01 May 2015

Over in Sandtown

I vividly remember getting upset with a friend who was relentlessly teasing me about being from the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in Baltimore (well, it felt relentless anyway...). Finally I'd had enough

"I'm not from no SANDTOWN!" I snapped.

"Oh yeah? Where are you from then?"
"I'm from Upton!"

This may appear to be a distinction without a difference. If you look at the map above, Sandtown is on one side of Freemont Ave, Upton the other (the "A" in "Ave" is practically pointing at the house I grew up in btw). But we take our neighborhoods VERY seriously in Baltimore, so that line is important. In some cases, knowing which side of a boundary line can be the difference between wealth and poverty, working class and poor, black and white (although not as stark as it was when I was a child, the 'Red Line' is still there), or making your way through the streets in relative safety vs having to run home to avoid a beat down.

Photo by Ben Marcin as part of his “Last House Standing” series 
My sister-in-law lives in Sandtown - in one of only three houses on the block that are occupied. The rest of the buildings are abandoned and boarded up. A friend, 'outsider' artist Morgan Monceaux lives in Sandtown - in the house where bandleader Cab Calloway grew up. Again, he is one of the few residents still on that block. The rest of the houses are either boarded up, or torn down (the building next to him practically fell down, damaging the side of his house, and is now an empty lot).

For me, one of the distinctive 'sounds' of Baltimore is silence. Our hollowed out neighborhoods. Trying not to move due to the Summer heat and humidity. Sirens echoing down the block as police cars scream across the city.

The empty lots, these abandoned buildings - they were there before the neighborhood's sadly nationally famous resident, Freddie Gray died in police custody in Sandtown. The boarding up of buildings was not a result of a riot. It was the result of years of neglect.

Baltimore's situation is no different from many places across the country and around the world. Manufacturing jobs left, the number of vessels coming into the Port of Baltimore shrunk, there were fewer and fewer 'good government jobs.' The city shifted to a 'service economy' and attempted to attract tourists to the Inner Harbor and new baseball and football stadiums at Camden Yards. Two major players Johns Hopkins Hospital on the East Side, and the University of Maryland Medical System on the West Side appear to be carving the city up between them. Hopkins is particularly egregious when it comes to taking over housing close to their 'campus' for their doctors, at the expense of residents who are already there.

On the other hand, in many neighborhoods but particularly in Sandtown, if the older houses are still standing, you also have to deal with Lead Paint:

“In 1993, we found that 13,000 kids in Baltimore had been poisoned with lead, but we weren’t collecting at the levels that we are today,” said Ruth Ann Norton, the executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. “If we had, we would have found 30,000 poisoned kids.”

“A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system,” Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore’s “toxic legacy” — a still-unfolding tragedy with which she says the city has yet to come to terms. Those kids who were poisoned decades ago are now adults. And the trauma associated with lead poisoning ­“creates too much of a burden on a community,” she said.

The burden weighs heaviest on the poorest communities, such as the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in West Baltimore where Freddie Gray lived. Here, most houses were built decades ago, at a time when paint manufacturers hailed lead as a cheap additive. The effect of that lead, which Congress effectively banned in 1978, has been profound on Gray’s neighborhood. Statistics between 2009 and 2013 showed that more than 3 percent of children younger than 6 had possibly dangerous levels of lead in their blood, more than double the figure for the entire city.

Lead poisoning has been an especially cruel scourge on African American communities. “Nearly 99.9 percent of my clients were black,” said Saul E. Kerpelman, a Baltimore lawyer who said he has litigated more than 4,000 lead-poisoning lawsuits over three decades. “That’s the sad fact to life in the ghetto that the only living conditions people can afford will likely poison their kids. . . . If you only have $250 per month, you’re going to get a run-down, dilapidated house where the landlord hasn’t inspected it the entire time they’ve owned it.”

....the only living conditions people can afford will likely poison their kids...

For years I would to look at the city's downtown attractions, the Inner Harbor, Camden Yards, etc, and have premonitions of destruction. "It's fake," I thought. "It's all built on sand," hallucinating an imminent collapse. As this week has shown, my city - your city, our cities - are built on the backs of the poor and trapped, over a lake of kerosene, just waiting for something to ignite it.

To listen to Antero Pietila, author of Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City talk about Sandtown-Winchester on KPFA radio (San Francisco), click here (Interview starts at 8:05 time mark)

28 April 2015


I still dream of Baltimore.

Perhaps its strange for me to think that after only four years away I would stop seeing the city I grew up in when I close my eyes. But by now I would have expected at least some of the dreams I remember to take place in New York. But no, somehow every time I wake up and try to remember what I was thinking about over night,  I find myself in Baltimore again.

Last night, everyone was in Baltimore. As I said to people after the relatively small disturbances at the end of an otherwise peaceful march on Saturday, Don't call this a 'riot.' You do NOT want to see Baltimore riot....well, sadly here we are. Baltimore is a city sitting on top of a tank of highly flammable liquid. Last night, someone, in some areas literally, dropped a match.

We all saw images of a city in chaos last night. Today, I feel myself in two places at once, my body here in New York, my mind and thoughts back home in Baltimore. I worked at the library on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North. Before that I worked at the Mondwamin Mall. My sister-in-law, cousin-in-law, and friends live in Freddie Gray's neighborhood. Its a strange, nearly science fictional feeling - I see a group of teenagers here, and am immediately thrown back down I-95 and think I'm seeing groups of Baltimore teens.

Ask why so much of our anger and destruction has been focused toward the BCPD

Every person deserves beauty and safety, information and entertainment 
Watching the burning and looting of the CVS at Penn- North last night, all I could think about was the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the Pratt Library, where I got my start in the library profession. Part of me wants to believe that the library was spared because it is a bright spot in that tough neighborhood, where all of us on staff, past and present, tried to do our best for those who came through our doors, providing a safe space for all.

I want to try to untangle some of my thoughts about Baltimore here over the next few days.

I have been trying for days to think of what to write about Baltimore and the death of Freddie Gray. I won't say nothing comes - perhaps its best to say TOO much comes to my mind: about Sandtown, lead paint, the Baltimore City Police Department, despair. How too many people in town are so far past being sick and tired of being sick and tired that they've given up, throwing up their hands and saying, "Well what do you expect, it's Baltimore!" Considering how the Baltimore Sun exposed the criminal nature of the Baltimore City Police Department over two years ago, and little to nothing was done, who can blame them? In much the same way that the Times-Picayune 'predicted' what would happen to New Orleans with their series on the levee system years before Katrina hit the city, far too often it takes a cataclysm before people notice anything.

Also I think about self-fulfilling prophesies: What happens when expectations have been lowered so far down you cannot even see them? What happens when you tell a population by inaction, word and deed "You ain't shit" over and over and over again. What happens if you think one segment of the city is filled with nothing but drug dealers, criminals and thugs - terms used to describe those living in many of the neighborhoods in West Baltimore that erupted long BEFORE last night's riots - so when people die in those neighborhoods, well, they must have been 'in the game' or in a gang, or shouldn't have been standing around once bullets started flying so they really only just got what they deserved?

America saw what happens last night in Baltimore.

But it has also seen it in Ferguson, and elsewhere. It saddens me to say this, but I know we will see it again. And again. And again, until some very fundamental things change.

I can tell you what happens to individuals who live under these conditions, who hear crap like this all the time, because it happened to me. I too sometimes got so tired and upset at being looked at in fear, of seeing people think my friends and I were dangerous and violent simply by virtue of our skin color, or zip code, that sometimes I too have thought, "Okay, fine - You think I'm dangerous, let me BE dangerous, let me show you 'danger'," and wanted to lash out. Many people, mainly white and not originally from Baltimore, have spoken about how 'angry' the city is. I've not wanted to think about the anger inside myself, or just considered it 'personal' and related to my own issues around being physically and emotionally abused as a child, and feelings of familial abandonment. It sometimes surprises me how rage filled some of my work is. But this anger both is and is not personal, because the forces against the individual are not truly focused on them as people. Because you are not seen as a person, as a human being. You are part of some undistinguished, insignificant, terrifying 'Other' upon whom twisted fears (and twisted desires) are projected. That might be the most frustrating thing - like a terrorist act, the hate you feel coming toward you really is not about *you* at all. People react to the fact that there is a 'hard', 'don't give a fuck' attitude in Baltimore. Yes, its there. And, as much as I suppress it, it is there in me, too. If you've shown that you don't care about me and mine - why in the hell should I care about you?

At least I have an outlet - I write. I try to create. Baltimore is a city that has cut back on after school programs, recreation centers, school libraries and nearly every other program that might engage young people, and give them a way to channel their energy and focus their thoughts, while focusing funding and resources around the Inner Harbor and other tourist areas, leaving huge swaths of the city neglected. What happens to young people without ways to express themselves, who see no ways out at all?

31 July 2014

Blog Tour: Processing.....

Many thanks to John for asking me to be part of this "tour," started by Rutgers-Newark Graduate School students Serena Lin and Safia Jama.

How this works: each invitee joins the virtual blog tour and addresses the issue of their Writing Process. We answer four questions, then select two further writers who blog (and who may or may not agree to continue the project!) exactly one week later. On with the Show...ur, Tour:

An amount of skepticism is needed when faced with
my answers to any question

1) What are you working on?

Right now I am trying to go through a lot of the drafts, false starts, scribbled lines and triggering ideas that I have surrounding me at home. In other words I'm trying to Finish Things, which sometimes can be surprisingly difficult for me. My secret perfectionism kicks in I suppose and if it's not *exactly* right.....Anyway, I suspect I have enough already (half) written to make up at least one other book, if not two. And I want to go back to a project idea that I had a while ago, but dropped after I found myself talking ABOUT it more than I was actually DOING it, and my 'muses' stopped talking to me. I'm hearing their voices again (I hope that's what those voices are and it's not my medication wearing off!) I also have been thinking about working on fiction again, but I need 'space' for that, and we all know how space (even 'head space') is at a premium in The Big Apple.

Of course the problem (?) is that going through drafts, older versions of things, etc, often leads to completely new material, and I wind up with more than I had before when I was trying to winnow it down! Such is life.... 

From "Baltimore Folk" (c) Patrick Joust (http://www.patrickjoust.com/)
2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

Well, I HOPE it's different - I'd hate to be a copy of someone else, but how or why eludes me. I think sometimes much of my work tends to be more straightforward (on the surface anyway), than some of my peers who I admire greatly. I'm hoping to speak to an audience that often thinks that they don't like poetry, or that it is not for or speaking to them. If I have in my head some idea of an 'ideal reader' (other than myself, and writing to make myself happy) that person I suppose would be it.

Also, too, just as Philip Levine has Detroit and had Cavafy (Ancient) Alexandria, Afaa Michael Weaver and I (and others) have Baltimore as our great haunting hometown subject, to which we come back to again and again.

Note to self: its best to put your glasses ON when reading
(with Afaa Weaver at the Pratt Library, Baltimore)

3) Why do you write what you do?

I read something fantastic that I think more people should be aware of, and it becomes a review. I hear an evocative phrase or mash-up of language(s) and it becomes a poem. I see something that ignites something in me and it becomes a story. Interesting news items become Facebook posts or Tweets. Half-baked ruminations on events lead to blog posts...somehow it all seems 'of a piece' to me, regardless of genre. Its just that different forms fit what I'm trying to explore better than others.

4) How does your writing process work?
Yes, Idris, ANYTHING you say....

Ha -When it works! 

I find it very difficult to do my initial writing or drafting at home. It's taken me a while since moving to New York to find a place to go to write (since I work at The Perfect Place for Poets every day), but fortunately I think I've found one (or two). No I won't tell you where they are.

Lately I've been looking  through those drafts and scraps with scribbled phrases and note on them, and find the ones that still have 'juice' or that I feel I can work on for that day. And I begin moving the words around on the page, adding, deleting, putting words back, until I get something that I'm satisfied with. For poetry and fiction, this is done long hand, pencil on paper. I usually write most of my reviews directly on the computer, and go back over it on screen.

After the draft (again thinking poetry) I'll enter it into the computer and later print it out. Probably more drafting, changing, what was I thinking?! will come out of that. Often I put things up on the wall of my bedroom so I can look at it (or not!) for a few days and fuss with it some more. Then I like to put it away, get it out of my sight, sometimes for as long as six months, and come back to the piece and see if there's still something there, or if I have some additional ideas for edits/changes that my subconscious has come up with over those months. There are a few things which have felt 'finished' to me that I skip the steeping time and send them out fairly soon. And I also occasionally send drafts to people whose work and judgement I admire and respect, and ask for feedback.

For the next two writers, I choose Samiya Bashir and January O'Neal - Tag they're "It"!

Samiya Bashir is a poet (Where the Apple Falls, 2005 and Gospel, 2009) and was editor of Best Black Women’s Erotica 2 (2003) and co-editor of Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art (2002).

January Gill O’Neil is the author of Underlife (2009), executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and teaches at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts.

06 May 2014


One sure way to get people talking, or upset - or both - is to create a list.

Mused magazine closed out National Poetry Month with "10 Black Gay Poets Everyone Should Know." It's a wonderful list, filled with writers whose work I like, many of whom I know personally (and couple I also have low-level crushes on - LOL!:). It's also an interesting group of, for the most part, younger, up-and-coming writers. But I instantly thought  - how come no women? And then, of course, 10 MORE male poets not on the list came into my head....And what about non-US writers? Sadly, it's a never ending process!

In any event, to continue the conversation - and because nothing says you have to STOP reading poetry just because it's not Poetry Month anymore -  here are two dozen women and men ranging across time and the African Diaspora (not arranged in any special order) whose work you should explore. AND I encourage you to create your own lists of writers to read and books to delve into, and pass them along to family, friends (virtual and real), and others.

Happy Reading!

07 April 2014

Essex Hemphill: On taking care of your blessings and 'American Wedding'

The great Black Gay poet Essex Hemphill (1957-1995) would sign his letters, "Take care of your blessings." When asked what he meant by that he replied:

"Some of us bake wonderfully, write, paint, do any number of things, have facilities with numbers that others don't have. Those are your blessings. Some of us are very strong and candid and some of us are nurturers or combinations of all of those things. Just be aware of what your particular things are and nurture them and use them toward a positive way of living. That's simply what I meant."

In honor of Essex (who would have turned 57 on April 16th), National Poetry Month, the progress of "Gay Marriage" across the US and around the world - and to celebrate Martin Duberman's glorious dual biography, Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS here is one of Essex' poems. We miss you, baby!

American Wedding

By Essex Hemphill

In america,
I place my ring
on your cock
where it belongs.
No horsemen
bearing terror,
no soldiers of doom
will swoop in
and sweep us apart.
They’re too busy
looting the land
to watch us.
They don’t know
we need each other
They expect us to call in sick,
watch television all night,
die by our own hands.
They don’t know
we are becoming powerful.
Every time we kiss
we confirm the new world coming.

What the rose whispers
before blooming
I vow to you.
I give you my heart,
a safe house.
I give you promises other than
milk, honey, liberty.
I assume you will always
be a free man with a dream.
In america,
place your ring
on my cock
where it belongs.
Long may we live
to free this dream.

from Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Plume, 1992)

16 October 2013

Blog Action Day 2013: Human Rights begin at home

Eleanor Roosevelt holding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

The international disgrace that is the US detention center in Guantanamo Bay remains open.

Article 9.

  • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

The NSA continues to spy...sorry, 'gather intelligence' on us each time we access an electronic device (IMHO the amount of information that is being gathered with these wide spread fishing expeditions is so large that it reaches the point of being meaninglessness - who or what can sift through it all to make heads or tails of it? Only retroactively - after some horror has occurred - could one go back and make connections)

  • Article 12.

    • No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Stories of bullying (of LGBT kids, but others who 'don't fit in') continue daily.

Article 3.

  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Much too close to home: A friend and fellow poet was recently gay-bashed on the streets of Manhattan, one of the most diverse and 'gayest' cities in the world.

Article 13.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  • (2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

What would if mean if Human Rights really did begin at home? How would we relate to our children, parents, family, neighbors and co-workers?

How can we talk about Human Rights in our city, state, nation or around the world unless we ask ourselves:
what are we doing behind our own closed doors?

Read the Full Universal Declaration of Human Rights here

03 October 2013

Reg-tober Fest

It never rains, but sometimes it pours:

I'll be reading/appearing in four cities (and four states) in the next few weeks in support of Autogeography - and am already exhausted just thinking about it!:)

Hope to see some of you SOMEwhere along the way!

best wishes


Livingston Campus Student Center, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
84 Joyce Kilmer Ave., Piscataway, NJ
Friday October 4, 2013
6:00 – 8:00pm
Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House
58 West 10th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues
Thursday October 10, 2013
7:00 pm
Reading with Joel Allegretti, Vasiliki Katsarou and Andriana Rizos
29 Cornelia Street New York, NY
Saturday, October 12, 2013
6:00 pm
Reading with Susan Scheid‏
A Sunday Kind of Love
14th & V St, Washington DC
Sunday October 20, 2013
5:00-7:00 pm
Reading w/Hailey Leithauser
400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore MD
Wednesday, October 30, 2013


(see the Upcoming Readings & Events section over ==> THERE for more info).