Nationally-renowned black poets reflect on important retreat at Northside reading


Photo: Nationally-renowned poet and author Saphire read at a poetry reading in the Mexican War Steets on June 24.

Something magical happened on Monterey Street in the Central Northside on June 24 when City of Asylum/Pittsburgh held a poetry reading in collaboration with Cave Canem, a writing retreat for African-American poets.

The reading, featuring some of the most acclaimed and influential African-American poets in the country including Colleen J. McElroy, Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine and Sapphire, served as a informal conclusion to the writing retreat’s week of events.

But rather than just the poetry standing on its own, the night was animated by the collective energy of the poets themselves, who were refreshed after spending almost a week with their artistic counterparts.

Cave Canem, Italian for "beware of the dog," held its retreat at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg where it has been for the past seven years. The retreat boasted 54 poetry fellows this year.

Fellows accepted into the program are expected to complete three week-long retreats in a span of five years.

Beside the crowds’ enthusiasm for the poet’s work, many lesser-known fellows spoke of the excitement at attending a retreat with other renowned authors and poets who are influences on their own work.

First year fellow, Makalani Bandele’, cited Carl Phillips as an influence.

"Where my poetry is going, I want to incorporate more of what he does in my work," Bandele said.
Another first year fellow, Ebony Golden, finds a commonality of message in the work of Saphire, who is best known for writing the novel Push, on which the movie Precious is based.

"Her [Sapphire’s] work is a lot about hope, and that is something I’m trying to do as well," she said.

Third-year fellow, Stephanie Pruitt, found Claudia Rankine’s works, "hauntingly beautiful."

However, many are not just poets. They also have careers. Fellow Erica Monteiro, for instance, is a high school teacher in Roxbury, Ma.

"I love working with kids from the hood," Monteiro said. "They inspire me with their creativity.”

Bandele’ stopped writing at one point to follow his career of choice.

"I was in ministry for 15 years," he said, "and I recently started writing again two years ago."

Indifferent to the literary status of each fellow, the organizers of the retreat let two things be known: everyone is equal and everyone is chosen for a reason.

This was evident in the way the fellows interacted with each other much like a family — a very diverse family.

"Fellows represent global shifts and local communities," Golden said.

A local community is what the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh chose as the backdrop for the reading and the neighborhood played a perfect role in it all.

Many neighbors could be seen walking by, stopping to catch a couple words on the humid June air, then leaving to go back to their homes.

City of Asylum/Pittsburgh founder, Henry Reese, was very happy to have the event in the neighborhood and made sure to establish a solid connection between Cave Canem and his group.

"We protect voices internationally, they protect voices domestically", said Reese.

"It gives us a chance to share what we love with the people", said Yalonda J.D. Green, a first year fellow.

To some, the opportunity was even life saving.

"If you look at the suicide rates of poets, it’s very high because many feel isolated from society," Pruitt said. "For poets to have a community, it can be life saving."

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