The last decade has given rise to many conversations about African American contributions to the national cuisine, so the opening of African American Garden: Remembrance & Resilience is timely; especially as we embed Juneteenth as a holiday for the entire country to celebrate.
When I was asked to curate the Poetry Walk, I immediately thought of my UpSouth grandmother, Willie Mae, and the garden of collard greens, tomatoes (and possibly even corn!) that she cultivated behind a typical row house, in the predominately-Black city in which I grew up. Then the images, from the family albums, of my great grandparents—all of whom were sharecroppers—came to mind. And beyond them, the generations of my enslaved ancestors whose toil seeded the great wealth from which we benefit today. That complicated history has long produced associations between African Americans and the fieldscapes, and kitchen scenes of our art, so this garden is well-placed in the larger exhibition, Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love.
What, however, does our poetry say about the Black presence in America’s gardens and, more widely, a post-Emancipation relationship to land beyond ownership? Anne Spencer (1882–1975), poet and doyenne of the Harlem Renaissance, was a meticulous gardener, and her poems often reflect having been composed within sight or among the flowers and herbs she grew. The excerpt from my own poem, “Pelham” braids a biography of my maternal great-grandmother and her foraging skills, with historical narratives of the enslaved; Lucille Clifton’s “cutting greens” is a philosophical spatial-warp from the microcosm of her kitchen to the macrocosm of the universe; while Thylias Moss’ “Sweet Enough Ocean, Cotton”, offers a deep meditation on a small field; LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, throws open the doors of the wide celebration that is the African diaspora, and Ross Gay allows a glimpse of the symbiosis that exists between a human and a tree; until Camonghne Felix returns us to the grandmother—and the perennial gift of her wisdom.
Perhaps, with her groundbreaking anthology Black Nature (a temporal sweep of Black poets examining individual environments and questioning shared geographies), Camille T. Dungy extends the perfect invitation:
Only now, in spring, can the place be named:
tulip poplar, daffodil, crab apple,
dogwood, budding pink-green, white-green, yellow
on my knowing. All winter I was lost.
…But now, in spring, the buds
flock our trees. Ten million exquisite buds,
tiny and loud, flaring their petalled wings,
bellowing from ashen branches vibrant
keys, the chords of spring’s triumph: fisted heart,
dogwood; grail, poplar; wine spray, crab apple.
The song is drink, is color. Come. Now. Taste.
–Camille T. Dungy
June 1, 2022
St. Ratford Cottage
Featured Cave Canem Poets on the Poetry Walk
Camonghne Felix, poet and essayist, is the author of Build Yourself a Boat (Haymarket Books, 2019), which was long-listed for the 2019 National Book Award in Poetry, shortlisted for the PEN/Open Book Awards, and shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Awards.
Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Academy of American Poets, Harvard Review, LitHub, The New Yorker, PEN America, Poetry Magazine, Freeman’s, and elsewhere. Felix’s next book, Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation, is forthcoming in February 2023 from One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Dante Micheaux is the author of Amorous Shepherd (Sheep Meadow Press, 2010) and Circus (Indolent Books, 2018), which won the Four Quartets Prize from the Poetry Society of America and the T. S. Eliot Foundation.
His poems and translations have appeared in African American Review; The American Poetry Review; Callaloo; Literary Imagination; Poem-A-Day; Poetry; Poetry London; PN Review; and Tongue—among other journals and anthologies. Micheaux’s other honors include the 2020 Ambit Magazine Poetry Prize, and a fellowship from The New York Times Foundation. He is a recipient of the 2022 Amy Clampitt Residency.
A writer, vocalist, and sound artist, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Her interdisciplinary work has been featured at the Brooklyn Museum, the Poesiefestival in Berlin, the Museum of Modern Art, the International Poetry Festival in Bucharest, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Walker Art Center, Beijing, and Leeuwarden.
As a curator and director, she has staged events at BAM Café, The David Rubenstein Atrium, The Highline, Poets House, and El Museo del Barrio. LaTasha is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Barbara Deming Memorial Grant, the National Endowment for the Arts, LMCC Workspace AIR, Creative Capital, and the Whiting Foundation Literary Award. She lives in Harlem.
Lucille Clifton (1936–2010) was an award-winning poet, fiction writer, and author of children’s books. Her poetry collection, Blessing the Boats: New & Selected Poems 1988–2000 (BOA, 2000), won the National Book Award for Poetry.
In 1988 she became the only author to have two collections selected in the same year as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize: Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir (BOA, 1987) and Next: New Poems (BOA, 1987). In 1996, her collection The Terrible Stories (BOA, 1996) was a finalist for the National Book Award. Among her many other awards and accolades are the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Frost Medal, and an Emmy Award. In 2013, her posthumously published collection The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010 (BOA, 2012) was awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry.
Ross Gay is interested in joy.
Ross Gay wants to understand joy.
Ross Gay is curious about joy.
Ross Gay studies joy.
Something like that.
Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. His first collection of essays, The Book of Delights, was released in 2019 and was a New York Times bestseller. His new collection of essays, Inciting Joy, will be released by Algonquin in October of 2022.
Thylias Moss is Professor Emerita in the departments of English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan. Her eight previous books of poetry include Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; Slave Moth, named Best Poetry Book of 2004 by Black Issues Book Review; and Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code. Moss is a recipient of the fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations, among other honors. She lives in Michigan.
Poetry Walk made possible and supported by Cave Canem Foundation