Writing “Ode to Dr. King”

At the MLK Prayer Breakfast with Elgin City Councilwoman Tish Powell (left) and Tish Calhamer, Community Engagement Manager for Gail Borden Public Library District (right).

I was invited to perform and write an original poem for the City of Elgin’s Annual MLK Prayer Breakfast. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a leader who I deeply admire so I was honored to have the opportunity to write a poem as homage to him. It also was a bit intimidating because numerous poems have been written about him. I wanted to add something new and worthwhile to the literary conversation.

I began by gathering research focusing on primary sources: interview transcripts and his speeches. I viewed documentary films and read a couple of books. From these sources, I gathered words and phrases that resonated. I also selected a few words that reminded me of King and began doing erasures of dictionary pages of those words.

I had some traction doing erasures. It kept my creative process alive and kept me engaged with creating the poem. I even wrote another poem that created an analogy of justice and a drummer. However, I knew these poems were not the ones I was supposed to read at the Prayer Breakfast.

I continued researching and writing, but I kept drawing blanks. At this point, I was a couple of weeks from the breakfast, and I didn’t have a poem so I became frustrated and anxious. I started working on the poem early so that I could write a quality poem and have enough time to prepare to read the poem. I want on a desperate search for the first line. Usually if I have the first line of the poem, everything afterward flows.

Creative Process: Stuck

I remained stuck. I picked up a Bible and read through the book of Lamentations. It talks about sorrow, justice and suffering. I hoped to find a verse I could incorporate into the poem. Nothing. Now, it was the week of the breakfast, and I still did not have a poem. About midweek, the thought came to me to look through Isaiah. I gathered several lines from there.

Throughout this process, I kept having the image of Dr. King as a king (due to his last name) and his similarities to Jesus Christ. Both were considered prophets, hated by some and eventually killed unjustly. I noticed that King used several analogies in his speeches, and I was intrigued by the connection between a potential analogy between King and Christ. However, I knew it was a common comparison, and I didn’t want to write a cliche poem.

After much toil, I decided to go with an image that had lingered in my mind from the early days of my research: Dr. King being stabbed with a letter opener by a demented woman while he was signing books in Harlem. The stabbing left a cross on his chest. I couldn’t shake the symbolism.

Creative Process: Flow

Words began to flow. And a strange thing happened. The poem was coming out in rhyme. This is strange because I typically write in free verse. I hadn’t written with an end rhyme since my college days. The poem also came out more like a spoken word poem rather than a page poem. I infused lines from Isaiah, snippets from Dr. King’s speeches and interviews, as well as historical information. I consider “Ode to Dr. King” a found poem.

The end result was a moving poem that brought a room of nearly 200 people to their feet in a standing ovation. I’m proud of the end result, and I’m also excited about some art forms that have been awaken by writing this poem. You can get a copy of the poem here.

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