Thursday, January 09, 2014

Amiri Baraka: With Us


In high school — in an experimental and, admittedly, audacious casting twist — I played Lula in our basement black box production of Amiri Baraka's Dutchman. I was about 16 and it’s a punch of a play. If you know it, you can imagine: The assignment changed my life. Perhaps even rearranged it.

Shirley Knight (Lula) and Al Freeman Jr. (Clay) in Dutchman, 
the 1967 film based on Baraka's play.

Over the years, reading (and reading about) Baraka gave me permission: To be an artist and unabashedly Black. To be bold and proud and speaking. To think like a beatnik sometimes. To be simultaneously poet, performance essayist and playwright. To be a race woman. To invest in my creativity, in the pursuit of liberation. To amplify. To connect. To endure.

I got to meet him in 2010. The UMass Amherst Department of Theatre brought us together for an event called "Voices of the Revolution." This was part of Art and Power in Movement: An International Conference Rethinking the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. I was dizzy with the dream come trueness of it. Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins and Lydia Diamond were there, too. Kirsten Greenidge joined us in spirit. We had all been invited to campus to share excerpts of our plays. To listen for the connections and wonder at the shifts. To celebrate our nerve. To ask: What does time do to the project of creating Black characters for the American stage? Who do our plays speak for? Who do our plays speak to? What are the rhythms of the speaking? What happens after the listening? For me, this was a very big deal. I was thrilled for the opportunity to share beside these s/heroes and elders. How would their ears touch my work?

Baraka sat in the front row, frazzled from arriving late and a bit distracted. There was a phone buzzing in his lap. He kept his coat on. During the first half of the event, under the gaze of legends, the student actors were all sweat, stutter and struggle. But when we got to my scene, I felt relief. I had written flirtatious dialogue between a student and her professor, an excerpt from an early draft of MERIT, a black feminist sex comedy. I was acting in it myself. Gilbert McCauley was my scene partner. We were facing off, being grown, having fun. With a straight face, my main character said something scandalous and Baraka actually gasped! He lightly slapped his knee, put his phone away and leaned in for the rest. "Good," I thought, "He’s with us."

After the event, we shook hands and got a good, close-up look at each other. He didn't speak but pointed his forefinger at my nose, nodding in approval, like a literati godfather. I smiled. Big. I said "Thank you, Mr. Baraka." It was all I could muster and what I said today upon hearing the news of his death.

Thank you, Amiri Baraka, for being here, for watching it all, for telling us about ourselves with the American music we craved and need. I'm dancing to it now. The work continues. And you’re with us.


(A version of this post first appeared on Facebook.)

Monday, December 30, 2013

Mildest Words

I woke up thinking about a little folk singer’s broken open letter; about righteousness, accountability, privilege and compassion; about slave songs and multi-million dollar renovations; about “glory days,” ghosts and how the wind done gone; about how people call what happened on plantations pain and suffering, the mildest words for torture.

I’m also thinking about how unsustainable pedestals are; about how brilliant, progressive artists will often double as flawed human beings. And of course. 

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about how anger can be useful but, ultimately, my questions mean more to me than my rage. I’m an artist. I love creative retreats. I love Southern Louisiana. But financially and emotionally, I could not afford the Righteous Retreat. Even if bell hooks and Pema Chödrön were on site to help us process it all, I’d never register for such a thing. I'm sensitive. I doubt I could get a good night’s rest in a slave captor’s fancy old bedroom. I doubt I could sip sweet tea on the Big House porch without barfing on the white rocking chairs. My urge to trash the joint would be too strong. 

When I went to the event website and read the invitation to get “suntans in the light of each other’s company,” I knew the organizers were not imagining my body, mind or heart in that “captivating setting.” 

I’d probably write an excellent poem or song there. Because lotus flowers can grow out of the mud. But we’ve got to call it mud, Sun. Even freshly painted and manicured, it has always been mud. 

I’m trying to imagine the perfect retreat cancellation statement. Maybe “I didn’t think this through” would have been enough? Maybe the artist’s best words are in all those lyrics we love. 

May we do the best we can with what we believe and know. May we call each other higher as we call each other out.

(A version of this post first appeared on Facebook.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Be Free. Hop In.


My first marriage proposal came from "Sage, the Chariot Man." That’s what he called himself. He was six feet tall with dreadlocks, a messy nest of blond beard and the most muscular legs I had ever seen, live. He was a hippie wizard-looking dude in frayed shorts, layers of indigo linen and hemp, a turquoise pendant on a hairy chest, a paddy hat pointing up to the Sun. Sage was kind and wild and magnetic. His direct gaze was cushioned by crow’s feet. His smile could clear clouds. His knuckles were blushed, chapped and peeling. He blew on a horn.  


I knew him for fifteen minutes but I’m not going to lie: I sort of fell in love with him. The way you fall in love with a good mountain view.

It was my second semester at Ithaca College and Bea (that's what I'll call her) was visiting from San Francisco. I took her to Buttermilk Falls, my cherished place, and watched her strip down to her underwear. That's the way she prayed. 

“Oh my Goddess, this water’s amazing!” She called out, reaching to me, as she baptized herself. I stood still, shy, too modest. I thought Jesus wanted me to be modest. Back then, I only prayed on my knees. I gestured toward the “no skinny dipping” sign but Bea splashed and insisted, “Sister, you have to come in here!” 

Before I could say no again, she slipped on the wet, black rocks. It was scary and I gasped but she recovered, as usual, quickly. We cackled to cover the bruises. I watched her with my right hand over my throat. She convinced me to take off my shoes. The water was cool, like forgiveness. She took pictures of our electric blue toenails, the deep emerald pools of the gorge, the neon moss growing on everything. It was Spring. Of course, it was Spring.

After our hike, we caught a bus to the Ithaca Commons. Bea soaked the seats. Holding hands, we talked nonstop about boys. I wore my favorite T-shirt, stiff and cream, with the word WHATEVER printed above my breasts. We reached our stop and spent our last quarters on organic popsicles from Oasis, the health food store. 

Sage turned the corner, like an athletic Jesus or Gandalf’s great grandson or a vagabond Zeus. Clutching a lever covered in batik, he hauled the most colorful rickshaw behind him. It was built out of dreamcatchers, stuffed with sitting pillows, as wide as an adolescent elephant. 

Emboldened by Bea, I walked right up to him and asked twenty questions. I even pulled out my little journal to take notes. He was from nowhere, he told me, just passing through. He fell in love with human-powered transportation in the early 1990s. This was not a hobby, this was his calling. He roamed the United States, chasing warm weather and accepting passengers. The little caravan also served as his handmade bed, his only closet, his greatest passion, his meditative practice and his sole source of income. He offered us a two dollar ride but we didn’t have cash. He shrugged and showed his teeth. 

“Be free,” he said, “Hop in.” 

With grace and ease, the Chariot Man pulled us both around town. It was an alternate world inside the rickshaw. A safe, sacred space of owl feathers, twine and glass beads. We snuggled in Sage’s spider web, we sighed, we shouted with glee:

“Oh my Goddess, this is magic!

“It’s so comfortable in here! Wow!” 

“It’s like being inside a rainbow!” 

“This is the smoothest ride ever!”

“You are so fast! You are so strong!”

Sage jogged, steadily. Every minute or so, he’d lean on the lever, using our weight for balance, to float or spin or take a ten foot leap. He pedaled the air and tooted something medieval on his horn. We ooohed and aaahed at his every breath, step and explanation. It was a blissful ride. Ten minutes? He didn’t even sweat. 

I de-boarded, reluctantly. Bea started taking pictures so we'd never forget it. I thanked Sage, shaking his hands. He nodded like he was a hundred years old. He opened his arms for a hug. This relieved me. I was pleased to discover that he smelled like patchouli, not neglect. We leaned back, locking eyes, quietly bridging our differences and that’s when he asked, really hummed:

“Will you be my wife? For the night?”

Somehow I wasn’t offended. Would you have been offended? It was the most serene request for sex of all time. I exhaled and considered his invitation. How could this crazy story start? I lost my virginity (better yet, found an orgasm) in some guy’s giant dreamcatcher.

But I was the type of girl who wouldn’t even skinny-dip with a friend. No way was I going to get naked with a roving stranger. “Nah, Sage. Nah, brother. No.” I said. “I’ll take it as a compliment, though.”

He nodded. Sagely. 

He pressed his palms together to offer a namaskar. I echoed the gesture then watched his eyes blossom with a new idea. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a chunk of amethyst. He placed it in my palm. It was warm, jagged, glinting, heavy. “My birthstone!” I shouted. I was nineteen. My whole life was an exclamation point. 

“I went into a cave and dug this out myself.” He boasted, gently. “It’s a piece of my heart. Have it.” This time, it wasn’t a pick up line. This time, it was a peace out line. Exuding good vibes, he watched me study and stroke the sharp edges of the purple rock. We were quiet and bonded and beautiful. We would never see each other again. 


Bea made us pose for a final photo. I’m looking at it right now. I’m smiling just as big as what was captured. All those years ago.

Friday, December 06, 2013

break build bloom boom

Technically, I haven't been "a slam poet" for over a decade. I write poems, I perform some of them and, willing, I'll continue this practice. For decades more.

But I only compete with myself now. The only scores I track are musical.

Slam taught me so much. Like how to be honest in public. Like how to love on strangers with timed stories. Like how to hold an entire room with my eyes, arms, two cents, and best intentions. Like how the mouth needs the ears to breathe. Like how three minutes can change your whole life...

Slam taught me more than I can tell you.

So did Euripides. So did Dutty Boukman. So did Ella Fitzgerald and Meredith Monk. So did James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill and Judith Jamison. So did Michael Jackson and MC Lyte.

If you're reading this, you teach me, too. If you're reading this, I hope you'll hear me, live, someday.

Long live the words that connect us. Written, edited and embodied. Including gibberish.

Long live poets who project their voices. We did so before and during the popularity of the term "spoken word" and, willing, we will continue.

Long live the universal language, the act and impact of self-naming, and the willingness to gather for sound.

Long live the lines that break and build and bloom and boom for love.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

new poem: block party


block party

summer me thumb piano
cherry-stained fingerprints
belly rub white linen
cinnamon bark nettle tea
laundry line in rain
fire escape no ladder
air condition high
swallow swift overhead
dove coo for mimicking
linger sun fill lungs
summer poems come slow
pencil smudge paper sky
butterfly flirts with torso
sit bones dare bike ride
cracks on path hurt thrill
headphones blare erotic
city dawn funk fuck
mosquito slap arm swell
citronella restlessness
lemonade floods speech
poet grieves then lives
poet sweats then writes

© 2013 by Lenelle Moïse

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Inspiration: Annie Vought

As a writer who still sends handwritten letters, I am floored by the patience, passion and power of Annie Vought’s Cut Paper series. Vought reshapes found texts into irresistible sculpture. She works enlarged wonders with an X-acto knife.

I sent her a poem about my flying dreams, and look what she made! 



Lunar Bounce (detail) by Anne Vought.

She tells me this piece, Lunar Bounce, is almost 5 feet tall. It’s up in Holland somewhere right now. One of the best things about being an artist is inspiring other artists. Thanks, Annie, for this lovely take and creative transcription of my dream. 


The text:


dear annie,

my flying dreams are the only ones i remember
no capes no feathers
just hot pink converse sneakers
& a mighty lunar bounce
confidence puffs my chest
my eyes well with fearlessness
i’m a happier version of the hulk
crossing the country in a series of effortless leaps
the clouds are shaped like planes
i wave to seagulls & talk
with god
when the alarm goes off
my heart is soaring
but my heels itch

For more of Vought’s work, check out this great interview: http://inthemake.com/annie-vought/

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Cambridge-bred

In February 2010, I was invited to be a guest artist at my beloved alma mater, Cambridge Rindge & Latin School. It was Black History Month. The Diversity Programs Coordinator scheduled me to perform two 45-minute sets for Periods 2 and 4. Hundreds of students poured into a newly renovated library auditorium to hear my poems and stories about “the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality and culture.” In many ways, CRLS embodied that intersection. I remember looking out at the student body and remarking, “It’s good to see you again. I graduated in 1998 but you look exactly the same!” The teenagers giggled, knowingly. Rindge remains one of the most socioeconomically diverse high schools in the United States. In 2010, the boy called Suspect 2 was a junior. Did he catch my show? Did he applaud my words about peaceful coexistence and compassion? 

Like him and many Rindge alum, I am an immigrant. I moved from Haiti to the U.S. in 1983. My family moved from Dorchester to Cambridge in 1988. I grew up broke, in a strict household that was alternately affectionate and hostile. As a young person, I knew my greatest privilege was being a resident of what we proudly nicknamed "The People's Republic of Cantabridgia." For me, school was a safe haven. Every day in the hallways, I greeted Joanne from the Dominican Republic, Malik from West Philly, Chara from Liberia, Semhar from Eritrea, Desiree from Trinidad, Mario from Greece, Chris from Cape Verde, Kubhear from Malaysia—and I could go on. Aminah was Indian but adopted by white parents. Our school was full of multiracial, hyphenated, new and layered Americans.

We were each other’s cultural ambassadors. We were Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, polytheistic and agnostic. We were hip-hop, folk, jazz, punk, grunge and pop. We built deep friendships and made first love across ethnic lines. 

We offended each other, too. Told each other off. Debated with a mix of newly acquired SAT vocabulary and fad slang. We asked corny-ass, politically incorrect questions. We humored each other. We scoffed at the word tolerance, aiming, instead, for acceptancecelebration, even. We learned how to curse in each other's first languages. And, after school, “underneath the overpass,” we flirted with kids our grandparents might not have approved of—kids who looked, dressed and ate nothing like us. 

Our sweaty prom photos are so frickin' hip, y’all.

Our crowded class portraits reflect the America Obama's always talking about.

In Cambridge, borders seemed simply technical. King’s dream seemed attainable. Rindge wasn’t perfect but it was where I learned the word feminism, the phrase social justice, the initialism LGBT. It's where my teachers, peers and community leaders came out to me in school-wide assemblies. It’s where the school motto is "opportunity, diversity, respect." 

You saw all those flags waving in the explosion footage at the Boston Marathon finish line? I saw dozens of flags every single day at school. They were huge above our heads, on permanent display in our gymnasium, a constant reminder that the "Falcons" represented 80 different nations. I think of people from all over the world when I think of my hometown.

The boy called Suspect 2 lived five blocks from my old address. Much is being made about this alleged bomber’s birthplace and religion but I can’t shake it: he was a kid from Cambridge. He looks like so many kids from Cambridge. The criminal with the gun, the explosives, the cryptic tweets—the fugitive bleeding in the boat—he shows up in hip prom photos, too. 

I met a lot of students after my 2010 performances at Rindge. Did I smile at Johar? Did he shake my hand? When and how did he become the Dzhokhar we’re reading about in the news? What did growing up in Cambridge, MA mean to him?