Sunday, September 07, 2014

Passion, Power, and Paper Bag Poetry Books: An Afternoon with A.K. Toney

Olga García Echeverría

When I was in my 20's I believed that passion (be it for a particular person, for poetry, for social justice or for lo que sea) was everything. Without passion, there was no poetry, no ganas, no nada. Being a person without passion was like being a deflated brown paper lunch bag.

Deflated Lunch Bag: Metaphor for Passionless Person


Now in my 40's I still think passion is a wondrous thing, but I see passion as a moon; it waxes and wanes. Sometimes it's big and bright, and other times it's dark and dormant.

Passion Hanging Over Long Beach:
Waxing or Waning?

I love teaching, for example, but at times I've felt uninspired, disconnected. It's this way with writing too. I can't imagine my life without writing, but there have been moments (seasons actually) when poetry did not speak to me. When workshopping felt like a chore. When attending a poetry reading was torture. When despite my love for the creative Word, I did not feel inspired by It. Can I get a witness?

When inspiration wanes, have a cosmo...or two

Cosmos are short-lived, but it's really Octavia Butler's words that endure, “Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable...Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not.” This I believe to be true. It is because of habit or ritual that I am here, still writing. Inspiration when it arrives is the high of highs, but sometimes as poets, as artists, as educators, as bloggers we have to jumpstart the passion. We have to take a deflated paper bag and make something marvelous of it.
Enter writer and poet A.K. Toney and his paper bag poetry books.
Aside from being a father, husband, and student, Toney is also a founder of Reading is Poetry, a Los Angeles based literacy program dedicated to improving reading and writing comprehension and enhancing expression through verse. Reading is Poetry, which has been around since 2005, works with all age groups but a primary focus of the organization has been K-5 inner-city children.
When I asked Toney to share a little about the mission of Reading is Poetry, he stated, “We encourage self esteem, writing, and we do it all through the tool of poetic license." Unlike prescriptive teaching approaches that focus on error correction, Toney explains that "poetic license allows a child, a student, anyone who is writing poetry to spell words phonetically or to use the abbreviation of a that word. That doesn't necessarily mean the word is spelled correctly, but it means that you can read the word and you understand what the writer is trying to communicate. I encourage that. When kids misspell words, we know what happens. Teachers do this all the time--spell it for them correctly. But in poetry, it doesn't matter. You can misspell a word. We tell our students, 'We want to encourage you, Reading is Poetry wants to encourage you to write more. We will show you how to spell the word correctly and make other words up too, but right now what we want you to do is write your feelings out no matter if they are misspelled. We want to get you to write more and we will teach you how to create an art form from that, which is poetry.'”

And how does Toney inspire and teach students to create an art form? Through reading, writing workshops, and book making.

A.K. con sus libros poderosos de papel

The first time I ever saw A.K. Toney's poetry books was at a Poets & Writers Workshop Leaders Retreat earlier this year. During the retreat, A.K. pulled out a small book about the size of a wallet and passed it around. It was decorated with cutout images, text, and it had several pockets where mini poems or passages were inserted. Being a fan of handmade books, I was instantly intrigued by these lunch bag libritos. Hence meeting A.K. Toney at Philippe's on Alameda this week for a Bloga interview and a bookmaking session.

It was obvious from the onset of our meeting that both of us are "crafty" kind of people. Aside from paper bags, A.K. brought packages of patterned paper, stickers, ribbon, and a paper cutter. When I started to pull out all my bookmaking materials, A.K. asked me, "Did you bring empty toilet paper rolls?" I knew then that this bookmaking session was serious. We got right to work, A.K. confessing that he likes crafting. "Not a lot of straight men can admit they like this kind of stuff, " he said, "Cutting, pasting, making things with your hands." And a little later, "I can't believe we're scrapping at a restaurant." If you haven't been to Philippe's, the upstairs rooms (generally empty) and the large tables are a scrapper's dream.
A.K. teaching me the art of paper bag bookmaking
When I asked A.K. how and why he uses these books in his program, he held one up and said, “This is something that helps get students into reading and writing. Kids generally don't want to write, so when I show them something like this and read from it and tell them about poetry, they become very enthusiastic.”

I can see how these libritos made out of recycled materials attract. They may not light up like Ipads, but they ignite other things—imagination and an instinct, a need to touch, explore, and create.

If you were a child in a classroom would you rather read a passage in a traditional textbook or one in a handmade book that unravels with surprise pockets like this?
A.K.'s paper bag book on Black history
The act of reading these books is a hands-on exploration. It's all tactile and visual and you can hear the rustling of tissue paper as if unwrapping a gift. Kindle cannot give you this. Isn't it lovely?
And when you create your own paper bag book, all things are possible. This is where power and magic come in. A woman can ripen like a papaya on a kitchen counter. A dove carrying a love letter in its beak can fly out of a hot-pink heart. You can cut out an ocean or a constellation and hold these in the palms of your hands, pondering what you will do with them. You can paste rain on a page right next to the words “I AM...” You can take an empty toilet paper roll and flatten it into a mini pocket, and then you can put a giraffe in there. All things are possible in scrapping and bookmaking.
You can even honor the dead like A.K. Toney and I did this past week. The book he created during our session was a tribute to the late Maya Angelou. His short poem to her in his book reads:



She the little girl

Didn’t talk for long time…

Caged bird sang

Rose up as Poet Laureate

Phenomenal Woman

On the Dawn and Cusp
Of morning… only you
And Baraka can cut the
Rug on Langston…
You and he doing that
Angelou Immortalized

Maya Angelou paper bag book with inspirational quotes

And my lunch bag book was for my querida amiga tatiana de la tierra.
Pages of a fragmented poem for tatiana

Since tatiana's passing in 2012, I have been writing poetic fragments for her, but up until now I haven't really known what to do with them. The paper bag book gave me an opportunity to create mini collage poems. Healing via fun. These libritos are good medicine. By the end of the session, I felt the high of artistic creation, my moon of inspiration waxing. Thank you A.K. Toney for the work you are doing and for sharing your art with me and our Bloga readers.


Healing Arts


There are many ways to make a book out of a lunch bag. A.K. Toney said he first learned the skill via a YouTube video. If you search under "lunch bag mini album" you will get dozens of instructional videos. Making albums or books out of recycled materials isn't a new art, but every artists/writer can take the basics and expand on them. In Toney's case, he's taken the lunch bag into the inner-city classroom to inspire interest in the literary arts and to empower students and all writers to scrap their truth. As the Reading is Poetry motto states, “Read to write...then write yr story.”

To learn more about Reading is Poetry:

About A. K. Toney


In a few words, A. K. Toney is a poet, writer and performance artist. For almost 20 years Toney has been an active member of the renowned cutting-edge African American arts enclave World Stage Performance Gallery’s Anansi Writer’s Workshop in Leimert Park Village (Los Angeles), Ca. As a member of the World Stage Toney had the honor to be mentored under the tutelage of Community leaders and Jazz greats such as Billy Higgins (founder of the World stage). Since 1993 Toney’s skills as a performance artist have lead him across the nation and abroad. While studying through various workshops he was given the opportunity as a part of the Mellon/Pew Grant Series to lecture about Performance Art at the California Institute of the Arts. Empowered by teaching A. K. became a Literacy Coordinator in 2005 creating a literacy program called Reading Is Poetry. Toney has dedicated his life to teaching people how to express their truth through poetry and literacy. His work has been anthologized in the following books:

Tough Love: Cultural Criticism and Familial Observations on the Life and Death of Tupac Shakur, Edited by Michael Datcher and Kwame Alexander 1996

Catch the Fire: Cross Intergenerational Anthology, Edited by Derrick Gilbert aka D-Knowledge 1998

Black Love: An Anthology, based from writing workshops and publication through Beyond Baroque Literary Art Center, Edited by Michael Datcher 1999

Drum Voices Revue: A Confluence of Literary Culture and Vision Arts, Edited by Eugene B. Redmond 1999

Raising Fences: A Black Man’s Love Story, Written by Michael Datcher 2001

Caprice, Mischief, and Other Poetic Strategies: An Anthology of Poems Based on Twenty Little Poetry Projects, Edited by Terry Wolverton 2004

Catching Hell in the City of Angels, Life and Meanings of Blackness in South Central Los Angeles, Written by Joao H. Costa Vargas 2006

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Thanks Olga for your interview with A. K. Toney and sharing your crafting at Philippe's. I haven't been upstairs eating a dipped sandwich in years. Great place to meet and create. As a sub teacher I'm always looking for extra creative things to hold students' attention in class; this is a terrific addition to my "bag" of tricks.
    Also, may I testify too on often waiting for "Sweet, Sweet, Inspiration," as the old song goes; then accepting even and specially as an novice writer how I must engage the habit and write everyday.

    Again, thanks for your time and inspiration,
    Diana Aviles Shields