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Roots & Blues, Part 2! It’s been a long time coming, but I guarantee you this interview with illustrator R. Gregory Christie is worth the wait! If you missed Part 1 of this series, do take time to read poet Arnold Adoff’s thoughtful responses regarding the inspiration for his latest book of poetry.

ZE: It has been argued that “trauma resists representation.” How did you approach the illustrations depicting the horrors of the Middle Passage? As a children’s book illustrator are you expected to make every subject “beautiful”?

It’s all about nuances and the experience a painter has gained in order to shout things softly to his audience. The metaphorical poems in Roots and Blues masterfully intermixed historical names and events into a continuous flow. I feel that the words have a similar sentiment to Blues music, by the way the atrocities and triumphs are a continuous poetic flow.  To paraphrase Tom Feelings, any subject matter can be presented to people of all ages, one has only to hear the blues to know something horrible can be told in a beautiful way.

I also believe that if you present a trauma with a melody, metaphorical words, or with attractively arranged pigments you can at least get the public’s attention, but it’s the artist’s experience and ability to use nuance that will get people to care. If done carefully, I believe that the art will be embraced as something beautiful, at least for some of the people. The poems from Roots and Blues mimicked the essence of the Blues and the history of brown folks’ “American” journey. So I, in turn, mimicked Arnold’s words in a visual form, which I suppose is the purpose of an illustration.

The visuals are muted grays and blues that I hope are in tandem with the dull pain to those words that were intermixed with pockets of joy. This is the first time I used a glazing technique for an entire book. I chose to knock the colors down a bit, kind of a bluish gray pallor cast over what was once vibrant colors. I was able to wipe away and rebuild certain places in the painting so that the glaze would in fact brighten certain areas within the images. This was done to have pockets of vibrant colors in cool and distant images.

Yes, I’m often expected to make my art beautiful (if not cute) but I tip the balance towards images that will challenge our children. Foremost I paint for myself and do this with the hope that other people will “get it.” I keep it fun and interesting but also honor myself as an artist.

ZE: In the blues tradition there’s a fine line between ecstasy and agony; talk about your strategies for capturing both emotions in your illustrations.

I am all about balance, in my life and in my art. The artwork for this book was my best attempt to capture Arnold’s flow of opposites, colorful moments as a contrast within a long, painful journey.

He has an ability to give historical facts, capture the emotion of the times, and barrage my mind with a stream of visuals. Nothing was sugarcoated in the writing; perhaps that would be a disservice to the people that went through that pain and to the young people that need to be prepared for the world’s realities. It seems to me that Arnold danced between these two conflicting emotions all the time (ecstasy and agony) while not being too nostalgic. The poems and the times they comment upon are raw. He put himself out there as an artist and I wanted to keep up with him visually.

But Poetry is one of the most difficult things to illustrate for me, because you have to be decisive when interpreting the meaning of a series of meanings. I always think that such a work can be read so many different ways and too quick of a decision towards the meaning can kill the audience’s growth. On the other hand, indecision in the illustrator can often produce a visual incongruity. In illustration I think the major point is to be able to process the mix into an interesting visual summation. Poetry seems to be a mix within a mix, an art form capable of having many tentacles. I think that it takes a delicate heart and advanced mind to embrace something that can be so mercurial, definitively stated and so personal to the reader. I feel as though such a listener wants to create his own relationship to those words, so being told what’s definitive as the meaning (visually) can come off as a killjoy.

I respected his art by approaching the series of poems as one steam of ideas. In some cases I focused on the idea of something literal…a piano player or image of a jook joint etc., and other times I attempted to comment on the spiritual side of things. One of the first pieces shows three figures connecting with land and water; eyes are closed and bodies contorted.  On one hand, it would have been easy to define the words near it as a piano player image, but I took the harder road and commented on the metaphorical aspect. I wanted to introduce the reader to the origins of it all: the respect for the land and the process of life, it’s circular direction between death and life. We come from the earth only to go back within it, so this first painting is about impossibilities and how something that doesn’t make sense sometimes has an order to it. Time must pass in order to sometimes understand that disorder. The land, people and gestures are my way of introducing the readers to what they might expect for the other parts of this book. To expect that the impossible will make sense and to take the subject matter with solemnity and inspiration. I had to pace myself and pace the imagery for the book. At times you will see the agony in the lack of facial expressions—simply eyes closed or the gesture of the hands and body—and other times the figures will be directly looking at you, engaging you as the viewer. It’s art that shows itself but invites you to find your own meaning based upon your own life experiences and whatever you can project into the historical and artistic experience.

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It’s time to start taking down the Xmas decorations, I guess.  I’ve been putting it off because once I take down all the cards displayed on my bookshelf, I’ll have to do some *serious* dusting…never mind all the pine needles embedded in my rug!  But this card came at the very end of the year and it will be moving to the photo collage on my fridge—I just wrote a scene that starts at the Brooklyn Public Library; had to find a way to work in that golden phoenix that’s on the central branch’s facade.  This beautiful artwork is by Selina Alko who has a forthcoming Brooklyn alphabet book…

And speaking of libraries…*after* you make a generous donation to your local library system, why not print out Ari’s list of 2011 new releases and make sure that books by writers of color are added to your library’s collection?  It’s important to get the word out about these books, especially since many won’t be widely reviewed.  Stay tuned over the next few weeks because I’ll be posting about African American MG/YA releases along with a few author interviews.  I’m anxiously awaiting Arnold Adoff’s latest book of poetry since I got to see Greg Christie’s illustrations a year ago and they were just stunning…

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Sonia Sanchez: Reading & Book Signing

Reading & Book Signing featuring acclaimed poet Sonia Sanchez. She will be reading from her latest – “I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and Other Plays” A Collection of Plays by Sonia Sanchez edited by Jacqueline Wood Duke University Press 2010. This event is FREE and open to the public. Sponsored by the English Club, the Department of English, and the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.

Sonia Sanchez—poet, activist, scholar—was the Laura Carnell Professor of English and Women’s Studies at Temple University. She is the recipient of both the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry and the Langston Hughes Poetry Award. One of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez is the author of sixteen books. From: http://soniasanchez.net/.

Date: December 2, 2010

Time: 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM

Medgar Evers College

1650 Bedford Avenue

Brooklyn

Bedford Building, Founders Auditorium

718.804.8883

http://www.mec.cuny.edu

Admission: Free!

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NOLA pix

Thanks to 7th grade teacher extraordinaire, Mr. Eric Johnson, for sending me these wonderful photos of my visit to Dr. King Charter School in New Orleans.  I’m heading to Toronto soon, and hope you all enjoy the holiday!

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thank you, Katrina

Sometimes it’s hard moving between worlds.  It was good for me to come back from NOLA and go straight back into the classroom; I was able to stay in that “zone” for a little while, but today I’m back to my own reality.  I think it might be time to head back into the academy; this kidlit thing isn’t really working out and it’s starting to get me down.  I’m not going to stop writing, but I think I need to try a new approach—maybe try operating from within the academy instead of the blogosphere.  But this post is about my visit to New Orleans.  I don’t think I have a whole lot more to say, but I feel like I need to admit something.  Yesterday in East Harlem one child asked me how I felt when I found out Bird was going to be published.  And I told him how Hurricane Katrina motivated me to start sending my stories out again; Katrina hit in August 2005, and I had been living in Baton Rouge for only about 3 weeks…I’d just started a new job at LSU and I already knew I wouldn’t be staying long.  Then the hurricane threw everything into disarray, and I was filled with so much rage and I had to do *something* to take my power back.  So I went through all my manuscripts and sent out everything that was ready–picture book stories, academic essays, plays.  And a few months later, I found out I’d won the New Voices Honor Award; after that I got into an MFA program, I got accepted to a summer artists’ residency, I got a job offer in the northeast, and my first play was named as a finalist at a Chicago theater.  It was Hurricane Katrina that lit that fire inside of me—the rage she inspired drove me to look for a way out, and that’s exactly what I found.  When I think about my time in Louisiana, I still get mad.  It’s an irrational kind of rage—aimless, really, because I’m just mad at everything and everyone.  I hear the phrase “way of life” and have to bite my tongue.  So I didn’t go to New Orleans out of any sense of nostalgia; there’s nothing romantic about the city for me, and I didn’t expect to do any touristy things during my time off.  I don’t eat seafood, and I don’t drink; I do like jazz, but I never connected the particular songs or artists I love with New Orleans.  When I lived in Baton Rouge back in 2005, I remember a prominent black poet telling me that New Orleans was “the only truly great American city”—the only one to produce anything of value (she meant jazz).  And I thought to myself, “What about New York?  What about hip hop?”  But then I thought, hip hop doesn’t need NYC any more than jazz still needs New Orleans.  I didn’t say that, of course, because she was homeless due to the flooding and I was an outsider—not a Yankee, maybe, but a northerner nonetheless.  I’m always wary of exceptionalism, whether it’s New Orleans, or Haiti, or the USA.  Anyway, all this is to say that I didn’t expect to “have fun” while I was in New Orleans.  But I did—my host, Karen Ott, took me to the House of Blues one night and to Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse the next; Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band blew me away and their vocalist, Yolanda Windsay, put Beyonce to shame with her rendition of Etta James’ “At Last.”  I ate a lot of good food, including the BEST school lunch EVER—white beans and rice!  But I don’t wake up thinking about the food or the jazz.  I wake up seeing the faces of the kids in the 7th grade—and the boy in the 6th grade who said he saw a mirror when he looked at the first page of Bird: “Because I’m a black boy and I like to draw, too.”  I see the girl in the front row who didn’t want to read her poem aloud, but asked me to read it privately.  And it was clear that she got teased a lot, no doubt by the pretty blue-eyed girl in the row behind her who was acting like a typical mean girl.  Yet she herself had written a touching tribute to her beloved teacher the day before.  All you can do in two days is listen and learn, observe and try to inspire.  I read my favorite chapter from Wish, and when I put the book down, a boy in the back row said, “Keep reading!”  So we read another chapter together.  The boy who’d been pushing my buttons all afternoon wrote one of the most powerful poems I’ve heard in a while.  Who’s your addressee?  Some kids spoke to bullies, some spoke to those outside their community.  All had their own ambition, plans for the future, their own sense of themselves.  And they were not willing to let something like Hurricane Katrina define them.  Foremost in their minds was the one-year anniversary of the loss of one of their teachers.  Most of them met President Obama when he visited their school, and they’ve got signed books from JK Rowling.  I’m no celebrity, but I hope I made an impact.  And I hope I now think of those kids when I think about New Orleans.  It’s time to let that anger go.

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Ok, there are endless color combinations I could use for this cover, but I think this is it:

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round two

Which do you prefer?  This is a small chapbook that will be given to middle grade students who have taken my poetry workshop…

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poems for all seasons

So I’m trying out covers for my book of poems—do you like the blue background?  Shadra suggested green; I’m wondering about yellow…but do like the cool of blue…I’ve got about 70 poems so far and would like to reach 100.  I feel like the haiku are a bit somber—if these are for kids (middle graders) there ought to be at least some whimsy, some fun…

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Coming up on August 8th I’ll be a guest on poet/publisher DuEwa Frazier‘s web radio show, Rhymes, Views & News.  I first met DuEwa a few years ago when she accepted a couple of my poems for her anthology, Check the Rhyme: An Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees.  The book went on to earn a nomination for an NAACP Image Award!  Do check out more of DuEwa’s books from her press, LitNoire Publishing.

I’m working on a book of poems for children, and that means I spent most of yesterday sifting through dozens of haiku that I’ve been collecting for YEARS…not all are suitable for kids, and that means I need to head over to the garden today and write some new kid-friendly haiku.  I want to have something I can share with children since most of my poetry is for teens or adults.  I sometimes use haiku to help me overcome writer’s block—what do you do?  Stop by Crazy Quilts to hear how Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich defines her mission as a writer.

Lastly, I’m getting a lot of love from Brooklyn this week!  Many thanks to Nostrand Park for reviewing A Wish After Midnight!  And if you’ve never heard me read before, check out Brooklyn the Borough–they’ve got video footage of my June reading at Franklin Park…

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My good friend Kate is a transracial adoptee—she’s also a mother, lawyer, writer, and wife—but she devotes a good portion of her time to raising others’ awareness of the issues facing adoptees (she blogs at The Missing Piece).  A few years back, Kate introduced me to poet/novelist Jackie Kay (also a transracial adoptee writing about adoption), and so when I saw this video on e-drum, I knew I had to send it to her.  Then I watched the video myself and felt I could listen to Jacke Kay reading poetry ALL day…take a look/listen:

Poets make interesting novelists, and I’d recommend Kay’s novel, Trumpet:

Inspired by the life of musician Billy Tipton, the novel tells the story of Scottish jazz trumpeter Joss Moody whose death revealed that he was, in fact, a woman. Kay develops the narrative through the voices of Moody’s wife, his adopted son and a journalist from a tabloid newspaper.

She’s got a memoir out now, Red Dust Road, about finding her birth parents and I’m going to add that to my TBR list…

It’s kind of a gloomy day here in Brooklyn, and I don’t want to leave the house but need to go to the library and so might as well meander through the garden while I’m out.  I’ve got two job interviews this week and need to prepare for those, but don’t really want to see any farther than tonight’s episode of Miss Marple.  I just finished Andrea Levy’s The Long Song and will post a review soon, though I was a little disappointed and really want to sink into something deep instead of brushing up on American Lit.  Thank God I won’t have to teach Moby Dick…

I actually meant to focus this entire post on Nathalie’s amazing write-up of LGBT Week—stop by Multiculturalism Rocks! to read up on all the great links and activities to celebrate PRIDE…

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