Sunday, March 18, 2012

20th Anniversary Weekend for June Jordan's Poetry for the People

Sometimes one needs a poetry break and this weekend, rainy Friday evening and subzero Saturday morning, were the perfect atmosphere for firewood where one could both roast her wet or frostbit toes, drink tea and listen to poetry.

Friday night the all-star line up featured published Poetry for the People alumni and Student Poet Teachers, past and present . . . those of us not fazed by unbelievably fierce winds and rains, forgot the brief ride in canoes or ferries, dropped anchors and limited life jackets we too readily discarded in the cozy (yet wheelchair inaccessible) Dwinelle Hall classroom, as we laughed on cue, traveled to Italy to talk with the Pope as we walked the precipice linking historic exploitation to present evils.

From Xochiquetzal Candelaria, Ariel Luckey, Terry Taplin, Sandra Garcia-Rivera, Milani Pelley, Shia Shabazz, Lateef Mcleod, Javier Zamora, Dyanna Loeb, Ananda Esteva, Alicia Zakon, and host, Aya de Leon, poets sang, rapped, and fed us lines as we danced lyrically into the night, eagerly awaiting the day long event in the MLK Jr. Student Union Building's Multicultural Center bright and early the next morning. With too many workshops to choose from: publishing, performance 411, to workshop critique, mult-racial writing, generating income in the poetry scene, how to slam . . . we made tough choices to attend this workshop over that, knowing that there were no wrong turns possible along this course.

Saturday morning began with a June Jordan fest. . . the film, A Place of Rage, directed by Pratibha Parmar, (England 1991) 52 min. puts Jordan in context. The fact that her sisters Alice Walker and Angela Davis are present as well, show Jordan as part of a movement she participates in from the precipice from where she sat, academia.

And so, Poetry for the People is born.

For many of the younger P4P alumni, Jordan is a saint, real yet, epic in proportion--her institution P4P one that has changed the way poetry is perceived and taught nationally. However, prior to P4P, are siblings of similar movements which no longer exist such as California Poets in the Schools or CPITS and Writers Corp which does. The newest child in the lineage is Youth Speaks, The Living Word Project . . . which are are going strong and together this movement, a literacy movement, a "Say It Loud . . ." movement of for the most part youthful voices has opened the conversation in ways America was and continues to be unprepared for.

Organizations such as the Writers Union and Before Columbus Foundation, more text based and perhaps not as sexy institutions have also, been pushing along side June Jordan's Poetry for the People to expand the discourse.

I remember attending readings and events hosted by P4P and UCB's African American Studies Department and/or the English Department where I was able to meet luminaries, politicians or administrators in the UC system, who were also there, as well as witness first hand, pillars in the Pan African canon whom I'd only met in their books.

The proposal expressed during the Saturday morning discussion post Place of Rage screening, to extend June Jordan's Poetry for the People archives to a broader audience is a way to invite another generation into a dialogue which at times this weekend felt closed, just because I am not a P4P alumni or a Student Teacher Poet or a close friend of June Jordan. . . but I was there operating in a parallel movement equally supportive of the goals and mission of her work in vehicles like La Pena Cultural Center's Cafe Poetry Series which is still going strong, long after Victor's Cafe and Jahva House are no longer open, but the Air Lounge is, as well as the Starry Plough, and Holler Back at EastSide Arts in the East Bay. We were also supportive in ensembles like Black Poets with Attitudes: Avotcja, Abimbola Adama, the late Joy Holland, Beverly Jarrett and Wanda Sabir. We were one of the first Bay Area, all women, poetry and music ensembles, too bad we didn't make a recording (smile). We performed at the International Dancing with Words program, La Pena often, Bayview Opera House and elsewhere.

When not on stage we taught poetry workshops to kids at Longfellow Elementary School in Berkeley, at half-way houses in Bayview, in the Oakland Public Library system at family literacy programs called Word Tours, the Annual African American Celebration through Poetry (1990-now), Poetic Protests, work in the juvenile prison system, and elsewhere. Avotcja perhaps holds the title for the longest consecutive host of a poetry series in the San Francisco Bay Area in the midst of her own Modupue or Gratitude ensemble, multiple radio shows and guest hosting at among others The Bay Area Blues Society Awards event, this year, Sunday, March 25, 6-10 p.m. at the Hilton Oakland Airport, 1 Hegenberger Road, Oakland, (510) 836-2227 or (707) 647-3962. Visit

Aya de Leon as director as P4P was such a great choice. When I heard of the appointment, I thought, wow, what a perfect opportunity to take the work to the next level--Aya is a living example of a poet for the people, especially the silenced sister emcees. A hip hop generation artist, known for her firey and appropos critique of a genre which has devolved rather than evolved if evolution is progress not regression, Aya has been blazing new trails and new frontiers graciously and powerfully.

I can't remember any sister poets taking on the misogyny and appropriation of a sacred art form-- hip hop, like Aya has with her revolutionary and historic document, now film --Thieves in the Temple, the Reclaiming of Hip Hop. First a poem, then a movement, Aya's work gave other girls and women in hip hop permission to not allow the commercialization of hip hop to taint their equally valuable and important presence in a movement that continues to shape youth culture worldwide.

The daughter of a Caribbean mother who is an artist and attorney, business woman, philanthropist and single parent, Ana de Leon, and the granddaughter of Garveyites on her father's side, her dad, Taj Mahal, an artist and historian, Aya seemed genetically primed for resistance. Resistant she still is, similar to June Jordan whose resistance came at a physical cost--her life, despite her powerful sister-network.

Movements are a lot of work and P4P, June Jordan's Poetry for the People had this tiny woman warring against an institution primed to kept her "people" out, yet she pushed and won her folks inclusion, changing university policies, creating a new course and housing it in the African American Studies Department, when the English Department wouldn't have it or perhaps would not understand its importance and nurture its continued development and growth as the African American Studies Department has.

Aya, who served as emcee for the main stage portions of the program, shared poetry which spoke to this topic on the 40th Anniversary of the African American Studies at UC Berkeley, a Berkeley girl who on a wait list for admissions went off to Harvard where she was a student at the same time as a man named Barack, whom she met. But it was at the Pan African Commencement at UC Berkeley where Dr. Raye Richardson spoke that this Berkeley youth, estranged intellectually at Harvard, says she felt the most connected to her heritage.

I see Poetry for the People over the next 20 years establishing relationships with community colleges and other public institutions throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. My classes at the College of Alameda are certainly open to such first invitations.

My only regret was never getting to talk to June Jordan about her work, though as a journalist for the San Francisco Bay View, and then the Oakland Tribune, I asked and was refused year after year from new publications like her memoir to the P4P manual to collections of Jordan's work.

It's so funny. I met Jordan's first TA, and editor of The Blueprint, Lauren Muller, at the Anaheim Airport on the way to or from a Basic Skills Conference about 4-5 years ago. She teaches at City College of San Francisco. June Jordan's good friend and mentee Zack Rogrow was one of my favorite teachers in the University San Francisco graduate program I matriculated through. I attended his workshop, June Jordan: Poetry as a Performing Art, a Performance Workshop. Zack just published a new book dedicated to his mother.

I could have used a P4P course about that time in my life, just retired from my job at the AIDS Volunteer Clearinghouse, an organization I developed from a grant through the Volunteerism Project, the San Francisco Foundation and the Irvin Foundation, housed at the Volunteer Center of Alameda County (which did not pick up the program once funding ended as promised).

Wish I'd known about the course for non-University of California students. Like Patricia Smith mentioned at her workshop, such a class would have given me other forms to present my ideas through.

Perhaps the reason the poem isn't working is because it is not comfortable in the form it is being asked to speak through. She said in her workshop yesterday afternoon, just off her flight, her workshop was called: "Navigating the Page and the Stage."

I thought this was so illuminating. I remember Ethelbert Miller saying this about what I thought was poetry. He said that my work sounded like stories trapped in the poetic form (smile). He said a lot of things, most of them discouraging. I'd met him at a book signing that June Jordan was attending. She introduced Miller and his new collection which included Jordan's work.

Others didn't agree with his reading, people like the late poet and writer, Piri Thomas, who liked my work and told me to keep writing (smile). Kalamu ya Salaam out of New Orleans was a bit more encouraging . . . but the idea of packaging--how the poem is packaged, hum . . . certainly resonated for me and the idea of the craft of writing, the idea that the product has a say in its delivery, reminded me of my second pregnancy where my younger daughter was able to delay her delivery until the time was right.

Isn't art creation?

I remember speaking to Aya after one of her sold out La Pena events about the craft and her process. She is one of those gifted writers who breathe poetry. I think she said that poetry was the easier of the forms for her to write in, that she would write poetry to relax between the more difficult writing she might be working on. For me, it's the opposite.

Listening to Patricia Smith read from her earlier collections at the evening concert, work about her father's death in a car accident, then shift to a personification or signifying poem about a character in a barbershop--too funny, then share a poem in response to one of her class assignments, a 13 line poem about being 13, then close with a sad poem, many in the audience knew called "Lysol," a poem about a mother who hates her baby's African features from her skin to her broad nose and hips and wants to disinfect her--was truly a celebration of the movement started 20 years ago by June Jordan. Poetry is for the people and this story, about black skin and black self-hate based on skin pigment is just one of many stories that need to be told and retold.

June Jordan's Poetry for the People 20th Anniversary celebration was a great two-day program which honored the memory and legacy of a community hero, whose name is certainly lifted up by all her know her, but is certainly not well-known enough through no fault of her own.

I would say the challenge to the torch bearers now is to scale the walls separating JJP4P from those outside in many ways the same barriers Jordan fought then that other freethinkers, people who believe in the democratization of higher education, are still fighting to achieve as UC police and other government sanctioned armed forces on other public or municipal land try to suppress movements like P4P in its broader context, that is democratization of the word.

Art, especially a well-crafted and presented poem can crumble mountains, read "government policies" in a socially sustainable and equitable way. P4P needs to recruit other soldiers for the movement. I was surprised not many if any youth from the high schools where P4P have programs were in attendance Saturday. Both days felt like more of a reunion, which is good, however, the reach needs to be broader next time let's say in 5-10 years on the 25 and 30 anniversaries.


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