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….




anya wassenberg’s blog about one of our early performances

sometimes it is rather refreshing to look back on what critics have said about your work and to see the trajectory from then to now.  i want to thank anya wassenberg for her coverage of one of our first performances and her posting in the huffington post blog.  here’s a link to that – http://www.artandculturemaven.com/2011/09/fleurette-africaine-multi-disciplinary.html

where we’re heading

it has been a bit of time since i last wrote here.  as the days roll on, we’re up to some new creative work and premiering some of this at performances this fall and showcases. first, it has been wonderful to expand the choreographic creation to the ‘collective’s’ treasure chest.  i’m really happy to be working on ‘salama’ with roshanak jaberi and melissa noventa.  it’s the first time i’ve worked with roshanak and the first time melissa has contributed her choreographic vision to the ‘collective’s’ work.  this piece resonates with the intimacy of these two dancers/choreographers and each time we rehearse it, the three of us get closer and closer, bridging the words to the music and movement.

then there’s the new piece with kevin a. ormsby, ‘multi-verse’, born out of my passion for thunderbolt writing to music as fast paced and intense.  with kevin’s sharp and acerbic movements, postures, bold and brash statements, the piece rockets along in a seeming defiance, with the words exclaiming the incomprehensible and the fixed.

one other piece is with amanda paixao, entitled ‘destination out’ which explores the drug dependency of jazz musicians and their flirtations with death.

these pieces are at the core of the new work we’re now engaged in and, through this, the development of another full-length production with the working title ‘destination out’ which i’m hoping will explore exits and departures from family, the physical life and entrance into spirit.  it will explore the hardships of family and the pain of spirituality in attempts to heal; it will explore black artist – musicians, writers, actors, dancers – who have worked to create and found themselves in trying circumstances in their efforts to survive an arts industry that diminishes their efforts; it will peek into how spirit rolls through our bodies and claims us either while we are breathing or afterward.

while we’re working on these, we are also returning to other performance pieces that we’ll be staging in october and then in either november or december.

stay tuned


It’s a family affaire. WITL: Fleurette Africaine

A great rehearsal with The Wind In The Leaves Collective last night, preparing for our performance of Fleurette Africaine this Friday the 17th. We’ve had a few rehearsals now, getting reacquainted with our repertoire. There have also been new additions to the collective, reshuffling of characters and parts, and evolution of choreography and staging. It is amazing to see how this show has evolved, from my beginnings with the collective. Once 4 performers on stage, we now boast 11, with 1 poet, 2 musicians, and 8 dancers. And lets not forget our photographer, visual artist, director, sound tech…With every new show, we are growing, evolving. Defining characters and relationships, finding deeper connections to movement and text, and becoming stronger and closer as a collective and family of artists. I am looking forward to what I’m sure will be the best performance yet!

Rehearsal highlights:

– new slave auction audio for the beginning of the piece “live iv”. Adds another layer , and sad reality to this slave trade theme.

– A pack of wolves after Charles Smith…. I attack with a smile.

– working with Olga B. and Kevin O. on my duet with the new ‘father’ Mikhail, hearing about Olga and Kevin’s first time collaborating on choreography, and the parallel with their movement.

– having Jasmyn bake me fresh cookies! :) Feel loved.

– Mikhail falling out of his roll over on the floor. I can finally pass on the torch of shame. LOL!

– New family portrait. With new faces, it’s a whole new story…

On the uniqueness of Wind in the Leaves

in the landscape of toronto’s dance community, we occupy a unique space.  in looking at the african diasporic reach and the inter-relationships with brazilian and latino and amerindian expressions, we use various music genres. while we rely principally on contemporary improvisation (mostly in the jazz tradition), we also use western minimalism, folk and blues.  this is an interesting mix when combined with the poetry and dance.  for the dancers and choreographers, it really means taking what they know and creating in this space.  who would have thought that a colombian choreographer, olga barrios, would turn such wonders with ornette coleman’s ‘lonely woman’ or that brazilian choreographer/dancer amanda paixao would work such magic with solo acoustic guitar to such poems as ‘mumia’ and ‘daydreaming about my father’.  then there’s kevin ormsby and his brilliant dance/choreography for ensemble pieces like ‘conversation’ and solo work in ‘inner organs’.  the challenge for these dancers/choreographers is taking what they know into exploration with diverse musics.  the results, spectacular!!!!

a word on the wind in the leaves by artistic director charles c. smith

i’ve been asked several times “what is unique about the ‘wind in the leaves collective’?” this is an interesting question and, i suppose, every artist and arts’ group likely has to answer this to give some insight into the creative gifts they have and want to share. for ‘wind in the leaves collective’, i often reply that we are a performing arts group that tells stories of persons of african descent using poetry, dance, music (live and recorded) and visual imagery. our artists also come from very diverse backgrounds – italian, jewish, german, ukrainian, brazilian, latino, russian, mixed heritages and various tributaries of african descent. what brings us together are our passion for interdisciplinary work, our celebration of the african diasporic roots that course through brazilian and latino forms of expression, and the stories of the people we portray in our performance pieces – while these are of people of african descent, these stories have universal value and resonate across the many communities from which our members are from.

then, of course, there is the way in which we put our work together and the recognition that each of us has her/his own gifts which we bring to each piece we construct. while i may write the poems and choose the music to go with it, the dancers/choreographers make it come to life through their interpretive performances and the visual artists add another layer of interpretation. for our live music, each composition is created by harvey, one of our members, who works with me to understand the nuances of the words in order to find the appropriate tempo, melody, etc.

so each artist provides a creative contribution and it all comes together as one voice, like wind whistling in the leaves of trees.

wind in the leaves: a reflection by Kevin Ormsby

The work involved in creating a collaborative artistic product is never easy . Most of the members are experienced artists in their own right. Why join a collective where opinion and input matters but cannot all be taken into consideration for every project? What is our collective voice? This is one of my main questions and this collective voice I feel is the thread that holds the artistic elements together, creating the fabric of our artistic expressions. I like that others in the collective are always curious about how we articulate these expressions. wind in the leaves came out of a meeting at the house of our Artistic Director, charles c. smith. In an instant, we heard the GO Train and the leaves rustling in wind – each leaf different, yet connected to the ecology of artistic expression that is first, the backyard, then the city, and one day, the country – all with a world perspective.

The artists in the collective share a common understanding of culture, experience and how this vision of association can manifest itself artistically. As firm believers that the Arts reflect life, each artist breathes life into the collective understanding that the Arts is a inter-connected ecology of expression.