Saturday, February 21, 2015

Slam and the Art of Moving On

It’s a cold day in New Orleans. 25 degrees this morning. Two days into Mardi Gras season. I’m walking down Canal Street, holding a King Cake in one hand and a big cup of chicory coffee in the other. My rental car is waiting in a lot near Basin Street. African American Shakespear, Shake, is waiting in tiny Violet, Louisiana, a dozen miles down the Mississippi.

My last time here, Shake offered to drive me around the Ninth Ward, to see what it was after Katrina, the catastrophe now almost ten years in the past. Ten years is a short time in the life of a city, but a long time in the life of a poet and a poetry scene. So is a week, and during my last week here, over a year ago, we never got to take that ride.

Now I’m driving my little low-mileage silver sedan down Rampart Street, past Louis Armstrong Park (Congo Square), along the boundary between TremĂ© and the French Quarter. Yesterday, when I asked Shake how to get to his house, he said, “Just get on Rampart and keep going.” And I do, down St. Claude Avenue (where for twelve years Shake has hosted the poetry open mic at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club) over the canal bridge and into the Lower Ninth Ward. St. Claude is dotted with low-rise commercial buildings. Down the streets that traverse it, shotgun shacks run in rows to a man-made basin on the north end and on the south, the Mississippi, by way of Holy Cross. The streets are serene. It’s easy to believe they aren’t mean. But then it’s 10 a. m. and, at least for New Orleanians, too cold to stay outdoors.

Out beyond the Ninth Ward lie neighborhoods with names like Arabi, and then, beyond them, the ever-more-rural towns of St. Bernard Parish: Chalmette, Meraux, and Violet, where Shake and I will meet, just a few miles above bayou country, near the site of the Battle of New Orleans. I am surprised to find Shake living this far out, among the cows and roads canopied with live oaks. He is a spoken-word icon of Black New Orleans, a man who made his poetry name in some of the city’s hardest places. And here he is living in what looks to me like Crackerland.

I pull up to what should be Shake’s address, a dull brown single-wide trailer on a lone block between St. Bernard Highway and a Mississippi River levee. I’m here early, and Shake is still groggy when he answers the phone. A minute later he appears in the doorway. Shake is a tall, powerfully built man of 40. He’s a little heavier than when I saw him the year before. I walk up the creaky wooden steps, we bro hug, and I lay my king cake on his kitchen table.

The long kitchen/living room has seen better days. The ducts, Shake tells me, aren’t working right. He’s got a space heater set up near the couch, across from an entertainment center and shrine to his successes as a poet and educator, a table topped with newspaper clippings under glass. He disappears into the back room for a few minutes, and returns wearing a tee shirt that reads “South Bronx Jobs Corps.” On a tour stop in the Bronx, he took time to work with kids there, as he does so often in New Orleans. Shake has already told me he’s been unemployed for a while, the reason he hasn’t been able to get his truck up and running.

The first time we met a Sweet Lorraine’s, he afterward drove me back to my hotel in the Central Business District. That night he appeared strong, energetic and optimistic about poetry and his place in its world. I remember he was wearing a Dillard University shirt. He arrived like a celebrity, all the older businessmen gathered in the club yelling “Shake!” as he walked through the door, two young girls from Alabama and Mississippi, who showed up for the open mic (the entire audience), hanging on his words, and the small circle who gathered on the sidewalk after the reading performing for him, and listening to his stories about time spent in the movie biz.

Maybe it’s the setting and the intimacy of a one-on-one interview, but Shake now seems a more somber man. He sits leaning forward in the middle of a gold, crushed velvet couch. When I ask him to tell me about himself, he begins from the true beginning. He was born to a young single mother in St. Bernard Parish, who decided that the best thing for him would be for her father and his wife to raise young Shelton, named for a father who was no longer in the picture. Shelton’s adoptive mother and father ran a major black nightspot on Claiborne Street in New Orleans. He had a good home, and lived, unusually for an African American boy in Greater New Orleans in the 1970s and early 1980s, in a predominantly white parish, an experience that’s allowed him to be comfortable with friends and acquaintances of all races. (As late as 2000, the parish was 88 per cent white. Today St. Bernard is more racially diverse—thanks in large part to losing nearly half its population in the wake of Katrina—but it remains a 73 per cent white suburb of a city that is 60 per cent black.)

Complicating matters for Shake was the continuing presence of his birth mother, who revealed her blood relation to him when he was just five years old. When he asked about his father, she told him he wasn’t worth talking about. For decades the absence of his father, the mystery, would drive Shelton to prove himself worthy, to become “someone great.” When he was eight years old, his family transferred him to a predominantly black New Orleans school, to an entirely new environment, away from the school where he had been a popular student known for his freestyle rapping, and where he had run for Class Treasurer and won. Shelton made the adjustment, and continued honing his rap skills, while developing into a fine athlete, eventually winning a scholarship to Northwestern Louisiana State. Unfortunately, a major injury ended his career and sent him on to his next proving ground, the U. S. Marines.

While he was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, Shelton fortuitously discovered that his father had served as a Marine on the same base, and that he had gone on to own a hotel, and that, as his birth mother had claimed, he was a womanizer who had fathered other children in different parts of the country. He discovered too that his father had died at 44. He would never get to know him. After leaving the Marines, and separating from his wife, Shelton went back to New Orleans, and took his elder son (now 22 and out of the house) with him.

When he arrived, an old friend asked him to cut some rap tracks for an album. One day, however, the friend’s brother was gunned down on the street, and Shake was left without a partner. At a crossroads, he thought back on a movie he’d seen in Virginia, the movie “Slam,” starring spoken-word legend Saul Williams, and it occurred to him that poetry might be a ticket. A little while after writing his first poem, “Patience,” on a piece of cardboard, he signed up for an open mic on Julia Street (in what is now being called the Arts District). He signed as “African American Shakespear,” and proceeded to blow the room away. Then, unfortunately, he ran into a phenomenon of some spoken-word venues around New Orleans, the open mic freeze-out. Encouraged by the reception he got, he returned to the same venue three weeks in a row, and signed his name first or second on the list each time, and not once was called to the stage. The regulars were apparently feeling threatened. Shake never went back.

Instead he started to go the lesser-known venues, where, as he says, “the big-timers didn’t want to go.” As time went on, he developed a following that swelled crowds at these smaller spots. He was entering the realm of local spoken-word icons like Sunni Patterson, with whom he’d sometimes share the stage. One night the previous host of the Sweet Lorraine’s open mic got into a fight with the club’s owner. At the time the politics of other predominantly black venues—“Other cats bullying the venues,” hosts keeping certain stars off the mic so as not to have certain other poets overshadowed—were getting to Shake. He was even considering moving from New Orleans, to keep his career as a poet going. (Shake makes a point to tell me that if he’d known of white venues, he might have gone to these, but division between local predominantly white poetry readings and predominantly black spoken-word performances, and his own lack of awareness of the entire New Orleans scene, were such that he didn’t.) So when the owner of Sweet Lorraine’s approached him, he thought for a moment about other peoples’ maybe misconstruing his intentions in becoming host, but took the job, recalling his adoption, saying to himself, “Now They’re not going to have another poet’s that’s gonna come through this city that’s gonna’s say they don’t have a place.” (To this day he saves as records and mementos the sign-up sheets from all the open mics he’s hosted, including those salvaged from the wreckage of Katrina.)
Eventually Shake joined forces with other premiere New Orleans spoken word artists—Patterson, Asali Devan, GF Soldier, L. Edwards, Lionel King, and Asia Rainey—on the 2005 New Orleans Slam Team, which established New Orleans as a presence on the national scene (Chancelier “Xero” Skidmore, from nearby Baton Rouge, had a few years prior, gained fame as an individual competitor). That same year, of course, Katrina hit, devastating the city, but at the same time introducing Shake to a national media audience through Def Poetry Jam and Spike Lee’s HBO documentary When the Levees Broke. (A clip of which appears below.) He could now book himself into venues around the country and, for a time, work in Hollywood. He had indeed made a career out of spoken word.

Back on the home front, however, things had changed. A lot of the established venues were gone, and Shake had to reestablish Sweet Lorraine’s open mic. When he did, the new crop of New Orleans slammers came to him when they needed a venue to qualify for nationals. He obliged, but, by his account, was not given his due or included in the team’s plans as member or slam master, the equivalent of coach. Their plans ultimately included the creation of a second city team, now known as Slam New Orleans or Team SNO, a multi-racial team which has since taken the spot as THE New Orleans national team, winning nationals in both 2012 and 2013. Though he doesn’t put it quite this way, he understands that some people no longer want him to be a leader in New Orleans slam. You can hear the pain and bitterness in Shakespear’s voice as he shares the history, and see in his story how slam can eat its elders (who are generally still quite young). Slam is a teen’s or twenty-something’s game, and he is running into generational succession and, very likely, some jealousy.

Still, he keeps on at Sweet Lorraine’s, and, as one might expect of any serious writer, he keeps practicing his art. He shows me the worked-over manuscript of an impressive poem called “I’m Here Now,” a verse of which goes

                People always hated
                Since I was a lil child
                My only concern was
                Making my parents proud
                Love overpowered Hate

                I’m Here Now

                I’m Here Now

To hear him perform the whole poem, even here in his modest parlor, is to be impressed with the power and sincerity of his lines and his voice. Also impressive is his professed love for writing, his need and passion. A devout Christian, he confesses, “It helps me fight some of those old demons that take on your conscience. When I write these poems, they’re for my own personal release. If I can recite a poem to my God who brought me through all these things, I can be content. I have some of my best free-style moments reciting only to Him. I’ll never be able to record them on paper, because they won’t come out right. When He knows it coming directly from me to Him, then it’s a greater pleasure. I have pleasure knowing that I can take the pain away, and it’s going to be to the pleasure of the Most High. I don’t want to have to go write, to say I’m gonna go win some competition. That’s not to say I’m not going to slam. I slam, because I’ve seen what slam can bring to different cities and states.”

What Shake has written for public consumption he has written for the stage. Some of his craft will translate to the page, but he may have to transform the rest; at least to some degree, add to his versifier’s bag of tricks, IF, that is, he wants to venture beyond the powerful, but not all-powerful, world or spoken-word and slam. I think of where that path can lead. I think of the Nuyorican poet Willie Perdomo, who has gone from a childhood in East Harlem and early fame as a spoken-word artist at the Nuyorican Poets’ CafĂ© and on Def Poetry Jam, to life as the author of multiple award-winning books and a job as instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Like Perdomo, Shake has been a spoken-word star, but he could leave home again, so to speak; chronicle his compelling story, culture, self; publish, maybe get that MFA Perdomo now has, and join the circuit of poets who are invited to speak and teach for serious money and to constant acclaim all over the country.

Shake, though, has anchored himself in his community. He stays on at Sweet Lorraine’s, maintaining a truly open mic. He has worked with students in alternative schools all over his city and in other cities. His desire for recognition burns, but the spirit of altruism emanates from him. He likes it when people on the street recognize him as “The Poet,” and especially when they say they can hear the truth in what he’s saying about New Orleans and the world. When I suggest that he’s put in his time as a sustainer of the local scene, and that he might now be able to move on, he replies, “I want to keep it going, and give people a place to tell their stories. I want to walk away saying I meant a great deal to the poetry community. I don’t want to say anybody ran me off.” Lately, some weeks at Sweet Lorraine’s, he’s found himself doing ten or eleven poems, basically a feature, to supplement the sparsely attended open mics, at a venue where, during the filming of When the Levees Broke, he would hold Spike Lee “at bay for hours,” just so the director could hear some of the other great talent. So Shake has done his community work, and has gotten back a lot of satisfaction and fellowship, along with a good deal of ingratitude and resentment. He might have to move on, and I ask whether or not these days he ever gets over to readings outside the spoken-word circuit. He says no, seeming to take a moment and wonder silently why he hasn’t. I ask if he thinks he ever will. He says maybe. The time might be now.

                                                         Shelton "Shakespear" Alexander at home