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VOICES Series: Alan King

Poet Alan W. King has a hypnotic way of describing food. Cuisines of different locales and cultural traditions are a mainstay of the Maryland poet’s 2017 collection of poetry, “Point Blank,” with the flavors of his childhood seeping into his words. He speaks of his craving for bananas — “spooned body to body / like small yellow kayaks” (“I wanted bananas—”) — or the way his mother cooks curry — “in a bubbling bath of cumin, / turmeric and cayenne pepper” (“The Hostess”) — with reverence, and a cutting and quiet focus that hauls the listener at full strength into King’s memories.

King’s language can have that effect, even when not following the scent trails of barbecue and Caribbean food that are woven throughout “Point Blank.” On Jan. 25, St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) students were treated to that pull into memory with a selection of King’s poetry at the first VOICES Reading Series event of the spring semester.  

English professor Karen Anderson, director of the VOICES Series, introduced the night’s speaker, saying, “Alan King’s work is big — political, social in its scope, unwavering in its commitments to justice — but it also feels intimate, personal and complex.”

That could be seen throughout the night’s 45 -minute reading, as King used vivid and personal images to draw in the listener, and then at times jolt them from their comfortable place as observers. In one of the night’s most powerful pieces, “Striptease,” King describes an incident in which his 17-year-old nephew was detained, trying to return a blouse for his mother at Target.

In the poem, King and his wife get the call to pick him up on the way to dinner, told that “the store closes in twenty minutes. / Then he’ll be cuffed and bounced to a detention center.” The poem gets caught again in a tangent of food — the samosas and basmati rice, flying “fragrant kites,” waiting for them at that restaurant they’ll never get to — “But the appetites vanish in the U-Turn.”

King and his wife arrive in time to save their nephew from criminal charges, but not from the humiliation of racial profiling. Many of the poems King shares from “Point Blank” deal with this loss of innocence, forced too early on the young by a system that works against them, showing them violence and violation at every turn. “I’m sick of this striptease / we’re forced to perform when Authority / smacks us back in line for thinking / we’re like everyone else,” King continues in “Striptease.”  

The book’s title comes from a poem of the same name, in which a 12-year-old King is playing with a friend when they find the boy’s father’s gun.

Of his nephew, King says, “The incident at Target / is them popping his cherry.

English professor Jeffrey Coleman also gave introductory remarks before King’s reading. “One thing that I’ve gathered from spending some time with him today,” said Coleman, “is that he is a very compassionate soul, a very caring husband and father [and] of course a tremendous writer.”

Alan W. King lives in Bowie, Maryland, with his wife Jasmine and their two-year-old daughter. A poet, as well as an author, journalist and videographer, King has written for Baltimore’s “Afro-American Newspaper,” and is an alum of the MFA Creative Writing Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine, as well as a graduate fellow of the esteemed Cave Canem program for African-American poets.

The next VOICES Reading Series event is in Cole Cinema, on Feb. 15 at 8:15 p.m. Nationally recognized slam poet Porsha Olayiwola is a student-selected speaker, brought to SMCM in part by the Student Government Association, Black Student Union and Young Progressives Demanding Action.

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