Though less than 6% of Vermonters are people of color, 100% of recent U.S. Poet Laureates are, including three African American women: Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith. Their work and that of many other African American poets, including Major Jackson of the UVM English Dept., will be featured Friday night June 22nd at the Clemmons Family Farm on Greenbush Rd. in Charlotte. Come join the celebration at 6:00pm!
I’m a Board member of the Sundog Poetry Center, which is producing this event. I joined Sundog shortly after the 2016 election, when it became apparent that the federal government’s support for civil rights and racial justice was about to be radically compromised. We responded by planning an annual series of events (of which this is the first) called Poetry—and Justice—For All, events which will give living voice to different groups of people who have been marginalized in Vermont. My experience with the Peace and Justice Center made this idea seem natural, a way of joining my passions for social justice and literature.
As a kid in southeastern Pennsylvania, I had my nose in a book, but I did look up from time to time, including in the summer of 1955, when 14-yr. old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi. I had to pay attention because we were the same age, because the image of his open coffin was unforgettable and the adults weren’t talking about it.
Like most people, I try to make sense out of the senseless. My perplexity in 1955 eventually led to a curiosity about slavery and its legacies. And when a close friend gave me a copy of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, it was like rocket fuel. I read writer after writer, immersing my imagination in African American experience. One of these writers was Gwendolyn Brooks, who lived in Southside Chicago and wrote loving, tart poems about her children at a time when children were not considered a proper subject for published poetry. Brooks influenced my own work and it will be a special pleasure to pay homage to her on June 22nd.
The corps of six readers for Celebrating African American Poetry at Clemmons Farm includes different ages, different races, and different genders—all of us touched by the indignities or shame of racism but excited about the literary riches we are exploring. Our motto has been “let the poems speak the history.” We’ve had a great time working together and are primed to share that with our audience.
This event is free and partially supported by the Vermont Humanities Council. RSVP required; please go to Justice–and Poetry at eventbrite.com
-Judith Yarnall, Sundog Poetry Center Board Member