Over 40 local poets—including Ntozake Shange, Floyd Salas, Avotcja, Gerald Nicosia, Tennessee Reed and Reginald Lockett—will read to benefit the Hurricane Katrina victims of Mississippi, and to celebrate the self-publication of a book of poems on Katrina, Words Upon the Waters, this Sunday, 3 p.m., at Anna’s Jazz Island.
Both the production of the book and the reading come from a collective effort by the artists involved, building on an earlier benefit at La Peña, to send all proceeds directly to elderly and disabled Katrina victims through the Center for Independent Living in the East Bay.
“All of us are artists; I never thought we’d have a book,” said Kim McMillon, who hosts a reading series at Anna’s Jazz Island, and will preside at Sunday’s benefit with fellow organizers Wanda Sabir and Karla Brundage.
The ball got rolling for the benefits and the book one night last year when a few friends began e-mailing each other and talking on the phone.
“We’re mostly of color—African American, Native and Asian American, Latina,” said McMillon of the group that coalesced from the mutual concern. “Some of us had relatives down there, or our families were from there—my parents were married in Gulfport. And we could see that the needs of people were being ignored, especially those of older and disabled victims.”
The group decided to focus on Mississippi because such a wide area of that state got devastated; it wasn’t just New Orleans.
“People feel helpless,” McMillon said. “But for us, it’s an opportunity to use our words to help—and we’re building a sense of community.”
Sabir, whom McMillon called the backbone of the effort, spent the time following Katrina “in a daze, waiting for phonecalls” to account for family members in the stricken area.
“The older people, especially those in their 80s and 90s didn’t leave,” she said. “The younger ones evacuated, the older stayed. I kept seeing photos of people in wheelchairs being evacuated to the Astrodome in Houston.”
Sabir, who teaches at Alameda Jr. College, visited Mississippi last fall. “Aid was being blocked; people were going, taking blankets and food down.”
On her return, she talked with others, then contacted Karla Brundage.
“We’d done events for South Central, for abolishing the death penalty together. We had lots of names standing by,” Sabir said. “Karla organized the La Peña reading. The poetry was awesome; the testimony, fabulous. We taped the evening, and Karla, Kim Shuck, Leroy Franklin and other poets started talking about doing a book.”
“Inkworks donated 500 covers and found a binder for us,” said McMillon. “The project deserved something more than a stapled chapbook and Reginald Lockett legitimized us with his Jukebox Press. We’ve got an ISBN number, and—after Karla and five others spent all night long, every night for a week at the Bay Area Alternative Pres—we have 500 bound copies. When you make something this way, when your hand touches every page, it puts a different value on it.”
McMillon said publishers have been invited to the reading, in the hope that one of them will publish the book.
All proceeds from the readings and a silent art auction of donated works at La Peña are being wired, without fee, by the Center for Independent Living to Mississippi and Houston.
“We get detailed reports on how it’s been spent,” said Sabir. “Jan Garrett of CIL has been great—and Mr. Batiste, whose own family members were evacuated during Hurricane Rita. He knows.”
Brundage commented on the interracial and intercommunity cooperation that’s sprung from a widespread disaster, teamwork that’s overcoming a sense of voicelessness from being confronted with a history of neglect.
“There are places down there that don’t exist anymore,” Sabir said. “But our community of poets and artists are of the same ethnic diversity—even including a similar diversity of disabilities—as the Katrina victims. We span the spectrum, and when we feel something, we write a poem or a song, put on a concert.”
The reading is sponsored by Oakland PEN, Before Columbus Foundation and Poetry Flash. McMillon credits Anna Rodriguez, of Anna’s Jazz Island with “really going to bat for us—and she contributed a great poem, too.”
“The anniversary of Katrina’s just around the corner,” cautioned McMillon, “and it’s hurricane season again.”
Words Upon The Waters
A Healing Event for Katrina by Bay Area Poets & Artists
Anna’s Jazz Island, 2120 Allston Way,
Sunday, 3 p.m.
$5 admission; book $20.