Vol. 24, At Nommo Writing Workshop
Every time I come home to New Orleans I sit in on my father Kalamu ya Salaam's writing workshop. It's called Nommo and usually has a diverse group of six to eight active members at every meeting. The workshop is not for sissies. The evenings are long and the meetings are frequent. The weekly Tuesday night workshop starts at 6 p.m. and can easily run until midnight, depending on how many members brought work to share. There are poets, prose writers, critics, essayists and screenplay writers. There are teens, folks in their twenties, thirties, and forties. These days there aren't as many men as women, but overall, it's an extremely dynamic group.
It's so easy for me to forget the value of face-to-face contact with writers. I was able to attend the workshop two weeks in a row this trip. During the first evening, someone asked me if I had something to read. "Nope," I said. "I'm disappointed," he said, "but I'll be here next week, will you bring something?" I told him I'd try. Actually, I knew I could. After completing my second novel (draft) last year (I completed it before I departed for Brazil in January), I found myself no longer interested in the project. It was almost as if I needed to write the novel to learn about structure, because once it was complete, I felt uninterested in developing it. Instead of working on the novel, I spent my weeks in Brazil reading voraciously. I devoured seven books in a month. And when I returned to New York, what did I do? I picked up the first novel, the one that has been developing itself in sporadic growth spurts since 1995.
Anyway, I had begun the rewrites of chapter 1, and I had just a few more scenes to complete, so I promised myself I'd bring it in. By the end of the night, I wanted to bring the chapter in, not only because of my promise, but also because I found myself inspired while listening to the creativity of the other writers. There were two poems and one novel/memoir excerpt read that first night, and each of them were powerfully critiqued. I felt the breath of creation. I saw the result of writers sitting around in their rooms messing with words. I was reminded that while cyber communities are wonderful, there is a spark of life that person-to-person contact offers—a spark that can not be duplicated on the computer screen.
Bringing in the chapter turned out to be a wise move. Because the "plot" of the novel bounces all over the world, through different time periods, I had not, in the past, been able to make the manuscript stick together as a cohesive whole. Would my newly conceived concept hold the novel together? Could I simply weave in a new perspective to breathe new life into the novel? Would readers be able to follow where I was leading? Reading it aloud gave me access to so much. It helped me hear the faults in the language, it helped me imagine the story as a stranger would hear it, and it gave me the opportunity to present my new twist to a listening audience.
They got it. There were critiques that were dead on, but beyond that, they understood what I was trying to do, told me the idea works, and pointed out the places where the idea failed and told me exactly why. I would be lying if I said I am now gung ho, raring to write the remainder of the novel, but I can say that I am more confident in the direction I've chosen, and were I involved in a live writing workshop, I'd have company for this solitary journey I'm embarking on. But I meant to talk about the workshop.
A major element of the Nommo workshop is the reading presented at the beginning of the evening. As an organizer from the civil rights and black arts movements, Kalamu is just as interested in the ideological development of the members of the workshop as he is in their technical development. He believes in writers being a critical voice in our society and uses every opportunity he has to get writers to examine the philosophies underpinning their work, familiarize themselves with history, philosophy, and societal realities, and for them to get intimate with important thinkers of our world. In the workshop we've read everything from Amlicar Cabral to Sophie's World to chapters from writing guides on how to write powerful fiction. After the reading, there is a brief discussion on what people got from the reading. Then they handle house business—news about who's been published, how members did at various readings they participated in, news about members' other endeavors such as school, travel, or hobbies, as well as plans for the group to participate in cultural events, such as the upcoming National Black Arts Festival. Then it's on to the critiquing. There are no limitations on how many people can get critiqued. Anyone who brings something can share, and each piece shared gets unhurried time for response. Responses range from comedic, to questions on content, to challenges on technique, to arguments about the fault lines of the piece. The Nommo Literary Society has only three rules:
1. leave your feelings at the door—said both in jest and seriously.
2. no preambles. just read your work.
3. (The third rule has somehow been forgotten by Kalamu, I guess they don't use it that much. I bet the Chairman knows it, but I didn't have the foresight to email him before sending this report.)
The two weeks I was there, the readings were from interviews Kalamu did of two artist/thinkers who started their arts careers in the black arts movement: Tom Dent and John Scott. The interviews were published in the special two-volume music issue of African American Review Kalamu coedited with Jerry Ward. Dent is an author and an organizer who influenced my father's own involvement with theater, writing workshops, and commitment to developing literature in New Orleans. Scott is a visual artist and teacher. After reading the interview with John Scott, we discussed one particular aspect Scott introduced in his interview. John Scott: "That's the most difficult thing about creating anything—developing the language with which to do it."
The concept of language came up often in the interview, from mastering the language of your art form to using an artistic language that you understand. Scott pushes the concept of your artistic medium being the language you speak. In order to create masterful, effective art, Scott asserts, the language you create in has to be your tongue, not something you've seen someone else doing, not something you've been told to do.
Considering this question of the language of art, I immediately thought of Keturah Kendrick. Keturah is a writer and a comedian who is (or was) a member of the Nommo workshop. After time as a stand-up comic in New Orleans, she decided to move to New York to get national exposure. She did what a comic is supposed to do: she went to the comedy clubs, signed up and did her act in the three-to-five minute spots allotted to each comic. What she learned is that comedy clubs are one of the biggest hustles around. A comedy club may have three comedy shows on any given night. The first show will be early, and it's filled with amateurs—those comics just trying to build their resume and get a reel (a recording of their stand-up act). The second show is made up of intermediate performers and the last show of the evening consists of professionals.
No one comes to see amateur comics except friends and family and, infrequently, talent scouts. So the comedy clubs charge an $8 - $12 cover and tack on a two-drink minimum to ensure income from these comics who can't fill a room. The first time I went to see Keturah, she was funny, but I didn't recognize her. She played this aggressive, big mouth black woman character with issues. If I had to identify it, I'd say she was portraying a caricature of herself, rather than being herself. We laughed at her set, and on the walk home I asked her why she behaved the way she did on stage. I was disturbed to see the transformation of this funny mild-mannered friend into this unrecognizable creature.
Though she didn't give me an answer that night, I got my answer a few months later when I went to see Keturah for a second time. By then she had performed at quite a few comedy clubs around town. There was a talent scout in the audience this night, and it was seen as an opportunity for the comics to break out of the amateur field and move up in comedy. The night seemed to go on forever. They kept calling comics up, but none of them were Keturah. Some of the comics were funny, some bombed—painfully. Others we gritted our teeth and suffered through. Right before Keturah was finally called up, this comic troupe performed. Their act was based on grossness and idiotic adolescent humor. They performed a mock nature show where they were hunting a "bum" and found him by his feces. They lured him out of his cardboard "habitat" with beer. Their second act was a commercial between father and son for the "manpon", a product that can be inserted in a man's behind to prevent brown streaks in his underwear. As fate would have it, Keturah was called up after them. Perhaps it was a nod to Keturah's talent that she was called up last, but on this night, being last was the worst thing that could have happened to her. When Keturah got on stage she was angry and hostile. Her set was bitter and even more aggressive than the first time I saw her. The audience didn't do too much laughing, we were terrified.
When I went to speak to her after the show, she apologized to us. She said while she was sitting there watching the idiocy parade before her, she had an epiphany. She didn't belong there. She didn't believe in anything that was presented on the stage. The comics would come off their sets saying, "I got laughs, right? I got laughs." Keturah has a vision for her comedy. She wants to make social commentary and expand minds. She wants to do more than just a sex joke because a sex joke gets laughs. She had done the stand-up comic thing because that is what she was supposed to do, but now she was done with the whole charade. She wrote about this turning point in her career in her weekly humor column for the Louisiana Weekly. She said she didn't know what she was going to do, but she knew she was out of the stand-up game. She decided she had to find a forum that would respect the type of writing and performance she wanted to do. Her decision to do a bad set that night at the club was even more profound because of the talent scout's presence. When she came off the stage, the club's booker wondered what had happened to her. "You're usually so funny," he said.
A few months later, Keturah got a spot in a monthly evening of women's performance called Rivers of Honey. She said she found a place where she could be herself and present the type of comedy she wanted to. I was finally able to make it out last month. I didn't realize comedy is performance art until that evening when I went to see Keturah perform. The first thing she did when she got to the stage was pull out a chair and sit down. Just that simple act blew my mind, because it demonstrated to me the constraints under which all those comics were suffering at the comedy club. Who dictates that stand-up comedians have to stand-up? Well, when you're an amateur and you have a very limited amount of time to tell your jokes and get off the stage, there aren't that many choices you make about how you present your material to the audience.
As a very relaxed Keturah slid into her set at Rivers of Honey, I became aware of so many differences between the stand-up scene and the performance scene. First of all the audience in a comedy club—at least on the amateur level—is somewhat hostile. We bought drinks, we paid to get in, the not-so-subtle message radiating from the audience to the performer is "make me laugh—NOW!" The audience at Rivers of Honey was amazingly warm and friendly. At a stand-up club the comic is facing a firing squad, whereas at Rivers of Honey Keturah was a warmly welcomed member of the group. We laughed tears during her set. She sat up on that stage as long as she felt like it and left the stage when she felt it was time.
When Keturah tells the story in retrospect, she invokes a story Richard Pryor tells in his autobiography of a turning point in his own career. As Keturah tells it, Pryor had been making money as a comic emulating the Bill Cosby model. A well-mannered, funny, nonthreatening black man. He was making money and getting gigs, but the problem was, he wasn't being himself. One night he was performing at a big New York event. This wasn't small fries, there were lots of big names in the audience. He came out on the stage, faced the audience and thought, "What the hell am I doing here?" (Richard Pryor probably thought something a little more colorful) and walked off the stage. He said the whole time he was presenting a clean cut image, the pimps and the hookers were running around his head screaming to get out. The rest is history. After going to Berkely for six months to a year to find himself, he blazed his own path to success with raw, honest, deeply vulnerable comedy that cut straight to the bone.
This whole conversation is deeply embedded in John Scott's thoughts about artist's medium being a language. In the stand-up world, the comics are given the language to speak, but you can't speak your heart in someone else's tongue. Both Richard Pryor and Keturah had to separate from what they were being told to do as performers and do their own thing, come ruin or success. This is relevant to all the art forms: performance poetry, written poetry, visual arts, film. The artist has to develop their language, their tongue, their way of speaking. It can be an exact emulation of what some genius has done, but it won't ring true if it ain't your tongue. As Scott says, referring to African American artists trying to make African art, "You can learn all the chisel marks, the symbols, and the techniques, but you have to put a soul behind what you're doing. And the soul you put behind it is not going to be the old soul; it's going to be a new soul, and the creating and shaping of that new soul is frightening as hell, because we don't know what its going to be."
Keturah's performance wasn't the only soul-expanding performance of the evening. The women who perform at Rivers of Honey are an extremely talented bunch who have intelligent and perceptive offerings to share with the audience. All but two of the performers that night were singers; all the singers sang their hearts out. When the performers weren't on stage they were sitting in the audience. The energy was one of sharing and collectivity which is even unique to other communal cultural performances. Somehow there wasn't an air of "How well did I do?" after the performances. Each woman opened her heart and her throat to share something beautiful with us. This evening made me sensitive to the character of audiences in general. While most audiences don't fall into the extreme of a stand-up crowd, there is this air of "specialness" or "genius" on the part of performers. Where it seems the performer's question is "Did I prove myself to be in possession of an amazing god-given talent?" There are subtle degrees of audience demand and performer compliance or performer showboating that exists in every performance. And here I was faced with a more womb-like sharing environment. A real gathering of hearts and talent. In the moment of their performance, it seemed to me that these women were not trying to make a mark on the world. They weren't doing their best to do a performance the audience would go home and talk about. They were trying to fill up the room with energy and love; and in so doing, they filled up my heart. I love honesty and graciousness, and I'm always amazed when I happen upon art and creation for no other reason than because we exist and because the artist loves the craft. If ever I want to experiment with performance, Rivers of Honey would be the first place I'd go. For me, as an artist, I'd be honored and blessed to step into that flow of love, encouragement, talent and community.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI'S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O'METER==
: : : August 2001 - present : : :
==KIINI'S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O'METER==
I was rejected from the 2nd MFA program, the one I really wanted to attend. I also did NOT receive the grant I wanted. Luckily, before I got home and saw these rejections, I called the director of the writing program in New Orleans, as my friends and family suggested. The director's response was honest and insightful. He said the readers—who read and rate the work of applicants—are the faculty. They are looking for writers they want to work with and they are predicting what kind of thesis each of the writers will produce, because they will have to advise the writer on that thesis. He says they are not an experimental bunch, but he believes if something experimental came in and it was really good, the student would be accepted into the program. He suggested the next time I apply to school I (1) apply to a lot of schools (about 10 or 12) because the programs are SO subjective. He said it could be that my work didn't rise to the top of the pile because there were so many submissions that were better than mine, but it could just as easily be that my work didn't speak to the faculty and so they don't want to work with me. And (2) he suggested I look at the faculty at the school where I'm applying, not just to see if I want to work with them, but to judge whether or not they would want to work with me. I could either submit work that falls in line with the instructor's work or I could only apply to schools whose faculty reflects my writing style.
I am very happy I spoke with this man, because he gave me a structure to put my rejections in. When I think about the stories I submitted, the longest one was about fornicating animal gods and the mortals they toy with, and it employed an experimental format—I can see some traditionalist may not either know how to relate to it or not want to relate to it. I think I've been a little naive. I tend to think craft is craft, and regardless of content, craft can be learned from anyone, but I'm starting to think that's not the case. Also, this experience has led me to embrace my identity as a speculative fiction writer. Not to say that I think that's my exclusive identity, but I always thought I was a "normal" writer with speculative elements to my work. I finally saw how foreign my work may seem to other's eyes. So—whether from lack of merit or lack of relevance—I add two more rejections to the meter, one in fellowships/grants, the other in residencies/workshops.
Oh, and I should say, speaking with the director of the New Orleans program helped me accept the rejections quickly and move on. When I got the last two rejections, I thought to myself "Damn, I'm going to have to do this myself," no laying back into the arms of a writing program, no relaxing with the benefit of a grant. And I recommitted myself to my FIRST novel, the one I've so tired from dealing with. I think I'm on a good track and I'm moving forward at a constant and committed pace.