Local gathering of verses, voices

Poetry: A Howard group hopes its annual reading event spurs interest and membership.

November 15, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

For people who attend the Howard County Center of African American Culture's community-sharing poetry event with expectations of a dull evening, something unforeseen usually happens - they actually have fun.

"People come to these poetry readings expecting to be bored, and they wind up being surprised," said Linda Joy Burke, the center's poet-in-residence. "It has happened every single time. That's why we keep doing it."

On Sunday at the center, the Howard County poetry group Poet's Hour will play host for its fourth poetry-sharing event - featuring award-winning Baltimore poet Reginald Harris Jr. - and the group hopes the audience will leave as impressed as in past years.

"Good poetry has the power to transmit a certain kind of energy, and that energy is life - it makes you feel alive," Burke said. "We hope that we're inspiring the people."

Poet and fiction writer Harris, head of the information technology support department of Enoch Pratt Free Library, has earned awards from the Maryland State Arts Council. He is also the editor of Kuumba: Poetry Journal for Black People in the Life and secretary of the Baltimore Writers' Alliance.

Harris, 41, said he plans to read poems that will focus on his family, New York, love and boxing, which he uses as a metaphor for people dealing with struggles in their lives.

He said his poetry generally centers on identity issues - "the notion of being, in a sense the fact that we are multiple people, we all have different facets and how those things fit together."

He said that while the issue of identity affects everyone, it is more prominent in the African-American community because of stereotypes and prejudice.

Harris also tries what he calls "memory work" through his poetry, by attempting to connect his audience with important events. He pointed out Sept. 11 and said that the nation is living in the "new normal." He wants to take the audience back to the "old normal" and consider what the country is fighting for.

"I do hope that it starts them thinking about their own lives and issues of their own concerns, to sort of look at those identity issues and start that process of remembering and connecting with things that are important," he said.

After Harris' readings, Poet's Hour members will share verse, then open the floor to audience members in an informal setting.

Usually 25 to 30 people attend the event and are asked to take food for potluck. But since Sept. 11, Burke said, "We're really careful about what we ask" because people are involved with volunteer work for other organizations.

"I think the poetry will be the food this year," Burke said.

Poet's Hour was founded by Pat Leak, a retired elementary school music teacher, in 1996 for those who are interested in poetry but don't plan to make it a career. A core group of 10 members meets every other month to share poetry and learn from established poets.

"I found there wasn't a place where beginning poets could share their work," Leak said.

Leak, of Columbia, said the group started the annual community-sharing event four years ago to gain more exposure and attract new members. Past featured readers include former slam poet Tonya Maria Matthews and members of the Diva Squad Poetry Collective.

Leak said the Poet's Hour membership, which started with 18 people, has dropped significantly. She hopes Sunday's event will attract more interest.

"We really, really welcome new people because really the group is waning," she said.

The event will be held from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Howard County Center of African American Culture, 5434 Vantage Point Road, Columbia. Information: 410-715-1921.

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