From The American Poet Who Went Home Again
In my life as a poet, change meant employing my pen to acknowledge the deaths and lives of people I had loved for as long as I could remember but who suddenly were gone. I noticed for the first time how closely the word “elegy” resembles the word “eulogy” when I wrote my first one in 1996 to commemorate the life of Sylvester Griffin, known and loved by family members as “Uncle Buster.” I could have written Uncle Buster’s “Elegy for a Winged Lion” without having returned home but it is not likely I would have traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, to recite it at his funeral had I not been in Savannah. What I had no way of knowing at the time was that his was only the first of many. In the years to follow would compose elegies for friends, cousins, sisters, a mother, and a father. Most of them I would share, some I would not.
At one point, I realized I was experiencing the vocation of the poet as prophet or griot or shaman, bearing witness through verse to the sanctity of a given life. The revelation was a deeply humbling one because I did not know how to accept myself in such a role. Then others pointed out that may have been the primary reason I found myself playing it.
Whereas I started often writing poetry that chronicled the lives of others, I made the surprising discovery one day that others were writing poetry that chronicled mine. Sometimes, upon reading these works, I had to touch my face and take deep breaths to make sure I was not some spirit reading about his own death. For some reason, recognizing myself as a son, a brother, a warrior, a lover, an African American, a journalist, historian, or fiction writer had been easy. Believing I had earned the right to call myself a poet was not. Through the words of others, it turned out each time I read them that I was learning about my life, or, put more accurately, about my life as seen through the pens of poets across the country and across the ocean. I called it a baptism in flaming ink that forced me to shed my shyness about recognizing myself as a poet and to accept the fact that life had never given me any choice in the matter. And then I had to discover exactly what that meant.
To be an American poet is to be a poet not only of the self but of the people, in both the smaller communal sense of the word ‘people’ as well as the larger sense of that word, whether one wishes to be both or not. The American identity has never been a singular one and the voices of poets invariably sing, in addition to their own, the voices of those around them. Consequently, in the pages of The American Poet Who Went Home Again, readers experience the stories, meetings, and events that unfolded upon my own journey back home and that expanded my awareness of both me and the city where I was born.
These are stories of what it means to leave home as a youth seeking one’s individual fortune only to return as an adult suddenly responsible for the well-being of a parent, stories of what it means to strive to live the life of an artist while fully embracing one’s reality as an ordinary human being, of pressing forward in the face of tragedy and shakily standing one’s ground on legs of faith when it seems there is no safe or solid ground left on which one can stand.
Author of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love