August 31, 2019
I just wrapped up year four of my MANIFEST Voices workshop, and this, by far, has been the most interesting and challenging year. Teaching is always an adventure because there are so many different personalities percolating in your presence. One of my sayings is that everyone comes to the table different, and that’s just a given whenever one is delving into the world of education. Also, there are a few abstract words that have kind of served as themes for this year, such as expectation, interrogation, and trust. We spent some time REALLY leaning into each of those things this year, and, my hope is that, everyone involved can come away with a better understanding of self, the work, and each other.
Teaching in the summer is its own challenge because it, typically, is when families travel the most, which makes perfect sense. Also, for me, there have been a number of things going on: a move, getting ready and then going to the Conference on Poetry, working on my documentary. A lot of pieces were in flux from before we even officially got going, which brings me to the showcase last weekend.
Each of the kids really stepped up to the plate. I always say during the first class that we’re a family. Usually, the kids kind of scoff, but every year, I witness it happen. This year, as people were coming in, one of my students from last year talked to one of my new students to help quell their nerves. The latter was not only new to poetry, but had never performed a poem in front of an audience before. Needless to say, the anxiety was high.
Another thing I say in the workshop is that one of my jobs is to push and apply pressure. Everything that I say in there has a purpose, and part of my task is applying the necessary pressure for each student to see that and internalize that so that they can build muscles to make their time on the microphone as comfortable as possible. It’s an extremely vulnerable thing to be in front of a room of, largely, strangers and recite your own work. Iyanla Vanzant once said that whenever we find ourselves in a new environment, the first thing that bubbles to the surface is our insecurities. Part of what we work on week to week (the kids don’t know this) is chiseling away at the things that hold those insecurities in place.
With all of that said, imagine my sheer delight at watching each one shine last Saturday. Because lineage and family have been so heavily on my mind this summer, I thought it would be fitting to invite one of my students from the first two years of the program back to kick things off, and it was great. For me, I was able to see the sum of all the work that has gone into the past four workshops, and it truly made me feel like everything, even the frustrations, have been worth it.
Over the course of an hour, I had the great pleasure of watching the kids take the stage and step into their own, and, dear friends, it was a beautiful thing. Also, the poems were GREAT! I’m not just saying that. They brought a lot of fire to the stage. If you weren’t there, you truly missed something special.
November 14, 2018
Anthem? What Anthem??
So, recently, I’ve found myself engaging in a number of… interesting discussions involving, at their core, race and cultural awareness. See, someone I went to high school with made a post on a particular social media platform where he questioned if, in 2018, there is still a need for a Black National Anthem. He admitted his ignorance on the issue and approached the topic and question from a genuine place of wanting to receive different perspectives, which I greatly admire.
The first two responses came from white people. The first said that there should absolutely not be a BNA, and that the mere suggestion was the most un-American thing that she’s ever heard. The second said, “I don’t think that’s a thing fam.” It was at that moment that I decided to do what I try to avoid doing at most costs – I leapt into the fray and responded. In my response, I mentioned that not only is there a BNA, there has been one for many years. I went on to talk about how, in my experience, a good number of the white American population is largely ignorant about Black America and the issues, cultures, histories, etc. that we’ve encountered, let alone what would prompt us to even consider the need for a national anthem.
After I said what I had to, I did the wisest thing for my spirit and well-being across the board: I got the hell out of dodge and turned off notifications for the post. However, the issue stayed with me, and not in a bad way. I made an independent post on that same particular social media platform, and in it, I mentioned what had taken place and suggested how to approach talking about or diving into issues that involve people who are of a different race, culture, sexual identity, etc. In my most humble of opinions, if you are not willing to engage in an open, honest, humble, and respectful manner, you’re doing yourself a disservice and ultimately wasting everyone’s time. Also, if you are not willing to do your fundamental homework on the topic, you’re not only doing all of the above, but you’re making whatever discussion you hope to have (or claim to want to have) about your ignorance and setting yourself up to get your feelings hurt.
As fate would have it, a few days later, I received an email in which someone had seen my post on that social media platform and decided to share their opinion and feelings with me. That’s totally fine, for the record. However, what struck me as initially odd about the email was that it seemed to miss some basic things from my post – like the fact that the BNA exists.
In the email, this person wrote to say that they didn’t think a BNA would be a good idea because it would lead to divisiveness as well as create a precedent for other groups to have their own anthems. They also said that the anthem we already have is supposed to include everyone. I responded that, again, the BNA has been around a very long time, and I as curious what divisiveness it has personally brought to this individual’s life. I also mentioned that the irony of their last statement was that a number of laws have been put in place to purposefully exclude brown people, so if we keep that in mind, it’s not difficult, in my opinion, to see how the anthem falls a bit short in terms of including everyone and inspiring a sense of pride and identity.
We had a little exchange that proceeded to get more interesting and personally insulting to me from that point. In their follow-up email, they said that the BNA must not inspire divisiveness after all since “no one knows it’s there.” In another email, they said that it’s not their fault that they’re “middle class white”, which really struck me as being aloof, and assuming that everyone who is middle class and white is equally as culturally unaware as this person. It was strange to see everything play out, and I’ve had myself some doosies in terms of conversations over the years.
Honestly, as much as this conversation ended up driving me up the well, I think it was important for both of us, but for astronomically different reasons. As some of you know, I’ve been submitting a chapbook manuscript that deals unabashedly with race. One of the reasons I wanted to tackle race as a topic is specifically because a good bit of the time, we do not talk about it. Not really, and not openly and honestly. Instead, we tend to talk around it, and any well-intentioned discussion can quickly turn into one that misses the mark on getting anywhere on the issue. Out of all of the many things that I could say regarding race though when it comes to wanting to have a dialogue is the importance of doing the basic work. YOU HAVE TO DO THE WORK THAT WARRANTS YOUR PLACE AT THE TABLE. I cannot conceive of a way to have a productive discussion without doing that, and what I mean by the fundamental work is doing the necessary research and homework to have, at the very least, a working knowledge of the subject in which you’re seeking to speak about. For instance, if someone asked me to have a discussion about nuclear medicine, that’s completely out of my wheelhouse. I am very ignorant when it comes to that matter. Either I can acknowledge that and listen to people who are more well-versed on the topic than I am, or I can start researching as much as I can to even remotely participate in a way that’s not wasting everyone’s time and energies. I think the ideal would be that both would occur, but, hopefully, you understand what I’m saying here. I think that your relationships regarding cultural awareness, inclusion, etc. will be better if you’re willing to do these small, but pivotal steps.
April 24, 2018
So, last week, I flew down to Tampa to do poetry biz at The University of Tampa, where I graduated from many moons ago. Honestly, it was a really surreal experience. It was a really great experience, but surreal nonetheless, and it’s given me a lot to process. Let’s jump in.
Prior to last week, I hadn’t set foot on my former school’s campus in close to eleven years. I’ve not been back in Tampa in any capacity in nine or ten. Seeing the development of the campus as well as the city was a lot to take in. It was kind of sensory overload, honestly, but I didn’t have much time to linger on things.
The entire time I was down there, there was a mantra in my head of I can’t believe I’m here and that is real. I’m not one to usually operate with expectations, so in taking things as they came, I was consistently wowed. If this makes any sense, it was kind of like dealing with the me I was when I graduated and departed Tampa and stepping back into that space as the person that I am now. I was simultaneously reconnecting with a mostly familiar environment and people, but also realizing that everything had, in some manner, changed, which is a great and expected thing.
One of the coolest and most surreal experiences I had came last Tuesday when we (the other writers and I) had to do a craft talk. I had the opportunity to take the people that showed up through one of my favorite Anne Sexton poems and pull out different parts of it that make the poem an absolute gem. Some of my professors were there, and it was an interesting moment in teaching a piece to the people who were responsible for teaching me. I think that moment was made even more remarkable for me because, at the end of my junior year, I felt kind of personally insulted and attacked by my former mentor and advisor. During the course of that year, she questioned my leadership, intelligence, backbone, etc., and I felt really adrift in a few ways in terms of my personhood and what I felt I could contribute to the craft of writing and the arts in general. Probably for the first time since all of that happened in 2004 and 2005, I realized just how complex a situation it is to have someone who’s been extremely close and supportive to you all of a sudden shift gears and tear you down, so I spent some time after the craft talk on the way back over to the hotel mulling everything over and kind of making my peace with it.
I’m back in Chattanooga now, and we’re currently gearing up for the third year of my MANIFEST Voices program, and I feel really thankful for the people from the faculty who were there during my tenure that are still fighting the good fight at the school and remain, not only supportive, but really beautiful and inspiring people, in general. The older I get, the more I truly appreciate those who genuinely work to light and sustain a fire in people (I aspire to do the same) and illustrate on a daily basis, as clichéd as it sounds, love.
December 7, 2017
“If your love for me requires that I hide parts of who I am, then you don't love me. Love is never a request for silence.” – DeRay Mckesson
So, I’ve started to write this blog several times now, and just haven’t been able to convey precisely what I wanted to – well, until now, it would appear. I came across the above quote by DeRay a few years ago, and I remember thinking that it was so true. Years later, I wouldn’t have imagined just how resonant its point would be in both America AND in my own life.
Last Saturday during this year’s Mainx24 in Chattanooga, my poetry students and I (and, as a result, our audience) endured a man who owned a business in the building we were performing in, have a complete angry meltdown. Right after we got started, he approached me and told me that he was doing an art show in the building, and asked if a path could be kept clear so that people could access it downstairs. I told him that that wouldn’t be a problem. Now, here’s the thing about Mainx24 for those who’ve never attended: the whole thing is a 24-hour festival that takes place all up and down one street. Traffic is terrible, and the day is, pretty much, a sampler for people. There are over 70 events each year. As a result of this, foot traffic is prevalent the entire day.
I made an announcement on the microphone about the art show and the pathway. However, because of the aforementioned foot traffic, within ten minutes you run into the same issue. Also, even though there were bodies in front of the doorways to the building, they weren’t so abundant that people couldn’t get by. Perhaps they might have to say an “Excuse me”, but that was about it. Everyone was cool and accommodating.
After my third student performed, I got onto the mic to introduce our next reader, and I noticed a little disturbance in the audience. The man had returned and was shoving people out of the way by the door. He dragged a sign of some sort out front, and when he re-entered the building, he pointed at me (I was sitting by the rail manning the PA) and yelled, “I was polite the first time!” I got up out of my chair and suggested that we have a quick conversation, to which he told me he had nothing to say to me.
Mmmmmaybe ten minutes later, I introduced the next reader, and when I turned to return to my chair, I heard someone yell, “Stink bomb!” and I, literally, thought, “What a weird nickname for a teenager to have!” Upon sitting down, I saw that it was THE SAME MAN! He’d returned and was holding something in his hand that he claimed to be a stink bomb. He began yelling that he was going to throw it and clear our event out. All of this happened in front of over 30 people. There were literal babies in the crowd, and a good number of teenagers.
When the man came by me, I got up, and again, suggested we have a conversation, because things were at a breaking point. He put his left hand on my chest and shoulder, to which I knocked it off and told him not to touch me. In turn, he got in my face, grit his teeth, and seethed, “Don’t you touch ME, motherfucker!” Now, I’ve had a good number of standoffs with people in my day, and my experience has taught me that once someone is irate, makes physical contact with you, and cannot be reasoned with, you’re pretty much going to have a physical altercation. Knowing this, I walked into the bookstore that was serving as a partner for our event to make them aware of what was going on. Growing up Black in the South has showed me that, if ever conflict arises that you can’t avoid, it always helps to make someone who can keep the narrative straight in the event that police have to arrive aware of the goings on. So, that guy followed behind me, and continued to ramble angrily. I told the staff that they might want to go ahead and call the police, because based on this man’s behavior.
I want to switch gears and focus on what occurred after all of that though. Really, what transpired once that man and I parted is the purpose behind this blog post.
I made a post on social media about what happened. Maybe two hours later, someone I’ve known through a friend’s open-mic who was there defended the actions of the guy, which blew my mind and, really, disappointed me. A number of other people (some of which know him, too) were perplexed by his statements and reasoning as well.
A few hours later, I saw that the man who had had the meltdown apologized via Instagram and mentioned having a mental illness. I told my girlfriend that I respected him for doing that because, in my experience, most people who have wronged me have not had the gumption to take responsibility for their behavior. However, I also told her that his apology didn’t really change anything. It didn’t make me feel any better about the exchange that happened.
Later still, I received a message on Instagram from someone I’ve considered to be a friend for years, and this person said two things that greatly disappointed, angered, and insulted me. First, they begged me to “make peace” with this man. Keep in mind, I’d never met him prior to that day and that exchange, and I had to tell them that I was not, nor had ever been, at war with him.
The second thing was I told was to “Please stop the hating on social media.” I was absolutely floored when I read those words. I didn’t spread any kind of hate on social media, and the insinuation was a colossal slap in the face. Not only did I tell the truth about what happened, I handled the confrontation with that man as immaculately as one could. Things very easily could’ve transpired into violence, equipment being broken, etc. My students and I were the victims here, and here I was being a) made to be the center of this story, and b) basically, being asked to remain quiet about it all… for the benefit of the person who instigated and sustained it all! I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Not once did anyone ask about the feelings of my kids. Not once did anyone ask about my feelings. The whole thing here has impacted me on so many levels, and I’ve been trying to just let it all go, but I realized I wouldn’t be able to do so without really addressing, in some capacity, what happened.
Honestly, I feel that, in my 34th year on this earth, this is going to be the year that I REALLY buck back against silence. I’m going to tell my truth as I see fit, and if that comes with me losing friendships, relationships, etc., then so be it, because if my silence on things that affect me is required in order for someone who does not have to contend with my emotions or experience what it’s like to live my life, then perhaps ending those things is what’s best for everybody.
December 1, 2017
A Funny Little Thing Called Race
I’ve mentioned on here that I’m working on a new chapbook. It’s about race. However, as anyone who truly has allowed him or herself to wade below the surface of race, the manuscript covers a range of topics. Race just so happens to be the lens and some of the connective tissue.
One of the most interesting aspects of this work (a lot of it originated a few years back when I was doing my interview project) is that it’s called back certain memories for me. There’ve been a number of things I’ve not thought about in YEARS, and it’s elicited a number of reactions from me – especially confusion.
For example, I have a poem in the work that was inspired by a true story. During my first winter break back in town from college, I picked up a girl who lived in a place called Soddy Daisy, which is a pretty rural area. She’d never been anywhere downtown, so I drove us down to see the sights. While parked, she mentioned that it was cold outside, and I agreed. She was shocked because (no joke or lie) she thought that Black people couldn’t get cold. She, literally, told me that she’d always believed that our brown skin kept us warm. I found myself, in that moment, totally unsure of how to respond and what to do. That was in 2002, and I’ve found myself in that position several times since.
Also, I was in high school when No Limit, and then Cash Money, broke big. A lot of white guys I went to school with really identified with the image, music, etc., and really tried to adopt Blacker (I’m not going to say urban) personas. One of which was a boy named Brandon. One day, I was either on my way to or from art class, and Brandon asked me why I had a sketch pad with me. I told him, and he scoffed and said, “Niggers can’t draw. Right, John?”
Now, here’s where things get fuzzier, kids. One of Brandon’s good friends was also a friend of mine, and he was a Black kid named John. Brandon and john had actually walked up to me together, and when the former made that statement, I looked at the latter to see how he was going to handle it. He glanced at that ground and grumbled a sort of “Yeah” before us, and I remember feeling so ashamed at the time. Now that I’m older and realizing how so much of high school, in particular, is survival and maintaining the status quo, I understand more of just how awkward a place John was in. He’d always longed to be accepted by the white kids at our school, and this was, in a way (at least, probably, in his eyes), a make or break moment. What’s that like? I can’t imagine that he felt good about it after, and as I recall how sheepish he was about going along with it, he didn’t seem to be proud of it when it happened in real time.
I have a slew of these stories, and after discussing the work with a good friend of mine last week, I told him that there are a number of perplexing things that center around race. I’ve found myself extremely fascinated by the ways in which people reconcile certain things (their own inherited or chosen ignorance, their sense of acceptance while denouncing the identity they can’t remove, etc.) You don’t really get to experience these things if you can’t allow yourself to truly delve into the workings of race and allow yourself to see how complicated a construction it truly is.
August 29, 2017
So, last week proved to be an interesting one for Your Friendly Neighborhood Xtian. It was, in many ways, a very productive and positive one, but there was one issue that I kept running into it, and it irked me. Well, it didn’t just do that, because that’s easy. I found myself being irked AND thinking about the reasons (plural) why I was irked.
If you’re familiar with my work in any capacity (writing, performance, teaching, etc.) or if you’ve given this site a decent onceover at any point in time since its inception, you probably know how important connection is to me. I LOVE that art can be a wonderful tool for engagement in a number of ways, and, over the years, I’ve had the pleasant surprise of having people approach me to talk about things that yield mutual understanding and appreciation.
I keep seeing things that state how we’re all “connected” through social media, and on one hand, that’s kind of true. I mean, I would venture to say that most of our FB timelines look and feel like we’re sitting in someone’s living room hanging out. However, and I’ve felt this way for a few years, I don’t think we truly CONNECT a good bit of the time. I think that the distance social media provides has made us voyeurs in each other’s lives, among other things. This is why I struggle when it comes to maneuvering my way around the different platforms I use. Very often, I feel like we’re all just shouting in a large, empty room. Social media is great for getting one’s voice out there. Mmmmmaybe it’s not the best thing when it comes to actually hearing and communicating with another voice though.
All of that brings me to last week. I follow a pretty diverse number of people on Twitter. They come from all walks of life, which is great. However, three different times last week, some of the people I most enjoy made posts that were yearning for something. There was a plea for attention, another for affirmation, etc. Me being me, I responded to each of these people, and they said… nothing. In fact, it was like I‘d said nothing, because they kept on rolling. Each person! That’s where the wheels started turning in my head.
Maybe it’s just a Christianism, but if I truly need or want something and express it in a forum where I have, on some level, the attention of hundreds to thousands of eyes and ears, I feel like I would expect and encourage some feedback. Some form of response. Something to let me know that I’m not just experiencing something and voicing my situation to the darkness of a void. Otherwise, it, frankly, seems really masturbatory. I kind of feel like we’re in an age where a number of people want attention, only to reject it when it arrives at their doorstep, which makes me think of a child who screams about wanting a specific toy, and then change their mind once it’s been acquired and given to them.
As an aside, if this is where we’re at, where does one go to TRULY connect with people? Where do you go to find and sustain the real thing? The genuine exchange? Maybe Twitter just isn’t where it’s at as far as that goes. Maybe it’s just me and I’m not seeing it. I don’t know.
June 4, 2017
In My Most Humble of Opinions
I first caught wind of Nikky Finney years ago. I’m not even sure if her last collection, which she won the National Book Award for, had even come out yet. However, I do recall reading a very insightful and interesting article in Poets & Writers Magazine on her, and it definitely put her on my radar. There was an abundance there to latch onto, honestly. She writes things long-hand, for instance, and only does so using a certain type of pencil that is extremely rare. I don’t often hear things like that about writers now. You know, that whole quirky, mysterious, etc. element that used to be so common. We’ve kind of gravitated away from that, or, at least, that’s my perspective.
Anyway, I got REALLY excited recently when I learned that she would be coming to my humble hometown. It’s a pretty rare thing, so it was a treat I was eagerly looking forward to.
This past weekend, I took myself to the reading, which took place in a really cool architect office. The ambience and everything was perfect. When Nikky began, she definitely channeled what I got from that magazine article. She was extremely down to earth, very welcoming, etc. It’s rare (again, in my most humble of opinions) that someone who has had an esteemed career along with accolades to boot doesn’t actively address any of it, and that’s very much her. She didn’t bring the allure of the National Book Award or anything through the door with her. It was just her, her family, and her experience, and that was more than enough.
It’s pretty much a given that the poems would be great. However, it was what she said between the poems that was also amazing. She affirmed a number of things that I’ve thought and said over the years regarding the contemporary state of poetry as well as how it relates to Chattanooga where I spend the vast majority of my nights and days. If you’ve eyed my site in general, but specifically my blogs over the course of the past few years, you know how important the path is and has been to me. Hearing her speak made me feel even more so that I am on the right track and doing the work I was partially sent here to do.
We had the opportunity to speak for a little bit afterwards, too, and that made me feel even more blessed. This life, this journey, this art – all of it has been a rich experience, dear brothers and sisters. Lastly, in my most humble of opinions, a solid, well-lived life should be full of those.
May 25, 2017
Happy Birthday to Me!
Brothers and sisters, today marks yet another second birthday for yours truly. On this day (really, it was night if we want to be all technical-like) SIXTEEN YEARS ago, I performed poetry for the first time in a public setting. Obviously, things went well enough for Your Friendly Neighborhood Xtian to keep coming back. I’m a lifer at this point.
There have been so many developments that have taken place in my life since that night, and I continually find myself in complete awe by this journey I’ve been fortunate to embark on. I never could’ve predicted where the path would take me back then. I was just consumed by wanting to read, see, hear, and mmmmaybe even write and perform as much poetry as I could squeeze into my life. Not terribly much has changed in that regard, but now, I’ve found myself stunningly fortunate to be able to bring my original programs and workshops to fruition to teach people some of what I’ve devoted my life to learning. That ain’t half bad, dear familia. It’s actually allowed me to see myself and the work I make in a much different light, and I have a more pronounced appreciation for it all now. Ah, getting older!
April 23, 2017
“The World I Know…”
I’m not sure how many of you reading this are aware of Esthero or her work, but you definitely should be. Your lives will be all the better for it. How do I know this? Because MY life has been all the better for it. Consider this my testament.
I first caught wind of her during my freshman year of high school. Way back when, MTV used to have this thing where they would not only show videos, but they would highlight visually-stunning, groundbreaking ones. They showed a good bit of love to her single “Heaven Sent” at the time, and it really resonated with me in a way I couldn’t describe at the time.
Fast forward to April of 1999. I was on spring break with my family in Savannah, GA, and I stumbled across her debut record at a Best Buy. One of my favorite things to do was to buy a CD that I thought would be interesting, so I decided to take the plunge. That selection was one of the best of my life.
I immediately fell in love with the whole record, as well as with the young woman at the center of it. I scoured AOL (remember that?) to find any and all information that I could on Esthero and eagerly anticipated a follow-up record. I consumed every song on a soundtrack, collab, and remix I could get my hands on, too. This guy? Was an addict.
Her second album dropped during my junior year of college, and even though it was different (which, of course, it would be) from the debut, it was an amazing listen. Beautiful songs, vocals, poetry, etc.
All the while, and even now, I’ve told people (A LOT of them) that if falling in love had a sound, it would be her voice. This brings me to April 21st of this year.
I’ve been banging out these poems for the 30/30 National Poetry Month challenge, and I just started thinking about Esthero. A poem ensued, and I posted it and mentioned that it was a dedication to her. I never had any expectation that she would respond, but when she did, I was floored. Not only did she reply to it, but she wrote, “Wow. Just wow. Thank you.” Here was someone that has meant a great deal to me for close to two decades thanking me! How surreal is that?
Last night, I was out with my girlfriend having dinner, and I checked Instagram on a whim (that is one byproduct of this 30/30 biz. I’ve found myself checking IG way more. I’m becoming a teenager again in that regard), and found that Esthero had reposted the poem along with a wonderful comment about connection. Her words resonated through me, and it was wild because exactly what she said is precisely what I strive for in my work.
In recent years, I’ve found myself becoming more and more of a believer in serendipity. Had I not read the article about how poetry needs to change to find its audience, this interaction wouldn’t have happened. Had I not decided to use IG as a medium, this wouldn’t have happened. Had I not been a practitioner of this craft, this interaction wouldn’t have happened. All I can really say is how thankful I am for this journey as an artist and a human being.
April 10, 2017
Insta-getting It… Well, Maybe
I read an article recently that talked about what needs to happen in the wonderful world of poetry to breathe new life into it. Now, it’s perfectly understandable that you good people who love poetry might be scoffing at that, but the author raised some really good (and oft overlooked points). For instance, out of the peeps who claim to love poetry, very few of them actually purchase poetry books. Out of the portion that does, an even smaller number of them go back and reread the books they’ve bought.
The author argues that when we think about poetry, we tend to think about it in ways that were refined about fifty or so years ago. We think of The Beats, or the Black Arts Movement Poets, or smoky open-mics and jazz and cups of joe and fingersnaps. However, even the people who were alive and active during those times have, most likely, moved beyond that.
So, the gist of the article is about how poets can and should connect poetry to the different ways in which people are actually interested in encountering it. This got me to musing over this, and I feel like I kind of took it as a challenge. I mean, a significant portion of my life as a writer has been spent bringing poetry to people and venues where it hasn’t necessarily been valued, respected, or looked for.
We’re officially in the age of the meme, the selfie, and other things, but if we look beyond the really short lifespans of these things, we can gather that social media is a way that people are getting news, entertainment, spreading ideas, etc. The popularity of Button Poetry, for example, also indicates that there is a poetry audience out there HUNGRY for new and different voices. This brings me to my 30/30 challenge. I wondered what would happen if I used Instagram as a medium for poetry. The app has a very set scale, so it means that the work has to be aligned in a very particular way for it to fit for posting. So, this has presented some interesting (yet mostly fun) challenges as I pursue the ever-tricky feat of generating 30 poems in as many days. Also, you know, I’m trying the avoid them sucking, so that’s another challenge.
So far, the response has been pretty good, I must say. Each day, I gain followers, and some of the poems have generated a little bit of dialogue. People are chiming in to let me know what they like, what resonates, etc. It’ll be interesting to see how things shape up 20 days from now, but I’m excited to take the journey regardless. As the kids say, YOLO!
January 3, 2017
“I’ve Got Reservations/About So Many Things…”
I think that most of us can agree that 2016 was a bit of a head-scratcher, and for many reasons. For me, it was a challenging, yet humbling year. It forced me to take a really hard look at what I’ve done for so many years as an artist, if any of it has really mattered, and what to do next with my life. Let me tell you, it wasn’t the most fun excursion, fam.
Both 2014 and 2015 were solid years creatively. I felt like I’d amassed some significant momentum in a national sense that would enable me to live my dream on a level I’d always imagined. Then, 2016 happened, and I realized fairly soon that something had changed.
Over the course of the past seven years, I’ve never worked as little artistically as I did last year. Typical bookings didn’t pan out and then stopped coming altogether. A lot of people contacted me about shows and workshops, but balked for one reason or another (money being a good one, and I’m VERY reasonable as far as that goes). Also, I had some really big things fall apart after being assured that they not only would happen, but would provide a good amount of income.
As a result of all this, there were several times that I found myself depressed. Well, I should say depressed and questioning if I’d wasted my time and energy by pursuing a life in the arts. Honestly, I kind of felt like God had played some cruel joke on me by allowing me to have all of the skills I possess, and not be able to do anything feasible with them.
Each time I had a bout with depression and disappointment though, I feel like I learned something. There has always been great council around me to listen to my struggles and share my burden. Whenever I’ve lacked financially, something has, thankfully, come through to keep me afloat without me having to result to anything demeaning or borrowing money from anyone. I’ve been provided for, and that’s amazing.
This past year, I feel like I received an extended lesson in humility. My life has forced me to humble myself, quiet my ego, strip a lot of things away and take a long, honest look at the person I am, the person I’ve been, and the person I long to be. I like to think that it was necessary work. My hope as things move forward is that I can either get the boat afloat creatively, or at least find another avenue for my work, even if it means doing less of it. We shall see what happens, ladies and gents. Whatever does, thank you for taking part in my journey, be it if you’ve attended shows, listened to or purchased my EP, bought some merch, bought me a cup of coffee, indulged me in a conversation, etc. Know that you’ve had a hand in bringing me to where I am right now.
November 16, 2016
Contemplation with a Troubled Heart
So, today at work (some of you know that I tutor at an institution in Chattanooga), I learned that one of my students was recently beaten up pretty severely at a party. He, typically, sits next to me when he attends, and is a really bright kid. We had a conversation mmmmaybe two weeks ago about the election, figuring out what issues are important to him, his friends and family, and making decisions based on what would benefit them most as well as represent the America he wants to live in. With that in mind, it weighs heavily on my heart and spirit knowing not only that this horror has fallen upon him and his family, but also that it could’ve been motivated by the energy and rhetoric that has propelled a great deal of similar behavior over the course of the past year.
In my last blog entry, I wrote only a few short days ago about finding inspiration and motivation to keep moving, living, and working. However, on a day like today when you’re this close to something like this, it makes that inspiration a little harder to find. It also makes that America you work and fight so diligently to bring closer to fruition a little farther off in the distance.
I know that there’s a good chance I won’t find out what happened to my student. It’s so late in the semester that we only have a few classes left, and his top priority should be focusing on healing. He might not return to class in the time we have left. So, my mind is filled with hope that he’ll both be okay and will be able to get past this, but it’s also full of questions – quite a few I don’t (and might not) have the answers to.
November 13, 2016
I, like many of my friends and associates, have experienced my fair share of emotions over the course of the past week. I’ve found myself taking part in more conversations than I’d like about the future of the country and the people in it. I should rephrase that, actually. I’ve found myself taking part in more conversations than I’d like on the matter RIGHT NOW, because I’m still very much in the midst of trying to imagine MY place in the changing landscape of America.
What’s been cool about the past week though, for me at least, is that I’ve found CONSTANT affirmation around me, and that is something I don’t see changing anytime soon – not just for me, but for everyone willing to open their eyes and their spirits up enough to receive it.
For instance, I wrote in my last news update about the Toni Morrison quote I found. Encountering it kind of felt serendipitous. A few days later, after A Tribe Called Quest released their latest (and, according to them, final) album, I read an article which talked about ATCQ coming back together to make this project because we (the collective we) needed them to. That, in turn, brought me back to De La Soul’s latest offering, and a song close to the end of the record where Dave proclaims “We still here now!”
All of this is to say that, in the face of uncertainty, if you’re willing to see them, you’ll find signs that you’ll be okay. These things do not serve to fully remove the ugly of the world or the people around you, but they do afford you the strength, even if it’s momentary, for you forge ahead, and you know what, dear friends? Sometimes, that is all any of us can ask for. However, in the same breath, sometimes that’s all any of us really need.
October 9, 2016
I don’t have a tremendous amount to say that I haven’t already. I was honored to work with these young women and to help bring their voices to the local community. Our journey still has yet to end (more is coming on that in the future, so stay tuned already!). Without any further ado, ENJOY!
September 15, 2016
Greetings Ladies & Gents,
This past weekend was a draining one, but in a good (dare I say, great) way. I have so many things to talk about, but I’ll keep a few of them under the hat for a little while longer and, instead, speak about an event I took part in on Saturday.
If you’re no stranger to my most recent posts, you probably know that I was slated to perform in an event called Poetry vs. Hip-Hop. The basis of the show is pretty much a friendly battle where, literally, Team Poetry faces off against Team Hip-Hop. I had a hand in recommending some of the peeps who made it onto my squad, so it was cool to see that, but also to see how we stacked up against some of Chattanooga’s rappers.
I wasn’t in the best shape that night. I successfully managed to patch my voice back together after largely destroying it the night before, but I had a MASSIVE headache I couldn’t shake the entire time. I consumed four painkillers, and that bad boy would not be deterred.
When we got going though, everything fell into place. Team HH went first, and started off very strong. So strong, in fact, a mentally disturbed woman in the front row dug in her pocket and threw loose change into the rapper on stage’s face, because… Our poet, Moll King, did her thing though. She found a really clever way to diss her opponent and as soon as she did, she pretty much won the round.
The remainder of the matchups had our team continue to show out. However, the crowd wasn’t always behind us (which makes sense. They came to represent their side). If the wonderful world of boxing has taught us anything, it is that styles, truly, make fights.
I went in the fourth and penultimate round. My opponent was none other than renowned Chattanooga artist SoCro. He has had a really strong following for years, so I knew that our dynamics would be interesting. We both have cut our teeth on a range of stages and would be playing to our individual strengths.
I drew the first slot for our bout, and I decided to run This Poem. For those of you who don’t know, it’s one of my staple live pieces, and twelve years after its birth, is still relevant. I crushed my performance and definitely put the pressure on him to come with it. You know what? He stepped up.
He has a song about Chattanooga, and he performed it. Pretty much as soon as he got to the first chorus, he had the whole crowd bouncing, and thus, in his pocket. Doing that song was the smartest move! I told him later in the night that I felt we had the bout of the night, and we both left with a solid respect for each other and each other’s work.
The last round was between Marley Fox, who is a poet, but is also a Hip-Hop artist, and a poet named Michael Twitty. I’ve known both for a while, and I told Michael that he had the advantage in the round since he got to go last.
Marley put on an energetic performance of one of his songs. By most accounts, it looked like Michael was in a huge hole. However, that man… that largely soft-spoken man dug deep within the fibers of his being and bossed up to Super Saiyan Level 4. It was AMAZING!
He put on the best showing I’ve ever witnessed of his work, and it was great. His poem was poignant and raw, and he not only stepped up to the plate, but he socked the ball out of the park. You know, steroid-era Sammy Sosa dead-center-style.
The vote at the end was close, but Michael came out on top. His victory gave us the W 3-2. Huzzah!
The event was big fun, but I think that the most special part of it was that it provided an opportunity for artists of both artforms not only to share the same stage, but to meet each other, network, etc. In our city, the arts tend to be segregated for a number of reasons, and as a result, our paths don’t often cross. I would venture to say that a large culprit of this is because of venues. It’s not common that emcees and poets perform at the same spaces in the Scenic City, so creating an environment where that could happen also allowed us the chance to grab face time, talk shop, mmmmaybe eat pancakes, etc. All good things, dear brothers and sisters. All good things.
August 8, 2016
Dear brothers and sisters, Your Friendly Neighborhood Xtian feels like a proud dad. If you took a gander at my news section, you know that not only did we have the showcase for my MANIFEST Voices students, but that it went extremely well. Let me take you through the journey.
I started working with the kids at the beginning of June. Some of them were shy and reserved. I told them on day one to look around the room, because everybody who was present was family. Being teens, they probably gave me one of those yeah, right looks.
Each week, I crafted my lesson plans to suit them and their needs, and one of my proudest moments came during our penultimate session. Something happened, and at that moment, I realized that the kids really HAD become family. They were cheerleading for each other, had become fans of one another’s work, etc. I knew that if that same connection carried over to the show on the 6th, we were truly going to make something magical occur.
So, on the day of, I’m VERY proud to say that that was the case, but a lot more happened, too. I’d invited a lot of the community to come show their support, for a number of reasons. There’s so much talk in Chattanooga about what the youth should, or need to be doing, yadda yadda, but so often, those same people NEVER step out the house to actually support programming that is geared for young folks. I wanted to hold people accountable. Also though, I knew the quality of the work my poetry kids was high, and it should have a good audience to witness it.
Dear reader, we had EVERY chair in the house filled with a butt. People were standing in the back, others sat on the floor. I was really proud of the turnout, and more bodies kept coming.
All seven of my girls absolutely ROCKED OUT. They gave the crowd pieces of their personalities, they chose solid poems for their sets, etc. It was a great joy to witness all that we’ve gone over take shape in front of a crowd. I could not have been any more proud of those young ladies.
All throughout, I saw people tearing up, and that was touching. Even at the end, I saw hugs, more tears, etc. A lot of people came up to me to thank me for bringing this program to fruition, and that was just the icing on the cake. I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have lived an amazing life, despite the stresses that come along. Being able to share some of what I’ve acquired with a group of creative and brave young women, their friends, families, and the Chattanooga community at large really felt, in a way, like something I was made to do. This guy? Humbled.
April 18, 2016
“Then you really might know what it’s like/ to sing the blues…”
So, in my news section, I mentioned that I’ve been going through an… interesting time as of late. I’ve had some things kind of fall apart for me that have resulted in me taking some pretty good hits, and as a result of that, I’ve been contemplating what my next moves need to be. As a matter of fact, I’ve even been considering taking my foot off the gas as far as all of this creative activity that has made my life what it’s been, for a number of reasons.
For some time now, I’ve been exhausted not by the work, but by the lies, the false fans, the promoters who are initially interested in booking me only to change their minds, etc. This life is not easy, and for someone who invests so much into each aspect of it, it’s draining. It’s draining and the returns usually don’t come back in the way one would like.
A few weeks ago, I received my latest bad news, and it knocked me out for most of that week. I invested a lot of time into thinking about what else I should be doing with my life if not for this, and why God would give me the interests and skill set that I possess if nothing tangible or sustainable was going to derive from any of it. It was at that time that something funny and unforeseen happened.
I started writing, mainly as a way to try to stave off depression and take my mind off what I was experiencing. Within a few days, I had over ten poems. As it stands right now, I have somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 that are completed, with almost as many in various states of completion. Everything has been lining up to potentially become a book. It’s crazy for me to imagine.
What’s so interesting about all of this is that I don’t even know if I still really want to pursue this life. I’m just pushing the keys to push them, so I don’t know how to reconcile everything that I’m feeling. I don’t know. I figure that while I seek out other jobs and such, putting poems down isn’t a bad thing. Push comes to shove, at least I’ll have something to read while I’m interviewing for work.
February 29, 2016
This past Saturday, I took part in the TEDxCHATTANOOGA event, and let me say that it was an absolute HONOR! The experience was really interesting, and everybody, from the staff and crew to the speakers worked extraordinarily hard to make sure everything was where it needed to be.
There’s something really special about being in a room of creative, committed, and excited people. I really can’t describe it, honestly. I think the best thing I can say about it is still pretty vague, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. Honestly, it’s surreal.
I have SO many amazing moments to take you through, but I just wanted to touch on one, in particular. My parents were/are big fans of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. They made so many classic songs that not only topped the charts, but served as soundtrack music to the quest for equal rights.
The Impressions did an interview and performance on Saturday during the final session. I was in the third one, so we briefly got to occupy the green room together. After my talk, I was escorted back there, and as soon as I arrived, people started congratulating me on the job I’d done, which is HUMBLING to the nth degree.
I sat down after the mic was taken off of me, and Sam and Frank of The Impressions told me that they really enjoyed my talk and performance. It’s one of those things that you recognize in the moment and can somewhat appreciate, but the full weight of it doesn’t hit you until much later.
Fast forward to post-midnight. I was EXHAUSTED. While taking a shower and kind of replaying the events of the day (the actually TEDx experience, the afterparty, etc.) it suddenly dawned on me that, “Oh, snap! The Impressions liked what I DID! How wild is that?!”
I immediately thought of my mom. She still listens to their music and other sounds of that era religiously. It put a huge smile on my face to be able to tell her that the guys she grew up listening to enjoyed something that I had to offer. I’ve just gotta say it’s alright!
February 4, 2016
“We Don’t Really Like to Talk about the Race Thing…” – Brother Ali
So, yesterday I had the distinct honor and privilege of serving on a panel for a class. We were asked to weigh-in on race in relation to Chattanooga. I wasn’t sure how things were going to pan out (whenever you discuss race in an open forum, it tends to be a very hot or miss affair). However, I’m very proud to say that things went swimmingly.
Rounding out the panel were Pastor Josh, who comes to Chattanooga by way of San Francisco, and Mark Thomas. They both are working to improve Alton and Highland Park, which is an extremely admirable aspiration. I think our varied backgrounds and perspectives really gave us a well-rounded approach to the topic, and I think we did a solid job of keeping the class engaged.
I was told that there were 60 students taking the course, which is great. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many actively interested in wading into the topic. We covered a good amount of ground, too.
I’m sure that by the time we ended our talk, some of the kids in the room felt uncomfortable, or frustrated. It’s also my belief that more felt they had somewhat of a better understanding of the issues that have been, and continue to be at play. I, for one, would love to have the opportunity to converse with the kids again a little farther down the line. It would be interesting to see what they’ve been exposed to, what their thoughts are, etc.
It’s interesting to me. Specifically since I started working on my project which uses poetry to explore issues of race and sex and gender, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to find myself researching, giving opinions, facts, experiences, etc. on the topics. I mean, part of my upcoming TEDx Talk will be about race. I said a while back that I sincerely felt that this work was what I needed to be pursuing and immersing myself in. I still feel that way, and I think that the majority of things that have come my way since are great affirmations. I look forward to seeing where things continue to go.
February 3, 2016
Stacey, Stacey, Stacey/ Can’t You See?
So, recently, actress Stacey Dash (remember her?) spoke out on the international haven for inclusion that is FOX News about the boycott of the Oscars that individuals such as Jada Pinkett-Smith and Spike Lee have spearheaded. She said, "We have to make up our minds. Either we want to have segregation or integration. If we don't want segregation, then we need to get rid of channels like BET and the BET Awards and the [NAACP] Image Awards, where you're only awarded if you're black. If it were the other way around, we would be up in arms, it's a double standard. We're Americans. Period."
Understandably so, she’s received quite a bit of backlash. BET, which is a network I’ve had issue with for a number of years due to the canceling of programming that spoke to me and my ilk (they even got rid of the news), devoted a good bit of time to showing videos that featured Stacey prominently with the #neverforget handle. I think one of the most mind-boggling thing about Stacey’s comments are how completely aloof they are. She’s since doubled-down on them, too. Let’s jump in.
She proposed getting rid of BET, however, for a good number of years, they were the only people really providing her work. The biggest thing she’s been a part of was Clueless. It’s important to keep in mind that after that film, seemingly everyone else’s trajectory skyrocketed. Alicia Silverstone went on to other high-profile Hollywood projects, as did Brittany Murphy. Stacey Dash? Well, she went on to… Clueless the TV show. There’s nada wrong with getting a pay check, but if inclusion and opportunity were abundant 20 or so years ago, I have to believe that she would’ve obtained other projects that would’ve brought in both more money and attention.
Also, Black publications have been Stacey’s bread and butter for years. YEARS. She’s been featured in KING Magazine, Monarch Magazine, etc. Plus, her first cousin is Dame Dash. The Dame Dash of Rocafella Records, clothes, and film. Yes, THE Dame Dash who was notorious for dousing women with champagne in music videos in the latter part of the 20th Century as well as the early part of this one.
Another puzzling thing of note is that it seems that the fundamental need for a Black History Month and a channel like BET has completely missed her. Those things weren’t started to stir up race. They were to provide avenues, accolades, etc. for people who were both doing and had done quality work that was NEVER going to be recognized by the largely white mainstream. Even with Black History Month, the achievements, hard work, and innovations of Black people is still largely under-represented, and that’s true for other peoples of color to this very day. I doubt that the average person who was educated in the American public or private school system could name five inventors of Hispanic descent, for instance.
I don’t know what’s next for Stacey. I don’t see people letting the issue pass anytime soon, nor should they, in my opinion. Regardless, I’ll certainly have my eyes and ears open.
January 3, 2016
The Year of the Goat
So, I meant to write this earlier. I’ve been musing on it for some time. I was sick for about a week, so that really put me behind on a number of things. Better late than never, right?
2015 was a definite adventure for me. Lots of changes took place in my life (some of which are still taking shape), and I’m very much of the process of trying to establish my new normal, but all of that is a positive.
I had the opportunity to travel to some big places to perform. I’m really blessed to say that every stop of the way, the response to my work was amazing. I won some slams, did some features, headlined at some venues, etc. I’ve been on a bunch of airplanes (and realized that I’m now freaked out by flying, actually. I grew into that discomfort.), saw A LOT of miles on the road, and got pretty good at traveling as light as possible.
Now, if you’ve known me or have followed my site for any length of time, you’re probably aware of most of, if not, all of those things. What you probably aren’t aware of is that a good number of the things I’ve mentioned have forced me to face uncertainty and fear. I left the job that I’d worked for over eight years in order to pursue my dream, and I was leveled with a great deal of anxiety, fear, and depression for a few weeks. This was just before I went to DC for IWPS. I was plagued by the idea of “What if I’m not good enough to make this happen?” It was crippling, brothers and sisters. Probably the most crippling bout with self-doubt that I’ve encountered. At least in recent memory.
While this was happening, I had some shifts in my personal life, too, that just kind of added to everything. I had a friendship that had started right before I did my second stint in Boston. I was really excited about the energy of it and what it was bringing out of me, but within less than a month, I was kind of blindsided with it not necessarily ending, but falling into a place of silence and awkwardness.
In addition to that, I felt really alone. I actually wrote about it (without necessarily going into explicit detail) in a blog around that time. I’d just watched the Amy Winehouse documentary and saw myself in it a good bit.
I believe strongly in signs, and when I decided to make the creative leap, it was because I’d seen and encountered things that seemed to be pushing me in a certain direction. When the road got a bit rough, I wondered if I was just seeing what I wanted to, and that was hard to face. Fortunately, I balanced myself out, and while things have been all over the place ever since, they haven’t been bad. If anything, the adventure has been more positive and unpredictable. I’ve been kept on my toes, which has made each day, each week, and each month a journey… and an absolute blur.
I’m proud of who I’ve become over the past year. I’m proud of the work I’ve done all across the board, and I’m immensely humbled by the response I’ve received through lecturing, teaching, performing music, as well as my poetry. I’ve had more works published in the past year than ever before, and have some truly cool things on the horizon.
I don’t know exactly what this year has in store for me. Well, I’m not aware of the specifics, but that’s part of the fun. I do know that it will see me challenging myself more, facing more of my fears as well as the darkness of the unknown. This year will see me reaching out for more opportunities that will, undoubtedly, change my life if they come through. It will see me continuing my work, which I feel is the best it has ever been before in my life. Also, it will see me continuing to struggle to find my place, both where I currently reside and in the lives and hearts of the people around me.
As of right now, on this day at the beginning of a brand new year, I’m ready for the ride. What about you?
December 8, 2015
A Funny Thing Happened on My Way Through Facebook
A few days ago, I was taking a gander at the ol’ FB (which is kind of like covering your eyes and reaching out when you’re next to a hot stove. It’s only a matter of time before you find something that’s going to jolt or hurt you), when I stumbled across a high school friend’s post. It’s the picture above, although I cropped it to preserve his identity. My initial reaction was, “What the hell is this?!”
I sent the screen grab of the post to a few friends of mine that also knew him, and they were also equally shocked. I told my mother about it (who also knew him), and SHE, too, was taken aback. Unanimously, we were (and still are) flabbergasted.
If you’ve known me for any significant length of time or followed my website over the past year, then you know how invested I am in matters of race, community, over-policing, etc. When I read the post my… I don’t really know what to call him now, honestly… made, several big things jumped out at me that touched off an emotional dynamo in me. Let’s jump in.
The whole respectability thing is, to put it bluntly, trash to me. Being respectful has never stopped people from violating your rights, abusing your or your loved ones’ bodies, or even taking your very life. Respect and fine suits didn’t save MLK. It didn’t stop the citizens who marched in Selma from being beaten on a bridge. In my personal history, I was accused of stealing my own car by a police officer during my senior year of high school. Respecting authority didn’t stop that situation from occurring. In fact, what brought it to a halt was when the officer who stopped me got a call that the REAL CAR THIEF was (you guessed it) stealing a vehicle.
A few hours after I graduated from college, I got stopped by the police in Ybor City for running a stop sign (that I didn’t run). I was respectful through the whole ordeal, and I was lambasted by one of the officers. They called for two cars of backup, took my ID and were going to keep it until I protested, and then, at the very end of the episode (and after I’d been ticketed for close to $200), the super-aggressive officer pulled his gun on me. Respecting authority didn’t stop that situation from happening or escalating.
I find it really ignorant and, frankly, bullshit to say something like what my high school friend wrote. For one, I’ve known him a long time, and he doesn’t respect authority or the law. He’s been arrested for theft, had legal troubles due to marijuana, and (if we’re going to go way back) sold me a copy of Outkast’s Stankonia that he stole from somebody he disliked. All of that holier than thou bullshit is ridiculous to me knowing this man and his history. Even if he had some sort of life-altering experience, it doesn’t change the fact of where and what he’s come from.
Secondly, I can pretty much guarantee that he hasn’t invested any time or energy into researching Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Ferguson, the necessity for Black Lives Matter, or, most recently, what’s been transpiring in Chicago. It really bothers me when people don’t really care about cases of corruption and just want to promote their own feelings and unwavering support of an ideal. If you aren’t serious about wanting to know what’s going on, why attempt to speak on matters that you’re tremendously in the dark about? What are you hoping for? Affirmation and signs of approval from other people who feel the same way you do?
Both of us live in Chattanooga, TN, which isn’t the most culturally diverse place. I think what he said also bothers me not only because of the reasons I’ve ever mentioned, but because he’s really assimilated as best he can into white society. The vast majority of his friends are white, every girl that I can recall him being interested in was white, etc. There’s nothing wrong with those things on their own accord. However, I personally have an issue when you compromise your own cultural identity. So many people marched, were beaten, lynched, murdered, etc. for his ability to assimilate, and the fact that that seems to be lost on him is baffling to me.
I had a good, long conversation with a close friend of mine last night about all of this, and he said that he was surprised, but not really angry at our high school friend’s words. I told him that I was, and I recognize that that’s partly due to my own story and journey. Had I not visited the church in Alabama that was blown up (where the 4 Little Girls lost their lives) and talked to a survivor, I might feel a different way. Had I not walked, fundraised, fellowshipped, etc. with an array of social change and justice causes, I might not be so deeply impacted. If I hadn’t devoted at least half my life to championing diversity, inclusion, etc., I might not even care. However, all of those things are a part of me. They’re in my blood, and they’ve shaped the way that I view the world as well as what I long and continue to fight to bring to fruition in it. As a result of that, I’m immensely upset and disappointed.
I haven’t seen or talked to this man in person in at least two years. I doubt that we’ll ever have a genuine conversation again (I had to unfriend him from the FB. There’s only so much shit like that that I’m willing to ingest now. Call it maturity.), but if we were to run into each other, I would have to say something to him about it. I would hope that he would provide some sort of insight that could, at the very least, help me understand how he arrived at this place. I’m old and seasoned enough to know better than to hold my breath, but I always the leave the door open to be surprised. What are your thoughts?
November 27, 2015
A Beautiful Life
Last weekend, I set out to perform in Minnesota with Charlotte Rose, Marisa Carr, and Adam Falkner. Anyone who knows me is aware that I happen to enjoy a good adventure from time to time. Little did I know that MN was going to be one hell of one.
I missed my first flight, which meant that I, in turn, missed my second flight, too. That one occurrence managed to destroy the remainder of my day. There were dinner plans in Minnesota that had to be cancelled. My ride from the airport had to work late, so I wasn’t sure if I was still going to be able to get scooped up. On top of everything else, I was on standby for the whole day, which basically meant that I was traveling with a maybe. Maybe I’d be able to jump on the earliest available flights. Fun, fun stuff. I actually was told in Chattanooga that when I managed to make it to Charlotte, I needed to find a gate (the lady didn’t specify any) so that someone could help me the rest of the way. I, literally, was flying blind.
I ended up walking from one side of the Charlotte airport to the other. The lady at one gate said she couldn’t assist me, and directed me to another… at the opposite end. Also, the next flight to MN on the airline I was booked on was scheduled to depart FOUR HOURS LATER, so it wasn’t even listed on the screens in the airport.
Thankfully, I found a guy who was able to put all of the pieces together. He listed me as a priority passenger, got me a gate, and really took care of me. I was SO elated.
Long story short, I spent TEN HOURS either in the air or in the airport. Needless to say, I was exhausted across the board when I finally touched down in Minneapolis and made it to my hotel. Not the best way to start things out.
The next day (SHOW DAY!) was much better. I had breakfast and coffee with Charlotte Rose. We had a great conversation, although I feel like I talked way too much.
When night fell and Adam and I made our way to the venue, the temperature was in the 20’s. I wasn’t sure of what the crowd would look like as a result. However, I was pleasantly surprised when we got rolling. People actually braved the cold! In Chattanooga, that wouldn’t have been the case, so it really was a shock. One that you could definitely get accustomed to.
I felt like such a proud dad watching everybody perform. Charlotte, Marisa, and Adam all killed their sets, and I felt such a sense of joy for not only being able to enjoy the performances, but because I was responsible for bringing these incredibly talented individuals together for this night.
For my set, I decided to read two pieces from the series on race. One of which, I read aloud for the first time. I read How it Feels to be Black, and a poem called Muslim, not Murderer. I have to say that both those poems felt kind of surreal in light of the protests (and shootings) that have transpired in MN the past few weeks as well as the Paris terrorist acts, in particular, and the weird, conservative rhetoric that has followed since. I even prefaced the latter piece by saying I was sure it was a poem that Donald Trump would HATE.
Outside of that, the whole night just felt special. I’d be hard-pressed to choose individual highlights, because the entire night was full of win. It’s always great when that happens, and it makes you feel like you are living your dream and doing the work that you were put here to do.
After all of us parted, I finally crashed out in my room a little after 3. At 5, the fire alarm in the hotel was going off. I grabbed my survival bag and my peacoat and beat my feet. When I opened the door, I could clearly smell something burning. What struck me as odd (understand, I was still pretty groggy) was that as soon as I opened my door to evacuate, a family across the hall were stepping out of theirs. A guy, most likely the husband and dad, said, “Do you think we should go downstairs?” Another man a little bit down the hall (not a hotel employee, mind you. It was just another regular guy) heard him and calmly, yet bluntly said, “Umm… I can literally smell something burning. This shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Thank God for people who use LOGIC!
The whole episode of being evacuated, and then eventually being allowed to return to the rooms took about an hour. I never fell back asleep. It’s really hard for me to catch z’s anyway.
Before too long thereafter, I had breakfast with Adam (which was delightful), and then geared up to hit the airport. I made my flights, had an incredible conversation with a man on my first one, and pretty much just felt at peace with everything.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, he says at one point that regardless of not having everything financially, he’s always had people. This most recent trek out showed me that that’s been true for me as well, but even more so, I’ve had a beautiful life. I’m proud of every step of it, from the rough days and nights, the loneliness, depression, the times when people fail me, etc. to the serendipitous times where everything comes together perfectly. It’s all beautiful, man. It’s all a part of the store, and the fact that it’s the life I get to live IS the most beautiful part of it all.
November 5, 2015
What We Leave Behind
My grandmother passed last Thursday. She transitioned from this life a week ago, and there’s a lot of processing that’s taking place in my family, which is understandable. I had the honor of being a pallbearer and escorting her body to where it will indefinitely remain, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. For those who’ve known me for any significant period of time (and not in a superficial fashion), the bulk of my life has been built of service. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to serve her one more time.
A lot of my work over the course of the past ten years has centered around my family. In my chapbook Ghosts & Echoes, there are two pieces about my grandmother in it. It’s interesting for me to look back on those poems now with her not being here. She was truly a rockstar. For some of us, we have people in our families who are truly iconic, and my grandmother was DEFINITELY one of those individuals. Not only did she beat THREE heart attacks, kidney disease, etc. into submission, but she left an indelible impact on generations of my family. W all carry her influence.
Maya Angelou once told Oprah that we don’t really have a say in our legacies. We do our work, and the world chooses to remember us however it will, if at all. When I found out that she’d passed, I was immediately sad, but honored more than anything. I am one of MANY people who are a part of her legacy. We’re reflections of her, and that’s a truly special thing.
I’m sure that there will be more poems to come about. It’s just a matter of time. What’s funny is that a friend of mine asked me yesterday what I was afraid of. Thinking a little bit more elaborately now, I’m afraid of letting those that I love and cherish down. I feel like my charge as an artist, as a man, and as a Southerner is to use the words I write and the voice I’ve been given to honor those who have gifted me with aspects of their spirit – specifically while they are still here, living and breathing, and able to receive it.
So, with that said, what do you hope to leave behind? Maybe I’m biased, but I’d like to live a life worthy of someone else picking up a pen and writing poems about. I don’t know if that’ll happen, but it’s something to shoot for, and just like Maya said, after the work is done, it really is up to everyone else to do what they will from there. However, it doesn’t mean that it’s not something worth striving for, right?
October 26, 2015
A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to 32…
It’s the day after my birthday, and two days since I touched the stage for my show with Emily Joy. My body is still recovering from the weekend, but I really feel happy, as well as humbled, honored, etc. I’ll tell you why.
I met Emily in 2013 in Nashville, and I was a fan of what I heard then. However, having the opportunity to watch her do a long set (which is what I prefer whenever I see poets) really made me a fan. She has a new poem that, as fate would have it, she finished writing sometime in the day on Saturday, and that piece absolutely blew my socks off. I’m so in love with it. I kind of felt like the Cheshire Cat. I had a smile on my face the entire time that she was on the stage.
So, I’ve mentioned it on here before (I think…), but because Charles & Myrtle’s is such an intimate space, and since I tend to get more and more introspective with each passing year, I thought that it would be a good creative gesture and challenge to perform a set of poems that have directly come from my life. You know, lived-in pieces. I had the rare opportunity to give detailed stories about where the poems came from, their inspirations, etc.
Toward the end of my set, I had a poem inspired by my cousin and his passing. He was killed last December. I was telling the crowd about what happened, and I got a little bit deeper into it than I suppose I intended, and before you knew it, I was overcome with emotion. For the first time EVER, I found myself crying on stage. It was such a surreal moment. I don’t even remember coming out of it. I recall running through the piece and how difficult that was with all of the emotion being so fresh, but it was kind of an out of body experience. I couldn’t even look at the audience, but I could hear a few other people crying, too.
Now, for those who’ve known me or followed my work for any significant period of time, my artistic mission statement, if you will, is to truly connect with the audience – be it on the stage, on the page, etc. The older I get, the more successful I believe I’ve become at finding new and different ways to make that happen. This one through me for a loop though because it was SUCH an honest, open, vulnerable moment. It just happened.
I ended my set with poems about my parents, and I concluded by quoting Michele Norris from NPR. She did an interview for her book and said that anytime you listen to someone tell their story, you honor them. I told the crowd that their presence at the show truly honored me, and I meant every bit of it.
I find myself in an interesting place now. I’m a few days out from the show, and I’m still processing things (I’m hyper-analytical by nature, anyway. Scorpio traits, baby!). However, I’ve yet to fully wrap my head around what happened and the FEELING of it all. I’m having a difficult time putting it all in adequate words, too. I suppose I’ll have to give it more time, thought, and have a few conversations with people in my council, which is totally fine by me. This isn’t a shabby homework assignment to have, family!
September 6, 2015
“Does Your Path Have a Heart?”
A few years ago, I read a book simply called “Love” that really opened up my heart, mind, spirit, etc. and altered my perspective on my decisions, actions, and speech. A prominent part of the book is the question of whether of not the path you are on, indeed, has a heart. Do your decisions strive to better yourself, those around you, etc.?
I’ve written on here a good bit about my journey, and kind of how it has evolved, specifically over the course of the past few months. I’ve felt things on a deeper level, and that’s been a mostly great and affirming process. I mean, I cried like a baby during the season finale of “Rectify” a few weeks back, but you didn’t hear that from me.
The past week, in particular, has been kind of a rollercoaster. Ebbs and flows… or, life, basically. Part of my process everyday now is to immerse myself in stillness for at least an hour. I heard a really good quote last Sunday that in stillness is where God is, and that really resonated with me and reminded me that I used to incorporate serenity into my daily regimen.
A few days ago, I spent a long time REALLY thinking about my place in life right now. It was kind of a day of doubt. I’ve felt that I’ve been where I’m supposed to be and doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing, but what if that isn’t the case? What if the things I’ve been killing myself over DON’T come to fruition? What then? Who am I then? It was pretty heavy, man, and I’m still processing a lot of those questions.
I think that one of the hardest parts about being an artist is that you tend to lack tangible things in life. I’ve found myself recently, in particular, looking at those around me in coffee shops, or on social media, or whatever the case may be, and I feel kind of frustrated that I lack some of the things that they have.
The past two days though, I’ve kind of realized that that rough day in stillness was the day I needed to have. It showed me something about myself that I needed to see, and I actually identified something about myself and a specific way in which I’ve been hurt that I don’t think I really was aware of previously.
I kind of feel that this period of my life is about understanding my inner workings. I love the person that I am, what I strive to do, my capacity for care for those around me and self, etc. I guess this past week has just shown me that the journey ahead is going to be a bit more challenging than I initially anticipated, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Also, there’s solace in knowing that, wherever the road leads, my path does, indeed, have a heart.
August 25, 2015
Signs (not the movies!)
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to perform for my good friend’s series. It’s called the Objective Perspective, and the goal is to foster a safe haven where open and honest conversation can take place on serious topics. The one yesterday dealt with homelessness.
When I took the stage, it was an interesting experience. I consider myself to kind of be spoiled as a poet, because the majority of the time when I perform now, I tend to do so in front of people who want to hear poetry. It’s been ages since I’ve rocked out in front of an audience where that wasn’t necessarily the case. I kind of look at it as a chance to be an ambassador of sorts. My job wasn’t just to entertain them, but to bring them into both my world and work.
The reaction was really positive. When my set was finished, several people told me that they really connected with my poems, which never ceases to humble me. A woman told me that my poem about my mother really touched her because she’d lost her mom a few years ago and she still really feels the absence. What do you say to that?
A little bit later, I had two profound conversations. The first was with two Black men who talked about how resolving homelessness really isn’t a priority with the powers that be in Chattanooga. Apparently, $3 million went into a new park, and their argument was that for a third of that price, the city could’ve provided some sort of shelter for its homeless residents.
While we were talking, I couldn’t help but wonder how we could go about presenting the fears, hopes, complaints, observations, etc. of these individuals to the people that could directly elicit change. I always hate it when great conversations about serious problems… well, live and die as great conversations about serious problems. There HAS to be some sort of action or next step, in my eyes, and I’m still rolling over a good way to try to make that happen.
The next conversation I had was with a man named Ron Johnson, who is an artist. He told me that he has a number of pieces hanging up at The Hart Gallery in town. During our talk, Ron touched on a lot of things, but probably what stood out to me the most was what he said about coincidence. Mr. Johnson doesn’t believe in it. He exclaimed, “Nothing just happens! Everything happens for a reason.” He proceeded to tell me about how, in his eyes, fate brought him to the Recreate Café, and he ended up meeting me and other people who were involved in yesterday’s event. It really resonated with me, because on the other side of the coin, I felt the same way.
The past few months, in particular, have been really interesting for me. I decided to leave my job, which I’ve worked for over 8.5 years. As soon as I made that decision, I started receiving all of these affirmations and seeing signs that it was the right call all over the place. I haven’t experienced that in quite some time, and this current period has been the most open I’ve felt in ages. I’ve received more love and support in the past two months than I have over the past few years, and it’s really blown my mind. And humbled me. And maybe made me weep a little bit from time to time, but you didn’t hear that from me.
I kind of feel like I’ve been following the muse the past few months. Wherever I’ve been compelled to go, either the reactions to my work have been really affirming, or I learn something, either about myself or people in general, or both. This experience with Ron really felt like another affirmation that I needed to encounter. If nothing just happens, then I really am on the path that I’m meant to be on. Sometimes, you just need to be reminded of that. After all, the sensation of flying and falling are very similar.
August 1, 2015
“Mr. Christian’s Got BARS!!!”
I’ve mentioned on here that I’ve been teaching creative writing and poetry to a group of teenagers. As a matter of fact, I think the last time I wrote about it, I was feeling pretty defeated. However, after licking my wounds and such, I feel like I got better, and we changed a few things around that made the whole dynamic of the class better, too. I had to learn how to engage the kids differently, and I think I was able to do that, which is a great feeling.
The past two sessions, in particular, have been really interesting. A good friend of mine (she’s also the one who filmed Zowie and yours truly performing Mama Said and Here, Home at The Well a little while back) has been present to film the activities for a mini-documentary. In the first session she attended, I gave the kids the assignment to write a poem about themselves where nothing was true, and they really went to town. Lots of interesting things emerged when we got to the reading of the pieces, and I think it was because it gave the kids an excuse to be creative while letting go, as well as a chance to imagine themselves anew. I felt like a proud papa. For two sessions in a row, we’ve had more people who’ve wanted to read than we’ve had time to accommodate, and that’s grand. I’d rather having more kids interested in presenting than we have the time for than have a bunch of time and NOBODY wanting to share.
After the session, I met with a small group of my students who signed up to do poetry for a presentation for the Mayor Berke in Chattanooga. Those kids opened up tremendously, and we talked for well over an hour about their worlds, where they come from, their frustrations, etc. They discussed feeling discriminated against in the city by the police, harassed, etc. A few girls also mentioned being furious about the Sandra Bland situation, and we got really deep. I was blown away, and it showed me something that I’ve heard for years, but never really thought about (mostly because I don’t have kids): even when you don’t think they’re paying attention, kids are. They’re listening, processing, etc.
Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, we did a few interviews with the kids, too. Some of my kids were able to read their pieces for the camera, and then talk about how they came about writing them, what the arts mean to them, where they see themselves, etc. It was extremely fascinating, and I believe that those two days brought us all closer together.
On Thursday, some of the kids were working on a song (there’s a full recording studio in the building). I walked into the booth with Megan and her camera while two students were in there trying to come up with lyrics. I told them that they should just let go and really feel the music and the mood of it. We covered that in a few sessions that I taught. They were still pretty timid, so with the instrumental knocking, I decided to spit a lil’ something something for them. Sweep the leg, Johnny! They looked at me like I was from a different galaxy. One of the kids scrambled to break out his phone so he could record me. I have to say that it felt pretty dandy to have a teenager say, “Hey, Mr. Christian’s got BARS!!!” I plan on applying for my GOAT (Greatest of all Time) status by the end of next week. j/k.
As my time with this group is winding down though, the whole process of being able to share what I’ve learned with them has really made me think about pursuing this more. I’ve wanted to have a workshop like this for the past few years. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to get some air underneath it, I kind of feel like this could be a destination spot for yours truly. We shall see.
July 18, 2015
So, last weekend, I saw the new documentary on singer Amy Winehouse. There were only six people in the audience, which is Heaven for me. I hate going to movies that are packed. You’re forced to be in the presence of texters, talkers, cats who still make and take phone calls during the film, etc. There was none of that to be had on this occasion.
The documentary is really engrossing. You see so many instances in which people were aware not just of a problem, but of the severity of it, but were either unwilling, unable, or both to really do anything, which is heartbreaking.
As fate would have it, I’ve been thinking about Josh Bates, who was an amazing guitarist in Chattanooga who passed last year. After his death, so many people on Facebook stated that they’d wished he would’ve reached out to them or said something, and, while I understand where that comes from, it never really sat right with me. On average, how often do any of us on a consistent basis tell those in our lives (not just family) that we love them, are thinking of them, hope that they’re well, etcetera? I know that in my life, the only real consistent interaction I have like that is with my mother.
I always think it’s interesting when you see someone who’s become a tragic figure, or a cautionary tale, and you recognize a good bit of yourself in them. I really felt that way with “Amy” and in thinking back on Josh and his end. I think there’s a common loneliness and/or lack of significant connection that all three of us share, and that was kind of striking to realize for me. I guess the most challenging thing to figure out though is once you make that discovery, what do you do about it? What CAN you do about it?
July 9, 2015
A Good Place
Yesterday, I had another workshop with my poetry kids. They’re all teenagers, I believe (we might have a few pre-teens). There are 24 of them, which is a lot by any standard.
When we had our last session, I really felt like we left on a great note. The energy and momentum was high, and I thought that we’d hit the ground running and tear through the next lesson. However, that wasn’t exactly the case yesterday.
There were a number of things this go round that were just plain difficult. We had other teachers passing through the room, getting a few things, talking to the director, etc. it was difficult to establish a comfortable rhythm for us to get settled, so it took a little longer than I wanted for us to get our toes wet.
From there, the kids were just rambunctious. Talking, one of them had a tantrum about her phone being taken up (all of the kids’ phones are collected at the beginning of class), etc. On top of that, several other things kind of came to the light.
Our lesson yesterday dealt largely with voice, how it’s used, what it can say, etc. I played the class two samples of artists who don’t just have great voices, but do amazing things with them. The first sample was by poet Amir Sulaiman. We got maybe halfway into his poem, and a number of the kids started laughing. I asked them what was funny, and they said that he sounded funny, threatening, etc. They couldn’t pay attention to what he was saying.
After that, I played them the lead track off Brother Ali’s “Mourning in America & Dreaming in Color” album, and the kids liked it better. Someone said they enjoyed it more because it had a beat. Another one said that they couldn’t feel it BECAUSE of the particular beat (we’re in the South and this is a class of teenagers. A lot of them have grown up with nothing but Trap in the vein of Hip-Hop).
One of the things I talked about in my lesson was that there are MANY voices out there. Whenever we read novels, they have their own distinct voices. The singers and rappers we like or don’t have their own voices. It’s fine not to like something if the voice doesn’t move or engage us, but I think one of the biggest letdowns was that a good number of kids just don’t have the maturity to get where we’re trying to go or what I’m trying to teach them, and that was like being punched in the chest by a Buick.
I told the class that it’s important that they learn to read well, write well (there are several that I’ve seen so far who struggle with complete sentences), and communicate effectively, because so much hinges on just a fundamental understanding of those things. I asked the kids how many of them want to go to college. Lots of hands went up. I, then, asked them if they were aware of how much reading, writing, and public speaking is required in college. We also discussed what they wanted to be when they grew up. Of the people I called on, I received answers such as something in the field of broadcasting, a doctor, and a lawyer. I sunk in and said that if they couldn’t read well, how would they be able to comprehend medications, important legal information, or the news, and be able to articulate what they’ve read to another person. The room was probably the most quiet the entire time I was there.
When I finally got to my car, I just felt really frustrated. I wasn’t sure where to go or how to get the kids to see and value what I’ve been working on with them. However, a funny thing happened when I got home.
I’ve been watching HBO’s “Brave New Voices” On Demand to garner ideas for the class. About half the season deals with workshopping, building trust, etc. I had three episodes left in the season when I got home, so I watched two of them. In this episodes, the teams are at the BNV slam competition in Washington. Now, I saw the show when it first aired in 2009, but it was really fascinating to experience it years later in a different point in my life.
As fate would have it, Your Friendly Neighborhood Christian cried like a baby through both episodes. I had such a wild reaction seeing the kids on the show (they’re all adults now) hit the stage, dig in, and give everything they had. They did it for themselves, for their teammates, and for the love of the artform. It was trippy because they were the same age as the kids I’m working with, and I truly feel that my students are capable of that level of emotion and craft. We just happen to be so far away from that.
I also took some time to think about my own teenage years when I started writing and performing. I began writing seriously and steadily in 1998, and I can honestly say that poetry not only changed my life, but it did so for the better. It gave me an identity, a connection with my heroes and heroines, etc. I vehemently want that for my students. I guess what I had to eventually come to realize was that, while I want that for ALL of them, that’s completely unrealistic. The kids who are interested or feel something, they’ll embark on their own journey, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Today, several thoughts hit me early on about how to switch things up and engage the kids differently at the next session. I think these new tools in the bag will be tremendously helpful, and I’m anxious to jump back into the ring. Mua ha ha!!! Maybe we’ll get a little bit closer to reaching a good place.
May 29, 2015
On the 25th of this month, I celebrated fourteen years as a performing poet. Every year that that date rolls around, I think about how interesting the journey has been and continues to be. It’s been wild, man. Let me take you fine folks back to what the beginning was like.
So, back in 2001, I was already an avid poetry fan. I read everything that I could get my hands on, and I was very familiar with Jessica Care Moore, Saul Williams, Willie Perdomo, etc. At the end of May, my junior year of high school was coming to a close, and I’d caught wind of my first open-mic in Chattanooga. I was eager to check it out, and mmmmmaybe jump on the mic.
By this time, I’d had a YEARS-LONG crush on a girl I went to school with. Oddly enough, we’d been really close in middle school, but our paths changed in high school. I never had the courage to just tell her that I thought she was gorgeous and was interested in stepping out on the town with her (how old did I just sound there?). However, I concoted this really elaborate plan. I’d invite her to the open-mic, she’d come, I’d jump on the mic and do this poem that was about her, and we’d drift off into the ephemera. Boom.
As fate would have it, I did invite her. She said that she’d be there, and Your Friendly Neighborhood Xtian got SUPER nervous. I ran through my poem well over fifty times. I was going to spit it sans paper, so I wanted to make sure that I had a good grip on everything, especially knowing that the object of my affection would be there in the crowd.
Eventually, the time came, and I stepped out into the night. I remember being SO intimidated by the crowd, by the fact that this was actually happening, and that I’d ACTUALLY be jumping on the mic. The open-mic got started, and poet after poet did their thing, and there was a really interesting array of voices, styles, etc. I was geeked.
I waited for my crush to come. And waited… and waited. After 90 minutes, it became really apparent that she wasn’t going to come, and I was pretty let down. Well, let down and angry. I’m a Scorpio, so anger has informed a good bit of my life. Again, as fate would have it, that just so happened to be when my name got called to perform.
I recall stepping up to the mic, talking a little bit to the crowd, and then closing my eyes and diving in. The only thing that I remember after that was the reaction. A great writer named Walt Barger (RIP) exclaimed, “Genius!” This guy? Felt like The Cheshire Cat, dear brothers and sisters. I was beaming. I received so much praise and love, and after the open-mic, so many people stopped by to talk to me and hear my story. Needless to say that after that night, I was hooked. I felt like Eminem at the end of the “8 Mile) movie (I did, indeed, lose myself).
Since then, things have continued to be interesting and exciting. The stage, regardless of where it may be, and I’ve certainly seen my fair share, always feels like home. I continue to become more comfortable with each audience, and I feel like I’ve done part of what I’ve been placed on this planet to do. I might not have got the girl on May 25, 2001, but I discovered my voice, and that’s not a shabby trade-off by any means.
May 4, 2015
The Comedians (and, no, I’m not talking about the new FX show)
This past weekend, I had the great fortune of seeing Lewis Black perform. He’s the latest in a rash of comedy shows I’ve attended this year, and while I’m no stranger to attending them over the years, I’ve been going with a different eye.
I enjoy studying as many things as I can. One of the benefits of that is that it gives me a larger pool of resource and influence to work with. Comedy’s something that has fascinated me for a long time, but it’s only been within the past three or so years that I’ve started analyzing the way successful comedians work. Being that comedians and spoken word artists tend to work in similar fashion and venues, I thought it would be worthwhile, and it definitely has been.
Over the course of the past month, I’ve seen both Hannibal Buress and Lewis Black. They’re tremendously different comedians, but there are, understandably, some similarities in the way they operate while on stage. I think one of the biggest tools in a comedian’s arsenal is attention to detail. Both artists are very aware of the audience, their response to certain jokes, etc. The set is kind of a conversation WITH the audience when things bode well, so it was interesting being able to see the different ways that they were able to make that connection happen and SUSTAIN it, which is an art in itself.
I’m definitely looking forward to my next big comedy show. I want to continue this independent study, if you will. Plus, going to comedy shows reminds me of a turning point in my life that happened in 2011. I was doing a show in Atlanta (at Kavarna, which has THE BEST ginger ale known to man. Yeah, I said it.), and I was setting up my merch. I looked over, and two singer-songwriters (I was the only poet on the bill. Actually, I frequently am, come to think of it) were doing the same, and then it dawned on me that even though the art we display is a little bit different, there are a bunch of similarities in our processes. We set up our merch, we entertain our audiences, etc. It’s all kind of the same thing. Right now, I’m having a blast seeing those same similarities in the comedy world.
April 20, 2015
This past Saturday, I had the honor of judging poetry for this year’s ACTSO competition, which is for African-American teens. The objective for all of the categories is to award excellence and ignite something lifelong in the participants.
The other judges on the panel consisted of people that I’ve known for MANY moons, and it was a beautiful thing to be able to work as a team to give useful advice and commentary on the students. I would venture to say that that was a rarity for all of us.
We had four poets for the day, and they’re all pretty new to the world of poetry. Seeing them perform reminded me of my early years. I started performing at venues when I was 17, so I could see myself in them in a number of interesting ways, which wasn’t something that I anticipated going into the event, but I definitely enjoyed. I really hope that they all continue writing and performing.
Yesterday, I performed at the Lyre to Lyric event, and it was SUCH a good time. It truly was a beautiful day and experience. Several of us were worried early on about the thunderstorms keeping people at home. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. We had a full crowd, and they came ready to have a good time.
All of the poets and musicians did phenomenal jobs. The Dexter Bell Trio and Nikki Ellis sounded great, and each poet who touched the stage did their thing. I had a smile on my face for most of the event.
There was one moment that, personally, stood out as a highlight though. While walking to the back, I ran into my 12th grade writing teacher. She told me how proud she was of me, and that meant the world to yours truly, dear brothers and sisters. It is largely due to that woman that I went to college, and won the writing the scholarship to The University of Tampa. If you’ve enjoyed anything that I’ve done as a writer, she’s had a HUGE hand in it.
I performed my set with my singer Zowie Boyd, who is a PHENOMENAL talent. I’ve said before that everyone who performs with me honors me with their energy, their skill and professionalism, etc. I think we feed off each other, and it makes our individual strengths that much stronger. Zowie definitely touched me with her singing yesterday, and I could see it in the faces of many audience members that they felt the same way.
When we left the stage, we received so much love. It always humbles me when people say, “You’re amazing!” Things like that continue to make me feel like all of the years of effort, sacrifice, etc. are for a reason, and that I’m doing the work that I was, partially, sent here to do. This guy? Super duper thankful, dear friends. You’d be hard-pressed to find a complaint coming out of my mouth.
April 7, 2015
So, as many of you know, April is National Poetry Month. I feel pretty fortunate, because I’ve already discovered some writers I wasn’t familiar with beforehand. My favorite unearthing right now is Steven Jesse Bernstein. He was instrumental in not just Seattle’s poetry scene, but also in its music community. Unfortunately, he killed himself in the early 90’s.
Shortly after I caught wind of SJB and his legacy, I managed to find his album Prison, which, based on what I’ve read, was largely produced and everything after his death. A lot of people have bashed the production, but I think it’s pretty great, honestly.
The poems really kind of make me feel the same way that a good bit of Jim Carroll’s work does. There are some REALLY phenomenal and rich things that he does in his work.
I’ve included a few things below. Check them out! The album seems to be pretty hard to track down these days, but if you can get it into your possession, I strongly encourage you to do so. SJB is Christian-approved… for whatever that’s worth, of course.
March 23, 2015
This Guy? Humbled!
This past Friday night, I decided to head down to Rhythm & Brews, which is a local venue in Chattanooga, to see some friends compete in a competition called The Road to Nightfall. Each night of the competition, a number of bands square off against each other to garner votes, win money, and win a headlining spot in the Nightfall series that takes place each summer.
Friday was the first day that I pretty much had solid voice (Thank God!). When I made my way into R&B, I had the chance to catch up with a few people I’d not seen in ages before making my way to the bar. After getting a drink, I rejoined a friend in front of the stage. While we were talking, the band that was on wrapped up their set, and Jonathan Susman, who not only hosts each night of the contest, but is at the helm of Gig City Productions announced that I would be taking the stage to perform a little somethin’. Now, I’d JUST got my voice back, my breathing is still off from this respiratory infection that came along with my laryngitis, and I’d not rehearsed anything in a few weeks. Not the best cocktail to be operating with, but anytime someone puts you on the spot in a room full of people, you’re kind of obligated to do SOMETHING. It’s a rule somewhere. Trust me. I know these things.
I stepped onto the stage, drink in hand, and got squared away. I decided to do This Poem, and the response was great. Very affirming. I realized as I was making my way through the piece that most of the people in the room had no idea who I was and had never heard me before, so it made the reaction even greater.
When I finished the piece, I reclaimed my drink, and descended the stage. Several people came up to me to tell me how much they appreciated what I did, which was fantastic, but what struck me the most was when a woman approached me with tears in her eyes. She told me that she didn’t know why my piece resonated so much, but it definitely did. This guy? Humbled. IMMENSELY. I’ve been fortunate to have experienced that kind of reaction to what I do several times going back to 2001, and it never stops being a humbling thing. I feel really happy and privileged to live the life I do, and it’s truly in moments like the one at R&B that continue to drive that point home for me.
March 17, 2015
The Interview (not that one)
Last week was an interesting one. Actually, it was an interesting one for a number of reasons. I got diagnosed with acute laryngitis, so I was dealing with genuine pain in my throat, and I kept losing more and more of my voice. My doctor instructed me not to speak, so scaling back was a pretty fascinating exercise.
Before I made my trek to the doctor though, I interviewed a good friend of mine for my project. In case you’re new to it, I’m currently doing a project which uses poetry to explore relevant social issues. The focus for the time being is on race and sex and gender. The bulk of the material comes from regular people and their experiences. I interview and converse with people who tell me their opinions, stories, etc., and my challenge is that I have to take what they’ve said and, in some way, turn it into art.
My friend and I have known each other for close to six years now, and he’s been on my radar for an interview since I started this work. Usually, most people either talk to me about race or sex. He’s unique in that he comes from an overtly racist family and has come out in recent years as bisexual. He’s the first person that I’ve encountered who could speak to both topics, and that really interested me.
When we sat down and got into the interview (I had about 20% voice), we ran through the first couple of questions pretty easily. However, around the fourth or fifth question, there was a distinct shift. I’m not even sure if he was aware of it, but there was kind of a physical response that, I could only assume, was his body saying, “Oh, wow” at what I’d asked. From that moment until we finished, the tone of the interview delved deeper, and we hit some unexpected, yet beautiful moments. I ended up with quite a few things that I can work on poetically.
Later that night, my friend posted about the experience on Facebook, and it made me feel great about what we’d done as well as this whole project. Aside from that, reading what he wrote reminded me of something that NPR’s Michele Norris said in an interview. Basically, she stated that anytime you listen to someone tell their story, you honor them. I firmly believe that it has the potential to be transformative, not just for me, but for the participants as well. I can’t wait to see how things develop from here.
March 1, 2015
So, a funny thing happened last week. I spent a good bit of last week recording new poems and doing a few interesting sonic things with them.
Late one night, I had a conversation with a friend of mine that I’d not spoken to since 2008, and while we were catching up, I was doing the post-production business on one recording in particular. The poem is from my series on race.
This person is still kind of new to my work, and when I worked the piece up to a satisfactory place, I decided to send it her way, hot of the presses. She listened to it, and wrote back, “Oh, Mr. Collier. I loved it. You tapped into a very real place in loving a child. The fear of them facing the ugly parts of the world, the corruption of innocence. It's fucking breathtaking sometimes, and you have put it quite perfectly. I love it.”
When I read her words, I was really touched. I’ve been a writer, performer, etc. for a long time. This May will mark fourteen years of taking my work out and about in the world, actually. I love that I still get to show what I do to people, both strangers and those who’ve known me for long periods of time, but are just discovering my work. I love having the ability to (when it works) move them, and I enjoy how that process changes our relationship and brings us closer, even if it’s just for a few moments.
February 23, 2015
I’ve been reading Dick Gregory’s autobiography “Nigger” for my Fellowship project, and I recently completed the book. I’ve wanted to read it for a while, but, as fate would have it, my work afforded me the opportunity to read it as part of my research. I wanted to examine the political and racial elements of the time from his perspective and compare them with those of today.
I found the book to be beautiful, touching, inspiring, and VERY relevant. It was kind of amazing to see just how much of what he faced, protested against, and actively worked to combat is still in effect. Honestly, it’s also kind of sad, because those things don’t really show any signs of disappearing anytime soon. There’s more work left to be done.
When I finished the book, I also thought of a conversation I had not too long ago with a good and dear friend of mine about the issue of Black leadership. When it came to Civil Rights, most people can name four or more names of prominent voices off the tops of their heads. When it comes to the leaders of today, that’s probably not the case, and I think it says more about the attention we, collectively, pay to, or are willing to acknowledge those who advocate, speak up and out, and fight the good fight.
During the dialogue I had with my friend, I said that I don’t think that we’re necessarily comfortable with the backgrounds our new voices come from, how they carry themselves, etc. Fifty years ago, our leaders largely were seen in suits and ties, beautiful dresses and gowns, etc. Today, some of the most vocal and committed individuals look like Hip-Hop fans, and I think that stirs up some unease for a lot of us. I don’t think it should detract from the messages these people are promoting, but I feel that it does, and that’s unfortunate.
Also, historically, our leaders emerged from our communities and churches. While this is still true, I feel like there’s a disconnect in acknowledging that these people are doing great things to better the conditions for people in general, not just specifically Black people. John Legend has advocated for a number of causes, both financially and vocally. He’s spoken out about injustice time and time again, and even made a number of relevant points about the ills Black men, in particular, face in this country today last night at The Oscars. However, you don’t often hear people list John as a leader in the Black community.
Rhymefest, who co-wrote “Glory” from the “Selma” film, is a rapper who’s written a bunch of material for several emcees, including one Kanye West. Outside of that, he’s run for office in his native Chicago, and has been instrumental in programs to help inner-city youth. His focus is and has been on bettering his community, but Fest (or Che Smith, as he’s known outside of Hip-Hop) is largely unknown, in spite of now winning TWO Grammy’s. His first came from another song he co-wrote. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called “Jesus Walks.”
Oprah mentioned a month or two ago that she didn’t see any Black leadership in Ferguson. Quickly, someone responded that it’s hard to see leadership when you’re not looking, and there’s some strong validity to that. DeRay Mckesson has been firmly entrenched in protesting and advocating for justice not just in Ferguson, but in New York, California, etc. His is one of the strongest emerging voices, and he’s used social media to document exactly what’s taking place in the protests. How the protestors are being treated by the authorities. He’s captured the moments of unity. It’s all there. However, how many people know or have heard of him or any of the others (there are a good number) who are doing the same strong and needed work day in and day out?
I’m sure that as I get a little further out from Dick’s autobiography, or when I make my way through some of the other books I have on my research list to read (two more actually arrived yesterday), more things will jump out at me, and they should. I kind of feel like a geek. I’ve been SO tremendously energized and enthused by this project and all of the work I’ve been fortunate to do for it. The research and interviews/conversations have been eye-opening and affirming, and the poems have been shaping up nicely. Plus, there’s no sign of this momentum slowing down, and that, dear brothers and sisters, is a wonderful feeling.
January 30, 2015
Light Girls and More
I watched the documentary “Light Girls” recently, and I found it really fascinating. I watched “Dark Girls” when it premiered, so seeing this really added another perspective. As you know by now (if you’ve been following my posts), I’m doing a poetry project that’s exploring race as well as sex and gender. The documentary gave me a lot to think about in terms of the project, but also in terms of analyzing the lives, choices, and views of some of my friends and even myself.
I had a great conversation with a dear friend of mine about the documentary and colorization earlier this week. I told him that several people in the film talked about how lighter women have, traditionally, been seen as the pinnacle when it comes to Black women. I, myself, have never really subscribed to this belief. Personally, I’ve been attracted to all women of the spectrum, ethnically, hue-wise, size-wise, etc. and have never thought, “Boy, if I only had a light girl, I’ll be on top of the world!”
During our talk, I told my friend that I’ve never known a guy (of any race) who exclusively courted one type of woman. Some of them might have an ideal of the type of woman they’d like to spend their life with or raise kids with, but they’ve not discriminated against anyone in terms of dating. Everyone that I can think of has been non-discriminatory in terms of the partners they’ve been with. My friend kind of echoed this point, and then we talked about a theorized generational shift in terms of Blacks and dating. Rather than spell out everything we discussed (where would the fun be in that?), I’d rather pose a few questions for you. Feel free to chime in and let me know what you think. Do you think it’s more acceptable now for Black men to date all kinds of women? Also, do you think Black women are still kind of conditioned to seek out Black men?
January 20, 2015
So, I’ve mentioned that I’m doing a project as a part of my Loft Fellowship (I still can’t believe that it’s real!). Now that my contract has been signed and everything’s official, I can elaborate on what in the world I’ll be up to for a good bit of this year.
I’m undertaking a project that uses poetry to explore relevant social issues. Right now, I’m delving into race and sex and gender. I’ll be conducting interviews, researching, etc. in order to bring these poems to fruition. They’re going to be informed by… well, us. Our society and our perspectives.
One of the things that’s personally interesting and challenging is that this work requires me not to judge. I’m willing going to wade into some people’s ugly, and I have to be okay with that. For the record, I am.
When I came up with the idea to do this months ago, I initially hoped that it would change me and, hopefully, everyone who encountered the work. I realized shortly thereafter when I started mapping out how to go about everything that there’s absolutely no way that something like this can’t change me. I’m sure it’s going to bend me, beat me up some, stretch me out, and open me up. As an artist, how can you not be excited by that?
If you would like to weigh in on my project, please contact me. We can talk shop, and maybe we can even arrange an interview. Dun, dun, dunnnn. What do you say?
January 15, 2015
So, I went to see “Selma” this past Saturday. I was familiar with the story, but, honestly, I didn’t know how well it would translate to the screen. You never know when it comes to film. Plus, there’s been a good amount of hype around it, which, oftentimes, can raise expectations to an unfair level.
I must say that I thought the movie was good. Not great, in my humble opinion, (I think the movie felt a bit rush, which is understandable considering everything that went into the particular event), but definitely solid. Some of the things in the film (the cinematography, etc.) are just plain amazing. I was glad that I went to see it.
Since I’ve seen the film, I’ve been processing it, and the life of MLK again. If you read my old blog (ichristian3030.blogspot.com), there’ve been several times over the past five or six years where I’ve talked about him and his work. I think that anyone who commits his or her life to trying to do righteous work is commendable. That, in my eyes, is supernatural. It defies our human instincts to not respond with violence when someone can assault you. To take it a step beyond, it’s supernatural to, then, forgive those people and their actions.
I wrote a poem called Weight in 2009 about Martin. That was when I REALLY started researching deeper into his life, work, speeches, etc. It’s always a different experience when you’re older and explore things you’ve heard about over and over as a youth. You come to the table with a more seasoned perspective and have your own experiences which relate closer to the subject. In 2009, Martin floored me. I felt so lacking after refreshing myself with what he and many others endured.
Last year (last January, as a matter of fact), I wanted to do something with the poem. I hadn’t done anything using my voice with music since I finished the Between Beauty & Bedlam EP, and I thought doing a little something with Weight would be great. I spent a few days making a track, and then I decided to add some images and make a small video for it. It’s been on YouTube ever since.
Coming off taking in and digesting the “Selma” film, I thought it would be a good time to throw the video back out there. Interestingly enough, it just dawned on me that today is Martin’s actual birthday. How fitting. Without any further ado, enjoy Weight, and as always, if it resonates with you, please share it.
December 25, 2014
In my last blog entry, I talked about how, really, for the past month or so, I’ve been struggling to articulate my thoughts, feelings, etc. The most recent obstacle has been the passing of my cousin, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the reality that he’s gone.
My family put him in the ground this past weekend, and that was, understandably, an extremely difficult process. I think the fact that we were able to face the loss and celebrate his life as a family really helped all of us though. Since then, I’ve been trying to settle back into my life and routine. Honestly, it feels a bit weird, but it’s necessary.
I recorded vocals on some new things Tuesday night, and it was personally interesting because this was the first new work with my voice on it since I recorded my EP (check it out in the Between Beauty & Bedlam section). As fate would have it, I laid vocals with the same person who engineered that project, too, so it felt like the machine was back up and running. If you’ve had the chance to listen to the EP, you know that it mines some pretty heavy emotional territory from time to time (thus, the title). The material I worked on this go round didn’t fall in that same vein, but for me, it provided me the chance to continue my process of getting through this hard time while channeling my energies into a creative outlet.
Be on the lookout for the new stuff, be safe out, and Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in touch before too long.
December 12, 2014
Struggling to Find the Words
I’ve been struggling to find the proper words to say to articulate what I’ve been feeling. I struggled after the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. I struggled after the non-indictment decision with Eric Garner. Now, on a different tier, I’m struggling again.
I learned this morning that one of my cousins was killed. I still don’t have all the details, but my day has been filled with shock, hurt, anger, etc. It’s been an emotional cocktail… and I’m struggling.
I haven’t had the opportunity to properly express myself due to being in the company of other people who, for the most part, are largely oblivious to what’s been going on with me. My hands have been shaking all day, so I thought I would do what I have done many times over the years and try to just write some of it out.
So much about my cousin’s passing is strange. He died a young man, and there were so many things that he never had the opportunity to experience. I keep picturing all the years I saw him and his siblings growing up and developing, and it’s extremely hard to think that the image I will forever have embedded in my mind of him as a little boy is gone. How do you wrap your head around that?
A good friend of mine passed last year, and I made a decision then to celebrate as much as I could as often as I could. It’s clichéd to say at this point, but another day isn’t promised for any of us. This morning was yet another reminder of that. I’m sure that when I get over all of the raw emotion that I’m feeling right now, I will celebrate my cousin’s life. I feel that it is extremely important to live and stand for your loved ones who can’t. I will get there. I might be carrying some heartbreak and hurt with me, but I will get there.
November 24, 2014
So, last week, I was notified that I am one of the winners of The Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellowship. When I read the e-mail, well, let me back up, actually. First of all, I came DANGEROUSLY close to deleting the message because I thought it might’ve been spam (really glad I didn’t do that). Now, when I read the e-mail, I literally finished it, sat for a second, and uttered out loud, “Wait a minute.”
I proceeded to read the message again, and then, dear friends and readers, Your Friendly Neighborhood Christian found himself in shock. My mouth fell agape like Taylor Swift, and I couldn’t process that this was actually happening. I was, and still am, so immensely humbled and excited.
It’s a tremendous honor, and I’ve had a number of conversations with some close friends about it, what I’m going to be doing for the Fellowship, etc. I’ve said several times that one of the reasons I’m so moved over this is because I’ve been active long enough to know and see people who are incredibly driven, talented, etc. and, for some reason, they’ve not had the opportunities they’ve sought work out in their favor. The fact that I have, especially this year alone, had repeated blessings on the opportunity front blows me away, and that’s God’s honest, friends.
I’m eagerly awaiting this experience. I know it’s going to be amazing and change my life. Stay tuned! There will absolutely be more to come.
November 13, 2014
A Busy Road to Night Watch, or Some “Color Purple Sh*t”
Night Watch was one of the four pieces I recorded with Butch Ross on the first night of laying vocals. The entire process of developing the material for the record came about in a really organic fashion. I relied really heavily on my ear and instinct, and I think that’s the benefit of not only being an intuitive musician, but also having had the experience of producing other projects for others and myself over the years.
While we were in the process of laying vocals for Night Watch, I knew that I wanted to have a singer on the track to play up the emotional element. It’s a heavy piece. It deals with a survivor of a sexual assault and the sensitive dance of trying to be there for her without impeding her recovery. After Butch and I broke for the night, I went home, and then the PERFECT singer came to mind, but I wasn’t sure a) if she’d be available, or b) if she’d even want to be on something that touched on such a hard topic.
I met Rachel Kelly earlier in 2012 at an open-mic that I used to host. She has a beautiful voice and sings with a Christian group called As Isaac (you should check them out. They’re amazing). I went back and forth on whether or not to reach out to her, and then finally, I decided just to hit her up. I mean, the worst thing that she could say would be that she wasn’t interested or didn’t want to do it, right? So, I sent her a message, and she hit me back pretty fast to inquire about the poem and what the material we’d laid down sounded like. I sent her the text of the piece and a rough demo, and then… I waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Eventually, Rachel reached back out to me. She wanted to take her time and really feel the material, and when she’d internalized it, she said that she would love to jump onboard. Rachel said that she was really drawn to the hope in the poem and wanted to be a part of it. This guy? Absolutely floored and excited. I KNEW that she was going to kill it, and I couldn’t wait to get her behind the microphone.
However, that became the most challenging part. It took a small eternity for us all to get on the same page with scheduling. Either Butch was on tour, Rachel’s commitments presented problems, or I was gigging, working with a client on production, etc. After a few weeks, I started thinking that we may never have the opportunity to knock this thing out.
Finally, one fateful day in the afternoon, both Butch and Rachel were available. I made the decision to cancel everything (literally) to go lay this elusive thing DOWN! Before long, we linked up, got situated, and started talking about what we wanted to do.
Rachel said that she had an idea that she’d like to try, and I completely trusted whatever she wanted to do, so I sat back and waited on Butch to give her the green light. When he did, it only took about thirty seconds before I turned my face away from her, because I, literally, looked like The Cheshire Cat. Pretty much what you hear on the EP came from that take, and it’s SO SOULFUL. Hearing her actually sing was just affirmation that I was right in choosing her. She WAS the perfect choice.
After the first take, Butch turned around from the computer and said, “That’s some ‘Color Purple’ shit right there!” Money, baby! I knew we had something special. I could hear and FEEL that we had something special.
Before we broke, Rachel laid down one more vocal take, and once that was finished, Butch and I looked at each other and pretty much decided that that was it. She absolutely gutted it, and there really was no need to have her do anything else.
After recording, Rachel and I sat outside for a good while and talked. We didn’t even talk about music or anything necessarily pertaining to the arts. We discussed spirituality and purpose, and, I’m not even sure if I told her this or if she’s aware, but I developed such a more profound respect for her, because she truly walks what she talks. Her commitment is thorough, and that’s refreshing to see and experience.
When we walked back to our cars, someone had left notes on both our vehicles (they literally ripped a sheet of paper in half to pen two notes that said the exact same thing) that said if we’d parked there again, they’d have us towed. At least they took the time to give a warning. In any case, that little bit of bother couldn’t stifle the work we’d done or the great conversation that had taken place prior to encountering it.
Months later, Night Watch was the first glimpse of the record that I released. I really didn’t know what to expect or how it would be received. Within two days, it had over 100 listens on Soundcloud, and I was floored. Shortly thereafter, a sexual assault survivor’s group adopted it for a while, and one of the trippiest things that I’ve experienced (and that’s definitely saying something) was having several women who’ve been raped thank me for making that piece. I don’t think I’ve fully processed that to this day. On one hand, I think every artist on some level wants to know that something they’ve made has truly resonated. However, I know that to appreciate Night Watch in the manner that those women did, they had to endure something terribly tragic. I was, and still am, immensely humbled.
Whenever I get to perform live with my group, Night Watch is always special. Zowie Boyd has taken over the vocal duties for Rachel in that capacity, and she does an amazing job. Jessica Nunn plays viola, and everything just feels and sounds bigger. On my end, I can almost always look out into the crowd and see someone on the journey through the piece. I can see the emotion in their eyes and on their faces, and that ALWAYS means something to me.
November 12, 2014
Secret Beginnings, or Starting to Make the Baby
As of Monday, my Between Beauty & Bedlam EP turned one. It’s been out for a full year, and it’s wild. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s proof that the year that’s followed has truly been, in many cases, a blur.
I wanted to offer up some stories about the making of the record to commemorate the anniversary. So, settle down by the fire (don’t let your computer burn), and let’s jump in. What do you say?
I started working on the project in secret. I held off from telling anybody about it, because if I decided that I wasn’t feeling it and wanted to bail out, I didn’t want to gas anybody’s expectations up. I made the mistake of, initially, providing myself an out.
I’ve done a lot of things musically over the past nine or so years (remixes, mixtapes, instrumental projects, etc.), but I’d never put anything out using my own voice and under my given name, so the fortunate thing of processing bringing a record to fruition is that it allowed me the space to feasibly come up with how I wanted everything to sound. Up until then, I couldn’t wrap my head around what a CJC album or otherwise would sound like.
Everything officially started on New Year’s Eve of 2012. Earlier that summer, I’d started producing tracks for a compilation record I was interested in making, but when the pieces didn’t come together for that, I found myself sitting on the music and wondering what to do with it. On NYE, I’d had a few drinks, listened to Danny Brown for the first time (I know, I was way late), and then the voice that guides my life asked, “What if we did something over some of the music?” I spent the next hour or so listening through the over thirty tracks, and that’s pretty much when the challenge emerged. I charged myself with the duty to bang something out to five tracks and see what I thought.
From there, it was on, dear brothers and sisters. Within the next week, I believe I had two or three working demos… and I liked the way they sounded! I could feel the momentum pushing me on, and that’s a beautiful feeling, as, I’m sure anyone else who has been in the swell of creativity can attest.
There were many affirmations that presented themselves along the way before I laid things down officially. I played demos for a few people in my inner circle, and everyone loved the material. I remember one day in particular, I was hanging out with my friend Brandi at her house, and I told her about beginning work on the record. She asked to hear something, so we escaped to my car. I threw the CD of instrumentals in and proceeded to perform what would later be called Declaration for her. When it was finished, she looked at me, raised her arm up, and showed me the goosebumps she’d developed during the piece. There were several instances where I felt like, “I think I’ve got something here.” That was one such moment, and it still makes me smile, now, almost two full years later.
November 10, 2014
A Journey to Sarah, or Christian J. Collier vs. The Twilight Zone
Greetings Boys & Girls,
So, this past weekend, I had the opportunity to see Sarah Kay (who I’m absolutely, 100% CERTAIN that you all know) perform in GA. I loaded up the mobile office and began my trek with plenty of time. When I jumped on the road, a funny thing happened: Your Friendly Neighborhood Christian somehow managed to find his way into… The Twilight Zone (dun, dun, dunnn).
I encountered some traffic on my way out of Chattanooga, so that ate up about twelve minutes. Totally fine. Once I made my way through that, everything was cool for well over an hour. The music (“Us” by Brother Ali) was rocking, no one was doing anything dangerous on the road, etc. Things were great.
At some point though, my GPS directed me to jump off the interstate, which I did because I was heading to a part of GA that I’d never been to before. I was completely at the mercy of this little (often temperamental) machine, and that’s when things quickly descended into the bowels of frustration and madness.
The duration of the trip was spent traversing back roads. Stop signs, stop lights, Friday night football traffic, two car wrecks, yadda yadda. The works, basically. I watched the ETA on the GPS get later and later. 8:07 became 8:12. 8:12 became 8:20.
As fate would have it, I hit some town, and as soon as I arrived at the first stop light, my check tire pressure indicator came on in the car. As frustrating as it was, I forced myself to see the good side of it. I had to go to the bathroom, and the car could use gas, so I pulled into the first station I saw. Gassed up, and then made my way inside to use the restroom. I asked the clerk where it was located, and without even looking up at my face, he said, “No restroom.” My Black self? Turned right back around and jumped back in the whip to find the next gas station.
When I arrived, I managed to use the bathroom (success!), and then I asked the clerk if he could give me change for the air machine. He said, “I wish you would’ve asked me a minute ago. I can’t open the register unless you make a purchase.” I proceeded to buy a bottle of water, and he gave me a series of 1$ bills back. I asked if he could exchange one of the bills for four quarters, and then… he, without thinking, shut the register. We then played the waiting game until a woman came in to ask about the different kinds of lottery ticket options that were available.
Finally, I got my quarters and I hauled gluteus to air up. Once that was done, I was HEATED! I was angry, but I was back on the road. I was now scheduled to arrive at 8:40 (the show started at 8). I was so furious that I couldn’t even listen to Brother Ali. drove both fast AND furiously, and then the GPS decided to start losing my location. That happened about four times, but I was so incredibly determined to arrive that I couldn’t get stifled. Each time the GPS lost me, I drove faster to try to counteract whatever it was going to tell me to do that, otherwise, would’ve added minutes on to the trek.
By the grace of God, I made it to the place right before 8:40. It was a gigantic farm, by the looks of it. Of course, it was pitch black, so all I really saw was darkness, gravel road, and a few fences here and there. I raced into the first building I saw to get directions on where I needed to be, and once the information was obtained, I raced back to the car through the darkness to get closer to the pavilion. At that point, a few things hit me: I was Black, I was in what could easily be considered the middle of nowhere, and I had seen WAY too many horror movies that have typically shown me what happens when these components are occupying the same space at the same time. Was I dismayed? Of course not! I’d endured too much, and my commitment was unshakeable.
I pulled my car further up the gravel road, and parked in some grass. When I got out, I could see Sarah performing. I’d finally, finally, FINALLY made it. I descended the hill (still in complete darkness, thank you very much), found a seat, and watched her work.
I know I missed a bunch of her set, and that’s one of my biggest pet peeves in life. I hate being late for things, but I’m also old and experienced enough to know that sometimes, things that are far beyond your control can happen. It’s all a part of this crazy journey.
Sarah was very warm. I didn’t really know what to expect from seeing a long set of her, but she talked a lot about her life, the stories behind the poems, etc. I remember looking around at several points at all of the people who were sitting attentively in outdoor weather (it was below 40 degrees out there) just to see her perform, and again, it dawned on me how powerful poetry (or art in general) can be. If you’re fortunate, something you either create or something you encounter can change so much. It can bring people from other states and a bunch of hours away to spend some time taking your work in. That’s love.
After Sarah was finished, I ended up having a conversation with a guy about Hip-Hop, poetry, etc. I told him that I’ve been in the poetry community for over fourteen years, and this was the first time I’d had the chance to see Sarah. I said that it could’ve been fate, because I’m usually on a stage or gearing up to get on one, but I’ve largely finished my performing commitments for the year. However, I look at the creative life like eating. Artists spend a lot of time cooking, so to speak. We’re comfy in the kitchen, and when the meal’s not turning out right, it can be stressful. However, sometimes, you realize that that you need to take a look at another cookbook to refresh your capacity to bring some new dishes to fruition. This is my period for doing that.
As soon as I jumped back on the road to leave, the adventure picked right back up. You may or may not know this about me, but I’m not a big sleeper. I don’t really rest all that much for a number of reasons. It is what it is. However, on this particular night, I realized that I had been awake too long, apparently, because I started seeing things in the road that weren’t there. Lovely. This was bad, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if it happened closer to Chattanooga. Nnnnope! This started before I even got back to Atlanta, which meant that I was battling this intermittent hallucination thing for a little over two hours. FUN!
When it got really bad, I pulled off the road to balance things out some. I stopped at a McDonalds and saw a woman that EVERYONE who worked with her hated (and for good reason. She had a terrible attitude and rapport). Also, about ninety minutes later, I stopped at my favorite IHOP (exit 333, baby!) to have a proper artery-clogging dinner and chug coffee. From there, things got a lot better. Thankfully, I made it back in in one piece, grateful for my resourcefulness and one absolute hell of a night.