Despite another frigid January evening, the CEC in Homewood was filled with heat. “What’s hot in the poem, ya’ll?” asked Terrance Hayes, MacArthur and National Book Award-winning poet and co-founder of the Center for African-American Poetry and Poetics (CAAPP). Instantly, a flurry of hands shot in the air—inklings, itchings, and intuition filled the space. That’s the power of poetry: to engage, excite, and start a conversation and the CEC in Homewood facilitates these types of interactions between Pitt and the community.
CAAPP was founded in 2016 by Hayes and Pitt poet and Professor Dawn Lundy Martin. Their mission is to highlight, promote, and share the work of African American and African diasporic poets and to pollinate cross-disciplinary conversation and collaboration, both on campus and in diverse communities throughout Pittsburgh. In the past three years, CAAPP has partnered with a variety of community organizations throughout the city, and Terrance Hayes’ visit to his long-time home of Pittsburgh provided just the right opportunity to partner with the CEC in Homewood. Thirty-seven local poets and community members joined Hayes’s hands-on community writing workshop.
Throughout the night, Hayes led workshop participants through discussions on new ways to read and write poetry, drawing on a packet of published poems he had organized around the theme “The Politics of Poetics/ The Poetics of Politics.” Hayes asked questions that ranged from “What’s hot?” to “What is the poet doing here with sound—how can we try to use that in our own poems?” With help from several Pitt grad students diligently dictating notes on the white boards, audience members ruminated on, retained, and re-invented the poems they were reading into prompts they would soon use to write their own poems. One such prompt came from a poem called “In Memoriam, MLK” by June Jordan. The opening section of the poem goes like this:
honey people murder mercy U.S.A.
the milkland turn to monsters teach
to kill to violate pull down destroy
the weakly freedom growing fruit
from being born
tomorrow yesterday rip rape
exacerbate despoil disfigure
crazy running threat the
appall belief dispel
the wildlife burn the breast
the onward tongue
the outward hand
deform the normal rainy
riot sunshine shelter wreck
of darkness derogate
assassinate and batten up
like bullets fatten up
the raving greed
reactivate a springtime
death by men by more
than you or I can
As you can see, at the end of this section, June Jordan uses the word “STOP,” both as a literal break in the poem and as a verbal utterance from the speaker of the poem. Excited by this technique, the workshop decided to try to include a “stop” of their own in their poems. This was just one of many strategies participants tried their hands at. After a devising a list of prompts, everyone took to writing their own poems— breaking off into groups throughout the CEC’s state-of-the-art classrooms. A short thirty minutes or so of tinkering, talking, and transcribing later, everyone came back together to share what they had written—and they did not disappoint! Poets shared work about love, loss, race, and community with an audience full of applause and appreciation. Like I said, that’s the power of poetry: to engage, excite, and start a conversation.
This post was written and submitted by Joshua Corson, a Pitt MFA student in poetry, with Lauren Russell, Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. You may learn more about CAAPP at https://www.caapp.pitt.edu.