Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Being the Change

A poet is an unhappy being whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music... and then people crowd about the poet and say to him: "Sing for us soon again;" that is as much as to say, "May new sufferings torment your soul.".
- 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.


2 comments:

Collin said...

Ayo...this is excellent. As an editor, I see a few sentences that could probably be reworded for a better read, but overall this is fantastic. If I were running the MFA program, I'd let you in. :)

BLUE said...

i am nearly speechless at how beautiful it can be to stay honest. you already know this moved me to tears ... why? because you sliced the life open and let me see it freely bleeding. lifeblood has never run more red or deep. thank you for this. thank you, at last, for arriving at YOU. light! ~BLUE