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Brothers in Poetry

Two poets address social justice issues through call and response.

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Writing of the moment, in the moment, is often relegated to the news and forgettable opinion pieces. But with their book of poetry, “American Reverie,” Synnika Lofton and Donnelle McGee collect the voices of the current landscape and reflect on the racial injustice, police brutality and impoverished neighborhoods that America can no longer hide.

McGee focuses his pieces more on the self – writing in one poem: “How does one be both black and white. Not a question. I / live this.” Lofton transfers that energy into the many, broadening the eye to a fragmented civilization: “A country has to look better / than its constitution / than its creed / than its currency.”

Working off each other in a call-and-response style, Lofton and McGee seamlessly reckon with memories of dreams, many of them unfulfilled. Through confessional pleas, remembrances, hopes, fears, and passions, each strives to capture moments of lives lived. From “Said Eleven Times,” a poem that McGee dedicates to Eric Garner, the writer identifies and repeats the words, “I can’t breathe,” 11 times.

But how does one fight for justice, love and hope? Through which medium and at what cost? These are some of the questions McGee and Lofton ask. Perhaps all the death, mourning and suffering going on right now has already collapsed the nation like a faulty lung. Or perhaps there is hope to rebuild in a different image, one that exemplifies its people, their struggles and their triumphs. From his poem, “Sanctuary,” Lofton writes:

“Uproot their statues, / rip them from concrete, / crumble their sensational stories, / and cast love affairs / with history / to hungry winds.”

Lofton last performed in Richmond at the Twisted Culture Arts Festival in 2018 at Twisted Ales Brewery. With two recent books and a spoken word album, he was preparing to perform in Richmond and other areas of Virginia. He currently lives in Chesapeake. McGee teaches at Mission College in Santa Clara, California. The two connected at a reading engagement and later began an East-West online correspondence that resulted in the publication of “American Reverie.”

Style Weekly: This collection is unique in that you seem to be playing off one another’s work almost seamlessly. How did this approach affect your work as well as your friendship?

Donnelle McGee: We structured the book around a call and response narrative. The manuscript began via a Google Document that we updated for more than two years. I would send a poem, sometimes two, then Synnika would read what I shared and then respond back. And so this process went on with us both responding to the work of the other. Synnika is more than a friend; he is a genuine/compassionate human being with a heart for those facing oppression. He is my poetic brother.

Both of you write musically, but also reference specific musicians and genres in your work. How do you determine which styles will work in your poems and how do they speak to this moment in America?

Synnika Lofton: Whenever Donnelle mentioned a musician, I thought about the musicians that inspired me, and I would mention them or build entire poems around them. We both have lyrical approaches to crafting poems and that comes across in the book. The book speaks with a booming voice, and today’s political landscape is wrapped within it. I think “American Reverie” is symbolic of a never-ending nightmare and attempts to create reason inside of the chaos.

McGee: This moment in America – police brutality and the unfair treatment of Black people – is not new. Therefore, we both pay homage to our Black artists and musicians. It’s their voices, past and present, that guide us all to the ultimate healing. We begin “American Reverie” with the words of Marvin Gaye and end our narrative with the words of Kendrick Lamar. These two brothers hold our poems up; our poems are for our people. 

I was enlivened by the references to the tearing down of monuments, as well as protesting, and the energy for a new America defined by the young. Can you speak to how what’s happening in Richmond played a role in some of your work, and what kind of city can you envision moving forward? 

Lofton: I have lived in Virginia for 14 years now, and many people continue to celebrate Confederate monuments as symbols of heritage, while others, especially Black people, recognize the history of racism, slavery and oppression wrapped in these monuments. People are shedding real blood in this struggle to relocate controversial monuments and statues. This is only a part of the fight, but Americans have celebrated a false history for far too long.

Virginia faces the same racial conditions as the rest of the country, so I’m glad to see the sweeping changes and the intense energy. With each and every action, we have to keep the pressure on America to make changes and to confront its controversial history, as well as correct the complex problems with law enforcement and institutionalized racism.

As long as people keep fighting for social justice and for the issues that matter, the situation in Richmond and other cities, will continue to improve.  

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