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The four Black poets a N.H. teacher recommends you read right now

A black and white painting of George Washington Carver holding and looking at a flower
Betsy Graves Reyneau / Harmon Foundation
/
National Archives Catalog
A painting of scientist George Washington Carver, the subject of Marilyn Nelson's book of poetry, "Carver: A Life in Poems."

A poetry night from the Black Heritage Trail of N.H. is exploring where poetry and science overlap.

New Hampshire teacher Courtney Marshall loves horror movies, but she loves poetry, especially Black poetry, even more. She combined the two passions when she picked Eve Ewing’s poem “Horror Movie Pitch” to be featured in “The Race for STEM,” a poetry event at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth on Wednesday night.

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Wednesday’s event is the second in a three-part poetry series called “Black Matter is Life.” The annual series is produced by the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. It began last year to explore how poetry by Black authors can help heal the “nation’s deep racial wounds.”

Marshall is an English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, and she hosts the poetry series with University of New Hampshire professor Reginald Wilburn.

“Poetry can give us a different take,” Marshall says. When she teaches poetry to her students, she wants them to think about where the poet is coming from culturally and historically. “What are the debates that the poets were having?”

Marshall would love people to read more poetry by Black authors, and she says the poetry in the “Black Matter is Life” series is a great place to start.

“I also hope folks take this opportunity to encourage a young Black poet in their own life,” Marshall says. “Read their works as well.”

Here is a small selection from the poems featured in the “Black Matter is Life” series that you can start with.

“Arachis Hypogaea” from the book “Carver” by Marilyn Nelson

Marilyn Nelson’s “Carver” reimagines the life of George Washington Carver, the agricultural scientist and inventor.

Courtney Marshall says this book shows how poets can explore the biographies of important figures.

“I grew up learning, ‘Oh, he was the guy who did all the things with the peanut’” she says. “Poetry can give us a different take on him.”

“Declaration” by Tracy K. Smith

“Declaration” is a blackout poem, meaning the poet removed words from an existing document to create a new text. Smith used the Declaration of Independence as an original text, removed words and phrases, and created a text that is both new and reflective of the original.

“I would love folks to read more Tracy K. Smith,” Marshall says of Smith, who was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. “I got to see her in Manchester a few years ago. She's another person that I would also encourage us to see and to read more.”

“Horror Movie Pitch” by Eve Ewing

Ewing’s satirical poem pitches an idea for a scary movie: what if all the Black women in America were invisible to the eye?

“I think the concept of invisibility and Blackness is a long one, right? That's been explored [in] Ellison's ‘Invisible Man."

The poem explores what Black women would do if the country woke up and Black women weren’t gone, people just couldn’t see them. What would happen if the societal invisibility of Black women is made literal?

“Will they seek revenge for the things that have been done to them, which is what the poem starts us thinking about,” Marshall asks, “or will they go off and do something else?”

“Whitey on the Moon” by Gil Scott-Heron

This critical poem examines the cost of the space race and who, in the end, benefits or hurts from historic endeavors.

“Thinking about Whitey on the Moon, [you’re] kind of imagining, what do poets have to say about technology, about the race to go into outer space? What does exploration mean?”

Find more of the poems featured in “The Black Matter is Life,” here

Transcript:

Courtney Marshall: Poetry can give us a different take. You know, thinking about "Whitey on the Moon," what do poets have to say about technology, about the race to go into outer space? Like what does exploration mean?

So in some ways, science and technology are very new, very innovative. But there's also something very ancient, I think, about wanting to explore, about wanting to imagine what it's like to be invisible, to think about Eve Ewing's poem. That's why I think using poems to think about science and technology is just so key.

Rick Ganley: Well, I want to ask you about that Eve Ewing poem, "Horror Movie Pitch," which is one of the poems that you have highlighted for the event on Wednesday. Could you read an excerpt from that for us?

Courtney Marshall: I can. I'm excited. I love horror movies, so that was another reason why I chose this poem. So "Horror Movie Pitch" by Eve Ewing:

okay you guys are gonna love it. get this

all the black women turn invisible,

all of them

just overnight. America goes to sleep and they’re there

and they wake up and they’re not

the scary part?  stick with me

they’re not gone. YOU JUST CAN’T SEE EM

 think about it

 they can see each other

 but you can’t see them

 and they could be anywhere

the girl you passed up for the promotion

she could be in your car

ready to yank your head back by your hair

right when you’re at a busy intersection

the woman you grabbed on the subway escalator

she could be in your living room

looking through your tax returns

Rick Ganley: That is fantastic. That's just a portion I know.

Courtney Marshall: Yes, yes. It's just a great poem, I just adore it. I get so excited about poetry. I really do. I love Black poetry so much.

Rick Ganley: Tell me more about why you wanted to highlight that particular one?

Courtney Marshall: Well, I think the concept of invisibility and Blackness is a long one, right? That's been explored [in], you know, Ellison's "Invisible Man." I'm thinking about the Black Lady Sketch Show: there's a sketch that is all about this one Black woman who just feels invisible. I also think about even on my own campus, when I was mistaken for another teacher who was here for a long time.

And so this idea of being not seen is something that's been a long-standing thing. But to think about that as horror, right? That is, something scary. Like, what will Black women do if the country wakes up and they just become invisible? And this question of will they seek revenge for the things that have been done to them, which is what the poem starts us thinking about, or will they go off and do something else, right? But what will you do when the invisibility of Black women is actually made literal?

And that's what's really cool to me about this poem. And again, my deep love of horror movies.

Rick Ganley: I know as a teacher and a poetry lover that you've said you really are interested in bringing more attention to living poets, especially Black women poets. Who should we be reading right now? Who do you think should be getting more attention?

Courtney Marshall: Oh my god. That's such a big question. I would actually love for folks to start with the poets that we have in this series. "Carver," Marilyn Nelson's poem in which she reimagines the life of George Washington Carver. Tracy K. Smith's "Declaration." I would love folks to read more Tracy K. Smith. She was our poet laureate, and I got to see her in Manchester a few years ago.

And I think in terms of the poets we have, we have some young poets who are there. So I also want folks to take this opportunity to encourage a young Black poet in their own life. You know, read their works as well.

And I'm just so personally excited to hear just the rich conversations that are going on around African American literature here in the state, and I just hope we just keep it up.

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