Sunday, February 10, 2008

Where The Energy Is: Versiz and Future

That's Detroit poet Versiz on the left.

I've been ruminating on this claim for a couple of weeks, and now here goes -- this frigid Sunday I'm ready to commit: If you want to know where the real energy is in the poetry scene in Flint, this, without a doubt, is the answer. It's not in the University where I work (and teach creative writing, so I'm commenting about myself). It's not in the small struggling pods of young downtown writers, as admirable as are their efforts. It's in the African American community.

Well, Duh. I"ve understood this for several years now, and I think it's interesting and worth discussing. A dramatic example: A couple of weeks ago I showed up at the Kiva at UM-Flint for "Flint UnPlugged," a poetry event organized by Flint's irrepressible Ed Wilson, aka Future. It was a cold, dark night and I got there a bit late, remembering how most poetry events, perhaps reflecting the phlegmatic state of a lot of the poets I know, along with their constitutional inability to keep to the world's timetables, start late. But Future and his colleagues are pros, and he runs things like a Hollywood mogul. When I arrived the event was already in full stride, every seat taken, the house lights down, somebody from Detroit wailing away at the mic, the crowd loudly cheering her on.

(That's Flint's Ed "Future" Wilson on the right. He's got a great smile, though you can't tell it here.)

I had to sit on the carpeted steps. The Kiva holds 300 people, friends. That's THREE HUNDRED. I can't remember the last time in Flint when 300 people showed up for poetry in Flint, if ever -- even in the Fall of 2006, when former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass came in on a Green Arts visit, we felt lucky to attract about 100 to the same venue.

The show went on for several hours, and an acquaintance of mine said UMF Housekeeping had to scoot the last folks out at 11 p.m. Wilson, a UMF mass communications grad, along with an energetic Flint cadre including local favorite Amber Lakes, recent Red Ink MC Dawn Demps, and UM - Flint Communications Prof. Traci Currie, has been putting together one galvanizing event after another.

The most impressive poet that night, in my view, was Detroit virtuoso Jamaal May, who goes by the nom de mic Versiz. His suite of war poems, in particular, was gripping. Before performing them he said something like, "Where are the war poems?" and chastised the white poetry establishment -- this war's going on and on, he said, and "they're sitting around writing about...I don't know...trees." Ouch -- as a Green Arts teacher, I protest that specific disparagement. More on that later -- nonetheless, his poems were riveting. And he's venturing into putting those poems onto the page, announcing the selection of some of his work recently by Atlanta Review.

Wilson's performance that night is viewable on his myspace page He's an amiable egotist , self-declared "handsome dude" with gargantuan talent and heart. He says in one piece I've heard him perform a couple of times, "I learned to love my scars."

"There's more man in my poems," he exuberantly asserts, his arms flying in that curved-hand dance of the hip hoppers, "than society's seen in the past 20 something odd years...I'm gifted."

But he's not just out for himself -- he offers hard critiques of BET, "fools puttin' $10,000 rims on" and a ghetto culture with not enough father love or meaningful support. (In the following quotes I apologize if I don't get everything exactly as he says them -- I transcribed them from the video) "I know how it feels to shape your goals only to have the world shoot through 'em," he declares. "to watch your dreams die on a hotel balcony."

In the same piece, he contends, "The ghetto is full of animals/cannibals that are ruining your home/devouring what you own/dealing death for life."

"So it's hard to smell the roses when you grow up in a world full of problems/with no help tryin' to solve's easier to love the devil at your door." Maybe that's why Wilson and Versiz don't have time to write about trees.

Future's gospel ends with a pledge to "love you to death," and at the Kiva that cold January night in Flint, the audience roared back their approval. If this is where the poetry is these days in Flint, we could do worse.


Krista said...

As you know, I've never been all that into poetry, but attending the local poetry events has been enlightening. I *think* maybe I do like poetry but lack of exposure in my formative years had a decidedly negative effect on my perception and understanding. I'm not about to claim I'm suddenly in love with it, but I will admit that when I give it a chance, I am often surprised by just how moving it is.

Macy Swain said...

That's not surprising, Krista. The way some people get exposed to poetry really drains the life out of it. But it's pretty hard to resist the vitality of the crowd I wrote about here.