"review" · Children's · concenter · music · non-fiction · Picture book · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

{book} a legacy, a man, a company of men, and Ntozake Shange

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Nine: Ellington Was Not a Street

Written by Ntozake Shange

Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster for Young Readers [text: 1983] 2004

ellington2The narrative of Ellington Was Not a Street comes from Ntozake Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo” (from A Daughter’s Geography, 1983). The poem, excerpted for the picture book, is a reflection of and tribute to a legacy of African American innovator, a “company of men” “who changed the world.” It is a personal poem of a young Shange (nee Paulette Williams) whose home nurtured and was nurtured by this company of men.

Only such gorgeously wrought poem could withstand the company of Kadir Nelson’s illustrations. The images themselves (as Sean, an Artist, breathed “precise”) have a precision a poet, too, would recognize.


ellington celebrating-the-duke

You may want to read with some kind of liquid precision the first time through, caught in a rhythm of the words, but plan the time to linger again and again on an image, a deeply impactful moment Shange and Nelson have crafted. It took me a stretch of time to pull away from the cover, then from the portrait facing the title page (‘piano’ image above). I was drawn to circle

our house was filled with all kinda folks

our windows were not cement or steel

our doors opened like our daddy’s arms

held us safe & loved

As the narrative acknowledges the simultaneity of then and now, the illustrations move back and forth in time between the streetscape whether the narrator reminisces and her childhood home. Her home is quiet, interior, full of warm patterns. The street is busy with a different sort of liveliness, other textures that are met with rain. The narrator holds a red umbrella amongst the institutionalized black, a “Don’t Walk” sign flashing at the intersection.

Our narrator, she is small in the presence of the company, her and her brother, and she is small in this house (another of her surroundings), but she is without question present, never forgotten, and cherished (e.g. a man’s suit jacket draped over her as a blanket as she sleeps on the couch).

ellington fps-133397_2zThe images are real, not abstracted. The poem is hardly abstract, but an illustrator could have reinterpreted the narrative into something more ephemeral. The detail in the setting, the verisimilitude of the portrait, the inclusion of a group sitting for a ‘photograph,’ these establish the very real and tangible existence of the life/lives represented.

Ellington Was Not a Street includes two pages of biographies using excerpted images from the narrative, “More About a Few of the Men ‘Who Changed the World’:” (I will list them as the book does) : Paul Robeson, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois, Ray Barretto, Earlington Carl “Sonny Til” Tilghman, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, Virgil “Honey Bear” Akins, The Clovers.

The endpage at the close shares narrative the in its stanzaic form of “Mood Indigo.” Of course “Mood Indigo” is also a musical composition by Duke Ellington, so exquisitely observed on the vinyl held by our narrator on the cover: the record, an RCA Victor special of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra. I have a YouTube option, undoubtedly a lesser quality, if you are interested.

Do I really have to say it? You really must find a copy of Ellington Was Not a Street.

ellington cover


Ntozake Shange, Barnard College, Reid Lecture, November 1978 via Barnard College Archives

Poet, performance artist, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. She earned a B.A. in American Studies from Barnard College in 1970, and then left New York to pursue graduate studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was during this time that she took the name “Ntozake” (“she who comes into her own things”) “Shange” (“she who walks like a lion”) from the Zulu dialect Xhosa. She received an M.A. in American Studies from USC in 1973. […] She is the author of multiple children’s books and prose works, including Some Sing, Some Cry (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1998), See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984), Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel (1982), and The Black Book (1986, with Robert Mapplethorpe).

Kadir Nelson is an award-winning American artist whose works have been exhibited in major national and international publications, institutions, art galleries, and museums. Nelson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. […] Nelson has also gained acclaim for the artwork he has contributed to several NYT Best-selling picture books including his authorial debut, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball”, winner of the Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert Awards, and was published by Disney/Hyperion in the spring of 2008.

His corpus thus far is extensive: Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011); Nelson Mandela (2012); He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands (2005); Baby Bear (2014); Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit (2009); Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, words by Carole Boston Weatherford (2006)…. you can find listings here and here.

{images belong to Kadir Nelson, words to Ntozake Shange}



"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · poet-related · recommend

{book} brotherhood

30 days of pbDay Twenty-TwoOh, Brother!

By Nikki Grimes 

Illustration by Mike Benny

Greenwillow Books/HarperCollins 2008

oh-brotherIt’s bad enough that Xavier’s new stepbrother, Chris, has moved into Xavier’s room, but now it looks like he’s also trying to steal Mami by being the perfect kid. […] In twenty powerful poems, two strangers learn to become brothers. Nikki Grimes captures the struggles—and eventual sweetness—of bringing together a family.—publisher’s comments

While the story is told in poems and illustrations from Xavier’s point of view, there is still space made available for the other characters to develop personalities and motivations of their own. And even with the relatively few pages and brevity of most of the poems, Grimes and Benny are able to accomplish the transition from suspicion and resentment to brotherly support and oath-making.

The spatial relationships are remarked upon, territory and occasions, but Grimes also focuses a great deal on names: as identity; as forms of ownership and relationship. She completes a narrative in the twenty poems not only through linearity, but through thematic threads.

oh brother pages

The illustrations contribute significantly to narrative coherence while also imagining that which a poem would evoke. The style is real and the composition features the boys, primarily, large on the page. Their close-ups place them in an intimate range of the reader, and allude to the subjectivity of the narrator.

I really dig the presence of Mami, and her mad-skills at baseball. The portrayal of a family coming together is not without its struggles, but is also unapologetically exciting and wonderful. Grimes is not gushy, nor is Benny cute. Oh, Brother! is neither sappy nor coy, but a frank and clever way to handle its subject matter.


Nikki Grimes does not consider herself a bona fide storyteller, but, as she told an audience at the Library of Congress, she is happy to own the title Poet. Born and raised in New York City, Nikki began composing verse at the age of six and has been writing ever since that time.” A “New York Times bestselling author Nikki Grimes is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book What is Goodbye?, Coretta Scott King Award winner Bronx Masquerade, and Coretta Scott King Author Honor books Jazmin’s Notebook, Talkin’ About Bessie, Dark SonsThe Road to Paris, and Words with Wings. Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown, Ms. Grimes lives in Corona, California. (biography)

Mike Benny lives in Austin, Texas and has been illustrating for over 15 years. Clients include RollingStone, Time, New Yorker, GQ, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Major League Baseball, NFL, Arena Stage, Random House, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Greenwillow and Scholastic.” Mike has also illustrated picture books: America’s White Table by Margot Theis Raven (Sleeping Bear Press 2005) and The Listeners by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear Press 2009)

 {image belongs to Mike Benny, its words are Nikki Grimes’}


"review" · Children's · concenter · Picture book · poet-related · recommend · Uncategorized

{book} excused

30 days of pbI had thought to save Excuses, Excuses by Anushka Ravishankar for another time, having already shared two of her picture books this month. It suddenly seems apt as I’ve dropped off the map for the long weekend. I am also going to argue that this provides the opportunity to not only continue to revel in Ravishankar’s humor, but share another illustrator.

excuses coverDay Twenty: Excuses, Excuses

by Anushka Ravishankar, illustrated by Gabrielle Manglou

Tara Books 2012.

The stories Neel tells as excuse for his departure from intentions are as colorful as Gabrielle Manglou’s illustrations. Neel finds himself at an end of a week’s worth of excuses with the optimism that the next week is a new one; only instead of hoping he will be good and do as he says, we look forward to what excuses he’ll come up with next.

Excuses4Realist images are abstracted in mixed-media collage reflect Anushka Ravishankar’s text wherein Neel’s fancy is pieced among the familiar. Both Ravishankar and Manglou prove themselves poets, entertaining and smart.


Recommended for fans of Judith Voigt and Shel Silverstein.

….would’ve loved to write similarly creative excuses w/ Natalya, but more than that, the illustrations are inspiring.


Anushka Ravishankar a mathematics graduate, has made a name for herself internationally as an Indian children’s writer, with over 10 books of verse, fiction and non-fiction. Her special talent is in the area of nonsense verse, where she brilliantly adapts this difficult genre to Indian English usage, without a false note. Anushka Ravishankar can be said to have pioneered the Indian English nonsense verse form and brought it to international attention. She recently returned from a UK tour with Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, at the Children’s Bookshow.

Gabrielle Manglou was born in 1971 in Reunion Island, where she lives and works. She is a graduate of Graduate Schools of Fine Arts Montepellier and Marseille. A multidisciplinary artist, Manglou focuses on drawing in its original form. His sculptures, videos and installations then arise from the continuity of the creative process. Nourished by its roots carriers Creole imaginary “mesh”, the artist refers in works finely worked a magical world in which humans, animals and plants seem to converse with some glee. Since 2003, Gabrielle is an artist associated with The Magik!, A company that creates theatrical devices combining everyday objects and moving images. (Lerka bio)

{images belong to Gabrielle Manglou}

poet-related · recommend

{poetry} gary jackson

“Multiple Man: Guest-Starring Me & You” 

  by Gary Jackson

Every night I sleep on alternate

sides of the bed, as if to duplicate

sleeping with you. If

I’m fast enough, I’m the warmth

of my own body beside me, reach

out and touch myself. Breach

the blue of my bones, breathe in my own ear.


You left me. Lying here,

I left you to be with me.

Someone asks if your body

was worth trading for mine.

My sin was always pride.

Did you want a man that sleeps

with himself to keep

the bed warm? I need you like the earth

needed the flood after dearth.


About this poem:  “That first night you’re back to sleeping alone again, expecting another body beside you, and the physical absence is so jarring that you think what if I could become the body I miss? Multiple Man could do it, but I can’t. And of course he’s a mutant superhero, because I can’t help myself.”—Gary Jackson.

{via poets.org}


Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son

—by Gary Jackson

from Missing You, Metropolis 

I hold my six-pound baby boy

in my hands, pink as sand.

His skin is glass.


This is not a metaphor.

My wife did not hemorrhage alone

on our wood floor for metaphor.


Even now, he squirms—his small cries

are like the whine of well-worn brakes.

He cuts into my palms and slides


in the creased blood. I see

his tiny organs getting used to their work,

while my wife—bled out—grows cold.


What paper-bag test can this boy pass?

His skin reflects the white of my eyes.

And I know he cannot last.


For a moment, before I drop him,

I wonder how he’d make it?

Even if his skin does harden—to


crystal, to diamond—it won’t be

enough, and I could not bear the sight

of him hanging like an ornament,


a glass boy from a tree, or find him

cracked open, splintered in the street.

As he shatters on the floor,


everything from his heart to lungs

freezes like the hands

of a wristwatch at ground zero.


{via Graywolf Press; the ‘.’ are mine to combat spacing/formatting errors.}


gary jacksonGary Jackson was born in Topeka, Kansas. Missing You, Metropolis, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is his first book published, however, he has had other works published in inscapeLiterary BohemianMagma, and others. He recieved his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico in 2008.
Of Poet Gary Jackson’s work and his first collection Missing You, Metropolis (Graywolf Press 2010) in particular.
—“Jackson integrates the comic-book world of superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman into his world as a black adolescent in Kansas. . . . The finale is gentle, almost anticlimactic, as he recalls how his superheroes let him ‘inhabit a world a page removed from our own,’ hinting at the grace of (temporary) escapism.”—San Francisco Chronicle
—“Jackson masters a parallel universe in verse.”—The Brooklyn Rail
—“Jackson’s love for the comic genre shines through in this collection, making it a must-read for anyone who appreciates the form.”—PWxyz, the blog of Publishers Weekly
p missing you—“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read a comic because his deft maneuvering between the inner lives of mutant superheroes and the “mutant” perspectives of the wayward and the Other works towards this poet’s primary subject: time.  Looking back on the past— recounting the losses of friends, family, and old selves—refracts a vision of our future and who we might become. And so Jackson describes a photograph of children as “Our bodies an ellipsis on the snow field: / leading us nowhere on a blank page.”Missing You, Metropolis is a heartbreaking debut that leads not to nowhere but to the knowledge that how we embrace our childhood wonder determines how we arrive at adulthood.  For Jackson, that wild route is as circular as it is circuitous, and his first collection suggests that, for his benefit and ours, he is a poet who will wander far and never grow old.”  —Jennifer Chang for Poetry Society of America, “Gary Jackson, selected by Jennifer Chang: An Introduction to the Work of Gary Jackson
more poems…
Graywolf Press provides sneak peeks of Jackson’s collection, here.
“Gap” is published in Issue 3 (Feb 2009) of Literary Bohemian, here.

Gary Jackson reads “Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink”

poet-related · Uncategorized

{poetry} 50 plus

Last week, Emily Temple at Flavorwire shared “50 Essential Books of Poetry That Everyone Should Read.” The comments contained the typical protests, druthers, and additionally recommended books. I would like to add a few more exciting books of poetry as well; all of whom are contemporary.

p dien cai dauDien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa (Wesleyan 1988) “Poetry that precisely conjures images of the war in Vietnam by an award-winning author.”–publisher’s comments. 

* Here, Bullet by  Brian Turner (Alice James 2005) “power-fully affecting poetry of witness, exceptional for its beauty, honesty, and skill. Based on Turner’s yearlong tour in Iraq as an infantry team leader, the poems offer gracefully rendered, unflinching description but, remarkably, leave the reader to draw conclusions or moral lessons.”–publisher’s comments

p atlantis* Atlantis by Mark Doty (Harper Perennial 1995) “claims the mythical lost island as his own: a paradise whose memory he must keep alive at the same time that he is forced to renounce its hold on him. Atlantis recedes, just as the lives of those Doty loves continue to be extinguished by the devastation of AIDS. Doty’s struggle is to reconcile with, and even to celebrate the evanescence of our earthly connections – and to understand how we can love more at the very moment that we must consent to let go.
Atlantis is a work of astounding maturity and grace, and it will further the already extraordinary reputation of this poet who seeks – and finds – redemption in his brilliant and courageous poems.”–publisher’s comments

Elegy by Larry Levis (University of Pittsburg Press 1997). “Levis was an outstanding poet, and a student and colleague of Philip Levine. Levine, who edited this posthumous manuscript, writes that Levis’s “early death is a staggering loss for our poetry, but what he left is a major achievement that will enrich our lives for as long as poetry matters.” That’s high praise, and the poems in Elegy are sturdy enough to carry the weight of those expectations. […] Levis’s writing is marked by memorable imagery that resonates both to the world of our daily lives and our mythic longings for transcendence.”–publisher’s comment

p missing you* Missing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson (Gray Wolf 2010) “With humor and the serious collector’s delight, Gary Jackson imagines the comic-book worlds of Superman, Batman, and the X-Men alongside the veritable worlds of Kansas, racial isolation, and the gravesides of a sister and a friend.”–publisher’s comments

What Work Is by Philip Levine (Knopf 1991). “a major work by a major poet . . . very accessible and utterly American in tone and language.”–Daniel L. Guillory. 

* Rose by Li-Young Lee (Harper 1995). “Every word becomes transformative, as even his father’s blindness and death can become beautiful. There is a strong enough technique here to make these poems of interest to an academic audience and enough originality to stun readers who demand alternative style and subject matter.”–Rochelle Ratner

p gray matterGray Matter by Sara Michas-Martin (Fordham 2014) “Gray Matter: 1. the material of the brain. 2. an expression naming an idea or situation held in shadow. This book tangles with the unknown, but also celebrates the seductive curiosity its mystery provokes. It is a love letter from the imagination to the scientists and philosophers who, despite remarkable attempts, still cannot locate its source.”

* Thomas & Beulah by Rita Dove (Carnegie Mellon 1986) “The poems in this unusual book tell a story, forming a narrative almost like a realistic novel. Read in sequence as intended, they tell of the lives of a married black couple (not unlike Dove’s own grandparents) from the early part of the century until their deaths in the 1960s, a period that spans the great migration of blacks from rural south to urban north. But this is merely the social backdrop to the story of a marriage. “

* Slow Lightning by Eduardo C. Corral (Yale University 2012) “Seamlessly braiding English and Spanish, Corral’s poems hurtle across literary and linguistic borders toward a lyricism that slows down experience. He employs a range of forms and phrasing, bringing the vivid particulars of his experiences as a Chicano and gay man to the page. Although Corral’s topics are decidedly sobering, contest judge Carl Phillips observes, ‘one of the more surprising possibilities offered in these poems is joy.'”–publisher’s comments

p diminishThe Diminishing House by Nicky Beer (Carnegie Mellon 2010) “birds are disemboweled, a father is mourned, and a basement fills with snakes. This first book of resonant lyric poetry meditates on such subjects as animals, art, and anatomy, and transforms the familiar and mundane into something strangely mythic. Beer explores the exhilaration and frustration of living in a sensuous, unstable world filled with grief and desire.”–publisher’s comments

* When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon 2012). “This debut collection is a fast-paced tour of Mojave life and family narrative: A sister fights for or against a brother on meth, and everyone from Antigone, Houdini, Huitzilopochtli, and Jesus is invoked and invited to hash it out. These darkly humorous poems illuminate far corners of the heart, revealing teeth, tails, and more than a few dreams.”–publisher’s comments

* Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros (Vintage 1994/5). “A candid, sexy and wonderfully mood-strewn collection of poetry that celebrates the female aspects of love, from the reflective to the overtly erotic. “Poignant, sexy. . . lyrical, passionate. . . cool and delicate. . . hot as a chili pepper.”–Boston Globe.

p black ocean* The Black Ocean by Brian Barker (Southern Illinois University Press 2011) “attempts to make sense of some of the darkest chapters in history while peering forward to what lies ahead as the world totters in the wake of human complacence. Unveiled here are ruminations on human torture, the Chernobyl disaster, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and genocide against Native Americans. The ghosts of Lincoln, Poe, and Billie Holiday manifest from pages laden with grim prophecies and catastrophes both real and imagined. These hauntingly intense documentary poems reflect on the past in an attempt to approach it with more clarity and understanding, while offering blistering insight into the state of the world today. Barker touches upon the power of manipulation and class oppression; the depths of fear and the struggle for social justice; and reveals how failure to act—on the parts of both politicians and everyday citizens—can have the most devastating effects of all.
“Throughout the volume looms the specter of the black ocean itself, a powerful metaphor for all our collective longings and despair, as we turn to face a menacing and uncertain future.” –publisher comments

{*=known to be div/lit}



{poetry} 04 april

National Poetry Month coincides with the birthday of the inimitable Maya Angelou, born April 04, 1928. I keep quotes of hers about me, and I have long adored her poetry… “Still I Rise” is just one of my favorites and find its spiritedness an attribute of Maya Angelou’s worth celebrating. I know I among so very very many who are better for Maya Angelou being born.

‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

from And Still I Rise (Random House 1978)


{poetry} 02 april

emily d by i arsenault{ Isabelle Arsenault’s illustration of Emily Dickinson for the cover of My Letter to the World (KCP Poetry 2008) }

While finishing up a class-discussion on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray today, two of my favorite poets/poems were mentioned: T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock (one of my absolute favorites) and Emily Dickinson’s “One need not be a Chamber–to be Haunted–,” which I share below.

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase—
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O’erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—