National Poetry Month Celebration
Tony Medina, two-time winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People (DeShawn Days and I and I, Bob Marley), is the author/editor of seventeen books for adults and young readers, the most recent of which are I and I, Bob Marley (2009), My Old Man Was Always on the Lam (2010), finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, Broke on Ice (2011), An Onion of Wars (2012), The President Looks Like Me & Other Poems (2013) and Broke Baroque (2013), finalist for the Julie Suk Book Award. He is a two-time winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People and recently has received the Langston Hughes Society Award, the first African Voices Literary Award, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is the first Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University.
Where do you draw your inspiration from to write poetry?
I basically draw my inspiration from a myriad of sources: Reading; reality; history; personal experiences; injustice; observation; the news & other media; popular culture; music; and most importantly, injustice. A baby’s smiling face and laughter.
What advice do you have for someone that is threatened by poetry?
Language should never be a threat. It is what you were born to acquire and utilize. It is the basis of all that we are as humans. The Nicaraguans have a saying; they say we are all born poets; it is society that takes poetry away from us; and it is our job to take it back! Do not let some teacher or school or any other institution interfere with your relationship to language—particularly poetry! This is why Rap Music is so pertinent to young people—especially babies and toddlers and teens. They love to rhyme; they love to play with language. And they acquire language at such an alarming pace it makes your head spin. Always let poetry live in your mouth and in the open air! Take your time with it. Speak it silently—and ALOUD!!!! You will see how the words work their magic and take on a life of their own. Do not always get caught up and insisting on meaning. Let the musicality and the lyricism and the imagery take hold of you. Let a poem happen to you—“like a kiss,” as Ntozake Shange once put it. There is meaning in the music and messages in the silence. Think of syllable and words as notes you use to compose music. Poetry, like music, is the most embraceable art form. Always remember what the great Nicaraguan revolutionary poet Roque Dalton said: “Poetry like bread is for everyone!”
What is an interesting fact about you?
A few interesting facts about me: I was born addicted to heroin. I was in the military. I joined the Army, right after high school, in order to make money for college. I reasoned that since I wanted to be a writer, like Ernest Hemingway, I needed some real life experiences. I needed to travel. So, the military would afford me that—and, of course, money to go to college so I could follow my dreams of becoming a writer. It turns out that a lot of the poets and writers I admire have also joined the military—Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many others.
Where are you from/Where do you live?
I was born in The South Bronx and raised in the Throgs Neck Housing Projects, which is North of The South Bronx. I also spent a significant part of my adulthood and writer life living in Malcolm X and Langston Hughes’ Harlem. I lived for 15 years literally a block and a half away from the recent explosion of those two buildings on
117th Street and Park Avenue. This was the block my family comes from. It’s the Park Avenue James Baldwin wrote about.
I currently live in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. I’ve been here for 11 years, so far, having been invited to teach creative writing at Howard University. So, I basically went form Harlem to Howard—all on the hind legs of haiku!
Who is your favorite poet?
At this stage in my life, it is hard to pinpoint just one favorite poet, for I have read and met and read with so many. I started out mimicking Emily Dickinson without really reading her first. I also admired Dylan Thomas and Hart Crane as a teen. Then I discovered my main man Langston Hughes in a bookstore at Grand Central Station. His was the first brown face I saw on a book cover—and he stared back at me, reminding me of family. In college—at Baruch College, City University of New York—I studied with the great Addison Gayle, Jr., father of the Black Aesthetic Movement and Sandra Towns. In their classes I came upon Dudley Randall’s anthology, The Black Poets, where I discovered Black Arts greats like Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jayne Cortez, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, Wanda Coleman, and so on. It was at this time that I also discovered the Nuyorican Poets: poets like Miguel Algarín, Miguel Pinero, Sandra Maria Esteves, Pedro Pietri, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Tato Laviera, Jesus Papoleto Hernandez, Jose Angel Figueroa, Louis Reyes Rivera, and so many others. I also branched out and discovered great revolutionary poets from the Caribbean, Central and South America, Spain,, Asia, The Middle East and Africa. Ernesto Cardinal, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Roque Dalton, Kim Chi Ha, Nancy Morejón, Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Cesar Vallejo, Julia de Burgos, and this is just a conservative estimation. I am always in the process of discovering a favorite poet. Poetry is a way of life. A journey. A direction. A window and a way. I can’t exist without having it as a part of my every day.
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