Thoughts: The Idea of Ancestry

The Idea of Ancestry, by Etheridge Knight

When I read this poem it struck me as something powerful, a distant cry for a story that stayed within the confines of a jail cell.

The Idea of Ancestry makes me think about the people we leave behind. The narrator often interjects with anecdotal memories he draws from his recollection. In the 1960s Knight was sentenced to eight years for robbery, of which he documented in Poems from Prison.

“Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black

faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-

fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,

cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare

across the space at me sprawling on my bunk.”

The number of family members are tied to his present state; he feels they depend on his future. He carries with him a family legacy but also a burden. His family’s photos are taped to the wall of his cell as a reminder of where he came from, and it brings him pain that he can’t do more.

“The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took

off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year

when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in

the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93

and who keeps the Family Bible with everbody’s birth dates

(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no

place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”

There’s something comically sad about the stubbornness of his grandmother that goes by the name of my father’s mother. (How well does Knight know her?) She’s adamant not to include any member who has disappeared or abandoned the family. There is no place in her bible for “whereabouts unknown.” Knight is perhaps inferring that this has happened to him.

“This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream…and I have no childrento float in the space between.” He paces back and forth in his cell, thinking he’ll have no one to call son or daughter, no one to call him dad.

The poem travels from present to past then back to present. This is often how I map my thoughts especially when writing a journal entry, which comes off as natural and intuitive. It beautiful to capture a story through the movement  of thought.

For the full poem have a read here.


This time last year


Time. Image: Cynthia via

This time last year, I was sitting in Bryant Park contemplating my existence possibly sitting at the center of everything in the grassy lawn, listening to the birds, and the chattering voices from the hundreds of people who were outside during lunchtime. From there I stared out at the surrounding buildings that outlined the park into a square. I sat up on the grass, closed my eyes and cleared my thoughts, imagining I was somewhere else. The wind grazed my face and made my hair wild, and I grew hopeful. This time today, I’m in New Orleans thinking about Shakespeare and listening to ballet music from Hamlet. Shakespeare was born on April 23. The last few years I was in New York City around this date. I somehow always found myself near Bryant Park where they had celebratory readings of his plays. I once overheard a couple arguing in his verses. When sitting on the lawn surrounded by skyscrapers and contemplating my future, I thought about time and how quickly it fades away. Youth seems to slip from your hands. I find a similar sentiment in the sonnet below. We grow and we are never in the same place twice. What better way to triumph over time than to write?

Sonnet 15

When I consider everything that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment,
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and check’d even by the selfsame sky,
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory;
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night;
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.


Discovered Poets at the NY Chapbook Festival

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

I’m a little late on this, but I’ve been too tired to face the whiteness of the screen. The Chapbook Festival Award Ceremony took place on April 2. It’s a great event to meet new and veteran poets.  On this particular night in New York City, the 13th St. Repertory Theater was crowded. People were even sitting on the stage and standing behind the last row of seats. “Who knew so many people liked poetry?” remarked the hostess. There was wine and cheese—and plenty of tiny warm smiles.

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The ceremony is part of the PSA Chapbook Fellowship Program that gives new poets a chance for exposure and mentoring from veteran poets. The first judge to introduce their selected poet was Elizabeth Alexander who read for Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Her fellow, Callie Siskel read poems from her Chapbook, Arctic Revival. Her most memorable poem, whose title escapes me, was about a child entering her mother’s house and making her presence known while her mom and presumably a boyfriend were just setting up for a romantic night. The little girl represented her father in that moment when she hurled her school book bag on the floor. I thought it was powerful as it built up toward the ending.

Forrest Gander presented his fellow, HL Hazuka. Gander has a unique way of reading poems, almost bluesy, with ingrained beats while he taps his foot. It was lovely to watch him read Alfonso D’ Aquino’s Fronda and then Mano one of his own poems.

HL Hazuka’s Chapbook, True to Life: cuttings, mechanics & modification are mostly fragments of loose thoughts from films or visuals images. Gander described them as “landscapes in words,” and “how we understand the present.” The writer was not there to read her poems, so we were left without hearing her voice. But nonetheless as conveyed by Gander, we got a sense of her poems’ ethereal lightness similar to clear April morning.

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Eva Maria Saavedra

I was also delightfully surprised to hear there was a Peruvian poet among the Chapbook Fellows.  Marilyn Hacker,  known for her formal yet colloquial style, presented Eva Maria Saavedra’s.  For Hacker, Eva’s poems in Thirst demonstrate “the personal is political,” and that “double-consciousness” often paints the world of immigrants. I’m one of them. I know few Peruvians in New York and fewer Peruvian poets, so it was refreshing and familiar to hear words that felt close to my homeland. In one of her poems she mentioned pampas, meaning fertile plains or lowlands in Quechua. The world alone transfers a feeling and a memory. Here are some of her published poems: After Monet’s Water Lilies, 1919, Abuela Maria’s Refusal, 3 Poems.

Valentine is one of those approachable poets with a friendly smile. Just from her reading you can tell her humor is soft, but wise and she offers it to everyone gladly. Jean Valentine‘s  presented Max Ritvo’s AEONS, and mentioned his “playful deep sense of wonder.” One of his poems mentioned “lyrical company” —and I thought yes one must always have that. He used words in juxtaposition to create something akin to language poems. The language appears to carry the meaning, and his readings are mini performance pieces.

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Jean Valentine

A friend who invited me, managed to ambush (friendly ambush) Valentine, one of her favorites. She took out a copy of Home Deep Blue with big curious eyes: “This is why I’m here!” She headed towards the stage to Jean. Last I saw they were all smiles. Before Eva left,  I said hello, and chatted with her for a little. It was a swell night all around, and everything under one of those spring nights.

You can purchase Chapbooks here.

Upcoming poetry readings in NYC:

04/21 – 09/22          Bryant Park’ s Word for Word

4/26     Queens Writes Poetry Workshop

Various dates  KGB