Sunday, March 29, 2015

Poetry Workshops Born During the “Poetry and The National Conscience” Conferences.

I started writing poems in a serious way in 1965, and it was a lonely business.  I used my husband’s study when he was at work, and showed him what I had written. Nobody else.  There was nobody else to show.  I don’t think I realized then that real poets existed, certainly not near Rockville Maryland where I lived.  I didn’t consider myself a real poet either, just someone who wrote poems. 

Then one day I saw a small ad in the Washington Post, I think it was.  A new magazine called Dryad was looking for poems, and it existed locally.  I sent poems; Merrill Leffler the editor of Dryad accepted them; and suddenly I had an actual local contact.  It must have been through Merrill that I learned about Poetry and the National Conscience at the University of Maryland.  Rod Jellema had organized the conference and the one that followed in l969. I will never forget the sight of Robert Bly in a long black cape, sailing down the aisle to the stage.  This was poetry!. 

It was at that conference that  I met an array of poets, many of whom are still my friends.  Soon the nucleus of a workshop had formed.  Rod himself; Ann Darr (beautiful ex pilot – WASP which stood for Women’s Airforce Servie Pilots) during the second world war, who came from a small town in Iowa and from sheer will and intelligence reinvented herself:  Siv Cedering or Siv Fox, as she then called herself;  Eddy Gold and Bill Holland, both students of Rod’s—young and full of moxie;  Myra Sklarew (who is the force behind this conference); Alan Austin (whose black box was the first or one of the first audio magazines); Roland Flint—our great and I think underappreciated poet;  Gary Sange; Primus St John ( poet laureate of Oregon;) Bill Claire; Margaret Gibson; Lisa Ritchie (who has also been a big part of this conference and was part of the workshop for its last few years); Ralph Robin (who I remember as a deceptively shy and quiet looking man) ; Michael Collier (teacher at Maryland and now director of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference who visited it many times. Occasional others.

The workshop was like the moving crap game in Guys and Dolls. We met at each other’s houses, different configurations of poets every time.  But mostly we met at Siv’s.  She lived on Picasso Lane in Potomac, which seemed very romantic and far away.  I live in Potomac now and since I don’t drive at night it still seems far away, though it was Siv who was romantic with that body, that hair, not Potomac.  Her house was a beautiful contemporary in the woods and we sat around and drank wine and read  poems to each other, shared them.  I don’t remember critiquing those poems, though we must have done so.  I do remember Gary Sange reading a poem about the birth of his daughter which led me to write my poem “Notes from the Delivery Room.” 

Thus we bounced poems off each other and were inspired to write still more poems, though we never imitated each other’s actual styles, and thus a community of poets was formed in the Washington area.  I think of other artist’s groups… The German expressionists: Kandinsky and his lover the artist Gabriele Munter, and Franz Marc, and Jawlensky.  The impressionists-Gauguin and Van Gogh painting together and arguing about art in Arles.  Such communities of artists inspire real work in each other.

So many years later, I still workshop poems but with just a handful of friends now, often over lunch, and we critique each others work fiercely but gently, if fierce gentleness is not an oxymoron.  “Workshop” has become a verb.  Workshops have sprouted up everywhere: in colleges, in writer’s conferences, and as with us, in people’s homes. I only hope some of them are as inspiring and useful, as memorable as ours was.

Note: On March 20, 2015 at the Splendid Wake 3, Linda Pastan  gave this talk on Poetry Workshops Born During the “Poetry and The National Conscience” Conferences. Linda Pastan is the author of thirteen books of poetry including Queen of a Queen of a Rainy Country, Traveling Light, and the forthcoming Insomnia. Her remarks were followed by Rod Jellema who also participated in these workshops. Rod said 60 poetry books grew out of this particular community of poets in the D.C. area.  

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!