MUSES: The incendiary poet Essex Hemphill

Yesterday my local library branch (in Mount Pleasant) had an event honoring the late Washington-based poet Essex Hemphill. Hemphill became famous for his incendiary political performance poetry which addressed issues of race, gender and sexuality. His work was featured such films as Tongues Untied and Looking for Langston.


Hemphill was also instrumental in my coming out process.

Back in the late 80s, I was a bit of a hermit in college. One Sunday I was holed up in the library when the head of the gay men’s organization invited me to hear Hemphill read. I went, and heard him. Hemphill exuded star power. He was funny, and invited people to participate in the performance. I recall him reading—really, perfuming—a poem about the Tuskegee Experiment, and performing another about the crack epidemic which was in full sway in DC. (I also recall that he mentioned that he was a Kate Bush fan; he mentioned her then new song Experiment IV in introducing the Tuskegee Experiment poem).

After his performance, I officially came out to everyone I knew.

Yesterday’s tribute feature both readings and heartfelt remembrances of this groundbreaking poet-activist.


BOOK REVIEW: Religion and Dystopia in Atwood’s THE YEAR OF THE FLOOD

The Year of the Flood (MaddAddam Trilogy, #2)The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A sequel to Oryx and Crake (and the 2nd book in the newly-dubbed MaddAddam Trilogy), The Year of the Flood is a better book, in my opinion, than the series opener. The story is told through the eyes of two women, Ren and Toby, who are once and future members of an eco-cult called God’s Gardeners. Ren grows up in the cult after her mom leaves one of the gated pharmaceutical communities that control the world. Her narrative is first person and traces her life from an impressionable child to tough adulthood. Toby’s narrative is in third person, and she initially becomes a Gardener to escape a dire circumstance. Each of their contrasting sections is short and they end on a cliff hanger moments. Through these fragments, you get a different glimpse into the dystopian future Atwood’s created, with its Corporate structure and science gone amok. Interspersed are sermons and hymns from the cult. A warning: the book is very dark, even grim-dark. Atwood doesn’t shy from describing the horrors these two very different, and differently strong women face. A criticism: I found it hard to believe one major plot point which I won’t spoil. The Year of the Flood also reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable series, in the use of religion and dystopian themes.

MUSES: The return of the mystical side of Natalie Merchant

The first show I went to at DC’s famed 9:30 Club, back when it was at 9th and F Street, was 10,000 Maniacs. They had just released their major label debut, The Wishing Chair. The front woman, Natalie Merchant, was a triple-threat, as they say in show business lingo. She had a lilting, beautiful voice; wrote intelligent lyrics about serious subjects; and was visually arresting. And by “visually arresting,” I don’t mean she was a babe. I mean her gloriously oddball stage person. The performance I saw back in 1985 featured her trademark spinning, on-stage costume changes involving numerous shawls and scarves, and using her long hair as a prop. In-between song, instead of banter, she would sing a cappella fragments of old folk songs. And in souped up jam session, she ‘sang’ impromptu lyrics from Yamyatin’s We.


She became a star on the next album, In My Tribe, with a jaunty hit single about Seasonal Affective Disorder called “Like the Weather.” Her lyrics became less poetic and more preachy, something cemented in the follow-up album Blind Man’s Zoo. At her worst, she comes across as a sanctimonious scold. Sally Soapbox became her default setting. She rivals Morrissey in her ability to annoy me with her judgmental and often hypocritical pronouncements. (Case in point: “Candy Everybody Wants” portrays TV-viewers as morons and yet 10,000 Maniacs were often musical guests on numerous TV programs; in another article, she went on a mad bromide against the Lady Gaga/Beyonce campy video “Telephone,” failing to find humor in its homage to trashy women’s prison; yet her former band’s name at best, trivializes, people with mental disabilities).

But some of her songs can make me blub like a baby. “Cherry Tree,” about illiteracy, does it every time. And “These Are Days” practically defines nostalgic euphoria. That song kicks me out of any funk I’m in. She has a new album coming out, and it appears to draw from the Poetic side of her oeuvre. The haunting video and the lyrics to the song “Giving It Up” is very promising.


Myth and Music: “Meremennen” by Autumn’s Grey Solace

The song “Meremennen” by Autumn’s Grey Solace has no known lyrics. Phrases emerge every now and then, like flotsam and jetsam, on the oceanic currents of the music. But for the most part, it is a kind of semi-coherent glossolalia: flowing and dissolving and pierce notes over a delicate arpeggio’d guitar and subterranean bass-line.  The title holds the clue to the content: meremennen is an old English word for a kind of water spirit. This track, with its siren vocalizations, is a homage to an elusive, mythic creature.

Myth and Music: The Scandinavian fairy-tale music of Norway’s Bel Canto


Just the other day, I found some rare tracks from the Norwegian ethereal-wave band Bel Canto. Listening to them confirmed for me that Anneli Drecker has a simply amazing voice and it’s a shame that she is not as well known as she should be. She effortlessly melds the complex vocal gymnastics of Elizabeth Fraser with the pan-ethnic warbling of Lisa Gerrard— with a dash of Bjorkian whimsy.

Bel Canto started out as kind of Gothic synthpop band; imagine Depeche Mode crossed with Siouxsie and the Banshees. By the second release, Birds of Passage, they moved more into the atmospherics of Cocteau Twins or Kate Bush. Drecker expanded the range of her voice so that she could reach soprano highs that were positively operatic, and there was a definite Medieval sound to the stately synths. Lyrically, the songs borrowed from mythology, with songs about mermaids, minotaurs, and Baron Munchausen. But it is their third album, Shimmering, Warm & Bright, is a classic of mythic pop music.

Drecker’s voice is stately and beautiful. The music weaves folk instruments into the elaborate synthesized orchestrations. The lyrics, some of them in French and German, are full of images from Scandinavian myths: giants (“Shimmering, Warm and Bright”), fallen warriors (“Sleep in Deep”), and witchcraft (“Spiderdust”). The album’s centerpiece is an epic musical homage to a Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Story of a Mother,” sung in German.

Subsequent Bel Canto albums visited mythic themes sporadically, opting instead for a sleek pop-oriented sound.

Shimmering, Warm and Bright


Washington Independent Review of Books interview/review gig

Check out the interview I conducted with debut novelist Kim Church (Byrd, Dzanc Books) over at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Church was my first author interview for WIRoB, and she was simply charming.

I will be covering the Speculative Fiction beat from now on.


Bereft in the DC Public Library System and Forthcoming Library Event.

My YA novel Bereft is finally in the DC Public Library system. Now is as good a time as any to announce that a library event is in the works for this spring/summer, to coincide with DC’s LGBT Pride Festival. More information forthcoming.

Bereft displayed in the MLK Library's Teenspace!

Bereft displayed in the MLK Library’s Teenspace!