How Does Poetry Matter?

“Poetry is aloud or it is nothing,” renown poet C.K. Williams declares with the perceptive precision of a poet.   Williams is thrilled to return for the fourth time to the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, NJ where, for four day, arts venues, churches, and other spaces will resound with words spoken, listened to, discussed, celebrated. As he prepares for the festival this week, he relishes in the opportunity to share his poems at such an energizing cultural event for poetry. “I’m excited especially for Student Day,” Williams shared with me in a recent telephone interview. “It is fascinating, the way these students connect with poetry. Poetry matters to them, and that sticks with me.”
Williams grew up in Newark, NJ until he was 14 years old, when his parents “decided to become part of urban flight” and moved the family and, later, the family business, out of Newark. Williams explains that this “urban flight,” and Newark in particular as a sort of early negative model of urban devastation through flight to the suburbs, has long fascinated and concerned him. He recognizes that Newark — the city and its people — face significant economic and other problems still, but he is also pleased that the city is seeing “a renaissance that has, so far, allowed it to recover to the point where, among other things, it can host such a large cultural event like the poetry festival. I’m very pleased by it.”
For Williams, poems emerge from cities. His poetry draws our attention to urban spaces, to the ways in which they pulse with layers of interaction often missed. He has written many poems about Newark, and his oeuvre is full of poems about urban spaces and the everyday lived experiences within them. Interactions on trains in particular capture his attention. The subway in New York City and Philadelphia and the Metro in Paris run through a good deal of his “subway poems.” “I’ve been a city person all my life,” shares Williams, “and I have a kind of umbilical cord attaching me to the city. I suppose since most of civilization, for good or ill, happens in cities, they are centers of civilization for me, a kind of laboratory,”
Although Williams has written poems about the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and other social justice movements and concerns, he does not view himself as a “Social Poet,” as some critics have called him. “It is inevitable,” insists Williams. “As a poet, you have to write about what is around you — the good exhaultations and the bad tensions, about other people — if you are paying attention.”
Paying attention — this is indeed the phrase that captures William’ practice and production as a poet. His poetry brings such precise, careful, humane, perceptive, vital attention to out contemporary world. His characteristically long, flexible poetic lines read with probing curiosity, with a deep desire to bring attentiveness and voice to people and moments often unnoticed. And in the reading of and listening to it, we, too, are reminded of the importance of bearing witness to the complex nature of our everyday lives. This is how poetry matters.
If you find yourself traveling to the Dodge Poetry Festival on NJTransit, read the following subway poem, “On the Metro” along the way. Read its long, almost prose-like lines as you sit on the long, winding train. Think about the ways in which this poem offers a single extended moment on the train, intently and intimately observed. Perhaps you’ll have a chance to ask Williams about the poem when you see him at the festival:
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Stitched into the Day: Remembering September 11, 2001

When I reach back in memory to September 11, 2001, my attention first stops 2 days later on September 13, 2001. On that day, I buried my father, Harry Wise Brittingham, at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

It was an eerily peaceful, crisp day at Arlington. It was as if, to paraphrase poet Billy Collins, grief and loss and the need to remember were “hanging in the air and stitched into the cloth of the day” ( I try to remember what the day sounded like, but all I recall are the images: the ceremonial fold of a flag, the gun tribute, a rectangular urn the color of green jade, crisp white uniforms against a tepid blue sky, my mother’s mournful gaze. We gathered –family, friends, pastor, and servicemen and women – to honor my father, this man who served the United States for 21 years in the Navy, who fought in WWII and the Korean War, who worked hard as a maintenance worker so that I could have opportunities he could not as a man emerging from a Jim Crow South. He was, indeed, part of what Tom Brokaw calls “the greatest generation.”

But our grief was a natural one, painful, but still natural. My father passed away due to complications related to lung cancer. My father did not die in the World Trade Center attack, nor did he die in the plane crash in Pennsylvania, the images of which also are so vividly seared in my mind’s eye, our nation’s consciousness.

At the same time, though, in the midst of my family’s personal, more natural loss and grieving, we all carried with us, within us, the seemingly unbearable weight of national tragedy. We participated in this memorial service as United States airspace was closed above us, only an occasional military jet passing over. We held this ceremony not knowing what to make of all that occurred just a couple of days prior. We held this service as families waited for word of their loved ones, as they held on tightly to those who survived, or as they made their own plans for burial and remembrance.

There is the life that we live and the life that we nationally memorialize, and sometimes those lives merge. For so many people on September 11, 2001, the personal, private losses – of loved ones, jobs, plans, a sense of safety and certainty – intertwined with the public loss we felt as a country, as a world.

My father’s was the first interment service Arlington held in the days after 9/11. During that service, the pastor prayed, “Let us never forget this man for whom we gather today and all those lost two days ago. Let us pay tribute to them, to remember to live for them with honor and duty. Let us remember to serve in this difficult time.”

To serve by remembering, to honor by living.

Most days blend into other days – unless we make it a point to note them. But sometimes the threads of our lives become magnified. We become more aware of them as they twist and weave into the tapestry that we refer to as History – they are “stitched into the cloth of the day,” into the very fibers of our being. We remember that our lives are the stuff of history.

I received an email this morning from a friend who lives in New York City and worked near Ground Zero during the attacks. He and his wife were married one month later near where the twin towers once stood; at the reception, we could peer over the balcony and see into Ground Zero, workers diligently sifting through dirt and destruction. Today he wrote, “This is the first September 11th in 11 years when I’ve felt like I was just having an ordinary day and not just remembering what we went through that day.”

It is that space between “the ordinary” and “remembering” that we pause to occupy today. On this September 11th, Patriots Day, remembering is in the very fibers of the ordinary. We remember how far we’ve come to have the ordinary join this date again. And we bear witness largely by living intentional lives, created anew from the rubble.

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We’ve pulled Kitchen Passports from Lulu due to publishing issues and are revamping the product. So we took this opportunity to launch a kickstarter campaign. Every little bit helps. Spread the word. I hope you find our project interesting enough to contribute to it.

Kitchen Passports Trinidad and Tobago

Welcome to Kitchen Passports: Trinidad and Tobago, the blog about the developing cookbook of the same name. To learn more about our project, visit our project page on Kickstarter:

Please consider contributing to this children’s cooking and learning project. Pass the link along to anyone you think might be interested.

Think Globally, Cook locally!

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Jillian O’Connor over at The Two Boys Club mentioned my new children’s cookbook, Kitchen Passports: Trinidad and Tobago. Check out her post and other great ones at Proceeds from the sale of the cookbook will go towards helping children in need in Trinidad. Thanks, Jill!

The Two Boys Club

Rumor has it that after feeding her three very fussy children, my grandmother found me to be a delight: I ate pretty much everything that was presented to me (especially meat and potatoes, which always makes an Irish grandmother extra-happy).

But there is no justice in the universe. My kids seem to have a deal with one another that they’ll eat a complete diet, but only as a duo. One exclusively loves fish, serious vegetables like asparagus, and fruit, and the other wants only eggs, cheese, Chinese dumplings, burgers and fruit. Their only intersection: They both want endless amounts of candy, pumpkin bread and overpriced baguettes. Oh, yes. And fruit.

After another night of The Elder clamoring for what he calls “the only food he’ll eat: pizza, McDonald’s or sushi,” I got a great reminder in my inbox. My ex-college roomie, whom I’ve known since high school, has written a…

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Social Activism: A New Hallmark of Mother’s Day?

I haven’t written here for a while. I’ve wanted to, but I’ve been writing off and on in other places. I started blogging at the Huffington Post, for instance, and am still trying to get into a good writing rhythm on that blog. But I want to post some thoughts here today that I wanted to post on or before Mother’s Day, but did not have the opportunity to do so.

What I wanted to write about this weekend were the public service announcements that came across my screen — each connected to Mother’s Day.

One public service announcement featured Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, urging everyone to contact their governors to push for a reexamination of the “stand your ground” type laws that exist in states across the country.  In the PSA, Ms. Fulton urges everyone to help put an end to senseless violence, which has affected 30,000 mothers who have lost their children this year alone. (See the PSA at

Another was Christy Turlington’s “NO Mother’s Day” campaign to help raise awareness of the thousands of women who die each year from complications during childbirth. (See the PSA at

I also became aware of birthmother’s day which is celebrated the day before Mother’s Day, and Single Mother’s Day in South Korea. This is a day of celebration created by TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea) that is celebrated to challenge South Korea’s annual Adoption Day and to raise awareness of the need to support single mothers who want to raise their children in that country.

All of these efforts use Mother’s Day as a platform for attempting to raise awareness and to call for active engagement in social justice causes.

I know that Mother’s Day has come and gone this year, but I wanted to point out that, despite how you feel about these and other efforts, what is interesting about them is that they are asking us to be intentional about not only what and how we celebrate. They are also calling us to think about how might extend our notion of celebration to consider how we might use our privileges — in this case, perhaps what allows us to celebrate in the first place — to aid others.

Writing about this reminded me also of a birthday invitation site some of my friends introduced me to: There, families can send evites out for birthday parties. Instead of gifts, guests make a contribution on-line. Half of the contributions are sent to the child; the other half are sent to a non-profit of your choice. Such a site really extends the notion of what it means for an individual to be celebrated — in this case, on his or her birthday. What a wonderful way to extend a celebration by also thinking of others.

I hope everyone had a fantastic mother’s day — whether you were celebrated, celebrating others, refrained from celebrating, or had the good fortune to reflect on the wonderful mothering figures in your world.

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Where Will Trenton Read?

Recently, I was watching The Price of the Ticket with my high school students. This documentary chronicles the life of James Baldwin and his journey from growing up in poverty in 1920s and 1930s Harlem to becoming one of the most provocative and prolific writers in American literary history.

If you haven’t read James Baldwin’s writing, find yourself a copy of Go Tell It On the Mountain, Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, The Fire Next Time (essays), or his short story “Sonny’s Blues.” What’s amazing about Baldwin’s oevre is that it is comprised of a variety of genres, it represents Baldwin’s constantly developing voice, and it reflects so poignantly on race, class, sexuality, spirituality, and the landscape of the human heart.

What stayed with me in this my third viewing of The Price of the Ticket were Baldwin’s memories of his visits to the Harlem Public Library. He reflected on his daily visits to the library, where he read every book in the library stacks. It was the only place where he had open access to books. Even at school his access to books was limited because there weren’t enough books for all the students in his local public school. At the library, he read and explored. He imaginatively and cognitively traveled. He questioned and dreamed. He planned to become a writer. He developed an understanding of the importance of words. Of opportunity.

I left the viewing with a heavy heart, wondering about children who live now in or near poverty, those who have limited access to books. Those around whom too many public libraries are closing.

Library closings are happening across the country — in places like New York City, Miami, Chicago, and in my current hometown of Trenton, New Jersey. In 2010, the City of Trenton closed 4 of its 5 public libraries. This in a city where nearly 40% of residents make between $10,000 and $25,000 a year; where half of single mothers in Trenton are under 18 years old; where there are 13,000 students in Trenton, but 1400 dropped out of the class of 2010; and, where students living in poverty are 3 times as likely to drop out when compared to peers in affluent neighborhoods.

Public libraries provide citizens access to information and, therefore, access to opportunity. Andrew Carnegie saw public libraries as informational “cradles of democracy…where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” Public libraries, I think, are especially important in places where the quality of public schools is low, where unemployment is high, and where the bookstore/cafe revolution has not been televised.

Where will our 21st century James Baldwins read? Where will they gain access to literature, the internet, to free literacy and tutoring programs that attempt to address the immense educational debt in this country? Where will they develop a love and excitement for reading? A mind for the possible?

What is the state of public libraries where you live?

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Day 40: Out of Time

40 days ago, I set out to write 40 posts. I wanted to jump start my writing practice, and I thought that if I gave myself a neat container in which I could put my writing — a blog with a clear beginning and end, a set purpose, and a heightened sense of commitment because there would be an audience of at least a few people expecting a new post every day — that I would finish the project.

And here we are: Day 40. I did fall behind on my posting and had to write multiple posts each day to catch up. And I did worry at moments that I would run out of time (in fact, I’m counting this as finished on my birthday as long as I post it before the sun rises on the 22nd!). Despite the game of catch up I had to play in the end here, each post gave me a chance to make public my thinking about issues that either I’ve wanted to write about for some time or that popped up in a given day and caught my attention. With each post, I practiced writing as a way to discover more clearly my thinking. Writing for posting — for publication — every day was challenging and not without some anxiety. But the conversations each post generated with family, friends, and with people I’ve never met who found my blog on their own pushed me to want to keep writing daily. And I now know for sure that daily writing, even though I won’t be doing it in order to post to a daily blog, is something I want to keep practicing.

My projects often end in a frenzy. In the end, it never feels like there is enough time to complete the project comfortably. Take my dissertation, for instance. It was spring 2006. I had been a graduate student long enough! I was writing up until the last moment, not because I had failed to use my time well, but because, well, there is always more to say and tweak. But I was fine on time anyway. I had called the local copy center a few days before to find out how long it would take to have my 300 page dissertation printed in duplicate on 100% cotton paper. Based on what the people at the center told me, I could send the document as a PDF by midnight on Wednesday and they would have the document ready early Thursday morning — early enough for me to pick up and drive to Philadelphia for my dissertation filing appointment Thursday afternoon (we were living in New York at the time; Nigel was doing his own graduate work through the Klingenstein Center at Columbia’s Teachers College, so this little time window seemed reasonable to me. All kinds of things can happen in a New York minute, right?)

But when I called the center on Wednesday to confirm receipt of my files (which I had sent early!), the person I spoke with told me that they couldn’t open the files so they would be unable to print the dissertation. I would have to print my own copy and bring it to the copy center for duplication. Oh, and the photocopying could not be ready earlier than Thursday evening. They were swamped.

I would miss my meeting at Penn. And, because I would miss the meeting, I would have to wait an entire year before I could graduate.

I got off the phone and plopped down on the couch in defeat. I was tired and frustrated. I saw no way out of this moment. All the time spent writing this dissertation, all the energy and anxiety around finishing, and I still wouldn’t be able to present my work on time. Plus, how was I supposed to find my way to a laser printer and print all my chapter files when Logan, then 16 months old, was at my feet clambering to get my attention because it was time for her to eat dinner? I’ll just take the ABD (All But Dissertation) status and run.

Nigel came home late that night and I told him what happened. “It just wasn’t meant to be,” I told him dismissively, but I didn’t really feel it. So he went into his wonderfully enthusiastic “we can do this” mode. He took my jump drive and went out to find a place to print my work. Hours later, he returned with one copy. But I needed 2.

Early the next morning, we left Logan with a sitter, a woman who had watched her a few hours here and there while I was working on the dissertation that year. Then we hopped in the car and drove to Philly. The plan was to get there in time to run to a copy center, have a copy of the dissertation made, and then run to my appointment where someone would go through the ancient process of measuring my margins with a ruler and counting my pages by hand to confirm that, yes, I deserved my PhD.

We ran into traffic on the way. Then we ran into end of school year traffic on campus. Eventually, when we got close enough, I jumped out of the car with my dissertation in hand and ran to the copy center while Nigel parked the car. When the person at the center told me I should’ve planned better, I responded with a curt “just copy it” response.

I checked the time. I was going to be late. Nigel rushed in and said he’d wait for the copy while I took the original to my meeting. So I ran to the meeting with one copy and convinced the guy to just start the process, that the second copy was on it’s way. Eventually, Nigel brought the second copy. And, I have my PhD.

So, the lesson? Have a generous, optimistic partner by your side. And, print well in advance! (I can laugh about it now…well, a little).

More importantly, when is there ever enough time? When are we able to do anything that, to us, is worth doing in a totally comfortable, anxiety-free way? We don’t. But we take the time that we have and do what we can. And, in the doing, we make our too little time meaningful.

Thank you for spending some of your time here. I’ll keep posting about once a week, so check back when you have a minute.

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