I was saddened to read in the Times this morning that my old poetry teacher Sekou Sundiata passed away. He taught a course at Eugene Lang called The Shape and Nature of Things to Come, in which he mercilessly cut his students’ poems and dispensed enigmatic, precise wisdom.
“You’re trying to build a house, and sometimes the poem says, ‘I’m not a house, I’m a bird.'” Meaning that you have to listen to it and make it what it wants to be.
He would sometimes take a mediocre poem and interrogate its poet, coaxing out a long description of whatever circumstances fed into it. It was usually fascinating. Then Sekou would say: “And why isn’t that in the poem?”
He would gently chide poets that refused to edit their poems, lest informational aspects be altered. “You owe no allegiance to the facts,” he said.
“Do you talk to yourself?” he would sometimes ask. “You should.”
On the first day of his class, he asked every student where they were from. Outside Boston, one answered. “‘Outside Boston’? What does that mean?” The student eventually said she was from Braintree. Sekou wrote the name in giant letters on the blackboard and speculated in wonder what its origin might have been.
I appropriated his fascination with place names; I must have written two dozen songs with city names as titles. I wrote “Screenwriter’s Blues” as a poem in that class, and it was a huge moment in my creative development that Sekou raved about it.
He emphasized the importance of titles–half the class titled their poems Untitled–as a kind of small poem that existed on its own.
He had a band called dadahdoohdadah; I appropriated virtually everything about his phrasing. Which I’m sure he supported; he often talked about a poet’s ability–need–to take things and, by respeaking them, make them his/her own.
He also taught me not to try to be black, but to find something essential in my real background–and there’s Braintree again– that’s what made black artists compelling in the first place.
He taught a course on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, refracted through Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, framing Malcolm’s life in Campell’s idea of the hero’s journey.
I took the class with Ani DiFranco, who went on to release a few CDs by Sekou.
His obit in the Times is here.
Below is a YouTube of Sekou performing on Def Poetry Jam.