Poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised an aspiring writer in Letters to a Young Poet, "Ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: must I write?"
And if, as Rilke said, "the answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple 'I must,'" then the next step may be attending Ring Shout: Young Poet's Conference at UNC-Chapel Hill on April 28 and 29.
In its third year, this annual spring event is sponsored by the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center. Ring Shout's goal is to foster an appreciation of African-American literature and to provide networking opportunities for writers of all skill levels and genres.
The 2001 Ring Shout features a panel discussion about the literary expression of black Americans' duel citizenship; audiovisual presentations; a writing workshop; and a performance and open-mic night at the Frank Porter Graham Student Union Cabaret. Its theme is "Poetry, Politics and Empowerment."
It's perhaps easiest to describe Ring Shout by saying what it's not. While Ring Shout includes a writers' workshop, it isn't a workshop in the conventional sense. Attendees can bring their manuscripts or works, but there are no scheduled one-on-one consultations or editing sessions. Instead, the Ring Shout two-hour writing workshop emphasizes creating works "in the moment."
Though it's labeled a "young poet's conference," Ring Shout is not limited to those who write verse or perform at spoken-word venues. Conference organizer nadera malika-salaam says the event is "multimedia" because Ring Shout incorporates prose, music and cinema.
The reference to "young poets" shouldn't deter any would-be writers, malika-salaam says. "It's not for the young writer in terms of age, but in terms of where and when they started. Also, you can be 50 and tuned in to Generation X and Generation Next."
She advises that participants shouldn't expect the conference to be academic and pedantic simply because it's held on a college campus. There's a distinct grassroots feel to the event, which honors the tradition for which it was named. A ring shout is a nearly extinct African cultural survival, often practiced by slaves and their descendants, in which groups gather in a circle, execute simple dance steps while moving counterclockwise, and clap and vocalize in a call-and-response pattern. In that vein, Ring Shout is more participatory, says malika-salaam. "You have the scholar's conference. This is the artist's. People enjoy an opportunity to meet with the artists. It's all about getting access to the poets."
And that's where Ring Shout has made its fame, and why it draws more and more attendees each year. In previous years, malika-salaam notes, participants have come from historically black college campuses and cities as close as Greensboro and as far as Atlanta. The conference has hosted California-based poet Ruth Foreman, Kentucky's Nikki Finney of the Affrilachian Poets collective, and one of the nation's premier spoken-word performers and poets, Ursula Rucker.
Since Ring Shout isn't a scholarly conference, it doesn't have a keynote speaker. Yet each year, it brings well-known artists to campuses and establishes connections between them and new writers. Guest poets are just as likely to chat with students in the Student Union or sit on tables, rather than standing behind podiums and giving rehearsed speeches.
While the conference has exposed the local community to national names, it also makes use of homegrown talents, such as Darrell Stover and Shirlette Ammons, who constructs melodies and narratives with her bass. North Carolina poets Jaki Shelton Green and Phillip Shabazz have also lent their lyricism to the conference.
With a lineup of the area's talented performance artists, Ring Shout is bridging a long-standing divide between the written word and the oral. Journalists and essayists--guardians of the written word--share equal billing with performance artists, such as headliner jessica Care moore. moore's dazzling wordplay has won over tough crowds at the Apollo Theater and the Nuyorican Poets Café, and she had a cameo in the critically acclaimed 1998 feature film, Slam.
It's events like Ring Shout that have increased public acceptance of performance art. Spoken-word artists have gained renown: Saul Williams starred in Slam and Ursula Rucker, who joined Ring Shout last year, has been featured on CDs by musical groups such as The Roots.
Yet performance artists--who play, battle and weave intricate word webs--have not been admitted into the canon. Honors and accolades overwhelmingly go to the poet who publishes, and spoken word, though it has emerged from the underground, is still the prodigal child in literary circles.
At Ring Shout, malika-salaam says, there is less concentration on the competitive publishing arena, though participants are given a resource guide to help them get into print, and there is no discernible schism between performance art and its cousin, traditional poetry. "Ring Shout is for both people who write on the page and those who perform. We hope that after this, they can then interchange," she says.
One writer who can cross those boundaries is Durham native and N.C. Central University alumnus r.c. glenn, who will lead the writing workshop called "freeform for freedom(e)." "Sometimes when you go to workshops, they're so rigid," glenn says, explaining the title of his seminar. "My goal here is to free people up, to throw in some freestyle." The "freedom(e)" in the title refers to "street speak," in which the mind is the dome, and a "free dome" is a liberated consciousness, he says. Using sound, signs, and words, glenn will ask the workshop participants to write freeform pieces about social issues. It's a type of captivating free association that glenn calls "audiovisual voodoo." He says he's going to be asking questions like, "What do you think about David Horowitz?" "What about Cincinnati?" and "What about Bush I and Bush II?"
"There's not enough social critique out here," glenn says. "I want these voices to respond. That's the duty of the writer--to make statements. We just have to ask ourselves: Is it time for pretty, primrose poems, or for June Jordan, or Phillis Wheatley?"
Ring Shout Events
Saturday, April 28
9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m: Panel discussion, "duel citizenship: the patriotic dilemma of the diasporic writer." Journalist and former Independent writer Thomasi McDonald, performance artist Shirlette Ammons, Jodi Smith and Greensboro's "verbal satirist" Kenah Dayo, all area residents, will explore racial identity, U.S. cultural politics and the impact of these factors on African-American writing. UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union, Room 208.
11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m: Darrell Stover, program director of the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, will go back to the 1960s and beyond with "Our Poetic Elders on Film and History." Stover will show video clips from filmmaker Haile Gerima ("Sankofa," "Adwa") and clips featuring revered black poets such as Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni. UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union, Room 226.
2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m: "freeform for freedom(e)," a writing workshop with r.c. glenn, author of Eyeseen, a book published locally by Big Drum Press. UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union, Room 226.
8 p.m. to 11 p.m: Live entertainment and poetry performance. jessica Care moore, internationally known performance artist and CEO of Moore Black Press, will perform. There will be an open mic after her presentation. UNC-Chapel Hill Union Cabaret.
Sunday, April 29
1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Showings of two films about the power of poetry: Slam and Where Poetry Comes From. UNC-Chapel Hill Student Union, Room 226.
For more information, please call the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at 962-2001. All events are free and open to the public.