The heat here in Blacksburg Virginia is in contrast to England which was cold when I left two days ago. But I stepped out of the hotel , this evening, to a thunder of hail stone. It came out of the blue, a summer storm. Lightening splashed and thunder echoed on the crouched back of Brush Mountain. It all happened at 6pm tonight. I was on stage in an hour and this was a sign to either run for the hills or get ready.
I was hypnotized by the power of it when a black man walked past.He was the concierge. He was Ethiopian. We’d seen each other before and said hello but now we recognised each other and stood and talked and laughed while I waited for my ride. He told me how he’d fled Ethiopia in 1974, the year of The Red Terror, and walked all the way to Kenya. I know this story. The keyboard player for the rolling stones Chuck Leavell strolled past in a surreal moment. My Ethiopian friend said goodbye. The storm had gone as quick as it came and as the ground steamed a rainbow punched its way through the clouds.
The local paper The Collegiate Times has covered my visit and there is quite a stir I am told. Fred D’aguair who has curated it all picka me up and takes me to Virginia Tech. There’s some wonderful people in the audience: Nikki Giovanni, Lucinda Roy, Fred D’aguiar, and hundreds of students. I am in the Brush Mountain room and it is packed and hot and sweaty and alive.
The storm changed my entire approach and determined the first poem. It is called Mourning Breaks. It’s about a man who slips off a cliff, scours his back as he falls but grabs a branch and then he hangs there. The cliff faces the sea and a sea storm marches towards him. It’s a long poem. The entire reading, my entire reason, for being here in the States would hinge on this – a decision I made less than sixty minutes ago.
An hour and an half later and it is the sound of applause that reminds me of the sound of The Hail Stone. The reading was a cleansing in the river. Tears of laughter joined tears of empathy and pain. Rain rain rain fall. And the audieince rose up in a wave of ovation and the clapping continued louder and louder I was dancing in the rain of applause.
And I knew why I was here… in this part of the world… at this particular second… on this particular day.. in the shadow of the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King…. reading poems in front of Nikki Giovanni the woman who wrote the introduction to Tupac Shakur’s only book of poetry.. and I saw her smiling shaking her head in glee…. and I saw Fred smiling…..