For their Poets of Colour Festival, Matwaala 2021 brings together five prize-winning African American women poets – Dorothy Randall Gray, Cynthia Manick, Loretta Diane Walker, Marsha Nelson and Anastasia Tomkin. Here, Lucy Writers showcases their brilliant, moving work, which ranges from a celebration of Black motherhood through to the final moments of George Floyd’s life.
Poets-of-Colour festival: African American Women Poets
Introduction to festival by Usha Akella, Director of Matwaala
We welcome you to the first reading of Matwaala 2021, a festival we co-direct to increase the visibility of South Asian diaspora poets (you can learn more about what we do at www.matwaala.com). The turbulent racial events in 2020 motivated me to engage with African American literature and film more deeply and to learn about a community that is the very anthem of America’s true spirit and history as a nation. It’s been a soul shaking process for me that also included some awareness of issues like cultural appropriation. As an organization, Pramila and I knew it was imperative to extend a gesture of solidarity with poets of colour; so we drafted our 2021 festival as such.
We would like to thank the five African American women poets – Dorothy Randall Gray, Cynthia Manick, Loretta Diane Walker, Marsha Nelson and Anastasia Tomkin – for donating their time and energy to support this peace-building reading between cultures and communities. And a shout out of appreciation to Anannya Akella who is designing our posters this year and to Francisca Li for her website design.
We begin with a slideshow of photos to honour the BLM movement from my recent visit to Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Pramila will then flag today’s reading with her opening remarks.
Opening remarks by Pramila Venkateswaran, Director of Matwaala
Solidarity between South Asians and African Americans go back two centuries: Gandhi became conscious about racial injustice in South Africa and took to non-violent protest or satyagraha to oppose apartheid in South Africa. In the U.S., the African American civil rights movement took inspiration from India’s non-violent movement to overthrow British imperialism and establish self-government. What I am stating here seems like they happened yesterday when I recall the late Congressman John Lewis talk about his belief in satyagraha, the testament of truth in his pursuit of non-violence, a path he followed since the march from Selma to Montgomery when police and dogs set upon the protestors. Lewis was injured that day, but persisted in his fight for equality for African Americans.
The dialogues between African American leaders and Indian leaders have been ongoing. Black leaders saw the parallels between India’s experience of colonial subjugation under the British and white domination of Black people. And within India, Dalits, who were the lowest in the caste hierarchy, saw parallels between the white domination of Black individuals and Brahmin domination of lower castes.
The Dalit movement took its inspiration to end casteism from the Black Panthers in the 1960s; in fact, when Martin Luther King visited India, Dalits were overjoyed to see him as one of their own. King discovered that the inhumanity of white people against Black people was similar to the caste system where upper caste Brahmins treated lower castes as pariahs. Now, more than a century later, Dalits continue to find inspiration from Black Lives Matter. Just like BLM is supported by allies of different ethnicities, Dalit movements are beginning to have support from allies from other castes and nationalities.
Today as we witness in the U.S. the continuing history of violence toward Asian Americans, we see our connections with our African American brothers and sisters; we share in the witnessing of being “othered” and figuring out how to survive while being marginalized. The current generation of Asian Americans are beginning to learn more about African American and Asian American histories. What better way to learn about each other than through poetry!
So this Matwaala poetry festival bringing African American poets into the space of South Asian poetry is part of the historical legacy of our solidarity. We are building our friendship with African Americans through our solidarity in poetry.
DOROTHY RANDALL GRAY
a ruby throat
guarding treasured secrets
the hovering the hankering
the flutter of wings
the there and not there
a sometimes landing
a heart almost
too big for being
the ecstasy of iridescence
sky bound and pensive
stillness in flight
petal to petal
nectar addiction searching for succor
a feeder’s red essence
hanging like ripe fruit
manna and mandevilla
the sound of things
falling into place
Aztec warrior facing
enemies many times its size
swords and knives in its throat
chuparosa Mayan myth
to spot one means
is thinking of you
I too seek my red essence
my blood of belonging
my black rainbow of being
my creation story
flitting from genre to genre
each petal a poem
flying ancestral skies
my heart bigger
than I know what to do with
(Originally published in La Presa Literary Journal, Oct. 2017)
Girls Like Me Are Made Of . . .
Breadcrumbs, flour filling,
ginger for eyes and a splash
of rum and gasoline. Full bodied
I’ll toddle off to school, stuffing
my stomach with Bernstein Bears,
Little Miss Stubborn or Bossy.
An older sibling watches but
doesn’t hold my hand cause grit
starts early, like knowing names
of tincture plants and the sweetness
of red candy. When I crave copper tins,
tea and curse words,
douse me with white owl feathers
so I’ll know what a soul tastes like.
Then plait my hair in matching barrettes
the size of blue and gold fireflies.
At night I’ll feel them moving,
and learn the need of dreams.
The Need to Breathe
for George Floyd
In the summer of 2020,
the pandemic raging
we were witnessing
an orgy of rituals.
A culture of death
played out in the streets,
the daily news, and TV.
Black people fighting
to survive a disease
dying at a high rate
struggling to breathe
on hospital beds
in the streets.
Eyed with suspicion.
Black men and women
need to breathe.
Nine minutes of sheer brutality,
Chauvin’s eyes cold and unfeeling
his hand in his pocket,
we would never forget.
What did George Floyd feel
eyeing the backseat
of a small squad car
all 6 foot 6 inches,
223 pounds of him?
My Eyes Mourn for the Eyes We’ve Lost
My eyes mourn for the eyes we’ve lost.
Every day they dream
A distant memory of beauty defined
By its own terms.
The pain of so many souls
Forced to see differently
Embracing the antithesis of themselves
Chastised for what they are not.
My eyes are willing to see what we are.
Remember the beauty of creation?
Of movement, and rhythm, and the very birth of humanity
On plains as lush and fertile as our wombs
The first man and the first woman drank the sun’s rays for sustenance,
And we were carved from the blood of their juices.
Do you remember?
My feet mourn for the feet we’ve lost
Feet that anchored itself in the soil
Feet that were swift and agile and danced
My how they danced
The leaping and prancing and twirling
To the beat of life
To the beat of love
To the beat of everything we are.
Do you remember?
My hands mourn for the hands we’ve lost
Hands that braided and stitched and weaved
Hands that trailed our waves with a delicate precision.
Hands with skills etched into the lines that criss-crossed our palms
So many hands were lost.
And my body will mourn
My soul will remember
My being will lend itself to everything we are
And everything we’ve lost
Will find itself again;
Ancient eyes, hands and feet will find a vessel in me.
LORETTA DIANE WALKER
The Help’s Daughter
What does it feel like to raise a white child when your own child’s
at home being looked after by someone else? From The Help
– Kathryn Stockett
Feelings were commodities sealed in dented cans,
sold in ten for a dollar basket at Safeway.
Too extravagant for a husbandless woman
with seven mouths to feed.
Had she taken the time to open them,
each of us would have died
from poverty’s rusted toxins.
Sitters were luxuries afforded to those with incomes
above government cheese and powdered milk.
We guarded each other with the ferocity of a Doberman.
Before leaving to clean other people’s houses
and wipe the little boss’ feet,
she divvied up chores as though they were an inheritance
and instructed, Don’t leave the yard.
But each child stepped off the sidewalk,
crossed the muddied lines of disobedience and adventure,
left to move about in the world.
At times, we half swept the floors, sloshed Pine Sol
scented water while mopping, left Comet streaks
on the back of the toilet bowl.
We folded towels stuffed underwear in the drawers,
fought over whose turn it was to do the dishes,
take clothes off the line and who ate the last cookie.
No one ever tattled and our prepared speeches for absolution
were cleaning rags we never used.
Now, without debate, we use her rags to wipe dust
she can no longer see, mop floors with the precision
of a Swiss watch maker, wash dishes and fold her laundry
as though this was our design in life – to tidy up her illness.
This evening when darkness comes out of retirement,
I hear my brothers talking to my sister on the cell phone,
moving through the house as though motion is a cure.
Mom sits on the towel covered toilet seat and says,
Diane, you’ll have to go faster than this. I’m cold,
as I smooth cream over her frail body.
I will my hands to move faster, but caution creeps
in my fingers, causes me to slow once again.
Before slipping the lilac cotton gown over her thin body,
I examine the testament of scars on her stomach
stretched into the lives of six children.
Her wrinkled veined skin conceals seventy-eight years of living.
My eyes are glued to her back as though it is a magnet
pulling me through amazement.
There is no evidence of aging, diabetes, dialysis, decline,
and the desperate blows of survival.
Her skin is smooth and clear,
transparent as the moment she began
teaching us to live without her.
Biographies of all poets
Dorothy Randall Gray
Dorothy Randall Gray is a poet, author of bestseller Soul Between The Lines, award-winning artist, and global activist who has shared the dais with the Dalai Lama, and the dance floor with James Baldwin. A Hedgebrook Fellow and LA Poet-in-Residence, she formerly served as special delegate to the UN, National Public Radio commentator, International Women’s Writing Guild board member, and Hunter College Poet-In-Residence. She was one of only ten U.S. women chosen for the Give Voice To Women Through The Arts residency program at China’s Sias International University. Dorothy has been featured at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, The Kitchen, the World Stage, and published in numerous journals and anthologies including Coiled Serpent, Altadena Poetry Review, Spell Breaking, Drum Voices, SisterFire, Conditions, Sinister Wisdom, 2020: The Year That Changed America, and in her latest book of poetry, Sharing The Same Sky.
Cynthia Manick is the author of Blue Hallelujahs (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) and editor of Soul Sister Revue: A Poetry Compilation (Jamii Publishing, 2019) and The Future of Black: Afrofuturism, Black Comics, and Superhero Poetry (Blair Publishing, forthcoming 2021). Manick is Founder of the reading series Soul Sister Revue and her work has appeared in the Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day Series, Callaloo, Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She currently serves on the board of the International Women’s Writing Guild and the editorial board of Alice James Books.
Marsha M. Nelson
Marsha M. Nelson is an award-winning poet, playwright, and screenwriter. She is the author of two poetry books, Night Visions and All Rise-Stand Up Holy Gates. Her poem, ‘I Thought It Was Love’ won the Nassau County Poet Laureate Society 2016 contest. Some of her poetry has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies such as NCPLS, PPA Literary Review, Long Island Quarterly, Poet’s Almanac 2016, 2017, Bards Annual, Poets to Come (Walt Whitman’s Bicentennial), and The Long-Islander. She was nominated in 2018 for the Blue Light Press Pushcart Prize for her poem, ‘Hairpins and a Box of Chocolates’, and was the 2019 third prize recipient in the Super Poem Contest at Walt Whitman Birthplace. She has written and directed several Resurrection Cantatas and Christmas plays. Marsha is a member of the Christian Filmmaking Network.
Anastasia Tomkin is a radical thinker and writer with a passion for racial justice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in French and Spanish, and has a self-published poetry collection called Delusions of Grandeur. She works at Common Justice as a Direct Service Coordinator.
Loretta Diane Walker
Loretta Diane Walker has published five collections of poetry, she is a tenor saxophonist, a teacher who still likes her students, a breast cancer survivor, an artist who has been humbled and inspired by a collection of remarkable people and poets, is an award winning. a nine-time Pushcart Nominee, a Best of the Net Nominee, won the 2016 Phillis Wheatley Book Award for Poetry, for her collection, In This House, won a Bluelight Press Book Award for her mns Word Ghetto and has a daughter navigating a new world. Loretta is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters. She teaches elementary music at Reagan Magnet School, Odessa, Texas.
About the Directors of Matwaala
Usha Akella is the Poetry editor at Lucy Writers. She earned an MSt. in Creative Writing from Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, in 2018. She has authored four books of poetry, one chapbook and scripted/ produced one musical drama. Her most recent poetry collection is due for publication from Sahitya Akademi, India’s highest literary authority. Usha’s work has been included in the Harper Collins Anthology of Indian English Poets; she was selected as a Cultural Ambassador for the City of Austin in 2015, and has read with a group of eminent South Asian Diaspora poets at the House of Lords in 2016. Usha’s work is published widely and she is often invited to international poetry festivals in Trois Riviere, Slovakia, Nicaragua, Macedonia, Colombia, Slovenia, India etc. She is the founder of ‘Matwaala’, the first South Asian Diaspora Poets Festival in the US. She has won literary prizes and enjoys writing quixotic prose articles and interviewing poets and artists. She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in New York and Austin which has offered several hundreds of poetry readings to those in women’s shelters, senior homes and hospitals. In response the City of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. To contact Usha and find out about the Matwaala Festival, contact her via this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Pramila Venkateswaran, poet laureate of Suffolk County, Long Island (2013-15) and co-director of Matwaala: South Asian Diaspora Poetry Festival, is the author of Thirtha (Yuganta Press, 2002) Behind Dark Waters (Plain View Press, 2008), Draw Me Inmost (Stockport Flats, 2009), Trace (Finishing Line Press, 2011), Thirteen Days to Let Go (Aldrich Press, 2015), Slow Ripening (Local Gems, 2016), and The Singer of Alleppey (Shanti Arts, 2018). She has performed her poetry internationally, including at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival and the Festival Internacional De Poesia De Granada. An award-winning poet, she teaches English and Women’s Studies at Nassau Community College, New York. Author of numerous essays on poetics as well as creative non-fiction, she is also the 2011 Walt Whitman Birthplace Association Long Island Poet of the Year.
The name Matwaala evokes bonding and bonhomie, fun and funk, creative adventure and freedom, artistic assertiveness and non-conformity. A Hindi/Urdu word, it was the name of a radical literary magazine edited by the poet Nirala from Kolkata a century ago. Matwaala is used for someone who is drunk, but the word is used more often in a transferred sense, for someone who is a free spirit.
Concerned about the visibility of South Asian poets in the American poetry scene, university reading series, and representation in anthologies and syllabi, we were inspired to initiate a collective. Though the core mission may be perceived as idealistic or even somber, Matwaala, materialized in a weirdly magical way in Austin. The idea of a poetry festival emerged after an editorial project we co-edited for www.museindia.com. The issue focused on a project involving Diaspora artists and poets that generated the idea for sustained collaboration and initiatives. A festival was its magnification, and appeared, erected on a shoestring budget propelled by enthusiasm and faith in 2015. The first festival/collective drew to its fold a group of poets, Saleem Peeradina, Pramila Venkateswaran, Ravi Shankar, Sasha Parmasad and Varshs Saraiya Shah. Joie de vivre, friendship and a sense of community have become the hallmark of the festival that seeks to establish a paradigm based not on hierarchies but on solidarity, offering readings by established and emerging poets, youth forums, papers and panel discussions.
In 2019 Matwaala launched its website, branding, and e-anthology, hosted readings in NYU, Hunter College and NCC. It received sponsorship from Poets & Writers and hosted South Asian diaspora poets from the UK.