The “poemedy” aesthetic as created by Summerhill Seven (Alim Akbar) is the art of seeing every moment in life as perfected. I remembered this when I recently re-read Summerhill’s book “Notes of a Neurotic..” by Summerhill Seven . Touched that he proclaimed me the “Poemedy Artist of 2013,” I began to reflect on my first impressions of his writing and I thought it would be wise to share the original review I wrote of this poet’s brazen and beautiful book. (visit www.poemedy.com to learn more about his work)
Poet Summerhill Seven: Still crazy after all these years…
Invisible Man: Thoughts on Summerhill Seven’s Notes of a Neurotic
Reviewed by Dennis Leroy Kangalee
Originally written March 5, 2005, Revised for publication July 29, 2005
Craziness on the Sleeve
“Sanity is not the goal. Since this book is by a self-proclaimed schizophrenic who inhabits a skitsofrantic life, then the lack of this state of being, often referred to as sanity, would have made these sololoquies impossible.”
– Summerhill Seven, “Trialogue”
I first met Summerhill Seven (Alim Akbar) in the summer of 2002 in New York City. I had been asked to direct a play about a group of local gamblers in a Harlem bar and had the arduous task of assisting the producer with the casting. I was not in the best of moods, was recovering from a nervous breakdown earlier that year, and was making a weak attempt at returning to directing plays which I had given up three years earlier in personal pursuit of filmmaking and writing. That summer, and well after that, I constantly had feelings of fragmentation, detachment, and rabid paranoia. I felt comfortable, however, upon meeting and eventually working with Summerhill Seven. You see, Summerhill is also a mad man.
I didn’t know much about Summerhill and still don’t. I know what I have to know and seldom ask or pry into his personal affairs and he seems to do the same. Our paths crossed, we ran in the same circles for a period, got high once or twice together, and even dated the same girl once. The girl was a writer from Chicago. She wasn’t crazy. This poor girl was psychotic and when I told Summerhill I would quit seeing her if he wanted to date her, he quipped: “Uh-uh, no, no you can have her.” I know he misses his mother, he was married once, he writes every day like a junkie looking for a fix, he adores Shakespeare, and shares my love for the Avant-garde. I always liked the fact that he was a lawyer. He seems to dig that I went to Juilliard – but didn’t graduate. We respect one another’s art and the demons that seem to rage within us. Summerhill was easily the most charismatic and fearless actor I had worked with in 2002 and certainly one of the most passionate and determined actors I have ever known.
We live in a moment in time that is crunched down-held up-sewn within the seams. We are hanging onto dear life in a punching bag that dangles on its last leg. No one is willing to risk it all to express the pain around us. No one is willing to free-fall as the majestic clowns and poets of the old were willing to do. In short: we are all afraid of the good fight. This is a problem far too great for me to go into right now, but one that keeps popping up in my head even as I try to gain distance on the “the scene” in America from Berlin, where I write this. Summerhill is easily ten years my senior, we are just barely contemporaries and commentators of the same generation. What I hold inherently sacred and vital to life – Summerhill does as well. This is what attracts me to his writings in his book. You see, at times, I feel like I have written it. (And no, to clarify he’s the schizo, I’m labeled the more fashionably – ahem – “Bi-polar”)
“I readily admit that the Americans have no poets; I cannot allow that they have no poetic ideas.”
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Part II/Book One
Notes of a Neurotic is an eclectic mélange of poems, humorous interludes, observations, and dramatic fiction. It is designed to “heal the emotions of the reader, the speaker, and the writer” This book is clearly a work of art that is reflective of the chaos in this world; a journey of an unstable man trying to find his way in this world…It is in many ways the spiritual biography of Summerhill Seven. Part manifesto, part confession – it is the current analogy in literature to what I tried to accomplish with my 2002 film As an Act of Protest. And being one of the only artists in New York City to publicly and proudly support my film (he taught it and screened it to his students), Summerhill’s work shimmers with a similar fever that mine has been dipped in. That is the fever of the split atom, the “crazy” urban black intellectual, the scared revolutionary artist…the neurotic. What I tried to do formally and structurally within my own directorial work Summerhill Seven has done as a writer. The difference is that where I may or may not have succeeded (my opinion alters depending on the day and my mood), I believe he has. Dashes and flashes of brilliance flicker, for example, in his Schizophrenic Skitsofrantic Soliloquies section These come off as Haikus or proverbs or as they have been aptly described as “the fruit of the poet tree”. In “Observation,” he writes:
I find that my life is a lot happier when I avoid white men in robes, whether they are black or white…robes.
Writing as an Arab American, he poignantly writes:
George Bush declared war on somebody and I don’t know who and I am losing my mind because everyone I know doesn’t like me and everyone I know doesn’t trust me.
His wicked and cool sense of humor stands to attention in “Peace,” which easily could have been part of a Richard Pryor monologue in the 1970′s. Check it out:
I prayed for peace and got it!
I was so dam bored I saw a dog and shot it.
The dog came back to haunt me,
Smoking a blunt and drinking coffee.
Can you imagine a dog with caffeine high?
But cool cuz he has chronic burning in his mind’s eye?
Summerhill Seven is a theater artist and I say this to re-iterate his approach and style to writing and assembling the works collected in Notes. In many ways, I feel relieved that he has begun to accomplish what I was waiting for. A new black literary voice who had one foot in theater, one foot in poetry, and one foot – ‘er hand – in outer space, or somewhere…Cosmic Humor is what I suppose we can call it. Something I myself have been tempted to explore. The combinations and mixes and the rapid pace of the altering styles is one of the main features of the new wave of Black American fine artists that emerged in the late 20th-early 21st century. Most of us who were interested in expressing his or her own unique voice – particularly those of us in Northern urban areas – did it in whatever vein we saw fit, even when the moods and shapes changed drastically from one moment to the next. Some just don’t understand the jazz of our work. Charles Mingus said that for him Byrd was it – the greatest – simply because he was expressing how he felt. The greatest self-expression abounds in simplicity, and yet its meanings and emotions are so doubled and tripled and full of inborn contradictions and philosophies about life you can experience the work over and over and never get tired of it.
Form follows function in Summerhill’s Theater of Neurosis. And just when I feel he is going along with the flow of the stream and giving in to what the audience wants, he opts to swim his own way. This is his saving grace and what keeps him rooted as an artist. His interest in people, his pathologies, his political convictions, his sexual appetites, his impish desire at times to shock and annoy, most importantly – his sensitivity to the musical tones of life and the presence of death in our everyday existence. In his own unique way, Summerhill has created a post-modern metropolitan black Spoon River Anthology. Yes. This is another bizarre connection I have to him. The River Flows, the 1993 adaption, was the first off-Broadway play I ever did….I played Death himself and was like a character torn from Notes. These are not coincidences, for things don’t just happen -they happen justly.
In Notes, Summerhill liberally sprinkles his book with quotes from everyone from Saint Baldwin (James) to the prophetic rancor of early Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and the poetic wisdom of William Shakespeare. These quotes serve to remind the reader of either a theme or concept being explored or expressed and/or to give the actor reading it a cerebral inspiration on the page that may lead him down the correct path as he begins to dramatically interpret and perform a specific text. The book – a slim 148 pages – is packed with conceptual ideas, puns, clever plays on words and titles (i.e. poet tree, poemedies, essalogues, etc.,) but I am not interested in or willing to indulge us into the meanings behind those phrases or titles or explain how “clever” the author can be. Who cares? Real art is not about being clever. It is about expressing how much you know about life. And for all of Alim Akbar AKA Summerhill Seven’s broader appeal (when he performs, my wife refers to him as “the thinking man’s Will Smith” in the sense that he is good-looking and charming enough to be able to garner a willing and very harmless mixed crowd) and his ability to hold court with a potentially more varied audience than me, for example, his strength is not in the trappings and superficial aspects of his more liberal and accessible poetry. No. It is, I believe, in the heart and soul of his prose and monologues-proper. Or what he refers to as his Essalogues. This is where Summerhill excites me the most and where he is at his best.
The short story “Heads” is one of the most provocative and honest pieces in the entire collection. In its Raymond Carver-esque minimalism, tongue-in-cheek bravado, and muted satire, Summerhill recounts how he killed three white people (a racist punk, a lawyer, and a landlady) and is completely at wits end working and living with white people. They are simply too much to deal with and they do nothing but constantly aggravate and annoy. The entire idea – whether it is treated humorously or with straight up tragic insinuations – of killing white people or the “oppressor” is one that has infiltrated and consumed a great deal of modern Black American art work. It runs through the plays of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the music of Public Enemy, and has been finessed and relayed masterfully by composers such as Bob Marley and is hinted at within the canvasses of the painter Aaron Douglas. Not literally, but in spirit. Even my own early work constantly wrestled with my own anger and frustration over what to do when living in a racist society. Summer’s treatment of the matter is less directly heavy handed, however, and not as tragic. It is much more absurd and has the maturity it takes to see the scenario through a simple and clean filter: it’s all a day’s work. The humor is venomous and already present in the opening paragraph:
I mean the idea of killing four white people in the twenty-first century
just for what, to redress some historical wrong? I just simply was not with it.
But now, that I have already killed three, I am starting to get into it.
I mean, I really am starting to get the hang of it.
Funny stuff. Very dry, very simple. What makes it funny is the element of truth behind it, what makes it creepy is that you know the narrator is tired and doesn’t have time for jokes. Or perhaps the former is the latter and the latter is the former? I don’t know, now I’ve confused myself. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – what the story reveals and how Summerhill seems to express it so effortlessly is what counts. Our narrator tells us he killed his first victim because he was called a “nigger,” he killed his second victim because he couldn’t stand working with, for, under this incredibly arrogant and prejudiced man who was one of the head lawyers in a law firm that had hired our brown-skinned narrator. Any black person who has ever worked in an office setting or corporate environment instantly recognizes the sort of white male that Terry Apath is. This is where you know that the bond and anticipated audience of this story is black because of the casualness and simplicity unto which the story is relayed. As with the tradition of African American literature – the story is very oral and has a great deal of “signifying,” and radicalizing simply within the speech/text. I point this out because I do find it important that black writers still approach their work in such a cool and naturally stated way. In an era of “Who is your audience?” and “No one will understand your references, people are not smart as they used to be,” it is refreshing that Summerhill invites the reader into his world, into his neurosis and doesn’t comment on what they may or may not understand. Instantly you are a confidante and this is what made some of the white listeners uncomfortable at the Book Party in February 2005, when portions of the book were read in public. Not that ayone objected, no. White people will never object to anything considered “artistic,” within a black or mixed milieu for fear of being labeled racist or a “phony liberal.” They will just roll their eyes, squirm, or smirk – as if to say “That is sooo hateful, I could never…! I’m more developed than you, gosh you people with your Superfly-Shaft-Badass-anger. I’ve seen it all before! I’m Jewish and I don’t write stories or fantasize about killing Germans or Arabs!”
First of all that would be a lame excuse and a ridiculous comparison. But of course they don’t have to write about anything similar – white people take out all their aggression directly. They don’t have to write stories, they can blow up countries. They don’t believe in art or therapy and when they they do – they site only musical artists. As if to imply that music is “free” from any political-social relevance…I am obviously generalizing here to make a very serious point.
Most Americans (particularly the young white American) miss the point when evaluating or simply even reading real African American fiction. It would be misleading, however, to imply that Summerhill is writing for white people. He isn’t. And when he does he makes it clear that he is. But this problem infiltrates black readers’ minds as well as whites. There shouldn’t be a need to specify or diffuse either way but we all know history and the way this world works.
My point: if White Americans aren’t going to read their masters or really dig into their own problems – the way Bob Dylan and Paul Simon did thirty-five years ago, then they had better read and taste the folk art of the Black American if they want to begin to understand their country, their world, their history…their neurosis. Summerhill doesn’t write about Pimps in the street and spray “hip” derogatory terms throughout his work. He’s beyond that, even though it is what is expected from Black writers and filmmakers. He doesn’t exploit “blackness,” women, or the so-called “urban jungle.” His grievances are real. He reveals the scowl behind the grin, the anger that is just below the surface. But for all his authenticity, no one seems to pay attention to Summerhill or several other artists working within the same mix. Folks will say: “Well, he’s got no audience, yet cause he hasn’t been on TV or featured on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of the NY Times, or he hasn’t debut with some rising Pop Star-Gangster-Wanna-be-Hip Hop buffoon. Lies and excuses, my friends. But the reason this cuts deep is because being a theater artist almost lends itself to invisibility. Besides the Lincoln Center effete crowd and a few organizations, and a handful of WASPS in New England or Boston or even in good old “progressive” San Francisco – the theater means very little to people. Artists or otherwise. I often wonder if maybe that’s not the way it has always been….
For those who believe playwright Suzan Lori-Parks or David Mamet still have any true power or progressive instincts on stage – they are holding worthless promissory notes. Mamet imitates himself, Parks cashes in on what the mainstream audiences will expect her to turn in or evaluate – particularly as an African American woman. Neither are of the current state of consciousness emanating within the arts (whatever is left of it, that is) and both are very comfortable. Those looking for the real news, the truthful insights, and the still untamed social and political observations should read Summerhill Seven’s work and go underground…wherever that is. I guarantee the monologues and theatrical texts that Summerhill offers are a thousand times purer, personal, and poetic than anything in the mainstream theater or poetry houses. Because, similarly, if Russell Simmons destroyed comedy with Def Jam Comedy (as Bernie Mac claims he did) then he absolutely murdered poetry with his Def Jam Poetry. Nowadays, it is typical and passé’ to hear some Black or Latino or East Asian or Middle Eastern poet or some gay white chick with piercings get on stage and whine (these people don’t even know how to scream) about racism, sexism, the War in Iraq – all in familiar and rhetorical cadences, with a wink, nod, and bow to the word(s) “my nigga,” “George Bush-shit,” and/or something to do with “pussy-bush-the ghetto-the street-Gucci-Donna Karan-Park Ave-USA-” Blah, blah, blah, blah…Empty. It’s all empty. Such is the nature of pop. Particularly when it is popular to assume a stance of righteous anger. Summerhill himself is not innocent of any of these popular and accepted streams of current poetry, but Summerhill is not a poseur. He’s been to the gutter and back. He’s lived and as much as he loves poetry, even he has admitted that – similar to the state of hip hop and Pop music – the poetry in NYC scene is dead. It is dead because it has been co-opted.
Poetry, like the theater, is dead because it still sells itself out to pimps who want to rape it. Poets continue to bend over (like their cousins – the independent filmmakers) and completely ignore their pride, talent, and soul. Why should poets perform on main stage theaters, why should filmmakers want their films to be seen in malls? Is that the most we can achieve and hope for? Wouldn’t we rather gather in someone’s intimate apartment and create our own studio? Are artists that contemptuous of each other that we really can’t work together because we all just want to be richer than each other and get revenge on our un-supportive families or patronizing bosses or apathetic teachers? The poets of the night are dead – because they want to be. They drop their pants, grab their ankles and give up any virtue or innocence left. They are like victims who beg to be raped and then cry when someone tells them “Are you nuts? You need to do something about this! You need to call the police!”
Keeping that in mind, read the following and imagine it is the last scene of a play. Imagine you saw every meticulous slice of nonsense on Broadway, then got a headache from the imposters Off-Broadway. You went home, vomited, felt a lot better and swore to yourself over that toilet-bowl that you would never go “drinking” again. A friend begs you (or if you have no friends imagine a little angel flies into your face) to go and read/see Summerhill’s work and “taste” something new… You go, taste it, and realize maybe even half-way through – that what you are drinking ain’t new, it’s just what most of us under 40 are constantly denied: truth within the arts.
So, imagine: you are seated somewhere and it is dark. There is a slight chill that runs up your spine. There are maybe twenty people in this audience. Under the moon, the stage lights flash up from below – they are dim and but we see our Narrator clearly – because we experience something almost foreign in its brightness. The lights slowly dim as our Narrator admits: (perhaps in a choked up whisper)
Terry was fun to kill; killing the landlord was out of anger and I just did it because.
It was kind of funny, technically speaking I am not sure if it was on the same day
because the Arabs start their day in the dark at 12 am. But, as you already know the
landlord was Jewish, and for the life of me I don’t know when they start their day.
But since her Jewishness was incidental to the cause of her death, I guess it didn’t really matter.
I just strangled her for no more than a minute a two.
I had on the same blue-green Isotoner gloves that I strangled Terry with.
Our man tries to smile, but can’t. He looks at his gloves , lights a cigarette, and looks out into the audience. Blackout.
Read Hang Time — Summerhill Seven’s poetic memoir, back in print and available now!