Phillip Shabazz, Poet

Phillip Shabazz is a poet, author, and teaching artist whose work explores issues of community and culture in America.  In 1997 he became Duke University’s third artist-in-residence at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.  During his four year residency he was a founding member of SpiritHouse, a community service organization and he organized a student art collective and a twice-monthly speaker’s series that presented local and nationally known poets and writers.  He has taught creative writing workshops at more than 300 schools, conferences and community centers.  He is currently a poet-in-the-schools in his home state of North Carolina, and his latest collection of work is Flames in the Fire: Poems.  

If you’ve ever been to the mountain top where the air is rarified and where thoughts crystalize with an ease not found in common hours, then you know what it’s like to come down and return to the land of laundry, groceries, and bills.  Last week I was literally on the mountain top  at WildAcres retreat near Little Switzerland (3500 feet), attending the Table Rock Writers Workshop, soaking up wisdom and beauty in big gulps.

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I was privileged to attend Phillip Shabazz’s “Powers of Poetry” workshop with four amazing individuals, and to mingle with approximately fifty other writers and musicians over meals, concerts, readings and presentations (and of course, the happy hours!)

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John Bemis after-hours

Whew!  I know you can’t stay on the mountain forever,and in fact, the beauty and effectiveness of such experiences is enhanced by the intensity crammed into a brief span of time.  But as I slowly re-enter the realities of life , I’m reminded once again how powerful and invaluable mountain top moments are to the creative process, and I am extremely thankful that such opportunities exist right here in North Carolina.


Every morning a TV anchorman, a retired professor of social work, a district court judge, a visual artist and I gathered for over three hours of poetry immersion.  What a motley crew we were!  We started by each sharing something we had written, and after the first night, it was often the result of an assignment from the previous day.  We didn’t have a lot of time to spare in the afternoon, so working on a daily assignment along with taking in all the beauty and managing a bit of socializing was a gargantuan task.

Phillip has an amazing ability to make work seem like child’s play, and he DID work us. Over the course of the week,here are some of the assignments (accompanied by written and discussed definitions of these words)

1)  theme: Write a poem that invokes your family or friends or a side of yourself.  Try using a variety of corresponding images with similar, but diverse features, real or imagined that call up strong emotions and which may have had consequences in your life.

2) connections:  Make a bittersweet connection in your poem to one of the following–a spiritual idea, a force in nature, a manmade object, or a personal space.

3)  scene:  Ground your poem in a place.  Show how the place parallels another place, time, and situation to throw light upon the meaning of the experience.

4)  structure:  Consider writing a poem with a rhyme scheme (the Villanelle) or compose a poem using key word repetition, with no particular placement of the key words, in order to secure emphasis.

That last one caused some of us (self included) to sweat bullets.  If you’ve never tried a villanelle (nineteen-line poem consisting of a very specific rhyming scheme, each line having 8 syllables, and the first and third lines in the first stanza are repeated in alternating order throughout the poem, and appear together in the last couplet) you are in for a sweaty good time, for sure!!  And if you can picture a district court judge writing something that starts with “come to my villa, Nell” then you have a taste of the humor that lived at our table all week.

In between laughs, we peeled the onion raw and shared unashamed tears:  a newscaster not reporting, but reliving the terror of a tornado; a social work professor standing on the soil of a concentration camp; a visual artist caught in her mother’s racial prejudice; a writer facing raw family issues.

Along the course of the week, we dipped into some of the greats:  Hayden Carruth, Charles Bukowski, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Ted Kooser, Ysef Komunyakaa, James Wright, Carolyn Kizer.  Some were new to me and some very familiar, and all were fascinating to read and learn from.

I feel like I touched the tip of the iceberg with one of the most capable tour-guides around, and I came away hungry to dig deeper.  I can’t say enough nice things about Phillip Shabazz, the Table Rock Writers Workshop, or my four new friends with whom I bore my soul and for whom I have the utmost respect for doing the same with me.





Hey READERS, I would love to hear from you.

Is your MIND FULL of old thoughts or new?



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