The International Poetry Festival of Medellin Celebrated 20 Years of Bringing Poetry to the People: A Cultural Revolution of Healing Decades of Pain from the Colombian War, July 8-17, 2010, and I Was There!

The International Poetry Festival of Medellin is always so amazing, neither rain, thunder or the blazing sun can drive away the thousands of lovers of poetry who pour in during the opening and closing ceremonies in any given year. The first sign of rain, and the thousands in the audience quickly begin to put on plastic coats, pull out umbrellas, sitting on the hard wet stairs of the Theatre Carlos Vieco to hear the World Poets read in their various languages one after the other, from 4 pm up until 10:30. Translators and poets, reading side by side while the audience cheers, screams, enjoying the power of poetry. For twenty years, poets have come and gone, children have been born, and have grown up under the warmth of this powerful tool of healing, and some of those young people are today volunteering with a literary revolution that gave birth to them.

This is inarguably, the largest, the most fascinating, most revolutionary, and most people-centered poetry festival in the world. The International Poetry Festival of Medellin was founded in Medellín in 1991 by two young, idealistic and practical Colombian poets, Fernando Rendón, who was also editor of the Colombian magazine of PIW,  and Gabriel Jaime Franco. Of course, they were assisted by a great group of poetry enthusiasts who banded together to establish what is now a cultural revolution, impacting the entire world over twenty years. Today, one of those hardworking poetry lovers is Gloria Chvatal, whose dedication to organizing and helping to run the festival is simply inspirational.

FOUNDERS: Fernando Rendón (R) and Gabriel Jaime Franco

Gloria Chvatal, a strong arm of the festival, Fernando, and Gabriel against the backdrop of one of the festival audiences.

With the powerful vision to reach their people through poetry, they launched a poetry festival that draws audiences from across the Americas, their neighbors  and from other regions of the world. They have featured close to 1000 poets from around the world, bringing in African, European, Asian, South, North, and Central American poets and poets from every region of the world. This year, I was invited for the second time, including my first invitation in 2007, to be a featured poet among one of the largest if not the largest group of world poets in the twenty years, nearly 100 of us, in a celebration worthy of itself. Again, as with my first visit to Colombia, the International Poetry Festival of Medellin remains the most powerful experience of any poetry festival in the world. Stay tune as I bring you various features, photos, video clips, etc.I in this blog posting. It is long overdue, but you will forgive me if you realize I had to get a new book out and begin readings to promote the book.

Medellin, 2007:

A Poem for Fernando’s Colombia (copyright “Where the Road Turns, 2010) By Patricia Jabbeh Wesley

Medellin, Oh, Medellin…
to God, I wish I could take out my heart for you,
but how will I sing this song to you without a heart?
You, with so much heart for love and poetry,
for hope in the eyes of the little girl
who with a scrap of white paper, wants me to say a word
to her, to autograph my name for her, to write it in her
name. She tells me with that unusual smile how
she loves my poems, but she is only eight years old.
She and Carlos, the five year old brother who have
pushed through the thousands to get to me.

Medellin, Oh, Medellin…
where we go down from the mountain
into the bowl of a city, into the deep heart of a city,
so warm, a city where people still smile
and clap to a poem, and cry for the war, a city
where concrete houses hold up the hills with muscles
of steel, muscles of pain, and somewhere along the roads
as the bus descends from the airport, the poor have
erected their own lives so sadly, waiting,
and yet, they overlook the city with hope.
From the edge of sharp cliffs and the side roads,
the burning lights and flames of the city, hard
and indistinguishable from anger.
But theirs is of the pain from the years gone.

Medellin, Oh, Medellin…
Waiting can be so hard, Medellin.
And I love you from my heart. I love your laughter,
your warm hugs and kisses, your Spanish, so simply
plain and warm. I love even your tears that
you have shared with me, when a poem I’m reading
touches you in that place where only a poem can go.
At the International Poetry Festival, you sit there,
along your hill arena, clapping, thousands of people,
sitting and thinking and listening and hoping,
Medellin, I have never seen anything like this before.
Thousands of people sitting for long hours
at a poetry reading, Medellin…
we wait for that day, Medellin, we wait.
Trust me, I know how to wait, and I know you do too.

Here, I am, reading with African poets in the beautiful Jardín Botánico. Theatre al aire libre on July 10: l-r: Paul Dakeyo (Cameroon), Niyi Osundare (Nigeria), Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia) and Amin Haddad (Egypt), reading.

I was honored to read with, meet with, eat with, and be in the company of some of the finest poets in the world. Our poets came from every area of the globe, different languages and cultures, different world issues in their works, different looks, dress and cultural patterns, but we were all one in the use of poetry as a medium of expression of the sensibility of our unique people, and therefore, of the world.

Here, a group of us poets on our way to sight-seeing in Medellin, Colombia, were chased by newspaper crews who made us stand in the middle of a busy city street to take this shot, featured in the paper the next day. (L_R)Poets sJean Jacques Sewanou Dabla of Togo, Alhaji Papa Susso of Gambia, Lola Koundakjian of Armenia, Veronica Zondek of Chilli, Althea Romeo-Mark, representing Antigua and me, representing Liberia. Middle photo- Me and Althea Romeo-Mark, Me and Koumanthio Diallo of Guinea, West Africa, standing with an Afro-Colombian brother after our last Africa Reading.

Poets, Gemino H. Abad (Phillipines) and Imtiaz Dharker of India looking on.

I have been privileged as a poet to be in the company of Pulitzer Prize winning authors, renowned authors, even Nobel Prize winning authors and to be influenced by their unique ways of viewing the world. But the experience at the International Poetry Festival of Medellin 2007 and 2010 alone has been a life-changing experience for me. Let me discuss in brief the kinds of impact such a great festival has on the invited poet, the Colombian people and others from parts of the Americas who descend upon the city, and finally, upon the country, friends, associates of those who return home with this huge vision in their life experience.

A Life- Changing Experience:

The city of Medellin, Colombia, is a city on a hill, skyscrapers of the wealthy alongside the dwellings of millions of the poor. As in any other country, the poor find a means of survival. It is in the center of this city that has survived forty years of civil war that poets from around the world must all merge with their many voices of hope with the voices of hope from Colombia and nations around the region. The most exciting is not in the structure of this beautiful city and country; the most exciting for me is in the people of Colombia. They are a warm and beautiful people, vibrant in every way, their warm hugs and kisses will melt  your heart. But what will cause you to jump from surprise is their love of poetry. Upon arriving at the airport, you will hardly clear out of customs before noticing the crowd of volunteers, festival organizers and friends out at the Medellin Airport to meet you.

The hugs and kisses will be a regular part of your nearly two weeks of living in Medellin, basking in the beauty of poetry and culture. And then, another big surprise is the crowd at the opening and closing ceremonies. The number has been estimated at between seven to ten thousand out in the open arena, cheering, listening, shouting, enjoying the experience of one poetic voice after the other. If you are a first time festival visitor, your jaw drops, you wonder if it is real, whether you are now a rock star, and whether these great people have all lost their heads. But trust, me, it is real. They love poetry and they will change your world after this. This was when I realized that my coming to Colombia was meant to change me, not me, them.

Yira, my Spanish reader assigned to me at the 20th festival (l) Yira & me, Me, Norwegian poet, Erling and the Colombian team.

Images of the festival. Me at the Afro-Colombian center in Medellin, where I was the only presenter, Me after the reading with  and my girls after our reading out of town in Municipio del Carmen de Viboral. Casa de la Culturaon next to a quick photo from the car driving from Bogota Airport to the city of Villavicencio.

The Most Important Impact of Such a Festival:

The crowds of thousands who are dedicated to listening to poetry, reading poets from around the world, sitting in rain or shine, bringing their babies, toddlers, old people for two decades now tells you something about this country, about the visionaries of the festival, about how poetry, reading of poetry, and writing can be a powerful tool of healing. If anyone tells you that you can have such a literary revolution where people are dedicated to using words as a tool in healing produces small results, that individual is a fool. When you begin to mingle with the people, whether they are poor or rich, you will know the impact of the festival on the country, on ending violence. Remember, in case you forgot, Colombia has been in a civil war with drug lords and armed movements for more than forty years now. So, how is it possible to have such a peaceful festival when the country is supposedly at war? Well, my visit in 2007 and the 2010 visit indicated to me that yes, there has been a great change.

A group of young people who had come for our last African poets reading on July 16, stayed on after everyone had left, lining up to greet us. They were a force to see.

One of the most powerful evidence of how the festival is positively affecting the Colombian people in a powerful way is through the photos. I know of no other place in the world where thousands of people will sit to hear poetry read in various languages with translators reading in the pouring rain, people pulling plastic coverings over their heads, and just intent on listening, where mothers will bring their children, including infants with gifts to authors they’d never met, as if these authors are Priests needing to bless the children, they come by the scores to teach their little ones how important it is to learn, to be intellectual instead of being a rebel fighter. This to me is one of the most wonderful gifts any people can give to their nation. But we all know how much it must cost for organizers to raise the money to feed 100 poets, excluding staff, student volunteers, to give them all stipends, to give them lodging in individual rooms in a beautiful hotel, to tend to them when they are ill during the 12 day for most and more days for others, to help provide transportation from across the world for many, and to pay for the use of numerous venues, to fly dozens of poets across the country or drive them hours away. It is a powerful machine that must be recognized. We are most blessed to have lived this experience; hopefully, some of us will be inspired to emulate this great example.

Poets Saturate the City & Country With Poetry: A Dynamic Organization by the Festival Organizers:

Many of us poets had several readings throughout the 11 day festival. The poets included the following number:We were eleven poets from Africa: Niyi Osundare (Nigeria) Alhaji Papa Susso (Gambia), Arif Khudairi (Egypt), Paul Dakeyo (Cameroon), Mohammed Bennis (Morocco), Luis Carlos Patraquim (Mozambique), Koumanthio Zeinabou Diallo (Guinea), Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia),Jean Jacques Sewanou Dabla (Togo), Amin Haddad (Egypt) and Chirstopher Okemwa (Kenya). Some of us poets came from the Diaspora of Europe and America while others came from the continent of Africa.

After the African poets reading the 16th of July, the elderly gentleman was so excited, he came up to be photographed with us.

The audience waiting before the African reading. Above: After the reading photos

Among the 100 invited poets, less than hundred in attendance, there were beside us 11 Africans, 58 poets from the Americas, 10 from Asia, and 18 from Europe. Some of the poets I connected to include all on the African team (speaking French, English and Arabic), Althea Romeo-Mark, my American Lit. professor of long ago, Sir Howard Fergus of Monsserrat, Obediah Michael Smith of Barbados, Grace Nichols and her husband, John Agard both of Guyana, Renato Sandoval of Peru, Bob Holman of the US, Gemino H. Abad and his spouse (guest), of Philippines, Hala Mohammad of Siria, Lola Koundakjian, U Sam Oeur of Cambodia, Uwe Kolbe, excluding our very fascinating volunteer translators, interpreters. Special among the entire crew was my dear reader, the young and beautiful Yira Plaza Obyrne. Yira went with me everywhere to read the Spanish translation of my poetry whenever I appeared, and where there was no interpreter to translate my short speeches before the reading, Yira would step in. The only trip she did not accompany me on was the one to the far away city of Villavicencio.

Hala of Syria, making an early departure and that goodbye photo as the poets hurry through breakfast for another busy day

I had about ten readings throughout Medellin, reading in various venues with a team of four assigned different authors each time. I also had one solo presentation at the Afro-Colombian Center of Arts. My two out of town readings included a reading far into the Andes Mountains. This was one of the most fascinating of my participation. The Nowegian Poet, Erling Kittelsen and I were sent out to read in a far city of Villaviciencio on July 12, returning on July 13. I also had another reading out of town, with Armenian poet, Lola Koundakjian, just about an hour away to the town famous for its ceramic art, china ware. The town, Municipio del Carmen de Viboral.

Here are some connections in photos made during various readings:

In Municipio del Carmen, a five or six year old girl clung to me after the reading, telling me how much she liked my poetry and how she wanted to me to take her with me.

Connections to Children When Parents Bring Them:

Book signing after the African Poets reading in the Botanical garden that morning. Whenever there was a reading, the audience was so inspired and excited, they in turn inspired and excited us poets. Many in the audience came from various parts of South America. Besides these readings, I did a number of print, TV and newspaper magazine interviews.

Reading In Villaviciencio , Colombia:

When I arrived in Medellin on July 7, 2010, I saw that I would have to be driven to Medellin Airport for a one hour flight to Bogota, the capital city, and then driven to Villaviciencio for two hours. So on the morning of July 12, the Norwegian poet and I were taken to Medellin Airport to be flown to the high mountain city of Bogota. The driver, one of my favorite and the son of one of the founders of the Festival made the journey to the airport. To my surprise, the driver stopped by a mountain side eating/stop place and treated all of us to a beautiful lunch. We then took photos in the kitchen of the stop station.

The Driver The sign says 50, but hey.

The City of Villavicencio, according to Wikipedia, lies “in a rural zone of tropical climate… on the great Colombian-Venezuelan plain called Los Llanos. The city is east of the Andes Mountains. The Andes are a series of endless mountains that allows you to drive on clouds as if you were on a plane. I was so mesmerized, I took numerous photos as clouds swirled around the windshield of the car.

Despite its closeness to the vast Savannas that lie between the Andes range and the Amazon, you cannot drive from Bogota to Villavicencio without meandering through high mountains, long winding tunnels or feeling the pressure of the height of the region. According to the records, Bogota is the second highest capital city in the world, boasting more than 9000 feet above sea level. Right off the plane from Medellin, the cold chill hits you along with the pressure of the height. My allergies kicked in right away and I was quick to grab hold of my jacket. My Norwegian poetry colleague, Erling was a gentleman who quickly took my laptop from me as we made our way to the outside for the ride to Villavicencio. Our reading that night was at 7 pm, therefore, we became a bit nervous at being picked up fairly late.We arrived more than two hours later to an auditorium filled with more than 300 people, eager to hear these two foreign poets from different ends of the earth. Our Colombian colleagues and poet partners, interpreters, translators, including the Director of of Cultural Affairs were again as Colombians are, very warm, excited, loving, happy and welcoming. We were exhausted, but we went through quick orientations with our partners, which poems to read, gestures, what to expect, rehearsing quickly, hugs, embraces, laughter, and we hit the stage. Below are the photos of that evening, one of my last three reading evens of the festival.

Erling reading while I try to stretch my back on stage at our reading soon after arriving in this far away town.

Here in this photo are Erling of Norway, me, my reader, a Colombian young woman, a Colombian poet, Erling’s reader and the government official, Cultural Affairs Director, who hosted our visit and the Festival in his city. What a privilege it was for us to meet these warm people. Before the program began, the Colombian poet read a poem dedicated to me, presented flowers to me, a surprise, and everyone was happy.

Reading that evening in Villavicencio, Colombia

A Cross section of the hall that night.

The After Reading Photos: Folks are often excited after reading, and in this city, the norm was no different.

Kids who come to the reading ask the toughest questions. They know so much about poetry, about suffering, about war, and want to know how someone like me can end up not only in the US, but in a huge poetry festival. How did I begin writing, whether I like their country, and how I feel about returning to another festival. Often, they are accompanied by parents, also wanting answers. The most fascinating when the questions are posed is the warmth, the appreciation, and the open affection of the Colombian people, grateful to the visiting poet. There’s so much to learn from the Colombian people, from the International Poetry Festival, from their survival stories.

Afro-Colombian party.

Kenyan poet and a friend posing and photo from my hotel room porch with my visiting bird friend.

The visiting bird at the Gran Hotel visiting the visiting poets.

Bringing a Great Festival to Closure:

The last couple days of our stay in Colombia, many of us needed to go shopping, but the rain, the busy reading schedules, the lack of individual private translators, and of course interview schedules for some of us kept us from doing so. And yet, we found the time to slip out, some of us in small groups, visiting small vending places nearby the Gran Hotel where we were lodged. Althea, Grace Nichols, and others with me, joined the others, shopping for souvenir for our families and friends. We met the warmth of more Colombians in the market places, receiving small gifts and being recognized by the many who had followed us around the city. I took off on my own in between the beautiful hand-made jewelry counters, and came upon one Colombian vendor unlike everyone else I had met. He wanted to sell a necklace to me for 80,000 Pesos, but the necklace was worth 12.000 pesos, and I knew that. I could not speak Spanish, so I gave him a sheet of paper to write down the price. He did, and I asked him again to do so, and he repeated the price. I looked at him and smiled. “You are a big crook,” I said, but he did not understand me. I left him as he stared after me and went to the next vendor to purchase the same necklace at less than 12,000 pesos. In every beautiful country, you will see someone who is ugly, I laughed as I made my way bravely through the busy traffic back to the hotel where a journalist working for a French news agency was waiting to interview me.

July 17 marked the end of the festival; therefore, our hotel was ready for the last party with our own private dance group to shake up the place. Many of us watched for a few minutes and went to our rooms to pack. We would depart early for the airport, groups of us, coming from various regions of our one world, carrying in our hearts the one spirit of poetry, telling our sad and happy stories in stanzas and metaphors, the power of language that can heal and destroy, depending on how you want to use language. But here  in this mountain country, these wonderful people have discovered that words can be more powerful as a tool in forging peace. They have found the treasure of life, and have passed on this wonderful gift to their children over two decades, have brought the world to their doors, won hearts, and have sent us all out to let the world know that we have seen here is bigger and more wonderful than the negative propaganda that we’ve been told. As for me, I will never be the same again after meeting Colombia, after meeting the world at the festival, after sharing my own stories of pain and suffering with the Colombian people, after learning that love is not about what we have, but rather, about what we can give.

And so, the great festival ended on this note even as we poets sat around to watch the professional dancers do their thing.

(All photos are the exclusive right of Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, and must not be used for any commercial purposes)

Links to Articles Around the Festival:

All My Travels: The Life of a Poet Isn’t as Bad as They Said It Would Be. Even Without the Money, Trust Me, You Still Have a Life, So, Com’on, Be a Poet if You’re Cut Out to Be

Every now and then, one of my teenagers jokingly says, “Mom, get a life!”

And I often say, “I’ve got a life, child, and I’ve got a good life that I’m grateful to have.”

One of my highlights prior to the OSU visit was my reading for the Fall for the Book Festival Reading in Sept. 2009: Here we go above and immediately below. Maybe I don’t have a life, but at least I have wonderful friends who love poetry.

It’s interesting when art and poetry merge: The woman in the painting is like a new competition in the world of poetry reading. I love this photo of her taking over the mic from me even though she’s only in the picture.

Associate Vice President and my good friend, Robert Killoren of Ohio State University, who was one of my hosts on February 25, 2010, photo taken after my talk on: “Travel Research and Writing: A Big World in the Small Storie We Tell”

A Chinese lady in the audience at the talk. She was one of the sweetest people I met on my visit.

Assistant to the Associate Vice President, Theresa, who worked so hard with the VP to bring me to OSU.

My African sister and a professor at OSU, originally from Sierra Leone, Miriam Conteh-Morgan, who was gracious to sit through the talk after she’d listened to my radio interview on NPR.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow U? I still want to be a poet when I grow up.

When I was a kid in Monrovia, Liberia, my father’s company of men and women would take a break from their beer, food and laughter to talk to us children. In the living room, near Capital Bye Pass or Warwien, where we lived, my father would call me out to greet his company of Grebo people, mostly middle class, affluent, Grebo people who had settled in Monrovia in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They were now doing great in the Monrovia of the 1970s.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” A tipsy man or woman would ask me in the middle of the Saturday laughter, the bright Liberian, sun piercing through everything. “What do you want to be, baby girl? They say you ae clever, ” one of them would say, staring at me.
“I want to be a writer, a poet or something,” I’d say, often trembling, scared to death of my stepmother who didn’t like me very much.”
“A writer? A writer?” Someone in the group, sitting on my father’s plush sofa would rebuke.
“What kind of clever girl want-to grow up and be a writer?” They would roar with laughter.
“You should be a doctor or something, a doctor, I mean,” one of the men would add, and there was more laughing. All of this was said in impeccable Grebo, with all of the nuances and sighs a Grebo person is capable of. There of course were proverbs to spice up their disapproval. A woman these days had to learn something, they all agreed, not be some writer.
“She wants to be a writer,” my father would come to my rescue, “and that’s okay. I only want her to be educated, very, very educated so no man takes advantage of her,” he would finish.
“Girl, you need to grow up and be a doctor or some kind of big politician,” most of the company agreed, and I’d walk away to my room or to the kitchen or to the front porch, away from the suffocation of their adult world.

Emmanuel Wettee and the young Ms. Nagana after the symposium, snapped in this photo with me. It was a pleasure to have a few Africans at the OSU symposium talk.

I wondered all through my childhood and adolescence what was wrong with becoming a writer. Why did people think a poet or a writer wasn’t important just because doctors make money and poets didn’t?
“Or maybe you can become a teacher so you don’t have to starve while you write,” another of the visitors would follow me with one last comment even as I fled their company. I didn’t have much to say  since an African child was not supposed to express strong opinions in such a situation.

Daughter of Dr. Nanaga, young med. student at Ohio who took time out to attend my symposium talk, Emmanuel Wettee, one of the leaders of Liberians in the Diaspora at the symposium at OSU.

Dr. Ado Dan-Isa of Beyaro University in Nigeria, now a Research Scholar at OSU

So, I ended up being the writer who could have become a medical doctor, making money somewhere to feed me and all my relatives from my home town. If you know Liberians, then you know that they do not care about writers or poets or any such crazy folks like me. For most Liberians, you have to be a government cabinet minister or an important official if you want people to listen to you. But that’s one of our many problems as a people. Any nation that refuses to understand the importance of art in the life of its people is simply moving toward self-destruction.

Below is a link to one of my interviews at OSU. This link is to the one on NPR with Ann Fisher. Here is a photo in the studio, and then the one hour interview. Ann was one of my highest points, an exciting and vibrant interviewer who comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan. What a nice surprise to know that only in the studio.

The life of a poet or writer isn’t as bad as it was made out to be, I now know.

When I look at my life, the wonderful people I meet as I travel for poetry readings and talks from campus to campus, the wonderful students and lovers of poetry that enrich my life, I say, I’d never give up this for anything else. Where would a poet be without poetry? Where would the world be without poetry, you may ask.

A cross section of the audience at the poetry reading during my Ohio State Visit: It was an added treat when fellow poet and former grad student from IUP, James Barker came to the OSU reading with his students.

This academic year alone, I have been to several places, reading and signing books alongside my life as a teacher. My world is larger because of the many friends of my writing whose lives have enriched mine, and yet, I can still feed myself, which is a surprise. Often, I get bored reading my own poetry from place to place, bored that after I have written something, I have to go out and read it. But when I see the excitement of those who know how to appreciate art for its sake, I am encouraged. They bring a lot to the life that we lead.

Reading poetry at OSU

What do I tell my writing students? What do I tell fellow writers who enjoy this writing life, and often, this traveling life? Well, if this is your calling, don’t fight it. Use it to enrich some life, to bless the world, to be a consolation, to ask the questions no one wants to ask, to tell other people’s stories through your own eyes, to be there, simply, an ordinary writer whose gifts have nothing to do with intelligence or power.

And yet there were many other readings prior to this. Here are some of the past readings in brief. Sometime last year, there were readings for the Fall for the Book Festival as seen in these other photos, and of course, accidentally, with me wearing the same outfit. Being a writer does not often mean one will know which fashion to wear at an occasion, but here we go.

Signing books at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Reading in Sept. 2009

My poet friend whom I admire a lot, Gabeba Baderoon and me after the Smithsonian reading in Washington DC

Liberian writer, Elma Shaw who attended my reading at the Smithsonian and took this photo.

My life as a writer is a small gift that comes from God, the power that only the divine can give. Why did anyone think that something was wrong with being a writer?

Another reading at Clarion University in PA. Daughter of immigrant Liberians, now a senior student on the left and her friend pose for a photo after my reading in Sept. 2010

See how short I am posing beside this Math professor at Clarion. He is originally from the Sudan.

I grew up to discover early on in my life that there were others out there who love poetry and writing, those who value writers. There were my professors, and of course, my father who taught me over and over that I had something to give to the world. There were publisher, mentors, other writers, struggling like me both in Liberia and in the US, who made the writing life worthwhile. I discovered that publihsers who edit the junk I write, magazine publishers who discovered me for themselves were far more valuable than we make them out to be. Without them, where would we be? Speaking for myself, where would I be if no one had said to me, “This is not good; this is good or this is trash.”

My hosts, Poet and Professor at Clairon, Phil Terman, who is a good friend of mine and Roger, both who worked diligently to get me to their campus. Where would the world be without poets who love poetry?

Poets are because many others out there are: Here’s to you. “Where the Road Turns” forthcoming.

Not too long ago, the publisher of my third book of poems, Michael Simms sent me one of the best e-mails I’d ever got, asking if I wanted him to look at my new manuscript of poems, and if I were interested in him publishing it. I quickly placed it in the mail, and now, we have a book forthcoming, and I say “we,” since I never consider myself to be the only author of any of my books.

For who will ever believe that those classmates, friends, fellow poets, publishers, professors, and mentors who have shaped us are not also co- authors of any one book that comes out anywhere in the world? A book is like a child; it takes a village to raise it, so of course, I don’t believe that just because I grew up thinking I would be a writer means I am a writer on my own island.  In fact, I’m still trying to be a writer, if you ask me.

I didn’t know that despite the lack of money from the writing life of a poet, despite the lack of huge grants as other writers are lucky to get, that I would indeed love my life as it is. My life has been scarred by tears, but poetry has been a source of strength simply because it is beautiful and those who appreciate what I do are even more beautiful. I once told my medical doctor neighbors that I am the only doctor on our street whose patients are a bunch of lines and mataphors arranged on a page, penniless patients of words and yet, it is these same words that may heal what a doctor cannot heal.

LUCILLE CLIFTON: (June 27, 1936- Feb. 13, 2010) A great American poet- May her soul rest in peace.

Lucille Clifton departed this life as we know it on Feb. 13, 2010, having lived the full life of a poet.

I studied her poetry during my final doctoral project towards my oral defense when I chose to study her connection to African poetry under the topic: “The Influence of The African Oral Tradition on Black American Poetry: A Connection Between Lucille Clifton’s Poetry and its African forebears, using Okot p’Betik’s “Song of Lawino” as a Source of Reference.” Now I treasure AWP 2009 where I last saw her.

Finally, let me conclude this blog post with a tribute to Lucille Clifton, a great poet, a mentor, a woman whose poetry life helped to show me that poetry is worth everything, that writing is a calling, and that no matter what, a poet is a poet for life. Goodbye, Lucille. We will all miss seeing you at AWP this year, but your spirit will linger here with us. We are, because you were and still are.

The Mississippi River Empties Into the Gulf

By Lucille Clifton

and the gulf enters the sea and so forth,
none of them emptying anything,
all of them carrying yesterday
forever on their white tipped backs,
all of them dragging forward tomorrow.
it is the great circulation
of the earth’s body, like the blood
of the gods, this river in which the past
is always flowing. every water
is the same water coming round.
everyday someone is standing on the edge
of this river, staring into time,
whispering mistakenly:
only here. only now.

sorrow song
by Lucille Clifton

for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
of nagasaki,
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
their eyes,
staring at us,   amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
ordinary men.

[if mama / could see]

by Lucille Clifton

if mama
could see
she would see
lucy sprawling
limbs of lucy
decorating the
backs of chairs
lucy hair
holding the mirrors up
that reflect odd
aspects of lucy.

if mama
could hear
she would hear
lucysong rolled in the
corners like lint
exotic webs of lucysighs
long lucy spiders explaining
to obscure gods.

if mama
could talk
she would talk
good girl
good girl
good girl
clean up your room.

Stop All the Clocks: The Catastrophic Earthquake in Haiti, too Devastating for Words…Hold Up a Candle, Say a Prayer, Will You?

Tell all my mourners
To mourn in red —
Cause there ain’t no sense
In my bein’ dead.

Langston Hughes,
(1902 – 1967)

Stop All the Clocks, Bring Out the Mourning Cloth.

Looking at the President of Haiti in an interview on CNN at this moment, one cannot help, but feel deep sorrow for this leader. He is so confused, he does not seem to know what to ask for when the question is posed. One of the first things he said when the press man asked him what can be done to help his devastated people, he says, “clean up the streets…” Of course, he does not mean that. Even as he smiles, he looks so helpless, but he is the lucky one without a mansion or workers or people to lead right now as the chaos of the earthquake’s aftermath is felt by survivors and the world at large. All around him is devastation and ruin, dead bodies and nothingness. He is the lucky one however as thousands, perhaps, tens of thousands are still caught under the rubble. Hold up a candle for them, will you, and please donate to the Red Cross and other Humanitarian organizations who are of course, legitimate.

Stop All the Clocks

——–  W. H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Presidential Mansion in Haiti

There are no words to describe the devastation of lives, infrastructure and the lives of millions of people in Haiti. There is only tears just looking at the horror of human beings trapped in between shattered concrete in Port au Prince. Where there are flowers, they are insufficient to lay out for the number of dead; if there are mourners, their voices cannot sing the dirges needed to send off the dead. This is the sort of tragedy that makes one wonder, “What have they done to nature that nature bestowed such a pain upon these people?” There will be aid and support, but there will be no words enough to comfort the grieved families and friends. Burn a candle for the dead, will you. Say a prayer, send flowers, send money in to support, hold a hand and give a hug. Today, the tragedy is in Haiti; tomorrow, who knows where it will be. John Donne wrote Meditation 17 so well when he said, “No man is an Island.”

When W. H. Auden wrote Stop all the clocks, he was writing a specific poem. But for many of us, this poem has meaning again today. Stop all the clocks, do not go to work, do not pick up the phone and laugh. Do not let the dead lie still without a word or thought for those dead in Haiti.


Emily Dickinson,
(1830 – 1886)

As far from pity as complaint,
As cool to speech as stone,
As numb to revelation
As if my trade were bone.

As far from time as history,
As near yourself to-day
As children to the rainbow’s scarf,
Or sunset’s yellow play

To eyelids in the sepulchre.
How still the dancer lies,
While color’s revelations break,
And blaze the butterflies!

I Measure Every Grief

Emily Dickinson

I measure every grief I meet
With analytic eyes;
I wonder if it weighs like mine,
Or has an easier size.

I wonder if they bore it long,
Or did it just begin?
I could not tell the date of mine,
It feels so old a pain.

I wonder if it hurts to live,
And if they have to try,
And whether, could they choose between,
They would not rather die.

I wonder if when years have piled–
Some thousands–on the cause
Of early hurt, if such a lapse
Could give them any pause;

Or would they go on aching still
Through centuries above,
Enlightened to a larger pain
By contrast with the love.

The grieved are many, I am told;
The reason deeper lies,–
Death is but one and comes but once
And only nails the eyes.

There’s grief of want, and grief of cold,–
A sort they call ‘despair,’
There’s banishment from native eyes,
In sight of native air.

And though I may not guess the kind
Correctly yet to me
A piercing comfort it affords
In passing Calvary,

To note the fashions of the cross
Of those that stand alone
Still fascinated to presume
That some are like my own.

Second Day of Mourning
—-Gaston Ng

The second day of mourning is always grey,
When the grandeur of elaborate pain
Fades into a comprehensible dawn.
The asthmatic morning laboured to wheeze a few
Competent breaths to last from bus to school.
A grim visage canopies a lurching heart that still stumbles
In the quicksilver and endless corridors of remembering.
Mourning seems such a vain thing.
It crys aloud to be seen, solicits pity with
Conscious tears and wanton dysphoria,
Damns an implosion with a paradoxical front.
Trudging up the overhead bridge that prevent dented fenders
And stubborn bloodstains on the roads,
The sweaty morning clings onto my skin and sorrow
Weighing with the symbolism of exertion.

A TRIBUTE TO AIR FRANCE 447 VICTIMS- A Horrible Tragedy: Please Find those Black Boxes

Photo for possible web

When a Plane Crashes in the Middle of the Ocean, We Are Left Helplessly Grieved—


Compostie of some of the victims. From top left: Neil Warrior, Jose Souza, Graham Gardner and Arthur Coakley. From bottom left: Aisling Butler, Jane Deasy and Eithne Walls Photo: MARK ST GEORGE / PA

May Their Souls Rest in Peace—

Two days ago, we awoke to very sad news that a French airliner, Air France 447 was missing en route to Paris from Brazil. Then not too long after that, news came in that the plane had possibly crashed in the middle of the Atlantic, that long flight between the continents. Now, it is clearer to us that those 228 passengers and crew, including eleven children have all perished. This is a sad day for everyone who loves human beings no matter where they come from.

Anne and Michael Harris, American couple living in Brazil

Anne and Michael Harris, Americans living in Brazil, Perished.

Dr. Aisling Butler of Ireland, crash victim (Ap photo)

Dr. Aisling Butler of Ireland, also flying on Air France

FRANCE BRAZIL PLANEGrieving family members

There is a somber kind of hopelessness to realizing that your beautiful family or friends who took off on one of the most reliable means of travel in the world have joined a small number of crashed victims in the history of aviation. Everyone knows that flying is safer than driving, and yet each time I board an airplane, I am aware that something might happen, and I might not get off alive. What a scary thought, but let’s take a moment to think of the numerous family members, and friends who have lost so many good people.


When a plane crashes anywhere, and so much life is lost, everyone is at a loss for what to do. The living simply can stand around and mourn, try to make sense of the senselessness of the crash. Those responsible for investigating the crash examine all the theories, search for the Black Box in order to discover the last signs of trouble and communication prior to the crash. The painful thing about a plane crashing in the ocean is the feeling of the lack of closure. There are often no bodies to claim or bury, and forever, one might keep looking for closure.

Brazil PlanePhoto of young, Lucas Juca of Brazil who also went down with the plane.

Photos of grieving families at the airports both in Brazil and in Paris can be heart breaking for anyone. Families can only comfort one another.

Air France as an airliner is a familiar plane to me. Twice, I have flown my family members, including my late mother and my father-in-law on that airliner from Africa to the US. I too, have had to fly Air France and its Sister or cousin airline, Air Afrique.

But I am a skeptic about all of the instructions given to passengers during the take off. Maybe this is because I have flown way too many times or because I know about the inevitability of a crash, and that most plane crashes mean a death sentence for most passengers. So every time I hear these carefully and legally worded instructions, I wonder how fit the plane is, how sober the pilots are, whether or not they have the experience to fly the plane. I often wonder if they have had enough sleep, whether they are paid well for their difficult job, and whether the stewardesses are also trained for any kind of emergency.

Often, I simply bow and say a good prayer for myself, the pilots, the entire crew, fellow passengers, and turn my life over to God. I have stopped worrying, but I still have my wondering mind about the connection between the poor world economy and the running of safty

In my own grief for the victims of Air France crash, it is my hope that the families will find closure, will overcome their grief, will cherish the memory of their loved ones, and will move on into the future. I also hope that the families and friends will work hard to make the French and Brazalians find the Black Box.  I hope the French government will not call off the search for the Black Box. Let them not quit looking for it. The Black Box will help investigators determine whether the crash was natural, human error or a terrorist attack. Planes that are equiped to fly across the globe do not just vanish out in the thin air.  I hope the French will not be clumsy about quitting the search. We owe that much to the victims and their families.

Let us conclude this reflexive tribute on John Donne’s powerful poem:

Holy Sonnet X: Death Be Not Proud by John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have callèd thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which yet thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more, must low
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men
And dost with poison, war and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then ?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Say a prayer for these, will you? May their souls rest in perpetual peace and may their families be comforted.