Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Forever young, an evening to remember

Cave Canem headquarters in DUMBO is a lovely, inviting space for a poetry, especially with Rachel Eliza Griffith's photos of Black poets splashed across the walls. Mama Lucille and Nikkey Finney, holding hands and laughing. Dear Rita, on her ballroom floor, about to take flight.

The audience consisted mostly of the middle school aged poets there to present, along with their supportive parents. Tonight was a reading celebration of young writers, who have been working hard all year on their writings with the help of Ms. Raspberry, a woman who does her job, does it well, and damn, damn, it showed, shined through each their works. Any one can tell that a whole lot of nurturing went into them in order for their pens to shine so like gems.

Thankfully, I have been privy to many talented poets and writers of the next generation, a generation said to be lost. When I first started doing this work, I often found myself surprised by the sheer intellect and imagination that springs from youthful pens. Sometimes when youth shine we adults tend to watch them in equal parts awe and surprise--underestimating them all this while. But I have learned that once a young person is handed a pen, a violin, the opportunity, guidance, encouragement, they flourish, as all flowers should, once they are given permission to tap into that magical space inside of them. The only reason it is a surprise to us is because we do not see it enough. So we gotta do what we can about that.

As I listened to the young people tonight, the 12 year old girl contemplating the purpose of socialization, the 12 year old boy who wrote a litany to jazz that made my mouth almost break under the weight of my grin. After intermission a woman sang operas to poems about the F train & Brooklyn, all written by Brooklyn youth.

I closed out the evening with a 25 minute set. My day had been long. It started with a early morning faculty meeting at Juilliard, one that lasted 3 1/2 hours as we discussed each first year student in depth. From there I rushed to the Bronx, sailing into my journalism classroom seconds after the bell rang. Fifty minutes later, I make the trek from Bronx to Brooklyn. and got there just in time to hear the first set of poets. And when I stepped on stage, my stomach was growling, awakened by the pulverized banana I had just scarfed down seconds before they called my name.

But you know, I went up there, all 5 of the youth poets watching me expectantly from the front row, and suddenly I had all the energy in the world for them. All tiredness evaporated from my shoulders, tense from hiking up the subway stairs with my books on my back. I performed a Lucille Clifton, 3 odes, and read from my chapter book as well as the first chapter of my YA novel, set in Trinidad. Vulnerable an experience as any, it was my first time reading this chapter aloud to anyone, more less and audience of kids and their parents--it felt like an anointing, a blessing. This particular chapter of Seventeen Seasons addresses the leatherback turtles that are born in Trinidad only to venture out into the wide blue world and return to their birthplace to lay their eggs.

Afterwards, I was vibing with the striking young boy that wrote the jazz litany. I noticed his eyes had been fiercely attentive as I shared my work, fixed on me 95% of the time. He's a math and science kid, who recently picked up the pen and now adores the practice. He said he enjoyed the bursts of Trinidadian culture in my novel. I revealed to him that I've had to return to Trinidad in more ways than one in order to achieve what he sensed.

And he responded: so you're the turtle.

Friday, May 7, 2010


After leaving Juilliard, where my first year students put up Pecong, set in the Caribbean. It is a beautiful monster of a play, one that left me with thoughts, heavy on my brain, as heavy as my desire for a strawberry margarita at CPK, where I went afterward, to unpack the tickles and disturbances that emerge from the witnessing. I mused on infanticide and the power dynamic between women and men--especially in the Caribbean.

But I didn't have too much time to muse. I myself was supposed to be performing at a center in the Bronx that support the drug addicted. My buddy Jon teaches a poetry workshop t here once a week and it was to be his first one. He asked me to come in as a guest poet. And when I arrive there, and enter the room, Jon is speaking Spanish to the participants and looks at me sheepishly. It turned out half of the group did not speak English!

Sorry for the curve ball, Jon said. I shrugged. I didn't mind. I was up for the challenge, an inevitable learning experience.

Performing my poems for a crowd not of my tongue was perhaps as vulnerable and as freeing as doing poems to an entire train car. To know straight off that I will not be understood by half my audience was freeing in a that's life kind of way. The circumstances forced me to ponder the idea of being not understood yet comprehended. I have to believe that something translates--every song does. My poems are songs. I know this now more than ever, especially after working long hours on my next CD.

I did three poems. I felt myself naturally working more with my hands, to let the poem speak through my body as well. Some listened with wide eyed appreciation. Others looked down in their laps. One woman shrugged afterwards, as if to say, I don't know what to say because I don't know what you said. While the man on the other side never let the smile leave his face. I appreciated the experience, and will take from it as much as I possibly can.

All I can do sometimes is thank the skies for the places its powers put me in.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

PUP Barks: A Dream Fulfilled

Ever since my talk with Khadijah, where she mentioned doing poems in a grocery store, the dream has been relentless. It is a waking dream. It involves me performing my ode to picking blackberries in the produce section.

Today the dream came true, and Elana and Akua showed up to star in it, outside of Whole Foods, our next target. Moses, our filmographer was also there, ready to capture these moments, as he did on the trains with us almost a week ago.

How were we to do it? And how many poems could we get in before security arrived?

We plotted. Weighed the unknowns. But in the end, we headed downstairs not knowing what to expect, much like our unsuspecting audience. And so, as shoppers buzzed past me with their carts and their lists, I pulled out my carton of blackberries and began to recite my poem while eating them--more challenging than I thought. But it felt something like flying, as I approached customers with my discovery, these wondrous blackberries that I came across one day in the woods off the coast of Seattle.

My legs took me all over the produce section as I said my poem to whoever would listen. Some people stopped to behold the activity with clear appreciation, while others scattered like roaches in sudden light at the sight of me--particularly the couple fondling the lemons, the ones I approached to tell them about this marvelous gift.

When I ended, Elana, in the fish section, tapped a stranger on the back and began reciting her poem about eel--the first line mentions her walking to the refrigerator naked. The worker weighing tilapia raised his eyebrows at the sudden intimacy, and as the customer recieved his fish and scurried away, Elana began to continue her poem to the worker, who listened with clear amusement. The moment was beyond priceless, as customers bumped into one another in trying to flee or to catch a listen.

A few people who stopped to listen to me tuned into Elana, who was speaking to the whole store now. Workers scurried around us, not wanting to interrupt or get in the way of the camera, not quite knowing what to do. We simply took over. When Elana was finished, a small applause.

But it wasn't over. Because Akua emerged with a love poem in the flower section, nearby. The repeat customers stood and obeyed the moment, arrested by her words. By then, our number was up. A worker was on his way with a walkie talkie. We found that Whole Foods was less concerned about the fact that we broke out in poems in their store and more concerned with the fact that we were taping, and so Moses was asked to turn off his camera, as Akua finished up her poem and we dipped.

Outside, on the pavement, we rejoiced, eating the rest of my blackberries. A couple from inside, our captive audience, stopped to speak congratulate us and find out more. In true guerilla fashion, no business cards as yet, Elana tore off a piece of her eel poem and I used it to write down the information to this blog.

So nice couple with the cute baby, if you are reading this, thanks for letting us know how much you enjoyed our performances. Your encouragement meant so much. Go tell your friends that today, you got PUPPED!

PUP Barks: A Magnificent Seven

From left to right, Samantha , Jon, Ed, Elana, Akua, Adam & Jai.

A Magnificent Seven

Sunday afternoon found me at Union Square Park in the drizzling rain waiting for poets to show. Ones that promised, ones that didn't. Ones I had successfully convinced to join me in this venture I've been stewing across a string of experiences. Unhingings I like to call them.

It started almost 10 years ago in Tallahassee, where I was born into spoken word. I was younger then and much more fearless. With my poetry troupe (BACK TALK!) I used to do poems on the streets of New Orleans and everywhere else we travelled. Keith and I used to perform poetry and hustle our CD's in barbershops on Fridays (pay day). And more recently: my 40 minute featture at a 7,000 person audience in Prospect Park--99% of them definitely not there for poetry. A needle exchange program in midtown, the one by buddy Jon runs. Rikers Island Jail. The health clinic waiting room where I performed poems while people waited to get screened for HIV. Halfway through my set I asked the audience if they had ever been to a poetry venue. They watched me. I asked them if they liked poetry. The answer: we do now.

That equal parts warmed me and angered me. I do not think I should be someone's first good impression of poetry but I was happy to have to do for the time being.

Then there was Roger's poem, which was about him reading a poem he loved on a train , only for the riveted audience to learn in the end that the incident never happened.

I asked myself: well why the hell not?

And so I started PUP--Poets in Unexpected Places. And this Sunday was our first official meeting. First to show was Moses, not one of the poets, but a photographer/ aspsiring filmmaker who is passionate about our venture and was happy to capture it. Seven poets, a magnificent seven, showed on this drippy day, all in varying moods and states of mind, to gather in front of the statue of Ghandi hardly anyone knew was there until now. The locale was no coincidence. This had everything to do with being the change.

An hour later, we found ourselves underground, all seven of us boarding the Brooklyn bound Q train as perfect strangers, everyone seating themselves...except for me. And so it begins. The inst ant the doors closed I announced to the entire car:

"Miss Rosie. A poem by the late great American poet, Lucille Clifton."

Elana would later tell me that the moment I uttered the Lucille Clifton's name, a woman across from her smiled--an auspicious blessing to our debut as a collective.

And without an inch of fear in my heart, just love, I launched into one of my favorite poems in the world. The commut-iny had officially begun!

My captive audience knew not what to make of me. I hardly even looked in their faces., so I cannot say what they looked like. I reveled in not caring. How liberating. Not caring about anything but the words of Lucille Clifton belting out of me. This was the closest a poem not mine could ever be to being mine. And here I was, sharing it with 50+ new friends. What insane fun.

The commuters that put me in the crazy box lifted their eyes when in the second stanza, of "Miss Rosie" Elana rose and joined me, also off paper--a group piece! If folk didn't know it then, they knew it now: this was no accident. And if I was a crazy girl, then I wasn't being crazy all by myself. Because here was Elana, my partner in crime (literally, now) finishing my lines and meeting my gaze for an instant only to whip around attack the other end of the car.

"I stand up," Elana and I said in unison. "Through your destruction/ I stand up."

We sat down. Say Word! I yelled.

Some people looked about, delightfully confused. Whose universe had they just walked into? Ours, dammit. Others remained cool like they see this every day. Liars. I was certain they were exploding inside. Some swallowed their smiles and others made billboards of them, advertising their glee.

One by one, each with their own swaggalicious attitude, the poets made themselves known. Akua liberated her hands of her umbrella, tossing it down to the floor. Pacing the car front to back, front to back, she shared with us her thoughts on "nappy headed hoes" and mused on her own cantankerous mane. She was great to watch, swinging around poles like a pro, sometimes even stooping to address certain people directly, a graceful confrontation.

Say word! Word...

They weren't quite there yet, but were starting to warm up to us. Suspicion fell away. Conversations stopped. I-pods clicked off (or turned up!); headphones remained on for protection. Especially when Jon stepped on the scene with his goofball intelligence and sharp poetic logic. His imagery is so disarmingly off the wall it makes you think. Like really think. While tickling you with its feathers that soared across the car. People began to smile with teeth now. Laughed, even. They couldn't help themselves.

Say Word! Word.

Only for Jai to rise, June Jordan book in hand. Hoodie covered head, he read with this stance , turning the train into his surf board. I've seen Jai perform countless times and I have never seen him perform like this. We were no longer on an elevated stage confined behind a microphone. We were underground, baby! Straight up guerrilla style! People to maneuver. Shopping bags to side step. Babies to consider. Poles to swing on and cling to for emphasis, safety, dramatic effect. The train became a playground. And everywhere each of us looked, at least one of the magnificent seven were there , to support the moment.

The Q train emerged from the underground, plunging the car into daylight. A stunning view of Brooklyn assaulted our gazes, its brown buildings. The dreary day created an intimacy that could only help our cause. Which is to say, finding the comfort outside of the comfortable. Which means, being much less silent than we have been. Ambassadors for our craft. Making it known that poetry lives and breathes--often right beside them. People looked about. Who would it be next? And why was no one asking for change? We were simply being it.

Say word! Word!

Awkward moments passed, even for me. Three poets left to go before we finished this round and hopped another train. Silence. Were people chickening out? Commuters looked about. No one knew who they were sitting next to. Was that the last? Others looked suspiciously about at others. Are you next? Are you? Then Ed, who had been seemingly engrossed in a text stood and began to read from his own chap book. Alien Registration Number? he asked. Cleverly weaved, with very few words, he made his point without making it, and every immigrant in the car couldn't help but smile in silent recognition, including me.

And just when they thought they heard it all, here comes Adam. Adam who is so damn charming and disarming it makes your teeth hurt. Grabbing onto the pole dramatically, like an old curmudgeon telling us youngings a tale of his wild youth, Adam spit a poem about his younger days, when he was first learning to dance to Black music. The nostalgia of remembering all the embarrassing things we did to impress our peers, we chuckled and laughed emerged from the poem incredibly warmed.

There was the demon train, where very few people showed appreciate for us. We later discovered that the cars in that particular model are considerably longer than the newer models, and the chairs aren't conducive to energy flowing, making us work incredibly hard, not realizing why. That train was draining but I loved it! The demon train. Next time we'll be ready for it.

One car in particular, the "love train" we came to call it, was so outwardly appreciative of our presence we left the car overwhelmed with the sound of their clapping trailing us. They applauded more appreciatively than some slam audiences of today. By the third poet in, they were warmed and with us, and understood what we were about. At the end of that ride with the love train, the most amazing 20 minutes of concentrated joy I've lived in recent memory, after everyone else said their piece, I stood up.

Full circle when I launched into one of my personal favorites. The first poem I ever did on a train--two months prior. It was a Wednesday morning as dreary as this Sunday afternoon. Except I was alone, and surrounded by strangers. Not alone and forever lonely. It was one of those dreaded mornings, a personal struggle to get out of bed. I was on the first of my three train commutes to Juilliard where I teach. It's a great place to be, but I wasn't quite sure how I was going to do it today. I looked around. Everyone looked as I felt. As we crammed our bodies into the car , waddling into one another like penguins in our black winter coats. Huddling without touching. Touching without being touched.

My heart racing with fear, with amazing rage, one that is growing in me with each passing day, welled up out my throat and exited in the form of "Signs", one that slipped out my pen years ago in Charlottesville, VA where I attended grad school. This is a poem that has made its travels. South African television (people, stopping me on the streets), Prospect Park Bandshell, Trinidad, prisons, Bar 13, Bowery, Nuyorican, and bars and coffee shops across the country.

And here I was. In a place I spend more time in than any of those places. And instead of the whine of the latte machine or the loquacious guests at the bar, my competition was the rattle of this express train raping its rails.

I went to the end of the car and looked at these people we demanded be our audience. The MTA frowns on this behavior because this here, was a captive audience. Captive indeed. And inside that audience, six magnificent faces stared back at me, these people I will never, ever forget. This moment. I was not alone or lonely this time.

"The same thing that slowly kills us is exactly the thing keeping us alive."

This time the response was overwhelming, as the crowd roared. Moments later, the car doors open. We thanked our audience for listening (even though they had no choice) and they thanked us profusely with their well wishes and lasting clapped. Before we left the car, we said: You just got PUPPED!

After two hours, we all ate afterwards and stewed in what had just taken place, recalling moments, trading observations, gratifying moments, disintergrated terror, what worked and what didnt. But mostly we teased: jai's surf board stance, akua's confrontation ed's stalker piece, when he yelled a line out the door to an exiting commuter right before the doors closed.

I reached home in the early evening and plunged beneath the covers, the hardest I think I ever performed. It was brutal; it was benign. It was freeing. It was draining. So much so that I did not get out of bed until the following morning, when I woke up, full and full of disbelief, bypassed breakfast, and visited my work station to write this.