By CWW Board Member Jennifer Morales
Last fall I was invited to be part of the Bridge Poetry Series at Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art. I was fortunate to be asked to write a poem on Romare Bearden’s “A Black Odyssey,” his extensive set of collages and watercolors depicting Homer’s Odyssey with an all-black cast.
Viewing the brilliantly colored collages, I was thrilled by Bearden’s ability to bring the tumultuous emotions of Odysseus’ journey out and onto the canvas. But Bearden, a lover of literature, didn’t just want to celebrate the epic poem in paint and paper; he wanted to invite those who might feel disconnected from this beloved piece of writing into it its story. He painted the characters black, he said, “so … if a child in Benin or in Louisiana … sees my paintings of Odysseus, he can understand the myth better.”
At the Bridge reading in November, I performed my poem, “Ego, Trouble,” — on Penelope’s feelings about being left behind while her husband fought his way across the world — to honor the missing woman-voice in the collage series.
It was an angry poem and I pushed into the audience’s comfort zone by leaving the podium and stepping up to look various listeners — mostly strangers — directly in the eye.
One listener who met my Penelope-fury straight on was Nakila Robinson, an up-and-coming poet from Milwaukee who was in Madison to study creative writing. Nakila met my eye and nodded and nodded. After the reading, she came up and introduced herself. “It’s good to hear some voices from home,” she said. “Milwaukee voices.”
We had a number of writer friends in common back in the big city, so we talked about that, but mainly she spoke about the challenge of being a young, African American writer in a mostly white city. Also, the poets in Madison were “toned down” compared to the livelier Milwaukee style, which she missed. At Nakila’s request, I gave her the copy of “Ego, Trouble,” that I had read from and my email address, so she could send me any writing that she wanted another set of eyes on. I left, charmed and impressed by this young poet’s determination to write and succeed in a poetry scene not quite yet ready for her fabulousness — and her determination, like Bearden’s, to bring everybody into the story with her.
Nakila died in July, unexpectedly, while traveling. She was 22 and, although she didn’t yet have an extensive publishing history and wasn’t known in most writing circles around the state, I want you to know her because she was essential to a group of young writers of color who don’t often get the attention they deserve.
To help me introduce Nakila to the Council for Wisconsin Writers community, I asked Dasha Kelly, her writing teacher at the Still Waters Collective in Milwaukee, to share some comments about what Nakila meant to Milwaukee’s young writers.
What Dasha wrote is so lovely that I want to make sure you can read her tribute in full here. But this line stands out:
I’m convinced that Nakila has merely converted into energy. She was too full of fierce electricity and love to simply transcend and leave nothing of herself behind.
Nakila did indeed leave something of herself behind, in her work and in all of us who were affected by it. What will we do with that energy?