Do You Share What You Know?

Article excerpt

I want to share what I know, to help my brothers and sisters grow. be strong to turn it around. I want to go up, I'm not going down. I want to do what I can do, to make all my dreams come true. Remember my past, the good and the bad, how I made it art, even when it was sad.

--Excerpt from the "Poet's Pledge," Abiodun Oyewole

SUZAN-LORI PARKS OFTEN TALKS ABOUT HER decision to pursue playwriting instead of icr original calling prose and fiction writing. As a student at Mount Holyoke, she was introduced by a teacher to James Baldwin, and she subsequently enrolled in the Famous author's writing workshop. She recalls the day when, after sharing some of her work in class, Baldwin called her out and said, "Miss Parks, have you ever considered writing for the theatre?" Whether Parks accepted the advice without question .or resisted the new designation, she ultimately started writing plays--including, eventually, the 2002 Pulitzer-winning Thpdog/Underdog.

Parks had a master teacher who spoke truth and helped her find her calling. But what happens when you're an aspiring playwright, poet, novelist or artist of any stripe who doesn't have regular access to someone who acts as a sounding board--who helps uncover your strengths, who is willing to give the honest, no-holds-barred feedback that enables you to grow? I witnessed one particularly effective example of this dynamic recently in New York.

I was a guest at the Sunday Night Poet's Haven workshop at the Harlem home of Abiodun Oyewole, a co-founder of the Last Poets, an ensemble that is credited with inspiring the hip-hop movement. For 30 years, Oyewole has been opening his home to poets--established, aspiring and everyone in between--so they can try out new work and receive clear and honest feedback, informed by Oyewole's years of experience as a. poet, teacher and scholar. Seated in a chair facing a makeshift stage in his living room, he greeted guests as they began arriving in late .afternoon. A platter loaded with his fabled homemade salmon cakes sat in the kitchen for all to enjoy. There was small talk and opportunities for new connections; CDs with examples of interesting new work or Abiodun's own verses played in the background.

On the night of my visit, when a critical mass had assembled, the proceedings began with a group recitation of the "Poet's Pledge," followed by an invitation: "All right, who wants to go first? Who has something to share?"

After two or three poets had come forward to share their work, I realized that each ensuing critique was not going to be a simple analysis of the poetry being presented, but rather a wide-ranging discussion--part history lesson, part commentary on the contemporary state of race relations in the U.S., part reminder of seminal artists whose work may have been forgotten. There were riffs on the recent spate of movies that perpetuate the idea that the history of African. …