I just let the poem go – Interview with M. Ayodele Heath

 

M. Ayodele Heath is a graduate of the MFA program at New England College. Heath’s honors include a 2009 Dorothy Rosenberg Prize and a McEver Visiting Chair in Writing at Georgia Tech. He has been awarded fellowships from Cave Canem, Summer Poetry at Idyllwild, and the Caversham Centre for Writers & Artists in South Africa and received a grant in Literary Arts from the Atlanta Bureau for Cultural Affairs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in: Crab Orchard Review, diode, Mississippi Review, Callaloo, The New York Quarterly, Chattahoochee Review, and Mythium, as well as featured in anthologies including Poetry Slam: the Competitive Art of Performance Poetry (2000), Java Monkey Speaks Anthology I (2004), and My South: a People, a Place, a World All Its Own (2005). His book of poems, “Otherness” was published in 2011 by Brick Road Poetry Press.

His poem, The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks: Heath Plantation, 1863” appears in RHINO 2011 and you can hear him perform it here. Associate Editor Jacob Saenz interviewed M. Ayodele Heath in late April, 2011.

JS: First, congratulations on receiving an Editor’s Prize in RHINO 2011! It is truly an honor to publish and award such a great poem.  Thank you for submitting it to us, which leads me to ask: what prompted you to submit to RHINO? How did you hear about us?

AH: First, let me say, thank you for believing in the poem, and thank you for the opportunity to showcase it.

I first heard about RHINO in Best American Poetry 2003, when Yusef Komunyakaa selected Susan Dickman’s  poem, “Skin,” from RHINO 2002. I’ve been knocking on RHINO’s door ever since!

JS: I notice on your website (www.ayospeaks.com) you are listed as a performance poet w/numerous awards and honors to your name. As someone who appreciates performance/slam poetry, I am curious as to how you became involved w/slam poetry. Who are some of your influences?

AH: My first experience with a poetry slam was what I would call an eye-opening lesson in the human condition.  In 1995 at a bar in Atlanta’s Buckhead now-defunct bar district, I advanced to the final round with another poet, who, before reading her final poem said to the audience, “I’m not sure what to read, so I’ll let you decide.  I’m gonna read a poem about my pets.  Do you wanna hear about my puppies?  Or my p*ssy?”  The audience went bananas, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how that story ends.  But that poet taught me something very valuable about rule number one of public speaking: Know your audience.

My next significant experience with slam wouldn’t be for another 4 years at the 1999 Southeastern Regional Poetry Slam in Knoxville, TN.  About 40 or so poets from around the Southeast competed in this 3-day competition and I found myself, again, in 2nd place going into the final round of the competition.  This time, the opponent was Knoxville’s Daniel Roop.  But this time, something very different happened.  Daniel was ahead of me by about 2 full points, which is basically insurmountable in the final round of a slam competition.  He took the microphone and proceeded to do a 5-minute long poem, purposefully taking about a 4- or 5-point time penalty.  In other words, he threw the competition.  Three days of competing and this stranger sabotaged himself so that I could win!  I was speechless.  In all my years growing up playing competitive sports, I’d never seen such selflessness.  That gesture—that act—completely changed how I viewed the world of slam.  It shifted my paradigm: I went from viewing performance as an act of receiving to an act of giving.  And it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

My influences are endless.  Here’s a short list: Yusef Komunyakaa, Pablo Neruda, Jean Michel Basquiat, Patricia Smith, Ai, Allen Ginsberg, Ingrid de Kok, Lucille Clifton, Jean Paul Sartre, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, Gil Scott Heron, Charles Simic, Fela Kuti, Galway Kinnell, Q-Tip, Andre 3000, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, Lynn Nottage, William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes.

JS:  How important is the oral versus the written in your poetry?

AH: To me, poetry, like theater or like music, is first and foremost a performance art.  I start with the premise that the “poem” is a spiritual thing and that what appears in print is only a representation of that spiritual thing; the oral performance is another representation.  Of the two, I see the oral poem as closer to the essence of what that spiritual thing is than the written poem.

That being said, I believe the oral poem and the written poem to be two different experiences with the oral as slightly more important because it is closer to the essence of the poem.   I recognize that there are things which can be done on the page which are difficult to approximate in performance and that there are things which can be done in performance which are difficult to translate on the page.  To try to make the oral and the written the same experience is to fail at both.

So, my job as a “performance” poet is to be as true to the written and the oral independently of each other – like a photograph of an object versus a video of an object.  Each operates according to its own rules, its own physics, but each reaches toward its most accurate representation of that spiritual thing; each strives for its own fidelity.

When I think of my poetic lineage, I think of myself belonging to the ancient tradition of poets which predates a literate public – when the masses experienced poetry via the human voice: the epic poetry tradition of ancient Greece, the izibongo praise poetry of the Zulus, the griot tradition of West Africa.  I generally believe that a poem is not a poem until it is read aloud (though there are exceptions.)  I view the written word as technology that allows a different experience of the ‘spirit’ of a poem – technology no different than the internet or video.  My objective is to use the technology most efficiently and most effectively, regardless of what it is.

JS: As a hip-hop fan, I love that your poem in RHINO, “The Stuttering House Negro Diviner Speaks: Heath Plantation, 1863,” contains many samples.  In hearing the audio version, the samples clearly come through, especially with the great reading you give. I love how the poem starts out as a hymn and progresses into more of a hip-hop song. During the writing process, did you know you were going to use so many samples?  Did one sample lead to another? Do the record companies know you sampled their work (ha!)?

AH:Thanks for recognizing the beginning as a hymn, because I’m not much of a singer!

I had no idea I was going to use so many samples.  The poem was actually borne from a prompt at my first Cave Canem retreat last summer.  Cave Canem is a week-long retreat at the University of Pittsburgh with African-American poets from all over the country.  On the first night of the retreat, the 50-or-so attendees sit in a big circle and give a 2-3 minute introduction of ourselves, saying how we came into this space.  There are generations of poets from age 18 to nearly age 80 expressing isolation and unity and in tears of joy and humility – it’s this incredibly moving experience.

After introductions, we were given a prompt that night to write a poem that night about why we were there.  Alone in my room, I thought of the idea of the circle and what was being passed around that circle… and the wisdom entering that circle from the generations before… and the wisdom that would be carried from that circle for generations to come.  And I sat down in front of my blank sheet of paper… and I thought of hip-hop cyphers… and drum circles… and records spinning… and atoms… and how all of this – this music, this pain, this struggle, this tradition of words – how this energy and data were being cycled around and around.  And so I thought of a charge being passed around the circle.  And my subconscious began humming a hymn from the old Baptist church of my childhood, “A Charge to Keep I Have.”

I had no idea where it was going, and no idea how many samples I would use… but my eyes got wet.  I was moved by the earlier experience of that night… and I was frustrated because here I had this concept for a poem, but I had no idea how to get it on the paper.  So, then I found myself crying tears of wonderment and frustration… and I stared at the screen… and I remembered where I was… in space and in time… and of all the supportive energy I’d felt in that circle… and I decided to just go with it.  Cave Canem is such a safe space for a Black poet – where you don’t feel the need to footnote your experience and explain your cultural references, where you feel a freedom to just be your self.… and I just let the poem go.

It was like a kite I was chasing across a hill in a windstorm… The samples just led from one into another.  And then the interruptions in my process gave me the idea to incorporate scratching… and then stuttering as a performance device.  The first draft finished itself about 3 or 4 in the morning, and one of the first times since I was a child, I, Mr. Logic and Reason, had allowed sound to overtake sense – had allowed myself to write something that I didn’t even fully understand.

And no, the record companies don’t know that I sampled their work.  But maybe they need to know.  I could use the publicity!

JS: Who are you reading lately?  Any writers that get you excited about the future of poetry?

AH: A lot of writers have me excited about the future of poetry.  I’ve recently read Terrence Hayes’ ‘Lighthead, ’ Suheir Hammad’s ‘Breaking Poems,’ Douglas Kearney’s ‘The Black Automaton,’ Adrian Matejka’s ‘Mixology,’ and Christian Campbell’s ‘Running the Dusk.’   I’m looking forward to Rupert Fike’s upcoming debut, ‘Lotus Buffet.’

JS: What are you working on now? Any projects?

AH: Currently, I’m busy promoting my recently-released debut poetry collection, Otherness (Brick Road Poetry Press).  And recently, I completed a video project called ‘Poets Make Black History,’ directed by Reggie Simpson, where I performed 28 poems by African-American poets for Black History month.

JS: Finally, do you have any advice for other poets submitting their work, whether to RHINO or elsewhere?

1)     Read, read, read.

2)     Write, write, write.

3)     Never give up.

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