Well folks, this is a P.U.P first…read on and you’ll see what I mean. The day started as any P.U.P day in my experience has— a mixture of giddiness, excitement and, yes, a fear, as we gathered outside the Staten Island Ferry terminal on this gorgeously sunny and windy Saturday.
Jon asked that I start things off with a song, and as soon as I looked out at the massive and gorgeous Atlantic, I knew exactly what I wanted to sing, a praise song to Yamaja, the Yoruba Goddess of water and protection.
As I began to sing, the ocean sparkling behind me, one man walked by and said, “You have a gorgeous voice, thank you.” He could sense that something was about to popf and sat close by to take in the rest of the P.U.P action. From the other side of the ferry, a woman began shouting “English, B–, sing in English,” but I kept on…
As soon as the song finished, the notorious Ngoma popped up with one of his brilliant poems, challenging the establishment as usual. From across the ferry, the same woman began shouting in response. It was difficult to understand what she was saying, but it seemed she was cheering and egging him on. Within minutes however two officers had sidled up to Ngoma, one pulling on his black gloves.
“What are you talking about?” he growled.
“I’m performing a poem,” Ngoma replied coolly.
“Well, you need to keep it moving. You can’t stand in one place shouting like that. People might not want to hear you.”
“I’m not alone,” Ngoma replied.
We all gathered around and began explaining to the officers that we were a performance troupe and that we were not asking for money, but just there to share a bit of poetry on a Saturday afternoon. The police looked us up and down and then told us in no uncertain terms that we were not welcome. Damn. Shut down by the police. A PUP first.
Immediately after, the gentleman who had come to sit with us began talking about how crazy this country is getting. “Damn. It’s freedom of speech and they are just trying to shut you down for no reason. America is becoming a police state.”
We thanked him for his support and moved out to the deck to take in a bit of fresh ocean air. It was hard not to feel discouraged and a little shook by what had just happened. As we pulled into the terminal on Staten Island, I was struck by the deluge of noise and sensory stimulation that attacked our senses: overpowering (and insipid) rock music, giant billboards advertising unhealthy food and things we did not need, the smell of grease…
It hit me that it is pretty that our senses are CONSTANTLY under assault in public spaces without our permission or desire, but when someone, an artist, chooses to do something deliberate and thought provoking, it is seen as a threat.
On the ride back, Ngoma had the brilliant idea of keeping it mellow, and we sat in a small circle and began reciting our poems quietly to each other, so that only ourselves and the passengers in direct earshot could hear us. It allowed me to listen to them in a different way than I usually do on a PUP trip. One woman stayed with us the whole time and at the end we offered her our card. “I am going to look you all up,” she said with a smile.
When we arrived back in Manhattan, Jon said “let’s do one more round…”and led the way to a beautiful open space outside the terminal, threw down his bag and began to spit. A crowd started to gather. The day was beautiful, the blue sky and white clouds gave us the perfect back drop for our words. Like buds opening after a long winter, each of us got up and offered the gifts of our poem, with no apology, to the growing group of people who chose to stay and listen, the words gathering power in the open air.
One young woman on a bench beside us was deep in it. She took in every poem. When Corrina finished a poem with a line about how she knows this city will not miss her when she is gone, the young woman said “I would miss you.” After, we sat with her as she read some of her poems and gave us our second gorgeous testimonial. It was the perfect balm, a triumph even, for this PUP journey.