Tag Archive: music


Arts Summit Revives SW Community

(PHOTO: Azeez Bakare) Australian artist MEGGS produced this mural that wraps around the walls and ceiling.

There are no pews in this darkened sanctuary. Atop the booming pulpit, a DJ spins a sampled sermon for the head-nodding congregation, colored in sweeping orange and yellow spotlights, the few among them kicking MF Doom lyrics the way a disciplined believer spits scripture.

The revival on the second floor is fitting for hiphop’s holy ghost to take hold of those snapping Instagram shots of Australian artist MEGG’s floor-to-ceiling mural that wraps around the room. The building, itself − at the corner of Delaware Avenue and H Street SW − is a work of art. The lava lamp patterns of red, purple, blue and green cover the exterior walls of what was once the Friendship Baptist Church, which sat vacant for two decades.

This visual overhaul is so far out that if funk-era’s Extraterrestrial Brothers showed up opening night, there’s no doubt they’d marvel at this functional canvas and swear it spawned from George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic machine of the 70s.

Now, a crowd gathers inside the new Blind Whino: SW Arts Club for the G40 2013 Art Summit (Sept. 13 – Oct. 6). This year’s theme, the “Art of transformation,” is about reclaiming spaces and objects. Which is what four “street artists” accomplished through the Heineken Mural Project, whose D.C. stop coincided with this year’s arts summit. Along with Brendan Tierney and EVER, Aniekan and Rubin transformed D.C. into a citywide art gallery that starts at the Shaw metro, continues to Capital View, through 3rd and L streets NE, concluding at H and 6th streets NE.

Since its inception in 2010, the G40’s international drawing includes more than 300 artists and 500 works showcased in a giant exhibit of canvas work, installation walls, and mural wraps. I recognize some artists from previous shows like Angry Woebots (Aaron Martin), known for his enraged panda wood prints, and Gigi Bio, who captures urban-scapes in her stitched panoramic photos.

(PHOTO/ARTWORK: Aniekan Udofia) Udofia’s “Return of the Shaolin Pencils” series was a hit at the arts summit.

Then there’s Aniekan Udofia, whose new work includes the “Return of the Shaolin Pencil” series, which features three panels of various warrior women in fierce poses. Udofia’s shift from acrylic paints to oils animates his heroines in their bright Chinese dresses − brandishing fat pencil nunchucks and retractable lead claws. I’m still thinking about my friend’s eerie discovery that one of Udofia’s illustrated women, the one donning a bamboo hat and graphite sword across her back, shares my wife Tosin’s likeness.

I’m glad “Tos” finds that flattering. I’m also glad Blind Whino, an arts nonprofit, will operate the space as an arts club following the G40. Ian Callendar, who co-founded Blind Whino with Art Whino’s Shane Pomajambo, didn’t respond to a request for comment at press time. Our objective is simple,” according to Blind Whino’s website, “to provide our youth, our elders and everyone in between with an organic, art inspired environment for both learning and creating within the arts culture.”

In an August interview with The Southwester’s Sam Marrero, Callendar explained the excitement around Blind Whino. “Blind Whino introduces the Speakeasy concept where people met to mix and mingle,” he said. “These places were destinations for art, jazz, and social gatherings.”

(PHOTO: BlindWhino) “Art Whino commissioned Atlanta based artist HENSE to produce a full building mural wrap around the entire perimeter of the venue.” (blindwhino.com)

And that’s fitting for the arts renaissance coming to D.C.’s SW quadrant, which includes the nearby Randall School building’s renovation into a modern arts museum. “With Mera Rubell’s Family Collection and Redevelopment coming to the old Randall School, this quadrant of Southwest is set to become a booming Arts District,” Callendar told The Southwester.

Of moving forward with Blind Whino, he added: “We plan to house planned town hall meetings, art groups and organizations, and even special events.”

It’s jumping at the Blind Whino this closing weekend, which included Friday night’s performances by Locke KaushalTheophilus MartinsFootwerk Band, and Beyond Modern to conclude the Rock Creek Social Club (RCSC)’s weekly F.A.M.E. (Fashion Art Music & Entertainment) event.

Resident DJ Jerome Baker III, a self-described cog in the RCSC machine, also performed. He couldn’t be happier with the social club’s success its first at the arts summit. “We were given Friday nights to create any environment we wanted thematically,” says Baker, whose organization offered free entry to anyone donating winter clothes at the Feed DC booth they set up.

Saturday, the second floor is just as energetic with the producer showcase, featuring DJs GrussleT Mos and Triple Threat. Their journey through cascading drums and bass-heavy tracks almost makes me break my neck from nodding. So much so that the host DJ JUDAH calls me out for making the screw face. I’m not an emcee, but the beats are so inspiring that I’m tempted to lose my mind like Ghostface Killah and start rhyming about calzone purses and fettuccine shoelaces.

An actual lyricist, The Goddess of Light, is also inspired − giving props to Piff Huxtable. “This man @Grussle” − Piff − “got so damn nasty on the crowd,” she tweets. “That beat was incomprehensible. I dumbed out. Crazy.”

Banafsheh Ghassemi, still elating from an exhilarating closeout, tips her hat to Blind Whino’s Ian Callendar and Shane Pomajambo for pulling off the summit. “Thanks for all you do!” she tweets. “You guys rock this town’s soul.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier) Curtis Crisler

Curtis Crisler’s unnamed speaker is a griot of sorts. His distant kin, fleeing from Jim Crow and southern domestic terrorism, joins the 5 million African Americans who decide to roll out.

But they aren’t the first to do so. Others left before them during the first Great Migration (1910 to 1930), which swept two-thirds of 1.6 million Black folks traveling alone or in small family groups toward New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Indianapolis.

The griot’s people ran with the second wave of migrants who, between 1940 and 1970, swell the Black population of those eight cities, and, like the earlier travelers, they’re determined to hold the industrial 20th century to its promises of jobs and opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest. A large number of them also surge through West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle, and Portland.

Crisler calls this movement one about “Urban Midwestern Sensibility.” The poet, author and educator captures his griot’s journey and bends that history with the 1982 hit “Mama Used to Say” as the theme song in his forthcoming chapbook Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy that Finishing Line Press will release in December. (Preorder your copy here.)

The 18-poem collection’s garnered early praise through blurbs from two rising stars on the national literary scene. “True to its title, Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy bristles with music: an album in verse of coming up hard and finding a path to light,” writes Mitchell L. H. Douglas, author of Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem. “Curtis Crisler is both poet and DJ, spinning a playlist of parental wisdom in the guise of the prose poem. These are survival songs. Tune in and be moved.”

Ross Gay, author of Bringing the Shovel Down and Against Which, is just as moved. “Curtis Crisler’s Soundtrack to Latchkey Boy is magic in the way it makes heartbreak music,” Gay writes. “With its halting syntax and precise, twisting diction, with its conjuring of these exact voices…. What I mean is that my heart is jumping around like a kangaroo on account of how beautiful this book. Like I said—heartbreaking, yes. But music, even more.”

Soundtrack’s also half of a new collection Crisler’s currently writing. His other books include a mixed-genre novel (Dreamist), a children’s book (Tough Boy Sonatas), his debut poetry collection (Pulling Scabs, a Pushcart-nominated collection), and his chapbook (Spill, which won the 2008 Keyhole Chapbook Award from Keyhole Press).

(PHOTO: Finishing Line Press)

Soundtrack, his second chapbook, resulted from a two-year process of him watching his poems mature. Prior to that, Junior’s song “Mama Used to Say” kept looping in Crisler’s head. “It was intense,” he says. “I couldn’t shake it.”

That’s when he knew Soundtrack should be a book of prose poems. “I wanted a cadence to the poems that trailed off from the song….into the things that my mother actually would say,” says Crisler, who’s currently an assistant professor of English at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). “That was the epiphany for me. So I played with it as much as I could and let the process dictate the progress of the poems…I then went back and added and subtracted various ‘layerings’ to the poems.”

The outcome? “Prose poems that address a sporadic rhythm, and gives way to the reflection of a man’s life by using Junior’s song to connect to his mother, community, and past, all while seeing himself become a man in the process, as well as getting insight to the mother’s character,” Crisler says.

The titles in the table of contents’ first two sections reads like a list of “mother-isms” (“…fat meat’s greasy,” “…a hard head makes a soft. behind,” “…don’t eat nobody’s. chittlins,” “…boy, you ain’t gone worry me,” etc.).

Each of Soundtrack‘s three sections opens  with a song line from Junior’s “Mama Used to Say”. By italicizing his mom’s sayings, Crisler weaves maternal wisdom throughout the unnamed speaker’s coming-of-age tale. Take the poem “…you won’t understand what I’m telling you now, but one day you will:

…you won’t understand what i’m telling you now, but one day you will “move mountains. stomp mole hills. righteous glory born to. you from stellar backs. steel workers, postal workers, and soldiers garnered you titles in this. united states of e pluribus unum.” booker t. and dubois ain’t helping with these bills, and you eat a hell of a lot. listen now and hear me then. you need to learn to motivate. push the pulse, inspire. either matriculate or get job. but be more than one buck.

“Curtis’ work evolves from project to project, and now readers will get to experience this poet in a very intimate way,” says Randall Horton, author of Lingua Franca of Ninth Street and Definition of Place. He and Crisler met six years ago at Cave Canem’s week-long summer poetry retreat for writers of African descent. “Curtis showed me the ropes around the campus my first year there,” he says.

Horton’s admired his friend’s work since. “I’m always excited to see what Curtis is doing next,” says the poet and editor, who worked with Willow Books to publish Crisler’s Pulling Scabs and Dreamist. Though he hasn’t read Soundtrack, Horton’s optimistic about the book and speculates it will echo. “I’m referring to a literary heritage of perhaps [Robert] Hayden or [Gwendolyn] Brooks, maybe [Sterling] Plumpp or [Lucille]  Clifton,” he says. “I expect to be left with an experience.”

(PHOTO: Etcy.com)

Junior’s song is an irony that hits Crisler close to home. While “Mama Used to Say” encouraged kids against rushing to get older, Crisler’s childhood forced him into adulthood when his single-mom took night classes to earn her high school diploma.

Latchkey kid is a term that goes back to World War II, when stay-at-home moms took up odd jobs to make ends meet while their husbands fought in the armed forces. The practice of leaving kids home alone in the daytime is now common for working parents who can’t afford childcare.

At 5 years old, Crisler was the little man of the house. “I could cook a basic breakfast,” the Gary, IN-native says. “I walked to school on my own and had a key to the house in my sock.”

And while most latchkey kids suffer from depression, low self-esteem and are easily influenced by peers, that experience made Crisler independent and self-reliant at a young age. “I had obligations…one was to be home to watch my younger sister,” he says.

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His then-basic culinary skills enabled him to fix his sister a sandwich when she was hungry. He even tucked her in and waited for his mom’s return before going to bed. “I know my mother believed in me, but I’m sure she worried until she got home as well,” Crisler recalls. “You had to contribute in a responsible way so that the family could function.” He held down the house until his aunt moved in with them.

That self-reliance and his mom made him a better husband and father. “She made sure I knew how to cook, shop, wash clothes, take care of my sisters, take care of our house, and take care of myself,” he says. “She was a bit of a handyman with certain home projects. I learned from her how to attend to family since my father wasn’t there.”

His mom, who raised three kids and her two sisters, gave him something else. “I was able to see a lot of my artistic self through her,” Crisler says, recalling that his mom modeled, acted, and did visual art.

She inspired him to write his first poem in 4th grade. “My mother would support us in anything we did, but she wanted us to show her that we were committed to our endeavors,” Crisler says. “When she saw that, she would be our biggest advocate.”

Her life also taught him that hard work earned respect. Crisler’s fellowships from Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cave Canem, Soul Mountain, and a guest residency at Hamline University are testaments to his mom’s wisdom.

His work interested Allison Joseph, poetry editor at Crab Orchard Review and director of the MFA Program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “Congrats on the new chapbook!!!” she writes on Crisler’s Facebook wall. “Looking forward to reading it.”

Joseph’s still impressed with his earlier work. “Curtis Crisler’s poems are experimental but welcoming, funky intellectual rides that invite all to share in his scintillating view of our world,” according to her blurb for Pulling Scabs. “It’s always a delight and a surprise to see where a Curtis Crisler poem goes, and there is always gut-bucket substance beneath this poet’s flash and dazzle.”

(PHOTO: William Bryant Rozier)

His hard work also earned him many awards including the Sterling Plumpp First Voices Poetry Award, an Indiana Arts Commission Grant, the Eric Hoffer Award, and a nomination for the Eliot Rosewater Award. A playwright adapted his poetry to theatrical productions in New York and Chicago, and he’s published in a variety of magazines, journals, and anthologies.

What drives Crisler once pushed William Stafford. In an interview with Chicago Review’s Peter Ellsworth, the late-poet said: “The voice I hear in my poems is my mother’s voice.” Those words ring true with the young poet. “That voice pushes me to be more than I am, or at least all that I can be,” says Crisler, who shows this in the poem “now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull”:

now mama’s words ricochet/boomerang my skull. my bones. fatherhood. i’ve stepped into some soupy resistance. mama’s words are all on the soul of my blues. blue muddiness. i can’t define.

The motherly voice assures Crisler it’s OK for Soundtrack’s poems to surprise him. “I’m still learning from them,” he says. “I believe these poems have taken me to a place I wasn’t prepared to go.” He started with two poems. “I hadn’t planned on writing them.” But those poems insisted on making their way into the world.

That’s how Soundtrack sprouted from the germ of an idea. “Man, the creative process is crazy cool,” Crisler says. “It frustrates and burns and keeps you on your toes, but when it comes through, it comes through big time, if only from this latchkey boy’s perspective.”

Blackbird Poetry Festival

(IMAGE: HoCoPoLitSo and Howard Community College)

This time of year, Poetry gets a lot of attention from the mainstream public. News organizations around the country that would otherwise snub her appearance play paparazzi, recording her whereabouts and goings-on.

Thousands of businesses and non-profits celebrate her vital place in American culture through readings and festivals, through book displays and workshops.

And for a month, she’s the life of the party. The national attention’s enough to make her think the country takes her seriously, that she’s more than a national obligation the Academy of American Poets started in 1996. The month-long festivities continue until April’s final days before the public moves on to the next celebration, before her limelight dims enough for certain publishers, booksellers and literary organizations to still recognize her.

This year, Howard Community College and HoCoPoLitSo aren’t letting Poetry go out like that. They’re announcing her presence with a bang April 26 at the 4th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival. Come celebrate at the “Poetry In Harmony” Coffee House reading by Michael Cirelli (a National Poetry Slam individual finalist, winning the finals in both San Francisco and Berkeley), Kim Addonizio (considered “one of our nation’s most provocative and edgy poets”), Naomi Ayala (poet, freelance writer, and consultant), and a performances by musical group Mother Ruckus (Sahffi and Gayle Danley). (Click the link for performer’s bios.)

There will also be readings by faculty and students from Howard Community College, where it’s all going down. Check out the workshops and watch out for the “Poetry Police,” who’re citing anyone caught without poetry on hand for National Poem in Your Pocket Day.

(IMAGE: Blackbird Festival) Clockwise form top left: Kim Addonizio, Mother Ruckus, Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli.

The day’s events are mostly free, except for the Mother Ruckus performance. (Tickets will be $15 general admission, $10 for seniors and students with ID and open to the public, others for students only. Get your tickets online by clicking here.)

The festival’s schedule is as follows:

9:30 – 10:30 Naomi Ayala speaks at Howard County School System (HCPSS) Professional Development Day Session I

10:40 – 11:40 Naomi Ayala speaks at HCPSS Prof. Dev. Day Session II

10:00  Poetry Police start to patrol HCC at campus looking for National Poem in Your Pocket Day violations

11:00 – 12:20 Kim Addonizio meets with HCC’s Creative Writing Class (closed)

11:00 – 12:20 Michael Cirelli meets with students and community (open and free)

2:30 – 4:30    Readings by: Naomi Ayala, Michael Cirelli, Kim Addonizio and regional poets, HCC students and faculty (open and free)

7:00 Doors open for “Poetry in Harmony,” a coffeehouse-styled reading

7:30 – 9:30 Readings by Michael Cirelli and Kim Addonizio, and a performance by musical group Mother Ruckus, which includes performance poet Gayle Danley and songstress Sahffi. ($15, $10 for seniors and for students with an id)

Monica Hand’s *me and Nina*

Farmington, MA: Alice James Books, 2012. 78 pages. $15.95.

(ARTWORK: Krista Franklin)

The world continues to remember Nina Simone (formerly Eunice Kathleen Waymon) as a storyteller through songs, whose body of work created a legacy of compassion, empowerment and liberation. At the time of Simone’s death on April 21, 2003, she was already among the 20th century’s most extraordinary artists.

But, to poet Monica Hand, this song griot was something else. Reading Hand’s poems, it’s clear that Nina Simone is the center around which a carousel of memories revolves in Hand’s new collection of poems me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012). And I have to agree with poet Terrance Hayes calling this book “a debut fiercely illuminated by declaration and song.”

Those declaration songs aren’t overshadowed by Nina Simone’s presence. Instead, Hand masterfully weaves Simone’s bio throughout her own. We get glimpses of Simone in the poem “X is for Xenophobia”:

like the x
in a geometry problem or hex
I don’t understand their pain
why they act like chickens in a pen
as if they felt at their nap
broken bone
why they want me alone hobo
for preaching hope
for reminding people we are Ibo
not bane
cause of soullessness they took an ax
to my happiness I want to open
the door play classical piano
now my hipbone
slips to Obeah
I am the unanswered z y x

(PHOTO: Courtesy) When Nina Simone died on April 21, 2003–according to Nina Simone’s official site ninasimone.com–she left a timeless treasure trove of musical magic spanning over four decades from her first hit, the 1959 Top 10 classic “I Loves You Porgy,” to “A Single Woman,” the title cut from her one and only 1993 Elektra album.

Hand’s speaker in “X” might be alluding to Simone’s critics unable to file her musical style. “Critics started to talk about what sort of music I was playing, and tried to find a neat slot to file it away in,” Simone wrote in her 1991 autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “It was difficult for them because I was playing popular songs in a classical style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz.

“On top of that I included spirituals and children’s song in my performances, and those sorts of songs were automatically identified with the folk movement. So, saying what sort of music I played gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there, but it also meant I was appreciated across the board – by jazz, folk, pop and blues fans as well as admirers of classical music.”

The one thing Nina Simone struggled with musically was mixing politics with popular music. “That was the musical side of it I shied away from,” according to her autobiography. “I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from people it was trying to celebrate.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

That was until “Mississippi Goddam,” Simone’s tribute to Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers and the four girls killed in the Alabama church bombing. The South banned Simone’s song and performances.

Hand’s speaker brings us from the South to New York City to see Nina Simone perform that song at the Apollo Theater in the poem “Black is Beautiful”. That night, Hand’s speaker and her friend “D” are rocking their “crushed-velvet jackets blue-jeans high heels” to see Nina Simone’s performance:

Nina is singing Mississippi Goddam. Me and D we look at each other and nod.
Nina plays the piano a long time as if she forgets we are there. But we are.
Nina goes Holy roller African all in one wave of her hands ragtime to classical
and back again. We are in her groove our seats rocking with our bodies. Our
young female bodies, big Afros and big dreams. The balcony is a smoky black
sway. The orchestra white. Someone fidgets. Another one coughs. Nina stops.
Quiet. Her voice a swift typhoon. You could hear their hearts hesitate. Stop.
Nina chuckles then returns to her song. Mississippi Goddam. It’s different now.
Bruised. Me and D we look at each other and nod.

Reading those lines, I wondered if the fidgeting orchestra members were uneasy from the song itself or that they were the only white people, it seems, in the Harlem venue. In either context, the white band members’ tension is akin to that of the white folks who were in the movie theater watching Rosewood, a movie by John Singleton that told the story of an almost unknown incident in a small Florida town.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The false testimony of a white woman accusing a “black stranger” of raping her set off a mob of angry white folks who hunted down and lynched most of the black men in town. According to rumors, the movie caused such a stir that white folks, attempting to avoid any assumed confrontation afterwards, snuck out of the theater before the movie ended.

In me and Nina, Monica Hand doesn’t shy away from confronting sensitive topics. “In these poems she sings deep songs of violated intimacy and the hard work of repair,” Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander writes of Hand’s book. Hand touches on that violated intimacy in the poem “Everything Must Change,” a poem in which Rufus, a boy from the neighborhood, invites Hand’s speaker to go see Nina Simone perform at the Blue Note.

As the poem goes, Rufus, who’s polite and respectful in front of Hand’s mother, turns out to be a jerk. Under the guise of going back to his parents’ spot to get some more money, Rufus lures Hand’s speaker into his basement bedroom. There:

he starts begging me to give him some—just a little he says. I’ve never done it before and/ I’m not scared just not really interested. I want to go. See Nina Simone. He / begs real hard. Even gets down on his knees like James Brown: Please, please,/ please. I give in. Stop his begging. It’s over. Quick. No big deal. I don’t feel a/ thing.

They never made it to the show. Part of repairing that hurt is not seeing Rufus anymore: “[…] when my mother asks what happened/ to him I just shrug my shoulders or tell her I think he’s dead. Just like, I tell the/ kids at school who ask where’s my daddy.”

In the poem “Daddy Bop”, Hand’s speaker gets herself into a mess of trouble trying to repair that hurt from her father. “Knew him like a fifth of vodka/ he tasted good with sugar and lime/–left me with the shakes/ so if you see me on the street/ acting like a bitch–/ I’m just missing my daddy,” according to Hand’s poem. “Lost all my self-respect/ in bed with some men some women/ who smelled like my daddy/ if they could love me, maybe he would too/ just understand everybody needs/ some respect he was my daddy”.

(PHOTO: Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Monica Hand is a poet and book artist currently living in Harlem, USA.

And just when things seem hopeless, Hand’s speaker turns to Nina Simone for answers through her six “dear Nina” poems and the section “Nina Looks Inside,” which sets itself apart from the rest of book with white text on black pages.

“These poems are unsentimental, bloodred, and positively true, note for note, like the singing of Nina Simone herself,” according to Elizabeth Alexander.

Poets Terrance Hayes and Tyehimba Jess also agree. “She [Monica Hand] shifts dynamically through voices and forms homemade, received and re-imagined to conjure the music (and Muses) of art and experience,” writes Hayes.

After reading me and Nina, I felt that Jess best summed up this collection. “Monica A. Hand sings us a crushed velvet requiem of Nina Simone.” Whoa! That’s the best way to put it. “She plumbs Nina’s mysterious bluesline while recounting the scars of her own overcoming,” Jess continued. “Hand joins the chorus of shouters like Patricia Smith and Wanda Coleman in this searchlight of a book, bearing her voice like a torch for all we’ve gained and lost in the heat of good song.”

I don’t think I could’ve said it any better.

Makalani Bandele’s *Hellfightin*

Detroit, MI: Willow Books, 2012. 65 pages. $14.95.

(ARTWORK: Courtesy)

There’s a lot of music in Makalani Bandele’s debut Hellfightin (Willow Books, 2012). The title’s a subtle bow to the Harlem Hellfighters (or the 369th Infantry Regiment) that fought in both world wars I and II.

As the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, according to sources, those men continued blazing the way for future Black soldiers.

In that spirit, the musicians that Bandele honors—Eric Dolphy, Herbie Hancock, and Elvin Jones, to name a few—blazed the way for younger musicians, such as Eric Lewis and DC’s Young Lions.

This 65-page collection of poems is one long jam session that took me back to those nights at DC’s HR-57 Center for the Preservation of Jazz and Blues.

Before it moved from 14th Street NW to the other side of the city, I use to pay either $8 or $10 and could sit through two sets of the Antonio Parker Quartet or bob and twist to the amazing Eric Lewis killing the keys, while appreciating every moment of it.

And I’m not even a jazz head—well, not one as serious as Bandele, whose passion for the music exuded through Hellfightin. Reading this collection was like walking down a hallway, where each poem was a door opening to a memory of every past encounter I’ve had with jazz. One door opened on a Thursday night in 2007, when Herbie Hancock just happened to be chilling inside the now-defunct Café Nema on U Street NW.

That night Mr. Hancock was there checking out his friend, Allyn Johnson, who plays keys for the awesome Young Lions band, a dynamic trio of well-traveled and humbled thirtysomething-year-old brothas. The intensity of Bandele’s hellfightin’ poems matched our anticipation that night for Mr. Hancock to play something. We all chanted, “Herbie! Herbie!” but he just waved us off.

I remembered Nema’s owner, who earlier took pictures with the jazz legend, throwing on his coat and walking through a corridor of friends who shared his excitement in Mr. Hancock blessing the spot with his presence. Then something happened. While jamming out a fast-paced numbered, Mr. Hancock moved to a bar stool closer to the band. The music got all up in him and he nearly fell off his stool twitching to every note.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

Noticing that, Allyn Johnson smiled up at his friend and mumbled something. According to accounts from people who were near both men, Johnson asked his friend, “You want some of this?” To which Mr. Hancock replied, “I don’t mind if I do.”

The crowd erupted and the owner threw off his jacket and ran back to the bar. Everyone snatched out their digital and cell phone cameras snapping at Mr. Hancock jamming with the other two Young Lions members.

Makalani Bandele matches that excitement with his poem “and the jam session extends after hours and into early morning at 63 hamilton terrace,” which–coincidentally–is about Herbie Hancock:

Herbie on piano heavy/ ebonies,         few ivories./ you can no longer see
The blues,/          but hear long              aloof chirps/ of brass.
and the jam session extends/          after hours          night shine/          trades
eights     with the shadows/ of box elder branches          playing/          in a
zephyr.

And for all of jazz’s improvisation, Bandele’s a formalist. In fact, he’s a genius, who not only successfully uses the contrapuntal (a form of poetry that’s read as either one poem or two poems in their distinct columns) to mimic jazz on the page but to also show that while the notes seem to fly wildly from horns and pianos, there’s still an order to the process.

Bandele also gives us an intimate moment with these musicians. His persona poem “introspective, eric dolphy” reads like a transcript of a treasured never-before released interview with the alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist:

(PHOTO: Makalani Bandele) Makalani Bandele

a certain mind/ leaves its footprints along land’s end          thanking sea spray,/          it charts flight/ of gulls          on staff paper, their insistent calls/          called back          in gust:     the flute’s shrill,/ the breadth of horizon.     In my fingers/ how i know     time-/          signatures swirl          loose/ boundaries of decibel.     i logged thousands/ of hours   in—
clarinet lessons./          father added a room/          to woodshed in—the wayfaring/
has made my blood and teeth clean/         but sweet          in my fingers

Makalani Bandele delves deep into America’s history of disenfranchising people of color, especially African Americans who were once considered three-fifths of a person. In Hellfightin’, Bandele sees jazz as a blueprint for correcting these past injustices (“i like my government like/ i like my improvisation: mellifluous,/ full of organic changes/ progressions”):

to right the constitution,
then rewrite it, extempore.     give it
arms, legs, hands, feet, teeth, a mouth—shake
your psyche to it—we making us
a whole black man  (from “jazz in the key of democracy”)

This poetic and musical journey through history speaks to Bandele’s craft as a poet and musician. In his past life, he was an ordained minister who pastored a church in North Carolina. Now, he’s moved his church to the page.

If you read this book, don’t be surprise if you hear Joe Nanton and Johnny Hodges playing as Ivie Anderson sings, “It don’t mean a thing, if ain’t got that swing.” Just know that Hellfightin is definitely swinging.

(PHOTO: Nancy Bratton Design)

I don’t know about the other attendees, but I’m still swooning from Jan Beatty’s reading at Split This Rock 2010.

That year marked the second time for the biennial literary festival that Sarah Browning started as a way of providing a “permanent home for progressive poets.”

Since it started in 2008, Split This Rock has attracted high-profile participants such as Sonia Sanchez, Lucille Clifton, Dennis Brutus, Mark Doty, Carolyn Forche, and Sharon Olds. The inaugural festival even got Washington Post reporter David Montgomery to pay attention.

“The poets are in town. Dozens — no, hundreds. Hundreds of poets. Can you imagine?” Montgomery wrote in his article Averse To War: “They are everywhere.

“In long, disheveled columns, they are prowling Langston Hughes’s old neighborhood around U Street NW. They are eating catfish at Busboys and Poets (where else?) and quoting Hughes, Shelley and Whitman back and forth — ‘Through me many long dumb voices’ — over the hummus and merlot.

“They are signing fans’ battered paperbacks and shiny new ones bought on credit (autographs!). They are squinting from the stage into the cathedral depths of a filled high school auditorium, amazed at the turnout. They are sharing with preschoolers the miracle of closely observed turtles and infinity in a drop of water.”

(PHOTO: Jill Brazel Photography) The late-poet Dennis Brutus reading at the inaugural festival.

The poets at the 2010 festival–which included Chris Abani, Cornelius Eady, and Martin Espada–came at time when the U.S. was in two wars, dealing with struggling economic recovery, and a host of other social and environmental ills. Despite those issues, the artists are still optimistic.

And Sarah Browning’s shining the bat signal again this year for all “poets, writers, artists, activists, dreamers and all concerned world citizens” to meet in DC March 22-25 and demand social justice, “imagine a way forward and celebrate the many ways that poetry can act as an agent for social change,”  according to Split This Rock’s website.

Among those poets and dreamers at the 2010 conference was Jan Beatty, who gave a hell of a reading from her third collection Red Sugar. I didn’t see her coming like a southpaw’s punches. Other poets who brought down the house included Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, and Toni Asante Lightfoot.

They’ll join for four days of readings, open mics, Poetry in the Streets, and a book fair. The theme for this year’s conference is “Poetry by and for the 99%!”–a shout out to the nationwide occupiers protesting from their tent towns.

“As people’s movements ignite here at home and throughout the world in response to economic inequality, political repression, and environmental degradation, the festival will consider the relationship of poets and poetry to power and to the challenges to power,” according to the web site.

(PHOTO: Lynda Koolish) June Jordan

This year’s festival, marking the 10th anniversary of June Jordan‘s death, will honor the life and work of the late-poet, essayist, teacher and activist.

For more information or to register now, go to http://www.splitthisrock.org.

Shameless Plug

Order your copies today!

Drift (Willow Books, 2012) is now available. Order it from Small Press Distribution or get it directly from me:

Praise for Drift:

“Tender and tough, the poems in Alan King’s wonderful debut book of poems, Drift, reveal the cities of memory, love and friendship with the precise and caring eye of a poet deeply invested in the lives of those around him.” –Ching-in Chen, author of The Heart’s Traffic

“Alan King’s first collection is aptly named. The pictorial poems he posits drift between two worlds: the angst-ridden coming-of-age confessionals of the prescient observer and the ironist picking apart each airborne particle of memory’s introspective infernal excavation. The metaphors and imagery herein
startle while what they reveal lingers like the strands of a song that won’t let you go.”—Tony Medina, author of My Old Man Was Always On The Lamb and Broke On Ice

“In this collection Alan King’s words sparkle like the season’s first snow, here we marvel at the  crystals of language that have accumulated into stanzas that wall the city of his imagination. Like the brick and mortar metropolis in which his work is set, this city is oriented to the Cardinal points. Here Love brightens the night sky and a young man learns to navigate by its gleam. Here the neon glow of the Diner, the flicker of the street light, the white finger of the headlight is Polaris. Let us be thankful we have this star to follow.”Joel Dias-Porter (aka DJ Renegade), author of 4000 Shades of Blue and Libation Song (CD)

Alan King is a poet and journalist, living in the DC metropolitan area. He writes about art and domestic issues on his blog at http://alanwking.wordpress.com. In addition to teaching creative writing throughout the DC/Baltimore region, he’s a part-time poetry instructor at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and the senior program director at the DC Creative Writing Workshop at Charles Hart Middle School in DC’s Congress Heights neighborhood. King’s poems have appeared in Alehouse, Audience, Boxcar Poetry Review, Indiana Review, MiPoesias and RATTLE, among others. He is a Cave Canem fellow, VONA Alum, a Stonecoast MFA canditate, and a two-time Best of the Net nominee. He’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Drift is his first collection of poems.

What’s Going On

It’s been years since I’ve heard
your voice, since we last saw
each other on a night like this:
stars hemmed to the sky

like glittery sequins on a dark
formfitting dress. Even then, I wanted
to be so many things: the cursive
script of light in your long wavy hair,

the iridescent glow glazing your
olive skin. And weren’t we so determined
to keep our friendship we disregarded
the possibilities?

Driving through your old area,
each street takes me back to
that night outside the record shop–
you in the Soul Train line and me

wanting to be the imaginary hool-a-
hoop your hips were working. All I have
now is a missed call and your message.
I don’t know what to call this current

tugging us both after so long
when I’m minutes from calling you
before a friend breaks the news
of your engagement.

Order your copy of DRIFT:


(PHOTO: Jati Lindsay) Carolyn Malachi's 2008 debut project, 'Revenge of the Smart Chicks,' is a rally call to empower women in the arts.

Five minutes before her set, Carolyn Malachi was at a corner booth near the stage, pulling up poems and song lyrics on her tablet.

Behind her were two open booths. The empty chairs last night outnumbered the audience in the Langston Room at the 14th and V streets Busboys and Poets.

The empty seats were noticeable enough to unsettle Busboys poet-in-residence Derrick Weston Brown.

“This is embarrassing,” he told me. He put the word out through Facebook and his email list. Still the crowd was small. “Is it because of the three-day weekend,” he wondered aloud. To which I said, “It’s possible.”

But the turnout didn’t faze Carolyn. She’d performed for fewer people back in 2005, when she was building her reputation as a singer.  That’s before she made her rounds at various open mics throughout DC and Baltimore, before her songs made it on the radio, before the buzz and Grammy nomination. So no, she wasn’t bothered by the turnout Sunday night, even if the crowd appeared to be there for just dinner and drinks.

Before her performance that Sunday night, I was the only person who signed the open mic list. The low murmurs of conversations continued despite the poet-in-residence kicking off the night with his poem “The Mic Is Now Open,” which has been customary since Derrick started the Nine on the Ninth event six years ago.

“Attention! Attention! The mic is, and ever shall be, open,” he concluded. “Check 1. Check 2. Next up to the mic”—he pointed throughout the audience—“is you, and you, and you, and you.”

(PHOTO: washingtondcjazznetwork.ning.com) Her second album 'Revenge of the Smart Chick II: Ambitious Gods' earned her honors and accolades.

The talking stopped abruptly when Carolyn Malachi took the stage and pulled the red shawl from over her low-cut fade.

Whatever the crowd expected, I’m sure it wasn’t a six-foot woman wearing baggy African-print pants and a dark form-fitting blazer. She also had a feather taped to each side of her face.

Noticing the puzzled looks, Carolyn said, “I wear the feathers because I want everyone to remember vision takes flight.” The crowd nodded “ah-haa.” And in that moment, the 27-year-old songstress, musician, dancer and spoken word artist went—in the audience’s mind—from an oddity to an eclectic entertainer worth listening to.

I’ve seen Carolyn perform before. She’s usually with three or five other musicians bringing the house down. But that Sunday night, she was solo.

Her set last night reminded me a lot of Lauren Hill Unplugged, where the former Fugees artist stripped away the big budget production sounds and, instead, made it about her guitar and raw feelings.

For 20 minutes, Carolyn gave the audience a raw glimpse at some unsettled things in her life. “Is it hard to love?” she asked the crowd. “Shout it out.”

One guy said it wasn’t and quoted Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: 27”: “‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ Than never to have loved at all.” A woman countered by saying, “You might not get the love back.”

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi) Malachi founded the Smart Chicks, Inc. organization and its ever-growing, Smart Chicks Network brand, to develop visibility and leadership opportunities for women in the arts.

There was a time I might’ve agreed with that woman, when each relationship at the time was a one-sided scale. In each case, I had more invested than the other person. Those times, it was important for me to surround myself with positive people. I thank Derrick, the poet-in-residence, who I’ve known for a decade, and my boy Fred. Both guys kept me optimistic during those turbulent times.

Going back to what the woman said that Sunday night, I recalled a quote from Sharon Salzberg, a spiritual teacher, author and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

“If we go into a darkened room and turn on the light, it doesn’t matter if the room has been dark for a day, a week, or ten thousand years—we turn on the light and it is illuminated,” Salzberg once put it. “Once we control our capacity for love and happiness, the light has been turned on.”

My light has stayed on since I met my fiancée two years ago. Now, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I wanted to tell that woman who said it was hard to love to turn on her light.

(PHOTO: Courtesy of Carolyn Malachi)

It was obvious Carolyn Malachi kept hers on, even as she reminisced about past loves. Her performance was as much therapeutic for the woman and others in the crowd as it was for Carolyn herself. So much so that we all cracked up when the artist said, “Remember, what’s said here stays here.”

Carolyn’s been compared to avant-garde artists such as Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae for the otherworldly vibe of her music. Her Grammy-nominated song “Orion,” off her EP Lions, Fires and Squares, is a love story between an astronaut and mermaid.

She sang it capella:

Hey, Space Cowboy. I want you in my interplanetary good vibe zoneDon’t be coy, Space Cowboy. I’m a dish you’ll enjoy. At least I will be when I get rid of these scales. I’m all fins and tails. You’re all stars and fly and just like you I like to stick to what I know, dear. Lately this water’s been jail. I feel the need to get me some sky and, just like you, I could use some variety.

The highlight of Carolyn’s performance was her “capacity for love and happiness” despite her romantic setbacks. She laughed about past loves, not bitterly but remembering the good times.

She read an epistolary to a lover, a letter she said she sent him and didn’t get a response. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn read, “In the afterglow/ of yes and no, I bask/ beautifully.” The women nodded while they snapped. “Dear Sir,” Carolyn continued, “You are fresher/ than Adam’s first breath.” To which the crowd yelled “What?!” and “Go on, girl!”

Carolyn smiled and cleverly spun her past lover’s rejection. “I know, right?” she said, responding to the outburst. “Fellas, what would you say if a woman came at you like that?” Silence. Then Carolyn, still smiling, said: “That’s what I thought.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,070 other followers