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.
Two days ago I wrote this on FB: I live in a city where Arabic music plays on “new sounds”. where sirens rove the night air. where friends chat on sidewalks or take weeks to meet for 2 hours in a bar. i live in a city often characterized as cold and dark and and expensive and lonely and terror ridden. and for some this city lives up to these negatives. but i live in a city where i have a tea for my girlfriends. where i find beauty in unlikely places. where music good or bad is played on the subway platforms. where at times you can see real stars. and those stars are twinkling this night, so many talented people who lived in, danced in, made love in, laughed in and gave of their considerable gifts to this city left this plane for what is that higher realm. but the city has their traces and i live in the city where those traces surround me. I am thankful to be part of stardust.
Poet Patricia Spears Jones says farewell to 2016
but of course, there is more. I am grateful for the many opportunities I had to share my work and collaborate with fellow poets and artists. I traveled three times to California and read in places where my work was heard and honored. I talked with young people and old people and many folks in between. I wrote poems that grew from hanging out in Coney Island to ones dealing with the hangover of the Presidential Election. I kissed and hugged and dreamed and dared to do things differently. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it did not. Many good people I know and love are gone. But many remain. And new ones are coming. What was it that Laura Nyro sang: “and when I die/there’ll be one child born to carry on. So for Vertamae and Monica and Laurie and countless others, I hear those infants’ wailing.
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.”
Today I asked for prayers for Monica Hand, a wonderful poet who took her obsession with Nina Simone and produced a wonderful debut collection me and Nina five years ago. She’s been working on a Ph.D the past few years. She is not the only Black woman artist I know who is facing medical crisis and who has very little money. We are mortal-a fact that I am reminded of daily as I wake with aches and pains that were not there 30 years ago–but more importantly because I can go into my address books and find people’s names/addresses/numbers who are no longer alive. It pains me and many of my friends. We see the generation ahead of us leaving and we are next and we know that. But then there are the times when someone younger goes–no matter, it’s difficult. It is sad.
It’s December. A month of bright chilly days in which the light leaves bit by bit until the Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It is also the month of Advent. A month of prophesy and expectation–Oh come expected Jesus is one of the Advent hymns. Prophesy and expectation are vastly different experiences. As a poet, I find myself trying to bring these different experiences together–not in harmony, but at least in complement.
And so this past weekend I sat with fellow poets to plan programs that we all think are needed in these awful times. We know that the best version of America is not expressed right now. We know that men and a few women of great wealth who are joining the Trump administration have little regard to poor and working people. Most artists are poor, working people. We know that the light is leaving bit by bit. That “winter of discontent” is not a cliche this year. From the marches in the street or the buying and selling of just about everything to imbibing many a spirit (bourbon, rye, whiskey, gin, vodka, tequila) we are all dis contented. That our friends are ill; that our friends are burying their mothers, their grandmothers makes this December so much more difficult. We know that little in our national experiment will benefit us over the next few years.
One of things that found interesting about reading John Glenn’s obituary that when he took is cosmic flight, he saw three sunsets and three sunrises. So it seems great to remember about the Solstice is that once that short day is done, the light begins to return. The sun will grow brighter even in dark days of January and February. The light grows. So I hope, our capacity to love, to live, to be good people despite the political era to come, will grow and shine much light.
Just a return to old ideas re-packaged and tweeted. That is what the President-Elect and the GOP led House & Senate seems to me. We now have a President who is sort of like the melancholy version of Ronald Reagan. It is twilight in his America and he’s going to bring us through a long, cloudless night led by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, hell bent on reversing just about anything that progressives have done in the past 80 years.
As I always remember, don’t agonize, organize and there’s plenty of organizing going on.
And finally, Hillary Rodham Clinton w/ all of her “deficits” won the popular vote even with considerable voter suppression; misinformation; the FBI and WikiLeaks; and oh you know White Supremacy, sexism and fear. White Supremacy so that Obama and his policies (even if they helped America out of the hole it was in) could be repudiated. Sexism for well women seeking power is simply not allowed in America. And fear of change, fear of people of color, fear of terrorism (forgetting that most terrorist activity taking place in America by mostly White Americans) and just fear. I guess the most dangerous American is a White man in rural America with a serious gripe against just about everybody.
And now we have a President who seems to represent vices and very few virtues. I suspect we will be protesting, organizing, petitioning, etc. BUT I HOPE many consider electoral politics. Progressive should be on city councils; school boards; in the Assembly, the Senate. governors mansions, etc. and then the House and the Senate. Don’t agonize, organize and find/support candidates.
Meanwhile, poets are writing, organizing and publishing. Look for many ways the language works to undermine the oddness of this moment.
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.
I sent my brother my extra copy of Of Poetry and Protest: from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (WW Norton). He’s thrilled to have it and I am thrilled to be in it. This has been a year where so many Black poets have had to to “yet again” respond to the ongoing violence against our persons and community -vigilantes, police the political elite esp of one party. It’s 2016. Today is the 15 anniversary of the attack on and destruction of the World Trade Center, two edifices that tourists from around the globe seek to see. The irony of that is not lost on me or most New Yorkers.
As I said elsewhere my animus is focused mostly on the men who carried out the attack. They had the opportunity to not murder over 3,000 people. They chose not to. It might have been a matter of belief, but so what. People believe in all kinds of things, worship God or Gods or Goddesses and yet do not kill 3000 people. The event led to many other more horrific ones including America’s invasion of Iraq. Death and destruction continues.
It makes me realize how easy it is to war. To start and sustain conflict and put bodies in place to carry out the orders. The use of drones is just one more measure of the mechanization of this human effort. Whether by a soldier’s hand in combat or hand on a computer screen other humans die. Many other humans.
Peace is hard. Peace is about grown people finding ways to not lash out, not destroy, not manifest rage on somebody else body. And right now few people are ready to wage peace. That the Syrian president-a trained opthamologist is willing to drop chlorine bombs on children tells all of us just how bad the people who wage war want to win. I don’t even know if there is a place in hell for such a “leader”. Or maybe there is a new hell. Peace is hard. And no it will not be in my lifetime that peace will take root, but maybe in my grand nephew’s? I so hope.
Because as LaBelle sang “We need Power” but also “We need love.”
There is a reading of about 15 poets at Jefferson Market Public Library, 10th and 6th avenue, 2-4 p.m. FREE.
Come by. Commemorate.
The past several days I’ve been going the East Side of Manhattan. For good reason. One was to hear famous and soon to be famous African poets read their work at the Ford Foundation–a reception organized by Elizabeth Alexander for the African Poetry Book Fund. The Fund is the brain and heart child of Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani–also there was Matthew Shenoda. I was invited through the other wonderful Patricia, Patrica Jabbeh Wesley, a great poet/scholar and exurberant force of all things positive in this world. She was super dynamic, everyone was. But getting there meant taking the East side express which is super crowded and navigating Grand Central –at least I remembered how to get to the Ford Foundation, with the UN Building and Tudor City to its East. A couple of nights later I had drinks and dinner with Major Jackson–who is writing great poems; teaching all over the joint and is now a distinguished professor at the University of Vermont–he’s also a proud papa and has found the wife he’s been searching for. Good for him.
Then today, I joined Nita Noveno, a terrific Filipina-American writer who teaches at CUNY and who is just so smart and pretty and wise and we had lunch at the Asia Society (shivering) while outside the air just got thicker. After the lunch, I suggested we go see the Diane Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer–Nita was like what? I explained that the Met has taken over the uptown Whitney Museum space as the Whitney is all the way downtown–she was kind of skeptical. I am glad we walk into the think air for a few blocks and found our way into the museum. Here’s my thoughts on the Arbus exihibition:
The Diane Arbus exhibition at The Met Breur is really important. There’s something about looking at an artist’s work as it changes-the nuances, the sudden shifts. Arbus’ has been so analyzed and analyzed and that it is great to see things not seen before–the be in a fresh place with her. The city she encounters is no longer here and yet–the odd intimacy she captures; the “performing” children–they work in circuses, in vaudeville, as “city kids” showing off; the actual performers: singers, freak show actors, female impersonators; and the “ordinary” who are not so “ordinary” all in glorious black and whites and grays in small format (for these days). Indeed it is a shock to see the large format photographs-all famous in the last gallery. They seem not so much a step into the major leagues as a kind of huge shift away from something that could no longer be done or expressed–am not sure of how to say this. They did not seem like a culmination of practice, but a recognition that the practice no longer worked. Walking through, well actually meandering through the installation was a kind of treat. It reminded me of my first few years in the city, taking a new path, finding a new way to get from the East Side to the West; from Canal Street to 23rd, all by foot. Please see this exhibition. See if you can discern the beauty, the pain, the comic, the silly and the dream in her work.