Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday in Fort Greene: The Fourth Annual Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival

We arrived right on time at 3 p.m. today at beautiful Fort Greene Park for the Fourth Annual Fort Greene Literary Festival. Having been to last year's event (you can read our 2007 coverage on Louise Crawford's Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn) as well as the one in 2006, we knew we were in for a treat. And we weren't disappointed.

Much credit for the Festival goes to the New York Writers Coalition (NYWC), a neighborhood Fort Greene fixture at 80 Hansen Place, and under the direction of the dynamic Aaron Zimmerman, its founder and executive director, and many others, last year provided more than 1000 creative writing workshop sessions at more than 45 locations throughout New York City. (Thanks to NYWC for photos above and kids' photos below; you can see more at their website.)

Kudos for their work on the Festival also go to these presenters: chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council and Fort Greene resident Johnny Temple's indie publishing firm Akashic Books, "dedicated to the reverse gentrification of the literary world"; the Fort Greene Park Conservatory, who've done so much good work (those of Brooklyn natives know in what bad shape the place was before they came along); the well-known agency Global Talent Associates; and The Walt Whitman Project - a great Brooklyn organization known for events like tomorrow's reading, "Walt Whitman in the Neighborhood," at the Clinton Hill Art Gallery.

This year's featured writers were four current or former poets laureate:

New Jersey's famously controversial Amiri Baraka, a legend and a favorite of ours since the summer of 1969, when we saw a production of his plays "Dutchman" and "The Toilet" in the basement theater at Brooklyn College's Whitman Auditorium;

Bed-Stuy's "Janitor of History," Louis Reyes Rivera, a living bridge between African and Latino American communities whose work we first caught late at night years ago at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe;

Hal Sirowitz of Queens, also the best-selling poet in Norway and someone whose very funny work we've known and loved long before he got famous, back in the downtown scene of the late '70s and early '80s, writing for mags like Benzene and Zone;

and the best-selling (The Pursuit of Happyness, with Chris Gardner) and award-winning Quincy Troupe, former State Poet of California, now living in Harlem, who we first knew as a teacher at Richmond College (since merged with Staten Island Community College to form the College of Staten Island) when we were getting our M.A. in English at that school by the St. George ferry landing in 1973-74.

While the theme for this year's adult writer Festival guests was poets laureate, it just as well could have been, as far as we're concerned, Grand Old Men of People's Poetry. We suspect the organizers might be criticized for a lack of women writers, but they dominated in previous years, and these guys are not exactly the Establishment. And we've gone to a lot of events this summer where people were onstage, but this was the first one where all the performers whose next birthdays will range from age 60 to age 75.

Considerably younger - and the highlight, again this year, for us - were the two dozen or so kids from NYWC's summer New York Youth Writers Workshop at Fort Greene Park. Last year's MC, Laurie A. Cumbo, executive director and founder of the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA), again did a wonderful job but was particularly adept at putting the kids at ease (we overheard her telling them beforehand that "any butterflies in your stomach will fly away just before you go on") - as well as pronouncing sometimes challenging, if beautiful, names.

We came early enough to score a coveted seat in the shade and got to look at the makeshift stage all afternoon amid the ginkgos, maples, and weeping willows, with the mellow golden tones of the imposing art deco Brooklyn Tech building as the backdrop.

Laurie first introduced a great performance by the Indoda Entsha Percussion Ensemble, whose core group has been together for 17 years under the director of E. Preston Riddick aka A'ma Sakura Ka. They play a powerful and seductive blend of traditional West African, Afro-Cuban and hip-hop music, and today the men in the band were joined by five female dancers in bright African garb who got things off to a lively start.

Then the kids from the NYWC workshop came up to read; some of them we remembered warmly from last year's Festival.

Aleisha Small, first up, read two coming home narrative poems, "Mystical Keys" and "The Stormy Night," followed by Paul Francois, whose longpoem "Bad Day," in his matter-of-fact style surrealistically invoked the kind of flying bacon we've heretofore encountered only in the visual art of James Rosenquist.

David Nduka delivered two poems, one about basketball and James Brown, the other about a cat who attacks the President! . . . and starts a riot! Aliyah Jones' first poem began, I am a bird soaring in air / I hate being eaten. We know the feeling.

Bengum Abam-Depass's contribution was a list poem of things he likes, like visits to Texas and lots of adjectives, while Christopher Small's "My Mom" was a tribute to the woman "who protects me" and "mostly talks on the phone." Alberta Devor read a plaintive poem in the voice of a tree who has "grown taller than all of my friends."

Next up, Tristan Regist reprised the "stormy night" theme, this time darker - all hope is lost - and then read a beautiful poem about the "sound of fear" in which he said fear "smells of cayenne pepper." Then Aidan Amog recited a jaunty ode to the scooter of his dream. Both Aidan's poems employed sophisticated tropes and complex syntax.

Anneliese Treitmeier-McCarthy's long poem, befitting her status as one of the older kids, was a thoughtful and eloquent look at "Wartime in a Child's Eyes," narrated by a girl huddled in a basement during the bombing of her hometown. Anneliese was followed by the much littler Talaia Regist in a pink polka-dot dress, whose poems were about growing wings to fly to Florida to visit grandma and a reflection on "Happiness." Happiness for us was listening to her poems.

Josiah Livingston, a cutie in dreads and shorts, read "The Things I Care About," in which the environmentally-conscious young poet celebrated "all the polar bears in Antarctica." Immediately afterward, the scholarly Ijangmarie Abam-Depass read a love letter to her Montessori pre-K and a narrative showing how good can come out of even broken glass.

Joella Fraser, in a little red dress, read "I Open the Door." What do you think the speaker saw when she did that? Hint: it's really, really scary. She followed with a piece called "Don't Tell Me" that reminded us of Jamaica Kincaid's classic monologue "Girl."

Osose Ebesunum, one of the older girls, read a whimsical narrative about being hit by lightning and being transformed into, in turn, a flying girl, a mermaid and the crown princess of a secret city. Her "Ode to Snow" asked, "Why don't you come every day?" Um, it was a good poem but as with some of Amiri Baraka's work, we disagree with its sentiments.

Raquel Hoisen, another older poet (still under 13, we'd guess), told about a fish who was simultaneously imaginative, belligerent and claustrophobic and then in "A Troubador's Song" used not only sophisticated rhyme but skillfull anastrophe (Lost the enemy was).

Najaya Royal, one of last year's standouts, whom we also saw earlier this summer at the Women's Health Festival in Bed-Stuy, read her now-classic (to us, anyway) "Teardrops" and "If I Were a Song," which invokes the hope found by field slaves in their inspiring music, a theme that would later be taken up by the adult Louis Reyes Rivera.

Joseph Francois, another poet we enjoyed last year, used rhyming couplets to good effect in "The Day I Fell Down" and call-and-response (Could someone say amen?) in "If I Could Fly," while Ashley Quarless fetchingly read a moving poem in the voice of a dying tree.

Gabriel Treitmeier-McCarthy contributed a poem about his cat and another one about a fearsome storm that nevertheless ended with a line that relieved our fears: However, I survived. Future rock star that he is, Gabriel daringly eschewed the steps and jumped off the platform following his solo.

Although that was a hard act to follow, Kayla Quarless was up to it with her "I Am Sad in Winter" (see, not everyone likes snow) and "Don't Tell Me to..." (go to bed/ turn off the TV/ shut the computer/ teach my sister social studies). And then Tamara read one of the afternoon's most sophisticated lyrics, "Where Are the Stars?" and the sharply-drawn "Behind the Door."

Anjelika Amog (in case you haven't figured it out, a lot of these poets are siblings, like William and Dorothy Wordsworth or Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti) recited "Boredom," avoiding the fallacy of imitative form by enlivening the poem with lines like boredom smelling like week-old cheese. She also included skillful use of slant rhyme, and her next poem, equally complex, employed allusions to childhood chants like "Rain, rain, go away" in the middle of the narrative.

Jediael Fraser read "Nervousness," which evokes tasting "your own taste buds because they're huddling together" and "clouds laughing at you and booing you offstage." Needless to say, Jediael went offstage to applause and cheers following his second poem, which employed an ABAB rhyme scheme and whose setting moved from Prospect Park to Disneyland to the bright lights of Broadway.

Last but not least was Shyanne Bennett, who at first seemed as if she embodied some of what the speaker in Jediael's "Nervousness" was experience but soon settled into a beautiful long poem that was married an emo sensibility to a spiritual awakening for "weary eyes, tired eyes."

Laurie Cumbo then asked all of the poets to come forward to the stage for a group photo and a final round of appreciative applause by the audience. As Laurie warned parents that the adult readers' work would probably contain, not surprisingly, "adult content" not suitable for young'uns, the Indoda Entsha Percussion Ensemble were brought back on for a reprise performance.

Starving, we trekked over to Myrtle Avenue - a street we still recall as "Murder Avenue" from back in the bad old days (though we do miss our stalwart Myrtle Avenue el) - for a slice of Sicilian at the always-friendly Little Louie's pizzeria on the corner of Adelphi. We came back satisfied - and with a can of Diet Pepsi - for the performances of the poets laureate.

Louis Reyes Rivera read excerpts from his 155-page epic poem in progress, Jazz in Jail, an allegory in which Jazz gets together all the forms of music engendered by the African Diaspora and is put on trial for conspiracy. Reyes Rivera used the rhythms and tricks of jazz, hip-hop, doo wop and bebop - as well as varied voices in selections like "Where Silence is Brass" and "Amicus Curiae" to blinding effect.

Strongest of all was Reyes Rivera's final section in the voice of Mother Blues, a lament in the form of legal argument indicting history for misappropriating the music of the slaves, from the fields to, well, 20th century New York City:
Ask Alberta Hunter why you find her so blue
She said she'd be be paid for the sounds she made
But never got paid her due

(We were lucky enough to see Alberta Hunter sing at our beloved Cookery on West 8th and University in the Village after she'd finally, in her 80s, been rediscovered following too many years of obscurity as a nurse on Roosevelt Island.)

Hal Sirowitz, up next, walked unsteadily onstage and had to read sitting down. Putting the audience at ease with his first poem, which explained that his Parkinson's disease has not affected his performance in the bedroom, he also proved that his dry delivery in that trademark Brooklyn/Queens accent, still makes his poems funny, even if you've heard them a dozen times before, as we have.

His "Mother Said," "Father Said," and "My Therapist" poems are justly famous but basically all of his poems are not just wryly amusing but are a special species of Jewish wisdom literature:

Quincy Troupe, up next, read some of his newer work (he has lots to choose from, having authored 17 books) like "Switchin in the Kitchen," which employs fast-footwork wordplay and "rapology" to segue from "the sick war, invented by chicken hawk cheney-bush wags" to "pigology" and "filo-plumes."

Most exciting was the last part of his long poem, "My Solo," which preaches the gospel of neo-hoodoo from the point of view of a contemporary griot who invokes historical figures from Miles Davis (whom Troupe has written three books about) to Marie Laveau.

Amiri Baraka was the last poet of the day, reading some of his "Poems for Newark" such as "Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" with its fierce concern for social justice and its cultural commentary:
Remember Steppen Fetchit how we laughed
An all your Sunday school images giving flesh and giggling
With the ice pick high off his head
Made ya laugh anyway
I can see something in the way of our selves
I can see something in the way of our selves
That's why I say the things I do, you know it

Fiercer still was his attack on "peanut-head yellow Negroes" who talk as if they have a hundred pickles in their mouth in "Local Peanuts." It never mentions Newark Mayor Cory Booker's name, but it's pretty devastating and provocative.

Baraka said his last poem would be
"Somebody Blew Up America,"
the controversial poem that caused him to be removed as poet laureate of New Jersey. We started to get up, not wanting to be offended and trying to get a head start on everyone else leaving, but stopped on the side to listen to him as the poem gathered force.

Baraka's performance was masterly and masterful; we think, whatever its questionable assumptions, the poem stands as a tour de force which indicts of much of the powers who've controlled the West over the past few centuries, but you can judge for yourself via this performance on YouTube:

After that, Laurie Cumbo said she wasn't going to try to follow up except to thank everyone for coming and that books and other info were available at the Akashic Books and Brooklyn Public Library tables. For us, this was the best Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival yet.

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