Friday, October 11, 2013

Holding It Down in New Orleans

African American Shakespear (Shake) is a regional slam champion, who has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, performing a poem about the aftermath of Katrina.

Katrina is a dividing line in Shake's life as poet. He started spitting (What many spoken-word poets call performing) five years before the storm hit, has hosted events for over a decade, and when the storm came he remained, "to hold it down." As I spoke with Shake I realized that poetry in America is mostly about the people who hold it down, whether that be as hosts of series; as poetry instructors to kids in first grade or juvi hall; as semi-anonymous small mag editors; or, yes, as "famous" poets who ply their trade at university auditoriums and in week-long workshops.

A fiction writer once said to me, "When you say famous poet, I don't know what you mean." This is what sets almost all poets apart. We may chase fame, but our fame is not fame as most people understand it. Fame for a poet is having a very few people in the world nod when they hear your name and maybe remember a few lines from something you've written. Fame may also come in the publication of a book, an enterprise that sometimes runs counter to the concerns of the poetry performer, who, maybe especially in New Orleans, lives for the instant connection with other people that almost every poet I've interviewed has identified as the ultimate goal of showing up on the scene.

Fame in the form of book publication (and prizes and accolades from other poets who publish books and win prizes) offers the chance to travel and connect, through performances and book signings, with more people than you could in your hometown. To hear the crowd punctuate your speech with laughter or "ummm"s. For the spoken-word poet who spends most of his time on the scene, holding it down, meeting and relating to other poets and audience members, the imperative to hone not only the poem, but to hone the performance of the memorized poem, may militate against the isolation any poet needs to produce a full-length manuscript. And then the publishers of spoken word-style poetry are relatively few, often poets themselves on a local scene, who decide to put together an anthology of poets they know from that scene. So when a poet like Shake does publish, the reach of that publication will not be anywhere near comparable to the reach of W. W. Norton or Pitt Poetry Series or Cooper Canyon book. His fame remains the griot's.

So here's Shake on a Tuesday night, hosting an open mic in the Seventh Ward, at Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, where he's held it down for over a decade. On Who Dat Poets, a clearinghouse site for spoken-word New Orleans, the listing for True Poetry Tuesday's says the open mic starts at eight. "Doors open at 7." It's 9:15. For two hours now I've been sitting at the bar next to a man whose attempts at jokes the fifty-something owner/bartender, Paul, ignores, while he tends to his cronies, a group of African American businessmen and civic leaders who have trickled in over the last two hours. They've been sitting in the otherwise empty club, across from the bar, sampling wine from the many bottles Paul's opened for them, and talking everything from the Federal Government shutdown to a possible trade of the Atlanta Falcon's aging tight end. They converse the way an outsider might expect a group of middle-aged black men from New Orleans to talk: sharply, jokingly, in the nettled satisfaction of one another's company. Among them is a judge whom Paul, with a smile, calls "Your Honor."

They've been joined lately by two young women, who may or may not be twenty-one. They've come for the open mic, though neither of them, I learn, has come to perform. They've moved to New Orleans from Alabama and Mississippi. They simply love poetry, the way it allows them to understand what other people are thinking. They've come to identify and to be moved by the flow, which begs the river metaphor.

Sweet Lorraine's is just blocks from said river, on the border of the Seventh Ward and the Faubourg Marigny/Bywater neighborhoods, on a strip that is the city's hub of spoken word venues. For years before Katrina, the Marigny had itself been a border neighborhood populated by the working class of New Orleans and the artists, asthetes and aspirants who could not afford the Quarter and anyway wanted to avoid its constant flood of tourists. Bywater, a. k. a. the Upper Ninth Ward, was, prior to Katrina, a working-class neighborhood bordering on some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, what Shake would later describe as "the 'hood," meaning the Lower Ninth Ward and the various sweetly-named projects ("Desire," "Florida) to which it used to be home. It is now, among several neighborhoods that might pretend to the title, the hipster capital of New Orleans.

Two or three times, Paul, watching me wait, has stepped out onto St. Claude Avenue, to check for Shake, who might, he's told me, be hanging outside. As I'm about to give up, and embark on the long (and possibly hazardous) walk back through the Marigny and across the Quarter, Shake arrives, his Tone Loc-esque baritone filling the room. A chorus of "What up, Shake?"s greets him, as he slaps backs, claps shoulders and clasps hands with the assembled brethren. As Shake makes his way toward the stage, Paul superfluously informs me that there goes Shake. I leave my barstool, to introduce myself.

While the front of the club, including its storefront, is entirely non-descript, dominated by two giant flat-screen televisions, the back is a fully-equipped, even flashy, jazz club done up in blue, with a raised platform stage, and on it a shiny black drum set behind a transparent Lucite screen, flanked by a gleaming black piano, and fronted by four mic stands in a neat row across. On the ground are twenty glass-top bistro tables in two L-shaped rows filling the space in the front of the stage and then back into a semi-room invisible from the bar. On a good night, like a night of the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, the house must absolutely rock. (It strikes me that I met very few slam poets, or really any poets at all under forty during my time in the Bay Area.) It's here that Shake introduces himself and launches into an explanation of why the scene isn't what it used to be.

First, the hurricane scattered the old spoken-word guard, those who came up in the Nineties and early Aughts. In the storm's wake, in a time of gradual gentrification (read "whiteification") of many parts of the "chocolate city," open mics began popping up all over, splintering whatever coherent spoken-word scene remained. Shake calls many of the new crop, like the 2013 national champion New Orleans slam team, "collegiate." His description implies that they don't have the deep connection to the New Orleans he's never left. They may represent the city now, but they don't really know it.

Shake has promised to spit, but fifteen minutes later, when it's obvious no one else will be showing up, he suggests we step outside. "We" are seven, including two other spoken-word artists, Lost Soul and Numsko (who tells me he's sure that while I'll find lots of numbskulls out there, he'll be the one and only Numsko). There too is a musician named Mario, a diminutive young man who lives just next door; another quiet woman in her thirties, who, it turns out, is a spoken-word poet from Alexandria, Louisiana; and the two young ladies from Alabama and Mississippi, the taller of whom is a model and has begun talking with Shake about her own and his appearances in Hollywood films. (Shake appeared in the Spike Lee documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans, When the Levees Broke.)

Cars rush by on St. Claude. A man leads his young son by the hand toward Esplanade Avenue. A few others come and go on foot and on the ubiquitous bicycle. A few of the middle-aged men inside swing open the front door and walk to their cars. There's plenty of noise, but we are a circle, and Shake asks Lost Soul to kick it, which, as you can see below, we all wind up doing.

Click this link to see Shake, Numsko, and Lost Soul performing on St. Claude Avenue. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Hate the Fleur de Lis."

He spoke with the intensity of a bright, driven young man who had just lost his father a day or two before. He spoke about poetry and how poetry is a way we make ourselves who we want to be. And he spoke about the big lie: that New Orleans as we outsiders see it is an elaborate charade, perpetrated by a dominant (white) class and a subservient (black) class who have been acculturated to believe that they are less worthy of personhood than the people whose money and power depends upon their labor and creativity. The story of colonialism. An old story. At least a story many of us who non-New Orleanians would like to believe is an old story whose ending in the United States is close at hand. Kataalyst Alcindor believes otherwise.

Ehren "Kataalyst" Alcindor

Kataalyst is a twenty-six year-old poet, and in 2013 was host of the annual, traveling competition called the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, in his adopted city of New Orleans (He is originally from the cross-river factory town of Marrero, Louisiana). 

When we spoke about the Southern Fried Slam and about the New Orleans poetry scene more generally, the young poet talked about how difficult it was to put to good use the history that so many of this city live with every day in rituals and customs designed to keep the dead ever present, the Ifa' deities behind the saints forever marching in. It is a lived history, but one, as Kataalyst sees it, from which too few people draw the lessons that could help them reject the way things still are in New Orleans. The people of other Southern cities had done it, or at least tried to, but not the people of his city. New Orleans has remained locked inside the caste system in which white Krewes on Mardi Gras floats still hand strings of beads to outstretched second-line white hands, while they hurl the same beads and all manner of objects as hard as they can at the black faces in the same crowd. These Krewes (with a "K") are the brainchildren of the Klan and the descendants of those who branded runaway slaves (whose ears they also severed) with the fleur de lis, the symbol ubiquitous in the present-day Crescent City. "Hate the fleur de lis," he said. "Always hate the fleur de lis." 

When Kataalyst spoke of his people, he meant black people. When I asked him if black people were the only ones who made up genuine New Orleans, who could understand the need for mental liberation resulting from centuries of mental abuse and inculcated self-hatred and shame, he said with some hesitation that they might not be, but that, basically, he was talking about the black people, the African Americans of New Orleans. He did not, however, claim that only black poets could be legitimate New Orleans poets. His network of poets included many races, and was, at bottom, a league of the conscious.  


I believe that, even when they can't express themselves in unrehearsed language with the spontaneous insight, passion and precision that Kataalyst can, all poets or people who aspire to be poets understand the power of the simulacrum. The city, the performance, the poem, even the poet are simulacra--constructs, projections, fantasies. To recognize the simulacrum, the charade, the big lie, is the work of the poet, whose weapons are language, simulacra themselves, and the willingness to poke holes in the facade. To paraphrase Kataalyst, we have to speak something before it comes into being. I would add that speak it publicly we have to pretend that the world, the stage, the poem and we ourselves are something that we are not, but would like to be. To understand this imperative is to begin understanding what moves people toward poetry, poets toward other poets, and, may we hope, New Orleans and its people toward belief in a better simulacrum and a better reality.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Desperation on St. Charles Avenue

Another tropical storm skittered past New Orleans this weekend.

I felt its fingertips on my back as I walked down St. Charles Avenue past a plaque commemorating the erstwhile St. Charles Theater. Built in 1835, it was home to a grand opera. The first opera performed at the St. Charles was Bellini's Norma, a tale of desperation if ever there was one.

Poydras Street, looking toward the site of the St. Charles Theater, 
in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

There's a sweet desperation about New Orleans, the kind that leads lovers (all kinds of lovers) to sacrifice themselves for a lover, an ideal or an end to pain. It's the kind of desperation in which a poetic soul delights, a feeling that you are floating alone through life but will try to reach the world even if the world has not come looking for you. It's the kind of desire that pulls people to poetry, a desperate desire to express longings and hopes that could otherwise destroy them, that could fade away before brief lives conclude, and that will certainly fade away in the end. 

When Katrina hit and flooded eighty per cent of the city, the desperation that anyone with an eye and heart could see and feel in the vagrant clinging to his bottle in a doorway on Dauphine Street, or in the furious street tap of a little boy and a little girl from the other side of  Louis Armstrong Park for tourists' coins, or the tourists' hooch-fueled quest for exhilaration that could make them feel alive beyond their ordinary days, or the ecstatic, virtuosi performance of a jazz combo in an obscure bar on the far end of Bourbon Street, or the young poet's concentrated stare at her pad, on a bench in Washington Square off Esplanade--all of it came to a head in this city gone temporarily missing. 

In Hearing Sappho in New Orleans, her lyrical rumination on New Orleans poetry post-Katrina, Ruth Salvaggio proposes that 

Missing New Orleans means entering into desire. It means that we step into the long lyric call of poetry, because what goes missing is precisely what ignites the lyric voice of longing that keeps securing the bonds of our relations. The conundrum of desire is that what goes missing marks the limits of emptiness and fullness, severance and relation. We know what it means to miss New Orleans because we are creatures of longing.

I take the "we" to be all of us, anyone who has ever wanted to connect with someone else through the word, especially the word set to music as it has so often been in the Big Easy. 

Other cities coddle you. In San Francisco the warm sun soothes longing. On a recent trip there I could feel my worries, my longing, my desire to report on the emotional lives of human beings, evaporate in the gentle rays, wash away in the cool Pacific waves, be in fact pacified. The California sun can almost make you believe that you will never die. 

In New Orleans the sun drives you on, and even the remnant breezes of a merciful storm hit you with a thick sense that you've got to make some sort of noise before the heat or the river or the po' boys and pralines or the memories of pain put you under. You could be the frat boy crawling from pub to pub, the saxophonist from what used to be the Upper Ninth Ward, the jilted hipster dodging the unshaven men in dirty tee shirts and Saints caps on Canal, the family from Chicago in their Walmart-bought whites getting palms read in Jackson Squre, the hundred opposing intentions heading into the Quarter, the Creole aristocrat tossing pebbles into Bayou St. John, to count the decades gone, or the high school student riding the streetcar to the end of St. Charles, imagining something Uptown that once she discovers will make all this longing worthwhile. When you are here, you are desperate, and you find yourself inching toward desperate words. Poetry needs desperation, and desperation needs poetry. They live side by side here, as the city and its people will tell. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Boring Readings are Not Always Bad

A recent photo of me at a poetry reading got me thinking.

Many poets have told me privately that sitting through poetry readings can be tough. Dull. Boring. Inane.

I would say the same thing, but even a tedious reading experience, like the walk through a non-descript part of town, can be good for the soul.

The fact is that I was not sleeping during the reading pictured above. It was mostly a terrific reading, and I was actually concentrating--or, on occasion, during lesser moments, trying to concentrate--on what the readers were saying and how they were saying it. I was submitting to other people's thoughts in a way that, at least when they aren't shuffling papers or checking their text messages and email, audience members do at poetry readings.

How rare that is: total submission to the workings of someone else's mind, in a public setting, for an extended period of time. Contemplation in company. The suppression of one's own desire to express anything other than approval or indifference.

Boredom at readings happens for different reasons. Sometimes the poetry being performed is boring, dull, inane. More often, however, it gives us something valuable to consider, Marianne Moore's "place for the genuine," even when the poetry is crude or unsophisticated. When the former is true, boredom can move poets and others rapidly to introspection, the opposite of public participation; or it can lead poet/audience members to reflect on what to avoid in their own poetry. When the latter is true, we can drift into contemplation, and find it difficult to stay with the next poem or next poet simply because we are preoccupied. This is an eternal conflict for many people, especially for writers: how to appreciate a revelation and still remain in the moment, remain outwardly focused.

Of course, poets may be bored by readings simply because they have had to leave the orbits of their egos. They could hardly, after all, be poets without egos. At readings they are forced to listen closely to people they have not necessarily chosen to hear, particularly if the event in question includes an open mic. Listening closely, or at least trying to, is an exercise in humility, which tempers ego and leads to greater compassion.

So are we necessarily complaining about poetry readings or about certain poets when we say were bored by particular readings? Maybe. Or maybe we're just complaining about having to do our work. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sitting Down with Poets of the Bay: Episode 2

The moment I arrive, the reading is over. I've stayed too long at coffee in Alameda with my college roommate. Life is short, and the nature of the Lunch Poems series is uncertain. Still, I've driven out to Berkeley, albeit too late to hear members of the faculty and staff read. As the audience chats with the readers and begins to file out, I approach someone who appears to be in charge, and ask if he is Robert Hass, the great poet who curates the series. I should know what Hass looks like, but I do not. He is not Hass. But he is a librarian and can point me to a small man making his deliberate, downcast way to the door. He appears to be, in the words of Emanuel Carnevali, a hurried man.

Alexander Givental is a professor of mathematics. Like the other readers, he is not a poet per se. When I ask to speak with him, he eyes me suspiciously, explains, in a fairly thick Russian accent, that he is on his way to class, but could talk for a few minutes. In the meantime the librarian continues corraling readers with whom I might speak. As I'll need to do a lot, I diplomatically move from one to the other, explaining my project and enlisting their help. Givental waits patiently by the door until the handshakes and exchanges of cards are done.

When I finally return to him, Givental allows me to suggest that we re-enter the venue, Morrison Library, where he and other readers stood at a podium before a marble hearth, reading poetry to nearly a hundred people seated on comfortable couches and in leather wing chairs nicely placed around the 200' x 50' space, while students studying at gallery tables above tried to concentrate on the first-week reading. The walls here are oak, the floors, like the hearth, marble. Busts of Roman statesmen sit atop built-in bookshelves below enormous windows with views of the Berkeley Hills, huge spruce trees and campus buildings of various vintage.

We choose a comfortable couch near the hearth. I admit to Givental that I did not hear him read. He is kind, and explains that, with a collaborator, he's just done a volume of poems by the twentieth-century Russian poet Marina Tsetaeva, To You in 10 Decades. He hands me the book, and we begin to talk about why a mathematician at one of the nation's leading universities is translating poetry. It has to do with his education in Russia, with the place of poetry in people's lives there, and with his willingness to be part of poetry in America.  

Sitting Down with Poets of the Bay: Episode 1

Neeli Cherkovski is posting a picture to Facebook: the cover of the Italian translation of one of his books. Can I help? I'm distracted by the shelves and shelves of poetry lining his snug study, but I dutifully follow to his computer, bag full of recording equipment still on my shoulder. It turns out I actually know what to do. I help. But this is a small gift compared to the one Neeli will give me.

He and his fifteen year-old behemoth of a dog, Cosmo, lead me to the deck in the small yard behind Neeli's house in Bernal Heights, San Francisco's most vertiginous neighborhood. It's 11:30 in the morning on a typically sunny and comfortably warm/cool day. The house is quiet. Neeli's partner of thirty years is at work. The dog is trying to bark, but has a respiratory ailment that renders his bark more of a faint chuff. The only other sound is the breeze--The breeze must be perpetual here--rustling through the potted bamboo. 

Neeli sits on a patio chair in the corner of the deck. I switch on the voice recorder. Neeli begins talking, I fumble with the video camera, afraid, as he speaks to its lens, that I'm not actually recording him. Which is a shame, because Neeli is a trove. So I pace the deck, wanting my body language to match the genuine intensity of my interest. Every once in a while I tweak the camera, all the time listening to one insight after another.