Mitchell Douglas, Color Outside the Lines

30 Oct

Stuck in an artist’s rut?

Color outside the lines.                            

More often than I’d like to admit, I am a poet of routine.  Papers to grade, course planning and new job responsibilities mean less time for writing. The professor me often takes priority over poet me. Add being a father of two and a husband to the mix and, like many writers I know, I find myself caught in lean days where I dedicate fewer hours to my art. Thankfully, some poet friends have offered a remedy.

At the invitation of fellow Cave Canem member Curtis L. Crisler, I drove two hours north from my home in Indianapolis to Fort Wayne, Indiana, recently. Curtis, a professor at IPFW, had a grand plan: what if he, our Cave Canem brother Ross Gay, a professor at IU Bloomington, and I, a professor at IUPUI, joined voices for a reading on his campus? The event would be the start of a partnership Curtis envisioned between the three IU campuses that he ingeniously dubbed the Indiana Chitlin Circuit.

A name like that bears ghosts.

The original Chitlin Circuit was a series of venues often identified as roadhouses or juke joints that gave African American performers an outlet for their art in the Jim Crow South. In his 2011 book The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock `n’ Roll, author Preston Lauterbach links the roots of the network to entertainment in black communities or “Bronzevilles” of the North. According to Lauterbach, promoters like Denver Ferguson, a club owner and numbers runner in Indianapolis, helped establish the Southern trail. The clubs featured comedians, legendary soul and blues artists like Ray Charles and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and a fair share of illegal business ranging from the aforementioned numbers game to bootlegging and the vices between. In essence, the Chitlin Circuit was a social hub, a proving ground, and a lucrative business for those calling the shots. It was high art and high drama.

And the name?

“They named it the chitlin circuit because sometimes you got paid with a plate of chitlins, or hot dogs and hamburgers,”  Louisiana blues man Bobby Rush, a circuit veteran, revealed in a 2009 interview with The Star-Tribune of Minneapolis. Simple enough. Perhaps, when their night’s pay didn’t fold or jingle, the greatest reward for the artists who ventured the circuit was the pleasure of sharing their talent, to be heard and appreciated.

Curtis saw our 21st century “circuit” as a way to attract touring writers to Indiana by offering the chance to perform in each of the cities where we, the organizers, taught. Not one reading or one shot to gain a new audience but three, more appearances equaling more opportunities. After hearing Curtis’ plan, Ross and I were eager to participate.  A reading featuring the organizers of the contemporary circuit was the perfect way to introduce the concept to the public.

Keeping the juke vibe alive, Curtis decided our trio would play four different “sets”: a “call and response” jam where we took turns reading poems that complimented the images and themes we heard in each other’s work; a “slide outs” solo session where each of us read three poems before passing the mic; the “lil’ mo’ hot sauce” round where we returned to alternating our voices and, hopefully, turning up the heat; and a finale that featured a reading of the Lucille Clifton poem “won’t you celebrate with me” which ends in the oft quoted lines:

It was our way of honoring Clifton, a masterful poet we admired who died last February, and a fitting tribute to the trials of Chitlin Circuit artists. Jim Crow did indeed fail, and musicians who avoided being silenced by navigating the circuit had plenty to celebrate.

The playful nature of Curtis’ programming rubbed off on the crowd. After the reading, we huddled and compared notes. The thing we noticed most? Looking up from the lines of our poems and being greeted with the most gracious smiles from faculty, from students, all sincerely engaged. We reveled in the spirit, sharing the stories behind the poems like Rush’s tales from the road. It was different than the typical reserved university readings to which we were accustomed (praise to the format and the fried fish and sweet potato pie—an authentic and satisfying touch— for that). By all accounts, the first stop on the Indiana Chitlin Circuit was a smash.

The next day, I drove back to Indianapolis with boundless energy. Still excited from our reading, I turned my attention to revising poems for my second book, a process that had stalled because of demands at work. Once the euphoria from the previous night wore off, I talked with Ross and Curtis about the next step for the circuit. Like the Dark Room Collective before us, we would provide a service to our respective communities by arranging literary events that might not be seen otherwise. It was enough to shake me out of the rut that postponed my art, new incentive to work smarter with the few free hours I had.

I was happy, rejuvenated, and overwhelmingly proud. Which begs the question, if you’re stuck in a rut, when was the last time you shocked your artistic sensibilities?

Mitchell L. H. Douglas is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis. A cofounder of the Affrilachian Poets, his debut collection, Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem (Red Hen Press, 2009), was nominated for a 2010 NAACP Image Award in the Outstanding Literary Work-Poetry category and a 2010 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His second poetry collection \blak\ \al-fə bet\, winner of the 2011 Lexi Rudnitsky/Editor’s Choice Award, is forthcoming from Persea Books. (above author photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths.)

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