"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, February 13, 2006
Art for Life: My Story, My Song
By Kalamu ya Salaam

Six. The Reconstruction Of A Poet

There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine, new feelings to get at. And always there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.--John William Coltrane

In 1985 I wrote a haiku which perfectly expresses the turbulence and searching that engulfed my life at that time. I had left Ahidiana, left the Collegian and was shortly to leave the Jazz & Heritage Foundation. Most emotionally wounding to me, I had also left my marriage.

haiku #7

summer rain showers

fall; in renegade silence

i strip search my soul

The breakup of my marriage deeply hurt me precisely because my "ideology" couldn't save it, nor could my deep "respect" for women and commitment to anti-sexist struggle. The breakup forced me to come to grips with understanding why women occupy such an important role in my life and why I often write in the feminine voice.

The answer begins back at the beginning. For example, the blues woman I met during the voter registration does not exist. She is not an individual. She is a composite, a composite not simply of the women I met doing voter registration work on the weekends, but also a composite of my perceptions of those women. But why is she so important?

She is important because Theresa Copelin, my grandmother on my mother's side, was important to me. Theresa Copelin reared me up until the time I went to school and Theresa Copelin also released me from the tyranny of organized religion. She was the minister's wife, essentially the queen mother of the church. The most socially revered female I personally knew. My grandmother whipped my butt when I did wrong. When I left the church rather than whipping me with words or making me feel bad, she gave me a lesson in compassion.

I had been groomed to be a preacher in the tradition of my grandfathers. While still in grammar school I was reading verse and making statements from the pulpit. I quit going to church in high school. At the time it did not seem like a big deal to me, but, for my mother and my grandparents it was the end of a dream.

In the customary metaphorical directness common to pre-sixties southerners, my grandmother acknowledged my decision not to take up the call of preaching. One Sunday after church, we were all climbing into my grandfather's car and my grandmother told a joke. She said there had been this young man who had been coming to church regularly. The young man had declared he wanted to preach because God had called him to do so. Shortly afterwards he announced that he was going into the seminary to become a preacher. Well, the church didn't hear from him for awhile and then one day he came back. Everybody was glad to see him. They asked had he become ordained yet. He said no. They asked what happened, hadn't God called him? One of the deacons said, when God calls, it's best that you answer. I did answer, the young man replied. Well, then what happened? Well, said the young man, when I got there, God told me never mind.

All through my life there were strong women, caring for and teaching me, and every step of the way they supported me even when they didn't necessarily agree with me. That woman was also my mother who was the only teacher in her school to go out on strike, and then after the strike was over, she returned without bitterness to work with and, yes, befriend her fellow teachers. My mother was that blues woman when she gave me this most remembered advice which sustained me in the awful decade of the eighties: "Do whatever you think is right, but always be prepared -- no matter what anybody else may say or do -- always be prepared to go it alone."

That woman was certainly also Mrs. Nelson, my English teacher who introduced Langston Hughes to me, and Mrs. Green my civic teacher who actually taught Black history.

So then, this is why women speak in my work. They not only created a major part of me, they also created the emotional space for me to be myself. How could their voices not be sounded by me?

Why then has my later work championed gay rights and spoke forcefully against homophobia and heterosexism? Did I have homosexual experiences which I've never revealed in print?

Of course. But these experiences were not sexual in nature. They were instead bonds of comradeship and friendship. Remember when I spoke of Hoyt Fuller. I remember writing a long essay on homosexuality in the Black Arts Movement of the seventies. I sent the essay to Hoyt Fuller at Black World. He commented that it was an interesting analysis from a heterosexual position. But he did not publish it. When Hoyt died I spoke at his funeral and wrote a praise poem for him. My biggest disappointment is that I had not created space enough for us to safely discuss Black gay realities and experiences. I vowed to work to create such a space for serious discussion and respect of the "other" in our community howsoever the "other" is defined.

Again, my life is also inseparable from my New Orleans acculturation where I would see "gay" men who affirmed their identify simply by refusing to hide or disguise themselves as straight men. They moved about, especially in the entertainment world, as though there was nothing in the least bit unusual about themselves and that was liberating for both them and, ultimately, even more so, for us who witnessed and came into contact with them.

For example, there was Bobby Marchan, a singer who had worked with Huey Smith and the Clowns. Bobby was also a well known emcee of rhythm and blues shows. He would do a standup routine which flaunted his homosexuality and he especially enjoyed taking on macho hecklers.

Then the contact became more than a socially observed phenomenon, it also became an integral part of our liberation struggle. While at SUNO, one of the people who made sure that our newsletter, The Black Liberation Express, came out on time without fail was gay. I could never deny that brother's commitment nor his competence. Later, after some of the BLKARTSOUTH members joined the Black Muslims, there was a gossip campaign about one of our major members. Did I know he was a faggot? Did they know that that didn't matter?

I realized through those and numerous other experiences that confronting homophobia required courage on the part of homosexuals who also wanted to participate in the liberation struggle, the Black Arts Movement, or wanted rather simply to be able to walk hand in hand down the street without being "stoned".

One day, coming out of the New Orleans Jazz & Hertiage Foundation's office, there was a gay man at the bus stop and a woman who looked at him hard, seemingly with daggers in her eyes. He literally switched across the street. I turned to one of my coworkers, "people laugh at men like that but they have no idea of what his struggles were and how much courage it takes for him to openly be the way he is."

The verse play "Malcolm, My Son" was born that day, an expression not only of solidarity with the "other" but also an appeal to the rest of us. There are many other examples.

Some of what has made me what I am I will be able to remember only with great difficulty -- the difficulty of keeping the mirror clean. If I am a true poet, eventually it will all be revealed, or, at least, as much of my history as I can (under)stand to uncover.

Social conventions are clothes on our psyche. The poet must be a worshiper of nudity, and, therefore, precisely in opposition to the merchandisers and social bureaucrats (e.g. government officials, business administrators, religious leaders) of the status quo whose essential tasks are to sell uniforms and to enforce dress codes.

To be a poet is to be at odds with the present if only because every dominant status quo has something to hide, something that needs to be revealed. I wrote a poem whose whole focus is on the question of what role for poetry.

The poem is structured into call and response. In introducing the poem I would reference "viva la revolucion!" and ask the audience to respond with a strong "Viva" every time I said the word "poetry." I would tell them, however, only shout viva if you agree with what I say.

The poem was actually inspired by an English/Spanish bilingual reading I did with Cuban poet Pedro Sarduy in New Orleans. He had written "The Poet," a poem about being a poet which he recited in Spanish. I recited the English translations after each stanza. I was impressed by what he had written and decided to do a similar kind of poem, hence, the "viva" response which, by the way, does not appear in the text of the poem.


Poetry is not an answer

Poetry is a calling

a vision that does not vanish

just because nothing

concrete comes along, or

because the kingdom of heaven

is under some tyrant's foot

Poetry is not a right

Poetry is a demand

to be left alone

or joined together or whatever

we need to live

Poetry is not an ideology

poets choose life

over ideas, love people

more than theories, and really would

prefer a kiss to a lecture


Poetry is not a government

Poetry is a revolution

guerrillas -- si!

politicians -- no!

Poetry is always hungry

for all that is


poetry never stops drinking

not even after the last drop, if we

run out of wine poets will

figure a way to ferment rain

Poetry wears taboos

like perfume with a red shirt

and a feather in the cap,

sandals or bare feet, and

sleeps nude with the door unlocked

Poetry cuts up propriety into campfire logs and sits

around proclaiming life's glories far into

each starry night, poetry burns prudence

like it was a stick of aromatic incense or

the even more fragrant odor of the heretic

aflame at the stake, eternally unwilling

to swear allegiance

to foul breathed censors

with torches in their hands

Poetry smells like a fart

in every single court of law and smells

like fresh mountain air

in every dank jail cell

Poetry is unreliable

Poetry will always jump the fence

just when you think poets are behind you

hey show up somewhere off the beaten path

absent without leave, beckoning for you

to take your boots off and listen to the birds

Poetry is myopic and refuses to wear glasses

never sees no trespassing signs and always

prefers to be up touching close to everything

skin to skin, skin to sky, skin to light

poetry loves skin, loathes coverings

Poetry is not mature

it will act like a child

to the point of social embarrassment

if you try to pin poetry down

it will throw a fit

yet it can sit quietly for hours

playing with a flower

Poetry has no manners

it will undress in public everyday of the week

go shamelessly naked at high noon on holidays

and play with itself, smiling

Poetry is not just sexual

not just monosexual

nor just homosexual

nor just heterosexual

nor bisexual

or asexual

poetry is erotic and is willing

any way you want to try it


Poetry has no god

there is no church of poetry

no ministers and certainly no priests

no catechisms nor sacred texts

and no devils either

or sin, for that matter, original

synthetic, cloned or otherwise, no sin


In the beginning was the word

and from then until the end

let there always be

posted by R J Noriega at 9:56 AM | Permalink |


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