On Being A Witness

It was November 30, 2014 and I was making a final survey of my luggage and cottage to see if there was one more thing I had to pack before leaving Savusavu, Fiji. I was leaving so much behind. Being here for almost four years and having to leave every four months for immigration requirements enabled me to add to the fifty pounds of stuff I had brought with me on my initial trip. The fact that I was leaving this paradise was also do to the cost of having to leave every four months. Paradise had become too expensive to keep leaving due to my not having the $150 thousand USD to invest in property. The cost of living in Fiji was low but you had to have money to acquire residency there.

Everything was ready. I still had internet service until midnight and a few hours before I had to leave for the first leg of my journey so I switched on my iPad to check the news and download a book or two to read on the flight. It was somewhere during that internet stream that I read one of my favorite poets, Mark Strand, had died earlier that morning. He actually passed on the 29th of November, a Saturday, but Fiji is a day ahead of the rest of the world, so it was Sunday here.

I quickly went to my bookshelf to search for my copy of his first book of poems, Sleeping With One Eye Open, but remembered I had given it to a friend who was starting a bed and breakfast and asked me if I had any poetry books she could have for her guests to read. Because I was leaving for Fiji at the time, I donated most all of my poetry books to her new endeavor. I knew she would give them a good home and books are too heavy to travel with, especially by air. How many times have I repeated this ritual of giving my books away? I remembered Strand had recently published a new Collected Poems volume and found it in the iTunes bookstore.

During the download, I saw the book was originally published in 1964, but it was the mid-nineties before I came across it. During the sixties just about all of my poetry reading was restricted to Black poets: Toni Cade Bambara (March 25, 1939-December 9, 1995) Nikki Giovanni (June 7, 1943-), Amiri Baraka (October 7, 1934 –January 9, 2014), my Debutant Ball date, Ntozake Shange (October 18, 1948-), et al. For me they were the poet witnesses of the Black struggle and experience in America during this time. Their poetry was akin to the gospels I heard in church as a young boy. It both pulled my heart strings and identified the deep anger inside my soul. I travelled to Newark on many occasions to hear Amiri sing his words. While a senior at Rutgers University, I took classes with Nikki and Toni who were both instructors at Livingston College where I was a dorm advisor.

I had many long conversations with Niki about what it meant to be a Black poet. Can I write poetry without it being Black? I had tried my hand at writing but had not found my own voice. She encouraged me to be patient. “Your voice will come,” she said, “and when it does, it will not necessarily have a color. It will just be yours to use as a witness for you experience.”

Thirty years later, the poets who lead me on the path to finding my own voice as a witness to the everyday were Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, Rumi, Rilke, et al. The times had changed. I was beginning to find my own voice as a poet, not necessarily of the Black experience, but of my life experience.

On the flight from Nadi to Los Angeles, I set back, opened my iPad and started to read. Perhaps it was just the order of events but after reading the preface and introduction, the first poem was also the first poem I had ever read by Mark. It was When The Vacation Is Over For Good. A fitting memorial to the life of a witness poet.

I read and reread Mark’s poetic accounts of witnessing life for the next ten hours until the lights came on and the cabin crew was preparing to serve breakfast. I cried, I laugh out loud, I reminisced, and made a promise to myself to be the best witness to life I can be, and to share that experience with the world in prose, poetry, and conversations. That is after all, why I Am Here!