Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Monday July 19, 2004
Block Island, RI
I’ve been here for about 20 hours now and am headed back to the city in an hour or so.  This has been interestingly strange.  To get here I had to take Amtrak to Westerly, RI; then a six-seater plane for 12 minutes to the island.  I basically rode an SUV with wings. 
I performed here last evening at a music/poetry festival on the grounds of this inn called The Hygeia here on Block Island, run by Lisa Starr.  It was kinda cool – had a good time performing.  I think this is what is commonly defined as ‘bucolic’.  At night, fog rolls in off the sea, you can see the lighthouse in the distance and here the fog horns going all night.  If something happens to you here (broken limb, asthma attack, migraine), you get transported by med-evac to what they call ‘the mainland’.  When you’re somewhere that calls somewhere else ‘the mainland’, you’re too far officially.  The winter population here is 900 and swells to about 20, 000 in the summer; know why?  It’s freakin’ Rhode Island!!  It gets freakin’ cold!!  There should be no-one living on an island north of the tropic of Capricorn!!  There should be no-one living on an island that gets two feet of snow and that has to fly you to a hospital if you need one.  That’s just not right!!
That said, I had a great time, heard some good poets and drank 12-year old scotch from the bottle with the folk song Irish-ish sort of band that closed the evening.  From what I could tell, I am the darkest thing here as far as the eye can see; and that’s disconcerting sometimes.  I feel like as time goes by I should become accustomed more and more to being in these situations; but it’s actually happening differently.  The more that is the case, the more I become alarmed by the fact that in particular kinds of settings there are only particular kinds of people.  It simply underscores so much of the imbalance that I feel my life and my work have to address; but then it gets crazy and I wonder why I’m there all of a sudden (and I know why I’m there), but it feels almost like claustrophobia, like hyperventilation for a second; so I get up I get another beer, and I deal…
…so anyway I got a poem done last night and that’s a good thing.  I went back to some notes that were in my notebook from an exercise I had done and came up with this.  Seems like I’m going back to the well of ‘home’ a lot these days.  That’s comforting.  I know part of it is my having found out all this stuff about my family, but part of it I know  is that I’m finding myself at this crossroads of needing to figure out what next to do, in all things, and it is comforting to know that I can go back home; at least figuratively to work through much of this.  So I read it to LeslieAnn and Salome and Lynne and Marty last night and ended up with a bunch of edits from Marty, which included bringing back a part of another poem I’ve been working (unsuccessfully) on and so, this is the result so far…
To laugh at weaker boys (or at least the less sharp-tongued)
  to kick ball till the moon rose
  or something vital bled – we lived
To wait like predator
  for the first note of a slow jam
  to grind ourselves into the wall
 with a pretty girl between us
 and make sure our boys were watching
We were tropical  suave  post-colonial  oil money niggahs
and we had to do well – in all things
  in school work
  in song
  in talking shit
  and especially in football
but it was only cool
if you made it seem effortless
we were sophisticates like that
looking for immortality in the tales of others
and most of our friends were still alive
To buy two sno-cone from George
   whose rickety cart parked outside
   the school each day
To have the cones stacked with extra syrup and condensed milk
To gather around the cart
  because George always had sensible shit to say
To follow that with the hottest  spiciest
  doubles from the doubles-man behind the cafeteria
  who built two multi-level homes
  off the profits from our purchases
To laugh at that irony
To pick on the faggot boys because we were still assholes
  and we knew that
To join the new dance-craze revolution
To stop traffic on Frederick Street
  just to see Doc, Scientist and Froggie
  spin on vinyl, pop-lock, head-stand
   electric-boogie, dead-man
To sit  on the steps
  of the downtown shopping plaza
  and stare at the beauty of our women
 To believe at sixteen
  that they were our women
To welcome satellite TV and music videos
  like it was God
  because who can see the future anyway
  It was 1984
and we were busy looking good
mimicking everything we saw
Gip would collect the ball on the outside
of his left foot  count the on-rushing defender’s footsteps
and slide the ball deftly through his legs
while looking the other way – effortless like that
Our bodies hadn’t begun to betray us yet
Kirk and Gregory and Rudy and Peter were still alive
Dave still had his legs
and the worst thing wasn’t  not doing well
only seeming   like you were trying too hard
Going to pack my bags.  Time to vote myself off this island.
Saturday July 17, 2004
So it’s been a while since the last update and there are a number of reasons for that.  Laziness, too much going on, confusion on my part as to just how to talk about this stuff; but now I’m in a bar in Times Square and my friend, Arantxa is the bartender, which means I’m not really paying anything and so, I’m on my second 16 ounce beer and it’s all gonna come pretty easily now.
I just got done doing an audition for a musical; yes, a musical.  Some dude saw me in one of VisionIntoArt’s performances and thought I’d be great for this role for this anti-war musical called ‘The Dissenters’.  I’ve practically tried not to get this role.  I’m not really an actor (though I’ve got some talent at it – excelled at it in high school),  and I’m no longer a singer (though I’ve got a little talent at it – did alright with it in high school), but I swear I got there today half hung over and late and they still liked what I did, so I guess I’m gonna have to take this seriously now.
In the last two weeks, I’ve been writing feverishly about the whole Nicodemus thing and dealing with a crisis.  Seems our National Poetry Slam has brought on Clear Channel as a sponsor.  When I first found out, there was a general uproar among teams and in fact a number of teams considered pulling out of Nationals because of it.  If you’re asking yourself “what the hell is a Clear Channel and where can I get one?” Clear Channel is the network media corporation which owns many of our mainstream radio stations and billboards and concert halls and so forth.  They are an extremely right wing organization and has attempted to get many artists banned from the airwaves for their views and their politics.  Among the artists to have faced their contumely are the Dixie Chicks, rage Against the Machine, The Beastie Boys, Lennie Kravitz and the list goes on.  They have attempted to ban from their radio stations, artists who will not play in their concert halls and have gone out of their way to cripple local independent radio stations (especially any with a left of center agenda).  So, the fact that a poetry festival of all things would get into bed with such an organization is particularly alarming.  It’s sort of like having a (oops my third beer just arrived) sweat shop workers rally be sponsored by Nike (if you know what I mean).
While we wrangled as a team and an organization about how to respond, I became particularly alarmed by the tone taken by the local event organizers; such as ‘it was the only way to reach their urban audience and didn’t y’all say you wanted us to reach the urban audience and now that we’ve reached the urban audience look what happened’.  We all know what urban audience means and I probably shouldn’t have another sip of beer before I go off on this but the response speaks too much to white privilege and what that means in the face of a call to ensure that the tournament appeals to a diverse audience (quick aisde – I’m also watching the Great Outdoor Games on ESPN on the TV here.  we’re onto the Big Air Dog competition, which is ostensibly long jumping for canines.  It’s fascinating!  What do you tell your dog when the dog before it only jumps 20 feet “well Rover, save your energy for the finals. You only need a 21-footer this round…” So Little Morgan has won this round with a jump of 24’ 5”).
In the long run, what we were told is this.  Clear Channel Radio (and not the parent company Clear Channel Entertainment – as if this makes a difference) is whom the deal is struck with and they’re only sponsoring a few side events and none of the competition events.  Pretty much all the teams have decided to stay in (including ours by a vote in which I was the only dissenter).  Some teams and individuals are going to be mounting protests against Clear Channel and Poetry Slam Inc during the competition to ensure that this relationship does not continue in future years (my fourth beer just arrived – Arantxa says to me “I think you’re thirsty…”  it’s air-conditioned in here!!!  what’s she thinking?!)  So much for now.  I’m likely to put something really dumb on here and besides the screen has changed the Phillies are leading the Mets 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth and the bases are loaded for the Mets…  oops, Jason Phillips hits into the double play; threat ended…

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

So now i've returned to NYC but not before the weekend got heavier and heavier. Wole and i found pictures of Doreen from 1951, in her best pin-up girl poses. apart from the hilarity of seeing one's grandma looking like a sexy 50s screen star, there is the shock of how exactly like my mother she looks, to contend with.

Wole and i looked at a bunch of ancient photos, including childhood photos of my uncle Frank and young pictures of Wole's dad, when he and my grandmother first met in Trinidad. The head trip was (and still is) enormous.

So I've got my first poem out of the miasma of it. I'm still processing. The weekend was heavy, but there is a joy in it. Finding out about family, about ancestry that you thought you'd never know about opens up a world of possibility, a world that makes you feel like your chest itself is expanding to encompass something new and grand and wondrous. Still, the idea that so many folks went to such lengths to deny the existence of my mother (long long story) which by extension denies my existence and my brother's existence, the existence of our fathers of people whom we've loved, the children we'll have...

so that said, here's my first poem on the matter. if it sounds a little angry, it isn't necessarily; the complexities of an un-wed mother of 18 years old in trinidad in 1941 is way too much to even begin to comprehend. Besides, Wole and i have spent much of Friday night till four in the morning saturday. trying to piece more of our histories together. Before it's all done there will be more tears to shed and more glories and heartbreaks to apprehend.


In the 1941 photograph, Nicodemus is looking
away. He is already past 60
gaunt whip of a man, his hat, the leather
of his face, his work shirt, all those of a laborer
Nicodemus has worked hard all his life

He has always wanted
better things for Doreen, his grand-daughter

In the photograph, Doreen is looking
into the distance; her features fine as a bird’s
she is pin-up girl 1951 gorgeous
leaning forward, one arm posed delicately
in the mudras of some part of her Trinidad heritage

Doreen has always wanted
better things; for Doreen, for Hyacinth
-the daughter whom she gave away-
the smile might say the ten year old
is already distant memory

In the photograph, Doreen leans
against Ojurongbe, not yet her husband.
They do not yet know of the four boys to come.
The red tint of the sepia says
nothing of the secrets to come
how deep they will be buried
navel string to banyan tree

In the photograph, they overlook
the Caribbean sea and laugh
In the photograph, I hear them laugh
like a nightmare awakening of truth
coming to the surface
past 50 years of lies

of best friend lies
and her mother who lies.
is still looking away
he will never know how his grand-baby
almost shamed him
with this red afterbirth of a child
Doreen will still have
what he wants for her
and Jide will come
and Femi will come
and Koye will come
and Wole will come
and still the red laughter in the photograph
no trace of Hyacinth the daughter

And if Hyacinth does not exist
such is the same for Roger
such is the same for Jamil
such is the same for their fathers
such is the same for everyone they have ever loved

and how many past the gravestone lies
must still bury the unspeakable
even as Doreen, dead on the birthday
of her daughter screams it from her grave

November 30, 1941, Nicodemus is looking
through the sugar cane
and Hyacinth
might as well be a missed menses and nothing more
red tint of sepia laughter
in a photograph
in an album
crumbling from the acid of lies piled high

A picture tells a thousand words
A poet tells a few million more
Do not look away Nicodemus
I am here. My brother is here
our children will bear your name
And I will scream them present
and alive
Their future is not past the sugar cane
or in the banyan tree’s roots
of theirs is to be buried
your pictures and your laughter
will be smothered in their blood.

Meanwhile, i've found a collection of family and personal history, narrative poems by David Huddle and of course i can't remember the title right now because i gave it to my uncle for his birthday together with a copy of Frank McCourt's "'Tis" since my uncle is spearheading the memoir of our mothers' lives; but check out David Huddle's name on Google or something and see what else you find on him. His work is really well done.


Friday, July 02, 2004

Friday July 2, 2004 - 2:30PM

I am 36 years old. My name is roger. My great-great-grandfather is Nicodemus Smith. i have found this out five minutes ago. It's a long story. I am at my uncle's house in New Hampshire. We've known each other for a little less than four years now. That too is a long story and i do not know if i'll tell it here, in my journal, but i must tell this.

We (Africans of the diaspora) speak intellectually all the time about the way in which slavery has untethered us from an understanding of our histories, our families, our heritage. We know we have been wronged somehow, somewhere and we can explain it (we have voice and language for it) even to one another, but then we go on. We forge ahead because that's what we've always done. With no other options, what else to do, but survive.

Then the day comes when a door is opened and for the first time one of us has the slightest glimpse of any of the ancestry of the spirits that watch over us, that enable us across the passage (Middle or otherwise) and all we can do is wonder at the riches that have been denied us, wonder at the several levels of chaos wrought in our lives by the economic, social, political facs of history that have ruled us for the last 400 years or so, and then we cannot respond, or we do; and we find some expression, some word, some song of joy for it. It happened for Alex Haley and "Roots".

So we (or i) just cry. Nicodemus is in a picture on my uncle's wall in black and white, dulled by age and technology. In the picture, which belonged to my grandmother (who i never met), he is probably already a man in his fifties (even sixties) and he is in a grove of what looks like sugar cane trees, sporting the hat, the workshirt open to the waist and the boots, of a laborer, a proud man who roks the land for his family. He is thin and sun-brown. Perhaps he is also a drinker, perhaps not. Perhaps he is a philanderer; perhaps not. Perhaps he is shrewd and full of laughter and loves children. Perhaps he is none of these. Perhaps he has never hoped for anything...
...Perhaps he is a poet.

It is Friday Afternoon at 3:00. The weekend has just begun. It's already this deep. i don't know whether to laugh or cry.

(Friday 8PM)
We've been to a pool party and hung out on the deck with my 3-yr old cousin, Ayanbi. Every time i come here, she has more to say, more complete sentences, more well-formed opinions, more visions of her world. Sometimes i feel like she is my very own child; and i know it is because this is a connection to blood family that i dare not lose, that i hold fast to like a raft. We (Salome and I) drove up here today and i've been up since 5AM. I need a nap, as much because of the hourse i've been up and the swimming i've done as the stimulus i've had. Tuesday is my uncle Wole's 42nd birthday. the party is tomorrow. I'll nap now...