Vievee Francis should get some special commendation for putting together the Snowbound Reading Series. Half over now after last night’s reading, the performances have been fantastic. Last month’s readings (Blair, Kahn Davison, Versiz, and Matthew Olzmann) were excellent, and those of Will Copeland, Christina M. Archer and Tyehimba Jess last night were right up to that level, if not even slightly higher.
Free Press columnist (and per Vievee’s introduction, much more) Desiree Cooper was the hostess of the evening and she stressed the importance of Write Word, Write Now, the organization that the bulk of the readers in the Snowbound series are members of – a writing group of many extremely talented writers and performers. She also reminded the audience (which looked to hover just below 50 strong last night) to go out and spread the word about what was witnessed last night, and let your friends and acquaintances know that January 17 will be the next set of readers.
Will Copeland was up first. Copeland received his Bachelor’s Degrees in both Biology and Philosophy from Stanford University and then followed up with a Master’s in Philosophy from the University of Michigan.
He read the following (with apologies to any butchered titles):
Copeland House – a strong poem about growing up and his father; very short lines
By a Book – written for and about Write Word, Write Now – some familiarity with members of the group certainly helped me get some of the humor
If We Look Deeply, Dad
Such a Different Place (after Italo Calvino) – It was during this poem I realized how frequently the sense of cold was appearing in Will’s work
The Names of Dogs – I may have misfired on my listening, but this to me was a unique and interesting comment upon “civilization”
Guzzle for the Damn Doctors
Hip Hop Show (for Kazam Ali) – A really powerful piece of work
A Journey for Two
I Think My Nomadic Eye is Genetic – a funny piece that comments upon men and monogamy
Title Missed by Dan – a piece written in response to the passing of the Michigan Affirmative Action Act
Copeland seemed to have an odd mix of nervousness and confidence when he began, and I suppose I viewed it as a mix because I could not determine which it really was. He had the good habit of looking up from his pages and looking at the audience, and the bulk of his work had at least a bit of humor within. He had a good, loud voice and quite a varied list of subject matter for his work.
Next up was Write Word, Write Now founder, Christina M. Archer. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Biology and was introduced as a proud new homeowner. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and also runs www.detroitpoetry.com. She was an assistant coach to the Detroit Poetry Slam team in 2003 and the head coach in both 2004 and 2005. She also works for two after school poetry programs, mentoring youth – InsideOut Literary Arts Project’s City Wide Poets, and Leaps and Bounds in the city of Warren.
Christina read (and I know I got these titles correct as I was privileged to get a peek at the poems after the reading):
“Spottieottiedopaliscious” Term to Describe a Ghetto Angel (after Sandra Cisneros)
Motherfuckah – a work defining the noun version of the word; damn funny and intoned perfectly
For My Father – first off, begun with an ad lib “I Love the Muthafuckah” that was spon on perfect. A very heart wrenching poem
Birthright (after Raymond Patterson)
The next three a part of a suite about Josephine Baker
At 23rd and Market Street, St. Louis, MO (1914)
Le Bel Negre
Da Shuffle Long, 1922 (after a painting by Paul Collins)
Archer read with varying styles and voices from poem to poem, and even occasionally within a poem. Her poems frequently used lists of items or descriptions within a line or two to great effect. Her poems also had a sexual edge to them – one that I’d have to read her work more carefully to determine if it was the poetry, or the poet, bringing this to the listener (or, of course, both).
The last reader of the evening was a special guest to the reading series, as he’s not a member of Write Word, Write Now. Tyehimba Jess, author of the collection, Leadbelly, and recent winner of a $40,000 Whiting Award. Originally a Detroiter, now an Assistant Professor at University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, Jess is a former Poetry Slam champion.
Tyehimba read (and I’ve double-checked these versus the titles within my own copy of Leadbelly, which is now signed quite nicely):
Jess wanted to make sure everybody knew who Leadbelly was, noting he’d been born in 1899, in Shreveport, LA, and died in NYC in 1949, knowing over 500 folk songs
mistress stella speaks
1912: blind lemon jefferson explaining to leadbelly
At this point Jess noted that Leadbelly had been in prison twice – the first time he shot somebody over a woman. This was in Texas, and the Governor, Pat Neff, used to like to have big parties at the prison and because Leadbelly played really well for him, he received an early pardon.
sing out (with epigraph by Pat Neff)
Jess noted here that Leadbelly tried to join up with a Salvation Army Band singing which led to an argument as they weren’t interested in his help. Per Jess – “Somebody was stabbed a lot. He was touchy about his music.” This led to prison sentence number two.
leadbelly in angola prison: down again
leadbelly sings to his#1 crew (This one was absolutely incredible, which makes you wonder what I thought about the others – also fantastic, this was my favorite though)
five year sentence (with epigraph from a leadbelly contract)
martha promise received leadbelly, 1935 – As Jess noted, she was 19 years younger than him and he was a two time ex-con with no immediate job prospects. Who knows what was going through her mind.
I was fortunate enough to have this book recommended to me about a month ago and found it on my way home that day. Since then I’ve read it two or three times in completion and have been blown away by how good it is. Yes, I’m struck by what a great idea my cousin, TCG, had last night, when she suggested that Verse Press should release a dvd of Tyehimba Jess reading this book from cover to cover.
As the book is told from multiple individuals, Jess has developed separate voices and reading styles for each – at least he has for those he read from last night and I assume he does for the others as well. Not just something as quick and simple as a falsetto for the females either, but true full styles of speaking for each character/narrator. He also doesn’t just read the poems but does so with a physicality as well, ducking and gyrating and twisting and making facial expressions from line to line, poem to poem.
There were a couple of interesting questions afterwards to the poets – the most interesting to me was Jess being asked after living with Leadbelly and researching and writing about him for half of a decade – how does he exorcise him? His reply was to more or less admit he had not been able to yet.
This was an evening and an event that should have had many more than 50 people in attendance. Look for Leadbelly and if you’re in the Detroit area, keep your eyes open for readings by Archer and Copeland (not to mention making down the next two Snowbound readings!).