Roger Bonair-Agard is the guest of Urban Word NYC on August 3, and he is definitely not afraid to speak his mind. When the media reports that the world’s first all-black penguin is “assimilating nicely,” Roger is there to fire back a volley. While Lil’ Wayne raps about bling, Roger pokes fun at his tattoos and interviews with Katie Couric. We need Roger Bonair-Agard out there fighting, shouting so that he can be heard above the din.
Roger’s Afro-Caribbean routes are intrinsic to his work. He’s the two-time National Slam Poetry Champion, and has been the creative director of his own non-profit poetry organization, louderARTS, since 1999.
I like to think of this poem as his manifesto, his artistic life bottled up into one (very long!) poem:
Roger discovers the blues
after Cornelius Eady & Joy Harjo
I am a black poet – plain and simple
black first. I do not know
if I am a poet before I am a man
or a man before I am a poet.
I come from a people who have
ways of telling such things.
I come from a people
whose history is inside history.
Some day, if we manage
to still have days then
there will be a great tale told
of how 500 blackbirds fell out of the sky
the day I discovered this
or maybe it’ll say 500 crabs
surrendered their bodies to shore.
I live in an age of martyrs;
of bodies declaring themselves to heaven.
Sometimes these bodies fall
from the air – sometimes wrap themselves
in shrapnel – other times they press
the backs of their heads into speeding bullets.
None of these ways will claim
me. I am confident
of this. I’ve been singing
to save my life since I was born.
My song has always been heard.
I have a drum in my throat.
I was black before
I was a boy.
There is record of this
in the air under a fire which consumed
a Brooklyn nursing home.
I come from a people
who remember such things
who tell stories inside
the stories we are told. We are told
we are not a people of history
but I am a black poet
so I know better.
I’ve been there for the beginnings
of things, so I know better.
I was coming over a mountain-top
in Trinidad when hip-hop was born
so I know better
My people tell several stories
about the supernatural. My grandmother
was once threatened by a ball
of fire in a coconut tree. I believe
her story. it might have been word
of my coming.
The lagahoo dragged its chains
around our yard. A woman whispered
an unholy magic on our steps
and my grandmother’s foot swelled
to the size of a tree-trunk
a woman whispered an unholy magic
into a bowl of cucumbers
and my grandfather fell
My grandmother survived.
My grandfather survived.
My mother survived.
I survived. This is how
I know the birds flinging
themselves onto rooftops have
something to say. This is how
I know I will not die by bullet
or fire – how I know
I am a black poet.
My great great uncle Obidiah was hobbled
for running. He ran as a way
of spell-casting. He bit a man’s
ear clean off. This is also
a way of casting spells.
This is how he protects me
how I know I will outrun
every bullet. My mother threatened
my aunt with an 18inch ruler
to insist to her how black I was
My mother left me in a foreign country
She came back for me.
She came back for me.
She came back to save me
to tell me how black
I am – I know I am black
because the sky rains finches
& jackdaws in tribute to me
because the sea sings up
its carp & catfish, its crabs
& salmon to proclaim me
man, poet, boy, black, magic,
god, god, god, god,
poet, black, black, black,
It’s all in this poem: Who is Roger Bonair? He is a man and he is a poet, but these two things are intertwined, there’s no telling which he was first. Why does he “sing”? To save his life. What is he? His throat is a drum, booming across the world. How can you stop him? You can’t, he’ll keep singing his words as long as there are people listening, and beyond.
Roger Bonair-Agard storms Urban Word NYC for a poetry master class August 3, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The visit continues at 6 p.m. at the Bowery Poetry Club with a raucous reading. If you need more Roger Bonair and just can’t wait, tune into his twitter feed, @rogerbonair; his personal poetry blog, rogerbonair.blogspot.com; and, as always, keep your eyes peeled to Urban Word NYC’s twitter feed for writing prompts, videos, poems, and information on upcoming events from Roger Bonair and all the Summer Institute Poets.