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  • December 31, 1969 | 7:00 PM
    December 31, 1969
    7:00 PM

Nine on the Ninth Poems

January 9, 2012 at Busboys & Poets

In this special edition of "Nine on the Ninth," the monthly poetry series at Busboys & Poets hosted by Derrick Weston Brown, four poets responded to 30 Americans. Poets read a work of their choosing plus a 30-word poem written expressly for the occasion. Cave Canem Foundation, the national organization dedicated to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets, co-sponsored the event. Cave Canem Foundation was founded in 1996 by poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady as a home for the many voices of African American poetry.





The Poets

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and a photographer. She is the author of Miracle Arrhythmia, The Requited Distance, and Mule & Pear. Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

Bettina Judd is a poet, scholar, and artist. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in Southern California. She currently lives in Washington, D.C.

Ernesto Mercer is a Cave Canem Alumni Fellow. A poet, librettist, and multidisciplinary artist, he has performed his work in many venues and is published in various journals.

Mendi Lewis Obadike is an NYC-based interdisciplinary artist. Works:

Armor and Flesh (poems), the opera-masquerade Four Electric Ghosts commissioned by The Kitchen, and a new sound installation commissioned by Rhizome / The New Museum. She collaborates with Keith Obadike. She is Assistant Professor at Pratt Institute and a poetry editor at Fence Magazine.


The Poems

the math: For kerry james marshall, mera and don rubell (Holly Bass)

strong desire to decipher, strong desire to blur

The Seven Prisoners of the Abyss (Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

a bull, a rose, a tempest

felt, a material: in celebration of 30 Americans (Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

POSTCARD FROM JEAN MICHEL August 13, 1988 (Ernesto Mercer)

Bone Root Memory: After 30 Americans (Bettina Judd)

Ars Poetica (Mendi Obadike)

"If You Asked Her She Would Tell You" (Video — Mendi + Keith Obadike)


Nine on the Ninth on flickr


the math
For kerry james marshall, mera and don rubell

by Holly Bass
©Holly Bass, 2012

black + grace =

more than
making representation
less than
those who define the rules

to be a capitalized I
rooted, squared

indivisible american
determinant blackness
radical equation
absolute value

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strong desire to decipher, strong desire to blur
By Rachel Eliza Griffiths

is how the mind eats the tongue
like a mirror : the dust of
coal & diamond

is how to read : illegible

the scythed field:
a poet’s skull

           *(after Lorna Simpson & Glenn Ligon)

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The Seven Prisoners of the Abyss
By Rachel Eliza Griffiths

the negative space of falling
no sky believes

it has never been white
           *(after Noah Davis)

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a bull, a rose, a tempest
By Rachel Eliza Griffiths

monday afternoon & a ball
hangs in my head like a rose
i watch it turn &
its face won’t stay
red under mine
           *(after Shinique smith)

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felt, a material: in celebration of 30 Americans
By Rachel Eliza Griffiths

not entirely figure
not entirely


black filaments
the surreal
solidarity of
dream pigment
near electrified

not sensation
not crucified
like stains against
the context
of texture

not the narrative of
black hair
sliding its blood
into style

not entirely
the whole story

not the cotton
stacked like a city
of white voices


not the white caps
of the rope’s cipher
nor its sunrise
of lynched mud
no throne

knighted with
hoof & man
who lives on a saddle
of white rain
against a horse

in clouds

not the profile
of a fact
not the alphabet
of nightsticks
not the religion
of a chain
not the hero
on his belly

on a ferry
of ideas

middle passage
wearing blues
& Bird’s

not entire
in its epic
the Basquiat
of resurrection

not the knees
shining with
dream & flower

not the b-boys
in the shadow
of a basketball
their tearscrowned in sweat
nets of stars

holding hoops
& noose & 

faces, erasure

& it’s not-

an indefinite frame
of context
in black&face

where the form
is fastened
like a slave
to its own

not entirely
or entirely


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By Ernesto Mercer

Dear _______ ,

          this DJ’s spinning

records pressed in Guinee,

the underwater island  

as we say in Kreyol.

Here the Sun’s visible in all 4

moments. Upon reaching

the archipelago

I promise             mixtapes                      



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Bone Root Memory
After 30 Americans

By Bettina Judd

Line without
curve or ending
Jump up
shoot to shake
like beauty don’t
exist for any one of us
Soot, coal on muted
brilliant lives
Unravel, crawl
toward texture

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Ars Poetica


Some days, we don
’t know what makes us move as we
do, sometimes landing, sometimes hovering o
ver a thought we have no doubt passed by before. It is li
ke that time we passed through Union Square and found it abu
zz with the characters we knew we’d meet: the megastores and delis,
the skaters doing stunts and their bruise-free poser friends. It was dusk a
nd just as it was the day before: discreet corporate studios and homeless she
lter activists, the yuppies with their strollers, who couldn’t look them in the eyes.
There’s nothing new here, we thought, passing through that mall of the familiar. Th
ere was that vendor who never will come down on her dangly, silver earrings. A cart w
ith roasted peanuts. The incense man with bottled oils. A small boy with a toy car on a b
roken cardboard box. The table for a bookstore, all those books wrapped up in plastic. A
young man in a white t-shirt who whispered at us (only once we caught his eye): Smoke?
Our first go round, we scanned it, took it in, spat it out. Nothing new, we thought,
until we thought about that boy. Who among that cast of strangers had been looking after
him? We knew we couldn’t go forth til we’d found the riddle out, but we didn’t know we’d
wait there in the dark as the sudden rain came down. We’d ask the vendors standing by a
nd every one would shake no or wave us off. We’d wait and watch no one return to pick
that boy up off the ground. We’d start to think he wasn’t there at all. Or that he was bu
t only we could see. We’d wait there in the street until we felt like villains, two stran
gers hovering over some lost child. And finally we’d ask the boy who he’d come w
ith, and he’d point towards the young man selling smoke, who’d waved us off t
o throw us off his scent. We know we’ve come here looking after small and fr
agile things, but we don’t always know what we’ve come here to see: the
scared face of the hard man who grows softer by the second, his h
ard luck and sacrifice, his preying and protection, the belief an
d pretense that nothing’s happening. We don’t know what
brings us back there when we turn around to see it,
but it is our work to witness, that is why
we open up and circle back.



Mendi Obadike

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30 Americans is organized by the Rubell Family Collection, Miami. The presenting sponsor at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is Altria Group.

Additional support has been provided by Morgan Stanley Smith Barney and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, an agency supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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