Collective Futures: Writing Our Worlds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Since Cave Canem was established in 1996, its model of mentorship and fellowship has inspired a host of other organizations dedicated to the development of poets of color. In light of the upcoming Cave Canem 25th Anniversary Reunion, we are reflecting on our past and thinking about what’s next in poetry and with these literary spaces that many poets call home. On Friday, June 18 at 7pm ET, María Fernanda (CantoMundo), Aurora Masum-Javed (Kundiman), Robert Randolph, Jr. (The Watering Hole), and El Williams III (Cave Canem) will read poems and discuss writing communities and the future(s) of poetry. Here, they have each selected one poet who they feel best represents or writes into this future. Noting that there are many futures, we invite you to work with us in building a world that encompasses them all.


María Fernanda on Safiya Sinclair

Safiya Sinclair’s poetry collection Cannibal opens, “Have I forgotten it—”. There, the em dash appears to exemplify what forgetting may even look and feel like: our immediate consciousness squeezed into a flatness in order to survive our surroundings of continued colonization. The reader finds it is not a flatness. It is one small mixing a part of an expansive, strong palette. A painter’s motion to continue, to create a new color, a new depth.

Cannibal creates a vast palette of the influx of light (otherwise, dawn). Sinclair’s vibrancies—fire, gold, autumn, and more—brace such a strength. A flame’s coloring so intense, it bears blue. Readers experience nuanced blood hues, “my great-grandfather’s blood was clotted thick with sugar cane and overproof rum; when he bled it trickled heavy like molasses, blotted black […]”.

Sinclair’s palette transfigures into a motif of multiplicity, materializing as disease, “supernova,” unstoppable disaster, and more. Each instance, conscious and conquering historical colonial narratives, records how colonial disaster affects us (“proof of us”) and, simultaneously, Sinclair envisions herself as several new inextinguishable, massive disasters.

This personification of catastrophe is a reclaiming, “I swallowed anchor,” “Already, I have been a miracle,” “I will take your name. / I will take your home,” and those who have maintained, “the chicken wire of my sex,” will, “finally choke.”

This re-envisioning, through Sinclair’s palette, opens a particular collective future, where all of us can consider another way to move forward together. We, her readers whom identify, possess “the world’s red mecca,” even spiritually. The “pillars of coral carved into weapons by the Caribbean Sea […]” teach us.

It is in Sinclair’s piece “Hands” where multiplicity does not necessary connote immortality of one being, but, more impressively, through the blends of our differently-imbued blood, whether “blotted black” or “rusty sunset,” “our bloodlines of what once lived […] will live and live again.”

Aurora Masum-Javed on Muriel Leung

What does it mean to hold the future in your mouth, to curl the page and listen until it sings, until it weeps? Muriel Leung’s Imagine UsThe Swarm envisions through memory, through reckoning. “I dream my ancestors alive, willing them to the table. How the thread of harm extends both ways.” Then later, “From the caverns of a war, I wait.” In this book, the past blossoms within us—sometimes radiant, sometimes cancerous. Grief carried like history in our bones. What do we do but construct a hope from the smoke?

“Even locked within the room, I poured out of it.” These poems pour—their forms breaking and remaking what is possible on the page—this, too, an act of futurity. Alongside the haunting, tenderness and longing in every line—the book is an embodiment of how love alters. Just as Leung builds radical, queer community everywhere she goes, this book dreams for the collective, ending with a swarm of resistance filling the sky. “We can write our origins / sacred here and renounce the country of our fear.”

I want to live in Leung’s imagination, the future she builds. There is space there—for the sadness, for all that we’ve done, for all we might still be. Like her previous collection Bone Confetti, this extraordinary book gives language to the impossible—what the body holds but so often cannot speak. “In the dying field, pointing to my own body, / I saw that it was mine was always there / and it spoke when I spoke / a language of two / hardened places / and there I lived / despite it all.” And there I lived. And there I live. We live.


Robert E. Randolph, Jr. on JoVan O’Neal

One is tempted to say that the future never announces itself, that it just shows up like the misery Toni Morrison warns us about in her novel Home: “Misery don’t call ahead. That’s why you have to stay awake—otherwise it just walks on in your door.” Indeed, misery walked through our doors in 2020. And it did not show up alone. Misery also brought loneliness, alienation, despair, loss, and grief. Who among us have not entertained one or all these affects during the past year?  In this space, poets have sought words to snatch our collective minds and spirits back from the carnage of our suffering. In the past, I have seen them tap into the memory of suffering so sweet and thick, they had no other choice but to witness. And, for me, therein lies the future of poetry.

I want to proffer a modest supposition, one that may seem more likely upon a second or even third thought: Within the next few years, we will see an explosion of new poets. I would like to imagine that there are throngs of writers who discovered poetry for the first time during the pandemic, who began to sift through the words not as a hobby but out of necessity. Perhaps, the future of poetry belongs to the poets who did not see themselves as such before the pandemic but claim the moniker now. The future of poetry may be the providence of those born in a particular weariness who will help us process the grief of the current moment. Jo’Van O’Neal is one such poet.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, O’Neal’s work can be found or is forthcoming in the Foundry Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, Anomaly, New Delta Review, and Bayou Magazine. To encounter the rue and romanticism of his pen, check out this offering, “The Binding.” Once you read it, how could you not understand my parting question: “What then is poetry, if not the future persevering?”


El Williams III on Harryette Mullen

As a person who lives in the present or operates on a day-to-day basis, the mystery of the future is often oblique. I view it from many angles and recognize that it (the future, which includes the present, and the past) is not linear. As such, I consider my interaction with poetry in this way; the future of poetry is the present of poetry is the past of poetry…or poetry will as it does as it did: inform, enlighten, entertain, breakthrough, breakdown, behold, revisit, reimagine, release. As the supreme genre, it carries all others and will continue to do so. On a sociopolitical note, it is my wish that poetry becomes more accessible to all, especially children, and that the amplification of marginalized voices continue to find and/or make/break space. Ultimately, the future of poetry is here, but should always and will always (if we, poets, hold ourselves responsible) learn new ways to blossom into a beauty that holds many narratives to be shared by all. Though I could say that all poets write into the future or represent the future, I’ll recognize, here, Harryette Mullen, a genius-poet who has me thinking heavily about the future-past, craft, the disruption of language, and Blackness. Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how her work centers my thinking on Black womanhood. I name her, specifically, because of all the poetry (collections) I’ve read in the past year, her book length poem, Muse & Drudge, continues to call my name. In a 1996 interview with Calvin Bedient, he states, “there’s a great deal of mobility [in the poem]…it improvises and metamorphoses.” Mullen responds with the idiom, “it grows like Topsy” (Mullen 664), and that’s very true, because here I am learning from it, from her, as her work grows into the future.


Works Cited

Mullen, Harryette. “The Solo Mysterioso Blues: An Interview with Harryette Mullen.” Interviewed by Calvin Bedient. Callaloo Vol. 19, No. 3, 1996, pp. 664.



María Fernanda’s poems “invokes sea crossings with […] the breaking and making of family,” as described by OkayAfrica. Her poems and translations appear in The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext, The Wide Shore, The Acentos Review, and more. María Fernanda is a published contributor of The Library of Congress’ Publishing Office. Awarded the Andrea Klein Willison Prize for Poetry and a finalist for The Hurston/Wright Amistad Award, María Fernanda is an Academy of American Poets’ 2020-2021 Poetry Coalition Fellow. She has presented her poems at The Ecuadorian American Cultural Center, Arizona’s Phoenix Art Museum, Philadelphia’s historic Kelly Writers House, Brooklyn Museum’s First Saturdays, and more. María Fernanda serves as the Black Artists and Designers Association’s Secondary Advisor at Arizona State University. 

Aurora Masum-Javed is a poet and educator. A former public school teacher, she received her MFA from Cornell University, where she also served as a lecturer. Her work can be found in Aster(ix), Frontier, Winter Tangerine, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships from MacDowell, Caldera, and Kundiman among others. A former Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing and Hub City Writer in Residence, she is currently working on her first book and teaching in South Carolina. 

Robert Randolph, Jr., is a writer and scholar from Down East, North Carolina. His research and teaching interests include 20th- and 21st-century African American literature and cultural production, educational theory and philosophy, and Black feminist/queer rhetorics. His work has appeared in several academic journals including The Journal of Black Masculinity, Composition Studies, Praxis, Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture, Black Youth Project, and Wear Your Voice Magazine. He is currently working on a book titled What Moves at the Margins: Black Queer Poetics and the Critical Pedagogical Imagination. Randolph holds a PhD in educational and cultural studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is also a Graduate Poetry Fellow of The Watering Hole. You can find him on Twitter: @rrandolphjr.

El Williams III‘s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ploughshares, River Styx, Vinyl Poetry & Prose, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem, Community of Writers, Tin House, and The Watering Hole. A St. Louis native, he currently lives in Bloomington where he is a dual MFA/MA candidate in poetry and African American & African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University.