Night of Poetry at August Wilson Center

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On Oct. 14, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture opened its new glass doors to award-winning poets, Terrance Hayes, Afaa Michael Weaver and Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. The event was co-sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and emceed by Toi Derricotte, poet and professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.

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THE POETS—From left: Terrance Hayes, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon and Afaa Michael Weaver.

From the introductions to the very last word, the night was filled with poignant lyricism, shared kinship and enough stories to light a halo over Pittsburgh.

The event was an extension of the center’s mission to not only produce artistic events that showcase the diverse, unique talent of African-American artists, but to also educate the community about the vast, triumphant, and turbulent experiences that have crafted the African-American socio-cultural experience in these United States. “We want to maximize our ability to reach the community through different genres, and poetry is a way to convey to the community in a rhythmic, flowing, Afrocentric way,” Vernon Tipton, Ed.D., and director of Education and Public Programs for AWCAAC, said.

As they read, the three poets fed of each other’s energy and words.

Clief-Stefanon, assistant professor of English at Cornell University, read from her books, “Open Interval” (2009) and “Black Swan” (2001), dazzling the audience with her bright, open spirit and unforgettable phrases like “the stars throw down shanks,” and “unbuckled myself from a man.”

Clief-Stefanon told the story of driving past the home of Harriet Tubman en route to a maximum security men’s prison, where she taught writing.

Taking the baton that Clief-Stefanon had raised in tribute to Tubman, Hayes, professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University, read his poem, “The Avocado,” which embraces the Black Power movement even while it throws in humor like a pinch of salt. As a preface to the poem, Hayes shared the story of the computer lab takeover of 1969 that led to what is now the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh. In typical fashion, the Guggenheim Fellow and Puschart Prize-winning poet mesmerized the audience with poems that held lines like “drowning in the arms of a tree,” and “the slander in our sugar.” He read from “Wind in a Box” and a forthcoming book of poetry due out next spring.

“I’m interested in post-civil rights race, which has something to do with integration, but not just that. There’s still doubt.  There are still questions about what it means to be living in space with White people and other ethnic groups,” Hayes said.  Hayes is also the author of “Muscular Music” (2002), and “Hip Logic” (2006).

When Afaa Michael Weaver read, it was like the sound of many rivers crashing into each other, in a peaceful, subtle ferocity that was also quite lovely. Weaver was the first African-American to hold the poet-in-residence position at the Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, and has also taught in Taiwan. He is alumnae professor of English and the director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center. He is the author of seven books of poetry, the latest of which is “The Plum Flower Dance: Poems 1985 to 2005.”

The poets have shared history as affiliates with Cave Canem, the poetry organization founded by Derricotte and poet Cornelius Eady to support, extol and launch African- American poets into the literary world. “[The AWCAAC] is making the connections and the circle. August Wilson was a supporter of Cave Canem.  From 1996 (the year the organization was founded), until he died, he made a significant contribution.  It’s a wonderful circle.

“Now, Cave Canem comes to him,” Derricotte said.

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