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Poetry

Love is not the enemy

Poet-performer Jessica Care Moore talks success, heartbreak and coming home. Plus: WDET author interview.

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WDET interviews Norene Cashen about this story. (MP3)
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Published 9/24/2008

Coming back to the city where you grew up is a profound kind of return. It's a reunion with part of yourself. There are memories, family and all the shapes and textures of experience — good or bad — that made their impressions on you and helped you dream of what you could be. And, maybe, rediscovering your hometown can help you realize what you've become.

One year ago, jessica Care moore (she adds the "Care" and special capitalization as a feminist statement in the spirit of author bell hooks) moved back to Detroit from Atlanta. Before that, she was living in New York City. She'd been away from Detroit for about 12 years, building her career as a successful poet, performer and publisher. Now she resides with her 2-year-old son, King Moore Poole, in a spacious apartment near Wayne State University. On a recent overcast afternoon, she answers her front door wearing beaded braids and dream-catcher earrings. She looks comfortable and at ease in worn blue jeans and a T-shirt that shows the bold "D" tattooed on her arm.

The walls inside her home are covered in art, the tables stacked with books. The place is eclectic and reflects the adventurous creative spirit of its owner in many ways. This is where moore spends her days writing poetry and running Moore Black Press, the publishing company she founded in 1997 in order to release her first book, The Words Don't Fit in My Mouth. Back then she was a sort of darling on the performance poetry scene, a five-time Showtime at the Apollo winner and a featured artist on Russell Simmons' HBO series, Def Poetry Jam.

At that time she was introducing work like the raw, confrontational "Black Girl Juice," in which a young woman lays claim to the language and attitudes that attempt to define her:

... Black tears, she sometimes cries
but, one sip, and you'll believe
Braided hair, natural cut or curly weave
nails with acrylic tips, and wide-shaped
hips.
Most men fiend to hump her
Nails cut off, she has a nice touch on
her jumper.
Revolutionary waters, she's your mother,
auntie, sister-friend and daughter...

Those words, delivered in moore's raspy energetic style, inspired many of those who heard them to run to their local bookstores for poetry by "that girl from Apollo with the braids." Distributors started calling moore's home. The book sold more than 20,000 copies. A few years later, she released her second book, a collection of poetry and essays called The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto.

In the last 12 years, moore's done a lot of living, performing and growing. She's 36 now, and she's gone from making a big splash as a young prodigy on the stage of the famed Apollo to becoming a real force in the world of poetry and art. Since 1997, she's published books of poetry by poets Saul Williams and Shariff Simmons, Def Poetry Jam co-founder Danny Simmons, NBA player Etan Thomas, poet and activist Ras Baraka, and former Essence magazine editor Asha Bendele. She's performed in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Berlin, Paris, Holland, England, Scotland and all over the United States. The National Black Arts festival made her a curator and producer, as well as a featured artist. She became the youngest poet published in the Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Women's Literature. She's even got her own band, Detroit Read (pronounced "red"). And the list goes on.

It's not like moore is all about career, though. Her work and personal life are intertwined. Becoming a mother to King and her four step-children has allowed her to, as her bio says, "extend her mothering spirit." In 2000, she married poet Sharrif Simmons (no relation to Danny or Russell) and moved to Atlanta. The marriage ended after three years, and moore relocated to New York City. Her recent divorce from her second husband, Flint music producer Kenyatta Poole, played a big part in her decision to return to Detroit. She was a single mom still nursing a 1-year-old.

"It was a very emotional time for me," moore says. "I needed to be around my family and friends."

Her place is near the museums and galleries she frequents; the riverfront isn't far away. Moore wouldn't have it any other way. But she's also close enough to friends, siblings and her parents, who still live in the same west side neighborhood where she was raised. So she came back to all the support and love she knew before, the stuff that made Detroit "home." Now, a year later, she's been so active performing, lecturing in schools and running her press, it seems there might be a bigger purpose for her here.

"I was divorcing [King's] father, and my whole family is in Detroit," moore says. "That's the reason I came. The reason I stayed is a different story. Everything is for bigger reasons than you ever planned. I'm still figuring it out."


Whether the topic
is love, success, heartbreak or failure, the poet in moore is as comfortable talking about her own life as she is talking about politics, literacy or AIDS activism. For her, the experience is both personal and universal, and it's all great fodder for her writing. Her newest work riffs on love, breakups, motherhood and survival — all the things that made her leave Detroit and then brought her back.

"A lot of my poems are informed by Detroit," moore says. "Even when I wasn't living in Detroit. I can't help it. I really enjoy the stuff that's here. There are things I see that aren't here. But it's always been that way."

Even as she finishes her new book, moore says she's been writing a lot about Detroit. God Is Not an American is scheduled to be released in early November and will also be a multimedia solo play commissioned by the Apollo Theater for April 2009 and directed by the internationally known actor and dancer, Aku Kadogo, currently a professor at Wayne State University.

Kadogo met moore when they performed together at the Detroit Institute of Arts this past year. It was moore's obvious talent, her message and her voice that made Kadogo want to work with her.

Kadogo says that moore "sees the importance of broadening our vision in the 21st century. ... This message has to get out there. While we are busy building walls in this country, the world is changing so rapidly and who is going to tell the people inside? Hers is a voice about broadening that perspective, particularly from one's stance."

In this excerpt from her unpublished poem "Love Is Not the Enemy: Manifesto for 2008," moore conveys a tough-minded resilience and a mature return to self in the face of disappointment. She isn't sure what's ahead of her, but there's no doubt about how she'll face it:

All my new boyfriends
are scheduled for 2009
No more lions in my bedroom
King is the most important thing in my life
I'm married to my art, my life, my work.
Grownups are over-rated.
My wonder woman cape never needs to be ironed, even in Detroit.
Skinny is the new thick.
Jessica worship required
(Insecure niggas need not apply)...
I have dream catchers for arms
We need to talk about mental illness in
The black community.
Am I crazy because I don't expect my son to be forgotten
Just because it "happens all the time?"
My name is jessica Care moore
I've been a Simmons.
I've been a Poole.
(legally, still am today)
I will die a Moore.
Ain't giving my name away no more.

Yeah, moore's back. She's evolved. She's matured. She's become a mentor, a mother, a publisher and a leader. Having come full circle from home out to the world and back again, she's completed a sort of heroine's journey that seems both inspiring and mythical.

In the title poem from her forthcoming book, moore moves from the gritty rebellion of "Black Girl Juice" to a piercing kind of universal truth:

God is not an American
No, God is not an American.
But she could be a woman
That would explain why we have sugarcane,
Little red corvettes and chocolate.
And why she so graciously spared us an external sex organ
That would constantly get in the way of our brains
But maybe if women had penises
They wouldn't know how to cook, or wash or fix or kiss or blend,
Or fold in all those special ingredients
that women bury inside the earth
And where do you think a woman would put her penis
During a time of war?
In the mouth of an intern?
Deep into their fathers history...
Pushing the same buttons
A decade later

On a recent night, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History holds an opening reception for the Women of a New Tribe, a photo exhibition featuring women of metro Detroit. Tables are draped in gold satin complete with place cards. A live band plays jazz softly in the background. Moore shows up in an elegant patterned dress with flashes of turquoise and earth tones. She's smiling and greeting familiar faces while pushing King along in a stroller. Juanita Moore (a longtime friend but no relation to moore) is the museum's president and CEO. She takes the poet by the arm and leads her over to the elevator to check out the gallery of photographs downstairs. The series was done by Jerry Taliaferro, a North Carolina resident and West Point alumnus-turned-photographer. Moore is a bit stunned by what she finds there.

Black-and-white images line the walls. Beauty is all they radiate. The 25 metro area women selected by Taliaferro include Councilwoman JoAnn Watson; Nettie Seabrooks, chief operating officer of the Detroit Institute of Arts; and Yvonne Knox, a McDonald's restaurant owner. In the center, there's a near-life-sized mural of moore, two images shot at slightly different angles merged onto one backdrop like twin sisters. To be the centerpiece of an exhibition like this is another welcome home, and she seems happy. The photos of moore are in color, so they show the gold in her hair and the vintage red flapper-style dress bought for her by a friend from a shop in Eastern Market.

"They said some of the clothes they had were from Diana Ross," moore says. "So who knows? That could've been a Diana Ross dress."

In moore's photos, Taliaferro's captured her beauty and force as she performs poetry. She has an arm outstretched, as if she's reaching for the next line, while her face wears the expression of a singer who's just hit the right note.

She stops for a moment and takes in the photos of the other women.

"I like this work," she says. "Younger girls need to see this kind of beauty. These women are role models, women to look up to."

She speaks as if she's forgotten that she's become one of those role models. Then she looks again at her own blown-up image on the wall and just smiles

Moore runs an open mic poetry series at Nandi's Knowledge Café at 12511 Woodward (near Glendale) in Highland Park Thursdays at 8 p.m. (although her travels sometimes prevent her from attending). On Oct. 17, she will host and perform poetry at the Black Evolution and the Revolution of Fashion, which starts at 8 p.m. at the Wayne State University Community Arts Building. The event showcases black activist fashion and its influences from the 1920s to present. Poets will read as the clothing is modeled.

Norene Cashen is a Detroit-area freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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