Laying It Down
This Langston riff is for that cardigan-sweater-wearin’ blues poet Raymond R. Patterson, Professor Emeritus, CCNY, author of 26 Ways of Looking at a Black Man and Elemental Blues.
I found Langston behind his typewriter the year after Ed Randolph, my first mentor, gave me poetry so I could stop fighting in a Quaker school. Freshman year Joyce and Piri Thomas were required reading in Mr. Byrne’s lit class, but I took the liberty of putting Langston on my financial-aid voucher. That night, taking breaks from algebra, I heard the dogs in the street bark, couples argued, kids were being called in for dinner, and I went through those selected poems like I was stranded in a desert and a chilled bottle of Poland Spring water fell from the sky. I had a pop-up book in my hand, complete with the language to get around Lenox Avenue, to talk with the Madam, to play bop rim shots, to get inside the revolution, and to fall in love. Here I was, walking down the block with brand new ears, big as they were. Langston gave me the first song that I recited to my Sugar Hill thrill, that sweetie I made the “Harlem Love Poem” with, the poem I tried to memorize so that I could recite to her when we had all of Harlem in our hands from her project rooftop.
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
And for your love song tumble their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
Some years later, I started laying it down like Langston, Ntozake, Miky Pinero, Amiri, William Carlos, Nikki, and Sonia, and I got caught between the page and the stage. Everybody said it sounded different when you heard it than when you read it and I was like, yeah, no doubt, we can’t always use the same beat. I just want to sing, man. I could take you to the racial mountain if you want. If you like it, it don’t matter. If you don’t like it, that don’t matter either. We stay true. Ask Rilke. If you need to write it, then write it. That’s all. I’ve been a street poet, spoken-word artist, performance poet, hip-hop poet; see “Spotlight at the Nuyorican Poets Café”; shit, they even called me Word Perfect on occasion.
My first set was blessed by Langston’s “Prime,” you know that line at the end, where the brother says he found himself coming to his “prime / In the section of the niggers / Where a nickel costs a dime,” yeah, that was it, my first set, and that original manchild from the promised land, Claude Brown, said I had arrived, born again, but this time I was coming with some coquito and some lechon, some oye como va down Lexington Avenue, some straight boogie-woogie rumba, getting on the 6 train to Loisaida, watching Puerto Rican flags fall into the East River, one by one, and kicking it at the Nuyorican Poets Café with Langston riffs like:
don’t let your dog
except I liked to catch junkies in the middle of their catch-22s like
Langston put it down for all of us, and like Miky, he was good when he was doing bad, when he had to testify but really wanted us to listen to that tom-tom of those beating feet, marching for the right to live. Singers of self, those who know that things ain’t right, that the avenues need a voice, that sugar cane workers found dominoes on the curb, that it was time for Susanna Jones to wear red and get Simple when we needed to, that the weary blues are color-blind . . . that when we stop laughing, stop loving, and stop living, we stand and tell the world we’re here, singing in the face of what we remember.