Monday, May 10, 2010

Monday Muse: D.C.'s Poet Laureate

I think good poetry is going to demand that you look
 at something for the first time, 
things that have been around you all of the time
 that you take for granted. Poetry is going to demand
 that you take a second look and through that,
 find your own spiritual, intellectual self.

Since May 1999, Dolores Kendrick has held the position of Poet Laurate of the District of Columbia. She was appointed by then Mayor Anthony Williams for a three-year term that carried with it the option for three more.

The position originated under Williams' predecessor, Mayor Marion Barry, who appointed Sterling Brown in May 1984. On Brown's death in 1989, the position became defunct and remained so until E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet and director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University, proposed it be restored. He also recommended Kendrick for the post. 

* * * * *
I believe that I'm a vehicle through which my art flows.
~ Dolores Kendrick*

Considered one of America's foremost African American poets, Dolores Kendrick, born in 1927 in the District of Columbia, has published Why the Woman Is Singing on the Corner: A Verse Narrative (P.E. Randall Publisher, 2001) and three other collections of poetry: The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women** (Morrow, 1989), Now Is the Thing to Praise: Poems (Lotus Press, 1984), and Through the Ceiling (Paul Bremen Ltd., 1975). 

Kendrick's portraits of women can be marvelous, situated as they are in the American slave experience, which Kendrick researched, and channeled as a form of witnessing and communion.

Here's how she introduces us to "The Cleaning Woman: Hattie Elder" (included in the anthology Ocho, noted below):

If you held her
her bones would crack
and sink into their skulls
like morning frost.

. . . if you dared to touch her,
Woman of so many years
of benign love, the living of which
comforted her in pale and impossible moments,

you would know her bones
and now gnarled hands
carried within them a rich
and profound blessing
that was even too heavy
for her to bear. . . . 

"Hattie Elder" bears the marks of age and unrelenting work and yet remains proud and unbowed, a "Woman of so many years" that we cannot help but admire.

Kendrick writes short stanzas of short lines of simple words. Sometimes, she creates portraits narrated in first, second, or third person. Sometimes, she uses alliteration and assonance, creating a flowing musical line, as these few words from "Liza Lily in Silks" show: I can take off soft / in it anytime I please / if only to tease /. . . .  

She has the gift to write lyrically:

. . . Fly winds to sea-rocks and break
a round of prayer upon their backs. . . .

The women of plums are sweet and black.
Their flesh moist with tears of joy.
~ "Canticles of a Black Lady" in The Women of Plums

We are
flesh and blood
steel and skin. . .

. . . our fragile 
dreams that rise
upon a muscle
of memory
and wind.
~ From "Epoch"  

In some of her poems, however, she fails to give us any imagery, lapsing into mere flat telling:

. . . Just wanted the best
Jack always wanted the best for himself I didn't fit
~ "Jo Abandoned" in The Women of Plums

We get drawn back, though, because Kendrick also crafts skillful dramatic monologue, as here, where she gives her "Peggy" in "Peggy in Killing" (in The Women of Plums) the stage to give testimony that must be heard (these lines are stunning when heard aloud):

I denounce you, Satan!
I denounce this unfree callin',
I denounce shackles, bondage
escape, darkness,
the quiet of the pain
in my throat when I scream
for nothin', nothin' at all,
when I watch my children
sit on stairwells
in the dark
and ice forms
in they mouths,
I denounce the evil of rememberin',
I denounce pieces of property,
pounds of pain.

Nothin' be free, but the misery.

Like "Peggy's", the voices of others of Kendrick's Women are not voices that can be ignored. They're too full of anguish, hope, protest, defiance, knowledge of what it means to be a woman and enslaved, used and dehumanized, but also capable of love and joy and resilience, also the ferocity of motherhood, also the thirsting after that joins past to present to future:

I will give you a stairway,
wind it to fit the dance
in your eye and leave but you
to climb the circle you embrace as me.
~ From "The Stairway" in Through the Ceiling and Why the Woman Is Singing on the Corner

Kendrick has published poetry in such literary periodicals as Beloit Poetry Journal, Indiana Review, and Open Places, and she has been included in a number of anthologies, including Ocho #12 (September 2007), edited by poet Grace Cavalieri.

The first Vira I. Heinz professor emerita at Phillips Exeter Academy, where she taught from 1972 to 1993, Kendrick has received a 1989 National Endowment for the Arts Award, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship (to Northern Ireland), two Yaddo Fellowships, the George Kent Award for Literature, the 1991 New York Public Library's Best Book for Teenagers Award (for The Women of Plums) and the Anisfield-Wolfe Award (also for The Women of Plums), among other honors. In addition, she has been inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame and in 1992 received a National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Award.

The author of a poem placed on a sculpture in front of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, Kendrick also has received commissions for poems for two D.C. Metro system stations and for "Epoch", an installation by Albert Paley at the Pepco Building in downtown D.C. She established the D.C. Poetry Festival for high school students and frequently gives readings throughout the District.


All poetry excerpts © Dolores Kendrick

* Quoted in interview with Nicole M. Miller, The Washington Post, April 9, 2001

Kendrick's published poetry is out-of-print; it is available via Amazon only through other sellers. It can be found on the Internet through second-hand and rare book sellers as well.

** A recording of music based on The Women of Plums, titled The Color of Dusk, was released in 1996. The book was adapted for theatre and was performed in both Cleveland (at Karamus Theatre) and D.C. (at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts); the production won the New York New Playwrights Award in 1997. In her book, Kendrick creates monologues for 34 slave women, using Library of Congress and Works Progress Administration (Federal Writers' Project) recordings of former slaves. Some of the women speak dialects, others "standard" speech of the 19th Century.

Oral History Archive, National Visionary Leadership Project (interviewer, Adrienne Bailey; 2002): Kendrick talks about dealing with racism as a child, being accused of plagiarism, experiencing gender discrimination, and maturing as an artist. She also talks about her mother and father, getting encouragement, and the poet's role, and offers some advice for young writers.

Kendrick reading her poems, with comment, in Recording Laboratory, November 16, 1977, is available through the Library of Congress, which also has in its collections a number of other Kendrick sound recordings, including "Poet and the Poem" (1990), produced as part of the Contemporary Poets Series.

"Spiritual Witness in the Poetry of Dolores Kendrick" by Joanne V. Gabbin in The Heritage Series of Black Poetry, 1962-1975; A Research Compendium

Kendricks' Advice to Young Poets

Tribute to Kendrick by Exeter English Instructor John Kane, "Poet Unveiled"

Conversation with Dolores Kendrick, Kojo Nnamdi Show, WAMU 88.5

"Six Poets: From Poetry to Verse" by Gerald Barrax, The Johns Hopkins University Press


Louise Gallagher said...

Oh my.

such powerful words.

such a powerful woman.

and, such a powerful voice.

Thanks for bringing her into my consciousness. I must go read more!

S. Etole said...

The imagery in the stairway ... a favorite

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

this is a terrific piece, and a wonderful series.

When I left my comment on the new wave of feminism post I was only hoping to illuminate that period. I hope all is well and look forward to hearing from you. xj