Saturday, July 06, 2019

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with poet Toni Bee

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with poet Toni Bee

With Doug Holder

Toni Bee met me in the backroom of the Bloc 11 Cafe to discuss her life as a poet, mother, woman, activist, African-American, etc... Bee made it clear to me that she doesn't want to be straight-jacketed into any particular label. A formidable figure, with a voice that makes sure it is heard, Bee also exhibits a great deal of warmth. But she is not one who is afraid to spit out the truth no matter how uncomfortable it feels.

Bee, who lives in Cambridge, but has many Somerville connections, said in an interview that she has an affinity for 'odd people,' and being a dues paying member of the group, I asked her about it. She told me, “I probably got that from Jason Wright, the founder of “Oddball Magazine.” Odd people are not embraced within society. I want to embrace them through my poetry and art.”

Now, I am proud to be among the band of three who created the Somerville Poet Laureate position, and as it turns out Bee was the Poet Populist of Cambridge from 2011 to 2013. I asked her what the difference is between a populist poet and a poet laureate. She said, "The poet populist is elected by ballot. Citizens of Cambridge voted for the populist poet, unlike Somerville where a committee selected the poet laureate." According to Bee her tenure in the position was a positive one. She recalled, “ The position gave me a sense of professionalism and also a chance to work with youth—always an emphasis of mine.” Bee has a TV show on Cambridge Access, she ran a venue for music and poetry at the Middle East Restaurant in Central Square, Cambridge-- among the many activities she is and was involved in.

Bee is not a native of Cambridge, but of Boston. She found that living in Cambridge was a good fit for raising her daughter. Bee reflected, “ Cambridge has its problems, but it has less of the violence than I experienced in Boston.”

I asked Bee if we could talk about her being a founding member of the Black Lives Matter group in Cambridge. She said, “No,” but then politely qualified this. She stated, “ I am a believer in 'intersectionality.' I don't want to be known only as an African American woman—because like all people I am many things. I am a woman, poet, activist, mother, daughter. I don't like to be placed in a  pigeon-hold. So I  do discuss it but with that light in mind."

Many poets from Somerville and beyond—have been a great help to Bee. She mentioned a number of them,  Chad Parenteau,  Afaa Michael Weaver, Dexter Roberts, Gilmore Tamny and of course her own mother. But she fondly recalled being a student at Simmons College. She was an older student, with a child, and a limited income-- so it was a tough stint. But she remembers taking the final poetry class that the celebrated poet Afaa Michael Weaver taught  before he retired. She recalled, "His class was inspirational—it was a catalyst for my life as a poet today.”

In her introduction to her poetry collection “22 Again” she writes, ( often in the vernacular) “ The language I use in this book is an amalgam of word rhythms I have been hearing my entire life. Me, my native country—we is an exquisite mix. I celebrate that. My Daddy made sure we met our half-African great-grandma from Jamaica. And I could neva' understand how she was speaking. Mommy, Eartha Mae, were from South Carolina. And when she called home on weekends, her accent became that sing-song I rarely heard, yet adored. R&B and Hip-hop was the background beat. And growing up in Dorchester was madd diverse. My language became otherized; it seeps in my work.”

Toni Bee is yet another creative person I have encountered here-- in the Paris of New England.

This here body

This here body should eat double chocolate donuts when it's bulk is sleepy or rather wait on the peanut butter cocoa cookie it wants this body is a berry batch, batch juice better than chocolate, body This body, is fluffy pillow needing crunches This body thrills on this Slim paper,slim paper, make body slimmer, do I care if my body swings? do that speak to my pride? In other countries they'd say I was rich, praise body for its excess, its fertileness, in this land just bulk. Yell -body move quicker- put fork down faster- stop eat cheese- leave chocolate alone-forever unless the oxiAnti kind, dear this body you pretty amazing body, don't fuss at the teen, stop wanting so very much more, Body wonders what to do next, first no eat nasty donuts tomorrow or the 30th, yawn, crunch, take stairs, Love? make it stretch you. Body fly your body flies your body is fly, fly my body be

Twoxism Poems by Claudia Serea. Photos by Maria Haro.

by Michael Markham

Poems by Claudia Serea. Photos by Maria Haro.
8th House Publishing, Montreal, Canada. December 2018.
116 pages. Color. Paperback.

is a collaboration between two artists, the poet Claudia Serea and photographer Maria Haro. The basic premise is the pairing of objects in a photograph and then the pairing of that photo with a poem. The photos are essentially documentary, being of found objects paired up, sometimes in suggestive ways.

The objects themselves are ordinary and day-to-day—things we might easily overlook or take for granted as we move about our hurried lives: traffic lights, bicycles chained together, a pair of abandoned shoes. A photo showing the shadows of a table and chair on a sidewalk is paired with the following poem:

A question for you

Tell me,
if I caught your shadow
and kissed it,

would you walk only
on the sunny side of the streets

so you wouldn't lose
my kiss?

The essential art, in a book such as this, is the collaboration itself, with one art form provoking or enhancing the other. When this is successful—as it certainly is here—the image and the poem engage and tease out associations that neither, on its own, might so easily suggest. The following is one of my favorites, which reflects also on the fact that Haro (Spain) and Serea (Romania) are both foreign-born New Yorkers, exploring, documenting, and commenting on their surroundings. A photograph of two paper signs taped together onto a wall reading "WET PAINT! / PINTURA FRESCA!" is paired with the following poem:

About languages

In what language
does the house painter paint?

Does the wind in Chile
speak Spanish to the trees?

Do the gulls over the Hudson River cry
Whitman's verse?

And what about
the Statue of Liberty?

In what language does she
keep silent?

As someone who's worked in a number of artistic disciplines—visual art, photography, music, poetry—I've always been interested in art that is multidisciplinary. There's a dynamic between the various art forms that is always suggestive and open to exploration. This interest extends to artists of differing backgrounds or disciplines or attitudes who collaborate, as if in conversation. This book is an excellent example of that kind of dynamic.

Michael Markham was born in England, raised in Canada, and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY. He received his art instruction at the Instituto Allende (Mexico) and the Vancouver School of Art (Canada). He has exhibited in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Europe, and Australia. Markham is also a published poet and an active musician.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Magellan’s Reveries By R. Nemo Hill

Magellan’s Reveries
By R. Nemo Hill
Dos Madres Press
Loveland, Ohio
ISBN: 978-1-948017-23-7
83 Pages
Review by Dennis Daly

Perhaps life’s never-ending voyage? Perhaps the tidal pull of infinity? Perhaps an ekphrastic exercise of love? R. Nemo Hill retells the tale of Magellan’s first circumnavigation of our world with formalist elegance through the swells and troughs of rolling consciousness. He matches up each poem with a seascape photograph. There are 33 of each and the photographs are gorgeous. The resulting dual sequence astounds beyond marvelous.

Explorers require certain traits for their livelihoods: courage, imagination, self-assuredness, determination, faith in their God and/or themselves. The package most often includes a much darker side. Historically, many of them were colonizers, tyrannical leaders, slavers, and aficionados of greed. Humankind is nothing if not a repository of Manichean complexity. Magellan certainly qualified as a member and even an exemplar of that brotherhood.

Turned down by the king of Portugal, Magellan depends on the financial backing of the Spanish king. His primary mission is to find a westward route to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) and Asia in general. He commands five ships with 270 men. The epic journey is fraught with terrible storms, mutiny, scurvy, desertion, and a pitched battle in the Philippines. Only 18 sailors return with their one remaining ship. Magellan doesn’t make it.

Hill calls his poems reveries and gives them a dream-like texture. He chooses the ghazal as his poetic form. Within the last two lines of each ghazal the speaker, in this case Magellan, embeds a signature into the piece. This works wonderfully for Hill, effectively cementing the narrator’s persona with the protagonist-explorer.

All the potential inherent in his coming adventure Magellan sees clearly. The Fourth Reverie of Magellan ends this way,

Land of Fire. White Bay. Bay of Toil.
Cape Desire. We name what we can’t hold.

Five pitch black caravels, five hundred tons
afloat, white sails, alone, ablaze—Behold!

With neither moon nor stars, the Hand of God
cannot, tonight, know how much dark it holds.

Wrapped in sailcloth, lashed to lead and prayer--.
Now whisper:
what the sea takes,
let the sea hold.’

Taste the wind, Magellan! Breathe the blast!
It’s asking—How much can the future hold?

Well, the future holds quite a bit for Magellan and his fellow travelers, both sailors and those harriers of consciousness, Hill and his readers. The poet, in fact, makes this a voyage of enlightenment, where Magellan and Hill both transcend themselves and ride the waves together as their fates unravel.

From desperate storm to desperate storm, tension building, Magellan’s crews fight their way forward through the South Atlantic. The flagship Victoria becomes almost a mystical symbol. Hill imagines the scene,

All night, on deck, blind watchmen lost beneath
capotes do mar, blue cloaks, blue capes of storm.

Our bloodied iron hooks tore tasteless flesh.
The ring of sharks could not contain the storm.

Strike each sail! Strip each trembling spar!
A sailor casts no shadow in a storm.

Which unseen, on board saint is this
Who closes the invisible gates of storm?

A plume of fire, Magellan? A covenant?
Victoria’s mast, a candle in the storm?

Asea, the world looks different, is different. Ships become islands of solidity. Everything else exhibits constant change, breeds illusion. Men see what they want to see. In the opening of The Tenth Reverie of Magellan the poet explains,

Bellowed out by surf there is an island.
Sailors, plug your ears! There is no island.

Why do we call it Earth instead of Ocean?
Do we dream these whitecapped waves are windward islands?

The weakest lie on deck all night, and count:
two luminous clouds, a billion brilliant islands.

Hill outdoes himself with a dramatic description of Magellan’s last stand. Metaphysical imagery and the ghazal’s insistent repetition work wonders. This scene in the Twenty-First Reverie is my favorite,

Low tide. Our longboats languish far from shore.
My senses dive, though into shallows dropped.

Knee deep in blood, beset on every side,
not once, but twice the Captain’s helmet dropped.’

Red brine fountain of my limb-lopped trunk,
Flush these breakers as they crest and drop!

I am the coral cave where the wronged Christ rots.
I am the cross from which the downed Christ drops.

Two pylons dream a gateway underwater.
A rising bridge is now a bridge that drops.

You still have eyes, Magellan? Witness then
how every fragment of the shattered drops.

After Magellan’s death in battle, he continues in the third section as a somewhat altered narrator. Hill’s own voice, speaking through him, becomes stronger and both voices merge into a more cosmic (read oceanic) consciousness. The Twenty-Fourth Reverie describes in evocative language the post-battle scene as Magellan’s sailors consolidate their force by destroying one of their own ships,

Bright feathers fall, I float through, as I turn.
From nothing into nothingness, I’m turned.

Conception will burn! In polished seaglass,
gulls of far-flung flame will wheel, and turn.

What shapes of scuttled ships, of men unloved,
complete these clouds behind me when I turn?

Rage once bade fling my useless maps
into the sea—not knowing where to turn.

Magellan is reviled by most of his surviving crew and the Spanish king after the completion of his epic voyage. Then the official chronicler of the voyage finally makes his report and the explorer’s side of the story gets out. Acclamation follows. But this hardly matters to the poet. Magellan’s victory, as related by Hill, has become another thread in mankind’s complex tapestry, a tapestry stretched into a map of unconscious beauty and intrepid, timeless spirit.

Between the disarming visuals and the verbal variations I know of no better introduction to humanity’s unknowable spin and orientation than this collection of exploration reveries. R. Nemo Hill has stretched his poetic anchor line.