My Dance With Gombo

Martha Darr headshot

The following is a guest post by Martha Darr, whose poetry appeared in issue 21 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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Since childhood, I have been enchanted by words and sounds. I studied foreign languages, played music throughout my years in college, and did field work in various parts of the world as a graduate student. I was sure that I would be among the anointed for a lifelong career in academia. But gradually, I began to face up to a reality – my love for verbal expression belonged in the arts. Poetry found me.

After my focus shifted to the artistic, I was surprised by how comfortable it felt. No guilt or remorse for “not being able to hack it in academia,” just a sense of contentment that I had found my way back home. I could let personal feelings surface in a creative way. As if awakened from a deep sleep, I started attending all the book festivals, conferences and workshops that I could find – anything that I thought might be relevant and would not destroy my bank account. My educational training in African Diaspora Studies also traveled with me and has been a great assist in numerous ways.

When I began to write the poem “Gombo Exaltation,” which appears in Typehouse, I felt a tug. I have always enjoyed eating this amazing dish, usually associated with Louisiana Creole and Cajun cooking, but wondered why it was often, but not always, written as “gumbo.” I decided to go with the variant spelling as part of the title in order to pay homage to a source that has played a less well known role in its history.

During the time of slavery, when blacks were taken to the Americas from West Africa and the Angola-Congo Basin areas, they also brought parts of their culture with them. As one linguistic example among many, the word for okra – a key ingredient in gombo – is kingombo in Kimbundu, a Bantu language spoken in Angola. (Dicionário Kimbundu Português, n.d., pg 132). It’s not too difficult to imagine that the languages in these regions were probably a source for the name of the vegetable, and by extension the dish, regularly consumed in Louisiana as well as other parts of the Americas where similar dishes are prepared.

In addition, the use of the term Holy Trinity refers to three ingredients in the stew, and is familiar to folks who regularly cook and eat it. However, I also chose to include it in the poem as a way to set a reverential tone echoed by a praise and prayer-like closing.

I enjoy focusing on something key in a culture and combining it with the music of rhythm, repetition and metaphor. My goal overall is to compose the kind of poems I hope will stay with the reader, linger a bit. Fortunately, we still live in a time when diverse cultural elements can be blended to make fresh art. It is a privilege to present this kind of work to an appreciative audience. Writing can be an out-of-body experience for me. I never take it for granted.

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Martha Darr is a poet and literary translator.  Her work has appeared in such publications as Typehouse, Star*Line, Fiyah, Penumbra Literature and Art, Exterminating Angel Press, Journal of American Folklore, and a bilingual anthology Knocking On The Door of The White House: Latina and Latino Poets in Washington, D.C.  Martha has received various kinds of funding, including a grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities.

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