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Keita, M. Nzadi

Keita, M. Nzadi


M. Nzadi Keita, a 2017 Pew Fellow in poetry, is a first-generation urban northerner. The Philly-born writer also works as an editor, scholar and teacher. Her most recent book, Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the life of Anna Murray Douglass (Whirlwind Press), was a finalist for the 2015 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Prize from the Quarterly Black Book Review. Through persona poems, Keita imagines how the first wife of Frederick Douglass — free-born and illiterate — saw the world as an independent woman, mother, and abolitionist in her own right. Some poems portray the voices of others within Douglass’s world, including her children, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman.

Keita’s poems have appeared in literary journals such as nocturnes, Crab Orchard and Poet Lore.  Anthologies featuring her work include Peace Is A Haiku Song, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South and A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Grants and fellowships from the Penna. Council on the Arts, the Leeway Foundation, Yaddo and the Fine Arts Work Center have supported her creative adventures.  Keita has worked as a consultant for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, and other organizations.  She is an associate professor of English and co-coordinator of the African-American/Africana Studies Program at Ursinus College.

Attic Window

“[Ottilie Assing’s] letters to Douglass, which she wrote as a lover of more than twenty years, celebrated a familiar rich sensuality.”
– Maria Diedrich

Those Tuesdays when I climbed the attic loft
the window was a comfort, high and far,
that called me from my trials like thrushes called
to song. I waited out the visits
when Miss Ottilie came—a blue
eyed weed my husband found; she was no guest.
The downtown eyes called her the public wife,
who claimed his arm and took his books into
her foreign mouth, the bidder when
Fred auctioned off my place.
She laughed and laughed,
of course, at me. How could a mammy be
a match for such a princely man, I heard
her hiss. She wrote his speeches, left her name
in drawers. The halls bowed out as if
the house had witnessed too much pain–
a swollen, unhealed shape. I went up high
and listened to her, playing at my life.
I cut some cloth to fix her but I knew
that conjure would bring ruin. And now, latched
to the bed, I wish I’d kept those scraps of silk to learn
a softer sigh, to teach my hands new joys,
–hands that our abolition-loving liar once called paws.

Brief Evidence of Heaven: Poems from the life of Anna Murray Douglass (Whirlwind Press, 2014)

2017 Pew Fellow in poetry
finalist, 2015 Phillis Wheatley Poetry Prize