Talking the blues, but inspiring their audiences at WAMFEST 2012

Keorapetse 'Wille' Kgositsile, Poet Laureate of South Africa, reads a a selection from his poetry collection 'This Way I Salute You' at WAMFEST 2012. (Photos by Dan Landau)

By Kenna Caprio

Week two of WAMFEST 2012 — Fairleigh Dickinson University’s annual Words and Music Festival — picks up where week one left off, with guests discussing the rhythm of writing and music.

“Very rarely are WAMFEST events scholarly events, they are artistic events,” says Wesley Stace, FDU artist-in-residence, visiting professor, novelist and musician. Indeed.

Kicking off week two, Stace welcomes Bob Dylan expert and rock and roll writer Michael Gray to campus as the two address “Bob Dylan and the Poetry of the Blues.”

Gray admits that he started listening to the legendary troubadour because of a girl he was “keen on” in college.

“It took me awhile to get used to his voice,” Gray says. Once he did, Gray was hooked for life to a voice laden with the blues.

“He’s somebody who thinks of himself as an old blues singer, really,” says Stace. Dylan is at his best, Stace contends, when he does something that neither he nor anyone else can replicate again.

As an English literature studies major, Gray realized that Dylan’s songs “might bear the weight of the same scrutiny” as the classic works he was reading and studying.

So, in 1972 Gray wrote what was the first critical study of Dylan’s work, just as Dylan himself was becoming “passé,” he says. Gray says he didn’t make any money, but the book gave him “a niche,” writing about songs rather than words printed on the page.

Blues music, at its core, isn’t about getting a record deal, says Gray. “That whole kind of music making has such a different agenda.”

Similarly, Poet Laureate of South Africa Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile, tells the audience at the next WAMFEST event that he never worried about his writing being published or even becoming an established poet.

“The business of a writer is to write. I never went out of my way to get published,” he says during the question and answer session of the poetry and prose reading.

The blues theme emanating the Michael Gray event continues during this event too, as Kgositsile reads from his book of poems, This Way I Salute You.

This collection of poems by Kgositsile is “dedicated to a musician or poet that touched my life in some way or another,” he says. Some of those musicians who influenced him include John Coltrane, B. B. King and Cassandra Wilson.

From the poem “Cassandra Wilson Will Sing,” he reads:” I say look at those eyes/ look at her arms/ follow her little finger/ and understand perhaps why/ you were born with ears.

“Without music there would be no poetry,” says Kgositsile.

Also appearing at this WAMFEST event are FDU professor and writer Jeffrey Allen and writers David Henderson and Siphiwo Mahala.

Henderson talks about meeting Jimi Hendrix and his decision to write ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky: Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child about the famed guitarist. When they met decades ago, Henderson told Hendrix, “I want to write something just about you.” At WAMFEST, he reflects, “I promised him I’d write and I kept my promise.”

Each writer picks selections to share that focus in on music — whether the words are rhythmic or the subject melodious. Allen reads from his upcoming book, Song of the Shank, and South Africa’s Mahala reads from his short story collection African Delights.

Bringing it all back home — with more talk of the blues at the WAMFEST finale —poet and writer Quincy Troupe and hip-hop artist Talib Kweli join Stace on stage.

“I met Miles Davis when I was 15,” says Troupe. “And I grew up down the street from Chuck Berry.” Though surrounded by some of the musical greats at a young age, Troupe didn’t delve further into music until later in his life, after a knee injury sidelined his basketball career.

“Miles changed the way I listened to music,” he says.

Troupe would go on to meet Davis several times before sitting down for a lengthy interview with the jazz great in 1985 for SPIN magazine. That interview formed the basis for two books — Miles: The Autobiography and Miles and Me, a memoir. Troupe says that Miles is written to be as though the reader is in the room with Davis, sitting across the table from him and having a conversation. He kept himself out of the book almost completely, Troupe says, while Miles and Me tells his conversations with Davis from his personal perspective.

But before that life-changing interview with Davis, Troupe met another iconic figure: John Paul Sartre. He met Sartre through his then-girlfriend and didn’t know who he was, Troupe says.

“That is a ludicrous story,” interjects Stace, laughing.

“He told me to write poetry,” says Troupe. So he did. And not long after, Troupe read poems on Venice Beach, around 1966 and 1967, while “Jimi Hendrix played behind me on the beach.”

“You might be the only person who’s met John Paul Sartre and Jimi Hendrix,” muses Stace.

“And Miles Davis,” quips Troupe.

“Let’s not even bring him into it,” responds Stace with a laugh and a wave of his hand.

“If Miles came out now, he’d be a gangsta rapper, just in a different medium,” says hip-hop artist Talib Kweli.

For Kweli growing up, there was “lots of vinyl in the house.” He listened to jazz, funk, R&B and rock and came of age with pop influences like Madonna and Duran Duran. And the girls that Kweli liked, well, they liked hip-hop.

“I only went to high school to rap in the lunchroom,” says Kweli, whose parents decided to send him to boarding school after he stopped attending class. His parents, both professors, weren’t against the rapping, he says, just “against not going to school.”

So he went to boarding school and continued to write while there, sometimes plays, and books and books of verse.

Once he started to record in the hip-hop industry, he had to learn “how to write to the tracks but still be dope and have content in there.” says Kweli. “‘Lonely People,’ I wrote to the beat of “Eleanor Rigby,’” says Kweli. “You can’t get caught up in the container that you’re writing in.” He’s also quick to give credit to the musicians he’s collaborated with, including Mos Def, Hi-Tek, Madlib and Res.

“I don’t write music,” says Kweli. “I’m good at writing hip-hop lyrics. There are certain things that I’m just jealous of: writing fiction and writing a catchy melody,” he says.

Both Troupe and Kweli captivate as they demonstrate their writing styles to the audience. Troupe reads “A Poem for Magic,” which whizzes and whirls just as retired basketball player Magic Johnson once did. Kweli raps “Distraction,” a song influenced by the Arab Spring, and the crowd loves it.

And during the question and answer session, Kweli manages to sum up the message of WAMFEST in a sentence. “Dedicate yourself completely to what it is you want to do,” he says.

WAMFEST, hosted by FDU’s Becton College and the Creative Writing Program, is a celebration and exploration of the arts. Events bring together artists from various fields for unique conversations, collaborations, and performances. Past guests include Bruce Springsteen, Robert Pinsky, Josh Ritter and Rosanne Cash.

For more, visit the WAMFEST blog or contact David Daniel, director of the Creative Writing BA program and the director of WAMFEST, at

WAMFEST artist-in-residence Wesley Stace listens intently to hip-hop artist Talib Kweli at the festival's 2012 finale.

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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