For some reason or another, I’ve attended less poetry readings these days. But this past Saturday, I was motivated to go out and catch Treasure Williams reading from her work-in-progress on Fannie Lou Hamer, which I first became aware of as she posted drafts of her Hamer poems on facebook.
Given my interest in Treasure’s project as well as the general subject of history and poetry, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see her showcase the poems live.
Treasure’s reading took place at the GYA Community Gallery & Fine Craft Shop located in St. Louis. The gallery and shop is operated by the Yeyo Arts Collective, which is “dedicated to women's art and topics surrounding women’s issues; including family youth, and community.” Treasure’s work definitely embodies the collective’s mission.
Treasure’s “reading” included poetry, discussions of African American history and culture, songs, and call and response with the audience. I was already familiar with her poems, her talents as a singer, and her ability to engage audiences. However, the discussions of history and culture related to Hamer, the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, black southern culture, and African American church practices served as important additions.
Actually, I’ve seen Treasure discuss black cultural issues in and in between poems at readings before, but the presence of Hamer really elevated the sense of history during the reading. Also, Hamer’s story ends up being a story or collection of stories involving a wide range of figures, including Hamer’s family and fellow activists, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, people Hamer encountered during her travels in West Africa, and her adversaries in the state of Mississippi.
So far, Treasure has written 29 kwansabas – 7-line poems with 7-words in each line with none of those words containing more than 7 letters – focusing on Hamer. Treasure writes almost all of the poems from the first-person persona of Hamer.
Channeling the spirit of a southern-born black civil rights worker gave Treasure the opportunity exercise a range of poetic and expressive modes and devices. For one, she was presenting snapshots of Hamer’s interior thoughts in these little 49-word poems. In addition, she was demonstrating how to blend poetry reading, history lesson, and black church music.
The calm and reflective nature of Treasure’s reading makes it hard for me to place her work in the categories of “performance poetry” and “spoken word.” That’s not a knock on performance poetry and spoken word; it’s just that the platforms and audiences for those modes typically demand that the practitioners focus quite a bit on entertaining listeners.
Yeah, Treasure’s reading was entertaining, but it was educational, informative, and paced in ways that are typically less common in the spoken word circles or performance-based cyphas.
But then too, Treasure’s mode of delivery is simply too soulful to fit easily within the more dominant strains of poetry reading that takes place in formal university settings. I mean, it’s rare to hear a poet who uses a fixed poetic form also regularly sing fragments of old gospel tunes during a reading.
I guess what I’m saying overall then is that Treasure showcased a multi-directional reading style, and that style served her poetry-based historical project really well.
Treasure Williams on Fannie Lou Hamer on Facebook