A "Poetry Free for All"? That's what will take place Sunday from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. as poets "without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability, ethnicity or creed" mount the stage of d.c. space to share their work, in five-minute increments, with others. The event is part of the two-day First Poetry Forum sponsored by Station to Station Writers' Collective, a nonprofit literary organization dedicated to the presentation of contemporary and historical African American poetry.
Panel discussions and workshops will be the fare Saturday morning and afternoon and Sunday afternoon. Evenings (Saturday at 7, Sunday at 7:30) will be devoted to a Performance Poetry Festival, also at d.c. space. "The Poets' Role in Society," "Performance Poetry: Purpose and Process," "Racism and the English Language" and "Things Poets Should Know" will be discussed Saturday at the Bethune Museum Archives (1318 Vermont Ave. NW). The Evans-Tibbs Collection of Art (1910 Vermont Ave. NW) will host a discussion Sunday on "Black Men/Black Women in American Literature." Panel members will include Marilyn Thornton of Arts D.C., Garrett Johnson of Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, and poets Gideon Ferebee, Essex Hemphill, Abena Walker and Calvin Forbes. The Saturday evening performances will feature New Breezes from Baltimore and Station to Station Performance Poets. Sunday evening will showcase Garth Tate & SA/SA (Starving Artists/Still Alive) and Foodhead. (For more information call 328-6348.)
"I think that poetry can be helpful," says poet Ethelbert Miller, who will participate in the panel on the poet's role. "It can raise questions, provide direction and encouragement. It can unlock doors." Miller, the director of Howard University's Afro-American Resource Center, spoke of a program he coordinates that takes poets into the city's shelters for the homeless. "I took a writer into one of them, and after he had finished reading people got up and recited their own lines. What you began to see was that through poetry people realized that they had something in common."
For the panel on performance poetry, Michelle Parkerson -- who has produced films on vocalist Betty Carter and the Washington-based a cappella quartet Sweet Honey in the Rock -- will trace the African heritage of performance poetry from West African griots through slave work songs and the blues to reggae dub style and street rap. "One of the essential points that I want to make," she said, "is that good performance cannot take the place of good writing, and that both the performance aspect and the writing aspect need to be respected and worked upon as a craft."
Another participant in the panel, poet Chasen Gaver, will turn up with a collection of what he calls "performance elements." "The concept is that you use something beyond the recitation to enhance the delivery of verse," he explained. "Today, when people have a hard time paying attention to the written word, the most effective pieces seem to be those that have some other element -- an intense rhythm, a percussion instrument, a prop or combination thereof." A lively performer, Gaver is notorious for "illustrating" his performances with, for example, a maraca, a megaphone, kitchen utensils or an umbrella.
"What I'm frequently asked," says Claudia Tate, author of "Black Women Writers at Work" and a professor of English at Howard University, "is, 'Why is it that black women writers are suddenly receiving so much attention?' It's because they're writing a new kind of adventure story. I think what we're finding in the 1980s is a great curiosity about what women of all ethnic origins in this country have been doing all this time, now that they're leaving the kitchen. We're talking about personal quest and self-development rather than