Why Your Poetry Features Are Just Not Good And What You Can Do About It

So the first thing to note is that this is not scientific, it can’t be. One of the simultaneously frustrating and thrilling things about performance art is that it is subjective to the person listening/watching. There can never be an absolute “best”, but by-in-large I think I have assembled a pretty good frame of reference as to why some poetry features are just not good. As well as some practical steps on how to make them better. I talked to several poets who admitted that they never even thought about their features as a”show”. They had not done the thought exercise of — “I am being given 20 minutes to present my work on stage, what is the best most amazing thing I can do with that time to represent myself and my work” They pretty much said they show up to the venue and rattle off their best poems until the time is up. I would like to challenge that, I would also like to challenge the notion that poets do not have the creativity & the foresight to put together a piece of work, be that 10 minutes or an hour that has a viewpoint and a direction.

I had my own thoughts on what makes poetry features suck, but to make sure that my thought process was legit I asked a handful of poets what they thought made a terrible feature. I asked what are the times when they had someone on their mic that they wish they never booked, never confirmed, never even returned the Facebook message. I have combined some of the main themes into 5 points.

  1. Not knowing the audience/venue

If you have ever traveled the US doing poetry features you will know that each region has a different sound, they have different styles of poetry they react to, (this is exacerbated even further if you go outside of the US).  A good performer should be able to pick up on that and pull from their repertoire of poems that fit the venue and space. Some poems work better for an intimate crowd, some poems don’t. If you are trying to rock that fresh hella personal poem, but the venue you are in has a cappuccino machine going off every 3 minutes and a bar 10 feet away from the mic then your poem 11 sonnets for Ralph Waldo Emerson, might not rock.

In my experience there are some areas where I have performed that the audience is there and hungry for beautiful well written poems, and there are some venues/cities where the crowd was there to be entertained. Crowds that valued the performance element over how well the poem was crafted. As a performer you have to be able to recognize the venue you are in, and what the audience is looking for and be able to adapt to that. What I am not saying is be unauthentic still do YOUR poems, still have your integrity, just reach down and pick the poems that work for the venue.

One of the things that I see happen some times is that a poet has a couple of good poems, so they win a couple  of slams, and then a couple of people decide to book them a couple of features. Said poet gets to a city outside of where they are use to preforming, and those couple of poems completely tank which means the feature tanks. If you don’t have a lot of poems to choose from then you sink and swim with the ones you got.

So to circumvent this you really want to make sure you pay attention to the crowd and the venue before you perform, if there is an open mic, what seems to be working? Is the venue loud? does it look like a crowd that just needed to go on a nice date on a Friday night, or is it full of people who love poetry….depending on the answers to those questions you know how to tailor your set to put on the best show possible.

          2. Uncomfortable banter

One of the first pieces of advice I received before I started featuring is “the thing that makes a good feature is what happens between the poems and not the poems themselves”. I have found this to be absolutely true. There should  be a natural flow to your feature, you should have a general framework for how you are going to move through the poems BEFORE you even show up to the venue. Now at what level of detailed planning you should commit yourself to is where some of the feedback diverged. I think its a personal thing, me personally I normally know exactly what I am going to say in-between my poems. I know what jokes I am going to tell and the way in which I will deliver them. I obviously leave room to make things relevant to the crowd, make topical commentary on current events, etc, but the feature is pretty much a well oiled machine before I step foot on the stage. The worst thing is when a performer finishes a poem and then starts telling a couple bad jokes and then goes into this long winded  – WTF are you talking about story – and then awkwardly goes into the next poem. Not being that person and nailing a fluid feature really comes with practice, knowing your voice, and  understating what works and what does not. Which is what your friends are for, which is what your squad is for, which is what open mics are for, not features.

I was in Indianapolis and talked to a poet after a (my opinion) horrible feature where the crowd was not at all into it. I asked him how he thought it went and he said (no bullshit) “I was just throwing things at the wall to see what would stick, made some notes and will probably really rock the venue next time I am here” I was thinking they are paying you to be here, they promoted your whole entire face on a flyer, and you are just winging it?!?!

Like I alluded too however, there are two schools of thought on this concept, the one we have been discussing which is feature should be iron tight you should have a goal on what you are trying to communicate, and it can be human and warm but it should have a tone of legit-ness. It should not be to cavalier. The analogy was if you go to a concert and Beyonce gets on stage does a song, tells an awkward story, and then looks at a crumbled piece of paper to decide what song to do hey you would feel like she is not giving you a professional show. A slammaster I spoke to said “my audience deserves a professional show, not one that feels like you are making it up as you go along, it makes me as a slammaster feel like you are not taking this stage and your work seriously”

The other school of thought is that poetry features should be inviting and engaging, you should talk to the audience, you should take questions you should ask for poem suggestions (i.e do you want to hear my love poem or my depression poem?). There should be no pomp-and-circumstance it should be as if you are talking to some old friends in a living room. They feel as though a poetry reading or feature should be an intimate opportunity for a audience member to connect with the poet, even in a large venue you can still make your feature feel inclusive. Do note, the poets that sided with this thought still said the feature should be polished BUT it should just be mostly, if not all, unscripted.

There is a valid point here but I think only really great poets can do this well, I am all for “fluidity” of your feature to present yourself as open and human, but you have to be careful that it does not slip into the realm of unprofessional

          3. Tone 

A general consensus was – don’t do 20 minutes of depressing poems, or 20 minutes of political poems, etc etc.. we get it sir, no to the keystone pipeline, you hate the government, the congress is corrupt…now lets move on. No matter how great your work is there is a threshold on how much an audience can listen to the same thematic poem over and over.

         4.  Doing a full set of all your slam poems

This will not make your feature suck, it will just make it generic and sometimes exhausting. A great feature is an experience it has a viewpoint and an angle, it is well thought out…writing down all your slammy poems and rattling them off can build a narrative that often times fall short. There does not have to be a big production, but throwing in some shorter poems, reading an excerpt from a book, some haikus…something besides a cadence of 3 minutes…banter…3 minutes banter…3 minutes

As a good example of this in action, I remember seeing Amir Suliman do a feature at the Soundbites Poetry Festival in Brooklyn, it was to date maybe the most affirming and impactful poetry feature I have ever seen. It opened me up to a possibility that I had not considered at the time which was, holy shit, my 20 minutes of presence on the stage could actually mean something, could go further than my poems, could be an experience in and of itself.  I left feeling uplifted, more aware, and charged to be a better poet and more intellectual person. Some poets features just make you want to go outside and take a smoke break, and I honestly don’t think it is a matter of said poet being “good” or “bad” its about how they decided they wanted to use their time to put together an experience for the audience. Some features feel like an ego stroke, I have never spoken to Amir about it but i would not doubt that he started with the question “what experience am i trying to leave my audience” and worked backwards from there as he constructed his feature. I think if you really got to the heart of it alot of poets main goal in a feature is to show you how good they are, how nice they are with the words, I really don’t think many poets start with the audience in mind, or the impact they want to leave in mind and work backwards from there

          5. Going over your time

I know you got the fire poems bruh…

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But if the host said 30 minutes be respectful of that time. They have a show to run, other talent to put on the stage, a venue that has to be cleared out by a certain time. One slam master said “there is nothing worse than trying to get a poets attention to tell them to to wrap it up, you are sitting there waiting for them to stop talking so you can get in their side view to give them a signal and they are not looking your way [read: ignoring you], so then, right when they finishing the last line of the current poem, you walk up to take the mic and they give you a hand signal that indicated they are about to do one maybe two more pieces when they are already overtime”

Honorable Mention

6.  Being an Asshole

There are certain things you should not do, like try to have sex with everyone, or be drunk, or be begging for drinks. Or drop your poems and blame it on being high, or having too big of an ego. Or using the mic to bully people or showing up late or or or

I know this is hard for some of you but just present yourself with some decorum like someone is paying you to be there.

 

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Guest Post: Inkera Oshun | 12 Things You May Not Know About The National Poetry Slam

The National Poetry Slam (NPS) is a performance poetry competition where teams from across the United States and Canada participate in 5 days of competition. The event occurs in early August and takes place in a different U.S. city each year. The National Poetry Slam is Poetry Slam, Inc.’s signature event. It is currently the largest adult team performance poetry competition in the United States.

Poetry Slam, Inc. is the official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization charged with overseeing the international coalition of poetry slams.

Here are 12 things you may not know about the National Poetry Slam:

  1. The first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco in 1990. There were ONLY 3 teams represented. They were from Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Chicago (Green Mill) won that year.
  1. Did you know that Nuyorican Poet’s Café has been on final stage 14 times? This is the most that any one team has been represented.
  1. Prior to SlamCharlotte’s win in 2007, there had not been a winner from the South East in 14 years. Asheville, NC won in 1995.
  1. In the history of NPS, there have only been 5 cities that have won back to back. They are Chicago (Green Mill 1990-1991), Boston (1992-1993), Charlotte (SlamCharlotte 2007-2008), St. Paul (Soapboxing 2009-2010), and New Orleans (Slam New Orleans 2012-2013)
  1. In the history of NPS, there have only been four instances where the host city won the championship in their hometown. They are Chicago (1990), Boston (1992), Albuquerque (2005), and St. Paul (2010).
  1. In 26 years, NPS has been held in 15 states. They are California (4), Massachusetts (3), Texas (3), Illinois (3), North Carolina (2), Minnesota (2), Florida (1), Wisconsin (1), New Mexico (1), Michigan (1), Washington (1), Rhode Island (1), Connecticut (1), Oregon (1), and Missouri (1).
  1. Did you know that in the hitory of NPS, no venue has won more than twice?
  1. Did you know that NPS has had as many as 78 competing teams and as few as 3?
  1. In the history of NPS, only two cities have hosted the event back to back. They are Austin, Texas (2006-2007) and Oakland, CA (2014-2015).
  1. Did you know that up until 2007, NPS had an indie competition as well as a team competition?
  1. Did you know that starting in 2016, NPS will be grounded in 4 cities? The “anchor” cities are Oakland, Atlanta, Denver, and Chicago.
  1. Did you know that The National Poetry Slam has been the subject of several feature-length documentaries, including the 1998 Paul Devlin film SlamNation, and the 2006 Kyle Fuller and Mike Henry film Slam Planet?

**The National Poetry Slam Wikipedia page was used in this blog post as a reference for these 12 little known facts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Poetry_Slam#National_Poetry_Slam_results_by_year

If you would like additional information regarding Poetry Slam, Inc, National Poetry Slam, or any of the other events we sponsor, our web address is www.poetryslam.com

Inkera Oshun is currently the President of Poetry Slam, Inc and the Artistic Director of SlamCharlotte. She can be reached at inkera@slamcharlotte.com

 

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Should I Get My MFA or Nah?

Should I Get My MFA or Nah?

About 6-9 months ago, I started seeing all of the Facebook post of peers of mine talking about either submitting for MFA programs, or receiving their letters of acceptance/denial. I have always wanted to get my MFA in creative writing because, I mean, who would not want to sit with a bunch of other talented writers and talk craft and politics all day, To broaden your network and stay up late reading and discussing great works of poetry and prose. In my head that is what an MFA program was all about, and I was here for it. Admittedly I did not know much about MFA programs, I was a computer science major in undergrad and did not start really writing til well after college, before doing some research I thought MFA’s where a natural evolution and most writers who were able were in favor of it.

Then I started to research it….and lets just say google is a cruel place for MFA’s especially to writers of color. So something was not matching up, the enthusiasm of my peers vs the actual data out there on MFA programs were at odds. Whether or not to get an MFA is a topic that has been written on exhaustively, however I am curious to know how that boils down specifically in the lens of our subculture. i.e “MFA’s for performance poets or NAH?”

As I see it, over the past couple of years there has been a surge in the number of performance poets pursuing their MFA’s, When I first started performing, slam had a strong  sense of anti-establishment, (still does just in a different way), and one of the biggest establishments was the whole world of “academia”. Performance poets did not need nor desire the co-sign, accolades or degrees. They had the streets, they had the ear of the people, that this movement we were starting was more real, more visceral and impactful. Slam poets were by and large made to feel like their work was not valid or “real” and did not have a place in the national conversation and canon on what poetry is. Due to this fact there was almost a purposeful dissonance from all things academia. Performance poetry was the voice of the unheard it was the rage against the machine.

I know I cannot make a sweeping generalization on this, but from my perspective that was the general state of affairs. However, the tide has DEFINITELY changed, more and more performance poets are wanting to carve out their place in the world of academia, and “academia” has started to recognize performance poets as writers, whose works are just as valid and relevant as any traditional poet. I would actually argue that there are programs/journals/residencies where poets who have a background in Performance Poetry are regarded just as relevant as their counterparts that found poetry/creative writing through a more traditional route

I want to point out that all of the above points are just a tip of the iceberg there are a TON of more nuanced points I am glossing over, this is by design, as to not turn this into a longform essay about the combative relationship between the two subcultures over the last 20 or so years. I really want to focus on the present day, and the pros and cons on obtaining your MFA in creative writing. I will however throw out there that anyone who feels they have the chops to write comprehensively on the relationship between the academia, and slam and how it has morphed in the last decade I would be super open to that.

So, If we rewind a bit, the actual trigger for this blog post is from a conversation I was having with a poet who said “I feel like I need an MFA for my work to be respected in the same regards as traditional writers” he also stated that “An MFA is what I NEED to hone my craft of writing and become a better writer” I found this problematic and curious at the same time. I wondered if an MFA is even necessary if the end goal is anything other than Teaching in an MFA program (there is an overwhelming consensus that if teaching is your end goal an MFA is definitely needed)  So if you want to write fiction, or poetry, or all of the writing careers in-between is an MFA really necessary?

*Note – earlier I alluded to “google being a cruel place for the subject of MFA’s and POC”  when trying to determine if an MFA is “worth it” there is a HUGE part of this conversation that deals with the concept around what is “right” being dictated in large by white men, and that lens has largely disenfranchised/silenced women writers and writers of color. In that, MFA programs actually erase the voice of minority groups in an effort to bleach everyone’s voice and mechanic of creative writing to be what “they” deem to be “correct”

I get that, so lets base this conversation on a premise that your MFA program is woke, that it shames those other MFA programs and your MFA, has faculty and staff that does not espouse nor support that type of erasure, cool…ok SO the question remains should I get my MFA??

PROS

  • Network – the network you gain from going to an MFA program is cited as one of the biggest Pros
  • Critical Analysis – In an MFA program you will have peers from all over with different experiences that will be critique your work in an effort to make you a stronger writer
  • Reading – Learning how to read like a writer, is one of the common benefits stated, this helps you better your own writing
  • Discipline – MFA’s MAKE you sit down and write, you can’t make excuses you have to have structure and write to deadlines

CONS

  • Cost – the biggest discussion point by far was the cost of an MFA and does it make sense to go into debt when there is no tangible return on investment if you are not deciding to teach.
  • Indoctrination – One of the biggest complaints I found was around the faculty and staff determining what is “right” or good and as a student having to conform to that, having your work tore down because it did not fit in the pocket of what your particular program thought was correct. One of the common themes from people that recommended the MFA spoke about how impactful their particular advisor or faculty was. Indoctrination can erase your voice, which can erase your story and make you a carbon copy of the status quo [read white male writers] in a way that does not promote diversity of thought which we all know is tragic
  • Elitism – This goes hand in hand with indoctrination, many of the articles I read lamented on the absolute elitism of some of these programs.

In my research I found several articles that broke down the pros and cons, but one article that was particularly insightful was from the site Flavorwire Entitled “27 writers on whether or not to get your MFA” In this article they found 27 accomplished writers ones who have their MFA and ones that don’t.

They asked the 27 accomplished writers 3 simple questions

  1. Do you have an MFA?
  2. Do they currently Teach in an MFA program?
  3. Would they advise a writer to get an MFA?

If you go to the link above you can see all of the responses, it is actually very insightful to see what the writers had to say, I have copied a couple of them below.

The overwhelming answer was NO, I actually had to dig to find people that really believed that an MFA was the way to go to have an established writing career. Now it should be noted that I do not know anything about the writer of the above article, therefore I can’t state that the “feedback” was not solicited with any bias, but by and large the lion share of the writers said that unless your MFA is free or you don’t take on any large finical debt then go for it, if not then the money would be better spent experiencing life and seeking out workshops and WRITING.

It is also always ironic to me when people who have ‘said’ thing, say don’t do what I did, while not speaking to the advantages they received from the thing they are telling you not to do.

So what do you think? What are your experiences? I would love to know from where you sit, and the circles you are in if you think an MFA is “worth” it. (I know the term worth can mean many things for many people) so let’s re-frame it if you were to get an MFA, or if you already have one, what are your motivations?

For part II of this topic I will be interviewing several performance poets who went and got an MFA, or are currently pursuing one, and will be breaking down the pros and cons particularly for performance poets or individuals who feel themselves to be part of this subculture, and see if post graduation they felt like an MFA was definitely the way to go!

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Poetry Festival Spotlight: Word and Sound

Poetry Festival Spotlight: Word and Sound

As I write this post scores of poets all over the US and some international cities are preparing to descend upon Oakland for the National Poetry Festival. Which made me think about all of the poetry festivals that take place all over the world.

One of the Festivals that I am most interested in attending is the Word and Sound International Youth Festival in Cape Town South Africa. Word and Sound Live Literature Co. is an amazing organization that operates in South Africa and is doing really great things in the Spoken Word Poetry space.

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A bit about the organization:

In a country with such a low literacy rate, Spoken Word Poetry encourages curiosity and exposes people to literature in English from a range of cultures around the world. Writing is central to every profession so this is a key skill across all sectors.

The Word N Sound Project is a platform for the expression of spoken word, not so much a commercial venture as an attempt to make a positive impact on youth in the city. The platforms bring together older practitioners of literature with young people in their teens and early twenties, to encourage and inspire them and to give them a sense of the trajectory of a literary career.

The Word N Sound Live Literature Company is a South African literature company founded in 2010 and fully owned and managed by thirteen young black practicing artists, creatives and administrators. With a multi focal approach to literature and spoken word development, the company produces various events, festivals and collaborative projects and has one of the largest digital footprints and profiles on the African continent.

In partnership with various arts organizations and venues, the company designs and facilitates platforms and projects that connect local and international practitioners of literature to share knowledge, collaborate on new works, encourage and inspire them and to give them a sense of the trajectory of a literary career.

Annually, the Company produces 40 weekly events, 16 monthly events, 3 festivals and 1 National Poetry slam.

[source:word and sound]

Word and Sound puts on a couple of big festivals each year one that looks to be new is AFR[WE]KA. Afrweka is a festival in conjunction with the department be of arts and culture. This festival boasts 31 Artist with 4 shows in 3 different cities!! (which is dope). The first one took place back in May of this year.

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Scheduled to usher us out of the festivities, the Festival will look to sway swiftly into the swing of Africa Month Celebrations 2015 from: Thursday, 21st May, in Pretoria | Wednesday, 27th May, in Johannesburg | Thursday, 28th May, in Bloemfontein | until the Festival comes to its summit on Sunday, 31st May, in Johannesburg.

The Festival brings together some of South Africa’s most celebrated voices and pairs them with selected voices from the breadth of the SADC Region to sound positive vibrations that will echo throughout Africa. Inspired by the vision of nurturing a new national mindset that employs an intercontinental approach to understanding Africa, its cultures and challenges – the AFR[WE]KA Poetry Festival forms part of the Department’s response to the questions: Who and what is Africa?

By “Putting ‘WE’ in Africa”, the festival seeks address these questions by reverberating the theme for this month’s celebrations in an attempt to remind us that, ‘We Are Africa’! It invokes and celebrates the emotive power and influence of the spoken and written word to foster understanding and unity in the continent, while attempting to create a more holistic African identity through collaboration.

Word N Sound CEO and AFR[WE]KA Poetry Festival Director, Thabiso Mohare, could barely contain his excitement at the prospect of this festival saying,

“We were thrilled to hear from the minister’s office. It is inspiring to see the minister rise above the current state of things with such a powerful and positive initiative and Word N Sound is fortunate to be involved in bringing this celebration of African affirmation to life. Honestly we can’t wait for the festival to begin, big-up to the Minister and his office for undertaking such a beautiful project and giving Africans their voices back. We are really excited to be a part of it and look forward to creating a beautiful festival for all of Africa to enjoy!”

Another big festival that Word and Sound puts on is the the International Youth Poetry Festival. 

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I saw that Buddy Wakefield and Joshua Bennett have been performers at past festivals, which is great because in my opinion we need more cross-cultural collaboration, both with artists and arts organizations around the world. There are really cool things happening in Australia, Germany, South Africa, etc, and the more collaboration that happens the better as a whole it will be for our art form.

I am very excited to showcase this organization and bring our readership more content by way of interviews and poet spotlights to show all of the amazing things happening in spoken word poetry in other parts of the world.

Who Will Be Today’s James Baldwin? And the Artist’s Struggle For Integrity

Who Will Be Today’s James Baldwin? And the Artist’s Struggle For Integrity

James Baldwin – The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity

One of the thought exercises that I am most fascinated by — is around this idea of ‘who are the current day – future legends of poetry’.  Who are the Audre Lorde, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin’s of our time. Do we have a Langston, a Neruda, hanging out among us? With the advent of social media and a generation that is so much more disengaged from the humanities is the aforementioned even a attainable thing?

My father was not a scholar, he was not a highly educated man, but he still had a book of Harlem renaissance poets on our book shelf next to our copy of the encyclopedia Britannica. He still knew James Baldwin by face and knew that what he had to say about the negro meant something, that his words mattered.

Among James Baldwins personal friends he listed Medger Evers and Malcolm X…(WHAT) can you imagine the conversation, shit just the exhale of having to carry all that blackness around you all day. To be able to fellowship with others that are living the same blackness and share a drink, to throw on some Coltrane and laugh and break bread.

When Nina Simone Died, Sonia Sanchez attended the Funeral in Paris. When I read that I wondered A.) the same question I am posing with music (i.e who is our current day Nina, or if that line of thinking is even possible in today’s pop culture) And B.) how they became friends. I found myself fascinated by the thought of house parties in Brooklyn, how they must have sat around until the sun came up and just created, sit around and talk aggressive politics, about the world of publishing, about music.

I thought about if Assata Shakur never had to flee to Cuba, if she was somewhere in Jersey or Philly or wherever I wondered who her friends would be.

I thought about the party in California that Otis Redding was at when he wrote ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’, I wondered what other artists and writers were there.

Poets are not regarded in that manner anymore, there was a time when the top musicians and filmmakers and artist in general hung out with the most prolific poets of the time, this no longer happens. Or maybe it does, maybe my view of ‘poet’ excludes everyone who traditionally exclude us. Perhaps Phillip Levine used  to hang out in Brooklyn with a cohort of dope ass recording artist and filmmakers. Perhaps there are circles that I dont know about, that is not captured on Instagram. Perhaps we ARE the circle, or maybe the original assertion that poets are not regarded the same in popular culture as they once were is true, which makes sense because intelligence is not regarded in the same way either.

I wonder when Basquiat threw parties in his loft what writers were there, what filmmakers and musicians showed up? And who brought the Coke (I imagine there was always coke)

One of the reasons Eternal Graffiti exist is because we have a deep rooted belief that there are James Baldwins and Pablo’s, Sonya Sanchez in our community. That outside of your poetry, you have real meaningful things to say. That as a culture we could all benefit from your words, that they mean something, that they matter.

There are some poets that I think get this. They are fashioning themselves as poets that exist outside of open mic’s, outside of just the slam or the feature, or YouTube. I applaud that and hope to see more of that evolve so at the passing of a great artist like Nina Simone. At the loft of a great artist like Basquiet, at the Brooklyn brownstone of a great poet. History will record us being there, that there is real value in our communion.

That we dont exist a subculture of people that only get on stage and yell at the microphone. That we dont exist as a punchline.

I wonder this all on the backdrop of James Baldwins Birthday. I heard this interview a while back and am glad to finally share it. He talks about integrity in an artists work.

“I want to suggest two propositions. The first one is, that the poets by which I mean all artists are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t, statesman don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t. Only the poets.”

 

[Source – Michigan Chronicle]

 

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Folk singer Odetta (l), writer James Baldwin (l) and Actor Ossie Davis (r) in New Rochelle, October 1963.

Photo Cred: Getty Images