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shirlette ammons: Biography of a Word


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"Sweet," whispers shirlette ammons into the microphone, leaving the stage at Humble Pie engulfed in applause. Mosadi Music had just finished one of ammons' songs, "Donuts," a crowd favorite. She has fans of her poems, her verses, her lyrics, and her songs in every club, school, and coffee shop in the Triangle.

ammons is all about words, and delivers them with cadence, humor, self-awareness and a jazzy flow. She references class, race, her family, and politics in her work, and just likes to "find a corner to chill, rework, revisit, revise."

Born in Wilmington, ammons moved to Mount Olive, worked "at the Pickle Plant one summer," attended N.C. State, took an American Fiction class with Tim McLaurin, and started playing the electric bass in her early 20s. With a smile, she admits she then, "joined the great American workforce in pursuit of a higher biography."

She's busy. In the last four years she has received a John Hope Franklin Grant for Documentary Studies, won the Ebony-Harlem Award for Literary Talent, published Stumphole:Aunthology of Bakwoods Blood, a poetry collection issued by Big Drum Press, and released a five song CD, Stump: The Intoxication of Makedo Funk. ammons says she hopes to complete a full length album "at some point."

Her web-site,, with an active guest dialogue page and downloads of her most popular spoken word pieces, lists a full slate of past and future performance gigs.

The Independent Weekly recently took a sit, to talk to ammons about the written and performed word.

The Independent: Where did you get your love of words?

shirlette ammons: Well, growing up, we had to memorize a Bible verse to recite every 1st and 3rd Sunday. Having such beautiful and meaningful words in my mouth at such a ripe age, in hindsight, contributed to my relationship with words. My sister and I were avid spellers and doodlers, love to make rickety-rack and still do. Growing up in Mount Olive, there was a whole crop of words that had very practical purposes that are rarely used anymore. I mean beautiful words and phrases that worked because we did, because my people did. I mean words were utensils.

Are the lyrics of your songs written as poems first?

Poetry's always in mind, but "Come Around" and "Donuts" were written to be performed as songs with music. I write with the intention of being open to whatever mode of delivery feels most applicable to the words and rhythm. Sometimes I write with the objective of producing a poem or producing a song. Most often I write with the intention of revealing a thought or observation, whatever's honest.

Your music collaborations seem to be an integral part of your art--your writing. How do you balance writing and performing?

I try not to abuse performance. I enjoy the stage and looking out to see folks gathered around my words or my music. I try to involve the natural rhythm of words in my writing, which, when I'm alone, does the same thing for me that performance does--[it] looses and finds me inside the movement of observation.

Who was your first favorite writer or poet?

Nikki Giovanni. She was my introduction to the Black Arts Movement. She blueprinted to me how we found freedom in words, sometimes seemingly the only freedom we owned. Zora Neale Hurston just tickled me to the bone. I loved her colloquialism and the warmth of home she relayed in her stories; her mystery, her tragedy.

You obviously love the Raleigh arts and music scene. How have you seen it grow or change?

I'd rather hold people, not places, responsible for change. I feel closer to the notion of identity, not scene. We let each other and ourselves be known and speak from that experience. That way we validate and respect each other's right to be anywhere. This is a work thing. I have missed and have noticed a resurgence of raw material that encourages me initially to step out and find things in this town I wasn't looking for. I feel a molding, a sculpting happening, which is about perception and contribution. I take that personal.

What gigs have you liked the most?

Opening for Meshell Ndegeocello was a dream come true. Sharing in a poetry reading with nikky finney, Howard Craft, and r. c. glen was magical. All of the experiences I've had working with kids are memorable. I guess the most frustrating thing is merging the desire to make your work available on a larger scale with the reality of it; doing the grunt work.

Your poem in Stumphole, "Apathy No More," about patriotism, the media, and September 11, is a pretty brave piece for these fair and balanced G-Bush times. How do you feel about the political landscape now?

American rhetoric is like an out-of-control oil spill. It's sliming up everything. Gramma would say, "It's a prayin' time."

At the opening, we have a traditional bio of shirlette ammons. How would you write your own bio?

I love my momma. My momma knows something that I've known about myself for a recent forever, something that she encouraged in me by allowing my sister and myself to question and grow and create as busy youth. To affect my world and be affected by my interactions with folks, I must listen. Momma, I am alive. Every organ is functioning and my limbs are employed. I make mistakes sometimes because I want to be responsible for my own mess. And I want to be Love because that's what you are to me. And when questions, injustices and confusion try to confine me, I am learning to write my way out.

We're running out of space and time. How shall we finish this interview?

I'd like to encourage folks to simply...tell somebody. If you check out some music you dig, read an article or poem or book that resonates with you, experience a situation that makes you get up or get involved, see a particular sunset that encourages you to look up more often--tell somebody. Your sharing may be right on time. EndBlock

Contact John Valentine at ajcg@acpub.

by shirlette ammons

The plant/The field chant/The fearfully underpaid parent/The projected fire/The threat/The closing in and up/The influx of stuck sixteens on diplomaless corners/The sean john jean/The overprice/The high stake

The stick used to loop/The cotton gin/The absolute vodka/The sin/ The forgiveness/The lord of George's life--the other murdering man/The holy waging war/The southern jumpable border/The censored patriot/ The preemptive act/The hands dealt/The dealer/The drug/The medicine for the hands we've become/The wrongs/Our rights/The leftover bruises/The health insurance/The unaffordable cure/The stupid son (so the standards say)/The discriminating hold-him-back factor/The factory wit no window/The fishin for sunlight/The minnows thrown back if there were time to relax/The packs of six and cigarettes instead/The disease, the black lungs/The chain smoking gun/ The aging smock/The deferred dream/The stuck rut/The shut in my face front door/Unemployment office/The late payment/The lights out/The notice of eviction/The hopeless lump in the throat/In the breast cancerous spread of helplessness/The festering amen/The witness to the crime against the wall/My back/The gross pay/The grocery list ripped in half/The riff between lovers/The problem in the mouth without a name/The take home/The FICA/The food stamp/The waiting/The WIC line/The nigga/The spick/The cracka's tobacco/The agri biz/The big biz/The buyout/The sell out/The deficit/The embezzled sweat /The plaintiff/The defense/The decision/The sentence, cheap labor/The skin game/The sifting through/The soil/The field manned by calloused hands/The spoils to the rich/The toils, the poor/The fear of finding out tomorrow don't exist/The exit sign/The beginning/The end of

Dying in and closing up/Stuck

Sucked in like hungry young stomachs

And varicose veins from standing still

Still standing



Editor's Note
We have writers here, in the Triangle. Lots of 'em. And because we believe in the written word, we've decided to carve out a space just for them. Here, in LitLocal, you will find your neighbors, your friends, and your favorite authors. Some you may have heard of, others you soon will. They are people making statements with their voices, creating lives with their words. We hope that by finding them here, you'll learn to look for them in a bookstore or coffeehouse near you. --olufunke moses


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