On Silence and Words Finally Spoken

Author Lita Hooper (at podium) accompanied Chad Fairies as an attentive Aberjhani concentrates in the front row.

Author Lita Hooper (at podium) accompanied Chad Fairies as an attentive Aberjhani concentrates in the front row.

Open mic recitals became a favorite outlet for poets during the 1990s and grew into a powerful mainstay of popular literary culture after 9/11. In the midst of war, world disasters, and political hype, the coffee house microphone amplified the voice of the individual and allowed his or her vice, whether filled with sorrow or joy or fear or love, to be heard. That was why I regretted, as the demands of care giving became more intense, having to give up my weekly stint at the mic some six years ago; and why I was thrilled, as well as terrified, by an impromptu request to recite some of my work at The Book Lady Bookstore last Friday. (photo courtesy of Joni Saxon-Giusti)

 

I was actually at the store–one of the most unique and finest in Savannah–to enjoy a reading by Lita Hooper, who had traveled from Atlanta to participate in the Savannah State University Poetry Festival. In addition to being a photographer, film producer, and associate professor of English, Hooper is author of the biography, Art of Work: The Art and Work of Haki Madhubuti; and the chapbooks, The Journal of Sojourner Truth, and Legacy. Just as I was settling into my seat to enjoy Hooper’s recital, store proprietor Joni Saxon-Giusti came over and whispered mischievously, "In a few minutes I’m going to put you on the spot." Before I could sputter, "Excuse me?" she stepped away.

 

After stumbling through the echo of Joni’s words in my thoughts, I realized she was considering asking me to step up to the mic to share a poem or two. And then she did exactly that. Six years of public silence was about to come to an unexpected end as I smiled and approached the podium. The truly ironic thing was that my last recital had been at that very location, 6 East Liberty Street across from the Desoto Hilton Hotel. But at that time it was a coffee shop known as the Gallery Espresso filled with tables occupied by fellow poets and poetry lovers, blended aromas of  freshly brewed coffee, a long bar toward the front of the shop, and artwork by SCAD students hanging on the walls.

Now, in place of the tables, there were shelves of rare and classic books, plus newer titles like my own ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love. There was even some art from ELEMENTAL on the walls. One row of chairs filled the aisle between bookshelves in front of the podium and another row sat to the left. The space was small enough that we did not need an actual microphone, only our poems, voices, and each others’ company. With that in mind, I lifted the copy of ELEMENTAL off the display beside me, flipped through the painted pages until I found Washington Park Number 162, and read:

  

I once watched Time grow fat
then explode in my face
as if too much pain
or too much love had gathered too fast
into a single small space.

The Universe said, "Let me show
your soul something beautiful."

 

And I then recalled two things:
the Disciple who loved his Teacher,
and the main reason I was born.
I watched Time disappear and tasted
upon my fingers the colors
of a vision still hot with truth.

 

They were good lines for describing one soul’s journey into silence, and good also for clearing the throat to speak once again.

 

For a couple of spoken word samples set to music, please visit these links right here at Red Room:

An Angel for New Orleans

African Griot Magus

 

Aberjhani 
© 22 April, 2009
National Poetry Month 

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Remembering Virgina Tech: All Night in Savannah the Wind Wrote Poetry

The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009

The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009

Anxious and ancient scratches tore the air
with fingers eager to have their say,
pulling me out of bed, they cast and re-cast
nets of lexicons deep inside the womb
of the river’s roaring belly, hauling up myths
born in Georgia and legends sung in Carolina,
the wind howled visions that burned the night.

Wind of April 15, 2007, screeching like knives on fire.
Wind of April 16, 2007, in Virginia 33 counted dead.

Across the wide shoulders of Tybee Island
with thumbnails of exploding waves the wind
typed furiously remembrances of Buddha;
on the aching spines of weeping pines it carved
the bleeding parables of Christ and
and the pleading hadiths of Muhammad,
oh the wind dreamed a dream that haunted the night.

Winds of the moon coughing lunar dust in my face.
Winds of the sun preaching flame down my throat.

What could it be using for ink I wondered,
and opened my window to yell–
"What are you using for ink?!"
A whirlwind of neon alphabets split the dark
wide open and inside its bright fury I saw
one-legged pirates dancing with blind prophets,
I saw kings counting gold and queens telling God.

Wind of dead flowers starving for roots.
Wind of nuclear cockroaches gobbling insanity.

Like a Passover Poet gliding from house to house
and from trembling soul to trembling soul
the wind scribbled sonnets of first time love
and weeping haikus of last hours on earth.
Up and down Broughton Street birds splattered
half-rhymes against windows and over rooftops,
the wind boomed sorrows that raged all night.

Wind of Confederate blood boiling gray miseries.
Wind of black slaves dancing juju jazz charisma.

Snatching me through the window a mighty fist
of air held me and a thousand more upside down
shook our bones like a tambourine of lightning,
wind and thunder and bones rattling cadence
for the sun that had set and the one about to rise,
for hearts pumping life and those about to stop,
the wind wrote a bloodbath too foul to read.

Wind of April 15, 2007, screeching like knives on fire.
Wind of April 16, 2007, in Virginia 33 counted dead.

from The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009

by Aberjhani

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A Place Called Hitch Village and the Federal Economic Stimulus Package

Vintage grainy early artist rendition of Hitch Village housing project published in Savannah Morning News circa 1964.

Vintage grainy early artist rendition of Hitch Village housing project published in Savannah Morning News circa 1964.

As a home to more than 200 families, Robert M. Hitch Village is the largest government housing project in Savannah, Georgia, and just happens to be the place where this particular author grew up until the age of twelve. Growing up there as a black youth in the 1960s, I never imagined that one day an African-American president, several years younger than me, would provide the economic push that would make it possible for local leaders to schedule the demolition and reconstruction of my old neighborhood. Just as I had never imagined a day could ever come when such a course of action would be necessary. Nevertheless, more than half the project’s 337 units are presently unoccupied and boarded windows are a traumatic sight for both current and past resideents.

 

While a number of President Barack Obama’s critics like to claim he is more showmanship than action, the residents of Hitch Village surely beg to differ as they prepare for a temporary exodus that will demonstrate the hardcore reality behind the idea of "change" booming from one American city to another.  Of the $787 billion committed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, some $5.3 million has been pinched off for the Housing Authority of Savannah; and out of that, $2 million set aside to demolish and then resurrect my boyhood home.

 

In a poem titled Return to Savannah the narrator describes himself as:

 

"…a stupid little Hitch Village boy
feet covered with red dirt
and blackberry stains,
snot flowing like panic and river water.."

It is included with other Savannahcana in my book The American Poet Who Went Home Again  which as far as I know contains the only attempted history of the project and its people. The following excerpt is my salute to the community’s exceptional past and its now promising future.

  

III.

My community, Robert M. Hitch Village–known simply as Hitch Village or "The Village" to those who lived there–was built during the early 1950s and started welcoming poverty-stricken families like mine into its concrete bosom in 1959. It was comprised of courts containing long rectangular apartment blocks. These courts were named after biblical figures like Paul, Cain, Ham, and Ruth. Nestled toward its center were two churches: the Central Missionary Baptist Church on Hitch Drive; and the Second Ebenezer Baptist Church on the Corner of McAllister and Colbert Streets.

Before becoming the model government project it was at the time, the area was something very different known as the Old Fort. Located in the northeast section of the city, the Old Fort was a segregated community in which Whites lived in one section and Blacks in the other. Most, regardless of color, lived in bare-wood single-story frame houses lined along the sides of lanes. Most, regardless of color, were poor. 

Drums and Shadows a book published in 1940 by the Georgia Writers’ Project and the University of Georgia, provides revealing insight into the spiritual, economic, and social practices of the black people living in the Old Fort. It was a place in an era when African Americans still frequently referred to grandparents, and even parents, who had actually been slaves. It was also a place where the black residents commonly practiced the kind of Hoodoo and conjuring described in Zora Neale Hurston’s classic of black folklore and anthropology, Mules and Men. They not only very much believed, back in those days, in the prophetic powers of dreams but lived by them. They took guard against the malicious wizardry of witches said to steal one’s youth to restore their own, and they studied with care the healing properties of sacred herbs. At the same time, many also lent support to the charismatic spiritual leader known as Father Divine of the Peace Mission Ministry and practiced industriousness as a way of life. They often grew their own food, made their own clothes, got drunk and fought on Saturday nights, got sober and went to church on Sunday mornings. Some might describe the Old Fort as close to "primitive" but the community was, in fact, one that gave Savannah such exceptional citizens as the future civil rights leader and president of Savannah State College, Prince Jackson, and the gifted jazz pianist James Willis.  

Although the physical make-up of the Old Fort evolved dramatically with the establishment of Robert M. Hitch Village, many of the old folk beliefs and practices lingered on. So did the separation of the races, with the economically challenged Whites who had lived in the Old Fort resettling in a second project called Fred Wessels located adjacent to Hitch Village, literally just across Randolph Street, which marked Hitch Village’s western boundary. It may have been while walking through Fred Wessels to reach the grocery store or downtown shops on the opposite side of the project that I perfected the practice of keeping my head down to avoid the stare of certain poor Whites who seemed to need little provocation to yell threats, throw stones, or aim guns. 

The first time, however, someone felt it necessary to call me "nigger" was when I made the mistake of journeying beyond both Hitch Village and Fred Wessels to get a haircut. I was about eight years old and my mother had sent me with my nephew Kenneth, who could not have been more than four, to the barber shop.  For some reason, the shop on Wheaton Street, on the southern border of Hitch Village, was closed that day. Why we were not with one of my older brothers I don’t recall, but black children of that time and place rarely stayed children for very long and it may be that this was one of my first outings to indicate that I was growing into a "big boy" whose turn it now was to look after others rather than expect others to look after me. It was something I would do throughout my adolescence and again, later, as an adult offspring.

 

 

by Aberjhani

 

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The Great Old Man Mystical Poet on the Mountain (Part 3 of 3)

Cover of The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009.

Cover of The Bridge of Silver Wings 2009.

For a salute to The Poets of the Angels Please Click here

 For the conclusion of The Great Old Man Mystical Poet on the Mountain, continue reading below:

  

 

They spoke mostly of failed relationships and sexual desire, with one or two venturing into the more dangerous realms of race relations and social injustice.  Listening to them, I couldn’t help musing on the nature of poets and poetry as I understood it.  I especially recalled the great San Francisco poet and jazz oboist Toussaint St. Negritude, whose extraordinary creative gifts had once prompted me to observe the following:

 

The birth of a true poet is neither an insignificant event nor an easy delivery.  Complications generally begin long before the fated soul carries its dubious light into whatever womb has been kind enough to volunteer the intricate machinery of its blood and prayers and muscles for a gestation period much longer than nine months or even nine years.  For most true poets tend to be a long time coming.  Consider first of all that such beings rarely result solely from the happy minglings of human egg and sperm but evolve out of forces as seductively commanding as the magnetic pulsings of jazz and as numinously elusive as the whispers of an Ethiopian priest confirming remembrances with his God in the bright silence of a small dark hour.

Consider secondly that even as the body of such a  one journeys from infant to adult, feeding upon the grains and meats and disillusionments of his North American homeland, his spirit engages a different order of hunger and grows aware of itself as something more informed than a sociopoliticohistorical construction.  It allows the soul of his being to look back, wander forward and dance sideways through the many many mansions of unfolding consciousness: kneeling in joy before the fames of divine manifestation; weeping in wonder at the miracles of Mahalia and Malcolm, Baldwin and King, Mandela and Morrison; sighing with liberated love before the glorious spectacle of a new millennium.  Having sought and found the threshold of such unrestrained revelation, one is not allowed to succumb to pain but becomes obligated to embrace it with the full might of earned wisdom and truth and grace.  Such has been the birth and death and double-death and rebirth of the poet known as Toussaint St. Negritude.        

 

These reflections on Toussaint St. Negritude may have slanted my assessment of the young performers before me which probably wasn‘t fair at all since St. Negritude‘s work has been culled from his travels in Haiti, Harlem, Paris, and elsewhere, as well as from his rather formidable musical sensibility. 

 

Many of the poets got pissed at the Old Man Down From His Mountain because I turned out to be the toughest judge on the panel. The audience got pissed too because, on a scale of 1-10, I gave one of their heartthrobs an 8 and a local hero the same score when they felt they should have gotten 9s (I gave two of those). For me, as with the other judges, only the very last poet rated a 10: his spoken words actually stood as powerfully by themselves as the extremely emotionally raw performance he gave.  It turned out that his wife had given him the boot and he used his grief over that to heighten his performance. His pain won him best of show and allowed him to pocket the top prize of $100.

 

The highlight of the entire event for me was a special segment featuring an "MC" competition.  I had thought MC meant the competitors were going to scratch and mix records. It actually meant someone else played records while two rappers brutally insulted each other in rhymes composed extemporaneously.  At that point, the closest I had ever come to witnessing such a spectacle was while growing up in Savannah when my playmates and enemies alike would sometimes engage in what we called "checking," referred to more commonly in the North as "the dozens."  I later would see another powerful example of this unique and challenging art in the acclaimed Eminem’s movie, 8 Mile.  But until the night of the Slickfire competitions I had never seen anything exactly like it in my life and laughed so hard my headache went away. 

 

Some of the rhymes were basically mindless profanity but some were genuinely witty, profound,  and outright hilarious good comedy. This segment was judged by screams and applause from the audience rather than by scores from the judges so I got to lay my scoring pen down and yell like an idiot without fear of being institutionalized. Talk about great therapy for stress-relief from writing and care-giving every day!  The whole event turned out to be a little oasis of sweet diversions and delightful surprises that had a powerful rejuvenating effect on me.

 

Somewhat fearing the reaction of the poets and their fans to my tough-love scoring, I tried to sneak out after the competitions ended.  I didn’t quite make it. Some grabbed me and picked whatever they could out of my brain for a second or two.  Several others insisted that as "deep" as my writings are I seem to lack a fundamental understanding and appreciation of their feelings toward me–was that an insult or something else?–so they insisted on ritual hugs and kisses and handshakes. I could hardly say no with my public stance on unconditional love. Jesus Goodness!  After all that mush I made it back to my car and found a parking ticket for $100 on my windshield.  I decided it would make a nice thank you card to send the leader of the Slickfire Poets, with love from The Old Man Mystical Poet Back Home On His Mountain.   

 

 by Aberjhani
And Now For Letters From the Soul Number 6

 

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The Great Old Man Mystical Poet on the Mountain (Part 2 of 3)

Cover of forthcoming Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black

Cover of forthcoming Collected Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black

 

For Part 1 of The Great Old Man Mystical Poet on the Mountain Please Click Here

For Poetic Notes on beatmeister Jack Kerouac Enjoy this link

To continue the adventures of The Great Old Man Mystical Poet, please read on:


Where the hell had that crack about me being "the old man  on a mountain" come from?  What had happened to my symbol of the Black Skylark, which I had promoted in poetry readings and made part of the name of my second poetry collection, Visions of Skylark Dressed in Black?  And what, I wondered, would he think of the little quote I kept near my computer to motivate myself: "And in between these rocks and hard places I am making diamonds."  Making diamonds, not sitting on my rump meditating on top of a mountain.

I cleared my throat and explained that forty-five is quite far from being old and actually a nice comfortable age to enjoy. I then pointed out that rather than living the life of the cloistered contemplative ascetic he imagined me to be, I happened to be something of a minor mystic who actually engaged life, and that meant working every night until 3 A.M. to meet the deadlines on my books then getting back up at 8 A.M. to meditate, administer Mom’s medicines, cook and serve meals, wash dishes, empty her chamber pot, and balance a dozen top priorities throughout the day and night  without becoming overwhelmed by any single one of them. He found that impressive enough and said the Slickfire Poets would take the substitute if I got one but, if I didn’t, and my Mom was doing ok on Saturday night, would I consider trying to come out for a couple of hours after she had gone to bed and hang out with them long enough to judge their competition.  As persistent as Mr. Renovation was, he was also humble, so I agreed to consider his request if my proposed substitute couldn’t make it.

My proposed substitute was none other than the illustrious Dr. Ja Jahannes, accomplished playwright, poet, composer, educator, minister, and all-around highly evolved human being.  Which meant of course that he couldn’t fill in for me because he was too busy with his own agenda, in this instance participating in another event in North Carolina.  So it then became a matter of whether or not Mom might go to bed no later than 10 P.M. on Saturday so I could secure her and the house before tipping out for an hour or two. In the meantime, the representative of the Slickfire Poets sent me humble emails and left me humble phone messages stating that everyone was excited that the Great Old Man Mystical Poet was coming down off his Mountain and blah blah blah, completely but humbly ignoring the conditions I had spelled out. What a cheeky mild-mannered little thug he turned out to be!

Well, Mom did in fact go to bed by 10 and I did respond to the Slickfire Poets final plea to come to the Metropole Cafe long enough to judge their competition. Because I had become sensitive to being characterized as the Great Old Man Mystical Poet On The Mountain, I decided not to dress in the African robes that the public was accustomed to seeing me wear and instead dressed in black slacks and black evening shirt with a cream-colored evening jacket. THEN put on my mystical ankh, cross, crystal, ring, and kufi cap. I took two aspirins to ward off an increasing headache and stuck the bottle in my pocket in the event I later found myself in spoken word agony.

Arriving at the cafe, I was surprised at the number of people attending the event. The Metropole used to be a bus terminal so was very spacious and one side of it was open completely to the warm night air.  There were easily anywhere from 300-500 people present, most of them twenty-something, college and art students, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, European, Cross-dressers, Holy People, etc.   I was one of three judges and knew one of the others, a counselor and also a writer, fairly well.  I went to my esteemed colleague and fellow judge and asked him, with hurt plainly in my voice, if he knew there were people who called me the Great Old Man Mystical Poet On The Damn Mountain.  He avoided answering me by laughing and embracing me. I couldn‘t tell if it was a man-don‘t-worry-about-it laugh or a you-big-dumb-ass-everybody-knew-that-but-you laugh. Wow–was it really like that?  Oh well.

Turned out that quite a few people had read various stories about me and their prolonged applause when I was introduced actually scared me for a second or two.  It seemed rather amazing that my personal life could have been so completely defined by the challenges of daily family responsibilities and literary work on the one hand while my public personae had, apparently, taken on a life independent of those challenges.  

Anyway: there were a total of some sixteen performance poets.  The humbly persistent Mr. Renovation, who was not so little at all but stood at least six-feet-five and possessed movie-star handsomeness, acted as moderator for the event.  Most of the poets delivered–or spit, as they preferred to call it–the kind of spoken wordage common to coffee house gathering at the time (the Iraq war was nearly a year away and poets had not yet turned their piercing gaze and tongues to the more immediate horrors of war). 

NEXT: Part 3, The Conclusion

by Aberjhani

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The Great Old Man Mystical Poet

Poet with words written all over his face.

Poet with words written all over his face.

Although I actually write fiction, creative nonfiction, reference works and journalism as well as poetry, much of my work seems to somehow employ poetry as a kind of touchstone or launching pad. Therefore, I tend to be big on celebrating National Poetry Month, which starts on this very day, and and I therefore very happy to begin this three-part blog titled The Great Old Man Mystical Poet on the Mountain.  For a more straightforward presentation of poetry, please check out Poets Everywhere and Always (remembering Federico Garcia Lorca)

 

Please Note: This is a true story but various names have been changed to avoid offending the parties in question.

  

I knew it was a bold move for me to quit my job as a bookstore manager three years ago to become a full-time writer and a caregiver for my mother, who, as it turned out, suffered not only from diabetes but a complex of illnesses that included diabetes, renal failure, congestive heart failure, and the more common agony of chronic arthritis.  I reasoned, however, that leaving my job was the best way to simultaneously fulfill my family obligations while pursuing my goal to earn my living as a writer. 

It never occurred to me that during my years of occasionally publishing a poem or story and sometimes participating in open mics throughout Savannah that I had built among younger writers a reputation I knew nothing about.  I considered myself a young man entering middle age who had been forced by challenging circumstances to evolve into a spiritually aware individual.  Time spent in England and Alaska as a military journalist along with an early marriage (a six-year long common-law relationship back when such unions were respected as valid) that ended in separation had made me stand out from most aspiring writers in Savannah.  It had made me as well more sensitive to differences between cultures and individuals.  I was also set apart by my study of a variety of metaphysical disciplines: the teachings of the Essenes, Sufism, Native American Spirituality, numerology, and paranormal psychology.  To sum up my own evolved literary and spiritual identity, I drew from a variety of my writings the symbol of a mythological Black Skylark, so I was stunned to learn that certain others saw me in a completely different light.

 After leaving my full-time employment as a bookstore manager, I struggled for more than a year without any major sales of my work when I was offered a contract to co-write The Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance on Black America’s famed cultural awakening of the 1920s and 1930s.  My lucky bolt of lightning struck twice as, two years later, while nearing the completion of the encyclopedia, I received another contract for The Wisdom of W. E. B. Du Bois, a shorter book on the phenomenal historian and sociologist.  I then settled into a tight but manageable routine of literary productivity squeezed in between my duties as a caregiver.  Although I remained at home working quietly out of the public eye, a few stories about my work in the local press made me a minor public figure.  

 I was juggling proofreading for one book and research for the other when I received a call on a Monday from a leading member of the young spoken word artists in town.  Identifying himself by the heroic name of "Renovation," he informed me that he represented a group called the Slickfire Poets and asked if I would be available to judge their poetry contest at 11 p.m. on Saturday night at a chic downtown hang-out called the Metropole Cafe. As honored as I was that he had asked, I had to answer no because of my tight schedule and offered to provide a substitute.  Mr. Renovation said a substitute would not do because in Savannah, "We consider you as the Great Old Man Mystical Poet Living On His Mountain and it’s so rare that you come down from the top that we were hoping, we were really really hoping, you would step down this one time and judge our competition."

 Wow. An odd ringing shot through my ears and I tried to understand what he had just said. 

 "Did you just call me the old man on a damn mountain?!  Really? I mean–Really?!"

 

From The American Poet Who Went Home Again

CONTINUES WITH PART 2

by Aberjhani

 

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Shining a Bloglight on Two Birthday Boys: Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer (Part 2 of 2)

Oscar-winning song-man Johnny Mercer.

Oscar-winning song-man Johnny Mercer.

 

It’s always nice when a writer can acknowledge some minor connection to the subjects of a blog such as this. In regard to Ellington, I can only say it was a great pleasure to write the article on him featured in Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts On File). However, where Mercer is concerned we actually share the same home town of Savannah. Also, as it happens, we are both featured contributors in the travel anthology Literary Savannah.

Numerous celebrations are already underway for both Ellington and Mercer. The Coastal Jazz Association of Savannah will present a Tribute to Duke Ellington April 19 at Armstrong Atlantic State University, and officials of the U.S. Mint and District of Columbia released a coin in honor of the musician in January. It became the first circulating coin to feature an African American as the primary image and therefore an instant collector’s item.

Because his talent had such a formidable impact on different areas of the performing arts, events observing the centennial of his birth can be found any nearly every corner of the United States. These include, from New York City to Hollywood and elsewhere, workshops devoted to a study of his lyrics, concerts showcasing his music, stage revivals, and film festivals.  The commemoration in Savannah will culminate on the composer’s birthday with the unveiling of a life-sized bronze statue of Mercer.

Of course life in and of itself it worth celebrating every single day but the current proliferation of wars and genocide in more than forty countries makes it clear that our species hasn’t quite made it to that level of spiritual evolution. So for the time being, why not enjoy ourselves by celebrating those whose creative contributions to humanity one day just might help us get there before we blast the planet to a pile of nuclear waste.   

For a different kind of salute to Jazz Appreciation Month, please check out the audio for An Angel for New Orleans

by Aberjhani

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