Friday, October 11, 2013

Holding It Down in New Orleans

African American Shakespear (Shake) is a regional slam champion, who has appeared on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, performing a poem about the aftermath of Katrina.

Katrina is a dividing line in Shake's life as poet. He started spitting (What many spoken-word poets call performing) five years before the storm hit, has hosted events for over a decade, and when the storm came he remained, "to hold it down." As I spoke with Shake I realized that poetry in America is mostly about the people who hold it down, whether that be as hosts of series; as poetry instructors to kids in first grade or juvi hall; as semi-anonymous small mag editors; or, yes, as "famous" poets who ply their trade at university auditoriums and in week-long workshops.

A fiction writer once said to me, "When you say famous poet, I don't know what you mean." This is what sets almost all poets apart. We may chase fame, but our fame is not fame as most people understand it. Fame for a poet is having a very few people in the world nod when they hear your name and maybe remember a few lines from something you've written. Fame may also come in the publication of a book, an enterprise that sometimes runs counter to the concerns of the poetry performer, who, maybe especially in New Orleans, lives for the instant connection with other people that almost every poet I've interviewed has identified as the ultimate goal of showing up on the scene.

Fame in the form of book publication (and prizes and accolades from other poets who publish books and win prizes) offers the chance to travel and connect, through performances and book signings, with more people than you could in your hometown. To hear the crowd punctuate your speech with laughter or "ummm"s. For the spoken-word poet who spends most of his time on the scene, holding it down, meeting and relating to other poets and audience members, the imperative to hone not only the poem, but to hone the performance of the memorized poem, may militate against the isolation any poet needs to produce a full-length manuscript. And then the publishers of spoken word-style poetry are relatively few, often poets themselves on a local scene, who decide to put together an anthology of poets they know from that scene. So when a poet like Shake does publish, the reach of that publication will not be anywhere near comparable to the reach of W. W. Norton or Pitt Poetry Series or Cooper Canyon book. His fame remains the griot's.

So here's Shake on a Tuesday night, hosting an open mic in the Seventh Ward, at Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club, where he's held it down for over a decade. On Who Dat Poets, a clearinghouse site for spoken-word New Orleans, the listing for True Poetry Tuesday's says the open mic starts at eight. "Doors open at 7." It's 9:15. For two hours now I've been sitting at the bar next to a man whose attempts at jokes the fifty-something owner/bartender, Paul, ignores, while he tends to his cronies, a group of African American businessmen and civic leaders who have trickled in over the last two hours. They've been sitting in the otherwise empty club, across from the bar, sampling wine from the many bottles Paul's opened for them, and talking everything from the Federal Government shutdown to a possible trade of the Atlanta Falcon's aging tight end. They converse the way an outsider might expect a group of middle-aged black men from New Orleans to talk: sharply, jokingly, in the nettled satisfaction of one another's company. Among them is a judge whom Paul, with a smile, calls "Your Honor."

They've been joined lately by two young women, who may or may not be twenty-one. They've come for the open mic, though neither of them, I learn, has come to perform. They've moved to New Orleans from Alabama and Mississippi. They simply love poetry, the way it allows them to understand what other people are thinking. They've come to identify and to be moved by the flow, which begs the river metaphor.

Sweet Lorraine's is just blocks from said river, on the border of the Seventh Ward and the Faubourg Marigny/Bywater neighborhoods, on a strip that is the city's hub of spoken word venues. For years before Katrina, the Marigny had itself been a border neighborhood populated by the working class of New Orleans and the artists, asthetes and aspirants who could not afford the Quarter and anyway wanted to avoid its constant flood of tourists. Bywater, a. k. a. the Upper Ninth Ward, was, prior to Katrina, a working-class neighborhood bordering on some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, what Shake would later describe as "the 'hood," meaning the Lower Ninth Ward and the various sweetly-named projects ("Desire," "Florida) to which it used to be home. It is now, among several neighborhoods that might pretend to the title, the hipster capital of New Orleans.

Two or three times, Paul, watching me wait, has stepped out onto St. Claude Avenue, to check for Shake, who might, he's told me, be hanging outside. As I'm about to give up, and embark on the long (and possibly hazardous) walk back through the Marigny and across the Quarter, Shake arrives, his Tone Loc-esque baritone filling the room. A chorus of "What up, Shake?"s greets him, as he slaps backs, claps shoulders and clasps hands with the assembled brethren. As Shake makes his way toward the stage, Paul superfluously informs me that there goes Shake. I leave my barstool, to introduce myself.

While the front of the club, including its storefront, is entirely non-descript, dominated by two giant flat-screen televisions, the back is a fully-equipped, even flashy, jazz club done up in blue, with a raised platform stage, and on it a shiny black drum set behind a transparent Lucite screen, flanked by a gleaming black piano, and fronted by four mic stands in a neat row across. On the ground are twenty glass-top bistro tables in two L-shaped rows filling the space in the front of the stage and then back into a semi-room invisible from the bar. On a good night, like a night of the Southern Fried Poetry Slam, the house must absolutely rock. (It strikes me that I met very few slam poets, or really any poets at all under forty during my time in the Bay Area.) It's here that Shake introduces himself and launches into an explanation of why the scene isn't what it used to be.

First, the hurricane scattered the old spoken-word guard, those who came up in the Nineties and early Aughts. In the storm's wake, in a time of gradual gentrification (read "whiteification") of many parts of the "chocolate city," open mics began popping up all over, splintering whatever coherent spoken-word scene remained. Shake calls many of the new crop, like the 2013 national champion New Orleans slam team, "collegiate." His description implies that they don't have the deep connection to the New Orleans he's never left. They may represent the city now, but they don't really know it.

Shake has promised to spit, but fifteen minutes later, when it's obvious no one else will be showing up, he suggests we step outside. "We" are seven, including two other spoken-word artists, Lost Soul and Numsko (who tells me he's sure that while I'll find lots of numbskulls out there, he'll be the one and only Numsko). There too is a musician named Mario, a diminutive young man who lives just next door; another quiet woman in her thirties, who, it turns out, is a spoken-word poet from Alexandria, Louisiana; and the two young ladies from Alabama and Mississippi, the taller of whom is a model and has begun talking with Shake about her own and his appearances in Hollywood films. (Shake appeared in the Spike Lee documentary about post-Katrina New Orleans, When the Levees Broke.)

Cars rush by on St. Claude. A man leads his young son by the hand toward Esplanade Avenue. A few others come and go on foot and on the ubiquitous bicycle. A few of the middle-aged men inside swing open the front door and walk to their cars. There's plenty of noise, but we are a circle, and Shake asks Lost Soul to kick it, which, as you can see below, we all wind up doing.

Click this link to see Shake, Numsko, and Lost Soul performing on St. Claude Avenue. 

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