thus, an all-white program (save them, The One), and the thought that they had a chance to gather at a table with non-white poets and share their stories and their poems opened up their tears to flow.

Quick educational history: I went to a high school where there was a significant number of minorities on campus. In the honors and AP courses, however, that number was inverted and it was usually 3:25 (black:white ratio). The neighborhood I grew up in was all black, but those my age didn’t go to the same school I did; my father drove me across the tracks, down the road (or interstate, for high school) to the “better” schools. When I was choosing colleges, a big part of my decision-making was not only the caliber of the school, but the percentage of African-American students on campus. I had set this arbitrary number, and decided I would not apply to a school below 8% African-American students. This knocked many private schools off my list. Ironically, the school with the highest percentage at the time–17% African-American students– was the University of South Carolina, but that was 20 minutes from my parents house, and I refused to stay in Columbia any longer. I came across the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, a modest 11% African American, and felt that it would “feel right.” It did. But, like my high school, once I got on the class-room level, it was often times only me. I remember sitting in an English class titled “20th c. Major American Authors” and I was the only black face in the room. We were to discuss, as the first text, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, and I wanted to know what it was going to be like listening to a room of white people talking about a black text. I refused to speak. I took notes, and looked engaged, but I refused to speak in this class for these four sessions, and knew the teacher could/would not call on me.

I took my position as sole minority as a position of power. They’d quote Douglass and look at me. It was a quote. They’d speak about the perils of being a black man/person in America, and look to me to speak. I took notes on every word they said. I would speak to anyone after class, should they really care to know what I felt, and I did, and I talked to the teacher in office hours, but I felt I was granted a–if tense, if jaded–first-row seat to being a fly on the wall of white folks talking about black people. I was okay with being “the only one.”

I think I was okay with that, and with being the only one in the few writing courses I took while at Chapel Hill, because I had a community outside of UNC Chapel Hill where I got my source of nourishment. I was living with a friend who was a Cave Canem poet at the time, and a fierce writer, and someone who pushed me to write, and pushed me to submit for publication. She’d introduced me to this writer’s group, the Carolina African American Writer’s Collective, and I could join the table of professional black writers on the first Saturday of the month, and at the time I was 19 and timid and they encouraged me, and loved me and whatever young writing I brought to the table and gave me the courage to enter the world of publishing and writing with an erect spine. So that when I’d go back to the workshop at Chapel Hill, and sat at the table with a white male instructor, and all-white workshop participants, I had the words to defend myself, to fire back, to ignore their demands to explain my desire to write about black things, to invoke Southern dialect, to play with syntax and rhythm by the addition or subtraction of words. I had the ammunition to fire back at my instructor and demand he open up a space for me at the table and see my work as equivalent to everyone else in the room.

I want to express this idea that I received my comfort and confidence in my self as a black writer outside of the Institution of the writing workshop on campus, the place I was paying to receive credits to prove that I had acquired something. It was outside of the classroom where I learned to hold my ground, so that when I came inside, I had my boxing gloves on.

So, when I got to Cave Canem that year in 2006, it felt comfortable, home. It wasn’t revelatory, but it offered enough of a safe space that I could build deep relationships–I’ve met some of my best friends that summer–could write about the things that scared me, without having to have that straight spine in the room. And the instructors were black, the person guiding my poems on the workshop table were black. And some of the poems that were brought to the table my three summers at Cave Canem were some of my strongest yet.

This is a long introduction to what I was preparing to speak about, what the title suggests. I remember leaving Cave Canem my second year and having such high hopes about my next adventure: pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry up in the Northeast. The BIG northeast. I was a southern girl who had lived most of her life in the Carolinas (North & South, save the first three years of my life in Indiana which I don’t remember), and it was my first time moving to the Mid-Atlantic region, my first time living so far away from my family and comfort zone, but, I thought: I’m running into the arms of the people who support me. My program will be near The Big Apple. My program had an abundance of colored folks on faculty. My program has even more colored folks coming to read on campus, most of them I’d met during my years at Cave Canem. I approached this venture as a type of homecoming. 

I hope to describe to you the extent to which I was wrong (and sometimes, right) without [further] offending anyone:

I was 22 and only months out of college. I drove the twelve hours in my Honda Civic from South Carolina to the northeast. All of my worldly possessions that I felt I could not live without were stuffed in my two-door car, affectionately named Nuba. She was a trooper, and only asked for some gas every other state. I was moving in with a friend of a friend. I’d never met her, but my friend knew me and my friend knew her, and knew that we would get along pretty well. Because I was more concerned with living with someone I “knew,” I sacrificed proximity to my campus. This was a boon, however, in that rent was cheaper and the streets were quieter, and I only had to move my car once a week, and structured my schedule around it. I’d stopped working at the State Employees Credit Union as a teller a few weeks before and had several hundred dollars saved up, enough, I thought, to get me until the money for my teaching (note: adjunct pay is not the same as a teaching fellowship. lesson one) would come in, and if it was dispensed how I planned, I should have enough to get by. I never expected more than that: just enough to pay my bills, to eat, to get to class so that I could dare venture to write some poems.

Before I get to the dynamics of the classroom and the institution, I care to take a moment to discuss what happened on the home front. I always believed that your home space determines how you enter and maneuver in the world, and if your home ain’t right, well, it’s that much harder for you to be a fully-functioning citizen. Long story short: I only had enough money saved up for rent and things to get me through Sept 1 (I moved July 27). I had been informed that through a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, my first check for my adjunct teaching gig would not be dispersed until the end of October. I had a long, deep gap to fill.

Insert community. At the call of a dear friend of mine, several beautiful, beautiful people from Cave Canem opened up their purses and helped me pay my rent for October. I’m forever indebted to them. My roommate, who was still in undergraduate school at the time b/c she took a year off, had applied, before I arrived, for Food Stamps, and that is how she put food on the table. She was Muslim, and a staunch believer in community and charity work (more so than some of my Christian counterparts hold), and saw that I was struggling, and as she would do her grocery shopping at Trader Joe’s before returning to the apartment, she asked if she could get me anything. I found that a bag of pasta and a jar of sauce could go a long way. As well as a bag of rice and a bag of beans.

On the institution front, I sought out help in anyway I could: can I take on more classes? Is there part-time work here? There? The people who opened their pockets were then financially invested in my experience in this new venture. I’d tell them how I felt, no holds barred. Now I know better. I know that despite my amount of hurt, I have to guard my feelings, my words. Words can be misconstrued and used against you. I had some difficulties with my peers, wishing they were more challenging, wishing I was getting more for this education that I was paying and starving for. I said these things as well. Often, someone would ask how I was doing at a reading I was attending, and I’d think about my Friday nights spent kneeling in my bathtub washing my laundry by hand because that expense could get me to class, and I’d start crying right in their face. I’d cry because I never imagined this venture to go where it did.

And I wondered about the colored folk on the faculty and community in the institution and who could help me. Some of them offered words. Some of them told me they had heard news that I was speaking about the program to others. Some of them offered hugs and a shoulder. Still, I went home to my cupboard of food purchased by my roommate by her own ration of Food Stamps. I wondered why I wasn’t getting the support I needed from the colored folks in the institution, the ones who brought me there, who sold me the program and convinced me that it was going to be a glorious time, and I thought it was, hell, that’s why I went so blindly into it. I wasn’t expecting them to open their personal wallets in order for me to eat a meal that was purchased with real dollars. I was just looking for help.

Anyways. I went to the person in charge. That’s how I’ve always learned to get things done. Folks will talk your ear off for days. Will tell you what you want to hear, will tell you I’m sorry, will listen and watch you cry. But if they are not in a position (or not willing to use their position) to make changes, well then you go to the source. So I went to the person holding the money, and felt I made a pretty decent argument about my situation, as well as tried to clear-up the third-party information being gathered and delivered to them behind my back. Maybe people don’t like to discuss the hard stuff in the flesh. Maybe it makes them uncomfortable. My intentions were translated into something so totally horrible in my face that I decided trying to erase what people said-I-said-about-them-and-the-institution was futile, and the person in charge flat-out stated that my financial situation was not going to change by any of their doing.

And what’s sad is, I thought my journey was unique to me and my journey to the Northeast, small-town-girl getting swallowed by the big city type situation. But it keeps happening again and again to my young poet-friends-of-color. And then I started understanding the tears shed in the opening circles so many times at Cave Canem. The people who went to a place thinking they were given a ticket to a great big kingdom. Only to find that the ticket they were cashing in was not at all what they were promised.

Either way, I think we get sold into believing to suffer is the first step of success. I think the person-in-charge I went to for support thought that if I were denied, I’d stay because, well, where else would I go? What else would I do? They wouldn’t have to budge, and I’d have no choice but to work it out and make it happen. Oh, but to know me and my resolve. The next day, after I was told there was “no reason to for me to believe that once I got to that institution that I would be eligible for additional funding,” I returned to the office with a letter stating that when the fall semester was over, I would not be returning.

I felt like I was being pushed into a corner. I was not going to die in the mousetrap. I was going to be the mouse biting its ankle off to get out.

Eventually, I left. And I can eat real food again. And days, I drop off my laundry to be washed and folded. And I still write poems. And I still love those people, still believe in the promise of the institution, and believe it can be great for someone else–and it has been!–but I wish to stop this cycle of brown-kid-goes-to-study-poetry and gets-beat-down by the institution, by the people she/he hoped would support him most, and has to find his salvation in the world. Why must we look outside. What’s the purpose of having an inside?

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By DéLana R.A. Dameron

 

I’m still transcribing some panel thoughts and general ideas of AWP, but I wanted to send a note in its place. Sort of like flashes of thoughts going on in my mind at 2am, when I’m just getting back from my sister’s Super Bowl Party, and my belly is full, and I don’t want to go to sleep with all of this left to digest, so I spent some minutes on facebook, and heard myself humming in response to thinking/reading some of the status messages of my friends, a Jill Scott song, sung to a “Brotha”, quoted in parts below: 
 
 Jill Scott’s “Show Me”
 
If I asked you to trust me on all things,
Could you do it?
If I needed you to map your position,
Would you try it?
Your constantly talking about how much you love me, want me, need me, you told me stop talking.
No more conversation necessary.
 
Show me, show me, show me, show me, show me, show me, show me, show me, show me.
Show me, show me, show me, show me, show me.
If I needed you to replenish my faith in brothers,
Could you do it?
If I needed you to be, cool with my strength,
Could you do it?
Your constantly talking about how much you love me, want me, need me, you told me
stop talking.
No more conversation necessary.
 
Warrior keep fightin, I know you’re there.
Keep fightin, warrior I know you’re there.
[Repeat until end]
 
***
I took great, great notes (in my opinion) for yall at AWP. I thought about ways I could convey in words my experience. Those posts will come. I feel like, though, I would be remiss to pass up this timely opportunity to begin a conversation here about Race and Gender (also, Sexuality) and Poetry and Publishing and Prizes. All capital letters.
 
I have to admit, I can’t tell you where I was when the Claudia Rankine and the Academy of American Poet’s panel went down. I think I began to get overwhelmed by the masses of bodies floating up and down the escalotors, in the book fair, streaming in and out of the Mariott hotel, that I grabbed a friend of mine and walked across the bridge to Adam’s Morgan, and took a breath. Someone said it was something like deep sea diving. I agree. I feel like the only way I could survive was if I went to the surface for air. In that survival move, I missed something big.
 
***
 
The poet-men-of-color in my life…those with whom I speak on a near-daily basis about the poetry world and the larger, non-poetry world, know my stance on a lot of things in the list I articulated above. I feel with (I hope) great confidence that I will not alienate them, but, I want to also point to the lyrics that I posted by Jill Scott. They are so simple. But they are so…real. So straightforward. Demonstrative. Show Me. It is so intimate. Jill has such admiration for this person she is speaking to. She wants nothing more than to believe everything that this man is telling her; she wants to believe in the possibility of a “we” or wants to witness this brotha’s powers. But she says simply, “No more conversation necessary/ Show me.”
 
I feel like, the poet-men-of-color in my life will appease me and have conversations with me, and I’m thankful for our hours hashing out poems or essays or fiction or speaking about the mechanics of a poem, and I’m thankful that I have someone that will tell me what they think about my poetry and push me to be better. But Jill says, stop talking. I’m tired of talking. Jill says Show her. I find that to be a constant refrain in my head when my poet-men-of-color friends and I begin to start down the long, winding road about Race and Publishing. We are in the same boat. We can speak in terms like, “We” when we just speak about Race and just speak about Publishing. But when I say, “black women…” the conversation shifts. It is almost like during the women’s movement(s)…black and white women, when speaking about Gender, could use the term “We,” but when the conversation shifted to race, the black women were left alone, and the white women asked, “Can’t we just keep one agenda?” and the black women had to go off and fight their own battles, create their own terms for their own struggles, and the “We” dissipated.
 
***
I’m having this conversation with a friend of mine. He starts in on how hard it is for him as a black man in the world. I believe him; I see it day in and day out…watched many loved ones succumb to the perils of this non-post-racial society. He said it with such authority, like he was the only one that could have that feeling, and I let him own it, I didn’t want to take away or lessen the pain, but I wanted to remind him that there was, in fact, a “We” in this idea of hardship and suffering in the faces of our other constituents in this America. I told him that I felt that if his abuses were in his face and overt, and he could articulate several accounts…then in my experience, black women are invisible, unseen, ignored, and that, too, is a type of oppression and should not be considered greater than or less than his, but should be acknowledged: look, this happens to us. Somehow, I bring in the we, the us, and the conversation shifts, and because I love him for more than our inability to speak about race and gender, I let the conversation shift, and allow my voice to be ignored, and think: you’re accentuating my point right now.
 
***
What’s most fascinating about stalking people’s Facebook pages for status updates to try to piece together what happened with Claudia Rankine (hey, I studied History in college, I’m used to creating narratives out of fragmented information) is that I’ve only seen evidence of the conversation on two male friend’s pages vs countless (I will go back and count) female friend’s page. MAYBE it’s because of the Superbowl? No. I don’t want to be sexist. Because, here I am, having watched the superbowl and posted it..so my argument is invalid. But those two men, for sake of argument, are men of color. One of the two, I’ve counted from my own friend list, mentioned it peripherally. The other is engaging in multiple transations with other women (noted: no men) with regards to Tony Hoagland’s poem “Change” and his depiction of the black female body in a poem. I understand that my count is extremely skewed…I’ve since purged my friends list and have less than 500 people “as friends” on my page, and maybe some man out there is discussing it, and maybe he’ll show up here, on this page, in my comments section, on his own blog, in a literary journal, in the world, and speak out and prove me wrong. What I do know of my count is that not one white male has spoken a word. There were several white women staging solidarity with the black women voicing their opinions, but I have to wonder: why is it that when men of our community are attacked, we (black women) come to the battlefields, to the front lines, and get down in the trenches…but when we are attacked, it is for the most part largely only women who enlist?
 
This is NOT to say that I haven’t had very sympathetic conversations with black men and other men of color backchannel on the phone, on gchat, on facebook chat, in coffeeshops and bars, but Jill Scott says: “Stop talking/No more conversation necessary/show me.” I’m waiting for action. This is also NOT to say that I am waiting for someone else to fight my battles. I’ll fight them when I can and when I feel like others are in danger. Ask my sister (a 4th grader at the time): when I was in preschool, and I thought she was being bullied, I ran to the corner of the playground and kicked the boy where it hurt. I fight. I still find reprecussions for decisions and words I might have uttered years ago. But I feel that if I am hurt or hurting or enduring pain inflicted (physical, emotional, social) upon me by others, I am going to speak out. I’m going to take action in any way I can. Sometimes, it’s not much.
 
I wish that I weren’t such small potatoes. Or invisible. I guess I am saying that I feel like people in positions of privelege within a community should put their privilege to [better] use. That’s like: in first grade, I shared a desk with a girl I thought was my friend. She let me put my crayons (she did not have any, and I had 96!) in her pencil box (I did not have one, and she had one with her name on it). My friend then told me that since my crayons were in her box, they belonged to her now, and she refused to give them back. I tried to play nice and not involve any other parties and mention that this was wrong, and I just wanted my crayons back.  I didn’t want to hurt her–I just wanted my injustice fixed, and found someone that could help me out of  it. I kid ya’ll not–my mama came to my first grade classroom and demand the girl give me back my crayons. That’s what I mean. Someone in a position doing the work. My mama coulda said: it’s all right, people take things, we grieve and move on. She could have. Instead, she recognized someone she cared about was hurting because things were being taken away from her, and she came to my class to ruffle some feathers and straighten things out.
 
***
 
Disclaimer: This post is not to say “All men” or to say “All black men” or even to say “All black women.” It’s just my observations and thoughts and challenges. It’s just my attempt to show the world the conversations I have backchannel…my attempt to continue the conversation.
 
***
 
As per the title, well, I think I nodded too well when I learned the lesson Janie did in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Nanny said, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Oh, to say, “Zora, your words are old now. Things have changed.” Oh, but to say, “Zora. Girl. How you tell it.”
 
 
Can we start a conversation?
 
~DéLana

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By DéLana R.A. Dameron

I’m thankful to be blogging for Tidal Basin Review for the month of February. I have such great plans for this month, and I hope they come across clearly and articulately through this vessel. I maintain my own blog here and there, and find that I’m an avid reader of OPB (Other People’s Blogs), and I’m thrilled to share a new space, meet new poets and writers and lovers of poetry and writing through this.
 
I should be packing for The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference starting tomorrow, but in pure DéLana fashion, I’m stalling—my weekender bag is on my couch in my studio—thinking of ways to write something in here of some worth. Its kind of like my dance with writing: I know there is this thing that needs doing (the poem, the essay, the novel, the play needs to be written) but I find other avenues to walk down instead of the one I am currently facing.  This avoidance reminds me of The War of Art, a book I ran across one day roaming the shelves of a bookstore. The writer makes a list of ways we sabotage ourselves and the art we are pursuing to create and even lists things like sex, work (not the work at hand), cleaning, odd jobs that some how seem most pressing when it is a line of verse we should be putting down on paper. Well, I’m blogging, and hopefully, writing, so maybe I am not avoiding the creation of art, but I am postponing packing my bags to go fellowship with other writers and creators of art.
 
Aside: Part of the prize of being a member of AWP is the subscription to The Writer’s Chronicle, a huge publication that includes job listings, poems, essays, and most times my favorites—interviews. The most recent issue includes a beautiful photo of mama Lucille Clifton, and inside its pages—among other things—an interview conducted by Remica L. Bingham-Risher. You should check out this important archival of history, this important contribution to American letters.
 
But I want to say something about myself in relation to this idea of contributing to American Letters, as a sideways reference to this article, and the offer up a parting gift for the morrow. When I was young, and read The Diary of Anne Frank, before it was a requirement in school, I thought: here are the writings of someone who’s gone, but who is living forever through this book. I thought: I want to create something that outlives me. Then, in high school when I learned Latin, I found the perfect phrase by Horace to express my sentiments, and mostly, why I write:
 
Exegi monumentum aere perennius.
 
“I have erected a monument more lasting than bronze.” And that is what we do when we publish things, when we write about others or ourselves. We create lasting monuments. We write our name in stone [paper] to be read when we’re gone. Or, if we experience them by ear and transcribe them, we are writing others’ stories into stone [paper] and even though mama Lucille Clifton is gone, we can read her words, we can hear her speak, we can look into the eyes behind the cheeks of her smile, and she can still be here.
 
The summer workshop/retreat for black poets, Cave Canem, turned 10 in 2006, my first year as a fellow. Ms. Lucille joined the retreat that summer as a guest, and gave a talk early one morning. Because I can never be found listening to anyone speak without pen and paper (call it ADD? Call it archiving?), I wrote down some things she said, maybe out of context, and maybe they only made sense to what I needed to hear that day, but some of the words I find myself returning to and read again and again, and think: here is a monument:
 
June 24, 2006 Cave Canem Retreat

“When I was [at Howard], Roberta and I were the same age”

“Writing for what [the poem] wants to be”

“Thinking of my own children and them having an image that would reflect them.”

“I am intellectually curious”

“I’m triggered by sound”

“Every living thing has an imagination, but it can be beat out of them.”

“I come from the tradition of and/or.”

“I trust the poet within”

“Poetry is about questions”

“Trying to understand the place of Lucifer”

“Seems like [Lucifer] was just doing what he was supposed to do.”

“David (of the Bible) [was] a poet/warrior”

“Flesh is the coat we unfasten and throw off”

“Some of you are blessed or cursed to see beyond yourselves”

“Poetry knows that I’ll accept it when it comes, and I do”

“I try to write with everything that I am”

“I forget that people forget”

“I come to comfort the afflicted”

“I do not wish to be destroyed”

“If I spent my life consumed with hate, my life would be consumed”

“People ask if I want to heal people I say no, I want to be healed”

“[Angels] came to me, I didn’t go looking for them”

“[Angels] come to you and keep coming, unless you insist on wings”

Shall we erect this monument, here, one that will be more lasting than bronze? Here’s to February and Tidal Basin Review hosting me.
 
DéLana

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Introducing  TBR’s February Blogger,

DéLana R.A. Dameron!

 

DéLana R.A. Dameron

 

DéLana R.A. Dameron holds a B.A. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has a strong interest in the intersections of history and literature. Her debut collection, How God Ends Us, won the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Book Prize, selected by Elizabeth Alexander. Dameron’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, PMS: PoemMemoirStory, 42opus, storySouth, Pembroke Magazine and Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. She has received fellowships from New York University, the Cave Canem Foundation, Soul Mountain and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Dameron currently resides in New York City. 

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