Wednesday, April 28, 2010


As April and National Poetry Month comes to an end, I bring to your attention the last guest poet.  Cait Meissner is a young, dynamic and vibrant poet, one I have much respect for.  We met at a writer's conference in Ghana and have managed to stay in touch.  I am so glad she accepted my invitation to present work.  Of all the guest poets, Caits had the most to impart to this blogs readers beyond her well-written poem.

In her words:

Multi-disciplinary storyteller Caits Meissner uses an exciting blend
of poetry, music, performance and visual art to deliver poignant
testaments to the complexities of the human spirit. Caits has moved
audiences from street corners to Columbia University, The Nuyorican
Poets Cafe to Rikers Island. Winner of the OneWorld Poetry Contest,
Caits attended the 2008 inaugural Pan-African Literary Forum in Accra,
Ghana where she studied under Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa
and other luminaries from the literary African diaspora. In addition
to her own self-released work, she has been published in various
literary journals and has shared sets with musicians such as Immortal
Technique, Grandmaster Caz, Boot Camp Clik and many others.
Keep your eyes peeled for May 1st when she releases her second EP,
music project "the wolf & me," executive produced by Just Plain Ant
and featuring Maya Azucena, Jesse Boykins III, Dunce Apprentice and
Broke MC; with production by Blu, Cazeaux OSLO, Just Plain Ant, Bisco
Smith, Cave and The Aftermath. Download her single, "Blackest Blood,"
for free at

Illuminating the Mundane
by Caits Meissner
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. - Antoine de Saint Exupery (author of “The Little Prince”) There is no spot of ground, however arid, bare or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight. -
Gertrude Jekyll (famous British gardener)

[Recently], I had the joy of bringing a workshop titled "Illuminating the Mundane" to a Richmond, VA slam venue. Having been birthed in the slam community, I find much value in the art of performance poetry. Having diverged from the scene to pursue poetry in its quieter form, on the page, and through music, I learned a thing or two about subtlety and the value of silence within word-based work. I'd like to share what I brought to these young, hungry poets. Before my note to the poets, you'll find a journal entry written during the summer of 2008, when I studied under Yusef Komunyakaa during the Pan-African Literary Forum in Accra, Ghana. This dialogue has long stayed with me and informed my work since that life-changing two weeks under my favorite poet's guidance. I hope you find the value in its translation to you.


The inspiration: Journal Entry July 8, 2008 Embracing the Mystery
One of the Nigerian students asked me last night, "Caitlin, how are you coping alone in that room with no TV or radio?" Funny. I hadn't thought of that. My buzzing brain is so full of stories that at the end of the day all my heart longs for is to write. I can't imagine watching TV here. Even music, as desperately as I love it, has little place in this experience. My iPOD sits in my bag, unused. My songs, instead, are the lilting accents of the Nigerian students laughing in the common room, the barking dogs in heat, the bull frogs and their incredible feat of throats. My own heart beat and breath.

Today in the workshop we talk about the function of poetry as a group (finally!) Yusef shares his thoughts on what makes a good poem. Notes below:
- Each line is important, each word. The word that falls right or left of a given word changes the music.
- Take out the extraneous
- Entry into the poem very important
- "Art is that which endures"- spoken by a friend of Yusef's. This was a new way of thinking about poems for him. We write the poem for the moment, but we revise it with the intention of endurance (even if it doesn't end up enduring.) "Time is always at war with other Gods"- a quote from an article in an Italian publication he read.
- Music of the poem in relation to the oral tradition
- the ear is a great editor. Think of language as music.

Tyehimba Jess shares that poetry, for him, is an opportunity to have his voice heard beyond his time on the planet. A way to share political ideals, though he is wary of preaching to the choir or creating a message without image. The image is extremely important, above all. Tonya Foster shares that a writer must discover themselves in the creation of the work, create an alternative space. She is interested in how poets use language to draw in different audiences. Refers to George Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language."

Yusef calls on Plato. In his ideal republic, Plato banishes the poet. Why? Yusef thinks the poet forces us to pose questions. By posing a question, the reader is already active. Being told a message is passive. Language is political and silence is political. The image is subversive because it keeps reoccurring in our psyche, it haunts us. Yusef believes a short statement can be inserted into a poem successfully, but only depending on what happens around it. Often poets think too much about the meaning of the line and not the music. Sometimes we don't want to understand the poem entirely. We must be wary of poems as emotional advertisements, lacking depth and mystery. Embrace the mystery.

After the workshop, Tonya, Tyehimba, Masese, Mildred and I grab a bite before the evening reading. Masese tells us how he makes his Obokano, the traditional instrument he plays, specific to his village in Kenya. Amazingly, its all natural. A specific tree in the forest is used in its creation, a tree that is not used for firewood, except in the exception of elders and widows, since it is easy to access, close to the edge of the forest. If lightening strikes any given tree, this is the same tradition, it is left for elders and widows. The strings of the instrument are made of dried animal veins. The body, of hallowed gourds. Masese made his instrument himself in about a week long process. --

The result: April 3, 2010 Caits' Note to Poets:

Let the story of Masese's instrument tell us a thing or two about patience. The process behind whittling an instrument to perfection, so it will play when you touch its body just right. Too often I see performance poets shouting their points, statement after statement inserted into their poems without using imagery or leaving much to the imagination. Rushing through lazy metaphors. Cramming as many words as they can into their mouths and the air outside their mouths and into our heads. LISTEN TO ME! I HAVE THE ANSWER AND I’VE FOUND MY SOAPBOX! Yawn.

Reading suggestions: Here are just a few poets who do brilliant work in this vein: Check out what Neruda does with his incredible "Odes," giving life to things as simple as olive oil, clothing and ironing. Roger Mitchell (one of my favorite poets) does unbelievable things in his exploration of everyday life. Erica Miriam Fabri turns lying in bed with a lover into an overwhelming journey for the senses. There are many others. Share your finds!


Poems by Caits Meissner


when I say you remind me of a book's broken back,
pages half-sewn and a coffee ring on it's face or
that moment in half-morning where the sun is hesitant
or after the ground's been cried upon and everything
is soft and open or holding the earth's guts in palm
just to feel alive amidst all this concrete, my god, what
I mean to say is this song is an off strum and I like the way
it hits my ears sideways and how I might be cold and you'll
put your coat around my shoulders like the movies and
I'll show my teeth and say, who spilled molasses over the window,
making the day golden? You'll say, beautiful is a dead word
and I'll say, so let's invent, they tell us that star up there blew out
ages ago and you'll say, but it still holds 10,000 wishes
tonight alone and we'll want to sing with our voices turned
on backwards, we'll want to laugh so hard we forget to
ask why and then lose any use for that word, too.


A Letter to Roger Mitchell
*My new favorite poet, and a dear friend of my father's

Dear Roger,

Please forgive your book's curved edges
dog-eared and bits of soot that have lodged,
inexplicably, between page 42 and 43
it has come everywhere with me
I have a gift of dirtying everything I touch
a euphemism for love, perhaps
sometimes I read a poem and close the book shut
rub fingers over it's shiny cover and
whisper a soft yes.
Strangers on the subway have taken to
staring, thinking I might be one of the mad
and in some ways, I am.

Did my father ever tell you
I hated mountains as a child?
The steep incline aching little tendons,
hiking boots clinging captive toes,
the third blister arriving on the pinky to
draw complaint from my throat
I was a tantrum thrower,
already full of vices and unable to lose
my thinking mind, despite the view
My eyes were small then.
I had not yet learned to be a bird.

Yesterday I climbed the rickety ladder
to my Brooklyn roof
noticed how the street below looked
the morning after a shooting
ambulences had returned to their beds
one strip of police tape unhinged,
waving in the wind
across the way, the building's five mouths
still boarded up in silent witness
the super is laughing with his daughter
in a language foreign to my ear,
punctuating the gray sky in audible color
garbage and broken glass leave a trail
for the stray cats to bleed on
nothing much is out of ordinary,
the city lays sprawling in it's
hurried, noisy habits
but if I squint, I can see the Valley
and hold it's magic, twenty years later
next to my ragged heart
I read your poems and remember a feeling
called peace I have only come to know
in my young adult face
and whisper, softly, yes.


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