Evening of Inspired Leaders 2023: Poems

Read along with our speakers! Poems are in order of the official Evening of Inspired Leaders 2023 program.

“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

Performed by April English

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

“In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

Performed by Tamar Dor-Ner

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

“Winter Recipes from The Collective” by Louise Glück

Performed by Michael J. Bobbitt

Each year when winter came, the old men entered
the woods to gather the moss that grew
on the north side of certain junipers.
It was slow work, taking many days, though these
were short days because the light was waning,
and when their packs were full, painfully
they made their way home, moss being heavy to carry.
The wives fermented these mosses, a time-consuming project
especially for people so old
they had been born in another century.
But they had patience, these elderly men and women,
such as you and I can hardly imagine,
and when the moss was cured, it was with wild mustards and sturdy herbs
packed between the halves of ciabattine, and weighted like pan bagnat,
after which the thing was done: an “invigorating winter sandwich”
it was called, but no one said
it was good to eat; it was what you ate
when there was nothing else, like matzoh in the desert, which
our parents called the bread of affliction— Some years
an old man would not return from the woods, and then his wife would need
a new life, as a nurse’s helper, or to supervise
the young people who did the heavy work, or to sell
the sandwiches in the open market as the snow fell, wrapped
in wax paper— The book contains
only recipes for winter, when life is hard. In spring,
anyone can make a fine meal.

Of the moss, the prettiest was saved
for bonsai, for which
a small room had been designated,
though few of us had the gift,
and even then a long apprenticeship
was necessary, the rules being complicated.
A bright light shone on the specimen being pruned,
never into animal shapes, which were frowned on,
only into those shapes
natural to the species— Those of us who watched
sometimes chose the container, in my case
a porcelain bowl, given me by my grandmother.
The wind grew harsher around us.
Under the bright light, my friend
who was shaping the tree set down her shears.
The tree seemed beautiful to me,
not finished perhaps, still it was beautiful, the moss
draped around its roots— I was not
permitted to prune it but I held the bowl in my hands,
a pine blowing in high wind
like man in the universe.

As I said, the work was hard—
not simply caring for the little trees
but caring for ourselves as well,
feeding ourselves, cleaning the public rooms—
But the trees were everything.
And how sad we were when one died,
and they do die, despite having been
removed from nature; all things die eventually.
I minded most with the ones who lost their leaves,
which would pile up on the moss and stones—
The trees were miniature, as I have said,
but there is no such thing as death in miniature.
Shadows passing over snow,
steps approaching and going away.
The dead leaves lay on the stones;
there was no wind to lift them.

It was as dark as it would ever be
but then I knew to expect this,
the month being December, the month of darkness.
It was early morning. I was walking
from my room to the arboretum; for obvious reasons,
we were encouraged never to be alone,
but exceptions were made—I could see
the arboretum glowing across the snow;
the trees had been hung with tiny lights,
I remember thinking how they must be
visible from far away, not that we went, mainly,
far away—Everything was still.
In the kitchen, sandwiches were being wrapped for market.
My friend used to do this work.
Huli songli, our instructor called her,
giver of care. I remember
watching her: inside the door,
procedures written on a card in Chinese characters
translated as the same things in the same order,
and underneath: We have deprived them of their origins,
they have come to need us now.

“Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes” by Sandra Cisneros

Performed by Imari Paris Jeffries

I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here’s your mail. Here’s your mail he said.
I make a story for my own life, for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, “And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked.”
I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong.
We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.
I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.
Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.