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Creating Verse to Inspire Social Change

Sistah Joy of Temple Hills to Lead Events Celebrating National Poetry Month

By Sara Gebhardt
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page PG23

As J. Joy "Sistah Joy" Matthews Alford tells it, she didn't seek poetry, it sought her.

It found her in eighth grade, when the reserved 14-year-old was asked to respond to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in writing. "Now Is the Time," an eloquent poem filled with strong, impassioned sentiments, surprised those around her so much that Alford's teacher investigated whether she had plagiarized it before printing it in the school paper.

J. JOY "SISTAH JOY" MATTHEWS ALFORD (Courtesy Of J. Joy "sistah Joy" Matthews Alford)

She didn't write verse again for two decades, but the fiftysomething Temple Hills resident says that using poetry to spark change is her calling in life.

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Alford -- who in 2002 received an award from D.C. poet laureate Dolores Kendrick for her contributions and those of her women's poetry group, Collective Voices -- will lead several readings and poetry events this month. (National Poetry Month was established by the Academy of American Poets.)

Alford's involvement with poetry as an adult began in 1988, when a co-worker encouraged her to reprint that eighth-grade poem in a Prince George's County newspaper, the South County Current. When readers asked for more of her work, Alford started writing profusely. Words poured out, and she was soon performing her poems locally.

She has given readings for audiences along the East Coast and in London, and published her first book of poetry, "Lord, I'm Dancin' As Fast As I Can," in 2002. She plans to release her second collection, "My Soul Shouts Out Loud," by year's end. Alford acts as poet-in-residence at the downtown Barnes & Noble bookstore, where she hosts a monthly poetry session, "Verse, Vibes and Bites," and she is the minister of poetry at her church, Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington.

A communications analyst for the Federal Communications Commission, Alford said that King has always played an important role in her writing.

"I try to keep the dream of Dr. King alive through poetry by lifting his message and acknowledging that this man gave his life for a reason," Alford said. "It's something that we have to live for if he was willing to die. His message is the thread that is woven through my life."

Her poems address a wide range of subjects, including peace, justice, the empowerment of women, terrorism and spiritual health. They are no less bold than the one the native Washingtonian wrote as a student at Charles Hart Middle School in Southeast, which begins, "Hate, hate, hate, that's what some people preach/Hate, hate, hate, that's what some teachers teach." It ends with, "The problems of our country, the problems of our race/For the troubles of today will not simply go away/And when I look at this world of mine,/I know there must be a change -- and now is the time."

Forty years later, Alford is still hoping and working for that change.

"Poetry can show us the way, and answer questions and allow us all to be connected in a way that shows that we're all so much more alike than we are different, and truly, when we focus on these realities, we don't have time to seek harm for our brothers and sisters," she said.

"When we see that likeness amongst us, how can we want to hurt anybody? How can we want to go to war? How can we not see that my child and a child in Iraq or Africa or even George Bush's child all hurt the same, all bleed the same, all dream the same?

"My poetry allows me to step out and become part of something larger than myself. That's really what it's about, to become a part of the world, even if it's through a single poem."

Sistah Joy's appearances during National Poetry Month include:

• 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow, Infusions Tea Cafe at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, Largo.

• 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., Saturday, Ebenezer AME Church, Women's Resource Center, 7701 Allentown Rd., Fort Washington.

• 8 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Islander Caribbean Restaurant, 1201 U St. NW.

• 7 to 9 p.m. April 21, monthly "Verse, Vibes and Bites" session, Barnes & Noble Books, 12th and E streets NW.

• 2 to 5 p.m. April 23, second annual street poetry festival, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 9th and G streets NW.

All events are free. For more information, call 202-246-0111 or e-mail poetsistahjoy@aol.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company