devorah major: and then we became (City Lights Books, 2016), where river meets ocean (City Lights Foundation, 2003)

A former San Francisco Poet Laureate, devorah major (1952-) is anthologized in Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (W.W. Norton, 2016, edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr) with a political poem, on continuing to struggle – for Mumia Abu Jamal, protesting the incarceration of the journalist/writer (Live from Death Row) and former member of the Black Panther Party sentenced to death for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman in 1981 (sentence reversed 2011 to life imprisonment without parole), considered by many observers – devorah major, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch among them – to be a political prisoner, framed by the police, or at least not given a fair trial by the courts.

But it was her fine foreword to Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights Books, 2019) that finally made me take a closer look at this West Coast poet and her two collections of poetry published by City Lights: and then we became (2016) and where river meets ocean (2003).

where river meets ocean begins with devorah major’s 2002 Inaugural Address as the new San Francisco Poet Laureate (2002-2006), mixing a description of the vibrant, multicultural San Francisco poetry scene going back to the middle of the 19th century with a look at the back side of the coin: poverty, urban decay and ‘wild west-style’ gun violence (“beirut, some say, it has become a metaphor”) just outside your window – topics addressed in her own poems, downtown, fillmo’e street woman, kapow, interwoven in the text of her keynote address.

And devorah major has her own idea of what poetry is, or could (also) be: “The San Francisco poetry that I am talking about is not a poetry that is simply folded between the covers of a book … The poetry that I speak of is a poetics that comes through, and is for, the people. A street-corner poetry, a café poetry, an on-the bus poetry, an in-our-parks poetry, an in-your-face poetry.”  

devorah major is anthologized, in Of Poetry and Protest (see above), Black Nature (2009), Bum Rush the Page: a def poetry jam (2001), and Ocean Voices (2013), if maybe not often enough.

For even as the body of her work is relatively small, it would be easy enough to pick any number of poems that would fit in and enrich most anthologies of (African) American poetry:

On poetry/language: black lit class and ellison’s invisible man (for dr. raye richardson), political poem, nommo – how we come to speak; history and identity: a cuba song, aliens, brown lady in white; the moving, surreal dark love; war, the abuse of women, and domestic violence: lady bombardier’s desire, war memories (for Jessica), old soldier, amina’s trial, mother to mother, newton interview (on the 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School killing 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of  six and seven); family history: any name will do, yoruba woman; personal disasters (sickness and mortality/death): year of the dragon, stroke journey, squamous cell, and the eerie emergency room visitation.