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Poetry Moment: Sekou Sundiata hangs out in Harlem

The weather is turning. We can wear layers and hats, but it’s stretching the limits of our cold tolerance to socialize outside. Considering the Covid-19 infection rates, though, that’s the only safe way.

Consequently, we’re all desperately missing hanging out with our friends. This week’s Poetry Moment offers a tiny shot of remembered happiness, a slice of summer. Sekou Sundiata wrote “Longstoryshort,” a portion of which he reads in this week’s Poetry Moment, about a scene that used to be normal: gathering with buddies in a park, sharing a drink, listening to poetry and music.

Sundiata, a poet, playwright, and musician who died too young, was born in the projects in Harlem and taught at New York’s New School University. This poem evokes the pleasures of hanging out with friends in one of those parks ubiquitous in New York City. In these lines we can smell the weed, taste the sweet wine, feel people we love slapping our shoulders or hands, hear the laughter and music.

Though Sundiata toured with his band and other musicians, performing his poetry around and between and over their beats, he did not consider himself a musician. He was simply a poet, he said, who could never ignore music.

“It’s damn near impossible to understand what contemporary Black poets are doing without understanding what’s going on with Black music and its relationship to Black speech and Black literature,” he told Poets.org.
Interviewed by E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet steeped in Black music and poetry, Sundiata explained that he began writing poetry in the late 1960s with a group of people who would hang out, listen to music, and write.
“The poem is really addressing the idea that here we were, outside of school, discovering this poetry on our own and exploring the idea of writing poetry ourselves,” Sundiata explains in the full Writing Life interview. “Looking for voice and sound and rhythms, and having an actual space in a park that we just named Mecca, where we would have these al fresco poetry workshops. It was a hip scene.”

In “Longstoryshort,” poetry and music and friendship surged through these young people’s bodies, invading “the membranes of our hearts,” as the line in Sundiata’s poem reads.

Sundiata didn’t have an easy life. He overcame heroin addiction, cancer, a broken neck, pneumonia, kidney failure and a subsequent transplant. One of his friends donated that kidney. I like to think that friendship saved his life in multiple ways.

Listen to a few of his poems over music and perhaps it will transport you to a place where, without fear, you can shake a friend’s hand, hug them, share a drink and a laugh

We’ll gather again, it will just take some patience. In the meanwhile, put on some mittens and head to the park.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

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