Former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey began her talk at Kent State University by claiming kinship with the audience.
“I always feel slightly at home in Ohio,” she said. “It is the state that allowed my parents to get a marriage license in 1965, allowed me to be born legit in this country, even as our laws still rendered me persona non grata.”
The newborn Trethewey arrived a year later in Gulfport, Mississippi, where her parents’ marriage was illegal under a national patchwork of anti-miscegenation laws. The couple met at Kentucky State College — Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a black woman fresh from Gulfport, and Eric Trethewey, a white Canadian who hitchhiked his way to campus.
Their brief marriage – they divorced when Natasha was 6 – features heavily in her work, including the poem she chose to open the evening, “Miscegenation.” As she moved through her reading, an expert mix of personal history and political commentary, Tretheway threaded each poem with the pointed focus of race and place.
Such themes frequently lace through her verse, including in her 2012 poetry collection, “Thrall,” in which she uses historical figures to parse identity and belonging. Prior to that, she released “Native Guard,” which heralded the unsung black soldiers who protected the Union during the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Parts of the evening were somber, as Trethewey shared the anger and longing lodged in poems she’d written after the murder of her mother, a social worker, when Natasha Trethewey was a 19-year-old student at the University of Georgia. The awful death, at the hands of a second husband her mother had divorced, pushed Trethewey toward poetry more than anything else. In “Myth” she grapples with painful reoccurring dreams of her mother, often triggering a new wave of grief:
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking
you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.
Trethewey read a handful of poems that touched on her father, himself a poet and, as his daughter describes him, her first teacher.
“He had been writing about me my whole life. And he was excited and had a little dread about me becoming a poet because he knew I would set the story straight,” she quipped before a sizeable audience gathered by the Wick Poetry Center.
Now 51 and a professor at Northwestern University, Trethewey took a moment to stitch the social justice movements of the past and present. “Incident,” about an attack at her grandmother’s home when she was a child, brimmed with relevance: “It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns./When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.”
Trethewey looked out at the assembled. “We hear a lot about voter fraud when we really should be talking about voter suppression, voter intimidation, redistricting,” she warned. “But this is not new. We’ve seen this.”
James Brown. John Brown’s raid. Michael Brown. Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
These subjects braid through Kevin Young’s new book, Brown, as he creates poems about black culture and boyhood, dividing his collection into “Home Recordings” and “Field Recordings.” It publishes this week.
“It’s a book that’s been brewing for a while,” Young told David Canfield of Entertainment Weekly. “The title poem is one I’ve been trying to write for some time, about growing up in Topeka, Kansas, and going to the church that Rev. Brown of Brown v. Board [pastored]. His daughter Linda played piano and organ in the church, and so to that connection to history always struck me as something worthy of a poem.”
Young dedicates this title poem to his mother and it closes out the section of home recordings. He begins it: The scrolling brown arms/of the church pews curve/like a bone – their backs/bend us upright . . .
Young will be in Cleveland September 27 to accept the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in nonfiction for his cultural history, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts and Fake News.
In Brown, 31 poems thread from boyhood and back, with a Triptych for Trayvon Martin subdivided into Not Guilty [A Frieze for Sandra Bland]; Limbo [A Fresco for Tamir Rice] and Nightstick [A Mural for Michael Brown].
The book is illustrated with beautiful endpapers of a child’s drawing of a collection of superheroes and nine black-and-white photographs by Melanie Dunea. In January 2015, she traveled to the Mississippi Delta with Young, as he writes, “to capture the spirit of that place with a poetry that enhances my own.”
Their pilgrimage took them to Greenwood, Miss, where the term “black power” was popularized at a Stokely Carmichael rally in 1966, and nearby Money, Miss., where Emmett Till was murdered. These poems call on the reader “to remember but also revisit and revise what we think of the past.” Young mentions in his notes that the white woman who accused Emmett confessed last year that he never whistled or called her baby. He didn’t do a thing.
“The site of Till’s lynching,” Young reports, “feels both holy and haunted.”
The 19 final lines of the book comprise a poem called “Hive.” It also concerns a boy:
The honey bees’ exile
is almost complete.
You can carry
them from hive
to hive, the child thought
& that is what
he tried, walking
with them thronging
between his pressed palms.
Let him be right.
Let the gods look away
as always. Let this boy
who carries the entire
world in his calm
barely walking, bear
us all there
At 87, Toni Morrison is a direct woman. The Nobel laureate in literature has long contemplated her legacy, and the larger meaning of art, society and belonging.
A moving piece of evidence for this unfurls in The Foreigner’s Home, a feature-length film, making its regional debut at the Cleveland Museum of Art, 35 miles east of Morrison’s childhood town of Lorain, Ohio. The film screens at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The documentary captures the magisterial Morrison mulling the limits of language in 2006 as she curated an exhibit at the Louvre she also called The Foreigner’s Home. Its centerpiece is Theodore Gericault’s massive 1819 oil painting “The Raft of the Medusa,” created just three years after an actual shipwreck off the coast of Senegal that doomed dozens of 19th-century passengers from the lower classes.
“My faith in the world of art is not irrational and it’s not naïve,” Morrison told a Parisian audience. “Art invites us to take a journey from date to information to knowledge to wisdom. Artists make language, images, sounds to bear witness, to shape beauty and to comprehend . . . this conversation is vital to our understanding of what it means to be human.”
The writer explained that the title has two meanings – the foreigner at home, and the foreigner is home, flinging wide the questions of displacement and belonging. She noted that each individual finds oneself “being, fearing or accommodating the stranger.” She put these notions and the Gericault painting before street poets, playwrights, dancers, musicians, choreographers and novelists whom Morrison invited to the Louvre from around the corner, and around the globe.
Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian writer living in New York, lent her insights, and roughly ten years later, traveled to Morrison’s home in the Hudson River valley, to update and enlarge the conversation for the film. (Both women are recipients of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.)
In 2006, architect Ford Morrison traveled to France with his mother and filmed parts of the Paris gathering, then tucked the footage away. Morrison mentioned her desire to have something done with the materials to Jonathan Demme, her neighbor and friend who had directed the cinematic version of her novel “Beloved.”
‘She said, ‘Jonathan, I don’t want to deal with this, but do you know some nice, quiet folk who might want to deal with it?’” recalled Rian Brown-Orso, a co-director of the documentary and professor at Oberlin College.
Demme did. All three of his children attended Oberlin, where he met cinema professors Brown-Orso and Geoff Pingree. Demme helped the duo in their 2009 initiative to restore the Apollo Theatre in Oberlin.
The director agreed to executive produce the Morrison film project. “He thought at the time he’d either use HBO or he’d try us,” Pingree said. Brown-Orso created the hand-painted animation for The Foreigner’s Home and Pingree wrote the script.
But the task was complex and wound up taking five years. “Geoff and I spent two years logging and transcribing,” she said. “Some material was unusable; some had bad sound quality.”
The pair concluded they must ask Morrison to sit for the camera, violating one of her original conditions. Pingree wrote a passionate two-page letter in November 2014, making a case for a new interview. In their letter, the directors asked to build 20 minutes of archival materials into a film commensurate with the ideas Morrison explored. In the intervening years, questions around migration had become more urgent.
Demme and then Oberlin President Marvin Krislov, who had helped raise $350,000 for the project, predicted Morrison would decline. Instead, she agreed.
“We set the film up, and the first thing you hear is water,” Pingree said. “Then we hear [Morrison’s] voice. Then we see an animated boat with hand-drawn figures. They suggest anyone at sea, literally or figuratively offshore. So we begin asking, ‘Where will they land? Who’ll take them in? Where will they find anchor?’”
When The Foreigner’s Home debuted in North America with a screening in Miami in March, Pingree said a viewer approached him. “This 67-year-old white guy came up to say he was riveted. He said, ‘If I could have gotten my 20-year-old self to watch it, it would have changed my entire life.’ “
The man shook Pingree’s hand and melted back into the crowd.
For Brown-Orso, such a response indicates Morrison is sounding a warning, that her voice is prophetic: “Our task was to make a visual space to uphold the power of Ms. Morrison’s words.”
The film is dedicated to Demme, who died last year.
“The mission of art is the destruction of barriers and walls,” Morrison says, “the things that prevent people from connecting with their home or each other.”
With Gateway to the Moon, writer Mary Morris casts a new spell drawing water from some of her favorite wells. Her new novel is publishing today.
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for The Jazz Palace returns to Jewish history, this time spinning a family story across centuries. She puts it in motion in 1492, the year Spain expelled its Muslim and Jewish citizens and Christopher Columbus journeyed to the New World.
In Gateway to the Moon, Morris places on that voyage an interpreter she calls Luis de Torres, a Jew who has disguised himself as a Christian in order to escape the Spanish Inquisition. His descendants travel too, some settling in a little town called Entrada de la Luna in what will eventually be New Mexico. The legacy of Crypto-Judaism, secret adherence to Judaism amid an outward appearance of religious conformity, settles in too.
In her acknowledgments, Morris writes that the new work is “a story I began thinking about more than twenty-five years ago when we lived in Santa Fe and had a babysitter who believed he was a crypto-Jew. I don’t remember his name, but I remember his face and the myriad of questions he asked about Jews and Jewish rituals.” Prodded by her agent, Ellen Levine, Morris dug out her old journals from Santa Fe, which helped germinate the new novel. She dedicates it to Levine, and to her Doubleday editor, Nan A. Talese.
She also dedicates Gateway to the Moon to her husband, Larry O’Connor. Their meeting, charmingly recounted in Morris’ 2015 column for the New York Times Modern Love feature, is as soulful as the cover of her new book.
Morris, a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, quotes the French novelist Andre Malraux in her epigraph: “The great mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”
Boston-based filmmaker Adam Mazo is quick to admit that he knew little about Native populations growing up in Minnesota.
He’s committed to changing that for future generations with “Dawnland,” the 90-minute documentary premiering this month at the Cleveland International Film Festival. The film centers on the decades of government policy that forced Native children from their families and into adoptive homes, foster care and boarding schools. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards will sponsor three screenings.
The idea for “Dawnland” was sparked from Mazo’s work on another film, “Coexist,” about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. “We were talking about how it felt wrong to not be teaching about genocide in this country’s history,” he said.
The timing aligned with the formation of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an innovative attempt between a people and a state government to investigate the harm the state did against indigenous children in Maine.
For the first time, adoptees publicly told their stories of forced assimilation and abuse. “How do you propose that we’re supposed to be healing?” an elder Wabanaki woman asked. “I can’t get over the nightmares . . . where was the state? They were supposed to have been our guardians. But where were they?”
Mazo and co-director Ben Pender-Cudlip produced “First Light,” a 13-minute short film “that gave viewers a preview of the Wabanaki people’s fight to preserve their culture within a system of state-sponsored removal of children. The commission found that from 2000 to 2013, native children in Maine entered foster care 5.1 times the rate of non-Native children.
The duo turned to Kickstarter to fund the full-length project. “We reached our goal a few days before the campaign ended,” said Pender-Cudlip, who has directed more than a dozen short documentary films. “’First Light’ was a huge help. We set up screenings all around New England, events that we used to get conversations started around the film.”
“Dawnland” reveals the untold narrative of Indigenous child removal in the United States through raw, never-before-seen footage. The complete findings of the commission are well worth reading.
Mazo is also director of the Upstander Project, which supplies teaching supplements to the films for use in schools worldwide. A 2001 state law requires Maine teachers to incorporate the history of the Wabanaki people in K-12 classrooms (a similar law exists in Ohio), and school districts have implemented its materials into lesson plans.
“Dawnland” will be the cornerstone of a six-day professional development training on genocide and human rights at the Updstander Academy that Mazo predicts “will be a transformative experience.”
Above all, the directors hope the film will inspire viewers to consider their blind spots.
“A lot of folks, particularly in the Midwest and the east coast, don’t recognize that there are millions of Native people thriving all across this country,” Mazo said. “As a result of this film, we hope that people will acknowledge them and acknowledge whose land they are on.”
The documentary will screen at Tower City Cinemas on three dates: 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 13; 1:20 p.m. Saturday, April 14 with the film forum and 9:20 a.m. Sunday, April 15. Director Adam Mazo and Penobscot Nation Ambassador Maulian Dana, who makes a cameo in the film, will speak at the post-film forum on April 14. You will receive a $2 discount per ticket using the Anisfield-Wolf code: ANW0.