Thoughts: Interview with devorah major, Poet-in-Residence, Professor & Author

devorah major served as San Francisco’s Third Poet Laureate (2002-2006). Her seventh book of poetry, califia’s daughter, a Willow Books Editor’s Choice prize winner, will be released by Aquarius Press in July of this year. Her other books include her most recent poetry collection, a braccia aperte/with arms open, two novels, four chapbooks and a host of short stories, essays, and poems in anthologies and periodicals. Trade Routes, a symphony by Guillermo Galindo with spoken word poetry and song by devorah major premiered at the Oakland East Bay Symphony in 2006. In June 2015 major premiered her poetry play Classic Black: Voices of 19th Century African-Americans in San Francisco at the S.F. International Arts Festival. devorah major performs her work nationally and internationally (thus far Italy, Bosnia, England, Wales, Jamaica, Venezuela.) with and without musicians. She is a poet-in-residence in schools and other community organizations and a part-time Senior Adjunct Professor at California College for the Arts.   Lunch Poems reading UC Berkeley  Poet Laureate Address  Freedom Is a Constant Struggle with Kiilu Nyasha (TV interview)

Publication Book List

 Poetry Books:

califia’s daughter Willow Books/Aquarius Press (Detroit, MI) July 2020

A BRACIA APERTE/ with arms open Multimedia Edizioni (Baronissi, Italy) 2019

and then we became City Lights (San Francisco, Ca.) 2016

where river meets ocean City Lights (San Francisco, Ca.) 2003

with more than tongue – Creative Arts Book, Inc. (Berkeley, Ca.)  2003

street smarts (Curbstone Press – 1997)

traveling women (with Opal Palmer Adisa – Jukebox Press 1989)


Incantations and Rites  Artichoke Press  San Francisco , Ca 2013

amor verdinia/verdinia amor Artichoke Press  . 2011

black bleeds into green Word Temple Press Santa. Rosa, California 2009

Love Bites Yrwrite Productions San Francisco, Ca. 1998

Correspondence from the War Yrwrite Productions San Francisco, Ca. 1998


An Open Weave cloth- Seal Press (Seattle, Wash.) 1996, paper Women’s Press (London, England) 1996, paper Berkeley Press (New York, NY) 1997

Brown Glass Windows Curbstone Press (Willimantic, Conn.) 2002

Children’s Books:

A Hero for All Times a biography of Frederick Douglass (Don Johnson Publishing 2000)

Rose Parks: Freedom Fighter a biography of Rosa Parks (Don Johnson Publishing 2000)


NP: As the poet laureate of San Francisco what are your self-expectations? What does poetry on an emotional and spiritual level mean you?

 major: I was the 3rd San Francisco Poet Laureate (Kim Shuck is the current and 7th poet laureate) and at the time my goals were to show the relevance of poetry to San Francisco and beyond and bring as many people as possible to the poetry table. I also wanted to move in the position with integrity and openness.

There are so many languages, and I am not speaking of linguistics, Italian, Mandarin, Arabic, English, etc., but of languages of movement, of various visual arts, of music, etc. Even one who is illiterate can find a depth of meaning in a performance, even one who speaks in a different tongue, can understand the expressions. The languages that are found in words are one way, and only one way, to communicate.  They are, however, very abstract. If I want to create a dance of sadness, I can sculpt my body in positions and move with a weight that the immediate motion can be seen and, if I am skillful enough, felt by other dancers and anyone else watching. Then too, the actor or musician, sculptor or painter can have a direct conduit to those emotions, a conduit not limited by the need for translation, the need for a written vocabulary. And even that written vocabulary is expressed through these codes of lines and curls and dots pressed into paper that represent, but are not, the actual emotion. In poetry I am confined to words, that may need translations, line breaks and juxtaposition to show not only, for example, sadness but the shadings of that emotion. In poetry I am forced to be honest and, in a way, unclothed with my emotions, to feel them in their truth and to provide that vision to others. It means if I do not cry, if I do not smile even as the words go from pen or keyboard to paper or screen, I cannot communicate the ideas, the emotions to others. The poet e.e. cummings has advice to poets when he speaks of the fact that poetry is about feelings, not beliefs or ideas that can be shared but about feelings. He notes that when one feels s/he is no one but her or himself and he sees the act of being no one but oneself as a hard road. Poetry demands an emotional honesty of me.

As for the spiritual dimensions I find that as I have grown, as human and as poet, I have sought and found a larger meaning outside of myself. I have seen my compass grow from the sweet poems of romantic love and familial love and love of community, to the political poems of struggle and rebellion to a palette that has a broader relationship to the planet and indeed to the universe. My sense of time has changed, and my understanding of eons and the vastness of the universe has grown. Yes I still write poems of love, yes I still write poems of struggle and rebellion but now they exist in a broader context that for me is not god-bound but yet rests in the idea of eternity and of the oneness of a universe that may, indeed, be a multi-verse. It rests in me finding and trying to hold on to the natural rhythms of the universe knowing that when I turn aside, I flail and fall and when I move in step I flourish.

 NP: I have found the simple acts give the greatest meaning to my existence. Your words, your poetry appears to be a flame within you.  How do you channel that fire and transform the flame into language that an individual alone on the street or in a dwelling or even among family members can understand and find meaning in to help enlighten and foster hope? 

major: I have long been aware of the power of words to heal or harm. I found it curious when adults would tell we children that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” When words did hurt and indeed lingered long after even the memory of a bruise had vanished. My intent with my words is to reveal and when possible to heal. My intent is to ask clear, pointed questions that others may help me to find answers for, and to show knots that others may help me untie. If I am able to, as you have asked, “channel that fire and transform the flame…,” I believe it is because of my honest and heartfelt intentions. Sometimes I succeed, at other times I fail.

NP: How have you achieved awareness about who you are and what you will be? Where are you now at this juncture in life, spiritually and intellectually? 

major: I have no idea what or who I will be. I am walking a road that turns and twists and sometimes can only see a few yards in front of me. I am not a seer. As for an awareness of who I am- I am who other people show me to be thru the mirrors of their hearts. I am the child of my parents, both artists, my father a writer and my mother a painter, and a child who is of Caribbean island heritage and California upbringing. I am a breed, both Euro and African and through that have always been aware of the humanity we can all share, but that far too many spurn and reject if it is not cloaked in the colors and culture that they find familiar. My awareness of self has grown from the world scope of music, mostly, but not only, music flowing from the Africa diaspora and Africa itself, music that has surrounded me and sometimes saved me throughout my life. My awareness thus grows from music which makes me get up and dance, mountaintops which helped me see panoramas and that continue to me cry and smile, and redwood trees that showed me endurance that lasts millennia. I have been privileged to have broken bread with brilliant people who have helped me to see the world in broader and more nuanced ways; I have been able to read not just poetry but novels and memoirs and biographies and histories and some science that have at times made my head hurt as they forced my consciousness to grow. And I have been able to travel to many places in the world that have shown me just how wonderful it is to be human with all of the different flavors and colors, stories and faiths that we are.

Speaking to where I am now, I am growing. I am more than I was and less than I should be, less than I will be spiritually and intellectually. I am growing, sometimes it is easy and sometimes incredibly difficult but at least now I know that like breathing it is a necessary and endless part of this life as human.

NP: As you look at the world around you – the violence of poverty juxtaposed to greed and the money made off the suffering of others how do you transform yourself in order to transform those around you?

major:  I think that the idea of transforming self in order to transform others is interesting, but I am not sure that is exactly how it works. Certainly, those steeped in greed, bigotry, and other oppressive behaviors need to transform, but they will do so out of necessity not because generous, kind, uplifting behavior is demonstrated. They will do so because of collective understanding and struggle for a more just world. In other words, I do not see personal evolution as necessarily being a catalyst for the evolution of others.  I do think that I try to live my life with a certain integrity and that means many things. Included in them is giving to, speaking through, listening to, and advocating for the poor. It is examining the structure of oppression and asking the right questions and moving in ways which gnaw at its roots. It means being kind and constantly working to become more and more clear. It means being open to both my need to laugh and my need to cry when I see and feel the world’s truths. It means seeing humility as value of character and a necessity for my own humanity and it means having a definition of generosity and giving that stretches beyond the concept of money. It means, as Solomon Burke has written and sung, “None of us are free, if one of us are slave…”

I think poverty itself has many matrixes; America seems to have a poverty of goodwill right now, a poverty of generosity, a poverty of true happiness, a poverty of common sense,  although it has a wealth of technology, a wealth of greed, a wealth of stupidity, a wealth of confusion, a wealth of racism, and a wealth of violence. One thing I have found myself doing, almost organically, is having, perhaps creating, a broader and broader web of friends, family, colleagues, associates and passing strangers who are themselves kind, generous, and involved with the struggle to make their community, nation, world a better place where are all can flourish.

NP:  Does poetry evolve – is change relative to circumstance, context and a perceived discipline and tradition?  How will poetry evolve in your estimation beyond the structures taught in schools and colleges? Is poetry limited to language? Given the existential nature of life today do you see the rules of what is poetry and poetic radically changing? Will some form of “poetry” be with us in a world of increased suffering? Or because that suffering and the sake of our humanity, humor and love is there a greater need for some form of poetry now more than ever?

major: Yes, poetry evolves. One need only look at poetry from earlier times and then modern poetry to see an evolution. That is especially true in the US.  Poetry was once, far too often an elite art here. While poetry lovers might leap on tables in Chilean cafes to recite Neruda, and in China  you might find some ancient Li Po poem folded into many pockets, until the last half of the 20th century poetry here was not always as relevant, as immediate and as accessible to the general public. But even as I write that I must remember Frances Ellen Harper (born in 1845)  who in her day as poet and African-American abolitionist penned books that sold thousands of copies because of poems such as “Bury Me in a Free Land” where the last stanza reads “I ask no monument, proud and high,

To arrest the gaze of the passers-by;

All that my yearning spirit craves,

Is bury me not in a land of slaves.”

The rhyme scheme and rhythms are of her time, but the poetry remains fresh as ever.

Poetry is taught now in schools (K-12) and museums and other art institutions to children in ways that increase their love of language and their appreciation for the music in poetry and the purposes that poetry can serve. While colleges and especially high schools do have a relatively narrow canon that is taught, individual artists, teachers and some writers, such as myself, are slipping past the gatekeepers and opening students to a broader sense of poetry and how they can interact, as writer, reader, and possibly performer, in the poetry world.

In terms of poetry being limited to words, in one way of course it is. But if you are speaking of poetry in a way that is metaphorical there can be, and often is, a poetics of dance, or music, etc.; even cooking and the movements a cook makes can create a certain poetry.

 To my mind and heart poetry is always a needed part of our culture. Even the role of story-teller, an ancient and eternal part of our culture as humans on this globe, is distilled into poem, into song.  I’m not sure what the rules of poetry are. I know the rules of a haiku, pantoums, villanelles, etc. Form poetry has specific “rules” but even they are constantly changing and evolving. Poets grow and change, discover, reveal and invent new options. Sometimes this is seen as radical, sometimes not.

Poetry has always been a poultice for those in need. “If We Must Die” Claude McKay penned just over a hundred years ago and his words still reverberate and give a way for us to face oppression, e.g. “fighting back.” Poetry and poets will continue to serve. Is the need greater?  Is the need for music greater? Is the need for visual art greater? The need has always been great, the question is can we artists rise to the challenge.