Poet Of The Week

Janice A. Lowe

     January 28–February 3, 2019

Janice A. Lowe is the current Fellow in Poetics and Poetic Practice at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Lowe is a composer, poet and vocalizing pianist who creates music-text hybrids. She is the author of LEAVING CLE   poems of nomadic dispersal and the chapbook SWAM. Her musical compositions include Desegregation Remix: 3 Women Sing the Borders, a multimedia collaboration with writer Lee Ann Brown; Somewhere in Texas, libretto by Charles E. Drew, Jr.; the opera Dusky Alice; the musical Lil Budda, text by Stephanie L. Jones (Eugene O’Neill Musical Theater Conference and the NAMT Festival of New Works); and Sit-In at the Five & Dime, text by Marjorie Duffield (New Harmony Project). Lowe has created musical settings for the Millie and Christine McKoy syncopated sonnets from Olio by Tyehimba Jess and has composed music for numerous plays including Liza Jessie Peterson’s Chiron’s Homegurl Healer Howls, (New Black Fest); 12th and Clairmount by Jenni Lamb (Stage Left–Chicago); and Door of No Return by Nehassaiu deGannes (Syracuse University). She performs internationally and is currently recording an album: Leaving CLE Song Cycle—Songs of Nomadic Dispersal with her band NAMAROON. She has taught creative writing at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and in the Summer Writing Program at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Author photo by Eric Perl

Once and Future LeBron

Mom interviewed Muhammad Ali
who was always in CLE
turf since the 40s of Don, King Of Numbers
or in Ashtabula County
King’s boxing training champion digs in the country
Ali existed in rumors of playground disruption
play sparring with school kids
showing up deadpan to clock a principal
a surprise neighborhood booster reaching behind his back
from Louisville to Kinshasa to here

Mom wasn’t thinking about taking us kids with her
though John and I begged r&b poignantly
our falsetto pleases shut out by, “You have to go to school”
We kinda knew she didn’t have time to pick us up on her lunch break
and meet The Greatest

After school was a litany of
“What was he like? How was it?”
Proper Mom purred, “He is one fine-looking man”
Our shock was louder than questions
We have the pictures—all of them
Mom, English teacher fine
Dad and Mr. Hyche in their best let’s get stuff done in the community fine-ness

Ali understands hope resuscitation
like James Brown and Gorgeous George bursting through capes laid over feigned or real exhaustion bursting back to dancing, to The Show, The People
Another King, James of Akron, understands defibrillation of hope and cities
When news broke of LeBron leaving the Cavaliers for the Heat, video footage showed a few, maybe more than a few distraught fans burning any number 23 on a textile
A friend offered, “Black folks won’t bother burning jerseys. They’ll just let the brother go.”
I know a few folks who fired up LeBron jerseys in backyard barbecue grills, sisters and brothers who wouldn’t risk being arrested but found a way to effigy their profound questions
Why leave Cleveland? It’s home.

—From LEAVING CLE   poems of nomadic dispersal, Miami University Press, 2016. Audio track: “Once and Future LeBron” written, composed and performed by Janice A. Lowe; keyboards, Janice A. Lowe.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

“Once and Future LeBron” is a mash of memory and mythmaking. The poem was spurred by my finding of a well-loved and beautiful photo of my mother, Willa Lowe, in conversation with Muhammad Ali back in the 1970s, as well as the drama of LeBron James leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers to play for Miami in 2010 and what his trajectory meant to the city’s self and national esteem. In the recorded version, the ending of the poem flows into an improvised meditation on icon worship in general.

What are you working on right now?

I am recording my poetry collection Leaving CLE as an orchestrated song cycle. I am working on several collaborations including composing a musical setting of “Millie and Christine McKoy Sisters’ Syncopated Sonnets,” text by Tyehimba Jess, and composing music for the multimedia piece Desegregation Remix: 3 Women Sing the Borders, a collab with writer Lee Ann Brown. Also writing an introduction for a volume of selected works by avant-garde poet Russell Atkins to be published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center.

What’s a good day for you?

—Taking a long walk (walking a different route, turning a different corner) or a gym workout
—Writing time, including journaling and taking time to write a letter or card to someone
—Music time (piano, vocals)
—Talking with a collaborator
—Seeing friends
—Seeing visual art
—Attending a performance (reading, concert, theater)
—Enough sleep (which never happens)

What brought you to Brooklyn?

In the fall of 1990, I read for the “Night of 100 Poets,” curated by Naadu Blankson Seck at NYU. I decided that evening to leave Boston for Brooklyn. I was staying with friends in Clinton Hill during that visit.

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?

My current neighborhood is Bedford-Stuyvesant, where I’ve lived for about ten years. I love Bed-Stuy’s neighborliness. People speak, nod, notice. The neighbors adorn the scene with surprising artful touches, signage, color, flora. My former neighborhood was Park Slope, very close to Prospect Park, which I enjoyed practically as my backyard. In the Slope, lots of Mom and Pop businesses are closing. That’s disheartening. Bed-Stuy, with its beautiful housing stock, is becoming unaffordable for black residents and artists who have kept this neighborhood livable.

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

With playwright Melanie Maria Goodreaux and fourth-grade students at P.S. 156, devising a Brooklyn-inflected “hip hopera” set in Brownsville was an amazing love song to the community.

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

I’m grateful to be part of a mutual support and satellite system of artists of many genres who live and work in New York City. I’m a fan of the cooperative model of the Belladonna* Collaborative and their publication of innovative texts by women.

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

Patricia Spears Jones is a wonderful poet and curator whom I’ve known for thirty years. She’s one of the most enthusiastic poetry boosters I know. She brings writers together to share work, to activate and just to hang.

The very musical Tai Allen is a writer, performer and curator who keeps up with multiple generations and genres of writers around the country. He plans lots of Brooklyn happenings.

Liza Jessie Peterson is a memoirist, playwright, activist and actor with several popular solo shows in her wheelhouse, who has written about her experiences teaching incarcerated youth.

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

Julie Ezelle Patton is definitely a mentor. She’s a multigenre artist—visual, writing, music—who doesn’t limit her expression (or others’) with the constriction of labels. I’m admire composer-lyricist-dancer Kirsten Childs because her way of working with music and language is kinetically charged. Obliterating those lines is how I’m rolling.

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

AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper by Giovanni Singleton. Singleton’s way of working with the visual—with type, with text, with graphics—makes the words become anthropomorphic singing beings.

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

Atmospheric Embroidery by Meena Alexander. She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks by M. NourbeSe Philip.

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 like reading at the beach—the Rockaways, Long Beach, Fire Island. I recreate that feeling on weekend days in my apartment with a mat, a cool drink and lots of sunlight coming through the window. I prefer to stay with one, to read a lot in a day.

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

I’d like to make the poem visual, make a series of short musical films of poems.

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

Doctor’s Cave Café, Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, Williamsburg Library.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

Weeksville Heritage Center is very much of and welcoming to community. Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop is the rarest of poetry specialty shops and has a great reading series. Calabar Imports showcases artists and entrepreneurs. Frank’s Lounge is Fort Greene neighborhood gold. BAM pushes ahead in a grand space. National Sawdust has beautiful programming and acoustics. Issue Project Room is an unusual and beautiful silo-like space. South Oxford Space’s Great Room is old-New-York, polished-hardwood quality.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate the unlocking of generational secrets,
And what I learn of me as you reveal you,
For every unguarded me as good fuel frees you.

Why Brooklyn?

This is an endlessly diverse, artful, open, justice-affirming, open-sky, neighborhoody place.