Tuesday, April 3, 2018

ARTSPEAK! Harlem Renaissance poem "To a Dancer"

Welcome to day #3 of 2018 ARTSPEAK!, in which I am focusing on art and artists from the Harlem Renaissance.

Before we get started, be sure to visit Laura at Writing the World for Kids to read the next line of this year's Progressive Poem!

Today I'm continuing my Harlem Renaissance poetry project with Aaron Douglas who was often called the “official artist of the Harlem Renaissance," or the “Father of Black American Art.”

Aaron Douglas illustrated many books during the 1920's, and I learned in the book HARLEM STOMP! by Laban Carrick Hill that his work came to embody all that the Harlem Renaissance stood for – the culturally rich aspects of African-American life and heritage. So for the first week of this project, I will be writing after his work.

Aaron Douglas poems so far:
"For the Builders" after Building More Stately Mansions by Aaron Douglas
"This Poem is a Dream" after Aspiration by Aaron Douglas

Today's piece has a different look. It's an ink and graphite illustration entitled Sadhji (Tribal Women). I learned Douglas illustrated this for a ballet called Sahdji, which is  composed by William Grant Still (another Harlem Renaissance star) and features a love triangle in the rainforest. You can learn more about it here.

Something that stood out to me about my research of the music for the ballet is that it included lots of drums. Perhaps my poem should include a drumbeat as well? And the women, who I immediately recognized as sisters... I knew I wanted to include them.

To a Dancer

it's your sisters
who urge you
to own your nightskin

your sisters
who guide you past sunflash
and mountaincrash

your sisters
who thunderstomp
Go go go

when it's your turn

to tango with tigers

- Irene Latham

Another note: when I went to record my poem for Soundcloud, I stumbled on a word in the third line... instead of "own" I had "shed." This was me thinking about being a shy person, coming out of the shadows... but as I am learning to be more sensitive to inclusive language, I realized a reader may see shedding of "nightskin" as a racial shedding, as in "we need to shed our black skin." And that of course is not what I mean at all! So I went back in to the image and changed the word and then re-recorded the new poem. My original message still stands, only now it is more sensitive. I am learning...


  1. I'm loving these! I also like your example of how reading your work aloud made you see it differently.

  2. The importance of listening...of really HEARING our words. Thank you for sharing the story of your learning. The revision is definitely stronger.

    The repetition of the dancers in the painting looks like the drumbeat to me!

  3. I love how you revised and why, Irene, and I love that illustrations, too, very bold, like your poem!

  4. Thanks for the explanation of your shed/own internal debate.

    Do you know if the art was created for a set on the stage? Or publicity materials? Just curious.

  5. Making recordings is such a wise way to revise. We hear in our own voices what we might not hear when reading on the page. xxxx

  6. In your commentary you say maybe you should have a drumbeat in the poem. Given its cadence, I sense a definite beat and like the subtlety.

  7. I like the word change you made Irene to "own," I love the metaphorical ending line, "to tango with tigers," strong poem, and it goes well with the art, thanks!

  8. Irene, the word "own" is a powerful word that I do like. In fact that is the line that resonated with me when I read the poem. Good choice.


Your thoughts?