Poetry & Conversation: Talking with Poet Kathleen Hellen

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By Shaileen B

Kathleen HellenUmberto's Night: doesn't that have a terrific ring to it? This darkly musical phrase is the title of a new book by Kathleen Hellen, whom we welcome to the Pratt Library on January 30 for the first Poetry & Conversation event of the year. Hellen will share the stage with local poet Sue Ellen Thompson, where they will read their poetry and answer your questions.

Poetry & Conversation offers writers and readers a chance to celebrate poetry together in a friendly and intimate setting. I started the conversation with Hellen early by asking her a few questions.

What three books would you take to a desert island?
Three I return to, again and again, are Final Harvest, Emily Dickinson's collected poems; Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus; and The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca.

What recently published books do you recommend?
Louise Glück’s Averno and Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split.

Over and above their interest of meaning, these are the "best words in the best order." What better way to learn than from masters?

In Head Off & Split, Finney's 2011 National Book Award winner, the language reveals and destroys, each poem a hunger plain-spoken, each line a blade. She teaches us how to be brave in words. She names names, juxtaposes history and calamity to tell it as she knows it to be.

Glück is luminous. In Averno, a National Book Award finalist, she writes at the entrance to myth and dream, teaching us that the rift in the soul is a beautiful line—lucid, strange—that you are not alone in the dark tunnel.

What is one poem by someone else that you wish you had written?
"Spring and Fall" by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Please share a poem with our readers, and some musings on your process in creating it.

Anthem at Graduation: The HBCU

For James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)

We sing the Book of Numbers
Mums, gladiolas swelling in their ribboned dress

Vaudeville of rejoicing, each a Lazarus
A choir of black faces, staged

Not run away but faith rehearsed
in normal schools for coloreds
in run-down auditoriums

There is a prayer after despair
Be not afraid

The old auditorium on the Baltimore campus had been named after James Weldon Johnson, whose anthem we were singing. "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us," the words tell us. It was October. The stage boasted yellow mums and purple gladiolas. I had on the required regalia—cap and gown, symbol of my own passage into the great discourse of humanity.

Umberto's Night CoverAlthough the Civil Rights Movement had ended many years before I entered college, the anthems that had scored those turbulent years still resounded in my memory: "We Shall Overcome" and "The Times They Are a-Changin'." Hendrix's electric distortions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" still served as an anthem against the abuses of power.

As we continued with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called "The Negro National Anthem," the raw emotions surfaced. The whole history of civil rights distilled in that moment with the sense of how different it had been for these young students sitting here that day. And yet how little things had changed.

Most were first-generation college students and many ill-prepared for the rigorous coursework they faced; many were from single-parent homes, some were parents themselves. Many were poor. Perhaps one in every 10 had at least one incarcerated family member. Perhaps six out of every 10 knew someone battling substance abuse. Almost everyone knew somebody who'd been shot.

When you teach at Coppin State University where the graduation rate is among the lowest in the nation, every convocation, every new semester, is cause for rejoicing. I wrote "Anthem at Graduation" as a praise song for my students at this historically black university. Their faith and courage sustain me.

Join us for the next Poetry & Conversation event on January 30 at 6:30 p.m. in the Poe Room of the Central Library. Admission is free and open to all.

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