National Poetry Month: Frets, Beats and Breaks

Louisville native Mitchell L.H. Douglas returns home tonight to read from his new collection of poems, blak al-fə bet,” which won the 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award from Persea Books. Douglas reads from his new work tonight at the InKY Reading Series, 7-9 p.m. at The Bard’s Town on Bardtown Road.

Douglas’ first collection, “Cooling Board: a Long-Playing Poem,” a finalist for the 2010 NAACP Image Awards, explored the life and death of soul singer Donny Hathaway, but blak al-fə bet” is a more personal collection of poems about Douglas’ Southern family after the death of its matriarch. 

In “Bop: Ohio River / River City,” he packs in more Louisville legacy into one stanza than some poets can in a lifetime: 

At the bottom, rumor has it,

is Ali’s gold medal

likely nestled

next to wayward tractors,

slave shackles, & rusted

forget-me-nots of the ’37 flood.

 

Douglas also debuts a new poetic form in blak al-fə bet,” the Fret, a horizontal form he created that uses the shape of a guitar fret board and calls upon the blues chord progression to explore his family’s Alabama sharecropping roots. From “The Sorrows (A Fret in Three Chords)”:

| Each day, sun     | to borrowed sun, in hours    | of sweat & sorrow

| Aligned as three | stars, the belt of Orion,         | three brothers–

| Duke, Buddy       | &B0- stretch cracked hands| to scorned earth,

 

Douglas’ poems also address the legacy of Jim Crow’s South and the tensions between the expectations of a post-racial America and the stark realities. Hear Douglas read “Tallahatchie (for Emmett Till & Marilyn Nelson)”:

Douglas is associate professor of creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and a member of the creative writing faculty at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, Douglas is a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for PLUCK!: The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture. 

Joining Douglas at InKY tonight is Marcus Wicker. A 2011 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship recipient and a Cave Canem fellow, Wicker is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Indiana. He’s the author of the new collection “Maybe the Saddest Thing,” selected for the National Poetry Series by poet D.A. Powell. Read a selection of poems from “Maybe the Saddest Thing.”

The highlight of “Maybe the Saddest Thing” is a series of love poems to pop culture icons, from Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav to Pam Grier. In “Love Letter to RuPaul,” Wicker’s ode to the famous drag queen plays with expectations and sexual titillation: 

You have one of the longest,

thickest, most veined, colossal

set of hands that I have ever seen

and frankly, they cast a spell on me.

And Wicker turns to hip hop for his section “Beats, Breaks & B-sides,” a series of poems that remixes and samples tracks, from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” into original poems.  In “The Light,” he calls on Common’s song of the same name in recalling an early interracial relationship with nostalgic tenderness and delicacy: 

I listened to him more than you. His sly anti-white

woman rhymes never touched me. But you. You filtered through

a magnifying glass. Warmed the cherry orchard, white

with frost. Your light sweetened my pit. You are lightning

crashed through his pulpit into this poem. Beaming. Yes, white.

The InKY Reading Series begins at 7 p.m. in The Bard’s Town’s downstairs performance salon. The evening includes an open mic, and sign-ups begin at 6:30. The Squallis Puppeteers will also make an appearance, because ain’t no National Poetry Month party like a puppet party.

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