The students at McDougal and Culbreth Middle Schools in Chapel Hill and Powell G.T. Magnet School in Raleigh know all about Phillip Shabazz.
His literary performance poetry has been called "imaginative," "musical" and "vibrant," and Executive Director Cynthia Barnett of the North Carolina Writers' Network (NCWN) considers him "a rare resource" in the arts community. "He is not only a fine poet, but also a performer who presents poetry in compelling and new ways," she says.
Shabazz stays busy with what he calls the life of a working artist. He has taught over 300 workshops at public schools and colleges, conducting a program he calls Living Words: Poetry for the Here and Now. His first book, Freestyle and Visitation, was published in 1997 by Big Drum Press (for which he is an editor), and he is currently on a book tour for his just published second book, XYZoom, also from Big Drum.
Shabazz is also executive director of SpiritHouse, a community and cultural arts organization in Durham.
Between last month's National Community Arts Summit in Louisville and next month's NCWN fall conference (www.ncwriters.org), where he will present Living Words on Saturday, Oct. 30, we caught up with the working artist.
The Independent: Summits here, festivals there, in and out of schools all over the Triangle--are you the workingest poet in town or what?
Phillip Shabazz: I'm trying to keep poetry alive, especially in a society that is overwhelmed by the distractions, influences and fantasy world of televised media. It's a constant grind to get work as a full-time artist, to get new experiences. But I'm still at it; I'm still trying to do it. It's my life work. I have to thank all the teachers and administrators for allowing me to work with their students. I couldn't do what I do without them, so I'm eternally grateful.
I think it is important to bring working poets into the schools. Literary art seems to me part of what Einstein meant when he said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Art makes us more human, opens the mind and heart. The students love it.
What was one of your most memorable readings?
I did a reading in Richmond County at a high school. It was like a new light covered the auditorium: teachers, students and poetry made a connection. There was laughter. People really cried, happy, sad. That's when I understood that the pen is mightier than the sword.
When I was a student at the University of Louisville, Amiri Baraka gave a reading that continues to resonate with me.
In your latest book you dedicate verse to Harriet and Malcolm, Paul Robeson and Gwendolyn Brooks. Who are your heroes today?
Those people helped me to think good things about human possibilities. Without them, I would probably be thinking about slashing and burning the playhouse. Possibility is made possible by the love and struggle of freedom-loving people--otherwise, we're in a ditch.
I don't have heroes, but I dig sister-warriors Elaine Brown, Charlotte Black Elk and Arundhati Roy. I'm also inspired by the political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Vietnamese peacemaker Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos and the elder activisit Noam Chomsky, to name a few.
You wrote a poem for local poet Howard Craft. Who else do you keep an eye and ear out for?
I tend to read across cultures so there are too many poets to name--I hope that doesn't sound like a copout. Okay, the local scene: [I give] much respect to Jaki Shelton Green, Thomasi McDonald; also, big ups to the younger poets shirlette ammons, Howard Craft, Daniel Wideman. And a special shout out to mother-sister poet Sheila Kingsberry Burt!
You're a popular guest teacher. What's your favorite writing exercise to get the students loosened up and writing freely?
I like to give students a word bank, a set of words and a central image, such as a door. I tell them to try to use all the words in the word bank along with their own words. They work those words around the central image of a door. It always amazes me what the students come up with, how each of them uses words to create a new way of seeing or experiencing the world.
And then when they ask, "How do I get published?"
I tell the young ones that sharing their poems is important and refer them to a few publications. I tell them to have fun, have a good time with the writing, enjoy pushing the edge of words and language, to be creative and fearless like a strike of lightning, and not to worry about popularity and big expectations.
When did you know you wanted to be a poet?
This might sound strange, but poetry discovered me. I didn't plan on being a poet. I was in a writer's group, [and] I was really into writing short stories. But my stories kept getting shorter and shorter. Someone in the group said that I was writing poems instead of short fiction and that's when it hit me. Since then, I've been writing poetry--that seems like 100 years ago.
We have a big month ahead. Any comment or verse to share about the presidential election?
There are so many people who are hurting in this country. You almost have to be big time just to make a decent living anymore. The presidential election won't change that. It's outrageous. With all this freedom, there's so much suffering--there has to be a new vision, a new freedom movement. There has to be a radical change in American politics, a change made possible by the organized work of everyday freedom-loving people. If possible, like Malcolm said, [a] "bloodless revolution."
Otherwise, the future looks good for the ruling elite, and bad for the rest of us. But I'm still hopeful.
Love, peace and blessings to the people.
Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt from "X Balances Y"
by Phillip Shabazz
I hand feed the chosen dirt, and the beds
of violets, marigolds, and mums
glow like solar goddesses in pale air.
They are the eyes of the earth. Drizzle reaches beyond
itself at garden level to glaze birthstone and compost.
I welcome this company of showers.
They give, they take, they steal pieces of the sun.
I call it The Great Ancestor of Light,
and down on my knees, I find the planet
in puddles, in patches of corn beside the fence.
Peach and cherry trees sweeten the yard.
Thunder trembles the grass. I stare at the goddesses.
Prolong, pay off, reap, sow. Who are these flowers?
They are not gravel, weed, nor targets
of suicide bombers, nor a stash of Mary Jane.
They do not complain about the dirt on my pants,
nor stare at me like the doll I found in the mud--
Barbi with her hard blue eyes. I imagine,
eight factory hours inside corporate headquarters,
and the plastic men deliver her into this world.
Synthetic rain begins in a machine,
a rain of plastic dolls found in recycling bins,
or on the shelf in a girl's closet.
The moon waits for showers to clear.
If Barbi's heart does not beat, it's not the moon's fault.
I add a prayer. I add a song.