I started writing in earnest in the seventh or eighth grade. I'd always had a pretty vivid imagination, and comic books, particularly Batman, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, and Black Panther really got my attention. I used to create stories and draw my own characters, thinking that someday I'd work for Marvel or DC.
In high school, probably my sophomore year, an English teacher by the name of Eleanor Coucouvitis really stimulated my love for reading, writing and yes, poetry! She gave me a paperback copy of a Langston Hughes collection of poems. I was hooked. I devoured that book then sought out others by African American authors.
I read all the Langston Hughes books I could find, as well as Alex Haley's "Autobiography of Malcolm X," Countee Cullen's "Copper Sun," and James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time." I also inhaled even more poetry by Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka. I felt like I was reclaiming a lost heritage and discovering the soul of my people.
Meanwhile, I was compelled to read American classics like Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." I recall dutifully trudging through an ocean of Shakespeare, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Keats. Of the Elizabethans, my favorite poem ended up being Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." Throughout this intense period of high school reading, I was slowly developing my own poetic voice and a real understanding of metaphor, meter, and rhyme.
I read voraciously; and sometimes books were my favorite companions. Still, I had a great life in those youthful days, with lots of friends and a decent measure of popularity. I was a regular at the basketball court at Dugger Park and the West Medford Community Center. I also traveled on the MBTA to Cambridge and Boston for new adventures, parties, and girls. I was a good dancer and had a gift for gab. I managed to talk myself out of almost as much trouble as I talked myself into.
The sea change in my identity really occurred for me when I left my home in Medford and went down to Nashville in 1976 to major in English Literature at the famed, historically Black Fisk University. I had spent what they now call a "bridge year" working and saving up money to help with collegiate expenses, while deciding exactly what I wanted to study. I could also draw and paint quite well and been offered admission to Massachusetts College of Art, where I'd spent Saturdays in the spring of 1975, in a pre-college arts program. I remember, in particular, my painting class with renowned West Medford artist and educator Harriet Kennedy. I think she was pretty determined to make a serious artist out of me, but that wasn’t God’s plan for my life.
So in the late summer of 1976, my family all packed into my dad’s Chevy wagon and took me down to Nashville. I remember that my mother thought the surrounding neighborhood was really run down and didn’t want to leave me there. My dad and I did some heavy politicking and she finally relented. I remember her wiping away a few tears, kissing me on the cheek, and pressing a “Pentecostal handshake” into my trembling palms. I was excited for sure, but more than a little scared too.
My four-year experience at Fisk was absolutely the best. I reveled in the notion of being educated in an all-Black school that traced its roots all the way back to 1866. I was enthralled by the “sounds of blackness,” the music, the accents, the drums and the drama. I learned more about who we were as a people than I ever could have at a northern, mostly white school, and I’d been accepted to study at several. There is something miraculous about unapologetic blackness. Fisk University gave that to me and I remain forever in her debt because of it.
I was heavily influenced during that four years by a professor named Leslie M. Collins. Dr. Collins was an unparalleled scholar in African American literature, as well as an accomplished poet in his own right. He was a respected contemporary of the writer Arna Bontemps and the artist Aaron Douglas, both luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Dr. Collins or “Friend” as we were invited to call him, was the neatest, most precise, and most cultured man I’d ever met. He influenced me more as a scholar, a poet, and thinker than anyone else I can recall. I found a kindred spirit in him, and at times, I believe this made missing my folks and my West Medford neighborhood more bearable.
Those Fisk years were very good to me. I graduated with a BA in English, Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. My undergraduate experience convinced me that I could not only compete with the best academically, but that I could do it with a personal “swag” that was both unique and all my own.
I thought long and hard about taking a graduate fellowship at “the” Ohio State University, but I was too homesick to commit to another two years away from Massachusetts. So right after graduation exercises, we packed up the Chevy wagon and headed back to Medford, leaving my beloved Fisk University and hauling away a trunkful of great memories from four years that went by way too fast.
Fast forward to 1982…a good friend of my older brother suggested that I apply to Boston University for a new graduate fellowship RKO General was offering to diverse students in Communications Studies. I was working seasonal gigs with the National Park Service at the time and mulling over my professional prospects. I immediately applied and was accepted into that first class of RKO Communications Scholars in 1983. Now my writing skill would really be challenged. I remember going into the WRKO radio newsroom for my required internship in the summer of 1984. I thought that I could write well, but quickly learned that writing well was not enough. For the newsroom, you also had to be able to write fast.
I completed my fellowship in 1985. By that time, I was both confident in my writing and a mature student of American journalism. I thought I was on my way. I’d been a graduate teaching fellow, a radio news reporter and stringer, and a solid B+ student.
Poetry didn’t really factor into any of this. I’d essentially left all my ideas about being the next Langston Hughes, or Nikki Giovanni, back at Fisk. But once you’re bitten by the bug, all it takes is a little itch, before you start to scratch all over.
For the next 24 years, I held a number of jobs in Human Resources, Sales, Public Affairs, Client Relations, and Training and Development. Poetry would rear its head a bit throughout those years, as I was frequently asked to write pieces for special occasions and present for Black History Month, MLK Day, Kwanzaa, and other cultural or community celebrations. All the while, I didn’t realize that I was building toward something. Neither did my wife, Terésa, who married me in 1987, or my daughter Maya, who was born in 1994.
In 2009, I was separated from a talent management organization where I’d worked for almost 11 years. I was unemployed for about a year. It was during that year that I wrote and published my first volume of poetry, Brown Skin and the Bread of Life: A Poet’s Journey (2010). I determined that there would be no profanity, no misogyny, and no hip-hop “slickness”. I wrote poems above love, culture, social commentary, jazz, history, the Black Experience, and a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. I determined that I would only include poetry that my mother and father would be pleased to read. That remains a guiding principle of the three subsequent Brown Skin volumes too.
I’ve been blessed to find a modest, but growing audience for my work, as well as a community of supporters that have helped me self-publish. Writing poetry has not made me rich and money is always a concern. That remains true in 2020, but my Brown Skin book community has rallied to my side throughout three successful crowdfunding campaigns.
This year has already been a good one for me, as both a poet and a presenter. I was asked by the new Mayor of Medford, Breanna Lungo-Koehn, to write a poem for her Inauguration and this piece was very well received by the folks who attended that wonderful celebration. The piece is called “Heart of the City” and we actually produced a chapbook to sell as a memento of the occasion. Most of the 75 copies we printed up at the Medford Voke (I can say “Voke” ‘cause I’m old school.) have already been snapped up.
I also get to preview new poetry on a regular basis at the West Medford Community Center’s monthly First Fridays: Words and Music program. I host the two-hour event, where we feature an hour-long community-oriented panel discussion, followed by an hour of fantastic live music.
I am indeed Medford’s own Brown-Skinned Poet and I know that writing poetry is always going to be part of my life. I’m currently adding the finishing touches to my fifth book, "Brown Skin and the Brave New World: A Poet’s Anthem." It’s due to be released this spring.
Here are two websites to check out for more information on who I am and what I’m up to… www.brownskinnedpoet.net and https://www.gofundme.com/time-to-publish-brown-skin-book-five