The new year starts with defiant slogans, poems and anxiety and the sore winners telling everyone to get over it-like get over slavery; get over rape; get over racism; get over violations large and small. Get over it. Thus words of resistance and feelings of anguish. So I think this is a good time for the blues. Gutbucket or glamrous–old school or new. We need to have a feeling place, something our voices can stroke. An American invention that despite going in and out of favorite keeps bringing us some of what we need and now we need a lot. I think Laurie Carlos knew and understood how to re-shape the blues for modern times. Take Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday on up to Koko Taylor sprinkle with La Lupe and Celia Cruz (ah salsa) and she wasn’t a musician. She was a consummate actress and director. Her work with Robbie MacCauley and Jessica Hagedorn was innovative-game changing. A maker of theater and a serious mentor to a generation of young artists after he moved hometown New York City to new hometown Minneapolis, which is where I last saw her. Her transition is wrenching. The shawl in this picture is one I bought from Marion DiCaires now Marion DiCaires Lake because Laurie did not think it bright enough. She was the Lady in Blue in the original cast of For Colored Girls and she was amazing. She also looked much like her cousin the incomparable Diana Sands. So a New Blues is upon us and the Lady in Blue has joined many others making art among the stars.
Today starts a new year in the Western calendar and a chance to look forward. We all know given the coming Inauguration that it will not be easy and for many of us it will bring way to much pain. But, we can deal with it by staying vigilant and helping those who are in greater need; by constantly demanding justice; and by doing what ever it is that we do best: write poems, sing songs, heal the sick, minister or counsel, open businesses that offer things people need, paint, sculpt, develop policy that encourage and support the polity. We can do those things. Who knows at the end of this year those seeking progress, justice, and environmental health may be seen as the clear winners. We can plant our gardens not only for sustenance but for beauty: BREAD AND ROSES works for me.
We all need solace. We all need to say farewell to many who have meant so much–personal friends, family, celebrated artists who help make our lives comprehensible. Yesterday, the announcement that Laurie Carlos, performer, director, teacher, world-class provocateur finally succumbed to illness and only a few days after the sudden passing of Monica Hand, a fine poet and artist. But also after the passing many friends’ parents, siblings. And it is three years since my Mother departed and nine since my brother’s eldest was lost to us on Christmas Day. Yes, we need solace. I go to church. I pray. I hope that I live as well as I can by Christ’s commandment to love others as one loves oneself. In this day, these times, that can almost seem impossible. But I try. And faith was something that George Michael seemed to struggle with–unlike Leonard Cohen and David Bowie and Prince, his was not the music that inspired me, but that song worked.
We are at a cosmic crossroads–the planet literally in danger from humans greed, stupidity and lassitude. Our nation will have what may be one of the worst Presidents in its history–making this globe less safe. Prayer and protest may help as part of resistance to policies that will make poor people poorer and endanger water, land and air. We shall see. In the meantime, I think of the artists I’ve known who have said farewell this and other years as returning to the stars from whence we came. As Joni Mitchell sang: “we are stardust/we are golden and we got to get back to the garden.”
After going to the Page Poetry Parlour performance of Janice Lowe for her brilliant volume Leaving CLE--where she performed her poem/songs with a stellar group of musicians–she’s a great composer/arranger as well as poet–I walked out into the late summer evening and beheld the slowly waning harvest moon. Odd, cop car mid street at 9th Avenue and as I walked along past a building where I heard fantastic drumming (Michael Carven) I saw more cops, a WPIX van and asked two guys, what’s going on. “Explosion” between 6th and 7th. Masses of people were hanging at the corner , no one was panicking just another night in Gotham-one with bombs and 29 people injured. This is life during Wartime. It has been that way for 15 years. And we continue to make art, make love, make our lives as best we can. So this huge moon like the strawberry moon in June reminds me of cycles and sustenance–that things pivot and yet stay the same. There are terrible people who have time and bad intentions on their minds and we can no more stop them then we can stop the wind. They are not going to go away. So I say make your art–poems, stories, songs, paintings, installations, movies, whatever. Make them. Reap a harvest of new work to share. This is nurture. This is the good intention that we all can do as we live our lives as best we can under whatever huge moon we see.
Sometimes you take the plunge when there is no water
here the divers-three divers on a board rise up out of sand
then fall into a blue day, made bluer by the cleansing
winds from the Caribbean. We are witness to the falling
to the divers 3 in the sands of Coney Island. John Ahearn
bids us greetings and farewells, sunsets and sunsets.
Sometimes you take the plunge when the water is not near.
Poem by Patricia Spears Jones–art by John Ahearn
Atmosphere by Coney Island, July 2016
What a strange day– Muhammed Ali’s death while not unexpected is unsettling–it is as if the heavens are demanding the giants return and so one by one they return. that even Soul Cycle had a sign saying RIP says how large Ali loomed over the collective consciousness.
I saw him once in 1970 when as a college student I went to a Black Expressions conference in Indiana. He was just about to get back his position-he had been stripped of his championship–and he was speaking at the conference. He was magnetic, unbelievably handsome (yes that pretty) and I’ve never seen men so lit up by any other man. They had grown up with brash, bold “poet” who had innovated boxing. Truly he was the alpha male. And he loved being one.
Ali was no saint. His cruelty towards Joe Frazier was awful and there were always rumors about his womanizing. But he was deeply principled and his stance against the War in Viet nam led to his conviction of draft dodging and the loss of his title–this when he was 25 years old. He will be forever a symbol of what it means to be brash, bold, gorgeous, but also spiritual and moral and deeply principled who could come back and triumph again.
So, considering Ali’s joining the ancestors, I returned from a venture into Manhattan which more and more seems like Fantasyland for White people (mostly) and global tourists, it was odd to encounter another moment of audacious sadness.
Here in Bed-Stuy, Spike Lee has organized a Prince born day party at Bed-Stuy Plaza. Many people in purple t-shirts were celebrating Prince’s born day, even as we all digest the news that he died from an opiod–how Midwestern. The irony of my book title Painkiller is that every time I’ve been prescribed them, I throw away 90% of the pills and believe me I hate pain. Clearly Prince pushed his body beyond what his 57 year old self should do and his body gave it up. And Ali’s Parkinson came from the great feats he did as a boxer. Both men were bold and it is a combination of boldness and spirituality that marks them.
There are plenty of bold guys right now, but they seem so extraordinarily empty–their boldness, their in your faceness, their twitter feeds do not add up to anything that literally changes the way a sport is played or music created/produced–they don’t invent, they just shift things from one side of the room to the other. Prince was intensely creative in ways that many are still trying to come to terms with. Moreover, he explored in real time a range of ways to be masculine that few even dared to try–only Bowie strikes me as being that openly fluid, but then again he was white and British. Prince’s passing was not expected, he was still a “young” i.e. middle-aged man. Maybe that is why Ali’s passing is unsettling. He lived a life filled with innovation in his sport; a powerful spiritual journey; a deep love of Black people; and the ability to learn from his many mistakes and finally the ability to sustain family. His essence was strong and it was that essence that could take him around the globe, always Muhammed Ali. #boldandbrash
Today I received this beautiful broadside from Kelly Writers House, for my program on April 21. The poem, “Self-Portrait with Shop Window” is in A Lucent Fire: New and Selected Poems. It is one of the poems that was not published, indeed it was rejected several times. But I knew that it was a powerful poem and represented my work at its most complicated and so Dennis Maloney agreed that it should be in the collection And now, it is in Best American Experimental Writing 2o16 from Weslayan U. Press–http://www.wesleyan.edu/wespress/bax/ edited by Charles Bernstein and Tracie Morris.
Sometimes you have a poem, a song, a play, a book that seems to find no love in the current marketplace. It could be that your ideas are just ahead of or seemingly behind everybody elses. Who knows. But if you really think that poem, song, play or book is worth the talent, the time, the effort it took for you to make it–well that’s where perseverance is what you have to have. Poetry, art making may be easy for those who are clever, but for most of us it is challenging, enthralling, mind enhancing or mind blowing depending and you just have to honor that crazy love for your work and keep on pushing.
I enjoyed the way the Kelly House artists selected parts of the poem and highlighted its fragmentations. Now my home has a large and beautiful broadside of this complex poem. I love where it is placed in A Lucent Fire. I love that it will be in Best American Experimental Writing. I loved the poem has legs.
Charles Bernstein and the terrific people at Kelly Writers House at UPENN invited me to read and chat in Philadelphia in April. It was the perfect thing to do during April is Poetry Month. I like Philadelphia. I’ve encounter interesting art exhibitions, vistas and hang with lovely people like Liz Abrams-Morley a fellow poet. We went to an installation years ago at the Eastern State Penitiary, one of America’s gifts to world culture, i. e. prison design. The cells of this prison visited by dignitaries in the 19th century set the standards for solitary confinement. The installations were amazing and that is when I discovered the powerful work of Homer Jackson, a Philadelphia-based artist and activist.
So this April I headed to Philadelphia early Thursday morning April 21 on the Amtrak and when I went in search of the cafe car, I ran into Latasha N. Diggs! She too, was on her way to Philly to perform. I felt like a real touring professional-that’s the first time I ran into a fellow poet/writer/perfomer. She looked great.
It was a full day for me. First, Charles Bernstein’s class at UPENN. They had some very complicated questions which I answered during a radio recording for “Close Reading” http://jacket2.org/commentary/patricia-spears-jones-close-listening. Then later I joined Charles, Al Filreis, the KWH Faculty Director, and Yolanda Wisher in a discussion of Akilah Oliver’s poem “is you is or is you ain’t” for Poemtalk. Ms. Wisher is now the Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and she is brilliant, attractive alnd energetic. She’s going to do great things. It was a lively conversation about Oliver’s poem. It also showed how much she is missed given her untimely death.
Finally, I did a reading at the Kelly Writers House. Jessica Lowenthal and her crew were really helpful. And we had a good audience on a very powerful allergy hitting day! I gave one of my best readings because the audience truly listened. One woman came early and she seemed to have the best time. It feels like I left my voice in Philadelphia.
It is good to go out and read work to people who are interested but are for the most part strangers. Too often we really do preach to the choir. Our voices as poets need to reach as many listeners as we can. They are there and they offer us advice, support and surprising insight. My A Lucent Fire tour has been one of the best things I’ve ever arranged.
and yes, later we found that Prince has departed. So the radio played great music and on tv, images of the always fashion forward Prince multiplied. I wrote about his first major label album when I had a music column for Essence back in the 1980s and yes I loved what he was doing even then. He influenced my generation of poets and the subsequent ones. Thank you Prince, gylph
and all. Am sure Charles Bernstein agrees and if he doesn’t –well that’s my generation.
Yesterday, I knew I had truly returned to New York City. It was cold. The trains were not running–turns out some guy who stole a cell phone was hit by an F Train (served him right) and I got home to an email telling me NO, you are not getting that Fellowship that you’ve applied for a gazillion times. Aah, but from last Wednesday to Sunday morning of week before I was in L.A. and I had a ball.
The Community of Writers at Squaw Valley had a party first day in Echo Park, a charming enclave with actual Victorian houses–some beautifully dressed up and appointed, others falling down, drunken ruins of buildings. Aah. The poets, writers, artists who gathered were charming and lively-the food delicious and I won a bottle of wine for coming the furthest (from Brooklyn) to this party. Thanks Brett Hall Jones, et al. I so look forward to serving as one of the staff poets with Kazim Ali who was there and Sharon Olds, Cathy Park Hong, Juan Felipe Herrera and Bob Hass, the director this June. I went to Squaw, 3 times during the 1990s and many of my best poems started there. To return as a teacher is really a blessing–I think Galway Kinnell is smiling about this.
AWP was held in the Convention Center and well I hung out in the Book fair and ran into good people I don’t get to see like Prageeta Sharma and people I see often like Reggie Harris. There were many major conversations about poets who are going through difficult times and how the community is poorly dealing with all the mess of it. Sad. Poets House presented a spectacular program on poetry and protest with Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Luis Javier Rodriguez and Naomi Shahib Nye. There was a lot of candy at many of booths and tables (I took as much chocolate as I could really take). I saw a good friend whom I need to reconcile with and we did. L. A. was good for that kind of thing.
I read with Black Earth Institute Fellows: Lauren Camp, Taylor Broby, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Marcella Durand (woo hoo) and Melissa Tuckey at this weird bookstore on Sunset Blvd. Getting there including getting the Uber driver to find us on Figuroa in front of the Convention Center–there are different kinds of blindness in L.A. and many one way streets.
I moderated Out of L.A.: A Tribute for Jayne Cortez that was organized by Laura Hinton who has done some serious scholarship on Cortez’ life in LA. as a young woman. Aldon Nielsen, Jennifer D. Ryan-Bright and Pam Ward were the other panelists and they all contributed deep understanding and knowledge about Cortez’ development, but it was Mel Edwards who flew into the L.A. to attend the panel who pointed out that Cortez was NOT a member of the Watts Writers Workshop which was started post the riots of 1965 and enhanced info about the artistic scene that Cortez was a significant member of. Love, courage and freedom–those are the words I think of when I think of Jayne and she is deeply missed. Latasha Diggs is organizing several programs in Cortez honor that will take place in New York City this April.
What I loved the most was moving about downtown–the roundabout way to get to the Double Tree Hotel to meet a filmmaker doing interviews with poets for an upcoming documentary and seeing a Hindu wedding procession at it’s start; looking at the stream of L.A. Kings fans in their sports gear; a handsome man (designer/carpenter/gorgeous guy) talking with clients/friends outside a beautiful Japanese restaurant; martinis with my one my best male friends at the pretty Noe’s bar at Omni California Plaza; bouganvilla on the side of massively ugly buildings; kissing a man I care about; running into a poet I’ve not seen since my first visit to Squaw. In weather warm enough for daytime roaming, but too cool for nighttime hanging w/out serious sweaters, clear skies, and massive billboards with moving parts trans human–Blade Runner with out the murkiness. Northern California was indeed cold and damp at night, but Southern California was simply cold.
I sold out my book, A Lucent Fire: New & Selected at the White Pine Table. I bought books by dear friends and new ones. And best of all I kept running into Patricia Jabbeh Wesley who is the most exuberant poet/scholar ever. You must read/hear her.
So many dear friends new friends so many poets and artists and writers and dreamers and hustlers and then at 5:30 or so on Saturday the EXODUS out of the Center began–I was waiting for a parting of the escalators.