Denise Gantt was a fifth-grader growing up in Harford County when she came across a poem by Amiri Baraka titled Preface for a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, which she said "was the most phenomenal piece of writing I had ever encountered." The inspiration she received paid off.
Gantt, a poet ever since, is now the winner of Artscape's Maryland Emerging Voices Competition & Award, a contest sponsored by WordHouse Books, an imprint of the Baltimore Writer's Alliance.
"I thought the way she weaves in different cultural differences and the quality of the lyric really appealed to me," says poet Afaa Michael Weaver, this year's judge.
The award includes the publication of Gantt's full-length manuscript conjuring the dead, and the opportunity to read at several Baltimore literary events. Previous Artscape writing contests have offered prizes of cash, a performance of the author's work, or a chapbook. Publication is a treasured prize at a time when presses are often reluctant to take a chance on a little-known poet. The contest, open to Maryland residents, drew about 40 submissions.
"I feel very excited, lucky and blessed," says Gantt, 40, who uses the pen and stage name Kumani.
Sam Schmidt, editor at WordHouse Books in Baltimore, says the contest will "help authors in the area by giving them a steppingstone to greater promise." He says it will likely be an annual event, with the genre rotated between poetry and fiction.
WordHouse, in existence for 1 1/2 years, publishes only Maryland authors. It has put out Thy Mother's Glass, an anthology of poetry about mother-daughter relationships, and Poetry Baltimore, an anthology of poems about the city, edited by Schmidt and his wife, Virginia Crawford.
"I love the literary community in this town," says Schmidt, a former acquisition editor of the JHU Press and a frequent volunteer at the Baltimore Book Festival. "I want to see something happen and give opportunities to younger, newer poets. It's not a commercial enterprise."
The Baltimore Writer's Alliance, a volunteer organization, will use the sales from Gantt's book to support local writers.
Most of Gantt's work tends to derive from personal experience, and she says: "I tend to focus on feelings much more than pictures. Emotions are what drive me to write."
She dedicated her book to Rebecca Rice, who was artist associate at Center Stage; Gantt was the director of Theater for a New Generation, an outreach and education program. Rice, who died in April 2002 from cancer, was also the judge of the 1997 Artscape one-act play contest, won by Gantt. Rice told her it is everyone's birthright to make art.
"She was a friend and close colleague of mine," says Gantt, as well as "an incredible artist in her own right." Gantt ends her poem The Sacred Bread, dedicated to Rice, with the bittersweet line "I am a sweeter sacrament because of you."
Gantt has held writing workshops at the Rebecca Project (named for Rice), a two-year-old arts and advocacy program for women in drug recovery. She has also written and acted in several theater projects; most recently, she wrote and performed in a play for the Baltimore Theater Project titled angels & ancestors. The play, about women who survived the African diaspora, closed in June. Many of its themes overlapped with those in her soon-to-be-published book.
"It is about how black women negotiate their lives in a culture that doesn't always embrace them," she says.
She is working on a promotional video of the play and hopes to take it to other cities, as well as to have additional performances in Baltimore. Gantt's words take command of the page and she isn't afraid to take on difficult topics such as cancer and rape. Her poems often focus on themes such as loss, religion, and growing up African-American in a society dominated by white people.
Perhaps Kumani, which means destiny, has guided her good fortune. She changed her name a few years ago, in part because "my road as an artist hasn't been the most straight road. There have been lots of twists and curves in it."
"What I'm trying to do in poetry and plays is to touch truth," says Gantt. "I believe that no matter what kind of art form you're dealing with, when you touch a personal truth, you're able to reach a universal truth."
Denise Gantt will read her poetry at Artscape at 12:30 p.m. today.
Passport for the Recently Dead
At first there is a light unnamable
like original thought,
you will not understand its meaning,
but it will be familiar like that first tear
that hurled you from the belly of a lonely soul
into the world.
The light will point,
counter to all your instinct,
toward a destination tunneled in REM.
Surprised by Death,
you will tumble until the inside is out.
One day old, the light will fashion
another playground, as the angels weep
and loved ones search your meat body for air,
Death stealing kisses,
only to rake them in rapture.
Don't be frightened
when those earthbound rituals
try to excavate your dream.
The living will be home soon --
the conjuring of the dead
always and forever a loud shout.
-- Kumani, from the soon-to-be-published conjuring the dead from WordHouse Books.