By Daniela Raymond
Oct. 17 is annually recognized as Black Poetry Day to honor the contributions of Black poets and writers throughout history. The day was established in 1985 honoring the birth of the first Black poet published in the United States, Jupiter Hammon. Hammon is considered the father of African-American literature. Hammon was born into slavery in 1711 and ended up receiving an education. After learning to read he spent most of his time in the library.
Black Poetry is an exceedingly powerful, strong and critical backbone of the literature scene around the world and is also incredibly important to this campus. The day has been celebrated on campus since 1984, a year before it was nationally recognized.
Poet Jean Jordan was the program’s first-ever speaker. Each preceding year, the college has brought up various world-renowned poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka and Derek Walcott, who visited the campus only six days after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and many more.
The program has grown to fruition since the ’70s in collaboration with Ken Knelly and Stanley Sabin. This year senior Hawa Sillah introduced poet Dawn Lundy Martin to the stage, recognizing her numerous attributes. Poet and activist Martin was selected by American writer and poet Carl Phillips for the 2007 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her first full-length collection, “A Gathering of Matter/ a Matter of Gathering.” She is also the author of “Good Stock Strange Blood,” winning the 2019 Kingsley Tufts Award. “Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life” and “Discipline,” were both selected by Fanny Howe for the 2009 Nightboat Books Poetry Prize.
Walking up to the podium in her coordinated castleton green suit, Lundy began her presentation by mentioning her novel, which is currently in the works. Her monologue began by explaining that she would be reading some prose to begin the evening, beginning with a passage from her unpublished memoir:
“In poetry, I have tried to write a blackness of can to the migrants’ dislocation, and unknowing up against all the messages we receive and reiterate that blackness can be known and described. It’s because we want to love ourselves, I think because we do, and having a tangible collective identity makes the love object easier to access. I have also attempted to write the many cells that make up my own post-traumatic existence, to speak from a place of fragmentation is to roar without your larynx. This has its terrifying beauty. And it’s why for so many years, poetry was a natural home for my stories.”
She continues with an anecdote from when she received her master’s degree at San Francisco State University. She had many conversations with the poet Nyan Meachem who taught her endless lessons about the ends of language. Their conversations often ended with Martin being posed abstract questions like “What does it mean to speak?” Martin admitted to staring at her dumbfoundedly, having never thought explicitly about the problems of speaking and what might prevent it.
After each meeting, she left with even more theoretical questions tumbling in her brain that challenged the notions of what a poem might truly be. This enticed Martin to envision what a person might be and who she was in relation to different bodies and bodies that appear to be statuesque as a whole.
Afterward, she continued to read three other poems from her various works, each one tugging at different heartstrings. The room could feel the heaviness and seriousness of her words and the audience listened intently. Her last poem struck the hardest, detailing the hardships of slavery. Martin said:
“They have encircled me with their manacle tongues, but I do not understand them. My form is small and lean, but they think I’m large and bullied. What is yielded here is nothing, no sign of blood, no sign of dripping, no ache, only my small form without space around it. What is the body by leaking form? No room for leaking a form so tight around my form it cannot see where to gesture complete closure. To hold a drop of water is extremely labor intensive. Tongue against the ground. The difference between experience and dreams falls away. There are locks in every corner like little eyes, even time no longer passes each fractured second redundant artifice of time of location.”
At the end of the program, Martin sold and signed books outside of Krinovitz Recital Hall. Students and faculty lined up excited to read more of what they spent the evening listening to.
This program held every year is an amazing way that the college can uplift Black voices and Black literature. Faculty and students gathering to listen to astounding works like Martin’s is a way to not only hear Black voices, but a step in the direction of truly begging to understand them, too. Reading works by Black poets is especially important in a world where the voices of Black storytellers have been historically excluded from mainstream media and publishing.
Black Poetry Day plays as the perfect reminder to take up a quiet nook and read many of the talented Black poets from around the world. Poems today are just as relevant as those of yesterday. While context and rhymes change, the purpose remains the same.