Poets' Summit Interview Part III

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"I think the duty of the poet is to first deal with self, to transform self to that level where then they can step out and transform society."

Various Artists

Aaron Shuman

Thursday, August 23 2001, 4:33 PM

Continued from Parts I and II

Marcel: How do we bring that into this whole realm, this audience we been talking about? That's the vibe I'm trying to bring with me, basically, is like I'm with you all. You all about to be with me. I'm not about to be the only one getting vulnerable. I'm about to excite that in the whole room, that we all feelin' like our ass is on Front Street. So we can all open our mouth. And a lot of times, in this virtuoso society where we got these solos -- we soloin' [pretends to play saxophone.] A lot of the collectivity gets lost.

I think the duty of the poet is to first deal with self, to transform self to that level where then they can step out and transform society. I did a lot of work on it. Years. I've fucked with every little insecurity I got, like ooh, "I don't like this about myself." [Pinches part of his body] Went through it, said that it was all right, said it out in public, slapped myself, beat myself down. I always tell a little story when I be on the mike about how I started MC'ing at the age of 9. I'm 28 years old. So when I'm stepping into the public eye to work with the mind, I'm doin' something I been doing for 20 years, even though I'm in a young-ass body.

With that comes what Aya was speaking of: the delicacy, being able to play, being able to be whatever it takes to excite this vulnerability in the crowd. When I step in, I'm on a level where I'm not totally myself. Meaning that I just lost all sense of Marcel the ego, Marcel Di-al-lo, Marcel grew up in Richmond, like all of that shit that I'm gonna play with to fuck with people. But I also might play with bein' a homosexual; I also might play with bein' a rowdy-ass nigga; intellectual; black, white, Chicano, Native American, whatever. It's all things that I've absorbed, so when I'm there in the threshold of everybody's attention, my job is to jump from mind to mind, to make sure that I'm hittin' everybody in the room.

If we really tryin' to create a collective vibration then we have to know who we're speakin' to. If we can just say, "I worked at a coal mine -- and then my boy from London and the whole coal town, cuz I just seen him with a London cut and I heard his accent in the hallway -- [perks up ears.] And then I start talking about some homosexual experience I may have felt like I had when I was a kid, then all of the brothers that I know be at the Dot on Tuesdays, the gay black radicals, they like, "Awwwww." Then I go over here to my niggas in my hood, and they like, "Aw mutha." Go all at the same time, you inciting excitement in muthafuckas that usually would be battling each other, hate each other, but right there, they on point and on oneness in yours. And you make yourself that center.

That's the duty of the poet. But I don't think too many people is really comin' close to that. If we fall short of that as poets -- exciting the masses by being one with them in a collective sense, then that's a basic exercise that people calling' themselves poets should practice: the art of not piling on a bunch of skills, a bunch of gimmicks and tricks, but peeling back the layers of every gimmick and trick, every piece of bullshit and every defense mechanism that you've got, and getting down to your rawness, to your rawest you, to your truest you. I call it the Black Dot.

Bamuthi: What Marcel's describing, what Sonia's describing, is the product of a process that we haven't all been through. And it's a process that you must choose. Because frankly, you don't have to. Billions of us get by, not knowing that there's a choice, or understanding that there might be a choice. But we can get by just not goin' through it. Cuz we don't have to, because it's hard.

Sonia: And I have been unable to conjure that type of freeness by myself. Because then all of my own critical-ass shit comes back into play, like I can't do that! But when you're in the moment, and everybody's there with you, it's easy to do. When you're in it, you look at it, like, "Whoa, what the fuck am I doin'? [Laughter] Like all of the sudden, I can play the drum? Tomorrow, pick up a drum, and you like, 'I can't play this for shit.' But one night, all of a sudden, I was a drummer.

Bamuthi: At that point, it is about elements and chemistry. It's ironic, because your collective is Elements of a Whole. Mine is Living Word Family. Between Living Words and Black Dots and Elements of a Whole, it's live up in here. [Laughs] Just in terms of the metaphors that we've chosen to represent the complete, or to represent a path towards what's more.

Aya: I'm working on a piece called 'Poetry Is Not Therapy.' [Laughs] Which is to say people can do really powerful healing, and have really powerful experiences, both through the writing and exploring of their own voice, and through listening to other people's voices. I really appreciated what you said about putting people onto the path, because I want to say that the public ritual isn't the path.

The path is what you were talking about, Marcel. The relationship that one has to oneself in a quieter, more solitary space which is about pushing your own buttons and touching your own bruised places and saying "Owww" and figuring out how to work that through.

I was talking to a disgruntled former participant in the scene, who was saying, it used to be so spiritual and so healing for me, and now it's not. And this person was articulating that it was because the scene had gone down. And that's very possible. I also think that sometimes people get disgruntled because they've gotten as much healing as they can get from that form, and if they want to get a deeper healing, they need to get a different kind of context.

Some people come with particular expectations that they've got to get something from an artistic scene. I think it's important for us as artists to be clear that we do have a duty to the community, but sometimes people put such an incredible responsibility on artists, like we have to entertain people, heal everybody, get everybody politically active. But I also feel that there are movements; there are spaces where people get healed; there are spiritual environments; and it's not at a show.

Sonia: That was my problem that I had with the scene when I first came out. [People would come up with] this spiritual thing, and I didn't know what the hell you talking 'bout. I know I'm here; I'm having a good time. And don't look at me cuz I dress this way and I don't wear all of this earthy shit. I just said fuck it, I'm gonna be me. I'm gonna go and do the poetry reading down at DuSoleil where all the niggas at. Cuz they the ones who need to hear it.

It took us a long time, and I'm still working on that, to look at self and to be free. But what we have now is the tools to give the youth what we didn't have, and that's to talk about self in school, and how we relate to the world. Not so much like givin' the children the history, just pilin' fuckin history on top of them, without them knowin' something about them damn selves or even bein' able to speak about what the hell is going on at home and why they struggling with this.

That's what poetry in school has done; because most of us are there, letting these kids be themselves and speak their own truths, speak about what's really important to them. We all know that you gotta have this foundation to be able to deal with yourself in order to accept and to listen and to know what your role is gonna be with all of this history and everything that's goin' on today. You don't even know how to handle that shit, if you don't know nothing about yourself. And most of us had to become adults to think that way; we didn't get the chance as children. That's why we are important people to be in schools.

Right now, the kids downstairs are doing poetry right now, that's changing the world, that's changing people sitting in the audience. Cuz on the way up here, I got stopped by a young girl saying, "I have twelve years of this experience, and this is who I am so far." And just that she can speak like that is amazing. Cuz I didn't even have that kind of voice at her age. Somebody went to their school and told them that this poetry and this type of expression was okay.

Bamuthi: And that's so important. The affirmation youth are getting is the kind of affirmation that I got running up and down the soccer field. And running up and down the soccer field is much different. These kids are being affirmed just for speaking. Just for saying something. And that's the 180-degree turn from seen and not heard. Now it's seen and heard and affirmed for it. And these will be much healthier adults for it.

BS: Generationally, do you see differences between the poetry that kids under 18 are producing versus your own?

Marcel: On the whole, the kids are advanced. But my generation, we were advanced, and we still are advancing, so there's a lot of us that are advanced thinkers that the kids ain't at that level yet.

But of our generation, there's a bunch of us that were touched and were there and been doin' it the whole time. I can say for myself, at least thirty of 'em that I know that were shiners with me, they in jail, dead, you feel me, so it's a whole generation of leadership even within our age that has been wiped out. When I talk, the reason why I be hard all the time, is cuz I'm speakin' for a thousand muthafuckas that I grew up with, that I knew were doper than me.

Aya: I also want to say that we lose men and women differently. I think we lose men into jail, men into substance abuse. A lot of times, we lose women, too, in their relationships with men. Women step back and give men the limelight in certain relationships, or they give their energy to the relationship. The man is giving his energy to his creativity, and the woman is giving her energy to the dude. Or I see women who are parenting, and an inordinate amount of the load is falling on their shoulders.

Sonia: And parenting not just their kids, but brothers and sisters.

Aya: That's real, cuz I know that five years ago, when I was writing with a group of sisters, and we were like, "Aiight, aiight, we're gonna be artists, we're gonna get our stuff together, we're gonna come up, we're gonna be dope, we're gonna succeed, we're gonna be out there.here are those girls now? Married. Not doing art. [Laughter]

Sonia: Most of the women don't actually have someone saying, "Stay creative."

Aya: What's deep about these women is that it wasn't the men; it was their own conditioning. The men were down, but the women's conditioning was like, "Well, I'm supposed to take care of you," even if the dude is like, "Well baby, maybe you should write." [Laughter]

So often, Sonia, women are behind the scenes making it happen. You're a make-it-happen black woman. And I just think it's very important for us to figure out that balance, because if it's draining you to the point that you're not doing your art, that's not cool.

Paul: That's when it's time to get the fuck out.

Sonia: I'm that type of overpowering personality that if there's a gap, I'm a jump in it, even if I can't do it as good. We are all the type of people who fill gaps, but we are all in separate groups, and that's the importance of this gathering we had here today.

Copyright © 2001 by Aaron Shuman. All rights reserved.

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