Prolific Writer Tony Medina Passes the Torch
By Maitefa Angaza
As African Voices magazine looks back over 20 years, we’re honored to have had the early support and participation of many creative powerhouses. One such is Dr. Tony Medina, poet, fiction writer, essayist and activist. The first-ever full and tenured Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University, Tony is the author of 17 books for adults and children and his poems have appeared in close to 100 publications. He’s edited three anthologies, including the seminal, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam and served as advisory editor for several others. His most recent book of poems, Broke Baroque (2 Leaf Press, 2013), is the last of a trilogy.
The recipient of many awards and prizes, Tony is a frequent lecturer and workshop instructor and has been a member and/or contributor to several organizations, particularly those working on behalf of young people. His work as a professor is deeply rewarding and he considers it a privilege to play a role in nurturing his students’ talent and work ethic. The Washington D.C. communitywelcomed him with open arms.
“Word got around in the D.C. community of writers that I was at Howard teaching,” he recalls of his early days there. “So you had all these people bum-rushing my class to sit-in. I allowed them to, and basically opened up the class to the community, much like John Oliver Killens did in the ‘70s and ‘80s at Medgar Evers College.”
Tony decided to serve this moveable feast off-campus, creating “The Workshop,” a monthly radio show during which area residents could listen as students and people auditing his classes discussed the craft and various disciplines of literature, read poems and reviewed books. The show was one of several methods Tony employed to send his students out into the writing world. They were encouraged to do open mics and readings, to share what they’d learned at schools and prisons and to produce chapbooks and anthologies.
“I had publishing parties in my classroom,” Tony said, “where students would bring in their work and we’d workshop it. I’d teach them how to do letters of submission and tell them to bring their stuff to class with envelopes and stamps. I’d gotten a number of them published for the first time in journals such as Drumvoices, and they’ve gone on create their own journals. Some have gone on to publish their books, get MFAs and PhDs, and they’re teaching now. They’re making a name for themselves at literary conferences and getting published in anthologies. Some are movers and shakers in positions where they get other people published.”
As he sees it, Tony is passing along some of the inspiration that’s fueled his passion for writing. He feels blessed to have worked with and learned from many gifted poets and writers. However, he’d be quick to remind his students of the critical importance of reading. He’s encountered some of his most profound influences in books – Langston Hughes being paramount. He’s written a children’s book, Love to Langston, and not long ago was surprised with an award from the Langston Hughes Society after giving the keynote address at its annual CLA convention luncheon.
“I remember when DeShawn Days came out, teachers and librarians would be floating me emails, where a child would ask, ‘How does he know about my life?”
Although he’s not often spoken of in those terms, Tony insists that Langston was “… not all blues and jazz, but one of the most radical Black writers in the American literary tradition.” Langston’s impact was far-reaching, Tony believes, because although he was a forerunner of and grounded in the Harlem Renaissance, he also influenced a generation of Black Arts poets. Tony’s otherwriting influences are legion.
“So when you look at people like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, Etheridge Knight, Louis Reyes Rivera, Pedro Pietri, Sandra Maria Esteves, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Ishmael Reed, Ntozake Shange…People from Latin America and the Caribbean like Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda, of course, and another Chilean poet, Nicanor Parra, Aimé Cesairé and Haitian poet Rene Depestre… Those are some of the models that I look toward, that I have been nurtured on in terms of social poets totally committed to the struggle and to the people. That’s who I align myself with, and that’s just a handful.”
Among the poets who’ve left us much too soon, Tony mentions Raymond Patterson, Sekou Sundiata and Safiyah Henderson Holmes, whom he worked with in Felipe Luciano’s group Workestra. And then there’s Louis Reyes Rivera, who was a longtime African Voices friend and supporter.
“I copped his books early on when I was starting out and discovered his literature and his poetry at Revolution Books,” says Tony. “Then I got to meet him in the early ‘90s at a big marathon reading of political poets that Sam Anderson, the activist and poet, invited me to. I actually met Louis Reyes Rivera and Pedro Pietri at the same time! These were people who were like idols to me! And they openly embraced me.”
“Louis and I were on the scene together in NY and we were eventually asked to edit “Bum Rush the Page.” We talked a lot of shop and I came to know Louis to be very generous, particularly to the generation of younger poets coming up. He was a very hardcore political and African-centered Puerto Rican with a wide scope of knowledge. Then being married to Barbara Killens, daughter of the great John Oliver Killens, and to know that they were hooked up by her college roommate, Nikki Giovanni… it’s just incredible history, you know?!”
Much of the writing Tony’s doing these days will undoubtedly add to his own legacy; he’s carefully and joyfully shining lyrical light on young minds. Having discovered that he adores writing for children he’s catching up on the fun. According to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Langston felt that writing for children was the most important literary form and Tony has come to agree. His first children’s book was DeShawn Days (Lee and Low Books, 2001) and the latest, The President Looks Like Me & Other Poems (Just Us Books, 2013) was published in January.
His love of children’s books came late to Tony, who says the only children’s books he encountered as a child were at the school library, where Curious George was among the titles pushed by librarians. As an adult he became enchanted by the marriage of text and art in children’s books and the voice of a character named DeShawn “just popped into my head.” The reception was warm, and Tony found a new calling.
“When you go and visit these classrooms, not only are the children excited and impacted, but also the teachers and the librarians,” said Tony. “They treat you like a rock star and there’s so much love that you get! I remember when DeShawn Days came out, teachers and librarians would be floating me emails, where a child would ask, ‘How does he know about my life?!’ Cause they had a name like DeShawn, they were raised by a grandmother and they come from the hood, you know? They had a single-parent household and they struggled and were into Hip Hop and had asthma. So it was, ‘How did he know about my life?’
He knows because he was born in the South Bronx and raised in a housing project by a grandmother who struggled to provide for him. He’s choosing, in his way, to be there for the children who read his books. He cares and he validates the notion of a future ahead, while telling them the truth about the world.
“And quiet as it’s kept, if you look at my six children’s books, they’re really radical! To be able to communicate to children these radical concepts in such a way that you get away with it – I dig it, you know?!”
Keeping up with the younger generation of poets is a pleasure for Tony and they seem to keep abreast of his work as well. Many were introduced to Tony and his peers through Bum Rush the Page, which remains hugely popular. And the work of people such as Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez never gets old, Tony says, because their ideas are timeless and filled with energy and fire. He believes that conscious young poets know how to get what they need. “If they read, and they know the art form, and they’re out there in the world, they’ll know what time it is and who’s who,” he said.
African Voices was there when Tony was a young poet and he availed himself of the opportunity. He recalls when Carolyn Butts launched the magazine, providing a platform for young poets, writers and visual artists, he recalls. Tony remembers when Layding Kaliba became the poetry editor and that Mariah Ekere Tallie worked there early on. He was happy to hear that she’s now poetry editor, taking the reins at the end of Layding’s long and devoted 18-year tenure.
“Mariah called me just before she graduated from Clark Atlanta and claimed me as her personal mentor. I don’t even know how she got my number! Not long after that, she was working with African Voices, along with some other people I knew.”
He’s also glad that African Voices is still around to celebrate 20 years, acknowledging that it, like Ron Kavanaugh’s Mosaic Literary Magazine, has struggled to stay in publication. He says that in the tradition of the great journals established after Reconstruction and during the Harlem Renaissance, these two, among others, have remain devoted to a new cultural revolution despite funding challenges. And it’s not all struggle, he acknowledges; it’s also lots of fun.
“Layding used to hold these great soirees at his house in Harlem,” said Tony. “There’s this classic picture of me at the mic reading, with Jessica Care Moore right behind me, as well as A. Wanjiku Reynolds and Layding Kaliba. This was in the 90s and we lookin’ like babies and stuff!”
Now a seasoned and celebrated poet, Tony is looking forward to getting the feedback form his just-published new book, Broke Baroque. It picks up from two previous poetry books, Sermons from the Smell of a Carcass Condemned to Begging (1998) and Broke On Ice (2011) that feature the voice and perspective of homeless everyman, Broke, who critiques capitalist culture from the bottom of “the greasy pole,” as revolutionary Haitian poet Rene De Vestre calls capitalism or the class structure.
“And he critiques as a street-corner Socrates or comedian in the tradition of Langston Hughes’ Jess B. Simple,” says Tony. “In the tradition of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and Richard Pryor’s Mudbone, as well as Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, and Nicanor Parra’s The Christ of Elqui. These are everyman personas that exist to poke fun at capitalism and bourgeois culture and society, to turn it on its head and look at the world in different ways through irony and pathos.”
Tony says that the title of each poem in Broke Baroque begins with the word “Broke,” which is not just about the character, but also “… a way of looking at society and looking at things in a somewhat skewered or upside-down way, at the reality of people who suffer under the yoke of capitalist oppression.
“This book is special in that it is published by 2 Leaf Press and features an introduction by Ishmael Reed titled, ‘Poet Laureate of the Broke.’ That’s a big honor for me!”
Tony says he’s honored as well, to be recognized with the very first African Voices Literary Award at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on June 20th , 2013. He received the news at the close of this interview with his trademark humor.
“Me? To receive the African Voices Literary Award? – The first one?! … Wait, am I getting too old now, so that everybody’s gotta hurry up and honor me?”
Not old, but timeless. And while the award is all yours, Tony, the honor will certainly be ours.