How to “Do a Poem”: Proto-Writing with Abbey Lincoln & August Wilson

O n becoming the poem and evoking the sublime m4s0n501

Abbey-august

Comedian Paul Mooney admits it for all of us that everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga (let’s talk about that). I think the same wavering volition haunts verbs, direct actions in the hesitant grammar in our lives, as in, everybody wanna be a verb but nobody wanna be a verb (let’s be about that).  Niggas are verbs though. And poems are some of our favorite niggas (speaking), the H.N.I.C. folklore legend types talking speech into music with a mixture of jive and earnest. And this has been a syllogism. This as been a search for the truth mutant and looping along the drowsy hypotheticals that vie for precedent inside of our collective subconscious, some prowling forth as tenable thought, the rest just ghosting in our behavior. But what does this have to do with Abbey Lincoln? And what does this have to do with August Wilson? Two beautiful niggas, two verbs, two poems I want to talk about here. Is it derogatory? Is it dirty? Ear training for the body? Is it separate but equal to our soul, the place where poems enter and practically confront us, in order to be enacted, and both the individual and the poem are impossible and relentless machines so exact in their spirits and karmas and auras that what budges between them is speech/sound/tone/vibration/listening, and a new language emerges to translate them to one another. And when an artist as vessel speaks the poem in a most mundane context, together with the fast language, they evoke the sublime.

Abbey 1

As I gather the Afro- and Astrosonics archives I’m finding that between freestyling and reading direct and unimprovised from a page or memory, we can locate the afore nameless, sincere, analog, eye-to-eye ritual of doing a poem. Abbey Lincoln does a poem in the middle of an interview with Gil Noble on his show Like it Is. He poses a question about her father and she responds with a barrel of a poem, defending her father from a siege the defense lets us imagine. A sense of lift enters the conversation when she’s done doing the poem, as if Abbey has (through being the poem) risen through subject/object position, to griot or storyteller, to angelic/prophetic. Her command over the energy of the conversation increases as it becomes clear that she understands how to stagger multiple dimensions of conversational language into a hero’s chorus. The whole scene is redeemed before we even knew it needed redeeming, and then the conversation returns to the colloquial, but fresh with the glistening yoke of new code to hold its disparate parts together. And at no point is it awkward.

“My Father” Beautiful Voices Project by Abbey Lincoln

 

A similar shift occurs with August Wilson in the midst of a recording of him at pub with friends talking slants and grooves of the everything-nothingness into something substantial and huge like a group of men joined in a sepia mood can do so well. The din settles forAugust smiles a moment and some rub in the air provokes August to blurt out this is a poem I wrote from my grandfather… and since I never knew my grandfather I’m speaking from a generational sense, it’s all of us’ grandfathers, and he proceeds to recite the poem bright and roving off the dome. What the two poems have in common, what the two niggas have in common, what the two souls have in common, what the two verbs have in common, what the two shrugs have in common, what the two needs have in common— how they give you the chills the good way if you listen the good way, as a poem, verb, nigga, beautiful soul full of just as much love and anaphora and tribute yourself.

“Cities In Full Season”.  Beautiful Voices Project by August Wilson

To accomplish this is to imagine and teach ourselves to speak the lost and now found language or dialect wherein there exists a one-word infinitive verb that means to do a poem, and maybe even another that means to be a poem. The word sounds like how it feels to heave a nonchalant shrug when you have the chills, casual and intense in such a balanced coalition that there can be no differentiation between the two, they demand their union in the word. And we use the word to describe how it feels to love something or someone so effortlessly that even the awe of it is calm; through such love we be poems/niggas/verbs/mythocrats/those vessels I mentioned/those happy mediums. And as such we can find ourselves in the middle of a pretty commonplace conversation wherein such a poem or nigga or verb (possessed with such a love, of the word and its infinite sources and resources) may very gracefully slip behind or in front of a question mark, or even unprovoked by a question, seduce forth from sheer will, or there may just come a time during an otherwise basic exchange when one needs to express or be or do a poem.

when an artist as vessel speaks the poem in a most mundane context, together with the fast language, they evoke the sublime.

You carry it with you, you know it by heart, you are the poem you do, or you be the poem you do, always, but especially for these subtlebold events of performance that isn’t for entertainment’s sake, to the extent that not only do we need the word or tone to describe the common Pan-African tradition of doing or being (see also becoming) a poem, we also need the part of speech that the act constitutes: it’s beyond verb, it’s the place you reach for and then finesse and restructure in language in order to be/find/discover, yourself, it’s that mimed place, named, mused, so that it can be accessed with alacrity and grit and go-head-on spirit instead of doubt or denial or not at all. Once something has a name it becomes harder to stifle. With a name the idea can be chanted and practiced and expanded in the universe until it lands in the physical world.

To do a poem is to buck the basic thud of back and forth that decorates an average verbal exchange.  You arrive prepared to raise the stakes from finite to always.

To do a poem is to buck the basic thud of back and forth that decorates an average verbal exchange. You arrive prepared to raise the stakes from finite to always. It’s legacy work. And Legba’s work. I believe that we as black people are prone to erupting into poem with elegance and style, resetting the dull rhythms of interrogation, more often than not, but we get shy, or shamed, or shielded from our own drives, we gulp down the song wheeling around in us at every pause and hold it in our eyes and hearts until they burst and reassemble as robotics. Everybody wanna be a poem but nobody wanna bleed a poem. Maybe the modest courage of Abbey Lincoln and August Wilson will remind us what time it is, remind us that we are time, and that time is a poem we need to do to be. Before the commodification of poems they were just. They were justice. They were just tools to get us from one state of mind to another and back in one glad piece, just like freestyles and rapping, just like being and time. This has been a syllogism. This has been the reclaiming of an origin myth which explains how niggas came from the refrains of muted poems, got trapped in them, and learned to bend time and grammar toward freedom, which we then learned doesn’t exist outside of poems. But then we learned that poems can, and do, exist everywhere. 

A writing exercise in developing pedagogy around this tradition: Chose a person or idea who merits anaphora, as in Abbey’s my father, yes my father, or August Wilson’s Bynum Cutler, Bynum Culter and pay tribute to the subject as poem, a few rounds of the refrain, and then, the important part, memorize it, learn it by heart, and ever so gallantly slip it into a so-called regular conversation.

Do a poem, be a poem. If you’re up for it, feel free to record it and send the mp3 to AstrandAfrosonics@gmail.com for posting on the Tumblr and/or inclusion in the archive. Such praise poems as verb, inculcating names and ideas and energies through anaphora and repetition, chase the ghosts of forgetting out of the future so that this future can contain and express itself through the past made present. This takes us toward what I call the Antiquefuture, the place where past is future and present is past, and now is past, present, and future deliberating on which will emerge through the word, as music.

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Harmony Holiday is a poet and choreographer. You can check out her work on the AfroSonics Archive at http://afrosonics.tumblr.com

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