Poet, performer and CSU Monterey Bay professor Daniel B. Summerhill is teaching the next generation of creative writers and poets. Before National Youth Poet Amanda Gorman performed “The Hill We Climb” on Inauguration Day, spreading a renewed sense of the power of poetry throughout the nation, Summerhill fell in love with poetry as a way to “make sense of the world,” as a teenager born and raised in Oakland.
He stands by the idea that poetry is rooted in honesty and truthtelling, and has used the genre as a conduit to open up conversations and spotlight various social issues such as police brutality, race, class and others. Many of those poems have been published in various journals and anthologies (and the Weekly). His own book, Divine, Divine, Divine, comes out on April 17.
He spoke with the Weekly in the weeks before his book release and for National Poetry Month.
Weekly: How did you get into poetry? Was there a moment in time or a person who inspired you?
Summerhill: Two people are responsible for me writing. When I was about 11 years old, my oldest sister, Tenesha Smith, left a photo album of poems before she left for New York. I was in middle school, and at that time you’re learning about yourself and all that good stuff. In high school, I would be writing poetry and my friends would say “Ay, yo c’mon let’s go play ball,” and I was like “no… I gotta finish this poem.”
In ninth grade I had an English teacher, Mr. Ross. We had a unit in poetry and I shared some poetry that I wrote. He came up to me after class and said it was great. Later he bought me a journal and a novel by Paul Beatty called The White Boy Shuffle. It was a small gesture that let me know he saw potential in my writing ability.
I’m not sure I would be here and have written as I have, or fallen in love with poetry the way that I did, without that gesture. I’m a reserved person and poetry allowed me to make sense of the world.
What does the process of poetry look like for you?
I usually have an image, a thought or an idea. It usually springs from something I’ll read that resonates with me and that’s it. From there, I don’t just write a poem. I look back at notes and then maybe sit down and write a poem. The process isn’t as linear as maybe some folks think it is.
How do you work through writers’ block?
I won’t say it doesn’t exist. Poetry isn’t a writing process by which you sit down and [begin] “poeming.” In that process, you may have a conversation with your mother, or take a walk. My grandfather was a carpenter, so maybe I build a deck in my backyard. That is poeming, and part of the craft of poetry. To deal with writers’ block, you have to move away from the page you do something else and whatever else you’re doing – that – is what feeds the poem.
So procrastination is part of the process!
I hesitate to say that it is. It’s less that procrastination is part of the process, but maybe if you’re chilling on your couch and eating popcorn, you’re canvassing an idea. It’s active procrastination.
People forget that poems with rigid forms, like the epic and sonnets, were once the way we told and recorded everything from histories to stories. How do you think poetry has changed?
Things like spoken word pre-date written poetry. All of our writing is a human desire to preserve information in space and time. To share orally expressed poetry is to translate it in a different space and time. When you think about how we naturally communicate to understand the world, it’s shifted.
We moved away from orality [to] championing the page. But when you think about it, we don’t think of ideas on the page, you think about them first in your head. There is a trend now that performance and the page can coexist. Separating them from one another can lead to elitism and gatekeeping certain writers out of the canon.
What’s your required reading to make you a better person?
The Black Unicorn by Audre Lorde. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and anything by James Baldwin. But I suggest The Fire Next Time.