Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading

Location: Columbus College of Art & Design, 60 Cleveland Ave.,Columbus, OH 43215

Vernell Jennifer Bristow, Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading
Vernell Jennifer Bristow, Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading

Tell me about this event? How often does it happen?

This event today was part of the City of Columbus yearlong celebration of the Harlem Renaissance at its 100th anniversary. This is just one of many events that has occurred in the city all year long.

In observing your performance, it appears you incorporate then and now. Tell me about the influence of then (Harlem Renaissance) into your work now.

The Harlem Renaissance was a time period where you had a lot of black artists concentrated in one area. They were trying to define themselves for themselves. I am African American and we are still doing that today, 100 years later. They were writing about what is wonderful about African Americans, what is not so wonderful, things we need to work on, the impact of their experience in dealing with racism, and poverty in every day lives of black people. They were celebrating the creativity of black people. I see that as my responsibility as a poet today to do those same things.

How long have you been on this journey?

I wrote my first poem 26 years ago. By the time I wrote my third poem, within a month I had my first poetry reading. Sharing my poetry orally as well as written form has been side by side. A few months later I was organizing my first poetry reading, so other poets had a place to come and share. Those things for me are intertwined.

I really enjoyed the performance, and the fact that you share your life experiences. How is that a platform to reach others?

I have no shame in writing about my personal experiences, or the experiences of my family. Everything that I write about is something that I have experienced, seen, heard, or read about. I have poems that are about things that are happening in other countries, where I do not live, but there was something about those experiences that spoke to me. I write a lot about women. I think I am writing primarily to black women, then to all people and for isolated poems maybe black men. Every poem that I write, I am not mentioning black women, but that is the perspective from which I see the world and that is going to permeate whether I am using those specific words or not.

Sidebar: I didn’t hear all her performance. I was really moved by her work about the interaction she had with one of her female relatives experiencing sickness, then death. I felt the emotions associated with the situation. It was clear to me, based on the content and the way the work was presented, that she is extremely passionate about her work. Her delivery reminded me of a preacher or minister.

How do you impact the next generation? Not only from a peer perspective, and those who have come before you, but those who are coming behind you?

I really must pay homage to those who came before me. That is the reason I was excited to participate in this event today. It is a way to honor all those writers and poets in the Harlem Renaissance. There are poets from Columbus that have come before me and served as my role models both in terms of poetry and in terms of creating space for poets to share. Issaid was an older gentleman who was a large part of the poetry scene in Columbus. When I got dismayed by my experiences at some of the more academic readings from people who didn’t look like me, I found him. He said, “Come along young sister, let me introduce you to some poets, and show you some places where you can go and read”.  If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t know what would have become of me as a poet in this town.

In terms of the next generation, I love to work with other poets. I have had the honor to help other poets find their voice, edit their work, and just talk poetry with them. For the last 3 or 4, years I have served as the creative writing teacher at the King Arts complex summer camp. I am doing a project at Barack Recreation Center based on the Harlem Renaissance. I am teaching little kids’ poetry and the art teacher is teaching painting that will all come together in a program at the end of the year. I love doing that. I must give a shout out to Columbus City Schools. They have a district poetry slam that is open to all the middle and high school students. I have been associated with that from the beginning (about 10 years ago). I am the MC (Mistress of Ceremony) and I help bring this event to life. It is so important to help young people find their voice and ways to express themselves. Art is a wonderful way to do it.

What is a poetry slam?

Poetry slam is a performance poetry competition. It was started almost 30 years ago in Chicago by a construction worker named Mark Smith. He wanted to take poetry out of the academics and put it in the streets and the communities. He started an open mic reading at a bar in Chicago. Then, he started inviting the audience to judge the poetry as a way of including the audience in the show which grew into national and international competitions. It is great. I call it a fake competition. At a true poetry, slam judges are randomly selected by whoever is in the room whether they know anything about poetry or not. At the national events, depending on where the competition is located, it is a tiered competition, sort of like March madness. It starts with about 200 plus poets then whittles down to about 10, by the end of the week. The competitions take place in art galleries, in bars, and in libraries. When it is in a bar, sometimes the judge is not even sober. In some of the major cities, we have had tourist who don’t even speak English selected to be a judge. It is a fake competition, but at the same time it is bragging rights. It’s community and a way to engage audiences. Those in the audience who were not selected to serve as judges get to respond to the judges with approval or boo. It is a way to bring poetry and people together.

Sidebar: This is the first I have heard about a poetry slam. I know many would say that I have led a sheltered life. The poetry slam sounds like something I would enjoy, so if you hear about one in the Columbus area, contact me via Facebook(614whats2love) or hit the link to send me an email (Doreen.Dawkinsphoto@gmail.com).

Have you ever performed with multi-media? For example, putting your work to jazz or performed while someone is painting?

I have done events in the past where we have had a painter create visual art live over the course of the event. When it comes to music, I am not a musical person. As a poet, I have been asked to perform and when I got there they wanted me to perform with the band. Luckily, because I am an artist, I know a lot of musicians in town so usually when that happens there is usually 1 or 2 musicians in the band that I know, and they know I don’t know music. I say, “Listen, either I start then you come in, or you start, and you give me a nod when I am supposed to start.

Anything else?

I think everybody has one good poem in them. I say let it out.

I love poetry because it is so assessable to people. Anybody can write a poem, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be good. What is good is a slippery slope. It is a wonderful form of expression. It can usher you into community with other people, writers, and artists who are expressing themselves. As an African American poet, it is incumbent upon me to say something. I have an opportunity to have my voice be heard whether it is in written form, published or standing in front of an audience like tonight. I do not have the luxury of creating poetry for poetry sake or art for art sake. I have a responsibility to say something that matters about my existence, about the existence of all of us, or the experience of black people.

Marcus Jackson, Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading
Marcus Jackson, Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading

Tell me the impact that the Harlem Renaissance has had on your current work.

For my own personal poetry, the legacy of Harlem Renaissance, the art that it produced is as elemental as what I am trying to do on the page and in my poems as anything. From a larger standpoint as a person of color just living in America, the Harlem Renaissance taught us how to be our complex beautiful selves and still be resilient and find new ways to maintain happiness and expression. I think that we can still learn a lot from it, with the political vortex that we are in. It is a way that is physically dangerous for us than it has been in other points in history. With guns and police violence it is a scary time. One of the ways we can survive it is to celebrate what we have in art, and in our daily interactions.

Tell me about your background.

I am originally from Toledo, Ohio. I completed my undergrad at the University of Toledo. I went to New York for my Master of Fine Arts (MFA). I was in New York for 8 years and then I came back to Ohio 4 years ago.

Full time writer? Full time performer?

I teach in the Master of Fine Arts program at Ohio State. I guess I write full time if you can call some of the failed drafts that I kick around daily. It’s full time.

Do you primarily write poetry?

Yes, unfortunately. I don’t know how to write a novel.

Come on it is not unfortunately. It’s what makes you unique right?

Yeah, I’m a poetry fiend and that is about all I can write.

Any suggestions for the next generation who wants to do what you do?

In Columbus City Schools and a lot of the public city schools throughout Ohio, the state Poets Laureate each year will generally recruit full time poets or professional poets to conduct workshops and work on drafts with high school students. Reach out to your teachers. The good thing now days is there are tons of poetry performers in Columbus or close to Columbus. Because of social media, it is easy to get in contact with people. If you hear and or see a performer on YouTube and they are local, reach out to them and try to make it happen. Poets are usually very generous people. We love to work with young folks. 

You have some books. How can people contact you?

I have a new book out called “Pardon My Heart” on Northwestern University Press. You can purchase it on Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. My website has some sample poems.

Negesti Kaudo, Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading
Negesti Kaudo, Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading

How has the Harlem Renaissance influenced your work?

When I think about my influence from the Harlem Renaissance, it is more about the questions they were asking and the answers they were coming up during that time and how they reflect what is happening now.  I use my position as a millennial a lot in my work. Can I ask these same questions about blackness? What is it like to be black in this digital era? What is it like having this violence reoccurring now, but it is happening in a different kind of way then back then? I am looking at the parallels and influence of those two and asking those same questions and trying to see if the answers are the same or different from what they were talking about back then.

How long have you pursued this path? Have you encountered a lot of resistance along the way?

I have been writing since I was in middle school seriously. Then, I started writing all the time in high school. I went to college for English and I received my MFA after that in English. So, for a long time, people do not think you should have a career in art. Right now, I teach, so I’m obviously doing something. A lot of people ask what is your plan? Are you going to write a book? What are you going to do with the economy especially under Trump? It is a weird space because no one thinks you can make it. We need art. Especially now.

Where do you teach?

I teach at CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) as an adjunct, First Year Writing.

I didn’t know they taught English at CCAD. I thought it was art-based majors.

They have an English minor, but you must take a basic writing class as a core course.

Anything else you would like to add to help those coming behind you or possibly those who have not yet developed their voice.

Follow your gut. It is a risk but, usually what is supposed to happen will happen. If you follow your gut and something happens where you are not supposed to do art, then you are not supposed to do art.  Get out of the bubble. Yes, traditional rules are cool, but once you learn those rules break them, start making the art that you want to make, start exploring the topics that you want to explore and start saying the things you think people need to hear instead of what they want to hear.

Are there many opportunities for you to perform prose?

If I am asked to do a reading, I do it. I either pick a piece that I haven’t read or that I love to read, and I do it. When I lived in Chicago, I did a lot of readings. Usually, I was the only essayist or prose person. Sometimes, a fiction writer would read a short story, but I have these long chunks of work. I treat it as if I am in theatre and I’m on the stage performing. I am a different character. I am who that essay was written by rather than who I am every day.

Anything else?

Writing is art. It just does not have to be words on the page. It can go off the page, it can be a performance, a gallery space, a collage, or a picture. Always remember writing is a form of art.

My take on the Harlem Renaissance Poetry and Prose Reading: All the presenters were great and have carved out their own specific lane. Clearly, they all have different voices, much like ice cream flavors. My favorite might be vanilla chocolate chip and your favorite might be chocolate. It is just personal preference. I like how all seemed to light up when I asked about the next generation. I love to interact with people who are pursuing their passion and making it a profession.