Arts and Entertainment

A peek at some poets at Brave New Words today

Suheir Hammad is one of the headliner poets today at Brave New Words poetry festival.  - Photo courtesy of Suheir Hammad
Suheir Hammad is one of the headliner poets today at Brave New Words poetry festival.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Suheir Hammad

With the debut of Brave New Words, Whidbey Island’s very own poetry festival happening today from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Greenbank Farm, the Record wraps up its pre-festival series of “A Peek at the Poets.”

One of the headliners this evening is Palestinian born Suheir Hammad. Hammad was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. and emerged from the New York hip hop scene with something to say.

This poet, playwright, sometime actor and all-the-time political activist made it big in the performance poetry scene when she helped to write and performed in the Tony Award-winning “Def Poetry Jam.”

Garnering a name for herself in the performance world, Hammad has rocketed into the limelight and performs internationally with a reputation as a poet to watch.

As to what she wants people to walk away with when they see her perform, Hammad is modest.

“I’m humbled still by the gathering of people to hear a poet recite her own work,” Hammad said.

“You can hope people feel a part of the reading themselves somehow, that they feel their time was respected. I do think these things matter to the experience of a reading and I hope to deliver the poems worthy.”

Along with the influence of the streets filled with b-boys and b-girls, Hammad draws from the stories told by her Palestinian parents and grandparents, from the place where a girl from urban America meets her roots on the front lines of the Muslim world, from love, from being a woman. It’s all in there, like music and its backbeat in life.

Here she writes of love in her poem “land”:

his approach

to love he said

was that of a farmer

most love like

hunters and like

hunters most kill

what they desire

he tills

soil through toes

nose in the wet

earth he waits

prays to the gods

and slowly harvests

ever thankful

“I’ve learned there are no two readings alike,” Hammad said. “As much as possible, I try to allow the magic of life to create the specific moment.”

The motivation of one’s roots plays a large part in the life and work of another of the Brave New Words performers.

JT Stewart calls herself a “public aritst.” She is a member of a group

of poets named La Jefa which means “the boss” in Spanish and Portuguese, and all of whom will perform at Brave New Words.

“In some aspects of black culture, the word ‘thing’ becomes ‘thang.’ So with that substitution in mind — and La Jefa’s theme of cultural collisions — I’ll be reading poems about the ‘woman thang’ and the ‘urban African diaspora thang,’” Stewart said.

Stewart said her poems have a relationship to one of her favorite motivations for writing — a Bahamian proverb:

Never mind the noise in the market;

pay attention to the price of fish.

The source of a poem carries as much weight as the way in which it evolves, she noted. The women of La Jefa count some of those sources as race, gender and identity from which a poet can be led down any number of paths, both modern and historical, toward the gift of a poem.

In her first poem, published in 1987, Stewart took the story from the Greeks, based on a myth of dragon slayers who would bury the teeth of their prey. From such seeds would grow armed soldiers as a caution to the world. The slayers were sometimes known as “civilization heroes,” Stewart said.

In “Dragon’s Teeth,” she writes:

Bury what you hate


old wounds will rise up

to chew your guts and brains


Excedrin will not help

“Ironically, my first-ever published poem sets the tone and intent for so much of my work,” the poet said.

Stewart said she looks forward to Brave New Words.

“I learn so much from hearing and seeing how large, diverse audiences react to my work — especially as I deal with cultural issues that have the power to both intimidate and silence us; cause us to lose or deny rational behavior,” Stewart said.

She likes the fact that festival audiences give her the chance for “call and response” work; something she said that encourages audience participation similar to patterns drawn from ancient cultures and wisdoms.

Another of La Jefa poets, Felicia Gonzalez, will also be answering the call to Brave New Words.

Like Hammad, Gonzalez is an alum of Hedgebrook and said she appreciates the writers retreat partnership with the new festival and a community that is invested in National Poetry Month.

“I’m delighted to have been invited to help forge new words, new ways in the debut Brave New Words festival,” Gonzalez said. “It’s especially gratifying to know there is both a hunger and commitment to poetry on Whidbey Island.”

Having been born and raised in Cuba, Gonzalez said she identifies with the Latin American take on poetry.

“Poets are with other artists, with other people in the community. Poetry is both on the page and on the stage.

“I’ve heard musicians talk about how ideas are generated when sitting in with other musicians. This is true for me as a poet,” she added. “Performing for a live audience forces you to inhabit the words and to be a conduit for the meaning words carry into the world.”

In her poem “What I know” (after Adrienne Rich’s “From an Atlas of the Difficult World”), Gonzalez creates a anthem to getting the words out. She writes:

I am reading your poem where solitude does not exist and blackness is a sin

I am reading your poem in corners where my hair turns white, and we stumble

on the accumulation of life

I am reading your poem where the police check on houses, looking for another who may look like me

I am reading your poem where my mother’s smile leaves a demarcation of bitterness swallowed

I am reading your poem where only skeletons live

I am reading your poem where the alphabet is a weapon, sometimes in the wrong hands

I am reading your poem in an act of defiance, knowing silence will not save my life

As to what makes a good poetry festival, Gonzalez said, both the artists and the audience bring the unknown.

“The experience of art stays with us, makes an impact, becomes truly unforgettable when it challenges us. We know we’ve experienced something of value when it changes us,” Gonzalez said.

Molly Larson Cook is a Whidbey Island poet who will challenge the great unknown with her knack for spontaneity and lightness when she acts as one of the festival’s emcees for the day.

Cook, raising poets and writers herself as the owner of the Skylark Writing Studio at Bayview Corner, will share some of her poems as well.

Like other local poets, Cook said she has great confidence in festival director Victory Lee Schouten and her ability to make it all fly with colors.

“I’m delighted to be part of the Brave New Words festival,” Cook said. “I think it’s aptly named, a brave venture on behalf of poetry and poets.

“For most of us, our earliest literary experiences come in the shape of poetry: Mother Goose, cradle songs, jump-rope rhymes, chants,” Cook explained. “The energy of a festival like this is hard to describe, but it can take us back to those roots which are, really, somewhat mystical. My grandson came to the festival two years ago when he was just 8 years old. He sat listening to a serious poet whose work I knew was beyond an 8-year-old’s understanding. But he was caught up in the rhythms and the words.

“If we let ourselves be young again, we’ll be caught up, too.”

As a poet, Cook let herself get caught up in the seafaring life of Maine’s picturesque coastline.

In her poem, “Going for Shrimp on Bailey Island,” Cook writes of an outsider’s perception of being taken inside the deep culture of a small New England enclave.

“Maine was a rich source for my poetry with its beautiful and often harsh landscapes and its always-unique people,” Cook said.

“It means something to be a Mainer and they take that seriously.”

In this excerpt, she writes:

Crossing the narrow bridge over water

connecting land to land,

we drop down into the cove where

lobster boats ride idle...

The lobstermen turn in twos and threes,

pause in their stories, catch a glance

at unexpected guests and match us look for look...

To see Cook reading this and two other of her poems, go to the Record’s home page and click on Brave New Words.

Head out to Greenbank Farm today from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and see for yourself how the words can fly.

All-day tickets for the festival are $15 for adults, $5 for students.

Tickets will be on sale at the gate starting at 8:30 a.m. Visit for more info.

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