As part of De Fete du Livre, I had the honor of performing at L’Estrade, a small bar/café attached to La Comédie. The spoken word I perform is socio-politically engaged, rhythmic, musical and certainly contains echoes of heritage as the daughter of an Afro-Caribbean mother who was raised mostly in the south.
Between the language barrier and the completely different cultural context, I wasn’t sure how a French audience would receive my work. I chose to do: Flowers, one of the first songs I ever wrote; Black Body-a new piece written in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder; A mash up of Lyrical Rape and Harbor (the Pussy Poem)-because I wanted to do something musical (and because a version of Harbor is going to be published next year. More on that later); I Come From-a piece which honors my past and my Ars Dramatica-‘cause I thought it’d be a good one to end on.
I had my friend Tibor, one of the actors from COYOTE COMES/BEAST THING, translate a preface. I really dislike prefacing poetry as a rule typically, but decided it was a rule to change for the moment and maybe for all time. What’s the harm in giving an audience a useful entry point, so long as it’s concise and doesn’t try to do the work of the poem itself? Anyhow, I wanted to give some context about spoken word as an art from, racism and mythology in the U.S. and how dope my mama is. I spoke of how I’d seen Yevgeny Yevtushenko perform years before with such feeling that it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand his poetry word for word. I received so much from his obvious love and commitment.
The audience was sizable and rapt. Most of the student actors from the play I wrote and in the other promotion of the program were present, as were faculty, staff, administrators from L’École de la Comédie and some folks who must’ve just come because it was part of the book fair. I shared my work, which is very personal and often an attempt at reconciling things I find troubling. When you put yourself out there in as pure a form as spoken word you’ve written yourself, you have to commit to the vulnerability of the space. You have to step into something (a kind of energy?) and let it take you and those listening for a ride. We went on a ride and it was humbling and affirming. By poem three, a few people seemed to be getting restless (One lady walked out. It was either my mismatching black on black attire or the language barrier. We’ll never know!), but by and large it was grand. I got a little emotional at the end. Where has the time gone? How can I get to know everyone here a little more deeply? Why can’t I stay an extra week to just explore the city. Ahh!
I end this experience feeling very lucky for all that I’ve learned.
Here’s a list of things my residency at L’École de la Comédie de Saint-Étienne taught me:
- There are things which translate despite language or cultural barriers. It sounds cheesy but it is so true. Based on conversations I had with people completely outside of my cultural experience, people for whom English is a second language, COYOTE COMES managed to be found in translation. With this I am very pleased and emboldened. More collaborations across languages and cultures! Yes.
- It is a sin and a crime to drink wine from a bottle which has been open for more than three days. Rachel, the director, taught me this. She was appalled at my “I’ll drink it when I get to it” habit. Appalled. Ha!
- You should be ambitious and flexible in your ambitions. Shoot for the stars and all that, but adjust accordingly along the way. Your challenges are meant to steer you. Yup.
- You might find yourself in someone else’s experience of your experience. The way others respond to your work will teach you what you have done. It is the closest you can get to bearing witness to yourself. More on this later.
5. Eat fresh goat cheese from the market. It will save your life.