Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Q & A with Tamara Woods

Here is a fun conversation I had for fellow poet Tamara Wood's YouTube channel via Google Hangouts on Air. We talk craft, activism, and future endeavors.

Tamara Woods is the author of The Shaping of An "Angry" Black Woman.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

...But They Forgot About the Artists: Reclamation of SC Black Arts

I am on a mission to recognize diversity in the arts in South Carolina (no, that is not an oxymoron). I have lived in SC my entire life. It took me thirty years of living here continually to discover a poet, writer, or artist from this state.
The first I discovered was Nikky Finney. Then, I found Terrance Hayes, Kwame Dawes, and Jonathan Green. This was all from my own networking and research. I was never taught in any school about any of these individuals. Mary McLeod Bethune was taught to me in elementary school. U.S. Rep. James Clyburn from SC is a staple in today's U.S. legislature. Furthermore, it upsets me that people  like Nikky Finney and Terrance Hayes can win National Book Awards for Poetry and their legacies (ongoing legacies, they are alive today! young and vibrant!) are not taught in grade schools across my own state. Perhaps neither is SC native Jacqueline Woodson, a Newberry and National Book Award winner.

After a tumultuous first half of 2015 in which South Carolina has been at the forefront, it is more upsetting that my state's black artists have been hidden. Now, I have seen our black politicians swept to the forefront as they should be. I have seen lawyers, preachers, and activists at center stage as they should be in these perilous times. However, the lack of black poets, writers, and artists in the same line arm and arm with those figures shows a disparaging indictment on South Caroina arts culture.

Top left: Cadace Wiley; Bottom Left:
Jennifer Bartell; Top Right: Marcus Amaker
Bottom Right: Tonya Gregg
Everyone heralded the impeccable poem by Nikky Finney after the removal of the confederate flag, but from the Walter Scott case to the Charleston Nine to the flag, we saw virtually no SC black artists in mainstream media which is the reason I cannot sleep this night in the aftermath.

There are remarkable black poets like Candace Wiley and Jennifer Bartell, even from Charleston like the young and gifted Marcus Amaker. The art of Tonya Gregg remains a South Carolina treasure. The music of Wendell Culbreath speaks revolution and restoration.

Although incredibly transparent articles have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Delana R. A. Dameron and Kwame Dawes, these pioneers left SC to fulfill other projects although the wealth of their work still lingers here. Most of our best artists and writers leave South Carolina for a variety of reasons. I would venture to guess a factor is the arts are marginalized in our state for lack of support and interest. I was in a poetry workshop where Nikky Finney expressed her return to SC was in part based on this reality. Poet Kendra Hamilton has also returned to South Carolina after success in publishing.

I have to accept that I am in a state where Gov. Nikky Haley whom I have never met from my own small, rural home town constantly cuts funding and representation for the arts in our state and even downsized the inaugural poem by our own Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth for dubious reasons. Even with these setbacks to the arts, I have to be optimistic that someone outside of SC's borders will recognize our best contemporary artists especially in times of national turmoil surrounding our state.

I cannot rely on writers not from SC to write about Charleston when my own gift burns within me each day. If CNN or The New Yorker wants nothing to do with our arts movement, we will thrive here.

Poets Respond to Race on Facebook
I was disappointed at this lack of representation, yet I agreed to go on a Poets Respond to Race Tour with my friend Columbia, SC, poet and author Al Black (who is white). We are traveling to cities in SC to promote the conversation of race and the restoration of diversity and the arts in our state. The project has taken on the form of a vision that continues to grow.

Nonetheless, it is only one vision among many here. Speaking Down Barriers, co-founded by spoken word artist Marlanda "Sapient Soul" Dekine, seeks the same conversation with workshops and open discussion of controversial topics on race.

Working together with this and other projects like The Watering Hole in South Carolina show me that what the cameras and literary journal pages don't see is the work of gifted and talented individuals unifying toward the same objective. We have a responsibility to exhibit, teach, and impart what Gil Scott Heron told us will not be televised.

I am after the growth of SC black arts at its finest and purest. It may not be acknowledged nationwide, but it will be chronicled--starting with me if no one else. Otherwise, we will wait for the world to return to South Carolina in due season.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Conversation with Artist Esteban del Valle

"Viable Option" by Esteban del Valle
Photo from
Esteban del Valle has an exhibit and mural at the Sumter County Gallery of Art called "Breaching the Wall",  mostly based on the 2011 Chicago mayoral campaign of his father Miguel del Valle. 

"Beast of Burden Two" by Esteban del Valle
Photo by SCGA
Originally from Chicago, Esteban del Valle is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY where he maintains an active studio and mural practice. He completed his MFA in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009, where he received a Presidential Scholarship and the Toby Devan Lewis Fellowship. del Valle has produced murals nationally and internationally, from California to Berlin, and his work has been featured on HGTV, NY1 News, News 12 Brooklyn, and the New York Times and has been included various exhibitions including Pulso: Art of the Americas at KCAD in Grand Rapids, MI, EMPIRIA at Superchief Gallery in NYC, Liars, Actors, and Believers at Cabinet in Brooklyn, NY, and the 2009 New Insight exhibition at Art Chicago. del Valle has also been the recipient of several visual arts residencies and fellowships including Hub-Bub in Spartanburg, SC, ISLAND, the Dejarssi Program, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Most recently Esteban received a 2014-2015 New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship as part of his Smack Mellon Studio Program residency in Brooklyn, NY (Bio from SCGA). 

Photo by Alex Seel 
Before my ekphrastic poetry reading based on his exhibit at the Sumter County Gallery of Art, Thursday, May 21, 2015, 5:30-7:30 PM, I had a conversation with Esteban concerning his process and the state of art as expression. Parts One and Two of our talk are below on SoundCloud. For more of Esteban work, visit 

Conversation with Esteban del Valle Pt. 1

Conversation with Esteban del Valle Pt. 2

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Conversation with Artist Antoine Williams

Artist Antoine Williams has an exhibit and mural at the Sumter County Gallery of Art. Antoine's exhibit "The Knife and The Wound" focuses on afrofuturism and race. 

Photo by
Antoine is an artist and educator who received his BFA from UNC-Charlotte. Afterwards, he helped start a local art collective in Charlotte where he coordinated a number of community based art projects such as after school programs, concerts, murals and pop up art shows. In 2014 Antoine received his MFA from the UNC-Chapel Hill. He now lives in Chapel Hill, where he continues his studio practice while teaching painting, drawing, and art history (Bio from SCGA).

Before my ekphrastic poetry reading based on his exhibit at the Sumter County Gallery of Art, Thursday, May 21, 2015, 5:30-7:30 PM, I had a conversation with Antoine concerning his process and the state of art as expression. The talk is below on SoundCloud. 
Photo by Charlotte Magazine

Conversation with Antoine Williams

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Poets Respond to Bus Station Incident

Photo from
After the conclusion of five days at  The Watering Hole 2014 Winter Poetry Retreat, my fellow poets and I encountered an incident at Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority on Sumter St. in Columbia, SC.

Many homeless people gather at this bus station for warmth and rest. One of the homeless appeared upset that he was asked to leave the station by several security officers for what we assumed was loitering. The conflict grew intense when two friends of the homeless black man individual attempted to calm him down. They mentioned to him that he had just left prison and did not want to go back.

Surprisingly, one of the security officers antagonized the homeless ex-con with shouts and threats. My friends and I felt this behavior was unbecoming of an officer whose job was to keep the peace.

The conflict subsided when the two friends pushed the angry black man all the way across the street although he still shouted back and forth with the security officer.

Photo from
Ironically, in the social media age where news travels by the second, I neglected to take pictures or videos of the incident. We were shocked and in awe at what we saw developing before our eyes. I impressed upon my friends that this type of incident is what poets are for: to show conflict and struggle in everyday life and make it mean something to the masses, to fill in the gap between the 24-hour news cycle and the everyday battles that slip through the cracks because they do not have the appeal of mass media.

Each of us wrote a poem as our own interpretation of the incident. Both of my fellow poets' poems are below. My poem can be found in the upcoming March/April 2015 issue of Jasper, a Columbia, SC arts magazine.

Sumter St.
by Hakim Bellamy
Some plan on leaving
in an hour,
in four,
before dawn.

When day becomes inevitable,
and I feel like the last child.
Orphan of the soccer practice.
Black widow of the altar.
Pretending I didn't just turn this bench
into bedhead.

And the buses run
like clock     work.

While the cops stop
time   like don't move.

And I just
run in place.
While the cops be like


Because the sun
always comes around
like              too soon.

And the Black folk
just come and go
like              werk.

When you say
Go Home!
Do you mean Back?

Do you mean outside?

Because I haven't seen
my bed
in five to ten,
and this
is not what I had in mind.
This is not what I had

You, with your pillow fight gang
of mortgages and marriages,
bad attitudes, badges
and somewheres to belong.

I pretend I am here for
the sistas and the conversation.
You pretend you are here
to protect people like me
from people like me.

We ought to be celebrating.
As the slave ships pass me up
time and time again.

You only hate me
because Ive figured out
how to get off.

As the inaugural Poet Laureate of Albuquerque, NM (2012-2014), Hakim Bellamy is a national and regional Poetry Slam Champion and holds three consecutive collegiate poetry slam titles at the University of New Mexico. His poetry has been published in Albuquerque inner-city buses and various anthologies. Hakim completed his M.A. in Communications and Journalism Department at the University of New Mexico. He is the proud father of a 5 year-old miracle and is the Founding President of Beyond Poetry LLC. More at 

upon leaving the watering hole
by Gabriel Ramirez

blk was yelling at Columbia transit station security 
after just finishing his two month long sentence. 
bulletproof was trying to get blk to calm down. 
security stood shoulder-to-shoulder; neon wall 
of arrogance. they began taunting come get 
this whoppin' boy & the yelling turned into charging &
security rested their hands on their firearms.
blk didn't care about their metals. 
bulletproof told blk they don't care about me
or you. blk became frustration, & pushed
bulletproof out his way then sister stopped
frustration & became heart. you can go to jail
if you touch them. to that frustration responded
i don't care to that heart responded i'm sure  
your kids will all the while bulletproof is talking
securities' blood dry palms off their statistic makers.
frustration near gone shouts i'm coming back for ya'll
Gabriel Ramirez is a 20-year-old writer, actor, poet, playwright, teaching artist & lover of all things love. Gabriel is the 2012 Knicks Poetry Slam Champion and a member of the 2012 Urban Word NYC slam team which placed 6th in the international Brave New Voices Festival. He has performed on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre, the United Nations, New York Live Arts, Lincoln Center, Apollo Theatre and other venues & universities around the nation. Gabriel has been featured on and at a TEDx Youth Conference. Gabriel ranked 2nd in New York City in Youth Slam and won the 2013 National Youth Poetry Slam Championship in Boston.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Langston Hughes Poetry Center and Library Grand Opening Recap

Photo by Jennifer Bartell

The Langston Hughes Poetry Center and Library at Allen University in Columbia, SC,  is a project ten years in the making, developed by Charlene Spearen, Chairperson of the Humanities Department at Allen, and Kwame Dawes, currently the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and a Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. The center was also established to commemorate Hughes' visitation and poetry reading at the college. It features art and books of poetry by Hughes and African American poets. The center acquired hundreds of titles through donations from poets and other libraries. 

Kwame Dawes workshop
Photo by Bhavin Tailor
On Saturday, January 31, 2015, the center was opened to the community with several poetry workshops, headlined by Kwame and Nikki Finney, 2011 National Book Award winner for poetry and the John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair in Southern Letters and Literature at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC. 

Kwame opened the day's workshops with his theme of humility and originality in poetry. He admonished the emerging poets in attendance to understand ourselves and our place in the canon of poetry at large. He encouraged us to embrace our gift of writing that has already been around for lifetimes. He asked everyone, "Who do you write like?" and "Do you know who is influencing you?" in an effort to dispel the notion that poets must be original without traces of contemporaries in our work. He said, "Don't feel pressure to be original," but "maintain your voice." Once we identify our influences, according to Kwame, we can take control of them in our writing.

Next. Ernest Williamson III, Assistant Professor of English at Allen, gave a workshop on writing ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrasis is poetry based on art. As both an artist and a poet with over 550 publications, Ernest shared his insight on using paintings as inspiration for poems.

Fayaz Kabani, English Instructor at Allen, gave a workshop on writing sonnets. 
Nikky Finney workshop
Photo by Jennifer Bartell

Then, Nikky's workshop focused on Langston Hughes' essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (

In the essay, Hughes responds to a young poet who confesses to him, "I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet," Upon reading the text, we all reflected on the black experience in America from past to present. During the discussion, a member of the audience gave a stunning revelation about Hughes, stating that when Hughes visited Johnson C. Smith University for a poetry reading, he had no money, but his poetry was amazing. 

The following letter from the Johnson C. Smith archives confirms that Hughes did, in fact, visit the school (

After Charlene gave a workshop on short poems and their large impact, Bhavin Tailor, Writing Center Manager at Allen, gave a workshop on poems about nature. 

Having fellow members of The Watering Hole Collective with me in the workshops made the experience all the more enjoyable. 
A few members of The Watering Hole Collective (
(l to r) me, Stephanie Suell, Jennifer Bartell (administrator),
 Candace Wiley (founder), Joyce Rose-Harris
Photo by Bhavin Tailor

Located at 1329 Pine St. in Columbia, the center is open to the public and available for book clubs, workshops, and poetry readings. For further availability, email Charlene Spearen at

Friday, January 9, 2015

Top Ten Moments at The Watering Hole 2nd Annual Winter Poetry Retreat

The Watering Hole is an online community dedicated to supporting, inspiring, and enriching poets of color. It originated as an extention of the 2010 Cave Canem South workshops in Columbia, SC, hosted by poet icons Nikky Finney, Kwame Dawes, Patricia Smith, and Frank Walker. Watering Hole co-founders Candace Wiley and Monifa Lemons Jackson built a community around those workshop sessions which grew into hosting the first TWH Winter Poetry Retreat in 2013 at Santee State Park in Santee, SC. 

I discovered The Watering Hole through social media. It was the answer to what I desired in my life as a poet. After discovering the organization and its accomplishments, I quickly became acquainted with the poets in the community. 

Courtesy of Anna K. Stone Photography
Before the retreat, my goal was to identify challenges I'd been having in my own writing to excel to the next level of my work. The results of the retreat were spiritual--if not supernatural--in transforming my view on poetry, the poetry community at large, and myself. Below are my top moments that made the retreat the success it continues to be weeks after it ended.

10) Lorraine Currelley's Declaration on Therapy

With her background in therapy, Lorraine set a profound tone for the participants in the retreat with an eye-opening discussion of using poetry as a means of release. As a participant herself, Lorraine opened up a dialogue about what to do when poets reach a place of pain in their writing. "If you bleed all over the floor, what next?" According to Lorraine, letting such a moment pass without any resolution or closure can be detrimental to the self. She offered her counseling services to the other poets present. It prepared everyone for an intense five-day journey into self. 

9) Darion McCloud's Performance Workshops

Photo by Amoni Thompson
Darion McCloud is founder and director of the NiA Theatre Company and Story Squad in Columbia, SC. He held workshops at the retreat on performance poetry for both page and stage poets. The session I attended became intense when several spoken word artists applied Darion's unique visual exercises and movements to their performances. The poets experienced breakthroughs in their craft, and I witnessed them firsthand. The impact was powerful to behold. 

8) Frank Walker's Writing Prompts 

Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X. Walker graced the retreat with his unique brand of workshops geared entirely toward craft and writing. Simply put, Frank's workshops were poetry boot camp. The prompts he gave us stretched our imaginations on topics from the founding fathers to lost loved ones to colors. We exercised our poetry muscles extensively when Frank was at the helm. 

7) Candace Wiley's Poem

During the morning readings, Candace shared a transparent poem on the final day of the retreat. What made the poem even more intense was the fact that her parents were present as she shared lines she had never shared before about her life. According to Candace, being in the community of poets gave her the courage to express such lines. It showed the power of the community of poets to help each of us face our fears and doubts head on. Candace is a fighter.

6) Group B Night Session

Poets were split into three groups (A, B, & C) to attend workshops throughout the day. My group (B) had excellent poets; we fed off each other's ability to raise the bar with each writing prompt. On a night of downtime, we decided to share poems we brought to the retreat to get feedback from one another. It strengthened our bond all the more culminating in members from other groups joining us in our cabin that night. Our focus on the work drew us closer as individuals.

5) Roger Bonair-Agard's Evening Lecture

Photo by DaMaris Hill
Roger Bonair-Agard is a 2013 National Book Award for Poetry finalist for his collection Bury My Clothes. Currently residing in Chicago, he spent most of his life in Trinidad. Roger's candor about the publishing industry and the black poet's place in it was refreshing. He proclaimed that poets of color should not acquiesce to whiteness, but that we should write our own narrative and blaze our own trails for all races to follow.

4) Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie's Workshop

Ekere Tallie is a poetry editor, author, and an activist. Her emotion and sensitivity exude through her every word. Our group's workshop with Ekere did not begin with a discussion of craft; it began with a journey into self. She asked us plainly what our goals are and what we want our poetry to do. As she heard our responses, she told us exactly what we are truly seeking. For me, she interpreted my goals as a desire for validation and worth. This broke me down to my core. It took me back to my goals before at went to the retreat. Roger's evening lecture confirmed this. My drive to write and publish was rooted in a search to prove my worth--that I had "it"--to prove to others that I am serious about my craft and respected amongst peers. The release of those feelings lifted a burden for me to find that next level I had been searching for. Ekere's openness was the catalyst.
Courtesy of Akinfe Fatou

3) Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie's Morning Lecture

Ekere shared her manuscript entitled Letters to Continuum in which she writes letters to emerging poets and writers answering tough questions she had early in her writing that no one could answer for her. This completely aligns with her compassionate personality. Questions about needing an MFA or PhD, publishing in critically-acclaimed literary journals or other outlets, and knowing when the work is truly ready to publish flowed from her pages. It was in this morning session that my own questions surfaced about why I was at the retreat. Thankfully, those questions were answered in subsequent sessions with Ekere as a guide.

2) Candace Wiley and Monifa Lemons Jackson's Final Moment

Courtesy of Anna K. Stone Photography

After all the smoke cleared and the retreat neared its end, Candace and Monifa shared a touching moment at the center of the floor in the all-purpose facility at Santee State Park called the Village Round. With their tears and hugs for each other, they exuded the hard work, pressure, and obstacles ever present in taking on a grassroots poetry conference. These ladies are pioneers, and in this moment, we received only a glimpse into their daily struggle.

1) Nikky Finney

Courtesy of Anna K. Stone Photography
Whether you are a poet or writer, novice or experienced, if you sat in on what I am calling the Master Class with Nikky Finney on the last night of the retreat, you were inspired to do anything! Nikky Finney is the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry winner for her collection Head Off and Split. Her time there alone could have encompassed this entire blog. She gave us bread from her quotes and moments there that we could feast on for a lifetime.

"Don't keep handing the work out if you haven't done the work on the page...You have to understand that you don't have to be modest: you have to be humble...You've got to be willing to work with the spotlight off...Do not move [from the page] until you write something that surprises you!"

A bonus of the retreat was (not networking) developing relationships with hungry poets who focus on their craft and their place in poetry and history. This was one of the top ten moments of my existence, and its full impact on my life is yet to be determined. This movement among poets of color is set to change the world one line at a time, especially in the face of threats against our humanity.
Photo by Roger Bonair-Agard

For more information about The Watering Hole, visit , tweet @TWHpoetry , or email