At the Anyway Cafe afterparty for the screening celebrating Raymond Foye’s Critics Page in the December 2014/January 2015 issue of the Rail, I asked him how he managed to put the whole section together in three weeks. “I just put in what was on my desk,” he said. Yes, we all want to be Raymond Foye’s desk.
The night was magic, Raymond’s print curation come to life. Seeing Rene Ricard, on the first-year anniversary of his death, doing a Flamenco dance-poem and then an epic motion poem of a cup of tea being ordered, sought, brewed, then carried jiggling back to him, filmed and enacted by his roommate Rita Barros (“It’s awful,” is Rene’s climactic comment)—tears of joy and sorrow. Raymond’s own iPhone film (iPhone film?) of Peter Lamborn Wilson memorializing opium dens intercut with Chris Martin’s spontaneous book-cover paintings. The whole night evoked a party from Back In the Day—the Artist-Poet Family of the Cedar in the ’50s, say, or the Berrigan/Padgett/Brainard/Waldman days at the Church, or the OG slammers at the ’90s Nuyorican.
That’s the party I aim to continue on these pages.
First guests I’d invite don’t need an invite—they’d crash the party anyway. PUP, Poets in Unexpected Places/The Pop Up Poets, their spark and spontaneity! Samantha Thornhill, Jon Sands, Adam Falkner, Alana Bell, Syreeta McFadden—this collective forsakes standard reading arenas for direct contact with the people, reading their own (and others’! Performance Appropriation!—or, Oral Tradition Homage? Hmm) poetry in situ, no one knowing who’s audience, who’s poet—Q: Hey, can I just get up and jam with PUP? A: You surely can. Also at the party—the current iteration of the Abstract Expressionist/NY School of Poets: poet/painters personified in practitioners Stefan Bondell and Sam Jablon. So we interview these two, hammer out some definitions of terms, take a peek at their work, another crossover poet genre, or maybe the glimmers of the new Digital Poet: Nikhil Melnechuk, let’s hear it from him, the poet/filmmaker. Nikhil also is the new Director of the Club I started in 2002, Bowery Poetry, where he hosts the weekly signature series, The Poet in New York. Until recently, his co-worker at the Club was his high school buddy, Adam Horowitz, a musician/arts activist. These days, Adam devotes himself full-time to the United States Department of Arts and Culture, ready to take its place at the federal level, a cabinet position, should anyone ever care to acknowledge the true value and import art has in the daily life of our citizenry. USDAC is performance as activism, political theater played for keeps. The Rail is best known for its visual art coverage, so here’s a chance for me to show two under-appreciated artists whose work I love—Joan Grubin, whose ephemeral pieces of color and shadow play eye games with their site-specific nature, and Sono Kuwayama, who makes her first appearance anywhere in these pages, with her threads of light and shadow.
Steering the drunken boat through New York’s downtown art scene is one thing. Realizing my responsibility to the disappearing languages of global Oral Traditions is another. My research into the roots of hip-hop (as seen in On the Road with Bob Holman, LinkTV, Ram Devineni, producer) not only connected me to the roots of the Oral Tradition, but also illuminated for me how, after tens of thousands of years, these cultures were in peril: we’re losing a language every few weeks, half our global word-horde will vanish by the end of the century unless we start to respect others’ languages. Poets have been using language rent-free for thousands of years. Now it’s payback time! I hope you saw the PBS documentary, Language Matters, that I did with the extraordinary documentary filmmaker, David Grubin. If not, please put down the Rail, and stream it today from PBS Video. In 2010, with linguists Daniel Kaufman and Juliet Blevins, I co-founded the Endangered Language Alliance, my base of operations in this field. Right now you can go to City Lore at 56 East 1st Street, and see Mother Tongues: Endangered Languages in NYC and Beyond, the first endangered language exhibition in the country. Yuri Marder’s portraits of endangered language speakers incorporate each speaker’s handwritten text in the Mother Tongues. Marder’s portraits literally speak for themselves. Judith Santopietro was a recent visitor to New York, and I loved going everywhere with her—from Kristine Haruna Lee’s lesbian warfare drama at Dixon Place, to the USDAC’s People’s State of the Union, at the Bowery Poetry Club. She’s the young Director of Iguanazul, the cultural collective and education center of Central Mexico, where several dozen languages are endangered. We’ve included poems from Nahuatl, commonly called “the Aztec language,” and some of the great art from their ’zine as well.
But when I think of where to begin, I guess it has to be with my griot, Alhaji Papa Susso, the jelikuntigi (head Jeli/number-one poet) of Gambia. We met in 2000, in Asmara, Eritrea, at the seminal conference, Against All Odds: African Languages and Literature in the 21st Century, a gathering of some 400 scholars and artists, primarily African. This was the historic event where Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o announced that he would henceforth only write in Kukuya, that he no longer could tell the story of his people in the language of the oppressor (English). Papa and I have been on a mission ever since. For me, it’s a true education—you can’t “study” to be an oral poet/griot, you have to live it. Simply being with Papa is the education, and as our friendship grew to include translations and live performances around the globe, I’ve continued learning. What Papa has learned from me is less clear. At least these days he says he is a poet. Whatever that means. (Further illumination: check out what happens when Papa and I sit down to have a cup of tea with Justice, in the final poem of this section.)
Unfasten your seat belts. Art, politics, poetry, play, work, love—all ahead!
Bob Holman is an American poet and poetry activist, most closely identified with the oral tradition, the spoken word, and poetry slam.