Poetry, Read This Book

Read This Book for Black History Month: The 100 Best African American Poems

For 80 days, I’ve opened up The 100 Best African American Poems and read one poem a day.  With 20 days to go, I’ve got a few weeks of reading left. What a perfect way to start the day during Black History Month, reading our most prolific Black poets in this beautiful collection edited by Nikki Giovanni. 

In the wake of the Black Lives Matters protests, I read several books about racism and was struck by the concept of”othering” as explained by Toni Morrison, in The Origin of Others. I had experienced that “othering” regard when I lived in France, but it had never prevented me from getting a job, or a place to live, or eating in a restaurant, or staying in a hotel. What if it had? What if that were my experience here, at home, in my own country? The fact is, this is the experience of many BIPOC Americans and residents in the US, an ugly truth I can no longer ignore.

When 100 Poems arrived at my local book store, I was overfull with new thoughts and concepts from the many books I had read. I surrendered myself to poetry where I could immerse myself in the familiar realm of feelings and I trusted Nikki Giovanni to guide me. Nikki had been my first poet. Her book Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day was the first book of poetry I ever owned, a gift from my mother after I placed in a poetry contest at 17.  As a teen, I had copied whole stanzas of her poems into my journals to express what I had no words for yet.  

The 100 Best African American Poems includes some of America’s finest poets, including Langston HughesGwendolyn BrooksNatasha TretheweyKwame Alexander ( her former student) and Kwame Dawes of Pacific University, where I work. 

If listening to Amanda Gorman’s inspiring reading on Inauguration Day gave you a thirst to hear more from Black poets, you will love The 100 Best African American Poems

Read it all at once, listen to the CD that comes with the book, or do what I am doing: linger over one poem a day. Let it sink in that every person loves, strives, suffers and aims to stand up again. We will stand taller as a nation when we stop seeing each other as an “other” and help everyone to stand up and thrive.

P.S. And yet this is not an after-thought, but an after-discovery: here is another poem written on the occasion of the Biden/Harris Inauguration, by Jericho Brown, one of the poets in The 100 Best African American Poems and a winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Try reading this without tears Go on. Try.

On Writing

Vision Boards: Envision Your 2020 Goals

Every few years I gather with friends before January 1 to envision the year by creating a “vision board.” The resulting collage can be a surprising picture of the unconscious motives behind our goals.

On New Year’s Eve day, five of us sat around our dining room table with a stack of New York Times newspapers, random magazines, gluesticks, scissors, and blank poster board. The house was quiet, save for a Spotify playlist of café favorites. Just days before, my stepdaughter’s children’s laughter rang through the house. I could still see them sitting at this same table with napkins tucked under their chins.

I flipped through magazines, thinking vaguely about my 2019 goals: the unfinished ones – an interrupted blog and my middle grade characters stuck in Purgatory in Act II – and the finished ones – a novel submission, a new job, deeper friendships, a garden planted, and a daughter launched from college to Africa. My 2020 To Do List included returning to the blog, and getting those characters out of Purgatory and into an agent’s in-box.

As I skimmed newspapers, headlines jumped out at me. SO MUCH IS COMPETING FOR A CHILD’S ATTENTION. No kidding. Clip, clip, clip. Was this about my desire to put books in the hands of children, or the memory of my seven-year-old grandson playing Mario Cart?  

Turning another page, I saw a young woman with arms reaching out as she released a bird in the air. One night that week by a warm fire, my daughter and I had talked about reaching for our goals. How could we support each other’s efforts? The outstretched arms reminded me of our conversation. Clip, clip, clip. Was this a vision of me reaching for my goals? Or supporting my daughter? Did it matter?

If you follow a strict interpretation of vision boards, yeah, it kinda matters. Vision boards became popular through a book and a film called The Secret which espoused the idea that “like attracts like.” According to this Law of Attraction, envisioning what you want can attract your goal to you. A new car, a different house, a slimmer waistline, more money – if you focus on your vision and believe it already exists as a reality somewhere, the real goal will manifest in your life. You send the message to the Universe and the Universe hits reply. Easy peasy

I don’t want to diss the Universe but this lacks a crucial element: action. I’m all for believing in my goals, and Lord knows I need to bring more focused attention to them, but that’s not the same as taking tangible steps. Like what St. Ignatious of Loyola had in mind: Pray as if everything depends on God; work as if everything depends on you. You’ve got to do the actual work. 

In the end, I liked how my board turned out. It had way more to do with conscious or unconscious thoughts of my children or children in general than with my goals. It was like sending my goals to a playground with cousin Imagination in hand. What a wild ride that can be. 

To make your own vision board, you need: poster board or some stiff paper, some newspapers and a magazine or two, scissors, a glue stick, and colored pens. Also, don’t spend an entire day doing this. Save a little time for actually writing.


Why Is Oregon So SMART?

Why is Oregon so SMART? Because Oregon wants to help every child in the state become a reader.

Which is why today I signed up as a volunteer reader.

SMART – Start Making a Reader Today – matches volunteers with young school children whose teachers recommend them for an extra hour of reading a week. Volunteer readers commit to working at school with a student for the whole school year, either reading a book together, or listening while the child sounds out letters and words.  

We’re all voracious readers in our house.

Here’s a cause I wholeheartedly support. I read to my children every single day – not because I wanted them to hurry up and read to themselves but because I understood how literacy would benefit them.

For example, stories provide rich material to help children develop their inner and outer life.

A story can be a window into an experience they don’t already know, like sailing the sea or going up in a rocket or standing up to a bully. Sometimes, a story is a mirror that reflects the child’s own life, like visiting grandma or growing a garden or being a good friend or having two dads. 

A few of the picture books and middle grade readers we brought when we moved.

My own children benefitted from both kinds of stories and more. We read stories that made them laugh, fired up their imaginations, and soothed them before bed. They heard poetry and history and myths and folktales. Through the hundreds of books and stories we read, they absorbed a rich vocabulary of words, some of which we did not necessarily use at home – specific words about sciencey things I didn’t know, or silly, made-up words like vermicious knids and oompa-loompa. They also heard stories in French, the second language in our home. Each child had favorite books that tied them to tales from their Papa’s country.

As I said, I wasn’t in a hurry for my children to read for themselves, but I understood that reading to them early on would prepare them to learn. Research on literacy shows that children who are prepared to read have more self-confidence, do better in school, take more advanced courses, graduate high school, and go to college. Literacy contributes to their emotional well-being, and their eventual economic prosperity. 

The SMART program aims to improve reading outcomes in Oregon by increasing the chances for all children to become literate. Now that’s a cause I can get behind.