Sekou Sundiata “oralizes” in polyrhythmic, jazz-influenced performances and Naomi Shihab Nye seeks universal truths in everyday objects and experiences.
WATCH A CLIP
POET: Poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes, they’re sleeping.
POET: At 12 years old, Gato is no good.
BILL MOYERS:They are here to celebrate life.
POET: Here, on this bridge between star-shine and clay …
BILL MOYERS: They have come to celebrate language.
POET: The thing about how, despite all the kung-fu fooey and chopsaki muey, ah-ooh-ah!
BILL MOYERS: Poetry readings are flourishing across America in many different places in wondrous variety.
POET: Daggers, then, have at thee, you’re a foul and evil fiend.
BILL MOYERS: Nowhere is the renaissance of poetry more vivid than in the historic village of Waterloo, New Jersey. Every two years, thousands of people gather to hear some of the world’s best poets at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
POET: Even with insects, some can sing, some can’t.
BILL MOYERS: In this hour, we will hear from the performance poet, Sekou Sundiata.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: What you dream up is deeper than what you know.
BILL MOYERS: Sundiata’s poetry recalls the ancient tradition of combining the spoken word with music.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: You can’t order a poem like you order a taco …
BILL MOYERS: And Naomi Shehab Nye …
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: … saying, “I’ll take two” …
BILL MOYERS: … whose poems honor the everyday world. Naomi Nye and Sekou Sundiata. Theirs is THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Check. Check. That’s the kind of — can you give me that? (Laughs.) I need this mic to cut like this one, because when the music is happening, you know, the vocal has to cut. Give me a little bit more in the mid-range. It’s a little heavy, a little muddy on the bottom. Please. Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote. (Laughs.)
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Good time now, baby. Good time now, baby.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Good time now, baby. That’s right. Okay. Listen. For me, many of my poems are about place, the importance of place, the feeling of place, the psychic and mythic dimensions of place. This is about a place where I presently am from, called the Bronx, New York City, better known as the boogey-down.
(CROWD CHEERS AND APPLAUDS)
SEKOU SUNDIATA: The only part of New York City that’s on the mainland Continent of USA. What that means I do not know, but we shall ponder it. Welcome to the mainland.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: “This is where the line began, from OTB to the Lotto machine, flower shop and liquor store on either side, and early, early, early one morning Ramadan begins with two hundred Muslims prayin’ in the park. And tonight, tonight the Indians will drain their six-packs and talk calypso, simonize cars with the doors wide open. Bob Marley kickin’ on the benzi box. We say, “I remember when we used to sit, uh-huh, government yard in Trenchtown.” And there’s a complete and finished sermon written under Rest in Peace. This wall, this wall is for Lightbulb, who lost his cool. And this is where Lightbulb got waxed.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Ain’t it funky? Ain’t it funky now. Uh-huh. Ain’t it funky? Yes. Ain’t it funky now.”
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Ain’t it funky? So funky.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Somebody help.
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: So funky.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Somebody play somethin’. Come on.
BILL MOYERS: When you broke out into singing last night, that wasn’t just entertaining.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Ah, well, no. We call it “oralizing,” “oralizing.”
BILL MOYERS: As in verbalizing?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Right. Right.
BILL MOYERS: Where does that come from? In your own work as a poet, your own origins as a poet, where do you ñ where do you get that?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Well, I think that, ah, my idea of poetry and my practice of poetry is rooted, I think, in my experiences, first of all, in black culture. More specifically in the black church, black Baptist Church. And so that the culture of the church, of the black church had a great deal to do with just my fascination with language, with drama, with theatre, with music, all of it. I mean …
BILL MOYERS: What did you see? What were you hearing as a kid?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: I think the first thing I heard was language, which I had a love for anyway, but the language, even more accurately, the whole idea of the text that existed between the spoken word represented from the pulpit and the music, that somehow or another, although they were separate, they came together to form this sort of living text. You know, I couldn’t name it in that way, of course, as a child, but you know I knew the preaching styles of each of the ministers. You know, as a kid, I could imitate them, you know? I’d listen to the cadences and where they breathed and where they paused and then I’d listen to the relationship between the choir and the piano players or the organist and the preacher, call and response, you know. And it was always, always a vocal response from the audience. There was always someone testifying, you know, as to the felt truth of, you know of the word, of that text.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: “But in the bodega republic it’s a different game. There’s 12 movies in 12 theaters. There’s Korean girls who avoid your eyes. There’s the Arabs with all the newsstands and the last of the bodegas. There’s a paraprofessional shop steward making herself up in the rush hour crowd, her lipstick after-hours red, her letters of reference from the school of beauty and the technical career institute. Yeah. And looking out of the window as a moon passes by, there’s the face that was meant to be. There’s days and days and days goin’ by in broken English. Sheba looks in and Sheba looks out from the sign for West Indian Store. Vegetables, if you want, fruit and videotape, airline reservations for the trip back home. This is not, this is not the house. This is not the house that Ruth built. Yes, I’m tellin’ you.”
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Ain’t it funky?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Ain’t it funky now.
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Ain’t it funky?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Uh-huh. Ain’t it funky now?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: In terms of poetry, this is where we sample Amiri Baraka and he had this beautiful little couplet with this beautiful little rhyme that fit so perfectly with our sentiment about the world and about humanity. So that we may all have safe passage through it. And it goes like this.
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Open us and find us. Let the positive find us.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Oh, don’t you know in the world? You can say it. I see them lips movin’.
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Open us and find us. Let the positive find us. Whoa, don’t you know in the world?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Ain’t it funky. Huh? Come on.
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Open us and find us. Let the positive find us. Whoa, don’t you know in the world?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Ain’t it funky.
NAOMI NYE: Welcome to all of you back, here at the heart and soul of poetry in the United States.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: May I have that band? (Laughter.) Seems really lonely up here right now. It’s kind of hard to read after that band. That was wonderful, Sekou, wherever you are. This was written for a student in a high school who handed me a slip of paper and said, “Here’s my address. Write me a poem,” and vanished. And it was Valentine’s Day, so I felt compelled.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: VALENTINE FOR ERNEST. “You can’t order a poem like you order a taco. Walk up to the counter, say, ‘I’ll take two,’and expect it to be handed back to you on a shiny plate. Still, I like your spirit. Anyone who says, ‘Here’s my address. Write me a poem,’ deserves something in reply. So I’ll tell that secret instead. Poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes. they are sleeping. They are the shadows drifting across our ceilings the moment before we wake up. What we have to do is live in a way that lets us find them. Once I knew a man who gave his wife two skunks for a valentine. He couldn’t understand why she was cryin’. ‘I thought they had such beautiful eyes.’ And he was serious. He was a serious man who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly just because the world said so. He really liked those skunks. So he reinvented them as valentines and they became beautiful, at least to him. And the poems that have been hiding in the eyes of skunks for centuries crawled out and curled up at his feet. Maybe if we reinvent whatever our lives give us, we find poems. Check your garage, the odd sock in your drawer, the person who almost like, but not quite, and let me know.” (Laughter and applause.)
BILL MOYERS: Poetry is a form of conversation, is it not?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Absolutely. Conversation with the world conversations with those words on the page, allowing them to speak back to you. A conversation with yourself.
BILL MOYERS: Now some people think there’s so much talk in America nobody has time to understand it … the talks shows, the radio, the speeches …
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Yes. Well, maybe this is a different kind of talk. Yes, this is slow kind of talk. And my favorite quote which has meant a great deal to me and it comes from Thailand, and it says, “Life is so short, we must move very slowly.” And I think that poems allow us to savor, you know, a single image, a single phrase. Now think about a haiku, how many people have savored a haiku poem over the period of hundreds of years. It slows you down to read a poem. You read it more than one time. You read it more slowly than you would speak to somebody in a store. And we need that slow experience with words.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: As you write, don’t try to decide where you want to go with your poem too much. Sometimes you start a poem and you think you want to go to church, but the poem takes you to the dog races, you know. And maybe you need to go to the dog races at that moment to find out something. You know, that feeling that we have. I remember thinking about this in high school that, “Well, if I’m at all smart, I should know where this poem is going, hum?” You shouldn’t. You don’t have to. You just have to trust that it will go somewhere.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: And one thing I like to ask students when we get together for the first time is, “What have you read in the past year that has really touched you or changed you or disturbed you or poked you in some way?” And if they just look blank, I say, “Get busy. Go find something. Go get an anthology and read it until one thing pokes you or one thing says ‘yes,’ resonates, ‘yes’ inside your blood, your bones. And then you’ll be ready to talk about poetry.”
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I’ll read a piece here and I think in connects somehow to some of these things we’re talking about. It’s called, THE ART OF DISAPPEARING. “When they say, ‘Don’t I know you?’ say ‘No’. When they invite you to a party, remember what parties are like before answering. Someone telling you in a loud voice, they once wrote a poem, greasy sausage balls on a paper plate. Then reply. If they say, ‘We should get together,’ say, ‘Why?’ It’s not that you don’t love them anymore. You’re trying to remember something too important to forget. Trees, the monastery bell at twilight. Tell them you have a new project, it will never be finished. When someone recognizes you in a grocery store, nod briefly and become a cabbage. When someone you haven’t seen in 10 years appears at the door, don’t start singing him all your new songs. You will never catch up. Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble any second. Then decide what to do with your time.”
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Keepin’ in line with this sort of idea, this theme that I happen to find running through my poems is this question of place. Home, where one belongs, where I belong. Paradoxically, I have those feelings about Harlem and at the same time there’s a feeling of no longer belonging. I guess so. That’s what home is in a way, you know? That’s part of what makes it home, you know? If we had a Q&A period, you know, this would be like the answer to the Q that was never asked.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: That’s how this happened, this piece. It’s called, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT YOU, and it’s addressed to Harlem. “It hurts me to my heart to see you like this, under world and under weight, impossible to be with, impossible to leave. I must approach you the way I approach music sometimes … late at night and by myself. When people who can’t understand are long gone, like the famous who want your infamy without your tragedy, like the rich who want your treasure without your pain. Too hard to catch up and too hard to follow, I keep looking for you anyway. Where years ago you went underground leaving two dead policemen in your trail, then backstage at the old Apollo Theatre, where we used to be waiting, pulling on the stars, begging them to kiss us like they say. But in your ashy sunken face I see a falling of flesh from bone. I see your red eyes, your blue hands, your protruding ribs where once I entered and lived. You were my living room, my address, and my home. What remains the same is how little, how much you’ve changed. You don’t belong to Bird or Billie anymore. You don’t belong to Malcolm or Langston anymore. And no point telling me whether you left them or they left you, since the whole thing was out of your hands, since you have no more control over death than you do over life, but you make it and you shape it and you make it and you shape it and you make it and you shape it and you make it and you shape it every day. Maybe that’s why you never sleep. Maybe that’s why the rings around your eyes are thin lines between love and hate that you could enter and leave at any point, which brings you right back to where Billie sings and Bird plays to Malcolm and Langston’s words the songs, the speeches, the songs, the speeches, the songs, the speeches, the poems more alive now than then, but you’re coming back. You’re coming back. You’re coming back. You’re coming back. You’re coming back. It’s your power and your redemption. Oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem …”
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Part of my reference point and part of my grounding in what I do is music … in particular, jazz, improvisational music, you know? And one of the things I learn in listening to that music is how important it is for each instrumentalist to develop his or her own sound. To me in poetry, that means everything, you know, developing that sound that’s mine, you know? And it’s also a process of doing poems and doing pieces that I don’t feel are complete yet, but I can work them out on the bandstand. I can work out a lot of ideas on the bandstand. And it’s really through hearing whether I’m going to perform a poem or not, I always have to hear it out loud.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: I searched everybody, every dream, every place I’ve ever been for you. If not your beauty, then your ugliness. If not your blood, then your rhythm. If not your name, then your story. Oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem, oh, Harlem.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: How many of you here have ever felt homesick for something you can’t name … like all your life, you know? I remember feeling this way when I was three years old, which was so strange because I was in the only home I had ever known, but I was homesick for something else, that sensation that human beings often have of being in some kind of exile, although you don’t know from what, you know, from what the world might be versus what the world is? From what our days might be versus what our schedules tell us we should do? I don’t know. And what are we in exile from anyway? And I think for many people in many countries we are in exile from that part of ourselves where the poems come from, where that intimate relationship with language comes from. I grew up in a household also where my father was in exile from the land he had grown up in, since he was a Palestinian, is a Palestinian, and had left Palestine in 1950. And many of my poems have connected back to the land around Jerusalem, where he was born and grew up, and that desire to reconnect.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: And this was written to my father. THE MAN WHO MAKES BROOMS. “So you come with these maps in your head and I come with voices chiding me to speak for my people and we march around like guardians of memory ’til we find the man on the short stool who makes brooms. Thumb over thumb, straw over straw, he will not look at us. In his stony corner there is barely room for baskets and thread, much less the weight of our faces staring at him from the street. What he has lost or not lost is his secret. You say he is like all the men … the man who sells pistachios, the man who rolls the rugs. Older now, you find holiness in anything that continues dream after dream. I say he is like nobody. The pink seam he weaves across the flat golden face of his broom is its own shrine, and forget about the tears. In the village the uncles will raise their cafias from dominoes to say, ‘No brooms in America?’ And the girls who stoop to sweep a courtyard will stop for a moment and cock their heads. It is a little song, this thumb over thumb, but sometimes when you wait years for the air to break open and sense to fall out, it may be the only one.”
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: In many of my poems, I feel that I have adhered to the dignity of daily life, you know, the daily affirmation, whatever one does, you know, continuing to do a task so particularly and so well, so beautifully, and I guess for myself, ah, the broom was my focus because they, for me, were emblematic of ñ of the dignity of my father’s people. People say, “Well, how come you don’t write more political poems?” I say, “Oh, but I do. These are my political poems, these poems about …
BILL MOYERS: I didn’t take them as political poems. I took them as personal poems, the finding something transcendent for you in that experience or in that object.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: I guess, to me, it was a political act to continue doing one very small thing with such elegance and such a firmness, you know, the way that he knotted the string, ah, the way that his shop was arranged with the straws and the buckets and everything ready. Those brooms were, you know, brooms by which we may sweep away all this ideology that engulfs us at all times. You know, those brooms were tangible. You could hold onto them. You could say, “Here I am. This is something I know how to do.”
BILL MOYERS: So politics is not only a matter of revolution …
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: No, absolutely not. Politics is …
BILL MOYERS: Legislation or …
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: No. The dignity of daily life, that is politics, you know, how somebody caries themselves regardless of the situation around them. That, to me, is politics.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: ARABIC COFFEE. “It was never too strong for us. ‘Make it blacker, Papa.’ Thick in the bottom. Tell again how the years will gather in small white cups, how luck lives in a spot of grounds. Leaning over the stove, he let it boil to the top and down again, two times, no sugar in his pot. In the place where men and women break off from one another was not present in that room. The hundred disappointments, fire swallowing olive with beads at the warehouse and the dreams, tucked like pocket handkerchiefs into each day, took their places on the table near the half-empty dish of corn. And none was more important than the others and all were guests. When he carried the tray into the room, high and balances in his hands, it was an offering to all of them. ‘Stay. Be seated. Follow the talk, wherever it goes.’ The coffee was a center of the flower, like clothes on a line saying, ‘You will live long enough to wear me, emotion of faith. There is this and there is more.”
(APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
PHYLLIS: Ah, my name’s Phyllis.
MANY VOICES: Hi, Phyllis!
BOY: Hey, Phyllis!
PHYLLIS: Ah, this is called, ODE TO GOD, JIM MORRISON.
(GROUP APPLAUDING AND CHEERING)
PHYLLIS: “A light flashes off the stage. Jim comes walking out, drunken, losing his mind. I feel the heat of the crowd as he takes his hand and grabs the microphone violently and puts it to his mouth.”
BOY: “The ocean allows you to be in its waters and displays its knowledge of you, but does not favor or go against you. The ocean is always older than the child. Nature is the teacher. Please stop killing our youths’ beauty as soon or before they are born.”
GIRL: “It tries to knock me off, but I just cling, hang on with all my might, then wake up screaming, panting, barely breathing, rolling around through my cold sticky sheets and realize I’m just dreaming life away.”
BOY: “Just an average boy on a timeless day preparing to join his faceless friends in the eyes of his institution. Misty breathed and thin-soled and partial clothed, his goose-pimpled flesh, he moves his high with spring in his step…”
BILL MOYERS: What was your first experience with poetry? Do you remember that?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: My first experience with poetry as such was in school. I was not interested. You know, it didn’t grab me, speak to me in any way, didn’t capture my imagination. So it was towards the end of the ’60s and I started hearing poets writing about people in the neighborhood, writing about the projects. I grew up in the projects, you know. We never reflected on the projects; we just lived in them, you know? And here was some reflection, some introspection, you know, and it just started naming the world in particular kinds of ways and foregrounding things that were in the background in school. Amiri Baraka had a poem called, WITH YOUR BAD SELF. I didn’t know you could say that in a poem. I mean we said that all the time in the neighborhood, but he was saying that in a poem.
BILL MOYERS: Is there something liberating about being able to take that experience and turn it into art?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Well, yeah. This man made literature out of this, you know, and what it did was it really enabled me. It opened up, you know, that and a series of other things, but it sort of opened up a door and said, “Wait a minute. There’s poetry in the language I speak.”
SEKOU SUNDIATA: “What is? What is the math? What is the mathematics? What is the math? What is the mathematics? What is the math? What is the mathematics of today? What can I say? I was on my on my way to see my — I was on my way to see my — I was on my way to see my woman, but the law said I was on my way through a red light, red light, red light, red light, red light. But if you saw my woman, you could understand I was just bein’ a man. It wasn’t about no light; it was about my ride. And if you saw my ride, you could dig that, too, you dig? Sun roof, stereo, radio, radio, radio, sun roof, stereo, radio, sun roof, stereo, radio, black leather bucket seats sittin’ low, you know? The body’s cool, but the tires are worn. Ride when the hard times come. Ride when they’re gone. In other words, the light was green. And I could wake up in the morning, without a warning, and my world could change. Blink your eyes. All depends on the skin. All depends on the skin you’re livin’ in. All depends on the skin. All depends on the skin you’re livin’ in. Up to the window come the law with his hand on his gun. ‘What’s up? What’s happenin’?’ I said, ‘I guess that’s when I really broke the law.” He said, “A routine. Step out the car. A routine. Assume the position. Put your hands up in the air.’ You know the routine like you just don’t care. ‘License and registration.’ Deep was the night and the light and de-de-de-de-de-de, deep deep was the night and the light from the north star on the car door. I could see deja vu. ‘We’ve been through this before. Why did you stop me?’ ‘Somebody-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body-body had to stop you. I watch the news. You always lose. You’re unreliable. That’s undeniable. You’re dangerous. You’re dangerous. You’re unreliable. You’re on the news. You always lose.’ I could wake up in the mornin’ and without warnin’ my world could change. Blink your eyes. All depends on the skin, all depends on the skin you’re livin’ in. All depends on the skin, all depends on the skin you’re livin’ in. New York City, they got laws. Can’t no brothers drive outdoors. And certain cars in certain neighborhoods on particular streets layin’ around certain types of people, yeah. They got laws. All depends on the skin, all depends on the skin you’re livin’ in. All depends on the skin, all depends on the skin you’re livin’ in. All depends on the skin, all depends on the skin, the skin, the skin, the skin … the skin you’re livin’ in, the skin you’re livin’ in …” (JAZZ MUSIC COMES IN, CROWD CHEERING) “skin you’re livin’ in, skin you’re livin’ in.”
SEKOU SUNDIATA: You know, I think people have been really eaten up and abused by language to the point where they’ve become distrustful, you know, that language somehow has gotten to the point … much of language, I should say … where people don’t want ñ don’t know whether they can trust it or not.
BILL MOYERS: Political language? Propaganda? Commercial language?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Advertising. Yeah. It doesn’t mean what it says, you know? And you think it means one thing and then it’s about something else and then things are sort of ñ you know, things that are full of meaning are sort of squeezed into these, you know, these phrases and these, you know. And I think a cumulative effect of that is that the language has become a manipulative tool in many cases. So, I think what happens is people come to poetry now and expect to hear at least honest language. Whether you feel some alignment with the poet or not, the sense, I believe, is that this man or this woman is gonna tell you what is in his or her heart and mind, you know, and be as authentic and as up front about that as possible. This person before you is gonna take a stand. He’s not going to try and manipulate you, but he’s gonna speak about his or her life and times as they see it. And that’s worth everything to me now.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: DAILY. “These shriveled seeds we plant, corn kernel, dried bean, poke into loosened soil, cover over with measured fingertips. These T-shirts we fold into perfect squares. These tortillas we slice and fry to crisp strips, this rich egg scrambled in a grey clay bowl. This bed whose covers I straighten, smoothing edges ’til blue quilt fits brown blanket and nothing hangs out. This envelope I address so the name balances like a cloud in a center of the sky. This page I type and retype. This table I dust ’til the scarred wood shines. This bundle of clothes I wash and hang and wash again like flags, we share a country so close no one needs to name it. The days are nouns. Touch them. The hands are churches that worship the world.”
BILL MOYERS: How is it that daily and mundane objects, onions and button holes and pulleys ñ how is it that they become the centerpieces of so many of your poems?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well, they’re what I have to live, that’s what I live with, you know, these tangible small objects. I felt since I was a very small child that little inanimate things were very wise, that they had there was own kind of wisdom, something to teach me if I would pay the right kind of attention to them. And I think the work of so many poets whom I’ve loved through my life … William Stafford’s poems, which kind of take us to the things of the world. So many poets take us back to the things of the world, the things which often go unnoticed and say, “Pause,” you know, “Take note. A story is being told through this, whatever it is.” I don’t, you know, look at anything as being insignificant. I think that’s another gift of poetry that I don’t know. Many times people imagine as poets we are frequently in wait for some sort of splendid experience to overtake us. Well, I think, on the other hand, as poets, the tiniest moments are the most splendid and this is the wisdom that all these small things have to teach.
BILL MOYERS: You think this is more so for women because of the difficult choices they have to make between children and career, and all the hard choices women make, than it is for men, for whom the world remains many pathed, many splendored?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: No. I think women are luckier because we have a closer relationship with, I mean this is a generalization, but many times with domestic detail. And I think it’s a very sustaining thing. And so I’ve always felt kind of funny about “this women and men,” because I’ve always seen it in another way. You know, I’ve always felt that women were a little luckier. You know, many men are very wrapped up in, you know, lots of little particulars as well, but sort of through history, you know. It was when I look at the village that my grandmother just died in at the age of 106 in the West Bank, in her village, you know, many times the women would be, you know, going out to pick something in the field or, you know, smelling the mint or making the fresh lemonade or something while the men are talking politics. Well, which group would I rather be with, you know? It’s not hard to choose. (Laughs.)
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Probably this is my most anthologized poem. It’s a poem called, MAKING A FIST. “For the first time on road north of Tampio, I felt the life sliding out of me, a drum in the desert harder and harder to hear. I was seven. I lay in a car watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass. My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin. ‘How do you know if you are going to die,’ I begged my mother. We had been traveling for days. With strange confidence, she answered, ‘When you can no longer make a fist.’ Years later I smile to think of that journey, the borders we must cross separately stamped with our unanswerable woes. I, who did not die, who am still living, still lying in the back seat behind all my questions clinching and opening one small hand.”
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: Well now, I can say a couple things about that poem. Somebody recently where I was said something to me about the fist as a sign of power and victory, and he knew that I had that in my mind when I wrote that poem. Well, I didn’t. But I liked that, you know. So think of it that way, if you want to. Ah, you know how children, you don’t remember everything your parents tell you, but you carry these — or anybody tells you, you carry these odd little fragments. You don’t know why, but they stick with you for a long time. And for me, that decisive answer of my mother, to me, which is really a weird answer, and, of course, she denies entirely ever having said such a bizarre thing. Mo. Now since I’m a parent, I know that that’s just one of those answers parents give to their kids to make them be quiet. But I took it very literally. You know, I was sick and as long as I could do this, you know? Still, to this day, every time I’m sick this little fist is in my mind. “Can I do it anymore?” It became emblematic, that emblematic moment, you know, making a fist, and then really I wrote it when someone else was very sick and I was wishing that I could give them something, you know, that would be an emblem as that had been for me, you know, and still lying in the back seat behind all my questions, you know, as we do. You know, we have more. Our questions accrue as we get older. They don’t get answered and, you know, now we’ve got it. We great more and more and more questions.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: We’re a sieve. We’re a filter. You know, all these things are coming at us and only a few of them will go deep. And which things do we allow to go deep? Which things do we let go deep? I think poetry is one of the ways which we find an avenue for going deep again.
(RHYTHMIC INSTRUMENT PLAYING AND WATER SOUNDS)
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Didgeridoo. (Laughs) The things that fascinated me about that instrument is not only, the sound of it, but also the technique that you really need to play it in, which is this circular breathing technique where one inhales and exhales. And the sound, it just sounds continuous. So, what it does is it challenges your notions of what breathing is. You say, “How can anybody possibly breathe that long,” two-three minutes, you know? So this really magical thing happens, you know, because now it’s beyond what I know to be human capabilities. So what is this magic that’s taking place?
(RHYTHMIC INSTRUMENT PLAYING)
SEKOU SUNDIATA: “In your right mind, you say it can’t be done, the high wire walk without the wire. You exhale and breathe in without pause for as long as you can feel one seamless stream. The music never breaks. It stops when you stop. The words for this is Didgeridoo and circular breathing, the switching point between what you hear and what you can be led to believe. Wind moving through wood, the pressure of blood against the walls of veins, the pull of ovum and sperm, the dreamy mantra of the interstate turning into a drowsy hum. You could like being lost. Once you’ve come this far, what you dream up is deeper than what you know. Like the sound the mind makes at the root, only lower, below habits of thinking, below the unseen motion of synapse and hook, of a sigh, of a gaze, of the sigh, of a gaze, of a sigh, of a gaze. What story does it tell? The end of breathing as we know it to be, the spells we want to be under, things we can not explain.”
(RHYTHMIC INSTRUMENT PLAYING)
BILL MOYERS: In the line “You could like being lost once you’ve come this far,” come from where and lost in what?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Well, that’s what that sound to me takes you to really quickly. You know, that sound is so visceral and so deep, it really takes you to that place, you know. It says “At the root of the mind, you know, below habits of thinking,” you know? Knowing at that level, which, to me, is the level at which we, as much as know anything, you know, it’s the level at which we truly love, you know, truly be, truly form friendships and bonds and human solidarity. That’s the level. That’s the importance, you know? And so the line is, you know, you could really like being lost. You can like being out of your right mind under these conditions, you know?
BILL MOYERS: That’s what it takes to be a poet in a way, isn’t it?
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: You have to be out of your right mind, a logical mind that has been trained to think A and B and C and D.
SEKOU SUNDIATA:Yeah. And you gotta hear voices. (Laughs)
(APPLAUSE and LAUGHTER)
SEKOU SUNDIATA: This is a bit of poetry theatre. It’s an excerpt, a dramatic monologue and a poem in stream of consciousness form, of a character named Space, who appears in a piece that I wrote called, THE CIRCLE UNBROKEN IS A HARD BOP. And this is called, SPACE. Space is one of those people who have been decimated by the experiences in a histories of the ’60s and ’70s. He is, in his own way, an historian.
“Two times peace. From whence I come, from whence we come, from whence I come, from whence we come,
that dark woman of a land only knows so well. How we tribalize our rest in the west, who can tell? Was once an X our knocked over cross to bear, like the flatted fifth note of blue, you hear the terrible one we wail like a skin color. Mystery come down, once again crucified us, suffer for us to see. Say ‘X shall be your name.’
‘Til you raise it and praise it, the free you seek before you everywhere like air. In the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginnin’, in the beginning, black and shining was our X.”
“So you got the circle of the mind. Then you got the circle of the blood. Then you got the pi and the square root, but that’s another bop. Now the circle of the blood, that’s what we come here with … Tobacco Row, Kunta Kinte, Africa, Mombasa, like that. Now you can turn your back on the circle of blood, but you come out somethin’ that’s strange, what the philosophy call ‘alienation’, because blood is the transportation system for demons and oxygens and goddesses and to get ñ to get to yo’ brain. But never (Inaudible) unless you can separate yourself from the circle, but that’s another bop. Now the circle of the mind, that’s what we was after. The elevation of principle over pigmentation, content of the character, not what’s on the head, but what’s in the head, approach to the predicament, beginnin’ with what’s in a name ain’t no rose. This, I know. You mean to say a colored negroistic nigger by any other name would smell the same? I don’t think so. We was deep up in the reality, nation within a nation, looking for a nationality. Call me money, call me blood, call me B, call me the seventh letter in the alphabet, G. Um, (Inaudible) out on the spot. Boom, just like that, they came through the door like gangbusters. Habeas corpus, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, Magna Carta, habeas corpus, Magna Carta, Chocolate City, White House, Chocolate City, soldiers around the White House, White House in Chocolate City. The king Alfred plan.
“Yeah, they sent a negro pig in there already and Malcolm’s all stretched out on the floor and the pig is right there givin’ him mouth-to-mouth, movin’ in mysterious ways. It was wild … pistols, shotguns, chairs, people steppin’ on each other rushin’ to get out the way. ‘Black shining prince? I got your black shining prince all right.” Nobody else got hit, nobody, God, mighty funny. Nobody from the by any means by necessary crew. Not one As-salamu alaykum, not one damn eggs and bacon. I’m goin’ to tell you like this. We was nuts from the get-go, insane from the what-not, nuts from the get-go insane from the what-not, nuts from the get-go, insane from the what-not. I’m goin’ to tell you like this. Marilyn Monroe was buck naked in Bird’s hotel room. And the parlez vous said, ‘Monsieur Parker, what is your religion? ‘I’m a devout musician.’ And then, see, is the time the Jackalea Brothers was into white girls comin’ and goin’, take the money, shoot it up with a sniff and a blow, too. I’m goin’ to tell you like this. I got the record document and the black womens was so fine. They spread their legs like glory, hallelujah, ‘Um, get this. Um, eat that.’ They were so fine they even came a few times with the revolution walking across their sweet snatch with the prone positions bein’ at that time the, so called, correct ones.”
“So then Nat Turner told me, ‘Do the Tighten Up.’ And, Martha, Martha, could out-sing Diana any damned day. The Vandellas. Sojourner told me the Vandellas was a tribe of female warriors, do what they say, dance in the street. Why she say that? Sojourner crazy. Dance in the street. She said it so loud Hoover heard it, ‘Dance in the street’ … Detroit, Chicago, Washington, DC, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, DC. Hoover took the record off the radio, off the air waves too late, beat the heat, off the pig. I’m goin’ to tell you like this. We was nuts from the get-go insane from the what-not, nuts from the get-go, insane from the what-not. I’m goin’ to tell you like this. Not everybody was in it, was of it. Some negroes was there for electric church, good times for the people. Free-ee-dom, Black History Month, Free-ee-dom. Somethin’, I say, ‘freedom,’ and looked it up and, lo and, what you know, behold, it was flux — flux everywhere, every man in his mind is free.”
“Why you have to be a woman? Why you have to be a man? Why you have to be in the bourgeoisie? Why you have to be your name? Why you have to play them changes? Why can’t you be, why can’t you be why can’t you be free? I’m goin’ to tell you like this. We was nuts from the get-go, insane from the what-not, nuts from the get-go insane from the what-not. I’m goin’ to tell you like this. It was war and the police was steppin’ in yo’ face and 357 ain’t no number to be playin’. I’m sayin’ there was a time when the women got together and said, ‘Huh-uh. No, no, dialectical this, unity and struggle, the antagonistic-non-antagonistic contradiction.’ Then they went up south to Canada, made peace with the Vietnam woman, woman-to-woman. Then came back with earrings made from American war planes, talking ’bout, ‘See? This is how you do it. Let the women do it.’ And the brothers did a dish or two ’til the babies came and the FBI was in effect and who didn’t go to jail, to the grade, to the law school laid in the cut sellin’ herb waitin’ for the fever to go disco.”
I’m goin’ to tell you like this. They got me with some air waves, all news all the time, a frequency can’t no acupuncture puncture, understand? But I know how to go-go. Go like this. Isolate the seer. Make the dream look like a nightmare. Fix they tongue so they can’t tell they story straight, story straight, story straight. Chemicalize they trauma. Call it good drugs. Put the orisha on a staff on a tee-shirt and sell it back to ’em. Go like this. Isolate the seer. Say, ‘That was then. This is now. Take time off line, break the bridge.’ But I’m goin’ to tell you like this. I like a little good late at night ’cause I know life, what it look like, what it tastes like, how it sound. Life is round. That’s what we found. Holy grail, can you dig it? Holy grail, can you dig it? And our children, our children ain’t right either. They wasn’t right from the word say go, plus we wouldn’t let them be so. They want to know, ‘Why we got to go to Kwanza again?’ ‘Why can’t we just be quiet and watch television? Why you always got to be talkin’ back to the picture? Daddy, you ain’t right.’ Let this be my epitaph. ‘His heart to the very end was in the left place.’ We was nuts from the get-go insane from the what-not, nuts from the get-go insane from the what-not, nuts from the get-go insane from the what-not. Hit me one time, peace. Nuts from the get-go, insane from the what-not. Hit me two times, peace, please.”
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: You know, I think the older I get, Bill, the more I think energy is everything, that it’s not emotion. The students, the high school students, frequently want to talk about emotion as the key to life. And I think at that age it is, but I think the older we, it’s more energy and energy comes from many kinds, it comes from juxtaposition and things coming together. Whether it’s, you know, today I’m happy and yesterday, I was sad. Now those two things, rubbing those two things together creates some kind of interesting energy, about change, about the whole life experience. I think poems, the energy that comes from rubbing one image up against another is quite unpredictable and majestic. And I think that our brains are desperate for that kind of energy. And I think that that’s a primeval, basic aspect of poetry.
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: And, lastly, this was written as a little letter, ahm, in response to that favorite elementary school question when a writer visits their classroom or library. “Are you famous?” FAMOUS. “The river is famous to the fish. The loud voice is famous to silence, which knew it would inherit the Earth before anybody said so. The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds watching him from the birdhouse. The tear is famous briefly to the cheek. The idea you carry close to your bosom is famous to your bosom. The boot is famous to the Earth, more famous than the dress shoe, which is famous only to floors. The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it and not at all famous to the one who is pictured. I want to be famous to shuffling men who smile while crossing streets, sticky children in grocery lines, famous as the one who smiled back. I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous or a button hole, not because it did anything spectacular, but because it never forgot what it could do.”
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Okay. Listen thank you very much for hangin’ with us. I hope you enjoyed the poetry. Yeah. Was it funky, huh? Was it funky now? Was it funky? Was it funky now? Was it funky, huh? Was it funky now? Was it funky? Was it funky now?
NAOMI SHIHAB NYE: You know, everything is famous if you notice it. These right here is famous if you picked it up.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: So we always say like this. Just so that you may travel in peace, “Open us and find us. Let the positive find us. Whoa, don’t you know, in the world.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: I don’t know you could say that in a poem.
SEKOU SUNDIATA: “Open us and find us, uh-huh. Let the positive find us. Whoa, don’t you know you, in the world.” All right. Let’s go home, y’all. Ain’t it funky? Ain’t it funky now? Huh!
TWO VOICES TOGETHER: Ain’t it funky?
(JAZZ MUSIC ENDS)
SEKOU SUNDIATA: Thank you!
This transcript was entered on June 24, 2015.