1) Cave Canem Poets on the New Haven Green: Rhapsody in the rain
Who goes to the New Haven Green to sit under the shelter of a big tent that's being lashed by rain? The answer: New Haven's bold,intrepid lovers of Literature as Spoken Word. Quite a number of us, in fact, sat there feeling pleased with ourselves for being so smart and good-humored (and completely dry--the tent is watertight). The showers would abate for a bit, then swing back in an instant and pound down ferociously. The four mighty poets onstage--Elizabeth Alexander, Cornelius Eady, Patricia Smith and Tyehimba Jess--treated the cat-and-dog downpour as encouragement, a backup percussion beaten on our canvas roof. Among the story-gifts these poets brought:
* words of wisdom from a South African rain queen;
* a step-by-step lesson on how to lay claim to a sofa abandoned on a Manhattan sidewalk;
* a recipe for hot-water cornbread;
* a portrait of the virtuoso guitarist and singer known as Ledbelly.
The other gift each poet brought was a city: Elizabeth Alexander's was New Haven--in fact, the New Haven Green itself in 1839, when the kidnapped Africans taken prisoner from the Amistad were marched out onto the Green for exercise.
Cornelius Eady's city was New York, and that riveting and zanily complicated sofa-claiming story. Patricia Smith's was Chicago with its "wide watery hips," whose West Side was "burned to its bones in '68." Tyehimba Jess offered his hometown of Detroit, with vivid, astringent pictures of the buildings and denizens along the Motor City's once-thrilling boulevards.
2) The Big Read is Big Fun: Saturday Afternoon's Festivities on the Green
. . . I passed by a group of children, completely engrossed in storytelling. They were perched on colorful jumbo-sized alphabet blocks, swinging their free-hanging legs as they clapped their hands with delight. With the sound of their laughter still ringing in my ear, I made my way toward The Big Tent, where a captive audience (this time, made up of adults) listened to a reading by four African American poets. The event, called Cave Canem on the Green, marks my first exposure to Spoken Word. Prior to this experience, I had never known that the art of poetry could extend to its performance. Throughout the reading, the poets' passionate voices showered over me like the rain pounding down on the tent-top. Spoken Word, I learned, speaks to a deeper sense of cultural and spiritual community. With topics ranging from Valentine's Day at an elementary school to the funky sexy music of James Brown, from the death of a parent to the death of our country's soldiers, Cave Canem covered a melange of human, particularly African American, experience. I felt as if I were listening to a conversation about a powerful history, a collective story that I was privileged enough to catch a glimpse of. These poets, especially Patricia Smith and Tyehimba Jesss, spoke so naturally and fluidly that they gave the impression of coming upon a spontaneous revelation, one that the audience was lucky to have witnessed.
The entire poetry reading felt organic, and I'm glad to have shared in the experience. At one point, Patricia Smith pronounced over the roar of the rain, "God, if there's a You...Stop the relentless season, show us your face." And with that, the storm seemed to resurge with new force. The four poets at Cave Canem spoke to and from something that I could not grasp completely, but its stirring beauty could be felt and appreciated by all.