MLK poetry symposium: “The Fierce Urgency of Now”

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by Bird Williams
Staff Writer

On Monday evening, Jan. 15, 2018, the International Writers Guild presented a free, two-hour “poetry showcase” at Keene Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Organizers planned the event to showcase “the power of the word” and to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose own words “were the catalyst for the social change he inspired globally.”

The event did not disappoint.

The International Writers Guild promotes “cultural awareness, consciousness, and diversity through the arts.” Its theme for the evening was “The Fierce Urgency of Now,” and legendary Tony, Emmy, and Peabody Award–winning, Def Poetry poet Black Ice (Lamar Manson) headlined the event.

Black Ice is a pioneer of the spoken word movement and was instrumental in turning it into a mainstream art form. He toured with Mary J. Blige and the award-winning Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and is featured on platinum-selling albums by Kendrick Lamar and other notable artists. He is also the only poet ever signed to Def Jam Records—because, as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons said, “When I saw Black Ice, I knew the world was ready for poetry.”

Ann Arbor was too.

Keene Theater is an intimate venue, with 60 seats at stage level and 90 balcony seats. Audience members waited in line for 40-plus minutes before the doors opened and latecomers leaned against walls once the seats were claimed.

Black Ice taught a Masters Writing Course to local teens before the reading, and two of these students opened the event. Then the stage went black and a recording of writer James Baldwin reminded us that “only the poets know us.” Then Black Ice took the stage.

Black Ice remade the Gil Scott-Heron single “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” for the premiere of “Free Angela—and All Political Prisoners”, a historical documentary produced by Jay-Z and Will and Jada Smith. The poems he shared monday were equally revolutionary. He addressed mass incarceration, poverty, fatherhood and the rage so many felt as we watched the ineffectual rescue efforts that followed Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans. His final poem called out the racial targeting of people of color and he reminded his audience that the piece resulted in the FBI placing him on the no-fly list after the 9/11 terror attack.   

Guild artists Bayan Founas, Justin Gordon, Candace Jackson, Mikhaella Norwood, Xiao Bin Pan, Darius Simpson, Mariah Smith, and Micah Smith opened the next set with a group piece, then performed individually. Pan described her immigrant grandparents who worked in Brooklyn sweatshops where “labor regulations don’t reach those who recognize that their broken bodies are all they can offer their children.” Founas traced the transformation of her hijab from an object of derision to one of empowerment. Simpson described the night he learned that the police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King had been acquitted—and how his anger transformed his blood into “jet fuel.”

Near the end of the evening Black Ice reminded us that spoken word began in artists’ apartments, where poets snapped their fingers to encourage and congratulate each other because clapping would have resulted in noise complaints.

“This is like church to us,” he said. His insight was met by a deluge of enthusiastic snapping.

“Conversion Therapy,” a poetry chapbook by local International Writers Guild member Darius Simpson, was released on Monday and is available for purchase online and in local bookstores.




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