One of Holman's recent preoccupations is "the absolute connection" between the African griot tradition and hip-hop. In 2000, he went to Eritrea to deliver a paper on "The Re-emergence of the Oral Tradition in the Digital Age." According to Holman, that country's revolution was built on poetry, "so one of the first things the government did was to set up a literary conference, while they were still at war with Ethiopia." There he met a griot named Papa Susso, who divides his time between Gambia and the Bronx.
A week ago Sunday, Papa Susso brought griot to the Bowery for the first time. The audience was sparse, but Holman said he expected it to grow, like the crowd for Tuli Kupferberg's Friday show. Few came to see the old Fug at first, but the audience kept expanding. Papa Susso wore beautiful African polka-dot garb and played the kora, invented by an ancestor. In songs handed down through many generations, he related the history of his people and their daily activities. Some of the words, Holman marveled, were so ancient that no one remembers what they mean.
photo: Robin Holland
The crew at Bowery Poetry Club (clockwise from center): Bob Holman (on ladder), Tom Burnett, Todd Miasma, Leigh Secrest, John Pavlik
On Mondays, Holman runs his Free-for-All, an open mic and slam. One of the regulars gets up to read. Bingo Gazingo. A lean, gray senior citizen, he looks uncannily like William S. Burroughs. (And Holman tells me later that Bingo is part of a hardcore band called the Bog Men.) His words are nearly indecipherableBingo does not appear to have too many teeth. Much of the poetry seems to be obscene. "Your youth goes crotching on" is one line I catch. Yet the performance is mesmerizing in its energy and focus.
"Digging into orality opens the eyes of our ears into a new consciousness," Holman told me. So the poet needs the stage to make the poem live. From Sekoo to Papa to Bingo, that seems true. But what about Emily Dickinson? They started reading her at noon on a Saturday and finished at eight the next morning, Holman said. "She was present. We conjured her up."