Charleston welcomed poet Kwoya Fagin Maples back home with open arms and open skies on Wednesday.
Plentiful rain moved the seventh Piccolo Spoleto Sundown Poetry reading into the Gibbes Museum of Art, where a crowd gathered in the Fellows Member Reception Hall. Katherine Williams, co-coordinator of the Piccolo Spoleto Sundown Poetry, gave a touching introduction to Maples, whom she called a “gracious and generous artist.”
“Kwoya’s poetry leans across disciplines toward visual art, music, and history,” Williams said. “She strives to answer the poet’s highest calling, taking us out of our own limited experience and into those of people we can’t possibly know.”
A sense of community radiated from the crowd, casual chatter echoing off the room’s walls as we awaited the arrival of one of Maples’ sisters. There was a closeness present that had been missing for the last 15 months, strangers making small talk face-to-face about things like dodging the rain or dropping someone at the airport — ordinary situations that became nostalgic during the pandemic.
Maples thanked the crowd for braving the weather, noting she was prepared to give the reading to seven people while pretending there’s 70. The pitter-patter of engorged water droplets gave the reading a new soundtrack behind the poet’s powerful words.
Making her festival debut, Maples began the reading with work from her 2018 book, Mend, a collection of historical persona poetry that tells the story of the birth of gynecology and obstetrics in America and the role black, enslaved women played in the process. Dr. James Marion Sims, the “Father of Gynecology,” spent four years experimenting and performing surgeries on at least 11 different enslaved women, only naming three in his autobiography — Anarcha, Betsey and Lucy. Maples referenced and quoted the autobiography, The Story of My Life, throughout Mend.
“What Yields” is an 11-poem sonnet corona (a sequence of connected sonnets) told through the perspective of Anarcha. Each sonnet directly addressed Sims and repeated the ending lines of the preceding sonnet, giving powerful weight to Maples’ words and linking chapters of Anarcha’s tragic story together.
“The day we were born, we belonged to you,” Maples said. “These clay sculpted women — yours.”
When she reached the 11th sonnet’s end, the crowd remained hooked on her words that recalled the sonnet corona’s beginning.
“We’re healed,” Maples said. “The day we were born we belonged to you.”
After introducing us to her family, Maples addressed the pandemic head-on with “Blackberry Winter,” one of the poems from her current manuscript, which is focused on more personal poetry. She choked up a little on a line about her daughter’s thumb-sucking habit before persevering through.
She ended the reading with “Pools,” a work-in-progress piece she dedicated to her husband Marcus, whom she affectionately called “my muffin.”
Many poems from this manuscript are tied to a loved one, be it a person or place. “Oyster Meditation,” a poem surrounding just that, is dedicated to her late uncle Larry. “Invisible Work,” a beautiful recollection of life, is in honor of “all these precious people who raised [her].” Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island are familiar locations in the lives of many Charleston natives, Maples included. surfer, Williams said the poems about these sandy shores are ones she’s really drawn to.
“Her poems in the new collection about Charleston are especially engaging because she’s telling our story,” Williams said.
Samantha Savery is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.