Poet Ruth Forman Reads from 'Callin out the Moon'
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
With such tragic news this week coming from a college campus, we thought we'd share this positive story from poet, Ruth Forman. She's more than a few years removed from her school days but she recently dug up an old class assignment and thought hey, this is great. Forman ended up turning the paper into an illustrated children's book. The work recalls her own childhood of long summer night spent in Philadelphia. It's called "Young Cornrows Callin' Out the Moon." Here's poet, Ruth Foreman.
Ms. RUTH FORMAN (Poet, "Young Cornrows Callin' Out the Moon"): (Reading) "Young Cornrows Callin' Out the Moon." We don't have no backyard. Front yard, neither. We got black magic and brownstone steps when the sun go down. We don't have no backyard, no soft grass, rainbow kites, mushrooms, butterflies. We got South Philly summer when the sun go down.
Cool after lemonade and black-eyed peas, full after ham hocks and hot pepper greens, cornbread cooling on the stove and more to watch than TV. We got double-dutch, and freeze tag, and kick ball, so many place to hide and seek and look over here, Punchinello(ph), Punchinello(ph) look over here, Punchinello(ph) in the zoo.
We got the ice cream man. We got the corner store, red cream pop, red nails, Rick James, the bunk, the rock, and we know all the cheers. We got pretty lips. We got callus feet. We got healthy thighs and ashy knees. We got fine brothers. We are fine sisters and here we got attitude.
We hold momma knees when she snapps the naps out. We got a grandma tell her not to pull so hard. We got so clean cornrows when she's finished, and cornbread cool on the stove. So, you know, we don't really want no backyard. Front yard neither. Because we got to call out the moon with black magic and brownstone steps.
CHIDEYA: So Ruth, it is great to have you on.
Ms. FORMAN: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: That definitely takes me back to the summers spent in Baltimore - hot summers and cornrows that we're expected to last you the entire summer. So, in our case, it was my grandma who was pulling hard because she could make cornrows last all summer.
One of the things that really strikes me about your book and your poetry is that you take a situation, which some people might consider lack - lack of a backyard, lack of front yard, lack of the equivalent of what the play station used to be - and you turn it into a situation of bounty. Was that something you did on purpose?
Ms. FORMAN: There's so much in our culture that we have to celebrate. And I was a student of June Jordan. And June Jordan would tell us, you can complain about a lot of things but it's also part of our tradition that we celebrate. So how can you celebrate? And so I think I took that assignment, this came out of a writing assignment, actually.
And I took that assignment and I said OK, we didn't have a backyard - because I think it was, like, write about your yard or something like that. And I say well, we didn't have a yard. And I didn't actually grow up in Philly. This is - I used to go there in the summer and that's where my family was so I'd go visit them. And I was like well, we didn't have yard but we had all this. So let me take this moment, let me take this summers and open it up and really look at what it is that we had and that's what came out.
CHIDEYA: So Philadelphia is the setting a lot of this book and the poem is about what kids do, not just during the day but also in the night, in the magic of the night. Why did that appeal to you?
Ms. FORMAN: I don't know if I can explain what was so magical about dusk. But that time of the summer was wonderful but then being able to be out on the steps and just be together and somebody's getting their hair cornrowed and some people are out playing in the street. Maybe it was just that the nights were warm and there was so much love in the air, in the nights and so much of a feeling of community that I remember I never wanted it to end.
CHIDEYA: What about danger? So much of the message is that go towards kids today are: don't play outside without an adult watching you, don't do this, don't do that. That's not really the context you bring to this book.
Ms. FORMAN: Well, I think the context, it was a different time, too. There were so many of us together there was never a thought of danger. There were so many cousins and kids together, and so many aunts and uncles and neighbors keeping an eye out for us outside that it wasn't an issue.
So there was definitely more of a feeling of community and everybody being out together instead of, you know, having to be careful in a way that, you know, parents have their children be careful now.
CHIDEYA: You're obviously someone who is bilingual, probably more than that, but you can write in ebonics and speak in the King's English. You chose to write this book in the black vernacular - why?
Ms. FORMAN: There's no way that I can convey that feeling in standard English. When we first, when I first presented the poems to the publisher, they asked, would I consider translating it into standard English. And I knew that I couldn't do that because so much would be lost, so much of the - so much of our cultures are carried in our language.
And for me, as a poet, I think that's one of the wonderful things about poetry - you can match a feeling as closely as possible by bending language, by turning it inside out, by listening and accurately representing what you're hearing, and there's no way that I could accurately represent that experience with standard English.
CHIDEYA: Did you try to re-write it at one point?
Ms. FORMAN: I did try a few stanzas, and my - the whole celebration was lost for me.
CHIDEYA: Well, Ruth, it sounds like a great journey, thank you so much.
Ms. FORMAN: Thank you.
Ms. FORMAN: Poet Ruth Forman. Her new children's book is called "Young Cornrows Callin Out the Moon." It's illustrated by Cbabi Bayoc, and it's out now to celebrate National Poetry Month.