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.
One night my neighbor James, sunk into the long trenchcoat he wore, came suddenly alive, reciting from Shakespeare's Othello. He swept around our small circle, gesturing with a flourish and putting his words close to our ears. We did not let him quit. And then there was the time someone read lines from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, and another read from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." And there was James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni and Walt Whitman. One time my Russian friend, Mira, sang Edith Piaf–style, "Je Ne Regrette Rien" ("I regret nothing"), and we hung on each and every note.
Charlie from New Orleans unfurls his umbrella the moment the readings end and I get underneath it, and together, to brass band music, we dance out our longing for home. My very professional friend Meghan will do her acrobatic dance where she slinks around, hovering right above the floor, and others will follow and become the movie characters they always wanted to be. Those who are shy will watch, thinking, "I would if I could."
After a bit, Bessie Smith will be telling the "Bye Bye Blues." People slip out the way they slipped in. Those too comfortable to go will stay, sleeping in chairs, heads back, mouths open. In the morning, they will wake asking their whereabouts. I will be left to wander the house, pieces of cheesecake and poetry lying about.
Here in Burundi, where I live now, there is less to work with. But last week I put on a fete: It was a pitch-black night, and we were seated in the garden of my house. There were candles lit, not out of any romantic notion but because I hadn't had electricity for two days. Crepes, bony chicken, and whiskey instead of shrimp. People told stories so good we beat our knees in laughter—and up above, a vast, star-filled sky. The wind blew the flames to shaky flickering; we kept on. There are no books to be had here in this country, where nearly half cannot read, and so the music and the storytelling were our literature. African songs about peace and of magic women. All of which had me thinking back to Harlem and fire, those circles of friends and the words we carried.
Oh, how we took each other in!
A former program developer for African Public Radio in Burundi, Sarah Broom recently returned home to New Orleans.