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Archive for the ‘poets’ Category

Staceyann Chin (1971- ) is a slam poet from Jamaica who now lives in the country of Brooklyn in New York City. She travels the world performing and teaching poetry. Unlike most poets she has been on Oprah’s television show and has her own Blockbuster Online page.

I thought maybe she was just television-driven fluff, that she had no substance, but when she made me cry at her grandmother’s death – not mine but hers – then I knew she could write.

She was a slam poet before slam poets were in fashion, when it was still underground in New York. Like in Ancient Greece, slam poets perform their poetry for an audience with judges picking the winner. Their pieces generally run three minutes long and tell a story. A video of one of her pieces is at the end of this post.

She got into slam poetry almost by accident: one day she went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The rest is history.

Her first published book is not of her poetry – she is not ready for that yet – but a  story in prose about her first 24 years: “The Other Side of Paradise” (2009).

She was born on Christmas day in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the unwanted daughter of a rich Chinese businessman and a poor black woman. Her mother left the country soon after and Chin was brought up by her grandmother, then in her sixties. Although unwanted by her mother, her grandmother loved her unconditionally. No one has ever loved her more. Because her grandmother could not read, Chin read the Bible to her, especially the psalms – a slam poet in training!

All that ended at age nine when her mother arrived from Canada, briefly, and put her with a great-aunt whose sons tried to force her into sex. She was shifted from house to house without a home, till age 16 when she went away to boarding school and then university – paid for by a Chinese businessman who denies he is her father.

At age 21 while at university she found out she was lesbian. She only told close friends: in Jamaica  you cannot live openly as a homosexual and expect to not be beaten up or, in the case of women, raped.

As much as she loved Jamaica, she had to leave: it would not allow her to live freely as a lesbian. So at age 24 she came to New York:

New York was my godsend. As soon as I landed, I knew I was in a place that welcomed misfits.

No one in New York cared if she kissed girls. She was free! Yet not free: she was black. In Jamaica, because of its colourism, she was favoured for her light skin. But in America she found herself at the bottom – for the very same skin, now seen as black. America may have been more enlightened about lesbians, but it was way less enlightened about black people.

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JuneJordanJune Jordan (1936-2002) was an American writer, poet and professor. And one of my favourite authors. By the 1990s she had become one of the top black women writers in the country. She was best known as a poet, though she wrote children’s books and essays too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents came from Jamaica and believed in the American dream. They later moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Her father was a postman, her mother a nurse. Her mother was “shadowy” but her father was “very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.”

Her father beat her, from the age of two, while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her mother would later kill herself. Jordan was sent to an all-white boarding school in New England, when that kind of thing was rare.

Growing up she read and studied the writings of dead white men, but one of them she particularly liked: Walt Whitman.

She went to Barnard and fell in love with a white man. They married – in 1955 when that kind of thing was rare, even in New York. She dropped out of school, had a son and helped to put her husband through grad school. But it did not last: in 1965 they divorced.

After that she supported herself mainly by teaching English literature at universities: City College (late 1960s), Sarah Lawrence (early 1970s), SUNY Stony Brook (1980s) and Berkeley (1990s). At Berkeley she taught black and women’s studies. She made full professor in 1982. She cared about her students and loved teaching – she did not see it as a burdensome duty like some professors do.

Jordan began writing poetry at age seven. She never stopped writing, whether it could pay the bills or not. She saw words like a lover, seeing their naked beauty and their naked faults. She did not write the sort of books that could be made into Hollywood films or be safe enough to become best-sellers.

But that was her strength. She wrote the truth, she wrote what she saw with her eyes and felt in her heart. But they were not just in her heart: The things that were inside me that I did not know how to say, she knew how to say them and she did.

First they said I was too light
Then they said I was too dark
Then they said I was too different
Then they said I was too much the same
Then they said I was too young
Then they said I was too old
Then they said I was too interracial
Then they said I was too much a nationalist
Then they said I was too silly
Then they said I was too angry
Then they said I was too idealistic
Then they said I was too confusing altogether:
Make up your mind!
They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?
Are you vegetarian or meat?
Are you straight? Or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

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senghor02Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906-2001) – his last name sounds like Song Gore – was a Senegalese poet, scholar and statesman. He was the first president of an independent Senegal, a French poet and one of the top black African thinkers of the 1900s, one of the founders of the negritude movement. He was also the first black African admitted to the French Academy, long the preserve of white men.

He was president of Senegal for 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. He was one of the few African leaders to leave office peacefully and one of the few who had a free press. People said he kissed up to the French too much. He said a country as poor as Senegal needs a friend.

Senghor was born in a small town along the Mamaguedy, 100 km south of Dakar, Senegal. He grew up Catholic in a land that was mostly Muslim. He went to a missionary school and loved to read French books. In time he became one of the top students in Senegal and won a scholarship to study in Paris.

So in 1928 he got on a ship to France and left Africa. Thus began what he called his 16 years of wandering.

In Paris he became friends with Aime Cesaire of Martinique and Leon Damas of French Guiana . Like Senghor, they found themselves caught between two words, one black, one white. The white world was tellling them it had all the answers, that their blackness was holding them back. Yet they found whites cold and stiff and full of themselves, living in “the world that has died of machines and cannons.”

So together they came up with negritude: the idea that black thought, feeling, art and ideas were just as good as those of Europe. It became a movement among black writers, an early form of black pride.

Senghor loved France and the French language and yet he also loved Africa too. He felt torn, something he wrote about in his poetry. He felt like he was two different people. Yet choosing to be just one would narrow him. So he chose neither and remained whole.

He got his degree from the University of Paris in 1935 and became a French and Latin teacher in France. Because he was black some of his students were surprised to see that he wore clothes!

Four years later war came. Senghor fought for France with the Tirailleurs Senegalais, France’s West African army. He spent two years in a Nazi German prison camp. There he wrote a book of French poetry.

After the war he represented Senegal in the French National Assembly. He pushed for greater freedom for Senegal, but not for outright independence. He also pushed for Senegal and French Sudan (now called Mali) to become one. He thought that so long as Africa remains divided into little countries it will remain weak and poor.

In 1962 his name was in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lost to John Steinbeck.

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Ovid

daughterofminosOvid (-43 to +17), a Roman, was one of the best poets ever to write in Latin. He wrote the “Metamorphoses” and the “Art of Love”, among others. Most of our old Greek and Roman stories about heroes, gods and goddesses come from him.

At the end of “Metamorphoses” Ovid said his words would last down through the ages and so they have. The stories he told had been told for ages, even in his time, but no one has told them better.

As one of the best-loved authors in the West from 1100 to 1650, he influenced Dante, Botticelli, Shakespeare and Milton, among others. Shakespeare, for example, did not invent “Romeo and Juliet” – he took it from “Metamorphoses” and set it in Verona.

But even though Ovid was a great poet and storyteller, his writing is not what you would call deep. What depth it has comes from the stories themselves, which he merely retold.

Ovid came from Sulmo to the east of Rome across the mountains. He came from a family of rich blue bloods. His father sent Ovid and his brother to Rome to study rhetoric and law. Ovid did well and in time became a judge.

It looked like one day he might become a senator, but Ovid followed the true passion of his heart and became a poet. He became famous and all was well. But then in the year 8 the First Citizen, Caesar Augustus, banished Ovid.

Augustus gave no reason. Ovid’s “Art of Love” had offended him, it is true, but that was not reason enough. It seems that Ovid knew some deep, dark secret about Augustus.

Ovid was sent to live at the edge of the Black Sea, then called the Pontus. He lived there till his death. We still have the sad letters that he wrote from there.

The “Metamorphoses” tells the history of the world from the Creation down to the time of Augustus by means of stories about Greek gods and heroes. Love, jealousy, betrayal, murder – it is all there, just as in Shakespeare. So are Hercules, Venus, Icarus, Minus, Daphne, Aeneas and so on. It is called the Metamorphoses – Greek for “changing form” – because men turn into trees, birds, cows, stones, stars and even gods.

His “The Art of Love”, written in verse, is just what it sounds like: a handbook for men and women in the art of love. It offended many and helped to get him into trouble.

His earliest work was “Loves”. Well-written but not deep, nevertheless it greatly influenced how love is written about in the West.

In his book “The Feasts” Ovid wrote about the months of the year, telling us a lot about Roman history, custom and religion along the way as well as more of the old Greek and Roman stories. He never finished it: he only got up to June.

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