Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday Poetries (Congratulations to Ed Roberson, Marilyn Nelson in Evanston)

Let me extend my heartiest and most heartfelt congratulations to poet and colleague Ed Roberson, who has just been named the winner of the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award by the Poetry Society of America. The awardee is selected, according to the PSA's website, "with reference to genius and need." Previous recipients include many of the major figures in 2oth century American literature, including Marianne Moore, e. e. cummings, Robert Penn Warren, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Rexroth, Robinson Jeffers, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, Hayden Carruth, Mona Van Duyn, Ann Waldman, Jean Valentine, Thom Gunn, Michael Palmer, and Lyn Hejinian. Since Brooks received the award in 1975-76, a handful of African-American writers, including Etheridge Knight, Lucille Clifton, Angela Jackson, and Yusef Komunyakaa, have been so honored.

I've previously written about Ed and posted excerpts from his poetry on here, but I think it's always necessary to point out how singular and sustained in excellence his work of the last 40 years has been. When I think of his poems, what comes to mind is playful but continual questioning of the lyric, a deft weaving of the observed material world, often grounded in the scientific, with a distinctive, fractured, sometimes recursive metrics, a fragmentation arising out of poetics and politics, that often reaches me not only as poetry but as song. It is challenging, vital, necessary poetry, and it's great to know the PSA is honoring it, and Ed. He will receive his award later this spring, with this year's winner of the Frost Medal, Big Daddy Michael S. Harper.


Yesterday afternoon I headed over to the Evanston Public Library to hear poet Marilyn Nelson read from her work. In conjunction with her reading, a group of children performed some of her poems from her award-winning volume Carver: A Life in Poems, which schoolchildren had performed earlier in the afternoon. I'd heard Marilyn read once or twice before, the last time at Cave Canem's 1oth Anniversary Celebration, in the fall of 2006 (was it that long ago?), but this was the first time I had the opportunity to immerse myself in her words, in her stories, in the work she's been doing, which is, I realized, directly in conversation with my own. Marilyn has been excavating and animating history, and in particular, African-American history, through her poetry for some time, but her recent books have focused specifically on figures both well known (Carver) and less well-known, like Venture Smith, an important African-American historical figure in East Haddam, Connecticut, where she makes her home; the eager young black girls of the Quaker Miss Crandall's school, in Canterbury, Connecticut (she wrote the eponymously titled, illustrated book, with fellow poet Elizabeth Alexander); and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a multiracial all-female swing band from Piney Woods, Mississippi, that traveled all over the country during the pre and early post-World War II period (1937-1950).

In much of her recent work, Marilyn has turned to established and fixed forms and traditional meter, but the surprising images and turns of phrase that characterized the highly praised poems in free verse of her early career remain, and her rhymes, which she handles so skillfully, do many things at once, arresting the ear with music and figuration, advancing the poems' narratives and ideas, and grounding the verse in your mind so that you can hear the echoes even as she's begun to move to the next poem. I haven't taught the introductory poetry class, but if I ever do, I will use the sestina she read as a model of how form can work directly in the service of, by embodying, theme and idea.

It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and I am looking forward to Marilyn's forthcoming books, The Freedom Business, and The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which I believe may be out later this year. Afterwards, at the reception, I was able to meet her son, Jacob Wilkenfeld, and her daughter-in-law, Rita, who's from Brazil and now studying at the university, and then a host of Chicagoland writers (Toni Asante Lightfoot, Eliza Hamilton Abegunde Bispo de Jesus and her husband Andre Bispo de Jesus, Krista Franklin, Kelly Norman Ellis, Parneshia Jones), and visitors (Amanda Johnston) went out to break bread in Evanston.

I brought my camera for a change, and her are some photos:

Marilyn's son Jacob Wilkenfeld introduced her

Marilyn reading

Chicagoland folks breaking bread in Evanston (L-R: Eliza Hamilton Abegunde Bispo de Jesus, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Amanda Johnston, Kelly Norman Ellis, Naomi Ellis, Parneisha Jones, Jacob Wilkenfeld, Rita Wilkenfeld, two friends, Marilyn Nelson, Krista Franklin, and I)


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  2. It was very nice meeting you in person. That weekend felt like two weeks! All the places, sounds, smells and good people (wink). Hopefully we will have the opportunity to do it again soon. If you're ever in Austin, TX let me know. We'll treat you right!