Thursday, July 19, 2007

Poet, teacher, griot, Sekou Sundiata died this morning...

There have been some contradictory reports on the web today -- nothing on the wire services or news sites as yet -- but I've just received confirmation that the Harlem-born poet, Sekou Sundiata, died this morning of heart failure. He was 58.

N.B. Quotations, below, come from a conversation I had with Sekou just after his 58th birthday.

I'll update this post as further information comes to hand.

UPDATE JULY 25: See also Mike Doughty's excellent blog for some insights into Sekou's creative process and teaching methods...

UPDATE JULY 20: This, posted an hour ago, at the New York Times. (You should be able to access the article without registering.) Margalit Fox writes:
Mr. Sundiata was born Robert Franklin Feaster in Harlem on Aug. 22, 1948; he adopted the African name Sekou Sundiata in the late 1960s. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from City College of New York in 1972 and a master’s degree in creative writing from the City University of New York in 1979.

He is survived by his wife, Maurine Knighton, known as Kazi; a daughter, Myisha Gomez of Manhattan; a stepdaughter, Aida Riddle of Brooklyn; his mother, Virginia Myrtle Singleton Feaster of Kingstree, S.C.; two brothers, William Feaster of Belleville, N.J., and Ronald Feaster of Manhattan; and one grandchild.

Mr. Sundiata, who performed with the folk rock artist Ani DiFranco as part of her Rhythm and News tour in 2001, released several CDs of music and poetry, including “The Blue Oneness of Dreams” (Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records) and “longstoryshort” (Righteous Babe Records). His work was also featured on television, on the HBO series “Def Poetry” and the PBS series “The Language of Life.”

UPDATE JULY 19: Melbourne Festival Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds writes:
"Sekou Sundiata was a man of extraordinary generosity and kindness, and his death is a profound loss. For many years he has fuelled our thinking about our work, our charge as artists, and as human beings through his wisdom, his honesty, his poetry, music and song. [...] Personally, I know I am greatly enriched for having known him."

For Sekou, a poem was not finished -- not whole -- until it was heard. Spoken or chanted. Or simply sounded out in the head of the reader "in companionable solitude."

Poetry, he used to say, is music for the mind. It's something to be recorded rather than published. You won't find his work on book shelves, you'll find it in the CD racks.

We're not talking "love, dove, heavens above" here either! A failing body, a fractured nation, a frightening world... these were all vital subjects -- unavoidable subjects -- to Sekou and his swerving, slithering, staccato poetry.

Had he been born in Mali instead of Harlem, Sekou might have been a griot instead of a poet and teacher. But then the roles aren't that all that dissimilar: passing on the history and oral tradition of a family -- of a people -- is the task of the griot. And Sundiata, incidentally, was the given name of the first Malian ruler to have a griot to advise him, more than half a millennium ago.

The Harlem-born poet came of age in the sixties. Thanks to the civil rights movement -- to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Pablo Neruda and Amiri Baraka -- Sekou believed in the power of the spoken word to change the world. Not through badgering or bluster -- or even preaching necessarily -- but by wondering aloud.

He watched Baraka and Allen Ginsberg "perform" their poetry live. It was a time, he said, "of performance and self-expression throughout the culture, especially throughout the youth culture."

Hearing him, one thinks of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis; his light baritone snakey and hypnotic.
Poetry pays a great deal of attention to rhythm and pacing and tempo; to many of the characteristics of music. [That's] a clue to us that it is meant for the ear as well as for the eye.
Sekou likened the experience of hearing Neruda's voice in New York's cavernous St John the Divine Cathedral to listening to a music composition.

"Early on, I started working with music and musicians. From the very beginning, I was moving in that direction. I never sought publishing. I don't hang out in literary circles. I followed a very atypical path as a poet. My goal was [always] to record."

Sekou taught literature at New York's New School University where he taught Ani DiFranco (who says "[he] taught me everything I know about poetry") and Soul Coughing's M Doughty. Sekou later recorded on DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records.

He taught DiFranco that poetry isn't part of literature, that it is "rooted in music and drama and ritual and magic." To "declaim [it] is to claim its ancient roots."

Sekou practiced what he preached. He made genre-bending stage shows about slavery in Mauritania, about his own life-threatening encounter with kidney disease (Blessing the Boats) and, most recently, about citizenship, identity, security and the place of America in the world post-9/11.

Sekou Sundiata Blessing the Boats

To Sekou, words were magical. They have the power to conjure. "I think poetry is rooted in incantation. Those of us who love poetry can hear it aloud can be spellbound. Even if it's in a language we can't understand."

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Blogger newtown honey said...

Hi Chris! Curtis from NH - just a short note to say thank you for taking the time to come to our show.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Thanks Curtis. It looks like my Herald Sun review isn't going to run. (Space has been unusually tight of late.) You're a bit unlucky, really. This is the first review of mine this year not to make the cut. (Hey, and it wasn't all bad!!) :)

Best wishes for the home trimester too.

1:47 AM  

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