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June 3, 2013
In the spring of 2013, my twelfth collection of poetry, The Government of Nature, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. It is my fourth book with U Pitt, as my third collection of poetry, My Father's Geography, was my first Pitt publication. The Government of Nature is the second book in a trilogy that began with The Plum Flower Dance (U Pitt 2007). The trilogy represents the culmination of a lifetime of engagement with Chinese culture in the pursuit of my project as a poet. As a poet my project has been the exploration and extension of the interior lives of working class people, particularly but not exclusively the African American working class. The interiority which is central to this project is my own. The Government of Nature is also my most confessional book, and by virtue of the personal content of the book it is singular in that I am both black and working class.
In my graduate studies at Brown University (1985-87) I focused on playwriting and theatre. I entered Brown as a published poet with a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, so I thought it best to explore new territory, a medium which had always interested me. It was a great experience, and I had two professional theatre productions in 1993, one of which earned me the PDI Award in playwriting from ETA Theatre in Chicago. I continued working in theatre at ETA as a member of their consortium on African American theatre. As of this spring I am studying acting privately as prelude to returning to theatre as a playwright. Most of my acting studies involve the work of August Wilson, which helps facilitate the integration of my working class experience more fully into my writing. When I entered Brown I had just retired from fifteen years as a factory worker in my native Baltimore.
In my fifth year at Simmons I was awarded a Fulbright to teach in Taiwan at National Taiwan University, and the engagement I had with Chinese culture up to that point took on a new dimension. The experience there was incredible, and when I returned to Simmons I studied Mandarin as a faculty audit, and when I received my sabbatical for the year 2004-2005, I loved to Taiwan to study at a private school in Taipei for eight months. Before I left for Taiwan, I convened an international conference in contemporary Chinese poetry at Simmons, the ony such conference of its kind ever held in the United States. I followed with a second conference on Chinese poetry in 2008, and as a result, Simmons has a place in contemporary Chinese literature that is unique.
In addition to those projects, I have served as the editor of Obsidian magazine at North Carolina State University and worked as a translator of contemporary Chinese poetry. While at Simmons I have received a Pew fellowship, the Gold Friendship Medal from the Chinese Writers' Association in Beijing, and two Pushcart prizes. Critical assessment of my work hovers around comparisons of my project to that of Walt Whitman, a comparison that began with Michael S. Harper's comment on My Father's Geography and which gets fuller treatment in Arnold Rampersad's introduction to my book Multitudes (Sarabande 2000). In 2007, Ed Ochester put it most succinctly in a quote he gave to the Taipei Times newspaper in Taiwan where he described me as "...the African American Successor to Walt Whitman..."
Currently, I am at work on the third book in the trilogy that began with The Plum Flower Dance. The working title of this manuscript is City of Eternal Spring, and I plan to work diligently at it while a resident at the Renaissance House Retreat for Artists on Martha's Vineyard this summer as I also study my acting as preparation for returning to my work as a playwright.
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