The Glow of a Poet

Mahogany L. Browne makes big impact as Lincoln Center’s first ever poet-in-residence.

| 27 Aug 2021 | 02:20

You spot her right away. A spring to her step as she moves quickly between stage and book table and free produce giveaway, deftly traversing alternate sides of the reflecting pool in the middle of Lincoln Center’s plaza. She paused often, chatting with guests, accommodating selfies and smiling for group photos, then hurrying off again to host the Woke Baby Book Fair she had curated for the young, rapt audience now seated at the presenter’s feet.

Mahogany L. Browne is Lincoln Center’s first ever poet-in-residence, invited to curate virtual and in-person events from July through September in a residency titled “We are the Work” – “an artistic call to recharge and unite towards justice within our communities.”

It is a role the Brooklyn-based poet, educator, curator, organizer, self-proclaimed womanist, and prolific writer of 20 books – including the fair’s namesake, “Woke Baby” and the recently published “Chlorine Sky”— has embraced fully over the past few weeks.

“I feel so supported and celebrated as an artist,” Browne said when asked about her history-making residency. “I’ve been really having the time of my life!”

The joy shows. Whether raising her hands in the air to shake and sway along with the youngsters during a movement break at the book fair or lots of laughter and dance and hugs captured in photographs and film at ongoing events, Browne is fully immersed in the role she has been called to pioneer at New York City’s celebrated arts venue.

To date, there have been plenty of poetry readings – online and in person – outdoor music, dance, film screening, among many other artistic expressions that she and other poets, activists and performers have participated in along with the programming team at Lincoln Center.

“This position dares me to dream big, then double dares me to activate those dreams with the support of a production team of stars!” said Browne.

An Obvious Choice
One of Lincoln Center’s ‘team of stars’ is Jordana Leigh, senior director of artistic programming, who extended the invitation to Browne to be their first poet-in-residence.

“We are at this moment right now where our society needs a lot of healing, people need to be able to share their story, express what they have experienced, and poetry has that ability to touch people’s soul in so many different ways,” said Leigh.

She adds that, from her experience, poets tend to be community leaders – as Browne is – where she believes they can see things others can’t necessarily see as clearly, and thus able to synthesize what we are all seeing, to help us move forward.

When she began her search and started to talk to poets and presenters about the residency plans, the same name kept coming up.

“Everyone was like, ‘You have to talk to Mahogany, she’s amazing!’” she said. With Browne’s extensive portfolio of work, Leigh said she was familiar with her writings and activism, and recognized Browne as someone who is a leader in the community.

Leigh said they have generally given Browne a lot of freedom to curate the programs on campus and virtually.

“[Browne has] created an amazing residency and an amazing way for people to have touchstone and touchpoints to poetry,” she said.

Focus On Justice
Browne’s work is embedded in the ongoing fight for social justice and criminal justice reform, in particular, addressing mass incarceration of people of color. She writes of a life that saw too many male relatives ending up in jail, and the impact that has on those left behind. Her upcoming book-length poem, “I Remember Death by its Proximity to What I Love”, speaks in depth about this area of activism.

In another of her books dedicated to youth, “Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice”, she describes the now popular term “Woke” as simply meaning “to be aware.” Beyond the hard and often exhausting fight for equality, the poems written there speaks of grace and community and forgiveness, how we need each other for survival – and, therefore, the need to use one’s voice to work toward equality.

“...What if all the breathing bodies required to live and thrive and graze and grow in harmony was justice...?” she asks in the poem “Blown-out Stars Whisper about Justice”.

The Lincoln Center residency wraps up in mid-September with a final in-person concert of music and spoken word poetry – How the Work Begins: A Revolutionary Concert – on Sept. 10. Leigh is also looking at ways to make Browne’s work sustainable even after she departs Lincoln Center.

“I think it has been a huge success!” Leigh said of the residency. “How do we continue this good work? I’ve seen her activate various communities – different demographics in terms of age, families to young adults.” And these are communities Leigh would like to keep engaged.

Browne’s future is likely more certain: she will continue to use her voice and pen to speak up against injustice and mistreatment in its many forms.

“I’m writing to archive the observation,” she said. “I’m writing to record the moment with a viewpoint of those often disregarded or simply erased.”

“This position dares me to dream big, then double dares me to activate those dreams with the support of a production team of stars!” Mahogany L. Browne