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A Black Poetry Series Designed to 'Mend What's Broken'

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The Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire has launched a series of free virtual events highlighting Black poets. It's called "The Black Matter Is Life: Poetry for Engagement and Overcoming" and it's designed to make audiences consider how poetry by African Americans provides tools for healing our nation’s deep racial wounds.

The next installment is Wednesday, Dec. 9. For more on this series, NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with JerriAnne Boggis, executive director of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.

What made you and the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire want to put on a series of conversations about poetry now?

The idea to do a poetry series came about really because of the time we're in, not only around COVID-19, trying to figure out programs that would read well and do well in spaces where you can't gather in person, and also because of the racial tension in our country. The language of poetry, the way the poets use words, the way they can create connections crosses all boundaries. 

So tomorrow you're discussing the work of three poets: James Weldon Johnson, Audre Lorde, and Danez Smith. Why these three?

We wanted to look at poets that we thought people did not know much about or the poets that spoke to us. And so we gathered a whole bunch of poems together and then pulled them together and created these themes. In looking at the poems that we really liked, "The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson, "Litany for Survival" by Audre Lorde, "Dear White People" by Danez Smith, a more contemporary poet, and Elizabeth Alexander's poems, the theme of protest came after we selected the poems. And it's really just poems that we thought either spoke to a cultural representation of African Americans, meaning of the times, the way language was written, the beauty of the poem, the history, and then brought it together in that way. 

Are there any poems from one of these authors or any other in the series that resonates with you? 

I really love "Litany for Survival." That spoke to me for this upcoming series. For the next series, "Love, Love, Love," the piece by Jericho Brown, "Like Father" is just a beautiful piece.

What about "Litany for Survival" that makes it resonate so strongly with you?

The history of resilience, of courage, of really just coming back no matter what our history tells us, no matter how invisible we are in a community or culture, the constantness of trying to survive when everything tells you you shouldn't survive. It just speaks to that human spirit, that African American hero spirit, I think, of surviving from slavery, Jim Crow, all that history we can think about and still hear creating a culture, being such a prominent part of what we call American culture.

One of the questions you offer as a guide for these discussions is: "How might the poems offer solutions or courses of action to address racism?" Do you feel that that poem, or maybe a different poem, offererd a surprising or useful course of action?

In this one, I think it lets you into Audre Lorde's mind. This conundrum that we face. If you say something, it's problematic, so you might as well say it. This history, by learning to be afraid with our mother's milk. This whole history of enslavement. What has that done to the psyche? If we never speak of that in our culture, how do we mend what's broken in our country if we can never speak of it? 

And what do you hope people take away from these conversations about poetry?

I hope, first of all, people will go and start reading some of the poems and poets that they don't know. A curiosity, you know, that there's more written, there's more to say, there's more to learn about people who they may consider "the other" and find in that what makes us all human. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
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