Sunday, August 9, 2015

Praise and Lament, Part 3: Lament as Protest—Sekou Sundiata's "Blink Your Eyes"

In this blog I’d like to talk about the side of lament that overlaps with protest. I’m going to focus on the poem “Blink Your Eyes” by Sekou Sundiata. You can see a video of Sekou Sundiata performing the poem here.

Sekou Sundiata more or less invented the style of reciting that became one of the staples of the poetry slam: a sort of fast-talking, musical delivery where the poet memorizes and performs the poem on stage, saying the words as quickly as possible. Sekou was not only the originator of this form, he was one of the most accomplished practitioners of it. He didn’t just rush through a poem, though. He sped up and slowed down his delivery based on the meaning of the words, and used the microphone in creative ways to achieve certain effects.

Sekou Sundiata
Sekou Sundiata was born in New York City in 1948 and grew up in housing projects in Harlem. He preferred to record his poems rather than publish them. Sekou often performed with a back-up band. All his life he dealt with serious health issues, ranging from cancer to a kidney transplant to breaking his neck in a car accident. He died in 2007 at the age of 58, a terrible loss for poetry.

Sekou Sundiata wrote “Blink Your Eyes” in the mid-1990s, but the topic is all-too current today—an African American male is stopped by a police officer with no grounds. The poem is strongly resonant in the wake of the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati; William Chapman in Portsmouth, Virginia; Akai Gurley in Brooklyn—tragically, the list goes on and on.

The diction and tone of Sekou’s poem are different from pure lamentation. “Blink Your Eyes” is also a protest. The mood is angry, expressing outrage at racial profiling by police officers. Inherent in possibly all lamentation is a note of protest against the way things are. A lament doesn’t have to be a call to action, though. But a lament is a call of some kind, even if it’s just a call to mourn. When does a work of literature become more of a protest and less of a lament? To me, lament focuses on the sense of loss, while protest underlines the urgency to remedy the situation that is creating the loss.

In “Blink Your Eyes,” Sekou uses rhyme, cadence, and techniques of poetry that in other contexts might seem corny, but here they add to the soul of the poem and provide important emphasis.

There is a marked difference between how he recites the poem and how it appears on the page. To see the text of the poem, view this webpage. Sekou doesn’t recite the words in the same order they appear on the page. He repeats words that aren’t repeated on the page. Why? There is a strong element of improvisation in his performance technique, an element drawn from jazz. The written text of a poem for Sekou Sundiata was like a chart for a musician—a guide to performing but not a hardened rule about how each note was meant to be played.

At times in the poem Sekou Sundiata barely seems to pause to take a breath. He used a technique called circular breathing. Australian aborigines developed this method to play sustained notes on the didgeridoo. Sekou studied circular breathing and created a similar technique to recite long sequences of poetry without stopping. He also knew how to pause at the right moment, though, to put weight on the meaning of a particular phrase, for instance, the ironic line, “Somebody had to stop you.”

There’s a beautiful video interview with Sekou Sundiata done by E. Ethelbert Miller that you can watch here where Sekou talks about his influences from Amiri Baraka to the black church, performance and poetry, writing and political activism, and combining poetry and music. One of the most profound moments in the interview is when Sekou Sundiata discusses how to know when a poem is finished, referencing a John Coltrane solo. 

Praise and Lament, Part 1Part 2Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8Part 9

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

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