If you have paid attention to poetry at all during the last 20 years, you have probably heard of Bob Holman, who has long been the neglected art’s most tireless advocate. He is the author of seven books of poetry and the editor of two anthologies, including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, winner of the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award. On his 1998 compact disc, In with the Out Crowd, Bob performs his poems with the support of such acclaimed musicians as former MC5 Guitarist Wayne Kramer and Bob Neuwirth. In 1998 he was commissioned to create a poem for the Frankfurt Book Festival’s 50th anniversary, and then, with a group of fellow poets, performed “The Semicento” at a dinner for 4,000 commemorating the event. He is perhaps best known as the founding co-director for the revitalized Nuyorican Poets Café where, from 1989-1996, he served as master of ceremonies for many nights of tumultuous poetry slams. In 1996, he co-founded now defunct Mouth Almighty Records, the only poetry CD label to ever gain distribution by a major label.
Bob is also a pioneer in bringing poetry to television. In 1985, his first poetry video, “sweat’n’sex’n’politics,” was introduced by Lou Reed at The Public Theater. He went on to produce more than 50 “Poetry Spots” for WNYC-TV that helped to earn the series three Emmys between 1986-1994. Since 1991, he has worked with Josh Blum, the President and Executive Producer of Washington Square Films and Arts, to produce the breakthrough PBS poetry video programs Words in Your Face and The United States of Poetry. Since 1997 he and Josh Blum have been at work on USOP’s follow-up project, The World of Poetry.
In 1998, Bob was appointed visiting professor in writing at Bard College, where he teaches a course called “Exploding Text: Poetry in Performance.”
One warm afternoon this past September, I talked with Bob about griots, Panic D.J., American Sign Language poets, and Bob’s long-running affair with the television camera.[As I step out of the elevator and into Bob’s office, which doubles as the front room of the Tribeca loft apartment he shares with his wife and two teenage daughters, I see him walking toward me, plucking the strings of an unusual-looking instrument.] — CC
Painted Bride Quarterly: So what’s the name of this instrument?
Holman: It’s called a molo. It’s from Gambia—I got it from my griot, Papa Susso, Al Haji Bunka Susso. I spent 16 hours with him yesterday. It was unbelievable. We went up to Bard to pick up his son, who I helped to bring over here. He’s 15 years old. We picked him up in Poughkeepsie, where he’s crashed with Papa’s other son, and took him over to Bard, where I teach, and where Al Hassan gave his first American performance. He’s been in the country for two weeks.
PBQ: So both the father and the son are griots?
Holman: Yeah, you know it’s not necessary any more that the griots come from the griot families—of which there are four or five, traditionally, in Western Africa. But still it’s a very strong tradition to pass it on. The way that it works now is that if you come from a griot family you might become one, but at the least you have the skills—maybe you’ve leaned to play the kora—even if you don’t become a full-fledged griot.
But at the same time, people born in other families are also becoming griots now& as art begins to take its place in a griot world and changes what had been pretty much just a functional position—there wasn’t any real separation to what an artist does& you know you’ve got your job in the culture like everybody else. Which happens to be where I would like& what I’m trying to do.
A lot of what’s happening in the U.S., you could follow the same models in Africa as well. It used to be that the griots were attached to the kings, queens, chiefs of the tribes. They no longer are, mainly because there is no such thing any more, by and large. The countries are ruled by political governments now, and while some politicians do hire griots for various events, they work on a contractual basis now—$1000 for a praise song, or whatever the rate for that day.
So what you have is that people of the upper caste and of the ruling class, who might have become a chief before, now they become a griot, and so things are& it’s really breaking down—though the kids up in my class at Bard were aghast when I told them this, because they saw it as a breakdown in the oral tradition, but, in fact& it’s simply changing with the times. You know, it is just a different world, and being able to get the words out on a CD instead of a live performance changes things. And griots are not blind. They see this very well. Although, for example, the molo is still primarily used [pauses and plays a riff on the instrument’s thick nylon strings] for seeing the future.
PBQ: So its notes inspire visions?
Holman: Yeah, yeah. [Still plucking strings] I try to play it as much as possible. [Stops playing and lays the molo on the table in front of me.] Anyway, I can play the kora too.[Walks over the corner of the room and picks up a much larger instrument, its neck made from what looks like a broomstick that is stuck into a large dried-out gourd half. A piece of hide is stretched over the open front of the gourd. Its strings, like the molo’s, are thick nylon strands, all of them colored bright blue.]
The kora is a much more powerful instrument. It’s got twenty-one strings.[Sits with the kora in his lap and begins playing, producing tones similar to those of a guitar, although more hollow, unsteady, and haunted sounding.]
You push these braided cow hides up and down to change the tunings. It used to be braided antelopes’ skin that was used for the strings& but now you get plastic fishing line. And the cow skin is attached to the calabash with carpet tacks—thumb tacks. It’s a homemade instrument. [Strikes a wobbly, slightly out-of-tune-sounding chord.]
PBQ: It’s an interesting combination of the natural and industrial trash—kind of improvised. So how would you characterize what a griot does? Are they poets& sort of court poets?
Holman: I’d say that the closest thing to a griot we have would probably be a poet, in that griots are involved in the artful representation of language, although they’re generally—it’s more or less done with music& a few tribes no music, some tribes a musician and a griot together—the griot provides only the words, and there’s a musician that accompanies him. And in most tribes there is a person who plays an instrument while also doing one of a number of other jobs. He’s a genealogist, who keeps the history of the tribe, as well as the keeper of the oral traditions, which includes the epics, which are memorized, and sometimes even updated. Those are the griot’s main jobs. But then there are many, many other jobs, such as composing the praise songs that I mentioned, and then there’s giving advice to the chiefs, and there’s settling disputes, primarily because the griots know the genealogy, so they know what people’s relatives have done in similar situations—the griots just lay that on them. Also there are naming ceremonies, circumcision ceremonies, weddings—you know they do do weddings&
PBQ: And for each of these ceremonies a griot would be hired?
Holman: Exactly. It’s almost as if an event can’t take place unless there’s a poet there to document it and participate in it. Which would be a real job for us poets in the West. It would give us a social purpose. But what they don’t do is sit around and wait for the muse to come and tell them what to write about&
PBQ: They’re commissioned.
Holman: Yeah, they work on commission.
PBQ: That leads me to another question. Why do you think that most Americans, most Westerners, don’t believe that poets have a purpose? Especially since, some would argue, there are as many, if not more, people writing poetry than ever before. But outside of those who write it, no one reads it, or pays much attention to it.
Holman: Well, you know, our studies of it tend to follow poetry’s lineage back to Europe and not back to Africa, and our studies only travel back as far as the book. We think of Homer as being a great writer, even though there were no books when Homer spoke the poems. So one problem is opening up the definition to poetry’s oral roots and its international roots, because the United States is an international country. And the population’s changing now and& our education should be aware of that and change too.
There are other reasons& we have this extraordinary Bill of Rights that gives us freedom of speech—but it’s not worth so much if you can’t be heard. And while people have been able to write what they want to, I think that the people in power have been unwilling to let the crazies have a chance to be heard—the poet on the street corner, the poet of a village or town. Was the town crier a poet? You know, you could see how this person—it’s hard to find the news in poetry, but not if there’s a town crier out there shouting out, you know, about what happened in Concord last night—trying to get that shot to make it all the way around the world.
I think that poets have also bought into the definition of being off on the sidelines, you know, as a safe place to be and a place—where you can make a living now, as a poet, is by teaching poetry, and so there you are. It makes sense that poets would gravitate to a place where they can write. Now, though, those definitions are being challenged. I think that’s happening at the same time that the definition of a poem is being—is up for grabs—and that the media that present poetry has also gone through such extraordinary changes.
PBQ: Was that part of the inspiration behind first The United States of Poetry and now The World of Poetry—to let the town criers of the world be heard by taking advantage of the new media?
Holman: [Laughing] You’re good. Let me interview you! You didn’t need me for this. Well you know the story is that in the early 80s& coming out of the commune and all, I knew that television was the enemy of poetry& was killing poetry. I created a character called “Panic DJ” who urged everyone to throw their televisions out the window, though he did say it would be helpful if you were on the television that you were throwing out the window.
But that was sort of a dream until I was approached by a TV producer, Danny O’ Neal, at WNYC, who wanted to film poets in their kitchens—and he asked would I help him make contact with poets so he could get into their kitchens, and it took me about two seconds to sell out. I realized that I was giving my readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project and other places to the same 30 people, and they were the world’s greatest listeners. Every year I read I had to read new poems, and I’d have to read 45 minutes worth so you could get your two dollars’ worth.
Then I saw how you could reach, really reach, a mass audience, and the purpose is more to turn on people to what poetry is than to present them with any standardized message. There’s plenty of content in poetry, and that’s why the Internet and cable stations love us, up to a point. But the idea is for everybody to use their voice. To jump out to what an art can do for your own life, and to say it, and to not have to follow anybody else’s lead.
PBQ: And at that point—I think you’ve told me this story before—you met Josh Blum, right?
Holman: Yeah. Well, you know, I got involved in the re-opening of the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, and it took off like a rocket—it was just that moment when multi-culti was starting to step into the news and here was a multi-culti scene based on an art heretofore moribund, where the artists themselves, and not their handlers, were making it happen. It was young and it was angry, and it was loud, and it was funny, and it had the full ironies of the poetry slam as an engine. So one of the things that happened is Josh Blum walked in the door and came up to me and said, “Hey, this oughta’ be on television,” and we’ve worked together now for ten years, and done a bunch of TV work.
And now we’re in the process of buying a building together, which will then become the home of a poetry club, as well as a home for Washington Square Films and Arts. It’ll be a nice place for poets from around the world to read, and hang out, and not have to always be in United Nations’ tea parties—to find their American audience.
PBQ: And you’ll put on a program of readings?
Holman: The idea would be & to have it be a business—how can the club (which I’ll be in charge of) pay for itself with poetry as a centerpiece? How can it retain the spontaneity that is at the core of what poetry can do best, while it goes through the seemingly inevitable institutionalization process. In other words, if a guy just drops by, which everybody does in New York, at one time or another, there’s got to be space for them to read at the Bowery Poetry Club.[The phone on the desk rings for the first of a several times during the course of the interview, and Bob excuses himself to answer it. After a conversation about setting up some kind of poetry slam, Bob hangs up and rolls his chair back over the table, snatching yet another instrument from his desk on the way over. He settles back in next to me and begins playing a sort of miniature version of the kora he had played earlier.]
PBQ: So what’s this instrument?
Holman: It’s called a continu. It’s got four strings.[Repeatedly picks out a bluesy-sounding riff that culminates in a twangingly dissonant “plonk”.]
PBQ: Those fishing line strings and the cowhide sounding board really make an unusual sound.
Holman: Yeah, you can really see how the banjo came out of these things. Even the way the strings are.[Holds the continu up to his eye and peers through the steep arch made by strings above the body of the instrument.]
PBQ: So to get back to poetry, at the beginning of the 20th century, poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens, became interested in European poetry because they believed that American and English poetry was bogged down in the Victorian era. Did you have a similar sense when you started working on The World of Poetry—that American poetry needed revitalization?
Holman: Again my work just follows from the type of poetry that I do and that I love. As long as you’re gonna do a reading, why not bring all your faculties—whatever you do—to it. I’ve never been intimidated by language—it’s always seemed to me to be a functional love machine. It really just goes out there and grabs people. So you want to put the English on the word as much as you can. So, wherever that led me—it goes to the conversational poetics of Frank O’ Hara, it goes to the body-as-poem of the Dadaists, and it certainly goes to the utilization of music and melody with poetry that comes from Sappho, and from the griots, and hip-hop.
It’s also to do with the belief in the power that language can have, if you give in to it. A poet like Alice Notley who—this semester at Bard I’m teaching the epic, as envisioned by the griots and by Alice Notley in her book The Mysteries of Small Houses, which is a poetry autobiography and the opposite of what the griots do. It’s very personal, and yet the power of language is there, for me, every bit as much as in hearing Papa Susso in a class performance. My students, thank God, disagree with me. They’ll go one way or the other, but they refuse to go both, which is the way it ought to be.
PBQ: So Alice Notley’s book is kind of a personal epic?
Holman: Well, yeah. It’s huge and personal. So the first assignment for my students was to write an epic of their life. And they came in saying “Gee, this was a hard assignment. We had to do it in a week.” To write an epic in a week is not the easiest thing to do& so I gave ’em another week. [Laughs.]
PBQ: And that was enough? It took nearly four hundred years for the ancient Greeks to write down the The Iliad.
Holman: Well, you know, I hauled out the Fagles translations for Papa Susso [reaches up to one of his bookshelves and pulls down hardcover editions of The Iliad and The Odyssey] and said, “Here’s our epic. The Odyssey, for example here is& [pauses to flip to the final pages of The Odyssey] fiiiive hundred, and ah, thirty-five hundred and forty-one pages long, including footnotes.”
I said, “How long is your longest epic,” and he said, “Long!” [Laughs] And I said, “Yeah, but how long?” He thought for a second and said, “Two days.” [Both laughing] O, ho, ho! Wow! Yeah! Well, how long do you think it would take Homer to do it—The Iliad, The Odyssey, the whole thing. It might take a few days. It’s just the way you think about it. We think of books, or poems, in terms of pages—Papa Susso thinks of his work in terms of time.
I asked him yesterday if he would do, in class—I’ve heard the great traditional songs he does&jeliya is one, and Ala-Lake is another—he’s teaching me these songs. I said, “Why don’t you do the genealogy of the Sisko tribe here?” He says, “Not in the classroom.” I said, “What’s the deal?” and he said, “It doesn’t go here. I’m not gonna do it.” Which is great. He said, “You can come to the Gambia and I’ll definitely do the genealogy of the Sisko tribe. I do it a lot there.”
PBQ: “The Gambia”?
Holman: That’s the country Papa Susso’s comes from. One of the smallest countries in the world. It’s just a little finger around the River Gambia, right in the middle of Senegal. It’s the craziest country—they’re completely surrounded by Senegal, and then the Atlantic Ocean, and West Africa. A teeny, tiny country, but what a concentration of arts. About a million, 1.2 million people—that’s it& and of course they speak eight languages there.
PBQ: Eight languages!
Holman: [With mock disapproval] Of which Papa Susso can only speak seven.
PBQ: That’s amazing. But are most of the griot songs that he does in one particular language?
Holman: He does them in the language of his people, the mandinke, but there are versions of the bigger pieces, like the Sundiata epic, the Askia Mohammed epic, in other languages. But they have basically the same form. But there are some pieces that are simply available in a single language. And Papa Susso does not perform in any other language than mandinke, because they are his people. He even likes it if you call him a jali, which is the mandinke word for griot. The world “griot” itself does not belong to any single tribe. It’s simply a pan-African word—some people say French, but that’s really in dispute—for that position in any tribe. It’s kind of a generic word, and some people take umbrage at the use of the word “griot,” but the griots I’ve met have not taken umbrage. So I use the word griot—apologies to those who& you know&
PBQ: You’ve done a lot with poetry written in other languages and poetry written on the margins of American culture—when was the first time poetry written in some other language, or from some other country, really caught your attention?
Holman: Well, I can remember very clearly the first time my brain exploded over this idea. I was doing a gig at Rochester for Writers and Books, they called it the “Bridge Festival,” and American Sign Language poets were performing on the same bill as hearing poets, and the poems were being translated into these other languages. It was the first time when I was really able to work with my signer—at this time I was doing the Panic DJ show and wearing this crazy jacket with question marks all over it. Well, I brought a jacket for my signer, and I taught him some steps, and he was signing along with me and moving along with me—it was a great little vaudeville turn.
In fact, it was that night that I was talking with Peter Cook and Kenny Lerner, who make up this group called “Flying Words”—Peter was in The United States of Poetry, the last poet filmed for the show. And we were talking…I was blown away by these guys’ work, you know— how word as gesture, word as sound, how Peter’s soundings, how Kenny’s translations were of a poetic variety rather than as an interlinear. How Lerner was able to build on Cook’s gesture—the drama that was going on in front of you, visually—and drop in sound cues that were more than a translation of the gesture into some kind of English equivalent.
PBQ: So what were the translations from?
Holman: ASL [American Sign Language]. In this case, Kenny is a hearing poet and Peter is a deaf poet, and they would collaborate, or as they say, barter poems together. Peter would perform them in sign, and he is an extremely gifted poet of sign, and then Kenny would be the soundtrack, which would translate the& it’s more like a soundtrack than it is a translation. So that’s the way that they worked, and I just thought it was the most—they still stand out in my mind as just& what do they call it& a meme—is that what they call the smallest element of information? Or maybe it’s the opposite of a meme—maybe they’re the biggest element, you know a dyno, or whatever it is. It was blowin’ my mind that here was a poem that I was watching that couldn’t be in a book. It had to be performed for you to read it.
So that night at the poetry bash, over the poetry beers, I was talking directly to Peter with Kenny in the middle translating for me, although Peter is very adept at lip reading—we were doing pretty good working with or without Kenny. I was saying, “You know, your act is so good you oughta take it on the road and do it on the performance art circuit,” because at that time—the mid-eighties—performance art was the hot ticket, and there was a whole network that you could get on to do that. And what they were doing could be seen as performance art, or theater, or poetry. And Peter said to me, “What are you talking about? You can’t do that.” And I said, “Why not?” and he said, “Because we’re poets.”
So here I am out there espousing what poetry is about and should be, and here’s a guy who’s coming back to me and saying, you know, “Fuck you. I can’t get on the performance art circuit. I’m a poet, man.” And then it just drove home to me& how it’s the poets ourselves who keep redefining what poetry is& and it just sold me again on other languages being the key to acknowledging where the poet is in a culture. By growing up in U.S. poetics, we always see a poem in a certain way, and the reason why the poem is not effective here is because we don’t see these other ways, and once we do—it’s not like we gotta make it up, other cultures have different ways of seeing a poem, and if we follow those leads& we can get light to the poem.
PBQ: There are people who say that a poem can’t be translated& I would guess that you’re not a person who believes this.
Holman: Oh, yeah. I’m in for use& but I understand the idea—one of my good buddies, Ed Foster, at Talisman [Press], believes that the poem exists only on the piece of paper the poet wrote it on, made the corrections on, and that is the poem—you’ve got to see the process through, not watch it be fancified onto 24-weight paper with embossed typeface. Well, you know, he’s just as loony as I am. And any course in between is fine with me, too. Which is why I can say that I think that what you see in The United States of Poetry are poems, not video poems, no more than you’d say “book poem” or “page poem”—although you’ve got to call it a “video poem” now or people look at you like you forgot to say “video.” It’s about getting the director and the poet to collaborate on an image track that is going to illuminate the poem in this other medium. Why do you want to do that? Because it’s there. Because people are at home watching television, because& I think the collaboration on poems helps to open them up to other hearings—and that’s a good thing in my opinion. And for poets ourselves, it opens us up to other possibilities for language.
PBQ: What would you say to critics who claim that poems written with a mind to performance sometimes lack the complexity and depth—I mean, have you seen any performance poem “Wastelands,” or is it not really fair to compare?
Holman: Oh, I definitely think there are performance poem “Wastelands.” I think Patricia Smith has written a bunch of performance poem “Wastelands.” I think that the Dallas Slam Team [the poetry slam team, coached by Holman, that represented New York City at the National Poetry Slam championships held in Dallas in 1997] did a poem called “Superhero Poet, Baby” that is a performance “Wasteland.”
But I also think that the statement that when writing performance poems you don’t get& that you won’t go for the depth you do for a text poem, is true. Because I don’t think that you write performance poems—you write poems, and later on people tell you what they are. I don’t know how many poets see words on paper, or see words inscribed in the air, or see, as Hannah Weiner did, words inscribed on peoples’ foreheads, and then write them down. For me, in general, I hear the words. The word is in my mind, but not the text of the word. It comes to mind, and then I write it down and it becomes a text.
Every poem is a performance poem& to teach performance poetry you should always use poems that are impossible to perform—you should use John Ashberry. I teach Alice Notley because in order to perform a poem well you have to& a true performance is simply a close reading physicalized. A poem gives off sparks in every direction, and some of those directions are into the public eye. And if you follow those sparks—which are coming from you, just as when you read a poem you are writing the poem& the old postmodern saw& so when you perform a poem you’re bringing to light—sparking—those aspects that your physicalizations can make of the poem. And the American Sign Language poets, again, are the people that most show that—the poem only exists in the performance because it is in a language that does not have sounds and texts as components. It’s a gestural language.[The phone rings again and Bob slides over to answer. He begins another conversation about the poetry slam. Thinking I’ve recorded enough and unsure whether he’ll finish his call before I have to return to work, I gather my notes to leave. As I’m about to stand up Bob hangs up and begins to talk to me about something called “Poetry SlamJam 2000,” a poetry “Olympiad marathon” that will be held at Elizabeth Irwin High School in Manhattan. ]
Holman: …which I think is such a great setting because slams should be for kids. It’s when you’ve got so much hormones that poetry just has to break out, like pimples. And I really think that if there were poetry slam leagues—if you could letter in poetry—you could begin making a case for poets getting as much money as the athletes get. You could get poetry books and computers and teachers, you could get coaches and all that stuff. Poetry SlamJam 2000 will have a youth slam, a college slam, a pulldown sellout, which is where if you like a poem you have to put money in a bucket to vote—put your money where your mouth is! And the winner is the guy who gets the most money. And the prize is that you get the money!
PBQ: That may be the only time in history when it is the best poet who gets paid.
Holman: Well, it’s not the best poet—boy, that’s for sure! The best poet always loses! We all know that! But what will be great is that you’ll get the absolute dollar value of a poem. That’s October 28th if any of your readers are in the neighborhood. I should say that’s the year 2000, by the way. This interview will probably come out in 2002. [Laughs.] [I explain to Bob that PBQ is now a webzine, and reassure him that it actually will be published quarterly and will be out by 2001.]
Holman: Let me tell you what happened with Papa Susso when I said we could make a lot of money if he would just do an epic in English—he really can speak great English. It’s the language of The Gambia, the official language. So he does the epic, and I write it down, make it into a poem, and then we’d make a lot of money. And he said that was a “terrible idea.” So I said, “How about this for an idea. You just go ahead and sing in mandinke and I’ll write down what I think you’re saying, and then I’ll perform it back with you, with the both of us performing—you doing what you normally do, and I’ll read what I think you’re saying, and that’ll be our performance.” And he said “That sounds good.” That’s what we came up with—so far we’ve done one. [Laughs.]
PBQ: We read and watched and listened to a lot of poets when we were researching for The World of Poetry, and I’m sure you’ve seen a lot more since then. What’s some of the most exciting work you’ve come across?
Holman: I still think that the work we did at that reading series [the “World of Poetry Reading Series,” which ran the fall of 1997 through the winter of 1999 at venues throughout New York City], which was done by our bootstraps and off the cuff& was so exciting for small audiences. Getting to know [Cambodian poet and survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields] U Sam Oeur, getting behind those poems with him—now he’s an American but he’s from Cambodia—all these things break down. Also Cecilia [Vicuña, Chilean poet, performer, filmmaker, and visual artist]. I still think Cecilia’s entry into The World of Poetry database shows how creative one can be while working with the web and poetry. And she is—as the ASL poets are to poetry—one whose work can’t be unraveled until you can follow the hyperlinks.
And as long as we’re on those guys, I want to mention Frank Lima, who is a U.S. poet—getting to know Frank helped set up the cover story for Poets and Writers magazine last month. I sort of put together this new form of investigative poetics, based on Ed Sander’s work, where I took interviews with him and I laid them out—laid each little thread as a poem, and then made the through-line to put it together. I’m very happy with it.
But you know, going to Eritrea and meeting the African poets really opened my eyes.
PBQ: Was this connected with Charles Cantalupo [poet, professor at Penn State University, and translator of African poetry]?
Holman: Yeah, it was Charles Cantalupo’s thing. And I met poets from all over Africa—poets and academics—and really got to the roots of one of the goals of The World of Poetry, which is to document and preserve endangered languages. And to watch the languages being pulled back from the brink, like what’s happening in Eritrea, where there are nine languages—for three and a half million people—and every single language is the basis of a school where kids can go learn in their native tongues—until sixth grade, when everything switches to English. But it does get you started.
PBQ: And what about his conference [a pan-African gathering of poets and critics in Asmara, Eritrea called “Against All Odds: African Languages and Literature into the 21st Century” that Cantalupo co-chaired]?
Holman: That’s where I went. That’s where I met Papa Susso. That’s where I met Thomas Hale, who wrote the world’s greatest book on griots. This is the book, which I’m teaching this year, if you want a way in to the world of the griots.
PBQ: I’d wondered if the conference was actually going to come off, because of the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Holman: There was a war at the time, but we luckily hit a moment when it wasn’t hot. But a month later it got hot and people I knew were displaced and& it’s just the saddest story.
Afterward, I went across the Red Sea, and then into Yemen where I hung out with the poet laureate, with whom I went to “chews.” The way their social calendar works is not through cocktail parties—because it’s a Muslim country—but through “chews,” because people chew khat. It’s this mild amphetamine-like leaf&[Bob’s phone rings yet again. As he begins his third conversation of the day about “SlamJam 2000,” calling out a list of poets for the person at the other end of the line to get in touch with, I wave goodbye and leave.]