Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Splendid Wake #3: thoughts, comments, reactions

I think this was our most successful Wake!
—It was well illustrated with visual and audio elements so that it moved along fluidly and excitingly.
—Participants for the most part stuck to their timeframes achieving overall the perfect use of the time and the breathing room for audience to ask questions and make comments.
—Having a lively moderator like the incomparable Regie Cabico glued the parts together and kept the action moving forward.
—The introduction by the Gelman Librarian Chief Geneva Henry set the tone for success in every way. I valued every word she spoke and I was thankful she took time from her family to be with us.
—The paper program booklet turned out beautiful and I found it so helpful in following the live proceedings matched to the celebration of our departed ones.
—Did anyone miss refreshments? Not me! There was so much food for thought, I felt well nourished!

Special shout outs to Jennifer King for making the logistics of all this work so well and let’s keep fingers crossed that we get a good video. The audiovisual support was awesome.

To Holly Bass for getting off a plane from South Africa day of the Wake 3 to participate!

To Toni Asante Lightfoot for driving from Chicago to be present!

To Grace Cavalieri for helping make Miller Newman’s presentation extremely real by getting May Miller’s voice in the room.

To Miller Newman for bringing so many of May Miller’s family into the room.

To Sunil Freeman for sitting as timekeeper.

I feel I learned a lot from these presentations:

Georgia Douglas Johnson and the Saturday Nighters

While I have actually walked with Kim Roberts to Georgia Douglas Johnson’s house at 1461 S Street NW, I felt Wake #3 gave a new context to the importance of those gatherings that included Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, and more. What I didn’t realize that May Miller and her father Kelly Miller also attended those gatherings. I also feel that the rigor Johnson imposed on that gathering was quite interesting, especially in light of our closing group The Modern Urban Griots and the standards set for themselves as explained by Toni Asante Lightfoot

May Miller

Although I knew May Miller, I never realized how active she was in playwriting and how important playwriting was to the Modern Urban Griots. I was thoroughly delighted to hear May’s voice reading her poems.  May also imposed a rigor on her work and the work of others.

The Federal Poets

I was really taken with the history of the Federal Poets and how it began with poets working in non-bookish departments of government as well as the fact that May Miller participated in this group. Like the workshop born from the University of Maryland “Poetry and the National Conscience” conference, here and continuing today poets who did not or do not know each other came together to work on their poetry which in my mind is a big risk.

Poetry Workshop Born During “Poetry and the National Conscience” Conferences

When this workshop was discussed in the Splendid Wake steering committee planning session, I had no idea that this workshop that included poets of national standing was associated with a University of Maryland conference organized by Rod Jellema. I was a student at the U MD during the time that conference was developed and it was at U MD where I first heard Linda Pastan read her poetry and hear her talk about how she was getting it published in magazines that were not necessarily literary magazines. I feel like there is more to learn about that U MD conference which brought together such poets as Linda Pastan, Siv Cedering Fox, Primus St. John, Roland Flint, Myra Sklarew, Ann Darr, Rod Jellema and others. Loved hearing about their rules too – if you didn’t write a new poem, you had to wait to attend.

The Modern Urban Griots
I had not known that OPP (other people’s poetry) came from the Modern Urban Griots. I had heard Holly Bass refer to that term and enact that principal. I knew about the Griots but I somehow never managed to hear them perform together so what a pleasure to get some of their history and to see them interact.

I also want to say that for a day that suffered daunting weather early in the day, we got a great turnout that filled the room quite comfortably.  I was also interested to learn (because I asked) that there were a lot of folks in the room who belonged to poetry workshops.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


The greater Washington, DC area literary community in partnership with The George Washington University presents A SPLENDID WAKE 3, the 3rd annual public program celebrating Poetry in the Nation’s Capital from 1900 to the Present, Friday, March 20th, 2015, from 6:30-8:30 P.M. at The George Washington University Gelman Library, Suite 702, 2130 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. (near Foggy Bottom Metro stop). Free and open to the public.

Join us as we continue our work of documenting poets and poetry movements in the Nation’s Capital from 1900 to the present. Our focus this vernal equinox is on Georgia Douglas Johnson and the Saturday Nighters, poet May Miller, the Federal Poets, Poetry Workshops born during “Poetry and the National Conscience conferences, and the Modern Urban Griots.

Presenters include:  Regie Cabico: Host; Kim Roberts and Michon Boston on Georgia Douglas Johnson and the Saturday Nighters; Miller Newman on May Miller; Judith McCombs on the Federal Poets with Donald Illich and Doritt Carroll; Linda Pastan and Rod Jellema on poetry workshops with Siv Cedering, Primus St. John, Roland Flint, and others; and Toni Asante Lightfoot on Modern Urban Griots with Brandon D. Johnson, Holly Bass and Twain Dooley.

The public is invited. NO TICKETS ARE NEEDED.

Friday, March 6, 2015


by Miller Newman    
               Great rocks frighten little people. “Gibraltar,” May Miller told reporter Isabel Wilkerson some thought it her greatest poem. She on the other hand, said at the time she passed by the rock, one of God’s masterpieces, in the early 1970s, she felt that so much had already been written about this Mediterranean sentinel that she remarked, “what could I add except my own little interpretation of some little thing that hit me as I passed?” More than forty years later, I think, well May Miller is a great rock, and then there are the rest of us--little people.  
Photos of Miller's art from the
collection of Dr. Miller Newman
            Great rocks are God’s gift to mankind, a humbling reminder that even when we can prove the existence of a thing using all of our five senses, that very same thing remains a mystery for all the ages. May Miller is like that, few can deny that nine books of published poetry is proof that a poet lives, but the harbinger of such beauty, the craftsmanship of the words, the natural selection of sound, syllable, meter and rhyme in the hands of May Miller become a whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. She is a great rock; complex in its shaping by tide and time. She was in her lifetime a sculptress*, a painter, a dancer, a portrait model. May Miller as a younger woman with dreams that took her to the halls of Exeter Academy where she brought to the privileged the perspective of a world beyond their gates was even then a great rock. Then as an older woman with engagements that included the public space of the District of Columbia’s Martin Luther King Library where Lois Mailou Jones, E. Ethelbert Miller and I, sat in plastic chairs next to a homeless man chased in from the frigid February night to be warmed by the sound of Miller reading from her recently published book, Collected Poems.
           May Miller was a teacher, a playwright, according to a classmate and friend of mine, Clement A. Goddard, “. . . who helped to shape black theater in the early 1900s . . . as a folk dramatist, [she] wrote on propaganda topics and used black and white characters and cast members in her plays” (Folkways and Folk Plays the Rhetoric of May Miller 14).  Her stalwart supporters, Betty Parry and Anne Johnston were there too that night which turned out to be one of her last public readings. It was a night, that twenty years or more later is frozen in my mind. That night is a memory I can conjure on a moment’s notice--my own little interpretation of some little thing that hit me as she passed. Claudia Tate, PhD concludes her article, “The Pondered Moment: May Miller’s Meditative Poetry” saying, “. . . Miller regards her work as the means to achieving immortality, as the markers left behind. Her meditative poetry permits her to mark her place in ‘green time,’ as it continually reminds us that life is only a series of quickly fleeting moments, and we would do well to ponder them” (New Directions January 1985 33).
James A. Porter Modern Negro Art, 1943
            May Miller’s “resolution to the problem of creating a black stage reality, which is ‘about us, by us, and for us,’ is most effective in her use of black language. Miller uses black rhetorical strategies such  as ‘signification’ and its many tropes to create a black theater that is filled with the rich experiences of black culture” (Goddard 49). Patrice Gaines-Carter in her article, “New Generation Discovers D.C. Poet May Miller” reports Miller said “There was a time I couldn’t be known as myself . . . . I always had my father’s name tagged onto mine. I’m proud of my background, but you have to make your own contribution in life. If you have any gift you’re obligated to share it.” May Miller has done that, shared her gift, but she’s not done yet. May Miller has poems yet unpublished, scribbled on the backs of old pieces of mail. There’s a second children’s book, and a novella rejected by some publisher way back in 1945; its cover, by James A. Porter**, a hastily sketched Baltimore street scene still intact.  And then, there is the novel she penned in the 1930s. May Miller’s pen knows no limits when it scratches across a page; her novel like her poems is a testimony to the gift she has and is obligated to share even posthumously. And so, I have created a blog, “May Miller Speaks” which launched this month. I will post her blessing as my ancestor to fulfill her personal obligation to “mark in green time” a legacy that will not be stolen, nor lost, nor strayed by inaction or the nefarious acts of others. GREAT ROCKS INDEED!

Friday, February 6, 2015


Michael Harper dedicates Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep, an anthology of poetry by African Americans since 1945, to Sterling Brown—“poet, folksayist, scholar-teacher, pioneering wordsmith in a dynamic American lexicon, especially the laconic meditations and metaphysics extant in folkspeech as the underbelly of the nation’ s lexicon.” Sterling Brown’s first book of poetry, Southern Road, 1932, was introduced by Sterling’s mentor, James Weldon Johnson with whom he quarreled about “dialect being limited to pathos and humor.” Joanne Gabbin, in her book on Sterling refers to Richard Wright’s term, “The Forms of Things Unknown,” the anonymous folk utterances, spirituals, blues, work songs and folklore created and passed on by African Americans in our country. I know from my own experiences in villages where my people come from that the contours of the secret, hidden world can be glimpsed in folk expressions.

One September evening in 1981, Sterling came to share his thoughts and poems with my undergraduate students at American University.  If there is a pillar holding up this world, I think of Sterling. I’d give a lot to hear his wisdom on our Congress in these days!

Sterling: “My approach is largely portraiture of people. I’m more concerned with revealing qualities of their life than revealing qualities of my own life.  I wrote one poem that is autobiographic or semi-autobiographic: “After Winter.” [Sterling’s father, Sterling Nelson Brown, born in 1858 before Emancipation,  worked as a molder in a brickyard, saved enough to buy a small farm for his parents and to go to Fisk. He later graduated from Oberlin Theological Seminary. Sterling Senior was friends with Frederick Douglass,  W.E.B. Du Bois and taught at Howard University for some 30 years. He was a man of great moral courage, and stunning accomplishment in his own right. Sterling’s mother, Grace Adelaide Brown, taught in the D.C. schools for over 50 years ] Sterling  was educated at Dunbar High School, Williams College and did graduate work at Harvard. He taught at Virginia Theological Seminary and College and then for close to 60 years at Howard University. Here he encountered Kelly Miller, father of poet and dramatist May Miller, and Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois. He attributed to his mother his love for poetry. “She read Longfellow, Roberts Burns, and she read Dunbar,” he writes.
Sterling Brown captures another side to his father.  In summers during his boyhood, his family lived on  a farm in Howard County at Whiskey Bottom Road.

“I was greatly influenced not only by Housman and Frost, Edward Arlington Robinson. In college I learned about Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Milton. I wanted my poetry to be simple, sensuous,  what you could see, hear taste, touch, poetry that conveyed feeling. But one day on the Boston Commons I read Untermeyer’s Modern American Poets, found Sandburg, To get to the language of the people, away from an artificial literary language, what Whitman wanted to do when he heard America singing.  Robinson went to a small town off the coast of Maine, from the ordinary, getting something extraordinary, Sandburg in Chicago, Frost in the farmers of New England.  Handling of my own people, felt it had been stereotyped, actuality hadn’t been shown, I did know there was a field to be cultivated.  Virginia Seminarian College was poor in money but rich in humanities.”

Sterling said “I learned the arts and sciences at Williams and Harvard but I learned the humanities in Lynchburg at Virginia Seminary. Students were older than I,  but coal miners in the summer, worked the farms and in hotels. They showed me certain qualities of life. I was sent there by Carter G. Woodson,  (his high school teacher, father of Black History Month,) and my father. My father told me to learn something about my people, learn something about myself.”

In opposition to James Weldon Johnson, on the limitations of folk speech, Sterling told us: “Folk speech is not limited: it is capable of tragedy, irony. The spirituals were not only pathos…’ Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, let my people go,’ or ‘I don’t know what my mother wants to stay here for.  This old world aint been no friend to her.’ I found it in the blues. I found the pithy, epigrammatic, the ironic quality as Zora Neale Hurston said, ‘Hitting a straight lid with a crooked stick.’ I found the blues rich in this. ‘Got a handful of Gimme and a mouthful of Much Obliged.’. Whole lot packed into that. Found it in the folk tales, found a great deal. Found a language here. Made use of the folk expressions. Students at Virginia Seminary brought me a wandering guitar player, had coal dust on his lungs, but too weak for recording, Big Boy Davis taught me a great deal.

“In my class I was teaching Emerson, Thoreau, transcendentalism.  Over in the corner one of the students was fast asleep snoring.  I didn’t want anybody snoring in my class and I rebuked him. That Saturday, friends took me out to Coolwell, Virginia. Opening in the woods, wonderful house, squared logs, foothills of the Blue Ridge.  This was the home of my sleeping student.  He was farming a hundred-acre farm, working Friday afternoon until Monday morning and then he’d come to my class on transcendentalism. From then on he could sleep in my class, but he didn’t want to anymore. I’d go out and cut wood with him.

“All the neighbors would come to talk to the Professor Brown, ask me questions that I couldn’t answer!  Got to talk one night about Brother Moore, a trifling man , his horses got out, his cows got lost. Folks kept saying, He means good.  Sister Biffie took her pipe out of her mouth one night and said: ‘He may mean good, but he do so doggone poor.’ That I used ever since in my talk on Sentimentality. Wanted to give credit to the Blues; Handy was the first. Ma Rainey, I heard in Nashville Tenn. She was no beauty until she opened her mouth. Bessie Smith was a better singer but Ma Rainey was more for the audience. I got a chance to talk to her.”

Sterling always ended his readings with “Strong Man” Sterling Brown influenced three generations of writers and thinkers and his influence continues and will beyond this day.

Sixteen Poems of Sterling Brown is available as a recording at Smithsonian Folkways.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

SPLENDID WAKE 3, Friday, March 20th 6:30 p.m.

For Immediate Release
For program information contact Joanna Howard
For wiki and venue information, contact Jennifer King 

A Splendid Wake 3
3rd Annual Public Program 
Celebrating Poetry in the Nation’s Capital from 1900 to the Present
Friday, March 20th, 2015 from 6:30-8:30 P.M. at George Washington University Gelman Library, Suite 702, 2130 H Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. (near Foggy Bottom Metro stop). Free and Open to the Public!

Join us for our 3rd incarnation of A Splendid Wake as we continue our work of documenting poets and poetry movements in the Nation’s Capital from 1900 to the present. Our focus this vernal equinox is on Georgia Douglas Johnson and the “Saturday Nighters,” poet May Miller, the Federal Poets, Poetry Workshops born during “Poetry and the National Conscience” conferences, and the Modern Urban Griots.

Our stars this time around will include:  Regie Cabico, Host; Kim Roberts and Michon Boston on Georgia Douglas Johnson and the Saturday Nighters; Miller Newman on May Miller; Judith McCombs on the Federal Poets with Donald Illich and Dorrit Carroll; Linda Pastan and Rod Jellema on poetry workshops with Siv Cedering, Primus St. John, Roland Flint, and others; Toni Asanti Lightfoot on Modern Urban Griots with Brandon D. Johnson, Holly Bass and Twain Dooley; and Sunil Freeman, in the important role of Timekeeper!

Co-editor of Flicker and Spark: A Contemporary Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry and Poetry Nation: The North American Anthology of Fusion Poetry, Regie Cabico, our host, has received awards in National Slam competitions and for his work as slam coach for individual and team competitors in the U.S. and Canada. He is co-director of La-Ti-Do, a weekly spoken word and cabaret series in D.C.

Georgia Douglas Johnson—poet, playwright, and composer--brought together Kelly Miller and his daughter May Miller, Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson, Angelina Weld Grimke, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston and many others at weekly salons at her home on S Street in D.C. Her life and works will be presented by Kim Roberts, a true D.C. force for poetry and the author of four collections of poetry, the editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, the anthology Full Moon on K Street, and by Michon Boston, a writer/producer and author of “Iola’s Letter,” a play based on the events that transformed Ida B. Wells from a journalist to a staunch anti-lynching activist. Boston’s plays have been produced at the Source Theatre, the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina, and the Kennedy Center.

May Miller was a Washington poet, playwright and educator whose literary career began in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Her father, Kelly Miller, was a nationally known author and philosopher, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a professor of sociology at Howard University. He was the first African American to attend Johns Hopkins University where he studied astronomy. W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington visited their home. May spoke of having to give up her room for Paul Laurence Dunbar. An award May Miller received for a play was presented at a dinner attended by Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson and Jean Toomer. She served as chair of the Literature Panel of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Her niece, Miller Newman, will provide a picture of May Miller’s life. Miller Newman is a senior faculty member in the Department of English Composition and Reading at Montgomery College. She is a poet, essayist and aspiring novelist with a doctorate in Higher Education Administration.

The Federal Poets Workshop, founded in 1944, is the D.C. Metro area’s longest running workshop for poets. Members meet monthly at Tenley Public Library to critique poems and produce a biannual journal. Craig Reynolds, Frank Goodwyn, and Nancy Allinson have served as presidents. Don Illich is the current president. At least five workshops and two readings series have emerged from Federal Poets. Judith McCombs, Vice-President of Federal Poets since 2005, is a poet and literary scholar. Her poetry has appeared in many publications. The Habit of Fire: Poems Selected & New appeared in 2005. She directs the Kensington Row Bookshop Poetry Readings, edits for Word Works DC, and is on the Splendid Wake board. Don Illich, current head of Federal Poets, has published poems in The Iowa Review, Nimrod, and  Rattle. His poetry has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. His chapbook, Rocket Children, appeared in 2012.  Doritt Carroll received her undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. In Caves and GLTTL STP were published by Brickhouse Books and her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Plainsongs and Journal of Formal Poetry.

Rod Jellema ran a series of conferences at the University of Maryland beginning in 1968, “Poetry and the National Conscience,” and sent letters out inviting folks to join a fortnightly writer’s workshop already in progress. Those who joined the existing group--Siv Cedering, Eddie Gold, Primus St. John and Bill Holland-- were Linda Pastan, Ann Darr, Roland Flint, Gary Sange, and Myra Sklarew. Other who joined occasionally were Elisavietta Ritchie, John Pauker, Henry Taylor.  “Notable sit-ins or drop-ins were Gene McCarthy, Bill Stafford, and Stanley Kunitz,” says Rod Jellema, who adds, “Ann Darr estimated that the members of the workshop published more than sixty books.”  Linda Pastan and Rod Jellema will reminisce about this workshop. Jellema, professor emeriti, University of Maryland founded the Creative Writing Program, and is the author of five collections of poems, the most recent, Incarnality: The Collected Poems. He is currently working on a history of early New Orleans jazz, Really Hot: A New Hearing for Old New Orleans Jazz.  Linda Pastan has published thirteen volumes of poetry, most recently Traveling Light. Two collections have been finalists for the National Book Award. A new collection, Insomnia, is due out from Norton in Fall 2015. In  2003, she received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement.

The way Toni Asanti Lightfoot tells it, The Modern Urban Griots got their start on a cold February night in 1994 at a place called “It’s Your Mug Cafe” at 2601 P Street, N.W. in Georgetown. She says that this series “had a broad impact. It influenced the establishment of numerous poetry events on U Street, N.W.  as well as Blackman’s Freestyle Union hip-hop workshops and created a commitment to community and education.” Those who participated included Brandon D. Johnson, Holly Bass, Twain Dooley, and Lori Tsang, among others. Beloved hecklers were The Brock Crew, Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore and Joel Dias Porter (DJ Renegade). The group performed at the Whitney Museum in NY, the Nuyorican, and smaller venues around the city. In recent times the group reunited at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. Toni Asanti Lightfoot, is a poet, educator, activist, and has an MS in Traditional Oriental Medicine. Her work has been anthologized and can be seen on YouTube. She is editor of Dream of a Word: A Tia Chucha Press Anthology.   Holly Bass, a Cave Canem fellow, writer and performer, studied modern dance and creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and earned a Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University. In 2011, The Root and 2012 Best Performance Artist in Washington City Paper named her one of the Top 30 Black Performance Poets internationally. Brandon D. Johnson, founding member of Modern Urban Griots and The Black Rooster Collective, received a BA from Wabash College and a JD from Antioch School of Law. He is a Cave Canem Graduate Fellow, the author of Love’s Skin, Man Burns Ant, the Strangers Between, and has work published in numerous anthologies. Twain Dooley, born in D.C., served on active duty during Desert Storm, and after a 2-year stay in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (as a civilian), returned to Washington and began to perform for a variety of audiences. Author of several books, he has opened for Amiri Baraka and Jimmy “JJ” Walker, won top honors on the DC/Baltimore Slam Team, and is currently working on the story of his life, “None of This Makes Sense.”

Splendid Wake-up Blog:

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Federal Poets Workshop: Beachhead and Bridge for DC-Metro Area Poets

Founded in 1944, The Federal Poets are DC Metro-area’s longest-running workshop for poets—and the only one consistently open to newcomers. We meet afternoons on the third Saturday of the month, at the Metro-accessible Tenley Public Library, to exchange critiques aimed at enhancing a poem’s chances for publication. (Note: we have no current connection with the Federal Government, nor with state poetry societies.) You can read your one-page poem, with copies, at three meetings for group critique: and then be voted in for membership. (Or not, as happened once or twice.) 

Members pay annual dues ($25) that support our biannual
journal, Federal Poet, edited by Pam Blehert. Federal Poets has its own website and Facebook Page.

I have been a member since 1985, vice president since about 2005. I remember how much the Federal Poets’ welcome meant when I came to the area, uprooted from my long-term Michigan writers’ workshop and college teaching. I’ve stayed with Federal Poets to give back, to enjoy long-term and newer poet friends—and because the critiques and audience I get are good for my poems.

Craig Reynolds, a black gay activist poet, superb m.c. and organizer, was our president and editor till 1988; Craig arranged for us to read at Ford Theatre and Old Post Office Pavilion—the latter with Rod Jellema and Myra Sklarew as honorary guests (tribute Federal Poet Spring 1995). Frank Goodwyn, a novelist, memoirist, retired U. MD Spanish professor—and a cowboy poet—became president in 1989; followed by Nancy Allinson in 1992 as president, editor, and readings organizer; followed by Don Illich as president and readings organizer since September 2012.

About one-third of our diverse members are involved in other poetry venues: as GWU’s Jenny McKean Moore Scholars; Word Works DC editors and volunteers; Writer’s Center workshop leaders and participants (Miles David Moore and I have Words Works books, and have taught for the Center), etc. At least five workshops and two reading series come out of Federal Poets. Bob Haynes founded a workshop and Lip Service little magazine c. 1986. Ingeborg Carsten-Miller, a bilingual German poet, founded the Fairland Library Literary Salon in 2001. Jean Lehman had an Alexandria workshop and readings. Ninie Syrakin’s D.C. House of Poetry may predate her Federal Poet membership. Ann Rayburn and Pamela Passerata created new, smaller workshops. Miles David Moore hosts Arlington’s Iota Poetry Series 1994-; I arrange the Kensington Row Bookshop Poetry Series 2003-.