If you use a Yoruba chant to open a public event, welcoming the ancestors to join and be welcome in the proceedings, how do you close the ceremony and tell the ancestors, spirits– thanks for coming! shows over now, yawl can go back to the far reaches of heaven or wherever… I ask because a woman got up to do the opening welcome. Since she announced herself as a teacher– she did it ‘properly’, in Yoruba. Emptied a plastic drinking glass over a tiny but erect houseplant then proudly returned to her seat, smiling. Then sometime later, perhaps an hour or so, to my left from where I sat in the back, what appeared to be a chestful of blue cigarette smoke moved up the aisle and quietly dissipated into the air. Thin lines of embroidered smoke moved stealthily like the tail end of a dress swinging then appearing to step into nothingness. The poetry reading went on. Certainly no one was smoking or even vaping in here. A former librarian sat across from me, attentive (and resembled Michelle Obama if Michelle was fair skinned and had long dookie braids) No one except me acted as if they saw anything and I’m not sure I really saw it. But, of course I did. I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Saturday was the 26th Annual African American Celebration Through Poetry held at the West Oakland Branch Library. In spite of its 26 year run, I’d all but forgotten about it until having dinner with a friend of mine who forwarded me the flyer and call for poets. I read at this event at least twice before. The last time, an uncountable number of years ago, I read a story– a retelling of the John Henry folktale, only done as if Lord Buckley would do it, through his semantics of the hip. I read it one time only and shelved it for being ‘weird’. I have nowhere near the stage confidence of Lord Buckley, even if he’s basically a car thief of African American slanguage.
This time though, I had some poems to represent under the Black Lives Matter campaign and wanted to be in that room and share them.
It was Super Bowl weekend. The sky was polished bright blue. I got to the library an hour early and crossed the street to hang out for a while at de Fremery Park. The park has a long and involved history with Oakland and the Black Panthers, but a history for me also. I thought of the times I came here as a kid; the hours spent on slides and swings, the sand I’ve eaten. The picnics here with family. My grandfather lived a few blocks sprint from here and another block further from him was where my first best friend, Anthony, once lived. Yet another two blocks from him was the beauty school where my mom once taught. All memories moving at lightspeed away from me, it seems. I crossed the park and settled amongst a half dozen pic-nic tables to write. Across from me a group of men, all white I quietly noted, played basketball. A man walked his children over to the playground. From where I sat, I couldn’t see the concrete skater’s bowl just below the park’s horizon. I opened my backpack, took out some paper and notebooks and worked for a half hour or so.
I slowly strolled back to the library, passing the recreation center which after all these years I’ve never been inside of. Its a huge Victorian mansion I’ve never had courage enough to enter. Today I had no time. I walked past and saw a few girls in black and purple dresses getting ready for something; all preening and posing in front of hand mirrors. I wanted to be nosy, but being alone I was obviously a dismissible pervert, so I kept my head down and crossed the street.
50 or 60 or so chairs had been set up in the multi-purpose room; its tiny kitchen open; a bowl of mixed fruit and a carafe of coffee was already set out. Reynaldo, a painter was attempting to hang some of his paintings but the temporary hooks wouldn’t adhere to their surface, and twice his paintings slid off the wall and thwacked the ground loudly. Another artist took over the back table with collaged post-cards and flyers, then littered the stage with graffiti’d umbrellas painted with key words, affirmations and historical figures. For a while I talked with a man I knew from years ago. We caught up briefly while his wife sat across from us doing some last minute work on her laptop. He told me since we’d last talked he’d gone to Brazil but while there picked up some nasty infection of some kind. What got him to go to Brazil? I asked. While he answered, his wife smirked to herself and shook her head, as dismissively as a judgmental mother. She puffed herself up slightly like a bird and announced over us both the name of the conference she attended and the talk she had to give. But she mostly kept her eyes on the screen and shook her head. Her eavesdropping suddenly taking what little energy there was out of our chat.
Reynaldo came over to where me and the man was standing. He had found a display solution for his paintings since he couldn’t hang them. For all intents and purposes, he looked like me, if I came from Jamaica. Heavy set in a hand painted t-shirt, a wiry beard tracing his jaw and a red black and green skull cap on his head.
What college did Malcolm X go to? He said. He didn’t. But people at every university in this country study Malcolm X.
I asked him all of nothing, but he stood next to me and started talking. What’s weird: he kinda directly answered a question I posed to the universe a month or so back.
You don’t go to school to study art, Reynaldo said with a vague distain. You learn how to make art by making art. You learn by doing it, You learn by making mistakes. People ask me where I went to school. Schools come to me! You don’t go to school to study to be an artist. You make art! No one tells me how to make these paintings…
I looked at the paintings he displayed: the one on the end will make you think of Picasso. This one reminiscent of Matisse. All raw and powerful and well crafted. I listened and remembered: I never studied poetry in high school. I discovered poets by going to the library and choosing books at random, some based on the title, others on a name I kinda remembered.
I learned to write poetry as on the job training, I finally told him.
All art is on the job training, he said. Then ended our conversation and went back to his art table.
And maybe that was the ENTIRE reason I wanted to come to this event.
Otherwise, it started a leisurely half hour late. The host arriving 10 minutes before the 1pm start time. It was scheduled to end at 4 and I left a quarter before the hour and they still had several readers and an open mic to get to.
And the show itself; a community poetry reading which felt more like church fellowship. A lot of seniors,– myself included, I guess– in the audience and performing. The woman dressed most elegant who gave a lot of shade to her husband earlier, did the opening ceremony in Yoruba, which was nice. She was dressed in a dark pink business casual suit, not some flowery West African wrap. I listened to her vowel heavy words and thought how both Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou fueled both poems I planned to read. I remembered my grandfather and the cadence he’d use for his sermons, a cadence I certainly appropriated in my delivery.
The woman finished and returned to her seat, swollen with pride. The, ahem, smoke I saw moving amongst the crowd, I wondered if it remained here or if it came attached to someone in the room? Nonetheless, it was like a sheer skirt whose piping you could barely see before it vanished.
The first reader was a young high school girl who read a poem on her phone, then placed the phone on the speaker next to the mic while a gospel song played, she then Praise Danced. A curious development to emerge in Christian churches since I’ve been away… She pantomimed the lyrics, her long arms and legs swooping as if she were attempting tai chi and got the holy ghost. The readers varied from a man pacing while doing a mini-lecture before reciting Claude McKay’s If We Must Die then two original and brief poems. A buttery smooth senior who recited perfectly measured couplets in the old-school Toast style. A legendary bay poet who performed in a super-powered wheel chair and apologized for needing to leave early and making people buy her book. She set up shop in the back of the room before leaving. Activist Leroy Moore demanded we include honoring disabled African Americans when we honor folks during Black History Month. (Mental note: Get his book, Avoid Amazon.)
I awaited a couple more poets of legend and note to perform, both of whom I knew, before I snuck out. I was happy to’ve been there and read. I felt like I gave a micro-sermon. People were attentive and present and loving. It felt like church fellowship, too. If there is a proper closing ceremony in the Yoruba tradition, I missed it. But I’m glad the spirit (Claude, was that you??) moved among us and was even happier it didn’t follow me out of the library.
But seriously– how to show spirits the final exit and who tells them Thank You and Good Night?