Renée Watson is a best-selling author, educator and activist. Her poetry and fiction often center on the experiences of black girls and women.
Poetry has been speaking to me and for me these days. It has been an anchor, keeping me from drowning in despair and fear of the unknown. I am turning to poems like one calls up an old friend who always knows what to say. I am handwriting notes to loved ones and including lines from poems that have touched me, made me smile or reminded me that hardship, uncertainty and loss are nothing new to this world, that people — poets — have come before me and left on record how to survive. I often say that I was raised by poets, I grew up memorizing their words and writing my own. They left their stanzas as gifts for me, as roadmaps to find my way.
As we celebrate National Poetry Month, in the midst of a global pandemic, I am turning to these sister-friends, these poets who raised me, for comfort, for guidance, for hope.
Maya Angelou wrote 36 books; more than 30 became best-selling titles. Her written works include autobiographies, essays, children’s books, cookbooks and, of course, poetry. In my teens, I memorized and recited “Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman.” These poems were written long before #BlackGirlMagic was a trending hashtag. In “Still I Rise,” she writes, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise, I rise, I rise.” It is a declaration of perseverance. In “Phenomenal Woman,” Angelou brags about her body and her inner beauty, owning and naming her self-worth. And who doesn’t need a little self-esteem boost every now and then?
For encouragement during times of loss, I turn to “Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens and Mayfield,” a tribute to dancer Alvin Ailey, writer James Baldwin, music educator Samuel A. Floyd Jr., writer John Oliver Killens and actor Julian Mayfield. She calls them great trees and writes, “We can be. Be and be/better. For they existed.”
The poem Angelou wrote for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations, “A Brave and Startling Truth,” is a poem I meditate on often. She tells us:
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress — the first black woman to hold that position. She published her first poem, “Eventide,” at 13, and by the time she was 17 her poems were often featured in the Chicago Defender, a newspaper serving Chicago’s African American population.
I also keep her words at my writing desk: “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
In her autobiography, “Report from Part One,” she admonishes us to be mindful of what we are really living for:
The author of over 20 children’s books, Lucille Clifton was the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize: “Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980” and “Next: New Poems.” Her pared down poems, written without capitalization and punctuation, may seem simple at first glance, but they are always potent, always heavy, always complex.
During this time, I’m finding solace in “tuesday, 9/11/01” and “the lesson of the fallen leaves,” which reads:
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Margaret Walker was the first African American poet to receive the Yale Younger Poets Prize. She was the author of several books, including “Jubilee,” a novel.
Walker’s work reminds me that I know women who have endured hardships, who have made a way out of no way, and that I can, too. I most appreciate the juxtaposition of joy and pain that shows up in all of Walker’s work. Even in her love poem, “Love Song for Alex, 1979,” there is a trace of ache but the tenderness is what lingers. In “Lineage,” she reflects on her strong grandmothers and longs to be like them.
Regarded as Walker’s most famous poem, “For My People” is an anthem of resilience and hope, a tribute to the ways we overcome again and again.
These women, these poems sustain me. When people ask what I do for self-care, I tell them one thing I do is spend time with poets. I am fortunate to have had teachers who shared poetry with me that spoke to me. I know not everyone had this experience, so when friends or educators ask, “How do I find good poem?” or “How do I teach poetry?” I encourage them to search and keep on searching until they find something that resonates with them. There is a poem for everyone.
The Poetry Foundation is one place to begin. I’ve searched their website by topic, poetic form, time period and region. I encourage teachers to subscribe to Teach This Poem, curated by the Academy of Poets. I’ve used their lesson plans often and have found engaging ways to teach poetry to young people.
In this time of great loss and uncertainty, I think it’s important to have a reminder, a mantra, a word to buoy us. I think we all need a friend — a poem — that tells us we are not alone, we are not alone.