A black mother’s angst, hopes searingly captured in ‘Screaming Times: Poems”

“Screaming Times: Poems” by Natasha Ria El-Scari is the newest book in the monthly POP Poetry book series.
“Screaming Times: Poems” by Natasha Ria El-Scari is the newest book in the monthly POP Poetry book series.

“Screaming Times: Poems” by Natasha Ria El-Scari is the newest book in the monthly POP Poetry book series. Its verse illustrates the vibrancy of this community project.

The POP Poetry series, sponsored by Prospero’s Books on West 39th Street, highlights one poet each month by holding debut readings at the store and supporting Spartan Press, which publishes the collections. Jason Ryberg, an editor at Spartan Press, says, “Kansas City is known for its music and art scenes. We bring attention to the writing scene.” Other editors are Will Leathem, who co-owns Prospero’s Books, and Stephanie Powers.

El-Scari, a native of Kansas City, uses a consistent, strong voice throughout the poems in “Screaming Times.” Poems lift off the page, almost reading themselves. Unlike some performance poetry, her words translate well to the printed page. She celebrates women’s roles in “The Sacred Assignment Called Mother,” where “to be mother is to be God in skin.” Poems addressed to mothers, daughters and sons are among the poet’s strongest.

“The Secret Life of Black Mothers” is a wrenching catalog of fears that African-American mothers experience when watching a son grow. El-Scari writes, “With each milestone to manhood, we weep.” The narrator celebrates a maturing child’s “wit” and “the new bass in your resonating voice.” The poem continues with “We black mothers weep/when we know we have to release/you to the movies with your friends.” This simple social activity becomes sinister in context of mortality statistics for young African-American men. The narrator uses the refrain “we weep” effectively to emphasize emotion.

Another important poem is “Whisper This to a Grieving Mother,” which ends, “Find comfort in your heart’s blaze, you are and always will be a mother.” The subtext is shared grief from continuing violence, a too-relevant topic.

Some titles are themselves poems, like “for my second grade daughter who almost shut down when school was too much.” This suggests a story, but the poem omits events and instead proposes a remedy, strength, “Summon the bottom of the ocean/where your ancestors restlessly rest.” Rage against injustice fuels much work in this collection. “Why I Haven’t Written a Trayvon Martin Poem Yet” is a powerful indictment of sensationalized media coverage.

Humor leavens the tragedies in “Screaming Times,” including a celebration of women’s sisterhood in public bathrooms (“Sanctuary”) and diva training (“Definition of a Diva”). The language moves effortlessly in conversational phrasing that briefly loosens too far but always returns to searing-hot lines.

El-Scari is a graduate fellow of the prestigious Cave Canem writers’ retreat and has a master’s in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her book is the ninth in the POP Poetry series. Its intensity typifies all these publications.

Other POP Poetry poets are Leathem, Powers, Jose Faus, Sharon Eiker, Al Ortolani, Iris Appelquist, Ezhno Martin and Crista Siglin. Most books are sold out. A recent Inspiration grant from Arts KC will support reprints plus a 2016 monthly round of books.

The October poet in the series is Glenn North. To finish out the year, Spartan will publish books by Angela Roux and Shawn Pavey. The writing community makes the energetic POP Poetry project, with its monthly readings, as impressive as any of the Kansas City arts.

Denise Low is author of “Melange Block” and Kansas poet laureate 2007-09.

“Screaming Times: Poems” by Natasha Ria El-Scari (74 pages; Spartan Press; $10)

Glenn North book release

POP Poetry Book Release will be 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at Prospero’s Books, 1800 W. 39th St.