The Operating System

3rd ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 5 :: EDWARD TONEY on LOUIS REYES RIVERA


Are You With Me? (Louis Reyes Rivera 1945 – 2012) from ivarad on Vimeo.
[Thanks to 30/30/30 2013 participant, JP Howard, for bringing us Edward Toney for this year’s series! Here’s JP’s wonderful piece on Pat Parker. We love person to person growth! That’s what makes a “virtual” community like ours very much human, and tangible “IRL”.]
Louis Reyes Rivera is known as the “Janitor of History,” a poet, essayist and activist. I’d never attended a workshop in my numerous years of writing poetry and was invited to attend his workshop in Brooklyn by a good friend who knew I engaged in poetry. I read some of his poetry in one of his first collections of poetry “This One for You,” and realized: poetry was much more and could be entirely different from what I was doing. I didn’t know how and was not sure if I even wanted to be that personal or political. It only took one workshop under the instruction by Louis and he would instantly be engraved in my life as my most prolific mentor in poetry writing.
Louis stood about 4 foot 5 or 6 but he was not 5 feet. I never saw him in anything other than colorful Dashikis, his accent was Puerto-Rican with a dash of 70’s street-hip Black (his parents were Black and Puerto-Rican) and you would never-ever have reason to doubt anything that came out of his mouth. If you did, Louis could not only back it up, but he could reference anything in the conversation and tell you the history where it all came from. And during these teachings or conversations, his most memorable trademark, known well to anyone that knew Louis  – was him stroking his white beard that hung perfectly from his chin.
The Louis Reyes Rivera workshop was held in a grass roots /store/café-shop, called Sistas Place, off Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn, NY. It also ran on weekend nights as a jazz café, entertaining some very well-known jazz singers and musicians. It was not rare or unusual to also see members from the December 12th Movement come thru and here or see what was next on their agenda as well. The place definitely held a historical vibe. Louis gave the workshop English lessons for about an hour and his instruction was not only poetry, but writing in general. The right question from anyone could take us on a history journey from Africa, to Germany, slavery to the holocaust, the world wars, names and places most of us never heard of or remembered from our watered-down history lessons in high school. And at a dimes drop, we could be transported right back to grammar, stanza breaks and critical critique of what makes a good poem. The workshop entertained two writers for the day, they would read and we would critique and discuss the poems we heard. Louis ran an un-structured but extremely profound workshop. One of the first lessons that ever stuck hard to my gut was when Louis instructed us two things in writing successful poety; “Write what you know” and a poem “is never completed fully, until it is heard by someone”. Louis brought in his award winning poetry book Scattered Scriptures around the time of Malcolm X’s birthday that particular year and read to the class the incomparable poem “A Place I never been inspired by the assassination of Malcolm X.
On that day, my writing would start a new journey and change forever.
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Excerpt from “A Place I never been: especially for Malcolm X
was you there?
was you
ever there
.              .in a place you never been
.              .but you knew you was there before &
.              .you was never there?
I was there, on a sunny Harlem Sunday, I was there
Was you? In a ball/room
In a beaming/gleaming Harlem corner
In a sunny/sunset ballroom
Did your hear?
In a shiny/shining wildlife ballroom
Did you hear a bullet cry?
Did you see the man fall?
On a bright & bosom Sunday
On a bosom bright street jammed “spare me a dime”
Stale bread bosom brother
Sunday Sunday Harlem
Was you there?
Did you see the bullet who cried?
Did you hear the man’s fall?
I was there
.              .In a crowd of pride & treason
.              .In a chill filled room of mobs & patriots
.              .In a crowded crowd of pride & treason
.              .Where scared scars was ducking on
.              .Scared screams ducking on scared scowls
.              .Ducking cause they heard the bullet cry
DUCK!
.              .Cause they heard the reason the bullet cried
.              .DUCK!
.              .as the man showed the marks
.              .old shackles left behind
.              .as his back arched tall
.              .breaking shackles left behind
I heard the bullet cry “ Noooooo. NOT MEEEE!
.              .I saw the man fall
.              .in a place I never was
.              .where I must have been before
.              .I saw the man fall….
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And the poem continues another 2 pages in his book and his reading /performance voice is reminiscent of “The Last Poets” and very “Gil Scott-Heron”. He was cool, gigantic, mesmerizing
and hauntingly poetic. I will never forget him reading the piece and this man of this height throws a shadow 100 feet tall.
[textwrap_image align=”right”]http://www.theoperatingsystem.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/194-e1396632382412.jpg[/textwrap_image]The class was so diverse, there were emerging poets like myself, novelist, fiction writers, technical writers, journalists and passers-by that would just come in for a cup of coffee or pastry and were so enthralled or mesmerized by what was happening in the workshop that they would stay the entire day.
Workshops began at 12 and most Saturday afternoons most of us would not leave until 5 or 6pm in the evening. And even on our way out, a last minute question or current issue would come up and we just could not tear ourselves away from the eloquence, intelligence and knowledge that this one giant of a man possessed. I left with my feet off the ground, my head in the stratospheres and only wanting to just breathe and write. I learned in latter workshops that Louis was kin (through marriage) to John Oliver Killens, one of the most underrated Black writers of our time. Louis was editor to one of his books The Great Black Russian, as well as editor and assistant in publication to more than 200 books including Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam which he co-edited with poet Tony Medina (a collection of over 250 poems from America’s most contemporary poets, spoken word and slam poets).
I think one of the most profound and relevant workshops I encountered was the afternoon Louis told us about his involvement as activist and chronicler of the 1969 City College of New York takeover, in which Black and Latino students occupied campus buildings for two weeks as part of massive city-wide student and community rebellion that linked social movement to higher education. This historic struggle achieved Open admissions and the formulation of an Ethnic Studies department. This transformed CUNY to become a majority people of color University whose classes were more consciously engaged with their relevant histories. With his classmate and fellow poet friend Sekou Sundiata, Louis co-cofounded The Paper in 1969, the first CUNY student newspaper under the control of Black and Puerto rican students. This was just one of his most captivating stories, but from 2001 until 2012 you could only just imagine the stories and instruction that was provided in these twice –per-month Saturday workshops. Every once and in while Louis entertained us with reading his work, and this poem (Tom and Judy) was one of his simplest — but still shows a totally endearing and passionate side of Louis that appeared in his work.
Excerpt from the poem “For Tom and Judy”
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I walk along streets
.                      .Paved in their blood
walk along streets
.                      .Paved in their blood
stomp on tar cracks
made by their skins
stomp on tar cracks
churned from their skins
I go into buildings where foundations crushed their bones
.                      .whose only foundation
Was their bonedust
To mingle with the very people
.                      .whose ancestors blew their ashes to the sun
.                      .whose very ancestors
blew their ashes to the sun
tom and judy
even though I don’t even know
who they even was
are real to me, dear to me
I ride up on the elevator
Tom used to
.                      .polish and shine
Tom used to
.                      .polish and shine
he wore himself thin, shining and polishing
caught a lung disease, from the polish he used
his deep blue brown skin
coughed a death rash
from the polish he used
on the elevator
I ride up on
Judy used to scrub clean, the offices
Judy’s knees had to scrub
the offices clean
the wrinkles on Judy’s knees
had to wipe the dust
on the office floor
Judy used the wrinkles
.                      .on her knees
to wipe the water
.                      .she sprinkled the dust with—
her tears sprinkled the dust
.                      .her wrinkles had to wipe
& I never even knew her
Judy and Tom
.                      .Are real to me
are dear to me…
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This poem continues for another 2 pages of Scattered Scriptures. It’s a dark, sad, relevant very powerful piece like most of Louis Reyes Rivera’s poems; very real, simplistic but unforgettably puncturing and staining the heart.
Through the years, workshop participants would come and go, most had a 2 or 3 or 5 year participation — I stayed with the workshop over 10 years before my career and writing would have me very busy where I could not be as committed as I wanted. Recalling my last visits before Louis would pass (March 2nd 2012), he was entertaining the class with his still not yet released newest work, Jazz in Jail a 150 page epic poem. This poem, (which he’d been writing for over seven years at the time of his passing) personifies jazz as getting busted and thrown in jail, trying to stand against the exploitation of music by the music industry. The poems bring together all of the music that comes out of the diaspora of Reggae, samba, Mambo, Calypso, Be-bop, Blues and work songs from Slavery. It would contain history from then up to present day as Jazz attempts to bust free — clearly an ingenious epic on which publication efforts remain in motion.
One of my last correspondences with Louis regarded his intention to serve as editor on the manuscript of my first book of poems. Louis frequently edited the work of workshop participants simply for the love of doing so — and he would only pass a hat at the end of workshop. He was on no-ones payroll or grants, and his intention was clearly, purely giving back to the community. He’s left a huge hole in not only in NY but far and wide.  The workshop persists, but with nothing like his gigantic presence, that indeed changed the world of writing and poetry for so many gifted writers that will be forever in his incomparable – unconditional debt.
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[textwrap_image align=”left”]http://www.theoperatingsystem.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ed-spring-4-sml.jpg[/textwrap_image] Edward Toney is an African-American Poet, writer and chemist born in Queens NY, USA, residing in Brooklyn N.Y for the past 18 years. He is a member of AWP and the Hot Poets Collective, is an ongoing Cave Canem and was a longtime Louis Reyes Rivera workshop participant. Ed was co-host and host of the Speakeasy Open Mic at Outpost in Brooklyn, and has been featured and read at numerous poetry venues throughout the boroughs including McNally Jackson Bookstores, Rallies for Mumia, Harlem Tea Room, Calypso Muse, The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the Bowery Poetry Club, Dwyer Cultural Center, Soulsweet Sanctuary, Eve’s Lounge, Open Expression in Harlem, Women Writers in Bloom Salon, Poets Network and Exchange, The Glitter Pomegranate reading series and Taza Café. Edward work was recently published in African Voices 20th Anniversary magazine; a chapbook, Of Fire and Iron, published by The Hot Poets collective, The Poets Exchange Anthology and Young’s Men Perspective magazine. He is continuously working on completion of his first poetry Manuscript entitled, “Nicks in the Tongue”. 
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