Conversations

Sisterfire 2018, interview with Alexis De Veaux

 

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sisterfire festivals which began in the 1980s.  Alexis regularly attended the festivals and will be present at this year’s anniversary celebration in Washington DC. Below is an excerpt from an interview with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative on the importance of the Sisterfire festivals.

 

Alexis at the 1982 Sisterfire festival, Washington DC,

 behind her is the black gay poet and activist, Essex Hemphill

 

Q: What are your memories of Sisterfire festivals in the 1980s? How did they inspire you?

A: I remember the Sisterfire festivals in the 1980s as not simply an event but an opportunity for community we all looked forward to. We were all hungry for, and needed, a sense of community that was local and global, and the Sisterfire festivals shaped a weaving of multicultural women’s voices that were necessary to surviving the Reagan era. As black, female-identified and lesbian, I felt particularly in need of, and inspired by, the ways in which Sisterfire politicized the erotics of our resistances.

Q: How did Sisterfire festivals elevate women artists of that era?

A: The festivals provided a venue for our collective visibility, by introducing us to each other across geographies, political agendas and economic realities. There were few, if any, such venues; certainly not another that prioritized a multicultural women’s world view in which art and politics merged in powerful couplings.

Q: How does the legacy of Sisterfire benefit young women artists today?

A: To the extent that we can create necessary intergenerational opportunities for cross-fertilization and knowledge exchange, the history and legacy of Sisterfire is poised to present women artists coming up behind us with a sense of —a model of—what is possible. That’s one of the things Sisterfire did. It made possible what had been impossible. And it can point the way to what can be done now.

 

Continue reading here 

 

In 1982, Roadwork produced the first Sisterfire Festival at Takoma Park Jr. High School in Washington, DC. Initiated as a fundraiser during the severe arts-funding cutbacks of the Ronald Reagon years, Sisterfire featured women artists and welcomed all genders to participate in an open-air urban environment. This video was filmed by Victoria Eves and aired on several local cable channels as well as WETA televisio

Roadwork Documentary Project Teaser from Roadwork, Inc. on Vimeo.

 

 

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival joins Roadwork in celebrating its fortieth anniversary as a D.C.-based multiracial coalition that puts women artists on the road globally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen: A symposium on Black Beauty at Xavier University

 

FREEDOM FORUMS 2017 : A Conversation on Freedom: Personal, Artistic and Civic

What do words like freedom and democracy mean, today?

 

On Tuesday, September 26, 2017, at Federal Hall, New York, Alexis De Veaux, Jericho Brown, Tina Chang & Aja Monet held a public participatory conversation on “Freedom: Personal, Artistic and Civic”.

The rhetoric of the past year’s presidential election cycle raised the specter of a divided America, the fallout and reverberations of which seem to threaten our basic democratic ideals and values. With fear and marginalization of the other on the rise, how can we rekindle our commitment to the ideal of freedom, and what does freedom in America even mean? What freedom means to them as writers, individuals and as citizens. They will share their work and that of others who have inspired them, sparking an open conversation with the audience.

Freedom Poets

Poets

Alexis De Veaux’s work in multiple genres is nationally and internationally known and has been published in five languages. She is the author of Warrior Poet, A Biography of Audre Lorde (W.W. Norton, 2004), which won several prestigious awards including the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Award, Nonfiction, the Gustavus Meyers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights Outstanding Book Award, and the Lambda Literary Foundation Award for Biography. Her novella Yabo (Redbone Press, 2014) won the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction and a 2016 National Book Foundation Summer Reading book.

Jericho Brown is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Emory University. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets.

Tina Chang is the first woman to be named Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. She is the author of two poetry collections, Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011) and Half-Lit Houses (Four Way Books, 2004), and the co-editor of the W.W. Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (2008). She is the recipient of awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Academy of American Poets, Poets & Writers, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and the Van Lier Foundation among others. 

Aja Monet is an internationally established poet, singer, performer, educator and human rights advocate whose craft is an in-depth reflection of emotional wisdom, skill, and activism. The youngest individual to win the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Café Grand Slam title, she is recognized for combining her spellbinding voice and powerful imagery on stage. Her books of poetry include My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books, 2017), Inner-City Chants & Cyborg Cyphers (e-book, 2015), and The Black Unicorn Sings (Penmanship Books, 2010).

The event was followed by a book signing by the poets and included Alexis De Veaux’s Yabo, Jericho Brown’s The New Testament, Tina Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers and Aja Monet’s My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter.

NOTE: 
Freedom Forums is presented by the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy, the primary nonprofit partner of the National Parks of New York Harbor. It is organized by Harbor Conservancy Literary Arts Advisor Debora Ott and sponsored by a Humanities NY Vision/Action Grant and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

“Thats What Poets Do”…For June Jordan

June and Alexis, 1996. [Photo credit, Jon Snow]

Freedom Fighter

 

“That’s what poets do….. we worry words..”

June Jordan, April 23, 2000

 

Sometimes it would happen when we were out being “running buddies” (that’s what J called our friendship) at a political event or poetry reading. It could happen during a visit to one of her beautiful, immaculate Brooklyn apartments. Most of the time though it would be a late night phone call that would turn our “running buddies” thing into a thug thing: so-and-so had done her wrong. So-and-so had to pay for that. She’d already ironed and creased her jeans (looking good was important, even in battle). Said she’d wait for me to do the same. Then meet her, and go kick some butt. I idolized J, so a wrong to her was a wrong to me. Half the time I was grateful when “the enemy” wasn’t at home, couldn’t be found, shrunk at the sight of her. Or when we’d laugh ourselves almost comatose until she calmed down, and realized the absurdity of a prominent social activist – her – being arrested on some silly assault and battery charge.

In time, I understood that J had this deeper thing about sovereignty. Being sovereign was not just about the liberation struggle in South Africa, the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua, the state of black America, the anti-nuclear proliferation movement or the Palestinian Liberation Front, all of which were among her priorities when she lived in New York City in the 1980s.   Being sovereign was basic to her humanity, fundamental to a principled way of living. She believed in and advocated for her own self determination; whether the context was working out the kinks of loving and being loved, sweating out the next sentence of whatever she was writing, having beauty in her life or resisting any actual or possible personal harm.   As she embodied it, poets have to ‘worry words” because the sanctity of being human is the bravery of speech.

She published thousands of words in the form of 28 books; persisting as a writer in spite of the fact that she was under-recognized in some literary quarters. There are far too many who do not know her name, do not know the trembling bravery of her poems and essays. There are far too many who do not know what it meant for her to stand sovereign.

June Jordan’s poems, essays, commentaries in The Nation and other publications, children’s books, plays, audio recordings, her only novel (His Own Where, 1971) and even her troubling memoir (A Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood, 2000) are evidence of a deeply brilliant, passionate spirit. And they are blueprints for radical social change. We need only to read them to figure our way out of the mess this country is currently in. J would be the first to say we have a president we did not elect. The first to say we have been duped by the prostitution of patriotism and have acquiesced to living in “Newmerica”, where a shadowy “war on terrorism” encourages citizens to spy on each other. She would be the first to remind us of the Declaration of Rights, the Constitution, the right of the people to resist “taxation without representation.” She was a true freedom fighter.

She would be sovereign. Now more than ever

Alexis De Veaux

 

Originally published in “The Women’s Review of Books” October, 2002.