2016 might mostly be remembered for its disheartening presidential campaign. The mocking, cruel, and dishonest language by the Republican nominee will not go away any time soon. But there were other events, mostly small, in the life of this poet-teacher, which brought beauty and joy into the world. Here are some reflections on these events, books, films, moments.
Here’s a little listing — not a “Best of…” but a couple of books and films that moved me this year:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – This book taught me a great deal about race and privilege. I keep thinking about its insights and I use Coates’ wisdom often with my students.
Vivas to Those Who Have Failed by Martin Espada – This poetry collection is masterful and moving. Espada’s ability to lead the reader into history and nuance amazes me. It has quiet, tender moments and powerful Whitman-esque moments. I love this collection of poems.
“Moonlight” – This film, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, directed by Barry Jenkins, is one of the best films I’ve seen in years. Its deliberate, contemplative pace moved me over and over. The hard reality of human growth and change become real in this beautiful film.
“I, Too, Am America” – This is a film in the making, by young film makers Orlando Pinder, Makdes Hailu, and Sam Hayden. One of the most hopeful moments of this past year. The documentary explores how the 2016 election results might affect America’s minority groups. There’s a great deal here to think about.
My school holds its freshmen retreat on Martin Luther King weekend. For the past few years, they have asked me to coordinate a poetry reading during the “Reflections on Service” part of the retreat. For me, this has been a beautiful opportunity. Usually, two or three student-poets read and I read as well. This past year, I read along with one of my best poetry students, Kyle Taylor. Kyle read some powerful poems voicing sadness about poverty, injustice, our all-too-frequent unkindnesses. I read a few poems about Martin Luther King. I remember sitting on the stage as Kyle read. Listening to him read his poems and watching the faces of a couple of hundred freshmen. They were awestruck. He amazed us. Young poets, like him, give me so much hope.
My friend, Lang Kanai was teaching at Jefferson Academy, a middle school in Washington, D.C. He asked me to come to one of his writing classes and run a poetry workshop and reading. It was pure joy. These middle-schoolers were fired up to write. They laughed. They wrote. They shared their poems aloud (after some cajoling). It was great to see these young people making sense of their lives through their poems. It was also great to see my friend, Lang, an amazing teacher, doing such important work.
The Split This Rock Poetry Festival took place in Washington, D.C. and it was, once again, an amazing experience. I learned a lot by listening in on workshops discussing the complexities of writing about race. I participated in a couple of workshops but, as always, I learned more by listening.
Also in April, I was guest poet at National Cathedral School’s “Writers’ Day.” This was a beautiful experience reading and discussing poetry and its power with the young women at NCS.
Also, a wonderful niece’s terrific wedding!
I read in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in a reading series hosted by Le Hinton. Le is a poet and publisher I greatly admire. He introduced me to poet Dana Kinsey and I read new poems from my Martin Luther King project. It was a beautiful evening.
My friend, poet Katy Richey and I went to a vigil a few days after the Orlando night club shooting. This was a heartbreaking event in every way imaginable. We gathered with hundreds of people in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle with candles, songs, and prayers. America has so much healing to do.
One of the highlights of the year for me, was a visit to New York City where I visited Langston Hughes’ home. I walked around Harlem, sat on his stoop for a couple of hours reading and talking to neighbors. It was a magical day. That evening I joined poets Odilia Galvan Rodriguez, Martin Espada, Melissa Tuckey, and others, from the Poetry of Resistance anthology for a reading. The magic continued.
I spent a morning on WPFW in Washington, D.C. talking with my friend, poet E. Ethelbert Miller. We laughed hard and looked at how and where poetry can help us heal. We talked about the role poetry can play in responding to police brutality. It was a complicated and necessary conversation.
August also held a visit to Washington, D.C. by one of my nieces. Pure joy.
Poet and friend, Le Hinton, who I mentioned above, did a powerful reading at Wohlfarth Gallery in Washington, D.C. At one point in the reading he handed out cotton. His new work on this theme is amazing.
These are just a few of the moments 2016 held that caught my imagination. There were many more, of course. I’m pledging to bring more energy, more honesty, more fire to 2017. I hope you will join me.
Photo: Part of the Underground Railroad Trail, Sandy Spring, Maryland