Depending how one might see it, the 20th century could be something most folks around the world wouldn’t mind watching go up in smoke. For starters, there were two World Wars, Nazi death camps, the Great Depression and Vietnam.
In the great ol’ U-S-of-A alone, we had the Trail of Tears, Jim Crow, Klansmen and lynching. And if those weren’t enough, the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy also dot that century’s timeline of atrocities.
This limited-run collection is a chapbook, meaning it’ll have nearly 40 pages and either be saddle stitched or stapled along the folded spine. It’s the oldest form of publishing that goes back for centuries. It’s an affordable way that helped writers get their work out.
These publications range from inexpensive productions to handmade editions that sell for hundreds of dollars. The inexpensive productions (between $5 and $10) helped Mercer get out his earlier work. (Read his poem “THE BEG.”) And this time around, he enlisted the help of a friend to run off a limited batch from her copier.
Poet Randall Horton, a professor and publisher, can’t wait for his copy. “I have been waiting to read something from Ernesto for a minute now,” he said. Horton’s among the writers interviewed for this story, who haven’t read Gunpowder + A Match. All each writer has to go on is Mercer’s earlier work they either heard at readings or read in literary journals and anthologies.
Horton first read Mercer’s work as an editor for the literary journal Tidal Basin Review. “I have been a big fan since,” he said of the work he published, noting that Mercer’s right on time with Gunpowder + A Match.
What Horton found engaging about Mercer’s work was that it stimulated on multiple levels.
“If you are a fan of Adrian Castro”—the Afro-Latino poet, performer and interdisciplinary artist—“then you are going to love what Ernesto does on the page,” Horton said. “Ernesto is coming from many traditions.”
Among them is Mercer’s practice as a priest in the Cuban tradition of Palo, a religion developed by Central African slaves brought to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Santo Domingo. Those slaves, mostly of Bantu lineage, created a belief system that respected ancestral spirits and nature’s powers.
Those slaves and their belief system also inspired Mercer’s title Gunpowder + A Match. According to the religious practice, the soil, sticks, bones and other “natural objects” are believed to have spiritual powers. During the main ceremony, according to various sources, a priest places those items inside a sacred vessel.
And only the spirits of the dead, which dwell in those vessels, or Nganga, guide all religious activities performed with the Nganga.
In Spanish, the tradition’s known as “La Reglas Bantu” (“The Bantu Rule” in English). Among its several branches are the Mayombe (the oldest) and Brillumba. Mercer’s a Mayombe priest with rights in Brillumba. As a Mayombero, with 23 years in the religions, he’s the priest of Nsasi—the god of lightning, fire and explosions among other things.
Where the title Gunpowder + A Match fits into all of this is the intense healing ceremony that requires Mercer using gunpowder to draw intricate patterns on the ground. “These designs are usually only seen by initiates and those who seek the healing of Mayombe,” he told me in a recent interview.
Due out in September, what Mercer called “a nice-sized plate of poems” will be available to everyone, not just initiates. It’ll be available for those seeking a healing from their 20th century wounds that, for many, resulted from the rise of illegal drug trades both globally and in America’s urban neighborhoods.
The remnants of that 20th century era, for many, are the loved ones still strung out on or that died from crack and heroin. Mercer raises the issue in “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” a poem from Gunpowder + A Match, in which the speaker is a ninth grader digging on M, an older sister of a former classmate.
“Every dude/ loved M + she/ knew it,” Mercer’s speaker says in “e-FLAT BOOGIE.” M’s a ‘hood honey who uses what she’s got, and takes advantage of the speaker’s feelings by telling, instead of asking, him “to walk her to/ the store.” To which the speaker’s accommodating.
On their way, Mercer’s speaker is confronted by some unsavory elements of the drug game, in which the speaker likens the dealers to pimps: “& even with/ Star Crystal &/ Mary Jane/”–cocaine, crystal meth and reefer (or weed)–”working right/ across the street/ the guys still/ hated me anyway/ walking with M.” And fortunately for the speaker, the hate didn’t go beyond the dealers’ angry stares.
Gunpowder + A Match will also be available for those curious about Mercer’s whereabouts for the last decade. It was the poet’s attempt to heal himself while he figured some things out about love, lust, loss, anger and fear. “I hope readers follow me through a few obsessions, ruminations and preoccupations,” Mercer said. “I hope they are willing to wander with me through the vagaries of my voice and voices.”
That journey resulted from the poet almost losing his voice around 1999. At that time, Mercer stopped publishing consistently after completing his third fellowship with the Cave Canem summer retreat for writers of African descent. He published poems here and there in literary journals and anthologies until his responsibilities took over.
At the time, his hands were full, working as a welfare case manager in DC. Additionally, Mercer was seven years into a 14-year apprenticeship to be a Mayombe priest, learning Creole while studying plants and herbs, along with chanting, dancing, divination and more from his priest-teachers.
Even still, he thought about poetry a lot and where he was going with his. “I discovered that I could not write the way I heard the poems in my head,” he said. The job and his apprenticeship (which had him bouncing between DC, the Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the weekends) made that difficult.
That’s when Mercer knew he’d have to do something about the outside demands sapping his creativity. “Over that time,” he said, “I’d write for myself and challenge myself.”
And given that the playwright, poet and essayist Jay Wright and the African Diaspora influenced Mercer’s older poems, Sharan Strange got excited at the news of Gunpowder + A Match. “The title of the collection is provocative,” said the senior lecturer in Spelman College’s English department.
Strange can’t wait to read Mercer’s new collection. “I’m expecting that he wants to provoke, perhaps even explode the usual responses to his work, or address some smoldering issues in this contemporary sociocultural moment.” She added, “I hope the community will be open to the work, engage it, and talk back.”
Challenging himself, Ernesto Mercer reemerged in the arts scene with three performances at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art that included a libretto for Ayo Ngozi’s “Fela 70” and two productions with his long-time collaborator and partner Tosha Grantham in “The River Never Rests/Man Unda Wata” and “Nnandi and the Hunter’s Shirt.”
And just when it seemed he got his rhythm back, Mercer almost lost it again around 2009. He’d sent some poems to an interested publisher, thinking his work would reach a larger audience.
Instead, they sat on a shelf, collecting dust. “Sometimes it seems that folks like or want my work, and then don’t know what to do with it,” Mercer said. Of that time, he added, “I don’t hear or know what happens to my work sometimes.”
It didn’t take Mercer long, however, to hear something after regaining his work from the publisher and sharing them at readings. “I kept getting asked by audience members and fellow poets: ‘Where can I get these poems?’” he said. And with that enthusiasm, the poet knew what he had to do.
Since the announcement posted two weeks ago on various blogs, it created an ongoing buzz among writers. “As with any poet who has shown skillful and harmonious eclecticism…I am certainly paying attention to how and where Mercer guides me in his collection,” said Ashaki M. Jackson, a social psychologist and poet residing in Southern California.
“As a writer who is generally impatient in life, I’d also enjoy seeing what a meditative writer has to offer through his exploration of self in the world, in others, in spirit, in love, and in other spaces.”
Jackson noted that Gunpowder + A Match will be part of a recent wave of fresh writing from poets of color. It’s the result of organizations such as Cave Canem, Kundiman, VONA and Callaloo—literary institutions of color using their skills and resources to help marginalized writers.
Mercer’s new collection is also, for Jackson, “an important part of what should be an increasingly consistent stream of publications from these writing communities.”
The social psychologist and poet hoped Gunpowder + A Match will be a strand woven into both the national and international literary fabric. Mercer’s voice, according to Jackson, “is one that resonates at the street-level and the God-level.”
Derrick Weston Brown, who recently read with Mercer at Busboys and Poets’ Sunday Kind of Love reading series, agreed. “His poems are unlike anyone else’s, and that’s the good thing,” said the educator and poet-in-residence at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets. “His voice and his subject matter are distinct. They come from an older D.C.”
And while that era’s fondly remembered by lifelong residents for the abundance of black-owned businesses and tighter communities, it also had its negative elements. Going back to “e-FLAT BOOGIE,” Mercer’s poem is a portrait of a DC, where prostitution once defined 12th and 14th streets NW: “too many girls/ on 14th St so/ 12th & Que/ got to be the Ho/ Stroll extended,” according to Mercer’s speaker.
And though M, the ’round-the-way honey, was known for “cussing/ out bamas for/ 4 hot blocks,” she’s still a lady. So much so that the speaker places her above those on the stroll. For him, M wasn’t just an object of attraction, but a mentor.
The way he’s treated by M informs how he treats her baby sister S, who he knows was “crushing on” him. ”I could tell M/ liked the way I/ was carrying it,” according to Mercer’s speaker, “just let her hang/ a thing I’d picked/ up from M herself/ how she’d say/ to walk her to/ the store…”
While walking to the store, M asks the speaker about his new school. The speaker tells her he’s “thinking/ about getting/ a Mohawk &/ joining this band.” Mercer gives the reader another glimpse of the negative elements from the “older DC” when they hit Logan Circle: “we/ could see bumper to/ bumper on the/ inner & outer lanes/…all slow riding/ to check the girls.”
That’s the D.C. poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown learned about after moving there in 2001 for grad school. That year, the Charlotte, North Carolina-native stumbled upon the tail-end of Mercer’s Afroche reading series and workshop at the now-defunct Kaffa House, once in the 1200 block of U Street NW.
After hearing about Mercer for the first time, Brown unsuccessfully tried to hunt down a copy of The Black Rooster Social Inn, an anthology that included poems from Mercer, Brandon Johnson, Joel Dias-Porter (DJ Renegade), Renée Stout and Gary Copeland Lilley—all of whom made up the “Black Rooster Collective.”
Brian Gilmore’s also from the “older DC.” The poet and public interest lawyer noted that Mercer’s been M.I.A. for a while, and hoped that Gunshot + A Match will change that.
“Hopefully, this will mean he will be out and about with the poets somewhere for a minute,” said Gilmore, who’s known Mercer since the late 80s. “It is always a big deal when Ernesto puts out work or performs,” Gilmore said of that time.
Of Mercer’s new chapbook, the poet and public interest lawyer said, “I am just anxious to read the work and experience it as always.” Gilmore added, “He is going to take you somewhere and it is not where you think you are going either.”
And Ernesto Mercer’s aware of how that might affect some readers. “There’s a lot that folks won’t like in here,” he said. “But I’ll let some of that be a surprise. There’s enough stuff in the poems to get me shanked.”
Though Mercer’s from another time, the poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown said, “His spirit is young, and so the poems have vitality and urgency.”
Brown noted that both qualities were essential to preserving the history of a city whose demographic is rapidly changing. “His poems make the reader remember as well as be mindful of the community that exists and is ignored at the same time,” Brown said.
Gunpowder + A Match will make up for what Brown couldn’t hunt down his first year in D.C. “I get a second chance to hold a physical collection of Ernesto’s newest work,” he said.
Those interested in snatching up Mercer’s new collection can pre-order their copies from PayPal (read Ernesto’s 4 easy steps to pre-ordering GUNPOWDER + A MATCH), or from Mercer himself (either in-person or through his Facebook page). “When they’re all gone, they’re all gone,” Mercer said, noting that neither he nor his partner is trying to be a publisher.
“No reprints and no reruns. This is it and out,” said the man who’s currently busy preparing with a band for an evening performance in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s exhibit “Artists in Dialogue 2: Sandile Zulu and Henrique Oliveira.”
The performance, “Match + Wood,” takes place Oct. 22. “I’m back,” Mercer said, ready to travel the country with his Mojo-swagger.
“I’ll ride the Chinatown buses up and down the Coast, read at open mics—featured or not, known or unknown—and, as I did when I was younger, have my chapbooks in my bag.” Oh, he’s back, alright. And, according to Mercer, “That word is bond.”