Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

A Reminiscence

My first poetry reading in Corning, I wanted to include the other black artists I knew and create, if only for a couple of hours, a larger experience. I believed in collaboration and a multiplicity of experience and wanted to exemplify that in my reading.  Had I known musicians, I would have invited and included them, but I had not met them yet.

I asked the art center if I could have access to the space I would be performing in before my performance. Sure.  I contacted my friend, a designer, who had some wonderful prints and paintings, and another new friend, a woman who made what is now called art dolls. I  gathered some pedestals for her dolls, easels for the paintings, incense burners and other decorations and made the white-walled room alive with color and interest. The hours before the reading I received a call at work. It was the  #2. With barely contained fury, she ordered me to dismantle what I had put in the room. Why? Because they had a process, because this work could not be “presented”. I argued that the work was part of my reading. I was only trying to create an atmosphere conducive to my reading, and that it would all be gone by the end of my reading.

I remember writing to friends in the city about this, puzzled. At the time I had 16 years of readings under my belt and in the City, I had been active as a presenter and organizer. How was it that this place would be  so distrusting and insulting?

How limited and limiting their idea of presentation and how mean that whatever their “process” that this could not be set aside for my performance.

Her hostility alarmed me. I didn’t want my friend’s work to be  harmed. So I made excuses and left work early, gathered up their creations. Now the reading that evening was standing room only. ( I had been put in the smallest room) I was delighted that I had the same size crowd— about 40 people– in Corning as I had in New York City.

I’ve never forgotten the hostility and denial. It was a sad lesson: I could not expect the arts, at least in this region, to be enlightened or welcoming. I turned my sights and readings to Ithaca. My painter friend joined the board of this organization years later. I think his presence helped soften some of that rigidity and short sightedness.  When I won my first NYFA, a year later, it was a balm and affirmation.Akua in Ithaca circa '89

About Akua Lezli Hope

Akua Lezli Hope uses sound, words, fiber, glass, metal, and wire to create poems, patterns, stories, music, sculpture, adornments, and peace. She wrote her first speculative poems in the sixth grade and has been in print every year, except one, since 1974 with over 400 poems published. Her collections and chapbooks include Embouchure: Poems on Jazz and Other Musics (ArtFarm Press, 1995; Writer’s Digest book award winner), Them Gone (The Word Works, 2018), Otherwheres: Speculative Poetry (ArtFarm Press, 2020; a 2021 Elgin Award winner), and Stratospherics (a micro-chapbook of scifaiku available from the Quarantine Public Library). A Cave Canem fellow, her honors include the NEA, two NYFAs, an SFPA award, and multiple Rhysling and Pushcart Prize nominations. She has won Rattle’s Poets Respond twice and launched Speculative Sundays, an online poetry reading series. Her work has also been published in numerous literary magazines and national anthologies, including: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The 100 Best African American Poems (Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2010); Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (Warner Aspect, 2000), Asimov’s Science Fiction, Gyroscope Review, Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality & the Arts, Strange Horizons, Star*Line, SciFaikuest, Eye to the Telescope, The New Verse News, Breath & Shadow, The Crafty Poet II: A Portable Workshop (Terrapin Books, 2016), The Cossack Review, Silver Blade Magazine, Stone Canoe, and Three Coyotes. She is the editor of the record-breaking sea-themed issue of Eye To The Telescope #42, and of NOMBONO: An Anthology of Speculative Poetry by BIPOC Creators, the first of its kind, from Sundress Publications (2021). A third-generation New Yorker and an avid hand papermaker and crochet designer, she exhibits her artwork regularly. She sings songs from her favorite anime in Japanese, practices her soprano saxophone, and prays for the cessation of suffering for all sentience from the ancestral land of the Seneca, the Southern Finger Lakes region of New York State.

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