on the relationship being poetry and performance

recently, i’ve received some feedback about my performance of a poetry reading with dancers, music and video design.   the comments have given me pause to consider my practice as both a writer and performer and to position this contextually in the traditions and contemporary practice of black poets.

my practice stems from my witnessing writers directly or loosely associated with the ‘black arts movement’ in the u.s. where i am from.  such luminaries as amiri baraka, ntozake shange, larry neal, david henderson, jayne cortez and others turned in some remarkable work reading to such artists as cecil taylor, ornette colemen, william parker etc. the articulation of this practice was/still is considered as the contemporary expression running through the harlem renaissance and such poets as langston hughes who often read live with musicians and, in a bit of a tangent, can be seen in the works of the white poets (kenneth patchen, kenneth rexroth, allen ginsberg, anne waldman, etc) who performed with either rock, jazz and/or classical musicians/composers.

particular to african diasporic aesthetics, it is critical to note the importance of the griot and that tradition stemming from continental african communities that combine story-telling with performance and how that has been called upon through ‘blood memory’ by the black artists noted above and others.

i share this now as i’m finding some comments about my needing to ‘act’ and to, in essence, not be seen as a poet reading.  i find this comment on my work quite reductionist for two reasons:

(1) i am not an actor, have never taken acting classes and, therefore, do not want to impugn a very challenging art form with amateurish efforts at memorization and movement that are not rooted in my practice and my intent in creating performance work; and

(2) more importantly, a poet is a poet and reading poetry – alone or with other artists – is the performance of the poetry, something quite distinct from acting and, in my case, a tradition made contemporary by other african diasporic poets in north america.

i put this out because i think it time we consider the importance of the poet, and of the poet as performer.  i’ll close this with the words of two choreographers/dancers i’m now working with – jesse dell and aria evans – who write:

“Rich with imagery, sensation and texture Charles’ work is a goldmine for movement generation, embodying his work seemed innate to our bodies.  As we have begun to understand Charles’ process we have been able to use his process to inform our own.  Movement is a part of Charles’ research that is not generally shown in his performance work.  We used his movement improvisations as a catalyst to inspire our own movement vocabulary.”



#Black Lives Matter and Other Projects

well, if you’ve been keeping pace, we recently performed #Black Lives Matter: The Making of the Myth of Black Dangerousness.  with funding support from the ontario arts council and the jackman humanities institute, this performance combined both my poetry from ‘travelogue of the bereaved’ and non-fiction from ‘the dirty war: the making of the myth of black dangerousness’.  these two books came out in the fall of 2014 and have combined for me to provide insight into the existence of black bodies in diaspora, particularly in canada.

aside from penning words relevant to contemporary issues, and doing so in a style that draws from the legacy and instruction of black poets and writers, musicians and dancers, i set out in this performance to demonstrate how our lives can be expressed in ways that capture its dissonance and its disruptiveness to how ‘daily life’ happens in our world.  i also wanted to show black bodies in word, music, visuals and movement and our protest to ongoing and seemingly unending anti-black racism and social injustice that continues to constrain us and rob us of our lives.

the performance is intense.  beginning with a powerful orchestral piece from the jazz composer’s orchestra and a pharoah sander’s solo, our bodies move slowly and then quickly across stage with an image of black bodies fading into the ocean in the background.  i read amidst the intensity of fragmented body movements around me seeminlgy protective and restrictive.  the entire performance moves along in this way – with words and movement bringing home the feelings of despair, hopelessness and challenge for change that is needed, a challenge we signify at the performance’s close with the upheld black fists of the black power movement.

this is what i seek to capture with my art.  my life, our lives, in my words.

now that we move on from this, we’ll soon be working on other projects….