Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Poetry at the Clinic

The Invitation
Today, for National Caribbean American HIV/AIDS Awareness day, I took the train to Newark, NJ where I was to perform poems in the waiting room of a health clinic.
East Orange Primary Health Center, a one stop shop of all things health related, provide all realms of health care for impovershed, non-white, muchly Caribbean immigrant populations. Of the 3009 people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in East Orange since December 31, 2007, 93% of them are Black Americans or from the Caribbean.
So in response to this statistical calamity, the clinic put on a health education fest, where they invite the community to come get free screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. And while people wait, why not slip the arts in there to further educate and expand the mind? So this is where I come in.
The Funk
Thing is, this morning, I wake up in a solemn state, though I would not say it sad. Hey, even with my grinnin ass, some days smiles don't spill across the face so loosely, especially now at this point in the wrestling match with Seventeen Seasons, this monstrosity of a novel that wrenches me like no other love. To tell the truth, I woke up not wanting to be in front of people, not wanting to expose myself in the ways essential to the public poet I have grown to be.
Times like this it hits me: the insanity of what we as poets do, especially ones in the performance realm. Take sex workers for instance, I cannot concieve of sex being my occupation, but here it is, their livelihood. It reminds me of how most folk cannot concieve of being a poet, standing before the comprehending and uncomprehending masses, the empathetic and apathetic, naked inside your language.
But. This. Is. My. Livelihood.
So I spent the morning opening my energies to avoid entering into this poor clinic with a sense of dread because no audience deserves that. It's not their fault I woke up on the wrong side of things.
With Adam Mansbach's End of the Jews in my lap, I read all the way to Newark.
The Clinic
I walk into the clinic, and well, it's a waiting room all right, as they said. Aside from the balloons at the entrance to signify the specialness of the day, the mundanity of the situation is glaring. I scan the space, fingers in my brain flipping quickly through my rolodex of poems. I look around: young, old, men, women, everything in between. I don't have much time; I am to go on soon. What to do what to do.
Booths are set up all over the room with health educators on deck armed with pamphlets, mailing lists and varieties of condoms I never knew existed. Glow in the dark joints? Damn, where the hell have I been?
Youngings are on the prowl, coaxing candy from the young health educators (all women) manning the tables. A gentleman in his 70's palms a bunch of condoms and one falls. The young boy beside him, 7 ior 8, picks it up. Totally unseduced by its vibrant wrapping, he hands it to the man. It strikes me that I have never seen a kid that young hold a condom. I wonder if he knows what it's for.
I study the layout of the room.The chairs are set up in the middle, coming from two separate directions, with a big awkward gulf in between them--tricky to navigate when performing because you then have to divide your energies in two directions--not my strong suit. Oh well. Another day another challenge. Giddy up.
Elbows digging into my knees, I sit in a quiet room, contemplating poems. Contemplating my presence in this space, what it all means. From a performance standpoint, the situation wasn't ideal. But from a poetry standpoint it was beyond ideal, because how often is poetry asked to exist in such spaces? There are poetry venues, and then there is this. This too is necessary.
The Performance
Claire introduces me and the applause is lukewarm and genuine. With no plan, I step. Everything I have done in my short tenure on this earth help bring me to moments like this. I think back to my Tallahassee days, my Black on Black Rhyme days, when Keith Rodgers and I would roll to all the barber shops and hair salons on Friday afternoons (pay day), spit poems and hustle CD's. Oh, and at the Essence festival in New Orleans, 2002, spitting poems on sidewalks, selling my CD's to total strangers, happy to support.
Man, I hardly do shit like that anymore, which is kinda sorta an unsung tragedy in my life. And how fiery and brash I was back then! I wasn't afraid of anything . And if I was afraid, then the fear wasn't important enough to remember. And I find, that I am not afraid now. I wrote poems for 10 years and was too afraid to share them with strangers. Those days are long over. I believe in this gift I give and have been given, I believe in the functionality of poetry's elevated language in the mundane world. Time to spit!
At the start of my set a man breaks into a public reverie about how fine Trinidadian women are. I gestured to myself and told him I know! Vanity is so fun sometimes, like the sun playing peekabo through clouds. There was a girl in the back of the room, whose hand drifted to her mouth halfway through the set and kept it there for the rest of the performance. She didn't even clap. Most just sat there silently, some gazing at me, others looking off somewhere--a distant land?
All now so, there is constant movement that characterizes a clinic waiting room. To my right clinic staff and their clients are talking and laughing at non-poetry friendly volumes. Balancing that out to my left are two women bobbing their heads to the invisible beat to each of my lines, urging me on, thanking me after each poem, a rarity, because I am usually the one thanking the audience kinda profusely just for listening. Because truth be told, whether its big, small, black, white, young, old, a listening audience is gold. Sometimes I wonder if applause is an unnatural response to art. Applause can be loud enough to echo in your ears for days to come, and still be empty. I have had many audiences clap like lunatics, ushering me off stage with an erect ego. That's the same audience that will not approach you afterwards to shake your hand or buy your stuff, ushering you to the next gig a city away, pockets in pain. Poets if you're out there, holler if you hear me!
The Aftermath
There was this one woman in her 50's, who sat in the front row, with her body curiously turned away from me the whole time, stone still, looking down at the floor, not making eye contact once. Though I genuinely don't care about this anymore, I was certain my words were sliding off her like egg yolk. It be that way sometimes!
Do you know this woman was the first to approach me to buy my book, her money already out?
Lessons such as this are so important they need to be relearned over and over again: to never, never assume what you think a person gets or doesn't get out of your work based on how they engage you externally. This is a deep thing we do as poets. It's a dark magic. The journey our beautifully crafted words make into a person is a sacred journey, a journey that has nothing to do with us or the person its happening to. Mysterious, the travels our words make once they leave our bodies thorugh our pens, our lips. Exhilerating thought, the idea of our words go places we cannot follow, more less imagine.
Afterwards I shared some meaningful talks with some of my listeners--and boy were they listening! Some were quoting lines and sharing with sincere detail how and why certain images and whole poems intersected with their insides. Much more useful to me than a pat on the back and "good job!" --which is cool too, if that's what you got. Sold some stuff, too.
I left there feeling uplifted and inspired--nothing like before. I thank Claire from East Orange's Primary Center for comissioning me to come out of my self imposed funk, providing this unique experience for her clients and for me, to learn lessons both explicable and not.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Mashin Down De Place with David Rudder

I woke the morning of June 19 with a joyous dread that had been building in me since the organizers of Celebrate Brooklyn invited me back in April to headline this day with David Rudder at the Prospect Park Bandshell, an 8,000 person venue.
When I accepted their invitation, my initial thoughts were:
Am I enough for this blessing? And will my people accept me as their own?
Ah, Trinis. Until now I hadn't the opportunity to perform my work for such a large Trini audience. I mean, I performed for small gatherings of people during my time there last year, including my Uncle's church in Caparo, but nothing near this large.
6,000+ people can be an intimidating audience for a poet, period. But 5,000+ Trinis is an especially intimidating audience in my eyes. Trinis eh easy, yes. Not at all at all.
For one, we pride ourselves on being difficult to impress. We have this air about us like we have seen it all, heard it all. Coupled with that, we have been known to heckle especially after some imbibing has gone on.

These aforementioned concerns are the silly insecurities I held in the beginning. Eventually, once I decided to change my mind about it, these insecurities turned into just the opposite: pure, unapologetic, confidence. Hell yeah, I am ready for that stage! It has been waiting for me and now it is mine to claim!

I always try to remember that audiences, with the exception of Apollo's ameteur night, want to see you as a performer, do well. Some Trinis may heckle yes, but as a majority Trinis are excellent participants of language. Calypso music, indicative of this, in turn dictates this of us. Also, Trinis reflect the beginnings of who I am, and therefore, stand to understand layers of my work with an intimacy unsurpassed by any other crowd in the world.

What an enormous gift, this opportunity to hold poetic council with so many of my countrymen&women--who too, in varying degrees, have been geographically dislocated from our home we so love. Their paths led them to Brooklyn, as did mine.

Still, the joyous dread gathered throughout the day. Though the tension in me somewhat eased by the affable vibe of the production staff, as I was backstage, hearing my name called by the announcer, the crowd cheering, my peeps up front in VIP, screaming their faces off, every last memory of nervousness fell away as I journeyed to the mic, looking the audience squarely in the eye, making it clear my readiness.
I opened the set with "Signs" and continued on with "Ode to Twins","West Indian Woman Speaks from the Dead", "Ode to Gentrification", "Locksmith", "Why Won't Glenda Pray?" before ending with my 8 minute tribute to Odetta.

All in all, the challenge stretched me as a performer as well as deepened my bond with myself. While up there, even though the support was massive, never had I felt so alone, 5,000+ pairs of eyes on me. II felt strong,vulnerable, poised, risque, and most importantly, among friends--5,000 of them!

Once I returned backstage, David Rudder approached me with, "You have serious lyrics." His words meant multitudes to me, as Rudder is one of Trinidad's finest Calypsoians, and is loved across the world.

My favorite song of his is "Heaven," a lament on why some human beings find heaven in subjugating others.

The song opens:

Ever since time began man has searched for his heaven.
Sometimes seeking it in the reflection of his neighbor’s blood.

Rudder and the Brooklyn based Sunshine Band mash down the place; the crowd ate them up, singing Rudder's songs so loud that that Rudder did not have to, and dancing hard enough to make you wake up sore come morning. The 90 minute set was a great mix of ballads and jump and wave jams.

The evening felt such an authentically Trinidadian experience. As I wined my waist, surrounded by other jubilant bodies, it occured to me that this entire evening was the most Trinidadian I'd felt since I first arrived here 20 years ago. How healing. For even when I return to Trinidad I feel American, something I never feel until I color outside these dear borders.
I dropped asleep that night drunk off gratitude and woke up with the greatest of hangovers, not to mention soreness from dancing harder than I'd danced in recent days.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Kennth Makes News Yet Again!

Kenneth Foster Jr. my dear friend and pen pal of some years, was sentenced to death row at age 19 for driving the getaway car after an unplanned murder committed by his friend. Under the Texas Law of Parties, Kenneth was tried alongside the shooter in court and sentenced to death just like the shooter. He lived on death row 10 years and his case weathered 5 trials, 3 of which he won, two of which he lost. He lost the fifth trial, and had no more evidence to gain a 6th, so he was sentenced to death by lethal injection for August 30, 2007. Thanks to the enormous network Kenneth built behind bars, using only pen and paper and the lost art of letter writing, over 17,000 contacted the Governer's office in the weeks leading up to the trial, including President Jimmy Carter and South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Five hours before lethal injection, Gov. Perry gave Kenneth a stay, which means his life was saved, making Texas history. Sweet victory, but the war is far from over. The below message comes from Scott Cobb, president of the Texas Moratorium Network.

Texas House Passes "The Kenneth Foster, Jr Act", Bill Moves to Senate

After almost two years of grassroots organizing, the Texas House of Representatives Friday passed the Law of Parties Bill (HB 2267) and even adopted an amendment renaming the bill "The Kenneth Foster Jr, Act".

The vote was 69-66, with 1 present not voting and several absent members. Three Republicans voted yes and only one Democrat voted no.

This was a collective achievement of many legislators, staffers, activists, family members of death row inmates and other people and groups working together, but we still have to work to get the Texas senate to also pass the bill. We need you to call senators today!

The session ends soon, so there is not much time for us to convince the senate to pass the bill too. See below for information to call state senators to urge them to pass the "The Kenneth Foster Jr Act"

The Texas House of Representatives Friday passed House Bill 2267, "The Kenneth Foster, Jr Act". Sponsored by Rep. Terri Hodge (D - Dallas), the bill would eliminate the death penalty as a sentencing option under the controversial Texas Law of Parties. It would also require separate trials of co-defendants in capital cases. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

The Texas Law of Parties gained national prominence in 2007 during the high profile case of Kenneth Foster, Jr., whose death sentence was commuted by Governor Rick Perry following a national grassroots movement to halt his execution.

"It is my hope that in the future no other families have to deal with the emotional, psychological and financial hell associated with having a loved one on death row for a murder they factually did not commit, like my family has had to deal with for the last 13 years," said Terri Been, sister of Texas death row inmate Jeff Wood. Wood was sentenced to death under the Law of Parties.

"This bill, when passed, will make me even prouder to be a resident of Texas," said Kenneth Foster, Sr., father of Kenneth Foster, Jr. "Our family knows first hand the injustices of the Law of Parties, and Rep. Hodge's bill is a step in the right direction."

Although Hodge's bill is not retroactive, and therefore would not affect any current cases like Jeff Wood's, several families of death row inmates convicted under the Law of Parties have lobbied in favor of the legislation.

"This is a major victory for the families impacted by this unfair law," said Bryan McCann of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "We are told the death penalty is reserved for the worst of the worst, but its application under the Law of Parties affords prosecutors far too much discretion in pursuing the most severe form of punishment."

Executions under the Law of Parties are very rare. Three people have been executed in Texas under the Law of Parties, which amounts to 0.6 percent of the 437 total executions in Texas. The last such execution in Texas was in 1993.

"The Kenneth Foster, Jr Act is a much-needed reform. The current law allowing accomplices who have not killed anyone to pay the ultimate penalty for a murder committed by another person is fundamentally unjust", said Scott Cobb, president of Texas Moratorium Network.

Thank you to all the people who participated in the Lobby Day on March 24 and the many, many people who called their state representative urging them to vote for HB 2267. The groups who worked hard for this historic victory include Texas Moratorium Network, Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, Campaign to End the Death Penalty, Texas Students Against the Death Penalty, and many family members of people convicted under the Law of Parties who all made visits and phone calls to members of the Texas Legislature.