Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sammy Davis jr. - Mister Bojangles

I've been thinking a lot about Sammy Davis Jr. lately. Every few years, I search for new things I can find that memorialize him. This song has become his quentessential piece for me. I think it represented everything he was and everything he was frightened of becoming.

There are some performers who never really seem gone. Sammy is one of them for me. I think I am a constant fan because of his work ethic and his willingness to defy others for the things he loved. He was never enough and always too much for us. Brilliant man that he was.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Loss of Sekou Sundiata

I'm sad to report that the poet Sekou Sundiata has passed away. He has had numerous health problems in the past, as chronicled by some of his work, but suffered a series of heart attacks a few days ago and slipped into death yesterday morning.

The only time I actually had the pleasure of seeing him live was last September at the Dodge Poetry Festival. I'd read Sundiata's poems and heard some of his recordings. I'd been told by everyone that his live perfomances were the only things that did his work justice. At Dodge, his reading was toned down. He read a poem about his experience in New York City post-September 11th. There was no music (though his group had performed earlier in the day) and there was no else behind him. His look was toned down as well. He just wore a shirt and sweatpants, he was clean-shaven and looked a bit tired. But he read the work with precision and used his voice to make the story tangible. The audience was riveted, and it was no small crowd to tame. Indeed, he will be missed.

Below is his obituary written by Louis Reyes Rivera:

On Wednesday, July 18, 2007, at 5:47a.m. (ET), poet Sekou Sundiata passed away. A highly esteemed performing poet, Mr. Sundiata wrote for print, performance, music and theater. Born Robert Franklin Feaster in Harlem , on August 22, 1948, Sundiata came of age as an artist during the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

While attending the City College of New York (CCNY), where he began reciting poetry publicly, Sundiata converged with several other student activists, including once-mayoral candidate of Pittsburgh and longtime friend, Leroy Hodge, to form the basis for what soon became known as the Black and Puerto Rican Student Community of City College (BPRSC). This phalanx of 400 students soon made their own history, closing the 21,000-student campus during the Spring of 1969, to demand, among other things, that CCNY be renamed Harlem University . The net effect of the student takeover culminated in both an Open Admissions Policy that took effect in September 1970, the full legitimization of ethnic studies departments throughout the nation, as well as the requirement that all education majors within the City University take courses in African American History and to have Spanish as a Second Language.

Among his acknowledged mentors at City were Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and fellow student Louis Reyes Rivera, with whom Sundiata helped to establish the first Black student newspaper in the City University , CCNY's The Paper. Their association would span close to forty years of mutual respect and admiration.

Upon completing his Bachelor's Degree (circa 1974), Sundiata enrolled and completed his Master's in Creative Writing while regularly producing community-based poetry readings that were known to draw SRO crowds. In 1976, his creative sensibilities, his innate organizing skills, and his associations with a convergent generation of excellent poets, musicians and dancers immediately led to a collaborative project he directed that would commemorate 100 years of Black struggle for freedom and Human Rights. Titled The Sounds of the Memory of Many Living People (1863-1876/ 1963-1976) , this production, which included upcoming novelist Arthur Flowers and such poets as Safiya Henderson-Holmes, BJ Ashanti, Tom Mitchelson, Louis Reyes Rivera, et al, was staged in Harlem over a period of two days, signaling much of what was to come from Sekou's sense of vision, steadily breaking ground for what was then a new literary genre, Performance Poetry, fully anticipating elements of both Hip Hop Culture and Spoken Word Art.

In 1977, the aforementioned poets, along with Zizwe Ngafua, Rashidah Ismaili, Fatisha (Hutson), Sandra Maria Esteves, Akua Lezli Hope, Mervyn Taylor, and Sekou, among others, formed the Calabash Poets Workshop, which group signaled the arrival of a new literary heat in New York, regularly producing soirees and forums (1977-1983) that included all of the arts and culminated in a three-year attempt (1979-1982) to establish an independent Black Writers Union.

Upon the release of his first vinyl album (circa 1980), Are & Be, Sekou Sundiata was dubbed by Amiri Baraka as "the State of the Art." Since then, Mr. Sundiata established a longtime relationship with CCNY's Aaron Davis Performing Arts Center , through which venue he intermittently produced new material for the stage, consistently collaborating with musicians, dancers and actors. He was eventually selected for a number of earned fellowships, including a Sundance Institute Screenwriting Fellow, a Columbia University Revson Fellow, a Master Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts ( Florida ), and as the first Writer-in-Residence at the New School University in New York , in which university's Eugene Lang College he remained a professor.

He was, as well, among those featured in the Bill Moyers' PBS series on poetry, The Language of Life, and in Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on HBO. Among several highly acclaimed performance theater works in which he served as both author and performer are: The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop, which toured nationally and received three AUDELCO Awards and a BESSIE Award; The Mystery of Love, commissioned and produced by New Voices/ New Visions at Aaron Davis Hall in New York City and the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia; and Udu, a music theater work produced by 651 ARTS in Brooklyn and presented by the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, the Walker Art Center and Penumbra Theater in Minneapolis, Flynn Center in Burlington, VT, the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Miami-Dade Community College in Florida. Throughout this period and since 1985, he developed a close association with co-collaborator and legendary trombonist Craig S. Harris.

blessing the boats, Sundiata's first solo theater piece, an exploration into his own personal battles with kidney failure, opened in November 2002 at Aaron Davis Hall, NYC. It has since been presented in more than 30 cities and continued to tour nationally. In March 2005, Sundiata produced The Gift of Life Concert, an organ donation public awareness event at the Apollo Theater that kicked off a three-week run of blessing the boats at the Apollo's SoundStage. in partnership with the Apollo Theater Foundation, the National Kidney Foundation and the New York Organ Donor Network with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Since 2006, his the 51st (dream) state has been presented throughout the U.S. and in Australia . Both blessing the boats and the 51st (dream) state were produced in collaboration with MultiArts Projects and Productions (MAPP). In addition to working within community engagement activities at Harlem Stages/Aaron Davis Hall, the University of Michigan and University Musical Society (Ann Arbor, MI), the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, NC), the University of Texas Austin (Austin, TX), in Miami Dade College (Miami, FL), and the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, Sundiata has appeared as a featured speaker and artist at the Imagining America Conference (Ann Arbor, MI), at the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston, MA), and at the Pedagogy and Theater of the Oppressed Conference (Minneapolis, MN), among others. Prior to his demise, he was engaged in producing a DVD documenting the America Project for use by universities and presenters as a model for art and civic engagement.In addition to the 1979 Are & Be album, Sundiata's other releases include a second album, The Sounds of the Memory of Many Living People, and two CDs, The Blue Oneness of Dreams, nominated for a Grammy Award, and longstoryshort. Each of these works are rich with the sounds of blues, funk, jazz and African and Afro-Caribbean percussion, with the latter two featuring Craig Harris.

He is survived by his mother, Virginia Myrtle Feaster, his wife, Maurine Knighton, daughter Myisha Gomez, stepdaughter Aida Riddle, grandson Aman, brothers William Walter Feaster and Ronald Eugene Feaster, as well as a host of relatives, admirers, students and friends.

A private funeral service of family and friends is scheduled for Saturday, July 21, and a commemorative celebration of his life and work is scheduled to take place on August 22, his birthday, at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Opera House. Details to follow. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in the name of Sekou Sundiata to the New York Organ Donor Network or to the National Kidney Foundation.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Poem of the Week

The Piercing Chill I Feel

The piercing chill I feel:
my dead wife's comb, in our bedroom,
under my heel . . .

--Taniguchi Buson,
Translated by Harold G. Henderson

This poem was written around 1760 and has been anthologized all over the place. Whenever I am trying to find good examples of haiku, I always return to it. This poem is proof that a small poem can capture as much, if not more, emotion than a terribly long one.

The imagery and word choices do most of the work here. Words like "piercing" and the last phrase "under my heel", help ground the reader in the speaker's space. Just for argument's sake, I have to acknowledge the fact that this is a translation and the words here might be more Mr. Henderson's than Buson's, as I've seen other translations that have slightly different word choices and aren't as compelling. Henderson was an avid haiku reader and translator and spent years in Japan studying the works of poets like Basho and Buson, so I'm hoping he's a reliable source. This is always the trouble with translation, the fear that 'the poetry' will be what's lost when the words are taken out of their native tongue.

"The Piercing Chill I Feel" is a death poem, but we are not forced to look at death in it's entirety, at least it doesn't seem that way. However, each dissection of a line brings us closer to the speaker's realization: his wife is gone, he is lonely and there is nothing left of her but the remnants of things he finds in their home. This is the death poem that most of us are trying to write. The fact that Buson got it right in three lines is remarkable.

Punctuation is also used superbly here. This is what I try to get across to my students when they ask if punctuation (or any grammatical tool) is necessary in poetry. I think they ask these kinds of questions because they see good poets using little to no punctuation and wonder why they can't do it too. The key words here, however, are "good poets", meaning, of course, seasoned poets who already know what they are doing. Sure Lucille Clifton can write a poem with no title, six lines with no periods or capital letters and still say anything she wants to say better than you. But she's Lucille Clifton; it took her time to get there. Buson (and Henderson, as I'm sure some of the grammatical adaptation had to be indicative of the language the poem was being translated into) made use of each aspect of language, including good syntax, to make this poem sharp. I am especially impressed with the colon in the first line, which separates that all inclusive phrase and lets the reader know that the definition of it is coming, and the ellipsis that ends the poem, which indicates that much has been said, but much more has been left unsaid.

I know that many contemporary poets are interested in short forms like haiku, tanka, even sonku, but I'm not sure which venues are showcasing them. If anyone has suggestions on where to find some good contemporary haiku, please send them along...

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Caine Prize for African Writing

My good friend, Ada Udechukwu, has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize and we are all glowing for her. They announce the prize winner in a few days and I am on pins and needles. She was nominated for her short story "Night Bus" which was published in The Atlantic Monthly's annual fiction issue last year. You can read an interview Ada gave about her life as a writer and visual artist and her story in The Atlantic here. Go, Ada, go!

Poetry Foundation Blog

If you're wondering what poet extraordinare Patricia "Shake it fast" Smith has been up to, check out the Poetry Foundation Blog. They call it Harriet :-) She posted the picture above to rub in the fact that she got to go back to Cave Canem again this year.

Other writers you get to check in with on the Poetry Foundation blog are: Rachel Zucker, Kenneth Goldsmith and Kwame Dawes, among others.

Not only can you get some insight into the lives of various writers, but you can comment on their posts. More often than not, they even take the time to write back. Cool.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

The Reasons We Need Cave Canem

Well, our little poetry project pretty much failed miserably. After the first day, no one in the group could manage to turn in or comment on poems, mostly because life got in the way. Fortunately, we all understood that without having to come out and say it. It wasn't a lost week, though. I know Aracelis has been on the road promoting her new book, John is getting ready for not one, but two trips to Provincetown, Kamilah (Aisha) is teaching and rediscovering the beauty of New York, Samantha is doing readings and writing companion books for a critically acclaimed television show and I managed to get off a few applications for some serious grants.
So, work was being done, we just couldn't manage to do the kind of work we would have done had we been at the Cave Canem summer retreat. But, in a way, I think that's as it should be.

Attending the Cave Canem summer retreat is like entering a different world. It's the only place I've ever been where I turned off my cell phone and ignored my e-mail for a week, survived on less than four hours of sleep per night and still managed to turn out a new poem every single day. I have written six new poems in the past month, and it has been a very, very good month. However, at Cave Canem, six new poems come in seven days and most of them turn out to be pretty good poems. This is part of the beauty of Cave Canem. The isolation and insulation it provides forces and allows you to do things you simply can't do at home. Last week, while we were in the midst of our CC alumni poetry challenge, I thought about writing a poem everyday. Between the forty-hour work week and all the deadlines wrapped up in it, grant applications, journal submissions, family obligations, bible study, cleaning house, friends and sleep, I just couldn't manage to find the time to write, at least not a poem a day. I wrote something everyday and did have a very productive week, mostly because I kept telling myself, "If you don't have a poem to send out today, you better have a darn good reason for it." So, John's challenge actually did help me write, just not in the way he originally proposed.

The Cave Canem retreat gives you the freedom of time and space, but it also gives you the tools you need to continue your work as a poet. It prepares you for submissions deadlines and applications. While I was completing grant applications this week, I realized that, without Cave Canem, I wouldn't have the work or the clarity of craft that I needed to even apply for most artist grants. I had the work and knew how to support it, but still didn't know how to condense it all and churn out a sharp proposal, so I had to call someone for help. Of course, it was a CC alumna. This confidence in our wok and the connections we make at Cave Canem are invaluable. This is why we need the place; it is a necessary gift.

Congrats to the 'newbies' who got their first taste of CC this year, the second years who knew how to tread the waters and the third years for completing the journey. All love to the ever-increasing fold.