REST IN POWER, MAYA ANGELOU

The renowned African American poet, writer, and activist Maya Angelou has left the planet. She was 86. She is most known for her bestselling autobiographical work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which gets its title from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s line “I know why the caged bird sings” from his poem, “Sympathy.” Dunbar’s “Sympathy” was a cry against slavery of all forms, as well as about the shackles that imprison the poet amid cyclical prejudges he feels incapable of destroying. Angelou’s own work was about dispelling prejudices to envision a more just society.

She writes, “Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she describes how her mother told her that she must “always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.” These lines are an important reminder, especially for us hyper educated types, that we don’t have all the answers. The notion of absolute authority can be extremely dangerous—for who gets to decide what is true is a mater of power.

Education takes many forms, as Angelou poignantly points out that her education was an improvisatory process that often took place outside the classroom: “my education and that of my Black associates were quite different from the education of our white schoolmates. In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert of the gap separating the written word form the colloquial […] It be’s like that sometimes.” She was truly an inspirational person, who endured and overcame much, and although she is now gone, she leaves  a lasting literary and civil rights legacy.

For a brief video on Angelou’s life, click here.

Featured Image: Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dance on the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes at the The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where Hughes’ ashes were buried beneath the floor, in New York, Feb. 22, 1991. 

We Can Never Tell the Entire Story of Slavery: In Conversation with M. NourbeSe Philip

The Toronto Review of Books has just published my interview with the renowned poet, M. NourbeSe Philip. In the interview we focus on her work Zong!, and touch on music, improvisation, slavery (including the film 12 Years a Slave), the haunting of modernity, and more!

Read the full interview, here.

Photo by Paul Watkins of M. NourbeSe Philip leading a book-length reading of Zong! on November 29th, 2013.

Soundin’ Canaan (poem, draft)

“In the whole world no poor devil is lynched, no wretched is tortured, in whom I too am not degraded and murdered.”
-Aimé Cesairé

“So what If I write a poem like a song.”
-Lillian Allen

Columbus was no intrepid hero,
He was more an insipid & syphilic-vaquero hearding the “indios” like cargo
& John Hawkins was no Stephen Hawkins or Richard Dawkins,
He was the English-dastard & coward who brought the fist slave ship to the “New World.”
They merely discovered the already discovered.
Hypocrites like John Hammond claiming he discovered Bessie Smith,
Counterfeit prophets racketeering off the backs of blacks, Chinese, Natives, navies, human life for profit.

A collective amnesia still persists: some 20 million Africans loaded on ships, mothers torn from babies,
whipped & sold into slavery. Some Canadians are still unaware that slavery existed in this country.
Slavery, à la Canadian style.
Listen: hear a history of violence, textured & composite.
Listen: hear a literature of Black Canadians— oral, written, & infinitely rich.
Listen: hear whistle blow, porter train riff.
Listen: hear makeshift improvisers providing a needed spiritual lift.

Mattieu da Costa, circa 1605, first African guide & translator to set foot in Canada,
Olivier Le Jeune, taken from Madagascar, first recorded slave purchased at age 8 in Quebec, New France, before it was Canada.
A hundred years later, after she learnt her slave mistress was gonna sell her, Marie-Josèphe Angélique burned down Montreal: they tortured her, hung her, tossed her to the fire, her scattered ashes to the wind, a feminist rebel before radical feminism was drawn.
We must not forget Josiah Henson who helped form the Canaan of Dawn, he inspired Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
We must not forget Harriet Tubman, dubbed “Black Moses,” she led escaped slaves on the underground railroad to its terminus in Chatham.
We must remember John Brown & Osborne Anderson, who accompanied Brown on his raid on Harper’s Ferry; Anderson fled & wrote a pamphlet, history demanded it.
Had help from Mary Ann Shadd, full time editor & first woman publisher of a newspaper in Canada, her history we inherit.
Along with Thomas Peters who helped lead some 1200 blacks from Canada back to Sierra Leone Africa in 1792, a black loyalist & a Yoruba too, he wore a poly-identity become it was cool.
We must remember the great Rufus Rockhead, bootlegger, former porter, who opened the jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise in 1928 in St. Antoine, Montreal.
We must remember John Arthur Robinson who helped form the Order of Sleeping Car Porters &
George V. Garraway who became the first conductor on the Canadian Railway.
We must remember Joe Fortes who taught children to swim while patrolling the beach at English Bay,
there’s a restaurant & a library named after him today.
& Leonard A. Braithwaite, first elected Black Canadian to the Ontario Legislature.
& Stanley Grizzle too, former porter & Canada’s first Black Citizen Judge, civis litigator!
—these are to name, mostly by name, but at least to start to name, some of the historic figures that are part of Canadian history.

Is it true, we be a people without a literature?
Were all of Canada’s early “white” writers performing in blackface?
Murphy’s Black Candle clearly states that racial mixing is a fear in losing the docility of the social body,
the female body, the cult of true womanhood replaced by the cult of the drug.
The fear of the white passive female body becoming possessed.
The body as text, the black pen as sex.
& Haliburton’s Sam Slick was sure some son-of-a-racist-prick.
But this history ain’t just bullshit, we inherit it.

The Canada of many Canaanadas for many Canadians.
In 1834 the mere touching of Canadian soil made the runaway slave free.
The continued exodus & disappearing of borders.
Canada: the North Star, “heaven,” the Underground Railroad starting in the south & heading North to Canaan land, simply follow the Drinking Gourd.
Survivors of the crossing who found Philistines replacing the Egyptians.
The volatility of human borders, escaping fugitive slave law
& hoping to find freedom under the lion’s paw,
forming the Canadian Canaans:
Wilberforce, Dawn, The Refugee Home Society, & Elgin
Escapin’ plantation cottin’ pickin only to find a more subtle racism,
which kept people on the go, poly-identities in motion before postmodernism called it so.
Like Boston King moving from America to Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone then England & back to Sierra Leone; did he ever really feel at home?
Hear Nina Simone singing, “Ain’t got No…”
To be in another place, not here.
Fiction “here” is the transcription of history, reworking tradition,
As Mandela said, “History isn’t born it’s made.”
History: a kind of philosophical lab.
A tidalectical wave crashing back & forth,
into the torn & new of this host country.

Mr. D, in Susanna Moodie’s Roughing It in The Bush notoriously states “there are no ghosts in Canada” because “the country is too new for ghosts.”
But if you put your ear to a tree, or stand still in one place, you’ll realize this land is “hauntological.”
The silences echo with the whispers of ghosts in the corridors of history.
Fighting for survival since arrival is enough to make anyone suicidal.
& where is here really? Here is simply here for those who ended up here, or for those who’ve always been here. To first Nations people the question is absurd.
It’s apparent we exclude all others when we construct a garrison.
Especially when that construction is at the expense of a community.
“We” tore down Africville & bulldozed Hogan’s Alley to make room for a highway.
& they call it urban renewal, more like “Negro” removal.

My education was one of white-faced white-studies effacing my white face with white paint.
If I encountered a black text it was usually as subtext, prefix, or preface to the rest.
As critics we need to flip the script proper with a provisional manuscript
& avoid creating bordered realities like the Gaza strip,
or the whole world really, when you get down to it.

Rather, DJ take us into an “indexical present.”
The DJ as cultural archivist & resistive resident,
Moving the fader, back & forth between diverse cultural realities,
Using beats, rhymes, & counter rhythms like swords.
Poetry working & un/working on the edge,
Like Rakim said: “Standing on shaky grounds too close to the edge,
Let’s see if I know the ledge.”

An edging towards the Just Society.
A tapestry entwined within Trudeau’s notions of a pluralistic & polyethnic society.
For multiculturalism is an exercise in blackness: an acculturation of forms, a creative destruction of old selves into new states.

Canada is an archipelago of blackness:
For whiteness is death & only when we let go of our possessive investment in it, can we truly unravel the shells holding in the outer limits of our outer selves.
Discover: the heteroglot, the polyglot, the polyphonic improvised being who is always a listening being.
Are you listening Canada? Where is H/ear? Or, Where are you from?

Canada can never claim to be a homogenous culture.
So paint phonemes on canvas, over this Canaan land, soundin’ Canada,
Chant, grunt, shout, & sing a callaloo of aquarelles, a gumbo-concoction with rhythms
that be boppin’ & hip-hopin’ on the Canadian kazoo, & find:
George Elliott Clarke sounding Miles Davis with a blues-beaucoup in Blue.
Wayde Compton entwininging Grandmaster Flash in his legba-trickster brew.
Dionne Brand phrasing Coltrane with a jazz text sonically riffing through.
M. NourbeSe Philip turning the echoes of Zong into song with poetry guiding her through.
K’naan taking us through Babylon wavin’ a flag with the force of a million literary reviews.
& these are to name but a few of the artists
improvising consciousnesses in the liminality of contact zones.

Hear: the spirituals & blues augmenting a salacious truth that speaks Canada with a cool icy-blue.
Hear: jazz, the flattened 5th of devil’s music, blowing freely in Canada too.
Hear: funk, r&b, & rock syncopating the electric past into the reclamation of bodies.
Everybody, hear the dub of the duppy, mystics using a West Indian aesthetic to heal the present.
Hear: Hip Hop urban youths speakin’ beats & rhymes—& more than just music—the movement.
Hear: DJs recontextualizing all material, for sonic frequencies are not a fixed phenomenon.

Legein: the layering out, gathering, collecting, reading, the “mix” of the mixedness of all things.
Improvisation: the open-ended possibility for polyglossic polyventiality, for survival.
Speak as a prophet or profess like a professor: it does mean after all, “To declare openly.”
Laurier, MacKenzie King, & Harper aren’t my prime ministers.
Administer a protesting crescendo with a glissando like Oscar Peterson on the piano,
pushing the keys with love.

Sing Canaan, chant it, shout it, play it, pluck it, howl it, honk it, scream it, into pure utterance & possibility—
freely imagine what a truly Just Society could sound like & be.

This poem is in draft stage and covers some of the theory and history surrounding my thesis project, Soundin' Canaan: Music, Resistance, and Citizenship in African Canadian Poetry. The featured image is of Harriet Tubman (far left) with family and friends. I'll be reading part of this poem and discussing my work more generally on Monday, March 10th from 12:30pm - 1:00pm on From The Second Story, a radio program on the University of Guelph's CFRU (93.3 FM).

we’re new h/ear (poem, draft)

I wrote this poem after listening to my baby’s heartbeat on the Doppler fetal monitor. Below the poem is audio of the heartbeat mixed vis-à-vis  my music production, voice, and lyrics.

we’re new h/ear

i heard your heartbeat today, baby.
a fast 180bpm slowed to a steady 160
as you listened to us listening to you
nestled in your echo chamber.

i play buddy holly’s “everyday”
headphones wrapped round mommy’s round belly,
you kick a little more, {your little foot}
everyday it’s a-gettin’ closer.

i wonder what you look like?
can you feel my warm, loving, yet anxious hand
against the walls of your mini-universe,
come what may.

on the news: another war, another shooting, more corruption,
pollution. I question bringing you here.
but then I hear your mommy singing, gently touching her belly
& feel the world—at least ours—is perfect.

besides: we’re all new here.

Photo copyright, Paul Watkins. 

Lemon Hound: A Poetics of “Meditaysyun”

lemon-hound

LEMON HOUND has evolved from the single-author blog of Sina Queyras, to a multi-authored blog, with the aim to be a dynamic bi-monthly Literary Journal. I’ve published a review with Lemon Hound before, and I’m proud to share my latest review in Volume 6 of the journal.

My review, “A Poetics of “Meditaysyun” covers new texts by Cecilia Vicuña and bill bissett. Vicuña’s Spit Temple and bissett’s hungree throat are two new poetic works significant not for what they edit out, but for what they edit in. Vicuña and bissett employ an “editing in” that allows for constellations of dialogue within and outside the texts. Edited in are improvised performances, incantatory phrases, chanting, signing, stories, meditations, webs and threads, languages and sounds, mediations, polyphonies, rhythms, silences, and listenings. To read more, click here.

~

I also contribute reviews on an ongoing basis to Toronto Review of Books’s blog, Chirograph. My latest review (“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”) is of Quebeçois auteur Denis Villeneuve’s film Prisoners, which I viewed at TIFF. I have another TIFF review coming soon on Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. 

Happy weekend reading (whatever that may be), watching (whatever you may watch, I’ll be watching Breaking Bad‘s tense conclusion on Sunday), and venturing (wherever you may go).

“living roots awaken in my head”: R.I.P Seamus Heaney

heaney

I was sad to learn that Seamus Heaney, Irish poet & Nobel Laureate, died this morning. I first encountered the work of Heaney some six years ago in an undergrad English class entitled, “British Poetry, Lately.” The class examined recent developments in contemporary British and Irish Poetry. In the class we engaged with poets such as Eavan Boland, Kathleen Jamie, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Tom Raworth, and, of course, Heaney—all masters of tone, language, subject matter, working with/against the long British devotion to rhyme and meter.

Poetry in the twentieth century has largely been about defamiliarization (ostranenie (остранение)), the artistic technique of persuading the audience to see familiar things in an unfamiliar or strange way, often using metaphor to help depict the mechanics of the world we inhabit. Heaney was a master of using incredibly rich and dense metaphors. He was also a master of listening. Ever the attentive poet, Seamus Heaney made use of melopoeia (charging words beyond their normal meaning, like the cadences of music) as a part of his fluidity to create his dense rhythms. In Glanmore Sonnets he stands and listens to the mysterious corporeal sensualities that surround him to cultivate words: “Words entering almost the sense of touch / Ferreting themselves out of the dark hutch — / ‘These things are not secrets but mysteries’” (II).

Yet, it was in “Digging,” a poem full of onomatopoeia and poetic excavation, and the first poem from his very first collection, The Death of a Naturalist (1966), where Heaney first displayed his poetic method:

The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Heaney, and it’s unfortunate that it took his death for me to reread a couple of his well known poems, which I still remember so well from that undergrad class. He was a poet of the highest order and will be missed. His poetic cultivations and living roots charge on.

Check out Heaney reading his poem “Digging”:

 

Works Cited

Heaney, Seamus. New Selected Poems. London: Faber, 1987.

 

Towards a definition of dub poetics: d’bi.young’s Sorplusi Principles

“This poet is a griot in search of a village.”
-Kwame Dawes, “Holy Dub,” Midland 18.

Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry with a West Indian aesthetic and origin. It evolved out of dub music comprised of spoken word pieces over reggae rhythms and Nyabinghi traditions[i] in Jamaica beginning in the 1970s. Rather than the Jamaican form of “toasting” (a significant stylistic influence on hip-hop), which also featured (often improvised) spoken word, sometimes as chant, to the music of the dancehall DJ, a dub poet’s performance is usually pre-written and prepared. Spoken or chanted with the background of reggae rhythms, or a capella or ital, and using Jamaican Creole/Patois, dub poetry effectively blends African and Caribbean oral and griot traditions with more standard approaches to poetry and performance. Basically, dub performances were created by removing vocals from side A of a record with a dub machine to create a B side containing a rhythm/instrumental track, often amplifying the bass and drums. Traditionally dub poets are closely aligned with DJs—yes DJing is both traditional and tradition—as they reanimate and (re)sound the past in the present through a musico-poetic performance atop a tentative original.

Conventionally, “Jamaican Creole is the natural language of dub poetry” (Afua Cooper, Utterances 1) and while dub poets often privilege reggae music, nearly all forms of African American and Afro-diasporic musics, and others, can be used in the performance of a dub poem as the mode continues to evade a single homogenizing definition or approach. Nevertheless, dub “began as, and remains, rebel poetry” (2). This is not to say that dub poetry eludes the possibility of definition. d’bi.young.antifrika—one of Canada’s most renowned dub poets and dub monodramatists—thinks through dub vis-à-vis her own mother’s manuscript on dub, which identifies the four major elements of the then emerging form: music, language, politics, and performance (“r/evolution” 27). Dub as such bridges the personal and the political, and as d’bi developed her own understanding of dub she added four more elements for a total of eight principles to form the acronym s.o.r.p.l.u.s.i: “urgency, sacredness, integrity, and self-knowledge. I then renamed the earlier elements of music, politics, and performance to rhythm, political content and context, and orality” (27).

In the following video d’bi outlines how these eight principles can empower artists, particularly African artists across the diaspora.

 

For d’bi, the principles of dub poetry—consisting of self-knowledge, orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness, and integrity—combine to comprise “a comprehensive eco-system of accountability and responsibility between my audiences and me. each principle in the methodology challenges me to not only be self-invested but to (re)position to the centre of my micro and macro communities, being both accountable and responsible (able to account for and respond to these communities)” (“r/evolution” 27). As such, dub poetry has the power to connect disparate communities together through lines of solidarity. Two days from now, on August 8th, I will have the privilege of interviewing d’bi.young about her practice as a pioneer in the art of dub poetry and theatre. I hope to see you there for what promises to be an exciting and engaging evening of “Word! / Sound! / Powah!”

Here’s the poster for the event, d’bi’s personal page and youtube page, as well as the facebook event page.

Works Cited

Anitafrika, d’bi.young. “r/evolution begins within.” Canadian Theatre Review. Vol. 150. (Spring 2012): 26-29. Print.

Cooper, Afua (Ed.). Utterance and Incantations: Women, Poetry and Dub. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1999. Print.


[i] The Nyahbinghi Order is the oldest of all the Rastafari mansions and the term translates as “black victory” (niya = black, binghi = victory). The Niyabinghi resistance inspired a number of Jamaican Rastafarians, who incorporated niyabinghi chants into their celebrations (Wikipedia). The rhythms of these chants—full of improvised syncopation— greatly influenced popular ska, rocksteady and reggae music.

“we tellin’ stories yo”: A Performance and Interview with renowned dub poet d’bi.young

dbi young icasp

Featuring an opening DJ Set by DJ Techné
FREE and Open to the Public
Thursday, August 8th, 2013 (7-9 pm)
Paintbox Bistro (555 Dundas Street East, Regent Park, Toronto)

ICASP (Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice) and Paintbox Bistro present Jamaican-Canadian dub poet, monodramatist, educator, and Dora Award-winning actor and playwright, d’bi.young.anitafrika in an intimate free performance. Following the performance there will be an interview with the poet conducted by Paul Watkins (DJ Techné). Make sure you catch this event with one of Canada’s most visionary storytellers.

 

Reserving a table is highly recommended. Call 647-748-0555 to reserve space now! (http://blog.paintboxbistro.ca/event-registration/?ee=49)

www.improvcommunity.ca

http://www.paintboxbistro.ca

http://dbi333.com