Video: Nina Serrano Accepts 2014 Josephine Miles Award
Click here to see my PEN Oakland Acceptance Speech and my latest poem: “Black Lives Matter.”
The PEN Oakland Award 2014 event left a deep impression on me. The very issues addressed by the award recipients and judges were simultaneously erupting in street protests across the country. The Josephine Miles Award for my book, “HEART STRONG, Selected Poems 2000-2012” brought me personal honor and happiness because of this timing, combined with the event’s focus on Black history and resistance to racism.
The six awarded authors were Edwidge Danticat, Claudia Moreno Pisano, Roger Reeves, Akinyele Omowate Umoja, Daniel Chacon and myself. Abraham Bolden received the 2014 Censorship Award and Askia M. Toure received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
One theme in the ceremony was literature. Poet, Ingrid Keir, standing in for her friend, Claudia Moreno Pisano, who is in New Mexico, told about the dynamics of collaboration between Amiri Baraka and Edward Dorn during the 1950’s and 1960’s civil rights era. This interracial friendship evolved through a ten year correspondence, evoking the world of stationary and stamps, as the two radical avant garde writers lamented the difficulties of earning a living and getting published. They offered each other tremendous support to keep on writing, while discussing back and forth their on-going works, clarifying their thoughts and language.
Poet, Roger Reeves energetically and vigorously recited his powerful and moving verse. Like so many younger poets, he didn’t even a glance at a piece of paper. His direct language, delivery and themes contributed to the on-going conversation of the afternoon, such as in his poem describing himself going for a run and being pursued by racial taunts. In his poem evoking the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Reeves transforming images into the mythology of the ritual murdering of the King – leaving the sense of the resurrection and rebirth inherent in this literary myth, bringing to my mind a reference to Martin Luther King.
Edwidge Danticat was in her native Haiti and unable to attend. The lovely Haitian poet, Boadiba, spoke about Edwidge’s popular new novel “Claire of the Sea Light.” The novel speaks about grief and its effects on an impoverished Haitian fishing village with interjections of the Creole language, poetic descriptions and poetry.
Throughout the afternoon, noted author Ishmael Reed remarked on the historic development of the Black writers movement. His introduction to Askia M. Toure revealed the rich milieu of Black voices over the decades. Reed’s words illuminated the whole literary scene, rich in debate over tactics and language, interwoven with dynamic personal friendships and social action.
Another issue that overlapped and intertwined with literature was racism and protest politics. The streets around the Oakland Public Library where we were assembled were alive with protests against the institutional police violence against Blacks. The protests inspired my poem, “Black Lives Matter,” which I read during the ceremony. (See the video above). We were close to the Berkeley border where the civic action would soon spread. The ceremony seemed immersed in the central events of the moment and it felt so right.
Both Reed and Toure painted a picture of the historic debates in and around the civil rights movement. Once again the conversation bounced back to Amiri Baraka. Reed reported how Toure had introduced Baraka to the concepts and ideas of Black Power in the early sixties that led to late writer’s transformation from Leroy Jones to Amiri Baraka and eventually to a leadership role in the Black writers movement.
Askia Toure, activist, teacher and editor was a fountain of fascinating oral history about SNCC, Civil Rights, the Black Panthers and the Black Arts movements. Askia was a griot, (traditional West African storyteller and history keeper) as one compelling story flowed into the next.
This led quite naturally into Akinyele Omowate Umoja’s discussion of his book “We Will Fight Back.” Through his use of oral history, archival material, and scholarly literature, Umuja explained how Black armed self defense complimented non-violent action by Civil Rights activists and supporters in Mississippi during the voter registration campaigns. I was surprised a few days later when I came across a live video of New York City Broadway performing artists in a Times Square protest against the racist police killings, ending their highly effective piece with the words “We will shoot back.”
Umoja’s view of Black armed self defense was confirmed by Askia Toure who recounted ancedotes of heroic and resourceful share croppers who scared off KKK attacks with a show of force. Shotguns and other arms were a common part of Mississippi Black rural life.
Ishmael Reed told the shocking story from Abraham Bolden’s book, “The Echo From Dealey Plaza: The True Story of the First African-American on the White House Secret Service Detail and His Quest for Justice After the Assasination of JFK.” Bolden came up through the ranks of police security to protecting the president of the United States. As the only Black, he was taunted by his fellow secret service workers who were negligent in protecting President Kennedy because of his racial integration policies. When Bolden reported their laxness after the assassination, he was framed, fired and imprisoned.
The only writer absent and unrepresented that day, but sorely missed, was Daniel Chacon, author of “Juarez: Stories, Loops and Rooms.” I was looking forward to Chacon’s work as this acclaimed story writer writes stories in the very newest genre, flash fiction, set along the US Mexican border. I hope the Bay Area will have a chance to hear him soon.
The afternoon ended with Adrian Arias’s comments about my poems. “Nina has the power” he said, “to connect reality with dreams, childhood with activism…” Quoting from my poem “All My Life There Has Always Been a War ” in my book, Heart Strong, Selected Poems 2000-2012 (page 134), he read…
At five, my first movie
There were men on horses killing each other
lots of men and lots of noise
lots of dust from horses hooves
It was the Frontier War to own America
but I didn’t like the killing
I left the dark theater
But the killing never stopped
“The simplicity of some poems,” Arias continued, “transports me into profound concepts.” He read an excerpt from my poem, “Gravity.” (p.45, Heart Strong)
My shoe, me and an elephant
obey the law of gravity
it is not a question of will, instinct or hunger
it is our basic condition
As the event closed down, I basked in the glow of the timeliness and relevance of PEN Oakland, it’s working class “Blue collar” point of view and emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism. While the chairs were stacked and books packed, the city prepared for more nights of protests and demands for social justice and equality.