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Journal, Day Three
34 Concord Avenue, 3rd Floor
[Listening to The Roots Game Theory and staring at this upright Steinway piano in my studio with the tall, glass vase of (tiger?) lilies I inherited from my friend and studio neighbor Anna Shuleit as she was booking it out of town. The air is resonant with their dying. I’ve not bothered to sweep away the fallen leaves off the black and ivory keys.]
Well, reader, I think I’ve clocked my 14th sleepless night this year. Hold the applause. Normally, I average about two per month. Ever since senior year in high school, I have developed this unremitting anxiety and angst-filled relationship with Time (yes, a few significant events happened that year, which will remain between me and my future therapist), which expresses itself in a kind of hopeless restlessness as the late hours approach, a rising kind of agitation.
To be frank, I think I am addicted to wakefulness, the great portal to my imagination and storehouse of odd images bursting at the threshold of consciousness seeking release in the wee hours. I care to know nothing about the I word, so have not scheduled a visit to my primary care physician. To say I have been ambivalent about being cured or drugged nightly is to miss how crucial and important I believe it is to my poetry. I can nearly feel my spirit untangling all those accumulated and layered sense impressions and felt experiences. I am not alone when I say that I like the access it gives me to my unconscious, not to mention the spirit world, passing over what some cultures refer to as the Kalunga line. Sometimes, I hallucinate, like tonight, you should have seen these large clef notes, the size of bats, flittering above my head. Earlier, the scent of butterscotch flooded my mouth. It’s not that I cannot fall asleep if I lay down; I just care not to.
34 Concord Avenue, 3rd Floor
[Pacing my office, listening to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” that driving rhythm. I set off the alarm in the Radcliffe offices 10 minutes ago in the quest for water; fortunately, I know the code, but the Harvard police have arrived and I hear their voices and the crackling of their shoulder radio’s going off downstairs. I’ll turn down my music and be as still as possible. I bet you wonder why?]
I’ll get on a plane at Logan Airport in four hours for a flight to Indianapolis; have lunch with Abby Smith, mom of one of my favorite UVM students Lily Smith, whose honor thesis on ekphrastic poetry I am directing from afar. Afterwards, I’ll catch a ride to Bloomington, Indiana with great thanks to poet Catherine Bowman for inviting me to speak to her students and read my work.
Indianapolis was the final home of Mpozi Tolbert, an extraordinary photographer for the Indianapolis Star, and one of my dear friends growing up in Philadelphia. This summer, Mpozi collapsed and died at work. It shocked the nation. Mpozi was so vibrant and elegant in his art and his humanity. He was a tall, dreadlocked brother who wore his cameras on his body like jewelry. He was also the first official photographer for The Roots. Check out their slide show honoring his life:
Here is an excerpt of what I wrote about him:
I first met Mpozi when novelist Alice Walker came to Temple University in 1991(?). With cameras hanging from him, he hovered around the sides of the stage trying to get shots. (I think he was still in high school!) . . . . His work had great dimensions and vision, deeply original and of the times; one sensed his love of the art of photography, of hip-hop, but also a sense of justice and social commentary. Everyone knew he was destined. The Source ran photo-coverage of an old school hip-hop concert at Troc of which I wrote the text. Mpozi’s pictures honors those early pioneers (Seriously, please get a copy of it, if you don’t own it.) so beautifully and with equal amounts of gusto.
We used to always greet each other (and depart) with handshakes (dap! gription!) and a hug; I still feel those cameras falling off his arm and hitting me in the ribs. (ha!) He was a really great guy, and he was a reader and loved creativity and creative people! I remember we talked about hip-hop but also black poetry and authors Achebe, Morrison, Ellison, Gil Scott Heron, and black cinema!
He was a giant among us and represented so much of what a many of us young Philly musicians, writers, visual artists, and activists were about: engaged, full of the spirit, creatively restless, and on the move. He touched me (as he did a lot of people) with the sheer generosity of his spirit and humanity, his laughter and his gentleness.
[Just passed through checkpoint security, and was very happy to have on a fresh pair of socks, as I keep forgetting, one walks shoeless beneath the metal sensor. Listening to Talib Kweli on my Samsung mp3 player. Whew!]
Today’s Rhyme of the Day
Artist: Talib Kweli
Song: “Get By”
We keep it gangster, say “fo shizzle,” “fo sheezy,” and “stayin crunk.”
It’s easy to pull a breezy, smoke trees, and we stay drunk.
Yo, I activism, attacking the system; the Blacks and Latins’s in prison.
Numbers of prison, they victim black in the vision.
S***, and all they got is rappin’ to listen to;
I let them know we missing you, the love is unconditional,
Even when the condition is critical, when the living is miserable,
Your position is pivotal. I ain’t bullshitting you.
Now, why would I lie? Just to get by?
Just to get by, we get fly.
The TV got us reaching for stars,
Not the ones between Venus and Mars, the ones that be reading for parts.
Some people get breast enhancements and penis enlargers,
Saturday sinners, Sunday morning at the feet of the Father.
They need something to rely on; we get high on all types of drugs,
When, all you really need is love.
To get by, just to get by
Just to get by, just to get by
Our parents sing like John Lennon, “Imagine all the people.” Watch;
We rock like Paul McCartney from now until the last Beatle drop.
Speaking of incarceration: Every year, I try to keep an ear to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting. Last year, there were 14 million arrests in the United States. Approximately 3.6 million black people were arrested. I am interested if we’ll ever turn the trend around in my life time of the number of black men incarcerated versus those entering post-high school institutions.
Also, there were 7,160 reported hate crimes: 54.7 percent were racially motivated (2,630 Anti-Black leading the number of bias incidents); 17.1 percent were motivated by religious bias (848 Anti-Jewish leading the number of bias incidents); 14.2 percent resulted from sexual-orientation bias (621 Anti-Male Homosexual leading the number of bias incidents.) Okay, so who is writing the Hate Crime’s poem?
[Terminal B, Gate 9]
Yesterday, I felt grateful for the presence of Christine Stansell in this world, a fellow at Radcliffe this year and professor of History at Princeton University, who writes “about the social, sexual, and cultural history of American women and gender relations.” Professor Stansell is a poetry enthusiast. Yesterday began our Tuesday lunch ritual of sharing poems that have entered our blood stream or poems that we wish to learn and discover a little more about through discussion. Here is a poem by James Wright that I had not known prior to yesterday, but moved me thoroughly. It is vintage Wright, with its pathos of place, Rilkean song, and surreal imagery.
Listening to the Mourners
Crouched down by a roadside windbreak
At the edge of the prairie,
I flinch under the baleful jangling of wind
Through the telephone wires, a wilderness of voices
Blown for a thousand miles, for a hundred years.
They all have the same name, and the name is lost.
So: it is not me, it is not my love
The grief that I hear is my life somewhere.
Now I am speaking with the voice
Of a scarecrow that stands up
And suddenly turns into a bird.
This field is the beginning of my native land,
This place of skull where I hear myself weeping.
from Shall We Gather at the River (Univ Press Of New England: September 1968)