AHA! A House for Arts

S6 E8 | FULL EPISODE

AHA! | 608

A community collaborative mural project giving voice to local artists of color. Learn about the power of poetry from local poet Dan Wilcox. A powerful spoken word performance from D. Colin.

AIRED: July 29, 2020 | 0:26:46
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TRANSCRIPT

(upbeat music)

- [Lara] A community collaborative mural project

giving voice to local artists of color.

Learn about the power of poetry from poet Dan Wilcox,

and a powerful spoken word performance from D. Colin.

It's all ahead on this episode of AHA.

- [Announcer] Funding for AHA

has been provided by your contribution

and by contributions to the WMHT Venture Fund.

Contributors include Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malesardi,

the Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation,

and the Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank, we understand that the vitality

of our communities is crucial to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

(upbeat music)

- Hi, I'm Laura Ayad, and this is AHA, A House for Arts,

a place for all things creative.

Amplified Voices is a local community

collaborative mural project.

A reaction to the recent protests and unrest in Albany,

the project gives local artists of color

the chance to use art to heal.

(upbeat music)

- Today I'm with the students

of the Amplified Voices program, a program I spearheaded

to combat gentrification in black neighborhoods

from artists not of color who have been going through

after the riots and basically taking advantage

of the blank boards to put their own messages on there,

and I thought those messages

should be conserved for black voices,

since this is a black issue.

So I kind of just woke up angry one day,

hit up the Albany Center Gallery and was like,

I want to do something about this.

It makes me uncomfortable, and I know there's a high need

with the black community to get their art out there.

Basically it's just a program

filled with maybe 10 youth or less,

and we're just out here giving them the tools

to paint and express themselves.

(upbeat music)

It is an abandoned McDonald's.

I'm not quite sure what happened.

It was shut down.

When I spoke to Tony with the Art Center Gallery,

they found this spot because it's just like a blight,

a sore spot in the neighborhood,

and since we do want to bring more positivity

and positive art and experiences to the South End,

we thought that this would have

just been a perfect building.

(upbeat music)

I've been an artist since I was a kid.

I've been doing it for about probably

twenty-something years.

I'm 29, I've been doing it since I was 10 or nine years old.

My family's full of artists.

My mom's a fashion designer.

My dad has not many artistic abilities,

but all seven of my siblings are artists of some kind,

whether it's cake decorator, cosmetologist,

painter, sculptor, poet.

So I kind of just grew up in that environment

and I've constantly been surrounded by artists,

and it's just something that makes me happy

and I heal from it.

It's in my job.

I work for the state.

I'm a multi-media designer

for the State Department of Education and Training,

so it's just always been something I'm surrounded by

and it's something that I take very seriously

'cause it's so passionate and intimate to me.

(slow music)

Art's in everything.

We describe to the kids the first day,

art's in your clothes, art's on the mask that you have,

art's the building that we're in, architecture.

There's so much art in everything that we do.

It's not just one objective kind of piece,

so we basically just want to teach the children

how to heal through art, how to use art as a healing device,

how it can be a meditative device,

how it could just be an expressive device.

We taught them how to mix typography and poetry

and how art's just not a painting,

how it's bigger than that.

I think how COVID's affecting the art industry,

that's a big one, because there's so many industries

within the creative field,

but I know everybody's struggling a little bit.

(upbeat music)

They came up with this design 100%.

We were just there to facilitate.

We're not there to control the message.

We're there to provide them a platform

so they can voice their message.

The only thing I want to see in the end

are these kids to be proud of what they've done.

I want the neighborhood to be proud of what they've done

and I want the kids to be proud of what they've done

and I want them to leave feeling

like they now have the tools to live in a world

that is pretty racist right now, openly racist.

Always been racist, but now openly racist.

A lot of these kids were saying they don't want to see

fires, killings, gun violence.

They're done with that, and they're six, seven, eight.

The fact that they're saying these things is incredible.

It's insane, it's disheartening,

so I just wanted to give them a platform

where they can get those emotions out and heal

and also see the beauty in their own neighborhood.

(upbeat music)

- Dan Wilcox has been a member

of the local poetry scene for decades.

Let's chat with Dan about the power of poetry.

Dan Wilcox, welcome to AHA.

It's great to have you here.

- Well, AHA, thank you for having me.

- That's right.

So, you are very active in the local poetry scene in Albany,

and you have been for many years.

You are the host of Third Thursday Night Poetry,

and you're a member of a poetry group

called Three Guys From Albany,

which sounds really, really cool.

How did you first get into poetry?

- It was when I was in high school.

I was an adolescent.

I think anybody who writes poetry

starts when they're an adolescent.

All that teenage angst and all that stuff gets written down.

And if you don't start then, you start later,

you're probably not much of a poet.

That's the way I always look at it.

So I started then.

- [Lara] So it's too late for me, then.

- I don't know.

I liked literature, I like to read,

and I went to college as an English major

and I kept writing poetry,

and then I was drafted into the Army

and I still wrote poetry, and then I got out

and I worked for the government and I still wrote poetry.

I really got into the poetry scene,

like going to open mics and other readings and stuff,

when I moved back to Albany in '87 or so,

and it happened to be that

that was just when things were just about ready to start.

I was around and I was here.

It was a small scene, and I discovered

that if you're gonna be a small fish,

you might as well be in a small pond.

But now it's become a bigger scene

and then I got to be a bigger fish.

Not just here, but just because I've been around so long.

- Yeah.

You told me the Albany poetry scene

was small back then in the 80s.

- [Dan] It was almost nonexistent.

- Right, do you have any favorite memories though

from it at all?

- Oh, well yeah.

In fact, I'm writing about it.

One of my long range projects is to write a personal history

of the Albany poetry scene from when I started up through,

from that time, around '87 all the way up to 2007,

which is when I started writing my blog,

so all the things that would end up in a book

are actually now on the blog from 2007.

In those intervening years,

it exists as notes in my notebooks,

boxes of notebooks from going to poetry readings

and in thousands and thousands and thousands

of photos that I took over the years.

I claim to have the world's largest collection of photos

of unknown poets.

- Yeah, I found this information,

I found this so interesting because not only are you a poet,

not only are you a collaborator and a writer.

You're almost something of a documentarian or an archivist.

Why is it important to have photographs

of these little known or unknown poets?

- Well actually, it started out

when I still was still living in New York City

and I would go to poetry readings

and I wanted to remember who the poets were,

'cause a lot of them were neighborhood people.

So the first couple readings I went to,

I would take notes as to what they looked like,

and that's, you idiot, you got a camera.

Why don't you bring your camera?

So I started bringing my camera,

but then you gotta take notes too

because you won't remember who the person is

unless you write it down.

So that's how I started doing it, and I'm talking,

I was still using a film camera back then,

so this is pre-digital.

Now you go to poetry readings,

everyone's got their phone out.

They're all taking pictures.

But at one time, I was the only one around taking pictures.

In the early, early days of the Writer's Institute,

there were even times when they didn't have

a photographer there at one of the events,

and somebody saw me there with my camera

and they would come to me afterwards.

You got any pictures from that reading that so-and-so did?

And I did, so they have them in their archives, too.

- In terms of sharing and giving,

I know that there's a strong relationship

between poetry and social justice, right?

Social justice is something

that people have been talking a lot about,

especially recently in the news

and through blogs and online media.

Can you tell me a little bit about what do you think

is the relationship between poetry and social justice,

and if you don't mind in answering that,

what is social justice to you?

- Okay.

Well first of all, I don't want to limit it just to poetry.

I mean, you know, an art historian,

art is very political too, or can be.

There are people who study posters, protest posters,

or Soviet art of the early 20th century,

all that kind of stuff.

- Even the aesthetics of painting itself

can be political, too.

- Look at Frida Kahlo and people like that.

I think that's part of the energy of art,

is to express your concerns

about what's going on in the world.

Now we have this term social justice,

which I kind of like because it's very broad

and so it's not just limited

to things like the peace movement

or the environmental movement,

but it has to do with gender issues, animal rights issues,

all that, anything that you can lump into that category.

When people are concerned about something,

they express themselves.

So if you're in love, you express yourself.

You express your love and everything.

But with political stuff, it's the same thing.

It's really exactly the same impulse as writing a love poem

to writing a political poem.

- I'm actually curious to know,

I know you're including the arts on a larger level

in terms of playing a role in social justice,

but do you think that poetry plays

any particular kind of role

in helping achieve social justice goals?

- It can be, because it's much more direct.

You can talk about these issues, you can explain them.

Sometimes political poetry can be very heavy handed,

but it also can be very direct and meaningful to people,

that they get it.

I have a poem called Baghdad Albany

that I imagine the invasion of Baghdad back in 2003

as if it was happening in Albany,

and it was published in a broadside

by the Friends of the Library way back then.

I was at a peace demonstration one time

and they asked me to read the poem.

I read it, and afterwards a woman came up to me

who I had never met before and she says,

I have that on my refrigerator.

So it was this kind of statement

to people who don't normally read poetry

but they could understand it.

- And they could hear it outside, right?

It's spoken word, it's something

that can be shared verbally. - Or you can read it

on a piece of paper too, if you want to.

So it has a more direct effect on people.

- Why don't you tell me a little bit about some of the poems

that you've written before in the past

that you think are the best poems and why?

Even though I know that you're limited in terms of,

you can't read a poem at this point,

but maybe tell me a little bit about

how you would measure your own best poem.

- One of the ones that pops into my mind

is a non-political poem I wrote called Teresa's Balcony.

It came about as I was walking to work in Albany

and I went down this side street, Spring Street in Albany,

and looking in the backs of the buildings.

Someone I knew came out on the fire escape of her building

to hang a towel over the railing or something.

Earlier, a few days before, a friend of mine

came back from Paris

with a collection of photos by Eugene Atget.

You know the photographer? - Yes, I do.

- I notice in there, back then,

very slow shutter speeds and stuff.

You leave the lens open and if somebody moves

then there was a wisp of smoke on there.

- Atget usually focused on roads and boulevards

and architecture in Paris. - There was sometimes

people in there.

Sometimes all it was was a blur,

and so I worked those two things together in the poem.

The reason I like it is it takes reality another step.

It's based on a real thing,

but it's also based on a real historical thing.

It mixes them up and it just creates something brand new

that didn't happen before.

- Sounds like it almost adds a certain element

of your perception, your experience of something

that actually happened, which can be different

from one person to the next.

- Or like even a dream thing, you know.

From visual arts, some of the most fascinating things

are things that don't look real.

Savadore Dali, everyone likes Salvadore Dali

because they're fantastic.

I mentioned Frida Kahlo before, another person.

She painted these things that were based on herself

but they weren't herself.

- They had a certain root in reality,

but they also could express themselves

or come to fruition through some fantastical

and subjective elements too,

and that seems to be the beauty of poetry.

- And like I say, all art, and that's why ordinary,

quote, unquote ordinary people

can appreciate these paintings, can appreciate poetry.

- Yeah, it sounds like it.

Well Dan, it was an absolute pleasure to have you on AHA,

and I hope to read even more of your poetry in the future.

- I was very glad to be here, thank you.

- Thank you.

She's a poet, visual artist and educator.

Reciting some of her poetry,

please give a warm welcome to D. Colin.

- The Girl Dream is a poem that I wrote about my mom.

I'm a first generation Haitian-American.

Both my parents came to this country from Haiti,

and they had dreams.

My mom had a dream of being a lawyer

and she just wasn't allowed to finish school.

In Haiti, you have to pay for school for each child

and sometimes they choose,

in the generation that my mom grew up in,

and I think even now there's still some remnants of that,

but they choose which children

are going to finish out school,

depending on how much money is available.

My mom, being the girl in the family,

often girls are the ones that don't get to finish.

So she's held onto that for,

I've heard that story my whole life,

about how she wanted to be a lawyer,

and it was something that really pushed me in school

to get good grades, and it pushed me to go to college,

go to grad school, get all these degrees to make her proud.

The Girl Dream.

And the girl called three boys into a room.

The girl, the only girl, and my grandpa asked

what they wanted to be.

And the girl, bright eyed, chest out,

back straight, clear voice said, lawyer.

The girl made of riverbed and dirt road

fry plantain and pikliz,

coal fire and cast iron pot said, lawyer.

Not two weeks later, my grandpa pulled the girl

out of school, sent her to learn how to sew and cook.

The girl's supposed to be a boy's dream, not dream like one,

not supposed to be lawyer or big or speak loud or speak.

The girl skipped sewing class,

used pocket change to buy fresco

and watch people walk without anyone knowing.

The girl, a protest, the girl still dreaming

in view of the presidential palace.

The girl becomes a woman, becomes a wife,

becomes my mother.

My mother carries three girls and a boy

like the tethered, like a reckoning.

I am the only child to survive the terrain of her womb,

the only girl, the only dream left.

My mother, immigrant.

My mother, night school and resting creole on her tongue.

My mother, lover of coconut flesh and peanut brittle.

My mother, loud.

My mother, sacrifice.

My mother, first lady of the church.

My mother, housekeeper for a living.

My mother, mathematician, making a dollar out of

and good less than 15 cents, and one day

she taught me a lesson in a white woman's bathroom,

pointed to the toilet she just cleaned,

said this job in particular and overall is not for you,

said you could be a lawyer.

Translation, be a lawyer.

Translation, does not matter that you are a girl.

Translation, I am her dream carved out her stomach

from her cooked hands, aged from fire and bleach,

her back a wall crumbling, her kidneys passing stones,

the weight of all her depravation,

a field of hives on her skin a sting piercing back.

The second poem is called Red Leaf Tree in Summer.

Literally I was on the highway and I saw this tree.

The whole tree was red, and it was the only one like that.

I was like, wow, look at that tree.

As a poet, my mind's always working,

and that poem is really like my whole thought process.

I want to write a poem about a red leaf tree

because it's just a bizarre thing to see in August

and there's no other trees like it around it.

My mind went to other images of trees,

and in going to other images of trees,

my mind went to trees where black bodies were hanging,

and then my mind went into police brutality.

Then it was like, wow, as a black poet

I'm not afforded the privilege

of not thinking about these topics,

and how it's a struggle to just write a tree poem

that's actually a tree poem

because of history and because of current events.

So that's where that poem comes from.

It's like, yeah, I don't want to write this poem,

but also, more than not wanting to write this poem,

I want the problems related to this poem to not exist,

'cause then I wouldn't have to write the poem.

It is August, and the trees stand,

still green from summer because it is in fact summer,

yet there is one tree, if you happen to look

from your car window while riding

or driving on the throughway,

with all of its leaves turned crimson already,

as if to say, look at me and how I bleed among the rest.

I want to write a poem

about how summer doesn't want to spend time here anymore,

how the Earth changes her mind

and how the sun used to play longer with trees,

how strange, red leaves hang on trees in August,

and there it is.

The simile ringing loud in my head.

This red leafed tree surrounded by a forest of green,

like a black body holding onto what's left of itself

in a sea of blue, and so often I try to run away

from this type of poem,

tongue swollen from biting too hard on the words.

Here is this black body, another one shot

holding the wrong object or nothing at all,

on a sidewalk, on the side of the road,

on a regular walk home, waiting to taste the rainbow.

Another black body bleeding a familiar kind of death,

and I still want to write a poem about a red leafed tree,

hold a remnant of it here,

but instead I have added more black bodies

to the black bodies I was already holding in my mouth.

I wanted to have this art whittled down into submission

until it's smooth like a bullet,

until it chokes on its own dust,

until this type of poem in particular becomes unnecessary.

But a poem can't swallow a bullet the way a black body can.

And the last one is an homage to my mentor

in middle school who taught eighth grade,

and she was the best teacher I ever had in my life.

I had some other great teachers, too,

but Mrs. Large was the first teacher

that pulled me out of my shell.

I think I took writing seriously because of her.

I only got to see her after school

when I was in sixth and seventh grade

because she was eighth grade teacher,

but I got to do speech contests, which I was terrified about

because I was excruciatingly shy.

I couldn't even play a song on the piano for my family

at a birthday party and not cry,

so I was really, really shy.

She really changed my life

and helped me to kind of articulate

what I want to say on paper

and be able to say those things out loud.

It's something I've carried with me since.

Mrs. Large was a tall woman, broad shoulders

and a walk that could wake a room.

I was 11, little, shy, full of quiet, nothing of boom.

Sixth graders were afraid to make it to eighth grade

because she was everything of boom,

voices and blackboard and chalk.

She knew how to write and erase fear in a child.

Mrs. Large was large,

silenced a class just by looking and waiting.

She chilled in her power,

cool as shaved ice on a summer day,

cool as the gray on her head.

She danced in her passion.

First teacher I ever met who loved what she did.

I was 11.

Mrs. Large asked my sixth grade teacher

for the top of the class.

That was me, the nerd, the bored kid.

She asked if I would write a speech for the school contest,

then speak it out loud.

Me, little, shy, full of quiet.

No, that was me.

Mrs. Large didn't take no for an answer.

She heard possibility.

She heard nothing of no and everything of boom.

Maybe once upon a time she was shy too.

She was after school and pen and paper and grammar.

She was hope and ambition and challenge.

First time I ever spoke in front of the school,

I thought I would die, faint to no waking.

Mrs. Large said she was my audience.

She was large enough to fill the whole room.

She was the only one there.

She was stage and mic and front row.

I never told her.

I hope that she knows.

I am writer because of her.

I am stage and mic and poet and might.

I am light on words because of her,

the teacher who set the precedent,

told me once I could be the first black woman president,

and I believed her.

She gave me more than gerens and definitions,

more than verbs and sentence structure.

Most students had her for one year.

I had her for three, working on speeches, working on me.

Mrs. Large was larger than life to me

until I was larger than life to myself.

- Thanks for joining us.

For more arts, visit wmht.org/aha

and be sure to connect with WMHT on social.

I'm Lara Ayad.

Thanks for watching.

- I started writing poetry in sixth grade,

and it just stuck.

When it's memorized, you have a chance

to kind of animate your voice a certain way

or move a certain way if you choose to,

to translate the story of the poem.

I just look at it as a form of storytelling.

If an audience can walk away being moved by what I did,

then I did my job well.

- [Announcer] Funding for AHA has been provided by

your contribution, and by contributions

to the WMHT Venture Fund.

Contributors include Chet and Karen Opalka,

Robert and Doris Fischer Malesardi,

the Alexander and Marjorie Hover Foundation

and the Robison Family Foundation.

- At M&T Bank, we understand

that the vitality of our communities

is crucial to our continued success.

That's why we take an active role in our community.

M&T Bank is pleased to support WMHT programming

that highlights the arts, and we invite you to do the same.

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