How did you first choose Rhodes?
I chose Rhodes because I wanted to go an educationally challenging school that was close enough to home, but also worlds away. I was recruited by Seven Sisters colleges and University of Arkansas at Jonesboro, but I had no idea of what Vassar, a member of Seven Sisters Colleges, would be like and I wanted to get out of Arkansas. Black students were seen as a plus, as part of what was truly the start of serious, sustained change in the South and I wanted to be part of that. Plus the campus is really pretty.
What activities or clubs did you participate in while at Rhodes?
The early 1970s was not about clubs. Did I join anti-war demonstrations? Yes. Did I support the Black Monday boycotts? Yes. Did I help start the Black Students Association? Yes. Was I on the editorial board of Ginger — Of course. I co-edited with the fabulous Frannie Taylor. We had a lot of fun. I was on the newspaper staff and, yes, we were notorious. I will always love Charlie McElroy and Gerald Koonce for their courage. I am sure there were alums getting agitated because we were progressives and radicals on a very staid campus that was trying to figure out how to actually deal with being part of significant political change. I was on the Dilemma Committee and was a host for Mabou Mines. It was great putting the symposium together and learning things like Ray Bradbury was afraid of flying and that even then Nikki Giovanni was demanding high fees for her appearances — neither came to Southwestern during our watch. I was also in plays and performances and was in Who′s Who in 1973. It was always exciting and exhausting. The Black Students Association sponsored a trip to a conference on Black Politics at Indiana University, where I saw Muhammed Ali, the Adderly Brothers (Nat and Cannonball) played, and a young Black woman with an Afro higher than Angela Davis told me the Greek fabric bag I carried was perfect for the revolution. The Pub Board sent Frannie, me et al to the CCLM conference in Lexington, KY where I met Siv Cedering, a beautiful Swedish-American Poet and her then beau, Donald Revell (he is still active and teachers at Utah). They were like lights in a very dark place. Serendipity has always found me.
When did you know you wanted to be a poet?
I am not sure I knew that I wanted to be a poet. I simply could not stop writing poems after leaving college. Language just needed to be shaped and I was one of those people who had to shape it.
What was it like attempting to enter the poetry field?
What were your challenges? Early successes? Artistic careers are not like getting into law or pharmaceuticals. Learning ones craft is hit and miss — even for those who take a myriad of classes to get their BFA or MFAs. I lucked out. After living unhappily in Atlanta, I went to visit friends in New York City and simply stayed. There were free poetry workshops at St. Mark′s Church in the East Village and I took one with Lewis Warsh, a poet only a few years older than me, but already a major publisher of avant garde and experimental writing. My fellow workshop participants were highly diverse, from a Japanese-American poet, to a woman my age who went on to start a serious punk rock band, to a guy who later became an actor in Jim Jarmusch films. We met each week and brought new work and slowly my poetry got sharper, smarter. And I went to many readings from Denise Levertov and Alice Walker at 92nd St. Y to three, four poets readings at Chumleys, a former speakeasy in the West Village. I met June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Lorenzo Thomas, Jessica Hagedorn, Ishmael Reed, Steve Cannon, Fay Chiang, Adrienne Rich,Pedro Pietri and Ntozake Shange, et al because I organized events. And those were the poets. There was also a serious and sustained fascination with music. At Phillip Glass′s concerts I heard new music composers at The Kitchen, went to David Murray′s earliest concerts; heard all these guys from the The Art Ensemble of Chicago, AIR, Muhal Richard Abrams and gals, Amina Claudine Myers, Jeanne Lee, et al. Plus, my first job was as a prop mistress for Mabou Mines while they were performing at the Jane West Hotel, where we would eat burgers at the No Name Bar. Ruth Malaczech, Lee Breuer, Fred Neumann, David Warrilow, and Joanne Akalitis were extraordinarily talented and demanding artists — they gave me great insight into the complexities and the pleasures of an artistic life.
Did Rhodes prepare you to be a poet?
Rhodes did not prepare me to a professional poet. It did prepare me to be professional in my work, whatever that be. Poetry is an artistic calling, much like the ministry. My college years prepared me to read critically, think deeply, and pursue a life of the mind.
What is a “typical day” for you? When do you write?
I live in New York and work as an adjunct lecturer, so my days often consist of prepping for lectures, reading and grading students papers. Other days are spent reading, thinking, and developing programs. I am curating a new literary series in Brooklyn called WORDS SUNDAY and preparing applications for funding my projects. The past year has been spent organizing 4 decades of poetry for A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems, which will come out this fall from White Pine Press. Every once in a while I write poems, which seem to arrive just as I try to go to sleep! I also read my work and lead workshops. For instance, I just returned from a visit to Salem College in Winston-Salem, where I led a poetry writing workshop and read my work along with the wonderful fiction writer, Meera Nair. Next week, I will be attending the opening of One Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence Migrations Series at the Museum of Modern Art because a commissioned poem of mine is in the catalog. This is a way of saying there are no "typical days" but there are things that must be attended to and I do my best to keep to deadlines and get things done.
What is your writing process?
My writing process depends on the kind of writing. I also write prose and have begun to write and publish what I hope will be a memoir of my life as a Black Bohemian girl in 1970s in East Village. Too often, the ways in which places are presented conveniently remove Black people. For instance, Haight Ashbury in San Francisco is often talked about as a hippie enclave, but for several decades it was the Black community′s main hub in San Francisco. Erasure is a serious problem and there were a number of Black and Latino artists, musicians, actors, and writers who were involved in the vibrant life of the East Village, but you would not know that from many of the memoirs of that era from the White writers. I am so over this level of ongoing cultural amnesia.
What do you do as a contributing editor of BOMB magazine?
I love being an editor. I′ve co-edited Ordinary Women: An Anthology of New York City Women Poets, helped edit poets manuscripts, and edited a literary magazine. Bomb has afforded me the chance to find writers and artists of color and bring their work to a larger audience. I′ve written about poets including Cornelius Eady, Walter Lew, and Tony Medina and artists like Lorenzo Pace, Ida Applebroog, and Carl Hazlewood. I hope to do more. Betsy Sussler has created an important document of contemporary arts and letters and I am very pleased to be part of that enterprise.
Any advice for aspiring poets?
Poets work with language. We speak. We don′t speak. How do our utterances shift the atmosphere? If you are enmeshed in language, in its musicality, mutability then you may well become a poet. Poems express emotions and ideas and young poets often write as if only emotions matter or only ideas. The greatest of poets bring the mind and heart to the task. And it is a serious pursuit. I look back in wonder at how much I′ve done with words, lines, rhyme or lack thereof. I know that for some readers, those words have made a difference. I met a weaver who told me that she placed one of my poems above her loom. It can′t get any better than that.