The Operating System

6th ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 16 :: Alena Singleton on Lena Ruth Singleton

HAPPY POETRY MONTH, FRIENDS AND COMRADES!

For this, the 6th Annual iteration of our beloved Poetry Month 30/30/30 series/tradition, I asked four poets (and previous participants) to guest-curate a week of entries, highlighting folks from their communities and the poets who’ve influenced their work.

I’m happy to introduce Janice Sapigao, Johnny Damm, Phillip Ammonds, and Stephen Ross, who have done an amazing job gathering people for this years series! We’re so excited to share this new crop of tributes with you. Hear more from our four guest editors in the introduction to this year’s series.

Hungry for more? there’s 150 previous entries from past years here! You should also check out Janice’s piece on Nayyirah Waheed, Johnny’s piece on Raymond Roussel, Phillip’s piece on Essex Hemphill, and Stephen’s piece on Ronald Johnson’s Ark, while you’re at it.

This is a peer-to-peer system of collective inspiration! No matriculation required.
Enjoy, and share widely.

– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator

WEEK THREE :: CURATED BY PHILLIP J. AMMONDS

Poets are fingerprints
A menagerie of textures
that leave a unique cultural-
impression on the world

The seven poets that I have the honor of curating for the week of April 16-22, are varied in tone, approach, inspiration–but all have a thundering presence that thrums the strings in your soul. They demand that you be present and feel whatever you will.

Throughout this week, readers will take a journey through waves of love, self-reflection, mourning, discovery, tribute, longing and acceptance.
To hear these poets speak life into their muses and perform their work, please come to our reading, Tribute, at Dixon Place on Monday, April 24th at 7:30 PM.

Phillip J. Ammonds, a Brooklyn native, is a founding member of the writing collective Writeous, with whom he has co-produced three chapbooks.  Phillip curates Rainbows Across the Diaspora, the queer text reading series at Dixon Place in New York City. Phillip also performs his work as Trinity Rayn, Drag Poet.  His work has appeared in the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call (Vintage Entity Press, 2013),HIV: Here and Now Project, Yellow Mama and The Operating System.

Alena Singleton on Lena Ruth Singleton

This has been one of the hardest things that I’ve ever had to write. I am currently disabled due to autoimmune disease, and the act of writing this itself has been physically painful. But beyond the physical pain and labor of love that has gone into writing this, the process of putting this together has been emotionally excruciating. That is in part because I knew my favorite poet personally, and because she passed away unexpectedly a few short weeks ago. And sadly, reflecting on the work of my favorite poet and coming face to face with her passing came with the realization that in spite of the monumental impact that my favorite poet has had on the whole of my life, I have virtually nothing of hers to show you. In spite of the fact that she has written hundreds – if not thousands – of poems and several dozen plays… In spite of the fact that the honesty, tenderness and transparency of her words have likely done more to make me both the woman and the artist that I am than any other artist past or present… In spite of the fact that it is her work that first helped me to understand the power of language and later helped me to fall in love with words, as of her recent passing the whole of her work is now all but lost. And unless you had the distinct pleasure of knowing her while she was alive, it is entirely likely that you’ve never seen her work. And sadly, other than the few paltry lines I’ve managed to scrape together and offer for you here today, you might never see her words again. So not only am I dealing with the pain of her passing on a personal level, I’m stuck facing what feels like the end of an era.

My favorite poet, the woman that I choose to profile today, was named Lena Ruth Singleton. She was my maternal grandmother.

I was adopted and raised by my grandparents from a very young age. And for that reason, for as long as I can remember, my grandmother and the lessons with which she furnished my life have always felt like home. The woman had worn many hats throughout her life, and I was blessed enough to inherit the lessons and skills she’d learned from wearing each and every one of them. I learned to cook from a chef. I learned to clean from a professional washerwoman. I learned laughter and compassion from a woman who’d had a hand in raising more children than she could count. And I learned to read, write, and fall in love with words from a poet. I remember my childhood being filled with stories and plays and poems that she would pull directly from her old handwritten notebooks. Notebooks upon notebooks that she had amassed over a lifetime of chronicling her joys, her sorrows, her successes, her failures, her hopes and her aspirations and distilling them into lyrical tidbits, some of which were designed to share, and others I imagine were solely carved out so she would have a safe place to keep the longings of her heart. Even as a child, I remember how experiencing her words taught me to truly appreciate the subtle yet monumental differences between joy and elation, hope and longing, disappointment and despair, wanting for love and wanting for G_d. I would marvel at the way in which she could talk about a seed in such a way that you could almost smell the flower and couldn’t wait to see it bloom. She made words seem like magic. Her words made it possible to find parts of yourself that you didn’t know you’d lost. It was almost impossible to hear her words and not be moved.

Her words meant more to me, ironically, than words could describe. And I wish that I had more of her words to share with you. But sadly, due to a series of unfortunate family upheavals, broken relationships, long distances, unexpected moves, a physical house in desperate need of repair, an unexpected thunderstorm, and a cacophony of missed connections – I’m sure some unintentional, some contrived – my grandmother’s many notebooks were lost over time. But even still, I hadn’t lost hope for preserving her work. Indeed, just this past December I had a long telephone conversation with my grandmother during which I expressed my gratitude for all of the things that her poetry had taught me and mentioned that, in so far as possible, I wanted to begin chronicling her life journey. I especially wanted to help her remember some of the poetry she’d written that might otherwise be lost without her notebooks. I wanted to collect them from her mind while she was still here. We were both so excited about the prospect of doing so that we both hung up the phone in tears. I didn’t know that was the last conversation I’d have with her. She died not three weeks later.

I’m still struggling with her passing on every possible level. And in the rare moments when I’m able to face the fact that she is no longer physically here I’m faced with the fact that I’m stuck excavating obscure memories and tiny scraps of paper that I’ve collected in order to find her words and preserve her artistic legacy. And as much as I will always be able to remember her artistry through the emotional landscape it has helped to create in me, I’m stuck with the fact that I’ve only found one solitary poem of hers that I’m able to share in its entirety. It’s arguably the shortest poem she ever wrote, one that hangs in the middle of a page in an old poetry notebook of mine, a poem that I haphazardly scribbled down during a conversation that we’d had about writing that took place many years ago. It reads as follows:

Tangled in the thorns of tribulation,
we do not smell the rose of life.
And if we do not have
the memory of its fragrance,
Then we have lived in vain.

As much as it pains me that this is virtually all of her work that I can find, I can’t help but think of how fitting it is that this is the one complete poem of hers that I still have in my possession. Perhaps on some level, I chose to write those specific words of her into my own poetry notebook because even my early twenty-something self already knew that those words somehow encapsulated some of the best of what she’d taught me, both about poetry and about life. Maybe, on some cosmic level, I knew even then that those would be the very words of hers that I would need to remember upon her passing to help me stay sane. Maybe I knew that they would be the perfect reminder that although we must all endure our share of suffering and learn to navigate our own sorrows, there is no shortage of beauty to sustain us through the journey should we choose to see it, nurture it, and hold it dear. And in this moment, I can’t help but think that maybe it’s those very words/that very sentiment that lived at the seat of the soul of her poetry, the very heart of the thing that made her work so powerful to those of us who were lucky enough to hear it.

She had sifted through the prism of her mind and transformed them into something ethereal and transcendental”

Maybe without knowing it, I recognized that kernel of wisdom as quite possibly the single most important thing that anybody would or could ever teach me about writing.  Maybe it was just her way of putting into words the way she survived, and in turn the way she taught me to see everything in my life. And maybe knowing that so many of her deeds – both the things that she committed to poetry and the general way that she lived – were embued with this very spirit makes the loss of the rest of her poetry that much more tragic. I mourn that you may never witness the very many points of darkness that, through her own process, she had sifted through the prism of her mind and transformed them into something ethereal and transcendental. I can virtually guarantee that your life is just a little less beautiful for not having witnessed the healing ways in which she was able to make even simple joys seem resplendant, to elucidate the profane with an air of the sacred, to make even pain seem exquisite, to transmogrify even the most simple utterances into art.

Knowing what I know now, I wish that I could have done things differently. I wish I could have taken greater care to preserve my grandmother’s work. I’m sure that as time goes on and I am better emotionally equipped to go through our old letters and notes and things, I will be able to find more traces of her work and compile them all in one place. I always swore that one day I would help her publish her work for a broader audience and in a way it breaks my heart that this is all of hers that I have to offer today. It has been difficult facing that on some level I failed to live up to something that I always wanted to do – and not just for her, but for all of the people I knew would identify with her words and be moved by them. But then too, I can hope that in the spirit of my grandmother’s poetic drive that I can take this very personal and painful moment and turn it into an opportunity to celebrate something beautiful.

The experience of losing my grandmother’s poetry has, for me, underscored the need for us to celebrate our poets and artists now while we can. I am reminded that art is not a luxury, that for many of us it is a necessity. For creators and consumers alike, poetry is a way of keeping our spirits alive in a world that would otherwise drag us down. And to me it feels like a real shame for people to take something so amazing for granted. So in the spirit of this national poetry month project, I call upon my grandmother’s spirit and her voice, her words both lost and remembered, to honor and celebrate the myriad artists among us pouring the best parts of themselves out onto paper and doing the only thing we know how to do to make this world still feel like a place we can call home. Let us honor and not forget our poetic giants from the obscure and unassuming to the seemingly ubiquitous and well known. Let us not run the risk of losing or forgetting true beauty in a world where that very thing seems so scarce at times. Let us honor our poets and our ability to make shadows dance, to render the hidden visible and to remind us that even though we may be hurting, we are still beautiful.   

In closing, I offer this poem of mine, which is the only poem of mine that seems fitting in conversation with my grandmother’s words as listed above. I can only pray that these words do the eternal gift that she has given to me some modicum of justice. I pray that they would make her proud.

UNTITLED/RANDOM THOUGHTS

And why is it
That a flower is most beautiful
Just before it falls?
Perhaps it knows
That it will soon
Heave its last,
And in a fit of panic
(or passion)
Lives as though
It were dying,
In the off hope
That, on second thought,
It would realize
That it was still springtime
And continue to bloom.

Alena Singleton is a queer, beautiful, brown badass woman poet who lives and loves in Brooklyn. Love is her truth. Truth is her love. And she, unapologetically, has no interest in trying to be anybody other than EXACTLY who she is. That’s her radical act of self-love for the day.

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