HERE WE GO AGAIN: Headline News of the Bad and Ugly Africa- Everyone’s writing About the Woman and the Monkey Meat- Everybody’s Blogging Her, Blogging African Immigrants and Monkey Meat- Are There Any Good Stories About Immigrants Out There? You Tell Me!


The news about Mamie Manneh, the woman with the monkey/bush meat/ the woman capable of driving her car over her husband’s mistress, the mother of nine children, thirty siblings, the woman whose religion requires her to eat monkey meat for spiritual purposes, the woman who claims to be illiterate and incapable of reading the laws of this land that she has taken refuge in, and therefore takes the risk of smuggling bush/monkey meat that is worth only 780.00, the woman who should be returned to her country as many bloggers say- hey. What a story and what a woman!

I first read the story in the New York Times last year or something, and after that, many people I know forwarded the story to my e-mail. We were in the news. Liberians once more were in some important newspapers, and again, Liberians were being discussed in newspapers across the nation, and again, we were the ugly Liberians, the ones who fought and killed each other for fourteen years, the ones who produced the classic cases of Child Soldiers, the ones whose rebels claimed to have eaten each other- ah yes, here we are again.


Photo of Mamie Menneh’s family holding her photo in court: taken from article

I have no take on this story. I am so saddened by the ugly publicity we are again experiencing because of Manneh, so I sat at my computer to wonder about Manneh. I pity her and I dislike her ability to draw this much attention to herself and to all of us who are seeking to undo some of the evils we have suffered. I am mixed in my reaction, but I decided to tackle this story finally, for my thirteen year old who came to me this early morning: her small radio station in this small Pennsylvania town had stopped its important music to talk about the Liberian woman who eats monkey meat and claims that the immigrant community she is part of needs the meat for religious purposes.

I am sorry for Manneh. Can anyone explain to me why she has not been taken to a hospital for treatment yet? I think this is a classic case not basically of cultural clash, but of many other factors. Maybe she is not too well, and after checking her out, then she can be placed under the law. But I could be wrong here. It bothers my mind that the problem Manneh’s case is posing is a larger issue in the new immigrant community of Liberians. Many were brought over to this country during the war and live in communities where they are insulated from America and the real America that is their host country. It brings up the issue of how churches, schools and social groups that serve our immigrant communities need to help our people understand the laws that make this nation such a great place to be. You cannot bribe your way out of jail where you may have been able to in Liberia, and therefore, you do not take your car and run over your husband’s woman or try to, and you do not import meat that is forbidden just because you need the meat for religious reasons without obtaining the right to do so.

But maybe this is just the legal argument. I have not learned everything there is to learn about the Liberian culture, but I do not know any religion at home where monkey meat is needed for religious purposes, but then, again, I could be wrong. I do not know everything. But can someone come up with a better argument?

Since the beginning of time, I understood that one does not bring dry meat, whether antelope, dear, elephant or whatever into this country. I was first here in the 1980s to do graduate studies and then I returned home. At JFK in 1983, I watched as a Nigerian passenger in line before me had his entire load of smoked antelope and other meats dumped in the customs dumpster next to us. He was forbidden as I had been told at the Public Health Office in Monrovia that year that it was forbidden to do so. But Manneh is not as educated as I am, and she is perfectly right about that. She therefore wants to know what the authorities want? What do they want to do with her? But why is the meat forbidden when today is the beginning of deer season here?

Well, there has been all the claims that these animals in Africa cause HIV and other serious diseases even though I never saw anyone in Liberia who contracted HIV from eating smoked bush meat. Because of other Scientific investigations, authorities have forbidden the importation of these animals. It is as simple as that, and anyone who wants to be a law-abiding citizen should understand that one cannot disobey laws that protect all of us. But the cultural clash to me is not in the fact that this woman eats or imports the meat for religious purposes. The cultural clash to me is the lack of understanding that bush meat is as dried as it is because this is the way Africans preserve their bush meat. Villagers who hunt bush meat need to keep it safe from spoiling, and therefore dry it, something that has been done for centuries. But when meat is dry, the authoritiies mark it as bad. That, to me is the cultural clash. But a clash of cultures should not exist in how we obey the law. We should obey the law.

All of the news that Manneh has generated should be able to pay her off, but it will not, I am certain. She has victimized herself and many immigrants by all of this ugly publicity. What I worry about is that the truth will not be told here, the facts will be distorted, and a woman who really needs help according to me will probably be deported. She needs help, I’d say. Who goes and has nine children and leaves them home to drive a car with the intent of running over her husband’s mistress? Who does that and still engages in such a very risky trade?

The question is not to take her to the courts and jail her. She needs help. Someone needs to find out what is going on, and help this woman so she does not lose her children. But if she is given a minor sentence, she should get some help to alleviate her mental problems. Her lawyer, Ms. Rostal says she was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder in 2006, something that could be the cause of all of the confusion going on.

But let’s not just stop there. Manneh is just one Liberian immigrant who has broken the law in this strange new case. Hers is an unprecedented case, and therefore poses challenges for the system. And yet, in many of our communities (of course, I don’t live in one) Liberians, let me just keep my focus small- go about living as though they are in Liberia. Maybe this is a wake up call for everyone. Maybe parents will encourage their children to go to school, obey the law and stop ignoring the fact that Liberians are going to prison just as fast as they were brought here during the war. There are many communities where other Liberians are seeking and working hard to make a difference in the lives of Liberian children and families, but the mothers and fathers claim they do not know the culture of the US, and therefore do not volunteer in helping out with their own children’s outside activities.

Let’s stop claiming ignorance of a system that has kept us up for almost twenty years of a bloody civil war. Let us help with After school programs, go to PTA, help on the young football team, etc. Let’s all stop trying to be the next President of the Liberian organizations, but realize that we have opportunities here to be better.

This sort of news is the only news that gets told, therefore, let’s help one another stay outside this kind of news. We all know that Liberian men like to run around, but we cannot run over all the men who do that. The law forbids that here and the law forbids this sort of thing even in Liberia. From now on remember, we have a new identity. When we speak up at a grocery store, the new stereotype is for someone to think that we are one of those who must eat monkey meat for religious purposes, and therefore must be importing diseases to this country. But we must fight not to be classified that way just as much as we fight against other stereotypes. My thirteen year old daughter needed an explanation, so I showed her the photo of this other Liberian woman who is not much different from her educated mother of a different profession. Do not judge her for this, I said, everyone is already judging her. Let’s see how we can make a difference with this sort of publicity. Life can be ugly. But life indeed, is beautiful.

This is indeed a sad story not just for Manneh, but for all of us. We must take heed!


Publishing a Third Book of Poetry is Just Like Having A Third Child




The River is Rising

Publishing your first book is always the most exciting experience of all. After you’ve determined somehow that you are a poet who must satisfy that urge in you to see your work in print, it certainly feels good. You spend years, I mean many many years trying to get that one book published. You cannot believe why publishers think your book sucks, and take an entire year looking at it or keeping it in the trash bin before sending you that small piece of form paragraph that says, “Unfortunately, your poems do not meet our needs at this time.” But then much later, not expecting, that first book is actually accepted by some kind-hearted individual who puts their money on you, a bet of a life time to publish what is supposed to be your first book.

You get word either through e-mail, a small note, a phone call that your first book of poems will appear on the market. Of course, you do not believe your new publisher-to-be, so you just shrug him off with a smile. He’s not going to buy your nonesense poetry, you tell yourself. You do not tell your friends because you think to yourself that something’s bound to happen to stop the publication of your first book, a thunder storm that kills your publisher, a tornado that destroys the town your new publishers lives in, a plane crash, something to prevent you being called “a poet.”

So you keep it all a secret if you are lucky enough to have a town that hates poets enough to keep them out of their limelight. But then, nothing happens, and you become a true poetry book poet like your father told you not to be. You are actually a poet, soemone who makes no money for what is the world’s best product of genius. People don’t think poets should eat, so you have your first book, and you are still broke and your family thinks you should not quit your day job because they need to eat. But you are a poet, a real poet, and you discover that there are others like you, poets, poor, but still poets. And you love them too, because it is something wonderful to belong to that clan, that international world where poetry shapes your one world. So, your first book happens to be a first BABY for you. You expect the book, counting the months, weeks, then days until the book hits the stores. You discover however that you’re not any best seller because only a few understand poetry or care to, but you are a poet, at last, to your father or mother’s disappointment. You really really love yourself for being that disobedient child to your good parents.

Then if you are lucky like me, a few years later, someone who does not know what trouble they’re getting into picks out your second book in a selection of hundreds, of sometimes, better poets. You are again lucky to get published not because you are the best on earth at that moment, but because this is YOUR TIME in history, your moment to be blessed, to be singled out of the crowd of other well-meaning, book-loving, sleep deprived poets. You have the luck to know that your book has actually won an award and is being published.

At such a moment, the excitement is there, but like having that second child, you’ve been there, done that, so the moment of discovering is not that scary or that strange to you. You now know that there are people in this world who will put a bet on your work because the stars told them to. You do not jump up and down to tell yourself this is happening to you or pinch yourself that you’ve got another book coming out. After all, this is a book, not a lottery winner, you now know. But you are happy, not too scared to say to others that your book is coming out. You now believe that publishers don’t lie, don’t just drop off the earth because they’ve decided to publish your random thoughts into a book. You now believe in your guts that you are a poet. How you came to believe that, don’t ask me, but you do believe it is true-you are now a poet.

At first, you thought you were a poet, but now, you know it is true. You finally can look at your family members and accept the fact that you are one CRAZY individual. That while they were sleeping, you actually wrote all this nonesense down long enough to make another book. That your thoughts, though strange, are worth putting money on, and that someday, if they and their children live long enough, long after you’re gone, they might get some money for the words you’re publishing.

But your third book, like mine now- that third child you thought was a bonus, is coming out. Don’t get me wrong, many poets go on to become great, to publish up to sixty books of poetry, to be called poets. And yet others who have published less or more never go on to become great. You know I’m not speaking of Bill Gates kind of great, so we’ve agreed on that. Great, meaning that they leave this world with someone believing in their words or a whole lot of people thinking they’ve contributed something.

Publishing your third book is exciting, but hey, you know you’re not getting richer. You might even be getting poorer since people who think you are rich just because of your publication constantly make demands on you. You might be a bit famous, but hey, you’re no Michael Jordan. But you have your world and meet people who actually think you’re smart, people who will analyze your words as if you were some Shakespeare, people who pay money to attend a conference to read a paper on your work. You might even say, “I know I am crazy, but what are they,” when you meet people who cry just because of the words you’ve written, who truly love your words, who care to tell you, who fall in love with your words and think they’re in love with you, who marvel at the world just because of something you have written. Bless their hearts, poetry lovers, bless their hearts, I’d say.





If you are like me, you will need someone like my publisher, Mike Simms, to excite you. He is a blast, and will make a stone jump up to love their own efforts. So, you say, it’s only a book.

And if you are a poet, one who now believes you are a poet, you find other poets to read, and continue to write because this is all you know. You know you are not going to get rich from doing this job, so you pray hard to keep your day job. And if you are like me, bless you, you are writing from another perspective most of the time, an African world view, using African images in a foreign language, that is not really foreign to you since your country uses English for everything, but yet, you have the power over other languages, so your work is being read with magnifying glasses by your first audience in the Diaspora. But you say, hey, that’s okay, and you continue.

This is your third baby coming, girl, you say to yourself in the mirror, and you want to be excited with your publisher, so you send out the announcements, the notes from your publisher. You tell your friends you’re really really excited about your new book, but all the time, you’re thinking of your next book. Your next move is already in midstream. You are writing, if you are me, not thinking that what you’re writing is a book, but that it is poetry, your way of carving up the ugliness and the beauty of this world for yourself, for your own pleasure, and if it turns out some day to be another book of poems, so be it.

But you keep that in mind because you have seen it all. What matters now is whether or not your poem makes you smile or cry.
So, when the book arrives at your door nearly a year after it’s acceptance in the form of a real book, you smile and try to read it to see if any editing needs to be done again with the book, if you are me. You’re never satisfied, always wanting to fix the crooked edges of this world so everyone can see or just to line up the twisted parts on display. You look for any binding problems, any editing problems, as if you never had a chance at proof-editing, like a mother, counting the fingers of her third child, you examine this new creation.

You are not panicky as you were when you examined the fingers of your first child, and you do not miss a heart beat when some silly thing you wrote surprises you. You know that’s you, that’s the way your babies look of course, one might be light skinned and different from the last one, but it’s your child, your book, your voice. In the meantime, you are looking for the newest trouble to get yourself into writing while you hold on to your day job.

You send out the announcement, and in this competitive world, you take care not to make enemies at the birth of another book. You keep cool because someone might cry because of something you’ve written. You are the crazy poet, the no-brain poet who all the time looks at the world differently, but like other poets, you have your place.

And then after reading the book back to front, being disappointed at your photo which you really hate to see every time you think of the book, you go to work, and a colleague says: “How come you’re not so happy today?”

You are surprised, shocked, flabbergasted. What is he talking about, you think. After all, I just published a new book, and this dude says I’m not so happy? So you look at your colleague, a gentleman, a visual artist, and you wonder whether visual artists are as crazy as poets. You agree, they are or even worse.

Why is he asking such a question, you wonder, but you do not say anything, just stand and stare at him, laughing at you in the hall. “Two days ago when you heard that your book had arrived at the publisher’s office, you were so happy, you were jumping around here, so what’s happened now?” He asserts.

So you think, yes, he’s right, what’s happened now?

“I finally got the book, love it, and now I’m a little sad today,” you manage to say.

“Oh,” he says, “Postpartum depression,” he slides away down the hall as he is known to do. Artists are very perceptive and strange like poets. You look at him, and think, yea, I do not need a psychiatrist to tell me that.

Postpartum depression? After something you’ve worked on for years, a book of poems that should have been published two years earlier, rejected or almost rejected twice, then taken within minutes by another publisher after you’ve waited and waited to see it published. Now it’s out, and you think, what was the big fuss about? What is there to look forward to? What am I going to do with myself now?

Or maybe, if you are like me, you’re thinking of your life. How is it possible to be so far away from your homeland and still celebrate the birth of another book away from all the poeple the book belongs to.

But if you are like me, you say, “I am thankful, just so very thankful for this life now and now.”

Palm Butter & Rice: The Joys and Challenges of Cooking a Liberian Meal


I love to cook African food. Cooking is an art like poetry or painting or singing. Most of all, I love to cook and eat Liberian food. But in this busy world of teaching, driving my children up and down, cleaning and keeping house, writing, traveling up and down to read poetry, picking up the phone to speak to a telemarketer, answering the phone call from back home in Liberia, and just plain being a woman, it is just too much of a task to cook a decent, good spicy, fragrant filled Liberian palm butter, cassava leaf, collard greens or okra stewed meal. It is even less motivating now with three of our four children away from home. But, I love that tasty, hot spicy, smoked fish, mix with shrimps and blue crabs palm butter soaked on rice. My husband, Mlen-Too loves my cooking too, so every now and then, it is worth the trouble.


Today, I awoke with the intention of setting aside all other important tasks just to cook what happens to be the staple dish of the Grebo people. The Kru and Krahn of Liberia join the Grebos in celebrating life with a good hearty palm butter and rice meal. Of course, Palm Butter happens to be a popular dish among other Liberians in the capital city of Monrovia and in other parts of West Africa, but the Grebo people of Liberia would like to believe that God created the palm tree the day he created the Grebo person. What do you think? We come from a place called Cape Palmas, a part of South Eastern Liberia near the coast where palm trees happen to grow wild and careless, and the Grebo man would not survive without eating palm butter in a given week or two.

When I set out to cook a Liberian meal as tasking as that is, I usually come into the kitchen psychologically, emotionally and physically ready to do battle. I love to cook with music blaring and all other human beings out of the way. I take possession of the kitchen like a true Grebo woman was created to do. All men disappear at that moment. If my sons are around and want to disturb by turning on the TV, I make sure I put some African music on. African music is loud and noisy, and no one understands whatever is being said by the artist since we listen to music from all over Africa. The loud drumming of the African music blaring is sure to send everyone in the house running for safety as I set out my pots, pans, my smoked fish bought from some big city, my shrimps and crabs, my bamboo shoots from Pittsburgh’s Chinese grocers, etc.

I usually never take on the task of cooking a good African meal without the tools I need to stay alive by the end of a good two and a half hour of cooking my dish to death. Someone may mislead you by asserting that my food is not healthy, but don’t buy that crap. My food usually is so healthy, I have nothing to worry about. Cooking a Liberian meal can be a tasking messy business, but the final product is good, healthy and delicious.

In Liberia, of course, I did not have to worry about these sorts of tasks. I had a maid to do much of the dirty work of the palm butter, and I was sort of the supervisor because I did not like eating palm butter prepared by a maid. Every true Grebo girl learns how to cook palm butter before she learns how to chase a boy. Your grandmother sat you down and made certain you knew what good palm butter looks and tastes like. So, between Iyeeh (Grandma), my Auntie Nyemadi, my mother Mary, and my stepmother, Nmano, I learned the perfect art of making a very delicious palm butter meal. My stepmother used to shout at me if it turned out my palm butter did not taste like a Grebo woman’s palm butter. “No matter how much book you know,” she’d be standing there frowning at my watery, half cooked palm butter when I was in my early teens, “you got to know how to cook palm butter. No man will marry you if you can’t cook palm butter,” she said over and over. It did not occur to her that I could actually marry a man that was not Grebo and did not like palm butter. But of course, they saw to it I married a Grebo man anyway.

In Grebo country, palm butter is the foundation of life. Before I tell you what palm butter actually is, let’s talk about the idea of palm butter and the mind of the Grebo person. I recall living three years of my adolescent life in my home village of Tugbakeh where palm butter is almost a sacred dish as in all of Greboland. For some reason when I was about twelve years old, there was a rumor in town that someone had actually gone to Monrovia and seen that people in Monrovia ate cassava (tapioca tree) leaf grounded and cooked in oil and water. The Grebo women quickly saw themselves cooking a new dish, but they saw it in the context of palm butter.

One day that year, my auntie ordered us children to pick some tender cassava leaves from the farm for cooking. She boiled the leaves and grounded them on the pepper rock, and the thick puddle of the stuff, she threw into the boiling pot of palm butter. I had lived in Monrovia most of my life prior to coming to live in Tugbakeh, so it was sort of a surprise to me seeing her treat Monrovia people’s cassava leaf that way, but I said nothing to her. From then on, cassava leaf, unfamiliar with being a part of a palm butter dish, was now being prepared in palm butter as everything else in Grebo country. Okra, eggplant, potato leaves, cocoyam leaves, and all sorts of other spinishes were good vegetables for palm butter dishes. Beans, bamboo shoots, pumpkins, etc. etc. were all thrown into a Grebo woman’s palm butter pot depending on her mood. It seemed nothing could remain independent of the sacred creamy palm cream dish called palm butter.


A pot of Palm Butter (Palm Nut Soup) can boil for up to two hours



You are probably wondering what is this dish called palm butter.

In Africa, the dish can be called palm nut soup, palm soup, cream of palm soup or whatever they decide to name the creamy dish. Palm butter is extracted from the creamy chaff covering of the palm nut, from the palm tree. This palm cream is also the source of palm oil. The cream that is about a third oil is extracted from the chaff after cooking, sifting, and draining. The creamy raw pulp is mixed with water and stewed with all sorts of meats. Liberian cooking is different than other cooking around Africa. Like all Liberian cooking, the meats are combined to give the stew a very delicious flavor. So, a palm butter dish can have sea food, poultry, and meat. Then there is the vegetable aspect that may include eggplant, pumpkins or chopped up squash, mushrooms, beans or whatever.

In adapting to cooking palm butter in the US, many of us have learned to improvise what we do not have for what is available. I have introduced grounding up mushrooms in a blender with hot habanero peppers and fresh basil leaves to give my palm butter a much tastier flavor. I have also added dropping in a few chopped up pieces of butternut squash or pieces of Asian (African) pumpkin for an even tastier flavor. Liberian cooking is about flavor. Our food is rooted in the combination of African cooking affected by Southern cooking from freed African slaves who went to that part of Africa in the 1800s, and met the indigenous people there. So you always look for that flavor of mix meats and spices.

Palm nuts are bought in the market places in Monrovia or palm nut bunches are chopped down in the villages. So how do I get palm butter here in the US?

Years ago, no one could get canned palm butter, but today, there are imports from West Africa to satisfy the need among Africans to eat their own foods. One can walk into an African grocery in a big city in most states and find cans of palm butter, smoked fish, and much of the ingredients one needs to make a hearty palm butter dish. As for me, I purchase African food wherever I go. I may fly into a city to read poetry, and the next thing I know, I am buying up some home food to bring back to my small town out here.

The can of creamy stuff should be mixed with enough water, sifted, before adding the meats. After the food has been boiling slowly for nearly two hours, one can be sure all is ready for eating when the palm butter is thick and settled. One good kind of chicken to add to the palm butter dish is stewing or organic chicken. I never cook soft tender chicken with my palm butter.

When the dish is done, it can be served with fluffy cooked white or parboiled rice or a dish of plantain fufu. Tune in next time for some hearty recipes of palm butter, collard greens, okra stew or jollof rice and baked chicken, the Liberian way. Remember, this is the season to eat.

Featuring Metta S. Sama (Lydia Melvin), Author of South of Here


Metta Sáma (previously Lydia Melvin) is author of South of Here (New Issues Press, 2005), which was a finalist in the Yale Younger Series Award, the Paris Review Prize, the Stan and Tom Wick First Book Prize, and a finalist for the Kenyon Review Book Prize. Sáma is a former recipient of the Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin’s Center for Creative Learning, a Cave Canem Fellow, and has received her M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing, respectively, from Western Michigan University. Her Ph.D. dissertation (SUNY-Binghamton, 2007), Venus in Limbo, was a finalist for the 2006 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at DePauw University and at work on two collections: Efface Me, a book of poems that examines parasitic invasions, erasures, and the nature of bodily disintegration as poetic practice; and The Black Odyssey, a collection of poems about the loves and lives of African Americans in the 1930s-1960s in the South, as well as how the landscape of the South mirrored the lives of African Americans and Native Americans who lived there. She has won research grants from the Newman Foundation and scholarships from the Napa Valley Writer’s Conference and the Juniper Summer Writer’s Conference to work on these collections.



This is Lydia (Metta S. Sama) and me at New Issues Press book table at the Associated Writers and Writing Program (AWP) conference in Austin, TX, 2006. I am holding her book while she displays mine. Hers had just come out that year.

I have known Lydia for nearly a decade, and have over these many years admired her creativity and talent. She was the younger woman in the Creative Writing MFA program at WMU while I was working on my Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English. One of my most vivid memories of my friend, Lydia, was when she asked me to allow her take a look at my poetry manuscript that would become my second book of poems and my doctoral dissertation. It was only a weeks before I would take my Ph.D. comprehensive exams at Western Michigan University. We had just returned from co-presenting on a panel at AWP in Palm Springs, and for some reason, Lydia was probably curious about the next trouble I was getting myself into, I thought at the time.

At the time, I felt strange that a younger poet who was also a younger woman that I needed to mentor was asking me to check out and edit my poetry manuscript. I was suspicious, but I gave my manuscript to her. She then took the ninety page manuscript home with her and promised to get back with me within a week or so. She then took the liberty of rearranging my manuscript as if she were the professor of a course, and scheduled a meeting with me. A few days later, she had the audacity to sit me down in the graduate students office area to tell me why she thought my original arrangement of the book was flawed and needed changing. Oh no, I didn’t need to worry; she had already done that, she smiled with confidence. I sat there as humbled as I could be, and listened to Lydia, whom we called Jade then, as she spoke to me about the importance of having my poems speak to one another in the book.

During our little meeting, I struggled with her when she decided to kick out a few of the poems from the book because she felt that they made the book weaker and the book did not need them anyway. “Just because you have had these poems published in literary magazines doesn’t mean they all have to get into this book. They can wait for the next one,” Lydia stressed in that “hello, you getting me?” sort of way. I tell you, I was flabbergasted. I am an African woman, you hear me, and I am in every sense of the word, so when a younger sister claims that sort of authority with me, I kind of get a cultural shock. But I had a lot to learn, I tell you. Many of life’s lessons or the education we get does not come from professors paid to teach us, I have learned.

At that point, I wanted to shout and tell her “No way or go to hell,” but I didn’t. I recall sitting in an office on the six floor of Sprau Tower at WMU, being humiliated by my little girlfriend who, of course, was an editor, qualified to do this sort of thing to me since she had worked with our mentor, the late Herb Scott at New Issues Poetry Press as well as with the student magazine. I knew that she had the authority to do this sort of thing to any one, but I believe that she took the authority to speak with me like this because she and I had provided that kind of space between each other, that kind of atmosphere that gives another friend the freedom to be free with one. Many of us in our busy day to day living very rarely do allow our friends to claim this kind of freedom and many of us are way too afraid to claim this sort of freedom as Lydia was claiming.

I also believed even then that she took the liberty as a black sister to be that to another black sister from across the ocean. It was something cultural, but this cultural relationship is both connected to the culture of poetry and the ethnicity. I believe it was a kind of culture between us that dictated that sort of honesty and ability to care.

I demanded however, as we sat there, that she replaced the poems she wanted me to leave out of the manuscript, and she said, “No, Patricia, this book is good the way it is.”

I decided maybe she was right. Maybe there was a lot I needed to learn, and that just because I had published one book didn’t make me an expert. Besides, my dissertation director then, the late Herb Scott was ill and did not have time to look over my book before I could submit it to competitions. I knew he could only take one look at it during one of his better days as he struggled with Cancer. He had promised to look over the book before I would submit it to any competition, but Cancer does not always understand, so Herb and I agreed that he’d look over the manuscript just in time for the dissertation defense. That day, sitting in the office, I gave in to Lydia Mae Melvin, the younger poet and editor, and she took that and made good of it.

I am saying all of this because very many poets I know are like me with their writing. They will not allow anyone to scrutinize their piece or give them advice. But I tell you, very many poetry books today would not be written without the help of good poetry friends like Lydia and all the other classmates we were forced by our place as students to learn from in class.

I entered the book into the Crab Orchard Awards Series Second Book Open Competition November that year after Lydia’s editing and rearranging, just in time for the deadline and just a few days after my very comprehensive exams in four areas of English. I was surprised a few months later when Becoming Ebony, the book that Lydia had rearranged and dumped poems out of won second prize in the Crab Orchard Award Series, Poetry Open Competition, and went on to second print just two months after publication . The book I sometimes call Lydia’s book has done extremely well over the four years of its birth.

I had a lot to learn from the supportive students in the Creative Writing program at WMU, and I had learned it well through Lydia’s insistence and expertise. The amazing thing is that a couple years later, Lydia would ask me to write a blurb for her own book, a beautifully written poetry collection that steals your heart upon first reading it. It is a book alive in its sense of history and family, in its ability to break taboos and boundaries. I wrote the blurb with much honor, laughing at the thought that the little things we take for granted are the biggest things in our lives. Some of the poems that Lydia threw out waited to get into the third book that is coming out soon, but others have to wait longer until another set of poems are ready for another book.

Some people come into our lives and forever change the way we look at life. Lydia did that for me.






Lydia’s book of poems, South of Here (New Issues Press 2005)

Sign. Signifier. Signify. Signified: an American African ghazal

by Lydia Melvin

I’ve heard Death is a white man in black
tie, a man captive in a trick of black.

I hear myth, an earthworm
moving an inch at a time, urging black

earth aside. Elms in winter
displace heat, turn black

as damaged snow. In theatres before curtains
release and withdraw from black,

music lingers, intactly absent. Silence.
Exercise patience. How does black

myth survive? I hear a black
man in red face, red stripes slashing

through hair is death. Black
mothers in kitchens seduce flour

into loaves of bread. And men, black
as coal, squeeze the necks of cotton

stalks, anticipate struggle, create black
gospel, black blues, black jazz, hear

music’s possibilities. Unrelenting black
whips damage-myth their beaten backs.

In Europe the black plague created black
deaths two hundred years prior

to Shakespeare’s Othello, the black
moor, strangled his wife, prior

to the introduction of black
comedy. Before the stock market collapsed in ’87,

brokers held Monday until it too could become black.
Waiting around for another invention, mail lost

its innocence to black, then black sex, black satire, black
ice. Too clever for this set-up? Soon,

dawn will erupt, precise, breathtaking, the un
of black. And here we linger in black

images, repeating phrases as if they are truth.
As if the structurual design of words hold black

like fear. The myths fall in on themselves.
But how we hunt for the blackest

diamonds, the blackest metaphor. Strangers live,
resilient, under interstate overpasses, black

as exhaust and valleys of ashbuds. Heavy as rain
clouds, infinite as nebulae. On the corner, a black

man contains himself in wilting dust particles, jaded
as tossed napkins, spare change, coffee, crows.