Watch The Blair House Collective Read Poems For Billie Holiday And Bessie Smith Poets Ciona Rouse, Caroline Randall Williams and Adia Victoria are the Blair House Collective. These poems honor two of the "living, breathing, earthbound women" who inspire the Collective's work.
NPR logo Poems For Billie Holiday And Bessie Smith From The Blair House Collective

Poems For Billie Holiday And Bessie Smith From The Blair House Collective

In the fall of 2018, Adia Victoria approached Ciona Rouse and Caroline Randall Williams about coming together for a group reading to celebrate her work as a blues musician. After attempts to meet at various locations all over town, the three women found themselves at Caroline's house on Blair Blvd. The house is old, high-ceilinged, wild and bought and paid for by another black woman writer — novelist Alice Randall.

When Adia, Ciona and Caroline sat down on the black velvet couch in the Blair House living room, a sisterhood was born. Together the three women have worked to number a series of creative projects together. The first, a series of poems devoted to Rosie, a blues woman of their own conception, inspired them to start thinking about the living, breathing, earthbound women who inspired their archetypal Rosie. Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were the natural next thought.

Each member of the collective has written two poems — one for Billie, one for Bessie — and "plaited" a third. The Plait Poem, as we call it, consists of three stanzas. The first stanza is made up of lines from Adia and Caroline's poems, selected and arranged — or plaited — by Ciona. The second stanza is made up of lines from Ciona and Caroline's poems, selected and plaited by Adia. The third stanza is made up of lines from Adia and Ciona's poems, selected and plaited by Caroline. The exercise of trusting your sisters to find new ways to lift your words and share your stories is a hallmark of the Blair House Collective's collaborative work and spirit. —The Blair House Collective


Billie Poems

"HOLIDAY"
by Ciona Rouse

Lady dresses herself in his name and gilds it
        even though he made himself a stranger.

Lady claims truth from her larynx
        looks the man in the eye, calls out his strange

bedfellows. Although the dart of her lips rise
         at dawn, the day is blue and glows something strange.

A lady's father is killed today the way they
killed her father then. Do you hear the strain gently

pulse in her throat? Lady, too, is killed
         then, black and restrained, just

the way a black lady still holds
        and releases and dies today.

"Billie"
by Adia Victoria

Lady placed

just so onstage

gardenias splayed open

displayed mid-scream as crown upon her head

their impossible white

temporal, yes, yet--

by images are myths

made to rest

the lady remains both

siren and silent, wired

upright, electric in our memory still.

i wonder after the final note

dragged out riding the collapse

of your breath

do you release rough

arms and straining breast in the snatch

of solitude you could collect

when the curtain falls?

do you ease out from under

those gardenias?

do you smile at the petals

so dead-ended, now touched

by spreading brown?

"Treble"
by Caroline Randall Williams

This red in the bone / this blood
in the home / this / high / yellow / moan
oh its violent / all white / everything / is violent
yes violent / yes / light / skin only mean
one thing / trouble

trouble to get / trouble to wear / a hard
story / a half mirror / this skin / mean
my blood / trouble / a high /in the voice
treble / junk for the high / trouble/ get white
in the head / it's violent

do you see / this sweet brown
in my hand / can you see me / seeing you
see me dark my skin to play
detroit / can you call me a lady
for the treble hours / those high white
notes of daylight / trouble / strain
my vein / for that treble/

                                       /it's violent/
so I get alright / with my all white / hey
can you hold that mirror / and my blues
just this high / yellow / arm trying
to get some on purpose junk in the blood

Leigh Wiener/Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Billie Holiday photographed by Leigh Wiener
Leigh Wiener/Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Bessie Poems

"SMITH"
by Ciona Rouse

The deep killer of brown splits in her own direction,
a leaf alone, though surrounded by a whole colony of green
children of sky and sun. She shines and moonshines,
she slices until you see her own bone. She survives. These blues
in my veins tether to a woman lurching for oxygen and ochre.
Nobody knows no body's true except in song
                                                 so she do we do you do & breathe.

"Bessie"
by Adia Victoria

Say she a well

reaching through blood-watered

earth

Say her roots run

South to grapple against all

that red, red,

red war-blasted clay

Say she drown loose

sister graves packed still

inside Jim Crow fist

Say she rock awake

a whole shock of brown

seed scattered the whole

South over.

"Altar"
by Caroline Randall Williams

Teach me how to come to my own river
I said, Lord, let me get rough, like Bessie,
I said God Jesus sent me some of that Stop
singing to spit
     that     unfettered flow
                                                                   I don't know
which rules I follow
that I really believe in --             Bessie, let me be wild.
                                                                          Let there be gin.
Let my body be its own prayer,
myself an altar to myself.     I'm in my sin
I am of God   and                  I'm in my sin

--come let me deliver me.

Plait Poem for Billie and Bessie

from "Billie," "Treble," "Bessie," and "Altar"
plaited by Ciona Rouse

Lady placed just so on stage
This red in the bone / this / high / yellow / moan
oh its violent

Say she a well. Say her roots
grapple against all that red red red

Say she rough, like Bessie
Be wild / Be gin / Be myself an altar
I'm in my sin

Ease out from under those gardenias

from "HOLIDAY," "Treble," "SMITH," and "Altar"
plaited by Adia Victoria

This red in the bone
this / high / yellow / moan
do you hear the strain gently
lord, let me get rough, like Bessie
let my body be its own prayer,
let me be wild then, black and restrained, just
the blues in my veins
lurching for oxygen and ochre
oh its violent

from "HOLIDAY," "Billie," "SMITH," and "Bessie"
plaited by Caroline Randall Williams

Lady placed just so on stage
the way a black lady still holds and releases and dies today
Say she a well. Say She drown loose. Say She rock awake.
she shines and moonshines, she slices until you see her own bone.
Out from under those gardenias, the final
note riding the collapse,
so she do we do you do & breathe