Jazz Poetry: From the 1920s to the Present

By Sascha Feinstein | Go to book overview
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I heard Etheridge read his poetry for the last time at Butler University on November 14, 1990, about seven months after the jazz poetry symposium. He was joined that evening by Carolyn Forché, and it happened to be his birthday. I hadn't seen him since the symposium, and although he looked almost the same, it was clear that the cancer had gotten worse and that this might be his last birthday celebration.

He gave a stunning reading, filled with humor, political statements, infectious rhythms, and stylistic ease. When Forché came to the podium after his reading, she felt obliged to recognize what he had done. "Etheridge," she said smiling, "you sure know how to warm up a room." He recited most of his poems by heart, enacting his conviction that the power of poetry is, by nature, oral. (In my copy of The Essential Etheridge Knight, he inscribed, "Be / making / sounds / Words / be / beautiful.") Hearing the poems again was like reviewing an autobiography in verse, from "Rehabilitation & Treatment in the Prisons of America" to "Circling the Daughter." When he read "Ilu, the Talking Drum," his bass voice resonated in the refrain. And soon he was rocking to the rhythm of his poetry, shifting his weight left and right, until the pulse of the poem became the pulse of the audience, sounds that we all still hear:

and the day opened to the sound
kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom
and our feet moved to the sound of life
kah doom / kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom
and we rode the rhythms as one
from Nigeria to Mississippi
and back
kah doom kah doom-doom / kah doom / kah doom-doom-doom

( Essential, 55-56)

The symposium took place on April 1, 1990, at the Writer's Center of Indianapolis, which sponsored the event. Later that evening, some of us read at a poetry and jazz performance at the Madam Walker Urban-Life Center.
This transcript was taken from a cassette made at the time of the symposium. Unfortunately, the poor recording equipment produced substandard sound quality, and much of this tape simply could not be deciphered. The passages I have summarized are a collage of words from the tape and my own memory of the conversation.
Here and elsewhere, I have used the abbreviation JPA to represent The Jazz Poetry Anthology ( 1991). For brief examples in this chapter, I have tried to use poems from that anthology for the sake of convenient reference.
For Troupe's reading, as well as jazz poetry performances by a number of other poets, listen to JazzSpeak: A Word Collection.


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