The celebration of poetry and art is always a refreshing break in the midst of academic rigor.
The poet, photographer and painter Rachel Eliza Griffiths visited the College last Wednesday for a reading of excerpts from her latest book, Mule & Pear. Inspired by a range of artists that includes Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, August Wilson and Richard Wright, the book is a collection of persona poems that feature characters from novels in the African diaspora literary canon. The reading was introduced by Mecca Sullivan, current Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in women’s, gender and sexuality studies. She prefaced the readings with Griffith’s accolades and also kind words about her friend and fellow creative writer. A group of students from Sullivan’s Africana studies course, “Afrodiasporic Women’s Literature,” were also given the opportunity earlier to engage more closely with the author firsthand after reading the book.
Griffiths introduced the public reading by thanking her dear friend Sullivan as well as the audience for their interest in poetry. She described her journey in crafting the collection of poems as a study of African American literature focused primarily on the presence of black women in the writings and songs of black intellectual thinkers from the 20th century. Throughout the writing process, she reread her favorite novels, those she found to be striking and those with characters that intrigued and haunted her. She wrestled with their ideas, their problems and their silences to articulate their voices in new ways in Mule & Pear.
Through her work, Griffiths explores some of the beauties of black womanhood as well as some of its more disquieting moments. The collection takes the reader on a historical expedition through womanhood and sexuality starting from slavery. She began the reading with the first poem in the book, “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You,” dedicating it to a fellow artist who was set to receive a major award for her recent work. Before reading, Griffiths introduced her colleague’s writing by explaining that “much of the book deals with the idea of mercy and who it is extended to, as well as to whom it is not.” The poem illustrates this notion by summoning images from the civil rights movement, familial and generational mercy and spirituality. It makes reference to mercy in a biblical sense as well, which is a theme repeated throughout the book. In these ways, the poem sets the tone for the collection and begins the literary journey on which Griffiths intends to take her readers. Although the book looks to history and the past, it consistently allows the reader to understand its characters through a contemporary lens.
Griffiths continued by reading “Celie’s Notes: Dear God,” which is a reference to Alice Walker’s famous novel The Color Purple, “Guitar Soliloquy,” inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and “The Problem with Describing Mercy.” The language of the poems is very textured, putting to use the insertion of quotes from the novels, words from characters who were not previously given a voice and attention to African American dialect. The poet’s relationship with and sympathy for the characters was evident in her sweet and gentle readings of their voices.
The reading then moved into a discussion of some of the author’s other inspirations for writing. “In the writing process, I was always playing either Billie Holiday, Duke, Etta, Nina Simone or someone of the like in the background,” Griffiths said. She then read her poem “Blues for Sweet Thing,” inspired by Nina Simone’s song “Four Women.” In this piece, Griffiths wrote in the voice of Sweet Thing, one of the four women in the song, allowing her love for the Harlem Renaissance and the expression of art it encouraged to bubble up to the surface. She gives Sweet Thing a voice, a name and an understanding of her own sexual power. Her powerful reading demonstrated the melodic tone and inspiration from music Griffiths uses as a source of inspiration for her writing. The lyrical style of the work echoed Simone’s poetic devices and provided a new stage for Sweet Thing to sing from on the page through the vehicle of Griffiths’ writing.
A painter and photographer, Griffiths is inspired by many forms of artwork. She presented two poems that were outside of the collection of Mule & Pear, called “Verguenza” and “Self-Traction,” both of which were inspired by her visit to the home of Frida Kahlo during her trip to Mexico, Cindy Sherman’s studies on self-portraiture and the photography of Nicholas Murray.
Griffiths concluded the readings by thanking the audience again for their appreciation of art, and of poetry in particular. The event was followed by questions from the audience, in addition to a book signing of Mule & Pear. The evening allowed for reflection on the ways which art can grapple with societal issues and everyday life.