Poems For Billie Holiday And Bessie Smith From The Blair House Collective

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on September 3, 2019 3:51 pm

In the fall of 2018, Adia Victoria approached Ciona Rouse and Caroline Randall Williams about coming together for a group reading to celebrate her work as a blues musician. After attempts to meet at various locations all over town, the three women found themselves at Caroline's house on Blair Blvd. The house is old, high-ceilinged, wild and bought and paid for by another black woman writer — novelist Alice Randall.

When Adia, Ciona and Caroline sat down on the black velvet couch in the Blair House living room, a sisterhood was born. Together the three women have worked to number a series of creative projects together. The first, a series of poems devoted to Rosie, a blues woman of their own conception, inspired them to start thinking about the living, breathing, earthbound women who inspired their archetypal Rosie. Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith were the natural next thought.

Each member of the collective has written two poems — one for Billie, one for Bessie — and "plaited" a third. The Plait Poem, as we call it, consists of three stanzas. The first stanza is made up of lines from Adia and Caroline's poems, selected and arranged — or plaited — by Ciona. The second stanza is made up of lines from Ciona and Caroline's poems, selected and plaited by Adia. The third stanza is made up of lines from Adia and Ciona's poems, selected and plaited by Caroline. The exercise of trusting your sisters to find new ways to lift your words and share your stories is a hallmark of the Blair House Collective's collaborative work and spirit. —The Blair House Collective


Billie Poems

"HOLIDAY"
by Ciona Rouse

Lady dresses herself in his name and gilds it

        even though he made himself a stranger.

Lady claims truth from her larynx

        looks the man in the eye, calls out his strange

bedfellows. Although the dart of her lips rise
         at dawn, the day is blue and glows something strange.

A lady's father is killed today the way they

killed her father then. Do you hear the strain gently

pulse in her throat? Lady, too, is killed
        
then, black and restrained, just

the way a black lady still holds

        and releases and dies today.


"Billie"
by Adia Victoria


"Treble"
by Caroline Randall Williams


Leigh Wiener / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture


Bessie Poems

"SMITH"
by Ciona Rouse


"Bessie"
by Adia Victoria


"Altar"
by Caroline Randall Williams


Plait Poem for Billie and Bessie

from "Billie," "Treble," "Bessie," and "Altar"
plaited by Ciona Rouse

from "HOLIDAY," "Treble," "SMITH," and "Altar"
plaited by Adia Victoria

from "HOLIDAY," "Billie," "SMITH," and "Bessie"
plaited by Caroline Randall Williams

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.