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TO PRAISE A POET

IN MEMORY OF NTOZAKE SHANGE

poetry is unavoidable connection/

some people get married/ others join the Church

i carry notebooks/ so i can tell us what happened…


When I first read poet Ntozake Shange’s words, I was a notebook carrying poet myself. I rode the train from the end of the line to the beginning of the line every day, scribbling and reading, looking out the window and daydreaming, blowing bubbles in the air, and in my mind.

Shange’s words told me that poetry was important to the world, and I—a young person making minimum wage and barely able to afford a loaf of bread—believed her. I filled notebook after notebook, attended poetry readings, and read as much as I could.

I was a white person, raised in a working class, sometimes poor, family. I had dropped out of school. Shange was Black, raised upper middle class, and well educated. Our worlds were not the same, but the thread of poetry connected us somehow.

Such is the power of art.

I saw Shange in person twice. Once, in a small theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, where she spouted poetry from the stage, swaying as if drunk.

The second time, we actually spoke. She had staged a play in a bar/restaurant in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley, a small neighborhood sandwiched between the Lower Haight, the Civic Center and the still Black and filled with jazz Fillmore district.

Shange invited local poets to help set the scene by performing in the midst of her own performance. I was one of those poets. Young, nervous, with my shaved sided head and notebook in hand. I can’t tell you which of my long gone poems I performed that evening, but I will never forget Shange’s response.

She praised my poem with joy and vigor, face alight with the pleasure of poetry itself. I was thrilled beyond measure.

The poet was as generous as her art.

The poet—like poetry—mattered.

The poet made me feel as if I mattered. As if my words mattered.

I feel tearful just remembering. And so grateful.

Ntozake Shange died in 2018 at the age of 70. I have no idea why she was in San Francisco those two times. Just on tour? Doing a stint as a Writer in Residence somewhere? I know she got her name in San Francisco, but that was in 1970, decades before I arrived in the City by the Bay, around the time I began to read.

Shange’s legacy is strong. Her words live in the minds and hearts of those who read and speak them. She gave us the gift of her poetry.

Two of her precious, battered paperbacks grace my poetry shelves. I return to them again and again.

I will not squander that gift.


 

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