Poet Of The Week

Tai Allen

     March 5–11, 2018

Tai Allen is a poet, performer, vocalist, musician, producer and designer. He has toured domestically and internationally, performing at the Apollo Theater’s Music Café, the National Black Writers Conference, Restoration Rocks, the American Jazz Museum, the Art of Cool Festival and Blue Note, among other venues. His poetry collection No Jewels and its official soundtrack were released in 2017. His work has also appeared in magazines such as BOMB and African Voices, and been featured on sites including Okayplayer, CentricTV, SoulTracks and Grown Folks Music. He has coordinated and curated a number of concerts, exhibits, conferences and festivals. Allen loves basketball, Sterling Brown and Oscar Brown; the 2001 Yankees and the 2012 Giants; gelato, not ice cream, and jerk chicken made on a drum. He blogs about technology, sports and politics. He is sitting in the sun, somewhere near a body of water.

Malo baño, conmigo prima en Sábado

with the water in the bathroom
running hot then cold

there is sound to muffle the off-beat bump of skin

and i think of steamy TV-scenes
as north stars to guide her grabbing hold

with the water in the bathroom
running hot then cold

an older sibling declares
two cousins play wet & unclothed

this ties me to a relative’s lips
and hips in ways i was told are exciting

with the water in the bathroom
running hot then cold

there is sound to muffle off-beat bump of skin

we are steaming in a shimmer of fear that
leads to uneasiness but instructs are clear
”play until i come back      or
until he is done”

while the water in the bathroom
runs hot then cold again

there is sound to muffle
the clumsy skin & wetness

and i act like the movie men do
when their faces are scrunching

while the water in the bathroom
runs hot then cold again

i press and she forwards      all
movement      no rhythm

to please the supervising-adult—
a locked door & darkness—

while the water in the bathroom
runs hot then cold again

there is sound to muffle
the touching skin & wetness

it ends when she calls: dinner is ready
now stop

and keep this quiet

—From No Jewels, Flowered Concrete, 2017.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

I was trying to remember a forced sexual experience. It happened in my preteens. I cannot remember each encounter. I do remember it felt good but oddly wrong. I do remember I was scared the first time. I do remember feeling awkward. I do remember older family convincing me it was okay.

The cousin and I were unsure/uncertain and wholly ill-prepared. We were kids.

But I wrote the poem in contiguous triolet. I thought a broken and disjointed rhyme scheme would help give the timbre of urgency, failed agency, bad rhythm and chaos.

What are you working on right now?

Like all published poets/singers … the selling part while still trying to create. I am blessed to have a tour that is yielding benefits. However, I love the making process and need to carve more time to carve more trees into things.

What’s a good day for you?

Sex, sleep, good food, ESPN, plotting a new idea (like building a beer and wine festival in DC) and making art.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

I am a NYer. Birth. Jamaican/Panamanian heritage. Pretty girls. Great basketball rivalries. Money. Hustling. Brooklyn College. Art outlets. The train to masjids. I was not born in BK but I am a New Yawkah, the City is my City …

Tell us about your neighborhood. How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?

Bed-Stuy for over twenty-five years. It’s family-driven and feels like a town of its own.

Gentrification and new neighbors are increasingly increasing. Tension is heavy.

It’s Bed-Stuy, there is nothing to compare it to. It’s the Stuy!

Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.

I do not have one. Odd question. I think that question is probably a wee bit more for newcomers. Let me think about that. I will return to this. And if I discover a reply, I will leave this and the experience.

RETURNED: I thought about it and naw, I do not have defining experience about home. I think all my experiences regarding BK are meant to shape me.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I do not believe in the poetry community. There is not one. It is mythical. The poetry scenes are vast and diverse. In Brooklyn alone I can name seven. Often these communities do interact or meet.

I dip in and out of them all. It is a fun thought but it is not a fact. More of a wish.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

Hmm. Patricia Spears Jones. T’ai Freedom Ford. Brad Walrond. Jessica Care Moore. Patrick Coker. Jasiri Kafele. Nicholas Nichols (but this is personal).

So many. I was part of great communities of artists. In them, wonderful poets who were about the craft and using their work to build progressive communities. Some, like me, were also attached to activism.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Patricia Spears Jones—recognizing where technique meets emotion.

Willie Perdomo—he emphasized not being afraid to take chances.

My Dad—he made sure I made art that will be successful but have an impact on the communities I love and support.

Abiodun Oyewole (The Last Poets) and Sekou Sundiata (from a distance)—music and poetry can be intersected.

Tracie Morris and Keith Roach—be responsive and responsible to the art form and be involved with training others. But most of all LISTEN to the works of others.

Jasiri Kafele—I learned that I can use my talents on stage, create a stage presence that was rooted in soul music and hip hop. And that is okay, because it attracts the people I want to serve and reach. My People! My Communities!!

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I am reading The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran … the balance between technique, rhythm and emotion.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Things Fall Apart—Chinua Achebe

A Song of Ice and Fire series—George R. R. Martin

Olio—Tyehimba Jess (I started but never finished it)

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

I dip in and out
I do both advance and discovery

What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?

Writing a ballad about a modern topic, like American slavery or oppression.

Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?

Beaches and parks, because I love the water and breezes. A hammock near a park or trees. On a train—the movement is comfortable.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Basquiat’s Bottle—great art space with good alcohol and food. And the music is wonderful.

Flatbush Ave in Flatbush and Fulton St in Bed-Stuy—I love the energy and people watching. Plus, I get to see friends and family, randomly.

Prospect Park—great space for EVERYTHING beautiful and calm and fun and exciting and physical.

Craft beer spots—while I am fighting my beer belly.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate love,
And what I love you love,
For every love you gift me as good love, presents, love to you.

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

There were no signs for us in Brooklyn
as either entry or exits      near homes Biggie
used to roof for dollars at a time with sin

We ranked and filed, though, leaned up waiting for any father
to arrive with dimes & nickels      or calls—via the public jack—
for sweet smelling drugs burned through pipes & pens

One day, we mused, we’ll be hitters, who serve & rob
while capable of imitating      not yanks      but Dodgers
with a team of strong arms, who live to team-love

Why Brooklyn?

Silly question. It’s a planet. I love planets. The planet and its tertiaries bore me. I am born god. Thus I am god who loves a planet.

Makes sense, right?