Monday, October 12, 2009
“Nommogeneity” Explores African-American Poetry and Culture
Terrence Stubbs Presents 32-Minute Film at World Beat Center
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It’s short — only 32 minutes — but Terrence Stubbs’ film Nommogeneity is a powerful film about African-American poetry and the social and cultural milieu which gives rise to it and inspires its practitioners. Stubbs, who in the 1990’s was a stand-up comedian sharing stages with current superstars like Chris Rock and Jamie Foxx, has spent the last decade studying film in San Diego and Long Beach. He presented Nommogeneity on October 1 at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park, an event held in conjunction with the book festival at San Diego City College.
The word “nommogeneity” was coined by Douglas Kearney, one of the poets featured in the film. It comes from an African legend that twin gods named Nommo brought the gifts of language and writing to the human race. Kearney combined “nommo” with the Greek word for birth (also the root of the word “genesis”) to create a term meaning “generation of the word.” The film features a number of strong-voiced young African-American poets, including Bennie Herron, Jaha Zeinabu and South African expatriate Marion Cloete. There’s also someone who isn’t quite so young: Amiri Baraka, the veteran author who as LeRoi Jones exploded on the New York literary scene in the late 1950’s with a series of plays and poems dealing starkly with racism and the African-American experience.
Baraka has been a provocateur ever since. In the early 1970’s he was actually put on trial for allegedly inciting a race riot in Newark, New Jersey with one of his poems. His close-cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard are now grey instead of black, but he’s still as energetic and visceral in his appeal as ever. In Nommogeneity, he’s shown reading “Somebody Blew Up America,” a poem inspired by 9/11 which uses imagery drawn from centuries of racism to point out that African-Americans have dealt with far more “terrorism” from their white compatriots than from foreign groups like al-Qaeda. The matter-of-fact way in which Baraka reads the poem just adds to its effect.
It wasn’t easy for Stubbs to land such a legendary figure and get him to be in his film. He initially e-mailed Baraka’s official contact for lecture gigs, and got a reply that Baraka would be pleased to cooperate with the project as soon as Stubbs could arrange to come out to New York to film him. That was totally out of Stubbs’ budget, but six months later he got an e-mail that Baraka had a date to read and lecture in New Mexico, and with less of a travel burden Stubbs got his equipment together and filmed both a reading and an interview that turned into the focus of his film, not only because it’s powerful on its own but because it illustrates the inspiration Baraka has provided to many younger Black writers, including virtually all the others in Stubbs’ film.
Stubbs said part of his inspiration for Nommogeneity is he’s tired of all the “love jones” poetry out there. Too much of modern Black writing is either romantic poetry or the kind of “playa” braggadocio — the celebration of conspicuous consumption — of much hip-hop, Stubbs said. What he wanted to showcase, he explained, was “consciousness” — meaning political and social consciousness. “I wanted to pick poets talking about prevalent stuff and give them a voice,” Stubbs said.
“I’d like to have people in schools and kids look at this,” Stubbs said. “People don’t like poetry much. They read Shakespeare, Dante, Milton and Homer, but this is different. It’s neo-realistic poetry.” It’s indicative of his bent that the two non-Black poets he named as his favorites, German writer Bertolt Brecht and Puerto Rican poet-actor-playwright Miguel Piñero (“I like his rooftop poem,” Stubbs said, adding that Benjamin Bratt played him in a biopic), were also known for engaging political and social issues in their work. Stubbs sees Piñero as having done in the 1970’s, with direct references to Viet Nam and Watergate, what the poets in his film are doing with the issues of today.
In general, the women poets in the film are less openly didactic than the men. One particularly beautiful sequence shows a woman poet reading on the waterfront at the Embarcadero Marina in San Diego. She’s also playing a flute, and while she couldn’t do both at the same time, she manages to accompany her reading with her flute quite eloquently in the film through the magic of multiple sound recording. Another reads a stunning poem called “Pigtails” inspired by the long braids she wears — and she’s actually shown having her hair braided while her voice is heard reading the poem.
Stubbs freely acknowledged that he used music videos as a model for his technique, making his movie far more than the usual stand-up-and-read poetry documentary. (Before filming Nommongeneity, Stubbs said, all he’d done on film were music videos and “a few cheesy little things.”) In response to a question as to whether poetry by people of color is “more musical” than that by whites, Stubbs replied, “I wouldn’t say ‘more musical,’ It’s just a different type of rhythm. They’re doing riverdance, salsa, the cakewalk or electric slide.” Certainly many of the poems in the film — especially the ones written by men — have such a throbbing, insistent beat and are so strictly cadenced in regular meters that all it would take would be a D.J. sampling tracks in the background to turn them into hip-hop songs.
The most striking performance in the film — and the one Stubbs said is his personal favorite — is a dramatic poem by Douglas Kearney called “The Chitlin’ Circuit.” Its language evokes both the history of African-American entertainment and the long string of demeaning words used by American whites to describe American Blacks. Kearney reads the piece in a highly theatrical manner, blending the words so they bleed into each other and become almost pure sound — and while reading the poem he flips the book containing its text, punctuating every change in rhythm and meaning with a simple physical action.
Stubbs describes Nommogeneity as “a work in progress,” and says he doesn’t consider it finished. “It takes a lot of work, hours and dedication” to make a film, he said. Getting Nommogeneity to its current form took two years, at least in part because he didn’t actually have it scripted in advance. “I’ve learned to plan better next time and go with the plan,” he said. “Some of Nommogeneity was just impromptu. When I did Marianne’s poem (the one read to the poet’s flute accompaniment) I had no idea what we were going to do. I just said, ‘Let’s go to the harbor.’”
Though he didn’t show his film on the City College campus, Stubbs hailed the City College film and video program and said it was a better place to learn than those at more prestigious schools. “City College has the best radio, TV and video program in southern California,” he said. “People come from Northridge to go there because they can touch equipment. Many people I know went straight from the City College program to working in the business,” Stubbs explained, because they got direct experience on actual equipment.
Asked what he’d like to work on in the future, Stubbs mentioned a documentary on Etheridge Knight, a Black poet who started writing in prison in the 1960’s and, after his release, was heavily involved in an organization called the Black Arts Movement — one which also influenced many of the poets in Nommogeneity. “He’s from my home town of Indianapolis,” Stubbs said; though Knight was actually born in Mississippi, he was living in Indiana when he was arrested, then settled in Tennessee after his release from prison. Stubbs said he’d also like to make a feature film, “but not something like Soul Plane. I’d like to do a film with a story and a meaning.”
Terrence Stubbs produced Nommogeneity through his own company, Drapetomania Film Works, which can be reached at (310) 493-6509 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He doesn’t list a Web site, but his Facebook page is at www.facebook.com/terrencestubbs