Recently, I attended a poetry reading event to promote the 2012 Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner, Dexter Booth’s new poetry book, “Scratching the Ghost.” Two honorable mentions who have or are also releasing books, Cherene M. Sherrard (“Mistress, Reclining”) and Saeed Jones (“Prelude to Bruise”) were also guest readers. Major Jackson, who was to introduce the poet, unfortunately could not attend.
The event was held at the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House on November 1, co-sponsored by NYU and Cave Canem Foundation. The foundation in question was created to provide a voice for the African-American poet, and to this day provides annual retreats and awards to support book releases of deserving new writers. All three of the poets had their own style of presenting their poems and expressing their identities through the voices in the poems.
Cherene Sherrard was the first reader, and began with some personal anecdotes along with her poems, which were very much influenced by her own life, her status as a woman, and the small, literary metaphors she finds within the everyday. She was inspired by various things, from the legend of the boot hag, cupcakes on baking shows, to an aerial shot taken from a TV series of a woman falling to her death to the Congo below. She talked of attending the Cave Canem retreat and challenging herself with a sestina when she saw what the others were capable of, the final version we were treated to being worth the effort.
One of my favorite themes included “Sustainability”, where the poem expresses Sherrard’s frustration over the liberals’ readiness to take an activist stance against climate change as opposed to the problems of racial and social justice. The poem doesn’t directly introduce these heavy, accusing messages, but instead begins with the idea that “everyone on this street is growing something,” but the chickens the neighbors want to keep are “too much like what I left behind.”
Next was Saeed Jones, who seemed like a relatively young poet that spoke with strong intonations. His pauses in following the meter and emphasis of consonants in his reading gave an experience most true to his own poetry, bringing out the uses of repetition and alliteration. One of the storylines in his poems to be soon published in a collection, “Prelude to Bruise,” followed the use of the word “boy” throughout the American terrain. He wanted to unpack the word and in doing so brought out a version of himself in this boy that is locked in his house with his father and upon running away, recreates the same issue in all of his relationships. Dropped all over his poetry are lines that strongly resonate with this theme of self-discovery, like “If you ever find me, I won’t be there.”
To me, his most striking poems are the ones that have the most painful themes. When Jones writes about the incidents of racial violence and homosexual relations, his passion is brought to the forefront. He has a masterful use of phrases that set the atmosphere and unease without needing a lot of description. How he writes the fictional internal dialogue of James Byrd, the black boy who was dragged to death when he accepted a ride from white men, is exemplary of the poetic form. With short, staccato phrases, he brings out the tragedy with repetitions of, “Accept this ride, nice men, a bit too nice, smile, ride, quiet, where, where,” which becomes a “song” that his back is forced to play against the road.
In comparison to both these poets, Dexter Booth’s diction is not any less charged, but uniquely subtle, self-aware, and given without preamble. His poems address the memories and his feelings about his “sister’s father”, about the mother that was beaten by him, and his grandmother who “scratched the ghost” of her amputated phantom limb, giving the book collection its title. One of the poems he did explain the premise for represented the conversations he had with a white friend that regarded Booth his first black friend. The questions were answered with the realization that, “being black matters everywhere.” He anecdoted throughout his poems the idea that Ethiopian women had consensual lashes because their bodies were too dark for tattoos, that the Kenyans risked using illegal products and suffering organ failure to whiten their skin. His voice, a little quiet, rather somber, filled the lines in between these ideas with lines like “moss barnacles the hills,” soothing these sad truths with tragic beauty.
It is a testament to all three writers that they are able to achieve this, balancing words with both the unadulterated pain endured as an African-American, as a woman, as a homosexual, as those that suffered emotional or physical abuse – and turning them into poetry that can be shared and felt by even a privileged, college age, Asian American girl such as myself. Listening to the poet present his or her work in person is the most direct way of getting a taste for what they meant, and how all the lines are to fall in place as they are dropped from the page and off the tongue. When there is as much depth of emotion as there is in poetry by these three, attending a reading is a great way of getting first introduced to the direction of the poems before quietly rereading them afterwards at your own pace. I came away with a sense of the value in foundations such as Cave Canem that exist to showcase voices all of America should hear.