21 sunday may 06...it is the eve of my journey to portobelo, panama and i am mindfully strolling through my psyche. i visit my mother and aunt, listen to all of their"warnings" and retreat back home with my children, imani, segun, and eva who join forces with my husband, abdullateef, to offer tremendous farewell blessings.....manicure/pedicure, music, a day of rest, breaking bread, and affirmation that i have truly stepped into the next realm of my craft. i am ready.
22 monday may 06...morning nudges me and my first thoughts are overwhelming gratitude to the special people who have endowed this gift that enables me to continue my book tour and travel beyond the united states promoting breath of the song. much praise is due to Debbie McGill and the NC Arts Council for providing this awesome travel grant that has allowed me to travel to Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, New Jersey, Texas, throughout NC and now to expand my reading/lecture experiences in Central America. Andrea Selch continues to provide awesome, unconditional support scheduling, coordinating, and ensuring that my voice is heard across the world and that breath of the song receives high caliber reviews and has a more significant presence in the greater literay community. in november, i travel to san louis obispo, california as guest reader for the annual san louis obispo writer's festival. the gracious investment of support on behalf of Andrea and Debbie has fortified my will and determination to stretch and produce more writing with a confidence that is needed as a seasoned poet. i am intentionally crossing many cultural, political, and social boundaries in the powerful name of poetry with the mission of helping many diverse writers and communities uncover and empower the myriad expressions of poetic literacy they need and and to assist in constructing the artistic platforms that they deserve.
i arrive in Atlanta early morning and spend the day with Fahamu Pico, an incredible artist who owns a graphic design company. we will join Arturo Lindsay and three other artists who will fly out this evening together. Dr.Rene Alexander who lives in Durham and who spearheaded my invitation to Taller Portobelo and two other artists from Atlanta flew to Panama days ahead to prepare for the colony which will be a group of eleven artists together for two weeks...
Fahamu is a great host! i spend all day in his studio purusing his art designs, portfolios, and even having my input solicited by a client of his relative to graphic designs for a huge science/technology education campaign. i am starving. i have finished off my trailmix, crackers, and the emergency carton of yogurt. we are on the road at four, picking up fahamu's wife who teaches at one of Atlanta's very prestigious prep schools and off to scoop up their daughter Oji. this brilliant and beautiful three year old entertains us with many stories of her school day and tells me about her bright fuschia nail polish couresty of "hanging out with the big girls" recently (mom's students). finally, we arrive at the airport. Oji does not cry but is a little confused that her daddy and the "stranger" are going on the airplane and she is not. we get ALL our luggage, boxes, portfolios checked in, clear security and off in search of food. three hour flight. we arrive on time. 9:00 pm Panama time. another brother from nc joins up with us outside to board our van. he has flown in on American Airlines from raleigh where he just completed a MFA at NCSU. we are packed tight and begin the two hour trip from Panama City to Portobelo. it is very dark as we drive and i can't really see much but when we reach the beginning of the ocean, i can smell, feel, hear the water and i am ok. the air conditioning is too cold and i'd prefer the open ocean breeze but i gather my shawl around me and watch the waves roll with me on this journey to someplace new. i forgot to mention that when we arrived in panama city that my luggage did not arrive with me and it will be wednesday before it is scheduled for delivery. so, i am annoyed, BIG TIME. but what's a damsel to do but remember that i am going to an island and whatever improvising is required...i'm up for it. an hour into the drive and we are passing through quaint villages, advertisements on the side of the road for european perfumes, tommy hilfiger, bijoux watches, chanel and rolex suddenly send me into a panic but there are no sky scraper tourist hotels or mini luxury cities, just immense lush foliage and tiny homesteads. half-way between Colon and Portobelo, we stop at a large grocery store at a crossroads. we all go in for our first Panamanian immersion. very busy. i wish i spoke spanish but i have no trouble locating pantene hair products, shower gel, a face cloth, deodorant, toothpaste and brush. i am now equipped with the necessary items until my bags arrive. forty five minutes later, we arrive in portobelo. i feel the magic before i open the door. we are greeted by Rene, Takwase, Oronike..three beautiful young women who have orchestrated our entry into this place of enchantment with vibrant music, candles, a full moon, and great food. i wander through the houses...brilliant colors...paintings of birds, serpents, goddesses, ocean spirits, rich Congo paintings and photography EVERYWHERE. i am enchanted by the colors and beauty of the property itself. Sandra Eleta, THE famous Panamanian photographer is owner of Taller Portobelo. (for close to thirty years, i have marveled at the strong documentary photography of Sandra Eleta, never knowing that our lives would cross, even stranger on this journey, i am reunited with Arturo, a Panamanian artist who was very close to my family during the 70's when we lived in Connecticut and moved in the same arts circles). in the 1970's she opened her home to artist and friends as a place to make art, engage in critical discussions about art and aesthetics, and to exchange creative ideas. in the early years, Taller Portobelo was known as Grupo Portobelo-Portobelo Group. taller is the spanish word for an artist studio.
Beginning in the mid 1990's, Sandra Eleta and Arturo Lindsay established a painting workshop at the Taller as an artist cooperative dedicated to the remembrance of the cimarrones and the preservation of their traditions and those of their descendants, the Congos, in works of art. Today, the facilities of Taller Portobelo consist of the students of Eleta, Lindsay, the Congo artists, a small gallery, and housing facilities for artists, students, invited guests, and the home of the Spelman College Summer Art Colony.
23 tuesday may 06...good sleep. morning. facing the water. energy of the water, the wind the spirit of creativity/birthing is seeping into my skin. i allow my pores to receive. i sleep in the enchanted blue room. the bedroom of our patroness, Sandra Eleta. but i am now lounging outside the bedroom. i am lying in the yellow hammock on MY veranda, surrounded by bright orange, fuschia, purple cushions, tapestries, lush tropical plants, beauiful amazon wood plank floors that kiss my soles with coolness. i am meditating on the water and the 17th century fort ruins across the bay. i listen. all i need to do is listen. this is the instruction from my muse. listen to the colors. listen to the breath of the water. i listen to the flora and fauna waking up and listen as they sketch their own stories across the narrative of this day. after breakfast, which is a wonderful mingling of scrambled eggs, fresh mangoes, plantains, fried yucca, oj and fresh brewed coffee, we tour the village of portobelo...and this is where my true learning begins about this village of many personalities. portobelo...full of mystery, myth, miracles, and magic. i am magnetized as my feet carry me across the cobblestoned and dirt paths. our guide, one of the taller congo artist, tells the story of his village, his descendants, and now i tell you...it would be columbus on his final voyage to panama, a sea weary explorer caught in a violent caribbean storm, who would have his first glimpse of the bay of portobelo. the magnificence of the island and the depth of the bay seduced him to enter and inadvertently name her when he exclaimed in italian, que porto belo! "what a beautiful harbor". during the colonial period in panama, portobelo became one of the most important ports of the spanish empire. as we visited the "customs house" on my first day, i thought about the commerce of skin, black skin where abducted africans were sold in the market place along with gold and siver from the mines in peru. as we entered one of the many forts, we passed the auction block and entered the slave dungeons inside the forts. the forts are skeletal stone relics but the "rooms" where the slaves were stored are intact, whole and breathing with it's history. i weep for a long time, whisper incantations of verbal libation and pray that these dark ancestral spirits flew back across the waters to africa. after the visit to the slave gravesites, i am full and almost unable to eat lunch. my mind is racing, so much information. for many captured africans, arrival in portobelo was simultaneously the end of the horrors of the middle passage and the beginning of slavery in this "new" world. portobelo's magical rain forest beckoned many slaves to run into it's arms, they became known as the cimarrones, africans who escaped bondage and fiercely fought the spanish empire. after escaping into these same hills and jungles that i now traverse, the cimarrones built fortified villages known as plalenques from which they waged war against their former enslavers. the congos are the descendants of the cimarrones who have preserved the stories of their ancestors in the living traditions which become their art. there is much iconography laden with metaphors, symbolism, and paradigms that usher in hundreds of questions that i will explore in conversation with the congo people as well as in my own creative interpretations as i settle in to be "colonized" in this landscape so available for me to lift right onto the pages i am writing in my journal and poetry.
this afternoon, we sail to the other side of the ocean about forty five minutes away. i carry with me the heaviness of poetry on my chest. we pass the strange mountain of lushness in the middle of the sea where francis drake is buried. he is among the famous of the notable pirates who plundered and pillaged portobelo. the trip is surreal as we approach this deserted island beach strewn with coconuts, bananna trees in the distance and the fragrant intoxication from the white ginger plants that are growing EVERYWHERE....UNreal! we erect hammocks everywhere and everyone hits the water which is the color of turquoise, true aqua and wonderfully warm with cool tropic breezes. i am inside the hammock listening,writing, dreaming. then there is the surreal shrills of the howler monkeys...deafening, creating a feeling that there are millions of them watching us in protest. i am learning to lean into this embrace, this blessing.
24 wednesday may 06...i am sitting this morning facing the ocean. listening to the waves fulfill their thirst. i am jealous because it is my own void that brings me to this place where i am learning to hear the clapping of tongues and the rubbing of dry bones that straddle the waves in my work, the dark shadows that turn my pages. what did these african slaves think when they first glimpsed these shores?
my luggage arrives this afternoon. i have needed the energy of my clothes, my jewelry, my poems...my armor. i languish in the shower, oil my body, place blossoms in my hair, wear orange, and walk out onto my veranda just in time to see an ancient wooden boat with the word SABROSURA painted on it's side leave the dock beside our house. where are these brothers going? color and ethnicity truly make us all dysfunctional at times. there is also toxic energy present in our colony but i recapure in spirit why i am here and vow to stay present to the beauty not the confusion. today, i venture to the library, a room that contains no more than one hundred books possibly, three computers, a wooden table with three chairs where you can wait to use a computer. as always, the supreme head of white entitlement raises it's head. two male german "yachties" and a local village teen enter the library and the teen asks all three african american women on the computers to please log off immediately so these two men can use the computer @#%&***&%$#@@*?>#$ well let's just say they were not accomodated.. i am outraged more when one of the germans tells me..sorry, i thought you were panamanian.
25 thursday may 06..i have slept very well. last night i walked through the village...kissed the children and babies that mothers pushed into my arms. a gentle people. streets of love, sharing. this morning there is strange toxic energy at breakfast. i accept the invitation to travel into colon with oronike, one of the congo brothers, and tina, the puerto rican drummer who is my buddy. what a powerful contrast to the rain forest. povery and dirt in your face...city dirt, nasty. squalor. we shop at a fabric store. everything is so cheap. we go a grocery store where i buy peanut butter, whole wheat bread. our diet is mainly fruit, beans and rice, chicken or fish. later today, i collaborate with oronike, rene, takwase about an artistic collaboration of poetry, digitalized imagery, paintings. we talk about an installation of "the red tent"... a sanctuary for the women and girls in the village to tell our stories and write our wisdoms onto the walls. i am writing a lot. the waves, the wind, the thunder are in agreement.
26 friday may 06...today is a day of pounding, trance-inducing rain. i wonder what the children are doing in the village? it is truly the beginning of the rainy season. are they skipping puddles, sitting in the doorways with the elder grandmothers or inside tranquil sleep? i continue to read the almond, an erotic piece of fiction about a the sexual awakening of a muslim woman...i am in the yellow hammock watching a handsome dark brother in a green boat oar by my window. he is smiling...watching me and stands to wave. he is a fisherman in the rain, casting his nets. daily, the voice of the fruit man comes by my window and Donsalese, our cook, ventures from her kitchen to buy mangoes, five for a quarter, or huge avocadoes five for fifty cents, breadfruit, melons. it has rained ALL day. heavy rain and i have spent much of the afternoon on the veranda with tina musing about performance drumming and poetry.
27 saturday may 06...the voice of creativity is pounding loudly. it rained all day yesterday and continued throughout the night with thunderstorm follwing thunderstorm. i worried about the people around me,. some living in dwellings that don't appear strong enough for theses torrential rains. but they have survived for centuries. this morning there is no power, low water pressure, and a downstairs bathroom shower floods. the sea level is visibly rising. dark, grey, angry sky and it continues to pound. i hear from tina they "someone" is afraid of this darkness, this powerful energy. too bad, i laugh to myself and feel vindicated that the one person in our colony who exudes such powerful and unnecessary bad karma is afraid. i am thriving on poetry and this conversation that i am having with water and prayer. finally..late afternoon sunshine. i accompany tina on a very long walk to the drummaker's house on another side of the island that i have not seen before. we visit the slave graveyard on the way. when we arrive back home, i sense a new energy in our space. sweet. sensual. sandra eleta has arrived. we are immediately drawn to each other. she talks incessantly. she is a page out of her own books. i present her my books. she tells me, no she instructs me, that i MUST attend the Congo Mass tomorrow morning. i know the big catholic church. beautifully old and home to the Black Christ. i have been there before to listen and to write.
28 sunday may 06...the jazzy sound of the church bells beckon me to come. the congo's ring the bells differently than any church bells that i've heard. the church is bursting with people in their summer finery. the different hues of all these people make my heart salivate. i sit beside an older panamanian man who is the color of butterscotch and honey who holds a fabulous vintage straw hat reminding me of my father in his cubana shirt and slicked back hair. his eyes roam to my journal reading the english that he does not comprehend and to me...my neckline. i dress in white and lots of colorful beads. i am noticed. the congo mass is very colorful in dance, prayer, song, and later a parade in the square. congo dancers, drummers, and singers have traveled from colon, panama city, and other places in the region for this celebration of the freedom of slaves, reenactment of congo worship during slavery and to genuflect before the black christ whose history dates back to the 17th century...El Nazareno...oral histiry in portobelo tells of a crate containing a black sculptural figure of jesus christ magically appearing in the bay during a cholera epidemic and being brought ashore by two fishermen. shortly after the people began venerating the figure, the epidemic miraculously ended, as a result, for the last three centuries on the 21st of october, the feast day of the cristo negro de portobelo-black christ of portobelo, as many as 60,000 devotees make pilgrimages to visit the statue. this evening, we travel again to the "big grocery store". the crowded and scary bus trip wipes and freaks me out. i retire without dinner.
29 monday may 06...the rains have return and i need to walk. i go to the libarary and sit with two "nice yachties" who are checking the weather. big storms in the caribbean. abdul has sent me a picture of himself..sweet. i am missing my love and my children. during the storms, i think a lot about all the twists and turns in my life and i am grateful. i am so grateful and excited that the chair of the english department at the university of panama last week invited me to be the key note reader/lecturer for the black ethnicity day which is a part of an international symposium on black cultural influences on panamanian culture. today is a day of meditation and writing.
30 tuesday may 06...sandra eleta LOVES my poetry and wants me to come back and paint my poems all over her house. she sits with me and recites her favorite passages and muses about the imagery. i am humbled by her artistic and personal gleaning. we begin our trek to panama city quite early. local bus into colon, then change to a freezing big public bus. we visit the panama canal museum which is sterile and exclusive of tbhe horrific treatment of the black congo labor and imported asian laborers. lunch is fun and good in a very chic section of panama city which is very upper manhattan...boutiques, internet cafes, coffee shops, bookstores. rene and i leave the group and take a taxi to the university. my colony colleagues go shopping and will join us at the reading. i am blown away by the rich, warm, supportive engagement at my presentation. Rene counted over eighty-five attendees. there are interesting questions about my poems and many accolades of praise. i am soaring and per request read longer. tina shows up with drum in hand and we perform two poems together. afterwards, i am offered a teaching job and several faculty and students come to me individually to offer personal comments of admiration. one very cute student tells me that i look "hot"...that's all a ripened poet needs to strut and samba the night away! the last leg of the return trip is a nightmare...tooooooooooo many passengers, speed much tooooooooooooooo fast. i pray for a safe journey.
wednesday 31 may 06...i travel with rene, oronike, and tina to colon today. it is a fun trip. tina is leaving for atlanta tomorrow. we go to the duty-free section which is the second largerst duty free zone in the world. i am not impressed and bored. we eat a subway and shop at wonderful panamanian crafts shops where i find great souveniors. the colony has been engaging in several art-critique salons where we gather to talk about works in progress and how we are artistically thriving in the colony. i have been very impressed with the threshold ow work from these young artists. i attend the visual arts salons as well. i am the oldest artist here amongst the artists except for arturo and sandra. we drive home a great rental van so i am writing the entire trip and focusing on notes relevant to the poem that i shared in salon. rene, takwase, oronike, and fahamu are very good critics.
thursday june 1-monday june 5 06...the pace has certainly picked up. we are all in "production mode" and trying to bring closure with works in progress. also, this week "guests" arrive. because this is the 30th anniversary of the colony, arturo, oronike, takwase, rene, and fahamu who serve as staff/coordinators have been very busy in private discussions about the future programmatic vision for the colony. friday....there is the possibility of a collaboration with unc/chapel hill which brings a wonderful young man from the unc development office to begin strategic endowment planning discussions. in addition, the chair of the art department at spelman arrives, the director of franklin furnace in brooklyn, a celebrated filmmaker, and a retired storyteller have now arrived! they're my age! all women! fun! we dine together and spend many hours deep into the night discussing our art and how we can forge collaborations. prior to arriving in panama, arturo had expressed through rene his desire to have me be a part of this "visionary team" and meet with the panamanian contingency which includes artists, patrons, congo artist, and sandra eleta. so, we spend a fabulous day in panama city...we visit the canal itself and actually witness two huge german cargo ships enter the locks. i am fascinated by the orchestration of the locks. we visit a contemporary arts museum, dine very elegantly in historic panama city which is remnant of the french occupation in some areas, feeling like new orleans and very spanish feeling with it's balustrades in other sections. beautiful architecture. much gentrification all over the city and a spooky feeling that this city will become another dubai. after lunch we divide into two groups. i am lucky enough to be in the group that visits the arts and crafts of the kuna indians and then retreat to sandra's house in the city for a rest before our BIG evening. sandra's house is inside of a tremendous family compound that includes her expansive dwelling, her parents, and her married siblings in their very large homes. it is very beautiful. very moroccan. sandra appears from somewhere in her house with her driver and several house staff who are carrying large vats of aromatic food to the awaiting car. taxis appear but sandra request that i ride in her car. we are off...we arrive at a cavernous building which houses a gallery, auditorium, studio space, and really great partying space. the gallery is hosting a pretty large photographic exhibition of sandra'photographs. i've never seen her work in color. i am transfixed and desirous of one of the pictures. it is an international traveling exhibit...france and new york have upcoming shows. arturo's presentation is well received!saturday...sandra arrives early in portobelo...her energy proceeds her, like a rooster, wakes me up. we all sail to sandra's island. it is a very clear day and the ocean is no longer crying and thrashing angrily. a feast of grilled chilken, steak kabobs, grilled vegetables, salad, guacamole on HUGE wooden carved platters, lots of fresh pineapples, mangoes, and enough spirits to keep a bunch of artists laughing and running into the ocean. everyone is sad that we have only one day left so the youngsters are drunk with abandonment. i spend the night in a circle of intergenerational women, including women and girls from the village who speak no english but are enthralled and get it! listening to the storyteller share a complex story about love and peace. i pack until i am too sleepy. sunday...i visit sandra next door and thank her for her awesome generosity and friendship. she again tells me that i always have a home within her home. we embrace and promise to see each other when she comes to new york. i stroll the village alone, saying goodbye to the slaves in the fort. i photograph the black jesus. visit the vendors in the square...and say my doodbyes to the ocean. we dine our last meal together as a colony and retire to the veranda for a presentation by the visual artists. i am exhausted and know that i must get some sleep so i can rise to make our 4:00 a.m departure to the airport. the young folks are going to dance and party with the congo artists in the village. just as i am drifting off to sleep, i hear oronike's voice and high heels..."come on rene we're leaving now...girl you are soooo slow." i smile and turn over.. longing for music, dance, my husband's eyes, lips,hands, and the long drink of a lasting poem.