Monday, April 11, 2011

Memorizing Kelly Norman Ellis's "Raised by Women"

So, for now, I'm on this long-shot personal project to memorize about 100 of some of my favorite poems. You'll have to bear with me, as it will probably take me a while to reach that goal.

At the moment, I'm 96 poems away from where I want to be. I've memorized Phillis Wheatley's "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Langston Hughes's "Still Here," Tyehimba Jess's "1912: Blind Lemon Jefferson Explaining to Leadbelly," and most recently Kelly Norman Ellis's "Raised by Women."

I had known about Ellis's poetry for a while, but for some reason I had not thought to introduce my crews of students to her poem "Raised by Women" until just a couple of years ago. It was an instant hit.

The poem provides these descriptions of how the speaker (Ellis), has been acquainted with and raised by all these various women. Some of those women eat chitterlings; some of them are vegetarians. Some of the women are "high yellow;" others are "mocha brown." They rock afros. They dance. They write poetry. They'll tell you "to get the hell out of my house." All that. And more.

It's Ellis's poem, but when my students first encounter the piece, many of them - the women in particular - feel like "Raised by Women" is their poem too. Ellis, they note, is speaking for and with them.

One reason I want to memorize so many poems is so that I can figure out what it means to really absorb pieces and carry them around in my memory, my mind. Ellis's "Raised by Women" provides me with one opportunity to hold on to a poem that celebrates diverse communities of black women.

So I spent spare time this weekend committing the poem to memory. I've read and re-read it many times out loud. I *think* I have it. But I'll see how well I present it after I've memorized additional pieces.

Next up? Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks.

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