Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Haiku poet to share interpretation of slave ship passage
Posted by Clayton Hardiman | The Muskegon Chronicle June 22, 2008 00:22AM
Categories: Breaking News

Mursalata Muhammad
Poets have striven to tell the story of the Middle Passage before.

And why not? The Middle Passage -- the forced transport across the Atlantic of kidnapped African men, women and children, packed like sardines in the holds of slave ships -- is a tale of such heartbreak, suffering and drama that it practically screams for artistic interpretation.

But, Mursalata Muhammad may be the first to recall the experience in just this way.

For one thing, she chose to write her verse in haiku, the spare, disciplined Japanese form of poetry that packs a world of meaning into every word and syllable. Muhammad also invited visual artists and musicians to create their own interpretations to accompany her work.

Artists from around the country responded to the invitation.
The poetry and accompanying art are part of a traveling exhibit called "Haiku Middle Passage." On display at the Muskegon County Museum of African American History through the end of August, the exhibit commemorates two centuries since the end of legalized transatlantic slave trading.

Muhammad, who is an associate professor of English at Grand Rapids Community College, will give a presentation during a reception at the African American history museum June 29. The reception is free of charge and open to the public.

In a telephone interview, Muhammad described her vision of the Middle Passage. In many ways, it is distinct, perhaps even unique.

For one thing, she said, other poets who have tackled the historical subject tended to expand their stories to include "what happened before and after," including the Africans' capture and their lives in New World captivity.

Muhammad's intent, on the other hand "was to reproduce the experience on water," she said.

Muhammad said she did not cling to the traditional five-seven-five syllabic arrangement of traditional haiku. Most of the 17 haiku are written in a seven-five-five form. Others were altered to represent other people's perspectives, such as those of European crew members aboard the slave ships.

The bulk of the haiku were written 10 to 12 years ago, Muhammad said, when she was a graduate student at Penn State University.

Writing the haiku was "a very cathartic experience," Muhammad said. "I tend to research a lot," she said. "I won't say it was fun, but it was engaging."

But perhaps the most revealing experience was seeing the work visual artists produced in response to her poetry, Muhammad said. "I thought it was just amazing," she said.

The Muskegon area is the third display for the traveling exhibit. It opened at Grand Rapids Community College in October and then had a stop at Holy Family University in Philadelphia. Eventually Muhammad would like to achieve 200 showings, after which the contents would be auctioned with proceeds donated to charity.

Viewers are encouraged to visit a Web blog on the exhibit located online at haikumiddlepassageexhibit.blogspot.com.

The Muskegon County Museum of African American History is located at 7 E. Center. Hours of operation are 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturdays.