Hurricane Library Relief

Hurricane Library Relief


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



I started off with “Who Let The Dogs Out,” wailing away on my Muddy Waters

 inspired air guitar, had my best preacher voice amped up to ten. The audience

was a mix of all kinds of folk, the commonality being




Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Reports & Reviews 

of Kalamu ya Salaam in Baltimore

at Enoch Pratt Central Library


kalamu in baltimore (24 November 2005)4 November, Baltimore The next night I’m in Baltimore at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The program kicks off with music by the Lionel Lyles Quartet, a young, swinging modern jazz group who played 70s classics like Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower,” and a gorgeous “In A Sentimental Mood” a la Duke & Trane, the piano solo was really killing on that one. The band opened the program and played in between the poetry sets. Jerome Harris, one of the behind-the-scenes organizers, formally opened the program reading off a list of libraries wiped out by Katrina. He ended with the sobering note that all but 19 out of over 200 New Orleans public library employees were laid off. The purpose of this program is to raise funds to support public libraries affected by Katrina. There were three sets of three poets reading representing a broad range of the Baltimore literary scene. I liked much of what I heard, the three who most delighted my ear were native New Orleanian, Lena Ampadu, space priestess Olu Butterfly Woods, and Ellis Marsalis, III. Lena’s poem was a nostalgic treading of New Orleans streets, some famous (such as Desire Street—immortalized by Tennessee Williams—A Streetcar Named Desire—and other streets well known to New Orleanians. Although Lana does not now live in New Orleans, she wrote as one who has walked the streets and conversed with the folk. Olu writes and recites out of the Bob Kaufman bag, full of deep cultural references in a semi-surrealistic style that is often simultaneously hilarious and profound. At one point, as she raised the question of maybe not being from here, I hollered out a Sun Ra quote: suppose we came not from Africa, but “to” Africa? A willowy, sprite of a black woman smile, when her deep, dark locks get wet, they must account for maybe a quarter of her body weight, she is nevertheless, a heavy hitter and definitely someone to watch. Ellis is into documentary photography. His debut book, Da Block, is a combination of photographs, poetry and creative non-fiction. The photographs were taken in his immediate neighborhood. He read from his book. It was his elegy for New Orleans that really touched me; heartfelt, contradictory, frankly full of love as well as colored by admissions of failings, a self-challenge of sorts. A damn good piece. People like to give extensive introductions, citing my accomplishments over the years; I prefer folk just say Kalamu ya Salaam. But I’ve come to realize and accept that folk respect my work and want to let those who don’t know me know what it is they have missed. Even so I get impatient. Part of it is I be hyped up ready to do my thing, especially when it’s mainly a reading. Plus, in this case, there was a good sound system, someone was videoing the proceedings, and a full house. I started off with “Who Let The Dogs Out,” wailing away on my Muddy Waters inspired air guitar, had my best preacher voice amped up to ten. The audience was a mix of all kinds of folk, the commonality being—well, really there wasn’t much of a commonality other than a love of literature, even though it was clear that there were a myriad of literary preferences. From jump street, I could feel the audience was with me and as I bent imaginary strings, and bellowed about brimstone and floodwaters, the intensity started high and just went plain old out of sight. 

By midpoint, the joint was rocking, even though we were in a large open space on the main floor of the library, up in there started feeling something like a juke joint (or at least a small neighborhood Baptist church). By the time I finished the first piece, the audience was up on their feet, giving me a standing ovation. It was almost embarrassing. I was just getting started. There is a bond when artist and audience click, an ecstatic synergetic back and forth quite unlike any other experience, comparable to sex, or drugs, or excelling at sports and other physical activity, but at the same time different from that because this is an intimacy of strangers, one feeding off/getting off on the other. The more accomplished the artist, the longer and deeper the experience can be. This night I made the dogs howl. Earlier, one of the readers had said something about jazz being born in the brothels of Storyville New Orleans as if brass band played in those venues. Weren’t nothing but piano players up in those parlors, certainly no Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard, King Oliver or Louis Armstrong. Naw the music was actually made up in the streets and parks of old New Orleans, and only a small sliver of it displayed in Storyville. The mythic story of brothel birth was undoubtedly because of Jelly Roll Morton, the fabled pianist and sometimes pimp who boasted off having started jazz,. I, of course, respond vigorously to the assertion that jazz is a bastard music. Jazz is a communal music that too often was commodified and used for other purposes. I have a long multi-part piece I’ve written called “Jazz 101” that attempts to spell out the beginnings of jazz and respond to its total manifestation and not just focus on one small part of its early existence. I pulled out the section on Jelly Roll Morton and read that—which I could easily do because I read from my mac i-book. I’m sure some folk find it amusing and/or a bit odd that I would be whooping and hollering while reading from a computer, but hey, that’s kalamu doing his thing. The reason I use a computer is two-fold. One, because I write on a computer. I almost never use paper and pen. And it’s been that way for a long, long time. Going back to the 8th grade when I first got into creative writing, I preferred to use a machine rather than to write manually. I was a typing fiend. My mother had sent me to touch typing classes with one of her teacher friends. This was the summer before 7th grade. I am forever grateful for that gift she gave me. 

From typewriter to computer was but one small step—and now with the 12-inch laptop, I am not only mobile but I also carry a ton of work with me at all times. Which is the second reason I read from a laptop—I am able to respond to specific situations by calling up more work that it is practical to carry in terms of books and papers. Plus, with a computer I can get to each piece in a flash. I remember after one reading, someone asked me how could I read like that from a computer? How could I switch the pages that fast, move the cursor, go from screen to screen? I smiled. It’s really easy once you figure it out. For me the computer is a machine I use to make my art, a machine I am adept at using. A machine I practice on and get better and better at. Some say, machines are cold, impersonal. They don’t have a natural feel. Etc. etc. A drum kit is a machine with its levers, screws, bolts. The kit works because it is a machine that the drummer controls. 

A saxophone is a machine—try playing one when the keys are broken, and the saxophone is cold metal to boot, warmed only by the breath of the player. No one thinks of those machines as un-natural, yet they are. And I suppose my computer is sort of like a synthesizer. Trane played sax. Pops played trumpet. Kalamu plays computer. They are all just machines that the artist uses to articulate thoughts and feelings. After the Jellyroll piece, I read a new poem “I don’t want to live anywhere they are killing me” and it was very, very well received. That was only my second time reading the long, four-part exploration about what does home mean. It is so different from the other pieces. I don’t use any obvious music with it—I say “obvious” because there is a lot of music in its structure and in the way I craft the lines and use the images but it’s what I call deep structure.

It’s not about how it sounds as much as it is about how it is put together. So far, it is becoming a favorite to read and audiences respond in a very positive way to it, perhaps because it touches them, nudging introspection rather than harangues them pushing toward action, and in that way it is unexpected when addressing an issue like how our people were treated in Katrina’s aftermath. Rudy Lewis, the publisher of Chicken Bones, liked it the best of everything I did that night. I closed with “System of Thot,” which is a sound piece and cannot be written down on paper. It’s indebtedness to the music is obvious from the get go, especially Trane and Pharoah Sanders. I have re-fashioned the lyrics to make it a Katrina piece. When I perform it, it is usually the last thing that I do, as it requires a great deal of energy to do effectively and an emotional commitment that will cause one to cry when I get into it full out. I be almost delirious, in a good sense, when I finish. usually unable to say anything more other than pause for a minute or so, to catch my breath. On that night in Baltimore, “System” was good, not quite as good as in Madison, Wisconsin, but very, very good. But on the other hand, this reading overall was the best one so far on the tour. Fortunately it was recorded. Maybe some of it will be released. We’ll see. Afterwards, I fielded a few questions and then sat at a desk to sign copies of A Revolution of Black Poets, an anthology I co-edited with Kwame Alexander, who had donated copies to the library to support the event. Rudy, Reggie Harris, and Herbert Rogers, accompanied me the short walk to my hotel. They had beers and coffee while I ate a crab cake sandwich and a glass of orange juice. we talked for about an hour. it was an enjoyable encounter, and then back to the room, where I prepared the next day’s e-drum. I had to be up at 5a.m. to catch a flight to Dallas for a presentation at the Third Eye conference.

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To Kalamu: I’ve received your new poem “I don’t want to live anywhere where they are killing me.” Of course, I will not publish it. Nevertheless, it is the most moving and touching piece (prose and poetry) I have read that deals with the tragedy of New Orleans.

Last evening, with your “performance,” we experienced something quite extraordinary so much so that I tossed and turned through the night—my sleep filled with all kinds of thoughts and images of New Orleans. I got up early, couldn’t rest. Actually, like all who were there, I am not able to find words to describe what we experienced. There is nothing to which it can be compared. My mind cannot get around it.

The only way that it can be analyzed is to see it again. You know, it’s like asking someone who has returned from church and asking several people how was the sermon and none can tell you anything. Maybe a few snippets, here and there, they can only say, “you should have been there.” Of course we recall the shocking portrait of the duplicity of Mayor Nagin. What we experienced was some force of nature, or the cosmos, which seems quite appropriate for the horrors people of New Orleans experienced, that we endured in the safety of our homes, high and dry.

I hope Pratt has the performance on tape. But I do not expect that even that can replicate what we experienced in our body, mind, and soul—what you did there on the stage. There was such immediacy, surprises, shocking news— we experiencing all over again, what we saw in film, on TV, in photos, the empathy we all endured with those who had been left behind, but, of course, in an all new light.

And then there was your music, your blues, imaginary guitar-playing (the sounds), the imaginary horn playing (the sounds), the reverberations from the speakers, the sounds—it was Robert Johnson, Coltrane, Rashaan, Pharoah— all in tune, the whole range and scale of sounds from the tiniest to the grandest—the honks, wails, screams. Interspersed with appropriate humor. In moments, we went from laughter, to the deepest drama, and tears.

My body has yet to recover its balance, its own composure. I’m not sure there will ever be any turning back to how things used to be, again. Of course, we will all go on living. But our lives will never be quite the same, again. We were all seized by whatever spirit it was that possessed you. It was a sacred drama that cannot be captured in one setting, or even in memory, or reflection. Even you, I suspect, cannot replicate what occurred in that grand hall at Pratt. But, of course, we will give it a try.

We want a copy of the film, or recording tape of the performance. It is difficult to believe that all what you did was on paper (the computer screen). We are curious how it was all accomplished.  Is there anything from your presentation that can be published?—Rudy

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On Hurricane Relief Program:  Hi All—I just wanted to thank all of you for a  wonderful evening last night.  I thought that Kalamu was exceptional—the sort of poet that we need to hear and have in our society.  For some of the more moderate in the audience he was a stretch–Rosemary fended some comments about his “interpretation” of events.  

MSP&LS thought he was GREAT!  In fact I woke today thinking about what he said. This is not to ignore the quality of the rest of the poets and the Lionel Lyles group.  What a wonderful event—providing not only hurricane relief, but reaching out and including the artistic community in a most positive way.—Barbara M. Simon, President, Maryland State Poetry & Literary Society

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To Reggie: Again, I wish to applaud you for the program you pulled together for Hurricane Relief. It was quite excellent: the array of poets and the diversity of the audience. Though most of the poets live in Baltimore and its environs, I had not heard them speak, though I might have heard of them. So that in itself was special. I regret I was not able to introduce myself to all of them. The music too was quite excellent. Of course, it is sad that it took the destruction of New Orleans for this kind of thing to come into being.

In some sense you know in the larger sense this session was about the importance and necessity of having a social consciousness about giving our minds and souls over to disasters occurring right under our noses. Our art (our poetry-making) has to encompass more than just the personal, but all the persons of our world and the misery and suffering under which they endure. As you probably understand, most of the cities in which we live are disasters waiting to happen because of callous neglect. I suppose you have read the papers for the last few days about what is happening in Paris and what is now happening in Argentina. Young people have had it up to their chins and they are fighting back.

Of course, your featuring Kalamu made the event exceedingly special. He is a veteran of struggle. A master of drama and the arts. I cannot imagine anyone who could have pulled it altogether—the other poets and speakers—to have made it indeed an exceptional event that none of us will forget. Thanks for sending me the piece by Barbara M. Simon. If you get other feedback, please send me copies. I’d like to add them to Kalamu’s files.—Rudy

From Miriam: Rudy, you have captured the significance and the terrible beauty and terror in Kalamu’s performance.  It was truly a mind-altering, life-changing experience, communicated through music, images, and movements, but I, too, could only remember pieces of that “sacred drama”:  beneath the water, the Atlantic crossing, cries of pain, images of home, blues wails, the first kiss, people on roof tops, train whistles, jazz riffs, field hollers, thinks/stinks, stomps, and so on. 

To Miriam: Yes, I walked Kalamu back to the Tremont on St. Paul near Saratoga, after he finished signing books. Reggie, the librarian who organized the event, and Herbert joined us. We talked about his performance. Kalamu wanted feedback. Of course, we had only superlatives. We could not be specific. We like everybody were bowled over. It was nothing that we could have anticipated or expected. There was nothing we could say worthwhile as a critique.

He asked which one I liked. It was clear that one of the pieces was a poem. And I suppose it was that piece that convinced us all that we were dealing with a master poet, not just a talented, satirical dramatist, that what we had before us was an extraordinarily talented, and sensitive poet. It was clear to all of us that he was reading a poem. Still we did not know what that was that came before and after. He had that computer there. We could not know whether he was reading it or whether he was making all of that as he went. Nobody knew what he was up to; maybe he was some being possessed or something. A god that people felt a bit uncomfortable with, even approaching. Floyd, I believe, did not even go up to him to shake his hand or say anything to him.

We went to the restaurant. Kalamu wanted to treat all of us to dinner. We declined. I had a beer, and so did Reggie; Herbert had a coffee, I believe. Kalamu ordered crab soup and crab cake and a ginger ale. We talked about this and that. Kalamu’s daughter did not show up. At the restaurant, he buzzed her. She went to the wrong library, she explained. Kalamu said she was in Hopkins masters program; maybe it was international studies.

We talked about Hopkins’ rule here in Baltimore and Floyd’s work for Hopkins and whether he had influence to invite Kalamu to Hopkins. We talked about how conservative students were at Hopkins and the difficulties his daughter had with a racist professor and her request for another examiner. She accused the one she had of racism. She got another and passed. And Herbert mentioned your study at Hopkins and how extraordinary you were, even with four children and a husband at the time.

Our discussion went on and on from one topic to the next. It was almost 11 pm and I knew that it was time to split because Kalamu had to be in Dallas and he had a 7am plane and I knew he would have to leave about five. But he was not anxious. Finally, we got out of the restaurant and I expected we would walk him to the elevator and leave him there. But he invited us to his room. It was more like an apartment, maybe it was the 34th floor, an extraordinary view if you like heights. It made me a bit dizzy. He had a huge bed and an extraordinary headboard shaped like a fan. Kalamu noted that the furniture was real wood. It was quite luxurious. And I said that he deserved to be treated like a king.

In the living room, he sat down and we took a seat. And we began to talk politics. I asked him about his remarks about Nagin and whether New Orleans and its officials, whether it was a success or failure, the tragedy that happened. It seems he was not just doing art, or exaggeration. He seems convinced that it was not all just a matter of negligence. And I reminded Herbert how wrong he had been in his defense of Nagin and our decades mistake of a “black united front” and our avoidance of public criticism of black politicians. And how much better Ibo journalists are in dealing with black corruption and malfeasance and that we had much to learn from them.

It was getting late and we bid him goodbye. He still had to post e-drum and I was tired. Each of us embraced him and walked out the door. We had a long walk back to Herbert’s car. I asked Reggie did he think there were those there who were offended by the things that Kalamu said. Reggie said it didn’t matter. And I told him that was a good answer.

So there you are. And I don’t think any of us have quite got a grip on things. I’m pleased you decided not to take off today. These kinds of things need to be talked about, or madness indeed may ensue.—Rudy

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From Miriam: Rudy, you have written the final chapter in the narrative of an incredible night, and how I wish that I could have been there to participate in the discussion and to hear Kalamu elaborate on his experiences, insights, and conclusions.  The man is a phenomenon, a rare and precious jewel to be treasured.  I don’t know him very well and have seen him only a couple of times.  He was a friend of Roseann’s (my sister-in-sin collaborator on Erotique Noire), so she invited him to contribute some poems to our collection.  

Then, I remember how upset he was, when he heard of Roseann’s death–a year after she’d passed–and called me in tears.  When Acklyn chaired the Af Am Dept. at UMBC, he invited Kalamu to give a couple of poetry readings, and, as I remember, he also attended one of Acklyn’s “Wild Women” productions;  in fact, I have photos of him with other friends.

I worry about Kalamu—the pace he’s keeping, the intensity of his work, the energy that that type of performance demands, and the hazards of life on the road.  He’s lost so much weight since I last saw him, but clearly he’s about survival and dissemination of knowledge–like a prophet and a biblical scholar.

You were privileged to share, with Herbert and Reggie, the afterglow with Kalamu, and it’s too bad that there’s no tape or video recording to preserve that interchange.  It’s wonderful, though, that you’ve captured something of the experience—Kalamu’s performance and the evening’s refrain–in these two narratives.

To Miriam: I asked Reggie to find out whether the taped performance will be available to the public. Pratt is so strange with all of its rules and restrictions. They are not very good in promoting themselves to the populace. They do better with the rich and well-off. In any event it would be nice to have a cd of the program. I’m sure there are many who desire it. The fellow with the little girl on the first row stopped Kalamu as he was leaving the library, shook his hand, and asked about the taped performance. . . .

I got a note from Floyd on this performance. He too was “stunned” and his “cynicism” was a bit drenched with a new reality. So you see we are not all fully lost, maybe, just a bit wayward.— Rudy

From Floyd:  Dear Brother Kalamu, Still stunned by your magnificent performance at Baltimore’s Pratt Library on Friday evening, I remain nearly speechless.  I want to say THANK YOU a million times a million.  I, like many others outside of Louisiana and Mississippi, thought I had at least an elementary grasp of the Katrina disaster.  And as I listened to brothers and sisters talk about the possibility of conspiracy, I thought that historic and ongoing impoverishment easily justified their attitudes.  

However, your poetic and powerful tale/song/message/lecture forced on me a deeper reality, and a deeper consciousness, regarding Black suffering in New Orleans and governmental indifference to it.  To argue that perhaps the horrendous outcomes—as Black people were displaced and left starving—represented official desires was shocking, even to my old and cynical mind.  

Yet, the failure of local, state, and national leadership to heed previous warnings about disastrous hurricanes, and the failure to respond in the face of Katrina, viciously punctuates the clarity of your argument.  Moreover, as in other urban areas of America’s managerial society, the trends, developments, and future challenges facing New Orleans may mean the racial and class transformation of that city.

Thank you again for gracing Baltimore with your presence.  It was such an honor for me finally to see you in the flesh.—Sincerely, Floyd W. Hayes, III                       

(posted 8 November 2005)

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Hurricane Library Relief

featuring  KALAMU YA SALAAM 

editor/writer, movie maker, educator, producer

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Central Branch (Main Hall)

Friday November 4, 2005, 6-9 pm




Friday November 4, 2005 / 6-9 pm

Enoch Pratt Free Library, Central Branch (Main Hall) 

400 Cathedral Street / Baltimore MD  21201 / 410-396-5430

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita destroyed 100 school libraries and 25 public libraries along the Gulf Coast. Many academic libraries were also severely damaged. Join us for an evening celebration of the literary and musical heritage of New Orleans in support of the The American Library Association’s Hurricane Library Relief fund to help them rebuild.

Readings by New Orleans writer and activist KALAMU YA SALAAM and local poets and writers, plus jazz and muffalettas!

KALAMU YA SALAAM is a professional editor/writer, movie maker, educator, producer, and arts administrator. He is the founder and director of the Neo-Griot Workshop, a New Orleans-based black writers workshop and co-director of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools. His books include ‘From a Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets’ and ‘360 degrees: A Revolution of Black Poets.’ Mr Salaam has traveled the world as a journalist, activist and arts producer. He evacuated from his home in New Orleans and is living temporarily in Nashville.

Local poets and writers invited to appear include

Madison Smartt Bell, Reginald Harris, Clarinida Harriss, bassey ikpi, Rosemary Klein, t.p. Luce (Ellis Marsallis III), Olu Butterfly(Woods), Michael Salcman, and WYPR radio jazz show host Andy Bienstock. Music by the Lionel Lyles Quintet

Admission is free. Donations to the Hurricane Relief Fund of the American Library Association (  are encouraged.

Presented in Partnership with CityLit Project, Maryland State Poetry and Literary Society, Poetry for the People Baltimore, and Pozativ Change.

Enoch Pratt Free Library  /

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kalamu  going to Chicago (21 oct.)

it’s friday morning, 21 oct., getting ready to get up out of burlington, vermont headed for the gwen brooks conference in chicago. a few words about vermont. i’ve been here a couple of times before to breadloaf, down in middlebury. being a jazz fan, i, of course, wanted to experience “moonlight in vermont” (ray charles has a killer version of that song). after i got that experience, the first time, there was nothing further i was looking forward to in terms of visiting vermont—and even that was not any particular thrill. but, i’m back on the road, pulling together the where withall i need to survive and the resources needed to do “listen to the people.” folk often assume, for one reason or another, that we have some sponsors, some grants, some access to resources. not so. although it looks like we may receive some foundation support for listen to the people, right now the only support is the money i raise from speaking engagements and the generous donations from friends who supported me in the immediate weeks after katrina. we are doing this because we believe in our work and because people believe in us. folk up here in burlington, just as folk elsewhere, have warmly received us. and were it not for the general outpouring of genuine concern from the american populace as a whole, this whole ordeal would most likely have bordered on the unbearable.

i understand that the concern expressed by americans grows out of a mix of issues and complexes and that shame and guilt or significant parts of the mix. but this is the first time in my memory that the american people in general have evidenced a willingness and an effort to rise above the raw racism that has so painfully colored the history of this country. i do not mean to suggest that we have turned the corner completely. i am clear. structural racism is not only entrenched, but capitalism, especially global capitalism, is about to vampire everyone regardless of color, but will especially feast on the necks of those who are both poor and colored. i know that the reptiles (to call them republicans is not calling these cold-bloodied predators by their rightful name) in office in washington are absolutely bent on profit for a few at the expense of the global environment and the well-being of all but a very few. this exploitative tendency is especially apparent in terms of what happened to new orleans, katrina and its aftermath. we live in an age of contradictions, and although it is difficult sometimes to make adjustments in one’s thinking, difficult to distinguish between the genuine concern expressed by ordinary americans and the fake-ass crocodile tears of bush and company, difficult to negoitiate the humane support proffered by ordinary citizens and the bullshit maze of hurricane relief meted out by the government that is a mixture of needed hard cash and resources and bizarre requirements and repercussions to access desperately need cash and resources…

after a while, your brain gets tired, frustrated, and you just numbly move through the day and fitfully sleep through the night, tired of saying “thank you” for one gift of relief or another, tired of needing that relief. just tired of it all… and that’s when it becomes difficult to analyze what’s going on, difficult to make rational decisions. just plain difficult. so here in burlington, major, willi, and will have been gracious hosts. the weather has been cool but not yet cold, even had some sunshine on one of the days. the university of vermont campus here is huge. the downtown area is quaint and attractive. major has sussed out some of the best restaurants including a place that specialized in vermont cheeses and herbally seasoned cuisine artfully done. accompany the cheese plate was a handful of re-hydronated dried apricots—they were delightfully juicy. i dig apricots and was especially intrigued by these plump, soft, tasty fellows. when i inquired about them, i was told they had been marinated in a mixture that included cloves. delicious. we are settled into a sheraton hotel near the airport that is less than three minutes from the campus, and i had a spinach salad here the other night with a balsamic vinegar dressing that was one of the best salads i have had anywhere. surprising to me there is an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit and quality choices of seafood here. surprising because i didn’t expect fresh spinach, plump apricots, fresh squeezed juices in a city one hour’s drive from the canadian border. i just assumed this far north fresh vegetables would be a rarity, or fresh anything for that matter. i had this prejudiced view of the cold north, even though i have been north many a time before. even been to burlington before. but i had never really seen burlington. at diner the final night, major brought us to a little chinese restaurant that offered a tasty spread. while we were spinning the lazy susan and sampling the various dishes—

including a catfish with black bean curd—one of the professors wittily pointed out that the socialism of burlington has made the capitalism of burlington bearable. and it seems to be the case. the infrastructure is well tended. everything works. there doesn’t seem to be any major structural poverty as poverty exists in most major american cities—but of course there are no large numbers of black folk here either. i’m clear this is bourgoise paradise—and i don’t mean that in any condescending way. i mean that this is what money buys in america, and it’s nice, really a sweet life. i wonder about the countryside. i wonder at what price is the niceness of burlington? i want to come back here in the summer and poke around a bit and get a really good look rather than a fleeting impression. the gigs went fine. i spoke to one of major’s afro-american literature classes (one black student out of about twenty or so) on the first day and on the second afternoon did a talk and reading at one of the museums on campus. also went up to middlebury for a meeting. jim randals, the co-director and one of the founders of students at the center (the high school writing program i have been working with for the last eight years) joined ashley and i and we drove up for a meeting to talk with middlebury staff and administration about possible linkages with and support of sac from middlebury college. one of the leaders of the breadloaf english program joined us. again, there was all sorts of offers of support, working out the logistics will be a bit difficult because the infrastructure just doesn’t exist in new orleans right now. but we’ll see what happens. so now, it’s on to chicago for the last stop on this particular leg of touring. i am both encouraged and a bit down. encouraged by how well the work is going. a bit down because all the news i’m getting from home is bleak. it messes with your head to be doing so well and faring so poorly all at the same time. to be so well received away from home and so uncertain about home.

someone asked during one of the q&a sessions, how has katrina affected your work? i responded i’m doing essentially the same work i was doing before katrina. other than an occasional short essay that is specifically about katrina, most of my writing has been the same, except there are some things that i have not been able to finish because of time or some projects that are more difficult to do because my books and records are back in new orleans, but really we are essentially doing the same work we were doing before katrina. yet, i am beginning to face the creeping suspicion that i am fooling myself. that i am delaying the inevitable. i am avoiding facing the void head on. things are not the same. and they will never be the same. new orleans will never again be what it was. new orleans will be something different. probably something i don’t want to live with—for me that is a very scary reality. sooner or later, i’m going to have to face it head on… for now, i am on the road. i am collecting oral histories. i am keeping very, very busy… but, sooner or later… a luta continua,kalamu

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kalamu on the road—back from chi—on to boston (oct. 26)

folks, i was on the tail end of a week and half on the road, arrived into chi friday evening. i blinked. thought i got off at the wrong airport. i was in what was supposed to be laid-back midway airport, the shit looked like o’hara on a friday night. outside at the taxi stand, the line was over thirty folk deep and never did get no shorter while i was there waiting on the shuttle to the hotel. by the time i got to the hotel, it was time to chill out. flying all day can wear you out, especially with ups and downs, changing planes, and so forth, and so on… noon the next day, i’m heading to the conference and someone shouts out my name. turns out the conference shuttle is a stretch limo–inside the pennsylvania contingent hails me. lamont steptoe is there, he just won the american book award for his new book of poetry. there is a sister whom i had not met before sitting in the front of the “cargo area” (i’m being funny—but the inside of that thing was bigger than some new york apartments i’ve been in—won’t call no names). and relaxed next to the back door is keith gilyard, poet, critic, editor of note. we ride over glad to see each other—although, i’m sure, given katrina, they were just glad to see that i was alive and well. i had missed the london folk at the conference. sam larose, who operates a listserv similar to e-drum, was on his way out as i was coming in. we ate a quick bite and i was up. gave a brief two part presentation and then read a short story and recited a poem. part one was about new orleans/katrina. part two was about my use of an african aesthetic in terms of my writing and what i mean when i call myself a neo-griot: i explain how i do the griot thing of dealing with the history of the community in which i’m grounded and also some social commentary/social critique. the “neo” thing refers to our use of digital technology, and not simply because it’s fast or trendy, but because it allows us to better express our culture when one can see and hear it, as well as intellectually understand it. i pointed out how without technology it was impossible to mass transmit our culture. e.g. there is no way to “write” out black music on a manuscript page and someone “read” it and get an understanding of what black music sounds like. thus the advent of recording technology made possible the mass dissemination of black music. etc. etc. quarysh ali lansana, who is one of the main organizers of the gwen brooks conference in terms of hands-on nuts and bolts putting stuff together, had asked me to read a speculative fiction piece because that was the focus this year with octavia butler as the featured writer. then i did a poem, “a system of thot,” which has new lyrics making it into a katrina piece. i use a music structure and late period john coltrane as the sound reference. afterwards, haki was moved to note that the first piece i did was obviously written on the page (i read from the computer, by the way), but that the second piece could not be written down and as a former trumpet player he appreciated it. after my thing, there was a panel appreciating octavia butler and looking at the question of speculative fiction. sam greenlee was on that panel and was doing his brer rabbit with a switchblade thing that sam does so well, talking about how all fiction is speculative, and that it’s dumb to call something speculative fiction… etc. later, sandra govan did a conversation with octavia butler that was very good. and the question and answer session was also good. saturday evening after the meal there was a music performance and then octavia butler gave a short keynote address, which was basically an expansion on some of the themes she touched on in her earlier conversation. before octavia did her keynote address, the wife of carlos santana made an impromtu appearance and read a short excerpt from her memoir. she talked about being more than the wife of carlos and her need to establish her own identity. and here old dumb me is, not able to remember the sister’s first name! crazy-ass thomas sayers ellis was in the house. i like that young man, although i fear he will shortly be committed to some institution that requires you to sit with your coat on backwards and eat with plastic utensils. when i was up in burlington, thomas had emailed major a new poem, “race change operation,” talking about how it didn’t work in his case. it was deadly hilarious. he’s in cleveland. hmmm, i wonder, could he be one of richard pryor’s unknown children? naw, he’s from dc, a gogo drummer gone academic. but then again… hell, it was funny. be on the look out for it. thomas invites me to hang out with them afterwards in the hotel bar, i tell him naw, i got to go jump online. saturday nights at midnight we swtich over the weekly postings for breath of life and that generally takes a minimum of an hour and a half to do it right. a couple of quick observations about the 15th gwen brooks conference. this was the smallest audience i have seen for the conference and yet it was a very strong audience, maybe 125 or so folk, almost all of whom were writers, or at least aspiring writers. i have noticed over the last five or ten years that more and more people want to write and believe, rightly or wrongly, that they can be writers, but they want it instantly, without going through any kind of extended period of training or learning. and here, let me share a bias, four years of college and a two year mfa program is not an adequate apprenticeship to be a heavy duty writer. why you say that kalamu? i say that because college is dangerous if it only makes you believe that you know what you’re doing, especially for black writers. most mfa programs do not ground you in the literature of your people, so you come out with the assumption that you have been educated and yet you know next to nothing about black culture in any in-depth way. so yes, we have more literate, college-educated people than ever before, but as far as knowing anything about black culture, or specifically about black literature, well in general that would be a “huh??” who is warren cuney? or willard motley, or what else did richard wright write besides native son and black boy? can you name three pre-harlem renaissance black female writers? like that. but see what a college education does is make someone believe that they know a little something about whatever is important to know and if they don’t know nothing about something than that something must not be too important to know about. you know what i’m saying? anyway, the gwen brooks conference is shortly going to have to deal with what ought to be the nature of these writing conferences. what should happen at them to benefit the attendees and to raise up black literature. the question is will the conference sponsors have the time and resources to work these questions out or will the cost of putting on the conference eventually overwhelm the sponsors. on an intellectual level, i would love to see some substantive discussions about writing as an artform, not simply how one writer or another writes, but what are the theories at work, what are dominant modes of discourse and why are they dominant. what is included, what is left out, and why. sunday i was out of there, headed back to brentwood, the “beautiful” suburb (can a suburb be truly beautiful?) of nashville. wednesday, i’m about to climb back on a plane and head for an extended stay at m.i.t. in boston where i will do a mini residency. thursday, 27 oct to 2 nov, i’m at m.i.t. on thursday 3 nov, i’m at clemson for a symposium on public education in new orleans, organized by students at the center, the writing program i co-direct with jim randals. friday, 4 nov, i’m at the pratt library in baltimore maryland. saturday, 5 nov, i’m at the third eye conference in dallas, texas. sunday, 6 nov, i head back to brentwood for a brief breather before the next leg, which will be even longer… but more on that in a minute. as always, would love to meet folk on the road. keep on pushing, a luta continua,kalamu

posted 21 October 2005–27 October 2005

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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