Getting psyched about ModPo 2020

Posted on by Raymond Maxwell

Once upon a time there was an online poetry course called ModPo. And inside of ModPo forums there came to exist a discussion group known as The Breakfast Club where some really cool and creative ModPo students hung out. And yes, I joined that group, attracted to its coolness.

In ModPo’s second year, remnants of The Breakfast Club took the course again and renamed themselves Second Breakfast. More coolness and more creativity. And there was spillover into social media, into ModPo Alumni groups, into Coursera Cafe, into affinity groups observing NaPoWriMo, NaHaiWriMo, Postcard Poetry Month, DiGiWriMo, and countless others. Some formed unstructured groups that followed each other on Twitter. Some formed more professional writing groups. And blogs. Many had blogs where they showcased their own poetry. Some even became teachers of poetry. All spillover from ModPo forums.

Many original members of The Breakfast Club and Second Breakfast became community teaching assistants. They hung out in a new forum group called Coffee and Tea.

In 2014-2015 I worked as a librarian and a teacher of library instruction to freshmen, sophomores, and business students. That was quite a scope-widening experience, I can say in retrospect. But it was my lowest participation year in ModPo and I really missed it.

By 2016, some groups took on a slightly political persuasion, mostly in support of the Democratic candidate. And a few went to the opposing end of the spectrum. Poetry is like that, you know.

It was in 2016 that I completed docent training at the Library of Congress. And it was in conducting tours of the Jefferson Building that I discovered what poetry really was/is. In explaining the gaps between the John White Alexander murals that make up the exhibit, The Evolution of the Book, I had the following epiphany: Poetry began as the first manifestation of the oral tradition, a by-product of the mixture of ritual, religious experience, and human brain evolution. It was carved or inscribed into walls of human habitations, just like Facebook or Twitter, then clay tablets, and finally, paper. But mainly, it was recited out loud, at parties and ceremonies and religious events. It was committed to memory and passed down through generations, each level adding value and depth and richness.

Extending the metaphor, poetry arose as the original transcript of the sacred conversation (Google that one!) and the meeting minutes of the Beloved Community (look that one up too!). At an even higher level, poetry is the language of the demarche, a conversation between princes that became the structure and the art of diplomacy (you can’t look that one up because I haven’t written the book yet!).

I have given you a lot of homework. It’s another election year in America, after all. Perhaps I’ve invited you into my echo chamber, my parallel universe. But ModPo is not a cult, it’s a way of thinking about life.

p.s. Here is the link to ModPo:

Edgar A Guest – Myself

I have to live with myself and so
I want to be fit for myself to know.
I want to be able as days go by,
always to look myself straight in the eye;
I don’t want to stand with the setting sun
and hate myself for the things I have done.

I don’t want to keep on a closet shelf
a lot of secrets about myself
and fool myself as I come and go
into thinking no one else will ever know
the kind of person I really am,
I don’t want to dress up myself in sham.

I want to go out with my head erect
I want to deserve all men’s respect;
but here in the struggle for fame and wealth
I want to be able to like myself.
I don’t want to look at myself and know that
I am bluster and bluff and empty show.

I never can hide myself from me;
I see what others may never see;
I know what others may never know,
I never can fool myself and so,
whatever happens I want to be
self respecting and conscience free.

ModPo 2019 – week 1 – pt 1

During today’s live webcast I actually wished I had done this last night. So pertinent to the discussion.

OK, Let’s take the plunge. Three PhD’s in Brazil decided to take on Augusto de Campos, noted Brazilian Dickinson translator. What follows is a brief drive by of what they mentioned (and what they missed, IMHO).

The poems were #760 and #448. Let me see if I can pull it into the block here:

OK, that worked.

  1. A constant Dickinson theme: pain. Calling it an “Element of Blank” doesn’t really translate well. A word is used, “Vazio” which connotes emptiness.
  2. They pay a lot of attention to Dickinson’s rhyming schemes, often hidden through the use of imperfect rhymes in English, but brought to the forefront in Portuguese, though still, at best, though not always, imperfect (in short, looks like a rhyme but does not sound like one), Dickinson using ABCB, while in translation, ABAB, makes the “pain” more focused and more acute by concentrating it in a tighter rhyme).
  3. Here is something they miss. Dickinson’s English uses the subjunctive (where it begun-or if there were a time) while in translation the preterite (begun) and the imperfect (it were) are used to express the same uncertainty. Not cool, really, for conveying the uncertainty of pain’s origin. Should have gone straight subjunctive.
  4. In exchange of just getting the grammar right, they focus on line breaks, or enjambment, as a way to maintain the “syntactical anomaly” of the subjunctive mood, “if there were/a time.
  5. In line two of verse one, the Brazilian translation abandons “cannot recollect” (which I think has a certain strength, especially in its alliteration) and replaces it with “nao sabe (One does not know), leaving the reader a bit flatter than had they used “recordar, as in nao pode recordar, which provides the slight sound repetition effect of the English original.
  6. More stuff in the second verse but let me not bore you to tears. Suffice it to say translation of poetry is a tricky proposition. And we are merely amateurs!
  7. OK. What do y’all think?

Anne Spencer’s “Lady, Lady”

(Note: I was a bit tossed about whether to make this final submission a poem or another of her beautiful notes to Professor Locke. At length I decided upon this poem, Lady, Lady, for two reasons: one, because the draft included in the correspondence has a stanza that has been excluded from the anthologized version; and two, because the excluded stanza contains the referenced words, “air” and “shepherdess,” contained in the first handwritten note we discussed.)

Lady, Lady, I saw your face
Dark as night witholding a star. . .
The chisel fell, or it might have been
You had borne so long the yoke of men.

Lady, lady, I saw your hands,
Twisted, awry, like crimpled roots,
Bleached poor white in a sudsy tub,
Wrinkled and drawn from your ruba-dub.

(the excluded stanza)
Lady, lady, I saw your air:
Oh, delicate, distant shepherdess,
Pastoral fold and hours that run,
Held by clouds from the burning sun.

Lady, Lady, I saw your heart,
And altared there in its darksome place
Were the tongues of flame the ancients knew,
There the good God sits to spangle through!


(And handwritten at the bottom of the page)

“Lady – Lady is in general the hub of our group. Specifically, she is my laundress.”

this is one of my favorite Anne Spencer poems: Translation

This is one of my favorite Anne Spencer poems. Nothing beats taking a long walk with a dear friend. Linked to Poetry Foundation site.


We trekked into a far country,

My friend and I.

Our deeper content was never spoken,

But each knew all the other said.

He told me how calm his soul was laid

By the lack of anvil and strife.

“The wooing kestrel,” I said, “mutes his mating-note

To please the harmony of this sweet silence.”

And when at the day’s end

We laid tired bodies ’gainst

The loose warm sands,

And the air fleeced its particles for a coverlet;

When star after star came out

To guard their lovers in oblivion—

My soul so leapt that my evening prayer

Stole my morning song!

a summer ModPo discussion

Note: I chose this because I was able to find some of the poet’s thoughts on it in a letter she wrote to one of the professors at Howard, Alain Locke, called by some the Father of the New Negro Renaissance. I’ll include the text of the note at the end and we can discuss.

Lines to a Nasturtium – Anne Spencer

A lover muses

Flame-flower, Day-torch, Mauna Loa,
I saw a daring bee, today, pause, and soar,
Into your flaming heart;
Then did I hear crisp crinkled laughter
As the furies after tore him apart?
A bird, next, small and humming,
Looked into your startled depths and fled…
Surely, some dread sight, and dafter
Than human eyes as mine can see,
Set the stricken air waves drumming
In his flight.

Day-torch, Flame-flower, cool-hot Beauty,
I cannot see, I cannot hear your fluty
Voice lure your loving swain,
But I know one other to whom you are in beauty
Born in vain;
Hair like the setting sun,
Her eyes a rising star,
Motions gracious as reeds by Babylon, bar
All your competing;
Hands like, how like, brown lilies sweet,
Cloth of gold were fair enough to touch her feet…
Ah, how the senses flood at my repeating,
As once in her fire-lit heart I felt the furies
Beating, beating.

Here is the note (transcribed): (from the papers of Alain Locke, Box 164-86, Folder 39. Howard University Moorland Spingarn Research Center)

Dunbar Branch
Jones Memorial Library
Lynchburg, Virginia


No, My dear, I do not feel that ‘air” and “shepherdess” are responsible for throwing the mind away from the central theme – “idealization of the commonplace.” I used “air” to indicate bearing, spiritual bearing: the ‘shepherdess,’ Sir, hails not from Montana Expanses, but from all-souls Arcady. Alas, never to’ve see black women with this inside (underlined) air!

I read your letter slowly, so’s my joy in it might be lengthened.


Anne Spencer

(On the back, a postscript, sort of)

Do not bother to return “Nasturtium.” I have a copy. In that poem a burnt and disappointed lover soliliquises. Thanks.

Prelude to Our Age – A Negro History Poem – Langston Hughes (pt. 6)

Other hands whose fingers intertwine
With mine tell our story, too:
Park, Myrdal, Sinclair lewis,
Smith, Van Vechten, Bucklin Moon.
Surveys, novels, movies, plays
That trace the maze of patterns
Woven by democracy and me,
Now free.

And all the while
The rising power of my vote
Helping to build democracy –
My vote, my labor, lodges, clubs,
My N.A.A.C.P. –
The National Association
For the Advancement
Of Colored People –

All the way from a Jim Crow dining car
To the United States Supreme Court –
For the right to get a meal on a train.

All the way from a Jim crow School
To the United States Supreme Court –
For the right to equal education.

All the way from ghetto covenants
To the United States Supreme Court –
For the right to housing free from segregation.

Thus I help to build democracy
For our nation.
Thus by decree across the history of our land –
The shadow of my hand:

All this
A prelude to our age:

Is another

Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem – Langston Hughes (pt. 5)

Booker T. –
A school, Tuskegee.
Paul Laurence Dunbar –
A poem,a song, a “Lindy Lou.”
Fisk University and its Jubilees.
Black Congressmen of Reconstruction days.
Black comics with their minstrel ways,
Then Williams & Walker, “In Dahomey,” “Bandana Land”
Ragtime sets the pattern for a nation’s songs
and Handy writes the blues
For me –
Now free.

Free to build my churches and my schools –
Mary McLeod Bethune.
Free to explore clay and sweet potatoes –
Dr. Carver.
Free to take our songs across the world –
Anderson, Maynor, Robeson,
Josephine Baker, Florence Mills,
Free to sit in councils of the nation –
Johnson, Hastie, Dawson, Powell.
Free to make blood plasma –
Charles R. Drew.
Free to move at will in great migrations
South to North across the nation –
Savannah to Sugar Hill,
Rampart Street to Paradise Valley,
Yamakraw to yale.
Free to fight in wars as other s do –
Free – yet segregated.

As man or soldier

The 10th Calvary at San Juan Hill:
“As I heard one of the Rough Riders say,”
Wrote Theodore Roosevelt,
“‘They can drink out of our canteens.'”

The 369th Infantry at Champagne:
To Henry Johnson
and to Needham Roberts,
The Croix de Guerre.

The 322nd Fighter Group over the Mediterranean:
To more than 80 pilots,
The Distinguished Flying Cross.

In the Pacific, the Navy Cross to Dorie Miller.
Me, hero and Killer.
(Yet segregated.)

Me, peacemaker, too –
Ralph Bunche
Between the Arab
and the Jew.

Du Bois, Woodson, Johnson, Frazier,
Robert S. Abbott, T. Thomas Fortune,
“The Afro-American,” “The Black Dispatch.”
All the time the written record grows –
“The Crisis,” “Phylon,” “Opportunity,”
Schomburg, McKay, Cullen, “Native Son,”
Papers, stories, poems the whole world knows –
The ever growing History of man
Shadowed by my hand:

Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem – Langston Hughes (pt. 4)

Yet Ira Aldridge played Shakespeare in London.
Frederick Douglass ran away to freedom,
Wrote books, made speeches, edited “The North Star.”
Sojourner Truth made speeches, too.
Harriet Tubman led her marches.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” swept the nation –
While we, who were not free and could not write a word,
Gave freedom a song the whole earth heard:

Oh Freedom!
Freedom over me!
Before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord
And be free.

Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey
and thousands nameless went home.
Black men died at Harpers Ferry with John Brown.
Lovejoy, Garrison, Wendell Phillips spoke.
The North Star guided men along the Quaker underground
To Canada – hills to cross, rivers to ford.
Sermons, revolt, prayers, Civil War –

Mine eyes have seen the glory
of the coming of the Lord!

Once slaves –
“Henceforth and forever free.”

My Lord, what a morning,
My Lord, what a morning,
My Lord, what a morning,
When the stars began to fall!

Prelude to Our Age: A Negro History Poem – Langston Hughes (pt.3)

Part 2

Yet Boston’s Phillis Wheatley, slave, wrote her poems,
And Washington, the general, praised –
Washington who righted wrong –
But those of us who had no rights
made an unwritten song:

Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
And tell old Pharaoh
To let my people go….

Black Crispus Attucks died
That our land might be free.
His death
Did not free me.
When Banneker made his almanac
I was not free.
When Toussaint freed the blacks of Haiti,
I was not free.

In other lands Dumas and Pushkin wrote –
But we,
Who could not write, made songs:

Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home…
Oh, I looked over Jordan
And what did I see –

Phillis, Crispus, Toussaint,
Banneker, Dumas, Pushkin,
All of these were me –
Not free:

As long as one
Man is in chains,
No man is free.

Click here for Part 4.