Report from the Field
National Black Writers Conference 2000
Part 2 of 3
“Elizabeth Nunez, the conference director and the director of the Black Writers Institute at Medgar Evers, estimated that 1,200 people attended the conference, from as far away as Germany, Japan and Britain.” —New York Times, April 3, 2000
Report from the Field
by Kalamu ya Salaam
April 4, 2000
…the friday evening traffic was horrendous heading from brooklyn over to the schomburg up in harlem on 125th and malcolm x blvd. the program was for 7pm and it was 7pm when we pulled up close to an hour after leaving the hotel on what was supposed to be a 20 minute to half hour jaunt.
i was moderating the panel "the impact of black literature on society: poetry and rap, performance and language. the panelists were zoe anglesey, jasiri kafele, mariah tallie, carl hancock rux, jon yasin and jessica care moore. zoe was here because she had edited "listen up! spoken word poetry" an anthology that featured tish benson, mariahadessa ekere tallie, suheir hammad, jessica care moore, saul williams, ava chin, willie perdomo, tracie morris and carl hancock rux. jasiri, mariah, carl and jessica were poets—i was not familiar with jasiri's work. and jon is a teacher who uses rap in his classroom.
we bustle into the front door and boom there is a crowd waiting to enter the langston hughes theatre. there is literally a buzz in the air. compared to the atmosphere for the opening panel on thursday night, this is like the difference between going to a boxing match on thurs. and a world federation wrestling match on fri. i still had not met all the panelists, in fact did not even know all the panelists.
about 15 minutes or so later, they opened the doors and the folk poured in, quickly filling up the 300plus-seat theatre. while max rodriguez opened the program and then introduced howard dodson, the chief of the schomburg who was remarkably effusive, obviously delighting in the program and the sro audience. dodson made a couple of quick comments that were right on point. one thing he said stuck with me: you can't sing the blues in standard english. i like howard dodson, always have, since back in the seventies when we first met at the institute of the black world over in atlanta. this is one dedicated brother.
getting ready to start the panel, i made a couple of quick executive decisions based on talking with panel members—did you prepare a presentation? what did you want to talk about? etc. even though we had questions suggested by the organizers, i knew that in situations like this you got the most out of it if you got people to do what they really wanted to do and not try to force folk to do what you may want them to do. i was a little befuddled by the composition of the panel with respect to talking about the influences of rap and jazz on poetry and new directions for poetry, etc. so i approached the podium and started beating on it—literally. the stand was wooden and very resonant. the sound system was right on and picking up everything. once i got the rhythms flying, one by one i called the panelist up, or i should say i conjured them up cause i was talk-singing and chanting and beating on that podium and playing my air guitar and the audience was responding and the panelists were grinning as they climbed to the stage. so we got off to a good start.
i asked people to talk a bit about themselves and how they got into doing poetry, what they saw themselves doing with their poetry and we just went on down the line. i would like to be able to tell you a bit about what each person said but i was too deep in the moment. was not taking notes, was trying to stay one step ahead so i could sound like an intelligent moderator. i do know it was interesting to hear people talk about how they got into doing what they do. we did a second round talking about influences. and then i asked each person to read a piece which illustrated a point they wanted to make about their aesthetical views. mariah was first, i believe the title of the piece she read was "forced entry." it was quiet but fierce, like a well-sharpened straight razor expertly wielded. jessica was second. she had been speaking in a whiskeyish sort of semi-hoarse, two notches above whisper voice until it was time to read this poem, and then, man, well she blew with the intensity of a blow torch on a cadillac assembly line. she started loud, stayed loud—and oh, some of her lines were laser brilliant. like jimi hendrix starting his solo at volume 10 and maintaining at a level approaching pain, jessica made heavy metal sound like romantic string music. when she develops the ability to modulate her blowing, to add pauses and whispers to the fiery roar, she is going to be badder than elvin jones in his detroit-inspired polyphonic thunder (there is the story about him coming out to play with trane and nailing his drums to the bandstand, literally nailing them down, cause he play so hard—that's the way jessica was). i felt sorry for jasiri who had to follow jessica. by now the audience had that freaky can't sit still energy you get in church after one of them bad young sisters has tore the roof off the house with a stratospheric soprano solo that included glisses that growl. but brother man was ready, instead of trying to match what had just happened, jasiri leaned into the mike and almost whispered his finely wrought poem, and the whole audience leaned forward to receive him. it was a wonderful display of performance savvy. zoe anglesey followed by reading from the afterword of the anthology. the afterword was written by martiniquian writer edouard glissant. carl hancock rux pulled out his book, "pagan operetta" and in his most resonant baritone (this cat makes barry white sound like a soprano!) declaimed a piece about black manhood that covered more ground than the social distance between mississippi and harlem. he signified and scandalized, he talked tender and he talked tough, waves of amens was rushing from the audience. someone tugged my sleeve—it was max rodriguez who was responsible for recommending me and had pushed to get me to be the moderator; max wanted to know what i was doing, they had a poetry show coming up, why was i having these folk read poetry. i assured him it would be ok, i just wanted people to get a taste of what we were pontificating about, the use of rap and jazz and musical influences, etc. in our poetry. and besides, most of these folk were not scheduled to read later, and i know that it doesn't make sense not to hear what these poets can do.
by then folks was stomping on the floor. after carl, jon said he wasn't a poet but instead was a teacher and called one of his students up who did a short rap. it was aw-right. then i closed with a call and response jazz poem about sidney bechet. and boom we were out of time. even though we started late we had to end on time to make way for the next event. people rushed the stage to get to the poets when it was over.
while personally i wished there had been maybe three at the most four people on the panel so we could have gotten into more, i understand the
|"i need to point this out. i mentioned this before, but much respect to sista sonia (sanchez). she stayed the whole time, digging on the young folk. would that more of the elders would take the time to listen to the young people we wouldn't have the serious gap that exists between too many in my generation and so many in the generation of our children." |
politics of panels. whenever you see more than four people on a panel it means that so-and-so was pushing for him, and that so-and-so said wasn't nothing going to happen unless this other person was on, and at the last minute you got to make room for—well, make room for somebody like me who was added at the last minute. i understand. literally, how this stuff gets done and undone. what can you say, it's the nature of these kinds of things, and once again, we have to remember, we're in new york, the big apple. there had been an awful lot of jockeying going on to be apart of this conference. meanwhile, everybody seemed to really, really enjoy the panel even though we didn't strictly stick to the topic we were given. i know i enjoyed listening to these folk—and just as a personal note, i was unaware of jasiri before that night, but i really, really liked what he did. his style. his approach.
my daughter kiini was at my elbow giving me cliff notes on who was who and what kind of work they did. she is part of this generation of folk and they have a collective called red clay (saul williams is part of that group), many of them went to college together in atlanta and afterwards moved to brooklyn together. she said jasiri always impressed her as a serious poet. and mariah is just a free spirit, effervescent personality but with serious stuff on her mind, like the rape poem she read. i knew of her work but had never met her until the panel. for me, that was one of the greatest pluses of the conference, the opportunity to meet and hear the young writers. and it seemed a whole auditorium of folk agreed with me.
i need to point this out. i mentioned this before, but much respect to sista sonia (sanchez). she stayed the whole time, digging on the young folk. would that more of the elders would take the time to listen to the young people we wouldn't have the serious gap that exists between too many in my generation and so many in the generation of our children.
up next was clips from "bone bristle: a spoken word documentary" that russell simmons is associated with through a company called phat farm. they annouced it as a def poetry jam project (if i recall correctly). seems hbo has bought into the effort. i didn't see the trailer, but did see the long segment that was mainly folk on the new york scene declaiming their poetry. the real question for me is what the edited piece will look like, raw footage doesn't even begin to suggest what the final product will be. but obviously there is a great deal of interest in spoken word, which is why hbo was involved.
then it was time for the poetry reading. although some people left after the panel and during & after the documentary preview, the place was still full. i found out later that it was fuller than full. people were standing up along the wall because there were no more seats. sro. and, without exaggeration, there were at least a hundred people outside who had to be turned away. this was a hot ticket.
the emcee was talib kweli greene of the black star duo (with mos def). and there is a very interesting story here. i'm going to quote in it's entirety a shortie that ran in the april 1st edition of the new york daily news. it is written by denene millner:
- "customers didn't drop in so often, the collection of titles was down and the barnes & noble well, it was crushing the life from nkiru, one of brooklyn's oldest independent bookstores. what the park slope establishment needed was cash and a game plan. it got both last year from the most unlikely of saviorsrappers talib kweli and mos def. the duo, known as black star, bought the 24-year-old store with an advance from their debut album, and enlisted the help of their parents in restructuring nkiru into a nonprofit operation specializing in youth literarcy and arts programs.
- "nkiru means 'the best is yet to come,' " says kweli's mother, brenda green, who heads medgar evers college's language, literature, communication skills and philosophy department. with her mother, beverly moorehead, and mos def's mother, sharron smith, green is leading the store's restructuring. "we have high hopes for what is to comeand we know it's going to work," says smith. "it's powerful."
- green and smith are seeking grants to introduce a tutorial program and seminars on writing and publishing to what's now called the nkiru center for education and culture. "we want it to be more of a resource for the community, as opposed to a retail store," explains green. indeed, on the last Saturday of each month, nkiru presents "foundations," an open-mike night for poets, aspiring rappers and contemporary artists. "you can hardly get in the door," she says."
so that's talib's pedigree. and that's also the kind of story we should shout from the rooftops and hold up as example of what can be done. max comes up to me and asks if i mind opening. i tell him my standard line: use me wherever and however i can be of use. it doesn't make any difference to me whether i go first, last or in the middle. so, i'm opening. how long? ten minutes. ok.
in my head i start shuffling stuff around. ten minutes is barely enough time to get warmed up good, but ok. i make some changes to what i had considered aforehand. end up doing two piano pieces and a sax closer. i have begun not only using music as inspiration but actually structuring the performance of some of my poems around specific musical instruments and specific approaches to playing those instruments. and in some cases, the poem is actually written with the music in mind. so the first poem was "there is no big accomplishment in acting white." it's built on variations on beethoven's moonlight sonatathe whole time i'm reciting, i'm also humming the music and miming playing the piano. i sit when i do the piano poems and have the words spread out on sheets of paper scotch-taped together so it looks like sheet music. needless to say this is a scathingly satirical piece. i follow with "we is: let me splain it to ya" which is commonly known as my cecil taylor piece. and ended with "words have meaning (but only in context)" which starts with variations on charlie parker. i was rushing to keep to the 10 minute time limiti think i clocked in at something like 12 or 13 minutes. people were clapping like they actually enjoyed it.
i stumbled off the stage emotionally drained and sweat leaping off my brow. i was in another world. zoned out. so i didn't really hear talib's short rap that followed my presentation. by the time i came back into the auditorium after catching my breath and walking around a minute to cool down, shariff simmons was on stage. he played guitar and recited for his first number. the second number was in the open mike witty word play mode, and he ended with a environmental number from his new book on moore black press ok, i know somebody is going to ask why i didn't mention it, simmons and moore are partners (howsoever you want to define that). the book is beautifully laid out and i dug the political direction about earth molesters going to mars. had the audience chanting the chorus. simmons cuts an impressive figure as a lanky six foot-something poet. you will be hearing more from him.
next up was kayo — i had neither heard him nor heard about him before. he has a beautiful baritone voice and, judging from the references in his poems, is a heavy reader across a bunch of different styles, genres and literary traditions. there is a deep philosophical bent on one hand, and, of course the rapturous mack-daddy with a touch of suavity poems. (i say "of course" because given his vocal equipment and the state of the open mike scene, it would be almost unimaginable for him not to be into some love jones type grooves.) his work was strong and will get stronger as he develops a wider stylistic range.
then the shit hit the fan. staceyann chin was next. right before she was set to go, she was coiled like a jack-in-the-box in a squatting position near where i was sitting, just waiting for talib to call her to the stage. i looked over at her. she wasn't there. i knew that look. she was concentrating, projecting herself into another space. she took the stage at a trot, leapt up the stairs in bare feet. she had the fearless fierceness of a mongoose doing battle. quick and going for the kill. before we could focus, she was on us. pointing out that she had been told to just do two poems but all of the preceding "men" had done three poems. and though the reason stated was that we were running short on time, the time seemed to get short when a woman took the stage. and she didn't mind shaking things up and
and then boom, she started her first poem about not writing slam poems anymore. she hit the mike with a bare hand, it spun away from her, and before we knew it she was perched on the edge of the stage, feet wide, reared back and letting the poem fly to the far reaches of the large auditorium. up in the last seats, i'm sure, everyone heard her clearly without mike. there was a collective exhaling as a prelude to tumultuous applause when staceyann concluded her first poem. then, in a move uncharacteristic of slam poets, she went to the page and read a new poem dedicated to her loverand she made it clear that she as a woman loved women. afterwards, talib raced to the stage. she stood her ground, turned to the audience and said, you decide. should i do three poems like the men did, or not. there was a moment of edgy silence. then three or four voices hollered out, yes, do it! do it! talib tried to graciously usher her off the stage. staceyann wasn't budging, not one iota. (staceyann is a petite woman physically, but the energy she has is both shield and sword. everyone could sense she was not joking.) then someone hollered, "all this time you could have just done the poem." talib gestured again. staceyann launched into her third poem about the kind of woman she wants to be when she is old. although she stumbled on one line, she completely won the audience over. when she descended from the stage there was an orangish aura of smoldering intensity haloing her braided head.
max found me and registered his disappointment about what had happened. i had pushed to get staceyann on the program, so in a sense it was partly my fault. i am forever trying to open the door for others. i believe that i can never make it alone. we must have community and wherever i go, i want to make it possible for others to enter. in times like this, i am torn. as a producer who has put together many, many music programs and poetry programs i am keenly aware of the importance of time. although the audience may not be aware of it, if there is a shutdown time and you go past that time, it often is very, very costly. i could feel max on that one. but i also fully understood staceyann's position. both of them were my friends. damn, was i going to spend this entire weekend in the middle of differences?
(i may be getting the order a bit out of sequence because i was not keeping notes.) i think rha goddess was up next. she did pieces from her new cd and from the amadou cd project that had been put together by weldon irvine (who co-wrote young, gifted and black with nina simone when he was her musical director). true to her name, her carriage was regal. there was sinews of poise and pride threading through the vibrancy of her voice. her poems had elements of hip hop and also in your face politics. she was a pro in her presentation. she kept to ten minutes by doing her three poems quickly.
steve coleman came next — he is a young white male poet on the spoken word scene (i know what you're thinking, "wait a minute, i thought this was a 'black' writers conference—i promise to return to this point in a minute). he did two poems. the first was well received, but unfortunately for him, the second poem he choose to do was the same poem that was in the bone bristle documentary. less than an hour ago, we had seen him do that poem. i don't think he was there; i'm sure he would have chosen something else. and although it was an effective poem. it's closing twist about gulianni trying to make new york "all white" did not have the same impact upon hearing it a second time within such a short span.
somewhere in between there were three young rappers, who each did a short rap. they were students of jon yasin. but they were way out of their league. talib was the emcee and most of the poets were veterans of the new york spoken word scene. the water was deep and wasn't nobody throwing life preservers.
three poets who were supposed to be on the program didn't recite—i don't know if they weren't there or if they were there and time prevented them from going on. in any case they were: beausia (a young asian poet), lizza jessie peterson, and kevin brown.
next up was sarah jones. she is currently running a one-woman show called surface transit. she was absolutely brilliant. she presented three characters. an old woman in harlem. a young russian woman who had married a black soldier and moved with him to america. and a late middle aged jewish woman from new york. i've seen people do various characters—most notably whoopie goldberg, and in a sense sarah jones works out of that tradition, but, believe me, sarah is sarah. she is not a whoopie wannabe. what was most impressive was how she improvised in character. she had the audience absolutely rolling. someone would shout out something and before you know it, sarah had incorporated it into the skit and stayed 100% in character. it was astounding. sarah was even pushing herself—each character telling the audience to hush up cause she had to hurry and get off the stage, catch a bus/train or whatever. it was brilliant. and then she was about to read a poem when talib was on the stage gently tugging her down.
closing out the program, ngoma did a poem from his new cd. ngoma was a last minute add on. it was a political poem—don't call me no poet—that ended with the line, i'm just a pissed off brother with a pen! and then it was midnight or maybe a couple of minutes after — the program had been scheduled to go: panel from 7 to 9, film premier from 9 to 10, and poetry reading from 10 to midnight. i had rushed into the lobby dragging my rolling suitcase to hawk cds and fertile ground anthologies. i absolutely abhor selling stuff but i was past broke—folks, i was broke in new york and had spent much more money than i had planned to at medina's over on atlantic avenue in brooklyn, the middle eastern run perfumery which supplies damn near the whole east coast with body oils—everything from china rain to africa musk, plus all kinds of incense, and only at wholesale prices. they got sixty-some dollars of my money when i though i was only going to drop about $25; but, i got enough body oil to last my wife nia and i the rest of the year and then some. so i'm broke in new york. i got to sell these cds and books. i set up like a street musician; instead of an open saxophone case, my suitcase is spread out at my feet and i try to smile
(damn, i hate this shit). one of the main reasons i'm trying hard to do this is because i want to buy books and cds, i want to grab stuff i can't easily get in new orleans. within 15 minutes as folk are leaving i quickly sell close to $160 or so dollars worth of stuff and would have sold more had i been actively pushing the product instead of leaning against the wall waiting for people to come up to me. a sister was selling rha goddess' cd next to me and before i folded the ducats into my pocket i copped one.
in the middle of all of this merchandizing, staceyann and angela were pushing out. i hollered across the foyer. staceyann came over and i bear hugged her. she: i didn't know if you would be upset with me or what. me: if i was upset i sure wouldn't be hugging you all up in public like this. she: i'm glad. me: yeah. you got to do what you got to do. we stayed hugged up for a long, long two minutes or so. i could still feel tremors of all that energy radiating from her small frame. and then she was off. shortly thereafter i spotted max. we spoke a minute and he was cool. everybody was cool. the program had been a smashing success, almost overwhelming. in fact dodson told me that they had some major celebrations come up next year and that he wanted me to come up for one of them. they wanted to do a nation of poets type program. nation of poets (the cd is available from third world press) was a program i put together for either the first or second national black arts festival. we recorded the set, which was held at spelman's chapel. it featured eight poets each reading for 20 minutes or more: amiri baraka, pearl cleage, wanda coleman, mari evans, haki madhubuti, kalamu ya salaam, sonia sanchez and askia toure. it was a smoker. we had done a reprise of sorts for the schomburg once before. plus ethelbert miller and i had put together "a tribute to baraka" set a few years back at the schomburg; that had been unquestionably one of the best programs i have ever produced. baraka did a two hour retrospective in which he read the first poem he published and took it on up to the late 1990s. that was awesome. so, dodson and i have a history of working together. i told him i would love to get together. he smiled that budda-esque smile of his and said he'd get back to me. it was that kind of night. everybody was feeling good.
there were bunches of people there whom i had not seen in years. it took us almost twenty minutes to leave. (i promise in part three, i will address the issue of white writers at a black writers conference and talk about a bunch of other stuff that went down on saturday. it's coming but right now i have been up a long, long time. i got to stop now
)it was close to 1am when i stumbled back into the hotel room. a potential blowup had turned out fine, the night had been wonderful, i would sleep well, little knowing that i needed it, cause saturday had its own bag of tricks in store for me
more in a minute.
stay strong/be bold
a luta continua
Part 3 of 3
Part 1 of 3
Part 2 of 3