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Jericho Brown recreates the cover of The Tradition. Photo by Brian Cornelius. Artwork by Lauren “Ralphi” Burgess.

The cover of Jericho Brown’s new poetry collection,
The Tradition, features a young black boy, perhaps 10 years old, surrounded in a lush field of flowers, ocean waves at his back.

It’s beauty is evident, but it intimidated Brown when he first saw it. “It’s so gorgeous and it does speak directly to the poems,” he told The Rumpus. “I kept wondering, “Are these poems good enough for this goddamn cover?”

Let that answer be an emphatic yes.

This work, stitched together over 51 poems, is a meditation on grief, violence, fatherhood, trauma, sexuality and beauty. The Tradition is his third book, the follow-up to 2014’s The New Testament, which won the Anisfield-Wolf award in poetry

For this new book, Brown laments the pain of heartbreak, family erosion, gun violence, and self-exploration. In “Riddle,” he sneers at white supremacy, evoking the wail of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, as the vocalization of its destruction: We do not know the history/Of this nation in ourselves. We/Do not know the history of our/Selves on this planet because/We do not have to know what/We believe we own.

He plays with religion and racism in “Stake,” which begins: I am a they in most of America/Someone who feels lost in the forest/Of we, so he can’t imagine/A single tree. He can’t bear it.

In The Tradition, Brown centers what he calls “the duplex,” a new poetry form he originated that “guts the sonnet” and experiments with structure over 7 couplets, beginning and ending with the same line. The first of these poems appears in the first section and builds tension over its 14 lines:

A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.

Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.

My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.

Steadfast and awful, my tall father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.

Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.

Like the sound of my mother weeping again,
No sound beating ends where it began.

None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.

“[The sonnet’s] been pushed down my throat the entirety of my life,” Brown said. “There is something in me that doesn’t like that, and doesn’t trust that, because I’m a rebellious human being. I need to be a rebellious human being because I’m black and gay in this nation and in this world which has not been good to me or anybody like me.”

Each section of The Tradition draws readers forward, hungrily. The pacing is intentional, though it’s still hard to catch your breath. It’s an intimate collection that prides itself on its vulnerability. Readers who pick up a copy will be awed, from cover to closing stanza.

how to get over  — the debut poetry collection from t’ai freedom ford — is part instruction manual, part black culture guidebook and part handing the mic to everyone from Harriet Tubman to Rodney King.

“Every single word I write is under the auspices of my ancestors,” ford declares.  The Cave Canem graduate gives them their say in 57 poems covering nearly 250 years of pain and beauty.

ford, who teaches English in a New York City high school, leans into poetry with urgency—read this and read it now. She divides her book into four sections – Live, Lie, Love, and Die – each building on the architecture of the segment before. The 16 poems that comprise “Die” are the strongest of the collection. If you pick up how to get over, read “autopsy of a not dead father” first.

Anisfield-Wolf poetry winner Tyehimba Jess praises the collection for its message of deliverance: “This book has come just in time for all us who’ve been under the gun, under false pretense, under arrest, under the influence, and burying our hearts underground.”

Film festival goers might have seen ford in the recent documentary “The Revival: The Women and the Word,” where she hit the stage nightly on an eight-city tour along with four other artists. There, her poetry stood out for its vibrancy and punch; here, that energy continues and ripples from chapter to chapter.

“Namesake” is one standout, grappling with the politics of what we answer to:

the name too old for you — already rust in the mouth of a newborn     torn
from some grandmama’s past         her fast legacy simmering in the ground
& sometimes the name don’t sound right in your bones   gathers in the
joints & aches before the rain comen    vibrates your spine toward curve
& sometimes the name you don’t deserve — too grand for all your regular-
ness it blots you invisible

She gives readers an abbreviated look at her family tree in “big bang theory,” giving praise to the matriarch of the Ford family, Lillie Mae, and the children she birthed:

                she buried all the men with Jesus
on her breath. and when her big-boned
self big-banged to dust, we didn’t call
it death. we called it magic.

Like Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen,” ford elevates pain into introspective art, carefully connecting the dots between what it means to be black and what it means to be free. how to get over rejoices in the space where both are possible.

Poet Jericho Brown, winner of an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year, has written a 14-line poem that begins with the names of flowers and concludes with the names of men.  He calls it “The Tradition.”  Brown notes, “The poet’s relationship to language and form is an addiction where what’s past is present, a video on loop. Not watching won’t make what that video says about our future go away.”

He made this observation to accompany “The Tradition” as the American Academy of Poets sent it to some 300,000 readers August 7, part of its “Poem a Day” project, which has been distributing poetry digitally since 2006.

A native of Louisiana and  a professor of English at Emory University, Brown will accept his Anisfield-Wolf prize in Cleveland next month for his second collection, “The New Testament.” He will read at Trinity Cathedral at 7 p.m. Wednesday September 9. The gathering in the nave is free and the public is welcome.

The Tradition

Aster. Nasturtium. Delphinium. We thought
Fingers in dirt meant it was our dirt, learning
Names in heat, in elements classical
Philosophers said could change us. Star Gazer.
Foxglove. Summer seemed to bloom against the will
Of the sun, which news reports claimed flamed hotter
On this planet than when our dead fathers
Wiped sweat from their necks. Cosmos. Baby’s Breath.
Men like me and my brothers filmed what we
Planted for proof we existed before
Too late, sped the video to see blossoms
Brought in seconds, colors you expect in poems
Where the world ends, everything cut down.
John Crawford. Eric Garner. Mike Brown.

by Ann Kowal Smith + Rachel Burstein

This post was originally published on the Books@Work blog.

Reading, writing and discussing poetry has the power to open windows in life-changing ways, giving readers the freedom to tell their own stories and view themselves as capable learners and contributors. Our current partnership with the East Cleveland Municipal Court and From Lemons to Lemonade (FL2L) bring Books@Work to a group of single mothers and other women whose lives rarely afford them the opportunity to read, let alone reflect.

The majority of the women in the group have suffered extraordinary personal hardships; they often struggle to provide for their children. But these women’s stories don’t have to end there; with the right support, single mothers and other women finding themselves in difficult circumstances can build community and face life’s challenges together. This is the governing philosophy behind FL2L, and avowed cycle-breaker Judge William Dawson’s approach to sentencing at the East Cleveland Municipal Court.

In the fall of 2014 Books@Work launched a partnership with FL2L and the Court with generous funding from the Eva L. and Joseph M. Bruening Foundation, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships Alumni Venture Fund and an individual donor. Since January, Professor Michelle Rankins of Cuyahoga Community College, Cleveland State University and other area colleges has facilitated a conversation with the women in the group around Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.

Part poem, part play, part choreographed dance, For Colored Girls is a deep and powerful examination of the experience of being a woman of color. The book weaves the stories of seven different women — named for the colors they wear — across 20 different poems. The text examines such topics as rape, abuse, abortion, sexually transmitted disease, and other themes and experiences that are typically taboo.

For Colored Girls resonated deeply with participants, as they were able to see their own stories in the characters in Shange’s work, allowing the text to suggest a path forward, with a degree of healing.

One woman reports, “We read something in the book about one of the women who was just giving herself to men and just she felt dirty inside. She was just giving herself away just because she wanted to feel loved. It was my ‘aha’ moment, like okay, well maybe that is the reason why I stuck with a person that I didn’t have to stick with.”

Another participant comments, “There’s a story where the girl is basically speaking about how she’s learning herself, don’t really need a man to define her and that stuck with me. I’m like, ‘Yeah I don’t need a man to define me.’”

Professor Rankins’ poetry writing prompts, and the experience of reading the work aloud with one another, also empowered the women in the group to tell their own stories, and to see themselves as part of a longer and larger narrative tradition. The practice of writing has had a profound influence on many who continue to write on their own, beyond the sessions at the Court.

One woman explains that the experience of reading, discussing and writing, “helped me to now I’m to the point where I can actually speak to someone without me being just so snappy. It really has. Made me write it.” Now, “Instead of [getting angry], I just write and I let it go.”

Another woman says that “the poems we actually wrote, it made me feel better about myself when I left here. I’m reading it in the car and [thinking], ‘You know what? I am strong.’… Sometimes you need that, to just tell yourself.”

The Books@Work program at the East Cleveland Municipal Court reminds us that guided discussion around serious literature can be much more than an intellectual exercise.

As Frechic Dickson, the founder and President of FL2L explains, “We are serving a group of people who have been through such emotional and traumatic experiences – it’s hard for them to say, ‘My name is so-and-so and this is what happened to me.’ If you give them an opportunity through poetry [to say,] ‘I feel this,’ or ‘I remember this,’ they identify those lines with events in their lives. It makes it artistic rather than transparent.”

The women who attend the FL2L life skills program at the East Cleveland Municipal Court aren’t typical Books@Work participants. They are united not by a common employer, but instead by their involvement in the criminal justice system. As the name suggests, FL2L seeks to turn the negative — sometimes violent — acts committed by the participants into an opportunity for real and substantive personal and community change. Books, and the critical discussion that emerges from reading and reflecting on those texts with peers and a professor, change the way that participants at the East Cleveland Municipal Court view themselves, their communities, and their potential for future success.

Ann Kowal Smith is Executive Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work. Rachel Burstein is the Academic Director of That Can Be Me, Inc., facilitator of Books@Work.

It took three attempts before I could get past the first entry in Patient, an uncomfortable jaunt into America’s crippling disregard of black bodies. It is raw.

In this collection of 53 poems, Bettina Judd excoriates two famous men — Dr. J. Marion Sims, long considered the father of modern gynecology, and circus showman P.T. Barnum — for their exploitation of enslaved women in furthering their careers. The poet, a professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at the College of William and Mary, investigates this trauma and somehow coaxes dignity from a horrific past.

Dr. Sims arrived at an Alabama plantation in the mid-1840s to assist an enslaved woman in a stalled, three-day labor. He used his discoveries in that delivery to refine his medical knowledge. Over five years, Sims performed dozens of operations and procedures on enslaved women, all without anesthesia or consent. Yet the first statue erected in the U.S. to commemorate a physician depicted Sims, according to the American College of Gynecology’s journal Clinical Review.

But little is known of the women he used as subjects. Here, Judd offers three of them a platform, giving voice to their pain and erasure from history. A taste of their journey, from the poem “Betsey Invents The Speculum”:

I have bent in other ways
to open the body   make space

More pliable than pewter,
my skin may be less giving

Great discoveries are made
on cushioned lessons and hard falls

Sims invents the speculum
I invent the wincing

the if you must of it
the looking away

the here of discovery

A fourth voice of Patient belongs to Joice Heth, a blind enslaved woman put on exhibition by Barnum in 1835 during his first foray as a showman. Billed as an 160-year-old former “mammy” to President George Washington, Heth was a huge draw, allowing Barnum to pocket more than $1,000 a week. When she died, Barnum held a public autopsy to prove her age, charging spectators 50 cents to watch. Judd masterfully gives Joice the megaphone in “Joice Heth Presents: Herself,” as she booms through her own death:

Hover over my corpse
and escape.

A nameless modern voice floats in this collection, representing the plight of African-American women like Esmin Green, who died on the floor of a New York City emergency room in 2008. She laid motionless on the floor for 30 minutes before anyone came to take her pulse. Judd notes the importance of how distinctly the past informs the present.

Marinated in pain and sacrifice, Judd’s work is evocative, even as it is hard to stomach at times. Readers who gird themselves will be quite moved by the art they find.

Hours after authorities announced that the grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., would not indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teenager Michael Brown, The Strivers Row – a performance collective in New York City — began posting poems to its Facebook page.

One was “Sing It As The Spirit Leads,” Joshua Bennett’s forceful ode to black excellence written after George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of killing Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Bennett begins by echoing the last stanza of a Lucille Clifton poem: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”

Bennett performed the poem a year ago at Kent State University, where he told the audience that he writes to dig at the truth and help listeners and readers shed shame. “Poems should be archeology,” he said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”

Here is a snippet of his poem, “Sing It As the Spirit Leads“:

I exist in excess of my anguish.

I am not invisible. I am a beam of light

too brilliant for untrained vision.

I am not target practice. I am not a bullseye with rhythm.

This breath is no illegal substance.

Sing it.

A ballad for the youngest son

How he survives beat cops that 

see Caesars and seize up 

scream “Freeze! Hands up!” 


Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Sing It As The Spirit Leads” in full above.


For James LeVan, a 16-year-old Cleveland student at Glenville High School, police brutality became top of mind early this year.

He witnessed an uncomfortable interaction between a young Cleveland man and a police officer. LeVan said he did not know the victim and didn’t feel comfortable getting involved, but the incident stuck with him. “It seemed like [the police officer] was harassing him for no reason,” LeVan said. “It didn’t make sense.”

A scholar in the Fatima Center’s Summer Institute, Le Van channeled his confusion into a poem, “The Mind of a White Cop,” in which he speculates about the thinking of a hypothetical white police officer on his daily beat.

Poetry writing was part of the Summer Institute, said Director Apryl Buchanan, with an emphasis on the works on Langston Hughes. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards arranged for guest faculty to speak and teach on Hughes, and on the writing life throughout the six week program.

“Students needed to consider current events, not only in their lives, but things that would affect their generation,” Buchanan said.

LeVan recited his poem, from memory, at the summer institute’s closing ceremony. He said he was nervous. “It was hard getting up there in front of everyone,” he said. “I hoped everyone would like it.”

The Mind of a White Cop

Standing on the corner
Just like I expected
Sitting on the porch with too many people
This means something bad is about to happen
Look, little kids with water guns
Baby jailbirds in training
He’ll be in the back of this car soon
Right along with his dad
Look, those black kids have a white friend
I wonder what he had to do to be accepted
Look, a baby that won’t stop crying
Just give him some crack to calm him down
Oh no!! Six black kids doing the same handshake
I should probably call for backup
No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”
I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually
It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away anything
Black man, medium volume, pull him over
White man, volume all the way up, “Can you make it louder?”
Black man walking in front of an abandoned house
Let me investigate
Black boy kissing a white girl with those fat lips
Throw him in jail, “Attempted suffocation of an Innocent girl”
Dreadhead, slam him in the back. Look like he smoke weed all day
I’ll give him a drug test because I feel like it 
I knew it!! I’ll give him 10 seconds to run
I won’t lock up his light-skinned friend
I’m trying to turn one black man against another
We’ve been doing good enough so far 


Poet Joshua Bennett adjusted the mic stand at Kent State University. “I was raised Baptist,” he warned the audience in Oscar Ritchie Hall. “I need energy from you. I’m open to any and all forms of enthusiasm.”

Dressed in dark skinny jeans, a cranberry sweater vest and Oxford shirt, Bennett steadied himself and spoke of his recent discovery of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Using the last stanza of Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me,” he began his poem, “Say it, Sing it, as the Spirit Leads,” written in the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict: “Come, celebrate with me. Every day something has tried to kill me and failed.”

A special guest of KSU’s Wick Poetry Center, the man from Yonkers, N.Y. has entered the national conversation during the past three years, driven in part by his viral poem, 2010’s “10 Things I Want To Say To A Black Woman.” A magna cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Bennett has performed at the NAACP Image Awards, the Kennedy Center, and President Obama’s Evening of Poetry and Music at the White House. He is currently a doctoral candidate at Princeton University.

Bennett said he didn’t begin to explore poetry until he was 17, when a friend invited him to a spoken word event. “Afterward, I bought a CD and a T-shirt, took a couple workshops, and my life changed,” he said. “I was a hip-hop kid before I started with poetry.”

Now in his early 20s, that hip-hop influence still saturates both his content and his delivery. Through his 45-minute set, he veered from racial politics, to love discoveries, to questions of identity, sometimes within the same piece. He wants his poetry, he said, to help eradicate shame.

Bennett has three siblings, each with a disability: his older sister is deaf, his older brother is schizophrenic and his younger brother is autistic. “For Levi,” his tribute to his younger brother with autism, ends with:

Tell them Levi is just shorthand for levitate.

That your calling is to the clouds

and you would pay them a lot more attention

but you are simply too busy having a conversation with God right now.

Then smile for them. Smile big. Smile pretty.

A woman in the audience told Bennett that hearing him speak inspired her to take her poetry more seriously. Bennett looked humbled and then offered her a word of advice. “Poems should be archeology,” Bennett said. “Write the things that cost you. Every poem has to cost you something if it’s going to be good.”

Watch Joshua Bennett perform “Plankton,” a love poem

October 9 is the first anniversary of the grim day that masked gunmen stormed onto a bus in Pakistan and shot a child in the head. Their motive was political: She had defied them publicly, having the temerity to insist that girls be allowed to attend school.

The world now knows her mellifluous name – Malala – and many were heartened by her medical recovery, capped July 12 when she addressed the United Nations. “One child,” she said, “one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”

At least one cohort of adults believes her. A collection of poets has rallied to contribute to “Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai,” edited by Joseph Hutchinson and Andrea L. Watson. Its publication coincides with this first anniversary, and its proceeds go to the Malala Fund.

“This anthology is evidence that some poets still dare to respond to what’s happening in the larger world, and we believe they are making a significant contribution in doing so,” Hutchinson writes in the foreword. Meanwhile, speculation builds that the girl may win the Nobel Peace Prize this October.

For the moment, though, sixty writers from around the world stand with Malala. Kathleen Cerveny, poet laureate of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and the director of arts initiatives at the Cleveland Foundation, made the cut. Here, in its entirety, is her villanelle, “At Fourteen”:

Who was I at fourteen? Who were you?

Diverted from the real by lives of ease,

could we have stood up, then, and claimed our due

as humans growing hungry for the new

excitement of the mind – things never seen?

Who was I at fourteen? Who were you?

A girl has stood against her world. She drew

the fire of those who guard what’s always been

and stood steadfast against them, claimed her due.

Her courage is a brush that paints a view

of human worlds more worthy – rarely seen

by coddled ones, like me, like you.

The cowards’ bullets aimed to silence truth;

pierce brain and tongue – still both thought and speech.

She fell, but has not failed to claim her due.

And has the gift for rights now been renewed

by blood, the hunger of one child to learn?

This girl of fourteen shames both me and you

If we don’t stand – demand what we all are due.

Eugene Gloria says that he is fascinated by failure. He was quick to describe a particular poem or two as failed, and even his book, “My Favorite Warlord,” which won a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as a failure of his original idea to describe 1967.

“I ran out of ideas for 1967, became bored,” Gloria told listeners at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland. “I ran out of gas, even though I was obsessed by it. The idea of failure is fascinating to me.”

And yet, 1967 is a fulcrum in “My Favorite Warlord” – the year his family arrived in San Francisco from the Philippines, the year his future wife was born in Detroit, the year that Wole Soyinka is “being hauled to jail/on trumped-up charges” as Gloria writes in “Allegory of the Laundromat.” He told the MOCA audience that he was thinking about soul music as he wrote it.

Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., praised this very poem as he introduced Gloria to the sold-out audience gathered at the Ohio Theatre Sept. 12 for the Anisfield-Wolf awards ceremony:

“What I find so resonant in all of these poems is the idea of multiplicity, that we possess many identities stemming from the many diverse forces that have shaped us,” Gates said. “In Gloria’s case, he is shaped by a Filipino background, though education among the nuns in a Catholic school, to coming of age in the same neighborhood in which he found ‘Janis Joplin shoring up supplies/from our corner Chinese grocer.’”

Gloria, 56, has taught for 13 years at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He read his poem, “Here, On Earth” for both the crowd at MOCA and the throng at the Ohio Theatre. He told his listeners that it captures his relationship to Indianapolis. The final two stanzas:

Here, on earth we are curtained by rain.

A subset in the far corners floating

toward the center. We are an island

in landlocked America. We are

Thai, Filipino, and Vietnamese.

We are, all of us, post exotics.

At MOCA, Gloria followed a reading from Kazim Ali, an Oberlin College professor who started with his poem “Fairytale.” It concludes, “All the sacred words/are like birds wheeling in the sky./Who knows where they go?” The political nature of Ali’s reading inspired Gloria to start with “Elegy with Ice and a Leaky Faucet.” He called it “one of the oddball poems in my collection; it failed as a political poem.”

And yet “Elegy with Ice and a Leaky Faucet” is many reader’s introduction to Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man beaten to death on the eve of his wedding by Detroit auto-workers enraged at the ascendancy of Japanese cars in the U.S. market. “The dialectics of fists and ball bats/turned his wedding party into a funeral” Gloria writes.

When Ali and Gloria perched on tall stools together at MOCA, Ali spoke about the context for two of his newest poems, which focus on Bradley Manning, convicted in July for violating the U.S. Espionage Act.

“We are political,” Ali said. “We can notice it or not notice it.”

“Amen to that brother,” Gloria responded. “We try to avoid being cliché. The struggle is taking an overt political position in an art that calls so much attention to language can be problematic. But like Kazim says, we are all political.”

The men riffed on Shelley’s famous maxim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” suggesting that the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” may well be the secret police.

Before he returned to Indiana, Gloria said, “The idea of identity is always going to be a subject. I have no choice. Identity is so multi-layered and I am obsessed.”

Tonight, our spotlight shined on 10-year-old Gwyneth Wilde, a fifth-grader at the Falcon Academy of Creative Arts in Mogadore. Gwyneth will recite a poem she wrote last year in a workshop sponsored by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. This superb program, which brings poetry to communities throughout Northeast Ohio, is led by Nicole Robinson, who accompanied Gwyneth, along with Gwyneth’s parents, Laura and Brian Wilde.

Take a minute to read her poem, “Flinging off the Curved Bow” and leave a comment for Gwyneth. We’ll make sure she sees it.

by Rita Dove 

On Trayvon Martin, today I find myself at a loss for words — or rather, I used up all the words in the poem itself. The entire matter is so complex and sorrowful, the implications so insidious and dire, that I could only respond in the way I know best– by taking up one angle of vision, one point of view, and writing out of that moment. To say any more would be redundant and dangerously inaccurate.

Trayvon, Redux

It is difficult/to get the news from poems /yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there./Hear me out/for I too am concerned/and every man/who wants to die at peace in his bed/besides.

William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, that Greeny Flower”

Move along, you don’t belong here.
This is what you’re thinking.  Thinking
drives you nuts these days, all that
talk about rights and law abidance when
you can’t even walk your own neighborhood
in peace and quiet, get your black ass gone.
You’re thinking again.  Then what?
Matlock‘s on TV and here you are,
vigilant, weary, exposed to the elements
on a wet winter’s evening in Florida
when all’s not right but no one sees it.
Where are they – the law, the enforcers
blind as a bunch of lazy bats can be,
holsters dangling from coat hooks above their desks
as they jaw the news between donuts?

Hey!  It tastes good, shoving your voice
down a throat thinking only of sweetness.
Go on, choke on that.  Did you say something?
Are you thinking again?  Stop! – and
get your ass gone, your blackness,
that casual little red riding hood
Im just on my way home attitude
as if this street was his to walk on.
Do you do hear me talking to you? Boy.
How dare he smile, jiggling his goodies
in that tiny shiny bag, his black paw crinkling it,
how dare he tinkle their laughter at you.

Here’s a fine basket of riddles:
If a mouth shoots off and no one’s around
to hear it, who can say which came first –
push or shove, bang or whimper?
Which is news fit to write home about?

One highlight of the annual Anisfield-Wolf awards ceremony is listening as a gifted local student reads aloud a poem of her or his own making.

Last year, second-grader Isabella Rodriguez commanded a rapt audience with “Home,” a remarkable work that begins “Suppose there is a city in the Buddha’s lap and his knees are the mountains singing.”

Her work was captured by the Traveling Stanzas project, a community arts project led by Wick Poetry Center and Kent State University’s Glyphix design studio. Community members and visitors to Northeast Ohio can see the beautifully designed posters “traveling” our region on Cleveland Rapid Transit Authority vehicles, as well as on Portage County’s PARTA.

Watch this arresting, one-minute video treatment of Isabella reading her poem, with animation by Devon Skunta-Helmink, a Kent State design student. It will whet your interest in our next young poet, appearing at the Sept. 12, 2013 ceremony on the stage of the Ohio Theatre at PlayhouseSquare in downtown Cleveland.

Home from Traveling Stanzas on Vimeo


Suppose there is a city in the Buddha’s lap

and his knees are the mountains singing.

Suppose feathers rejoice when they fall

from an eagle’s wing, spinning and dancing.

Suppose nature is a map leading to willow trees

where spirits roam, speaking in old voices.

Suppose you can climb rocks like a billy goat

with clanking hooves and horns that curl for battle.

Suppose a path of dandelions and buttercups

takes you back to the mountain,

where you call out, “I’m home.”

Poem by Isabella Rodriguez, 2nd grade, Kent, Ohio


A 2009 National Endowment for the Arts study found that only 8 percent of adults read any poetry in the previous year.  Children do better. The Poetry Foundation discovered that the main reasons adults take a pass is loss of interest, lack of time, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.

U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, recently appointed to her second term, is working to welcome more adults to the party.

“We can’t know what poem is going to be the poem that brings someone to poetry, comforts them in times of grief, tragedy, and loss, or celebrates with them in times of joy and triumph,” she told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. “But it is our job — as poets, as teachers, as the poet laureate — to try to bring people to a wide variety of poems so they might find that one among the many.”

During her first year as poet laureate, Trethewey relocated from Emory University in Atlanta to Washington D.C., where she held weekly office hours at the Library of Congress, an nontraditional move for the role. This year, she will film a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, during which she will travel the country to examine how poetry plays out in the lives of everyday Americans.

Trethewey is also writing a memoir, currently untitled, recounting her experiences as a biracial child in the 1970s. It will be released in 2014. Readers who are impatient can pick up a copy of “Thrall,” or her Pulitzer-winning 2007 collection, “Native Guard.”

It’s a short poem but it’s also one of Gwendolyn Brooks‘ (pardon the pun) coolest. “We Real Cool,” published in her 1960 book The Bean Eaters, is a 1959 poem by our 1969 winner for fiction. (Got all that?) In this quick clip she explains why she wrote it. 

“I wrote it because I was passing by a poll hall in my community one afternoon during school time and I saw therein a bunch of boys…and they were shooting pool,” Brooks said. “Instead of asking myself, “Why aren’t they in school?” I asked myself, I wonder how they feel about themselves.” 

Take a listen. 

Since 2009, an emerging young poet from Northeast Ohio is celebrated along with the winning authors at the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony in Cleveland.

At the 2011 ceremony, Essence Cain, a sixth-grader at Miller South School for Visual and Performing Arts in Akron, Ohio, recited “In the Flower Market,” a poem she and her classmates wrote for “Speak Peace,” an international youth arts program created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. American children in the program wrote poems in response to paintings created by Vietnamese children. The exhibit of paintings and poems is traveling nationally through 2013.

Essence has appeared in plays and musicals at venues throughout Ohio. She was a contributing writer and reader for the animated e-greetings of the 2009 Traveling Stanzas series, Peace Stanzas. She has performed poetry with the Wick Poetry Center Outreach program at the 2011 Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs national conference in Washington D.C. in 2011.

Visiting the Flower MarketEssence Cain

In the Flower Market

Tiger lilies roar in the cold April rain.
Tulips seek friends with their spray of pollen.

Sunflowers flash in the night,
Illuminating the world like a candle.

Bluebells drip with dew—
They love just being themselves.

Marigolds sing, mango trees ding.
Orchids fly like birds in the wind.

Flowers from all over the world
Spread their colors like peacocks.

Peace is what puts them all together.


Here is a video of Essence reading “In the Flower Market” as part of the “Speak Peace” program.

Hello everyone! My name is Kevin Ritter and I was the featured young artist at this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. This meant that I got to perform a poem that I wrote for the live audience, as well as the virtual audience on the internet. Over the summer, I participated in a summer arts job program through Young Audiences of Northeast Ohio called “ArtWorks.” For six weeks I ventured to University Circle’s Wade Oval and studied theater under teaching artist Jimmie Woody. Each day was a new adventure. We listened to guest speakers, took a tour of the Case Western Reserve University campus, and practiced the craft of acting every single day. During this time, I also focused a lot on my writing.

The past two years, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards had featured a young poet. The Cleveland Foundation wanted to continue the tradition for the 75th anniversary and contacted Young Audiences about finding a young artist for the occasion. They recommended me! Jay Albert asked me if I would be interested in performing at the awards ceremony. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement.

I went through every single poem I had written in the past few years, trying to find something suitable for the occasion. Eventually, I decided that a new piece was in order. During my college road trip the following week, I tried to think of what I wanted to say in my poem. We were looking at some schools in Boston, and as I walked around the city, I kept hearing people speaking in all different languages, some of which I couldn’t even identify. We also went to the Mary Baker Eddy Library and Museum, which features a giant Mapparium.

I walked into the room, which is a giant stained glass sphere with a political map of the world circa 1935. I thought about how fragile the world is. It’s a surreal experience to look at the world from the inside. As opposed to the pictures of the planet seen from space, which make you feel small and inconsequential, the Mapparium makes you feel a part of a big whole. There were several people speaking in different languages. I didn’t know exactly what they were saying; I still felt this connection to them. I was taken back to a time before the tower of Babel, when we all understood each other so easily. When I got home, the first thing I did was look up the story of Babel in the Bible. The poem ultimately took the title of the final verse in the story: “11:9.”

The day of the awards was very exciting. I met my supervisor, Kathleen Cerveny, in the lobby and she showed me backstage, where I was fitted for a small lavaliere microphone. I was told that I would be going on first thing. I was asked if I wanted to go meet the winners. Surprised at the fact that this was even a question, I agreed and was taken down a hallway to where Elizabeth Alexander, Kamila Shamsie, and William Julius Wilson were sitting and talking to each other. I had read all of their books in preparation for the event and told all three of the writers how much I enjoyed their work. Everyone there was so incredibly kind to me and supportive of me. They even signed the sheet of paper that my poem was printed on, which is now hanging in my room.

After Ronald Richard introduced me to the audience, I walked across the stage after shaking his hand. Nervously, I grasped onto the 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper and began to say my poem. As I went on, the hours I’d spent practicing my poem for Jimmie Woody, Kathleen Cerveny, and my dog kicked in and I was able to relax. But I finished it, and I felt great. Dr. Gates and Mr. Richard shook my hand again.

The rest of the awards ceremony was beautiful. All of the speakers were captivating. What I realized is that there is nothing more powerful than the written word in order to get a message across. It allows the reader to be introspective while also providing a clear message.

Afterwards, at the dessert reception, everyone was so complimentary of my work. Some people even said that they were looking forward to seeing me win the award in the future. I said that I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and that I was looking forward to graduating high school and going to college.

Performing at the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards was an amazing, inspiring experience. It made me realize that I really do love writing and that I want to continue to create things. I’m so grateful to have been afforded this opportunity and had an absolutely great time.

For more information about me, you can follow my blog, which I update very sporadically at