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Black poets gather for Poetry and Race in America workshop, reading

“It’s about how great poetry gives people power.”

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ours is a long love song,
a push out into open air,
a stare into the barrel,
a pool of grief puddling
under our single body.

In his poem “repetition & repetition &,” Nate Marshall evokes black identity and solidarity in the face of endless tragedy. In Pittsburgh, after last week’s massacre in Wilkinsburg, the words are especially forceful.

Marshall, of Chicago, is one of six poets participating in Poetry and Race in America: How the Humanities Engage with Social Problems. The two-day event is presented by University of Pittsburgh Press and the new, University of Pittsburgh-based Center for African American Poetry and Poetics. 

CAAPP was founded by poets and Pitt professors Terrance Hayes and Dawn Lundy Martin. Last month, announcing this CAAPP event, Hayes placed it in the context of events nationally “that have once again revealed systemic police violence against African Americans.”

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Race and Poetry offers a March 20 workshop and a March 21 reading. It features a cross-section of top black poets, also including Afaa Michael Weaver, Ross Gay, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Rickey Laurentiis and Pitt professor emeritus Toi Derricotte.

Derricotte, 74, came of age at a time when black poets simply weren’t read in schools. That’s changed, due partly to Cave Canem, the workshop and retreat for African-American poets she co-founded in 1996. Black poetry has changed too: The lyrical voices in Race and Poetry range from experimental to confessional.

Still, Derricotte calls CAAPP’s creation important, partly because of the need to highlight poetics, which she defines as poetry’s connection to the real world.

Poetry changes both those who write and those who read or hear it, she says. “This is about saving lives. … It’s about how great poetry gives people power.”

Meanwhile, says Derricotte, every poet addresses social problems in his or her own way. “My way has always been digging up my own psyche and coming to a different place of love and acceptance and knowledge of what it is to be human,” she says. “For me, writing poetry is about being able to love … it’s about growing in love.”

Or, as Marshall concludes in “repetition & repetition &”: “we are 1. / we are love.”


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