A collection of thought-provoking writing & generative prompts provided by featured guests Coco Fusco, D.S. Marriott, Dante Micheaux, Charles Burnett, Aracelis Girmay, Emily Greenwood, Daniel Alexander Jones, Zun Lee, & Harryette Mullen of CAAPP's Collective Protest & Rebellion: A Black Study Intensive, co-sponsored by the Department of English, The Humanities Center, The Year of Creativity (2019/20), the Center for Creativity, the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, and the Office of the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies.
First, please visit the Carnegie International which opens on September 24. There will be work by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier that is about African-African community health workers in Baltimore who have been dealing with the pandemic.
I would like people to spend some time thinking about what art can tell us about this terrible human tragedy of loss, and how we ritualize death. I would also like to talk about the politics of health care.
Identify the oldest, living Black person you know and ask them who is the oldest, living Black person they know. Once you have an answer, visit the latter and ask them to teach you something that you do not know how to do. Learn. Practice. Practice until you can teach the lesson. Teach someone else. Write down you memory of the entire process, including the minutest detail.
Imagine the world coming to an end: what will you do? Will you reach back before everything began, take stock, rise up, or will you just curl up into a circle? Indeed, would you even notice it? Consider the following poems: then imagine yourself on a threshold, thinking about something dying or emergent; that moment when all sense and experience comes to an end. Then try and imagine what comes after….
A Song on the End of the World
On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.
On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.
And those who expected lightning and thunder
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.
Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.
Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Catch the Fire
(Sometimes I wonder:
What to say to you now
in the soft afternoon air as you
hold us all in a single death?)
Where is your fire?
Where is your fire?
You got to find it and pass it on.
You got to find it and pass it on
from you to me from me to her from her
to him from the son to the father from the
brother to the sister from the daughter to
the mother from the mother to the child.
Where is your fire? I say where is your fire?
Can’t you smell it coming out of our past?
The fire of living…not dying
The fire of loving…not killing
The fire of Blackness…not gangster shadows.
Where is our beautiful fire that gave light
to the world?
The fire of pyramids;
The fire that burned through the holes of
slaveships and made us breathe;
The fire that made guts into chitterlings;
The fire that took rhythms and made jazz;
The fire of sit-ins and marches that made
us jump boundaries and barriers;
The fire that took street talk sounds
and made righteous imhotep raps.
Where is your fire, the torch of life
full of Nzingha and Nat Turner and Garvey
and DuBois and Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin
and Malcolm and Mandela.
Sister/Sistah Brother/Brotha Come/Come
CATCH YOUR FIRE…DON’T KILL
HOLD YOUR FIRE…DON’T KILL
LEARN YOUR FIRE…DON’T KILL
BE THE FIRE…DON’T KILL
Catch the fire and burn with eyes
that see our souls:
Hey. Brother/Brotha. Sister/Sista.
Here is my hand.
Catch the fire…and live.
What is your unique life experience that would lay the groundwork for a rebellion/social justice narrative or documentary?
Find a text that resonates with you. It could be anything: a poem, song lyrics, a paragraph from a book or newspaper article, a tweet, an email. Rearrange the words and see what new meanings arise. For example, if I take the preceding three sentences as my text, I could write: "Arise, and find words that rearrange you.”
with with with
To me, my dad is among the most attentive of “listeners.” The ways he listened to children, to my children, to friends and family and strangers. It was so particular. He was so particularly attentive. And it did not stop. He would listen to what you said or tried to do or be once, and he would take it with him across the years. He would ask toward it this way and that way, as though holding something up to a light trying to learn something. I am thinking about the humility and presence of listening toward and within a way that is generous and ongoing. I am thinking about sensing as an ongoing collaboration that has something to do with feeling and understanding what we are sensing and not sensing about the things we are and are trying and are in (historically, structurally, relationally…) and who we are and might be and can be in the Together. It is in this spirit that I offer this small way toward.
1. Be awhile with yourself, and make yourself available to a visit by a few others (three-five). These “others” might be a person, a bush, a gesture, a memory, an object, a sound, a detail of any of those. See what comes. Stay open to their coming for at least 5 minutes.
2. Drink a glass of water. Change your position. Somehow. You might stand if you were sitting. You might lay on your back. Hum. If you were facing north you might face west. Once you’ve changed your position please repeat #1.
3. Then feel awhile who those visitors are and make a note of just one of them that you will work with for now.
4. Listen to the visitor. What does it “say” and how does it say? Take notes. Ask questions (unanswerable and answerable). Make a note/collage of what or who you associate with it. How does it change the way you feel time, the way you make or read a sentence? Its syntax? Take notes swiftly then put your notes in a dark place for a few days. Somewhere where they might grow like yams.
5. Who can you share this with? Find someone to share this writing with. Someone who can help you to listen to what you’ve listening-written. Share with that someone. If you/they can, read it aloud to them. Otherwise share it briefly another way. Ask them to write or say back to you what they “heard” and what they sensed in your telling. What emotions? What surprised? What detail or word do they recall particularly? What new or old idea? What history do they wonder about/toward? What answerable question are they left with? What perhaps unanswerable question?
6. Do the #5 at least once more, with at least one other, one else.
7. Take a day or two. Going about your day, try to recall what they told you and what they sensed. What moves you about their particular listening? (Try to articulate it!) Take notes about what you remember (what they said and how they said). What things do they help you to sense that you had not sensed? What associations, reunions, and separations.
8. Let all that be with you in the doing/being/asking/making/being with.
Groups who oppose racial equality and justice willfully misread the slogan “Black Lives Matter”. How does language matter for black lives in our American present? Consider this question both in terms of past linguistic struggles for naming, self-respect, and the conjuring of different futures, and the novel reinvention of words and grammar to create new possibilities.
MAP of the BODY
This is an exercise that makes a map from an outline of your body. If you are not able to move your body in the ways outlined below, you are welcome to collaborate on this exercise with a partner who can draw the outline for you freehand, for example; and, who, if you are not able to fill in the various categories yourself, can do so with and/or for you. Furthermore, this exercise can be performed as an act of imagination, done entirely in your mind’s eye. You are encouraged to approach it based upon your own ability and to adapt it to your needs. If there is a prompt that doesn’t resonate with you, delete it. And, if there are prompts that rise up from the process, feel free to add them. It is also an exercise that is meant to be explored over more than one day, so do allow time if you can.
1. Acquire a large piece of craft paper or butcher paper. It should be slightly wider than the width of your shoulders (most large rolls of this paper in the States are approx. 3' wide). It should be about a foot longer than your height. Also get your hands on a dark, wide-tipped, magic marker to begin with. You will want, additionally, magic markers or colored pencils or oil pastels of various colors. It is possible to do the secondary work with tempera or acrylic paint, if you wanted to make that sort of project of it. You may. But a package of substantial magic markers does fine.
2. Find a space (not a plane) where you can unroll the craft paper on the floor. Lie on your back, centering yourself on the paper, arms along your side. Trace the outline of your body on the paper. You can have a friend do this part, or, being as flexible as you are, you can easily do it yourself. Try to make as clean a line as possible.
3. Get up and fix any parts of the outline that need fixing. Then draw into the outline, any major features of the body that you would like to have represented for yourself - facial features, belly button, etc.
4. Using the colored markers, oil pastels, or paint, begin to create the landscape of your body. Here are some primary categories to work with to help you do this. Use your imagination - things can be literal but are most often not.
a. What are the most vital places?
b. Where are the major cities?
c. Where is the heat?
d. Where is it cold?
e. Are there sacred sites?
f. What are the major rivers, lakes, etc.?
g. What are the major thoroughfares?
h. Where is the capital?
i. Think of topography - mountains, canyons, plains, swamps, etc.
j. Are there different countries - different states - different languages - time zones?
k. Is there peace or are there conflicts?
l. Name things.
5. As you work think of the following questions as well - you may record your responses to these questions visually, you may incorporate them into the topography, you may make a legend, etc.
a. How do your emotions move through your body?
b. Track the homebase and major routes of:
(Add to this list. Then track your additions in the map.)
6. Who are your "leaders"?
7. You may want to consider the organs as sites.
8. What is most public? What is most private? Add to these questions any other thoughts that spring up as you work. I have seen body maps that look like simple sketches, and others that are intricately developed portraits with multiple colors at work, legends, etc.
9. Make a legend/guide to the map at the top or bottom of the paper.
10. Find a place to hang it up - even temporarily.
11. Leave it. Ideally overnight. But even a short break - a walk or run or whatever, will do.
12. Come back, get something to write with, find a place to sit and regard your map. Take fifteen minutes and just look at it. Really look - let your eye take in what you have made, and let yourself experience the map on its own terms. Continue to sweep over the landscape. See what arrests your eye - pick a place to focus upon. Regard it.
13. Close your eyes and ask for a guide to come. They may come in any form. A person, a monkey, a bird, a breeze... Ask them to lead you deep into the world represented by whatever spot on the map you picked. Keep breathing. Go on the journey. Pay attention.
14. When you are ready, open your eyes softly and write what you are seeing/experiencing. You may want to wait until you have had a complete experience - you may, on the other hand want to 'write as you go.'
Be patient - the guide may not come right away. You may uncover information or have experiences that are completely unexpected. Stay connected to the work.
You can repeat - pick another place - ask for another guide. And go.
Don't edit what you have written for at least a day.
I'm kindly asking folks to watch this short clip with Kevin Quashie and then to sit with Quashie's final statement of "quiet is." What and when "is" quiet? Where do we locate the idea of stillness, intimacy, and interiority in relation to Black being and Black resistance? I don't necessarily want this to result in formulated answers but hope this attunes us to the quiet possibilities for resistance and rebellion throughout our entire week together.
“World enough and time”: Carpe diem. Savor your days.
Carpe diem, “seize the day” or “pluck the day” like a blooming flower or ripening fruit, is the message of a poem appreciating what life offers and urging enjoyment of life’s pleasures. However we choose to spend our time, we cannot save our days, but we can savor them. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Pay attention to moments, no matter how fleeting, when you experience pleasure, beauty, comfort, peace, gratitude, or joy. What is it like to dwell in those moments?
2. Make a list each day of people, places, objects, ideas, creatures, events, and experiences, no matter how ordinary (or extraordinary) that give you pleasure, beauty, comfort, peace, or joy.
3. Write a poem portraying how you (or anyone you know or imagine) might savor moments of pleasure, beauty, comfort, peace, gratitude, and joy each day. Remember to use your senses!
In a recent interview, a writer described the simple pleasure of shearling slippers. Although she’d felt slightly guilty ordering a “nonessential” item for home delivery, this purchase so improved her life that she now looks forward to waking up in her chilly bedroom, in upstate New York, and sliding her feet into the comforting warmth of those slippers. This reminded me how much I had enjoyed making and eating a crunchy salad after bringing home fresh produce for the week, inspiring me to buy garden tools and start digging in the soil to transplant lettuce, celery, bok choy, leeks, and onions sprouting from cuttings in jars on my windowsill. https://lifehacker.com/how-to-grow-vegetables-from-kitchen-scraps-1842858616
Here are five contemporary carpe diem poems:
from Fall Higher (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
Every sunrise, sometimes strangers’ eyes.
Not necessarily swans, even crows,
even the evening fusillade of bats.
That place where the creek goes underground,
how many weeks before I see you again?
Stacks of books, every page, character’s
rage and poet’s strange contraption
of syntax and song, every song
even when there isn’t one.
Every thistle, splinter, butterfly
over the drainage ditches. Every stray.
Did you see the meteor shower?
Every question, conversation
even with almost nothing, cricket, cloud,
because of you I’m talking to crickets, clouds,
confiding in a cat. Everyone says
Come to your senses, and I do, of you.
Every touch electric, every taste you,
every smell, even burning sugar, every
cry and laugh. Toothpicked samples
at the farmer’s market, every melon,
plum, I come undone, undone.
from The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011)
I went down to
mingle my breath
with the breath
of the cherry blossoms.
There were photographers:
Mothers arranging their
gnarled old trees;
a couple, hugging,
asks a passerby
to snap them
so that their love
will always be caught
between two friendships:
ours & the friendship
of the cherry trees.
why can’t my poems
be as beautiful?
A young woman in a fur-trimmed
coat sets a card table
with linens, candles,
a picnic basket & wine.
A father tips
a boy’s wheelchair back
so he can gaze
up at a branched
All around us
you have an ancient beauty
you have an ancient beauty.
From The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.
How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?
From Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyan University Press, 1988)
Thanks for the tree
between me & a sniper’s bullet.
I don’t know what made the grass
sway seconds before the Viet Cong
raised his soundless rifle.
Some voice always followed,
telling me which foot
to put down first.
Thanks for deflecting the ricochet
against that anarchy of dusk.
I was back in San Francisco
wrapped up in a woman’s wild colors,
causing some dark bird’s love call
to be shattered by daylight
when my hands reached up
& pulled a branch away
from my face. Thanks
for the vague white flower
that pointed to the gleaming metal
reflecting how it is to be broken
like mist over the grass,
as we played some deadly
game for blind gods.
What made me spot the monarch
writhing on a single thread
tied to a farmer’s gate,
holding the day together
like an unfingered guitar string,
is beyond me. Maybe the hills
grew weary & leaned a little in the heat.
Again, thanks for the dud
hand grenade tossed at my feet
outside Chu Lai. I’m still
falling through its silence.
I don’t know why the intrepid
sun touched the bayonet,
but I know that something
stood among those lost trees
& moved only when I moved.
From New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 1992)
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?