Category Archives: Poetry

How to Write the Truth: I’m Still Learning

Toni_1 - Copy-tifThe little girl in me wanted to write. Sleep in my eyes, teeth unbrushed and pillow imprints still on my face, I wanted to write but I couldn’t bring myself to sit with the word. Sometimes your heart wants to tell stories that are not yet meant to be told. Sometimes your words want to scream and holler in a way that your voice just doesn’t seem to support in this moment. This path of vulnerability that I have chosen and committed to pushes me to the edge of dealing with my stuff on a constant bases. There is no comfort zone except for the reality of knowing some of this self expression will stay safely filed away on my hard drive until I am ready.

I mean, I wanted to dive deep into the waters of friendship and sisterhood. There is the friendship with the woman who scheduled get togethers with me 9 times and 7 of those times didn’t even bother canceling. I released the relationship. Somehow in her mind she is a victim of something but I cannot figure out what. I made a few attempts at the Landmark style completion conversation then surrendered when I realized she wasn’t here for it. Of course, I could’ve, should’ve spoken to it after the third time but was still in a space of providing more compassion for others than for I did for myself. My time is valuable too – – yada, yada, yada. Some call it sucka shit but we all go through things. There is the friend I miss but her envy scared the hell out of me and the friend who was so judgmental that it felt like a toxic boyfriend. So these experiences inspired one of my most frequent chants of the year. It’s the affirmation: I let it go, I let it all go. I take full accountability for all that has transpired and I let it go.

Part of me would also enjoy the release of being completely naked and transparent about love, love relationships and matters of the heart but then we have to deal with how that impacts others, projects, business and image. One of my friends constantly reminds me to be mindful of my brand and intention. As a poet first and as a poet whose first pieces at 8 years old were rooted in calls for justice, fairness and truth, this part of adulthood feels completely wack. Why can’t we all just have an authentic conversation and confront these issues that plague so many of our lives? Oh, if only it was as simple as a conversation.

One of the most challenging issues is the one of a cousin who is bi-sexual and in a same-sex marriage. Some of the responses of family, God fearing, God loving, practicing Christian family members, constantly disappoints me. My heart has been broken more times than I can count. I sit quietly. I pray on it. I try not to lament on the absence of my grandma and grandpa from this earthly plane. I know how different our lives would be if they were still here. Then I remind myself and little Toni that there is no time machine and my dreaming will not bring them back to the physical. So I speak to them while on my knees and while in the shower as the water hides my tears I chant again: I let it go, I let it all go.

In my dreams, I am confident enough to tackle the most personal and painful of experiences with creativity, spiritual maturity and transparency but I’m not where I want to be just yet. This is still just an activity in my mind. Years ago I remember sitting in the African American Resource Center with E. Ethelbert Miller.  He was at his desk handing me a stack of poems marked up with red pen. There were 30 pages of text and at least 25 pieces, but he gave me five that he considered to be good poems. I suddenly realized I was far from the book I planned on publishing that semester. He watched both my ego and heart deflate right before his eyes as I sunk into the old wooden chair. Poet Carolyn M Rodgers Name

He began talking about a list of writers I should read as he set up a seat for me at a table with a stack of books with everything from Carolyn Rogers and early Don L. Lee to Alice Walker’s prose and Larry Neal’s critiques. There were journals from the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. As I stood up I could hear the big clock outside and see students scurrying across the yard below.  I remember many things Ethelbert taught me over the years but that afternoon he talked about the need for courage.  It takes courage to expose oneself.  Exposing your joy and your pain, your most sentimental feelings, your family stories – both the good and the bad, the struggles of life, the weaknesses and the strengths are all a part of the nakedness of being a writer. You may find a formula to become a popular writer but great writers are willing and able to write themselves naked and fully exposed on the page.

I can still inhale and smell the scent of old paper and books in the stacks of Founders library at Howard University. I also clearly remember how heavy my spirt was during those years. Ethelbert was a guardian angel to many of us. I am much lighter now and authentically happy, but I am still struggling to be a great writer. I am still learning how to write the truth, my truth. The blog format is like a gym to work out and build my muscles. Every once in a while I get on the scale to see where I’m at and today is one of those days. Three bomb ass writing prompts came to mind and I punked out on each one. I’m here laughing at myself as a way to not slip into the Virgodom of self-critique and thoughts of I-am-not-good-enough. Pressing publish on this post will serve as this morning’s creative accomplishment and thumbs up to an exercise completed. May your day be equally as blessed.

 

 

 

20 Years in the Game: Still Doin’ Cyphers

Fall Cypher Series 1

The launch of the Fall Cypher Series is Tuesday, September 8th at 6:30pm.  It’s at City Lore Art Gallery, 56 E. 1st St btwn 1st Ave and 2nd Ave and I’m feeling kind of nostalgic this morning. Please pardon me while I share a piece of my Cypher history.  {Ok, so here is where I want you to imagine Souls of Mischief 93 ‘Til Infinity beat dropping.}

(Click this if you need audio for your visualization) 

I started organizing and facilitating Cyphers in 1994.  Young, in love and idealistic not only about Hip Hop but the world. I had a vision for using freestyle Cyphers as a way to promote artist responsibility, preserve the oral tradition and bring crews together.

The event started at State of the Union, a bar on U St in Washington, DC.  It was called Talking Heads but I soon realized that the stress of two drink minimums was killing my vibe.  I also discovered that even the MC’s who drink don’t drink much while rhyming.  The artists were coming to the event to build skills.

Kenny Carroll and Brian Gilmore, both professional writers and poets, were DC natives who outside of their day jobs recited with a collective, hosted events and readings and didn’t mind spending hours waxing poetic on any and everything from the science of Parliament Funkadelic to the history of Mambo Sauce, local, national and global politics and there was no limit to their knowledge of poetry.  Their circle of writers could speak to Anne Sexton as well as they could Amiri Baraka or Lucille Clifton. They were like big brothers.  Not only did they teach me a lot but they also supported, encouraged and challenged me to do what I do.  That’s how I ended up at a place called 8-Rock on Martin Luther King Avenue and Good Hope Rd in Southeast Washington D.C. hosting Cyphers in the land of GoGo.

Initially I called the Cypher, Freestyle Fellowship because a good cypher always made me think of a spiritual experience.  My childhood reference for getting open started in St. Mark Baptist Church in my Bay Area hometown in California.  However, a week after the flyers were made, a fellow Hip Hop head handed me a Project Blowed Mixtape.  Freestyle Fellowship was on it. My mind was blown by what I was listening to and it was proof that when a concept is out in the universe there can be a number of people thinking and feeling the same exact thing on opposite sides of the country or planet. I was kinda’ amped and proud that the group Freestyle Fellowship was coming out of Cali too.

Freestyle Union Cipher was born.  In the 90s Cypher was spelled with an “i” but the “y” spelling has become more popular over time so I thought I would evolve with the times. I added workshop to the end of the name after the Cypher started to grow.  It was becoming bigger and all kinds of personalities were showing up.  I interned for a year with a media training firm in DC and received Train-the-Trainer training. One of the key insights I gained from the training was how important it was to focus on activities and creating an environment for participants to get from point A to point B in a set amount of time. I added “workshop” and called it Freestyle Union Cipher Workshop to keep the hard heads out.  There was no budget so we didn’t have security.  My theory was that the only people coming to a workshop were people who wanted to work, develop and build. It worked. 300 Cyphers and never had one fight.  There were a few emotional outbursts by MCs who got frustrated with themselves or the process but that’s about it. Freestyle Union shot in front of Kaffa House

When I first moved to NYC I reconnected with a number of people who I met working in the arts with Kim Chan, who was then a DC based arts professional, over the years. At one point I thought I wanted to become a professional arts presenter but after co-producing a Hip Hop Festival with the Smithsonian and Washington Performing Arts Society I realized I’m way too much of an artist to focus on developing that skill set. Professional arts presenters like Laura Greer, Maureen Knighton, Baraka Sele and Micki Sheppard showed me incredible amounts of love.  Linda Walton, Bob Holman, Lois Griffith and Miguel Algarin also embraced me as a poet, MC and arts organizer.  I met Steve Zeitland, co-founder of City Lore Foundation, through Bob and he became one of my arts mentors and I am excited to be working with him again.

Well, this piece is a little longer than I wanted it to be so I’ll tell you the rest later. Maybe when I see you at the Cypher.  Spectators welcome.  Just be mindful of your energy.  Everyone’s energy matters in the Cypher. It’s all ages, all skill levels and for all those who believe excellence and commitment to the craft matters. Cypher Deets

Please Note:  My book, Wisdom of the Cypher, will be released this fall.

Can Hot Cocoa & Pancakes Help Me Process Amiri Baraka’s Passing

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Immediately after hearing the news of Amiri Baraka’s passing, I made hot chocolate under the guise of sharing it with my mentee who was here working with me.  The kitchen counter was full of vegetables that I pulled out to juice but I  instead chose to make hot chocolate.  As the almond milk warmed and I put the unsweetened cocoa powder into the mugs, I noticed how I was feeling.  I recently met with Dr. Akilah, a naturopath and energy healer out of Atlanta, and ever since I’ve been really present to how I am feeling and how that impacts my behavior and choices. The hot cocoa was a reach for comfort. I have not made hot chocolate in 3 years. I avoid sweet drinks at home opting for either a water mixture, fresh juice or medicinal tea.

Earlier in the day –after the police stopped me a block from home for not having my seatbelt on and gave me a ticket–I ate cassava, callaloo and saltfish–comfort food. I’ve also eaten popcorn—something else I don’t do often but it reminds me of Auntie Jennifer’s house. She absolutely loved eating popcorn.  My mind was uplifted for a while but came right back  to reality. Sigh. I had gotten over the unexpected expense of tickets, I got one yesterday as well, and the needed car inspection, but reading about Amiri Baraka’s death left me shook.  One of my brothers in poetry, Brian Gilmore, who was a huge influence on my development as an artist in my early to mid-twenties, posted that he was going to make cornbread to get his mind off things. Now, I am sitting here wondering what else I can make, but will make my vegetable juice to stay in solidarity with my health plan. I didn’t eat enough callaloo to make the nutrients count.

Then I tried  to sit with google chromebook on Facebook, LIKING each of the status posts about Amiri’s passing.  However, there were too many in my newsfeed and it didn’t feel like I was honoring his life, but passing the time because I did not know what to do with this grief.

Where do we place this grief? Tell me where to put it.  There is no container for it.  The past few months began with a grief moment every other week but since early December the pace has quickened to a weekly grieving schedule. Tuesdays are my studio day, Saturdays I go to hot yoga community class at Sacred Brooklyn, and there has been at least one day that involved grieving for someone lost. I don’t know if loss is the appropriate word to use here.  Perhaps that is the issue, I need to re-language death, identify new ‘descriptives’ since it is becoming so ever-present within my immediate circles.

The issue might be that our entire culture needs not only new words to talk about death, but a new way to look at it and honor it. It is after all, inevitable. I guess that’s not the point of this post though. It’s really just me thinking out loud as I search for a way to process what seems to be frequent death announcements spanning across generations. I’m sure I’ll wake in the morning thinking of gluten-free pancakes and baked sweet potatoes. Cousin Carla says at least you don’t crave Jack Daniels or cigarettes but I would love to be able to move through grief in stillness, without using anything outside of myself to assuage the pain.

Amiri Baraka’s passing reminds me of my mama’s book shelf when I was a little girl, it reminds me of my Auntie Bennye and Uncle Keith’s record collection and Auntie Jennifer’s love of Black poetry. As a girl growing up in a working class town where baseball, church and eating good food were often the only creative activities, I longed for something that spoke to my artistic soul. Music and poetry were my first loves.  Arriving at Howard University’s campus pre-DC gentrification was like a “Toni in Afro-Wonderland” film. Over the years, I not only met the people from those books and albums, but worked with many of them, sat on panels next to them and even got checked by a few.  Tonight before sleeping I will say a prayer for E. Etherlbert Miller, my literary father and poetic mentor to countless others.  Baraka’s passing reminds me of the hours he spent feeding and nurturing my creative hunger and love of poetry.

Well, I guess I will make that vegetable juice.  Everything is already cleaned and prepped. Hoping I can channel this energy into memorizing the words for next week’s performance with pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs at Brooklyn Academy of Music. We will perform with Abiodun of the Last Poets, another one of the greats who has reached elder status. Perhaps that’s part of the exercise–transforming grief into art, making the ugly beautiful, focusing sadness into an experience that will uplift and impact the lives of others? Who knows? If I drank liquor I would pour some out, but I’ll do me and raise my glass of green juice while reciting Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note. Yep, poets do things like that.

Sending love and light to the Baraka family, hugs to my Howard University family and to my poetry family around the world—it’s Nation Time.

Ase.

i hate valentine’s day

i hate valentine’s day

it’s nothing personal against
cupid or the little curly haired
girl on cards and decorations

i definitely don’t have anything
against chocolate candy, roses
or the color red

it’s just that like so many
other holidays it feeds on the
loneliness of the always consuming
consumer

valentine’s day is big business
in america

and ain’t got nothin’ to do with love

two too many fall prey to the hype
getting trapped in crowded rooms
full of nothing no one, but
a temporary fix for what’s
really ailing them

this let me give you some lovin’
once a year thing just does not fly

i prefer people who make me smile every day

and who is this mr. valentine’s
and why is cupid naked
and who wants to be shot with a damn
bow and arrow

does anyone know or
does it even matter

i mean, we’re all suckers anyway
celebrating holidays and days that
don’t move us forward

riding emotional ferris wheels
going round and round
and we pay people to sit there

this poem is a cry a plea
love is not to be bought or sold
it’s like air and water
a necessity

stuck in the air
sun and wind in our eyes
we cannot see

because we’re looking
for love

in all the wrong places
in all the wrong spaces
instead of in our own faces

-Toni Blackman

5am Haiku

Sunset in Dakar

the air breathes me in

enveloping my body

my soul is grateful