Photo: Studio D
There was the time I leaned in too close to light an oil lamp and my hair caught fire. I saw orange specks of light and turned every which way in search of them. It felt like running after myself. When I discovered the fire was atop my head, I went to patting it out like a wild woman. Just then the doorbell rang, giving notice of my first party guest. This was bound to be a better than average night.
My Harlem poetry parties do not always begin like this, but the preparation contains some of that same intensity.
I want my friends to come and drop their cares at the doorsill. To throw a party the way I like it, I've got to get into particulars: Decide who will be there and what unique personality they will contribute; I have got to get from uptown to way down to buy shrimp with the heads on because no gumbo can survive without the juice of boiled shrimp heads to make the roux. I've got to buy three different kinds of rum: dark, white, and Jamaican, to mix the hurricane cocktails that will get people loose and walking crooked. And then there's the music: Louis's horn talking and Billie and the Wild Magnolias telling a lie.
I started giving these parties because it was a pity that none of my great friends knew each other and because the thought of my friends bringing a piece of literature as their date excited me. And this too: When I was young in New Orleans, I never invited anyone over to my raggedy, falling-down house, out of shame, and I now want to make up for all that silliness and pushing away. And calling up New Orleans spirit in Harlem is grand: the way we play when it is time, the way we summon up togetherness in the midst of things falling apart. Good parties, I suppose, are what happen when people get together and act free no matter if they're feeling it.
When there's no gumbo, there will be shrimp po'boy sandwiches or étouffée. Daffodil and Rodney and their body-shaking laughter will be in the corner holding court. We always get carried away. Around midnight, the most time-conscious among us will say, "The readings." Oh, right! We gather ourselves upstairs in the dimly lit parlor, and if it's cold the fireplace will be lit. I'll begin by reading a June Jordan poem called "Some of Us Did Not Die." And then our guests of honor will show themselves.