Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Not Quite a Gray Hair, but...

BACK IN THE DAY, EVERY FALL meant a brand new pair of sneakers. And with it, a brand new chance to jump up (or down) the Cedar Grove social ladder.

And when it came to Candy Furcron (the only girl in the 4th grade with titties), you couldn't even think about kickin game to her (or climbing her ladder, for that matter) if you ain't have the right kicks.

Are those Pro Wings? You are WICK-WICK-WHACK! Step off!

As it turned out, I couldn't step to Candy anyway. But that's another story. But at least I didn't have to step off because of my shoes!

In '84, my white and blue Cortez Nikes wz classic. In '85, my white Asahi's wz live. In '86, my gray Adidas wz in da mix. And in '88, my black Le Coq Sportif's wz straight!

But at some point in my life, my feet stopped growing. Instead, I had to. Read: My folks put a period to too-extravagantly-priced kicks.

(On the real, when Air Jordans came out at $100 a pop, my parents put a period to all of that.)


This past Tuesday, I went shopping for a new pair of sneakers. This would be my first pair this decade. And this century. And this millennium. Suffice it to say, I was overdue.

Amid the towering aisles of the Nike Factory Outlet, I got dizzy, I was so out of touch. Dozens and even hundreds of shoes, but all my 30-year-old eyes could see were price tags:

Ooh, $54.99!

Ooh, ooh, $44.99!

Ooh, ooh, ooh, only $39.99!

The shoes themselves? One big blur of rubber, leather, and plastic.

No. Too many colors.

No, no. Too much sparkle.

No, no, no. Too much... money.

What happened to my cutting-edge sense of style? Every pair I settled on was $39 and blue gray silver white on white. Am I becoming corny? Or worse, am I becoming... old? I quickly scanned nearby for a... (it pains me to say this) young person's opinion. Noooooooooo!!!

With it being lunch hour on a weekday, naturally, no young person was around. Was the air getting thick? I started having hallucinations of me performing in front of a class of high schoolers with all of their eyes focused on... my corny shoes!

I scrambled for some other reference point. I scanned the names of the various Nike product lines for any name that might seem familiar from a rap song. My Adidas? No. Um, Air Force Ones? Where are Nelly and G-Unit to validate my consumer decision when I need them?

Ayo, gain your bearings.

1. Are Nikes even cool?

2. Okay, okay. Are you even cool?

3. Okay, okay, okay. Are there even any cool people in this store?
I looked around. Aha! Here was my answer.

Where you find cool people, you will find cool shoes! This Nike Factory store looked to be holding a casting call for the Miller High Life ad campaign.


And so, I passed beer belly- Excuse me, sir - after beer belly - Excuse me, sir - stroller after stroller, and left the store empty handed. Into October, blinded by turning leaves, I dreamed of a world filled with cool sneakers. I sighed.

Maybe tomorrow I'll try... the Adidas store?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Genealogy of the Byrd Family: The Backstory

SO, I'VE BEEN DOING TIME at this company a little over X years, just a little longer than my co-worker (let’s call him… Eddie.) Eddie’s just over 30. He’s what some would call… royalty. Growing up on that fine line between The Backwoods and The Country, he’s a Queen trapped in a hillbilly’s body.

To cope with his lack, Eddie’s become what psychiatrists call a megalomaniac.

We just call him a liar.

Eddie also exercises what I call blind bigotry. Black, Asian, Mexican, gay, or straight, when he stereotypes, he doesn’t discriminate. Even without my embellishment, Eddie’s quite the character. But I tolerate him because it’s all part of the package—overbearing supervisors, whining clients, annoying co-workers. It’s a job. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 some-odd weeks a year, etc. It’s not in my best interest to create any extra stress.

If you can name a place at the most distant corner of the Earth—from Pisswater, Pennsylvania to the temples of Timbuktu—Miss Scarlet O’hara has been there, done it, and gotten the tee shirt. Not only does she have the tee shirt, but there’s a famous street there named for her Great Uncle’s Brother’s Cousin (who, in a different family tree, happens to be his sister) on his Mother's side.

And in that distant corner of the earth, there’s the fabulous best friend there named Nepali or Nefertoto [OR INSERT OTHER FUNKY SOUNDING ETHNIC NAME HERE] who stays in a mansion with grand Victorian columns (whether in a city or a jungle, whether in South Philly or the South Pacific) where they eat fresh shark and shrimp before going out for cocktails on the best friend’s yacht which, naturally, docks at the front door.

Same story, different places—road named after Eddie's family, Victorian columns, and everything. In hindsight, it's really quite pathetic. But pity doesn't make for good drama. What makes for good drama is this: I am Black and Eddie is White; and, in the world of these cubicles, that makes all the difference.

So, I am sitting in my cubicle, a corporate slave, minding my own business, blinking at the blinking cursor (that would be, doing my job) when, out of the blue Eddie asks, “Hey, Marvin. Your last name’s Heath, right?”

Now, Eddie’s had to e-mail me more times than I care to count over the past 4 years. Though his grammar and spelling are as broke-down as his trashy excuse for a childhood, they’re good enough to know my last name.

Plus, an Eddie question is never just a question. It’s a set up. So, I brace for the worst.

“Yeah, my last name is Heath.”

“Well, my cousin Dixie, Dixie Flagg [I wish I were kidding], is dating this new guy, Parker, Parker Heath. He's from The Heaths of south Georgia. Parker's got these beautiful blue eyes and this gorrrrrgeous, curly blonde hair. And Dixie's blonde... oh, they're gonna have such beautiful children! Anyway, Parker's family is really rich and lives down there near Columbus. Isn’t that where you said your people were from?”

“Yes,” I say, feeling suddenly nauseous.

“He's got a Mercedes for work, another Mercedes for the weekend, and another one that he just keeps parked in the garage. Anyway, these Heaths, they're big in textiles. I'm sure you've heard of them, haven't you?"


"Well, they’ve had money since, like, way before the Civil War. Anyway, Dixie was telling me about this really cool mill that Parker took her to last weekend. A mill that his family, the Heaths, still own.

“I don't know," Eddie's voice twanged like a poorly-tuned banjo, "but I wonder if you and him are related..."


Genealogy of the Byrd Family

My Mama maiden name is Byrd. Word is
da name came from my Great-Great-Great Granddaddy Junie
who useta catch da Holy Ghost in da cottonfields
spinnin’ round & spreadin’
his long black arms, wide like wings against da sky—
Dey say like dat eagle who teach da angels
how to fly.

But Big Mama Sadie say, Unh, unh.
Dat name come from Great-Great-Great-Great Auntie Boo
who useta lead da worksongs in da canefields
with an alto so high&sweet
she made da bluest hummingbirds dance
& da greenest cane lean down & weep rivers
of brown sugar.
Sweet Jesus!

But Big Uncle Toonkie say, Naw naw naw
Dat name come from Great-Great-Great Great-Great Grandpapa Adika
who on da ninety-ninth lash in da ricefield
finally fell to his knees before da overseer
turned east toward Africa (Glory)
sprouted wings like a sankofa* (Oh glory!)
rose toward freedom &jus
flew away!
Good God Almighty!

Dat’s what dey say.

But da truth of da matter
is dat Byrd come to us from a Carolina slavemasta
who folk in England ran dis ol’ country inn
dat for generations came to be known da whole kingdomwide
for dey collection of exotic African birds
which never flew,
but which dey kept
caged-up inside.

* sankofa: a bird of Ghanian mythology whose
head faces the opposite direction of its body so
that, even as it advances, its eye is constantly
on its past. From Akan, translated literally:
One must return to the past to move forward.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

MFA Application Update (4 of 4)

This just in from New England College:

Dear Marvin,

We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the Master of Fine Arts Program in Poetry at New England College. Your application materials indicate that you have the talent and ability to succeed in this highly selective program.

We have enclosed important information about the structure and philosophy of our MFA program. During the January 2004 residency,
Marilyn Nelson and Michael Waters joined our already outstanding staff. Alicia Ostriker and Judith Hall joined us this past summer. The extraordinary range of our prominent faculty offers a seasoned, as well as diverse pedagogical presence. Students and faculty comprise a vital creative community at the NEC MFA Program, complementing the...

So, here we are.

Four months ago, I had no undergraduate degree, and no foreseeable plan out of cubicle life.

Two months ago, I had 4 application packets and a prayer that 1 admissions committee would be willing to look beyond the blemishes in my academic record.

Today, I have 2 rejection letters, but also, more importantly, 2 acceptances. Today, I have choices!


I suppose here the string section should start. And the narrator should say something inspirational about stepping out on faith, or about attempting the impossible. But that is the language of endings, and this is just a beginning. I've waited 10 long years.

Now, my friends, I'm ready to start.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Lord, a Prince... a King?

I FIRST TRIED TO LEARN THE LORD'S prayer from an 80's pop song. Which is to say I didn't grow up very religious.


Why I learned the Lord's Prayer is not because I survived some harrowing near-death experience like, say, surviving a gunshot a quarter-inch from my heart, or narrowly missing being smashed by a bus; rather I learned it so I wouldn't be embarrassed by not knowing it again on the second day of 8th grade football practice during team prayer. If you will recall, one of the worst things you can do as a teenager is to stand out.

To conclude the first day of practice, Coach H___ton, at one end of the litmus blue sky, said, "Let us bow our heads."

Our Father, began the voice with fifty throats.

Startled, my eyes darted from face to face. Every mouth was moving but mine. The sound that September, like Doom.

I grew small.

Weeds and briars, like bony fingers, crept in through the chain-link fence. The woods, more dark than green, grew taller and taller in the fading summer light. Four walls of pines leaned in with covetous branches, each to reclaim me, the unholiest of the dandelions, from the weed-infested field-

I panicked.

What is this? And when did they all learn it? My God! Was that thunder?

I'm sorry, now I've taken Your name in vain.

What will they think if they see I don't know the words? What will You think? Does this make me a heathen, Lord? Please, oh please, just don't let anyone open their eyes!

Already damp from end-of-practice suicide sprints, my palms tingled; my sticky back ran with sweat.

As they recited in unison, I tried to mentally record the prayer, Hallowed be thy name. Yet the cadence - thy kingdom come... thy will be done... - seemed vaguely familiar.

Is that... Yes! Yes! It's "Controversy" from Prince! All that's missing is the electronic synthesizer. God, if You just let me make it through to Amen, I promise I'll go straight home, find the record, and learn this prayer. Tonight!

After dinner, before even showering, I leapt eight steps in a single bound, up to my room, to search my skimpy album collection for the Prince cut that would be my saving grace.

(Why didn't I look in the Bible? Because, Tammy, I didn't even know what the prayer was called!)

Unfortunately, my obesession with Prince began in 1984 with Purple Rain. That would be three years after the Controversy album. Which, it turned out, I did not have.


Next, I rummaged through the hand-scribbled titles in my collection of gray Maxxell cassettes - T'pau's "Heart & Soul," Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's "Head to Toe," Beastie Boys' "Brass Monkey," MC Shy D's "Got to Be Tough." I know I have this song somewhere. God, why are you doing this to me! If I show up tomorrow without knowing the words, it'll be worse than having my mom show up at school in hair rollers - worse even than wearing highwater pants!

The Prince song was nowhere to be found. I was running out of time. Besides, I had Geometry homework to do.

To take my mind off of my unbearable 13-year-old stress, I bisected some obtuse angles. Then, I showered.

The preceding nights, the Sleep Fairy had skipped over my bed. Today, I was beat-down from the first day of practice. Which is to say I was tired. I prepared for bed.

Before I learned the art of self-pleasure, I got my nighttime kicks from horror. At 13, my obessession was Stephen King.

I'd already consumed Pet Sematary [sic], The Dark Half, and The Dark Tower that summer. My reading that night happened to be the vampire tale, Salem's Lot.

As the minute-hand neared 2:30, I rose to shut the moon out of my window.

But vampires continued to multiply throughout the night, rattling burglar bars, scratching at shutters, whispering at the foot of the stairs. As I descended deeper and deeper into the chapters, every creak - every silence - made me jump.

My heart raced uncontrollably as Father Callahan stood over the bloodless body of the young Danny Glick in a graveyard. The darkness was consuming.

Which is when, buried among the pages of Stephen King, no less, I stumbled on this:

Our Father, who art in Heaven...

No way! I read on.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth, as it is...

My God! Could it be? But does it end the same way coach ended it in practice?

...the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.


I stayed up till nearly 4 that morning reciting the Lord's Prayer, as one ghoul after another peeped through my pane.

But with the prayer securely in memory, I fell fast asleep for a full two hours. Better than I'd slept in days.

I was fully prepared for whatever tomorrow might bring.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

A Brief History of Okra: Master's Take

Found in its wild
state on the floodplain of the Nile, Okra arrived
at the Port of New Orleans circa 1700 - germs stored
in a drum. NOTE: Start

okra from seed. It does not transplant
well. It is best planted
directly in Southern soil
after all danger

of frost has passed. RULE
OF THUMB: Keep the plants
separated. Okra seeds
are large, easy to handle, but they need

warm weather to grow well; which means
in Northern climes, you may not have
much of a crop. Picking
pods while wet may darken

the skin. They may seem bitter
at first, son, but really, the taste
is not affected. Unlike
her cousin, Cotton, Okra's showy

yellow flower will bloom jus one
day each year. Jus make sho
that day don't last

too long.

Monday, October 11, 2004

What I Did Sunday Night

"I'M GONNA RAPE your d*ck till it bleed!" the red-head screamed repeatedly, at what must've been 90 Decibels*.

*According to the League for the Hard of Hearing, 90 Decibels is the approximate noise level of:

A) a tractor

B) a shouted conversation

C) a garbage disposal

Had I actually been naked and in bed with Gi__, the thought of having my d*ck raped till I bled would've had me a little concerned. Fortunately, I was not naked, but rather fully-clothed and emceeing the 2nd Sunday Slam at Java Monkey Coffeehouse in Decatur.

The 2nd Sunday Slam is the resurrection of Atlanta slam after 3 years of slamlessness - three years since I last hosted Slam City! at the now-defunct Paradigm Artspace in Midtown in 2001. The 2nd Sunday Slam will serve as the local track to the 2005 National Poetry Slam in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This past Sunday's event was the first of 6 monthly qualifiers for the final 2005 Atlanta team selection in May.

Ten poets signed up to compete. Gi__, the 6th poet in the first round, delivered the evening's 4th rant.

rant [n.]: violent, high-sounding, or extravagant language, without dignity of thought; noisy, boisterous, and bombastic talk or declamation; as the rant of the deranged.

Supposedly, this rant was about turning the sexist notion of rape on its head (no pun intended), as the poet speaker took on the persona of a ruthless female rapist. Actually, it was a crock of-

Well, let's just say that it could have been a lot more artfully done.

I took the stage to call for the judges' scores. And when I couldn't tell if C__rr__'s scorepad said 6 or 0, I seriously began to question what I'd gotten myself into.

Several in the audience had never seen a slam before and many had negative perceptions regarding slam's lack of artistry, lack of literary quality, its rah-rah-rantiness. Yet here was my face attached to a what was become a giant rantfest!

I_o_, the 6'4", offensive-linesman-sized penultimate reader of the first round, ranted so hard he broke the microphone to pieces.

No, you're not hearing me. Literally, when I_o_ left the stage, the microphone, which was whole when he started, ended up on the floor in separate pieces.

I wish I were kidding.


Before you get to thinking that the event was a total disaster, let me tell you the ways (largely because of Kodac's motley core audience at his weekly open mic series) in which it was a runaway success:

  • the audience was very diverse by age, by race, by gender
  • 6 of the 10 competitors were women (women are typically underrepresented in slam)
  • the performers were ethnically diverse
  • the audience was amped - enthusiastic and extremely responsive to the performers
  • the outdoor patio at Java Monkey was packed beyond packed - to the point that a small crowd was gathered outside the gate on the Church St. sidewalk
  • the show started on-time, 8:00 p.m., and ended at 10:10, which included a 10-15 minuted intermission
  • not a single one of the entrants was a bad performer - even the evening's lowest scorer was engaging
  • there were at least 4 writers who had me excited about their potential, one of whom actually won.
Aside from the internal drama I was dealing with in my previous Venting: Poetry Politics in Atlanta post - about my feeling like the Uncle Ben on this box of rice - now I was struggling with this swelling tide of ranting and with its possible long-term effects on this newborn slam series.

Did the audience contain potential performers who would be intimidated by the bombardment of yelling and screaming thus far? Might these people who were not yellers or screamers never compete because they thought this was the only way to slam? Would there be others who'd never before attended a slam event, who might now write it off as the Dogma of the Deranged?

Something needed to balance the event.

Fortunately, at this kickoff slam, I would also be the featured poet. My mission: To break the box - to shatter many long-standing myths which the first round, unfortunately, was reinforcing about slam.

1) The only way to deliver a poem is to SCREAM at the top of your lungs.
2) Anger is the only valid emotion.

For my first poem, I did "Conjurewoman," which is quiet, playful and seductive.

3) Poems must be memorized.
4) Political poems must contain at least five words ending in -ism, ten words ending in -tion, and must all directly reference President Bush or some other conservative villain in public office.

For my 2nd poem, I read the, again quiet, "On a Fieldtrip to the Botanical Gardens, Kenya Gets a Lesson (Not in the Lesson Plan)," which addresses colorism, reading from the text in my hand.

5) Poems must use the entire three minutes.

For my 3rd poem, I did the 45-second, "Uncle Charlie Comes to da Family Reunion."

6) Hip-hop vernacular is the only acceptable language.

For my 4th poem, I performed the 'literary' "The Dreamlife of Dr. Bledsoe's Inner Pickaninny."

7) Hip-hop posturing (that awful b-boyish gesturing with the hands) is the only acceptable range of body movement.

For my 5th poem, I did the Black rural vernaculared, Baptist-church-inspired "Genealogy of the Byrd Family."

8) If an audience is not vocally responding by laughing or hooting during your performance, then it doesn't work as a slam poem.

I closed with the somber, "Elegy for 7 (the Space Shuttle Poem)" which leaves an audience, unsure whether to even clap - that is, largely silent.


At the end of my set, my eyes were shut. I held the final moment of the Columbia disaster.

My first thought, before I opened my eyes, was that I was proud of how I had represented the art form to the audience. Sure they hooted and cheered the ranters before, but I cared less that they had the time of their lives and more that they saw different possibilities of slam. I wanted them to stretch. I wanted them to think.

To my surprise, my eyes opened to a standing ovation.


Overall, the slam was high-energy, even if light on poetry. with genuine moments of honesty and bravery - lots of raw talent that needs to be challenged to think outside of the box.

Theresa Davis, Adriana, and the winner, a crafty blonde-dreadlocked poet, Bryan (who got five 10's on the night), all looked very promising for this new season. I'm excited about watching them grow.

"Thanks for doing this," Bryan said afterwards, "for us."

And I thought (reluctantly), Maybe this won't be so bad after all.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Reading the Room: On Set-Selection in Performance Poetry

"WHAT ARE YOU doing?" __l_i_ asked, as I scribbled on a sheet of paper, scanning the audience of the 9/11 reading at the Carter Center.

"Deciding what poems I'm gonna do in my set."

"But aren't you up next?"


He scrunched his brow. "Isn't it a little late for you to be doing that?"

It is a question I have asked myself, oh, probably a couple of hundred times. That would be roughly the number of times that I've been a featured performer to this point in my 9-year literary career. You'd think something like Wisdom might set in and teach me a lesson - that I'd grow weary of the frantic last-minute scrambling moments before taking the stage. But if you are a poet, or any speaker/performer for that matter, who frequently presents in public, then you already understand, if you desire to be effective, some degree of uncertainty is part of the territory.

Outsiders may perceive it as a lack of preparedness, of irresponsibility - may chalk it up to the flighty nature of artists. But I assure you there is a method to my madness! It boils down to what is the cardinal rule in effective communication. Whether preaching to Pentacostals or reciting poetry to college faculty; whether singing for the Pope or crooning at a New Orleans speakeasy; whether writing an article for Hustler magazine or an essay to a graduate admissions committee, it is essential to know your audience.

Sure, if you're performing for a niche audience such as the local NAACP chapter or a Women's History Month event, then it is, of course, possible (and advisable) to research the audience and preselect a set. But most audiences are not so specialized, and you really have no idea who you will be reading for until you arrive at the event. Further, even when describing their predicted audience to you in advance, in this age of political-correctness, event organizers are sometimes not so straightforward, leaving you in a situation which was not quite what you bargained for.

So, through my years of performing for random selections of judges at National Poetry Slams in Chicago, Providence, and Seattle, and while performing at dozens upon dozens of other more specialized venues across the country, I have fine-tuned a skill for "knowing your audience" on an impromptu basis. I call it 'Reading the Room.'

But before I go any further, let me provide some examples of the rather unlikely places I've wound up reading poems to an audience that, in some way, was not quite what I'd expected. Hopefully, this will illustrate why reading the room - as opposed to approaching a gig with an etched-in-stone set list - is such a priceless skill. Just imagine yourself in each of the following situations, five minutes before going on-stage:

  • a redneck bar in Americus, GA
  • an assembly of high schoolers in Pittsburgh, PA, their parents frantically removing them from school on September 11th, just after the 3rd plane has crashed in a field less than 60 miles away
  • the out-to-humiliate-you producers of the game show, Weakest Link, in Hollywood, CA
  • a Christian singles conference
  • an Atlanta hip-hop club, where there has been a scheduling mix-up resulting in the deejay abruptly yanking the music, clearing the dancefloor, and contemptuously shouting at clubgoers, Sit down, now we're gonna hear some poetry.
  • a room of 1st graders at Queen of Angels Catholic school in north Atlanta
  • the Artistic Director and Assistant Artistic Director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre
  • a Republican fundraiser (billed as a My South party) in NY, NY during the 2004 Republican Natl Convention
  • following a 50+ member gospel choir at the 2004 Turner Trumpet Awards Black Cultural Explosion in an event featuring former member of Arrested Development, Dionne Ferris; comedian, Ricky Smiley; opera singer, Djore Nance; jazz violinist, Karen Briggs; and Gospel singer, Smokie Norful

Now, hopefully you understand that it would be the equivalent of performance suicide to take the same 15-minute set of poems and read them to all of the aforementioned rooms. Obviously, what works in a captive room of first graders at a Catholic school is not best-suited for an audience of liquored-up hip-hoppers whose groove has been disrupted by your unexpected poetry performance.

So, what exactly am I doing when I am reading the room? Well, I am doing the antithesis of what I preach in the majority of my own work: I am stereotyping.

I survey the room by demographic - race, age, gender, religion, education, class, sexual orientation, etc. Then, I base my set selection on, say, 75% what I think will make the audience comfortable in subject matter and diction and, say, 25% of what I think will make them squirm or stretch. My personal goal is to make audiences, after one of my performances, see - 1) poetry, 2) Black people, and 3) themselves - in a new light.

But first of all, let me say that the wider your range of material, the greater your possibility for success. And by wide range I mean by subject matter as well as by level of diction. If most of your material, for example, bashes women, then chances are you're not going to be very effective at an AKA sorority luncheon. If all of the poems in your repertoire are written in metered Elizabethan English, then chances are you won't be very captivating to a classroom of inner-city 6th graders. Or if your poems are colored with four-letter words, then you're probably not going to be reinvited to read at the nunnery. You may think that these things are common sense, but many of you readers have seen, with your own eyes, the number of otherwise 'educated' poets, who make even wronger badder less sensible choices.

So, here, I'll present you a short list of poems in my repertoire to show how I make the decisions whether or not to perform them, as I 'read the room' at a venue:


I perform this poem whenever I'm in a majority Black room, in a church, or in a primary/secondary school. Because of its conversational diction, it is easily accessible for younger and less poetry-savvy audiences. I do try to limit performing in Atlanta because everyone's seen it before. If I am in the South outside of Atlanta, I perform it for any audience, regardless of race because of its Southern themes.

I very rarely perform it in universities or other quiet audiences where the crowd is very literate because it's been my experience that these audiences are put off by the melodrama of my performance. Further, academic types view this piece in the way that adults view Now&Laters or Jolly Ranchers: Anything that sugary couldn't possibly be good for you.

"The Dreamlife of Dr. Bledsoe's Inner Pickaninny"

I perform this poem when the audience is very literate - universities, bookstores. Ideally, the audience is racially mixed. Because it blatantly confronts Black stereotypes, people (Black and White) uncomfortable with themselves don't know whether it's okay to laugh. I enjoy the tension it creates.

"Genealogy of the Byrd Family"

I consider this poem the most theatrical in my repertoire, so I very rarely perform this poem at readings with academics. Also, I rarely perform it in Atlanta, unless it is an audience of mostly people who've never seen me before. I also tend to perform in medium-to-larger spaces with audiences of 100 or greater because of the exagerrated body movements. I prefer to perform this when a room's natural acoustics are good, so that I can be off-mic. The ideal space is a black box theatre.

"Urban Percussions"

The most stereotypically 'Black spoken word artist'-ish piece in my repertoire, I rarely perform this poem because it is over 4 minutes long. When I do perform it, it tends to be one of two audiences: 1) predominantly Black males adolescents who think Trick Daddy should be Atlanta's poet laureate (to show them there's another way), or 2) people like me - Black and White twenty- or thirty-somethings who grew up with A Tribe Called Quest stickers plastered all over their high school lockers.

"Conjuring the Whole Note"

I tend to perform this in very quiet rooms, mostly among academics when I don't feel like rocking the boat. The narrative is loose and the subject a bit more abstract. If I perform it in a room for a general audience, it is one of the poems I typically use to make them stretch.

"Elegy for 7 (the Space Shuttle Poem)"

Because this poem requires a lot from me in performance, I tend to perform it when the audience is giving me a lot of energy. Also, since I don't perform it often, I tend to reserve it for medium-to-large audiences - say, 100 or greater. I prefer that the room is mixed by race, gender, and age - that the audience somehow reflects America. The ideal space is a black box theatre.

"The Tragic Mulatto, or One-Drop Rules Hits the Silver Screen"

I perform this only in racially-mixed rooms because it makes everyone uncomfortable. The older the crowd, the better - particularly if they have memory of separate-but-equal facilities. This is another poem to make audiences stretch.


I never perform this poem for young audiences. I like to perform it most in a racially-mixed mature audience because it places the Black woman on a pedestal, and I want the whole world to see.


Here, in a tribute to old-school hip-hop I'm actually rapping! I reserve this for young audiences and 30-40 year-old audiences. Ideally, there are two microphones and I call someone from the crowd to beatbox on-stage. I would never perform it for an audience of serious hip-hop heads for fear I'd be laughed off the stage! Because it includes audience participation, it's mainly for fun.


So, the next time you're at an event and see a poet administering a cure for insomnia, or any other performer losing his audience, make the world a better place and pass along this tip:

Read the room.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

A Sharecropper's Pantoum

It seems persistence pays off. After being rejected from at least half a dozen journals - Atlanta Review, Crab Orchard Review, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Southwest Review - my poem, "A Sharecropper's Pantoum" has finally found a home in Mississippi Review's upcoming issue on "The Poetry of Politics":

Dear Marvin,

I am writing to let you know that we are happy to have chosen your excellent poem "A Sharecropper's Pantoum" for inclusion in our October issue of the Mississippi Review Online. Excellent work on a tough poem to pull off.

If you would please let me know as soon as possible if you would like us to use the bio you originally sent, or send me a different, brief bio to be posted on the site, we would very much appreciate it.

Thanks for the excellent work!

Best regards,

A Sharecropper’s Pantoum
for a dry season

The drug cocktails that have slashed the mortality rate of
HIV-positive people in the U.S. and Western Europe, are
all but non-existent in Haiti. [O]nly 3 percent to 4 percent
of people with AIDS [there] have access to the newest drugs.
—Alfredo S. Lanier, The Chicago Tribune

Hauling this pine box on a black Chevrolet,
I pray to a candle at the end of its wick.
White burial clothes in a garbage bag,
I ride for a place to die.

I pray to a candle at the end of its wick
on the mud road home from Port-au-Prince
and ride toward a place to die
where mangoes hang and sugarcane turns.

By the dust road home from Port-au-Prince,
I am a black skeleton—6 feet tall, yet 90 pounds—
where mangoes hang and sugarcane burns.
I turned the earth before I got this thing.

A lesioned skeleton—a rainbow tall, now 70 pounds—
I dream across the waters and of the miracles there
and turn to earth in the jaws of this thing:
eyes—black holes, lungs—green clouds.

Dreaming across the waters and of the miracles there,
white burial clothes in a garbage bag,
eyes—black holes, lungs—green clouds,
I haul this pine box in a black Chevrolet.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Venting: Poetry Politics in Atlanta

IT'S NO SECRET THAT the only reason Dan V_ach invited me to be on the board of Poetry Atlanta is because the Fulton County Arts Council Atlanta Bureau for Cultural Affairs organizations from whom he was receiving grant money gave him an ultimatum: Either you will blacken up diversify your board, or we will decline your next application for grant money .

Dan V_ach would be the epicurean editor of the Atlanta Review, the most nationally renowned of Atlanta's literary journals, a journal which has rejected my work 3 times, a journal in which the only way I would ever be published as a person of color would be if I rafted across the Atlantic, survived an ethnic cleansing, and post-marked my poems from Eritrea or Liberia or some other exotic African nation Dan's Eurocultured a$$ would have to consult a Swahili dictionary to pronounce and a 2004 World Atlas to locate.

READ: The only thing my regular ol BlackAmerican a$$ is good enough for is to be a token for diversity in his grant application for public money.

Or to change the brake fluid in his Volvo.

And how did I find out that I was a token? Well, one Saturday morning over coffee, Dan told me to my face!

"These public arts organizations, the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, seemed to think that we at Poetry Atlanta weren't representing the interests of the citizens of their communities," he said. "Occasionally, in maybe every other issue, we will publish a person from Atlanta or Fulton County. But we are a very diverse publication. We publish poets from Russia, Greece, and Ireland. Once, we even published a poem handwritten on a napkin, from a poet who didn't have a typewriter, from Africa. But apparently, for them, that isn't enough.

He adjusted his glasses. "I'm the editor and they're not going to blacken control what goes into my magazine. So, I'm creating this colored community board that will focus on projects serving Atlanta and Fulton County. Which is why you are here. Once I get the money from Atlanta and Fulton County this year, my plan is to get enough funding from private donors where I won't need their public money anymore."

But the fact is, Dannyboy, today you do need their public money. And if you had any social consciousness - not to mention integrity - you wouldn't need the government stepping in to tell you that, if you're going to use tax dollars for something, that something needs to serve the needs of the people paying the taxes! You f*cking conscienceless snob!

As a result of this new community board and the projects he promised, the local governments gave Dan all the money he asked for. Hooray, Dan.

And so, it seems that the crown jewel project involves me organizing a slam, which would be breaking a promise I made to myself: That if I ever organized another slam event, I would treat it as a for-profit business venture.

Call me a greedy capitalist, but the fact is the last time I organized a slam in 2001, I lost roughly $1500 dollars. Fifteen f*cking hundred dollars! That would be the cost of me watching the sunset in South Africa, or bronzing on a beach in Brazil. But it would also be the cost of flying 4 poets from Atlanta to the 2001 National Poetry Slam in Seattle, housing us for 5 days, and renting a car for us to get around. I did it because I believed in something - a something I didn't need the f*cking government to make me believe in. And I so believed in it that I used my own money.

Do I regret it? No.

But do I want to do it again? Hell no!

Running a successful slam series is hard f*cking work, and I consider what I did in 2001 paying dues. Now, I would charge four figures to organize, emcee, and perform at a slam event. And Dan wants me to do a monthly series starting in October, not to put four figures in my pocket, but to help him acquire grant money? F*ck off, Dan!

Too good to go to the Negro readings, Dan? Afraid some of the color will rub off? Here's a thought: Why don't we move the slam to Bankhead Court (see if you can find that in your World Atlas) and have you emcee the slam yo-damn-self!


Naturally, Ayo would never say any of these things. And he won't.

Next Sunday, October 10, at 8:00 p.m., he will be there, Uncle Tom grin and all, hosting the Java Monkey slam in Decatur. And who will know the better?

So why is he doing it? Kodac Harrison. But that's a story for another time.

In the moments Ayodele feels he will combust, he will chant his own name to himself for peace.

If you haven't discovered it already, being Black in America is an Oscar-worthy performance.

Java Monkey Slam
Every 2nd Sunday, beginning Oct. 10
Church St.
Decatur, GA

Friday, October 01, 2004

Lovesong of the Eschatologist

Love, I have fallen desperately
out of orbit, clutching only this blazing heart-
shaped chute. Even after you were the last
oxygen molecule in my vacuous universe, I inhaled
deeply. I consumed you. By the time these echoes
of light reach you, I will be a lost constellation
of half-truths; a brazen horizon
fallen; a thousand starry bones tossed
from your door of diamond flame. Will you
forever behold me in this fractured prism
of light? Even after I've drifted light
years away from you? Why fossilize this moment
I've dreaded for so long? - the end

of my world. Will my unborn, too,
gather light in hollow mouths & blow
blue moons? Will the lunar winds forever moan
Etta James? Look, what can be more earnest than I
beating my cavernous chest, till my fists shatter
into rings of ice? My forsaken love blossoms
for you, like a monstrous mushroom
cloud. I loved you wholly, the only way
I knew how. With my whole heart, even
the darkest part. Which is the black hole
that softly devoured