Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Reflections of an African-American Mother)” by Margaret Burroughs

Center for Poetry intern, Jayla Harris-Hardy chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say: “This obviously isn’t a very upbeat poem, but I think it’s necessary right now considering the current racial climate of the university. Official emails have been sent out to the students about “possible” incidents of racial bias, some specifically targeted towards black students. As a black person with a decent amount of common sense and an understanding of some people’s worst prejudices, I saw these incidents as threats against the safety of many of the people of color at the university. These incidents don’t seem to be taken as seriously by those in charge, which of course angered a lot of already angry students. I think the student body, and more specifically, the students of color need to stand unified in these and future events in order to hold each other up and keep everyone afloat in dangerous tides. It’s difficult being a person of color, and I think our readers can see a glimpse of that in the poem, and how it’s also still something to celebrate.”

What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black (Reflections of an African-American Mother)


What shall I tell my children who are black

Of what it means to be a captive in this dark skin

What shall I tell my dear one, fruit of my womb,

Of how beautiful they are when everywhere they turn

They are faced with abhorrence of everything that is black.

Villains are black with black hearts.

A black cow gives no milk. A black hen lays no eggs.

Bad news comes bordered in black, black is evil

And evil is black and devils’ food is black…

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What shall I tell my dear ones raised in a white world

A place where white has been made to represent

All that is good and pure and fine and decent.

Where clouds are white, and dolls, and heaven

Surely is a white, white place with angels

Robed in white, and cotton candy and ice cream

and milk and ruffled Sunday dresses

And dream houses and long sleek cadillacs

And angel’s food is white…all, all…white.

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What can I say therefore, when my child

Comes home in tears because a playmate

Has called him black, big lipped, flatnosed

and nappy headed? What will he think

When I dry his tears and whisper, “Yes, that’s true.

But no less beautiful and dear.”

How shall I lift up his head, get him to square

His shoulders, look his adversaries in the eye,

Confident of the knowledge of his worth,

Serene under his sable skin and proud of his own beauty?

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What can I do to give him strength

That he may come through life’s adversities

As a whole human being unwarped and human in a world

Of biased laws and inhuman practices, that he might

Survive. And survive he must! For who knows?

Perhaps this black child here bears the genius

To discover the cure for…Cancer

Or to chart the course for exploration of the universe.

So, he must survive for the good of all humanity.

He must and will survive.

I have drunk deeply of late from the foundation

Of my black culture, sat at the knee and learned

From Mother Africa, discovered the truth of my heritage,

The truth, so often obscured and omitted.

And I find I have much to say to my black children.

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I will lift up their heads in proud blackness

With the story of their fathers and their fathers

Fathers. And I shall take them into a way back time

of Kings and Queens who ruled the Nile,

And measured the stars and discovered the

Laws of mathematics. Upon whose backs have been built

The wealth of continents. I will tell him

This and more. And his heritage shall be his weapon

And his armor; will make him strong enough to win

Any battle he may face. And since this story is

Often obscured, I must sacrifice to find it

For my children, even as I sacrificed to feed,

Clothe and shelter them. So this I will do for them

If I love them. None will do it for me.

I must find the truth of heritage for myself

And pass it on to them. In years to come I believe

Because I have armed them with the truth, my children

And my children’s children will venerate me.

For it is the truth that will make us free!

Margaret Burroughs, “What Shall I Tell My Children Who are Black” from What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?.  Copyright © 1968, 1992 by Margaret Burroughs.  Reprinted by permission of the Margaret Burroughs Estate. 

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Song of the Witches: ‘Double, double toil and trouble’ by William Shakespeare

Center for Poetry intern Charlotte Krause chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say: “I chose this poem because I think it is a super fun and iconic poem for fall and especially Halloween. Shakespeare plays a huge part in how we think about witches today, and I think that this specific poem from Macbeth is just so fun. It’s full of spooky imagery that’s perfect for the season.”

Song of the Witches: “Double, double toil and trouble”

from Macbeth

Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,

In the caldron boil and bake;

Eye of newt and toe of frog,

Wool of bat and tongue of dog,

Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,

Lizard’s leg and howlet’s wing,

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

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Double, double toil and trouble;

Fire burn and caldron bubble.

Cool it with a baboon’s blood,

Then the charm is firm and good.

Macbeth: IV.i 10-19; 35-38

Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983)

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Willingly,” by Tess Gallagher

Center for Poetry intern, Kaylee McCarthy, chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say about it: “Tess Gallagher’s voice is luminous as she explores agency and choice. Through lush imagery and ambiguous perspective, she conveys the surreal quality of being in stasis in a changing world. ‘Willingly’ shifts effortlessly between dreaming and waking, painting a scene of light and rebirth.”

Join us this Wednesday, October 16, as Tess Gallagher and Alice Derry open our Fall Writing Series.


When I get up he has been long at work,
his brush limber against the house.
Seeing him on his ladder under the eaves,
I look back on myself asleep in the dream
I could not carry awake. Sleep
inside a house that is being painted,
whole lifetimes now only the familiar cast
of morning light over the prayer plant.
This “not remembering” is something new
of where you have been.

What was settled or unsettled in sleep
stays there. But your house
under this steady arm is leaving itself
and you see this gradual surface of
new light covering your sleep
has the greater power.
You think now you felt brush strokes or
the space between them, a motion
bearing down on you—accumulation
of stars, each night of them
arranging over the roofs of entire cities.

His careful strokes whiten the web,
the swirl of woodgrain blotted
out like a breath stopped
at the heart. Nothing has changed
you say, faithlessly. But something has
cleansed you past recognition. When
you stand near his ladder looking up
he does not acknowledge you,
and as from daylight in a dream you see
your house has passed from you
into the blessed hands of others.

This is ownership, you think, arriving
in the heady afterlife of paint smell.
A deep opening goes on in you.
Some paint has dropped onto your shoulder
as though light concealed an unsuspected
weight. You think it has fallen through
you. You think you have agreed to this,
what has been done with your life, willingly.

“Willingly” from Amplitude: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1987 by Tess Gallagher. Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved.

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “Like Vine Maple Red in the Fir,” by Alice Derry

Join us Wednesday, Oct. 16 as Alice Derry and Tess Gallagher open our Fall Writing Series.

Like Vine Maple Red in the Fir

The season turns.

The trees wound the streets.

We too want to be touched.

We press a scab

to feel the pain. Or tongue

that place in the mind

which yields a death.

Last week, your grandfather. The old coot,

95 and every relative furious and mute

by the time he was sixty.

So you don’t cry. It’s a big relief,

but we move about all week

wondering if eating is really appropriate.

His death is like vine maple red in the fir

on a hillside. Like meeting a deer in dark trees.

Not scary. Just a chill down the spine,

and the exhale is easy.

The lung cancer death of our friend’s father isn’t.

But we envy her trembling openness.

Every day the dark comes earlier. Their grip

loosened by frost, the leaves hold

a fevered light in their consumption.

Illuminated texts. Their authors were after

the burning bush—the voice

insistent, compelling.

© Alice Derry, 1986. Content downloaded from, 10/4/19; Published in Ploughshares, Vol. 12, No. 4 (1986), pp. 200-201

Posted in poem of the week

Poem of the Week: “WHEN I SAY THAT WE ARE ALL TEEN GIRLS” by Olivia Gatwood

Center for Poetry intern, Jillian Bowe, chose this week’s poem. Here’s what she had to say about it: “Olivia Gatwood is an unapologetic force bringing light to all the glory and frustration of being a girl. Her re-contextualization of the words “teen girl” in this piece, paired with her grace in captivating a stage, serves as a fresh reminder to those who minimize the validity of these girls and their lives that we are all, in some way, more “teen girl” than we think.”

View a live performance of this poem here.


by Olivia Gatwood

what I mean is that when my grandmother

called to ask why I didn’t respond to her letter,

all I heard was, Why didn’t you

text me back? Why don’t you love me?

And how can I talk about my grandmother

without also mentioning that if everyone

is a teen girl, then so are the birds, their soaring

cliques, their squawking throats,

and the sea, of course, the sea,

its moody push and pull, the way we drill

into it, fill it with our trash, take and take

and take from it and still it holds us

each time we walk into it.

What is more teen girl than not being

loved but wanting it so badly

that you accept the smallest crumbs and call

yourself full; what is more teen girl than

my father’s favorite wrench, its eternal loyalty

and willingness to loosen the most stubborn of bolts;

what is more teen girl than my mother’s chewed

nail beds, than the whine of the floorboards in her


What is more teen girl than my dog, Jack,

whose bark is shrill and unnecessary,

who has never once stopped a burglar

or heeled on command but sometimes

when I laugh, his tail wags

so hard it thumps against the wall, sometimes

it sounds like a heartbeat, sometimes I yell at him

for talking too much, for his messy room,

sometimes I put him in pink, striped polos

and I think he feels pretty,

I think he likes to feel pretty,

I think Jack is a teen girl.

and the mountains, oh, the mountains,

what teen girls they are, those colossal show-offs,

and the moon, glittering and distant

and dictating all of our emotions.

My lover’s tender but heavy breath while she sleeps

is a teen girl, how it holds me and keeps

me awake all at once, how I sometimes wish

to silence it, until she turns her body and

the room goes quiet and suddenly I want it back.

Imagine the teen girls gone from our world,

and how quickly we would beg for their return,

how grateful would we be then for their loud


and ability to make a crop top out of anything.

Even the men who laugh their condescending laughs

when a teen girl faints at the sight of her

favorite pop star, even those men are teen girls,

the way they want so badly to be so big

and important and worshipped by someone.

Pluto, the teen girl, and her rejection

from the popular universe,

and my father, a teen girl, who insists he doesn’t

believe in horoscopes but wants me to tell

him about the best traits of a Scorpio,

I tell him, We are all just teen girls,

and my father, having raised me, recounts the time he

found the box of love notes and condom wrappers I

hid in my closet, all of the bloody sheets, the missing


the radio blaring over my pitchy sobs,

the time I was certain I would die of heartbreak

and in a moment was in love with a small, new boy,

and of course there are the teen girls,

the real teen girls, huddled on the subway

after school, limbs draped over each other’s shoulders

bones knocking, an awkward wind chime

and all of the commuters, who plug in their


to mute the giggle, silence the gaggle and squeak,

not knowing where they learned to do this,

to roll their eyes and turn up the music,

not knowing where they learned this palpable rage,

not knowing the teen girls are our most distinguished

professors, who teach us to bury the burst

until we close our bedroom doors,

and then cry with blood in the neck,

foot through the door, face in the pillow,

the teen girls who teach us to scream.

from New American Best Friend

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