360� A Revolution of Black Poets -- A Report From The Field
"360� was a two day gathering of poets in Baltimore, Maryland on September 11 & 12, 1998. Events were held on Friday at the Baltimore Museum of Art and on Saturday at the University of Maryland - College Park. The executive producer of 360� was Kwame Alexander, founder and CEO of the Alexander Publishing Group. Kalamu ya Salaam served as a consulting producer and as the lead editor on an anthology of forty Black poets which was published inconjunction with 360� the event. What follows is Kalamu's email daily reports on 360�. everything is written in lowercase because that was the fastest way to type. there is very little punctuation because that was the fastest way to type. I have gone back to clear up major typos, and to fill in a few spots of unclarity, but in general this is the report much as it was reported on the internet. Feel free to circulate this via email, snailmail, fax, word-of-mouth are however you communicate with your peeps (as in "people"). Indeed, not only feel free, please, please, please pass it on, and on, and on. Let the whole world know that 360� rolled and Black poetry continues to roll on."thurs. 10 sept. 98
here we go.
it's early thursday afternoon. a beautiful day in dc, warm, sun shiney, something like what you would see at the end of a hollywood romance as the lovers walk hand-in-hand through the park. we have just finished a radio interview with kojo namdi on american university's public radio. in the house were e. ethelbert miller, toni blackman, myself and ruth forman joining us via telephone from new york city. angela boykin, 360/alexander publishing group publicist and media maven, picked me up from sylvia hill's house and monitored our interview.
we were on the air for one hour. each of us read three poems inbetween q&a from the host and interaction with telephone callers. angela told me that the phones were ringing off the hook at blackwords as a result of the radio program. kwame was back at the office dealing with those calls. the energy on the program was wonderful. everyone read well. the was a great deal of variety -- plus, i got my first look at the finished book. houston, we have a lift off! it's an attractive anthology and the selections are very good. all of the poets read at least one poem from the 360 book. i'm proud of this one, because it represents a lot of different styles, is cross generational and has 19 females out of 40 poets. it's truly a democratic anthology.
toni blackman was representing the females of the hip hop generation, and throwing down in her representing. did an anthemic poem about female rappers&poets being invisible women but that though people might act like they don't see them they do intend to be heard.
ruth forman's velvet voice is a truly marvelous instrument. she could read the phone book and make you want to call up the numbers long distance. plus, she has a message. a redemption song, she be singing about us and us being us and us collecting us selves together and moving on. it was good to hear her. e. ethelbert miller is one of the wonders of the black world. the man is utterly amazing in his ability to meet and greet people, to make people feel at ease and feel good. plus, he works like a demon. was telling me about a piece he has forthcoming in callaloo that includes letters from wanda coleman. he has a non-agressive way of engaging people. he be skillfully leading the conversation forward. where other people might make small talk or, more likely, just be silent, e. has a way of getting you to talk about yourself, what you are up to, what your thoughts are and in the process congratulates you on doing whatever you are doing and thanks you for your insights. he is a master of schmoozing precisely because he is not just passing time, but instead genuinely has a interest in other people. and on top of all that he has this wicked, sly and very subtle sense of humor. and to make sure you understand what is happening, he will say "oh, i'm just pulling your leg" or something that takes the edge of the encounter and causes everyone to smile.
after the radio broadcast, as staff people were streaming up and down the hall, smiling, and telling us it was a very good show, i caught a glimspe of something in the way ethelbert was smiling with and greeting people, and it hit me, we were in the presence of divinity--someone once asked me what does the e. in e. ethelbert miller stand for. i said i didn't know. i know now. when i told ethelbert, he demurred shyly, looked askance for a second, like a little kid caught with his hand where it ain't supposed to be and tried to deny, but his denial came through grinning lips. he was busted. e. stands for esu, the yoruba trickster orisha. brer rabbit resurfaces. you can see it in how most of his poetry has a little twist in it, an ironic comment delivered with humor. as we embraced i felt warmly close to this man-god. i'm looking forward to the weekend.
one of the staff members handed each of us a cassette copy of the interview. their gracious efficiency is appreciated. angela and i caught a cab over to her place, which is in a state of "disarray. they're boxes everywhere. you have to excuse..." i cut her off, i understand. it's no big thing. she's juggling a full time job, with the full time work of promoting 360, plus she's moving on sunday. moving out of the city to the surburban countryside, literally "country" side. seems as though with the impending departure of marion berry, folks who had moved out of the city four or more years ago, or now moving back in great numbers. real estate prices have shot through the roof. the apartment angela stays in was willed to the former owner's brother who is now raising the rent. angela reports that one bedroom apartments are going for $800 to $1200 a month. and they are selling her small one bedroom apartment as a condo, first come, first get it, at $80,000 -- you read correctly, EIGHTY THOUSAND smackers. welcome to dc, sucker! she can't afford it and has to move immediately.
it's a little bit of a balancing act reporting on 360 because i am one of the behind the scenes operatives helping to set this event in motion. so take a lot of what i say with the understanding that part of my view is informed by not only an unavoidable desire to present 360 in the best possible light, but also is tempered by my relationships with the producers and the poets. that said, the first meltdown happened today. alex, one of the blackwords triumpherate (ceo kwame alexander and publicist angela boykin are the other two) had a crisis in his home. his daughter fell seriously ill and is in the hospital. alex had the lead on transportation for thursday. he's out of commission. kwame and angela are scrambling to keep everything together. yesterday, when we left angela's apartment, she had a friend drive her to the repair shop to pick up her car which wasn't ready yet -- she took the car anyway. had to get to the airport. the repair person emphasized that the starter wasn't fixed and that she had to bring it back tomorrow. i don't need to say anymore, we all know how car repairs go and unfortunately, later in the day angela did have some major trouble with the starter, but let's just keep pushing...
except, the airlines are in league with murphy--flights are running late, thus adding another level of anxiety to an already tight situation. which all is made worse by the fact that a big kick-off at black entertainment television's soundstage is jumping off early this evening, and flight schedules, illnesses, broke (or "unfixed") cars, missed pickups and whatever, it doesn't matter, the bet event jumps when it jumps, either we be there or we blow. this is when it starts getting tough putting these humungous type events together. i'm counseling angela to keep cool. we will do everything we can and what we can't we just have to live with. but we have gotten off to an auspicious start with the radio interview today. we're getting ready to jump into the teeth of dc drive time to get to the baltimore airport, pick up folks, get to the hotel, and get back to dc downtown for the bet soundstage happening.
i went quickly through the anthology and there are only one or two pages where i saw problems, problems which happened because shit happens in the production process. we sent a disc to the printer, who in turn did a print out and shot negatives from their print out. we didn't have time to see bluelines. although we also sent hard copy to use as matches and checksheets, the printer did not check each individual page, so on two pages, the print outs from the printers equipment does not match what we sent up. i don't know what the particular problem is but it caused some layout aberations -- nothing major, it's just that i'm always striving for everything to be as hip as possible. but that aside, the book is smoking and is one of the better black poetry anthologies of the decade, especially in the sense of representing a solid cross section geographically and generationally. am particularly happy that we got a healthy dose of west coast folks who are too often left out and overlooked. by the way, you can check out a lot of the 360 activity live on the internet. try going to <www.aalbc.com> and they will give you the info and link you to the 360 pages. plus, i have book reviews of new work from angela jackson and afaa michael weaver at that site.
all indications are that this is going to be a holy good time, spiritually uplifting and smoking with phat lyrics dropped by a plethora of sharptongued, lyrical and culturally grounded wordsmiths. i'm starting to get hyped. a bunch of the crew (karen, kysha, my wife nia, my daughter asante) are due in this evening. the elusive world-traveling tiaji salaam checked in via email and she will be in the house on saturday. plus, we've got peter muhammad riding up on a hounddog (greyhound bus), and shay carrier & chris williams plus nadir and mawiyah bomani coming through on friday. we're going to naturally new orleans throw down.
...back at you after soundstage...
we wrapped up the kick-off with a feature at bet-soundstage. soundstage is like a media/nightclub/restaurant located in the suburbs between dc and baltimore. the place has video monitors above every table so as you sit and eat you can't miss what's going on. it's loud enough to hear clearly but not so loud you can't talk with people at your table. the decor is tasteful and it has a pretty cool vibe. the food seems to be good but not great (alright, so i am from new orleans and have low expectations of food on the road in other places ;-) -- i admit my bias). anyway, we had a feature set up with the bet host interviewing kwame alexander, and then there was a short poetry presentation, two poems, from glennis redmond sherer, one of the 360 poets who, as she said, has been moving her poetry from the page to the stage. she is a performance poet and a multi-time grand slam finalist. she did a good job. after glennis, there was a follow-up with a trailer from the movie slam, to push the movie which will have a special screening on tomorrow. and then we ate a little bit -- i had a good, but not great, lime cheesecake. they did have a good crab & corn chowder and some sweet potato fries which were much appreciated by kysha and karen. shortly before we left, angela arrived bringing asante from the airport. asante told us that it was raining like crazy in new orleans and that the expressway was all backed up. turns out nia got stuck in that traffic and won't be in until tomorrow :-(
when we got to the hotel, we started sorting out logistics. we have a long day tomorrow. send out your prayers, thots, and good vibrations for alex's daughter. seems as though her illness is very serious. there are a few loose ends which are being pulled together and we will be on it with both feet in the morning. i probably will not file the next report until early in the morning on saturday as it seems we will be running all day and most of the night.
these kinds of events are very, very difficult to do. there are so many details to attend to and so many different personalities to deal with. but bit by bit we're knocking it down and getting it done. the first contingent of poets are already on the ground: stacey lyn evans from l.a., goldie from the bay area, khefri who is 1/2 of mannafest coming out of london, kysha brown, kalamu, plus karen who is working as a staff person. word is out. we have a kickoff press release tomorrow and have 20 media folk comitted to attend plus we have commitments from the washington post; the baltimore sun; city paper, a dc weekly; and emerge magazine.
it's 1am, i'm going to crash and get some sleep. a whole lot more to come,sat. 12 sept. 98
well folks, it's 9:30am, brother peter just gave us a wake up call -- we went to bed at 5am, time to get started on the long day, and as tony medina joked at breakfast a few hours ago, as long as its dark, its still tonight to me, tomorrow doesn't start till i see daylight. so let me tell you about yesterday. we spent friday morning trying to sort out transportation snafus and hotel checkin blues. suffice it to say, yours truly went all the way from college park to baltimore -- about a forty minute drive under race car conditions, except had heavy traffic both ways. here i am setting out to pick people up at a train station i have no idea where it's located. somewhere in baltimore. i drive in circles, i crawl through traffic, i finally get there and find some place to park, i'm forty-five minutes late. i collect myself and get ready to practice state level diplomacy so i can smooth ruffled feathers and assure pissed off people that things are much cooler and together than they seem or actually are, and i find nobody. nada. one train has been there and gone, another train is running a hour late.
i jump on the phone and try calling the hotel. karen was supposed to be in the lobby standing by to help people check in. kysha was in her room on the phone trying to take care of logistical business. kwame alexander, our fearless leader, is ferrying people from the airport. i'm at a train station pay phone in downtown baltimore trying to pick up poets who ain't there. phone in the rooms just rings. i get the hotel lobby and one of the ever attentive clerks says there are no women in the lobby. i could go into serious horror stories about the clerks at this hotel, stories not about rudeness or incompetence but rather about giving a whole new meaning to blase and don't give a damn, but i won't go there, can't go there cause i'm at the train station confused and confounded. so finally about an hour later -- remember i didn't exactly know where i was going and only approximately know how to get back and the traffic has gotten heavier, not to mention it took me twenty minutes to find the expressway, but anyway.... -- i get back to the hotel only to find out that i went to the wrong train station. i should have gone to a train station about five minutes from the hotel. now at this point do you:
a. go ballistic and join the postal employees in your determination to get your point across that you don't take too kindly to being abused on your "j"
b. do i curse out the first person i see
c. do i contain my curses and simply build up a litany of verbal abuse to dump on kwame alexander when i finally catch up with the culprit who sent me on the wild goose chase
d. say, fother-muckit and take a vow of not doing a goddamn thing for the rest of the time i'm anywhere near the state of jive maryland which as far as i'm concerned is jiggling in a circle on one foot and thinking they're doing the 360?
after giving serious consideration to each of the above, and i mean serious, i do neither. i catch my breath, zen out, and as haki said much later in the day after he finally got to the program after waiting at an airport for hours and calling his office in chicago, who called our hotel rooms in college park and got hold of kysha brown so she could relay to somebody to please go pick up haki at the baltimore airport -- well you got the idea -- so, like haki said "it's always hard working with our people!" i go into the black zen zone and say chalk it up to the difficulties of moving from negro to black in 24 hours. when kwame finally gets back he chuckles good naturedly that i went to the wrong train station when the sheet of paper he handed me clearly had new carrollton station written at the top as an indication for what "nc" by the people's name at the bottom should have told me where to go, except of course, i had no idea that said station was in college park rather than baltimore when i was asked to go, and of course when i asked for directions was told to ask somebody at the desk and they could tell me how to get to the train station which when i asked that aforemention attentive and helpful desk crew, they smiled, one said i don't know and the other pointed at a wall map they showed me which interstate to take to go from college park to baltimore and a vague reference to "it's on one of the main streets in baltimore." from the above description i guess you get an idea of what the morning was like. let's just skip ahead to the afternoon -- or "we're still tripping --
part 2." please don't think we aren't having fun because there are a bunch of wonderful folk who are getting here, one way or another. and it's a joy to see people whom i haven't seen in a minute. but meanwhile back on the interstate, the program kicks off with a screening of slam at the baltimore museum of art. oh yeah, on the way back from the train station i peeped that the interstate headed into baltimore was a parking lot, literally over three miles of bumper to bumper, snail crawling traffic. it's about 3:30 when we finally get the van and three cars loaded to make the "half hour" drive to baltimore to see a film that technically started fifteen minutes ago but which we hope was held up to a 3:30 start time. did i tell you it's friday afternoon drive time and we are caravaning through downtown baltimore? in the parlance of film language, let's make a serious jump/cut and we get to the filmscreening room and the feature length film has about 25 minutes left to run. i am now a full fledged, unflappable, nothing can erase my smile, zen master. we set up a book table to sell the 360 anthology and take turns going to the bathroom and talking quietly with each other. we did all our venting in the car on the drive over and now we are model new negroes about to voluntarily cross the threashold into patient and understanding blackness.
...and folks, i'm out of time. it 10am and it's time to get to the first panel at which kysha is speaking on publishing and i've got to walk down the street to the howard johnson and pickup brother peter after i jump in the shower, so some time later today i will take a few minutes to finish the report on friday's activities. i will say this though, the main reading was an extraordinary event.
sun. 13 sept. 98
360 is history! it's sunday, a little after 1pm, i'm sitting in the baltimore airport pounding out this final report on roadrunner, my trusty mac laptop -- it is literally sitting on my lap as i'm plugged into a socket on the back wall tyring to turn out a report that lives up to the buildup of the last few dispatches. i had planned to give a day by day report, much like the nbaf reports, but there was just no time -- every minute and more was packed with activity. i was up until 7:30am and copped about 3.5 hours of sleep and am back at it, so this will not necessarily be the most lucid report possible. actually, that last sentence illustrates the point because the sentence should read "this will necessarily be one of my less lucid reports." first a general wrap-up. 360 was an important gathering which once again affirmed the importance of people getting together and sharing what they do. the mix of poets who actually attended (which was drawn from but did not include all 40 who were in the book) was diverse and almost everyone was strong enough to carry their portion of the program. of course, given that exposure for emerging poets was part of the mandate, there were varying degrees of expertise displayed by poets in attendance. but that stands to reason because anytime you pan for gold there will be more sand than gold -- even though, in this case, the percentage of gold to sand was much, much higher than the norm. so purely from the standpoint of craft alone, 360 was happening.
2nd-ly 360 definitely illustrated the importance of sounding in the context of black poetry. you have to hear us, book reading is not sufficient to get an appreciation of black poetry, and that "hearing requirement" is a distinct difference from what is required to appreciate poetry crafted for the page. there are a lot of mainstream and/or academic poets (i am intentionally resisting a slip-shod racial referencing of this as a black/white issue, even though i certainly do believe that there is a euro aesthetic/black aesthetic difference), anyway, there are a lot of book-tradition poets for whom hearing them read does nothing to enhance an appreciation of what they do, in fact, many of them are much better appreciated read on the page than heard in person. with the black poets, the general rule of thumb is that when you hear them read it helps you appreciate what they are doing with their poetry on the page. time and time again, 360 make that general rule of thumb loud and clear. so, with it's two night line up of major readings and open mikes, 360 was a strong affirmation of the strength of the black "sounding" aesthetic.
3rd-ly, and this is an extension of the preceeding point, 360 let us know that despite the range of our differences and diversity, we black poets have a lot in common aesthetically even when we may be at odds politically. this point is a subtle wrinkle. no doubt there are wide political differences and orientations among the poets, so much so that on occasion there is almost a cold war, grim tolerance and even adversarial clash going down. but as far apart as we black poets sometimes be from each other, 360 helped clarify that at least aesthetically most of us drink from the same well and bath in the same stream.
finally, as a general statement, 360 confirmed that there is indeed a hip hop poetry aesthetic happening. so while i believe that 360 highlighted how we are all connected, 360 also highlighted that there is a gulf between some of us. we might be bathing in the same stream but many of us are on opposite banks. yes, we share water (i.e. a "sounding" aesthetic) but we do not share the terra firma of page-craft and political orientation. on the one hand, although it is true that the hip-hoppers are mainly young folk, i don't think it's really a generational issue per se as much as it is an aesthetic issue. in a minute, i will delve into that. but first i wanted to sum up my general evaluation of 360.
there has been nothing like 360 in a long time. i was at both nbaf and 360 -- most of you read the nbaf reports. there is no comparison in terms of scope and resources. nbaf was better funded, better staffed, and, because of the wealth of activities, even seemed to be far larger in terms of raw numbers. nbaf had far more than thirty-some writers in attendance. however, in terms of specifically dealing with poetry, 360 was and should have been the better of the two. i say should have been because whereas nbaf was mandated to look at literature as a whole, 360 was mandated to focus on poetry and if 360 had not offered a better presentation of black poetry than nbaf then 360 would have deserved utter and absolute condemnation. that said, i must admit that 360 could easily have melted down to a small ingrown exercise in self- congratulation which is always a danger when we deal with activies which are build around political agendas.
360 was overtly political. the subtitle -- a revolution of black poets -- clearly indicates the direction the organizers had in mind. i don't believe all of the poets necessarily shared the prioritizing of the political in their poetry. in fact, i know that some don't but on the other hand, none of the poets distanced themselves from the general sentiments that politics are and ought to be one of the main focuses of their work. with that as the background, i will now return to //// here my flight is called, more in a minute...
...i am now on the ground in the new orleans airport. i lucked out in birmingham where i had to make a plane change. there happenend to be a southwest flight leaving within 20 minutes of my deplaneing in birmingham and a helpful flight agent switched me to the flight. so now, i am waiting for nia to arrive who was coming in on usair. hopefully i will finish this before she arrives....
i will now return to an event by event rundown. i believe i left off the previous report with me arriving back from a wild goose chase to the baltimore train station. needless to say, i was not a happy traveler. the transportation snafus, of course, begin piling up. we were expecting peter muhammad, whom left a message but did not know exactly where he was. shay was due in sometime and so was nia. we still had no word on whether chris was coming at all. and that was just the new orleans crew. there were a number of poets whose location was in question, indeed we had no certainty that they were even on the way. by now its 1:30pm on friday. i have embrace kamau daaood out of cali and had a chance to talk with him for a few minutes. also sat and talked with afaa michael weaver earlier that morning. the next event is the screening of slam at the baltimore museum of art. the screening is scheduled for 3pm. kysha has been in contact with folk there trying to work out credit card purchases for book sales. remember i mentioned the expressway between college park and baltimore was a veritable parking lot? finally kwame gets back and by 2pm it's clear to me that we are going to be late for the film screen. by 3pm kysha reports to kwame that the request to hold the film start until 4pm has been denied. the best that could be wrangled over the phone was 3:30pm. we don't leave the hotel until 3:30pm and peter still has not arrived. kwame knows another way to baltimore. it seems a little longer but a lot faster, especially because the traffic is heavy but at least moving briskly. i will spare you the suspense. when we get to the museum the film has approxmately 30 minutes left -- most of us don't even go inside the auditorium.
next karen and kysha set up the book sales -- and folks, here let me sing the praises of karen celestan who knows how to honcho a command post. she had it and all was in order on her watch even though we literally were setting it all up as we were going along. for her part kysha brown was watching the money closer than ken starr was checking out bill clinton's sex life. yall are probably laughing, but in the midst of everything that was going on and not going on, we should not take for granted that the selling of books would go smoothly. karen and kysha yall handled that one!
there were not a whole lot of people in the screening. tony medina thought slam was a bit lame, in fact, he joked that they should have called it ham because he found it heavy on melodrama and technically poorly lit in terms of showing the beauty of black skin. this question of how black people are filmed is more than a technical question of lighting, it's an aesthetic question almost inherent in film. rendering a full spectrum of skin tones is much more difficult than shooting for one end of the color spectrum. but without getting caught up in any of that, all i can say was i didn't see slam and i can not say much more, except that some people said they liked the film but nobody came out absolutely enthusiastic.
next up was a poet's vip meal in the outdoor sculpture garden. like most of the food i had this trip it was good but far from great. the glazed carrots were happening. also had string beans, a vegetable lasanga, a good green salad (no iceburg lettece) with a very good honey mustard dressing. a wild rice dish and baked chicken.
we were supposed to be recording, but there was the saga of no dat tapes. earlier this morning we had search for dat tapes in college park. even went to a radio shack there and could not find any dat tapes. the museum sound technician tells us that the closest place he knows of in baltimore to get dat tapes is not in baltimore, is somewhere in the suburbs -- in the midst of trying to hold down everything else and with the absence of any dat tapes i completely shut down any thoughts of recording. i literally don't even think about it anymore. as far as i am concerned the opportunity is gone.
oh yeah, did i mention i was the emcee with toni lightfoot for tonight's program. that was something else to think about. there's a message from peter. he's at the hotel and is catching a ride over with some sisters who were driving to the event from the hotel. peter arrives. still no word from shay or nia. alex, kwame's partner, calls out to the airport and has a page done -- nothing. by now it's seven-forty-something and the audience is arriving. word is that sonia is somewhere in the vicinity. we're trying to wait for the second shuttle run between the hotel in college park and the museum to arrive. finally, most folk are in place, we make some lineup adjustments and it's time to kick.
show time! when it's time to hit //// it's also 6pm sunday evening, the flight from charlotte that nia was supposed to be on has arrived and no nia. i've got to pause while i try and find out what's up with nia getting back from baltimore. more in a minute. ////
i'm home at last late on sunday evening. where did i leave off?
oh yeah, friday nite was about to jump. the venue is an intimate, well designed, 2nd floor, three hundred sixty some seat auditorium at the baltimore museum of art. the hall had excellent acoustics and the slope made for great sight-lines regardless of where you sat, plus from the stage you could feel the presence of the audience, everyone seemed to be close enough to feel apart of the action and yet also comfortable and uncrowded. i would guess there was a little over 200 people in attendance.
kwame asks me to go and do something poetic to start things off -- so i proceeds to do a body rhythm piece, no words, just hand clapping and footpatting with my size 13 clodhoppers tapping out beats on the wooden stage. people got to clapping and fingerpopping on the appropriate cues and smiles started spreading. what a way to start a poetry reading. then i did a little of the theme of my sound poem "words have meaning/but only in context" and then i annouce what all the night will be about before turning it over to my co-host toni asante lightfoot who was no slouch, she picked up the line i threw out and set it to twirling like an expert rope turner for the international double dutch championship team.
afaa michael weaver was up first and he was in a story telling mode that reminded you of a big brother hipping you to the ins and outs of life on planet earth, and then it just started rolling on and on. everybody has their favorites, someone they dug more than the others, but for me what i dug was seeing a diverse selection of poets getting off on and grooving on each other.the synergy was incredible.
haki and sonia were the last two and by the time it got to them, the atmosphere was magical. haki read with the passion of the haki of old, he was hyped. and of course sonia was sonia. but in between afaa and the dynamic haki/sonia one-two tandem, we heard from the pithy eshu (ethlebert miller) and the wild imagery and gruff tenderness of kamau daaood. we heard from the funkiversification of thomas sayers ellis with an ode to sir noze delivered pogo style and wrapped up in pfunk terminology, and then there was ruth forman whose top lip is billie holiday and bottom lip is lester young, and whose tongue has tinges of prez' breathy lyricism and billie's lyrical drawl mixed into one honeyed-husky sound.
but then there was also tracie morris hop dropping tons of syncopated tones in the name of rhythm rich poetry. and the list also includes the dreaded handsomeness (brothaman's visual aura was heartthrob inducing -- while i realize looks in no way determines poetic worth, an enticing package sure does make the contents go down smoother) of trinidad born roger bonair-agard who dropped some poly-science charging hard as an nfl fullback on four and goal from the three yard line, which was contrasted by the elegance of mari evans defining integrity, beauty, poise, preciseness. i could have listened to mari all night.
also in the quietfire mode were introspective musings from sister carolyn joyner. brothas quraysh ali lansana and dj renegade each brought a story telling flow that had their own introspective flavas, while, sista laini mataka provided the hard throwdown of the night with a rant/rebuke to poets who are legends in their own minds and drop dung abominations they somehow think of as jewels of thought. baltimore based reggie timpson was a last minute addition. by the end of the main reading everybody, and i do mean everybody, within earshot was feeling no pain, smiling and walking on air.
it was one of the more incredible nights of poetry i have witnessed, not so much because of any particular poet's reading but rather because of the overall feel. there could have been no better beginning. and 15 minutes later we started an open mic with roughly 25 people signing up. (by the way, seems like half the black poets in boston drove down for 360.) yours truly ended up hosting the open mic. it was not planned that way, but what you gon do when kwame asks you to get it started and then... well, do i need to tell you getting it started also meant finishing it up. anyway it was 1am when we finally were through.
the open mic was kicked off by a half hour presentation from a five-man group called the sons of robeson, seemed that at least four of the brothers were black muslims. then we got to the other 25 poets, most of whom were in the neophyte mode which generally means poems which were either too long, too loose, too unfocused, or barely poetic -- but there was a lot of energy and a few people evidencing not just potential but actually evidencing a degree of skill that indicates they have been both reading and writing, listening as well as reciting, working as well as emoting. among the ones i dug was a brother out of boston named zele. and then there was also fine work from lenard moore, one of the major mainstays of the poetry scene in carolina. one thing that was really, really inspiring was that sonia sanchez came back and sat to listen to the entire open mike.
when we finally got back to the hotel thirty-five or so miles away it was three in the morning. if you expect me to tell you that we stumbled off to sleep, you don't know poets. we went to an allnight, 24hr diner located literally next to the hotel and sat down to get a light grub on. a contingent of poets who had arrived back before we did were finishing up as we ordered. i think we got to sleep around 5am.
a few hours later, early saturday morning, we're up to the nyumburu center for the panels. the first panel on publishing black poetry was opened by a presentation from haki who had to split immediately after his talk. haki had an early plane to catch. also on the panel were afaa michael weaver representing obsidian magazine, jessica care moore representing moore black press, kysha brown representing runagate press, and troy johnson of aalbc, an online black book site. (by the way, their address is www.aalbc.com and yours truly does regular poetry reviews for them, check them out.) the moderator was kwame alexander of blackwords, inc./alexander publishing group, the lead producers of 360.
there was an audience of about 50 people which was evidence of great interest.i mean to get 50 people to a 10am panel after a long night of activity a few hours before was a statement in and of itself. i did not hear all of the panel but the question and answer period was lively and there were some good exchanges. kysha scored an impressive dunk when she responded to a question about how to get help when you had 50 poems and wanted to put out a book. kysha emphasized that you should get someone -- "and not a friend or family member" -- to at least read over your work. then kysha dropped the bomb, "you should ask someone who intimidates you to read your work!" so that you can get an honest and informed reply. a number of people mentioned that comment afterwards.
the next panel on the black arts movement featured mari evans, askia toure, ethelbert miller and myself--i was asked to sit in at the last moment because some of the poets who were supposed to be on the panel didn't make it to 360. the moderator was marcia davis of emerge magazine. i thought the panel was ok, a number of people said they really enjoyed it because there was a lot of information given out that they didn't know. after having been on at least four such panels in the last two years, i didn't think this one was particularly insightful (and i don't mean to imply that there was anything lacking in the participants comments), it's just that there was not enough time to get into any detailed comments and everything tended to stay on a general level. at the same time, that is me speaking from a much more informed perspective than the majority of the people in the audience. the third panel, the future of black poetry, was by far one of the best sessions of its kind that i have witnessed or been a part of. the panel members were philly jazz-poet wadud, dark room founder and college professor thomas sayers ellis, dc-based poetry host and poet toni asante lightfoot. yours truly was the moderator.
from jump i took the panel somewhere else other than the eurocentric model of experts pontificating. we started out by going around the room introducing ourselves. by the end of the day for our session the room was full, approximately 100 or more people crammed into the room. as i knew it would, the round of introductions demonstrated the diversity of the audience and made everybody feel appreciated. after the introductions i next called on two poets in the 360 book to one by one deal with a specific aspect of their work.
i called on dj renegade first. he has two poems in the anthology which are layed out in the book like paintings. they were striking visual poems and i decided to include at least two of them to show that it was not a one-trick gimmick or accident. dj figured out what he was doing. he then talked about the inspiration for that style (specifically it was jean basquiat, the haitian- american artist who took the art world by storm with his innovative, iconic paintings that combined naive figures with highly symobolic paint langauge and literal words and symbols). then i asked dj how he read it, and he responded that everytime he reads it it came out different because he would just jump from section to section. i had asked people to pull out their text, namely the 360 book, and it seemed that over half the audience had a copy -- afterwards dj told me he was surprised when i said that, he said it seemed like everybody had a copy but him and he had to borrow a copy from an audience member when i asked him to read the poem. as soon as he started reading it was obvious how he was hooking up the sounding off what appeared to be a visually oriented poem and that sounding was exciting, indeed more exciting than the visual presentation which was innovative in and of itself. a murmur of recognition shot through the audience as people appreciated what dj was dropping.
next i asked tracie morris who is a sound specialist of another sort to read. she declined to read any of her poems in the book, saying that people could read them on their own but then she decided to read some of ther poems. she stood there and said she was trying to decide which one to read. once she made a decision she proceeded to drop some science from memory. tracie presented a poem built on the musical motif of sam cooke's "that's the sound of the men working on the chain gang." another, and even louder, murmur shot through the audience as tracie worked her magic. by now peoples was grinning. light bulbs was going off in people's heads and eyes. the excitement level was getting high as that electric moment of nudeness when lovers stare at each other naked for a milimoment before touching. then and only then, did i ask each of the panelists to make some comments on the future of poetry. wadud talked about not imitating others, learning what others have done before you and adding your own individuality to that. toni spoke of studying for a broader concept and that the future was in breaking beyond the boundaries of what we hear or read everyday and breaking into other cultures and languages: for example prison poetry from around the world, caribbean poetry, negritude poets, etc. thomas sayers ellis went off on an extended riff about not be exclusionary and instead embracing everything. he riffed on the supposed difference between the stage and the page and noted that from his perspective there was no real difference: "they're both wood!"
as the moderator, i was jabbing and dropping sucker punches all up and in between the panelists and the two presenters. by the time ellis finished, the murmur had become a buzz. looked like there were sparks of color ionizing the room. people were floating. i pulled my own coat and said to myself, why blow the high? after thomas, i thanked folk for coming and suggest that they take these good feelings and go do something productive. no questions and answers. if you want to hang and talk, do that. and i closed the session. a half hour later people were still in the room talking to each other. it was another one of those magical moments.
there was a reception somewhere. but there were so many people to talk to that by the time i was headed to where the reception was it was time to jet back to the hotel to change for the main reading for saturday night.
mon. 13 sept. 98
baraka was rumored to be coming. his son ras had said that both amiri and amina were supposed to come down. amiri nor amina showed through. sonia, who was supposed to read on saturday night, had to leave early, early saturday morning. at about quarter to eight there seemed to be maybe a hundred people milling around waiting for the doors to open. i was a bit disappointed. i thought the turnout was going to be much better, especially since friday was smoking. i was sure that the first audience would be back and would tell, if not bring, a friend. then they called for the poets to go backstage. the program didn't start until about 8:30 but by then we had close to if not a bit more than five hundred people in attendance.
the program kicked off with new orleans poet, nadir lasana bomani who opened up with a bomb dropping haiku that led to a richar pryor laugh inducing coniption fit. nadir had the audience rolling. and then nadir read two deadly serious autobiographical pieces about his absent father and his mother who died when nadir was 13. as loud as the audience had been laughing at nadir's opening shot, that's how quiet and hard they were listening as the telling of hard truths unfolded. it was a mean, mean opening. next came nicole shields out of chicago who has a minimalist style of poetry which is strong on irony. her succint and zinging short poems were well received. wesleyan african american studies director kate rushin offered reflective, thoughful poetry.
ras baraka closed out the first set with a rousing reading. somebody said, even though amiri didn't show, we heard him anyway. ras sounds like his father and even used some of his father's constructs and phraseology, but ras also has his own vibe and, if he stays at it, will either develop a distinctive style or suffocate in the shadow of his famous father. my bet is that he will grow.
the second set opened with toni asante lightfoot who is saucy and down to earth. of the poets i had not remembered hearing or reading before 360, toni's contributions to 360 the book impressed me the most. i was up next. you'll have to ask around for an assessment of how i did--i will say that i felt good about my presentation which included two haiku w/flute sounds, two poems w/piano sounds, and a coltrane influenced sax improvisation on "system of thought." stacey lyn evans off the west coast followed with hip hop subject matter in a romantic style. multi-time slam finalist glennis redmond sherer brought roars from the audience as she did dramatic renditions of her poetry. after a short intermission the third set opened with a last minute addition, goldie the poet out of the west coast bay area. goldie is a hip hopper who is still developing his own thing but he is also a hard worker who is intent on developing his career as a performance poet. goldie was in atlanta at the nbaf, at that time he had cassettes. by 360 time he had a cd.
jessica care moore took the stage next, she crouches and prowls like a lioness, grips the mike, throws her head back and roars. she was accompanied by a brother on guitar for two poems and did the last piece accapella. she was bothered by a sore throat so her presentation wasn't as strong as normal, but her new work is heading in a very hip direction and i am anxious to hear and read more from ms. moore.
then came manafest, vanessa and khferi, a duo out of london. they too have obviously been working together for a minute. i enjoyed their joint piece, as a unit they are stronger than either as a stand alone. the third set ended with the mulifluous metaphors, imagery and adjective-alliteration of askia toure who was at his deep-voiced best, pounding out his notes with the authority of sixfoot-six randy weston fisting the piano keys.
the last set opened with toni blackman, a hip hop poet. clearly she has been at it for more than a minute and has developed a high energy presentation that is particularly attractive to young adult audiences. next up was runagate ceo kysha brown who brought a quiet intensity to the stage with her extended metaphors and deft alliteration. her three-part love poem, close encounters was movingly rendered in both voice and pantomine. baritone-voiced, sixfoot-four wadud slinked up to the stage from the audience, sat on a stool (he was the only poet to sit and recite) and dropped two stinging social commentaries dripping with sacracsm. the program closed out with the live wire,
tony medina, who reprised his reading at nbaf. he did the same poems in the same order, and though he was very well received, i wished he had done at least one different poem, but again that's me wanting to hear something else, the majority of the audience thoroughly enjoyed hearing what they heard from tony. then kwame came out, did one poem and called all the poets up on the stage. and gave about five minutes of shout-outs and thanks. by now it's almost midnight and 360 is just about over, right?
wrong! next we had another open mike.
nadir and kysha were supposed to jointly emcee the black erotica open mike, but kysha had to opt out to participate in closing out the book sales, so nadir handled the chores as a solo. this time there were 31 people who signed up. the open mike ended at 2a.m. i heard most of the poets and my evaluation is the same as the open mike friday nite. there was one young sister who had a very, very interesting love poem set in cuba that included a beautiful line and image of being love struck like a deer caught in heartlights. i spoke to her briefly afterwards--really want to see more of her work.
when we finally finished, we of course returned to the hotel and had a light meal at the diner. after that medina, kysha and i talked until after 5a.m. and then kalamu, kysha and kwame met for a quick wrap up and close out. within the next four hours we all were out of there. i wish i could report that this was the end. but there were all kinds of reports filtering back to us about the flooding that happened in new orleans. nia had missed her thursday flight because of rain caused traffic jams. by friday there was flooding. saturday night kysha got the word that her car was flooded back in new orleans.
nia and i had separate flights back to new o. we were the last of the nine-member new orleans contingent to leave. i had a box of 360 books with me that i was carrying back to new orleans as part of my airline baggage. it's monday night and i have yet to see that box. i'm fairly certian it will be found -- but in a way, this is all a metaphor for how 360 went. 360 was a mixture of exhileration and exasperation, engery and exhaustion. a lot went wrong and a whole lot more went right. all and all it was a wonderful program which i would do again at the drop of hat but which i would never do exactly like we did it this time around. hopefully we all learned as much from the lows as we enjoyed and feasted on the highs. and the beat goes on....
wed. 16 sept. 98
P.S. we got the box of books. and we got some sleep thank you kwame alexander for coming up with the idea to do 360�-A Revolution of Black Poets!