Tuesday, August 12, 2008

No Sleep Till Brooklyn: New and Selected Poems

Kevin Powell has spent nearly 20 years crafting and collecting the poems that make up this collection. Powell got his start in poetry slams and at open mic nights, and has, over the years, become a more private, introspective sort of writer. The title comes from the song by the Beastie Boys, but No Sleep Till Brooklyn is all Kevin Powell. Powell, an activist who is currently running for United States Congress in Brooklyn's 10th Congressional District, was one of the "characters" on the first season of MTV's Real World, and is currently featured in People Magazine's August 18th issue, although People doesn't include some of the information found in Powell's past that center on violence and misogyny, or hatred of women. (Ed to add: Read his piece "Confessions of a Recovering Misoginist" and why Powell went into therapy to get past his issues with women. - Colleen)

The book is separated into two parts: Part I is entitled "struggle," and includes poems about social issues like racism, what it means to be black in America, and relationships between African Americans and other minorities. As Salman Rushdie said, "A poet's work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep."

Check out the first few stanzas of "Struggle", which was writting in 1998:

Nobody said
this life would
be easy--that it
would take
shooting hot hate
into our blue veins
to smother the
archaic walls
of people
sprinting from
steel gangplanks
to iron waters
to cotton trees

Nobody said
that those cotton trees
would hang us
by our eyeballs,
demanding us to look
at the soul sores
our red, restless rivers

The poem is raw, gritty, angry, and with good reason. It hearkens back to slavery, to years of being treated as a second-class citizen, as do many of the poems in this collection, and in particular in the first part. Here's a short poem called "Postblack", from 2001:


The final poem in the first part is entitled "Katrina", and is about the hurricane, not the girl. It's a blues poem that echoes some of the biblical Psalms, and it brings home the plight of Katrina victims trapped on their roofs as well as the video did.

Part II of the book is entitled "love/a many splintered thing", and it leads off with a poem of the same name. The poems include some of a romantic and even sexual nature (of which, "Not for Nothing" is my favorite), with two long poems addressed to the women involved in his upbringing: "for aunt cathy" and "Son2Mother", the latter of which details the violence of his childhood at his mother's hands, with a grown man's view (possibly post-therapy) of her life from a slightly removed perspective.

By turns gritty, seductive, complicated and simple, this collection will be of interest to guys interested in reading or writing slam poetry, to guys of color or from the inner city who are tired of not seeing themselves in print, and to guys who sometimes wonder "what can a poem be about?" Because Powell answers that question with everything from his thoughts on seeing a movie to a confessional about his own childhood to a love poem for a woman to activism and more.

The final lines from his prose poem, "(self)portrait (the remix)" may explain Powell best:

"i write 'cuz my moms now asks me to spell and pronounce words for her and 'cuz my maternal grandparents could not read or write. I write 'cuz I wanna be free before I die, knowhatahmsayin'?"

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