Wednesday, August 25, 2004
Its waters move like a black snake through denuded trees.
I am hideous flower in a forbidden room.
My petals blossom when the door locks.
Like waters, black and snaking through denuded trees,
if blood could slither, mine would.
My petals blossom when the door locks.
She walked upright when she led me here.
If blood could slither, mine would,
Across this stone mattress where I cannot rest.
She walked upright when she led me here,
Where moonlight spills like gold dying leaves.
Across this stone mattress where I cannot rest,
I killed my dreams to dream of her
where moonlight spills like gold dying leaves.
When she takes a breath, she devours all.
I killed my dreams to dream of her.
I, a hideous flower in a forbidden room.
She takes my breath and devours all—
the dead woman in the house across the river.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
A giant watermelon appeared.
Now, the appearance of this icebox watermelon, out of nowhere, seemed of no particular importance. On the contrary, since Asha moved into Piney Shadow, a 19th century working-class neighborhood—tucked, naturally, in a piney shadow of the Atlanta skyline—she’d received a regular stream of welcoming gifts. And being in the South, each gift came with no short supply of welcoming dirt.
First, a cornbread & collard plate with a side of If you want the whole skreet to know your business, just tell it to Hattie Mae Hightower. If you want the whole world to know, tell her: It’s a secret.
A flowerpot filled with I’m a Christian and I love all God’s chillun’, but He ain’t say nothin’ ‘bout lovin’ da Hoodoo ones. Like Tony, but now he call hisself Babu.
A sweet potato pie topped with If you got a man, keep him away from Sweet Willie. Dey say his p*ssy is more potent than the ones we was born with.
Though Asha had barely been in her humble blue-shuttered home a month—towers of unpacked boxes still forming a small city in her living room—she’d already transferred her rituals from her previous residence into her new home. Asha could not begin a day without first consulting her horoscope, which she read each morning in the Atlanta Constitution delivered to her front porch.
What was initially odd about this particular gift—this fat, icebox watermelon—is that it, unlike its predecessors, had not arrived accompanied by a Neighborhood Welcome Committee Member: no tapping on the screendoor, no ringing of the doorbell.
The sun rose, the cicadas sang, and it simply appeared.
So, though she saw this watermelon, her first action of the new day was to read her horoscope:
You may feel like you are being tested in some way, dear Pisces. Your intuition about that is probably...
Saturday, August 14, 2004
Today is only a cold blaze of whiteness ahead. I can't even see tomorrow coming. If I am to be completely honest, I quite possibly do not want it to come. The black taste of a sinner's blood embitters my mouth. For the first time in my life, I kneel at His feet, considering asking the Captain to stop the vessel - to let me off the ship. Right here. Travel no further.
He convicts me before I can even consider. I am His son. His blazing eye washes my thoughts as an unholy scroll.
This is the journey which you chose to walk, He says. There is no turning back.
Just beyond the cloud, in every direction but one, rages a riot of suns waiting burn me alive. This much I know. A slow yearslong burn - my illusory eyes, lips, flesh, all melting away as a pointless mirage.
In this ephemeral blaze, all I have is the mark my Soul leaves as it is burned into the Earth: What will the critics hear worth preserving in my struggle against it - what beauty, what elegance, what immortal art in my futile resistance against this inevitable return to ash and dust?
Wednesday, August 11, 2004
- Soren Kierkegaard
As some of you know, I am making steps to further my education. Normally, I'm superstitious about mentioning my plans before they happen, believing somewhere deep down that this somehow jinxes them. Normally, I keep my plans locked in a box within a box within a box within a box. But for a change, I'm going to open the box prematurely and let you see what's inside.
Below is a draft of the final, and most important, document in my process toward entering an MFA program - the Statement of Purpose. For months, I have tortured over this statement, with my first attempt being in January. I've ripped it and shredded it, smoked it and burned it, and here is what approaches a final edit of "Being the Change" as I near the approaching deadline on September 1.
AS MARCH BEAT A DOGWOOD BRANCH against his dorm room window, the electrical engineering student scanned the course listing that would change the course of his life. Here: 1994, holder of the Georgia Tech Presidential Scholarship, the institute’s most prestigious academic award.
Since nearly as long as I could read, I’d had a voracious appetite for symbols – ∏,∩,∫,≈,θ, Σ, δ. Which led me Here. Physics and mathematics held up my sky. Which led my guidance counselor, my parents, and even me to believe that my blood was encoded in 0’s and 1’s - that God’s right hand aligned the stars to make me an engineer.
What I did not, however, recognize at the time was that my enchantment with symbols was much vaster: I salivated, too, over proofreading marks, syntax, grammar, and phonetic symbols. What I really loved about mathematics were its possibilities as a means of expression – its elegance as a language.
Since early adolescence, I’d also felt the pull of God’s left hand in my passion for creative writing, but between high school and my undergraduate engineering experience, I’d never had a classroom opportunity to fully explore it. So when I saw the listing in the Spring Quarter catalog for a Creative Writing workshop in poetry (which, it was footnoted, the institute only offered once every two years) I rearranged electromagnetics, processors, and circuits - that is, my entire universe - to experience it.
Before each class meeting, three students would secretly submit a dozen copies of a poem to the professor, who would distribute the byline-less texts to the class for analysis. The hope was that we – all naïve to workshopping - would give each other more honest criticism if the submissions were anonymous.
But for me, this was problematic. Being the only Black student in class, I feared that if I wrote in my most natural voice about my most familiar subject matter, I would cease to be anonymous. I feared I would never get honest feedback.
To combat this, I experimented with poetic voice to hide my identity. The feedback I obtained on my own poetry was immeasurable. But what I had not anticipated was how much the complementary process of critiquing others’ poems would teach me about my own writing. It was addictive. As the quarter progressed, I kept longer and longer hours with my professor, drowned in the hourglass sands of Plath, Ginsberg, and Neruda.
I was becoming rewired.
By the end of the Spring, I trusted the workshop enough to submit an unabashedly ethnic poem, "Urban Percussions." Twenty alien eyes searched me on the day we discussed it, even before the professor read the vernaculared text aloud. As the poem’s last line, It was me, floated above the circle, a shift in the stars transpired.
"This is fantastic!"
"Why haven’t you been writing like this all quarter?"
"What are you doing at an engineering school anyway?"
They ranted, they raved about my handle on imagery and my effortless music and voice. My professor pushed me to begin submitting poems to literary magazines. In the satori of the moment, some thing in me died. Someone else became undeniably alive.
Who was this new being burning white-hot within this dark skin?
Following an uninspired summer internship at MIT-Lincoln Laboratory, a month into the Fall, I could no longer restrain my fire. I rummaged the Georgia Tech course catalog for an English major’s requirements. There were none. It seemed the nebulous History of Literature, Technology, and Culture was the closest program the university offered. So I consulted a campus guidance counselor, my former Creative Writing professor, my parents even.
I was trapped within four mirrored walls in which I could not see my Self. Each direction I turned said that I should not exist. And so, in mid-fall of my junior year, I stopped existing. I ceased attending classes altogether.
I lost track of days, five stories high in the 800 section of the Atlanta Public Library. The texts that found me: Yusef Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular and Miguel Algarin’s anthology, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café. Neon Vernacular exemplified everything I aspired to become on page. Blending musicality, imagery, metaphor, mystery, and accessibility, it was Blackness which transcended Blackness. And Aloud’s voices - Carl Hancock Rux, Martin Espada, Wanda Coleman, Sekou Sundiata - pounded my ears with poetic sounds that echoed my own - urban, multicultural, and oral. Here was a world where I saw my Self. Oh, to be in such a place! I could hear my own voice booming in the literary canon.
For months I dove deeper and deeper into this new Self until I finally disappeared. At 20, I tumbled from Georgia Tech in the most disgraceful of fashions – from Presidential scholar to academic suspension. Still, I believed my GPA, which was still nearly 2.5, would allow me to directly transfer into a program to study English at nearby Georgia State University. I longed to be held by Kinnell, Baraka, and Paz. But I met a shut door.
Having used academia to define myself for my entire life, I was destroyed. So I had to take it upon myself to fashion my own way, to redefine myself, to forge my own education.
I answered an open call for Afrobeats, an Atlanta-based troupe of African-American performance poets. Even as I was relearning to walk upright, it seemed God had already fashioned me a new pair of shoes. Already equipped with natural strengths in creating character and voice, I learned how to apply other theatrical techniques such as choreography, blocking, and vocal projection to amplify, without compromising, poetic text. This developed into what would be a strength for life: my dramatic aesthetic. Also during this rebirthing phase, I met a Yoruba priest, Awo Osunkunle, who endowed me with a penname to light this new path, Ayodele, which, in his Nigerian tongue, means a joy arrives in the house.
Next, I marched this name into the world of poetry slam. Some fellow writers in Afrobeats had warned me of the potential pitfalls slam held for one‘s writing - particularly the nicotine of competition and how pandering to audiences can destroy one’s craft. However, I also held in my hands, a dog-eared copy of Miguel Algarin’s defiant collection, Aloud, full of poets from the slam tradition, whose craft I strongly admired. The Nuyorican would be my literary Jerusalem. So, I went after it.
HE WAS LEADING ME BY A FULL point, he was in his hometown, and he was going last. There was no way I was going to win. After expresswaying three hours to Knoxville from Atlanta to compete in the three-day 1999 Southeastern Regional Poetry Slam, I figured finishing second in this field of 40 really wasn’t so bad.
"Is this thing on?" Daniel Roop, the tall, local spoken word legend said, taking the stage for his final performance.
"Testing… Testing..." He tapped the microphone and repeated, "Is this thing on?" He stroked his dark goatee.
"What’s he doin’?" asked a local behind me.
"Has the clock started?" Daniel asked toward the timekeeper’s bench.
Hands behind his back, he whistled away. Finally, stars dripping from his tongue, he launched into a 4-minute poetic fury. Then it struck me:
In slam, a poet is given three minutes 10 seconds to perform and penalized 0.5 points for each 10 seconds he goes over. Time starts the moment a poet makes verbal contact with the audience. I couldn’t believe it. Daniel Roop, who never even knew I existed just three days before, was throwing the competition - so I could win it.
Afterwards, his milky hand embraced my bowed, brown neck and whispered, "You really should come compete at the Nationals this year in Chicago as an Indie. It’s amazing. They’re gonna love you. If you need a place to crash, we don’t have much space, but you’re more than welcome to a spot on our hotel room floor."
The first lesson I learned from slam was also the most beautiful: the strength of community.
I competed in the National Poetry Slam in Chicago as an individual and finished 7th of over 200 competitors (incidentally, Daniel finished 8th), and I returned to Atlanta with a new passion, a greater vision. I aspired to expose Atlanta audiences to the life-changing performances I’d witnessed that summer. I wanted other Atlanta poets to experience the neon rainbow of voices, the communal nirvana of the National Poetry Slam experience. I wanted a community of poets here who, as I fed them, could feed me. And so I erected my own shining Jerusalem, Slam City!, which would become Atlanta’s first poetry series to field a team at the National Poetry Slam event.
I defined Slam City!‘s mission statement to reflect my own artistic vision: to bring a diverse, talented assemblage of poets (by ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, academic affiliation) together to be appreciated by a diverse assemblage of audiences. Which did not exist at the time in my native Atlanta; which is widely considered one of the most progressive Southern cities. And so I had to use my own work as the example, spreading the word into Atlanta’s various open mic communities to pull together my exercise in social engineering – Blacks, Whites, gays, lesbians, atheists, churchgoers, hip-hoppers, academics. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, I had to be the change I wished to see.
The results were better than I ever imagined: I funded two Atlanta teams, which both placed in the top 10, at the next two National Poetry Slams in Providence and Seattle. Librarians and teachers called on me to give writing workshops to adolescents all over metro Atlanta and the Southeast. Organizations consulted me for my expertise in designing multicultural poetry readings. More and more frequently, I rubbed shoulders with arts administrators, MFA’s, PhD’s, and other professionals. I emerged as a leader, not only in the slam arena, but in Atlanta’s larger literary community. And the personal recognition began to follow:
The Atlanta Bureau for Cultural Affairs awarded me the 2001 Emerging Artist grant. Slam City! was named as "Best Place to Hear Spoken Word" by critics and readers of the Atlanta alternative weekly, Creative Loafing. Atlanta’s PBS affiliate, WPBA, named me a Lexus Leader for the Arts for my service and commitment to building Atlanta’s literary community. I simultaneously rose as a performer, receiving invitations to feature at universities, libraries, and festivals all over the East Coast including: the National Black Arts Festival, the Turner Trumpet Awards, the Savannah Literary Festival, the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts Academy, and the University of Michigan. I even realized what had once seemed an impossible dream when I, 21 and awestruck, first cracked Miguel Algarin’s Aloud:
I could barely hold back the tears that January night in the Village when I, at 26, was the featured poet at the Nuyorican Poets Café.
While I had made remarkable strides as a leader and performer, I realized that there were still holes in my self-actualization. If I aspired to be a part of a community of great writers, it was my responsibility to do all that I could to make my own writing great, to place myself in environments where I could edify my craft. Again, I had to be the change I wished to see.
Ironically, the first workshop I took in this renewed effort was within the same four walls where I could not even see myself just eight years before - Georgia Tech. The university, as a result of a new alumni endowment, now offered community workshops in poetry. I enrolled in two of these 8-week workshops, led by Cecilia Woloch, and I began the blissful work of filling in my gaps. She exposed me to new voices – Anne Waldman, Anna Akhmatova, and Paul Celan. She pushed me to explore forms such as the pantoum, the blazon, the villanelle. And in an auxiliary component of the workshop, I assisted her in Georgia Tech’s outreach efforts of teaching poetry to at-risk youths in the Atlanta Public Schools. Subsequently, Cecilia offered me a fellowship to study at the 2003 Summer Poetry at Idyllwild, where I studied with Richard Garcia.
Here were environments where I grew and thrived. Here was where I belonged.
In the year since, I have continued to reach, venturing into writing essays and my first attempt at fiction. "The Gospel According to Queen James," received 2nd prize of over 300 entries in Creative Loafing’s 2004 Fiction Contest.
And while I continue to publish and hone my craft, continue to give workshops, and continue to work as an artist in my community, my toes itch for a giant leap. Which brings me to Antioch University for an MFA in Creative Writing.
I am drawn to Antioch because I am the living embodiment of its mission of strength in diversity and of the artist’s role in society. I come for the opportunities to continue to expand as a writer through its Mixed Genre degree option.
While my unique sequence of experiences have had their benefits, I also pursue an MFA to address its drawbacks: 1) I plan to increase my exposure to prosody and formal poetry. 2) In dialogues among colleagues from academia, I plan to ensure that I have a common vocabulary of writers - i.e. to close gaps in my reading. 3) I plan to sharpen my skills in literary criticism. (One of the greatest tragedies of slam as a burgeoning art form is, because of its theatre/poetry hybrid nature, it lacks a meaningful body of critical literature.)
While I have attained poetry publication credits in respectable literary journals, I also plan to use the MFA experience to complete my first full-length manuscript of poetry, to apply what I have learned from slam with what I learn in a structured MFA curriculum.
Lastly, as an Atlanta native, in my lifetime, I have watched the capital of the New South transform from a sleepy town into a limitless metropolis. In its struggle to be recognized as one of the world’s great cities, it – much like myself - has struggled with its identity – land of plantations or Olympic City, Civil Rights capital or center of America’s most ruthless serial killing of Black children. As New York, as Paris, as Moscow, as Lagos, there are no great cities without great literature. And there is no great literature without great writers. My goal is to create institutions to nurture Atlanta authors as we seek to define who we are beyond Gone with the Wind - to ourselves and to the world.
Since my undergraduate days, I have erected a writing career from the ground up. I have done this while engaged only part-time. Since the year I left Georgia Tech, I have supported myself employed full-time at a satellite communications firm. Obtaining an MFA in Creative Writing lays the foundation for me to fully self-actualize as a performer, as an educator, as a leader, as a voice. I am no longer the youth enchanted with symbols. I am the symbol.
I fashion my own way. I transform myself. I am the change I wish to see.
Saturday, August 07, 2004
I AM SORRY IF I OFFENDED YOU by c*mming all over your face.
When I asked you if we could take it to your balcony, I'll admit: I should have pulled my d*ck out of your mouth to let you respond. Instead, I throbbed, I thrust, I got lost in the cool pink pool sloshing around me.
If I could only find a language to describe how it feels when I grow inside of you... All I can say is this: My hands were tied when some dark, muscled 3-legged animal yanked the back of your head and dragged you, gagging, out onto the wooden open-air deck in the hazy afternoon light.
Clouds gathered as I stood tensing on the patio chair above you. My veiny hands engorged with power in each dark stroke that threatened to choke you. I felt like G_d. When a lone drop of spit glimmered before trickling down your cheek, I lost it.
I wanted sweet saliva streams running down your clavicle into the burnt caramel valley between your breasts. I wanted rivers to divide and join, unnamed, down the floodplain of your abdomen, meeting at the saltwater swelling between your thighs. I wanted fluids everywhere. I wanted you covered in rain.
I ached, I groaned, I arched my back in a wild f*cking of your mouth, but the sky would not break. I withdrew my dripping shaft, thwacking it back-&-forth across your face until you glistened. I wanted your hair, your eyes, your nose cologned in my musk. And when you clenched your eyes in a passing veil of innocence, even you would have been unable to resist leaning down into the inviting pinkness of your mouth. But I crossed the line when I made it rain:
Heaven rumbled with thunder as I spit. Fully engorged and throbbing, I spit. I reentered you and beat the back of your flooding throat till your stretched pink lips overflowed. Till our liquids dripped in spectral webs onto the wrought iron chair. Till our warm fluids pooled and stained the yellow pine deck.
I did hear the car horns. I could feel their eyes moving all over our flesh. I got carried away. You must know that a Leo will perform when given a stage. I just wish I could find the language to describe the sloppy sensuousness which your pinkness is. In the ephemeral light of that moment - the print of my d*ck in and out of your right cheek, spit racing down your straining neck, your damp black mess of hair - I shuddered. I couldn't control myself. I exploded.
At least I warned you it was coming.
Thursday, August 05, 2004
through ionized air. But her eyes are center
of the universe - twin suns blazing so brown
as to make brown iridescent. She makes the alien
races envious. Her skin, a brown hymn. When
God made the line of her smile, Heaven broke
in two. Each eyelash, a chord bending in Muddy
Waters' hands; each blink, a blues
song; each sidelong look, a jook joint
concert. Her hips, an upright bass I want to strum
long & slow with my bow, and I do
mean deeply. Her walk, a wicked bassline only
the devil could play. Each areola, a voodoo
spell I want to chant. Her curvatures
would make geometricians jealous. If hourglasses
could walk, she would leave me
with no past. Which is to say:
I ain't ever seen
Monday, August 02, 2004
"Like what?" I asked.
He answered, as if quoting Scripture. "A check swing. You never take a check swing on the first strike."
My senior year, I batted leadoff for our Varsity squad. A la Vince Coleman, a la Rickey Henderson, in Baseball Philosophy 101 the first lesson you learn as a leadoff hitter is that you are to always get on base - at any cost. But what you are not taught is how, if exercised properly, this philosophy will unintentionally poison other areas of your life.
Batting leadoff, you develop a hawk's eye for the strike zone. You measure. You dream in an imaginary rectangle 18 inches wide and not quite 24 inches tall - that is, the distance from your knee to your abdomen, when in your batter's crouch. You 6th-sense when the 85-mph hurtling white blur approaching you is a hoodoo curveball about to spin supernaturally back into a strike, or when the snake hasn't enough bite and will miss by a tooth. And when the pitch is to miss, you don't swing. You exercise the discipline of a monk. Bad pitches (and chance) are left to sluggers and clean-up men. There is a place in Leadoff Hitter Hell for those who venture beyond the zone. You don't strike out. You get singles, doubles, and collect walks with zeal. Your goal is to first and foremost get on base. You revel in possibility. A dragonfly on the basepads, you use lightning speed to force opposing fielders to make quick decisions and errors. And if, in the unlikely event that you do make an out, your job is to make the opposing team remember the experience - to make them endure hell for it. You leave every game with your uniform dirty. Anyone who sees you knows that you have played.
As a lead-off hitter, your thoughts are, more than any other batter in the line-up, not as an individual but for the greater good of the team. Exercising patience, you force the opposing pitcher's arm to hurl excessive pitches - weakening him for your teammates on deck. A 10-pitch at-bat is better than a 320 ft. flyout at the centerfield warning track. You are utilitarian. You fight for inches. You never dream beyond the fence. You adjust your swing's slant to hit ground balls and line drives. Fly balls are easy outs, are useless for the team. Bunting and hitting squibbles down the third base line, your glory is not in what lies beyond, but in putting the ball in the field of play.
At this point, I'd been playing baseball 13 years. Between head coaches, assistant coaches, and baseball camps, I'd had at least a dozen different hitting instructors and not once had I ever heard Paul's scripture on Swing Theory.
"Well, I wasn't sure it was a good pitch."
"Don't matter. You get three strikes. You only check-swing on the third strike. On the first two strikes," Paul said, matter-of-factly, "you swing for the fence."
I never swung for the fence. I assumed that the reason Paul hit so many more home runs (9) than me (1) was because of his size. He was 6'2", 190; I was 5'11", 145. It never occurred to me that the difference might be philosophical - in our approaches to the game. Every time Paul got up to the plate, his goal was to smash. Sure, Paul struck out a bit more than I did, but when he did hit...
Even when he didn't hit a home run, Paul frequently beamed white lasers on vectors into the vast green galaxies between darting outfielders, routinely threatened chaos in the order of centerfield's chainlink fence, 350 ft. away.
Living the philosophy of the Leadoff hitter, my batting average (hovering at .340) was nearly 20 points higher than Paul's. It also resulted in what I believed was my most impressive stat: For the entire season I'd only struck out 2 times in over 50 at-bats. But what did it really mean for me to rarely strike out?
Truth was: I wanted a clean swing-through with my bat pointing beyond the clouds. Truth was: I wanted to fly full throttle for triples uninterrupted, from pad to pad. Truth was: I wanted to bruise the rawhide's red stitches against the far left-field fence. Truth was: over the years, I'd trained myself to rarely swing that way. I batted not for the celestial glory of the beyond, but against the earthly fear of striking out.
My next at bat, I flied-out just short of the fence in left-center. But in my final at bat of that regular season - while I fell short of a home run, I swung at a fat pitch just above belt-high, just outside of the plate; I smashed a stand-up triple into the right/centerfield gap.
The question to myself: What was I really accomplishing in these, the greatest years of my youth, by playing it safe?
When Paul graduated that spring, he was drafted into the Seattle Mariners farm system.
Today, as a literary artist, the truth is: I still function as a leadoff hitter. I see the pitches coming and when they do not fall within the strike zone, I let them pass. I live in fear of striking out. Even where there is no umpire, even where there is no count. I
On this side, the inside, there is no audience - no one to witness when I lunge for a wild pitch and catch wind. Being an artist is like playing on an empty field, pitching and batting with your self.
Fourteen years after Paul's lesson, I watch another wild slider hurtling toward me. I must override the cautious impulse to let it pass. On this sacred diamond of self, it is rather noble - even vital - to reach beyond the zone; to lunge for the homerun, to take a full swing; to send the conceptual ball soaring beyond the field of play, beyond the fence and into the stands; to place Ayodelean dreams where uncharted throngs await with reaching hands.